Minneapolis/St. Paul

October 16, 2012 at 6:06 am (Uncategorized)

Four days later, Alyssa and I now are on our return flight to Portland. We got lucky with the weather in Minneapolis; it was sunny and fairly warm (but quite crisp) on Friday; it rained on Saturday (misting, in a very Portland-esque way); and today, Sunday, it was again crisp, clear, and warming up (to about the mid-50s) as we readied to go back home.
Alyssa summed up our extended weekend by saying that she had a great time and is looking forward to going home. To me, that’s the sign of a terrific time; finishing on a high note always is a goal of mine, for me and my family members.

On Friday, we visited Aunt Micki who, it turned out, needed to go to Urgent Care to treat an infection. As Cousin Susanne left with Micki, Alyssa and I took a cab (really? in the Midwest?) to Minneapolis’ theater district. Next door to the Guthrie Theater (which I understand is quite well-known) is The Mill Museum. Who knew a museum dedicated to the flour industry – as well as flour itself – could be so fascinating, beautifully done, and educational.

Alyssa and I spent nearly two hours at The Mill Museum, learning about the advent of brands like Pillsbury and Gold Mill Flour. In fact, this museum was created within the burnt down shell of the Gold Mill Flour factory – decimated in 1991 by flames – and opened in 2003 as an ode to flour and all things non-gluten-free. Located right on the Mississippi River, the factory revolutionized cooking and baking worldwide; it helped phase out the millstones of Europe with its 24/7 multi-level, high-tech, machine-driven production of flour. The industry in general also created myriad jobs, in Minnesota in particular as well as throughout the Midwest.

For one exhibit, we walked into a grain elevator, which takes museum-goers to the factory’s eighth floor. Along the ride up, up, up, one is treated to a very well done interactive part-documentary, part-theater piece. Each story of the factory indeed resembles a theater set: One is dedicated to the manager’s office; one to the constant cleanup that had to occur thanks to the ubiquitous flour dust during the factory’s unceasing production schedule; another to the fires that too often broke out because of flour dust’s explosive properties; and yet another to both the conveyer belt equipment’s efficiency and penchant for requiring repairs.

Behind each ‘set’ ran a mini-film that included real scenes from the factory’s life and those of its workers, as well as audio clips from former employees who’d been interviewed about their menial jobs; their import to them and their families; and what life was like during the flour-industry’s boom time in the Midwest. Alyssa appreciated most the audio clip of erstwhile Rosie the Riveters who reported being so sad when the men came back from the War, displacing them from their jobs.

Our next stop was picking up Susanne’s step-granddaughter Lexi Bonfe, 10, who’d wanted to meet Alyssa and spend Friday night with us. So eager was Lexi that as she greeted us in her Catholic school uniform, she immediately ripped off the regulation shirt and skirt, revealing beneath them a T-shirt and pair of shorts. Done with the school week, this girl was ready to play.

Off we went on our next adventure.

I say ‘adventure’ because we weren’t to stay in Minneapolis/St. Paul that evening. Susanne and Wally own 95 acres of land two hours south of their home, past Rochester (home of the famous Mayo Clinic that we saw from the highway). En route to the Bonfe Farm, we drove through towns whose signs boasted populations in the mere hundreds of residents; cows, goats, and horses dotted the flat landscape and water towers and farmsteads occurred as often as do Fred Meyer billboards along Hwy. 217 in Portland’s ‘burbs.

As night fell and as we got closer to the farm, Susanne pointed out the few very simple homes we passed whose windows were black; no lights were on in these homes. The Bonfe Farm’s closest neighbors are Amish.
Susanne and Wally treat their farm as the ultimate get-away, and I’m quite envious. Their home on the property is spacious, painted in very warm colors (yellows, light grays), includes a cozy kitchen-family-room-dining-room area, two bedrooms on the mail level, and a loft with two bunk beds upstairs.

All this coziness gave way to a bit of a fright and one of those “I’m not in Kansas anymore” feelings, as along the fireplace wall hang two deer heads and another piece dedicated to once-vivant pheasants. See, this is huntin’ country. Indeed, in the house, I spied this sign: “We interrupt this marriage to bring you deer-hunting season.” Kinda like golf, only no one – or no animal – dies on the greens.

When I announced I’d be taking a jog the next morning, both Susanne and Wally turned on me and said, “No you don’t.” (Cue Midwestern accent with the long “O”s. It really sounded like, “Noh, you dohn’t.”) Not in these parts. Not during hunting season. You don’t know whom you’d come across. So, while the neighbors are Amish, apparently, I learned, those with hunters’ licenses are not.

The next morning, we took a ride over much of the farm’s acreage, in the Bonfe’s rumblin’ Polaris Ranger. The couple’s property had once belonged to a Pioneer family whose skeletal house and barn and discarded, rusted farm equipment still remain on-site. Picking our way through all this century-old detritus felt on the one hand like happening upon a Hollywood movie set and on the other like a literal graveyard to a distant past that’s since given way to a “Farm” house that serves as a vacation home.

A narrow river wends and gurgles its way through the property. The colors of autumn surrounded us on all sides; the stand after stand of deciduous trees showed off their brilliant reds, ochres, and russets. The trees’ branches weren’t yet bare, and so the area’s gentle slopes looked billowy, like one huge root-vegetable-hued cushion buffering us from the world outside.

On Saturday morning, on our way back to Minneapolis, Susanne took a bit of a circuitous route to the main highway so we could see more Amish homes and the community’s one-room school house. We pulled over on the narrow highway and got out of the car (we could see buggy ruts on the very dusty road) to look at the school house up close. Farm land – and skeptical-looking horses – encircled the tiny plot for the school house, a stable for the students’ horses and their frigid-looking outhouse. The place was absent, however, of people. Though I’m quite certain we were being watched by the residents as curiously as we were looking at their Little House on the Prairie structures.
“I really love my school!” said Alyssa, to which Susanne offered this warning, “If you don’t behave, your mom will send you here.” “Noooooooooooooooooooooo!” said Alyssa. I think she knew Susanne was joking.

The past behind us, upon returning to Minneapolis, Alyssa and I next headed to the modern structure that defines America: Its largest home of commerce, The Mall of America.

We had an absolute ball there. I followed Alyssa like a puppy dog as she stared wide-eyed at the variety of stores and their window displays, and I acted like her personal bank as I said ‘no’ to very little. Our best stop, though, was at the American Girl store; it was Alyssa’s idea that we go in to shop for Hayley, who likely will play with her American Girl dolls and her friends’ for another five or so years. Alyssa ran around the store, picking out goods for Hayley, saying afterward, “That felt so good, to shop for Hayley for things I know she’ll love.”

THAT’s what made my trip. (Along with the dry martini I drank at the Rainforest Café, at which Alyssa and I ate dinner before at last exiting the “MOA,” Alyssa donning the new jeans we found at a store called 77 and the new “Mall of America, founded 1992” T-shirt from the biggest tourist-trap-store there. Worth every penny. Ya betcha.

My cousin Susanne is 11 years my senior. Growing up, we never knew one another very well, despite the fact our families lived relatively close to one another. During our few days in her adopted home town, she and I chatted constantly, catching up on family news and just having a great time like old girlfriends. We both agreed my grandmother for whom Alyssa is named – Nanny (who was “Aunt Nettie” to Susanne) – would be smiling down on us. Not only did Aunt Micki, 84 and suffering from Parkinson’s, look the happiest I’ve seen her in some time, but her face lit up even more when getting some of Alyssa’s undivided attention.

Minneapolis/St. Paul was beautiful, and our time there was special; I’d never had such a concentrated period of fun fun fun with Alyssa. Winter’s coming soon to this part of the country; it’s just about time to return to Dodge.

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The ants come marching two by two…

October 16, 2012 at 6:04 am (Uncategorized)

35,000 feet in the air, to Minneapolis/St. Paul via Chicago, with Alyssa by my side. And it’s amazing she is by my side – and not sitting with strangers – as it was looking dicey as we stepped onto the plane.

While in the snaking security line at PDX, I glanced at our boarding passes and realized for the first time that we’d sit in the same row, but not in adjacent seats. I confidently told Alyssa that a kind person would see I was traveling with my child and would switch seats so we could sit together. That statement quelled any concern either of us had.

After Alyssa nearly had a 3.75 oz. applesauce confiscated by the very alert TSA, and I bought her two trashy magazines (the kind that feature only Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and the like), we boarded our plane. Wouldn’t you know that as we came across two cranky looking old folks they indeed were the ones in our row. The madame was in the aisle seat to our right; the monsieur in the aisle seat to our left. Not only would they not move, but the madame had the gaul to snivel, “It’s good to book your flights early so you get the seats you want.”

Incapable of letting that comment fly without a retort, I looked her in her squinty eyes and told her that I’d indeed booked this flight months ago. Fortunately, she got my attitude and shut her shrively mouth. I simply can’t stand better-than-thou folks. Next to monsieur was a young woman who had that, “Please don’t ask me to move” look in her eyes. Her body language didn’t work, as next thing you know, I was asking her, “Will you please move so my daughter and I can sit together?”

Her large brown eyes grew larger as she looked at me with true apprehension and asked, “Is that legal?” at which point Alyssa swiveled her head to make eye contact with me and implored, “IS IT TRUE IT’S ILLEGAL TO SWITCH SEATS?!”

I assuaged both young and old that, no, it’s not illegal and, by the way, thank you so much, kind ma’am, for relocating to a different for us. Another five minutes (or so it felt )passed before Alyssa and I finally settled our bags and ourselves into our adjacent seats, all the while blocking the aisle from boarding passengers. It wasn’t the smoothest of transitions I’d ever made, and I could feel the press of passengers’ perturbed eyes piercing through the back of my skull. I ignored them and cleared my head. All I could see was Dave – world traveler extraordinaire – calling me “Amateur.”

Oh well.

Alyssa and I have embarked on a mini girls’ vacation; we’re going to stay with cousin Susanne (Rosen) Bonfe and her husband Wally just outside Minneapolis, and we’ll see sites (Mall of America, anyone?) and meet Susanne’s extended family, as well as visit with Aunt Micki Rosen who moved from an assisted living facility in Portland to the Sholom House in Minneapolis.

Alyssa and I agree we’re leaving Dodge at a very opportune time; it was just yesterday that she said for the first time, “I just want to be back in my room again.”

As we left this morning, the floors on the main and top floors of the house are installed, sanded and stained; we chose a “whitewash,” and the wide-plank, white oak floors look lovely. The whitewash simply brings out the planks’ natural striations and knots, without darkening the internecine rivulet-like lines that run throughout the wood.

Our staircase between the main and top floors is still missing its banister. Early on in the remodel, I got used to going up and down the stairs without a physical barrier to keep me from plummeting to my death while carrying a laden laundry basket. Still, it’s disconcerting without the banister.

On the main floor, half of the painted kitchen cabinets and half of the cabinet unit in the family room have been installed. The countertop still is missing, as are the appliances. And Dave’s been quite insistent on painting our kitchen, as well as living, dining, and family rooms. The man does work full-time, and helps out a lot at home, so a number of patches on various walls are covered in our new paint color – a soothing, light gray – while the rest of the walls are still the “cashew” color we’d grown sick of years ago.

The cashew next to the gray makes the gray look blue and the cashew orange; we’re clearly in for a very pleasant surprise once everything is a uniform color and we’ll no longer be assaulted by a color combo akin to those chosen by the country’s lesser universities’ sports teams.

We’re still, indeed, living out of our 300 sq. ft. bottom floor and dining in the garage. I enjoy every day of this temporary situation; I don’t mind the more-cramped quarters; I don’t mind (yet) not having an oven or a sink near where I prepare food; I don’t even mind that my old-fashioned exercise bike is adjacent to the kitchen table, serving as a constant reminder that a place of sweat is but inches from a place of nourishment.

What I really mind at this point is the scent of the two kitty litter boxes. Their scent has grown on me like unwanted moss on a freshly power-washed driveway. I do (usually) get used to the odor mere minutes after entering our miniature home, the slightly sickeningly sweet smell of the litter granules remains in my nose for way too long.

Every morning when I first go into the garage to prepare breakfast, I brace myself for a mouse scurrying across the cement, dodging behind our overturned and padded furniture, pancake slice in paw. Fortunately, we have so far escaped that scenario. But not the ants.

They remain unseen for the most part. Until a single cluster of scrambled eggs, for example, falls to the ground. Within minutes (if our I-love-human-food dog isn’t lurking at our chairs’ legs), a cluster of ants attacks the morsel like kids underneath a newly ruptured piñata. We have two ant-trap thingies in strategic locations on the floor, the ants still manage to scent the smallest crumb and make a bee (ant?) line for the stuff. When I sweep the floor I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mom, sweeping the family’s Prairie cabin clean. Minus the fridge, microwave, toaster, blender….we’re living just like the Pioneers.

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Advice: Avoid a car wreck on Yom Kippur

October 8, 2012 at 4:33 am (Uncategorized)

Dave had to be out of town for Yom Kippur (but I’ll never tell where…Las Vegas, if you must know) and so the girls and I hopped into our car near sundown that evening, and headed downtown to meet my folks and Aunt Susan and Uncle Merritt for our break-the-fast meal.
Ever since I studied abroad in France and missed observing the Day of Atonement for the first time, Yom Kippur has taken on much greater significance, with a pinch of mystery, too.

I’ll never forget that very rainy, dreary day in Toulouse — at the beginning of my year abroad there — where I’d found a synagogue but had no idea how to approach the security personnel to ask if I could gain entry and worship with the natives. Synagogues throughout Europe are often hidden, quite small, and riddled with security cameras — let alone security humans on days like the High Holy Days — and the small shul I’d found in Toulouse was no exception. I remember approaching the guarded door and noting the cynical look in the eyes of the kippah-clad young men standing sentinel. I felt these  men looking at me as if they were saying, “You’re a foreigner; you don’t belong here.” At 20, with un-fluent French, and lacking self-confidence and enough conviction, I walked away from the shul without really trying to gain entry. Today, that scene would play out much differently. But, two decades ago, I fell short of my goal.

After abandoning the effort to attend shul, I had a pit in my stomach that lasted the rest of the day, and it wasn’t due to fasting. In fact, I chose not to fast, given that I wasn’t in services and would need to lead an otherwise normal day. So, my fellow Jewish-American friend — Gabrielle Miller from UC-Berkeley — and I decided we’d join up with our other American friends to go on an outing. But, of course, due to our attempt to attend services, we missed the bus. I recall sitting down on the curb, dejected, hit with the reality that if one doesn’t propoerly observe Yom Kippur, the day isn’t to go well.

Since then, I’ve indeed observed Yom Kippur, but the day always carries with it not just a heavy sense of soul-searching and profound spirituality, but unusual circumstances, too. This year was no exception.

On Yom Kippur day, a Wednesday, I’d had a lovely morning at shul with my daughters; Hayley and I attended the family service, and then Alyssa tagged along with me for a few minutes of the adult service. During that service, I had the privilege to sit next to my colleague and friend, Prof. Natan Meir; sitting with him deepened my davening experience and offered me comfort, being physically with a special friend during an otherwise solely spiritual moment.

After this service concluded — and the girls had been wonderful, hanging around the building, with friends, reading their books…just letting me attend and enjoy the adult service without interruption — we went home and proceeded to have a very mellow, relaxing afternoon. A dog walk. One errand. The girls finished their homework, which put them into a good mood, as they’d worried about falling behind, since I’d pulled them from a day of school for the holiday.

Evening arrived, and we left for Sal’s, a casual Italian restaurant in Northwest Portland, where Dad had reserved a table in a small, curtained-off room with just a few tables. Chugging down Sunset Highway inbound (East), we found ourselves in that typical, post-rush-hour traffic where lines of cars run very smoothly in some pockets but then slow to a crawl — or stop all together — with very little warning. Next thing I knew, a queue of cars ahead of me, in the middle lane, STOPPED. I had never literally stood on the brakes like I did in that moment; the brakes engaged in that way that makes it feel like the tires are skipping beneath the vehicle. In an instant, I realized that, thank God, our car halted within 1 cm of the smaller car in front of us. Within that same instant I realized we were going to get slammed by the car behind.

Alyssa was reading and so her head was hanging down, over the pages of her book she was reading in the light of the nearly set sun. Hayley was gazing out the window, head held erect. They both exclaimed upon the moment of impact; their confusion, fear, and uncertainty all were palpable from the front seat, where my rumbling stomach stopped momentarily to allow me to kinda clear-headedly absorb the fact We’d Just Been Hit. On Yom Kippur. On The Way to Our Break-Fast Dinner. After exchanging info. with the ‘perp,’ we indeed went to the restaurant and, while still a little shaken up, still were able to enjoy a very nice dinner with family.

Two days later, Alyssa stopped complaining about her neck pain, and I began to really feel it. It hurt to walk to the bus to get to work; it hurt to type; it hurt to walk the dog; I was waking at 3 a.m. with pounding headaches. Fortunately, as quickly as this discomfort came on, it dissipated. And, yet, I finally went — today — nearly two weeks later — to a chiropractor. Instantly after my appointment, I felt better, less “compacted” at the nape; I have a couple follow-up appointments and know I’ll be (close to) 100 percent in no time.

In sharing our story with friends and colleagues, of course their first response was a furrowed brow, followed by, “That is horrible! And on Yom Kippur of all days!” I routinely responded to them: “Something odd always happens on Yom Kippur.”

If nothing else, the holiday takes me back to that dreary autumn day in Southern France where I’d not had the guts to correctly (in my view) observe Yom Kippur. Since then, every year on the Day of Atonement, I feel gratitude for being able to celebrate the hallowed day, no matter what is thrown my way. Because, in my estimation, that day is supposed to be difficult and shake you to the core. And there’s nothing like a car wreck to jar you physically and emotionally. In subsequent years, I’d like to experience a good emotional thrashing, however, without such drama and potential danger.

As Sukkot now comes to a close, our car has been repaired, I’ve been deemed 100 percent NOT at fault, I appreciate that the ‘perp’ has very good insurance, and the girls are no longer scared to drive Eastbound on Sunset Highway.

As many Jews fold up their temporary booths, it would be nice if we, too, could move out of our own temporary home — the playroom, den, and garage — and back into the rest of our house. More on the remodel’s progress soon.

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