Monday, October 30, 2000

Proud of Our Minnesota Twins

Date: October 23, 2000
To: Caleb Joshua and Micah David Maeda
From: Lil' Uncy Dave
Subject: Proud of our Minnesota Twins

Welcome to the world. You haven't seen it yet, but the foggy drizzly unrelenting gray you have constantly been exposed to thus far isn't what this place is usually like. The world can be full of sun, full of cotton ball clouds, and don't get me started about rainbows. And it doesn't take much to make a difference. Your arrival in the blah fall Minnesota weather certainly brightened things more than a notch or two.

As I look at your peaceful sleeping twin faces I wonder are you dreaming yet? What goes on in those brand new heads cutely kept covered by hospital garb? As you grow up I have one small bit of uncly advice: It's never too early or late to dream. Dream big. Dream small. Dream in color. Dream creatively. Dream in your sleep. Dream while you are awake. Share your dreams. Dream away.

Consider this doozy (and maybe when you're old enough to read this you'll be kind enough to explain it to me) I had just a few weeks before you were born. In my dream I was hired to work in a bright white room at the Como Zoo. I remember feeling a sense of satisfaction knowing I'd finally be able to work in a lab coat- kind of a life long secret ambition. My job was to watch this new exhibit, a pre-historic white looking animal that slightly resembled a mouse. I was told this "thing" was not a fossil although it hadn't moved for millions of years. It was still alive but just not showing it.

As my bosses left the room I carefully tended to my duties. The serenity of the stillness was calming. But alas I began goofing around as I am wont to do when left unsupervised. Singing my lil heart out I was sort of waltzing around when I accidentally brushed up against the exhibit. All of a sudden it began to rapidly transmogrify into an orange shaped duck/bowling pin looking being with one gigantic foot. I was of course a tad alarmed at this series of events but remained in the room. This bowling pin like duck led me out of the zoo into another area of town. It knew exactly where it was going. Waddling on its one foot it took me to a dark room with strobe lights and an expansive dance floor. There it not so gently nudged me into the middle of a circle of four of my friends past and present. One of these people not so meekly edged up against me and was guiding me on to the dance floor when I woke up in a cold sweat.

So what is the meaning of this dream? And could it perhaps be best explained by that can of sardines Max the cat and I shared shortly before bedtime? Well kids, let's break it down. The white room, lab coat and mouse looking relic might represent the view that life is one long laboratory and that we are all part of an unclear social experiment. That experiment is upset however whenever one is bumped into out of the blue. A new direction is cast.

The duckly bowling pin is a bit more difficult to understand. Maybe it's about falling into the trap of following those that aren't always the steadiest (or sturdiest for that matter) guides. Sometimes we follow paths against our instinctive intuition and it's those times we can often end up in an uncomfortable situation. Yet there is benefit in discomfort. It can cause you to think, and as your need to be changed diapers remind you, it can lead to a good cry or two.

You kids have so much in front of you, so much to look forward to. Make no mistake, often life can seem a rather daunting task. Sometimes it's all you can do to roll yourself out of bed. Consider yourself fortunate therefore that you both have a natural partner to help you through the rougher days. Only you will know what it truly means to have a twin (of the true external kind anyway) and I'm sure the bond between you two will be something both of you will cherish. As a child I had a special connection with your father, my brother. Believe it or not I used to have a nearly indecipherable mumbling way of speaking and for a long time he was my translator for the world. As my oratory skills have blossomed my ability to be understood hasn't always followed along. Yet there are days I think being incomprehensible has its advantages. Or in terms already familiar to you, sometimes it's more effective to scream your lungs out when you are tired or cold rather than speaking in a lucid erudite manner.

I'll leave you with one final thought: it is sad that you arrived the year following your grandmother's death. As good as you both undoubtedly will turn out, you would have been better people for knowing her. There'll be others to play Nintendo with you, and there'll be others to explain to you the beauty of the balk rule in baseball, but there won't be anyone who can replace what she would have added to your lives. They say her spirit survives in all of us who remain, the many of us who she touched, and I pray that in the very least you'll be able to share and sometimes see (and feel) that spirit.

When Life Becomes a Memory

There are some movies with a premise so dumb they stand no chance of ever being good (Police Academy 3). There are other movies that begin with a dumb premise but through the skills of the director and the actors the movie transcends its material (Speed). There are some movies that begin with such a great premise that the movie is bound to be worth watching no matter what the director or actors do (12 Angry Men). There are other movies that the premise is great and through the efforts of those involved the movie becomes a classic, hitting full force on all cylinders.

The Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu's (Maborosi) movie After Life falls into the latter category. The premise of the movie is thought provoking and wonderfully original- that after a person dies they spend one week at a way station out in the country where they must choose one single memory from their life to bring with them into eternity. Once that memory is selected the staff at the station help stage a filmed recreation of the memory for the person to forever live in.

Kore-eda provides just the right touch to tell the story. Everything is told in a matter of fact manner. The gray late fall-early winter scenery is alternated with the plain school building that serves as this transitory station. The staff at the station does a workmanlike job with their assignments. This isn't a movie about a pearly gate heaven, or angels with wings. It's not a movie about religion or God. Rather it's a movie about how what we remember changes how we feel, and how we feel colors what we remember. One can imagine what the same material would have been made into if it had been a Hollywood production (see Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze's Ghost).

The dead that arrive each have unique choices to make. One elderly woman with a shy manner and kind motherly smile selects a childhood memory- when her brother bought her a fancy red dress that she could wear in her dance classes. A young girl chooses a trip she took with friends to Disneyland. A seventy-year-old gentleman has a difficult time remembering any happy memories from his life. He is thus encouraged to view videotapes of his entire life to help jar his memory. This in its own way seems like a trip into hell- as he sees the many regrets, the many things he would have done differently all over again with no ability to change any of it. Another younger man refuses to choose- believing by not choosing he's taking more responsibility for his life.

Ultimately After Life asks several intriguing questions about the nature of memories. At what point can we believe what we remember? How much do we naturally embellish our memories, filtering out the pain and the regret to remember selected happier moments? In this manner are our memories any different than our dreams? One woman who in life worked as a prostitute selects a memory with the only customer she knew who seemed to like her for who she really was. Her memory is of a rendezvous they once had at a fancy hotel. When the staff goes to recreate the memory they discover that it didn't happen the way she remembered. The gentleman never showed up.

The notion that in the after life memories must be reenacted on film is also intriguing. The interaction between art and life is juxtaposed as we the viewers naturally think about what memory we ourselves would select. Kore-eda said as he was making the film he remembered his grandfather in the throes of Alzheimer's, unable to recognize his own grandson which reinforced the belief our identities are intermingled with our memories.

We all reach a point in our lives where our memories overwhelm our ability to imagine. Later on as memories grow in number and in depth they even begin to alter our existence. Perhaps the most touching moment in a very touching film is when one of the young women worries about selecting any memories in fear that she herself will be forgotten by others. Her fears are alleviated as she sees a coworker's joy in discovering a long forgotten moment spent with another is what that particular person unexpectedly elected to keep with them when they died. One never knows whose dreams we appear in, whose lives we have unknowingly touched, or whose memories we have made just a little happier.

Monday, October 23, 2000

How I Became a Cheapo Lifer

It was a blustery Sunday spring morning about 12 years ago when I arrived at the Cheapo West store looking forward to a quiet morning shift. I hadn't been working for Cheapo very long but Sunday mornings were definitely my favorite times to work. Often I'd be paired with manager Bill Seeler whose taste in music was impeccable. We wouldn't get a whole lot of business until noon time, mostly regulars would stop in and browse the bins, so we were able to get a lot of work done to Bill's soothing classical selections.
This particular Sunday morning I sensed right away that something was amiss. Maybe it was my ultra-sensitive Inspector Clouseau like instincts or maybe it was the unusual sight of a police car parked in the parking lot next to Al's car. Al has always put in a lot of hours into his business but even back then it was rare to see him at the store on a Sunday morning. Being the man with a perpetually present guilty conscience as I approached the store I wondered what I had done so very wrong. Perhaps they had somehow discovered that I was a closet Barry Manilow fan and they were now going to take me away?
As I entered the store I saw what the problem was. A driver (presumably slightly intoxicated) had plowed his vehicle into the southwest corner of the store right into the easy listening A-K section. The wall was crumbled, plaster scattered all around, and you could actually see into the back of the alley from the steps of the store. Al had me pick up the bigger pieces and vacuum up the rest. I didn't know him very well at that point but I was impressed by how calmly he was taking it all. If it had been MY store I'd be cursing up a storm. Then I realized something. It WAS my store. Part of my own anger toward the situation was that some idiot had recklessly destroyed months of my own work (I had spent at least one morning organizing the easy listening section) and had created a whole bunch of new work for my coworkers and me (and just how many Ferrante and Teicher records had he ruined?).
I appreciated how well Al was taking the matter. His calm demeanor conveyed a quiet inspiring confidence- life constantly throws us the unexpected and the best way to deal with that is to do what you can to work your way through the mess. Or as my last best friend would say it's about taking, "baby steps." I'm one who needs to respect those who I work for before I decide to stick around. This was the very moment I realized I'd be around Cheapo for awhile.
Last Monday I was reminded how sometimes a surprise can make your day and sometimes it's the last thing you need. I was sitting at my dimly lit desk in the State Office Building doing some research feeling like I was getting no where quite rapidly. All of a sudden the fire alarms (one of which is right above my cubicle) began blaring. Not that I was working on anything that vital but I felt annoyed knowing that the chance was it wasn't really a fire but rather somebody had probably left their toast in the toaster too long. I walked outside where I was surprised to see the smiling face of a person I wasn't expecting to see having never seen her at my work place before. She was talking on her cell phone but she smiled and waved. She walked over to me and we chatted and she came back to my office to see my tiny little corner space. She glanced at my picture of Max the Cat, who she has volunteered to kitty sit, and was duly charmed.
Later in the afternoon I got an amusing email from out of the blue from a fellow member of the Buffy fan club. At the end of her message she asked if, "I really worked for Cheapo." In my reply I said yes, but it wasn't as glamorous as it sounded.
Looking back maybe the unusual events were an ominous warning sign. The next morning after a reckless (or is that restless) night of tossing and turning I groggily turned on my computer. This person sent me another email indicating that she had heard on the news that Cheapo may be on fire. I wondered what the heck she was talking about when I opened up my copy of the Pioneer Press to a front page fire photo captioned, "Fire destroys four St. Paul businesses on Snelling Avenue." Talk about being the bearer/barer of bad news.

After a morning meeting I got myself out of the office and drove on over to the store. Figuring they might not be allowing traffic in the area I parked a few blocks away. I could smell the pungent odor of burnt everything. As I approached I noticed the Cheapo side of the building didn't look too bad. Then I saw the front. Home Video's roof was nothing but charcoal remains. It looked awful. I then saw Al, Mary, Steve Brown, and Eric Tell and was glad to see everybody, though in a bit of a state of shock, seemed to be in good spirits. This too is just another something we have to overcome.
There is something intensely sad about looking at the ruins from a fire. The fresh ashes only serve as painful memories of all the dreams and work gone up in smoke. For the past couple of years my nephew has trained to become a fire fighter. I've often wondered why anyone would choose that field. Besides the danger, having to deal with destruction over and over doesn't seem like the healthiest endeavor to me. I've been fortunate though I've been burned, I've never been personally touched by a fire.

Thus my own experience comes from reading a series of Peanut strips in which Charlie Brown safe in bed is awoken by the banging on his door from a panicked Snoopy. Charlie goes out to see what the problem is and we see a distraught Snoopy standing next to his dog house which is ablaze. The story goes on to the ruin- Snoopy has lost his pool table and egads, his Van Gogh. As Charlie tells Linus and Lucy of the extent of the damage all Lucy can continuously mutter is, "He was probably smoking in bed."

The other fire memory etched in my mind comes from the TV show "The Waltons." One of my favorite episodes is where the family house burns down and both John Boy and Grandpa blame themselves. John Boy is feeling guilty because he had just taken to smoking a pipe to be a more sophisticated writer and Grandpa fears he is the culprit because he had fallen asleep with a space heater still a burning.

This time it isn't fiction. Yet seeing Al once again with his sense of humor in tact was reassuring. The end result isn't about who or what we can blame. It's about enduring and digging through the rubble because that is what we have to do.

Sunday, October 8, 2000

How I Almost Became A Father

Floating down the mighty Mississippi on a warm autumn night under the stars, the smell of the river seemed foreign as the boat wavered gently on the wobbly waves. Standing for the most part alone on the bow, I closed my eyes to the flowing wind in hopes I could feel more like Huck Finn and less like Kate Winslet. I peeked to see the caves on the bank of the river looking rather spooky. In a time when it's easy enough to find those who will listen but just as hard to find those willing to hear the all too familiar, I whispered a plea/prayer to the river, secure in the knowledge that the river will always be there. But my voice was drowned out by the simmering sounds from the Bruce Henry Trio that shimmered up to the Harriet Bishop Paddle Boat's deck from somewhere down below. The subterranean Savannah Gatsby ghost jazz brought to mind yet another era as the boat floated back towards the illuminated skyline of downtown St. Paul.

As we docked and my feet struck the familiar land, Huck Finn disappeared. My recently hacked up coif (as opposed to hacking cough) bristled in the breeze. I got home to the enclosing familiar and found history had been written on the WB: Buffy killed Dracula. Not quite reverentially shaken I sat down to finish some long overlooked put off tasks. I finally sent out all my Rosh Hashanah cards. There is something simply therapeutic about the start of a new year. I wished all a happy 5761. But as I paid my bills I found myself writing 5760 on my checks. Then I personally celebrated National Mental Illness Awareness week by putting on a Brian Wilson CD. I thought it may be prudent to note to my best friends and closest rivals- there is something going around that you can't exactly be vaccinated against. I learned that last week those who wanted to "check" into United and St. Joseph hospitals for a little rest were out of luck. The hospitals were booked solid unless you had an ambulance ride.

The week was full of jarring juxtapositions. One day I'm sitting eating lunch with a man from Ghana who seemed to gravitate toward me in a room full of people because I was about the only other person of color in sight. The next day I'm back at my poorly lit desk wondering what can possibly come next. My mind races and my voice is increasingly unsure. I get out. Out and about. Do some searching. I have a mental list somewhere in the back lobes of my brain, somewhere behind the memories and far past the dreams, of all the things I need to get done before I end up on the wrong side of the dirt. And then out of the corner of my increasingly blurry and difficult vision I see something I've been keeping my eye out subconsciously for a long time. A friend asked me to look for a certain sentimental and hard to find CD, and if I found it she promised to give to me her first born child. Thinking joyfully for her I've struck paydirt I naturally stress a bit over my impending fatherhood. Alas it wasn't the right CD. No diaper shopping in the near future.

I stress too over many of the aforementioned bills (debts) that have to do with my house. There is always a project around the corner, always a payment to be made so much so that it's easy to overlook the health of being in the position and able to afford a house. The absolute best revenge of being such an inept homeowner has been my garden. To be able to come home and pick a fresh tomato or carrot to enjoy has been sublime. Taking care of the garden has been hard but rewarding work. Taking care of the yard similarly qualifies. Wanting to fertilize my grass one more time before the hard freeze I get up early one morning to spread the fertilizer (ironically on the same day as the first presidential debate). I set my alarm for 6 a.m. It goes off as I'm in a semi-insomniac snooze. I look out the window to pitch blackness. It tests my meddle- can I walk a straight line in the dark? What is the purpose of daylight savings time? But I get out, and spread the chemicals praying next spring I will be able to distinguish the weeds from the randomly selected.

"You saved me, in a difficult time. I saved you last night. It was at cost of a lie, but I made the sacrifice freely, and out of a grateful heart. None in this village knows so well as I know how brave and good and noble you are. At bottom you cannot respect me, knowing as you do of that matter of which I am accused, and by the general voice condemned; but I bet that you will at least believe that I am a grateful man; it will help me to bear my burden.
-Mark Twain
"The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg"

Sunday, October 1, 2000

The Prodigal Poet

Dave's Dating Lesson: Choose a partner that drives a beat-up old nearly broken down obsolete automobile. That way when you break up you won't be reminded of her every time you see a similar car on the road. In this day of embarrassing prosperity you are less likely to see the broken down types around town (or maybe that's only where I'm hanging out). There is no more sure painful a reminder than seeing a similar car as the one that took the two of you all around and got you to many places you never thought you'd be.

This valuable lesson is similar to another I learned at Macalester College, that heady institute of higher learning. During my freshman year at good ole freaking Mac I was rooming with Dr. Peter Seline of Albert Lea, Minnesota. Dr. Pete and I didn't get along too well. Let's just say that Dr. Pete thought I was the biggest loser he had ever seen and I never quite forgave him for the time he threw up in my heirloom-like waste paper basket.

One of the few pleasant exchanges between us came after I had meandered down to our local Cheapo to buy Paul McCartney's brand spankin' new LP, Pipes of Peace. I put it on our stereo as Dr. Pete and I were at our desks studying (I'm sure he was studying some biology or something that would lead him down the path to his medical degree. I was studying the profound meaning behind Mr. McCartney's new songs). I was a bit disappointed in the LP, the follow-up to one of my still favorite LPs of all time, Tug of War. I expressed my displeasure to Dr. Pete and he actually had some words of kindness to share. Something about how he sort of liked the record (Dr. Pete hated my taste in music and I wasn't too keen on his) and that I should cut Paul a break. It's hard to produce great music every time out especially seeing the impressive length and quality of Paul's career blah blah blah.

This lesson came to mind when I picked up a copy of John Hiatt's newest CD, Crossing Muddy Waters. Hiatt remains one of my favorite writers- and his workmanlike career now spans nearly 26 years of prolific and worthwhile music. Crossing Muddy Waters is his 14th studio LP/CD and like most of his other work, it's an impressive collection of distinctive songs. Hiatt said the sound he was shooting for was a "back porch" sound- and he effectively accomplishes the task. The CD was recorded in four days with two members of his touring band, Davey Faragher on acoustic bass, and David Immergluck on mandolin. The eleven breezy blues songs sound like they've been around forever bouncing around the banks of the Mississippi, echoes just waiting to be heard.

Common themes abound- imagery of cars, trains and riding down the river invoke feelings of whimsical wanderlust and voluntary displacement. Curiously six out of the eleven songs mention either "tears" or "crying" and yet the overall feeling of the CD is one of atonement and the rustic splendor of moving forward. The CD is the type you can put on as background music- bluesy folk with a tinge of bluegrass- the swampy sound is infectious- jangly guitars and Hiatt's loose vocals are enough to get your feet a-tappin. At the same time the deeper you listen the more rewarding the disc is. Hiatt remains a clever and gifted lyricist. It's hard to imagine another songwriter who with seemingly little effort continues to throw us lines like- "red tail hawk shooting down the canyon/put me on that wind he rides/I will be your true companion/when we reach the other side."

In a recent interview with to promote the new CD Hiatt revealed an insight about why he continues to write and why his writing means so much. When asked if some of the raw emotions he has exposed in his music makes it difficult to listen to past songs he responds, "Oh, no. The songs are what got me through. It's kind of like only the song survives. It's not my real life in these songs. It's inspired by bits of it, but it's inspired by a lot of different bits. The songs were my release; the music makes me free. I've always felt like there's nothing I couldn't write my way out of."


My last best college roommate Spunky sells medicine of a different kind than Dr. Pete- being the CFO of a winery. His continued friendship is probably the best thing I got out of my Macalester experience. On Wednesday night Spunky and I hopped on over to the Borders in Richfield to hear Hiatt perform a brief set of his new songs. This definitely was not a "back porch" setting. The standard conglomerate book store layout seemed an odd setting for such personal homilies and yet there was something touching about hearing John alone on his acoustic guitar performing his new songs to an appreciative suburban crowd. Hiatt recently left his old label, Capitol to join the folk label Vanguard. His new CD is also available for download at for ninety-nine cents per song. In conjunction with this new way of getting his music to his fans he also is playing several free shows at different Borders across the country. He seemed in his usual joyful mood this particular night. Concluding the all too brief set with an old song, "Riding with the King" he proved among other things that memories and longevity can be intertwined.