Monday, July 31, 2006

It Was Fun While it Lasted, Like Gandhi When He Fasted

Next week will be my last as the editor of this publication. So please note that if you have been kind enough to save me some work, some keystrokes by emailing your contributions to the newsletter to me, you'll soon receive instructions on what to do after next week.

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank some folks that I got to know over the years through my employment with Cheapo and who I am a much better person for our association. Most of these folks have long since moved on to other things, other places but still I hope they know how much I appreciate them.

There's Bill Seeler the man who interviewed and hired me all those years ago. Bill seemed so tired and weary (of life and of work) but he never gave less than his best and had the highest integrity. He was funnier than hell and quite the expert on all things classical.

Thanks too to Johnny Baynes, Brian Haws, Mike Nordgaard, Leah Hosmer, Stephanie Lamson, Paul Young, Fernande Rodgers, Jason Shields, Scott and Sarah Kuzma, Jennifer Stewart, Pat Wheeler, Sam Schneider, and Jeanette Brown.

Finally and foremost I have to thank Al. I've learned so much from him. He's given me opportunities that I'm not sure many people would have even considered. I respect him more than he'll ever know. I know this company will find a way to keep on keeping on. Al will see to that.

See you all next week.


Bob's Quote of the Week: "The cynic smells flowers and looks all around for a coffin."

My sister Janet gave me a jade plant when I moved out on my own after graduating from college. I still have that plant, the only one I've been able to keep alive for any amount of time. (Although to be fair for the many years I lived with Max the Cat I couldn't really have plants around. Max loved to munch on all things green and vegetarian except for my jade plant.)

This past week when I came to work (where my jade plant now resides) I discovered that most of the branches of the plant had fallen off. I'm not sure why other than perhaps the plant has gotten too big, and can't support its own weight. (Who hasn't found themselves there?).

I felt myself feeling sad that something that I've had since the late '80s might be dying on me. I've greatly neglected it over the years yet it has kept pushing on, kept growing and providing some beauty in some otherwise dreary surroundings.

This past week I also learned that for the first time in years I may not be playing softball this fall. Turns out my team was too late in signing up for our usual St. Paul fall league. The league has already filled all the nights up with teams. We tried another St. Paul league only to find that it too had already filled up. Same with Roseville. Seems like softball playing has suddenly become fashionable. When you consider how many players it takes to field a team (at least ten) its pretty remarkable that there are so many wannabe players out there in this medium sized midwestern city.

No softball. My jade plant may be on its last branches. What else could I possibly lose? And how exactly does one go about facing the end of things? Well, this frisky cowboy found himself dealing by playing his favorite song from 2006 (thus far), Paul Simon's "Outrageous." (Who would have thought that the 96 year old Simon would still be capable of writing such terrific music after all these years? Who would have thought he could still be crazy after all these years?")

The song starts out as a political rant against all the things politically wrong with this world from the exploitation of workers to the destructive human behavior causing environmental damage to the planet, to a culture that places such importance on physical beauty that the singer laments how he is now coloring his hair the color of mud. What gets me about "Outrageous" however is the chorus asking an important question. "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" Simon repeats this line many times with each repetition reinforcing a real desperate revelation. Is there enough substance inside to keep us lovable when a wink of an eye, a toothy smile, a flirtatious glance no longer is part of the repertoire?

What's even better is Simon eventually answers his own question with the definitive, "God will... like he waters the flowers on your window sill." It's a sterling image.

The other thing I did from falling into a funk was to re-watch the terrific Canadian sitcom The Newsroom. The CBC show is kind of a cross between an updated Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sports Night. It's about the efforts of the staff of a news show on the Canadian public broadcasting network. The news director is a complete jackass, sexist, racist and completely clueless. He spends most of the series taking great pains to avoid making tough decisions, and fleeing responsibility for putting out a decent news show. This of course leads to more effort covering his own mistakes. The pilot episode for example features the attempts of the intern to get the show's main phone number changed; all in effort to get the news director's mother to stop calling him at work. The intern eventually justifies this request to the corporate higher ups by making up a story about how the news anchor has been getting death threats. This leads to the news anchor becoming paranoid and demanding he be given a bulletproof vest to wear during his broadcasts.

The Newsroom first season flows along like any other smartly written sitcom when all of a sudden at the end it takes a surreal turn. A story breaks about a likely nuclear meltdown of the plant in Toronto and the news director responds as if the story is to be told like a movie. He orders a copy of The China Syndrome and begins interviewing actors to play the part ofreporters and nuclear power experts.

This unexpected turn is jarring but effective. It turns the series on its head and forces you to think about the difference between what we perceive as reality and fiction and how news coverage is often guilty of blurring the lines instead of making any of it more clear.

In the end it's perhaps the best end to a TV show season I have ever seen. And although The Newsroom was to go on for a couple more seasons, had they only done the first fourteen episodes this would have to go down as a must see TV show. It's outrageous and it's jaded and it fit the mood I was in this week.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Take Me Out Of/To The Ballgame

I've been a Twins fan for upwards to 33 years now. I don't think I've ever seen them play better over an extended period of time than they have over the past month or so. Even the world champion teams of 1987 and 1991 never put together a streak like this- where the team is so thoroughly dominating in all aspects of the game- pitching, hitting, defense and strategy.

That said, I don't think I've ever been more frustrated with a Twins squad as I am the 2006 version. They find themselves nine and a half games out of first place, and four games out of the wildcard race. And the maddening thing about their place in the standings is they didn't have to be where they find themselves to be. It's all been self-inflicted.

The team was limping along when management finally decided to pull the plug on the brief (but all too long) Tony Batista, Rondell White, and Juan Castro era. The club broke out of spring training believing that those veterans were better options than younger players (with far greater upside) like Jason Kubel, Jason Bartlett, and Nick Punto. Far more puzzling (and unforgivable) was the decision to open the season with Kyle Lohse and Scott Baker in the starting rotation and Francisco Liriano in the bullpen. Manager Ron Gardenhire is now defending this decision saying that Liriano wasn't ready for starting because he spent much of the spring on the Venezuelan team in the World Baseball Classic.

This is outright bunk. Even if it meant that Liriano's first few starts were limited by a pitch count, having him out there was a far better alternative than anyone on the pitching staff not named Johan Santana. That it took into June for the team to concede this is unforgivable. If Liriano had been given four or five more starts like he should have been the Twins likely would be that much closer to the top of the division.

Liriano has been electric. He's been the key to this turnaround. When he's on the mound there is a sense of something special about to happen. When he gives up a hit you are almost shocked. He makes Santana (who is among the elite pitchers in the game) look like a lesser pitcher in comparison.

By any measure 2006 was going to be a year of transition for the franchise. Going into the season the team appeared to be on a downward path after dominating the division from 2001 to 2004. The White Sox and Indians were clearly teams that had finally passed the Twins in talent. Detroit looked like a team ready to contend as well. This was likely going to be Brad Radke's last year in the game and Torii Hunter's last year as a Twin. Prospects for the long needed new stadium seemed dim at best.

Signing Rondell White seemed smart. A career professional hitter, White seemed to fill the cleanup hole that Justin Morneau clearly wasn't ready to fill last year. And after losing Matthew LeCroy and Jacque Jones the offense that was so weak last year needed some experience and personnel changes to make it more productive.

But if this year was the start of another rebuiding phase the decision to start the season with Castro at short and not Bartlett, and Kubel only given a nominal look before being sent to the minors was confusing at best, stupid at worst. It was time to see what these two could do and it was also time to give both of them the chance to learn at the Major League level so some of the growing pains could be endured this season rather than further down the road.

The season isn't over but to expect this team to continue on this torrid pace is unrealistic. To giveaway two and a half months while floundering along is what makes this season so frustrating. If the team is to somehow make the playoffs you gotta love our chances given that Santana and Liriano will be given four starts in any seven game series. If we don't make it, you can blame it on some boneheaded decisions, some of the worst in the team's history.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Cheapo Newsletter Diet

My Fourth of July resolution this year was to do something about my ever expanding waist line. I decided it was well past time to do something to regain my girlish figure.

It all began in the spring after bringing all three of my cats in to the vet for their annual physical. After being told that both Theo and Thompson were bordering on being overweight I decided to take the vet's advice and switch them over to diet food. I did so knowing that my trio of boyz, and Thompson in particular, really look forward to and enjoy each and every meal.

Because of this I decided that I wouldn't make a radical change- that instead I would buy their regular food and mix it in with the diet brand. It soon became clear that the diet food didn't taste as good as the regular food as all three boyz first eat up the morsels of regular stuff and walk away with a few diet pieces left in the dish.

I also realized it wasn't exactly fair that since over the past few years I have dealt with a feeling of my pants getting tighter and tighter by loosening my belt a notch or two, and buying pants with a bigger waist size.

So on this Independence Day I decided to get proactive about my own increase in weight. I decided that I would not only eat better but also get a little more exercise in my daily routine.

The first part hasn't been too hard. Some of you might have tried the trendy diets like lowering your fat or carbohydrate intake but I'm here to say that if you want to drop a pound or two or fifty, that all you have to do is remember our friend Popeye. There's nothing more refreshing in the summertime that a spinach based salad topped with mushrooms, fresh vegetables and a few pieces of cut up chicken. It's easy to make, quite tasty, and you leave the table with a sprightly and energetic feeling.

The second part has been a little more difficult- having to free up some time during the evening to take a walk. When I bought my house a decade ago one of the reasons I bought in the area I bought (the Como Park area) was that I was nearby both a lake and a park and that seemed like a good place to be. Shortly after when I was spending a lot of time with the potential housemate who never was, the gal named after a rabbit, one of the things we enjoyed doing together was taking walks around my neighborhood.

I stopped walking after she walked away. And my exercise regimen since has relied on the summer softball games and whatever walking I do at my job. Thus I may be half the man I used to be but I surely don't feel that way physically and my clothes certainly don't reflect that.

I've had the time to take walks around Lake Como most every night for the past two weeks. And quite frankly it not only has helped with my pants feeling a bit looser, but also has helped with clearing my never been more cluttered mind. During my walks I listen to a CD I haven't listened for a while (does anyone else realize that U2's Joshua Tree or Alex Chilton's High Priest are such delightful recordings?) and I've rediscovered how much I love music.

Still the thing I've probably enjoyed the most about my walks around the lake is watching the people who are walking their dogs. I love how when you look at the dogs you can just tell how much they enjoy the fresh air and exercise and spending time with their owners. Likewise you can usually see the pride and affection in the owner's eyes. It's a give and take relationship, the rewards of which come shining through across the paved path around Lake Como.

I've walked enough where I have developed a blister on my foot but still I've never come back to my house feeling anything but better for the steps I've taken. It's good to get out there again. Good to finally be feeling better about where I am these days.

Monday, July 10, 2006

When You Gonna Wake Up?

Isn't it weird how there are times when you'll hear a song, see a movie or TV show, or read a book, that grapples with the very issues occupying your most recent thoughts and it's all purely a random coincidence? How you didn't deliberately mean to stumble across this particular piece of art or entertainment, but nonetheless this coincidental discovery delves deeply into what you think about late at night when all the defenses come down or it's the very thing you wrote about last week in your weekly newsletter column for a local music retail company?

Last week in this space I wrote about my attempts to try to figure out this religion thing. Two days later, (on Independence Day mind you) I slid Ingmar Bergman's 1961 masterpiece, Through the Glass Darkly into my DVD player. I didn't have any idea what the movie was about having put it in my Netflix queue based solely on a recommendation the concerned Netflix folks made to me based on my movie rental tastes.

Winner of the Oscar for "Best Foreign Film" Through the Glass Darkly tells the story of a family (father, daughter, son, and son-in-law/daughter's husband) spending time at a lake house. The family tension is only made more difficult in that the daughter (played in a masterful performance by Harriet Andersson) is slowly going insane.

The father much to his son-in-law's chagrin, is using his daughter's illness as fodder for a new novel. Anyone who has ever written about someone else in a public forum and gotten spanked in the process can probably relate. Art is based on life and yet you either do or you don't take other's feelings into account in your suffering through the creative process. Is your work more important than the feelings of your friends and family? You decide or you don't, knowing that your decision will ultimately have some grave consequences for your own life and others around you. I love that Bergman tries to address this conundrum.

Andersson's character is convinced that God is calling her to abandon her family but when the moment of calling comes, she is frightened by God's appearance. Turns out he looks like a spider with frightening eyes.

Confession here: I think what may have fueled my current spiritual seeking mindset is that I recently finished re-watching season five and six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. During those two terrific seasons there were episodes dealing with Buffy's mother's death; Buffy's death and return from Heaven; and perhaps my favorite Buffy episode of all time- where she is "poked" (Xander of course asks her to clarify just where she was poked) by a demon whose poison causes her to drift between two worlds. One world is the world we've known all along in the series- where Buffy is a superhero in a world full of demons and difficulties. The other is a world where Buffy has been hospitalized for a mental illness and where her mother and father are trying desperately to pull her back to safety.

Whenever I tell someone they HAVE to watch these episodes of Buffy they tend to roll their eyes and mutter something about David just being David. I mention in particular that the episode where Buffy's mom dies is by far and away the closest I've ever seen to anything capturing what I felt when my own Mom died. I also mention how the art of the direction in that episode is downright "Bergmanesque." I used this term having never actually watched an Ingmar Bergman movie in its entirety before.

Through the Glass Darkly confirmed my intuition and limited exposure to the much lauded Swedish director's skills. I have to think that Joss Whedon watched this movie before he wrote the Buffy may be institutionalized episode. The themes are the same- how the reality we depend on may not actually be the world we should be existing in.

Bergman's film of course digs much deeper and delves deftly into issues about how little our families can help in truly desperate situations and how the need to believe in God maybe in itself a delusion or maybe the path to our only salvation.

Through the Glass Darkly is part of a trilogy of films Bergman made between 1961-1963 based around contemplation on religion. I haven't seen the other two films yet (Winter Light and The Silence) but now I just have to. I'm sure SCTV could do some terrific spoofs of these ultra-serious Swedish movies but sometimes the jokes just have to be put aside for a serious thought or two.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Losing my Religion While Getting Right with God

It was thirty years ago this summer when my oldest sister got married. I don't remember much about the first wedding I'd ever been to. I remember wearing a lime green leisure suit that I wish I still owned and fit into. I also remember at the reception there was a low ceiling just out of my reach. I spent a lot of time trying to jump up and touch it. I couldn't have been more than an inch away. And I wouldn't give up, figuring that eventually I could cheat gravity just once.

It's quite certain that getting married changed my sister's life. (Her son graduated from Stillwater High School a couple of weeks ago). It also ended up changing mine. Because we hadn't gone to church my entire life up to that point, the wedding was the first time I remember being in a church. I think my Mom realized this and decided that our family should start going to church again if only to expose us kids to the concepts of religion.

The whole church service fascinated me. I loved being able to sing unfamiliar songs in a public setting trying to figure out the melodies and strange words merely by reading the hymnal. I tried to imagine the circumstances of the list of people that was read every week who we were praying for.

(A little girl goes to church one Sunday and looks at all these fancy plaques hung up all around. She has the chance to ask the minister a question. "Father, what are all those plaques hung up with flags on them?" The father responds, "Those are to honor those who died in service." The little girl looks at him wide-eyed and asks, "Which one, the 8 or 9:30?")

There were a couple parts of the church going experience I didn't particularly care for. When communion began we wouldn't go up to the altar because we hadn't been baptized or confirmed. As the ushers slowly let row by row go up, I felt embarrassed when they got to our row and we all just sat there, feeling unworthy.

The part of church that I hated most however was going off to Sunday school. Right before they let us out, Father Henry Hoover would read the announcements and my stomach would turn in knots, butterflies fluttering like dandelion seeds on a windy day.

I hated Sunday school because I didn't know anything about what was being taught. I had never read the Bible. And since I was the newcomer in class I felt like all the other kids in my class not only knew a whole lot more, but also knew each other. I not only felt dumb and alone, I felt God would punish me for my ignorance.

Mr. and Mrs. Miel, who were the teachers, seemed to sense my uneasiness and didn't try and call on me unless I had a look of certainty on my face. Who would have guessed I'd grow up and one day shake the Dalai Lama's hand? (Years later when the Miels came to my Mom's funeral, after it was mentioned during the service that I was a Bob Dylan fan, Mrs. Miel came over to me and said that she used to babysit Bob and his younger brother. "His brother was a really good kid, but Bob never said a thing.")

Through the years my own personal spiritual beliefs have been challenged and changed although the basis remains the same. I don't believe this world is the end. I think there's something else, some greater purpose that comes next. I have no proof (other than certain dreams and an undying faith that humans can't possibly be the highest being). I certainly wouldn't argue with anyone who believes differently. I think the greatest danger facing our existence is the growing blurring between politics and religion.

That said, I don't understand those who don't seem to be curious about religion. I don't understand how you can't be. Maybe it's being able to live entirely in the present (or for some in the past) getting lost in what's going on today without trying to figure out what comes next. But at some point don't you have to stop and wonder what it all means? Am I the only one losing sleep over this?

That's why I will faithfully be watching Bill Moyers' new PBS show, Faith and Reason. The show features interviews with famous writers (the first show featured Salman Rushdie). Ultimately Faith and Reason strives to answer Moyers' question, "In a world where religion is poison to some and salvation to others, how do we live together?" If after the seven episodes air I have a better understanding of that, it will be seven hours well spent. Thank God.