Lisbon Saturday Night

5 December 2016

Saturday night in the Alfama . . . who knows which way magic lies?

Saturday night in the Alfama . . . who knows which way magic lies?

Saturday night in the Alfama, Lisbon’s old Moorish quarter, with a half moon winking behind sporadic cloud cover, and faint smell of fish floating up from the Tagus River estuary. Wind gusts shiver down the back lane corridors. Alfama’s lanes twist and climb the hillside like petrified snakes named Beco (used for alleys or cul-de-sacs), Travessa (bystreets) and Calcada (ascending/descending roads).

Getting lost in the Alfama isn't a requirement; it's just inevitable.

Getting lost in the Alfama isn’t a requirement; it’s just inevitable.

Knots of couples and celebratory parties pull together, then move apart, drifting these streets (to quote Tom Waits), “looking for the heart of Saturday night.” A bottle is raised, a challenge proposed, on they go. The souvenir shops have all shut, but tiny mercados and an occasional café still stand open, hoping for one final customer.

Alfama backstreets wind up and down the hillside. At the top, the Castelo de Sao Jorge looms over the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills. Here comes a tram, still packed to the riggings and clanging its way up, down, and around the repeated bends. Any tramstop offers a tantalizing trail to follow, but we are searching particularly for casas de fados, the storefront “fado houses” run by fadistas, singers of Portugal’s national music.

Fado has been played since the 1830s, and these 2 folks are legends even today.

Fado has been played since the 1830s (yes, 18), and these 2 folks are legends yet today.

We find one on a bend near an 18th century church. The doors are open, and patrons sit at tables on an outdoor patio, with a blazing fire warming their center. The fadista (male, in this case) is standing in the doorway, singing to the crowd both inside and out, his hand resting on the shoulder of his viola player, with the soloist (on 12-string Portuguese guitarra) tucked out of sight inside the inner room. The soul-wrung sounds drift through the night air, over to our cold marble seats on the church plaza. Time to dip into our hip flasks and let the night air swirl with sounds.

After a bit, we wander another side lane, and hear more fado—this time a female voice—coming from behind a decorated door. We lurk outside, as do a couple of locals who are trying to decide whether this should be the spot to settle. The song rises, then falls, mournful notes drifting off into the star-sparkled sky. Fado means fate, and its dominant emotion, saudade, is an untranslatable concept that speaks of longing, and nostalgia—often a longing for something lost, or never obtainable. It is said to be the essence of the Portuguese character; embedded, perhaps during all those long, painful farewells between departing sailors and their homebound wives and loved ones.

We don’t speak enough Portuguese to truly understand the words, but there is no difficulty opening up to the emotion behind the songs. After the singer completes her traditional three-song set, we move along, meandering with the night, listening for sound wisps wending their way down the tangled lanes and alleyways. A cat crosses our path, and another one hisses from curbside.

Street wanderers are looking for signs like these.

Street wanderers are looking for signs like these.

Bursts of sound follow the opening of doors, and we let the mood rustle past as we pause. Our hip flasks stay busy. Now we’ve found a particularly rich singer, and linger long outside the door where she sings. The room inside is full to the brim, and others join us outside, waiting for departures in hopes of finding a seat. A taxi lingers, and is scooped up.

A young man rides up on a bicycle with a long black case strung over his back. Another guitarist . . . He hustles inside. Across the street an East Indian shop keeps its lights burning, and random loners cluster nearby, dipping into the shop for cigarettes, snacks, a beer or two. Nobody appears to know each other, but we’re beginning to form a community here on the doorstep. Even with the door shut, we hear the fadista’s wail.

In the city of Evora, Bota Alta is the prime casa de fados, and Ines Villa-Lobos the featured singer.

In the city of Evora, Bota Alta is the prime casa de fados, and Ines Villa-Lobos the featured singer.

Then the set ends, and as a few patrons depart, the waiting souls outside begin to edge their way in. Jude spots an empty place near the back wall and we try to claim seats. There is a quiet brouhaha over whose seats these are, and whether leaving to have a cigarette means they are coming back, and eventually the whole scene gets so testy that we opt to withdraw into the streets instead.

Moments later, a rain cloud bursts and we hide beneath awnings and archways as we trudge wetly back to our tiny upper room apartment. We’ve left the skylights open, and already sections of the rooms are drenched. Heaven knows what state of affairs we would have eventually found had we chosen to stay and fight for those contested seats in the casa de fado. As it is, the memory of those slow, mournful sounds stays with us, coloring the night sky, and sending us off towards morning.

The Klezmorim: Yiddish Jazz Reborn

3 September 2016

The original concert review, never published:

The Klezmorim, first klezmer revival band in the world.

The Klezmorim, first klezmer revival band in the world.

Sunday, 17 January 1982

Half a dozen young men in twenties’ gangster suits and Russian peasant garb are onstage blowing their way through a hotblooded tune about “The Wild Women of Besserabia.” Several of them dance as they play, punctuating staccato passages with shouts of “Hey!” and upthrust arms.

At times they sound like a Polish wedding party. At others, like a New Orleans brass band. The music weaves sinuous rhythms around unorthodox tonality. The effect is at once joyous and plaintive. But what is it that we’re listening to?

The short answer is Eastern European folk jazz as played by the San Francisco-based Klezmorim. The long answer takes us back three hundred years and across two continents. Klezmorim is a Yiddish word for itinerant Jewish musicians who wandered the streets of Eastern European cities from the 16th century on, playing weddings, feasts and sleazy bars. Somewhere near the end of the last century they exchanged their traditional violins for tubas, trombones, clarinets and xylophones. The result was klezmer music.

Original European klezmer players strike up the band.

Original European klezmer players strike up the band.

It came to America with the immigrants and thrived during the early decades of this century. Vaudeville, ragtime, jazz: all influenced and were influenced by klezmer music. It was an exciting time, but it was not to last. Young Jewish musicians like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, who’d grown up listening to klezmer, turned to jazz as a music that offered the same soulfulness and improvisational opportunities (without, perhaps, the Old World stigma attached).

It is a measure of the quality of the Klezmorim’s stage presentation that I was able to learn all of the above information while listening to a 90 minute concert of complex, dance-inducing music. The band knows its material—and its roots. Brief comments between songs and occasional dramatizations of real situations faced by the original klezmorim (e.g. a twenties’ recording studio enactment of a klezmer band recreating the music for a week-long Old World wedding in three minutes and 45 seconds) successfully updated the tradition and informed the uninitiated.

Musically, there was an intriguing mixture of classic jazz and Yiddish folk tradition. Tuba and trombone provided bass and rhythmic colorations in a strongly Old World style. The trumpet was moody and sparse. But when the clarinet and the soprano sax got going, it was New Orleans, here we come. Their lilting interweavings recalled the classic Mezzrow-Bechet recordings of the twenties and thirties.

The band’s founders—David Julian Gray and Lev Liberman (who performed the above-mentioned clarinet/sax duets)—showed the depth of their research in the breadth of material performed. The songs ranged from an 1886 football fight song to 1920s cartoon soundtracks.

Yet beneath the diversity was a unity—a kind of Jewish soul, if you will. There was an unkind irony in what a band member described as “essentially a dance music for hot-blooded youth” being performed for a middle-aged (though admittedly Jewish) audience in the subdued elegance of Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. The band enticed us towards the atmosphere of the Yiddish feast and the low-life bar. We preferred the safety of our chairs. But we couldn’t keep our toes from tapping.

The beat goes on . . .

The beat goes on . . .


Jungle River Trip to Belize’s Mayan Past

11 August 2016

Further down the flat winding river we slid, the silence broken only by the low throttle of our boat’s motor. Both banks were enveloped in green jungle canopy. A lone crocodile slid off its sunning perch on a log and any temptation to drag my hand in the cooling water was suddenly gone.

Ahead of us somewhere were stone temples, and carved heads, and the crumbling remains of the only Mayan city that survived intact until the arrival of the Spaniards in the New World. They would have approached the city up this same river. What would their reception have been?

An elegant egret surveys the lonely stretches of the overgrown New River.

An elegant egret surveys the lonely stretches of the overgrown New River.

Two egrets flashed their wings above the treeline. The sun glistened off the flat river surface. And then, cutting the silence, came a full-throated banshee howl . . . and then another. “Howler monkeys,” said Mr. Novelo, our guide, but I was thinking of the dead spirits of all those Mayans who’d lived here through the centuries.

We turned in towards a small, wooden dock, and a pathway leading off into the jungle. Adventure awaited. . . .

By the time you reach the boat dock at Lamanai, the river has spread out into a lagoon and the Mayan past seems to have taken over completely.

By the time you reach the boat dock at Lamanai, the river has spread out into a lagoon and the Mayan past seems to have taken over completely.

Mention Belize and people quickly think of great snorkeling and diving sites, or the biggest barrier reef in the western hemisphere. But to focus only on the Belizean coast is to miss a great deal of what this tiny, breathtakingly diverse country is all about.

First off, Belize is as much Central American as it is Caribbean. It’s home to an astonishing ethnic mix. There are villages of pure Mayans, coastal settlements of Garinagu (a combination of Carib Indian and shipwrecked African slaves), remote Mennonite settlements, and pockets of recent refugees from surrounding Central American countries. Add in the Chinese and East Indian merchants that pop up in every town, and the flavorful Creole culture (based on the intermarriage of Scottish and English pirates with escaped African slaves) which dominates this English-speaking country, and you have an ethnic stew that is second to none.

Travelers interested in Mayan ruins have multiple options in Belize: Altun Ha, just north of Belize City, has its temple facade plastered on every Belikin beer bottle in the country. Xunantunich, out near the Guatemalan border, features the awe-inspiring 130 foot-high roof comb of El Castillo. And barely-excavated Caracol, deep in the Maya Mountains, is turning out to be possibly the largest Mayan city ever in existence.

But it is a site in little-visited northern Belize that offers the most romantic manner of approach—and the location of the longest continuously inhabited Mayan city of all time. When our family visited Belize, a journey to the ruins of Lamanai was at the top of our agenda.

While it is possible to reach Lamanai by road, the convoluted route is both long and fairly boring. Easily the most adventurous route to the ruins is via the New River and its jungly, crocodile-infested banks. We began our journey in the northern city of Orange Walk. This sugarcane town and market center holds little of appeal to travelers, aside from the sleepy, tree-lined plaza and the many cowboy-hatted Mennonites tromping through town selling produce. But the town backs on to the New River, and it is here that the best tours to Lamanai begin.

Mennonite farmers are a frequent sight in the markets of Orange Walk.

Mennonite farmers are a frequent sight in the markets of Orange Walk.

We booked with Jungle River Tours. The four Novelo brothers are capable archeologists and naturalists, and delight in sharing their stretch of the country with visitors. In a sun-shaded motorboat seating about twenty people, we headed south up the river for a 90 minute ride into the jungle past.

Aside from a few fishermen in wooden canoes, the river was still. Herons and egrets dabbled in the shallows, sleeping crocodiles dozed in the mangroves and on fallen tree branches, and far in the distance we could see a huge jabiru stork guarding its treetop nest. The jabiru stork stands up to five feet tall with a nine foot wingspan, and is the largest flying creature in the western hemisphere.

Our boat also passed the remote Mennonite settlement of Shipyard. As we glided past, a farmer in a big straw hat and coveralls was out plowing his field with a mule and three freckle-faced boys sitting on the end of their wooden dock took turns diving into the river. It might have been a Norman Rockwell painting.

At the end of the river trip we emerged in a jungle clearing at Lamanai. Not only was this site founded early (1500 BC) but somehow, due to its isolation and the excellent water source of the river, this city lived on for 500 years after all the other Mayan cities collapsed. It was still in existence when the Spanish arrived in the early 1600s! We saw sets of pottery and fragments of temple friezes which were done in the post-classical style found only at this site.

The mighty Jaguar Temple rises proudly from its jungle surroundings at Lamanai.

The mighty Jaguar Temple rises proudly from its jungle surroundings at Lamanai.

There were also a series of half-uncovered temples in the jungle. In Belize, they tend to excavate only the west sides of Mayan buildings, because the east side is the direction hurricanes come from. We examined a haunting 15 foot-high stone mask of a Mayan ruler emerging from a crocodile and disturbed a troop of howler monkeys that set up an amazing din. They sound uncannily like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Frightening even when you know what the sound is—imagine those Spaniards on their first night in the jungle.

It is also possible to explore some more modern remains. There are still ruins of two churches that the Spanish built when they first attempted to convert the last Mayans. There’s also a ruined sugar mill in the jungle, which was erected by a band of disaffected Confederate soldiers who came to Belize after the end of the Civil War with the idea of reconstructing the antebellum south.

In the end, two structures were most evocative: the Lag Temple is both the tallest building on the site (rising 125 feet above the canopy) and one of the oldest remaining on the entire Ruta Maya. Howler monkeys are particularly thick around it. The Temple of the Jaguar—part of a complex of residential buildings—shows the long line of Mayan habitation here in its many modifications. Around it, the jungle envelops, but does not obscure, its brooding might.

One of Lamanai's most notable sights is this classically Mayan profile of a king emerging from a crocodile.

One of Lamanai’s most notable sights is this classically Mayan profile of a king emerging from a crocodile.

So many ancient sites are marred by gregarious crowds of visitors, or intrusive modern elements nearby. Lamanai stands out for its nearly silent, jungle-enshrouded atmosphere, where the past seems to seep from its every stone.

FLASHBACK: “Exploring Belize’s Rainforest”

15 June 2016

Most visitors to Belize head straight for the offshore cays. Nothing wrong with that; the diving and snorkeling are some of the best in the western hemisphere. But the country is small enough—about the size of Massachusetts—to offer some intriguing inland adventures as well. Besides, the communal and grassroots nature of virtually all Belize’s enterprises means that travelers can be assured the footprint they leave will sustain local human and natural resources. Small-scale, informal guide arrangements provide local knowledge and control, and—given the ethnic complexity of the country—offer great opportunities to meet folks from the various heritages.

A rope swing on the Mopan River at Parrot Nest lodge tempts Evan Gabriel into a daredevil leap.

A rope swing on the Mopan River at Parrot Nest lodge tempts Evan Gabriel into a daredevil leap.

Just two hours west of Belize City is the Cayo District, a secluded upland rainforest sprinkled with fertile valleys that are wedged in between mountains, rivers, and pine savannah. Once considered the most isolated part of Belize, the region has now been opened up for adventure travel experiences of all sorts. Cave tubing, river kayaking, horseback riding, expeditions into overgrown Mayan ruins . . . or just sitting on the verandah of a jungle lodge. And just west, over the border into Guatemala, lie some of the most thoroughly excavated Mayan remains in the world—the imperious Tikal.

We visited Cayo in the heart of winter with our two teenage boys. While the tinselly Christmas decorations seemed a bit incongruous, it was a thrill to go from icy winds to the soft patter of rain falling off the jungle canopy and fifty shades of green surrounding our field of vision. We stayed in one of the cheapest jungle lodges in the area: Parrot Nest, outside the village of Bullet Tree Falls. Our thatched cabin on stilts slept four, and the Mopan River at the edge of the lodge’s grounds offered some great midday swimming. Pacas and agoutis scuttled between the bushes, “Jesus-lizard” basilisks lurked in the trees, and several pet tarantulas could be coaxed out from holes in the lawn. Even just sitting on the verandah listening to the palm fronds rustle was a wintry delight.

The grounds of Parrot Nest lodge are laced with vibrant flowers like this bird-of-paradise.

The grounds of Parrot Nest lodge are laced with vibrant flowers like this bird-of-paradise.

But our family needed action too. We spent one day exploring Barton Creek Cave, a site discovered in 1994 that still houses Mayan skulls and pottery remains. Straggling along a long dirt road deep in the mountains south of the Western Highway, Barton Creek is home to one of the more traditional Mennonite settlements in Belize. The spacious farmsteads provide most of Belize’s dairy products and chickens, but try not to stare too hard when the horse-and-buggy sets go by.

With a pair of guides, our group of six took canoes into the cave and spent an hour or two drifting along the dark passageways, lit by powerful torch lights provided by our guide. We saw bat nests, silvery fish, and huge cathedrals of dripping stone chambers that rose into a dark and distant ceiling. At times we lay flat in the canoes in order to edge our way past low-hanging pillars of rocks. At the far end, we unhitched inner tubes and the boys delighted in paddling along through the darkness as we headed back out to the trail.

Some stretches of Barton Creek Cave are so low that riding an inner tube is the only practical way through.

Some stretches of Barton Creek Cave are so low that riding an inner tube is the only practical way through.

For more caving, try Che Chem Ha, which was only discovered in 1999 when a farmer’s dog chased a gibnut into the cave’s mouth. Che Chem Ha was used extensively by the Maya for food storage and rituals. Nearly a hundred artifacts have been found inside and touring with the original finders of the cave, the Morales family, takes you along narrow passages past intact ceremonial pots.

The “ultimate” Belizean cave experience is the all-day trip through Actun Tunichil Muknal. The only way in leads through creeks and lush jungle, followed by a plunge into a 20 foot-deep pool. Inside are shimmering rock formations, pottery vessels, and even human remains. National Geographic filmed scenes from Journey to the Underworld here.

Another day we hopped a local bus to the village of San Jose Succotz near the Guatemalan border, then rode a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan to the site of the ruins of Xunantunich. This Mayan site is nowhere near as grandiose as Tikal, but it offers a usefully compact set of partially-excavated ruins, including the 130 foot-high El Castillo, which was long considered to be the highest building in Belize. (Recent excavations at the remote site of Caracol have found a temple comb that is a few feet higher.)

A hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River leads to the ruins of Xunantunich.

A hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River leads to the ruins of Xunantunich.

Several sets of large-scope inscriptions are found on the sides of El Castillo, and the views from its roof look far across the rainforest canopy into Guatemala. There is also a ball court, a royal residence, and over thirty smaller temples being excavated. The day we were there barely a handful of other visitors appeared, which gave us the feeling of having a private viewing of the site, and let the ancient Mayan feel seep into our bones.

For further Mayan explorations, you can also do a lengthy day trip to Caracol (south from Cayo, up in the Maya Mountains), which is just beginning to be fully appreciated. Archeologists believe that at its peak, Caracol had a population of 200,000—which is nearly the population of all of Belize today! Day tours are also available to Tikal and, because of the complexity of transport needed, are as cheap as making the trek alone. However, having visited Tikal on a previous trip, I would counsel giving the ruins several days in order to truly take them in.

Simpler Mayan sites are also easily accessible from Cayo’s urban center of San Ignacio. Cahal Pech (the inelegantly named “Place of the Ticks”) is about a mile beyond the Hawkesworth Bridge and El Pilar is a dozen miles to the northwest. (There is no public transportation to the site.)

The Mayan-built stone temple of El Castillo at Xunantunich has lasted nearly 2,000 years. Its heiroglyphs are still only partially translated.

The Mayan-built stone temple of El Castillo at Xunantunich has lasted nearly 2,000 years. Its heiroglyphs are still only partially translated.

Adventure travel operations also offer full and half-day horseback riding, river kayaking, and tubing on the Mopan River. These can be arranged through the manager of your lodge or hotel, or sorted out in San Ignacio. (Not all plans come to fruition, of course. We were burned by two different promises of outings that never came to pass.)

Naturalists will find plenty of intriguing possibilities as well. There are several butterfly farms (Green Hills raises the most species; Chaa Creek highlights the dazzling Blue Morpho), botanical gardens, and the Rainforest Medicine Trail at Ix Chel Farm.

And when you’ve had enough jungle rambling, the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena offer a pleasing variety of restaurants to swap stories in. The most famous is Eva’s—where nearly any manner of expedition can be arranged—but tastier fare is available at Martha’s Guest House, which offers huge burgers, fresh fish, and basic Italian dishes. Another hot spot is Cafe Sol; try the Thai noodle salad.

We ate twice at Serandib, the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Belize. Amidst ads for Ceylon tea and long tables packed with South Asian families, we enjoyed a tasty variety of curries and seafood. When the weather is right, the outdoor patio in the back is a refreshing hideaway from the town.

For all its hidden feel, Cayo won’t leave you stranded. If you’re heading west, Guatemala is barely half an hour away. The route to southern Belize via the Hummingbird Highway forks south at Belmopan, less than an hour to the east. And even Goldson International Airport or the boats to the offshore cayes can be reached in a couple of hours.

Not that there’s really any need to rush away. Rain or shine, the hammocks on the verandah are calling, and the reds and golds and greens of the wildflower canopy seem to want to ease their way into my senses for yet another day.

This piece was originally published in Transitions Abroad, July/Aug 2007.


4 May 2016

OK, this photo is not @ SubText, but rather @ the Eat My Words reading. But you get the idea.

OK, this photo is not @ SubText, but rather @ the Eat My Words reading. But you get the idea.

For all those who missed my Twin Cities readings this past winter, here’s a glimpse of what went down. Many thanks to filmmaker Patrick Risberg for running the original shoot, and further thanks to DJ/producer Evan Gabriel for handling subsequent details.

The scene is SubText Books in downtown St. Paul, on a cold January night. Legendary Twin Cities bookseller Dave Unowsky does introductions and then we’re off and running:

Tapping History (Again): Dance Hall Days of the ’60s

20 April 2016

Whichever dance hall they're heading to—that's where I'm going.

Whichever dance hall they’re heading to—that’s where I’m going.

Many thanks to the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society, for once again hosting an event that allowed me to revisit my misguided youth. Here’s how they billed last week’s affair:

Join us for a night about Minnesota Rock and Roll in the 1960s. Rick Shefchik, author of Everybody’s Heard About the Bird: the True Story of 1960s Rock N Roll in Minnesota, will be joined by Daniel Gabriel, who spent much of his youth in Excelsior, has written extensively on the Dance Hall scene, and completed a yet-unpublished novel inspired by Excelsior. They will recall a time when music was regional, when local dance halls catapulted Twin City bands to a national stage, and when Excelsior was among the region’s most important venues for new music.

Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society's photo.

[Shown above is Excelsior’s Danceland, one of the biggest and most influential dance halls in the Twin Cities. Dig those entrance doors. From the look of them, they were stolen from the Amusement Park’s Fun House right across the street.]

I had never met Rick Shefchik, though thanks to a timely Christmas gift from son Alex, I’d been able to devour his book, which I loved. Rick and I seemed to hit it off quite well. I was told later that our sharing of the mic appeared seamless and well-rehearsed. Probably it was just our joint passion for the subject.

Rick emphasized some of the key bands of the era, offering historic photos

Augie Garcia bouncing through "River Road Boogie."

Augie Garcia bouncing through “River Road Boogie.”

(everything from early St. Paul rocker Augie Garcia cavorting onstage in his trademark Bermuda shorts, to Danceland’s owner, Big Reggie Colihan, leaning in on 3 guys named John, Paul & George). His choices were excellent, though I couldn’t resist upbraiding him about underselling my favorite local band, TC Atlantic. (He did mention their single “Mona,” but I felt the need to bang the gong for “Faces,” an early garage band/psychedelic classic.)

My angle was more about dance hall culture, and the rapid style changes that flitted past during the ’60s. From Continental style (greased-back hair and tight pegged pants) into the Baldie look (high-water pants worn with knee-length sox and spit-shined wingtips or shells) and so on to Mod (or at least the watered-down US version, which often mistook flair and exotic cut for the more subtle over-elaboration used by the early Brit Mods) and eventually the visual riot of Psychedelia. Women in the crowd helped fill in the many gaps in my memory about how girls’ styles vamped and changed. (Culottes, flirt skirts, hiphuggers and minis . . .)

The crowd, once again, was incredibly knowledgeable—and standing room only. When Rick struggled to remember the name of an obscure ballroom in Pipestone (the far SW corner of the state), somebody in the crowd immediately piped up with the name. And when we discussed, inevitably, the legendary Rolling Stones concert at Danceland in 1964, no fewer than four people in the audience had been there. Memories? “All I could think of was how big the singer’s lips were” . . . “the bass player was holding his bass real funny, almost upright” . . . “I didn’t think the songs they played were all that different from local bands” . . . “Is it true what they say about Danceland and Mr. Jimmy?”

Ah, yes, Mr. Jimmy. Excelsior legend and supposed inspiration for the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” I won’t take the time to recount the entire story here, but I have come to realize that I am now considered an authority on the matter. Rick even said I had swayed his opinion from doubtful to possible. And, again, members of the audience had their own twigs to throw on the fire: “My friend worked the Bacon Drug soda fountain in those years, and she witnessed the encounter between Jagger and Mr. Jimmy.” . . . “I was one of Jimmy’s best friends. He talked about that time a lot . . .”

And afterwards, the stories kept on coming. One audience member after another had a memory to share. We could argue over which dance hall was the best, but we all agreed on what good times had been had. To quote Bunny Wailer, from a completely different context: “Rule Dance Hall!”

Why Write?—Middle Schoolers Respond

23 March 2016

A few days ago I taught at the opening day of the annual Young Authors Conference here in the Twin Cities. (The bulk of the event will happen in late May.) YAC has taken place for 26 straight years, and I’ve been there every single time. As ever, this was a wonderful opportunity to share the enthusiasm of over 1,000 young writers in grades 4-8. About 80 of them ended up in my sessions, and this year, the conference theme was “Why Write?”

In between bursts of speed writing from prompts (got to keep your chops in order), we became a temporary community and shared some of our answers to that question. Going in, I wondered whether a collection of early teens and ‘tweens—who were largely unknown to each other—would really be willing to open up about such a personal topic. To my joy, many were. Here are just a few of their responses [Note: stock photos are used below]:

In their regular classrooms, young writers are often isolated. At the Young Authors Conference, everybody present shares their interest.

In their regular classrooms, young writers are often isolated. At the Young Authors Conference, everybody present shares their interest.








Why do you write?

  • It helps me make sense of the world.
  • I want to shape things my way.
  • My grandpa is a writer.
  • Because that’s the way I figure things out.

Who do you write for?

  • My friend, “Angie” (who was sitting nearby).
  • I write for myself. I just like my stuff.
  • For my family. I want them to be proud.
  • For myself, so I can see what I think.
  • I write for my dog. My stories are all about him.
  • I write for my goldfish. He died.

Where do you want to go with your writing?

  • I want to write lots of stories.
  • To work in sports journalism.
  • I plan to write dystopian mysteries.
  • I have a whole bunch of ideas—should I put them all in my first book?
  • I just want to keep on doing it and see what happens.
  • Onto the next page!

Hey, I’m with that last comment. Keep the hand moving on the page—who knows what might come out?

The hand moving on the page—watching creation unfurl.

The hand moving on the page—watching creation unfurl.







Once again, those young writers have re-energized me for my own work. It’s such a joy to see their excitement, their concern to do the very best they can, their hunger to learn inside tips. And where else do you enter a room filling up with middle schoolers where early arrivals are all sitting at their desks, heads buried in heavy tomes?

Here’s to future literary accomplishments by young minds that are growing even as we speak . . .

I think she's set to roll, don't you? Look out, world.

Not even old enough for YAC yet, but I think she’s ready to roll, don’t you? Look out, world.

FLASHBACK: “Market Day in Haarlem”

24 February 2016

I was hoping to share a link to the publication that printed this photo essay, but they have no online presence. In fact, copies of their magazine only turned up the other day. So here’s my recreation of the original piece:

The Dutch love open-air markets. From the sprawling Waterlooplein flea market in Amsterdam, to the choreographed pageant of Alkmaar’s cheese market, to tiny side street gatherings around herring carts and flower baskets in towns large and small, folks in the Netherlands love to gather outdoors and mix their shopping with a neighborly visit and a leisurely stroll.

A classic Dutch combo of tradition and vitality.

A classic Dutch combo of tradition and vitality.

The city of Haarlem is no exception. While the small, neighborhood Botermarkt operates most days, the real treat appears when the central Grote Markt kicks into action. Every Saturday and Monday the pedestrian-only center of town reclaims its 17th century flavor and speckles the cobblestones with tents and trailers and carts. Ringed by the same period edifices that marked the city during the Golden Age—the vast Grote Kerk (once known as St. Bavo’s), the ornate Stadhuis (City Hall), the long low line of the old fish market, the precise gables of De Hallen (the former meat market), and on around the lovely old square—with plane trees and outdoor cafes encircling the iconic statue of L.J. Coster, would-be inventor of moveable type—Haarlem’s outdoor market is both uniquely Dutch and quintessentially European.

Come take a look around. . . .

CLICK HERE TO GO TO PHOTO GALLERY: Market Day in Haarlem, 2007.

This piece originally appeared in the Palo Alto Review, vol xxiv, 2014.

Biking in Waterland

3 February 2016

The low swirl of Waterland is as much a part of the sea as land. For birds, it's a paradise.

The low swirl of Waterland is as much a part of the sea as land. For birds, it’s a paradise.

For all the talk about the cutting edge “green living movement,” it can be instructive to realize that not everything needs to be re-invented. Many eco-friendly approaches to life can be found from poking around in the past—and present. During a jaunt to Noord Holland, I spent a day biking through the polders and wind farms of the area known as Waterland, which lies just east from Amsterdam.

My trip started at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, where I dropped into MacBike, located along the southern end of the main building. I got a bright red pushbike, with a wide, comfortable seat, upright handlebars, and foot brakes. It was like riding a bike from my childhood—and best of all, it was instantly comfortable.

Being the Netherlands, there was a bike path starting right outside the door. Around the back of the station I went, where I cruised to a stop at a ferry crossing. Five minutes later, the free ferry had dumped me in Noord Amsterdam, where winding residential streets soon led to the heavy foliage of a city park and, beyond it, a bike path atop a dyke. In no time I was in open countryside . . . and then the gabled village of Schellingwoude . . . and then more open land along the dyke.

A boat, a canal, and a bike. Let the road stretch on forever.

A boat, a canal, and a bike. Let the road stretch on forever.

This was a pattern that would repeat across much of the landscape. As far as the eye could see were polders and canals and dykes. All man-made. Even the IJsselmeer—the vast inland lake—was manmade, created by the Dutch in 1932 when they completed the great Barrier Dyke that closed out the North Sea and transformed the Zuider Zee and its fishing communities into the recreational IJsselmeer.

One could argue that this is the opposite of accommodating culture to the environment, but through hard, persistent work and the taming of the elements of wind and water, the Dutch have created quite a sustainable lifestyle for the inhabitants. Everything is on a human scale, with cozy villages and farms and houses linked to the single road by skiff platforms used to cross the tiny canals from one’s front doorstep. Clusters of cows and sheep nibble contentedly, and herons hunt in the shallows. Waterland is five meters below sea level—and still sinking. The moist grasslands serve as breeding grounds for many species of birds.

The further out in Waterland I went, the fewer villages there were. Even cars were scarce on the little road that sometimes paralleled my dyke path. I rode along above the water, self-propelled, and happy to leave a very light footprint. When bike paths diverged (and there were many such paths) signposts were quick to show the way. Even so, I took the opportunity to engage the occasional passing stranger in conversation, sometimes feigning ignorance just as a chat-starter. The only times I had trouble being understood were when I attempted to speak Dutch. English worked just fine.

But soon I had left the little villages, and only an occasional farmstead broke the horizon above the long, low canals and grasslands. Atop the polder the wind blew steadily, with the salt smell of sea air, and on my right, away from the farmlands, the IJsselmeer sprinkled whitecaps and cresting gulls glided against a slate grey sky.

My goal since I’d set out was to ride all the way to Marken, a former island in the Zuider Zee which was now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Back in the early fifties, when Marken was still an isolated island outpost—and I was a wee toddler—I had traveled here with my parents. For years I’d heard stories from them recalling the little Dutch villages along the Zee, like Edam and Volendam, with locals in fulsome dresses and starched white caps, the men with their pipes and billowing trousers. Marken had particularly stood out, both as an end-of-the-road destination and because the local population seemed to have intermarried a few times too many for their own good. What would it be like today?

For centuries, the Marken folks were known for their distinctive dress and dedication to their fishing fleet.

For centuries, the Marken folks were known for their distinctive dress and dedication to their fishing fleet.

Then I was onto the causeway. The winds whipped across my path. On the far side I dipped down through a quiet crossroads of bike paths and along a lane on the edge of town. The characteristic green-and-white wooden stripes of Marken houses huddled comfortably along canals, and bright banners with royal portraits heralded the 50th anniversary of the coming of the causeway. The narrow streets were tidy and quiet, the only sound the occasional clopping of shoes as locals strolled past. They certainly looked normal to me. I slipped along in silence, heading for the old Marken harbor.

Another dyke path pulled me on towards the mast and furled sails of pleasure boats tied up in a line along the breakwater. Four traditional houses stood in a row at the end, just as the old photos had portended. One featured espresso and pastries, and I gathered myself in the lee of a pair of outdoor tables and celebrated my return to the scene of yet another childhood memory.

Placid Marken Harbour has survived many a gale blowing in off the North Sea. Today it's weekend sailors rather than true grit fishermen who call it home port.

Placid Marken Harbour has survived many a gale blowing in off the North Sea. Today it’s weekend sailors rather than true grit fishermen who call it home port.

It was mid-autumn and the sailing season nearly done. An occasional seafarer would ramble along the line of the boats rocking at anchor and hop aboard, tidying up and tucking items away. Two boys in Ajax shirts dodged in and out of the bollards along the harbor wall, playing an imaginary game of soccer.

I could feel the day sliding off towards evening too, so I gathered up my bright red bike, made a quick circle of the outer village and set off back across the causeway. I was twenty-some kilometers from central Amsterdam, with the promise of the other half of the cycling loop yet to be fulfilled.

Once back on the mainland, I passed a set of modern slim-line windmills, their pale grey poles almost disappearing into the equally grey sky behind them. I followed the coast for a few kilometers and then turned inland, winding down lanes and pasturelands that left the sea feeling remarkably distant. In Zuiderwoude and Broek in Waterland, gabled wooden houses were sprinkled along the roadside, and a cluster of red-lettered signs pointed the way on bike paths in all directions. The steeples of 17th century Dutch Reformed churches were the highest points in the landscape, and as the afternoon mellowed into early evening, I settled back in a slow, comfortable riding rhythm.

Bike paths in Holland are thick on the ground, and often more convenient than driving anyway.

Bike paths in Holland are thick on the ground, and often more convenient than driving anyway.

I crossed over the Noordhollandsch Kanaal on a high bridge, dodging a moment of traffic, and then looped down through woods and parkland that paralleled the flowing water. Above me on the far bank the rush of traffic multiplied until it seemed a motorway of frantic visitors heading for the center. Yet my path continued to wind through trees, past dog-walkers and couples strolling hand-in-hand. An old-style windmill appeared in my track, its wide sails stopped forever, but still a symbol of the old ways.

Ahead I could see the ferry landing, and across the Het IJ the sprawling edifice of Amsterdam Centraal Station. Was it really still the same day as when I’d left? I felt I’d traveled much further in time even than in distance, and that in some important ways I’d penetrated closer to the heart of the Dutch psyche.


FLASHBACK: “The Wonder of Wies”

6 January 2016

Delicate tracery based on leaves and plants graces the organ and loft.

Inside Wieskirche, delicate tracery based on leaves and plants graces the organ and loft.

The eye roves incessantly. The trompe d’oeil ceiling sparks interest in the pulpit, then in the inlaid wooden railings around the altar. Gold and glitter jump out from every corner, one detail leading on to the next. It is a feast—almost a gluttony—of German rococo ornamentation. One of Ludwig II’s fantasy castles? A major cathedral? The high point on a tour of Wurzburg? In fact, it is none of the above.

This is the Wieskirche, a pilgrimage church set just off the Romantic Road (near Steingaden) in rolling countryside back dropped by the white peaks of the Bavarian Alps.

"The Wonder of the Wies" lies in quiet Bavarian countryside.

“The Wonder of the Wies” lies in quiet Bavarian countryside.

It is no surprise to find such a gem in Bavaria, which was long a center for rococo adornment. But there is irony in the fact that what most authorities consider to be the finest rococo church in Germany is found, not in regal Munich, or even the bustle of a market town, but standing forth in solitary grandeur amongst a handful of houses in the tiny community of Wies. After all, rococo, with its profusion of glitter and pomp, is most closely associated with the flamboyant court life of the 17th and 18th centuries. Who would build such a masterpiece in a tiny country hamlet?

The answer lies within. On the cover of a tomb in an obscure corner of the sanctuary is written the name, Dominikus Zimmerman. Here is the key to understanding the Wieskirche. Dominikus Zimmerman was one of the finest—and certainly the most prolific—architects ever to work in the rococo style. And he was born just outside Wies.

But what we have here is not the usual case of a lad from humble beginnings going on to fame and fortune and then in his old age bequeathing a large sum of money so that his home town could erect something in his honor. No. Dominikus Zimmerman gave not money, but time. He labored for a full decade (1744-54) to complete the Wieskirche. For a full decade he poured his heart’s blood and artistic talent into a house of worship for the townspeople of his home.

The result is known throughout Germany as “The Wonder of the Wies.” Sunstreams slide through the windows, illuminating an interior of delights both majestic and miniature alike. Here a Biblical quotation lies enshrined in golden carvings. There a cherubic leg suddenly juts forth from a fresco into the third dimension. Imposing statues of the saints stand in a circle around the sanctuary, lending a human element to the ethereal setting.

Even the sunlight enters with an appropriate flourish.

Even the sunlight enters with an appropriate flourish.

From every angle the oval sanctuary exudes light and space. As the angles of light change with the hour of the day, worshippers come and go. Some seek healing, and leave crosses and crutches as tokens of their thankfulness. Others find solace in the notes of the church organ, whose ponderous tones fill the sanctuary with waves of sound. And still more just come to sit in stillness. Their eyes are first drawn forward, to the richly decorated altar; and then above it, to where a bronze statue of the Lamb of God reminds them of the true object of their faith. For whatever the modern viewer’s reaction, the Wieskirche remains first a house of worship, and only secondly a museum of rococo art.

This is as it should be, for Dominikus Zimmerman poured his energies into this project not to outdo himself artistically, but to keep a faith promise with himself and with all those who share the same belief.

The lamb of God stands over all (above the altar).

The lamb of God stands over all (above the altar).

This piece originally appeared in Messenger (Italy), December 1984.