Fancy Oatmeal

When family was recently visiting, I noticed that my dad was including prunes in his diet. I’ve always associated them with digestive health, but apparently they’re more versatile than that. This article also links them to bone and heart health. I can enjoy a prune out of the bag just fine, but eating a recommended amount can be a chore (somewhere I read 5-8 prunes, while the site just referenced recommends  2 ounces). If only the date bars we used to get at the May Day Cafe in Minneapolis could be considered breakfast. They’re ridiculously good. Somewhat inspired by this, I came up with another version of my “fancy oatmeal”.  While this is cooking, you will think that someone is baking cookies.  If you are like me and like to eat breakfast for dinner, this works for that. It’s also a decent choice when you’re feeling tempted by junk food. It can satisfy some of those cravings.

Oatmeal with prunes
Author: 
Cuisine: Breakfast
 
Ingredients
  • ½ c oatmeal (not instant)
  • 1 c water
  • ⅛ tsp ginger, ground
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon, ground
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 6 prunes, chopped
  • Milk
  • Walnuts, chopped
  • Maple syrup
Instructions
  1. In a large microwavable cereal bowl, combine oatmeal and water.
  2. Microwave for 2 minutes.
  3. Stir in ginger, cinnamon (I just eyeball the spices), vanilla and prunes.
  4. Let the above stand covered for a few minutes.
  5. Stir in a splash of milk and microwave for another minute or two.
  6. Top with walnuts and drizzle with maple syrup.
  7. If you are microwave adverse, this could be made on the stove just as easily.

 

She gave me a funny look but I did not wilt

Once I vacuum the plaster dust off of the top of the window frame, I can put away the ladder. It has been in the office-guestroom for a number of days and sits behind me right now in front of the new curtains. I was determined to get the rod level – something I failed to do when I put curtains in our bedroom – and with Brian’s help and remembering some tips from my dad, I managed to do it this time. Brian doesn’t like curtains of any kind, referring to them as “cloth”. Yet he’s the one who picked out the rod. I love this. I love those finials that look like Christmas ornaments woven with muted gold strands. I like knowing that this is what he chose. We were going for brass but were told that Millennials aren’t buying it, so it can be hard to find unless you go online. It’s something I’d rather not do. For some reason I was stuck on the idea that the curtain rods throughout the house – actually not too many at this point – should have the same finish. So much for that.

Last night during a break in the World Series, Brian came up to help me add a third bracket to address a barely perceptible sway in the rod. It’s at these points in a project just as I’m about to do one more little thing that may or may not be necessary when I worry that I’ll screw it up. Every time I drill a hole I think, yep. This is where it all goes to hell.

I love the curtains and wish that Brian did too. But as much as he is trying not to ruin it for me, I know that he’s just being a good guy, a good guy who will to take me to the store. Fifty stores! It’s unfair to ask him to use his good eye for “cloth” but he knows me. I’m a shopper with little stamina and nothing to warn you when I’m about to run out of gas at which point I might cry, collapse or threaten to pass out. And without help, the chances are good that I’ll leave empty handed because an annoying song has driven me out of the store. So while Brian would rather replace Mick Mulvaney than cover the house with cloth, he does not leave me stranded and will share an opinion that can get me off the dime. There is also the judicious use of the veto power. A room darkening panel is going to make him groan, but it was the only thing in that soft gray tweed that I liked. Besides, we could use the added insulation. I mention this, thinking that he will be impressed. But I have failed. He will never be a curtain guy.

As we stood there in the store looking at the displays, I regretted that we did not get a double curtain rod so that I could put a sheer behind the curtain. I know. More cloth. We both know that we can go through the rigmarole to exchange the thing, but I’m anxious to be done. (Imagine me singing “I just want to be done” to the melody of “It had to be you”.) Still, it seems unfortunate. I should have made a better plan. Then I got an idea.

When I told the salesperson that I was going to put the sheers on the same rod as the curtain, she gave me a look. On the verge of wilting, I remember something my mother says. “It’s your house. Do what you want.” I tell the woman that I don’t care if the sheers will create a gap when you close the curtains. If total darkness is the goal, you could pinch them shut. But honestly, a column of light between the dreaded “room darkening” panels might be kind of cool. She is not convinced but doesn’t try to talk me out of it. Why would she care? She’s just happy to be looking at curtains with us, well past the point of helpfulness. She’s sixty-nine years old and would rather shop than work. Her words. But until she pays off her credit cards, her husband says that she has to have a job. What does sixty-nine look like? Not that. She probably gets this all of the time. “You look great! I never would have guessed your age!” I want to say something equally unoriginal. “What’s your secret?” But here’s my real question. “How much credit card debt do you have?” The words will not come out of my mouth and for this I count myself lucky.

The sheer curtains overlap by two grommets behind the drapes. This keeps the pieces connected for opening and closing.

Well my idea wasn’t that crazy. It works fine and I would argue that putting the sheers on the same rod with the main curtain makes for a clean and simple look. Plus, when you use a double rod, you have to use pocket sheers as opposed to the ones with the grommets, which are easier to open and close. The other thing I ended up doing that played against convention was to offset the center supporting bracket. This accommodated the width of the off-the-rack panels so that fewer would be needed. Imagine two panels on one side and one on the other instead of two on each. I was stuck on symmetrical, but once I realized that this was just another application of the “rule of thirds” whereas in framing a picture – let’s say in a video – offsetting the subject will be more pleasing to the eye than perfectly centering it. I know that this is not radical. But in breaking these inconsequential rules for which I deserve no prize (or in this case, adopting a different set of rules to follow), I am aware of how little deviation is needed to make you feel like a rebel. What about the rules of substance? If a stranger with a part time job at Bed Bath & Beyond is going to tell me “that’s not done” when it comes to window treatments, who’s going to wield the stick when I really try to live my life?

Take the walker. He wasn’t “the walker” but just one of a number of people who have dropped out of the day-to-day grind to… well… walk. This particular walker was making loads of money at some kind of financial job until he quit to walk across the country to raise awareness about a cause – economic justice? the climate? the war? – something like that. I wouldn’t have known about the walker had it not been for co-workers who found him to be a self-riotous imbecile who had evidently never roofed houses in California in July. Otherwise, he would have known to cling to a job he loathed because an air conditioned office is nothing to take for granted. I’m pretty sure that had my co-workers had the chance, they would have been happy to pummel the walker silly with a stick. The ungrateful bastard would have deserved it.

Right now the panels hang to the side, leaving the full width of the window lights visible underneath the sheers. If Brian were here, he would certainly push all of “the cloth” to the sides so that the window was completely exposed. And he could. That’s the beauty of it.

This was a tricky picture to take. These curtains will easily open up to expose the entire window.

The cat is passed out on the floor next to me. For the moment she has given up on herding me into the next room where a choice of brushes sits on top of her purrniture.

Brush the cat.

Move laundry.

Get the vacuum cleaner.

Put away the ladder.

Lunch.

Glorious lunch.

Put the schefflera that is taking up the counter space in the bathroom back into the office.

Cut tape for a new podcast episode.

What about a red kitchen?

It was last…

Spring?

We ended up in one of those enclosed booths at The Local where I can usually count on a decent veggie burger. The Irish pubs seem to have this down, whereas even in the year 2019 a lot of bars practically tell the mostly vegetarians to f-off. Within earshot in this rather tight space – I can imagine a row of private offices with glass panes and mahogany in what used to be a bank, though I know nothing of the building’s history – sitting next to us are two young couples. They have been house hunting.

“What did you think of the ‘sauna house’, Stu?”

When we were looking, Brian and I named the houses too. There was the “pinhead house” in Northeast. This was named for the realtor who reduced the price by a dollar every day so that it would appear at the top of a list that was filtered according to our criteria and emailed to us daily. Except there was no way to say “not the pinhead house!” I was fooled by it every time. Upon seeing the notice in my inbox there would be a surge of hope where a new listing promised to free us from the dipshit who lived downstairs at the Powderhorn duplex where we lived. It was a promise only to be crushed by the realization that it was this same house where the staircase led to a tiny landing. There you had a choice of three bedroom doors that would have touched had they swung the other way – outward instead of in. This was the house that had the lone toilet in the middle of an unfinished basement. Anyone else might have seen the potential in this plumbing demonstration. I just wondered about peeing in open spaces.

“I didn’t like it as much as the ‘mirror house’. It has a better yard.”

I commend you for knowing that you want a yard. I didn’t know that I wanted one until we ended up with one. Brian knew. But I didn’t, though it was me who probably wanted one more. We live in Minnesota. I wanted a double-car garage. That’s what I knew.

Our food arrives. Next to us the man with the tie is talking about the process of making an offer. I suspect he is a realtor-friend.

There was the “green house” that we named for its touted energy efficiency. It was a “builder’s house” remodeled from the studs, which is to say that to get around the cost of new construction permits and associated hassles, the original house was demolished except for a few sticks. So it was essentially a new house, not common in the middle of the city. When we lost that bid, I cried. I was certain that it was our house and that it was supposed to be me snuggled up with a book in that tree-house of a bedroom with columns of cypress outside the windows in three directions. The realtor said that we would find a better house. I didn’t believe him. That would have been summer. In October standing in the yard of a house on Hague Avenue – the “Hague house” – somebody suggested that we take a break. By this time we had seen that house no less than three times, as it was quite beautiful but somehow not for us.

“I can really see us entertaining in the ‘granny house’.” The blonde at the next table fingers a goblet of white wine. It’s too early in the day to drink, but as we did twelve years ago, they have their rituals.

On House Hunters and other such television shows, “a place to entertain” is important. Dining rooms and “open concepts” conjure up grand dinner parties. Buyers can see themselves flipping hamburgers for their friends in the backyard. Indeed, “a place to have dinner parties” was on our list. But do people really “entertain” as much as television would suggest? What of this loneliness epidemic?

The kitchen in the “Hague house” was remolded to sell the house. Granite countertops. Stainless steel appliances. A huge island. It could have made an entertainer out of a hermit. But where was the bedroom furniture supposed to go? When the solution seemed to be that we would need to use a separate bedroom as a closet, even the newly refinished oak floors could not mask the limitations of the space.

The blonde wants a white kitchen. I wonder how much of this comes from something that captured her in childhood versus being the influence of HGTV where it’s uncommon to see any remodel that isn’t “white and bright” à la Hillary Farr. She and her counterpart Joanna Gaines mainly stick to white and tasteful grays with pops of color that know their place. I love what they do. But they push trends – just look at the lighting fixtures on those shows – and trends can crush an individual. It can make it tricky to know yourself. Take the blonde. What if her soul really wants a red kitchen?

A Train Full of Optimists

I’m hiding.

The Democratic debates are on the television downstairs. Brian and his Tuesday night baseball buddy are talking back to the candidates who cannot hear them.

“You tell ’em Bernie!”

In 2012 I was in a bar with a ragtag group of organizers. The day before we were to get shovels in the ground, we learned that the Minnesota Department of Transportation was putting the kibosh on the community garden that we had been planning over the previous year. Up to that point, we had been working with City officials who were thrilled to see a neglected patch of land be cleaned up and put to good use. Between monthly meetings, we had scoped out possible locations. We tested the soil. We staked plots. We mulched paths. We brought in compost. We drafted gardener contracts. We advertised. We held a lottery. It might not seem like much, but it was a lot of work to get our initial thirty families that would be eager to grow their own tomatoes.

Then here come the MnDOT lawyers. It turns out the that the City did not have jurisdiction over the right-of-way between Cleveland and Prior Avenue, just north of Gilbert in Saint Paul. This is the frontage road to Interstate 94. And unlike the forward thinking City officials, MnDOT could only think of getting sued. News of their objections took the air out of me. Fortunately my co-organizers had a different response.

Tanner’s approach was simply to accept that getting the garden operational just might take more time than we had planned. His approach was patience. Steadiness. And Jeff said that we would just shame MnDOT into doing the right thing. He was confident about this. He had no doubt that we would have a garden because the objections to it were obviously ridiculous. Watching these two guys was a good lesson for someone who was apt to concede victory to the bureaucrats. I felt pretty hopeless.

It’s how the Democratic debates make me feel. Defeated well before the final buzzer.

When I see that Senator Amy Klobuchar appears to have consulted a stylist – upping her game from her last debate with a new do and better make-up – I want to be happy for her. She looks great. I want to sympathize. I would not survive the kind of scrutiny a candidate has to endure, especially – I’m sorry, but it’s true – a woman. I want to be at peace in a Joseph Campbell kind of way and be in awe of it all, grateful to anyone who would offer themselves for a job like that. Instead, my stomach churns, stirred by a faint recognition of manipulation.

I wasn’t going to last the night with Brian and Fran in the living room flipping between the debate and the ballgame.

Across the street about a block down from my house there is a lawn sign, “2020 – Any Functioning Adult.” On Facebook this gets 80 zillion “likes”. I was amused at first too. But it’s not so funny when I realize that this is the language of the utterly defeated. It’s 2003 all over again. We were punished by George W. Bush. So at the anti-war marches that preceded the invasion of Iraq, among the homemade protest signs you could find “2004 – Anybody but Bush” written on scraps of cardboard with black Sharpies. During that same election year where Senator John Kerry was the Democratic nominee, there was a website called “John Kerry is a douche bag, but I’m voting for him anyway.” (By the way, don’t try to find it. I landed on a site that looked Chinese and quite spammy.) Well, we saw where that kind of big dreaming got us.

Downstairs Brian is going on about the Supreme Court.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren was in town, Tanner the garden organizer went to see her. At least that is what I gathered from a Facebook post where he is standing next to the candidate in front of a huge flag. The big smile on his face makes me feel like so much is possible. Thank goodness our future does not depend on my limitations. In the meantime, Sue is working for Senator Bernie Sanders (That sounds pretentious. He’s just Bernie. Right?) at the State Fair. When Brian and I stopped by to say hello to her, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party booth felt like home and not home, like revisiting the house of my childhood where strangers now live. We met Sue and her family on the the 2004 Minnesota for Kucinich Campaign and I had once spent a lot of time in that booth for the campaign and later as a member of the DFL Progressive Caucus of which I was a founding member. Sue and her husband Greg are still at it. They still believe. Somehow, they still think that showing up matters.

Patient. Steady.

Brian is now swearing at the television.

I wish I was the sort that could carry the day with unshakeable optimism. Somehow I get myself to the train. I’m a good worker bee. I have a spin on the ball. I’m focused. I care. I do good work. I have something to contribute. But apparently it is not a belief that the Bernie Sanders and the Elizabeth Warrens will not be crushed by the talking heads on CNN that are openly pushing for what they would call a moderate Democrat and what I would call a Republican candidate. Five seconds of watching David Axelrod pat us all on the head and warn Democrats not to nominate anyone who can be “framed as a socialist” puts me back at the table at that bar feeling doomed. Except this time I am hiding. This time I am alone with no one to tell me to put my head down and work, to be patient.

Brian is laughing. It sounds like Bernie is letting someone have it.

When Klobuchar scolds the Liberals for giving the Republicans (the ones who are actually running for the Republican nomination) their talking points when they explain how to pay for a health care system that does not treat Senators like royalty and the poor without dignity – she is essentially saying that she is a Republican. Sanders is right. Grow up. It’s going to cost money to ensure that everyone has access to good health care. There will be a tax. Those with the resources to pay more will pay more. Those with less will pay less. A tax will replace premiums. More money will go toward actual health care. Less will go into the pockets of executives. Boo hoo.

“The more this man talks, the less I like him. He’s really an ass hole.” Who is this, Brian? I don’t want to know. I feel agitated and shut the door.

Frankly, it’s embarrassing to admit that I feel depressed when I hear the Republican-Democrats tell me why we cannot have health care for every American. Klobuchar flatly said that universal health care is not possible. She called Medicare-for-all a pipe dream. A pipe dream! I wonder if she’s taking the George Lakoff “strict parent” approach. She might as well have been wagging her finger.

“If it’s worth having, it’s worth paying for. So buck up! Don’t be cheap, you shithead!” How’s that for strict parent?

“She’s in favor of it as long as it doesn’t cost rich people money.” I know this rant well but Brian cannot resist giving me another rendition of it when he comes upstairs. It makes me wonder. What else can’t be done because it costs rich people money? Are the Republican-Democrats conceding bank regulations? What about global warming? What mitigation efforts are no-starters? If Republican-Democrats refuse to do anything that will cost rich people money, forget about affordable pharmaceuticals. Forget about election reform. Forget about anything that will actually make a difference. In the 2016 election Sanders wanted to talk about economic justice while Hillary Clinton wanted to stick to social issues. It’s a tell. Be suspicious of anyone who changes the subject away from the hard conversations about “who will pay for it” to who gets what right. It’s like when Senator Kamala Harris changed the subject to women’s reproductive rights in the middle of a debate about why Americans are loosing their homes because of a dysfunctional health care system. It is so not the point.

My biggest fear is that the Democrats are going to be stupid. Well-meaning people are going to watch too much CNN or MSNBC or whatever and they are going to wrongly conclude that what they really want is not “electable.” Despite what they can see – wild grassroots support for the “extreme left”, as the talking heads would put it – they’ll give us another Hillary Clinton.

And they will lose.

Again.

Because calling what the majority of Americans desperately want a “pipe dream” is another kind of talking point.

Who will they blame this time? Ralph Nader? Those damn Bernie supporters who never got over a sham of an endorsement process? The Russians? The youth who will not be indoctrinated? Anyone who says no thanks to a candidate who can’t even imagine – imagine! – a just health care system in the richest nation in the world let alone ask Jeff Bezos to chip in for it? By the way, he along with a couple of other billionaires are getting into the insurance business.

Brian and Fran are now openly laughing. It could be the playoffs. But it’s probably something Senator Cory Booker said. (Note: It turns out that it was former Vice President Joe Biden. It could have been anyone.)

Somehow we got the garden established. Thanks to a timely article in the newspaper, it went as Jeff said it would. The Department was basically shamed into doing the right thing.

Perhaps our politicians can be shamed into doing the right thing too…

…holding a corrupt and dangerous President accountable… Are there any Republican-Republicans who are sober enough to put aside a hold-power-at-all-cost strategy to understand the gravity of the situation and then take the appropriate action?

…treating health care as a human right… even if it means costing rich people money.

The last time I checked, the garden had around 100 plots. It looks like they built a second shed.

I wish I could be confident about this. I wish I could say that universal health care is a certainty because the objections to it are obviously ridiculous. But until I am there, I will be happy to get on a train full of optimists.

Tips for Comedians

I wanted to see comedy. The Twin Cities can support the big acts in the grand venues. Brian and I have seen our share. Patton Oswalt, John Mulaney, Demetri Martin and Brian Regan at the State. Bill Burr at the Orpheum. For a cool mid-sized place, I loved seeing Mulaney and Hannibal Buress at The Varsity. That was magical. And we saw Tommy Johnagin at Acme. The place was okay. The support columns that interfered with sightlines didn’t help the vibe, but I’ll take it. I probably liked it better than the place at the Mall of America. I just kept thinking, “This could be better.” Put a candle on the table. Something. Feng shui! People! Feng shui! Space matters. Mood matters. This place didn’t have it.

We saw Maria Bamford at the Women’s Club. They should use some of those dues to replace the seating in the theater and they would truly have a sweet place. I guess it’s serviceable. But honestly, I would be happy to see Bamford anywhere. And unlike the casinos, I wouldn’t avoid the Women’s Club. We had to go to a casino to see Kathleen Madigan. The flat seating on banquet chairs was not for me. Again, no mood. The show was a striking contrast to seeing someone like Kathy Griffin. Her act was great. But even better was being in a room full of nuts who adore the woman. It was electric. Whereas in a casino, I get the impression that there are people like us who took a shower and made a point a to see a particular show, but we might be outnumbered by the people who are wandering in the place because they ran out of quarters.

Below all of this, I didn’t know what the scene was. With no aspirations to take the stage as a comedian, it can be hard to remember to go to an open mic on a Tuesday night. But we finally did it. A few weeks ago (on a Friday night!) we got to a ten o’clock show in the basement of the Corner Bar on the West Bank.

My expectations were zero. But more than wanting entertainment, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. So whatever happened, it was going to be great. When Brian read a review that trashed the place because it was a dive, I thought, yep. That’s exactly what I want. It was actually a nice space. Intimate. And I appreciated that my view was not obstructed by a pillar. The place had a nice buzz and a hint of danger. Although we arrived at the bar an hour early, there was a chance that we wouldn’t get into the show. Some guy opens the door to the basement and people funnel in from various directions until they run out of seats. It was our first time there and this was oddly stressful. I’m a middle-aged white lady. Could you please tell me where I can find the line?

We guessed that we might see ten comedians. There were almost twenty! We figured that most of it would be rough. Plenty of it was. At the same time, I was encouraged by much of it too. If we wanted to cultivate a scene in the Twin Cities where we rely more on the local entertainment, you have to ask yourself if we have the chops. I would say I left this experience feeling more encouraged than discouraged. There is still the question of how we actually cultivate talent and create the kinds of scenes that make the Twin Cities a great place to be. For now I’m just a butt in a seat. And for whatever it’s worth, Brian and I made a few observations based on what we saw.

Mainly, I’m just amazed that anyone has the guts to do stand-up. I’m so happy to be living in a place where I can go out and see stuff for my entertainment. Thank you!

Tips for Comedians

Take the stage. Find your spot. Center. Up front. You know, the spot! A few people were trying to hide in the back corner. It might seem like the safest thing to do, but it just compounds the awkwardness.

Be in your body. This can mean a lot of things. It could mean stand up straight. Take a strong stance with both feet planted on the ground. No slouching. A dance class or tai chi might help.

Do not turn on yourself. Resist the temptation to go to self-deprecation or commenting on how you think it’s going. Instead, commit to what you are doing. Pause. Breathe. Do the thing instead of talking about it.

Do not turn on the audience. I’ve seen teasing the audience work. But some things should be left for the more experienced. One guy who was sort of doing okay complained about how bad the audience was whenever he didn’t get the laugh he expected. I thought the audience was rather supportive, so these comments were just confusing.

You’re not as edgy as you think. Along those same lines, I don’t like to be scolded because I can’t take your edginess. I’m not offended. I just didn’t think that was funny.

Bring your friends! You would have thought one law student was a rock star by the way the crowd went crazy for him. On the other hand, I can imagine wanting to try stand-up without the pressure of failing in front of all of your co-workers.

Learn to use the microphone. Don’t scream. Watch how others are using the mic to some good effect or look up a tutorial on YouTube. I’m not talking about doing anything fancy. There were just a few examples where better mic handling would have helped.

Know when to stop. Maybe it drives the organizers crazy if people don’t fill out their allotted time, but I thought it was cool when people did their thing and let the bit end.

Plan your exit. Think about how to get off the stage without apologizing. Never apologize. You’re doing fine! Remind me of your name. Wave. Say thank you.

Be vulnerable. This is probably too much to ask of someone who is new at stand-up, but if you don’t eventually get there, you’ll never be my favorite comedian. Devastating. I know. I just say that because there will always be room for people who have been at it for a while who have mediocre success and a shitload of bitterness. Some of the earlier points address this. Instead of being vulnerable, you hide in the back of the stage. Instead of being vulnerable you lash out at the audience. Make sense? The best example of this type of diversion tactic came from one of the stronger acts. There was something there, but then he went into jokes about… Raunchy is fine. Whatever, floats your boat. But it doesn’t work when it’s a substitute for vulnerability, which was our sense here.

Don’t be too vulnerable. On the other hand, it’s always useful to ask if the stage is the best place for your vulnerable state. The formula is Tragedy + Time = Comedy. Some acts seemed like they might have needed a little more time. Whatever you decide, make sure you’re taking care of yourself in other ways too. Cultivate friends. Learn how to fly a kite. Build a tree-house. Join a book club. Take a class. Find a therapist. Whatever feeds your soul.

Avoid insider jokes. It’s cool to see that there appears to be a community of comedians that support each other. But don’t expect the good will you have there to carry you.

Skip the pleasantries. After the fifth comedian in a long lineup, you can skip the “How’s everyone doing tonight?” Look at comedians who just start and do that. I could also do without the “Let’s keep it going for Ralph, everyone! Give it up for Ralph!” In the meantime, Ralph has left. Ralph is throwing up in the bathroom. Leave Ralph out of this.

Write better material.

End strong or as strong as you can. A good example of this was the guy who ended with cell phone impressions.

Connect. It’s scary to connect with the audience, but it’s a requirement of the job. Imagine reading a story to a little kid. That’s what I mean by connect. I’m not talking about the crowd work where you’re giving people the business. That’s fine. But what I mean by connect is not aggressive. It’s just a way to let me know that it matters that I am there. I thought the guy who told the story about his dad who has Alzheimer did a nice job with this. Again, there were others too.

Acknowledge your celebrity double. Steve Buscemi and Maria Bamford, you know who you are.

Never be bitter. Never tell the audience that they don’t know what’s funny. Never tell the audience that they do not matter. Do not verbalize, “I’m doing this joke for me. I don’t care if you think. It’s funny.”

See You Around

I took a different way home.

Standing on a corner just east of the Mississippi River in a neighborhood with money, a bird lets out a sound. An unfamiliar beautiful sound. A foreign sound. Something from the jungle. I watch. In the oak tree across the street, I see something big compared to a lot of birds around here save the crows and predators of various sorts. As best as I can tell, it was a pileated woodpecker that I spied. It was only this summer when a descent of them caught my attention. That’s when I realized that woodpeckers can get rather big. They were foraging in a stand of dead trees just off the bike path farther down the river.

I keep watching. The bird looks oddly human as he backs down the tree in a clumsy fashion as if navigating a doorway with a large box in his beak. Then I hear the sound again and realize that it’s coming from elsewhere. Another woodpecker? Are there chicks in that nest? Isn’t that a squirrel’s nest? Nothing is clear. I keep watching, somewhat aware that I might be agitating anyone who might be peering out from behind the curtains of any one of those lovely houses.

Parked across the street I see a car that looks familiar. Is it the car that I sometimes see idling in front of my house for several minutes at a time? A white sedan missing its hubcaps. So familiar. I will have to ask Brian about this.

A man unloads something from a van. Someone is having some work done. A second man approaches him. He’s holding two black garbage bags. Each is less than half full. He wants to know the time. The first man with the van disappears into a house. It’s hard to say whether he just didn’t hear the question or was doing that thing where you pretend you don’t see someone because you sense drama and you just don’t want to deal with it. So the guy with the garbage bags turns to me.

“I don’t have a watch.” I tell him. I hold up my wrists.

“It must be about nine.” He says. “’cause I left at about eight-thirty.”

“Sometimes you can tell by looking at your shadow.” We look at our shadows and I make a guess. “It’s a little after nine.” This gives him plenty of time to get to his job. At eleven o’clock he’s going to clean out a friend’s basement.

His name is George. The first thing I notice about him is his eyes. They seem cloudy and a little googly, like a broken doll where they’re never quite looking forward, but always rolling upwards a little bit. I suspect he is homeless. I suspect he has a drinking problem.

He used to have a bike with a cart that he could use to haul scrap metal and cans to a place that buys the stuff on Snelling Avenue. But he loaned it to someone who never brought it back. So now he’s on foot.

“Why would someone steal your stuff?” He says. “Why would anyone do that?”

In my garage I have a bike that gets little use. The Huffy is a souvenir from when I taught English classes for a summer to mostly Japanese college students. One day right before they headed home, one of the students brought his bike to my office. He wanted to give it to me. The next thing I knew, I had a dozen bikes in my office. After redistributing them to friends, decades later I still have one. When the repair shop said that it wasn’t worth fixing, I paid to have it fixed anyway.

Thirty or forty years ago George’s wife was murdered in what sounded like a drug deal that went sideways.

“I told her to stay out of them crack houses, but she wouldn’t listen.”

The man who cut her throat is in jail.

George is still hurt by the way his wife’s family had her cremated without telling him. After all, he was her husband, right? Shouldn’t he have a say? He would have had her buried. I was curious about his objection to cremation, but it didn’t seem right to ask about it. Instead I ask an equally inappropriate question. Does he ever think about getting sober? Am I some kind of missionary? No. Don’t worry, George. I’m not going to whip out a Bible.

He would actually welcome it. He’s been known to go to a church on Franklin Avenue.

“The preacher there is real good. He’s White but he’s good. He preaches like a Black preacher.”

What’s the difference? I wanted more and got nothing.

“His father used to preach, but when he died the son took over.”

Pinning George down on the facts wasn’t easy. He would say things like “thirty or forty years ago” and “six or seven sisters.” He also referred to his cousin’s widow as his mother-in-law. She helps him pay the rent at the wet house where he stays. She’s a fine person. Really helpful. She has that “disease where you have to take those insulin shots.”

George wants to know if I am married. Coming from anyone else, I might have been annoyed by such a ham-handed question. Besides, there I was, asking a stranger about whether he thought his drinking impacts the quality of his life. He admits that it probably does, but retracts his confession when he says that he only drinks beer and not that much beer, really. Then he pats his front pocket, indicating a flask inside. I imagine it’s whiskey.

“I also have a little of this sometimes, but that’s it, really. Not too much at all.”

George aspires to get a place of his own because he’s tired of living with the men at the group home where they aren’t allowed to have any women. He has his own room, so that’s good. But the men are pigs, always leaving trash everywhere. They have a tent where they drink and George is always picking up after them.

“There’s a trashcan right there! Why can’t they use it? But they don’t. They just throw bottles everywhere and it’s my job to keep the place clean.”

In my garage there is scrap metal that we have been meaning to recycle. I want to give it to George, but the logistics of that are more than I want to contemplate.

George is a drummer. His brother taught him how to play. He can also play the guitar and used to have an amplifier until it was lost in… I’m not sure what the story was. Something about an eviction, I think. George used to play in a band in Memphis. But they had too many drummers and when the group did not heed his ultimatum, George quit. That’s when he moved to Minneapolis where he had family. Nine brothers and sisters minus two sisters who are dead, one from a heart attack. There are numerous cousins and nephews and nieces. He doesn’t see them too often, though he would like to see them more. He imagines that they probably worry about him, but doesn’t elaborate on why they would. Unlike some families, they do not fight because family is family. He mentions a brother who just got out of jail. Again, I’m curious but let it go. Like the guy with the van who fled into a house, there is some drama that I’d rather avoid for now.

George wants to be friends. I say sure. I tell him that if I see him around that I will say hello. He likes this, almost as if we had made plans for coffee next Tuesday.

George knows when people throw away their junk. Last month was a good month. He got some baskets, by which I think he means shopping carts. There were some bikes and a lawnmower. He told me this the way I imagined he might brag to the other scrappers. Indeed I am a scrapper, if you count garage sales. And it’s true that the painting of poppies that hangs on the wall behind my bed came directly out of the neighbor’s trash.

What do I do? I never have a good answer for this. George offers encouragement. As long as you have something going on, some useful endeavors, well that’s all that matters, right? George and I have this in common. We both have useful endeavors.

George wants a hug.

If he could cop a feel, I imagine that he would. But it’s hard to say if he is a straight up lech or just a person who longs for the human touch. A long time ago, I learned how to maintain a comfortable distance in these situations. So I shake his hand, lean in just enough and give him a rap on the back. We finally go our separate ways, George over the bridge from where I had just come and me up the hill. I am relieved that he doesn’t alter his plans to continue to walk in my direction, as I hadn’t yet formed a polite but foolproof reason to part otherwise.

In my garage there is a wagon, a sort of garden cart that I never use. It was a Christmas gift from Brian back when I could imagine using it for grocery shopping. It doesn’t really work for that. So it sits by the access door and collects odds and ends until I work up the nerve to sort through it all and put things in their proper place. When I think of Brian assembling this wagon late into the night on Christmas Eve, I feel loved.

See you around.

Youth, drunks and stupid tourists

How they are still in business? Keeping the bar afloat is a mix of undiscerning college students, a few hard-drinker regulars from the neighborhood and tourists like us, people who wanted something new and took a flyer on this dump… people who were hungry on the West Bank.

Why did we stay? I watched myself do it.

Ignore the floor, light tan epoxy with a smattering of varied brownish flecks that mimic coarse sand. It looks fine but every step reveals something sticky.

Ignore the windows that had not been touched in a decade. The sun struggles to penetrate the dirt. Except for a brief moment when the potential of the room could be seen in its warmth, the sunshine was no match for hideous rusty reds that clashed with cranberry crushed velvet chairs, a touch of faux sophistication that looked out of place in the grime. Ignore that too. The grime.

Four inches of dust has collected on the exposed ductwork. So if for some reason you got passed the entryway where a mop is occasionally slung to clear a path of white hexagon tile, only accentuating the dirt on either side of it, you could not miss the crud over your head. It would have raised questions. What about the kitchen?

Before you got to the bar to place your order, you would have left.

My first job was as a babysitter. I was twelve going on thirteen and earned a dollar an hour for watching my niece. I eventually moved on to the neighbor’s kids and then families who placed classified ads. Then there was a newspaper route. I inherited that from my brother. I eventually followed him to Happy Joe’s Pizza. I think he followed my older sister. The three of us worked at Happy Joe’s together for a stretch of time. I often rode to work with my sister. She wore Tabu. The smell of it puts me in her dark green Ford Pinto on Highway 44 between our house in Rapid Valley and Campbell Street.

At closing time I would wipe down the red plastic booster chairs that little kids use to sit at the table at a proper height. Every night. Needed or not. I remember this whenever I’m out and I reach for the Tabasco where the sauce has caked around the cap and threads of the bottle. I’m afraid that something gross will fall into my eggs. I wipe off the bottle with a napkin. And then I tell Brian about the boosters. Who’s managing this place? Not my brother. Not my sister. They cared. Nobody here does.

Why did we stay?

Thrift shop curtains on cheap wire shower hooks can have a certain funky appeal, but in this case it fails. For one thing, the drapes are too long, too heavy, too dark and awkwardly hang jammed behind a row of seating. Likewise, the colonial vintage chairs might have been a nice touch had they been coordinated with anything. Had anyone bothered to polish their spindles and dusty rungs, they could have been charming. Instead these treasures are forced to be out there in the world in their neglected state. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them.

Where is the pride?

The only sign that suggested that anyone cares about anything in this place was literally a sign. A chalkboard advertised music on the weekends and an open mic on a slower day. Indeed, as we sat at a high top with our beers, a guy with a guitar was getting ready for a gig. Forgetting about where I was for a second, I thought we could come back after the show down the street and give him a listen.

We did not.

The food was okay, but does not make this place a destination. Actually, that’s being generous. Why can’t I be honest about cold french fries and a grilled vegetable sandwich that shouldn’t have given anyone the confidence to open a restaurant?

I see the musician talk to a woman whom I take to be an employee. Was she the manager? The booker? Unlike the guy who emerged from the kitchen with our food, she appears to have washed her hair recently. Her personal tidiness makes me suspect apathy toward the joint, cynicism versus ignorance or poorly executed ambitions. Their exchange reminds me of Diane? Was that her name? She managed Paddy O’Neil’s Pub in the Alex Johnson. It was a piano bar before my time. When I was there working as a cocktail waitress they had a stage for live music where mainly solo acts did covers:

You can’t hide those lyn’ eyes…

and…

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out

and…

Set out running but I’ll take my time
A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight

It’s nothing like it used to be. The last time I was there, video lottery machines took up the space and the swanky lounge on the other side of the hotel lobby had been replaced with a sterilized coffee shop. I think it was part of a chain, but I don’t remember for sure.

I don’t know why we stayed.

I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to do your best.

Why are there places like this?

Is it like so many other things where the market will determine the minimum requirement to capture an audience? Why spend the money to spiff up the HVAC system when it doesn’t change how many beers you can sell? Why make it nice for kids who have confused cool with borderline health code violations? And those guys at the bar drinking domestic tallboys and slurring their words at 4 o’clock? They will be back tomorrow. So there’s no need to wash the plastic dome cover to the display of monster chocolate chip cookies that sits next to the cash register as if it’s supposed to tempt annyone. They don’t care. You could scrape off a pound of grease from it with your fingernail and they wouldn’t care.

How do they stay in business?

I don’t know why we stayed.

We shouldn’t have made it passed the front door.

Reassuring Kitty Ears

The chair in my bedroom squeaks.

It sits by the window that overlooks the street.

I can see part of my flower garden from it.

Purple coneflowers. Native plants that spread.

It’s summer. Wood expands.

The door on the buffet sticks.

It never did that in South Dakota.

The chair in my bedroom squeaks.

Sometimes my mother can hear it when we’re talking on the phone.

“Is that the door? Is someone there?”

“It’s the glider gliding.” I say.

Try wax.

Isolate the sound.

Will I miss it?

The chair in my bedroom squeaks.

Up. Down. Up. Down.

It gives the cat away.

Up. Down. Up. Down.

Here she comes again.

To the stool. To the chair. Its wide flat wooden arms.

Up. Down. Up. Down.

To the perch again.

Nineteen. She might need the help.

Don’t move the chair.

Don’t fix the squeak.

Wake up! Wake up! Squeak!

She follows cars I cannot see.

She follows giant bugs that rumble.

Spies a rabbit.

Hears the doors.

Keys. A breeze. The rustling of leaves.

Birds and occasionally a siren.

A screen. Twilight and reassuring kitty years.

Blow a kiss from my bed.

Get up and kiss her on the head!

Tasty pie.

My little goat.

I hope she knows that I love her.

The chair in my bedroom squeaks.

Everything is Fine

Judging by the size of the elm tree that I tried to remove, it has been a year since I did any work in my backyard.

But we have winter in Minnesota. It couldn’t have been a year.

It has been too long.

My neglect is a critter’s paradise. Once I found a toad under the overgrown rhubarb. Ever since then, I take a more surgical approach to trimming it back. Who knows what’s under there taking cover in the shade in what might otherwise be an inhospitably hot patch of grass? There was also the time when Brian and I were sitting on the front stoop. We watched a robin collect worms near the hydrangea. She was feeding two fledglings – one hopping in and out from underneath the rhubarb, and the other hiding in the Joe-pye that is finally starting to show signs of flowering. A million birds. A million bees. They don’t seem to mind a few weeds. Chipmunks that sound like birds. Tiny bunnies. Squirrels. Plenty of those. They could not care less.

But of course there are the neighbors to consider.

When you put off weeding your garden for as long as I have – whatever the reasons might be – it can be a challenge to work up the courage to face it. For all I know a gaze of raccoons have set up shop in last year’s sunflower stalks that are leaning against the chain link fence next to the compost bin. In fact, here’s a picture of exactly what I fear. But once I’m out there, the task doesn’t seem so impossible. Big. But not impossible. I enjoy spotting the Queen Anne’s lace that’s trying to blend in with the raspberries. And it’s satisfying to catch a thistle before its seeds have spread. Sometimes the scariest looking weed doesn’t take much to remove. The ragweed that was as tall as me came up pretty easily. And while it was too late by the time I had read about the hazards of touching it, I haven’t suffered any rashes. I enjoy tidying up the place. Sometimes I like to pretend that I am a cow, but I’d be just as happy to be a goat. That way I feel less conflicted about deciding what is to stay and what is to go. The Department of Agriculture has a list of invasive plants and that should be enough. You’re out! On the other hand, I am an empath even when it comes to dandelions. Besides, it can be tricky to make the distinction between a beneficial thistle and a noxious plant.

A day in the garden should burn up one’s ration of decision-making power. But somehow it doesn’t.

Lately I’ve been reading about writing, which can be a sort of procrastination technique if you’re not careful. But I have found it to be useful. I’ve seen several references to the idea that inspiration is something that comes once you start writing. It is not something that you need to write. I have found this to be true. Anyone who exercises knows this as well. You’re sunk if you wait to be in the mood to do it and you’ll feel great if you do it. Pulling weeds. Same thing.

But it can be hard to face these things after so much neglect.

In the case of my yard, there might be raccoons, right?

Instead, I found that the kale I planted when the garden seemed manageable earlier this year was ready to harvest. I had some for lunch. Chopped. Sauteed in a little olive oil and a sliced onion. You can add other veggies but simple is good. Drizzled with lemon juice. On rice. Topped with nuts. Walnuts are good. And raisins. Seriously good.

Instead, the weeds had time to work the soil that fell easily from their roots. Black. Crumbly. Moist. They were there because nothing else was. They were there because that’s what the soil conditions supported. They were there working, accessing nutrients that were unavailable to other plants. Pulling them up to the top. They were there to help in my absence and all I can say is “Thank you!”

Instead the compost has broken down. The bin that was filled over the wintertime is now just half full. Slide open the access door on the side of it and you will see that the worms have arrived.

Everything is fine.

No need to worry.

Get back to it.

Try again tomorrow.

Just do the next thing and see what inspiration has to say next.

Still unfinished…

My ears perked up when my coffee date mentioned a book called “How to get things done.” My painting projects remain as they were. Unfinished. I did buy some fresh rollers. And I do have somewhat of a system that helps me manage multiple projects. I call it a project journal and I will share more about it later. To really sell the idea, I imagine I should finish a few things first. Proof of concept… though it has already been proved as you will see…

ahem…

Brian and I will be volunteering this week at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. After having produced a podcast about it last year (The Minnesota FringeCast), he wanted to see it from a volunteer angle. So we’re going to play store for a few nights. I’m weirdly nervous about it. When technology fails – the thing you use to swipe a credit card, for example – a cuss word might fly out of my mouth. But the thing is, you’re not supposed to say @#!8(! when you’re wearing the official volunteer shirt. These are my challenges. We went to a show last night where someone at the box office was having this very problem. He didn’t cuss once. He was a real inspiration.

Next year I would like to try hosting artists, but so far Brian is not sold on it. I think he’s afraid that it will be the beginning of my fantasy to run a Zimmer Frei where travelers hear about a cheap bed by word-of-mouth and they do things like weed the garden in exchange for lunch. After a day of sightseeing, our guests will come home and play the piano and pound on the drums. Some will become friends. After a while, postcards documenting their travels will outnumber the bills and random junk in our mailbox.

At first, we seemed to strike out where it came to finding a good Fringe show. At one show, I saw an audience member slip out rather early. She knew. So did I. The signs were there. Then there were the Fringe shows that really pissed us off – one because it was bad and one because it was very good.

As for the bad show, it is tempting to fire off a reply to the five-star reviews that must have been left by sympathetic friends. After all, shouldn’t people be warned? Brian suggested a title: The joke’s on you! But we let it go. It was an insulting waste of time and I would have been horrified had I used this show to introduce a friend to the Fringe. Was it an experiment in which the producers were trying to see what a Minnesota Nice audience would tolerate? Brian said that it was Yes Men (Try “Reburger” on YouTube). It’s the best you can say about this utterly non-theatrical piece. I wondered whether the whole thing was being streamed for the pleasure of the real audience somewhere else. But after thinking about it, I do not regret having stayed when we should have bolted after the first twelve minutes. As “adventurous audience members”, we walked in with an open mind, though I admit that in protest I eventually resorted to staring at the floor and writing the next part of my short story in my head. But still, we stayed with the idea of giving the artist a chance to complete a thought. This took trust. Our trust was betrayed.

The show we saw last night, You Are Cordially Invited to the Life and Death of Edward Lear also made Brian mad, but in a different way. You see that show and you wonder where the heck our priorities are. What would be possible if more people saw shows like this? On a regular basis? Where the price of tickets did not exclude anyone and where artists could make a decent living? It would be a kinder, gentler place, for one thing. Funner too. The show was so beautiful. So packed with talent and curiosity and infectious passion for stories and history and just being a person on the planet. You can read more extensive reviews on the website. The show sold out last night and will again, I’m sure. Maybe at some point I can get Brian to write more extensively about his frustration with our priorities. I hear about it whenever we see inspiring art, be it at the Fringe, the State Fair or a museum or whenever we encounter anyone who just has deep knowledge about anything, like the guy who sold us a rug.

We haven’t seen too many shows yet, but there are a couple of others that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Quiet Riot – by Broken Box Mime Theater out of New York
The Zoo Story – By Jackdonkey Productions

What great work!

As for some of the shows that didn’t quite work, I imagine they are much like my painting projects in that they are still unfinished. The script might need work. The actors have yet to master their craft… if they ever do. For it can be easy to rest in mediocrity, kind of like the way I dink around with the piano, which is why I want house guests who can play for real. You can tell the difference. At the same time, I do like the idea of the unpolished being invited to participate in a show. Within certain guided parameters, I’d like to think that anyone can play a part. Of course, I’d rather only see great shows than anything else. But it’s also okay to see a range of things and some would argue that seeing the truly bad is actually part of the Fringe experience. But bad can mean a lot of things. It can mean lazy. That’s a little hard to take. It can mean cynical. No thanks. It can also mean beginner, taking risks, trying something new or being ambitious beyond one’s talents. Not bad things at all.

Keep trying. Get better. Finish something.