Music Monday: “The Story” by Brandi Carlile

Coffee, whiskey, and fishing poles. That’s really all you need in life.” ~ Brandi Carlile

Until yesterday morning when I heard this quote on the Current, what I knew about Brandi Carlile was her name… and that just vaguely.

Women country singers not named Emmy Lou, Jessie, Tammy, or Dolly quickly bore me. Female pop-divas leave me completely flat. I leave the whole contemporary-female-pop-country-genre/pop-diva stuff in the more than capable hands of my youngest daughter.

But how can someone who can summarize life as perfectly as the above quote NOT become my next new favorite artist.

Its official… for the next little while I am going to be listening to a singer named Brandi!

On Easter Monday.. I really can’t think of any better words to live by.


On Easter Saturday

Crucifix_Getty_4001Today is Easter Saturday. A part of me feels that it would be appropriate for me to say something about Holy Week and Easter. That is what I would expect from a seminary-trained writer who has spent part of a lifetime being paid to write and think about such things.

Over the years. I have noticed that my enthusiasm for things religious can wax and wane… years of plenty alternating with years of drought. This has been one of those drought years for me. If asked, I could make a long list of things about church and religion I cannot stand. If pressed, I would have a hard time coming up with a small number of things I do like.

Years ago, when I was working for the Forest Service during the summers and living and going to seminary in Chicago the rest of the year, my boss on the Trail Crew said to me that he thought that one day I would be standing in the pulpit, looking at everyone in the pews, and I would just suddenly announce, “This is all bullshit,” and I would take off my alb and leave the church and never come back.

I did take off my alb and leave the ministry… not too many years after he made his prediction… and I did leave the church I grew up in. But he was wrong about me never going back. I have left often… but I always end up going back.

In a few weeks I turn 51. I feel that I should at my age be able to point with confidence at something important I have learned with my years, some wisdom that I can pass on to my daughters. I think that a man who has read as much as I have, and lives internally as much as I do should have something he can share with others…. But I find I do not.

Easter Saturday is a peculiar day. Yesterday the altar was stripped. The candles extinguished. All was silence. No Mass. No consecrated host. Only darkness.

Today we wait.

Theologian Hans Kung described the circumstance of Christitiany as a living between: between the “already and the not yet.” The Resurrection has already happened… the Second Coming has not yet happened. We wait.

In the North Country we are hopeful that the last snows of winter have finally fallen. In the marshes near my house I have finally seen red-winged black birds and egrets. Green is beginning to take hold in the edges of the world again. Life is reasserting itself.

We wait.

Music Monday: “Lord of the Rings Symphony” by Johan de Meij

My wife’s concert band played this movement of the Lord of the Rings Symphony yesterday. She had been talking about how much she enjoyed playing it and was certain that I would like it. She was right.

Johan de Meij wrote this piece not for an orchestra but for a concert band in 1988, before the Peter Jackson movies. The clip posted here was arranged for the London Symphony Orchestra.

On a Monday in mid April… it seems like just the thing.


Puckett vs. Mauer

Another disappointing season?

Another disappointing season?

The Kirby Puckett vs. Joe Mauer comparison/contrast has been on my mind these last few days. Though positionally they are different players (Mauer a catcher… Kirby center field), Mauer’s recent health issues will  narrow that gap sooner than later. They both played for the Twins… both were the number three hitter in the lineup… both, by far, the most popular players on their respective teams… both all-stars… the face of their respective franchises… both the highest paid players on their teams.

I moved to the Twin Cities and started following the Twins in earnest in 1986. I had followed them from afar because of my previous sojourn in the Red River Valley and through friends who grew up in Minnesota and were life-long Twins fans. Living in Chicago I usually went to Wrigley UNLESS the Royals or Twins were playing the White Sox. I always went to at least a few of those games with friends.

1986 was a good time to start following the Twins in earnest. That was the year before they won their first World Series. It was an over-achieving team of lunch-pail kind of guys that were about the same age as me: Gladden, Brunansky, Hrbek, Gaetti, Viola, Blyleven, and, of course, Puckett. Puckett was worth the price of admission, as a fielder and a batter. He was charismatic, a difference maker, a true super-star.

I assume that today’s fans feel about Joe Mauer the same way. He does stop time when he bats. All eyes in the stands and both dugouts are on him when he steps to the plate. Few players can do that in any era.

As I was thinking about them I looked up their stats. Baseball is, after all, a game of numbers. The first thing I found is that I had forgotten how great Kirby really was. Here are some side-by-side stats after their first 7 seasons with the Twins:

Kirby Puckett and Joe Mauer after first 7 seasons

What you notice in looking at these stats is that Kirby’s batting average after his first 7 seasons is really remarkably close to Mauer’s… but he hits more homeruns AND plays in more games. Kirby brings his batting average and power to more games than Mauer.

Mauer won an MVP in 2009, the year of his historic slugging percentage. That year he put up way more homers than he has at any other time in his career. So I decided to compare Mauer’s best season in his first seven, 2009, with Kirby’s best season in his first seven seasons, 1988. Here is a chart that compares those:

Mauer’s best and Puckett’s best in their first 7 seasons

Comparing the these two great seasons we see the same trend. Catcher Mauer is not able to play in as many games as the durable Puckett. Over a season that durability adds up to RBI. The number three hitter has one job: drive in runs. Again in 2009, Mauer hit substantially more  home runs than his career average… he more than doubled his career average. He has never come that close before or since. Puckett in 1988 hit just a few more than the number you would expect.

What do the Twins long term need to be competitive as a team… besides dominating pitching? A high average hitting catcher who plays in just 135 games a year? Or a run producing center fielder who plays in 158 games a year? I think the answer is obvious.

At the end of 7 seasons Joe Mauer has 1 MVP trophy… Puckett none. At the end of 7 seasons Mauer has won 1 playoff game… Puckett a World Series.

Man, do I miss Kirby!

Wait till next year…

Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett

With last night’s predictable Timberwolves loss, another miserable basketball season in Minnesota has come mercifully to a close. For basketball fans in the gopher state, it has been another long and disappointing season. Only the local semi-professional team, Hopkins High School, had a season worth remembering. The coach and administration of Hopkins High School should probably be compelled by the Minnesota State Legislature to hold a basketball recruitment seminar and invite David Kahn (GM of the Timberwolves), Tubby Smith (Men’s Gopher coach), and Pam Borton (Women’s Gopher Coach) to attend.

Fortunately Spring is here and the baseball season has begun. Though if the first two weeks of the season are any indication… this could well be a long season for Minnesota baseball fans also.

The Joe Mauer dilemma has raised its ugly head a few years earlier than the Twins management would have liked. They know that at some point they are going to have to move Mauer from behind the plate. You can’t have your 23+ million dollar man squatting behind the plate for too much longer if you expect his knees and body to hold up. But the moment you move him he becomes just a high-average singles hitter. The league is filled with those kind of hitters. None that can hit with Mauer’s average… but many, many who can drive in more runs. Singles hitter never make 23+ million dollar salaries, though. They are not worth it… no matter how high their average.

It is a long season, though. Much can happen in 162 games. I have little faith that much will for the local nine, but I hope to be pleasantly surprised. If they give Kubel less playing time, and Thome more at bats… if Mauer could regain just a little of the power he showed his MVP year… if Morneau gets back into the swing of things… and if every pitcher on the staff pitches much better than I think they can… they may be able to get back into the playoffs for a one and done with the Yankees.

1991, Minnesota sports’ last championship season, is 20 years past. At the rate we are going around here, it could be another 20 until we have something to celebrate.

*UPDATE Friday morning: the paper reports that Mauer is going on the DL and has an appointment with a doctor. Man, I miss Kirby!

Music Monday: Henryk Górecki

Each year during Lent, I find myself listening to Henryk Górecki. I was introduced to Górecki a number of years ago when out of the blue I received a CD in the mail from a favorite English professor that I had not seen or communicated with in at least a decade and a half. The gesture touched me deeply… the music more deeply still.

On a warm, spring Monday in Lent, Górecki seems like the perfect thing.


Poetry Review: “Solitude” by Lord Byron

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

Wynton Marsalis has said of Louis Armstrong that “he was so great that you could lie about how great he was and you would still not be saying enough.” The same could be said of Lord Byron’s life: you could lie about how big it was and you still would not be saying enough.

A man of public affairs and public scandals, Byron, once dubbed famously as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” was larger than life. He was the kind of man you imagine dominating any room he entered And yet it is not his life that is important. For a poet, it never is.

Poetically and rhetorically “Solitude” is not a complicated poem… any complexity lies wholly within the man who wrote it, … and in the way of great poetry… wholly within our own selves who today read it.

What matters about Byron, ultimately, – exciting life aside – is his poetry . How did such an outwardly worldly man create such fine art? In today’s poem “Solitude,” he points to that essential quality that made him one of the greatest poets of the English language.



To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!


Poetry Review: “Sometimes a Man Stands Up” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Selected-poems-of-RilkeLast week my two daughters were abroad on a trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. My wife and I stayed home, spending a week painting rooms for an upcoming graduation party, because in Suburban Minnesota it is customary to throw an elaborate open-house for high school graduation [even though graduating from high school.. like being toilet trained and being able to eat with utensils… is the very LEAST we expect from people in our society].

Rilke’s poem “Sometimes a Man Stands Up” was understandably on my mind during that week. I first read this Robert Bly translation of the poem 30 years ago… at a much different place and time in my life.  Funny how time and circumstance can make you see a poem so differently.

As a 21-year-old wanderer with a wide-open future it was a poem about growing up. I recognized its tragic undertones but did not fully “feel” them… though for that, how much of true tragedy can we recognize and feel when we are young and full of promise (only the middle-aged man truly trembles when watching King Lear).

Now… three decades past, the poem is something quite different altogether: a tragedy I know now from the inside as well as out… a melancholy story I know only too well.

It is spring at last in the North Country. Juncos have returned… feeding on the ground beneath the feeders outside our porch. Walking near a marsh near our house I have heard, though not yet seen, red-winged blackbirds… the clearest of all signs of spring to me.

My heart should be light in the longer light of the days… but it is not. It is restless…. but than again it is always restless. Restlessness is, after all, at the very heart of the human condition… as Rilke’s poem so clearly conveys.


Sometimes a Man Stands Up

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

Poetry Review: “The Poet and the Bird” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a great influence on Emily Dickinson. Not, of course, in language or style but more in temperament. Certainly the wordiness of Barret Browning bears little in common with the spareness of a typical Dickinson poem.

It is easy to see why Dickinson would have gravitated to Barret Browning. Her playfulness of language that Chesterton described as an “Elizabethan audacity and luxuriance,” her lively and intelligent energy, and her love of puns and extended metaphors, all would have appealed to Dickinson.

I first read Barrett Browning and her husband Robert when I took a Victorian Literature class in college. It was, as I have written elsewhere on this blog, not the time of life or time in history to fully appreciate Victorian writers. It was the late 1970s… as far removed from the Victorian period as we will probably ever be.

“The Poet and the Bird” is by no means one of her greatest works. But it is a fine poem. The idea of the essential relationship between the artist and the world is not a new one either, but idea is well developed. It is a poem I cannot help but like.


The Poet and the Bird

Said a people to a poet—” Go out from among us straightway!
While we are thinking earthly things, thou singest of divine.
There’s a little fair brown nightingale, who, sitting in the gateways
Makes fitter music to our ears than any song of thine!”

The poet went out weeping—the nightingale ceased chanting;
“Now, wherefore, O thou nightingale, is all thy sweetness done?”
I cannot sing my earthly things, the heavenly poet wanting,
Whose highest harmony includes the lowest under sun.”

The poet went out weeping,—and died abroad, bereft there—
The bird flew to his grave and died, amid a thousand wails:—
And, when I last came by the place, I swear the music left there
Was only of the poet’s song, and not the nightingale’s.

W.H. Hudson

For of all living authors–now that Tolstoi has gone–I could least dispense with W. H. Hudson. ~ John Galsworthy

W.H. Hudson

W.H. Hudson

W. H. Hudson was born in 1841 in Argentina to immigrants from the United States. He is best known today, to those few who even know his name, for his novel Green Mansions, which for years was a staple of English 101 classes. Fortunately and unfortunately it no longer appears to be required reading. It is fortunate since to my mind it is one of his lesser works. It is unfortunate though in that generations of English majors are growing up without knowing Hudson, one of the finest writers the English language has ever known.

A quick look at Wikipedia shows how obscure Hudson has become since Galsworthy penned his famous words about Hudson in an introduction to Green Mansions. The Wikipedia article consists of a few brief biographical paragraphs mostly about his accomplishments as an ornithologist and a bibliography of his works. That is it for a writer who was once so admired by literary giants like Galsworthy and Ford and Henry James.

When I first began to read Hudson, in the mid-1980s, his work was difficult to find but not impossible. Combing used bookstore shelves I could find old volumes of Idle Days in Patagonia, El Ombu and Other Stories, A Little Lost Boy, Afoot in England, The Naturalist in la Plata... It took time, but with work I found most of the volumes I was searching for… and all, without exception, were worth any and all the trouble it took to find them.

I was introduced to Hudson when reading books of reminiscences by Ford Madox Ford. Ford like Galsworthy held Hudson in great esteem and affection. It seems like everyone who knew him as a person and a writer loved and respected him.

Hudson grew up speaking American English and Spanish. His early work shows the influence of both. He uses both Spanish and English. The Spanish idioms dropped out over time in his writing, but the way he looked at the world… so American… so un-European… especially nature and birds… never changed.

Hudson has been on my mind of late because I recently downloaded – for free – many of the works that had once taken me so long to find, and a few I could not find then and so have not yet read. (Since Hudson died in 1922, his works are all available in the public domain from many different sites.)

Sometimes when you re-read a work you greatly admire, you find yourself disappointed… a little bewildered and surprised to find something once great and rare now diminished and dull. Not so with Hudson. If anything, my appreciation for him has only increased over time.

Is he work? Yes, in the way that all 19th Century writers can be work: like Tolstoy, and James, and Turgenev, and Ford, and… But like them, he is worth the work. He should not be forgotten and should not have only a few brief paragraphs in Wikipedia. He should be downloaded, read, and celebrated.