Category Archives: Reflections

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.

Coffee

I want to remember everything.

If only I had brought a camera.

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

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

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

952-373-1669

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

$4 Cash for Diabetic Test Strips

Correction: Ca$h for Diabetic Test Strips

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

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

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

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

Dinner tonight!
2 6-inch sandwich
2 bags of chips
2 21-ounce drinks
$14.99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pothole crew has moved on to another street.

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

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

I try to commit that phone number to memory.

952-373-1669

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

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

I am afraid that I will forget.

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?

Frances

“What should I write about today?”

“Toenails.”

My mind went to my nephew’s recent wedding in Virginia because it’s the kind of event that forces a woman to consider splurging on a professional pedicure if she isn’t already in the habit of getting them. When did we stop taking care of our own feet?

“I don’t want to write about toenails.”

“How about something from the book I just got for you?”

Pep Talk for Writers? Okay.”

Before I could finish the first chapter, which was three short pages, I regretted that I never emailed Frances. Frannie? Fran? I think she went by Fran. At the same time, I don’t regret anything. Honestly, I’m not just trying to be above my mistakes and I don’t subscribe to the notion that everything is as always as it should be. I’m just okay with it.

I could email her right now. It has been three years since I saw Fran staring up at a tree. So a message from me would be a surprise and possibly confusing.

“What are you looking at?”

Is there any way to say that without the dangling participle and still sound like a normal person?

“I’m trying to figure out what kind of tree that is. We don’t have those in Vermont.”

And this is how the conversation started. We stood on the sidewalk and talked for at least an hour. It might have been two.

Among other things, Fran told me that your life is a work of art. She said it better than that. I sort of understood and since then I’ve had glimpses of what she meant.

We talked about a number of things. Trees. Art. The Senior Olympics. The 82 year old Fran was a contender. She was a thrower. There was a reason she landed in this sport, but I can’t remember what it was. Shot put, discus, javelin, and the hammer throw. She did them all except for one that wasn’t good for her…back? Something like that.

I told her that I was sorry that I didn’t have my recorder with me. I would have liked to have interviewed her and at the same time can appreciate that a microphone can get in the way.

“You’ll remember what you need to remember.” She said.

Your life is a work of art. I remember that.

I remember how she took an interest in the painting project that I was doing. I was having trouble finding the right trim color for a the basement that I had painted a turquoise. She pointed to different houses on the block as examples of the effects of different color combinations. There is a house on Cleveland Avenue that always makes me think of her:

“See how the trim on that house is a dark brown?”

I remember noticing the contrast between talking to her, a stranger, and the difficulties I was having with some other people who were in my life at the time where I should have expected some level of connection but mostly just felt like an alien in their presence. It’s just nice to be got. To be heard. To be important.

“Do you want so see some old people jump? Come back at 10 o’clock.”

I remember sitting on the bleachers in the sun.

I remember that I was on my way home and she was on her way to find something to eat.

Her name was Francesca. When she was in her sixties she moved back to Vermont from Portland; she wanted to live near her aging mother.

I remember asking her for an email address.