Tuesday, March 31, 2009

time to blog

It's well past time for another entry. All I have, however, is this. early morning rain, followed by six inches of snow, then sleet, then a little more rain. I've got nothing more to say...

Thursday, March 26, 2009


This week all the news has been floods. The Red River is rising up in Fargo/Moorehead and threatening cities and towns. My only previous association with the Red River was the movie by Howard Hawks starring Montgomery Clift and John Wayne. The Ottertail and other tributaries have been melting fast, but there's nowhere for the river to go. Here's the basic problem. The Red River flows north. That's right, north. So it flows into Canada. When there is a major early thaw, water hits the area to the north that is still frozen, and the water has nowhere to go. So it backs up and overspills its banks. It's worth going to Mapquest to see how crazy this river looks (click here). Scroll up so you get an idea of what happens to it as it moves north.

The last major flood was in 1997. It was a "century" flood, which I guess is why people rebuilt-- it wasn't supposed to come for another 100 years. They also, to their credit, built dikes and floodplains and various systems to mitigate floods. In 1997, the water crested at 39.5 feet. The prediction for the crest supposed to sweep through on Saturday is now at 41 feet or higher. The 1997 flood wiped out whole towns and devastated Grand Forks, ND. This one is seriously threatening Fargo.

This has been the main story all week, with schools closed in the north and all the students out sandbagging. Buses from this area have gone up to help. It's also been raining steadily all week. We had literally 48 hours of rain without a letup, which I can't say I've experienced for quite some time. Night and day. There are parts of St. Cloud that are flooded, including the restaurant Anton's right on the Sauk River and a neighborhood on one of the lakes. We've watched our ponds overflow and lift the docks, but none of our houses are in any danger.

Yesterday it turned very cold, and Fargo actually got snow. We had flurries yesterday and a little more substantial snow falling today, though being hurled away by the biting wind. I had to go out and walk the monastery property with a student who is going to make a map for us, and it was really wintry. I feel for the people of Fargo mostly for the misery of being out there.

And I've learned about sandbags that when they freeze they aren't as effective. The beauty of sandbags is that as they absorb water they change shape, like concrete, and fill in the gaps and seal together. If they're frozen, the chinks will remain and water can get through. This is called seepage.

Yesterday they called for the people of Fargo to raise their sandbag dikes another foot, and people have. The furniture is off the floor, and they've taken out the family photographs, and now we just wait and see what happens.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Maple Syrup

It's maple syrup time in Minnesota. The conditions have to be exact to make the sap run: freezing temperatures at night and above freezing during the day. Over the past four years I've participated in the maple syrup operation at Saint John's University Arboretum, under the direction of Brother Walter Kieffer. This year I'm probably not going to get out there-- we were on vacation during the tapping event and it's unlikely I'll be "on call" for syrup collection the next few weeks. I have managed to see the whole process at various times-- it is arduous. It takes a community to make maple syrup! What you really want to consider is that the ratio is 40:1, which means 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. And you get it by boiling down the sap over a wood fire-- for hours, and then finishing it. In a good year the monks make about 100 gallons of syrup from 800 trees. And then you have to clean out the buckets and taps for next year! It's kind of lost its appeal for me over the years-- it's snowy and wet and muddy and cold most of the time this is happening. But it is cool the first time you do it-- and the syrup is out of this world. They don't sell it (not up to code out there at the sugar shack) but the monks use it and give it as gifts. I used to have a contact and got several quarts, but now not so much.

Enjoy this video from the St. Cloud Times that illustrates the tapping process. Click here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hope for Spring

I'm calling this picture: Hope for Spring. (Notice the snow-- but it's almost gone!) Those are our raised garden beds in the background. and my little seedlings are popping up in their trays!


I think there's a very high probability that March 17 will be the best day this year. We've just come back from a vacation to South Jersey, where we had great visits with two of my childhood friends and then an all-day party/food extravaganza with my relatives so they could meet Steve, followed by two amazing days in New York City. I've always loved New York, and lived in Brooklyn for 18 months during graduate school. Steve's daughter lives there and we got to meet her boyfriend's parents, who were very great New Yorkers, sort of frustrated artists who have made films (Marjory Steinweiss) and composed music (Leslie Steinweiss) and finally funnelled their creative energy into the family business, Marjory's father's jewelry store (Julius Cohen Jewelers) which works with private clients and creates exquisite pieces. We visited their store, on 63rd and Madison, on Monday, after I had a two-hour lunch with my agent-- also an incredibly good experience with nary an awkward pause-- and we spent a few hours at the MOMA to kill time, not a bad place at all to do that.

The store was very old world, with velvet-lined tables, ancient wood floors, and jeweler equipment that has not really changed (like dentist equipment) for hundreds of years. Much like dentistry-- all the old files and tweezers and clamps and magnifiers you strap on your face, and then here and there a laser machine. Afterwards we crammed into their Honda and headed downtown for dinner at a great Ramen place. A quick trip to the Strand and then home to Catherine and Homer's place in Brooklyn.

But it was Tuesday that was the amazing day. First, Homer got us still-warm bagels for breakfast. Then we walked up to Pratt and looked at the statue garden where Catherine met us. We went to the Steinweiss's apartment a few blocks away, where Marjory had left out her student film from NYU, Open Lines, made in 1991 when she returned to school. It was fantastic. And I'm not just saying that. We were very impressed, by the story and filming and production. It had made the rounds of film festivals at the time, and got her some work editing back in New York. But when editing went to high-definition and digital, she wasn't interested anymore. She liked cutting and splicing film.

After that we headed to Dunham Records, Homer's recording studio, a sort of off-shoot of Daptone Records. They had an old Hammond B-3 organ and a guy was playing amazing music on it-- funk/soul stuff. We admired the drapes Homer made-- he even pounded in the grommets-- and then were off for lunch at La Superior, a taco place directly under the Williamsburg Bridge, that served the most flavorful and unusual tacos I've ever eaten. Then we parted ways with Homer and walked with Catherine over the bridge and into SoHo. Except for the fact that our feet were killing us by this point, it was all bliss. But hey, we were in NY, so we bought some new shoes (though as Steve said, the damage was done). I also got a great nylon bag on the street, which will replace the great bag I currently have that is at the end of its strap life. There's nothing better than buying a quality and unique project on the street! Catherine took off for class, and Steve and I looked at high-end modern furniture he was afraid to sit on. Then we picked up bread and rugelach at Dean & Deluca's and headed back to Brooklyn, to my friend Susan Mastrangelo's apartment.

They live on the 30th floor of a 31-floor high rise in Brooklyn Heights. As in, a panoramic view of Manhattan, from the Statue of Liberty (see right) (without craning your neck) on up to the Chrysler building. (Craning your neck you can see from the Verrazano Bridge to the Upper East Side.) They're almost directly over the Brooklyn Bridge. It was amazing, and I was very happy for her, because she paid her dues for a long time living in tiny studio boxes. Her partner Tom and Steve hit it off tremendously well, the dinner was good, the dessert great, and then we took a car service back to Catherine and Homer's.

So when people ask me in the future what a perfect day would be, this is what I'll say-- I had it, and it was a brisk but sunny Spring day of art and good food with my baby in New York, St. Patrick's Day 2009.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

March Winter

It is March 10. It snowed, but it's not the snow that gets to me. It's the relentless cold. It was actually above freezing when I went to work this morning, and I was surprised and kind of pleased by it. But tonight it will be below zero, or 6 above with a wind chill that makes it 16-30 below. It is March 10.

And there's the anxiety and frenzy of impending winter storms. Will they close school? Will we get to go home? Should we cancel evening plans? This started yesterday, when the predictions ranged from 3-6 inches of snow to 8-12 inches of snow for our area. But yes, 100% chance of snow, falling temperatures and wind.

And it's not the snow that bothers me. It's that we have had barely three days of thaw since December. And by thaw I mean nothing above 40 degrees. We need a break. Add that to the weekend Spring Forward plunging us back into waking up in darkness, when at least that was ground we'd gained in recent weeks, and well, you have a Minnesota March.

It is very quiet here-- after work I lay in bed watching the snow coming down-- or more accurately coming across because of the wind-- and there was literally not a sound to be heard anywhere. Every once in awhile a gust of wind. I think most people don't experience this kind of silence. It's like a film without a soundtrack.

I am looking forward, though, to the season of frogs, when that comes. Then we will open the windows and the whole world will be alive with croaking. We'll feel the presence of the garden beds and the unfrozen ground.

Last night I was awakened three times, from the total silence of the room, by coyotes.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Herzog 2

We watched Encounters at the End of the World last Sunday, and then Burden of Dreams, the documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, last night. Werner Herzog brings about no end of amusement. One of my favorite things was the full speech by Herzog about the Amazonian jungle, excerpted in My Best Fiend but in full in Burden of Dreams. I had to get up and write down the bit about the murders. In addition to talkind about the obsenity (as opposed to the Romantic notion of eroticism) of the jungle, he says that it has a certain harmony, but it is "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder." He goes on to describe chaos everywhere, "exphyxiation, choking," even the stars have no order but are a giant "mess." The background of this documentary tells you the enormous obstacles and risks he's taken even to get this far-- the set is all but closed down by tribal conflict and skirmishes on the Peru/Ecuador border, then it is shut down when original actor Jason Robards gets some aomebic parasite and is forbidden by doctors in New York to return (at which point Mick Jagger pulls out to make Tattoo You and go on tour-- ultimately, clearly a fortuitous change in casting). Then there's the problem of procuring and managing the ship(s) in record low water (the schedule so thrown off they miss the rainy season), more problems with native peoples, the engineer deciding the system to pull the boat is too dangerous (a 70% chance of people being killed-- dozens of people-- if it breaks), then record rains that leave the site literally knee-deep in mud, and on andon. By the time he is railing about the jungle he has lived there with natives and his surly actors and crew for more than 6 months, literally 500-1500 miles of jungle in every direction. You can imagine the challenges of bringing in food and dealing with sanitation, let alone bringing in 150 gallons of petrol a day for the bulldozer that most of the time is broken down or mired in mud.

When he says he'll make the film or die, he means it.

We'd really hoped for some insight into what drives Herzog, into his core question, from Encounters at the End of the World, an exploration of the lives of researchers and workers in Antarctica. So we perked up when he talked about his "proposal" to the National Science Foundation for why he wanted to do the movie. But his questions were totally bizarre. One sticks with me clearly: "Why don't chimpanzees subdue large dogs and put saddles on them and ride them?" It might be the same question that makes Jon Stewart continuously show that footage of a monkey bathing a cat in a sink, but I'm not sure. Why do humans subdue nature and use nature as they do, and what do they hope to discover by studying it? And what is the actual "nature" of nature?

He proceeds to do things like interview a scientist who is studying penguins and ask him, "Do penguins ever go insane?" The man doesn't know the answer, and thinks not, has a more biological than psychological framework, and says they do sometimes become disoriented. But Herzog finds a poor stray penguin that is racing as fast as it can inland, away from open water, and it's hard not to believe from watching it with his calm, German-inflected voice-over, that this penguin is truly deranged.

But mostly Herzog finds his kindred spirit in a diver who has a dire, pessmistic view of nature below the sea. He says some of the same things Herzog observed about the jungle-- sea creatures simply devour each other, from the single-celled organism he's studying in all its diversity to the larger, prehistoric-looking creatures. The landscape is indeed science-fiction-esque, and this scientist spends his evenings showing 1950s doomsday sci-fi movies to fellow researchers. He speaks with the same calm as Herzog, that make it hard to acknowledge the dim view, the discussion of unrelenting violence and death, that he's unspooling. This man is making his last dives before retiring, and one wonders what will become of him above sea level.

We are now of course being compelled to watch more Herzog-- there's a film with a cast of dwarves, Even Dwarves Started Small, that I suspect is somewhat unwatchable but is free through our Roku box (Netflix on demand) so we will give it a shot. (One story Herzog tells is that one of the dwarves was both thrown from and run over by a car during filming and then later caught on fire-- Herzog through himself on him and extinguished the flames). Burden of Dreams came with a nice "extra," a short film by the same filmmakers called Herzog Eats His Shoe in which Herzog cooks (at Chez Panisse) his chuka boots and eats one of them, cut into small pieces, right down to the sole, on stage at the showing of Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven. It's an answer to a pledge that if Morris made a full-length feature (Morris was famous for not finishing things-- which I think must have driven Herzog crazy given his singlemindedness) Herzog would eat his shoe. And he is a man of his word. In between bites he encourages the audience to make films because the world needs images the way it needs food and water and air.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


The renovation is (nearly) complete. The space is transformed. Now we need new furniture of course, but that's the fun part. And many decisions must be made about art. That's the reaal conflict Steve and I have in all this. He paints, and would like to design a series of paintings to go around the room and then make them. I have several paintings made by friends of mine that are important to me that would look great in the new space-- but need room, need to stand alone. I defend these paintings as "real art" by serious artists. He would like to make the room. He would like to make the furniture, too, but I think we've moved off that for now. When we get the deck off the living room he can make the furniture for that...
The room still needs its cable & metal banister and the mop boards, and a few finishing touches (nailing down that last step), but I can't believe that after less than two weeks the room is transformed and we're wiping down the dust...

Steve scraping popcorn off the ceiling-- it is unbelievable how good-natured he remained throughout this process and even afterward. And that he didn't suffer even the slightest congestion or cough (I offered several times to get a mask!)

Below is the air compressor we borrowed from our neighbor Maurice Palmersheim. He mounted it on a lawnmower chassis so it could be rolled around more easily. Maurice routinely fixes old mowers and usually has four or five for sale out during the summer.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


It's still winter, and the house is still under construction, so it was a great time for a Werner Herzog film festival! I've been really engaged thinking about the whole nature-mankind-culture-Romantic-Classical paradigm, too, and so wanted to go back and watch (with Steve) the great film Fitzcarraldo. I remembered the broad strokes of the film, but couldn't really remember it's point of view-- where it came out on the whole Nature/Culture argument.

I don't think Herzog knows either. We followed it up with a viewing of My Best Fiend, Herzog's documentary about his relationship with Klaus Kinski. Talking about Fitzcarraldo, he says, "I knew dragging the boat over the mountain was a great metaphor. A metaphor for what, I'm not sure."

Basically, Fitzcarraldo is about a dreamer dragging a boat over a mountain. He is driven by one goal, to bring an opera house to a Peruvian Amazon town. The town is full of boorish rubber barons who don't care about opera. Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, known as "Fitzcarraldo," has a Victrola and a few Caruso records. The rich barons aren't interested, but the Indian children are mesmerized, and hang out in his hut listening to opera.

To bring opera to the town, Fitzcarraldo needs money. He has had several failed schemes (a Pan-Amazonian railroad, an ice making operation), but now hits on a way to become a rubber baron himself. But to do it he needs to take a steam ship into a part of a tributary river that is inaccessible because of rapids. The way to access it, he decides, is through a narrow "pass" over a steep hill. In the process he enlists the help of Machiguenga Indians, who would clearly as soon kill him and his crew as help them. But the Indians have their own reasons. Once they've helped him get the boat over the mountain, they unleash it and it goes through the rapids. Back where he started, Fitzcarraldo sells the boat and uses the money to hire an opera cast and stages the opera on the river boat. He achieves his dream, though in a fleeting way. But he creates a spectacle of great beauty.

So what does it all mean? Even more important to me, what is Herzog's position on nature? Over and over he has made documentaries and films that show rather ordinary people going into extreme environments (on our schedule for tonight the latest of these, Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica. He tells the stories, most notably Grizzly Man, in his even tone with his German accent. These are stories about hubris in the face of nature, but not necessarily condemning the impulse.

What he loves, clearly, is people who want to make art. At the center of Fitzcarraldo, what has real value, is opera. A sublime that is separate from the sublime natural environment. Fitzcarraldo is not really a Romantic, in that he is not interested in bonding with nature but with subduing it through culture. In the course of his journey he does not "go native" or join the Indians, or see their way of life as more pure or anything but brutish. The natural world does not thwart him, but nature's children, the Indians, do. He is able to reconsider his goals, adjust them to the situation, and still bring opera to the village.

He lives in the tension between Nature and Culture. That is how it seems to me to be for Herzog, too. He loves people who have single minded ambitions, like Dieter Dengler in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, whose ambition to be a pilot takes him to Vietnam where he survives and escapes a POW camp, and survives the trip through the jungle, not unlike the jungles of Peru. He loves it when those ambitions engage the person with the extremes of nature. And then he lets the story unfold, seeing how the person will compromise (or not) and shape that vision to what is possible (or not).

I relate. I think the Romantic notion that we are meant to be one with nature, have fallen from innocence, and need to return to nature is delusional (see Grizzly Man). We are always "other" from nature, and need to recognize that and integrate that into our view of ourselves. What is amazing about Fitzcarraldo, and about Herzog, and Kinski, is that they do not seem overly impressed with the grand scale of Peru. Herzog is contemptuous of Kinski's "poses" as a man of nature, arriving with all sorts of alpine equipment, and venturing with a cameraman to commune with nature "about 100 feet into the jungle," but otherwise staying completely away from it. Herzog says in an interview on the set that nature is "obscene," an unrelenting series of murders. It's not really about the mountain; it's about the boat. The boat is the means to wealth-- he has no problem exploiting the natural resources. But even wealth is not as important as art, as a man-made thing of beauty. It is the same with hot air balloons (The White Diamond, 2004), with airplanes, with boats.

Also, what is great is that Herzog is open. There is no definitive resolution or interpretation. All the elements are still in play. He remains completely curious, and that curiosity informs all his films.

He also knows a good metaphor when he sees it-- even if he can't tell you what it means.