Monday, November 29, 1999

Traveling Man

For those of you who have not had the luck to travel with me (sign up now!), one thing that is becoming more and more clear is that the trips I take are never uneventful. I'm not sure if that's because my advancing old age has just naturally led to more "eccentric" moments, or if I truly am a magnet for misadventure.

Last Monday I drove my signed out state car, a shiny silver 1998 Ford Taurus, all the way up to Fergus Falls to hear our constantly moving Governor address the House Governmental Operations and Veterans Affair Committee. The auditorium was full of personality gazers ready to let out a whoop on whether or not the state should adopt an unicameral legislature. I won't say much about the hearing itself other than the atmosphere around Mr. Ventura as he entered the Fergus Falls Middle School was akin to that surrounding a rock star. There was a certifiable buzz in the air, as the young crowd members positively oozed excitement from merely being in the same room as their Jesse.

I must say the drive to Fergus Falls is one long mother of a drive. I kinda missed having my beat up little Honda Civic, but didn't exactly want to put any more miles on it than I had to. Plus the damn Taurus (that only seemed as if it was twice as wide as my Civic) didn't have a tape or CD player. I brought with me my boom box but had inadvertently left my "A" collection of tapes in my own car. Thus I was forced to grab a handful of tapes that I had no idea the content. Turned out all right if listening to "Wolverton Mountain," "Afternoon Delight," and "Puff the Magic Dragon" (still makes me cry every time I hear it- it's bad enough Jackie Paper and Puff's friendship ended but Jackie just abandoned the woebegone dragon for Pete's sake) is your idea of all right.

I got to sunny Fergus around three in the afternoon and checked into the Super 8 right off the freeway (you know the one with a potholed plagued parking lot). The check in lady was Super 8 nice and as I found my room the stress of the drive definitely dissipated. I went back to my car to get my stuff, all the while being quite paranoid that I had my room key as to not lock myself out. (The check in lady seemed so impressed by me when I said I worked for the House, "You a member?" she asked... tee hee) I grabbed my suitcase from my car, made sure the vehicle was locked (wouldn't want to be stranded with no wheels in Fergus!) and headed back to my room. Again I made sure I had my room key in my pocket. I continued feeling my pockets (not a habitual quirk of mine trust me) only to notice a distinct absence of my car keys. I quickly wheeled around, looked inside the thoroughly locked car and saw the keys sitting quite serenely on the back seat. Gulp.

Luckily I'm a member of AAA so I called them and they were quite kind (both the person who took my call and the actual tow truck guys that opened up the car in no time flat). They didn't at all make me feel like the fool I actually was. And with that turn of events I figured the rough part of my trip was now behind me. Au contraire mon ami.

After the hearing was over I looked at the gas gauge and saw I would need some gas to make it back to St. Paul. I pulled into the Holiday station (suitably ironically named with the dread this season is bringing) I got out of that silver Taurus that earlier had the audacity of locking me out in the vast middle of nowhere. I turned on the pump and noticed the gas tank was on the other side of the car and the hose didn't reach. Darn the luck. I sheepishly got back in the car and turned it around all the while hoping the clerk didn't wonder what in the hell I was doing. I got back out and noticed for some inexplicable reason the tank was still on the opposite side of the gas pump. I ain't no physics genius but I was too tired to try and figure out how that happened. I got in the car and turned it around once more. Once again the gas pump and the gas tank didn't correspond. I gave it one more effort and this time I was able to fill the tank.

I was due at work the next day for a 9:30 meeting that I knew I'd never make but still I diligently hit the road at precisely 7:00 a.m. I, as I often do while traveling, was measuring time and my progress by the number of tapes I played along the way. As I hit the lovely town of Alexandria I gauged my progress and thought, "Damn, I'm making good time here..." No sooner than I was thinking I could stop and enjoy a rare breakfast when I had to slam on the old brakes. What had been unusually balmy conditions when I left Fergus (no frost on my car windows! None of that dreaded scraping!) quickly turned into swirling snow and quickly icing roads. Right as I hit Albertville things came to a complete standstill. I was right in the middle of the largest parking lot in the state as we awaited a turned over semi to be removed from the traffic grid.

By the time I finally reached my often under appreciated lil' home I was thinking that this end of the world unseasonable weather has ill equipped me to face the inevitable winter (of our discontent?). I don't want to brave the elements no more, and I don't find any of the past comfort of being a hearty midwesterner sufficient. Conditions these days are too slick, too messy and I just want to take it easy for a while.

Monday, November 22, 1999


A friend told me during a phone conversation last Friday, and follow up email, that the day was the last in our life time that would be comprised completely of odd numbered digits (1-1-1-9-1-9-9-9). With that anomaly came a shared whispered promise that it would be the last odd day we would ever have to endure. (I suspect this means there will be no more occurrences of such things like Bob Dylan appearances on Dharma and Greg.) Talk about odd. Recently after spending an afternoon racing around our northwestern suburbs desperately trying to find a church I didn't have the address of or name to, I arrived barely in time for an important service just as we were walking candles down the aisle. Afterward my brother-in-law asked me how my new job was going. I told him it felt so strange to finally have a job where I'm doing what I always wanted to be doing, that actually incorporates what I got my college degree for. It feels completely foreign to have to go into work and do something I actually enjoy doing. What a concept. He smiled and acknowledged that he understood. That an unexpected source showed such appreciation was a small moment that made the difficult but bearable day memorable.

Indeed last week as I stood in the middle of an abandoned Minneapolis flour mill looking at empty beer bottles and walls painted with gang graffiti, staring at the girl with soccer field eyes, I certainly hoped our odd days are finally behind us. Amongst the rubble and ruin I found a shiny nickel. I felt like a blessed man. I have often wished that we could measure how rich we are in life by the amount of nickels we have. I like nickels.

I used my new nickel to go toward some art supplies necessary to begin my second major painting project this year. The first was slapping a fresh coat of taupe on to my reluctantly scraped and primed garage. Besides that home improvement project historically this next stab at painting is my second attempt at actual artwork. My first try came back in 1993 as I attempted an oil paint portrait of Max. This new project is an effort to usurp angelic beauty defined and reconnect a part of me that I hope is still there. One of the subjects of the painting asked if it meant having to come over and model. I told her, no this is an attempt to get what's inside across, not outside down. No small task especially considering my limited artistic ability and my decision to work in a completely new medium- water colors. Heck I may as well try and do this thing left-handed. I'm more Claude Rains than Claude Monet after all. I can't imagine I can possibly get the shapes and images right but at the very least I hope I can capture some of the color that my mind constantly sees and appreciates.

I'm looking forward to this project. It is an attempt to force myself to see, think, and feel in a manner that doesn't come naturally. Each inch of the canvass has to be planned. Each stroke of the brush carefully controlled. The end result isn't as important as the process itself. The project will occupy a lot of my time and hopefully will make the holiday season pass on by quickly. We all need our stress relievers- and I think my usual outlets are in need of some reinforcement. Much as writing, banging away at my piano, and going out to shoot hoops blows away the troubles of the moment, it will be nice to come home and do something different. I don't like to repeat myself but I'm quite proud of my portrait of Max. I was so afraid it would turn out looking cartoonish but I don't think it did. And you can actually tell it's a cat I painted. Pomposity admitted, the lesson I learned from my first painting was the difference between a painting and a photograph. It may seemingly be an obvious difference but to me it was a refreshing lesson that had been somehow overlooked and taken for granted. Facts may be facts (and faxed) but creativity adds needed perspective.

Oddly enough, the last time I found a painted nickel was a somehow connected moment when I was in a similar state of mind. It was when we first opened up our Cheapo in Uptown. It was a big step for our company, coming right after our first name change to "Applause." It was right before the Uptown Art Fair and I had just gotten my head shaved. I looked good, damn good, though I think a tad frightening or out of the ordinary. ("Strike another match go start anew...") My task for the day was to stand outside our store and hand out fliers with a big bold "Applause" title on top notifying the area patrons of our store. Several people took our leaflet, glanced at it and threw it away just feet away from where I stood. Others walked by me refusing to take what I thrust at them. One kindly old lady, forever etched in my mind, smiled at me as she took the piece of paper from me. She quickly glanced at it and said to her companion, "Apple sauce, I like apple sauce." I can't possibly express how much that made me smile on a hot and weary day.

Yes indeed this painting will at the very least show that I see a contrast between windows and mirrors. One you see through and one reflects. Both are made from the same material and are necessary in our lives. Both show you things you sometimes need to know, sometimes don't need to know, sometimes want to see, sometimes don't want to see. Inside out outside looking in. That's what this painting is about.

Monday, November 15, 1999

Rainy Day Fatalist 12 & 35 (Fr... ...ers for M-)

It was either Johann Sebastian Bach, composer, or Fred Kueffer, geometry teacher, that taught me all of life is about mathematics. Thus I probably shouldn't have felt as bad as I did last week when I had the temerity of reducing Lou Gehrig to another mere number, killing him in this publication from a disease he did not have (MS vs. ALS) years after he died. There probably is a reason the man has his own disease named after him after all.

I read recently if we could shrink the earth's population to a village of 100 people, with all the human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following: there would be 57 Asians, 21 Europeans, 14 from the Western Hemisphere both north and south, and 8 Africans. 52 would be female, 48 would be male, 70 would be non-white, and 30 would be white. 70 would be non-Christian, 30 would be Christian, 89 would be heterosexual, and 11 would be homosexual. Six people would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth and all 6 would be from the United States. 80 would live in substandard housing, 70 would be unable to read, 50 would suffer from malnutrition, 1 would be near death, and 1 would be near birth. One would have a college education, 1 would own a computer and 1 would be a short little neurotic Japanese-American who forgot to read his map and stumbled into the scene apart from the rest, more than a little perplexed, the perpetual outsider looking in.

We've become good at measuring our lives by the numbers: through time- whether chronologically or by a more pastoral method (the arc between dreams and memories for example); by money earned or not earned; by the distance traveled geographically as well as professionally and personally; and by the people known and left behind. There are a fortunate few who can step outside statistical constraints and see life in a more cosmic sense, but to do that is a difficult challenge indeed.

Last Wednesday, a day after I turned 35, I was in Rochester on a work assignment revisiting the Mayo Clinic eleven years after I went there on a more personal assignment. Back in 1988 I went on what I now refer to as my "secret government mission" two years before I actually started working for the government. The purpose for that visit had something to do with poetry and the meaning of life. The irony of this most recent visit was bringing with me a business card uncomfortably labeling me the very thing that was at the root of my last visit- a place I couldn't possibly imagine or believe I'd ever get to or return back. By any numeric standard it was a large step nearly impossible to measure.

As I was walking through the halls of St. Mary's Hospital, I passed an ATM machine. I remembered withdrawing cash from that machine during my first visit on my second to the last day there. I needed the cash to get a haircut from the hospital barber. The haircut was more symbolic than cosmetic- as if cutting my hair would give me a fresh start.

After surviving a tenacious downpour complete with being pelted by small chunks of hail, I found myself at the Mayo Clinic this second time around early in the morning, a witness to open heart surgery. Again there was something ethereal about the moment, about my last visit also being about an open heart that needed mending. The sight of the purple blood leaving the body and returning in its more recognizable red form didn't bother me as I expected it might, but rather was a reminder of how we shouldn't take for granted our next heart beat. To see the essence of life in the palm of somebody's hand was rather humbling.

On the morning of my birthday I opened my refrigerator and in the upper right hand corner, as it has for the past couple of years, sat a circular thermometer that my Mom loaned to me. She had read an article about how health officials were concerned that many refrigerators weren't storing food at safe temperatures. After I determined mine was fine I meant to give the thermometer back to Mom. I never got around to it, one of the simple life tasks that just never got done. The little metallic device made me feel sad inside. It was one of the many numerous things my Mom had given to me over the years- with love and concern. Now somehow it was a monument of all the scars my 35th year left behind. It was a difficult birthday. Even my friend with a song and dance got the number wrong and gave me a stroke instead of a stork. My father cooked my favorite meal, shrimp (I remain what I eat), and I went out to the cemetery to spend a moment with Mom. I made it through the day by reading some sacred books a friend loaned to me that were originally meant for her own children.

The days (daze?) surrounding the birthday were a little brighter. Sister number three, who was born nine years to the very day before we took our first steps on the moon, took my Dad and I out the night before for a sushi dinner. Three days later my favorite mother of two and I went out to lunch and shopping. I actually ended up getting my first Christmas gift of the season, with a mere 44 days before that particular holiday.

More numbers: About three months ago when I got the oil changed in my car I noticed on the reminder sticker that my car would turn over 100,000 miles before my next visit. Despite better made cars, turning from five to six digits on the odometer remains a milestone for any automobile. Now I've never been one to be too impressed by the cars people drive. I think the only one that ever really impressed me, impressed me for as an accomplishment, not as a status symbol. Back before she became the urban planning superstar, my friend Alex once was a tried and true Minnesotan. Though she passed on through much too quickly I forever and greatly will admire her for many a thing. One is working and paying her entire way diligently to a Masters Degree. Another is being perhaps the most determined person I've ever had the luck to know. When she was here it was always clear to me bigger and brighter moments were awaiting her. Perhaps an early clue that she wasn't long for this state was her first car, one of those fancy little Toyota MR-5 sports cars. I remember Mr. Max and I looking out the window of my tiny efficiency off Grand Avenue impatiently awaiting for her to pull up. Alex and I spent a few nights under the downtown stars, on our library nights that inevitably ended up at a coffee shop. That MR-5, one of her first tangible possessions of success, was stolen and later found wrapped around a tree. And still she took that all in stride.

My current Honda is the first car I bought all by myself. Last winter the front fender received a rather nasty looking dent due to its owner suffering a careless lapse. I thought about getting it fixed immediately because it was rather disheartening to look at but this all happened in the midst of my Mom's illness. Somehow I didn't have the heart, or it didn't seem that important to worry about the outward appearance of my car. Then as the old saving's account took a hit, there wasn't enough money to justify fixing something that didn't need immediate repair rather than for more pressing needs.

Still dented with the milestone closing in, I kept one eye peeled on the road and the other on the odometer in anticipation of letting out a holler, and short toot on the horn when the big moment arrived. On the evening I was to make a rare visit to my new wardrobe manager, the one who taught me how to blouse a shirt, turning a pumpkin into a jack o lantern- proceeded by a dozen roses because she knows the value of a nickel back, I patiently made my way through the madness of 35E during rush hour. As I arrived at the restaurant I glanced down and my mileage read 100,019. There was a palatable disappointment in the air- both from the car itself ("you ruin my fender, now you miss MY moment you lunkhead!") and from myself. We've traveled many roads together, always gotten safely to our destinations when that seriously seemed to be in doubt. I took a little comfort knowing the milestone was reached while going to see the person who is so effective in reminding me about the necessity of taking small steps to reach a more distant goal, and not writing a future that is not mine to write.

Recently a man shared with me a saying he used to help him through the difficult time of the death of his wife. "I keep what I have by giving it away," he said. As he relayed the saying I nodded although I had no idea what it meant. But it stuck inside and I now think I get the gist. At the end of the road when it's time to count up all the beans you've accumulated, the ones that carry the most weight aren't the ones in your possession but the ones you have shared with others. And if you've done your math right that number hopefully ends up to be too large to count.

Monday, November 8, 1999

Parting is Sweet Sorrow

Last month when I heard Catfish Hunter had died from Multiple Sclerosis I was surprised how unmoved I felt. Hunter had long been one of my favorite baseball players and he literally was one of the first people to break my heart. He was a member of those wonderful Oakland Athletic teams from the 70's that were the dominant champion during my first years of being a baseball fan. The team was as good as it was colorful with such marvelous players/characters as Bert Campanaris, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers along with their ever irascible owner, Charlie Finley. For a while it looked as if the A's might challenge the Yankee teams from the '20's as baseball's all time dynasty and I felt so fortunate for having found a love during such a special time.

Then the game changed. Free agency took hold and Hunter was one of the first to take advantage of the situation and depart for greener pastures (and pinstripes). Although I understood his leaving (how could anyone turn down a five year contract for that then obscene but now ordinary amount of $3.5 million?) I was angry that he wasn't more loyal to the rest of the team. This wasn't supposed to be a game about dollars it was supposed to be about the competition and being the best. Hunter's defection caused the world of baseball to seem a bit less idyllic in the eyes of a twelve-year-old.

It is always shocking when an athlete dies at an early age. One of the most intoxicating qualities about sports is their ability to produce individuals who carry an air of invincibility, of being able to overcome anything. Thus it is a painful reminder whenever a sports hero dies that no matter how much we want to deny it, at some point each of us must accept that this is a world we are merely passing through. Hunter's death was a shock but it is an indication I've grown a tad weary and jaded that I didn't even take the time to read the memorial stories about a once upon a time hero.

Calvin Griffith's death struck a bit deeper chord inside. For all the frustrations his stubbornness and lack of money caused a young Twins fan- and all the bad baseball I endured growing up that I directly related to Calvin, I still grew to greatly admire the man. He said what was on his mind and there has been no more astute mind about baseball than his. With the slow and sad withering of the Twins, and the defeat of their last hope of survival in this state- the stadium- Calvin's passing seemed like another closed chapter in an increasingly difficult to read book.

More than any other recent "celebrity" deaths- Walter Payton's had a deep impact on me. That his death got the tears flowing uncontrollably truly surprised me. I hardly consider myself a football fan anymore- and though I greatly admired Payton's skills and determination and I loved to watch him play- the man frustratingly destroyed the Vikings in many games. "We" simply couldn't stop him no matter how bad a team he played on. I read the many obituaries from around the country, and for one of the many times in recent months felt the sadness that has become such a familiar part of me.

Not that there is any value in making such a comparison but I've heard there supposedly is a small blessing in the manner Payton died: he had the opportunity to set his life in order and say any necessary good-byes since he knew for some time that unless he received a liver transplant he was going to die. This it has been said has to be (as if we would truly know) less difficult than the "sudden" deaths of Wilt Chamberlain or Payne Stewart. Yet one man's blessing is another man's heart break. To watch this ever proud man break down in tears at his news conference announcing his condition was as sad as the saddest moment in sports history- watching Lou Gerhig say his immortal farewell by declaring he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" right before he, like Hunter, succumbed to Multiple Sclerosis.

I watched Payton's February news conference while seated on the couch across from my Mom. The drugs that she was taking to ease her own pain from the cancer eating away her insides had made her mind less focused than it used to be. She lie there silent, though seemingly absorbing what the news was about. I wondered if she was thinking about being at a place further down the line from the frightening place Mr. Payton found himself in. Had she been her normal healthy self she no doubt would have said something to me about how sad it was to see this once triumphant athlete now scrambling for his life.

Last week's news that Payton died caused a lot of feelings to tumble inside. There isn't anything particularly heroic or meaningful in his death. It is sad and it is tragic. From all accounts he was a most intriguing man who earned as much admiration from those who knew him off the field as from those who knew him on. There are those with the rare ability to touch our lives so deeply that their passing truly makes this world a lesser place. Absence doesn't necessarily make the heart grow fonder nor does time heal all wounds. With another loss of a certain sweetness comes a few more bitter tears.

Monday, November 1, 1999

Piggie in the Middle (Do a Pooh Pooh)

Back in the days I used to work for that big faceless corporation, Kmart, I worked with a affable young chap named Ernie Gonzalez. Ernie was wise beyond his years, especially when it came to his knowledge of fishing lures, and though not college educated his media savvy taught him enough to use sayings that many years later have stuck with me. One of the things Ernie was fond of uttering was, "Son, it's a hog." I often found for a man of so few words, Ernie sure had a lot to say.

Last Tuesday I woke up at five o'clock in the blessed morning, forced myself out the door and drove for two hours down to Albert Lea only to learn that there are too many pigs in this state. Now I'm just as big a fan of humanity as the next person, indeed some of my best friends are people, but to hear such a blunt stating of the obvious was more than a tad disconcerting. The lesson learned actually had nothing to do with a study released the same day showing one out five Americans is obese. Oink! Oink! (And don't get me started about the supposed coincidence that the number just happens to match the number of dentists who prefer sugarless gum for their patients that chew gum. Obviously to me at least, there is an uncomfortable correlation.)

Contrasting the crankiness that inevitably results from dragging yourself from beneath the warmth of your covers, driving in the dark to some God forsaken spot, fighting the traffic at such an unnatural hour, was a sign just outside Albert Lea that read, "Hope- One Mile." How many weary travelers do you figure have driven by that sign, and at the spur of a moment took the exit to find out if the sign lived up to its unassuming promise? I was tempted to turn off but there was somewhere that I was supposed to be, pork related news waiting for me.

At a hearing of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Finance Committee, representatives from Hormel said the supply of pigs in the state outweighs the demand. Unfortunately so long as that situation exists (and it appears to be a rather problematic and complex issue to address- with no easy apparent answers) the difficulties pork producers are facing will inevitably continue.

Pork consumption in the state has been on a steady increase in the 1990's due in part to the industry's successful "The Other White Meat" advertising campaign. The increase followed a decade long decline related to a general lessening in the amount of meat people ate- a movement based on cholesterol conscious Americans trying to eat more healthy meals, and also due in part to the rapid increase in the amount of chicken consumed. And as the results of last week's obesity study show our ever changing collective diet most certainly seems to be working (looked at one way I guess we should all be happy that as a nation four out of five of us are not obese). Yet the amount of pork consumed appears to be leveling off, the increase at this point appears to be from our population growth- not so much that people are eating more and more of the meat.

So where does this leave Porky? The answer isn't very pretty. It leaves him a much maligned uncloved hoofed over populated piece of meat who we're merely interested in for his chops. We certainly aren't interested in his well being. Hogwash you say? Well, as an example just look at last year's pseudorabies scare- the basis for action was based almost entirely on the economic impact, not overriding concern over the health of the foaming of the mouth pigs. Years of negative imagery in our literature, in our media portrayals tend to bias our view toward the animal. Go ahead, call up someone tonight and call them a "swine," see if they ever go to dinner with you again. Is there any more damning symbolism than that innocent little piggie bank we all had as children? We are taught at the earliest of ages that what is inside the pig is where the money is at.

To learn this lesson doesn't come without extracting a price. Believe me I am not what is known in the utmost inner circles as a "sow lover" because I'm certainly known as a guy who enjoys his bacon. Fix me a pork chop Susie and I'm almost in hog heaven. And what about the now fairly old study that shows that 67% of pigs, particularly those that build their homes out of straw and sticks are now homeless? Only those that have homes made out of bricks remain properly sheltered.

Similarly there's that ever-puzzling analogy of the pig that went to the market, and another that stayed home. The third pig, the story goes, had roast beef, while the fourth had none. The last piggy, this party piggy, went "wee wee wee wee" all the way home. I'm never been quite sure what to make of that tale. But as I arrived back from my day in Albert Lea somehow the meaning of it all seemed just a little bit closer.