Monday, October 28, 2002

The Saga of a Man in a Very Cold House and His Oatmeal Supplier

It was just after lunch Friday afternoon and I was headed over to a popcorn place through the Minneapolis skyway system. For the past month this has been a ritual for me, a treat I've afforded myself for taking vacation time from my job and working a 60 hour week to help Hennepin County prepare for the upcoming election. On this particular day I was walking with a sense of urgency and a little more pep in my step as I was about to take the advice of my friend/boss who had recommended I try a smoothie with my popcorn rather than the usual popcorn/pop special offered by this nearby popcorn place.

On my way to the store I pass a glassed in area that has a big screen TV that is constantly playing even though you can only see the picture and not hear the sound. A group of people was gathered around the set and I could see the set was tuned in to FOX news and figured it was merely more on the sniper story. As I got closer to the crowd I could hear some people crying. And then I saw the caption that read, "Sen. Paul Wellstone Killed in Airplane Crash." I blindly found myself walking briskly back to my work area my own eyes welling up with tears.

You didn't have to like the man's politics or his personality or share in his belief in government's ability to have a positive influence on people's lives in order to admire his passion. The rarest and most beautiful and worthwhile people in this world are those who are passionate about something/anything. To truly care about and to devote your heart and soul is to risk sticking out from what is safe. That what Wellstone was in particular passionate about- trying to make other people lives better- was something very special indeed.

With the amount of media coverage and the many tributes to Sen. Wellstone and those who lost their lives in the crash I know I can't possibly add anything terribly insightful other than the couple of times I was in his presence I was amazed at how a man of his (and my) size had the ability to light up whatever room he was in (most people, myself included, tend to darken things when faced with a similar situation). Whether he was speaking in a low key manner or worked up in one of his trademark frenzies, people stopped and listened and paid attention because he was the rare soul who had the courage to speak from his heart and with undeniable conviction.

Having to work the rest of the day in an absentee voting area was a tad surreal. People approached and thought we had some insight not being reported elsewhere. And they had questions about what the tragic news meant for the election. All we could say was that we were waiting for some direction from the state as to what was to come next. It reminded me a bit of the M*A*S*H episode where Henry Blake is sent back home. At the very end Radar comes into the operating room to make the startling announcement that the colonel's plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan "... it spun in. There were no survivors..." There is a gasp but the surgeons have no choice but to keep on with their work. It's a crutch to work your way through without having to deal with the grief but at the same time there is no way you can possibly concentrate on the details of the work.


As a kid getting ready for school there was the rare occasion that mom would fix my brother and I oatmeal. We'd sprinkle some brown sugar and milk into the mysterious mom made mixture and it sure beat that bowl of Cap'n Crunch or toasted Pop Tart we usually had. My aforementioned friend/boss recently re-introduced me to the delight of oatmeal. Who knew that it now comes in an individually wrapped package that you can pour into a bowl, add a little water, and microwave into a most satisfying lil' breakfast? Believe me it is the little reminders, the rewards of a one of the best friendships I've ever had that makes me glad that I did take time away from my job to do something else for a while. Never has someone been so in need of the extra hour (of sleep?) that comes along with falling back, but I have seen first hand that no matter what obstacles are thrown your way (professional wise, personal wise or otherwise) you just have to once in a while remind yourself that something little like a heated bowl of acumen offered from a true friend can even make a most difficult week seem worthwhile in the end.

Monday, October 21, 2002

It's Cold Out There

As if the precipitous drop in temperature wasn't enough of an unneeded indication one only take a look at the state of my house- in desperate need of a fall cleaning- to realize that as the man sang, "summer days and summer nights are gone..." And like a house in disarray the newsletter too has a few leftovers to use or lose. We have after all if nothing else on this page week after week proven that no life detail is too small or too trivial to print.

First a few unused notes from last week's trip to California: Before the first night's Dylan concert my sister and my friend Spunky were chatting. When the conversation turned to me both agreed that the term "eccentric" fits me well. When I got back home and was telling Max's catsitter (who was conned by the combination of irresistibly sad yet charming eyes and amusing yet annoying howl of the little guy to be fed canned cat food) about my trip she made the comment that my friend Spunky seemed even more "uptight" than I am. I may be wrong, I'm often known to be, but I don't exactly feel either term is an accurate fit.

I will admit that while working in downtown Minneapolis for the month that I have noticed I tend to stick out among the typical crowd that wanders through the skyway. I'm not exactly one of the beautiful people sharply dressed. Nope I'm the guy with the odd looking month and a half growth of hair on top of my noggin and bright red hooded Cheapo sweatshirt. I also have noticed that the kindly Minneapolitans don't exactly share my love for Homer Simpson. As I get off the elevator I leave everybody with the classic Homer signoff: "So long suckers..." I have yet to find a group of boxed in strangers that finds that funny.

Another thing I noticed while out west: Law school students sometimes don't even have the time to buy toilet paper. 'Nuf said.

Speaking of Homerisms one leftover complaint from the remarkable Twins' season was having to try to follow the team through its radio coverage. I don't have cable television and trying to keep track of what is going on in real time on the Internet via a slow modem connection was not very convenient. So I returned to the radio home of the Twins for the past 42 years, WCCO-AM (830- the Good Neighbor). I stopped listening years back because like my mother, I couldn't stand announcer John Gordon. The man blabbers on and on about everything except for the game going on in front of him. Tune in during the middle of an inning during the middle of a game and try to figure out what the score is- go on, I dare ya. But thankfully we are constantly kept informed of the Double A matchup between Beloit and Durham.

Plus Mr. Gordon and his sidekick Dan Gladden seem to think their listeners are also watching along on TV as they often groan over a play or an umpire's call, then stay silent as they apparently watch the replays all the while leaving us blind listeners clueless as to what is going on. Arggg!!!

Driving home listening to the Twins' post game shows I could have, would have, forgiven Gordon if only he had followed my lead. He signs off every night with a most enthusiastic "So long... everybody!!!" If only he was a Simpsons' fan and correctly completed the phrase just one time.

So my return flight from Berkeley landed a half hour early. I learned this was not a good thing as we sat on the plane waiting for our gate to open. Just as we were finally pulling up to our gate the pilot announced he had a score to game five of the Twins/Angels' series- the Twins were up 5-3 in the seventh. Oh boy, I thought, I might get home in time to watch the end of the game. But as I walked through the airport I was stunned (sort of) that every TV at every gate was tuned in to a football game. And it wasn't even the Vikings but the Rams! What is with this town?!

Turns out I was lucky not to witness the end. And now I only have eleven days until Mr. Dylan makes his way to the Twin Cities (but who's counting?). I may be the only one with this particular affliction (a symptom of uptight eccentricity?) but does anyone else notice that the days following attendance at a particularly inspiring concert or movie or Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode that things seem a bit discombobulated and trivial and a shade meaningless? Is day to day life about getting by, doing what we have to do to afford to attend other enlightening or inspiring moments? And if so, pray tell me why that is so?

But enough about me. A kitty beckons and craves attention so I predictably leave you with the appropriate sign off: So long suckers...

Monday, October 14, 2002

Breaking the Fall (It's Nice to Get Away Once in a While)

Picture this: a starry Bay Area night in the crisp autumn air sitting in an outdoor 8,000 seat theater built in 1903. The University of California Berkeley's Greek Theater resembles the Roman Coliseum with its stately architecture including large white pillars (as a kitty sitter typically wittingly said when she saw a picture of the venue: "Holler when they bring out the lions and feed the slaves to them...") and the place is shaped exactly like the half moon that shines in the sky above. Three members of the versatile four piece band are dressed similarly (burgundy colored suits the first night, black suits the next). The lead singer is the center of attention not only with his different attire (black suit for night one, gray suit the second night) but also his distinctive swagger. The stage lights go down to the din of an Aaron Copland piece that is mostly drowned out by the whistles and yelps from an expectant crowd.

The band begins with a bluesy rock number. On the left hand side of the stage lead guitarist Charlie Sexton rips off several high arching rhythmic riffs. On the right the other guitarist, Larry Campbell answers Sexton with a less flashy but more melodic stream of notes. Bassist Tony Garnier provides a thumping foundation under the wailing guitars and drummer George Receli is pounding his kit with such force that one fears the fellow's fillings might fly out.

The first surprise of the evening is that the lead singer- who will provide his usually quirky vocals throughout the performance, is half seated, half standing behind an electric keyboard rather than the acoustic and rhythm guitar he usually plays. He pounds chords out simultaneously with both hands looking just like a young boy in Hibbing in the saccharine 1950's shocking an audience of high school students and teachers with his very best Little Richard imitation.

"Well, I'm gonna quit this baby talk now/I guess I should have known/I got troubles, I think maybe you got troubles/I think maybe we'd better leave each other alone/Whatever you gonna do/Please do it fast/I'm still trying to get used to/Seeing the real you at last"


It's all about Jennifer. It has been for quite a while, something that will never be explainable, never be understood just like Anya's, the vengeance demon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fear of bunny rabbits. If pressed to say what you mean you'd probably stammer and stumble but failing to do so, failing to explain ultimately says much much more.

In the fall four years ago I was scheduled to go to a Bob Dylan show at Midway Stadium (within walking distance of my house) with my friend Jennifer and another friend. I was a bit anxious about mixing these two particular friendships Lord knows why. But Jennifer stood me up. Walked away. So I was minus $32.50 for the ticket, $5,000 for a home improvement loan, and much much more. Things did forever change.

There are times in life when you just need to hear a particular song whether for inspiration, introspection, insight, distraction or mere entertainment, a familiar song can reboot your inner hard drive every now and then. Last week as I was packing a duffel bag for a three day trip to Berkeley I just had to hear Bob Dylan's Oscar winning "Things Have Changed." I couldn't say why, and I didn't feel I needed to. My CDs are currently in a rather disorganized state so finding one particular disc is sometimes a futile exercise. Unfortunately this was one of those times. And for a minute or two there I thought I was going to unravel if I did not find my Wonder Boys CD. If forced to choose the song would make the short list of my all time favorite Dylan songs- not because it has any of his most unforgettable lines- but rather because of the mood it invokes. The singer has seen quite enough and as he wanders through absurd situation after absurd situation he admits his state of mind- he used to care but things have changed.

"I hurt easy I just don't show it/You can hurt someone and not even know it/The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity/Gonna get low down, gonna fly high/All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie/I'm in love with a woman who don't even appeal to me"

Years later as I found myself serenely sitting at the West Coast venue (within walking distance of my sister's apartment) with my friend Spunky I couldn't help but think about Jennifer. I wouldn't have found myself where I was if not for another Jennifer. When Dylan announced his summer tour schedule and it didn't include the Twin Cities I was a bit disappointed having seen the man perform every year for the past ten years. The closest he was coming was Fargo and Sioux City certainly makeable drives. But one thing working at the Legislature has taught me is the necessity of a legitimate balanced budget- meaning not only should revenues at the very least compensate for expenditures but also that the many areas needing funding receive their fair share. In state terms that includes areas like transportation, health and human services, governmental services, public safety, etc. For me it includes mortgage and insurance payments, utility bills, feeding the dying kitty, and necessary entertainment needs. Already having spent another year's amount for Twins' season tickets as well as an outrageously priced seat for a Paul McCartney show I couldn't justify the traveling costs of going to one of the Dakotas to see Dylan.
I knew my fellow Twin Cities resident Bobfan Jennifer (2) was going to go to the Fargo show with her sister. Keeping my options open I asked if I could hitch a ride with them. Jennifer (2) kindly said yes. But common sense (not always such a good thing) prevailed and I decided to bite a difficult bullet and not see Bob in 2002 (this was all before the announced St. Paul show).

But the relative ease of my decision might have come from knowing another option did exist: he was playing two shows in Berkeley where my sister is going to law school and my old college roommate the irascible Spunky lives within an hour's drive. Having not yet visited either one in their new location I thought it might be the perfect excuse to get a few tickets and fly out and spend time with some important people.

But I couldn't pull the trigger until Jennifer (2) said her experience has always been that once you're standing there watching Bob perform, it always seems worth it in the end (she flew out to see him in Seattle). Turns out she couldn't have been more right. I was convinced.

On our walk to the Greek Theater for night one's show Spunky and I walked past a college building where the notes of someone practicing piano scales floated into the air. I kiddingly remarked that I wondered if that was Bob getting ready for the show. Spunky got the joke (one of the few that most often does). We then encountered a rather large line of people waiting to get in. By the time we were frisked and entered the general admission only event there was scarcely a seat to be seen. We wandered to the far left side and sat down on the now cold cement bench like seats.

The usual introduction ("Please welcome Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan") was embellished (somewhat mockingly) to include references to being rock and roll's "poet laureate" and donning makeup and a substance abuse problem in the 70's, finding Jesus and 'becoming relevant' again with some of his best work in the past few years. It was remindful of Dylan's wicked sense of humor- from his interview with a Time Magazine reporter seen in the documentary Don't Look Back ("I can sing as well as Caruso"); to whatever the LP Self Portrait was supposed to be; to the fake beard he wore this fall at his return concert to Newport where he was booed off the stage in the 60's for having gone electric (a sacred no-no in the serious folk world) to the Traveling Wilburys.

Bob's keyboard playing style was fun to watch. He plays the piano like an aging kitty awoken from a nap stretching his spine as far as he can towards the ceiling not only to feel better but to strut his stuff. Night one's highlights included a terrific "Tombstone Blues" where he sang the line "the sun's not yellow... it's... CHICKEN" like a gleeful grade school child who can't wait to reveal the punchline to a recently learned riddle. There was also a sad and mournful yet confident "Positively 4th Street" and a great great country blues version of "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" that of course got the hippy crowd cheering lines like "even the President of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked..." and "advertising signs that con you into thinking that you are the one/that can do what's never been done/that can win what's never been won/meantime life outside goes on all around you..."

My favorite moment however was a sterling version (the best I've ever heard) of "Things Have Changed" where Bob's weary and sardonic vocal was enhanced by a band that got behind the heart and soul of the observational current state of things (mind) so effectively that even those Berkeley residents (remnants) who smelled of funny herbs seemed to appreciate a newer song.

Bob also did some crowd pleasing covers including the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and my favorite Neil Young tribute to dads "Old Man." He also included two Warren Zevon songs both nights ("Accidentally Like a Martyr" and "Mutineer") that while not reaching the heights of a Dylan original certainly were quite touching (I cried when I heard about Zevon's terminal diagnosis).

The undeniable highlight of night two was a quiet and reflective "Every Grain of Sand" that usually, unlike most Dylan songs, doesn't match the studio version but this night somehow came quite close. The triplet arpeggios of the song that create such a hypnotic hymn like quality were recreated live by Bob's keyboard work and Larry and Charlie's subtle electric guitar playing. What usually translates live into an awkward ballad was on this occasion a reminder of what a great great intuitive writer/performer Bob is.

He closed both nights with several songs from his last CD Love and Theft, a piece of work that should have changed the world and still might. There were smile inducing jazzy versions of "Floater" and "Moonlight" as well as an apocalyptic "High Water." The swinging "Summer Days" almost fell apart both nights due to the wordiness of the song but I swear the band was swinging/rocking so hard by the end as Bob tried to spit out the words that I was afraid the whole place was going to launch skywards.

Monday, October 7, 2002

Missin' Case o Beer

Most people like to spend their vacations in some sunny faraway exotic location like Mexico, the Bahamas, or Florida. As if further proof is needed I'm really not hooked up like most people I prefer to spend my vacation in scenic downtown Minneapolis helping with preparations for the upcoming election. It's the second year in a row I've done this and I've heard an earful from folks who have to deal with a person who tends to get a little crabby because he chooses not to sip mimosas on a beach but rather work another job for the additional income it brings in and as a result has become more than a little burned out.

Let me just begin by making the following observation about working downtown in our state's largest city: parking sucks. I usually park in a lot that charges four bucks a day that is about a five minute walk from the Hennepin County Government Center. The other day as I was pulling in to pay the attendant, the guy was kind enough to inform me that the next day rate was going up to $12 due to the Gopher football game and $10 the next day due to the Twins playoff game. Now when I'm struggling to save every penny I can to ensure that kitty is well fed those rates seem a little more than even I can digest. But I was really grateful the guy warned me in advance.

The next day I parked at a meter and plugged it with eight hours worth of quarters. I ended up saving a whole two bucks (I'm a regular Martha Stewart). The following day, since I was going to attend the Twins' game, I decided to bite the bullet and pay the $10. As I was pulling in the guy recognized me (this ain't exactly a small feat- the lot is very large and he must see hundreds of different people every day). He asked me if I found somewhere cheaper the day before and told me things should get back to normal next week. I've become so accustomed to accepting poor customer service that this guy remembering who I was truly touched me. I made a downtown friend!

And this is the second week in a row I've made a friend with a parking lot attendant. Last week I was looking for a place to park for the McCartney concert and when I found a reasonably priced lot the guy informed me that my car was the same make and model as his car. When I told him I was going to the concert he asked how much I paid for my ticket and shook his head when I confessed.

Friday's playoff game was a bittersweet experience. To echo what has been written elsewhere in this newsletter by Stoo and Pat this has been a rather remarkable season by the local club. As written to death in our local dailies it began with the owner willing to accept a $150 million check from Major League Baseball to eliminate his(!?) team. No matter that there are several other franchises (including the commissioner's) arguably in much worse shape than the Twins; having survived that and having survived a first half of the season where the team stayed in first place despite a series of injuries to key players there was the concern that the owners would force a player strike thus ruining the season.

But none of that came to pass and the Twins found themselves (deservingly so) in their first post-season action since 1991. It has been a long time coming for fans who stuck around. We deserve this having had to sit through seasons of watching the Rich Robertsons and Scott Aldreds and Jerald Clarks and Danny Ardoins of the world try to keep us out of last place. It has been a grueling and often times hopeless effort to continue to follow the team over the years.

But baseball really is a game of cycles. In the 80's the team seemed destined to move to Florida when a wealthy banker saved the day and purchased the team. In the spring of '87 (my senior year at Macalester) I bet my former freshman roommate now dermatologist a case of beer that the team would finish with a .500 record or better. Having lost 102 games just five years before and having been a rather pathetic club for several seasons, the dermatologist with bad skin thought the bet was a lock, just a naive Asian lad dreaming that the team could turn it around. But I knew with the acquisition of Blyleven in '86 and the additions of TK, Gladden, and Reardon that the team added some very valuable pieces to the mix. But even I, the jaded optimist, couldn't have foreseen the forthcoming World Series championship.

'87 was like today and entirely different at the same time. I camped out overnight that year with my friend the car detailing Eric Patterson, when playoff tickets went on sale. I was in the beginning of my notorious "blue period" and was so heavily medicated that I actually slept through the televised broadcast of the only game the Twins lost to Detroit (Pat Sheridan!) in the playoffs. The only memory I have of attending the games at the Dome was high fiving Eric's lovely girlfriend Anna D'Andrea after a Gary Gaetti home run.

Flash forward to watching Torri Hunter misplay the first batter, Ray Durham's first inning liner into an inside the park home run I somehow wasn't too disappointed. The wait has been well worth it. The only constant (literally) between? I thankfully worked for Cheapo then, and I fortunately work for Cheapo now (lack of time off not withstanding).