Monday, May 27, 2002

The Night We Called it a Day

OK, as I really should every week I begin this week's piece with an apology. I apologize to all those contributors to the newsletter last week for any mistakes and typos that appeared in your articles. Let's just say that the last week's publication production occurred in a bit of a sleepless induced haze (thanks to some furious law making at the Capitol).

Not to whine about my work (day and night) because when it comes to work I know we all have it tough, but I worked Friday evening into Saturday morning watching a mostly empty committee room where the stadium conference committee was supposed to be meeting to finalize the Twins' ball park bill. I got home around 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning. I was back at my desk at 2 p.m. after having stopped at the warehouse to pick up all the newsletter copy that was ready to go. I spent the next few hours half paying attention to the House floor activity and one-fourth paying attention to typing and editing the articles. The other 1/4th of my attention? Either it was thoughts of my ailing kitty, or my dear sweet sweetie, or it was just off in the ether somewhere.

By the time the House finally adjourned at 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning I zipped on back to the warehouse to pick up any remaining copy. I then went home, fed said snarly kitty and took a brief nap so I would have enough time (and some energy) to finish the newsletter. I was thankfully reminded that the all time best music to listen to after pulling an all nighter on top of nearly another all nighter after putting in godless other hours during the previous week is without a doubt Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. That thin mercurial sound and daffy lyrics are best absorbed if your mind has no defenses left. "Now the rainman gave me two cures/Then he said, 'Jump right in'/The one was Texas medicine/The other was just railroad gin/An' like a fool I mixed them/An' it strangled up my mind/An' now people just get uglier/An' I have no sense of time/Oh mama can this really be the end?"

I was mostly recovered by Tuesday or as recovered as I can ever truly be. Tuesday of course is the big night for TV viewing, and this Tuesday was bigger than most featuring the season finales of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 24. After watching both shows I was struck by an insight (or as insightful as I can ever be especially with a fried brain)- there is a huge difference between good TV and good artful TV. The episode of Buffy was again, one of the most thought provoking, emotionally wrenching things I've ever seen. 24 on the other hand has been a pretty decent show was straight ahead this is what TV usually is, stuff.

I shared my 'been too long since the last time' enlightenment with Mr. Max but he didn't seem to get it. He just seemed overly alarmed that I was acting rather wound up after I had been comatose for so long. Buffy was intense. It was the kind of two hours that you aren't sure if you can continue to watch, as gut gouging and unlike anything you've ever seen and spooky as it is, yet you can't take your eyes off because it is so masterfully done. After an extremely dark season of the show the finale ended with a edifying release, a stepping into the light, an affirmation of friendship and family that I'm sure left viewers nationwide from teens to dorky males in their late 30's, from lesbians to Wiccas, marveling at the magnificence and unpredictable storytelling with so much to reveal.

I began watching Buffy five and a half years ago on a lark and quite by accident. I happened to be channel surfing like a bloated and bored Beach Boy and stumbled across the show. I thought I'd continue to watch to see if it was as stupid as its name implied. Instead its wit, and the clever writing and acting immediately impressed me. As big of a fan of the show as I've become I doubt anyone could ever have envisioned the incredible and uniquely rewarding journey that writer/producer Joss Whedon and cast have taken us on over the years.

A lot of my all time favorite works of art have been validated by the most prestigious critics (or maybe because someone with a mind greater than mine authenticated the works is what made them my favorites in the first place): Citizen Kane, The Great Gatsby, Pet Sounds all have a regular place in my art appreciation attention rotation.

And now the undisputed bible of the highest art, TV Guide has again reinforced my own critical beliefs. A couple of weeks back, the magazine selected its list of the 50 greatest shows of all time. Seinfeld, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, and The Sopranos all deservingly topped the list. Buffy thankfully was recognized, finishing number 41. "Stylish, scary, sexy, and smart, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (has any series ever been less well served by its title?) is a genre-busting original, defying and impressing skeptics with cleverly crafted allegories of good and evil," those speakers of truth spoke.

This year's season finale pitted the once upon a time shy and self conscious brainiac now all powerful grieving Wicca witch Willow against the still not so sure why she is here fast food slinging slayer Buffy. It wasn't exactly a premise I could relate to but sometimes it's good to use your imagination. I marvel at those of you out there that still have friends that you made in grade school and growing up. I'm lucky to have a friendship that lasts more than a few months (something about my really annoying personality may account for that). In the show Buffy was at a loss at what to do- she had to stop Willow from ending the world and she watched in horror as Willow literally skinned the man responsible for the loss of her lover, yet at the same time before destroying just the latest apocalyptic threat Buffy couldn't forget the thought that this was her long time friend, a friend who has repeatedly been the steadying force in her own life.

While it must be nice to have friendships that last that long what do you do when one turns against you and turns into something monstrous? The ultimate answer came in the episode's climax with the last person you'd expect to be the hero, the self pitying Xander who earlier in the season chickened out of his wedding because he questioned if he was good enough to spend "eternity" with the once vengeance demon Anya, gently bringing Willow down (and back) by expressing his love of her as a friend. It's nice when friends actually listen to what you have to say (even if you are a chronic mumbler). The season has largely been about how the various characters have struggled and have found a lack of comfort from those they once felt closest to, and to have the season end on such a reaffirming message was nice to see.

Buffy, bummed out all season that her friends brought her back from the dead thinking they were rescuing her from some hell dimension but instead were ripping her from heaven, finally is able to come to see some light again. Contrast this with one of the darkest episodes I've ever seen in any mass medium, the episode a few weeks back when Buffy poisoned by a demon (and others), finds herself bouncing between realities. One is the one she has always known; the other a life in a mental institution being talked to by her now gone parents trying to convince her that the world she thought she always knew (and we did too), where she is a slayer and where vampires and demons intermingle and intertwine with human every day life is a delusion. What is to believe? She's not sure and she's equally unsure what world she really wants to return to even if the one she chooses is the mirage. The arc of the alternate story line was as impressive as the depth of the variety of emotions evoked. This is really special stuff and the finale, unlike other series almost impossibly brings everything we've seen thus far together while leading us down a continuing unpredictable but constantly rewarding path.

As experiencing the greatest art allows us to blessedly do, those of us watching along even the bleary eyed among us, got to share in her vision. The timing couldn't have been more impeccable- it was a necessary release, like a puff on a filtered cigarette, a welcome cleansing after yet another icky all night law making session.

Monday, May 20, 2002

Long Time Listener, One Time Caller

I perused my college's alumni magazine and came across a news item that the long-time geography department secretary, Barbara Wells-Howe passed away recently after a long battle with cancer. From the outside looking in, any connection probably wasn't immediately apparent. I never took a geography class. Our paths didn't naturally cross and I didn't know her hardly at all yet the news of her death saddened me because a shared love gave me a glimpse that she was a kindred coo coo kind of gal.

The story is this: Every week a mostly lone voice would at a regular time yelp out in the wilderness in the Macalester Groveland neighborhood. Sometimes the lone voice would be joined by his friend Spunky. The forum was a Saturday morning radio show on WMCN-FM 91.7, a show that featured all Frank Sinatra music. It was an odd show; a weird mixture of the wonderful music from the great American balladeer and the less than professional sounding host(s) of the show. Between songs the show was an uncomfortable mix of Soucheray/Reusse type humor with a little amateur Letterman thrown into the mixture. But mostly it came off as a soon to be Howard Beale looking into the abyss edginess with the madness minus the substance.

It wasn't exactly a shining moment in the history of the college radio station. The lone voice was both disturbed and comforted somehow that the 'you haven't heard anything like this before and thankfully you'll never hear anything like this again' style of the show wasn't exactly being heard by a lot of people. One show the voice went so far as to declare on the air that he knew no one was listening so he was just going to sit there in silence. A few moments later the phone rang with a request. The caller wanted to hear "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." When the DJ told the caller that he didn't have that song with him that day, the caller questioned how much of a Sinatra devotee the DJ could possibly be if he didn't have perhaps the most moving song in the man's entire catalog.

The next week the listener sent a note to the lone voice. This time Ms. Wells-Howe was a bit more complimentary saying she never missed the show, a show she really enjoyed. She mentioned she appreciated the effort put in. The lone voice left the radio station that morning with a bit more of the by then missing lilt in his step. A little bit later an insane mutual acquaintance of the two let the lone voice know how big a fan of the show the listener was. "She talks about it all the time," he was told by the one he really never should have met who had Ms. Wells-Howe as a work study supervisor. You never know when someone is paying attention or where one's efforts might lead.

Ms. Wells-Howe's obituary quotes Professor Jim Laine who said, "Barb was not, how shall I say, a repressed person. She taught us all how to be a little less repressed."

In memory of the listener the lone voice grabbed his favorite Sinatra disc Songs for Swingin Lovers and as it has with every listen since he discovered it twenty years ago, the music, with its irresistible charm, made his heart feel a little bit less heavy. The true Sinatra fan, Ms. Wells-Howe, seemed to prefer Frank's down and out drink a whiskey with me torch songs. But for anyone who doubts the true genius of Sinatra's work, it is always such a wonderful reminder at how magical the best music can be. It can transform hearts and whole worlds. It can connect people, if only for a moment and a lifetime that otherwise probably wouldn't have shared anything else. Until I came across the obituary I hadn't thought of Ms. Wells-Howe for many a year. Now every time I hear a Frank song, I will remember her.

So for those of you tuned in, the message remains the same even if the singer and the listener are now gone: Just make it one for my baby and one more for the road.

Monday, May 13, 2002

A Not So Happy M.D.

I learnt everything I knows just by watching television. I didn't need no nothing else. I doubt yous could tell that just by seeing at me. They say that too much TV watching stunts you emotionally. I see no evidence of that. I must admit I knowed far more from watching Welcome Back Kotter than I ever did actually going to some lame 10th grade class. Now I'm reminded that we're fast approaching my twenty-year high schools reunion. It's hard to believe it's been twenty years. Feels more like 23.

Somebody once said that when you reach the point where you repeat yourself, where you are redundant, where you say something more than you need to, where you repeat yourself over and over, it's time to hang it up. I was a bitter bitter young man by the time I was in my senior year of high school, spinning my wheels and biding my time, counting the days until graduation. I just wanted out. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was. Everybody that signed my yearbook essentially wrote the same comment, "you're a funny guy but you are so anti-social..." I was so looking forward to going to college where I'd be around people that cared about things other than what high school life was like in Roseville, Minnesota. One of the reasons I chose my alma mater, that fine institution of higher learning Macalester, was that no one else from my high school was also going there.

The one thing I remember enjoying about my last few months at Frank B. Kellogg Senior High was striking up a nice little friendship with the class party girl, Rachel Fasciana. Not only did Rachel like to hang out smoking with all the druggie boys, she also spent a record amount of time in detention. Rachel and I were assigned seats next to each other in shop class and for some reason we really hit it off. One of us was a burn out the other one was burnt out. She used to think I was extremely smart. I used to think she was extremely unpretentious. In the end only one of us was right.

One of our few common interests was music. I was in my Beatles phase and would occasionally serenade Rachel with a Paul song. She was into Black Sabbath and every morning we'd greet each other with the goal post like index finger, pinky finger erect, thumb to the side devil worshipping salute. "Sabbath rules," we'd chortle to each other.

I've always kind of wondered what happened to Rachel and where she ended up. Indeed the memory of her smiling eyes came tumbling back to the forefront of my noggin the past few weeks when a kind co-worker taped a couple of episodes for me of that pop culture smash hit, MTV's The Osbournes. And like just about everyone else who has seen the show, I find Ozzy's rather mumbling, stumbling, ambling current state of being and parenting skills rather humorous to watch.

This past week my sister took her son to Milwaukee for him to participate in a chess tournament. In her absence she asked me to teach her Asian-American studies class at Hamline University. There is a good reason I never joined the rest of my siblings in the teaching profession. It may have to do something with what all my classmates wrote in my yearbook all those years ago.

Going in I was a bit afraid of coming off as an Asian-American version of Ozzy Osbourne- only without the every other word being a "f" word vocabulary. My mind does to tend to wander these days. Instead after hearing presentations about how Asian-Americans are portrayed in movies, the federal government proposal to dismantle the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the history of Asian-American literature in the United States, and the Asian-American gay community's relationship with the rest of the country's gay community, I realized not all has gone downhill in the old mental faculties department since I myself was a college student.

The class and I had a decent discussion. I doubt they learned much from me but I learned from them that there still may be some learning to do outside of watching TV. And I'm sure Rachel Fasciana would have been most impressed by my devil may care substitute teaching performance.

Monday, May 6, 2002

It's Over

It was nearly thirty years ago that my Mom gave me a Minnesota Twins' yearbook. A couple of weeks later we watched the local team get hammered two games in a row by those dreaded Yankees on our family's new 10 inch black and white TV. I didn't place a lot of significance on these events at the time even though they would change me probably more significantly than any other up to the day that Mom died.

A few weeks after being exposed to baseball my brother and I went out in the backyard with a plastic bat, a tennis ball, and a brick garage wall backstop, and mimicked what we had seen and taken careful note of. I think I did a fairly mean imitation of Bert Blyleven's wind up, complete with tongue hanging out of the right side of my mouth- if only I had his curve ball. My brother did a passable version of a limping Tony Oliva, complete with left heel lifted off the ground. Mom watched from the upstairs kitchen window with amusement at what we had chosen to pick up from watching our first games.

Soon, every bit of my allowance money was spent on our baseball card collection. I loved collecting those cards and could tell you every last statistic about all the Twins from Larry Hisle to Joe Lis. My first hero was Sir Rodney Cline Carew, the moody superstar from Panama. I loved the way he seemingly could flick the ball at will with his bat anywhere he damn well wanted to. I loved the way he glided as he ran. I loved the way he threw the ball so fluently.

All of the following summers up until the time my brother moved away to college were spent in the backyard playing ball. There was a period we got together with our friends and played actual games down at Acorn Park. I lived, breathed, and loved baseball, watching it, studying it, and playing it.

One of the true benefits of going to work for the state was that my office (the secretary of state) had a softball team and I got to join and finally play the game again after a few years off. My second year with the team was the one I enjoyed most, when my dear friend Alex played. We drove to the games together and I'll never ever forget the game when a big burly slob hit a deep fly ball at a crucial point of a game out towards right center where the admirably competitive Alex was stationed. She raced to the right spot as I semi-closed my eyes at this seemingly significant moment. She stuck out her glove out at the last possible moment and caught the ball. The other team groaned and Alex did the most wonderfully merry jig I have ever seen a human being do. It was a great moment.

Years later after someone dropped the ball the SOS team didn't get into the league and my Dad scrambled to find me another team to play on. I ended up playing on my Uncle's wife's brother's team in Shoreview aptly named the Roundheads. These guys were all about ten to twenty to thirty years older than me but they could all play ball.

When the SOS got another team going the next year I got to play on two different teams. Two nights of softball. Seven nights of still living and dying (mostly dying at this point) with the Twins. My parents made it a point to attend just about all my games. I can't forget the moment I was playing second for the Roundheads and Dick Reiter was the shortstop and there was a guy on first with one out and the batter hit a grounder to Dick and I went to cover the base but he decided to take things himself and try and make the double play alone and failed to do so. After the game my Mom came over mad at the play Dick had made, fully confident I would've turned two and saved the game.

I mention all this because I recently found out I most likely won't be playing softball this season. My option wasn't picked up by any team. I'm 37 and my skills, which admittedly were never all that great (other than I ran like the wind) have shown some wear and tear. One of the most depressing things about the past few years is noticing that I'm now older than every player on the Twins' roster. And while it's inspiring to see players like Ruben Sierra, Julio Franco, and Jose Rijo reappear and make remarkable comebacks this late (in baseball years) in their lives I doubt there will be any team seeking my services anywhere down the road. When it comes to aging I've been about as successful as Ozzy Osbourne and the daily agenda these days is a matter of making do, the best I can.