“Still Alice” and Technology

Tonight we watched Julianne Moore’s Oscar vehicle, Still Alice. The film is very much worth your time. Playing an Alzheimer’s patient in cruelly early decline, Moore was outrageously good, of course; she won the Academy Award for her performance. The movie is a complete tearjerker, and tears were jerked on our sofa. But I was surprised that end of the movie was much less depressing than I expected, given both the movie’s plot and much of the material to that point.

Though very much a family drama (albeit one in which the central character gradually dissipates), the film handled technology in an interestingly compelling way. Apple laptops and phones are everywhere. Alice uses her laptop to talk via video with her daughter and to deliver lectures in her day job as a professor at Columbia. (Though: the idea that she would be teaching a lecture course? ha! And that her lecture slides would project automatically? ha ha!)

Even more than her MacBook Air, Alice loves her iPhone. She plays Words with Friends on it against another daughter, she gets in trouble with her husband when she doesn’t answer it, she tries to make it part of a suicide scheme, and she finally misplaces it and then never really picks it up again – her electronic brain gone like her actual mind. The parallel was quite affecting and humanizing, and testament to the power of the story.

Homing Instincts

Northfield Geese
Northfield Geese

Bernd Heinrich’s Homing Instinct was a great book to read in the early fall, when Northfield’s skies are full of geese and ducks wending their way south – after long, leisurely stops in our ponds and creeks. The book’s subtitle – “meaning and mystery in animal migration” – suggests that Heinrich will explore animals’ instinctual seasonal movements, and indeed much of the book does deal with that topic. In the first section – “Homing” – Heinrich tells staggering stories about how various birds, insects, and mammals find their way over distances that are extraordinary on both their own scales (bees that thoroughly master acres and acres of forest and field) and on global ones (eels that breed in the Sargasso Sea but live most of their lives in coastal waters in North America and Europe).

The science that underlies human understanding of these animals’ movements is amazing, but the animals’ own comprehension of the world is far more so. Loggerhead turtles apparently navigate incredibly long distances by reading tiny changes in the earth’s magnetism. I was impressed by the Heinrich’s stories, by scientists’ efforts to comprehend animal migration, and by the animals’ own skills, but I was also depressed by the realization that by wrecking the planet, we humans are directly and indirectly destroying animals (and of course plants and other kinds of life) that are so much more complex and mysterious that we do or perhaps ever will know. (Here my wonderings ran to bison, which in their herds before the Great Slaughter may or may not have migrated seasonally or on another schedule across hundreds or thousands of miles of North America.)

The book’s subtitle is misleading though in that much of the second half of the book concerns animals’ homes, not their movements. Here, Heinrich deals with all kinds of birds’ and insects’ nesting behavior and structures as well as a few mammals (pointing out that very few “higher” mammals actually build homes!). The center of this second section – “Home-making and Maintaining” – is a long, engrossing description of Heinrich’s own efforts to understand the spiders that lived in his Maine cabin. Their web homes are both shelters and tools, which – as Heinrich shows – the spiders used in sophisticated and, frankly, terrifying ways. This chapter – like the “Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” chapter in the first section – are standout natural-history essays.

In the book’s third and last section, Heinrich changes register dramatically, writing at length about his own “homing instincts” for what sounds like a gorgeous patch of Maine woods. I was at first put off by this change from animal to human life, but gradually, Heinrich shows how his drive to live there, and not somewhere else, is continuous with the instincts and drives of the animals he’d discussed earlier in the book. This section is a lovely way to bring the book home.

More Maclean…

Friday night – after stopping several times to put off the ending as long as possible – I finally finished Norman Maclean’s "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the third story in the collection that my friend Julia bestowed on me a couple weeks ago.

"USFS 1919" is shorter than but at least as good as the collection’s lead piece, "A River Runs through It," Maclean’s most famous story (which I blogged about when I finished it a few days ago). Where "River" was a meditation on familial bonds and loss, "USFS" is a funny slow-motion adventure story about the young Maclean’s service on a U.S. Forest Service crew in the high Rockies near Hamilton, Montana, in summer 1919. Like "River," this story includes some wonderful sketches by R. Williams:
Bill Bell Heads Back Out

I wish the book had more of this visual art, but I am glad that "USFS" is full of literary art, especially beautiful passages of writing in which Maclean vividly describes the mountains and the woods and makes me wish I could there right now:

To a boy, it is something new and beautiful to piss among the stars. Not under the starts but among them. Even at night great winds seem always to blow on great mountains, and tops of trees bend, but, as the boy stands there with nothing to do but to watch, seemingly the sky itself bends and the stars blow down through the trees until the Milky Way becomes lost in some distant forest.

After a surprising August (!) snowstorm during a short stint as a fire watcher:

When I looked, I knew I might never again see so much of the earth so beautiful, the beautiful being something you know added to something you see, in a whole that is different from the sum of its parts. What I saw might have been just another winter scene, though an impressive one. But what I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again. so what I saw because of what I knew was a kind of death with the marvelous promise of less than a three-day resurrection.

Even before I got back to camp it had begun to melt. Hundreds of shrubs had been bent over like set snares, and now they spring up in the air throwing small puffs of white as if hundreds of snowshoe rabbits were being caught at the same instant.

As he rests during a long walk back from camp to Hamilton, he muses in a way that I recognize from racing in the winter:

When you look back at where you have been, it often seems as if you have never been there or even as if there were no such place.

(Two things about these passages: Maclean writes a great deal about pissing in the woods, an activity to which I can personally relate, and he is a masterful user – or non-user – of commas. He saves his commas like scarce nails and pounds them into his sentences only where truly needed.)

Into these passages of superlative nature writing, Maclean offers some glimpses of how he came to understand his mountain adventures as key phases of life and, eventually, as the raw material for literature:

I had as yet no notion that life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.

Unlike "River," this piece has a big cast of more and less crazy characters, including Maclean himself – a 17-year-old kid with far more responsibility than he needs or merits but an excellent ability to make very poor decisions, like the choice to walk straight through from camp to town. The central characters though are the titular ranger and cook. Much of the story concerns how these two guys conceive of a scheme to end their season of work with a hell of a night on the town in Hamilton. I won’t ruin the story’s ending, which like the story’s landscape has several peaks (Maclean early on says he’s serving in an "ocean of mountains") but it’s amazing as prose, as story, and as life.

The only bad part about the ending of the story was that it came at the end. The good thing is that Julia has also sent me Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, his longest book and one that – she says – is as good as "River" and "USFS."

Rivers Run through It

At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.

I made sure to finish the “novella” with the girls in the room so that the ending – stupidly given away by my edition’s foreword – didn’t make me cry. I won’t spoil that ending here, except to say that MacLean knows exactly what he’s doing with and to his reader.

Even without knowing much about the story, I knew that fly fishing featured prominently in it. I’m no fisherman, with flies or live bait, but while reading the book, I had fixed in my head two scenes from my trips out west to race in the Fat Pursuit this and last winters. Rivers run through my experiences with those races.

Looking north up the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID. Supposedly the best fly-fishing river in the world.
Henry's Fork in Island Park, ID (March 2014)

Looking north up the Gallatin River from Greek Creek Campground along US 191, south of Bozeman, MT. If you had the full file you could see bighorn sheep on the left and fly fishermen downstream.
The Gallatin River south of Bozeman, MT

I’ve only been to these rivers a couple times, but I love them. If or when I see them again I’ll think of Maclean.

Montage of Heck

Last night, I finally watched Montage of Heck, the recent documentary about Kurt Cobain by Brett Mogren. The film was moving, as I expected (or worried), and pleasingly focused on Cobain’s and Nirvana’s music. (The dude could shred on the guitar.) The music was in fact the centerpiece of the film: album and live tracks of classic Nirvana tunes, rarities and covers by others (a plinking, nursery-rhyme version of "All Apologies" early in the film gave me chills), and – surprisingly to me – actual pages of lyrics from Cobain’s own voluminous notebooks. Seeing the original lyrics to "Frances Farmer" magnified the impact of that amazing song, which is maybe my favorite. The animations of the notebook pages, and of key scenes in Cobain’s life, were a nice touch, highlighting the fact that Cobain was a talented visual artist – something I didn’t know about him.

Frances Farmer

Of course the film is also and maybe mostly about Cobain’s life, and incidentally about his death, which is treated far too abruptly. I wished that the Mogren had dealt even more with Cobain’s biography. After an excruciating look at his childhood, the film switches over almost entirely to the band just before Bleach. I can understand that choice, but given the detailed examination of Cobain’s youth, I wanted even more about being Courtney Love’s husband and Frances’ father. (Courtney does not come off well from the film.)

Maybe I was just falling prey to the tendency of a fan to also be a voyeur, which Cobain himself loathed in his ugliest moments and which he tried to redirect to his art in his best. Midway through the film, some journalist asks Cobain why he can’t or won’t explain his songs to his fans. "There’s nothing to be said, man," Kurt replies, visibly exhausted by the question. "It’s all in the music, man, it’s all in the music. It’s all in the meat… I’d like to hear what they have, have in mind, you know, like, how they interpret it."

It’s a simple notion, but a profound one. Even if he were still alive, I could never explain to Cobain just what his music – Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero, Unplugged, From the Muddy Banks, and all the rest – meant and means to me. It’s literally too much. Too much noise, too much rage, too much humor, too much beauty, too much feeling. Maybe, finally, Cobain is a kind of sacrificial lamb for me. The feelings that poured out of him created a kind of hole where I could and can stuff my own feelings. For that, I have to thank him – even if I also wish he were still around to make more music for me, and for us, and for himself.

Carleton College Senior Art Show

I lost myself in the Carleton College senior art show, Composite, last week. I’ve visited a couple times now, and have only gotten more impressed by the quality of the work. Every piece is worth savoring, and the pieces in the gallery fit wonderfully together. Here are a few of the more easily-photographed pieces.

Paintings by Soren Hope
Paintings by Soren Hope


Graphite Drawings by Avery Johnson
Graphite drawings by Avery Johnson

The artist says these pieces, “are a reflection on a human’s physical relationship with technology, especially the mobile phone. By creating huge drawings of human hands grasping for and poking at the viewer as though they were a phone, I hope to evoke a the sense of greed and desire that we feel when interacting with something designed as a multipurpose, interactive tool.”

Metal Body Ornaments by Zoe Abdel-Moneim
Metal body ornaments by Zoe Abdel-Moneim
Hanging sculptures by Ellen Louise Kwan
Hanging sculptures by Ellen Louise Kwan

And then there were Chloe Mark‘s amazing oil on Plexiglas paintings. She sliced them up and hung them in such a way that you could walk through them and watch some of them move almost like a video.

Chloe Mark
Paintings by Chloe Mark

Thoughts on a Rock Shuffle

Driving up to see a friend on Sunday night, my iPhone served me a nice mix of tunes off my favorite playlist, “Rock Goodness.” My thoughts on the tunes:

  • AC/DC, “Money Talks” – A great song marred by a crappy guitar solo.
  • The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” – A so-so song improved by an insanely great solo. Or series of solos.
  • Art Brut, “I Will Survive” – Great lyrics with a superb solo.
  • R.E.M., “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth” – Incomprehensible but awesome.
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son” – A pretty freaking apt summary of 2015 America.
  • Springsteen, “Glory Days” – I’m glad this isn’t a summary of my life.
  • Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” – As great in 2015 when it seems to apply (partly?) to my actual daughters as it was in 1987 when it seemed to apply (partly?) to imaginary girlfriends. (Is that creepy?)
  • Kanye, “Power” – Maybe the best rock song of the ’00s.
  • Jay-Z and Danger Mouse, “99 Problems” (off The Gray Album) – The Beatles’ zipper guitars never sounded better.
  • The Who, “Seeker” – The best name-dropping of any rock song.
  • The Hold Steady, “Massive Nights” – A color-by-numbers party song that is so much more.
  • Phosphorescent, “Ride On/Right On” – I’d love this song even if it weren’t about sex and bicycling.
  • Wild Flag, “Racehorse” – You are rock ‘n’ roll fun.

American History Wax Museum

Today was the long-awaited, much-anticipated American History Wax Museum, the culminating event of a big historical project that third graders at my girls’ school work on for weeks each spring. (When Julia was in third grade, she was Abigail Adams.)

Vivi, who has a scientific rather than a historical bent, chose Albert Einstein for as her figure. She did some great research on Einstein (who was, it turns out, not that nice a guy), wrote up a great speech in his voice (and memorized most of it), did the requisite almost-life-sized drawing (over about a week of evenings and weekends), and today dressed up as him (or as a third-grader’s vision of him) for the Museum. She did a great job!
Albert Einstein

Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild

I just finished reading this amazing book – Great Plains: Americas Lingering Wild.
Forsberg, Great Plans

The Nebraska-based photographer Michael Forsberg thought up the idea for the book and filled it with dozens and dozens of exceptional shots of prairies from Minnesota to Montana, North Dakota to New Mexico – plants, animals, people, and especially the land itself.

Buffalo at the Buffalo Gap

Forsberg’s photographs are complemented by short essays by geographer Davis Wishart and natural historian Dan O’Brien, whose eloquence and erudition complement Forsberg’s artistry. Loss is an explicit theme in O’Brien’s writing, an implicit one in Wishart’s – the decline and death of countless plant and animal species, the near-extermination of the grassland’s original Native inhabitants, the continuing erosion (literal and figurative) of all three kinds of prairie…

Yet as O’Brien comes to realize through his work with Forsberg, denizens of the plains do have some reasons for optimism. Arguably, we are now experiencing a moment when more people than ever before are interested in "saving" the prairies as ecosystems, as homes for myriad living creatures, and as colossally beautiful places. Reading this book makes me – an immigrant to the prairie – want to do more to save it and expand it and love it.

Science Rocks!

Julia’s fifth-grade classes are doing their “Science Rocks” musical this week: a set of songs about science, accompanied by some dialogue, a few short skits, and even a little dancing.

Julia at Science Rocks
Julia at Science Rocks

I went to see the big show on Wednesday morning, and found the whole production very entertaining and educational. The kids were really into it, which was funny and inspiring in its own right. Dedicating hours and hours to songs about the elements and genetics? Brilliant!

Vivi Poetry

Genevieve made a whole bunch of birthday presents for me, and probably enjoyed watching me open them as much as she had enjoyed making them. What a kid. Though they were all good (and though getting a $5 bill from your daughter is a little weird…), the best one by far was a book of poems she’d written over the week before my birthday – one per day. Here are two. Amazing.

“The bright that comes from the blue”
The Bright poem



Life poem