Saturday, August 30, 2008

Haiku education

"The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa" by Robert Hass, The Ecco Press 1994.

An attractive feature of many poetic forms like the sonnet or the haiku is structure. The writer's challenge is to be true to the form (lines, syllables, meter) and be original at the same time.

I always shied from the challenge, retreating (if you will) to free verse.

Now, reading Hass' history of the Haiku form, I discover that the rules we were taught in high school (17 syllables divided into 3 lines [5/7/5]) aren't really a big part of the haiku at all. What a liberating revelation!

Hass says that the important characteristics of Haiku are (aside from the three-line form) a reference to time or season, personalization (that is, the subject is something the writer experiences directly and in the present), and a sense that the observation is both simple and connected to something more. Humor is also frequent, though not required.

Hass* was the verse translator for this volume and there are some essays translated by others.

My favorite by Basho:

A cicada shell;
It sang itself
utterly away.

The cicadas are putting on a concert in my yard as I write this, four centuries after Basho wrote those words.


*My dad's name is Robert Haas. Not the same guy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Ale Contest is Over

The winner is: Bell's Amber Ale from Comstock, Michigan. (Cheers, huzzahs, confetti, fireworks, medals, tearful speeches about sacrifice and persistence and loyalty, endorsement deals...)

2nd place: Fat Tire from Fort Collins, Colorado

Honorable mention:
Summit Extra Pale Ale, St. Paul
Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Chico, CA
Boulevard Ale, Kansas City
Schell's Pale Ale, New Ulm, MN
Goose Island Hex Nut Brown Ale, Chicago
James Page Burly Brown Ale, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Full Sail Ale, Hood River, Oregon
Bell's Oberon Ale, Comstock, Michigan
Avalanche Ale, Breckenridge Brewing Co., Colorado

Note: These results have not been certified. They could change tomorrow.

Monday, August 25, 2008

We are So Green!

I make fun of environmentalists, mostly because zealots of any stripe bug me. But in many small ways we do try to act responsibly toward the air and water and soil.

For example:

Washed the car on the lawn and not the driveway. I don't wash the car very often, but this summer the water is going into the grass and not the gutter.

Got a rain barrel. For watering our comically small garden and the lovely flowers my wife planted by the front door, the rain barrel works great.

Burned E-85. Yes there is tremendous controversy about whether ethanol production is good or bad for the environment, but one thing is clear: burning it in your car instead of gasoline produces fewer emissions. Here's hoping that some other fiber will replace corn as the main source of ethanol.

Hung laundry outside to dry. Some suburbs have outlawed this practice. Do it anyway.

Recycled trash. We've always been faithful recyclers. This summer, the county where we live finally switched to a 'single-sort' system so we no longer have to have separate containers for cardboard, paper, metal, glass, and plastic. Single-sort makes it a lot easier for us, a little cheaper for the hauler, and a little cheaper for the county recycling facility. I'm told recycling participation may double with the new system. That's a good thing, isn't it?

Recycled printer cartridges. Some businesses hereabouts have put in ink-jet cartridge recycling boxes, making it more convenient to get rid of these.

Recycled furniture. I was all for hauling a bunch of used furniture from our basement to the dump. How we accumulated all this is a closely-guarded family secret. Suffice it to say that the basement is chock full of tables and chairs and couches and dressers that we will never use. My wife (who is more tolerant, caring, and frugal than I) found somebody to give it to. Hooray!

Used hand tools. My neighbor loves power tools. He attacks his driveway with a huge snow blower in the winter and a whiny, smoke-spewing leaf blower in the fall. He's on a military mission and has the ordnance to support it. We could have borrowed one of his chain saws, but I just handed my son a bow saw and sent him into the trees to trim the deadwood.

Took the Megabus. Mass transportation! For the masses!

Re-used packaging. We sold a bunch of textbooks via Marketplace. Reselling textbooks is an ancient recycling ritual in college towns, but we also re-used packing material that I had saved.

These ten little things make me feel better even though they probably don't mean a damned thing in the grand sweep of history.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Little Bit Famous

Walter Trout
(considered by some to be
among the best blues guitarists ever).

My sister lives in Indiana, not far from Indianapolis. Her son (my nephew) plays in a band there. Last week, we were comparing the local music scenes of the Twin Cities and Indianapolis. She mentioned that Duke Tumatoe is still playing bars in and around Indianapolis. Wow, I said, that guy’s getting kind of old. I remember Duke Tumatoe and the All-Star Frogs from 30 years ago, when I lived in Champaign, IL and he had frequent gigs there.

I compared him to Walter Trout as a “second tier” artist – someone very very good but who never quite hit the big time. Walter Trout is bigger in Europe than in his native USA.

Yesterday, I picked up a Shannon Curfman CD at the library. She made a big splash a few years ago (her “Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions” CD was recorded in Minneapolis in 1999) and then disappeared – at least from my limited radar. She’s good – mean blues guitar, pretty good songwriter, very good singer. So how come she’s not a star? She’s still doing lots of gigs – summer blues festivals in the Midwest, some bar shows, the national anthem at an upcoming Vikings game – but she doesn’t draw like Cheryl Crow or even Lucy Kaplanski.

Is music a meritocracy (George Will is fond of saying that baseball is almost a pure meritocracy)?

Check out Ms. Curfman or Walter Trout or Duke Tumatoe and see if you can figure out why they aren’t on the radio every day.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Mowing the grass

My dad loved mowing.
And his sidewalk and driveway were
always cleared of snow edge to edge
even if that meant shoveling several times a day.

He didn’t do this out of a sense of obligation
or to show up the neighbors
or because he was obsessively neat.


He found pleasure in a simple task well done.

Splitting firewood
Tuning an engine
Harvesting strawberries just before the peak of ripeness
Mowing the grass


Monday, August 18, 2008

Transporting Yourself To Another Place

Imagining myself somewhere else is easy. I do it quite a bit.
Getting myself to some distant place in the real world is sometimes difficult and unpleasant. Not as bad as the guy in the Odyssey or Captain Queeg or those wonderful folks about whom Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote. We aren't in the dust bowl or the depression or the Long March. But getting from Minneapolis to Indianapolis is still a challenge. My advice: Don't take the Megabus. Or if you do, preparation is the key, and that includes adopting the right mind-set.

First, the good things about Megabus:

It's cheap.
It's easy to book reservations.
It's very inexpensive.
It's fairly quick -- not quicker than flying of course, but not much slower than driving.
It's less expensive than any conventional alternative (hitchhiking might be cheaper but too risky and walking or riding a bicycle too slow).
It's pretty cheap.
The drivers were nice. (One driver's choice of radio stations differed significantly from my own, which was only a problem for us because we happened to be sitting in the front row, directly behind the driver).


The schedules may be just an approximation or an average. By the time we reached our destination (admittedly a long trip), we were an hour late. Given the performance of airlines and railroads, that ain't bad. It ain't good, either, so it belongs on the minus side of the ledger.
No cancellations, no refunds, and they mean it.
No air conditioning. (On one bus, the driver announced that the AC wasn't working very well. He explained by saying "It's an old bus.")
No stations. Changing buses in Chicago, passengers stand outside Union Station. It was a beautiful day. I wouldn't want to be stuck there in a thunderstorm or snowstorm. Of course, not having stations is a very good way to keep costs down, and low cost is precisely the appeal of Megabus service. Just be prepared to stand outside in any weather.

Overall: Very good for short hauls (for example: Minneapolis to Madison; Madison to Chicago; Indy to Cincy). Not great for long hauls.

Here's a poem by Franz Wright that features bus travel. The last line "I don't have to be anywhere" could become the marketing slogan for Megabus.

Franz Wright
You do look a little ill.

But we can do something about that, now.

Can’t we.

The fact is you’re a shocking wreck.

Do you hear me.

You aren’t all alone.

And you could use some help today, packing in the
dark, boarding buses north, putting the seat back and
grinning with terror flowing over your legs through
your fingers and hair . . .

I was always waiting, always here.

Know anyone else who can say that.

My advice to you is think of her for what she is:
one more name cut in the scar of your tongue.

What was it you said, “To rather be harmed than
harm, is not abject.”


Can we be leaving now.

We like bus trips, remember. Together

we could watch these winter fields slip past, and
never care again,

think of it.

I don’t have to be anywhere.

Franz Wright, “Alcohol” from Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems. Copyright © 1998 by Franz Wright. Reprinted with the permission of Oberlin College Press.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

In the Garden and on the Megabus

We have begun to harvest a few tomatoes and peppers and herbs from our excruciatingly modest garden. I would enjoy having a big, bountiful garden, but my skills, I fear, are not equal to the task. This poem captures my hesitancy perfectly:

The Definition of Gardening
by James Tate

Jim just loves to garden, yes he does.
He likes nothing better than to put on
his little overalls and his straw hat.
He says, "Let's go get those tools, Jim."
But then doubt begins to set in.
He says, "What is a garden, anyway?"
And thoughts about a "modernistic" garden
begin to trouble him, eat away at his resolve.
He stands in the driveway a long time.
"Horticulture is a groping in the dark
into the obscure and unfamiliar,
kneeling before a disinterested secret,
slapping it, punching it like a Chinese puzzle,
birdbrained, babbling gibberish, dig and
destroy, pull out and apply salt,
hoe and spray, before it spreads, burn roots,
where not desired, with gloved hands, poisonous,
the self-sacrifice of it, the self-love,
into the interior, thunderclap, excruciating,
through the nose, the earsplitting necrology
of it, the withering, shriveling,
the handy hose holder and Persian insect powder
and smut fungi, the enemies of the iris,
wireworms are worse than their parents,
there is no way out, flowers as big as heads,
pock-marked, disfigured, blinking insolently
at me, the me who so loves to garden
because it prevents the heaving of the ground
and the untimely death of porch furniture,
and dark, murky days in a large city
and the dream home under a permanent storm
is also a factor to keep in mind."

James Tate, "The Definition of Gardening" from Shroud of the Gnome. Copyright © 1997 by James Tate.

Eldest son and I will be on the road this weekend, adding to our ballpark life lists. We'll be in Cincinnati to see the Reds play the Cardinals. A pretty meaningless game for the home team, but the Cards are still in it, so that should be fun.

We are taking the Megabus, which is cheap and doesn't take much more time than driving. It could be horrible or pleasant or somewhere in between. We'll let you know. This blog will most likely be silent until we get back home next week.

Monday, August 11, 2008


Little Nicky Punto
after his third
strikeout Sunday in
Kansas City

A few days ago, I wrote about how Nick Punto has improved this year. He's no longer the worst hitter in the league, as he was in 2007. That distinction now belongs to Tony Pena, Jr. of the Kansas City Royals. A .148 batting average for a major leaguer? You can't even see the Mendoza line from there. Yesterday in Kansas City, Nick Punto had a terrible game, looking lost at the plate. And Tony Pena, Jr.? He came off the bench to deliver two key hits in the Royals' extra-inning victory over the pathetic-looking Twins.

You just never know.

The Twins certainly don't seem to enjoy being in first place because every time they climb into first, they very quickly fall back again.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday indecison (more or less)

A beautiful day in the upper midwest. How to spend it?


In the basement clay studio, mixing some colored slips to use on a new batch of slab trays and vases.
The weather is just too nice to be in the basement. I'll hang the laundry out to dry in the sun and breeze.

In the yard, planting some more grass in that big bare spot where the stately spruces once stood.
Did that yesterday. Gotta take it easy today.

Watching the Olympics on TV.
The opening ceremony was certainly impressive, but....nah.

Watching an amateur baseball game in which eldest son is a pitcher.
That would work except I don't have a car or a bike today (long story).

Watching the Twins play the Royals on TV.
Yeah, maybe. But Bert Blyleven shouldn't be an announcer "at the major league level."

Finalizing a blog entry about a couple of odd grants from the Department of the Interior.
Yes! With footnotes!

These two grant announcements appeared recently on I’m sure the good folks at the Department of the Interior think I’m picking on them. (Yeah, like they read this blog.) I may well be, but that’s only because these projects raise so many questions. Plus I’m bored.* And cranky.**

Department of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management
Wyoming Honor Farm Wild Horse Care & Training Agreement
Modification 1

The only other honor farm I’d heard of was on the flanks of the Mauna Loa volcano on the Big Island. The Kulani Honor Camp was for inmates who’d earned their way into this minimum security facility by behaving themselves in one of the other Hawai’i prisons. Inmates at Kulani spent their days raising crops and making things out of the rare native koa wood. I still prize my beautiful large koa bowl made by some anonymous but talented soul at Kulani. ***

The honor farm referenced in the DOI grant announcement is probably not a prison. “Wild Horse care” is an oxymoron. If they have to be cared for by humans, they aren’t wild any more. The announcement also refers to training, but it’s not clear whether the training is for people to learn how to take care of wild horses, or for the horses themselves. Training regular horses how to be wild? Training wild horses how to be even wilder? Training wild horses how to be less wild?

I guess I’m just having trouble understanding what’s so unique about wild horses that they are entitled to some special care. Aren’t they an invasive species, having been introduced to this continent by Europeans?**** Aren’t we trying to rid ourselves of invasive species?

Why, yes, we are.

Department of the Interior
Bureau of Land Management
Noxious & Invasive Plant Control in Sheridan County, WY
Modification 2

Interesting tidbit: A road in Sheridan County is named Wild Horse Road. I wonder what entitles one county to get federal help to control weeds when most counties (even those where weeds might actually be a problem for local famers or ranchers or parks or natural areas or wildlife habitat or my front yard) are on their own. Earmarks?

* Boredom may be the worst motive for writing, but I’ll bet that many a famous poem or novel sprang from such humble roots.

** It says so right in my Blogger ™ profile.

*** The camp is now known as the Kulani Correctional Facility and houses sex offenders.

**** One source says that an equine ancestor did roam North America but went extinct eons ago. Horses didn’t come back to the continent until Spanish explorers brought them along in the 16th century. These were, of course, entirely domesticated animals.

I love footnotes. And the Twins' game is only an inning old!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

R. Brautigan, E. Webster, and S. Stover

Here are three little shards of poems from the book "The Edna Webster Collection of Undiscovered Writings" [Houghton-Mifflin 1999]. Though the book was published posthumously, it contains Brautigan's earliest work, which he had given to a friend (Edna) in Washington when he was about 20 years old, just before heading off to San Francisco.



is something.
is like,
a piece
of apple pie.

Nature Lover, or Something

I am
not particular.

I like whatever
the sky happens
to be doing at the time.

profound saying 4

People who
live in glass
have Chihuahuas
instead of

That last one reminds me of Smokey Stover, a cartoon strip my parents liked. One of Smokey's trademarks was taking aphorisms or phrases and making them slightly nonsensical. These often appeared in framed needlepoint on the wall of his house. One was "People who live in glass houses should foo in the barn." Another: "Notary Sojac." Smokey drove a fire truck. The license plate on the truck sometimes read "FOO E 2 U." My parents thought that was hilarious, which may explain some things.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Redemption of Little Nicky Punto

Nick Punto hit a homer last night – his 2nd this year – though the Twins later gave the game away. If Bat-Girl were still writing her hilarious blog, she would have had the tiny super hero flying around the bases in a cape. Bat-Girl loved Little Nicky Punto.

I wrote about Punto last year, calling him the worst 3rd baseman in the league and wondering why Mr. Gardenhire gave Mr. Punto so much playing time. This year, Punto hasn’t played much at third, but has gotten lots of playing time at second base and short stop, especially after Alexi Casilla went down with a finger injury.

Has Punto, long known as a good defender but very poor batter, improved this year? Well, yes, it appears so. I looked at a few stats that purport to measure offense and, compared to the Punto of 2007, Little Nicky has stepped up his game. I looked at the two Puntos (07 and 08) and eight other American League middle infielders. I chose these because I didn’t want to spend the time looking at every single AL player who’s seen regular duty at second base or shortstop this year. That’s too much work and I think the point can be made with just a sampling.

The eight other players are:
Pedroia (Bosox)
Lugo (Bosox)
Cabrera (Chisox)
Ramirez (Chisox)
Carroll (Cleve)
Peralta (Cleve)
T. Pena, Jr. (KC)
Grudz (KC)

Batting average: Punto is batting .285 so far, which ranks him 4th in this group. The ’07 Punto would be 9th. (Pedroia is hitting .317).

Slugging %: Punto’s is .424, also placing him 4th in this group. Last year’s version would rank 9th.

OPS+: Punto’s tied for 2nd in this group at 107 (with Peralta and Ramirez), behind Pedroia at 112. Last year’s OPS+ would put Punto 9th.

Looking at just these few indicators, I’d say Punto has gone from a dismal offensive force to an acceptable one. And the homers? Well, he’s already hit twice as many as he hit in 2007!

Joe Posnanski has written about how bad Tony Pena, Jr. (known around Kansas City as TPJ) is for the Royals. I looked at these ten players, and in every category that matters, the ’07 Punto is ninth and Pena is tenth. TPJ is the only one on this list with an OPS+ on the negative side of zero.

But TPJ can pitch!

Monday, August 4, 2008

First place

My son and I were at the Dome Sunday to watch the Twins at last climb precariously into first place. I've written about this before -- how tenuous the hold on first can be. The glow may last a day or a week or until the end of September. Let's enjoy it.

Welcome back, Francisco. So long, Livan.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Two short poems

In honor of Minnesota's sesquicentennial and the 150th post (!) on this here blog, here are two short poems.

In an authentic drawl

“I should have been a country record producer,” he said

between puffs on his cigarette. It was a familiar

lament, and I responded as I usually do.

“Why is that, Dad?”

“Because I know that when you resort to strings,

you’re either desperate or dead.”

I nodded.


Kabuki Circus

The circus came and went.

A one-night stand in a nondescript town.

The advance publicity consisted entirely of

posters nailed to telephone poles.

The trucks arrived in the morning,

the tent went up in the afternoon,

and by midnight the lot was empty.


I recently subscribed to The Lilliput Review, a poetry journal produced only in print (quaint) and featuring poems no longer than ten lines. These two poems meet that simple criterion, though I'm reluctant to submit them. Never done that before.