Friday, November 26, 2010

Travelogue 372 – November 26
Palmer's and the Future of the Republic

I'm back at Palmer's. One never strays too far from Palmer's, once one has been to Palmer's. Palmer's is the quintessential dive bar. It stands -- or leans, more properly speaking -- on Cedar Avenue in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, a scrappy wedge of blocks abutting the university on one side, and the knot of highways I've mentioned in previous blogs, the spaghetti buffet of asphalt that chops up this side of the city. It's rather a seedy district, only flattered by the adjective 'ugly', somewhat more insulted by 'charming'.

There's a band crammed onto the high stage in the tiny nook fit into the prow of this oddly shaped building. The building has no definable shape. The angled walls that I'm describing as the 'prow' never quite meet in a point. There is a blunt wall on the outside, adorned with the locally famous wooden relief of a tall and attenuated gentleman in a derby leaning against an invisible bar. In the back of this building is a mosque.

The band is the Liquor Pigs. Craig and I catch a show or two of theirs every year -- for the last ten years or so. They used to play at the Vike, a West Bank bar now closed, a place with even a worse a reputation than Palmer's. The Liquor Pigs are a quartet of over-skilled, middle-aged musicians who swing whimsically through long sets of country and folk, with touches of bluegrass. Especially fun is the fiddle man stomping his foot and sawing through dizzy solos.

Look around Palmer's; peer through the dim light of it. Make an inventory of the faces. This place is the picture of American diversity. 'Diversity': the latest word to be eviscerated by rhetoricians.

Someone is shouting for their check. The old black gentleman in a beret replies that he's Russian, and actually gets a laugh. Among the crowded tables, Eritreans argue with Ethiopians, old drunks trade jokes with young drunks, each so padded with dirty winter gear that race is lost, and a pretty Hindu boy strums his guitar while he teases his blonde girlfriend. All of us are listening to old-time country. Civility reigns.

Why is it so easy in Palmer's, while right there on the tiny color screen suspended in the corner, our mixed-race president struggles awkwardly with his words and with his nation? You can almost see the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune surrounding him, the poison darts spit at him by right-wingers, left-wingers, wing-tippers, ultra-right-wingers, wing-nuts, tea-baggers, and neo-hate-wingers. The failure of Mr. Obama, to my mind, is the last chapter in a sad story, the painfully slow sinking of the ship we call American political discourse into the sea of babbling irrelevance. The rest of us wait on shore, expecting a very important message. But in fact, we will have to carry on without them somehow, nodding sadly as Ms. Palin shrieks that we must stand by our North Korean allies, and turning away, going back to work in our various retail outlets.

I'm reading 'Idiot America', by Charles P. Pierce, a light-hearted polemic about this very capsizing of intelligence and leadership in America. It's a fun read, but it does little beyond confirming the obvious. When we can't admit that not everyone's judgement is equal; when democracy becomes reality TV; when emotional stimulation trumps sober (and boring) thought; when shouting and insults are simply more fun than civility; when philosophy and religion are products, validated by marketing numbers; when values are fashions; then republics founder. That's it.

Turn away from the turbulent seas. Take a seat at Palmer's. Enjoy the show that is governed by reason. Some music still requires skill. Practice human virtues. Remind yourself how easy it is to get along with people. History is built of such things.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Travelogue 371 – November 25
Tea Time

They say there is no more evocative trigger for memory than aroma.

It's Thanksgiving, and I'm on strike. I've received a few kind invitations from friends to Thanksgiving dinner, but Thanksgiving is a holiday for families. I have no family. What's more, I just don't like the holiday. So I won't go through the motions.

This morning, temperatures in Minneapolis are in the single digits Fahrenheit. There is new snow on the ground from a storm yesterday, but the sun is shining brightly. I'm going to go for a walk. My route toward any cafe is west, into the wind. I have no scarf, and by the time I've covered six blocks or so, my face and neck are raw.

It's a fortunate coincidence that my favorite cafe is the closest one. I'm praying that it's open. My prayers are answered. I spend quite a lot of Thanksgiving morning thawing and watching the sun smite snow crystals among tree branches and on the roofs of houses in the neighborhood.

I've ordered a cup of the cafe's amazing coffee. I've finished it. I'm lazily poking around my email accounts, assessing the pileup of work without having any resolve to tackle it. A scent comes to me. It's familiar but also seems to come to me from a distant past. The scent is jasmine. I immediately go to the counter and place my order for green jasmine tea.

For one extended moment, there's nothing in the world but that aroma. Some happy scents, at the moment of their first impact, overrun all other sensory input. Myriad doors open, and the moment stands alone, gathering into its sphere a world of pleasurable evocation.

There was a time when I indulged in jasmine tea the way I do good coffee now. My memory flatters those days. This is what is summoned to mind by the tea: long, trash-talking bouts of chess in the cafe, sun brilliant in the windows; daily afternoon walks in Loring Park between shifts of work, with an hour to allow my mind to wander. Those were days when poetry was meaningful. I studied ancient Greek for fun. I ordered jasmine tea. I let it steep until it was dark and stinky. My life smelled of jasmine.

It was on one of those afternoons that I first set eyes on Leeza. Alas, I don't remember the exact occasion, but I know it happened in my regular cafe. Maybe I was conjugating Greek verbs. Maybe I was teasing a few lines of words into iambics. Maybe I was cornering Rob's king. It's a safe bet that she was meeting Eman.

She enters shyly, backpack over her shoulder, brown Ethiopian angel's eyes searching the cafe, her glorious, curly black hair captured in a loose bun. She spots Eman and heads for her table quickly, her characteristic smile opening in a laugh already. I watch her with a teacup in my hand, steam rising, scent of the day insistent. I take a taste.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Travelogue 370 – November 23
Fire and Ice

My only exposure to television is in bars. That comes with one distinct advantage: there is no sound. There is a break in the sports news, during which a distressed couple stands at a drug store counter, insipidly and earnestly asking the counter help about condoms, holding up a package with the brand name 'Fire and Ice'. This sad advertisement supplements its case with blue and red arrows spiraling like comforting cartoon breezes. Arguably something to the advertisers' credit is the lack of any note of eroticism whatsoever. If there was any message about sex at all, it was that coitus is an irksome task, probably not worth the anxiety it produces. 'Fire and Ice' might be a brand sponsored by the Vatican.

It's all ice and little fire in Minnesota now. There was a big snow weeks ago, and the white stuff has never completely melted away since. Yesterday, we awoke to ice. The skies were taken over by slate clouds and lines of sleet. I stepped out to test the viability of biking or even walking outside. I immediately lost my footing and fell down the stairs. I ducked back inside for the rest of the morning, nursing my shoulder, and staring outside at the glistening surface of everything -- the asphalt of the parking lot, the tree branches, the parked cars, the broken piles of frozen snow.

Today, the ice has abated just enough to allow us outdoors again. I take the bike out for a spin. Temperatures are below 20F, but temps like that in daylight are very different than the same at night. There's no science to that. It just feels warmer with the fire in the sky, no matter how attenuated. I'm fine for fifteen, twenty minutes at a time on the bike in these temps. The trick is being alert enough to all the winter hazards -- patches of ice, Somali drivers, streets narrowed by the snow plows, Somali drivers, sudden winds, slick bridges, Somali drivers, and such like.

There's a coffee shop inside the Freewheel bike shop on the Greenway in Minneapolis. It's not too far from home. It's a fun place to get some work done on wifi, watch the bike wonks, and browse the gear. There's a core of cyclists that will not stop for any weather. I enjoy their good-humored determination. There's a new bike on display in the shop, called the 'Pugsley'. It has huge hairy tires about four inches wide. The handlebars are outfitted with 'bar mitts

I simply can't sit indoors for very long. In the afternoon, I go for a run. I spend almost as much time dressing for the run as executing it. That's the biggest adjustment that winter demands, isn't it? Winter is time-consuming. Everything is slow. Dressing takes twice as long. Transit time slows down. And the running slows, too. You have to watch for ice, and you also don't want to strain muscles and joints that are already being tested by the cold.

Winter requires commitment. Winter is a child that you don't yell at. You just slow everything down. You take Winter's hand, and you look both ways before you cross the road. You don't step out until the way is entirely clear.

The winter run can be tricky to plan. You have to be careful about the route, never committing to a course that takes you too far away from home. You continually gauge the damage being done to skin and joints. The most vulnerable places are hands, face and ears, toes, and knees. A nice winter run is exhilarating, but the fun degenerates very quickly once the body ha had enough. Be as close to home when that transition happens as possible.

My farthest point today is the river. Ice is gathering already in the slow margins of the watercourse. But the chilled black water still surges south. There's another runner on the path ahead of me. She has that heavy winter tread going, slow and steady. Vaporous breath escapes from her. Her cheeks are bright red. We share a smile of something unique shared.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Travelogue 369 – November 15

Sweet Lethe. It makes the onerous duties of humanity so much easier to bear.

In July, 1861, some 35,000 Union recruits marched out of Washington to great fanfare. Three months previously the Confederates had attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston. Armies were amassing to protect the two capitals, Washington and Richmond. And now it was time to discipline those unruly southern states.

'Old Fuss and Feathers', Winfield Scott, Lincoln's first commanding general, (already an officer in the War of 1812, nearly fifty years earlier!) a military genius weighing in at over 300 pounds, had had to bow to popular pressure. No matter how much his prodigious experience, supported by his prodigious physical presence, had argued against rash action, the northern states needed a battle. He sent off General McDowell to take Richmond.

In between the neighboring capitals, there was a critical railroad junction in Manassas, Virginia, near a little river called Bull Run. Here the boys met their first Confederate army, 22,000 boys guarding the fords of the river.

These young Union men had signed up as ninety-day volunteers. This was going to be a short campaign. So sure was the DC crowd that the native peoples of Richmond, Virginia would shower them with flowers, grateful for liberating them from the tyranny of slave-owning aristocrats, that a number of gentlemen and ladies packed lunches and followed in the wake of the army in order to watch the show. They ended up being hurdles for the retreating troops, who only survived because the Confederates boys were just as green, just as exhausted.

Doughboys and GIs whistling their way to the ships that would convey them to carnage; GW's liberators limbering up for the quick march to Baghdad; cheery young jihadists packing their underwear with explosives that will project them straight into the welcoming arms of their virgins in heaven: what is it about war that arouses an almost criminal naivete?

We've kicked off a few wars in my lifetime. The only time I remember a general impression of sobriety and caution about deployment was when we signed up for Gulf War Number One -- the one time that we achieved our dream conquest, a few months in and out. (Let's not talk about Iraqi casualties, shall we?) There was certainly lots of sober talk about Vietnam. But maybe I just missed the carnival.

Just over one year later, the boys were back at it in the same fields of Manassas. This time, they were battle-hardened. And this time, the battle raged three days, claiming three times as many casualties. Lincoln still hadn't found his winning generals. The South had been far more successful putting talent in place. It was at Manassas that Thomas Jackson earned his moniker 'Stonewall' -- by being unmovable, in case the metaphor escapes you. The Union was no more successful the second time, and the loss set up Robert E. Lee to make his first incursions into Northern territory.

The overlapping battlefields now comprise a national park, a large tract of fields and forests that feature a network of walking and horse paths. My hotel is close to the park, just across the DC commuter highway 66.

The fields are beautiful. When I left Minnesota, the first snow had just fallen and temperatures were plummeting. Here, it's autumn. The leaves have turned but haven't all fallen. The hills are afire with color, and among the red copses, the famous fields. I stand under Stonewall's equestrian statue looking out over pretty landscape. There is a line of cannons ahead of me, facing the northern horizon. Across rolling fields, across a shallow valley, in a corresponding high field near the horizon, you can just make out another line of cannons facing south. The scope of events suggested by the landscape boggles the mind: battles that raged across many square miles of hilly, wooded terrain. It's very difficult to picture. We've seen the movies: men in Union suits running, each with a gun, en masse among stands of trees, the ambient boom of cannon behind them. But how does one incorporate the whole of the action into one's imagination? How does one plot it against peaceful countryside?

In two days' running of the trails, I'm able to cover most of the territory of the two battlefields. I'm watching for melancholy ghosts who can explain. Instead I pass an intrepid doe, who stands firm though I pass within several yards of her. She twitches her nose at me. She tenses as though she might bolt. But she maintains her position, and I'm in retreat.

I survived the battle, though I nearly twisted an ankle running through fallen leaves. I've survived to see a country united and free of slavery, made free for peace and commerce. Back at Route 66, the heirs of Civil War veterans speed recklessly by in their automobiles (an invention of the Civil War generation, even if most of the work was German,) stopping for fast food or for their share of the quarter-of-a-trillion gallons of gasoline burned annually. I think the noise and adrenaline of the modern highway might have presented a challenge for even old Stonewall.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Travelogue 368 – November 6
Running the Old Creek

I'm in Colorado. I see the Rockies through my windshield, through the window of my new hotel, and through the gaps among the buildings of the avenues. It's an image that retrieves sentiments from far down the well of memory.

Both my parents were born and raised in Colorado. By the time I came along they had evolved to Los Angeles, but often we visited my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Colorado was an odd paradise, one furnished by real mountains for climbing, real forests for hiking, and real farms. The pleasures were tainted: I had to find out that real nature was kind of dirty, that there were bugs and poison ivy, and that mountain streams were way too cold. This paradise was populated by bullying small-town cousins, and also by virginal cousins who inspired the first mysterious movements of romance.

There's a bar in the Wash Park area of Denver called the Candlelight Tavern. It sounds like a place for delicate sensibilities, where sweet romance might bud among cousins. But in fact it's a bar for rougher sensibilities. Actually, let's just leave sensibilities out of it. It's a place to crowd in with other drinkers, order a Man Beer (it's a brand!) and a fist-sized burger with fries in a basket, watch football, and wait for the advent of the scrapper crowd after eleven.

Tonight, the Candlelight is calm. I'm there well ahead of the scrappers. I sit at the bar and hunch down, hoping my big city-liberal credentials don't show. I order my Man Beer, and I watch hockey – an incomprehensible game to me, but so important to men in Minnesota and Colorado. Should I be trying to follow the puck? Should I be watching for a fight? Should I be enjoying the footwork of big men on skates? I'm afraid I don't get it.

Scott has grown into a big boy. He is broad of shoulder and broad of girth. The buzz cut under his cap is grizzled. He has the laid back charm that makes for a good bartender. Everyone seems to know him. A pair of inordinately buxom college women are leaning over the bar to call him over with flirty smiles. I worry him by my staring. It's his fault, though. Why is he wearing a shirt with the name 'Matt' sewn into it?

I call him over, and ask him where he grew up. He shoots me a warning glance, but plays along. I lead him through our town, our high school, and still he doesn't recognize me. 'Did you play sports?' I asked. Yeah, cross country. I'm smiling. And it finally dawns on him. After all that, he tries to tell me I look exactly the same, and I just laugh. He's certainly changed a lot, but his smile is the same.

Scott has and had an infectious smile. It's the thing you would remember about him. He was always joking around in high school, always in an amiable way. It was rare then, and seems rare now, to see him troubled or anxious.

He and I traded off as Number One on our high school cross country team. He charted very steady progress during his years of training, roughly parallel to his startling physical growth in junior and senior years, and eventually became the more dependable athlete. When we first met, we were both skinny kids. By the time we graduated, I was the skinny kid. He was tall and broad-shouldered. He was strong and steady. I was more of the prodigy unrealized. I held the course records, but was unpredictable.

I'm the one still running, these many years later. Scott just laughs when I invite him to train with me. The weather in Denver couldn't be better: blue skies and approaching eighty degrees by afternoon. My second hotel is close to Cherry Creek, so that's the route I choose, northwest alongside the creek, toward downtown. Most of the way, the creek is buffered from the city by its own green park. The creek itself is a pleasure. Its rocky course and the red, sandy banks are everything Southwestern, triggering all kinds of fond memories of both California and Colorado. It's with a heavy heart that I give in to the heat and to the pains in my knees, and I finally turn back after about four miles up the creek. I'm wishing I could lope all the way to the mountains on the horizon.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Travelogue 367 – November 5
The Lone Prairie

Denver's airport is a circus tent in the lone prairie. It's a white, spiky circus tent pitched in the golden prairie grasses of Colorado. The landing strips are temporary strips of asphalt purchased from the elements. From a few miles away, the place seems preternaturally quiet. It makes one realize that zombie and end-of-the-world movies are a creation of the western mind, cultivated among landscapes that mocks the hubris of bipedals.

(Having just come from Ethiopia, this seems like an interesting riddle. Anthropos evolved among open grasslands in East Africa – in large part because of the exigencies of survival among the unconscious savanna. You'd think we would feel right at home in the prairie. But I think homo americanus is anxious in the plains, is much more comfortable among the trees of Minnesota.)

The rental car counter-person talks me out of more money than I had promised on Expedia. The penetrating sunshine persuades me that it's all right. Chris and I jump into my blue Focus and slip onto the broad boulevard that eventually feeds into I-70. It's a straight avenue among unvarying grassland. The sky is a bright field of blue. The line of mountains ahead might be twenty minutes away; they might be hours.

I'm reminded of manic cross-country trips in my youth, coast to coast. I've crossed the plains on the old I-70, straight ahead for hours among the tawny monotony, through the anomalies of prairie cities, through Limon, across more wind-blown, glaring tabletop land. And then there's the miracle of the Rockies.

Today, I've flown right over it all, from the prairie's eastern edges in Minnesota to the base of the Rockies. The sun has shown all the way, and I've watched the subtle changes in the landscape, checkerboard Midwestern farmland gradually disrupted by rough patches of dry land, by stubborn gullies. The checkerboard gives way to green circles among miles of dust and wiry grass. Finally, grass wins, bending like surf toward the west.

In the morning I awaken as the sun is rising over I-70. I'm on the fifth floor and my window looks east. The highway is a line of blurring headlights emerging from the incipient sunrise. The brown horizon is flat and featureless. It's an abstraction; it's an etude.

Since my return to the States, I've been rising before the sun, engaging with the last darkness of the night. I work; I watch the approach of light. It's strangely comfortable. Today the sun is unimpeded by trees. It rolls over the lip of Earth. It lights the grass on fire.