Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mailing art and love

An author and friend has just gone through her first chemo treatment for breast cancer. She shopped at the American Cancer Society last week for a free wig, scarf, and hat. She'll lose her hair 18 days after her first chemo blast. She had a "port" inserted in her chest to facilitate the chemo. In order to shower after the port was inserted, she had to wrap her chest in Saran Wrap, avoiding the pain at the spot of the missing breast and the discomfort at the spot of the port. She speaks with frustration at the human indignities of her disease. She normally goes to yoga twice a week, works at the food shelf once a week, and teaches cooking classes on the side. She wonders, "Why should I cancel these things?" Yet, she's so tired she worries about wearing out. Did I mention she is 73?

I don't knit but I hear there is a pattern for a wonderfully soft knit cap you can make to wear at night that protects that soft little chemo-scalded scalp from brushing too hard against the pillowcase. Instead, I sent her a card with love and art from the wildly creative Susan Mrosek of Pondering Pool ( She has something like 50 different cards with all kinds of loving and empowering and damn funny truths.

Of course, I know a card isn't much. If she feels well enough, I'll take my friend to an early Valentine's Day dinner. I'll help her with her scarf wraps. I'll listen to her stories.

Cancer sucks.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Touch of Art

Tuesday, January 30, 2007 10:22 am: Currently Sunny and 2 degrees. This week: 5-10 degrees below average, but even colder weather is shaping up for the weekend and early next week, 3-4 days/row with single digit highs and subzero lows. Winds: NW at 13 MPHB

If it's too cold for you to walk at lunch today, which you should really do, if only to the mailbox, I suggest an at-your-desk gallery tour of some art-filled websites. Shut your door if you have one. Heat a mug of instant miso soup, play some nice music. Some of my favorite art sites are:

Circa Gallery, Minneapolis

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

National Gallery of Art

The Guggenheim Museum, New York

And on a day like today, when it is butt-cold out, I find fancy and warmth from one of my new favorite artists, Amy Rice, whose whimsical and light mixed-media pieces warm up my space. See

("Red Mitten," by Amy Rice. 18 X 24 in., mixed media. Available for purchase.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

The End of the Day

Photograph from Mike Melman, The Quiet Hours: City Photographs (Univ. of Minn. Press, 2003). EAST SEVENTH STREET BETWEEN WALL AND WACOUTA STREETS, ST. PAUL, 2001

Yesterday was a day-full, full of depth and gravity like the snow-weighted Midwestern skies before the flakes fall. It was an enlightening day, one where I noticed the calm moments as much as I did the action. As I drove home to bed, my mood was like the city at night—quiet and luminous and still faintly resonating with the activities of the day.

You know how your days can be a frenzy, as if you are the modern-day version of the frantic party-line phone operator, cords and plugs stopgapping the blinking lights of your digital switchboard? Twelve separate e-mails from one author--you read seven and give up on the last five, at least for the morning. But then you keep returning to the boldfaced Inbox (You have five unread e-mails) and discover over and over those same five messages you put aside earlier. The Spam folder highlights subject lines like
“Tired of being the little guy?”
“Trouble keeping your man?”
“Looktin for trim you waistline?”
and you think maybe they all actually have some meaning for you? Cryptic subliminal messages planted by your computer to warn you that your life isn’t as swell as you imagine. You’re eating smoked ham sandwiches again because that’s the least messy lunch you can can munch while working at your desk on the overdue manuscript; even then you get mayonnaise on the title page.

Wednesday I was all talk and no action, it seemed, and I actually observed myself saying, “I make content marketable.” Why did I say that? Why would I say that?

But yesterday I read diligently at my desk, a revised manuscript carefully prepared by a man who has a monumental story to tell. He trusted me during my first edit of his work. He trusted me enough to send the submission back again. I read for hours straight through the morning, into the afternoon. I wrote notes. “Powerful.” “Compelling.” His work made me think of times in our state decades ago. It made me think of times in my own life. It made me want to be a better person. I can’t think of more honorable work than that.

When I got into my car at the end of the workday, just as the sunset was streaking the sky with stripes of pink and gray clouds, my face was flushed and hot with the weight of that powerful tale. I’ll call it "referred energy." I work mostly alone at my desk on these editing days and I hadn’t the chance to transfer this deep emotion in conversation or dialogue. I laid my hot cheeks against the cold steering wheel and waited.

On the ride home I listened to the soundtrack to the locally produced movie Sweet Land and the music was a perfect match.

Later, at the end of a night listening to music at The Times and sharing tapas with my grown daughter—who is so charmingly grown—I drove slowly through the city. The cafĂ© windows were backlit by storeroom lights. The tall church steeples cut black witches’ hats into the faint sky. I could not see the moon but I think it could see me. My daughter at five used to say, “Wherever we go the moon follows us. Look. See.” I came into our quiet house where the husband and son were fast asleep. I folded up the couch throws and looked out the front door window before turning off the porch light. The night would be fine without it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Kyle Okposo goal

Like the great Moose Goheen of the 1920s and '30s, Kyle Okposo dazzles!

The State of Hockey

"Those were the days when everybody took their best dates to the Hip, rode a 10-cent fare, ate a beef dinner for a buck and saw Moose Goheen dump enemies into the fifth row for a 75-cent ticket." from Dimensions, a NSP newsletter

"Frank Goheen, the most spectacular player on the ice, carried the puck down alone, evaded, leaped . . . around some four of the Soo players. Just as he shot he was sent sprawling on the ice, but while he was sliding the puck shot past the astonished goal keeper." (Godin, Before the Stars, MHS Press, 2005)

And here's another perspective on the sport, from my son's first days as a 9-year-old goalie (he has since moved on to skate out as left-winger and defenseman).
"In my first season of Squirts, it was our third practice. Out of nowhere, Howard, our assistant coach asked who wanted to be goalie. I raised my hand. I thought I, me, was going to be goalie for Edgcumbe, my team.

"The next day Howard called and told me that I was goalie for practice. I was so excited. Later that day at practice I was really nervous. I thought I was going to miss every shot. When I was laying down getting dressed and people were walking by with their skates on I was afraid they would cut my fingers off with their skates. When I first got the goalie pads on I fell before I even got on the ice. It was embarrassing. When I did get on the ice I didn’t fall. Then Howard took me to the net. I was so nervous. I didn’t know how to do anything. First he told me where to stand. Then he shot pucks at my stick, all the time telling me to be a brick wall. Be a brick wall. He kept on saying it over and over again. I was tired and sweaty. Finally practice was over. I was okay but needed a little more work, Howard told me.

"When I got home I took a shower. When I went downstairs my mom, my dad, and even my sister asked me how goalie was. I told everyone that it was great but very tiring. It was the subject all day, even at dinner. Finally the day was over and I was able to go to bed.

"The next Sunday I was goalie again. Again I was afraid people were going to cut off my fingers when I was getting dressed. On the ice Howard shot the puck at my catcher and blocker. I was really good at those. At last, practice was over. I felt like an avalanche was going down my back I was so sweaty. I took a shower, did my homework and went straight to bed.

Two weeks later we had our first game, and I was goalie. We were playing Edison. I was nervous but also happy that they picked me for goalie. The team warmed me up by shooting from a U-shape. Then the game was under way. The first two periods I didn’t do much. When we started the third period were up 2–0. Nothing happened until there was only two minutes left. It was a 2 on 1. They got past our defenseman and shot. I was thinking “please don’t let them score.” I made the first save but then—rebound and goal. They scored with one minute left. The game was over at last. I felt like the world was falling down on me. I was so sad. I couldn’t believe I didn’t get the shutout."

Saturday was Hockey Day Minnesota and our town was crackling with the sound of sticks on ice. Boot hockey on backyard rinks, outdoor hockey tournaments, indoor games between longtime rivals. To start with the best of the best, try to catch the spectacular play of Gopher freshman Kyle Okposo, who honed his hockey skills at our local Groveland rink. For you out-of-staters who can't see a Gophers game, check out Okposo's between-the-legs goal at YouTube on the following post.

And then, take a fan's tour of our local action:

A glorious day for boot hockey

Boot hockey scrum

Annual Edgecumbe Squirt Tournament

Arriving early

Ponying up for three-minute line shifts

Thursday, January 18, 2007

You Tube; no, MY TUBE

The television has taken a more prominent place in my life these last EIGHT days I've been sick. Of course, we are a TV family. That is, our sectional couch and recliner are in a half-circle facing the tube. We spend $54 a month on cable (yet, still don't get HBO for that price; go figure). We organize some of our days around what's on the TV. Wednesday night: Top Chef or Project Runway. After-school unwinding for the boy: Malcolm in the Middle. Winter weekend nights: Gophers hockey. Sunday mornings: well, Sunday Morning.

My daughter's dormmates gather together for Prison Break on, what is it, Monday nights? My parents watch the local news before retiring to bed. My neighbors watch Sunday night Masterpiece Theatre; I see the blue glow of those period pieces through their picture windows on my late-night walks.

I don't keep the Sunday TV guide and we don't own TIVO so my life isn't that intertwined with the offerings of NBC, FOX, TNT, and AMC. But, damn, this week, the highlight of my days has been that moment I've cocooned in the old brown quilt inside our old green recliner, held the remote in my hand, and clicked on that little red button. What today? What's in store for today? Kristie Alley reveals her new body in a bikini. Oprah at 4. Joey buys one encyclopedia from the door-to-door salesman and masters the letter "M." Friends rerun at 6:30. American Idol travels to Seattle for Season 6 auditions. Wednesday at 7. I've taken my tea in that chair, eaten my hardscrabble sick-dinners in that chair, and reviewed my son's daily homework in that chair, with one eye flickering up to the screen between teacher comments.

Why, Tuesday night, when I couldn't sleep for this hacking cough, I turned on ESPN2 and saw the best college basketball game I've seen in a long time. Oklahoma State over Texas--last-second three-pointers, behind-the-back passes, and three overtimes! I was so thrilled for the entertainment I even considered staying on for the continuing coverage of the Austrialian Open.

I remember our family TV moments growing up. We lived in the Southwest so my mother kicked my brother and me out of the house to play most days. No excuse to stay indoors when it's 74 and sunny. My Chicago-born husband exclaims, "You mean you never watched Bozo? You don't even know who he is? That's just crazy." But she did let us watch The Captain Kangaroo show something like two days a week. By then we had a cocker spaniel, a cat, and my black rabbit, Midnight, so I loved Mr. Green Jeans. And my brother had one of those upright, old-fashioned dial telephones with the separate ear piece, just like the Captain.

I remember the day my mom thought my dad had been killed in the Saigon bombings during the Vietnam War. I still see the scene clearly: the base chaplain was at the open screen door, my mom was crying on the telephone, and Walter Cronkite was following up the Saigon footage with his own heartfelt commentary. (The bombs just missed my dad's barracks and he was able to call home to us later that night.)

I remember the day we put a man on the moon. We all got to watch the coverage after my dad got home from the air base flight lines. I can imagine now how thrilled he was to see progress from government and science rather than destruction. Then, after Dad tucked us in for the night in our bedrooms down the hall from the living room, I crept out in my flannel nightgown and crouched behind his recliner to catch more peeks of the screen. I'm sure he heard my shallow breathing but he never let on.

I remember watching the progressive All in the Family, and MASH, and Laugh-In, and learning a lot of my politics from those shows and our family talk about them during all the commercials. My mom would make those shows an event and prepare a big round tray of TV dinner--not the Swanson's kind, but her specialty crispy BLTs on white toast, or tomato soup in mugs with pickles and saltine crackers. She'd bring the big tray down to the basement family room and we'd sit cross-legged around the round Early American coffee table--all except my dad, who never could sit cross-legged.

So, looking at the Star Tribune headlines this morning, the ones berating the sex and violence on all our graphic TV series, and the summary of the dismal contestants on the American Idol Seattle episode, makes me a little defensive about our connection to TV. (I won't even burden you with the idiotic, overpaid commentator from the Center for the American Experiment whose right-wing columns are so poorly written I can't even laugh about them, the way I do about George Will or even William Safire.) I mean, I'm with her on the exploitation of humans on shows like CSI and Law and Order: SVU. And I disagree about the comedy in watching another set of fragile humans, those unattractive, untalented reality show contestants we seem to take pleasure in mocking. (Last night, after my husband and son and I watched some of the American Idol auditions, albeit laughing at some of the funnier scenes, I said, "But didn't our parents teach us not to make fun of vulnerable people?" "Yeah, you're right," said my son, "let's just change it.")

But give me a big bowl of Dorito Golds, a lap quilt, and a couple of hours of free or sick time, and I'll gladly give you my undivided attention, you producers of Divine Design, National Pie Festival, reruns of Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City, and modern-day laugh-ups like The Office and Studio 60. Order up the BLTs, honey. I've got a lot of catching up to do!

(My daughter and her friends catch a laugh!)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Though I walk in the valley of the shadows of croup

Croup, croup. Still sick but back at work. Unsteadied by my adverse reaction to the Nyquil, which apparently conflicted with my thyroid medication and put me in a dizzying tailspin (note from my doctor: Must Read Fine Print!). It’s like the time I was on morphine after surgery except without the fantastical dreams.

Croup, croup. I threw away the Nyquil and at night my husband made me big mugs of brandy with sugar and hot water. (Last time I was sick he washed my hair while I soaked in a hot tub.) Last night he kept checking on me to drink down the brandy potion, which I did, in bed, while watching the Golden Globes. Someone else probably knows what Angelina Jolie has tatooed on her back, but I don’t. Also, I’m glad to see Forest Whitaker win, and glad to know I’m not the only one with a droopy eye.

Croup, croup. It was –11 degrees here this morning but we have our first real snow so everything seems crisp and clean; everything seems blue and white and cream here from my view on top of the city. I bought Halls Menthol-Lyptus Vapor-Action cough drops, in its Scandinavian-tinted blue bag, just to match the mood.

I read this poem this weekend and was startled by the truth of it. That, or the earlier Nyquil made me extra receptive.

Explaining a Husband

They say two people aren’t always two people.
That’s what I’ve heard. Sometimes, two people,
They’re the same person in two places.
And it’s not that they have to love each other or hate each other.

They still have to be together.
If not, they spend their whole lives, every day,
Looking around at everybody they pass,
On the chance that one person might look back
And hope that in the flicker of that moment
They’ll both know it’s them.

We’re like that, I think, he and I, that husband of mine.
We’re like that now, even if we didn’t start that way.
We used to love each other.
But now it’s something else, something more.
We know each other’s life. And when we talk,
We are each other’s story.

by Alberto Rios, from his new book The Theater of Night (© 2006, Copper Canyon Press)

Friday, January 12, 2007

And then she knew it was okay to let go

I think I have turned the corner. On being sick. Not that I mean, exactly, that I'm getting better. I am, getting better, but that's not what I mean. I mean I think I have finally turned the corner on "being sick." If you don't know me, and even if you do, you might not know I get weird when I get sick. The harder I try not to, the worse I get, like the Melvin Udall character Nicholson played in "As Good As It Gets."

Okay, here's the deal. I pride myself on being sturdy and strong. An Ernest Borgnine-approach to solid and robust living. My dad has it. I have it. My dad gets weird when he's sick, too.

I have a really bad cold with a hacking cough, dizzy head, achy and fatigued body. Like Meg Ryan in "You've Got Mail," where she comes to the door in her trenchcoat over pajamas and Tom Hanks brings her daisies. Like that. Only my sick routine started as it always does. I fool myself. Thursday morning I was losing my voice and the cold had worked its way into my chest. I called in to work and told them I would work from home. "Call me if you need me. I'll have my cell on all day and will be checking e-mail." I had some manuscript home and spread it all out in my pretty, light-filled dining room. It seemed it was almost a treat to be sick. (This is the fooling myself part.) I started working through the manuscript but the words got pretty fuzzy and I couldn't make any decisions without consulting the dictionary or Chicago Manual of Style or even Wikipedia, and if I was freelancing I would have been making $3.25/hour at best: What is the usage, plural or singular, for asparagus? Is Lake Vermilion one or two "ells"? I gave up when I couldn't decide on hyphens and commas for "old-fashioned, bricks-and-mortar business," and got up from the table. Cooking. I need to cook something good and hearty, something with the restorative powers of chicken soup.

I was more successful at this task but, of course, I'm still missing the point. There is no need to be productive. I'm sick. I don't know. I worry that if I give in, it might spiral into something else. Something worse. I jump ahead too much. I push recovery before I even have a chance to get sick. I also push reconciliation before a fight really unfolds. I'm terrible at transitions. Having a cold is like a transition. You're feeling fine and suddenly there is "something" there in your nose or your throat. And it could go away tomorrow or it could develop into the full-blown flu. I can't stand waiting to find out.

I knew I had some turkey thighs in the fridge (really, you should buy these. They're cheap and full of meat for things like turkey curry and turkey pot pie). And onions. And some old bread from Great Harvest. I found the perfect recipe--an old Colonial turkey recipe from and I worked at that pot of Stewed Turkey with Herbs and Onions for the rest of the morning ( It was restorative and tasty and a big hit with the hubby but by the time he got home I was hacking and clutching my mangy cardigan like an old Baltimore widow who spends her miserable days with her cats and her cigarettes and her overworked Reader's Digest crossword puzzles.

Yet, still, I forged ahead.

My son said he was bored and I told him I was bored so we agreed we should venture out to the local Barnes and Noble so he could use his Christmas gift card. I could browse through magazines and we could be back within the hour. I decided to go with my black leggings and mangy cardigan and barrette-clipped hair. It didn't matter. I was sick, after all. He grabbed another sequel of WarCraft and I grabbed a copy of SELF (Lose 8 Pounds in 30 Days!) and we put our chairs in front of the picture windows and our feet on the ledge, and again I thought being sick wasn't really so bad. So what if I got a little behind on my deadlines? And then one of the pretty girls from my son's class walked by and did a double-take at Tim, then at me, and then waved to us both, and my son just looked at me and shook his head and closed his book and said it was time to go.

I dropped him off at hockey practice and decided to make one last stop. I thought it might be a good time to finally read Susan Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor." I had, in fact, just recently finished "On Photography," and why not read her treatise on sickness when I was myself feeling under the weather? (Yeah, I know, I'm just shaking my stuffy head here writing this.) I climbed the steps to the Hillcrest Library and got seriously winded. The temperatures have dropped quite a bit here in Minnesota, and now my chest was so tight I could hardly breathe. I found the Sontag book near Andrew Weil's "8 Weeks to Optimum Health," and also "Surviving Anxiety Disorder," and "When Women Do Too Much."

And then inside the library's reading circle with its low cushions and colorful mobiles I saw this very loving mother tug down a red handknit cap over her four-year-old son's head; and then tenderly, tenderly, she straightened his little horn-rimmed glasses for him, and I almost cried a bit. I left the Health and Wellness aisle and went over to Fiction. I found Curtis Sittenfeld's "The Man of My Dreams," and Jennifer Weiner's "The Guy Not Taken," and Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," and as I checked them out I imagined my sorry little self being cheered on by an Oprah crowd.

I haven't left my living room all day today. I haven't checked e-mail. I haven't cleaned the counters or written a list of New Year's resolutions. I'm almost done with the first breezy novel. I haven't been snarky about my cardigan or my two-day-old sick hair, and I've called out to various family members for tea, take-out chicken noodle soup, and hot buttered popcorn. The personal IS political. I am woman. Hear me cough.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Boy Talk

Moments in the life of my twelve-year-old son. . . .

After the results of PeeWee hockey tryouts were posted online:

Me: “I wonder who made the B teams? And the C team?”
Him: “Mom, I gotta tell you, you don’t ‘make’ the C team.”


Me: “Hey, you should take a shower. And wash your hair with shampoo.” Then, upon closer inspection, acting like the momma orangutan we all mimic at some point in our parenting lives: “And you should clean your ears. And brush your teeth, too.”

Him: “Mom, I’m going to build a little nest on my shoulder here, right here [he points], so you can sit in it and peck, peck, peck at me all day long.”


Me, just after Christmas: “Hey, do you want to go for a walk with me?”

Him, playing video games in his room: “Naw, I think I’m going to take some time to reflect on all the giving and getting of Christmas.”

Me, feeling awed by his sensitivity, then suspicious: “You just said that so you can stay back and play video games, right?”

Him: “Yeah, pretty much.”


Me, after his first junior high dance: “How was the dance?”

Him: “Good. I don’t want to talk about it.”

Him, about ten minutes after his sister comes home from college: “Megan, I went to our dance and I danced with five girls. All slow dances.”


Him, in the kitchen with his sister: “You’ve been away so you probably don’t know I can make my own macaroni and cheese.”

Him, walking away with plate of uber-orange pasta: “And my own scrambled eggs. And I make toast. And cereal.”

Him, now calling out from the living room: “And grilled cheese. You probably didn’t know that.”


Me, maddened by the rough hands of the returned college kid, after the fifth time our old toilet handle falls off: “I'm off to work. Make a sign, will you, and tell your sister to take it easy on our toilet handle. It keeps flying off after she whacks on it. This thing runs all day when she does that.”

Him, rightly suspecting that it’s not about the toilet at all but about the 2 a.m. late nights and new conflicts in the house, writing on a little sheet of paper now taped above the commode:

“Please flush gently.”

How Do You Sleep?

My bedroom is freezing. It is truly a good 15 degrees colder there than in other parts of our old house. Five bedroom windows are glorious in spring and summer and fall but they leak and whistle air in the winter like a poorly made igloo.

This is how I sleep. Except I’m not hugging Ono; I’m wrapped in five layers of quilts. And I’m not naked. I’m the opposite of naked. I wear

REI wool crew socks
Cuddle Duds top and bottoms
flannel buttoned shirt
black leggings

I’m so stiff from holding that fetal position all night long that I feel like the Tin Man, post-rain.

As they say in trailer town, “I got to get me a space heater.”

Monday, January 08, 2007

Celebrating this Dormant Season

In January, wine lovers celebrate the feast day of St. Vincent, patron saint of wine growers. It is a chance to salute the “dormant season of the vines.” It’s no coincidence that St. Vincent’s Day is officially January 22, historically the coldest day of the year in the United States. Why not celebrate our own dormant season with the gift of wine?

January, February, and March compose the heart of our Minnesota winters. It’s not a bad time to stay in our dens and reflect on our souls—individually or collectively. Why just this past weekend I was blessed with the gift of drink. A long post-holiday work week ended with an impromptu gathering at the home of some friends. Children played knee hockey in the basement and we stood around the kitchen island, drinking inexpensive Red Truck® wine and eating venison sausage. It was a perfect ending to a long week. I agree with many who say that Americans worry too much about buying the perfect wine. Just have some decent bottles in the house and bring them out for friends whenever you can.

Then Saturday I got awful nostalgic as I put away the tree and the ornaments and the mantel decorations. I thought about how much I missed my snowbird parents and how fast my kids were growing. I had no plans for the evening and felt myself getting blue and forlorn. And then I remembered one of my Christmas gifts, a 2004 Catena Malbec. Each year I exchange wine with my good friend. Our limit is $25 and often I save her delicious bottles for special occasions. But both she and I agree that a special occasion can be anytime when a good bottle will make things better. I sipped a couple of glasses of this Argentine wine alone by the window and watched the stars come out for the night.

Books and wine have a long history. Some say most great authors are also great drinkers. There’s a new book out by Mark Bailey and illustrator Edward Hemingway, grandson of the infamous drinker Ernest Hemingway: Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers (Algonquin Books, 2006). In it they describe the drinking rituals and favorite libations of some of our most beloved authors. For instance, one of Ernest Hemingway’s most favorite drinks was the mojito, not surprising given his love of all things Cuban. And Carson McCullers’ favorite drink while writing was a mixture of hot tea and sherry that she kept in a thermos, drank all through her writing day, and called her “sonnie boy.” At Yaddo, the famous writers' colony, she began with a beer at the typewriter just after breakfast, then moved on to her "sonnie boy," and finished with cocktails in the evening.

I once waited anxiously for an ocean liner to deliver bound books from Hong Kong. Jan Karon, author of the well-known Mitford series, was the author of those books and her tour was soon to begin and the books were late. Headlines of a freighter going under made the evening news: a vessel coming across the Pacific had sunk. Its cargo: books and wine. What a relief it wasn’t my vessel and those weren’t our books. But what a sunken treasure, a pairing that might beat all those of Noah's choosing: books and wine, books and wine!

I had my first real drink at Whitey’s Bar, the famous old speakeasy next to the Red River in East Grand Forks—an after-dinner shot of Drambuie. Of course I was underage but the esteemed father of my boyfriend at the time bought it for us so I felt safe. And very grown up. I tried my first martini before a Shakespeare class taught by the inimitable Dr. Nichols at Winona State. Unwittingly, I drank three of those gin martinis before wobbling on my bike to that night class up in Minne Hall. My first really good bottle of wine was a wedding gift from one of my first bosses at West Publishing Company. It was a Chateauneuf-du-Pape and instead of saving it dutifully while it aged further, we drank it on the second night of our honeymoon. I remember clearly the way that secret elixer made me want to dance naked with the gods. Really. (I settled for dancing naked with the groom!)

I learned to drink huge quantities of Scotch on ice with the biblical and theological scholars from Harvard and Yale and Princeton at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meetings when I was with Fortress Press. That's definitely where I learned to get drunk standing up.

And, of course, I’ve ended many a long day of word-wrangling with a good drink at some of my local favorites: W. A Frost’s, Moscow on the Hill, The Happy Gnome, even Groveland Tap. Recently, I treated myself to a little birthday lunch at Frost’s and the very handsome waiter brought me a glass on the house: a 2004 Gruner Veltliner Hopler. For those of you in St. Paul, you can find it at Thomas Liquors. Another good white wine is the unoaked Lanoble from France. They carry cases of it at Solo Vino on Selby. It will taste even better if you buy it as a treat for yourself on these cold, dark days.

Publishers Weekly reports that there is a new book forthcoming called Crush: A Clerk’s Tale. It will combine memoir and reporting to tell the story of American wine from the colonial era to today. The author, New Yorker staffer Field Maloney, plans to immerse himself in all aspects of wine culture, from working in a Napa winery to drinking with the wine buyer at the Olive Garden. Now here's a prime example of why we should all take the George Plimpton/immerse yourself-approach to publishing. "Sorry, I can't come in today. I'm nursing a headache from all that research I've been doing."

So back to that celebration of St. Vincent. Here’s advice--from an average reader at Amazon. com--for a grand night of the soul: “Really what more can be said [about Garrison Keillor’s book, Good Poems]? I am a blue-collar poem reader. I don’t want to understand the free form or debate why the writer used a certain word over another. I like poems that take me away to a familiar memory or experience and most of these poems do just that. This is a book best experienced by candlelight with a special someone and/or a great bottle of wine.” Well said! Here’s to St. Vincent! Here's to this dark and dormant season!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Behind the Scenes

You know that phrase, "you can't judge a book by its cover"? That teacherly motto that reminds us not to jump to conclusions, that there is more to reality than our first impressions? I never trusted that motto. (I'm not a fan of "you have nothing to fear but fear itself" either, but that's a story for later.) I believe you can judge a book by its cover and that you can also get a true take on a person even on your first meeting.

Case in point:

I worked nearby two very strange people at West Publishing who later were found to be criminally insane--or insanely criminal. It was clear to me the moment I met them.

A privately owned, multimillion dollar company is an odd duck these days, both by its often idiosyncratic business practices and also because it is surrounded by the more slick, publicly held corporations more common in American business. I remember West Publishing never gave out revenue statistics to the local business media but it did give out to staff free boxed turkeys on Thanksgiving, free pastries early mornings, and free fruit and milk on all lunch shifts. It gave free memberships for the St. Paul Athletic Club and free car washes after every noontime excursion for all its executives. As the era of computerization and digital content drove West to become ever more protective of its legal competitiveness, it became more and more secretive and we often wondered what went on behind the scenes.

One day we were shocked to see our company cashier, Elroy Stock, escorted out of the building by the FBI. Elroy was one of those joyless bureaucrats, a little like Dwight Schroot from the sitcom The Office. He wore ironed, but worn, white shirts, drab polyester suitcoat and slacks, and had slicked-back hair like Dennis the Menace's dad. He always hung his coat on a hangar so he could work the cashier counter in rolled-up shirtsleeves.

When Elroy was escorted out of the building the day he was arrested rumor had it that they had closed off access to all the elevators surrounding his floor. Then the stories spread quickly. Elroy had been arrested. They thought Elroy might fight back. Someone heard Elroy shouting from the hallways.

All I really knew about Elroy was this: he had a disdain for most people who interrupted his time at the cashier window, and was especially rude to the female clerks who came up to cash their personal checks. Someone in my department wondered if any of us could make Elroy smile and said he'd put up money for anyone who was willing to try. A few of us took up the bet and we'd work Elroy through the opening of that plastic cashier window. I think I got a smirk out of Elroy but I wasn't sure, it was a little like that ambiguous Mona Lisa smile.

Anyway, we were sure Elroy had been taken away for embezzling. His cheap polyester suits were the dead giveaway for a company crook who wanted more of the good life.

But the next day we heard about all the hateful things Elroy had been doing behind that cashier's facade and from his lowly Woodbury apartment: he'd been sending mounds of racist hate letters to people all over the Midwest, mostly targeting interracial couples and their children. From City Pages, "Stock dedicated his free time to his belief story, often rising in the early morning to send out a stack of mail. . . . 'The colored men thought they had the right to date white girls. I saw that as wrong. And when I saw those girls getting pregnant, that's when my new mission started. I had plenty of work to do,' he says. 'I would fill grocery sacks with mail. I just kept working and working.' He is not sure how many letters he has sent, or to how many people--hundreds of thousands at least, he guesses, maybe a half-million. He did little else. 'I've lived a frugal life,' he boasts. 'Never taken a trip since World War II. I never married, so I never had anybody pushing me around.'


Another unforgettable employee at West was Susan Berkovitz, the woman recently sentenced to life for murdering Shelley Joseph-Kordell, estate counsel for Berkovitz's parents, at the Hennepin County Government building in 2003.

Some of you may have seen Susan over the years. She was a familiar sight in the Hamline-St. Clair neighborhood and you couldn't miss her disheveled appearance: dressed in black and pink, tangled hair, heavy eye make-up, red lips, always talking to herself, her appearance and disturbing character deteriorating year by year. At West, she seemed to try hard to be an "office girl." She teased her jet-black hair high over her part, wore heels, and applied lipstick in front of the bathroom mirror after breaks. But her make-up was so heavy and so off-kilter that some women used to say that Susan drew all her make-up onto a big mirror and then stamped that painted face onto hers, except that some days she missed so it looked like those out-0f-register cartoons when all the color is off-center. She knew we talked about her and I could feel the heat in her rising and rising. I could feel her anger and I didn't even know her. A particularly polished and snooty College Division editor was in the bathroom with Susan and called out the catty nickname she and her friends had given Susan: Morticia. When that woman left the bathroom Morticia--Susan--ran out after her yelling, "That bitch didn't wash her hands. Look at her, she didn't even wash her hands."

A few years ago I ran into Susan at the Dorothy Day Center where I was helping to serve the free nightly dinner. She was alone, wearing black pants and black Keds and a bright pink windbreaker, talking to herself, alone at a table surrounded by rough and hungry homeless men, eating scalloped potatoes and canned ham. I felt bad for her. She recognized me and I hoped she didn't think I was one of the mean office girls from those West days. How naive of me to think she still had an opinion of me, considering her situation and all that anger that filled her mind at the time. It was only a month later that she walked into the Hennepin County building and shot Joseph-Kordell (who happened also to be her cousin) in the face three times with a handgun she had purchased at a gun show that summer.