Monday, February 28, 2000

Sounds Inside My Mind

Last week Jan put forward one swell idea- to replace President's Day with Singer/Songwriter's Day. While I don't necessarily agree with Ms. Arleth's view of the relative insignificance of our presidents (who by golly can deny how much influence Benjamin Harrison still has over our lives?) I do agree that songwriters deserve to be recognized for their influence in our society. Here are some of the words of wisdom I have to come to live by:

On life's proper outlook:
Lou Reed - New Sensations
"I want the principles of a timeless muse. I want to eradicate my negative views and get rid of those people who are always on the down. It's easy to enough to tell what is wrong, but that's not what I want to hear all night long."

On the sentimentality of lost love:
Troy Seals/Donnie Fritts- We Had It All
"I never stopped believing in your smile. Even though you didn't stay, it was all worthwhile. You were the best thing in my life I can recall. You and me we had it all."

On having a nervous breakdown:
Paul Simon- Allergies
"My hands can't touch a guitar string. My fingers just burn and ache. From what I can see it's people like me we get better but we never get well."

On an under appreciated journey:
John Hiatt/Ry Cooder/James Dickinson- Across the Borderline
"You paid the price to come so far. Just to wind up where you are. And you're still just across that borderline."

On being in love with a girl who sings for her family:
Richard Carpenter/John Bettis- Top of the World
"Such a feeling's coming over me. There is wonder in most everything I see. Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes. And I won't be surprised if it's a dream."

On finding one's soul mate:
Ira Gershwin- Soon
"Oh soon, our little ship will come sailing home, through every storm, never failing, The day you're mine this world will be in tune. Let's make that day come soon."

On one realizing one hasn't found one's soul mate:
Liz Phair- Divorce Song
"And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead. But if you're tired of looking at my face I guess I already am. But you've never been a waste of my time. It's never been a drag. So take a deep breath and count back from ten. And maybe you'll be all right."

On how silly love can be:
Paul McCartney- You Gave Me the Answer
"You'll never be crowned by the aristrocracy. To their delight, you'd merely invite them in for a cup of tea."

On life's greatest heartache:
Hank Williams- My Son Calls Another Man Daddy
"Tonight my heart is bowed in sorrow. I can't keep the tears from my eyes. My son calls another man daddy. The right to his love I've been denied."

On life's greatest joy:
Phil Silvers- Nancy with the Laughing Face
"Have you ever heard mission bells ringin'? Well, she'll give you the very same glow. When she speaks you would think it was singin'. Just hear her say hello."

For those who don't get depression:
Bob Dylan- Never Say Goodbye
"You're beautiful beyond words. More beautiful to me. You could make me cry, never say goodbye."

On destiny:
Chrissie Hynde- Don't Get Me Wrong
"Once in a while two people meet seemingly for no reason. They just pass on the street. Suddenly thunder, showers everywhere. Who can explain the thunder and rain? But there's something in the air."

On the latest night's contemplation:
Brian Wilson- 'Til I Die
"I'm a cork on the ocean. Floating over the raging sea. How deep is the ocean? How deep is the ocean? I lost my way. Hey hey hey ."

On where that contemplation ends up:
Traditional- Hallelujah I'm Ready To Go
"In the darkness of night not a star was in sight, on a highway that leads down below. But Jesus came in and saved my soul from sin, hallelujah I'm ready to go."

Faith Returns and How I'll Miss Maude Flanders

You gotta feel sorry for that old groundhog. He doesn't stick his head out of his hole often, but when he does all hell breaks loose. The one day of year he does his duty the pressure is severe. Everybody in the country is watching with a near religious like belief that if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.

And no matter what happens, the groundhog can't win. Winter's attributes stir quite potent emotions in many people. Some long for the warmth and renewal of spring. Others want to hang on to the snow and cold, to ski, to skate, to make snow angels, for just a little while longer.

I've heard from good sources that this fervent devotion to the meaning of his vision has led to the groundhog developing a rather substantial fear of his own shadow. Yet no matter the therapy he puts himself through, no matter the drugs prescribed, there is little he can do to avoid his shadow other than stay in the dark as often as he can.

Like other religions, what began as folklore has over time expanded into a science. People now make a living trying to predict the weather. Gladly the groundhog would abdicate his meteorological duties, but most people wouldn't allow that.

Weather in Minnesota is big news. If it isn't the snow and cold shutting us down it's the fog that causes the road salt to blow out transformers. Minnesotans crave forecasts. We need to know what the current dewpoint is. There are even a few who believe that if they know what to expect tomorrow, they will be prepared and better able to adapt to the inevitable.

Unfortunately, as long term forecasts prove as accurate as a leaky fountain pen, the whole sham of meteorology, which is about as blindly believed in as another pseudo-science, Astrology, is finally being exposed for what it really is. We are no better able to know tomorrow's temperature as we are to understand what causes the newcomer's brow to wrinkle so, causing a gushing reaction- as she says that you have made her day.

Our recent weather patterns are a cause of concern. While it's been nice having a relatively warm winter, is there something going on here? Global warming? Have we broken out of our orbit and are we now hurtling helplessly toward the sun?

Recently my favorite reporter/new colleague and her husband confirmed my worst fears. In the newspaper business weather is a scam. The reporter's husband, now a high powered attorney, reported that when he worked for a newspaper and was in charge of the weather section that there were days when the data and forecasts the newspaper received from the wire service was obviously old or wrong or both. So he would make things up. Missing the high temperature in Mazatlan? No problem, let's just say it was 84.

When I was a kid I gave some thought about going into meteorology. I thought it was so cool what with all the weather maps, radars and other gizmos. To have the ability to predict what is going to be and have people believe you is pretty powerful stuff. As a self imposed project, for a whole year I graphed out the temperature differences between Houston and Duluth. I'm not sure why I picked those two cities or what was to be gained by the information but I was positive that some big revelation was forthcoming. The project required so much discipline to continue that I wasn't at all disappointed when nothing was revealed. I was just glad I had a year's worth of work that I didn't need to continue.

Looking back it was the start of my days as a groundhog admirer. After one is stepped on the head one too many times one can never quite forget the significance of one's own shadow.

Monday, February 21, 2000

Close as Cotton

At the risk of jeopardizing the suave, sophisticated, street wise image you have of me, I must admit growing up I was nothing more than a mall rat. Yes I know it's an admission that borders upon confession, but the time feels ripe to reveal that I spent many of my Sunday mornings as a kid with my family at Brookdale.

For those of you who think all the suburbs are exactly the same and know I grew up in Roseville, you're probably wondering why my family drove all the way out to Brooklyn Center instead of going to Rosedale. The answer is Sears. Brookdale had one, Rosedale did not. Mom had a preference of buying most of our clothes at Sears.

At the mall my brother and I had a routine. We would make the same journey in the same order every week- from the toy store to the hobby store, from the record store to the bookstore, through all the department stores. Meeting up again with the rest of my family, my parents would buy me a cherry slush. (My brother didn't like them but I did even though admittedly they tasted like cough medicine. That probably explains more than I care to admit.) While slowly enjoying my slush (in order to avoid a headache) I would make the rounds between the pillars that held small fish tanks with exotic fish. My day wasn't complete until I said hello to each and every one of those familiar fish. Sometimes I would cap things off by enjoying a box of popcorn from Sears on our drive home.

Last Sunday as I found myself wandering the mall of Burnsville Center, the taste of cherry slush was almost palpable. Maybe it was the smell of popcorn. Maybe it was the fumes from an electrical fire. My wardrobe manager had agreed to work me into her busy schedule to meet me out there and help select out some clothes paid for by three years of unredeemed Cheapo holiday gift certificates.

The proximity of people, the varying paces from leisurely to frantic rush, brought me back to that old familiar place while at the same time serving as a reminder that some significant inner conversions have occurred. Just as the hustle and bustle was getting to be too much I sought refuge in a dollar store. Having forgotten to purchase Q-Tips during my last visit to the grocery store, I thought the dollar store probably was the one place in the mall I could find that particular item.

Close as they came was cotton balls.

So as I was killing time standing in the corner of the store my heart was lifted by a most comforting sound. "People are crazy and times are strange/I'm locked in tight, I'm out of range/I used to care but... things have... changed." It was the first time I heard Bob Dylan's new song and it couldn't have been better timed.

"Things Have Changed" is unmistakable Dylan- the reborn bluesman bemoaning the state of both the ever confusing world and his inner self. I was mesmerized. The words were perfect, the music moving. I stood suspiciously trying to feign interest in the product next to a display of laundry detergent that was underneath the store's sole radio speaker. It was hard to hear the music but what I heard was like an obsessive Sunday sublime flavored spiritual muffin.

Feeling renewed I headed off to Daytons where I was supposed to rendezvous with the kind hearted soul who agreed to help me do something that at age 35 I should well be able to handle all by myself. (I discovered I probably could if I only had a clue about color coordination.) But as usual, she did her job extremely well. I ended up with three pairs of dress pants and two dress shirts, all quality merchandise, for under three bucks (thanks too of course to Al's holiday kindness).

I got home happy with the new clothes, happy with the fine time I had had (among her many admirable traits my wardrobe manager is one swell conversationalist with a picturesque forehead), and happy that the world has another Dylan song. That night I had a dream- I was trying to talk to my friend but a big gray dog kept getting in the way. My friend finally came over to me and showed me to settle the dog down I needed to grab its back legs, separate them and move the dog around like a wheelbarrow. I did this, and instantly the dog was calm. But then he started lifting one leg higher than the other and I had a feeling I was about to be used as a substitute fire hydrant. So I quickly let go, jolting myself awake at the same time, flinging my arms toward the ceiling. For the second time in a month I thus sent Mr. Max, who was contentedly asleep on the blankets covering my chest, airborne. And that's twice I've had recent dreams of being dumped on by an animal.

Breathing heavy I tried to gather myself and regain my bearings. An uneasiness wouldn't leave me alone. I lay there and wondered what was closer- the distance between Brookdale and Burnsville Center or the time that separated the experiences.

Things have indeed changed.

Monday, February 14, 2000

My Own Magnolia

"The Earth is, in reality, an oblate spheroid because the Earth's rotation causes it to bulge at its equator and flatten at its poles. The local latitude is determined by the angle between a plumb bob and the equatorial plane of the Earth. A plumb bob hangs perpendicular to the surface. The plumb bob in this case does not point at the center of the Earth. If that latitude were 45 N, then the location of that point on the Earth will be closer to the equator than the North Pole."

I was sitting in a House Tax Committee hearing next to one of the people that I respect most when it suddenly dawned on me that I was having another revelation.

But let's back up a little shall we?

Last weekend I was enacting my normal Saturday morning routine. It is the only day I can sleep in so I stay in bed until around nine, brew up a fresh pot of coffee, peek my head defiantly and groggily outside dressed only in my T-shirt and boxers, get my newspapers, and stroll on into the kitchen where I have a modern operating but old fashioned looking radio. I turn on KSTP-AM 1500 and listen to Saturday Morning Sports Talk with Patrick Reusse and Joe Soucheray. Last weekend the boys were talking about a tidbit Joe had come across- that Larpenteur Avenue runs along the 45th parallel meaning it is the exact midway point between the North Pole and the Equator. Since I live only a few blocks south of Larpenteur, this means I live closer to the Equator than I do the North Pole. Balmy, simply balmy. I was quite enjoying this newfound bit of knowledge which somehow brought a warm smile to my face every time I thought about it. I, of course, had to share this bit of trivia with everyone I came across. It has been quite a while since I have had a similar entertaining anecdote to share.

Actually the last time was on a trip I took out east via Amtrak. I had to transfer in Chicago and had a four hour wait. I had noticed on my way down that I had forgotten my watch, a rather vital piece of equipment when relying on a train schedule to get me to where I needed to go. So I wandered down to the Sears Tower hoping to find a cheap watch at Sears. But I was in for a bit of a surprise. There is no Sears store in the Sears Tower. How amusing is that!? I ended up buying a fancy shake me awake travel alarm at the Sharper Image that was in the Tower. I learned a lesson about names not always being what they seem.

Just when I thought I couldn't be any more giddy, last Saturday night as I was still relishing the tropical like conditions on this side of Larpenteur I turned on The Pretender which featured guest appearances from the actor and actress who were the evil schemers in one of my all time favorite shows, the long lost and forgotten Savannah. I was positively delighted at sharing in this unexpected reunion one which I'm sure most people would not have appreciated the true significance. It was merely a commercial testimony of the fluidity of time.

What do all these memories have in common? They all represent lessons of lexicon and the many meanings of the word "revelation. " As I sat through the tax hearing listening to government officials testifying that they thought the state's local government aid formula was unfair, I remembered a day a few years back when the nice smelling person seated next to me was my boss. I remembered a day I was sitting at the receptionist area when she came zooming around the corner. Usually she would say hello and continue walking briskly to her office but this time she stopped. She told me she had learned a meaning of life.

"It's to always remain curious," she revealed to me. At the time I took it to mean she had just come back from a frustrating meeting with uncompromising, close minded people. But it was one of those connecting moments in time that you just can't shake, just can't get out of your mind, pondering the significance in the rare quiet moments of reflection.

So we sat at this hearing and she asked me how I liked my new job. I told her it was absolutely the best one I've ever had. After a few minutes of more tax aid discussion I turned to her and whispered that I appreciated how she had once taught me the meaning of life. It just seemed like the right thing to do. She leaned in closer obviously not hearing what I had said so I repeated myself. This time she nodded although I'm sure she again didn't hear me. Doesn't matter though. I kind of doubt she even remembers that day. Still I would have somehow regretted if I hadn't made the attempt to try and share with her what she taught me. It was a rather substantial gift to ascertain no matter how bleak, no matter the latitude where you stand in this world, as long as you are willing to remain curious some light can shine through the most unrelenting and unrepenting clouds.

Monday, February 7, 2000

Things Have Changed

Hallelujah, I'm ready/I'm ready, I can hear the voices singing soft and low/Hallelujah, I'm ready, Hallelujah, I'm ready to go..."

It takes a pretty special lady to get me up and out in public these days. But anyone who knows me knows such a source of inspiration surely exists. Sandra Bullock's new movie, Gun Shy, is a high energy, highly entertaining effort.

Ms. Bullock made a splash this week with the news that a Roger Corman directed movie, Fire on the Amazon, she made early in her career contains a steamy love scene that has gained the re-release of the film a NC-17 rating- the dreaded rating given to commercial films that otherwise would have earned the kiss of death "X" rating. Bullock said that although various parts of her anatomy are selectively covered with duct tape, the scene in question shows her making love in a way different than is shown in most mainstream cinema. This news isn't of the good variety for those of us who find Sandra appealing in another sense.

Gun Shy obviously owes a lot to Pulp Fiction both in its style, and in its insightful writing. It has Tarantino written all over it, mixing black comedy with poignant asides, and all it lacks is a pontification about whether or not a foot massage is appropriate between friends.

Watching the movie reminded me of an end of a relationship many years back. It was a relationship where I felt a connection and understanding that I hadn't felt before, and in a way I haven't felt since. The person on the other side confessed something to me that I haven't ever been able to shake. "Happiness is such a prevalent feeling in our society," this person said. "And yet it is something I've never felt." It was a startling revelation and at the same time it was equally as frustrating as I knew I wasn't the person that was going to ever reach her and be able to change that. As we live through the dawn of the new millennium, it doesn't take a great deal of effort to see the number of unhappy people out there. There is lovely moment in Gun Shy when the characters are asked why the status of their jobs is so important to them. The only thing they can think of is that their jobs define them and help them feel that they are contributing something. It is an awareness that is as sad as it is truthful. All many of us ultimately want is something simple and unattainable like a place on the ocean.

Liam Neeson stars as Charlie Mayo, a burnt out undercover cop with frayed nerves who witnesses his partner get killed by the mob as he is lying on top of a pile of ripe watermelons. Charlie is so shaken by the murder that his confidence is as shot as his stomach is unsettled. Since his current assignment calls for him to serve as the middle man between a depressed wannabe Italian gangster with a violent temper, and an equally disturbed pair of Colombian drug dealers, it isn't a good time to be off the top of his game. He initially seeks help through group therapy which provides for many of the movie's most humorous moments.

The story is so organic and original that you're never quite sure where the movie is going. Many laughs are the uncomfortable type as vulgar violence erupts from the lighter moments. This uneasy juxtoposition is best demonstrated through a peeing contest that ends in a rather painful conclusion. Oliver Platt is absolutely delightful as Fulvio Nesstra, the Italian mobster, who early on nearly cuts off the hand of his neighbor who he suspects stole the sports section from his newspaper. By the end of the movie we see Fulvio has much in common with Charlie, and the sympathy created truly says a lot about both the skill of the writing, and Platt's wonderful ability to create a complex character.

Bullock, who produced the movie, has a minor role as Neeson's love interest. The two meet as her character, Judy ("the beauty") Tipp is giving Charlie an enema to alleviate some of the constant bowel troubles he is enduring. Love is after all, often born out of life's most painful moments.

Bullock's considerable charisma simply shimmers throughout her brief moments on the screen. As she asks Charlie if what he really wants is "eternal bliss" we really begin to for the first time to understand what the movie really is about. Judy helps settle Charlie down by her kindness and quirkiness. She doesn't believe in "orthodox medicine" throwing out Charlie's prescribed anti-depressants. She realizes some troubles can't be solved by merely taking a pill. She even teaches Charlie to relax through gardening. (Vegetables play an intricate part of the plot- Fulvio's desire is to grow a perfect tomato and is chastised by his unhappy wife for being the only Italian who can't grow red tomatoes. The first deal between the uneasy partners nearly goes down as the Colombians notify the others that they are offended by the purchase of soy beans- it's an insult to them.)

The ultimate message of the movie is spiritual as Judy helps Charlie take the baby steps back to mental balance. She assures him that God must be on his side- he wasn't killed with his partner after all- and her faith in him bolsters his belief in himself and things beyond. There is a quiet moment in the film when Judy shares a Buddhist parable with Charlie about a man chased to the edge of a cliff by a tiger. Tumbling over the edge the man clings to a branch only to see a pack of tigers below. He then notices the branch has a lone beautiful strawberry hanging on it and he grabs it and eats it.

Gun Shy reminds us like that parable life is about living in the moment. The movie is full of small episodes to treasure as Neeson slowly finds his way to enlightenment.

Waking Up in Your Own Dream

"Got white skin, got assassins eyes/I'm looking up into the sapphire tempered skies/I'm well dressed, waiting on the last train/Standin' on the gallows with my head in a noose/Any minute now I'm expecting all hell to break loose..."

The other day early in the morning when I was at the state of trying to figure if it was worth getting out of bed again or not, Max the cat strolled into the room and plopped himself down on my chest. His fourteen pound frame emphasized that gravity seems to be cheating a little these days, pushing down harder on me than most.

As Max stood up and kneaded the covers covering my torso his body language and deep purring seemed to communicate to me that he really didn't want me to leave and he was going to do all he could to pin me down. It was Groundhog's Day after all and we all remember the message passed along by Mr. Groundhog a few years back. It isn't only his shadow that Max is increasingly afraid of, it's the ever confusing rapidly changing world outside. Mr. Groundhog warned us to forever play it safe and stay down in the safety of our hole altogether. I get home that night and Max either had changed the locks or my key no longer worked. (A squirt of W-40 took care of that incident.) You can't spell challenge without the change after all.

"I've been walkin' forty miles of bad road/If the Bible is right the world will explode/I'm trying to get as far away from myself as I can..."

The last straw? The state's school system often fairly criticized, took a cheap shot last week. The brouhaha began when some questioned whether it was appropriate for a standardized essay question to ask 10th graders to demonstrate their writing ability by identifying the one thing they would change about themselves. Apparently the question was too personal for some peoples' tastes.

Whether or not this is truly the case I don't know. I question the premise of the concern in the first place. What does it mean to be too personal? Why don't we encourage more courageous contemplative navel gazing? And why do we make people feel ashamed when they do so? Isn't one of the most important skills the ability to look at oneself critically, acknowledge our weaknesses at the same time we identify our strengths? Isn't there something admirable about being able to reveal what's inside knowing how painful a rejected heart can be? Because once it's out, much as you come to regret it, you can't take it back. The simplest connection can be the most powerful and therefore the most painful to lose.

"My heart it's aching, I just don't show it/You can hurt someone and not even know it/The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity..."

So I'll play. If I could change one thing about myself? Off the top of my head several things actually come to mind. First of all I wish I could come home every day and smell bacon. I think that would be really nice. Second I wish I could change my shoe size. Can you even begin to understand how painful it is to walk into a shoe store, find a pair of shoes I like only to be told they don't come in 5 1/2's? And then to add insult to injury have the snooty clerk tell me I have to go to the boys section? A guy can get awfully self conscious about the size of his feet by golly. And it doesn't help one's professional appearance to have to wear kids shoes to work.

"I'm in love with a woman that don't even appeal to me/Mr. Jinks and Miss Lucy they jumped in a lake/I'm not that eager to make a mistake."

Indeed change is a strange bird. Often what we want most to hold on to disappears and what we hope we can change remains as static as what we desperately want to evolve which doesn't go quite as we had hoped.

Therefore if forced to pick one thing I'd ultimately change I'd say I'd change the day I actually lost my grip on reality. Some people use Ben Gay for what ails them. Some use Mineral Ice to numb the pain. I use bad metaphors. You hang so tightly to the edge, knowing that you don't have the strength (nor perhaps the will) to pull yourself back up to safety. Maybe you call out for help and maybe you don't. And suddenly it doesn't matter anymore so you let go. Part of you prays that the bottom will be soon and near and another part out of, and in sheer terror hopes you never hit the bottom because you wonder if you can absorb the impact. It's both a long fall and a short trip into solipsism. There isn't a map to tell you how you ever reach a place where time is as sharp as chards of glass, where shrapnel of memory fragments make you unbearably sad and despite the jagged edges they aren't something you can just let go.

They reassure me by telling me there is nothing so resilient as the human spirit. Just sometimes your heart is revived for all the wrong reasons. It's not necessarily a good thing to fall for the face of a wunnerful ghost. Not all gray hairs are caused by old age. Some go beyond the roots. So one last time- this one's different, it's cute how her forehead crinkles and wrinkles when she's deep in thought.

"People are crazy and times are strange/I'm locked in tight, I'm outta range/I used to care but things have changed..."