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.