Quote of the Hour

“Crows are bored. They suffer from being too intelligent for their station in life. Respectable evolutionary success is simply not, for these brainy and complex birds, enough. They are dissatisfied with the narrow goals and horizons of that tired old Darwinian struggle. On the lookout for a new challenge. Keep that in mind next time you run into a crow. Look the bird in the eye. Consider its frustrations. Try to say something stimulating.”

–David Quammen, Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature


It’s been a quandary for some time. New York City chose to deal with it by charging you $25. Here in St. Paul and Minneapolis, you’re going to get punched instead.

The quandary is that our local publishers and booksellers would like more people to attend author readings and they’re hoping that an added incentive will do the trick: attend a literary event (they’re free) and receive a punch on your literary card. Actually buy the author’s book, get a second punch. When the card is full, receive a $15 bookstore gift certificate.

The Literary Punch Card Launch was held Wednesday night at Club Jäger in Minneapolis and it’s where I picked up my card. Plus I got my first punch just for showing up.

But you can pick up your free punch card at independent bookstores around town. For more information and for a calendar of author events, see http://www.litpunch.com/

My sincerest thanks to the folks who sponsor this card: Coffee House Press, Common Good Books, Graywolf, The Loft, Metro Magazine, Magers and Quinn, Micawber’s, Milkweed Editions, Rain Taxi, and the U of MN bookstore.

So the Loft, the publishers, and the booksellers are doing their part for our literary community. What can you and I do to keep this community alive and kicking?

● Bring non-writer friends to reading events. Bring your co-workers, drag Grandma and Grandpa out of the casino, grab a neighbor, anyone! Seriously. Bring them with you. Never underestimate the power of numbers and your presence in an audience.

● Talk about reading, writing, and books daily. We all put up with sports and weather, so talk literature. Marinate in the stuff. Read and eat so much poetry that you got it all over your chin and it’s running down your shirt. Leave chunks of it on the floor for the janitor to find.

● Be a champion for writers. Offer to help your recently published friends hold readings at bookstores, coffee shops, and libraries. Write book reviews. Get on Facebook and let everyone know about a wonderful piece you read online, or a great new book by an emerging writer. Email writers whose work you admire and tell them.

● And of course, buy books and literary magazines. For yourself. For others.

We all have something to offer our literary community. Get involved and you’ll appreciate it when it’s your turn at the microphone.

Song of the Sauna

I have only been in a sauna twice before, both times suspicious of their authenticity—the fiberglass rocks that needed to be plugged in were a big clue. But I’m in Finland where taking a sauna is an art form. This is my chance to do it right.

After shedding my clothes, I open the sauna door and startle the naked woman lying across the lower bench. I shut the door behind me and apologize for the interruption. She lies down again. In the low light I climb to the top bench with all the poise I can muster, and stretch myself out long and languorously, as if I sauna often. But as soon as I close my eyes, I feel the heat lay on top of me and hold me down. I try not to panic. Besides, there’s a cold plunge pool waiting for me down the hallway when I’m through.

I try to relax. The woman on the bottom bench exhales. Usually I would be scrambling over myself to talk to someone from another country but I am jet lagged and too hot.  I wonder how long she has been in this sauna. For no reason at all, I decide she knows twenty-four languages and that her English is better than mine. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to blink. If I said anything now, it would only come out as drool.

I look at the clock. I’ve been in here exactly ninety seconds and I want to get out but my competitive nature, normally reserved for men, absurdly kicks in and I am determined to stay until she leaves first.

Two minutes later, she stands up thank God and I do mean GOD, but she doesn’t leave.

“May I increase the heat a little?” she asks in a sultry voice, gesturing toward the water bucket. Her blond hair, wild from sweat, makes her look like a Nordic Medusa.

Despite the fact it’s hotter than I can stand it already, I urge her on as if the place were feeling drafty.  “Oh yes please,” I say. “Absolutely.” This, I am certain, is the crucial rule of the sauna: always say yes to more heat. It can never be too hot. To say no would be like sending a drink back for being too strong.

She snatches the ladle and douses the rocks with two big scoops of water, causing a flair-up like an out-of-control grease fire at the St. Clair Broiler. I turn my head away in anticipation of the coming heat. The wave of it breaks over me—my face, my breasts, my hips, and settles at my feet.

“That is better, don’t you think?” she asks.

Trying not to pass out, I agree.

“You are American,” she confirms, settling herself back on her bench.


So now, me staying in here longer than she does is not only a matter of personal pride, but one of patriotism. The United States, known for its unwavering fortitude, is relying on me to maintain this reputation. I cannot let my country down. It’s my duty to ignore the feeling that I’m lying in a house fire.

I decide other things about the Nordic woman. I decide she is a musician of orchestra stature. A first chair violinist. She and I have zilch in common, but maybe her Scandinavian relatives and my Moravian forefathers do. Nothing comes to mind though, except the Black Plague and goat cheese. It’s been exactly four minutes. Not only are the sweaty toxins running out of my pores, so is my resolve.

I try to imagine the healing powers of the sauna. I try to think poetic thoughts, I try to form stirring odes to people I love or once loved, but I can’t. My brain is rising like a Bundt cake and I can only think of the people in my life who made me cry: my high school math teacher, my freshman year roommate, the gate agent who left me stranded in Frankfurt for three days, the guy who tried to tow my car in 1998. Bastards, every one of them.

Another minute passes. I can’t stand it in here any more. I smell the cedar wood, I taste the sweat on my lips, I feel it roll down my jaw and along my neck. I can hear my heart begging me to be reasonable and quit this foolishness. And when the heart speaks, a person ought to listen.

I think of the cold plunge pool, a six-by-six sea of salvation, and I get up. The Nordic Medusa wins. The U.S. will have to reign glorious without me. I fly out of there, run down the hall, and jump in the pool. The cold water is deep. I’ve been slapped awake like a newborn. There is no greater reminder that I am alive, and that’s what matters.