An unforgettable Valentine’s Day

This was originally published in the Mille Lacs Messenger in February of 2003. I was thinking about it today, and although it’s a bit early to celebrate, may your VD 2015 be just as memorable.

When I was 21, I hitch-hiked from Kansas City to Santa Rosa, Calif., in pursuit of a woman with whom I was madly in love. She was on a quest for Truth and Jesus, and I figured I’d join her, if finding the Truth also meant finding true love. A few days after I arrived at her aunt’s house, she went to a service at a charismatic church and was “slain in the spirit.”

I had stayed home that night, and when she came back she had a glassy-eyed look and a story to tell. As the preacher spoke, she felt herself being lifted off the floor and over the row of chairs in front of her, where she collapsed on the floor.

“You have to get born again,” she said. “It’s like nothing I ever imagined.”

I had been born again — more than a few times, in fact. I was looking for something different this time. Finding Truth and following Jesus sounded great, if it meant wandering the hills of northern California in a monk’s robe, begging for my meals. But if it meant I had to believe in miracles, heal the sick and speak in tongues, I wanted none of it, so I hopped on the next Greyhound to Oregon, where a friend of a friend lived.

I arrived in Ashland late at night and went to the Log Cabin Tavern, my friend’s old hangout. It felt great to be in a place I’d heard so much about, even though I didn’t know anyone within 500 miles.

I didn’t know where I’d stay, so I just drank a beer, grinning broadly and waiting for a revelation. It came in the form of a tall, bearded man who approached my table.

“You have such a nice smile,” he said, “I just had to come over.” He introduced himself as … I’ll call him Dwayne, and we struck up a conversation. When I told him I didn’t have a place to stay, he offered me a bed, so I finished my beer and we walked up a steep hill to his home.

Dwayne lived in a caboose that sat on a short length of railroad track. His small lot was surrounded by more typical houses. Inside, the caboose was decorated with railroad paraphernalia — Great Northern signs, flashing lights, engineer’s caps and model railroad cars.

I marveled at the décor and felt myself in the middle of a great adventure. Then Dwayne spoke. “You can sleep with me if you want,” he said. “Or you can sleep out here.”

But for common courtesy, I would’ve smacked my forehead with the heel of my hand. “Of course!” I said to myself. “How could you have been so naïve?”

My dad had told me a similar story about the time he was propositioned while hitch-hiking in California, where he was stationed back in 1944. “Sorry, Dad,” I thought. “I should’ve listened.”

I snapped back to the present and told Dwayne, “I guess I’d rather sleep out here.”

“That’s okay,” he replied. “I won’t hassle you.”

The night was pleasantly uneventful, and the next morning Dwayne made one more play. “It’s always been a fantasy of mine to take a picture of someone naked,” he said. I assumed he meant I would be the naked one, not him. I declined, and again he said, “I don’t want to hassle you.”

Dwayne took me downtown, bought me breakfast, and pointed me in the direction I needed to go. Before I left, though, we stopped in the bank, where they were serving heart-shaped cookies with pink frosting. That’s when it hit me. It was Valentine’s Day.

I’d abandoned my girlfriend on Feb. 13.

Proselytized in the morning; propositioned at night. Life was indeed an adventure.

Which was the greatest nightmare, I haven’t decided yet. But that’s one Valentine’s Day I’ll never forget.

Taibbi gump Eastwood.

Glad to see that one of my favorite journos feels like I do about Forrest Gump (but says it better than I ever did).

This is the same Hollywood culture that turned the horror and divisiveness of the Vietnam War era into a movie about a platitude-spewing doofus with leg braces who in the face of terrible moral choices eats chocolates and plays Ping-Pong. The message of Forrest Gump was that if you think about the hard stuff too much, you’ll either get AIDS or lose your legs. Meanwhile, the hero is the idiot who just shrugs and says “Whatever!” whenever his country asks him to do something crazy.

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Ecological boredom and alternative visions of happiness

Reading “Our Ecological Boredom,” a column in today’s New York Times by English writer George Monbiot, took me back to 1982, when I caught a ride with a Mexican immigrant somewhere near Santa Barbara.

Mobiot is my favorite contemporary columnist, and today’s essay shows why: social and ecological insight couched in masterful prose to convince us to take seriously the most pressing issue of the day: Our endangerment of the environment, and our distance from it, which accelerates the pace of destruction.

Among today’s observations:

Young people, who have no place in this dead-eyed, sanitized landscape, scarcely venture from their bedrooms. Political freedom now means choosing between alternative versions of market fundamentalism.

Even the freedoms we do possess we tend not to exercise. We spend hours every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing: dancing, singing, playing sports, even cooking.

And this:

Perhaps we have forgotten the bitter complaint made by Benjamin Franklin in 1753: “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return.” But when European Americans “have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.” In 1785 Hector de Crèvecoeur asked two European refuseniks why they wouldn’t come home. “The reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us.”

Which brought me back to 1982, and a truck driver considering de-migration. He told me he had been persuaded by pictures in magazines to leave Mexico and come to the U.S.A. — a land of smiles, the Statue of Liberty, and sexy women.

So he came and found reality unlike the photographs.

He told me he was going back to Mexico, where if you were hungry you could pick fruit from the trees, or go to the ocean and catch a fish.

Which reminds me of a story my dad told about a visit to a shanty town in the shadow of a dump on the outskirts of Manila. Every day, as the garbage was hauled in, the mountain of trash would grow, and every evening it would shrink as the slum-dwellers would pick through it for something to use, or sell, or eat.

My dad came upon an old man and engaged him in conversation in Tagalog. Gesturing around at the shanties and garbage, Dad asked, “Why don’t you leave?”

In hindsight it seems a dumb question. Where was he to go, after all, and how was he to get there? Maybe Dad, in his 30s at the time, was still a naïve American, or maybe my memory of the story isn’t perfect.

No matter, because it wasn’t the question that stuck with him, or with me, but the old man’s answer: “There is much happiness here,” he said.

Which in turn reminds me of the book I’ve been reading: Dying in the Sun by Peter Palangyo, a novel about a poor village in Tanzania during the transition from a tribal society to a bureaucratic modern nation. Under the sad shadow of poverty and despair are descriptions of human encounters as foreign as groundnut stew or millet beer drunk from a calabash.

A sister rubs her brother’s back. An old woman derives pleasure from squashing lice pulled from her calico. A young man feeds his withered grandmother from a wooden bowl and sleeps beside his dying father.

The intense bonds of family are almost terrifying to someone like me, yet I know that it is more fully human — and pregnant with greater joy and deeper sorrow — than the arm’s length relationships I’ve known.

Neither Monbiot nor I would trade the many soft luxuries of modernity for the terrifying and fragile existence of hunters and gatherers. Yet the relative quality and degree of the joys we feel in our sterile modern world versus those we glimpse in our encounters with nature should give us pause and force us to ask the obvious question: Is there much happiness here?

My punk rock summer

I was never much into punk rock, though I tried to be for a short time. I did wear a short woolen army surplus jacket my freshman year in Seattle, and I sported a sort of mullet in the New Wave style.

The following summer, back in Minnesota, my friend Kenny and I drove around the lakes listening to London Calling, and I suppose I knew all the words, but my heart wasn’t in it. When they came to St. Paul to play at the Civic Center, I got a ticket and spent most of the concert wandering around the concourse, but at one point I decided I should see enough so I could say I was there someday, which I’m doing now.

I fought my way pretty close to the front of the stage, into the “mosh pit.” (Did they even call it that back then?) I was close enough to see the spit coming out of Joe Strummer’s mouth. From time to time, the whole crowd would be pushed either to the left or the right, and we would all stumble to a new station. During one of these surges, a girl next to me fell down. She was dressed in black (of course) and had black hair that likely hid her identity as just another Swedish blond. I reached down to help her up, and she sneered a punk rock sneer and slapped my hand away, confirming my sense that I was not cut out for punk rock, and I returned to the concourse for another lap, while waiting to meet my friends after the show.

This morning I was sitting in my wife’s fancy new used truck, and “Talent Show” by the Replacements came on, and it took me back to my punk rock summer and my short-lived tolerance of The Clash. I never really cared for the Replacements, either, my tastes trending more toward lite rock and classic country (as they still do), but some of my friends thought they were geniuses, and others got on board later. I taped some of the records and liked some of their songs okay.

What struck me this morning was the reason why The Replacements meant so much to our generation of Twin Citians: They were our version of The Clash.

A common urban legend in those days (which may have been true, but there was no way to google it) was that The Clash didn’t know how to play their instruments when they started their band, a fact that got us all thinking “what if?” If they could do it, why couldn’t we? So we played electric guitars in the sculpture studio at Bethel, poorly and passionately, but never really believing in ourselves or having anything to say.

One day my dad, who was a professor at Bethel, wandered in and heard me singing and thrashing away. I never shared my musical skills (such as they were) with my family, so he was no doubt surprised to see his youngest child growling in a poor imitation of John Fogerty.

A few months later, I decided to hitchhike to California, and Dad, in a rare moment of vulnerability (as Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” played in my mind), said he would support me in whatever I decided to do, “…music, or whatever.” It was a last-ditch effort to get me not to leave, and it didn’t work, but it came as a pleasant shock. I didn’t take my music very seriously, so it surprised me that he did, and still gives me a feeling of affection for my late old man.

In the end, the practicality of earning a degree won out over my half-hearted dreams of rock and roll stardom.

Not so for The Replacements. God bless them, they did what we all dreamed of doing, and it worked, and they were great, even though I didn’t care for them much.

I believe I saw them play once, at Coffman Union in the fall of 1983. A group of us heard five minutes of their drunken cacophony, and I was ready to hit the concourse. Too irrepressible for the likes of me, which reveals my faults more than theirs. If I remember right, we headed over to Chef’s Café, and Rob, who was in love, and never stopped loving The Clash, walked into a light post.

Twenty years later I played some music in some bars, just like I’d dreamed of doing. It was kind of a letdown, but I wish my dad had been there just once.

We wrote letters once

Writing letters was in my genes, I guess. I have hundreds of letters my dad wrote to his mom from ship and shore during World War 2. They’re on air mail stationary, as thin as Bible pages, filled in proper cursive with mostly mundane details about food, comrades, and the churches he visited on Sundays, good Christian boy that he was. Occasionally there’s a burst of excitement, like the tidal wave that hit Hawaii, leaving Dad the duty of bringing bodies to the morgue — the closest he came to the horrors of war.

I also have hundreds of letters from friends, a fact that would horrify them if they knew. I don’t know why I can’t throw them away, but it indicates a value greater than that of the emails I delete without thinking twice.

First it was my cousin Tom. We lived a mere hundred miles apart, but we only saw each other three or four times a year. Miles were greater then, and a long-distance call was unthinkable, so in between visits, we would write letters.

When I spent a year in Thailand as a fourth-grader, I received my own blue air-mail letters from Tom and Jon and Peter, handwritten letters that were weeks in transit and brought news from home that tasted like cool water in the Bangkok heat. Also that year, my mom typed up my poetry on multi-colored construction paper. We bound the book with yarn and sent it to her friend Phyllis. Years later, Phyllis gave it back to me, an artifact from childhood with the smell and touch of history.

This exchange went on for years, from childhood in the ‘70s through separation in our 20s for college and travel and career. Letters weren’t just the glue that held friendship together; they were the bricks and mortar that built it. Many summer morning I waited impatiently for the mail, hoping for a letter from Murph, or Chris, or Eric, or Kyle, or Pete.

I’m 52, and I don’t really have any friends anymore — not close ones like I once had, anyway. I’ve always assumed that life just does that to men in America. We get married and have kids, and our need for human warmth is met through family. Time between meetings grows longer, and it takes a little more beer to lubricate the social gears — a mixed blessing since the drinks also deaden the nerve endings that once shivered in community. Way back when, coffee was enough to get thoughts rattling and tumbling from mind to tongue, and a cigarette shed enough light to see the universe behind a friend’s eyes.

But maybe it’s not just booze and age that loosen the bricks of friendship framed in sober youth. Maybe it’s the illusory world that has replaced the physicality of those olden days.

There is something stubbornly real about a letter. Letters smell like perfume, pine, or cigarettes. I have letters stained with coffee, beer, and blood. No emoticon can match the feeling in a human scrawl. A letter is a magic hand that can reach across the ocean and touch you. I don’t know what an email is, but it’s less than that.

When email came around in the early 1990s, the letters ceased immediately, like an edict had come down from the cardinals of Silicon Valley. Letters became obsolete overnight. Why would you bother with paper and envelope and the elusive postage stamp, when you could rip off a sentence or two and push one deceptively simple button? No need to update the tattered address book, replace the typewriter ribbon, sharpen the pencil, or shout at the capricious printer. Just hit “send” and hear the comforting “ding” or “whoosh” of successful human interaction.

I’m telling you it was a deal with the devil, a fool’s bargain, trading depth for ease, deliberation for speed, and art for efficiency. And into the black hole of cyberspace disappeared something of our heart and soul, a physical connection with the people we loved.

The death of letters was a small, visible symptom of the infection of ones and zeroes — just a rash or an irritating sore. The deeper rot is the loss of connection with the real world. We are focused more than ever on the flashing lights on our laps, in our hands, or on our TV screens, and less than ever on the person beside us on the couch, or down the road, or missing us from afar.

The great religions of the world — Christianity, Islam, Alcoholics Anonymous — have one thing right: You have to go to meetings. Rubbing shoulders with your neighbors, hearing them speak, and tasting bread and wine or coffee and cigarettes teaches us that salvation is physical and that health requires a social life, not just a social network.

But religion misleads us when it teaches that the unseen is greater than the seen, setting us up to be fooled by illusion. Love God first, your neighbor second? Sorry, Jesus, but that’s bass-ackward (as Dad would put it).

What matters most is what we can see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. Less is more, when the less is real and the more is illusory. A letter is worth a thousand emails. “Heart and Soul” coaxed from an out-of-tune piano is more beautiful than Beethoven’s Ninth on the radio. What’s happening in Washington is less important than what’s going on at City Hall — no matter what the two-dimensional anchors tell you. The worst live theater, where you can see the beads of sweat on the actor’s forehead, is greater than any Best Picture nominee. One good photograph in a frame is worth a million average ones on a hard drive, as any grandmother can tell you.

The only real joy comes from the real world. A hand-thrown pot, a poem, or a well-made meal contains more magic than all of Google’s coal-fired servers. The pot holds more than water; it’s a vessel for beauty and commitment. Good food, prepared with love, represents generations of devotion. A poem, written by hand and read aloud, is a painting and song in one.

The same goes for letters. They are treasures hand-dug, wrapped, and presented for no reason but love. No matter what your bank account says, treasure can’t be found in a computer. If you can’t touch it, it can’t be gold.

Last night I refused to kick the dog off the bed. In the morning, I gave her a pat on the rump and went downstairs to make coffee. I read an old book and then went to the barn to let the horses out. I sat down in the hay, and the baby goats jumped on my back. Then I walked on a frozen river and saw the tracks where a mink ran and slid through the snow, unable to contain the joy of the real. There is a white pine whose trunk rests in midair because the ground has eroded beneath it. Horizontal roots hold fast to the bank.

Unlike some futurists, I wouldn’t trade three score and ten years in a body on earth for immortal consciousness in a laboratory jar.

I’m sorry I stopped writing letters. I promise to change.