Monday, May 31, 2010

Oh Hummingbird! Oh Finch!

I've been working on a poem, and though it's by no means finished, I thought I'd post it-- this being Walt Whitman's birthday after all.

It is about the hummingbird that suddenly appeared when I hung this exotic basket outside my kitchen window. I have a history of birds and hanging baskets. When I lived in Long Beach, CA, right after my first husband left me, I noticed a bird started nesting in a dead basket on the balcony. I thought it was a pigeon. It was there all the time, and finally one day I looked up from the dining room table and realized that it was actually a dove. That's when I knew everything was going to be ok. One of the two eggs hatched, and I photographed the baby a lot, including the last day before it flew out of the nest for good.

Last year, and now again this year, I have a small bird nesting in one of my hanging baskets. It seems to have moved in the day after I hung it up, and it flutters out to a nearby tree every time someone comes in or out the front door. Nests, it turns out, drain well, and I've been watering the plant despite the nest. Finally, I took the plant down on Saturday to see if there really was a nest and/or eggs. There were four little eggs there. I took some photos. This morning I took it down to show Steve the eggs, and what do you know, two were hatched! The babies were incredibly tiny and vulnerable. They hardly looked like birds at all. I will, of course, stop watering now! Hopefully the ivy geranium will withstand the dryness of the next few weeks, until the birds have flown.

Oh, Hummingbird!

Is it possible you migrated to this spot
the very day I hung the basket of fuschia
on the hook at my kitchen window?

I have trouble imagining you waiting
through the fickle month of April
with the large birds in the wetlands.

Though maybe the bluebottles on the pond
told you sweet things were on the way.

Did they remember the hanging baskets
I put out hopefully each year,
with their Chinese lanterns of purple and pink?

These baskets began in a hothouse in February,
about the time you started heading north.
Now that you’re here, do they entice you to stay?

Just wait, be still—no need to go anywhere else.
In a month the Asian lilies will open their nectar mouths
and call you in your own language, and wonder,
maybe like you, (like me), what they’re doing here.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vampires = Teens

In 1987, at 23, I had no trouble recognizing the genius in the film The Lost Boys. That vampires could easily go unnoticed as a group of Goth teens who partied all night on a California boardwalk and slept all day seemed so obvious, I couldn't believe no one had put it on screen before. Punk was just then morphing into Goth, bringing the world of teen rebellion and the world of vampires even closer. And bad boys are irresistible.

I'm not a reader of vampire fiction. I'm not interested in the mythology or their powers. I'm not interested in immortality and the living dead. I'm not that interested in the period pieces. But teen angst and desire that can't be fulfilled without killing the other-- that's something worth exploring. So I would have been happy to see Twilight when it first came out, but didn't have an opportunity until recently, when the DVD showed up in our house. Tonight I watched the sequel, New Moon, so now I'm all ready for when the final film of the trilogy arrives later this summer.

Twilight has it all-- the heightened scenery and filters that turn the Pacific Northwest into a medieval forest, and the school full of cliques where the good kids are likeable but dorky and the cool kids are quite obvious. It's not just because of their distinctive, individual style and the way they remain aloof from the rest of the high school scene. It's not just because they have self-confidence and are gorgeous. Well, yeah, it's pretty much just those things. Add to this enough money for a cool car or two and the modernist showcase house straight out of Dwell magazine where they live in opulence with their beautiful, immortal, cool parents, and how can a mere mortal resist?

Teenage "new girl" Bella Swan gives herself over immediately to the power of attraction between herself an Edward. The call of her blood is strong, and he resists for awhile, learns to control at least the blood-lust, but can't resist the other, stronger urge-- the one to love her and make her his soul-mate. Although of course, there's a catch-- he has no soul, despite those soulful looks, despite his capacity to pledge everlasting love of her.

Once Bella learns the truth about him, and they stop fighting the attraction, the movie becomes an exquisite exercise in chastity. They writhe with desire, and we feel with them the adolescent pain of holding back. When I was younger, I used to wonder what it was like to have a hard-on, to be actually physically engorged with sexual desire. What was going on when for hours me and my first love would "make out," but not go all the way? This film makes you feel it-- if nothing else, it is a perfect dramatization of young male desire. It looks painfully sweet and sweetly painful. And it just goes on and on without relief...

The relief comes, actually, in the form of a villainous vampire who hunts Bella. The action gives us somewhere to put our anxiety for awhile, and gives Edward something to do other than to desire and resist. He can show his love by killing the rogue vampire, the rapist, the one who does not control his desire or his blood-lust but simply pursues, male energy out of bounds.

The sequel, New Moon, takes Edward out of the picture right away, which makes sense, since that desire/resistance thing seems to have settled into teenage high school dating-- SO uninteresting and also nowhere to go. Bella has to mourn, be depressed, and find her way out of that depression by falling in love again. She falls in love with her childhood friend Jake, who has become considerably buffed up since the last film (I believe she says "You're so buff" more than twice. The only other line she repeats more often, each time she gets a birthday present, is: "Actually, it's perfect.")

She spends more time with Jake in an effort to conjure up Edward, who appears like smoke each time she is "reckless" and puts herself in danger. Jake can rebuild her a motorcycle from parts, and when riding it she hopes to get glimpses of Edward. But like so many who work long hours alone together-- Jake and Bella fall in love. Which would be "perfect, actually," except for one thing. Jake has a rare gene passed through his tribe that makes him a werewolf. Bella, it seems, can sure pick 'em. Her sweet, gentle, sensitive guy with the long hair and sense of humor turns out to embody another bad adolescent male attribute to the extreme: rage. If the vampire is a trope for male teen lust, the werewolf is a trope for teen male rage. Both are dangerous, possibly deadly, to women, as we see in the scars down the cheek of one werewolf's fiancee. How can Jake be with Bella, when despite his best efforts, one moment of rage can result in a violent act that could destroy her.

The plot of New Moon is no great shakes. It is more or less a bridge between the first film and the finale. The plot points that reunite Bella and Edward in the film were really ridiculous-- I actually wished it had been a dream when, for a moment, it seemed maybe it was. But no, she did run through the fountain in Rome and push him back into the dark. Yes, he was going to sacrifice himself just because he thought she might be dead (without even checking!) and, well, he couldn't live in a world without her in it.

The message of the teen vampire movie is not hard to read. Adolescence, especially for males, is a dangerous time, a liminal time when hormones and emotions run high, when you have to learn control and ways to channel those nearly overpowering feelings. The energy coursing through your blood, almost without you bidding it, could hurt the ones you love. The way to grow into successful manhood is to curb your appetities, think about what's good for the other more than what you want in the moment. Pledge loyalty and take your time. Let things cool to a reasonable level, holding onto those greater values, all the chivalrous ones (loyal protector, observer who sees the true beauty of the other, everlasting love).

And the message for girls is obvious, too. Enjoy the smouldering, painful desire of those days, but if at all possible-- walk away. Come back and see him when you're, you know, 25 or so, once he's passed through this transition and learned to be a man.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Turtles on a log and other people's gardens

First, a photo. Last weekend and this past one, the turtles have really gotten into the sunning action. There is a log on our small pond and I see it walking back and forth from the garden. Here is the record-- 13, or is it 14-- and I'm not going to speculate on what's going on down at the end there. I took photos sneaking closer and closer. After this one they started to jump off.

I've been meaning to post-- really. What with meetings and gardening, though, I haven't gotten to it. I did stop and take photos of some of the excellent gardens I pass on my way to and from work every day. Once you get into this stuff, it does kind of consume you. It is not good that I am a worrier, because the winds and heat are wreaking havoc on my newly-planted tomato plants, that are really unsheltered out there. Not to mention the things that are and are not popping up out of the mounds for zucchini, squash, pumpkins, gourds... The good news is, there will be cucumbers.

Now to the gardens. This first is my favorite. It is just so beautiful, nicely fenced, orderly and spacious. Any vegetable garden with flowers at the entrance is also a good thing!

And look at those lilacs on the alley!

This is Rita Palmsersheim's garden. She is a serious gardener, our friend from up the street who is in her 80s and along with her husband Maurice (pronounced Morris), continues to play the accordion. Her rhubarb are so small and tidy, with tender, small stalks. My rhubarb are rather out of control. All her rows are marked with the names of the crop, of course.

But look at this photo, which I found mysterious. I'll have to ask her about it-- or maybe someone can explain? She has pulled twine down the row (don't mind the green thing, that's just a hose) to keep it straight. The twine is wrapped around a stick with a pointed end, and she's clealry pushed it into the ground and planted something-- onions?
One thing is certain-- I have a lot to learn. And I'd better ask these people before the knowledge is lost.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Creating the Garden

I've been working on what for me is an epic project: making a new vegetable garden. I have suffered over this task for a few months now, knowing what I wanted and driving past the gorgeous, established vegetable gardens in my neighborhood. I pass five large, well-maintained gardens on my way to work, and two other less-well maintained ones. My neighbor in Cold Spring had an amazing garden, full of well-maintained, weedless rows in which grew an astonishing array of produce. I have never done any large-scale gardening.

But I did enjoy my first summer with my five raised garden beds, and also felt their limitations, last year. I wanted a garden bed to have more room for vine plants.

Steve and I walked out and I showed him the spot several times in the fall, and several times in early spring. He cleared all the brush away, and as usual he cleared actual acreage, not the little space I wanted for a garden. I finally got him to grade and till the soil last week, but I still didn't like what I saw. It wasn't beautiful, rich garden soil. It was a mix of clay and rocks and dirt clods. It would be fine, maybe, if you were going to sow a few rows of corn, but it did NOT look like a garden to me.

Steve didn't seem to know what I was talking about when I described what I wanted. It was confounding. I wanted: topsoil, compost and manure. He knows what these things are and routinely gets truckloads of topsoil for clients. Maybe it was just that I was working on such a small scale. I wanted a fence-- preferably rabbit-proof. That will maybe come later.

In any event, this was the weekend the garden was going to be created. Yesterday afternoon I went and bought 20 bags of topsoil and 10 bags of a compost/manure mix. That's 1200 lbs of dirt. This morning I went back for 12 more bags of topsoil and 6 more bags of compost/manure.

The idea was to lay out beds, some for cabbage, broccoli and herbs, but most of them for squash (acorn and butternut), zucchini (round and straight), cucumbers, and a little space for ornamental gourds and pumpkins. Then the raised beds can be used for tomatoes, beans and peas, leeks and onions, carrots, lettuce and spinach and herbs. 

What I feared most about new beds really was/is the weed issue. The best way to do it would probably be to have left the garden fallow this year and just sprayed weeds, and next year brought in the dirt for the beds. I'm not at all t patient. Instead I built up my beds and prepped the area where the vines will go by covering them with plastic. The vine plants can grow over them and bear fruit, and next year I can fill in that space with dirt, expanding the garden. Or I might like it this way.

The plants I put in today that I'd bought seedlings of or started in the basement are: stonehead cabbage, broccoli, two cucumber plants, two ronde nice zucchini (round zucchini from France I'm hoping will be like Argentinian zapallitos), two red pepper plants and a few basil, rosemary and sage plants. I also planted seeds: straight zucchini, butternut squash, acorn squash, more cucumbers, pumpkin, ornamental grourds, leeks and green beans (I wanted to give the peas a head start).

The eight tomato plants are toughening up on the patio, and I'll put them in next weekend.

Here is a photo also of the deluxe compost bin Steve built for us. It's a Cadillac of compost systems. Tomorrow he's going to set up my watering system: a pump on a platform out on the pond to draw water riht from the pond. Can you say nutritious water and no-guilt watering?! He gave me the option of a gas-run pump and an electric pump. The gas-run pump, which he recommended, "will require you to stand out there and water, because a lot of water will come out really fast." Sort of like a fire hose?? I'm thinking. "I'll go electric." I think I'll end up using a sprinkler for awhile, but the dream is to set up one of those rotating sprinklers in the center and have it water the whole area.

Friday, May 14, 2010

8 1/2

What can one do after watching Nine but go watch 8 1/2, the Federico Fellini movie on which the lame musical was based. The movie was checked out at two video stores, showing that others have had this idea as well, but luck was on my side and it was available for instant viewing on Netflix. What was even better was that yesterday my most recent purchase from the Library of America arrived, American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now, expanded edition, edited by Phillip Lopate. And yes, on pp. 371-384 right in the center of the book is a review of 8 1/2 by Dwight MacDonald.

DM thinks the movie is a "masterpiece," although he doesn't really like Fellini or his films, he uses that word at least twice. He writes: "This portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man is the most brilliant, varied and entertaining movie I've seen since Citizen Kane. I saw it twice in as many weeks and the second time I discovered many points that had escaped me in the first viewing, so headlong is its tempo, so fertile its invention.... A great deal is packed into every scene, like Kane: of well-observed detail; of visual pleasure; of fine acting in minor roles.... And finally, like Kane, it deals with large topics like art, society, sex, money, aging, pretense and hypocrisy-- all that Trollope wrote about in The Way We Live Now -- just the opposite of these cautious little (though not short) art films that lingeringly explore some tiny area of impingement between three undefined characters or, if the director feels in an epic mood, four."

I agree-- if you think that because it's a classic and in black-and-white it will be slow, you are quite mistaken. You have to keep on your toes all the time. Steve dozed for a few minutes, then asked what he missed, and really it was too much for me to explain. I can't remember the last time that happened. Steve continued to doze, and try to find his way by what he knew of the plot of Nine when he was awake. But although there were many simiarities in the scenes and characters: here is where the mistress and wife show up at the same restaurant-- the scenes were so completely different and went in such utterly different-- and more complex-- directions, there was no touchstone, no way to keep track. The movies are incomparable.

It made me think that Nine must be making Dwight MacDonald and Federico Fellini turn in their graves. The only reason one would try to remake this movie (as a musical no less) would be because one completely underestimated the complexity of the original. It doesn't just miss the message-- and boy oh boy, the nod it gives to Catholicism is such a set piece and so irrelevant to Nine, so essential and at the heart of 8 1/2, that I now consider the former's use verging on offensive. The intensely crafted camerawork that captures the cardinal going in and out of a series of towels as he goes in and out of "the waters" at the health spa, helped by his assistant priests, with his obviously Montgomery Burns-like form barely hidden, is in itself worth watching the film to see. And that is just one moment-- the film is packed with them.

What is more, it's one "real" moment, although the reality in 8 1/2 is as stylized as the fantasy scenes are realistic. As DM writes, "Everything flows in this protean movie, constantly shifting between reality, memory, and fantasy." Somehow you keep your place and always know what is real, memory and fantasy (perhaps until the end, where it is not completely clear when or if the press conference ends and the fantasy begins, although it is a matter of great importance how you read that shift). What is more, some of the memory is fantasy, and much of the reality verges on fantasy as well. What is revealed in all three is Guido (Marcello Mastroianni). He loves women, is counfounded by women, doesn't make good choices except in his films and now is making horrible choices there as well.

This Guido (like Guido in Nine), also has no script, but his film is ostensibly a science fiction picture about a group of people who escape from earth after a nuclear holocaust. (This makes much more sense in terms of why the project would confound him, whereas I never believe that Guido/Fellini in Nine doesn't know what to say about Italy-- as the Kate Hudson character points out, he invented  '60s Italy).

This sci-fi plot works quite well, as the money is flowing into the construction of a gigantic space ship, a folly that he will never use. When finally he is forced by the producer to watch the screen tests, to cast his movie, the women aren't reading for roles in that film, but acting out scenes we've already seen-- from his memory and his real life. This combination shows how far around the bend Guido has gone and also how hopeless the film he's making is going to be. There will be no film, and so we just wait for the inevitable way that it will all fall apart, and what he will do with the pieces.

What he does with them is puts them in a beautiful fantasy, where his child self, wearing a white version of his black Catholic schoolboy's uniform, leads a parade of all the characters from Guido's complex reality/fantasy/memory.

It would be interesting to consider this film in relation to others like it-- Husbands and Wives comes to mind although Stardust Memories is more obvious as Woody Allen's remake of 8 1/2, and also Synechdoche, NY, the Charlie Kaufmann manic disaster of a middle-aged artist lost in a huge construction. I'm sure there are others as well-- any recommendations?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nine (review)

We're finishing up our viewing of the "nine" films... having seen District 9 over Christmas and last week just plain old 9, last night we watched the last, the musical Nine. I was not very excited about it being a musical, and Steve was less so, but I knew it had a Fellini tie-in and starred Daniel Day-Lewis. I thought I might also benefit from lowered expectations.

And maybe I did. I'll just give the snapshot here: I liked everything about this movie except the musical numbers. After awhile we watched only the first minute of the musical numbers (well, I should say I did, as Steve fell asleep) and fast forwarded through the rest. The only ones I watched all the way through were Penelope Cruz's early sexy striptease number and Kate Hudson's go-go number. Kate Hudson can sing much better than I thought-- and the Goldie Hawn thing also caught my attention.  

The acting is great and the plot is great, too. Or maybe I should say the concept, because it is more a concept than a fully realized story. Day-Lewis plays an Italian director Guido Cantini (Fellini) who is stuck trying to make his next film, Italia. The set is being built, the costumes made, the casting going on, but there's no script. What he is really struggling with is all his complicated relationships with women. There is his wife (played by Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Cruz, who was nominated for an Oscar), his mother (Sophia Loren) and his leading lady/muse (Nicole Kidman). Oh, and a whore on the beach (Fergie) who gave him his first lesson in sex-- I mean his first lesson in Caberet strip teases. Kate Hudson plays an American reporter from Vogue who attempts to seduce him and praises him for basically defining Italian style for the whole world.

There is a lot here: the whole virgin/whore thing, the wife/mistress, the female muse who could unite them or tip the scales one way or the other, America/Europe, etc. The Catholic Church shows up a few times, including a cardinal in the hotel he goes to for advice (hmmm, can't remember the advice, actually). The Church, as Italian, loves his films, but as Catholics is forced to denounce them (really just another riff on virgin/whore).

The director's conflicts aren't really resolved, and that's ok, but the annoying thing is the great possibilities built into the fact that the film in director Contini's head is an opportunity for staged musical numbers, that completely fails. Fails in imagination, in interesting music (despite the Oscar nomination for "Take It All"), in staging. What is Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera" doing here? And why so much from Cabaret? It's not surprising that the director also did Chicago, because the numbers have a lot in common with that show as well. Add a little French cabaret and you have it-- a survey of French, German and eventually American Musical Theater cabaret performances. (Good thing Judi Dench, as the costumer for Cantini's film, is making lots of sequened scanty outfits.) I didn't realize Fellini loved the cabaret so much-- and what does it have to do with the Italian style he invented and gave to the world??

What I wanted was the musical numbers from Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. Wow. If he had brought in Bjork and turned her loose-- or better yet, found an Italian singer with a wild, urgent, ahead-of-its-time-but-totally-of-its-time sound to do the music, it truly could have done Fellini proud. If he'd set some dance numbers on a train or in a fountain or anywhere but that cheesy set left over from Chicago, I would not have been fast-forwarding. Where was the carnival?? Where were the circus freaks? Where was that cinema magic? Cause really, cabaret stripteases are SO BORING!

Ultimately, it seems like Contini is moving toward the ultimate Fellini film-- the one in which several female characters and one great artist live out a story that is worthy of the wit, style and extravagence of, well, Fellini. In a way, that is what 8 1/2 accomplished quite well-- and I wish they'd stayed closer to that script.

The whole idea of the film is to give us a view into Contini/Fellini's head. I do not know what I would see there, but i'm pretty certain it's not post-war European cabaret.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Log Home

Last Sunday was a blustery, grey, not-very-Spring day in Minnesota. Steve and I went for a drive, meandering up to see the log cabin that Paul built on the property last year and moved up to his parents' lake property near Park Rapids. There have been an incredible number of hours of work put into that cabin, many by Amy and Kevin staining and staining and staining more wood. The kitchen is in, and all 2.5 bathrooms, and once the main pine flooring is installed, the bedrooms can be set up and it will be ready for guests. For now, they still stay in the basement when they go. When they move upstairs it will definitely be moving from true roughing it to real luxury.

The really cool thing right now is how the logs settle. Basically the whole top half of the house is still on these small braces all over the place, lifted about a foot off the bottom half of the house. As one part sinks down, Paul goes around and adjusts all the lifts. Slowly the whole house compresses and eventually it will be one sealed piece.

The place is gorgeous, but more than that, it's an incredible achievement. Having built a house not just yourself from raw materials but from gigantic trees is something to ponder. Paul went to school in British Columbia to learn how to do this and spent a summer interning with a log home builder on the North Shore as well. He also has an electrician degree. The scale and detail of this project is astonishing. And of course Amy and Kevin get major credit for doing more staining and sealing than I hope ever to do in my whole life...

A picture does say a thousand words. Here are a before and after shot... (For more photos, click here.)
October 2008

April 2010

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fisher's Club in Avon

Tonight is opening night at my favorite local restaurant, Fisher's Club in Avon. They have been around for 78 years. They are known for their walleye, but I think they have some of the best barbeque ribs I've ever had. Great, balanced sauce and fall-off-the-bone tender.

I'm reprinting some history of the place posted in an e-mail by Gary Osberg, my local NPR sales rep, below:

George "Showboat" Fisher retired from major league baseball in 1932. He had played for the Washington Senators and the St. Louis Cardinals. He had no desire to get tied down with a year-round job so he opened Fisher's Club on the northeast shore of Middle Spunk Lake. A savvy nightclub owner from St. Cloud suggested that George try selling walleye and so he created a secret breading recipe and the legendary Fisher's Famous Walleye was born.

After a couple of years of being closed at the end of World War 11, Fisher's reopened in the summer of 1946. They decided to make it a "bottle club." It remains a bottle club, so if you want a hard drink, you will have to bring your own bottle. The liquor inspectors made the new ownership stop the practice of allowing patrons to store their bottles in the lockers built into the wall. The lockers are still there with the names on the doors. They do serve wine and beer. [note: I've always heard it described as a "set-up" club, where you bring your own bottle and purchase the "set-up," i.e., bring your gin and buy a glass of tonic with a lime.]

In 2005, Garrison Keillor and some of his local friends purchased Fisher's Club and it re-opened in the summer of 2006. "Spending hot summer nights on the lake with fine friends, good food and a cool beverage is what Fisher's has always been about." Check them out at or call for reservations 320-356-7372. Be sure to try the Bee Bop A Ree Bop Rhubarb Pie for dessert."

It's a great place-- though awfully rainy today, so I don't think we'll make the opening. Our friends Nancy, Susan and Joe have a band called "Random Road" that is playing there May 22, however, and we'll definitely be there then!
photo credits: interior above is from   and rhubarb pie from The Mommy Files blog of SF Gate.