Monday, February 26, 2001

More Than Just a Matriarch

I started working at the Legislature in January 1999 six months before my Mom died. The unrelenting knowledge of the terminal diagnosis weighed heavy on me as I tried my best to do well at my new job. I remember briskly walking through the tunnel between the Capitol and the State Office Building with mixed thoughts of the committee hearing I was about to cover and wanting to rush home to be by my Mom's side.

I remember several times going over to my parents' house and as we were sitting down for dinner Mom would look at me with a worried look on her face and ask me how my day had gone. She said I looked tired. I tried my best to describe to her the fusion between the hardest work of my life and the thrill of finally doing the type of work I always wanted to do. I'm not sure she understood but I know she somehow knew the importance of what I was doing.

To this day as I play an observer to the lawmaking political process I remember how my Mom encouraged my interest in journalism and writing. She was the one that really got me reading newspapers with a passion. And I know she was one of the few that understood my interest in the difference between how we perceive how something goes on with the actual end result itself. There are those responsible for participating and those equally important who make sure that what is being done is broken down in an accessible manner. It's the correlation between those who are inside looking out and others who are outside looking in.

There are those who might disagree but I consider myself fortunate to be down at the Capitol every day to witness what is going on. To me the process is organically fascinating. It starts with an individual needing to connect with his/her neighbors and garner enough support to get elected to represent the community. As we saw in Florida this initial step isn't something to be taken for granted. The election process is messy. I recently attended a dinner honoring Marge "Moogie" Christianson who the Star Tribune dubbed the "matriarch of Minnesota Elections." At this dinner I sat across the table from the head of Ramsey County elections who admitted had what went down in Florida gone on in any precinct in the country- with the media scrutiny and the heavy-attorney presence, things could be found wrong and questioned about our election process.

Elections are only as good as the people responsible for administering them. We all just assume once we cast our ballot our vote will be counted. We trust the democratic process. But if the systems in place haven't been long planned out, and each and every little step along the way have not been carefully looked at, the end result is hanging and dimpled chads and several thousand disenfranchised voters.

Unfortunately my brief time in the election business showed me that there are some people involved who aren't in it to ensure a fair and accurate process but rather like just about any other business are only it for their own personal advancement desires. The system if fraught with hypocrisy. Fortunately for all of us in the state, Marge, in charge of elections for the past 26 years in the biggest county in the state, was all about integrity. I'm not sure I've ever come across another person in all my years that I trusted more. When I entered election chaos in 1996 Marge was one I called and called often to get much needed information. She never let me down. Through the years I've been lucky enough to get to call her a friend and I'm all the much better for it.

At the retirement get together for a great great person the turnout at the Maplewood Outback restaurant was tremendous. Several people of differing divisions of life turned out to honor one who through the years through her devotion to absolute integrity in our election process has earned absolute admiration. I was glad I was able to share in the moment. Those that follow have mighty big shoes to fill. Virtue isn't something blowing in the wind. Rather it's something we all could learn a lesson from. Thank you Marge.

Squatting Squirt, Freezing Kitty

She had a sunny disposition but she loved to moon people. After we parted ways I spent a number of years in a funk, with clouds swirling all around my head.

I finally decided to give in and listen to them, those of the professional opinion. The attitude adjustment manifested itself definitively with an effort to watch a Disney film. All is right in Walt's Wonderful World. But I wasn't going to watch any of that caroling mermaid or jolly genie crap, nope I wanted a story with some teeth to it. So I rented Mulan figuring a story about a female warrior proving her mettle might actually be inspiring. Or perhaps it's just because I like to watch women kick the stuffing out of others.

I loathed the movie. I wondered if there was any point to the story whatsoever other than the twist that the young hero turned out to be a heroine. If it had just been about a scrappy young male placed under the same circumstances the movie would have been devoid of any interest whatsoever. It bored me to tears.

A couple of weeks ago after a long Tuesday legislative work day I got home around 9 p.m. all anxious to watch a brand new episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I thought I had taped earlier in the evening but I hadn't set my VCR right. When I realized my mistake I was all but ready to drive a stake through my heart. This was a key episode to the season (ironically it was a further explanation of the mystery of this year's plot- the Key).

I meandered through the next few days knowing I had missed something key, wanting to ask the scattered Buffy fans I kinda know to fill me in on what I missed but still somehow holding out hope I could somehow track down the lost episode. I had given up hope so I asked our LeAnn at our annual gala what had happened. She gave me a wonderful blow by blow description of the plot developments. Then, almost like a miracle the man from New Ulm was up in the Cities and he indeed had the episode back at his apartment. He promised me he would mail it up when he returned.

The Key of course is Buffy's heretofore unknown sister Dawn who has been placed in the gang's lives (and memories) by some monk like sect bent on keeping her out of the hands of Glory (the evil devil woman). When the teenage Dawn finds out she isn't really human she takes a pair of scissors to herself providing the second event of this season to hit a little too close to home. She merely wanted to show everyone (and herself) that she was indeed one of them.

Think this show isn't absolutely the most cleverly insightful hour of television on the air today? What other show can possibly boast that it has set up a situation where by season's end we will see a battle between God and the devil (on the WB!); has asked the question if someone can truly love who doesn't have a soul; that had a assuredly wonderful scene last week in which Spike, that poor poet (in every connotation that conjures up) is placed in the unfortunate position of having to decide (even though he has no choice) between the woman representing salvation- who gave him eternal life, and the woman who is his tormentor who he absolutely is in love with in a frightening way, and his current "girlfriend" who complains about the walls he has erected around his heart.

After the episode I was absolutely convinced I wouldn't see a greater work of art this year. But by the weekend I was proven completely wrong. It's either a sign I'm no connoisseur of panache, or that there is hope in the rare ability of universal expression. About 15 minutes into Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon after we are introduced to the major characters and themes of the film the first martial art scene crackles to a start. Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) steals the sacramental sword of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a warrior who wants to retire. Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) who throughout the movie contemplates her life as a combatant that has meant sacrificing her love for Li chases the younger Jen up and down, across and over the darkened roof tops defying all gravity in the process. As the percussive background crests the exhilarating technological yet soulful mastery of the filmmaking steps back and allows viewers to catch their breath for a moment.

The fight scenes are stunning, like the old time choreography of the classic 50's musicals yet the story has a message that resonates deep within the heart. The movie ultimately isn't about whom can kick the crap out of whom, but rather it's about loyalty and friendship and one who attains a position without any appreciation to honoring one's word or realizing the merit of paying the dues to those that have sacrificed their own dreams for the sake of others. It's a stunningly beautiful movie full of unforgettable moments and the sheer joy of filmmaking. It's one of the rare movies that truly made me miss the young Siskel to my Ebert, the world's greatest soccer player who could have understood my unabashed enthusiasm to what I had just seen. This movie is all about heart, all about the appreciation of accepting a vision of the world we would normally do our best to ignore.

Monday, February 19, 2001

How I Lost Out on $1,000

I meant to ask the one who appreciates words so much to explain to me the difference between an instinct and a reflex because I really need to know. Lately Max the Cat and I have been experimenting on distinguishing between the two. I've discovered that when I hold Max belly side up on my lap and grab his front two paws behind his head his back two paws immediately point toward the sky. It's rather amusing.

I've also noticed that sometimes when I touch behind his cold felt like ears he will instinctively (or reflexively?) scratch his ear as if my touch was like itching powder. The other night I did this but before his back paw could reach up to scratch behind his ear I began scratching it for him. His back paw stopped around his belly and continued scratching in midair. I was in stitches but Max had the old blank stare past me look on his gray face. His itch had been scratched, albeit in a whole other manner than he was used to, so the world seemed right side up once again.

Attending the annual Cheapo party to me has become if not a ritual than something rather instinctive (or reflexive?) to do. It is one way for me to feel a little bit more a part of the company and it presents the chance for me to see people I don't get to normally see and see other people I've never seen before in my life and probably will never see again.

Last Sunday's fabulous gala celebration was no exception. For those of you who unfortunately did not attend let me be the first to tell you you missed the bash of the millennium- plenty of fine food (man those chicken wings was tasty), trivia, pool, and dart games, hearty conversations, the ever entertaining Cheapo child Eon Trainor, and prizes galore!

After I humbly lost a game of darts in a rather embarrassing manner I headed to where the majority of the people were congregating. To my surprise I actually recognized many of the people. I caught up on Buffy with a fellow Buffyholic (glad to see we both still agree that the show is the highlight of the week); heard some horrifying past job stories that would make anyone appreciate their current job much more; was educated to a theory about coffee being the drink of the devil from one who had just won a gift certificate to Caribou Coffee; and had somebody literally fall at my feet as we were discussing the merits of different Sandra Bullock films (made me wish I talked more). You tell me that's not a great party?!

I also somewhat regrettably learned that part of the not to be return trip to Japan that I could have attended last fall included a last night dinner of extremely pricy fresh salmon flown in from the shore packed in ice. This was fish the quality I'm sure the Iron Chef could base an entire program around.

I can almost taste that salmon yet I also have no idea what that salmon could have tasted like. It brought to mind my affection for that "other" seafood, shrimp, and how when I was growing up my Mom would fix for us kids our dinner of choice on our birthdays. Without fail my request for every year was a shrimp dinner. Didn't matter how she fixed it, I loved my shrimp like Bubba in Forest Gump. It was during my selected birthday dinner however that Mom would make Dad a salmon dinner and the little taste I got of that fish dish made me kinda understand that the more I opened myself up to unusual experiences the better off I'd be.

On one of our family vacation trips somewhere in Iowa (or was it Nebraska?) a kindly country waitress was entertaining the family with a conversation that included that always hilarious bit of wisdom of how we are what we eat. She began to take our orders and without missing a beat, and without any intention of entertaining a stranger, when she asked me what I wanted I said, "Shrimp and Squirt." Oh the howls of laughter that followed. And as I told a new friend about all and the sum of this, it was a rather substantial moment when we got to the part about my Mom. I'm glad she smiled.

Monday, February 12, 2001

Hardcore Bluegrass

f that textured 1989 self doubt novel The Second Time Around was about anything at all it was probably most about the heart being a muscle. Once that organ loses its ability, or doesn't care enough to pump blood, things are gonna come to an end mighty fast.

In the book the main character describes himself as a used up red rubber ball that can no longer bounce back. It's a cliched analogy from a character who is quite fond of movies. Throughout the story he has his heart broken many times at the movies. So if we were to transpose him to current times I'm afraid the poor lad might just go over the edge. Just when you think things are as exactly as they seem, we've seen the unfortunate breakups of Bruce and Demi, Meg and Dennis, Alec and Kim, and now regrettably Nicole and Tom. How much longer can Kurt and Goldie, or Susan and Tim, or Michael and Catherine Zeta last? How about Angelie and Billy Bob? Is there nothing in this world sacred that we can believe in?

If the movies have conveyed to us any important message it is that there are many things in life that just cannot be explained. People do what's most convenient and then they repent. As I was digging myself out from the snow last week I saw a small round black object sitting underneath my house's outside dryer vent. For the life of me in the distance I couldn't figure out what it could possibly be. As I approached it my heart sank- it had to be something that broke free from one of my major appliances. As I picked it up I was relieved to find out it was merely a hockey puck. How it got there and why it was there was puzzling but at least it wasn't bad news of any kind to one who is admittedly a bit gun shy these days. It a reminder that unexpected things can fly at you at any time from any direction and like Christian Slater's character in Untamed Heart you have to be prepared to grab things when you have the one in a million chance.

I was out the other night with my friend Stooey who has recently had his heart broken. I was in the odd position of trying to counsel him as he questioned how long it takes to for things to heal. Earlier that day the temptress had told me that if we were both participants on Survivor she would have no problem voting me off the island because that's the way the game is played. She told me Tina didn't stab Mad Dog in the back because she never made any promises to her. The implied friendship couldn't stand in way of what they were there to do. So the best I could do for Stooey was to tell him to write- because that's what they do in the movies. Maybe sometime in the near future he will be kind enough to let me know if it works.

As I was putting the finishing touches on another issue of the newsletter I turned on my car radio to Garrison Keillor's show and he had bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent and the Rage on. They were playing their version of what is probably my favorite story song of all time- Dolly Parton's desperately sad Jolene. The song never fails to cause a tear or two to form. The narrator with so little self esteem vociferously begs the disinterested third party to understand the power she holds over her. "You could have your choice of men/But I could never love again/He's the only one for me Jolene/I had to have this talk with you/My happiness depends on you/Whatever you decide to do, Jolene."

I appreciated Vincent's faithful version of the song, but not quite as much as I appreciate Parton's terrific new CD, Little Sparrow. Like last year's The Grass is Blue, this new CD is an attempt by the popular major artist to return to her roots. Little Sparrow is hardcore mountain bluegrass- ever faithful to its musical roots in deference to the more poppy style that made her famous in the first place. There's plenty of fiddle playing, mandolin tinged songs about a simple life and about how difficult it is to open your heart to another who turns their back away.

The opening title cuts sets the theme of the entire 14 song cycle. It's a song about a friendship betrayed. The singer sings her heart out like and to the little sparrow as she expresses her admiration and envy at the bird's ability to freely fly away from its troubles. The songs are full of a singer who is walking the blood thin line of trying not to care, caring too much and wanting to still care as her heart hardens more and more.

Half of the CD's songs are Parton originals that stack together like fine china. There are two rather unusual covers that work well in the mix even though neither one would be an obvious choice to include in a bluegrass set. Sinatra's I Get a Kick Out of You gets a down home treatment while Collective Soul's Shine shares a common theme of many of the songs- turning to a higher force to help map the confusion out.

Little Sparrow is cinematically the best new CD I've come across this year. It is a highly personal statement sung with a comforting and assured voice of one who needs to make this music and obviously enjoys doing so.

Monday, February 5, 2001

Smells Like Dojo Spirit

I've had three "first hand" experiences with the martial arts. When I was in high school a young woman told me I looked like Bruce Lee. Judging by her redneck slurred speech I don't think she was being complimentary.

In college one of my favorite movies was The Karate Kid. I love the scene, and to this day it breaks my heart to watch, when Daniel (Ralph Macchio) goes to his neighborhood dojo to take some karate lessons in order to fight the bully that is constantly kicking his butt who also happens to be dating the girl Daniel has his eye on. As the club members bow to their master, Daniel's enthusiasm turns to pure horror as he sees the one leading the drills is his tormentor. The look on his face says it all- it's better to get yourself thumped around physically than it is to have your heart torn out.

I became the co-sports editor of the college weekly along with my pal Spunky and immediately the athletes of the school voiced their displeasure of our coverage of their activities. We decided to address their concerns by devoting an entire week's edition to the school's martial arts teams. It didn't deter us that the school had no visible programs in that area other than a Tae Kwondo class that was being offered by the phy ed department. One of the stories that I wrote for that issue said that I was Ralph Macchio's stunt man in Karate Kid and that my exhaustive training included the old Asian tradition of soaking my hands in pickle juice to toughen them up. I don't think anyone besides Spunky and myself saw the humor in that issue but geez the two of us laughed up a storm.

A few months later one of the college's adult students approached me after a class and said her son wanted to meet me and if I wouldn't mind giving him an autograph.

Last year the final corner to my martial arts triangle was completed as a friend loaned me her Taebo tape. I'm afraid the most exercise I got from that program was putting it in my VCR and plopping myself down on the couch to watch. I'm not sure that exactly improved my cardiovascular condition. My heart was warmed however on the evening my friend demonstrated her Taebo moves to me and to the unforgettably cute curious faces of her two dogs, master Kurbie the Rat Terrier, and the late great Sammie, a Schipperke. Kurbie and Sammie looked at their mama as if she had gone stark raving bonkers but still they were content that she'd work it out of her system eventually. I'm sure they were used to seeing her put her heart into the matter. I'll never quite be capable of getting that scene out of my system.

Last Tuesday I went with a colleague, the volunteer firefighter's daughter who holds a green belt in Tae Kwondo, to the nearest dojo. She recently moved here from Iowa where she had earned her impressive belt. Now suffering full Tae Kwondo withdrawal she has eagerly been looking for a place where she can resume her training. As she described the art to me I began to feel it was exactly what these old bones needed.

It's not exactly unusual for me to be in a room full of people that can beat me up (and frankly, quite often they do) but it was strange being in a room full of people who could kick my face through the ceiling. As I watched the group of students go through their stretching and warm up routines while the guy in front of me went through his "forms" I glanced over at my colleague. Somehow I couldn't imagine such a reserved, mild mannered person (who happens to be a terrific writer to boot) kicking the crap out of an opponent. Remind me not to get on her bad side.

While the group diligently practiced their kicks an orange belted guy in the middle of the room began to get a rosy shade of red. Soon he was somewhat hunched over and approaching the back of the room where we stood. Staff asked if he was OK and then he began to heave. He quickly came back to the garbage can and continued his heaving. "Have to honest, I have to quit smoking," he gasped.

On my way home I looked for the appropriate tape to play to listen to and cap off my unusual evening. I pulled out my Joan Jett compilation which was perfect for the moment. "I don't give a damn about my bad reputation..." As I got home I turned on Buffy and wondered if my colleague could hold her own against the slayer. Believe me, I wouldn't bet against it.