Thursday, July 2, 2015

Balzac: A Passionate Life -- An Insight Into One Quality of Greatness

The current audio book I have been "reading" during my daily commute is The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods by Hank Haney. In the annals of golf history Tiger Woods is one of the great ones, if not the greatest. While reading this book, which I am about a third of the way through, Haney repeatedly underscores one of the key attributes of Tiger's greatness: his ability to focus. But he also stated that there was another quality that contributed to his success: his ability to keep a mental edge.

What he's saying is that lesser athletes get caught up in celebrating their victories and accomplishments so much that they eventually lose their edge, that need to win, to perform at the top of their game. Haney cited one golfer who won two majors one year, the first and second of his career, and he was done. He never won a major tournament again. He proved he could do it and that was enough.

But Tiger is something different.

And the reason this leaped out at me was that it's the same thing I've heard sportswriters and sportscaster say about Tom Brady. They marveled at his ability to perform year in and year out as if he had never won a championship before. He always played like those players who are hungry, with a longing to win the big one.

And so, as I watch this movie about Balzac, I see once again what separates the great ones from the herd. He had a vision for something major, and made sacrifices to nurture it, feed it, fan its flames... was even willing to be misunderstood for it, as revealed in this exchange...

Laure d'Abrantès: Whom do you love, besides yourself?
Balzac: I don't love myself. It's the work I carry within me that I love.

As I watch, I find it interesting how much my fictional interview with Balzac last summer seems so perfectly reflected in this portrayal by Gérard Depardieu.

Balzac: A Passionate Life is first and foremost a story about a writer. If you're a writer you will likely find a measure of inspiration in this telling of his story. It's been my experience, at least, that writers are drawn to other stories by writers about writers (eg. Martin Eden by Jack London, Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham), especially when it's a story well told.

The film was originally a min-series made for French television. Now it is a very long (200 minutes) film, best enjoyed episodically. Depardieu's portrayal of Balzac shows him as passionate, idealistic and eccentric, pursuing many women simultaneously and in constant battle with creditors. For sure the real Balzac's lifestyle was eccentric. He wrote all night and slept from six a.m. till just after noon each day. And, as the film shows, coffee was a staple of his life, no doubt for the caffein rush that provided his energy.

The version of the film that I've been watching is dubbed over in English, and it is probably the worst over-dubbing that I have ever seen, comparable to Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? Nevertheless, I have been enjoying the story because of its reminders about what it takes to achieve truly great things: a passionate flame in the breast that will not die, a commitment to work hard, a willingness to take risks and be misunderstood.

His was not a particularly happy life, but his own sorrows were not the theme of his work. In one scene a woman asks why he doesn't write about his own pain. He replies, "That doesn't make for good literature. A writer deserving of his name paints the suffering of others, not those which he sees in his own mirror."

While working on my lecture "Picasso, Storytelling and The Unknown Masterpiece" I was impressed by the motivations and qualities that drove such men as Picasso and Balzac. I later wrote a blog post on this theme titled Five Qualities Shared by Balzac, Picasso and Dylan.

To all my friends who are writers: write on!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tony Dierckens Talks About His New Book Featuring Rare Photos of Historic Glensheen

Duluth's Glensheen Mansion is a highlight for many tourists to this region. The estate is historic on several levels, and for many reasons it's become an emblem of Duluth's history and legacy.

On June 1 Duluth’s Zenith City Press released a new book unveiling rare photos from the early years of its construction and development, titled Historic Glensheen 1905–1930. The book is essentially a photo gallery of the estate, filled with images captured from the time construction began in 1905 until 1930, when the grounds had become lush and full. Many of the photographs (there are 115 in all) were captured in 1909, the year the Congdons first moved in; they show the house newly decorated and the estate landscaped just as Chester Congdon had envisioned, a mix of formal gardens and rustic trail systems. Later photos, taken after Chester’s death, show how Clara Congdon allowed the grounds to grow wild because, it was said, she enjoyed the privacy provided by the natural cover.

The book takes readers on a trip through time and a tour of the house beginning with photographs of the mansion and other buildings under construction between 1905 and 1908. Once inside you will find images of more than half of the mansion’s 39 rooms, including showplace spaces such as the library, living room, and breakfast room as well as the bedroom of every family member. The book then goes outside with images of the boathouse and pier, gardener’s cottage, and carriage house, as well as four greenhouses that have been lost to time. It also tours the estate’s grounds, following Tischer Creek upstream through the estate and into Congdon Park, built on land donated by the Congdons.

I first met Tony Dierckens at the beginning of 2013 and interviewed him here at that time. He's has spent a career in publishing, initially capturing national attention with his Duct Tape book. He has since made a name for himself as a Northland historian, helping to documet and preserve our history and all that it teaches us.

EN: What prompted you to assemble a book featuring photos of the Glensheen?

Tony Dierckens: I have been working with Glensheen for well over a year on another project, a full-color “coffee table” tour of the house and grounds and history of the family accompanied by some historic photos. Last December we decided to hold that project while we have many of the photos reshot. But that left a hole in our publishing schedule, so I asked Glensheen’s director Dan Hartman if they had any more historic images. He and Creative Director Scottie Gordonio went looking, and discovered several caches of photos, most never before seen by the public, from the time construction started until 1930. We knew we had a unique opportunity to show Glensheen in its glory as a family home.

EN: What is the significance of this early Congdon story?

TD: This book is not the history of the Congdon family, but is essentially an extended photo essay showing the home and grounds from the time construction began in 1905 until 1930, 15 years after Chester’s death.

EN: Who will be interested in reading/owning this book?

TD: Those with an interest in Glensheen, the Congdon family, historic architecture, interior design, the Arts & Crafts and Beaux Arts movements, landscape design, Duluth history, etc.

EN: It would seem there are many similar stories (I think here of Fairlawn Mansion) in which we get a glimpse of how the other half lived. Do you see a relationship between the Congdon family history and today’s Occupy Wall Street protests?

TD: Not in the least. It was a complete different time, with completely different issues driving economics. Also, Fairlawn and Glensheen, like the Pattison and Congdon families, actually share very few similarities.

* * * *

The book’s text, written by Duluth author Tony Dierckins, is sparse. “These photos really tell the story of what the Congdons first envisioned for their home and how it changed during its first 20 years,” Dierckins said. “My job was to get out of the way and let the photos do the talking.”

Glensheen will host a book release with author presentation and signing at the estate on June 9, 2015, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Title: Historic Glensheen 1905–1930
Subtitle: Photographs of the Congdon Estate’s First 25 years
Retail Price: $16.95 Publication Date: June 1, 2015

The book is available locally at the Bookstore@Fitgers as well as Barnes & Noble, and online at Amazon

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Shootout at the O.K. Corral

The other day while looking up information about Arizona I came across a link to the shootout at the O.K. Corral. With the weekend's headline announcing the shooting of Richard Matt and yesterday's capture of David Sweat, the two fugitives who escaped from a Federal prison on June 6, I thought it would be an interesting topic today.

The Wikipedia account of the shootout begins like this:
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a 30-second gunfight between outlaw Cowboys and lawmen that is generally regarded as the most famous gunfight in the history of the American Wild West. The gunfight took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. It was the result of a long-simmering feud between Cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury, and opposing lawmen: town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Earp, and temporary deputy marshals Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

In this case the lawmen won. Three of the cowboys were killed and two ran away. And yet it wasn't till 50 years later the incident reached the broader public, due to a largely fictional story about the life of Wyatt Earp. In the mid-1950s the legend grew even larger through a television show that aired for six years with a catchy lead-in ditty, "Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave courageous and bold." (Here's the song in full, as manly as the man. Not hard to imagine a Monty Python spoof on this one.)

While European writers were wrestling with issues of existence and meaning, 1950's Americans were taken up with B&W television heroes in a world where good and evil was highly defined in black and white.

What gave us such an insatiable thirst for Hollywood Westerns? When I Googled the question as to why Westerns were so popular in the 50's I came across this discussion thread with many insights. First, Westerns weren't just a staple of the Fifties. Hollywood had been making such features since the early silent movie days. Second, as more than one person noted, "They were simple morality plays that could translate to any audience and had slightly believable violence.... Also they were inexpensive to make."

When the film version of the O.K. Corral incident came out it featured Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday. How real the story gets told is anyone's guess, but Hollywood's aim at that point was financial.

There's at least one similarity between the O.K. Corral and the New York prison fugitives. Once bullets were fired the encounters with authorities were over pretty quick.

There's a difference between the two stories as well. Fifty years after the shootout in Tombstone a book was written about it and 80 years later a movie and television series. I can't help but imagine this most recent drama will be long forgotten in fifty years, if not fifty weeks by most of us. But then again, who knows? Maybe someone will write a book and sell the rights to Hollywood...

For the Wikipedia account: click this link.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Local Art Seen: 45th Annual Park Point Art Fair

Brady Glower's Photo Letter Project
A whimsical mosaic pig created by Joan Wilson of Shorewood.
Painting by Tonya Sell with crackle paste and string gel.
For locals, the Park Point Art Fair is a local summer staple, much like the annual Park Point Rummage Sale in which nearly every house on the Point has its array of stuff set out and prices, or so it seems. In this case, its fine art and crafts, wall art and sculptures, and a stage with a lot of fine music.

The setup is same as usual, and many of the artists are the same as well, mostly regional artists from the Twin Cities to the Iron Range. The weather for the weekend was most enjoyable, though a late afternoon storm broke around three o'clock and dampened some spirits.

I do have one complaint about the show. The handout with all the artists' names and information was less helpful this year. The artists were listed in various categories by their type of medium they worked in, from printmaking to jewelry to painting. This year they were listed in alphabetical order by last name. But if you don't recall the name, it becomes exceedingly difficult to find which artist you were talking with. I recommend contact information for everyone in next year's program.

Nevertheless, here are some of the things that caught my eye.
Husby ceramics have become a given here.
I recognized Escher's influence in Kyle Osvog's ceramic work.
Embroidery as fine art.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Woman's Prison -- A Review of the Audiobook

After hearing several people talk about the miniseries Orange Is The New Black by Piper Kerman I decided to borrow the audiobook from the library, read by Cassandra Campbell. Fortunately I have not seen the show based on this book, as it is apparently using only the title as a springboard for creative screenwriters whose aim is to produce a compelling series.

From the start I found the book well written. The opening chapter does what all good stories do, it hooks the reader and makes him or her want to keep turning the pages.

Kerman's story seems to be a frank account of how a young, carefree young person makes life choices that have serious consequences beyond anything they could have imagined. Midnight Express comes to mind here. In Kerman's case she got involved with a woman who was part of an international drug smuggling ring. Exciting times in exotic places seemed the story of her life, until it came time to pay and she ends up in the women's federal prison in Danbury.

There are more than four thousand reviews of the book on with 46% weighing in at five stars. But there are ample quantities of negative comments. Some found the book boring. Some didn't like the narrator like this one who states, "Didn't everyone really go to high school with Piper Kerman? She is just the stereotypical, little, mean-girl, blonde, who was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She makes an absolutely abysmal life choice, that she shrugs off as happening due to her being bored and adventurous, even though life has given her every advantage, and after 11 years finds herself dropped into the middle of the cesspool that is the American prison system."

I myself listened to the book as a writer, assessing all the decisions Kerman made as she told her story. The author had a delicate dance to do here. How frank should she be about her life choices? It would appear that she puts it all out there. Some say that she made the prison seem too much like a women's summer camp and not so bad, but it's clear from the numerous references to the challenge of keeping one's sanity and dignity that this was not a joyous picnic.

One of the criticisms of the book is that it's not as interesting as the television show. Well, the TV show doesn't have to be faithful to the facts. It can draw from all the stories ever experienced in women's prisons and while using Piper as a central character that serves to hold the stories together. There were no murders at Danbury the year she was there, for example. In fact, it would seem the biggest excitement was the possibility of Martha Stewart becoming an inmate there.

I agree with the Amazon reviewer who wrote, "It is written like a series of sequential articles rather than a narrative with true character development, but it still provides interesting insights into the rhythm of institutional prison life, with its mind-numbing bureaucracy and its mash-up of humanity trying to adapt or deal with incarceration. It is told from Kerman's pov, and thus her reactions to life in prison make up the bulk of the book, but she still provides a lot of food for thought about our prisons and the people who live in them."

It's clear throughout the book who has the power and who doesn't in a prison setting. The humiliation of being strip-searched or periodically groped has no recourse. And the ever-present threat of being sent to the SHU (Security Housing Unit, better known as solitary confinement) is a recurring theme throughout. The SHU comes up repeatedly as an ever-present reminder that you are an insect in the system.

The women at Danbury come from all walks of life, but there is a predominance of the poor -- black, Latino and white. Kerman is a college grad who had it good, but wound up in the tank. She had a boatload of support from her fiance, friends and family, and it was clear she had good prospects for her life after release. This is not the case for many, if not most, of the inmates she did time with.

Having just finished the book this morning, my fresh take here is that Piper Kerman has had an unusual experience that brought her many new insights about life, not only hers but the lives of others. I believe the book worth reading not only for hearing what prison life can be like but also for the insights she gained from the experience.

One of those insights was the observation that prison doesn't seem to be about helping people get rehabilitated. It's simply a form of punishment carried out with indifference by people who are simply performing a job.

And kudos to Cassandra Campbell for her reading. She did an admirable job in cnoveying the personalities of the various characters we  encounter along the way.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Is Sleep Overrated?

Why is it that some people say they need nine hours sleep and others say they need six? Some insist that eight hours is the requirement for everyone. My observation is that we all have different metabolisms so that defining the number of hours everyone else needs doesn't make sense. One thing is a given, though. Our bodies do need rest. And when we're exhausted, there's nothing quite as satisfying as a good night's sleep.

According to the National Institutes of Health, "sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety."

The NIH website goes on to say, "Sleep plays an important role in your physical health. For example, sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke."

Modern science has done a lot of research on sleep. They keep trying to figure out what happens with we dream, too. And what is it that makes deep sleep so beneficial?

You can read more of what NIH has to say on the subject here.

We've all sacrificed sleep at one time or another in our lives, especially if we've ever been parents. Fortunately those little ones become big ones and don't require our attention at all hours of the night.

Here are some quotes about sleep, some of them just for the fun of it.

“I’m not a very good sleeper. But you know what? I’m willing to put in a few extra hours every day to get better. That’s just the kind of hard worker I am.”
~ Jarod Kintz

“Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep.”
~ Albert Camus

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
~ Homer, The Odyssey

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.
~ Irish Proverb

"If a man had as many ideas during the day as he does when he has insomnia, he'd make a fortune."
~ Griff Niblack

"It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it."
~ John Steinbeck

"Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sleep is one of those things that we think about and talk about for the duration of our lives, in part because our sleep patterns change and in part how we feel is often directly related to how well we're sleeping at any point in our lives. This past winter I wrote a poem about sleep as if she were a lover: It's Time To Get Tired.

Right this moment, however, it's time to get dressed and head off to work. It's a new day. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Upcoming Art-Related Events in the Twin Ports

Am currently reading Orange Is The New Black by Piper Kerman. I can't tell if it's the writing that makes it gripping or the story. Both reasons make it a compelling read. If you want to know how the other half lives -- i.e. life behind bars -- you'll get a pretty good inkling here. In one week I heard three people talk about the television show, so was surprised to find it was based on a book. I shouldn't have been. To get an understanding of what the expression "Orange is the new black" means you can check out the discussion on Reddit.

This weekend is the 45th Annual Park Point Art Fair, and if the weather is nice you can go make a day of it. It's a two day event, which means you also get a chance to mow your lawn or go fishing one day and take in the fair on the other.

As many as 10,000 people cram their cars onto the end of Park Point when the art fair falls on a nice-weather weekend. Park Point Community Club (PPCC) and a pack of volunteers make it happen, though this year is expected to be bigger than ever due to a  2015 Festival Support Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board that allows for new interactive sights, sounds and more.

If you want to see how vast the creative energy is in our region, you can't do much better than this. It's all in one place, from functional art to fine art.

The PPCC is touting a number of new activities this year such as:

• Saturday visitors can witness and participate in an iron pour by Common Language art collective (opportunities for 60 people to make a metal tile);
• Sunday visitors can participate in printmaking with the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts.
• An Emerging Artists Tent will feature work by up and coming artists, including students from area high schools and colleges.

There's always music, and a wide range of food options to satisfy even the pickiest eater. For more details on this and other aspects of the event visit their Facebook page.

Rhubarb Fest
One of the funniest words in baseball is rhubarb. When an argument or a fight breaks out it is often referred to as a rhubarb.  Announcer: "This could be an interesting matchup with Sisco at the plate. He and Roger Clemens got into a real rhubarb last time they faced other."

Well this is not the kind of rhubarb you should expect in Duluth this weekend. On Saturday it's the annual Rhubarb Fest down at Leif Ericson Park on London Road. Rhubarb pie is only the beginning. After a day of all things rhubarb there will even be a rhubarb after-party at Red Herring Lounge.

See details in the Trib.

Estate Sale with Lots of Art
Someone sent me a note about an estate sale in Hayward with lots of art. The Round Lake Estate Sale runs from today through Sunday. Supposedly there's a ton of framed and unframed art, including a huge selection of wildlife prints, original art, some 3-D pieces....a few mid-century furniture pieces as well. Visit the Estate of Value website for details. In addition to the art (some of which you can see on this page here) there's all the other usual estate sale type of items from jewelry, coins and crystal to furniture and apparel and all the rest.

And if you're not in the mood for crowds you can just sit on your porch and read a good book. Why not?

Meantime, life goes on all around you.