Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Porch Sofa" reviews

The press is starting to review "A Porch Sofa Almanac". Also, # 1 Best Seller in Saint Paul Pioneer Press's local nonfiction last Sunday Thought you might enjoy:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Working in stone.

A friend of mine up north owns a beautiful old stone house on a small lake. It was designed and built, rock upon rock, by an old Finn named Arvid more than sixty years ago, and his work is purely and simply art. The place is holding up well, but there was one defunct doorway my friend wanted to close off—to make part of the stonework—and he wanted to do it in Arvid’s style.

You don’t find master stonemasons just anywhere these days, but after asking around, he finally found the right guy—a man about fifty—a poet who works in granite, not words.

My friend and I stood and watched the man work the other day. He is infinitely patient and deliberate, and he melds his stonework into Arvid’s with respect for the old Finn and an understanding of how he worked.

The two men never met. It’s just one stone man reading the work of another, appreciating the thought and craftsmanship, matching the style right down to the mortar mix.

It’s no small feat. Arvid built perfectly flat walls with square corners. So this isn’t just a matter of piling up rocks and slathering them in concrete. Every stone has to be studied and hand-split. It’s a matter of finding the flat plane embedded in the rock, then using a hammer and cold chisel to reveal it.

Over the years, the man has acquired a reverence for the stone. He says every piece of granite is a billion-year-old living thing.

Each stone has a place in the wall—a spot where it is meant to be. If not in the row he is working on, then further up. Like art, or music—or writing come to think of it—it’s a matter of composition—of harmony—of aesthetics.

There’s a feeling that radiates off someone who has moved beyond mastery—a humility and happiness—a contented wisdom and timelessness that makes you go all philosophical—even if you just stand there and watch. I’ve been feeling that feeling all week long.

What’s a couple hundred years in a wall to a rock with a billion year resume?

Somewhere an old Finlander named Arvid is smiling.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Election Year Lawn Signs

Is it just me or are election year lawn signs contributing to political polarization more than they used to?

The wording hasn’t changed. It’s still just the candidate’s name… and maybe a slogan… or a party affiliation. But after all these years of talk radio, Internet politics, and angry cable TV pundits, we seem to have changed. The signs seem just a little more, “In your face” somehow.

Especially signs for candidates we don’t like.

A simple walk around the block seems to trigger a bout of smoldering, muttering, Minnesota-nice resentment… All those signs for the other guy… Why’d you move into this neighborhood anyhow?.

Darn that myopic so-and-so next door. Sure he lent you his snow shovel last March. Sure the shovel is still in your garage. But if he’s going to vote that way, you just might keep the shovel. You’re going to need it to dig out from under all the problems his candidate is going to aggravate instead of fix.

…If his candidate is elected, that is. Surely a plurality of Minnesotans could not possibly share that point of view.

Which brings us back to lawn signs. Minnesota human nature is such that we tend to use these signs as political barometers.

Never mind the polls. The more lopsided the neighborhood sign count, the more heartened or disheartened we become about our candidate’s chances in November. This time of year, any Democrat living in a Republican neighborhood—or any Republican living in a neighborhood that skews Democratic—is sure to be mired in a lawn sign funk that’s going to last through election day. The first holiday lights will be twinkling before the last neighborhood election year lawn signs disappear.

And it’s that funk—fostered in no small part by those lawn signs—that’s turning our politics so blue-and so blah.

One of these nights after supper, the phone is going to ring. I’ll pick it up and some precinct level volunteer will ask if they can come over and put in a lawn sign.

“Nah,” I’ll say. “We’re going to pass this year.

“See you on Election Day, but no signs. Not this year. Nope. No thanks.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Cut it out or I'll cream ya."

There was this day at the beginning of 7th grade when I saw a couple of kids from my class pushing a sixth grader around the playground at lunchtime recess—establishing the pecking order for the year, I guess.

Being one of the larger kids—way too big for even the eight graders to haze—I told them to cut it out or I’d cream them.

They cut it out. The sixth grader slipped away. The bell rang. No one got creamed.

The next day at lunch, I came around a corner of the school and found the sixth grader and a couple of his friends pushing around a wild-eyed little fourth grader.

So I told them to cut it out or I’d cream them. And they did. But the moment has been with me ever since.

What is it that turns people who’ve been hazed into hazers? How can they put experience and conscience aside and perpetuate this stuff? All these years later I still don’t get it.

It’s a testosterone-addled guy thing, I guess… A primitive socializing mechanism maybe… Bullying as ritual… Everyman’s chance to be the alpha dog for a few minutes… And a time-honored tradition too.

First you’re hazed. Then you haze someone yourself. Is this great or what? Pass it on.

Pass it on in the locker room. Pass it on at the frat house. Pass it on on the job or down at the club.

And most days, it seems foolhardy to try to make guys stop it. I mean what’s your problem? You can’t fight human nature. It’s just boys being boys.

My seventh grade classmates probably turned out to be fine men. The shifty little sixth grade hazee-turned-hazer is probably an okay guy too.

I’d like to think, though, that sometimes at night, just before they go to sleep, their consciences tweak them just a little; that they think back and wince about the hazing they took part in.

If, at this stage in life, their consciences don’t bother them, I hope a voice from somewhere deep in their memory speaks up and tells them, “Cut it out or I’ll cream ya.”