Showing posts from December, 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 …

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," …

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…

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 wer…

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 …

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 stude…

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 ho…

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 recen…

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-Sevent…

The Arboretum in Winter



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 son…


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 th…

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!

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…