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Parking at the Park

Here is another one from the Writing About Place archives. I’ve removed a few commas from the original. I don’t know what I was thinking with all those commas. Written in December 2012, this is the only time I ever attempted to write satire. I’m afraid it isn’t nearly as clever or as funny as I would have liked it to be, but here it is.

Parking at the Park

Today, I want to bring your attention to the atrocious problem we have here in the city of Minneapolis in regards to parking at the parks. It seems no matter how hard we try, it is still far too easy for people to park at our lovely city parks. There are several reasons why we need to make parking at the parks more difficult.

The first reason, overuse, is a major one. Every time I visited a park this past summer, there were always lots of people there. There does, of course, need to be accommodation for some people in the parks, but at the rate we’re going, people will have used up all the parks and there won’t be anything left for our grandchildren. The other, and probably more important, reason is that every time I try and park at a park, I end up driving around for hours looking for a parking place. Imagine all those cars driving around for hours looking for parking spots. Burning all that gasoline is bad for the environment, and ever since I was made aware of the dangers of global warming, I have been trying to live a greener life and encouraging others to do so as well.

It’s true, that the parks department has made some headway into the issue of parking. I remember when I was just a lad and we would go to the Point Beach on Cedar Lake. It was easy to park. We just drove our full size, gas-guzzling, Ford LTD across town, pulled into the parking lot, and parked. No fuss, no muss, it was way too easy. Now, the lot is split into two areas. Half of the lot has parking meters that you can pay so that you can park your car by the half-hour, hour, or two-hour maximum. This is especially effective for those who tend to accidentally lose track of time at the beach. There’s nothing like an expiring parking meter to remind one of one’s priorities. The other half of the lot is reserved for patron parking. Some of you may ask, what exactly is patron parking? Well, let me tell you all about it.

According to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board website, “The Annual Patron Parking Permit offers 12 months of easy parking at regional parks in Minneapolis. Permit holders enjoy parking privileges in specially designated parking spaces at some of the park system’s most popular regional parks including Minnehaha Park, Lake Harriet, and the garden areas at Theodore Wirth Park.” Now I know what you’re thinking. That sounds too easy. They even say the permit offers easy parking. But this is why it was such a brilliant move. They said it was easy, but when they started the program, it confused almost everybody. Most park-goers either didn’t see the patron parking signs, or just ignored them.

I remember one visit to the aforementioned Cedar Point Beach in which I had the auspicious good fortune to meet a woman who had just been ticketed for parking in a patron spot. She hadn’t seen the large blue sign posted at the lot’s entrance. Serves her right I say. Can’t be bothered to learn all of the obscure parking rules related to the city parks, she deserved a $40 ticket. The main problem with the patron parking is that people have gotten too used to it. I think it is past time to change up the rules in order to make the parking system unfathomable once again. One thing we can do, is limit the ways in which park-goers can purchase patron parking passes. Right now it’s far to easy to acquire one, as they are available online, and at six different park offices. There should be just one centralized location. This would cut down on park overhead costs as well.

Another major problem with the park’s parking system is that there is still far too much free parking. Not only are there free parking spaces along the many wide areas of the city’s parkways, but the parking at all park Recreation Centers is free. While it is true that the neighborhood Recreation Centers do not have the same overuse problems that many of the city parks do, people do park in the Recreation Center parking lots, and then go on to use the associated city park.

I have even met people who will park on the city streets near a park in order to use the park’s facilities without paying for parking; can you imagine? I think it is obvious that all of this free parking can only be bad for our park system. We should put an end to this ease of parking immediately by expanding the use of parking meters, changing the city’s rules regarding the availability of parking on the city streets near parks, and extending the range of park patron permit parking. Thank you all for reading, and please join me next week, when I will be discussing the role of lifeguards in our city parks. They cost more to employ than the grass mowers and the park trash collectors combined. Do lifeguards really save lives, and if so, are those lives really worth saving?

The Nature of Backyards

I seem to have lost momentum, or maybe it’s motivation. Either way, I’ve been pretty slow about doing a new blog entry. To try and remedy the situation, I’ve decided I would start to post some writing from my school days.

I worked in a grocery store for more than a dozen years before deciding to go back to school and get a degree. While trying to decide on a major I asked myself, “How much fun would it be to take a bunch of writing classes?” The answer? “It would be a lot of fun.”

To get a bachelor’s degree in writing, you have to take more than a few of these fun writing classes, and so I have more than a few stories that I could share with you. To start off, however, I’m going to give you one of my creative non-fiction pieces from a class called Writing About Place. This essay was written in October of 2012.

The Nature of Backyards

Some of the tomatoes are still green on the vine. It is mid-September and the days seem unnaturally cool. Autumn doesn’t officially start for several days, but it already feels as if fall is here. If the frost comes too soon, we will be throwing blankets on the tomato plants, or bringing green tomatoes inside and waiting for them to ripen. The tomato yield this year has actually been pretty good, with tomatoes filling the kitchen table quite regularly. If the plants had been in the ground a month earlier, it would have been a bountiful crop. I dug out a parcel of dirt right in the middle of my back yard in an effort to give the plants more sun, but as the shadows grow longer across the yard, the neighboring box-elder trees are providing more and more shade for what has become my tiny tomato forest. As I sit here in the backyard of my North Minneapolis home, looking at the yellow extension cord draped across the lawn, I think about the peculiar collision of nature in our lives, and how it makes this yard such an enjoyable place to live and work.

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It was just a couple of years ago that I saw my first raccoon in the city. I’ve heard about sightings for years from friends and family members, but I had never managed to get a peek of one myself. My first experience was when they moved in next door. The house had been abandoned for several years after a string of different owners had occupied it. The new family was a mama raccoon and her three babies. We saw them one morning when they were heading back into their house through a gap in the roofline. It must have been the young ones’ first time out as the mama raccoon was trying to coax them up the side of a porch post. Regrettably, the young ones weren’t quite certain they could make it. We got the camera out and took pictures. The mama raccoon was not at all happy about us being there, gawking at her unfortunate predicament. After a lot of hissing and coaxing, she finally managed to wrangle them all inside.

I sent my sister, who lives in the back woods of Upper Michigan and sees raccoons all the time, a photo with the caption of “Our New Neighbors.” She replied that they were not at all good neighbors to have. It is interesting that what was an interesting and entertaining event for us was just an everyday nuisance problem for her. The nature that she had come to despise was for me, a grand adventure. We have so-called wild squirrels and birds that always run or fly about the yard, but there is something just a little more exotic about the raccoon. It isn’t nearly as exciting as it would be to see a mountain lion, a coyote, or even a fox, but there is still that sense of the wild with a raccoon, a collision with the wild that isn’t supposed to happen in my own back yard.

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According to local legend, our house was only the second built on this old block. Nothing but farmland and a few other houses back in 1904. There is a nearby graveyard with the name of Crystal Lake Cemetery. I was always curious about this, as Crystal Lake was about three miles away in the suburb of Robbinsdale. To further add to the confusion, there is another suburb beyond Robbinsdale called Crystal. There is another local legend that there was once an immense lake in North Minneapolis. I concluded that Crystal Lake must have once been much bigger, and was slowly drained off for farmland and housing.

I eventually got my hands on an antique atlas from a geography expert. With his help, I solved the riddle of the disparate naming of Crystal Lake landmarks. In this old book, before Minneapolis had yet expanded into the North, the countryside was divided into townships. The area that now covers North Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, and Crystal were all within the confines of Crystal Lake Township, named after the lake. So, when they plotted the cemetery, it is likely that it was still in Crystal Lake Township, hence the name. Then, when Robbinsdale was established, it left only one small part of the township remaining, which eventually became the city of Crystal.

It is interesting how the natural feature of one small lake influenced the way we now think about three different cities. It is often the case that we name things because of the way nature has influenced us. Even the city name of Minneapolis has a natural influence, a mixing of the Dakota Word Minnehaha, meaning laughing waters, and the Greek word polis, which literally means city. These two words colliding became Minneapolis, the city of waters, named for Minnehaha Falls, as well as its abundance of lakes, streams, and of course, the Mississippi river that runs through the heart of the city. I look toward the direction of the river, almost a mile away, there are too many obstructions to even see the river gorge from here, but the river is still a constant reminder of life here in this river city.

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This isn’t the first year that I have grown tomatoes, but I never have been very good at it. It is difficult to know exactly what I am doing wrong, because there are so many things that can go wrong with tomatoes. This year, I had ten tomato plants that I started indoors. I planted six out in the yard, and saved four in case I needed to replace any. It turned out I never did need to replace any, and I ended up with four tomato plants in pots that I put along the fence.

This fence bordered the yard where our friends, the raccoons, had previously lived. Three years after the raccoons had moved in, the house has been rehabilitated, and it now hosts a family that had been displaced when a spring 2011 storm of tornadoes collided with the Northside of Minneapolis. The storm damaged hundreds of homes and felled thousands of trees as it tore across the Northside. One day, while I was out watering the tomatoes, a young girl from the family next door had an unexpected question.

“What happened to that tomato plant?” she asked. “It’s growing out along the ground instead of standing up.” This particular plant did not have a cage around it like the other ones in my garden did.

“That’s the way they grow naturally,” I replied. “Tomatoes are a vine plant, and if they don’t have something to grow up against, they will just grow out along the ground.”

This really got me to thinking about all the ways we try and harness nature to do our bidding. For the tomatoes, I cleared the ground, kept the weeds away, watered regularly, and even fertilized the soil. I went to great lengths to put cages up around the tomato plants and encouraged them to grow up into them. I pushed the branches this way and that, the bitter smell that came from touching the vines and leaves belied the sweet taste that would come when the tomatoes were finally eaten. It was easy to keep the plants under control at first, but the cages that house most of my tomato plants are not very strong. The plants are now leaning over, causing the cages to bend under the weight of the ever ripening beefsteak tomatoes. I’m going to have to look for something sturdier if I plant again next year. Maybe I will build a trellis, anchored deep into the ground, a monument to the garden crop growing among the more decorative plants.

I look elsewhere in the yard and see a crabapple tree that I had transplanted several years ago, with its still-green leaves and tiny apples that will never be large enough to eat. I chose to dig up a semi-wild tree, because I thought it would be more natural than one purchased at a store. Still, I prune the tree, cutting off branches in a way that I think will make it look more beautiful. Now, I wish I had bought a tree that might have produced something useful. Would that be less natural somehow, and how important is it for this tree to be natural? The main reason for planting the tree was to have blossoms in the spring. The apple blossoms will be nowhere near as fragrant as the lilacs on the other side of the yard, their aroma wafting on the wind, but I hope they will be prettier to look at. Alas, I imagine a Honeycrisp apple tree from Menards would look just as nice, and there might have even been apples to eat.

Then, there is the ever present lawn, with its mix of the long lush bluegrass that we want, and all of the weeds that we don’t. There are dandelions, of course, no longer flowering, but still sitting dormant in the yard, some kind of big leafed weed that has gone to seed and seems to be everywhere, patches of crab-grass, and the soft clover interlaced throughout. I actually kind of like the clover, with its puffy white flowers, but it’s just one more thing that should not be there. Or should it? A weed, after all, is just another plant that is somewhere we don’t want it to be. And if I like the clover, maybe it isn’t a weed after all.

As I look to the future, I think about the tomatoes and the oncoming frost. I wonder if I will grow them again next year. Maybe I will focus on ridding the lawn of weeds instead. I look further ahead, wondering if I will grow to be very old in this yard, and if a very long time from now, I will be buried in Crystal Lake Cemetery. The frost is just one more force of nature that threatens to make its way into the yard. Nature is ever present in our lives, no matter how we try and tame it. Whether it is the oncoming winter, the incursion of raccoons into our urban center, the natural landmarks that help us define our geography, or even the fury of a tornado, there is no escaping our ongoing collision with nature. For me, this clash is evident every day, in the observance of my own backyard.

Long Live the King

In my last post, I mentioned a car ride to visit my grandparents. I don’t remember if it was for Christmas, even though we would always visit for Christmas. It was a three hour drive from the Cities to Alexandria, and I do remember riding in the back seat and being bored. Somehow the conversation turned to me not being able to watch my favorite television show.

“It’s only a cartoon,” my sister Pam said.

Only a cartoon? I went on to explain how great this cartoon was. It had an ongoing story that dealt with love and war. Characters actually died. It wasn’t just any cartoon.

Pam was reading The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King, and she proceeded to start reading out loud from the book.

“See,” she said. “It’s only the first few pages and people are already dying.”

I told her it wasn’t the same. I wasn’t ready to articulate that the death of an undeveloped character as back story wasn’t really comparable the dramatic death of an established character. Still, the book seemed interesting, and she let me continue reading it.

It was one of the best books I had ever read, even though I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate it properly. I learned later that King had written this book in response to his daughter not wanting to read his work, so it is unlike most of what he has written. But my interest was piqued.

Some time later, when my sister was reading It, I was first in line to read it next. Then came The Stand. I remember enjoying It, but when I was reading The Stand, I felt like it was the greatest thing that was ever written.

When I was in high school, I heard about the Bachman pseudonym. I checked the school library and there were still books there listed under Bachman. I checked out The Long Walk and read it in one sitting. The end was heartbreaking. Years later, when a friend of mine was complaining about The Hunger Games being a ripoff of The Running Man (another Bachman book), I thought to myself, if it’s mirroring anything, it’s The Long Walk.

I read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption from Different Seasons before they made the movie. This was another favorite of mine. The Library Policeman from Four Past Midnight was sufficiently scary. I have also read ‘Salem’s Lot and The Dark Half, as well as Pet Cemetery.

When I read Gerald’s Game, I really didn’t care for it at all, and this probably turned me off to Stepen King for a while. But when I heard he was writing a hard-boiled crime novel, I found myself a copy of The Colorado Kid and quickly devoured it. When the book I wrote turned up shorter than what a proper novel should be, I took some solace knowing that it was similar in length to The Colorado Kid.

I’ve been meaning to read Under the Dome for the last five years or so. I finally got around to it last fall. Great storytelling, but so many unfinished narratives. Still on my list to read, Duma Key.

Stories

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, because I’ve always loved stories. That’s hyperbole. I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. It’s something that developed because I love stories. I suppose I haven’t always loved stories either, but I can’t remember a time that I haven’t loved them. Still, my love of stories grew over time.

The very first story that I remember loving was Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves as told to me by my father. He did great sound effects for the cave opening and closing after the secret words were spoken.

And I remember having picture books being read to me, and later reading them myself. There was Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman, Please Try to Remember the First of Octember! by Dr. Seuss, The Bear Scouts and The Spooky Old Tree by Stan and Jan Berenstain, and far too many others to mention. Later on there were more advanced books. Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol and The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald were two of my favorite series.

But one of the major story influences for me when I was little was Robotech. Yes, I know, it’s not a book. Not at first anyway. It’s a kid’s television show. Worse than that, it’s a cartoon. But the continued saga of the Robotech story really drew me in. I have always been a nighthawk who doesn’t like to go to bed at night and doesn’t like to wake up in the morning, but when Robotech started airing at 6:30 in the morning before school. I actually got up to watch it.

Robotech can seem a bit disjointed because it was spliced together from three different shows, and some people hate that aspect of it. For me, the three different eras of Robotech following a single overarching story was always one of the best things about it.

I remember telling my sister on a car ride to visit my grandparents that Robotech was a real story because things didn’t always work out in the end, and sometimes people died. My sister’s response to this is another story completely, but suffice it to say, even then, Robotech was changing the way I thought about stories.

One of the first times I walked into a bookstore, it was the display of Robotech books at the front of the store that drew me in. At the time, reading books seemed a little silly to me, but if it were Robotech, then maybe it would be worth it. While I expect I would have turned to reading, and eventually writing anyway, for me, Robotech was that first foot in the door to reading great stories.