Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Travelogue 346 – June 30
The Mysteries

There's one sound that is entirely bewitching to me, the whisper of wind through the cottonwoods. I'm coasting along the bike path, just fast enough to stay vertical. The trees are cleared away from the path. I look into their swaying tops, the way one turns illogically toward a sound, and I discover the seven o'clock sun traveling though the crowns of my cottonwoods, flashing among the rustling leaves.

The only competing sound is the whir of bicycle tires. This is the hour of testosterone. The bike paths are commandeered by men in their 30s and 40s who have discovered unsuspected reserves of youth dressing in silly cycling suits and speeding on their expensively accessorized two-wheelers. Whir! they go, and they are concentrating.

I'm experimenting today. It's the third gorgeous day in a row here in southern Minnesota. I've drifted west along the bike paths out past Uptown, aiming for the sun so as to keep it in my face. Here's a path I've never taken, the Kenilworth path, veering north off of the Greenway. The path sign says 'Cedar Lake', and I'm excited to see the elusive Cedar Lake.

It's been many years since I moved to Minneapolis and yet I don't think I've ever had more than fleeting glimpses of Cedar Lake, the mysterious Cedar Lake. I've always heard about it, received ecstatic word of nude beaches and exultant hippie rituals. There's a canal that links it to the very accessible Lake of the Isles, and there were times I gazed down that canal dreaming of sunshine on the water and free love. But Cedar Lake is not a place you just stumble upon.

I have to content myself with glimpses yet again. I see water; I see the surface of the lake, between the trees! And then it's gone. I can feel it, just beyond the trees and the rise of earth that supports them, glinting in the bright sun. But I keep pedaling. I promise, dear readers, that I will gaze upon that lake's mysterious surface before this summer is over, and I will report the experience in this journal.

Even without Cedar Lake, the rewards of the path are manifold. Within a few hundred meters I feel as though I'm in the country. Except for the insect whir of the conquistadors, I might be on a forgotten county road threading like beads lost counties, the like of which Kevin Costner might conjure. But I'm still in city limits. And after a few miles, I'll be coasting back toward the towers of downtown.

For the nonce, I'm concentrating almost as intensely as the whirring sportsters. I'm a menace to them, drifting along the path as I am, captured in the spell of sudden light. The light is enhanced by mid-summer's bright greens. It's summer by the calendar; it's spring by color. It occurs to me now that in earlier times I would have stopped. Life's rare delights are to be enjoyed. No, more: they are to be drunk through a straw, savored, and attended like a French film. 'Sit', my old self says. 'Pitch a tent. Never leave.'

There you go: impetuous youth. Youth believes that time warps for love, turns upon itself in protective bubbles for the lover. Youth believes that beauty can be held in one's hand. I'm not so young; I keep pedaling. Midlife believes that passing time is instrumental in beauty. Midlife believes that beauty is sweetest in glimpses. One never forgets the unexpected blaze of light among the cottonwood leaves. But nothing fades so quickly as an afternoon of purposeful lounging among resplendent sights. Take it or leave it; that's how those gears turn.

The subject of fleeting beauty must remind me of dear Leeza. It's nearly the anniversary of her passing. She appears to me. Our favorite color, one of those impossible intangibles that we shared, was the shade of blue in a clear sky just between dusk and night. It lasts a second and appears in only a thin and indeterminate band curving across the sky. Then it's gone.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Travelogue 345 – June 29
Sure Enough

You know that the US has been sent home from South Africa when you have to ask the gym attendant to turn the channel. This is my cheap ticket to the World Cup, my gym membership. Game time is under-attended on the machines, and I usually get my front-row elliptical, facing the screen. That's the beauty of being self-employed, under-employed, a self-made man, a cave man, an unmade bed, whatever it is I am.

What it is I am, or not to be, is a matter of some anxiety to me right now. I sit in front of open notebooks and open windows. The windows call for the pages; the breeze beckons for them. Good intentions aren't enough, are they?

I was a little embarrassed by American soccer fans, anyway. At best, they're awkward. They sense that, even in an American bar in the heart of the well-conquered continent, there's a cultural element to soccer – can I just call it football, please? – that they're not getting. And their fears are well-grounded. There's something in sports fans here that makes them want to grimace like the Hulk and to assert ugly dominance. But in football that's a sure yellow card. Inside even the most brutal of European football hooligans lurks the clown. Football is … fun. Fiercely competitive, source of many a pub brawl no doubt, but always the 'beautiful game', graceful, colorful, and vivacious. The fans here don't realize that losing is no shame; more shameful was the dearth of pretty boys on our squad, America flouting another great football tradition.

There's an old guy watching the Twins at William's. He sits at his regular station, in his usual chair at his usual table. I'm watching him from behind my own table, which is strewn with 'work'. I've fled the summer breezes in this cellar bar. I'm watching the old man. He has several ways of expressing himself. He cheers and claps when the Twins pull off a good play. And in between Twins successes, he whistles along to the 80s soundtrack. I like his whistling; I think he was once or is still a musician. He has long, unkempt hair underneath his hat, the front brim of which is folded under. He has a long, grey beard. He is garbed in a raincoat and shorts. He has doffed his sandals for the evening. This is a philosopher.

When I prevail upon the gym attendant to change channels, the woman two machines down tsks and flaps a magazine page with disdain. Years ago – if you had found me in a gym – I would have snapped my own page in accord. I'm living proof of a stereotype, that sports is largely the domain of aging men. This unsettling phenomenon leads to frequent attempts to classify sports as a branch of philosophy.

A sport follows rules doesn't it? That's almost the definition of athletics: I am writing down a list of arbitrary rules; let's see how you do. You will run 100 paces; not 125; not 150. You will run 100 paces. I'll count one-and-a-two-and-a …. It's a beautiful thing. And it should absolutely be a source of laughter and joy. The older cultures understand.

I watch the old man with envy. O Diogenes, guide me with thy lantern! I want to know the rules. I'll give you this notebook, and this form, and this pen, and this mouse, and this reference book, and this brochure, and this website, and … no, not my gym card!

A note about my business. There are a lot of people who do what I do – except that they have degrees, and they have CVs, and they get hired to occupy positions, and they get paid. They follow lots of rules. They go to lots of meetings and conferences with people just like themselves. They go to bars together and they makes Hulk faces when their teams score. I will donate my papers to the breezes. I will paint my face and wear fright wigs, and I will cheer them on. I will laugh myself silly, whether they win or lose.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Travelogue 344 – June 24

Once you're successfully over the crest of the pedestrian overpass, heading west away from the rising sun and toward your work at the Spyhouse cafe, you coast downhill astride the spiraling ribbon of cement that will deposit you, after one full circuit around the massive supporting column, on empty 24th Street. On the east end of the bridge, you had to carry the bike up two flights of stairs, but here you let go, except for a light grip on the brakes. You want to allow some momentum coming off the ramp because you have a hill ahead.

24th is a sleepy street, surrendered to a sleep not unlike Snow White's, society's magic gone bad. The neighborhood is silent by design, sheltered from the highway by high wooden walls. The street runs east into blank, sun-bleached and wind-worn planks of urban planning.

Evidence suggests that the neighborhood was once a fashionable one. The evidence is architectural. Even the low-budget apartments, silent as the street but whispering of all the dread attending poverty, are housed behind peaceful ivy-grown brick. One block north is St. Stephen's, erected in 1889 from – appropriately enough – blood-red stones of man-crushing size. It has a humble beauty, lost as it is among sad, neglected blocks, fitted with green shingles and a green steeple that rises above the highway wall and can be seen from the other side, my side of the great divide.

Pedal up the hill and you are awarded by arrival at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, housed in a full city block of Greek revival supplemented by less inspiring additions. The front entrance on 24th Street is London grand, a monumental staircase flanked by Oriental lions, leading white to white columns and pediment, framing a basilica's wooden doors that admit one into the atrium that revolves around a Roman nude. But out front is one of my favorite sculptures of the museum's, a bronze by Ernst Barlach, German expressionist known for his anti-war works judged blasphemous by the fascists.

One somber angel stands upon the back of a wolf that seems to be arching its back in rage like a cat. The man holds a sword, but holds it contemplatively, even seeming to rest his face against it in a moment of thought before action. If it's to be violence, it will be morally guided. But better is the sword never swings. Better to master the primeval beast.

This statue use to stand by the other entrance to the museum, the one that also accesses the Children's Theater, but now it's been demoted to the seldom-used front entrance. Without thinking about it, I had always assumed it told the story of some Christian saint about to strike down the Roman wolf. This wolf has odd sawtooth shapes along its belly that might suggest the teats that nourished Romulus and Remus. But the sculpture is named Fighter of the Spirit, and Germany in 1928 is not quite the moment to celebrate the triumph of Christianity.

Across the street is Washburn Fair Oaks Park, the very epicenter of Minneapolis high society when the town was Mill City. The park was once the grandest among a set of mansions, some of which still stand. This one is now a city park, trees and rolling grass hillocks, where benches serve as bunks at night. I coast through on my bike, along the cracking sidewalks. Two grizzled gentlemen sit at a bench, looking like they just managed to roll upright a few minutes ago. They turn that look on me that drunks have, one of slow amazement. They want to ask me a favor, one of them says. I roll on. Ahead is another old man, shuffling through the grass. They all might be comrades from the jungles of Vietnam, I think to myself. He's wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with one word on the back: Suitcase. It's a troubling koan for a quiet morning.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Travelogue 343 – June 14

In these days of rain, in these days and forty nights, in these Blade-Runner-realized and global-soaked days of unrelenting precipitation, – between Addis and Minneapolis, I've seen about twenty blue-sky days in 2010; forgive me – in these grey days of windbreakers, when wet tires hiss, when hours of gentle rainfall envelop the Twin Cities in maternal mists, timeless and somnolent, I steadfastly set out each morning on my bicycle.

This week, I start my workdays at Spyhouse. That's a cafe, an old regular. I've outgrown the need to please the uber-hip crowd here, so now I enjoy the atmosphere, one that a time-traveler from the 70s might confuse with that of a library. Everyone peers owlishly at computer screens, books, or quiet conversation partners. To our time-traveler, the dress of the urban hip in 2010 resembles nothing so much as nerdwear in his own time. Every computer-nannied kid complements his plaid and carefully ungroomed hair with picture-frame engineer's glasses. Speaking of picture frames, the kitsch references in contemporary art look like … kitsch. The anime looks like … cartoons. The mid-century pop references in the music sound like … mid-century pop. I settle in at the library and launch the netbook, comfortably lost among generations. And by the way, the coffee at Spyhouse is worth biking through the rain, across a patchwork of dreary urban blight, across the highway, into neighborhoods served by a higher class of drug dealer.

Crossing the highway is the high point of the journey, literally. There's an arching pedestrian overpass that seems to curve for about a quarter of a mile over heady streams of traffic plummeting toward or escaping from downtown. Underneath, the highway is captured in the nearly biological act of splitting into four strands. From the peak of the overpass, it might be four fingers with the two middle digits painfully crossed, all digits dipping into the honey pot of city delights.

I project when I say 'painfully' in reference to crossing fingers. The third finger on my left hand has never healed from the equestrian accident in the countryside of Ethiopia. If anything, it's worsened, the poor digit frozen in a crooked, Scrooge-like position. It has driven me to extremes, to doctor's visits. Daily routines have been disrupted. There is no smooth withdrawal of my wallet at restaurants: too clumsy and too painful. No smooth withdrawals of my keys as I reach my door. Instead, an awkward fumbling, my warped hand too bowed a shape for the slim hip pocket, especially in my expanding American frame. Surgery? Is that the terminus in this ugly episode, in efforts to escape ugliness? I'll keep you posted.

In any case, the rounded span at the top of the world is a place to pause. The mist will not pause, but the human does, mesmerized by the achievement of his species. Directly below, the achievement is hardly a source of pride, mismatched blocks poised forever on the verge of irredeemable decay. The peeling walls don't shine but they do seem to mirror. Up here, the handsome old skyline of new Minneapolis is a multi-faceted ziggurat dedicated to handsome demiurges, Paris, David, Barack, Ronaldo, all the good forces of progress. And it's silent. Perhaps it's only the still life that really excites admiration.

There is proof that I am not the sole admirer. One morning,, there is an old couch left at the peak of the arch, abandoned by night wonderers. It's been scrawled all over with black graffiti, either the property of tag artists or the victim of very quick work during the rainy night. The peaceful old sofa points mutely toward downtown, testament to fascination. By the time I return, after a session in the library, the couch is gone. The concrete span is slick, and I'm too busy rationing the brakes as I pass over the crest, as I switch from labored pedaling to high-altitude coasting, to admire the deadpan buildings. The work of man I most admire at that moment is the chain link fence that will bar me from free fall should the brakes fail. The riddle passes by unattended until I get home. Whence the couch? Whither the couch? What phantom of the rain did I miss on the heights, by a second, by a minute?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Travelogue 342 – June 11
Games and Peace

And it arrives, a moment to breathe. It's Friday eve. Work takes a pause. Scottie's birthday party isn't until later. I'll sit in Maxwell's a minute. I might sneak in more than a minute of baseball. The game will begin soon, a game being played a mile or two away in the new stadium.

Outside, the sky broods its way toward a low, late sunset. Since a crazy 3am thunderstorm, the clouds seem spent. They break formation and admit pools of humid sunshine. Then they close ranks again. But they have no strength for storming.

I've been back in Minnesota nine days now. Already everywhere else in the world seems months away. I've found that elusive Minnesota gear, something like second-and-a-half, hidden between the slow chug of second gear and the jump of third. It takes time to find it. It takes a determined effort: for example, sitting very still at a bar and staring into one's lager for five full minutes, then slowly lifting one's gaze to the TV, where the third baseman is scratching himself. Springsteen far in the background seems to help.

Maxwell's is a bit of history that serves to ground me. Ten-plus years ago, a good friend of mine was the manager of this little bar on Washington. That's before this strip of avenue was built up with condos and upscale restaurants. It was a shabby stretch of road that most locals drove through and by on the way from downtown to the highway. It's a small bar, homey and quiet. Some time after Rob left, Maxwell's burned to the ground. If you visit today, you can see photos of the disaster hung along the brick walls of the rebuilt establishment. It was a defining moment for a relatively anonymous bar. The food's not bad, by the way.

This month is becoming a bit of heaven for the clamoring sports fan in me. My two favorite sports are in full swing. The Twins are swinging, their lineup among the heaviest hitters in baseball. They lead their division, perhaps inspired by their chic new stadium, tall & steep, Roman and modern, tucked neatly as a puzzle piece into its snug space downtown. Need I repeat how much I like this team, still young and spirited, led by the squeaky clean duo of Morneau and the local boy Mauer? They're a pleasure to root for.

And today! Today begins the sports event of the year, the World Cup! It pops up everywhere I go today, like sudden images of myself reflected in shop windows. I stop at Centro, and the South African team is swarming around Mexico's goal while a Spanish-speaking announcer adds feverish commentary. I go to the gym, and France is battling Uruguay. Ugly old Ribery takes a tumble, but I'm sure it feels like a kiss compared to his treatment at the hands of press and courts – a smutty kiss, just the way he likes it.

I give the boys on TV a nod. We're all athletes here. I'm working away on the elliptical. I'm breaking a sweat. Yep, we're all just hard-working sportsmen. It's a hard life, but it's our passion.

Now it's evening. It's the second inning, and I decide I'd better get on my bike and head Uptown to Scottie's party. I tip my cap to the boys in blue. They're taking on Atlanta tonight, and they're a point down. Maybe the game will be on at Dulono's.