My Favorites

March 15, 2017

Determining What I Favor

Revised 3 July 2017

In the 2016 holiday season’s exchange of letters, one family covered the year’s passing by every family member listing their favorites in a series of categories. This is clever and interesting, I thought, as I began to read the choices made by two parents and their three children. Novel and fresh this approach may be; however, at once none of it made sense to me. Possibly due to the divide of generations and their interests, their choices were outside my range of knowledge and attention.

Why was that? What would I say when taking the same approach?

Time to explore where I am.

SONG: First off, music plays a very large part in my life. Though I cannot perform in any medium except when I sing in a group, at church being the best example. I know dozens, if not more than a hundred hymns by heart. I sing best when endeavoring to blend with the true tones around me. Still, my major role remains being the audience, an attentive listener. I never missed a vocal or instrumental performance when in high school, listened to popular music on WDGY when young, and fell in with the music crowd when at St. Olaf. Though I am fond of a wide range of music, I prefer the classical repertoire that began with attention to WCAL (the St. Olaf radio station) when young. I spent part of my newspaper route earnings on a classical subscription club that supplied 331/3 rpm recordings.

When in my 50s, someone asked me to name my favorite song. I was taken aback: I had to think for about a minute because, for the first time, I realized I had no favorite. First off, what did the questioner mean by “song?” Something with words that is sung, I supposed. Songs, part of the music in my life, could hardly be ranked: either I liked them or did not. Because I enjoy a wide array of composers – J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and others at the top careening with one another – how could I distinguish a favorite? What function would a favorite have? The idea of a favorite seemed exclusionary to me.

Perhaps if the question asked, “What piece of music captured you this past year?” I could answer: “Bach’s Resurexit from the B Minor Mass,” or “Gounod’s Missa Solemnelle,” or “Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration,” or “Orff’s Carmina Burana” – musics happening to me in the past that I cannot get over. These are just a few examples among more than many.

Likely my inability to fill in the song slot is that in general, I have separated myself from popular music since the days when MTV went sour. Get the Knack (1979) is the last lp I listened to repeatedly. I fail to find any attraction in Minnesotans Bob Dylan (boring and unmusical) or Prince (better left to the young).

MOVIE: The first film I saw that made a huge impression on me was The Search (1948). Then there was Quo Vadis (1951), followed by Member of the Wedding (1952), The 5,000 Fingers of Doctor T (1953), and Desk Set (1957). I definitely have my favorites among films and can even more easily rank them based on how well they fulfill my expectations for captivating interest, positive value, execution, and most importantly flow, by which I mean the pace and necessity of each scene in sequence. The movies that I favor the most are those that have impact on me and that I never tire of watching repeatedly.

For movies, it is easier to link them to a year than is the case for songs or music.

In 2015, the films I liked the best were Bridge of Spies and Woman in Gold. Though both films have great merit, Bridge is better done because of the strength of the central characters – the spy and his attorney – and because of the strong drama of the importance of the unpopular spy case and its coincident relationship to the exchange of political prisoners.

In 2016, the films I liked most have been Sully and Arrival. Bridge and Sully link due to the major role of Tom Hanks in both, a wide ranging and excellent actor. Bridge attracts me because it is mostly a story carried out by committed characters and their carefully considered words though the historical background is argumentative, if not contentious. Arrival won my admiration because it features a character of few words whose role is one of memory and breakthrough thinking in the midst of what is popularly considered an alien invasion. In actuality, it is the fourteen receiving countries who in the undertow of the story become alienated from one another, quite a lesson to learn in a hostile election year. Arrival caught me so strongly, I had to buy a copy of Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories that includes “The Story of Your Life,” source of the screenplay. His story differs from the film in being internal and full of theory.

TV SHOW: Sorry, but I am very limited here. Basically, I quit watching most commercial television when CBS news went from an hour to 30 minutes or fewer. For some years, I still watched 60 Minutes, but I don’t do that anymore either. The last long serial, I watched was Mary Hartman/Mary Hartmann (1976-1977) which had its bizarre attractions. But when it ended, I decided that was enough addictive watching. Over the years since, several series have come and gone without me witnessing a single episode. Another separation from television watching is that when Pat had cancer more than a decade ago, we started watching Netflix by disc. We continue to do so with something like 1400 movies watched. This habit became our chief way of catching up with new releases plus watching older and foreign offerings.

I confess: we are addicted to Game of Thrones. That is to say, we have become followers of the dwindling Stark family, who have shrunk in number but increased in strength. I never cared much for George R. R. Martin or his writing which in the 1970s had too much razzle-dazzle for me. I was already gone on Le Guin at that time anyway. Otherwise we turn to Turner Classic Movies for what we think we’d like or watch public television being fond of Morse, Lewis, Vera, Masterpiece Theater, Masterpiece Classic, and most especially and necessarily the news hour. Alongside, we spend a lot of hours listening to Minnesota Public Radio’s news and broadcasts of classics.

BOOK: Anyone who knows me knows that I am addicted to books and reading. Besides that, my strongest desire is to author a book that entirely satisfies me. I find myself indebted to books for my present and continued state of learning which concomitantly includes understanding oneself to the extent I have so far achieved. Certainly, books have surrounded me since birth thanks to the parents being readers and reading to me. I have been associated with books as their fan, as a professional librarian, and as an aspiring learner and writer.

I appreciate books for what they convey through the artistic and/or formative worth of expressed words. With so many thousands of new books each year, I favor the ones that cover in one way or another the varied fields of knowledge, especially those of philosophical, theoretical, or values-oriented approaches. Such books are worth long-time use and worth reading more than once. Unfortunately, I manage to reread few of them among the 6,000 plus that I have.

Of books read in 2015, the one that means the most to me is Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites: a memoir (2013). Though a slow starter, I appreciated in a most welcoming fashion Lively’s reflections on aging and the effective values of words, literature, and books.

In 2016, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia (2016) includes all her works related to the imagined middle-European country of Orsinia. The bulk of this Library of America (series #281) consists of two sizeable works, Orsinian Tales (1976) and Malafrena (1979) besides a few other additions. With Le Guin, my favorite imaginative author, reading her is not so much the deep stories told as much as it is her ingenuity of writing in ways that catch the emotions, ideas, and appreciation of artistry as very few authors have achieved. She has become my consistent favorite.

In writing to my friend of almost 45 years – Cy Chauvin –  I raved to him concerning the strong influence that Le Guin has on me. In our end of the year exchange of books, he sent to me Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter (2016). In her collection of “writings about life and books,” covering publications of essays, articles, and book reviews from 2000 into 2016, she explores the territory of language and the conveyance of telling and relating to story. At nearly 90 years, she is wonderfully alive and wise in her writing. She says on the book jacket, “Hard times are coming … We’ll need writers who can remember freedom.”

GAME: I don’t play games unless you count making up genealogies as a game.

THINGS DONE: Since relocating in Maplewood in early 2011 after 35 years in Red Wing, we have been heavily involved in our usual roster of causes and preferences. These include chauffeuring our younger grandchildren around and attending their performances in theater, music and dance. We also support the programs of Pilgrim Lutheran Church which currently involve serving on the Leadership Team for supporting a refugee family in 2017. Otherwise, I continue being the administrator for Classics for Pilgrim, the monthly discussion of mostly novels, published between 1800 and 50 years past. We are now in our sixth season.

I have regular routines. I do a fair amount of writing or the background work to writing – the necessary work towards novel construction and completion. In our eleventh year, Beverly Voldseth and I meet monthly to read aloud the poems in Poetry and talk about them. I bicycle when the weather favors me. I have longish telephone conversations with Robert Hanson, my friend from third grade onwards, and we meet about 2-3 times a year, especially when he has some poetry or other writing needing editing.

Mary Treacy and I email frequently, and get together for coffee when we can or really need to talk. I correspond with a few other people, but especially with my siblings in a round robin email letter. That’s about once a month.

One measure of this year is the net gain of 165 titles in my library. Also I added about 8,000 individuals in 3,000 marriages to my background genealogies furnishing The Company of Seidor and other related novels.

Another achievement of importance was the trip of a lifetime, May in Norway and the Baltic ports, which I report in a separate article.