Friday, August 31, 2007

Moon Men and Earth Mothers: a Tale of Endless Love…and Hate…and Love…

“And, love,
I’ll be that fool for you,
I’m sure.
You know I don’t mind.
Oh, you know I don’t mind.
And, yes, you’ll be the only one,
‘cause no one can deny
this love I have inside.
And I’ll give it all to you,
my love, my love, my love,
my endless love.”

--Lionel Richie and Diana Ross

I’m standing in the self-checkout lane at Cub. Because this is the Cub on University Avenue in St. Paul, two of the registers are covered with quickly written magic marker signs that read “Out of Order.” This leaves two open registers. At one, of course, a man is having trouble entering the weight of the produce he’s buying. At the other, a woman is fidgeting with a large stack of coupons. Clearly, it would have been much faster for these people to just go through the express lane and let the professionals handle the registers.

But there’s something appealing to a certain group of people, of whom I am one, about the self-check-out lane at Cub. Here you can buy whatever you want without all the hassle of human interaction. In some small way, you are making a statement about your fierce independence. So self-reliant are you that you’ve taken on the responsibilities usually reserved for someone with a nametag and extensive knowledge of the price per pound of produce. “See?” you tell yourself once you’ve quieted the electronic voice telling you to remove that “unexpected item” from the bagging area. “I can do this myself. I don’t need anyone else.”

But even as I stood waiting for my turn to prove my independence, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross crooned over the store’s loudspeaker, professing their eternal devotion, their deep and abiding need for one another, their endless love. And all at once, the epic story of man and woman—of humankind—crushed in on me. It had been screaming at me since I left the house, but until now, I hadn’t really heard.

I had decided to bring my roommate’s dog with me for a late-night run the store. Before getting in the car, I walked her down to the end of the block. As we approached the corner, a car parked on St. Clair pulled a U-ey in what I would call a pretty urgent manner. There were no other cars on the street, so I wasn’t sure what the woman driver’s hurry was until a man’s voice shouted from a window in one of the upper stories of the apartment building across the street, “Fuck you, bitch!”

His voice was so angry, so loud; it absolutely shattered the calm night air. As a pickup truck loaded with what was probably the woman’s share of the household furniture followed after her speeding car, I scanned the lighted windows of the apartment building for the heartbroken man’s silhouette. Also, I scanned for the silhouette of the heartbroken man’s gun. Finding neither, I quickly moved from my hiding place behind an annoyingly small tree and double-timed it to my car down the block.

The man’s wrathful cry was still ringing in my ears as I waited for oncoming traffic to slow so I could turn left onto University Avenue. The light changed, and a white pickup truck that now had the green light moved impatiently into the intersection and made as if to hit my car. For the second time in five minutes, a man’s voice rang angrily through the night, but this time, the intended targets were my own delicate female ears. “Asshole!” he yelled.

I don’t know if I was more surprised to be thus treated or to have the wrongly gendered “asshole” applied to me. I wanted to set the record straight, to let him hear my woman’s voice and alert him of his faux pas. To my frustration, all that came to me was, “Shut up!” Too late, I thought to add a more gender-appropriate curse than his and shouted, “Bastard!” but he was gone, already speeding off in the opposite direction.

“What is wrong with the men in this city tonight?” I wondered aloud to the dog in the backseat. She looked back at me blankly, perplexed and utterly without an answer.

I had an odd list of things to pick up at Cub: cookie dough, a barrette for my increasingly unruly hair, and bread. I made for the health-and-beauty section of the store and found it nearly deserted. There was only one other person within a five-aisle radius, and it was a man. At first, I’d been surprised to see a guy in this section, but any uneasiness I might have felt at entering this secluded corner of the store at night was quelled when I saw that he was examining the nail-care products. “Phew,” I said to myself. “It’s just a harmless metrosexual.”

I found the aisle with hair accessories and noticed out of the corner of my eye that the man was walking slowly towards me. I got in my defensive stance and prepared to scurry around the end cap if he got any closer. I was especially concerned to realize that he seemed to be whispering to himself. I grabbed my barrettes and glanced up to plan my escape route. It was then I noticed a cord trailing from his ear to his pocket. He was not talking to himself about the various brands of lady shavers but to someone on the other end of the phone. His voice was soft and appeasing: “They’ve got a three-pack on sale, baby.” The marionette string that was his phone cord twitched, and his arms moved for nail polish remover, for conditioner and razors not of is own volition but in direct response to the whispered commands of a woman he loved.

My heart was softened a bit by the scene of a man running unmanly errands for his special lady. I had nearly forgotten all the shouting and swearing I’d heard tonight as I picked up the cookie dough and made for the bread aisle. I snagged a loaf of the cheapest wheat and noticed a small piece of cardboard on the nearly empty shelf. On one side was an ink drawing depicting the familiar pattern of a skull and crossbones, but where the skull should have been, the artist had drawn a heart with eyes that were crying. A similar figure appeared on the back of the cardboard, perhaps an earlier draft of the emblem, along with a crude drawing of a cloud and several lightning bolts.

“Hmm,” I thought as I headed toward the self-checkout lanes.

Several minutes later, still waiting for the man with his produce and the woman with her coupons to figure out the machines, I took a deep breath to avoid strangling them. In my newly calm state, I became aware of the music playing over the store’s sound system.

Lionel Richie sings, “My love, there’s only you in my life, the only thing that’s bright,” and I think of the moon. Tonight it’s low and waning. As I was parking my car in the grocery store’s lot, I’d noticed its pale form hanging dejectedly over Herberger’s. It’s two nights since the moon was full, and now it looks like someone took a lady shaver to its right side. The Man in the Moon will lose more and more of his light to the black of the night sky, and he seems to know it.

Diana Ross’ voice seems placating to me now, offering assurances of her love in irresistibly sweet tones, singing over Lionel’s lines with a soft urgency. Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, reassures her man: “You’re every breath that I take. You’re every step I make.”

I thought of the woman speeding away from the apartment building on my street, the end of romance breaking the night with a disembodied curse from above. Was it the waning moon shouting after her from its low perch in the sky? “Go on, leave! And take that sliver of light off my right side with you! Fuck you, bitch!”

The squeal of tires, and my mind morphs her dark hatchback into a white pickup speeding off into the night. Had the man heard me shout my lame “Shut up…bastard”? Did he feel bad about calling me an asshole? Probably not. Had he wished he called me a bitch? Maybe.

And I wonder to myself if the man in the health-and-beauty section has moved on to the feminine hygiene products yet. Is there a pillow-soft voice whispering directly into his ear about a preferred brand of tampons?

Love is a treacherous thing, it seems to me. The mystery bread-aisle artist had captured the sentiment so simply, so eloquently in the skull-and-crying-heart drawing.

“And your eyes, your eyes, your eyes, tell me how much you care.” Lionel and Diana are working their way to the song’s climactic declaration of endless love, and all the events of the night press upon me in a fleeting glimpse and only marginal understanding of the epic struggle, the eternally rocky relationship between men and women. And suddenly I think of the lightning in the heart-and-crossbones drawing, the violence with which the sky seeks electrical balance with the earth.

There is something in the air tonight between the men and women of St. Paul, all toiling under the waning moon. I know I must do something on behalf of my sex, a small gesture at reconciliation. Some human interaction might be required. For this moment in time, I will have to abandon my independence and the self-checkout lane. I see that there are two express lanes open, one with a female cashier, one with a male. I make for the lane with the man at the register.

He rings up my three items, and I slide my credit card through the machine. A sign above the man reads that credit card transactions for purchases below $25 don’t require a signature. But this might be my only chance to communicate the apologies of my sex for our role in the lunacy of the evening, to reassure this man that, like Diana, we all “can’t resist your charms.” So I pick up the fake pen attached to the credit card machine and pretend to get ready to sign.

“Oh, you don’t have to sign,” the cashier says as if he’s doing me a huge favor. I look him straight in the eye and channel Diana Ross for my one word reply that contains the whole of human interaction: “Awesome.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Let My People* Go

*and by "people," I mean "teeth"

Woe = me.
No, make that "woe is less than or equal to me." I had thought I might be getting my braces off on Friday, but alas, no. Here they are, cemented still to my teeth. Oh, my teeth! Would I recognize them if I saw them today? It has been so long since they have felt the sun on their enamel. For nigh on two years have their metal shackles kept them from the sweet freedom of certain sweets.

I think they're starting to drive me a little crazy. I feel an odd claustrophobia of the mouth that is really unsettling at times. And on Thursday night, it actually crossed my mind that my orthodontia was receiving communications from other-worldly beings. The phone rang, and when I answered, a disjointed, somewhat androgynous electronic voice spoke, "This IS the UNIVersity OF MinnESOTA ORTHodontic CLINIC CALLING to reMIND you of YOUR APPOINTment tomorROW, FRIDAY, August 24th at 4 o'clock PM."
The voice informed me of a custom of its home world similar to our Earth RSVP, and I politely relayed my intention of attending this meeting by pressing 1 on my phone's number pad.

The faculty adviser to my manly orthodontic student dentist seems to think my teeth could be just a little straighter, and so I must bear this bondage a little longer, the impressions of these metal brackets and wires sinking deeper and deeper into the soft tissue of my mouth. They have to come off one day, right? Right? Until then, I'll keep my teeth to the sky and my ears open for messages from the universe at large. At this point, I wouldn't care so much if they came in peace, just as long as they brought futuristic tooth-straightening devices. Or they could even just knock out all the teeth on Earth so that no one--namely me--is covetous of another's straight teeth EVER AGAIN.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Heights of Joy

(a companion blog entry to Depths of Despair)

Holy crap! Breaking news!

I was just walking my roommate's dog down St. Clair Avenue. The wind is sort of high in St. Paul today, and it's rush hour, so there were a lot of cars on the street. With all the wind and the cars rushing, I didn't notice any shouting when I left the building. But on the way back, over the traffic and the fine summer breeze, I heard a resounding "THREE!"

The Tourettes Baller just made it to three!

This is seriously the first time I've ever heard him get that high, and I've been listening to his counting and his curses for over a year. I haven't heard any shouting since, so I have to wonder if he's just reached his life-long goal and decided to go out while he was on top--you know, like Seinfeld.

Oh, I wish I could have seen it, but the basketball court is sunken. And I have to admit, the mystery associated with the Baller is a large part of his appeal to my imagination. If I had just charged over there, I would have been like a little girl hearing a commotion on Christmas Eve and running downstairs to congratulate Santa on finding her house: I don't want to risk the shattering of any illusions; nor do I want to have to pretend not to know the truth for the benefit of the other kids in the neighborhood.

Plus, I'm not sure the Tourettes Baller is entirely aware of how far his voice carries or how many people are invested in his progress on the basketball court. I wouldn't want him to have the added pressure of knowing he had a far-reaching audience. It might also be--I don't know--disconcerting to him if a strange woman with crazy wind-blown hair and a bag of dog shit hurried over to him shouting, "Way to go, Baller! I knew you could do it."

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Writing on the Walls of History

Oh, my god! I just totally saw the president's decoy helicopter leaving Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. I rolled out of bed around 11:00 this morning and turned on the TV to the sounds of a reporter on the second-to-worst local news apologizing for causing confusion as to whether or not Marine One had just landed at the airport after the president's visit to Minneapolis. "No, this one. It's this one. Here it comes. Yeah, this one is definitely Marine One." I got the feeling her in-studio counterparts had reason to doubt her assertions. "No, the other ones didn't have the white top, but this one does. Yeah, this is the president's helicopter."

The airport is just south of my apartment, and I could hear helicopter blades whirring ;) outside. So, keen for a chance to shake my fist at something presidential, I hurried to my front windows and caught sight of a single black helicopter in the distance. I aimed my fist pump in the direction of the airport and shouted, "Yeah, you better leave!" And then I watched George Bush oblige on TV.

I view my fist-shaking from St. Paul as a continuation of the traditions upon which this city was founded. Like a baby who narrowly escapes being named after crazy Uncle No Nose, St. Paul is lucky to have such a respectable, even holy, moniker, considering it was basically founded by a one-eyed fur trader turned moonshiner known for his "intemperate and licentious" behavior. Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant set up his still in what is now downtown St. Paul only after being kicked out of the area around Fort Snelling. Seems the respectable military types in charge of bringing civilization to the upper Midwest didn't approve of the squatters' camp around the fort, and especially of Pierre and his whiskey.

So Pierre packed up his still, popped in his false eye, and moved up the river to a place called Fountain Cave. But it apparently wasn't far enough away from the outpost. The officers perched up in their fort on the cliffs of the Mississippi didn't want the blemish of Pig's Eye within their sight. Pierre was forced even farther upriver, and St. Paul's skyline now rises from the place where some ragtag squatters blindly followed a one-eyed coot and his whiskey still. And for a long time, the area was named for crazy Uncle Pig's Eye.

Curious about the origins of this city, I visited historic Fort Snelling on Memorial Day this year. There was to be a flag raising ceremony and historical reenactments throughout the day. As I mentioned earlier, I am a vegetarian who loves The Deadliest Catch. Well, I'm also a pacifist who likes war stories. And although Fort Snelling never saw any kind of action, it's chock full of military history, and the promise of reenactors tromping around, using words like "musket" and "nigh on" in conversation was irresistible to me. I made my little brother go with me, you know, for his historical edification. Really, I needed a young boy to point to if I was called upon to say, "No, I'm not here alone. You know boys and guns. He just loves this stuff."

We arrived just as they were raising the new flag on its recently relocated pole, now in its original 19th-century position. A man dressed in a uniform and holding a spear welcomed us through the sally port gate. I turned to my little brother. "Here's your gate, Sally."

Already resentful at being dragged here, he didn't look at me. "Shut up," he said, his eyes on the sidewalk leading to the fort.

The uniformed man began, "They're about to fire a"-- BOOM! Cannon fire split the still May morning, my heart jumped, and my arms flailed. I looked down at my little brother, who regarded my expression with the look of a prisoner suddenly resigned to his sentence of death by boredom.

So this was the outpost of civilization on the upper Mississippi? It's an impressive collection of neatly ordered brick buildings high above the river. The area surrounding it, where the squatters once sang their drunken songs up to the disapproving fort, is now a state park with bike paths and hiking trails. Airplanes fly low and loud on their approach to the airport, which is about three miles away.

My brother and I made our way from building to building, watching demonstrations by washerwomen and blacksmiths. A man who said he was Josiah Snelling and produced as proof a bicorn hat gave a demonstration of 19th-century manners for a roomful of children and their nerdy parents. His house was the most well-appointed building in the fort, and I imagined the other soldiers in their barracks casting the occasional jealous eye at their colonel's fancy window panes and personal waste buckets.

Colonel Snelling had all sorts of rules regarding interaction between men and women: how to address one's wife, how to lead one's wife by the arm, how to walk up and down stairs in a manner most likely to avoid impaling one's wife on one's sword.

The signs on the walls of historic Fort Snelling are also telling of a period in history governed by a strict adherence to social rules, even in the remotest areas of untamed Minnesota. One framed sheet of paper in the hospital building bears a warning in Old English: "No person fhall fpit on the floor or walls of the hofpital, but fhall endeavor to keep the ward as clean as poffible." I was imagining the self-hating lisper who wrote this message when my little brother's voice came through the centuries.

"Can we go now?"

We made our way back to the sally port gate and arrived in time to hear the guard chastising a bicyclist. "No bikes on the sidewalk!" he shouted. The bicyclist eyed the man's spear and decided it wasn't worth the fight. He slung his bike over his shoulder and walked down the gravel path toward the state park's bike trails.

I like to think he continued down the trail that runs along the river, all the way past Fountain Cave and to Lowertown St. Paul. He stops in the shadow of Galtier Plaza, in the city once known as Pig's Eye, spots the planes circling the airport, and shakes his fist in the direction of Fort Snelling.