Author Archives: Rebekah Smith

Quilt haning on curtain rod

Use Everything

When you open every box, you might be shocked by what you find, how much you find. We have – as Brian likes to say – an embarrassment of riches.

In most any of the de-cluttering books I’ve come across, there is this idea of releasing the things that you do not use so that someone else can enjoy them and so that – if you are inclined to take this perspective – the object itself can enjoy a better life too. This is supposed to make it easier to let go of attachments and to a great extent it works for me.

It isn’t often that I regret letting something go. But the one thing that comes to mind whenever I consider this question is a desktop rotary telephone. I bought it over twenty years ago only to realize that it had a mid-1960’s round wall plug that would not work with a modern telephone jack, at least not in the United States. By “modern”, of course, I mean modern for the time, the so called modular jack or Western jack, a name that comes from the Western Electric Company that first used it for telephone wiring. It directly preceded the explosion of mobile devices that would have happily pummeled landlines into obsolescence were it not for nostalgia and the joy of tactile things: Against the weight of a spring, pointing and dragging the dial around to the finger stop. That clicking beneath a cover of hard plastic – the coil winding up might remind you of zipping a tent shut – and the sound made as the finger wheel returns home, the “uncoiling”, could be mistaken for gurgling – faint though it may be – emanating from a swampy ditch. Are those frogs? A bird I do not recognize? Of course, if you know this sound, it is simply dialing.

There I am in my grandmother’s telephone chair in the corner of the dining room wishing that I had someone to call.

There is also the shape and weight of the receiver, hopefully pleasing, otherwise what’s the point? Dial tones. The sound of brass gongs as they are struck in rapid succession by the clapper ball. No, the ubiquitous smart phone could not efficiently snuff out this delightful gadget completely, but it did in effect stunt the evolution of things hardwired. Just try to purchase a brand new telephone, one that plugs into the wall, that isn’t junk. It is for this reason, the lack of faith that anything better will ever be made, that Brian could not resist purchasing a phone at a garage sale two years ago. The keypad is in the handset, making me think that it must be something from the 90’s. We have yet to plug it in. But there it is, just in case.

Well, thank goodness for my dad who did the dad thing and fixed this otherwise useless vintage telephone from the ’60s. On the upside are all of the tangible things previously mentioned plus a really long cord. The downside, I suppose, was the color. Beige. No fun there. There was also a crack in the housing. It wasn’t big or especially offensive, but noticeable nonetheless. But damn it was sturdy. Sturdy with a good ring. With the exception of these minor aesthetical preferences (black or red would have been groovy!), I loved that phone. So why did I take it to the Goodwill some years ago?

When I met Brian, he too had a number of rotary telephones, including the black one that sits in our living room. We couldn’t possibly use all of them, so in a gesture of sympathy for his own attachments that I might have imagined and in trying to stick with the self-imposed rule that everything must have its place or it must go, I decided to give up my old phone. After all, there was the color and that crack. Of course that’s when I realized that the phones we did keep had their own problems. For example, a poorly fitting connection on the phone in the bedroom means that I need to be careful to ensure the cord doesn’t pop out of the receiver in the middle of a conversation. Then there is the short cord, relative to the one I gave up, that makes this more likely. Faded colors. Brittle cords. Permanently foggy plastic finger wheels that are supposed to be clear.

I miss my old telephone, the one my dad fixed. But missing it hasn’t deterred me from taking a cold look at the other stuff in my environment and – if it seems like the right thing to do – letting it go.

I recently hung some random Barbie doll clothes in the tree in our boulevard. I really made a nice display of it, pinning them on a hanger with paperclips. After a few days of no takers, I was about to declare this a failed gift. But one morning while I was reading the newspaper on the porch, two women walking their dogs stopped and took note. “Can we take these?” they seemed to ask. “Yes. Take them!” I pleaded without speaking a word. “Read the sign! Free! Free!” I look back down at the paper. I’m afraid that if they sense me watching they might fly away like nervous birds.

Finally.

Hurray!

One less thing stuffed in the corners of my garage, but instead out there enjoying a better life mingling with other beloved doll clothes in the bedroom of an eight year old.

Why not imagine something good?

Of course this only encouraged me. So, next I hung a Word Find puzzle book in the tree. Brian gave this to me, along with other magazines and amusements years ago when I was recovering from a health issue. Or it might have been a Christmas stocking stuffer. He really goes over the top every year. Indeed I am spoiled thanks to the stocking that I acquired the Christmas I visited my brother’s family in Virginia. To include me in the festivities, they made a stocking with my name glued in silver glitter on the fat white cuff. Well it’s huge. I mean really big. And Brian fills this up every year. There are usually a lot of practical things like a toothbrush and dental floss, my favorite moisturizer and razor blades. Then there is candy, possibly a stuffed animal and magazines about gardening, writing and mid-century furniture. And, as I said, there could have been this puzzle book. An embarrassment of riches indeed.

Well days pass with no takers. And when it rained, I forgot to bring the puzzle book inside as I promised myself I would do. It’s under a canopy of leaves. Maybe it’s okay? Then one day, a Somali girl who lives down the street appeared. She was riding her bike up and down the sidewalk that marked what we imagined to be an agreed upon boundary where no streets would be crossed. Every time she passed, she smiled and waved at Brian and me who were sitting on our enclosed porch. Not a little wave. She waved big. Smiled big too, as if she imagined herself to be Miss America at the center of the Macy’s Day Parade. After her tenth pass or so, I yelled out the window. “Do you see the book?” “A book?” “In the tree! You can have it, if you like!” She needed some help figuring out how to release it from the binder that was tied to the string that permanently hangs from the tree. So, Brian went out to give her a hand. The pages were dry but a little wavy from having been wet. “It’s fine.” Brian said. But I worried that the girl’s mother would wonder why we were giving our garbage to children. I can only hope that the brand new and newly sharpened pencil with its fancy foam grip that I included with the book might have made up for any of its defects.

Soon after that, the girl disappeared only to return with two of her siblings. The youngest, a boy who looked to be three or four, knocked on the door. He was not a shy kid, as his knock was big. While his two sisters looked on from the sidewalk, he handed Brian a note. “My sister wanted me to give this to you,” he said. It was a thank you note and an introduction.

Of course now I am keeping my eye open for more presents to hang in the tree.

Then there are the things that are inexplicably hard to give away. For example, take these plain white aluminum curtain rods. We can’t use them. And that is the new rule I’ve declared since taking on the task of tidying up the garage. Use everything. This year we are going to use everything: Random garden tools, some that I cannot even name (the monster claw thingy turns our to be a hoe and cultivator combo); recreational equipment, including the ice skates from my childhood, a huffy bike that weighs a hundred pounds more than the bike that replaced it, and foam noodles that haven’t seen a lake in half a decade; and enough car care products to open a shop. Use it this year or let it go. And I am keeping track! “I used some burlap!” I report this to Brian as if it were the most exciting news of our lives – and these days – it just might be.

As for the curtain rods, it is not so much that I imagined they would ever be used for curtains, save some that might be used to convert the garage into a stage at some point (Note: I once saw the best play I had ever seen in someone’s garage on the hottest day on record.). Nevertheless, there was a nagging potential that I could not quite name. So, there they sat destined to be listed on FreeCycle along with a metal bed frame that has lived in the rafters of the garage ever since we moved into the house twelve years ago. But not today. Not today.

Thank goodness, not today. Or the magazine rack that I made with some of these old curtain rods would never have been conceived.

Magazine rack made from a white aluminum curtain rod and curtain rod clip rings. I also tried using cafe curtain rings, which worked but not as well, and binders looped through a standard keychain ring.

It just so happens, that in addition to the rods I had these rings with clips on them that I had found while “sorting bolts.” No doubt these were purchased years ago for some project that was either abandoned or where a better solution for whatever it was that I was trying to do had presented itself. Frankly, I don’t remember. I just know that as a pile of magazines a mile high stared me in the face, organizing maven Marie Kondo came to mind, specifically her idea that you should be able to see what you have. Stacks of things are the enemy of a tidy place. But there is no magazine rack big enough for the pace at which this stuff comes into the house. Combine all of this with having seen someone on HGTV hang a rug from a curtain rod and the idea for this magazine rack flashed through my mind. I would not be able to rest until I could see whether it was a good idea or a bad one.

I love it!

More than having the materials to make it, what matters here is having touched those materials a number of times in the course of organizing my things. I spent a lot of time contemplating what to do with these damn curtain rods. Logic would have said out with them! My own preferences for a space that isn’t burdened by visual noise would have pushed me to get rid of them. But my mind couldn’t stop noodling with the possibility that these things presented.

So they sat.

Maybe I’ll give them away tomorrow.

But not today.

Not today.

To touch everything that you own in a household that has accumulated things over years is mentally exhausting. Embarrassing, even. But it is necessary. How will you ever really know what you have? I am paralyzed and depressed by clutter. Who would not tuck in the messiness of life as if everything can be fit into a uniform box that only needs to be wrapped with the perfectly sized sheet of Christmas paper and a dab of scotch tape? But what can be imagined in a perfectly sterile environment?

Cleaning the Garage

This is from a message I sent to my friend Santwana:

Being “disconnected” has been interesting. When Wilson – our cat – died, I completely lost interest in Facebook in particular. It was like I suddenly didn’t like pizza, though I never liked FB that much… Anyway, for whatever reason, grief just triggered this aversion to scrolling through random posts. When I transferred the account to the iPad when the “email/social media” computer went down, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to resist checking it whenever there was a pause in the action (sometimes wrongly interpreted as boredom). But this has not been the case so far.

Lately, the main thing that has occupied me has been cleaning the garage. It’s the thing I itch to do the second I get up in the morning. On top of the regular spring cleaning that would normally take part of a day, I’ve been reorganizing things so that the space works better. I am looking in every box, every corner and dealing with every misplaced bolt. I make progress every day and end up spending much more time on it than I ever plan because I just get lost in how to store something tricky like the bag to the lawnmower, which is rarely used but used. Answer? Strap it to the ceiling with bungee cords and some eye screws.

… When I am staring at a bunch of lampshade frames that I’m going to make something with (more lampshades?) “someday” and wonder how the heck to store them, the last thing on my mind is checking my email. It feels great. I think that there is also something psychologically beneficial to doing something that has visible results. It’s a place to retreat when you’re not sure you’re making a difference elsewhere or worse, when you feel powerless to make a difference.

Last night I gave Brian a haircut in the garage. Then he brought out some drinks and we had a cocktail there. It might have seemed like an odd thing to do given that we have a yard, a deck, a nice porch… But there is something about being in a garage – especially a spiffed up garage – that I just love. And I figured that with the pandemic, we might as well mix it up and expand our living space.

Do I sound like a nut going on about my garage? …

Indeed I have figured out some creative garage storage solutions. For the moment I’ll share this one. Where do you keep the whiskey?

As I mentioned to Santwana, I am looking in every box and in one of them I found a set of kitchen canisters. I bought them at an estate sale years ago but couldn’t make them work in my kitchen with its limited counter space. While pretty, in the wrong space they feel like clutter. When an attempt to sell them on Craig’s List failed, I stored them in the garage. Eventually I would find someone who needs them, right? Or maybe they would become the next hot thing and I would be rich? Doubtful. So I was either going to use them or give them away. But now with everything shut down because of Covid-19, taking the set to Goodwill is not an option. It’s common to see free stuff waiting to be claimed in the boulevards we pass on our daily walks. Maybe I could do something like that? So I unpacked them and when I did I found this note taped to the top of one of the bundles: “Open with care. There is a smaller canister packed inside the larger one.”

“Open with care. There is a smaller canister packed inside the larger one.”

Of course this note was intended for somebody else. But now here I am reading it as if a stranger had written it for my benefit. It got me thinking about the notes we leave for our future selves.

Well, I must talk about “the garage project” a lot. Let me explain.

Yesterday was a yard day where I was trying to clean things up and get some basil planted. Actually, I was trying to get several other things planted too, but I only got to the basil. In any case, on my way into the house to get a bite, I found a package on the step.

Hmm, What’s this? For me?
A gift? Hmm, late birthday gift? Early Christmas? Random surprise from Brian? Ginger? Mom?
Florence! What on earth could this be?
A flask!

Notice in the background in the picture above there is a basket with a couple of books in it. My sister Amy was recently cleaning out some stuff and sent this along with a macrame plant holder that she thought I could use. And not that long ago there was a postcard from my sister Ginger. It’s a picture of Joyce Niebuhr striking a pose in front of an Iowa cornfield, leaning back with her face in the sun. She’s wearing a strapless, knee-length silky purple cocktail dress and long white gloves. There is a short necklace. A dot of an earring. What I imagine to be matching heels are obscured by turf. Did they sink into the ground? Her hair is up. Blonde. One hand loosely rests on the hip that faces the camera, while the other is elegantly outstretched holding three dog leashes that are attached to pigs. The caption reads: “Iowa Poodles”. “Enjoy your day!”, my sister writes.

With so much Zooming and various digital connecting going on, I wonder if “these times” call for more surprise gifts and handwritten notes. A simple phone call out of the blue and – yes – even the pop-over guest.

A little while back my friend Mary Jane stopped by unannounced. Anyone driving a Model T can do whatever they like. But it was actually a detectable slowness of things that emboldened my friend to break the convention of making plans, calling ahead. She says that she never wants to make plans again, an intriguing idea. I want to explore this but some neighbors have wandered out for a look at the car and Mary Jane must field questions. I am impressed. Passed down from her father, she has lived with this machine for her entire life and can talk shop with the best of them. We sat on the front lawn and visited until she had to leave in time to make it back to White Bear Lake before dark. A threat of rain made things even more exciting. It made me want to jump in the car with my friend, but of course I didn’t do that. Not even with a mask would I do that at this point. But for a moment, things were normal. Better than normal in that there was space for an impromptu visit and more room for perfect timing.

Back to the flask, an unusual gift, right? For some context here, I was telling Florence about wanting to put a flask of booze in one of those canisters. While it seemed hard to explain why this had its appeal without sounding like I had a drinking problem, she got it.

Du Nord Distillery
Let’s not waste any time!
For emergencies and pop-over guests.

In other canister news, a few days ago I noticed a trail of ants marching toward the sugar canister. Being that there hasn’t been any sugar in there for years, I concluded that the ants must have read the label and naturally had to check it out. But Brian and my friend Craig (Yes, he too had to hear about the garage!) insist that ants can’t read and that instead they’re smelling residue sugar. When you see how badly the coffee canister is stained, I can see their point. We had a discussion about deterring the ants, including making the container unsafe for food by placing a mothball in it. A salted moat was also discussed. Lucky for me, the next day there were no ants. So my theory has not changed. The ants saw a sign for sugar, went to check it out and left after a thorough investigation turned up nothing. It would be crazy for the ants to press on with their invasion, right? Fingers crossed that they stay away!

There are more boxes to open. More bolts to sort. But it’s coming along between QuOTeD Podcast episodes, a short story and the garden. Most days I make progress. It requires a certain amount of unstructured time and staring into space for answers. It requires a slowness that I quite enjoy.

How To Give a Cat a Pill

Reflections on a post Covid-19 World

We didn’t want to traumatize our cat, Wilson, by dragging her to the veterinarian again. We were just there. She seemed comfortable enough. Mostly, she seemed like her kitten self. But weight loss became concerning. So Brian consulted with someone who said there was a chance that she had a treatable condition. For example, cats her age can often have thyroid problems. It turns out that she does. The condition might be masking other issues. But for now, we are treating this and we’ll see what a follow-up appointment reveals.

Initially, I had imagined prying open her mouth, placing a pill as deep as possible and then clamping her mouth shut again until she swallowed. Brian had to do something like this with his previous cat, Pashnick. Both of these cats, by the way, are named after baseball players. This is Brian’s doing. In the case of Wilson, her name has given people the impression that she is a boy. “He… I’m sorry, she…” says the vet.

When I first met Wilson, I assumed that Brian named her after the volley ball in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. That’s when he told me about Lewis Robert “Hack” Wilson. He was an American Major League Baseball player in the 1920’s and ’30s. Our cat was named after this guy because not long after Brian had rescued her from the animal shelter, she developed kennel cough. So back to the shelter she went until she recovered.

My little cat is often herding me to the purniture where she likes to be brushed while she monitors traffic, takes note of the squirrels, dogs, birds and other beasts.

I love that cat. My little bird. Chicken. Rabbit. Goat. Tiny horse. Sister. Always my girl.

Well, I was relieved to hear that forcing meds down Wilson’s throat wasn’t going to become part of our daily life. The medicine comes in different forms. There are pills, which can be hidden in “pill pockets”, there is a powder that is mixed in water and there is a gel that can be applied to the ears, though it is not as effective. We started with the pill.

As for the pill pockets, pink tablets a little bigger than a cooked lentil are pressed into a cat treat that has the consistency of cookie dough. At the vet, they had two flavors, peanut butter and chicken. I chose peanut butter but the receptionist – after I asked for a second opinion – steered me toward the chicken. She’s a cat… of course, of course… This is probably a good example of why I am not – or at least do not consider myself to be – a very good gift giver. Last year for Christmas I gave Brian a drawing of Sasquatch getting a haircut. I had to explain it to him, which is never good.

So I head home with the chicken flavored cookie dough. I’m on foot and get there by way of University Avenue, which is beyond my house. It was a nice day and I needed the sun. I needed the exercise. Mainly I wanted to slow things down with a private rebellion against an expected pace of life. We often don’t walk because it’s not efficient. So we get fat and then spend money on a gym membership. Well, little did I know that it wouldn’t be long after this that taking a simple walk would be loaded with the sub-context of our “new reality”. Is that what we’re calling it? What are we calling it?

Wilson takes the pill. I’m relieved that she’s going to make this easy. She sticks to the schedule, which is impressive given that she – as far as I know – does not tell time and does not have an appreciation for what’s at stake. The vet calls and I give him the report. My pride is obvious. But after a while, I have to start “repackaging” the pills because she has figured out how to eat around them. I tell her that she’s naughty, but she doesn’t care. A dog would have cared. She’ll eat that thing when she feels like it, which is more like once every day and a half versus twice a day. Still, it’s something. So, at first, I think I should just take what I can get. But then the intervals between “cooperating” continue to stretch. I worry. We should try something else. What if she does like peanut butter after all?

There is something about being focused on my little cat that helps me tune out the nonsense about Easter being the deadline for normal. Brian tells me about the moron – the Lieutenant Governor of Texas – who floats the idea that old people should be ready to die for the cause. Brian is outraged. Outraged. I want to record him for a podcast that doesn’t exist. The show would be called Two People & a Cat. Unlike QuOTeD, it would be casual, just the two of us checking in with updates and comments about what comes into this house, whether it be the newspaper or an infuriating Facebook post, a call or the common cold… or so we hope… He declines, but I’m sure that he is expressing something that needs to be said. These bastards should be ashamed. Not politely corrected or politically handled, but called out and shut down with the strong arm of shame. Why add to the noise? That’s probably what he’s thinking and he would be right, I suppose. So, I ask Brian if the cat pooped today. It’s a good sign when she does. She did and this is something to celebrate even though the turds are smaller than usual.

And just like that our world gets too small for idiots.

I just want my little cat to take her medicine. It seems to be helping. The vomiting has mostly stopped. I want her to gain weight. The vet said it would take a while. I want her to feel good and it seems like she mostly does. She’s old, but she still bosses me. She herds me from the kitchen where I am chopping onions to her perch by the window upstairs. There she expects to be brushed with much attention being paid to her tiny chin. This will mean I’ll have to wash my hands again.

I’m so tired of washing my hands! Were it pre-Covid-19, my condition would be diagnosable. But I am determined that I will not get sick, so I wash my hands all day like a crazy person. Get the mail. Wash my hands. Read the paper. Wash my hands. Wave to the neighbor across the street. Wash my hands.

Wilson moves me from my comfy chair where I am drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper to the couch because she wants to sit there… together. In the office now, she interrupts me mid-sentence to remind me that it’s time for a break, time to get up from my desk and stretch my legs. Her timing can be terrible, but I cannot say no to those big bright green eyes that I miss and fret about the second she’s acting like she’s under the weather. Besides, she is right to suggest that we take time to enjoy the simple things… such as massaging the legs of a tabby. Maybe she had a premonition and she was trying to prepare me for what was to come.

Even though she is frail, she is still easy to purr. Even though she is old, she’s finding new routines and is learning new tricks, like spitting pills back into her dish. Hanging out with Brian and me in the evening is new. Wilson has taken to snoozing on the ottoman between our feet or stretched out next to us on the couch so that I can rub her chest and kiss the top of her head. These days we have to be careful to be a lot more gentle when giving Wilson “the treatment”. On the other hand, it has been a while since the three of us have piled on the bed the way we sometimes would at the end of the day before dinner. Brian would say, “Are you happy? Everybody is together just like you like it.” And I would say, “I love it when everybody is together.” And Wilson would purr.

Sleeping on the afghan that my sister made is also new. Until recently Wilson would normally sleep overnight in the basement on the blue office chair. This is a chair that she and Brian will fight over when they are not fighting over the prime real estate in the sun room. Brian doesn’t have the heart to give a sleeping cat the boot. But the second she leaves, he will slip into the sunny spot on the guestroom bed where he’ll read for hours. Eventually, Wilson will find a sliver next to him. There is no room for me there. With Brian home now – because of the thing – it’s funny to see them negotiate routines like a newly retired couple that isn’t used to stretches of concentrated togetherness. I’m surprised they don’t fight over the remote, but they mostly enjoy the same programs. They both miss baseball, that’s for sure.

There’s always the 24-hour news cycle that we mostly avoid.

Notice that the guy who is suggesting that we fuel the economy with cadavers isn’t living paycheck to paycheck. He’s not going to work when he’s sick because he doesn’t have paid time off or health insurance. He’s not trying to figure out how to make the rent. Nor is he keeping anyone alive, which used to be the distinction of medical professionals but now we know better. He’s not bagging your groceries or doing a double-shift at a cereal factory or disinfecting your office so that you don’t get sick. He’s not risking his life for anything let alone the noble duty of selling you a roll of toilet paper. While this guy is by no means immune to Covid-19, nor is he on the front lines of it. In a sense, he is a chicken hawk. He says get back to work. Bok! Bok! Get back to the morning rush hour. Bok! Bok! Back to polluting at the normal lucrative levels. Bok! Bok! Back to buying stuff because you are bored. Bok! Bok! Back to over-scheduled tots. Bok! Bok! Overtime. Bok! Bok! Lunch at your desk. Bok! Bok! Back to a pace that makes enough money to subsidize private airplanes. Bok! Bok! And no more heroism for lowlifes! Bok! Bok! Remember! You’re just the janitor. Bok! Bok! You’re just some hump stocking shelves at a chain. And once the specter of wiping our ass with a page from the Sear’s catalogue has finally lifted, there will be no more bonuses for you. So don’t get any big ideas. We will get back to normal.

I have no solutions. I don’t know what to do about the massive unemployment and the businesses that are not going to survive this crisis. But I do know that when someone thinks nothing of publicly suggesting that the only way through this problem is to ask the most vulnerable of us to die for the Dow, you have to wonder what is said in private. What slippery slope had ever emboldened this kind of brazenness? Could it be that we had passively agreed to the idea that sacrificing the poor or the environment for our portfolios was just the way it worked and is to be grieved no more than the rabbit falling prey to the fox? “What is there to do?”, we ask. But now that grandma is being dragged to the alter of Wall Street, could it be time to start asking questions about the Frankenstein of a system that we have created that cannot be paused and that requires a steady dose of bailouts just to keep it lumbering along?

Maybe we could start with this.

Why is normal normal? Why is normal fragile? Do we even like normal?

Then…

How can we shape the new normal? Someone will. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas with his broken moral compass will be there. Congress and there corporate sponsors will be there. Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow will be there every night preaching about what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s possible. Will you be there? How do you be there? How are we supposed to show up?

Just keep asking questions.

Should “normal” be the goal? What would it mean to actually value the real – I can see it, touch it, understand it – work of the economy? What can we do to make sure that anyone who needs medical help can get it – in the first place – without being financially ruined? Why not continue to live with the drastic reduction in traffic and its associated stress, noise, pollution and – I am assuming – accidents. Did we not just prove (again) that working from home works? Who decides the pace of our lives? And in conjunction with these things, would a reexamination of a global economy help prepare us for the next virus, be it an actual virus or something that mimics one, a peak oil tremor, for example? Might our renewed appreciation for our connections to each other be carried forward? Could it be that the singular enemy of a virus is like the imagined alien invasion that brings humanity together for the common good? What are we capable of doing? What do we want to do?

What do we want to do?

The system’s weaknesses are in full display. And the predicament in which we find ourselves – that place where there is pain in every answer for our problems – should be a wake-up call. We should be asking ourselves a lot of questions.

For example…

Is there a better way to organize ourselves? While it can be hard – and even threatening – to imagine a more resilient economic system, we can still imagine aliens. We can see that the solar system is vast and there is much yet to be discovered. Is there life out there? Maybe. Lets send a robot light years away to learn something. But try to imagine a different economic system? Try to re-imagine something we totally made up in the first place? People get antsy. Why is that?

A while back, the vet suggested these teeth cleaners for cats. Wilson has great teeth, but because we were adding wet food to her diet, the vet suggested that we mix in some of these things with her dry food. Well, Wilson really likes them. When I was a kid, we had a dog that used to pick out the buttered pieces of popcorn. It’s like that. Well, because she’s been having various issues – excessive barfing being one of them – Brian stopped giving her those things. But, I found a new use for them.

Desperate to get her to take her medicine on a more regular schedule, I came up with this idea. I cut one of those teeth cleaners she likes so much in half. Then I used the “cookie dough” to attach a pill in the middle. So far she has taken six out of six of them on time. I have my fingers crossed that this good behavior will continue.

The truth is, my cat is at the end of her life. Time is precious. Is it reasonable to hope for another good year? Two? We would be lucky. This winter when it seemed like we should be bracing ourselves, I was hoping for another season. I wanted her to have another chance to enjoy the spring when we can open the windows.

She’s doing her job. She’s making the best of it. She’s taking her medicine.

Now if only we can figure out a way to take our own medicine.

I can hear Wilson at her dish and I assume that she is eating her “treat” as she has been doing. But when I check I find a half-chewed tablet in the bowl.

Six out of seven.

I have a talk with her, but she doesn’t care. A dog would. I “repackage” the pill and hope for the best. I’ll take what I can get.

I wash my hands.

Again.

It’s a nice day.

So, I open a window.

Making modified “pill pockets” for my cat.
Cut the teeth cleaner / dry cat food in half by gently sawing with a serrated knife.
Avoid touching the pills.
Greenies Pill Pockets has a dog on the package, but Wilson doesn’t mind.
Pick up a pill with the “cookie dough” / pill pocket goo. Then join with one of the teeth cleaner halves.
Half teeth cleaner, half pill pocket goo, and a pill in the middle.
Make a few ahead of time and store in something to keep it from drying out.

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.