Friday, March 26, 2004


Sima Rabinowitz recently reviewed The Big Book of Ben Zen, saying finally that "in fact, by the time I had finished with Ben (or perhaps he had finished with me), I had come to find him not only funny, but sometimes poignant, and even, occasionally, quite poetic."

Among the poems Rabinowtiz quoted approvingly in the course of the review:

I don't have to
Go to Chicago,
Ben says,
To get lost.


Engineers are like poets,
Ben says, only backwards.

Thank you, Sima. Thank you, too,, which is the only outlet to review all three of my most recent books.


MARCH 18, 2004

My sister Nancy is in Alexandria for a few days, attending a conference of Minnesota city clerks. She has quite the little suite at the Arrowwood Resort and had invited me to stay with her during my first couple days in Alexandria this trip. Nancy is the mother of the award-winning poet in the family, Steve Gehrke. Steve's first book, The Resurrection Machine, won the John Ciardi Prize; his second book, just published, The Pyramids of Malpighi, won the Philip Levine Award.

I tell people Steve is "the good poet in the family," I'm just a wanna-be by comparison. When other writers tell me I should be jealous of his success, I can't imagine why. As far as I'm concerned, writing is not a competitive sport. Steve's excellence does not diminish me.

Nancy has a copy of the second book in hand and I'mn reading it - she received it just the day before she left for the conference here. I don't have my own copy yet, but you can bet that I will have one soon.

When I arrived and found Nancy, I got introduced to a roomful of Minnesota city clerks who were working on baskets of goodies for a silent auction fund-raiser. There were more names around the room than I can remember. Nancy and I and three of the women went out to supper together. They had been told the place they usually go to had had a fire; when they tried calling to see whether it had re-opened, the phone rang and rang to no answer. So we went to Bug-a-Boo Bay for some casual Caribbean dining. I had the Caribbean ke-bobs - shrimp, chicken, sausage, green pepper, and onion skwered, based with sweetness, and grilled, $13.95 um-um-good. No complaints from the women on their meals either.

Professional eater that I am, I ordered the Banana Supreme for dessert - a big scoop of ice cream, sliced bananas, slices of banana bread, caramel, and hot fudge. Professional eater that I am, I confess I met my match - even with the help of the women at the table taking their nibbling bites, I couldn't finish the dessert. (For those of you who keep score, I ate every bit of ice cream.)

When we stepped outside to return to Arrowwood for the night, it was snowing. Well, as we say in Wisconsin, "this is Minnesota, what do you expect."

Whatever you expected, there were about two inches of snow on the ground this morning when we got up. That was a little bit of a shock. All of us in these northern parts are dang-tired of winter, and the brief respite we've had has led us to think that winter is over.

Oh, Silly Middlewesterner - winter is not over, for sure, until May 12th, which is about the latest date in recent times that I know of a snow storm blowing through.


This morning I stopped at Traveler's Inn Restaurant on Broadway in Alexandria for an uneventful breakfast. I thought perhaps I'd get to hear some Bush-bashing but those two fellows paid their check and walked away out of earshot before I could hear the fullness of their hostility.


Last night and this morning I read a bit of the Sinclair Lewis books I'd bought. The more local of them, Sinclair Lewis: The Journey, started coming apart in my hands. Though her book is falling apart, the author holds tighly to her argument that Lewis loved Sauk Centre and that he critiqued it as he did in order for it to improve. His loneliness and alienation and aloofness were not confined simply to his relationship with his home-town; rather it followed him throughout his life. Happiness was not an easy commodity for Lewis to come by.

By contrast, though I'm moody and though I'm essentially sad as the universe is sad at its own undoing, I unburden myself now and again with boouts of happiness. There are times I must sing the world's praise.

I guess part of the difference between that Minnesota boy, Sinclair Lewis, and myself, is this: he looked for and underscored what was wrong; I look for and underscore what is good and beautiful. Yeah, there is plenty of ugliness and the world looks pretty ugly if that's all you look for. At the same time, you'll see the world is pretty remarkable if you start to look for the good in it.

So where Lewis found narrow and shallow and rigid people in this land we share, I find many qualities worthy of admiration. This difference between us confirms my notion that you'll pretty much find what you've prepared yourself to find. Partly this is a matter of perception - after while we really do only see what we think is there. But partly, too, I think it is a matter of one's expectations actually shaping the reality of the world. I'm thinking in this regard of the woman in the Am-trak dining car who told me to "watch out, the lasagna is dry, the steak is tough." And so she goes through her life expecting bad food and she gets bad food. I don't have such expectations and I don't get bad food.

This, in part, may explain the difference between the middle west that Sinclair Lewis saw, and that which I see.

Yet we're told that Lewis criticized us out of a love for us - for Sauk Centre, for Minnesota, the middle west, America. He wanted us to be the best that we could be.

If his Gopher Prairie was narrow and restricted and dull, so was every other place he settled into. He wasn't happy in Sauk Centre, he wasn't happy any place else. Makes me thinkthe flaw was within Lewis, not in the community he attacked in Main Street.

It is interesting that, at the end, Lewis wanted his ashes buried in Sauk Centre. It is interesting that his gravestone says only: "Sinclair Lewis, 1885-1951, Author of "Main Street."



Marge Van Gorp researches family history for the Douglas County Historical Society in Alexandria, Minnesota. When I was there doing research during a January cold spell, Marge was as helpful as could be: she kept putting interesting files about area residents right under my nose where I couldn't miss them. Of course, I also snooped through other folders and, in one about Marge herself, I found this statement she'd made about living in the Azores: "Sometimes that island was pretty small, but other times it was just the right size."

Marge had been a military wife then, when her husband was stationed in the Azores. What did she mean by her statement, I wondered.

"Sometimes I'd look out at the ocean towards home and wonder how long it would take to get back there," she told me. "Minnesota seemed so far away, the island seemed so small. At other times, when my friends on the island were near, it didn't seem so lonely, it was just the right size."

They were still living on the Azores when Marge's husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. "He was almost ready to retire," Marge remembered. "He became sick and they sent him to a hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, where they determined his lung cancer was inoperable."

"He knew, as I did, that his disease was terminal," Marge continued, "and he kept saying 'Where do you want to live?' I said 'There’s only one place that I could live, and that’s Alexandria.' I knew that I was going to need a lot of friends, and I had them right here. Many of the friends I had in high school were still my closest friends then, and they are to this day."

Marge spoke of her family history. In exchange for three years of work on the railroad and forty acres of land, she said, immigrants would have their passage to America paid for them. So Marge's grandfather had come to Minnesota in the 1880s while grandmother and Marge's father stayed back in Sweden. After an exhausting day cleaning up a railway accident, her grandfather and several other men had gone to sleep in a railcar. Another train ran out of control and plowed right into the sleeping men. Twelve were killed, Marge's grandfather and an uncle among them. "It was Christmas Eve when the news reached Sweden," Marge said. "My grandmother and father were just sitting down to dinner after coming home from church when the cablegram arrived. This was Christmas Eve of 1892." It was a sad Christmas. The following spring the new widow and her son moved to Minnesota. Marge's father was twelve years old when he made that trip.

"My father and my grandmother built the house on grandfather's land in 1894," Marge said, "They farmed the same farm where I was born."

Marge remembered threshing time when she was young. "A neighbor of ours had the steam engine and brought their own crew in," she said. "The night before the threshing was to begin, they’d bring in all this big machinery and the cook shack and set up camp. Often the crews brought their guitars along and would sit outside, make a fire, and sing."

"In later years," she added, "we didn’t have that big crew. Then it was neighbor helping neighbor. The woman of the household would have to do the cooking, instead of having a cook shack or cook car brought in. We had a huge kitchen in our home with a long dining room table that would seat about 20 people when all the leaves were in. We girls had to help from the time we were real small, with the cooking, peeling potatoes, setting the table and all that. My mother always baked bread but when the threshers came, she would go to the store and buy some bread because she didn’t have time to bake it all."

"I was 12 years old the first time that somebody came over and said they needed to have somebody help them during threshing time because they had small children," Marge said. "That's when I started going out to work for farmers during the threshing time. I think probably I got $2 a week and my board and room. Sometimes I’d have 4 or 5 children to take care of, as well as helping with the chores."

"I did that every summer," she said, "from the time I was twelve and all the while I was in high school."


MARCH 18, 1998

The sun comes up. The sun goes down. We go to work. We come home. Spring follows winter. Summer, then fall. We sow our seed, we reap our rewards. Life and the universe are predictable, aren't they? Well, at least in broad outlines.

This morning, freezing rain is falling. The certainties of life are set aside. It is with care I step outside, with care I try my footing on the driveway. "It's quite a mess out there," they've said.

It is a little slippery in the drive. It is an ugly day everywhere. The sky is definitely unhappy. Water is running in the street. The sheen on the asphalt is slippery only occasionally. All of us are driving carefully.

The wind wants to blow my pick-up around. Silly geese are flying in sets of three. With the rain, the old barn has turned a lonely kind of gray, like the hair of an old man without family. In places, sleet accumulates along the side of the road. Ice is building on the trees along my way, worse the farther north I drive. A mighty wind is roaring - as if a train still comes through your town. Listen for the wail of the whistle. Listen for the cry. It is an ugly day and I love it. Go figure.

MARCH 19, 1998
Another grey day, the sky spitting sleet or crunchy little snow balls. The street is covered with it. Here and there, the tracks of early morning traffic.

Meditation on place each morning. The physical and the metaphysical. A question mark in each morning sky - where am I and why am I here. Many times we are simply content to record that we have passed this way. Some of us, sometimes, bring ourselves to ask Why me? Why here? Why now? What vortex of forces spins me into this present, in this place, with these people. Does a billion years of evolution come to this?

If he thinks too much about such things, even an atheist may turn to God.

Most of the geese are hunkered down among broken corn stalks. A few fly, in pairs today. The fields look as if they have been dusted with flour for baking.

The wind has the electrical wires swinging fiercely; between the poles, they look like snakes or like waves coming in off an angry ocean. I have never before seen the wires move so violently. They could easily break and whip onto the road. Even a single tree in the vicinity calms them.

In Ripon, an old woman walks across the street to church. Each step of the way, she sets her cane down so very carefully.

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