Thursday, October 11, 2018

Come out! Be happy! Have a National Day!

Seemed like a good time to revisit this one.  My behavior has not improved one jot in the intervening years.

Your Welcome: The Grammar Vandal Strikes Southwest High

Yes, officer, I did deface that poster in the halls of my daughter’s high school. But no jury in the world, as least one that knew the difference between possessives and contractions, would ever convict me.

Here’s what happened: Mary Katherine and I were killing time at intermission during a play. We saw a lovely four-color poster for National Coming Out Day (October 11! It just seems to come earlier every year. And I haven’t even wrapped my National Coming Out Gifts, or finished hanging the festive National Coming Out Day garlands!)

The poster encouraged everyone to celebrate that day by wearing a “name badge that identifies you’re orientation.”

Of course you can’t blame me for whipping out a ballpoint and changing the “you’re” to “your.” And yes, I did add just a teeny bit of editorial comment: “Good grammar is appropriate for all orientations.” Golly, that will learn ‘em.

Mary Katherine, by the way, thought all of this was great. It reminded me of one of her favorite games when she was small, which she invented and named, “Playing Hurdmans.” She’d loved the play, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and she was especially taken with the smoking, cursing, bullying delinquents of the piece, the Hurdmans. We’d finish Sunday breakfast and she’d beg, “Let’s Play Hurdmans.” The game involved her acting out crimes – setting fire to the cat was a popular one, as I recall – and me reacting with shock and horror. Even then, this girl knew that villains get the best parts.

So there we were in the hallway, me feeling like a cross between a pinch-faced librarian and Zorro, her laughing and egging me on. The minute I’d finished with my egregious act of vandalism, she turned to me, eyes shining. “Let’s deface something else before Act Two!” she urged, grinning wickedly. Turns out her orientation has been a closeted poster-defacer all these years, and it took this one bold move for her to come out.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The day I bought that jacket for a stranger

I didn’t walk into the Savers thrift store on Lake Street this past Tuesday with the intention of entering into an act of civil disobedience. I had no plans for a grand gesture regarding the way we treat immigrants in our community. And I certainly didn’t think I was going to be spending $8.99 on a sport jacket I would never wear. But that’s how life goes sometimes. We think we’re witnessing a passing moment, but instead we’re being presented with an opportunity. On my favorite day of the week (Senior Citizen 40% Off Day), I was presented with an opportunity.

I first saw the guy as I was cutting through Menswear on my way to Books. He was a tall fellow, dressed in a long tunic and a cap (I’ve since looked it up; it’s called a thobe and a kufi). On top of this, he was wearing a tan sport jacket, clearing modeling it for another guy, a doughy fellow dressed in a golf shirt and khakis (I did, barely, know the names of these clothes, sartorially challenged as I am). “Khakis” was kneading the top of the jacket’s shoulders, as the man swiveled from one side to another, in the universal gesture of “how do I look?” He offered an opinion: “I think it fits you pretty well.” And then, responding to a murmured question: “No, I don’t think the shoulders are too puffy.”  I headed off to Books, my head dancing with visions of delightful Senior Day Discounts.

A few minutes later, I was waiting in the checkout line when I noticed the thobe-and-kufi guy ahead of me at the register. The cashier was addressing him loudly, and her voice was getting angrier with each statement. “Cause I told you. You don’t have a Senior ID. You aren’t a Senior. You can’t have the discount.” She started to look around, trying to draw some Senior Shaming to get this guy to move away. He picked up the jacket. He backed out of line. He moved slowly past me, still looking at the jacket with what seemed like deep regret.

It was just a tan sport coat, but I got the sense it had already become his Lucky Jacket. “Khakis” had told him it looked good. He’d had confirmation that the shoulders were not too puffy. I had no idea what he wanted this jacket for—a job interview, an important meeting or maybe just for sitting around the house, looking like a 90s-era middle manager. One thing was clear: This man was so clearly strapped for cash that the extra 40% meant the difference between getting the Lucky Jacket and putting it back on the rack.

And this is when the voice in my head began: “DON’TGETINVOLVEDDON’TGETINVOLVED,” it told me. “JULIEIMEANIT,” the voice added, firmly. So of course I lifted my finger and beckoned to the man. I pointed to the jacket. Then I pointed to myself. “Give it to me,” I said quietly. “I’ll buy it for you.” He looked at me with soft, sad eyes. “I am the wrong age?” he asked, clearly confused about what had been barked at him by that rude, rude woman.

I looked into his face. That face. Right, honey, I wanted to shout over to the clerk, he’s not 55: He’s One Hundred and Fifty-Five. This guy had clearly lived plenty of years--enough years, at least in my opinion, to qualify him for a few bucks off a jacket so vintage that it’s probably still got an empty packet of Marlboros in one pocket and a few pink “While You were Out” slips in the other. “I’m the right age,” I told him, pointing to my wrinkly old face, for which I was, just at that moment, supremely grateful. “Give me the jacket and wait here.” I pointed firmly at a spot on the floor, as if I knew the exact Constitutionally designated location for sport-coat-related disobedience. He handed me the jacket and I moved back in line.

When I reached the clerk, I wanted to make a scene. I wanted to strike a blow for courtesy and customer service and giving someone a damn break every once in a while. I wanted to announce how I, little old lady, had single-handedly thwarted her dastardly scheme to separate a guy from his Lucky Jacket. I wanted to make her cry so hard that her ridiculous false eyelashes fell off like wooly caterpillars and ensured us all a milder winter. But I could tell that grandstanding was not my guy’s style. He had not gotten this far, lo these 155 years, by making a spectacle of himself in public. He was a master of blending in, I thought, just as I noticed that he’d already glided to the exit as she was toting up my purchases.

I decided to try something new for once in my life. I kept my mouth shut. And when the clerk told me to Have a Nice Day, I did not snarl or protest, but moved quickly away from the counter with my precious purchase. Outside, my guy took the jacket from me with one hand and reached for his wallet with the other. I shook my head and waved my hand, as if it would be ridiculous for him to pay me, as if everyone knew that part of life in Minneapolis was the existence of a crazed band of wrinkly old ladies who roamed the greater metro, buying menswear for deserving but impoverished chaps. I gave him a quick smile and trotted off before he had too long to think about it.

From my position behind the driver’s seat of my car, I saw him gather himself together. So many things about life in this country must be confusing, and here was one more baffling moment to add to the list. One thing was clear, though--ten minutes ago he didn’t have a jacket, and now he did. He slipped it on and wriggled around, adjusting it. Khakis was right, I thought--those shoulders aren’t too puffy, they’re just right. Walking away from the store, my co-conspirator tugged on a scarf, pulling it from his thawb and adjusting it jauntily around the collar of his Lucky Jacket. He flipped one end of the scarf over his shoulder with such √©lan that he might have been walking down a cosmopolitan thoroughfare in Paris or Cairo or Mogadishu, so elegant and natty did he seem.

I found myself wiping my eyes with the back of my hands. The forks in the road that take us from a rotten day to a blessed one can be so small that we often don't notice they exist. And there I was, the means by which his fortunes had shifted toward the good. I wished him luck, luck, nothing but luck, as he strode off down Lake Street to face the rest of his day. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Still in love after all these years

I've been doing a project for some folks in Golden Valley, so it seemed like an opportune moment to resurrect this blog. My worship of all things Betty is, if anything, deeper and richer than ever, like the chocolate-y, creamy center in that Tunnel O' Fudge Cake.

I Heart Betty

1965 Betty, the St. Paul resident of my dreams

To say that I admire Betty Crocker, or that I'm fond of her, does not begin to plumb the depth of my feelings. Offering the thought that I would gladly burn incense sticks and joss paper while prostrating myself in front of her portrait at General Mills headquarters (assuming that security guards would let me, which is unlikely) might be getting a little closer to the heart of the matter.

As I write these words, I realize it seems as if I think Betty Crocker is a real person.

Of course she’s real; what do you think I am, stupid? I know that Betty lives and breathes and cooks warm and tasty desserts somewhere, and now that I think of it, I even know where that place must be – St. Paul. How could she live anywhere else? I picture her house, a darling cottage on suitably adorably named St. Paul street. None of those big-city Minneapolis number-and-alphabet streets for Betty.  No, she lives in a tree-shaded glen on Juno, say, or Juliet. 

I imagine going to visit Betty. Of course I end up being late, because how can Juno follow right after Juliet? You can't have two J's in a row! Can’t they lay out the streets in any rational order in this god-damned city? Okay, calm down, breathe deeply and stop cursing, I tell myself. Betty is waiting, right behind that perfectly painted door with the two charming pots of traditional geraniums on either side.

She lets me in, pretending not to notice my sweaty and typically Minneapolis-frantic demeanor, because Betty is a Perfect Hostess. She leads me to the kitchen, which is appropriate but not over-the-top. No Aga for Betty, just a perfectly good Hotpoint, thank you very much. It might even be Harvest Gold, which, to Betty, still is a swell color, no matter what those hipsters in Uptown have to say about it.

Is Betty wearing her trademark red suit and pearls? Hmmm, I’m stumped there. It seems a bit formal for a casual afternoon entertaining a sweaty woman from Minneapolis; that suit is more like what she might wear when applying for loan at the bank or posing for a box of brownies. I hit upon the solution: Over the one outfit she seems to own, Betty wears an apron, something vintage-looking that she whipped up herself in the downstairs sewing nook. (I’ll bet Betty’s house has a lot of nooks, just saying.) As she pulls a pan from the oven, I notice that her oven mitts match her apron. Of course they do; duh, she’s Betty Crocker.

And then she places a dish of something warm and chocolaty in front of me, and offers me a glass of cold milk. Milk! I haven’t had milk in 25 years, but yes, Betty, I’d love some!

…. and, as I lift the glass to my lips, my reverie ends, and I’m back in Minneapolis, home of many orderly streets and very few Harvest Gold Hotpoints. And not, as I look in front of me, a warm, chocolaty dessert anywhere in sight.

Which causes me to wonder, honestly what is my deal? Why I am so taken with a woman who is (to some naysayers, I have to admit) an imaginary spokesperson? It’s not like I wish I could shake the hand of Uncle Ben or poke the avoirdupois of the Doughboy. My heart belongs to Betty, and I think I know why – because my mother loved her, too. My mom was a housewife in the 1950s, when it truly was a miracle to toss an egg into a bowl, add a mix, and whip it all up in the Sunbeam mixer for three to five minutes on medium speed. For my mother’s generation, packaged food was always better, and Betty Crocker was the symbol of the perfect housewife who knew how to please her family with reliable packaged goods.  

As I look back on what must have been my mother’s own cooking history, I’ve realized something – our mother’s mothers were, most likely, terrible cooks. In my own poor mother’s case, her mother died when she was seven years old, so I can’t imagine that she had many well-cooked meals. And, oh yeah, the Depression, which hit when she was nine. So of course she loved Betty Crocker. Not only could she afford it, but the food tasted the same way every time, and no dim-witted big sister or dopey dad could mess it up.

I’ve been doing some writing for General Mills the past few months, and recently I pitched a story to the editor of When she accepted my idea and gave me an assignment, I was happy beyond all rationality. I was going to be writing for Betty herself. If I couldn’t get over to her house in St. Paul (And, let's face it, I could never find my way around there, anyway), I would at least be writing for her, which didn't even involve trying to figure out the GPS.

I wished the thing I always wish when something nice happens to me. I wanted to call my Mom and tell her all about it. I could almost hear her, wanting to celebrate with me, but also eager to cut the call short so she could call all her girlfriends: Hey, Thelma, Eileen, Mary -- She's writing for Betty! My own little girl, the one who used to insist on adding brewer's yeast and bran flakes to every sodden, leaden thing she baked! Finally, she has seen the light and will be worshiping, one egg and a half-cup of water at the ready, at the altar of Betty.  

If there's a way to eat package-mix brownies in heaven, I hope my Mom is having a little celebratory treat right now. And here's a glass of milk raised to my gal Betty -- long may she reign.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Tilly falls down. I apply a Band-Aid.

The first bike accident of the season is always a moment of mixed emotions--I'm sorry it happened, but I'm happy to be around with the band-aids. Last night I was on the porch, lost in a book but happened to look up just in time to see a little girl crash into the municipal garbage can. I shouted over offers of help, and the bedraggled family appeared on my steps. Tilly had a big scrape along a bony knee, and an older brother who wanted to tell me how much he'd suffered when he stubbed his toe while getting into bed the previous night. Men.

I'm starting to feel like an EMT (mini-sized Parkway version), because nothing the rattled mom said came as a surprise: "We just had dinner and decided to take a ride." (Got it; you weren't planning on an accident, no one does.) When she started berating herself for not carrying band-aids on her person at all time, I put a hand on her arm. "That's why I'm here," I told her.

It reminded me of my favorite accident victim of all time, Theo, so I dug up this blog to mark the occasion.

SUNDAY, JULY 14, 2013

Living at the Bottom of the Hill

I live at the bottom of a hill. More specifically, my front yard faces the base of one of the steepest slopes in what’s called “The Grand Rounds” of our municipal bike path. On uphill cycling journeys, the sight of this hill generates gritted teeth, groans, and, often, the decision to hop off and push the bike up on foot. On the downhill side, the swift ride to the bottom seems to demand an exclamation from even the most taciturn Scandinavians -- “whee” being the standard utterance for someone who is letting go and letting gravity take over on West Minnehaha Parkway.

One of the happiest harbingers of spring is on that first Saturday afternoon when it’s warm enough for the windows to finally be open all afternoon, not just for a brisk morning airing. With the open-windowed house facing the path across the street, I’m once again connected to the community that’s passing by my door – the wisp of a baby’s wail, being shuttled past by an exhausted parent, the jingling of a heavily tagged dog trotting by, launching my dogs into an agony of “no trespassers!” warning barks.

But when I hear the first exultant “whee” from a cyclist flying down that hill, then I know in my heart that spring has finally made its way to Minneapolis. People cycle on  these paths year-round, but it’s only in spring that the “whees” return.

With every joy there is a sorrow, and, mixed in with all those happy-faced, delighted encounters with terminal velocity, there are also a goodly number of brutal examples of the essential vulnerability of our mortal selves as we combine machines, speed and gravity, fancy bike helmets notwithstanding. When you live at the bottom of a steep cycling hill, you not only hear a lot of “whees” – you see a lot of accidents, too.

I always have big band-aids on hand, and gauze, and ice packs that I can hand off -- for the woman who broke her ankle when a teenaged boy, racing his friends, decided to take a shortcut on the pedestrian path and plowed right into her last August, or for the boy who tipped over his handlebars, cut his lips badly with his own braces, and lost his eyeglasses in the underbrush a few years ago. Ambulances have been called. Seriously bad things have happened, right outside my door.

By those standards, what happened on Tuesday night, even if it resulted in twelve stitches administered to a tiny, but valiant, chin, was pretty mild. I had just stepped outside when I heard a boy’s cry, then looked across and saw the telltale signs – a bike lying flat, a Mom kneeling down over a small figure, an older sister standing by. “Do you need ice, a towel or a band-aid?” I called out, my usual First Aid Menu, here at the Accident Cafe. The mother’s face that appeared, her head snapping up at the offer of help, was wide-eyed, beautiful and worried. “A towel,” she called back, “and thank you.”

By the time I’d raced into my own house and come back out with a dampened towel, the trio had made their way into my front yard, as the injured often do. Bikes were tossed in the grass, the boy sat on the curb, and the mom began to dab at spots on his arms and legs. “Do you think he’ll need stitches?” she asked, tipping his chin up and revealing a very deep and ragged gash. I was conscious that both of them were looking right at me, so my first reaction -- "For the love of Jesus!  Don’t show me that! Now I have to go upstairs and lie down; goodbye!” didn’t seem like such a good idea. I tried to keep my face neutral, because I could tell the boy was watching it closely. “Tell you what,” I said, “Let’s put a few band-aids on it and see what happens.”

The older sister began to assert herself. You can’t be five years old, the ordained boss of a younger brother, and not begin to let everyone present become aware of your opinions on the matter. “This would be his fifth set of stitches,” she archly confided, in a tone that indicated that she was hoping for some tsk-tsking on my part. I just nodded, noncomittally. This is a man, I thought, who leads with his chin.

Once the sting from that first hard slap of reality had begun to wear off, the practicality of dealing with the aftermath of an accident began to emerge. The question is always the same -- what happens next?

“Do you think you can ride your bike home, Theo, or walk it?” the mom asked, in a jolly of-course-you-can manner that fooled no one. Let’s just say here that “Theo firmly declined this offer,” and draw a veil over the actual words that transpired.

“We can drive you home,” I suggested, “and put your bikes in the back of our car.” She thought this over for a moment, then looked up at me with her big, lovely eyes. I could tell I was talking with a woman who had read every single brochure in the pediatrician’s office, twice. “But you don’t have car seats in your car,” she said. Right.

Finally, it was decided that she would run the four blocks back to her house, get the car (with the car seats, thank God), and drive the kids home, then figure out how to have that chin stitched up. As she started to go, she realized that the one hitch in this plan was that she was forced to leave her children with a complete stranger, and she looked back to me for mother-to-mother comfort. “We will not leave this spot,” I promised, patting the very safe-looking grass of the front yard. She hesitated, then turned and ran off.

And that’s how I got to spend some time with Flora, age five, and Theo, age three, who, while a bit battered by recent events, were really the nicest part of my afternoon. “The first order of business,” I declared, “is Fruit Roll-Ups and some glasses of water.” Flora’s eyes got very big. “I’ve never had a Fruit Roll-Up before,” she confessed. As I handed over the shiny little packets, their eyes gleamed with the zeal of kids who have seen a lot of baby carrots in their day. I almost said, “Let’s not mention this to mom,” but quickly realized the folly that lay down that particular rabbit hole. Instead I cheerily declared, “First time for everything,” and watched the two of them ravenously gobble down the little packets of sugar and dye. Top that, baby carrots, I thought.

“I think Theo’s teeth are bleeding, too,” Flora said, peering in at him, but closer inspection revealed a gummy chunk of roll-up between a crevice. She was used to looking at him very closely, I realized, probably out of the corner of her eye, when she didn’t think anyone else noticed.

For his part, the injured party was having a pretty good time. I had an ice pack on his knee, and I kept applying fresh band-aids to a chin wound that can only be described as “gushing.” In the meantime, he busied himself patting the small dog and looking at the big one.

“I think that big one looks like Scooby Doo,” I told Flora. “We’ve never watched that, but I’ve heard about it,” she told me. Oh, you darling children, you've been raised on PBS and baby carrots, and now here you are at the witch's gingerbread house, I worried. Well, they'd have a lot to talk about at dinner tonight.

Theo, I noticed, was wearing a bead bracelet, which spelled out, it was revealed, “Worm.” Asked why, he declared matter-of-factly, “Cause I wuv em.” Flora’s bracelet, appropriately, said “Love,” and she hadn’t forgotten the silent “e” when she’d spelled it, either.

We talked about school, about what books they liked to read. Theo told me he loved a series about pirates who wore “dirt perfume made out of dirt,” and Flora was compelled to tell me, “that’s not a real book.” “But it could be,” I said, “and maybe he’ll write it.” She thought about that for a while, as Theo continued to bleed bucketsful onto one of my kitchen towels.

I wondered what it was that seemed so remarkable about these children, and then I realized:  they were relaxed. Even though something bad had happened, their mom had told them she was going to fix it, and they were going to be okay. They were spending time with a stranger, but, based on their lived experience to date, strangers turned out to be pretty nice, with sugary snacks and dogs to pet. No matter what had happened so far in their short lives, it was clear to me that they have always had a place they can lean into for a bit of rest and comfort. So far at least, there has always been a set of loving hands to hold them up and give them peace.

“Mom should be here soon,” Flora said, and lo, there was mom, hustling up the sidewalk. You have a need, and the answer appears. What a good way to start out a life.

I hugged the kids goodbye and told them to wave the next time they rode by, but carefully, please. As they walked away, I could hear Flora telling her mother, “I have something to tell you. She gave us Fruit Roll-Ups.”  I hustled inside, quickly, put away all the band-aid papers, wash off some spattered blood, and said a small prayer of healing for Theo’s battered chin. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

You can stop using the "B" word now

Perhaps you promised to get those edits to me overnight, and now it’s next week, and you need the final story an hour ago. Or maybe I asked you to participate in a service project with me, or attend a fundraiser for a cause I care about. It could possibly even be several days after some social gathering I hosted, to which you’d RSVP’d, but did not show up.

In any case, I know the magic word you’re going to lob in the air, one that will float over to me and instantly extricate you from further discussion or repurcussions. You know it, too. It’s your all-purpose pass for ignoring, forgetting and blowing off anything, everything and everyone.
       “I’m just so busy.” 
      “I’m crazy busy.” 
      “It’s insane right now.” 
     “You have no idea how busy I am.” 

You’re right. I don’t have any idea how busy you are. Even if you’re a very close friend, I don’t have an opportunity to observe how you order all your days or fill your time. But you don’t have any idea what’s happening on my end of the exchange, either, and, to be honest, I’ve never noticed you asking.

That’s why, lately, whenever someone wails about their “crazy busy” life, the more I hear something else – “I’m the busiEST. I have the most jam-packed schedule, and my life is way bigger than yours. And, now that I’ve invoked the “B” word, you are hereby obligated to murmur sympathy and offer condolences on my lamentable busy state. All eyes, please, on poor, poor me.”

So, yeah, I’m starting to feel the weight of that a little bit – to be tugged down by the crazy-busy-ers who seem to fill up the airwaves all around me, competing for space and sympathy. I don’t even know if I’m busy or not, because it’s so hard to hear myself think above the drone of everyone else’s hyper-full lives.

But here is what I do know – I’m not going to tell you every detail of my obligations, my burdens and my deadlines, even if that’s all I can really think about right now. Instead, if you ask me to do something or be somewhere, here is what I will do. I will look at my schedule and make a silent decision about how I can and want to allocate my time, and then, with all due haste and as little drama as possible, I will tell you: “Yes, I can come to the party, or help you paint that room, or sit with you when you're getting the next round of chemo. When should I be there and what can I bring?” Or, “No, I can’t be there, I’m sorry, but what else can I do to help?”

 And then, my friends, I will shut up about it.  So you can have some more time, bless your heart, to tell me about how crazy, crazy busy you are.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Food Valentines that Missed: The Yam, the Herring and the Abused Cow

In addition to writing about college professors and clinical research studies and the latest innovations in fireplace design, I also write about food. I write about chefs and restaurants and trends and recipes, and I never get tired of it, although I sometimes get very, very hungry.

This Valentine's Day, I went off searching for some vintage Valentines that might be fun to share. I found a blonde mermaid insisting that there was “nothing fishy” about her love; sledding kids declaring there was “snow doubt” that they wanted the recipient to be their valentine; a pony-tailed teen, lying prone, telephone in hand, somehow rhyming “yak” and “it’s a fact” that she wants U to be her valentine. I was in heaven.

Then I found the food valentines, but the really odd ones -- clearly made the day the office staff went out for lunch and had too many cocktails, or perhaps when one of them just snapped at all the unmanageable rhymes for garrulous adolescents. Perhaps the artist was simply a victim of her own success. One day, feeling hungry, she came up with giant, romantic fruits, declaring they’d be “a peach of a pair.” She followed that up with a bowl of salty snacks and the line, “I’ll pop a corny question and ask you to be my valentine.”

Perhaps those cards were huge hits. The public loved them. The boss demanded more food-related valentines. The artist was stuck. Then, in a fit of desperation, she created this:
 An orange-fleshed tuber in a valentine?  Hey, it worked with the bowl of popcorn. For those who think Mr. Yam is wielding spud privilege with a menacing cane/weapon, I will state that I believe it's more of a walking stick/accessory. This yam is probably best buds with Mr. Peanut.  When he isn’t sweet-talking lady yams, he and Mr. P. probably take long strolls down the boulevard, stunted arm in stunted arm.  I imagine the yam has been saving up for a monocle.

But back to our desperate artist. The boss accepted the yam-entine, grudgingly, so now where should she turn? Why, to Omega-rich oily fish, of course:
 Our love can be pickled, our love can be smoked, but it will last forever, said this genius card.

By this point, I imagine that the boss was getting angry. No one wants a valentine like this, he shouted.  Go back, literally, to the drawing board. And then, our artist created it:  a valentine that combines cruelty, red meat and love in a perfect trifecta of Valentine’s devotion:
Did the boss fall for it?  I like to think that the artist was carried around the office on the shoulders of her adulatory co-workers, and that she eventually took over the company and sold it to the Japanese in 1965 for one million dollars.

Or something like that. Happy Valentine's Day, by the way.