Tag Archives: Daniel Gabriel

FLASHBACK: “Mommy was a Shortstop”

7 April 2019

This isn’t my mom—though it sure looks like her. I have no photos of her playing ball; she was always behind the camera.







She had the best arm in the neighborhood. A quick, snap release with the ball cocked off her ear like a quarterback and a burn when it hit my glove. She’d played shortstop at the University of Minnesota during the war and even when I took the field in the late fifties she still had her infield range guns firing. I was a first baseman (left-handed and given no choice by the Pee Wee League coach) and we’d spend hours together practicing in the back yard driveway: me tossing grounders between the broken patches that marked the bases and her eating them up with a quick scoop, then the arm back and the forward blur. SMACK—another runner out.

She could hit too. Didn’t often try it in the yard due to constant use of clotheslines and the nearby overhang of a neighbor’s upper story, but when she did hit, it was line drives hard and nasty. I’d pitch (again my left-handedness exerting an automatic prod from the coach) and she’d come around on the ball with a grunt that warned me to get the glove up in a hurry. Never did see her pop one up, but then maybe my pitching wasn’t all that tough.

Life on the sandlot—note that I'm still wearing my school shoes. Mom understood the need to get the field ASAP.

Life on the sandlot—note that I’m still wearing my school shoes. Mom understood the need to get to the field ASAP.

Nobody else in the neighborhood had a mother who played ball, but then nobody else had a mother who’d hitchhiked through Europe alone in the forties and could out-whistle the noon siren from the police station. When my mom played, she played hard. And when she couldn’t play, she cheered us kids on. If you attended any of my Little League games you knew her. She was the small woman with the unpermed hair and the down-at-heel shoes who sat in the first row of the bleachers and shouted like the Furies whenever I got a hit or made a catch at first. I never had an at-bat without hearing her voice come over the background hum of “heybatterbatterhey” and drop inside my ear with a “Come on, son!” or “Go get ‘em, Danny!” Always cheered at the right things too, not just the flash and overkill.

Other parents got too busy to come to the games, or couldn’t offer anybody rides home. Not my mom. It was line them up, stuff them in the back seat and deliver them anywhere requested. She only had five of her own. What were a few more shrieking voices or sticky fingers on the door handles? She took us out to major league games too, foregoing pork chops or a new secondhand coat to pay for the gas to Milwaukee and back. We even got to wait around after the games for autographs and I still have a photo that shows Wes Covington (smoking a cigar the size of a Little League bat) signing for our gang and me there on the fringe, caught between watching the Braves’ left fielder and my mom behind the camera lens.

After a Braves' game, angling to get near Wes Covington.

After a Braves’ game, angling to get near Wes Covington. I’m center of the back row here, looking off to the side. (“Maybe Hank Aaron will come out next . . .”)

Maybe that split-sided glance is just how the memory ought to stay, because if there was one single serum responsible for injecting me with a double dose of baseball fever, it was my mom and her own rabid joy, not just in the game, but in the effect it had on me.

From my first feeble swings with a taped-up twenty-inch bat (“When you’d hit the ball,” she’s told me, “the bat would fly one way, your cap would go another and you’d run off in a third, to go sliding into the clothesline pole.” to the night in Babe Ruth League when I became the first player in two years to hit a ball into Lake Minnetonka, she was always there. Never riding me, just cheering me on. And as I watched her knees give and her arm go flat—the shoulder stiffening until she could no longer lift the ball above it—I knew there was no room for sadness at what had once been between us. It wasn’t something that had died, it had been passed on.

Thanks, Mom, for not making me come home from school and change my clothes before I hit the diamond. Who could stand to wait? The game was in progress. But you’d be there waiting when I pedaled up in the soft dusk of evening, racing the darkness home for supper. Beat-out sneakers and grass-stained jeans . . . A mud smear under my eye . . . The breathless nine-year-old retelling the bottom of the 7th with both the Pringle twins on base and Haago hitting a smash to first . . .

In the games we played together, losses didn’t count. I’ll remember that when my own time comes. And I promise never to smoke a cigar the size of Wes Covington’s.

Originally published in Minneapolis Review of Baseball, Vol. 8 No. 2, Spring 1989.

Book Hunting on Skid Row

12 February 2019

On Skid Row, patrons might enter a bookstore for any number of non-literary reasons

As a child, I was a voracious reader. It took me years to stop reading every single billboard, every single street sign, every scrap of printed paper I came across. I burned through my school library, my town library, and the handful of Chip Hilton and Hardy Boys books stocked by our local five-and-dime and liberated by me without need for any pesky cash register transactions.

Given the parlous state of our family finances, this might well have been the limit of my acquisitions. But there was one further source of literary access: the used bookstore run by the Salvation Army down on Skid Row, which was confined (unsuccessfully) to the middle of the Mississippi River, on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. All the stores on the Row featured used goods, except for the bars, and even there one could hardly be certain of the provenance of any given tipple.

The Salvation Army bookstore was a musty, dark place, with never-dusted shelves and a cantankerous proprietor who dozed behind a small desk. From time to time he would blink awake with a snort, glare around him as if to blame whomever else might be in the shop, and then resettle himself back in his dreaming-chair, until such time as the making of change might be required.

Frankly, any used bookstore draws me in like a moth to the flame.









There were rarely other patrons in the store, but when there were they tended to be freight riders or bindle stiffs who had wandered in out of the weather, looking for a place to sleep, or piss. Sometimes both objects were achieved along the darker back aisles. Once my search for oversized picture books about knights and castles drew me along the far shelves near the cloth-hung doorway that led to the back storeroom, where my wanderings ended abruptly when I came upon a grizzled figure in a torn army greatcoat who had managed to fall asleep upright, propped on an overflow shelf of paperback romances. From the smells coming off him I could deduce that he had both imbibed a large quantity of liquor and successfully relieved himself in his pants.

I never revisited that particular back aisle—but then I never told anybody about the incident either. I knew it was all too likely that our bookstore expeditions would end, and that would be a catastrophe I could never endorse.

The first few times we went there—a gaggle of mop-haired word-hungry siblings ranging from babes in arms to my eleven years—we were escorted by Grandmom, a former school teacher from the West Virginia hills who took back talk from nobody. Ever since Granddad had retired, he and Grandmom spent half the year traveling North America in their pop-up van, Itchyfoot. (This was in the early sixties, well before a younger generation began filling the roads with live-in vans.) Each summer they’d pull into our driveway and I’d dash out to inspect the latest additions to their rolling home. We always got two shopping trips out of their visits. One was to buy shoes for each of us five children. The other was a journey to that fabled Sally Army store, where we were each allowed to select as many books as we could carry. (Since they cost 5¢ apiece, Grandmom knew we couldn’t empty her purse.)

In those early days, my attention was on completing my collection of Hardy Boys and John R. Tunis adventures, along with the occasional book on pirates, or baseball, or whatnot. I began to learn about first editions, and failed continuity across a series, and the collector’s struggle to find that last final rarity that so often is a justifiably-forgotten side remnant of some author’s oeuvre.

As I grew into my teens, I began making my way to the Salvation Army store on my own, without waiting for Grandmom’s annual visit. Now I was free to look for any old thing I pleased, with no concerns that my stack of books would be studied for “appropriateness” by any of the significant adults in my life. If I wanted to peruse The Last Days of Al Capone, or “The Bikini and Who Can Wear It,” such was my choice. One day I found The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Another time it was a slim Ace Books volume called simply Junkie, by some guy named William Burroughs. I couldn’t believe that anybody would willingly display their addiction in such a manner—or that a book company would print it.

By the time I was deep into high school, I was an expert at mining the shelves for hidden gems. This is where I first encountered James T. Farrell, via The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Soon I was back for the other volumes in the Studs Lonigan trilogy. I concocted a high school research paper on the dissonance of modern youth as evidenced in the rise of motorcycle gangs thanks to stumbling on a paperback named Hell’s Angels, by one Hunter S. Thompson. On an unpainted green wooden shelf labeled “Music/Art/Movies” one day I picked up a book by an author completely unknown to me—Mezz Mezzrow—simply because of the title: Really the Blues. I was deep into discovering the blues, and bought it at once, though Mezz’s book was all about jazz, and reefer (“the mighty mezz”) and a million nights on the bandstands and stage doors of the American night.

In time, the city condemned Skid Row and both sides of the street were leveled to make way for the brand new Hennepin Avenue bridge. Life on Nicollet Island continues—there’s a small neighborhood of converted boardinghouses, a classic old inn, and the imposing brickwork of DeLaSalle High School. But the island’s real treasures—those innumerable 5¢ books with their hinted promise of bold, nefarious deeds—are lost to the winds of time. Except for the rescued ones that still populate my shelves at home, reminders of younger days.

Originally published in Tampa Review, Issue 55/56, 2018


15 December 2017

I recently finished editing the latest COMPAS Anthology of Student Writing—entitled This Bursting Sound Within. This is no less than the 38th (!) collection of the best student writing that COMPAS teaching artists discover each year across the state of Minnesota:

Subtle and evocative

Subtle and evocative visuals from COMPAS artist Shakun Maheshwari, here on the cover.


This past weekend was the official celebration of the book’s release, and St. Paul’s Landmark Center saw hundreds of people gather for the group reading. The setting was stunning, festivities joyous, and the young readers overwhelmingly brilliant. Folks who couldn’t be there will need to settle for this, my editor’s introduction to the book:


For decades now, COMPAS has been sending the writers in its Creative Classroom Program out into the schools and communities of Minnesota. What began as a handful of poets in the late Sixties, working mostly in Twin Cities urban schools, has expanded into a thriving statewide network of songwriters, storymakers, playwrights, comedians, graphic novelists, spoken word artists, and beyond. The forms may change, but at the center of it all remain WORDS, and the ability—nay, the necessity—to communicate.

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why do people hate? fear? love? These are timeless questions—yet how often do we expect our children to voice them, let alone propose answers?

Out of all those classrooms, and all those clever exercises designed to move reluctant writers past barriers, COMPAS writers and artists selected the best for submission to this book. From that group, we have gone further, and selected the best of the best. The range of styles and topics is boggling. We get everything from the complexity and sophistication of Ekhlas Abdullahi and Nafiso Mohamed’s “Anchor,” to the pure joy of “Let’s Go Camping” by the energetic kindergartners of Mr. Crosby’s class. We get marvelous fantasy adventures (see virtually the entire section of “Diving into Adventure”), noble tirades against injustice (note especially the “Speaking Up/Speaking Out” section), and bold revelations and questions about the world.

Remember the last time you fled your homeland in fear and had to resettle in a new country where people spoke an unknown tongue? Me neither. But some of these students do, and the insights they provide are crucial. Just check “The Roots within Us” by Lay Lay and see if your perspective isn’t enlarged. Ivy Raya considers the impact of adoption in “Nameless”: “My name is who I am, but it has been changed throughout time. Does that mean that I have changed as well?” Hailey Dahl exposes feelings that many of us have in “Anxiety Poem”:

“It’s like a little creature

Sitting on your shoulder

Telling you you’re not worth anyone’s time

Or that everything you’re doing is wrong

You push people away before they get the chance to abandon you.”

Powerful stuff, that.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.

Interior illustrations by COMPAS artist Fiona Avocado exude boldness and playfulness.


Equally powerful to me are those pieces that offer an almost prescient sense of time passing, never to be regained. My favorite in this vein is Eavan Bobbe’s poem “The Playground.” Replete with imagery and wistfulness, it serves as an epitaph to childhood.

Throughout these pieces, there is a sense that the young writers are often responding to an internal imperative to make their voices heard. It’s that entire concept of this is something that I can’t keep from saying that brought me the title of the book. Cristina Furness Rubio concludes her epic linguistic paeon to the Catalan language (“Tongue Waltz”) with the words:
“I am from this bursting sound within.”

That’s what fifth grader Henry Hilton had in mind, when he wrote:

“A whole page flowing out

Of my brain and onto the page.

A sea of thoughts expressed.

The weight of the world

On a piece of paper.”

Let the sea of thoughts heave and foam . . . rejoice that the bursting sound comes forth!

—Daniel Gabriel, Editor



Portugal’s Far North: Wandering Childless Peneda-Geres Park

8 February 2017

Though still on the frontier with Spain, the castle ruins above Castro Laboreiro no longer serve as border fortress.

Though still on the frontier with Spain, the castle ruins above Castro Laboreiro no longer serve as border fortress.

Away from the coasts; away from the rattling trams and rushing trains; away from the crowds and the nouveau cuisine and the latest twist on Douro winemaking, rise the stark black mountains of the El Minho region—Portugal’s far north, up near the border with Galician Spain—and the empty solitudes of its descending valleys and cliffs. Peneda-Geres National Park is not on the way to anywhere anymore, though signs still proclaim the Portuguese route of El Camino de Santiago.

Despite the arresting presence of thin-bladed windmills set like a platoon of sentries across the bare hilltops, these mountains are where the old Portugal lies. The land of shepherds and cowbells, sleepy villages and ancient menhirs and dolmens left behind from pre-history. Wolves and wild boar still roam the hillsides, though we found ourselves instead spotting wild ponies, and long-horned cattle, and having to wait while a flock of sheep crossed the road on their way home.

Wild ponies dot the hillsides and meadows of Peneda-Geres National Park.

Wild ponies dot the hillsides and meadows of Peneda-Geres National Park.

The land is rugged, and every structure in the villages appears made of stone; hard granite, usually, pulled from these very hills. The most intriguing structures are the espigueiros, which look strikingly like grave sites we remember seeing in the interior of Sumatra. They are granite caskets on stilts, with open slots in the side for drying and storing corn.

Stone granaries dot the hillsides like funerary plots.

Stone granaries dot the hillsides like funerary plots.

Inside the national park, over 100 granite villages still remain. Small places, but solid with the weight of years. The most magnificent is clearly Peneda, its houses scattered down both sides of a ravine in the lee of a granite outcropping that reminds us both of Yosemite’s Half Dome. The village is picturesque on its own, but as we walk the descending steps of the magnificent pilgrimage church of Igreja Senhora de Peneda—where an annual fall festival brings villagers from all over the region for music, dance and prayer, culminating in a candlelight procession through the plaza—we can feel the emotional heart of the historic region still beating strongly across the ridges and plateaus.

The pilgrimage church of Nossa Senora is set between mountain ridges.

The pilgrimage church of Nossa Senora is set between mountain ridges.

Something that festival can’t bring back are children. We hardly see any at all. Young people of any sort are few and far between. Jobs are limited. The future lies in the cities. The eyes of the old ones seem content, if a bit forlorn, but who will take their place? Amidst the stark beauty of the mountains, even alongside the gurgling streams, lies an underlay of sluggish finality, as if the very lifeblood of the region is not being suitably renewed.

We think on this as we climb towards evening. Above us are castle ruins set on a stony ridge overlooking the village of Castro Laboreiro. We struggle up the rough path and through a boulder-strewn wasteland. The view from the ruins runs all the way to Spain, and the descending waves of hillsides ripple with shadows. In the distance, a single cowbell tolls. Sunset is not far away.

Dusk in Castro Laboreiro brings all the animals home.

A timeless scene: dusk in Castro Laboreiro brings all the animals home.


Crypto-Jews of Eastern Portugal

9 January 2017

Both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide have active Jewish museums these days.

Both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide have active Jewish museums these days.

1492 was more than just the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. On the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe, it meant the beginning of the end of the centuries’ old life of the local Sephardic Jews. The same Spanish royal duo of Ferdinand and Isabella who bankrolled Columbus also used anno 1492 to declare that Jews within their kingdom must convert to Christianity, or depart the country.

Some 150,000 chose to flee over the border into Portugal, with most settling in the mountainous regions near Spain. Jews had already been living in Portugal for at least a thousand years, contributing in many significant ways to national life. They were diplomats, cartographers, and merchants—even the previous king’s treasurer had been Jewish. But no sooner had the new arrivals begun to build fresh lives than in 1497 King Manuel I issued the same xenophobic decree to all members of the Jewish community, regardless of how long they’d been present in Portugal: convert, leave, or die.

The old Jewish quarter in Castelo de Vide looks idyllic today, but imagine the panic after the 1497 decree.

The old Jewish quarter in Castelo de Vide looks idyllic today, but imagine the panic after the 1497 decree.

There were definitely consequences. In 1506, thousands of Jews were killed by raging mobs, and in 1536 a two-century Inquisition was begun, leading to imprisonment, torture and death for virtually everybody accused. Many fled, once again. Of those who chose to stay, most became Marranos, new converts to Christianity, whose doorposts were often marked with a cross to symbolize their status. But Marranos were not trusted, and careful attention was paid to make sure the conversion was real.

In Guarda's Judiaria, several houses still bear the stone-etched cross that signified a conversion to Christianity had taken place.

In Guarda’s Judiaria, several houses still bear the stone-etched cross that signified a conversion to Christianity had taken place.

That appeared to be the final page of yet another shameful chapter of anti-Semitism in Europe. However . . . in the early decades of the 20th century, a man named Schwarz discovered that there were actually hidden communities of Jews still active in the country, mostly in the regions of Tras-os Montes and the Beiras. This led Captain Barros Basto, a symphathizer, to conduct the “Obra do Resgate,” which was aimed to help the remaining Marranos practice their Jewish traditions openly.

Eventually, some two dozen communities of crypto-Jews (in various stages of survival) were discovered. The last to be revealed, in Belmonte, didn’t emerge until the 1980s! (Belmonte’s synagogue, built in 1297, was the oldest in Portugal.) In this community, all the Jewish traditions and secrets were handed down through the female line, unlike in orthodox Jewish practice. This gender inversion may well have been used as another layer of security from prying eyes. In any case, the Belmonte community (currently about 200 strong) is still extremely secretive about exactly which practices were maintained, and how. Marriage arrangements had been particularly difficult to sustain, and the level of inbreeding required means that many community members today suffer from hereditary diseases.

The community in Belmonte stayed hidden until the late 20th century.

The community in Belmonte stayed hidden until the late 20th century.

Nowadays, towns such as Castelo de Vide and Guarda post signs outlining their old Judiarias, or Jewish quarters, and small museums can be found in both Belmonte and Castelo de Vide. The contents of these museums depict those few, fragile items that were saved down through the centuries: Shabbat lights, mezuzahs, a copy of Flavius Josephus’ history of the Jews, a tiny precious Torah . . . Remnants only, to be sure, but it is that faithful remnant that carries the witness forward.

The Jewish Museum in Belmonte is small—few tangible items could safely be hidden over the centuries—but deeply moving.

The Jewish Museum in Belmonte is small—few tangible items could safely be hidden over the centuries—but deeply moving.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT-Kfr8kJF8