Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nothing in Life is Free, Except This Piano

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

We thought you were giving away your piano. If we were wrong, please let us know! Thanks!!! Signed Karen (first name only) with my number.

I have to admit, Kris and I have unearthed more than our fair share of nifty home furnishings from alleyways, curbs, and even those industrial-style dumpsters. A rattan couch, pap san chair, cat post, monocular, greeting cards, fresh flower bouquets, sturdy Zenith television (with a handy knob to press for a color picture).

But never, ever had I seen such a funky, glittery, Free-Love era, 64-key piano, with plush blue bench. Until last week.

Standing there after dark, at somebody else's curb, tinkering at this sparkling piano, I suddenly heard this voice inside my mind: Art imitates life, it said. And then another voice (which sounded like Woody Allen's) replied (inside my brain): Life imitates art.

Honestly (though I've considered myself an artist for many years) I'd rather aerate the lawn than contemplate this question: Does art imitate life or life imitate art? If I need more to think about, I'll just gaze at my navel.

But now, with this funky piano in my living room, life and art are colliding something fierce. If I'd been asked to write a play about, say, a piano, I'd be thrilled to dream up ideas like these:

1. Have character (Karen) find piano on curb on garbage pick-up day. (Check)

2. Make piano funky beyond compare, with parts covered in vinyl. (Check)

3. For intrigue and suspense, be certain no one is home at piano-house. (Check)

4. Include loving characters with interesting lines. (Check)

For instance...
JULIE after helping haul piano:
Thanks for inviting me to be a part of the fun.
DAN after helping lift piano:
Oh, that's what friends do for each other.

5. Include teasing characters with funny lines. (Check)

For instance...
KRIS after seeing piano on curb:
You don't think it's haunted, do you? What if it starts playing at three a.m.?
CORINNE after hearing news of the piano:
So you put it on your bike and brought it home?
WAYDE after hearing news of the piano:
Oh, good! You found that piano I lost!
MOM after Karen has moaned about not having picture of piano on curb:
You could take it back outside and get a picture. Like a...reenactment...It could be an annual event!

6. To heighten suspense, have Dad issue warning about taking other people's discards. Have Karen return to piano-house and still find no one home. (Check)

7. Send Karen downtown on bicycle, on windiest day of year, to get piano books. (Check)

8. Close on a cliff-hanger. Will Karen ever really learn to play? (Check)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Orange Thingy...For Earth Day

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

This is an ode to the orange thingy. Probably, you've seen it, or one like it. You have to admit, it's orange. Painted that way. Spray paint most likely. Not a thingy, really. More like a place, a spot. A section of the sidewalk that was wrecked by some type of accident. And now, this location, this dangerous location, has been carefully painted orange. (For my protection. Your protection. One person looking out for the next.) Maybe by someone who was hurt there already. Tripped, fallen, skinned their knee. Or maybe this person's auntie. She doused that spot in orange before the next set of knees came skipping past. Or it could be Parks and Rec. A worker from Parks and Rec, with grandkids of her own who walk, skate, bike, tease, and loiter on this sidewalk. She arrived at the scene with a can of paint and a purpose.

So I'm watching the cars (and bumper stickers) sputtering past the park. If you can read this, thank a teacher. That's one. Freedom isn't free! That's another. And all of a sudden, everything comes together. The orange thingy, the bumper stickers, my life. It all makes sense.

For me, it comes down to lightbulbs. Saturday morning, I'm strolling around my neighborhood. Not too far from the orange thingy. Doing my best to give away free lightbulbs. Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs. CFLs for short. The kind that reduce carbon emissions and help stop global warming. Courtesy: Sierra Club. And I'll be perfectly clear. The bulbs are 100%, no-money-down, no-questions-asked, entirely, totally free.

But the woman across the street, she can't come to the door, isn't dressed, she says. The guy up the block, well, CFLs won't fit in any fixtures in his house, garage, or camper (now or forever). Someone else has heard something (she can't remember what) that she doesn't like about CFLs; somebody else can have it.

Maybe it's my spiel. Would you like a free light bulb for Earth Day from Sierra Club? Maybe they're uncomfortable with stuff like planet Earth. Maybe they think we'll sneak back after hours and...plant a tree?

Or maybe it'!

Everybody will tell you, don't think this way. Rid yourself of distractions. Focus on the lightbulb. But as soon as I start to think, You know, maybe this is about me, everything changes. These people, these unwilling people, they're my neighbors, you know? My neighbors. They live here. I live here. We live here.

So I'm knocking on your door to give you a lightbulb, yes. But I'm knocking on your door to knock on your door. I'm your neighbor just down the block, I say. I live just over there. Nice to meet you.

Do the lightbulbs move any faster? Not in particular. But I meet the friend of a friend. I admire a little sidewalk art (hearts and flowers mostly). And maybe I make someone's day. This is my lucky day! he says. It's not every day you're walking along and get a free lightbulb!

Then I meet a neighbor whose best friend in the world has passed away. My friend was an only child, she says. It devastated her parents. Fifty-five years, we were best friends.

I listen, saying little, indulging myself in the smell of her home. Exactly like Grandma Z's used to be.

There's not too much I can do, she says. I'd like to make a donation or help you out, but I just can't. Still trying to get myself together.

I tell her, That's OK. The lightbulb'

We talk a while. Her best friend, her health, the environment. You're a lovely person, she offers. I can tell.

It's maudlin, I know, but I tell her, So are you.

She talks some more. And I listen.

Well, if there's one thing I can do, she says, looking in my eyes, it's change my lightbulb.

So whatever you're trying to do, teach a class, defend a country, protect a kid, save the earth, I think I get it.

We don't always agree. We wouldn't pick the same shade of paint every time, the same cause, the same purpose. But I believe you did it out of love. And just in case you're hoping someone would notice: Somebody did.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Uff Da! Barack Obama + Hillary Clinton = North Dakota?

© 2008 Karen Van Fossan

Obama T-shirts! Made in America. Hillary's are made in Mexico! So the vendor calls, walking the line, peddling Obama-ware to a merry crowd. I mean that. Merry. This line, these 17,400 people or so, compose not only the largest line I've ever been in, but the merriest. We have braved the Grand Forks wind, walking this line for an hour. Maybe two. So what's another hour among 17, 399 friends?

Some have come to hear Barack Obama. For instance, the child who carries a giant, orange Obama poster. Which he, not his brother, has made; he assures me of this. Some have come for Hillary Clinton. For instance, the women who sport Hillary buttons as large as strawberry pies or maybe circular saws. And some (like my friends and I) have resolved to cheer for both, and also for each other as much as possible. In this spirit, we throw ourselves into a game of 20-questions, which is record-breaking both in length and complications. My turn.

Person, place, or thing? Tracy asks.
Does it talk? That's Spencer.
Does it have a spine? That's Ramona.
Somehow, these are tough questions. A thing? Sometimes? Depends?

Then Tracy spots a long row of plastic bottles, there inside the window. Uff da! she cries. Food and drink aren't allowed! So the four of us scarf down water, apples, cashews, marveling at the delightful combination.

And we're in! We move through the security contraptions. The officers let Spencer (and his key chain) through, at last. Two of our apples (Uff da!) are confiscated. Then we see the time. 5:45! Obama was to speak at 5:30. Say it isn't so! The four of us scale the stairs, two, three at a time. We tear through the Alerus Center, past fancy renovations we barely notice.

Can we make it? Yes, we can! (Sorry.) Obama hasn't started yet. Only Senator Conrad (D-ND). Ramona finds us the best possible spot (at the farthest, farthest reaches of the Alerus Center). Just in time to hear Conrad proclaiming Obama's Midwestern values. No chance to wonder what Midwestern values might be, or what his dad's opinion is in Kenya. Here's Barack Obama! And what's the first word he speaks? Uff da!

We cheer, applaud, jump to our feet, dance together. And before we know it, we've found a brand new spot, and now we're doing the wave for Hillary Clinton. Former Governor Sinner introduces her, asking the pulsing crowd, Have we confronted our gender bias?

Too soon, the Obama and Clinton shows are over. Still, I'm as merry as ever. (Except for the couple of times I had to boo. I admit it.) All along, I've been taking notes. On an envelope, a wrapper, a receipt. This is history in the making, and I'll be taking a little to the folks back home. But suddenly I'm flustered and befuddled. Maybe it's running into my partner's ex. In a crowd of 17,400 no less. Or that terrifying game of 20-questions. Or doing the bump with my friends. But I've dropped my notes to the floor! Hillary wrappers here. Obama receipts there. I can't seem to sort them, one from the other. They're sticking together, clinging together. They almost seem to be running together! I gather what I can, my mismatched bits of paper. And this is what I've got...

CLINTON: I didn't know there were this many Democrats in North Dakota!
OBAMA: It's the party of tomorrow!
CLINTON: Let's believe in ourselves.
OBAMA: This is our chance to start over.
CLINTON: We stand on the cusp of a new beginning.
OBAMA: That's why I'm running; that's why you're running.
CLINTON: The Bush Administration has used fear to divide us and fatalism to discourage us.
OBAMA: They have destroyed generations of goodwill and understanding with the rest of the world.
CLINTON: Since when did America become the can't-do nation?
OBAMA: Theirs is a party that uses religion as a wedge and patriotism as a bludgeon.
CLINTON: You wish they'd just apologize.
OBAMA: With Bush's tax cuts, you're on your own. Ordinary people, most of you here today, you can just fend for yourself.
CLINTON: If you listen closely, you can almost hear the sound of the moving van backing into the White House.
OBAMA: We'll bring a new kind of politics to Washington.
CLINTON: And take that money away from the corporations.
OBAMA: The arc of justice doesn't bend on its own.
CLINTON: Here in North Dakota...
OBAMA: Right here in North Dakota...
CLINTON: We will once again enjoy peace and prosperity.
OBAMA: I am my brother's keeper. I am my sister's keeper.
CLINTON: Give us the child to learn, the people to work, the veterans our care, this country to rebuild.
OBAMA: Every child is our child.
CLINTON: For me, this is no longer debatable.
OBAMA: I love this country not because it is perfect, but because we've always been able to bring it closer to perfection.
CLINTON: God bless you, and God bless America.
OBAMA: Uff da!

Someday maybe I'll get my notes in order. Someday maybe Clinton and Obama will be president. And if I have a chance, maybe I'll even ask them 20 questions. For starters...
1. Who got the apples?
2. Did you hear us in the crowd? (We were the ones going, Uff da!)
3. Where are Hillary's T-shirts really made?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Fascism, Ferne, and the Ten Commandments

© 2008, Karen Van Fossan

I shouldn't start this story with Ferne. I should start with the vandalism. The crime. Impeachment. No offense, Ferne. But 98-year-old women don't make headlines very much. Anyway, I have to start this story with you. This story is all because of you – your habit of living uphill. See, mostly, I'm a bicycle person. I'd rather be a boat person. But you and I live in Bismarck. You, at the top of the highest hill. Me, at the bottom. Which brings me back to my bicycle. I am not in love with uphill biking. As far as I'm concerned, it sucks. (Have you heard that expression?) It sucks so much that sometimes I don't bike – I walk.

And that's where it started. For me anyway. I was scaling Hillside Park. On my way to you, Ferne. Finding every shortcut I could find. Squeezing past fences. Winding around the springtime trees. Darting through parts of the park I otherwise wouldn't have known.

And that's when it happened. Bam! I was face to face with...something. At first, I thought, a gravestone. But, Ferne, do you know what it was? The Ten Commandments. And I don't mind telling you, I gaped. I gaped hard.

But that gape was nothing. Compared to this. By now it was winter, the coldest day of the year. Huffing and puffing, my eyelashes freezing, my fingers turning stiff in my gloves, I wound my way through Hillside Park – making my visit to you.

And here we go. Another bam. The Ten Commandments, vandalized. Footprints on the ground. Spray paint on the monument. One simple word. “Fascism.”

So I ask you, “What does 'fascism' mean to you?”
You lean forward in your easy chair. “What?”
“Fascism,” I answer.
“Oh,” you say. “Fashion?”
I inch myself closer. “Fascism. You know, the political term. Does it mean anything to you?”
Yes, it means plenty. Italy. Heads of state. World War II. Even Bush.

“Now, why hasn't he been impeached?” you like to say.

Then I read you the news. The hardest news we can get. So you can go, “Oh,” with 98 years of compassion in your voice. And later when I'm gone, say a prayer.

People say that nursing homes are lonely, Ferne. People don't want to hear what elderly women have to say. But if you could meet the person who did graffiti on the Commandments – I guess I'm just wondering. Would you and she have plenty to discuss?