Monday, August 27, 2001

Givin' My Troubles to a Rat Terrier on a Rock

So there I was September 1984 living away from home for the first time, dropped off just outside the heart and soul of St. Paul, feeling not exactly homesick but certainly a little lost. The distended egoism that roamed the halls of Frank B. Kellogg Senior High the last two years wanting to be someplace (ANYPLACE) else, convinced that there was something more important than prom and whom was dating whom now took a bit of a tumble. It was a rather humbling experience seeing others from all over the country and the world wanting the same thing and actually having some semblance of ability to accomplish it. Who was I to think I could stand out? And as hard as I tried to shrink away and disappear my senior year of high school I now thought my invisibility was a permanent self inflicted condition.

I strained to look forward, quite literally hurting my eye in the process as I allowed my self two baby steps back from the past to help me remember who I was and where I came from. Every afternoon I would descend the wide marble staircase of the dormitory down from the third floor to the first where there was an expansive lobby area equipped with a piano. I would play my self comforting songs as the passing indifferent eyes of the class of '87 limped away and the upper class people looked a tad annoyed.

Just to the side of the room with the piano was another room that had a TV set where I would go and sit at night and try my best to cover my eyes as that year's version of the Twins, after years and years of absolute futility and anonymity suddenly found themselves in a pennant race. Having grown up wishing that players like Rick Sofield, Hosken Powell, and Paul Thormodsgaard would develop into the stars needed to help the Twins compete only to be perpetually disappointed (and growing quite accustomed to the feeling) I didn't know whether or not to let my heart go and actually believe that the 1984 Twins could actually succeed and get to the playoffs.

Fading fast the team was still in it when they went out to the dead baseball town of Cleveland to play one of the few teams that had always been worse than the Twins during the preceding nine years that I had become a die hard baseball fan. The Indians sucked and the Twins needed to be the better team that weekend to remain in the pennant race. On a blurry Friday evening they played a wonderful seven inning game building a 10-0 lead against the last place Eastern Division team. But the Indians began coming back.

Still the Twins led 10-8 when pinch hitter Jamie Quirk stepped up to face closer Ron Davis with two men on in the ninth inning. Quirk, a journeyman catcher best known as a close friend of Royals' star George Brett, stepped into a Davis fastball and sent it screaming high into the sky toward Lake Erie. The ball soared out of the park and the Twins walked off the field as stunned as my heart felt sunk. The season was for all intent and purpose now over.

Flash forward 17 long years and I'm in the midst of struggling to figure this year's lesson. This year's Twins raced out of the gate and played such marvelous baseball the first half of the season that had they played only .500 baseball after the All Star break they still stood a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time in ten years. The collapse has been as demoralizing as it has been complete. Last Friday as I sat and watched another lifeless defeat and a Torii Hunter home run headed dangerously close to my noggin I thought maybe if I let the thing hit me it would all magically make some kind of sense.

Alas the ball hit the guy standing diagonal in front of me and fell harmlessly into the seat next to me. Immediately the guy behind me and I grabbed for the ball. The guy's son had annoyed me all game long with such perceptive baseball questions as "Do both teams have nine guys?" "What Twin went blind?" and "Who was better, Kirby Puckett or Babe Ruth?" If it had been any other kid I would have gladly given up my hold on the baseball without any regrets. But would this kid even appreciate the treat of watching Major League Baseball and getting a batted ball? Reluctantly I let the guy have the ball. Coming from the bat of a Twin it was probably cursed anyway.

Two days later was Kirby Puckett Hall of Fame Bobblehead day. Some "fans" lined up over night to get the collectors' item. Having all the other seven lining my desk smartly giving me a nod or two at the appropriate moments wasn't enough incentive to try again and get the latest doll. Like an ole dog practicing a new trick like rolling over, but not on a linoleum floor only on carpeting, and teasing his biggest fan by spinning in circles rather than performing the requested trick, I thought I had overcome my bobblehead addiction. But the day before 15,000 fans would walk away with a porcelain likeness of Mr. Puckett I searched eBay to see if any dolls were yet being auctioned and how much they were going for. I came across a doll of another famous American, George W. Bush, and decided that if I couldn't have my Kirby that the Prez would be a nice little consolation prize. $12 later I await the arrival of the most blank look on the faces of my too large burgeoning doll collection. It seems positively the appropriate coda to this ever drifting Orwellian tale.

Rollin' and Holdin' On

If there are but two things in life I still look forward to it's getting to see my favorite five wheeler with bloody toes and eyes wide open veins, and having the chance and the honor to hear new Bob Dylan songs.

Readers of the newsletter might recall the award winning series of articles we devoted back in 1966 when Blonde on Blonde first came out, analyzing every word, every nuance of those wild thin mercurial sounding songs. Well come shortly this fall expect no less: page upon page devoted to the one artist out there who it's always worth waiting for to hear exactly what he has to say next.

Dylan has a new CD, Love and Theft, due out September 11. The latest effort is the long anticipated follow-up to his 1997 Grammy award winning Time Out of Mind. That CD was stark and spooky- featuring songs about a walker desperately trying to find some way to connect with things and people around him as he wanders in the world with a mind trying to make sense of the past and find some way to endure the future.

From what has already been written about Love and Theft the tone is much lighter- it's apparently a trip down Americana lane. Dylan in his typically flip and iconoclastic way when asked a question comparing the new songs with his last CD replied, "I think of it (Love and Theft) more as a greatest hits album, Volume 1 or Volume 2. Without the hits; not yet, anyway."

This past Monday Columbia Records released the first song from Love and Theft on Dylan's official web site ( The song "Po' Boy" is a shuffling country number with some trademark Dylan lines. His current touring band (Tony Garnier, Charlie Sexton, Larry Campbell, and David Kemper) provide the necessary lazy sunny Sunday strolling embellishments as well as they do on the many bluegrass tinged songs being played in concerts these days: "Hallelujah I'm Ready to Go," "Somebody Touched Me," "Roving Gambler," and "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie."

"Po' Boy" is the first song in Dylan's 500+ song catalog to end with a knock-knock joke (and a darn fine knock-knock joke at that). Somehow it's the perfect finish to a song that's difficult to describe exactly what or who it is about. "Knockin' on the door -- I say, 'Who's it, where ya from?'/Man say 'Freddie.'/I say, 'Freddie who?'/He say, 'Freddie or not, here I come!'/Po' boy, 'neath the stars that shine,/Washin' them dishes, feedin' them swine."

The never ending tour and singing most every night has had its pluses and minuses on Dylan's voice. His most effective instrument has become less and less nasally and more and more raspy. His range isn't nearly as good as it was before but the tone is more and more fitting to the bluesy songs and arrangements. Throughout his career there's been one consistency and that is the authenticity of the performance (nobody does Dylan like Dylan) and his voice fits his current songs (or the current arrangement of the old songs) better than ever (and vice versa).

The expression on "Po' Boy" is no exception. It's difficult to imagine any singer wringing the heart and soul out of such Dylanese as "'How much you want for that?'/I go into the store/Man says, 'Three dollars.'/ 'Alright,' I say, 'Will you take four?'/Po' boy, never say die/Things'll be all right by and by."

Dylan, more than any other artist, is able through his songs to connect to some of the chaos that is always going on in my own life. "Po' Boy" is a good example of this. I've taken to taking a lot of long walks around Como Park these days. The walking is a lot of effort for a variety of different reasons. Haunted and strenuous some days it's a matter of thinking about the baby steps process- putting one foot in front of the other. Other days I marvel at the grand scope of things- a marvelous view and a chance for redemption on one level or another. The cynicism ("The game is the same, it's just up on another level") tinged with a lingering never say die optimism ("All I know is that I'm thrilled by your kiss/I don't know any more than this"). September 11 can't come soon enough.

Monday, August 20, 2001

Cynically Counterfeiting My Own Insights

One of the few areas I remember ever disagreeing with the elusive soul formerly known as my most reliable friend is her belief that animals don't have souls. And ironically she was the one who introduced me to the irresistible wily charms of our 1993 Woman of the Year, St. Francis of Assisi.

Now with all the debate raging about using human embryos for stem cell research this whole question about what exactly constitutes a soul, a living being, a sentient life, has crossed my rather lackadaisical consciousness just a little bit more than most matters.

One might define having a soul as not only being able to distinguish between right and wrong but having the ability to act upon that distinction. Using that definition I look at my roommate for the past ten years, that quirky ball of neurotic fur and have to say he has more of a soul than I ever could hope for. He most certainly knows when he has ventured into the territory of a risky mistake. He takes his scoldings with ears bent forward, a look of perspicacity that he knows better in his eyes.

Though his brain is the size of a walnut (on his better days) Mr. Max has certainly picked up his role in the nature of things as well as a few lessons or two. We've had a chance to take a few walks recently and I'm amazed that despite not having taken walks since last fall, as soon as his harness is attached and the leash firmly in my hand, he knows it's time to bolt to the front door, and he will soon enjoy the semi-freedom of the world he usually only gets glimpses of.

But it is Max's most curious characteristic that makes me wonder about how we learn, and how our instincts aren't always picture perfect. The first night I brought him home all those years ago I let him out of the oversized carrier I used to transport him from his former owner's home off Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis to my rather small efficiency off Grand Avenue in St. Paul. We sniffed each other out at first, trying to establish some perimeters of what the new relationship was going to be.

After a while Max took to lying on my chest, satisfied that he could trust me in some small way to provide some shelter (and most importantly- his meals). I soon noticed my T-shirt was becoming moist. I held Max above me to try and determine which end of him was leaking. Not that it really probably would have mattered much in retrospect. I had a St. Bernard of a kitty.

His drooling can turn off the more sensitive (and allergic) non cat loving people that visit from time to time. And though I've heard stories about other cats that share his unique trait I've never known another cat who once he is in deep purr can match my loyal feline friend for the amount of spit that can leak out of the corners of his mouth.

The past few years I've tried to determine why it is that Mr. Max drools. After some careful observation I've noticed that when he is purring he tends to stick his tongue between his front teeth thus forcing his mouth to remain slightly ajar. This habit has become even more pronounced later in his life. Did this come because his mother never taught him the proper way to purr? And if so doesn't that suggest that something so inherent (if not mysterious) as to why cats purr is not just an instinct but a differentiating personality quality related to perceiving one's own existence?

Not that having unique characteristics proves that anyone living in this little brick abode has what could be defined as a soul and thus will spend eternity in that blissful little resort known as Heaven when time finally runs out, but I think the one with stripes around here is certainly more qualified than the one with a growing numbness to all that can be perceived.

Monday, August 13, 2001

Aye Calypso

People who know me well know that there are two things in life I love: 1) singing John Denver songs at the top of my lungs and 2) women's professional basketball. The former is self-explanatory, the latter is based on my true admiration that the WNBA players sure do got game.

Last Sunday I saw the Lynx in person for the first time this year. The team has struggled all season and this was the first game that their three best players were in uniform at the same time. Though Katie Smith has been rock solid game in, game out, first round pick Svetlana Abrosimova missed the beginning of the year and when she finally returned to the lineup last year's WNBA Rookie of the Year, Betty Lennox, got hurt.

Lennox's return to the team Sunday was brief but effective: she played seven minutes and scored nine points. Her quickness and energy is something the team has missed all along. Abrosimova played perhaps her best game of the season scoring a team high 21 points and grabbing a team record 15 rebounds. Smith added her customary 20 points and the Lynx beat the Sacramento Monarchs 79-76 in overtime.

The Lynx had appeared to win it in regulation after Smith sunk a couple of free throws with 8.3 seconds left. But Monarch's star, Ticha Penicheiro (who truly is a fabulous player with astounding court vision) raced up floor, leapt in the air, double pumped as Smith hit the ball, and somehow managed to sink a shot from near the free throw line.

The cynic might suggest that the only reason I was at the game was to pickup yet another bobblehead doll, a passing porcelain resemblance of Katie Smith. That same cynic charting my dorkiness quotient might also suggest that there is something increasingly disturbing about a 36-year old who has taken to collecting dolls.

I don't really have much of an answer to the cynic other than I worked hard to get my bobbleheads. And I'm certainly glad I got a Katie Smith, because she adds a necessary balance to my testosterone laden collection (and appropriately she is the best bobber in the bunch). When I first heard the Lynx were joining the latest collector's craze I for one applauded them. The deal was sponsored by Rainbow Foods and to get a doll you had a purchase a group of four tickets that included a $5 Rainbow gift certificate along with a voucher for one bobblehead doll.

I went to my surly neighborhood Rainbow and scampered over to the service desk. When I told the young woman I wanted a bobblehead pack she looked at me as if I was speaking Chinese. I tried my best explaining the deal that her company was sponsoring and she looked it up on her Ticketmaster terminal. Nothing came up. She tried for a number of minutes, asking some of her colleagues if they knew what the heck I was talking about. Eventually she looked at me and said, "How do you spell LINKS?" I secured my tickets but not before enduring the wrath of a few elderly women who were delayed in buying their less than five items at the service desk.

Just a couple of observations about attending my second Lynx game: Before buying season tickets for next year (which I'm seriously contemplating) they have to limit the number of children they allow into the one-third full arena. Seems like 80 percent of the crowd was under 12-years old and didn't have a whole lot of interest in the drama of the game (just how do you stop the skillful Abrosimova when she gets the ball on the wing with her ability to drive and her equal ability to spin and hit jumpers?). It didn't seem to matter that on the court were the league's leading scorer (Smith), leading rebounder (Yolanda Griffith) and assist leader (Penicheiro). Instead the kiddies were more interested in waving their pre-made DE-FENSE signs that they had to be told the appropriate moments to wave (and just how many times do non beer drinkers need to go to the bathroom?). Stay at home and play your Nintendos you lil munchkins...

Also can there be consideration in dropping the wannabe Laker girls cheerleading squad? The snug form fitting outfits and jiggling and gyrating to the screeching sound of Britney Spears seemed even more out of place at a women's professional athletic event than it does at the men's games. The league is having a hard enough time being taken legitimately for its skillful play (see the Playboy poll of what player fans most wanted to see nude), thus it doesn't need to refocus the attention away from the remarkable athletes. And for all of us with affection for observing bouncing body parts the day (and cure) may arrive soon when there'll be an equal number of female and male bobbleheads in our collection and the kids will grow up wanting to be the next Svetlana more than they do the next Britney.

Monday, August 6, 2001

A Garden Gnome Roused to Life Yet Pining For His Stony Slumber

The last time I slept in my basement was a stifling July night a few weeks after my Mom died. I had spent a lingering day in western Hennepin County helping out at the county fair showing voters their new voting equipment. That evening I had a lone ticket to the Twins game and I went and just the events of the recent past made me start crying uncontrollably. I glanced to my right and seated in the next section was Vikings receiver Cris Carter who looked at me with a comforting kindness in his sad eyes. I actually thought he was going to come over to talk to me but he didn't and he really didn't need to. There was something in our eye contact that reassured me that it was OK to be feeling SO much.

I went home that night and decided the air was too heavy and I would try sleeping in the bed in my naturally cool basement. Early in the morning (some do say the darkest hour is just before the dawn) I woke up suddenly unable to catch my breath. I tore at my chest gasping for air. At first I thought a certain furry bowling ball sized friend was asleep on me and was restricting air flow but he was nowhere in sight. I started to panic wondering why I couldn't breath while trying to calm my nerves and slow down my gulps for air.

This past week as the temperature maintained an uncomfortable level at night and the humidity was unforgiving I decided to once again retreat to my basement. I set up a clock radio I borrowed from my Mom's office so I wouldn't oversleep (yeah right) and miss my morning routine. I woke up before the alarm had a chance to buzz and I turned on the radio to hear the announcers interviewing the football coach from Blaine High School about what he does to monitor his players in the unhealthy weather. A familiar sense of dread immediately hit me. I knew from the previous night's news that Vikings' tackle Korey Stringer had been taken to the hospital with a life threatening condition caused by the oppressive heat. I could tell from the sound of the voices and the tone of the conversation that Stringer hadn't made it through the night.

I went to work in a bit of a daze and we turned on the news conference at which Randy Moss broke down wondering how he could ever get over the loss of his teammate and friend. I saw Mr. Carter, eyes hidden by dark sunglasses, trying to remain his ever composed self but at a loss of not only words but of faith because of the sad sad events that had unfolded. I really wished I could somehow convey the same look, the same feeling that Carter had conveyed to me a couple summers back.
The music that played throughout the period surrounding the loss of my breath (and other things) was from a local group that I had stumbled upon. Tubby Esquire's music is a mixture of sarcasm and joy; it is as witty as it is authentic. Yet there really isn't a noticeable clamor for polka music among the youth with purchasing and bar going power.

But there was something really special about the CD, The Return of the Last Castrato, that caught my unexpected attention and held my ear with reassuring aplomb. When I met the band and they played their songs for me around a campfire with a frisbee chasing dog, I was completely won over. These were down to earth guys with something to say, and a unique style of music to say it with.

The group's last appearance Friday night was a bittersweet sendoff. The Viking Bar's clientele, a mixture of young college students and hardened drinking regulars paid enough attention to enjoy a sense of what might have been: songs from an unreleased follow-up to Castrato that included the perceptive question of what came first, polka or beer? And a heartbreaking ditty about a guy wondering why his significant other doesn't seem to care enough anymore to be bothered by an affair. Two stellar highlights from the evening: a joyous rendition of one of the first songs I ever learned to sing, the irresistible "Happy Wanderer" with its made for sing-along chorus; and a song the band played for me all those years ago as the embers of the campfire were dying and the dog had tired out from chasing the flinging plastic disc- Subtlety. That terrific song confirms that a woman with a four button blouse who only buttons three demonstrates the very meaning of subtlety and likewise a guy who swigs a mouthful of milk that makes him stutter, learns a lesson or two because that milk came straight from the udder.

Bassist John Schech told me before the show that one of the reasons the band was breaking up was because it just wasn't any fun anymore. That was hard to detect from the joyous last appearance of the winner of the Minnesota Music Awards' best polka band. Lord hopes it isn't too early to speculate about a reunion concert...