Saturday, December 27, 2008

Travelogue 256, December 27
Spinning Wheel, Part Four

Winter wears a different face every day.
Yesterday temperatures rose to 37 and then dropped back below freezing at night, so now the sidewalks are a mess. I must get out for a morning walk, but it’s not a walk. It’s a shuffle, slide, slide, shuffle.

The sky is overcast, but aside from having to negotiate the frozen soup, it’s a pleasant day. The city has come back to life. We have returned from the abyss of miraculous birth, and we hold steady our course toward salvation.

I very slowly wend my way to Lake Street. I’ve been hanging out at the Midtown Global Market at the corner of Lake and Chicago. It’s the perfect distance for a winter walk, and the market is colorful. It inhabits the old Sears building, which has dominated this stretch of Lake Street since 1928, a brown brick monolith of Chicago art deco that was abandoned by the Sears company in 1994. A local group of community organizations was allowed to redevelop the site, and the Global Market opened in 2006.

Inside, you walk among the stalls. You’ve got your coffee and sweets shops. You’ve got your restaurants of every flavor. You’ve got your African and Latin and Asian goods. You’ve got Mexican groceries. It’s divertido for the whole family.

Renan has followed Jesus to the River Jordan, where he meets up with John the Baptist. Followers of each gather on coffee breaks, and exchange tips on pleasing God. John and Jesus are roughly the same age, but John has the edge in fire, following, and history. Jesus studies his friend; there’s much to learn. Jesus has created a buzz among the religious communities in northern Israel, and the Jordan becomes his Rubicon. Is it time to step into the hot spotlight, or shall he return to the peaceful Sea of Galilee where he can grow old as the friendly local rabbi and guru? It’s an unforgiving business, though. How long can one pooh-pooh the national circuit as a preacher before the locals begin to wonder about you? It isn’t long before Salome has her way with the young Baptiste, and Jesus is the obvious heir. From there, events accelerate.

Christ is born, and I’m already thinking about Easter. I’m wondering about those three heady, feverish years, the years of his ministry. We’re probably not supposed to speculate what Jesus might have felt, but I can’t help feeling some compassion.

I’m thinking about this movie, ‘Milk’. If comparing Jesus’s life with that of a gay activist doesn’t get me shot, I’m not sure what will, but really: if it helps me to understand or feel compassion, then what’s the sin? Sean Penn, of course, does a marvelous job portraying the big-hearted man whose eyes are open to suffering, and whose every action in the interest of others leads him toward his destruction. Eventually, his path leads him into the spotlight of public life. Once you’re in that arena, it seems like your life is less and less your own. Your story belongs to a dozen others, and then a hundred, and then a thousand. You are borne forward on the feet of a mob, and there is barely time for a sigh.

This is where I say, as Voltaire might have done were he sitting at this laptop, ‘If there were no heaven, it would be necessary to invent one.’ I would wish for a place of rest and reflection for people like this. Isn’t that what lies behind our yearnings for a heaven? Isn’t it just the chance for a breath and a glance back over what we’ve done? Life eternal, our just reward, etc., fine, but I’d say the heart of the matter is simply reflection.

I’d like to summon that tunnel of light, and I’d like to be there when Jesus checks in. Now, I know a lot of people would say the same thing with malicious intent: ‘I want Jesus to see what he hath wrought, all the wars in his name, etc.’ But that’s not my intention. Time takes hold of him; events tumble one after another with dizzying speed. He stands firm, staying true to his teachings, and staying true to his disciples. The end comes quickly. Tears and applause. He gives them an encore. The house empties; all is silent. The rest is up to the disciples. That’s a scary thought, but it’s how it has to be. Okay, we turn toward the light. The dust settles. The mind quiets down. It’s Jesus’s turn in the screening room. What does he say? Is he happy with how everything went down, seen now in the light of heaven? Are there regrets – the picnics he missed, the noli me tangere thing, some hasty sermons, hasty resurrections, whatever? Would he wish he had had more time to think things through?

Oh well, it’s a private moment. Let’s leave him to his reflections. As the Muslims say, peace be upon him. There are some tasty enchiladas here at the Global Market to distract us. Bon appetit!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Travelogue 255, December 24
Spinning Wheel, Part Three

Winter wears a different face every day.
I have to venture out on Christmas Eve, if only to dilute the intense joy of the season. The forecasts had suggested clear skies and warming. The sky says something different, though by noon, there is some blue peeking through. I have no car, so today will be the test of our trusty bus system.

There’s a crowd waiting at the station at Lake and Chicago. We wait while our bus is lowered and a ramp unfolded for a woman in her little four-wheeler. There’s a problem with the ramp. It gets stuck at ninety degrees, blocking the bus door.

The driver works the ramp loose. That’s three minutes. She boards, and the bus driver straps her in. There’s another three minutes. We finally board. Two men sit behind me. This is their opening dialogue: ‘I’m eighty and I live alone.’ ‘I just got kicked out of my halfway house, and I’m homeless.’ We cruise along, one happy family of deprivation inside our bubble of conveyance, suspended inside a moment of warmth.

Six blocks later, it’s the four-wheeler’s stop. The ramp works fine, but the bus won’t go back into gear. The driver has to repeatedly lower and raise the right side of the bus. He looks into the mirror and says, ‘This is what we pay for.’ The homeless guy shouts, ‘Can you turn up the heat?’ He was hoping for a cozy nap on the bus.

‘So, America, poverty,’ he says in his monologue. I’m reaching back to that foreign film again, the one that showcases the dried up martial arts star. He gets a monologue in the middle of the movie. The story halts, he’s elevated into the set lighting, and he fills the screen. He feels he owes his audience an explanation. Where did he come from? How does he explain his success? ‘…stealing to eat,’ he’s saying, ‘stalking producers, actors, movie stars, going to clubs hoping to see a star with my pictures, karate magazines. It’s all I had. I didn’t speak English, but I did twenty years of karate. I used to be small and scrawny.’ These are his first steps toward Golgotha.

After the monologue he must be lowered back into the story, where the pitch of the movie plot carries him away immediately and effectively; the innocent led to sacrifice. The beast of narrative must be fed.

‘So, Galilee, poverty…’ Peeking in on the other JC, Renan sets a scene for us. ‘The North [of Israel] alone has made Christianity; Jerusalem, on the contrary, is the true home of … obstinate Judaism. … Galilee … was a very green, shady, smiling district, the true home of the Song of Songs…. The whole history of infant Christianity has become [thanks to the backdrop of Galilee] a delightful pastoral. A Messiah at the marriage festival – the courtezan and the good Zaccheus called to his feasts – the founders of the kingdom of heaven like a bridal procession ….’ Enter the star: ‘As often happens in very elevated natures, tenderness of the heart was transformed in him into an infinite sweetness, a vague poetry, and a universal charm. … Jesus had no visions; God did not speak to him as to one outside himself; God was in him; he felt himself with God.’

And we’re on our way to Golgotha. He sets out to preach. He sets out for the hills, the Sea, the River, leaving what was home. So what is shelter to those born under the symbol of JC? Maybe that’s what it’s all about: where you where you lay your head. Ambition comes home at the end of the day. JC never clocks out.

Our homeless guy on the bus is in for a disappointment. The bus route ends at Hennepin. There’s no time for a nap. He grumbles as he disembarks, and I’m a little disconcerted to see that he’s better dressed than I am. I shouldn’t complain. I mean, if anyone should have quality clothing, it’s the homeless person. But stylish, too? He starts pacing the station platform, waiting for the next state of suspense, and I’m on my way to browse a few warm spaces before everything closes. Fa la la.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Travelogue 254, December 20
Spinning Wheel, Part Two

Winter wears a different face every day.
Today it’s snowing all day long, piling up quickly in its quiet, pristine way. The average temperature for the day is six above. And on the day before the solstice, we have less than nine hours of daylight.

A certain friend and I – a friend who has requested anonymity, so let’s call her Rosanne – Rosanne and I have agreed to meet at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the afternoon. I decide to walk, so I put on my long underwear and my sturdy old Red Wing boots, and I launch out into the blizzard. It’s fun. The shredded sky is right on top of us. The roads are reduced to dirty ruts in the snow. For twenty minutes I am the king of snow. I am winter. But the wind is in my face, and I make it to the museum just in time. My chin and cheeks are bright red and numb.

The exhibit is a small one – prints and engravings by a variety of old-timers, Rembrandt, Matisse, and others from a smattering of eras, from the Renaissance to the 19th century. We’re ready to go to dinner before my body has completely warmed up. That’s all right; we’re driving. At least, that’s what I think.

Rosanne is directionally challenged. Fortunately, she has memorized the intersection where she has parked. Unfortunately, she hasn’t memorized her car yet. I direct us to the intersection. ‘There it is!’ she cries, and we stand at the driver’s door, jiggling the key in the lock. It won’t open.

It’s common enough that locks freeze in these temperatures and, since I believe her when she declares this is her car, we make a quick call to AAA. They say it will take them an hour, so we start walking. The nearest decent restaurant is about six blocks away. The snow is diminishing and the temperatures are dropping quickly. I’m suffering. By the time we reach the restaurant, my face is raw and my body aches. I have been overthrown as king of winter.

We sit in the restaurant for a good long time before I’m willing to move, so we miss the early show time for our movie. (The AAA called and said the lock was fine. Of course it was!)

Wait. Before I review tonight’s movie, I have to recommend another one that is still on my mind. (Yes, I’ve been seeing a lot of movies. It’s Christmas time.) In this one, a famous martial arts movie star plays himself in a kind of fictional biopic that is both funny and sorrowful, and well worth seeing.

There’s a monologue in the middle of the movie that’s winning acclaim for the ageing athlete. Who knew he could act? It’s a bit mawkish in the style of a middle-aged alcoholic, but it’s heart-felt and dispatched in one cut that segues seamlessly into the next. He’s a pro. He was born to it. Is it because he was baptized with the initials J.C. that he is born to rule – though he was born a Libra like myself, and not a solstice Capricorn? Is it the season that makes the man, or the initials in his name? ‘When you’re thirteen,’ he says in the monologue, though more elegantly in his native tongue, ‘you believe in your dream. It’s not my fault if I was cut out to be a star. I asked for it, really believed in it. It came true for me.’ ‘I’m a citizen of the world,’ he says.

I’m led to think of the real J.C., J.C. the First, or J.C. fils, as we must always know him – son of Man and God alike. It’s his season, Son of Winter, so I’ve been reading The Life of Jesus by the nineteenth-century philologist, Ernest Renan. Renan’s book was published in France with great controversy in the year 1863. His humble goal was to write a ‘history’, rather than a work of devotion, so he analyzes and compares texts, and he edits out miracles because he wishes ‘to make the observations of facts our groundwork.’ His technique made him notorious. It also made him the hero of a generation of scholars.

Renan writes beautifully; his prose is strong even in translation. He has this to say about Jesus: ‘God, conceived simply as Father, was all the theology of Jesus. … He did not preach his opinions; he preached himself. … This exaltation of self is not egotism; for such men, possessed by their idea, give their lives freely, in order to seal their work; it is the identification of self with the object it has embraced, carried to its utmost limit. It is regarded as vain-glory by those who see in the new teaching only the personal phantasy of the founder; but it is the finger of God to those who see the result. The fool stands side by side here with the inspired man; only the fool never succeeds.’

Be the winter, I tell myself, as we trek back to the car. Be the winter. But the winter is being me, instead. I’m a hollow shell by the time we get there, burning on the outside, unconscious on the inside. ‘There’s my car!’ Rosanne, you realize that’s not the car we tried to open earlier. ‘It is so.’ Be the winter, be the winter.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Travelogue 253, December 19
Spinning Wheel, Part One

Winter wears a different face every day.
12.13 I’m out with my soul mate on a little promenade. The skies have relented and allowed us a thaw of 37 degrees. We’ve made our way down to the river. It’s a lovely day. The sun behind those permanent clouds radiates benignly, to such a degree that light meters are triggered and street lights switch off. It radiates from its noontime high, just above the treetops, its vague white glow finally topping that of Tycho Brahe’s famous supernova of 1572.

Arm in arm, metaphorically speaking, we step lightly across the university’s pedestrian bridge, gazing down at the friendly Mississippi. It’s as though we’re cruising at high altitude above Greenland, studying the effects of carbon emissions. Old Man Water’s stern complexion is crackling from the thaw. The ice is fracturing in jagged, baby-blue lines. The surface becomes complex, chunks of ice beginning to jostle in slow motion where angry blue-black water struggles for breath, while smooth snow sweats peacefully over the quieter waters of the river’s elbows.

We’re on our way to the doctor’s office in Dinkytown. We have taken a terrible spill together on the ice a few days previously, and now my mate’s gears are not working properly. The doctor works in a tiny, crowded shop in Dinkytown. He comes to the counter, wiping his greasy hands on a hand towel. ‘May I help you?’ It only takes a minute: a bit of fine work with a screwdriver, and we are coasting happily back across the bridge.

That night I see ‘The Day the Condor Stood Still’ by Keanu Reeves. It’s a forgettable movie, though I can still picture Keanu staring sternly-blankly-quizzically at me and the human race. But isn’t that simply because he has stared at us that way in so many movies? The film did leave me with one question. If he came to earth to save the planet from the human race, why would he change his mind when he sees a human mother embrace her son, or when he listens to human music? What does that prove? Humans take care of each other: he knows that. Maybe if Will Smith’s little boy (who needs a few more acting lessons, if you ask me) had saved Bambi from Dick Cheney that might logically call for revisiting the mission. Otherwise, hit ‘delete’!

More interesting is Keanu on Letterman, which I catch a few nights later. Does anyone recall seeing Keanu smile? There’s a reason for that: he has smoker’s teeth. And it comes to me: we have elected Keanu Reeves. Obama smokes. Obama is Hawaiian. Obama stares coldly and speaks woodenly sometimes. Yes, he does. He’ll never play an alien as well as Keanu, but he does. And they both speak in the same halting, resonant bass. It will be a most excellent eight years.

12.14 I’m in a cafĂ© for exactly one hour just after midday. When I emerge, the sidewalk is icy. I look at the bank’s clock and thermometer. The temperature has dropped twelve degrees while I was indoors! You have to walk with sliding steps. Cars are sliding to and fro.

By nightfall, we’ve hit zero Farhenheit. In the morning, the final set of winter body memories are released: the way your nose hairs freeze when you breathe; the tension as you listen to the ignition whine; the way everything crackles; the panicky feeling after only a few hundred yards across the parking lot: your fingers are stinging, even inside the gloves. The sky looks metallic and unfriendly. Ah, yes: it all comes back to me.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Travelogue 252, December 9
Christmas Heroes

I do battle. Indoors, I face down the Christmas music. And if once in a while, the somber ones like Silent Night or Little Drummer Boy elicit a tear – it HAS been five years since I’ve been in America for Christmas, after all, – well, I swallow it back and I grit my teeth. I will not give in to the despair inherent in it all. I am bigger than that. March a hundred Santas by me; launch a thousand cartoon classics against me; sound a million tinkling chimes, I will not buckle.

Outdoors, I stand firm against the persistent dirty white: the blank clouds day after day, the slushy piles, the unrelenting temperatures in the teens. It takes about five minutes or more just to dress for going outside – more if I’ll be traveling by bike. I patiently spend the time necessary getting the car ready for motion: warming up, brushing snow off the windshield, chiseling through any ice, waiting for the defroster to clear the fog on the inside of the windows.

I enjoy complaining to Menna in Ethiopia about my cold weather travails. She’s never felt temperatures remotely Minnesotan, and never seen snow. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is in its finest season, with clear blue skies and mild temperatures.

However, my good news is: the temperatures and the snow do not stop the worthy progress of Education in America. We do not waver, pause, or whimper before the white tide of menace, (nor red and green one, either).We take tests.

I have a contribution to make to the study of group psychology, or of group thaumaturgy. It is a mystery. In a lapse of discipline, or in a fit of sentimental weakness, I stop and look over a lost one’s messy paper. I point my pen to the question, suggest a re-assessment, guide again to the appropriate passage in the reading. On my next round, she has the correct answer. And so does everyone else. I swear I’m watching them. I swear! This particular class is composed almost entirely of kids who knew each other in high school. There’s a bond of telepathic swindling among them.

It’s in this class that young Mr. B is submitted to an unusual rite of repentance. Young Mr. B has missed a test, and he soberly informs me he will miss another. Young Mr. B is a massive boy with pink cheeks and the blue-eyed stare of a Boy Scout listening to ghost stories. He studies criminal justice. Why did he miss the first test? ‘I slept in. … I swear I did!’

‘Do you hear that class?’ I say. ‘He slept in.’ There are catcalls. Why is he missing the next test? Because he’s having surgery on his overgrown knee. ‘Hm! What do you say, class? Shall we let him make up these tests?’ His classmates insist that he leave the room while they deliberate. Young Mr. B sits on a bench in the hallway, bent over clasped hands. We gather around the classroom door’s little window and laugh at him. He is absolved.

Brittany is in the same class. She’s excited because she got called for an informational interview at a Minneapolis music college. She wants to be a music agent. She looks as though she might once have been goth, and it takes a long time to purge. But she has wonderfully clear and innocent blue eyes. She also has a twitch, like a sudden, slight nod.

She tells me she’s scared. She has heard that Minneapolis is dangerous. ‘I’ve heard of this place called Broadway,’ slight pause with a teenage questioning tone, and a twitch of the head, ‘where people are always getting shot …’, another questioning note. Young Mr. B chimes in with tales of mayhem from his student rides with Minneapolis cops that sound to me like skits from the Simpsons: there’s a bus load of drunks that arrive at a bar at closing time, and they start a riot when they can’t buy drinks. There’s a cell phone left to recharge in a car that prompts a bomb scare. We’re well past reassuring Brittany.

The only real solution is the strategic use of funny sound effects. Several of the students in my evening class bring laptops instead of dictionaries – weren’t you asking me how today’s students differ from students five years ago? Incredible as it may seem, one of my students doesn’t know what a loon is – a loon! the Minnesota state bird!

Sidebar: as many of you already know, the Mansi, an indigenous people in Siberia, believe that it was a pair of loons who brought mud from the bottom of the primeval waters to create the earth’s land masses.

In order to bring that ancient, magical moment to life for the class, I insist that one of my laptop boys retrieve the cry of the loon. It was either that or listen to Cody continue to imitate it over and over again.

There’s one more occasion for the laptop’s services that evening, when we read an excerpt from a story that features characters dancing the waltz. In response to the frightening assertion by one student that the waltz is the same as the Texas two-step, I instructed my laptop pilot to bring up a Polish waltz. The entire class stares at the machine as though we are receiving Morse Code from the sinking Titanic.

‘It is NOT the Texas two-step,’ I declare and shut the book for the evening, satisfied that at least one significant lesson has been delivered on that day.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Travelogue 251, December 5
Pins and Needles

The day starts with news on the car radio. The car, by the way, is Alison’s very nice Honda Civic, which she has kindly lent me while she is in Europe. It’s a luxury, a car that runs so well, and poses besides a powerful and profound koan: is it green or is it blue? That is a most impressive feat of modern technology: an object that works but eludes naming at such a fundamental level.

The radio sure works. The first item of news today is that all ballots have been tallied in the recount in our Senate race – all except 133 ballots from one Minneapolis precinct. Mine. Out of 4,132 precincts in Minnesota, 133 ballots were lost at the University Lutheran Church of Hope in Dinkytown.

I know mine is among the shipwrecked ballots. It is out reading the stars, searching for true north, exploring the desert island. I feel it, my disembodied voice, its ardent Democratic song stilled.

The next item on the radio is a new high in unemployment. After that is looming budget cuts across the board in education. The journalist really wants to zoom in on higher education. Colleges like the one I’m teaching for are in for stormy weather, she insists. I think she even mentions my tenuous temporary position by name.

That’s all right. My job – extinct as my ballot, apparently – has been heavy lifting. Students are awakening to the semester’s end, and to the dire state of their grades. Finals are coming, and that leads to more complaining: ‘You didn’t’ and ‘I can’t’. I say, ‘Gee whiz,’ and ‘Oh by gosh, by golly,’ my morale chilled by the radio-prophet’s approaching abyss.

The day gets better, though. Margaret has given me the gift of an appointment with her acupuncturist. Her name is Jala. She is pretty, and she speaks very slowly. I’ve always wanted to try acupuncture. If I believe in any metaphysics of the body, it’s the idea that there are streams of energy running through the human apparatus, cascading smoothly or blocked up behind ugly beaver dams, according to each individual case.

The part about the needles I haven’t figured out yet, but I’m certainly open to any new concept that smacks so charmingly of the Absurd. I imagine myself with fine whisker-like needles standing from my skin, and I laugh.

Today, the vision is realized, and I do indeed laugh. It’s a good day when a healthy action is cause for a giggle. I’m not sure Jala shares in my amusement, or even notices it. Her serenity seems impenetrable. Maybe Serenity resides within the eye of the Absurd, and therefore all humor is invisible. Or maybe Serenity breathes humor like oxygen and needs no external show of enjoyment. Either way, I’m not being Serene when I laugh, and in fact it stings a little if I jiggle one of those needles.

I lie with needles in me, a kind of temporary cyborg, enhanced by chi. But I can only use my super powers in repose, which actually suits me quite well. Aside from a passing headache, I experience no effects from the needles, no buzz beyond the simple fun of it. I’m either too obtuse or too backed up with beaver dams for subtle, esoteric cures.

The day ends with another wade into Wes’s fan pool. He’s gigging as much as possible this winter in order to plug his CD. Tonight it’s Big V’s. That’s a seedy, old-time bar on University in the Midway, famous among Wes’s friends for a raucous gig some eight to ten years ago, when a guy with a fresh hatchet wound in the back of his head was trying to mack on our friend Therese.

There’s a quality to the nights in December, a kind of dream-like timelessness. It’s been darks for hours and hours by the time you go out for the night’s entertainment. You float along slushy streets, among your layers of clothing, as though you’ve set out for Russia and you’ll be traveling for months. Everything is the color of street lamps and neon.

The highlights of the evening are Wes’s performance, as strong as I’ve ever heard, and pounding Roxana in foosball. Okay, so that doesn’t require much. Okay, so Wes defeats me until he’s bored. My men have trouble tracking the ball, striking out in sychronized, swinging kicks long after the ball has sailed by, often after the clunk that signals the opponent’s score. But, hey, by the time we reach Russia, my moves will be smooth, smooth, smooth.