Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Going my way?

I’ll be gone to a conference in Atlanta for a week so won’t be posting much. But when I do, I’ll tell you about some of my memorable business trips. I’ve sat next to a neurotic flight-phobic who turned out to be one of my own authors. I’ve discussed lacrosse and bull fighting, of all things, with Frederick Bush, III, on a long flight home. I’ve learned about lesbian Episcopalian preachers from essayist Doris Grumbach. I’ve even sat through a four-hour flight squeezed next to poet David Mura without ever uttering one single syllable.

But the story I’ll share with you now is of one of the first business trips I took for West Publishing. I was meeting a professor from Yale at the home office of a book packager in North Scituate, a small seacoast village on the Cape between Boston and Plymouth. Very New Englandy.

I had a week’s vacation planned with my family at Big Wolf Lake near Bemidji right before I was due to fly out to Boston. I had been working twelve- and thirteen-hour days for weeks back at the office and wasn’t about to cut my vacation short for this book meeting, so I decided to fly directly out of Bemidji International.

West was a small player in the college textbook world but we were having some success wooing big-name authors over to our imprint, and one of the ways we courted them was by setting up big meetings where we showcased our editorial and design, and marketing and sales plans for their books. I normally would have flown in with an acquisitions editor but they were letting me take this one alone.

The book packager, a fairly hard-hitting production coordinator who had put in her time at Prentice-Hall, saw that my flight into Boston was right at the peak of the city’s rush hour. She said, “Who booked your flight? Have they never seen Boston at 5 pm?” She told me to take the Cape bus down to Scituate and then a cab right to my seaside hotel. She’d come over to get me later for dinner. Sounded good.

We had played hard at the lake: lots of skiing and fishing and late-night beach drinking. I waited until the very last minute and then we jumped in the truck and sped across Highway 2 to the airport. I had my hair in pigtails, my old fish gut-encrusted wash pants, my tan Converse sneakers, and an old Camel cigarette baseball tee (this was before we all agreed cigarettes were really bad for you). I got to the gate just in time and walked out on the runway before they pulled up the door.

You should know I was pretty green in those days. Green as in green-around-the-gills green. Earlier I had given a presentation to some staffers about fine art we could use on our textbook covers. I had successfully art-directed a kickin’ Introduction to Statistics cover using Rembrandt sketches—drawings of children at play, women gossiping, beggars and quacks. So in my presentation I gave the group lots of possibilities—all good—except I pronounced Pissaro as “piss-a-row” and couldn’t get a straight face from the group thereafter.

So I’m in my window seat heading to Minneapolis where I would transfer from this small twin-prop to a large Northwest Airlines jet. I had a checklist, as I always do when I travel, of all my needs. Navy skirt suit. Check. Taupe stockings. Check. Pearl bracelet. Check. The eighties were a time when business seemed more formal. It was before cell phones. (It was also before 9/11 when people could wait for passengers right at the gate. . . .) I had my design portfolio in the overhead bins above me. I had my art inventories and schedules in my briefcase beside me. I was set.

When we got to the Minneapolis airport there was a mechanic’s union slowdown. Think Jet Blue, only not so long. We sat on the tarmac for four hours. Finally, they let us off and I was up in the air again. I never even thought about my connecting bus plans. I had a book; I had ordered a drink, and I was set.

When I got off the plane at Logan I definitely felt out of place, and out of sorts. When did my bus leave? What time was it anyway? Why are all these people talking and walking so fast, so different from the lakers up in Bemidji? And then I saw this sharply dressed woman, with a dark suit and serious pumps and she was holding up a sign with my name on it. I realized it was after 9 p.m. and she must have decided to pick me up after all since rush hour was clearly over.

Oh my god, I could have died. Really. I didn’t think I had the chutzpah to pull off this first encounter so I walked right by her. She wouldn’t have known me from boo. I mean she didn’t even turn her head when I walked by. But right before the escalator down to baggage claim, I realized I shouldn’t leave her. I walked back against traffic and set down my brief and backpack, put out my hand, and introduced myself to the Hillary Clinton-lookalike (though this one had dark, dyed hair). That once-over was the longest I’ve ever endured, from either a man or a woman.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Little gestures

I have thought much lately of our little gestures.


a boy in line hops on one foot, then the other, spins to touch his mother's cheek, and spins again to touch her other;

a man jitters his heel up and down while he waits for the receptionist to call his name;

a woman hugs her knees tightly and watches from the window seat.


a boy rushes to the window and yanks back the drapes;

a man reaches for his cellphone and checks the front display;

a woman leans her back and one bare foot against the door and listens.


a boy skips along the sidewalk, pausing to take imaginary swings and make-believe major league wind-ups;

a man lets his head fall back against the chair and brings his fists up to his chest;

a woman touches her hands to her chest and neck, then stretches them up towards the sky.

I finally have decent news from my doctor and a plan for getting back in balance (gesture: swipe hand over forehead and let out strong whistling noise). Some changes to fix a blood deficiency, some therapy to regain some movement and feeling. I aim to reintroduce feelings in my hands and feet with a collection--a menagerie--of things. Like Amelie, I will partake in life's little pleasures--my hand in a sack of lentils, my feet up against a feather, or a light scrape of a stone or glass shard. When my children were babies, I would set them in the kitchen in their car seats and tuck little teasers under their noses and on their tongues and into their curled fingers--a dish of crushed ginger, a spoon of tart lemon juice, a bowl of prickly pine cones. I know how these things are done.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Gopher Way

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t believe we need to know what below zero feels like.
Or why we die: that, too, I don’t think we need to know.
Why life is hard? I think not.

It’s hot inside, it’s cold out:
that’s already a lot to know. That love comes and goes,
that we grow old slowly and then suddenly not.

It helps to know that snow is a god fallen to earth.
Sometimes it helps to let in the world a bit:
some wind, a few flakes, the sound of ice cracking.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Excerpt from “I Don’t Think We Need to Know,” by Jim Moore, from Lightning at Dinner (Graywolf Press, 2005)

Here in this charming town along the Mississippi, we wait for snow. They say up to a foot or more. I tell our suite receptionist that my husband and I have a date tonight. She exclaimed, “Don’t you watch the news? Don’t you know what’s coming?” So, we’ll walk to get out if we need to. Or stay home, where it’s hot inside.

Already, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport reports flight delays:
· 10:41 pm
· Due to WEATHER/WIND, departure traffic destined to Newark International Airport, Newark, NJ (EWR) is currently experiencing delays averaging 50 minutes.
· Due to WEATHER/WIND, departure traffic destined to La Guardia Airport, New York, NY (LGA) is currently experiencing delays averaging 30 minutes.
My local pizzeria, Grandpa Tony’s, is gearing up for a hectic weekend of orders from hungry homeowners too weary to brave the snow-packed streets.

Stranger Dos and Don’ts

Those coeds over at the University of Minnesota have nothing to worry about, eh? They have The Gopher Way, a series of skyway links and underground tunnels that link the colossal campus. According to Wikipedia (I’ve never walked The Way myself), it is entirely possible for one to park, attend classes, eat lunch, and drive home without stepping foot outdoors. A parent newsletter (yes, the university now has an official Parent Program to handle all the new helicopter-type parents) recently encouraged the use of The Gopher Way:
“On a cold and dreary day with unfriendly windchill factors, more students are exploring the Gopher Way. . . . Please tell your students that if they get lost, they can ask other walkers for directions. You meet the nicest people in the Gopher Way. You also discover new places to study, snack machines you were unaware of, offices you've heard about but never visited, and even the president's parking space.”

In another communication, the university reports a different kind of campus encounter. A lot of robberies have occurred in the neighborhoods surrounding campus. Here’s one report, from the Minnesota Daily:

“At about 1 a.m. Tuesday, an unknown man attempted to rob a University student in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. . . . Political science junior John Sandberg said while walking to a friend's house, he fell into a conversation with a man urinating on a tree. . . .”

Oy! The student was later manhandled and robbed.

So here’s my advice. Stock up on the hot stuff at home, metaphorically or otherwise, get out and walk The Way--talk to strangers, even some flakes--but don’t go near that yellow snow.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Some of *Their* Favorite Things**

As the star of The Bachelor, Bob Guiney has taken his dates to such hot spots as San Francisco and Las Vegas. But Bob's favorite place to be is in Northern Michigan at his family's cabin. "I think it's a very romantic place. When I brought the women from The Bachelor here, it gave a chance for us to have great conversation. I definitely started to really factor in how I felt they would fit into my life."

Key rings, adored by Jenna Elfman: "I have been collecting key chains from all over the world and they just make me smile."

Celebrity Book Favorites:

Lucy Liu, actor, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Luciano Pavarotti, opera legend, The Bible
The Rock, professional wrestler, The Life and Times of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Kevin Spacey, actor, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Vince Vaughn's favorite professional sports team: the Chicago Blackhawks

For Academy Award®-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr., the best place to be is naked at his absolute favorite spa--the Grand Wailea Resort in Maui, where he loves to sit under waterfalls. The water—thick, almost like a fireman's hose—comes down on your head and it relaxes your shoulders. It hits you on your head and the back of your neck, and literally, the water takes the tension away from your body."

And, Joe Mauer’s favorite restaurants:
Mancini’s for steak,
Cossetta’s for pizza, and
Davanni’s for hoagies.

**Picks and pics from Oprah.com, bhg.com, gifts.com, yahoo.com,
St. Paul Illustrated, and the Joe Mauer Fan Club

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A few more of my favorite things

My favorite room of the house--looking unusually pristine here

Backyard statuary--this one, Our Lady of Snow

Neighborhood homes, with a touch of personality

Long walks outside of the city

Great questions like these from my son:

"What do you think would hurt worse: A slapshot to the jaw by Brian Rolston? A drive to the forehead by Tiger Woods? Or a pitch to the knee by Randy Johnson?"

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Book Props or Happy Birthday, Mr. Auden

On a book list-serv this query went out: "We've just received a request for permission from a Hollywood production company for one of our books to play a bit part in an upcoming movie, and it's a really small part--just sitting on a college professor's desk. It's not referred to in dialogue or otherwise focused on; it's just a background prop, like a lamp or a chair or a painting on the wall. This is a new one on me, so I thought I'd see if any of you has experience in this area." (Here "Franseca's Kitchen" is selling bookends, not books.)

Books as props. When I first took my job at West Publishing they told me about the much larger law book division. "Do you know of it?' they asked me? No, I couldn't say I did. "Yes, you do, you just don't realize it. Remember Perry Mason? Those gold-and-red books he always sat in front of? Those are our books. We send them out all the time." They told me about the production company that once sent back a certain load of law books because they clashed with Paul Newman's eyes.

An editor at a company that publishes books on psychiatry said they've had their books shown on "The Sixth Sense" and "ER." Another press said a few of their books were slated to be used by Ben Stiller on "The Night Museum," but then the character ended up using a computer, not books, for his research.

I'd love to have the job assisting the set designer and be assigned the task of finding books as props. When I was managing editor of a theological publisher a production company called about books they might use for a new movie, "The Seven Deadly Sins." I sent them these.

What joy to see this posted on Steve Martin's website, highlighting the use of our beloved "Chicago Manual of Style" in "Roxanne":
Los Angeles Times
June 28, 1987, Sunday, Home Edition
. . .
" 'Roxanne's' surroundings go a long way toward creating the idea that bright is beautiful. This British Columbia town of Nelson, standing in for an Aspen like ski town in July, has been lit and decorated so that it glows with homeyness and reassurance. It has white frame houses, convivial front porches, a sense of almost enchanted timelessness and warmth. C.D.'s house is a magpie's nest of interests, crammed with books on every subject from seashells to carpentry, with the Chagall print that he will write about so seductively over his fireplace and the Chicago Manual of Style on top of his desk."

Here's a short clip from a former bookshop employee about a wonderful book cameo in "Party Girl" with Parker Posy:

"And as someone who worked at the Strand Book Store for 6 years, I really
enjoyed the nightmare scene where thousands of books came tumbling down
the stairs on her. You could see the little red Strand price stickers
inside the covers as the books tumbled down."

Finally, Reuters News Service ran a review of "The Squid and the Whale" that said, "Director Noah Baumbach dressed actor Jeff Daniels in his father's clothes and used his father's books as props in "The Squid and the Whale," but he insists his movie about a family broken by divorce is fiction."

Now, the Happy Booker (http://thehappybooker.blogs.com/) ran a great piece on the insidious use of books as props by fashionistas and interior designers. The new trend: not books as wonderful leather-bound, limited-edition classics. Not a carefully selected array of color-coordinated spines revealing "Moby-Dick" or "Leaves of Grass" for the well-appointed den. Nope. These days interior designers need not bother with that editing. They are going spine-in. Check it out. The Happy Booker says, "Once Mitchell and Gold start turning their books backwards on the shelves, its only a matter of time before you'll see backward facing books on display at Target. Mark our words."

Which brings me, thankfully, to the wonderful world of Auden. He was born on February 21, 1907. His poem, "Funeral Blues," was read by John Hannah at the most solemn moment in the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Auden's literary executor, Edward Mendelson, said that after the movie came out he got "phone calls three times a day asking, 'Where can I buy that poem?' " So Vintage Books and Mendelson put together a book of 10 poems-- "Tell Me the Truth About Love," a small book, of W. H. Auden poems, with a sticker on it proudly announcing, "Includes the poem featured in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.' "

I think there is no accident in the star power of a poet like Auden, smash-hit movie or not. His books aren't props but words to live by.

Sing Song

["Fly East," mixed media by Amy Rice]

Did you wake to birdsong this morning? I had two bright red cardinals serenade me from the telephone lines by my window. It felt like spring today.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Waiting in a halo of light

My friend Julie sent a Quaker blessing my way: "I am holding you in the light." I've been quite intentional about that blessing all weekend long.

This morning my son and I have a holiday together, what with President's Day. We both woke early to read in the morning light. He's reading Will Weaver's Billy Baggs series and "Striking Out" for the third time; I'm pecking away at "Walden." I drink chai: Assam Satrupa, with a few dollops of sweetened condensed milk stirred with Tea Source chai spice (www.teasource.com). It's a little like drinking pumpkin pie. My son drinks Swiss Miss hot chocolate with dollops of half and half and extra Hershey's syrup.

To my delight, this morning's passages of Thoreau, read such:

"I used to wonder at the halo of light around my shadow, and would fain fancy myself one of the elect. Benvenuto Cellini tells us in his memoirs . . . that a resplendent light appeared over the shadow of his head at morning and evening and it was particularly conspicuous when the grass was moist with dew. . . . This was probably the same phenomenon to which I have referred, which is especially observed in the morning, but also at other times, and even by moonlight."

You may recall that I dislike greatly being sick--and also waiting. (I would link you here but for some reason my Mac at home won't take my commands. See my January post, "And then she knew it was okay to let go.") I dislike greatly the transition from health to illness and back again. It is purgatory for me. So here I am, waiting for a phone call and lab results. I am thinking lately of Minnesota writer Jon Hassler, finally following that undeniable impulse to write. He waited until he was in his forties, too, before he began to take his writing practice seriously. A Bush Fellowship gave him the freedom to move from the grind of his earlier teaching practice, and then to publish many short stories in prominent magazines and be invited to teach at his beloved St. John's. I met him again last year at a movie premiere and there it was--a grace of light upon those who bent to greet him and about his frail self.

So we went about the weekend with as much grace as we could muster. Baking many things. Taking walks together in the dim afternoon light of Sunday. Purchasing small bits--a cookie at PJ Murphy's bakery for the son, a red pak of wood-tippers to smoke on the porch at dusk (for the husband), a package of rapid-rise yeast for the no-knead bread I am finally trying out, the one Mark Bittman of the Times displayed a few months ago and that has all my bread-baking friends a-flutter.

I had so many pictures to share with you and was pleased to find even a beautiful Nordic display of lights that called out a Happy Chinese New Year to all, but then I become grace-less again for just a second this morning, just an ill-timed second as I stepped back to shoot a picture of the lucious Nigella-inspired apple and plum tart I was crafting. My hands did one of THOSE things and I flipped the camera--like a drunken groomsman out on a deck with orders to shoot the lovely couple--and now I can't get the effing thing to turn back on. Grace, grace, light, light, don't fail me now. I promise to extract those pretty photos for you soon. Now I just need to compose myself a bit.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Spot My Mind

Is it just me or are hospital staff looking a lot rougher these days? The big guys walking around in their scrubs today had deep black and scarlet neck tattoos, like they should have been bouncing at the Cabooze rather than escorting frail people down corridors. Then again, why not lean on the rocks of some biker dude when you're feeling down and out?

I filled out another set of forms and had to go through the metal detector checklist for MRIs. "Please answer yes or no to the following":

knee replacement
hip replacement
heart pacemaker
insulin pump
penile implant

Tee-hee. Except there was a Somali family with a translator and a Hmong family with another translator beside me and I bet no one was tee-heeing when they got to decoding that line.

At the beginning, they set my head between some soft clamps, slid a cage over my face and neck, stuffed my ears with silicone, and pulled me into this NASA-quality tunnel by conveyor belt. I thought about that love-hungry astronaut and decided I would never be able to pee in my own diapers. Then I thought about that writer, the genius savant profiled in the NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/15/garden/15savant.html?_r=1&oref=slogin) who controlled the debilitating effects of his outside world by reciting the number pi to 22,514 digits. He actually envisioned himself inside the world of pi. I tried adding numbers by two but I only got to twelve.

This deafening test took 45 minutes. The technician told me to keep my eyes closed. I asked if I could sing; he said only if I didn't move my mouth. The opposite of lip-synching, I guess. The beat of the imaging machine was like rap, then industrial, punk, then new wave, always missing a beat it seemed. It was John Cage-electric, then something like Devo* (crack that whip!) and I had so much trouble keeping up. I just breathed deeply and scrolled through a bunch of my 30-second memories. I wondered if they could see funny little images rolling by on their monitor (like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Dorothy's dreams of the witch biking through the storm). There goes my bus trip to San Diego; there's me praying before bed; here's another when I got sick on calamari in front of a whole group of people I wanted to impress, a little like George W.

I felt a kinship with Hannibal Lector, all bound up like that, and when they finally pulled me out, congratulating me on what a nice job I had done, I stood up and asked, "Anybody got a nice chianti?"

Let's keep walking ahead each day

We are lucky, I tell my son. He tells me about his new friends who have a giant house on Edgcumbe Road and plans to vacation abroad at Easter. I tell him we live better than two-thirds of the people in this world. We are lucky, I tell him.

He tells me about the kid in his class who has Asperger's and is allowed to sit in the middle of the floor and spin. I ask him if he ever thinks about his own remarkable body, how he doesn't have to suffer through his body like that. He says yes, you're right, we are lucky that way.

I worry about him, though. It seems he is made up like me; I see his dark and light sides and I see myself. I worry about us, of the things we carry inside. We come from mixed stock. My dad, the scientist, is hard-wired like a cattle pen, taut and braided strong with barbs positioned at every curve. If you come at him too hard he pushes back, and bites you in the butt to boot. My mom is the painter. She is the sprite and her inner make-up is intricately balanced, like all those criss-crossed wires of the aerial artist. Sometimes, when life comes at her too hard she teeters, like she's taking her first walk without a net, even after all these years of practice.

I've had to tell my son a few things this week. I heard about a Maplewood preteen who had been approached by a man in a car "with candy." Just when he is finally unafraid of the dark anymore, I had to tell my son of that and the Missouri molester and those abducted boys. I went through our steps again. Yell. Yell loud. Never get close to a car. Run to the first house you see. He reassured me: "And I'll start carrying baseballs so when a bad guy tries that on me I'll pelt him in the forehead first."

I told my son about my tests this week. See, I've got the best and worst of both my parents, and the messy middle ground in between. Sometimes I'm like a bull on a tight wire (a confident bull, but still) and it seems the lines are starting to fray a bit. I've had symptoms. I'm getting them checked out.

Tuesday I went to Neurological Associates for a look-see. A gray-haired woman in knee-high furry boots came in for her appointment and when the receptionist asked her how she was doing, the woman said, "Not too well or I wouldn't be here, would I?"

They wired me up with discs and then sent electricity up my nerves; then they stuck needles into my muscles and measured my reactions. Apparently the gray-haired woman was having the same test in the room next door, and she cried out, "Goddammit. GOD dammit."

Yesterday I had five tubes of blood drawn. My clinic lab tech had to pull out her manual to learn two of the prescribed measures. She said, "We've never had to do these two."

Today I go for a brain MRI. The registrar pre-screening me droned over the phone: Name? Social Security number? Birth date? Insurance? Next of kin? And did I need a sedative? "I don't know," I said, "do I?"

My son listened to all this and said, "You should call them back and say 'you know what? I changed my mind. I'm good to go. I can live with this.' " He laughed awkwardly and then turned to me, "We'll get better, Mom. Anyway, we are a lucky family."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A whole lot of lovin' going on

The way we were

Remember back. I saw your entry in the check register: "Loving Souls." I didn't much trust the institution of marriage then. I saw your bold writing and shook my head. "Why would he pay by check?" I thought. Hmmm. I called the operator and asked for a directory listing. "Loving Souls, yes, here's the number." I had a faint image of a cross-armed angel--not the "Fear Not Angel" but the "Don't Do It Angel," a little like Queen Latifah--shaking her head at me from across the room, saying, "Girl, don't go there. You're not gonna get anywhere thinking this way." Still, I pressed the numbers, and a guy answered.

"Loving Souls."

"Yes, well, who are you? What kind of love are you selling there anyway?" I asked.

"Ma'am, we're a shoe repair shop. We fix shoes. You know, soles and stuff. Loving Soles."

I forgot what a bad speller you are.

Queen Latifah let out a big holler as I set down the receiver quickly, before they could trace my call.

Hey, you, thanks for Valentine's--and all the ways we are.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Memory Map

I’ve used a tool here at work called the Visual Thesaurus, an online and interactive dictionary and thesaurus. The sell copy says, “If you have a meaning in mind, say, ‘happy,’ the VT helps you find related words from 'blissful' to 'bright.' The best part is the VT works like your brain, not a paper-bound book. Word maps blossom with meanings and branch to related words. You'll want to explore just to see what might happen. You'll discover--and learn--naturally and intuitively. You'll find the right word, write more descriptively, free associate--and gain a more precise understanding of the English language.”

Well, it’s sorta cool. I like the assembly-time feel of it, like the electronic shuffling of online poker or the “wait while we search” bullets of Orbitz travel.

But lately, a better word-and-writing map for me is this blogsphere. Here’s why. I remember reading a column by Garrison Keillor and his take on the people locked into their laptops at Nina’s, a local café. Then I saw a Sex and the City rerun where Carie escapes to a coffee shop to escape the claustrophobia of her small apartment with live-in boyfriend. Later, I made a few visits to some of my favorite coffee houses. Stay with me: the word "cafe" mapped, from Keillor column to TV show to more cafe visits (as in that web on Visual Thesaurus. Thinking, thinking all the time.) I almost always write in those places, unless I’m meeting someone. I have this small University of Toronto Press reporter’s notebook and I pull it out and make notes on my day or the people around me. A recent entry reads, “Feb. 2: Grandma Teubert’s birthday. Groundhog did not see his shadow. Spring will come early.”

I decided to write a blog post on the coffee house as refuge. I wrote it at one of those cafes, then posted it. And then I browsed a few other blogs, which I normally do after my own postings, and there it was: a visual map of my mind’s wanderings--on someone else's post (reading, thinking, doing, blogging, reading, thinking, following that yellow brick road). Another blogger had seen Keillor’s column; he’d written a nice entry on the doings of that same coffee shop and what he himself found there. And that made me think about the last time I was at Nina’s with my friend Beth, who had taken me on my first Boundary Waters canoe trip last fall. It had been a glorious week of paddling and camping and friendship. Coincidences and blossoming, indeed.

I have this picture of myself from that trip and I keep it posted on the wall near my desk. I have a canoe on my shoulders and I look strong and happy. It is a nice antidote for the times at work when I feel weak and wimpy and all Emily Dickinson-like.

Today that picture reminded me of another time I had a canoe over my head (oh, that visual mapping again). I was in high school and my girlfriends and I had snuck out of our houses long after midnight to cruise the alleys of that small river town. We were rebels, as rebellious as we could get while still living under the care of our concerned parents. Angie Bowman would tap on my screen window and then I’d pull on my pants, step on the desk, and pop out the screen so I could fall over the first-floor ledge to meet her. We’d work our way down River Drive, tapping and picking up our girlfriends along the way.

One night we were walking in the alley along the Shepard Road dike and an old pick-up truck pulled into the alley behind us, lights bright, pace very slow. “Robideaux!” we yelled. Robideaux was this thick-necked, slow-witted guy who liked to tail high-school girls after school or on Friday nights. He must have been in his twenties; the kind of guy who barely graduates high school and never leaves his podunk hometown. He’d sometimes drive really slow behind me when I walked home from track practice and I could feel his creepy eyes on my back, my swaying hips. I tried to walk like a boy when that happened.

Anyway, we knew it was him that night so we bolted, splitting up every which way. Not a good plan. I was fast and ran hard to the next block. But it was a dead end and I couldn’t find a way further out. I saw an over-turned canoe resting on a homemade rack and I crawled underneath it and hid in the cove between the canoe and the two-by-fours.

I don’t know if Robideaux saw me in his headlights and recognized me from those afternoon walks home but he sped to the end of that alley, too, stopped his truck, and pushed out his door, leaving it open in the dark. I could hear my hushed breathing echo softly in the belly of that aluminum canoe. I could feel my chest rise up and down while he stepped over the lawns, crunching old oak and maple leaves as he went. I could hear his breathing and it was much louder and raspier than mine. When he paused, I would breathe as shallow as I could. A candle wouldn’t even have flickered with that little bit of breath of mine.

Of course, he didn’t find me that night. Otherwise, I’d be a different person today. I’m not sure how to map that memory. It goes from quiet strength to power to fear to quiet strength again, I guess. I can read plenty between my own lines.

Table for one?

Outside Trotter’s Bakery

Coffee, and the music of what happens
washing in uneven tides
over sidewalk and street:
not quite audible, not yet found
by the traffic as it moves and halts.

Each day at twenty to eight
a pretty girl in 400 dollars’
worth of clothes gets into her Ford
and grinds the starter.
It rasps, then catches at last.

She segues off, into her world,
as other drivers pass, already
at work with cell phones
to their ears. What can there be
to say at this early hour?

East-facing windows reflect
the climbing sun. An unready man
walks in, necktie not yet knotted.
A woman uses the gift
of a red light to fuss with her hair.

Coffee, and again we take it on trust
this day like every day will in time
find its way, will compose itself anew
out of the morning’s assumptions,
the morning’s small doubts.

By Jim Rogers, St. Paul poet, author of the chapbook Sundogs, and editor of the Center for Irish Studies journal, New Hibernia Review

Thank god for coffee shops. On cold weekends from claustrophobic houses. Enough already with the stack of bills, those ladies in waiting, piled near the front mirror. Enough with the winter dust bunnies frolicking under the bed with each blast of the furnace. Off to the coffee shops I go for retreat or companionship, away from the responsibilities of home. Away, even, from the reprimands of the family. At coffee shops I need only listen if I want. Sitting in a coffee shop is like sitting at the bar, but without all the come-ons (okay, without the Laphroig, too). Way before the onset of Dunn Bros. and Caribou, my parents used to hang out at the old family place in Indianford: Tibbie’s. Mom said as a young girl she would sit on a stool at the edge of the bar at Tibbie’s while her mom and dad worked their shifts, she drinking a Coke and listening to all her relatives and the townspeople, all the losers and winners, the drunks and betrayed, the givers and takers. She’d say she learned many of life’s little lessons on that little stool in in south central Wisconsin.

My own daughter, a café cook and server, told me a story of one of the regulars at Sisu Coffee and Café in St. Paul. You might know Bill. If you do, picture him coming in the morning with steamed glasses, a heavy navy parka, his MTC card dangling from his backpack on one side and his padded lunch box hooked to the other.

“Now, you’re new here,” Bill says to my daughter. “Let me tell you. If I give you a twenty, you give me a ten, a five, and some ones. If I give you a ten, you give me a five and some ones.”

My daughter nods as she pours his medium light roast.

“If I give you a five, you give me some ones.” He pauses and chuckles. “See you’d never know I have a mental deficiency.”

She smiles as she hands Bill his coffee and some change.“Oh but the other thing you should know,” he says, “put the bills in my hand and the change in the cup.” He points to the tip cup and then turns toward the door.

You probably already keep these: notebooks filled with coffee shop prose or poetry. Do you know Lunch Poems, by Frank O’Hara? An Amazon reviewer writes this: “They are called Lunch Poems because that is the idea, poems that you might compose on your lunch break, walking around New York with some change in your pocket. . . .”

If you have any of your own lunch poems, St. Paul coffee shop poems, or Philly afternoon poems, tell us about them, and the spots we can go to best read—and write them.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Either Oar

If I have this right, today sports fans across the nation are following "National Signing Day." With the antics of the National Football League finally winding down and reports of recruitment and NCAA violations rising at most big colleges, maybe most of you aren't the least bit interested in the day's follies. But here's another tag: it's National Girls and Women in Sports Day and there is lots to cheer about.

My daughter is a Division 1, non-scholarship athlete for the University of Minnesota rowing team. Like 90% of the women on her crew team, and others like it across the Midwest, she is a walk-on, completely new to the sport.

After 6 years of playing three sports and earning 11 varsity letters, she thought she was done with organized athletics. She was tired of it all. But sports empowered her to find rhythm and motion in her body, to lean into and push back on expectations to look good, be nice, and blend in. It's a big part of who she is.

So when the assistant coach for the Gopher rowing team sent a letter inviting her to try out for the novice team, she decided "yes" just a week before school.

The workouts are hard. The team fought six years for a boathouse and it finally partially opened this January, after seasons making do with some rental party tents down by the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. The women athletes had to walk or ride their bikes through the mazes of boilerhouses and railroad tracks behind the university to get there and then haul their 60-foot-long boats out from under the canvases each day to a makeshift dock.

Many novice rowers have quit. After Christmas break, seven more rowers quit after the practices became even tougher and more frequent, including two-a-days. My daughter said that some rowers would throw up or cry while on the "ergs," or rowing machines, pulling at 100% and 90% and on and on for long, grueling stretches. She thought she would prefer throwing up to crying.

She knows her maximum pulls on the machines right now; she knows when her mind starts to doubt and how to bring it back into focus for the duration. She told me, "I love this sport. I love competing without all that anger [of youth court sports]. I love the discipline. I love the sound we make together on the water."

Before the boathouse opened, the rowers had to work their way up to Mariucci Arena to share weightlifting time with the various men's "revenue sports" athletes. She knows a few of them and shares stories of juggling sports and school and girlfriend/boyfriend relationships. Others, though, saunter in the weight room with the look of entitlement and yell out, "What are you girls still doing here?"

Over the weekend, a yahoo we happened to sit with met my daughter for the first time. When she told him she was on the rowing team, he said (I could have smacked him. I should have smacked him.): "You'll have to thank the football team for buying you those boats."

Meanwhile, the women's rowing team with the collective 3.0+ GPA shares 23 scholarships among the 30 varsity athletes, an egalitarian co-op. The parents of the athletes send e-mails before head races and regattas for donations of food and napkins and paper plates.

If all goes well, my daughter will be racing in a Novice 8-boat this spring. Her coach told her, "Of course, we wish you were 6 inches taller, but you have a lot of engine inside that body."

(she is second row, five from left)

It's ice cold and snowy out now and the waterways are frozen over, but if you think of it, mark your calendars for April 14 or April 21, 10 a.m., at Lake Phalen on St. Paul's East Side for races against Iowa, Wisconsin, and Kansas.

As they say, have a good day. Throw like a girl--or a boy, your choice--and be a sport.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Who We Are

As keynote speaker for an Upper Midwest Booksellers Association meeting some years ago, Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler told the story of the plumber who came to his cabin to clean out his plugged toilet. The plumber came out of the bathroom and was spattered with shit. He paused, and looked up, and said to Hassler, “I hear you write books.” Hassler said, “Yes, I do.” The plumber said, “Boy, I’d sure hate to make a living that way.”

I had Hassler as a writing workshop teacher one summer over twenty years ago. Most of us students were about to finish college or were just starting our MFAs. Hassler warmed us up each morning with various writing prompts. One of the prompts was to very quickly list twenty things that described us--"don't think about this, just write," he'd say. I remember writing:

--drink a lot of Wild Turkey
--am madly, madly in love

among eighteen other things. We then had to write stories from the various listings. One guy after class told me he was going to ask me out until I got to the part of being madly, madly in love.

Last night, after one of the Top Ten Worst Weekends Ever, I cloistered myself in a quiet room to write. I was too ticked off to do anything else. But then, like trying to pee in a quiet lavatory among strangers, I couldn't get anything out. Nada. Nothing to say. So I thought of Hassler's writing prompts and instead of writing a list of what I have done, I tried writing a list of what I have not done.

I have never

-published a short story
-had an affair
-learned a second language
-read Jane Austen
-fired anyone
-taken my kids to Disney World
-had my body hair waxed
-camped alone
-bought anything at Victoria's Secret
-been to the opera
-grown corn
-hit a home run
-inherited money
-seen Niagra Falls, or Mount Rushmore
-been to Paris, or London
-been arrested
-made lemon meringue pie
-been inside a synagogue
-watched Grey's Anatomy
-sung Karaoke

When we are coming of age, we tend to define ourselves more for what we've done than what we've yet to do, for who we are rather than who we might become. I am somebody NOW, we say. When we are older, fully into our adult lives, we tend to look back on what we haven't done. We spend time mourning the absences of what we never did, of what we never got around to doing. (Or we boast of our "nevers": I have never gone on a cruise and I never will! Yeah, me neither!)

Why can't we be more like the five-year-old, the one in the story who says,

"I hope I stay the same. I hope I grow up just like me."

Monday, February 05, 2007

Simply listening

At La Grolla, a restaurant on Selby Avenue in St. Paul, we sat next to a group of four men, all of them wearing shirts emblazoned with business logos. It was clear someone, if not all of them, was on an expense account.

One guy said, "What's the best meal you ever had?" They shouted out cities and restaurants and entrees and pricey bottles of wine. They laughed loud and talked more about it, until they were ready to give their order to the young waiter. Then they talked about the Chicago City Council voting on the minimum wage proposal.

That same guy, who seemed to be the host of the group, said: "They voted for that so-called living wage. So Wal-Mart built a big beautiful store just outside the city limits. I mean, JUST outside the city limits. So they lost the store and the tax base that went with it. And you know, it'll happen again in a heartbeat. The problem with people of the liberal persuasion is they simply don't know human behavior. They simply don't know it."

They all looked down and shook their heads, and then the young waiter set down their four red wine glasses, one by one, around the crowded table.

The guy said, " You're all getting BAGS. BAGS. You know, Big Ass Glasses."

They all looked up and laughed and shook their heads with delight.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Style Points

It's Fashion Week. East Coast hipsters might not know our own style points here on the frozen tundra.

1. Form follows function.

2. Take heed--as Kevin Kling says,

"It's not skin anymore, it's 'exposed flesh.'"

3. We are, indeed, what we wear. Check it out:

Ralph Lauren? Nah, Joe Mauer in these parts. From a kid's-eye view, the best fashion gift ever. . . .

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Family Cheapskate

I stopped by Solo Vino on my way home from work tonight. When they asked if I needed help, I said, "I need an inexpensive red wine." They said, "We have just the thing," and pointed me to a display of Casa Solar Tempranillo 2004 Spanish red wine. $5.99.

"That's perfect," I said.

While the clerk was ringing up my four bottles she asked, "Are you cooking with the wine tonight?"

"No," I said. "My in-laws are in town."

A Voice Dies

Molly Ivins died yesterday in Austin after three separate rounds battling breast cancer. She was only 62.

A wildly witty and caustic writer whose columns were carried in over 350 newspapers, she earlier had landed a prestigious job in 1976 at the New York Times. The following is excerpted from today's article:

She cut an unusual figure in The Times newsroom, wearing blue jeans, going barefoot and bringing in her dog, whose name was an expletive.

She quit The Times in 1982 after The Dallas Times Herald offered to make her a columnist. She took the job even though she loathed Dallas, once describing it as the kind of town “that would have rooted for Goliath to beat David.”

But the newspaper, she said, promised to let her write whatever she wanted. When she declared of a congressman, “If his I.Q. slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day,” many readers were appalled, and several advertisers boycotted the paper. In her defense, her editors rented billboards that read: “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” The slogan became the title of the first of her six books.

Ms. Ivins learned she had breast cancer in 1999 and was typically unvarnished in describing her treatments. “First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you,” she wrote. “I have been on blind dates better than that.”


When I became a mother (and was told what a good young nurturer I was) and after I had been a book editor awhile (and had been told what a good young nurturer I was) I started reading the fiesty Molly Ivins. She had, after all, been a writer for the Minneapolis Tribune here in the Twin Cities.(I lived in the TC.) She lived in Texas. (I had lived in Texas.) I understood exactly what she meant about those Lone Star cowboys. It was such a relief to set aside my nurturing ways and read her lippy prose. I skipped out of work once to hear Ms. Ivins talk at the Radisson in St. Paul. I went alone and sat with a group of large-voiced and hearty women. It was great. I'll miss her.

(Top photo credit: Melanie West, melaniewestphotography.com.
Molly Ivins January 2007 photo (bottom) posted online at Common Ground Common Sense)