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.”