Monthly Archives: March 2020

“The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?”

Put in the context of the past couple weeks, that is one timely quote from Virginia Woolf’s great novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In just ten words, (only eleven syllables!) the quote delivers a brusque promise, not an empty threat. Woolf brilliantly captures a sense of stark anxiety and certain danger.

Something mightily fucked up is coming. Really coming. Not if, but when? What will it hit? When? And with what crackling, savage severity?

The knowledge that the lash is up and is certain to strike somewhere leaves us wrapped in a thick fog of unknowing. It leaves us with a crippling sense that nothing will ever be the same as before.

Stick around. Or don’t.

This evening I should be packing my bags. I am scheduled to take a six o’clock flight tomorrow morning. Jude and I were going to take a trip to visit friends, hike, and get away. Instead, for the foreseeable future, we will be getting away, as usual, to the local bike path and the neighborhood sidewalks for our hiking.

No complaints – it makes me happy that we can do that. Among the many confusions and disappointments of these days, something like the normalcy and simplicity of these neighborhood excursions will provide a consolation and a boost.

Anyway, instead of packing, I sat down to think a few things through. What would I want to tell my current self with the hindsight of coming weeks or months? Maybe this.

Don’t play down big disasters, but stay positive – you have very much to be grateful for.

Keep making plans, but accept things you can’t control.

Don’t waste time, but relax.

Identify problems, but focus on solutions.

Keep listening to lots of music, it will make you feel better.

And especially this, look out for others whenever you can.

Maybe we’ll all know a little more about what’s happening on April 3, when bass master, Thundercat, releases his new album, It Is What It Is. The man’s long list of collaborators includes Flying Lotus, Childish Gambino, and Kamasi Washington. He has a distinctive but familiar sound; funky and soulful. He has favorably addressed past comparisons to the magnificent artist Shuggie Otis, and OH MAN the single below sounds like a Shuggie song. Hope that the whole thing is in this vein. Dig these.

Bassist Thundercat

Black Qualls by Thundercat, (with Steve Arrington and Steve Lacy,) from It Is What It Is (2020 Brainfeeder).

Inspiration Information by Shuggie Otis from Inspiration Information (1974 Epic).

Inspiration Information

Please note that the musical artist is no relation to the master pouncer, Thundercat, who shares space with Judy and me. The name is quite a mouthful, but I love the nickname that our sister, Linda, has given him: Thundy.

Pouncing meditations ala Thundy.

Meow meow. Ciao ciao.

19 March 2020

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Books for self-isolation.

As you hunker in place while the virus spreads, you may choose to open a book or two or three -depending on how long the assault lasts. I loved Judy’s last (and spookily prescient) write up on The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker. It is a great read. My post today is focused on books filled with people, because it might be nice to have a bunch of characters rattling around the house with you while The Dreamers landscape comes into sharper view outdoors.

Will the scene outdoors eventually come to this?

Strangers and Cousins by Leah Hager Cohen takes place in a crowded historic home as people gather for a wedding. The parents of the bride and owners of the house are Walter and Bennie Blumenthal, a long-married couple who are also hosts of the backyard wedding. Walter and Bennie have four children (and are secretly sprouting a fifth), and it is their oldest, Clementine, who is marrying her college sweetheart. Family and friends gather over several days and to no surprise attendant family and guests don’t help as much as Walter and Bennie hoped and actually end up complicating plenty. This is especially true of Clementine’s eccentric college buddies who set up camp in the backyard and hatch plans to turn Clem’s wedding into an absurdist pageant.

The characters that fill this book are charming. Their energies, affectations, and personal histories alone are enough to propel a reader through the book. But there is another story line that makes this book more than a jolly family romp.    

This story line made me uncomfortable enough that I thought about putting the book down a couple different times. Here’s why; on some level Walter and Bennie remind me of myself. We’re about the same age (okay, they’re younger, but not by that much) and they are educated, liberal, love their community, and like to think of themselves as open-minded and free of prejudice. But their community is changing and that change is causing a rift between the otherwise tight couple and it is exposing a flaw: it’s that their liberal self-satisfaction may not be defensible.

Walter and Bennie’s town is gaining new residents, members of the Haredim, a sect within Orthodox Judaism. The Haredim have a history of moving into communities, buying homes, and then integrating themselves onto school and city boards. Their beliefs and customs are contrary to how the community traditionally functions and from some viewpoints, the Haredim undermine the honored status quo by working to change the community to align with their religious beliefs.

I sympathized with Bennie and her concern about the changes a Haredim population would bring to her town. But Walter’s righteous argument, that welcoming outsiders into a community has to be a universal response for those who wrap themselves in liberal cloth, made me uncomfortable because he was right and I couldn’t get there. There were times when I was reading the book (those times when I wanted to stop reading the book) that I felt Cohen was smartly poking at her readers and their liberal facades but finally I realized it was Cohen’s writing that was leading me to question myself. This is a charming and clever novel rooted right in the middle of everything. 

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo is her first novel. And it’s another fun family sprawler. The book takes a look back at a 40-year marriage and the 4 daughters that sprang from Marilyn’s and David’s union. Each daughter gets to tell her own past and current day story and each is a distinct fireball. A major story thread is dedicated to unraveling a life-altering secret two of them share. It’s a doozy. And it broke apart my preconceptions of the sisters’ feeling for one another.

But the daughters are all alike in this, they believe their parents have had a perfect marriage and they will never be able to achieve similar passion and companionship with anyone. Ever, never. This incorrect assumption about their parent’s marriage has led the sisters down some unnecessary paths, but their side trips make for good reading.

The lesson here, it’s not just the low-performing bummer parents that screw up their kids.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota: by J. Ryan Stradal. This is another wide-ranging and energetic family saga, this one told from alternating points of two sisters. Edith and Helen grow up on a dairy farm in the late 50’s. Edith is a homebody, bakes blue ribbon pies, graduates from high school, and marries soon after. Her life is good but never is it a big or easy one. Helen on the other hand decides to go to college, hones a gold star beer palate, and marries into a brewery family. As Belizians would say: Helen went there strong.

There are the standard story lines in this novel about family that include long-time grudges, fortunes made, and quick deaths. But this novel is special because of the author’s development of the older women characters, who branch out into new professions late in life and always say ‘yes’ when others their age retire quietly into a corner or when authors write them into a corner.

Here’s a cool side bar to this novel: the older women are a composite of some of the women closest to author — Stradal’s mother and grandmothers. Stradal has noted in interviews that he was not reading characters who were strong Midwestern women like those who raised him. So he wrote those characters himself. Big thanks to him.

Stradal and his book, honoring strong Midwestern women.

And just in case you are wondering, yup, there are multiple examples of ‘Minnesota nice’ in the book.

From deep inside my house on this rainy Friday night, I wish you all health and good reading with a bunch of entertaining characters. We’ll get through this together.

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