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.