Saturday, August 29, 2009

Travelogue 294 – August 29
Wake and Shine

I've got about an hour and a half to spare, so I stop in at my new favorite pub, Merlin's Rest. See my earlier entry about this delightful spot on Lake Street. My ultimate destination is all the way down Lake Street the other way – from the river-end of Lake Street here to the lake-end Lake Street to the west.

I'm on my bike, and the skies are ominous. We barely broke sixty degrees today, and it's been cloudy. In Minnesota, one pays close attention to the skies, especially in late August. Is this it, one asks. Is this the end of summer?

With time to spare, it's an easy enough detour, a left instead of a right. I need a place to grade papers. This pleasant British/Irish pub leaps to mind: quiet and comfortable. It's not as quiet as usual this afternoon. The reason, as it turns out: there's a wake.

'That's how I would want it,' says a man at the bar. “Bring some beer, some herb, laugh and tell stories.' Makes sense. 'Just don't invite this guy,' he cracks, jerking a thumb at the bartender. 'I'll be working,' says the bartender.

Oddly, it was just this morning that I was catching some clips of Teddy's funeral on YouTube. There's an odd silent segment from BBC, following celebs as they enter the church. Schwarzenegger is slapping people on the back. I catch a sound bite from Barack. I read up on some stories about Teddy's high spirits and his sense of humor. I surprise myself by choking up a bit. I think there's something about the fighters and the dreamers of the world. One truly feels their loss.

So I find an innocuous table across the pub from the wake, and I set about grading my first papers of the term. Every, and I mean every, minute is about work these days. The semester has started with a bang. Enrollments are 10% up. But a load of drudgery doesn't mean I can't at least enjoy the setting. Who says I can't grade papers at a wake?

Here's what it's like being an adjunct instructor at a community college: my specific classes weren't ironed out until the Friday before term. I have no office; they're still constructing it. Some of my classes are still not available to me online. Attendance goes like this: 'Bill, please tear a page from your notebook. Good man. Now write the date, sign your name, and pass along.' My texts are not available in the bookstore yet. Confused students trickle in late.

And yet, we're all in good spirits. Monday was still summer, glaring and humid, but even without the autumnal chill and that autumnal scent to the air, the start of the school year triggers a gut response of pleasure and excitement.

And so many young innocents! There's the skinny boy with shaggy hair who says he'll be studying law enforcement, though he hates cops. There are the twins, two wide-eyed beauties with brilliant smiles and ghetto names, who answer questions in unison. There is the street-smart and smirking boy of color who is also going into law enforcement, though he has gathered a few certificates in cooking. There's the Latino boy who wants to go into business to make money. He argues with the girl from the alternative high school who says happiness is not about money. 'Who's going to pay your bills, girl? Who's going to take you out to dinner?' She doesn't have a very satisfying answer to that, though I'm rooting for her. She says she wants to be a social worker.

And so, life and work continues, in the lee of wakes, in the shadow of our losses, as cold winter approaches. Chin up, we fight and we dream, God love us.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Travelogue 293 – August 22
It Ain't Pink

Route 131 runs north and south in Western Michigan. It connects Grand Rapids with Petoskey, and other points up and down the map.

But that's the thing about Western Michigan: what exactly are those points in the connection? All one sees are road signs announcing McDonald's and petrol stations, but peering up those dark exits, into the wooded hills, one shudders and wonders what might lay along these mysterious roads.

There's something about Michigan. I'm approaching the same latitudes as Minnesota, but there's something more ominous about the upper reaches of this state. North of Grand Rapids, this highway slices through unceasing woods. It slices through shallow hills and dales that put one in mind, after a few hours of driving, of Druidic magic circles. Down one of those intersecting roads might just be a stand of monolithic stones arranged to mark the gloomy northern solstice.

One passes occasional fields and beat barns, but otherwise, there are only forests. The woods are made of short trees that seem to lean into the next squall. They project a darker, meaner shade of green. The sky is overflowing with huge, low clouds like granite boulders rolling over us. Light rains come and go from minute to minute. I might even have overshot the time of the Druids. I'm charting primeval wilderness. Mammals have only just begun their long march toward sentience.

And then I reach my destination. I have to swallow my terror of Druidic sacrifice and catch one of those anonymous exits. After a few miles there does indeed appear a town. It's a small one. The main drag is an unremarkable hybrid of modern convenience stops and early twentieth century brick that makes it to within a hair's breadth of 'cute'. But this town has its name: Cadillac. That is worth miles of quaint storefronts, in my book.

The town of Cadillac is set on the shores of Lake Cadillac. As much as we might wish it were so, neither lake nor town is named after the model of automobile, nor is either the inspiration for the car's name. No, the name is bequeathed by a French explorer from the eighteenth century – so many names in this part of the world were gifts of those intrepid souls, (and they were not Druids) – Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, who settled Mo-town in 1701. In fact, the original names of both town and body of water were 'Clam Lake'. Thank God for the revision.

While on the subject of automobiles, I think it fitting to mention that I was in Grand Rapids for the grand entrance of Marc's 1956 Jaguar XK 140. I should say reunion rather than entrance, since the car was Marc's father's, and Marc himself spent some glorious hours in the convertible as a youth. Along with the car came Mark Lambert, a college friend of Marc's, and currently famous restorer of classic autos in Nashville. As we all admired the beautiful, cream-colored convertible, designed from gentle curves like you might find among the Druid hills of Michigan, Mark delivered a brief history of the classic automobile company.

Jaguar was the brainchild of Sir William Lyons, who founded a company to produce motorcycle sidecars, though it wasn't long before he expanded into automobiles. The company was called Swallow Sidecar Company, which was shortened to SS with time. As the Nazis rose to power and then terror in nearby Germany, Sir William thought twice about producing SS cars. He added Jaguar to the name.

It seems that during the Second World War, Sir William was called upon to do his duty by patria, but he managed to have members of his research team assigned with him. During the war years, they worked on design after design on paper, coming up with what would be the fundamentals of the X-type model engine that would power Jaguar cars for decades to come – according to Mark a creation years ahead of its time.

In any case, it sure is pretty. And it looks right at home among the verdure of the Motor State.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Travelogue 292 – August 20
Real Gore

Few things can make one feel older than a bad film. Bad is often bad in a bid for currency. I didn't grow up with video games. The last time I played a video game it was standing in front of a big box in a pizza parlor. It would have been 'Centipede' or 'PacMan'. If I had logged hundreds of hours at home destroying civilizations like modern boys do, I might have been able to make more sense of 'GI Joe'. Odd that I would have to admit to being out of date with GI Joe, since I played with him as a boy, when he was a little, green plastic man, (manufactured by Hasbro, partner in this dismal movie. It should be pointed out that Hasbro is also behind the Transformer phenomenon. Beware plastic creatures converted into film, quite possibly destroying civilizations without real explosives.)

I don't regret the occasional bad movie. There's always something to learn from bad art. Whether it is good or bad, I ask myself why it was so. In this movie's case – if it IS bad, – then it's an astounding feat of sloppiness. But maybe, after all, it's too early to declare it bad. Truthfully I was stumped by this show. I can't make heads or tails of the intentions of the film makers. I have no means of guessing the goals of the writers or director. It might actually be a work of genius.

Perhaps the attempt here is analogous to a painter's preference for abstraction. It's a way to explore the pure essences of the medium. So an 'action movie' should be pure action: a mad blur of motion and violence. There should be none of the resting points that we conventionally call 'plot'. Emotion can be denoted by abbreviated tags: capture a few stills of recognizable facial expressions, ejaculate phrases that sum up human relationships. Avoid specific reference to dates or location. If you need the Great Pyramids for atmosphere (a popular tag lately) plant them in a featureless desert, utterly divorced from Cairo, Egypt, or the nasty Middle East.

If we go for the genius argument, then the state of the special effects must be key evidence. Conventional action movies rely on CGI polish. What happened here? It must be that the sensations of motion and violence take precedence. Good special effects become distraction. So in GI Joe, whether we're looking at ships, weapons, slaughter, or monsters, all dissolves into smears of color. Well, bravo, Hasbro: if abstraction can speak to the reptilian brain, then this is a formidable creation.

The old-fashioned among us – those looking for conventional pleasures at the cinema, luxuries like plot and special effects, character and actors that haven't transcended our four dimensions – will find a lot more enjoyment out of 'District 9'. The special effects are amazing: far better than in 'GI Joe'. The writing is mature and thoughtful. The acting, particularly that of the lead, is masterful, leading you forward with deceptive simplicity. The writers have the courage for a specific setting. And there's plenty of gore. If dozens of humans are released from the mortal coil in bright haloes of blood, the effect isn't so admirably 'bloodless' as in GI Joe, but they persist in the story's short-term memory as disturbing shadows. Pshaw: so conventional!

But good writing and acting doesn't make violence real. Apparently I feel compelled to prove that point when I get home from GI Joe. It's very late at night. I'm packing for a trip to Michigan. I'm trying to cut through the thick plastic cover of a new flash drive. I drive one blade of my scissors completely through my finger. And I mean through: I'm talking about separate entry and exit wounds. Instantly, there's blood all over my kitchen. Running water only seems to encourage the blood flow. Paper towels, soaking red through multiple layers. A trip to the emergency room, hours in the green flickering light of the county hospital, hideous stitches by an intern from India before the anesthetic has taken effect.

No, real gore is more than a splash of bright color. It's not thrilling. It's tedious. One endures it. I get home at 4:30am, bandaged, drugged, and dazed. I have to be on a plane in a few hours. Ah, the romantic life of a soldier!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Travelogue 291 – August 17
La Baie Verte

Jean Nicolet discovered Green Bay for the French and established a trading post there in 1634, making this little town the 13th oldest permanent settlement in America. Lucky 13: little did Fr. Nicolet know what he was setting in motion.

It was only 285 years later that a young shipping clerk at the Indian Packing Company named Curly Lambeau, who was taking a semester off from Notre Dame (where he was halfback for a young Knut Rockne), co-founded a professional football team. He solicited $500 from his employer for uniforms and equipment. In the following year, the 'Packers' joined the newly-formed NFL, and destiny sparkled above the cold Wisconsin bay, to which the team would bring home twelve national titles.

The sun has set, and I'm standing beneath a massive statue of Curly Lambeau. I'm shaken. Was it a dream, or was I truly just sitting inside the stadium that Curly built, watching the Green Bay Packers? I thought that those seats were reserved for mythical beings. What beer-drinking goddess has taken me under her wing? That was me, drinking Leinies on the 40-yard line, twenty-five rows up from the hallowed field, while the Packers give the Browns a drubbing. The fans fill seats to the top rings of the sacred bowl, above which shines a perfect summer sky. They deck the stands in green and yellow, and they shake lemon pom-poms, rising out of their seats in countless rounds of 'the Wave'.

I pay homage now to the twin gods outside the stadium, Vince and Curly. Vince doesn't look too happy about standing in bronze for decades. Curly has greater matters on his mind. But always show gratitude, I say, to the higher powers.

In a brilliant move, the founders of Wisconsin's great franchise added a clause in their articles of incorporation that forbid profit from the sale of the team. After expenses were paid, money made from sale were to donated to the American Legion. Ninety years later, the Pack still resides in Nicolet's small outpost, a town of 100,000 or so. And Fr. Nicolet's humble town is owner of the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in this young, English-speaking nation.

Mike has his stocks in the team in a frame on the wall of his basement, alongside lots of Packer memorabilia. He's one of 112,015 owners of the team. Shareholder meetings are held on the field. I would love to see one of those meetings – but, in actual fact, I was already sitting among the inebriated stockholders. And never did shareholders cheer for their company like these did. This spunky little enterprise put their Cleveland competitor to shame, 17-0!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Travelogue 290 – August 11
Old Time Entertainment

I need a place to sit in front of my computer with a beer. It's late on a Tuesday night, and options are limited. I don't know the neighborhood very well. I'm on my bike at the very end of Lake Street, right where it leaps off the high bank of the Mississippi and tranforms into Marshall Street on the St. Paul side. The cafe is closing. The restaurant is closing. Each guides me to another place.

The final stop is Merlin's Rest on Lake Street at 36th. 'Oh, they'll let you sit there all night,' the waitress down the street had said. I think they just might. I'm at a table in the back, by the kitchen, happily tapping away at tonight's project. It turns out that tonight's project is more work on Chapter Three: Perugia. I'm reliving my home town in Italia. I'm reliving the night I listened to Chicago Blues, the blues strummed and belted out with gusto and funny accents by springtime's friends.

It's 'Folk Tuesday' at Merlin's Rest, ('a pub from the Isles', they call it). So while I write about Chicago blues in Italia, I'm serenaded by over a dozen musicians sitting in a circle with their guitars and fiddles, playing American folk in a British pub. And I'm quite enjoying it, I must say. The musicians are not bad. The English beer is outstanding. The fries hit the spot. The cushion on my stool is blunting the pain of long sitting. And I'm so cheered that I don't mind the greying locals singing in chorus and swaying together.

This afternoon, I found myself in a nutritional funk, led by long, successive meetings into a caffeine overdose. The heat of the day has made me sleepy, and yet the jitters won't let me focus. Solution: break out the bike. I knock off sunny miles in succession, the laptop in my backpack. I stop and work; I ride; I work again.

The early film at the Riverview Theater is 'Star Trek'. It's a perfect match. Though I've seen the movie, I've got to see it at the Riverview. This theater in a quiet southern neighborhood of Minneapolis has been in continuous operation since it opened in 1948. And between its first show ('June Bride' with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery) and 'Star Trek' (with Spock and Bones), the venue hasn't changed much. The spacious lobby features 50s furnishings, period tile and terrazzo, and a color scheme that will make your cavities ache. The place is an echo from the era of neighborhood theaters, and the neighborhood cherishes it.

It's the film audience makes the experience complete, paying their two bucks and packing the auditorium, middle-aged homeowners the most of them, old enough to be fond of the original series. They break into general applause at every triumph, and at every stock phrase from the Trek repertoire. A quartet of teens sits behind us and snickers throughout at the foolish sentimentality of their elders. Hopefully the profusion of explosions provided sufficient entertainment value for them.

I'm inspired by the miraculous convergence of the 50s, 60s and aughts, the meeting of James Tiberius and Bette Davis, the fusion of summer and caffeine. So I set off in pursuit of the right table and the right cushioned stool. And I'm blessed with more. I find voices in song again. It's kind of like they never stop.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Travelogue 289 – August 8
The Medieval Modernist Romantics

Apropos to my trip to the Thames – I mean the proper Thames, in New London, Connecticut – I must make mention of the arts. We have visited the menacing submarines of Groton. Now make a visit to the mellower, artsy precincts of New London, across the estuary. In a town of 20,000 we have dozens of art studios, but the kingpen is the Hygienic Arts Coop and Gallery. Inside this hallowed complex is where I have the honor to lay my head for four nights, my friend Troy being one of the resident artists.

A block from the river on lively Bank Street, this building stands like a spot of good cheer and genius, a building that dates to the mid-nineteenth century. The Hygienic spent most of the twentieth century as a 24-hour eatery. The gallery inhabits an old restaurant space. In darker times of urban blight, during those dastardly 60s in particular, the building became a center if unwholesome and illicit activities – which history is really a feather in any arts community's cap. In 1979, local artists made the Hygienic Restaurant the locale for its first community show. By the 90s, the artists were organized and ready to take over the failed restaurant and renovate the building. The resident artists are a diverse group. Troy paints and designs beautiful block prints. Kevin is a glass-blower. Downstairs is a busty blonde metal-worker who calls herself the Madagascar.

Rosanne (a pseudonym: she prohibits the use of her real name, which is very, very different than Rosanne) has bought me a ticket for the featured exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 'Sin and Salvation: William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision'. William Holman Hunt is one of the founders of this quirky and influential movement. Three young men meet in the house of one of their moms. Three young men with grudges meet at mom's house. They mock the establishment. No, this is not Edina, circa 2008. It's Gower Street, London in 1848. The enemy is the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they call 'Sir Sloshua'. Boys, boys...

Seduced by the Romantic movement in literature, these boys have a vision. In the same way that the Romantics challenged the excessive rationalism, formality, and elegance of the eighteenth century, these boys would challenge the prevailing conventions in painting. Raphael, wunderkind of the Renaissance, introduced corruption into the visual arts, they say: his elegant classicism inspired centuries of fuzzy, formulaic composition. So, back to the days … PRE-Raphael. They revive, each in his own way, the vivid colors, detail, and complex composition of the Quattrocento.

The three boys are Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, (who should win awards just for his name). They're debut as a movement would be the exhibition of Millais's painting, 'Christ in the House of His Parents' in 1850, a work raked over the coals by none other than Charles Dickens. 'Blasphemous,' he cries. Why? Because Mary is ugly. Come to the rescue, young John Ruskin.

What emerges over the next few decades is a body of work, vivid and quickly recognized, romantic in subject and tone. The mood is perhaps best captured in Hunt's 'The Lady of Shalott', a web of myth and symbol, a swirl of glowing color, a central figure captured in awkward motion.

And emerges a mythology of the movement, a collection of eccentric characters: the morbid poet-painter Rossetti and his prolific siblings; the hyper-creative William Morris; the adventurous Hunt, who makes four trips to the Levant and eventually builds a house in Jerusalem. Biography was their art as much as poetry or painting. But such is the tradition, Mannerist or Pre-Raphaelite.

From Tems to Thames, the torch is borne. Artists, unite, throw off your chains! See you at Mom's!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Travelogue 288 – August 4
New London

I take a lunch break in Boston. I've arrived by train. I will depart by plane. I have a mid-afternoon spell for relaxing in the city center. It's been years since I've walked around this old town. After four days in New London, Connecticut, downtown Boston seems ostentatiously modern and glossy, populated uniformly by the ambitious. At least, I can say that their pace along the immaculate streets is ambitious.

New London is a small spot on the map in eastern Connecticut, but its hilly little byways and choppy river waters hold lots of crazy, concentrated history. The river is the Thames, and please pronounce that exactly how it's spelled, resisting the snobby impulse to say, 'Tems'. They say that's how the name was properly pronounced when the town was settled by John Winthrop and his merry band of pilgrims in 1646.

The settlement was located on ground called called Nameaug by the Pequot Indians. Nameaug comes from an ancient inscription on the site that says, 'My Name is Augustus Caesar,' which supports a theory I'm marketing that New England was first settled by the Romans in the third century AD. (See photo for historical re-enactment.) Archaeology is a hobby of mine, though of course I prefer to pursue it without getting dirty. I'm pretty sure I'll find that inscription one day. I begin the search for it in the bars on Bank Street in New London.

Troy and I set out on the Thames one day – after some lovely chowder at Captain Scott's on the wharf – in order to investigate further the history of this place. Or perhaps it was to enjoy the sunshine on a rare clear day. We board the tour boat, the only guests for the 4:30 tour, and take our seats as the captain and tour guide climb into the high cabin that makes the vessel seem as tall as it is long. Though there are only the two of us, the tour guide insists on delivering his comments through the loudspeaker. Put-put we go out into the river/estuary. Yes, the wide-mouthed old Thames is tidal, and it is half seawater: the bottom half, according to our guide. We choose the 'sub' tour, meaning we're going to head upriver toward the Navy base, rather than downriver and into the Long Island Sound.

Here are some history teasers about New London and Groton, which is the city opposite to New London. Did you know that it was right here in this happy port that radar and sonar were developed, in the naval labs? Or that penicillin was developed here in the Pfizer labs? I can't find much 'expert' corroboration on these points. In fact, I keep running into those pesky Brits (and their dirty 'Tems') when I research OUR accomplishments. But our tour guides were quite clear on these points.

One item even the most annoying Brits won't contest is that the first nuclear sub, the USS Nautilus, set sail from this very port in 1954. Our little tour boat chugs by the sub base upriver, and we spot a few black beauties at port there, fueling up for their next pass at St. Petersburg.

Another thing the Brits won't deny is that they just about destroyed New London in 1781. Apparently, General Benedict Arnold, a native of the area (from Norwich), having already switched sides, finding himself woefully idle and undervalued by his new masters, decided that a raid against the privateers of New London might be a good career move. He chased our good soldiers from Fort Trumbull on the New London side and besieged the fort on the Groton side, Fort Griswold. It was a massacre. There's an obelisk on the sight now. Troy and I visit the remains of the fort, wishing a Brit or two would dare to show up now and mispronounce our river's name.

A plaque in the ground commemorates the spot where Colonel William Ledyard was mercillesly cut down by a British officer. According to legend, the redcoat demanded to know who commanded the fort. Ledyard replied "I did, sir, but you do now," and offered his sword. The British officer took the sword and then murdered Ledyard. That's not chivalry.

Just downriver from the sub base, you pass the Coast Guard Academy, looking trim and cheerful. In my high school days, I flirted with the notion of applying there. These days, by some quirk of brain chemistry, that memory is intimately connected to another: a miserable hour of vomiting on the ferry to Cyprus in the mid-90s. Funny how the mind works.

In the evening, Troy and I meet his mother in Ocean Beach, just south of New London, on the Long Island Sound. We sit on a concrete balcony, sipping Long Island iced teas (what else?) and contemplate the fuss over antique cars in the parking lot. We also contemplate the sunset and the rise of the near-full moon. From our privileged spot, it seems as though we can see the fabled lands of Fisher's Island and Orient Point, Long Island. We search the horizon for the famous haunted lighthouse, but can't find it. Alas. Maybe the Brits have stolen that, as well.