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Monthly Archives: January 2010

PARENTS OFTEN WONDER ALOUD what they ever did before they had kids. With Sarah and Jo in Oregon for the next 11 days, I’m trying hard to remember. How do people expend all this surplus time? Happy hour? Home improvement? Football (shudder)?

As I look around, I think maybe it should be cleaning.

Lately:

Wildlife, possibly lost, spotted in Des Moines.

Celebrating the blue moon and the New Year in Des Moines simultaneous with the marriage of friends Dan and Sheila in Salem, OR: 12am on 1/1/10.

Art Shanties 2010 had many of the same attractions as 2009 (like these cozy game rooms that are also giant dice), as well as a new entry from Weaselhawks buddies Travis, Rollie and Mel—a shop where you acquire merchandise not with money but through silly, sometimes humiliating acts. At 35°, the lake was extremely slushy and many shanties were leaking.

Paul’s 39th birthday was marked with beers, some pinball, The Umbrella Sequence at the Hex, and some major iPhone twiddling. Paul is explaining FourSquare to me, a mobile application that, far as I can tell, encourages people to track you like an tagged animal.

As a birthday gift, Sarah revamped a section of the basement as dedicated project space for me (it’s far tidier than it was, believe it or not). Note my photocopier at right, resurrected after we realized you don’t need to buy the no-longer-produced toner cartridge on eBay ($300! I shit you not), you can simply drill a hole in the side and pour some toner in.

The best addition to my setup is a lightbox, made from an old x-ray viewer, that Sarah salvaged from the U of M. It’s essential for making stained glass, but it’s also handy for inspecting works on paper, Xerox art, etc.

I’m headed to Portland myself next month to visit the Iowa ex-pat community there. I’ll be bearing gifts of stained glass—a mushroom crest for one friend, and, after prolonged consideration, a bloody wrench for another. If you know the guy, it makes perfect sense.

> Stevie Wonder – Pastime Paradise

GREAT MUSICIANS KEEP DYING.

R.I.P. Philly soul legend Teddy Pendergrass, smoldering even in lip-sync mode.

> Here’s his intense (and lengthy) version of the disco anthem “Don’t Leave Me This Way”with his band Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, heard on Crap From the Past last weekend.

R.I.P. Jay Reatard, Memphis punk kid with a Detroit edge. I hardly knew ya.

R.I.P. Vic Chesnutt, whose quietly devastating songs could render whole clubs speechless, using words nobody else would dare to lyricize (“intravenous Demerol,” “surreptitiously”).

> Vic Chesnutt – In My Way, Yes

I WENT DOWNHILL SKIING SATURDAY, something I haven’t done in Minnesota since the chartered bus trip in 8th grade. Back then I was chastised for skiing in jeans (something about having to cut them off if you’re injured; as a lover of shredded clothing, I thought that sounded rad). Again I hit the slopes in denim (and waffle-longjohns and a hoody) looking more homeless than hip in the chairlift line. Sarah and Jo, newly outfitted, pretended not to know me.

While cautious in most pursuits, I throw myself into sports with an abandon that betrays a total lack of common sense (running cross-country in Chuck Taylors; playing tennis in 110° heat until I get heinous charly horses; etc.).

So it was again at Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area. Perhaps if I stretched, or took breaks, or had an inkling about correct form, the extra runs I took would be fine. But now I’m experiencing back pain that feels out of bounds for a person my age. Comfortable positions are scarce. Sneezing induces white-hot flashes of pain. Watching me grimace to a standing position is hilarious/appalling.

I wouldn’t blame Sarah and Jo for pretending not to know me for a few days.

On the bright side of being an invalid, I received a book in the mail with the following note:

Jan 07 2010

Jake:

Read this novel. Sorry for being so imperative, but I think you, among all my friends, would enjoy reading it as much, or even more, than me. After reading it, please consider passing this copy along to someone…

10 pages in, I’m startled by the accuracy of his prediction (Lethem had me at the dope-addled freelance critic who mines lost episodes of Columbo for cultural clues and retypes New Yorker articles to test their authority apart from the mag’s tyrannical layout). With this gift, I am hobbled but happy. Thanks, Marc.

JOHANNA: [Dragging a box of blocks like a bar-cart] I’m coming over to your house.

ME: [Reading a magazine on the couch.] OK.

Taste this—It tastes like Cherry-Flower-Fairy.

Sounds interesting.

It has sugar in it.

[sipping from a block] Mmmm. How did you make this?

With flour, sugar and fairy sprinkled all in the flavor. So that’s how I made it.

That’s a fine recipe.

It’s really, really, really good for you. “Blueblerry” is really good, too. It makes you strong even… What are you writing?

I’m just taking some notes.

Give me that. I want to draw.

So snacktime is over?

But I need to go home now. I need to work.

See you next time, sweetie.

I’m not Sweetie. I’m your daughter.

Yes, I know.

WE HAD DINNER LAST TUESDAY at the home of a woman I tutor. Faduma and I began studying together six years ago and have continued on an almost weekly schedule, interrupted for a year when Johanna was a baby. I sometimes struggle to explain why I spend more time with this person than I do with many of my friends. Suffice it to say it’s an enjoyable challenge, I often learn something, and she really needs the help.

Faduma just finished her general education classes after three years of community college. At 35, she’ll soon start coursework to become a Nursing Assistant. She uses her wages as a full-time parking lot attendant to pay for college, living expenses, remittances to her relatives in Somalia, and for the lengthy and expensive process of bringing her new husband to Minneapolis this past September.

Since moving here herself in the early 1990s to escape Somalia’s civil war, Faduma has found relative peace, if not prosperity. That she works so diligently to get ahead, while making barely discernible headway, is part of what motivates me to help her. You only have to go a page or two into Othello or her textbook on moral philosophy after a long day at work to grasp her challenge, whether English is your first language or, like her, your fourth.

Our meal was served at a small table surrounded by plastic-covered chairs purchased for her husband’s arrival. There were heaping dishes of rice, meat pies, goat, fried pastries and lasagna (she was a nanny in Italy for a time) intended just for the three of us—neither Faduma nor her friends who helped cook ate with us, or even sat down. Apparently in Somalia women feed themselves separately before serving the men, a tradition made stranger when your guests include women.

After dinner, we talked about the dismaying state of Arab-Western relations, American education and obesity in Minnesota (of our three hosts, we were by far the least traveled, having only visited three continents and lived in one). When Jo got tired of listening to us, Faduma sent me home with 20 pounds of leftovers and the satisfaction of having been thoroughly thanked.

The following day, two young Somali men and an Oromo man were gunned down at a grocery across the street from Faduma’s apartment, one of the worst incidents in the 20-year history of Minneapolis’s Somali community. In an unrelated case today, a Federal judge in Minneapolis halted the hearing of a Somali man when she saw courtroom observers, apparently East African, passing around an unknown object, saying she felt threatened. It turned out to be a pair of glasses.

INHUMAN COLD is collapsing my holiday balloon fast. But it’s fine weather for filmgoing, by way of the budget cinema and the wonders of Instant Netflix. I found special resonance in the last three flicks, “The Hurt Locker“, “Time Out” and “Up In The Air.” As someone preoccupied with issues of work and personal identity (My job does not define me! Oh wait, it does! Do I even want that? Maybe!), I enjoy watching people in professional turmoil.

“The Hurt Locker” follows American soldiers in Baghdad whose daily routine is to avoid being killed, intentionally or by accident. They ride around with their heads down looking for improvised explosives to disarm. If they aren’t blown up or shot, they move to the next cache. The film asks you to question your own fortitude in the face of unremitting tension and death, and the soldiers showcase the full range of reactions, from paralysis to casual indifference. You can’t help but admire the talent and technical expertise required of modern warriors—or wonder, as one does with any job, what if anything their efforts are worth.

A stable corporate breadwinner unravels in “Time Out,” a French film from 2001 about a recently fired executive who deceives his family into thinking he’s still on the job. He leaves home in a suit each day only to drive around in circles, stopping to wander the hallways of companies where he doesn’t work, creepily invisible. You almost think his charade will magically redeem him, but when it inevitably collapses, you’re reminded that escape from work is impossible (at least for us middle-class suckers).

“Up In The Air” sheds light on the blindness of vocation: how we ignore the consequences of what we do, excusing ourselves because we do it well. Competence trumps compassion. George Clooney’s supremely confident “employment termination expert” dispatches soon-to-be-former employees with a wink and a packet. But despite the “first day of your new life” pitch he gives the people he cans, he’s not doing anyone a favor, himself included. His self-proclaimed freedom from obligation (about which he gives motivational lectures) seems enviable at first, then starts to look clueless. If success is the ultimate virtue, why bother?

> Listen: Gang Starr – Work