Tag: Wisconsin

Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters

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.

About the book

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.

A family connection

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.

A master class of insight

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.

Updating my priors

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.

Making wilderness

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.


Favorite quotes

  • Charlie called Ira “bourgeois”, or big shot, because he sat between them in the middle of the canoe. In the fur trade days, the bourgeois were the men who didn’t want to work. The Indians laughed at them because paddling is the joy of traveling.
  • When Aunt lay dying she said to me, “Don’t harden yourself to death, Mary, because if you do, you will harden yourself to life.”
  • 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.
  • I was wounded in the Battle of Mukden. Over 8000 men were killed, more than 50,000 wounded. It’s hard to imagine, when you hear those numbers, that each was a man who once delighted in the freshness of spring.
  • As I carried gear into the tents, Magie jerked his head in my direction. “Finlander,” he said. One of the officials laughed. “Weak minds but strong backs.”
  • Spring peepers trilled their shrill evening song and I heard them with my heart.
  • 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.
  • There’s nothing I like better than a meal of fresh fish—but fight fish for sport? If you look at it one way, it’s torturing creatures for fun. Look at it another, you’re playing with your food.
  • 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.
  • In school, the teachers talked about a great America beyond the woods and lakes, beyond men in ragged overalls who worked on rock farms and in lumber camps, beyond women who spoke Finnish and danced to accordion music on Saturday nights. America, the land of opportunity, was somewhere else.
  • My cheek pressed into the rough wool shirt. I smelled spruce and woodsmoke, heard the thumping of Jake’s heart. “Do you have to go home today?” he asked. “No,” I said. I was home.
  • Legend has it that a Finnish man once loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
  • Only sometimes, when I sit near the shore at my cabin watching the waves ebb in the waning light of the midsummer sun, does my heart fill with old yearnings.
  • My parents say the immigrants were fools who expected to find streets paved with gold. They got hardship and misery. But if you go out walking in the early spring when the marsh marigolds run riot, you will find the woods carpeted with gold.
  • On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future, but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.
  • It’s easier to find two sides in history than in life.
  • The sounds that break the silence of the north are haunting sounds—the crying of the wolves, the loons, the wind.
  • Things seldom turn out the way we expect them to.
  • You know what I liked about the culture? Tolerance, frugality, humor, generosity. How do you restore that with funding? Those are the things that money destroys.

Done gone fishin’ in the Northwoods

Spent a few days in the Northwoods of Wisconsin on a fishing trip with my dad and friends. Beautiful weather, fresh air, fishing, a rental cabin, film noir in the evenings. Not bad livin’.

I took a few photos and videos along the way. The tree stumps outside our rental cabin had some nice colors:

Northwoods-stumps

This was the view for most of the trip:

Northwoods-fishing

We mostly saw walleye and croppies, with a few bass and northerns as well.

We went to Chippewa Inn for dinner one night. Somehow it was my first time at one of Wisconsin’s famous supper clubs. I had Bavarian goulash with spaetzle and a Moon Man because when in Wisconsin… :

Northwoods-ChippewaInn

I guess I love trees:

Northwoods-tree

Here’s a GIF of the water off the dock, which that morning was Malickian:

northwoods-water

And another GIF from the rental boat, which stayed smooth and steady even at high speeds:

Quisling: What’s in a name?

In July 2016 I visited the Norway Resistance Museum in Oslo, which told the story of Norway’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II. A name that kept popping up throughout the museum was Vikdun Quisling, the Norwegian politician who collaborated with Hitler and seized control of Norway’s government during the occupation.

I wanted to know more about the man who put himself in that position. What compelled him? What happened in an occupied country during World War II? And how did his name instantly and internationally become synonymous with “traitor”?

Luckily there’s a book on him: Quisling: A Study in Treachery by Hans Fredrick Dahl. It’s definitely niche history—I had to get one of the few library copies via interlibrary loan—but as a part-Norwegian World War II buff this happened to be right up my alley.

The crux of this story is that Quisling honestly believed he was doing the right thing. Highly intellectual, aloof, and humorless, he dreamt of establishing Universism—his homegrown philosophy combining Lutheranism and science—as the “new world religion”, with Norway as the homeland of the supreme Nordic race. In that respect, along with his anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism, his eventual partnership with Hitler made perfect sense.

Once the Nazis occupied Norway, and its King and legislature had fled London with the other governments-in-exile, Quisling and his National Union party quickly filled the power vacuum, working with their Nazi occupiers to establish a fascistic, one-party authoritarian state.

But being an occupied country that officially was neither at peace nor at war with Germany stymied Quisling’s ambitions for a “new order” in Norway. (The goal of this new order? To stamp out the “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”.) And since Hitler refused to discuss peace terms until the Axis had won the war, Quisling in his quasi-legitimate government was left to tussle with his German commissars from above and the Norwegian resistance movement from below.

Throughout it all, Quisling remained naively optimistic about leading an independent Norway into his utopian future. Even when Germany capitulated and the war was over, he assumed he’d take part in a peaceful transition back to the old Norwegian government. Instead, he was arrested, tried, and executed by firing squad at the Akershus Fortress, which, in a delightful irony, now houses the aforementioned Norway Resistance Museum.

Dahl’s book is admirably thorough, so most people will probably prefer the Wikipedia summary of his life story to a 400-page book elucidating the same. But I’m glad for such an in-depth study of a tragic figure at a crucial historical moment.

(And for the realization that one of the few spots the Quisling name lives on is in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, at the super-cool looking Quisling Clinic, which was founded by Quisling’s cousins.)

Notes & Quotes from the book

  • At military academy Quisling scored highest average examination in 100 years
  • Held high regard for Soviet organizational skills, if critical of Bolshevik policies
  • Skills were more organizational and staff-bound rather than executive and creative
  • Developed theory of Universism, which combined Christianity with modern natural sciences, especially physics
  • Original manuscript over 2,000 pages; final 700-page version from 1920s; dense and ambitious but not good
  • Dreamt of establishing Universism as ‘new world religion’, Norway as homeland of Nordic race; like “a combination of the United Nations and the Catholic Church”
  • Became a scholar of Soviet Union, studied Russian, and was appointed military attaché of Norwegian legation in Petrograd in 1918
  • Present during Terror, and sent back reports that were widely read including by the King, before he was forced home
  • Book about Russia shot him to fame in Norway, and began slide toward fascism; founded movement aimed at overthrowing Marxism, enhancing Nordic race
  • Defense minister of new Agrarian Party, then new National Union (NS) party
  • Little sense of irony, not much humor, crippling shyness, aloof, but highly respected for his mind
  • Knew Norway wouldn’t be able to remain neutral in war due to its strategic significance and low defense spending
  • Urged cooperation between British naval hegemony and German continental ambitions
  • His growing anti-semitism signaled ideological sympathy with Hitler; thanked him for having “saved Europe from Bolshevism and Jewish domination”
  • Thought Hitler was wrong to sign pact with Stalin given how advanced Germany already was, and knew Red Army was weakened by purges so wouldn’t be able to conquer Finland
  • Envisioned Germany would topple Soviet government and reestablish nation-states with German capital
  • Met with Hitler December 1939 while reported Britain to use Norway as transit country to aid Finland; Quisling offered loyalty from his party
  • Preferred neutrality but didn’t think it possible, so would act in Germany’s interest to prevent British establishment
  • Hitler saw value to occupying Norway before Britain could
  • Naval skirmishes between Germany and Britain in April: King and government relocated, but Quisling characterized as fleeing and initiated coup
  • Quisling hoped for legal appointment understanding from King, but King refused to accept man twice beaten at the polls
  • Wide campaign to get rid of Quisling as he sought legitimacy
  • Hitler supportive at first but then in setting up “government commission” put Quisling in reserve; when commission failed Hitler sent Terboven to command Norway occupation
  • Miscalculated public’s feelings and sense of morality
  • Quisling name almost immediately became international byword for traitor
  • Curried Hitler’s favor as they strategized voting in new occupation government; became prime minister due to his warning of Britain
  • Quisling’s “New Order” in Norway stamped out “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”
  • Unresolved whether Norway and Germany were at war or peace; Quisling wanted full NS government to provide legitimacy and eventually got it, though with Reichskommissar
  • Sincerely believed he was doing the right thing for Norway and eventual Nordic dominance
  • Oslo University source of strong anti-NS “Home Front” resistance, along with prominent bishop Berggrav, who had tried to broker peace in Berlin and London
  • Photos of “Fører Quisling” everywhere, became authoritarian state sans functioning legislature and King
  • Quisling sought to limit NS membership despite one-party rule to strengthen quality
  • Edict to make youth service in NS Youth Organization compulsory backfired, as did new teachers corporation; when backed by bishops, revolt began
  • Mass teacher resignations followed by large-scale arrests
  • Lobbied Hitler for peace treaty but was denied and remained occupied country, also lost direct contact with Hitler
  • Had different ideas of future than Hitler, whose world domination plans were more improvisatory
  • Began rounding up and registering Jews in 1942
  • Hitler refused to negotiate peace because then other occupied countries would want it, and Quisling’s dreams of Norwegian supremacy dashed
  • After Hitler died, naively assumed there would be peaceful transition of power back to exiled government
  • Arrested May 8; said he knew suicide would be easiest but wanted to “let history reach its own verdict”; thought he’d be deified
  • Quisling Clinic in Madison founded by cousins in interwar years; otherwise name has disappeared

Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era

Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.

The editors’ sources and bibliography were fun to explore for related books and albums of regional folk songs. Favorites include Northwoods Songs and Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946. (I’m also eager to track down Finnish American Songs and Tunes, from Mines, Lumber Camps, and Workers’ Halls and, just for kicks, the albums Down Home Dairyland by James Leary and A Finnish American Christmas by Koivun Kaiku.)

What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:

Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.

And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:

The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.

He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:

It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.

Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:

  1. “Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
  2. A willingness to sing;
  3. A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.

Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.

No Quarter

coin-map

The bedroom was barren save some power tools, drywall sheets, and a step stool waiting for the work to begin again. I was home for Easter and my parents were renovating the basement and the basement room I’d called mine when I lived at home. The Cave I called it: in the basement and away from windows it was pitch-black and quiet and cool at night, and I could sleep there much longer than usual if I didn’t set an alarm. That cool and cozy silence induced a sopor my circadian rhythm couldn’t resist.

I was last here over Christmas and everything then was as it had been since high school, it seemed. But now everything was gone. Like the bookshelves. Their books sat in boxes waiting to be sorted, but the shelves had moved on. This disconcerted me most. When perusing my books I rarely considered their keeper, yet where would we be without them? Shelves in any place are prosthetic architecture. Vigilant, sturdy, selfless. Necessary, at times comforting if we regard them at all, but essentially invisible. Now they really were.

Last year I had a dream about this. I dreamt I entered my room to pack things to bring with me on a journey. The floor then turned into dirt and my belongings emerged from the soil as if they were vegetables for the harvest. A week after that dream, I had another one wherein I returned to the room and it was completely empty, along with the rest of the basement and the crawl space where my parents stored the accumulation of our years.

When I had those dreams I’d recently gotten engaged and started a new job. The future, nebulous as always, loomed large. But I’d now arrived in that future, and it looked like a half-dozen boxes of books and bric-a-brac, the props of my distant past, waiting for their sentence.

The sorting began in earnest. “Participant” trophies from youth soccer: toss. A ‘90s-era Brewers pennant: keep. Leftover CDs from my garage band: crawl space. My set of commemorative U.S. state quarters: consider. My grandma, twelve years gone now, got one of these green rigid cardboard display folios for each of my sisters and me. It opened to a vibrant map of the United States, color-coded according to which year each state’s quarter would enter circulation between 1999 and 2008. You’d pop out a quarter-shaped disk and replace it with that state’s shiny new coin as it was released. The United States Mint dropped one every ten weeks, five each year, in the same order the states ratified the Constitution. In 1999 when we first wedged in Delaware’s Caesar Rodney on horseback, Hawaii seemed so far away, and it was. But steadily we accumulated quarters and made our way through history.

The zeal of collecting faded over the years, but the joy of discovery did not. I’d weed through every quarter I could find, eager to see the newest design and see if I could beg, borrow, or steal a new state for the board. They generally fell into two categories. The scenic designs, which featured a key event, figure, or place from the state’s history, were usually better. Like Oregon’s Crater Lake and New Jersey’s Crossing of the Delaware: simple, iconic, and striking. The other kinds I call “greatest hits”; they cobbled together the disparate things you associate with the state into a confused, “floating heads”-style mashup. The pelican-trumpet-Louisiana-Purchase mishmash of Louisiana and cow-cheese-corn combo of my dear alma mater Wisconsin indicate obvious state pride, but they’re too on the nose to be extraordinary.

Whatever the states put forward, the series as a whole hit the jackpot. Bolstered by its “spokesfrog” Kermit the Frog, who did commercials promoting the series, the quarters generated $4.1 billion in revenue and nearly $3 billion in seigniorage (the profit from the difference between the face value of coins and their production costs) to help finance the national debt. Add to that another $136 million in earnings and seigniorage from “numismatic products” like, say, green rigid cardboard display folios. All that to say, they made a lot of these mass-produced tchotchkes, and made a lot from them, so mine wasn’t worth much on the market. But it meant something to me personally.

I pillaged it for laundry fare.

“Grandma would be laughing right now,” Dad said as I plucked the shimmering specie from their snug states. She would be. Do this nice thing for your grandson, a forward-thinking gift that will require of him patience, diligence, and an appreciation of history, then watch from beyond the grave as he pops them out one by one so he can feed them four at a time into a dingy basement washer and dryer. In my defense, she’d seen worse. As the single mother of two unruly sons, she had lots of experience dealing with her boys doing stupid, impulsive shit.

Should I have kept them? They will get me six full loads of laundry with fifty cents to spare, and then I’ll be back to zero. I could have tucked the folio away and forgotten about it for years, unearthing it occasionally to admire the completeness of the enterprise and ponder its market value. But I remembered: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Sometimes it’s hard to decide how literal we’re meant to take Jesus’s aphorisms, but this one made sense on many levels. I like shiny things. And money’s nice to have if you can get it. But I’m not about an altar to mammon, however well-intentioned.

So I continued sorting. My dreams of room excavation felt more like prophecies as I weeded through the musty relics, plucking out the valuables like I did the quarters and packing them for another migration. A few things I didn’t have space for but didn’t want to throw away I sent to the crawl space, but everything else I either tossed, donated, or brought to my new place, which I’ll share with my soon-to-be wife. We’ve got stuff scattered around our apartment needing a shelf, drawer, or closet to call home.

One artifact that has made the journey is the glass Carlo Rossi wine jug I’ve been sporadically filling with spare change since Grandpa Cy, LaVonne’s husband, cut a slot in the cap, fastened a personalized leather tag to it, and gave it to me who knows how long ago. (My sisters got their own too: such always seemed the way of things.) It’s about half-full right now: the accumulation of the dozens of times over the years when I’ve both had spare change on me and remembered to deposit it. LaVonne and Cy’s humble Madison duplex apartment hosted an unfathomable number of wine jugs and liquor bottles through the years; the ones we got were probably whatever were handy when Cy got decidedly visionary and repurposed some for his grandkids.

A bit ironic, right? I rather flippantly disabused the state quarters of their hallowed status, despite the possibility they could grow in value as a complete set—all the while adding at a slow drip to the unassuming wine jug’s interest-free account. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept it around. The jug doesn’t demand attention. It isn’t frozen in time or tender. It’s never complete; it contains multitudes. The jug abides. And boy, the years it has seen. While the quarters languished in the darkness of my former room’s closet, the jug sat in the corner between a bookshelf and the out-of-service brick fireplace and bore witness to my adolescence and early adulthood. Given the glacial rate of my deposits, it’ll witness still more.

My older sister, who had a longer and much deeper relationship with Cy, she said she’ll never spend the money she’s put into her jug because she put it in there while Cy was still around. Me? I’ll spend it. If it takes another twenty years to fill up the other half, I’ll be pushing fifty with a few kids and more stories to tell, God willing. Memories make us rich, not money. So I’ll fill the jug as high as I can, and on that day I’ll upend it into a bag, bring it to a bank, and watch the sum of my decades-long depositing transform into a slim stack of leathery bills. Then maybe I’ll get some ice cream, or put it towards a trip, or give it to the first person who asks for some spare change.

And then I’ll start it over. My wife, my kids, we’ll drop whatever remains in our pockets and purses into the clear glass chamber and hear the sharp ping of possibility every time we do. Those first few coins to hit the bottom will be there for the long haul. Imagine what they will see.

Rhinelander, Russia

Pushing through Command and Control, Eric Schlosser’s new book about America’s history with nuclear weapons. A fun tidbit: Strategic Air Command, the agency in charge of the Cold War bombers and missiles after World War II, used American towns for training their pilots:

The town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, became one of SAC’s favorite targets, and it was secretly radar bombed hundreds of times, thanks to the snow-covered terrain resembling that of the Soviet Union.

There’s a reason Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the upper Midwest were a Scandinavian haven. I guess they missed home.

Winter’s Harsh Beauty

“Wisdom comes with winters.” –Oscar Wilde

I’ve always taken for granted my ability to walk on ice.

Growing up in the Wisconsin winters, I had many opportunities to work and play on the ice, whether it be to shovel the sidewalk or play a pickup game of broomball. You learn pretty quickly how to adjust your walking motion when traversing a patch of ice; you can’t just amble through as usual, unless you want to repeatedly assail your tailbone.

Winter teaches hard lessons like this one. If you don’t learn how to walk, you’ll earn a quick trip to the icy pavement. If you don’t learn how to maneuver your car, a snowbank will find its way to your bumper on the quick. Winters in the north can be harsh, and they ought to be. Many people disagree with this, but they miss something good when they pine only for tropical temperatures. As Charles Simic writes, “The cold concentrates the mind. The moment we step outdoors, we do what we have to do with uncommon intelligence and dispatch, unlike those folks who can afford to sit in the shade on some Mediterranean or Caribbean island. … History, E.M. Cioran said, is the product of people who stand up and get busy. Can one be a dreamer or a dolt on the North Pole?”

When I take a walk or bike ride in the winter cold, my mind is razor-sharp. With the wind biting at my face and slowly numbing my less-layered limbs, the silly inconveniences of life I could care about only on a balmy 72-degree day evaporate with each cold breath. I expel so much energy bracing my body against the chill that re-entering a heated building feels purifying, like the cold is melting off me. I crave that feeling all year round.

The giddiness I display on a cold day or at the first sign of snow bewilders many. “How can you like the cold? You’re crazy.” I am. I’m a winter addict. I find my high in a walk through a snowy wood. In a soundtracked, nighttime snowfall. In the smell of the crisp winter air accented by a nearby bonfire. In a hot cup of tea thawing my frozen hands.

There is real beauty in the things we must struggle through. I love winter, to paraphrase a former president, not because it is easy but because it is hard. Some wish they could leap over winter into spring, escaping the blustery winds and slippery sidewalks for a more tepid time. But I say we need it. The deeper the winter, the more beautiful the spring. With their 75-and-sunny weather every day, Los Angelenos don’t know what they’re missing.

I’ll be able to appreciate all the more that first blooming flower in April not because it signifies winter’s end, but because I struggled through a season without flowers.