Thursday, November 30, 2006

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

My husband and I speak in code sometimes when we connect by e-mail because we're sure at least one of our bosses enjoys the use of SPYWARE. "You pick up Tim" means it's crazy at work and I'll tell you later and also possibly I'm going out for drinks with colleagues to bitch about it. "Someone shoot me" can follow an inane staff meeting. Lunch sometimes means sex.

Me: "Want to meet for lunch?"

Him: "Yes"

Me: "What time?"

Him: "How hungry are you?"


When I was in the eighth grade I cheated on a health test. Just because I could, I guess. Wally Cash was handing out multiple-choice answers so my friend Robin Werman and I each wrote all the answers in two-columns on the palm of our hand: 1-a, 2-e, 3-a, 4-b, etc.

When I turned in my test Mr. Olson handed me a neatly folded note. I opened it on my way back through my row. It read, "If you have answers on your left hand, please tear up your test." As I looked up I saw him pass Robin a note, too. She told me later hers read, "If you have answers on your right hand. . . ." We were both impressed with his method and also that he noticed I was right-handed and she was left. Not bad.


Need I say more?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Yours truly

People are talking about the article on e-mail sign-offs--you know, salutations for the Internet Age: ‘Yours Truly’, the E-Variations

It’s a funny coincidence because my 7th-grade son had just composed a formal, handwritten letter and signed off with

"Yours truly,


with his name in full. It was a required apology to his classmates for having “mooned” a kid from the other class. His friend, Louie, had to write one, too. As Tim told it, one class was joshing around with the other class and smart-aleck comments and challenges were exchanged, and then everyone (Tim says, “even the teacher”) jokingly said, “someone should moon Tommy A.” So Louie and Timmy, the comedians they are, dropped drawers. They got in trouble, obviously, and were told to come back to class on Monday with full-page, written apologies.

One of the worst things about getting in trouble on a Friday is that you have all weekend to think about it. Tim said one of his friends told him to write just one line but with a hundred “very’s” as in:

"I’m very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, etc., sorry."

He came to me Saturday and said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to write.” We pondered together a bit and I told him he could look up a few classic examples of kids getting into trouble—you know, a quote from Tom Sawyer, a scene from “Malcolm in the Middle,” a clip from Dennis the Menace—and then point out to the teacher how it’s a kid’s life to migrate towards trouble. Tim just looked at me like I was nuts.

So Sunday night he composed a very thoughtful letter on lined notebook paper in lead pencil #2, asking me only a few style questions (ahh, writer that he is): “Is self-control two words or hyphenated?” It progressed nicely from one paragraph to another and was direct and honest, none of that half-hearted verbage we hear nationally, like “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”

He read it aloud to his class Monday morning and his teacher said, “Now that’s an apology letter.” Louie had to re-do his.


As a committed letter writer myself and editor of letters, so to speak, I pay close attention to the kinds of salutations that cross my desk or screen. I tend to use the bland “Best,” or “Best wishes,” or if I’m trying to impress someone, “Warm regards.” One of my colleagues uses “Cheers!” on almost all her correspondence. Even in her scolding letters.

A poetry editor I work with has the most graceful sign-offs:

"I send my best, in hopes this finds you well; take care.



A more pragmatic author simply ends:



Always. Even if he has nothing to thank me for.

Another author and I have developed a close working relationship after collaborating on a few books. A look at his sign-offs illustrates the kind of push and pull you might expect in the world of publishing. When we first started working together his phrases went like this:

"Let's do everything we can to make this work. I'm full of enthusiasm for
this project.



and then as we moved along and we were on a tight schedule, he just signed off with a request or a response and his name, as in:

"Whenever you're ready to send the edits, I'm here.


During a rough patch, he wrote:

"As a result, I’m going to print out your edited copy and see if I can figure out what you want.


(This one came with the e-mail subject: sorta annoyed)

And now we know each other much better and our e-mails are conversational and full of good will:

"Something to mull over....

All the best,


And then there is the one-line e-mail from a very famous author whom I had approached to write a blurb. No salutation here; just desperation, I think, from the hundreds of endorsement requests she must get each year:

“Can't you just use the old blurb,, or rewrite it an NOT ask my approval? I'm geSWAMPT.”

My Papa used to write me many letters as my family traveled around the country. He often ended his letters with one-line zingers. Like the well-worn “Break a leg!” only better. Each of the sign-offs were always a perfect ending to a perfect letter—and usually a little gift or two was sent in the package as well. Those were treasures. Along with a letter ended with the first salutation below he sent me a pair of black, shiny go-go boots; with the second, a funny picture of my grandma. I wonder how great it would be to send e-mails back and forth to each other if he were alive today?

"If that’s the worst thing you do, don’t worry about it,



"Isn't she quite the fart blossom [my Grandma, that is]?


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turkey a la Morneau

"There are a lot of unspoken rules on Thanksgiving . . . We're supposed to be thankful and eat a lot and drink a lot and be nice to each other. Teenagers are supposed to stop being sullen. Matriarchs are supposed to make a perfect turkey and some man is supposed to know how to carve it."

Susan Phillips Cohen, a social worker, relies on ritual and tradition to establish the tenor of her table. They will use the family china and make beloved dishes from childhood. That way guests can be reminded of the rules that go along with the holiday. "Rituals are what help you get over difficult times, and they keep a lid on things. . . ." (New York Times, 11.22.06)

Hey, we didn't need to keep a lid on things at our house today. It was just the four of us and it was heaven. Slept late, children worked out at the JCC, husband and I made a killer vegetarian stuffing for the V in our house (fruit, nuts, cornbread), and a not-bad anti-vegetarian stuffing for the preteen in the house (stale Wonder and Swanson's chix broth). We rented a movie from Blockbuster. I made my traditional chess pie.

"The origin of the name, Chess Pie, is uncertain, but there are plenty of guesses and a bit of folklore surrounding the name. The most probable explanation is that since the English lemon curd pie filling is very close to lemon chess pie, and they believe the word 'chess' is an Americanization of the English word 'cheese,' referring to curd pie. Basically the Chess Pie is a cheese-less cheesecake. Another explanation suggests that the word is “chest,” pronounced with a drawl and used to describe these pies baked with so much sugar they could be stored in a pie chest rather than refrigerated." (© copyright 2004 by Linda Stradley)

But I like the other story: A country wife made a pie out of whatever she could find in her pantry for her husband, who had been out working the land all day. She served it after dinner and after he devoured much of half the pie he said, "That is the BEST pie I have ever had. Best pie I've ever had." And he got up and hugged and kissed her all over. He asked, "What IS that pie?" And she said, "Aw shucks, it's nothing, it's 'jes pie'."

"We don't keep too many traditions in our house," I heard my daughter say to someone recently. We tend to do whatever suits us each year. Two years ago we rented cabins at the Lake Maria State Park and cooked up a traditional Thanksgiving meal over the fire. Last year we rented the entire "Courthouse Inn" in Guttenburg, Iowa, and played Thanksgiving Olympics (with prizes) out on some family land along the Mississippi River.

Now that Dr. Morneau, hero of Northlanders everywhere, has just been named AL MVP, I'm going to take his advice on all future family holidays:

"If you can stay back, you can wait an extra split-second longer, and then you become more relaxed, and that's when you gain confidence."

Think about it. Just when your in-laws start in an impossible conversation you can think of the Doctor, take a breath, wait a minute, and just relax. Just as your patience wears thin when you're the only one in the kitchen crazily finishing up that last half-hour of the traditional meal (how many pots can you stir at once?), you just wait that extra split-second, pour a glass of wine, and gain some confidence.

Of course, Morneau was referring to his batting woes of early 2006. Hitting coach Joe Vavra taught him a simple lesson, "Stay back."

Justin says, "I said, 'Let's try to do the same thing over and over. And then the same thing tomorrow.' And I did the same thing the next day, and ate the same things, and kept with the same routine." From the Star Tribune: "Morneau learned to stay back, and his lifestyle became laid back. He and his roomie Mauer would sleep late, eat Jimmy John's subs and knock the ball over the park."

Looks like we have our new post-Thanksgiving tradition set, too, don't you? He forgot to mention the pie, but I think that's a given.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sentimental Journeys

I gave my daughter's college roommate a ride to the Amtrak station last night. She would catch the Empire Builder to her home near Minot, North Dakota. The station was packed; the train was on time; she was giddy to get home. She said all her relatives were coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. I told her I used to sprawl out and fake sleeping when we stopped in St. Paul or in St. Cloud so I didn't have to give up the seat next to me. She said she does the same thing. I used to catch the Empire Builder over twenty years ago and remember my own train ride home for Thanksgiving after my first semester away at college. I was such an earnest student. I loved all that learning, all that trust, so different from my small-town high school in the Red River Valley. But I was excited to get back home, too. I had no idea my parents were on the verge of breaking up.

I kept my old journal from some of those train rides, handwritten in pen in a green spiral notebook. Over twenty years ago I wrote:

"A NO SMOKING sign is lit up in the front of the coach. Five cigarettes are burning in scattered areas throughout the coach.

Two little girls crawl out of their makeshift bed, stand on their seats, and peer over the back of them at a young man reading a book. The man, in his mid-twenties or so, has a mustache, thick bowl-cut hair, bulging eyes, a big nose. He's reading the writings of Jim Morrison. Throughout the entire train ride he's been in a world of his own, oblivious to the noisy chattering of all the children, the old men making conversation, and the spurting announcements from the intercom noting travel time, dining hours, and approaching cities. A pack of Marlboros lay on the tray in front of him. Finally he looks up at the girls and smiles.

One thing about horses and trains--they both have a peaceful sway to them.

The dark sky is twinkling. We're just outside St. Paul. We can see early Christmas lights in some of the apartments near the track.

'They sure don't decorate like they used to,' one old guy says.

'Oh, you should've seen how they used to do it in Chicago . . . all kinds of stuff. Hell, there was a Santa Claus Lane, a Rudolph lane. Every house had Christmas decorations. Some say it was the energy crunch that stopped it. But seems like, hell, nobody does it anymore.'

'Yep,' and the listener lit a cigarette, its orange spark glowing in the dark."

I never got lonesome on those rides, me without I-Pod or laptop. I was so glad to leave that valley. And still I've always missed it. Then I wrote a poem--this might have been one of my first ones--right before falling asleep:

Deliver me home
to the land of open sky,

where meadowlarks sing and
the unceasing North wind weasles through
shelterbelts of poplar trees, blowing
the weak-skinned few to lands
of warmer shades.

Deliver me home
to the land of open sky,

where the fertile black soil
brings plush rows of grain
year after year and tough-skinned
farmers live on flat plains spotted with
few white rooftops and gray silos.

Deliver me home
to the land of open sky,

where the biggest event
celebrated each year is
called "Harvest Days," when
progressive farmwives flip
pancakes and modern men
talk of sugar beet yield
and new combines.

Deliver me home
to the land of open sky.

Lead me back, take me to
the heartland I left behind
for fast traffic and skyscraper skies,
cities of power and progress and no time
to think just move, move, move, move.

Deliver me home
to the land of open sky.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Stupid Parent Tricks

When I was seventeen, I took a month-long trip to California courtesy my parents, who bought me the round-trip flight as part of my high school graduation gift. I visited an uncle in San Francisco and had my first look at the Golden Gate Bridge; some cousins in San Pedro, whose parents—my aunt and uncle—were bona fide hippies; and my dear aunt and her teen children in San Diego, where I spent time smoking cigarettes and dancing with the Point Loma version of the Valley Girls. It was as much a tour of the California coastline and its varying geography north-to-south as it was a view of the California family, the likes of which I had only witnessed on The Brady Bunch and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. And, of course, through stories retold after my mother’s long phone conversations with her California siblings.

My insights focused on the little stuff. The way Aunt Susie haphazardly folded her towels and shoved them into the bathroom closet was so different from my mom’s careful method of creasing and tri-folding. And Uncle Larry leaving all his Wall Street Journals stacked up on the side of the toilet until they became a little endtable of their own was nothing my own dad could ever pull off. The look of my little cousins at the beachside café in bare feet, like those LIFE magazine pictures of the blonde commune kids of the sixties. Everything seemed so loose and carefree. It was at this same café that I first made note of the stupid parent trick.

A little tyke at the next table, a pudgy three-year-old with nimble hands, picked up one of the dollar bills left for a tip. I watched him and wondered if any of the parents would realize he was about to tear it into pieces or stuff it into his mouth. But he didn’t do that. He carefully smoothed out all the creases and unfolded the corners like an origami artist. Then he cleared away a space in front of him and rolled the bill into a tight little straw, which he deftly put up his nose and used to snort up the spilled salt and sugar and whatever else was left on the table. It was the seventies, where cocaine played a part in late-night parties but before it became a staple of sorts for big business investors and takeover artists of the eighties. I couldn’t believe it. The group of loose-knit caregivers never paid the kid a look during this tell-all performance. It was the tyke’s trick, but it was clear the parents’ stupid trick was one of foolhardy neglect and, no doubt, damaging indifference.

So now that I’m a parent I keep track of all my own stupid parent tricks, large and small. I like to think they are originally well-meant but accidental, but I admit with guilt that some of them are my own failing to pay close attention. It reminds me of a warning by my old dance teacher, “You can dance this now, but by the time you are sixteen,” she would say with real urgency in her voice, “your body will start to deteriorate year by year. It will be a matter of work to keep it fluid and strong.” While my kids are young they think most of my mistakes make for good storytelling but I wonder what work it will be for them to reconcile my mistakes later, when they’re older and wiser or troubled or confused? How will they keep our family stories fluid and strong when they’re generally just pissed off at me or their lots in life?

Here’s a new one to add to my repertoire. I took my 12-year-old son to see Borat last week, the new movie everyone is calling hilarious and smart. “The man who invented Borat is a masterful improviser, brilliant comedian, courageous political satirist, and genuinely experimental film artist. Borat makes you laugh, but Baron Cohen forces you to think.” (City Pages, November 2006). I didn’t notice the “R” rating and hadn’t looked up a full review of the film. I had seen the trailer a dozen times on prime time network television and it seemed like my well-read son might get the politics and appreciate the satire.

Okay, have you seen Borat? Have you seen it with a 12-year-old, a kid who still likes to be “all tucked in,” the one who was so mortified during sixth-grade sex education class that his pals told me, “holy cow, his face turned all white and then he ran out to throw up in the boys’ bathroom”? No, I bet you haven’t. You're probably way more careful than that.

So here we are at the Har Mar 3, a little mother-son day with a matineé and popcorn and pop. We hadn’t had an outing for awhile and we were just glad to be together. We settled on a seat at the end of the 21st row, not too far, not too close, and we kept whispering about the new Eragon preview, a movie we both couldn’t wait to see.

And then we were just bombarded with a slew. We were like my Presbyterian deacon hearing Howard Stern for the first time, or my long-nosed grandma hearing Richard Pryor on stage when she thought he might be a little like Cosby. Crap. I sunk down deep in my seat and leaned over to Timmy to say, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come to this movie.” I could tell he was blushing, even in the dark. Then there was a flash of Borat masturbating and another of him propositioning a passerby, “How much?” he asks, “how much for that?” he says pointing to her breast and grabbing his crotch. And then right after we learn a nice new word for Borat's anus, the spot where his companion is blow-drying him in the hotel, Tim leans over and says to me, “Maybe we should go now.” We bolted up the aisle and I asked for our money back. The ticket-taker said, “What did you expect? It was rated ‘R’ for a reason.”

Out on the sidewalk in front of the Barnes and Noble, Tim and I did our version of “shaking off the creepies,” where we toss around our hair and hands and even our feet and pretend to spit on the ground and then shiver all over. “God that was awful,” I said. And he said, “Well, I heard some bad words about the ‘back side’ but at least we didn’t hear too much about the ‘front side.’” He then told all his Catholic school friends that we went to see the movie together and he was the one who had to get us to leave. Great.

I had brought Tim out another time some years ago with tickets my dad had bought us for the Bemidji Playhouse version of Cabaret. I was just so happy to go into town after a week of too much togetherness at the lake cabin that I forgot Tim was only eight years old and the subject matter wasn’t right for him. Those Bemidji actors fully embraced the caberet set and came out in G-strings and pasties and shook and straddled mightily for all of us in the first rows. Tim leaned over with that infamous pale face and wide eyes, and whispered to me, “These must be the bad girls.”

But these are the lighter moments. There have been other, more serious missteps, including the time I let my daughter play with the kids whose dad owned a Rottweiller or when I lost her at the Mall of America. Yep. You can imagine the first scenario. She has the scar on her leg to prove that one. And the other: me waiting at the exit of the Camp Snoopy log chute and Megan never stepping out because they had refused her entrance when she didn’t measure up for the ride. She had to walk back against those waiting in line (I had agreed to let her go down the third time alone and didn't realize she wasn't tall enough) and when she came out of the faux cave she couldn’t find me anywhere. I was at the exit with my eyes glued on every oncoming log rider, taking second and third looks when I couldn’t spot her, and then finally racing over to the camera box to scan the tourist pictures it displayed for anyone who wanted to document the “fun,” seeing if I had somehow missed her. I was as frantic as Michelle Pfeiffer in The Deep End of the Ocean and couldn’t believe I had messed this up. I could not leave that log ride. I was sure she was going to finally come down, hands up in the air, wet from the log sprays and exuberant from all the other screaming kids. I finally gave up my post and traced my daughter to the “Lost and Found.” When she saw me all she could say was, “How could you LOSE me?”

I’m not sure they will remember all my stupid tricks. We can sit around the Thanksgiving table recounting them, as we often have, but I never forget to add a little silent p.s. during those times we actually give thanks and praise at the table: “God help me keep this family safe from harm. Please help me not FAIL them. Please, please, please. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Monday, November 13, 2006


It’s Monday. My son woke up this morning and said, “I hate Mondays.” His bedhead hair was all matted in the back and he shivered a little before crawling into the recliner with the remote and a blanket, his morning routine. He said, “I hate them because you have to remember things on Mondays.”

I’m hanging on to my Sunday feeling as long as I can. It was a day to savor. I had been to a party the night before so had drunk wine and stayed up late. But I wasn’t hungover like you get from drinking, say, four dirty martinis, the kind of hangover that tastes metallic and feels dry-boned, where your knee sockets and your old silver fillings ache and you can’t stand yourself. And not at all like the bad mornings where you’re not hungover from liquor but hungover from bad living, too much Halloween candy from your son’s stash (the stash so OCD-stored that it’s been grouped in like-type categories on his bedroom rug: snickers here, milky ways there, kit kats and starbursts in piles over there), with no exercise and barely any sunlight. My mom used to watch The Jack LaLanne Show and once he stood in front of this big clear glass bowl and dumped black coffee, a full ashtray of cigarette butts, and some donuts into it, and looked into the camera and said, “Now ladies, this is what you’ve been doing to your bodies. No wonder you feel so bad.”

No, instead I was full of the feelings of comfort, like the pleasure of pulling on your thick blue Michigan sweatshirt with nothing else between it and your warm and rested skin. Your comfort clothes could be like the long skirts Talia Shire wears in Rocky or the velveteen sweatsuit Bill Murray sports in Lost in Translation, but whatever it is it’s got to be better than these Monday work clothes (unless you’re like many of my friends and work from home for a living).

I got to read the entire Sunday paper on the couch (even the ads for round-trip flights in the Travel section) while we all rooted for Brett Favre, whose performance was enough to make you get up a cheer for him. My daughter text-messaged me from college with, “Hey mom! Thanks for friday night It was really fun! Have a good Sunday! Love you!” I’m full of memories of other nestling times: driving on the highway late at night, enveloped by the dark and the soft rush of the highway and the sleepiness of the family; lying on our bellies over the front of my parents’ pontoon, making little wakes in the passing water with sticks and such while the adults talked behind us; singing my children to bed after their night baths, my voice high and tender, theirs sleepy and sweet. (I know so few songs that I sang “Edelweiss” to my son over and over for at least a year and when he finally got to see The Sound of Music he shouted out, “That’s my song! That’s MY song!”)

And then I made a cake. I recommend you top off a perfect Sunday (or start a hard week) with a cake as simple as this one. It’s one of the first recipes I was given as a new college graduate. You should have all the ingredients you need except maybe the chopped dates and chocolate chips but you might even be able to pick those up at SuperAmerica, certainly Aldi's. I like using dark chocolate chips. It bakes for just 30 minutes and you’ll have enough for a bedtime snack tonight and plenty for a big piece with milk right when you get home from work each day this week, feeling all crampy and grumpy from your tight clothes and your lack of sunlight. Well, change into the velveteen suit first, then cut yourself a slice.

Chocolate Chip Cake

In small bowl, mix and cool:
1 cup dates (cut up)
1 teaspoon soda
1-1/2 cups boiling water

In big bowl, cream:
1-1/4 cup sugar
½ cup butter or shortening
2 eggs

Add date mixture.

In medium bowl, sift together and then add to wet ingredients:
2 cups flour
¾ teaspoon soda
¼ teaspoon salt

Mix and sprinkle on top:
¼ cup sugar
1 cup chocolate chips

350°F, greased and floured 9 x 13-inch pan, about 30 minutes.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Metaphors of Middle

When I was in high school I was invited to participate in a press conference for then-Vice President Walter Mondale, who was on the road campaigning for Jimmy Carter. I was student council president of our school and was joining other high school seniors from the Red River Valley area. It was thrilling. We students needed to pass security (which I failed on the first round. Something to do with my dad having been in the Air Force for twenty years and a Vietnam vet). It was the late seventies, a time of inflation and gas crunches and rumblings from the Middle East. (That next fall we all watched the U.S. hostages bound in Iran.) I loved the sparkling of it all; the letters about KSTP-TV with date and time and what to wear, the drafts of questions we submitted to our school principals.

At the same time, my family was adjusting to life with Grandma and Papa in the house. Mom had brought her parents to live with us after Papa's stroke in California. Papa remains one of the favorite men in my life, even after his death. Blonde and blue-eyed Irishman, a storyteller, a bartender, WWII vet, champion of the anonymous folks in this world. Grandma was the one with Winnebago Fox in her, and French and German, too. Feisty, relentless, stubborn. She'd lean over the rail the minute any one of us came home from work or school to hound us with urgent booming questions, "What's for dinner?" or "Why hasn't the mail come?"

When she heard I was going to have a chance to question the Vice President of the United States she drilled me. "You ask Mr. Mondale why I can't get my social security check. You tell him I've been waiting eight months to get this cleared up." There'd been some mix-up what with the move and Papa's disability now. "You tell him we fought wars for this country and now we can't get our own money when we need it. He needs to know what it's like out here."

So when the day of the conference came and the news reporters and school administrators and students all gathered with Mondale's entourage in that spare band room at East Grand Forks Senior High School I was all a-jitter. There was much more conflict and tension in that room than I ever thought would surface. The reporters from the Cities were edgy with the home-grown Mondale. The news wasn't good; the people weren't satisfied; no one could make ends meet. His staff person finally nudged aside Mondale when even the local writers showed no mercy and said, "We've invited these young representatives here to participate today. Let's give them a chance to ask their questions, shall we?" It took awhile to calm down the professionals and finally the cameras and lights and beat reporters all turned their attention to our small group of teenagers. The White House staffer pointed right to me and then said to Mondale, "Let's hear what this fine young woman wants to know."

I was so prepared to be part of this. I looked good. I had practiced. I felt comfortable in a crowd. But I knew my grandmother would be watching and though I should have known she was mostly just spouting off around the kitchen table I felt bound to her. I felt caught in the middle. I represented two worlds at that moment. I couldn't speak. I couldn't say one word, and then the staffer quickly pointed to some guy next to me. My part was over.

It became a bit of our family lore, the day I couldn't speak to Mondale, and my mom even made a birthday card for me with a cut-out picture of me on one side and one of Mondale on the other.

I've been thinking about this middle thing quite a bit lately. The Metaphor of Middle. Caught in the middle, like the tender middle-graders in their parents' divorce. Middle of the road, like those conservative Democrats or those liberal Republicans. Not too fast, not too slow. Straddling the middle, with feet in both worlds.

I am a middle girl, not in the sense of family birth order, though I hear all about THAT from my sensitive friends. But middle prairie and plains girl. I was born in Texas and my family moved up through the middle of this country state by state, from El Paso to near the Canadian border. The plains and prairies are beautiful and they define me but for the longest time I felt my middling to be bland and without edge. I used to run with both crowds in high school: the jocks and preps and the dopeheads. I was safe because I was understanding and fairly non-judgmental but was I my own truth? Was I just shadowing everyone else's opinion?

Here's a story: I used to hang out with a family with six sons and sometimes it was hard to be smack in the middle of all that chaos. When I first went out fishing with them all, expert anglers they were, they would get mad at me because my line would invariably get snagged in the bottom muck. I always let out too much line. They'd reel in their own lines and swear for having to give up a nibbler so I could yank out my hook trapped on seawood or in-between a few rocks. After just a few days of that I decided to let out only enough line to prangle about 4 inches below the surface of the water. I would cross my ankles over the side of the boat and bring along a book and cruise along with them, never snagging but never catching anything. They'd look over and say, "no bites huh?" "You think you've got out enough line?" It became a nagging metaphor for me as I came of age.

But I'm coming around to thinking differently about the middle. According to all the marketers I'm just beginning middle age. I live in middle America. I'm between the generations of women in my family, between my college-aged daughter and my elderly mother. I'm a book editor, a middlewoman of sorts who keeps the needs of the "front of the house" (authors and readers) balanced with the needs of the back of the house (directors and managers).

Middle need not be in the middle of nowhere, dangling just four inches below the surface of everything. It can be in the midst of all things. Rather than picture yourself as the one in the middle lane with all the Ford Probes and Saturn Ions, your middle can put you smack dab in the middle of the mosh pit. In the middle of the story, with all the action around and all the plot lines yet to be developed. Middle can be the receptor, the satellite, the storyteller. I'm fascinated with edges, especially those that blur the lines between the wild and the tamed, but I'm not afraid of the middle anymore, I'm not worried about the core.

*top photograph, "Angus, Sioux County, NE" by Drake Hokanson, photographer and writer who teaches at Winona State University. See for more photographs from his Great Plains project and other works.
*bottom painting by Candice Eisenfeld; see

{This entry is dedicated to my friend Judy on her birthday.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Notes for a Divisive Day

"I like Betsy Ross as a model, the quilting bee, sitting around with your friends making art, asking what they think so that you get the benefit of everyone's opinions, and so its not just about you in your you-dom."--Artist Kiki Smith

We did a very intimate but public thing this weekend. We had a yard sale. An old-fashioned yard sale, with handmade signs staked out on busy Snelling Avenue, and masking tape stickers on our outgrown clothes: 2 for 25 Cents, or, for the men's suits: $5.00 Each. I think my son dreaded the idea: who puts their stuff out for sale anyway? It's November, for chrissakes, how broke are we? But it was the motivation I needed to get me back deep in the cedar closets and under the dusty beds to pull out knick-knacks we were all sick of anyway and paperback books the kids didn't want anymore, and certainly enough tee-shirts to outfit all the runners in the New York City Marathon. It felt so intimate because, well, our stuff tends to tell the stories of our lives and here we were displaying it all out in the open.

It was sort of strange and slightly embarassing, really, to set up this rag-tag of stuff at dawn Saturday morning. Our neighbor with the BMW slowed down to look and ask what we were doing. His "oh" response was two-toned and lyrical, like the kind you get from the church ladies when you tell them you don't believe in original sin.

My son was in charge of manning the money box and I kept up small talk with droppers-by. My husband kept us fed all day. We had antique dealers there an hour before "opening," who bought up some Deco-style vases and a funky old chair. We had a woman looking to buy paperbacks for a women's program she supports. We had a really scruffy fellow with dirty eyes open up all the ziplock bags filled with costume jewelry and surprise us by buying up a dollar's worth, including a gold angel pin you're suppose to wear for good luck. We had two recent Russian immigrants stop by to look at the men's suits but the suits were too small and the Russians kept apologizing for their poor English. We apologized for the suits not fitting. "I'm sorry. I wish we had a few larger ones for you." Neighbors walked up just to say hi and many of us had never met each other before. They said they loved our new porch and asked our son how old he was and wasn't he good with the math and change.

My son got $18 of spending money from the deal and the rest will go toward a new hockey net for him but he said he wouldn't have cared about the money because he "got to hang out with us all day and meet so many new people."

See, these are the days of free agency. An example: as I sit here, there must be five or six garbage haulers working our neighborhood this morning. Unlike the city of Minneapolis, St. Paul doesn't have a municipal waste contract so it's up to each homeowner and landlord to find our own trashman. Instead of pooling together, each of us chooses a hauler: huge corporate-owned BFI, or the small, local Ken Berquist & Son, Inc., or the fifty-year-old Highland Sanitation "Working for You."

My ears are filled with the roar of the morning garbage trucks, their hydraulic back ends pushing open and shut, beep-beeping in reverse. And then the morning vibrates with a different roar--the long orange schoolbuses, beginning with the Central High School bus at 7 a.m., Highland Senior High at 7:07, Mann Elementary at 7:54, Highland Elementary at 8:00, Adams Spanish Immersion at 8:10, Capitol Hill at 8:20. Thank God most private schools don't provide bus service. By the time I've read the paper and finished my tea I've heard up to ten old beasts barrel up and down our street.

This is the era of open enrollment. Find the right school for your kid, the best deal for your budget. Everyone picking and choosing what suits their individual needs best. Noise is not a factor in these decisions. Neither is community, it seems. Individually, we are our own hubs. I see the neighbors down the street use Simon Delivers and the freelancers on the corner have a busy Fed Ex account. UPS is seeing record revenues this year because none of us likes to get out to shop anymore. We're clicking through sale items late at night and having things shipped out one by one as we need them.

So I bring up the yard sale because it really hit home how much we hide behind our stuff, in our dens and family rooms, and how little chance we get to just be out there open to the world. Sure we join churches and book clubs and PTAs. But so much of those organized activities are just that--organized. We're not mingling much with people not like us. We're not forging common ground by simply being willing to sit out in the open--just to see who might come up to talk.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shop Around the Corner

Garrison Keillor's little bookshop just opened yesterday: Common Good Books. I get my hair cut in that same building that houses the shop--the Blair Arcade--and on a recent visit my stylist, Giselle (really, Giselle) said, "That man, Garrison Keillor, just got his hair cut before you. You just missed him." The stylist next to Giselle does GK's hair. When I first starting seeing Giselle she looked like the blond Ashlee Simpson, sort of, but now she looks like Lindsay Lohan. Like Lohan she wears glasses with her long strawberry hair. I think she just wears the glasses for effect. I wondered if she had seen the movie A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison and Lindsay, among others.

I asked, "Was he wearing red socks?" I wondered if he kept that same grumpy face as he watched himself in the mirror. I felt like I might see that same grumpy face stare back at mine from the mirror right about then.

Giselle laughed heartily and said, "I have no idea why you said that." So then I explained his radio show and his presence on stage, and those red socks he always wears.

"Do you know he's opening a bookstore next to us?" Giselle asked. She always forgets I'm in the book business.

"I bet he doesn't know that the back wall of his bookstore butts right up to the wall of our break room. We scream and laugh and tell dirty jokes and talk about all our customers down there. I really don't think that's the kind of stuff he expects to have come streaming into his bookstore," she said.

"Have you been inside the new store?" I ask.

"No, but yesterday I asked the construction workers out at the top of the stairs smoking, the ones who have been remodeling the place. I asked them if they know Mr. Keillor and what they think of him. And they say they never heard of the guy."

I imagined myself getting a haircut, having a chai at Nina's, and spending an evening browsing that new bookshop. We all say we miss the good independents. I have many memories of some of my favorites.

When I first started out in publishing there was no Internet; we didn't even have personal computers at our desk. So we young editors were sent out on assignment to do comparative book research. (Now we just scan Amazon.) The senior editors would tell us, "Go find a few books on the same subject and bring them back so we can see what they have." We didn't have a decent bookstore in downtown St. Paul at the time so we would research at the grand St. Paul Central Library, just across the street. I'd bring a briefcase filled with a notebook, pica measuring stick, maybe even the manuscript of the book we were considering publishing. Then I'd pull off, say, Carl Sagan's Cosmos and write down all the chapter heads and the number of pages and how much it selled for.

When we found out nobody really knew how long we'd been out, we began using the code "book research" for all kinds of hooky outings: we'd have blueberry pancakes at the Q Restaurant; we'd even go see a matinee at the now-defunct Galtier Plaza theater.

So when I took a job in downtown Minneapolis, I was thrilled to be so close to the old Baxter Books. Again,, our books team would converge on Baxter's right after lunch; still pica sticks and notebooks in hand. We wrote down specs from the back-of-the-book colophons (this one uses Galliard. I love Galliard! we'd write). We looked at the names of artists whose work was reproduced on the front of more sophisticated titles: Picasso, Jacob Lawrence, Chagall. Owner Brian Baxter, now manager of Birchbark Books, was always very generous and even let me take books without paying so I could quick show the staff and return them by the end of the day. Once we saw Meredith Baxter Birney at the counter talking with Brian and we felt connected a bit to Hollywood.

Once one of my publishers flew me out to meet with a NYC author. I had never been to Manhattan. The author, a horribly difficult man whose book took us years to produce and whose ways made some of us cry, had transformed into a charming and thoughtful host. His book was nearly done; he was happy with the results. He took me to MOMA, Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center for lunch (I was there, I was there, I kept saying after hearing about September 11), an art fair in Greenwich Village, and best of all, to the Strand. 18 miles of books. I kept pausing at the tables, then looking up at him, like a kid in front of the Candyland counters, and he kept smiling and looking very pleased and hopeful. I thought maybe he was thinking, "Perhaps now they will finally like me."

When I vacationed in San Francisco I knew I needed to visit City Lights. My husband was tired of walking by the time we got there and the place is very small and winding and pinched for space, not at all like the big-box models of Barnes and Noble. And when he asked to use the bathroom they told him it was across the street. He thought they were short-changing him; they looked like young Bob Dylans; he looks more like Kent Hrbek, and he thought they held that against him, as if he really didn't belong in a hip place like that. (But the bathroom really was across the street.) So he was in no mood to browse. Luckily, I knew already what I wanted: Virginia Woolfe's A Room of One's Own. Cliche, I know, but sometimes you just have to give in to them.

And when I needed to distribute and sell a small academic journal I was also editing at the time, I decided to make a visit to Denver's famous Tattered Cover Book Store when I was in town for a conference. I brought in my stack of journals and had practiced my pitch in my head on the cab ride over. The buyer was burrowed behind a stack of books and journals at his desk. His clothes had that slept-in look like the dress of old poets and English professors. He put down his pen and spread open the pillars of books and let me talk across from him for awhile. And then he very simply said, "Yes, we'll carry it."

So I hope I get over to Common Ground Books soon. And I hope my first memory of the place is spotting a pair of red socks from behind a shelf chockful of good books and hearing the squeals of gossip from the salon ladies next door.