Monday, December 20, 2004

Nothing Lasts Forever in the Cold December Rain

"A bad writer is just a good writer with writer's block."
-Bucky Katt

After giving me my airline snack of apple juice and buttery pretzels the stewardess looked at the book I was reading, Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1. She asked how it was. I said good although it later occurred to me that she may have been talking about my apple juice. If I had known I would have said the whole thing was sticky. The ride was nearly over and we were preparing to land. I always read with amusement those personal ads in the independent weekly newspapers, the ones that list a person's turn on's and turn off's. I'm not sure what I would list if forced to do so. Bad hygiene perhaps. Rude behavior probably. Landing in the dark- bingo! I hate being on a plane at night when the weather is bad and you can't see the ground until the last second. I like to know where I'm going. I like to see that there is something down below.

For a guy with a growing case of agoraphobia I sure do get around. This year alone I've taken trips to Portland Oregon, Auburn Alabama, and now Toronto Canada, sort of the Sunni triangle of North America.

This would have been nothing in past days as I used to love the freedom and adventure of going to a place I had never been. As lost as I often felt at home in my own skin the feeling of seeing some place new was quite appealing.

But now even if the trip is scheduled and booked by another, even if all I have to do is step on to an airplane and follow a mapped out route it seems to be daunting to the point of being paralyzing. I'm not sure exactly what's changed or how I've gotten to this point nor do I know where the line is between irrational fears and the people on the streets of any big city you visit who are mumbling to themselves living from day to day.

I had troubles. I found myself in the office of a minister telling him that after having seen a boatload of psychiatrists and psychologists with their cures of medicines and electrical currents I had decided my problems seemed to be more spiritual than psychological. He listened intently. I asked him if there were relevant passages of the Bible I should be reading which of course is a bit akin to unfolding a roadmap and asking someone to point to relevant places to go.

I had stopped writing, which for me was like the disease, but for those I spoke with was merely an annoying symptom. But it wasn't a writer's block it was the absolute terror of what I needed to write even if I wasn't sure what that exactly was. It just seemed like I shouldn't be writing what I needed to write. That voice that had always guided the words on paper was gone and when I mentioned this to the doctors they were alarmed at the confession I heard voices. When I mentioned it felt like God's voice was gone the minister seemed more like a clinician, another expert with a degree.

My writing wasn't merely an outlet for emotions or a canvass for expression it was part of who I was. Losing my writing was like cutting off a limb an analogy with now serious consequences as I watch every day with growing and loving admiration, a special soul, a cat who is getting by in life with only three legs. As important as something may be to surviving sometimes you just cut it off so the rest can remain and you can go on.

I left the minister's office feeling more lost than ever. And that's when I took a trip out west. I had been there before. My sister lived in Los Angeles but this was different. There was no itinerary or purpose for going. I wanted to write and I knew that the world was bigger than any problem that was wearing me down. It wasn't a matter of digging deeper within it was a matter of looking further out. I knew that, even if I was sure the minister and any of the doctors would have suggested I was running away.

Out west I went here and I went there. I didn't make it everywhere. But I did some writing. I would drive to a secluded area and sit for a while and then write whatever was on my mind. It mostly was all about stuff back home but I didn't care. Someone had to get it down. When I came home I fell in love and I carefully showed her some of what I had written. Her reaction was to tell me that my writing personal as it was couldn't ever mean anything to anyone who didn't know me. She eventually broke my heart so I headed out east to the other coast. Took a train this time. Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston and everywhere in between. Went south far enough to see some historical Civil War stuff. Wrote a poem that was the best thing I had ever written. Wrote it on a train as the words rolled out of me faster than the tracks underneath.

Crickets grow silent whenever she's near/was it from comfort or out of fear?/A lucky rock a break or two/leaned on her crutches as good as new/A moth flips and flutters to its light /mended wing restores its flight/A walker in spirit the nurturing kind,/gentle friend with an original mind./She draws the map to all ahead/gave him a place to rest his head/Her knee had a screw, broken and scarred/the lone accident to which she starred/Her limp he saw before in a dream/Vitamin B ointment for self esteem.

Came back home and was comforted by the best friend I had ever had. Her daughters gave me bandages for my feet after I had tried to walk from work to home in a terrible blizzard one grave night tearing up the souls of my feet in the process.

Since then the trips have come fewer and farther between, slowing to a trickle, a mere crawl. Years back I did take a trip across the world (and back) but it was more of a trip to remind me where I came from not where I was going. As I got more serious about my job, about my life I guess, the option of just taking off and going somewhere had to be cleared by somebody else. I had to accumulate the needed amount of vacation hours and with the growing fear of leaving my home it just never seemed worth the effort. But perhaps the biggest difference about hitting the road between now and then is you can now connect to the Internet, the super information highway, from just about anywhere and read your emails and hometown newspaper. I used to just write on a rock. Now days you can't ever really get away.

So these days where anyone who is someone is going south to Mexico this winter, I decided to buck the trend and head the other way, north to Canada. And like trips past there really wasn't much of a plan. My boss was kind enough to pay for my ticket and hotel room and he plopped me down right in the heart of downtown Toronto with plenty to see.

Of course first came the incessant worrying. Who would take care of the kitties? Their favorite person in the world bar none. Could I afford to take time away from work when we remain ever incredibly and hopelessly busy? I'm not taking much time off anytime else so don't I deserve a few days now? How would I make it to the airport? I'd park my car in my 24/7 secure location downtown Minneapolis and take the light rail to the airport. How does one ride the light rail? The little redheaded girl and I took a long break one day and did a trial run. What if I don't make it through airport security what with my always-guilty look? They didn't look twice.

On the practice run to the airport with the little redheaded girl our return trip had us seated in seats facing away from the front of the train. I told her that when I was a kid my parents bought a station wagon that had a back seat where my brother and I sat. My parents thought that since the seat faced backwards it would give us a little area we could play and have to ourselves. It wasn't until the past few years that I revealed to my Dad that my brother and I hated that car because we couldn't see where we were going, just where we had been.

I arrived in Toronto late morning and took a cab to my motel. It was disorienting that the cabbie's accent was French rather than one of the Middle Eastern accents I've grown accustomed to hearing from that profession. It was also a little weird that the guy was wearing a limousine driver's outfit. On the ride I made a point to look for interesting places to visit. I paid particular attention once we got closer to the motel since I knew I would be doing a lot of walking. After checking in I decided to grab a bite to eat. Right outside my motel room window was a Japanese restaurant. A reasonably priced one at that. (I would only eat three out of my eight meals at Japanese restaurants despite that there were two within walking distance of the motel.) I also checked out the immediate vicinity but spent the evening in my room trying to draw a mental map of the next few days.

The next day the primary goal was to figure out the subway system and to find our CD store downtown. I looked up the address of the store and figured out where the nearest subway station was located. Once there I decided to buy an all day pass figuring I'd be riding the subway throughout the day and I didn't want to bother figuring out how to purchase the correct fare along the way. It turned out not to be an economically sound decision since when you are riding the subway you can't exactly spontaneously see when there is someplace that looks interesting to visit. Not knowing what I wanted to do or see necessitated that I do most of my traveling on foot.

The Yellow Pages ad to our store said it was within walking distance of the Bloor Street Station. I just hopped on to a train figuring I'd figure things out as I went along. Surprisingly the conductor called out Bloor Street two stops down from where I hopped on. I got off and walked up to street level. A light cold drizzle filled the air and with the address in hand I headed off. Of course is my nature I immediately headed the wrong way. The store's address was on Bloor Street West and the subway had dropped me off on Bloor Street East. I headed the direction that felt west but once I walked a few miles and was now out of any business type district as the numbers grew more and more out of range, I decided it was time to head back the other way. With the hood of my sweatshirt pulled up tightly around my head I thought I might look a little like a less than grown up Holden Caulfield, a somewhat average Cheapo customer.

It was quite the walk the other way so it was kind of comforting once I found the store to find somewhere that felt a little like home. It's a nice space in a nice area.

Much of what I had seen of Bloor Street was the typical big city chain store alley- The Gap, Pottery Barn, Pier One, etc. Closer to Sonic Boom were independent shops and even a piano bar. There were some colorful names like Spotted Dick's and FCUK (French Connection United Kingdom) but once inside the CD shop things looked familiar. It's a nice store and atmosphere. I browsed through the recent arrival bin and found some stuff I wanted to buy but I felt it was my duty seeing where I was to buy something Canadian either Leonard Cohen or Shania Twain, maybe Gordon Lightfoot or Celine Dion or perhaps kd Lang or Alanis Morissette. Anne Murray? I could only be so lucky. I almost settled on a Neko Case CD but I figured she was only an honorary Canadian having gone to college there.

Instead amongst my other purchases I grabbed a Gabrielle Destroismaisons CD. She's from Quebec and the French titles of her songs caught my attention. I wanted to tell myself that the reason I chose her CD was that she mentioned one of her favorite artists to be Bob Dylan but honestly really it was her looks reminded me of the girl who sat across from me at breakfast that morning who I embarrassingly couldn't take my eyes off of. She looked like a combination of Elisabeth Filarski and Judi Dutcher and the girl next door I used to work by. She had to be at least the second most beautiful woman I've ever seen. As I browsed the store I couldn't help but wonder if all the United States produced CDs shouldn't have been filed in the International section rather than in the main bins of the store.

When I was a junior high school kid a new kid, Ted, moved to town from somewhere in Canada and I thought his Canadian accent had to be an exaggeration. "Hey did you see last night's owkey game?" I thought Ted was putting me on. But those speaking English in the establishments I visited really talked that way. And the whole country (at least all that I saw on TV) seemed to be in mourning about the National Hockey League's player lockout. The thing I remember most about Ted was he was the first person I met who had actually smoked a joint. I remember he offered me one but I didn't take it, although I did inhale. The sweet smell of the weed surprised me. I expected something much more poisonous. As I left the store on the street in front of me was a young man who looked blue collar and like he had a plan. He was puffing on a cigarette and every now and then he'd glance back at me as if he was afraid I was sneaking up on him. Some of his smoke wafted back to my nostrils and it wasn't tobacco he was smoking. Suddenly I was in Amsterdam or at least wondering what ever happened to Ted.

I headed on back towards the subway. The drizzle had turned into a light rain. The drops from the rain clouded my glasses as across the street I saw a big sign for the Bata Shoe Museum. The sign was too tempting to pass by so I stopped in looking something like an Asian Travis Bickell. The elderly ticket lady wasn't sure what to make of me and she sheepishly asked if I wanted to see the museum. I did. I did indeed. The first display featured the tiny shoes (though bigger than my own) of Monkee Davy Jones. Right nearby were the somewhat larger shoes of Michael Jordan.

I also got to see shoes worn by Marilyn Monroe, Tiger Woods, Winston Churchill and Elvis. Shaquille O'Neal's shoes could house my entire leg. The shoes of the Chinese women who had their feet bound were frighteningly tiny. What seemed like a goofy idea for a museum turned out to be great visit. The displays showed that throughout different decades and centuries how tastes changed to reflect the times. I decided the ornate beauty of the 1700's best captured my taste in things. My friend Spunky once told me he first judged people by the shoes they were wearing. It never had occurred to me up to that moment that such a thing was possible. And I'm not even sure how it is to be done. But a person in a good pair of shoes says something. The museum proved nothing if not that.

There's a box at the club I curl at full of what's labeled as "lost shoes." If I was in charge of the club I'd change the label on the box to read, "lost soles." That joke would never get old. The shoes are of all size and styles, not only all stripes but some swooshes as well. It would be interesting to decipher the story behind how each landed in that box. (If only shoes could talk- they do have tongues after all.) I doubt many people leave the curling club in their bare feet so it must have something to do with that most of us change shoes when we take the ice. We don't want to drag anything from the street on to that fresh sheet of ice. That would make it difficult to do the necessary sliding, make things a little too bumpy to play the game.

I could have walked around the streets with the music from my new iPod serving as some type of soundtrack, a musical backdrop to the sites of the city. At my disposal I had just about any relevant song in my collection at my fingertips available to color my thoughts like I was in some cinematic story. But I didn't want to do that. Whenever I'm in a different place I like to experience the place relying on all my senses. I needed to hear the sounds of the streets and the people as much as I cherished the smell of fresh fruit as I walked by an organic market. Toronto is a nice sized international city. It looked a lot like it does in all the movies shot there. Overcast skies and the constant drizzle gave the city that certain Midwestern industrial feel although the diversity of the faces was like opening up a broom closet only to find a spice rack full of flavors you'd never tried.

My first official acting job was as a pussy willow in a second grade play. My Mom sewed me a brown cloak that was supposed to have balls of cotton affixed but before that step I got sick and missed the performance. Gone was the chance to sing about shivering in the cold waiting for Jack Frost to arrive. I cried because I missed the big moment, my chance to shine. Mom comforted me by telling me there'd be other chances as she served me some chicken soup.

Walking the streets of Toronto I must have looked like I knew what I was doing. Two people approached me at different times and asked me for directions. I had to turn them away because I didn't know a thing. When I got back on the subway to head towards Queen Street, what was described as the bohemian part of town, I of course headed the wrong way and had to double back. Once I got to the right stop the rain was starting to freeze so I decided to cut my adventure short and go back to my room.

The next day I set off in the other direction where I found an interesting music store called Sam the Record Man's. They had an intriguing Japanese Bob Dylan import but the price wasn't right. I just kept walking. I saw signs for the Hockey Hall of Fame. I haven't been a fan of the sport since the late 80's and early 90's. What changed my mind about hockey I'm not quite sure as I spent many a wintry day ruining the ceiling of my parent's basement picking up a high sticking penalty or two playing my brother in a ferocious game of floor hockey in a much too small space. I remember being terribly disappointed in visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth on a family vacation. Turned out it was only the American Hockey Hall of Fame so I was not too impressed by the many names and faces of unrecognizable stars. Seemed to me like you should be recognizable to appear in a Hall of Fame. I think I gave up on hockey because it only reminded me of how much I hated winter. And Mary Meek. Besides a sport that takes place on a slippery surface seems to be trying too hard. But then I took up curling.

I was surprised by visiting the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame at how much of the sport's history I already knew. It was great fun seeing and touching the actual Stanley Cup but it was equally fun seeing a video clip that had a snippet of an interview with Gump Worsley, the Minnesota North Star goaltender who happens to hold the distinction of being the last goalie not to wear a face mask.

Just about everything else I know about Canada came from watching SCTV. The show mocked the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC). Even though I knew nothing of that station I still found the show's spoofs of the slower pace of Canadian TV (fishing shows, Doug and Bob McKenzie, Count Floyd, Floyd Camembert and Bobby Bittman) that tried hard to imitate American TV to be endlessly entertaining. Little did I know how on the mark those spoofs were. As I sat in my room at night surfing the Toronto stations I couldn't help but enjoy the real deal. I just hoped that I would come across a televised curling match. Leave it to the last day and I did. (Though in all honesty it was shown on NBC so it likely was broadcast in the States as well).

Long ago my friend Fernande (who used to torture me with all things French even though she knew it was the last nail) asked me if I wanted to take ballroom dancing lessons with her (she also knew my worsening aversion to being touched). I considered the idea quite seriously for awhile, kind of always fancied myself as a song and dance man, but ultimately couldn't do it. In my mind I still pictured the still black and white photos my parents took off the black and white TV when I squared danced at the halftime of the state high school boy's basketball tournament back in grade school. My partner that day, Shelley Loomis said I was swinging her much harder than normal. I do know the adrenaline of being in the spotlight was causing me to dosey doh much more energetically. I told Fernande that I wasn't sure how my square dancing experience would effect my ability to learn to ballroom dance. The concepts were similar but the moves were entirely different.

Wandering around downtown on a Saturday afternoon the sound of bagpipe players (dressed in their requisite knickers) competed with the homeless looking who felt it in their best interests to put on some type of competing show. One guy tinkled on a toy-sized xylophone. Another caterwauled in a tone that sounded so inhuman I wasn't sure it was until I passed him by. The faces of Toronto were the diverse faces of a big city. Mine blended in quite well I'm quite sure.

In 1995 on a trip out East I was visiting my friend Alex in Washington DC. We were in a Baskin Robbins seated at a table at the front of the restaurant with seats facing toward the street. As we were enjoying our ice cream a homeless guy sat in the bushes in front of the store in front of us. If he had moved down a few feet he would have sat on a ledge but he chose instead to mush the plants. Still I was a bit surprised that Alex criticized his actions. I'm the type of guy who often time drops a coin into a cup. It's hard to look at the homeless like you're supposed to act like there is nothing unusual about seeing someone lying on the street trying to stay warm in a ratty blanket. Still more often than not that coin has probably been more for my own conscience than any real relief it could possibly provide. Alex's unmatched skill and ability to get to the real heart of the issue thus eliminating the otherwise cloaking sentimentality was one of the things I admired most about her.

I passed a woman in the hallway of my Toronto motel and she was wearing a fragrance similar to the one that Alex used to wear (and I do wonder if she still does). It's funny how far the sense of smell can take you. I miss Alex's scent. I almost felt like turning around in the hallway and following the woman for a while just to keep the fading scent in my nose for just a while longer. If smells could be seen, her fragrance would be a combination of something between a vivid flash and a multi-colored pastel. The pattern would be as precise as it is bright like the lingering image you see when you close your eyes after looking at something intensely absorbing and brilliant.

One penetrating impression I thought about in Canada is this psychological notion of borders. Somehow being a Minnesotan makes us different from being a North Dakotan. Somehow St. Paul residents are different from their neighboring Minneapolis kin. But being in Canada did feel different than being in the United States. Maybe it was the accents, maybe it was watching Canadian television with Canadian focused news, maybe it was the currency. I never did figure out on my purchases if I was getting a good deal. It struck me that in my day to day life the people I see in the Minneapolis skyways or on the streets of St. Paul may recognize me out of familiarity but don't know a thing about me. Looking into the gazing eyes of the people I passed in Toronto I wondered if the people knew something about me that I didn't know about myself. I've often been told that it is hard to read me by looking at my facial expressions (or lack thereof) but the reflection in the mirror I see is rather transparent.

Occasionally a Canadian would look at me funny and I thought back to a few months before when in my job I had managed to piss off more than a few residents from up North. There is an election law that allows a United States citizen who has permanently moved from the country to cast a vote for federal offices in the jurisdiction that they last resided in the United States. The issue I ran into was many of these people now had voting age children who had never lived in Minnesota but still were United States citizens yet were ineligible to receive a ballot from me. So I got to be the lucky one who told these soon to be angry people that they didn't get to vote. As I wandered the streets of Toronto and got a sideways glance, or as I received less than friendly service at an establishment I thought about letting go of my standard zinger, "I've stopped people just like you from voting!" I declared in my head. Funny what power does to you.

The last place I visited on my trip was a warehouse sized book store appropriately named "The Big Book Store." The bright florescent lights couldn't have contrasted more with the gray moist heavy air from the outside. A cheerful twentyish woman with pony tails and dressed in one of the store's smocks smiled at me as I entered the store. She was carrying around an empty shopper's basket and I thought she might like me until I noticed all the employees wore the exact same smile. Their chirpy banter with the customers seemed both forced yet natural as if this was how the interactions had been prescribed and preordained. The store was huge- one floor full of nonfiction subject books like computers and business and humor and war. The upper level had fiction and music and poetry and more of the stuff I'm used to reading save for the self help section. The prices seemed about right- lots of books on sale and discounted but I didn't need anything I had to then drag home. I had already packed my bags. I stayed longer than I wanted to in the sterile store but I had time to kill. It was a little spooky the way the employees acted- like they were in some kind of cult just waiting to brainwash you into joining their cause, their church.

The longest conversation my entire time in Toronto was with the cab driver on the way to the airport. I asked him how much snow the city usually got and got a five-minute monologue about Canadian weather. He mentioned it doesn't get much colder than ten below Celsius and I asked him what that was Fahrenheit and he really wasn't sure. As he continued telling me about weather patterns across the country my mind flashed back to one of the last cognitive discussions I had with my Mom. I remember when I was a kid and we were all being exposed to the metric system because America was finally going to join the rest of the world (we're still waiting for that to happen) we were taught the conversion formula for Fahrenheit to Celsius and vice versa. I brought the information home and my Mom showed me another way to do it, an easier simpler way. It was something her advisor had shared in college. So during her illness we were watching the TV weather and I asked her again how to do the conversion and she pulled out a sheet of paper from the crossword she had been struggling on for days (she was a cross word puzzle expert) and tried to show me. She had forgotten though and I could see her frustration and not being able to remember something so ingrained. It was the morphine that dulled her eternally sharp mind.

I asked the taxi driver what the weather was like in Vancouver. He said it was warmer than Toronto but it rained almost all the time in the winter. He also said that the traffic there was horrible, the road system just wasn't designed to deal with the tremendous population growth the city has seen. Plus he added, much of that growth was due to the large Asian immigration and "no offense" Asians tend to be poor drivers. He was from Mississauga just northwest of Toronto, sort of the St. Cloud of Canada. It's the seventh largest city in the country as more and more people are moving to the outer rings of the Toronto metropolitan area.

I arrived at the airport three and a half hours before my flight home. I grabbed a bite to eat and then headed towards my gate. The line at the customs area was incredibly long- a room full of people wound around and wound around again by those ropes you see at banks. People were antsy that they would miss their flight but there was no way to speed up the process that involves having custom officers ask each traveler questions about their visit and where they were heading. After several minutes in line, a little boy in a skullcap standing behind me told his father, "I love you." It seemed like a strange thing to declare in the customs line. The svelte woman standing next to me was reading a book about breast-feeding.

When I got to the front of the line I said a cheery hello to the customs officer who looked a little too much like Dick Cheney. He asked me the purpose of my trip. This time it really didn't have as much to do with writing as it did searching. I told him I worked for a music retailer and was visiting our store in Toronto. He looked at the form where I was required to declare all my purchases. "What does your store sell?" he asked. I said compact discs. "Then why did you buy some here?" He asked. I told him our stores back home didn't have everything. I was going to point out my attempt to buy Canadian artists' music but figured that was more information than he needed to know. He let me go on.

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