Monday, December 31, 2007

2007

2007 was a good year. I'm going to miss it. We spent the first seven and a half months in England, soaking up as much as we could of that beautiful, historic, strange little country. Last January, I visited my first medieval cathedral, Winchester Cathedral, and stood at the foot of Jane Austen's grave. I was, at the time, a year older than she was when she died. My wise blog friend Louise has been thinking similar thoughts about the turning of the year and the passing of time. Such thoughts are probably inevitable. As Charles Lamb wrote nearly 190 years ago: "No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left."

In my days as a moody college student, it was my custom to read Lamb's essay on mortality, "New Year's Eve," while sitting by the fire on the last evening of the old year—

Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that "such as he now is, I must shortly be." Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the mean-time I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters! Thy New Years' Days are past. I survive, a jolly candidate for 1821. Another cup of wine...while that turn-coat bell, that just now mournfully chanted the obsequies of 1820 departed, with changed notes lustily rings in a successor...

It means so much more to me now, when I am two years shy of the age Lamb was when he wrote that essay. I survive, a jolly candidate for 2008. Another cup of wine... A New Year's toast to all of you, my friends!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some Favorites of 2007

Music. I heard so much wonderful live music in 2007, beginning with The Sixteen at Tewkesbury Abbey in March in a concert featuring sixteenth-century music from the Sistine Chapel. The high point of the concert was a performance of Allegri's famous Miserere, with the high C's provided by the young Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas. Her debut solo disc, Eternal Light, was one of the recorded highlights of the year. She has a beautiful, clear, pure voice. I recently compared her recording of Handel's "Eternal Source of Light Divine" with Kathleen Battle's lovely recording with Wynton Marsalis from the early 1990s. Battle's voice is beautiful, but darker and heavier, more operatic. I prefer Thomas's silvery voice, filled with more light than darkness. If the disc has one flaw, it's that the second half is a bit too heavy on slow, sad selections, including two lachrimose pieces by Dowland and Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth," from Dido and Aeneas. But the last selection, "Pur ti miro" from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppaea (a duet with countertenor Robin Blaze), is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the disc is only available in the U.S. as an expensive ($35) U.K. import.

Another favorite disc of 2007 was Po' Girl's Home to You, featuring the wonderful vocals of Allison Russell. Treat yourself and check out some of her songs on Myspace. I'm looking forward to her next project, the debut CD by Sofia, the duo she formed with fellow Po' Girl Awna Teixeira.

Reading. It would be impossible to choose my one favorite book of 2007. But my favorite overall reading experience was probably that of reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them in the tiny back garden of our English house in the midst of the most beautiful spring I've ever experienced. The novel, published in 1948, is about life in a fourteenth-century convent in Norfolk—about politics, plagues, and personalities as well as about the spiritual lives of the nuns. In a season in which I visited the ruins of the great medieval monasteries at Rievaulx and Whitby (pictured on the book cover), Warner's novel brought those places alive for me. Sylvia Townsend Warner is a marvelous writer. If you haven't read any of her novels, treat yourself and pick up a copy of Lolly Willowes, which is probably her most widely-available novel (and was the first-ever selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1926). Warner is a kind of fantasy writer for grown-ups (she was also the biographer of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King). There's an element of fantasy and otherworldliness in much of her work, but the worlds she creates—her fictional fourteenth century, the imaginary tropical island of Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the fairy world in Kingdoms of Elfin—become thoroughly real to the reader.

Other books I loved in 2007 (not previously mentioned in this blog) were Elizabeth Kostova's smart blend of bibliophilia, travelogue, and vampires, The Historian; Marghanita Laski's satire, both biting and elegiac, of the post-war decay of the British class system, The Village; and Karen Lystra's almost novelistic study of Mark Twain's last years, Dangerous Intimacy.

TV. On the BBC, Planet Earth and Dr. Who. David Tennant's Tenth Doctor is brilliant, and his latest companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), is the hottest. One much-anticipated television event of 2007, the ITV "Jane Austen Season," failed to live up to the hype. Two of the new adaptations were mediocre (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey), and one was awful (Mansfield Park, starring Dr. Who's erstwhile companion, the woefully miscast Billy Piper). You can judge for yourself when Masterpiece Theater airs the three ITV efforts as part of "The Complete Jane Austen" in 2008.

Theater. Shakespeare's History Plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The experience of seeing all three parts of Henry VI in less than twenty-four hours was revelatory and amazing. One of the great theater experiences of my life. The stage became an entire world, and the history of that world unfolded before my eyes in all of its brutality, poetry, and splendor. At the same time, Shakespeare seemed to mature as a playwright before my eyes, until he became the master magician of the English language who produced the incomparable poetry of Richard II.

Ale. There was so much superb ale to be drunk in England, but the pint I remember with the most fondness was Cameron's Creamy, from Cameron's Brewery in Hartlepool, as drunk at the friendly Poacher's Barn pub in Osgodby, Yorkshire.

Blog Post. How could I resist including among my favorites a blog post about me?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

North Shore Ski Holiday

Sunrise over Lake Superior, seen from the window of our cabin at Solbakken Resort in Lutsen, Minnesota. Saturday, December 29, 2007.

Clara and I moved to Minnesota in August 1990, and this week we made our long-overdue first trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior. We had reservations for three nights in one of the cabins at Solbakken Resort, near Lutsen, Minnesota. We started out at 10:00 am on the day after Christmas and arrived at Solbakken seven hours later, after some nerve-wracking driving over slick roads and through blowing snow along MN Highway 61 from Duluth to Lutsen. At one point, we were stopped for over ten minutes while a head-on collision was cleared from the highway. But we finally made it, and it was worth the effort.

Clara and Simon with Lake Superior in the background. Thursday, December 27, 2007. (The sign says "Solbakken," and points back down to the resort.)

The Solbakken cabins are right on the shore, a few feet away from the ice-covered rocks and the huge swells of Lake Superior. The water was still open right up to the shore, and on the second morning, I spotted a bald eagle fishing off the rocks. We also saw dozens of deer in the woods above the cabin, where we went skiing on the well-groomed trails through Superior National Forest. Clara and I did classic skiing and the boys raced off ahead of us on their skate skis. We shared the largest cabin at the resort ("Jonas House") with our friends Vickie and Simon and their two boys, who are exactly the ages of our boys. We skied in the morning and afternoon, and in the evening we sat in front of the roaring fire and watched episodes on DVD of Dr. Who and Robin Hood, our two favorite BBC series from last year. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we booked the same cabin for the same three nights next year!

Me, about to turn around and ski through the beautiful "Cedar Cathedral" on Friday morning. Notice my extremely professional-looking ski outfit of old brown corduroys, fleece, jacket, cheap gloves, and silly earflap hat from Target.

Clara and Vicki outside our cabin, after our morning ski on Thursday.

The only downsides to the short holiday were: (a) the driving conditions on the day after Christmas, (b) the inevitable blister on my right heel, and (c) the icy driveway down to the cabin. Everything else was perfect, and the trip was a perfect belated introduction to the North Shore.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Scenes of Christmas: Food

Driving conditions were poor on Christmas Day as we drove up to Roseville to spend the afternoon and evening with Clara's brother's family. But, of course, it was all worth it for the splendid company and delicious food. Here are a couple of pictures of the beginning and the end of the feast: the leg of lamb roasting on a string in front of the fireplace, and the apple pie (which my wife Clara baked) and the Dundee cake (which my niece Clara baked). Dundee cake is a traditional Scottish Christmas cake, and a reminder of the sabbatical year Frank's family spent in Edinburgh in the mid-1990s.



We're now bracing ourselves for a snowy five-hour drive up to Lutsen to spend a couple of days skiing and hot tubbing at the Solbakken Nordic Resort. My next post, on Saturday or Sunday, should have photographs of frozen Lake Superior. But we really didn't need to go up north for snow this Christmas holiday; several inches have fallen in the storm that started just as we were leaving for Roseville at 2:00 pm on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Scenes of Christmas: Music Making

One of the Christmas traditions in Clara's family is the visit from Santa Claus on Christmas morning. When she was a little girl, Santa—in his red suit and long white beard—looked a little bit like her grandfather. In recent years, her brother Frank has always been upstairs napping, tired out from the preparations for Christmas day, when Santa arrives. Santa always prances about, speaking in a high-pitched elf voice, and distributes gifts to children (and adults) who perform for him. Clara, as a child, played her violin for him. Frank's children—all of them conservatory-caliber musicians—usually deliver a brilliant chamber music performance on violin, cello and bass (but the cellist is in Turkey this Christmas). Now, however, our own children are advancing on their instruments and producing some real Santa-worthy performances on trombone and oboe. Here are Will and Clara, rehearsing the first movement of Bach's concerto in C-minor for violin and oboe (the score was a Christmas gift to Will). This is the first time that Clara's had her violin out of its case in at least two years. Maybe they'll have this ready in time for Santa's visit next Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy La La Day

Dear Readers,

The new leader of the Liberal Democrats, the furthest left of England's three major political parties, recently told the BBC that he is an atheist. Nick Clegg told the BBC: "
I myself am not an active believer, but the last thing I would do when talking or thinking about religion is approach it with a closed heart or a closed mind." (Clegg also brilliantly signed on Brian Eno as one of his political advisors.) To help Mr. Clegg celebrate the holiday season, the BBC's Sunday morning programme, "Broadcasting House," ran a series of "atheist carols," such as:

La rest ye, merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay!
Remember la la la la la
Was born on la la day!

It was also reported recently in the British press that Britain's most prominent and vocal atheist, Richard Dawkins, enjoys Christmas carols and considers himself "a cultural Christian."

Meanwhile, NPR ran a story about the atheist chaplain at Harvard, who helps atheist students cope with the Christian holiday. The Harvard students, being American college students, were incredibly earnest about making it through the holidays without violating the tenets of their atheism. But at least one student hadn't completely lost his sense of humor at Harvard. Talking about the problem of whether an atheist can listen to Christmas music, he said: "You can listen to the song 'My Sharona' without believing in the existence of Sharona.'"

To help get yourself into the proper holiday spirit, relax, lighten up, and listen to Dar Williams singing "The Christians and the Pagans."

Merry Christmas! Blessed be! May Sharona make your motor run!
Whether you are celebrating Christmas, the winter solstice, or simply La La Day, may your holiday be joyful, hopeful, and full of light!

Love,
Rob

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Day at the Museums: O'Keeffe and Kahlo

This morning, in the fog and hoar frost, our friends Jeff and Mary drove us up to Minneapolis to see exhibitions of work by two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Our first stop was the Minneapolis Institute of Art, for the exhibit Georgia O'Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction. O'Keeffe is best known for her paintings of flowers and animal skulls, but this exhibition focused specifically on her use of abstract, or nearly abstract, curvilinear shapes. For me, the highlight was a series of canvases from her Pelvis Series, painting in the 1940s, in which the blue sky is seen through the openings in bleached white pelvic bones. It's impossible to gain a full appreciation of O'Keeffe's paintings from photographic reproductions (which are popular and widely available). In the Pelvis Series paintings, brush strokes create subtle light effects and textures that give the paintings an almost holographic quality. The colors and textures change subtly depending on the angle from which the painting is viewed. The last painting in the series gave me a feeling of vertigo. The painting represents the blue sky seen through the hole in a pelvic bone, but my eyes insisted as seeing it also as a blue egg on a white background. My eyes shifted dizzily between these two perspectives.


After spending some quality time with O'Keeffe, and gaining a much deeper appreciation of her work through the MIA's fine exhibition, we wandered around looking at some old favorites in the collection. For me, this meant visiting an old crush, Camille Corot's "Springtime of Life" (1871), wistfully painted when the artist was seventy-five.

After lunch at D'Amico's in the MIA, we headed over to the Walker Art Center for the large Frida Kahlo exhibition. After the cool abstractions of O'Keeffe, Kahlo's paintings seemed especially intense and painful. O'Keefe's white pelvic bones framing the blue desert sky are intense, but they draw the viewer into depths far outside of himself (or herself), into the sky, nature, pure color and abstract form. But Frida Kahlo was Frida Kahlo's favorite subject. The majority of the paintings in the exhibition were self portraits. Her intense self-examination is very different from O'Keeffe's expansive outward gaze. Pelvises appear in Kahlo's art, too, but they are part of a personal iconography of pain. Because her pelvis was too narrow, she was unable to bear children successfully, and in one shocking and powerful painting actually portrays herself having a miscarriage. She never seemed able to escape herself and her own pain—both her physical pain and the pain of Diego Rivera's infidelity. For Kahlo, a painting of a pelvis was a personal icon of pain and death; for O'Keeffe it was bleached of all personal significance and became purely abstract form.

We finished off our visit to the Walker with a quick tour of some of the other galleries, in one of which a young man caught our attention and did what Clara described as "a silly dance." He then explained that the silly dance was actually a work of art on loan from a museum in Berlin, and that the artist himself had shown him how to do the silly dance.

The O'Keeffe exhibition at the MIA runs through January 6; the Kahlo exhibition runs at the Walker through January 20, after which it moves to Philadelphia (February 20-May 18) and San Francisco (June 14-September 28).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Loo of the Year

When I'm traveling, there's nothing more important to me than being able to locate a toilet. In my long history of needing a toilet, I have, with an unerring sense for such things, found public facilities in places as far afield as Cambridge (Massachusetts), Orange and Aigues-Mortes (France), Salzburg (Austria), and Henley-in-Arden (England). In England, most towns have "public conveniences" housed in their own separate building, and in most of the places we visited during our year in England I can tell you where to find a toilet. Kenilworth? At the top of the Warwick Road, across from the MacDonald DeMontfort Hotel. Stratford-upon-Avon? Across from Bancroft Gardens, on Waterside between Bridge and Sheep Streets. Tewkesbury? Next to the car park near Tewkesbury Abbey. And two of the restrooms I visited during my tour of the great public toilets of England—the one in the square outside of Lincoln Castle and the one in the Wallace Collection in London—have recently been named winners of the coveted Loo of the Year Award. The 2007 winners were announced on December 5. The 3-star Lincoln Castle Square loo, which I utilized on two separate visits to Lincoln, is a perennial winner in the full-time attended public toilet category.

Why is this man looking so smug? He's just been to one of London's five-star public toilets!

In London, the toilets in the more posh areas (e.g., the shopping district near Victoria Station) are pay toilets, although free toilets can be found in Hyde Park, Marylebone Station, and other places around town (if, like me, you have that sixth sense for locating toilets). But if you want an exceptional free toilet experience on your trip to London, check out the 5-star public loo at The Wallace Collection (click for a floor plan highlighting the location of the toilets) on Manchester Square. While you're there, you may also want to spend some time looking at the remarkable collection of medieval armor and art, including Frans Hals' famous Laughing Cavalier (pictured here) and Fragonnard's Girl on a Swing.

Note: Northfield is in the process of putting up "wayfinding signs" that will help direct visitors to the public conveniences available at the Northfield Public Library and the Northfield Historical Society.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas Music

When I was little, Christmas with Conniff, the 1959 LP by the Ray Conniff Singers, was the sound of Christmas. Each year, all through the late Sixties and early Seventies, we put it on the stereo while we were decorating the tree. I haven't heard it in years, but I'm sure that the first sprightly strains of "Jingle Bells" would put me right back in the living room of that house in Jacksonville, New York, where I lived through second grade—the prime Christmas years. Christmas with Conniff is definitely the best Christmas CD I don't currently own.

In my current Christmas music collection, the retro element is represented by two very fine CDs: Michael BublĂ©'s EP from a few years back, Let It Snow, and my eccentric favorite, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. It's a compilation of freshly recorded Christmas tracks and outtakes from past Tull albums, and the flavor in general is reminiscent of Tull at the high point of their four decade career–the late-Seventies era of Minstrel in the Gallery, Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. Some of the tracks are jazzed-up acoustic versions of popular carols; others, like "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow," sound like vintage Tull originals. Undead Ian Anderson still fronts the band with his flute and his unmistakable voice, and nine-hundred year old Martin Barre still shows off impressive chops on the guitars.

My most recent addition to the Christmas CD collection is A Cotswold Christmas, by the Abbey School Choir, Tewkesbury. I picked it up at the abbey shop on my first visit to my favorite English parish church, Tewkesbury Abbey. It's a very English set of Christmas music, beginning with the obligatory "Once in Royal David's City" in the David Willcocks arrangement. But the best Christmas CD in my current collection is An American Christmas, a 1993 release on Erato by the Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen. The disc features sacred harp tunes, folk hymns like "Wayfaring Stranger," early American hymns by the likes of William Billings, and later nineteenth-century revival hymns like "Jesus the Light of the World." While the Ray Conniff Singers perfectly capture the perky sound of Christmas in the late Fifties and Sixties, this CD captures the sound of a much older and more austere America—it's beautiful, haunting, and surprising.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Run

At least 90% of the novels I read are by women—usually British women who wrote in the early to middle twentieth century, like Elizabeth Taylor, Rose Macaulay, Margery Sharp, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I also love the late Carol Shields, the American-born Canadian novelist. Every now and then I'll read a novel by a contemporary American woman novelist that I really like—Nicole Krauss's stunning The History of Love comes instantly to mind—but that's rare. There are many fine women novelists in America—big names like Minneapolis-born Anne Tyler, Anna Quindlen, Alice Hoffman, Jane Hamilton—but for some reason most of their novels have never really grabbed me. The exception is Ann Patchett. I loved Bel Canto, I adored The Magician's Assistant, and I was head-over-heels for her latest novel, Run.

The novel centers around the family of Bernard Doyle, a former mayor of Boston, who with his late wife adopted two African-American sons, named Tip and Teddy. He wants his sons to become politicians, but Teddy wants to be a priest and Tip wants to study fish. Then one snowy night, after a Jesse Jackson speech at Harvard, an accident changes the Doyle family's lives forever. Yes, it sounds like it could be a bit contrived and heavy on message—and there is an element of that—but Patchett writes so beautifully and has such a light touch that I, for one, was entirely swept away by the story. She comes so close to magical realism—there's a hint of miracle cures performed by a nonagenarian priest—but in the end the real miracles are in human relationships, in people opening up to one another. Like so many novels by women, Run is about family—about the many different ways of belonging to other people. And it's about how standing back and being amazed by someone else can help to bring your own life into focus. Bel Canto was a huge bestseller a few years ago, but in many ways I like Run more, if only because Patchett seemed to have a surer sense of how to end it—with a lovely image of inclusiveness, of how turning toward the outsider can strengthen us on the inside and, despite our differences, bring us together.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Winter

It's snowing heavily in Northfield at the moment. After lunch, Clara and I waxed up our skis, which have been languishing unused in the basement for nearly two years, and drove over to the Lower Arboretum for a lovely hour-long ski. We skied along the river, up through the oak savanna, and across the open prairie (where Clara likes to imagine she's Anne Bancroft skiing across Antarctica). Nothing could be lovelier than the Arb in winter. The snow blotted out everything but the grasses and the trees, and we seemed to be alone in a wilderness. After the ski, we came home to another winter treat that I missed last year in England—pickled herring on Triscuits. I also got out the double Gloucester and stilton and poured a warming glass of port. Unfortunately, Peter called to say that he had missed the bus—don't ask me how—and needed to be picked up at the middle school. Soon I was outside again, pushing the car—with Clara at the wheel—out of a snowbank at the foot of the driveway. Winter is here and, despite the occasional hassles, I couldn't be happier.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Yogurt Couvade

Between 1992 and 1999, I was a full-time stay-at-home father and part-time writer. In honor of my fellow blogger Shannon, who has also made the difficult but rewarding choice to stay home with her children and write during nap times, here is a link to my essay "Yogurt Couvade," which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the wonderful magazine Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. Shannon, I hope December goes more smoothly for you than November did, and that you enjoy the essay, and that before too long we can have you and Christopher over for dinner and finally meet in person!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

God Adopts a Highway

God will be taking over highway clean-up from this group.

Those of us who live off exits of Interstate 35 may not be aware that dreams and prophecies have led a group of Christians to identify I-35 as the "Highway of Holiness" spoken of in Isaiah 35:8 (Isaiah 35=I-35): "And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it." In an effort to nudge along the fulfillment of that Biblical prophecy, a group called Light the Highway is staging "purity sieges" along I-35 to clear out the strip clubs and gay bars and other dens of iniquity that cluster around its exits. These folks see various disasters that have occurred along the route of the highway—from the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City to the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis—as clear signs of God's displeasure with the vice that litters His Highway. The effort has the backing of Pat Robertson, who featured a story about it on his 700 Club.

Clara informs me that it's proper blogger etiquette to acknowledge her for bringing this to my attention with the formula: "Hat tip to Clara for the link to Andrew Sullivan."

Two New Online Publications

Two of my very brief essays were published online this summer. The first was the essay " Telephone ," which appeared in June in t...