Saturday, August 28, 2010

Travelogue 356 – August 28
The State Fair

I'm sitting next to a grandfather on the bus. He doesn't look like a grandfather particularly, though he obviously has trouble turning his neck. He's got all his spiky hair. He's short and sturdy. The legs jutting out of his shorts are stout and healthy. But he introduces me to his grandson, sitting in the seat ahead of us with the boy's mother, the grandfather's daughter.

Grandpa comes from a town 150 miles to the west, a town of 400 people. He comes to the State Fair every year. He has since he was five, he says. He tells me about when they used to have tractor square dancing. He's slow with his words. He's a country gentleman. He offers his seat to a young lady, but she's too city too understand.

The Minnesota State Fair is one of the biggest in the country, bringing in millions of people. It's been going since the 1850s, offering summer-end entertainment for Minnesotans for as long as the state has existed. This year, I'm one of the featured livestock. I'm manning a table for the foundation, graciously offered a spot by Peace Coffee, a local fair trade roaster, who wants to show off its partners in coffee-growing countries.

In all my years in this fair state, I can't say I've made many visits to the Fair. My memory of previous visits feeds me blurred images of crowds and cheese curds and … more crowds. This time, I rather enjoy it. Seems like age has tempered my critical faculties. It's just for fun, Mr. Travels.

The table is set inside an old brick fairgrounds building devoted this year to the 'Eco Experience.' Outside there is a single blade from a wind turbine on display, rising higher than the building. There's a Tesla car on display inside. Peace is serving free coffee. Next to us is a cooking class, stressing the 'eat local' theme. I get to taste the results of their demonstrations.

On my break, I eat a brat. I watch some teens dancing hip-hop for the kiddies. I pass the John Deere display, wondering at all the machinery. I examine the inside of a tank at the Marines' stall. I watch a small parade that includes a high school marching band and a unicycle club. There are a couple teenage boys in the club who can do jumps and bounce around on the unicycles and twirl them underneath them. I walk down streets lined with fast food: pizza on a stick, foot-longs, taffy, cookies. I watch the toddlers on the little rides made just for them, a slow carousel, or bumblebees cars in the air. Some of the kids are mystified. Some know they should be having fun. I pass the big kid rides, and laugh at the chorus of girls' screams.

Back at the table, I continue to be amazed at the hardiness of the visitors, who shuffle by in lines, making sure to check out every display in this over-heated building, always in good spirits. Everyone is generous with feigned or genuine interest; everyone smiles and says hello. They call the State Fair the Great Minnesota Get-Together. A dated and unsophisticated slogan, but it seems to apply.

Biking back to Minneapolis, I relish the beautiful day, another in a long chain of them. I wonder how these meticulously scheduled and highly scripted events manage to lift some load from people's shoulders; how such events, hard-wired into the calendar, can create a moment of timelessness.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Travelogue 355 – August 24
Leo's Lament

There's a sudden, if subtle, change in the tempo and the light. I have to keep referring to a mental calendar. What's happening? For one thing, I honestly sense that the summer light has undergone a shift. Midday sunlight seems dimmer. Clouds have been cavorting overhead lately, dropping bits of rain, but generally maintaining a jovial tone. But when one of them crosses the sun, I shiver. Is it an eclipse? There's a degree of light gone missing. It's still warm; its still humid, but the light! I think this is when there is a new and unconscious bounce to the step of Minnesotans. They feel the slight shift toward darkness and cold. But me, a native Californian, I shiver.

Secondly, who are all these people? Oh yes, these new bodies in the coffee shops, these new yowls downtown at night, these new cars on the road, these are students! I consult the inward calendar. Yes, colleges are warming their engines. Whole villages within the metro re-populate.

The place is called the Segue Coffee Shop. It just opened. It has opened in the place once inhabited by a cafe I wrote about two years ago, when I was discovering Elliott Park. Back then this space was managed by community activists and hippies. The place was an eclectic match of tables and chairs. It had a stage for the rare performance of local talent. It had a TV exhibiting non-local talent.

The new Segue Cafe has little of the bohemian charms of its predecessor. There is lots of very clean hardwood floor. There are scarce and very tidy items of furniture, a cozy set of armchairs and a few shiny little tables. In the entire room, there are probably seats for a dozen.

I'm not comfortable with cafes that try too hard to be comfortable. I prefer big, drafty rooms packed with rows of small, scarred tables and solid wooden chairs. Tall windows, tall blank walls are great. Add some art if you must, but please apply some critical judgement.

In any case, the Segue Coffee Shop is staffed by, and largely serves, students from the nearby Bible college that is rapidly re-populating. They are a polite bunch. It must be one of those commandments I keep hearing about. Politeness while one shares caffeinated beverages was a virtue valued highly among nomadic peoples of the Formerly Fertile Crescent. They say Abraham was a man with highly polished manners, as much as his tortured son may have complained.

Bible students flood the streets of Elliott Park, saying, 'Thank you.' The sun sets earlier every day, drawing out the non-Biblical types, prowling Hennepin with impolite intentions.

O sad, embattled August! Proud month of lions, named for emperors; month that embarks like gilded warships on a summer campaign; month of strongest sun; lament! Lament that your final week should be yield to foreboding autumnal winds, shuddering indecision, and ill-mannered tribes that have eyes only for coy September. Lament that your days should end among such distractions! Look to next year for greater glory.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Travelogue 354 – August 21
Noir, Fade to Cream

I remember the Cold War. Why does it seem so long ago? Where's the nostalgia for Communism? Who wouldn't prefer crusty old Brezhnev to Bin Laden? Bin Laden has no stock of fine vodka and Cuban cigars in his cave, I assure you. He's got no Sputniks; he's got no grandstand Politboros, no May Day parades. Frankly, Osama is an unfortunate symbol of our times, all gleaming eyes and humorless mission. There's no clownish Yeltsin in the wings for Afghanistan. Such impoverished, such earnest times.

I've been reading spy novels again. It's an indulgence. The spy novel is a Cold War art form, and for greatest enjoyment, one must return to the Cold War authors. These days I'm revisiting an old favorite, Len Deighton. The book is one of his originals, written in '64 or so. It's set in occupied Berlin. We follow the chain-smoking, wise-cracking spy (is there any other kind?). This spy is British. He's a spy with no name, a true spook. By the way, it's an interesting fact that namlessness is a great devise for getting to know a character. Somehow it submerges one further inside the narrator's POV. No one hears his own name. 'Jarvis is leaving home. Jarvis is walking right out that door. Jarvis turns and puts the key in the lock. Jarvis is out.'

The novel's cast of characters is suitably dark, savvy, and indirect. 'Indirect' is understatement by several orders. It would seem that spies dialogues with one another in adolescent-style wink-and-a-smile dialects delivered with fair proportions of pose and bluff. And a good spy keeps a gun ready for the bizarrely sudden moments of violence – nothing like current movie violence, which washes against one like waves from a passing speedboat, along with the boat radio's blast of unsympathetic music. And above all, there must be a whiskey-soaked world-weariness about it.

The key descriptor is dark. That's the era of purest noir, isn't it? These days we play at noir, but our noir amounts to little more than the narcissistic perversity of spoiled rich kids. It's Holden Caufield kicking a can. The Cold War generation earned its noir, a few world wars and the Depression in their knapsacks. The midnight swagger, ciggie between the lips, sharp suits and demure glances, it's all a bit of a show, don't you think? A pantomime by the disillusioned who have staggered into peace and prosperity, their souls in shreds, and should be enjoying life a lot more. It's cool because it's a put-on. It's Vladimir and Estragon acting out War and Peace. These are matters of life and death, one intones, sprawled across the park bench. Wipe that bloody smirk off your face. Am I smirking really? In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Oh dear, wrong war.

I wander my own little post-war post-city, lost in my own time. I realize that guys only ten or fifteen years older than me did NOT fight in World War II. A part of me remains frozen in youth, when men who looked grizzled were WWII veterans. No, these are veterans of the 60s, (a totally different satchel of post-traumatic stress conditions that I'll unpack in another essay.) Some day a man will realize that the grizzled men lined up at the bar have NO memories of the 60s, like the elders of his childhood did. What will have been lost?

What would be the opposite of noir? It might just be Scott Pilgrim, a perky blanc that I swished and spat last night. What do we learn from Scott Pilgrim? Can it stand in as a glimpse into the soul of America, August, 2010? If so it will the most fleeting of glimpses, the revelation after a third shot of espresso. Pilgrim's world weariness goes only so far as impatience with what's on the radio. His poses are manifestly awkward, his rebuttals stubbornly dumb in the manner of pre-teens. His morality pokes about leisurely on a plane of rare and expansive airs. If Pilgrim's grand and great grandparents may not have understood the humor, they might have appreciated the flattering comfort behind it. Didn't they murmur to themselves through gritted teeth that they were fighting for their kids? Their kids would have it all. They would get to make flippant movies. Their kids would get to frown over guitar riffs. Their kids would get to argue over hairstyles. How wonderful.

Maybe there is after all an historical or genetic helix linking Bogart's sad eyes with the vacuous ones of young Cera. Maybe the links in that helix are strong and right. The young blank-eyed hero meanders in his own time toward the pillow-soft truths. It's a funny film. Why not?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Travelogue 353 – August 14
Ada Abides

A delicate dragonfly gets trapped inside Stephanie's water glass. It struggles against the circular walls of its confinement and then drops into the water. Such simple things confound the things that live and breathe on Planet Earth. Stephanie quickly pours the unfortunate out with her water into the garden. The dragonfly crawls away.

We sit high above the River Thornapple. Our piece of river gently curves below a steep decline populated by towering pines and low brush that, despite their green numbers, still don't seem to check the erosion. The water is peaceful and green. It doesn't appear so greedy as to feed on Stephanie and Marc's land, but it does year by year, centimeter by centimeter.

The hawks and herons still trust the high-wire pine branches. The hillside still supports visiting deer. Hummingbirds hover inquisitively over the back patio. The flowering brush entices butterflies and dragonflies, grasshoppers and crickets. At night they join forces to send forth a symphony of survival. Geology hardly intrudes, hardly seems violent today.

I'm in Michigan for my summer visit. Stephanie has put together another lovely event in her house, guests filling the spacious house, spilling out onto the dangerous patio, teetering on the precipice of Earth's hungry science. Little do they realize that they stand suspended high above the river's future expanded course. They drink Stephanie's wine and laugh; they view rows of art created by children in Africa.

The nearest town is Ada, a quaint little town founded in 1821 by a man named Rix. Fortunately, the sage town fathers saw fit to skip over that bit of history, and to name the town after the first postmaster's daughter. So forward she skips, cute little Ada in pigtails, hand in hand with the resident genial giant, Amway. The giant does well staying out of sight, out on hissing, multi-lane Fulton.Street, Route 21.

On my runs through Ada, I make sure to cross the historic covered bridge, constructed just after the Civil War. It's one of only nine still standing in Michigan. It's always cool inside and smells of old timber. There's a green baseball diamond adjacent to the bridge, and the vignette is enough to remind an urban tramp he's in America. Beyond the bridge, I run through the quiet blocks of tiny Ada, where none of the shops seem to open with any regularity.

One night, Marc and I convince Stephanie and friends to watch 'The Big Lebowski'. I haven't seen it in years, and the Dude has been on my mind. (I won't analyze that.) But it's a fine ride, despite the sober and baffled silence among the other guests. Just the 'arc' (popular word among script and screenplay writers) the arc of Mr. Bridges's facial expressions is enough to keep one delighted throughout. Plot has always been a secondary concern to our beloved Minnesotan brothers, the Coens. Old fans understand. Meaning lies among the slow creases of well-chosen actors' faces, among the ridiculous solipsisms in the dialogue, and among the lurid visions of camera and director. The characters here really shine. Yes, the dude abides.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Travelogue 352 – August 10
Flutes and Buckets

We're sitting in a hotel lobby sipping champagne when the rain comes. We are celebrating. The Hotel Ivy is only a few blocks from the Westminster Church downtown, where we staged the event. This hotel is where Miluska is staying.

Miluska quoted Emerson in her short speech, so I'm happy with her. I didn't quote anybody, and I had three times as much time in the program as Miluska did. I could have quoted Nelson Mandela or Haile Selasse or one of my brilliant children in Ethiopia, but the only one I quoted was myself. I think the highlight of my talk was when Richard's three year-old girl wanted my opinion on 'pooping her pants'. I was commendably broad-minded, remaining scrupulously neutral. It's been a while since I've had anything intelligent to saying about pooping one's pants.

Miluska also introduced us to the new Hotel Ivy, a spare but comfortable beauty downtown. The building is an historic structure, actually built to serve as a complex for the Church of Christ Scientist in the 20s. It was built in what is referred to as 'Ziggurat style', I suppose to appeal to the dramatic aesthetic of Christian Scientists. Perhaps they feel were hoping to channel those feeble healing energies from above. In any case, they never got a chance to try. By 1930, the church had given up on the project, an initiative that could not be healed by prayer.

Perhaps the funnest thing about the hotel is the diminutive, ancient tower that the developers of the hotel gobbled up as part of the package. It still stands whole, but connected to the hotel and converted into rooms and a restaurant. It's a funny little structure, looking like a clay model that was rolled in a box of sand and pebbles while still wet. Now its Flintstone windows look complacently out on Second Avenue with the dressings of style.

We can't open our bottle of champagne in the church, so we follow Miluska back to her hotel. We rearrange some tables in the lobby. Someone scares up some glasses, and we toast our success. Events for small non-profits are always successes. It's a matter of fragile morale.

If I need solace, I can find it in my dress. Roxana and her sister made sure I would not embarrass them with my traveling-guy's Target wardrobe. I'm all in tight black, looking like a mid-level narcotraficante. It might not fit the mold of earnest charity guy, but I'm enjoying myself.

We had rented a large and attractive room at the church, and we managed to keep it from appearing too empty. Roxana arranged for great Mexican food. The program was short and sweet: history of our work, Astrid's reverie about poopy pants, Richard showing off the new website, and the push for help and donations. Afterward, as the storm clouds gathered over Minneapolis, a good hour of chatter.

Roxana has boxes of stuff from the event in the back of her car. After our stop at the Ivy, we go to her workplace to unload. The storm is in full gale now. We back up to the door of the building, as close as we can get, but the eave still ends right above the back door. Every time I bend over to pull stuff from the car, streams of cold water pour onto my back. My class ensemble is soaked.

We retreat into a nearby bar. Running from the parking lot, we are soaked to the bone. The AC is on high, a common phenomenon in Minnesota, where people become anxious without a comforting sense of chill. We shiver and toast again a job well done.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Travelogue 351 – August 5
Weird Creatures of the Mind

There's a new art show at the Caffetto coffeehouse. The artist draws in the style of manga. One painting portrays a cute blob of a mouse against an orange background. The mouse is shooting black gas from his forepaws. He also seems to be blowing a blue bubble from the top of his head. A smaller drawing depicts a ravenous raccoon chewing on the head of a little girl. In another painting, the mouse seems to be wearing a boa and his mouth is foaming. He has bull horns now. He holds a small bunny by the ears, and the bunny seems to be dissolving, one eyeball hanging from his melting face. In a small, multimedia piece, a pretty little frame is mounted by a stuffed version of our mouse, sticking his tongue out. His head rises out of what would appear to be layers of red felt gore. Inside the frame is a xeroxed drawing of a girl's face held in place with a pin. Dripping down from beneath the paper girl is a trail of red paint, that even overflows the lower lip of the frame.

This morning, the musical selection at the cafe is violins and accordion surmounted by a robust woman's voice saying nothing much. I notice that much of the music played at Caffetto features folksy sounds and non-lyrics,a kind of iteration of nonsense or saccharin bromides repeated like mantras. Somehow it matches the weirdly bloody manga.

I'm meeting Richard here. We're working on the foundation website. I've been working non-stop on this little project. It's something of a fantastical creature in itself, like a cute, carnivorous mouse with horns. It's would be trite to affirm only what everyone knows, that the internet doesn't really exist; it's 'virtual'; and yet so many real things draw life and blood and substance from the ethers, just being plugging in. To think, this tappety-tap over a cup of coffee affects the lives of children in Africa, my little laptop becoming like a chunk of iron tossed into one tray of Rhadamanthus's scales, weighing against the terrible judgement of poverty. It's disorienting. I walk outside, into the thick August heat. I stare at the SuperAmerica across the street. SUV, Prius, Corolla, SUV … Coke, Mountain Dew, Red Bull ...

What does it feel like to live so much of my life in conversation with a ten-inch screen of light while outside the very real month of August has settled in? Isn't there something very distinct and very palpable to the sweaty, quiet month of August? For Minneapolitans, the month arrives with much fanfare, several major art fairs and the Fringe Festival kicking off just as August moves in. But somehow, even these monstrous events get swallowed up in the humid contentedness of ripe August, with its big hazy skies and cicadas. Stand outside Caffetto and watch the beehive clouds drift slowly, as slowly as your anesthetized thoughts. Far below the majesty of the troposphere, Bob shoves the nozzle into his gas tank, clicks it into action, stares through his shades at the numbers tripping.

Let's see. Somewhere across the world.

Four year-olds are playing. They get an hour on playground toys they've never seen before. Mothers sit patiently. One mother sits nervously in the office chair while she's interviewed. Heart-breaking anxiety in her posture. The only kindergarten. A four year-old stares into Menna's camera, intrigued by the machine. Her magnificent eyes probe through the lens. The image travels across the world. Her eyes are examining all of us.

I have to get back to work.