Friday, September 14, 2012

Remembering the Liberty Theater

I was eleven years old and watching a Saturday matinee at the Liberty Theater when I realized I would die someday. Every kid in town was there. Every kid in town went to the movies every week back then. Every Saturday afternoon. You played outside in the morning, came home, ate lunch, got a quarter from your mother, and raced to the movies as fast as you could.

The man who owned the theater was about sixty, and, every week, before the movie began, he slumped down the aisle wearing the same baggy gray suit—your grandfather’s suit—a suit like the ones Broderick Crawford wore on Highway Patrol on television. He would trudge up the stairs on those flat feet of his, slump out to center stage, and hold his hands out in front of himself to quiet us down—like Al Jolson quieting a Vaudeville crowd. Then he would launch into the same tired speech:

Saturday matinees weren’t a right, gang… We don’t have to put on our kind of shows and, if you don’t behave, we’ll stop showing the kind of movies you like.

Feigning chastisement, we would give him his moment of silence. But he knew it was futile. We knew it was futile. The ushers and the ladies at the candy counter knew it was futile. Saturday matinees may not have been a right, but all those quarters sure as hell counted up. Every seat in the house was taken. The whole town knew all hell was about to break loose, but what could he do? What could anyone do?

Sighing to himself, resigned, already defeated, he would signal the projectionist to, “roll it”. The lights would dim. The newsreel would begin. The old man would slump off the stage and trudge back up the aisle, a scuttling pair of ragged claws, to his tiny, cluttered office behind the candy counter to count his quarters.

Out in the theater, the chaos would start slowly, crescendo, and, eventually, reign supreme—a chaos I had known all my movie going life—a chaos incubated and sustained by row after row of my round-headed, buzz cut, Baby Boom peers. Whoopee cushions blatted. Rubber band slingshots twanged. Jujubes flew. One especially raucous Saturday, in the middle of an old Roy Rogers movie, a chocolate covered cherry splatted against the screen, hitting Trigger on his giant Technicolor ass, and oozing down. The stain would remain there for years. I remember Vivian Leigh flouncing through it when they re-released Gone With The Wind. Spilled, syrupy, ten-cent-a-cup vending machine soft drinks ran in rivulets down the sloped floor under the seats, and we tracked the sticky residue up the once-luxuriously-carpeted aisles to the art deco men’s room, where someone always clogged the urinal with heavy brown paper towels.

So there I was, sitting, behaving myself, awash in the noise and the churn of my childhood friends. We were watching yet another cowboy movie. The good guys had the bad guys pinned down in the rocks up a box canyon yet again. Everyone was shooting it out yet again. Somebody—one of the good guys—sighted his rifle and pulled the trigger and a bad guy jumped up, grabbed his belly, and fell dead.

Between television and the Liberty Theater, I had witnessed this scene hundreds of times before, but for some reason, sitting there that day, I was suddenly enlightened. I too would die some day. The news arrived with a jolt, and it was not easy to accept.

I had always thought of God and Jesus as good guys; as biblical versions of Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. They wore white robes, if not white hats. And according to the nuns, God and Jesus stood up for the little guys. They suffered little children to come unto them. Sitting there in the dark, now aware I too would die, I thought either God and Jesus had double crossed the nuns or the nuns were in on it and had double crossed me.

Not that it made any difference. No matter how much I believed, no matter how hard I prayed, we were all going to die. Every kid in the room. I remember turning away from the screen, looking up at the once-classy-now-dusty fleur-de-lis sconces on the theater walls and dreading absolutely everything.

There was always a point in those old cowboy movies when somebody out scouting gets down off his horse, crawls on his belly to the edge of a cliff, peeks over and realizes the good guys are about to ride into an ambush. He comes back, riding hell bent for leather, waving his hat, yelling, “Go back. It’s a trick.”

I wanted to ride back and warn the guys in the theater. It’s all one big ambush. Everything—life, fun, matinees, Jujubes—it’s just a set up. Go back. It’s a trick. But what good would warning them do? We were already in and of this world, and there was only one way out.

So I kept my mouth shut. For that afternoon at least, Death was my own little horror. It was the darkest moment of my life up till then. Eventually, the good guys roped the rustlers and Roy Rogers kissed Dale Evans. The two of them rode off into the sunset on a buckboard, the movie flickered to an end, and we all jostled out into the late afternoon light. We all went home. The initial jolt subsided. We grew up, and went our separate ways.

For years there, I was too busy living to think much about my own mortality. If I did so at all, it came to me as a quick little reminder—a couple synapses while shaving or a blip on the verge of a night’s sleep. It was one of those, “Oh… Yeah… Forgot about that…” moments; a note to myself—like an appointment I made long ago and forgot to jot down on the calendar.

Lately, though, Death is starting to worm away at me again. It’s getting a little more insistent; taking on the tone they use in overdue utility bills. Some days, reading the obits, I feel like the slowest wildebeest in the herd. Death is the hyena snapping at my heels. It’s already brought down a few of the guys. One of these days… Well…

These days, I hold Death at bay with the memory the old man from the Liberty Theater, long dead himself now, in church at nine o’clock mass on Sunday morning. He is wearing his nicer, less-rumpled blue Sunday suit. He is kneeling back on his hams, hands clasped, eyes screwed shut in prayer. God’s light is falling around him. I can’t tell if he’s praying for salvation or better-behaved young matinee patrons.

Meanwhile, up on the altar, the deaf old parish priest, dead these many years himself, is warning us all to behave or God will stop showing the kind of movies we like. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Circle of Life (Minnesota Pontoon Boat Style)

You probably associate the circle of life with The Lion King and Africa. But we have a circle of life here in Minnesota too, and it all takes place in a boat on the lake.

We start out in bulky kiddy life vests in our parents’ arms, aboard our grandparents’ pontoon boats, tooling slowly, outboard barely idling, maybe forty yards off shore after supper, the old people seeing and being seen, nodding to lake neighbors and waving to people on passing pontoons.

A few years later, at fourteen or so, we graduate to the classic fourteen-foot Minnesota fishing boat. Free of parental supervision, we race from hot spot to hot spot with the motor wide open.

It’s on to jet skis, ski boats and runabouts from there. It’s all adolescent hormones, suntan lotion and sound systems—and skis, tubes and wakeboards—and, “How fast does this baby really go?”

Somewhere in our twenties, some of us discover canoes and the Boundary Waters and quiet, contemplative solitude.

Other, more sociable types prefer to anchor in one of those floating communes of boats that pop up on island sandbars on weekends—communes where the party never seems to end.

Our thirties find us back aboard pontoon boats—as parents this time—holding our own children on our laps, cinching their kiddy life vests half-a-hitch tighter.

All too soon, we find ourselves driving the ski boat for those kids and their friends. They give us the thumbs up and yell, “Hit it!” We hit it. They fall off. We circle back. They give us the thumbs up and yell, “Hit it!” again. Over and over and over until they’re old enough to take the boat out for themselves.

Then, suddenly, we’re back aboard that pontoon boat after supper —at the wheel, forty yards off shore, motoring at a stately five miles an hour, seeing and being seen, nodding to lake neighbors, waving to people on passing pontoons, circling the lake and completing the Minnesota circle of life once again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Catching Horsey

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The town’s baseball uniforms were flannel, and old and baggy. Generations of kids had worn them and generations of coaches’ wives had patched them at the sleeves and knees before packing them in mothballs and putting them up in the garage rafters for the winter.

Coach passed them out a few days before the Memorial Day opener. You still smelled like mothballs at the Fourth of July double header.

One size misfit all. Buttons strained on heavyset catchers. Shirttails flapped on gangly growth-spurting pitchers and fielders. Stirrup socks as old and patched as the uniforms themselves sagged. Somewhere on your anatomy, some piece of your uniform was perpetually in need of adjustment.

That’s how I remember a lightning-fast pitcher we called “Horsey”. Tall, and skinny, cinching his belt a notch tighter, then stepping onto the pitching rubber and, malevolent smile on his face, looking in for the sign.

You only needed one sign when you caught Horsey. You stuck your right index finger straight down. One. A fastball.

And Horsey’s malevolent smile would freshen. And he would nod and wind up and uncork a heater that came in so fast you heard it hissing toward you before you actually saw it.

With other pitchers you had time to see the ball and react. With Horsey, you lunged your glove toward the hiss and hoped to intercept the ball.

Sometimes you did. Sometimes you didn’t. If you missed, the ball would glance off your glove—or worse yet some part of you—and go all the way to the backstop.

Baseball rules say if the catcher drops the third strike, the hitter can try to run to first base. You have to tag him or throw him out as if he’d actually hit the ball. One night, Horsey averaged five strikeouts an inning because I kept missing strike three.

He was almost seventeen the last time I caught him. Our paths forked that fall. I haven’t seen him since.

I like to think, though, that somewhere in the rafters of some garage in my hometown, our old uniforms lay, washed and patched in mothballs… waiting. And that somehow, someday, in some future life, probably, we’ll get to put them on once more and I’ll get to catch my buddy Horsey again.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Little Something For Women And The North Woods In Summer

A woman I know told me a story from her childhood, when she would occasionally get shipped off to spend a few days with an aunt who lived out in the country up near Nisswa in Crow Wing County, Minnesota.

This would have been in the 1950s. Nisswa was a resort community, known for blue lakes, tall pines and vacationing city people. I imagine her aunt would have lived in a part of the township summer visitors rarely saw—back in the second growth remainder of the old North Woods, where the local people had carved out small, sand-bottomed farms.

Some of those places still didn’t have electricity or running water, and a woman’s life would have been hardscrabble and isolated. She would have spent her spring planting and her summer gardening, picking berries, canning and preserving food, tending livestock, cutting wood, and doing housework. Her autumn would have been spent harvesting and readying the place for winter, which she would have spent feeding the fire, sewing, and enduring the almost-oppressive silence that would have descended when the songbirds departed in October and lasted until they returned in April.

I imagine the aunt to have been shaped by the seasons and her routines; to have been hard-working, quiet, and suspicious of strangers the way rural people almost always are. Her work and her life would have introverted her, and I imagine her relatives sent the girl out to break the tedium and provide a little bright young company, if only for a few days.

The girl would have been seven or eight at the time, and she almost certainly would have barraged her aunt with those questions, both vast and insignificant, that children ask. If not questions then the kind of gossip, intimations and confidences little girls overhear as they listen to the women around them.

The girl’s company would have winched the woman up out of her introspection whether the woman wanted to be winched up or not. I picture the girl following her aunt down rows of vegetables, both of them hoeing, the girl talking a mile a minute, the aunt smiling to herself, recognizing local people and long-recurring themes.

And the girl continuing to talk while the two of them collect eggs from the henhouse, still talking as they shovel live ashes from the kitchen stove firebox into the metal coal scuttle, still talking as they sweep and scrub the linoleum floor.

Often, after supper, a neighbor lady, Mrs. Jones, would come over to sit outside and watch evening descend and night come on. Not just the sunset. The entire end of the day—daylight to twilight to nightfall in the North Woods in summer. She remembers the two women sitting quietly, awash in the evening.

She remembers, too, that Mrs. Jones had lost two or three fingertips, some farm accident no doubt, and that the woman painted little squares of nail polish onto the ends of her fingers where her nails had been.

I have written the conclusion to this piece over and over again, but some images are perfect in-and-of themselves. So  I’m just going to leave the three of them sitting there, the two women watching night come on and Infinity revealing itself overhead, the girl stealing glimpses of Mrs. Jones’ manicure.

Friday, May 25, 2012

To An Adolescent Who Won't Mow The Lawn

I’m your father. You’re my son.
The bond is sure and strong.
I feed and clothe and house you.
You’re supposed to mow the lawn.

It’s what I pay allowance for
I’ve paid it all along
I’ve paid and paid and paid and paid.
Please go and mow the lawn.

You’re a member of the family
So show us you belong
Stop the texting. Pause the game.
Go and mow the lawn.

It’s not too hot. The gas tank’s full.
Your last excuse is gone.
Don’t put it off. The time has come.
Please go and mow the lawn.

The neighbors doubt our parenting
They wonder what went wrong
How did we raise the kind of boy
Who just won’t mow the lawn.

Someday soon you’ll get a car
You’ll drive off. You’ll be gone.
And as you do I’ll yell after you
"Come back and mow the lawn."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

An Old Gold Christmas (Yes, I know it's May)

My father was a newspaper rewrite man, and he smoked Old Gold Straights, a brand of cigarette so harsh, hot, and brassy they made Chesterfields seem cool and smooth. He smoked them because none of the other deadline-frenzied, nicotine addicts on the City Desk would stoop to bumming an Old Gold. Not if any other brand were available. His strategy may have worked downtown, but it didn’t keep me from swiping an Old Gold and lighting up while I burned the family garbage behind the carport after supper. My parents were recidivist reproducers. There were four brothers, four sisters, and the two of them in the house. Burning the garbage was an opportunity to be alone, and I leapt at it. I would light the garbage, light an Old Gold off the same match, then stand upwind, tend the fire with an old rake handle, and contemplate my life in the glow and the stench. This Christmas story begins here, with me, fifteen, Old Gold hanging from my lips, rake handle in hand, contemplating Christmas-About-to-be-Present, recalling Christmases Past, doughy and petulant—a five-foot-seven, two hundred and fourteen pound Hamlet looking for something, anything, about which to brood. It was only mid-December, and already my traditional Holiday funk had set in. Christmas in a house with nine children was a practical affair—a less-than-magical celebration of new socks, new underwear, new, stiff-bristled, and Fuller Brush toothbrushes. To this day, I can’t hear Christmas music without hearing—ever-so-faintly—my mother on her portable Singer sewing machine knocking out Butterick Sewing Pattern flannel pajamas and night gowns in the middle of the night. On Christmas Eve night, when we opened our presents, there was that frenzy of unwrapping, followed by alternating waves of disappointment and self-recrimination. “…Rats… Nothing good again… I’m an ingrate… Rats… Nothing good… I’m an ingrate…” I had a two-page essay due in English the following week: “What Christmas Means to Me.” Christmas meant disappointment and a churlishly-heavy and selfish heart. Christmas meant feeling even more unhappy and misunderstood than usual. I squinted through the cigarette smoke, prodded chicken bones into the fire, and tried to shrug the funk away. Life wasn’t all bad. I had the Holiday Hop to look forward to. The theme was, “Wonderland by Night.” It was to be in the cafeteria. The posters were up in the halls, and, while I nursed a sullen apprehension about Christmas at home, I was eager to suspend disbelief about a dance in a room that smelled of canned government string beans, and stale milk, a room where, Monday through Friday, I spent twenty-seven frenetic minutes cramming down starchy carbohydrates at a table with three other doughy, gawky, fifteen year-old guys. Then there was that girl. There is always that girl. In this case, an unattainable vision in a bouffant hairdo, short skirt, and angora sweater, a sophomore from the fast-and-loose end of the school district. She held all the sophomore boys, most of the junior boys, and one or two seniors in thrall. Testosterone-addled, I, too was smitten. But there was no use asking her to the dance. That ship had long since sailed. Even if it had not, any number of more handsome, more worldly, and less tongue-tied young men were lined up ahead of me. I puffed my Old Gold. I mulled. I schemed. One dance with her. One long, slow dance. That was all I wanted for Christmas. One dance would put everything right with the world, and bestow serenity upon me—serenity I would need in order to accept the Christmas at home I could not change. I had an after school job at the local drugstore—a good and happy place with a five-stool soda fountain that was the town crossroads Sooner or later, everyone who was anyone, teen or grownup, dropped in for a phosphate, milk shake, or a soda. I count the drugstore the best place I have ever worked to this day. Mr. Wilson, the pharmacist who owned the store, was naturally jovial any time of the year—a William Powel Thin Man gone to seed. But he became as festive as Fezziwig at Christmastime. The sight of Holiday shoppers buying his Timex watches, Whitman Samplers, and perfume counter toiletries brightened his mood even more. He passed out free cigar counter cigars to the regular customers (the better the customer, the better the cigar). He accepted bottles of Holiday whiskey from jobbers and wholesalers who dropped in to wish him Merry Christmas. He slyly motioned doctors, businessmen, and any fellow Rotarian into the back room for a conspiratorial Holiday bump. This was my world that Christmas—the stage upon which my Holiday pageant would play out. Home to school. School to the drugstore. Drugstore to home. House to this smoky little fire behind the carport. One dance… One slow dance… One of perhaps six slow dances the girl’s gym teacher, the faculty advisor to the Holiday Hop Committee, would allow to happen. It would be three fast songs, then a slow one, three fast songs, then a slow one. I had ten days to shoulder my way to the front of the line. I flicked my Old Gold into the fire, and went into the house to finish my homework. Later, in bed, listening to two of my brothers snore, I decided I had to cultivate a bad boy image for her, and to cultivate it fast. I had to be troubled and aloof, and position myself where she could not help but notice me. The troubled and aloof part would be easy. I really was troubled and aloof. Adolescence and the prospect of another practical Christmas will do that to a guy. But how could I be troubled and aloof at a place and in a style where she might notice me? Or actually care? Beautiful, unattainable girls didn’t notice fat, troubled, aloof sophomore boys. Still, I had to try. I slipped out of bed, and down the hall to the living room, and I filched three Old Golds from the pack my father had left on the coffee table. The next morning, I arranged myself as aloofly as possible against a lamppost across the street from school, where she could see me as she got off her bus. I lit a cigarette. I posed with what I thought to be studied insolence. I leaned against the lamppost with one foot on the ground, and the other flat on the lamppost itself. I crossed my arms, and let the cigarette hang in the corner of my mouth. It was not great studied insolence, but it was good enough, and she saw me as she got off the bus. I tried to smolder as our eyes met, but the moment had passed. She disappeared into the building. The bell rang and I tossed the cigarette and ran for home room. Later, in geometry class, I began to affect a cough—an understated, persistent, dry chuff—little more than a perfunctory clearing of my throat. “Smoker’s cough,” I explained to the guys at the lunch table, hoping I could remain aloof and that they would carry word of my affliction to her during afternoon classes. She walked past with her lunch tray. I chuffed. After school, walking to the drugstore, I lit my second Old Gold. Her bus passed and I felt her eyes on me. I suppressed the thrill, and curled my lip into a bitter little sneer. I turned my jacket collar up, and tried to look more troubled and aloof than ever. That night, burning the garbage, I smoked the last stolen cigarette. I leaned on the rake handle and smiled to myself. The plan was beginning to work, For the next few days, I posed in her line of sight whenever possible. I was there, leaning against the lamppost, smoking, when she got off the bus. I leaned in doorways and against walls between classes. I leaned against bookshelves in the library, and against lab tables before biology, the one class we shared. My smoker’s cough went from affectation to habit. I had become an aloof, troubled, insolent, antisocial, overweight, young consumptive with some sort of balance problem. There is a fine line between romantic mystery and just plain weird in the male heart, a hormonally-blurred line that begins in one’s teenaged years and extends well into middle age, when passion down-throttles into something more reflective, serene and appreciative. At fifteen, though, romance and weirdness oscillate, overlap and masquerade as one another. Young men are left to figure this out for themselves. I was leaning within earshot of the Angel in Angora on the Wednesday before “Wonderland by Night,” leaning beside a fire extinguisher on a bare patch of wall close to her locker. She was talking to her girlfriends. The subject was at once mysterious and fascinating. It was shaving her legs, and she was telling them how she loathed, simply loathed, using her father’s Gillette for the job. I was tried to appear not to be paying attention, but she caught me in the act, and she pointed at me. Her girlfriends turned and stared. “That boy is weird,” she said. My heart thrilled. The bell rang. The hall cleared. That night, watching the label on a creamed corn can scorch brown, listening to potato peels hiss in the heat of the garbage fire, I came up with the idea that would complete the plan. Of course. It was obvious. It was foolproof. After this, she couldn’t possibly refuse when I asked for that dance. It was the blue Lady Norelco electric shaver with floating heads and replaceable blades in the display case in the drugstore gift section. It came in a hard-sided carrying case, complete with a little brush for whisking the heads clean, and, after I negotiated a wholesale price with Mr. Wilson, it cost me nine dollars and ninety-five cents. I was making a dollar and a quarter an hour. I hurried home with this treasure on Thursday night, and when the whole house, all four brothers, four sisters, and both parents had gone to sleep, I got up and wrapped it. I thought of the surprise and delight she would feel when she opened it; of how she would suddenly and clearly understand how I felt, even if I myself didn’t understand how I felt. Friday dawned a grizzly December gray, and I got to the lamppost, and lit up early so I could watch her get off her bus. She arrived, saw me, rolled her eyes, and went into school. I dropped my cigarette, ground it out, and ran for the door. She was at her locker, and talking with the same girls as I came up, sauntering now, aloof again. I handed her the present. “For you,” I said. “Merry Christmas.” And I chuffed. And I left. “Weird,” I heard her mutter under her breath. “Open it,” one of her friends urged her. “Go on, open it.” And then they were out of earshot. My troubled aloofness would not allow me to lean against a wall, watch, and eavesdrop. Did she open the present? Did she put it in her locker to open later? I couldn’t tell at lunch, or in biology class, where we had a pre-Holiday lab exam. There was hardly time to look up from the dissection tray, even though it seemed my own heart had been laid bare there. As I left school that afternoon, the Holiday Hop committee was hard at work, turning the cafeteria into a Wonderland by Night. The drugstore bustled until ten that evening, and again all day Saturday. I was on some sort of romantic adrenal float the whole time. Counting the hours. When business lulled around four, Mr. Wilson sent me home. There is no privacy in a house with eleven people when one of them is readying himself for the night of his life. He can bathe, brush, gargle and groom as much as he wants. He just can’t be alone. Some younger sibling will always dog him, always hang at an elbow, always look into the mirror and ask, “Whatcha doing?” An apt question. What was I doing? Was it weird or romantic? I would find out soon enough. I hulked my forty-six short torso into my father’s brown plaid forty-two regular sport coat, and, heady with Holiday cheer and the prospect of romance, I headed for, “Wonderland by Night.” The music was already playing when I walked in, and it seemed like the whole school was there—everyone from the beautiful people of the senior class to freshman boys so gawky they made my crowd look suave. The Holiday Hop Committee had moved the cafeteria tables and chairs into the teacher’s dining room, and hung holiday lights and stacked empty, but gift wrapped boxes in corners. They’d bought pine boughs from the Boy Scout Christmas tree lot, and spread them around to mask the stale milk and givernment string bean smell. The ambience was beguiling. This really was a Wonderland by Night. And there she was, a vision in white, dancing a slow song with a varsity linebacker, a junior. I leaned against the cafeteria wall, and, with all the troubled, aloof, studied insolence I could muster, I drank her in. She was the picture of serene young beauty at Christmastime. Her eyes sparkled and her perfect white teeth flashed as she smiled and flirted with the linebacker. Damn the linebacker. I knew she was not quite innocent, still, I had placed her on a pedestal, and I could see she had no idea what kind of guy he really was—a locker room practical joker, a towel snapper. I would have gone over and cut in to save her from him, but the song was ending. The clock on the cafeteria wall said twenty after eight. I had two hours and forty minutes. I adjourned to the refreshment table to quell my anxiety with cookies and eggnog. My ticket for the dance had set me back fifty cents, and I planned on getting my money’s worth. Six cookies, two eggnogs, and three fast songs later, I was ten feet from her, and closing fast, only to be cut off by the sophomore class vice president, a basketball player, fully eight inches taller than me. Damn the basketball player. Damn, too, the sensitive artist, the class Adonis, and the Dale Carnegie of a kid with the great future in sales. They snatched up the next three slow dances with her. With every missed opportunity, my Holiday spirit frayed just a bit. The crepe paper sagged a little more. The empty, gift wrapped boxes seemed a little more phony. The prospect of another practical Christmas loomed higher. It was five minutes to eleven—now or never. The music started. The song was, “Wonderland by Night,” and I was there, in front of her. She looked for someone taller, or more handsome, or more important, or more slender, but no. It was me. Me. Me alone. A look of resignation came over her face. She sighed, shrugged, and stepped into my arms, and it was Christmas. It was a gauzy, sparkly, glamorous, midnight blue, three minutes and seventeen seconds. It was rapture. She was there, in a diffused aura that smelled of Aquanet, Fruit Stripe gum, pine boughs and, ever so slightly, as far off as lunch hour on Monday, string beans and stale milk. “You’re weird,” she said, somewhat accusatorially, after a moment. I didn’t say anything. I knew. I was weird. Our dance continued for another minute before she said, “Thank you for the shaver.” “It has floating heads,” I said. She nodded. We danced on in silence. In truth, I was the one with the floating head. That dance was everything wonderful, everything magical, everything that sets the Holidays apart from everyday life. I would have made a Christmas deal with the devil to have that song go on and on and on, but it ended. It was over, and so was “Wonderland by Night.” The girl’s gym teacher flicked the lights on and off impatiently. My angel and I stood there awkwardly for a moment, then turned and walked away from each other. Except I wasn’t walking. I was floating. I couldn’t sleep when I got home, so I stole an Old Gold, collected the garbage and went out to burn it. The fire was warm. The Old Gold was remarkably smooth for an Old Gold. The air upwind of the fire was fresh and cold as Christmas. “Yep,” I thought, “Come to think of it, a new pair of homemade flannel Christmas pajamas are going to feel pretty darned good.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

They're Back

Don’t look now, but the Twin Cities are awash in animal species that have come back from the brink of extinction or moved back into town from outside the beltway. Real North American animals, not exotic species from somewhere else. There was that flock of wild turkeys that worked the Greenway west of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis for a while there last summer, picking at clover and gravel at the edge of the path, spilling out into traffic like rude teenagers, creating a hazard for bicyclists speeding past. Or the bald eagle sitting high in an ash tree at Lake Harriet last fall. A friend pointed it out. The bird was perched up there, taking in the parade of people below—seeing and being seen, as if the ash were his favorite park bench. It was all very Southwest Minneapolis tony. The Lake Harriet crowd had accepted the eagle, The eagle had accepted the Lake Harriet crowd. And it’s not just Minneapolis. From Fridley to Lake Phalen, South Saint Paul to West Bloomington — everywhere — wildlife that moved out is moving back in. We’ve got coyotes and foxes sneaking in from the suburbs. We’ve got deer running up and down the river bottoms. And hawks perched on freeway light poles. Possums seem to be showing up more frequently. Somebody spotted an otter below Saint Anthony Falls. And didn’t we have a black bear on the east side of Saint Paul a while back? Canada geese were almost extinct forty years ago. Not any more. They’re so common they don’t even pretend to migrate. They’ve taken up permanent residence all over town—in the parks… on the golf courses… next to those little ponds at the bottom of freeway cloverleaves … anywhere they darned well please. Only a few years ago, gray squirrels and pigeons were about as wild as Twin Cities wildlife got. Now the peregrine falcons who’ve taken up housekeeping on the skyscrapers in Minneapolis are making squirrels and pigeons darned nervous for miles around. The Asian carp may be coming. The zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil are already here. The invasive species may seem to have us on the run. But our native species have their small victories and little success stories too. All right here at home—framed in the kitchen window or outside the front door.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Vacation Rental Property

There is a swatch of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin where every lake has a sugar sand bottom and every lake home and cabin is recently remodeled and comes with birch trees and mature white pines—and beautiful sunsets you can watch from the dock as you listen to the loons call.

I know this place exists because I know a woman who retreats to it via vacation rental property websites on cold dark evenings this time of year. She says she’s looking for a place to rent for a week this summer, but she’s really just keeping winter at bay—that and peeking into the lives and taste levels of people trying to rent out their places on these sites.

The photos—not always professional quality—show decks and docks. And kitchens and lofts and bedrooms and living areas. She examines them closely, looking for unintentionally included details and information.

She doesn’t trust bed linen with pictures of fish on it. Or stuffed fish for that matter. Or deer. Or dark photos of cramped kitchens with mismatched appliances. Or living area recliners that look old and saggy—as if they lurch back and to the left when you reach down and pull the lever.

The copy accompanying these pictures always gushes and glows and makes the place sound like some sort of north woods nirvana. The woman has learned to read between the lines. She enjoys teasing out details hidden there, good and bad.

She likes words like “pillow top mattress” and “top quality sheets”. They communicate a certain level of thought and comfort—thought and comfort you don’t always find in real north woods rentals.

She doesn’t trust adjectives like “cozy” or “quaint”. She considers them code words for cramped bedrooms, mousetraps, and erratic septic systems perpetually one flush away from disaster.

She is on her own private parade of lake homes. She’s a north woods “Nosey Nellie” who would poke in the closets and open the medicine cabinet if these websites would let her.

Maybe she’ll rent a place. Then again, maybe not. She’ll relax and take her time making up her mind. She enjoys the thrill of the hunt. And while it’s only February in the real world, it’s always summer up at the lake on the web.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Iron Range Blowhard Detection

A friend of mine with ties to the Iron Range reports a disturbing new trend in the lunchroom at one of the mines up there.

People have found a new way to call out conversational blowhards and they’re starting to use the Internet to resolve points of contention.

Iron Rangers have always loved vigorous conversation. Not just in lunchrooms. In barrooms. And classrooms. And union halls and political caucuses. Heck, even in confessionals. Everywhere. You have to expect a certain amount of overstatement on just about any topic of conversation up there. You just factor it in.

It’s this new way of calling a blowhard out that’s disturbing (if its true). That and using the Internet to arbitrate the ensuing dispute.

The way my buddy describes it, the party doing the challenging reaches into his back pocket and throws an imaginary football penalty flag. If he’s especially worked up, he may even wave the invisible flag in the other guy’s face first.

This evidently replaces the traditional form of challenge, which as we all know, involves uttering a phrase that alludes to a certain bovine byproduct.

Someone then proceeds to the nearest available computer to “Google” the issue in contention, either validating the original statement or consigning it—and the individual who uttered it—to scorn and derision for the balance of lunch hour.

It’s yet another case of mass communication homogenizing the species and killing local culture.

Windy, free-swinging discussions have been as much a part of lunch hour in those mines as the pasty for more than a hundred years. Some of them have been known to continue unresolved for days, weeks, months—even years and decades. I’ll bet some have followed old miners into retirement, out of this life and (who knows) possibly even into the next.

Somehow, having the Internet available and ready to resolve disputes just seems to kill all that. Some blowhards are meant to be deflated slowly… Over time… Not popped like a toy balloon.

So I’m hoping my buddy is playing fast and loose with his facts. I’m calling him out.

This being public radio, I can’t utter the traditional challenge. So I’m throwing one of those Iron Range invisible flags. And he can’t Google his way out of this one either. We’re going to have to go to lunch at the mine to get to the bottom of this.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Remembering Gen

It wasn’t always easy—she and Earl raised eight kids in a two bedroom, one bath house—but Gen Duffy lived her life with her own unique brand of wisdom and humor. South Dakota Swedish Norwegian Lutheran farm girl wisdom and humor that she transplanted to Minnesota and applied as needed every day for nearly 70 years.

She had the good sense to accept people for who they were and not to try to change them into someone or something they weren’t. And to love them on those terms—for who they were, not for who or what she may have felt they ought to be.

She raised her kids that way—accepting and loving each one for who they were, not trying to make them into someone they were not. Her kids knew she loved and accepted them unconditionally and grew up loving and accepting each other. She more than anyone else made the Duffys the strong, loving family they are today.

She had the wisdom to let her kids be kids. Growing up Duffy, you got to play with fire, run with sharp objects, blow things up and hit them with axes. You got sent outside to play every morning. You came home for lunch, went out again, came home for supper, then out to play until dark.

There were days when the other mothers along Talmadge Way must have thought of the Duffy kids as a roving gang of hell raisers. Gen got her share of phone calls.

When she wasn’t getting phone calls, she was getting other things done. Cooking breakfast and lunch at the A&W she and Earl bought. Doing laundry and ironing for a family of ten. Sewing clothes. Teaching kindergarten, When the neighborhood needed school bus service, she made it happen. And every summer, she and Earl spent their vacation, volunteering for Saint William’s Parish Diner at the State Fair.

She was the first one up in the morning and the last one to bed at night, and yet, somehow, she found the energy to go square dancing with Earl at the Eagles Club on the weekend.

Her brand of love and acceptance shined at Christmas. She used to keep a stash of presents, wrapped and ready for stray people her kids would bring home on Christmas Eve. Nothing flashy or expensive. Just a little something so whoever it was could feel welcome and have something to open.

I got one of those presents my first Duffy Christmas—a pair of thin black cotton socks, from K-Mart, (where she worked for 25 years). Somebody brought a stewardess they’d met on the flight home that year. She got a couple of embroidered dishtowels.

Gen was one of those people the whole community could count on—a joiner, a show-er upper. She hated bowling, but for years there, she bowled on the K-Mart team in some league.

Then there was the Friendly Fridley Seniors Club. She didn’t just go to the meetings. She got involved and made things happen. She had a way of calling members up and extorting baked goods or other commitments for meetings and fundraisers.

Those poor seniors never knew what hit them. It was never, “Would you please…?” Or “could you…?” It was always. “What can I put you down for?” Or, “Do you want to bring coffee cake or rolls?” She never gave them way to say “No”.

She used the same technique to get us to come home and do yard work in the spring and fall.

At Christmas, she sold Friendly Fridley wreaths to a long list of regular customers in neighborhoods up and down the River Road. You haven’t lived until you’ve helped her on wreath delivery day. She rode shotgun and checked off names on a list. You shlepped the wreaths and made the collections. Her wreath bookkeeping was meticulous. Just a couple weeks ago—in the hospital right before Christmas—she was on some family member’s case. They owed her $69 for Friendly Fridley wreaths.

To her, food was an expression of love, and she instilled that love of cooking and food in all her kids. In good times or bad, in sickness and health, food is the Duffy way of telling the world you love it.

So Gen and her kids—and now her grandkids—have a way of describing people and events from family reunions, to birthdays, to weddings, to baptisms, even funerals—in terms of what food was served, how it was prepared, and how it tasted.

If anyone she knew took a trip, Gen would sit at her kitchen table and describe it to you a meal at a time—whether she had been on the trip or not.

She knew who ate what in Italy. How the fish (she would say “feesh”) tasted in Norway. Only last week, the last time I visited her at the hospital, she was talking about how good the meals were on the farm growing up.

She loved cheap processed food as much or more than haute cuisine. She was at death’s door a couple of weeks ago. Her heart was racing. Her blood pressure was out of control. Somebody slipped her some Cheetos and Pepsi, and she more or less instantly took a big turn for the better.

There was that wonderful quirky sense of humor. Her older brother Clifford—a gentle, soft-spoken farmer—used to tell her, “You’re weird.” Then he’d say, “But weird is good.”

I agree. Gen’s brand of weird was especially good when viewed from the perspective of a son in law.

One year for Christmas she gave her sons in law gift wrapped packages of meat. Not prime cuts from a premium butcher shop either. This stuff was labeled “Random Meat” and came from Country Club Market—.Super Valu’s downscale chain Presents being presents, she’d taken a pen and blacked out the price.

I think it was that same year that she gave one of us son-in-laws an old furnace blower motor she’d found under the basement stairs. Nothing says Merry Christmas quite like a couple pounds of random meat and a blower motor.

Earl passed away in 1976, and Gen continued to live in that beautiful little home, she made, surrounded by all the beautiful people she’d made, and all the people they brought home to her. She enjoyed 62 years in that house—a proud, independent woman right up to the end.

In many ways, she did some of her best work in her last years, loving and accepting grandchildren and great grandchildren for who they were, giving them savings bonds at Christmas, painting, gardening, going to church, jockeying slot machines at the casino (her other church), staying richly and wonderfully involved with the world.

So many stories. So much laughter and wisdom and humility and love. There isn’t time for all of it here right now. I understand there’ll be a mic at lunch, and the Duffys want me to encourage everyone who has a Gen story to share it with all of us then.

Finally, the 25th chapter of Matthew, verse 21 reads in part, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant… Come and share your masters’ happiness.”

Please stand and join me in a big, long, round of applause for Ole and Selma’s girl. For the love of Earl’s life. For Pat, Kay, Mike, Jim, Tom, Tim, Mary and John’s mother…

Well done, Gen… Really, incredibly well done.