Friday, July 31, 2015

This is the Beginning

In the old days writers frequently kept notebooks where they jotted ideas, observations and snippets of conversations. These days much of this miscellany is stored in folders on our laptops, backup drives and in other virtual spaces.

As a columnist I often go through many false starts before I hit on a theme that I can carry all the way through. Many of these false starts are stored as seed for future articles.

This morning I found this bit of patter which found its initial impetus in a poem by Billy Collins titled Aristotle.

This is the Beginning

This is the beginning. Almost anything can happen. Except we’re writing for a ____ magazine, so it constrains our possibilities somewhat.

Being somewhat responsible the beginning has a purpose beyond merely hooking the reader. It is useful for telegraphing what’s to come, something akin to a billboard. It’s like an introduction at a party. You really don’t entirely know where it will lead, but you’re intrigued. You still want to go with it. And if it is a proper beginning it will not chew up too much of the real estate on this page because all the important parts need breathing room as they flow out from this, the beginning.

So, where are we going from here? That really is a question for so many aspects of life. When we try to see the future it’s a real problem because our only clues are the ones in our past. There’s a wall between today and tomorrow, and we don’t have a periscope to see over or around it.

The only thing we see with clarity is behind us. Even though we’re fond of saying “hindsight is 20/20” the reality is not really that way. All too often we filter events through a mental grid and misinterpret their significance. So it is that we have to become detectives and learn to recognize which clues are important, and when we connect the right dots a shape will begin to form.

* * * *

This is the end.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Belling the Cat: Another Fable of Aesop That Still Speaks Today

A week or two ago I received an interesting email from my daughter Christina regarding a book about translating poetry into different languages. The book's premises revolve around a French poem called "A une Damoyselle malade" by Clement Marot. My daughter wrote that "it's a cute little poem that is 28 lines long, each line has 3 syllables with the stress on the final syllable, and it's a string of rhyming couplets (AA, BB, CC...)" The author, Douglas Hofstadter, made a challenge to his translator friends to try to translate the poem and keep as many of these constraints as possible, and keep the same sort of vibe as the original poem, which is light hearted and sweet. She then shared the poem  with me and some of the translations she liked best because she thought I'd find them interesting. Which I did.

This came to mind because last night I was looking for a good translation of Aesop's fable titled Belling the Cat. When we were growing up I doubt there were many of us who ever considered that we were not reading Aesop's Fables in the original language, that these stories and many others we read as kids -- such as Grimm's Fairy Tales -- were originally conceived in some other language that may have had more nuanced connotations at times.

For example, in the 1990's my story "Terrorists Preying" was translated into French by a student working on his Master's degree. At the end of the project he contacted me regarding the challenge of translating the title, which in English conveys a bit of word play that gets lost in translation.

In my email exchange with Christina she shared several versions of the poem with me. The first was quite literal, but missed all the emotional weight and came across flat. The others took liberties and were much improved.

I decided to share two versions of the fable in part to show how different they can be. I like the telling of the tale better in the second one, but I like the wording of the story's moral better in the first. In either case, you can easily get the message.You can find this first version here at

Belling the Cat

The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:

"I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat's neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming."

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:

"I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?"

It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.

* * * *

Here's version two from the Harvard Classics.

Belling the Cat

LONG ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood.”

This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said: “IT IS EASY TO PROPOSE IMPOSSIBLE REMEDIES.”

* * * *

Whether you prefer one over the other, both illustrate perfectly one of my favorite maxims: "Everything is easy for the one who doesn't have to do it."

EdNote: For another blog post dealing with translating poetry visit my page on Rilke's The Panther

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

This Is My Best

This past week I listened to an audio lecture by Professor Elliot Engel called The Rise and Fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it he begins by making the case that there were only four major American authors in the twentieth century whose works would still be studied 200 hundred years from today. They would be Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald.

That's quite a short list, and Professor Engel makes his case as to why Fitzgerald should be included amongst the others. It's the same dilemma any time people make lists, whether it's who are the five greatest guitar players, jazz singers or inventors.

In 1942 The Dial Press pulled together a book titled This Is My Best in "America's 93 Greatest Living Authors" were asked to select their very best prose or poem and tell the readers why. If you like anthologies, and I always have, this one's unique feature is that the authors themselves are the ones doing the selecting, and the defending of their selections.

The book is 1180 pages and like many such books you're not likely to just pick it up and run through from start to finish. In fact, while you are not reading it you can use it as a doorstop.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is not one of the contributors because he'd died two years earlier. But the names of those who were included is fairly substantial. Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, H.L. Mencken, Stephen Leacock, Conrad Aiken, Morley Callaghan and George Ade make up the first section, titled The Man's Story. Quite a few heavies there, but a few who have already been near forgotten. The second section is titled The American Dream and it features selections from Archibald MacLeish, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, James Truslow Adams, Mark Van Doren, Bernard De Voto (a bio of Mark Twain), Dorothy Parker and Wolcott Gibbs.

One thing I do enjoy about anthologies like this is that they can introduce you to writers whom you were previously unfamiliar with. In the 1980's I spent quite a bit of time looking for new authors who I could then mine like a coal vein.

Considering that there are 93 authors covered, I won't list them all here, but there a dozens more whom we are all familiar with including Upton Sinclair, E.B. White (of Strunk & White fame), John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, Eugene O'Neill, Wallace Stevens, Ogden Nash, James Thurber, Lillian Hellman and John Gunther.

But it's the selections thatthey chose that are interesting. Hemingway selected The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Steinbeck selected The Leader of the People. Upton Sinclair selected an excerpt from his novel which he titled The Slaughter of the Pigs.

If you're here in the Twin Ports and interested in borrowing it, let's cross paths and you can have it for a spell. I have a stack of other books I am working my way through.

As for my own personal best, I would like to believe my story The Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston, from my eBook Newmanesque, is worthy of more lasting consideration.  Either that or my story Uuremembered History of the World, which can be found in my first published short story volume Unremembered Histories.

What is your favorite story? And if you are a writer, what do you consider your best?

Monday, July 27, 2015

First Impressions of the Documentary Film Amy

Last night went to see Amy, the tragic story of Amy Winehouse, whose light burned out in 2011.

If you're from my generation ("Talkin' 'bout my generation") you can't watch this film without remembering the sudden early departures of Janis, Jimi, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison.

When I first heard about this film being made I thought, "Who's going to play Amy Winehouse?" I didn't then know it was a documentary. Unlike generations past, we live in an age of video cameras and digital movies that capture far more of our lives than ever in history, and with painstaking effort director Asif Kapadia pieced all these pieces together into a coherent overview of her short and tragic life.

There were many thoughts this film stimulated. First, the consequences of fame, especially on young artists who become megastars. Dylan survived it by means of a motorcycle crash that led to a break from touring for several years and enabled him to re-center. At 74 he is still going strong.

I once read an interview with Malcolm McDowell in which he stated that an actor's career has three stages, and that stars don't always transition well from youth to middle age to elder statesman. The same can no doubt be said for performing artists. What would have come next for James Dean, Marilyn, Kurt Cobain?

Second, what an incredible talent Amy Winehouse was. If you were not familiar with her incredible voice before, then you'll be somewhat amazed at what she was able to do with those vocal chords. Yes, she is worthy of being compared to the great ones, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. And it was something she was quite serious about at a very early age. Her interest in jazz came first, hence her real fame in the broader pop world was a relatively short time frame. She'd been riffing in clubs for many years beforehand.

Third, there seemed to be an inevitability in the story that made the film haunting. Of course this was a self-destruction that was being played out on a very public stage, and we all knew the film's end from the beginning. But it seemed that everyone around her could see it and one wonders how no one was able to stop it.

The broken home and pain from her childhood is another common denominator in the self-destructing superstar stories. Kurt Cobain's anger stemmed from that poisoned fount. But you don't have to be famous to self-destruct. That's an epidemic all too pervasive in our current culture.

Winehouse was a unique talent, both a gifted singer and songwriter. She pushed the boundaries and got swallowed in the chaos that became her life. It's not a film for everyone, though instructive and insightful for anyone who goes.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Luxury of Clutter (Revisited)

“The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don't.” ~ Marie Kondo

Saturday afternoon I continued my battle against the clutter in my life. It was the 25th and my goal was to eliminate 25 more things from my garage. Thursday the 23rd I rid the garage of 23 items. Today 26 will be the target, and it shouldn't really be a problem. What's immediately noticeable is how much we can get rid of without making a dent.

Based on the fact that you can't take it with you, at some point during the arc of our lives we will eventually need to start downsizing, to let go of all of it. Why, then, is it so hard?

It could be worse, as Eddy Gilmore's Emancipation of a Buried Man reveals. But I'm surprised what a never ending battle it is.

Mexico, 1981

When I reflect on it, I get the impression that there's more clutter in America than in any country in history. In 2008 when I wrote about this the thought I had at the time was that clutter is a luxury. It's the downside symbol of America's wealth and success. Think of the efficiencies required for impoverished people to raise a family in a two room house. There is simply no room for all this baggage we store.

Our refrigerators and freezers are so large that as much food often goes bad as gets eaten. This simply doesn't happen in rural Mexico, Haiti or Pakistan.

As a writer I have developed the bad habit of believing "someday I will use that article" or that folder of notes, doodles, ketchup labels, or whatever. As an artist, too, it gets difficult to let go of the rest of this debris, because it does glisten and glitter so. And these rocks, wires, pens, notebooks.... 

In looking back over my eight years of blogging I've noticed this is a recurring topic, and I'm at a loss as to how to deal with it. Except, as Bob Marley famously sang, "Don't give up the fight."

In the end, if we don't deal with it, someone else will have to.  What's your exit strategy?

Recommended readings: Clutter's Last Stand by Don Aslett, Organizing from the Inside Out byJulie Morgenstern. Or just do a Google search and fire up your motivation with whatever stokes you.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Catch a Snapshot of History with the Eastman Johnson Exhibit at the St. Louis County Historical Society

Ojibwe Wigwam in Grand Portage
He was a co-founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with his name inscribed on the entrance. Though best known for his paintings of everyday life, he also had the privilege of painting such significant Americans as Abraham Lincoln, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the 1850's he was known as The American Rembrandt. And this summer a collection of his drawings and paintings is featured in the Depot courtesy the St. Louis County Historical Society.

It's actually an unusual and even remarkable collection of pieces, and how it came about is equally fascinating. New England-born in 1824 Eastman Johnson was the youngest of eight children. When he grew up his interest in art was cultivated through an apprenticeship with a lithographer. At age twenty he supported himself in Washington, D.C. by means of making drawings, two of his subjects being Dolly Madison and John Quincy Adams. In his twenties he went to Europe and studied painting in Düsseldorf, Germany. This interest was furthered by studying at The Hague in the Netherlands where he studied the Dutch Masters.

Notin E Garbo Wik
Eastman's skills were quite quite advanced upon his return to the States, and his interests greatly expanded. In 1856 he made a trip to our region in order to visit his sister in Superior, Wisconsin. This was before the land grants that brought trainloads of people to this then-remote region of the country. He obtained a mixed-race guide named Stephen Bonga, who was Ojibwe and African-American, and visited the native Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) peoples here in the Northland. Throughout 1857 Johnson painted at Grand Portage, the Apostle Islands, and Isle Royale.

It is a collection of paintings from this period which you will find on display here at the Depot. His draftsmanship skills are immediately evident, but of special interest is are the beautiful surfaces on the paintings. The exquisite subtlety is most likely missed by the casual observer, but the beautiful manner in which he almost stains the canvas with color is worth a closer look, especially by fellow painters.

In addition to the paintings by Johnson there's a full-sized birchbark canoe in the gallery space matching one that appears in a painting here. There's also another Ojibwe artifact with an estimated 40,000 beads in it's designs.

The local Masonic Temple has been a conservator of the collection and it is a very special gift to the community for these works to be shared here.

Highly recommended; visit the Plein Air exhibition in the John Steffl Gallery and then take time to take in the Eastman Johnson works on display here. Take the elevator to the fourth floor, turn right and walk through the door toward the stairs. The entrance to this space will be on your left.

Ojibwe Women
Grand Portage
Ojibwe Girl
Camp Scene
Some of the information for this blog post came from the Wikipedia story on Eastman Johnson.

The official title of the show is "Eastman Johnson: Paintings and Drawings of the Lake Superior Ojibwe." The works have been made available courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, in association with the St. Louis County Historical Society.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Tribute to Billy Hallquist and Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan

There are two free music events coming up on July 29 in Maple Grove, MN and August 1 in St. Louis Park, MN. These are a Tribute to Billy Hallquist and also the Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan. Billy is in a fight against cancer and he got these musicians together every year to play Dylan tunes and fundraising for a good cause. Now these great musicians will play for Billy and Bob.

For years Billy has played a central role in organizing musicians for free concerts to raise money for organizations like Guitars for Vets and the Armory Arts and Music Center. His musician friends are now wishing to give back to the man who gave so much. Everyone I have talked to who has been to these shows in years past says they are a great time. Certainly the Northland shows have been phenomenal.

For more about Billy: Salud 

To place a reminder about these concerts on your Facebook Events page.

May the music keep you ever young.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Authenticity: An Excerpt from Rollo May's Book On Tillich

While making a half-hearted attempt to get of more things from my garage this weekend I was sifting through books to discard (donate to library) when I noticed a page in Rollo May's Paulus that I had tabbed. Paulus is May's portrait of twentieth century existential theologian Paul Tillich. (You can read my review of Tillich's autobiographical On The Boundary here. )What follows is an excerpt from a chapter titled Paulus' Personal Presence.

Paulus believed that every encounter with a new person is anxiety-creating. Anxiety is present in every authentic encounter, to is, one in which people let themselves genuinely meet. This anxiety is the dread of freedom; in Kierkegaard's words, it is the "dizziness of freedom." You don't know what is ahead or what demands the encounter may make upon you, or the possibilities in this new relationship. You know you must risk something in order to go through with it, but you don't know how much. Also the pleasures, delights and joys it can give are still unknown. The meeting my jar you off your present course. It may bring a new expansion in your life or it may push you toward curtailment and psychological slavery.

The following page he continues...

The instinctive reaction is to protect oneself until the coast is clear, to hide one's own originality, one's impulses and native responses. The mechanics for doing this lie in the standards of courtesy, good manners, and so on, under whose aegis we conceal our authentic selves. But we do it at a price of falsifying ourselves. No matter how "necessary" such protection is, or the fact that no one could survive without such social forms, it is still very important that this protecting of oneself be done consciously. I you repress and do not know you are repressing, there is a danger of suffocation, a stultifying of the self. The problem of honesty in personality relationships is difficult indeed.

The operative word here is authentic. In the first paragraph he speaks of authentic encounters with others. In the second he speaks of our authentic selves, as opposed to false impressions and insincere self-projections.

We've become accustomed to politicians being "crafted" to fit an image that will sell, as if he or she were a brand. This political gamesmanship has become nauseating for many voters because in an era such as our we crave authenticity. It is because of these absurd election games that someone like Jesse Ventura got elected as governor, simply because he came across as real.

Rollo May is not talking about elections and news spin here, though. He is addressing our day-to-day encounters and how we carry our selves. Paul Tillich, he says, was strong enough to not conceal his weakness. According to May's account he didn't need to put on armor when he went about his business. He remained vulnerable, and sensitive. He accepted the risk of being hurt, or fulfilled.

Authenticity is about more than just being real. It means being credible and true. But the dictum "To thine own self be true" assumes you know who you are. You can't be true to yourself until you first know who you are, though. Simba in The Lion King forgot who he was and nearly missed his calling lost as he was in the land of Hakuna Matata.

What's your calling? Do you have ambitions that you conceal for fear of being ridiculed? Are you stuck in a place that doesn't feel like you? Where do you really want to go? What do you really want to be? Are you tired of the games?

O.K. that's enough. Time to get dressed and get to work. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

When the Deal Goes Down -- Another Dylan Confession of Faith?

"When the Deal Goes Down" is the fourth cut on Dylan's 2006 release Modern Times, an album that received immediate critical acclaim and praise from his fans. The album reached number one the week it was released and was Dylan's first album to reach number one since Desire thirty years earlier.

While listening to the album recently I became curious who the "you" was that this song seems directed toward. That is, was it a person or something higher? Each stanza closes with the line "I'll be with you when the deal goes down" so that it begs the question, what is the deal and who is the you.

One of the songs on the album New Morning is "If Not For You," which seems addressed to a woman ("Babe, I'd lay awake all night...") but feels like something more could be meant, and in the hands of George Harrison it indeed comes across that way as Harrison himself was well into his own spiritual quest as evidenced by some of the other content on his All Things Must Pass. I get the feeling this latter is how Dylan is performing it here.

"When the Deal Goes Down" is sung in a waltz-like cadence that is both gentle and evocative. The syllables vary from line to line, but the cadence is maintained in the way he sings it.

The song open with a lyrics that point to the ancient wisdom. The Bible at one point states, "God is light" and in Old Testament vernacular God is referred to as the "Ancient of Days." The combination of these two identities merge into the first reference, "the world's ancient light."

In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I'll be with you when the deal goes down

The song in some ways is like a Psalm of David. By using the word prayer here Dylan is investing religious language into this modern song. And the statement  "we live and we die" carries massive amounts of weight as well. It's a song about big questions.

We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

In the second verse he again pulls an image from the Scriptures: "the same thorny crown." Does Dylan do things like that by accident? Sometimes his symbols flow into a song from who knows where, but this seems too deliberate.

The third third verse speaks to other matters on the road of life, including references that could easily be taken from this section of the Sermon on the Mount. God takes care of his sparrows and the flowers of the field which are here today and gone tomorrow. Why to you worry so oh weary traveller? And indeed, like a vision from the skies "you" come to my eyes...

The moon gives light and shines by night
I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O'er the road we're bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

In many of the Psalms the author (often David, but not always) begins by laying out his complaint. He is trapped and frustrated, in a miry pit or he's envious of the success of evil men, or in some other quandary. But by the psalm's end he has the right perspective back again. He sees the situation from the point of view of eternity, and has regained his peace or joy. And so it is here, after expressing his very human struggle, he gets things back in perspective.

The song is sung melodic and slow, with no hint of lament. "You'll never see me frown" he says and closes this last verse with candor, "I owe my heart to you", and confidence. "And I'll be with you when the deal goes down."

I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard a deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

More could be said about the deafening noise, the rose and other Biblical allusions (eg. Rose of Sharon), but these are enough. In the end, what's the deal? It's a transaction.

What's striking to me about "When the Deal Goes Down" is how different in character it is from the explicit directness of his mid-career Gospel period. He's not preaching to anyone here. He's just speaking with tenderness to Someone he loves.

What I hear Dylan saying is that although we live in a world where things have changed, in the midst of it all the old time stories still live.

The lyrics to this song are Copyright © 2006 by Special Rider Music

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

CALL FOR POETRY: 2015 Farm/Art DTour

Are you clever? Are you competitive? Do you like word play?

The Fermentation Fest has put out a call for Upper Midwest poets to contribute short poetry for the Farm/Art DTour. They're calling the event A Live Culture Convergence. If you're old enough to remember those Burma Shave signs we used to see on the way to grandma's house, you'll grasp the principle behind this competition.

Upper Midwest writers are invited to submit short poems relating to food, fermentation, agriculture, art or the land which can be turned into a set of Burma Shave-style signage on a 50-mile stretch of scenic farmland in Sauk County. Sounds like a fun, retro way to create some buzz for the Farm/Art DTour.

When I was a kid in the fifties and early sixties our family frequently took drives from Cleveland to my grandparents home in Warren, Ohio. I have a lot of memories from that one hour drive including parachute jumpers, sparrows caught in the grill of the car, fifties rock 'n roll that was playing on the radio, and yes, those Burma Shave signs.

I did a bit of quick research on this last night and discovered that the first Burma Shave roadsides were introduced here in Minnesota. I bet you didn't know that. 1925.

Follow this link for lots of images related to these Burma Shave signs.

What a great marketing concept. I don't know what the signs cost, but the brand was established by means of its ubiquity and the humorous manner in which it reached the general public.

Oh, so back to the contest! The objective will be for writers to submit short poems that can be displayed along the roadsides of the Farm/Art DTour route like Burma Shave signs. Submissions will be evaluated by Wisconsin poet laureate Max Garland. Winners will receive $100 for each poem selected. There will be six poems selected.


DEADLIINE is July 31, so put your thinking caps on. Let the games begin!

* * * *
Find out more about the Fermentation Fest here.

Learn more about Burma Shave history here on Wikipedia.

Read a radically vast collection of Burma Shave jingles here.

If you want to skip all the links and just Submit Poems for the DTour email your entries to

Have Fun
With Your Number One
Go Pickin'
In The Sun

Meantime, life goes on....

TIP OF THE DAY: The more birthdays you have, the longer you'll live.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Contemporary Plein Air Painters Converge On Duluth

"After a Hard Haul" by Tom McGregor
Last night was the opening reception for the Plein Air exhibition at the Duluth Art Institute. Plein air painting means "open air" and during this past week several dozen artists were in Duluth painting up a storm, or rather, quietly capturing the rich and varied scenes of our remarkable port city. When you go to the show, which is hanging in the Steffl Gallery, you will quickly realize how many cool things we have here that are not readily found elsewhere. The Great Lake, the trains, the ships, the parks, the nature trails all the hills with vistas all offer themselves up as subject matter to be caressed by the artist's eye.

Painters translated scenes from Jay Cooke Park to Leif Erickson to Park Point to Glensheen and Lester River. We have roses in the rain, the aerial lift bridge at night, we have a morning dip, gardens, beaches and sunsets. Some of the works appear to be photographs till you get up close. At least that's how I felt about one of the works that had been done in pastels. I thought to myself, "This is painting, not photography, right?" I got up close and felt a measure of awe.

If you are able, make the Duluth Art Institute a destination sometime this next month or so. Between this and the Comic Book Art you will have a rewarding experience.

Hanging a show always includes attention to detail.
"Crooks, Crown Jewel" by Mary Pettis
Jay Cooke State Park "Enhanced by the Beauty of the Hard Wood Forest" by Patricia Duncan
"Duluth Nocturne" by Wendy Lacksa
"Liftbridge at Night" by Tom Dimock
"I've Been Working" by Mary Pettis
"Glensheen Rose Arbor" by Tom Dimock
"Monday Morning at the St. Louis County Courthouse" by Allison Eklund
"This Way to the Tennis Court" by Neil Sherman

Go see them in person if you can. This is but a sliver of what you will find.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Nine Opening Lines To Dylan Songs That Impress Me

After Paul Simon's Graceland album came out, incorporating the emerging "world music" vibe into American rock in such a marvelously new way, I watched a video documentary about Simon returning to South Africa, performing and touring. In one segment he was teaching a group of young people on how to write songs. What I recall specifically was a statement that went like this: "Begin with one true sentence and follow it with another."

This memory came to mind this past week because of the opening line of a Bob Dylan's "Sugar Baby", which has been re-playing itself in my head for the past two weeks or more. "I got my back to the sun 'cause the light is too intense." It is such a great line to open a song with. First off, it captures a truth on a physical level, but because it's Dylan or because it's poetry it whets the appetite for whatever will follow, and definitely because it's Dylan you don't know what to expect but know it will be satisfying on some level.

The combination of these two ideas (Paul Simon's advice and the first line of Sugar Baby) led me to go back in time to find opening lines to various songs from the Dylan catalog that I thought especially fascinating, powerful or enigmatic... opening lines that made you say to yourself, "Wow, where is this going? I'm on the train. Let's find out."

It's generally agreed that Dylan is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, lyricists of all time. I thought it might be fun to lay out a handful of opening lines to various songs from his catalog. Here are ten, an arbitrary number, because it could have been a dozen or twenty or more. Enjoy.

Sugar Baby
I got my back to the sun 'cause the light is too intense
I can see what everybody in the world is up against

I started with this because it's an opening line I have been mulling over for somewhere in the neighborhood of two weeks or more. "I got my back to the sun 'cause the light is too intense." For some reason it just floors me. The song is from Love and Theft, which was released on 9-11... the day of the disaster that altered contemporary American history. Dylan is spot on with the follow up line, giving ambiguous definition to the first line. This is a great album and a rich opening line.

Visions of Johanna
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

It's generally agreed that Blonde on Blonde is one of Dylan's great albums, some say his best. The artist reached for great heights and, according to the historians, became uncompromising in his effort to produce that sound that he aspired to. But for those who find lyrics stimulating and significant, this album is filled with dazzling original work. "Visions of Johanna" is such an achievement.

Like many of the rest of these opening lines I'm in awe at how he lays down a story, line after line, with such originality. He is the consummate storyteller producing layered enticement. Ask yourself, "If I were hearing this for the first time, where is this going?" And where it goes flows so naturally, and unnaturally, out of these splendid opening lines.

Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?

As nearly all Dylan fans and followers know his career has unfolded in a series of phases with transitions. Street Legal is the Seventies album that preceded his Gospel period which kicked off with Slow Train Coming. Several songs hint toward the change which was to come, most overtly this one.

Although "Señor" is literally the Spanish word for "Mister" it is also the word used for "Lord" in Latin American churches. It implies "Master" as well. The opening line references the classic emblem for the end times, Armageddon. It also makes the listener wonder the very thing that singer is taling about... where is this song going? Seems like we've been down this road before, but is it only an echo? Once you're hooked in you go with it, confident of a payoff.

Like a Rolling Stone
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you

It's not possible to talk about great opening lines without going here to one of the great songs in rock history, so ahead of its time, so pointed and refined. Once you know the song you can see how the whole is contained in the kernel of this introduction. And when you think about it, this song ties to the first in this list: the light is so intense. It's not pretty. Look at where you were, and where are you now?

Desolation Row
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town

Any number of songs from this period do it to me, but this one, when I am on the road, is the song of choice to make me feel at home. If you don't know the song, how can you possibly comprehend where it's going by this opening. The only thing you know is that it's totally original and you really must go with it to find a key to this parade of images. Some believe there is no key, but I take another stance, that the last stanza opens a door so we catch a glimpse.

Ballad of a Thin Man
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

Right off, those ominous introductory piano chords let you know this no ordinary song. Holy buckets, where's this one going? Some day I will write all my thoughts on this song, but here I will only suggest that it is one of the boldest songs of its era, almost disorienting by the imagery it hits you with. John Lennon references it in Yer Blues, side three of the White Album.

All Along The Watchtower
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief

This pair of lines so resonates with the human spirit, expresses so much. There's a discussion taking place, a joker and a thief. You want to know what it's about, where it will go next. How can you not? But anyone who has taken a nominal interest in poetry or in Dylan will grasp that the lines evoke so much more. It is not only about their situation, temporal and local, but easily conveys human universals.

Not Dark Yet
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal

Like so many of Dylan's songs it's not just what he sings but how he sings it that moves you. Time Out Of Mind has a number of songs that appear written and sung by a heavy-hearted, world-weary sojourner. Not Dark Yet shows that he understands what it's like to stand at the edge of the abyss, what it's like to have been shattered. Will the songwriter find a basis for hope?

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?

Three songs here from Blonde on Blonde, the third in Dylan's trilogy that cemented his stature as an artist. Sad-Eyed Lady was the last cut on the double album and one of the longest of his many long songs.

It's a song that has been both praised and vilified as noted in this entry from the Understanding Bob Dylan blog. Once again, just the manner in which he sings it conveys something.

There's something dreamlike about the imagery, and like dreams you don't always know where those images come from, or even what they mean, yet they are interesting. There's something happening here, but do we really have to know what it is? Like a Dali painting it's engaging even when we're not sure how to define it.

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As any Dylan fan can attest, this could easily be a much longer blog post. There are so many great opening lines one could talk about. What are some of your favorites?

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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Woody Allen Weaves An Uncommon Tragedy in Cassandra's Dream

Just finished watching Woody Allen’s most recent release, Cassandra’s Dream, starring Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor, among others. There are many great facets of the film, including the superfine way Allen creates fully developed characters with a minimal number of brushstrokes. He’s a master in this regard.

A follow up to Match Point, the film has the same seriousness, setting (England), ironies, and mix of characters with their different generational viewpoints and motivations. The characters are transparent to the viewer, but not to one another. In this regard, the screen writing is brilliant.

It is a story of two brothers -- and their love interests as well as family ties -- who have character flaws. Each has dreams that require money, and each seems intent on escaping the responsibilities of the family business to pursue what are patently foolish paths. At one point the brothers reminded me of some of Elmore Leonard’s criminals who are both smart and foolish. The outcome of the film was from the beginning self-evident, why could they not see it coming? Yet people do these kinds of things all the time. The music track alone tells you this is a tragedy and going to have a bad ending.

I did have a problem with the Philip Glass soundtrack on one level. Yes, it worked well in this film, but for me it evoked The Illusionist. If someone pointed this out (and someone must have) I can picture Allen saying, “That’ll work. Not that many people will have seen both films.” Or something to that effect.

That may be the one weakness of the film, not the music, but the decision to not push something to another level. Mr. Allen’s philosophy of film making is not to produce great art. It is to get the stories out. He is undoubtedly filled with stories, and simply doesn’t waste time on time consuming details. Or so it seems.

For this reason, despite the fabulous acting and great dialogue, crisp character development and tight story, the movie might not receive its share of critical acclaim. But then, in reading his book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, he owns up to the fact that he is not striving to be Bergman or Fellini. He does not wish the comparison to be even made. He is simply a man who loved the movies, and who has lived out his dream of being able to make movies. Ultimately, he probably doesn’t really care what the critics think, which is a nice place to be if you can get there.

In the end, I would have re-shot at least two or three moments in the film that should have been re-shot to “get it right.” Though maybe in the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter. There is much to like here with its echoes of Greek tragedy and other classic moments in literature. (The scene in the bedroom felt eerily close to the problem Raskalnikov encountered in Crime & Punishment, undoubtedly intentional.)

The film has sensuousness as a theme with almost none of the usual Hollywood demonstrativeness. It hints, rather than reveals.

The title for the film comes from the name of a boat which the brothers buy. The name Cassandra is taken from mythical Greek tragedy. Cassandra was loved by Apollo, but ended up being cursed by him when she did not return his love. Her gift of being able to foresee the future was forever a source of pain and frustration for her. The viewer of this film, like Cassandra, knows from the first that things will turn out bad, but can do nothing to stop it.

As is often the case, “The best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry.” Or to quote a maxim of my own, “We tend to get what we want, but we usually get more than we bargained for.”


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Sarah Brokke at The Red Herring

Two seriously talented local painters: Sarah Brokke (L) with Elizabeth Kuth
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This week, the Duluth Art Institute has been hosting a major even called Plein Air Duluth. 35 painters from across the country are spending a week here to do "open air" painting in the Northland. You can read details here and see their work at the DAI from July 17 till the first week in September. You may also follow along and see some of the amazing paintings being produced each day by means of the Facebook page that has been created for to document this week's activities.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Cool, huh?

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