A blue velvet, electric owl painting. Need I say more?

“The worst trouble a man can be in, I think, is to have one hope left, and that a hope of something so inherently improbably that he knows deep in his heart it won’t happen… Three feeble gardenias on a vendor’s tray in the rain an hour after curtain time; a cup of fly-specked jelly beans in a shop window: these are the merchant’s last precarious handhold on the window ledge. The cruelest merchandise is a talent for which there is no demand.” –Joseph Liebling, from “People in Trouble”

Estates sales, we might remember, are a business. They’re not merely a group of grieving individuals piling the detritus of the recently deceased on tables and then pocketing cash. As I mentioned last week, there are collectors and antique store dealers plundering this stuff to fill their stores, real and virtual, but let’s not forget that the sales themselves are run by men and women who depend upon their success for their livelihoods.

And there are some weekends where I don’t how the hell they manage. This was one of them.

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We Live, We Die, We Dance

Pina, 2011. Directed by Wim Wenders, conceived by Wenders and the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch.

There are blessed and brief moments in human history where people gather to form an organic unit–a team, a company, a troupe–that performs wonders.  Often, the individuals didn’t know they’re special; often, they were not special, but thrived in the group, coming fully alive for the first time.

The 1927 New York Yankees. The Founding Fathers. The Mercury Theater performing Caesar, Macbeth, War of the Worlds, and finally, Citizen Kane.  Insert your favorite band here.

We watch, lucky to witness these spectacular convergences. And, oh, to actually be a part of one of these blessed aggregates! But that is too much to ask for, generally. So we must be content to bask in their sun-bright presence.

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There are moments in the estate sale biz when you find yourself thoroughly outflanked by the likes of the professional. When you realize that for some people, estate sale carousing is a serious undertaking, it’s a man’s bread-and-butter, it puts the kids through college, pays the mortgage, and keeps one in beer and skittles, etc., etc.

I was surprised as all hell to run into the mother of all collectors’ sales, in Spring Lake Park, and that a rare Friday evening sale, advertising antiques, turned out to have virtually no collectors at all. This was a busy weekend, where we saw virtually every type of sale imaginable–seven total with Mayor Mike Haeg and ESC guest star Holly Petersen, including two collectors’ sales, two shoes off sales, two warehouse sales, and a damnable Craigslist sale that I would beware of in the future. But we came away with a bonanza of sorts.

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When you live in a dismal town or suburb, bereft of the internet or cable television, unable to drive and far from any challenging diversion, it must seem like life is a veritable wasteland. Wandering through a pair of sad homes in Bloomington and Richfield with ESC special guest star Andy Sturdevant, we could only shudder at the thought of growing up in a place where stealing your father’s Playboy magazines served as the height of intellectual challenge and teenage rebellion. Andy said he grew up in homes similar to these; my home town is much like Bloomington but not near a city as hip as Minneapolis.

There but for the grace of God…

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By now everyone who reads my baseball stuff knows that the Detroit Tigers, my Detroit Fucking Tigers, went crazy and signed the affable and corpulent Prince Fielder. As a Tiger fan, I have seen a couple weeks of emotional roller-coaster riding: a few weeks ago, catcher/DH (really DH) Victor Martinez wrecks his knee and is out for the season, so that means, naturally, that the season is over in January (this is how the neuroses work.) Then, suddenly, Detroit grabs Prince Fielder from Milwaukee to the tune of 214 million dollars for nine long years. Immediately, it appears that the Tigers have the World Series locked up. Congrats to us, we are the champions.

Of course, now that the dust has settled and we’ve all calmed down a bit, maybe we can take a look at this situation for what it really is, and maybe get a bit excited, but not too excited. After all, Prince is just one player.

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This taxi driver used to Walk for Mankind...

Who likes to shop? I sure don’t. Clothes shopping, shoe shopping, and, cripes almighty, shopping for towels or linens of any sort drives me up a wall. A set of sheets costs a hundred dollars. Do you know how many books you can buy for a hundred bucks?

Ah, but therein exists yet another blessed joy of estate sale-ing. You can buy most of your clothes (no underwear or sox, natch), your linens, and especially your Goddam sheets at estate sales and get the benefit of wandering through the lives of your fellow citizens. You get your product and you get a story. That beats the Mall of America, every time.

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Moshe Dayan watches over us as we sleep.

Do you ever wonder what strange little secrets will emerge when you die? Death may come quickly, too quickly to tie up those loose ends or toss the dirty magazines squirreled away in the cedar chest. But even when death arrives with the speed of a donkey cart, that’s when infirmity and indifference grip the body and soul, and you simply don’t care who finds what on the mantle, by the bed, or in the sock drawer.

I was thinking about this as I plumbed a digger’s sale with my friend, Mike Haeg, last Friday. Between a bizarre Thursday sale, a couple on Friday with the Mayor, and the usual Saturday circuit with my wife, Janice, I hit six sales total (and numerous thrift stores, not to mention the finest hot beef sandwich I’ve ever stuffed down my throat.) It was even-Steven across the board, two each of clean sales, digger sales, and a couple in-between. But there wasn’t a lot to show for it other than a good time.

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Suits, skulls, knives, ivory. Life magazines, hobo biographies, wife-swapping novels, cookbooks. 50s pinups, maps, Ansel Adams’ originals, a 3-D image of Mao Tse Tung. Never used food processors, broken record players, balls and bats and backgammon sets.

What do all of these have in common? They’ve all been found at estate sales, man.

Every weekend, my wife and I pile into the Honda and drive all over the Twin Cities, classified ads in hand, looking for estate sales. Being a teacher and an underemployed novelist means that we don’t have tons of money, so estate sales help us buy things–like a new Kitchen Aid food processor–for at least a fifth of their value. As I look around my house, I notice that many of the things I own–from the books on the shelves to the fancy plates to the clothes on my back–are from estate sales. Yes, that means I’m probably wearing the clothes of the dead.

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The end of every year sends movie critics scrambling to play the list game. You know, where we comb through that year’s titles for the privilege of allowing a select few a spot on on our “Top Ten” list. Those lists serve as a way of telling people “I love this movie!” as well as signaling our superiority by keeping certain flicks off . Because a guy who made exactly zero dollars on his film writing should be able to lord over Terrence Malick now and again, right?

I have a top ten list, but there’s a heavenly top fifty out there, all the great movies I know I missed this year simply because I didn’t have the time or the thing never made it to Minneapolis. This troubles me. So instead of the usual top ten, I’m going to make the list very personal, and reflect on my favorite moments watching movies, old or new. This is much different from the ten best of the year–for instance, R. Alverson’s masterful New Jerusalemwhich I picked as my favorite movie of 2011, isn’t here, since I saw it on DVD, at home, by myself. The moment was memorable only because of the film (though you’ll see I have a DVD I watched alone as well.) This list serves as a sort-of thank you letter to the gods of cinema, to the people who made these events happen, to the good folks with whom I saw the movies in question, and perhaps it will inspire readers to think back on their happiest moments at the cinema this year.

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Shame, 2011. Directed by Steve McQueen, written by McQueen and Abi Morgan. Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, and Nicole Beharie.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) walks around his stylish, nearly empty, blindingly-white Manhattan apartment with no clothes on. He refuses to answer the phone when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), calls, desperate. He goes to work in his high-powered job and he’s good at making deals. Before work, during work, after work, and on weekends, he is fucking, either himself, a woman, women, or, now and again, a man.

That’s Shame, not in a nutshell, but pretty much the whole kit-and-kaboodle. If the preceding paragraph seems to lack detail, well, you’re not going to get a whole lot more in the film itself. For Shame is not about people. It is, like McQueen’s prior effort, the gorgeous Hunger, a performance piece, divorced from reality, the work of an artist who seems not to understand people, much less “sexual addiction.”

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