Final Edition. Radio Superior. Countless radio documentaries, including a series on the impact of HIV/AIDS on rural Wisconsinites that garnered him an Edward R. Morrow Award in 1997 and a National Public Broadcasting Director’s Award for his coverage of the 1992 benzene spill in Douglas County, Wisconsin. A booming voice reminiscent of William Conrad (radio persona and star of the television detective series “Cannon”). A loving husband. A good son and brother. A loyal friend. A tough task master. A great teacher. One hell of a radio journalist.
These are the bits and pieces of Mike Simonson’s life that doubtlessly were emphasized at his memorial service last Saturday at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in West Duluth. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, though I did make the wake the evening before. I wasn’t a close personal friend of Mike’s, having been two years ahead of him at Denfeld (a classmate of Mike’s older brother Mark), but my interactions with Mike, from those glory days until his all-too-sudden passing, were always positive. In junior high and high school, Mike was Mark’s little brother; a round bundle of energy in contrast to his older sibling’s more deliberate and sedate style who knew more about baseball than any Denfeld alum except Fred Friedman. Mike could recall statistics concerning players from the near and distant past with ease. He also, as I recall, may have had a hand in plotting the greatest caper conceived and perpetrated by Denfeld Hunters: the raising of a Volkswagen Bug onto the roof of Central High School as a Maroon and Gold Day prank. I wasn’t there to witness Mike’s participation in the scheme: My wife, Rene’ Privette Munger, a classmate of Mike’s, swears she witnessed the planning and plotting behind the incident. Behind the serious journalist, then, lurked the heart of a guy who enjoyed life, his family, his friends, and a good laugh.
As a Denfeld alum, I followed Mike’s career in radio from his early days in AM newsrooms around the Twin Ports, through his apprenticeship far from home, to his triumphant return as the first Northern Reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio (and News Director of KUWS) and marveled at his dedication to task. I too learned my craft at the knees of such great teachers as Jean Endrizzi, Judy Infelise Bonovetz, and Goldie Cohen (who was also the adviser to the school newspaper, The Criterion) over my years at Lincoln Junior High and Denfeld, the schools where Mike cut his journalistic teeth. But unlike Mike, my early fascination with reportage turned sour after a single year at UMD: I ended up ditching my love of writing to become a trial attorney; giving up my avocation for a vocation. Mike, on the other hand, knew what he wanted to do for his life’s work and stayed the course, garnering, as set forth above, more accolades and awards than any other Twin Ports reporter in history.
Others have said it better than I can. When Mike was on a story, whether supervising his young student reporters at KUWS, interviewing a subject himself, or sitting in as a panelist on “Final Edition”, a program dedicated to highlighting the news of the week through the eyes of local journalists and reporters, he was determined to get to the truth. He didn’t countenance the slight of hand responses and sound bites that we so often hear on the air and read in print as “answers” from public officials and politicians. He did not suffer fools lightly. His dogged dedication to the craft of truth-telling made him a throw-back to the golden age of radio journalism. His career mimicked, in this regard, the timeless characters portrayed on the nostalgic radio drama he created and shared with other Northland radio greats, Lou Martin, Ray Paulson, and Jack McKenna.
I had the pleasure of appearing on Mike’s news program a number of times to talk about my books. Mike was also present in the studio as a producer when I appeared on Duke Skorich’s show and on Henry Banks’s “People of Color”. The coverage he gave my books was invaluable to my success as a regional author. During these broadcasts, there were plenty of jokes and smiles to be had despite the serious nature of the work.
I always wondered about Mike’s health but I was not a close enough friend or acquaintance to pose questions about his life choices. Five years or so ago, I remember climbing the stairs with Mike in the Holden Fine Arts building as he led me towards the KUWS studio for an interview. I noted the physical struggle Mike had with a simple set of stairs and the experience concerned me so much that, when I got home that night, I mentioned Mike’s difficulty in negotiating the stairs to my wife. That he was, despite the obvious discomfort of the effort, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, was, we concluded a positive. In the end, it apparently wasn’t enough.
Here’s how far reaching Mike’s influence really was. A month ago, while out promoting my new novel, I found myself in Park Rapids, Minnesota where I bumped into a friend, Heidi Holtan, program manager of KAXE radio. Heidi invited me into the city armory where she and a crew were making ready for the Great Northern Radio Show, KAXE’s equivalent of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Inside the vaulted room, Heidi introduced me to Hibbing writer and blogger, Aaron Brown. I’d corresponded with Aaron about his book, Overburden, but never met him. Within minutes, the two of us were talking about his teacher and my fellow Denfeld alum, Mike Simonson. The impact Mike’s hard nosed instruction and consistent mentoring had on Aaron cannot be understated: Brown held Mike Simonson up as the exemplar of a journalist.
A few days after Mike’s passing, I read the Duluth News Tribune’s endorsement of Stewart Mills for the 8th District (Minnesota) Congressional seat. Something about the endorsement didn’t ring true. There, on the printed page, was a disclaimer of sorts, a small box that (paraphrasing) indicated the endorsement was made by “newspaper management” rather than by the paper’s editorial board. So, in essence, rather than having the two candidates appear, as all other candidates were requested to do, in front of the local editors of the paper, folks living, working, and writing in the district at issue, the Fargo, North Dakota owners of the paper made the endorsement, as we lawyers would say, suis sponte, on their own. That’s the sort of journalistic slight-of-hand that would have driven Mike Simonson to don his fedora, grab his pencil and note pad, and head for the door. He would not have let the paper hide behind their disclaimer. He would have gotten the story and made sure everyone within earshot knew the truth. That’s the man, the reporter, the legend that Duluth-Superior will sorely miss.
God bless you, Mike, from your students, your listeners, your family, and the folks who loved your work.
My wife’s Nissan floats on asphalt. A machine gun sky spits rain on the windshield as we drive east on Highway 13. We stop to use the restrooms at the convenience store in Port Wing. I can’t resist buying a slab of smoked salmon sitting in the freezer case. Back on the road, we share a bag of Cracker Jack. I sip lukewarm coffee from a steel travel mug and negotiate curves in the road.
“There’s the new Red Cliff Clinic I was reading about,” I remark as we pass the brand new health care facility that had been recently profiled in the Duluth News Tribune.
We slow for the town of Red Cliff, the heart of Ojibwe country on the South Shore, and pass a new casino hugging the lake.
“I don’t remember seeing that…”
“It’s been there a few years. You must have seen it before,” Rene’ replies.
I calculate the span of time since I was last in Bayfield. I haven’t been in the small tourist town, a quintessential Maine fishing village transplanted into the interior of the country, since I stopped selling books at the Bayfield Apple Festival four years ago. As we stop at the bottom of the hill leading into town to make the turn towards the school, where we’ll pay to park on an abandoned tennis court five blocks to the west of the Rittenhouse Inn, the brief moment of nostalgia and lament caused by not participating as a vendor is replaced by the realization that, for the most part, the time I spent trying to sell books to strangers was an exercise in diminishing returns. First, the economy tanked, meaning less sales because folks stopped spending their discretionary income because, well, they didn’t have any discretionary income. Then there was the weather. Increasingly, rain and snow and fog and cold ruined at least one, if not two, days of the three-day festival. And finally, the organizers of the event grew greedy. Booth prices for the rental of a 10’x10′ piece of asphalt went through the roof. Even with three days’ of pristine skies and huge crowds, I could never make enough money to justify paying the soaring rates for space at the festival. And so, along with the Blueberry and Harvest Moon Festivals in Ely, the Fall Fest in Duluth’s Chester Park, and Land of the Loon in Virginia, I stopped doing outdoor events. I put away my EZ-Up tent, anchors, and tarp, and walked away from such art and craft festivals forever.
Selling paper in the rain. How stupid.
I keep my thoughts to myself as Rene’ and I step into the milling crowd. She heads towards a clothing and gift store. I wander off to the funky used bookstore that once invited me to do a book signing during the middle of Apple Festival. After finding a used copy of Pigs in the novel section, and a few new copies of my other books for sale in the regional authors section of the bustling little store, I head back up the hill to find my wife. That’s when I noticed a new bookstore, Apostle Islands Booksellers, right on Rittenhouse. Given the steady decline and closure of independent bookstores across the country, the victim of Amazon’s convenience and instant gratification, I am surprised to find a well-stocked, packed-the-rafters-with patrons retail bookseller in a town of less than 500 people. And yet, there it is. I open the door and come in out of the cold, greeted by odors of fresh ink, coffee, and a mixture of colognes, perfumes, and humanity. I consider approaching the clerk manning the till and handing her one of my Cloquet River Press business cards.
No, we’re here as tourists.
As I mill about the store, I learn through the grapevine that internet service to the entire village is down, that all purchases in every store must be either by cash or check, the sort of old fashioned commerce that Amazon’s website would not recognize or understand.
Outside, I search for my wife. I can’t find her. So I meander through the thick crowd towards ManyPenny, where my booth stood for nearly a decade. I stand in the hesitant rain and stare at a sweatshirt vendor’s space, his tent occupying terrain that was once the annual, temporary home, of Cloquet River Press. As I lament the fact that cheap, imported clothing has replaced my words, I note the absence of music.
Pat and Donna aren’t here.
I befriended Ely singer/songwriter Pat Surface and his wife Donna the first year I was a vendor at Apple Fest. Every year I participated in the event I had the pleasure of listening to Pat’s wonderful tenor accompanied by his guitar and other musicians playing fiddle, mandolin, and bass. The silence is upsetting in that it signifies a finality of sorts. But it’s comforting to know that my choice, to pull away from the festival, mirrors another’s thinking: There’s satisfaction in knowing that I’m not the only one who threw in the towel.
I circle back and find Rene’. Of course, like any good lady shopper, she’s carrying a bag full of purchases. We decide on Gruenke’s, a funky old inn, tavern, and restaurant, for lunch. The internet remains inaccessible. It’s a good thing my wife tucked a check into her purse since my cash supply is limited and the ATMs strategically placed throughout the town have been rendered useless by the web’s failure.
Gruenke’s empties out despite the throng of hungry tourists searching for a good meal. Judith, the owner, closes the place for an hour to give her staff time to catch its collective breath and recharge for the dinner rush. We step outside to a cool but dry day, the sky puffy with rain but seemingly hesitant to spoil the festival. We watch members of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe compete in the Apple Dance. Partners hold an apple between their chins and follow the instructions of the caller. Native drums and singing fills the air. Two teenaged girls are declared the winners, having kept their apple in place throughout the ordeal.
Back on Rittenhouse, I listen to the Blue Canvas Orchestra play covers and original tunes with enthusiasm. A bride-to-be and one of her girfriends dance in front of the crowd, their courage likely fueled by beer and hard cider.
Rene’ shops a bit more and then, just before we leave, I fall victim to my obsessive nature.
“Let’s stop by the bookstore on our way out,” I suggest. “I’d like to leave my card, just in case they have a slot open for a signing when I’m coming through, when I have to go to Hancock later in the winter.”
My wife doesn’t complain. We enter the store. I chat with the owner. She says she knows my work and would love to have me come for an event at the store. I leave her my card. Whatever unsettled business I have with Bayfield dissipates as we exit the little bookstore. We head back up the hill intent on buying a bag of fresh apples to lug back to the car.
Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richard (2012. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292719644)
Before my now-departed law clerk, Rachel Bell, a bright young lawyer who graduated from the University of Texas Law School, gave me this biography of the last Democrat elected governor in the state of Texas, I had a vague recollection of Richards’s importance to the national political scene. Sadly, after plowing through this 440 page tome written by Texan and freelance journalist, Jan Reid, my understanding of Richards’s place in the history of national Liberal politics isn’t much more defined or focused. Beyond recounting tidbits of the late governor’s close relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton and a few other notable politicos of national stature (late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan for one), much of the storyline of this book concerns Texas political gossip and history; hardly the sort of knowledge I’d hoped to gain when Rachel handed me the biography a few months’ back.
That having been said, the strongest and most compelling feature of the book is that Reid takes us back to Ann’s wild and wooly days in Austin as a feminist Liberal, when Richards (along with her activist lawyer husband) occupied the far left edge of Democratic politics in the Lone Star State. Reid’s reportage of the early years, particularly Richards’s angst and internal turmoil over her place in America as a mother of small children seeking political advancement while battling alcoholism, is spot on. There’s no question that Reid has the chops to pull off a concise, compelling, and complete telling of Richards’s “activist housewife to national politician” story. But he doesn’t quite make the mark. Too often the author resorts to insider baseball, dropping personal asides from his own interactions with the governor or her staff or her family, or vignettes from long-past political encounters, into the narrative. These diversions rarely move the story forward.
Most troubling to me as an author of political biography (Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story) is the author’s insertion of “me” and “I” into what should be a cleanly wrought third-person exposition of the governor’s life and times. I took particular care to exclude myself from Rep. Willard Munger’s life story so as to preserve editorial and authorial distance from the subject matter despite my close personal ties with my uncle. Mr. Reid’s insistence on inserting his (and his wife’s) personal encounters with the governor into the greater story of Richards’s career was distracting and, quite frankly, reduced the credibility of the reporting for me.
This is not to say that the book doesn’t have its moments of clarity, humor, and relevance. The chronicling of Governor Ann Richards’s rise serves as a reminder that once, long before George W. Bush and Rick Perry, the people of Texas elected a smart, Liberal, forward-thinking, pro-choice woman as their leader. What is missing from the book, at the end of the day, are political observations from folks like President Clinton, Senator Clinton, Jim Hightower (and others who knew Ann and championed her causes and her career) is whether the Lone Star State’s changing demographic (soon to be a state where the majority of potential voters are of Hispanic descent) can sustain a state-wide victory for another Democratic candidate.
Overall, the book is a valuable resource for political junkies, Texas Democrats, and the folks who loved the governor’s feisty personality. But Reid’s insistence on inserting himself into the story and his emphasis of Richards’s importance to Texas politics (as opposed to her prominence in national Liberal circles) reduces the book’s scope and impact.
3 and 1/2 stars out of 5.
The Road Back to Sweetgrass by Linda LeGarde Grover (2014. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816692699)
Normally I’m up by 5:00am writing or managing my little press. This morning, images from Linda Grover’s latest novel bouncing around in my head like so many Indian legends and folk tales, I’m up at 4:00am. Way too early on a work day. But there it is. The power of great prose, or, as in the case of Grover’s previous book, The Dance Boots, and that of another Northland icon, Louis Jenkins, the power of poetry as prose, creates patterns and drumbeats whose echoes do not fade. The soft shuffle of deerskin against sand, the wind chattering through wild rice, the smell of frybread bubbling in lard, the angst of removal and betrayal, and the loss and the redemptive power of familial and romantic love are all here in this very slender novel centered around two endearing and universally appealing characters, Margie Robineau and Joseph (‘Zho’) Washington, and their able supporting cast. Written in a style and cadence that, for this waabishkiiwed (white man) replicates Native oral storytelling; sly and humor-filled, ironic and poignant, and non-linear as to time, in a manner that exchanges the first and third person without transition, excuse, or warning, Sweetgrass is a very different sort of prose from the equally powerful but much more straight forward style of Jim Northrup, another Ojibwe storyteller living in the Arrowhead Region of northeastern Minnesota. How well does Grover’s language translate from campfire to printed page? In this short excerpt, the author’s depiction of the sensuality exuded by Margie’s friend, Theresa, while cooking frybread, the reader is treated to a glimpse of Grover’s power as an elder relating an imagined familial history:
Theresa’s face was flushed and shiny with heat from the woodstove and from cooking; she had unbuttoned the top button of her blouse while she worked, and from the space between her breasts an almost invisible steam of Emeraude and perspiration mingled with the sweet Juicy Fruit scent of her breath and the warm, enticing scent of frybread to rise and float over the table.
As in many of Grover’s essays for the Budgeteer News, food and the preparation of meals play a major part in many of the scenes in Sweetgrass. Such snippets of ordinary human activity, tasks engaged in by all peoples, tie the exotic and foreign world of Native culture to experiences and situations non-Native readers can relate to. Attributes of the northern Minnesota landscape, the sights, the smells, the noises, the temperatures of outdoor activities such as snaring rabbits and ricing, buttress the authenticity of the ebb and flow of Grover’s non-linear narrative by inserting nature as a subdued yet omnipresent character in its own right.
Do not let the diminutive size of The Road Back to Sweetgrass lull you into a false assumption that this novel lacks the heft and weight to explore major cultural and historic issues. Within the confines of less than 200 pages, and without a heavy hand, Grover tackles; tribal allotments, casino gambling’s economic impact on tribal members, forced assimilation of Indian children into white culture, and the loss of Indian children to adoption. This last topic, one that plays out in the book as part of Dale Ann’s first person description of her rape and subsequent pregnancy, is a topic close to my own heart. For years, images of my brother David as a shaggy haired toddler standing on gray dirt in front of a ramshackle house in rural Becker County, have danced inside my head. I was only six years old when my parents adopted David, changing his name from David Paul to David John in honor of my maternal grandfather. As to what David’s Ojibwe name might have been, I have no clue because, over the intervening forty years, my parents insisted Dave was “Norwegian, 100 percent.” Turns out, he’s got a good quantum of Indian blood flowing in his veins. Turns out his father was a legendary Becker County Native American athlete. Reading Dale Ann’s account of her time spent “assimilating” through sexual predation and its aftermath made me wonder about the circumstances of my own brother’s conception, birth, and removal:
In signing I gave permission for the Indian Health Service to pay for the fallopian tubal ligation that had been done while I was still under anesthetic, which saved the county money, time, and the unpleasantness of dealing with a conscious young woman who might have regretted wishing that the baby that belonged to some happy mother was dead. Or, God forbid, have ever decided that she might wish to have another baby, a child of her own. Sometimes I had wished I had seen my baby, no, the baby who was never mine, just once. Later on I found out that some girls were allowed to do that, but I didn’t know to ask. I overheard one of the nurses telling another that there was a woman waiting for my baby on the condition it looked white. If I made her so happy, it must have looked white.
Despite tackling such weighty and difficult issues, the overall “feel” of the stories Grover shares with us leaves the reader believing in redemption, hope, and healing. My only criticism of this gem of a novel is that the ending makes us long to know what has become of Margie, the daughter, mother, and grandmother we love as one of our own by the end of the book. But I understand that this talented storyteller may be working on correcting that omission by gifting us yet again with her art.
5 stars out of 5.
Friday night after work. A long, long week in the court system trying to use only a computer (no paper files) to do my job. Arraignment week, five days of constant sitting and dealing with criminal defendants, has left my neck and back in knots. Physically, arraignment week is akin to an endurance sport. Add trying to learn our court system’s computer program’s digital imaging protocols (we’re moving to a paperless eCourt model) to the mix and you’ve got the makings of a melt down. But I made it through in one piece, an old dog learning new tricks, and, my blue Pacifica loaded with copies of my Finnish tomes, Suomalaiset and Sukulaiset, a change of clothes, and a ton of optimism, I head north on US Highway 2 on a mini book tour of Itasca and Hubbard Counties.
I settle into my chair in the mezzanine of the mall in Grand Rapids, my table and chair set up in front of Village Books. I’ve done nearly a dozen book signings at Village, soon to be the last independent bookstore on the Iron Range (though Piragis, the outfitting store in Ely still has books for sale, it has always been,and remains primarily a clothing and outdoor equipment store) since becoming a published author. Mike, the owner, and now Meade, his daughter, are always welcoming to regional authors. Tonight is no exception. The young clerk in charge welcomes me, buys me the traditional writerly cup of coffee, and I go to work. There are folks milling about; most of them patrons of the Chinese buffet across the way or teenagers attending the Magic tournament down the hall. My friends, Randy and Kathy McCarty show up. They’re a couple who has, on occasion, opened up their lovely home on Lake Pokegema for this itinerant author to spend the night. I’m not staying with them on this trip as Kathy has girlfriends in for the weekend. Randy buys a copy of Esther’s Race, a book he’s already read but lost somewhere along the way. We make plans for dinner and my friends and Kathy’s girlfriends depart.
I return to reading an article by Jim HIghtower critiquing the labor and business practices of Amazon.com. I do a lot of business with the online octopus. Out of necessity and a sense of survival, my books are for sale there in print and Kindle formats. And, because of the costs of printing, shipping, and procurement in the book business are so high, my backlist (older) titles are now printed by Amazon’s digital printing service, Create Space (CS). It’s not a decision I entered into lightly, feeding the beast, the online predator that has gobbled up hundreds of independent bookstores and an entire bookstore chain (Border’s) over the past decade. But a writer wants his or her words to be available and frankly, in the current marketplace of ideas, it makes, as my accountant friend Burce would say, “business sense” to print through CS. As I read Hightower’s words and a companion piece by The Reader, where local business owners are interviewed about the impact of Amazon on main street America, I find my stomach churning and my resolve fading.
Maybe I shouldn’t be feeding the beast.
I say goodnight to the young lady manning the store and wander off to dinner. I have a lively time conversing with the McCarty’s and their friends. The ladies buy me dinner because, as one of them says, “you’re entertaining”. I leave Randy the Amazon piece because I know he and Kathy (who works for Village Books) are interested in the travails of the book publishing world.
“You shouldn’t use Expedia,” the clerk at the hotel says as I switch my $94 room, the one I lined up on Expedia, a room which turned out to be a smoking room (didn’t know they existed in mostly smoke-free Minnesota) for a $134 non-smoking suite. “They don’t always tell you whether a room is smoking or not. Better to book directly with us.”
I nod and head towards sleep, chastised for the second time that evening for using an online merchant to bypass main street America.
The photo isn’t as clear as I’d like but if you look closely at the picture, you can see the eagle’s nest that caused me to stop on Highway 2 just outside of Cass Lake. My blue Pacifica purrs and gurgles while pulp trucks, campers, and Harleys roar past. I stare at the empty nest and consider why I am alone, on a beautiful Saturday morning, headed to Park Rapids. The photos taken, my lament cured, I put the old van in drive and head to the next bookstore.
Jen, the young lady in charge of Beagle’s Books and Bindery, and her mother, Sally, greet me as I walk into the cheerful store crammed to the ceiling with new and used books.
“You’re a bit early,” Sally says. “I was just going to clear a table and get you set up.
I decide to take a walk. It’s nearly eighty degrees outside and the sky is full to the brim with sun. I follow a sidewalk. Downtown Park Rapids is alive. Cars are crammed into every parking space due to a variety of events. The commercial section of the county seat of Hubbard County is dominated by the spire of a restored movie theater anchoring a host of vibrant, locally owned shops and restaurants. I see a woman struggling with a box loaded with T shirts and hoodies trying to open the door to the town’s armory. I step in and hold the door for her.
“Mark, what are you doing here?”
The struggling young woman is Heidi Holtan, program manager of KAXE radio in Grand Rapids and former host of “Real Good Words”, a radio show that once featured interviews with writers known and unknown. Randy McCarty told me that Heidi was in Park Rapids to host the Great Northern Radio Show, a locally produced effort that mimics a Prairie Home Companion. I explain I’m in town signing books. Heidi invites me in to meet Aaron Brown, another Minnesota author (Overburden) who I’ve exchanged emails with but never met. Turns out Aaron, who is co-hosting the event with Heidi, went to college with my oldest son Matt. Small world. The pair invite me to stay for the show but as much as I’d love to stay, I explain my wife is waiting patiently for me back in Duluth.
Settled in behind a table stacked with copies of Sukulaiset, Jen and I discuss the Hightower article. I sense she isn’t too happy to hear that the author she is hosting is using CS to print his older titles.
Bad form to promote such thinking while a guest at an independent bookstore.
In the end we reach a place of mutual understanding if not consensus. I sell some books to Hubbard County residents and leave signed copies of Sukulaiset for Beagle’s shelves.
The ride home across a country filled with lakes large and small, and across the Father of Waters, is uneventful. I arrive home, empty the van of my duffle and my books and walk into the house to give me wife a well deserved kiss.
Fresh off the presses, the latest issue of the New World Finn newspaper has a review of my latest book, Sukulaiset: The Kindred, written by Finnish American, historian, and former director of the Seaway Port Authority, Davis Helberg. You can find the complete review in the October/November issue at p. 11. But here’s a sampling of what Davis thought of the book:
As he did in Suomalaiset, Munger not only provides illuminating historical background, he also brings us into the minds and hearts of the central characters. And that cast of characters is compelling, to say the least…(W)e also get page turning tension as the book’s protagonists endure incredible hardship or tangle with inner demons or fall in (or out of) love or discover their own surprising strengths and weaknesses…Munger, who is not of Finnish ancestry, does a masterful job of capturing the essence of the Finnish character. It is also quite clear that he invested prodigious research into Finnish and Estonian history…
A preeminent contemporary writer, E.L. Doctorow, might just as well have been describing Munger’s latest book when he said, “The historian can tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.”
That’s what I was aiming to do, folks, try to tell you what the turmoil and tension of Karelian Fever and the horrific nightmare of WW II felt like to ordinary Finns and Estonians. At least one person thinks I succeeded.
OK. The title to this blog is a bit of a misnomer. When one thinks of endless summer visions of June’s greening, July’s shimmering, and August’s oppressive sweltering come to mind. Well, that’s not quite what this summer has been up here in the Northland. We had an intolerably wet spring and early summer, the June rains and lack of light making our vegetable garden a whisper of what it could have or should have been. And July and August? Hardly ideal for growing edible things. Our carrots, potatoes, onions, raspberries, Russian berries, green beans and now, the sweet corn have done tolerably well. But the cucumbers, squash and pumpkins? Puny to non-existent. But for some reason, the late start to the growing season and the continued moderation of summer here along the banks of the Cloquet River has been a boon, an absolute godsend, to my wife’s flower gardens.
Beyond wheeling away an occasional load of debris from my wife’s constant weeding and tinkering in her flowery realms, I don’t contribute much in the way of labor to her efforts to beautify our place. Early on I helped a bit by moving rocks and topsoil. And whenever Rene’ hauls pea rock or landscaping materials home in her car, I help her unload. But to say that I’ve assisted Rene’ with the flower gardens would be to stretch the truth: the gardens and their ponds are my wife’s love and her creation. I’ve been mostly a bystander and naysayer bemoaning the fact that Rene’s gardens grow larger over time.
“I thought you were going to downsize” is a phrase I’ve muttered more than once as my wife sat on her plastic garden stool, pulling offending weeds, piling vegetative debris on my cleanly mown lawn.
Two summers ago, I contributed some actual labor to my wife’s beautification effort. When we moved into the new house, there were no shrubs or bushes of any kind surrounding our place at the top of a small rise located smack dab in the middle of a hay field. Rene’ went to work adding the flower gardens, her ponds, various shade trees, and an extensive rose garden. Over the years, the roses grew out of control until they became an ugly, angry mass of stalks and thorns. At my wife’s behest, I spent the better part of a weekend dismantling the landscape stones surrounding the rose garden so a local contractor could come in with a bobcat and dig out the offending plants. Then, again at my wife’s urging, I helped revise the plot into a line of shrubs surrounded by the same landscape stones. But beyond this singular effort, I haven’t had much to do with the flower gardens that surround our home with color during the height of summer.
Last July, a Japanese lilac gracing our front yard attracted hundreds of swallowtails to its flowers. The branches of the tall bush were crowded with fluttering yellow butterflies bent on sucking nectar
from the plant’s blossoms. But, despite this year’s endless summer, the plethora of swallowtails didn’t return this year. Oh, I spotted the occasional stray yellow butterfly flying around the place
but the great invasion of 2013 was not repeated. Also noticeably absent have been our bluebirds. For the past fifteen years, two pair of these colorful members of the thrush family have called wooden bird houses affixed to fence posts surrounding our vegetable garden their home. The birds were here, along with tree swallows (who also help themselves to our bird houses) in May. But the weather did them in. When I rebuilt the fence surrounding the vegetable garden earlier this summer, I found a clutch of abandoned bluebird eggs inside one of the birdhouses. I haven’t seen a bluebird or a swallow around the place since June. I’m unsure if the presence of flowers in Rene’s gardens into September makes up for the loss of the birds.
It’s 5:00am on a Wednesday. I’m sitting at the family computer, staring at early morning’s inky blackness, listening to rain patter against the steel siding of our house, as I type this piece. Every so often the wind-driven rain thrashes the windows of my writing space. There’s an end-of-the-summer sound to the storm. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it feels as if Rene’s flowers are about to fade.
The West Wing: The Complete Series (2006. Warner Brothers DVD)
All summer. My wife Rene’ and I spent all summer with President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his constantly evolving staff. 154 episodes spanning the years 1999-2006. A popular culture time capsule of American political thought as seen from the left of center. From the opening sequences of the pilot, where the POTUS (President of the United States) slams into a tree riding a bicycle, to the ending show, when another man is sworn in to replace Jed in the White House, this was and is one amazing television series. Watching it serially, without commercial interruption, is a rich viewing experience, a reminder of just how good some of our best network television can be.
According to IMDB, the independent gatekeeper for all things media, only four actors graced every episode of the series:
Allison Janney, who played White House Press Secretary (and later Chief of Staff) C.J. Cregg;
John Spencer, who played the original Chief of Staff and Bartlet’s right hand man, Leo McGarry*;
Bradley Whitford, who played Deputy Chief of Staff and chief politico, Josh Lyman (and who ends up running Matt Santos’s campaign for president); and
Martin Sheen, who played former New Hampshire Governor and President Bartlet.
Other actors you might recognize who had major roles over the course of the series include Stockard Channing, Alan Alda, Jimmy Smits, Richard Schiff, Dule’ Hill, Mark Harmon, John Amos, and Rob Lowe. From top to bottom, the acting, directing, and screenwriting of virtually every episode of this titanic effort, led by screenwriters including Aaron Sorkin, Lawrence O’Donnell and Bradley Whitford, with technical assistance from former Clinton staffer Dee Dee Myers, is very simply the best you will see in a network series. Regardless of your political affiliation, the players in this series, from the every day household staff to the folks who play the secret service agents, bring it home every episode, whether the topic is domestic or international. The President’s failure to disclose his MS. A near assassination attempt. Terrorist acts, foreign and domestic. They are all intricate panels in the tapestry of a fictional presidency brought to life against the backdrop of Islamist Jihad and 9/11. Sheen simply is the president: no other actor could have played the part with such grace, nuance, style, and honesty. He is the core of the troupe and sets an example of excellence which compels those around him to elevate their games.
The candidacy of Democratic Congressman Matt Santos for the presidency takes up a good deal of the last two years of the series. Santos, played by Jimmy Smits (of NYPD Blue fame), is a forty-something Hispanic father, husband, and FDR Liberal from Texas. His electoral foe is Arnold Vinick, a middle-of-the road, pro-choice Republican battling not only Santos but the right wing of his own party. Played admirably by Alan Alda, the aging, weary Vinick seems a not-so-subtle symbol for the present-day GOP. In a splendidly realistic turn, Smits and Alda were asked to do an entire hour show live, as if their debate before a national television audience was the real deal. It is one of the highlights of the seven seasons of the show. To see two great actors go toe to toe in front a live audience in one take, well, that’s simply a remarkable piece of film that should be studied by television directors and actors for years to come.
Rene’ and I were saddened when our time with the Bartlets and the other characters in this fine dramatic series came to an end. Given the atmosphere in our politics and the trend to air quality dramatic shows on cable channels, it’s doubtful anything like West Wing will ever air on commercial television again.
5 stars out of 5.
* The McGarry character suffered a heart attack during season six and that’s what prompted the Cregg character to be elevated to Chief of Staff. In real life, actor John Spencer had a fatal heart attack during the show’s final season, life mimicking art in a tragic way. The nature of how the series dealt with the passing of Leo McGarry was both nuanced and caring, displaying the obvious love the other actors had for their fallen comrade. If you want to see Spencer at his best on the big screen, check out his role in Presumed Innocent with Harrison Ford.
Another summer shot to hell. Another season of lament.
Sounds like the opening line to a depressing folk song. What put me in such a black mood? Well, it’s the fact that I’ve failed to keep my summertime agenda. So far, I haven’t plopped a canoe into the black water of the Cloquet River. Not a once. I’ve fished the local lakes by boat and motor one time. One time. I’ve taken a boat out sightseeing twice. Once on Island Lake, once on Fish.Three trips on the water over the entire summer. Pathetic.
Where the hell did the time go?
It’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting playing hooky from church on a windy end-of-summer-day (the weather forecast calls for a 65% chance of a thunderstorm by tonight and a wet morning to put a damper on Labor Day). I’m thinking about what I could have accomplished this summer.
A canoe trip to the BWCA.
A better, more vibrant vegetable garden (should have dumped in manure like Rene’ suggested).
A long road trip to Yosemite (never been) or Yellowstone (haven’t been since I was 6 years old) or some other such place.
Construction projects that need doing around the house.
Trail clearing and cutting.
More bike rides, more walks in the woods, more quality time with Jack and Rene’.
The list goes on and on and on as Dylan’s Planet Waves plays softly over the computer behind these words.
That’s another thing undone, uncompleted. I was going to transfer more of my vinyl, including the new Trampled By Turtles (bought vinyl as an ambitious bow to the past), into digital. Got three or four albums done and then the effort petered out.
The great writer Tony Hillerman (he passed away in 2008) penned a memoir entitled Seldom Disappointed. I’ve often thought that, when and if I write a memoir, the working title should be Always Disappointed. But that title is such utter bullshit, my wife, kids, friends, and other family would slap me upside the head if I ever deigned to pen such a piece of selfish crap. I know I’m a blessed man. I’ve lived a wonderful, wonderful life. I know this when I see my grandson, A.J., and he lights up as he shrieks “Grandpa.” I know this whenever my four sons are together and I can appreciate what fine young men they’ve become. I know this even before my beautiful and pragmatic wife says, “lighten up.” So enough with the dirge already. Seasons come and seasons go. I’ll never be able, no matter how I try, to manipulate every thought in my head into action. Things will be left undone. Trips will be left untaken. Stories will be left untold. But the life I’m living is damned blessed. This I know.
If you look really, really close at the photo to the left, you’ll see two cranes strutting across our pasture. The sandhills know that change is coming. They can feel it in the early morning dew and the late evening air. They can hear it in the chatter of drying leaves. They can sense it in the shifting wind. I wonder: Have these graceful birds left any tasks for tomorrow? Have they missed out on any amusement they were looking forward to? I doubt it.
I should be more optimistic. For the first time since we’ve had blueberry bushes in our garden, I actually picked more than a handful to eat. It’s true birds found the ripe berries before I did. Still, there were enough berries left behind for me to have a week’s worth of cereal and fresh blueberries. That treat alone should have been enough to declare summer a success. But remember the title of my faux memoir. I am not a man easily satisfied. Give me a quart of fresh berries, I’ll ask, “Why can’t I have a gallon?” Wrong, you say? No question. A controllable personality quirk? I’m working on it.
Other pluses for the garden have been the Russian berries, the red raspberries, the green beans, the onions, the carrots, the potatoes, and the tomatoes. The photo to the left shows the first of the tomatoes Rene’ will conjure into her famous spaghetti sauce and salsa. There will be more. Not as many as last year. But enough. And that’s a definite plus. A positive.
Thinking my pre-autumnal malaise through, I believe there’s an age component to my steely resistance to appreciating what’s right in front of my eyes. Very soon, I’ll be entering my seventh decade of life. I don’t want to cross over that threshold with trepidation or alarm or regret. I want my next decade of life to be exciting and educational and full of family and friends and new adventures and experiences. To get there, I need to figure out a better way to curb my inclination to expect perfection from others, from the world, from the seasons of the year, but mostly from myself. Maybe the spur-of-the-moment trip Rene’ and I took yesterday is the beginning of my attempt to break free of an unsustainable pattern.
On a whim, we jumped in the car and motored off to St. Paul to take in the Minnesota State Fair. Usually, I plan such excursions months in advance. Yesterday, we simply woke up, took our showers, got dressed, and headed out. Sort of a prelude, a practice session to being empty-nesters. That’s a transition that’s some years away, what with Jack still in high school. But it’s coming. And maybe, just maybe, what we did yesterday, what I did yesterday, is a sample of how things might be if only I let go a bit.
Parking was a bitch because we arrived in St. Paul after 1:00pm on the busiest day at the fair. There were a few tense moments, a few untoward comments between us, until I found a place on a side street and parked my wife’s Rogue.
“I’ll walk back after we’re done and get the car. You can wait by the entrance. I’ll pick you up.”
My wife (who suffered a horrific ankle fracture a few years’ back) isn’t up for walking long distances on pavement. Just ambling around the fair for a few hours would tax the metal-and screw-reinforced joint. I didn’t think of it at the time but my not insisting on Rene’s limping back to the car was a bow, a recognition, that things don’t always have to be done according to the Gospel of Mark. Adaptability: That’s what I need to somehow acquire in my toolbox of attributes. Maybe I took a step towards that goal yesterday.
With our late arrival to the fair, we missed seeing our sons (Matt, Chris, and Jack), our daughter-in-law Lisa, Lisa’s mother Judy, Chris’s significant other, Rachel, and our beloved grandson, AJ. We also missed completing my annual checklist of booths and exhibits that are “Mark must sees”: the DNR display, the livestock barns, and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion live broadcast from the grandstand. We did manage visits to some of our usual suspects: the tractor vendors, the screenhouse builders, the pole building contractors, the travel trailer lots, and the boat and motor outlets. But these were minor distractions. The locations we failed to visit are at the very essence of why I love the fair. And yet, substituting the quilting exhibit, the art exhibit, and the 4H building for the main attractions was more than satisfying. I could have stayed in the art building, studying the talents of Minnesotans working in pen, pencil, clay, metal, paint, and wood for days.
It was pitch dark when we pulled into the Adolph General Store in Hermantown. I listened to Springsteen’s The Rising while Rene’ went into the store to buy fresh pork chops, burger, and a roast. It’s true that the album has moments of regret and angst. But in the end, The Boss included lyrics of hope and redemption in the composition. Sitting in the car, in the dark, the title song drifting over me, I had this thought:
Maybe there’s hope for an old man to learn a new way of appreciating the world and the folks who grace it.
I read with interest the three part series profiling former Hibbing tennis star, California prosecutor, and renowned author, Vincent Bugliosi, that recently appeared in the Duluth News Tribune. My first reaction to the series was Wow, journalism is once again alive and well in NE Minnesota! My second reaction was Maybe I can add a little something to the story.
Understand: I am not a personal friend of Mr. Bugliosi’s. I have only met the man once, back in the mid-1990s, when he appeared as a guest speaker at a lawyers’ gathering I was attending. Prior to giving his speech, he’d taken up the gauntlet to litigate the case against Lee Harvey Oswald (as the alleged lone gunman who assassinated President Kennedy). In a mock trial tried before an actual jury, Vincent functioned as the prosecutor and noted criminal defense attorney, Gerry Spence, defended Oswald. Mr. Bugliosi related during his talk that, in addition to participating in the trial (which ended in a conviction of Oswald and resulted in a British television documentary) he was heavily involved in combing the Warren Report and other historical evidence with an eye towards writing the definitive book decrying the conspiracy theories behind the President’s murder. I was enthralled by his dedication to task and research. As a fiction writer, I wanted to meet the man.
At the time, Vincent was hawking his latest book, And the Sea Will Tell, a true crime story that chronicled his defense of an alleged accomplice to the brutal murder of a wealthy couple by an envious drifter (the guy wanted a new yacht and saw homicide as the best means to acquire it) on the remote Pacific island of Palmyra. After Mr. Bugliosi concluded his remarks, I walked up, bought a signed copy of the book, and chatted, ever-so-briefly with the author about my writerly aspirations. The man couldn’t have been more gracious, more encouraging, more kind. Having become a published author (albeit in the minor leagues) since that encounter, I’ve had many folks approach me to talk about writing and publishing. I’ve learned that it’s not an easy task to ground would-be authors in reality, but, at the same time, encourage their aspirations. Vincent accomplished this dual task during our brief interaction: He emboldened me to keep fingers to keyboard. And so I did.
When my first novel, The Legacy, was ready to be published by Savage Press, Mike Savage asked if there were any folks of note who might review my book and supply complimentary cover blurbs. I thought of Senator Paul Wellstone, former Vice President Walter Mondale, Boston author Barry Reed (author of the great legal novel, The Verdict, who I’d also met at a lawyers’ function), MPR commentator Mary VanEvera, and Vincent Bugliosi. I sent review copies of the novel to all five requesting that they read the book and supply blurbs if they thought the effort worthy. I received prompt, favorable responses from the first four individuals but I didn’t hear back from Mr. Bugliosi.
He hated the book.
That’s how authors, even established authors, think. There’s always a seed of doubt lingering behind a writer’s effort. I was convinced that, despite recounting our brief connection at his speech in my cover letter, Vincent was either too busy to read The Legacy, or, like so many literary agents, read the first paragraph and tossed the book in the slush pile for recycling. Then, just before the book to be printed, a delicately scripted envelope from California found its way into my rural mailbox.
As a native of northern Minnesota, I was intrigued by Judge Munger’s captivating depiction of the links between the present and the past. Part historical novel, part contemporary thriller, The Legacy is a very impressive first novel, which readers of this genre will enjoy immensely. Vincent Bugliosi.
Unlike the other folks I’d contacted (who sent blurbs typewritten and vetted by personal assistants) Vincent’s response was written in ink and elegant cursive, the sort of reply you’d expect to receive from a luminary from a long-past era. The man who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson, one of the most famous attorneys of 20th century America, hadn’t written me off: He was just being deliberate and thoughtful before responding to my brazen request.
I’ll cherish that handwritten letter and accolade from Vincent Bugliosi no matter the course my fiction writing takes.
(This piece, edited by Chuck Frederick, originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune)