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Apologia pro vita sua

or, Why I take the same pictures every day

On my first visit to the physical therapist after my second hip replacement in six months, she asked me what my goal was? Going up and down the stairs was still a problem. She wanted me to think out in time to the thing that would let me know I was where I wanted to be.

“Walking around Lake Phalen,” I said.

I hadn’t been able to do that since we first moved in three blocks from the lake. One of the major reasons we bought this house was its location in one of only two significant green zones in the city. We loved the house itself but also especially because of its proximity to the lake. Steve was already dreaming about canoes and kayaks and sailboats.

 During 2018 I could walk some of the lake, half at most, and not without significant pain. This year I made it all the way around without significant pain. It was truly a milestone. Now that I can, I walk around the lake almost every day. I do it with joy and pride and ambition. What’s the next goal?

In addition to being my exercise it is my meditation. My mind lets go of its petty preoccupations, spins out, and then opens up to the language of the trees, the birds, the wind, and the water. I have two or three basic variations of the lake walk, but it is substantially the same landscape and waterscape no matter which one I take. Yet it is anything but the same walk every day. Each day is full of delightful surprises.

The difference comes in various scales. The largest scale is the change of seasons, which is dramatic and all-encompassing. Walking in summer means shorts and tee shirts. Walking in winter means layers of down and ski poles. As much as I hate the worst of winter, beauty can still be found in unlikely places. Spring, summer, and fall are so abundantly beautiful, each in its own way, not as a state but as a process, that I am content to be where I am, doing what I am doing. The feeling of contentment in life is rare and evanescent. The broad natural and psychic space the lake creates in the immediate environment is a zone of quiet, of the wind through the leaves, the ripple of the water, the songs of the redwing blackbirds, and the fragrance of wildflowers and flowering trees. The impact of the natural surroundings is enveloping, visceral, and gives rise to a spontaneous feeling of well-being.

Downscale from the changing seasons are the daily changes within a given season. In spring and summer native wildflowers bloom in successive waves. Fragrance also comes in waves, first the lilacs, then the catalpas, then the lindens, then the sagey sweetness of the fields of wildflowers, each with a unique scent that sometimes saturates the air and sometimes teases from the distance.

The light changes hourly, and is different on each side of the lake, as different as light and shadow. The butterflies and transparent dragonflies and bees are creatures of an instant, there and gone among the wildflowers before you notice them.

Nothing is the same and nothing changes. Through the year’s round the banks of trees and flowers reproduce themselves before my eyes, burst like Fourth of July fireworks, flame red and pink before shedding their foliage to reveal their stark skeletons etched in ice and snow. It all comes. It all goes. It never dies. It returns each spring and explodes each summer and is consumed in flame each autumn like the phoenix that will rise again when the Earth tilts at the proper angle to the sun.

I take pictures every day because, although I walk the same paths I see different things and my eye glimpses different instants of sublime beauty. Sometimes I can catch that unique beauty in a photo. Sometimes not. Sometimes your eyes don’t see the thing I took the picture of, and it looks like a hundred other pictures I’ve taken in the same place. But it’s not the same picture and it’s not the same place, at least not to me. In each instance I am striving to capture something unique in its own singular instant, a particular confluence of space, color, sky, water, trees, shadows, and clouds with something at its center I haven’t seen before.

If nothing else, my walks around the lake make me happy and keep me sane. The photos are souvenirs, physical memories, artifacts of the revealed sublime, at least to me.

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Chicago: Millenium Park

Millenium Park is the northwest corner of Chicago’s vast Grant Park between Lake Michigan and Michigan Avenue. Its crown jewel, Frank Gehry’s Pritzger Pavilion, replaced the old band shell. I lived in Chicago in 1979 when Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, visited the city. Chicago has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw and many feared the park would collapse into the subterranean parking structures when two million people came for Pontiff’s public Mass in Grant Park.

Millenium Park officially opened in 2004 and has been continuously tweaked into one of the finest public spaces in the world. The park includes not only the Pritzger Pavilion (bandshell) but also the perennial crowd favorites, the “bean” — artist Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate — and Catalan conceptual artist Jaime Plensa’s Crown Fountain, an interactive work of public art integrating fountains and video sculpture, a wondrous, watery playground for children of all ages. The park also features an ice-skating rink in winter and sprawling gardens. The silver bridge was Frank Gehry’s first bridge and provides an entry to a bandshell like no other.

A 2007 photo shows the general layout of Gehry’s pavilion and bridge.

I was in Chicago June 20-22 for the Chicago Symphony’s concert version of Verdi’s Aida under the baton of Music Director Ricardo Muti, and for the Manet exhibition at the Art Institute, across the street (or the bridge) from Millenium Park. I lived in Chicago, my father’s home town, for a total of fifteen discontinuous years, and I was blown away by how it reinvented its historic center as a fantastic, user-friendly, and fascinating public space.

Crown Fountain, detail, with Michigan Avenue as backdrop.
Opposite view. Playful is the operative word. The faces change to represent every race and nationality. Vertical fountains and sprinklers across the entire field between the screen go off at intervals as do the spouts from the large video faces.
Lurie Garden, looking north toward Pritzger Pavilion.
Pritzger Pavilion with picnic lawn for free summer concerts.
I stumbled into the orchestra rehearsing Shostakovich’s First Symphony for that night’s free concert. The acoustic is astonishing. The Pavilion has 4,000 fixed seats and a lawn that accommodates 7,000. Note the orchestra plays in a resonant wooden soundbox, while the brushed stainless superstructure unfurls around it projecting waves of warm, natural sound. An innovative sound system is embedded in the metal framework over the picnic field to reproduce concert hall acoustics.
The Nichols Bridgeway connects Millenium Park to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Michigan Avenue from the bridgeway.
The pavilion seen from the Art Institute.
Garden Cafe, Art Institute
Balcony Cafe, Art Institute, where I charged my phone.
The bean, Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”, looking west toward Michigan Avenue.
Looking south.
Looking north.

Looking west into the Loop’s Madison Avenue
The Chicago Athletic Association, 1893 (Venetian gothic) on Michigan Avenue
Nothing about the Loop is complete without a picture of the el (elevated) train from which it derives its name. The track runs in a square more than a loop enclosing the original business and entertainment center.
(A fragment of ) the Art Institute and Lake Michigan beyond, viewed from Orchestra Hall across Michigan Avenue. You can’t see them in this size photo but the names chiseled into the stone entablature are “Correggio Holbein Veronese Tintoretto Rubens Velazquez.”

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Chicago: Riverwalk, dusk

Thursday, June 20, 2019. Riverwalk is a water level promenade on both sides of the Chicago River begun in 2001. This was the first time I had experienced its full extent. The Chicago River here runs through a chasm of skyscrapers — developed in Chicago, the first “skyscraper” is generally identified as Chicago’s Home Insurance Building (1883). It is one of the most dazzling displays of architecture to be seen anywhere. (Worth noting, the bridges are all draw bridges that interrupt traffic in and out of the Loop (the downtown business center) when they are raised for boats.

Looking east toward Lake Michigan.
RiverWalk at the Clark Street bridge.
From the La Salle Street Bridge, looking toward the art deco Board of Trade Building topped with a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, at the end of an avenue of skyscrapers old and new.
Looking east toward the round Marina Towers (1960).
The golden spire of the art deco black and gold Carbide and Carbon Building (1929) pokes up in the center.
A dinner boat cruises under the Dearborn Street bridge beneath the Marina Towers.
Riverwalk at the Wabash Street bridge. Center, the Trump hotel and tower looms over the white glazed terra cotta Wrigley Building, and to the left in the background, the Hancock Tower, at one point the second-tallest building in the world. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The Carbine and Carbon Building, center.
Looking west toward the Wabash Avenue Bridge.
The Wrigley Building (left) design was based on the Giralda Tower of the Seville Cathedral. It stands across Michigan Avenue from the Gothic buttresses of the Tribune Tower, built of Indiana limestone, in 1925. (Rocks and stone fragments — 149 of them — of everything from the Taj Mahal and the Winter Palace at Beijing to the Chicago Stockyards, the Parthenon, and the Hagia Sofia, stud the building, supposedly gathered at the owner’s request by the Tribune’s foreign correspondents. Between the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, an Arabian fantasy, originally the Shriner’s Medinah Athletic Club (1929), now an Intercontinental Hotel with the original tile swimming pool high in the tower.
Looking west toward the Wrigley Building.
Architectural tours on boats are sensational.
The Wrigley Building, from north bank of RiverWalk.

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Mount Zion Cemetery, St. Paul

Mount Zion was established in 1856, two years before Minnesota became a state, and was the first Jewish congregation in St. Paul. Among their first acts was to pay $150 for a half acre of land for a cemetery just beyond the city limits. By 1889 the original half-acre was full and an additional five acres were acquired.

Jewish tradition discouraged figurative art. No statues of angels or humans will be found in the old Jewish cemeteries. Natural forms, trees and flowers, are found however, as well as geometric patterns, as in Islamic religious art.

The following are photographs I took on a walk through the cemetery on a cloudy spring day.

Severely eroded, I believe the date is 1860.
Strategically-placed urns contain stones to leave as personal memorials on the graves.
“We are only dead when forgotten.” 1893
Non-figurative funerary art.

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Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries at Minneapolis Institute of Art

Votive foot with Greek inscription, 2nd c. AD

You probably never heard of the lost cities of Heracleion and Canopus.
I hadn’t.

They collapsed into the Mediterranean Sea more than 1200 years ago. Located in the Nile Delta near Alexandria, they were assailed by a combination of earthquakes, tsunamis and rising sea levels. Nothing found in either city dates later than the 2nd century AD when the soil liquified and the buildings collapsed.

Osiris, ca. 650 BC

Two decades ago, underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team discovered the cities, revealing monumental statues, religious images carved in stone, exquisite jewelry, and delicate ceramics that shed more light on life during the age of the pharaohs.

Bronze hawk, 664 – 343 BC.

Until its collapse, Canopus was famous for its sanctuaries of Osiris and Serapis. Pilgrims from all over the world came to visit in search of miraculous healing. The God Osiris was taken on his ritual barque from the Sanctuary of Heracles in Heracleion to his sanctuary in Canopus creating a mystical link between the two cities.

Pectoral, gold and lapis, 925 BC

We often dismiss the incredibly high levels of culture and technology of previous civilizations, discounting them as stunted and less advanced. The artifacts tell a different story. They are masterful and perfectly served the ritualized and stratified structure of ancient society. The slave empires of antiquity were theocracies, highly organized, permeated and structured with religious ritual for millennia. They cannot be dismissed easily but they fossilized as all theocracies must. They also reached intellectual, technological, and artistic peaks which we still do not fully comprehend, and offer us the lesson of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The goddess Taweret as a hippopotamus, 650 BC
Sistrum, gold, a musical instrument.
Hadrian, foreground, Antinous behind, 2nd c. AD
The Nile.
Osiris wakes up from death with a smile.
Serapis, 2nd C. AD
Stele of the Osirian Mound, ca. 350 BC
Osiris figure in falcon coffin.

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Lake Phalen, 29 March 19

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Recently extinct animals

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“The Fix” at MNOpera

Last night I saw the Minnesota Opera production of the world premiere of The Fix(Joel Puckett, music; Eric Simonson, libretto). I anticipated West Side Storymeets Field of Dreams with athletic, Jerome Robbins-style choreography. What I got was a delicately wrought, gorgeously orchestrated, beautifully sung paean to a lost American dream. 

The Fix is about the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series and facing the music. It towers above other premier commissions here (one a year), many based on movies, that adhere to the parlando conventions of 21st century American opera, shy of long melodic lines, duets and trios, and standout vocal writing.

The Fix fixed all that.

Puckett should be a household word. He uses a fresh idiom inflected with a southern twang especially appropriate to the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson. He employs his large orchestra to create a kaleidoscope of delicate sonorities as well as grand orchestral gestures.

The rhythms shift subtly with a certain relentless ticking and chiming that drives the tale forward. The music serves the libretto, often to a fault, and Puckett is unafraid of a swelling melody, the meat and potatoes of the standard repertoire.

Ring Lardner’s aria, “I love this team, Hugh,” is an anthem to the dream of human perfection even in so unlikely a candidate as the illiterate “country bumpkin,” Jackson. It is a standout moment movingly sung by Kelly Markgraf. It’s why we bother to go to the opera at all, and so rarely get in the landscape of new compositions that leave melody to Broadway.

The cast is enormous, 20 singers. The ensemble is the real triumph here. Each character is distinct and the voices are uniformly accomplished.

Special kudos to Minnesota Opera for using a multicultural mix for the eight white White Sox players and for casting an African-American woman as Joe’s wife. It’s good to keep us on our toes and remind us how things have and haven’t changed.

The opera is a magnificent gift to the entire ensemble, offering a wide range of musically distinct character parts. To these ears, the standouts were Wei Wu as Chick Gandil, Margraf as Ring Lardner, and Joshua Dennis (the Duke of Mantua here last season, and Roméo before that) as Shoeless Joe. They sang so cleanly that I rarely had to look at the supertitles.

The only significant female role was Joe’s wife. The lack of female leads was somewhat unavoidable, but at least they worked Katie in, sung by Jasmine Habersham. She’s young, with a Papagena-Despina-Norina background and a lyric future judging from the heft and bloom of her voice.

The production itself is handsome and effective. A unit set, the backside of Comisky Park, functions dramatically and allows for constant cinematic scene shifts from bar to kitchen to court to playing field. Flexible, engaging, and it worked.

I saw the first night. By the end of the run the kinks should be worked out, the performances less cautious. Judging from what I saw, Joel Puckett and Minnesota Opera hit it out of the park.

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Lake Phalen melting

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MNOpera: “Italian Straw Hat”

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