The Great God Pan is (never) Dead

An ancient story tells of a couple of fishermen on the Ionian Sea. The wind suddenly drops, the air thickens, and their boat sits in odd stillness all day long. Finally, toward evening, an omnipotent voice calls out to them: “The great god Pan is dead!”

From the hills and the streams, from little valleys, temples, and holy groves, from mountain pastures, and ferny cliffs, there rises a cry of lament, a vast wave of wailing and weeping, anguish and keening. It echoes across the land. Pan is gone.

After this day, the oracles no longer prophesy accurately. The old gods and goddesses of the classical world, nymphs of sacred sites, fauns and satyrs, the centaurs and all the other wild beasts fall silent. The Lord of the Wood is dead, and the new god’s domain is not of this earth, but of heaven. Spread by the followers of Christ.

A statue of Pan in my garden

A statue of Pan in my garden

Pan’s features included the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. With his uncertain parentage, he was the god of the wild, of shepherds and their flocks, nature, overgrown mountains, and the dark. He was connected to fertility, the season of spring, and romantic imagination. He lived in that untamed zone of forest and rock, always just beyond the village boundary. Despite Pan’s affection for beautiful nymphs, his greatest passion was for Selene, a lunar deity.

All the greats new Pan–Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Whitman. And so did all the 19th-century American landscape painters, especially those belonging to the Hudson River School–Cole, Durand, Church, and Kensett. They were eager to tell the world, Pan isn’t dead. He just moved to America!

Have you ever gone past the city limits to that place, a remote brambly hillside say, near rushing water, stood there in wonder until it hit you, the breathless sense that something lovely and terrifying could happen? That’s Pan.

Let’s pledge together, you and I, this spring, to find Pan. In our yards let’s grow more trees, bushes, vines, ferns, and flowers. Let’s NEVER mow the grass, and then, on some moonlit night, we’ll bushwhack thirty or forty feet into the holy thicket and call to him. We won’t worry because we know he will appear.

Sidewalks: Where Poetic Champions Compose

April–National Poetry Month–is just around the corner and Saint Paul wants your poetry.

For the past few years, the city has been open to poetry submissions with the intent of impressing them into wet cement whenever they repair a stretch of sidewalk. The idea was conceived by Marcus Young, Saint Paul’s Artist-in-Residence since 2006, and whose projects lean toward the collective. Projects that many can participate in and projects everyone can enjoy the results of. Here are a few poems from previous years already set in the sidewalks near my house:

If you have a poem or two in you, if you’re feeling generous, and if you want your words set in cement for posterity, check out Saint Paul Sidewalk Poetry Contest. You must be a Saint Paul resident to submit your work. This year’s deadline is April 13, 2012.  I hope to see your words at my feet.

Minnesota Book Awards Readers’ Choice Event

Last Friday The Loft was packed with people listening to 16 of the 32 Minnesota Book Award finalists as they presented their work.

Writers had five minutes to either read from their books or in some other way, tell about the work. While most read from their introductions or first chapters, some explained how they arrived at their titles, while others gave the so-called elevator pitch–short and succinct. For example, Kevin Fenton, the author of Merit Badges, describes his book as Virginia Woolf’s The Waves meets That 70’s Show.

Brett Laidlaw, author of the cookbook, Recipes from a Northern Forager explained how his book evolved from a blog he keeps. And no, he did not stand up there and proceed to read recipes, though he did promise us that his book had pictures of bacon in it.

Other notables were Su Smallen, whose poem from Buddha, Proof, about Buddha and a Barbie doll was nothing less than delightful, Nancy Loewen’s, The Last Day of Kindergarten had everyone up on their feet, and my brother-in-crime, Richard A. Thompson read a chilling grave-digging scene from, Big Wheat. Lori Sturdevant and George Pillsbury seemed to impress everyone with their enthusiasm for Minnesota history in their collaboration, The Pillsburys of Minnesota.

George Pillsbury and Lori Sturdevant

In fact, all the authors were genuinely enthusiastic about their work. The diversity of writers and their writing is impressive. An accurate title also goes a long way as in Bronson Lemer’s, The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq. It also helps I think to have cool writer names like Bronson Lemer, Kurtis Scaletta, author of The Tanglewood Terror, and Ed Bok Lee, author of the poetry collection, Whorled.

For a complete list of finalists, please see

Be part of selecting the winner of the Readers’ Choice Award by voting online for your favorite finalist book by March 31st:

On April 14, the 24th annual Minnesota Book Awards gala will take place in Saint Paul. Winners of the eight book category awards and the Readers’ Choice Award will be announced, and presentations will be made to the winners of the Book Artist Award, the Kay Sexton Award, and the Hognander Minnesota History Award.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

For my brother, Mike, on his birthday:

When I say I wish you were here I do not mean it in the non-sincere sense that often exists with correspondence on the internet. I wish means not only do I hope that you will come back to Minnesota, I wish means we are in this world together and let us wish together for the success of the risk we take at being alive.

Happy Birthday, Mike.



Sisters in Crime Get Unsexy Perspective on Medical Examiner’s Work

When it comes to reading a good mystery, nothing is more exasperating than being pulled out of the story’s spell by an author’s inaccurate detail, which is why mystery writers like to get it right.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, MD would like writers to get it right, too. His presentation–complete with graphic images of human remains–at the Twin Cities’ Sisters in Crime meeting on Tuesday gave over three dozen members a chance to learn autopsy goals and procedures, and a chance to ask specific questions about medical examiner work that will give crime writing authenticity.

Andrew Baker, Hennepin County Medical Examiner

The first thing Dr. Baker wanted to clarify is that despite what television may have us believe, a medical examiner’s job is anything but sexy. Once bodies start decomposing, they begin to look the same. Bloated. Gray. Green. The skin kind of slips off, making the victim kind of unidentifiable. And therein lies the single most important piece of evidence needed to solve any crime: the identity of the victim.

Dr. Baker ascertains identity through a variety of ways: personal effects, dental records, x-rays, fingerprints, and TV’s favorite, DNA. Although he says, “unlike the medical examiners on television, I cannot tell what kind of car they drove or how they voted in the last election.” Yes, it is clear Dr. Baker does not think highly of the unscientific, godlike skills medical examiners receive on TV.

When determining cause of death, the external examination of the body is crucial to the medical examiner. He pays close attention to pattern injury. Patterns of bruises that reveal what kind of weapon may have been used: a baseball bat or looped extension cord for example. Every once in awhile a body with bite marks comes through. You find a body with bite marks, you know the death was up close and personal. Seat belt marks due to a fatal car crash are helpful to insurance companies as well as car manufacturers.

While listening to the hour-long presentation, it is also clear that Dr. Baker knows his stuff. He’s calm, complete, prepared, and articulate. He said he has to be thorough for families, the law, public health, and in case he needs to testify in court. The first time he was cross-examined by an attorney, he said he felt like this:

That feeling has since gone away. Dr. Baker’s past assignments include identifying victims in the 9/11 Pentagon attack, Hurricane Katrina, and the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

It was a terrific, informative presentation for crime writers, and Dr. Andrew’s patience with our questions remains much appreciated.

For more county medical examiner information, see

A big round of applause also goes out to Erin Hart, Sisters in Crime President, for orchestrating this event. The Twin Cities’ chapter of Sisters in Crime meets the first Tuesday of every month at Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis unless otherwise noted. All–including brothers–are welcome: readers, writers, librarians, bookstore owners, and publishers. For more information or to become a member, please visit the SINC website:

Poem of the Hour


by Geoffrey Chaucer

FLY from the press, and dwell with soothfastness;

Suffice unto thy good, though it be small,
For hoard hath hate, and climbing tickleness ;

Preise hath envie, and weal is blent o’er all.

Savor no more than thee behoven shall,
Rede well thy self that other folk can’st rede,
And Truth thee shalt deliver ’tis no drede.

That thee is sent receive in buxomness :
The wrestling of this world, asketh a fall.

Here is no home, here is but wilderness.
Forth, pilgrim, forth on, best out of thy stall;
Look up on high, and thank the God of all!

Weivith thy lust, and let thy ghost thee lead,

And Truth thee shalt deliver ’tis no drede.

It was a Dark and Sleepless Night

I roll over and look at the clock. The neon-green digits stand like property tax assessors at the door. 2:44. I wish I hadn’t looked. I’m wide awake and suffering through my third head cold of the season. I’ve taken enough medication to give myself a two-digit IQ and no feeling in my feet. I look at my husband next to me sleeping in childlike repose, sleeping deeply. Who will without a doubt, sleep until his alarm goes off hours from now.

I listen to a siren in the distance. I listen to the furnace running. I listen to the cat jump off the end of the bed, scratch itself at the collar, and then proceed to lick the cord of the humidifier.  I go to the bathroom. When I come back, the cat–a vague and  dark circular shape–has taken my spot, laying claim to the warmth I gave it.

We share. I turn on my lamp and grab the book I’ve been reading since November ’09: Moby-Dick. Yeah, I know. It’s taking me longer to read it than it took Melville to write it. Still, the book is a classic for many reasons and every page I turn seems to embody some message that’s eternally applicable. Take these lines for example, which Melville specifically wrote for me:

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

I might as well get up and work on my novel. The thing isn’t going to write itself is it now. I make coffee in the dark and, while it’s brewing, I look at the urban sky through the windows.  I look at the silhouettes of the trees, the houses, the shops. I look at the cars lined in the street, full of winter crust. I haven’t washed my own car in weeks. I should have while the weather was warmer of course. Now it’s too cold. Now I might as well drive the thing into some woods and let the deer use it as a salt lick.

At last, the coffee is done and my unfinished novel waiting. For all those writers awake with me here in the dark, I’ll leave you with another fine and heartening quote by Melville:

“But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”