Author Archives: Rebekah Smith

Restoring Old Homes

With all of the old homes that are being torn down in our neighborhood in favor of density, it was distressing to come upon a gem that had some “architectural interest,” though it had fallen into disrepair. Next to an open lot – maybe two – that had already been cleared of the homes that used to be there, I was certain that Brian and I were looking at the future site of yet another apartment building that would be made with particle board. My heart sunk. I didn’t think that the house had much of a chance of escaping the wrecking ball.

I was wrong.

Southwest corner of the house.

Recently, Brian noticed a crew working on the home. We confirmed that the place is being restored and I am relieved. For starters, the house is sitting on a brand new foundation after having been moved from the adjacent empty lot. On Sunday, two guys were busy framing a new garage.

Front zoom.
Porch. The Christmas lights on the front porch hint at an interesting story. Who put them there? The previous owners? Was it a last hurrah of some sort? The new owners – the people who are fixing it up? I am picturing a celebration after they had just bought the place.

Density in the city core is supposed to be the environmentally responsible thing to do. However, if that’s the case, then why not require the buildings that replace old homes to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards? They should be state-of-the-art, zero-waste and carbon-free (almost free?) structures. Green roofs. Grey water. Passive solar. The works. They could be made to last for centuries. And they could be made for Minnesota. What do I mean by that?

Several years ago, I was in Virginia for a wedding. The area had been going through a crazy heat wave that ultimately took the power out for many of its residents, including the family of the bride. The hotel where several of us were staying was not effected and so there was some shifting to accommodate various guests, some of whom were getting baked out of the spare bedrooms where they were staying with the locals. I believe the bride herself had taken over one of the rooms at the hotel so that she could get ready for the big day.

It was scary. And it made me wonder. When did we stop designing buildings based on the conditions of the natural environment versus the assumption that air conditioning (or heat) would always be a simple flip of the switch? Do we have to go back to adobe homes? Our own house that is just over a hundred years old was also built with the belief that we would never need to worry about the supply of cheap power or the consequences of using too much of it. So we have added insulation and taken some other steps to conserve energy. But now that we know what we know, when we build new housing, shouldn’t we build for the environment from the start?

When I took these snapshots, I didn’t anticipate that I was going to make a video with them. But I wanted to try it and used what I had.

And that is just considering the energy standards. There are also human standards. For example, we were talking to a couple at a friend’s party (pre COVID-19) who were telling us about their woes looking for a town home in a retirement community. The good ones have – ahem – community spaces. And this couple was holding out for one such place. According to them, the newer developments treated things like lounges and meeting rooms as wasted space, which is to say that they were not included. While the two embraced downsizing, retreating to their pod where they would feel isolated wasn’t what they had in mind when they decided to retire.

There is also green space to consider, which is another aspect of the human standard. New buildings should have green rooftops. Courtyards. Enough grass for a picnic. Balconies. Playgrounds. We cannot concern ourselves with this, right? However, we do concern ourselves with how many parking spaces there will be, which is funny since density is packaged with this idea that the new arrivals will use the public transit and therefore should eliminate any concerns about the impact on traffic. In the meantime, in one of the apartments going up near us, eliminating balconies from the plan is supposed to assuage the fears of the neighbors who see the development for what it is. College housing. Elsewhere, another development received a variance that essentially traded green space for parking.

It feels like people are pitted against each other in weird ways and bad decisions come out of that. I wonder if it’s because economic problems are easier to solve than human ones (I think I am channeling Brian here because this is a theme for him.). If I only have to think about the cost per square foot, it is easy to find a solution. But if I have to ask myself whether I want my grandmother to live in a place where there will be almost no chance that she will get to know her neighbors or whether a little kid wouldn’t be better off growing up in a place where there are trees and grass – those are bigger, messier questions that will depend more on stuff that cannot be expressed algebraically. These are values that exist outside of ledgers.

A while ago, I recall reading about a family that was selling their house on Marshall Avenue to a developer. The neighbors were upset for all of the reasons you would expect. But the sellers insisted that they had no choice. They needed the money to retire (it might have been a case of a parent who needed to move to assisted living, but the point here is the same). I just hope that they were able to find a place where the developer did not skimp on the community space because that is what the market dictated. Now, why people are in the position of making economic choices that they would rather not make is another issue. But I mention it here because long term care security and a broken health care system are a part of this story that should be explored further.

Finally, I have a question about how the neighbors are economically impacted by these developments. For example, down the street from where I live, a property sold for over a million dollars to a developer. The one on the corner across from it sold for 700,000 dollars. But what if suddenly having an apartment building next to your house makes your property value go down? Or what if, you can no longer see the sky when you look out of your office window and this really depresses you? What if it shades your tomato plant? Should you be compensated for this? Conversely, do these over-market-value sales have an impact on my property taxes, since home valuations are based on recent sales of comparable homes in the area? Or should I expect my property taxes to go down since there will be more people to share costs?

This is not a rant against density. However, it is an observation that it is not the only thing and it can be taken to an extreme. The airlines serve as a cautionary tale. Over the years, we have watched legroom on flights disappear. And now just as we thought that it would have been impossible to jam another row of seats into economy class, the industry has been considering yet another tier of traveling where passengers would essentially stand for the duration of the trip. Yep. Too far.

Saturday Coffee

Roblyn 21XX – The Podcast

Roblyn 21XX, Issue #7, January 17, 2021

Back in September, I started to dread winter. We anticipated feeling even more cramped inside our bubbles, as Dr. Fauci predicted a surge in coronavirus cases. Maybe we would get antsy and panic like a flock of ducks flushed out of the security of the brush. So, Brian and I started hosting Saturday coffees with the idea that by the time winter came, we would have established a routine where we could easily pop out of the house for a quick hello with the neighbors.

That was the plan. And it still is. But there would be no perfect record, as I had hoped. The single digits eventually forced a cancellation of our Saturday routine. More would follow. Though disappointing, the bitter cold gave me an idea. Or it might be more accurate to say that it brought an idea forward. Could we base a podcast on the neighborhood zine that we have been publishing since July? Would this offer some additional connections that might be valuable?

I was adamant that the zine itself should be printed and delivered to households. That’s why I began with what I alone could manage, which was essentially my block. Then a few people offered to print and deliver even more copies. It became the model. The zine would be as big as this volunteer pool would allow. And while we don’t quite cover it at present, I see the natural physical boundaries of the zine to be east of Cretin, west of Cleveland, north of Marshall and south of St. Anthony Avenues.

Though I love the e-newsletter that I produce for my podcast, QuOTeD, The Question of the Day, I was positive that the Roblyn 21XX zine shouldn’t be online. Part of what makes it cool is that you have to live here to get it. (Note: I have mailed hard copies upon request. Most notably my parents are subscribers.) However, I think a companion podcast to the zine is different. Yes, it is online. Yes, there is a screen. Yes there are links to click. But, a podcast like this could also be our private low powered radio station where there is a little more room, like a secret swimming hole before it is discovered by litterbugs. Plus, there is a warmth in hearing a voice. Maybe it can warm us up on those days when it’s too cold to do much else.

So, just as I did with that first issue of the Roblyn 21XX zine, I made a pilot episode of its companion podcast. This could be a one-and-done, a nice idea that doesn’t have legs. That would be fine. Or it might stick and become something even better. Either way, I enjoyed making this episode and hope that you enjoy it too.


Thank You

Siamese cat

Siamese Brothers

It’s hard to take a picture of a cat that does not ultimately feel generic. Thank goodness for my digital SLR. It was a Christmas gift from Brian a number of years ago. The point-and-shoot mode is decent. And on the occasion that I want to play with the f-stop and aperture as I did when I was experimenting with photographing a lamp, I can do that too. But easy access to cheap and instant photographs should not mean that no one has ever seen a cat as adorable as Michael or Bert. But it is hard to resist picking up the camera when they are piled together in a blissful slumber or doing some otherwise irresistibly sweet thing like staring into the dishwasher as if they had just solved a crime.

When Brian floated the idea of getting more than one cat, I had my doubts. But the rescue outfit where we adopted these guys explained that kittens do better in pairs. For one thing, they need a high level of stimulation that would be hard for most people to provide. Both of these guys do a pretty good job of entertaining themselves – making a toy out of a candy wrapper, for example. But it is still very nice that in addition to us, they have each other.

And yes, I was serious about the dishwasher. For some reason they are fascinated with it. It’s another reason why we are lucky that our kitchen has a door that can be shut. Because they are “banished” from it on a routine basis.

These guys crack us up every day. Their latest game is to stalk each other among some small boxes scattered in our front room. Thinking about childhood and the forts we used to make with lawn chairs and blankets, I threw a sheet over the boxes. Last night, this occupied them long enough to let us enjoy our strawberry smoothies in relative peace.

On that note, Bert is at the door. He isn’t rattling the doorknob yet, but he is letting me know that it is time to move to the recliner where he can pile on and kneed my fat tummy like bread dough. With his eyes closed tight, he sticks his face in my plush housecoat and roots around and gnaws like he expects to find milk. He likes the smell of coffee. But I tell him that coffee isn’t for cats. Eventually he falls asleep. Michael will join us later. I make a game out of who will get up first. My coffee will cool before I can finish it. So, I’ll want to zap it in the microwave again. But I don’t. This is yet another way two kittens have changed my life. When Brian stirs, they will forget about me. He is Man Food Source. They know the routine and they will supervise him until he has successfully executed his morning duties.

Bert is resorting to scratching.

Better go.

Two cats sleeping

Two People & Two Cats?

Wilson is gone.

That’s a hard thing to say.

I miss that little cat.

She was so good.

Such a good cat.

She was the reason why this blog is called Two People & a Cat, even though she wasn’t mentioned as much as you would expect a headliner to be. Now it would be more accurate to call it Two People & Two Cats.

Sometime in July, Brian started to look into getting another cat. I couldn’t quite picture it. So, it’s a bit strange to have two of them in the house. Two kittens. Wild animals… in the house. Here the brothers are joining Brian’s work meeting.

Brian is wrapped in an afghan because it is cold! It probably doesn’t help that we are missing an exterior door right now. It’s in the garage where I am going to paint it. It was so cold that last night I made a fire, not knowing how much supervising of cats would be necessary. They seemed to respect it. Michael parked in front of it for a good portion of the night.

Bert, on the other hand, preferred to stay warm by snuggling on Brian’s chest while he watched television.

Here he is with his eyes open. He just woke up from a nap.

When Wilson first died, I couldn’t get over how empty my arms felt. I must have hugged that little girl a lot. Indeed, I couldn’t walk by her without saying hello. And she did so in return. We were often finding each other throughout the day. I could always count on her to tell me to get up from my desk and stretch. For a while after she died, I couldn’t get to sleep without hugging a blanket. Actually, it wasn’t a blanket. It was one of my night shirts that I would squish up and put by her for comfort when she wasn’t feeling well. I probably didn’t wash that thing for a month and when I finally did, it was an accident.

Now my arms aren’t so empty. Both of these sweet peas can snuggle. They don’t mind being held, though like any cat they will let you know when they want down. Wiggle! Wiggle! They are quick to purr. They are super soft, especially Bert.

I still miss Wilson.

Talking to people who have also lost pets, I realize that one can be plagued with this question. Did she know that I loved her? Brian has no doubt about this. I probably don’t either. But once her heart stopped beating, I wanted another chance to make sure. I would have liked to have gone with her, wherever she went. I didn’t want her to be alone.

Michael and Bert are not allowed in our bedroom or office because they – meaning Bert – cannot resist climbing the curtains, which are new. Because they have doors, these rooms have become staging areas for furniture and plants that we are trying to save from being shredded. In theory, these cats will settle down as they get a little bit older. But for now, it is a treat to get inside these forbidden rooms (or a conquest depending on whether they politely asked to come in or barged in, taking their post underneath the bed). I’ll be on my way to do something – anything – taking a load of laundry to the basement and Michael will breach the bedroom door. Now instead of doing the thing I was doing, I’m waiting for Michael to come within reach so I can put him out. He purrs the entire time.

Again, another cat telling me to chill.

I have stuff to do, cat! Winter is coming and we still don’t have a door!

Any chance you can play?

The sound of bedroom doors constantly (it seems) opening and closing is new in our house.





The routines are different. Habits. Preferences. Wilson spent almost no time in the kitchen, which she treated as a pass through. As I said, she was so good. These guys? They treat it like a lounge.

But my arms aren’t so empty anymore.

They are good players. With us. With each other. All by themselves. Michael loves to play with toy mice, especially if you put one on the end of a fishing pole (out of service at the moment as some untangling is needed). Bert is more of a string man. He focuses on the string instead of the mouse and he can entertain himself with a hair thing for a long time. He is also the one who discovered “the sheet”, which they both enjoy. I was putting away some fabric scraps and he saw me folding this red sheet. Somehow he let me know that he wanted it. He sat on it and I started to pull him around. He went nuts running up it and diving into the hammock end of it where I was holding two corners (somewhat scary actually). After scoping it out for quite a while, Michael jumped on board. Now they will sit on the sheet and look at me.

At one point in the middle of our grief, Brian brought out Wilson’s adoption papers. Has she been exposed to other animals? Yes. Cats and Dogs. Children? Yes. What is her favorite toy? Unknown. She was estimated to be a year and a half at the time.

Can I have a ride, please?

So I put down whatever it was that I was doing and give Bert a ride on the sheet. Michael will show up in another minute or so. This will eventually devolve into wrestling with each cat on the opposite side of a sheet wall and me worried that someone is going to get hurt.

We are still getting to know these guys (Brian calls them “the boys”) and they are getting to know us.

I hope that they find us and these accommodations to their liking.

Wilson had a lot of favorite toys, including the mouse on the fishing pole that Michael now loves so much. When we were back at the duplex in Powderhorn Park, I used to use it to lure her out of the linen closet where she used to sit on towels while I washed my face and brushed my teeth to get ready for bed. The green feather. Toilet paper grabbed from underneath the bathroom door. It was apparently endless. Foam balls that Brian would bounce against the basement stairs. Being rolled around in the purniture. Feet under sheets. Anything dangling down in front of the cubby hole where she lay in wait. The rake / back scratcher. The gorillia / puppet / back scratcher. A bottle cap / back scratcher.

There were other things that I am forgetting.

I do not want to forget.

Turkey in the Yard

The turkey that has been traveling from yard to yard has been making the news in the neighborhood. She takes dust baths in a spot just off of the sidewalk in our backyard, making a rather large indentation that I had first blamed on the squirrels. On Monday, I heard two hounds (thankfully on leashes) make a ruckus. When I looked out the porch window, I saw the hen booking it down the street. Nevertheless, she has since returned for her bath, a snack from Maryann’s raised garden (naughty bird!) and a drink from the various birdbath’s that dot the lawns. I am grateful for the uplifting entertainment. In addition to the wild turkey watch, I’ve been taking pictures for my amusement. Just yesterday at dusk and with rain threatening, the tulips in the boulevard caught my attention. I’m also working on the next QuOTeD Podcast episode. I am hoping that all of the parts will click into place next week, but that can be a somewhat unpredictable thing. It started out being about apologies, but I think it is ultimately taking me elsewhere.

Plum tree
Spent wild sunflowers with tulips and hyacinth in the background.
Tulips on Roblyn Avenue.
Red tulips
Turkey taking a dust bath.
Turkey in the backyard
Last year’s chives with a turkey in the background
Dried sedum from last year

Starting Seedlings Late

For the second time since the world changed, on Tuesday my neighbors gathered in a big circle where households stood at least six feet apart.

That’s Brian by the tree with his U of M lunchbox. He came home from work to a party in the street.

That’s when I learned that Ralph who lives three doors down from us had just planted a few seedlings the previous day. I think of Ralph as someone who knows what he’s doing because he has made his own wine from the grapes in his yard, he can tap a maple tree and he has an impressive vermiculuture system in his basement that makes my worm buckets look like Legos compared to the real estate he manages. So when he mentioned that he had just started a few tomato seeds, it eased my mind. It’s true that I planted my seedlings late compared to what I might have normally done, but maybe it’s not the end of the world? Ralph laughed at the notion that I would see him as any kind of an authority on the subject. But that’s not the point.

Seedlings with plastic cover and blue and red spectrum light.

For five days I joked – No sprouts! – to which Brian would answer, It might take a while. And then just like that there was broccoli. This was quickly followed by zucchini that displaced a disk of potting soil before making its appearance amid a struggle to cast off its hull.

Broccoli according to the chart. Now that the picture is bigger, I can see that the plant could be in better focus as opposed to the water droplets.
In answer to my mother’s question: What is hope?

It was two Christmases ago when Brian’s sister gave me the seed growing kit that is producing these amazing results. It came with a tray in which to plant the seeds, a clear plastic cover with a “patented three-way vent” (i.e., a hole at the top of the cover plus three pieces of plastic that are sitting on the buffet), a heating pad and a blue and red spectrum light. But that following spring we produced a podcast series for the Minnesota Fringe Festival. The project soaked up every last drop of spare time and so I decided not to have a garden that year. I would use the kit another time.


I am not exactly going “stir crazy”, a word a neighbor used as we waved from across the street where she was kicking a ball around the yard with her two young boys. I’m behind on reading. I am behind on phone calls. Housework. This is my life. It would be a good time to straighten up the garage, right? But, in some ways nothing has changed. I’m working on the next episode of the QuOTeD podcast, while thinking that I should be vacuuming instead.

I don’t need more things to do.

And yet I might actually break out the puzzle that has never been opened.

And yet Brian and I just finished watching the entire three seasons of Slings & Arrows on the Acorn network that is free during the shelter-in-place/safer-at-home order.

And yet I have a mask sewing project on my dining room table.

And yet I was delighted to have this fancy kit with its light that cycles on and off automatically, delighted by making an afternoon of poking holes in the soil with a skewer and planting seeds that came with the kit and grateful to be free of deciding what to plant, delighted to mist them with water every day, delighted to finally report to Brian – We have sprouts! – and delighted to march him over to the window so that he can inspect the plants for himself, delighted by the involuntary sound we make – a sort of gasp – at the sight of something truly amazing.

Seedlings and last year’s geraniums by the window.

When we head out for the second walk for the day, we notice the soccer ball and Nerf darts from across the street are in the road on our side. Brian walks the ball back to its home, kicking it along, careful not to touch anything with his hands. The darts are trickier. I give him a stretchy glove from my pocket.

Don’t touch your face.

Don’t touch your face.

Brian wonders how seeds know when to sprout. Warmth! I say. Warmth and light. Plus the right conditions. Soil. Moisture. But who knows? Maybe the Earth’s magnetic fields have something to do with it. Maybe there are forces at work that are yet to be understood.

We once bought some plants from a guy who had this big greenhouse in his backyard. He told us to wait to plant the basil until the lilacs bloomed. That’s when you’ll know that it’s warm enough for basil. I like to imagine that plants might take similar cues. Maybe the lilacs are waiting for the tulips to make their appearance. And maybe the tulips came because a flock of geese told them that the rabbits needed something to eat. And maybe the stars told the geese that it was time to head for Canada.

Mainly, I’m just amazed that a beet knows that it’s a beet and not a turnip, for example. Chromosomes. DNA. Intelligence…

So far I’ve mismeasured my first four masks. I try to remember how my mother showed me how to straighten up the sides of a piece of fabric. I curse the rotary cutter. It is dull. I turn the blade around and it’s working better. I might be able to finish the project before I have to get a new blade at the fabric store – now declared essential – where I will pick up my purchases at the curb. Then I’ll bring them home, remove the packaging, wipe things off and let everything sit on the porch for a couple of days before bringing anything into the house. My dad told me that they are doing this with the mail, packages, groceries, etc. So, now we do it because my parents know what they are doing.

I know how to thread a sewing machine because I took a home-economics class in the seventh grade. I made four placemats and matching napkins for my mother. As part of a purge a while back, she returned the set to me. Brian was just using one of those napkins the other day at lunch… lunch together in the middle of the week at the house… I don’t think my sewing has improved much since learning a few basics when I was a kid. But I learned enough to attempt a mask with some confidence, measuring snafus notwithstanding.

My mother is the sewer, not me. Growing up there were Halloween costumes. There were Barbie doll clothes and felt Sesame Street puppets. These were sold at the church bazaar… at the rummage sale in my grandmother’s garage too? There were the pants that were outgrown and then extended with a ruffle at the ankle. There were plush dolls and Christmas decorations for the cousins. There were the red and black checkered seat covers for Ginger’s first car, a classic black Beetle that I loved. There were also two or three different prom dresses for my sister, a blue one, a creme-colored one with a pattern of flowers on puffy sleeves, a maroon dress? Or was that for the bridesmaids? For Tracy it was mainly clothes for work at the insurance company. Skirts and dresses. I can see her trying them on midstream so that my mom can check the sizing… the hem. Then sometime after retiring from the hospital – I think – my mom started making quilts in earnest.

Wedding quilts. Baby quilts. Lap quilts. Table coverings. Placemats.

We are back to placemats, only this time my mother is making them and giving them to me.

So, when I joined my parents to visit my sister Amy in Idaho, I brought along some old Crown Royal bags that Brian had collected over the years. For the next several weeks in Boise where time was slowed down by circumstances, my mom coached me through making a quilt with these old bags. It was going to be a Christmas gift for Brian. I would stay up late trying to cut fabric and sew pieces together that would pass my mother’s inspection… windmills where the points met perfectly in the middle. Of course, my mother did a lot of the sewing too – Most of it? – else it’s doubtful that there would have been anything to wrap.

There were tears. There was wine. Laughing. And lots of impressions of Tim Gunn from Project Runway.

“Quilters! You have five minutes!”

Quilters! Butt the seams!”

“Quilters! We are out of wine!”

That fall there was Scrabble, rummy, a Vegetarian Thanksgiving – Craig drove down for that – and the only season of Dancing with the Stars that I had ever watched.

It has been a while since my mother made a dress for anyone. And a sore leg that is aggravated by too much time at the machine has stalled her quilting projects. But she is sewing some masks to give to her daughter who lives down the street and to her son-in-law who has been doing the grocery shopping for everyone. Charles is basically a hero.

My mom is giving me sewing tips over the phone. She tells me to watch Jenny Doan’s video on how to make a face mask.

This in itself is a hopeful thing to me.

Doing what we can.

Helping as we can

Taking care of each other as we can.

In the meantime, we are told that the national stockpile of emergency supplies does not belong to The People.

Quilters! We are out of time.


I want to remember everything.

If only I had brought a camera.

I have other things to do. For example, today I had wanted to prepare some QuOTeD Podcast episodes for KFAI Radio. I’ll need to remove some cuss words, export it in the right format – what was that again? I’ll have to look it up – then burn a CD, which requires doing some work on the old laptop, the one computer with the CD burner. Brian wants to buy a CD drive for the new laptop, but I am resisting that idea. I want to exhaust my other options. I imagine this annoys him.

I have emails to write. Replies. Good stuff but put off for this reason or that. Do not think me neglectful. Certainly not ungrateful. Just a little stuck. I’ve miscalculated something. I’ll get it back. Just give me a minute.

But for the moment, I just want to remember something.


This is a telephone number on a red-on-white corrugated plastic sign that is zip-tied to a telephone pole on Vandalia Avenue across the street from the paper recycling plant.

$4 Cash for Diabetic Test Strips

Correction: Ca$h for Diabetic Test Strips

I doubt you would find this sign in Deep Haven, but maybe there are desperate people in the upscale ‘burbs too. I wonder what kind of scam this is. I wonder if it’s legal. Had I come prepared, I could have snapped a picture and sent it to someone in charge. My state legislator?

Up the road, walking past a high-security storage facility, I see maintenance workers. A lane of traffic is closed. Please let the sidewalk be open! I do not want to cross a wide four lanes of traffic without a light in a crisscross of motorists in a race to get to the exit ramp, railroad tracks and semi-trucks that are going in and out of the recycling plant. As I get closer, I can see that the walk is open. But staying the course means going through the cloud of steam or smoke or whatever that is coming from what appears to be asphalt. Can you repair potholes in February? If so, I hope this crew has seen the frontage road just a block away. It’s a good route to the YMCA from my house but – wow! – you could lose a wheel over there.

The north side of University Avenue is warm and sunny, whereas standing on my porch this morning you would have thought it was too cold to brave it. My cheeks burn and my nose is runny, but it feels good. It was good to have left the house. And I was pleased to have thought to take this route as opposed to the usual ones in the opposite direction toward the river. Once you get into the business district or the stretches over the bridge and such that are maintained by the City (or is it the County? Whatever it is, well done!) the sidewalks are more reliably ice-free. It’s a crapshoot in the residential areas. They can be so bad that I have come home angry enough to threaten writing letters of complaint. To whom? The paper? My city councilperson? The offending neighbor? That would be bold. As bold as the person who wrote in perfectly uniform caps in the snow, S-H-O-V-E-L-?

There are no less than four identical lawn signs planted in the snow in front of the Subway.

Dinner tonight!
2 6-inch sandwich
2 bags of chips
2 21-ounce drinks

Actually, I can see this sign in an upscale suburb, though it probably comes without the trash.

There is a lot of trash on this stretch. It’s the reason why I’d rather escape the cold city in the spring as opposed to the wintertime. On the sidewalk just outside of Menrard’s, an empty plastic cup is rolling in the breeze, mostly going around in circles, handicapped by its tapered sides. I should pick it up, but I don’t because there is more, too much to carry. On a warmer day, maybe I’ll come over with a grabber and a bag. But today? Not today. I could write a letter! Couldn’t this be a job? A purpose? Somewhere along the way I come across some day-old throw-up. It’s orange. Probably a drunk, I think. I’m grateful that I can’t smell it, that I am not at the fairgrounds on a hot summer day. I’m on some kind of deer trail for alcoholics here, which might explain the market for diabetic test strips.

Nevertheless, this side of the street is still sunny. And when spring comes, the fancy medians that were put in when the light rail was built will burst with foliage. For a second you might think that you were in the heart of Edina where the tree-lined sidewalks are dotted with huge pots of geraniums and petunias that smell like grape Kool-Aid powder, velvet crimson snapdragons and sweet potato vine. Here the shop windows glisten and the public trashcans are used and maintained.

At the northwest corner of Fairview and University, right next to the light rail station, there is a huge – huge – sculpture of a rooster that is made out of salvaged parts. I recognize a keg that has been cut in half lengthwise. A fender. A part of a front car door that had one of those triangular vents on the windows. You don’t see those anymore. A round taillight. That was an eye, appropriately amber. There were other parts. But I have forgotten them or never could have told you what they were. I wanted to remember everything, but even as I stood there studying this creature, I knew that I would forget. Unlike the sign – the one about the diabetic strips – I did not want to take a picture of the rooster, which would have been more worthy of the attention. I suppose a snapshot could have helped me remember the parts – like the way a layering of what appeared to be tiles from an old tin ceiling – created the effect of feathers on the animal’s neck. I could have shown you an unidentifiable white piece on the bottom of which was a warning: This is not a step! But it could not have captured how I felt standing there in the sun underneath the bird. So why bother? Sometimes it feels good to do something that actually requires your presence, to do something that cannot be captured in pixels. It matters that I’m here. The bird is standing on a structure that has been tagged with graffiti and it looks like some of the bricks have been damaged. A plastic bag dances at its feet, lest great art make you forget where you are.

I almost miss the front entrance of the YMCA because when Brian and I come in the evenings, we park in the back. But I can see Snelling Avenue up ahead and Snelling is too far. So I pause to look to see where I am and there I am at the door of the place. I have little hope that coffee is still available at this hour. But I check in and go straight to the back to the lounge and am delighted to see people there with paper cups of so-so coffee. It’s hot. It’s fine. I take a high-top and do something I’ve never done, take my coffee at the Y and pretend that I am at a hotel on vacation, waiting for Brian to come down from the room before we head out to explore.

From here I can see the aquatics room on the other side of a glass wall. Old men are in the vortex pool walking in circles. A woman in a bathing suit that I like for its modesty wheels away a cart full of foam dumbbells and other water activity stuff. I get the impression that a class just got over. I can’t help but hear the conversation next to me, two friends catching up. It seems that everyone is pregnant. We’re not getting any younger! You’ve got that right, lady! You’ve got that right. An old guy rolls in with a walker. A plastic grocery bag hangs from one of the handles. He stops a staff person. He complains about the riffraff that he had to pass on his way into the place. They come in here and take up all of these tables! They don’t even have memberships! The staff person says something to mollify him. She’ll mention it to her supervisor. He seems like a crank. But before I can reach for my coat to dodge him completely, he catches my eye. Hello! Of course, I must answer. But I can’t just answer. I must undo what I had been thinking.

He invites himself to sit with me. What else was there to say? I don’t like these tall tables. I glance around at the empty regular tables in the room. But we don’t know each other well enough for a joke. So, I let it go as he fusses. I’m too short for these things!

I had been thinking a lot about isolation and loneliness and now it seems that I have conjured up this guy who is going to show me a version of something I have been imagining.

Evidently, you can just walk into a place, the Y or a coffee shop or wherever, and invite yourself to join a stranger. But in reality, I’m not so sure that I like this. I was happy to sit there with my thoughts, watching the old men go around and around and catching a word here and there. And now I have to make conversation. Answer random questions. I’m not too put out. Don’t get me wrong. I essentially made this happen, didn’t I?

His walker is plastered with bumper stickers. Semper Fi! I’ve watched enough NCIS to know that this is a military thing, Latin for “always faithful”, according to Wikipedia. There’s a baseball hat. Pins. The works. This guy wants you to know that he was a Marine and will always be one. I should ask him about it. But he beats me to an icebreaker. Where you from? This has never been an easy answer for me, because just like this guy, my dad had a career in the military. What does that mean? In the second grade I went to three different schools. That’s what that means. Where you were born – in my case, at a now decommissioned Air Force base in Michigan – might not mean much. However, in my case, there are relatives there. At least there is that. There is the house on Main Street in Harrisville Michigan that will always be my grandmother’s house, regardless of who holds the title. So, you can see why I would stick with the simple answer. I live here. This is when he tells me that he is from Saint Paul. All my life. Saint Paulites are weirdly proud people.

When Rex learns that I was a military dependent, he asks me questions that a civilian wouldn’t ask exactly as he does. Where did he retire out of? Ellsworth, Air Force Base in Rapid City. Is that where you graduated from high school? Yes. So no, not a Saint Paulite born and bred like him. But I live here nonetheless. What do you do? Or are you a housewife. Are you married? I was married 39 years ago. I thought you were going to say, “I was married 39 times.” We laugh. Finally, a joke.

So, this is how it’s done. Invite yourself to sit down. When you say your name, imagine how James Bond would do it then offer a fist bump. Don’t worry. Unless the person you’re talking to is a lump, they will respond appropriately. Yep. That’s me. Doing fist bumps at the Y. If you have a package of cookies, pull those out. Maybe you have some stashed in a plastic grocery bag, a permanent fixture on that walker of yours. Want any? No thank you, I’m good. They’re sugarless. I realize, here now as I type, that I missed an opportunity. Never refuse a cookie. Never. Then you might mention what brings you there. Rex is considering becoming a member and he’s there for a tour. Except he’s not on a tour. He’s talking to me. He announces that so far he’s not impressed. Of course, I heard about the riffraff out on the steps already. I don’t ask about it because I can imagine him saying something vaguely racist (and loud) that he would not consider to be offensive so much as factual. It’s just hard to know what’s going to come out of his mouth. Instead I become an ambassador for the Y. I extol the virtues of the vortex pool where we can see those old men exercising. There’s a sauna and a hot tub. It’s really nice in the winter.

Rex is eighty-three. He served in the Korean War. He doesn’t drink or smoke. This last point is what I would classify as an “announcement.” I’m pretty sure that everyone resorts to them on occasion. It’s that thing that you tell a stranger within five minutes of meeting. It’s that thing that you cannot resist working into a conversation. It’s that story that your spouse knows by heart, but is too sweet to stop you from telling it again. But it’s not that Rex wants me to know that he doesn’t drink. He wants me to know that he quit drinking 39 years ago. He quit after losing his family and business because of alcoholism, though he never uses that word. Rex says he has too much time on his hands, which is why he is here. He walks a lot because he “wants to stay sharp” even though he feels useless. We share complaints about icy sidewalks. Arby’s doesn’t shovel their walks. Maybe he should write a letter. At some point he is “retrieved” by someone whom I suspect works at the retirement home where he lives. Fist bumps all around. They leave and, now free, I put on my coat to head back home.

The guy pushing a shopping cart across the parking lot of the Goodwill looks like he’s on a mission. He’s coming toward me, toward the sidewalk, as if he is just going to keep going, keep going with that cart well past the boundaries of the store. It might be tricky to get past a mound of snow and whatever structural barrier there is (I did not pause to examine this). It occurs to me that I should help, right? Snap out of it! You’re not going to help someone make off with a shopping cart! So, I walk. Without looking back, I walk.

The pothole crew has moved on to another street.

By “secure” I imagine that the storage place means that it is a building without windows.

A crew is up in some kind of mechanical lift melting ice off of the gutters of Vandalia Tower. What is that thing? I note the words on the equipment, clearly marked a rental. I will look it up when I get home. But I have forgotten.

I try to commit that phone number to memory.


I want to dial it. It must be a scam. Maybe I’ll write a letter. But to whom should I send it? What could they possibly do?

Remember this. Remember that. All the way home, remember this, remember that.

I am afraid that I will forget.

DIY Plant Stand for a Rescue Case

We were going to a show. So, after he came home from work, it wasn’t surprising to see Brian parking on the street in front of the house instead of in the garage. But something was up. He unlocks the front door. Then back to the car. What’s he doing? He probably stopped for groceries. I should help bring them in, but I don’t feel like it. I am a terrible wife.

Then I see it. He finally brought it home after weeks of preparing me for the possibility. There was this plant that Brian adopted after it had been abandoned during the most recent reorganization at work. It wasn’t doing so well. It used to be by a window, but because of the construction now it isn’t and now it’s sadly in decline. It needs sun. Brian is fine. Don’t worry about him. He can get up and take a walk. He assured me of this. But that plant! It’s just stuck there in this artificial light. Maybe he’ll bring it home. He never does.

…until he does. Another branch shriveled? Did too many needles fall? Did they pile up on January and refuse to be casually brushed aside? And now Charlie Brown over there is unloading this thing that is cramped in the back of his car, because while a grown man could sit relatively comfortably in the back of a Prius, this giant plant with its sprawling limbs is too big.

I’m always trying to stop things from coming into the house. I enjoy a good estate sale and am always imagining my own. When homes are disassembled and stripped of life, a whimsical collection of birds taken out of context and arranged on rented banquet tables, or a certain type of glass or enough pencils to last a hundred years can seem more like a window into the mind of a crazy person than anything beautiful or useful. It’s hard to win this battle – keeping our heads above the stuff – when you’re fighting against someone who has bonded with a tree. But I honestly cannot imagine where we are going to put this thing. A spare corner eases my mind and I was just beginning the enjoy the fruits of my labor. But what are the options? I fear the plant is going to bring the room’s energy down, like so many of those plants we saw in the photos of those houses for sale when we were in the market. Searching real estate sites, Brian and I used to laugh about how sometimes we weren’t really looking at a house so much as we were looking at people’s stuff. Sometimes, there might be a pet in the picture. A pet! Like I’m going to get a free dog if I buy this house? If the idea is to give me the impression that this is a good place for a family, why not stick grandma in there too? In any case, I wanted a fern. There is an empty pot on top of the built-in bookshelf that awaits its arrival. But this? This is too much. Too much.

The next day, Saturday, we spent some time rummaging for something that could elevate the new plant. A column, probably out of a church, from Architectural Antiques was not an option at north of eight hundred dollars. At one furniture store where we did not expect to find anything except for maybe an idea, a salesperson offered us mimosas. Furniture is art. Light fixtures and lamps are art. Rugs. Art. It makes sense that we would causally wander the gallery with our cocktails enjoying the “movement” of a particularly sleek sectional, knowing that it would never fit into our living room. I really just wanted to look at junk, parts with which to do something. I say this as if I were handy, as if I know how to weld stuff, as if I had the tools to make uniform cuts to make uniform slabs of wood. This is a dream. But we can dream. I still like to scrounge and imagine what could be done, if only…. if only.

We fail to find anything. We run out of ideas about where to look. I had just been to the Goodwill. I doubt there’s anything there. I’m kind of tired, but I want to “party on”, as I like to say to Brian whenever I’m feeling restless. I suggest we go to The Lab, a brewery near our house. There you can pour your own beer and pay for it by the ounce, which is perfect because I just want a taste.

As we walk into the place, a pair of queens are running a game of Bingo. A woman, part of a foursome at the next table, tells me that it’s free to play. She must have been disappointed when I did not leap up to fetch a card and a plastic cup full of Bingo chips. At one point between games, the queens start to lip sync, each taking her turn. People are holding up bills. The second act is racy. After a high kick it isn’t long before she sheds the 50’s-ish sheer red polka-dotted dress that sparkles to expose a bodysuit that looks as if it had been splattered with paint. The crowd howls. She does the splits. The cheering defies the time of day, a lazy afternoon, though it is different from the canned excitement of daytime television, which I loathe. Shouldn’t we be at a night club? A man on the other side of the room from where we are sitting is waving money. But he fails to get the dancer’s attention because there’s apparently too much money to track. I am mildly stressed by this, worried that the man feels rejected and wondering if Marilyn Monroe will ever get her five dollars. The dancer approaches the foursome next to us. They are eating up this odd mix of Bingo and bachelor party where at one point, the dancer pretends to spit into her hand and briefly simulates something that I will not directly say here, but it suffices to say that it made a grown man blush in front of his friends who were roaring with laughter.

And just like that it’s back to B-12 followed by whatever joke, story, fact or memory is triggered by the number. The dirtier the better. Of course, some numbers are obvious.

Someone comes around with a free sample of some kind of “super food” that has been juiced, some kind of berry. I didn’t catch the name of it, though it was repeated a couple of times. It’s an antioxidant. What else is there to know? It’s good for you. This particular sample has been mixed with alcohol. Try it! Later I will be mad for a few minutes thinking of the ridiculousness of it, but not as mad as I was about the show we saw the night that Brian brought that plant home and the utterly pretentious discussion that followed it.

The friendly – possibly drunk by now – free-bingo-cards! woman who had first spoken to us when we arrived leans over to me with a comment every now and then. She points out the entertainment value in watching people walk through the door to find the place in stitches, helpless against a Barbara Streisand perm, clear stilettos, and a pink rectangle-of-a dress that can barely cover a snatch. She’s right! Just look at those faces. Some unsuspecting dude walks in and confusion shifts to surprise and then delight. “Web cam!” I said. I could watch that all day.

That evening at the YMCA, Brian and I are talking as we walk the track, dodging teens who are playing basketball. I had regretted that we frittered away the day looking for a lousy plant stand that probably doesn’t exist. I am certain that he would have preferred to stay home to read. But he says that life isn’t supposed to be efficient. It’s probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

When we get home from the gym, Brian goes upstairs to start a new book. I grab the iPad and do a search for DIY plant stands. I tried something with the idea of getting a sense of how high the plant should be, what kind of footprint would work, etc. You know, a test. It turns out that I liked my prototype better than I would have expected.

Here’s the big plant that Brian brought home. It’s supported by the feet of a tomato cage that are tucked under the rim of the pot.
I found some things that fit perfectly on each tomato cage ring. Bottom: floor. Next Up: Flat basket. Then: An aluminum platter with roses. I also tried a cutting board here and that worked too. Next: Clear glass bowl with a candle and a few rocks inside. Above that is hardware cloth (that still needs to be hemmed or treated to address the rough edges) and a plate. Top: Plant.
The aluminum tray is at a good height to put a drink, assuming there is a chair nearby.
Looking down. The pot isn’t actually sitting on the plate below it. It is suspended above it.

I wish the pictures did this justice. It’s pretty sweet and didn’t cost anything on the current budget. I just used stuff I had around the place. If I stick with this idea, I’ll reinforce the connections between the tomato cage rings and legs with some lashing. Maybe I’ll paint it. Maybe I won’t. I’ll cover the bottom ring that rests on the floor with something to make it easier to slide without scratching the floor. I was thinking of using some old socks that have been cut into loops. (I could probably write a post titled “100 things to do with socks that have been cut up into loops.” Of course, first on the list would be to make a potholder using one of those potholder looms you might have had when you were a kid.)

Or maybe I will start over. Maybe this is a prototype. I’ve seen plant stands and little tables framed with copper pipes. I do have a saw and some sandpaper… stain to use up…

It’s a good thing that efficiency is overrated.

Kitchen Storage Solutions

I can’t believe I’m going to share a picture of my kitchen drawer with you, but whenever I come across an organizing tip that actually works, it’s hard to resist sharing the news. My sister gave me the idea, which she got from a book about organizing your stuff. I think it might have been The life-changing magic of tidying up by Marie Kondō.

Downsizing and organizing seem to be popular themes these days. For the past month, I’ve been watching my recently retired neighbor hall things from her basement to either the trash or a pile destined for Goodwill. On the other side of me a neighbor unloaded some tomato cages, two of which I gladly took. There are entire podcasts devoted to convincing you to get rid of stuff.

Generally, the rule here is “Don’t let it in the house.” But swept up in the celebration of the team’s new logo, I caved and took a free Timberwolves t-shirt that was shoved into my hands on the way out of the arena. It wasn’t a good color for me. I didn’t like the cut. Was it supposed to be a souvenir? Fortunately I have some neighbors who are Wolves fans and they were happy to take the shirt and some other souvenirs. Basically we’re just trading stuff over here.

Another trick is to “Use things up.” When you get that candle on Christmas Day, get the matches out. Light it. Enjoy it every day until it’s gone. If you save it, pretty soon you’ll have two candles and then three. People will get the idea that you collect candles. Then you’ll get even more until you won’t live long enough to burn them all. So use the lotion. Eat the candy. Drink the wine. If it’s not for you, give it away right away. I mean, nobody wants a box of half eaten candies or a candle that was lit once and then stored where it collected dust until it came time for your estate sale.

For the stuff you do keep. Put it away. Even if it’s ultimately a contained mess like my kitchen drawer with the food storage containers, having a place to put things is a start. Until recently, I saw no reason to improve this isolated chaos. It was easy to toss things in willy-nilly and not such a big deal to fish things out as needed.

But when my sister mentioned this storage method where you store things vertically, I wondered if would work for this drawer. I arranged things and it worked great. The real test would be whether the system could more or less maintain itself. After having used this organizing tip for several months now, I’m hooked. It works for socks. It works for t-shirts (should you collect too many freebies). Towels. It works great. It also indicates when it’s time to recycle deli containers I might save. If it doesn’t fit, it’s out. Not wedged in. Not off into an auxiliary storage area. Out.

So here you have it folks.

My kitchen drawer.

Kitchen Storage

My kitchen drawer. The container lids are stacked vertically in a shoe box.

What I Like About Him

Breakfast Setting

I’m going to try making some lists, adding to them as I get ideas. I could start with a list of lists:

  • What I Like about Him – inspired by my cup of coffee and the sound of the stairs creaking under his weight
  • Titles for Letters to the Editor that I’ll Never Write – inspired by an Environment Minnesota canvasser who rolled his eyes at me as he left without my signature or any money – the first thing on the list would be “Do politicians ever do the right thing just because it’s the right thing? Or are we really doomed unless I pony up to counter the pressure you’re getting from corporations? An open letter to Sen. Amy Klobuchar”.
  • On the Run – How corporations let you know that you’re making a difference – inspired by Monsanto ads on television
  • Why I’m Looking Forward to Winter – inspired by a similar list my friend Lucie and I made to cheer ourselves up. She has since moved to Phoenix. It appears that “wool sweaters” moved from “Why I’m Looking Forward to Winter” to “Things I don’t miss about Minnesota.”
  • Apps I Might Use if I Had a Smart Phone – inspired by the dead rabbit I saw in the road on the way back from the community garden this morning – I imagined that a city worker would eventually take it away if another animal didn’t get to it first – I thought a person could use a smart phone to identify the location of roadkill, hence creating a map to make such clean-up more efficient
  • Podcast Notes – inspired by my plans to produce a podcast – it would have subject and format ideas as well as things I like and don’t like about other podcasts – on the top of “don’t like” would be the inability of many hosts to let a guest (the reason I’m listening to your stupid podcast) finish a sentence.

Why lists? I just like the idea of them. Maybe having a place to put stuff will calm my mind or be a place to go whenever I feel empty and in need of a creative spark. George Carlin was a list maker, wasn’t he? I’m not thinking about The Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television. I’m thinking more about routines like the “Advertising Lullaby“. Unlike Carlin, I’m not collecting lists for the purpose of writing comedy. Oh, I’d love to be a comedian, but I’d settle for being able to hold your attention long enough to tell you something without you checking your text messages or looking up a fact with your smart phone because I mentioned that the corn chowder has chorizo in it and you want to know – right now – exactly what spices are in it.

So this list is “What I Like about Him.” I’ll add to it over time. Look at it as another form of journal writing (this calls for dating my entries, right?).

What I Like about Him

September 3, 2015
Typically when I get up, I have a nice breakfast before I do much of anything else, with the exception of putting the dishes away while the coffee brews. On a rare occasion I’ll be sucked into my computer before breakfast and even before the coffee is done. For example, today I’m trying to wrap up a website for a client and I wanted to get some tasks out of my head and onto a…list. Is it clear that I’m a list maker? …in any case… On those days, Brian might notice that the coffee is done. It’s hard to miss because the coffeemaker beeps no less than seven times when it’s ready, which reminds me of another list I need to make: “Shit that we don’t need!”, to which I will add, “Cars that honk when you lock the doors using a remote”.

…so he notices the coffee is done. In the meantime, I’ve gotten lost in whatever project I’m doing. What does he do? He brings a cup of coffee to me in my office. No matter how many times he has done this, it always surprises me and it’s always a little strange to see him – not a coffee drinker – standing there bare-chested with a cup of coffee in his hands. It’s no stranger than if he had been smoking a cigarette or had served me a McCafe from a drive-thru window. Has he taken note of the official coffee cup order of preference? Knowing him, it’s possible. And typical of me, I can’t say for sure.