Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Internet Social Networking as a Third Place

All is quiet on the blog front and that is as it should be in summer. As I read Thomas Friedman's editorial in the Sunday NY Times this week he commented on the advantages and disadvantages of places in Africa with and without the connectivity of cell phones, internet, etc. The goal is to know when the tool is beneficial and when it is not.

I have yet to delve into the Third Places available via the internet as a subject of my blog, probably because as we all know it is a curse and a blessing depending on the person and the moment. My mind doesn't work in pithy sayings so I am ill suited for status updates on Facebook. I am a reluctant internet social networker or cell phone user. I resent dependency and have enough of a hard time figuring out social etiquette face to face without further complexity. Imagine my shock and dismay when the rest of the world proceeds without my approval, harumph! My latest blow was finding out that my monthly cell phone bill was going to be in excess of $400! Well, not mine exactly, but my "family plan" with my daughter. She pays for her phone, so this is going to set her back a bit. Those plans for new school clothes with summer babysitting money have gone out the window! I consider myself partly to blame because I was in the dark about "normal" text usage for teenagers. I thought our plan was generous, especially since I do not text at all. The "average" teenager texts 2000 messages per month. The sprint guy says I got off easy, that there have been parents with $4000 bills! I'm sorry, but internet, cable, cell phones, none of these replace real live face to face contact!

We are sensual beings. We need to touch, smell, taste, see, and hear to feel alive. At least I do, especially in summer. I am content to read books, watch movies, surf the internet or gab on the phone when I cannot bear to face a bitter Minnesota February evening, but give me the breeze off the water, the cricket in the grass, the smell of hydrangea and the ability to lose myself in it without interruption. My sentimental views are quaint and obvious but I know I have kindred spirits out there, some of whom are too content with summer to be reading blogs, perhaps we'll connect in February!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Rush River Produce

Does an annual trip constitute a Third Place? Today was the picture perfect summer day, 75 degrees and big billowy white clouds floating along a blue, blue sky, beckoning us away from the city. Each year the kids and I, usually with another family, head to the river bluffs above Lake Pepin Wisconsin to pick blueberries. It's about an hour's drive from St.Paul and we get a dose of country for the morning. We drive over hill and dale past fields of corn and farms with sheep, horses, cows and even llama!

The drive along the St.Croix river is beautiful and relaxing because we have the road to ourselves. It brings me back to similar meandering drives from my childhood along the Hudson River or along the coast from Monterey to Big Sur. We city dwellers enjoy the freedom and escape of the open road away from the traffic and stoplights, especially in summer. It's a wonderful sense of arrival to go from the 4 lane highway to a two way road and then a dirt paved windy climb alongside prancing deer to the door of Rush River Produce, a farmstead surrounded by gardens and fields of blueberries!

We spend the first half an hour wandering and taste testing. Elena is determined to find the biggest blueberries and Ian gets to work filling his box, forever the competitor to see who can pick the most. I usually plop myself on a bucket and start eating. They weigh the boxes of blueberries to determine your price as you exit, but they don't weigh us, so I treat it as an all you can eat buffet. The scenery is gorgeous, the farm is situated at the high point above Lake Pepin surrounded by rolling hills into the distance. The picking is easy and after about an hour or so we pay up, usually buying some honey and maple syrup for a total of $30. This is a much better deal than going to the amusement park, we head home full and refreshed and we have tapped into an experience which reinforces and celebrates the sensory pleasures of summer.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Unity- Unitarian

I've been a member of Unity and it has been a consistent Third Place for my family for 13 years. Our lives were reeling after Elena was born. Eric was still in residency, I was back at work and finding it hard to claim the mental space to think beyond the next moment. Unity became my sanctuary. Then and now Unity reminds me to believe in a bigger picture. The music restores me, the service inspires me and the community provides the structure to motivate me beyond my isolationist tendencies.

After my father's premature death, my nephew's forced admission to rehab due to meth abuse, my knee surgery, or just a run of the mill tough week, my instinct would be to recoil from anything social. Despite this, more often than not, I have often found myself seated on a pew at Unity crying, smiling, praying among others. There are so many repeated strains on our existence, it helps to connect with others along this journey, in the same place week after week.

Summer services are run by church members. These are some of the best sermons and on more than one occasion I have felt as if the service was designed and delivered specifically for me. Our attendance is rather erratic in the summer months, but we did make it this past week. The message was a call to be more than American consumers, but to be citizens and to see our lives, our money, our short time on earth as a precious resource.

This was uncanny because three days later I was sworn in as a US citizen. Similar to my experience at church, I stood in the Great Hall at Bethal University Seminary (as a US District Court) surrounded by 701 other people from 95 different countries and I felt the power of our new connection and status, as stated on the US coinage, E Pluribus Unum, from many one. Every one of us was there with our own story, the man I met in line from Gambia with his two year old twins, the man who sat next to me from Nicaragua who invited his accountant to witness the ceremony, the woman behind me dressed in her traditional dress from Togo, each of us with our private thoughts but all of us united through the power of ritual.

There were many factors contributing to my decision to finally become a citizen, including the Obama effect, but the tipping point has been building for some time as I have grown into being a Unitarian. We have a special Coming of Age ceremony for ninth graders at Unity which Elena will take part in this year. As I have crossed this new threshold into US citizenship, I too feel as if I have come of age.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My third place, set serenely and defiantly amid the cracked pavement and cracked people.

To stand at the door of 245 Hyde Street, San Francisco, is a miserable experience day or night. The smell of urine hangs in the air, drug deals go down, people yell at no one and about nothing. Trash flutters by, as forgotten as the people who tossed it.

But open the door and you are transported. For inside lies Hyde Street Studios, home to countless legendary musicians. Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded here, as did Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the Grateful Dead. More recently, Hyde Street has housed the sounds of Cake, Joe Satriani and... me.

Hyde Street Studios is where I am recording my first album.

To be within the walls of Hyde Street is to forget all that is outside. When I'm there, my mind is totally focused on the music and the people I'm working with. There are no dying souls right outside worrying about one last high. There is no weather, no night or day. Sometimes I even forget about my brain injury and how wrenching it has been to me and to Catherine, my wife, and my parents and sister and friends. And there is a sound, not of drums and bass, not of guitars, not of singers, but the singular sound of being at peace.

Thank you, Hyde Street. I don't know where I'd be without you.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Car Connections

My car is a third place. We live on a hobby farm on the eastern border of Woodbury where corn and soybeans are our closest neighbors. We spent a lot of time on the road Luckily, I love my car. For 10 years I drove an eggplant-colored all-wheel-drive Dodge caravan, with erratic squeaks and door locks, in which I most-often felt like a Sherman tank driver. On my 45th birthday my husband surprised me with the gift if a new Volkswagen Jetta that runs on diesel and gets 44 miles to the gallon. This was the car of my dreams. I have admired Jetties from afar for years. They seemed sporty, but roomy and reminded me of adventures from the carefree years when I was out of college and single.

My red Jetta drives smooth as silk and is outfitted for almost any situation. In the glove compartment I have a stash of napkins for messy moments and spills of Chain tea or iced coffee, my favorite drinks. There is a pouch with quarters for parking meters along with the obligatory car manual that I consult less than I should. Purcell hand cleaner, of course, a tire gauge I’ve never used and a flashlight I forget is there when I need it.

In the door pocket to my left is a notebook for keeping lists of things I think of while driving that I can’t forget to do. There’s also our school’s phone directory, the hours for the libraries in our county, my CD case and a laminated Twin Cities map. There is also a pack of gum for those days when I forget to brush my teeth. In the passenger door pocket, I carry a Minnesota/Wisconsin road map and a magnification sheet because I cannot read a road map without glasses. I’m scared I might get lost one day when I don’t have my glasses.

A compartment between the front seats carries pens, glasses cleaner, discount coupons, lip balm and tweezers. In my advanced age, I am the victim of long stray hairs that grow overnight on my chin. I have discovered that the light streaming in the car windows together with the small mirror on my visor, provide the best place to see and remove these embarrassing hairs.

My trunk is surprisingly large and carries numerous essentials. A complete car emergency kit with tools and light, jumper cables and air pump. Also, a rope for tying down the hatch when carrying bikes; a leash for walking the dog, a towel for wiping her feet after a muddy hike, a box of peanut butter crackers to stave off starvation, a baseball cap and balls for tennis, a pouch with tampons, a box of band aids, a tiny first aid kit, and a bottle of water. I also have 5 fabric grocery bags that I am finally in the habit of using. For months after I put them there, I would get into the store and realize I had forgotten them and berate myself. There’s a blanket for laying on the back seat when I’ve taken our dog to the beach, to sit on during soccer and baseball games or for impromptu picnics. I also have the obligatory folding chair for the sidelines.

More importantly, my car is a place where I can enjoy the undivided attention of my family members – an extremely rare commodity in my life these days. In the car, I have the best conversations with our three children, broaching topics that are difficult to bring up over the dining room table, such as trouble with friends, school challenges, and sex. I once read that it is easier to talk about difficult subjects with your children when you are side by side as opposed to face to face. This has been true for me and, since our teenagers hate going on hikes (one of my favorite things) and we don’t wash dishes together, because we have a dishwasher, the car is the next best thing. My husband is a whirlwind of activity; he juggles multiple projects simultaneously and is qualified to fix any and everything. He is a lawyer, mechanic, plumber, electrician, tree mover, handyman, teacher, son, brother, father and husband all wrapped up on one. Weeks can go by when we hardly see one another, he to bed long after me and up and out before I open my eyes. On rare occasions, we find ourselves together in the car, and if I can keep him from his cell phone, we reconnect. I love to read out loud while he drives, sharing parenting books, the newspaper, essays I’ve written. We talk about our kids, our schedules, future plans. He fills me in on his myriad of projects and I share what’s going on in my world. My parents used to reconnect like this on a daily basis over cocktails before dinner. My husband rarely drinks or sits down. The car is the place where I get him all to myself.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Franken Rally

Please join Sen. Klobuchar, DFL Chair Brian Melendez, Franni Franken and Al Franken for a victory rally today from noon-1 at the Capitol. We've taken Wellstone's seat back!

Saints Game

I love this blog and the concept of Third Place. I think my experience at the St. Paul Saints last Friday fits: I went with our 10 year old and his two friends and was captivated. The Saints games are a cacophony of sights and sound. Like a teenager with ADD in math class, I could barely keep my focus on the players on the field. It was the crowd that so mesmerized me.

Immediately, I become drawn to the young, unhappy couple sitting in front of us. She, thin and dressed in a red cotton dress, was clearly annoyed with her husband (I checked for wedding rings on both their fingers). In shorts and a red T-shirt, he was ignoring her, turned away from his wife and focused on the game or his friend to his left. Her mouth hung down and I could sense her sadness like a waft of vegetables burning on the stove. She glaced up at him off and on, quietly sighing, then looking down at her lap. At one point, she quietly spoke to him, then stood and made her way past us and the others on our bench. At the isle, she stopped, glancing back towards the one who angered her, no doubt to see if he was watching her leave. No eye contact. She repeated the gesture again as she passed in front of him. I caught a hint of resignation on her face when she realized that he was not connecting with her. Then she walked away, empty handed, towards the concession stand.

Her sadness touched me deeply; I could imagine the fight that came before the game, like so many I’ve had with my husband. I longed to reach out to her and ask what she was feeling, what had happened between them, to offer my sympathy, my understanding. After she left, I considered asking him if he realized how devastated his wife was and encouraging him to reach out to her.

Later in the game, I was absorbed by the resemblences in family members, noticing how much father and son looked alike, or similarities in husbands and wives. I was especially captivated by the lips of the young mother of 4 in front and to the left of us. Her son’s lips mirrored hers exactly; striking lips with exaggerated bumps on top, just like the red wax lips we bought at the candy store as kids. I watched her remove her tiny infant from the snuggly in front of her, then bottle feed the baby, whose face was hidden behind a big-rimmed royal blue hat. Her three other young children sat sandwiched between her and her husband on the bench. I remember those snuggli days, when I carried my own children, tightly tucked to my body. She looked so calm and serene; how could she be, I wondered, with four children under four? Were the girls twins? I said nothing but so many questions swirled through my head.

Another mom caught my attention. She had two girls with her and an infant in a car seat. She was dressed like a teenager, despite her heft from a recent pregnancy, in jean shorts without a belt and doubled-up white tank tops. Her shirts had ridden up and her shorts down, leaving her brown thong all too visible. Her bare skin was showing both above and below the waist strap of the undergarment. She was standing up for the longest time as she talked to someone on her cellphone, scanning the crowd, obviously trying to locate this friend. Her skin was exposed to all who sat above her in the bleachers. I kept wondering if I should tell her she was showing. Was I the only one who noticed? Why wasn’t anyone else saying anything? Eventually, a middle-aged man sitting behind her asked her to sit down so he could watch the baseball game. What a relief. What was he thinking as he watched her expose her darriere, so unaware? Had he ever seen a thong? I wonder if his wife wore one?

At the end of the game, if you asked me to reveal the best plays of the game, I couldn’t tell you. I’m not even sure I know who the Saints played that night. I was too busy working out the more important aspects of baseball: what goes on in the stands. I remember being at a Twins game at the Metrodome when I was very pregnant with our first child. We were far from the action of the game, my seat uncomfortable and I was bored. At one point I had the startling realization that every one of the 30,000 fans in the crowd had once been in their mother’s uterus. It was an awesome thought and I felt connected, in some strange way, to the crowd.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

this is new for me ?

Call for Guest Bloggers

Tag, you're it! I know each of you have your own "third places" and I invite you to share them here. I've established the rhythm for this dialog, now it's your turn. In my "third places" the emphasis often tends towards observation of others. When talking with some of you about the "third place" concept I've heard ideas such as a being on a bicycle or anyplace you can pick up a guitar. My last post was about airports, I know everyone has perspective and insights about that subject. Restaurants, parks, blog sites, you name it, I'm interested in your take on the "third place". You know who you are, get in the conversation, this isn't an essay contest, it's just for fun. I hope to hear from some of you soon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Airports fascinate me. They have much in common with Disneyland. Crowds, lines, food, shopping, visual and sensory bombardment of all sorts, at prices which make your head spin.

Disneyland was fun when I was a kid, in part due to lack of concern and responsibility around calories and costs. Airports were also fun, I felt pampered and awestruck by the experience of flight. The magic of flight still captivates me but the sense of being catered to is long since gone. A very strange mix of anxiety, thrill, frustration, and amusement overtake me at the airport. There may be a plan in place but the sense of adventure comes from what is unpredictable.

In typical "third place" fashion I immerse myself in daydreams and people watching. Usually I keep a close tab on time, but when I'm alone there have been instances where I've had to make a mad dash because I lost track of different time zones. Every type of behavior can be witnessed by fellow travelers at the airport.

Minnesotan's are great to watch arrive at the airport in February. We arrive at the airport when it is 20 below outside already dressed for the beach. You may see us sneaking the down coat into the suitcase or it will come on the plane to second as a pillow or feet warmer. (On my cousin's most recent flight she found a frozen banana on the floor next to her feet!) Shoe choices provide a similar amusement, especially at airports. The reality is, unless you are in a wheelchair you must walk, or run and sometimes for quite long distances. Apparently this does not occur to many airport travelers based upon their footwear choices. The full spectrum of outfits are also on view, with regional variations, you see everything from business suits to beachwear and pajamas. This gets even more interesting or embarrassing when people make their way through security. To see people publicly disrobe is already odd. In this context it seems like a scene from a police station. Once again the pragmatist, I wonder at the belts, buckles and assortment of things that come out of peoples pockets, did they not know they were going to the airport?

Baggage has become complicated in recent years. Now there is a charge per bag, so this has shifted what constitutes a "carry on" item. I only flew a few times as a child, now many families fly with children of all ages which translates to strollers, car seats, baby bags, etc. I used to feel a great sense of luxury on an airplane, now it has the ambiance of a bus station. The stewardess (today's flight attendant, once upon a time was very solicitous, handing out airplane "wings" introducing kids to the pilot, passing out pillows and blankets and making small talk. Today they are the enforcers, "seat up, table up", mumbling "watch your hands" when they slam past with the food cart. Packing the plane is a science, I've heard people discuss the simulation studies conducted to figure out the most efficient method of loading people. Whatever the results of the studies, we human cargo are not easy to transport.

I have never flown first class, nor have I purchased a new car. In my reverse snobbery, I scrutinize the 1st class passengers as I make my way past. I experience seat envy and mean thoughts such as "why are those two little kid bodies in 1st class?" Then, looking at the passenger behind them seated next to the children's mother I feel smug, "nah, nah, you may be in first class but you still came up with the short end of the stick." Yes it is a roll of the dice when it comes to seat assignments, it isn't just a question of who is seated in your row, but who is in front or in back of you, or even in your generally vicinity if their behaviors are really disruptive. The parent kid dynamic is painful. Children have all the power and everyone knows it. There is no possibility of immediate consequences, so parents and all other passengers just pray that the stars have aligned and babies will fall asleep, siblings will be separated and that children and their parents woke up on the right side of the bed. The question of aisle seat or window seat is another thing to ponder, if a person is very confident of their lack of need for a restroom during a flight it is likely they will want and perhaps be able to choose a window seat. If , however, the person at the window seat is 8 months pregnant, as was the case on my last flight, expect to get up and down several times as the one in the adjacent aisle seat. I actually don't mind this because for the most part I welcome the chance to stand up and stretch the legs and since I cannot sleep on planes I'd much rather be the one asked to stand than the one climbing past a sleeping passenger. I marvel at how long some people's legs are and I find the whole sharing of armrests to be problematic, but overall once settled in I welcome the guilt free opportunity to read.

Despite flying in and out of many big cities, I have never been aware of being on a plane with a celebrity. Some of the most revealing conversations occur during the course of a 2 hour flight. Yesterday I heard the filmmaker Mr. Klein describe his flight sitting next to Malcolm X and the opportunity it created for his access to Cashis Clay. So, you never know. If, like myself, you enjoy and seek out serendipity then the unpredictable aspects of airport travel can be seen as a positive side of the adventure. In truth when all goes smoothly on trips the stories are not nearly as memorable or noteworthy. If you allow yourself let go for the ride, it can be fun to be temporarily knocked our of your usual orbit. These experiences, even the trying ones, allow us to reenter our normal orbits with fresh eyes and a new appreciation.

Disneyland is no longer my idea of fun, but despite two delayed flights that got me home late last Monday, I'm already eager for my next visit to the airport.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Friends School

For much of ours lives, our "third place" is school. Today my daughter graduated from the school she has been attending for 8 years, since first grade. For some, school is a bit like a jail sentence, but Elena has always loved it. From an early age she has enjoyed her independence and school has been a perfect place for her to claim her own realm. We call her our extreme extrovert, and with 3 house mates who are generally introverts, she often seeks out the company of others. Her farewell speech, along with those of her 14 classmates, was delivered with confidence and poise. Elena has a foundation of memories and relationships where her individuality was celebrated and learning was communal, fun and stimulating. These are the best of times.

Early parenting is fraught with decisions, and school is a big one. We hemmed and hawed about whether to try Spanish immersion at the public school or to go with the Quaker Friend's School. Each addressed different yet similar values towards education. The decision was made for us, she was not excepted to the Friends School. I was a bit relieved about no longer facing the dilemma of choosing and off she went to Adams. She had a ball there, yes there were imperfections, such as the fact that half the kids already spoke fluent Spanish at home and then were asked to spend the day learning how to say " Donde esta el bano? " Or, when I would go in to volunteer at the beginning of the day and find that Elena was off in the cafeteria with friends having donuts, the free breakfast program intended for those who didn't have a meal at home. Elena's kindergarten teacher was a fabulous teacher, but she had 32 kids with very different needs. Two other concerns were that the principal didn't speak Spanish, and the first grade classrooms had no windows. Mid year we were given a call from the Friends School saying they might have an opening in first grade and would we be interested? More decisions, ugh. Elena was settled in and happy. Despite my concerns, why rock the boat? I delayed, waiting as usual for divine intervention to solve the problem. As luck would have it Elena took a summer clay class and became fast friends with a girl named Liza from Russia who happened to be listed in The Friends School first grade for the following year! They were kindred spirits, my sign, I told myself, and promptly accepted the spot a The Friends School.

Elena took the news without much fuss and after the first day at school in my attempts to draw forth the evidence of my success masterminding her future, I asked the obvious question, "How was Liza?" "Oh" said Elena, "she went to another school". Needless to say, I was speechless. However, the stars were aligning because that same week we had the tragedy of 9/11 and I knew then that the school was the best fit for our family. The school community sentiment around that event mirrored our own. The Quaker values of Simplicity, Integrity, Community, Equality and Peace seemed more important than ever to have reinforced in a variety of venues outside of the home. Today in each of the speeches given by the graduating class a common theme emerged, in the word's of Thich Nhat Hanh, the seeds of compassion were sown. In a humorous moment when a few of the girls were crying, the row of kids passed tissue to those in need. It was perfect, a symbolic testimony to their bonds of friendship and proof that their speeches were founded in experience.

Hindsight is 20/20 but there is no doubt our second child, Ian, would have despised Spanish immersion and a large school and I would have hated the logistics of having 2 different schools and splitting up the kids. So the Friends School has become a third place for Elena and Ian, and also for me. We have been there for 8 years for various plays and potlucks and have volunteered in many capacities, from teaching watercolor and putting in a tile mosaic at the front entry to being a cashier at the plant sale and spreading fresh mulch over the playground. As any parent knows there are no shortage of needs to make a school function. If only we would recognize as a culture the investment payoff of a great education, and quit the business of war, perhaps we would all prosper. Every child deserves a great "third place" that is their school.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Variation on the "Third Place" concept


My Garden

I've got a photograph of myself, probably around age 8, standing in my grandmother's garden with a ring of daisy's in my hair. The photo sits on my desk, and although the image is very faded it is a reminder to me of who I am at the core. What is it about the garden?

In my case, it is a "third place". The garden calls to me, especially in the early morning when the birds are singing. Here in Minnesota we have a small window for gardening and those of us who love it know what I'm talking about. We become manic, getting outside as early as 6am and staying outside until 9 pm. Of course the hours between 10 and 4 are for anything else that need to get done between gardening sessions. After the frost and before the humidity and mosquitoes set in, that gives us about three weeks of bliss. This year we've had no rain, so there is no excuse not to have annuals planted and weeds at bay by now.

Almost every type of life lesson can be learned in the garden. Here life regains the larger cosmic perspective where my role is neither central nor insignificant to the big picture. If one defines the "divine" as that force within us which wants to live, to create, to love, to play, to imagine, to make, to know, then the garden is one place where I experience it. Even though I spend most of my time alone in the garden, I am never lonely. I am surrounded by life stirring and a sense of connection I feel no where else. On one level, I am with my grandmother ( who has passed away), my father-in-law (who is very much with us) and other gardeners. It is very much like the joy of reading a great book and knowing a good friend is also reading it. You share the same world even though you are not in the same physical space. The other type of communion which occurs is with nature, as an artist. My senses are heightened and I am " in the zone". My neighbor is often out gardening at the same time as I am, on occasion we exchange pleasantries for awhile and then return to gardening. It is like watching young children do something called parallel play, they may be near one another but each of them is in their own little universe. Truly my attempts to describe this experience will fall short, it is in the doing, not the retelling where the magic lies. I know that my kindred spirits have their own version of what I am referring to, that place where all else falls away.

Not everyone has this kind of zen relationship to their garden, and let's face it, those of us that do have plenty of gardening moments that would not be among our "peak" experiences. There are the times when you are entertaining and feeling surge of pride in your garden and some kind soul points out the abundance of creeping charlie in your yard. You try to shrug it off as their problem but the glow has left you none the less. Or when your perfect ornamental tree is just the right size to accent your pond in the most marvelous way and it becomes infested by insects and needs to be cut down, leaving a vacancy which can't be mended. Indeed your gardening hobby can make it difficult to walk past weeds without feeling compelled to just pick a few, lasting upwards of an hour. Like all good relationships, this one requires maintenance and if you neglect it, the world knows the truth.

As with many of my third places, I will have to return to share more insights. It is past 4pm and it is a bewitchingly beautiful day out there so I must get back to the garden. I will leave with this final observation. I hum when I garden, I didn't even realize it until someone pointed out to me one day. Last year my son Ian was working with me in the garden and I heard him humming away. I smiled. He has caught the bug.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Soccer Field

During our dog's adolescence we hung out in dog parks in the evening. Absolutely parallel to children's parents, dog owner's love to see their charges getting exercise, socializing, and providing entertainment and fodder for conversation for onlookers. Every possible dog/owner combination exists, the one's who keep the dog's leash on and then cling for dear life, the one's who bring balls and then proceed to intervene on dog squabbles, the one's who insist on dog training in the midst of "play time", the one's who tell you the dog's pedigree or every possible aliment, etc., etc. You get my point, it's great people watching for free. There is something about us that wants to be a spectator. Whether it is watching TV, reading facebook entries, or taking your dog or kid to the park.

As adults we also like to multi-task, if we are taking the dog or kid to the park we are "on duty", being responsible pet owners or parents. We aren't just going to the park to "chill", kick back and generally admit to being someone with extra time on our hands to space out and stare at the sky for no good reason. This "down" time is understood to be productive and worthy so we don't have to feel guilty for being a slacker.

Another big advantage of the dog park or kid's park is the built in subject for conversation. Let's face it, chit-chat can be work, at least for me. Even the most introverted among us are social beings and yearn for something to "bond" about, that commonality that will make it easy to be together. Bystanders to the action, we are still part of the experience because we can take away the story, "remember when so and so did the face plant off the monkey bars?"

Now that our children are in their adolescence, we are no longer at the playground, we've replaced it with the soccer field. We come and go to games and or practices 5 out of 7 days a week. We see the same families year after year but we often don't see them anyplace other than at soccer. We share a comraderie, war stories such as "remember when the tornado siren went off and we madly biked home ahead of the black clouds." We soak up the sunshine on hillsides and share snacks or grumble and groan together on the sidelines when our team is getting badly beaten. Sometimes grandparents or aunts and uncles drop by. It feels good to be hanging out, feeling the weather, laughing, yelling and sharing a "third place".

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

Pet Peeves

To avert boredom, yours and mine, I'll change the subject a tad today. My main goal for this blog is to generate interest, discussion and awareness about the role the "third place" plays in our lives. As an amateur social scientist, one of my life long passions has been to observe and study people, I won't feign objectivity, I see and record things based upon my own hodge podge lens on the world. My neighborhood is my habitat, generally speaking it is easier for me to decode what is going on at "face value" when I don't have to translate into my native tongue. I don't just mean literal language here, I'm referring to all the filters and guards we put up to try to understand one another across cultures (ie. gender, age, race, economics, politics, religion).

As mentioned in my last blog about the "state of the pub", cultures are in a constant state of change. Our physical world or sense of place shifts beneath our feet and many of us yearn for a certain balance of familiarity without total predictability. We want smells, tastes, sights and sounds from our good associations and memories from our pasts. The continuity makes us feel "at home". Embedded in our "third places" are all sorts of values which are imprinted on us early on, some of them are too obvious to state, others are more subtle and difficult to identify. Some are so intertwined we cannot tease them apart from one another without destroying the ambiance, mood, atmosphere.

What am I talking about? I'll see if I can describe it through some examples. What sorts of things make me comfortable in a "third place"? A clean bathroom with supplies in place! Creative bathrooms show personality, which I love, but are an extra. Also, I hate the hand dryers that break your eardrums, make your skin warp in freakish ways and never dry your hands in time. As a result you wipe your hands on your pants or grab the door with wet hands (nice). Yes, acoustics are important to me. Background music is fine, but not so I have to scream or use hand signals to talk with someone. One should be able to sit at a table and have a private conversation, that works on multiple levels, again proper acoustics, but also cell phone management. I'm talking about manners, and my cultural, undoubtedly antiquated, sensibilities. Similarly, I have children and they are unruly, on occasion I break down and take them out to dinner with me, but I try to keep in mind that others sometimes choose a quiet intimate restaurant to remember what it was like BK -before kids. What else. Thankfully wait staff have caught on to the reality that single people, in particular woman, are comfortable and happy to be dining alone so we too want a window seat. This is what good customer service looks like in my "third places": eye contact, a smile, audible, helpful(ie. knowledge of the service being provided, good at reading social cues).

My pet peeves reveal my stripes as they say, my cultural predilection for order, cleanliness, privacy, boundaries. The reason I haven't chosen to critique what I don't like about particular businesses is that I generally am ready and willing to forgive an oversight or problem if I sense goodwill. After all, I have great admiration for small business enterprise and know from first hand experience that it ain't easy being on the other side of the operation sometimes. I also find that I am much more open and tolerant and shift my expectations when I am not on my own turf such as when I travel to another country.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Nags Head, Malvern, England

Hello again, my blog rhythm was interrupted because I was "on holiday". We went to Malvern England for Spring Break. It was wonderful for many reasons, but in particular it was invaluable to experience the daily life and place of our distant family. Western nuclear family life can be so insular so when we are invited into another's world it is a real honor. I am grateful to my sister-in-law Jenny who pampered us for five days in their home and toured us about the region. Our visit gave her the impetus to go to some of the local tourist destinations for the first time. Warwick Castle and Shakespeare's childhood home were great, but my preference was for the local "Third Place" the Nags Head.

The pub, short for public house, is a classic "Third Place" in Britain, going back to the time of the Romans. Perhaps the heart of the village or neighborhood, the pub was, and continues to be, a social center for meeting and the exchange of news. As with all great cultural developments, there are interwoven political, social and economic underpinnings. During Victorian times gin was considered evil, the cause of alcoholism for the working man, whereas ale was seen as nutritious and children were served ale because it was believed to be healthier than water. The water in Malvern is a noteworthy exception, a bottled spring water which comes from deep within the granite hills. Long ago Malvern became a spa town for the wealthy to come to recover from illness. Today there still exist many public fountains where anyone can come to have a drink or fill up water bottles. The Queen of England is partial to Malvern water, locals claim she makes a point of traveling with it wherever she goes in the world.

Mid week after a long day of sight seeing over hill and dale, we stopped into The Nags Head before heading home. Once upon a time the pub signs were required to have pictures because the general population was not literate. Today pub signs have words and pictures and often the meanings have a double entendre. My guess is that nag isn't a term of endearment for most of us. Indeed the pub was full of men, the communal watering hole, the place to escape the nag. Another meaning for nag is "an old useless horse" and in case this isn't the definition that comes to mind the business sign out front features a picture of a horse's head (one that doesn't look ready to turn out to pasture).

The Nags Head is the quintessential pub. Crooked walls, wooden benches, changing ceiling and floor levels (probably the built in sobriety test) and filled with men milling about together. We walked in, my husband, ten year old son and sister-in-law, and made our way to a snug corner with a fire blazing. A "snug" is a term for a tucked away corner of a pub which was intended for privacy. Police officers, priests, women and those generally not supposed to be seen there could sneak a swig away from the general gaze. We ordered at the bar, another pub innovation which originally was only used by the proprietor to keep watch over customers while taking care of business, but evolved into the fastest way to serve up the most people. A beautiful smiling young woman gave us our pints, pop and crisps (potato chips).

The pub was quaint, even the view into the cellar with a fake skeleton next to the keg. My forever entrepreneurial husband immediately started plotting his "theme" pub version for St. Paul. This fine establishment would never pass code in the US, but beyond that if we could really replicate the experience why would any of us continue to travel? Pubs in Britain today are threatened by supermarkets because they can sell alcohol at a much lower cost without the same level of legal oversight. As with all living traditions, the pub is in flux.

My husband managed to get to The Nags Head three times in six days, that might just qualify as his "Third Place" away from home. This is one of the places I will envision my family members, now that I have experienced the context for their daily life. My teenage daughter picked up on the use of the word "right" by the British in daily speech, giving her an insight into her own use of the word "like" all the time, perhaps I won't have to "nag" her about it now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Khyber Pass, St. Patrick's Day

No green beer or green hair to write about today. My grandmother was big into St. Patrick's day, she was fiercely proud of being Irish and a red head. She amazed me with her agility doing the jig and she kept the companies that made four leaf clover and leprechaun stickers in business. Irish heritage and surviving Minnesota winter are both reasons enough to celebrate in outrageous jubilation. I'm of Irish descent, I live in St. Paul and my favorite color is green but this weekend I attended the Women's International Day where the keynote speakers were from Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, and I'm allowing myself to linger on what unites us and what divides us around the world. Afghanistan and Ireland are places with ancient spiritual connections to Earth, and countries which continue to know the pain of war. Who am I, where do I come from and where do I belong? Who are my people?

Okay, so what does this have to do with my "third place" idea? Well, several of my relatives were from Ireland, but I've never been there. I never crave Irish food, but I love Afghan food, a blend of Indian, Persian, Turkish, Middle-Eastern, Greek, Chinese and Central Asian food traditions. Thankfully on this beautiful relatively balmy evening my family could walk over to our neighborhood restaurant, the Khyber Pass, and eat a delicious meal prepared without any evidence of green food coloring! We started off with two servings of hummus. If allowed to my son would survive on corn chips, pizza and ice cream, but he devours the chicken curry. My husband loves the yogurt drink which is a refreshing blend of plain yogurt, mint, and cucumber. I had the combination platter, great for those of us who want to sample lots of tastes. I also had the Shiraz wine from Australia. The decor is warm and intimate, with gorgeous Afghan dresses and photographs along the walls. My family had to cut out before dessert but I stayed to savor my wine and solitude. I had a creamy rice pudding with raisins and cardamon and some perfect Chai tea.

My daughter is best friends with the daughter of the owners of Khyber Pass. Typical teenagers they giggle and stay up late talking about boys and fashion. They say "I love you" when they end their phone conversations. Fortunately they attend a Quaker school together, they have been raised in an environment of trust where the values of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality (SPICE) are nurtured and modeled. Our daughters have a foundation of friendship, they unite us and the world.

The Persian New Year begins this month, with the start of the Zoroastrian calendar, Aries or April. The Khyber Pass is celebrating Nau-rouz (New Day) with a special Persian menu and live music on March 20, 21 and March 27 and 28th. Renew your spirit with some exotic food, lively music and new friendships. See you there!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Merrium Park Library

If I were stranded on a desert island, I would certainly love to have chocolate and or coffee, but I would need to have books!  Today's "third place" is St. Paul's Merrium Park Library.  It is an oasis in the city.  

I feel soothed immediately when I walk through the door, ah, the smell of books, the hush of study.  No cell phones allowed except in the lobby.  I also feel a sense of adventure and possibility, what will I discover today?  Imagine being dropped off at the airport with a ticket to anywhere?  That's what I'm talking about.  In addition, there is no guilt associated with this pleasure, one, because there are no price tags  or calories involved, and two, it is open to the public.  This particular library is one of my "third places" because of its wonderful neighborhood scale and feel.  Similar to Dunn Bro and Cafe Latte, Merrium Park Library is located at a major St. Paul crossroad, Fairview and Marshall Avenues.  

The building is beautiful and comfortable.  It was rebuilt in 1993 by Meyer Scherer and Rockcastle.  There are reading nooks and tables throughout, fabulous windows and a central rotunda with skylight windows.  Four study rooms are located around the perimeter and can be reserved for meetings.  Computers with internet access and copy machines are also available.  Several displays of books with seasonal or current themes may spark or renew an interest. One corner of the library is dedicated to tax help, another to job searches.   A large sunny children's area with built-in window seats and tables dedicated to crayon  coloring is at the front of the building.  A cozy teen area is decorated with groovy chairs.  I have always found the library staff here to go above and beyond the call of duty.  Aside from being friendly, the reference librarians are patient with questions I should know the answer to by now.  They often have great suggestions for books and offer search insights.  

I introduced myself to one of my favorite librarians and told her about my blog.  I asked if she would be willing to share her perspective about the library and, as always, she was happy to answer my questions.  As a 15 year veteran of the St. Paul Library she said her favorite part of her job was learning something new every day.  She loves the vitality of the place as a regular neighborhood stopping point.  She recognizes and sees many families, and enjoys watching the children grow up in front of her eyes.  There is a fairly consistent group of regulars joined bya consistent stream of new faces.  She used to work at the Hamline branch and notices some of the same people who also come to Merrium.  When the Minneapolis libraries across the river are closed there is a noticeable influx of people, and the shift in the economy has brought more people into the library.  My own read on that, as someone who seeks out the anonymous companionship of public places, is that it would be a comfort to come to the library if recently unemployed to benefit socially from the presence of others in community.  More people are recognizing and valuing the library as a tremendous resource and a place to enjoy one of life's greatest and simplest pleasures.

P.S.:  The library rents movies and music too!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

tuesday, march 3, 2009

cafe latte

Post-tennis ladies tea anyone?  Clearly I'm not the only one with a sweet tooth which strikes at any time of the day.  No matter when I come here there are people checking out the desserts strategically positioned at the entrance of cafe latte.  Today I was introduced to the "tea" served in the afternoon.  After an hour and a half running around the courts four of us wiped ourselves off and ventured out for tea.  

Let me digress a tiny bit, I normally wear sweat pants to and from tennis drill, ones that second as my painting pants and look like chipmunk cheeks when loaded down with tennis balls for practicing serves.  I thought I'd make an exception this time since we had made this date for tea afterwards.  My companions are a bit more well groomed shall we say.  They have cute coordinated tennis skirts and the latest bags to tote their rackets and they change in and out of these outfits for tennis.  They are very tactful and never make disparaging remarks about my choice of attire.  The point is I changed into a sweater and slacks for their sake.    

We positioned ourselves in the back of the restaurant and look over the tea menu to make a tea and pastry selection.  By 1:30pm I'm more than a little hungry, and as always, the choices look decadent  so I know I can't go wrong.   We order at the counter where we can get a close up of our tart options, the mixed berry one makes my mouth water.  The tea comes out in colorful cheery tea pots along with elegant cucumber cream cheese sandwiches, a scone, shortbread cookies and chocolate hearts!  All for a reasonable price.

We linger for over an hour and get the added bonus of having the owner, Peter Quinn, drop by our table for a visit.  He and or his wife Linda are usually in the place daily.  One of the wonderful things about cafe latte is that it has a decor and feel that reflects their sense of style. The mix of casual and hip, comfort in food and atmosphere which reflects a personal touch.  

This successful space is not something canned or bottled but something fresh and living, the difference between a generic place and a successful "third place", at least in my eyes.  Another successful architectural element is the variety of seating venues or moods.  These are like different rooms in a house and exercise the concept of "prospect and refuge" which Frank Lloyd Wright referred to in his designs.  The notion that we need both kinds of places, those we hunker down in to feel safe and cosy and those that give us vistas to look out over and move thru even while inside or stationary.  Victoria and Grand is "the" defining intersection of St.Paul's Grand Ave.  It is what's known as the 100% position, that place everyone wants to be, ie. the kitchen door during a dinner party!  The buffet line is a bit of an extension of this see and be seen atmosphere, however, you can also slide into a booth along side the pastries and spend hours alone with a book.The food is equally balanced, salads and soups craved as much as the desserts.  

Our foursome broke up to meet children and head for home but we tasted a bit of England on a grey St. Paul day, something I highly recommend.