Monday, July 26, 2004

This Summer's Season

Summer in Minnesota is known for two things: mosquitoes and construction. The latter certainly holds true in my humble little Hamline Avenue faux brick abode.

For the past month work has been busily taking place on the upper wing of my house, probably more properly known as "the attic," as the money was appropriated and plopped down to hire a guy to finish it off into a master bedroom.

The work usually begins early in the morning and continues until sundown. My two roommates (they of the feline species- seven limbs between them) haven't exactly warmed up to all the commotion nor do they like being restricted, barricaded in the main level bedroom and bathroom. For the first few weeks they spent the entire day hunkered down underneath my futon frame. Only recently have they decided things are more in need of exploration than anything that is to fear in the grand scheme of things.

One of the things I've heard about home improvement and construction work is that it is fun to watch the progress. I must admit I can't wait to get home from work to see what has been completed. The windows and skylights have been installed, the sheet rock and insulation done, and this past week the walls and ceilings were painted a hue that a friend was kind enough to help me pick out.

The whole thing looks even better than what I envisioned in my mind when I bought the house eight years ago with future dreams of finishing off the attic. I'm not quite sure this house has ever quite felt like it is my own. I've adapted my stuff to fit in the house, and certainly it now reflects a bit of my personality, but the finishing of the attic designed to my specifications has added some kind of personal punctuation to the place.

After I made an offer on the house all those years ago, the previous owner was kind enough to agree to grant me early access before the closing so I could pull up carpet staples in the living room. I was going to have the wood floors sanded and I wanted it done as soon as possible. I remember going into the empty house in the early evenings with a pair of pliers to pull out the numerous staples, thinking and dreaming to myself that I had really just bought a house and soon this was going to be my home.

A similar feeling washes over me when I go up in the attic and look at the progress of the work. I know my roommates will appreciate the sunlight that beams in from the skylights. I can see them sitting for hours in the big windows that overlook the neighborhood. As for me, I'm still trying to formulate in my mind just how I'm going to use all the extra space.

A bedroom can be more than a place to lay one's weary head at the end of a long day (but how would I know any different?). I'll probably move all my CDs upstairs and I'll probably set up my old computer so I always can jot down some thoughts if the mood inspires me to do so. I can see the three residents of this place sitting up there during the twilight hours of the evening, each in our own space, thinking about how exactly we fit (or not) in this world.

I can almost hear my Oscar Peterson CD playing on the tinny speakers of a retro turntable/CD player that has been for the most part been lying dormant in my living room. I just wish that some of those who departed too soon could see it all- see me for where I'm at these days.

Feeling deeper in debt, especially to all those who have given input (and voice) to this little project I must admit that I can't wait to see whatever comes next. All this has taken place as a very significant soul took the plunge and has decided upon a different career direction. I wish her well, will miss what she contributed while knowing that what lies ahead will surely take her to even better places. And believe you me I know I'll be thinking of all this as I lie underneath the moonlight beaming in from my skylights sometime this fall.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Pornographically Yours or the Forbidden Scent that Lustily Lingers

Jack Fate: "Is this bus going across the border?"
Bus driver: "No sir, you're going the wrong way."
Jack Fate: "Well all right" (as he climbs aboard).

In many ways Portland is our true Twin City, although since we already have one of those perhaps it is more akin to our stem cell city. A brief Cheapo history lesson (as far as I know): Once upon a time, Cheapo West and Cheapo East referred to two stores located across the street from one another on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. Then came a true westward (albeit geographically limited) expansion into Minneapolis, Fridley, and Minnetonka. But when Al partnered with Scott, the real Cheapo West (known as Everyday Music) was born. And Portland soon had the best damn used record store(s) that side of the Colorado.

I'd been to Portland before. I remember being impressed by how close it was to mountains, to the ocean and how neat an outdoor stadium the Portland Beavers played in. So when I was told I was going to spend a week in the city on business I was sort of glad to get away, leery as I've become over traveling. I was to fly from Minneapolis to Phoenix and catch a connection to Portland. My flight was leaving the Twin Cities at 5:42 and I was supposed to arrive at my final destination at 10 p.m. When my Dad dropped me off in front of the America West gate I prepared myself for a long evening. Appropriately a long line was there to greet me.

Things seemed to be disorganized from the get go. A guy from the airline was directing people into two different directions. Those being guided to the left immediately were allowed to go to the e-check in terminal while those going to the right were lining up behind two ticket agents. When I finally got to the man directing traffic I was told if I was ending up anywhere other than Phoenix I was to stand in the long right line of by then not moving people. I got in line and the guy behind me was quite upset talking to someone on his cell phone. I couldn't help but overhear his conversation that turned out to be with the customer service folks of the airline. He wanted to cancel all his existing business and flights with America West. He wasn't a happy dude. When I finally got to the ticketing agent I learned the initial flight was running late (or technically flying late) and thus any connecting flights were going to be missed. The agent told me he was going to try to get me on to a nonstop Northwest flight to Portland. Worked for me.

Until I got to the Northwest ticket counter. I was standing in line and just when I got to the front the agent closed her station and walked right on by me without so much as looking at me. I then got in another line, this one being delayed because the ticketing agent was approached by another employee who had some baggage related question. Together they didn't let their eyes peer up at me away from the computer screen. Fine. I finally got my ticket and stood in the security line. There I was pulled aside and put through a rigorous search that had a guy ask me unbuckle my belt while another guy pawed through my luggage. I hoped my feet smelled particularly stinky this day.

Once at my gate I got to board the airplane ahead of most others because I was sitting in an exit seat. Boarding the plane I saw the guy at the window seat was already seated and I had the seat in the middle right next to him. He was rather ample horizontally so I sat in the aisle seat hoping no one had been assigned that seat. Soon afterward a very tall young man strolled down the aisle and looked at me. It was obvious I was in his seat so I moved over squished between a very horizontal and a very vertical pair (turns out the tall guy was 6'8"- he was asked several times by various members of the flight crew just how tall he was. Similarly no one asked the fat guy how much he weighed.)

But all that had happened didn't seem so bad as I was glad to arrive in Portland and at my motel before sundown. The first thing I noticed was the motel parking lot was full of Model A cars. My first thought was that my plane had gone through some Twilight Zone-like portal and I had been transferred back to the 1920's. Good grief, I thought, now I have to deal with Prohibition. Oh how I missed the smile inducing sight of my friend's BDP (a.k.a. Bella da Platta a.k.a. Silver Bullet a.k.a. silver Mazda Miata convertible). Later on and out, I found out the motel was hosting a Model A convention.


A word of advice for any motel operators out there: If you have any say in your choice of cable channels you might want to consider carrying stations (TBS, TNT, ESPN-deux) that have actual live sporting events rather than just ESPN-classic. A guy might actually want to watch an event as it unravels rather than a replay of the 1982 NBA finals.


Unfortunately my motel wasn't exactly located in a place that made it conducive to enjoying the city. The only things within walking distance were some fast food joints, a crappy suburban mall, and a freeway that made it impossible to walk much of anywhere. So I stayed inside a lot and did some work. Or tried to. I sometimes wonder about my lack of need to socialize and perhaps that even though I really don't want to, I should, or am expected to. I love talking about the weather in Minnesota with complete strangers while God lingers in the not too far off distance. I really do. I also love sharing what's underneath my underwear with a group of people because I don't think a group of people has ever really understood how hard my heart sometimes beats. After all what does it matter now that airport security has seen anything I had left to hide?


Let's say for this time you may not be completely delusional in thinking you are among the last line of defense for a democracy now dying, and no one knows it (yet). What, hot shot, are you going to do about it? Well, one answer seems to be to take some classes. In these classes the basic point seems to be to teach you how to be a better counter or at least administer the rules and laws of those who do the actual counting. Because you never did actually count now did you? And in so many ways you still don't. You find yourself in one class fumbling your way through a solo presentation in front of about 200 skeptical eyes on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case South Carolina versus Katzenbach (1966). It is your responsibility to try to explain why the Supreme Court ruled that Congress was well in its authority in enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You awkwardly explain that is because the state of South Carolina and other southern states were using literary tests to determine who should and should not be allowed to vote. As part of those tests the state was requiring people to interpret what provisions in the state constitution meant (well when I say "people" what I mean is "people with black skin"). The same thing can't possibly happen again can it? Disenfranchise people for technical reasons because you might not like the way that they vote? Nah, not as long as you've memorized your driver's license number.

Another day you find yourself arguing, actually arguing with a woman from the Washington Secretary of State's office because she doesn't seem to think that a state agency passing election rules that have the force of law, without much of an input process is a flawed line of thinking. You point out (or try to) that while that may work well in particular state because election officials are on the same page, it may not work so well in states where communication between levels of government is a downright (albeit unfunny) joke. Frustration must be dripping from your voice because you can see the others in the group becoming increasingly uncomfortable by your (where did this come from and do I need an actual vacation) persistent confrontational style.


Isn't it a God-given right to worry? Or maybe it's a goddamn right. I forget which is which and I don't really suppose anyone wants to hear why I think it might matter. According to that inscrutable philosopher Jack Fate, a good father is supposed to be full of love, compassion, and forgiveness. Yet as he later said, "Your pen is still out of ink." What in the world does it all mean? Just because you may know how to jot down a word or two better than most doesn't mean you know anything, or a thing, better than most. The only real thing about this movie is the musical sequences (wherever they may still exist).


I have the highest cholesterol ever recorded. Maybe that has to do with my fondness for eggs. I love eggs. I love their versatility. Beat 'em, scramble 'em, flip 'em, boil 'em, fry 'em I'll eat them any way (kind of like my all time favorite food- potatoes. Mash 'em, hash brown them, french fry them I could live on them, and I think in the past I may just have done that). The motel restaurant, besides being pricey, also seemed to be understaffed in the mornings. They featured a buffet but if you chose to order from the menu it tended to take a long time from taking the order, to delivering it, to leaving the bill. So most mornings I chose the buffet simply for time saving sake although that meant eating scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, sausage and/or bacon every morning. One morning I decided to try an egg beater frittata- not knowing exactly what it was. It arrived twenty minutes after my order, piping hot. Turns out a frittata is an omelet/quiche type of thing full of mushrooms, tomatoes, green onions, and topped by Swiss cheese. It was tasty but it was filling. They must have used a whole carton of egg beaters and man was I bloated afterwards. Of course I ate my overly large and tasty meal in absolute terror after reading a story in my complimentary USA Today that mentioned that Minnesota has been invaded by curly leaf pond weed. Leave the state for a week and like just about any place else these days, it gets invaded. At the end of the week the elderly waitress asked my name and told me what a polite and nice young man I am. And it had nothing to do with the size of my tips.

One morning I overheard a conversation between the waitress and a patron. He was asking what types of fresh berries the restaurant had. The waitress listed several including "marion berry." I thought she was joking referring to the former mayor of Washington DC who was caught on tape smoking crack. Turns out there is a marion berry. Who knew?

I sprung for a cab to take me downtown so I could visit Everyday Music. Located downtown right off the freeway, I was immediately struck by how familiar everything in the store seemed. Same unique Cheapo ambiance. Same unbeatable Cheapo selection. Same Cheapo like employees (although the guy didn't even offer me a bag after my purchase, which has never happened to me in Minnesota). I was impressed by the size of the store. The pop CDs are in one store and are connected to another store with the jazz and classical and it's all at the edge of downtown right across from a dance studio. One difference is they alphabetize their recent arrivals every day. I was especially impressed that one of the listening stations featured the new Devandra Banhardt CD. I tried listening but couldn't figure out how to use the darn station. I gave up after I accidentally dropped the earphones on the ground and all the employees looked over at me.

My one afternoon off plan was to wander around downtown. I saw a Djangos that looked like it was closed. I spent a little time in Powells. I did find a great Thai restaurant very near Everyday Music. I was hoping to hop on the light rail to the Japanese Garden, but the only light rail I could find was one way only going in the wrong direction and it was getting dangerously near rush hour time. Since I had wandered so far I actually got on the train for a couple of stops to get me back towards where my cab originally dropped me off.

In the early 1990's I took an Amtrak trip out east. I had a travel agent organize my entire trip and she told me that my motel in Philadelphia was near the Amtrak station. I arrived late at night only to discover the motel was 65 miles away. So I hopped in a cab and to this day I'm not so sure I survived the ride and all that has followed hasn't been my life in Hell. I remember the driver zipping in and out of traffic both motor driven and of the pedestrian variety and thinking to myself "Oh my God, I'm going to die or we're going to kill someone trying." I also remember watching the meter in the cab add up my fare at an alarming rate. My trip home from Everyday Music had some of the same features. The cabbie had a thick Russian accent and he seemed to be a very bitter man complaining about other drivers, cell phones, and the humidity. We got caught in a big traffic jam on the freeway (passing one car that ran out of gas in the far left lane). The cabbie kept trying to switch lanes to keep moving only he'd get into a lane that was temporarily moving only to come to a complete stop once we were in it as we watched the traffic in the lane we just left begin moving again. KACHING!! He eventually turned on the Portland public radio station that featured an announcer with an obnoxiously pretentious pronunciation style. "Debussy" was pronounced "Dahhhh beuw Saiy" and "ballad" was pronounced "bal ODDD." I did have to smile during a couple of public service announcements- one for a group called Peace Against Grease that promised to teach people how to alter their cars to use vegetable oil for fuel (ethanol I presume) and another for a animal rights group that was holding a kitty adoption.


I wake up from a dream and it takes me a moment or two to get my bearings and figure out where exactly I am (not that that is ever an absolute certainty). I wouldn't have known I was in Portland except for the bed I lie in was about four times larger than the one I'm used to not sleeping in. The dream has me shaking and soon I feel tears well up in my eyes. In the dream I found myself at a strange out of town mall. Clearly to me I was in Portland but it may as well have been Maine as it was Oregon. I just wasn't home. I come across a large department store that has no name. I wander in, in need of socks since all mine (truthfully) have holes in them. I overhear a couple of employees talking about despite the store having lost its name business had been remarkably steady. I ask where I can find men's socks and they send me to some empty shelves. I'm just about to give up when I come across the women's socks section and I see a few pair that I like. But uncertainty reigns as I don't want anyone knowing I'm wearing or buying for that matter, women's apparel. So I look around and decide I'd skip it altogether. I wander out into the mall and the music playing is "Que Sera Sera" the song my Mom used to play on the piano or we'd sing along with the Doris Day version. "When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what will I be?" The song gets to me like never before. I look in the middle of the mall and I see my Mom looking at all the decorations hanging from above. She looks happy.


I'm about to turn 40. I'm not sure what it means that the times I feel most alive these days is when my three-legged cat Thompson, struggles to do something that is in all ways ordinary for my other cat Diego-san (who happens to have four legs) like jump up on a particular precarious ledge or figure out a new toy that requires batting. To see Thompson work around his handicap makes me smile the deepest of all smiles. When I was just a little boy I really figured life would be about much bigger things like raising a family and having an important job that would change the world. This was a world of white picket fences and rollicking happy dogs greeting me as I arrived home from work. This wasn't a world of cell phones and light rail or even three-legged kitties.


For my last evening in town I took a cab to the Japanese Garden that was recommended to me both by a friend and also a classmate. The garden was everything it was billed to be, beautiful, serene, an oasis away from whatever it is that you allow to perpetually weigh down your mind. The plants, architecture, and running water took my breath away (or at the very least helped me breath better). I found myself entranced and enchanted by a poetry stone that had inscribed in it a Haiku poem that translated read, "Here, miles from Japan I stand as if warmed by the spring sunshine of home." It all made me feel like I might have been Japanese at one time. Then reality snuck in. I got to the big pond that was inhabited by some large fish and all I could think was, "I haven't had sushi for a while and man am I hungry..." As I strolled to an impressive Zen sand and stone garden all I could think was, "My cats would be ecstatic to see such a large and well maintained litter box." Yup I guess my eastern side still needs a little bit of work.

I ended up eating dinner at the mall (a sloppy chicken gyro) and decided it was time for the summer hair cut. I left all my hair back at the mall. The last class I took was on leadership and the instructor instructed us to take the oldest coin from our pocket. Mine went all the way back to 2003. He then preached the importance that we all "network" and get to know one another. He pointed to people in the class, had them reveal the year of their coin and tell something that happened to them personally in that year. He pointed to me and like a deer in the headlights the only thing I could remember was that I had gone to a Bob Dylan concert. Of course that would have been true for any of the previous seventeen years as well.


I hope that the narrator of this whole sordid tale did a better job than my travel agent ended up doing (and here's a clue for you all, they may as well be the same person or personality anyway). My travel agent had me returning home via Las Vegas. The flight from Portland left around 8:00 p.m. and landed in Vegas around 10:00. There I sat watching a pretty Asian woman seated across from me watch me watch other people. We mimicked each other. I took off my sweater and a few minutes later she did the same. She folded her hands across her chest and I did the same. I spit out my gum as she was busy digging through her bag and alas she ended up pulling out a pack of gum. She had a large vertical bag that really had me curious about its contents. After a three hour wait and three gate changes later my flight to the Twin Cities landed at 6:30 a.m. On the flight the kind young woman next to me loaned me her Star magazine after she was finished reading it so I was able to catch myself up on Mary Kate Olsen checking herself into a eating disorder clinic and Sandra Bullock's impending wedding. I asked the magazine buyer if there was anything worthwhile in the rest of the issue. "No not really. It's all entertainment," she astutely said.

Monday, July 12, 2004


Some of the best movies I've seen in my life are those where at the end you sit there kind of dumbfounded at what you've just seen, not knowing exactly what it all meant. These movies tend to take you to a place vaguely familiar yet in an odd way completely away from anywhere you've ever been before.

This appreciation of discombobulating movies was a lesson I learned at an early age. I seem to recall that every year in grade school all us kids would be dragged down to the gymnasium where we would be shown the French film Red Balloon. To this day I'm not quite sure what the important lesson I was to learn from the movie. The story was about a young French lad, sorta a sissy, who befriended the title character. He followed and played and with this balloon all over the streets of France.

The other children teased him and eventually popped the balloon by throwing rocks at it. The kid was of course, devastated only to be uplifted at the end of the movie by a bunch of other balloons. Up, up, and away he flew, happy as a lark even after the loss of the original balloon. It was ambiguous what would occur once the kid came back down to earth to face the bullies that had tormented the boy for befriending a rubber product in the first place.

Later on when I went through a phase of hating all things French because of an association I had with a relationship gone way bad I had to wonder if part of my hatred towards that country had to do with remembering being dragged year after year to watch Red Balloon. And now as I've come to respect the country for having the nerve to stand up to some of the things wrong in this world I have to wonder if my appreciation for another confusing French film hasn't been colored by things outside the movie screen.

The animated film The Triplets of Belleville made me smile and wince at the same time unlike any other movie I've seen before. It's a strange film both dark and funny. To describe exactly what it is about would be a futile exercise. Suffice it to say I was mesmerized throughout the entire movie shaking my head at the same time I was involuntarily grinning ear to ear.

The movie opens by introducing us to the title characters, a musical sister act that has at least one irresistible hit song that gets repeated playings throughout and never fails to get the toes a-tappin. The sisters seem to be a tad eccentric, at one point using explosives to gather up frogs for a multi-course froggy meal. Their instruments are comprised of an empty refrigerator, a newspaper, and a vacuum cleaner. The gangly trio never says anything other than kind of humming disapproval over some things.

The other major character is an elderly woman with big round eyeballs seemingly affixed to the back of her spectacles, who raises a boy with the help of her dog Bruno. Bruno early on develops an issue with trains after the boy's toy electric train runs over his tail. Whenever a train rumbles down the tracks after that incident Bruno barks away both out of remembrance and anger and fear.

Meanwhile the boy graduates from being an expert tricyclist to a successful participant in the Tour de France. It is his superior ability as a bicyclist that ultimately gets him in trouble as he is kidnapped by the French Mafia, complete with their obscenely broad shoulders who need his skills for a bizarre little scam they have going.

This certainly isn't a Disney cartoon and the twists and unexplained turns throughout the plot are a delight. Somehow we can emphasize with the old woman even if her way forward is stubbornly undeterred by its sometimes futile nature. Bruno is also a great character as we see how he kind of is the one who makes everything else make an odd sort of sense. And the triplets? By the end of the movie you can almost actually believe that they are indeed a long lost important musical act we haven't quite forgotten yet need to be reminded of every now and then.

Monday, July 5, 2004

Sparking an Inspiration

Twenty-four years ago I was sweating through the summer between my last year of junior high and the first year of high school. Having felt like I had finally asserted myself in ninth grade by developing an attitude that I wasn't really going to ever again care about what others thought about me, I now faced the unknown of starting again at the bottom of the totem pole as a high school sophomore. And I had to do it all without my best friend- the only fellow who seemed to speak the same language as me, who was going to a different high school.

If all this wasn't enough to cause a heap of anxiety, (and by gosh don't you think it should have been?) the final quarter of junior high was intense. I had somehow struck up a little romance with the most beautiful girl in my class, the lovely Susan Weiss who told me she enjoyed my bellowing of Beatles songs on a bus ride home from a winter band concert. The next day after school we stood at the end of a hallway, at the main entrance of the school waiting for our parents to pick us up.

Sue was finished with her basketball practice and I was finished with my school newspaper duties and together we stood in awkward silence until she said, "I must look great in my winter coat and dress." Of course I wanted to say I always thought she always looked great but instead I said, "Uh-huh."

Things progressed from there. There was a relay race we ran where she was lined up next to me, the first leg of the opposing team. The go command was given and I took off as fast as my little Mama Cass legs would churn and I quickly left Susan far behind in my dust (metaphorically running away? Who me?). I heard her mutter "OH SHOOOTTT!" As I made my turn looking ahead to the runner I was supposed to hand the baton off to, I noticed that the second runner wasn't there. So I just kept running feeling quite winded and running out of gas. Again from behind I heard Sue laugh her marvelous laugh.

During the last week of school we took a class trip to Valleyfair and Sue asked if she could sit next to me on the bus ride home. Can I mention that I still remember to this day how great she smelled and how much my legs shook all the way home?

Then school ended and I wasn't sure what was going to happen next. So I wrote Sue a letter trying to explain how she made me feel and found myself somehow mustering up the courage to mail it to her.

We never spoke much in high school. And she became the first to break my heart and the only person who has ever filled the roll of being the person I wrote to, for, and about. The intensity of those feelings has echoed through only three more relationships since then.

In October of 1980 my first nephew, Nathan, was born. Prematurely born, he was a tiny kid. He slept his first few weeks in a drawer of my sister and her husband's mobile home. I was equal parts proud and an amazed uncle watching with great love Nathan taking in the freshness of the world around him, all the while learning day by day how he was to fit in.

My sister used to bring him over to my parents' house every Thursday night where I got to help baby-sit and play with him. Believe it or not I didn't quite have the sunny disposition I'm known for today but the pain and agony of being a lost high school teenager was always lessened just from taking in Nathan's youthful enthusiasm. Part of me wanted to be a kid again, the baby of the family that everyone took care of and another part of me wanted to mentor Nathan making sure that the world didn't prematurely jade him.

This past Saturday Nathan got married. I must admit a tear welled up in my eye watching and listening to him recite his vows to his bride Jennifer, as he struggled to keep his own tears in check. It's clear he has found his true love, the one who inspires him, and it is that love that he believes in, and follows.

Twenty-four years in this context can be seen as both such a short and a long long time. It's hard for me to believe that the kid who used to mimic the every week scene shots in the theme of Hill Street Blues is now a married young man. And it's even harder for me to believe that I once upon a long ago used to feel the same sort of inspiration that he wakes up to every day. A 40 year old heart can turn awfully hard awfully fast.