Friday, May 20, 2016
Diary: Second Week of May -- Thrones
In Minnesota, at the time when lilacs bloom, there will come a day of perfect, tranquil equipoise. The sun will be denatured behind a cloud so that an even, steady light will illumine all things. In this diffuse light, objects do not cast a shadow. On such a day, the temperature of the air will be regulated so that there will be no difference between indoors and outside. No breeze stirs and so nothing moves. The trees and buildings seem engraved upon the air as if cut into a steel plate, silvery and motionless: you view the world around you as if it were an image viewed through a pinhole camera and cast upon an immense retinal surface in a pitchblack chamber. You move as in a dream, striding through a landscape that seems to be entirely interior – a great room carpeted by grass with its faded sky-blue dome supported by colonnades of trees.
On May 7, Julie and I visited my sister’s new house. The home overlooks a waterway in Northfield, a green park where there is a jogging trail running parallel to a canal. My sister offered us drinks and Vegan hors d’ouevres. Her house is tastefully decorated with intriguing and colorful paintings, everything neatly organized so that the rooms and their furnishings constitute a well-designed and efficient machine for good living. The guests sat in the spacious kitchen chatting. My sister lives with Bill T– , a man who was my track coach in High School. Bill T– said to me: "You seemed a lot younger than me when I was your coach." "I’m catching up on you rapidly," I replied. My sister served crackers decorated with some kind of Vegan cheese-spread – everything was surprisingly good. From my sister’s balcony above her garden, we could see across the valley to the ridge where the old towers of St. Olaf college rose over the homes and Northfield’s downtown, the place where Jesse James’ gang came to grief beside the well-regulated river running in its many-bridged groove between the mills now converted to boutiques and micro-breweries.
As the afternoon lengthened, we returned home, seventy miles or so, across the lush, wet prairie. Dark rain clouds were squeezing rain into the furrowed fields.
The next day, I drove with my daughter Angelica up to Eden Prairie. Family members had gathered to celebrate both Mother’s Day as well as my mother’s upcoming 80th birthday. We left Austin an hour early so that I could make a detour to Prince’s compound at Paisley Park. My daughter and I inspected the fence woven with memorials and tributes to the artist and, then, we drove to my mother’s house. The family meal was contentious but not unpleasant. My mother shed tears after reciting the prayer. Several fat crows sat on her deck and feasted on leftovers. The neighborhood has become wild: deer amble about people’s backyards and there are gawky, loud wild turkeys occupying the strips of thicket and brush near the water-features at the shopping malls. Coyotes make sorties into town and kill neighborhood cats.
May 8 is also Julie’s birthday and I had bowl of large shrimp marinating in Italian dressing and soy sauce in the refrigerator at home. After leaving my mother’s place, we went to a local grocery where I bought Julie a couple of fudge and caramel cheesecakes. Julie had gone to her mother’s house in Albert Lea for the day.
There was too much food at my mother’s house and so leftovers were packed and wrapped so that I could carry them home. My car smelled of potato salad and fried chicken.
Two days later, I was seated in a restaurant atop a casino in Phoenix, Arizona. The casino is called "The Talking Stick Resort," an oasis on the otherwise dusty and barren Pima (Tohono Ood’ham) Indian reservation adjacent to Scottsdale. The restaurant is called "Orange Skies" and it is expensive as well as famous for its 14th floor vistas across the desert to the mountains where the sun is scheduled to set on a daily basis for the appreciation of its patrons.
I am member of the Board of Directors of a corporation that holds its annual meeting in Phoenix. We arrived from rainy Minneapolis around noon and came to the resort in rental cars. Above Phoenix, the skies were completely blue, a vast warm awning of that color devoid of any clouds. The casino stood a couple hundred yards from a driving range where a great net hung slumped between pylons as tall as a ten-story building. Beyond the driving range, an emerald-colored golf-course was snuggled against the sphinx-like flanks of mountains the color of baked red brick.
Rooms and dining and the front desk were all accessed through a navel-shaped indentation central to the building and unlit except for the flare and lurid jabber of gambling machines. Exhausted-looking people in tennis shoes and white shorts were leaning against the one-armed bandits where Filipino waitresses in scanty black costumes sashayed back and forth carrying trays of drinks. On the path to the hotel rooms, a "cultural exhibit" occupied a niche in one of the walls – some elegantly woven baskets ornamented with geometric patterns and a few cases of reddish pottery. The lobby near the conference rooms was decorated with images of the old Pima reservation: people squatting outside three-foot high wigwams made of cactus and thorns, grizzled old women leaning over metates to crush corn, a couple of mostly naked men, squat and swarthy sulking among the stones and barren gravel of a vast and remorseless desert. These images were splashed with acrylic and, in some cases, multiplied, silk-screened in series like one of Andy Warhol’s pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor with each cell drizzled over with a different bright color – it was incongruous to see old black-and-white pictures of squalor and desolation afforded this glamorous treatment.
We had a working lunch in one of the large conference rooms and, then, a man was summoned to open bottles – beer and wine was distributed and the owner of the company had a Bloody Mary. There was another afternoon session with more drinks and, then, we met in "Orange Skies" for our evening feast accompanied by the sunset.
Bottles of wine were brought to the table, opened, and their corks sniffed. Then, the wine was poured into snifters. The food on the menu was mostly Beast – that is loin of elk, bison, wild boar, wagyu beef, immense, hubcap-sized pork chops. Everyone got drunk. I found myself in a position of honor, next to the owner of the company, and facing out of the window into the dull, white shield of the sun. The sun was pasted into the sky a couple degrees above one of the jagged mountains, an angular ridge inclining in sawtooths up to a summit that was entirely barren with slopes covered with reddish-grey gravel. The mountain looked like a child’s idea of a mountain, all sheer cliffs and ragged, pointy peaks. Because I was facing the sun and because the sun was extraordinarily bright, my eyes burned and, when I tried to read the menu with its lists of beast, I could not read the letters printed there. Someone announced that the sun was about to set, news that I greeted with relief because of the glare afflicting my eyes and, then, momentarily, the blinding light became worse, more vivid and brutal, when the louvers on the outside of the building were reversed and the semi-opaque curtains raised – it was as if a wonderful show were about to begin and the Filipino waitresses pouring red and white wine at our table paused in their task for a moment to look up and out over the desert to the stony ridge and the big molten drop of fire burning down into its heights.
"Look at that," someone said. And the sun slid, without further ado, into some sort of secret slot in the mountains. There was a moment of silence and, then, everyone expressed appreciation and I thought – is that all there is? It is just the sun turning liquid on the horizon, then, flowing into the earth, just the sun setting over my neighbor’s house in the winter time amid a shed of pole-like barren trees, just the sun going down over the slaughterhouse factory in the town where I live. The talk to turned PETA and someone said that the animal right’s activists were nothing more than terrorists. More wine was poured. I happened to look up from my plate of beast and saw that the western sky had become resplendent with orange and purplish streamers of light, ribbons of glory extending upward into the cerulean blue of the western sky, the outline of the mountain now a fierce spine with its gravelly vertebral bodies leaking reddish radiance into the heavens. No one was paying any attention to this sky-spectacle. The subject was now politics. The boss went around the table and asked everyone for whom they would vote this November in the presidential election. One after another, the assembled men said: "Trump!" When the question came around to me, the boss said: "I think I know John’s answer." Everyone laughed. "I won’t vote of either," I said. "But I guess I would have to vote for Hillary as opposed to Trump." Everyone sneered at me. Outside, it had become quite dark.
Here is what I don’t like: I abhor hustling to an airport to catch an earlier flight back to Minneapolis. Whenever I am with hard-driving businessmen or lawyers, they always scramble to book seats on earlier flights than those originally scheduled if time permits. It seems a point of pride with such people to not waste time lingering in an airport. To the contrary, if the schedule has become flexible, if things have gone well and the meeting has been shorter than planned or the depositions less time-consuming, then, you must access the apps on your cell-phone that offer you access to the major air carriers, must re-book for an earlier flight, and, then, must travel at high, and, even, reckless speed to the airport to make the flight now imminent only an hour or so in the future. Before departing for Arizona, I predicted that the Wednesday meeting in Phoenix would go more quickly than planned, that there would be an opportunity to scurry to the airport three hours before the scheduled flight and, of course, improve the time by flying out of Arizona earlier – an objective particularly attractive to my traveling companions because, of course, they were sports enthusiasts to a man and there were several interesting and important athletic competitions scheduled for that evening in their respective home-towns.
And, of course, thus it transpired: the meeting adjourned before noon and there were, in fact, flights back to Dallas and Minneapolis scheduled for 1:20 pm and, thus, with a little luck, and traffic permitting, and the TSA lines less fearsome at mid-day, there was just the possiblity that my colleagues might board their earlier flights and get home in time to tune into the games that interested them. I said that I was in no particular rush to get back to Minnesota and offered to return one of the rental cars to the lots remote from the airport, dubbed Sky-Harbor, so that the others would have a better chance of making their new, earlier flights.
We drove to the airport and I took over the wheel in the big SUV after the others had extracted their luggage from the vehicle. I followed one of the shuttle buses through a labyrinth of lanes and turns and ramps to exit the airport and, then, reach a boulevard lined with saguaro cactus that led to the rental car return lots.
The airport in the early afternoon was very quiet. The TSA officers stood around gabbing about football games. A couple of old ladies in wheelchairs were being treated as potential terrorists and a big Mexican family tried to pass through security with their pockets full of cell-phones and pocket knives. I reached the gate just in time to see the doors closed on the flight to Minneapolis now harboring my colleagues.
For a long time, I sat near a big window looking at the palm trees beyond the runways, the Sky-Chef vans loading trays into planes, the men and women in orange vests directing traffic, and the faraway mountains silhouetted against the sun.
I had made a copy of Ibsen’s The League of Youth to carry with me before leaving Minneapolis and I found a secluded place to sit and read.
Over the wing, I saw grey desert, ridged with volcanic dikes. A dam impounded an elongated meander of silvery water cupped between brown buttes.
The land below was entirely barren. It looked to me like photographs that had been taken of the surface of Mars and, then, beamed back to Earth. The plain was reddish and stretched to the horizon, scuffed below with enigmatic ray-shaped lines. Striations marked extinct river beds. Little lamb-like clouds hung in the air, tethered to their shadows projected on the featureless plains below. In the sky, the clouds seemed to have soft edges but their shadows made stark silhouettes against the naked plain, angular geometries cast down on the earth.
The landscape changed: mountains and badlands. East of the Rockies, there were more clouds but these were low-lying, close to the grey plain, ruffled spills of white that seemed to adhere to the earth.
The plane cut through the darkening air and landed a half-hour after sunset at the airport in Minneapolis.
A few miles south of the Twin Cities, I encountered dense fog. The edges of the road were invisible and distances were impossible to evaluate. I found a semi-truck plowing through the mist and latched myself onto the vehicle’s rear, drafting behind the big, brightly lit rig all the way to Owatonna where I picked-up another guide to lead me down to the intersection with I-90. There were no trucks to follow eastward to the Austin exit and so I made my way home slowly.
Austin was drowned in fog. The street lamps were encased in orbs of yellow, glowing mist and the lanes all ended in walls of white ground-fog.
The next afternoon, I drove to St. Paul again with my daughter Angelica. We ate at a Russian restaurant, Moscow on the Hill, and, then, drove down Grand Avenue to pick up some food at Kozlowski’s delicatessen. Returning to downtown St. Paul, we parked in the cliff-side ramps across from the sports arena. The city seemed mostly deserted. As we walked to the opera, we passed the square white walls of the downtown library, an overgrown Italian palazzo as decorous as a mausoleum, its back and sidewalls devoid of any windows overlooking the street and park. I told my daughter that I had spent the happiest hours of my childhood in that vast library. Every two weeks, my father brought us into town from New Brighton and we browsed among the books for several hours in the St. Paul public library – in those days, the St. Paul Hotel was, more or less, derelict and the great, gloomy tower of the Federal Courthouse cast its medieval shadow over Rice Park, cold darkness that oppressed the bums sleeping on the cast-iron benches among the leafless trees and waterless fountains. As we walked to our car with our bags of books, we steered gingerly between the panhandlers and drunks in the park. The library was always warm and brightly lit with a steel scaffolding shoved up against one side of the high, ornate reading room. The scaffolding contained stacks and rose from floor level to the coffered ceiling and I recall that it was always fascinating to me to climb to the highest level of those stacks and, then, inspect minute details of the painted and stucco ornament poised high over the floor where the tops of the walls intersected with the ceiling. Some anonymous artisan had painted floral patterns on stucco molding so high that it would not have been visible from the floor. On that upper stack, you might remove a book from a high shelf only to find plaster acanthus, painted to simulate gold leaf, behind that volume. Forty feet below, on the terrazzo floor, a tunnel led through the stacks to a glass door, the entrance to the mysterious James J. Hill reference library – beyond that glass door, you could see a guard desk that was always unoccupied on the weekends and, then, a dark corridor leading toward another tall wooden door, thresholds always devoid of both staff or patrons on those long-ago Saturday mornings. I always wondered what pass-word secured access to that library. What glorious volumes were preserved beyond those doors, what incunabula and illuminated manuscripts, what atlases of the invisible world and necromantic tomes bound in human skin were shelved in that Reference Library? Clearly, these books were something out of the ordinary, beyond all quotidian experience, because kept within the hidden recesses of that forbidden library. (Fifty years later, I saw people attending a wedding reception gathered outside the separate front entrance to the James J. Hill Reference library. Apparently, the place had been rented out for the gathering and some of the groomsmen and bridesmaids were drinking beer in cans on the marble steps leading into the Reference Library. A strobe light flickered beyond the door inside the library itself. I must confess that I felt a frisson of horror that the library was being desecrated in this way.)
At the Ordway Theater, Angelica and I saw the world-premiere of the opera, The Shining. There was a single intermission and I sat on a bench in the lobby watching the people pass. In the show, zombie-like ghosts pirouetted and pranced, spectral figures wearing garments from the twenties, Gatsby-revenants: tattered flappers with pallid faces and lurid red highlights under their eyes, ghost-gangsters with Tommy guns, a chubby transvestite naked except for a black brassiere and panties. This spectacle educated my eye to see the grotesque in the sold-out audience gathered in the theater. Opera tickets are expensive and its patrons are mostly superannuated esthetes: ancient and skeletal cavaliers squire old women displaying yards of withered cleavage, fat and cynical queens sit among perfumed ephebes – clothing doesn’t match the bodies that it covers; fashionable garments hang loosely on cadaverous victims of various cancers and there are odd whiskers and tufts of hair on display. It is mortuary display of vanity, every bit as ghostly (and ghastly) I suppose as the decadence exposed on the stage.
After the opera, I drove for a half-hour. We stopped at a Holiday Inn in Lakeville, a big fortress-like compound crowning a ridge a quarter-mile to the east of the freeway. (I have driven past that motel weekly, sometimes twice weekly, for more than twenty years but never ventured into the maze of frontage roads and one-way lanes leading to its forbidding entrance.) Exiting the freeway, I was quickly lost within a few hundred yards of the big motel. Green and red lights hidden in the lawn smeared the grim facade with lurid highlights.
"This is like the Overlook Hotel," I said to Angelica.
We found ourselves in a misty cul-de-sac next to a tulip-shaped water-tower above the hotel.
"This is one of those places that you can see but not reach," I said.
A sinister pick-up truck dogged me, flashing high-beams against the back of my vehicle. The truck trailed me up to the barren sidewalk leading into the motel.
Someone was squatting outside the Holiday Inn, cell-phone pressed to his ear, smoking a cigarette. Inside the motel, the lobby was a poor-man’s Alhambra, all moorish arches and glistening Mediterranean tile and little fountain that made a desolate splashing sound like offal falling into a toilet bowl.
The next morning, we left the motel at 7:30 and drove over the frontage roads to a big McDonald’s surrounded by several acres of parking lot where semi-tractor-trailer rigs were massed in tight, vibrating formations. We ordered at the drive-through intercom and, then, advanced to the window.
The woman at the window had only a couple of teeth in her jaw and they were misshapen and crooked. She said: "The lady ahead of you bought your breakfast."
"She does it sometimes, usually once a week," the woman with the snaggled teeth said. She grinned at me. "She told me she would pay for your breakfast too."
"That’s extremely nice of her," I said.
The snaggle-toothed woman handed me our breakfast burritos and my sausage egg McMuffin with diet Coke.
"I don’t deserve this," I told the woman behind the window.
"She often pays for the meal of the car behind her," the woman said.
I wondered why I should be the beneficiary of this kindness and not the woman with the crooked and ruined teeth working at the window. A vague feeling of shame suffused me.
"This is really remarkable," I said.
The generous woman in the vehicle ahead of me sped across the parking lot, vanishing into traffic at a stoplight on the boulevard. She was driving a shiny black vehicle, perhaps, a BMW.
We followed the frontage roads to the highway and edged into the traffic on the interstate. Angelica reminded me that it was Friday the 13th of May.
Once, many years ago, I drove on a remote highway west of the main range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The road rose steadily toward a mountain pass and there was no traffic – the nearest towns were thirty or forty miles away and they were not villages so much as intersections with a gas station and store selling liquor and bait and, perhaps, a couple trailer houses with jeeps parked alongside them. Neither the highway nor the pass were menacing – a river rushed through the broad valley that inclined toward peaks connected by a wooded saddle. There were no switchbacks and no precipices – the highway simply climbed at a gentle gradient toward the distant ridge where the pine forests were veined with golden aspen. Several miles below the pass, I stopped at a wayside rest near the river. A few glacial boulders decorated with lichen stood in the meadow and the stream coursed downward, breaking over a ladder-like cascade. The mountains at the head of the valley faced one another and they looked like great white thrones emblazoned by the setting sun.
At the edge of the mountains, near Pueblo, Colorado, I looked down from 35,000 feet onto Blanca Peak. The massif is an outlier, separate from the principal range. I could see the high, white peak, the cliffs guarding the summit, and the broad flanks of the mountain cradling great slumps of snow. This is Tsisnassjini, the holy mountain of the Navajo, standing sentinel on the edge of the world, the White Shell mountain. Also separate from the main range, I could see to the north the serrated crest of the Spanish peaks, glorious with snow as well. These mountains also looked like thrones, tipped with the fire of the sunset, vast terraced heights where divine beings might have their conclaves. I thought of the silence of the high country, the shadows of the stone pinnacles lengthening as the sun set, the breath of cold wind trembling in the aspens, and the dark groves of the pines. From this height I could see no trace of human habitation anywhere on the mountains or the barren, sandy plain between the great domes of rock and snow. The world was vast and uninhabited.