Sunday, June 27, 2010

Crowds and Aging Cool

Thanks to the hipness of Steve's daughter Catherine and her partner, our son-in-love Homer, we got free passes to one of the best summer events in the Twin Cities, Rock the Garden. It's an outdoor concert in back of the Walker Museum of Modern Art in Minneapolis that happens in June each year. I wanted to go last year when Calexico played. This year, all 12,000 tickets sold out in six days. There were four bands, of which only one, the first one, was bad. The major attractions were OK Go, who have made their name because of two YouTube videos for the same song, Homer's band, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and MGMT.

We wanted to see the two middle bands, and caught most of the first one (which was unfortunate). We weren't really listening to the first band, however, because mostly we were engaged by the logistics of Rock the Garden. It is set on a hill with a big plateau. By the time we met our other party (Tim and Annie, Sophia and Chloe and one of Chloe's friends) and got inside, the hill was full, and we made our way up to the plateau, a large lawn that was also quickly filling in. The problem with sitting on that lawn was that you couldn't see anything and you really couldn't hear. Tim and Annie staked out great standing spots along a little picnic area that people must have thought was reserved or certainly more people would have been in there. Where they were, you could see pretty much everything, though the sound was still pretty bad. We joined them halfway through OK Go and, except for the jostling by the totally wasted shirtless guy and his two girlfriends, and the increasingly direct sunlight from the dropping sun, it was a good place to be.

Which is to say, we're too old for this. Not that it was anything I actually really enjoyed-- crowds are not my thing and live music is too often terribly, terribly loud. However, there was a time when I liked concerts in small venues, and have seen my share of shows that, if not really great, were totally enjoyable. (The one that really stands out is a Tuesday-night show in the small Park Avenue venue in Chicago where Bob Dylan played a sort of last-minute show in the late 1990s.)

The two best things at Rock the Garden were the Haagen Dasz cones we got as we were leaving, along with the pleasure of eating them while walking through the actual sculpture garden, and visiting with Homer up on the lawn.

Homer is enjoying the success of the band, and more than that, the band seems to have moved into a new phase. They, too, are getting older. Some are married and a few have kids. They don't tour endlessly, and on this tour for their record, I Learned the Hard Way, they are staying in nicer places, touring in a nicer bus, and making more money at bigger venues. It was clear that many people at Rock the Garden had come particularly to see them.

Also, Homer looks great! Despite the fact that he's been adding to his food blog, consisting mostly of accounts of road food, he's lost some weight and is in great shape. This, he let us know, is because a few of the guys are working out daily-- with a trainer in a park in Brooklyn when they're in NYC, and on their own in urban parks when they're traveling. He gets up every morning at 6:45 and bikes to the park for the workout. Unlike the recent stories of all-nighters in his own studio, Dunham Records, he now works somewhat reliable hours, sleeps, eats better, and does core training.

That is so grown up! Of course, when the music starts blaring and you realize that these ten-twelve people go out in all kinds of venues and play this show over and over again, sometimes really late at night and sometimes in the heat of a June day, sometimes at a festival in some crazy slot on some side stage and sometimes as the biggest show in town, the whole thing seems like quite a grind to me. What a way to make a living! When you think about the years of vans and little venues and splitting the fee ten ways and late nights in a studio doing take after take... and most of all the incredible charity and tolerance it must take to work with a large band for years... well, it definitely makes me happy for their success. I could not do it at all.

I can confindently say that this will be our last Rock the Garden, although I'm very glad we went. The crowd-watching was good (the only fashion trend we spotted was women in floor-length, kind of loungy-looking sundresses). The music is better listened to at home, though seeing Sharon strut her stuff and the horn section and Homer wail on it is always fun. Mostly, it was so nice to visit with Homer, and the ice cream was fantastic.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Love in the Ruins

One of my goals over the week of vacation I just had was to get through Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins. I wanted to read it mostly because he's an important Catholic American writer, whose name always comes up as one of the few Catholic writers of note: Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene being I think the only other two biggies. J. F. Powers and Jon Hassler are two more, but they are minor and regional, of interest to me because both lived here and taught at St. John's/St. Ben's.

Like Flannery O'Connor, Percy is a Southerner, most often associated with New Orleans. Also like her, he is harsh! Love in the Ruins is a satire, published in 1971, when it caused quite a stir. To read it now, 40 years later, is difficult. I always felt I was missing major context. It doesn't help that the narrator, Dr. Tom More, an ancestor of St. Thomas More, is on staff/patient status at the local mental hospital. He is enacting his own apocalyptic scenario but without, it seems, the participation of the rest of the public. Which isn't to say he should not be paranoid, because people are actually shooting at him.

The book takes on race (in the most unsavory terms) and hippies and the bourgeoisie and psychology and New Age medicine and a lot more. Another reason I wanted to read it is because I do feel that our current political moment is the closest we've come to the political divisions of the 1960s. Things have not yet exploded, but the gulf between the two extremes is palpable and seemingly unbridgeable. The Tea Party vs. the Far Left is not very far from Percy's splintered society of fringe swamp-dwellers and country clubbers, although the two political parties: the Knotheads vs. the LEFTPAPASANE (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-Pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia), known in the book simply as the Left, are almost indistinguishable. Also, the book takes place in a future (1983, the edge of Orwell's 1984) that is five years after the Auto Age. Cars become useless when they break down and there is no one to fix them. America has the capacity to make new things but, in this dystopia, not to repair them.

I can think of other reasons why the Auto Age may come to a crashing halt. One involves millions of gallons of oil spewing into and ruining the oceans. Though it looks like we're going to handle that the way we handle everything-- find someone to pay for the damage and move on. (Don't get me started!)

In terms of Catholicism, it has split into three factions, the Roman Catholics (a remnant of a remnant) and the American Catholic Church, headquartered in Cicero, Illinois. The American Catholics believe in God and America, sing the national anthem at the elevation of the host and have instituted a new religious holiday, Property Rights Day. Priests and nuns who wanted to marry left the Roman Catholics for the Dutch Catholic Church.

The moments I liked best in the book were the ones that grappled with Catholicism. Here it is, 1971, and it must indeed have felt like the Church had split. The Second Vatican Council changed everything, and there were those who wanted to hold onto the old and those who wanted to race forward with the new. Neither is portrayed very well here, especially Father Kev Kevin, who has left the priesthood to marry Sister Magdelene and now works in the sex research lab (collecting data from the vaginal console). Between patients he sits reading Commonweal.

The best passage, however, is when he describes, in a flashback, his experience of going to Mass whlie traveling with his first wife, back in the age of long road trips. It's a bit long, but worth it:

Sunday mornings I'd leave [my wife] [in the hotel room] and go to mass. Now here was the strangest exercise of all! Leaving the coordinate of the motel at the intersection of the interstates, leaving the motel with standard doors and carpets and plumbing, leaving the interstates extending infinitely in all directions, abscissa and ordinate, descending through a moonscape countryside to a -- town! Where people had been living all these years, and to some forlorn little Catholic church up a side street just in time for the ten-thirty mass, stepping up on the porch as if I had been doing it every Sunday for the past twenty years, and here comes the stove-up bemused priest with his cup (what am I doing out here? says his dazed experession) upon whose head hands had been laid and upon this other head other hands and so on, for here off I-51 I touched the thread in the labyrinth, and the priest announced the turkey raffle and Wednesday bingo and preached the Gospel and fed me Christ--

-- Back to the motel then, exhilarated by -- what? by eating Christ or by the secret discovery of the singular thread in this the unlikeliest of places, this geometry of holiday Inns and interstates? back to lie with Doris all rosy-fleshed and creased of cheek and slack and heavy-limbed with sleep, cracking one ey and opening her arms and smiling.

"My God, what is it you do in church?"

What she didn't understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.

Isn't that a wonderful passage? The universal church, the experience of walking into a church, even in a different country, and recognizing the liturgy, being able to participate in the liturgy, whether you know the language or not. The year I spent at St. John's University, I went to evening Mass quite a bit. One evening Lech Walesa was there for Mass, up in the choir stalls, with a small entourage. He was speaking later that evening. He didn't know English well enough to fully participate, but he was attentive, prayerful, throughout the Mass. There had been a time I'd wanted to go to Poland, as an undergraduate, to try to figure out how it was that religion, namely Catholicism, played such a real role in politics and in people's daily life. It seemed to me that the Church in Ireland and in Poland still had a hold on people the way it did not in the United States. The symbols, language, music, culture, prayers, artifacts, were all part of people's real life-- how they stayed connectd to the earth. There was nothing "spiritual" about it. I wanted that. I wanted to touch the singular thread.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

watering system

My favorite thing about my garden is the watering system. Steve set it up for me and so far it works beautifully. Our farm is right on top of the water table, and we have three ponds in addition to one that is supposedly in the wetlands. The deepest is next to Steve's tree nursery. He often jumps in there mid-summer to cool off after a long, hot day, and this year is promising to carve out a small beach on one end, dump a couple loads of sand, so that everyone on the farm can enjoy swimming there.

The largest pond is the one where we ice skate, between Tim and Annie's house and our house, in the area we call the Commons. There is a blue heron that hangs out there all summer and though each year the cattails encroach a little farther, it's the loveliest of the ponds.

We also have a small pond behind our house, which is next to my garden. It's where the log is that the turtles love. One morning I carried three turtles from various places by our house to that pond. I'm not sure why, but they prefer it to the large pond.

Steve set up a pump on a dock in this pond for my watering system. Then he ran two giant extension cords (from my house in Cold Spring-- I knew they'd come in handy at some point) to the house. The pump hose runs to a sprinkler in the center of the garden. All I have to do is plug it in and voila, nutrient-rich pond water falls like rain on the entire garden. Steve recommends watering the hell out of the garden, so I don't worry about leaving it on for a couple hours in the evening. The past few days we've had rain, so I haven't had to use it, but we had a long, hot dry spell before.

Steve has a bit of the "Tool Time Tim" in him, so when he first proposed the pump system he recommended a different pump and no sprinkler. If I just used it with a hose, he said, I could drench the garden in a few minutes. Sounded more like a fire hose than a sprinkler system, so I opted for the other choice. Now, until the hose in the pond gets clogged with weeds, or the sprinkler gets clogged, the system will keep my garden growing. And the fact that it's pond water, and "free," except for the electricity, makes me feel good, too.

The only thing I have to work on is my patience. We're still a few weeks away from peas and cherry tomatoes, so I have to make do with the lettuce and spinach-- which is great, but would be even better with pea shoots, cherry tomatoes and snow peas on top!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sisters in the Media

Today was a big day for me as communications director. I got the name of an Associated Press reporter in the Twin Cities from my counterpart at the college, and sent him an e-mail a couple months ago about the merge between our monastery, Saint Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, and Saint Bede Monastery in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The first six Sisters moved in early May, and a few Sisters pointed out to me that several of their Sisters have classmates at St. Ben's. That intrigued me, so when I pitched the story to the reporter I told him about two in particular, Sister Mary David Olheiser and Sister Helenette Baltes. Both entered Saint Benedict's Monastery in 1936, and S. Helenette became part of Saint Bede Monastery when it was founded in 1948, along with 82 other Sisters from our monastery.

He took it to the national AP, who were interested in it for their weekly feature. Last Wednesday the AP reporter, Pat Condon, came out with another reporter, Jeff Baenen, who took photos and shot video of the various interviews, as well as other scenes at the retirement convent, St. Scholastica, and at St. Benedict's.

Today at about 1 p.m. the story "hit the wires" where it could be picked up by any newspaper with a subscription to the AP-- in other words, any paper, and a considerable number of other media outlets. It was thrilling for me to see it appear first, in my Google Alert, in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. Then Forbes, the Huffington Post,, even, it seems, some espn web site! The video showed up later, first on youtube, where some very unfortunate comments make it unforwardable, but then on local radio news station and other television and radio web sites.

Click here to read the Washington Post story.