Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A poem for Minneapolis in the snow

Been reading Shel Silverstein and cowboy poets like Wally McRae lately. Led to this poem about Minneapolis in the snow:

I was waiting for the Lake Street bus -- this was several years ago
My jacket up around my ears, watching traffic come and go
When this old woman shuffled up -- no one you’d ever know
‘N said, “Tell me son, now aint this fun? The city in the snow?

Said, “I been in Lake Street 3-2 joints from Lyndale to the River Road
Ran tabs in every one of them -- God knows how much I owed
But Hamm’s or Schmidt or Grain Belt beer I never got a glow
That warmed me near the way I warm to the city in the snow.

“And I skinny dipped in Lake Calhoun one summer long ago
And saw Willie Mays play at Nicollet Park. The kid put on a show.
Shopped Lake Street Sears for all those years. It was sad to see it go
But you know what makes me happy, boy? The city in the snow.

“Me and ‘Husband Number Two’ -- we had a place upstairs on Lake that was hot as hell in summertime -- just about all we could take
But when winter came we’d pull up chairs, turn on the radio
Hold hands, look out the window, ‘n watch the city in the snow.

“And we used to slide at Powderhorn. Either that or we would skate in that park off Hiawatha -- the one down towards Thirty-Eighth
And afterwards we hurried home down streets of bungalows
Christmas trees in picture windows in the city in the snow.”

It was six at night. The vapor lights gave off a ghostly glow
“Here comes the bus, little late,” she said, “traffics got her running slow.
Go ahead. Hop on. Get moving, boy. You got places you should go.
Me? I’m waiting for the streetcar in the city in the snow.”

The weatherman’s on the TV now, putting on a fearful show
Full of sleet and snow and wind and cold, says, “Look out, she’s gonna blow.”
And when all that wintry hell busts loose, know where I’m going to go?
I’m gonna catch a Lake Street bus and watch the city in the snow.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Damn you, carbohydrates

I have never met a carbohydrate I didn’t like. And, this time of year in Minnesota, carbohydrates are everywhere.

At the office potluck Holiday party. In mail order packages from family, friends, and business associates. Stacked on silver trays on sidebars. In bowls with salsa and bean dip on the coffee table during TV football games. Everywhere.

I try to ignore them, but they know my Holiday routines. They arrange themselves alluringly where I can’t help but run into them.

“Hey, big boy,” they whisper as I walk by, “Want some real Happy Holidays?”

There are traditional Holiday carbohydrates—gross upon gross of my sister-in-law’s cookies, for example. Every year, she enters her manic holiday baking phase just after Thanksgiving and doesn’t snap out of it until late Christmas Eve afternoon.

Or those open boxes of chocolates that find their way to the living room end tables. Would they be there any other time of year? I don’t think so.

There are the commercial Holiday carbohydrates. Only yesterday, paying for gas down the street, I almost fell for a couple of festive red and green, two-for-a-buck gas station doughnuts. The candy bars sported Holiday wrappers. Most seductive of all, I could get two pints of eggnog for the price of one.

Two pints—two whole pints—of gas station eggnog for the price of one.

What I need here—and I need it badly—is some sort of cap-and-trade program, where I could buy carbohydrate credits from someone who isn’t going to use them. Or maybe donate the extra carbohydrates I’m going to consume to someone who needs them… A runner, say… Or a yoga addict.

But no. It’s not going to happen. Even as I speak, hundreds of Holiday carbohydrates out there are heading my way.

Ignoring the evil eye my wife will give me from across the room, I will ingest them. They will go down the Holiday hatch, join the carbs from Christmases past ,and enjoy a free ride on my hips into the New Year, and on toward Christmases future.

And I, for my part, will fend off any pangs of guilt by deliberately considering, however briefly, each of those “No enrollment fee” health club offers that arrive in the mail with the Christmas cards.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Minnesota Thanksgiving Tradition

It’s Thanksgiving week in Minnesota, and in small town public works departments all over the state, maintenance guys are digging out the town Holiday decorations and heading for Main Street.

Dented sheet metal snowmen wearing top hats and mufflers. Big plastic snowflakes. Dusty green plastic garlands. Rusty candy canes. Snargles of Holiday lights. Eight-foot plywood stars for water towers.

Decorations etched in our childhood memories. Decorations that lost their luster forty years ago. Decorations that would probably be replaced if times—and the town budget—were better.

But the times, like the decorations, are what they are. Two guys will put everything on a pick-up, take the cherry picker, a handful of tools, and some traffic cones, and spend the day bolting it all to light poles from one end of town to the other.

It’s familiar work for the street garage old timers. They know every snowflake, snowman, and candy cane the way most Minnesotans know their family Christmas tree ornaments. They know which decoration goes on what pole. They know every bolt and clamp, too—right down to the bottom bracket on that one snowman that goes on the pole outside the municipal liquor store—the bracket that “Swede,” the shop foreman, rigged with a radiator hose clamp after that big wind came through on Christmas night in 1987.

One guy will get up in the cherry picker, and bolt. The other will stand below, and warn pedestrians to steer clear. Everyone else in town will mutter that hanging the Holiday decorations is a one man job.

Undaunted, the two guys will work light pole to light pole, up one side of Main Street and down the other. They’ll finish near sunset, and as that early winter dusk settles in, they’ll plug everything in or flip a switch on a timer, and the Holidays will return to Main Street again.

It won’t be like lighting the tree at Rockefeller Center or the White House. No big ceremony. But the two guys will stand there for a moment and take it in.

“Not too shabby,” one of them will say.

“Yeah, the other guy will say, “Close enough for government work.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

I’m a veteran, and this fall, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the VFW Honor Guard who worked at Memorial and Veterans Day ceremonies in my home town when I was growing up.

They were World War Two guys… No longer young, but not yet old… A little post-prime, I guess you would say… With a bit of a middle aged slouch.

This would have been in the early 60s, and it was obvious that the 50s had been good to them. Each man sported a paunch of some sort, and each man dealt with his paunch his own way.

Some of them chose to go up a pant size or two. Others just buttoned their trousers lower. Others still resorted to using their white, ceremonial web belts as a surrogate girdles, cinching everything up two notches tighter than it ought to have been.

Our services were always at the cemetery or at the park in the middle of town, and the men would come ambling up, one at a time, trailing their rifles, hats at jaunty angles, cigarettes hanging from lips here and there.

The commander would line them up, make a quick inspection, straighten hats, and pass out clips of blank ammunition for the salute that would occur near the end ceremony. Every kid in the crowd strained to get a glimpse of those bullets before the Honor Guard guys shoved them into their pockets and resumed slouching and smoking.

Eventually, the commander would drill them just a little—left shoulder arms, right shoulder arms, present arms, and parade rest—commands that old soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen never forget.

They’d flip their cigarettes away and straighten up. Time had tarnished their brass a little, though. Their moves weren’t always crisp or in synch. But they did their best. Those guys always did their best.

And when they fired their salute at the end of the ceremony, you could see it meant something to them—and to the other vets in the crowd—something more than it meant to the rest of us back then.

They’re gone now, for the most part, but it’s Veterans Day, and wherever they are, I hope they know that, well, it means something more to me now, too.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

God bless the poll workers

Later this morning, I’m going to pull on a sweatshirt and wander over to our polling place. With any luck, the early rush will be over. The poll workers will be sitting there, enjoying the lull, and I’ll have a chance to shoot the breeze with them.

I like poll workers. They aren’t your run-of-the-mill, take-a-number-and-wait, Department of Motor Vehicle types. Poll workers genuinely care about doing the job well, and doing the job right. Even the grumpy ones.

We’ve endured months of bluster and polarization fueled by cable television, talk radio, and political advertising. Many of us will go to the polls today not so much to vote for someone as to vote against the other side. We will walk in with teeth clenched, and black-hearted vengeance on our minds.

And there will be those poll workers—the first group of positive people we will have encountered since before the precinct caucuses last winter. They won’t be looking for an argument. They won’t have an axe to grind. All they’ll want is to help us vote.

I like the way poll workers come prepared for monotony. I like walking into that church basement or school gym and seeing them sitting there, reading glasses balanced on the tips of their noses, with a library copy of a Barbara Kingsolver book—or with knitting. I love poll workers who knit. Somewhere down deep, I wish one of them would knit an Election Day scarf just for me.

I even like the way you get to stand there with a poll worker and watch your ballot slide into the machine. There’s something so nice and final about it. Then they hand you that little “I Voted” sticker and send you on your way. What can I say? I just plain like poll workers.

Growing up, I wanted to be a cowboy or a football player. I write for a living now, but you know what I really want to do? I want to be a poll worker.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Damned leaf raking wimps

It’s fall, and roving gangs of young men with gasoline-powered blowers have descended upon the neighborhood to blow the leaves out of some of the neighbor’s yards. They work quickly and efficiently, six-to-ten-to-a-crew. They rev their engines high for ten minutes or so, then they move on, leaving my neighbor’s yard clean, my yard full of leaves—and my heart full of conflicting emotions.

I admire their youth and their industry. For young men with gasoline powered blowers and the will to work, money must seem to be falling from the sky this time of year. If I were young, I’d be out there gunning my engine right along with them.

But peeking through the living room drapes, watching the crew next door work, I can sense past generations of leaf raking Minnesotans looking over my shoulder and shaking their heads in disgust.

Not raking your own yard. Phooey. It’s just plain un-Minnesotan. How were you raised\ for crying out loud?

Raking your yard is your last chance to get in some good, old-fashioned, contemplative yard work before the snow flies—a chance to assess not just the state of your lawn and flower beds, but the state of your mind as well.

You can do a lot of reflecting on the business end of a rake. The scratch of the tines, the cascading sound of the leaves, and the smell of autumn on the air… It will help you get right with the world

It’s humbling-yet-affirming work. It builds character, provided you stick to it.

A friend of mine who lives in the Chippewa National Forest up near Walker tells me he raked himself to a standstill the other day. He just couldn’t shake the idea that the trees had him outnumbered and surrounded. So he gave up. He went in, had a peanut butter sandwich, and took a nap. The leaf piles in his yard will be there until spring.

Not me. Nossir. I’ll show those roving gangs of leaf blowing young men and the neighbors who hire them. I’ll get out there and rake my own yard myself. I’ll stick to it , too. Until every last leaf is gone, It’s good work. It’s Minnesota work. It will do my Minnesota heart and soul good.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New U football coach needs old fashioned gumption

There’s a new breed of football coach stalking the sidelines these days—a 21st Century man. A dispassionate Chief Executive in expensive slacks. A corporatist with systems for offense. Systems for defense. Systems for everything, right down to scheduling Booster Club snack stand duty.

Coach Vince Lombardi built his Packer system around the sweep play. Bud Grant’s system just out-gritted the opposition. This new breed of coach relies on a system of percentages, data, and options so complicated that he carries it around on a plastic coated, color coordinated chart the size of a pancake house menu, and he seems to consult his chart at length on every play.

It’s complicated at the high school level, more so in college, and all but impossible to comprehend in pro ball.

Watching Vikings coach Brad Childress study his chart, my friends and I have taken to turning to one another and shrugging. Fans are screaming, Momentum is surging or ebbing. Players are panting, sweating, striving and grunting. And there stands Coach Childress, studying his chart, the picture of actuarial dispassion.

It’s, the chart, the whole chart, and nothing but the chart with these guys. Even when common sense dictates they do something else.

Up 41-16 against the Gophers two weeks ago, the Wisconsin coach went for a two-point play after a touchdown late in the game. It was rubbing the Gophers nose in the score. It was just plain bad sportsmanship. Asked why he did it, the coach said the chart told him to.

All well and good, as long as “Coach” wins. But when their teams lose, all these modern coaches seem able to do is stand there and look analytical. Evidently, indignation and outrage are not on the chart.

It’s unprofessional. It’s juvenile. But sometimes coaching football calls for a good old fashioned expletive-filled meltdown. The kind oldtime coaches with 2.0 grade point averages and degrees in Geography and bum knees from their own football glory days used to have.

Sadly, no. Not to be. Not from this new breed of coach. He’s playing the percentages, not our traditionally-reviled rivals. Meanwhile, up here in the bleachers, we fans fume and fulminate.

It’s time to dig in and make a stand. C’mon. Put some heart into your system, Coach. Stop crunching numbers. Start crunching the other guys.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wish I bought that bird a bus ticket

It was October in the Boundary Waters. It had been raining for two days. We were three young guys hunkered down in a leaky tent on Lake Agnes, just south of Lac le Croix.

There is only so much hunkering down you can do with two other guys in a leaky tent. If the monotony doesn’t get you, the soggy sleeping bag will. Sooner or later, for sanity’s sake, you have to get up and get out. So I pulled on a cheap plastic poncho and crawled out to have a look around.

On a path near camp, I came across an old robin. He was hunkered down too, huddling in the roots of a huge old white pine, and I squatted down to say hello.

He was a bedraggled little guy. His face feathers had gone gray, and there was a far-off look in his beady little eyes, as if he were thinking about the warm weather at the other end of the flyway—weather he would never experience again. He was obviously awaiting the inevitable.

I told the other guys about him when I got back to the tent, and we thought maybe we could pack him out with us when we left. Maybe we could find a shoebox and some cotton batting in Ely. We could put him in it, along with some birdseed and water, and give the box to a bus driver headed for Florida. The driver could release him when they got there.

But we forgot him. We stayed too long and had to pull up stakes in a hurry. We were three miles and two portages down the river toward Ely before we remembered.

Every so often, I find myself on one of those paths that wend through the north woods, up a hill, around a curve, over the roots of an old white pine. I look down and see the ghost of that robin looking up with accusatory disgust.

“You left me,” he seems to be saying. “I could have seen Miami one more time.”

The guilt is not insurmountable. But it’s feathered and frumpy and wet with cold October rain. I should do something to put things right.

So if you see an old robin around let me know. I just looked online. Bus fare to Florida is ninety-nine bucks one way.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Porch Sofa" reviews

The press is starting to review "A Porch Sofa Almanac". Also, # 1 Best Seller in Saint Paul Pioneer Press's local nonfiction last Sunday Thought you might enjoy:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Working in stone.

A friend of mine up north owns a beautiful old stone house on a small lake. It was designed and built, rock upon rock, by an old Finn named Arvid more than sixty years ago, and his work is purely and simply art. The place is holding up well, but there was one defunct doorway my friend wanted to close off—to make part of the stonework—and he wanted to do it in Arvid’s style.

You don’t find master stonemasons just anywhere these days, but after asking around, he finally found the right guy—a man about fifty—a poet who works in granite, not words.

My friend and I stood and watched the man work the other day. He is infinitely patient and deliberate, and he melds his stonework into Arvid’s with respect for the old Finn and an understanding of how he worked.

The two men never met. It’s just one stone man reading the work of another, appreciating the thought and craftsmanship, matching the style right down to the mortar mix.

It’s no small feat. Arvid built perfectly flat walls with square corners. So this isn’t just a matter of piling up rocks and slathering them in concrete. Every stone has to be studied and hand-split. It’s a matter of finding the flat plane embedded in the rock, then using a hammer and cold chisel to reveal it.

Over the years, the man has acquired a reverence for the stone. He says every piece of granite is a billion-year-old living thing.

Each stone has a place in the wall—a spot where it is meant to be. If not in the row he is working on, then further up. Like art, or music—or writing come to think of it—it’s a matter of composition—of harmony—of aesthetics.

There’s a feeling that radiates off someone who has moved beyond mastery—a humility and happiness—a contented wisdom and timelessness that makes you go all philosophical—even if you just stand there and watch. I’ve been feeling that feeling all week long.

What’s a couple hundred years in a wall to a rock with a billion year resume?

Somewhere an old Finlander named Arvid is smiling.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Election Year Lawn Signs

Is it just me or are election year lawn signs contributing to political polarization more than they used to?

The wording hasn’t changed. It’s still just the candidate’s name… and maybe a slogan… or a party affiliation. But after all these years of talk radio, Internet politics, and angry cable TV pundits, we seem to have changed. The signs seem just a little more, “In your face” somehow.

Especially signs for candidates we don’t like.

A simple walk around the block seems to trigger a bout of smoldering, muttering, Minnesota-nice resentment… All those signs for the other guy… Why’d you move into this neighborhood anyhow?.

Darn that myopic so-and-so next door. Sure he lent you his snow shovel last March. Sure the shovel is still in your garage. But if he’s going to vote that way, you just might keep the shovel. You’re going to need it to dig out from under all the problems his candidate is going to aggravate instead of fix.

…If his candidate is elected, that is. Surely a plurality of Minnesotans could not possibly share that point of view.

Which brings us back to lawn signs. Minnesota human nature is such that we tend to use these signs as political barometers.

Never mind the polls. The more lopsided the neighborhood sign count, the more heartened or disheartened we become about our candidate’s chances in November. This time of year, any Democrat living in a Republican neighborhood—or any Republican living in a neighborhood that skews Democratic—is sure to be mired in a lawn sign funk that’s going to last through election day. The first holiday lights will be twinkling before the last neighborhood election year lawn signs disappear.

And it’s that funk—fostered in no small part by those lawn signs—that’s turning our politics so blue-and so blah.

One of these nights after supper, the phone is going to ring. I’ll pick it up and some precinct level volunteer will ask if they can come over and put in a lawn sign.

“Nah,” I’ll say. “We’re going to pass this year.

“See you on Election Day, but no signs. Not this year. Nope. No thanks.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Cut it out or I'll cream ya."

There was this day at the beginning of 7th grade when I saw a couple of kids from my class pushing a sixth grader around the playground at lunchtime recess—establishing the pecking order for the year, I guess.

Being one of the larger kids—way too big for even the eight graders to haze—I told them to cut it out or I’d cream them.

They cut it out. The sixth grader slipped away. The bell rang. No one got creamed.

The next day at lunch, I came around a corner of the school and found the sixth grader and a couple of his friends pushing around a wild-eyed little fourth grader.

So I told them to cut it out or I’d cream them. And they did. But the moment has been with me ever since.

What is it that turns people who’ve been hazed into hazers? How can they put experience and conscience aside and perpetuate this stuff? All these years later I still don’t get it.

It’s a testosterone-addled guy thing, I guess… A primitive socializing mechanism maybe… Bullying as ritual… Everyman’s chance to be the alpha dog for a few minutes… And a time-honored tradition too.

First you’re hazed. Then you haze someone yourself. Is this great or what? Pass it on.

Pass it on in the locker room. Pass it on at the frat house. Pass it on on the job or down at the club.

And most days, it seems foolhardy to try to make guys stop it. I mean what’s your problem? You can’t fight human nature. It’s just boys being boys.

My seventh grade classmates probably turned out to be fine men. The shifty little sixth grade hazee-turned-hazer is probably an okay guy too.

I’d like to think, though, that sometimes at night, just before they go to sleep, their consciences tweak them just a little; that they think back and wince about the hazing they took part in.

If, at this stage in life, their consciences don’t bother them, I hope a voice from somewhere deep in their memory speaks up and tells them, “Cut it out or I’ll cream ya.”

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Package From Gramma

The college kids have only just gone back to school. It’s a little early in the term for care packages from home. But my daughter just got one from her grandmother—my mother-in-law—and reports the contents as follows:

“…an assortment of prayer cards, a blue ribbon, a pre-printed pad of grocery shopping lists, address tags with Gramma’s address on them, a blue holographic "Freedom is not free" bookmark, and a 2010 calendar.”

It was one of my mother-in-law’s storied, “Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink,” packages, where she chooses a family member at random and bestows the flotsam and jetsam of her life upon them. Not all her flotsam and jetsam—she has ninety years worth. Only as much flotsam and jetsam as she can cram into one of those “All you can fit in ships for $7.50” post office boxes.

Everything has a hidden meaning. We’ve all learned to interpret the stuff she stuffed in. The prayer cards, for example. They reflect decades of devout Swedish Norwegian Irish Lutheran Catholicism. She’s telling my daughter to go to church

And the blue ribbon is a grandmotherly affirmation—a kind of a “You go, girl” across the decades. The shopping list note pad is a reminder to eat well. The address tags scream, “Don’t forget to write,” and the “Freedom is not free,” bookmark is part civics lesson, part reminder for my daughter to read and enrich her mind.

My mother-in-law is the queen of subliminal gift giving— in care packages, on birthdays or at the Holidays.

One year, for Christmas, she gave her know-it-all son-in-law, a furnace blower motor she’d found under the basement stairs. Another year, all her son-in-laws got nicely gift wrapped packages of grocery store meat. Not premium steaks. Nothing aged or exotic. The store label identified it as something called, “Random Meat” and it was approaching freshness code expiration.

Sitting there, I had to agree with her. From where she sat as the family matriarch, I, a middle-aged son-in-law, was indeed, “Random meat.”

There is more. So much more. There’s a parable in every present and care package she sends. But it’s probably best I end this here. I have a birthday coming up and I don’t want her to go out of her way and get me anything too… well… you know… thoughtful.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A fond-yet-surreal State Fair memory

There was a time at the state fair—a matter of a decade—maybe two—when they parked a beautifully-painted, refrigerated semi just outside the entrance to the Midway between the beer garden and the grandstand. Inside was a very dead, very frozen whale—an orca as I recall—named “L’il Orvy”.

L’il. L-I-apostrophe-l.

The people who owned Orvy blared a sideshow-like, “Yowsa-yowsa” spiel over a set of tinny loudspeakers. You paid your money. You shuffled up a set of stairs, into the trailer, and there he was. Yessir. Sure enough. Li’l Orvy—a dead frozen whale.

You shuffled the length of his carcass, out another door, back to terra firma. Squinting after having been inside the trailer, you’d feel a little fleeced and a little conflicted. You’d just paid good money to shuffle past a dead whale.

I’ve wondered for years about the people who showed Orvy. Who were they? Where’d they get him? And where’d they get the idea to truck him from fair to fair?

I’ve imagined them pitching the loan officer at the bank on the idea of financing the truck and trailer.

“It’s a frozen whale. We’re gonna call him L’il Orvy. L-I-apostrophe-l. We’re gonna show him at fairs. People will pay good money to see him…”

I’ve imagined Orvy in his trailer, bouncing just a bit on the Interstate between all those state fairs, less exhibit than cargo now.

I’ve even imagined the couple home for the winter, fair season over—she sitting on the sofa, feet tucked up under her, watching TV—he in the lounger reading pack issues of Popular Mechanics—and Lil Orvy in his trailer, refrigeration unit thrumming on the far side of the barn where they can’t hear it from the house.

They’re probably retired now. I hope they’ve retired Li’l Orvy too. After hundreds of thousands of miles and all that freezer burn, I hope he’s thawed and returned to dust.

This year, when I go to the fair, I will visit Li’l Orvy’s spot.

I will buy a sno cone in his honor and shuffle a ceremonial shuffle.

“Rest in peace,” I will whisper to Lil Orvy as the sno cone syrup trickles over my knuckles onto that hallowed ground. “Wherever you are, rest in peace.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mother is Facebooking

There is a point in middle age where you and the latest technologies part ways.

Your dollar store reading glasses won’t pick up the fine print in owner’s manuals. You lose your way—and lose faith—in the bewildering maze of menus that drop down or pop up as you struggle to program the latest gizmo or gadget.

You start to doubt your digital self. Like Grampa Joad on the way to “Californy” in “The Grapes of Wrath”, you hunker down in the dust at the side of the road and say, “I aint-uh-gonna go. Nossir. I aint-uh-gonna go.”

This technological pre-senility shows up all but automatically In your forties. It shows up with such regularity you could set your watch by it, assuming, of course, you understood the instructions that came with your watch—or that you wear a watch at all now that cell phones show the time.

I mention technological pre-senility because I was on Facebook after supper last night. And, there, in a little box over to the right, Facebook was suggesting a new “friend”—My mother.

Mom. On Facebook.

I won’t tell you how old she is, but her profile says she graduated from college in 1943. She lists herself as retired, but she still drives over and volunteers at the library two or three days a week. She takes side streets now—her one concession to age, She has sworn off driving the eight-lane wide two-way drag race that used to be Main Street.

So much for technological pre-senility. Her peers are fighting for an extra prune whip dessert down the street at the home… My peers are beginning to think prune whip sounds pretty good. Meanwhile, Mom is out there networking with people 1/8th her age.

All you Baby Boomers feeling entitled to give up on technology take notice. And all you Gen-X’ers feeling electronically sorry for yourselves—suck it up.

We’ve got generations of technology to master before we sleep. If my Mom can Facebook, surely we can program that new hi-def TV. Or at the very least set the blinking clock on the hopelessly out-of-date VHS recorder just below it.

So c’mon. What are we waiting for? We’ve got technologies to master. If Mom can, we all can. Let’s roll.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In praise of teachers

There’s an exercise program on the stationary bike down at the gym called “Random Hill Climb.” Punch it in and the bike sends you off on a series of simulated uphill grinds—some easy, some harder, and one or two that bring you right to the edge of chest pain.

There’s a graph in the display on the bike that shows you what’s coming up. You can see the sadistically steep hills ahead—and fret about them long before you get there.

Sitting there the other day, pedaling, yet another Mount Everest looming, I found myself thinking this must be how teachers feel in August—looking ahead… seeing another school year only weeks away.

Here comes the grind. Time to grit your teeth and lean into it again.

New students. New parents. New routines and regimens. Bigger, ever-more-diverse classes. Smaller, ever-tighter budgets. No doubt about it—It’s all uphill from here.

And, this being an election year, candidates at all levels and from all parties will use you, your peers and your profession as red herring, political footballs and whipping boys. It’s amazing how problems are never the politicians’ fault—but how quickly they step in to take credit for any success.

I’ve logged almost two decades as the parent of school-aged kids. Almost two decades of projects, reports, and sitting in those small desks for conferences. Counting my own adventures in grammar school, this year will be my fifth trip through eighth grade. Not counting substitutes, music, gym and art teachers, that’s thirty-nine different classroom educators—from starry-eyed young idealists to grizzled old veterans. I have yet to encounter a single one who didn’t love kids and pour his or her heart into the job.

And it’s August in Minnesota again. Any day now, they’ll open the school doors and teachers will start moving stuff down summer-dark halls that smell of sweeping compound and floor wax, back into those timeless classrooms of theirs. The uphill grind will begin all over.

If you’re a teacher on the way back to school, while it may look uphill, I’m pretty sure the whole state says, “Go get ‘em. Dig in. Bear down. And here’s hoping this year lets you love what you do.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Any day now—along the edge of a bike path or beside a hiking trail—you’re going to come around a corner and find yourself face-to-face with the first red sumac leafs of autumn.

It will be ninety degrees out—a prefect summer day—and yet there it will be—a single sprig of red sumac leafs hanging among its still-green brethren— a sign of things to come—a shot across your spiritual bow.

“Repent,” it will seem to say like a cartoon panel street corner prophet. “The end is at hand.” The end of summer, I guess… If you take the short view…

But you’d have to be some kind of insensitive shmoe not to look at that first sprig of red sumac and contemplate how quickly everything else is going too—including Life itself. In that sense, the first red sumac sprig is a little kick in the butt from August to you.

You’ll stand there for a moment. You’ll look at it. You’ll sense Life trying to get your attention… Tapping the face of its watch… Jerking its head and rolling its eyes ever-so-subtly toward the door…

Another year. Another change of season… C’mon. Let’s go.

When you were in college, the first red sumac foretold a change of venue more than a change of season. In a couple of weeks you’d be out from under that tedious summer job, out from under your parents’ roof, and back at school with your friends where you really belonged.

Now, though, you and your college friends are burdened with routines and responsibilities and slumping through middle age. If the first red sumac of autumn foretells anything, it’s that in a matter of weeks your own college-aged kids will be going back to school to be with their friends where they really belong.

But there you will be—face to face with that first red sumac sprig. Locked in that simple, once a year, pas de deux.
The season won’t change. Not right away. But deep in your heart, something old and familiar will take that first step toward autumn. You’ll feel happy, sad, good—and for that moment at least—just the faintest bit blue.

Then your routines will set in again. And you and Life will simply move on.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

August Acorn Showers

(Excerpt from "A Porch Sofa Almanac)

Cool August night. Bedroom window open. Drifting off to sleep. Breeze in the old white oak out front.

All is right with the world – except for the acorns letting go. You can hear them succumbing to gravity a block away, carpet bombing the neighborhood, punctuating these late summer nights.

They clack on the gable, rattle down the shingles and plink off the gutter en route to the driveway below. They fall directly into the hosta bed – or onto the lawn – with a somewhat softer thud. I’ll rake them up later. Either that or the neighborhood squirrels will harvest them and stash them away for winter.

Every so often, one of them ricochets off the neighbor’s Corolla with a distinctive not-quite-clunk, not-quite-plink. Up in the bedroom, on the verge of sleep, I smirk a little.

The neighbor’s Corolla… Heh-heh-heh…

It’s not nearly as amusing when they plunk my car.

So many acorns. One tree produces thousands. Millions are falling all over town, littering sidewalks and bike paths, crunching under car tires.

They say Newton discovered gravity when a falling apple hit him on the head. I don’t buy it. I say he was probably thumped by an acorn. Only last Saturday, a guy I was golfing with got plunked good and hard as he teed up his ball in a shady tee box.

The August acorn shower. Like the annual meteor shower, or the first red sumac leafs, or the State Fair, or crickets in the night, or posters with the home town high school football schedule showing up in store windows along Main Street, or that vague sense that even now, mired in adulthood, you ought to be getting your things together to go back to school, the acorn shower is another little sign the season is changing.

Summer isn’t over. Not quite yet. But the end is at hand. The bell is tolling loud and clear – loud and clear as an acorn clanking off the neighbor’s Corolla.

The neighbor’s Corolla –


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nighthawking Facebook

There’s a famous Edward Hopper painting called “Nighthawks” that depicts three customers and a counterman in a harshly-lit all night diner in Greenwich Village in the 40s.

The diner isn’t especially warm or welcoming. It’s too bright. The walls are bare. There’s nothing to eat. It’s just two big coffee urns, those three people hunched over their java, and that counterman.

Still, it looks like a place to go if you couldn’t sleep and got up and went out for a walk—a place for people to be alone together.

I thought of “Nighthawks” around 3:30 the other morning. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up, walked over to the computer and got on Facebook.

And there they were—three people I’d friended—hunched over their keyboards—alone in this too-brightly-lit corner of the Internet.

There was my wife’s cousin’s wife— a grandma—alone in the night out in South Dakota. And a grumpy old Norwegian posting right wing political links from his condo down by Lake Calhoun. And one of my brothers, up and jittery about business. He’s been jittery about business for twenty years.

The Internet goes full-tilt 24-7-365. But it takes on a different ambience that time of night. No email pinging in. No tweets. None of the chatter that makes it all-but-impossible to thinks during the day.

It’s just you and the dark streets of Cyberspace. All that’s missing is a bluesy saxophone solo and the sound of lonely footsteps on the digital concrete.

In Hopper’s painting, light spills out onto the sidewalk, leaving you feeling conflicted as you look at it. Part of you wants to push into the diner, sit down and be alone with those people. Part of you wants to cross to the dark side of the street and hurry by.

You face the same conflict on Facebook at 3:30 in the morning. Do you join your friends in being alone together? Or cross the street and slip off into the cyber night?

I crossed the street. I logged out, did some work, and went back to bed. I slept well, too. My friends and I had been alone together. It was reassuring to know that, this time at least, I hadn’t been the only nighthawk out there on the web.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer nights and old dogs.

There’s a dyspeptic old beagle in our neighborhood. His name is Root Beer, and he’s on the lam again tonight. He has that distinctive, high, braying beagle bark, and even though he’s old and seems to be channeling Burgess Meredith in Rocky, these warm, moonlit summer nights stir something deep in his soul.

These are grand nights for yelping. And, for an hour or two, Root Beer gets to ramble and pretend he’s young again. One minute he’s in discourse with the moon three blocks to the east. The next he’s telling the entire neighborhood about the raccoon he treed four blocks to the west—displaying remarkable range. Root Beer must be at least eighty in dog years.

This is probably Root Beer’s last hurrah, and in bedrooms for miles around, there are people with heads scrunched under pillows for whom the end can’t come soon enough.

Not me. I’ve come to appreciate the old neighborhood dogs and the way their names and personalities seem to converge late in life—how they acquire a certain distinction and dignity in the last few years before they go.

There was an irascible old Sheltie—Elmo—who used to stand over his food dish, and growl when toddlers were in the room. He relented somehow, and found peace there toward the end.

There was a small, remarkably-mixed breed named Lady who acquired the soul of a sixty-five year old Lake Street waitress, fallen arches and all. And Max, a Wheaton Terrier who thought he was Felix Unger from “The Odd Couple.”

Happily, for every old neighborhood dog that grew into its name and passed on, there’s a new dog with a new name to grow into. There’s Linus—part whippet, part something very un-whippet. And Cal—a pleasant enough young Australian Silky.

Young or old, it’s a great neighborhood to be a Minnesota dog. Always has been. Always will be.

I say let Root Beer outrun and out-bark his mortality just as long and as happily as he can. And when his time comes, here’s hoping he passes on to a neighborhood full of soup bones to gnaw, summer nights to ramble through, and disapproving old neighborhood cats to aggravate from here to eternity.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Summer read: "Vanity Fair" Damn you anyhow, William Makepeace Thackeray.

I am a manly American man. I lettered in football in high school. I’m a decorated Army veteran. I’ve done everything a wild bear might do in the woods—and, no doubt, some things a wild bear has too much dignity to do. I’ve lived fast. I’ve played hard. I’ve got a lifetime of testosterone-induced scars and all the machismo a man my age can handle.

So why am I enjoying William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” so much? It’s girly. Way too girly for a manly man like me. What isn’t girly (the narrator is male) oozes a worldly, British Empire, look-down-the-nose form of snide that, by rights, ought to earn someone (Thackeray or the narrator—your choice) a punch in the nose.

It’s a big story set in London in Napoleonic times. Or, this being so British, should I say Wellington’s times? Thackeray fills his story with affluent merchant class people and lesser nobles and rich old spinsters and ne’er do well young army officers, and he drives it all forward on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of two young women, one, Amelia Sedley, naively good-hearted, the other, Rebecca Sharp, cunning and ambitious.

If Thackeray’s Becky Sharp wasn’t the prototype for Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlet O’Hara, shame on Margaret Mitchell, The two share all the traits of literature’s great heroines—brains, good looks, but most of all the kind of ruthless pluck a good writer can use to stretch a great story out over hundreds of pages.

This Thackeray does, with his worldly male narrator dishing details only women or simpy British narrators would note. It’s “Pride and Prejudice” all over again, and as a manly all-American man, I ought to be prejudiced. “Vanity Fair” shouldn’t work. Not for me. But it works gloriously, if not for my inner manly man, then for me as a writer.

Damn you, William Makepeace Thackeray. Where’s Zane Grey when I need him?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Read A.J. Liebling

The light on the message machine was blinking when I walked past a while back and I punched the button and there was an old friend of mine—a writer and reader—with a recommendation: “Read A,J. Liebling.“

Second rate English major that I am, I had heard of Liebling the way I’d heard of so many other writers—vaguely and in passing. I had long since filed him under: “Someday maybe I’ll get around to,” then misplaced the file. Liebling was one more name halfway down the New Yorker’s fabled masthead—another caution of a young man about town who’d disappeared into that maze of anecdotes about New Yorker writers drinking lunch, dropping bon mots, and amusing themselves until cocktail hour.

Foolish me. My friend finally thrust an anthology of Liebling’s stuff into my hands and, upon reading it, I was surprised to discover the man could flat out write. Liebling captured New York and the larger world in his piece of the Twentieth Century beautifully. He had a keen eye for details and foibles and a wide range of interests.

Prize fighting. French cuisine. Louisiana politics. From Archie Moore’s training camp to lobster prepared “a l’americaine” in a small, well kept secret of a Parisian restaurant, Liebling carries it off deftly, peopling his narratives with great characters—each keenly observed and perfectly sketched. Life as A.J. Liebling writes it is an embarrassment of riches, always served with precisely the right wine.

Arguably his best characters are the con men and scam artists who hang out in the lobby of (or if things are going well, take a rent-by-the-month office in) a nondescript office building—the Jollity Building—on Broadway in the high forties in the age of the zoot suit. Liebling’s “The Telephone Booth Indians” easily out-Runyons Damon Runyon. Swamp land in New Jersey changes hands. Nightclubs appear and disappear. Lunch counter lunches go unpaid for. Musicians get non union work at clubs in Queens and run around the corner to get their instruments out of pawn. Dance girls rehearse in the halls. The phone booths in the lobby serve as offices (“Call me at this number at four,”). It’s a great read, beautifully written.

Looking for a great late summer read? Liebling is your man.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Eudora Welty On A Writer's Reader-Voice

“Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me, It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or poem itself, The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers—to read as listeners—and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I m right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.

"My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted that voice.”
Eudora Welty “Listening” an essay in “One Writer’s Beginnings”

4-Sale -- Another Piece From The Book

I saw the saddest little fiberglass boat for sale the other day. It was in the weeds in the ditch at the side of the road. Somebody had spray painted the number “4” and the word “sale” on a weathered piece of plywood and propped it up against the boat’s trailer.

The boat was maybe 16 feet, and mustard yellow and judging from the hull style and the tired old outboard clinging to its transom, I’d guess it was 40 years old. It came from that era when the Baby Boom was young and single.

Flying by at 65 miles per hour, I could imagine two or three couples aboard, wearing swimsuits and dancing a frantic frug to a surfing song ala Frankie and Annette. It had been a light-hearted little boat in its day.

But then the Boomers had fallen in love and married and settled down and had kids and sold the boat to someone who used it for a few years. Then he’d sold it to someone who used it for fishing up at the cabin. Then he’d sold it… And so on and so forth… With every sale and every new owner the sad little boat got a little more tired and little more worn out.

Here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we’ve all been aboard boats like this. The kind with screwdrivers and vice grips and spray cans full of strange hydrocarbons under foot. The kind that smells of gas and oil and mould. The kind that doesn’t start the first time you turn the key. The kind where you instinctively check to make sure there’s a paddle on board before you leave the dock.

Parked in that ditch, wearing that cruel “4 Sale” sign, the sad little boat had gone the way of all stuff. Its fiberglass had faded. It’s trailer had rusted. God knows how many problems or leaks it might spring.

It was autumn, too. Hardly the peak of the used boat season. I’ll bet that in all of Minnesota, no one – absolutely no one – got up that morning and thought, “What a beautiful day. Think I’ll go buy a forty year old boat out of the ditch.”

I looked at the boat in the rear view mirror.

“There’s an allegory in there somewhere,” I thought. “…Either that or a metaphor. Or a simile… Or a parable… One of those literary things… Who knows what they call them any more?”

A curve in the highway took the boat out of sight.

“An allegory?” I thought. “A metaphor? What the heck is it?”

I shrugged and turned the radio up. It was by me. My memory’s not what it used to be.

If I were twenty years younger, though, the term would be on the tip of my tongue.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

An Excerpt From "A Porch Sofa Almanac"

Cooking With Grandma
Whenever I hear one of those food poisoning stories come across the radio, I reach over and turn the volume up. It’s only a matter of time until my mother-in-law is implicated. She’s developed a cavalier attitude toward freshness codes lately. She thinks they’re a sign that America has gone soft. She says common sense and her nose will tell her when something “goes bad.”

It’s the South Dakota Depression era farm girl coming out in her—the one who grew up without electricity, refrigeration or pasteurization. Either that or it’s the frugal Fridley mother of eight, who routinely performed miracles with loaves of Wonder Bread and cans of tuna fish and got her lunchtime multitudes fed.

There was a brief period—a couple of decades there—when she cooked fairly normally. Now she’s reverting to form, paring the spongy parts off shriveled potatoes and making soup with octogenarian leftovers. She’s playing fast and loose with the microbes—and reminding us every so often that Fleming developed penicillin from some form of mould.

“Eat this,” I once heard her say as she handed an open container of cottage cheese to a grandchild. “Then I’ll tell you how old it is.”

She’s even found stores that specialize in selling old and dented canned goods with missing labels. She’s come home with bags full of God-knows-what and a glow in her heart that not even the most successful Bloomingdale’s bargain hunter could hope to match.

The woman doesn’t date freshness in days or weeks—or even in months. It’s a matter of years, decades and, now, centuries—even millennia. There was the can of coconut milk she bought in Hawaii in 1976, last seen on a cupboard shelf in 2002. Asked where it went, she said she’d made cookies with it, and served the cookies to her card club.

“The ladies said they were the best they’d ever had,” she reported smugly.

Don’t get me wrong. The woman is a great cook. She still makes a world class ginger snap, and I’ll put her fried chicken up against anyone’s—any time, any place, anywhere. But, like Ronald Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union, I’ve adopted a “trust-but-verify” stance when she cooks. I like my chicken—all my food for that matter—to be at least four decades younger than I am. I want to see it every step of the way from the store to her frying pan and on to my plate.
I’m going to keep an eye on my mother-in-law. I suggest you keep an eye on yours, too.

Those old recipes are great—especially with fresh ingredients.

Which is why, if I have my say, Dinner will be at our house once again this week.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Coming this fall -- "A Porch Sofa Almanac"

Due out this fall--"A Porch Sofa Almanac" from the U of M Press. An anthology of my pieces from MPR. It's a small book, but what the heck -- it came from a small mind.

The pieces are short. This may be the perfect book for the cabin or for top of the toilet tank. I like the "sell copy" the PR flack put on the back cover: "...Much loved--perhaps a little rough around the edges--and absolutely ready to be shared..."

A little rough around the edges, sure. It's the much loved part that made me do a spit-take.

They're starting to schedule readings and signings (Common Good Books in Saint Paul, 9/29, Magers and Quinn in Uptown Mpls 10/12, a grand tour out-state later in October). More info as things evolve.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Alas Poor Lollar (MPR Essay 7/13/10)

I am holding my 1958 Sherman Lollar Sport Magazine All Star baseball card. Sherm Lollar, Catcher, American League. He’s wearing an uncomfortable smile—as if he doesn’t think himself worthy of being an All Star—or maybe someone left the cold cuts from the clubhouse lunch table out a little too long and they turned on him.

If I hold the card just right and squint through my reading glasses hard enough, I can still see the halo around Sherm’s head where I used to worship him. Nine All Star selections. Three gold gloves. To me, he was Joe Mauer long before there was a Mauer—a lion in an unexpanded American League—and a simpler time.

I turn the card over and read from the back.

“Sherm’s great strength lies in his ability to handle pitchers,” some overworked, down at the heels public relations man wrote. “His experience of the hitter’s weakness is invaluable to members of the Sox staff…”

“His experience of the hitter’s weakness…”

Alas poor Lollar had a well known hitter’s weakness all his own. He was slow afoot and tended to ground into inning ending, rally killing double plays.

Even Joe Mauer goofs up and hits into a double play now and then. With Lollar, though, it was double play, double play, double play all the time. It’s etched into my brain. I see Mauer ground one to start a double play and I flash back to Lollar running to first as hard as he can, still out by fifteen feet.

“It’s his knee tendons,” my father would say sadly. He’d shake his head, “All those years catching…”

And it may have been Lollar’s lack of speed that cemented the bond between us. I, too, was a lead-footed catcher. I, too hit into far too many double plays.

“It’s my knee tendons,” I took to telling my Little League coaches. I’d shake my head… “All these years catching…”

Tonight, when Joe Mauer takes the All Star field, I’ll be in my groove on the sofa. And Sherm Lollar’s 1958 Sport Magazine All Star card will be propped up at the base of the lamp on the end table.

“Do a couple of old catchers and their knee tendons proud, Joe,” Sherm and I will be thinking. “Swing for the fences—and no double plays.”