Monday, December 22, 2008
Friday, November 07, 2008
I only had to go a block, to 26th and Lyndale, to find the celebration. A few dozen people were standing on the corners with little, circular Obama signs, hootin' and hollerin' to beat the band. They were stereotypical Uptowners, like me, white 20- and 30-something hipsters without a care in the world, at least for a few more hours. A band of remarkably law-abiding celebrants was going around the intersection in an endless loop, always waiting for the walk sign to cross each street. As one guy said, "This is a Minnesota riot." (Of course, that kind of expression will have to be revised in the wake of the RNC.) Later on I learned they'd started off ignoring the traffic lights until the police showed up and told them to behave.
One of my best friends had called me 90 minutes earlier from Cincinnati, tearfully ecstatic over the outcome. I wasn't able to match her emotion, so I called her back from the impromptu street festival to give her a taste of the euphoria washing over Minneapolis, her previous home. She sounded emotionally drained, so I just told her I loved her and left her the rest of the night to come down.
I joined the neverending parade, not quite as jazzed about the election as everyone else seemed to be, but still very grateful for the victory of democracy, colorblindness and the possibility of less corporate control of the government. Each new walk sign was greeted with a cheer, and, even though crossing the street usually isn't a big thrill, the enthusiasm was infectious. I might've walked around that intersection for an hour, but it didn't feel that long.
Whenever monotony set in, people would introduce new elements to the ritual. A few folks began to walk against the current, holding out their hands for high-fives from the main group. The recent high-five renaissance may be growing stale, but this occasion was more than joyous and innocent enough to revive the tiny, childish ecstasy of slappin' five. One crew formed a side-five line, saying "good game" in mock-serious tones. That took me back to my glory days in youth basketball.
While we walked in squares, the crowds on the corners grew as people came out of the C.C. Club and the Bulldog to smoke, watch the festivities and, eventually, join in. A couple guys would often stand in the middle of the street, in flagrant violation of the traffic laws, and exhort the passing cars to honk their support for Obama. That may have been why the police cars kept sidling through the intersection every 15 minutes or so.
On the northeast corner, in front of Treehouse Records appropriately enough, a guy plugged his iPod stereo into an outlet on the exterior wall of the store and held it over his head as it blasted Kanye, OutKast and other toe-tappin' favorites. A dance party slowly grew around him, until the circuitous procession was drawn into a gravity well of block-rockin' beats. Cardboard was then duct-taped to the sidewalk for the small group of dancers brave enough to attempt a little unrehearsed breakin' in front of a large audience.
After the historic, world-changing events of that evening, I shouldn't be ashamed to point out that the best dancer was black, right? Well, he was. He wore a light blue, apparently homemade t-shirt with the sentence "I have a black president!" spelled out in letters of random fabric, like an American Apparel ransom note. He even led a bunch of us crackers in a line dance. Having patronized about three nightclubs in my life, I didn't recognize the dance, but it looked a lot cooler than the Electric Slide.
I wouldn't have to mention the guy's race if the gathering hadn't been almost exclusively white. A few black guys gravitated to the spot after it started jumpin', and some folks who looked like they had close ties to the Horn of Africa showed up later on, but generally speaking this was a collection of young, privileged, white people overjoyed by the election of an African-American president. The fact that a few people of color actually managed to share in the revelry only made the moment sweeter.
A few people I knew showed up, and we exchanged pleasantries. There was a guy offering swigs from his big plastic bottle of vodka. I recognized him from behind the counter at the Loon, where I often heard Immortal Technique boomin' from their mini-boombox as I bought my late-night snacks and wondered if a radical leftist heart was beating just beneath the surface of that dingy convenience store. The intensity of his vocal accompaniment to Rage Against the Machine that night seemed to confirm my suspicions.
The cops parked in the middle of the intersection around 2 a.m. and hauled off two people blocking traffic. Some of the congregants were displeased with the police presence, but cooler heads steered them back to the music and the festivities continued with nary a discouraging word. But no more than 20 minutes later a man got up on a tailgate and started lecturing us on police conduct during the RNC. By then I was getting tired and wasn't interested in "direct action" or whatever angry words he had to share, so I headed home.
That night I'd just wanted to get together with people who believed in the same things I did and celebrate the fact that, for once in a blue moon, the system worked. We'd protested, knocked on doors, donated money, written letters, made phone calls, e-mailed our representatives and generally harassed our government into doing what it's supposed to do, namely, responding to our wishes. And now we had a president who would listen to us. We hoped.
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
My immediate reaction was perplexed amusement. I thought, "Why are they being so mean to those guys? They're both the same color!" The idea that ethnic hatred could exist between two groups of white people was foreign to my 21st Century American brain. It certainly put our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in a new light. For the last few years I've watched in impotent rage as Iraqis and Afghans are killed, imprisoned or merely traumatized by our brutal, arbitrary attacks. But my fury has been numbed by the tedious duration of the war, the seemingly endless (to the point of banality) repetition of its crimes and the monotonous, morally expedient media coverage that has induced in us a comfortable complicity. I have to admit that seeing white people as the victims helped bring the situation home for me again, esp. considering they were Irish and I'm 3/4 Irish.
Our wars overseas have become background noise in the presidential campaign. Now that the economy appears to be tanking, even less attention will likely be paid to the ongoing tragedies in the Middle East for which we are largely responsible. How sad it is that our own financial insecurity worries us more than the survival of millions living at the other end of our guns.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
I thought you'd all enjoy the following witticism I composed as I strode through downtown Mpls. between the 3 temp agencies that enjoyed my presence today:
Working for temp agencies is like keeping mistresses. The only way to keep them happy is by making sure they never find out about the others. Despite the failure to provide their clients with any reasonable measure of job security, temp agencies are unreasonably jealous corporate entities. During my two-year tempin' tenure in Chicago, I made the mistake of alerting one agency that another agency was already selling my services. As I rode the El to work that morning, a woman from Agency A called and told me about a job. I declined the offer, saying my current job with Agency B paid better. Stunned, she asked me if I would've left the assignment had the pay been better at the gig she mentioned. I said yes, thinking, rightly in my opinion, that it was a completely understandable position. In that insufferable passive-aggressive, corporate way, she said her agency would be reluctant to find me any more assignments given this revelation.
What did I do wrong? All I said was that I'd leave my current TEMPORARY assignment if a better offer came along. Do you know what that's called? Fucking CAPITALISM! God-FUCKING-damn it! I'm not happy about re-entering that world. When corporations screw people over, it's just the vicissitudes of the Market. When people screw corporations over, it's disloyalty, or part of the machinations of mafia-controlled unions.
Temp agencies also tend to be rather uptight. Most of them are afraid yer gonna make them look bad at your assignments. I don't care for the condescending way they coach you to "make a good impression" and "blow them away," because this particular company is "one of our best clients" and "that's why we're sending you." They want you to dress up, resulting in you, the temp, being the most formally dressed person in the office, which makes your employment status all the more obvious. The process adds extra layers of corporate misery.
My God, why am I going through with this again? Well, I feel better now that I've relieved myself in the crystalline void of cyberspace. Hopefully it'll help me through this (please, God) "temporary" situation.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
I was afraid Minneapolis would look dull and drab after visiting all those beautiful and/or bustling metropolises, but it actually looks newer and more interesting than before. Everything has been refreshed, the look, the smell, the feel of the place. Even the breezes seem fresher.
My parents spent last week in Iowa. (Dad was attending a conference.) They left me a car to tool around in, as they often do during trips. On Thursday I headed north to see Cambridge, where we lived until the day after I finished first grade. The trip took an hour, because I started on I-35 on the hunch that it would take me to or near Cambridge. It didn't, so I had to turn west at North Branch and follow State Hwy. 95 for 15 minutes to reach my destination.
I should've taken Hwy. 65, which I drove under shortly after entering town. The population is 5,500, up 2,000 from 1985, the year we left. They expanded 65 and built a hill under it for an overpass. Fast-food joints, car dealerships and strip malls have grown up around the highway since its expansion. As I headed into town, that development quickly gave way to an older working-class neighborhood with some vintage trailers in the yards, the kind Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel took to California.
Then came the skinny railyard. Boxcars waited on the sidetracks as the occasional freight train passed through. The downtown was still two blocks from the tracks, although not quite as vibrant as it seemed when I was 7. I continued past Main Street to Fern, the street I grew up on. Taking a right, I turned onto a world in miniature, as if my childhood had been shrunk to fit into a snow globe. Everything looked so much smaller than it did when I was a kid, but so little had changed. Our church, Christ the King, an imposing, black edifice with a white statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard, looked identical to what I remembered, as did the mouldering convocation center across the cracked parking lot, the unkempt t-ball field across the street and the faded elementary school beyond the outfield. The only differences were bright, new jungle gyms around the school and the greatly increased height of the trees lining the ballfield.
That was the field I walked through on my way home from school on the last day of first grade, crying the whole time. The next day we left Cambridge for the 'burbs, in our case New Brighton, but when it comes to the 'burbs, names aren't that important. Seeing my first (and only real)hometown again reminded me why I'd been so heartbroken to leave it. Continuing down Fern Street, the high school ballfield followed my old t-ball field on the right, after which I came to our block. Again, the trees were much taller and more numerous now, providing a canopy that would've drastically altered the sun-soaked memories of my early youth.
Our next-door neighbors, whose son was my best friend, remodeled their house a few years after we moved out, so no nostalgia was unleashed by the sight of it. The same was true for our old house, even though the only big differences were the aluminum siding, the bay window and the badminton net in the front yard. It was still a simple, brown, one-story ranch. Disappointed, I kept on rolling slowly through the neighborhood. A few houses had remained the same, which was a comforting reminder that not all houses built since the 80's have a 2o-year shelf life (even if they look as disposable as those single-use cameras).
At the end of our block there'd been a horse farm with a silo, an abrupt demarcation between town and country. It appeared to still be there, although the many new trees obscured the view from the street. I drove around the perimeter of our three-block 'hood, noting the disappearance of the vacant lots with their crabgrass, bald spots and dandelions. The yards were all flat, spacious and kelly green. It could've been any prosperous, first-ring 'burb, filled as it was with preciously constructed ranch-style houses of the 50's and 60's. The difference was we knew our neighbors and all amenities were located within walking distance. That's only true of a tiny percentage of Suburbia.
It took me two passes to turn onto the bus entrance for the elementary school. I was afraid my persistence would be mistaken for pedophilia. It was still summer, though, so I was probably in the clear. The letters placed high up on the building said "Cambridge Primary School," but I don't remember anyone calling it by that name. The big three-story block by the parking lot was the gym. I remember the day in P.E. when we were told to climb a net to the ceiling of that gym with only stretching mats to land on if we fell. Never too fond of heights or risking bodily harm, I got about five feet off the ground before I came back down. One of the main doors was open, through which I could see a 20- or 30-something janitor operating a floor buffer. I thought about asking if I could look around the place, but it seemed like a creepy request, so I moved on.
Along Old Hwy. 65 (a.k.a. Main St.) was a steakhouse where the old drive-in, Fuzz'n'Dumpy's, and then the A&W had been. The drive-in area was now enclosed in glass. It looked much nicer, but I still missed the drive-ins. I turned off Main St. looking for my babysitter's house, where my parents had dropped off my sister and I before work and picked us up after school. The area was older and lower-income, sparing it the homogenizing and stultifying effects of latter-day affluence. I couldn't find the house, but that was likely a failure of memory. My image of the house is a large, shabby, white two-story in the shade of a huge, old tree. There were no dwellings fitting that description.
My second pass through downtown was more thorough, including a slow drive by some national fast-food chains, a gothic teenybopper (gasp!) tattoo parlor and a still-active strip mall that had opened just before we moved away. I parked and wandered through the same Ben Franklin five-and-dime store I'd visited as a kid. Not much had changed. There were still cheap plastic toys, jigsaw puzzles, model-building kits and generic candy. I didn't talk to the cashiers. It felt like I was intruding, an interloper in Paradise. Next door was the same clothing store my mom had taken me to over 20 years ago. The facade remained a 50's-style suburban classic, "Leader" written in man-sized cursive letters across the second story. Inside was a decor still making the transition from 80's to 90's, although the men's half had a more contemporary look. From there I crossed the street and went into the old, but gleaming-white post office. There was a mural inside I assumed was a product of the WPA, and the brass mouldings had a hallucinogenic effect on me. I swear I saw George Bailey behind the counter.
The Rum River Park was my next stop, a setting for some of my fondest childhood memories. I don't actually remember doing anything specific there, just vague recollections of picnics. The big shock was discovering it was 3 blocks from our old house. Back in the day it had easily appeared to be a car-worthy trip. Then again, I seem to recall driving to church, which was 2 blocks away. The park had hardly changed a bit, although, as with most of the town's preservation, this mainly looked like a case of benign neglect rather than studied restraint. I walked through the greenest-green grass, past a port-a-pottie, a sand volleyball court and a picnic shelter, all of which showed signs of, if not abandonment, then at best half-assed upkeep. It was hilly and tree-enclosed. To get a peek of the wide, lazy river, I had to hike through a wall of towering, deciduous timber. (I'm sorry. I grew up in the suburbs. I don't know shit about trees.) The hills weren't as mountainous or steep as I remembered, but I was happy to see the place mostly unchanged. The only significant landmark I'd forgotten was a large firepit encircled by stone benches. Of course, we'd never been into barbecuing.
I continued roaming the town, noticing the hospital had expanded and was probably the biggest local employer. The road that ran parallel to Hwy. 65 was under construction and unavailable for me to check out the drag where we used to go out to eat or rollerskating. The roller rink held a lot of memories: skating awkwardly to my favorite songs (that I only seemed to hear at the rink), such classics as "We Built This City" by Starship and "Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker, Jr. (Yes, I had to look up "Ray Parker, Jr."), and playing a primitive video game with my best friend Eric, wherein I steered the front end of a fire truck and he steered the rear. I found it to be a rather challenging game. Eric always took the back end because he was better at it, a fact he wasn't shy about sharing with me, and one of which I can be excused, since he was 4 years older. (If you're wondering what it was like to have a best friend who was 4 years my senior, the only word that comes to mind is "normal.")
But I already knew the roller rink was gone, along with the anonymous fast-food place next door where we'd often gone after a good, long skate. Previous homecomings had alerted me to that sobering reality. The time had come once again to bid adieu to my idealized, antediluvian childhood. I headed back south down Hwy. 65, back through the obstinately adolescent 'burbs to my new, mature home in Uptown. There were no maudlin, Movie-of-the-Week-style tears, just a wistful acceptance of the passage of time and the snow globes it leaves behind.
Friday, August 22, 2008
The new car was much quieter and more relaxed, but there was a price to pay for this serenity. The new seat's effect on my posterior was akin to sitting on a burlap sack bare-assed. All the seats on that car possessed the same mysterious quality of abrasiveness. However, it was still a small price to pay, so I tried to enjoy my new, calm surroundings.
The scenery was wonderfully stark, the high, dry plains and barren hills dotted with brush. For one of the few times on the trip I kept a Real Time journal, meaning I wrote about stuff as it happened or as I saw it out the windows. I'll switch to the present tense to give you a sense of the immediacy of these observations: (It's almost like you're there!)
6:51 pm (Grand Junction, CO): This wild country has been tamed. By an oil refinery. What vision & boldness must've been required to think, "Ya know what this majestic, untamed wilderness needs? A big, ugly, smelly oil refinery." Without sleep, I become even more of a voyeur. Approaching tunnel with picture-perfect portal, as if we were about to enter the Mines of Moria.
Being extremely tired, I did a lot of reading instead of the writing I'd meant to do. I had 2 books that I'd purchased for the trip: A People's History of the World by Chris Harman and My Custom Van by Michael Ian Black. The former was fascinating for me, as a leftist history buff. The latter was an hilarious collection of absurdist essays. If any of the following diary entries amuse you, credit Michael Ian Black. He was my inspiration. By the end of the day we were in Utah. That night I got at least 6 hours of sleep, thanks to my exhaustion, even though I had to switch sides repeatedly & my neck was quite sore in the morning. ("That's what she said!" As far as I'm concerned, that joke is an evergreen.)
7:54 am (Nevada?): The girl kitty-corner from me is still trying to sleep, like many folks in the back half of the car. (This is the last car.) I've gotta hand it to her. She's determined to get her 8 or so hours of sleep. She's also English. Coincidence? (Yes.) I picked up a sausage, egg & cheese bagel from the mini-cafeteria. The exceedingly courteous (& probably gay) attendant politely popped my bagel in the microwave and set a cup of ice in the cardboard tray for my (27%)cranberry juice. (Engineer announces copper wire was stolen from signal boxes, causing another 2-hour delay last night. Now 4 hours behind sked.) It was the kind of breakfast you could purchase at any respectable gas station, but when I carried it back to my seat (with very little trouble thanks to the amazingly secure cardboard tray) and took a bite out of it, ya know what it tasted like? I'll tell you what it tasted like: America. Can we come together as a people & demand our gov't guarantee the right to ride on a train staffed with at least one sassy, fat, affectionate, black woman? I think we can. If democracy cannot deliver on this promise, then what good is it really? A passenger commented on the coolness of the A/C, and our conductor responded, "I like it cold. There are only a few things I like hot, but I'm not gonna tell you what they are." She got many laughs for that one. I wonder what the 50's version of that exchange was, between a black worker and white customers. Probly very similar.
9:38 am: A middle-aged couple was sitting in lawn chairs in a tiny town. I wonder if they make it a point to watch the Amtrak trains pass by each day. That'd be pretty sad, esp. when you consider they'd have to call or check the website b/c of Amtrak's chronic tardiness. There was a guy waving at us in a bigger town. My thoughts: "We're more important than you & we're going places more important than this." (I can be a real bastard sometimes.) I salute these modern-day pioneers, these latter-day frontiersmen & -women who brave a forbidding landscape & stake their claim to a barren plot of unforgiving land. What moves them to choose such a harsh life? One thought & one thought alone: They have a lot of old cars & pickups & they need a community where they can leave their vehicles in the backyard w/o the neighbors complainin'.
10:34 am: Just saw a huge "BM" on the side of a hill. (I mean the letters "B" & "M", not what they stand for.) Could that be the most laborious, painstaking scatological joke in history? No, the name of the town below is Battle Mountain. Darn. The 50's-era grocery stores & restaurants & motels were in good shape & apparently still in business. I guess its remoteness keeps the chains away, except for the Flying J truck stop. The place looks like a throwback. The main drag ran along the tracks, but I didn't see a train station. I'd like to visit that place. It looks like what Cambridge(, MN, where I lived thru 1st grade) must've looked like in the 50's & 60's.
We passed a couple ghost towns and half-ghost towns in Colorado and Utah. They were scattered collections of shacks, trailers and rusty vehicles, likely choked off in recent decades by the death of their rail lifeline.
Despite the burlap-sack seats, my new car had electrical outlets, so I could plug in my laptop and type the first entries in my travelogue. There was no WiFi on any of the trains I rode, as far as I knew, although I didn't check in the Lounge/Sightseeing/Observation cars. On this train, the California Zephyr, originating in Chicago and terminating at the San Francisco Bay, I didn't check out the Lounge or Dining cars at all, mainly due to fatigue and the pleasantness of my seating location.
At some of the stops they'd let us get off, stretch our legs and (for some of us) fill our lungs with that "sweet Carolina smoke." (Name that episode.) I disembarked a few times, but stiffness was not a problem. (I wonder how many of my less mature readers are giggling right now.) We picked up many old people in Reno, not to stereotype seniors as gambling addicts. But they are.
From Nevada's desert, riven by canyons and spiked with mountains, we climbed into the Sierra Nevada, where we stayed until we were well inside California. The slopes were cloaked in towering pines. We rolled lazily through Gold Country, peering at the peaks and old prospecting camps our tour guide pointed out over the PA. There was no hint of urgency to make up the hours we'd lost on the High Plains. It seemed like we could've gone much faster. The grade was gentle and the corners generally loose (as opposed to "tight").
I called my 2nd cousin (or 1st cousin once removed or just my dad's 1st cousin) Bob Foley a couple times to give him updates on our ETA. After Sacramento, the train whooshed through the rest of the journey. I "de-trained," in Amtrak parlance, at Martinez in the East Bay at midnight, 6 1/2 hours late. Bob and his wife, Pat, were walking across the platform to meet me. They're in their 60's. Bob is at least 6' 4". Pat is at least a foot shorter. They hugged me and drove me to their house in a Lexus.
On the way home, we got stuck in frozen traffic. Bob turned off the engine twice because his tank was low. After a few minutes of fear that my trip's delay-curse had struck again, the cars and semis started moving. There was a bunch of debris on the road that resembled cardboard and an intact hatchback on the shoulder, but no sign of a serious accident.
My utter fatigue limited my conversational creativity. When we arrived at their house in Danville, I was struck by the suburban splendor of the neighborhood. Their abode was a spotless model of refined, upper-middle-class taste. I climbed into the gorgeous guest bed past the point of tired, heading toward wired. Sleeping in such a comfortable bed after two days and nights in a train seat was a little disorienting, but it didn't take me long to fall asleep.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
A mother and her 3 kids were in the row behind me. They were pretty quiet, but I still figured my luck was improving when they got off at Omaha 'round about midnight. I was wrong, oh so horribly wrong. They were replaced by a couple (in their 60's, maybe) and their 4 girls around the age of 10. The girls were somewhat lively, but the parents were ornery. It just didn't seem like the daughters' moderate unruliness warranted their peevish chastising.
Of course, as an outsider you never know how often they have to put up with those annoying little habits. To top it all off, one of the girls was sick and would throw up into one of the Amtrak-provided plastic bags at least twice an hour throughout the night. Even taking that into account, I still much preferred the kids to their parents. Although they were quite affectionate with the sick girl, this threw their ill tempers into greater relief.
Being new to train-sleeping, I tried a couple different positions. Just leaning back in the seat didn't work since I'm a side-sleeper. I tried the same thing on my side: no dice. I lay down across both seats with my legs folded against my belly and my head resting kinda awkwardly on my mom's inflatable neck pillow on the aisle arm rest: snake eyes. I lay diagonally across both fully-reclined (45 degrees at most) seats on my side: like throwing a seven when you don't wanna throw one (whatever that's called).
Long story short, I did not sleep that night. Mainly I stuck with the horizontal position until my neck got sore. Not a great night, but not as bad as it could've been. It was an early morning for most of the passengers as the sun woke us up to catch the tail-end of Nebraska with its rolling prairie occupied by horse and cattle ranches. The soil became drier and hills popped up when we crossed into Colorado.
There was an elongated stop in Denver, and then we snaked our way up into the mountains. The views were beautiful. Unfortunately, that was when my sleep deprivation caught up with me. Despite the unpleasantness of maintaining consciousness (exacerbated by the aforementioned parents behind me), I bravely fought off sleep, yielding only a few minutes to "the cousin of death." (I think that's what Shakespeare wrote. It was either him or Bruce Vilanch.)
But the damage was done. I could not enjoy the scenery in my sleep-deprived and old-ornery-parents-of-10-year-olds-aggravated state.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Last weekend my mom organized a family reunion at the Dunn family farm in Iowa. I rode down on Saturday with my parents and sister, Theresa, who just finished grad school at Penn State and moved to Austin, TX with her fiance. The occasion wasn't as nice as it should've been. I was not in the mood to deal with Mom. I swallowed my discontent in traditional silence, but that, predictably, made me quiet and ill-at-ease. And constipated. (TMI?)
My aunts, uncles and (most of my) cousins from Chicago, Dubuque, Champaign-Urbana and Georgia were there. This was the first reunion with the next generation. My cousin Erin's 5-month-old son Will was there and quickly became the center of attention. We usually don't see each other more than once a year and we're not the most extroverted family anyway, so the baby was a welcome social lubricant and filler of dead air.
I used to feel gipped because my family was so often shy. (Those of you who know me understand how hypocritical that was.) Nowadays I take responsibility for picking up (a fair share of) the slack in the conversations. Unfortunately, the lid on my internal turmoil also tamped down my interest in social interaction around Mom. It's sad to say, but I think if she hadn't been there, I would've enjoyed the reunion a lot more. ("Isn't it ironic? Don't ya think?")
The official function was a Sunday luncheon at Flatheads, the bar in St. Anthony. "St. A," as it's known locally, is the town nearest the family farm with a population of a couple hundred. Even that seems like an overestimate, though. All 16 of us filed into Flatheads, a suitably small, casual establishment with a big-game-hunting theme. We divided into the time-honored adults and kids tables, a quaint distinction now that every "kid" is over the age of 21.
Over pizza and fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, the adults chatted easily, while the kids sputtered along. We're still learning how to relate to each other as adults. The familiarity and informality we had as kids is gone. Getting together on a somewhat-annual basis will do that to ya. It's like we're trying too hard to keep the conversation polite. We don't wanna offend anyone with a bold question or comment. As I said, I was way off my game, so nary a peep could be heard from my corner of the table.
I felt better on Monday, but by then the Illinois and Dubuque contingents had to leave. Even with my improved mood I wasn't feeling gregarious, so I squandered my last chance to converse with the remaining Georgia relatives for at least a year (except Uncle Mike, who owns and visits the farm often for maintenance and caretaking). Cousins Laura and Susan whipped up a batch of spaghetti for an early supper, immediately following which I said goodbye and left for the train with the folks.
That was a tense ride. By the time we hit Zearing (5 miles into the trip), I wasn't sure I could handle the stress. On I-35 my anxiety let up as I initiated another game of "Name That Tune: Classic Rock Edition" with Dad. He got "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and almost choked up telling me the origin of the song title. It was what a kid carrying his brother said to Father Flanagan (he of Boys' Town fame) when they showed up at the father's door. When we stopped for gas at a Des Moines suburb, I told Dad it'd been a tough weekend for me. I didn't say why, and he didn't ask.
The decent atmosphere prevailed until we reached Osceola, a town well south of Des Moines and site of the nearest Amtrak stop. The station was old and maintained on the cheap. The ticket office was barren and strewn with loose papers, like an overseas military HQ in the last days of the British Empire. The benches, though, were classic and in reasonably good shape. The lady in the ticket office informed us the train was running an hour late, giving us 2 hours to kill.
We cruised a residential 'hood and parked in the town square to walk around. It was a typical small town Main Street. Most of the buildings were early 20th Century, half of which housed local businesses: cinema, hardware store, tailor, medical equipment, tavern, Chinese and (Midwestern) American restaurants. The other half were empty. At the conclusion of our walking tour the boredom was overpowering. I realized what made it so unpleasant was being with my parents. I said, "I can't remember the last time I was this bored." Dad laughed and said I should get used to it if I was gonna travel by train.
We drove around some more. Mom was antsy to get back to the station. Dad shot her down but drove us back to the station anyway, in that aggressive-passive way of his. I unloaded my backpack and suitcase again and carried it to the side of the station, to avoid the stuffiness inside. Outside there was an intermittent breeze to relieve the humidity lingering before sunset. The silence and tension rolled in like a debilitating fog. After a half-hour of stupefaction, I reminisced about the delights of visiting the farm in the summer as a kid. The emotion welled up into my mouth and barely affected my speech on one phrase.
Shortly thereafter the station worker called us to the platform. Just to be safe, Mom and Dad hugged me in the station. That was almost visibly emotional for me. They appeared to be holding it back too. It took a while for the train to arrive. They came out there but kept their distance (I'm guessing) so as not to confuse the conductors. It was after dark at that point. When the train finally pulled up, it was otherworldly. A sleek, silver double-decker roared into the sleepy hamlet, slicing through the peaceful night as if opening a portal to the future. I thought of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Strange that a retro mode of transport dazzled me so. My nerves had a lot to do with it, engorged as they were on my parents' (mainly Mom's) anxiety.
I waved goodbye to the 'rents anticlimactically and boarded the train.
Friday, July 04, 2008
I've developed a theory of how economic growth became the panacea of our time. Throughout history, groups of people have conquered or wiped out other groups of people. In the novel Ishmael, the catalyst of this phenomenon is identified as agriculture. Although Jared Diamond seems to contradict that idea in Guns, Germs and Steel with his depiction of jungle tribes in Papua New Guinea as being in a constant state of war. Whatever the origin of this impulse, history is littered with military conflict and its attendant carnage. The victors tend to be the societies with larger populations or more advanced martial techniques/technologies. I think this is the primary motive for growth: the need to grow a population larger than one's neighbors to provide for a larger army. Also, a larger population generally leads to greater social complexity, creating a niche for scientific specialists who can develop superior weapons and armaments. In the modern world this motive has more to do with economics. The larger a country's economy, the more influence it can wield politically.
The second motive for growth is greed. A society's elite, corrupted by power, usually increases its share of the wealth as the pot grows. The growth of the society exacerbates the corruption by making it more difficult to be discovered and rooted out. For example, if you live in Minneapolis, and the decisions that really affect your life are made in D.C., it's a lot tougher to check up on the politicians than it would be if they worked in St. Paul. The sheer size and complexity of the federal government hinder the average citizen's ability to correct its operation, i.e., to make it truly democratic. Thus corporate welfare continues to climb, while people welfare continues to dwindle, even though public opinion would like those trends reversed.
While I know this essay is already rife with digressions, I'd like to take a moment to elaborate on the corrupting effect of power. People on the Left, like me, keep wondering, "What is Bush thinking?" His actions seem so illogically harmful that their justification eludes us. (I'm sure the Right asks the same question about us.) I think the answer lies in the old maxim, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Rulers often become convinced that their own aggrandizement is the best way to help the country. In Bush's brain, he probably still believes that giving Big Oil huge tax breaks, drilling in ANWR and occupying Iraq are essential to our national security and prosperity. The fact that these policies also enrich himself, his family and his friends is just a happy coincidence. But I think his self-delusion only extends as far as the Iraq War's necessity. Its rationale must be crystal clear to him. When he talks about bringing democracy to the Middle East, I'm sure he knows it's just a convenient cover story. Sure, it'd be great if democracy spread through the region like an invasive species of mussel, but they really don't give a fuck as long as the oil is flowing (to the U.S., obviously).
Which brings us back to the problem of growth. Not only has Bush been brainwashed to believe that what's good for Big Oil is good for the country, he's also dead certain that economic growth is mandatory if you want prosperity. Unfortunately, every other politican seems to believe that too. They think our current economic model is the only viable option. Therefore we must keep growing the economy ad infinitum to appease the system we've got. Rather than the economy working for our benefit (its supposed raison d'etre), we work for the benefit of the economy, a.k.a., the Fat Cats. The political elites reject the idea that we can change the system to something that will work within ecological limits. Interestingly, they also profit the most from the current arrangement.
If I may self-consciously digress once more, the whole idea of people serving institutions instead of institutions serving people is one of the great plagues of civilization. On a nighttime constitutional to the Loon a few weeks ago, I saw the dark side of JFK's famous inaugural line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." I'm pretty sure he meant we should help each other out, but underneath it lies a disturbing strain of nationalism. (Of course, when it's your nation it's called "patriotism.") From a humanitarian perspective, nations only exist to serve human needs. When a nation asks its citizens to do something contrary to their interests, that nation becomes a burden to be thrown off and, if necessary, replaced by a government that enacts the will of its citizens rather than dictates to them.
It's after midnight and my eyes are getting bleary, but I think I can wrap this up and still salvage some coherence. The reason I'm writing this is because economic growth has become an existential threat to humanity. Growth means increased pollution. Growth means increased consumption of natural resources. Growth means increased destruction of the planet. There may only be a few years left to avoid catastrophic Climate Change, according to NASA's James Hansen. Yet the politicians keep whining about protecting the economy, a human construct over which we have complete control, rather than protecting the earth, our only habitat, which has complete control over us. I'd hate to think our species could be doomed by a failure of imagination.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
The occasion was just a visit to Rainbow to pick up a family-sized bag of Cheetos and a six-bottle-pack of Coke (A man can work up a powerful appetite when he's unemployed.), a stop by the Loon to purchase the 3 new flavors of Mountain Dew and make my voice heard as a consumer (I can't help it. The colors look really tasty.) and a sojourn to Hollywood to rent a decent-looking documentary on World War I. (How much do you know about World War I? If you're an American, like me, probably very little.)
It's nice indulging in a promenade on a summer's eve. (Remember that feminine hygiene product? Yeah.) The sky is pretty, the temperature is cooler (but still uncomfortable in this case) and the sun's tyranny is at an end. Also, there are shadows in which anything could be lurking: a mugger, a possum, a new summer love? As I passed the laundromat by Muddy Waters and the Leaning Tower of Pizza, I caught a subtle insinuation of Deep Woods Off on the breeze. It was a fond reminder of summers-gone-by. I don't know if I can reclaim that feeling.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Of course, as we all know, doing good does not always bring good fortune. That's why one of the age-old questions is: Why do bad things happen to good people? In high school I thought of an answer to this question. I was very impressed with myself, as I've never heard anyone offer a solution to this theological riddle. I don't think I've ever presented my answer publicly before. I've mentioned it to a few friends, in high school and college and maybe a few years ago. I'll preface it by saying it presupposes a benevolent deity/universal soul/life-force. The answer goes like this: If only good things happened to good people, there'd be no virtue in being good. People would only do good so that good things would happen to them. Whadda ya think? Pretty cool, huh? I'm sure I'm not the first to think of that, but I'm pretty sure I came up with it on my own. Not that I put a lot of thought into it. It was just one of those things that comes to you, like a bolt from the blue.
Watching The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy probly put me in this frame of mind. I watched the BBC TV series from '81. It was a chore getting through all 6 half-hour episodes. The special effects were horrible, and the lighting for the interior scenes was painfully bright. Some of the actors were good, but some were not, and the miserably low production value quickly sapped my will to finish the series. I did though, and at least it gave me the right to harangue those H2G2 (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) fanboys (and -girls) who think the movie was a crime against nature. The movie is so much fucking better than the TV series! I would say it's even better than the books. The real test is how does it stack up against the original incarnation of H2G2: the radio series. In my opinion, it's better than that as well. So take that, you H2G2 cultists! The movie is the best version of the saga yet! And I hope they make a million sequels, because the movie fucking rocks! Yeah!
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
I considered titling this post "The Summer of My Discontent," but I thought it was too cliche. Hopefully my backup choice will be adequate. This evening I finally accepted the fact that I'm sad. I'm really sad and lonely and it doesn't look like things are gonna change anytime soon. Just accepting it makes it easier to handle. I'm still waiting to really cry and break my 18-year dry spell. It's hard to overcome sadness when you won't let yourself feel it. I keep trying to convince myself that I can let go, that there is a safety net to catch me. (I'm the safety net.)
On the bus today it occurred to me that joy and pain can't be separated. I tried to keep them apart, and doing so tore me apart. But now I know I can hold them at the same time, one in each hand, without dropping either. They're connected by a string. If I drop one, eventually the other will drop too. The trick is to hold onto the pain as tightly as I cling to the joy, but no more.
Well, enough of that New Age nonsense. The Celtics won the NBA title last night in a ridiculous Game 6 rout, 131-92. I'm glad they waited 'til they were back in Boston. Clinching the championship at home is much more gratifying. The game was over by halftime. I was disappointed in the Lakers' lackluster effort. The Celtics' defense was almost impenetrable, but L.A. didn't show much heart. KG's postgame interview was insane. He went crazy. They bleeped him at one point, but I don't know if it was necessary. It made me happy to see that. His hug with Bill Russell was esp. touching. I wish I'd felt more jubilant about it. Oh well. It is just a game after all.
Yesterday I watched the "video" (back in 1975 they used film) for Cheech & Chong's "Basketball Jones" on YouTube. I love that song, but good lord is that film racist! All the black folks had huge lips and most of 'em didn't have eyes. You could see the black cheerleaders' panties under their skirts, and each pair had a day of the week printed on them. I'll leave it to your imaginations to interpret that sight gag. It seems kinda misogynistic to me. Maybe I'm overreacting, but I think they ruined an endearing, surprisingly good comic song with a raunchy, racist promotional film.
(For my fellow "Basketball Jones" trivia lovers, you might be interested to know that the song features such musical luminaries as George Harrison on lead guitar, Billy Preston on organ, Carole King on electric piano, and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas on backing vocals. I don't know about you, but that information blew my mind. No wonder it's such a sweet song!)
The main factor behind my emotional opening-up has probly been the recurring insomnia I've had in the past week. Even though I slept a lot last night and this morning, I didn't feel quite rested. I hope it doesn't persist. That would make the whole process of getting back on my feet a lot harder. But if I keep opening up, I should be alright.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
The entire afternoon was consumed by the Zoo. Can I just say one thing? There are a LOT of fuckin' kids runnin' around these days. I easily exceeded my kid limit for the day. Nuthin' wrong with a little whinin' and cryin' and whatnot, but having to listen to dozens of kids act in this manner for over 4 hours is asking a bit much. This irritation mixed with my complicated relationship with my parents and made a delicious gravy. I mean a cranky gravy. Even though it was a beautiful day, we were out in the sun for a long time, so by late afternoon my patience was wearing thin.
The Zoo was nowhere near the thrill it was when I was a kid. The factors contributing to my non-enjoyment were as follows: being a 30-year-old guy alone with my parents, without any friends and/or a girlfriend, questioning the morality of keeping animals in captivity, seeing these animals often just lying around or looking kinda unhappy and, again, the kids. The best/worst moment of the trip came near the end when a Chilean pudu ("the world's smallest deer") stuck its nose through the chicken wire to eat a leaf. This cat-sized creature got one of its adorable little horns stuck in the wire, but managed to extricate itself and pull the leaf through the wire. Dad said, "That alone was worth the price of admission." I agreed with him, though I also found it rather sad. That animal shouldn't be caged for our amusement, even if it does impress on us a greater sense of our communion with nature. It's not a fair trade-off.
Being surrounded by kids got me thinking about a belief that seems to be common, although I'm not sure I've ever heard it articulated in person. I've heard it on The McLaughlin Group (haughtily ejaculated from the Jabba the Hut-like maw of the Washington Times' "conservative" columnist Tony Blankley) and maybe read it online, but it has never issued forth from the mouth of someone in my midst. It is the belief that not having kids is selfish. (Now, if it turns out this belief is rare, the following rejoinder will seem rather quixotic.)
This notion really pisses me off. Am I to believe that people have kids out of a sense of societal duty? Of course they don't. They have kids because they want to (or because the condom broke). With 6.67 billion people in the world (according to an exhibit at the Zoo) and 300 million in the U.S., does any sane, non-Crazy Christian person believe we need to increase the human population? If anything, we need to drastically reduce the population. Climate Change, Peak Oil and environmental pollution are symptoms of overpopulation. I agree with those who think that the American and European lifestyles are a problem, but even with a lifestyle change in our countries, the world population will have to shrink to cope with Global Warming and the depletion of fossil fuels.
Well, now that I've gotten that out of my system, I can get back to the reason for the weekend: Father's Day. It began yesterday when my folks picked me up in the morning for a tour of the Guthrie, followed by a perambulation through the Mill City Farmer's Market, lunch at spoonriver next door and a matinee performance of The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde. My friend Noah is Assistant Director for the show, so I was eager to see it. He didn't disappoint. The play was quite good and very much in the vein of his company, the Live Action Set, with some dance sprinkled over a nonlinear narrative. Constance was the rather tragic wife of Oscar Wilde. I'd never even heard of her.
After the play we drove to my boyhood home in the 'burbs. I mowed the second half of my parents' alpine lawn to give my dad a much-appreciated break. That evening I felt sad. I've been really lonely, off and on, for the last month or so, but last night it was OK, because I was able to be sad in front of my parents. It's been almost 6 years, maybe longer, since I felt like I could be sad in their presence. Eventually we all wound up downstairs in the den watching Rudy on the USA Network. This movie has a special significance for us, because my dad went to Notre Dame and I grew up watching their football games with him, listening to this generally genial man yell at the screen whenever the Fightin' Irish fucked up. Our eyes welled up as we watched the final reel. How cliche can ya get? We managed to avoid the predictable "I love you"'s and climactic bear hug, but only because we lacked the courage to open up that wide.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
This was a pretty uninspiring day in the life of an unemployed guy. The boredom is starting to get to me. That might be the best motivation for getting a job. Although I might take a vacation in July. I'm comfortable with the idea of not finding a job this summer. The only question is: What would my parents think? They don't know I cashed out my 401(k), and that knowledge would probly upset them. I can't let their disapproval dissuade me. Parents can be extremely aggravating. My dad said I shouldn't base my decisions on his opinion, but I know damn well he'd be upset if I told him about the 401(k) and went on vacation.
I walked to the Big K at Lake & Nicollet to check out the A/C window units. I just checked the prices for future comparison with Target. So far I haven't needed even a fan for my bedroom, which I don't think would help much anyway. The previous occupants of my apartment said an A/C unit would be mandatory for the summer. Maybe my luck will hold out and these gorgeous 70-something-degree days will be the warmest of the summer. That isn't likely, but the power of prayer should not be underestimated.
In the late afternoon I went to the park at Lyndale & 33rd to shoot hoops. As luck would have it, a group of guys gravitated to the court after I arrived. We played 5-on-5 full-court, a rare treat for me, especially since the play was at my skill level, plenty of guys were better than me and the mood was fairly easy-going. Over time there got to be more arguments over fouls, but it was a better atmosphere than most pickup games I've been in.
I left the park at 7, feeling weak with a troubling sensation in my chest. It wasn't pain, but I was worried I'd pushed myself too hard, even though I hadn't been sucking wind or choking on phlegm or seeing stars. I got home, drank some water, stretched and showered. Duane showed up while I was in the shower. Game 3 had just started, so he took a seat on the couch to watch.
I ordered a pizza from Galactic at halftime. When it arrived, to my delight, my friend Chris was the deliverer. It was the first time he'd delivered for me. He invited me to join him and Dustin at the Bulldog that night. I accepted and, after the game, headed over to the Bulldog. I had a Hennepin beer at the bar and awaited their arrival. I was there for 40 minutes, but Chris and Dustin never showed. Somewhat disappointed but unperturbed, I paid for the beer and went home.
That's how I got to where I am now, still trying to shake the buzz of the Hennepin. My roommate Beth just hopped in the shower. She's pretty cool. I'll probly have some things to say about her this summer. Hopefully this week I'll have more interesting things to talk about than the Freaks and Geeks DVD's I've been renting from Hollywood. (In a word, brilliant. I wish my adolescence had been that redemptive.)
Sunday, June 08, 2008
Although it was much better than watching alone, I still had trouble enjoying the game. My loyalties are confused in this series. Traditionally, I've been a Celtics fan. My dad's from Connecticut, so I grew up rooting for their great teams of the '80s that featured my idol, Larry Bird, (Minnesotan) Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and their many hard-working, fundamentally sound role players. The Lakers were the flashy, arrogant embodiment of the triumph of style over substance: in other words, the perfect representatives of L.A.
There was also a racial subtext, as the Celtics were an unusually white NBA team and the Lakers, like most NBA teams, were predominantly black. That may have had something to do with my conception of the Celtics as "hard-working" and "fundamentally sound" and the Lakers as "flashy" and "arrogant." However, my liberal guilt was assuaged in the early '90s by college basketball. (Do I need to clarify that it was men's college basketball? Would it offend anyone if I didn't? I kinda resent that imposition. Considering this is a blog, and a rarely-read one at that, I probly shouldn't worry about it.)
I became enamoured of the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV (University of Nevada-Las Vegas), a high-flying collection of African-American youths dripping with flash and arrogance. And when these showboats were upset in the 1991 Final Four by Duke, I became equally scornful of the prim and proper, predominantly white goody two-shoes on the Blue(-blooded) Devils. My apparent colorblindness as a basketball fan was reinforced in '92 and '93 by my helpless devotion to the Fab Five of Michigan, whom I got to see in person at both their Final Fours.
Even though I'm still a KG fan and like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, I can't quite convince myself to root for them. They disappointed me by letting the Hawks push them the distance in the first round. After that I figured they didn't have what it took to win the title, so I abandoned the bandwagon. I was only going to support them if I thought they had a chance to go all the way. Once I gave up hope in their championship chances, I switched my allegiance back to LeBron in the second round and then the Pistons in the conference finals.
But in each series, Boston overcame stunningly inconsistent play (world-beaters at home, zombies on the road) to prevail, outlasting King James and the Cavs in a Game 7 nail-biter and besting Detroit in 6. They improved each round, though not spectacularly enough to win me back. My tender basketball heart had been hurt by them once before and needed more time to heal. Also, the Lakers had gotten on my good side by dispatching the Spurs, the gritty, tiresome 4-time champs who outlasted their welcome.
Watching Games 1 and 2, I found myself pulling for the Lakers, in spite of all the reasons to pull for the Celtics and the weak grounds for supporting L.A. Kobe Bryant is a great player, but not that cuddly. Most people seem to have forgotten, but there was that whole "rape" thing a couple years ago. It never went to trial, but still. Pau Gasol is good, but not particularly graceful or compelling. Lamar Odom is silky smooth, but not slick enough to consistently slip past defenders. None of the other players has established a salient style. They each step up and deliver when called upon, but, for me, the team hasn't developed a personality.
Really what I want is a well-played, hard-fought Finals. I'm basically just a basketball purist, after all. But I have to admit that I'm happier when "my" team wins, and, at this point, my team seems to be the Los Angeles Lakers. Although I have a feeling I would not be happy to see them hoist the trophy. Maybe my infidelity to the Celtics has ruined my enjoyment of their playoff run, and, even if they do win it all, I won't be able to share in the joy. That would be a shame. You see, non-sports fans, this is a lot like a relationship. Once the trust is broken, it's hard to go back.
Saturday, June 07, 2008
Taking in traumatic information and transmuting it into life-affirming action may turn out to be the most advanced and meaningful spiritual practice of our time. That's what I've been trying to do, off and on, for the last 3 years. It's pretty amazing when someone describes your life's mission in one sentence. Although I would add one thing. Not only am I trying to transmute traumatic information into life-affirming action, I'm also trying to transmute it into life-affirming and energizing art (which may be redundant).
I haven't been terribly faithful to my mission, but there's some emotional business I need to attend to first. I know fulfilling the mission will help with my emotional issues, but dealing with them directly will help more and enable me to "quest" without being weighed down by any baggage.
Friday, May 30, 2008
Getting up early could be tough after 2 months of sleeping past 11, although I've actually been using my alarm (inconsistently) this week to ease the transition. At first, setting the alarm infected my sleep with anxiety. But, after hangin' out with my dad last weekend and sharing some of my vocational concerns with him, I was able to sleep pretty soundly even with the prospect of an early morning wake-up call. I think I associated the alarm with my old job and the possibility of ending up with another job as a corporate bitch. Getting ready in the morning was always the toughest, most soul-crushing part of the job for me.
So, about that cloud hanging over me, it regards my nascent career in standup. Last week I was scheduled to do a set at a certain comedy-themed show in the Uptown area that shall remain nameless. Well, the host of said show failed to include me in that evening's lineup, despite the fact I'd booked it with him months in advance. With a calm, but unequivocal expression of anger, I exited the venue and spent the night venting and chillin' with two friends who'd come to see my standup for the first time. Thank god they showed up; otherwise I would've been in tough shape.
After several days, I mustered all my restraint and sent an e-mail to the host of the show with a list of grievances. There'd been other incidents leading up to that night that made it the final straw. My criticism was harsh but emotionally reserved. I struck a somewhat conciliatory note at the end and even more strongly in a follow-up e-mail, but he still hasn't responded. I don't expect he will at this point. I think I prefer that to getting "flamed," if I'm using that internet slang correctly.
Since then I've been plagued by paranoia, afraid that I'll run into him on my perambulations along the streets of Uptown. It appears to have soured my interaction with strangers, and just when I'd apparently cleansed myself of the social anxiety left over from middle school. I think this is the first test of my new optimistic outlook. Success almost seems inevitable, just a function of patience and time. But, for now, the process is riddled with doubt and fear.
I didn't want this post to be a rainy day, but that's what I had to write. I'll try and let the sunshine in next time.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Last summer my mom and I went to Iowa for a weekend. My motivation was the Iowa State Fair, long a pastoral fascination of mine, along with the state itself. We stayed at the Dunn family farm (Mom's side) in central Iowa, where my grandparents used to live and for which one of my uncles is now the caretaker. It was an hour drive to Des Moines late Saturday morning. Mom would drop me off at the fair and go visit some relatives in town.
It was a scorcher and the sun was in full effect, therefore it was a deadbolt lock that Mom would insist I thoroughly cover my exposed skin with sunblock. I sullenly obliged, in that adolescent way of knowing your parents are right but detesting the humiliation of having to admit it. The fact that I was on the cusp of 30 didn't help. But let me set the scene so you'll have a full appreciation of my state of mind: There I was, a 29-year-old girlfriend-less man-child with a soul-deadening data-entry job and no car, sitting in my mom's car in a gas station parking lot in Des Moines, IA, applying sunblock while she supervised, with such nuggets as "Did you get your neck?" and "How about your legs?" And it was about 90 degrees out.
After extricating myself from that Sartrean hell, I walked between the fenced-in, packed-to-the-gills parking lots to the gate and purchased my admission. The people-watching is usually the highlight of any fair, and this day was to be no exception. Unfortunately, this had more to do with the uninspiring entertainments than the fairgoers. It was a predictable mix of strollers and nuclear families with stereotypical Middle American bellies and straining t-shirts. (It can't be healthy when a culture develops stereotypes about itself.)
I wandered through the masses with no destination in mind. Pretty soon I found myself alone at the edge of the fairgrounds. It was smaller than I remembered, which was disappointing, but I turned around and went into the art building, the one place I went every time (about 5 times) I made it to the Iowa State Fair. There were some good watercolors and charcoal sketches made by Iowans young and old, although it wasn't enough to revive my old "fair joy."
The next stop was a first for me. It was an old house that served as the fair's museum, displaying the history of the event. There were yellowed newspaper clippings, artifacts and videos with black-and-white archival footage, just the kind of things that would normally make my heart all aflutter, but I just wasn't feelin' it. One exhibit that caught my eye was a contest they used to have to determine Iowa's healthiest baby. They probably stopped that when they noticed its similarity to the cattle- and zucchini-judging.
According to Iowa State Fair: Country Comes to Town by Thomas Leslie, "Human specimens were judged alongside their animal brethren throughout the 1930s, with prizes given for healthiest babies, boys, and girls. These contests' uncomfortable echo of eugenics led to their immediate cessation after World War II." So it was the Nazis! That's interesting, as I would encounter their legacy later in the day. By the way, that excerpt accompanies a photo of an extremely "healthy" (read: not too plump, not too skinny, but not that cute) teenage girl in a one-piece swimsuit being "inspected" by a middle-aged (male, obviously) doctor wearing one of those old-timey doctor headbands with the reflective metal disc. She's smiling, though, so we know she wasn't being exploited. She's also wearing a nice watch.
From the museum I headed to a barn filled with old-fashioned technology. A crowd watched the blacksmith work in quiet admiration, seemingly amazed by his mastery of a nearly-dead skill. There was an awkward silence around the smithy, as if they wanted to ask questions but were afraid of exposing their ignorance. Exhibits of old washing machines and other household appliances stood rusting behind ropes, with no identification of their purpose or age. Maybe the exhibits were for people who already knew about that stuff or for elders to explain them to their children or grandchildren. Didn't do me much good though.
In another barn was a stage and folding chairs half filled with spectators. The entertainment was provided by guitars and singers, but I can't remember the style. Maybe bluegrass. Along the right wall towered the tallest cornstalks in Iowa. Red, white or blue ribbons marked the winning entries. Vintage iron and wooden toys lined display counters. A concession stand was selling lemonade. It seemed like the old folks and the families with young children were trying to recapture their know-your-neighbors, homemade, folk-music past, if only for an afternoon. Or maybe that was just me.
The third barn held many delights, both cute and creepy. There were children's books, toys, board games (including "Love Boat: The Game"), flea-market memorabilia (Elvis and the Beatles had their own sections side-by-side) and recreations of WW1 and WW2 tents with rifles, helmets and comic books of the eras. I examined a 1953 Allie Reynolds baseball card with amused awe. The year Reynolds, a New York Yankee, won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the American League, my dad was a Red Sox-loving, Yankee-hating kid from blue-collar Norwich, Connecticut visiting New York City with his dad for a Red Sox-Yankees game. They stopped by a hotel where the teams were staying and saw Reynolds. My grandfather asked my dad if he wanted the pitcher's autograph. My dad refused, because Reynolds was a Yankee, thereby thoroughly aggravating my well-intentioned grandfather.
I related this story to the vendor. He didn't seem too moved, so I moved on. The card was $60 anyway, out of my sentimental value price range. What I found next was somewhat disturbing. Arrayed across a large table were Nazi medals and armbands, a rare photo of Hitler bestowing a medal on a soldier and other Nazi mementoes for all your white-supremacist occasions. I know skinheads aren't the only ones interested in this stuff, but who in their right mind wants a souvenir of what might've been the most malevolent regime in world history? Why would you want a token of pure evil in your house? I just don't get it.
After I was done with the three barns I'd pretty much exhausted the intriguing possibilities of the fair. The video game tent was a dead end since I've had little practice on the recent generations of platforms. Even the sports titles I used to enjoy have evolved beyond my skill level, leaving me at the mercy of the teens and pre-teens who ruled the tent. The animal barns were monotonous, just rows and rows of animals standing in hay soaked with their own urine. The cow sculpted in butter was no big whoop, even with the mantequilla menagerie of Harry Potter and other current pop culture icons. As the afternoon wound down, I escaped the life-draining heat in an air-conditioned hall of living infomercials. There were whirlpools, never-dull knives and many more antidotes to modern life.
With the clock approaching five, I made my way toward the main entrance for the appointed rendezvous with Mom. En route I encountered the Iowa National Guard's collection of humvees and tanks, mixed in with the tractors and combines. Kids eagerly climbed inside the vehicles, captivated by these adult-sized toys. Throwing red paint on the war machines didn't even occur to me, which is surprising given my far left-wing politics. I was probably in the early stages of sun stroke.
After exiting through the understated main gate, I stood at the intersection and awaited the day's final indignity. The sun beat down on me for an hour as I watched my car-less compatriots get picked up or dropped off. When Mom finally showed up, she was anxiously apologetic. We had agreed to meet at "the main gate," but, for whatever reason, she assumed we'd reconnoiter at the gas station where she dropped me off. I bore some responsibility for the delay, because I'd let my cell phone battery die before she called me from the station.
I wearily waved off her apologies and asked to go "home," i.e. the farm. Despite my reddening sunburn and justifiably sour mood, she insisted on showing me a local marvel she'd just seen that day: a stone map of the U.S. laid out by the state capitol, in which each state was represented by a different-colored rock. I glanced out the window, acknowledged its existence and telepathically demanded we leave Des Moines immediately. She finally acquiesced and we began our journey home, although not until after a very long train forced us to make a detour on our way out of town.
We stopped at a nameless family restaurant in Ames for dinner. As I dismally tucked into a bland, Perkins-esque breakfast-for-dinner, the kind of meal that delighted me as a kid, Mom held up her end of a lopsided conversation. I sulked quietly, believing that virtually any other companion would've made the day salvageable. It was as if nothing had changed since I turned 13. I was still keeping silent guard over a king's ransom of resentment, and she was still trying to make polite conversation rather than acknowledge the 16-year-old wall between us. I should've known my ability to enjoy life wouldn't return until I grew out of this extended adolescence. But that knowledge still had a ways to go on the long journey from my head to my heart.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Last night I didn't get to sleep til after 3 am and didn't get up til after noon. I shouldn't've had that much trouble since I woke up at 11 yesterday thanks to my alarm. That was the first time I'd used my alarm just to make sure I'd get up before noon. Traditionally, during my periods of unemployment in Chicago, I'd sleep in later and later, but only for 8 hours a night. Now I'm sleeping almost 10 hours a night, although I had been able to get up before noon, until today.
I'm not sure how my body will react to re-employment. I've had some anxiety, since I quit my job, when I had a morning engagement. It's like my body didn't think these engagements were what I should be doing, like I was moving in the wrong direction. Actually, the only morning engagement I can think of was riding along with Noah for his Lasik consultation. It turned out to be pointless from a practical perspective, because Noah's car is a stick, which I don't know how to drive, and they didn't even dilate his pupils. Emotionally speaking, though, it was great, because we hung out in a coffee shop near the clinic in Bryn Mawr, tackled random subjects in "free writing" exercises and read each other our hilarious impromptu pieces.
Most likely, neither Noah nor my college friend Emily will be moving in with me, which kinda sucks. But I posted the vacancy on craigslist and set up a tour for tomorrow. By the way, if anybody knows somebody looking for a $400 apt in Uptown after May 15, e-mail me. Thanx.
It occurred to me today that submitting writing samples to City Pages and elsewhere might be an excellent way to get me through this "rough patch." Maybe putting everything I've got into writing (which I consider to be my calling) and handing my work over to (apparently) demanding literary authorities to be judged is just what I need to feel like I've accomplished something and am moving toward a worthwhile, fulfilling goal. I just wish it didn't sound so corny. If I wanted to, I could probly re-write it to sound cool, but this is my blog and no one can reject it since it's already published, so I'd rather keep the original, unadorned version of the sentiment. It feels truer.
I need to hang out with my friends more. I've been pretty isolated. That's by far the toughest part. Loneliness seems to be the great plague of our age. We've given up far too much meaningful human contact for technology. This afternoon I attended the Live Action Set's bowling party to celebrate their first year as a non-profit. It was really nice to hang out with those cool people. But I was anxious thinking about how soon it would be over and wondering when I'd get to hang out with those people (or people like them) again. Why should those times be the exception and not the rule? Seems like they had a lot more of that in the olden days.
My emotions continue to gain strength. At the bowling party I chatted with a girl who was really cute and nice and interesting, although I fell prey to the same old anxiety when she talked to other guys (esp. one young, attractive guy) or anyone else. It feels great to want things again (esp. girls, not that they're "things"), but there's a downside: the risk of losing them becomes real again too. This girl does burlesque and she's performing tonight. Not sure if I'll go without a companion, even though I have a car so I could go by myself. But don't bet on it.
Author's Note: If the title of this post evokes memories of sports training montages from 80's movies, then I've done my job.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
If you're wondering why I haven't been blogging, it's because I've been feeling better. I'd been writing out of desperation. Usually, writing is not my activity of last resort. In fact, traditionally, I write less when I'm depressed, probly to avoid dealing with my emotions. But my anxiety was so intense I couldn't ignore it.
I went home Saturday (April 5th) to watch the Final Four with Dad. It was nice, but the following day was tough. Mom and Theresa (sister) were showing off their souvenirs from China. I was anxious to return to Uptown. The night before my resistance to Mom melted away briefly. I kinda wanted to give her a hug, but she had a bad cold or flu and I was hesitant anyway. On Sunday my feelings boomeranged, as if she'd rejected my interior thoughts.
I got drenched yesterday (Thu, April 10th) walking from Hollywood to Ragstock. When I started it was mostly rain. By the time I got to where I was going, it was mostly snow. I got no problem with the April snow showers, as long as it don't stick. It was actually kinda nice to walk thru that and not freeze my ass off. Two days before at Hollywood I scanned the shelves for quite a while. That's something I should do more often. Wandering the aisles of a video store is one of the few joys of suburban life.
That's why I have reservations about the phenomenon of Netflix. Of course, with Netflix you can avoid the whole "I have a vague idea of what I'd like to see but none of these fits the bill" hassle. But my other problem with Netflix is I generally don't know what I wanna watch until that evening. My preferences are apt to change between the time I add the DVD to my queue and the time it arrives. So those are my thoughts on Netflix, in case you were wondering. I'd hate to leave you in suspense.
On Tuesday I finally decided on The Man Who Would Be King. It was OK. With Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, John Huston as co-director, awesome mountain vistas and a cracking yarn by Rudyard Kipling, ya think it'd be cooler. Yesterday I picked up Michel Gondry's "sampler" DVD. Interesting stuff so far.
I'm at Plan B Coffeehouse right now. It would be an ideal writing locale if not for the music. It's not too loud, but any music with lyrics can distract me. The fact that my WiFi connection only works when the laptop is on the coffee table (instead of my lap) is also annoying. The network isn't even Plan B's. I tried their password and it didn't work. God damn it! I'm typing this in WordPad to post later. I should probly go home and start on dinner. I gotta be at the Permaculture Film Festival at 6:30.
(The following was written today on my couch.)
The Permaculture Film Fest was mostly stuff I saw last summer. Once again, I flaked out on the Permaculture Workshop the following day. I had some insomnia on Thu nite. Even though I got maybe 8 hours of sleep I felt tired, so I was worried about being really sleep-deprived on Sat since the workshop started at 9 am. The irony is I woke up in time to go (without the alarm and despite being up til 2) and didn't feel tired, but I was afraid I'd crap out in the afternoon and I didn't know if I could handle spending all day with a bunch of strangers. The film fest had been slightly stressful.
Instead of the workshop I watched the Michel Gondry DVD (very good) and ventured out late in the afternoon for socks. The tube socks at Ragstock didn't look very thick, so I went next door to the new American Apparel store. The Cars were blaring over an undeniably early '80s decor. As I wandered toward the back, I saw a girl pulling on the waistband of some tights(?) in a dressing room. The curtain was pulled back, allowing a full view of her (clothed, except for the mid-riff) body. I must say, it was an awesome body, highlighted by an incredible rack. (Yes, that's right, Mickey's the kind of guy who uses the word "rack" in reference to the female form. Sorry to disappoint anyone who thought my brain inhabited loftier regions. I'm just a man.) She met my gaze just as I averted it. I successfully fought the urge to look again. It was almost cruel of her to leave the curtain open like that. If she was offended by my wandering eye, I'd have to say to her, "See here, miss. You are ridiculously hot, therefore you cannot leave the dressing room curtain open and expect men to keep their eyes to themselves. It is an unreasonable test of self-control." I'm sure then she'd understand.
Getting back to the socks, the only athletic kind they had were tube socks (again) and they were absurdly expensive. My sock expedition had come up empty, but on the way home I picked up a gyro and fries at the Soho Cafe, so all was not lost. By the time I finished my supper, I had to rush to get dressed for the Live Action Set's show at the Southern. I just barely missed the bus on Lyndale and waited 20 minutes for a taxi, much longer than I'd expected. I made it to the Southern in time to get one of the last standing-room-only tickets (half-price). Megan found me an empty seat next to the videographer, which was nice for a 90-minute show with no intermission.
The show, The Piano Tuner, was quite good and right up my alley, dealing with resource depletion driven by capitalism. It was like a theatrical companion piece to There Will Be Blood. The Piano Tuner is set in 1911, making the parallels all the clearer. There was a talkback after the show, during which I summoned the courage to ask a question. I blurted out, in what seemed like an unusually loud voice for me, "I'd like to know if the subject of Easter Island ever came up." Megan asked me to repeat the subject, which I did. (She was the director, mistakenly thinking that role would require less of her in the wake of her pregnancy.) They said it never came up, but I was just happy they answered my question.
After the long, inevitable round of socializing after the show, we headed 'round the corner to the Town Hall Brewery. I ended up chatting at length with a young (mid-20's) actor named Tony. I would've liked to spend more time visiting with Sarah and Noah and the rest, but I enjoyed the opportunity to lend guidance to an up-and-comer. Hopefully, Tony will benefit from my sage advice. I wound up rambling to Tim Cameron (who played the show's titular character) about the fall of the American Empire, Peak Oil and my accompanying nervous breakdown. I tried to keep it short and not sound too crazy. He was pretty quiet.
Noah generously drove me home, even though he lives in Dinkytown now. We amused each other and discussed the possibility of him moving in with me. Just that day my roommate Heather said she'd be moving out in a month to live (literally) across the street with some friends. Knowing that Noah was looking for a place after June, I called him right after she told me, simultaneously overjoyed at the prospect of rooming with Noah again and terrified by the chance it wouldn't happen. It was cool and kinda scary to want something so badly for the first time in quite a while. The initial euphoria has worn off, though, and I realize having Noah as a roommate again wouldn't fix all my problems. But it would be supercool.
Monday, March 31, 2008
For the last few months I've been looking for history books. When I was a kid in elementary school, I read many books on ancient history and the Age of Discovery. Some of them were so dry I probly couldn't even read them now, but back then I loved 'em. I think I might've done more reading on my own during elementary school than I did for my college courses. (The truth is you can get an English degree without doing that much actual reading.) In the last two weeks I've steeped myself in televised sports, my other great childhood pastime (besides playing sports, a reasonably close third).
This may be an attempt to reconnect with my youth and the person I used to be. In early September of '06, I entered a weeks-long period of serenity, when my old anxiety and self-consciousness seemed to fall away like dead skin. The confidence that followed was welcome, but I lost a connection with my old, original self. He no longer seemed relevant. I couldn't relate to his passions and fears. The new Mickey saw nothin' but smooth sailing ahead, except for some troubling new physical symptoms.
Of course, the cruise didn't last. What I have called my "emotional hibernation" was disturbed by a few anxiety attacks and the cyclical return of old anxieties. But I have been able to hold onto some of the improvements that came with the Serenity Period, like being more at ease with people in social situations. And now that I've been fully, rudely awakened from my psychic(?) slumber, hopefully I can mesh the new confidence and openness with the old passion and empathy.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
I was feeling good today, until the end of the last game. I knew I had to leave, to see how I could do on my own in my apartment. Dad asked me uncertainly if I wanted a hug. I immediately said "yes" and we embraced by rote (at least I did). My emotions were being held back by habit (and plenty of other issues I'm sure). I wanted to open up but couldn't.
When I got to my place, the wolves returned. I started putting away stuff that I'd left lying around since I moved in 3 1/2 months ago. I had to stay busy, although I wasn't frantic, which was good. After a while, I eased back into a safe level of comfort. That's where I am now. But it can't last forever.
I'll be hanging out with Sadie tomorrow afternoon. Her and Marc's return to the Twin Cities reinforces my belief in a benevolent higher power. Boy, do I ever need them right now. If I could see Megan this week, that would be perfect. She's like my guardian angel. (God, that sounds corny!)
I'm kinda scared to face this week alone. Hopefully Noah will be around to help me through it. I'm also seeing my counselor (or therapist or whatever) tomorrow, so that should help. If you're one of my friends, drop me a line or call me up. I could really use some company.
Friday, March 28, 2008
I didn't do any job searching today. Didn't work out. But it wasn't for a lack of hope. I was just feeling comfortable for the first time in a while and wanted to relax. Hopefully, the comfort won't keep me from doin' stuff, whether it's the job search, writing or gettin' some exercise. I feel languid, which is nice, but I don't want it to hold me back from making progress on my new path.
TV is more appealing today, as is lying around doing nothing. Not exactly how I wanted to feel, but still a marked improvement over the last few days. I drove around Uptown and the 'burbs. Thought about gettin' out and walkin' around Uptown, but decided there'd be plenty of time for that and looked for a nice, walkable district in the 'burbs. I never found one. By that time it was late afternoon and my enthusiasm for even mild exercise was waning.
I should enjoy this vacation from stress, but the guilt of unemployment is slinking back in. I need to let myself relax and enjoy the weekend. There'll be plenty of time to worry in the coming weeks.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
The reason I was able to watch a cable channel was because I'm at my parents' house. I drove here last night after eating dinner and watching a little TV with a creeping sense of dread, until I realized I could just mosey on up to New Brighton and, hopefully, get a lot of emotional support. When I arrived at the empty house, I took a bath. My dad got home while I was still in the tub. He knocked on the door to see if it was me and asked how I was. "Not so great" was my typically understated reply. When I was done, I went to the kitchen and told him I'd quit. He was pretty relaxed and understanding. That helped a lot, because disappointing him might be my biggest fear.
I watched Everybody Loves Raymond, because I was emotionally fragile. It's the kind of inoffensive, but still amusing sitcom that comes in handy at those times. I went to bed at 10, same time as he did. The first time I woke up in the night I was afraid the insomnia had survived, but I quickly fell back to sleep and slept for probly 10 hours (not unusual for me the last few months), briefly waking twice more.
After Democracy Now!, I checked out some grad school info and job leads online, while listening to pop hits of the '50s and early '60s. (I've been jonesin' for that stuff lately. But I can't think of a good name for that musical era. I thought the "Innocent Rock" era was too condescending.) For lunch I had Cream of Mushroom soup, but it was low sodium, so it'd been watered down. I also had some Orange Milano cookies, which were pretty good. (I apologize for the excruciating detail. This must be part of the "healing process.")
Then I drove to Uptown and worked out at the YWCA. My usual 45-minute stairmaster regimen was a little easier than I'd anticipated. I picked up some stuff at my apartment and drove back to the 'burbs, feeling almost shockingly good. I was listening to a song by Seal I hadn't heard before and thinking, "Augh! Why do I like this?!" There's just somethin' about him that I can't quite resist, even though his accompaniment sounds slick and not very well-crafted.
The dread that had been lingering in the background relented, and I was able to relax. The music on the radio sounded really good, the passing scenery looked really cool. The long shadows around the Uptown Theater reminded me of '70s movies and TV shows. It seems like back then they fell in love with the fading sunlight of the late afternoon and early evening, especially when it was suffused with the clay dust of a baseball field. Truly, it was a simpler, more graceful time.
So that's where I am right now, emotionally speaking. (That's seems to be the only manner in which I speak these days.) I just hope this isn't the top of the roller coaster. The last two weeks have been wearyingly unpredictable. I'd like to believe this is a sign of things to come.
Note to Michael: Thank you for your kind message. You said exactly what I needed to hear. I'd love to hang out with you soon. Maybe next week? Drop me an e-mail.