Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Everything Stays the Same

Six weeks have passed since I last visited the care center, and in such a small time everything seems to have changed, yet everything still seems the same. The same four tables, the same yellow walls, the same three nurses, the same sea of gray metal walkers. But something was definitely not the same and I struggled for a few moments to figure out what it was.

Some health issues, thankfully now resolved, kept me away for the past month and a half and after seriously considering not returning, I ultimately figured out I couldn't not go back. I missed the old, confused folks who are sometimes the only thing that remind me just why we have to live our lives to the fullest now, even if I don't always do such a good job at it. I still can always use the weekly reminder. I made my usual rounds, saying hello to everyone, telling them how pretty they looked, or how much I liked their sweaters, or asking if they were hungry for dinner. A few of my friends on the outside asked me earlier this week if I thought any of the residents would remember me, and I had to admit I didn't think so. Sure enough, I don't think they did, though I did get a military salute from Don like he always does. Alma greeted me by telling me how beautiful I looked and wondering aloud if I've gone out to Hollywood yet to make it big with my beauty. I love Alma. I caught up with Bernice and Lorraine and noticed a couple of new faces. I also noticed a couple of missing faces, namely Mary and John.

Mary has been my main charge for over a year now, half of the Gudrun - Mary duo that has dominated my Wednesday dinners for so long. I've been feeding Mary one hundred percent of her dinner because of her inability to do so. Not her physical inability, but her emotional inability. Her brain just wouldn't allow her hands to work they way they should anymore. Mary spent most meals repeating nonsensical phrases, her favorite being Lawrence Welk's "a one and a two and a three." By the last weeks I saw her in March, she couldn't even lift her head and I literally had to gingerly maneuver a spoon full of pureed something-or-other into her mouth as it rested partially on the laminate table top. I knew she wasn't well, but people last for years unwell so I didn't think too much of it. So when I didn't see Mary right away tonight at her regular spot where her wheelchair fit between Rosalie and Gudrun, I had to ask Kollie the nurse. He told me sadly in his thick Liberian accent that she had died. Honestly, I couldn't even be sad. As cliche as it may be, she is definitely in a better place than she was. I told Kollie that it was probably about time and he agreed. The other missing face tonight belonged to John, a fellow of no more than seventy years, tops, that had joined the dementia unit only about six or eight months prior, but whom I really liked because of his sweet face and demeanor. While he sometimes had an absent look in his eyes, he still said things that made sense and he was cute. His wife visited from time to time, including at the Christmas party in December. I remember watching her hold his hand and sing carols next to him and I wondered what her life was like. Not seeing John at his regular table with Doris and Barbara tonight, I couldn't help but hope he had simply moved to a different unit. But Kollie told me that John had also died. In my two years there, I don't think more than four or five people have died, and in the five dinners I missed two have gone. Again, I'm not so much sad for John as I am for the people who loved him and at least had his physical being there when they needed to see him. John and Mary will be missed.

With Mary gone, it was time for me to take on a new challenge tonight, and a challenge it was. I've written about Melvin before, he's the tall man-child that once peed all over the dining room floor during dinner service and routinely screams in his muppet-like voice about all things indecipherable. Tonight I actually asked Kollie if he ever understands anything Melvin says and, to my relief, he told me no. So it isn't just me. Melvin was rambunctious and talkative as I prodded him to swallow bite after bite of his cheeseburger and fries. He actually did a very good job until he knocked over his full glass of milk which totally upset Alma but had no effect on Gudrun whatsoever. I had to convince Melvin throughout the meal to concentrate on eating and to forget about putting his hand down the front of his sweatpants while bald Lorraine cried like a baby to anyone that would listen that nothing was fair and she didn't like her food.

I'm back at it and, like I said, everything has changed and everything still seems the same.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Rabidity of Fans

Look at this photo I took at the State Theater Friday night. See the decorative chandeliers and ornately painted walls? See the old fashioned stage? Oh, and see Anthony Bourdain? That's him in the middle of the shot, on the stage, next to the lectern. Squint your eyes really tightly and imagine a dark, tall drink of water pacing the stage, ranting about TV chefs and food and travel and maybe you can picture him, because this photo will be no help to you.

Purchasing the cheap seats for Anthony Bourdain's lecture was not a problem, there was no reason to be up close, but it was amusing how tiny this tall man looked. My friend Angie and I made a night of it, starting with delicious small plates and cocktails at Bradstreet Crafthouse and ending surrounded by Bourdain's rabid Twin Cities fan base. I am a fan of Tony Bourdain, so much so that I call him "Tony," but unlike so many others in attendance at his show Friday night, I'm okay with disagreeing with him. To be fair, Bourdain is a polarizing figure and attracts a certain type. But I couldn't help but be amused every time he launched into a new topic about a certain well-known chef like, say, Bobby Flay, and the audience broke out in unappreciative hisses (I imagine they feel Flay has sold out or is overexposed or something like that), until Tony talked about how much he likes Flay. Suddenly the rabid fans were all cheering Bobby Flay like he's the second coming of Christ. The cadence of the audience response to Bourdain's topics was fascinating, as if they waited with bated breath to be told by Master Bourdain who to like and who to hate, exhaling with relief if they guessed the proper response.

I love Anthony Bourdain. I think he's quick and funny, I think he expresses himself well, I think he's handsome. But, unlike so many folks at the State Theater Friday night, I also think for myself. I believe Tony would like it that way.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chicago in Spring, Part Deux

Sunday in Chicago was the kind of day more days should emulate. Sunny and clear. Sleeping in, no hurry to be anywhere, walking and driving around new neighborhoods, several cocktails, and lots of Spanish. We took the opportunity to use several open hours to explore the city by car, getting to know the streets and neighborhoods and not being concerned about getting lost. Then we checked out Chicago's "Little Mexico" neighborhood, Pilsen, where we visited a Mexican grocery and bought oranges and Mexican soda. We stopped into a local tortilleria and just enjoyed translating all of the Spanish signs. Then we moved toward our late afternoon plan in Wicker Park to meet up with Paul and Mary at Paul's newest restaurant, Big Star.

We had an hour to kill so we stopped at a little bar/restaurant where we enjoyed $3 mimosas and $2 PBRs. Perfect. At one point the chef came out of the kitchen and asked us, "Do you like pork?" There's only one answer to that question, and we were rewarded for answering it correctly with his new version of pork belly sliders, crisp and tender pork belly burgers with a Sriracha sauce. Very nice. Then it was time to hit one of the hottest spots in Chicago, Big Star tacos. Paul and Mary had a table outside in the sun (much easier for the owner to get such a table on a beautiful day than for us!) and we proceeded to order a good portion of the menu, including several different tacos, guacamole, and one spectacular salad. Mary recommended the salad, which is usually difficult to get excited about, but this salad was different. It had so much life and flavor, it was one of the best salads I've ever had. I also had their version of my favorite cocktail, the Paloma, and it was quite delicious. It was fantastic to just sit out in the sun, chat, eat, drink and forget about my real life for awhile. When we were done there and one young couple had stopped Paul (like so many people do) to thank him for his previous advice that they get engaged (!), we stepped across the street for more drinks at the Violet Hour. The Violet Hour is styled like an old time speakeasy, nestled inside a building without a sign and with a door almost invisible. Only if you know where the place is could you find it. We sidled up to the dark, cool bar for expertly made cocktails, like those served here at the Bradstreet Crafthouse, with lots of pomp and circumstance. It's the sort of place I'm not cool enough to be in, but I love it nonetheless. I ordered the Violet Hour version of the Pisco Sour and loved that while they put their own spin on it, they topped it off very authentically with bitters, just like in Peru. The four of us continued to talk and drink until it was time to go and we parted ways.

As we said our good-byes and walked to the car, Doug broke into a shiver and full-on teeth chattering! He was suddenly very ill so all we could do was get him back to the hotel and wrap him in blankets while I found the closest 24-hour Walgreen's (luckily, there is a Walgreen's every three giant steps in Chicago) and a thermometer and Tylenol. With a temperature of 102.5, Doug spent the rest of the night in a delirious shiver while I looked on helplessly. Luckily, we both slept well and by morning he felt a little better. We didn't get to do all of the things we'd set out to do in the Windy City, but we got to do all of the best things. And now we have things to look forward to on a future trip, which there will no doubt be. Man, I love Chicago.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Chicago in Spring, Part Un

Spring time in Chicago is spectacular. The city is one of this country's finest, offering up beautiful parks and friendly people and fantastic restaurants. Doug and I drove there this weekend in search of all three and were not disappointed in the least.

I found a fabulous deal at the Palmer House Hilton, a gorgeously renovated hotel that showcases all that is beautiful and historic in Chicago. As luck would have it, we were able to upgrade our room for a small fee and ended up unknowingly getting a room with two bathrooms! That is probably the only reason we are still together now. Ha! Doug is friends with Paul Kahan, a well-known chef in Chicago who owns several restaurant hotspots like Avec, the Publican, Big Star Taqueria and Blackbird, President Obama's favorite Chicago restaurant. Paul was nice enough to arrange the best seats in the house for Doug and I for dinner at Avec one night and it was spectacular. We sat at the bar, not near anyone else, directly across from the chef who was plying his craft for the entire restaurant on a small six burner stove. It was fascinating to watch him do a hundred things at once and do them all well, except when he accidentally burned his arm. Ouch. The chef was really friendly and was actually a native of Minneapolis. The other Avec staffers were equally charming, never allowing our wine glasses to become empty and bringing us plate after plate of amazing food.

From English pea crostini with mint salad, roasted spring onion vinaigrette and pecorino (pictured above) that was so good it nearly changed my life, to chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce, to prosciutto with honeycomb, orange zest, marcona almonds and black peppercorn vinaigrette (pictured below) that despite my dislike for black pepper almost made me cry, all of these dishes and more made my heart sing and my tongue want for more. And beyond the unbelievable food was the wow factor of this beautiful restaurant. The chef-owner, Paul Kahan, who could not have been nicer when he and his lovely wife, Mary, joined us after our meal for drinks, was a judge on one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Top Chef. His executive chef, Koren, who was also at Avec that night, was also a judge on a quickfire challenge on Top Chef (I knew I recognized her when I saw her!), as well as being a finalist for a James Beard award. President Obama's White House chef, Sam Kass, was there eating, himself a former chef at Avec, and I was introduced to Blackbird chef Mike Sheerin, one of Food & Wine magazine's 2010 best new chefs. It was pretty heady stuff for a little food dork like me!

Between a wonderful meal, a handsome companion, and fascinating conversation with all sorts of people, it was a marvelous introduction to a different side of a city that I already loved, but now love just a little more.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Grain Belt Nordeast

On April 7 my mom had a birthday. But that was widely ignored because that also happened to be the day that the Schell Brewery in New Ulm released an ode to Northeast Minneapolis in the form of Grain Belt Nordeast beer. For one day the only place in the universe one could get their hands on this fine barley pop was Northeast Minneapolis, home of the former Grain Belt brewery where the name became famous. Nordeast flew off the shelves at all of the Northeast Minneapolis liquor stores and bars all over our quadrant of the city ran out of their supply before nightfall. My own happy hour visit to Grumpy's in Northeast on April 7 for my first Nordeast on tap was super fun, but for a limited amount of time. Pretty soon the nonstop view of human butts was more than I could take and though I was thrilled that the whole town was banding together to celebrate my hardworking hometown, I had to break free.

Welcome to the world, Grain Belt Nordeast, you are a welcome and proud addition to our liquor store shelves and barroom taps.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba

Last night I had the great fortune to attend a show at the Cedar Cultural Center that was a part of the West Africa West Bank series there. Bassekou Kouyate and his ensemble, Ngoni Ba, performed a concert that blew me away. During my two wonderful, lengthy stays in West Africa I often heard it said that people visit East Africa for the animals and West Africa for the people and the music. I know firsthand this is true.

Bassekou Kouyate was born forty-three years ago in Mali, a landlocked country home to the fabled city of Timbuktu, and has developed over time an enormous following there and in many parts of the world because of his mastery of the ngoni, an ancient instrument that looks like a simple, carved guitar. The music Bassekou Kouyate makes with his ngoni is, however, anything but simple. His band, Ngoni Ba, consists of four ngonis, plus percussion, and his singer wife, Amy Sacko, a gorgeous Malian woman with a voice to match. She is known as the Tina Turner of Mali. Together they are able to bring the house down with their infectious energy and obvious love for the music they are bringing to the world.

Bassekou Kouyate has played with some of the most famous musicians on the planet, a tribute to the respect they have for his ability with the ngoni. Here's a video of Mr. Kouyate performing in 2005 with the late Ali Farka Toure, another amazing Malian musician who uses his guitar to bring the blues to a whole new level. Notice just how much music Bassekou Kouyate can make come out of that little boat-shaped instrument with simple strings. It's pretty magical.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Geeking Out

Look at the excitement in my eyes as I paw my coworker's new iPad. She took it away from me shortly after this picture was taken. Probably for the best.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Captive Audience

Bath time is almost more fun for a certain portly feline than it is for his owner. While I look forward to catching up on magazines, filling in maybe one or two words in the National Geographic crossword (it's hard!), listening to the radio, and just generally relaxing, Hakeem Wallace sees an opportunity for a captive audience to pet him for a good half hour. As you can see, he doesn't leave a lot of room on the bath mat for a gal to dry off!