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Burn the Ice Palace Down

James O'Brien

When my dad came to after his emergency quadruple bypass surgery last month, he had a revelation: "Everything is bullshit."

Actually, "revelation" is too strong. It's the same thing he's been quietly teaching me and the rest of his kids his whole life--that all the nonsense we busy ourselves with, all the ego-gratification and entertainment we chase is superfluous to the world that goes on inside us, and wholly unsatisfying compared to a quiet moment spent alone or with someone you love. I suppose he, like any parent who sees their kids come out of the gate so strong and unsullied by the dullards, wanted to tattoo on us what e.e. cummings wrote:

to be nobody but yourself
in a world which is doing its best
night and day
to make you everybody else
means to fight the hardest battle
that any human being can fight--
and never stop fighting

It's easy to give up that fight. I do it in little ways every day. My kids live in America, so sometimes they eat at McDonald's, watch commercial television, wear shirts with sports teams' logos, and go to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese. But they also have heard the sound of weird music and their parents' voices ripping their country's leaders and lame children's entertainment, and these days they know full well my feelings about the St. Paul Winter Carnival's Ice Palace. A nice place to visit. With a blowtorch.

I haven't taken them, and I don't plan on it, because it's one of those really fun things that has been sold to me as such, and, because I still happen to have a few critical synapses firing, I get knee-jerk cranky at the whiff of such hype. Moreover, there is a deeper anger embedded in those letters to the editor bitching about the irony of an ice palace that's been built across the street from a homeless shelter: At a time when things feel so slippery, when politicians' lies vie for airtime with commercials for the new season of American Idol, when the international debate is about rebuilding a country that this country tore down, we here in Minnesota build a castle that will soon be a big puddle.

Unlike other things people work hard to build, the Ice Palace is too easy and too easily disposed of, like so many other distractions that get hyped-and-gone these days, so I look at it from afar and say, Why bother? It might be easier if I could lighten up, get with the festivities, exult in the magic of it all, or even goof on the absurd lengths to which we'll go to entertain ourselves during January in Minnesota. And the fact is, I still might put on the robot suit and take the kids to see all the pretty lights and the 27,000 blocks of ice, and they'll probably think it's cool. Or not.

The Saturday before the palace opened, I took them to Lake Harriet, where we happened to run into a kite festival. There were no colored strobe lights, but the sun was out. There was no cover charge, but there was complimentary cocoa. There was no webcam or live remotes or bumper-to-bumper traffic, and no nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd crowd, but if you walked out into the middle of the lake, you could hear the tinkle of tinny banjos and mandolins wafting out from the bandstand PA.

The music was the only sound, save for the occasional whoop from a fallen ice-walker or skater or the crunch-crunch of feet padding over snow mines. The wind made the music sound like the last-gasp garble-and-break of a dying cassette tape, but the deejay's irony cut through: He played some Dixieland, "The Girl from Ipanema," some Hawaiian slack-key guitar stuff, "Let's Go Fly a Kite," and, most surreal of all, "The Summer Wind."

It was great. There was a guy in a parka lying on his back in the middle of the lake, grinning and staring up at the cold sun, enraptured by the fallow season he'd found himself living through. There was a horse and buggy clip-clopping around the bike path, a dozen American flags jutting out from the ice, a wooden sled with two kids being pushed by a Hans Brinker type, and collies and bird dogs and St. Bernards and huskies and golden retrievers sniffing everything in sight. It felt like a hundred years ago, and like a surprise that everyone there had spontaneously discovered all at once.

Two giant octopus kites flew over the lake and my kids, who craned their necks and shielded their eyes from the sun and spoke reverently of "Ollie," the great mythical octopus that inhabits the deepest parts of Lake Harriet. They've been raised on stories of Ollie, so when my daughter crawled over some bubbles that looked like they were captured confetti from an underwater parade and came upon a fossilized weed, she swore it was one of Ollie's tentacles. My son slid and break-danced on the ice and said, "Minnesotans have the life." It looks hokey in print, but it wasn't at that moment, because even he could tell that a frozen lake in the middle of the city is better than some lame ice castle.

This sort of thing--people making their own fun, making it up as they go along--happens all the time, though you'd never know it, given all the Your Official Ice Palace Slut coverage. For example, last weekend at the 7th St. Entry, Heart of a Champion Records threw what felt like an indie-rock potluck. Four or five bands played, and all these people who support independent labels, record stores, and radio stations came out. Nobody paid any attention to the Ice Castle's kindred evil spirit across the street, the Hard Rock Café, but during Mike Gunther's fire-and-brimstone act, a guy behind me yelled, "Move the Lutherans!" and at the end of the night, Eleni Mandell warmed the place with some sexy time-stopping gin-soaked jazz.

After shows like that in the summer, I've sometimes liked to go to the lake, for a drive or for a swim. This night, I felt like going again, even though it was below zero, because I'd been there a couple nights before to see what it was like at night. I parked my car behind the port-a-potties so the rent-a-cops wouldn't nail me, and started walking. The wind on my face was ferocious, and I kept looking over my shoulder, because I had the creepy feeling that something was sneaking up on me.

The only sound was the breath in my chest, my boots on the ice, and a door banging somewhere near the bandstand. A muffled wind chime harmonized with the occasional car engine, whose purrs suggested heated seats and warm fans and glowing cigarette lighters. I stood in the middle of the dark lake, alone and calm but also terrified of what might lie beneath, of what would happen if I fell through the ice, of what the cops would have to do to recover the body.

I looked at the shore, where the houses looked cabin-cozy but miles away. I listened to all that stillness, and thought about what a bargain it is to be able to walk on water and look at a few stars for free--which is how you feel when you're away from the numbers and making it up as you go along.


Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@citypages.com or 612.372.3775.

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