I love you, Winona!

WilliamS

I love you, Winona! What a pleasure it was to be whisked away by Fran and Margot to the home of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in the middle of the week. The Merry Wives of Winsor was a thoroughly enjoyable production and ensured that we will be back for more. You packed the house and now I know why.

It’s a beautiful drive from the Twin Cities to Winona State University that has been hosting the festival for the past eleven years. What? I could have seen Yo-Yo Mah for twenty-five dollars at your Beethoven Festival? Now you’re just bragging. No wonder the inn keeper was bustling on air when she put on that fresh pot of coffee. I thought she might actually do a pirouette.

On the way down, we cut over to the Wisconsin to snake our way down the river to Stockholm. We saw eagles swooping just off the bluffs and that never gets old. After wandering through an art gallery where I was sorry that my parents had not been with us as I saw a million beautiful things they would have loved, we cheated and enjoyed our dessert before dinner at the Stockholm Pie Company. Then it was to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. What a treasure. Again, the woodcut prints by Nick Wroblewski made me wish that my parents could have made the trip. My dad would have been impressed.

We didn’t do anything especially noteworthy for dinner, although my spinach cranberry salad at the Green Mill hit the spot. Then it was to the show (delightful, as I said) and back to the motel. Before leaving the next day, at breakfast we learned from a Harley rider who was waiting for her man to get out of bed that there was a lot more to see. A bank with stained glass windows? I won’t miss it.

Thanks for a lovely day off, Winona.

Waste and Appreciation

ErnieWatching the Wolves take down the Spurs got me thinking about waste and appreciation. It’s fitting given the team’s marketing slogan this year: “Don’t Miss a Moment!”

Sitting in the lower deck facing the home bench, I noticed three Black teens who were looking sharp and passing for 20 something. Six and half minutes into the game, they got the boot when a pair of ticket holders on what looked to be a second or third date showed up to claim their seats. With the Wolves out of playoffs and the game being a make-up for the Mexico City cancellation, a thin crowd emboldened these nomads and a host of others to negotiate their way from as far as the nosebleeds to a better view. Spoiling a cloak of confidence, our youth would get bounced two more times before they would finally settle in the row in front of us where they enjoyed the game in peace except to shrink in the shadow of trickling latecomers who would block our view as they scanned for their seats.

By the fourth quarter a game well in or out of hand will prompt an exodus of fans driven to be the first to line up at the parking pay stations, of parents getting a jump on the bedtime routine or of smokers tamping packs of cigarettes as they go. As hordes of deserters flee to do whatever is next, our transients bounce again – this time voluntarily to the best seats of the night, if only to be enjoyed for the last crumbs of the game, 163 seconds.

Season ticket holders arriving deep into the first quarter and leaving before the final buzzer is common. Even with a fraction of a second left in regulation, we could be down by two with K-Love at the line for a chance to knot it up and still flowing steadily toward the exit signs will be the half-hearted, preoccupied and the self-inflicted hurried.

scoreAs if to invite a dance, men in will prod their companions with the pressure of two fingers applied to the small of the back. With feigned self-detachment, fresh manicures and cruel shoes are guided these pressed shirts passed an imaginary sea of the envious, as the couples share a final trip down the runway with hot mini donuts and cotton candy.

Cut with enough Wolves gear, Ken and Barbie are bearable. With the primary exception of the deplorable bandwagon fans of major market teams who will rub it in given the chance, the arena has a good vibe. From where we sit, every age is represented. Every color is there. It’s common to hear foreign languages. Unlike the Democratic National Convention where I saw the staging and the coaching of multicultural “delegates”, the game naturally attracts diversity. It’s an elusive goal for a lot of organizations that fret, “Look around this table! Everyone is white!” The easy criticism is often hurled by the well-meaning politically correct or an especially unimaginative resume-builder. While these detractors couldn’t articulate an organization’s mission or get excited about it, they’re certain that offering “culturally appropriate” snacks will fill their insufferable meetings with the disenfranchised.

While the game doesn’t have this particular problem, it can highlight some of our worst embarrassments. Wealth radiates from center court, to the corporations that occupy courtside, through the first eight rows of first class fans who are guarded by diligent ushers and who are afforded the dignity of ordering their French fries from a waiter, while the rest of us lowlifes have to flag down a hawker who’s balancing peanuts on his head. Then it’s passed the private party rooms and up to rafters where the cheap seats bring to mind the economic disparities of the Titanic. Radiating further out into the streets, beggars make a pitch for diapers, a way home or a night at the shelter.

Andrei Combative language is used to describe the game, while its fans are frisked at the door and told to report cussing and any other non-family-friendly behavior. Here players are weapons who penetrate the paint and attack the basket. While we had him, with exception of the week following the Connecticut school shooting where 26 elementary students were gunned down and for whom there was a hollow moment of silence at the Target Center, whenever Andrei Kirilenko would score, the in-arena announcer would yell “A—- K—- 47!” Hundreds of fans formally complained about it. But the franchise couldn’t convince the player to ditch the nickname and had no power to compel him or the equally clueless and inaccessible announcer to do it. It was a relief when the Russian signed with the Nets. He was making a moral dilemma out of what should be simple pleasure: Being part of a crowd that erupts when Love knocks down a buzzer beater, or when a stealthy Brewer cuts in for another steal, or when Rubio makes a no-look pass through traffic to Dieng for the dunk. It’s hard to appreciate the game when you’re getting kicked in the gut, especially when you’re already sucking up a bunch of other infractions, such as the absence of any fully clothed women who play anything but support roles.

To cope with the crammed escalators and the insanity inducing congested parking ramps, our strategy hasn’t been to ditch early but to stick around until security gives us the hook, usually after DJ Mad Mardigan packs it in. Nevertheless, while squandering enviable seats is weirdly elitist, it also makes me wonder. How have I wasted? How have I rushed? How have I failed to appreciate what I have?

When I was working at a French group home, I recall jumping up to clear the table and do the dishes after a meal with the residents at “La Garenne”, our beach home on the English Channel. Abandoning 30 dinner guests to scrub pans was taken to be rude, not helpful. Kitchen duty was a conspicuous price to pay for a minute to myself. We were expected to linger.

A trip to Missoula presented another “Don’t Miss a Moment” lesson. I was joining my friend Chris for his college reunion and was late meeting him for our departure from his Newcastle home. Construction in the southern Black Hills jammed me up for almost an hour on a dirt road with a lost New Yorker who had never seen a buffalo; at the age of 30, he had never left Manhattan until then. Over the apology I offered upon my arrival, Chris popped a TV dinner in the oven and offered me something to drink. After a bite, we took Barley, a golden retriever that had the face of a person and the manners of an Oxford graduate, to the sitter who was a talker. Bob paid no mind to time as he launched another subject. The composed Barley politely listened without comment as the three of us talked about nothing in particular and kicked rocks in the driveway. Somehow, after securing our bikes to the top of the car, we finally set out only to stop but fifty miles down the road where Chris insisted that we get a “real milkshake” from an “authentic soda fountain”. He acted like I was a refugee who had never seen ice cream before. As dusk came and went, we opted to sit at the counter instead of enjoying our frosty treat like normal people – in a speeding car. It turns out that “making time” is overrated.

I don’t always fail.

Trying to catch a nap under buzzing fluorescents in the hard melamine chairs of a Greyhound terminal while guarding my wallet has enhanced my appreciation for good bed, specifically the feel of a mattress pressing against my back, a generous pillow cradling my head, the smell of clean pressed sheets, and a blanket holding it all together with its perfect weight, a barrier between my skin and a cold draft; I am keenly aware of the roof and the elements from which it keeps me safe.

Staying for the movie credits is another relished small act of resistance in a world that keeps telling me to hurry up. It’s also a nod to my brother who is an actor. After taking in a show, it seems rude to sneak out just as we are about to recognize the creators who must be thrilled to see their names scrolling by. I only wish that such courtesies would enhance my trivia knowledge. I’d like to be the sort who can whip out the answer to questions like “Who played ‘Bus Driver #1′ in It Happened One Night?” It was Ward Bond and I will never be a trivia buff.

Ironically, McDonald’s marketers have detected a collective discomfort with our neurotic multitasking and they’re using it to endear us to their brand. In one commercial a travelling businessman is encouraged to enjoy his coffee unplugged.

In the sequel with only the ambient noise of a train station, we see that our businessman has learned his lesson.

In a separate “slow it down and unplug” ad campaign, Sports Authority holiday commercials tell us to “Give the gift of sport.” We’re promised that our soccer balls will never need an upgrade and this is somehow the most refreshing thing we’ve ever heard.

It’s unlikely that corporate marketers hold the answer to a call to dial it down. But these ads could indicate our creeping unhappiness with being herded and rushed and constantly plugged in. Will our dissatisfaction eventually inflate us with the resolve to live at a human pace? Or will the humble luxury of a McCafe or some similar product calm our yearnings as promised, keeping us just happy enough?

In the meantime, I’ll take to heart the lessons of the uninitiated, youth who scramble for a better view to savor what so many of us dismissively toss out.

Kevin Quotes Laurie Anderson

The tape recorder was on when Kevin quoted Laurie Anderson’s “Ramon”. Having recently rediscovered the recording, I put it together with the song and some text.

Working with the text in this way, looking at it closer than I might normally, reminds me of being in a Shakespeare play. It enhances appreciation.

Looking Through a Box of Photos Puts a Fine Point on Time

The Universe Wants Me to Eat Kefir

Do you ever get the idea that the universe is trying send you a message? When my friend Dan was considering a move to the Lone Star State he started to see Texas license plates everywhere, a little far from home where we lived in South Dakota. A tarot spread confirmed that a big change was coming, with the card of death routinely showing up in his Celtic cross.
Texas License PlateReading “the signs” can be tricky. Feeling out of sorts, are we trying to line up with our destiny? Or do we seek the blessing of a higher power to do what we simply want to do: Quit a job? Get a divorce? Become a Texan? Or do we just want to escape the limbo of chronic indecision? “If only the universe would tell me what to do!”

Brian isn’t one to mystify a spell of bad luck or a happy coincidence. I can’t imagine him looking for clues in the tarot, not even when he was 20, a good age for that kind of stuff when we’re dying to know how things turn out. Yet he will acknowledge “blue ice moments”. We were at Target the first time we noticed experiencing this cosmic connection. I thought of blue ice and then he appeared with an armload of it. It seemed so random, not like the times he brings milk home when we need it.

The last time I encountered a psychic I was with my mom in Times Square. For fun we paid five dollars to a palm reader who had set up shop next to a veteran selling fashion watches and “designer” handbags. Sonia told my mom – the mother of six grown kids – that she would give birth to lots of children. Looking deeply into her gypsy eyes, my mom invited Sonia to take another shot. She didn’t get the joke.

Guidance isn’t in the cards or in our palms, although it might be in the license plates we happen to notice. We’re swimming in guidance!

When I was working on a project distributing compost bins to neighbors, one of the participants randomly told me about the cure-all that is kefir and offered to give me starter grains. I had no idea what she was talking about, but trusted her testimony that this yogurt-like wonderfood was a pro-biotic that promoted digestive health. It was also a good source of protein, calcium, B vitamins and phosphorus, all essential for good health. While I was curious and had intended to accept the free “grains” needed to get a batch of kefir going, I never got around to it.

Months later in the dead of winter I was at my community garden tending to an experimental composting project (I’m not trying to suggest a compost connection here, but wouldn’t it be lovely!). There I met a man I took to be Vietnamese. The garden was on his rounds and he’d routinely stop by to ask about my project. One day for no particular reason he mentioned kefir. It was hard to catch everything he said, but I gathered he was extolling its health benefits. We exchanged email addresses and he sent me some information. While interested, again I dropped the ball.

Years later at a dinner party I could not turn down an offer of kefir grains as they were right there. I took them home and as directed “fed” my grains – actually a combination of bacteria and yeast – some milk and then proceeded to neglect them. Fortunately, the colony survived and I’ve since had a chance to incorporate kefir into my diet. As for the health benefits, I’m inclined to think that there might be something to it, although I don’t have enough experience to say what is real and what is hype. Does kefir promote a general sense of well-being? Two random strangers felt compelled to tell me that it does.

The universe might also dial us by scolding friend.

“I thought you were smarter than that!” Al said, taking a swig of coffee. We were having breakfast at Parka on East Lake Street, which was nice but perhaps a little too precious with its tiny sushi plates. A tablespoon of hash browns, no matter how perfectly seasoned or beautifully presented, is going to leave me hungry.

“You need to have a will!” Al apologized for being a downer, but I appreciated the push. Brian and I had been meaning to write our wills ever since we had heard about a case where a gay couple was operating under the assumption that having both of their names on the title of their jointly owned house would protect them from probate. It didn’t. We saw that article years ago.

The same week Al and I had breakfast, I uncharacteristically stopped on a channel where Suze Orman was preaching the gospel of personal finance. “You. Need. A. Will.” According to Suze, we also needed a medical power of attorney, a living revocable trust, and something else that slips my mind.

Fully informed now, I bolted upstairs where Brian was hunkered down with the cat and a book.

“Do you think it means anything?”

While Brian doesn’t believe that God was speaking through Suze Orman, he agreed that we need to get our wills in order tout suite. In the meantime, I’ll hope that our procrastination doesn’t bite us in the ass. Brian, on the other hand, isn’t worried. “I have faith that we’ll survive at least another week.”

Peanut Butter Soup

When an old roommate offered me some of her peanut butter soup, it didn’t sound too appetizing but I couldn’t deny that it smelled really good and it turned out to be a very satisfying meal. I never got the recipe, but found that I had luck winging it. Do a search for “Peanut Butter Soup” for recipes that have more precise directions.

Peanut Butter Soup
Author: 
 
Ingredients
  • Olive Oil
  • Onion, medium, chopped
  • Garlic, a handful minced
  • Peanut Butter, 1 large TBS
  • Water, 1 cup
  • Milk, 1-3 cups
  • Cayenne Pepper, 2-3 shakes
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Spinach (optional)
  • Carrots (optional)
  • Tomatoes (optional)
  • Garbanzo Beans (optional)
  • Rice (optional)
  • Noodles (optional)
Instructions
  1. Warm oil.
  2. Sauté onions and garlic on medium heat. Do not burn. You could include celery and carrots at this point if desired.
  3. Stir in peanut butter. Turn the heat up and let it brown and start to stick to the bottom of the pan, but do not burn it.
  4. Gradually add a cup of water, stirring it in to make a smooth mixture.
  5. Stir in milk.
  6. Add cayenne pepper, pepper, and salt to taste.
  7. Add other vegetables as desired. For example, spinach or some other chopped up green such as kale can be nice. A can of diced tomatoes will work. Garbanzo beans worked great. If you use them, I'd keep it simple and leave out the other vegetables. A cup of rice or noodles will make for an even more filling dish.

Parting with the Bank

The consequences of subprime mortgages and credit default swaps were surfacing when we decided to buy a house. It was 2007 and a buyer’s market, which meant that we had to sift through a lot of overpriced shitboxes because the starry-eyed heirs to some of these pee-soaked rehabs hadn’t heard the news: The party was over. Anyone who could was waiting out the storm. We made two offers over nine months. It was exhausting.

In the meantime, I was working at the Minnesota House of Representatives where I was hearing from distressed constituents who were facing foreclosure. These cautionary tales and some unexpected advice would frame my approach as a first-time buyer, which was to get out of debt as soon as possible. I made a spreadsheet to help us with this goal and have since cleaned it up to share here (2007 Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. Note: Downloading this .xlsx file may cause your anti-virus software to warn you.)

Why be aggressive about paying off our house?

One day at work as I waited for my turn for the microwave in a cramped but lobbyist-free zone, a co-worker told of feeling trapped by a house he could not sell. He was “underwater” and – on top of that painful reality – paying almost two hundred dollars a month in mortgage insurance. Mortgage insurance? What’s that? “Avoid it if you can”, he warned. “It’s a terrible feeling to hand over that kind of money and have nothing to show for it.” I had a lot to learn.

As it turns out, to avoid mortgage insurance – designed to protect the lender from loan defaults – the buyer must make a down payment of at least 20 percent. So that was it. I came home and announced that if we couldn’t afford to do that, we couldn’t afford it. While I might have been a little puffed up with resolve that I had no right to have, we managed to swing it.

Another random tidbit of information came from a friend who wasn’t convinced that we were buying at a good time. “Wait until the prices hit bottom. They’re still going down.” This otherwise sage advice lost out to our sanity that was being threatened by our neighbor, the dipshit. On the other hand, making one extra mortgage payment every year was something we could do. As any mortgage calculator will show, extra payments can significantly reduce the payback period of a loan, slashing the cost of interest by thousands. After playing with a few of these free calculators online, I found myself wanting my own spreadsheet that I could understand, customize and edit more easily. So, I made one and it has helped us stay on track with some simple financial goals.

By simple, I mean simple. “How fast can we pay off the house?” That was the question, not whether we’d come out ahead if we made other investments instead. You’ll have to go elsewhere for that advice. All I can say is that hearing about the unraveling of lives that started with a balloon payment, a rate adjustment or a late payment and referring the broken men and women at the center of these stories to Lutheran Social Services for last-ditch help with foreclosure prevention made an impression on me; I was driven more by a desire to part with the bank than what might be generally considered to be shrewd financial planning.

I recently shared my spreadsheet with a friend who – just like me – didn’t realize what a difference an extra fifty dollars towards the principle of a loan can make when paying down your debt. You’re welcome to download it here. Please be advised that I do not guarantee that there aren’t any mistakes in this spreadsheet. Disclaimer aside, maybe playing with some numbers will inspire you to set some goals and get out of debt sooner rather than later. And, of course, if you have any corrections, requests or suggestions regarding this spreadsheet, please let me know!

About the Spreadsheet

Download here – 2007 Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. Note: Downloading this .xlsx file may cause your anti-virus software to warn you.

Input your Data
Enter your data (house price, down payment, interest rate, etc.) in the green cells. Other cells cannot be changed, but are calculated fields. If you want to unlock the spreadsheet to add some of your own calculations, let me know and I’ll give you the password.

Default Extra Payments
Enter the amount of the extra payments you plan to make on your mortgage every month (Column B, Line 15). As with other variables, you can try different numbers to see how it affects the financing costs and payback time. In the event that you have a change to your default extra payment any given month, you can indicate this in Column F next to the corresponding date in Column G. For example, if by default I am going to make an extra payment of $150, but for the month of February 2014, I can only do $50, I would enter that amount in the column next to February 2014. If there is no change to your default extra payment, leave Column G blank. Keep in mind that $0 is not blank. Instead it means that you are paying $0 as opposed to your default extra payment.

Lump Payment
The idea of a lump payment is that you might want to save money with the intention of putting it toward your mortgage someday, but want the security of having access to cash in the meantime. This could help you make your regular mortgage payments in the event of a layoff, for example. Otherwise, this money could be used to pay off the house when what you owe, which goes down every month, matches what you have saved, which goes up. I did not factor in an interest rate for your savings.

Summaries
There are three summaries you can see at a glance. One factors in your extra payments, another does not. This will make it easy for you to compare the two scenarios. Finally, there is a third summary that factors in your extra payments and a lump payment.

Kat's Cat Quilt

Getting a handmade quilt for my birthday is a good reminder that at any given moment you never know when there’s a sweet little someone who’s holding you dear in her heart. On a day that I might have been feeling down, my niece could have been preparing her surprise, putting on the finishing touches, maybe those button eyes that I imagine she picked out with great consideration. She might have been stitching through the night to finish the quilt in time or driving through a famous Boise inversion to get it shipped before she headed off to the salon for a ten-hour day on her feet. Or, as I fell prey to the misconception that it’s a cruel world, she might have been choosing fabric that I would like or consulting with my mother – grandma who took a vow of secrecy – about a new sewing technique. She might have been having lunch with her mother – my sister, also sworn to secrecy – showing off her work, so excited to give me the first quilt she had ever made using “an actual pattern.” However it went, I do know that on Christmas day my niece decided to sew me a quilt. She had made one for her grandmother and could hear me in the background over the telephone gushing – actually she said I was squealing – over it. I was. But, I had no idea that my reactions were registering with anyone who might be taking note or scheming to totally floor me with their kindness two months down the road.

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Cat Quilt

Fireplace Insert – Free (Taken – Thanks!)

As part of a fireplace repair, we are having the insert replaced with a more efficient, cleaner burning one. The old one will be recycled on February 20, unless someone else has a use for it.

Front: 44″ W, 30″ H, 24″ D. Vents with blower.

Opening: 26 3/4″ W, 14″ H

Vent on top controlled by lever on front.

Box: 26″ W, 25″ H, 12″ D

Taking in Some Theater

The Year I was BornWe’ve been enjoying The Walker’s Out There series, which comes around every year in the heart of winter, a good time to hunker down in their cave of a theater that makes the audience feel like a part of the set with its wavy gray walls that bring spray-painted Styrofoam to mind. With one exception, we loved the series, each show for different reasons. We recommend that you catch the last of it tonight or tomorrow. Lola Arias’s The Year I Was Born is definitely worth seeing.

Generally worried about the road conditions and realizing that the time I was going to use to make myself presentable might be needed to help shovel our way out instead, we considered bagging it. I’m really glad we didn’t.

The Year I Was Born was great theater and solid story-telling and it will stick with me for a long time. Following eleven Chileans with disparate political and economic backgrounds and who were born during Pinochet’s reign (1973-1990), the piece widened my vision and deepened my capacity to absorb parallel histories such that I could somehow understand everything at once. What was I doing when Alexandra’s mother, Pitty, was gunned down by government thugs? I can only hope that I wasn’t cursing Verizon or consumed with some similar inanity.

By comparison, Wunderbaum’s (with LAPD) Hospital was a didactic dud that would make me think twice about seeing a show put on by political activists the same way I might be highly skeptical of a movie starring Keanu Reeves. Unlike The Year I Was Born, which is also a historical piece that relies on personal stories, this show has few theatrical elements that work. Instead it lays out the history of health care in the United States in such a way that it wouldn’t have been surprising if they had fired up PowerPoint. Overall, Hospital lacked a sense of humor, a refuge that even a play about a brutal dictatorship provided.

Kuro Tanino’s Niwa Gekidan Penino (The Room Nobody Knows) was visually stunning the minute the curtains opened to a diorama-esque scene that made you long to step into its sparkling amethyst cubby. It was a scene so intimate that the audience was actually seated on the main stage, creating a stage within a stage that I liked to imagine infinitely repeated itself. The music was equally breathtaking. There is no version of Pachelbel’s Canon that will ever come close to what four actors accomplished with recorders. More than once for a conventionally unacceptable number of minutes, the director leaves us in the pitch dark with nothing but this music. Everything else melts away. Every worry. Every plan. Every thought. If I could conjure up this moment on demand, I’m not sure I would do anything else.

Equally addictive was a moment from Clément Layes’ Public in Private. A potted plant. A spotlight. A performer, head tucked and pointing to the plant in the light. Music! Cut mid-note! That was it for me. More than wondering how this guy did the entire show with a glass of water balanced on the side of his head, or recalling other stand-alone physical feats that amazed and made for wonderfully playful moments, I’ll think about that plant and wonder how such an image could make me feel sad about the state of the world and hopeful at the same time. I love a show that leaves you speechless, and this is one of them.