Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tony Kushner, part 2

Saturday night I went to see the collection of short plays by Tony Kushner, Tiny Kushner, as the last selection of our yearlong subscription to the Dowling Theater at the Guthrie, the black box theater. The whole season has showcased virtuoso acting performances. Tony Kushner was sure to challenge the actors and the audience, and I was interested to see what "ideas" would be played out on the stage. Because everyone keeps talking about Kushner as so intellectual and thought-provoking. But the ideas in Caroline, or Change, were not that clear to me-- not as clear, certainly, as the emotional landscapes. And although I find Angels in America spectacular and compelling, I'm not sure exactly what it's trying to tell me about Mormons, Americans, homosexuality or Roy Cohn. The plays I'd seen so far were a swirl of psychology, politics, sexual identity and postmodern approaches to theater. There are ideas there, I know. But I couldn't really distill any of them for you.

Driving in, I heard an interview of Kushner, a rebroadcast from earlier this week, with the local MPR personality Kerri Miller. Here's a link to the entire interview, which does seem to get more fully into his work. The excerpt on Saturday was not very helpful for me as I tried to think about his ideas and world view. At one point, when Miller followed up on a question about his self-doubt, he said, "This feels like therapy," sort of as an aside. Then he answered the question, listing all the things that make him feel disappointed in himself. I believe it started with, "When I'm not as good as Shakespeare," or something like that. The interview did do more to probe Tony Kushner's psychological makeup than his process and ideas, which was too bad. It was interesting, however, to hear that he thinks Caroline, or Change is his best work, and just how autobiographical it's setting and situation is.

Of the short plays, two were amazing. Two others did this thing he does, setting up dialogues between dead people, that the actors raised above the material-- the concepts were not that interesting to me. The first, Flip Flop Fly!, was a dialogue between the recently dead Queen of Albania and a 1920s beauty queen from St. Louis. The other one I thought was weak, Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise, also between dead people, was a therapy session between Richard Milhaus Nixon's therapist (in "paradise") and this therapist's therapist. It was a psychoanalysis of Richard Nixon-- but with the sense that it is important to get to the bottom of that psyche because perhaps Nixon could have somehow been directed otherwise (and Hitler could have been directed otherwise?) if he'd gotten, well, good therapy. A third play also involved therapy, but was part of an "assignment" to write plays based on Shakespearean sonnets, and felt like a verbal/analytical exercise in the nature of homosexual love. It was good and enjoyable and made great use of the sonnet's theme.

One of the amazing plays is the last one, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which Laura Bush addresses (imaginary) dead Iraqi children on chairs at the front of the stage. The actress, Katie Eifrig, who also played the Queen of Albania, did a Laura Bush that was spot on. Mrs. Bush tells the children about the story of The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in preparation to reading to them from the book. She also considers their plight, as an angel tells her how they died. She tries blaming their deaths on Saddam Hussein, but the angel holds her somewhat accountable. And because it is Laura Bush and not her husband or Dick Cheney (about whom she makes nice, light jokes we liberal audience members can laugh along with), she is us. She is feeling the weight of the death of children, and so are we, the audience members, because there is a truth about her and a genuineness that is Kushner's real triumph here, as well as the actress's. So it is that we, Americans, who might like to blame our former leaders, have to realize we are tied up in this too. I don't understand Dostoevsky any better than I did before the play, or know quite what use Kushner's putting this tale to, though that might not be Kushner's fault but my own. There is, however, no denying the emotional and moral weight of the scene he presents us with on the stage.

The best of the five plays is East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: A little teleplay in tiny monologues. This is Kushner pushing the boundaries of the genre again, because the script is for a teleplay, with that kind of "shot" direction (interior/exterior, etc) and character description. But it's a one-man show, with actor Jim Lichtscheidl taking on 22 of characters of all ethnicities, ages and both genders. First he reads the character description and sets the scene, then inhabits the characters in a very brief monologue. The play is based on the true story from the early '90s of how hundreds of New York City workers-- most of them cops in housing projects, transportation, the prisons and throughout the system-- adopted a scheme to stop paying taxes, following the advice of a man named Leonard with a white supremacist organization in Indiana. A single prisoner at Rikers Island connected them to the white supremacist, with the help of a housing authority cop's daughter who is able to use the Internet.

The story, it becomes clear, is about the joint disaffection of these city workers of various ethnicity, who don't feel they owe taxes to a government of a country they don't feel fully part of. At one point a "scary black girl" gives a speech in class about the Social Contract, the balance between liberty and protection by the government, and that does bring all this together. What about the common good? How is it they feel they are part of a soulless system, rather than servants of the common good? They are the government, but stop paying taxes, claiming to be non-resident non-alien aliens, a category it is pointed out to them eventually does not exist. It is also a good commentary on how we got into this mess-- the devolution of values, personal responsibility and common sense that led to the economic meltdown.

My first thought was that I wished it was a teleplay. What was gained by having this actor do so much work, and me do so much work to follow it? But as he brought together the Sikh, the Italian-American, the Puerto Rican student, the middle-aged black clerk, the prison guard, and all the rest-- and did it with great subtlety and attention to detail, without caricature, it made great sense to me. It had great power. These people are connected, should be united in a web of mutuality. They are me/us/America. But they don't feel that way-- or their unity is based on disenfranchisement at some large, moral level. It was definitely food for thought.

In all, the plays were a good mix. They were engaging and beautifully written, as well as superbly acted. I laughed out loud and also felt very sad. I felt what Kushner so often provokes, amazement. And I'm looking forward to seeing the third play in the series later this month.

Link to review of Caroline, or Change on this blog.

Hey, this is my 100th entry. Thank you to everyone who has been reading, only an entry or two or all of them! I try to blog twice a week and to blog something worth reading. So far, it's been going pretty well! If you feel like giving ME a review, feel free to comment!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Small Place, Big Story

This is a small place with big stories. Mostly they are Catholic stories, about the role the monks and nuns played in the Liturgical Movement, particularly from the 1920s forward, and significantly during the Vatican II era. Abbot Baldwin Dworschak was a significant presence at the Vatican II Council, arguing for the vernacular as president of his congregation and thus a voting member. The women of Saint Benedict's Monastery were significant reformers and innovators in liturgical music, including a return to schola tradition and Gregorian chant in monasteries and also writing hymns that embraced the theology of Vatican II. Their work as school teachers and in health care, including founding five hospitals, is nothing short of heroic, and their work has shaped generations in this area.

Godfrey Diekmann, a monk at Saint John's Abbey, was one of 55 liturgists who crafted the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first ratified document at Vatican II, and the one that resulted in the altar turned to face the people, the removal of communion rails and side altars, the movement of the tabernacle, and very significantly, the elaboration of the Liturgy of the Word to full status beside the Liturgy of the Bread. For more on Diekmann's role, click here.

Eugene McCarthy was from nearby Watkins, graduated from Saint John's Prep School and Saint John's University and spent nine months as a novice at the Abbey. His presence also looms large.

Last night we found out that a local theology professor, Miguel Diaz, whose children go to the parish school and whose family regularly attends Sunday Mass at the monastery, has been nominated to be the next ambassador to the Vatican. Miguel and his wife Marian have spoken often in venues around the area, making a large contribution to the vibrant life of religious scholarship here. Marian often talks on topics of women's spirituality, and she has run a very successful vocations program supported by a Lilly Foundation Grant at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. Last year there were 200 women students and almost 80 facilitators involved in small "spiritual companioning" groups on campus, a program that has been so popular it has spread through alumni to other areas of Minnesota, including the Twin Cities. In addition to programs for students, Marian expandedofferings to staff and faculty, including book groups and talks on Benedictine values. She has been at the center of a real spiritual renewal on campus, without drawing attention to her role, always empowering those around her. Miguel brought fascinating people to campus, enlarging the discussion of multiculturalism in the church and teaching a vibrant Trinitarian theology that offers great hope for the future. He also generously donated his time to speak to parish groups and on campus.

Overall right now, there is a sense that things are moving and changing in the church. Even as there is so much evidence that Rome is "clamping down" and Catholics are becoming more and more conservative-- in their politics but also in their liturgical taste-- there seems to be as large a force coming out of the ecumenical movement, what Phyllis Tickle (an Episcopalian who has written some popular books on the Liturgy of the Hours and is described as "an authority on religion in America") calls "The Great Emergence" in Christianity.

I'm not sure what I think yet on this topic, as much of it seems to me wrapped up in superficial thinking about technology (Embrace Facebook and live! Presidents with Blackberries are a sign of a new and glorious future! They might be right, but I want to think it through a bit more). It's also interesting because she presents it as a historical inevitability and taps well into millenialist thinking-- which fascinates me. I'm always on the lookout for people capitalizing on the fact that we're at the start of a millenium.

Here is a video introducing the idea.

There is a lot of energy in my neck of the woods right now about change. Obama's era of change. Hope for inclusion and transformation of the Church to meet the needs of the current world. Even, dare I say it, opening up of the Church. This appointment will only focus the energy further, support the forces that say-- we are at the center of something new! As for me, I'm keeping my eyes open, but I'm not as sure about all this as others seem to be. There is a lot of conflict still, and the communities, particularly Saint John's Abbey and Saint Benedict's Monastery, are getting smaller and smaller, older and older. What the future holds is far from clear.

Hey, this is my 99th post. I'll have to do something celebratory for post 100...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

I remember Memorial Day in New Rochelle, NY, in 1989. I remember it because Maggie R., the 4-year-old in whose house I rented a room, was out on her tricycle on the patio singing some version of "Memorial, Memorial, Memorial Day" for about an hour directly under my window. And I loved hearing her down there, making up a song which meant less and less the more she repeated the words.

Twenty years later I'm here on this farm. And there's nothing like a four-day weekend (I took Friday off because we had a wedding to go to in the afternoon) that marks the beginning of summer to give one a chance to think over exactly what kind of life one has entered into.

My biggest frustration with life now is that I don't know quite what to do with myself. I feel like in some ways the things I enjoy don't quite match the place. Here's an example: today I went to Office Max "in town," meaning St. Cloud six miles away, to make photocopies of the poetry manuscript I'm sending out to contests. There were maybe five people in Office Max, and I enjoyed myself, looking at the computers and gadgets with one ear to the hum of the self-serve copier. Then I walked over to Barnes & Noble, where there were maybe 15 people. It was a very different scene from the crowded bookstore of the winter and spring. On this first day of summer the place was empty. "Everyone's at the cabin or a barbecue," I thought.

I had one more stop to make, Fleet Farm, for some liquid nails and the good deal they have on microwave popcorn. Well, the good people of Central Minnesota were not all at the cabin or a barbecue. Most of the town, it turned out, was at Fleet Farm! There were 13 registers open, and all of them busy. The parking lot was crowded and so was the store.

If you don't know about Fleet Farm, it's the big box version of a country general store. You can get Carhart work clothes and boots there, and farm equipment, and lawn equipment, and lawn furniture and grills, and hardware, plumbing equipment and paint and kitchen items, food (mostly snacks) and clothing (a whole area for big and tall). And the other half of the store is for fishing, hunting, camping and other sporting goods. It is, in other words, Minnesota in the summer.

I am the girl who would ride my bike to the Park Forest Aqua Center in the summer and sneak next door to the public library. And I now live in a place where everyone is up by 7 a.m. and out working until the sun STARTS to go down at 9 p.m. It was very nice weather for a bike ride this morning until about 11 a.m., when the wind kicked up in earnest. I was about ready for a bike ride at 1 p.m.

This weekend I got the annuals in the garden and got it mulched. I lay on the hammock and read my bon appetit magazine. I made two batches of rhubarb bars with rhubarb from my garden. I weeded the vegetables a bit. I marinated some meat and made delicious shish kabobs and a mango salad. I prepared four poetry manuscripts to send out. I visited with Steve's cousins, in for the wedding from Denver, and thank goodness for them or I would have been really bored. There was a great cookout at the Kluesners' house on the farm Saturday night and we welcomed Sophia home from college, and of course the wedding Friday night. I also spent some time miserable because I just don't know what to do with myself.

At lunch today Steve was telling me that it takes awhile to get used to this lifestyle. No one knew what to do with themselves when they first moved here. Everything about it takes time. For instance, the tree nursery. He didn't even think of it for the first 10 years or so. Then you plant these whips and you don't really have a tree for six or seven years. You try something one season, learn from it, and then try again the next year. It takes several winters and summers before you know what's going on or can get something going. He was telling me to hang in there.

I think if I were writing that would help. But it's very hard with a full-time job that really dominates my head-life. And I'm restless reading-- feeling like I should be out there doing something. Having to remind myself that people who are fishing are really not doing anything at all for hours on end! They're just doing nothing in a boat! And think of the people who sit inside and watch baseball games and golf on television!

And remember this from the last four days: the pheasant roosters, the blue-winged teal and his mate, the wood duck and her nine ducklings, the turtle in the yard and the way copious amounts of pee poured out of it when Steve picked it up and moved it, the sand hill cranes and the baby blue herons, both kinds of frog calls I can distinguish, the sparrows with their two nests in the webbing beneath the porch. And it hasn't yet been a year.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Rhubarb Bars

It's rhubarb season, and this is my go-to recipe, a hit at any party. I've already made one batch, and will make a second for a family party Saturday night. For a recipe with less sugar, add some strawberries to the rhubarb custard and cut the sugar accordingly... When I made it last week I was going by memory and I think I forgot the flour and I didn't precook the crust-- and it still tasted great and stayed together!! (However, it's best if you follow both steps.)

Rhubarb Bars

1 c flour
1/2 c powdered sugar
1/2 c butter

1 c sugar
1/4 c flour
2 eggs. lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
3 c finely chopped fresh or frozen rhubarb (Use a food processor with slicer for speedy chopping.)

Combine flour and powdered sugar; cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Press into bottom of a greased 11 x 7 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes. For filling, combine first four ingredients. Stir in rhubarb; pour over warm crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until knife comes out clean. serve warm if desired (but it's great cold with ice cream, too!) Store in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wind (2)

I was inspired to write this poem after freeing the poor laundry today. I even got a picture!

Spring Winds

by Susan Sink

The wind is torturing the laundry.
Shirts grip the line with their long sleeves,
their wrists bruised by the brutal pins,
and I have to pry the traumatized pant legs
from the pole. The basket is gone.

The wind is harassing my young tomato plants,
newly freed from their pots, staked and caged,
where for two days they breathed the sun
and drank the generous sprinkler showers.

The trees whine the wind’s loud complaint.
Why so angry? You have not missed a thing;
it is all beginning. Slow down, see how the ducklings
and their mother join the turtle on the log, peacefully.

Monday, May 18, 2009


This morning after my shower I pulled the first tick off my back. I mean, I had to pull. I could tell it wasn't in deep, or engorged, but it had taken hold. Yesterday I found four ticks on myself: one jumped from my shirt as I changed shoes, coming inside, another was inside my bra strap, and a third was on my leg.

I had a full introduction to ticks last year, but this is the first time I've pulled one off of me that had taken hold. Steve says back in "the day" he and the girls would come in from being outside all day and the girls would strip down and everyone would get checked for ticks. There were always ticks.

I was in New Rochelle, New York, from 1988-1990, which was basically the onset of Lyme Disease along the East Coast. When I arrived, I would walk nearly every day in the forest preserve by the house where I rented a room, in a nice middle-class neighborhood. The woods were full of people walking, collecting berries, kids playing paintball, climbing on rocks, racing around on their bikes (two of the three of these activities, I'm thinking, were not allowed in the forest preserve). But the following year, I remember it being empty. It was always empty. And one day I went to pick strawberries, bent down with my plastic Cool-Whip container, and saw a swarm of small black bugs. I doubt they were ticks-- they were certainly too big to be deer ticks-- but by then the mere thought of it struck fear into my heart. I left the forest preserve and couldn't bring myself to go back in again. The point is, I didn't know what a tick looked like. I'd never "had" a tick. When I lived in Georgia, I'd heard stories-- camping in Tennessee and waking up covered in ticks, which I put on par with the leeches in African Queen. I have no problem with spiders, or flies, though I don't like any bug that bites and am rather crazy about mosquitoes when camping (wearing a bug net over my hat keeps me from freaking out).

Midwesterners never got the Lyme Disease fear like it hit the East Coast. I think people in the greater metropolitan area of New York City were not so keen on nature to begin with, so it didn't take much to drive them back inside. As far as I can tell, it didn't make it to the West Coast, where bugs of all kinds are scarce.

Yesterday and this morning, I took all the offending wood ticks between pinched fingers to the kitchen, where we keep the "tick jar." It's on the top shelf of the large oak cabinet, and it's a salsa jar with about an inch of rubbing alcohol in it. That's the only way to kill a tick.

Ticks don't move fast once you've dislodged them. If you put them on the counter upside-down, it's fun to watch how they manage to flip themselves over. Since I know they're not diseased, I'm not that worried about them. I just simply can't be if I'm going to live out here!

Saturday, May 16, 2009


All week, the desire to plant my poor sagging plants from the windowsill into the garden was tugging on me. Finally, Thursday the wind died down and it got warm, and it was May 14, only one day from the guaranteed safe day to plant, May 15, the day after which there couldn't possibly be a frost-- all the best Minnesota Public Radio meteorologists said so-- and I left work at 4 p.m. and got to work. I was only going to put a few things in, the most desperate-looking plants sagging in their tiny pots. But I got in the hang of it and planted the squash that is already in flower, then a few tomato plants, then all the tomato plants that were on the windowsill, then several of the brussel sprout plants, then what the heck, the allysum in the border of the flower beds where the lilies are already coming up.

I came home at 4 p.m., but before I could get out to the garden I did have one more task from work. I had to open up my computer and check for Sister Ancille's obituary from the St. Cloud Times obituary desk. Sister Ancille was one of the women I had lunch with last week at the diamond jubilee celebration at St. Scholastica Convent. Sister Ancille was a tiny woman and had played the organ for one number at the Mass that day. She told me she had a stroke a few years before, and had to learn to talk again. She talked haltingly, but well, perfectly understandable. But it was clear it caused her trouble so I didn't ask her too many questions. She fell on Tuesday and broke her hip. She had surgery and died Wednesday evening in the hospital. It was a surprise. It let us know again how fragile things are out there at St. Scholastica.

Last night the temperature was expected to drop to 30-35 degrees, and tonight there is another frost warning. The wind was up so high again that it was pointless to put blankets over the plants. I might go put some newspaper around a few. However, the wind damage is pretty bad at this point, after two more days of blowing. I'm going to start my seedlings later next year, and hope for safety in numbers this year. I still have a few tomato plants I could bring inside from where they were "acclimatizing" in large pots just outside the front door.

There are leaves on all the trees, and the flowering trees at the monastery are in full bloom. The lilacs between the parish church and monastery are heavy with blossoms. The grass Steve planted in the large lot behind the parish rectory is coming in nicely. And this week he didn't have any machinery breakdowns.

Sunday afternoon I give a talk to the Oblates at the monastery, about which more in another entry. Sunday night the community receives the body of Sister Ancille, before her funeral on Monday morning.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I swear, I don't know how the pioneers did it. The unrelenting wind over the prairie and cold dips that have kept me from planting, still, are crazy-making. I'm an Illinois girl. I like thunderstorms and that kind of wind, but I really hadn't realized just how much wind blows over this prairie all spring and summer and fall. It's hard to think about gardens, which seem so fragile. I know they're not-- the greenery of the lilies are coming up, and the irises. But there's just never a day they can stand tall in the sun and be warmed and look pretty. My peas are hanging onto the fencing for dear life, and hanging on admirably. The tomatoes are fusing to the sticks I put in their pots to keep them steady and upright, and the stems are thickening. I put hollowed-out coffee cans over the two I did plant in the garden and though they're buffeted against the sides of the can, they're also keeping their leaves. Last year I lost half my tomato plants to wind damage-- but the others did do quite well, cherry tomatoes all. Downstairs I see I do have some quite sturdy-looking plants, especially the brussel sprouts. And someone said that zucchini and squash are hardy plants and can go in, but I can't bear to do it to them! And the three I set out in pots had lots of breakage after a day, and two of the three died. I'm thinking I might get two or three to survive, and will plant seeds.

It is spring, so this is part of the mix of weather, I'm sure. But I remember putting in the terraced flower garden along the side of the house here last June, before we got married, and thinking quite often that I don't know how those flowers are holding on against the wind. And they were dusty and a bit tattered looking, most of them, by the time of the wedding in late July. I'll give it a go one more time with the flats of annuals. But next year it might be time to look at the sedum and the fescues, with maybe some tulips, and just turn it over to "landscaping" instead of a garden.

Does anyone have suggestions for something that is like alyssum for borders, flowering, but a perennial, that would do well in this zone?

Friday, May 8, 2009

jubliees and centenarians

I had lunch on Wednesday with a 100-year-old woman. That was definitely a first for me. Sister Arno Beehler was born on July 9, 1908. She was the only daughter in a family of seven children. She grew up on a farm in North Dakota, 500 acres of wheat, oats and barley. Her brothers weren't interested in farming, and the family moved to town during the Depression when they lost the farm. She joined the novitiate at Saint Benedict's Monastery in 1933 and made final vows in 1936. She ate a full plate of food-- chicken and mashed potatoes and asparagus, and a full slice of lemon meringue pie, and even had a few sips of wine.

With 100-year-olds, the tendency is to focus on what good shape they're in. Sister Arno appears to be maybe 90 years old. She has macular degeneration, so doesn't see very well, but she hears wonderfully, and pointed out every time she heard Sister Jane laugh from across the dining room. The only difficulty is that it's hard to hear her when she speaks. She barely has any voice, though she speaks clearly and lucidly. She said she hopes God will call her home before she turns 101, that she's ready to go and never planned on living this long.

The occasion was the jubilee celebration at Saint Scholastica Convent, the assisted living facility for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. We had seven 75-year jubilarians this year, and six made it to the celebratory Mass and dinner. Sister Carolinda, who is 97 and in the early years took care of the turkey flock, stood for the photo and still gets around very well. Sister Berno, who turned 99 on April 3, was having a hard time at the photo shoot, but when they got her hearing aid in the right ear she was fine. It was a great celebration. Sister Ellen Cotone played the piano and Sister Ancille played the organ. They played "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and I couldn't help notice two Sisters watching to make sure that they would eventually wind down and stop-- it's one of those numbers that loops around and can just keep going. Father Dominic, the chaplain, was brief (as is his custom) but pithy, and everyone was glad to move on to dinner.

Sister Ellen and Sister Ancille also sat at my table, as well as Sister Aurelianne and Sister Giles, both of whom are deaf and so excused themselves from the conversation.

Sister Ellen is delightful. She has Alzheimer's, so forgot that she had played the piano for Mass, and we watched her wine and coffee intake (2 glasses of each). She told me about her childhood in the Twin Cities, and how all the relatives would drop in for visits from the country. Her father was from a family of ten children, and "back then people didn't make arrangements, they just came when it worked for them. We never knew who would show up for the weekend, and it was so much fun." It was just her and her brother, and they both played music-- accordion and piano-- in a band and in clubs in Minneapolis. Sister Ellen is the one who can play the piano with her hands behind her back, but more impressive is that she can play pretty much any song, even with Alzheimer's, if she sees the name of it on a list. She was in Brazil for ten years and loves Brazilian music. One of the music teachers at St. John's University donated a piano for her, which is in the dining room, and after meals she sits down and plays. After this lunch she played a few classical numbers and then went into a rag and some popular numbers from the '40s.

This was during nap time, while some of the jubilarians rested up before the program at 2, when everyone reconvened in the dining room for stories about each of the jubilarians, to celebrate their long lives and commitment to the Benedictine way of life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Caroline, or Change Review

An old friend from Grinnell College, David DeYoung, runs a popular music and theater review website, covering all sorts of performing arts in the Twin Cities. He encouraged me to write a review of The Cartaker by Harold Pinter after I saw it at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, but at the time my thoughts were too big and ranging for a theater review. But when I posted my thoughts on Caroline, or Change on Facebook and then again here on the blog, he encouraged me again to work up some kind of cogent review.

And so, in the fastest writing-to-publication experience I've ever had, I finished the essay at 4:30 p.m. today and it was online by 5 p.m. If you'd like to read it, click here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Where's the Change?

For a couple weeks now, I've been stewing and brewing up thoughts about the lack of change by the culture and media over the financial crisis. It's almost like the H1N1 virus-- is this what a pandemic is like? One person mildly ill 8 miles down the road, no shaking hands in church for a few weeks as if to acknowledge we should be afraid-- but we're really not-- and then, well, what happened? There's a certain unreality to the financial crisis for me. I know people are losing their jobs-- including my favorite print company salesperson. I know people are suffering-- but I only hear about them now and then anecdotally; I don't really know any.

But what has been bothering me is, basically, Marketplace, the radio show on NPR. It already bugged me before the crisis, and I've had a longstanding policy of turning off the radio as soon as it comes on. I can't stand the smug tone, the wise-cracking approach, and I also just don't like that we're supposed to spend so much time thinking about money. It's not cool.

Since the financial crisis began, the content has changed a little, but actually, not much. Their main shtick seems to still be advising people on how to invest their money. The advice now is peppered with: work on solidifying your position at work and protecting your job, and save more-- but then with the extra, how about this financial vehicle or that stock option... Don't invest in GM even though it looks like a great bargain. And some very witty repartee on the various trials and tribulations of, well, every economic indicator.

In addition to a half-hour show every day, and an hour on weekends, Marketplace gets 10 minutes at the end of each hour of Morning Edition. Which is when I'm driving to work. Last week I didn't get to the dial before the opening "teaser," and I caught a bizarre and frankly offensive opening line. Something along the lines of: "Mexico's closed, but someone is making money..." a story about the drug companies making the vaccine, no doubt.

An exception to same-style-slightly-altered-message was John Stewart's wonderful challenge to Jim Cramer on his comedy program on March 13 (link here ), after which of course he went back to the usual yucks-- and let's face it, if it's sarcasm and cynicism I DON'T want, and I DON'T, then John Stewart can't be part of any real solution. Of course, his main message was: "Don't engage with me! You're not me! You are an actual financial news show and so you have a much higher standard to meet. You have a real job to do, not just entertainment." But more and more young people get all their news from John Stewart. Where that will take us has worried me at least since I watched the Daily Show coverage of the conventions in 1992 with my father...

This morning I decided to go through my Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines from the last six months to pull out any good recipes and then recycle... January 2009 was on top, and it is the "value issue" (bon appetit would never go so far as to have a "budget" issue, so "value" is the best word they can use.) Which means the cover item is Fettuccine carbonara with pancetta and broccoli rabe. Have you priced pancetta lately? I'm quite sure I can't get it in the ordinary grocery stores in Central Minnesota, and would feel like a snob asking for it at the St. Joseph Meat Market. Even better was the mussel bisque, "mussels being a less expensive and wonderful substitute for lobster in this rich, savory bisque."

Well, across the page from the opening editor's letter, "Time to Save-- and Savor," is an ad for "delicious adventures" by Adventures by Disney. International travels to 23 countries with your family, safaris and good eating. Of course, all the ads are like this: the All-Clad slow cooker, ski vacations, cruises, luxury ranges... And the value issue does have a story on "pate de campagne," a French "meatloaf." It does turn out to be a mixture of ground pork and spices, whipping cream and Cognac, but still!

I guess I'm saying that these attempts to pretend we're committing to a "scaled down" existence are just screaming "false!!" to me. Of course, January was early to change our advertising habits, let alone our luxury dining.

Yesterday we went to see Tony Kushner's musical (more like an opera) Caroline, or Change, set in 1963 in Louisiana. (In the program was a big ad for "staycations" at a luxury hotel in Minneapolis.) It's the story of a black maid who works "below sea level" in a rare basement in Lake Charles, LA, for a Jewish family. She's angry and disappointed about her life, a single mother of four children, working for "pennies." Then the family decides, to teach the young son a lesson about his carelessness with money, that Caroline can keep any change she finds in the boy's pockets. He starts leaving change there purposefully, because he wants Caroline to like him and to be part of her life. The change is, of course, a metaphor for real change, and the quarters are nice but corrupting-- they make Caroline more dissatisfied with her plight and inability to give her children the finer things. They basically mock her. And she feels bad, of course, taking from a child. It's a set up. There's no real chance for her to get real "change."

In the end, the message of the play seems a bit muddled. For Caroline, there's resolution to her plight, and acceptance by her rebellious daughter that the opportunities she has are because of the sacrifices and hard work her mother has done. After a climax and catharsis, Caroline resigns herself, settles herself, and loses her anger and misery-- but her situation does not change. Her daughter is the hope for the future, the one who will see and effect real change. But if you care about Caroline, you can't feel good about the resolution.

And it's a musical.

I guess the problem I'm having with mixed discourse-- the media not matching the message, and the seeming inability to move to an ACTUAL new discourse, to just cancel Marketplace and say we're now going to do a different kind of programming, provide people with something that is actually new and appropriate and real, was exacerbated by the musical. I was crabby all evening, despite being very amply entertained by great music and acting for nearly three hours.

Perhaps it is time for me to "tune out, turn off (the t.v.)," and listen to the landscape and the people around me. Of course, given the "no handshaking" policy at church, it's hard to tell if listening to the world around me more directly would lead to something more real.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Living in Lake Wobegon

Pandemic fears have reached the Catholic Church of St. Joseph. It seems the bishop had an article in the St. Cloud Times this morning advising parishes to take precautions because of the H1N1 (swine) flu. The directives were not to hold hands during the Our Father and not to shake hands during the Sign of Peace, just to nod and say "Peace be with you" or some other greeting. And churches should feel free not to offer the cup for Eucharist (just the bread).

At our church, they decided to still offer the cup, since partaking of it is entirely optional anyway. But we were advised to not hold or shake hands. This seemed absurd to most people in the church, but we complied. The priest announced, before asking us to give each other a sign of peace, that the bishop had supposedly said at a Mass he officiated earlier in the day that "husbands and wives could give each other a kiss... but otherwise, a nod would suffice." So we were able to laugh as we turned and obediently did not shake hands, asking friends when the last time was they'd been to Mexico.

After church I was introduced to a couple sitting behind me, and at that point we all shook hands. And it was also a First Communion service, so the six little girls (one with extreme veil issues) and two boys, were all getting handshakes and hugs at the back of the church. And if you're not likely to get it from a seven-year-old, who are you going to get it from?

But the oddest thing was to come home and turn on A Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor was just launching into his monologue, and his first joke was that Pastor Inqvist at the Lutheran Church had advised against shaking hands at the sign of the peace! People began to laugh right away, although this wasn't the real joke. His joke was that the Lutherans were happy about this because they knew any handshake could open the door to a hug. Well, there's never any danger of hugs from the German Americans of St. Joseph. And not much danger of the H1N1 virus either, I wouldn't think.

He then moved on to a story about turkeys in mating season...

Mating Season (2)

I believe the pheasants have successfully mated and moved on to nesting. We've also got a pair of Canada Geese on the large pond, and our ducks have settled in on the small pond. I'm surprised by how much those geese bug me. I don't want a flock of geese around-- it's completely suburban of me. I remember how Canada geese became a nuisance in the northern and western suburbs of Chicago, "golf course geese" that left their green poop everywhere, until you couldn't walk around in parks and even on lawns without it covering your shoes. They did manicure the lawns quite nicely, however. Everyone assures me that there are often geese who have a small brood of chicks out here, but they always move on. We won't be overrun.

Despite all this successful action, there is a poor tom turkey who has been working his tail off to get laid seemingly with no luck at all. Of course, I don't know what happens in the high grass of the wetlands, but all week we watched this guy strut his stuff. The tom is a large bird, and when he's puffed out with his tail feathers fanned, he looks exactly like the old storybook pictures of the Thanksgiving turkey. When I was growing up we had a cardboard cut-out decoration like this, and I never tired of studying its detail and pleasing shape.

The hens-- at the beginning of the week there was one but she was soon joined by another-- are, of course, smaller, with no distinguishing flourishes except the waddle they drag along the ground. In the morning they are out in the new grass where we had the burn, grazing. They do not even look up at the tom who is putting on such an elaborate show for them. They are intent on one thing, eating.

To his credit, he doesn't actively pursue, keeps a respectful distance, relying no doubt on his elaborate plumage and glorious size to do the work. It's almost like he's saying, "If you don't want me for me, I'm not going to make you. What woman could possibly resist?" And also like he's saying, "Maybe if I puff out my feathers just a little bit more, she'll see me and love me." But these female turkeys are as aloof as they come.

Or maybe they're just hungry.
(note: the photo above is a stock photo, though he looks a lot like our turkey!)