The bleak midwinter ends tomorrow. I think once we pass Valentine’s Day the mood lifts, looks yearningly towards spring. Apt for a day of Love. Not be confused with Love Day.
The nadir of this bleak midwinter, for YGH, was probably reached at 5:45 PM on Sunday in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in St. Paul, when I thought: God willing, may this be the worst moment of the year. And not just because the fries were cold. I was in a low mood, which is something you really shouldn’t indulge if you have to get up on stage in an hour and talk to a full house. I was just feeling old and beyond-the-expiration date for some reason. To shake things up and provide a dash of zest, I’d decided to leave early for the drive to the concert. Like, two hours early. It had snowed most of the day, and the roads were supposedly bad. Meh: slush. I listened to an old “Suspense” on the way - Charles Laughton, threatening a vaudeville performer with a knife and a foreboding accent. A two-person play, quite well done. I was certain I’d heard it before but it didn’t matter.
Drove past the Fairgrounds. Snow on all the buildings; snow on the broad happy entrance gates.
The gates were open.
For a moment I considered turning around and driving through and taking a look. Whatever was going on, I can usually badge my way into the Fairgrounds with my press pass. But I kept going. A few blocks away I thought: I would make a bad character in a “Twilight Zone” episode; when you pass the Fairgrounds in winter and they’re open, it means something inexplicable awaits, possibly involving Burgess Meredith.
Up past the strip mall where - decades ago - the Giant Swede and I pumped quarters into “Dragon’s Lair” in an arcade, the only one that had the stupid game. It was supposed to revolutionize the industry: animation + video games! But it was just memorization of stickwork. Left, up, right, right, left, die. Insert quarter. Repeat. It was always broken because it ran on a laserdisk and people kept kicking it. Across the street was a Flameburger restaurant, where we went once for, well, Flameburgers. A local chain - two, three locations. The Roseville one has been gone for years, although “Dragon’s Lair” keeps coming back in every single platform they ever invent. They sent me a DVD version of it once, and I threw it across the room. NO.
I was hungry, and thought I’d get a hamburger and a small fries. Went inside. Mistake. I was in concert mufti, suit and tie and black duster. I did not blend. I know, I know: there are a dozen better burger joints, but A) not one had an embassy in the area, and B) I just wanted a single hot hamburger with pickles and mustard and pepper, and a small bag of french-fried potatoes. You know, the kind that delighted H. G. Wells.
An family of four was working their way through a variegated order. There was a slim young man leaning against the wall at a point that might indicate he was waiting for his order, or was waiting to order. He occupied the Lagrange point between the two options. I asked if he was waiting to order. He nodded with the most minimum motion possible. I’m not sure he even nodded. He just somehow communicated the concept of “yes” without endorsing it.
He ordered, and I was next. He got his food and I got mine. He went to his car and I went to mine. His was a long brick, a 70s rig, classic. While he ate his nuggets and I ate my hamburger a plow worked the lot, back and forth, back and forth. My view out the window was the drive-thru of the KFC. THANK YOU was written in a font I could not identify - a script, jaunty and carefree. No one drove up. The THANK YOU blared out anyway into the dusk and fog anyway.
Somewhere, a bird died.
I ate leaning over so I didn’t get ketchup on my shirt, and I thought: why I am doing this miserable thing?
I didn’t really have an answer, except that when I’d plotted the day out - the long drive to the concert hall, building in time for snow and time to get the feel of the new venue - I’d thought “treat yourself en route. Hot pommes frites.”
Well, that was stupid. But really, it was my mood. Perhaps it was the thing I was doing: another concert, in a diminished venue. The Minnesota Youth Symphonies are out of Orchestra Hall for a while, and it feels like a demotion. There’s something so marvelous about being backstage at Orchestra Hall, walking through the doors, crossing the great wooden plain, looking up at the stacked balconies, casting your eyes across the wide sea of seats - it embiggens a man, even if you’re just there to say “please welcome” and “now we shall hear.” I had no idea what this new hall would be like, and felt sadly disengaged from caring.
So I get there and park and everyone’s streaming in, and all of a sudden it’s fun again. I do a mike check, adjust the stand for my copy, and start to get excited.
Welcome to the Bovine Growth Hormone theater!
Then comes the third page in the script, where I am advised to “stretch,” because they need to get the orchestra off the stage and let them get up to the balcony. So I read off the four items I’ve been told to mention. There’s commotion behind me - the stage manager is fixing something with the harp pedestal, and I make a gesture - are we ready? I take his gesture to mean “no.” So I continue to stretch. My script, however, is over.
I have reached that moment when you have nothing in your script to say, an entire concert hall full of people looking at you, and no idea how long you have to talk before things are ready.
So I just talk.
I apologize to the audience, here and now; I don’t know what came over me. A feeling of zen-like calm descended on me. In the back of my mind I remembered the absolute terror I felt the first time I did Orchestra Hall. I remembered that awful moment on the radio where self-consciousness overwhelmed me and I ran out of things to say and had to stop - as they say in the theater, I went up. It was a mortifying moment that would plague almost every hour of radio I ever did afterwards, and there were many. (I worked it into the novel “Mr. Obvious,” where the character sits in for a nationally syndicated host, and chokes, spectacularly.) Here I was, naked, with no idea what was going on, only that someone had to say something, and that was me. And so I talked. Because I had this liberating feeling in my heart: A) I can do this. B) I don’t mind failing.
And then I reached the end of my encomium to local composers, and said “You know, I’m going to see if they’re ready.” Went to the stage door.
Nods of assent: sure.
Went back to the mike. “Annnnd we’re ready!” Introduced the orchestra and walked off stage.
Here’s the thing: it would have been hard on a good day. On a bad day, it was easy. And it made it a great day.
Drove him in a magnificent mood, doing 40 MPH on the icy highway, hitting shuffle on the iTunes. Rocking out at sublight speed.
When I got home I took off my corsage and asked my daughter if she wanted it. No.
“I should put it in the snow and take a picture of it for Instagram,” I said.
She rolled her eyes.
I changed into evening home-garb and sat down at the computer and got to work. Later before midnight I took out my phone to check the app that tracks my movements and totes up my steps. You can send a graphic of your day’s peregrinations to yourself via email. You can edit the locations, and it uses Google to suggest “McDonald’s” for that place where you were motionless for ten minutes. I entered all the data and looked at the map and realized that I’d never been to the place where I’d stood and talked. A line on the map to a new location, one I’d revisit in three months for the next concert.
The location is saved and stored, and the next time I’m there it’ll be fragrant green May, the best part of the year still ahead. Something new. Expiration date revised. No damned hamburger next time, either.
I woke Monday in a capital mood and sailed through the hours with cheer and brio, right up until the brick wall described in the previous installment. There’s no lesson here, no moral, no storyline. Except this, which I have to remember:
If you find yourself in your car in the bleak midwinter eating a hamburger at dusk, turn on the radio. If you find a song you know, sing along. If you don’t, give it a listen. Find a good melody.
Is that really so hard?