Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Songs of Experience is the Best U2 Album Since All That You Can’t Leave Behind 2 comments

In non-BFS fashion, I’m going out on a limb and making a big statement I haven’t mulled over ad nauseum. In my cautious, middle child way, I like to settle into what I’m thinking and saying, but I felt compelled to make this leap after reading Jon Pareles’s review of U2’s most recent album release, Songs of Experience. Now, this is an article from The New York Times, so I know that the headline may not have been Mr. Pareles’s choice to go with his review. But the commentary in the title, “Cynicism Not Included,” just irks me. It sells this album short.

Does that mean I think the album is cynical? No, it’s more nuanced than that. The best characterization is given by the album’s title itself: it’s experienced. It’s seen how the world works, isn’t entirely happy about it, but has also seen and known hope.

Another limiting statement from the review: “The word ‘love,’ unironic and high-minded, recurs all over [the album].” I actually read this review before listening to the album, and this line made me fear that Bono had gone over the top (and even most fans of U2 can admit he has the tendency). But again, the album digs deeper than this superficial gloss of some of the song titles. Yes, the album opens with “Love Is All We Have Left,” but the tone and music used to go with those words is quiet, even tenuous. Nothing is certain about that statement in this context.

The album accelerates from there to “Lights of Home” (a delightfully bombastic follow-up) to the large, worn on your sleeve emotion of “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” Love is very much at the forefront of this song, but there are so many layers. There’s a bittersweetness to saying, “When the world is ours but the world is not your kind of thing, Full of shooting stars, brighter as they’re vanishing.” And my goodness, for a song so shouted, so anthemic to proclaim “You’re the best thing about me,” in its chorus, the closing lines of “Why am I walking away,” should make anyone pause and wonder. Looked at carefully, these lyrics could embrace love between spouses, friends, parents and children—not to mention much of the world’s response to the recent refugee crisis.

And if it isn’t clear from my description of the first three songs, this album’s music is excellent, U2 doing it right more than I have seen them do in years (and they haven’t been slouching in this department). This is why another part of the review by Pareles gives me pause. “It’s not an album that courts new fans by radically changing U2’s style; instead, it reaffirms the sound that has been filling arenas and stadiums for decades.”

There is some fairness to this, but again, it’s limiting. There are some purposeful callouts to earlier songs (Pareles notes one), but they’re at play with those older, familiar sounds. “Blackout,” the song Pareles notes has an echo of “Mysterious Ways,” promptly goes in a different direction after giving the listener that brief cue, as if a brief nod to long time fans. And the album’s final track, “13 (There Is a Light)” is in clear dialogue with and repeats some lyrics from “Song For Someone,” from their previous release, Songs of Innocence. In other words, it’s not just the band riffing on their greatest hits because they can’t do anything else.

I suppose you could also say there’s the continued, recognizable presence of Bono’s voice and The Edge’s guitar style. Still, criticism on that level can easily get silly, almost seeming to suggest that a band should find a new lead singer, get rid of its iconic guitarist, etc. At some level, a band is going to sound something like its constituent parts.

I’d say the review’s musical criticism is much more fair of U2’s previous release, Songs of Innocence. While I enjoy it and the clear experimentation it often shows (I don’t think Songs of Experience would have been possible without it), there are a few too many clear, in your face “U2 moments.” I love the aforementioned “Song for Someone,” but at the 2:15 mark, we get some crescendoing guitar that is a hallmark of U2’s style and it leaves me disappointed every time: we’ve been there before often enough.

While it’s certainly a U2 album, Songs of Experience simultaneously sounds different from anything else they have done before. The Edge lets his guitar work go places it hasn’t gone before, sometimes becoming more crunchy and rough, and generally avoiding his characteristic “U2 anthem,” approach. Adam Clayton’s always solid bass line often comes to the fore, which makes the mid-album “Summer of Love” an entirely different and memorable experience.

All of these elements, the layered lyrics and music, ebb and flow, carrying through from the start to the end of the album, making me put it among U2’s best. Does it feel a risk for this cautious Swede to say it, after only a few listens through? Yes, it does. But I also can’t escape how each of those listens have left me more excited than I have been by any of their albums since the 2000 release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

Suffice to say, it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Random BFS Thoughts 2 comments

What with the school year starting and the requisite getting the brain in teaching gear (amongst other things), I just haven’t felt up to a blog post. But as a recent tweet showed, I am capable of random thoughts or quips, and since I am beginning to work again on a novel with a rather random main main character (who likes to make random notes about life), how about I provide nine random BFS thoughts for your delectation and delight? You can thank me later.

1. Why must every new endeavor be fraught with self-doubt and fear?

2. Why can I never do teaching prep during the summer, when I have plenty of time, but need the no-time frenzy of the school year to prepare?

3. Why don’t people like to wash pillow cases and towels with other types of clothes? They’re seriously all rubbing against you at some point.

4. To go back a bit to #2, no seriously brain, why do you need the panic of a deadline to get things done?

5. Why do students so often do what you tell them not to do?

Me: “Explain your thinking! Don’t just tell me what you think this document’s purpose is, tell me what clues in the text are making you think that.

Students: “We think this document’s purpose is to be informative.”

Me: *facepalm*

6. Why did the federal government stop providing federal aid to post-secondary students who are taking a junior-high level class at the post-secondary level? I mean yeah, you would hope they would have learned what they needed to in junior high, but if they’re testing at that level after they graduate high school (or after they move to our country), how else are they going to learn this stuff? They can’t go back to junior high, can they?

7. Why is my brain waking me up an hour before I need to get up this week, then making me feel tired the rest of the day? Is it possible for parts of your body to want to mess with other parts of your body? Or is this generally just a brain thing?

8. To go back a bit to #6, does this mean the federal government has a secretly funded time machine program that they’re going to use to help students in need of some remedial education?

9. To continue thinking about #6, who would be watching the watchmen in this scenario, making sure Timmy didn’t use this opportunity to actually get the girl of his high school dreams to go to prom with him?

Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Civil War is a Bad Captain America Movie 2 comments

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you might be thinking. “Mr. BFS, you think Captain America: Civil War, is a bad movie? The movie that has better critic and user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB than the Captain America movies that came before it? Is the air a little too thin where a tall person like you walks?”

No, it’s not too thin, I get plenty of oxygen, and I’d especially like you to note the title. Civil War is a bad Captain America movie. It loses track of the person it’s supposedly about (even the movie poster does it: “Civil War” is larger than “Captain America,” you have to squint to see his name in red over there), and it’s more overstuffed than me trying to fit into the jeans I could wear in college.

So let’s do this someone is wrong on the internet thing. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are good things about Civil War. It has some powerful themes and ideas it’s working with, like revenge, individuality, morality, heroism, and what all those look like when society and politics have their say. Especially notable are the villain (if there is only one), who is not your typical, mustache-twirling type, and the Black Panther’s personal story arc, which moves palpably from grief to anger to vengeance to acceptance, no matter how familiar that arc might be.

If the movie focused on the problems and ideas it brings up, I would be more in agreement with the critics that have it hovering at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Because genre and comic books aren’t just for kids, nor are they only capable of being shallow, momentary bits of fun: they have the capability to deal with tough issues in an intriguing, memorable way that is different than stories that hew more closely to the realism of our everyday world.

Get your own movie, Spidey….

The problem is that Civil War doesn’t have focus. Can you follow its plot from A to B without confusion? Sure. But there are so many unnecessary detours and characters along the way. The most noticeable culprit is the inclusion of Spider-man, who’s basically there to help get people to attend Civil War (thanks to his appearing in the trailer) and to drum up interest in his own movie which has just hit theaters now, a year later.

Even if this were an Avengers movie (which I’m going to note again that it’s not), Peter Parker’s presence does nothing for this movie’s storyline. We have an extended detour to introduce him (5-10 minutes or so? longer? quite a bit in movie terms) and then he gets to hang out in a huge fight scene before departing, doing nothing to further the movie’s plot or themes. I love Spider-man, he’s a favorite of mine since I was young (and I loved the first two Tobey Maguire movies), but his inclusion here is badly handled and not needed.

If you still need convincing, contrast Spider-man’s role in the movie with Black Panther’s. You can’t take out the latter’s character without the movie weakening substantially, both in its plot and emotional resonance. Spidey can be taken out with nary a hiccup, and his hijinks in the airport fight could be easily accomplished by one of the MANY other characters there (and let’s face it, giant Ant-Man stole the show on that one).

But I keep coming back to the title of this review/post. This movie is an outright disservice to Captain America, one of the most interesting characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From the moment I saw the trailer for Cap’s first movie and watched Steve Rogers fall on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers, I couldn’t help but love him. His first two movies really embrace who he is as a character and let him shine, whether he’s hucking his shield at Nazis, trying to engage Peggy Carter’s interest, or dealing with a whole host of personal, emotional, or moral issues.

We lose track of him in this movie. He’s so often an outside player whose motives we can’t completely grasp, from a shoehorned romantic moment to what had to have been some agonizing quandaries over the things his best friend, Bucky, has done in his brainwashed past. Compare that to his first movie, which is reviewed significantly lower than Civil War, but let’s us get to know the guy and what he’s thinking. We know why he turned out so differently from Red Skull after receiving the Super Soldier serum. We know why he’s frustrated when he isn’t allowed on the front lines, and we want him to make a difference just as much as he does. When he’s finally allowed to do his thing, there’s an emotional tension valve released for him and the audience. It’s a movie I want to watch more than once, and have.

Civil War? Saw it the once and don’t care to see it again. Even if I think about it more like an Avengers movie (which I definitely have tried to), I keep coming back to what a big, chaotic mess it is. No matter how interesting its themes and ideas are, it tried to do too much. As more than one good critic and artist has noted, just because you can do more (more CGI, more characters, more action, etc.) doesn’t mean you should.

The BFS Recommends: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

Wind/Pinball, by Haruki MurakamiMood. An important factor in any book, but Haruki Murakami is a master of it. “He’s kind of weird?” people like to say, “but he’s cool, too, I couldn’t get this story of his out of my mind.” If you want to get technical in literary terms, he’s a surrealist, which is the fancier, upmarket way of saying he uses fantastic elements in his work (or a kind of magical realism): his books start out feeling like normal, everyday life, but before you know it, there are crazy conspiracies and alternate realities being fitted into the plot quite neatly and naturally.

If you’re a fan of the mesmerizing effect such TV shows as The X-Files, Fringe, or Twin Peaks have (though I have to go from hearsay on the latter), chances are you’ll like the mood Murakami projects in his writing. And there is always something more to Murakami than surreal/genre elements: a truly accessible author, the human condition is always at the heart of of his stories.

There are recurring themes and motifs in all his books (with a quick internet search, you’ll hear quips about lost cats, mysterious women, and a fascination with wells), but each one of his works has a unique focus. They generally have intricate plots and are quite long as well, with one of his more recent novels, IQ84, clocking in at about 900 pages.

His first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, were recently re-translated and re-published after being out of print for 30 years (in a fun double book set, with one novel printed on the first half, and the other printed “upside down” on the other half). And if you’re curious about Murakami, you should definitely give these a look.

These two novellas stand out from the rest of Murakami’s body of work in how short and poetic they are, which makes them an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to see if they’ll like his writing.  With only 100-130 pages each, you can focus on how Murakami crafts his characters, language, and mood. Both novellas also have a similar structure, as they are made up of short, chronological vignettes that focus on an unnamed narrator in his college years (or a little after, in Pinball), and his friend, nicknamed The Rat.

Hear the Wind Sing
For those who have ever felt a little lost or unsure if people get them, for those who have ever felt like they were losing connection with those they were once close to, Murakami gives you Hear the Wind Sing. Set during a summer interlude where the narrator is back home from college (but soon to leave again), the narrator and The Rat are feeling equally unmoored. People come into their lives, then leave. The mood is longing, transitory, even when the two are just shooting the breeze in the local bar. The narrator finds himself wondering about past relationships, particularly with one woman who committed suicide a year or so after they broke up. He starts seeing a girl that seems equally troubled, equally precarious.

Wind is the recurring motif, as the title suggests. It makes characters feel more connected to each other and the world than they ever have before; it makes them lonelier than they could possibly believe. It’s a characterization I can appreciate, as I’ve found there are few things like wind to suggest a person’s current mood and emotion. On a good day with the sun shining, there is little better than to hear the wind soughing through the needles of a pine tree—the world and you are in communion, connected. But on a bad day the same wind might blow hollow, reflecting the emptiness inside you in an echo chamber of depression.

For all its quiet loveliness and truth, there are some odd vignettes and inclusions in Hear the Wind Sing. It’s not as well-crafted as Murakami’s later work, but it’s still the writing of a masterful author. In his introduction, Murakami notes that he wrote the novel in the early hours before dawn, after returning from work at a jazz bar he and his wife owned. The bar was struggling and just finding its feet, while he was in the last years of his 20s and trying to find his way.

This book is the feeling you have when you awake (or can’t fall asleep) in the small hours of the night, mind humming with ideas, filled with a nameless longing.

Pinball, 1973

For those who have ever wondered where they were headed or if what they were doing matters, for those who have ever wondered why things have to change, Murakami gives you Pinball, 1973. Told in short, chronological vignettes similar to Hear the Wind Sing, we once again follow the small biographical ins and outs of the nameless narrator and The Rat. It’s set a couple years after the previous book, and the nameless narrator lives in Tokyo, while The Rat is still bumming around the narrator’s hometown, drinking beer at the local bar and living off of his rich father’s money.

The unmoored feeling of the previous book continues, but with a feeling of loss and damage, accentuated by the fact that the narrator and The Rat never meet. We get the feeling they’re still friends, but they’re apart. And the season is fall: change is in the air.

In one haunting segment, The Rat stares at an old, small lighthouse at the end of a pier. He’s longing for something, but something also feels wrong: as another section notes, “we could sense something nasty lurking just out of sight.” When I read, no, when I saw The Rat watching the old lighthouse, I was like, “This is me, at the end of grad school in 2004.” My maternal grandfather had passed away earlier that spring; I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my life or what it all meant. I spent hours walking by Lake Superior, staring at the waves and Duluth’s lighthouses. I didn’t yet know that my father had cancer.

It’s a feeling I’ve had at other times in my life as well. The truth told in the mood of this book still astounds me.

There are still weaknesses, I suppose. Being Murakami’s second book or novella, there are some bits that seem a little off to me. But even then you can see his progression as an author: themes and images are coalescing for him, which will reappear, fully formed and developed in his later work. Surreal elements which were not about in his first novella begin to make their appearance in the unnamed narrator’s hunt for a pinball table he was obsessed with playing during college. I think every reader will have a different take on the meaning of the strange warehouse the narrator eventually finds the pinball machine in, but there are undoubted echoes of his relationship with a woman that is now dead (possibly the same woman mentioned in Hear the Wind Sing). There is always some doubt or guessing to Murakami’s work, as with all great literature, but more is probably unclear here than there should have been.

Another Murakami trope, mysterious women, appear in the guise of two twins that live with the narrator for awhile. They seem real and they do not seem real at the same time. Their entrance is unclear: did the narrator meet them somewhere one night and just wake up next to them in the morning, unable to remember how he met them? Or did they literally appear out of nowhere? You could read the text either way. They do have substance, other characters in the book see them, but they are undoubtedly not like the other women in the book, who are struggling just as the narrator and The Rat are struggling.

Whoever or whatever the twins might be, they seem to be there to help the narrator deal with an unnamed trauma (probably the woman who has died, but again, the novel is a bit unclear on the details), and then they go away when he is able to deal with it, or at least bring it to terms. I’m still not sure if the twins are a weird thing for Murakami to include or if they are a perfect fit for the novel’s feeling of transience, but I do know I feel more ambivalent about them than the other mysterious women that tend to pop up in his books.

Regardless of its shortcomings, however, Pinball is a beautiful read. What feeling is it? Unlike with Hear the Wind Sing, I’ll let Murakami take us out on this one, as there is no way for me to capture it perfectly.

“{The Rat} was as powerless and lonely as a winter fly stripped of its wings, or a river confronting the sea. An ill wind had arisen somewhere, and it was blowing the warm, familiar air that had embraced him to the other side of the planet.

One season had opened the door and left, while another had entered through a second door. You might run to the open door and call out, Wait, there’s something I forgot to tell you! But no one is there. When you close the door, you turn around to see the new season sitting in a chair, lighting up a cigarette. If you forgot to tell him something, he says, then why not tell me? I might pass the message along if I get the chance. No, that’s all right, you say. It’s no big deal. The sound of wind fills the room. No big deal. Just another season dead and gone.”

Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Guardians 2 Is As Good As GOTG 1 and Wonder Woman 4 comments

Certainly the oldest reason for communication was, well, to communicate. But the second oldest reason for communicating was undoubtedly to tell that first communicator they were wrong (possibly connected to the birth of the first critic).

And in that honored tradition of contradicting someone else, I’m introducing another form of debate hereabouts: Someone Is Wrong on the Internet. Why? Because I’m an egotistical human that has to be right? Because I love tilting against windmills? Because I’m a fan of the XKCD comic where I am, umm, borrowing this line from?

Sure, throw them all my way. But more than that, I’m going to argue for things that are actually pretty good, but people seem to be missing the boat on (critics, the internet-water-cooler zeitgeist, what have you). As a creator who is trying to get my foot in the door (and boy, does that door not like to open), this is another way for me to throw some encouragement to people out there who are creating. We need all the cheerleading we can get.

So here we go with “Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is as good as the first GotG and Wonder Woman.”

Somehow, via the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator, Guardians 2 is at 81% (71% for the so-called top critics), versus 91% for the other two. When you dig in more between the first and the second Guardians movies, reviewers are finding the second almost as fun but not as “fresh” as the first.

This is boggling to me. The second movie takes what worked in the first movie and does it even better, fixing some flaws along the way. The first movie is great fun, but it has the blandest of bland villains that hardly gets any setup or explanation: me angry alien terrorist! me no like peace treaties! smash! Whereas the villains of Guardians 2 are given such crazy things as depth, setup, and motivation, not to mention a real connection to the Guardians and their own issues.

The first movie also had problems with what I like to call “planet subtitle hopscotch” (not unlike the otherwise great Rogue One from this winter). Throw all the digs you want against George Lucas, but even with the prequels, the guy knew how to integrate a new location into the storyline seamlessly (and for it to stand out visually from the rest). There’s a bit of this problem earlier on in Guardians 2, but then it gets its act together.

And then there’s the soundtrack. I love the opening of the first movie, with Peter Quill dancing through a ruined city (and kicking space rats) to the head-bopping rhythm of “Come Get Your Love.” But the second movie easily tops that with its opening “Mr. Blue Sky” and baby Groot dancing sequence. From there, the rest of the songs work better as a unit, somehow even serving  as a fun commentary or contrast to the action at the time. That is not an easy thing to do, but the movie does it. Can you picture a better song than “My Sweet Lord” to introduce a god-planet and its potential issues? Or a song better than “Father and Son” for the movie’s final scenes?

The fairest criticism I can see of Guardians 2 is that it hits on its themes of family a little strenuously, which I can understand to a point, as there are some moments that are a little in your face with it. But even then, there are issues with this critique. Christopher Orr over at The Atlantic claimed the movie “pedantically” explains how the song “Brandy” ties in with the movie’s themes, but wow, is that ever a misread. One, not everyone may be aware of the lyrics to “Brandy” (I wasn’t really before hearing it in this movie), and two, Ego is using the lyrics to explain and justify his actions. He co-opts the song (anyone notice the song’s title is “Brandy,” not “The Sailor?”) for his own purposes! Rather than being detrimental, it’s an excellent scene, and reveals quite a bit about Ego’s character—much less pedantically than his name does!

Guardians 2 is every bit as good as its predecessor, if not better (hold me to the first part, of you don’t agree with the latter). Both have reasons they’re just shy of perfect, but they’re still quite good and a needed breath of fresh air in the crowded comic book movie/action movie sphere.

As for Wonder Woman, it’s high praise to say Guardians 2 is its equal. I’ve never really had a big connection to the character, with her sometimes feeling like a female Superman: really strong but kind of blandly good, etc. That’s partially my lack of interaction with her comics, but also a shortcoming of the classic TV show and her presentation on the DC cartoons I’ve seen. We’ve at least had some good Superman movies to give depth to Clark Kent.

Wonder Woman certainly takes care of that issue—Gal Godot is sublime as Diana. I loved her enthusiasm, I loved her “I’m going to do what I’m told not to” approach to just about everything, and I loved how genuinely, warmly kind she was. At one point in the film she smiles and asks a character what they would do without his singing (if he left), and I have to say that was one of the most beautiful, caring, and honest smiles I have ever seen. It is good for the soul to see someone smile like that and mean it that much. People talk about how hard it supposedly is to write and act good people (which I quibble with), but I would say Godot’s Diana is up there with Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers, if not beyond, and that’s saying something.

I’d also say the first 80-90% of the movie works extremely well (though I could do without the preface and epilogue—we know it relates to the rest of the DC universe without these). Sure, some things randomly happen, with Diana and Steve Trevor somehow sailing from what seems to be the eastern Mediterranean to London overnight, etc., but they’re small problems.

The real issue is with the generic, climactic confrontation at the end, which somehow just doesn’t work. It should, with how interesting the rest of the action in the movie is (particularly the WWI trench sequence), but the movie doesn’t know if it wants another big fight or to explore the themes and ideas it’s set up so well. I think they had the right casting choice for the big bad if they had focused on the latter and wrote the big bad’s actions and dialogue accordingly, but they didn’t.

What Wonder Woman needed was something similar to the ending of The Dark Knight. There’s good action in that movie’s ending, but what’s really at stake is Batman’s view of mankind versus the Joker’s, with both sides memorably and clearly delineated. Something similar could have been done with Wonder Woman, as the first 3/4 of the movie puts the right ideas on board to accomplish this, but then the movie rather haphazardly follows through on them, squashing them in around a forgettable CG fest with ponderous dialogue.

So where does that leave us? On the one hand, we’re seeing yet again how Guardians 2 is at least on par with a movie that’s been reviewed well ahead of it. I could also argue that Guardians 2 doesn’t have any major issues like Wonder Woman’s finale, which makes it objectively better as a movie, But on the other hand, I am willing to concede that Wonder Woman may be a more important movie, given how reluctant Marvel and other studios have been to focus solely on a female character/superhero. It’s asinine that this is still an issue somehow, but let’s face it, it is. We had men up in arms at a women’s only screening of Wonder Woman, like they couldn’t just go to some other showtime or there haven’t been men’s only clubs and governments for centuries.

It’s not for the first time, certainly, but Wonder Woman reminds us that female characters and female superheroes can and should carry their own weight, and for that, I’m willing for it to defeat the contention of my first Someone Is Wrong on the Internet. Somehow, it only seems right.

On Unlooked-for Humor

Is unlooked-for humor the best humor? I said it was the other night on Twitter when I was surprised by Revanche’s random quote from Galaxy Quest: “By Grabthar’s hammer, what a savings” (seriously, I can just see the annoyance and disdain on Alan Rickman’s face as his character is forced to say his catchphrase). I was amid a sea of depressing news and thoughts, and this hilarious line from out of left field made me laugh out loud (not that “LOL” thing, which often only means you found something amusing).

While things are almost always funny because they surprise us,* that’s not quite the way I meant it when responding to Revanche. We often experience humor when we’re looking for it: comedic movies, sitcoms, late night shows, you name it. But to my mind, the best humor is unlooked for humor, the type that arrives when you are otherwise preoccupied, sitting on the couch with serious thoughts, perhaps with darkness on the horizon.

This conviction has been quite settled in my mind for some time, made particularly concrete by the large amount of time I spent in hospital waiting and recovery rooms about thirteen years ago, when my father’s cancer was being treated. Aside from the memory I’m about to share, the thing I remember most from that time is the smell: the hospital stink. More than the remembrances of my dad in his hospital bed or the people from our church that were wonderful enough to visit is that god-awful smell of the hospital. I can summon it to mind even now, that antiseptic, artificial, non-living stench.

I suppose some could attach it to cleanliness or something at least a bit more positive, but I cannot. While the doctors were quite hopeful for being able to deal with my dad’s cancer and his recovery, lingering in the back of my mind was the knowledge that this was cancer, those damn rebellious, screwed up, abnormally growing parts of your own body that can kill you. The thoughts were there, just like the smell, refusing to be ignored or to go away.

They were worst the evening of the operation, when we sat in the waiting room with them just hanging about. I eventually had to get up and take a walk—I couldn’t sit there for one more minute—and I inevitably found the cafeteria, which was completely deserted, all the places to buy food closed up. Some kindly or lazy person (I prefer the former) had left a copy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune lying on a table, and I riffled through for the comics section.

I’ve been a funnies man my whole life and will continue to be, but I wasn’t particularly expecting or wanting to laugh—I just wanted to think about something else, anything else. To forget that hospital stink in my nose, even in the cafeteria. I perused my usual favorites and didn’t crack a smile. Then I found the Boondocks strip for the day, and I broke into laughter. It was just so incongruous to my situation, so illogical, so everything I needed at that moment and didn’t even know it. I was immediately fond of that strip and tore it out, keeping it in my wallet for years until it started to disintegrate (as you can see above).

And that is why unlooked for humor is the best humor.

*The only exception I can think of is when a loved one tells that one story you’ve heard a million times but you still get a kick out of hearing it. And there’s maybe equal parts fondness and love to this as much as humor. 

On What Absence Makes

Lake Superior from Grand Marais, photo by the author

While they do have a frustrating amount of truth to them, the main reason platitudes and clichés are so annoying is that they are downright obvious. More, they’re generally said when that obviousness is staring you directly in the face. So when I tell you what I’m missing in the following paragraph, know that the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” is making its presence known, and that I am wanting to punch that presence in its clichéd white teeth.

I miss water—open water. Water you can sit and stare at and feel small next to, something in the expanse speaking all the words ever written in literature right inside you, without the words ever needing to be said.

I had an embarrassment of riches in open water when I lived in Duluth. The city sprawls along a hillside overlooking southwestern Lake Superior, so pretty much anywhere you go you’ll see at least a smidgen of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world (so large it’s often called an inland sea).

That’s not to say I’m in an area without water: this year is the 20th anniversary of a major flood here in Grand Forks (I’ve driven across the bridge shown in the Wikipedia entry!). I like the Red River of the North where it is in its greenbelt and don’t need it to become an expanse again. But even though the Red River is a presence in the region that should not be ignored, it’s not a presence in the same way as Lake Superior is in Duluth. You can’t avoid noticing the lake in Duluth, but unless you’re right on the river here in Grand Forks, you’d be hard pressed to notice it.

Driving pretty much anywhere in northern Minnesota or down in the Twin Cities, you’re going to trip over a lake without much effort. Despite its slogan of having 10,000 lakes, Minnesota actually has almost 12,000 that are 10 acres or more, and if you count ones smaller than that, the number just goes up and up. If some of the info I’m finding is correct, North Dakota has… 35? And some of those are reservoirs or larger portions of rivers!

Some of this, I know, is the stir craziness of winter. I’ve been inside too much, I haven’t even been able to walk by the Red River much… and that’s enough to make me miss water right there. There’s a little English Coulee on the University of North Dakota’s campus, and it is a simple joy to stop and watch it tumble over a little rock dam with Jessica during her lunch break. Some of the underwater rocks have beards of algae, and one in particular sports a fu manchu look: not common among rock algae formations, in my experience.

Still, it’s not the same as being able to drive over any number of hillsides in Duluth and have the sudden and overwhelming vision of Superior fill your eyes. Nor is it the same as crouching at the edge of the water at Kitchi Gammi Park, feeling yourself as small as can be while waves wash against the shoreline.

Lester River enters Lake Superior on the edge of Kitchi Gammi Park, and it becomes a raging torrent in the springmelt. I can see its rapids in my mind even now, and I can see the surfing fanatics in their cold water gear, riding the crests caused by the river’s entrance. The lake has so many shades of blue: I can’t describe them all, but I can see them.

I’ve sometimes wished I didn’t have such a strong connection to Duluth, as it would make this move easier and less full of longing. But if one needs to move, maybe it is a good thing to have such deep roots to your old home, if it means being able to find its waters when you need them. Albeit with mind’s imperfect memory.

On Guilty Consciences for Somewhat Good Reasons

Despite my best intentions, this blog has been lacking a post in a good while, and it’s making me feel guilty. Which might be a little silly, after all, considering it’s been without a post due to health issues, a semester (and its requisite grading) ending, and yet another move to a better apartment.

But even though I have no delusions of grandeur about how many people may someday be reading this blog, I do want people to read it. Which means updating more on the regular. So I’ll be aiming for at least a weekly update, dear readers, because nothing has changed since I restarted this blog last fall. If anything, we’re in more need of focusing on good things: of talking about what is worth talking about, of looking at what is worth looking at.

Dogwoods on UND's campus, May 2017

Photo by the author

I’ve been endeavoring to do just that these last couple weeks, with spring finding its ways to my more northern climes. New leaves have burst forth and reached their full growth, and the dogwoods in Grand Forks have made me realize just how many of them there are around town, so abundant is their color and fragrance. Their blooms will fall away all too soon (indeed, some have already disappeared), but in the meantime I am doing my best to notice them, capturing the feeling they evoke the best I can with the camera and photography hobby I’ve decided have lain dormant for far too long.

A BFS Review: Mystery My Country

Mystery My Country Cover PageI’ve been remiss this past week and forgotten to post about Issue 8 of Split Rock Review going live! A colleague of mine, Crystal Gibbins, started up Split Rock about four years ago, and it’s been a great privilege to serve on the editorial staff since 2015. As with many other web-only literary magazines, most of our pieces are on the shorter side (fiction can be at most 2500 words), but we generally have a great mix of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction to check out. In Issue 8, we even have a short graphic narrative/novel this time around!

As I have with a few other issues, I reviewed a book. This time it was Robert Vivian’s Mystery My Country, and wow… words are just so hard to describe this collection of short essays. I’ll let the review speak for me, but reading these essays is something akin to jumping into a frozen lake. I’m still not sure how sitting in a sauna until you’re almost uncomfortably hot can make it possible for you to run out through the snow and jump into a large hole cut in the ice without once feeling the burn of the cold, but I know it’s possible. It’s a rush and a relief, all at the same time—and that’s the closest metaphor I can find for the joy Vivian’s work creates in its reader.

On the Importance of Learning of Tokyo’s Destruction by Godzilla 2 comments

*A small memoir from a trip this fall*

It’s been a long week of teaching classes: you wake up, you do your class prep, you do your teaching, you do your grading, and you go home. At home is nothing in particular. Your wife is living four and a half hours away for her new job; you’ve moved the majority of your things with her. The apartment is strangely empty and strangely full of far too many things you need to pack before you can join her in a couple months.

The wind likes to whistle lonely in the evening.

Today you’re driving home after another day of teaching, but it’s a little different in that you will be picking up your suitcase so you can drive those four and a half hours to see your wife. The first hour is alright as you drive through the forests of northern Minnesota and the setting sun is turning everything golden. Then the trees go stark and two dimensional against the still glowing horizon; the only things with depth are the clouds in the sky. Then there is nothing but the tunnel your headlights carve along the route, a tunnel that is hours and hours long.

Even the waters of Cass Lake offer no comfort when you stop to stretch your legs: the wind blows too cold in your face for you to watch the lights in the water.

About an hour from your destination, still tired, your searching radio finds it, the song that will take you the rest of the way. “Oh, no! There goes Tokyo! Go, go, Godzilla!” Before your mind can think about how improbably wonderful it is to find this song out of nowhere (though is it even a favorite song of yours?), you’re singing, shouting along with the words.

You’re halfway around the earth from Tokyo, you’re in the middle of the flat beginnings of the Great Plains and the tallest thing around here are grain elevators, but what else would Godzilla have left to stomp once Tokyo and the other great cities with skyscrapers are nothing but rubble?

You’re on your way, you’re almost there.