5. “Blank Space” – 1989
4. “You Need to Calm Down” – Lover
3. “I Forgot That You Existed” – Lover
2. “We Are Never Getting Back Together” – Red
1. “Shake It Off” – 1989
5. “Blank Space” – 1989
4. “You Need to Calm Down” – Lover
3. “I Forgot That You Existed” – Lover
2. “We Are Never Getting Back Together” – Red
1. “Shake It Off” – 1989
Two of my favorite activities to do with Mr. Two Years Old is play with his train tracks and Magna-Tiles. We started with a relatively small batch of both, but then he got big upgrades for Christmas and from his cousins as hand-me-downs, so recently we’ve been really going wild.
When we first got the tiles we tried to recreate the structure that was on the box. It took about five minutes before we abandoned any attempts to follow the instructions and just went rogue.
There’s the satisfaction in building something with your hands, and then there’s the satisfaction of feeling the magnetic snap as you piece together the different shapes into fantastical structures.
He really gets into the building part, sometimes for a surprisingly long time for a toddler, but then loses interest just as quickly. Whatever grand creation we’d just whipped into being usually gets summarily knocked down or abandoned for another activity.
Before the recent heat wave started melting the abundant snow, I was able to enjoy a moment in the snowfall with Mr. Two Year Old, which is where I grabbed the clips above. I’m so glad he loved it as much as I did.
Anytime I’m able to dwell in idyllic winter weather I think of Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five Windows on the Season, which I read back in 2014. I’m always on the lookout for quotes and books that capture the alluring spirit of winter and why I love it so much, and that book definitely delivered.
But I realized I hadn’t actually taken any notes from it, so I did something I rarely do: I reread a book. Admittedly it was less a full reread and more a skimming for the best quotes, but I’m glad I did because there was lots I failed to note and appreciate the first time.
I included my favorite quotes below, but before that I also want to highlight an excerpt from a poem Gopnik himself quotes—1794’s “The Winter Evening” by English poet William Cowper:
Oh Winter! ruler of th’ inverted year,
Thy scatter’d hair with sleet like ashes fill’d,
Thy breath congeal’d upon thy lips, thy cheeks
Fring’d with a beard made white with other snows
Than those of age; thy forehead wrapt in clouds,
A leafless branch thy sceptre, and thy throne
A sliding car, indebted to no wheels,
But urg’d by storms along its slipp’ry way;
I love thee, all unlovely as thou seem’st,
And dreaded as thou art! …
I crown thee King of intimate delights,
Fire-side enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb’d retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.
A friend of mine recently moved to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He said he’d been looking online for information about the region when he stumbled upon mention of an obscure book that was supposed to really capture the area well. It was the short story collection Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters by Lynn Maria Laitala, and having now finished it I can say it’s one of my favorite reads in a long time.
I’ve never been to the Boundary Waters. I had a chance in high school to take a canoe/portaging trip with other kids in my youth group, but I didn’t go and regret it. I do, however, have lots of memories in northern Wisconsin, where I’ve spent time fishing, hunting, and exploring. That experience, combined with my interest in the stories of people from the Northwoods and my family history (more on this later), made this book a big, bright green light.
If not for my friend’s strong recommendation, I probably would have never heard of this book or given it much of a chance if I had. This is mostly for superficial reasons: it has an amateur, self-published look (excepting the beautiful chapter-heading illustrations by Carl Gawboy, as sampled in this post) and contains far too many basic and frankly egregious editing errors.
I’m glad I pushed past my pedantry and focused on the storytelling, because it’s exceptional.
Spanning several generations, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, each of the 27 relatively short and standalone stories are told from a different person’s perspective around the northern Minnesota town of Winton. (The Genealogy of Characters was very helpful for orienting myself throughout the book.) Each story intertwines and overlaps with the others, both explicitly—through shared characters and setting—and implicitly, through common themes of people struggling against nature, their kin, and themselves.
Laitala’s brief preface is worth quoting in full because it sets the stage well for the rest of the book:
The Minnesota Historical Society hired me to collect oral histories in northern Minnesota after I went home to Winton in 1974. I designed a questionnaire to elicit information for scholarly use. My first aged informant patiently answered the formula questions; then he said, “That isn’t how it was, Lynn.” When I learned to listen, people told me intimate stories of love and loss, failure and grief.
In 1978 federal legislation made the Boundary Waters—including Basswood Lake—a legal wilderness, a place without history. Inspired by the oral histories and wanting to memorialize the old spirit of the border country, I began to write these stories.
Down from Basswood is told in many voices, the way I learned the history of the place.
Laitala movingly memorializes “the old spirit” of this region by exploring two of its people groups—the Chippewa natives and the Finnish immigrants—and how they struggled to cobble together an existence in a hardscrabble time and place.
Being one-third Finn myself, I take a vicarious pride in Finlanders both past and present. My grandpa Cliff was even more Finnish than I am: he spoke the language and, as an FBI agent, was eventually stationed in Superior, Wisconsin, largely due to his heritage. (According to his memoir, it was his supervisor who thought “because I was of Finnish extraction that I should go where the Finns were.”) He was there for 24 out of his 25 years in the FBI—an unusual feat given how most agents were in multiple offices. He would have had lots of experience with the Finnish community and specifically the Finnish communists, given how virulently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at the time.
Also part of his job was investigating crimes in the region’s Native American reservations, which at the time were under federal (rather than state) jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this would have influenced his views of the indigenous tribes he encountered, but how exactly I’ll never know.
I do wonder what he would have thought of this book, because it doesn’t succumb to the worn tropes of Native Americans in fiction. Quite the opposite: Laitala’s ability to empathize with all her characters while maintaining an observer’s distance turns the book into a master class of keen insight, both at the sentence level and through the overarching narrative.
Like this sentence from chapter 4 (“Burntside Spring”):
Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.
This is from the perspective of Kaija Lahti, a grieving and pregnant widow who took in Matt, a stranger and fellow Finnish immigrant, as a farm worker. He’d returned wearily from a long day. By pausing to take note of the frogs and other sensory cues from her surroundings, Kaija could get present, step outside her own skin, and see another person’s struggles as just as important as hers.
Another thing that was so invigorating about the book was how much I learned. Knowing it’s based on real people’s testimonies and the author’s own experience helped illuminate a whole world and collective of people that are too often kept in the dark.
Chapter 5, for instance (“When Darkness Reigns”), serves as a mini seminar on Finnish communists, logging camps, the IWW, and how abuses of power by corrupt governments and bosses can perpetuate socioeconomic hardship. Other stories shine a light on the gritty work of mining, conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, true outdoorsmanship as a way of life, and the immigrant’s struggle between expectations and reality.
The book also follows people finding grace even in defeat, as is the case with Aina in chapter 7 (“Children of God”):
I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.
Another unexpected development was the appearance of Sigurd Olson, the late wilderness guide, nature writer, and author of The Singing Wilderness, one of my favorite nature books. He’s portrayed in a few of the stories as a well-meaning but patronizing buffoon—and worse, as an opportunistic interloper who exploited the lands and indigenous people he romanticized for his own financial gain.
Specifically, chapter 10 (“Jackfish Pete”) has Olson waxing rhapsodic about the supposed uncivilized wilderness his indigenous guides know actually to be long settled and familiar land to the locals. On the contrary, they claim:
There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.
How closely Laitala’s portrayal of Olson hews to reality is hard to discern, but given her source material and Olson’s documented role in promoting the Boundary Waters, it’s not hard to imagine it being uncomfortably incisive.
But that’s just what she does in Down from Basswood, chapter after chapter. At just over 200 pages it has the concise, spartan writing style of a journalist not wanting to waste words, yet beneath those words are an evocative depth befitting the multi-generational epic it truly is. In that way it felt like Wendell Berry’s Port William stories and Joel & Ethan Coen’s 2018 anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs condensed into a single volume you’d be able to read in a day but actually couldn’t for its sheer richness.
I’ll conclude with a passage I consider to be one of the defining metaphors of the whole book. It’s from chapter 21 (“Clearances”), which finds Emily—a second-generation Finnish American teen who’d endured a traumatic childhood like most of her peers—walking with her date alongside a work zone demolished in preparation for the coming freeway:
I got off the wall, walked up the front walk that ended in a pile of rubble and picked a tulip. I peered into its dark center.
“On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future,” I said, “but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.”
Eric didn’t answer. He was already moving on.
I’m reading Erik Larson’s latest book The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz and appreciated his spotlighting a memo Churchill sent out to his cabinet with the title “Brevity.” Highlights:
To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.
I ask my colleagues and their staffs to see to it that their Reports are shorter. …
Let us have an end of such phrases as these: “It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…”, or “Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…”. Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether, or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.
Reports drawn up on the lines I propose may at first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.
Despite being a fan of all things typewritten, I don’t envy all the poor secretaries who had to bang out said “woolly phrases” in countless memos and copies of memos and replies to memos—all of which would have required a lot more physical exertion than whipping out an email does today.
The full memo:
In a recent newsletter about the movement to dismantle the classics, Andrew Sullivan wrote about Martin Luther King Jr.’s syllabus for a seminar he was teaching at Morehouse College in 1962, which included Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God—a glimpse of what King believed an educated black man at that time should know.
What King grasped, it seems to me, is the core meaning of a liberal education, the faith that ideas can transcend space and time and culture and race. There are few things more thrilling than to enter a whole new world from another era — and to see the resilient ideas, texts, and arguments that have lasted (or not) through the millennia. These ideas are bound up, of course, in the specific context and cultures of the past, and it is important to disentangle the two. But to enter the utterly alien world of the past and discover something intimate and contemporary is one of the great joys of intellectual life.
As Alan Jacobs put it in Breaking Bread with the Dead (one of my favorite books of 2020):
We cannot use the past to love ourselves unless we also learn to love our ancestors. We must see them not as others but as neighbors—and then, ultimately, as kin.
“I love you at the age you are, and every year you grow / into more the special someone I forever want to know.” — I Love You All Ways by Marianne Richmond
I love that line (from a board book that’s in his regular rotation) because it reminds me not to focus on hitting benchmarks or anticipating his next phase of life. Love every age, every stage, because you’ll never get them back again.
Happy birthday to my tiger-tastic, truck-loving, snow-trekking two year old.
(Spoilers for the films Soul and Driveways, two of my favorites of 2020.)
At the very end of Driveways, Brian Dennehy’s elderly Del finds himself recounting a story. He concludes:
You know what I wish? I wish me and Eddie were just leaving Joplin this morning. I wish we could do that whole trip all over again. Maybe we’d be a little more deliberate this time, drive a little slower, take our time. Take a good look at stuff. Really see the country.
This echoed in my mind at the end of Pixar’s Soul, which finds Joe being offered a restart for his life:
JERRY: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance. … So what do you think you’ll do? How are you gonna spend your life?
JOE: I’m not sure. But I do know… I’m going to live every minute of it.
I liked the contrast between these two versions of starting over. Del’s second chance is only imaginary, a nostalgic and bittersweet reverie that won’t come to pass. Joe, on the other hand, has an actual opportunity to restart his life with the benefit of the wisdom he acquired on his journey.
Which also hearkens back to the advice Viktor Frankl gives in Man’s Search for Meaning:
Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.
A dusting on the pier at our local park:
Just following in Little Man’s footsteps:
This is either a failed photo or the perfect encapsulation of Christmas morning with a toddler:
Liked the colors and light in our front bushes (which still have Christmas lights on them) while taking out the trash early in the morning after a big snow:
From the same early morning, the edge of the driveway’s snow blower path was very satisfying to behold:
One day while working from home I saw Almost 2 Years Old and my wife rolling around the snow in the backyard:
Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library is a fascinating book for many reasons. It covers an era of history I’ve rarely visited, so that in itself felt like an adventure.
By following the life of Hernando Columbus, the bastard son of Christopher Columbus, the book takes detours that venture beyond the well-worn paths of history that are familiar to most people.
One such detour finds Hernando in Rome on legal business:
As the Sacra Rota was not in session on All Souls’ Day (November 1) 1512, Hernando was free to go to the Apostolic Palace that day to witness the unveiling of Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, as the rest of Rome did (according to an eyewitness) “even before dust that had been raised from taking down the scaffolding had settled.”
He just happened to be in Rome and just happened to have the day off, so he was able to see the debut of one of the most famous artworks in history. Of all the gin joints in all the world…
This kind of thing is one of the many reasons I love reading history. You get to watch people cross paths with other historically significant people, places, or things before they’re historically significant. It’s like being an omniscient time traveler with Ebenezer Scrooge-like observation powers, but untethered from your own life.
In other words: “History has its eyes on you.”