Category Archives: Life in our house

Everything is Fine

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

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

It has been too long.

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

But of course there are the neighbors to consider.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything is fine.

No need to worry.

Get back to it.

Try again tomorrow.

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

Unexpected Host

Our time together was bookended by torrential rains, lightening and thunder that shook the house.

Drenched in sweat, Brian and I sat on the front step waiting for my sister Ginger to pull up to the curb. Not that car. Not that one. That one? No. It was there that I had finally decided to go to the funeral. I could imagine the car pulling away from the house the next day, leaving me waving good-bye on the sidewalk only to realize my mistake too late. I would change my mind several times again. I imagine this was irritating to anyone who had to witness this almost paralyzing indecision until finally putting a haphazardly packed suitcase into the trunk.

Either choice would have been fine.

The last time there was a family reunion in Michigan, I was sick and didn’t go. I don’t get back there too much, though my Aunt Goldie made an effort to maintain something of a hub after my maternal Grandmother died in 1992. In fact, after she retired she lived in Grandma’s old house on Main Street in Harrisville. Now that she’s gone too, it’s hard to say what will happen although there is still family there. For one thing, there is Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Butch’s “cabin”, apparently now more of a four season house than what I knew as a kid who spent some time there washing my hair in the lake with my sisters and watching my cousins do grown up things like drive speed boats and water ski. I have no idea where this place is. I assume the lake has a name. But I don’t know what it is. Not far from Harrisville? Flint? Go down some winding wooded roads. Take a left. Then a right. That’s all I know.

As the three of us stood in the entryway of my house, sweat rolling down my back, I worried that the fans that we had distributed in the sleeping quarters would not be sufficient. Anyone else would have turned on the air conditioning by now, but we don’t have it.

The next morning Brian and I went a few blocks to pick up some pastries from the grocery store. By the time we got half way home, it started to rain so hard that I thought we ought to pull over. I worried about my parents and my sister Amy who would be arriving by plane. By the time we got home, Ginger had gone around the house closing all of the windows. She says it got pretty wild.

Our first day of driving was marked by rain. From Saint Paul to the Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula to Escanaba where my Aunt Virginia helped open a bank – for most of the trip it rained. We stayed in the UP somewhere (maybe it was Escanaba?) at a Comfort Inn, my two sisters and I in one room and my parents in the adjoining one. Across the highway from where we stayed was a boardwalk on Lake Michigan, but there wasn’t time to enjoy it. Mom ordered perch at the cafe where we had dinner, something we all should have done as it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The vegetarian omelet, not so much. Amy abandoned hers pretty quickly and I worried about whether she was getting enough to eat for the rest of the trip. I briefly joined my mom in the fitness room where she was keeping to her treadmill routine. That night she showed me some exercises that keep your back in shape, especially needed on a long road trip. I should have taken notes. I could use them right now!

It’s weird to go to Harrisville without stopping at Grandma’s house. But when my Aunt Goldie moved to be closer to her daughter in Atlanta, they sold the house. I got a glimpse of it from the car. But that was it.

There was a wake.

There were relatives I recognized and some that I didn’t.

When my parents came up to stay with Aunt Goldie to give her a little more time in the house that she did not want to leave, they used to go for drives, have dinner out every night, shop and go down to the harbor. It was there that they saw “One Leg”, the name my aunt gave to a seagull that was sadly missing a leg. He did alright, given the circumstances. But my aunt worried about him. Would he get enough to eat or would he be crowded out by the other birds? Some of them seemed so rude. I was touched by this. She could not remember her sister’s name. But still compassion shown through a thickening fog. She was still in there.

We saw such a bird – a seagull that was missing a foot – at a rest stop on our way to the funeral. Knowing this touched my cousins who had just lost their mother.

I learned that my cousin Jimmy’s son Karl is retiring and starting a flower farm in Michigan with his wife. I was delighted by this! I learned that my cousin Dickie goes by Richard now. His fiance is lovely. I learned that the twins aren’t babies anymore. I learned that Aunt Goldie enjoyed vodkas with lemon.

There was a toast.

There was a nice spread at the banquet hall at Wiltse’s restaurant in Oscoda. “Take a right at the Big Boy.” I never saw a Big Boy restaurant, but we got there just the same.

Where did we stay that night? Escanaba? No. It was Manistique! I remember now because there was some discussion about how to pronounce it. I asked the receptionist at the hotel. I also asked her about the tunnel. “What does ‘We support the tunnel’ mean? We’ve seen some lawn signs.” She didn’t know. In the car this sparked a discussion about the Chunnel. Who would use it? Who would be unsettled by the notion of traveling underneath the English Channel? Who would be unsettled but use it anyway?

It costs four dollars to take the Merrimack Bridge from the UP to the mitten. My dad insisted on paying for this.

Once the service had concluded at the funeral home, something that was announced by a woman whom I took to be working there, I found the door. Outside I stood in the shade with my sister-in-law who drove up from Virginia with my brother. Patti is a special education teacher and we talked shop. At one point, her attention shifted. Late to pick up on the cue, I turned around to see what was distracting her. Suddenly my own talking seemed loud and inappropriate. For facing us on the other side of the sidewalk was the entire family. We’re doing a group photo? That’s what I thought. It was as if I had been dropped into the scene without any context. I just saw a group that had been roughly positioned by a photographer and everyone was waiting on us to join them so that they could snap a picture. “What’s happening?” I said. Patti explained that they were bringing out the casket. It was only then that I saw the hearse parked in front of us.

The last time I was at that cemetery (Drive down a winding wooded road. Take a right. Then a left…), we buried my grandmother. The service was held at the Presbyterian church. My mother let out a cry from the front pew. My dad put his arm around her shoulders. As we left the graveside service, we passed a couple of guys sitting in the back of a white truck. They had shovels.

Aunt Goldie was buried next to her second husband, Walt, not far from her mother. But it was her first husband, my Uncle Wayne who had given us a croquet set from his hardware store when we were kids, who said a prayer with her right before she died.

The minister didn’t appear to know Aunt Goldie. She was a Lutheran and dressed rather causally. She wore mandles. I liked her. She reminded me of my friend Paul’s wife, Berta. Down to earth.

“We recommend our sister Goldie to God…”

In addition to just being there as a show of support for Aunt Goldie’s immediate family, including my mother, I was glad to be there for this:

“We recommend our sister Goldie…”

There’s something sweet about that. Humbling.

I’d like to think that One Leg would recommend her too and that his commendations would carry more weight than mine.

At the reception I sat at a table in the back with my siblings, Matt, Amy and Ginger and my sister-in-law Patti. Afterwards, there were long good-byes. Then our family went to an ice cream shop. The portions were huge. The prices were crazy cheap. The ice cream was really good. We sat on the picnic tables outside of the shop next to a couple that had a dog. Afterwards, we walked the docks at the harbor, wishing that we could hitch a ride on a boat. Then we went back to the fishing cabins where we stayed (“Please do not put fish in the refrigerator! We have a freezer you can use!” And “Please do your dishes!”) and played a few hands of cards at a picnic table by Lake Huron. Matt and Patti were heading back to Virginia at 3 o’clock in the morning, so it wasn’t a late night. Of course they weren’t staying at these cabins where the bathroom door in our room didn’t completely shut, at least not without some effort. Those lucky dogs were at a bed and breakfast where there was a hot tub, complimentary cake and towels tied up like Christmas packages.

On the way out of town somewhere north of Alpena, we stopped at the cleanest McDonald’s I had ever seen. It appeared to be a hang out for some of the old timers in the area. Tables of old ladies. Tables of old men. It was quite lovely. The employees were lovely. Everything was lovely.

Outside of Wausau, Wisconsin a guy working at a gas station teased us about trying to find a vegetarian meal in the roast beef capitol of the world. Or was it meatloaf?

Amy and Dad playing cards in the back seat. They found a game that didn’t take up too much space.

Mom’s socks. So colorful. So fashionable. So fun!

The rain.

The sun.

The lake.

Ginger’s excellent driving.

My job was to get us out of the airport.

Talking to a motorcyclist outside of the Manistique Comfort Inn and imagining a different life.

My other job was to help watch for deer.

Ginger’s only rule: No driving at night.

The server at the Wausau Green Mill restaurant who looked like she could be Sarah’s daughter.

Breaking Ginger’s only rule.

The last few miles of the trip home were challenging. Dark. Glaring roads. Construction. Pylons. Reflective barrels. Closed exit ramps. Detours into the burbs. Confusion just minutes from my house. What the hell is happening on I94? We should have listened to Maxine.

Apparently I had met Barb long before the funeral. It would have been at one of Aunt Goldie’s infamous parties. She had been Aunt Goldie’s friend for a long time. They met back when my aunt ran a gift shop, post retirement. Barb was a customer.

She did not wear black.

Like Aunt Goldie did, Barb has style. I remember white and pink and a bright green. Flowers. Shoes. A purse. A Scarf. Earrings. Fabulous earrings. A real statement.

Walking to the car, I introduced myself to Barb the way I introduced myself to a lot of people that day. “I am Margie’s daughter, Goldie’s niece.”

“You’re father put in some flower boxes for me! I still use them!” I was impressed with how quick she made this connection, where I can be slow to process such things. She was sharp.

Before leaving the graveside, a number of people approached the casket to touch it. Barb did too. She walked up to it and gave it a good rap with her fist.

“Goldie told me to do that just to make sure.” she said. We laughed. Then tears welled up in her eyes. I don’t know Barb. I’m told that she cusses like a sailor and can be out of step with the changing times, to put it nicely. But in that moment, I just loved her. I loved that my aunt had a good friend – and a loving family of course – into her old age. I can see why they would have been friends.

The plan was to take my mother to see Jeff Lynn’s Electric Light Orchestra. I would finish my painting projects – mainly the stairway and the kitchen. I would clean the house from top to bottom. Plan meals. Prep them. Spiff up the yard. Those chairs need to be scrubbed down. The windows needed to be washed. I could use a haircut. The porch was stuffed with tarps and various painting supplies that would need to be moved.

The news came by text.

There were phone calls.

Thank goodness for Brian.

The storm came.

He attended to a lot in my place.

And I didn’t want to be left behind waving good-bye on the sidewalk.

Who am I trying to impress anyway?

It’s probably a good thing that I did not get around to putting up the handrail before my company arrived. My measurements were wrong and there was a stud that turned out to be very tricky to find. After we got back from Michigan, my dad helped me install it. This is how I learned that if you want a particular screw, go to Ace Hardware. Forget about Menard’s. Ginger and Amy left the next day to pick up Dale in Cedar Rapids. They returned via the airport with a surprise. My niece Kathleen would be joining us for the ELO concert.

Brian said that the absolute best part about the concert was watching my mother watch it. True. Very true.

We went on some shopping excursions and some quick brewery tours for Dale’s benefit. There should have been more time for cards, but it didn’t seem like we played too much. The time went by too fast.

On Sunday, Ginger and Dale and my parents drove back to Rapid City. When Amy said good-bye to my mother who was sitting in the backseat, she put the blanket she crocheted during the trip on her lap. The colors were beautiful, a mix of “green grass” and “lettuce”. When she was a kid, Amy got the waffle pattern from Aunt Marion, Uncle Norman’s wife. Amy worked on the blanket sitting between my parents in the backseat of the car on the way to Aunt Goldie’s funeral. At one point the afghan would be on my mother’s lap, keeping her comfortable with the air conditioning. Then Amy would have to flip the blanket around to continue with another row. This made for comical “Where did my blanket go!” moments.

Anticipating a three-hour flight back to Boise, Amy and I took a walk. We went down to the Mississippi River via the University of Saint Thomas Campus. We thought we had landed in the middle of a movie set. There was some kind of religious youth convention, with various groups identified with matching t-shirts. Lots of crosses. Images of Christ. Nuns where stationed throughout the campus mall greeting people. Clusters gathered in circles on the grass with plates of french toast and sausage and glasses of orange juice. On the way back, a fledgling along the golf course couldn’t quite get out of our path. We had to give him some room else lead him into the street. He worried me the way loose cats do. I’m afraid I’ll get home to find that I have a new cat.

A few hours later, as Amy and her daughter Kathleen and Brian and I sat on the porch, it started to rain so hard that we wondered whether their flight home would be delayed. It was not.

Brian and I and the cat cannot fill up the house so good.

We won’t need the card table for a little while. Put it away. Wash the sheets. Finish painting. Clean the dust out of the bathroom vent.

I miss everyone.

Can we pick up a pizza?

Kathleen’s taco casserole

French toast.

A bagel sandwich.

Coffee by the cup.

Mueller’s testimony.

Leonardo.

Another hole in the wall.

A sturdy rail.

We recommend our sister Goldie to God.

Is this a coincidence?

This post contains spoilers for the movie Once upon a time in Hollywood. I strongly recommend that you see the movie first.

A friend of mine makes more of a coincidence than I usually do. And yet lately I’ve been struck by how there have been themes. Self-compassion seems to be one of them. It wasn’t long after noticing that a friend could use a dose of it when I read an article about procrastination. According to the article, self-compassion is one way to break the cycle of unwanted behavior. It’s how I can show up here now. For I had really intended to post something daily. As I like to say, “Try again tomorrow.”

It was hard to find the time to write while I had company. I’m not sure why that is, but routines just don’t work the same for me when I’m thinking from one meal to the next. Everything is different. Lovely. Needed. Appreciated. Fun. But different.

My mother is a DiCaprio fan so a group went to see the Sharon Tate movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A couple days later, after the last shuttle to the airport, Brian and I took a walk around Como Lake and talked about it. He liked it. The fact that he did not doze off is an endorsement. But he ultimately didn’t see the point. However, by the time we got around the lake, we came up with something that was mostly satisfying.

Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler

If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this post. See the movie first.

Brian’s main beef seemed to be the rewriting of history. I liked it. But defending it would take some effort.

When I was a kid, I remember the book Helter Skelter laying around the house. It was thick like a dictionary. Black with red lettering. The pages smelled weird, which I attributed to the contents as opposed to any likely factors such as a bookshelf in a musty basement or the smell of a previous reader’s cologne. I knew who Charles Manson was. I had heard of Squeaky Fromme. I knew that Sharon Tate was pregnant. I knew what happened. I didn’t need to know any of this. I was just a kid. But my older siblings probably told me about it, for I certainly didn’t read the book. And for some reason this horrific story is part of the American psyche.

Let me just call bullshit on myself.

I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it sounds right. And it’s for that reason that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was able to do what it did. We watched this movie, knowing what I knew since I was a kid. And during the entire movie I dreaded the inevitable. My plan was to leave early and to let Brian tell me how it ended.

Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler Spoiler

If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this post. See the movie first.

Except the inevitable didn’t happen.

A critic made the comment that the movie was forty-five minutes too long. As a movie goer and not as an editor who has to justify every frame, I can’t say that I was bothered by the length. Furthermore, given the necessity of the slow build to the last scene that made every previous second worthwhile, I thought the pace was about right. And again, Brian did not doze. That says a lot.

Plodding toward the inevitable is a political theme too. We are living it. How many times have I heard that our democracy is in peril? Power is being concentrated? There are human rights violations all over the place. Crimes go unpunished. Then there is also the decimation of the environment. Another shooting. Weak leadership. Saber rattling. On Facebook I saw an article where – if I am to believe it – South Dakota, my home state, is requiring schools to prominently post “In God we trust” in the schools. This makes me feel a little sick, because I suspect that it isn’t one’s religious convictions that would compel such a rule, but a sort of bullying. Is that what we really need? Anyway, the list goes on and it feels like there is a certain inevitable fate that will play out. If I were to believe the conspiracy theorist who was my supervisor at Spuds ‘N Stuff at the mall when I was in high school, we are all headed for the concentration camps. That’s pretty bleak.

There is another narrative.

We just have to write it.

There were things about the movie that will take another viewing for me. For example, what was the purpose of making Brad Pitt’s character a Vietnam Veteran and wife killer, assuming he really did kill his wife? Does it matter what I choose to believe? Would it change the story? Was it about help from unlikely places? Redemption? Healing? After all, in his last scene he is shuttled away in an ambulance. He’s going to be okay. Incidentally, Pitt is in a couple of scenes that also play on our expectations, such as the time the camera scans the car when he pulls into Manson’s hippie camp. This scene would not work without a suspicious past. Something tells me that scenes like that were all over the place and I just missed them. I would also have to look at the scenes where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is on a movie set. Something tells me that I didn’t fully appreciate how they fit. I’m also mildly interested in the woman he marries. It seems like she’s just a plot device, but maybe there’s more to her.

Typically my movie ratings go something like this. I either like a movie right away or I don’t. If I walk out without a feeling one way or the other, I might wake up mad the next day, which means the movie tricked me into sticking with it, but it wasn’t worth it. Or I will like it more and more. I liked this movie. Have to see it again. That’s a new rating for me.

Don’t Be in a Hurry

It’s hot.

The polyurethane on the door frame will have to dry before I can do the next thing.

Except there is always something to clean, like the walls in the hallway where I want to paint. I am resistant today. I’ll do it later. There are weeds. Windows to clean. I just don’t feel like it. Later.

“What’s the hurry?” my mom says. She doesn’t like to see me stressed out.

The cat is circling. She wants me to brush her but for some reason she is being coy. She is hoping for the double brush. If I don’t pick up a brush soon enough, she will try to brush herself, but can’t get the leverage required for satisfaction.

I made some progress on my short story. The pieces don’t quite fit, but I’ve turned over a few more puzzle pieces. I’m still far away from the original idea. I’m stuck in setup. Well, not stuck. It’s just that there’s a lot of work to do before getting to the thing. It’s like my house projects. I don’t really know how that color is going to look on the kitchen wall. I just know that I’m curious and I am anxious for the tah-dah! But there is all of this preparation that is required.

Don’t be in a hurry.

Crystal clear. I can hear my dad telling me this.

Don’t be in a hurry.

There is something really delicious about taking your time in a world full of people who are hell bent on getting there first.

Don’t be in a hurry.

Brian thought we had time to cross the street.

“I’d rather wait.” I said, knowing that he would not like it.

The king of patience thinks I’m a nut, but he concedes and we wait. To be fair, I can’t walk as fast as he can. Shorter stride, right? In the meantime, a woman makes it across with no problem.

“It’s a beautiful night to stand on the corner!” She says before heading for the gas station behind us.

I don’t care. Maybe it’s decision fatigue. Just do what the sign says. I’m fine with that. Sure, there are exceptions. But on one of the busiest corners in the city? This isn’t one of them.

Don’t be in a hurry.

On the one hand, I’m a square following the rules. On the other hand, waiting for the crosswalk sign is a sort of quiet rebellion in a hurry-up world.

I’ll just pretend that I’m Japanese. My friend who has been to Japan told me that they never jaywalk there. A person could be standing at a deserted intersection at three in the morning in a remote town with a population of fifty and wouldn’t cross against the light.

Don’t be in a hurry.

My aunt is moving to hospice care after a traumatic experience at the memory care facility. It has been a while since she would have recognized me. The last time I saw her was at a reunion she hosted several years ago. We rented cabins on a lake in Michigan. She rented tents and roasted meat at the house that used to be my grandmother’s house. Some cousins were doing shots of Jagermeister. I will sip mine.

Don’t be in a hurry.

She cries a lot, something some Alzheimer’s patients apparently do. They give her medicine for this.

Don’t be in a hurry.

Missing the School Bus

We write to remember and for some reason I want to remember this.

I was weeding the flowerbed in the front yard.

Here comes a Somali girl, maybe ten years old, running down the sidewalk to catch the bus. Her mother is yelling only what I can take to be encouragement from behind, near their house. It’s a rental on the corner of a busy street. I wish I can remember everyone who passed through there. A Black family. A little girl who seemed to always be dressed in pink. I big woman with a baby. A teen boy. They often walked by my house. And then they were gone and it was another family. And now this family.

As the girl is running, a school bus is inching behind her. Had it stopped she could have just turned around and got on it. But she is running and it seems like the driver is trying to give her the best chance of making it to the stop at the end of the block on time. So the bus is creeping along side her, encouraging her as her mother was doing. The sound of her shoes hitting the pavement brings to mind a thin sandal. Slap! Slap! Slap! Against the orange-yellow school bus and a pretty blue sky, her pink burka looks like a costume designer picked it out. It’s pretty.

She gets on the bus. I look back at her mother from my crouched position in the yard. She looks relieved.

“She made it!” I yell.

“Yes she did!” the girl’s mother yells back.

My neighbor heads out on his bike. He makes a comment about how I am up early.

“I’m usually up early.” I say.

“Not as early as my wife. Three o’clock.” He says.

Coincidentally, I notice the girl come home that afternoon. A little boy on tricycle and an even smaller girl carrying a doll are rushing down the sidewalk to greet her. They’re excited. Super happy. But once they get to the bus stop at the end the block the crying starts. They’re arguing over who-knows-what – the bike, the doll, who gets to hold whose hand. They’re bugging each other the way siblings do.

The next morning I am in my bedroom where the windows are open.

“Get on the fuck’n bus!” A man down in the street yells.

I imagine that some poor kid is getting in trouble. He doesn’t want to go to school and his asshole father is pissed because he won’t get on the bus. How is he going to have a good day now? I look out the window and see there is a bit of a jam up on the street. I don’t exactly remember the details, but the bus can’t pass to get to the stop and apparently the little girl I saw is boarding the bus mid street. This is not exactly clear to me. What is clear is that there is a guy in a beat up pickup truck with a ladder in the back. He’s headed toward the bus and hanging slightly out the window trying to see what the hold up is. Once things dislodge he roars down the street, clearly mad. Cursing.

We have these peaceful days. Our mother is encouraging us. The bus driver is helping. We look beautiful. The sun is beautiful. The air is fresh. Things are blooming. And then some guy plops down in the middle of it and yells profanity at a child. Who is that guy? Don’t be that guy!

It had been a while since I’ve noted the trips to and from the bus stop. But recently from my room I heard:

Slap! Slap! Slap!

“I love you, mom!”

I have my own “missing the school bus story”, but I actually missed the bus. Long story short, I was standing at the stop and the bus whizzed by without picking me up. My dad was not happy about this. We got in the car and chased the bus down the highway for a bit before we caught up to it and I got on it. This would have been between kindergarten and second grade in Michigan.

Next up? Coffee. Something to eat. Progress on my projects. Petting the cat. Right now she is pestering Brian who just got out of the shower. When she saw that I was busy, she turned and faced the bathroom door and pounced on him the second he emerged. I’ll have to dust myself off earlier than usual tonight. We’re going to go see Patton Oswalt at the State Theater. Brian and I are now arguing about how many times we’ve seen him. I say two. He says once because the only other time he came here, he came to a casino, not my favorite place to see shows. He is so wrong. Forget my plans for the day. I’m going to spend the rest of the day proving that he is wrong, dammit! We saw him twice! I am certain of it, although I will concede that it definitely was not at a casino. In one show he closed with the Doctor Pepper story, which the audience was clamoring for… the other time… I don’t care! It was twice! I do remember passing on Bill Burr because he was at a casino and maybe the same is true of Oswalt. But still… Twice.

Construction Site

It’s hard to pick out the women and even when you do you’re not sure it’s a woman under the hardhat. I’m pretty sure I saw two. The only Black man I saw was servicing the portable toilets, but that is not to say there aren’t other people of color working on the construction site that spans at least two large blocks and goes deep into the Saint Thomas campus. I just don’t see them. The guys on the periphery are white, like the three guys standing on the sidewalk outside of the morning huddle. With that beard the redhead in the middle looks like he could be a member of ZZ Top, except I can’t picture any of them vaping. If anything they would smoke. A photographer with privileges would be in heaven. Everywhere I look there is a picture.

Of course there is old fashioned smoking too, so much that I wonder if there shouldn’t be a quit smoking campaign directed at construction workers (and bartenders and cosmetologists and rock stars). What is it about operating a backhoe that makes a person crave nicotine? Like a mother hen, I wish they wouldn’t. It doesn’t match their strong young bodies. I wish the old timers would give it up too.

I pass a flag man who has a small cooler sitting next to him and think it’s sweet that he didn’t want to be separated from his lunch. On the lid of the cooler there are four empty cup holders molded into the plastic. On the return there is a bottle of water, half full, in of the the holders. Close by three men are having a smoke on a retaining wall in front of an apartment building. I overhear part of a story… “…and then he pulls out in front of me like this…” I imagine that it is a story like the ones my brother-in-law might tell about the guy you should never take on a hunting trip. He’s an idiot and he might kill you.

I imagine living across from the construction site that wakes up by seven o’clock. It’s fun to see whenever I take a walk in that direction. But it would drive me nutty to live with it for an extended period of time. The rest of the summer for sure and maybe into next year?

I stop to watch a man in a bobcat remove part of a sidewalk, while another man on a big hill of recently excavated dirt oversees the operation. A few other men are on the ground watching too. It’s not clear what their roles are, but I assume they will help, point, assist or signal as needed. Before sliding the bucket under a slab of concrete, the machine scrapes the gravel toward itself as if trying to level the ground a bit. Scratching like an animal might. Then it lifts up a piece of cement and if it is too big or awkward to lift, will drop it several times until it breaks. A smart animal, with problem solving skills. And we thought it was just a machine! To be efficient, slabs are neatly stacked before lifted and placed into a larger front end loader that waits there like a hungry chick begging for a worm. At first I am reminded of Edward Scissorhands trying to eat a pea but then come to appreciate that these birds really have the dexterity of a surgeon. Amazing!

Suddenly all of the machinery seems to be animated and it makes me recall how my bicycle feels like a restless horse underneath me. The backhoe is a cat coughing up a hairball. It scoops up the ground in one spot and empties the bucket in another. Because the dirt sticks – like the way the snow sticks to my shovel – it shakes it off with these quick backward jolts that would be unnatural for a person to mimic and hell on the neck. Bam! Bam! Bam! Just like my cat, Ehgh! Ehgh! Ehgh!

And now…

For the next thing on the list!

More work in the kitchen. A few things in the stairway. When Brian comes home, he’ll help me with the ladder so that I can reach up to wipe down the walls.

The To-Do List

Generally, I need to put the thing that must get done first on the list of things to do. It is not this post or making progress on the short story that I am writing or the book in progress that wants to be something other than what I first had in mind. At the moment, it is not even the podcast. The list from yesterday reads:

  • Caulk (stairway)
  • Clean up dining room, kitchen
  • Pick up house
  • Wash walls (stairway)
  • Finish prepping woodwork
  • Take down plastic
  • Clean kitchen walls

I did not get to all of these things and keeping up with a commitment to post here daily (mostly) wasn’t even on the list. By the end of the day, which ended really late last night, I collapsed.

I’ve let the lettuce go to seed, partly because I don’t have enough time to do everything there is to do and partly because I love the way the grassy pods look. It’s full of red headed birds, finches of some kind? I wanted to show the cat the dove that was walking around the upper deck where there is a floor-to-ceiling screen where she likes to sit, but figured that the bird wouldn’t stick around for it.

Our street gets a ridiculous number of delivery trucks every day. Every Amazon truck that pulls up to a house stirs up a low-level anxiety. It doesn’t seem like we can possibly be serious about addressing global warming if we are going to have toilet paper delivered to every individual household. The cheese stands alone as convenience is vehemently defended. Convenience will be the end of us. Whenever I think of convenience, I see the guy in Idiocracy who never had to get up from his chair to shit. In the meantime, try to find a decent choice of fabric or a belt that will last longer than a week or a sturdy rake at a brick-and-mortar shop.

It feels like it is going to rain.

Okay. If I can get the prep done in the kitchen so that I’m ready to paint, then other things can fall into place – the pan rack that I made, the baskets for onions and potatoes… I want to see how my sheep (a print I bought at the farmers market in Boise) will look above the door. I want to see that color. Hopefully it’s right this time.

I want my dining room back. No sooner did I finish it did it become the staging area for other projects.

It is not a short story or a podcast episode. But refinishing the shelves in the dining room built-in cabinets is a form of expression too. All of this is an expression of something. And just like writing a short story, at least for me, it is not easy. Not one bit.

Why Paint Jobs are Bigger than you Think

10. Another trip to the hardware store for the rollers that you forgot the first 50 times you were there.

9. Realizing that you picked the wrong color after you’ve finished the job.

8. Caulking the gaps between the wood molding and the wall.

7. Taping the area to be caulked as to get a clean line.

6. Cleaning up the paint spatters left by the previous painter from ten years ago, something you had never noticed until now that you’re looking at the walls up close with a magnifying glass and a headlamp.

5. Painting the thing next to the thing you just painted because it now looks dingy next to a fresh paint job.

4. Preventing a mess by putting down drop cloths, sealing off areas to be sanded…

3. Cleaning up the mess!

2. Painting.

1. Beer!

I’m plugging away at a few projects. Every day I think, today is the day! Time to paint! Nope! This morning I was taping plastic around and area to be sanded. I figured out this trick when I painted the dining room. You’re supposed to do things in the right order and that will save you some headaches. I tried to do that. But inevitably there would be a step backwards either because I just had to learn something the hard way or because I messed up something. There would be some repair I missed. So I would have to fill in a hole… now I have to do a little sanding… now I have to wipe things down… again. So I finally figured out that I could form a bag around the small area on the wall to be sanded. There’s a little more to it than that, but it essentially contains the mess. Anyway, this morning I was taping a bag to the wall for this purpose. Brian gets up. He needs to get passed me, as I am in the middle of the stairway. He tells me that I’ll be glad to know that while I’ve been industrious this morning, Senator Amy Klobuchar is “speaking truth to power.” We both had a laugh. Someone needs to tell her that she is the power. Has she ever been at a rally where people are shouting stuff like that? Those people aren’t going to vote for her. Not now. Not in 2020.

What will you remember about today?

What will I remember about the July 4, 2019?

I always think I will remember.

You mention a book I should read. Oh, I’ll remember that!

The name of your dog.

Your name!

A joke.

I always think I will remember.

What will I remember about today?

Without my notes?

I’ll need my notes:

1. I woke up before Brian and this essentially makes every day like Christmas Day where you can’t wait for everyone to wake up. Except instead of opening presents, there is breakfast, or a walk or something I have to tell him the minute he opens his eyes. But I don’t. I want to. But I try to give the man a minute.

2. So at 6 a.m. or so, I put another coat of paint on the radiator in the kitchen and listened to a podcast called 1001 Short Stories. This paint job required a lot of preparation. You can learn a lot about life by working on your house like this. I’ll return to this later.

3. Eventually Brian gets up and we go out for breakfast after the usual routine of feeding the cat, cleaning her box, etc.

4. We go for a ride. The Prius compliments Brian for not using the AC. The breeze feels good. I feel happy.

5. I wait in the car while Brian gets a few grocery items. Doing this same thing a little while ago, I got an idea for a movie that would be filmed from the POV of the passenger seat looking into the side mirror. When I went to Boston with Mary Jane last month, I waited in the valet area while she checked into the Westin Hotel. Again, looking into the side mirror at the action behind me… there is a movie here.

6. Brian notes that the yard needs some attention and wants to do some weeding before it rains. I like to imagine that he enjoys tapping into his inner farmer but he doesn’t admit it. He’s just doing what needs to be done.

7. I need to make a chalk line so that I can eventually install a handrail for the stairs. Brian helps me by holding one end of the line. It takes us a few tries, but eventually, we get it. I drill holes where the brackets will go. I think I found the studs. It seems like it. I hope so. It can be hard to tell with these plaster walls.

8. I continue to prepare the stairway for painting.

9. The back door where I am working upstairs is open. I can smell food cooking on grills around the neighborhood. I am reminded of my first night at the dormitory at the U of M – Morris. My dad who drove me there has left. My roommate – a person I have yet to meet – has not arrived yet. Outside I can hear people laughing, roving around campus is groups.

10. Brian is in and out. It starts to rain. It stops. He weeds in between.

11. Brian comes in from the yard covered in dirt. To the shower!

12. Brian lays on the bed. I sit in the chair by the window. The cat is passed out on her new favorite spot on the floor facing the door. Life is good.

13. Brian starts the grill. I wish that you could be here to join us.

14. I figured I better not fall off the wagon on day two…

15. Brian asks me how much corn on the cob I want to eat. He brings the package upstairs to show me how big they are. One.

16. Let’s eat.

17. Post.

18. Edit.

19. Brian watches the Red Sox lose.

20. I work on my short story.

Reach Out and Read Videos that Were Never Made

I’ve been working on this blog post on and off for a few months now. Not this post, another one. Something more serious. It has been taking more time than I would have expected. Maybe it’s too serious. What was once just a passing observation about election meddling had become a point I wanted to make, which could have been done in a sentence or two. But it kept demanding more until it went from being almost finished to a pile of Christmas tree lights that needed to be untangled. It’s a jumbled mess and not so fun to face at the moment. But that’s probably less because of its disorderly state and more because of the subject. Current affairs can certainly be a downer. It’s also possible that this piece is never going to be any good and I know it. It could be that too.

In the meantime, Two People and a Cat stagnates as it has done many other times. So I thought I would dive in without too much fuss. I’ve been meaning to share a video that has given us a laugh here at the house. Perhaps all will be lost in the translation and you will not see the humor in it. Funny is a tricky thing.

Here’s some background. A while ago I produced a video for Reach Out and Read Minnesota (ROR – I still think it’s unfortunate that they didn’t go with the obvious ROAR acronym that would have lent itself to the cutest mascot ever!). This is a program where pediatricians promote reading to kids at an early age by distributing free books. It’s a cool deal and it was a fun project to do. However, I never did make the video I wanted to make. I made what I called the “straight” version. Before I tried anything too crazy, I thought it best to at least deliver something that didn’t wildly deviate from the expected. I sensed, perhaps wrongly, that there wasn’t an appetite for anything but the straight version. There definitely wasn’t time to discuss alternatives. In the end, the finished product was received well at an annual fundraiser. The board was appropriately appreciative. As for those other ideas I wanted to try once the real project was done? I never got around to them.

Text: Read to your Children Every Day with red flowers in the background.

However, I did sketch out some of the ideas. Brian and I also shot part of an idea. This is the video that I am sharing here. I wanted to see how certain things would look. Again, these are test shots. They are rough and incomplete. But of course that’s what makes the video so funny to me.

As for the ideas for additional videos, my memory will have to serve here as those notes are long gone by now. But first, I should explain a couple of things about ROR-MN.

  1. During regular checkups – well child visits – pediatricians give books to the kids and encourage parents to read to their children. Doing this helps with brain development at a critical time in the child’s life.
  2. The barriers to entry are low. All pre-school patients of a participating clinic get books. No one has to qualify, fill out an application or otherwise prove neediness. Everyone is equal.
  3. It’s convenient for families because the program is attached to existing routines.
  4. The pediatrician is not only a trusted authority, but the right one to deliver an important message about reading to your kids starting at an early age.

The videos would be 30 seconds or less, making them ideal to share on social media. Each would illustrate a feature of ROR as mentioned above. Videos would start with a situation and finish with a voiceover and then cut to the logo/website followed by footage from a doctor’s visit then fade to black.

ROR Video Idea #1: Delivering Books like Candy at A Parade

Scene: Nice day. Neighborhood. Kids playing soccer. Sprinkler. Dog. A few doors down a man is mowing the lawn. From the distance we can hear someone yelling something. A man driving a car slowly rolls by as he is yelling over a megaphone, “Read to your kids! Read…” He is throwing books out the car window, as if throwing candy from a parade float. Close-up: Book lands in a puddle. A kid’s feet are in the shot. Pan from feet to face that looks confused. Close-up: A curtain moves from within a house as if an adult is checking to see what the commotion is. Close-up: Dog. Wide: Kids stop playing to face car. They’re confused. Voiceover: There are better ways to distribute free books and encourage parents to read to their kids every day. Cut: ROR logo. Voiceover: Reach Out and Read Minnesota. Medium: Doctor giving book to child in exam room. Voiceover: Pediatrician prescribed books for preschoolers.

So here are some of those test shots:

I love this clip. On the one hand, I have this guy who’s up for anything. What? You want me to drive around the neighborhood screaming like an idiot? Sure. No problem. On the other hand, instead of backing up a few feet so I could do another take, he drives around the block. Every time. Come on, buddy! I love this clip because we had a lot of fun making this. How lucky am I to have somebody who’s that game? At one point a neighbor gave Brian a thumbs-up as if to agree with the message while politely ignoring the tactics of the messenger. For some reason, the fact that Brian is driving a loaner from the repair shop is also funny to us. What I remember about that car is that on the passenger side in the front, it didn’t have a full armrest on the left. It seemed like a weird corner to cut.

ROR Video Idea #2: Signing up for Programs can be a Hassle

Scene: Elementary school playground. Mother with baby strapped to her is running through an obstacle course/playground equipment. Or maybe she has a toddler or both. She has her hands full. Close-Up: Clock to suggest time is running out. Various shots: Woman slides down the slide with child. At the bottom of the slide there is a woman in a suit sitting at an office desk. The desk has a sign on it that says “Register for Reading Program Here”. Timer goes off. The mother is too late to sign up. Voiceover: It shouldn’t be hard to give your child a fair chance to succeed. Cut: ROR logo. Voiceover: Reach Out and Read Minnesota. Medium: Doctor giving book to child in exam room. Voiceover: No signing up required.

ROR Video Idea #3: Parenting Advice from Biker Dude

Scene: Bike path. A father is jogging in the park with a small child in a stroller, one of those big ones people use when jogging. The child is engrossed in an iPad or similar device. A biker dude who passes the two notices that the child is looking at the device. He stops the father and shares some information about the benefits of reading books over using electronic devices. He also warns of the hazards of too much screen time. Father is clearly annoyed. Various Close-ups: park, birds, other kids, dogs, flowers… Child is oblivious as he continues to watch a video. Voiceover: Nobody wants parenting advice from biker dude. Cut: ROR logo. Voiceover: Reach Out and Read Minnesota. Medium: Doctor giving book to child in exam room. Voiceover: Pediatrician prescribed books for preschoolers and real help for their parents.

ROR Video Idea #4: Boot Camp for Parents

This was one of my favorite ones, but I can’t remember exactly how it went. There was a rhythm to it that I’ve lost in my attempt here to get it on the page. But I don’t want to take the time to work it. So as with all of these, it’s just the general idea I’m trying to convey.

Scene: Something that resembles a military boot camp. Parents are lined up. They’re all holding the same children’s book open in front of them. Staring forward. A drill sergeant approaches one of them and screams: “What does a cow say?” Parent replies in boot camp fashion, “Moo!” Sergeant: “What does a cow say?” Parent: “Moo!” Sergeant: “What color is that dog, Smith?” Smith: “Brown!” Sergeant: “What color is the sky?” Smith: “Blue.” Sergeant: “How many birds do you see?” Smith: “Three.” Sergeant: “Count ‘em!” All parents: “One! Two! Three!” Voiceover: There has to be a better way. Cut: ROR logo. Voiceover: Reach Out and Read Minnesota. Medium: Doctor giving book to child in exam room. Voiceover: We help parents get the most out of reading time with their kids.

ROR Video Idea #5: Police Officer Distributing Books

Scene: Cars on interstate. Family in a car is pulled over by a police officer who noticed a “baby on board” sign. Officer questions them about their children’s reading routines: Do you read to your children every day? How about at bedtime? Parents are confused but answer questions. Officers goes back to his squad car as if he is going to write a ticket. Instead he comes back with some books for the kids. The parents are completely confused but relieved they didn’t get a ticket. Voiceover: The best ideas can be poorly executed. Cut: ROR logo. Voiceover: Reach Out and Read Minnesota. Medium: Doctor giving book to child. Voiceover: Doctors providing age-appropriate books to pre-school kids and giving trusted advice to parents.

[Note: The idea here was to highlight one of the strengths of ROR: information is given to parents by a trusted authority, as opposed to the biker dude in the above scenario. However, any authority will not do. This is not intended to be a negative comment about the police. Instead, it’s about the right authority in this situation. As for the authority of the elementary school teacher, ROR is able to reach children before they’re old enough for kindergarten, during a critical time for brain development. A different video could be made to emphasize that point. ]

ROR Video Idea #6: Helping Kids Prepare for Kindergarten

See note above.

ROR Video Idea #7: The grocery store

This is similar to the biker dude above, except it happens in a grocery store. A stranger gives unsolicited advice to parent and the parent is either annoyed or hurt by it. There’s probably a fine line between poking fun at this type of advice and discouraging people/strangers from lending a helpful hand when they can see that it’s needed.