Monday, September 24, 2001

My Most Remarkable Day or What Would Have Happened if Sandra Bullock Had Become a Seamstress

The best birthday present my folks gave me when I was growing up was a pretend radio station from Sears complete with a microphone, headphones, turntable, and a station manager's board to write down all the programming. I would take my tape recorder and record many a day's programs altering my voice to mimic the different DJ's and newscasters on WQSR-AM. The station had a dynamic afternoon lineup featuring the wacky comedy of Benny Gideon and the hits of the day played by Shotgun Smalley.

WQSR's music collection was a combination of 45's my mom had given to me and records I had spent many a week's allowance purchasing. One of the songs that was played often on the station was Gordon Sinclair's "Americans" which was a Mom donation to the station. The 45 wasn't exactly music- it featured Sinclair, a Canadian, bestowing the virtues of the United States above the background music of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I'm not exactly sure why Mom had bought the record in the first place and I'm even less sure why it always stirred such a strong reaction in me. Besides its patriotic tone the essay was the first I had known of redemption, of being able to pick yourself up and not kicking others while they are down.

I'm not exactly a patriotic leaning guy. I have problems with any large group thinking (and as too often the case with patriotism it isn't even about thinking but rather feeling) in mass. One of my assignments at this year's State Fair was to interview kids about some of the issues that have been swirling around the Legislature. One of the questions was about whether or not students should be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I was heartened by the answer from one Elizabeth Arnold, an extremely articulate and opinionated young lady from St. Paul. Elizabeth had just spent the year studying in Venezuela and was able to pick up a broader perspective than the other kids I interviewed.

She said that making the kids say the pledge was a rather pointless exercise unless you were also going to teach them what the pledge meant, its history and the ideas it presents. Making kids say anything by rote wasn't exactly the type of behavior our forefathers founded the country upon, Elizabeth said.

One undeniable outcome of the terroristic attack of New York and Washington DC is that it has forced people to think a little bit about what being an American is about. The senselessness of the violence and murder made us want to pull together and mourn as a nation.

Likewise one of the things I've learned as I've struggled to deal with my grief over my Mom's death two years ago was that seeing her die, holding her hand as she breathed her last breath forever changed my perspective on things. It wasn't as if I could ever just go back to every day life and get as upset about trivial things especially after losing such a valued perspective and close friend.

In a way the current national tragedy touches a similar vein. Life long irritants and pet peeves like people who don't use their turn signals, people who don't return phone calls, people who make promises they fail to keep aren't worth getting upset over in the long run. Life is too short to let yourself be bothered by such things.

Reading the news and seeing that awful video of the destruction it's all been rather difficult to think about anything else. Thus I was glad when my favorite new mother who lives on the mansion on the hill asked if I wanted to go with her to the service being held Sunday on the Capitol steps. We walked down the hill in the drizzle and were immediately impressed by the fire trucks from cities throughout the state, lined up and down John Ireland Boulevard with their ladders extended and flags atop each one. Equally impressive was the huge flag on the roof of the under construction Cathedral.

Though the service itself was a tad long, it was nice being able to share in the moment with 35,000 others (and one of my best friends). And if I needed to be reminded about what is important in this life I even got to hold the divine baby (albeit not exactly voluntarily or without some awkwardness) and to have lil Henry Louis look up at me with the bluest of eyes and then grin was a remarkable breathtaking moment.

That lone smile would have made my day memorable but it was just the beginning of things. For the past twelve years I've had a shadow next to me existing wherever I went, whatever I did, whoever else I may be with (even in the darkness). A large part of this shadow was composed of the biggest regret of my life, of a friendship I let get away in an entirely self destructive, selfish manner. The regret was not only based on the loss of a dear friend, but also by the way I treated her and what I put her through and not having any opportunity to say how sorry I still am and how thankful I remain that the spirit of this shadow has lifted me time and time again and has helped me achieve some of my proudest accomplishments.

I've written about her often here, and not always intentionally and seldom directly. Her influence was tremendous. We met at Cheapo. In a period of my life when the thing I couldn't feel was my old self she immediately restored that part and my sense of humor and adventure in a quiet and simple way. She left for Australia but when she returned she brought back for me my still proudest possession, a rock she found on her last day on the beach. We took a trip together. I fulfilled a life's dream by writing a novel and without her it would not have happened. Then I shattered and some of the chards were sent her direction. We lost touch as her last words to me echo, "I still feel the same as always." I was even able to convince myself at times that she never existed that she had always been a character I created in my novel. I let go and moved on and yet I didn't.

Over the years as I pulled myself up I hoped I would somehow run into her and she could see me for what I was now capable of being. I sometimes found myself looking for her in an otherwise anonymous crowd. Whenever I had access to a database of people's names hers was among the first I would type in. But I couldn't find her. I figured she had gotten married, that her name had changed and that the opportunity to express anything from remorse and regret to thankfulness and appreciation was long long past.

Besides the lucky rock (which I lost for a while but thankfully was able to find again and hold on even tighter to) the lone times that this person was truly with me was at every Sandra Bullock movie. The first Sandra movie I saw was Sylvester Stallone's Demolition Man, in which she had a minor role. The first time I saw her, the first time Sandra spoke she reminded me for whatever reason of my friend. Was it her voice? Her face? Her facial expressions? Her character's charming personality? I wasn't quite sure but I was in tears. I forgot about Sandra didn't even bother remembering her name until I saw Speed and the same reaction happened. Sandra's goofiness, her immediate awkward ease? was so much like my friend's personality. And over the years as I have made it my duty to see every Bullock movie as soon as I can it hasn't always been due to my admiration of her work or even how much I like her as an actress. It often is because the spirit it evokes and how much that spirit continues to make me smile.

I've been working in a data base these past few weeks that is a pretty comprehensive list of the adults living in Minnesota. One of the fun things about working with the information is typing in old friends' names to see where they are and if they are still in the state. I had reached a point of so accepting that this person wasn't around anymore that hers was a name that I didn't even think of trying to search for. But I came across a similar name of another person so I typed in her name not expecting any results to pop up. When I saw the first, middle and last name, and the date of birth my jaw dropped. Forgetting about the time, about the difficult circumstances of the end of our friendship I knew, just knew I had to call her.

To tell the truth I didn't even think that much about what I would say. My only focus was to somehow not startle her too much, to keep it light but to ultimately convey how very sorry I felt for what had happened.

I recognized the voice immediately. Her reaction was about what I expected- "Oh my God," she said when I identified myself. She thought I had tracked her down because ironically she had been in town the day before selling records to our store. Our conversation was a bit awkward as we struggled to convey what we were up to. She was understandingly reluctant to reveal all about her life. And I did detect a bit of anger in her voice when she asked if I was doing better. She said she was the same person that I had known. She's living in Duluth working as a seamstress sewing purses. And she's married.

As our conversation was wrapping up I asked her if anyone else had ever told her she reminded them of Sandra Bullock. "Only about 150 times a day," she said. "In fact the guy at the liquor store told me that yesterday and then he tried to short change me." Although we may never talk again (I extended an invitation to see my house and meet Mr. Max whenever she's in town) I was so glad I called. She seemed touched when I told her what a wonderful influence she has been. And she has and will always be.

Things are a bit frightening out there and it's sometimes hard to see any beauty amongst the senselessness of it all. But the smile of a beautiful little baby, and the restoration of a proper tone of a friendship long gone makes me think (and believe) just about anything is possible as long as you keep plugging along with the right perspective.

Monday, September 17, 2001

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

"There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women bring"
-Bob Dylan's "Sugar Baby"

I should have known what kind of day it would be by the ominous beginning. After waking up at 4:30 in the blessed a.m., casting a more clingy than usual Mr. Max aside, scuffling to get my things together, downing two homemade lattes I headed off to the Catholic church in the most Jewish part of town to be a head election judge. Just a block or so from my house in the pitch black darkness a white and black cat flew in front of my car in pursuit of a bunny. The bunny easily cleared my wheels but the cat froze for a brief instant as I swerved and just barely avoided him. Had I run over him I don't think I could have handled the rest of the day.

Back up a few months if you will and know that the thing that has kept me plunging forward after a particularly difficult professional period and equally numbing personal life was the knowledge that on September 11 (911 to an alarmist) I'd be able to hear 12 new Bob Dylan songs. Maybe connecting with art more than reality is some kind of disturbing symptom of a larger disease but it's been this way for me since I became a Dylan fan all those years ago in college. Besides if you ain't looking forward you gotta be looking back and I'm a tad weary of doing any more of that. I did my best to resist the temptation of downloading most of the new songs from the new CD Love and Theft off the Internet as was possible to do. To hear all the talk amongst online Dylan fans of the new songs was as painful as it was Christmas Eve exciting since those that had heard the new music were ecstatic (Rolling Stone magazine gave the CD its first five star rating since REM's 1992 Automatic for the People).

But I wanted the experience of consuming the whole CD at once much as I memorably did with Dylan's last CD, Time Out of Mind. Back in 1997 I was going to wait until the day of release for that CD but as it closed in on midnight before the official release, knowing that our friendly neighborhood Cheapo stays open past it's usual hour to be the first in town to make available Tuesday new releases I meandered down to the store and bought Time Out of Mind. This was days after having a relationship shatter after a silent walk and then hearing Bob sing the first words of the CD, "I'm walking through streets that are dead. Walking with you in my head..." The appropriately eerie words haunted me and I ended up listening completely mesmerized to the entire CD even though I knew I had to wake up early just a few hours later.

Alas for Love and Theft I knew I couldn't duplicate the after midnight run knowing the extraordinary hour I had to be up and about. Fortunately a kind soul called me and offered to pick up lunch and deliver it out to the precinct for me and on the way she even was willing to stop at Cheapo to buy the new Dylan disc for me. Her offer of kindness almost restored my faith in the goodness of people if only for a moment.

After the initial rush of pre-work voters had passed we got the first word that something was amiss in the world. "The World Trade Center has exploded," someone said. "Hijacked planes," another reported. "Someone just crashed a plane into the Pentagon," we heard moments later. What the hell was going on?

Being in a precinct I couldn't allow a radio because we wouldn't want any election discussion, or candidate advertising to influence anyone. But to just get bits in pieces in scraps and spurts was remindful of one of my biggest fears in life.

Growing up my health was such that I missed just a handful of days of school. The days I did miss I must now admit were mostly days of hooky when I felt I deserved time away from school as mental vacations. So guilty did I feel from skipping a day every ten years or so that I became fully convinced that one of the few days I did miss was the ONE day that the teacher finally tied it all up and explained what everything meant. I figured it was my luck to miss out on something that everyone else now knew.

So the forever wannabe journalist inside of me was screaming to know the story of what was transpiring as deeply entrenched as I was in an isolated polling place. I felt like I was missing out on the biggest "story" since last year's Gore/Bush debacle that I also happened to miss because I was doing my civic duty as an election official. To add to the seeping dark feelings was my lunch delivery with the news that Cheapo had sold out of the new Dylan disc and that I would have to wait a whilebefore I could hear it.

Turns out sometimes it's just better off not knowing. As I drove home late that night still not quite knowing, or at the very least not willing to comprehend the day's events, I became quite spooked as I drove past gas station after gas station with lines of cars wrapped around the solitary pumps. Figures that just as I re-found my long lost soul mate the world would come to an end.

When I got home I was too tired to watch much of the news. And since I had for whatever reason (and feel free to criticize me- you'll just have to stand in line) made the decision to take my lone isolated vacation this year in beautiful downtown Minneapolis in the heart of Hennepin County I wasn't able to read much of the morning news. So I still to this point don't think it all has quite seeped into my actual consciousness.

The stuff I did allow myself to see and hear made me terminally sad. As much as I've seen how cruelly the people you love most can end up treating you there is something very jarring, very unraveling about living in the world where there is so much hatred and disregard for life and others. Having to listen to something you need not hear, having to emotionally deal with the rubble, one wonders about people who can seemingly revel in the cruelty they can inflict.

The only consolation (and it was sadly a very small consolation) was finally being able to pick up the new Dylan disc. (Bob even expresses the terrible pain of losing his mother last year.) All the hype for the CD is well warranted. This is our greatest living artist creating at his highest level, an inspired and truly great piece of work. The world may crumble but as long as there are those voices out there who can express deeply rooted emotions one can't ever quite entirely throw in the towel.

The music on Love and Theft is the kind that no one besides Dylan could possibly come up with yet it's unlike any music he has ever delivered before. It all sounds brand new, but it's as if it has always existed. What's truly inspiring is the amount of wit present. He hasn't come close to conveying his acerbic sense of humor so effectively since the Traveling Wilburys or arguably since 1966's Blonde on Blonde. The CD features a leisurely stroll through several of America's most deeply rooted musical styles. From bluegrass to country shuffle to blues to rockabilly to straightforward rock to 40's like crooners, the music is the most diverse of Dylan's career. And the lyrics live up to all the attitude- quoting everyone from Hemingway and Fitzgerald to Shakespeare (leave it to Bob to have Romeo and Juliette trading barbs).

The CD opens with the wondrously rollicking "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" (pronounced in Dylanese as "Tweedely dee and Tweedully DUMM). The next song, "Mississippi" was left off Time Out of Mind but later covered by Sheryl Crow. The song contains some of the best lyrics of a song cycle that contains some staggering brilliant words. "Walking through the leaves/ falling from the trees/Feeling like a stranger nobody sees/So many things that we never will undo/I know you're sorry/I'm sorry too." The ONLY thing the narrator did wrong was stay in Mississippi a day too long.

"Summer Days" features another intriguing song story. I love the line, "Well, I got eight carburators and boys I'm usin' 'em all/I'm short on gas, my motor's startin' to stall." My favorite song upon intial impressions is the bluesy "High Water (for Charley Patton)." A tribute of sorts to the great jazz musician, this is loving music from a heart that continues to feel things a bit deeper than most.

But with all the great new songs it is the final track, "Sugar Baby" that somehow manages to tie it all up and is Dylan at his most disturbing and his most beautiful. This is a song that is beyond belief, transcendent in the mood it conveys. It's a song about heartbreak about above the ground and in the heart observation; about being connected and disconnected all at once: "Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick/Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick/Any minute of the day, the bubble can burst/Try to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up makin' it thousand times worse.
Having to involuntarily be forced to buy the disc at the downtown Sam Goody (ewww) and experiencing the first listening outside the door of one who has surely inspired many a song and will probably inspire (right or wrong) more than a few more I came upon the realization that things will never quite be the same again. Sharing what we all shared and still feeling the shivers of the devastation, crying deep within I can't possibly begin to fathom a world without these 12 wondrous, timely and perceptive songs. Listen closely and with careful consideration y'all.

Monday, September 10, 2001

The Smell of Yellow

"The creaking of the tented sky/The ticking of Eternity/I saw and heard, and knew at last/The How and Why of all things, past,/And present, and forevermore/The Universe, cleft to the core/Lay open to my probing sense"
-Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence"

For as far back as I remember which is further back then most of you know, I've loved the smell of bananas. There's something about the fruit's fragrance that conjures up sunny happy thoughts that swirl around my brain like a narrow and winding Icelandic road. Unfortunately I've never enjoyed the taste even though I'll admit the taste is pretty much what you would expect from the smell. Throughout my life I've tried my darndest to like bananas but there is something about the texture, and a fruit that doesn't squirt, that just doesn't sit right with me.

I love banana-flavored candy, banana-flavored drinks and banana bread. I even like Cha Cha Cha's fried plantains, which have to be related to the banana in some way. I remember as a kid that my fixation with wanting to like bananas went so far that whenever Mom would serve hot dogs I'd carefully peel back the wiener's skin and do my best monkey imitation. You know that old saying, "you are what you eat?" well it would be quite fitting if only I liked the taste of bananas.

I'll go so far as to say that when the day comes when it's my turn to depart from this Earth that I hope the last thing that comes across my senses is the smell of a banana. For Pete's sake God even designed the fruit in the shape of a grin.

If there is one thing better than the smell of bananas it's the feeling that comes from carefully cultivating a home garden and after a summer's long effort finally being able to enjoy the fruits from the labor. I gotta say that I've really enjoyed my cucumbers this year (and no I don't go so far as to peel them like a banana before I enjoy them). The last few weeks I've waited for my green tomatoes to ripen. Last week they began turning yellow and usually once that happens the tomatoes become fully ripe within days. But it wasn't happening this time. Nope, they stayed yellow.

It was a bit frustrating because I was really hankering for the taste of some garden tomatoes. Then one day my neighbor came over when he saw me watering the plants (with my garden hose that is). "I see you're growing some of those yellow tomatoes. I've never tried them. How are they?" At first I thought he was talking crazy but then it dawned on me that the reason my tomatoes weren't getting red had nothing to do with the ripening process. I had bought some wacky hybrid!
Who knew there are yellow tomatoes? As I peeled my first ever non red tomato and bit into the sweet plump tasting fruit/vegetable, I was quite happy. It almost resembled a peach once it was pealed and I swear I smelled the smell of a banana.

I'm learning all sorts of new lessons these days so earth shattering that long held previous beliefs are now under serious doubt. So am I the only one who associates smells with actual objects? Do the rest of you smell things by their color? Have I missed other major things, been deluded about something else so simple throughout the years? Yellow tomatoes?

Speaking of yella, the end of summer jaundice hue took another colorful turn the other night with my feline roommate learning a new trick after all these years. Max is having more and more trouble with his leaping ability. Jumps up to favorite window ledges that once were second nature now take minutes as he hesitates before he tries and more and more ends up mistiming, misjudging his jump and hitting something he didn't mean to hit, or landing short of the mark. He doesn't seem to be in any pain so I wonder if it's a dwindling confidence thing.

But anyhoo, I've taken to not being as careful with kitty-proofing my house these days. I don't mean to tempt the little fellow but I'm not putting things as far out of reach as before. I've even taken to doing the man thing and leaving the toilet seat up figuring although it isn't much of a jump, given his inaccurate jumping ability he'd never try to jump up on the lip for the chances of him falling into the bowl seem mighty high. But early one morning I heard him get up from the bed and heard him drinking water. I didn't think any thing of it until the drinking went on and on, and on and on, and I knew that there wasn't enough water in his dish to account for all the slurping. So I got up and he scampered out of the bathroom, a room he seldom visits for fear of running water. I guess the water was saltier than he's used to. Let's just leave it at that. "Ewwww!" I exclaimed.

But now I'm armed with more digs for the little guy. The other night as I got off the phone with a friend, after a weird and difficult discussion, I turned to Max who was sitting contentedly on the couch next to me and said, "That was sure sad." Max looked up with smug indifference as if to suggest that the one yammering was yammering nonsense. So I had to jab a barb, "Yeah, I may be pathetic but at least I ain't the one drinking urine..."

Monday, September 3, 2001

Getting His Johnson Back or the Saddest Day of the Year

Jonah was a boycott walker who felt completely alone after his targeted protest failed even though it contained an expiration warning: "Used Best By 1997."

Once upon a long ago or at least coincidentally just about a exactly a decade before, giving up was based on the overwhelming feeling that he would never feel better and this was the way it would always now be. But what did that mean? To let more down because of failing to try? Alternatively trying too hard so that the ultimate result was to feel crippling disappointment?

What he trusted was fragile, what he relied on was a spider's web. He leaned on the web, but it gave way. He clung to it, but it did not hold. He was like a well watered papyrus in the sunshine, spreading its shoots over the garden. It entwined its roots around a pile of rocks and looked for a place among the stones. But when it was torn from its spot, that place disowned it and said, "I never saw you." Surely his life withers away and from the soil other plants grow.

Ironically Shirley Eujest gently held his hand and walked right next to him and convinced him he may not be well but he could still keep a piece of himself. Ying yang peace. Together Jonah and Shirley had many adventures but perhaps the most meaningful involved taking long walks around different parts of town. It wasn't something he'd just share with anyone. Shirley had a limp, the result of a reckless skiing accident not at all her fault but entirely her responsibility. But had the accident not happened they may never have met; fate is funny that way. And she had a scar to prove it.

Eventually in the Dakotas on a swing set his darkness became too much and engulfed the light that she had thanklessly and ruthlessly provided. This part of the story has all been chronicled all too much and published in the archives, spooking him to tears. The end result was that he stopped walking altogether for several years. Jonah tried listening to the experts, he tried believing in the medical profession. He even turned to a priest in an hour of need. Others didn't think this way and for once all he ever wanted was to feel like the others or at least feel another once in a while.

He was going down which seemed natural if not anatomically improbable since he already was as far down as he could possibly get without sucking painted toes. If something inside of him had already snapped something else finally fought through the split pea soup dense fog and said, "Hey if this is it the least you can do, and never let it be said you never did the least you could do, the least to be done is to go down being yourself." Seemed like reasonable if not wordy advice and he forever would believe but never hear that the words tumbled from Shirley's mumble, her slightly slurred but never forgotten pony tailed speech.

Jonah took the train out east where once in a while he'd rent a car and drive to a completely unknown but quite historical (hysterical) spot. He'd park the automatic car (he learned how to drive a stick in downtown Chicago) and for the first time since Shirley hadn't said good-bye but still felt the same as always ("you can talk at me if you want," she said) he took his first real steps. And he kept walking even after his knees ached so much he could barely make it up the Capitol steps (and he'd bared much more much earlier to any paying attention or at least the price of admission).

The walking was a reclaiming of a part of himself he cut off yet needed to be. Sure it reminded him of her and she in turn reminded him of how he felt before and it all rolled down hill like a slow motion skiing accident that he could feel but not heal; she'd be as proud of Jonah as she was hoping he would never write to her again.

Years later on a cold spring day after Jonah and Eager Bunnee, the young alum had done their part walking for her company for AIDS, Eager convinced Jonah that "they" should return to walking even though she knew not, without a clue what restoring and returning to that particular chameleon stripe could unleash. So they began a first walk after the last. And it was too nippy to continue as her fatigue colored bikini revealed a bit too much underneath an undesired cold sweat.

He wasn't faking it any more. He lay it down one more time and when the decision was made to trust the decision was unnaturally uncomfortable. Jonah and Eager never quite made it around the lake. And that's where the story seriously breaks down if you, our dear reader, have walked along thus far. Jonah wouldn't talk because he couldn't . Their steps echoed as painfully as a hollow diseased tree. The rabbit died but the hare emerged on the back of his neck. Weighing more than a ton he collapsed although she wasn't interested in seeing that part. The look on her face mirrored the unforgettable and unrelenting last minute, last horrible gasp letting go of the one that once walked him past the barking dogs. He was alone. It was who he was. Always to keep an eye out for her name, the one that changed and knocked him over once again.