In the summer of ’78 I was back home in Fargo between college years – exiled from the civilized world, cast into barbarity. During the day I labored under the hot sun painting giant fuel tanks in the hot sun, next to an auto-body shop that exhaled poison and Eagles all day. A sensitive soul, cast into such grim circumstances. A noble soul, a poet, reduced to living on the gruel of hometown “culture,” almost unable to stir himself each day to face the hopeless allotment that stretched forth until the sun turned its face away.

Naturally, I was in the perfect mood to read the entire Gulag Archipelago. I got all three volumes from the drugstore – which should have told me something about the land in which I lived, that one could buy this work from a creaky wire rack at the drugstore – and it taught me much about the Soviet Union and the era of Stalin. After that I could never quite understand the people who viewed the US and the USSR as moral equals, or regarded our history as not only indelibly stained but uniquely so. Reading Solzhenitsyn makes it difficult to take seriously the people in this culture who insist that Dissent has been squelched. Brother, you have no idea.

The great brooding man is dead – all those years of trial and disappointment done, his country no closer than before to manifesting the spirit he believed was within it. We wouldn’t have liked his Russia – autocratic, mystical, cold and apart from the outside world, unwilling to grant Ukraine the national identity he cherished for his own land – but we are in his debt for decades of revelations. If the translations I read accurately rendered his style, he wrote with a bitter sarcasm that flayed nearly every commissar who blundered into the narrative. It’s a difficult thing to maintain over the course of several thousand pages, but he managed. And then some.


Saturday. Natalie's birthday party. The plan: get 10 girls in four cars to one spot in 30 minutes. The place: Como Town, an amusement area in the venerable Como Zoo complex in St. Paul. The first driver: your host. My job: get there, alert the park authorities that the first wave of birthday-party people had landed, secure the tented Birthday Zone, hook up with Mom #2 – a battlefield promotion that would fall to whomever showed up second – and stand out front of the park to ferry in subsequent kids, so Moms 3 and 4 need not park before transferring their materiel. Because it’s busy on Saturday. Because there isn’t any parking anywhere.

I left early with two kids, and encountered the first problem on the freeway, one of those baseless slowdowns occasioned by someone who was confused by an exit and hit the brakes, making everyone else hit the brakes. I could see into the distance: this was bad. Quick exit – which meant I had to touch the brakes and slide over a lane, which of course exacerbated the problem. This is how freeways back up for 47 miles. It got us off the road, but using “surface streets” – I love that term; it suggests the Jetsonesque era of sky-highways is already upon us, or rather above us – added 10 minutes travel time. But as the Logistico, God of Planning doth taketh away, he also giveth; I found a parking spot in a lot close by and bade my charges to make haste to the gate. We hit the gate at exactly 2 PM. Party Time!

 . . . and one of the Moms was waving from a car, on the corner; she’d sent the kids in already. Oh? I looked inside the gate, and saw no one, which meant we had already lost three little girls in the park exactly one minute into the event.

I checked in, was told to take the path to the right to the Birthday Zone, and was heading towards said Zone when somehow Mom #3 appeared with three kids. I handed off my ration, gave her directions, and went back to the gate to await Mom #4, which would be my wife. Fifteen minutes passed, during which I got to observe the various T-shirt stylings of Americans in their leisure moments. Nothing says “family outing” like a giant Dad dripping with chains, wearing what appears to be shiny pajamas and a Scarface T-shirt. Cellphone rings; it’s Mom #3, informing me that somehow my wife has materialized in the Birthday Zone, along with the missing three children, and all is well – so I can go back to my car and get the cooler of ice, water, and an enormous watermelon that weighs as much as the body-snatcher’s pod-based version of Victor Fargin’ Buono. I get the thing out of the car, and am struggling to carry it when a park employee on the other side of the fence says he’ll let me in. I bless him and thank him.

“’S okay,” he says. “If it wasn’t for you folks, we wouldn’t have a job.”

Ahhhh Minnesota. I open up the cooler to show him I’m not smuggling hooch or anthrax, and he laughs: “You’re bringing in hooch, we’re just over there by that shack if you want to stop by.”

I carry the damned thing to the Birthday Zone, and hello: everyone’s gone. The girls have dispersed to ride the rides. I leave the cooler and set out to find them, and it only takes a few minutes before I locate the gaggle at the roller coaster. And now the party begins.

It was a fine outing, even though the pizza was some horrid non-pizza bread substance covered in mucilage and the juice was a brand I’d never heard of: Little Hug. Awful font: I thought that combining serif and sans-serif in a single character would destroy the universe, but apparently not:

The big hit was the arcade, where the kids could play games such as Pirate’s Revenge:

Somehow I think pirates would choose a less elaborate means of exacting revenge. The tinny music from the speakers had a vague Caribbean flavor, since we all know pirates are merry fellows who spend their time in colorful ports listening to steel drums, shouting out hallos to their comrades as they stagger along the mossy planks of the docks, eager for grog and plots. The actual Revenge consisted of giving one kid 200 tickets, which had to be fed into a prize-redemption machine that bestowed sub-Chuck E Cheese level trinkets. I mean, for heaven’s sake:





Star Trek gaming cards are bad enough, but Star Trek V gaming cards enters an entirely heretofore unglimpsed dimension of Fail. It took forever for the girls to enter their tickets and choose their prizes, and towards the end the adults were just punching buttons and choosing their prizes for them. Sorry. Here’s your prize. Sorry. Now let’s go see monkeys.

One quick swing through the primate wing at the zoo, featuring monkeys who refused to swing but sat there glaring at everyone, then the butterfly exhibit, then back in the cars and back to the house to open presents. Natalie got some Webkins, which made a great day even MORE GREAT, and then the parents trickled in to retrieve their own and take them away. It ended with Natalie and her cousin playing outside while I sat at the table with wife and sister-in-law recounting the trials and highlights. Another birthday. Like the rest, it was a long hot smear. Like the rest, it was fine.

“That was great,” Natalie said as she drifted off to sleep, Webkins in her arms.

Summer birthdays. Lucky kid.

New Matchbook; see you at NOTE: video up at at noon. Subject: theatah.