Sunday, December 31, 2006

Weather Report

It's 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve, and the rain has turned to snow, which is nice. May 2007 be a better year with more peace and justice and hope.

Movie Reviews on a Cold, Rainy December Day

We rented three movies to see over the two holiday weekends. V for Vendetta is going back unseen. I was curious to see it, since I've noticed a pretty clear divide in opinions about it: people who haven't read the graphic novel like the movie, and people who know Alan Moore's work (including Alan Moore) feel the movie does not measure up. But we haven't been in the mood for a dark and violent movie.

Instead, we watched the second Pirates of the Carribean movie, which is dreadful. Johnny Depp wasn't even trying to act. He stole the first movie from everyone. In this one, he lost out to the tentacles in Davey Jones's beard, which are the only thing in the movie with charisma.

And we saw I Heart Huckabees. The copy on the DVD case described it as a laugh riot. No question it's funny, and Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are wonderful; but the movie is also a serious and (to me) disturbing discussion of existential meaning.

The most disturbing thing to me was the way the two protagonists are presented. Albert is an enviromental activist. Tommy is a fireman who worries about global warming. As far as I'm concerned, they are both utterly correct in their analysis: we can't go on the way we have been; the world has to change. But they both come across as humorless and inept. They are not going to change the world. They are utterly outclassed by Brad Stand, the corporate running dog who is out to destroy Albert, because Albert and his tiny environmental group are trying to protect a site that Brad's employer, the Huckabee chain, wants for a new store.

I don't think the writers and director are trying to make Albert and Tommy trivial. I think they are trying to show what it feels like to care about issues like the environment in a society dominated by organizations like Huckabees. You do feel humorless and inept. If you were cool, you'd be like Brad, on top of the situation and getting ahead, taking care of personal business, not caring what happens to the planet.

The movie is about the meaning of existence. Why am I living the life I live? Is there any point to it? At the end, Brad falls apart, because he finally comes face to face with the question of meaning and has no answer. Albert and Tommy are going to keep trucking. There is a wonderful final conversation. Tommy asks, "What are you doing tomorrow?" Albert replies, "I'll probably chain myself a bulldozer." Tommy says, "Maybe I'll join you. Do I have to bring my own chain?"

But I am still left with the movie's big question. Is there any point to what I -- me, the viewer, the science fiction writer who worries about global warming -- am doing? Albert and Tommy get a sort of answer, and I will have to see the movie again to understand it. I think it's a Buddhist answer. I suspect the most important part is -- keep trucking, which is both a Buddhist and an Existentialist answer. "There is only hope in action," Jean Paul Sartre said.

More about Politics on a Cold, Rainy December Day

Patrick, who keeps track of such things, says this is the warmest December since the 1930s. It should not be raining in the Twin Cities at the end of December. This isn't even freezing rain, though they are having freezing rain and sleet mixed with snow up north, which is why we are not driving up to visit Duluth today.

I have been looking for a quote from the English historian E.P. Thompson, which -- if my memory is at all accurate -- describes the Upper Midwest states as social democracies hidden in the center of a capitalist nation. I haven't found it, but I found this quote in an essay about the poet Thomas McGrath, who grew up on a farm in North Dakota in the early 20th century.

The Dakotas and Minnesota, so easily to be seen from the East or West Coasts are being way out there beyond the uttermost sticks, were in fact the heartland of a great and effective popular movement, inadequately described in the misty all-inclusive term as "populist." It was an active and democratic movement; the North Dakota Non-Partisan League was socialist in its origins, and demanded the state owenership of banks, grains elevators, etc. In 1919 the NPL caucus dominated the state legislature, created a state bank and grain elevators, imposed income and inheritance taxes, introduced assistance to home buyers, legalized strikes and brought in mine safety regulations. In the judgement of a contemporary historian, "no more dramatic demonstration of democracy has occurred in American history."

This movement was one of the few great impulses on the North American continent in the twentieth century which afforded premonitions of an American socialism or "communitas."

I don't think you can understand Minnesota, if you don't know about the Farmer-Labor Party and the NPL, which spread into northern Minnesota and helped create the FLP, the labor unions and the farmers' co-ops. They did not come out of nowhere, but in response (as Thompson says) to "a climax of exploitation by banks, millers, dealers and railroads." To this list of exploiters can be added the business owners here in Minnesota, whose less than kindly behavior led to events such as the 1934 truckers strike, when a picket line was put around the city of Minneapolis. At the time, the local business community was fiercely anti-union and business vigilantes -- guys in business suits with baseball bats, I kid you not -- helped the police confront the strikers. Two hundred people were injured. Four people died. But the Minneapolis truck drivers won their struggle to unionize. Their victory helped unionize trucking nationwide and was, per the Minnesota State Historical Society website, "a turning point in state and national labor history."

Thompson writes about how much American history has been disappeared, including the poetry of Tom McGrath. If you don't know McGrath, he is a splendid poet, the American Pablo Neruda, and like Neruda he was a lifelong political radical. The official historians and offical keepers of culture in the U.S. tend to be uncomfortable with people like Tom. So they and their work vanish or are mentioned only in footnotes. We in Minnesota are left with the impression that the things that make our state a decent place to live happened because of Minnesota niceness and a natural local tendency toward cooperation. Not so. It is the heritage of the people who organized unions and farmers' co-ops and political parties like the NPL and FLP.

The struggles aren't over. Nothing important is won without a fight or kept without a fight. Right now conservatives tell us that we can't afford social services, aid to education, aid to the cities and so on, though the state's historic commitment to such things has made Minnesota prosperous.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Grammarian's Five Daughters

One of the rare comments on this blog asked, "Where is the science fiction?"

It's here.

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts has published my story "The Grammarian's Five Daughters" in three limited-edition, handmade versions. The chapbook (200 copies) is $35. The standard version (60 copies) is $225; and the deluxe version (26 copies) is $550.

I work at MCBA and watched the books being made. There is hundreds of hours of labor in these publications, far more time than I spent writing the story. I am in awe of the people who did this work.

This is a partial description:

"The Deluxe Edition, lettered A through Z and signed by the author, illustrator and mixed media artist, is a 5.5" x 12" landscape volume with an accordian binding opening to over 40 feet. The hardcover boards are wrapped in aubergine Japanese bookcloth with insets of brushed aluminum and amethyst cabochons. The book is housed in a box covered in handmade plum and pearl momigami papers. Text is printed in black, plum and celadon on French mouldmade Rives Heavyweight. Pages are backed and hinged with olive handmade Japanese mullberry paper. Tipped-in mixed media illustrations, designed by Lin Lacy based on the artwork of Linda Koutsky, complement the story..."

This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am never going to get another book like this again. It's not likely, anyway...

Monday, December 25, 2006

Driving Downriver

Patrick and I drove south along the Mississippi yesterday (Christmas Eve). The day was partly cloudy. There is still no snow. About an hour south of the Twin Cities, the river spreads out into Lake Pepin, a long narrow body of water edged by wooded bluffs. The 19th century poet William Cullen Bryant said every poet in America should see Lake Pepin. The lake is mostly iced over, but there are patches on open water. When we came to the first patch, we saw dark dots on the ice, pulled into an overlook and pulled out our binoculars. The dots were bald eagles standing on the ice. Every few minutes, one would take off and fly over the water, looking for fish or a better place to stand. Ben Franklin thought the bald eagle was a shabby bird and recommended the wild turkey as our national emblem. There is an argument for the turkey, which I love, but eagle are magnificent looking and magnificent flyers.

We kept going south. There were eagles soaring over the bluffs, and eagles flying over the road (a two lane hardtop) on their way to the lake.

I think we saw a dozen or two dozen. This is not surprising. Eagles winter along Lake Pepin, because there is usually some open water. With the changing climate, this may change. It hasn't happened yet.

We stopped at BNOX, a lovely art gallery in the small Wisconsin town of Pepin, and did some last minute shopping, then drove home.

Why do I write these descriptions of ordinary days?

I'm trying to get down the pleasure of ordinary life. Science fiction is an over-the-top literature of pulp fiction action and big ideas. I love it and write it, but there is a lot to be said for a drive in the country that leads to no huge discoveries and no dramatic resolutions.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


I said I would talk about politics. It's a difficult topic, (a) because it's complex and (b) because I have strong opinions.

I suppose I should begin by talking about the Democratic Farmer Labor Party or DFL. It was formed in the 1940s by a merger of the Minnesota Democratic Party with Farmer-Labor, a local third party which dominated state politics in the 1930s. I hunted around on the Internet and found this description at Answers.Com:
The Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota was the most successful third party in American history. It drew its strength from and enlarged upon the state's sturdy Populist tradition...Its foremost standard-bearer, (Floyd B.)Olson, was unquestionably one of the great leaders of radical political movements in the nation's history, holding together a tenuous coalition of political groups that together formed the Farmer-Labor party. The party brought about widespread citizen participation in political affairs and increased the public's commitment to social justice. Its legacy includes not only the name of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party but also the strong orientation of Minnesota voters toward social concerns, progressive reforms, high taxation for a high level of public services, and, above all, the state's issue-oriented and independent political tradition.

The late US Senator Paul Wellstone can be seen as an example of the Farmer-Labor tradition within the DFL. He compromised some after he got to Washington, but as U.S. senators go he was not so bad.

(Note that I am speaking Minnesotan here. The spoken emotional range in Minnesota goes from "not so good" to "not so bad." "Not so good" can mean a little bit bad, pretty darn bad or very bad, and "not so bad" can mean a little bit good, pretty darn good or very good.)(You get to figure out where on the "not so bad" range I put Wellstone.)

The DFL is not a pristine progressive organization. There are plenty of boring party regulars and people who want to play it safe, which (in recent years) has meant edging to the right. There are even people who want to drop Farmer-Labor from the party's name. I guess you could say the Farmer-Laborites are still fighting it out with the Dems within the DFL.

Minnesota is a strong union state, though it's not alway easy to remember this in an era when America is deindustrializing and unions are shrinking. But most of the people who get elected to office in the core Twin Cities have lawn signs that say "Labor Endorsed." That endorsement matters in the Minneapolis and St. Paul and up north in Duluth and on the Iron Range.

It has more co-ops than any other state and leads the country in the volume of business done by co-ops, as I just found out by Googling. When you drive around the state, you notice that every small town seems to have at least one farmers' co-op. There are co-op creameries, co-op grain elevators, co-op power companies and co-op gas stations. The cities and larger towns have food co-ops, founded in the 1970s mostly; and there are also co-op credit unions.

This (to me) is the light side of Minnesota: labor unions, farmers' co-ops, all kinds of local organizations formed for all kinds of purposes, and the Democratic Farmer Labor Party.

There is a dark side to Minnesota, which I will discuss later.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

An Ordinary Day in Duluth

We have stayed in town on weekends for the past month. Our trip east for Thanksgiving was enough driving for a while. But today we went to Duluth. Per the Duluth shipping news, no ships were due through the canal this afternoon. So we drove up simply for the drive and to stop in our favorite shops in Canal Park. We saw two adult bald eagles on the way up, one sitting in a tree by the side of the Interstate, and the other coming in for a landing in a tree. The first was in the metro area, I think in St. Paul. The second was a little north of the metro area.

The day was overcast. There is no snow, because it hasn't been cold enough for snow to stay on the ground. (I will not mention the Greenhouse Effect.) The plus side is, the late fall grasses are visible, tan and gold.

Directly north of the Cities the trees are deciduous. Most are leafless now; and most of the bare branches are black or grey. But one kind of tree, I think willow, has yellow branches so bright that at a distance they seem to be holding onto yellow leaves.

When you get far enough north, into the cut-over, scrub forest that covers most of northern Minnesota, the forest is pine, aspen and paper birch. The birches have white branches. At a distance, they look like patches of mist among the pines. I like trees a lot, and it would be hard to pick a favorite tree. But paper birches in the winter are lovely, even without snow.

The best part of the trip was probably the moment we came over the hills above Duluth and saw the St. Louis River, the harbor and Lake Superior. Even on a grey day it's one heck of a sight.

We listened to Tom Waits and Sharon Shannon going up, and The Pretenders coming back; and we hit our usual shops in Duluth -- looking at outdoors clothing and North Woods art in the galleries in Canal Park.

The art verges on kitschy: photographs of wolves and the north shore of Lake Superior, pots decorated with bears, raven sculptures. But it's all made by real artists, most of them living in Northern Minnesota; much of it is technically good; and some of it is darn fine looking. Because the theme is the North Woods, it attracts people who are not usually art fans, but are fans of Northern Minnesota. I'm trying to decide if a little kitsch is okay, if it means art reaches people not usually interested in art. For that matter, it reaches me, even though I grew up in art museums. I like the North Woods and Lake Superior. There is something to be said for art that reminds me of places I like. I don't want to go too far in this direction. Sentiment does not excuse bad art. But if the art is handsome and well-made and looks like a raven, a bird I like a lot...

Back Again After Another Month

It's turning out to be harder than I expected to write a blog. When I do write, I seem to be relying on travel reports and pictures. Well, I like to travel, and photographs help me remember the trips. Why should I share the photos? One picture is worth 10,000 words. Given my writing speed, 10,000 words is several weeks of writing...

When I'm not traveling, my life consists of work, reading books and attending two writing workshops. There are also movies and the opera. I am passionate about politics, but haven't felt like writing about politics here.

My blog subtitle says I will discuss politics and economics. Maybe I should start. But first I will discuss my last trip, and Henry Richardson's insane asylum...

Psychiatric Hospital by H. H. Richardson in Buffalo, NY


Patrick and I drove east to spend Thanksgiving with my brother and sister-in-law. The way we drive it's three days each way. We take the interstate across Wisconsin, loop around Chicago, go across Michigan to Port Huron, into Canada and across southern Ontario, then back into the States at Buffalo and across Upper New York State. We stayed in Lansing the first night and Buffalo the second, taking time in the morning to visit three wonderful buildings: Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building, Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin Complex and a psychiatric hospital designed by H.H. Richardson. I think it would be fair to call all three masterpeices of American architecture. There was clearly a lot of money in Buffalo circa 1900, and people were spending their money on buildings and parks. Frederick Law Olmstead, the great landscape architect, designed the Buffalo park system and the grounds of Richardson's hospital.

We had seen all three buildings on a previous visit; and Patrick ran into a construction worker on the grounds of the hospital. The guy told Pat the hospital had fourteen foot ceilings and hardwood paneling that was six inches thick. The hospital was built at a time when people believed sunlight and fresh air were good for the mentally ill. The windows are numerous and huge. According to the construction worker, every window is a different size, which makes them difficult to replace.

At present it is empty. There are signs that say that construction is in progress. But I haven't been able to find out what's going to be done with it. It can't be turned back into a hospital, since it wouldn't meet code; and we no longer believe in putting the insane in opulent buildings full of sunlight and fresh air. Maybe it can be turned into luxury condos. But I don't think there are enough rich people in Buffalo these days. The Guaranty Building and the Martin Complex are being renovated, the first as the new home for a law firm. The second will be turned into a monument, open to the public. So they are both safe, but I worry about the hospital.

On the way back we stayed in Buffalo again and took a look at the Horseshoe Falls in the morning. It was a cold, overcast day with lots of mist and spray, which meant photographing the falls wasn't easy. But I liked the weather, and I liked the fact that November is not the tourist season. There were a hardy handful of tourists, many of them foreign, at the overlook above the falls. But most of the tourist attractions were closed -- except for the Falls themselves, which can be viewed from a Frederick Law Olmstead state park on the American side and a parkway with overlooks on the Canadian side.

I did not expect to be as impressed as I was. The falls are really big, and standing next to a wide expanse of falling water in moving.

Pat decided he wanted to make the second day of our trip a long one. We drove from Buffalo across southern Ontario and Michigan, hitting Chicago well after dark. The Chicago metro area is huge. The highway system is complicated, at least to us, and full of fast moving traffic and always under construction. We made it through without an accident and stopped for the night in a northern suburb. The last day is a slow drive across territory we knew: Wisconsin.

All in all, we traveled six days to spend three days with relatives. My brother and sister-in-law clearly thought we were a bit nutty. But it was nice to see the buildings in Buffalo, the Mohawk Valley in Upper New State in late fall sunlight, Niagara Falls, a salty (or ocean going ship) moving down the river in Port Huron. Patrick and I like to travel and listen to music and talk.

The Canadian side of Niagara Falls

The first and third photos are the Canadian Falls, taken from an overlook right next to them. You could step over the overlook fence and dip your hand into the water just before it goes over the edge. The second photo is a sign warning people not to climb over the fence. (It's a straight drop down to green and white, churning water.) The fourth photo is looking across the gorge to the American Falls, which are also impressive, though maybe not quite so impressive.

Darwin Martin Complex by Frank Lloyd Wright in Buffalo, NY

I realize these photos look arty. The Martin Complex is being renovated and is surrounded by fences. It was hard to photograph it without getting a lot of wire fence in, except by shooting through the porch of the one building currently in use.

Guaranty (or Prudential) Building by Louis Sullivan in Buffalo, NY