Saturday, January 9, 2016


During the Christmas holiday, daughter Anna had a nice, unobtrusive way of taking occasional candid photos of the goings-on. I like this one of me, for a couple of reasons. (One Facebook friend remarked that it would make a good jigsaw puzzle!) But, while taking a second look, it occurred to me that the picture presents a different, rather modern puzzle, which could be titled, “What is he doing?”

It’s not difficult to see that I am holding and looking at my iPhone (ah, the tell-tale Apple logo accomplishes its intended purpose). But what am I doing? This Amazing Techno-Age which we’ve entered allows a surprising number of equally probable guesses, any of which could explain this very photo. I could be:

  •      Reading a book on my Kindle app.
  •      Reading St. Luke’s Christmas story from my Olive Tree Bible app.
  •      Pondering the New York Times crossword on my NY Times Crossword app.
  •      Reading the New York Times.
  •      Pondering my next move in my ongoing Scrabble game with a friend.
  •      Looking up a word on my Oxford English Dictionary app. (Not that I would ever do so to cheat at Scrabble….)
  •      Reading an article from The Guardian in my Safari “Save For Later” feature.
  •      Reading The Atlantic magazine.
  •      Reading the Minneapolis StarTribune.
  •      Catching up on my e-mail.
  •      Checking the recipe I’m using for tonight’s dinner.
  •      Checking the lectionary texts for preaching this coming Sunday.
  •      Looking at the calendar I share with Caryl.
  •      Looking at an incoming phone call to decide if I should answer.
  •      Reading a clever text message from brother-in-law Jeff.
  •      Drifting off, after doing any of the above.

For most of the choices above, if I knew how to do it, I could photo-shop an appropriate image to substitute for the iPhone in my hand (book, Bible, magazine, crossword book, etc.), and the game would be over; in fact, there’d be no game. We wouldn’t be asking, “What’s he doing?” But, since the question remains, we are left to wonder not only what it is I might be doing, but what effect such a protean device has on our minds, our lives, and our relationships.

At one level, the smartphone is just another functional delivery system, giving us access to all of the media, information, and entertainment listed above (and you could probably double the list)—with the added convenience of not having to move across the room to a bookshelf, game table, dictionary stand, or mailbox.

But, on another level, if we are honest, I think we find something off-putting about scenes like this. If we are honest, is not our first impression that the subject (me) is rather wrapped up in himself, oblivious to anyone else who might be in the room, and—if in fact there are others in the room—rude? This photo at least allows for such a reaction in a way that a picture of me reading a book or working a folded-paper crossword puzzle would not.

I don’t have a clear answer to the difference between finding an innocent explanation (he’s reading the Bible), or an offended one (put down the phone, jerk!), but it must have something to do with the mystery of the device—since we don’t know what he’s doing, we’re shut out, and left to assume the worst. This is similar to what social-science experiments have found to explain why an overheard cell-phone conversation in a restaurant or airport lounge is so irritating: In addition to the volume of the speaker (often), we are psychologically off-balance because we only hear one side of the conversation—we’re left hanging.

I make it a practice not to be bent over my iPhone in the presence of our grandkids, but on the rare occasions when I am, I have taken to letting them know that I’m reading the newspaper or a book. And, while I still use the Kindle app for convenience at times (in the doctor’s waiting room, for example), I have gone back to actual books for my general reading, primarily because when Sam and Violet see me reading a book, I want them to see me reading a book, and not staring at a screen. (Plus—I love the books!) In her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” author Sherry Turkle makes the obvious but important point that the most significant element in our kids’ relationship to these devices is what they see demonstrated by the adults in their lives.

So, what am I doing in Anna’s photo? I am on the Apple Music app, searching for—and about to play—a beautiful song about friendship which Jeff sent me from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s new album. And Anna played some of her songs for me. (We were the only two in the room.) It was a lovely time.

As to photo-shopping: Don’t you think that if I could replace the iPhone in my picture with a floppy leather Bible, it could become a new classic--like that portrait of the old man praying over his supper? I’m going to order up the jigsaw puzzle version. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Yesterday, Caryl asked if I could start staining the trim on the new windows in the front entry. I replied that I’d get to it soon, but first I needed to finish a paragraph I was struggling with in my blog. As soon as I said this and headed toward my desk, I started smiling—laughing a bit at myself, really—as two seemingly-unrelated vignettes formed in my head in rapid succession. In the first, my dialogue with Caryl turned into an Arlo ‘N’ Janis cartoon. The last two panels went something like this: Janis: “And how many readers do you have for this blog?” Arlo: “Uhhh, can I count you?...”

The second vignette: Years ago, after I had been in my new parish for a few weeks, I made my first pastoral call on Rollie (not his real name), who had been in the nursing home for a number of years. Rollie had been an accomplished musician, and, as he sat on his bedside chair, he described with glowing eyes and gracefully moving hands the oratorio he was working on. (“Then the trumpets come in…” etc.). After a few minutes, he paused, and with a bemused look on his face said, “But I’m stuck, pastor. I want to use the word ‘alleluia’ in my oratorio, and I think Mr. Handel has that copyrighted.” That sounds like a punchline out of another cartoon, but Rollie was dead serious. So I sobered my smile a little and assured him that anyone was free to use the word “alleluia,” and that he wouldn’t get into trouble. He seemed a bit relieved, but the next time I visited him, he told me about his oratorio and said, “But I’m stuck, Pastor….” He was still worried about the copyright. It became clear to me that Rollie’s oratorio was the product not only of his musical aptitude, but also of his growing dementia.

What stands out in my memory—more than the cloud that came over him when he fretted about “alleluia”—was the way Rollie’s eyes glowed (in that house of dulled eyes) as he was describing the glories of his oratorio. I could almost hear those trumpets.

The hapless Arlo often reminds me of myself, with Janis (Caryl) listening to my latest scheme before leveling me with a comment that is both smart and loving.

But I also identify with Rollie. I am (I hope) a bit more fully into my right mind than he was when I visited him, but, still, this little blog project is sort of my oratorio. And if the day should come when I slip a little, I hope my eyes shine like Rollie’s when I explain to the visiting pastor, “I’m just finishing a paragraph that I’ve been struggling with in my blog!” A really sensitive pastor will tell me that he’s one of my readers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


The Mall O', adding another hotel wing.
One of the surrealities of these modern times is that the Mall of America, forty miles from our home in Faribault, is an international tourist destination. Folks in Germany and Japan and France buy airline tickets and arrange vacation trips to Bloomington, Minnesota, to devote—I suppose—a number of days to explore all that the Mall has to offer.

It is expected that a certain sector of society—namely, the American husband—will disdain the Mall experience, but I kind of enjoy it, in the same spirit that I enjoy going to the state fair (and only at about that frequency); it throbs with a kind of fun energy. (Partly because of all those people from Germany and Japan and France.) So, although my appraisal comes with the caveat footnoted below,* I am not writing to deride or denigrate the Mall O’, but to offer something better—including a better tourist experience for our international travelers. And for you.

Northfield, Minnesota is a mere fifteen miles from where we live. It is forty-five minutes for the big-city dwellers of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and—for those jet-setters—is just as accessible (with an additional twenty minutes or so) to the International Airport as is the afore-mentioned Mall. Caryl and I love our home and our life in Faribault (a town with an interesting history and vitality of its own), but these days our hearts belong in Northfield, because that’s where Beret and her Joel and their kids—our grandkids Sam and Violet—live.**

Truth be told, I write this not to lure the Germans or the Japanese, but to sing the siren song of Northfield to those of you who live within driving or occasional visiting distance, and, more to the point, just to lift up what I like about the place.

Northfield is a college town, with two of the nation’s finest: the beautiful campuses of St. Olaf and Carleton. (Beret and Joel are St. Olaf grads.) These two anchors lend the town both an air of stability and an ever-youthful buzz. The downtown sits in a river valley between the two campus hills. It is this downtown that I initially set out to write about.  (I know this is already sounding too much like a Chamber of Commerce puff piece, but I’ve only just begun….)

Four representative establishments of this little burg worthy of a visit:

The Rare Pair is already (without my help) a shopping destination for folks from all over the area—and for parents and alums who are dropping off college kids or returning for the Christmas Festival or a concert. It offers the perfect blend of the latest hipster threads and a more traditional stylishness. The RP clientele is probably 80% women, but there’s a good men’s section that has both of those categories, too. 

I'm not sure if my Stormy Kromer cap, from
the Rare Pair, is hipster or traditional
Beret works at the Rare Pair. I used to tell people to “look for the beautiful blond,” until I realized that she was one of many. (And—only in Northfield—for a while she was one of two “Berets” in the store.) Everyone at the Rare Pair is friendly and welcoming and helpful—no matter what their hair color.

Goodbye Blue Monday is the Platonic ideal of a coffee house. Décor (what décor?), selection, vibe, efficient but friendly baristas. (Oh, and the almond croissants!) I have read that to get the best espresso you have to go to Italy. Well, I went to Italy this summer, and I came back to Goodbye Blue Monday (okay, I was coming back anyway). I found nothing better in Italy (in fact, a lot of push-button machine espresso drinks).  GBM does it by hand and produces a consistently excellent cup. Some of the baristas even know how to do that picture thing on top of the perfectly formed crema.

The Tavern Restaurant. Built into the ancient stone walls of the lower level of the historic Archer House Hotel. Always full of happy diners; always friendly. It has become—for Caryl and me—our “local.”

But le Coeur de ville of downtown Northfield is Content Bookstore. It is for me both an oasis and a reprieve. A reprieve because, as I have confessed elsewhere, the last bookstore left Faribault as I was happily clicking away on Amazon. But no more. For a variety of reasons, I now use Amazon for research or as a last resort. The most important reason is that I simply want this bookstore to stay here—to be here for me. For us. This means I have undergone an attitude adjustment: Instead of clicking on Amazon, I email my friends at Content and inquire, “Can you order for me….” Instead of looking
Content sells books both new and used.
impatiently at my watch, drumming my fingers and expecting the Amazon serf/elves to deliver an order to my doorstep in the next ten minutes, I am happy to pick up my books during our next trip to Northfield (see “Grandkids,” “Blue Monday,” and “Tavern,” above). I fantasize that—in my relationship with the bookstore—I will develop the same quirky correspondence and lasting mutual affection as that between book-seeker Anne Bancroft and bookseller Anthony Hopkins in “84 Charing Cross Road.” (I guess that puts me in the role of Anne Bancroft; I hope my Content friends find me as charming.)

(By the way, if I’m looking for a special sauté pan or paring knife, I buy it or order it from The Measuring Cup kitchen store—right next door to Content Books. A few more bucks (than Amazon), a bit of a wait, and another excuse for a latte across the street at Blue Monday! Attitude adjustment.)

Since this is not, in fact, a Chamber of Commerce piece, I am not going to list every last business in Northfield, but we appreciate many more: The Ole Store Restaurant, Tandem Bagels, the Contented Cow pub, Grundy’s hamburgers at The Reub (or is it The Reub hamburgers at Grundy’s?)….

And I am not completely discounting those international tourists. They really oughta come to Northfield. When Caryl and I visited England, we had a wonderful time in London, but what gave heart and soul to our experience were places like Wath-in-Nidderdale and Chipping Norton and Woodstock and Padderdale. Not to mention Madderdale. And, in the same vein, we discovered that our English hosts were interested in the wild American west. What better place for them to visit than Northfield, whose doughty citizens and shopkeepers defeated Jesse James and his gang in 1876.***

In a stroll of a mere two-and-a-half blocks, a visitor can walk from The Tavern, to Blue Monday, to Content Bookstore, to the Rare Pair--and end up at the very bank doors out of which the James Gang ran for their lives.

Then back up the street to the Tavern Lounge. (Did I mention that there’s a bar above the restaurant? Just off the Archer House lobby.)
I’ll meet you there after you pick up your bookstore order.
*I don't want to inject politics into this homey post on Americana, but I was dismayed at the ham-handed way the Mall responded to the recent "Black Lives Matter" demonstration. I agree with the defendants' lawyers that the Mall ought to be considered a public square.

**Just as our hearts are also tugged toward Boston/Quincy, Massachusetts, where our Anna lives. Another place in which we love spending time. We're looking forward to a visit in three weeks.

***The captured members of the James-Younger Gang were jailed and tried in Faribault, the county seat. I like to tell my Northfield friends that this means that Faribault really defeated the gang, but they don't buy it.

Northfield has developed a beautiful walkway along the
Cannon River. Here it is set up for the annual Market Fair.

NOTE: I think of this blog as part of a conversation. I realize that the "Comment" section of this site is unwieldy, but I invite you to try it. For the time being, the only alternative is to share your responses to this essay on Facebook, either to my Timeline, or as a private Facebook "Message." (I actually prefer email, but the trolls make it difficult for me to post my address here.) I value your part of the conversation.