Sunday, May 31, 2009

Good morning Sunday

I'm in the dining room, typing on the laptop. It's a gorgeous, sunny Sunday morning. The neighborhood is quiet. Last week my son just finished a short film for his video production class assignment, "My Neighborhood." In it he shows a 360 degree view of our corner block and says, "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else but here."

I remember two friends of mine, some twenty years ago, talking about Sundays. The one friend, a church-going Lutheran, asked why the other never went to church. The answer was, "Because I want to reserve my Sundays." The pious friend said, "But what do you think Sundays are for?" The answer, "For reading the New York Times, what else?"

I slept in Megan's room last night because the neighbors behind us had a kick-off-the-summer pool party and they were out loud and late. Our big bedroom overlooks our backyard and the alley and everytime I was about to fall asleep I'd hear a yahoo and a splash. Meg's room, tucked under the eaves in the middle, still has all the stuff of her high-school days plus the stuff of college tucked in corners and under spaces while she's away in the Boundary Waters. There's a dried wrist corsage from a prom hanging on a jewelry hook.

I slept until eight and took a chai tea into my bedroom to watch the CBS show Sunday Morning. I've come to like Charles Osgood and for a moment almost forgot that Charles Kuralt was previously the longtime host. Remember when we learned that the iconic Kuralt had a "shadow" second family in Montana? Now there's a slice of American life. None of us are perfect--a theme played out this a.m. with their story on that British talent-show competitor Susan Boyle. I think it's completely understandable that Boyle screamed at hounding reporters last week and can just imagine her lashing them with a heavily accented, "Get out of my way you fucking bloodsuckers." I agreed with the morning reporter that I liked her even better for it.

The kid and I are alone this weekend. Ken is catching walleye up at Big Whinny; apparently they've been getting their limits. Tim asked for pancakes so I had to go up to Korte's to pick up milk, and $60.00 later I also brought back home two sacks of groceries with tonight's dinner (ribeyes) and the week's lunch fixins (bread, sliced cheese, apples). As we all say now, "Remember when we could bring home two sacks of groceries for $20.00?"

Along the way the neighborhood had come alive. My neighbor zoomed his bike around the corner wearing long tight bike shorts and matching UnderArmor fitted top. A managing attorney, he works until seven every weeknight and then Saturdays too so I bet he's glad for his Sunday. The little kids on the block had layed down their trikes and training-wheel bikes and were toddling up and down the block with their helmets on, looking like a row of cranial-protected Beanie Babies. Very funny. Maybe they felt stealth wearing their helmets doing their everyday sidewalk fun; maybe, like my son when he was young, they had sticks tucked inside their makeshift holsters like guns.

I step outside to check the plants in front and the wooden rocking chair is rocking back and forth briskly. The neighbor's tomcat is a prowler and they let him roam all night. In the morning, after his escapades, he curls up on the chair cushion but jumps off when we come out the front door each morning. I wonder if he wishes the chair wouldn't rock so hard after his leap so as to leave no trace. I can imagine him hiding behind with a paw up to stop the rocking. Sometimes my husband will sit out on the porch in the early morning and he'll call out for the cat in his high funny falsetto cat voice and the black cat (with no tail--lost it in a streetfight) will come back up the stairs and lie down on the wood floor, just out of Ken's reach.

I don't have much in particular to say this day except it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. I'm glad to have it be mine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Speaking of books

Sometimes, when people in my business complain about the declining book economy, I want to ask them when's the last time they actually bought a book. I've been making an effort to visit bookstores around the Twin Cities. It's fun to browse "offline" again and to lay down my dollars at the local businesses that keep me in business. Birchbark Books, Micawber's, Magers & Quinn. Tonight I stopped by Sixth Sense, the best used bookseller in town (not the store to help our Press's bottom line, but a nice literary stop nonetheless), and picked up The Tender Bar: A Memoir by J. R. Moehringer (2006). Reviews include:

“It would have been easy for Moehringer to drift into sentimentality about growing up fatherless. Instead, he took the hard route and wrote the heck out of the thing. Moehringer paints a portrait of his life - and the bar full of men that stepped in to do the job his father couldn't - that is vivid, alive, and painfully honest. It's also pretty darned funny.” -American Way

“A wistful study of the character - and characters - of a Long Island bar called the tradition of Joseph Mitchell and Damon Runyon.” -New York Magazine

My mother grew up in a bar, too; her parents co-owned Tibbie's in Indianford, Wisconsin, a place memorialized by Sterling North and written up here: My mom says the article, however, is full of errors. So it goes with local history. But I digress.

The thing I remember most about my mom's telling of that place is that she learned all she really needed to know about human nature sitting on the corner barstool having a Shirley Temple and waiting for my grandmother to get off her shift. Mom truly loved a lot of the regulars but then would be confused when she saw their worst sides come out (after a bad day or a stiff drink, or both). My grandma would tell her she's got to take the good with the bad, that everyone has a likeable side and an unlikeable side and that no one is perfect. I've always remembered that.

When I was in college, my husband--then boyfriend--and I worked at the Golden Frog Supper Club in Fountain City, Wisconsin, right on the main drag there along the Mississippi River. We had a lot of regulars, too, and a veteran staff of waitresses, cooks, and dishwashers. I'm sure Ken and I gave them plenty to talk and speculate about. One whiskey-voiced waitress (and there is always one like that in these joints) told me I'd look a lot prettier if I would pull my hair off my face. I had customers who always ordered the same thing: Kessler and water or brandy Manhattan sweet; crab legs with baked potato, extra sour cream or the salad bar (with a go-box when they were full--no kidding). No one really tipped very well but they were always happy when Ken or I remembered their usual orders. Our German cook took real pride in her figure and in keeping herself looking good: hair, skin, nails. It was a sad, sad day when Erna cut off two of her fingers at the knuckles in the meat slicer one evening. She quit the kitchen soon after that. Ken and I quit pretty soon after that ourselves.

So I'm looking forward to starting The Tender Bar this weekend. Seems to me it's going to be an endearing read.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On white T-shirts and lollipops

Did you have a good weekend?

Did it feel to you like today was the first day of spring?

I'm wrapping up the day with a sack of Polish chocolate candies and a shot glass full of Zubrowka, Bison Grass Vodka, both gifts from Megan, who returned home yesterday from her semester abroad. The chocolate is quite good and comes with coconut, berry, caramel, and vanilla fillings, all wrapped in gaudy red, yellow, and foil-lined wrappers so that if you walked by my writing station right now I look a bit like those women at Skinner's Pub with the spent pull-tabs in mini-hills all around their drinking glasses. The "wodka" is 40 proof and has a long blade of grass lined diagonally inside the bottle. Megan and her class of American students were studying the divided states of Europe and how Scandinavia, in particular, is handling human rights and its role in the world. Since much of the first wave of labor workers came into Norway from Poland, they spent two weeks in Krakow and Warsaw studying human rights. After spending as much as $20.00 for a six-pack of good beer in Oslo, she and her comrades were quite thrilled to find draughts at the Polish pubs for as little as a dollar and vodka to bring home that wouldn't break the bank. It's quite good and a perfect nightcap to a full weekend in May.

Did you get outside? Was your weekend as sunny and breezy and green as we had here in St. Paul? We are all sunburned and our lips got chapped, too, so we've smeared them with dabs of Vaseline from the jar. The neighbors were out in full force: garage sale-going, dog walking, neglected garden tending. We had company both days and had lots of cooking and talking and the drinking of the wine and wodka on the porch. It was my side of the family and with Megan's return to the U.S. and my not-often-seen brother also making a surprise appearance, I had my hands full.

But I also had a chance to sit outside in the company of some good friends and wear my favorite white T-shirt with no jacket. Bare arms. Felt so good. No wonder the First Lady is always eager to bare hers (never mind she's got those enviable guns). I see that I've washed my white T-shirt so much I have what looks like a little moth hole in the middle of my belly. I got out the sandals, too. My mom said if I painted my toenails to match I would look quite nice at work. It's funny what moms choose to notice and comment about. At first I resented the comment on my appearance but then I remembered that just a few hours earlier I had looked at my daughter's rough feet and thought she could use a pedicure. Is the big difference that I chose not to say anything? Do we accept our mother's close inspection or does it just drum up uncomfortable feelings? For women, is there anything we can do about this, this complicated relationship? My mother spots my daughter's feet and offers to help her soak and loofah them. Is their generational difference wide enough for my daughter to accept the comment as love--and nothing else? What is it I can do to emulate that?

The little kids at the ball game wore their old shorts and sucked lollipops while hanging upside down at the monkey bars. No one warned them about choking. We were glad to drink cokes and show our bare arms and necks to the sun, no sunscreen. Out on the field, the fifteen year olds are getting better at turning double-plays and working the strike zone. One slight kid hit a near-homer to left center and all the players on the bench yelled out "STEROIDS!" The kid was scrawnier than Pawlenty so it was a funny cheer.

I hope you had a good weekend. Maybe you'll cut some lilacs to put in a jar for your desk. Maybe you'll put on your favorite tee under your button-down or paint your toenails to show under last year's sandals, for spring's posterity. If we didn't have our weekends, how would we ever know what spring feels like?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Home again

Quiet Monday. Back from my trip to Norway and spending the day with my son. We are eating and making meals together, catching up on our news of the week, and our laundry, etc. I missed him! He's good at asking questions: What did you like best in Norway? What did you do in Norway that you wished you could do here? What are some of the things you and Megan did together? He's slow to acknowledge the moment and avoids "the big deal" conversation to "wrap up" an event. That is, if he's just played a nail-biter hockey game he doesn't want to dissect it right away and really just mumbles a few words of acknowledgment, but then later as the weekend unfolds we'll hear bits and pieces from him. So when I returned Saturday evening he wasn't all full of enthusiasm; just gave me a hug and asked if I had a good time and then stuck his nose in a book. He would fit in just fine in Norway, the land of the understated folks.

I must say next to seeing Megan and enjoying the beauty of Oslo, the thing I liked best was not working. When I heard her teachers and classmates discussing the Norwegian 6-hour workday, I nearly welled up in tears. How sane! How civilized! And then there is that infamous maternity/paternity leave. All over the city I saw well-rested mothers and fathers pushing high-end strollers around the parks and cafes; with so much time off for baby care I also guessed that they also had time to develop friendships with other new parents. So much of the American new parent experience is alone--and is often an abrupt shift from the race and hoo-wa of the working experience. We work right up until we give birth and then after the celebratory visits from parents and friends we're left alone in our houses and yards to tend to and fend for a new life. We walk the sidewalks or the aisles of Target often alone. Once I remember being so tired and lonely after a trying day of feeding, changing, rocking, feeding and changing that I just stayed in my husband's green checkered robe all day, and by the time he got home from work I was a mess. What a different scene from those healthy, active, sociable parents I saw in all the parks in Oslo.

I loved learning the transit systems and how clean and dependable the trains, trams, and busses were. They ran often so that we never waited more than 7 minutes as we worked our way east, west, north, and south around the city. Imagine our light rail line times 100.

I loved seeing the Norwegians face the sun. They've had a long winter of dark and snow--record amounts of snowfall--and so with the longer sunny days they sat out on benches and chairs and on blankets on the grass with their necks jutted out and their faces opened to the sun like river turtles on rocks. Seemed everywhere I looked there was a Norwegian sitting beside me with his face up, eyes closed, and an ever-so-slight, Mona Lisa-like grin on his face. I spent a whole afternoon on my own at the Botanical Garden and after walking through the rock gardens, the Japanese Garden, and the Magnolia Grove, I layed out on the grassy knoll with a half-dozen other visitors. A Norwegian man in office clothes rode up to the area on his bike, pulled a rolled blanket out of his bike basket and opened it up onto a spot. Then he proceeded to take off all his clothes--black suitcoat, white buttoned shirt, black pants, socks and shoes--until he was down to his tight white speedo-looking undies, and layed in the sun for about half an hour. I had to chuckle looking over. Then he got up, put back on all his clothes, shook out the grass from his blanket, rolled it up and took off on his bike.

I was out hiking the hills or along the river or down the stairways to the markets every day and I've not set foot off my porch here since I've been back home. I feel tired and sluggish and a little wistful. It's beautiful out and I should be digging in my garden and flower beds. But I don't feel like being industrious just yet.

There is a Norwegian phrase that I've forgotten but that is illustrative of the Norwegian spirit, and it translates to "actively relaxing." It is an intentional spirit of relaxing, a way of planning for the day but with the goal of relaxing--and not having anything to "show" for it. They are big on day picnics that move into building and watching bonfires near the waters at night. They spend a good deal of time sitting and chatting and looking contentedly on all around them. Hours. In their underwear, too, if they like. You'd think I'd have thought more about this phrase before my trip and maybe I have. But when I saw the concept in action I think, in answer to Tim's question, that is what I want to bring back into my life here at home.