Untethered Dog

You Never Know Where He Will Go

Notes from the Observation Deck


I like that you can see the St. Paul skyline to the east.

I like that you can see the Minneapolis skyline to the west.

One spot, two cities.

Below are Highland Park, Highland National Golf Course, and the Charles M. Schulz Highland Arena. And green. So much green. A green cloth on which sits the table of reds, browns, yellows, and oranges of October.

I had written this day into my calendar months ago. They only let people go up the Highland Water Tower twice a year. During the Highland Fest community celebration is one time. This, the second weekend in October, is the other.

I told my writing partner we had to go.

I have written about this longitude and latitude before, of my memories of the arena that at that time was called just “Highland.” (Back then Schulz was still alive and pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.) I must have passed beneath the steeple I now stand in a hundred times, two hundred times, without ever going inside, without probably even noticing it was there. You don’t look up in winter as much as you do in summer.

Clarence Wigington designed this tower.

This tower was built in 1928.

This tower is 127 feet high. Erected on a hill, we are elevated some 440 feet.

Wigington’s nickname was “Cap.”

The temperature is 41 degrees. Here at the top — up the winding stairs — it is windy. So it feels colder than 41. You need, in other words, to wear a cap.

Wigington is someone to know for reasons that have nothing to do with his nickname. He was the first African-American municipal architect in the nation. He served as the city of St. Paul’s architect for nearly 35 years. His body of work rates him as worthy of study. He was a pioneer, an artist. He designed dozens of buildings that still stand within city limits, including several on the National Register of Historic Places. Wigington built things that endure.

Wigington also designed places intended to pass away. He created a number of what I understand were striking ice palaces for the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival.

Winter is coming and I have found my spirit brace against its impending arrival. I sense myself want to go into hibernation — constricted body, closed mind, an inclination toward isolation.

Until just a couple of years ago you could go up Wigington’s water tower year-round. For some fifty years after he died, the Highland Water Tower, which held up to 200,000 gallons, pumped water to the city’s residents.

I like to go to the top of buildings. Sometimes a different view of the world around you alters one’s perspective on the landscape within you.

It is closer to winter up in Wigington’s water tower. But I am grateful that I came up here with my friend.

Winter is easier to welcome when you hold close warm memories.

The Word of the Week

Distraction.

What is an appropriate amount of distraction?

How much time off should you take?

How much time off must you take?

When is a distraction not just a distraction but a detriment?

What people, pets, places, things distract you?

Is there an optimal amount of distraction? A better or best type, a greater or lesser form, of distraction?

How do you know when you are distracted?

What do you do when you know you are distracted? Were distracted? Have been distracted?

How much of your life are you able and willing to donate to distraction?

Hello and Goodbye

We were at the Minnesota Museum of American Art viewing an Arab-inspired exhibit — a geographic mishmash of a description if ever there was one — and the gallery guide was telling us about the painting before us.

A man walked into the gallery. The MMAA is small. The man had pushed hard on the door brace into the galley. The door had closed with a noticeable thud.

This portrait was from the mid-1990s, our guide said.

“Hi!” the man said. He had walked up to the first person he saw. The man’s voice was high-pitched.

“Are you gay?” he asked.

He walked to each of the people he encountered. He smiled. He never stopped smiling. It may be more accurate to say that his default expression seemed that of a man prone to happiness.

“Bye!” he said.

The portrait was by an Iraqi American at the time living in Detroit, a picture of the artist himself regarding his fellow Iraqi American, a friend, our gallery guide explained in the tones gallery guides use.

“Hi!”

The man had reached our small group. He had cropped hair. He was about 40 years old, I would guess.

“Are you gay?”

The portrait was created, our guide continued on, in response to the Gulf War. It demonstrates the diaspora among Iraqis living in Michigan at that time, not many years after America invaded Iraq.

“Bye!”

The man talked as though he were the human equivalent of one of those old toy dolls that has a string in the back.

“Are you gay?”

“Bye!”

You might take from this description that I am making fun of the man. In fact, he made me smile. I am writing about him to place him more clearly into my memory.

I go to galleries because when I look at art I usually feel better than I did before. I don’t have an especially sophisticated sensibility. Sometimes I don’t, frankly, know what I am looking at. I am not especially drawn to the post-modern, for example, which is generally less accessible, in my view. I find visual art calming and challenging at the same time.

Early in our tour, the guide, in response to a question from our group, made the remark that all art is open to the patron’s interpretation. I am not necessarily down with that view. The artist labored for some time to arrange colors, objects, expressions — every element is chosen by the artist for a reason. She or he might not be attempting to make a single statement. That would be unlikely; the point isn’t to decode. Yet if there is a wide discrepancy between the experience the artist is trying to convey and my reading of that conveyance, well, then, it seems to me, a failure of some order occurs. (That failure, I’m fully willing to say, may be mine. I think we can — should — be multitudes — patrons of fine art who also, say, watch hockey or eat at Chipolte. That is different than saying we will be at one with every artist.) Art takes us to a place we do not already inhabit. If we are not made to bend, a least a little, in the experience, what is the point of art? And if we don’t expose ourselves to things that might change us, what is the point of life?

That said, there are times I go to a gallery like this one and make more of it than is constructive. As this portrait was the one in this particular gallery that most captured my attention, one of few that did at all, I had the conscious thought just then that I might be trying too hard to make something of the moment.

“Hi!”

I had not noticed that the man was now upon me. He put his hand on my shoulder. I said, “Hi.”

He said: “Bye!”

The man was an antidote to my trying. Some would say the man has cognitive impairment. I do not wish to attempt to diagnose him except to say that, clearly, he was not minding the usual social graces and there was reason to believe he did not know of the existence of those social graces.

The man moved around to the front of the group. He went up to the guide. He came inches away. We were still regarding the double portrait. She stopped talking for a moment.

“Is this art?” he asked.

The guide said that it was.

The man turned and walked around the corner.

“Bye!” he said.

Things I Could Write About

One
All the parents I see at bus-stops in the morning. School bus-stops, I mean. What are they doing there? It’s like the long goodbye. It’s a school day! Let Liam and Skylar hang with their school-mates for eight minutes! Let ’em have a little unsupervised time before they get on the bus to go be controlled by other adults.

 

Two
Red lights on empty streets. What is up with that? As someone who frequently drives before the rest of the world wakes up, I have time to wonder how it is we have motion sensors in our homes, how we can now be securely identified by such things as the sound of our voices, and yet I still find myself, as I regularly do, sitting still on avenues in which there is truly no cross-traffic. Here I don’t mean the cross-traffic is light. I mean that I never, ever see another car pass in front of me as I wait to continue on my way to the gym in the morning. Alexa: turn that light green — now.


Three
What is best way to deal with unpleasant memories? Put them deep inside a closet of your mind? Take some step, if possible, to banish them? I had a reverberation from memories I wrote about recently. More than the people or places, I remembered a mood. It was not a pleasant mood. I would not usually choose to be in such a mood. The fact of the memory means it’s in there, like it or not, and so just choosing not to think about it doesn’t make it go away, not entirely. I also want to experience all of life, not just the moments I get to sit in cashmere couches. But when the icky notions land on my table I might also not want to put them in a bowl and stir. Or do I? After all, this seems part of the artistic process — to make something from all of oneself, not excepting the dark bits. Actually, come to think of it, that might be what I am up to in this blog. Or at least part of it. This blog is a means to make from memory? Something else I could write about.

Memory Lane


I believe in those days the place was called Williamsburg Estates. Irony is fun.

The white columns face the stoplight where France Avenue ends, where St. Louis Park meets Minneapolis, just west of the lake that at that time was called Calhoun.

I recall the maintenance man greeting me during my move-in: “welcome to the property,” he said, warmly. He wore a tool belt. He was due for his annual dental exam.

The woman next door was young, too, but slightly older than me. She was pretty. She had a baby. In the few times we had interaction I remember her once standing outside her own door with a glass of champagne in her hand. Possibly it was wine. I don’t recall why we both had reason to be outside our apartments, yet in the hallway, and say hey. False fire alarm or something. Maybe it was New Year’s.

Between my building and another in the Estates sat a lovely parking lot. My girlfriend at the time once opened the window of my second (third?) story place with a nice view of that parking lot and summoned me to the bedroom. It was unusual for her to do such a thing. Here I am not talking about the window. I thought she might be the one. I thought a lot of things. We had lasted past my college graduation but we would not make it past the time when I would move out of the Estates.

I lived there maybe a year. (Actually, hmm, I think I had signed a nine-month lease.)

I don’t recall hanging much on the walls. I do recall shadows from the meager light in the place. Had one of those fluorescent tower lamps and that was pretty much it.

I worked part-time as a sportswriter in Robbinsdale. Soon I got a full-time news gig within the same company and shifted to the Bloomington office. There was a co-ed who worked in production who had fire-red hair and green eyes. She was easy to talk to — and not hard to look at. She visited me in the Estates once. I believe a movie was on.

For some months I also worked 10 or so hours a week at the Barnes & Noble down the street. My name appeared on the employee newsletter one time, in the section on imminent departures. Except I had not given notice. I soon would. Maybe all those readers could read me better than I could read myself.

One of the guys I worked with at the B&N also worked for a local dial-up Internet service provider. I remember being certain that of all the people I might talk to when I called the customer service line I got him. I didn’t understand what was wrong with my service. Probably still wouldn’t. Possibly I just needed help getting setup. (A common refrain in those days.) My impression was that he knew it was me and I knew it was him but neither of us acknowledged this fact.

Around this time, maybe on the same day, I had a memorable confrontation with anxiety. It started in the apartment’s lone bedroom. Sun came through the window. It was late morning. This was different than any nervousness I had felt before the usual things that make you nervous: a test, being called on in class and not having the answer, dating. I am not sure what sparked it. Or what I was nervous about. Existential angst of some sort. But for a hot minute there I didn’t know what was going on. I was at the table on which sat the computer dialed into the Internet. I remember involuntarily going into the small bathroom. Except I didn’t need to use the bathroom. Why the bathroom? Not sure. Anxiety is anathema to clarity. Maybe I just needed to move. There were only a few hundred square feet in which to do that and remain contained from the rest of the world. And it would not have occurred to me to at that time to share my vulnerability. Young adulthood is not an uncommon time for stuff to surface, as I understand it. This makes sense: you are untethered for the first time. Freedom is sexy and scary at the same time.

From that parking lot it took forever to get to the nearest grocery store. Or so it seemed. So many stoplights. So much traffic. I probably went on weekdays when I should have gone on weekends. A Rainbow, if I am not mistaken, is where I shopped. Near Knollwood Mall. Or thereabouts. (Memory over top memory: I surprised the redhead from work at Knollwood once. Not sure why she was there. But she told me she would be and she was really happy that I did that. You could see it in her green eyes. One thing I am grateful for is an ability to pleasantly surprise people.)

After work on weekdays, I would come home and listen to the local sports talk radio station and eat — either fast food or food made fast in my small kitchen. I recall doing this one time in particular when it must have been winter because it was already pitch-dark and the show started at 3 o’clock or something like that. I laid down in the dark, just outside those shadows on the walls, which flickered when cars pulled into the lot, and took mental notes. I was stimulated and melancholy at the same time. I wanted to be a sportswriter at a major newspaper. I had no idea how this was going to happen.

Often lacking groceries, I frequented a Chinese takeout down the near side of the street. There was a Lincoln Dell, too, on the opposite side. A small kosher grocer sat immediately across the avenue. Four short aisles, I recall. I am sure I went in and asked for something they wouldn’t have. (I knew nothing of the Jewish tradition at that time. I recall walking past an open apartment door in our building once, where some Hasidic Jews lived. There was even less on their walls. A candle burned. They had shadows, too.)

These places are gone now, I see, as my little buddy and I happened by the old haunt the other day.

The Search Continues

From our side of the river you can see a pedestrian bridge that runs parallel to the current. As soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to walk it. Today was the day were going to find that bridge.

After driving up and down the river parkway, we pulled over. I figured we had to be close. There happened to be a guy messing around in his car. His trunk was open. Lots of stuff in that trunk. Like he couldn’t say no at the last rummage sale he had been to.

“Do you know the area?” I asked.

We had indeed pulled over close. The pathway down was forty yards away. The man pointed. “It’s about a mile from there,” he said, referring to the start of our path.

The weather was perfect. It was a perfect day to find a bridge.

Except when we reached river level we stopped. The Mississippi had crested. Our path was a bath.

Hanging out on a nearby beach some minutes later — a perfectly fine spot, there was a bench and a clearing, and B. could roam free — the man showed up.

“I was down here just last night, about 5 o’clock, and it wasn’t like that,” he said. The man held in his hand a football. He held the football high. His arms were a question mark.

He paused. He contemplated. “Have we gotten any more rain?”

Today was perfect. Yesterday was perfect. “No,” I said. We have gotten a great deal of rain the last ten days. None, however, in the last twenty-four hours.

“You could get right through yesterday,” he said. He seemed to be apologizing for the guidance he had given us. No reason for that. Sometimes it’s not the thing you are looking for that you need. B. and I were content with what we did find: A bee in its last throws crawled up beside me on the bench. The fall colors put on their warmup act. Slow-moving water provided our soundtrack. There was, to confirm, plenty to pee on.

On our way back up the path we talked some more with the man. He likes to get in his car and go, he said. Yesterday he had been in Zimmerman, Minnesota, and stumbled on a quaint neighborhood he wasn’t expecting to find that far out of the city. “I just like to go see what I find,” he said.

I know the feeling. My little buddy has wrote “Barry Was Here” (in his own way) in more patches of more counties than I could count.

“We’re you going to throw some,” I asked. His football was pristine. Multi-colored. Red and yellow and white. Possibly a new-style Nerf. I must admit I have not played backyard football this century. A wrong for which I have no excuse.

We shared the path with runners  and a biker and a juggler; two people doing calisthenics (a woman jumping rope, a man doing super shallow squats with an unwavering gaze), and a woman shimmying in a hammock near the water. A cruise boat passed on the far side. We heard a crew caller bark orders as a team rowed along the near edge.

“No,” he said. “I just like to have something in my hand. Since walking is boring.”

I don’t think he meant that. There was nothing boring about where we were. Probably why he had come back to this place two nights in a row. We say things. He was a nice fellow.

B. and I will make it to the bridge another day. We got in our car. We left. But not disappointed.

In the Beginning

On that walk this morning … we heard a baby crying.

It was still dark. No sound but the crying. Sounded like the baby was alone.

The crying came from the direction of some shrubs along the tree-lined street. The street was north-south. We were going east-west.

Then, as if fabricated from the shadows, a boy — not a baby but a very young boy — appeared. He held the hand of a woman. They walked together, slowly, on the sidewalk.

I assumed the woman was the boy’s mother. But as the pair moved in our direction I surmised that this woman was too old to be the mother of a boy so young. Grandmother, perhaps.

Almost as soon as we could see the boy the boy fell face-first into the sidewalk. He tipped straight over — straight-legged, one line, down, flat.

There was no doubt about where the crying was coming from, just then.

The woman picked up the boy and went inside a house feet from where the boy fell. The two of them sat on a couch near the window in the only lit room in the house. I did not have to strain to glimpse them as we walked by the house. The boy sat on the woman’s thigh. He no longer cried.

As soon as we are alive, we cry. If we don’t cry spontaneously, our cries are induced.

Then a woman holds us close. Until we no longer cry.

Ready … Set …

A writing teacher of mine used to say that if you take three days off you are starting over.

It is the great paradox of life that we do not get to start again, not really, and yet in every moment lies an opportunity for renewal.

I am happiest when I have a beginner’s mind.

I have started this blog many times. I suspect I will begin it many more.

I feel like every day is a microcosm of my life. That is, it starts with death. I am unconscious; I am asleep. There is comfort here. My first quasi-conscious thought of the day today was to go back to death, to go back to sleep.

It was way early.

I let my little buddy out.

I meditated.

I did not go back to sleep.

Like our birth in the world, the birth of every day, for me, begins with a scream. Whether or not that scream is audible.

That is, I do not feel alive until I feel my body.

And I do not feel my body until I feel some pain.

Having decided that today is a rare day in which I will not go to the gym — the burn of lifting weights is my preferred scream inducer — I sat on my yoga mat on the otherwise hard floor and rolled out six spots on my body — the back of my calves, my butt (the “sits bones,” for the yoga-inclined), and my back (specifically, my scapulas, which are always good for some silent shrieks). I dig in pretty good. I have a roller but I seldom use it; I use instead a lacrosse ball. Digs deeper, hurts more. The metaphor fits — the deeper you go, the greater the pain, the greater the relief. I always imagine while I am rolling out in this way that I am releasing pressure valves. You can almost see the steam.

I like coffee in the morning and I have a small cup beside me right now. But I am not one to go straight to the drug. I usually start with copious amounts of water. Maybe a little bit of apple cider vinegar in there. I like the feeling of flushing. Of feeling hydrated.

We come into the world in fluid. We are made of fluid. We need fluid to survive.

When we begin this life we know nothing and are constantly learning. We find our way. We figure out who we are and what like and who loves us and who we love and we try to make sense of the immeasurable forces that shape us and influence us.

Often this leads us to anchor ourselves — to people and things, to places and activities, to the necessities and the trivialities.

I had some barriers to finding my way in this world. Many people do.

I don’t like that it seems everything is automatically compared. I don’t like that in our society we seek the bottomline so quickly.

We rush to judgment. I know I do.

We want to put everyone in a box: she is good, he is bad.

What? What are you talking about?

We have it all inside us: the good, the bad, and everything in between.

Don’t stop at that! Dig deeper, get to the pain underneath. It’s how you release the steam.

I will try to begin again here to dig deeper.

Well, at least every three days.

(That last line is a clever is closing of the circle on this essay and I could stop right here. Stopping here speaks to my desire to look like I know what I am doing, to keep things tidy, but there was a thought there back a few short paragraphs ago that I wanted to articulate. Except I am thinking now that I can’t. Not here in this post anyway. If I can articulate the thought at all it will show up over time. Has something to do with vulnerability — of acknowledging I don’t know what I am doing — and it is decidedly not tidy. Anyway, it’s time for the little buddy to get into his body, time to take a walk.)

Circle of Life

The little buddy and I came home one afternoon this summer and found a bird grounded on our ground.

She hopped about on our lawn beneath a tree. She didn’t take flight despite our presence, despite our direct approach. Not even when B. got his sniffer close. Meanwhile, another bird circled, some feet overhead — shifting between the shrubs, a telephone pole, and the large, canopy of a maple tree in our yard.

You did not need to be a naturalist to tell that the grounded bird was being watched by the bird in flight, which zipped around and chirped sharply as if to make sure we knew he was on the scene. As the grounded bird did not seem young, I suspected she might be pregnant.

(A few weeks before, while out on a walk, B. and I had encountered another grounded bird, this one in the street, not taking flight despite our curiosity and despite the cars and bikes zooming past her inches away. Amazingly, a man from the local wildlife rescue stopped on his bike. He suggested pregnancy. In that case, too, there had been a police bird above us, squawking and flying from limb to limb, whenever we drew near — and especially when the wildlife volunteer moved the mamma to a safer space.)

A day or two later it became obvious that our male bird had nested in out shrubs. It was not uncommon to hear him move about in the leaves. Often he would go out, dance on the telephone poll, or zip off for a while, and come back. Where the expectant mother wound up — she was clearly not hanging out any longer in our yard — was was not clear.

That is, until an early evening some days, a week, maybe 10 days, later.

I had gotten home from work a few minutes before and B. and I were out in the backyard when, all of the sudden, there was a loud rustling at the top of the maple. Just like that, police bird bolted out of the shrubs. A rocket with feathers. Overhead, a not-small hawk levitated from the maple headed in the direction of the clouds. Our guy, presumably the soon-to-be father, chased after the hawk. He squawked and squawked while he flew like a bat out of hell. We knew then where the mother had been had been living those past days.

The whole scene was so loud even the neighbors reacted with amazement for what we had just happened in our yard.

For days after, every time B. and I went into that backyard I thought about that bird chasing that hawk into the sky. I thought about what he must have done when he realized there was nothing he could do.

I thought about him again this morning when I saw that his nest had fallen out of the shrubs and onto our lawn where it sits now empty.

Kicking It

Something on my bucket list is to never have one.

I don’t know what it is about that phrase but it makes me cringe.

The most recent instance in which I saw “bucket list” used was last night during bedtime reading; it appeared in a teaser for a magazine article, a profile of a hockey player, I otherwise might have wanted to read. (Apparently, the player in question has an “NHL bucket list.” So ubiquitous is the phrase we now have bucket list categories? More likely it is a sportswriter being too clever by half.)

It is not hard to find other uses of the term. I heard it in conversations at least twice in the last week and I’m not especially social. It is, in fact, accepted usage; you do not have to explain what you mean by “bucket list.” These are things you want to do before you die. Duh.

“Bucket list” entered the lexicon following a 2007 Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman vehicle of the same name that currently rates at 41 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. (It’s my understanding it’s not a bad movie but rather an historically bad one.)

The “bucket” part of the phrase comes from the idiom to “kick the bucket,” which very probably originated with the act that used to happen when a person was hanged (voluntarily or involuntarily, I suppose). You stand on the bucket with a noose around your neck and then the bucket is kicked and shortly thereafter you meet your maker.

What I do know about my reaction to “bucket list” is that it’s not because of a fear of death or a dislike to discuss the idea of death. I do not have a problem with people considering their own mortality publicly or making out-loud vows about what is important to them about the time they are allotted on this earth. On the face it, that seems wise. That seems healthful. No one wants to be on his or her deathbed and experience deep regrets.

So what is it about the phrase that sparks a visceral reaction in me? I don’t know but possibly it has to do with the fact that nearly every time I have heard the phrase used it is done so in conjunction with entertainments. People want to go to Peru or swim with dolphins or see their favorite football team play in every stadium in the league. I never hear someone say that they want to have exponentially raised their consciousness or experienced a love so great.

Very possibly I am simply not a fun guy. But I think that pleasure can be experienced in both shallow and deep waters. And my sense is that we are so consumed with the shallow that we’re missing much. It seems bucket lists seldom pertain to the indescribable satisfaction that comes from learning or growing or overcoming or connecting or being part of the solution to a significant problem. (The phrase itself is fitting to describe that which is flip.)

This morning, before writing these words, my little buddy and I were on a long walk, early, well before the sun came up. In the rare instances in which I saw evidence of people awake it was on account of the glow of a screen. Now I know nothing about these persons — maybe they work an overnight shift or maybe they are doing the very work they need to be doing to be the persons they are and wish to be. Yet what I saw — one man looking at what appeared to be a computer and a living room strobe-light glowing from a television program or movie — reminded me of how much time we spend — all of us, certainly myself included — on things that are facile and not likely to be matters that will come up in our deathbed considerations.

The paradigm of life is such that living-making and care-taking involves much tedious and sometimes dispiriting work. To be — and to help others to be — we cannot engage constantly in that which we might like or want, even if we are attuned to our highest selves (and there are biological limitations to that.) Yet there also is a lot that we allow to keep us from that person, too. The screens symbolize this for me because the screens capture our attention and scatter it. (To be sure, screens can serve good purposes and there are many other frivolous endeavors that do not come in high definition.)

I know it’s a battle for me. And I don’t even own a TV.

That reading time last night I mentioned above came in part because some minutes before I had turned off my phone and my tablet and even my computer. All the way off, not just put them to sleep. If I wanted to consume any additional intellectual stimulants it had to be words on paper. I realized as I picked up the magazine and later a book, and as I scribbled in my notebook, that of late I have watched YouTube or checked an app or whatever late at night rather than read or write. I can’t speak for anyone else but how I feel after reading words on paper versus watching YouTube is the sort of difference between cheap and fortifying, between shallow and deep, I attempted to describe above. The former makes me feel more alive and calmer; the latter makes me feel less energized and more angsty.

Another way to consider the deathbed face-the-music moment, perhaps then, is not what we did but how alive were we when we did it.

Of course, we only know ourselves who we are in a given moment. You can’t regret what you don’t know of. Yet we do know, don’t we, that somewhere inside there is something so sacred we must honor it?

I have not seen Bucket List: the movie. But I wonder if that is why it did not resonate — maybe because it aimed at the shallower part of us.