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After decades as a progressive, I thought I understood racism pretty well. But now, as we’re hearing more stories and seeing more footage of brutality against African Americans in ways that would never happen if that person were white, I’m starting to get it. I feel sad hearing Black parents, no matter how affluent and professional, talk about having to have “the talk” at some point with their son about how to behave in the world. How to carry yourself, how to talk to a police officer (“yes, sir,” “no, sir.”) How frightened those parents are every time their son goes out for the evening. Will he come home safe? The fear of a policeman’s flashing red lights in your rear-view mirror. Will that pull-over for a broken tail light or going seven miles over the speed limit result in death? And speaking of “no matter how affluent…” etc., remember the incident in which Dr. Henry Louis Gates, who teaches at Harvard and has written books and appeared in documentaries, was arrested while entering his own house? Because it was in a nice neighborhood, and he is Black. Of course he must be a robber.

You would think after George Floyd that police officers would be cooling it, would be extra cautious, but no. Shortly after, we had Rayshard Brooks, an incident that started with his being asleep, drunk, in a Wendy’s drive-through and ended up in death. I will confess that liberal as I am, I have always been afraid of black men unless they are quite obviously non-threatening. I am afraid of black women, because I assume they resent me. But no, it’s the other way around. It is Black people who are afraid to be out in the world, and with good reason, in a world, in a country where “white” is the given standard and anything else is a noticeable deviation from that standard.

How to be an ally, or at least how not to inadvertently be a jerk? Is it simply to get out of the way? Is it, as Rev. Al Sharpton said, to just “get off our necks”? Not being able to breathe, it means not being able to live, to relax, to spread your wings, reach your potential. What is our role, or is it obnoxious to think we have one other than to stay away?

When I was in my twenties, I volunteered full-time for Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers. For many of us young idealistic Anglo volunteers from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, it could be awkward. What were we doing there? We could totally believe in and support the cause by boycotting lettuce and grapes. But to be out in the field organizing workers, to be doing the administrative work of the organization? Sure, it did something for me: brought meaning and vitality to my life. And what I came to see very clearly was that our best work was to pave the way for the workers themselves to run the whole show. I found that the Mexican farmworkers themselves, while sometimes puzzled, were warm and hospitable. The only place I felt I was resented was once in Denver among young Chicanos. I’m thinking now of a time I attended a foreclosure prevention meeting on Minneapolis’s north side, which is largely Black. I was one of only two, at most three, white people in the meeting, and they didn’t know me. The fellow who had organized me hadn’t been able to make it at the last minute, so I was there on my own. At the beginning of the meeting, we had to go around in turn and introduce ourselves. After that, the woman leading the meeting pointed to me — I, who was trying to unobtrusively sit in the back — and asked in front of everyone why I was there, what was my purpose. One of the more uncomfortable moments of my life. I was there trying to help, but she was suspicious. Or who knows, maybe just puzzled.

After George Floyd’s murder, I wondered whether I should post anything on Facebook. I hadn’t been active on FB for some time. But it felt too important not to say anything. And I kept seeing slogans like “Silence = Violence,” “to say nothing is to be complicit.” So I posted something. And woke in a sweat at 2 in the morning worrying about it. Had I said the right thing? Was I just trying to show off to my friends that I was “woke”? Who was I to post a call to action (“Now is the time.”) when what the hell was I doing about anything?

But here’s what I saw on the news. Here is a difference between 2020 and the 1970s that I’d experienced. Of the protestors, most were young and at least half of them were white. On the Today Show, Al Roker, who remembered the protests of the ’60s, and Craig Melvin, both of whom are Black, said that this was a great positive difference, that it gave them more hope that change would really happen. They welcomed us. And once again, young people are marching in the streets for justice. In recent decades I’ve felt sad at the passivity of the American public, especially when we’re talking about youth. People seemed to care mainly about their careers, their own prosperity and not much beyond that. I’ve read statements by people in other nations to the effect of “Why aren’t Americans marching in the streets at what goes on in your country?”

Well, now we are. Or rather they are, the young. I’ve heard the young blame the baby boomers for the messed-up world we’ve left to them, that maybe it’s fine if we do die of Covid-19. #okboomer. This hurts. We are the ones who said that very thing about our own parents, about the polluted, shallow-valued, war-mongering, racist world they gave us. So I don’t think the young are fair in saying that, or rather, generalizing about it. But maybe it’s healthy. The young should always have the fire of idealism and rebellion.

If Covid-19 and 10 weeks of quarantine hadn’t been enough rocking the land, then came the horrendous death of George Floyd. I can’t watch the video again. It’s so painful and was so avoidable. Why? Why does it keep happening? And thank God for smartphones, because these things have been going on forever; there just wasn’t anyone to film it. Thank God for that video.

I have driven past that corner where it happened, 38th & Chicago, so many times. I always noticed the name of the corner store, Cup Foods, which seemed like an obvious but awkward play on Cub Foods, the giganto supermarket up the way. The supermarket where I shopped with my daughter, who lived near there, which is now trashed and looted.

I was heartsick that this murder happened here in Minneapolis, where we pride ourselves on our progressivism and embrace of multiculturalism. Immigrants come here because we’re known to be welcoming. But beneath this has been a truth to be ashamed of: that Minneapolis has the highest racial disparities in home ownership, wealth and education in the U.S. And the police department here has a troubled history dealing with blacks — swept under the rug, now brought to light.

I only discovered the north side, home to the largest African American population here, had only been there for the first time, after nearly 10 years of living in Minneapolis. People like me don’t go there because of its reputation for crime and because there’s nothing to draw outsiders. It’s a food desert, and also a desert of theaters, restaurants, and businesses. I finally went there for three reasons: one, to help Jewish Community Action with foreclosure prevention during that crisis, and second, to tour what had been the old Jewish neighborhood, the little synagogues now turned into African American churches. It was Sunday morning, and joyous sounds of gospel music rang out from the doors of the old Tifereth Israel. And finally, I took a tour of Prince’s old neighborhood. There we learned about the city housing covenants that for decades kept Jews and African Americans out of many Minneapolis neighborhoods, which is brought both communities to the North Side. Segregation. A neighborhood nobody went to. Apparently, the two people coexisted, but when riots broke out in volatile 1967, the Jews got scared and had accumulated enough wealth to move to the areas that would have them, like St. Louis Park.

After a couple of recent nights of riots and wholesale looting and vandalism, much of it apparently by people who came not to mourn George Floyd but to take advantage of a volatile situation, there were signs of hope. On Saturday morning the sun came out, the perfect day. And there were loads of volunteers who had come out with brooms to help clean up Lake Street and its businesses, most of them small businesses owned by minorities and immigrants.

To be continued…

Earth Day: 50 Years On

Fifty years ago I participated in the very first Earth Day — yes, I’m that old — by helping clean up litter along Monument Creek in Colorado Springs. I was a teenager excited about all the movements for social change at the time — environment, peace, justice.

At the time I fomented several bouts of indigestion at the dinner table by expressing my views on the Vietnam War, the environment and civil rights. My parents were staunch Republicans, my father had had a career in the military, and he worshipped unfettered capitalism. People like me were considered unpatriotic by the right wing. I remember being particularly upset when I read about how bald eagles were on the brink of extinction because of DDT. “These are our national symbols! And we are killing them!” My father was silent; my mother said, “Do we have to discuss these things at dinner?”

Such innocence then, and hopefulness: teach-ins, creek clean-ups, painting over graffiti on Colorado boulders with rock-colored paint. It was when people started using the word “ecology.” I went to lectures by biology professor Richard Beidleman at Colorado College, where I first learned how everything is interconnected. Disturb one species of life, and you’ll destroy others. Every creature is critical, even mosquitoes and vampire bats. Back then this seemed revolutionary thinking.

What I remember concluding was that, while all these other issues were important: peace, farmworkers’ rights, racial equality, the Third World — the most critical of all was the environment. What would any of these things matter if we had no Earth?

The coronavirus and other recent scary epidemics — Ebola, SARS, for example — jumped to humans from animals. We’re encroaching on species that carry these viruses, and because they’re new to us, we have no resistance. There’s suspicion that the COVID-19 virus came from an animal, possibly a pangolin, sold in a wildlife and seafood market in Wuhan. Humans are capturing rare animals that fetch large sums in faraway markets, hunting them to extinction. That in itself is a crime, or should be. We can never repay the debt we owe animals. But it’s killing us, too.

And it’s not just exotic wildlife markets. It’s much bigger and more fundamental than that. And it isn’t a problem that’s going to end with this virus if we keep on this way. Here are a couple of quotes from experts from one of today’s stories on the NPR page:

“We’re fragmenting habitats. We’re building roads through most regions of the world. We’re incrementally destroying the large landscapes that animals have to live in,” says Raina Plowright, professor of epidemiology at Montana State University and principal investigator of the Bat OneHealth research group.” …

“The real risk is in the wild in the way people interact with wildlife around the world,” says Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, a group that researches the origins of pandemics. “That’s where we need to be focused if we want to really do something about preventing the next pandemic.”

NPR. “Coronavirus Researchers Cast Doubt on Theory of Coronavirus Lab Accident,” April 23, 2020.

 In our own greed, we’re killing ourselves.

In the Jewish morning prayers, there’s a blessing, the asher yatzar, a thanks to God for forming the workings of the body. Here’s a loose translation from the Hebrew from the prayerbook Mishkan T’filah:

“Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
with divine wisdom You have made our vital organs
into a finely balanced network.
Wondrous Maker and Sustainer of life,
were one of them to fail —
how well we are aware! —
we would lack the strength to stand in life before You.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
Source of our health and strength.

Baruch ata, Adonai, rofei chol basar umafli laasot.

The more traditional translation gives praise for God’s forming the human body with skill, “creating the body’s many pathways and openings,” recognizing that “if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You.”

This is earthy. It’s a blessing that’s also to be said upon going to the bathroom. I used to find this a bit strange and embarrassing, especially having been raised as a Catholic, in which spirit and body (“upper” and “lower” were separate.) But as a person with Crohn’s disease, who has known misery without those things working properly, I came to realize how totally appropriate is this bit of daily gratitude.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times by a doctor of internal medicine opened my eyes to the marvelous construction of healthy lungs. (“What You Should Know Before You Need a Ventilator,” by Kathryn Dreger, April 4, 2020)

“The lining of each sac is so thin that air floats through them into the red blood cells. These millions of alveoli are so soft, so gentle, that a healthy lung has almost no substance. Touching it feels like reaching into a bowl of whipped cream.

Covid-19 wrecks those perfect workings, turning that billowy whipped cream into a “stale marshmallow,” and other major organs fail due to lack of oxygen.

So in the midst of this pandemic, I am grateful for what I’ve always taken for granted:

The ability to draw a full breath of air deep into my lungs.
The feeling of physical well-being right now, knowing it may not remain so: nothing hurting, no fever, no coughing.
My warm, safe apartment. What are the homeless doing? What hell is that? What will happen when this virus hits the poorest high-population countries? We don’t hear much about that.
A balcony from which to safely enjoy the outdoors as springs arrives, where I can safely breathe clean air. A balcony looking out onto a nature preserve, from which I have seen bald eagles, not to mention blue herons and white ones (or are those egrets?)
The tree full of birds outside my window and the jaunty woodpeckers at the feeder.
That we have the internet and Zoom.
Two cats to share this quarantine with. My little family.
People in life-saving careers, not just medical professionals but the low-paid unnoticed people that keep the gears running: grocery store workers, people who keep the utilities going, etc. People who work in public service.
Netflix and Amazon Prime, to transport me to other worlds and times, that engross me so that, for a while, I forget the pandemic. The series that’s most recently gotten me through: the Australian 6-season A Place to Call Home.
Six pounds of heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo. I’d been trying different varieties and accumulated them, not imagining how perfect they would be for this time.
The excitement of picking up two weeks’ worth of groceries at Cub yesterday. The kitchen looks like Santa Claus came to visit.

Pandemic: Spring 2020

It started with a bat that infected another mammal — maybe a pangolin (a very endangered scaled anteater-type critter) — that was being sold in a live animal market in Wuhan, China. Then, through a mutation in the virus, it jumped to a human who visited said market. Then it mutated into something that humans could pass to each other. Thus in December 2019 began the citywide infection in Wuhan. From the news we followed, it looked horrendous: Wuhan, a city of 11 million, now a ghost town in lockdown. People being boarded into their apartments by the authorities, and lines of sick people outside the hospital being told by overwhelmed staff, sorry, there’s nothing we can do. There’s no cure, there was no room, there weren’t enough medical personnel. So they were sent home to recover or die, and infect their families. The city was being cordoned off. Desperate people were trapped there.

An ocean away, it seemed distant. Why would the stock market here take a dive because of what was happening there? And of course this kind of thing would happen someplace like China. Never here. We don’t have live wildlife markets, and we don’t have an authoritarian government like China’s, which silenced the original whistle-blower, Dr. Li Wenliang. People protested the government’s handling of the crisis. Was this going to be another Tiannamen Square? Would it really change China this time? Interesting to ponder, but still, something far away.

Then, as people were gradually able to leave Wuhan, the virus, Covid-19, flew with them. Soon it ran rampant in northern Italy and Iran. We heard about towns in Italy being cordoned off. We saw video of people fleeing Lombardy before the lockdown began. It seemed crazy. Milan, home of La Scala opera house and sophisticated center of fashion and international businesses. I thought of my long hoped-for trip to Italy, one I’d hoped to make in summer 2019, which would have been the 40th anniversary of my trip to Calabria, to the town from which my great-grandparents immigrated and where a branch of our family lives, who warmly welcomed me in 1979. For various reasons, I did not go last summer, and it surely will not be happen this summer, though initially I’d thought “Well, it’s just northern Italy. Calabria seems safe.” And now all of Italy is in lockdown.

A video went viral, in which Italians talk to the “themselves” of 10 days ago. It was a warning to those of us 10 days behind them to take the social distancing orders seriously. A rumbling of thunder in the distance. And now two-thirds of us in the U.S. are under “shelter in place” orders, as well. (Written in late March. Now it’s higher.) New York City is turning hellish. We’re seeing scenes that seemed unbelievable when we saw them in northern Italy: freezer trucks pulled up to the hospital to collect all the dead bodies. People dying alone in ICUs because family members, rightly, can’t be allowed in. Trump himself and Drs. Fauci and Birx said yesterday to prepare for the coming week to be shocking. That this week would be our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11.

I’ve been obsessively reading the New York Times, and one day a few weeks ago (or a couple — time has telescoped) — I saw a headline that made me shudder. I didn’t even read the article. Too horrifying. More unbelievableness. The gist was that doctors in Italy were being forced to make horrendous decisions about who to treat and who to let die. There aren’t enough ventilators. Really? That could happen? Well, yes, it happens in war. Triage. Treat the wounded who are most likely to live, and let the others go. Then people here in the U.S. started debating: should everybody go back to work and let the old and the weak die in service to the economy?

This is a war. The Army is building field hospitals in Central Park. A Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, has pulled into New York City’s harbor to serve as a floating hospital. Health care workers, who don’t have nearly adequate personal protective equipment (PPE: one of those terms many of us have learned recently) freely admit to being scared every day.

Wherever you are in life, this pandemic makes it all the more so. Are you alone? Now you’re really alone. Are you with others, in a family? Now you’re really together. I’ve thought, this must be an important relationship marker for some couples: are we going to quarantine together?

Are you selfish? Are you good? Heroic? Now you are all the more so. As for heroic, the Today Show this morning showed some of the 80,000 health care professionals who have answered Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plea to help in New York City. Many health workers are sick, and some have died.

But then there are the low-paid heroes, just trying to hold onto their homes and feed their families, and in doing so, they are feeding us. These are the grocery store workers, the people we don’t notice and don’t give accolades to. They’re risking their health and lives for little pay. And the warehouse workers, all the people in the supply chain. And for that matter, other workers in the hospital besides the medical personnel: the custodians, the guards, the receptionist, the cafeteria worker.

Here in my apartment in Minneapolis, I am useless. I can barely stand it. At least it’s been said that staying home right now is heroic. You save the human race by sitting on the couch and watching Netflix. A few times in my life I considered nursing school but thought it too far out of my realm. I was a literature person and squeamish about blood and needles. Now is one of the times I wish I’d done it, though I’d surely be sidelined for being too old and also immunocompromised due to my meds. But oh, a big part of me would like to be one of those people.

For now, we brace ourselves for the tidal wave we saw envelop Wuhan, followed by northern Italy. We know it’s coming here, we know what it looks like, and we read the ominous predictions: 100,000 dead and millions infected. Soon we will all know someone who is sick or someone who has died — or so it seems. (I wrote this only a week or two ago, and now it IS here. Not quite in Minneapolis, but with the delayed time from infection to symptoms, most of the healthy-looking people out there right now could be ill in a few days.)

I’m seeing more info that suggests that this teeny virus spreads not just through droplets from coughing and sneezing but also through aerosol — that is, in even smaller invisible fragments, from someone’s breath, where they can hang in the air for three hours. People can shed virus for days before they feel symptoms and know they’re infected. If that’s true, it’s no wonder this thing spreads like wildfire.

I’ve been keeping to myself, doing all the right things. But what about that runner who passed me on the nature trail out back, who was huffing and puffing within a few feet of me yesterday? What about the woman I almost bumped into at the door of one of the stairwells in our building, where I said “Sorry,” and she said, “That’s OK.” Was any virus breathed out with those words? Will I die for these little exchanges?

Wuhan was only two months ago. And now here we are, the whole world, practically, in lockdown. Lord have mercy.

I have a backlog of concerts, trips, etc. that I’ve blogged about mentally, or even have drafts of, but which I didn’t put on the “page.” That’s crazy, since this writing is about sheer fun. 

I go to a lot of concerts. I see lots of performers in my role as a volunteer at the Cedar Cultural Center. It’s one of the main reasons I do it: so much great free music! But I pay to go hear music, as well. I debate with myself: should I go to so many concerts and plays that in truth I can’t afford in such volume? But it’s my transcendence. Music and literature always have been, and music to such an extent that sometimes it actually hurts. I ask myself: why not just listen for free at home on a recording? But there’s nothing that beats that buzz of going to a venue, being among the audience, and feeling that electricity between performer and audience.

Now comes an attempted reconstruction of an event I should have posted about when it happened, June 2017, the Electric Fetus:

Friday evening was gorgeous, partly for the weather, and partly for hearing Dan Wilson play (for free) at The Electric Fetus. I go to hear a lot of musicians I’ve heard and read great things about, and it’s how my music knowledge moves into the future. Of course, Dan Wilson’s been around a while, but it took me a while to go see him. But I want to say: I was once with a couple of other baby boomer friends, one of whom said, “There has been no good music since the ’70s,” and the other heartily agreed. No no no no no!!!!

The ’60s was a very special time in music, and I will never forget the thrill of learning about the Beatles, following them in 16 and Tiger Beat, going to Hard Day’s Night, discovering Merseybeat, the Kinks, etc etc etc. Joy and innocence. But there will always be new people making amazing new music, standing on the shoulders of those who came before.  Sometimes it takes me a while, occasionally decades, to find them, like say, Big Star. Or Elvis Costello.

Getting back to Dan… What I recall is that I was struggling, as I so often do, with navigating some seemingly irreconcilable difficulties in my life, and the Dementors in my head start to take over. But I went nevertheless to the record store The Electric Fetus out of curiosity. He was doing a free in-store performance tied with his new release, Re-Covered, his covers of songs he co-wrote and which were performed and made famous by others. And there are some big ones, like “Someone Like You,” written with and for Adele. “Not Ready to Make Nice,” with the Dixie Chicks.

By chance, I happened to arrive the same time as Dan and park very close to him. I saw him get out of a little Toyota or Honda or some such car with a woman who I later realized was his wife. Then I passed him as he was going downstairs to the Fetus basement to tune up or something before the performance.

I took my place in the crowd. He’s well loved here for his Minneapolis roots, back to Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic. A South Minneapolis guy. There’s so much Minneapolis music, like, later on, Eau Claire music, that has a special quality: a connection with the neighborhood, with roots, with families, high school friends. 

But I digress: So I was fighting Dementors. I’d navigated construction to get there, so I was a little harried. He opened with just the words I needed to hear, as if he knew my life and mind. I’d never heard the song. Thank you, Dan, for just what I needed, for breaking from the worn mold of having your trust betrayed by others to the much harder one.

“All will be well/Even after all the promises you’ve broken to yourself.”

And I love that evocative part whose meaning isn’t entirely clear but is just right, as poetry should be, and makes me feel  cozy:

And all the children walking home past the factories
Can see the light shining in my window as
I write this song to you

So, two-plus years delayed, this post, but just right for coming back to a blog I’ve promised to tend. So, Dan Wilson’s solo rendition of “All Will Be Will,” originally written with and for the Gabe Dixon Band:

 

Back to this intermittent, long-abandoned blog of lovely quirky things. I’m an easily overwhelmed writer with too much to say about too many things, yet I want to speak about all the things I love, and a blog is a good place to loosen the writing fingers.

Here is an old favorite I’d long forgotten but ran across recently, like an old friend: Elvis Costello’s beautiful The Hoover Factory. (Really, who writes a song about a vacuum cleaner factory? I love it. A little gem in less than two minutes.)

The day of Prince’s death, I remembered an essay of mine that was never published but was dear to my heart. Thankfully, I found it in the files of my old laptop. It’s too long and the news cycle is too short for it to find a home in a traditional publication — even an online one, I imagine. And this is why it’s time for me to revive my blog. To get the words out without gatekeepers. At the time I had my concert review and a little bit about Paisley Park published in the Chanhassen newspaper. Perhaps I’ll attach or link to that. But for now…

 

Friends 4Ever: Prince Fan-atics at Paisley Park, June 18, 2004

On a breezy mid-June afternoon, I’m outside Prince’s recording studio in Chanhassen, a southwest suburb of Minneapolis, out in “industrial park land.” The sleek, blocky, unmarked building could easily be mistaken for part of the General Mills complex across the street. But to the observant, the pots of purple petunias are a sly tip-off: this is not Betty Crocker, but Paisley Park.

Today the security gates are thrown open to the public for the first time in years. The occasion: three afternoons of Open House to show off Paisley Park’s new state-of-the-art recording equipment during the Twin Cities leg of Prince’s “Musicology” tour. Minneapolis being The Artist’s hometown, enthusiasm runs high. At least two different lines snake through the studio grounds, among a confusion of picnic tables, purple helium balloons, and sellers of Prince merchandise, popcorn and mini-donuts.

“Do you know where we buy tickets for the tour?” I ask two friendly-looking African-American women who look one step ahead of me in piecing out the puzzle. I’ve followed them to the line at the merchandise tent, and it is indeed the right place.

Unified by our fandom and the long wait, first for tickets – or rather, wristbands, then entrance to the Purple Palace itself, we become friends. Tracy, 38, and Janice, 56, paralegals from Dallas, are enjoying their first visit to Minnesota. “I’ve loved Prince since seventh grade,” Tracy gushes. “I’ve even gone to Hawaii to see him.”

“You’re a fan!” I say, impressed.

She corrects me: “Fan-atic!” and lifts her shirt to reveal the large tattoo on her stomach: the symbol that was once The Artist’s name.

Unlike many Prince fans, my enthusiasm for The Purple One does not date back to, say, junior high. In 1984, the year Prince became a 3M-sized colossus with Purple Rain, what rocked my world was my colicky newborn daughter, Sarah. I first heard the new hit “Raspberry Beret” in Jazzercise class while burning post-maternity flab.

At the dawn of the new millennium I found myself singing along to “1999” on the radio, to the dismay of teen-age Sarah. What clinched it for me, though, was watching Prince tear through a guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” during the George Harrison tribute at this year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, televised on VH1.

I’ve always been a pop music fan, dating back to when I was a 10-year-old bubble-gum-chewing teenybopper trading Beatle cards at slumber parties with my girlfriends. Fandom was very much about friendship. We’d discuss which Beatle was our favorite, and whether the Rolling Stones were dreamy or dangerous. (Actually, they were dreamy because they were dangerous.) We fantasized about meeting our unattainable celebrity crushes. In truth, looking back, I can see that I wanted to be Keith Richards as much as date him. But until the arrival of Chrissy Hynde, herself a fan who became what she loved, I couldn’t imagine how that was possible. Girls did not pick up electric guitars. A couple of us picked up acoustic guitars and gamely tried folk songs. And I dreamed of writing for magazines like Tiger Beat when I grew up, so that I could interview pop stars.

At the end of the school year, my fan friends and I would sign each other’s autograph books with sayings like “2 Good 2 B In School” and Friends 4Ever.” (Is this how Prince learned 2 spell?) The autograph book didn’t survive our family’s many moves, and neither did the friendships, but the happy memories did, along with my love for pop.

That’s what drew me to St. Paul’s Xcel Center to see Prince, whose electric presence grabbed you ‘round the throat even if you were perched in a rafter seat of the giant hockey arena.

After the show, I hadn’t had enough Prince, and that’s why I was at Paisley Park, two days later, milling again in a sea of fans.

PaisleyParkStudio

I’d worried about being too old, too un-hip, too un-cool to hang out at Prince’s place, especially alone, but there was no need to fret.

With this trip to Minnesota, Tracy is celebrating her recently-finalized divorce. “Every day my life is just work and kids, work and kids. I decided it’s time to have a little fun.”

Talking of Prince’s new Jehovah’s Witness ways and the R-rated songs he’ll no longer sing, Tracy says, “I have to say, I miss his erotic stuff. But if he doesn’t want to do those songs anymore, I respect that. He’s got plenty of other good stuff to choose from.”

Janice, a fan-atic not so much of Prince but of travel, came along as part of her quest to see all 50 states (Minnesota was No. 29.) “Tracy originally wanted to go to Chicago to see Prince. But I told her, ‘Anyone will go with you to Chicago. Only I will go with you to Minnesota.” The pair laugh.

I’d thought Paisley Park would be some dim den of hipness, but once we reach the foyer, I feel almost like we could be at Betty Crocker headquarters, except for the Grammy awards and the Purple Rain Oscar displayed in a case.

In the airy sky-lit atrium, the walls, a heavenly blue, are painted with clouds, doves, and a large likeness of Prince’s eyes, staring, intense. During the tour, the guide points out details we might overlook, like a wooden cage of white doves on the balcony, or the “cuss bucket,” an empty water-cooler jug labeled “Luv 4 One Another,” into which employees must deposit money for charity if Prince catches anyone cursing.

Prince’s people – the tour guides, the recording engineers, and the security personnel – are so polite and good-natured, we could be on one of the factory tours from the Mister Rogers show. And indeed, there are children on this tour, even some in strollers. When we come to the giant console in Studio A, on which Prince himself lays down most tracks these days, Khalik, a recording engineer, has one of the children push a lever that demonstrates how a drumbeat is preserved and played back.

After the tour, I trade e-mail addresses with Tracy and Janice, bid them good-bye and wish them well in their Twin Cities visit. They’ve got a full night ahead, with the concert at the arena, then back to Paisley Park for the after-show party that begins at midnight and goes till…dawn?? The personnel can’t say: they only know that “special guests” might be on hand tonight.

I leave regretfully, knowing I’m doing the wise thing not to spend the money for the late-night show. I don’t want to negotiate my way alone in the middle of the night.

Still, part of me wishes someone would talk me into it. After all, it’s Prince. After all, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And as I walk back to my car, a pretty, perky-looking woman with bouncy reddish hair, big brown eyes, red Capri pants and a white sleeveless top passes me on her way toward the studio.

“Can you tell me if they’re still doing tours?” she asks eagerly.

“No, I was in the last one,” I answer.

She looks so disappointed that I quickly add: “But they are selling tickets to the after-show.”

“Really?” she says – and as if hearing the very thoughts emanating from my brain, says, “I really, really want to go. But it starts so late, and none of my friends will go – even though I kept telling them, ‘It’s Prince! This could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance!’ And at that hour, I don’t feel comfortable going alone.”

I hear these words leap from my mouth: “I’ll go, I’ll go with you!”

“Really?” she squeals. “Yes, yes!” I answer, and, there we are, two strangers jumping up and down together, trading cell phone numbers and agreeing to meet back up at 8:30 to be among the first in line.

She calls me at dinner, telling me she went ahead and bought tickets for both of us, cash only, knowing I’d be there at 8:30 to repay her. Her friends are telling her what my friends are telling me: “What? You’re going to an all-night party with someone you’ve just met?” But we tell our friends the same thing: “I know she’s OK. I can tell.” We’re both fans.

            During nearly four hours sitting in line at Paisley Park, Sheila and I find out we have much in common, like milestone birthdays. She just turned 40; I just turned 50. As the sunset streaks pink and purple behind us, then sets, and the moon and Venus rise, we talk.

We are both rediscovering our Inner Kid, learning to have fun after years of seriousness, struggle, and responsibility. She is recently divorced; my marriage had broken up two months before.

We are both dreamers, looking forward to new lives.

In business with her brother, a home-builder, she’s thinking of going back to school, becoming a grief counselor, and learning to write: “I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas I want to write about,” she says.

I do, too, even though I never became a writer for Tiger Beat.

“Here,” says Sheila, eagerly thumbing through Oprah Magazine. “I found a line just for us,” she says, pointing to a sentence from Oprah’s “What I Know For Sure” column: “Party until dawn,” it commands.

“I think it’s a sign,” Sheila says.

We do exactly as Oprah says, though it may not quite be the experience she had in mind. We’re crowded, standing-room-only, into a cavernous room packed wall-to-wall, listening to a funk band play for more than two hours.

Prince finally emerges from the back-corner of the stage at 2:45 a.m., his presence first signaled by the ring of bright gems that outline his ear, sparkling in the dark. We cheer as Prince takes the stage, no more than 10 feet before Sheila and me. He’s no bigger than a birch sapling, and not a molecule isn’t pure energy and presence.

Prince_at_Coachella

[The above photo is not from that performance. It’s Prince at Coachella, from Wikipedia, available for non-commercial reuse.]

Sheila and I try not to think about the bathroom break we wished we’d taken three hours before, and I try not to worry that my numb feet could be a sign of some serious degenerative disease only now making itself known. Were we not packed like sardines, I’d be flat on the floor.

But when I doubt whether I should be here, I have only to look at Sheila, who beams at me with the most radiant of smiles and says, over and over, “I’m so glad I ran into you! I wouldn’t have come here otherwise.”

The evening gets more and more absurd. Prince and the funksters call up audience members to sing off the cheat sheet pasted on the stage floor and then to dance. As the band whips through a long, long version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” the line of audience dancers grooves on and on, among them a skinny middle-aged woman with an intense look and a leg brace.

At 4:50, the show ends, the doors to Paisley Park open, and we are released to the dawn, the western sky already reflecting the sunrise. I am cold now, and I can barely walk. As we stumble to the car, Sheila bubbles, “This reminds me of college. I can’t remember when I’ve stayed up to see the dawn.”

“Neither can I,” I say, not quite bubbling, but maybe percolating. To be honest, I didn’t even do this in college. We trade e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and hugs, promising to stay Prince-pals.

When I finally see Purple Rain for the first time, at home on my DVD player, I watch through all the credits. My persistence is rewarded with this stunning line across the screen:

“May u live 2 see the dawn.”

 

I will always remember this summer night, with Sheila. And yesterday (was it really yesterday?) afternoon, with Tracy and Janice. We may never meet the pop stars who brought us together, but like my old girlhood friends, they are:

2 Good 2 B 4Gotten.

Purple Dawn

[As a postscript: Despite trading contact info, Tracy, Janice, Sheila and I never got in touch after this. But in the days after Prince’s death, I’ve thought about them, and I’m sure that Sheila, wherever she is, has also been remembering that evening.

From what’ I’ve read, it sounds like 2004 was a bit of a turning point for Prince: He became a Jehovah’s Witness and settled more permanently in Minnesota. He opened Paisley Park many times after that, hosting frequent all-night music parties with pancakes served in the morning.

A few months before his death, I saw the ad on Prince’s Twitter feed announcing the sale of tickets to his first “Piano & a Microphone” program. I was sorely tempted, having felt a bond with Prince since my 2004 experience. I reluctantly passed on it because of the $100 tickets and the prospect of driving to Chanhassen on a January night. It would have been a good time to run into Sheila.]

 

###

 

 

 

 

As with my father’s parents, I am the keeper of memories. George J. Shapiro, born in Brooklyn, NY, my mother’s father, was the sweetest, kindest man. He would be so easy to forget. No one seems to talk of him anymore. He died long ago: 1967. But he came to life for me again today, because now that I am a Jew, I am keeping yahrzeits, death anniversaries. That means I go to Temple, and their names are read on the public list, and we say Kaddish. I am keeping alive a yearly memory for three forgotten people.

So now that there is this day to remember my grandpa George, I found myself thinking of him a lot. I found myself realizing that a quarter of who I am comes from him. And I thought deeply about each thing I could remember about him. I only knew him when I was a child, of course, and only from vacation visits to New Rochelle once or twice a year. I shall list some things:

  • He loved his beautiful Collie-Chow rescue dog, Brandy, who looked like Lassie with a purple tongue and had a coat the color of brandy. I used to love petting his sleek fur under the chin. He was so well behaved, confining himself to the kitchen and breakfast room as was required — no doubt, by my grandmother. Now that seems cruel. That was not a large space for a dog of that size. And think how he would have loved sitting on the couch or on the bed with us. He loved people.
  • He took Brandy for walks every evening to Jake’s, “the corner store,” (to me, the candy store) to get the next day’s Standard Star, which he’d bring home to my grandmother. I imagine that was his peaceful time, being out with his dog. Now that I think of it, that was an unusual thing for an urban Jew, to have a dog. Maybe that’s where I get my animal-loving ways. And Anthony, too, with his greyhounds.
  • He brought me pistachios from Jake’s, because he knew I loved them.
  • He was the driver for a houseful of women: Grandma, Aunt Jo and Aunt Ann.
  • When my mother was working in Manhattan, he was waiting for her in the car at the train station each day when she got home.
  • He sold things like nylon stockings door to door during WWII. He was so not a salesman. My mother would go with him and wait in the car and get nervous when he didn’t come out for a long time and thought he might never come out.
  • When a glass broke in the kitchen, he yelled Mazel Tov!
  • He wore a napkin tucked under his chin when he ate spaghetti.
  • He worried I was going to choke and always said, “Chew it good.” He worried about everything, actually. He’d come downstairs and check all the locks again at bedtime.
  • It’s too bad I didn’t get to see him and Aunt Georgina and the NY relatives much when I was growing up. That would have been great stability for me. Maybe not surprising that I moved to NY on my own in my 20s in large part to be in touch with my roots.

For the past three years I’ve lived not even a half-mile from the St. Louis Park Recreation Center with its beautiful swimming pool. (To be precise, Google Maps tells me it’s .4 miles, or an 8-minute walk.)

St Louis Park Pool.

St Louis Park Pool.

I grew up in pools like this. During our three years in Puerto Rico, where my dad was stationed on an Air Force base when I was ages 9-12, I spent entire summer days in the pool, punctuated by breaks to leap out to get a plate of french fries or an ice cream cone from Tommy, the young Puerto Rican man who worked at the snack bar. After a lot of swimming on a hot day, there was nothing like those plates of french fries with ketchup dribbled all over them, shared with a friend. The teenage lifeguards were the ultimate in cool: so grown-up, so tan, so fit, twirling their whistles, their marks of authority. At 5 p.m., when we heard Taps wafting through the air, we’d leap out of the pool and stand silently and reverently, dripping, hands over our hearts, facing the direction of wherever the American flag was being lowered for the evening. And just to show you what a year-round paradise Puerto Rico was for an outdoors-fun-loving kid, I had my 10th birthday party at the pool, and my birthday is around Thanksgiving.

I learned to swim years before that, though, at pools at other Air Force bases, in Japan and in Waco, Texas. I never took a lesson. Never feared the water, like so many of the friends I met later from more northern climates, without easy access to an outdoor pool (speaking of which, I have never been able to abide an indoor pool. They’re too cold, dim, utilitarian. Swimming, to me, means fun, freedom, sun and warmth. Not just swimming laps.) In gym class, I was generally a klutz. But when we had our swimming unit, I was right at home, while other girls, terrified, one crying even, as I recall, were shoved into the water by our sadistic gym teacher with her cane. My father was a terrific all-around athlete, always playing a sport on some just-for-fun men’s team. Also, he had grown up without parents, since they died when he was little. So, growing up in an orphanage, he was extra conscious of being an involved dad who would leave work to see me in a swim or track meet.

I’ve always been grateful to him for teaching me to swim so young without even really “teaching.” I just picked it up, and I have always felt at home in the water. Later, when I learned more about Judaism and after I’d known for some time that my father was Jewish, I read that the Talmud instructs a father to do three things for his child (son, actually): 1) teach him a way to make a living, 2) find him a spouse, and 3) teach him to swim. I know my father didn’t realize this. He was just being a great dad. But it delighted me to learn that, that he’d unwittingly followed that instruction for being a good Jewish father, like he’d absorbed it from the generations.

Anyway, it was a hot summer afternoon, near 90, humid, too hot to run, and I thought of how great it would feel to be in cool water. In a pool, as in my youth. Pools, where the black lines on the bottom always reminded me of stripes on a watermelon, one of my favorite foods. For someone who loves school and loves to learn, I am such a summer person. Summer always meant freedom, and Iove and need warmth and light. Plus, as an Air Force brat, we moved every few years, and some new schools were halls of dread. I thought of that St. Louis Park city swimming pool that I’ve eyed for 10 years now but never quite had the gumption to visit because I didn’t know how it worked (sounds so silly now that I write it.)

So I went, I swam, I loved it, I thought “how have I lived near this pool for 10 years and never come here?” After swimming laps, I lay on one of the lounge chairs, thought of the ultra-cool “older” lifeguards of my youth, of the Puerto Rico pool. How they are replaced by new ones now who look just like them but were born decades later. I think of those lifeguards I watched from the pool and of what they must look like now. Life goes on; we get older so that there will always be young people on our earth to experience those new stages for the first time.

Finally I packed up my things and left, and as I walked out the door of the Rec Center, adult men were coming in, hauling big gym bags and toting hockey sticks. I realized they were in some kind of rec league. They were enjoying the sports of their youth and the freedom and joy that came with it. For me it was summer swimming. But for these guys raised in Minnesota it was winter afternoons after school, whizzing around on ice skates on a neighborhood pond.