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Monthly Archives: January 2012

I’ve always liked this photograph of my Uncle Don from, I believe, the ‘60s, posing on a bike in the front yard of my grandparents’ rural homestead near Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Back then, he struck me as a giant kid, tall and powerful, yet gentle and earnest. I can still see his figure disappearing down the dusty road and toward the horizon, as he would bike the ten miles from the homestead to town to do one odd job and then another, pedaling with strong biker thighs, with a smooth determination, as if he were training for the Tour de France. Far from training attire, he would usually wear a flannel shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans, while cranking the gear box with a pair of well-worn cowboy boots.

“Uff da, the flies,” he would say, in that rural dialect and accent common for that part of Northern Minnesota, and at a time when the breeze was nowhere to push the biting flies off your skin, and the dry heat of summer would cause my brothers and me to languish indoors. Not Uncle Don. He’d still make the trek into town, through the heat, on bike. There were things to do and folks to get caught up with. I imagine he was, and probably still is, both outgoing and personable.

To this day, though Uncle Don lives in town and suffers from the withering effects of time like most elderly pensioners, he still putters around, investing his time in the odd job – tinkering with old bikes or mowing lawns – until recent when he slipped on the ice, as he was heading out to help clear snow off cars, and broke his hip. (He will have been out of surgery at the time of this posting and, hopefully, on his way to a full recovery.)

I remember one time finding myself in my uncle’s upstairs bedroom of my grandparents’ farmhouse while he was away to town. It was a place he occupied as a boy, as well as many years as a grown man, as he never married and never found a place of his own until he was into his 40’s, after both his parents had passed on. It’s a room where time seemed to have stopped, as it still had the look of a young boy’s touch – a pinup calendar on the wall above a rod-iron single-bed, unmade, an old dresser with childhood relics – toys and trinkets – each item strategically arranged on top and covered with a light layer of dust, and an extra pair of cowboy boots quietly standing at attention in the corner. It’s the kind of room some people might like to go back to, if for no other reason than to grab hold of their childhood to escape the indeterminate future.

I probably creaked across the hardwood floor to look through the window, through the sun’s glare amidst the buzzing flies, worried he was coming back along that dusty road and would find me there. Strange to have been so intimidated by someone who was anything but intimidating. Fact is, my uncle’s probably what most people would consider a ‘good ol’ boy’, and incapable of hurting…you guessed it…a fly. But uff da, those flies!

The movie Margin Call depicts the 2008 market crash from the perspective of an investment firm built on a multi-leveled pecking order – from the $86 million-a-year CEO to the $250k-a-year fledgling trader. Similar to the market, the firm is its own house of cards as the day starts out with layoffs resulting in an 80% reduction in staff. That same day, one of the remaining junior analysts cracks the code surrounding the financial tidal wave approaching the markets. Projections are off the charts, nullifying historical trends, as mortgage-backed securities have been built on unsound principles over several years.

“It’s a long ways down.” Words eerily spoken by one of three traders standing outside on the top of the building’s roof in the dead of night. It’s a subtle announcement of what the coming day has in store for the markets. Meanwhile, down below in a conference room, the real decision-makers are doing their damnedest to make sure they stay in the game of unearned wealth and to live to steal another day. Therefore, “Sell! Sell! Sell!” will be the mantra once the opening bell rings. There’s no hint of panic from these operators, as alarms were sounded months earlier. So it appears to be second nature what must be done. The only thing in doubt is which one of them should be thrown under the bus. Back on the roof, the manager tells his two underlings how easy it is to blow through last year’s salary of $2.5 million – a big mortgage, sporty imports, expensive food and tailored suits. And come the end of the next business day, the only thing that might retain its value is the memories from $75k spent on dancers and hookers.

As morning approaches, power suits show no signs of wrinkling from the all-night fire drill. Like many products, it’s the packaging that makes the sale. And the only guarantees are those made once the firm relieves itself of all its toxic holdings. $1.4 million for each employee for today’s work. And then you’re fired. Those remaining will start anew, helping to keep the ship afloat. Such is the way of capitalism. Save the ship at the expense of the passengers and crew.

Across town, an investment manager, sacked by the firm earlier that day, reminisces about the bridge he helped design decades ago and how many years, in travel time, were saved from having to go from Point A to Point B. The ‘bridge’ story could be viewed as a double-edged metaphor. Sure, building the bridge was productive, and people saved time going from Point A to Point B as a result of the bridge, but they most likely used that time to go further into debt. Expediency reduces hardship while creating more leisure time. Mortgages are refinanced and equity is transferred back to the lender who repackages it to sell to some hedge fund junkie. Ultimately, from plumber to power broker, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

There’s much to like about this movie – the acting, the dialogue, the tension – and only one sure thing to dislike about it: that it actually happened. At the end of the day, the CEO is dining at a table, overlooking the cityscape, and still appearing on top of the world. His go-to-guy for the day’s acts of deceit tells him he wants out. There’s talk of how ditches could have been dug and how there would have at least been something to show for the effort. But in the end, he’ll take the money, earned or not. Don’t we always?

There’s a need to hurry, as time is running out and the better part of the day has been spent at work indoors. At home, it’s four in the afternoon and little dog Harley sniffs the grass, and not the absent snow, each time after he catches the ball I toss high in the air. The sun is low but still warm. Spinner, the neighbor rat terrier wanders up to the fence. The two little dogs exchange sniffs and then chase each other the length of the fence line. Neighbor Dale walks over after admiring his handiwork, the finishing touches on the addition to his garage. It’s work he was prepared to do, come freezing temps or today’s 50 above. Now he and Spinner are off to take a trip with his nephew to shop for a flat screen TV. It’s shopping weather. Equally inspired by the weather, I call Tory, who is still at work, to let her know I’m walking the two and a half miles to Culvers and she should meet me there for supper.

Along the walking path, a couple up ahead looks overdressed in fall outerwear. The woman with a wool-knit cap sets the pace while the bearded man, wearing a heavy jacket, carries a walking stick – a headless shaft of a driver – whacking dead weeds standing at attention along the trail. I jaywalk across a none-ice-packed intersection where traffic travels with a summer-like buzz. I cut through the snowless lawns of commercial businesses, watching fellow working stiffs escape from their cells. I jaywalk again – don’t really care for crosswalks and streetlights – across a four-lane boulevard, just inside the blind spot of a squad car parked off the street and behind bare bushes, waiting to take advantage of the nice weather to hand out tickets to speeders and jaywalkers.

The shadows are already growing long, as I catch up to and pass an old-timer out for a stroll while others walk their dogs or march their children up and down the sidewalks. Fresh spring air in the dead of winter is a rare commodity, like dry matches in Jack London’s tale To Build A Fire.

Forty minutes later, Tory and I are at Culvers enjoying burgers and shakes, a meal fit for warm-weather lollygagging and self-reflection. We sit in a section of mostly elderly people, away from the lively chatter of children who must have a false sense of the season. I know otherwise, but pretend, all the same, that it’s springtime in Minnesota. It’s growing dark, but, again, I just pretend my wife and I are out for a late evening snack, so instead of 5 o’clock, I pretend it’s closer to 8 o’clock. There’s nothing wrong with pretending, especially when it concerns hiding from the conspiring elements of winter huddled along the U.S.-Canadian border.

That was two days ago. The slimmest chance of an early spring has come and gone. Now there’s a biting wind creating a wind chill of near 0 this morning. And on the radio, McDonald’s is advertising a buy-one-get-one of some gut rot whenever the temp is below 0. A choice between a full price meal at Culvers and a temp of 50 above versus McD’s sadistic promotion of cold weather and extra fat grams for free? Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

You first overhear and then look at the middle-aged couple at the corner table debating which Tennessee Williams play won an award in 1948. He’s overbearing, clad in dont-give-a-damn sweats and a crimson-colored shirt with purple stains that look like bruises over blood, like escalating injuries, only in reverse. Narrow-framed glasses pressed tight against the bridge of his nose give him an eagle’s stare, only more fearless. She’s timid, the independence of her lumberjack’s shirt and blue jeans demoted by her surrendering eyes and unkempt hair. She’s hiding behind a newspaper, trying to avoid the forthcoming argument she’s sure to lose. Together they look like a wreck, a pair of beached souls on the shores of Empty Vows.

The air feels cool in the old coffee house, similar to an empty church. The old silver-tin ceiling is high and the blades of the cooling fan rest, stalled by the oncoming Midwest winter. She’s so close. Your subject. Your classmate. The table lamp casts a light across her face as she skims the pages of a women’s magazine. You think how she should be posing in it for an ad for vodka or kitchenware.

“There’s nothing wrong with my pencils,” you finally tell her. “I just can’t seem to keep them sharpened.”

“So it’s bad?” she asks, her eyes glued to a page.

“Not bad. Just not a very close likeness of you. It’s almost like a caricature. And a bad one at that.”

“So it is bad?”

“Sorta.” Now you think how bad, how awkward, it is to express yourself both verbally and through drawings. If you could get it right, either way, maybe she’ll notice you. You pause to study an oil painting on the wall. It’s a local effort of someone’s dog with shaggy fur streaked in chaotic blue tones.

She continues reading. Draw her portrait. Don’t draw her portrait. You realize she doesn’t care one way or the other. She’s not interested in seeing what you’ve done so far. And its just as well, as you don’t have the gift. The technique. The methodology. But most of all, you don’t have the nerve.

“Is my hair okay like this? Paul can’t stand it when it’s in a ponytail.”

Again with Paul. It’s always ‘Paul this’ and ‘Paul that’. He’s never been in your and her third-hour Psychology class. He’s not even in the coffee house but her thoughts of him are.

“Sure,” you finally say.

You think how stupid this Paul, whom you’ve never seen, must be to critize her perfectly stunning appearance. Even now you find her too adorable with her light-pink baggy sweatpants and over-sized white jersey with the big red 8 on the front. She wears frumpy well enough to attend the opera. And yes, you like her hair. Dark brown. Up or down. Paul’s an idiot, you conclude.

The man from the corner table wanders by. Distracted, you look up at him.

“Oh,” he says, just as someone behind the counter shouts ‘Capacino!’. “You’re just drawing.”

“Yeah.”

“Usually you college kids are writing about us.”

“Who’s ‘us’?”

“Us. The rest of us who like to go out for a cup of coffee without having to worry about you ‘literary geniuses’ mocking and misrepresenting us.”

“I see. Well, I’m not writing. Not today.”

“Might be better if you were. That’s a terrible likeness of your girlfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” she’s quick to announce.

Pissed, you tell him, “Mind your own business.”

“What did you say?”

You think about starting to stand.

“C’mon, guys.”

You and the man look at her. She has that way about her. That way that either stops men from doing something stupid or pushes them to act with resolve.

Your eyes catch those of the man’s wife’s, who quickly looks away, not wanting to get involved.

There’s a kind of standoff, hollow and safely on this side of do-nothing. The man smiles at your non-girlfriend and smirks at you and then goes back to his table.

You feel warm now. The air in the room is near boiling. Or is it just the teapot in your head about ready to blow? Minutes pass as you continue jotting with strokes of irritation while she pages through the magazine like Grace Kelly in Rear Window.

“I gotta get going,” she suddenly tells you while picking up her backpack. “Paul should be home now. Are you going to be okay?”

You pretend you don’t know what the hell she’s talking about and shrug your shoulders and tell her, “Yeah.”

“See ya tomorrow,” she says as she walks away with your balls slung over her shoulder. “And sharpen those pencils.”

You look at the drawing. It’s terrible. Especially the ponytail, you now realize. You start to draw lines down from the top and side of her head and over her brown eyes, sculpted nose and full lips. You quickly draw more lines down and then start to draw more lines just as quickly across those until she finally has no face and all that’s left are crashing lines the shape of a big dark brown X.

You avoid eye contact with the man at the corner table and, instead, look at the dark evening outside the window and the lights from street lamps and passing headlights. She’s been gone only a minute but you miss seeing her already.

Pets like to be petted. They also like to be patted, stroked, head-hugged, belly-rubbed, and chased around and yelled at for misbehaving. In return, their long-term goal is to NOT outlive their people, which may not seem like much of a bargain. My wife and I have had ten pets through our nine-year relationship, losing half of them along the way. And in spite of their carpet-staining and upholstery-tearing behavior, they are entertaining and individually unique, which binds us so closely to each one of them. And as hard as it is to lose one, it’s just as hard to imagine the house without one. Or two. Or three.

There are fewer things more difficult than putting down a pet. It leaves a void that can last what seems will be forever. When we put our border collie Scout down a few years back, for days I would come home after work and realize he was no longer there to greet me at the door, yet mournfully call out his name. As months passed, we thought we might never take in another dog. But life has a way of making decisions for you when you’re too apprehensive to make them yourself and we were soon given a little dog.

Making a living caring for and surrounded by other people’s sick or dying pets makes it no less painful when your own draws its last breath. In an episode of All Creatures, village vet James Herriot is caught up in that place where no pet owner wants to be, a place that creeps up on you just as you’re getting on with the daily business at hand while pretending to ignore the terminal. Herriot treats the usual morning stroll like every other, walking his aging good friend, Dan the Lab, through the quiet streets of Darrowby and the nearby pastures, coaxing “C’mon, Dan” and affectionately chastising “You stupid dog” when he falls behind. Until one day he turns to see his friend no longer lagging behind. A few paces back, he finds him resting quietly, forever, in the grass. Like most of us, after losing such a good friend, Herriot is unwilling to replace old Dan. But barely a fortnight passes before Herriot’s wife is pressing him to visit a litter of pups she’s discovered in an ad in the weekly circular. It’s obvious what happens next.

In Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat, pensioner Gilliaume Blerot carries his aging and sickly little dog everywhere he goes, inside his coat and next to his heart. Mayor Reynaud admonishes him for fawning over a “soul-less” animal, and during, of all times, Lent, when abstinence and denial are in season. Those of us wiser than the pious mayor realize Noah boarded the animals two by two because they were anything but soul-less. They provide simple life lessons for mere mortals. Because they commonly live and die between the beginning and ending of our own lives, we can better understand what it means to embrace each new day. The old pensioner is eventually compelled to put down his old dog, thus losing the race to the grave he would have preferred to have won. But once again, before too long, he too is happily walking a newfound friend.

It might seem wrong to replace pets with new ones, but that’s truly the best medicine. Besides, there are too many friendly balls of fur out there needing a home, and all of them less selfish and demanding than we humans. More times than not, I realize how thankful I will be to have outlived our pets instead of the well-kept furniture we’ll probably never have.