Wednesday, April 16, 2008
A Long Time Since Dr. King
Dr. Martin Luther King is one of those people that we all think we know about, but when it comes right down to it, how much do we really remember? I’d always known Dr. King was an important civil rights leader, but, like so many lessons that I learned in grade school, the actual details of his life escaped me. I didn’t remember more than two facts: that he had given the “I Have a Dream” address in the civil rights era and that he had been assassinated. Last week, when National Public Radio started running stories related to the fortieth anniversary of his death, I realized just how little I knew about this man who changed our nation and the face of civil rights for the world. I was embarrassed by my ignorance.
It so happened that the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center was featuring a one-man show titled Dr. King’s Dream last Friday. I figured I ought to go to renew my acquaintance with the history of this great man. As an added bonus, the Center was offering a free afternoon show for students and their accompanying adults. Having no children of my own, I borrowed a child and went to the show.
The Mixed Blood production of Dr. King’s Dream was sponsored by a collaboration between the New York Mills Public Library and the Cultural Center and were funded, in part, by a grant from the Lake Region Arts Council through a Minnesota State Legislative appropriation. The play is an hour-long monologue in answer to the question posed to him by his friend, “When were you most frightened?” as they wait to leave the Memphis motel for dinner on the evening that Dr. King was killed. Dr. King is played by Warren C. Bowles, a veteran member of the Mixed Blood Theater Company.
Upon entering the Cultural Center on Friday, one saw a makeshift stage in the middle of the gallery that was set with a simple gray cloth backdrop, a wooden chair, a black rotary phone on a stand, and a lectern. The play began with a recording of gospel music, and then a flesh-and-blood Dr. King walked onto the stage.
Ninety percent of the play is composed of Dr. King’s own words as assembled by the Mixed Blood Theater Company. Besides “I have a dream,” most of Dr. King’s words were new to me. Each sentence was a revelation of a man who stood up to the racist status quo and created a movement against the might of a powerful government, a movement that was characterized by King’s abiding commitment to nonviolence. King was a man who changed the face of America with only his will and his words and was then violently killed for daring to do so.
Dr. King was assassinated at the age of 39, and this fortieth anniversary of his death marks a turning point. From now on, his life will always have been shorter than the amount of time since he was alive. Perhaps it is even more essential, then, that we remember the legacy he left, and Dr. King’s Dream was a moving and engaging way to celebrate the highlights of Dr. King’s life.
Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, King followed his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to become a pastor. He attended segregated public schools in Atlanta, received a B.A. from Morehouse College, a B.D. from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and a doctorate from Boston University. In 1954 he accepted the pastorale of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. By that point, he was already a member of the executive committee for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1955, he accepted the leadership of the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. After Rosa Parks defied the existing law and refused to give up her bus seat for a white person, King led the blacks of the entire city to boycott the buses. Local people would walk for miles, hitchhike, and carpool instead of riding the buses, causing the city to outlaw hitchhiking, carpooling, and loitering in an effort to increase bus ridership. The city was unsuccessful, despite the arrest of Dr. King and the bombing of his home. After 385 days, the bus segregation laws were overturned, and Dr. King joined the black community on their first bus rides in over a year.
In 1957, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to lead the civil rights movement. The ideals of the organization were based in Christianity, but King took its operational techniques from the nonviolent philosophy of the Indian leader Gandhi. Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles, spoke over twenty-five hundred times, and wrote five books and numerous articles. He led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama that caught the attention of the entire world and directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C. of a quarter million people for whom he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Over the course of his life, King was arrested upwards of twenty five times and assaulted at least four times.
In 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to support the black sanitary public works employees. They had been on strike for higher wages and better treatment after the senseless deaths of two black workers crushed by the mechanism of the very garbage truck they were forced to shelter inside of. In his last speech at a church in Memphis, King hinted that he knew he might not have long to live. Five days later, at 6:01pm on April 4, 1968, King was shot by James Earl Ray while standing on the second floor balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine motel. The assassination led to a nationwide wave of riots in more than 100 cities.
Dr. King’s Dream was a one-hour window into one-man’s lifetime world-changing accomplishments culminating in an ear-splitting gunshot. After the show, I had a chance to speak to the actor portraying Dr. King. Bowles explained that the response to the show has changed over the eighteen years he has performed it. As Dr. King has become more distanced from the people in time, so have people become less engaged in his story.
I was curious to learn how the New York Mills youngsters felt about the show. The afternoon performance was not full, but I was pleased to see that all the students who were in the audience remained attentive and focused throughout the hour-long performance. I had the opportunity to speak with some of them after the show to hear their impressions. Aaron Arno was moved by the piercing sound effect of the deadly gunshot in the final scene, and the story as presented was new to him. He “hadn’t heard this version before.” Will Pajari had already known a bit about Dr. King before, specifically he “knew most that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin.” Leah Roberts felt that the performance “was really interesting” and “realized how difficult the black people lived.”
Though the children of our small town have never had to face the challenges that black children faced during the time of segregation, I am glad that a few of them had the opportunity to glimpse a less fortunate world through the production of Dr. King’s Dream at the Cultural Center. I hope that more of them will be at the next event.
Being Nice is a Luxury
I just returned from ten days in Israel where I went to visit my family and old friends. There is much to say about Israel. It is a fascinating country with complicated politics, a rich culture, and mind-boggling amounts of history. However, I would like to talk about something else. I would like to talk about how the behavior of Israelis is perhaps the polar opposite of the behavior of Minnesotans, and how observing this taught me that being nice is a luxury. Let me elaborate.
When I arrived in Israel, my mother wailed over my decision to rent a car. “Drivers are crazy here,” she cried. “You don’t know what kind of danger you’ll be in!” I scoffed at her overprotectiveness, and rented a car anyway. “They can’t be worse than drivers in Mexico. Anyway, I drove for years in New York City, there’s no better schooling than that.”
How wrong I was.
Each driver in Israel has one goal—to control the road. To this end, drivers tend to drive on the lane-divider lines, so that no car can pass them on either the right or the left. Drivers do not signal, not because they forget, but because they do not want to let others on the road know their plans and have the chance to foil them. If a driver were to signal a lane change, the car in the next lane would move up and close off the gap so he couldn’t pass. This creates an environment where drivers make life-threatening moves. Without signaling, drivers will pull in front of you into openings that are half their car’s size, forcing you to slam on your brakes. Drivers will come at you at high speeds and hover only inches away from the vehicles in front of them. Drivers will choose to stop and wait anywhere that it pleases them on narrow roads in busy cities. Should they block your passage, well, that’s really your problem, isn’t it? I thought that New York drivers were bad, but there is one key difference between New York and Israeli drivers: New York drivers pretend not to be scared of dying; Israeli drivers are truly fearless.
This aggressive, self-centered, goal-oriented behavior is reflected off the road too. If you want to buy an ice cream, say, and there are twenty others who do too, then there is no point in trying to wait on a queue. There is no queue. There is a mob of ice-cream-craving combatants. Whoever screams the loudest and pushes herself ahead of you will be served first, no matter that you’ve been waiting there patiently for the last half hour and this bozo just walked in. As my Minnesota-native fiancé learned with me, nice just doesn’t pay. If a person behaves as a Minnesotan would—waiting politely, quietly, and patiently until the person wielding the ice cream scoop looks his way—then he might wait till closing time and still not get an ice cream cone. I waited for a good twenty minutes as people who came in behind me shoved ahead of me and got their ice cream cones first. I only got my ice cream because my Israeli aunt intervened.
Why are Israelis so rude? I believe it’s because the people of Israel don’t have the time to wait their turn or consider others. When you live your life knowing that any minute a suicide bomber could end your journey on this planet or that an enemy state could decide that it is time to wage war and destroy your home and the life you’ve known, then why wait for your ice cream cone? You have only this moment to enjoy it. Israelis live in a place where everyone is out to get them—neighbor nations, the guy across the street, the government. There is no peace in such a world. Conflict is a part of life, and one has to keep one’s battle skills honed. Israeli culture helps keep its people ready for conflict. Israelis are trained to be tough from their infancy. Besides the daily hassle of getting through a day in Israel, all Israelis are required to serve in the army. Every Israeli citizen, save the extremely religious or the citizens of Israel who are Arab, has been through basic training and a two- to three- year stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the most effective armies in the world.
Israelis are not embarrassed about their tough, take-no-prisoners approach to life. In fact, my Israeli aunt scoffs at the sensitivity of Americans, what she describes as our “gentleness.” She gets frustrated at how she has to pad her words and pussyfoot around her point when speaking to her American siblings, nieces, and nephews. “You’re skin is too thin,” she tells me. “You need everything to be gentle, supportive, and kind. I can’t be direct with any of you. You need to toughen up.” Needless to say, my aunt drives on the lane-divider lines and orders her ice cream by pushing to the front of the line and yelling her order. She is a master at navigating the ins and outs of Israeli culture, and there is a kind of grace in her roughness. When sparring with ticket takers or other drivers, she generally has a smile on her face and a flirtatious sneer in her tone. She gets things done.
I came back from our visit to Israel with a real appreciation for how good we have it in the United States and particularly in our little corner of Minnesota. Here, we are not afraid that at any moment an F15 will bomb our home. We do not worry about missiles coming across the Canadian border and hitting our schools. We are not required by the government to serve in the army or build weapon-deterring safe rooms in our homes. We have the luxury of being nice to one another. This is a luxury that I vow to appreciate more.
I came home from Israel looking forward to my return to this small town where people are Minnesota-nice. I dreamed of driving on Highway 10, where cars leave wide swathes of space between each other and generally respect a person’s right to turn. I imagined getting my coffee at the Creamery, where people wait their turn to order, gently ask their neighbors how they are, and Cheryl greets you with a smile instead of a growl. Most of all, I looked forward to being in a place where I do not have to live in fear.
Fishing for Cash: A Fable
Two Minnesota fishermen traveled to a Caribbean island to fish far away from the cold Minnesota winter. Not expecting to find a cash machine on the island, each of the fishermen brought along the cash he needed for the week. When the fishermen reached their motel rooms, each faced a dilemma. Should a person take all his cash with him and risk it getting lost or stolen? Or should he leave the cash in the room and risk it getting stolen? The first fisherman decided to leave his cash in his room, but, as he was a clever fisherman, he hid the American bills in places where troublemakers were unlikely to find them. He took a couple of hundred-dollar bills and put them inside socks in his drawer. He took a couple of hundred-dollar bills and put them under the mattress. He took the final couple of hundred-dollar bills and put them in the hiding place he was most proud of: a few inches deep in his fishing rod case.
First, the fisherman spent the cash on top of the closet. Then, because food and fishing guides were expensive, he reached for the cash hidden in his socks. Finally, the fisherman needed the cash in his fishing rod case. He peered in amongst the folds of fabric that made up the lining. He saw two one-hundred dollar bills peaking up at him from a few inches down, just past where his fingers could reach them. He took the top two-foot-long section of his fishing rod and pushed it into the case to pull up the cash. The fishing rod came up. The cash didn’t. When the fisherman peered into the case again, he saw that the fishing rod had pushed the bills to the bottom of the case.
The Minnesota fisherman sat on his unmade bed in eighty-five degree heat and ninety percent humidity. He had already been sweating. Now he was sweating more. He needed to focus. He pushed his fishing rod into the case again. He peered in with a flashlight, aimed the fishing rod into the section where the cash was curled up, and started to scrape upward from the bottom of the case. He heard the crunch of paper as the wood of the fishing rod scraped the bills. He managed to pull the bills up a millimeter. He repeated this process. This time the bills didn’t budge. He scraped and he scraped. He peered and he peered. No cash. Three days of eating and fishing and a trip to the airport left to pay for. He was in a foreign country with no access to money. He tried to pull the bottom off the rod case. It was glued tight. He tried to pull the fabric covering off of the case, it went down about an inch. He figured that maybe his friend might have a tool that could reach down into his case, grab the bills, and pull them back up. He went to his friend’s room.
The first fisherman came back from the second fisherman’s room with a hemostat, a scissorlike instrument with a foot-long beak that ended in a tweezer-like grabber. He pushed the hemostat into the case, and tried to reach the bills, only to find that the bills were now too far into the case for the hemostat reach. If only he’d had this instrument when he first reached into the case! The second fisherman came by and asked whether the first fisherman had gotten his cash. No luck, said the first fisherman. Let me try, said the second fisherman.
The second fisherman peered into the case. He was a strategist. He hypothesized that, if one could pull the lining up and out of the case, the cash would come with it. He used the hemostat to grab the top of the lining, and pulled upward with all his strength. The sound of seams ripping could be heard, but the lining remained stuck to the case. Ah hah, the second fisherman said. It must be attached at the bottom as well as the top. Let’s cut the lining off of the top of the tube, and then pull it again. The lining is sure to come out of the case, bringing the cash with it. Where’s your scissors? The first fisherman looked slightly sick at the incipient destruction of his new fishing rod case, but he handed the second fisherman his scissors anyway. The second fisherman started cutting. Pretty soon, the lining had been shredded away from the top of the tube, but it was still stuck to the case. The second fisherman pulled and pulled. He passed the case over. The first fisherman pulled and pulled. The lining wouldn’t budge. Twist!, said the second fisherman. The first fisherman twisted. And he twisted. And he twisted. The nylon stayed securely attached to the bottom of the case. The second fisherman shrugged. I was sure this would work. The second fisherman went back to his room to check that he had enough money to feed himself till the end of his vacation.
The first fisherman looked at the frayed insides of his new fishing rod case. He saw the white PVC plastic through the wounds in the fabric that once lined his case. He went back to his original plan. He reached into the case with the tip of the fishing rod. He peered into the case again and learned that the attempt to remove the lining had only succeeded in trapping the cash underneath the fabric that separated the compartments. Without a two-foot long tweezers the bills were unreachable. The case was now a shambles, and the fisherman was still broke.
Upon asking around, the first fisherman learned that there was one lone cash machine on the island. Hallelujah!, he thought. I’ll be able to eat! He found his credit card. He walked to the other end of the island under the boiling sun. He saw a bank with a door marked with the universal symbols for ATM. He quickened his pace and came closer. Next to the ATM symbols was a handwritten sign that said: Out of Order.
The first fisherman trudged back through the hot sand to his motel room. He picked up his fishing rod case, which—though its insides were a shambles—would still be able to protect his new fishing rod from breaking during the trip back—if he could make it back. He imagined the two one-hundred dollar bills, so close to where his hand clutched the bottom of the case, but as yet unreachable. His stomach rumbled. He looked at his precious fishing rod, which still needed to be protected on the trip home. He stared longingly at the bottom of the rod case where two one-hundred-dollar bills rested in all their American green glory. His stomach rumbled again. He went out and asked the motel owner for a hacksaw. Ten minutes and one fishing rod case later, the first Minnesota fisherman went out to dinner.
Moral of the story: Don’t put your cash in a fishing rod case when in a foreign country until you’re sure that the local cash machine is working. Or bring along a two-foot long tweezers.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
The Country-City Balance
When I was in New York City, I came to believe that the perfect living scenario was to have a house in the country and an apartment in the city. That way, one could balance out the activity of the city with the peace of the country. I used to dream of having a weekend home in upstate New York. Now that I live in outstate Minnesota, I have begun to dream of having a weekend home in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
I went to the Cities this past weekend to take a class at the Loft Literary Center. I spent three days amid the hustle and bustle of Minnesota’s metropolis, and it reminded me of all of the best parts of living in a city: a wide variety of excellent restaurants, a motley mix of people to watch, never-ending rows of shops in which to buy specialized products. I began to think about how—in moderation—the city makes me feel good.
When I lived in New York City, a yoga teacher of mine explained that living in the city triggers a constant low-level fight-or-flight response, that primitive human response to danger which increases our adrenaline, improves our awareness and reflexes, and readies us to flee. Since city dwellers don’t have the luxury of fleeing the city very often—in fact, many don’t even want to—the heightened adrenaline levels never diminish, and the urbanites are left to cope with the results of a natural human response gone awry. That which served human beings when we were hunters coming upon a lion in the wild, becomes a hindrance when the lion becomes our daily life. I can attest to the fact that when you live in the city, you can never really relax. My shoulders used to live hunched up around my ears, and not even massages, gourmet chocolates, or boutique therapy (purchasing overpriced but aesthetically pleasing items displayed artistically) could ever get them fully back down to proper shoulder-level.
Here in the country, days putter by, meandering through one activity after another. Even when I have too much to do in too little time, my experience of stress here is not quite the same as the stifling pressure of living in a city. In the city there are too many cars, too many pedestrians, too much noise, too much dirt, too much to look at, and too much to do. And this is the norm. Any additional stress, say the subway stalls between stops and you can’t make it to your date on time or the phone lines are down and you can’t call the plumber, any little thing becomes the thing that pushes you over the edge. In the country, our personal stress buckets aren’t regularly filled to the brim in the course of daily life, so small stresses don’t have to drive us over the edge. This is a huge relief on a person and a body. But once it becomes the everyday, then the relaxing effects of being in the country are no longer so noticable.
Once upon a time, I used to look for any excuse I could find to get out of the city. My body thirsted for nature. Leaves. Trees that weren’t imprisoned by concrete. Blue sky not marred by buildings. Ground where you could actually see the soil. When I finally found some nature, I was overcome by my acute sense of ease. Now the country has become the norm. I look out my window to see trees and meadows. There are roads by my house, but few cars seem to drive them. I can often hear a pileated woodpecker in the woods by my house. I enjoy these small gifts, but they have become less of an acute thrill and more of a way of life. As such, I have begun to crave the stress of the city—in moderation.
Here in the country I am struggling with the reverse problem—needing the excitement of the city to shake me up. When I was in the Cities this past weekend, I felt vivid, vibrant, and imbued with urban energy. That which once dragged me down into a malaise of continued overstimulation became an intoxicating treat. I began to see that while living here in the country, I will need to seek out the city every so often. Thankfully, now that I have become used to the rural way of life, even small cities—ones that in my New York City days I would have scoffed at—are booming to my country sensibilities. I have become a fan of Fargo, and can while away many hours there. But my heart is set on the Twin Cities as my personal urban escape. Perhaps one day I’ll find someone with an empty apartment who needs a visitor there one weekend a month. If you know anyone, send them my way.
The Importance of Being Furnaced
The furnace had been testy for the last day or so. In my inexperience with our new house, I figured it was because the furnace wasn’t capable of heating a house against negative twenty six degree temperatures and thirty mile-an-hour winds. The day before the second floor had only made it up to 49 degrees, while the main floor topped out at 60. That morning, the upstairs thermostat read 43. From yesterday’s experience, I figured it would probably be about ten degrees warmer on the main floor. So I tramped downstairs seeking heat, thinking that perhaps I could dress in the family room. Troubled by the thought of those agonizing moments between turning off the warm water and bumbling into my clothes, I began to question whether a shower was absolutely necessary that day.
As I traveled down the staircase, I first noticed that there was no warmth flowing upwards and then that there was no discernible temperature difference downstairs. I started thinking about whether I needed to get out of my pajamas at all that day and about how many layers one could actually put on at one time. The thermostat had been set to 67. That morning, the main floor temperature read 42. I was slyly impressed with my ability to be in 42 degrees without a coat or much of anything outside of my pajamas. Then it hit me—the furnace must have stopped running, and I became dully aware that this was not a good thing during a Minnesota winter.
In the basement, the big metal monster sat motionless and quiet. Looking in to the mess of wires in the furnace’s bowels, one could discern the glow of a small red indicator light—a tiny signal of a very large problem. It was 7am, and I frantically dialed Mike’s Plumbing and Heating. Hallelujah! They could come that morning. For the next hour or so, I busied myself making hot tea and hot cereal. I put on my ankle-length down coat and went outside to gather wood for the fireplace. I was in a state of mild panic, though I was too numb to notice. The heat was gone. There was no way to make more heat. The house would freeze. I would freeze. And even if I managed to find shelter, the pipes in my new house would freeze, and there’d be even bigger problems. This dream house I had just moved into, this place that I had lovingly imagined as my Minnesota refuge, this haven that was supposed to shelter me from all that was cold and hazardous, this house had failed me.
Within an hour or so, Jeremy the furnace expert was over. Cheerful and smiling, he wasn’t at all fussed at what seemed to me to be a small Apocalypse. After finding the fuel tank and the furnace, he got to work tinkering and repairing. A new fuel nozzle and a few adjustments later, I heard the most blessed sound, the furnace firing up and blowing air. Soon Jeremy was on his way with parting words about how it could take a full day for the house to warm back up to a comfortable temperature.
It was my first free day at the new house, and I had intended to use it to unpack my office. I couldn’t face that task in forty-some-odd degrees. But I had made plans, and I wrestled with myself. You must unpack, I chastened myself. You must take what the cold weather gives you and get things done. A saner and more practical side of me spoke quietly. There’s a sale on electric oil heaters in Alexandria. It may be a two-hour round trip, but your little Honda has heat. My heated car sounded like paradise. I felt sick at the thought of staying one more minute in cold that was the sign of a house that had betrayed me. I couldn’t even face changing out of my pajamas. Then I realized that no one can see what’s under my great big winter coat, and I remembered that winter hats are very handy for hiding bed-tousled hair. I grabbed my keys and my purse, and, feeling unfresh and unclean in last night’s pajamas, I piled into my car and cranked the heat to high.
I spent that day purchasing warmth: a down-alternative blanket, two electric oil heaters, rope caulk, door draft dodgers, plastic for my windows, outlet insulators, and even a towel warmer. I returned home to a house that had warmed significantly. Yes! It was finally in the sixties. I had never properly appreciated the source of my home’s heat. It took a cold house in a Minnesota winter to make me understand the importance of being furnaced.
You know those psychological association games where someone says a word, and you’re supposed to say the first thing that pops into your head after hearing it? Like, I say “horse,” and you say “carriage.” Or I say “cereal,” and you say “milk.” Well, when I say “Minnesota” to almost any non-Minnesotan, the first thing that pops into his or her head almost inevitably has something to do with cold, if not the word “cold” itself. Mental associations might include: ice, snow, winter, ice-fishing, frigid, freezing, below zero, negative temperatures, dog sledding, frozen wasteland, freeze-to-death, gotta-wear-furs, keep-your-hat-on, don’t-let-your-fingers-freeze, frostbite, and fishing houses.
The first thing people said to me when I told them I was moving to Minnesota was: “You know it’s cold there, right?” Even locals suggested that, until I experienced winter, I shouldn’t commit to a 56567 address. My family spent most of the last year expecting me to run screaming as soon as the temperature dipped below 20 degrees. Well, folks, I’d like to tell you now, it’s official: Winter is here, and so am I. I went out the other morning in negative twenty-four degrees to walk the dog and start my car… without a coat.
One thing that has surprised me about winter in Minnesota is that the cold feels different here than I expected it to. I always used to associate the discomfort of cold with a sense of weakness from the inside. A sense of something missing—the missingness of heat. Cold at the level of negative twenty degrees is an entirely different experience. It’s more like pain. I feel it first and immediately in any area of exposed skin. The exposed skin begins to hurt upon contact with the air. It aches and burns. Then I notice it in my eyeballs as they start to sear. Then my nostrils, as the moisture that generally remains unnoticed there tightens and hardens, pulling at the hairs of my nose and blocking the airflow. Finally, I notice my lungs struggling to adjust to the temperature of the air, icy and frigid and hard, like breathing glass.
I probably wear more layers than most of the rest of the New York Mills population. On top: a long-sleeve silk long-underwear shirt, then a polyester-cotton-blend long-sleeve T-shirt, then a wool turtleneck, and a wool sweater. On the bottom: silk or polyester long underwear, leg warmers, and a pair of thick corduroy or wool pants. My feet need wool socks—nothing else will do—and a pair of sheepskin or thinsulate boots, rated to -40. Before heading outdoors for any extended length of time, I put on my ankle-length down coat. It’s a mustard-yellow color and leaves me looking vaguely like Big Bird. I slip on a wool hat, and then surround myself with a wide wool or cashmere scarf to cover my neck and chin.
For shorter ventures, I run outside in only my indoor gear, gleefully triumphant that I, an east coaster, have managed to go outside in a Minnesota winter without a coat. As the temperature gets colder, the consequences of my uncoated forays into the frigid outdoors become more severe. In single-digit temperatures, I am able to go outside, start the car, wait the long minutes while the dog sidles up to every post and mound—taking his jolly old time sniffing and deliberating over whether this is the post or mound for today’s morning activities—and then return to the house, feeling invigorated by the cold, but still warm enough. Once the temperature drops to negative single digits, I notice that my hands will not tolerate time outside my sleeves, and my inner core cools to levels of discomfort I would otherwise choose to avoid. In the negative teens and twenties, I find that within seconds of being outside without a coat, my body begins to shiver. The searing skin pain moves quickly to numbness, and the inside of my body quakes in protest as it yearns for more heat and seeks any reserve of warmth there is to be had. It is not possible to touch metal with bare hands at these temperatures, and I only remember that once the moisture on my skin begins to bond with the doorknobs. I never knew how many pieces of metal I touched without thinking about it till this weekend when doorhandles became obstacles and car doors became weapons.
I will not pretend that I’m impervious to cold. Far from it. I find continuous cold unbearably uncomfortable. Thank goodness for furnaces, which make indoor room temperatures more tolerable. Since indoor temperatures don’t differ much from place to place, changing winter temperatures mostly seem to affect the amount of time needed to get the car warmed up and the number of layers I need to put on between the car and the store. I have to say that I’m still not too pleased about the outdoor nature of gas stations. Why hasn’t anyone invented indoor filling areas for Minnesota gas stations? The wind coming off of the Red River Valley flats can really mess up a person’s hands when filling up the car. Speaking of hands, it’s in my hands that I feel winter’s rigors most. Today my hands sport three bandaids from winter-related injuries including cracks in overdry skin and inadvertent scrapes unnoticed due to numbness.
I understand, from other transplants to Minnesota that one becomes more and more comfortable in lower temperatures over the years. A woman I spoke to in Fargo told me that only transplants wear long underwear. “Give it another year,” she said. A friend who has been here longer than me, but who spent much of her time in deserts in Arizona and the Middle East prior to Minnesota, told me that she leaves her down coat in the car these days to be used only in emergencies. I hope that in years to come it will be me walking outside in short sleeves when the temperature hits the high twenties. That one day I’ll be able to keep my house at 60 degrees and be comfortable. I write you this as I sit here in my 70 degree house, wearing multiple layers, and enjoying the ceramic space heater at my feet.
I am pleased to be surviving the Minnesota winter with only a few minor scrapes to speak of, but I sure am looking forward to the glorious time in June when you can say “Minnesota” and I can say “swim.”
The Life of a Singer-Songwriter: Not Just Singing and Writing
Many people are surprised to learn just how unglamorous the life of a singer-songwriter is. Before I started pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter, I had no idea what that life involved. Like some, I had the vague impression that it would involve writing songs and performing them. But that’s as far as my insight went. I was very surprised when I started living the daily life of a singer-songwriter.
I find that most people who are not involved in the arts are surprised at the amount of work and effort that goes into being a professional artist of any stripe. There is an idea, among some segments of society, that the life of an artist is easy and, along the same lines, that many artists are lazy. Some may be, but many professional singer-songwriters I know are among the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Most surprising of all is how little time is spent on the part of the career that most people associate with it. In fact, some of the skills professional singer-songwriters need are generally not associated with the arts.
A successful independent singer-songwriter has to be able to do the following: write press releases, book gigs and media events, coordinate multiple venues with multiple dates, make travel plans, budget, interview well, market to existing fan base, build new fan bases, and manage multiple contacts in multiple industries and locations. If the singer-songwriter does not have these skills, he has to find someone else who does. In the competitive marketplace of the arts, that means that the singer-songwriter either pays someone else to do these things for him or makes enough money as a musician that 15% of his income is a good-enough salary for a booking agent or manager.
To illustrate my point about the daily life of a singer-songwriter, I thought I might write about my process of preparing for a concert I’m performing, under my stage name Elisa Korenne (www.elisakorenne.com), at the Holmes Theater in Detroit Lakes on Thursday, January 10th. This, by the way, is a blatant plug for that performance. The performance will be from 5:30pm to 7:30pm. It will be an informal and relaxed atmosphere, and audience members can come or go as they please. $5 per person to enter. Everyone is welcome.
Now that I’ve done my official ad for the show, I can tell you about what else I’m doing to prepare for it. This concert is the first I’ve performed in some time, so it has required more practice than a gig in the middle of a tour might. My old vocal coach used to quote the great guitarist Andres Segovia about the importance of practice. He was purported to have said, “When I don’t practice for a day, my fingers know it. When I don’t practice for two days, I know it. And when I don’t practice for three days, my audience knows it.” When I haven’t practiced in a while, even my cats know it. As a professional performer, I owe my audience—whoever they are and however many show up—a professional caliber concert. Every person who has walked through the venue door has paid and taken the time out of their lives to be there. This means that I owe them something in return for their investment.
A two-hour concert requires that I perform somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-seven songs, plus verbal introductions. The great majority of songs I play in concert are ones that I’ve written, but that doesn’t mean I remember them all. I have written hundreds of songs in my career, and, when I haven’t played one in a while, I usually have to consult my lyric sheets to remind myself what line comes next. Along with lyrics, each song has its own melody to remember and its own set of guitar queues to go along. Getting lyrics, voice, and guitar in sync requires a good bit of practice for each song. There are some out there for whom music comes more naturally than for me. There are others who spent so much of their teenage years playing guitar instead of doing homework that playing is easier than breathing. Unfortunately, that wasn’t me. So, I have to practice, and practice diligently. I placate myself by remembering that even the best performers, some of my heroes, spend time practicing.
Practice is only one piece of the concert-preparation puzzle. The other equally important pieces are booking the gig, publicizing the gig, and preparing gear and myself for the gig. Booking one gig can take many hours of work. As an independent performer, this is work that I must do if I want to perform at all. For the Holmes Theater concert, I got lucky. The executive director saw me film a live television performance, and offered me a Holmes Theater gig some months later. If she hadn’t, I might have had to go through numerous rounds of emails and calls to venues in the area to find one that was willing to host a performance.
Once the performance is booked, there’s no getting around the need for publicity. Without publicity—this column included—no one would know about the show, and therefore no one would come. In the case of this gig, the Holmes Theater did a lot of the publicity outreach, but before they could, I had to create a press release giving out information about me and my history. After word is out to the media about the performance, then I must follow up with interviews and appearances and work with the venue to coordinate promotional events. Last week I had a telephone interview with the Detroit Lakes paper. On Tuesday, I will spend the day in Detroit Lakes doing a live performance on the radio, a live performance for the Kiwanis club and an after-school workshop at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center. Once the word is finally out, then what’s left is to prepare my gear, and myself, for performance.
To prepare my gear for a performance, I need to think about a variety of things. First, I need to consider the readiness of my instruments and other gear. Before Thursday, I will need to change the strings on my guitar and make sure the batteries in my tuning pedal are working. I will need to be sure that I have enough cables and guitar picks along and that I bring a guitar stand, microphone, and other sundry sound items in case they are needed. Second, I need to think about my merchandise. A large portion of a performer’s income is made by selling their merchandise. Some artists sell T-shirts and stickers. I only sell my CD Favorite. I need to be sure I have enough copies of the CD, and that I have the marketing materials that go with them: a flyer with reviews, a CD player and earphones so people can listen, and the metal lunchbox that I display the CD’s in.
Finally, on the day of the gig, I need to prepare myself mentally and physically to perform. Ideally this starts with a couple hours of peace and quiet during which I can meditate and center myself. About two hours before I need to leave for the venue, I will dress and make myself up. Then I will spend an hour warming up my voice and hands. I make sure to leave enough time to travel safely to the venue, including a cushion for a mistake in directions or that wrong turn that can’t be undone for miles. I make sure to arrive at the venue at least an hour in advance of the show, with enough time to set up my merchandise table and my gear and do a good sound check to get the levels correct.
I added up the hours I will be spending on what may seem to the audience to be only a two-hour performance. It came out to about 60 hours. For this time, I will be remunerated solely in my percentage of ticket sales and the money I make on CD sales. Yes, my father was right long ago when he wanted me to be a lawyer because there’s more money in it. There’s not a lot of money in being an independent artist, but there can be a lot of satisfaction.
The Story of My New House, as Told to Me by You
One of the most surprising things to me about living in a small town is just how many people know my business, sometimes better than I do myself. For example, recently I’ve learned more about the house I just bought from random, everyday conversations than I imagine most people in the suburbs can learn about the history their houses through formal research. Almost every time I describe my house to a local, I am interrupted halfway through my description with the conversationalist declaring knowingly, “Oh… the Brooks house. You bought the Brooks house.”
From each new conversation I have about the former Brooks house, I pick up bits and pieces of information. I’ve been sewing these scraps together to form an oral-history quilt of the story of my new house. As these scraps of information have come to me from a variety of sources—none of them official—I cannot vouch for the factual veracity of any part of the story I’m about to tell. As lawyers would allege, it’s all hearsay. But, as a storyteller, I know that it’s the truth behind the story that matters, rather than the facts themselves. And I quite like the story that’s emerging organically, conversation by conversation, about my new house. In fact, this house’s oral history has more truth to it than any documents would. So, let me tell you the story of my new home as I am coming to know it.
In 1995 Dana Brooks commissioned Dick Lausten to build a Southern-plantation-style house on a piece of farmland. He wanted this house built of wood and designed to have two floor-length verandas, one atop the other, held together by four grand two-story columns. The house was sided in cedar and furnished with oak appointments. Fireplaces grace the two main gathering rooms on the first floor. One of the most unexpected parts of this house is the elevator that was installed to allow Dana’s handicapped son to move freely among the basement, main floor, and second floor, as needed.
Dana’s son died at the age of 13 and is now buried at the foot of the driveway along with Dana’s mother, on a small piece of property still owned and cared for by Dana. Two blunt stone tombstones face the gravel drive and are attended by a small wooden arbor, an artfully rusting remnant of a metal buggy, and an old RV that seems to have been there long enough to become part of the landscape. The small piece of land sits on the road and is separated from what is now my property by a stone wall. You can’t see the graves well from the road, but I see them each time I drive up or down my driveway. When I first saw the graves on my initial visit to the house, I was tempted to hold my breath as I was instructed to do as a child when driving past cemeteries. Now, my inclination to pull away has shifted to curiosity. I look forward to learning more about the people whose memorials I will pass daily.
I ran into the builder Dick Lausten at the Lick the other night. When asked by Pam Robinson whether there was any dirty money, illicit treasure, or mob secrets hidden in the walls of my new house, Dick said there had almost been a dead body. When installing the elevator, the technician, who had had his doubts about the instructions included with the elevator, put two wires together while standing atop the elevator. Immediately the elevator shot two stories up into the air and broke two of the rafters. The technician would have been crushed, but luck and his reflexes allowed him to jump off in the instant the elevator exploded upward. A bit the worse for wear, the technician managed to escape with his life intact.
Over its short twelve-year lifespan, the house has had five owners. The house was first sold a couple of years after it was built to Wegscheid the oil man from Bluffton. Wegscheid delivered fuel oil to the hard-to-heat home, and must have been there often as the house requires one barrel of oil every three weeks to heat. (Needless to say, with the price of oil, we’re considering alternate options for heating now). The oil man redecorated the house and spruced it up to his taste. If he lived in it, it wasn’t for long. Soon after he bought it, he sold it to the Boyims, who lived in the house for a couple of years. My information about the Boyims came from another unexpected source, a furniture salesman at Country Furniture in Lake Park whom we met while doing surveillance on the cost of furniture to fill our new house. (Moving from a postage-stamp sized apartment in Brooklyn and then living in a small house in Mills leaves one with a furniture deficit when moving to a larger house.) Tony, the salesman, was in the process of taking us on a personal tour of the many expensive furniture options available when we described our new house. Upon hearing our description, he told us that he knew the house well and had been there. The previous owners, the Boyims, were friends of his. Apparently, his friends had loved the house and their only complaint was the exorbitant cost of heating. When the Boyims left, they sold the house to the Balbachs, who lived there for a couple of years and then sold it to us this fall.
There is another connection to this house that adds a pleasant bit of providence to our purchase of it. Chris’ father, Ken Klein, a native New York Millsian, had visited this house some years back when the Klein Insurance agency starting insuring it. When he saw the house, he thought to himself, “I wish one of my kids could live here. Too bad none of them was ready to buy a house when this one was on the market.” He didn’t expect the house to become available again in a timeframe that might work for his son. This summer, when Chris and I were talking to Ken about our house hunting process, Ken told us about the plantation house, one of the most beautiful houses he had seen in the area. Too bad it wasn’t likely to be on the market for a while, we agreed. A couple of months later, our real estate agent, the lovely Terry Weiser from Lakes Area Realty in West Ottertail, called me with excitement. “There’s a house that I appraised some years back that’s just come on the market. It’s not on a lake, but you have to see it. I think this may be the house for you.” It was only once she showed us the picture of the house that we realized it was the house that Ken had seen and wished for his son a couple of years back.
I’ve started adding my own elements to the story of the house. I’m working on turning one of the bedrooms into my music studio and office. As I paint and clean and struggle with wallpaper and baseboard removal, I feel like I am starting to make my own mark on the house and contribute my own part of the story. I wonder what you all might say some years hence when describing this house to someone else. Will it still be the Brooks house? Or might it, by then, have become the Korentayer-Klein house. Or perhaps the KorenKlein house. Then again, it might be nice if the house could have its own name by then. I’ve been playing with ideas, but haven’t found the right name yet. But, hey, being that I’m living in a small town, maybe you can help. I’m learning to appreciate the contributions of my neighbors. If you have any ideas for a good name for my new house, pass them along. Your suggestions are welcome.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Throws and Mirrors
I have just bought my first house ever. It’s six miles northeast of New York Mills, and it’s the first real estate I have ever owned. I bought it with the money that I started saving for this very purpose when I was in college, unaware and blissfully unconcerned with mortgages, electric bills, the cost of oil, and IRAs. Even through my adulthood until now, I couldn’t imagine caring about wall sconces or window treatments or how to most efficiently clean the carpet. Now, in doctor’s waiting rooms and airports, I find myself leafing through Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living, and Midwest Home.
For my adult life until now, my decorating philosophy was: 1. travel, 2. get cool souvenirs, and 3. hang them on your wall in an eclectic but pleasing array. This method of decorating served me well for my young life lived either in dorm rooms or, for the last ten years, in my rented two-room, 250 square-foot, New York City apartment. There was not much space to cover, and any wall space available was generally used for utilitarian purposes, like holding up my guitar or as a backdrop for my stereo and CD collection. There was no room for an area rug. My lighting consisted of a halogen lamp. There was barely enough space for me to walk from one side of the apartment to another. In fact, I even had wheels on my desk and coffee table so that I could tuck them back against the wall when I needed to get from the living room area to the kitchen nook.
Cleaning such a small apartment, despite my protestations, never took too long. I had a broom and dustpan stuffed into the small coat closet and a sponge by the sink. In a few hours—always too long in light of the many things I’d rather be doing—the place would look pretty well put together. I never managed to get to the Elysian state of “spotless” as defined by my cleaning-savant mother—somehow the cleaning gene skipped me—but somehow I did pretty well.
Now I realize that it was the small size of a New York City apartment that worked in my favor. I didn’t have to worry about additional rooms or where to keep the extra linens. I only had enough room for what I needed. Or, more to the point, I could only need as much as I had room for. This made life simple. I couldn’t shop for furniture, because anything I managed to drag up the narrow staircase and into my small apartment would end up creating an obstacle course between me and the bathroom. I couldn’t buy myself new towels, because the only place for them would be on my bed—under my bed was already full of old keepsakes and photoalbums, not to mention several species of gigantic dust bunnies. I lived in a state of perfect consumer balance: anything that came into the apartment necessitated something else going out. There was no point in visiting home centers. Why tempt yourself with things you can’t even pretend to fit into your home?
My new life as the person in charge of decorating a full-size house has revealed to me a great truth that I would have preferred not to acknowledge: decorating scares me. I look at the perfect homes in the magazines and can’t figure out how to apply the expensive design choices to my home. The color of my new living room’s carpet does not exist in any of the magazines, and I can’t figure out what paint color would go with it. Each time I visit Home Depot and Menards I come back with piles of paint squares that end up littering the floors and taped to the walls. Each of which looks equally good and bad. Colors like Hint of Rose and Sea Breeze confound me. How does one even notice whether the shade of white is more blue or pink? My color sense is so poor that on a recent visit to my parents in Virginia I bought myself a fine turquoise throw blanket and matching cushions thinking they were the same color as the living room rug, only to return to see that the living room rug is actually green.
I try to console myself by remembering that the houses pictured in the magazines generally require an interior decorator and a large decorating budget to begin with and then a huge team of staging and cleaning experts to prepare it for the photo shoot. In other words—these are not pictures of how people actually live. I recently heard a story about a famous decorator who was invited to be on Oprah. She was in the middle of a divorce, but she asked her soon-to-be-ex-husband and her adult children to join her in the television-friendly family portrait. Her house—though probably far more beautifully arranged even in its messiest states than most of ours—was still not beautifully arranged enough for the photo shoot. She had to hire an entire team to come in and stage the house so that it looked good enough for TV. And the state of her real life was unthinkable for a woman who represented the ideal of living well. She had to convince her husband and daughters, who were distraught and upset about the imminent divorce, to put on fake smiles and create a happy family tableau. A few weeks later when she appeared on Oprah, the divorce proceedings well underway, she sang the praises of her family and spoke about how happy and close they all were. On Oprah, she was the matriarch of the perfect family and lived in the perfect house. At home when the cameramen left, the story was different. The image of her and her home was made up of smoke and mirrors. Or in this case, throw pillows, fake smiles, and mirrors.
That story helps me to remember that normal life is messy. Houses that look clean and artfully arranged are made that way by hours of often unappreciated effort. Beautifully decorated houses generally require the help of a design professional. So, I’m turning in the towel and acknowledging that I need some decorating help. And, by the way, if you’re planning to come over and would like to visit a clean house, please give me some warning. I can virtually guarantee you that the house won’t be clean if you make a surprise visit.
Please Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
I just returned from a ten-day excursion to Scotland to visit an old college friend. Amber is a professor of philosophy at St. Andrews University, and I had been threatening to visit her for years. It was only when she told me she was about to move that I finally cashed in my frequent flyer miles and started researching the Scottish highlands.
During my visit, we drove to the Isle of Skye and saw most of the regions of Scotland on the way there and back. The trip was full of visual indulgences: yawning inlets interrupting towering cliffs, landscapes more cloud than mountain, glimmering black lakes reflecting orange slopes of autumn-hued heather.
Despite the dramatic setting, what lingers most from my journey was the perspective it gave me on my life in Minnesota and the importance of taking care of my own needs. By giving myself the gift of a trip I’ve wanted to take for years, I was able to come to terms with my new life.
The benefit of meeting my own needs was difficult for me to acknowledge. While I was deciding to go on my trip, and even while I was in Scotland, I couldn’t shake a lingering feeling of guilt. Who am I to deserve a trip to Scotland? Surprisingly, it wasn’t the beautiful Scottish countryside that gave me peace from the badgering of my own mind; it was the air travel.
My time in Scotland was bracketed by two 24-hour transit-periods. Twenty-four hours of six flights and four layovers was what it took to for me to get from Minnesota to Scotland and back on Northwest airlines. On each of the six flights, I tried to tune out the flight attendants’ safety briefing, having heard it all before. But each time the same phrase struck me: “In the case of a change in cabin pressure, please put on your own oxygen mask first.”
Taking care of yourself before helping someone else runs counter to almost everything we are taught about how to behave in society. It seems to be an affront to etiquette, notions of generosity, and the Golden Rule. In places where graciousness and “help your neighbor” sentiment run as true as they do in Minnesotan small towns, I think that the act of looking after oneself first can be seen as selfishness. Here, where once pioneers survived by the grace of their neighbors, selfishness is a sin. From experience, I’ve learned that it’s important to acknowledge the distinction between “selfish” and “self-respecting.”
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, the word ‘selfish’ is defined as:
-concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others;
arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others
-From these definitions, it’s clear that selfishness is characterized by a deliberate lack of consideration for others. In fact, the key to selfishness is in this blatant disregard for others.
On the other hand, self-respect is characterized by a compassionate concern with one’s own humanity. Merriam-Webster defines self-respect as “a proper respect for oneself as a human being.” To me, self-respect means that I must honor myself by meeting my own needs. Only by giving myself what I need am I able to be the best person I can be. And making myself the best person I can be makes me best able to meet the needs of others.
When I haven’t taken care of myself, I’m of no use in the world. When I haven’t had enough sleep or nutritious food, all I can do is think about getting what I want, no matter whose toes I step on. Without self-respect, I can’t be a decent or caring person to anyone else. I am also no fun to be around. I am demanding and anxious. I am frustrated and frustrating. I am the last person I would want to spend time with, and I certainly wouldn’t want to inflict this version of me on others. So, the best thing I can do for the world is to start by taking care of myself. And sometimes this means doing things for myself that may appear selfish to others.
In retrospect, taking time to go far away and reconnect with an old friend was what I needed to do to help me see my life in Minnesota more clearly. Going to Scotland allowed me to appreciate that I am building friendships, establishing roots, and creating a life in this new place. The trip was an extravagance, but it was also a way of respecting my own needs. And now that I have, I can stop stressing about finding my place in this new community and start contributing to it.
I had to hear the flight attendants’ speech six times to understand this. It took the context of instructions in case of flight emergency to make the message starkly clear: We all need to take care of ourselves first.
So, from my inner flight attendant to yours, let me remind you to please put on your own oxygen mask first.
Minnesota's Deer-Hunting Season
I started to notice it when I first got to New York Mills last spring. Murmurings about hunting. Detailed conversations on preparing for the November deer season. The oft-repeated question: “Did you get your deer this year?” I heard more on deer in six months than I ever have before. As the months approached November, more and more conversation revolved around hunting. I heard about hunting equipment, traffic patterns around meat lockers on Monday mornings, deer meat, hide retrieval, shooting, and other topics that were once foreign to me. Comments about last year’s deer. Expectations about next year’s deer. Deer for hunting. Deer for skinning. Hides. Hides in exchange for gloves or money. Food. Sausage. Venison. Canned deer meat. I learned that venison tastes less strong when canned. A good buck. A good doe. The look in their eyes as they die. The long walk to the deer stand. The long wait for a deer. The cold. The meat locker. So-called ‘hunting widows’ filling up the hotels in Detroit Lakes and Fargo as they entertain themselves while their husbands are out in the woods.
I particularly loved the concise message gracing the sign at Designs by Tes, “Flowers. Happy Wives, Happy Hunting.”
In the sports stores, I learned about products I’d never heard of before. Metal tree-climbing steps. Deer stands. Reversible hunting suits: one side in forest camouflage and the other in vibrant Day-Glo orange. The reversible hunting suit seems to me a great metaphor for life in the woods during the days of the deer season: you’re either a hunter or the human being trying to get through the woods without getting shot. Anyone can be either, just choose your role and don the right set of colors. It’s a curious way of life to one who is unfamiliar with it. A way of life that seems closer to the way it used to be: there’s less in between a man and his meat.
Deer season is so normal in Minnesota, such a part of the fabric of life, that it seems that people plan their their years around it like the rest of the country plans around Christmas. Stores tell you that service will be delayed because of the staff going away for deer hunting. I didn’t know what to expect as I experienced this event I had heard about for over a year. On Saturday, as the sky began to show signs of imminent sunrise, the first pops of bullets sounded through my window. Though it had been recommended to me before, it became abundantly clear that unless I was actually planning to clad myself in appropriate hunting attire, claim a rifle, and wait for deer, I ought to remain far away from the woods.
As someone who grew up in the suburbs, guns were always something dangerous and bad: those contraptions that were illegally gained for malicious use. As someone who lived in a big city, the sound of gunshots was cause for dropping down out of range of the window. Guns didn’t have anything to do with food, and I didn’t know that they could be a tool to help humans survive the elements. I used to read about pioneers from long ago who used their rifles to protect against threatening wolves or bears, but, in the hermetically-sealed human-ruled world of my suburban childhood, nature was relegated to charmingly cultured hedges and flower patches that served as visual relief from the repetitive development housing. Similarly, in the city, nature is a small square of fiercely protected dirt that is home to a weary, pollution-blackened tree, sometimes surrounded by knee-high fencing and a sign that reads “Curb your dog.” It’s amazing how precious a small patch of land is when vast tracts of the surrounding land are covered in concrete. In New York City neighborhoods, apartment blocks full of people clamor for a small patch of dirt the size of a bathroom in a community garden that exists because citizens spent years lobbying not to develop an abandoned, and furiously fought over, lot. Here in Minnesota, though most of the land has a human stamp on it, humans live more in collaboration with the land than in competition with it. Farms make use of the land to encourage nature to grow products humans can use. Most Minnesotans hunt and fish. And everyone seems more aware of their natural surroundings. I recently heard a statistic that per capita Minnesotans spend more time outside than citizens of any other state in the U.S.—and this in the state that boasts some of the coldest temperatures in the country.
So far, my only experience with deer is worrying about them rushing out in front of my car as I speed down Highway 10. I’ve learned to keep an eye on the edges of the road past the shoulder. But I think that next year, I’d like to go out and experience deer hunting. I’d like to don my own reversible hunting suit and see what all this fuss is about. Now, if I could only find the local adult education course that teaches city girls about gun safety.
You Always Take Yourself With You
There’s a common notion—in practice, if not in theory—that one of the best ways to solve a major problem is the geographical cure. The geographical cure is considered the magical remedy for maladies as diverse as alcoholism and broken hearts. This “new location” cure suggests that, in order to solve your problems, you only need to move away from your present location to another where circumstances are sure to be different. For those unwilling to move too far away, there are also a variety of variations on the theme of the new location cure. I call all the cures of this ilk the “New Cures”: the new job cure, the new house cure, the new haircut cure, the new body cure (AKA the diet cure), and the new [insert item here] cure, i.e. washing machine, lawn mower, car, designer outfit, etc.
It’s only after we arrive in our new town, or wash a few loads of laundry in our new washing machine, or drive a few hundred miles in our new car, that we realize—too late—that the New Cure is a chimera, a fantasy. In other words, it doesn’t really work. The New Cure may appear to work for as long as it takes for the new place or thing or state of being to lose its factory shine, for that blissful time with a new toy that lasts until we can see past the novelty to the shoddy workmanship.
With the number of new cures that I’ve already attempted, it’s amazing that it took me so long to become aware of the real problem with these cures. Yes, it’s true that they don’t work. But the real problem is that the cures have nothing to do with the cause of our maladies, because the cause of our maladies is us. Our fixed, obsessive desire to change one thing on the outside of our lives serves to hide our need to fix something that feels broken inside us. Here’s the difficulty: no matter where you go, there you are. No matter what new thing you buy, find, get, or build, it’s still you who relates to it. In other words, you always take yourself with you.
The New Cures are insidious in their ability to blind us to their failures. By their nature, they fold in upon themselves to distract us from the fact that the root of the problem is us. They provide us a bevy of excuses to help us avoid doubting their effectiveness. First, there’s the honeymoon period, during which we have the opportunity to appreciate all the things that our new situation has that our old situation didn’t: a more flattering fit, a shorter wash cycle, better gas mileage, nicer weather, better heating, more attractive potential dates, or whatever. Then, there’s the transitional period—an especially twisted condition which allows us to feel bad about the new thing in our lives while still believing that the new thing was the right cure for our problems. During the transitional period, we feel frustrated with the change we have just made, but we blame the extent of our frustration on the difficulty of change itself. “Don’t worry,” we tell ourselves, “You’re just not used to it yet. As soon as you get through this transitional period, you’ll see it was the right decision.”
At some point, however, the glitter of the new fades under the wear of the everyday. The diamond dulls under the dishwater. The silk DKNY dress is snagged by the dog’s claws. The Mazda 6 breaks down. And we can no longer blame the nature of the transition for our renewed frustration with our lives. As our old fantasy becomes our new reality—it brings with it all the shades of gray associated with everyday life. Soon enough, we’re looking for the next new thing. But this is when we have to nip our New Cure fixation in the bud and realize that the problem is us.
For example, as a person with tendencies towards depression, I will continue to tend towards depression no matter how many tall fruity blended drinks with paper umbrellas get handed to me on white sandy beaches in the Caribbean. No matter how many shiny new dishwashers I get, or little vanity items I accumulate. No matter what, it’s still me here. I can cover up my skin problems with expensive make-up. I can clothe myself in fine fabrics. I can doll up my abode by remodeling the bathroom. But, at the end of the day, it’s still me underneath it all.
So, this begs the question, what should we do about our general sense that our lives aren’t working? My answer, discovered after years of trying different New Cures, is that I must plod day-by-day, one step at a time, with occasional backsliding, towards loving myself warts and all. Happy with myself, I am okay with the rain, okay with the fact that my old washing machine makes these funny belching sounds, okay with the hours each day that I am forced to spend washing dishes by hand. Happy with myself, three weeks of Minnesota monsoon can’t touch me. Unhappy with myself, nothing helps. And here’s the kicker: loving ourselves takes time and energy. Way too much time and energy, in my impatient opinion. But there’s no rushing it. I sure haven’t been able to, and trust me, I’ve tried. The only thing all of us can do is gently, courageously, and lovingly treat ourselves with the care and nurture we need. If you are always going to take yourself with you, then the best thing you can do is to accept yourself as you are, where you are. Of course, I don’t mean to say that we don’t all need a little change sometimes. But I do mean to say that we need to start that change from the inside.
That said, I figure, if I am going to be starting the long process of changing myself from the inside, there’s no reason that I can’t have a new dishwasher to do the dishes while I’m waiting.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Finding My Way
Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on October 17, 2007 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.
This summer, my parents gave me a hand-me-down GPS system that my father had won, used, and found cumbersome. It’s a small black plastic box with a tiny screen the size and shape of a wedge of cheese, a miniature toy-television set that’s always playing the “map channel.” Suction-cupped to my windshield, it presides over my view of the road ahead, jutting out over the rearview mirror and getting caught up in the fold-down visor. It is rather cagey about its plans. It will only tell me what the next step is, and not what the turn after that will be. I can also see exactly why my father found it cumbersome. Before—or, occasionally, during—each trip, the GPS requires that I spend a good few minutes tediously spelling out the destination address by selecting one letter at a time with one input button. When that’s complete, the box proceeds to tell me what to do in a melodious female voice. “In 500 feet, turn left.” Pause. “Turn left.” Pause. “Drive 64 miles.”
The experience of driving with a GPS is a strange combination of relaxing and distressing. It has successfully directed me to some rather far-flung places over the last few weeks, yet I am rarely able to let go of the suspicion that, this time, it will lead me astray. Maybe this time it really is mistaken about where I am, what road I’m on, and which is the fastest route to my destination. In the midst of endless farmland over miles of unfamiliar county roads, I wonder where it’s taking me and just how far away from my original destination I could end up. In my rarer moments of faith in its omniscient directional powers, I can relax. I can free my mind from thoughts of maps and directions, how many more miles to the next turn and whether I’ve already missed it or not. This weekend, on a creative research trip that coincided with a visit to an old college friend, I noticed that, strangely, my faith in the GPS contraption is a lot like my faith in myself. Variable, periodic, and tending towards doubt. I also noticed how valuable it is to have direction of any kind.
I drove down to Southern Minnesota on Thursday to do songwriting research. I am working on a project to write songs about members of the fringe, oddballs, or otherwise fascinating characters in Minnesotan history. I am now at the stage where I need to find Minnesotan characters and events to be the subjects of new songs, and I figured that the best way to find those characters would be to travel to new areas of state and talk to people. I decided to give people a brief description of who I am and what I’m trying to do, and then ask them to tell me about local figures who have become the stuff of local legend.
I began by visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, MN, one of seven such museums in the upper midwest. I had no plans for what would happen after Walnut Grove. Generally, when I’m doing creative research, I start by figuring out a destination that appeals to me on some level, and then I practice my “Follow My Nose” philosophy, in which I posit that the next best thing to do is always the most appealing thing that arises from the last thing you did. At the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, I told the staff about my project, and the head of the museum came out to find me and tell me a few places within a short drive where I could find information on other characters. Aha! My next destination! From Little-House-on-the-Prairie-land, I drove to Windom in Cottonwood County, MN, where I learned about Jake Van Dyke, bootlegger and pride of Edgerton township. When Van Dyke was arrested in 1923 the community of Edgerton was thrilled; not because they wanted him off the streets, but rather because they were so proud to have such a large boot-legging operation in their town. From Windom, I drove to Slayton, MN, where a trio of local historical society volunteers told me about the local characters that are featured in their cemetery tours. From Slayton, I navigated my way to New Ulm, where I made it to the Brown County historical society, learned about some of their local murderers, and then treated myself to German food at the prestigious Kaiserhoff Restaurant.
Friday was the highlight of my research trip: the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. I know, I know, it doesn’t seem like a museum dedicated to Hormel’s canned spiced ham product would be likely to produce stories about Minnesotan characters. But, then I got there and realized, hey, spam is a Minnesotan character! The entire museum is decorated in the blue and yellow of the spam can label, and every exhibit is clever, appealing and engaging. They even broadcast the original Flying Circus skit that features Monte Python’s now infamous “Spam Song.” The hostess in the lobby directed me to my favorite exhibit: a film about the Hormel girls, whom some of you old-timers may remember as an all-girl orchestra with dancers that would perform a weekly radio show in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. I was smitten with the idea of these women who were Hormel sales-ladies by day and dancers, singers, and violin- or trumpet-players by night. On their way to the next day’s performance, the women would stop at grocery stores to ask the owners how well the Dinty Moore chili was moving off the shelves.
Since I was already in Southern Minnesota, I figured I’d drop on down to Iowa City for the weekend to visit an old college friend and his family. My college buddy—I’ll call him Tom—was a year ahead of me at Yale and was my introduction to the northern midwest. Unlike most of my predominately northeastern or west coast blueblood classmates, Tom was a good Lutheran boy from Appleton, Wisconsin. I met Tom when I auditioned for his singing group, and over my undergraduate years at Yale we maintained a unique friendship through a diligent determination to spend time together, as we had few friends in common and no overlapping activities. Tom was my introduction to the Midwestern mindset. Though he was Pre-Med, Tom was always more relaxed than most of my other classmates, and always far more willing to take a moment to sit down and talk. Competing about just how much busier you’ve made your life than the person you were talking to had made his/her life was an Olympic sport at Yale. But Tom was far less concerned with informing his peers about just how busy he was, and far more dedicated to the art of concerning himself with people. He was so unique in my experience at Yale, and so calming to me, that I nicknamed him “V8,” after the famous vegetable-juice drink and its commercials that showed how V8 straightened out people who otherwise lived their life at a crooked diagonal. These days, Tom is completing his second-to-last year of the 14 years of training required for him to become a Laryngologist, a specialist in vocal medicine. He lives with his Wisconsin-born-and-bred wife and two young sons in Iowa City, and spends up to 80 hours a week working in the Otolaryngology department of a research hospital. Spending time with Tom after a somewhat spontaneous and undirected research trip among historical societies and museums in Minnesota farmland, I began to yearn for a career where one has a clear map of how to get from here to there.
Despite the difference in the two parts of my trip, one clear theme emerged from both: my desire for direction. Though no life comes with an instruction manual, Tom’s career gives him a lot more direction than mine gives me, and I crave the direction he has. With no clear signposts along the road towards my songwriting project, I often find it very difficult to figure out what comes next. I wish I could buy my inner life a GPS system that maps out my desires and goals, that charts the best route to get from where I am now to where I want to be. As an artist, I don’t have a 14-year training period that tells me exactly which road comes next and which direction I’m supposed to be heading in. My direction has to come from the inside.
Thankfully, there was also a surprising moral lesson from my weekend trip: I already have an internal GPS; it’s called my gut. I’d love it if my GPS was a bit more direct and louder than a whisper. I’d love it if a melodious female voice sounded in my head to announce, “In 500 feet, turn left.” I’d love it even more if it always showed me the entire list of directions that will get me to where I want to go. The GPS in my gut may not be a top-of-the-line model. I may have to input my destination in lengthy strings of keystrokes, one letter at a time. I may not know what happens after this next turn, but at least, when I listen to it, I know what to do next. Amazingly, neither the GPS in my car nor the GPS in my gut has failed me yet. Maybe it’s about time to have a bit more faith in both of them.
Friday, October 05, 2007
Since mid-September, each morning I eagerly rush to my post office box with a new sense of urgency, wondering whether an oversized red envelope with a new DVD will be waiting for me. I recently subscribed to Netflix, the mail-order DVD-rental company, to have access to titles that our fine local video-rental establishments don’t carry. The Netflix rental process starts online, where I create a long list of films and television shows that I would like to see—generally documentaries, independent films, and quality cable television series. I place them in priority order, and then I receive up to three movies at a time by mail. Each time I return a DVD in their postage-paid envelopes, they send me the next title in my queue. One can spend hours a day—I know this from experience—browsing their site looking for new titles to add to one’s queue and then re-ordering one’s ever-lengthening queue to make sure that the movie you most want to see next will arrive next. It’s the Internet mail-order process—and online procrastination—at its best.
Having been out of town Saturday, Sunday morning I knew I had missed my weekend window to collect the two DVD’s that most certainly were waiting for me in my little postal cubbyhole. The depth of my disappointment got me thinking about the role of film—and television—in my life.
I’ve seen a lot of movies, and that’s because film is one of the few diversions in my life where I can actually shift my overactive brain to neutral. Films, and good television, are an exquisite escape. They are occasions for me to try out new personas and experiment with exotic lifestyles that I may never have the chance to live. All artistic mediums have their place, but film at its best gives me image and emotion, word and sound. Like books, but with some of the imaginative work done for me, movies encompass me in a way that no other genre can match. In Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, internationally-respected author E. Annie Proulx described her experience at seeing her short story “Brokeback Mountain” on the big screen, “Here it was, the point that writers do not like to admit; film can be more powerful than the written word.”
More power means more responsibility. I love film, but I have a problem when film, especially in its most popular blockbuster form, corrupts how we engage with our world. Film is a tool, and like all tools can be used to construct strong foundations or destroy them. The dark side of film is that it can distort what it means to be in the world and especially what it is to relate to people.
It took me years to understand that romantic relationships do not—and should not!—follow the trajectory of Hollywood romance. On film, it’s much easier to depict the stormy highs and lows of a relationship than the gentle, long-term subtleties that make up a life together. Hollywood—in both its film and television incarnations—has given us a shorthand notion of how to be in love. Thanks to the entertainment industry, as a teenager I thought that getting put down flirtatiously was the beginning of true love. It’s been a long painful process for me to learn that being “in love” is not defined by a romantic apology over an elegant dinner after a string of disrespectful and vicious explosions. Hollywood’s shorthand can make us yearn for a glossy, but false, experience. It’s easy to forget that a two-hour, plot-focused timeframe is not conducive to depicting the true nature of love, let alone life.
At its best, the effort filmmakers put into their craft leads to works of art, collections of moments that celebrate and reflect on what it is to be human. More often, films are simply escapes with disorienting ideas of what it means to engage in society. At its worst—often seen in the more popular film genres—movies and TV distort our ability to live in the world. When film and its inaccuracy become models for how life should be rather than reflections of it, we are no longer able to live in our world authentically.
My most horrifying experience of film-influenced confusion between fantasy and reality occurred on 9/11 and the days following. I was living in Brooklyn, a short distance across the East River from the World Trade Center. Once I understood what had happened, I ran out to see the huge plumes of billowing smoke that rose like two ghost towers into the pristine blue sky. The only parallels my brain had for comprehending it were the special effects in action movies. I thought to myself, “Those special effects are cool, but not nearly realistic enough. The sky is too blue. The smoke is too thin. Where are the explosive fireworks?” It took me until I could walk amongst the rubble to conceive that it was real. My memories of film allowed me to think of it as fantasy as I waited for the inevitable savior to give me the happy ending I expected. “As soon as I leave the theater,” I thought, “everything will be back to normal.”
Film, its special effects, its quick transformations, its comfortable, happy-ending-oriented structure, helps us to forget that the best things in life take a very long time to build. Perhaps it would be better if we had to follow the film-makers over the years it took them to create a film before we got to see the glossy end product. Creation and development take time—a long, effortful time. A movie is not created in two hours. A song is not. A book is not. A life is not. We take time to create ourselves, our surroundings, our futures, our relationships. And this time does not render the results less valuable just because they extend past the lives of our short attention spans. In fact, it is the time it takes to make real relationships with people and places that make them matter so much.
There is a place for diversion and entertainment in our lives. There is also a place for difficult works of art that make us face our darker selves and the shadow aspects of our societies. And there is a time for getting whisked away into fantasy land. But, as I begin my relationship with Netflix and its seemingly endless collection of movies, it is important to remind myself that lives take time and don’t evolve at the speed of film. It took me six years to be able to understand and accept the events of 9/11 enough to go see the exhibit at Ground Zero. In movie time, that’s millennia. But in human time, that’s just right.
So, I promise I’ll try to remember that film is not reality, and that it’s important to take life slowly and not expect too much. But now I got to get to the post office. It’s almost time for them to open, and I think Season Two of Deadwood has arrived!
New Yorker No More
Originally published in two parts in the New York Mills Herald on September 12, 2007 and September 19, 2007 and credited to my other identity, Elisa Korentayer.
I never thought there was much between the northeast and California. Southeastern Pennsylvania, where I spent my formative teen years, was at the very edge of acceptable addresses. My hometown Yardley maintained its claim to Yankee distinction because of the historical significance of the area. For example, only a few miles up the river is a town called “Washington Crossing”—so named because it was there that General George Washington crossed the Delaware River to victory on Christmas night in 1776.
I knew that there was a city called Chicago somewhere in the center of the country. In fact, I had once had a layover at O’Hare airport when there were no nonstop flights available from New York to San Francisco. But I could never understand why people would choose to live in a city so far from the coasts. Minnesota wasn’t even on my mental map. In fact, when I learned that I was coming here to be a resident artist, I couldn’t locate it on a map. (A brief statement in my defense: I spent fourth and fifth grades in New Zealand where instead of learning the geography of the United States I learned about Captain Cook and his discoveries in the South Pacific. This blip in my education has haunted me my whole life; to this day I still can’t tell you any of the state capitals.)
This is all to say that I could have never imagined—not in a million years—that I would make this part of the country my home. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when, during a visit back to New York City in August, I discovered that I no longer feel at home there.
In my experience traveling internationally, I’ve noticed that it’s the reverse culture shock, or the unexpected experience of culture shock upon your return home, that is the most overwhelming. Perhaps this is because you are generally blindsided by it. With a lifetime of travel behind me, I should have been prepared for it that weekend…but I wasn’t.
The weekend before Labor Day I returned New York City for the wedding of a dear friend. I was one of three bridesmaids. I had already purchased my dress and accessories, including a triumph of a pair of perfectly-sized gold sandals that I found at the Detroit Lakes Boys and Girls Club thrift store for $1.50. My rolling suitcase was packed with outfits for a variety of wedding events along with clothing to cover extracurricular visits with old friends. Under any normal circumstance, my four days worth of clothing would have been enough for two weeks. I had even gotten the wedding present—a wood vase by Moorhead-based wood-turning artist David Hagen—and wrapped it up fit for a wedding. I thought I was ready for the weekend. But I was not prepared for the fast pace and city sacrifices of the life I used to lead.
Admittedly, the problems started with the trip out. Northwest Airlines emailed me the night before the trip to say that the flight my fiancé and I were scheduled to take was canceled. We were rerouted to leave from Fargo at a ghastly hour of the morning, and then, once we were on the plane after waking up two hours too early, that flight was delayed two hours. We missed our connection in Minneapolis, waited three hours for a new flight, and then that flight was delayed two hours. Considering the travel frustrations, I admit I was not necessarily in the best mood once I arrived, but the New York City-specific experiences of the weekend speak for themselves.
We got to Newark airport at 6pm. In most normal cities, that should mean that we would arrive at our hotel by 7, or 8 at the latest. In New York City, all bets are off. We took a tram, waited 20 minutes, and then dragged ourselves onto the $15-per-passenger Airtrain to Penn Station in Manhattan. We still had to get to Brooklyn where I had found the least expensive hotel in the city—at $130 for one night’s stay. We chose to take the subway, rather than coughing up another $30+ which is what it would have cost to take a taxi from midtown Manhattan. Lugging our wedding-full luggage up four flights of stairs across five blocks and then down another four flights of stairs, we arrived at the platform of the R—AKA “Rarely”—train. (The N&R train line is nicknamed the “Never and the Rarely” because of how infrequently trains come.) A good wait on the platform and 20 stops later, we arrived at the Union Street stop in Brooklyn. From there, it was another two flights of stairs up to street level, where we lugged baggage six blocks north and three very sketchy looking avenues east to the hotel. Finally, at 10pm, we arrived at our lodging for the night.
The Comfort Inn was one month old and, coincidentally, about ten blocks away from my old apartment building. Such is the growth of my old Brooklyn neighborhood that the wealthy investors had decided to develop property in a no-man’s-land of project housing and old lumberyards. Suffice it to say that walking those three avenues at night—our suitcases virtually screaming “Tourist! Tourist!”—was not something I would have chosen to do when my mailing address was still in Brooklyn. But, at this point in our expedition, we didn’t have much choice.
The hotel room was surprisingly large for New York City. This means that there was enough room to squeeze between the bed and the dresser to get to the bathroom. After dropping our bags and soothing our whining leg and shoulder muscles, we walked the three dodgy avenues back to the gentrified retail strip of 5th avenue in Brooklyn. There we got ourselves a 10pm dinner of gourmet Japanese sushi and an 11pm dessert of gourmet key-lime Greek frozen yogurt with fresh mango. This was, perhaps, the highlight of the trip.
We managed to get 6 hours of exhausted sleep before we had to wake up in a hurry to meet my old friends in their swank Park Slope apartment. My friends—a feature writer for the New York Times, a CEO of a Dow Jones Internet startup, and their two year old daughter—live the ideal life in New York City. They have a great apartment, exciting jobs, and the ability to enjoy all that the city has to offer. They had generously offered us the opportunity to stay in their sensational apartment for two nights while they headed upstate to the mountains. We grabbed a short breakfast with them at the corner diner before they ran off to work, rushed back to the apartment to meet their nanny, said a hurried goodbye, and then gathered our stuff to get out of the nanny’s way.
We had six hours before we had to be at the wedding rehearsal in Greenwich Village. We had to figure in three legs of a 45-minute-each-way commute between Park Slope, Brooklyn and Manhattan: (1) to Manhattan for a morning adventure, (2) back to Brooklyn to change into formal attire, and (3) back to Manhattan for the wedding rehearsal in Greenwich Village. We also had to consider the time it would take me to get ready. I like to think that I don’t take too long in the beautification and preening department, but when it comes to weddings, I feel that a little extra time is called for. We estimated that we had about 3 and a half hours to play in the city. We decided to go to Chinatown to eat dim sum—small dishes that are wheeled around the restaurant on steamer carts that you flag down when you are ready for your next dish. We took the F train into Manhattan and wandered through the winding streets full of fishmongers and Asian boutiques. We stopped in the tourist stores where Chinese-made imports pack every crevice and spill out onto the sidewalk outside. Then we found a dim sum restaurant and tucked in to pork dumplings, shrimp shumai, sautéed eggplant and sesame balls.
By lunchtime I was so exhausted from the amount we had done in the last 36 hours that I called our tourist excursion short. We returned to Brooklyn an hour and a half early, and I managed to grab a nap. Nap done, I put on my Rehearsal Dinner togs, and we hightailed it back to Manhattan. The wedding rehearsal was held at the Jefferson Market Garden—a postage stamp-sized triangle of lush greenery in the midst of city bustle. The Rehearsal Dinner was across the street at a local Italian trattoria. We had antipasto, gazpacho, breadsticks, lamb, panecotta and tiramisu. Mmmmm… Dinner and its associated conversation finished fashionably late, and I returned to Park Slope to recover enough to be ready for the next day’s early start. At 7:30 the next morning, I was up and into my bridesmaids dress in time to meet the other bridesmaids and the bride back in Greenwich Village. We spent three hours in a mad rush preparing the bride for the nuptials, one hour in the lovely ceremony, and three hours in the well-appointed old West Village town house where the reception took place. Then ensued the appropriate amount of drinks, conversation, delicious food, and slightly embarrassing wedding toasts.
At 4:00, Chris and I had to run across town to catch the final showing of the play Antarctia, an original play featured in the New York City Fringe Festival. Written and directed by one friend and starring another one of my oldest friends, Antarctica also featured a theme song that I had written and recorded for it. As one of its performances coincided so well with my trip to New York City, I committed myself to seeing it. We thoroughly enjoyed hearing my song highlighted in the show. Then we went out to drinks with the cast and crew in an old dive bar in one of the wealthiest parts of Manhattan. After that, my friend asked if we’d like to catch another show that she was obligated to see. Looking at our watches, we hopped in a taxi and rushed across the tip of Manhattan to the East Village, where a new original musical was being shown on the New York University campus. We arrived 10 minutes after curtain-up and managed to sneak past the “No Late Admittance” signs into the large theater. Two hours later, it was 10pm, but we still hadn’t had time to catch up with my old friend alone, so we hiked over to west village again where we knew we could find some good gelato. The line for the gelato was a half a block long. We waited in it—and I breathed deeply to calm my nerves as the loud bridge-and-tunnel visitors from New Jersey and Long Island pushed and shoved to get into the air conditioning. With gelato in hand, we hiked back through the throngs of people who crowd Bleecker street on a Saturday night and found a surprisingly half-empty bench on a street corner where we talked. By midnight, it was past time for us to get back to Brooklyn. We said our goodbyes and got back into the subway.
A note on New York City subways in August: Subway cars are air-conditioned. This may sound like good news, but the heat dispelled by the air conditioning units is released into the subway tunnels, where it remains trapped. The subway stations are where air-conditioned subway cars, and the associated heat vents, linger for extended periods. Outside, the typical August temperature was in the 90’s at 90% humidity. On the subway platform, it was probably over 100 degrees with humidity nearing the dew point. This means that you can enter the subway feeling hot and sweaty, but by the time you get onto the subway, you’ll be wilting and soaked. I tried to pretend I was in a New York Mills sauna, but the noise and the crowds made it difficult. The air conditioning usually feels pretty good for the first few moments after you enter the subway car, but then you start feeling clammy and, soon after that, chilled. Summer subway rides are an exercise in temperature extremes. Even on the hottest days of summer, I never ventured out of my apartment without a warm cardigan. Some of my coldest experiences have been wearing short sleeves in August on the New York City subway.
With subway construction happening on the F line, our trip Saturday night took longer than we hoped. But that was nothing compared to the next day’s rush. Sunday morning, we learned that the bride and groom wanted to have brunch with us to squeeze in a bit of private time before they headed off on their honeymoon that evening. We had a flight out that afternoon, but it was their wedding, so we trucked into Manhattan. What should have taken us forty-five minutes by train, started out badly when the subway didn’t come for twenty minutes. It got worse when the subway paused for 10 minutes at a signal. Then we gave up, jumped out at Canal street, and grabbed a taxi to take us to meet the bride and groom on 29th street in Manhattan. We were only 15 minutes late after one hour of travel by subway, taxi and foot, and we had a lovely hour-long brunch. After brunch, we walked 30 minutes to the nearest F-train station. We had a good hour before the car was supposed to pick us up from the airport (after our lengthy and expensive trip on public transport from the airport, we decided to splurge on a car back to it). The car was scheduled to arrive at 3pm. We got on the subway at 2pm. By 2:30pm, there was still no train in sight. We were in trouble. From that part of the city, a taxi wouldn’t be much faster than the subway. The subway finally arrived. It was slow. We got back to Park Slope at 3pm to find our taxi waiting for us. We explained our predicament—we needed fifteen minutes to pack our stuff, finish the laundry, make their bed, and clean the mess we’d left. We sprinted through our preparations, jumped in the car, paid the $10 toll on the Verrazano bridge, got stuck in Staten Island traffic, and arrived at the airport just in time to earn two $300 travel vouchers for giving up our seats on the overcrowded flight. We were on the next flight out and were back in Fargo in the wee hours of Monday morning. Once back in good old Minnesota driving along the moon-soaked stretches of Highway 10, I felt an unmistakable sense of relief.
I don’t know if I’m a Minnesotan yet, but I do know that I was glad to get back to New York Mills.
I also know that we won’t be using our travel vouchers to fly back to New York City.