Monday, January 26, 2009

Travelogue 259, January 26
One Piece at a Time, Part Three

I have a cold. I’m riding the bus downtown. The rarified atmosphere of slight fevers and sniffles awakens a sentiment in me like nostalgia. It’s been so many years since I’ve enjoyed the peculiar combination of deep winter and mass transit. The head cold makes it all shine with reflected contentment. ‘Such nice people!’

There’s a moment in deadest winter, in late January, after the bare bough of temperatures has swung slowly among chill breezes and white skies, below zero and back up to twenty, below zero and above, when the still soul of the winter citizen surrenders. I walk up the sidewalk, clotted with hard snow and old ice, crunchy with salt, and I look for the sun, hanging low over the apartment blocks already at four. I breathe the crisp air deeply into my lungs. It feels so clean. Above is the wan and distressed blue of space, and I feel the power of the cold. It could void the atmosphere and carry us all away. And like Jehovah or Winston Smith I declare it good. That breath of refrigerated air connects me to moments spanning many winters, all before I ever went to Ethiopia. I love it.

Or so it seems in the sentiment of my cold, and the sentiment of the moment. At any given time, one is suspended in a value that seems absolute, even as it’s changing. Winter is peaking, and soon it will break. The winter citizen’s resolve breaks with the first thaw. So, what’s reality then, the sentiment or the facts? Which is the real life you’ve led, the nostalgic one or something objective?

A black woman on the bus has bought a sketch of Obama today, and it lies in her lap. Just about every person sitting nearby has to comment on the portrait. ‘Is that Obama?’ She doesn’t mind conversing. She tells about the artist, who was at the Inauguration. She talks about Obama. ‘I have four sons. For the first time, I feel like things will be all right for them. There’s been so much negativity.’ That statement is heart-warming.

Then somehow the discussion turns to O.J. ‘Nobody talking about Nicole, about all her boyfriends. If she been black, nobody of cared. It’s like Michael Jackson. We grew up with him! We know he didn’t do that.’ An Asian guy takes a seat. ‘You heard about the Obama clone?’ There’s a look-alike from Indonesia doing the rounds of talk shows. ‘Could be his brother!’

What will history say? That Obama had a look-alike in Indonesia? That he vindicated O.J. and Michael? If these represent the hopes and dreams of a nation, who am I to protest?

They say that one heyday of the jigsaw puzzle was the era of the Depression. Cardboard puzzles were cheap, and they could be swapped with other families. It was a fun activity that absorbed time in the evenings, and it was something to entertain everyone in the home. It was educational for the kids. Make a picture; make the world whole again.

In the 60s, during times of prosperity, the lords of puzzles came up with the hardest one ever: a thousand-piece jigsaw of Jackson Pollock’s painting ‘Convergence’. What makes it difficult is the high degree of abstraction, the colors twisting round upon themselves, the chaos of paint.

Bob, our puzzle master, tries his hand at the Convergence puzzle. He turns over the piece, enjoying the bright colors. He tries to match it in a dozen, a couple dozen places. The next day, there’s another piece. It’s a labor of months, but he does finish. When it’s done, Bob stares at the completed piece for long stretches. He returns to it for several days and stares at it, but he never once brandishes the fist. He can make out nothing there to break up. Instead, he takes it apart one evening, piece by piece, and puts in back in the box.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Travelogue 258, January 21
One Piece at a Time, Part Two

Is it just me or is there new purpose in everyone’s step, a confident smile on people’s lips, a spark in the eyes? I think people are happy. More than that, the world makes sense again. Work is joyful when the world makes sense. Our new president said last night, ‘there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.’

And here we all are, moving through the city like adults again, it seems to me, with strength and purpose. And doing so despite the dreary fog and wet snow-drizzle. Who says politics don’t matter? The human psyche responds to challenges. Human societies respond to leadership that makes order of chaos.

Bob’s working his puzzle again, rubbing the smooth side of a piece with his finger, turning it over to see the rough, grey cardboard of the other side, turning it again to examine the picture. The piece is a picture in itself. It’s a fragment torn from a few green boughs, shaken by the wind, and behind them a distant mountain crevasse. He contemplates it, a story all its own.

Bob slowly lowers the piece. It will join the greater perspective, a photo of a fine chateau, but first Bob must turn the rounded extremities so they match, sort of like a safecracker might turn the dial. It fits, and he gently pats it down. When the puzzle is finished, he will invite staff to admire it; he will warm his roommates away from it. Then one day, when he seems to be lost in meditation of the chateau’s grandeur, he will suddenly slam a fist into the tabletop and the pieces will jump. He will look at the disorder with astonishment.

Puzzles are made for this, aren’t they, as much as for cognitive processing? They lend a child power over chaos. He or she becomes Brahma and Shiva, unleashing chaos, curbing it, unleashing it, and healing it. What better fun than to create universes, and then rub them out?

It seems fitting that the first jigsaw puzzles manufactured for commercial consumption were wooden maps, cut apart into their constituent kingdoms. Yes, it teaches proper geography, but it also allows Bob’s fist effect. France will border Russia now: I declare it so!

Obama says it’s time to join the world community again. The fist has had its day. Now comes the fun of putting pieces back in order. He warns to fellow leaders: ‘your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.’ He acclaims ‘sturdy alliances’. He commits to peace in the Middle East at the beginning of his administration, rather than as a legacy ploy. Hmm. Enter little boy Brahma.

I start Inauguration Day in an unlikely place. I’m to address the Rotary Club in Maple Grove, a suburb I would label Republican. Mercifully, not a word is spoken about politics, though I do have to struggle through the Pledge of Allegiance, and ‘America the Beautiful’.

It turns out to be a commendable group: lively, caring, and thoughtful. As I watch the sun rise outside the window of Champps, sports bar chain, regular Rotary Club meeting place, and purveyor of bland breakfast buffets, the meeting moves through its weekly rituals. I’ve noticed there are teenagers in the meeting. I find out, first, that there are junior Rotarians in this club. Bravo! And I discover that the club finances a program in one of the large local high schools in which select juniors and seniors are recruited into a school club, the entire purpose of which is to welcome incoming sophomores. (Sophomore year is the first year in this school.) They learn sophomore’s names and make themselves available for support during school days.

They demonstrate a name game, gathering the Rotarians in circles. It’s a fast-moving game with one person in the middle. Everyone’s laughing, and the teens are the bosses. After the demonstration, one senior Rotarian stands up and tells the teens that when he graduated from their school, there were 33 in his class. They find this amazing. The pieces have reunited, seniors and sophomores, teens and elders. It’s remarkably harmonious and hopeful.

Outside, the sun has risen. I’m alone and set adrift among miles square of new malls and meandering roads in good repair. I’m reminded of the time years ago when Troy and I got off on the wrong exit when we saw a movie theater that looked exactly like the one we were aiming for. We watched the movie at the same time we had intended to, and didn’t realize we were in the wrong place until the ride back. They say the hardest jigsaw puzzles to solve are the ones without pictures, or where details echo in mirror-like repetition. I wander a while, looking for the highway. Steam rises from the parking lots, as the sun climbs higher overhead. The roads are luxurious, wide and clean. I find the signs; I’m guided on.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Travelogue 257, January 10
One Piece at a Time, Part One

So life is a jigsaw puzzle that solves itself, one piece at a time. How does the great puzzle amuse itself? I can’t say. I’ve never been a puzzle. But I can travel in my mind back to when I worked at the group home, and I can watch Bob. He has something to teach us about puzzles.

I would check in on Bob while he sat for hours at his jigsaw puzzle, and the rest of us watched TV or cooked or cleaned. He would take one piece in his shaky fingers and examine it. And his examination was thorough. I don’t know what he was measuring, but it was profound. He would glance at the puzzle, and then study the piece some more. There was a tenderness to his attentions.

Let’s just say, taking a page from the Book of Bob, that there’s beauty in the piece itself. It’s just fun to pick it up and turn it over and over. It is a wonder of engineering all on its own, popped out of the picture like cookies from dough. Then we measure the piece against the sum and ponder where it might fit in. There’s one place for it. The tabletop world won’t be complete without it. And then there’s the joy of its fusion into the panorama, not to mention the satisfaction of pushing the piece in snugly. So we have piece, method, and the wide lens.

For example, how did I live in Minnesota for so many years without ever ice skating? I grew up in LA; it wasn’t on most kids’ agendas. But, living here, I knew that I would have to concede to winter and some day pick up a snow-and-ice activity. My first choice was always ice skating. It’s graceful. It’s fast or slow, simple or showy, as you like. It looks like roller skating, which I often did in San Francisco.

But beginning was like an ugly initiation. Locals would explain at length how tricky it is. The hardest thing to do is to stand up. You’ll probably break your ankles. And be prepared to fall: often and hard. Frankly, the falling part didn’t intimidate me. It sounded fun. But I’d rather keep my ankles, thank you. And the trouble with winter sports is that you have to go out in the cold. And you have to arrange for equipment.

The teacher wants to learn ice skating. Who will teach the teacher? Why, a student, of course. Toward the end of this semester, I happened to mention in class that I had never ice skated. To a Minnesotan, I suppose that is tragic. One of my students graciously offers to take me. In a friendly and noncommittal way, I say it sounds nice. Yes, yes, we must do that. She brings it up a few times, and finally I think, why not?

It’s New Year’s Day. The sun is bright. Temperatures are hanging around 20. Kayla has brought two pair of skates. She says a friend of hers works at a sporting goods store. I’m cheerful and feeling very ready. We drive around the city looking for ice rinks outdoors. We drive first by Peavey Plaza downtown. I remember there being a rink there. But because we’re passing on Eleventh Street, I can’t see anyone. We drive on. There’s nothing at Loring Park. We drive up behind the Walker and through Kenwood to Lake of the Isles. We see the figures on ice as we come down the hill.

Lake of the Isles has one slender finger that points toward downtown. Somewhere around the knuckle this finger is transformed into a rink. Today, there’s a crowd. We park beside one of the mansions that line this happy lake. We march down through the snow to lakeside. Here’s where I get nervous. I stare at the surface of the ice, and suddenly the concept makes no sense. My eyes tell me it can be done; there are children out there skating. But common sense tells me the human body wasn’t made for this.

But I do it. I step shakily onto the surface. As JC counsels, ‘Except ye become as a little child,’ and so on. So I do, and I find myself coasting along, with my arms outstretched and my legs wobbling. I haven’t broken my ankles! In fact, I’m able to slide my feet a little from side to side and move forward. It’s exhilarating! I lean into it and find a way to build up speed. I’m cruising around just fine! Okay, so I’m hanging on to my balance only by jerking and flailing like I have a nervous disorder, and so I do take a few spectacular spills; I’m ice skating!

One’s perspective changes on the ice. For one thing, the ice itself is like another world. One or two of my spills may be attributable to ice hypnosis, staring down into the blackness, charting the sharp lines of cracks. It’s fascinating.

Above the ice, things go on like they have in Minnesota for many years. Parents are teaching their little ones how to skate. Boys are dashing around with hockey sticks. Nothing I haven’t seen, but now I’m among them. The motion of the boys playing hockey is mesmerizing. How do they do that? I wave my arms around like I’m on a tightrope, but inside I’m contemplating: here’s another piece of the world. And Minnesota is a little more complete. That night, at the bar, I’m watching the hockey game with new eyes.