Thursday, February 26, 2009

Video Links

Last weekend Gary Louris and Mark Olson performed two shows in Minneapolis. Long ago they were the heart of the Jayhawks, a Minneapolis band at the center of the Americana scene. Mark Olson left the band, that struggled and never quite broke through and that meanwhile amassed major debt with their label on the hope of breaking through with just one more record. But the reason he left was mostly his marriage to Victoria Williams, a singer-songwriter from Joshua Tree, California. I loved this band and also Mark and Victoria, who made their own music with Olson's songwriting as the Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. A couple early Creekdipper CDs were sent to me in brown manilla envelopes hand-addressed by Mark Olson. It was a great thing-- leaving the band and making music in the desert. But also, this band and my history with it can still break my heart.

Olson and Williams broke up about eighteen months ago, and now Olson and Louris just finished touring together. I am out of touch enough that I didn't know they had made a new CD together, or were touring, until the two shows were imminent and sold out. A friend did post a link to some amazing video, however. You have to scroll down to Louris and Olson, and there are 3 videos on there, all just wonderful. For the link, click here.

I spent the better part of three days at work putting together a PowerPoint to highlight the new museum show that opens next week and figuring out how to make it into a flash video and then how to get that flash video onto our web site. I wanted to get a little "player" on the web site, but that meant getting it onto YouTube, who don't accept the "flash" format. After much downloading of free converter software and finagling, I realized the clearest video is achieved by posting the file with a link. Sorry you have to do some clicking to get to it, but here's the link to the page of exhibitions at least. To view the PowerPoint, read the essay "These Gentle Communists," and other fun stuff, click here.

Hooray for technology.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

OK. My world is now a world of dust. Scraping popcorn off the ceiling is not really a good idea. It looks great, but the rest of the house is a wreck.

There's certainly a parallel to Ash Wednesday in my dusty house, but I'm at a loss to develop it right now.

But I wanted to post something, so here's something unusual that happened at work today.

Every once in awhile the media calls. Usually it's the local diocesan paper. Only twice so far the media has called from Minneapolis. Today someone from one of the television stations called. He was following up on a 2007 pitch he received from my predecessor in the communications office. He wanted to know about "this nun who can play the piano with her hands behind her back." I got the information-- he didn't know her name, but there was supposedly existing video, and he was working on features and would like to find out if he could come interview and film her doing this feat. She played piano in nightclubs before she became a nun, he said.

I asked S. Olivia, who told me that it was indeed S. Ellen Cotone, and she still can play the piano standing facing away from the piano. She did it at parties all the time. However, she is in frail health and her memory is not what it used to be. Which is why everyone is surprised she can still do this trick. It may not be possible to do an interview. I put in a few calls and will find out tomorrow what the situation is. I'm also working on tracking down the existing video, and found the man who might have taken it-- he lives in St. Joseph and is the cousin of a friend of one of the monks I know. That kind of connection is helping me track people down.

May Lent be a time of renewal for us all.

Here's a YouTube video of someone playing the piano backwards.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I don't think of myself as someone who has trouble with perspective, but lately I've felt very easily overwhelmed and like things-- particularly my job-- could get away from me. It is a big job, and getting a handle on "current reality" has been difficult. In this time of high anxiety for me, Steve has undertaken a fairly major remodeling project. And I've found that rather than make things more unstable and chaotic, it's provided me with a great deal of calm and peace.
Watching my husband work is teaching me many things.

The project started out with one goal: install a hardwood floor in the living room. We made several trips to Menard's over the past six months, looking at bamboo, then hardwood flooring, knowing what we wanted and finally, at the time when it became important to get to the project (a lull in design work, and not yet landscape season), we found it. One evening I said I thought we really should replace the stairs with wood, too, and that became part of the project. That allowed us the thought of taking down the oak banister, which I don't think really suits the house, and putting in a metal and cable banister instead. For Steve, welding and metalwork is the end game (though he thinks it's making new furniture for the living room, but I'm resisting that). He's motivated by the thought of eventually getting to that piece.

Thursday night we moved the furniture and rolled up the old carpet. And by then it had become clear that this was the time to paint the room, so new colors were chosen to compliment the metal and the olive kitchen we want to keep. You have to understand that the room has vaulted ceilings, and there is a very open floor plan. But for now, the living room is what needs to be painted.

Steve bought pine planks for steps, cut and routed them, sanded and polyurethaned them, all in neat stacks in the living room. When I came home from work at night things were pretty clean and neat, spare and progressing.

Yesterday he built a makeshift scaffolding on the stairs and painted the high spots. It's now clear the ceiling needs to be painted-- after scraping off the popcorn. We settled readily on a color. I told him if I was doing the project and someone told me I really should do the ceiling, too, I would cry and give up. Steve isn't fazed.

Steve calls the work "putzy." It is systematic. He does one thing after another, all manageable tasks. And at the end it's clear we'll have a transformed living space. It will set the tone for the other living spaces. He's already having ideas about the kitchen island. Also, it has exposed the simplicity of the house's structure. The square of living room floor is pleasing, as is the open staircase. The walls are large, flat planes. There are relatively few lines or interruptions.

I used to feel this way as a teenager about sewing. One manageable seam after another. Cut and pin and sew and iron. In no time you had a shirt, in itself a complicated thing. I loved sewing, though in recent years it hasn't extended beyond curtains, pillows and tablecloths.

People have been giving me sympathy for living through a renovation. How can I explain that it's been the best thing for me?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tall Bikes

Last night we watched B.I.K.E., a not very good documentary about tall bike culture. We wished it was less about a really messed up filmmaker trying to get into the Black Label Bike Club in New York, and more about how you make the really cool bikes. However, as soon as we saw the first bike we realized that we in fact had witnessed several members of the Black Label Bike Club in Minneapolis in October. We were going to a play on a Saturday night at the Guthrie, and beforehand went to our favorite Thai restaurant, down the street from the Cedar Cultural Center. It was a weird night because something called a "zombie crawl" was going on so there were tons of people out in the street in various costumes with fake blood on their mouths, going from bar to bar and park to park. A tall bike was locked to the parking meter in front of the restaurant, and later about six or seven guys on various kinds of tall bikes came riding by. They definitely "ruled" the streets.

The whole thing started in Minneapolis, and is kind of a punk-goes-eco-protest movement. You make bikes out of found objects and junk and host meals with food found in dumpsters, and protest consumerism and the war in Iraq. That seems to be the platform. Then there's this whole "Fight Club" aspect to it, where to get into the club you compete in jousts on the bikes which look really scary and dangerous-- and at least one ambulance was called in the film.

As with any rebellious movement, it is filled with people who are not going to be able to hold it together for long. And except for the bikes, it seems much like any other rebellious scene. The people on drugs are going down fast, and the people getting married and having children are going (or growing) out of the movement altogether. Again, domesticity curbs the rock-and-roll impulse, and in this case some of the juvenile, masculine, violent energy. It's an interesting American story. And the bikes are cool.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Sunday evening we went out visiting. If it sounds Old World, that is pretty accurate. We were invited to Rita and Maurice (pronounced Morris) Palmersheim's house. Maurice and Rita lived in their house long before there was a development surrounding them. It was all open land belonging to the monastery. There was the hog farm where we live now, and farmland, and not really anything else. Maurice is 85 years old and Rita is 82, headed toward 83. They are very sweet people, kind and helpful to everyone. Maurice has a shop he keeps warm with a wood stove where he does repairs on lawn mowers, snow blowers, and other machinery. He also repairs cars. Currently he's working on the car belonging to one of the two local chiropractors, who lives behind them. One of the biggest surprises to them is how much they like all their neighbors. They were worried about the subdivision, but now Rita says she likes all her neighbors, the nicest people. Maurice tells us about someone down the street who cut down a tree and is giving him the wood to burn in the wood stove in his shop.
Maurice and Rita's house is neat and spare. Rita loves birds, has two canaries (she used to have many more) and numerous things with images of birds that she's received as gifts or has made and painted. Despite being avid crafters and collectors, the house is not filled with things. The linoleum table in the kitchen is 52 years old, as are the matching chairs, steel frames with light aqua blue backs over white seats. There are seat-covers on the back but the plastic doesn't appear ripped anywhere. There is a full set of six chairs, which you hardly ever see. And I've looked! In the living room corner was a large doll Rita had dressed and painted and set up as the Infant Jesus of Prague. He holds a little globe and wears a crown. He is encased in a plastic box so she doesn't have to dust him. She brings out a standing cut-out painted Infant Jesus of Prague whose place this doll took. The cut-out has crazed paint and is over 70 years old. On a breakfront is a large plastic altar that lights up. Maurice got it for Rita as a gift from the Catholic bookstore, 50 years ago.

They have a new television that somehow looks old, because it's a small screen and bulky. They bought it because of the switch to digital signal. Their old television broke, and usually Maurice would have gotten it repaired, but this time he wanted one with a converter box in it. They have a satellite dish, however.

We sit and visit, and pretty soon they get out accordions and play. One is sitting beside my chair (a Hohner exactly like the one at right, compact and shiny nickel plating), and Rita gets Maurice to go get another one and they play. She asks if I "remember" the songs, but I've never heard any of them. They're old German tunes you hear these days at Polka Masses and not really anywhere else. They do play "How Great Thou Art" for a closing tune. Then Maurice plays a tune on a harmonica. Then he goes and gets out a large concertina and plays a few songs on that. This is by far the most enjoyable part of the evening. Not because Rita and Maurice are uninteresting to talk to, but I can't say anyone has ever played accordion for me in their living room before!

Steve and Maurice talk, and Rita and I talk. She's quite hard of hearing so it's not always easy. She tells me about raising their two children, both adopted. Her son was "part colored," she says, and had a hard time in this small town. It was very painful for her. Later I find out he was half Native American. He still struggles, working construction in Virginia. He'll probably make it home this summer for their 60th wedding anniversary. Their daughter lives a few towns over. There aren't any photos of the children or grandchildren, though she does get up and shows me baby pictures of the two children.

After awhile we move to the kitchen and Rita serves us apple pie. The apples are from their tree, but she doesn't make crust anymore. They eat healthy now and she doesn't have lard in the house for pie crusts. She uses frozen roll-out crust, Pappy's, the same kind I use. I say it's good because they use lard in it.

At 9 p.m., we go home. I feel happy and as so often with the people of this place, privileged to be invited in. It's February, and there are little cliffs of icy snow in places, though the roads and most of the ground is clear. Next time we will walk over, and see Maurice's workshop.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Lately I've been nearly overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia. I've been avoiding writing in the blog, because I'm afraid I will be too sappy.

Part of it is the number of people I've reconnected with lately. For about eighteen months, since our high school reunion, with several close high school friends I'd lost touch with. And I just joined Facebook, against my better judgment, to connect to college friends who used to write on an active listserve. They all went over to Facebook and I miss them. But now instead of the fifteen or so folks who did that, some of whom I only knew on the listserve, I have like 50 correspondents, people I knew oh so long ago and who knew me when I was 19 or even 13. I've kept my friend list only to college acquantances. And there they are with their photos and the photos of their children, and it's a little overwhelming-- all those lives in all those places, truly all over the world. In a way it makes one feel connected, but it also makes me feel a little lonely-- like there are all these distances, all these fragments. And of course worrying just like in high school and college if people will be my friend!

Facebook itself is very fragmented, very daily, with people posting what they are doing right now, and posting links to articles and taking quizes and posting their scores and inviting people to make lists and answer questions... One person filling my box with "gifts" like ball gowns and chocolate and spiritual mandalas. It's craziness that I think I have to learn how to navigate-- what will I participate in and what will I not.

Mostly I've liked seeing people's pictures. Jake playing the lute, Jeanne's retrospective of ten years of pictures of her son in honor of his first decade. I wanted to post Billy Collins's poem "On Turning Ten" on there, but kind of got distracted and didn't figure out how to do such a thing. It's a great poem, one of my favorites, about nostalgia. How silly we are, taking ourselves oh so seriously. How happy I am to be here, and 44. So then, in this staid forum, a poem:

On Turning Ten
by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light--
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.

But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


As still and deeply beautiful the cold and snow of January were, February has begun dramatically.

Sunday night, I woke about 3 a.m. to the sound of rain, which seemed like a new sound as it always does at the end of winter.

Last night the wind buffeted the bedroom window, which meant it was from the South, meaning a continuation of this warm trend, or maybe from the East, meaning it would continue to rain. Today it was cloudy and windy and everything is slush and puddles, with islands of snow-cone-like snow and ice.

Out here on the prairie, you feel all the kinds of weather around you.

I've lived here just over six months, half a year of weather, barely a start on what it means to live here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Simon and Garfunkel

I don't know why MPR insists on playing Marketplace Money on Sunday night at 5 p.m., when I'm always making dinner and could go for a good show, like This American Life, or a Best of Fresh Air, or almost anything that is not delivered in a haughty and ironic tone and talking about money.

Instead I turned on my ipod, which I have hooked up to the stereo speakers, and chose Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends. I actually chose all of Simon and Garfunkel, since I have the boxed set that I copied from my father last Christmas. Bookends is first. The first song after the theme is "Save the Life of My Child," about a suicide jumper in New York City. Like all these songs, it takes me straight back to my childhood. These were among the earliest lyrics we learned as kids, puzzled over, delighted in, sang along with. My brother bought me a Collected Lyrics of Paul Simon for Christmas, a book I don't want to read but am not unhappy to have, because I honor the impulse (with my brother, it's all impulse).
Anyway, there is one significant difference between the DVD tracks in my ipod and the old record my father would play some nights while we kids did the dinner dishes. These tracks don't have a scratch. My dad's record always skipped very briefly, so I have engraved in my head (my ex-husband would say "imprinted in my DNA") this line: "Everyone agreed it-- if the boy survived." I actually caught myself closing my mouth and doing a little dip of the chin where the skip goes. Except in its place were the words clearly sung: "would be a miracle indeed." Even as a kid I knew that was how the lyric went, except for the "indeed," but now each time it's like a revelation. We adapted. Turned it almost into a dance move, a tic. By the time you could think about it you were on to the greatest lyric in the song, when Officer MacDougal arrives and says: "The force can't do a decent job, cause the kids' got no respect for the law today, and blah blah blah." Blah blah blah is a great lyric, especially in such grown up music, when you're a kid.
Of course, a song that begins with "Good God don't jump!" and ends with the boy flying away... hmmm... really? And the lovely and inscrutible refrain, "Oh my grace, I've got not hiding place" has great dramatic possibilities.
But for me it was the next song, "America," more even than "Mrs. Robinson" (although I sent my ACT and SAT scores to Berkeley solely based on having seen The Graduate and the beauty of Katherine Ross), that held me captive for my adolescence and well into adulthood. I took more than one Greyhound bus, and even kissed someone I didn't know on one of those buses after talking from 2 a.m. when I boarded in Iowa until just before dawn outside Chicago, out of pure longing for what was described in that song.

Friday, February 6, 2009


Today I felt some urgency to get a new entry on the blog, but really had nothing to put down that was "blogworthy." For the past two weeks I've been thinking about the reality I'm creating in the blog. In a way, it's a perfect form for me. After writing a full-length memoir, and all those years writing poetry, I know what I enjoy is creating a narrative out of my life. In a way, I've been blogging a long time, writing essays, practicing narratives, making written pieces out of what is in my head. In the blog, though, because it is immediately public, I right away began making choices. I began from the beginning leaving things out (beginning with the essay I wrote that occasioned the blog in the first place). I've been going back and taking things out-- things I would otherwise say or even write, things that I think are important to the story. It is not censorship, exactly. When I write them in the first place I hesitate. When someone responds or suggests I take something out, I do. It is sensitivity, I suppose. It privileges a certain story, however. I took something out in a past entry already once this week. I wonder about that, because I know my poetry and maybe most of my writing has come from a darker place. A place I value for its beauty and honesty. The blog is true, too, but it creates a certain picture of my life. And this picture is in large part fiction, as all narratives are, and it's a different narrative than the one I've told so far.

It's pastoral.

To write these entry/essays, I need to be engaging with things-- movies, experiences, the natural world, ideas. These past few weeks my chief engagement has been with movies. So I could sit down and write a film review. I don't want the blog to become one thing only, but I can only write about what I'm engaged with. And in fact there are other stories I could tell-- about all I'm learning about the aging of the monastery, and all the sadness that comes along with watching the Sisters flounder and valiently keep on, and struggle with their individual and collective fragility. But that is a private story, to be told some day but not now.

And it is winter, so we're watching a lot of films. And I'm not writing poetry, but I'm thinking about the fact that I'm not writing poetry, and sending out my second manuscript to contests. Last night there was a poetry "event" at the college, a panel on politics and poetry, and there were two writers on the panel who interest me, and they were going to talk about William Stafford, who also interests me. But we didn't go. I had so much anxiety about "the scene" of it, and all that it means that I'm not engaged by and in that world anymore. I had worked myself up sufficiently by the time I came home from work that I just wanted to be let off the hook and not have to go. We went out to dinner instead.

Tonight we watched Vicky Christina Barcelona, the latest Woody Allen movie, which struck me as a story straight out of Edith Wharton. It takes up Allen's perpetual fascination with the hedgehog and the fox, the romantic and the classical world view, the lure of the domestic and the lure of the artist life (which he calls passion). Two women go to Barcelona for the summer, one happily playing out her conventional plan for a good life (Vicky), the other a destructive and restless romantic (Christina). They meet a great artist and his ex-wife, a muse for everyone. The poor woman, Vicky, is now confronted by the prospect of living a conventional life with a conventional man until the end of her days. The great scandal of boredom. But of course, the real romantics in the film don't find love and happiness either. Their world view is counter to stability, so they have to destroy what becomes still and peaceful. There's no good end game.

The truth is, I don't know of lives with other people that are boring. No life stays the same. It's a matter of engagement-- engagement with anything close at hand. I might be wrong about that, but I also know that our society privileges the romantic, and the romantic doesn't lead to paradise.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mickey Rourke

It's Oscar time, and as I heard on NPR the Oscar nominations were announced at a time that made it impossible for theaters to know what movies to program to get the best "Oscar bump." So they scheduled everything, which meant the 16-screen Cinema in St. Cloud which hardly ever has anything worth seeing suddenly had four movies worth seeing. Steve and I had recently seen Diner on the Roku (Netflix on demand box) and the story seemed compelling, so we went to see The Wrestler.

I am now officially obsessed with Mickey Rourke. There is very little information to be found about him. I've looked at lots of photos and it seems that every young male star in Hollywood wants their picture taken with him. And it's clear he's an asshole. He grew up in Miami; he may or may not have been a boxer in his youth (he definitely spent time in a boxing gym, but may have lied about an early Golden Gloves career). He is an amazing actor and left that career to be a boxer, until a series of concussions made him decide to give it up, shy of a title. He turned down several important roles, including the Bruce Willis role in Pulp Fiction. He made two of the best movies ever, Diner and Barfly, and one of the worst ones, Angel Heart. He coulda been a contender, or a great actor, but he's clearly too self-destructive and, well, an asshole. This may be his comeback, but probably not. He's already had several roles in recent movies, Sin City and Man on Fire for example, but you don't remember because, well, he doesn't look like Mickey Rourke anymore.

And in this movie, it's nearly impossible to take your eyes off him. First of all because you just can barely see Mickey Rourke in that face. Second, because it's the most real performance you'll ever see. His body seems impossible, his face. His accent is dead-on New Jersey professional wrestler.

The movie itself is wonderful, although I could have done with a lot less unsteadycam. There are scenes in it that are astonishing. I think my favorites are the ones of him working behind the deli counter. It's a real deli counter, and those are real customers, who don't of course recognize Mickey Rourke.

There's a great Fresh Air interview with Darren Aronofsky, in which he says the most interesting thing about Mickey Rourke I know. He said that his biggest accomplishment was getting Mickey Rourke not to wear sunglasses in a single frame in the film. He said that Mickey Rourke's main objective is to avoid eye contact, because when you look in his eyes-- there's so much there. Click here for the link to the interview.

I always found Mickey Rourke just a tad creepy, not seductive. 8 1/2 Weeks didn't do it for me. All that pursing of lips made him seem smug and, well, like an asshole frankly. His portrayal of Charles Bukowski, a complete asshole, was much more compelling. But this, this beautiful, tragic, walking wreck who is at equal parts damaged and vain is unlike anything I thought I'd ever see on film.