Friday, July 30, 2010

Travelogue 350 – July 30

A gentle front has blown in, shushing the town, softening its summer colors into Oregon greys, shedding barely perceptible mists over the streets. Biking around Minneapolis has been spooky this week, even before the fog blew in. It seems so empty. It's late July, heading into sleepy August. The skies are dense with heat and moisture, shimmering with white premonitions when the sun is out and hosting great pile-ups of thunderclouds on many an afternoon. The city population seems to have lapsed into a long Mississippi nap. I bike the streets downtown nearly alone, coasting lazily, pedaling only to keep in motion. Today is just a little more morose than the sunny days, the city somehow even more abandoned.

My errands lead me in circles around downtown and adjoining neighborhoods. The foundation has an event coming up. Perhaps that's a bad bit of calendar Feng Shui, trying to fan currents of enthusiasm among the dead heat of mid-summer. My job today is to solicit gifts from local merchants for our fortunate event guests. I'm making sales calls, mounting the bike again to coast toward the next, casting a slow eye along the store fronts for new ideas. 'Would you like to donate?'

I stop by a tattoo place, thinking that a gift certificate from a tat parlor would be solidly cool. It's on the second floor of a small building, up above a Dunn Brothers, and I think I must take a wrong turn because I push through an unlabeled door and find myself in dim and nearly empty quarters. I've never been in a tattoo parlor – yes, my hide is pristine and unadorned – so I don't know what such a place should look like. In one room is a couch, looking like something for massage or something out of a clinic. There's nothing else in the four or five rooms, except the dark-haired woman sitting at a desk in the back of the furthest room. She circles the desk and shuffles out to meet me. She has broad shoulders; there's a menacing sort of physicality to her. She has dark jaded eyes, encircled with tired shadows. She scowls when I make my pitch.

'Too late,' she says, and turns away. 'I'm going back to California.' She makes her slouching way back to her lonely post. 'Oh, yeah? I'm from California,' I try to make conversation. 'Where are you from?' This doesn't go far. She pauses over her seat, black irony flashing in her eyes. I'm suddenly ill at ease alone with her in these empty rooms.

I'm reading a novel that I can recommend. It's called 'Sharp Teeth', and it's a noir written in free verse about werewolves in LA. Thank you: an author with a sense of fun! And it actually works – though it does appear that with free verse Barlow, the author, feels an awkward imperative to cap each scene with a poignant flourish. That becomes tiring in a long format. But I forgive. I mean, where else will you delight in scenes of werewolves playing in bridge tournaments against cheating blue hairs? He even has the audacity to make his main character a dogcatcher. Come on!

It's most often a sin to burden authors with creaking loads of metaphor. But that won't stop me from piling a few on the werewolf. As I hurry down the stairs away from the dark lady's chambers with a shiver in my spine, I think that the pertinent metaphor is one of secrecy. Every so often, one stumbles upon an unknown hallway in a familiar building, inhabited by shadowy people, and the world seems strange. The imagination responds with dreams of parallel universes and secret monsters.

The modern world is almost impossibly complex. Every year the conspiracies run deeper and deeper. Super heroes rise from our unconscious, fertile as the primeval Nile, and still we can't keep up. The wolves invade our bridge parlors. They move in above Dunn Brothers.

I'm back on my bicycle, an innocent on the empty streets. Where is everyone?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Travelogue 349 – July 24

It's a lovely summer day outside that big picture window. I'm not looking at the work on my computer screen. I'm looking at the sunshine on the grass in the yard across the street. I'm looking at the young couple at the outdoor table. I'm watching the man at the table just inside the window as he fishes for something in his coffee with the earpiece of his eyeglasses. He's very intent. He has a big belly inside his yellow Old Navy T. He wears high-water jeans that are light blue. He has long fingers to apply to his task. His mild smile never varies. What he extracts from his coffee, he gently places on one wrist. It's a moth. He returns to typing on his computer while the moth climbs up his hand and onto a finger. The man nudges the visitor onto his other arm, and the moth goes the opposite way this time, hiking up a hairy arm, a sleeve, and onto his host's shoulder, all while the man juts his chin toward the laptop screen, maintaining his sweet smile.

This is Caffetto, the cafe that has emerged as my favorite this summer. It's a bit of history for me. Wes and I were regulars at Caffetto in the early 90s. It occupied the same location – a rather prosaic setting, across from a gas station, off a particularly drab section of Lyndale – but it was only one room then. It was owned by Ali the Turk and featured a dazzling payroll of colorful young ladies.

Today it has expanded to two rooms, (with two basement rooms below where you can play ping-pong or very old video games). It's owned by a good-looking young couple, who also do most of the barista work. And now it's the task of the rooms themselves to be colorful. One ceiling is aqua, another is brick red. One wall is gold, one is yellow-green, one is red ochre. One wall is patched plaster, another is exposed cinder block, another is eroded concrete. The first room, where the coffee bar and display cases are, is an explosion of kitsch and clutter. One of the couple is a fan of ships apparently, because there are many silly representations of clipper ships and sailboats, from dusty mantelpiece paintings to string art. One wall is devoted to small kitsch pieces, including puppies, sad clowns and big-eyed little ballerinas. In the second room, there are plants and piles of books, small couches and diner booths, lamps with shades, and shelves with board games. There's some local's exhibit of paintings up. There's a painting of a floating gorilla with cavorting starfish. There's a red and black piece with headless people meditating. There's another of a ghoulish bunny on fire.

When I came in this morning, Tammy was behind the counter on all fours. The electricity had apparently blown. The place was eerily dark and silent. I ordered a muffin, but had to wait for my coffee. A gaunt, unshaven local was assiduously working at one of the outlets. Tammy is apologetic but smiling sweetly as ever. If this cafe is a museum, she is the display of sunny temperament, never wavering in her almost unnerving good cheer.

The whole house is now absorbed in their computer screens. The moth has flown, but the man with yellow rounded shoulders does not seem to miss her. He smiles at his laptop and presumably the laptop smiles back. Tammy smiles at every customer, and they can rarely resist smiling back. The ships sail off into gilded seas, and the clown sheds another tear. I must get back to work.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Travelogue 348 – July 13

Sometimes we prove ourselves stronger than we think, and sometimes it's the reverse. For example, I've been running like a pro this week, against all odds, against the weather. It's been a warm one. I step outside in the mid-afternoon into the blast of sunshine, heat and humidity, and I tell myself I'm doing a quick three-miler; that's it. I set out; my pacing is steady; my breathing is steady. At three miles I make it five. At five I make it eight. I finish on a hill, and I pour it on – meaning both the power and the sweat. Not all weeks go like that, but training is a joy when they do.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Leeza's passing. I felt no dread of the day as it approached. No waves of despair that an anniversary can send back and forth in time. When the day came, I thought that I might be off the hook. I felt fine.

Only later did I realize that I'd been acting out some old routines. A week or two before the date, I had spontaneously picked up my memoir project again. I started writing about Leeza, writing about grief. When the day is over, I find that, without thinking about it, I've checked in with all the friends that were by my side then. Some called me, remembering the date. Others I called, and I thought it was on a whim. Put that in one paragraph and it seems unlikely, but accusing details from the unconscious can hide inside a full day. It's all true: I wasn't aware.

The day passed, and I thought I might be off the hook. Then came the 12th. I had anticipated a full day of work, but the day never seemed to get going. By mid-morning, I was losing altitude quickly. I wandered around town lost on my bike, venturing out and then back on ghostly errands, forgetting what I was about, and losing focus. Before I knew it, the day had dissolved, and I was deep in it.

What's interesting is the delay. Why the day after? Maybe it signifies a shift in the pain. The crux of this year's sadness isn't in the death but in the dubious rebirth. The day after is la vita nuova, the day of vocation, the day the work begins. I feel it; I feel all the work of seven years.

Is it a coincidence that I'm writing about the first days after she died? The wake, the first discussions about the school, the funeral. The return to work at the college. The work, the head-shaking wonder & dread of the things we take on in life.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Travelogue 347 – July 6
Kicks are for Kids

This was the weekend of kids' power. Escaping the heat, escaping the drunk and the reckless, escaping fools who shouldn't be handling gunpowder, one retreats indoors to the theaters. The tradition of July Fourth blockbusters seems watered down this year, but a summer move is a summer movie is a …

The first show we see is adapted from a comic book, which is nothing unusual these days. Going into this weekend, the director had exactly one last chance with me. Shamalamadingdong has created a long series of increasingly awful productions, the last being a horror sham in which the plants of the world are killing us off.

This one is the story of the Avatar – no, that's no reference to James Cameron's glow-in-the-dark world of blue cat-people. This one is the savior of a world made up of tribes dedicated to each of the elements. This Avatar is a child of the Air tribe, as are all Avatars, should you need informing on fine points of hierarchy on the world of …element people.

Wait! Before you read on, before you take your seat at the theater, let me impart one revelation that turns the experience of the film on its head: It's a children's film! That's a detail that apparently preview editors find too trivial to impart. It took me a full minute to figure it out, and then … actually I was quite happy with it. Once you've achieved that little mental transition, you might really enjoy the movie. I did, and I can say that Shamalamadingdong has earned a reprieve.

The greatest gift Mr. Shama brings to the world of film is his eye. The film is a gorgeous object to look at and admire. I think that's Mr. Lama's priority. The 'actors' were clearly chosen not for their ability to deliver lines, but for their ability to dance. Sticklers will argue with my use of the term 'dance'. That is martial arts, the sticklers will say. Look, any movement executed primarily for aesthetic purposes is dance to me. And there is some beautiful movement in this film. Mr, Ringer, the star of the show, formerly a preteen nobody Texas blackbelt in Taekwondo, is a real joy to watch.

And watch is what you do; that's your job as audience member here. There is little else for the intellect to engage in, and just so, Mr. Dingdong. I'm happy that you brought in the star of 'Slumdog', and a few other Bollywood celebs. This is one more step in the dialectic between East and West, between the natural and the choreographed. Movement fan that I am, I'm rooting for the Bolly touch.

Just so, Mr. Miyagi. The art of movement on the screen is a venerable tradition, is it not? And while there is not much singing in the rain imprinted on film anymore, there is plenty of kicking butt. Mr. Miyagi does not believe in kicking butt for its own sake. And, truly, it's worth contemplating: butt-kicking on screen or stage is not really butt-whooping, but movement for aesthetic pleasure. Right?

Then why is the pleasure in the Smith-Pinkett production seem so compromised? These are twelve year-old dancers, not fighters. But the blows are not very playful, and the Chinese villain-kids are frighteningly effective warriors. Are we paying the price here for the ambitions of a pair of high-power parents who can't wait a few years to release their kick-ass little creation on the world? Need we judge by the many pointless stills of mommy and daddy in the credits?

Or is there an aesthetic to scrawny twelve year-olds whacking each other in the head and kissing shy Chinese girls? If there is, I'm not sure whether it's an aesthetic that harmonizes most with comic books – the sort of green room reading appropriate for young Jaden – or with other types of paper-bag magazines.

Perhaps the real issue is with the screen mommy. The premise follows, after all, from mommy's unexplained transfer from Detroit to Beijing. (??) I admit that part of me got stuck right there. Mommy does a better job integrating culturally than her twelve year-old. In fact, she does so well that while little Dre gets mauled in the kung fu ring, she cheers like any proud Little League parent. It's all a little odd.

As Smith and Pinkett send their child into battle, how are we being asked to respond? As you applaud the victory, think about whether you're applauding the battle.