Sunday, April 29, 2018

the world has only one corn palace, and it’s in mitchell, south dakota

corn palace
A farmer in his fields, made of corn, in downtown Mitchell, South Dakota.

If you’re ever driving Interstate 90, going east or west, it matters not, get off in Mitchell, South Dakota (pop. 15,254), and wind through town to the Corn Palace. If you are at all like me, you will love it.

mitchell south dakota
The World’s Only Corn Palace.

Even though I had perused pretty thoroughly the website for the World’s Only Corn Palace and knew to expect large murals made with ears of corn nailed to the outside of a building, I had little idea, really, what murals made of corn might look like.

mitchell south dakota
South side corn murals.

I knew that by showing up on a Sunday, I would not be able to go inside the Corn Palace, which is an arena where some lucky folks get to play basketball, attend graduation ceremonies, dance at the prom, stuff like that. Others can simply visit during normal business hours (which are everyday during the right season but just Monday through Saturday otherwise) and mosey around looking at exhibits and displays, gaining insight into the work that goes into making these murals of corn, a new set, a new theme, every year since 1892. Except for that drought year, 2007. No new corn, no new murals. But otherwise … imagine. 1892.

mitchell south dakota
A corn mural.

But a blizzard had delayed the start of our trip by two days, so it was early on a Sunday morning fresh with spring air and a bright sun that Josie and I wandered around outside the Corn Palace. We had the streets and sidewalks and corn murals pretty much all to ourselves. We got lucky with the Corn Palace’s 2017 theme of South Dakota Weather. I love weather, and I loved the corny snowman, the summer flowers, the spring tornado; honestly, I loved it all.

mitchell south dakota
Summer flowers made of corn and native grasses.

A few birds were there loving it too, pecking at the seed and the corn, mostly pigeons, but maybe not as many birds as you’d think, and I wonder why not. Maybe if I had gotten inside (so if not for the blizzard, which hit South Dakota, closing I-90, before slamming the Upper Peninsula), I would have learned about that. How these corn murals survive the birds and the squirrels and the blizzards and hot sun.

mitchell south dakota
A tornado of corn.

Also, who started this? I mean, back in 1892, who said hey, let’s make a mural with this here corn. Two guys who wanted to start a corn palace to promote South Dakota corn and everyone just went along with it, thought it was just kooky enough to work or maybe genius? And how has it kept going, year after year, through all kinds of weather and economic times and this president, that president, this war, that war, technology, and still, hey, let’s make some murals with this here corn! Not to mention the native grasses. I think I’ll have to find me a book with some history.

mitchell south dakota
Tornado close-up.

According to the Corn Palace website, the murals start coming down “in late May with the removal of the rye and dock. The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.” None of this happens without a big festival in August.

mitchell south dakota
Corny snowman.

I wonder what this year’s theme will be.

mitchell south dakota
The winter corn mural, complete with a snowball fight.

Could it possibly be as much fun as the weather?

mitchell south dakota
Throwing a snowball made of corn through a mural of corn.

With this post we begin a series on a recent road trip Josie and I took. It encompassed eight days, two thousand four hundred and seventy miles, four motels, one tiny cabin, and some of the most interesting art I have ever seen, most of it free and much of it—surprisingly—in the form of statues. Next week, on to the National Presidential Wax Museum!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

once upon a time, a road trip

In the summer of 1986, a friend and I drove from California to Chicago via the northern route. We saw some sky.

A train.


Various animals.

We even saw some presidents.

We shopped for souvenirs. I bought beaded belts.

My dog, Dandy, enjoyed the view from the car’s rear window.

He waded in the Mississippi River. (Or was this the Missouri?)

He even did a little driving!

Which was a good thing, because in Wisconsin we came across the World’s Largest Six Pack.

And after that, I needed to put my feet up for a while.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

‘we need to be disillusioned’

Baseball and blizzards. A sure sign of spring.

Then there’s the tulip poking up like a groundhog’s snout in a sheltered, sunny spot. Beheaded by a deer. A shaggy, winter-hungry deer.

Signs of spring used to be forsythia in bloom. Sweet-smelling, yellow-soaked. And daffodils and tulips, green lawns, unfurling trees, jackets flung aside, birdsong, feet itching to go bare.

Four hundred miles north no matter the number of years, I must remind myself it might be summer before spring even gets mentioned as having passed by unnoticed.

No fairy tale spring here. No sir.

Of course soon, come May or June, it is likely we will notice wheels spinning in mud, bodies dotted with ticks, our veil of black flies. There’s your spring. Steadfast, predictable. Provides continuity.

And one day the trees will bud and the horizon rich with color, about to burst, held momentarily, a long pause, the conductor raising her arms, musicians poised and posed, bows held a breath above string and breaths ready to blow; ready, ready, quiet, please, and the peepers begin softly peeping and yellow spikes of maple flowers. Underfoot trout lilies and Dutchman breeches gently pushing aside heavy mats of fall, the slush of winter, soft, and a slow pace developing, patience unfolding, and the river already rising with snow, flowing strong, surging, moving along, and Josie continues to run across hard-set snow, a desiccated landscape, barren trees advertising nest, abandoned. Open, wide open. And Josie reels with the alarm and promise of hidden spring.

A cold wind blows.

I read “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography” by Kathleen Norris. It feels instructive, somewhat mesmerizing, hypnotic, engulfing, desolate and full. I feel I understand it, this: For some, the less there is, the more there is. Even though that must be learned.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

madame tussaud on/in jeopardy: entrepreneurship & legacy, horror, verisimilitude

The category is “Entrepreneurs” and the answer is:
After keeping the family business going through a bloody revolution, she emigrated to England at age 41 with her 4-year-old son leaving behind an infant son, her husband, her mother, and the business. She began the family business anew with a traveling exhibition that had her and a growing entourage on the road for more than 30 years before settling into an exhibition hall on Baker Street in London where she continued to run the business until her death in 1850 at age 90, at which time her sons took over. Now, in the 21st century, her namesake international company is worth near a half-billion dollars.
But that’s much too long. Let’s try again.
She kept a Paris-based family business going through the French Revolution and its aftermath, then emigrated to England in 1802 to expand a business that today has been valued at more than $400 million.
Yes, that’s better. But still too long. One more time.
Her success waxed and waned, but around the world iconic horror movies and museums pay homage to her work and name.

Who was Madame Tussaud? And what exactly did she do? First off, she was an artist and a businessperson. Specifically, she was a sculptor, a wax artist, a historian, a costumer, a set designer, a bookkeeper, a cashier, a greeter, a publicist, a survivor of war, a survivor of a shipwreck, an immigrant, a story-teller, a show master, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, the matriarch of a family business. Although she lived in a time and place where the owning of property by women was deemed unlawful, she practiced her art, she ran a business, and she left a legacy that has endured centuries.

Madame Tussaud, nee Marie Grosholtz, lived a hard, fascinating life from which she created—seemed determined to create—this legacy of waxworks and all that goes with it. All of which I am still sorting through. Beyond the museums which bear her name are all the other houses of wax, all the other chambers of horrors, all the other waxen presidents and kings and the artists who create them and outfit them and maintain them. All the people who go to see them. That some of these places are woefully freakish, well, I believe Madame Tussaud would have been appalled by that. She wished to entertain, to educate, to present current events and history as accurately as possible; she also aspired to be among the upper crust in society, to be accepted and respected among the loftier while affording entertainment for all.

I cannot remember the last time I was in a wax museum or if I ever was, but, like most things, I am sure they vary in quality. By all accounts, they did in Madame Tussaud’s day. Her exhibits were thought to be of the highest quality and, as we say today, family-friendly. (Some waxworks displayed anatomical figures, ostensibly for educational purposes, often in separate rooms designated for men only. Today, the House of Wax in the Bronx in New York, a fairly new establishment mixing “mixology with the macabre,” exhibits some of these same figures and, by virtue of being a bar, keeps it adults only.) At Madame Tussaud’s, the wax figures and their clothing were cleaned, mended, even their hair washed, on a regular schedule. The museum offered music, oil paintings, relics, a cafe, and an extensive descriptive catalog. Patrons were allowed to stroll freely among the figures and exhibits. The Chamber of Horrors, presenting notorious murderers, was contained in a separate room. In the 1876 catalog, the individual descriptions of the Chambers’ members is preceded in part by this disclaimer:
“HE IS A SHALLOW CRITIC,” pithily remarks the “Daily Telegraph” in its leading article (March 20, 1868), on the Todmorden murder, “WHO WONDERS AT THE PUBLIC INTEREST IN GREAT CRIMES, AND FINDS FAULT WITH IT.”
At the time the most recent addition to the Chamber was Mary Anna Cotton. Her description reads:
The series of cold-blooded murders for which this wretch was hanged on the morning of Monday, March 24th, 1873, are crimes against which no punishment in history can atone for. The child she rocked on her knee to-day was poisoned to-morrow. Most of her murders were committed for petty gains; and she killed off husbands and children with the unconcern of a farm-girl killing poultry. The story of her crimes is still fresh in the public mind.
Today public interest regarding Cotton and her crimes can be satisfied—or peaked—by watching PBS’ “Dark Angel” starring Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbey” fame.

Every horror flick, mystery novel and detective story set within a waxworks owes a debt of gratitude to Madame Tussaud, even though she never took the “horror” of it quite so far, perhaps because she lived the actual horrors of the French Revolution. She was, in many ways, aspiring to be more of a PBS Masterpiece than a Hollywood B-movie. Nevertheless, she perpetuated the persisting perplexity of who we are as people and played on our propensity to perceive illusion as reality and vice versa. This week, as a cold and gloomy wind spiked with snow raged outside, I stayed in and watched whatever movies and shows I could find that were set in a waxworks. Every one of them was a murder mystery or horror show that played on this shift of illusion and reality. As a wax artist and proprietress of a wax museum in an episode of Canada’s “The Great Detective” put it:
Verisimilitude. That is everything in wax … I use wax to imitate life. He uses life to imitate wax.
One day I was surprised while watching a video by a young man who shares on YouTube his experiences visiting wax museums. Watching his bits can be entertaining, but I don’t think I’ll watch anymore. While visiting a museum in St. Louis, he pans his camera across displays occasionally gasping in disbelief, muttering, and identifying what we are seeing, such as a tableau of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He calls the display “horrifying” sounding, as he often does, like a child peeking out from under the bedcovers looking for monsters. He tells us much too often how he is about to poop in his pants—it is all so scary. Soon after Snow White his camera sweeps across a woman in black, seated, a head in her lap, and the head has no body. It seems as if the woman is about to caress the head even as she stares straight ahead, unblinking, unmoving, frozen in time. Our tour guide says “oh my god” and as the camera sweeps past we see more heads on a shelf. In a heartbeat, though, we move on to Michael Jordan and past him, our moment with Madame Tussaud in the wax museum gone in a blink of the eye.

Did this self-proclaimed wax house aficionado not recognize Madame Tussaud and the historic event being signified? Even worse, did he recognize her but think her inconsequential? Not worthy of a mention? Or, on the other extreme, did he think we would all know this person with the head in her lap? Just another Madame Tussaud making death masks during the Terror … He swept by Michael Jordan, too, without comment. Maybe he did not recognize Michael Jordan? Thought his likeness inconsequential? Or—reality—is this guy just in it for the visceral thrill of it all? The kicks? The horror? The YouTube comments and the poop in the pants?

I can’t help but wonder. If Madame Tussaud were an answer on Jeopardy, who would know the question?

According to, Madame Tussaud appeared on Jeopardy in the form of this answer worth $500 on show #3552 in the category “Time to ‘D’ecide.” And the answer is:
Madame Tussaud’s could tell you it’s a wax or plaster cast of a mold taken from a nonliving face

Sunday, April 1, 2018

setting shadows free: camaraderie: scraps of march

Walking with Josie

flipping shadows

the trail got icy,
began flipping me.

The thrill, then, of being the coldest in the land.

From Tom Skilling’s weather page, Chicago Tribune digital edition, March 25, 2018.

And the thrill, too, of a stop along a track,
familiar, long gone by.
I stop.
It helps to keep me going.

I get on the track, join a March ramble.
A bit of Madness indeed.
Welcome young men, Welcome old nun, Welcome ye hobos and legends. Please tell me your stories and play me your tunes and bring me along in your revelry. Yes bring me along in your revelry.
Life is a poem
I heard a poet say.

Then one afternoon
the temperature soaring
it’s 52 degrees and sunny.

And the next afternoon
“Play Ball!”
reverberates o’er the land. (my land, your land)

The following afternoon
a first robin of spring
hopping across the yard.

And then
         and then the snow began.

         and yet the pig did bloom.

Rise up, they say, defeat or victory.
Rise up, young or old.
we seek your stories
for silence speaks
but too softly
can it be heard?
And one day Josie and I
will go walking

& the world will flip
by and by