Saturday, December 23, 2006

Our Christmas Journeys

As gray is the new black so is Minnesota the new Ohio. Brown, warm Christmas with rain in the forecast. There is still a little bit of white on the lawns outside my window, like powdered sugar siftings on a freshly baked bundt. I am more ambivalent than I have ever been on Christmas. A few years back my brother-in-law invited us out West for the holiday week and he was as tense as ever. We opened our presents on Christmas morning, had Honey Baked Ham at noon, and by evening he had taken down the Christmas tree and shoved it outside by the trash cans. "Christmas is over," he said.

I'm certainly not as estranged from the season as that but maybe I understand him a little more now. As Garrison Keillor wrote at the start of the season:

"So it is with Christmas. You can go straight from pure bliss to desperate remorse in less than a minute. There are dead friends that one does not ever quite forget, and there is the great wound of divorce which, even though 30 years in the past, can come open and bleed and almost break your heart. You walk to church and she's waiting for you in the shadows, asking, 'Why did you do that?'"

What is the spirit of the season and how can we be sure to discover it--again and again? What if it doesn't come to us? I realized after a day or so of wallowing that action can be the antidote to many sorrows. I just bought $20 of the fanciest wrapping paper, picked up the last of my presents and a box of Christmas hooch: two bottles of Baltika lager, a bottle of Jim Beam rye whiskey, some Korbel for the hubbie, and some Argentine malbec for the December 25 dinner. I have pumpkin puree and peppermint extract and some dark Ghiradelli chips for an afternoon of baking. I have my favorite Christmas book out for reading tonight: "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote. I've plugged the old phone in next to the leather chair so I can have long talks with my relatives in faraway states.

My mom wrote in an e-mail from Texas yesterday, in light of the storms in Denver, " If you haven't already told the story, remind Megan of the time you tried to get home from college during a blizzard. One of my favorite stories."

It was my first year at West Publishing and I was desperate to get home. I lived in a third-floor, sparsely furnished apartment on the corner of Rice and Larpenteur, near the Lamplighter Lounge, "St. Paul's Only Gentleman's Club." My then-boyfriend, now-husband, was trying to make his way up from Chicago, where he'd pick me up and we'd drive the eight hours or so to East Grand Forks, except his truck broke down near Eau Claire in the midst of this huge Midwest Christmas storm. I literally waited at my kitchen table, my two packed bags and Christmas presents by the door, for hours. He didn't show up and didn't call (this was the era before cell phones). Finally he phoned from the St. Paul Holiday Inn, some five hours late. He had hitched a ride with a truck driver who took him as far as the St. Paul freeway exit. You can imagine his weariness when I stoically answered, "I will NOT miss Christmas with my family." We stayed the night in St. Paul and took the Greyhound, the only transportation we could find, to Fargo, where my dad and brother picked us up on Christmas Eve in the old Datsun.

There was such a blizzard raging along I-29 from Fargo to Grand Forks that the roads were eerily empty. In a blizzard across the flat plains like that you're better off having more cars on the road so you can follow each other's tail lights. Like young John Kennedy, Jr., we seemed doomed to fall off course. As the airline reports indicated after Kennedy's fatal airplane crash in a night storm, "In the last few minutes before Kennedy’s little single-engine airplane went into the heavy seas off Martha’s Vineyard, its radar track showed all the evidence of a mind wobbling in the tortured confusion called vertigo."

Only our bafflement was the result not of a blackout, where the dark of the sky melded with the dark of the sea, but rather from whiteout, where the whipping winds all but obliterated the line of horizon on that lonely road. What determination my father held during that four-hour ride. He smoked his Winstons nonstop and gripped that wheel, hunched over the front of it like Radar O'Reilly from the MASH unit, that everyman's hero.

The bafflement young Kennedy likely encountered arose, they say, as his mind struggled with the contradictory signals of what he thought the plane was doing and what gravity was really doing to it--and him. In other words, in a blinding storm, you literally can’t tell up from down, left from right.

That Christmas Eve on I-29, we took turns riding on the passenger side with the door cranked open so we could drag a long stick along the road to feel the pavement and to try to judge if Dad was veering off the side of the highway. It was harrowing and heroic. I never felt better about Christmas than that year when we finally pulled up to my parents' house with the old big-bulb lights stapled along the roofline, a fire crackling in the hearth, and mom standing in anxious relief by the door, all of us laughing from our own released tension and family reunion.

The old adage is that everything seems harder at the holidays: old family disputes, old inadequacies. But I am cheered by my family stories and the ones unfolding right before me. There's nothing too heroic about a plate of cookies and a bottle of Christmas wine, I guess, unless you too struggled with the contradictory signals of this yearly tradition. If laughing over breakfast with the kids and lighting candles in the dark is the best I can discover of the Christmas sparkle, then so be it. There will always be storms. We've pulled ourselves out of bafflement before; we can do it again.

Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Part 2

My first paid job was babysitting for Eddie Higginbotham, a young enlistee on the Air Force base where we lived. Eddie had lost two fingers in a farm accident--his index pointer and his ring finger--so that when he held his chin in his hands, which he always did, like a drunk without a plan--it looked like he was giving the finger to the person next to him. Eddie said it always provoked guys to pick fights with him at the bars he frequented. I had two things to work with on those nights babysitting his two sweet kids: snacks in the fridge for their pre-bedtime ritual and a phone number where I could find Eddie if things went wrong. I never worried much about things going wrong on my end but rather whether I'd receive a call from a bartender about Eddie getting beat up by a stranger.

My second job was hoeing sugar beets with my Mexican neighbors up in the fertile Red River Valley. We joined a migrant clan at a farm near Argyle for stints of both thinning and weeding. I'd walk over to the Gamboa's at 5 a.m. and we'd pack into their Oldsmobile and drive the 45 minutes in the dark, with loud Tejanas music blaring out of the back speakers. My only tool for that job was a hoe. We got paid $4.00 a row. Each row was a mile long. Big Joe Gamboa told me to thin out every third seedling. My first day I walked the row slowly, like a pastor in thought, counting 1, step, 2 step, 3 hoe. 1 step, 2 step, 3 hoe. I'd prick out that third plant with the corner of my hoe. The migrant workers, the families making their living by circling the country in time for the various cropwork--first California and the vegetable farms, then the Plains for the sugar beets, next the Midland, finally the south and all its fruit--all zipped through the rows like this: ba ding, ba ding, ba ding, ba ba ding, so that when I looked up from my careful counting most of them had worked their way nearly to the end of the rows. They were hoping to store up their winter wages on this route; I was hoping to get a new bike.

My first payroll job was as a car hop for the local A&W drive-in on Gateway Drive in Grand Forks. They gave me a uniform, an apron, and a coin changer I wore around my hips. They also gave me a warning that the first dropped tray was on them; any after that and the breakage that resulted came out of our paychecks. They thought this penalty would teach us to slide the auto trays correctly onto the half-open car windows. But that didn't prevent breakage. They seemed to forget about all the dolty drivers who knocked over those frosty mugs in a rush to pacify the people in the back seats. Each of those heavy mugs cost us 90 cents a crack.

My first salaried job was as production assistant for the college textbook division of West Publishing. I would assist senior editors and others in producing mostly entry-level books for the college market: criminology texts, and editions for human nutrition, organic chemistry, oceanology, astronomy. They gave me lots of tools, some familiar, some not.

Seemed like half the West Publishing staff, especially those assigned to the more profitable and historic law divisions, were women who sorted, counted, proofed, and corrected the millions of sheets of paper that passed through that institution each year. These women were paid a fraction of what the male managers and executives in the company were paid, and they worked in large pools set up on each floor. Once I saw a flyer on one of their bulletin boards: "If you take 0 sick days, you will get a raise. If you take 1-3 sick days, you may get a raise. If you take more than 3 sick days, you will not get a raise." And also once, "Women should not take handbags to the ladies' room, unless it is your lunch break."

I was buffered from the patriarchy some by my status as a college graduate in the upstart and independent College Division. But I felt a solidarity with my sister word handlers. I noticed that they ignored the handbag warnings. I also noticed that they almost always left a rubber finger or two on the countertops of the bathroom sinks. I wasn't completely sure these weren't new contraceptive devices; women leave the strangest things in the powder room. After I asked about them, I got a nice stack of my own along with a pica ruler, a pack of pink gummy slips, and a bottle of Euricen from our department's Penta typesetting coordinator. I felt like I was heading for training in the lab at the Free Clinic.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A new girl in town, Part 1

A few weeks ago a St. Paul developer turned down Ramsey County’s invitation to buy the former county jail and West Publishing buildings in downtown St. Paul. That guy, Jerry Trooien, is bullying his way through options for his billion-dollar “Bridges” proposal for a spanking new luxury hotel, condos, and shops, but declined the offer. Perhaps he doesn’t know the storied history of that West building. I might be able to entice him with a little slice of its history, if he only knew to ask. My first publishing job was at that riverside West Publishing building.


I had taken the Amtrak from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to the Fairview station in St. Paul the night before my interview. Earlier that week I had set my interview outfit: a gray polyester skirt suit, a white blouse, one of those bow ties women were wearing then, and some very sleek maroon pumps, serious pumps. I looked like that early 80s version of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.

After a night on the couch at my brother’s girlfriend’s place, I took a cab into downtown St. Paul and asked the driver to stop right before that long block of dark granite. I wanted to get a feel for the place before going in. I was thrilled with the idea of working along the river I had heard so much about. (After I lived in St. Paul awhile a bunch of French and Belgian businessmen were in town for a winter meeting with city officials and the mayor took them down to Harriet Island where they could walk out onto the frozen ice. One of the Frenchmen got down on his hands and knees in his long wool dress coat and leather gloves and kissed the ice. He said he had always dreamed of the great Mississippi and here he was now walking on it!)

I grew up on Strategic Air Command bases, in the middle of prairies and tumbleweeds. I thought if I got this editor’s job I’d have romantic views of the river and the bluffs and all the people bustling by. I didn’t know then that much of the office space was cut deep into the core of that riverbank, having been converted from the loud and cavernous printing and binding facility West had operated for much of the twentieth century. Setting the machinery into the bluff like that buffered the noise of the busy printing presses for the hardworking young lawyers at their desks up on the seventh, eighth, and ninth floors. But now for us young, modern office workers that seaspace was like working inside a snow tunnel: white, dense walls, no windows, still air, muffled sound.

Does everyone remember their first great boss? Doug Grainger was mine and he and his assistant director interviewed me in his corner office, facing the river. It was morning so the sun was on the east of the building, dim and low, and I remember wondering why they didn’t have the blinds open to that glorious view. It wasn’t until after I was hired that I asked why all these executives with the spacious corner offices never opened their blinds, and it was Doug who told me it was because the inmates in the adjacent Ramsey County Jail would masturbate in front of their corner windows, especially if they saw a group of people from West peering over. (Once I pulled down a single blind during an especially long meeting just to see if I’d see anything but all I saw were those stacked columns of cell windows and inmates lying inert on their double bunks, their hands over their faces.)

It was a great place to have a first job. Patriarchy, money, scandal, litigation, criminals, sex, romance, anxiety, sweeping change.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Nagging Thaw

And now, almost a week later and 40 degrees warmer:

Crawling Out the Window
by Tom Hennen

When water starts to run, winds come to the sky
carrying parts of Canada, and the house is filled
with the scent of dead grass thawing. When spring
comes on the continental divide, the snowbanks
are broken in two and half fall south and half fall
north. It’s the Gulf of Mexico or Hudson Bay, one
or the other for the snow, the dirt, the grass, the
animals and me. The Minnesota prairie has never
heard of free will. It asks you, quietly at first, to
accept and even love your fate. You find out that
if you fall south, life will be easy, like warm rain.
You wake up with an outgoing personality and a
knack for business. The river carries you. You float
easily and are a good swimmer. But if you fall north
while daydreaming, you never quite get your foot-
ing back again. You will spend most of your time
looking toward yourself and see nothing but holes.
There will be gaps in your memory and you won’t
be able to earn a living. You always point north
like a compass. You always have to travel on foot
against the wind. You always think things might
get better. You watch the geese and are sure you can fly.

(Tom Hennen was born in Morris and grew up on farms in western Minnesota. He has worked as a laborer, migrant bean-picker, and stagehand, and for many years he was employed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He is the author of Crawling Out the Window, Looking into the Weather, and Love for Other Things: New and Selected Poems.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Real Winter

Mark Vinz (1942–)
Born in Rugby, North Dakota, Mark Vinz was raised in Minneapolis and the Kansas City area, and attended the universities of Kansas and New Mexico. A professor of English at Minnesota State University at Moorhead, he has played an instrumental role in the Minnesota literary community for decades. (corrected)

Still Life with Thermometer

Today you remember windchill—
40, 50, 60 below—
after a point it ceases to matter.
Your car is sealed in ice.
All footprints have drifted over,
houses drawn up together
in a ring of smoke.

How do you speak of the real winter?
It’s cold, you say. Cold.
It moves through doors and walls.
This is the way you have learned to speak,
without postmarks, without stamps.

You watch the dead growth
of last summer’s garden
rising from the snow,
a spider frozen on the windowsill,
the gathering dark—
your own cloudy breath
bearing messages
to each corner of the room.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A Voice Is Born

My daughter was born on this day, nineteen years ago. She was three weeks overdue and took 52 hours to deliver. I was so exhausted after she was born--yet I knew I would be discharged that evening. It was the pre-Amy Klobuchar-advocacy era for new mothers with HMO plans; at that time, we were given only 24 hours after delivery to vacate the birthing bed. I looked up the number for my local Health Partners and called with my story. I connected with a sympathetic operator who gave me a 48-hour extension and orders to get some sleep.

I woke up hours later to the most soulful hollering I've ever heard come from a 7-1/2 pound newborn. The maternity nurse burst into my room and said, "Mrs. M, I got strict orders not to wake you but you wrote you wanted to breastfeed and we've been holding back, giving the baby sugar water, but Mrs. M, your baby is out there and she's STARVING!"

And the voice was born.

When she was about 4 and getting reprimanded for small troubles, Megan would say to her Russian and Sri Lankan caregivers, "I know, I know. It's all because I was born on a stormy night."

We would tell her to hold her own and always shout out if someone or something didn't feel right. Then we'd pick her up from day care and there she'd be at the top of the slide, hands on her hips, shouting like Lucy from the Peanuts gang, "No! Don't do that! I DON'T LIKE that."

When my parents took her to her first play, a performance of The King and I, she jumped up from her theater seat when the King was treating Anna so badly, and shouted, "You're so mean. Stop doing that!"

When she suddenly got pious and started making little crosses out of scrap wood and marking them with the words,"Jesus Loves Me," she asked that our family start going to church. We, the skeptical, nonpracticing, semi-believers that we are, went church shopping. We went to the small, A-frame Presbyterian, the brick Episcopalian, and the grand Cathedral of St. Paul to see what might fit us. As we sat under the echoey dome of the Cathedral, listening to Archbishop Flynn's homily, Megan leaned over and in her coarse Irish whisper, which most parishioners around us could hear, implored, "Why is that guy yelling at us?"

In AAU basketball as a teen, she was up to the line for a free throw. The parents of youth basketball players might be the most obnoxious of us all. If you look out into the bleachers many over-involved parents are scowling, like Bill Cowher of the Steelers, or screaming at players and refs, like the Lady Vols' Pat Summitt. So she's up to the line and everyone's shouting and scowling and she just turns to the crowd, with eyes aimed at her Dad and me, and shouts back, "Shut up. Shut up. Just shut up."

So now she's in college. She seems a beacon for the future, blending all she's learned from her family and friends and mentors--and herself-- into this one strong voice. Isn't that what we all want for our children, for ourselves? She just sent me a piece she wrote about a mother giving advice to her daughter, prompted by a reading of Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl." It seems fitting to share it with you on the occasion of her birthday (and with her permission):

"Don’t go where I can’t see you; wash your hands after you go to the bathroom; don’t put things in your mouth; say please and thank you; don’t talk during church; don’t spill on your clothes; this is how you tie your shoes; don’t wake your father when he’s sleeping; be quiet when other people are talking; think before you speak; brush your teeth every day; eat your vegetables; don’t show your underwear to boys when you’re playing in the playground; don’t talk about others behind their backs; do your spelling words; look both ways before you cross the street; be respectful to your teachers; this is how you pour your cereal in the morning; this is how you braid your hair; make sure you don’t get grass stains on your white dress when you are playing in the field; watch out for your brother when you two are alone together; if you get lost know that I’ll find you; don’t play with your food; don’t chew your nails; don’t wear clothes that are ripped; plaids and stripes don’t match; wear socks with your shoes; don’t let your bra show; don’t wear skirts that are too short; this is how you balance a checkbook; read; don’t watch that television show; don’t sleep past noon; clean your room; this is how you argue rationally: don’t tell people that they’re wrong and explain why you’re right; even though they are your teammates, they’re still your competitors; this is how you write a thesis; this is how you drive a car; this is how you preheat an oven; this is how you behave in public; don’t talk to me like that in public; don’t have a dirty mouth otherwise people will think that you’re dirty; this is what I sound like when I swear; protect your reputation, it’s the most important thing you have; do what makes you happy, and know that money can’t buy happiness; if someone breaks your heart know that I’ll always be there to put it back together; don’t let jealousy interfere with relationships; you’ll never know what it’s like to be a parent until you are one.

"Don’t talk to strangers; wear a helmet; take music lessons; learn a language; buy something that expresses your own personality and not what everyone else has; don’t make drama out of nothing; don’t procrastinate; always get enough sleep; learn how to use a computer; climb a tree; make forts out of blankets and chairs; have an imaginary friend; don’t worry about your weight until you’ve had a baby; don’t smoke; don’t waste your time on false friends; appreciate the friends you have; chicks before dicks; don’t have sex until you’re ready and it’s with someone you trust; don’t bring yourself down because there will be plenty of people in your life that will do that for you; don’t watch too much television; don’t create drama through AOL Instant Messenger; talk to someone you’re upset with right away; keep a secret; when it comes to alcohol, know your limit; get to know people who are older than you; don’t worry about what other people think about you; live life with humor; do something crazy every once in awhile; learn how to dance without alcohol; listen to good music; don’t just learn, but understand other cultures and ideas; don’t dismiss something just because you’re afraid of it; don’t be afraid of not knowing what you believe; know that what you feel really strong about in the moment might change drastically in the future, and don’t be afraid to let it happen; don’t let people take advantage of you; stand up for what you believe in and don’t be afraid to say what you think; be classy; never own a pair of underwear that has holes in it; love the body you’re in; trust people; learn how to communicate with people without technology; know that you won’t understand all these things, but when things come up and you learn these lessons the hard way, know that I’ll always be there for you."

Monday, December 04, 2006

Good Gifts

"I give in hopes that it gives someone a break. Everyone needs a break at some point in their life."--Margaret McDonald, owner of Let's Cook, from the December 2006 The Rake

So it's the first week of December, the start of a busy month at our house--and I'm sure at yours as well. We deliberately lounged this weekend in anticipation of the month's activities: ate French toast late, read the Sunday papers, brought home slices of pepperoni pizza to eat in front of the TV, watched two football games (could it get any worse than the Vikings-Bears game?), fell asleep on the couch like those back-of-the-class mouth breathers, woke up in time to shoot a few pucks at our makeshift shooting gallery set up against the garage. Young Morneau would have been proud!

But today we put our slovenly ways aside and become little Midwestern versions of Rachel Ray or Regis. Chipper and industrious. We have three birthdays and Christmas. Come on! The show's about to go on.

Now isn't this a nice gift-giving quote, the one from Ms. McDonald (above)? And check out her store in Northeast, too. My good friend presented me with just such a "you deserve a break" gift for my birthday. A bottle of good red wine, some exotic chocolate, two DVDs, and the new Madeleine Peyroux album. What a treat!

The theme of our gifts this year is "buy local." And if we can make them also "you deserve a break" gifts, all the better. So here are some of my favorite Minnesota giftsellers:

1. Blissful Bath. Really nice products, great customer service, based in Woodbury, Minnesota.

2. Joe's Sporting Goods, a third-generation local sporting store. REI is hard to resist, but check out Joe's stock--love the Dale of Norway hats--online or at the Rice Street store.

3. Sausage Sisters. Rockin' dogs.

4. Sunrise Bakery, that famous spot up in Hibbing. Potica, strudels, biscotti to make Dylan proud.

5. Avalanche Looms. okay, Wisconsin, but close enough. Love her potholders. Can I be jealous of her life. too?

6. Micawber's Books. Best independent bookstore in town.

7. Sisu Coffee and Tea, on Snelling Ave. near Highland Parkway. Lori and Karen are making up amazing and affordable gift baskets: coffee, breads, caramels, Finnish cookies, etc.

8. Paper Patisserie, 366 Selby Avenue 651-227-1398. Great host/hostess gifts.

9. Paper Source. I know they did not start here, but who can resist the company's history--"begun in 1983 from one woman's obsession with paper . . . " Rubber stamps, inks, gorgeous papers and stationery. Visit the store on Hennepin for some delightful browsing.

10. Gypsy Moon, Grand Avenue near Wet Paint. Lovely owner, lovely selections.