welcome to the hotel minnesota: part ii

When you last saw me and my brother Nils, we were tooling around the friendly wilds of Minnesosta in search of Duluth. If you missed that first chapter in our saga or want to relive it, especially all those exciting bits where we got lost and yelled Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! and maniacally herky-jerked our arms around a moving car while waving people down to ask directions through the windshield, you can be brave and click right here.

mooseAlso: this has nothing to do with anything, other than A) Minnesota,  B) super-sized woodland mammals and C) my fondness for non sequiturs, but here I would like to insert a picture of a moose that I saw up by the boundary waters. It was large and moose-like. It did not look lost. This is my expert analysis.

Otherwise, I’ll just pick up where I left off: with the nice Minnesota couple who pulled over to help us in response to our lost and maniacal herky-jerking. They rolled down the window and peered out at us, the twitching visitors, with curiosity and concern.

We said: Excuse us, but which direction is Duluth?
And then the man at the wheel blinked and said: Duluth?
And we said: Duluth.
And the man said: Duluth. I think it’s that way (pointing in one direction)
And the woman said: Noooo, Duluth is that way (pointing in the other direction).
And Nils said: That way?
And I said: ???

And then the woman referred to a map — which was already spread on her lap, as though she she, too, were lost — and confirmed that Duluth was indeed That way. Yes, go That way, she told us. And then take a left on Route Such-and-Such, she added. And then just go go go.

They were so nice about it.

So we went went went. We ha ha ha’d and blah blah blahed. But after too many miles and still no signs for Route Such-and-Such, we started to feel lost again. SURELY we should have come upon the left turn by now? Yes? Shouldn’t we? Ha ha? Blah blah? Ha ha?

Nils said: Still no Google Maps?
And I said: Nope.
And Nils said: Shit.
And I said: Shit.
And Nils said: When’s your plane?
And I said: Plane? WHAT PLANE? I DON’T HAVE ANY PLANE. (Getting a grip.) I’m not going to panic. Nope! Not panicking! Ha! Ha! Ha!
And Nils said: Nope! No panicking! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Just then, sensing our desperation, or hearing our cackling, or possibly even wanting nothing to do with us, a truck with a man in it materialized at an intersection that Nils and I had somehow failed to recognized as an intersection until the truck with the man in it materialized there. In fact, we were so busy Not Panicking, we almost blew right past it.

We asked the man in the truck: Is this the way to Duluth?
And the man in the truck blinked and said: Duluth?
And we said: Duluth.
And the man in the truck said: Duluth. That way. Yes.

He was so nice about it.

But Nils and I were beginning to think that no one in Minnesota ever went to Duluth. This seemed strange to me, because I had been in Duluth some 30 years ago, and there were people there, then. Actual Minnesotans! Lots of them! Nice ones, too. But maybe the very same nice people I saw in Duluth three decades ago STILL LIVED IN DULUTH. Maybe they NEVER LEFT, and no one new ever ever ever arrived!

Or maybe there WAS no Duluth. Maybe Duluth was a fiction. Maybe I had made up my visit there, ha ha ha! Maybe Nils and I were hallucinating! Maybe all of Minnesota was a fantasy, some outsiders’ projected chimeric figment of moose and Midwesten niceness!

Still, Nils and I trundled along Route Such-and-Such. We went went went. The clock ticked ticked ticked. The plane loomed loomed loomed. We had no no no idea how far we were from Duluth Duluth Duluth.

Nils said: Still no Google Maps?
And I said: Nope.
And Nils said: Shiiiiiiit.
And I said: Shiiiiiit.

Then, coming up on a pair of road workers with their nice orange vests and their nice orange cones, we resolved again to seek sagacious cartographic guidance from the mouths of locals. Nils pulled to a stop.

I rolled down my window and said: How far is it to Duluth?
And the orange men blinked and said: Duluth?
And I said: Duluth.

And the orange men stared at me as though no one had ever asked this question before; as though no one ever would again; as though this word “Duluth” were strange and foreign to their ears (WHAT’S THIS THING YOU SAY, “DULUTH”?); as though I were speaking Lithuanian; as though I had just rolled down my window and asked them to perform some kind of surgery on me right there on the shoulder, something surreal and incomprehensible and more than a little scary (HELLO THERE, WOULD YOU TWO KIND GENTLEMEN PLEASE AMPUTATE MY FEET?).

The first orange man said: Ahhhhhhm.
And second orange man said: Errrrrmmm.
And I said: How far a drive is it to Duluth? What, 40 minutes, maybe?
And the second orange man said: Oh, at least.
And the first orange man said: Oh, at least.
And we said: Thank you.

And they were so nice about it.

So Nils and I went went went. We ha ha ha’d and blah blah blahed. Every now and then we passed a sign that said DULUTH, but the sign was never near anything like an intersection, and it was never accompanied by mileage. Just, you know, DULUTH. As in, THIS ROAD YOU’RE ON? EVENTUALLY IT WILL BRING YOU LOST LITTLE NUDNIKS TO DULUTH. HOW LONG THAT WILL TAKE, WE CANNOT SAY. BUT THANK YOU FOR GETTING LOST, AND HAVE A NICE DAY.

Eventually we hit a pocket of cell phone service, and I found a rash of messages from our dad demanding to know what the hell had happened to us. I told him we got lost.

And I said: We don’t know. We just did.
And he said: That’s impossible. It’s one road for miles and miles. HOW THE F— DID YOU GET LOST?
And I said: I just told you we don’t know. We just did. It just happened.

But we found Duluth! Yes! We even got to the airport with an hour to spare. Which was perfect! Because of course by the time we got there, my flight was canceled. But it didn’t matter, because I switched to another flight five hours later. And Nils and I were so relieved to have arrived, and so giddy from all that blabbing and laughing and all those lonely Minnesota byways and all that serial Minnesota niceness, that one more bump in the road barely mattered.

He said: Hey! You want to have lunch in Duluth?
And I said: Hey! Yes!

We had lunch in Duluth. We did not get lost. And everyone was nice.

welcome to the hotel minnesota: part i

minneosta sign - smaller AND cropped

There we were, driving from the Minnesota boundary waters to the Duluth International Airport early one Friday morning, and somehow, somewhere south of Grand Marais — PLEASE don’t ask where and how, because we STILL HAVE NO FREAKING IDEA — my brother Nils and I got kind of maybe totally and pathetically lost.

I want you to be impressed by this. Because this is not easy to do. In fact, it is extremely difficult to do! You have to really apply yourself! No one in the history of driving has ever gotten lost driving from the boundary waters to Duluth. The trip involves going roughly a million miles on roughly one road, and to get lost, you either have to have the world’s single most abysmally deficient sense of direction or you have to be a space of cosmic dumbassic proportions. Either that, or you have to sit next to someone who is.

That would be me. Not Nils. Me. But Nils, bless his soul, was sitting next to me, having just spent several days hiking and fishing in the Minnesota wilderness with the dumbassic moi and our dad and brothers. A kind and generous and beneficent person, Nils had chivalrously agreed to drive me to the Duluth airport while the rest of the gang left to catch their flights in Minneapolis. And so we gabbed and laughed for the first 60 or 70 or whatever miles, blah-blah-blah-ing and ha-ha-ha-ing without a care in the world.

Early on I pulled up Google Maps for directions, but who needed directions, ha ha ha? It was roughly a million miles on roughly one road, right?? Piece o’ cake, kids! Blah blah blah! Ha ha ha! Every now and then our dad called or shot us a text — just wanted to be sure we were on track — and we responded with with teasing texts back. Isn’t that funny! He’s keeping tabs on us! As though we’re hopeless dumbassic space cases! Ha ha ha! Blah blah blah!

Then we pulled over to get gas and a couple of sad breakfast sandwiches. And then we pulled out again, still talking and laughing our endless streams of blahs and ha’s.

And then, for no reason we could discern then or decipher later on, we came to a T.

And Nils was like: a T?
And I was like: a T?
And we were like: What the f— is a T doing here? There isn’t supposed to be a T.
And then we were like: Where the f— are we?
And then I was like: What the f— road are we on?
And then Nils was like: What does Google Maps say?
And I was like: Umm, there is no Google Maps.
And Nils was like: What?
And I was like: What what?
And Nils was like: Oh, shit, no cell service out here?
And I was like: Oh, shit, no.
And Nils was like: Oh, shit, we don’t have a map.
And I was like: Oh, shit, oh, shit.
And Nils was like: Oh, shit, we’re lost.
And I was like: Oh, shit! Oh, shit!
And we were both like: Oh, shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!

At this point, I must tell you we did the rational thing. We looked for road signs pointing to Duluth. Shouldn’t there be road signs at a T pointing to the nearest major metropolis? There should be road signs at a T pointing to the nearest major metropolis. But there weren’t. There was nothing that said, THIS WAY FOR DULUTH or THAT WAY FOR DULUTH, or NORTH THIS WAY or SOUTH THAT WAY, or even YOU CLUELESS DUMBASSIC TOURISTS, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHERE YOU ARE, DO YOU? HUHHHHH? DUHHHHHH?

But people don’t say such things in Minnesota, because people in Minnesota are nice. Even the “no trespassing” signs bend over backwards to be polite; where a typical New York sign says, KEEP OUT PRIVATE PROPERTY VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED AND BY THE WAY GET THE F— OFF OUR LAND, an equivalent sign in the boundary waters says, THANK YOU FOR TRESPASSING AND HAVE A NICE DAY. Or something like that.

Anyway. Back to the T. Nils and I had no idea which way to turn. So we turned right. But that felt wrong. So after a few miles, we turned around and headed in the opposite direction. But that felt wrong, too.

So Nils said: Hmmmmm.
And I said: We should ask someone.
And Nils said, more or less: But there isn’t anyone to ask.
And I said: Shit. Let’s flag someone down.

And just then, we saw a lone car barreling toward us. But it was too late for us to pull over and get out and wave our arms.

So I said: Let’s wave our arms right now! While we drive!
And Nils said: Yeah! Okay!
And I said: Yeah! Real crazy-like!
And Nils said: Yeah! This’ll get their attention!
And I said: Yeah!

And so, while driving along, we waved our arms real crazy-like through the windshield, and the man and the woman in the other car gave us a baffled look at that said, WHAT THE HUH? WHY ARE THESE CRAZY PEOPLE WAVING THEIR ARMS AT US?

And then they did a very nice, Minnesotan sort of thing to do. They pulled over and rolled down their windows. (If this were the Empire State, they would have given us a baffled look that said, GET THE HELL AWAY FROM US, CRAZY PEOPLE)


happy trails

magnetic rock pic
It was my last day in northern Minnesota’s boundary waters region, and I and my three brothers — Danny, Randy and Nils — decided to cram in one last hike. We probably shouldn’t have. Our dad wanted to take us out to dinner, and it was already pushing five. But the pamphlet described an easy 3-mile round-trip hike called Magnetic Rock Trail that promised — you’ll be shocked by this revelation — a giant magnetic rock. And who wouldn’t want to see a giant magnetic rock? Doesn’t it sound too cool pass up? Could you have passed it up? Didn’t think so. Off we went.

The hike took longer than expected, not because it was any more arduous than advertised, but because the landscape hurled us into a state of awed and rampant photobuggery. We couldn’t walk 100 feet without snapping photos of trees, blackened by fire and all but branchless; of wide, pinkish rock sheets striated and crossed like broken checkerboards; of all the life springing up amid the fire-damaged vista, the deep green of the bushes, the light green of the tall and scratchy grasses, the purple bells of delicate wildflowers easing between the cracks of rock and charred wood.

It had the dreamscape feel of post-apocalyptic fiction and film: Were it not for the sunny day and sprouting leaves, we might have been trekking along Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Pausing along the trail, Nils looked out at the stubborn upward thrust of nature through all that devastation. “It’s so scarred,” he said, right then and again later on, “but look at all the life just pushing up around it.” We talked about this for a bit. The landscape seemed like a metaphor to both of us, an expression of the willful and verdant optimism that propels our movement through this world and gives us hope and light in the wake of blackening conflagration. One way or the other, worming through cracks of daylight we can’t see, life prevails.

My brothers are proof of this: I only met them at age 13 because my mother had to go to work when my father quit his job a month before earning a pension and then, over time, became depressed and incapacitated and finally suicidal. She needed to earn a paycheck. She earned it at the small girls school where I befriended a noisy, loving family who liked to laugh and seemed happy to do it with me. Years later, when my mother and father and sister died, Danny gave me his parents — just like that, in a beautiful little email that I can picture as it flickered on an early-90s monitor — and the shoots of new life started popping through the ashes.

When the bunch of us finally reached the end of the trail last week, we found the giant magnetic rock as advertised: 30 feet tall, shaped like an obelisk or some forbidding alien temple, with a pull that did a number on Danny’s compass. We snapped pictures. We snapped more pictures. We joked about pagan rituals and dancing around the base slathered in Deet. And as the sun slid behind this massive hunk of glacial debris, telling us in no uncertain terms that it was time to go back and snarf dinner with with our hungry, waiting dad, I felt grateful for all that had brought me there: the trail, the brothers, the trauma that led me to them and made of us a family. Life will out.
wildflowers pic

hurry hurry

God doesn’t like being rushed. I haven’t discussed this with the Almighty, but I’m certain of it. Why? Two reasons. First, because no one likes being rushed; have you ever seen that brief flicker of annoyance on a wait-person’s face when you express dismay, even politely soft-pedaled dismay, that your plate of kimchi has taken 38 minutes to arrive (and counting)? I’ll bet you have, even if you’ve never eaten kimchi.

The second reason I’m certain that God doesn’t like to be rushed: because nothing worthwhile in my life has ever happened overnight. If God were in a hurry, I would have been pregnant for 48 hours per baby, not a whole nine months, which I’m here to tell you IS A VERY LONG TIME, especially when you’re so freakin’ huge that total freakin’ strangers come up and ask about your triplets, then laugh uncomfortably when you swear up and down it’s only one freakin’ baby (no really ha ha ha ha ha no way how many babies is it really ha ha ha) . I couldn’t even see my feet after the eighth month. No. Seriously. It’s worth repeating: I couldn’t see my feet.

One of the more fascinating aspects to getting older is my new relationship with time. I’m just as impatient with life, just as flummoxed by God’s propensity for lolly-gagging, just as hungry for good things to happen Now Right Away Last Week Stat Chop-Chop Toot-Sweet Snap To It. But I’m also profoundly more aware that I don’t have as much of it left in the bottom of the corn flakes box as I did a decade or two ago, and I’m determined — at least, in the infinitesimally small portion of my left cerebral hemisphere that dictates rational thought — to savor every bite.

I wish I’d savored every other one more. All of those spoonfuls I choked back in a hurry; why didn’t I slow down, chew 20 times, swish the feel and flavor around my mouth a little longer? I think about my children. Everyone’s children. When they’re born, people tell you: “Enjoy it! They grow up so fast.” But of course you’re too sleep-deprived, and too absorbed in the blitzed-out ecstasy of new parenthood, to hear (much less believe) anything anyone tells you. And when your kids are babies, it’s impossible to believe they’ll ever grow up and talk back and run out the door and away into their own lives.

My youngest is about to start high school. My middle child is about to start college. My oldest is about to spend a semester abroad. If I close my eyes and venture back a day or two — not my days, but God’s — I can hear their little voices chirruping in the bathtub, I can see their little diapered bums waddling across the floor. If I venture back another day or two, I can feel them kicking and socking my ribs; I can put my hand on my taut enormous belly and feel the rise of an elbow or a heel as it dents my stomach wall and leaves, I’m sure of it, a footprint.

I shouldn’t have been in a hurry then. I’m glad God wasn’t.

summer does its nails

As I write this, I’m sweating sheets in my attic. But I am not going to complain about the heat. I am not. This is summer. And not long ago I spent way too much time complaining about Not Summer, otherwise known as the Longest, Snowiest and Most Pissily Irritating Winter of Recent Memory, to grant myself the freedom to now complain about its opposite. I cleared so much bleepety-bleeping snow this winter that I actually broke my shovel. No. I’m not kidding. Just like that. Snap.

As I said to coworkers today, anyone who hears me gripe about the weather this summer is encouraged to just walk up and punch me. Except of course I don’t really mean that; I don’t want to be punched. I am speaking figuratively, which is the opposite of literally, which most people no longer use literally, preferring to abuse and distort this poor, maltreated, misunderstood morsel of English verbiage until it resembles one of those dirty pink splats of bubble gum on a New York subway platform.

This is what I mean literally: I love the four seasons, and when I say I love the four seasons, I mean I love not just the poetic aspects so oft and softly celebrated by more sensitive souls than I (the passage of the days! the crinkling of the leaves! the cyclical nature of life in this evolving cosmos!), but I love especially the way time behaves in the throes of each. It halts in the middle and just sits, sits, sits, squatting with an emery board to buff its nails, la-dee-dah-dah, while the rest of us flap our mouths to complain about it. WINTER, GET UP OFF YOUR ASS, YOU ARE TOO DAMNED COLD, we howl in frustration. Or WHAT THE HELL, SUMMER, MY HEAD JUST MELTED OFF MY NECK.

But then the wackiest thing happens. Time speeds up. The season doesn’t just change; it gets up in a hurry, drops its manicure kit in the middle of the road and bolts all bananas-like to the opposite end of town. And in its place comes the next season, plopping itself down and making itself comfy for a nice, long, leisurely stretch while we bitch and moan about its presence.

But not me. Not this time. I’m not going to fight it. I’m not going to kvetch. Instead I’m determined to just be in the summer, to surrender to the warmth, to drop down next to it and into it and jostle its elbows and smear sunblock on its back and maybe, if I’m feeling adventurous, lick the salt off the back of its hand. So long as I’m not shoveling anything, I’ll be happy. I’ll shout it to the heavens. I’ll kick up my heels and dance the Cha Cha naked with my hair on fire. And no, I don’t mean that literally.

life, death, goldfish

At work the other day, a message flashed on my phone. I happened to see it. I don’t always; I turn off the chime while laboring away in the newsroom and only check now and then to be sure my offspring aren’t in distress somewhere, incapable of phoning but still, somehow, able to whip out their thumbs and compose pithy tele-communiques with or without the aid of autocorrect. They could be floating down the Hudson in a cereal box, and I’d get a text that says “headin downstrm to NYC love you.”

But the other day. I checked my phone, and there it was: a text from my son announcing the death of our goldfish. You might not remember our goldfish, and even if you do remember it, you might not care, scratch the “might,” but this is the sad orange small finny creature who remained anonymous on a shelf in our kitchen until, back in December, I ran a poll asking readers to name the poor thing. And then they (THEY means YOU, and YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) named it Sushi. Which is clever. Which is also kind of sick. Which is why my children summarily rejected it. I am sorry to say this, or maybe I’m not sorry, you’ll have to guess which, but no one ever, ever, ever called him “Sushi.” We preferred “Jesús.”

In any case, he’s dead. This is not happy news, but the text? The text is a beauty — trenchant, informative and compassionate, its five words
conveying all the necessary intel and profound emotional depth. “The fish is dead. Sorry.” Seriously, what else can be said? About this small death? About any?

My response isn’t worth discussing. But his reply to that text was, in its way, an equally crisp and composed metaphysical discourse on life and death, on the brevity of one and the inevitability of the other: “He lived for like 5 years. INSANE.” It took seven words to say it instead of five this time, but still. It’s a feat of reflective and incisive spiritual commentary, and not merely on the lifespan of the Carassius auratus auratus. This should be our response to every birth, every life, every gift in between: Life is always INSANE, a crazy boon and boodle no matter how long it lasts. When it ends — whenever that may be — we should count up our blessings like pirates with a stash of plunder. And we should be doing that all along.

My son the philosopher! Give him a long white beard, and watch him scratch his chin!

As for Jesús, may he rest in peace. He was a good fish. Sorry.