Thursday, May 31, 2007

Seeing Is Believing

I spent the weekend with my folks and on Memorial Day we browsed through their photo albums. Since taking this job I have learned much about seeing an image, learning from a photograph. What are the visual and historical cues in that snapshot? The tight plaid skirt and matching cowl-necked jacket, the ruffled lamp shades, the amber-colored glass ashtray perched on a wood stand. It's 1959, and my parents are young parents themselves.

Then on to another kind of plaid, the polyester plaid of the seventies' leisure suit and my dad, a man most comfortable in wash pants and a heavy t-shirt, is sporting white slip-ons as well, as if he can pull this all off as easily as Sammy Davis Jr.

One of my favorite photographers, Ernst Haas (who began his photography career in the '40s), says this: "With photography a new language has been created. Now for the first time it is possible to express reality by reality. We can look at an impression as long as we wish, we can delve into it and, so to speak, renew past experiences at will." (photo by Erich Hartmann—Magnum)

I read a good post filled with found pictures by the blogger Eden Marriott Kennedy, who has been clearing out her father's things after his death. She found treasured photos and saved ephemera beneath her father's other more quirky holdings, including a big wad of stolen Dairy Queen napkins.

"A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?"

"There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are."

"My theory of composition? Simple: do not release the shutter until everything in the viewfinder feels just right."--all quotes by Ernst Haas

I've been making do without my digital camera, which I still haven't fixed from back when I couldn't seem to hold on to things. Did I lose as well the thing that helps me hold on to things? That camera?

"Leica, schmeica. The camera doesn't make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But you have to see."

As a writer I do my own framing all the time. But I do love images. And I do love the stories they tell.

It was a sweet day, pouring over pictures with my parents looking over my shoulders. We traced their beauty and youth. We laughed about caught poses and facial expressions. We touched the corners of the old black-and-whites and then passed them over to each other. My dad and I went into town and he scanned and enlarged my mom's graduation picture. He felt bad that the scan picked up the cracked bend in the small wallet portrait. She had written in pen "Sharon, 1957," and given it to him before she graduated. So he could remember her.

NYC, 1958 -- A kiss on a train platform at Grand Central Station. Getty Images. Photo by Ernst Haas.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ornamental morning

When I woke up this morning, a few peonies had started to blossom. Most are still living tight in their buds. It made me think of this:

Peonies by Mary Oliver

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open—
pools of lace,
white and pink—
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities—
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again—
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

Friday, May 25, 2007

"I hear lake water lapping"

I'm heading up to the lake by myself tomorrow, in this case my parents' place on Lake Beltrami, north of Bemidji. They're back now from their winter in Mission, Texas; I haven't seen them for over seven months. I think they have a nice life: summers on the lakefront with the canoe and the pontoon, the deer and the loons. Winters in the sun with friends and weekly happy hours, bridge tournaments and art classes. Our kids, their only grandkids, each spend a week at the lake with a friend. Mom and Dad teach them to bake bread or to sew, catch walleyes, waterski. Mom's always yelling out to them: "Wear sunscreen! Take off those wet suits! Be careful!" Dad just keeps feeding them more food.

When my kids were little they would fall asleep on the long drive up from the Cities but wake just as we hit the curvy Gryce Styne Road, entrance to the west shore of Beltrami Lake. "Are we at the bumpy road? We're on the bumpy road, we're on the bumpy road!" they'd say in their whisky nighttime voices, and they'd kick their little legs against the car seat and clap their hands.

My mom wrote this morning: "Just a line to tell you we are excited about your visit and getting food, movies, and the bedroom ready. It's cold and wet but we have heat, unlike the first couple of days and I almost froze. I'm anxious to see you and catch up on some news about the family and talk about things I just can't express on the phone or machines. Please drive carefully and take as many breaks as you need. We'll be here
waiting for you."

That warms my heart and makes me smile. This charming story from Bill Holm, writing in the new book Cabins of Minnesota, makes me smile, too. Here it is. Have a good weekend!

"What about professional performing musicians who must, of course, practice every day, but like the rest of us need a periodic cabin retreat and renewal? Jussi Bjorling, one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century, was endowed with a silvery tenor of great lyrical beauty. He was also the pride of Sweden. His career began in the twenties as a boy singing with the Bjorling family quartet, touring every hamlet in the country, singing folk tunes and hymns on Swedish state radio. 'Tonerna' or 'Varmeland' could reduce otherwise phlegmatic Swedes to blubbering. As a grown man, his Puccini and Verdi sold out opera houses all over Europe and America.

"Like most Swedish families, the Bjorlings owned a summer stuga, a retreat to nature for the brief, intense arctic summer of continual light. But singers vocalize daily to keep their instrument tuned and supple. To learn a new role for the opera season requires hundreds of hours of practice. The Bjorling family owned a small island in the Stockholm archipeligo, with a comfortable and commodious house for guests, children, long summer dinners with herring, boiled potatoes, pickled beets, gravlax, cream cakes, aquavit, and probably croquet on the lawn. Imagine Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.

"But for Jussi, there was work to do, so he commandeered a small cabin next to the lakeshore, moved in a piano, and created his studio. There he disappeared daily to vocalize and memorize. But an operatic tenor of his size and penetration is a bit hard to muffle. Vesti le Giubba is hardly silent. On the other hand, it is very beautiful. Bjorling’s voice was of such quality that even a simple scale or arpeggio could bring pleasure. Remember also that Jussi rehearsed on the lakeshore and sound carries with astonishing clarity and distance over water. Neighbors from miles around that galaxy of small islands must have heard the bell tones of the great man at work. Being Swedes and simultaneously loving his voice, they wanted to listen but not to cause a fuss. They drifted past in their canoes or small boats, extinguishing the motors or rowing as silently as they could past the music. There they floated as slowly as possible as Il mio tesoro intanto or Una furtiva lagrima or Ingemisco undulated out over the glassy surface of the lake in the long white light. Bjorling’s son Anders remembers an endless parade of boats moving silently past the studio for this watery glorious concert. What did they do when the great man, needing a cup of coffee or a pee, stopped singing and opened the door. Did they applaud? Wipe tears from their faces? Or being good Swedish neighbors did they nod politely, or cast rods into the water as if just passing by hunting for a breakfast pickerel? That scene and the thought of that music make me wish I had been there."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Do As I Say Not

So today was Bus Day. My daughter left the house at 4:45 a.m. for her job at the Nicollet Mall Farmer's Market. I seem to hear everything in the night these days and not only did I hear her shut the doors and drive off but I also heard the four cats she disturbed on her way. The black one from our not-so-friendly neighbors across the street sleeps on or under our porch. I don't think it likes our neighbors either because it's always over at our place. They never bring him in. Which is fine, until he bawls like a newborn calf and it's 4:45 in the morning.

I remember my mom and dad craving sleep when they were the age I am now. I used to think they were a little obsessive. As preteens fending for ourselves, my brother and I learned to tiptoe around the house in the mornings, never quite shutting the cupboard doors after getting our cereal, learning to watch Saturday morning shows on mute, like those Anoka guys who have garage parties and keep the Nascar on mute in the background.

Well now I understand my parents' sleep needs. If you asked me anytime today what I'd like to do for fun tonight I'm sure I would tell you, Go to Bed Early, and I wouldn't mean for the sex.

So I was all set for the bus: mug of tea, extra shoes and rain jacket in big bus bag, umbrella. Except I forgot to check for change so it wasn't until I had walked the six blocks in the rain that I found my pocketbook empty. Forgot I had given the kiddos all my money for Chipotle last night.

I had twelve minutes to walk back--in the rain--and get some change and still make the last rush hour bus. I spilled my tea on the front of my shirt on the way back and my walking shoes started to make that squishing sound from all the rain.

No change in the house. None to be found except for $1.89 in pennies. The rush bus is $2.00. I called my husband and asked him if he knew of any money stashes in the house. He offered to drive back through the rain-induced freeway traffic and get me. I declined.

Then I called him back and said yes.

On the ride to work my husband told me about seeing a squirrel fall and slip off our porch roof this morning, landing on its backside in the wet flower beds. Said he'd never seen a squirrel lose its footing like that.

Me and that squirrel. We just need to take it easy on these wet, trying days.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


(See previous nominations here and here.)

My pick this month is Metro Transit of the Twin Cities. Now if you live in Philadelphia or Chicago or Palo Alto, this can still work for you. The dealio is to choose public transit, at least one day a week. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, gas prices just hit $3.40 here in St. Paul, and you'll make Al Gore AND Leo DiCaprio happy.

(An aside: Once we published a book by Dan Maguire, theology and ethics professor at Marquette, and the final bound books shipped with a heading something like this: "Engage in Pubic Policy." Yep, that dreaded A-level head with the bad typo, one of the ones they warn you about in proofreading training. We didn't even catch it until Prof. Maguire himself faxed a short note that read, "While I'm sure this would be a lot more fun, we should correct this heading in our second printing." So I always triple proof a phrase like "public transit.")

Many of you (here and here) already commute by train or bus daily. I share a car now with the college kid and take the #74 down Randolph Ave. to downtown St. Paul a couple of times a week.

I'm a big believer in the idea that you can learn many of life's little lessons by observing closely all those people and places in your own neighborhood. And what better way to see the details of your lovely neighborhood than through the windows of a slow-moving bus. As Point wrote in Ma Gastronomie: “. . . one must read everything, see everything, hear everything, try everything, observe everything, in order to retain in the end, just a little bit.” I am getting to know the 74 regulars. The woman with white orthopedic shoes who gets off at Smith Ave. near the hospitals. The man who gets on by "Run and Fun" and carries an old Land's End softside briefcase. The crowd of men who get on at the Salvation Army, full of piss and vinegar, as my grandma used to say. Two of them sat near me the other day.

One said, "Hell, I feel like I got run over by a dump truck."
The other said, "You shouldn't feel bad. You should feel good. Wine's supposed to be good for us now, you know."
"Wine? It is? What kind?"
"Hell, it don't matter. White wine. Red wine. Just wine. Good for you. Stops heart attacks."
"I guess I don't feel so bad after all."

When I was a kid I used to bring the Sears and JC Penney's catalogs to bed with me. Sometimes I'd pretend I had to outfit myself and my brother for a year for under $100. Or I had to outfit a new apartment for under $100. I always had a $100. Weird. But now this kind of thing is a regular feature in glossies like Simple Living and Seventeen so I guess I was ahead of the curve.

So sometimes when I ride the bus I think about living without a car. (I lived it as a new editor back in the eighties, riding the Lorenz commuter line down Rice Street.) I know exactly what I'd do on my first car-free Saturday. I'd walk down to Kopplin's at Randolph and Hamline for a hot chai and zucchini bread with my big market bag slung over my shoulder. After reading the paper and watching the morning coffee groups I'd take the 74 downtown to the Farmer's Market in Lowertown to pick up some spring rhubarb. Then I'd hop it back up Randolph and get off at Sophie Joe's Emporium, at 453 W. 7th St., for a little retro shopping, and then I'd walk over to the Day by Day Cafe for lunch on their back patio. I'd step back on and take the bus all the way up to the College of Saint Catherine's, where I'd hop off to stroll through the lovely campus, stop by the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery if it's open, and watch the geese slip around at the pond. I'd walk down the block to buy some bulk granola and bottled cream at the Mississippi Market Co-op, and then head back home. Lovely.

All for way under $100. Beats driving your truck to Target.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Just what we needed--a little joy

Photo by Joey Mcleister, Star Tribune

The Double Dutch team from Cityview Community School, Minneapolis.

For a delightful double dutch video, see the article "Dutch Treat" from the Star Tribune, 5.18.07, written by Delma J. Francis (

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Missing Joe?

For you baseball fans out there, in case you’re sorely missing Joe, I have a story for you.

I was shopping at the Grand Avenue Kowalski’s Market and was waiting for the deli man to hand over my chicken pasta salad. The deli is nearly always crowded on a Sunday so I had time to people-watch. I was watching a young mom checking the labels on ice cream when this really tall guy walked by with a little green shopping basket in his hand. I recognized him immediately. Joe Mauer. It was Joe Mauer. Man, he’s taller in person than you’d think. I mean he towered over all of us average-Joe St. Paulites. Of course, he's no average Joe. I’d seen Mauer in person a few times over the years. Once my daughter and I crawled over the barriers and into a roped-off section at the packed-to-the-gills high school basketball playoff game between Highland Park (with its star Moe Hargrow) and Cretin Derham-Hall (and their star Joe Mauer). And we'd watched a few high school baseball games at the “Little Wrigley” setting of Cretin and I remember my son carefully following Mauer’s pregame warm-ups right beside us.

This day he seemed taller than usual because beside him was the cute-as-a-button Miss USA girlfriend of his. (Apparently they’re still dating, despite Twins fans posting their rants online: “Drop the girl, Joe, and get back to the game”; or “If Joe’s love life gets in the way of him playing baseball he’ll have to answer to all Twins fans.”) Anyway, they were walking near the ice cream freezers, he ambling along like a young farmer in a row of newly planted wheat, she all perky and with the twittering walk of Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. He looked a little bit like a farmer, too. Knee-length jean shorts, a green cap, that bad haircut. She wore the tiniest little stretch shorts and her brunette hair was smooth and long down her back.

The Twins had just wrapped up a home stint and they were off for Sunday night and Monday. I imagined Mauer and Miss USA going home to the Mauerneau pad and grilling up some dinner together. She was directing the shopping trip: chattering about what they still needed, backtracking to find the missing item, Joe sauntering along behind her.

I got into the checkout line right behind them. She really is cute. He really is tall. The two guys behind the register couldn’t keep their eyes off the couple. I tried not to stare so I watched those two guys. They rang up the couple’s basket items really slowly. Everyone else in line watched the entire transaction and I could hear quiet murmurs all around the store, “Joe Mauer. Look, Joe Mauer.” I even saw one of my son's school friends, Bridget, widen her eyes, point to the couple, and stick her fist into her mouth, like she was keeping herself from screaming.

After Joe and Miss USA left the register, the two check-out guys watched the couple walk all the way out to the auto doors. One said to the other:

“Dude, did you see who that was? Dude, did you check him out?” He nudged his pal in the ribs. “Dude, are you listening?”

“Nah, man,” said the other guy dreamily. “I’m just watching the girl.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Words of Wisdom

A great quote on the American scene--political and otherwise--from Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for his Broadway production, Angels in America:

"What used to be called liberal is now called radical, what used to be called radical is now called insane, what used to be called reactionary is now called moderate, and what used to be called insane is now called solid conservative thinking."--from Mother Jones, August 1995)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

thinking about my being a mom

One of my favorite Mom stories is of my daughter in second grade. Her class had just completed a course on heroes, complete with charcoal portraits and essays on their personal favorites. They mounted an art show with each of their portraits hung side by side with their framed essays. They were just learning cursive and you could see the effort they had put into their writing. Parents were invited to the school for "A Night of Heroes," complete with lemonade and cookies.

We walked through the gallery of portraits: Abraham Lincoln, "because he saved our country"; Rosa Parks, "because she took a stand"; Martin Luther King, Jr., "because he had a dream." There were more: my Grandma, the president, Jesus Christ. And then we saw my daughter's portrait: a man with a crown of really big hair-- Kramer, "because he's really funny."

And about this one, the fast-growing teen in the picture: when did that happen?

thinking of mom

My mom raised two teenagers in the seventies.

And Ronald Reagan was president.

Need I say more?

(My mom, at left, with her sister last Halloween)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Six Degrees of Spring

Atlanta lawn art (to see this menagerie up-close, click on picture)

What is seasonal about your life? Your job? Although it was Minnesota-gorgeous, I was fairly trapped inside my office for all of last week, only breaking out to take in a Tuesday baseball game and a nice long walk along the Mississippi last night.

I've been surly and not sweet and quite envious of all those folks with the outdoor jobs. The greenskeepers riding carts at the Highland Golf Course, the crew building that scene-blocking parking ramp on Kellogg Blvd, the St. Paul city workers pouring new sidewalks along John Ireland, even the ice cream man dingalinging his way through our neighborhood. Sitting out alone on our front porch each night after the sun went down, I was like Eileen Brennan, the haggish captain on Private Benjamin, and I felt like I should have a long Virginia Slims cig hanging out of my month. I heard someone say, "Shine, Don't Whine," and they ought to feel awful lucky they didn't say that to me.

My daughter came home from college and I was thick with envy. The summer, to play, with friends, no worries. And I remember how I would fill my freedom summers: I'd swim at the quarry in Winona; I'd hike with all those kids along the bluffs; I'd wait tables filled with all those Chicagoland tourists; I'd take trips with my roomies to visit each other's families, me learning to ride an old work horse in Wells, me waterskiing on wood skis on gummy Cedar Lake.

But my days are tied up in work. I find plenty to celebrate the seasons outside of work. But what's seasonal about my job? What summer trends break my work routine?

Well, for one, I show my toes now. I have a friend who had a boss at the MMM campus in Woodbury who frowned on open-toed shoes in the workplace. And my friend just kept wearing them, watching her boss glare down at her feet at every meeting. I dug out some lilac frost polish and painted my toenails. Well, that's enough to make me feel better already.

Second, the museum is now packed with kids, what with all the end-of-year school field trips to our place. The kids are so cute; they scream and slide on our heavily waxed granite floors. I heard one say to another, "And then if you are a teenager you might get ZITS!" And in the women's restroom a fourth-grade girl was sobbing and wiping this humongous chocolate milk spill from the front of her white tee-shirt. There was no way that was coming off. I felt so bad for her I scrounged around some of the departments and asked the program people if I could have one of their pink tees they give as prizes. I went back to the restroom and the poor girl was still sniffling and now her shirt was mucked with shreds of brown paper towel. I gave her the pink tee and she went into the stall to change and compose herself. We both were practically beaming as she walked out with her new "I (Heart) History" tee-shirt.

Third, many of my newly signed authors with academic posts are getting almost giddy, the thrill of their own summers of freedom near at hand. And now they e-mail all the time (the book, I'm ready to work on the book!), like spammers selling Viagra, and I have to curb their enthusiasms while I tend to the books at hand.

Fourth, my kids are heading into their own summer routines. Soon my phone machine will be filled with such messages as: "Mom, where are the hot dogs?" Then, "Mom, where's the ketchup?' And "Mom, where are my golf clubs?" Then, "Mom, when are you coming home?"

Fifth, I can walk down to the Seventh Place Farmers' Market and buy fresh veggies for lunch and a bunch of fresh flowers for my desk.

Sixth, I can eat lunch on the lawn. Wednesday I stole away 15 minutes and laid flat on my back on the grass and called my mom. In the sun. It was perfect.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Spring is in the air

"A strong skunk-like smell that wafted through this city and as far south as Wahpeton appears to have come from a sugar company's lagoon in Moorhead, Minn."

Maybe you all read this the other day, an article about the foul smells up in Fargo. It says, "On Wednesday morning, American Crystal Sugar spokesman Jeff Schweitzer denied his company was the source of the skunk-like smell.

'The type of odor that's out there isn't one that American Crystal generates. When American Crystal has odor issues, we are one of the first to acknowledge them.'"

Yeah, and my dad used to blame his farts on our dog, Duke.

Besides, I know that smell. I used to live in the valley and work near one of those big mounds of rotting sugar beets and hoe in the fields where those plants grow. I am like a sugar girl. But that implies sweet, and I am often not. American Crystal sugar implies sweet, too, but let me tell you. Whoo-wee. I mean it's funny because I was just writing and thinking about that valley recently and had forgotten all about that deadly spring stink.

The article goes on, "The stench started Tuesday night. Wahpeton City Coordinator Shawn Kessel said he heard complaints of smell in his city, nearly 50 miles south of Fargo. The smell was more like feces than skunk, he said."

I remember our customers at The Tiffany Lounge and Restaurant, which butted-up right next to one of those decaying mounds, coming in to our restaurant with the most sour looks on their faces. If they weren't from around the valley they had no idea what made that smell. I believe it affected their taste buds--how could it not?--and certainly believe it affected my tips.

It even made our water smell putrid. You know those distinct combinations in our smell memory? Those that are a little like Proust meets South Park? I mean, and I know this is distasteful, but one of my college roommates had a boyfriend who slept over often and every morning he'd make a deposit in our shared bathroom and then try to cover it up with raspberry Glade Air Freshener. To this day I can't stand the smell of artificial room fresheners. Or how those dirty metal ashtrays used to smell--the ones left out on bar tables or in messy hospital reception rooms, that mix of old nicotine smashed and rubbed against aluminum. Makes my teeth hurt.

Well, the Red River Valley tap water imprinted the same kind of memory in me. I used to wash my long hair with Herbal Essence (the original, in the dark green bottle) and I distinctly remember that the shampoo never cut the smell. I walked around--we all walked around--with fishy stinky slightly jasmine-scented hair.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Night Before Wednesday

My last Wednesday turned out to be a bust. Full of you-shoulds and you-should-haves. The rigmorale of work, mostly.

My next Wednesday--tomorrow--is shaping up to be worse than the last. Two deadlines, three meetings, a Nervous Nellie for an author, plus a finicky server that is about as supportive as Donald Trump in the boardroom.

Ahhh, but I'm thinking about all kinds of things to keep me from getting too down in the dumps.

1. I got to sit in the setting sun tonight with a picnic basket and some lawn chairs to watch my son's first Midway baseball game, which they won handily. Lots of hits, many stolen bases, a good amount of banter: "That's it, protect the plate" and "Stretch your primary, take a step, take another."

2. You know what's great about my job? I can do a Wikipedia or Google search for a phrase or word in one of the book manuscripts I'm working on and come up with this little gem.

3. I can think about my dinner out Friday at Ristorante Luci to celebrate my good friend's birthday.

4. I can see my perennials are coming up just fine, even without my clearing out the winter weeds and old debris. I've got two new Lupines springing up along the steps.

5. I will look forward to my daughter's coming home tomorrow for a weekend stint--and we'll get to cook and catch up together. She starts her new job at the Minneapolis Farmers' Markets selling bread for Saint Agnes Bakery.

6. I got to stay up late to watch the Twins beat the Sox in the 10th with a walk-off three-run homer by Canada boy. And now the house is quiet--full of sleepers--and the rain is coming down.

7. I got to have a few more conversations with my son regarding some of the chatter from one of my last posts, "Sometimes he's Dewey and sometimes. . . ." I realize now after talking to a few people that I might have misrepresented him as some kind of racy alley cat.

You remember how it was, yes? You're thirteen and your hormones are raging and suddenly you're just hyper-aware of all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll surrounding you 24/7. And then it doesn't help that your class is talking about all the right and wrong choices and you're learning all kinds of new terms like "weed" and "crack" and "boner," and mom gives you a new book called "What's Happening Down There?" with some dorky cartoon on the cover that has a kid looking down the front of his pants, like he's trying to shake out some dirt that flew down during a slide at home. So like adults who learn some new hobby or program--the Weight Watchers gals who tout "points" and "core choices" willy-nilly everytime we sit down to eat or the new fan who learns all the hocky lingo and so you're hearing "what a goon" and "it was like a shot from the point" every chance he gets--my modern teenager suddenly is full of all his new lifestyle words and phrases. But that doesn't really mean he has a hand in it all. Just trying it out in his vocabulary.

His friends came over this weekend and I saw that they flocked to the computer so that they could look up different MySpace pages, and I know which ones they went to because they don't know about "Clear History" yet. So I look over a few pages of girls writing "Call Me" and of boys writing "Now you're on my shit list," and the running header at the top of the pages carries photos of big-breasted women with the line, "Who would you rather date? Cindy or Shayla?" But then I see later, after the friends have gone home, that my son goes back to the Web and spends some time clicking and cruising. But this time when I check through the history of views they're all for "Amazing Sports Catches" and "All-time Worst Race Car Crashes" on YouTube.

And then he tells me tonight that he never did ask a girl to go out and he wouldn't know who to ask if he did work up the nerve. Does that mean when he said "which one" when I asked him his intentions last week he was just trying to narrow it down to a few who might actually say yes to him. "Pretty much" he says.

At a party last weekend some parents and I decide that one of my son's friends is right when he says, "The other guys in our class would probably attract the girls to our group, but T. (my son) will keep them around." Ahhh.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Friends and Neighbors Day, part 2

(continued from here)

We pulled into Grand Forks and found the hotel on Gateway Drive. Dad left the car running as he walked up to check in. My dad’s legs are strong and stocky but bowl-legged. Mom says he walks like an old cowboy. “Full,” he told us when he got back to the car. “Full,” he says again. Apparently there was some event in town where all the Canadians come down to shop and the base opens up the flight lines to let civilians and their families tour all the hangars and the big B-52s.

“It’s called ‘Friends and Neighbors Day.’ They told me the whole town is full up and they’d be surprised if we found a room anywhere,” Dad explained. By now my brother was saying he had to go to the bathroom and I felt sick to my stomach because it was late and I was hungry and I always got that way on an empty stomach.

“I can’t believe we’ve come all the way up here and there’s no place for us to stay. I won’t drive around anymore getting rejected by another hotel. You call the base and tell them we’re here and tell them they need to find a place to put us up for the night,” my mother demanded.

Dave and I exchanged looks in the back seat. Mom always has to lay down the law with Dad after he goes too far with something. I remember when we were stationed in Texas and we’d go to all these family barbecues and Dad would drink too much with the squadron guys and Mom would just slide over to him and whisper something firmly in his ear and then she’d start packing us up. He’d start pussy-footing around her saying, “What? What’s the matter? Oh c’mon hon, what’s the matter?” And within minutes we’d be home.

So Dad gets out again, this time at a gas station, and he calls over to the base on the pay phone. When he comes back the car was really quiet and we were all kind of holding our breath hoping that we hadn’t been shut out again.

“Well, we’re in luck. I talked with a guy who’s in charge of hospitality and he’s going to put us up at his house for the night. And, his house is right next to the one we’re assigned so we’ll be neighbors. Christ, honey, I’m sorry. You kids okay?”
My dad always seems to come through in the end, even in a crunch. He is big and tall and loud and good-looking and has always tried to please everyone and do the right thing. His dad had left the family when my dad and uncles were little and although his mom remarried a wonderful man, she died when Dad was only eleven or twelve. He said he watched her lay in bed for a year, the cancer moving in on her until she died.

We stopped for a burger and a soda and Dave and I played around with the jukebox, Mom and Dad smoking and talking after their meal. Driving the half hour to the base, we were talking and laughing again, Dave telling knock-knock jokes and Mom petting our dog in the front seat. We pulled up to the base entrance and, like all military bases, you had to get out and show your pass to security until you could get a sticker for your car, and then all you had to do was slow down and salute and drive through.

We wound our way slowly through the streets and found the one we needed, full of side-by-side duplexes—”relocatables” they called them, one-story, gray, prefab houses for enlisted families. Dad matches the numbers on a house with the ones he’s written down back in town and pulled into the drive.

It’s late and so the host family is already dressed for bed. The man is thin and over-charged, shaking Dad’s hand and saying to us all, “Come in, come in.” He wore thick glasses and had a kind of sarcastic smile, like he’s thinking of an alibi for some accusation, or a put-down if you didn’t say the right thing. His wife stood behind him, with bleached blonde hair, and she’s built like an inverted triangle: big head, fat torso, short legs, feet that look too little to hold her all up. Their little girl was already asleep and their son stood in the hallway. He looked about my age. Mom was weary, her blue eyes pale and reddened, dry in their sockets. I learn later that she’s disappointed, hugely disappointed, but that night I think she’s just worn out from not finding a hotel. She agreed to make this last move—Dad promised, this would be our last move and then he’s retiring from the service, twenty years is more than she bargained for—because she thought it would be like home. Home is Wisconsin and the pine trees and the Rock River and the rolling hills near the Dells. The picture he showed her of the Grand Forks Air Force Base had pine trees, and brick houses, and soft, sparkling snow. Snow! It had been years since she saw a good northern snowfall.

But she could tell on the way up from Fargo that this was not the Dells. This was not home. The land was as flat as Texas; the only trees she saw were shelterbelts around lonely farms, the only hills were dikes built to hold back the spring floods of the Red River. And now she’s looking at another two years in a metal trailer with white walls and green carpeting and neighbors who were just like a lot of other military families, messed-up people who lived day to day without a plan, without the right priorities, waiting for the government to tell them what to do.

After short introductions, Dave and I set up bedrolls in the boy’s room and we three lay down on his floor. Our pets had to stay out in their garage. The boy hadn’t stopped talking since we got there. He was telling us about his dad and how they always have the welcome party for newcomers in the basement of the NCO Club, and that he had lots of toys and in the morning we could play with them if we asked first but we had to make sure we put them away neat or his mom would be mad, and did we like his pajamas, his mom got them on sale, and on and on. Dave and I moved round toward each other in the dark and made funny fake yawns and rolled our eyes, then pretended to fall asleep. I thought about the things my mom would be whispering to my dad in the dark, the two of them laying in another strange house, trying to figure out how they’d set up our lives once more.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Man of Many Seasons

I think it's true. It's true what they say: I dated you for your legs. "What do you see in that wild man?" they asked. "Are you kidding? Did you see those broad shoulders, slim hips . . . and the legs on that fellow?"

And then we went hiking, and fishing, and biking, and dancing, and carrying on--and you brought me those foil-wrapped campfire dinners on Parents' Night with my camp kids and wrote me a love letter on a big wad of state park paper towels--and I got to know the full sides of you, and one weekend we gave each other Indian names, or so we thought, and I called you Man of Many Seasons because I thought you were like Heathcliff and you gave me the name, without even pausing, "One with Own Path." And I think that was the clincher. That and those damn fine legs.

Happy Birthday, big fellow. And many more to come!

Friday, May 04, 2007

Friends and Neighbors Day, part 1

I've been writing a bunch lately--and surprising myself with all the stories I've been discovering--and thought I'd share a short one here about my family's move to North Country. This is part one.

Friends and Neighbors Day

We were like the family in the Christmas story, only then there were four of us in an old Rambler station wagon working our way up through the plains. We were on I-29, having come from Altus, Oklahoma, in the middle of June. My dad was in the Air Force and had been transferred again; this time to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Mom, Dad, my brother and I--with our dog, our cat and her four kittens--were all hunched over, watching the scenery go by. We had driven a long way, through two states, and now we were in Fargo, stopped out front of a Holiday Inn while my dad was inside the lobby, talking to the man at the counter. Our plan had been to stop by seven, have some dinner, and take a little swim in the pool.

When Dad came back to the car, he told us the hotel wouldn’t take pets. We couldn’t stay. But he was optimistic, unshaken. As always—he was a sergeant, after all—he seemed like it was his idea all along.

“Hey, that’s okay. I think we can make it up to Grand Forks tonight anyway,” he said to Mom, who was now wilting against the passenger door. My mom is an even five feet with short curly hair and a feisty way about her. I know a little more about her heritage now; she’s a mixed-blood—Winnebago Fox and German and Irish. She never seemed to fit in with the other Air Force wives. She used to tell me she hated getting together for coffee klatches. She hated hearing the sound of defeat in the voices of the other young women who followed their husbands from SAC base to SAC base, leaving their hometowns and extended families and life dreams behind.

The kitties were starting to mew restlessly and the mother cat, K.C. (we named her after Kansas City, one of the many places we’d called home), looked about as wilted as Mom.

“Oh, Keith, how far is that?” She turned to look at him and you could see from her eyes that her voice was hiding the frustration and fatigue.

“We should be able to make it in an hour and a half. The man at the Holiday said there’s a place that takes pets and it’s not too far to the base after that. We’ll still get there in time to swim,” he promised.

I was tired and hungry and my brother kept sticking his elbow out at me whenever I started to fall over toward him. I was about ten and Dave, two years older. My mom told me when I was little I used to chatter away in his ear, inside the kitchen, in front of the TV, on the way to the backyard. And he would interrupt me and say in a long, deadpan voice, “Shut up” before I could finish whatever it was I was telling him. He was born in England, in Hunstanton, and had a bit of that Englishness to him. Mom said he was a little fuss-budget before I was born and worried a lot after she brought me home, but I don’t think he worried about me per se, just that I was going to be a lot of bother and intrude on his long-held space in the family. I could tell this from another story she told me.

One day she was doing dishes and she felt a kind of strange silence in the house. I was just a baby and was taking a nap. Dave was supposed to be playing with his Tinker Toys in the living room. Dad was away on a month-long alert.

She picked up another dish to wash and then, thinking about this eerie silence in a way mothers do, dropped it back in the sink and ran to my bedroom. Dave was holding a pillow over my face, reaching his arms up and over the crib sides, standing on his tippy-toes to reach. He must have had some strength despite that precarious position because when she pulled the pillow off my face I was blue and gasping for breath. And then I let out with one big wail.

“Davey, WHAT are you doing?” she screamed.

“Sis was crying and crying and she wouldn’t stop crying and I tried to make her stop.”

I’ve known many other families who tell their funny stories in crowds at reunions and weddings and funerals and I’ve heard my mom tell this one over and over. She sees me laughing at it, too, but lately I’m not that keen on being the one gasping for air anymore. Lately I’ve been feeling like I'm always racing to keep up with my life, never getting ahead long enough to stop and know a place, stop and take a deep breath.

But I held my own in this brother-sister act and remember one day, six years later, when Dave was giving me a lot of guff in the kitchen. He had broken his leg on the cement wall in the backyard and was standing in crutches near the basement stairs. He had a full-length cast; it had been a bad break. I guess I had had enough of the teasing and pushed him with the back of my fingers, easy—like aw, knock-it-off easy. And he fell over the edge of that top stair, widening his eyes at me, scared—like pull-me-back, you-still-have-time scared. But I didn’t pull him back and watched him row his arms back and back like you do when you’ve just been pushed off the end of the dock. He was okay, amazingly, but had to have a new cast.

Still, we were siblings and constant companions for each other in a world of ever-changing friends. In the Southwest, we would race off on our bikes to the base swimming pools, hot air filling the cups of our lungs and throats. In the mountains, we would camp with Mom and Dad, roasting marshmallows on whittled green branches over fires late at night. In the North here, we would face a lot of new terrain together.

(to be continued)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

My traveling salesman

You know why I like that my husband is a traveling salesman? (Ahem, keep it clean, folks.) I can call him at mid-morning--because I've been locked up indoors tracing Word tracked changes AND it's so nice outside AND all I want is lunch on a patio somewhere--and chances are he'll be on a Twin Cities highway, coming to or from a sales call, and he'll have time to pop over and fetch me.

We went to The Happy Gnome, sat out on their lovely patio (had the place mostly to ourselves), and ate and drank and told stories and jokes in the sunshine.

Perfect. Thursdays are the new Fridays.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Sometimes he's Francis and sometimes he's Dewey and sometimes he's Malcolm

I hate Wednesdays. Are Wednesdays the new Mondays? I mean, they're so crowded, with no let-up. Tomorrow's going to be just like today. Thursdays offer no relief. I meant to work in the garden tonight. I did not. But I did get to have some hang time with the boy.

Son: Could I ask out a girl?
Mom: I don't know. What are your intentions?
Son: Well, I'm not planning to have sex or anything.
Mom: I should hope not. But, I mean, what exactly do you have in mind?
Son: With which one?

Mom: Hey, you could put down your burrito and talk to me a bit.
Son: We're at Chipotle, Mom. You don't come to Chipotle to have conversation. You come here to scarf. If I wanted to talk, I'd take you to a fine dining restaurant.
Mom: Okay. Makes sense. Pass me the City Pages.

In like a lamb

Spring is here. I heard the phrase "The Big Greening-Up" this morning on The Current. My husband mowed the lawn for the first time this season. I've got plans to work in the perennial garden tonight.

But if you really want to get a fresh take on spring, check out this blog by writer Catherine Friend, "Ms. Backup Farmer" at Rising Moon Farm. It's called Farm Tales, and Friend writes this about herself: "I write, I farm, and sometimes I write about farming. I listen to Elvis, salsa, and k.d.lang. The older I get, the more content I become."

The top photograph in her latest post is enchanting. The ewes are about to give birth!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Big 10

The Big 10 (notes on a weekend of rowing)

1. Watching daughter, of course (at right, with her coxwain).

2. Watching son acting nonchalant with us, but really feeling very proud of his sis and sitting/standing next to her every chance he could.

3. Watching Amazonian rowers and their wee little coxwains and seeing them toss the first-place coxwains into the lake.

4. Hearing a race organizer shout, "Boat down. Boat down." Not to worry, all were okay; Indiana? boat had capsized in the white-capped lake during warm-ups.

5. Saying "cox box," without tee-heeing. It is the speaker system the coxwains use to guide and motivate the rowers. The First Varsity 8 cox box failed and the boat faltered for a span; then one of the senior rowers just yelled out, "Let's get this XX#@$%! boat moving," and they rowed like bats out of hell, pulling back to second place, enough to win the Big Ten trophy."

6. Hearing about the Head of the Charles, the big fall race in Boston where recently all but the coxwain on a Chinese team made it through customs. The team had to quick find a Mandarin-speaking cox. They found a Chinese speaker comfortable enough to go out on the boat but not experienced to steer and the Chinese boat ultimately crashed into another boat and then sunk themselves on the course.

7. Comparing the heavily European line-up of big money Ohio State to the mostly homegrown roster of the Gophers.

8. Cowbells.

9. Cheering and noshing with parents under the Big M tent, with big Weber kettles, little smokers, brats, burgers, salads, caramel brownies, lemon bars. Who doesn't love a potluck?

10. Watching hubby, full of support and pride.