Saturday, March 10, 2018

Spring Feverish

We went to MN Monthly's Food & Wine Experience at Target Field last Sunday.  It was a beautiful, sunny March afternoon at the ballpark, tasting local wines and brews alongside samplings from well-known restaurants in town and thinking of the upcoming Twins season, followed Monday by six inches of frozen precipitation.  I say precipitation because in March we don't have snowstorms.  We have multi-precipitory events.  It started overnight with standard sleet, laying a slick base layer of ice under everything to come.  Then, throughout most of the day what was primarily falling is technically called Graupel.  It is a horror.  Half snow, half hail, it is essentially tiny hardened snow pellets that pebble the ice layer previously laid down.  After this it went dry for a couple hours while the temperature dropped, followed by the main event, four more inches of crisp powder over the top of the pebbled ice layer.  I'm currently looking at my tomato seeds and experiencing some spring fever.  Springtime in Minnesota is essentially a game of chicken.  It's looking really good for an early thaw and you're putting your coats and boots away for the season and the next morning you wake up to seven inches of snow on your car.  And just when you're ready to end it all and drive into the Mississippi, you come home after work to see the crocuses are finally peaking out of the boulevard garden.
Minnesota is a spectacular place to live.  We have the longest summer days but we pay for them with cold and snowy winters that will test anyone’s resolve.  Minnesota is physically a large enough state to have a geographic optimism gap, too:  The southern and western portions of the state rely mainly on farming the land, and coaxing nutrients out of it, to provide both income and sustenance.  The northern and eastern parts rely heavily on mining the land, and selling what they take out of it, to get their incomes.  In northern Minnesota they know that eventually they’ll wake up and all the iron will be gone.  All they’ll have left is some glacial soil too rusty and sandy to grow anything in.  In the south it’s different – they plant crops in their loamy soil every time the frost goes away, and even if they have a bad year, there will be some harvest, sparse or lush.
I am of northern descent.  While I am a mildly successful home gardener, I still originate from that fatalistic stock of Midwesterners who know how finite their fortunes are.  The first time my cousin took me out into the forty acres of woods behind my grandmother’s house she told me a story about the Windigo and snuck away to leave me to find my own way back to the house.  I was eight, and it was January.  It gets dark at four-thirty in January in northern Minnesota.  In short, I was raised knowing this land (or something in it or inherent to it) will eventually kill me.  Like the aforementioned cold and/or snow.
But that’s the price we pay for our ridiculous quality of life in the upper midwest.  Whenever we sit in an inner tube in the middle of a lake drinking a mimosa in sunglasses on the 4th of July weekend with only a half dozen other boats on the lake we have the obligatory moment when we have to imagine that same lake frozen damn near solid in January, covered in blowing snow dunes, and realize how fortunate we are that the winter keeps anything more nefarious than a tent caterpillar from being able to pupate and survive in this place.  This year in fact was the first since 1924 that the overall temperature between Christmas and New Year’s Eve averaged sub-zero Fahrenheit, and they think it may have some impact on our fight against some invasive insects, saving some berries in the garden and some boulevard trees.
So let's talk about cold.  Zero degrees Fahrenheit is cold.  And you may have experienced some extreme cold and think that you know about cold.  You do not.  At zero degrees Fahrenheit we have to bring our beers in from the porch or they’ll freeze.  Zero degrees Fahrenheit is nothing.  For a solid week in January, the temperature outdoors (in the world your god supposedly made for us), dips as low as -17F (-27C).  This is a temperature few humans know how to behave in.  It does however provide us with a convenient blast chiller adjacent to our kitchen - January is when the best pot pies and other multi-layered savory dishes are prepared, due to our porch being a walk-in freezer for a few weeks.
When it gets brutally cold in the winter many people think that once it gets to a certain point it’s as cold as it can get, or at least as cold as one can perceive.  Once it gets to -2F for instance, it can’t get any colder, and any colder it gets doesn’t register because the body can’t compute that kind of cold.  That is a fallacy.  At -2F you need some serious layering, but with long underpants, an undershirt, some jeans, and a wool sweater, with a fleece or wool vest under your outer coat, and with gloves under mittens, a good hat, and a scarf you should be okay as long as you move your body.  If you’re walking briskly for a few blocks you’ll be fine.  At -17F, it doesn’t matter how many layers you have on - if you’re outdoors for more than a minute or so and you’re not moving you will start to die.  I have felt this sensation waiting for the bus - where my legs, despite three layers of wool, start to go numb in the wind.  My fingers, despite being inside fur-lined leather gloves, will begin to ache if they’re not also in a second layer (coat pockets or mittens). I honestly don’t know how bears and other hibernating animals do it…
We’ve gotten spoiled in recent years with mild winters, and I can only assume it’s because all eyes were on our Super Bowl this year that real, honest to god, frost-your-nuts winter has returned to us.  But I recall winters from my youth where it wouldn’t get above 0F for five or six days at a time.  I remember a Christmas in my mother’s hometown of Eveleth when everyone was at a Christmas Eve church service, and I was at the house alone and I went out for a smoke in -30F (that’s -35C for our worldly friends), and I was so addicted that I put on three separate pairs of gloves so I could stay out there and smoke a whole cigarette.  I should probably take this opportunity to apologize to my aunts, since I’m pretty sure one of them came back to find their gloves reeking of cigarette smoke that Christmas.
I honestly have been amazed in the nadir of winter crossing I-94 into downtown on the bus and I know it's -15F outside because I just waited in that cold for the bus to come (my beard is probably just getting thawed by now), and it's dark, but there's still a heavy stream of headlights coming out of the Lowry Hill Tunnel and tail lights going in, and life continues unimpeded by this ridiculous obstacle of cold that's been set before us at six or seven in the morning.  Minnesotans seem impervious to the cold that winter throws at us.  This is just where we live, and we'll work through the winter in order to see the Twins win a bunch of games next summer only to choke in August yet again, because that's what we do, goddamnit!  Even if we're not baseball fans, but just gardeners with weak tomato yields, this is still our ritual - crippling cold, then guarded optimism, then mild disappointment.  It's the Minnesota way.
So let's talk about snow.  If you live in Minnesota you can expect to push a stranger's car out of a snowbank approximately once per winter.  If you're doing winter right, you'll only be on the receiving end of that charity once every six or so years.  I'm going on seven winters myself, and feeling pretty good about it (I can't believe this was already seven years ago!)...  This year wasn't too bad until after the holidays, but some Monday in January we had our first real Roads Are Useless snowfall in a few winters, reminding us that winter can end us whenever it feels the whim, and I found myself driving home through ten inches of fresh powder.  I followed a trio of plows out Olson Memorial Highway, but as soon as I turned on Penn Ave I knew it was going to take some luck to get all the way home.  The car right in front of me kept skidding off to the right, but pulled back into the traffic ruts every time.  It took a while, but we got up to my neighborhood.
When I finally turned on 35th Ave, there was a white car at the alley hung perpendicularly across the entire drivable road.  The driver got out and put floor mats under the back tires (of course it was rear-wheel drive), and after she got back in they were still going nowhere.  So I turned off my car and got out, and two other neighbors coming from the other direction came over to help, and we gave her a shove backwards into the alley so she could then angle out with our help into a parallel spot against the curb.
When I got back into my car and drove past her I nearly got hung up myself turning from 35th to go the half-block to my house, but luckily the Malibu has a high enough undercarriage that it soldiered through the snow mess left by evacuating neighbors.  And I was back out after it finally stopped snowing at 11pm because it is way better to shovel and then go to bed than to have to shovel before you go to work.  I dug both cars out, shoveled the walk, and slept like a baby - for five hours until my alarm went off.  In most cities this would begin round two of the "Snow Might Kill You" show, but in MSP?  There was a snow emergency declared, which meant the entire Mpls fleet of plows was out overnight from 9pm to 9am plowing major arterial streets, which is great for my commute downtown.  By the time my wife and I came home after work at least half (the even side) of all non-snow emergency streets were also plowed to the curb.  And by the next morning?  Life moves on - the third day they plow the other (odd numbered) side of lesser streets, and then everything should be able to go back to normal.  And this just happens, several times per winter, whenever more than six inches of snow falls, the city says "parking is weird for three days," and then you just keep going about your business.  But going about you business starts to seem bleak after six months.  That's how the snow demoralizes you.  Prince was not kidding around - it actually snows pretty often in April.  I've seen it snow here as early as mid-October (ask any Minnesotan about the Halloween Blizzard, we all have a story), and I've seen it snow as late as May 5.  And it's not like it snows and goes away either - between those calendar extremes you can sometimes have to navigate through this.  So when those crocuses show up, or when I can get the tomatoes started in the basement, it feels like a remarkable victory against the forces of the Windigo, and I get to spend a few glorious days living in the mind of a Southern Minnesotan, with my eyes on the harvest rather than the eternal frost.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Infinite Potential

I love having an autumn birthday.  A birthday is a great time for self-assessment.  And autumn is a great metaphor for inevitable decay.  Getting intimate with my own mortality at a time of year when my entire habitat is shutting down to hibernate and go numb has made me the existentialist powerhouse I am today.  Yes I did just take a couple of 8-hour courses in CPR & first aid, so yes it’s on the front burner, but even aside from that, how does one live in the Northland and not think often of death?  I don’t mean that in a morbid way, but every October I watch my garden wither, and well, I’m used to it.  And I know in the spring when new plants come they won’t be the same plants, but they will offer the same fruit by the 4th of July.  It’s not sad when they finish producing, it just means I need to get out the canning kettle.  We are tilting away from the sun, and it’s about to get cold for a while.
Sometimes on a September morning on the bus, if the sky to the east over the river has the right light and the right mixture of low Stratus and high Cirrus clouds, I begin to think about infinity.  When I look at the clouds and think of the enormity of things, I am sometimes over-awed.  I have to look away because it is just too vast to comprehend.  I look down at the skyline of the city I love, and the small scale makes sense.  I can see the building where I work from the bus, and this is a comfort.  I am headed toward a warm tower where I have created my own world.  The clouds above are not gigantic quivering pools in the infinite sky, but just a backdrop.  They are decoration behind the tangible play that is my life.  The building where I work is 792 feet tall.  I work in the basement (or concourse), about 16 feet below street level.  The parking ramp goes down three more levels, so I would guess all told that adds another sixty feet at most to the overall height.  When I walk through the dock from the tower to my office, I see these giant concrete columns, and they enclose steel beams.  Beams that are around nine-hundred feet long.  That’s .17 miles.  That’s a long piece of steel.  But I can make sense of it.  I’ve been to both ends of it.  I work at the bottom, and I’ve eaten (and served) holiday brunches at the top.  It’s a long elevator ride, but I can fit it in my head.  When I see a jet contrail against an orange sky, that’s sometimes 36,000 feet in the air.  That’s almost seven miles.  Think of something seven miles away from you on the surface of the earth, and try to imagine seeing it from where you are.  Imagine everything that exists between you and it isn’t there – that’s just space.  Seven miles is a longer distance than you think it is.  To put it differently, it takes roughly 45 seconds to get from the basement to the 50th floor, but imagine that times forty-five to get to 36K ft.  That’s a really long elevator ride.  Thirty-three and a half minutes of express elevator.  On top of this mindfuck, there are clouds that you can see up to eight times further away than that.  Not to mention the satellites blinking cheerfully as they traverse the night sky.  They are barely clinging to Earth’s gravity.  I sometimes think I’ll understand the scale of the universe better once I die.  Once I’m not trying to fathom eternity, but rather am a part of it, it may all be clearer to me.
Neil Armstrong recently died.  He is the fourth moon-walker to leave us, of twelve.  His peers were all born in the 1930’s, and soon there will be no one left alive who went to the moon.  That’s weird – it’s like old Tolkien-esque fantasy books, where there’s this mythical land that’s been mapped and explored, but no one alive has seen it, and no one can recall how to get to it.
It made me think about our collective lore a little.  What is lore?  It’s wisdom passed down generationally, or the fundamental narrative of a people, no?  A people, of course, is the collective description of a person.  It is like a school of fish or a murder of crows. More than that though, it is a tribe or a nation – it is a group of persons who all share a similar origin story.  The words, ideas, and solutions to problems may be different, debatable, or even diametrically opposed, but the frameworks in which the texts are built are the same.
Name a common exclamation of frustration when someone can’t accomplish something because of a technological shortfall.  I’d bet that by “Family Feud” rules, the phrase “we can put a man on the (God-damned) moon, but we can’t _____!” would be on the board.  The moon, and the fact that our peers have been there, is such an inherent part of our culture that I can’t even imagine someone coming back and saying, “Wait – can we put a man on the moon?”  A man on the moon is the concrete model of an abstract American Ingenuity that still exists, and still drives us to strive.  It’s the original MTV logo, for Christ’s sake.
So we went to the moon.  So what?  Well, for one thing, it is one of the oldest recurring characters in our discourse.  If you want to wax poetic about it, it has gazed down upon every moment of our history, yet it has always been out of our reach.  The very concept of flying through space to reach it is kind of absurd.  Can you blame the ancients for anthropomorphizing it as a god?
The peak of Everest is one thing.  You’re still standing on the planet where you originated.  The bottom of the ocean is one thing.  You couldn’t live there, and there are a lot of hostile conditions between you and home, but you’re still standing (submarining) on the planet where you originated.  When you stand on the moon the hostile conditions between you and home are literally nothing.  There is an actual lifeless void between you and the place that made you.  And you’re outside of its gravitational pull.
It is weird for me to think of all the moon-walkers being gone because it’s not like in my family when my mom says, “Grandpa came from Vermont,” and none of my cousins have been there.  There is a road between Vermont and me, and if I wanted to go there, all I’d need is a long weekend.  If no one remains who has been to the moon though, we actually do lose some real experience, via collective memory, that we can’t get back.  That road closes, and the moon passes into our history.  But I’ve seen enough 1960’s TV to know that the moon has always been our future, not our past.  The popculturephile in me cries out against this relegation of the moon to some musty academic “seen it,” but a certain voice in the back of my head tells me it doesn’t really matter.  On a larger scale, we can lose the voices that came back from the moon, but we can never lose the knowledge gained from the moon trips, or any other space explorations. 
Speaking of enormous distances, remember the Pale Blue Dot?  Dr. Carl Sagan’s single pixel of light is an actual photograph of our entire world in its greater context.  That is what I think of sometimes in the morning on the bus.  Because I am in that photograph.  And if you were born before 1990, so are you.  I was likely riding my bike with my friend Jon to Krinke’s Korner Grocery in New Brighton, or building one of a dozen or so tree forts in the forests of Arden Hills.  But I’m on that tiny blue speck living my life in that photo, just like the boy hustling in the streets of Santo Domingo is in that photo.  Just like the girl fishing a Norwegian fjord is in that photo, and like the old man hunting in the jungles of the Congo is in that photo.  And if you zoom out on that photo, there is no way to tell what time of year it is on Earth.  For the record, it was taken between March and June of 1990, so springtime in the northern hemisphere.  On half of that blue dot the days were getting longer.  On the other half, they were tilting away from the sun, and it was about to get cold for a while.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ode à la Grand Marais

When I was twenty-two, my best friend Jon and his girlfriend Jill invited me to join them for a weekend festival in Grand Marais on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  It was something of a family tradition for Jill, and apparently that year was the first summer the honors had been opened up to non-family members.  I was flattered, and didn’t have anything else going on that weekend, so I said I’d be there, on a lark.  I haven’t missed the Fisherman’s Picnic since.  The first few years I was there I learned the history of the group – who the regulars were and how the stateside kids had gone up and met the Canadians and they had all hiked up the rivers and jumped from bluffs and played in rapids together and other harrowing feats.  Near-death experiences in the formative years nourish life-long bonds; this I know as someone who was once seventeen.  I know how romantically dangerous a street dance on a Saturday night can be, juxtaposed against afternoons leaping forty feet into an icy brook with complete confidence.
But by the time I showed up, we were older, if not necessarily wiser.  When I started going up we were walking back to the campground from town as cautionary tales – with our cigarettes, and our liters of vodka and the innocent DQ Mr. Misties we poured the Karkov into.  We were higher than the kites we flew all afternoon Saturday on the beach, but we didn’t care, because it was the most fun we’d have in one weekend all year.  To be a hedonist among puritans, just once a year, is an experience I highly recommend.  It will discombobulate you, but luckily that word sounds a little dirty, so you’re already on the right track.We went on for several years, kayaking in the harbor, Bingo-ing at the legion hall, and climbing on the rocks overlooking the bay.  One weekend per year, we got to get all our crazy out at the end of summer and come back to the city to be serious for the oncoming winter.  That is, until Jill’s parents bought a house in town.  We all claimed to have figurative roots in the town, now suddenly they had put down literal ones.  And it's an adorable little cottage a block from the main drag, with an extra bedroom.  Then something different happened.  Jill, who had long since broken amicably from my best man, married the guy she was destined for.  And they had twins.  Twins!
Ages on, most of us still make the pilgrimage every August, though now things have changed slightly, and not in any way I could have predicted. My friends and I still go up north every summer, and those with kids bring them along.  We all have mellowed, though we’ve done so at different paces.  Some of us have children, others don’t.  Some of us still camp, others don’t.  Most of us still hike out to the bonfire one of the nights, and get just a little bit silly.
I was the first at the campsite this year, and that’s never happened before (I didn’t even make it up first the year that I paid for it).  My initial priority was getting my tent up and checking out the rainbow over the bay to the East.  When my campmate arrived, he & I enjoyed a couple beers and some homemade brittle and waited for the familied friends to get in touch.  After they did, we were anchored in the town with them and in the festival for the weekend.  I don’t have children, but I know quite a few of them, and it is a humbling moment the first time you turn to the baby you think you know and realize you’re talking to a fully formed human child, capable of running, and laughing, and skipping stones, and you have stories that predate her.  She did not exist when most of your life took place.  She is a Descendant.
When you have so many years of history in a place it is tempting to claim it as your own.  When you can no longer differentiate the years you were down by the lake from the years you were up on the hill – and no one thing happened in any specific summer or another – you don’t just have a history, you have a mythology.  Yet while it’s tempting to claim it as your festival, it is so much bigger than you.  It is the one who shaped you, not the other way around.  It went on for decades before you arrived, and it will go on just as merrily if you never come back.  But you are that little girl.  You are a product, a Descendant, of it, and you owe a little piece of who you are to it.  Here’s to you, Grand Marais… may you shape and mold many good friends to come.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Few Observations on Weather

Talk about your second takes.  Banana Blossom reopened.  I know, that’s old news, it happened months ago, but it’s great news to me because I still haven’t dropped in yet, and I am so excited to try this place.  I thought I had missed my chance.  They were open for a couple years with me driving by at least five times a week and thinking I really wanna try the food there.  Then it was hit by a tornado.  Not just grazed, either, but really slammed into like a hockey puck to the larynx.  It was over.  I lost my chance.  And chances don’t come along everyday on the north side.  When I moved into this neighborhood seven years ago there was a fantastic Caribbean joint a block from my house.  They had the best food, a spectacular happy hour, and plans for a delightful & sunny patio.  They got a glowing review from Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl back when she was with the City Pages.  Even with all of this going for them they took on too much debt and closed within the year.  I’ve read the statistics - 60% of restaurants fail in the first three years, and by five years the failure rate jumps to 75%.  I’ve worked in the industry for over a decade (I even waited on Dara once, when I briefly worked at Tryg’s), and I knew how the cards were stacked.  I knew I had completely missed my window of opportunity to try Banana Blossom’s fare, and that they were not coming back.  Yet somehow they did come back after the tornado!  Last fall the new glass went into their large front windows, and now they’ve been reopened for some time, and their food looks spectacular in photos!  I shall not continue to squander this blessing.  I shall support these ridiculously lucky NoMi entrepreneurs, and go there this week, I promise.
The end of May was the anniversary of that North Minneapolis tornado.  MPR made a huge deal about it.  I was on the bus on my way to work the next week, and noticed they had taken another house on the block on the northwest corner of Broadway & Penn Aves.  Now there is the old fast food place that’s boarded up, and one house still standing.  That is all.
I honestly don’t know if anyone is living, or considering living, in this house (it’s doubtful, but there’s no plywood over the doors or windows, so it’s not unthinkable), but still it occurred to me how odd it would be to wake up one morning and be the only house left on your block.  What do you do, with no fences, no hedges, no gates or delineations whatsoever, when you have a WHOLE CITY BLOCK to yourself?  On a major crossroads?  It’s not like this house is down by the park or tucked away along the creek or anything – it is smack in the geographical center of the poorest neighborhood in the city, and it’s alone on an EMPTY block.  The building I wanted my start-up business in used to be there, but has since been torn down (a result of the tornado).  St. Anne’s Catholic Community is right across 26th  Ave, too, so it’s not like no one is ever walking around here.
Take a moment to imagine yourself at home.  Now imagine waking up one morning to find you could peer across the street in every direction without obstruction.  Weird, right?  One recent Sunday I found myself on the 50th floor where I work, and from 750 feet above street level you can definitely see the stripe of no trees slash diagonally across North, from Broadway & Penn to Lyndale & 42nd.  I always found it difficult to locate my house from up there, now it’s right next to the white stripe, half way up, a few blocks off the left side.
No, we haven’t completely recovered.  A year later there are still houses with bright blue tarps on their roofs.  Many of these houses will probably never again support human life.  Many have already been taken by the bulldozers and the excavators, but of those that remain, few will stand in another year.  My favorite anchor on Penn & Broadway is trying to recoup & rebuild across the street from their now demolished building, on the empty block – I assume just because they have half a century’s worth of ties to the neighborhood.
I was at ALDI the other day buying some groceries, and there was a woman in front of me in line with the words “Project Bitch” tattooed just above her waistline, in a cursive tramp stamp.  I thought it was an apt metaphor for our shared neighborhood.  It IS a project.  It is a project that we’ve been working on for years, and one that is consistently frustrated by profiling, or stereotyping, or tornadoes.  It is something of a bitch, and there is still a narrative on the north side of a person with their fists up, a person who resents the scrutiny.  We take care of our own here; it’s just what we do.  We don’t need local TV news to pat us on the back for it.
So now everybody’s impressed with how many things have returned to normal on the north side.  Really?  It’s been A YEAR.  Many homes weathered the winter snows (thankfully sparse this year, but still…) WITHOUT ROOFS INTACT.  That is not normal.  Nor, in any other neighborhood, would you dream of saying, “wow, they’ve come so far” if that were the case for any fraction of the housing stock.  A year later they are still bulldozing tornado homes.  That’s how many were affected.  And the sad thing is most of them had only minor damage.  They just didn’t have any tenants or non-bank related interested parties to fix the minor damage, so exposed to the elements for a year it has become major damage.  If you want to know how far we’ve come in a year, come park at Penn & Broadway and get out of your car.  Take a moment to turn 360 degrees and really take in the cityscape.  You’ll wonder how many DAYS it’s been since the storm.
So feel free to congratulate us on the progress we’ve made, but don’t pretend there aren’t still empty lots full of crabgrass that no one wants to own.  We live in a vacuum that can only be filled by investment.  We need people to want to live where we live in order to recover, and right now on the north side of Minneapolis that prospect seems like something of a pipe dream.  All I can say is how much I love my neighborhood, and how much you’d love it, if only we could get some commerce up in here, and if only we could get some positive press.  I’m still waiting to see a billboard that says, “North Side: Come weather the storm with us, and rebuild something today.”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Thanks, Pop.

I recently saw this post on the Newscut Blog by Bob Collins.  It got me to thinking.  I have seen pictures of my dad when he was younger than I am now.  In fact, I once made a lamp for him and my mother made from slides from when they were first married.  It didn’t occur to me then, but now I am a couple years older than he was in those old photos.  I’ve heard stories from when he was younger than me.  The only problem with this is, the things people tell stories about are the exceptional things:  great accomplishments, life-altering journeys, epiphanies, and the like.  I don’t feel my personal story-worthy life events even compare with what I knew about my dad when I turned 19 and moved into my first apartment.  He was an Infallible Elder to me then.   All of the wonderful, relatable things I know about him, the things that have made us peers, I’ve learned since then.  I’ve learned that we’re a lot more alike than I ever assumed growing up.  I remember going to a Twins game with him and my friend Jill at the HHH Metrodome and having Jill tell me afterwards how weird it was to see the two of us sitting together, both leaning forward, arms on our knees, fingers interlocked, our weight on the balls of our feet, in the exact same pose as one another without intending it.  It was made more noticeable by the fact that white guys with beards tend to look alike, but at age 23 I was already becoming my father.
You think by the time you move out of your parents’ house that you know everything there is to know about these people who raised you.  I know I did.  After all, I’d spent every day of my life either with them or in relation to them.  What I hadn’t considered was that they hadn’t spent their every day in relation to me.  They had a whole life together before I came along.  A life when they made some of the same choices and mistakes that I have since made, because there are certain lessons that cannot be taught, but must be learned.
When I was 20 I moved to California, and my dad helped me get there.  When you spend two and a half days in a truck cab with someone, sleeping in rest stops with all your possessions just behind the back wall, there’s no way to not learn a few new things about them.  On that trip I learned about Dad's college weekend road trips, but also that he had a lot more wisdom to impart than just how to use a band saw (although this has proven helpful too).  That trip is also why, when Mom tells me that Dad is driving solo from my sister’s house in Seattle to my parents’ home in Tucson, I don’t worry.  I still want my mother to check in when I know she’s on the road.  Dad I know I don’t need to worry about on crazy feats of endurance travel.  I’ve seen the man do it.
After I bought a house back in Mpls, Dad came north to help me paint it.  I recall coming home one day to find he had climbed up the ladder to the porch roof with the six-foot A-frame ladder over his shoulder.  He had then propped the A-frame against the side of the house on the pitched roof to hang onto my louvered attic vent with one hand and use the other hand to paint the peak of the gable of my house (I assume he did this while I was at work because he knew I’d talk him out of it if I were home).  That is something I would never do.  Not for anyone.  I don’t necessarily have a fear of heights, I just don’t trust my own sense of balance that much.  If he ever asked, though, I’d do it for Dad.  Because I know he’d do the same for me, and has.  I won’t go into specifics, because I don’t want to give him ideas, but there are countless things that I’d never dream of doing ordinarily that I wouldn’t hesitate to do for my father.  When someone has your back like that, you have to reciprocate.  The man taught me how to be me, for god’s sake.  You can’t ever hope to repay that – all you can do is pay it forward.  Thanks, Dad.  I love you.  Happy Father’s Day.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Call me a Beverage Enhancement Technician

I had to stop in at the hotel to use the phone when I was downtown a couple weeks ago and I noticed something when I walked in. Since I normally come in through the back entrance, I seldom take note of anything in the front lobby. Up until recently, the big wooden desk to the right of the bell stand, the purview of the front desk staff, had a little name card on it saying “Manager on Duty.” Now, the plaque is less specific. It says “Hotel Information/Journey Ambassador.”
I am not making that up. It actually says “Journey Ambassador.”
That’s a bogus title. You’re not a Journey Ambassador. You’re a Concierge. And that’s cool. Say I’m staying at a hotel on business. I don’t need a “Journey Ambassador.” I’m just not that important. All I need is someone who can tell me where the nearest Walgreen’s is because my shaving foam, unwelcome in my carry on, depressurized and exploded. That is not a Journey Ambassador. Again, that’s a Concierge. I work for an international hotel chain. I won’t say which one, just in case our HR people stumble across this blog, but we have the same loyalty program every chain has. If you stay with us a lot, we’ll give you upgrades. If you stay with us a ton, we’ll learn your name and how you take your coffee. If you really drop some change our way, we’ll go out of our way to make sure you never feel want while you’re in our building. Hence the Journey Ambassador.
Here’s the thing: people want us to think right now that we’re special. You. And me. And all those people over there. Every one of us is deserving of an elaborate title, because every one of us is providing a unique service to society. We each, in turn, deserve to have an equally elaborately titled footman to acquiesce to whatever whim we may have. It’s like a short story by Gogol. Everybody has an important sounding sobriquet and a feeling of entitlement, but no one is actually providing a service anyone would miss if the position were gone. You’re not special. Neither am I, nor are any of those people over there. We are not doing anything so important that we need everything we want the moment we want it.
I’ve noticed a trend in T.V. ads lately. Both Starbuck’s and McDonald’s, two of the most faceless corporations on the planet, have started new campaigns that are really heavy on the individuality. Coffee is not only brewed, but also grown, roasted, and ground specifically for you. Every Big Mac is assembled with you, and your personal culinary preferences, in mind. This is incongruous with the very premise of Starbuck’s or McDonald’s. The whole point was that it was fast. It was pre-made and served up the minute you drove through because everybody wants a Big Mac the way a Big Mac is made. Now everybody wants a Big Mac to order?! That’s not part of the freaking deal. You either go to a chain and get what you expect, or you go to a neighborhood joint and get what they give you. You don’t get to walk into a Target and say, “well I think the pharmacy should be over there.” It’s laid out on a template.
So the government of my state officially shut down on July 1st. And this isn’t some sissy, Only The Poor People Feel It shutdown. This work stoppage means business. 22,000 state employees have been laid off. Everyone was turned out of state park campgrounds for the July 4th weekend. Highway rest stops are closed. You can renew your license plate tabs, but if you just turned 16 you can’t take your exam. If you want to get married, you can get a license for that through the county registrar, but if you want to catch and eat a Walleye, that license if you don’t already have it is unobtainable. Yes, I realize all this is goddamned absurd.
On Thursday I went to the DMV because no one knew yet what would remain open if the government shut down on Friday. I had to renew my auto registration, and figured it would be a while, so with earbuds in, I grabbed a number and sat down in the front windows while U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” blared forth from my ipod. If you’ve never listened to “Where the Streets Have No Name” at the DMV, I cannot recommend it highly enough. This is the situation that this song was designed for. Of course, I recognize the song was written about 1980’s Belfast, but through its ambiguous lyrics and first-track placement on the Joshua Tree album it has become an ultimate anthem to freedom and endless horizons; while hearing it from tiny cauliflowers in your ears that no one else can share while sitting in a fluorescently-lit hanging-ceiling cavern may be interpreted by some as depressing, for me it was nothing short of inspiring. And if you ever need assurance that you’re not that special, this experience will sear it onto your mind. Because hearing this song, all I wanted to do was get on the highway and drive. Fast. But before I could, I had to wait for the woman with the elaborate title to call my number and take my money. The DMV does not do Made To Order, nor should it.
So we really have the two extremes meeting in the middle. There is the Orwellian bureaucratic dystopia where you are a subject to the titled people, or there is the free-market, unregulated utopia where you have the title and everyone in your world is subject to you. Of course, in both worlds you still answer to someone. Both worlds have titled people, but some titles are more regal than others. Is one version inherently better or worse than the other? I mean, for anyone other than those with titles? I personally prefer a world where there is familiarity I can make for myself, where I have a home where everything is to my specifications, but anything outside of that sphere is up for grabs. Maybe I have to educate myself on what the norms and mores are for a different place. Maybe it seems weird, or even unpleasant to me. Maybe I grin and bear it. Maybe I become a better person for it before returning to my comfort-sphere. Maybe that’s the real world we all live in.
Really the only situation where I could justify a Journey Ambassador is in a world where nothing is ever the same. That is the world where I need a Journey Ambassador. When every day I wake up with a different set of rules, I need someone there to show me how to navigate the place. But when every hotel I stay in has the same offerings, amenities, and menu items in the on-site restaurant, I don’t need a Journey Ambassador. I need a more exciting life.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stormy Weather

On Sunday, May 22nd, I was at home watching a thunderstorm roll in from the southwest. I had all the windows open to air out the house (our house has deep eaves, so I wasn’t worried about the rain). When the power went off I started closing windows for the oncoming storm. Then the sirens started. I went out the (open) back door to the deck into a noise unlike anything I have heard in my yard before. When I looked eastward, toward the front yard, I could see a cloud of debris beyond the neighbor’s houses moving from south to north, brown and chunky in the yellow-green light of the afternoon. They have said that by the time the warning was issued and the sirens went off the funnel cloud was already on the ground. I went back inside, and downstairs.
Over the last three and a half weeks I have seen things in my neighborhood that I haven’t seen in six years of living in my home. I have seen people who may have lived next to one another for years without exchanging hellos, but now are out working together getting a limb off of a porch, or clearing shingles out of a driveway so the construction crew can get through, or nailing a tarp over a gaping hole in a roof.
It’s almost a cliché to point out the Coming Together and Neighbors Helping Neighbors aspect of it all, but it truly is something of a surprise. The day of the storm my favorite neighborhood liquor store was hit pretty hard. The conventional thought is “liquor store – can’t be a good thing for the neighborhood,” but this place really was an asset. They had wine tastings, they were always out front putting annuals in the giant flower pots on the sidewalk, they almost never had panhandlers around; they were just a locally run small business with a fifty-plus year history on West Broadway – a fixture of the north side. The storm came on a Sunday, when liquor stores aren’t open. No one was there when the windows blew out. They were looted. That is sadly what I expected to hear more of, but as far as I’ve heard it was an isolated incident. I’ve heard stories about renters caught up in bureaucratic snafus with the city inspections division, which do not surprise me in the least (don’t get me started on the city of Minneapolis inspections division – if you’re interested, see the comment from Kevin Moberg after the Newscut link below). But I am embarrassed to admit that, even after six years of saying hi to my neighbors and lending them yard tools and such (even the one or two whom I didn’t care for), it surprised me to see the level of cooperation this neighborhood has risen to.
In the day or two directly after the storm, there were people who just sat in their vans in vacant parking lots on corners, waiting for someone to need a ride somewhere. There was one guy who got kicked out by the city for his volunteer efforts. There were shops that, as soon as they had plywood over the still-exposed broken glass in their windows, immediately spray-painted “We’re open!” all over the outside of said plywood and threw their doors open to the people of the neighborhood. Monday morning Lisa and I went to the Lowry Café for some breakfast, and our waitress said they were the only building on that corner with electricity. People were coming in all morning to charge cell phones and blackberries, without being made to purchase anything. Now that’s neighborhood.
I grew up in an insular suburban community. We all would have pooled our resources to help Mrs. Pearson, or the Sawyers, if they needed it, so I’m familiar with neighborly bonds. What is weird is that in that community we all already knew each other. In north Minneapolis, some dude could walk up from the alley and tell me he’s lived here for ages, and needs some help getting debris out of the way down the block, and I’d grab a saw. I wouldn’t ask who he is. I wouldn’t question his motives. Because I’ve been on the receiving end of this Good Samaritanism, and I am more than happy to pay it forward.
I have nothing against suburbs - I loved growing up in them. And I love visiting my friends on the south side of town, or across the river, or outstate. I love living in a state where everyone is happy to help one another no matter where they come from or what their background may be, but I will say that I really love my neighborhood, and my neighbors. We on the North Side are a resilient people, more resilient than may be obvious to most of the Metro Populace, and I am proud of my neighborhood for having set a high bar as the standard for communities working together in the Twin Cities. God bless, and god speed your recovery, friends.