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One Last Mix for Shalini

My dear friend Shalini Dhuria Van Hoek died in the early hours of January 2, 2018 after suffering a brain aneurysm two days earlier. She was 43 years old. I met the news – delivered via a Facebook post by her husband Pim – with complete disbelief followed by utter despair. I’d known Shalini for over 18 years. She was the first friend I made upon moving to Minneapolis in the fall of 1999. She was one of the most caring, giving, and funny people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. It’s a very cruel trick that she’s gone.

Shal and I connected initially, and then continually after that, over a shared love of music, especially live music. Our tastes weren’t exactly alike, but we loved a lot of the same bands – Toad the Wet Sprocket, They Might Be Giants, Matthew Sweet – and were able to turn one another on to a good many others. I made her dozens of mix CDs over the course of our friendship. In fact, just a couple of weeks before her death, I'd mailed her my 2017 mix, and was waiting impatiently to hear her verdict. I wonder now if she even got a chance to listen before she left us.

As I have reflected on her life and our friendship in these days following her death, memories and anecdotes keep surfacing, so many of them centered on songs. So I’ve decided that the best tribute I could possibly offer to Shalini is to make her one last mix CD.

(If you have Amazon Music Unlimited you can listen along to this playlist - sans the Limited Warranty song - by clicking here.)

1) Son Volt – “Question”
Shalini and I started working at the Saint Paul satellite office of the American Cancer Society (ACS) together in the fall of 1999. I’ll sheepishly admit that I initially held a small crush on her from afar, probably based on that megawatt smile, before we’d even spoken a word to one another. One evening at quitting time I came out to the parking lot and discovered Shal in the midst of changing a flat tire on her car. To my eternal shame, I didn’t offer to help, only gave her a half wave of sympathy. My only excuse is that I didn’t know her, nor had I ever changed a tire myself at that point, so I would have been useless. But the next day I asked her about the tire, and from that ignominious start we became friendly.

Our friendship was solidified in the cramped break room over daily lunches. She started teasing me almost right away about my lunches, which usually consisted of a sandwich (peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese) and a bag of chips, whereas hers were a smorgasbord of culinary delights that I’d quiz her about daily. I wasn’t what you’d call an adventurous eater, and I hadn’t yet taken it upon myself to do anything about that, so the complete lack of fruits and vegetables in my diet were a source of endless fascination and gentle derision from Shal. I’ve had many helpers on the path to reformation, but Shalini put me on it.

My crush on Shalini was a blip. Through some mysterious calculus we settled into a genuine platonic friendship despite the fact of both being straight and available. We became friends outside of work too, meeting for coffee, going out for dinner, and various other outings. I couldn’t have asked for a better first friend to make, for many reasons. What was especially impactful for me in the beginning was that she was a Minneapolis native. I had started my new job literally three days after moving to the Twin Cities and knew next to nothing about my new home. I marveled at and tried my best to absorb her knowledge of the place.

Once we discovered a mutual love of music, Shalini took me to my first show at First Avenue, a scorching Son Volt performance that November. She taught me all of her hacks: parking in the Dayton’s (now Macy’s) lot about a block away for cheap, taking advantage of the coat check, standing right at the bottom of the stairs stage right for the best vantage point. It was like she was welcoming me into her home, and from that moment on, Minneapolis started to feel like my home too.

2) Bacon Brothers – “Ten Years in Mexico”
Working at ACS, despite the noble work we were doing, still sometimes felt like a slog. Like most office drones, we dealt with mind-numbing tasks, ever-changing corporate terminology, pointless meetings, and co-workers that ranged from self-important to creepy. Shal and I both coped with the ridiculousness by laughing, usually together. We didn’t work together, or even in proximity, so instead we wrote each other e-mails (we didn’t have a chat function in those early days of the Interwebs). I find myself now wishing so very much that I’d saved all of our correspondence, instead of just a couple of scraps.

Among those scraps, though, is a series of parodies of the inter-office e-mails we used to get bombarded with. Often they were weird or inane announcements and requests that were intended for only a few people, but were nonetheless sent out to the entire four-state division. So we invented the imaginary Hicksville office, its incompetent manager Jiggs Casey, and his long-suffering assistant Lizzy Jackanapes, who was forced to send out notifications about his her boss’s lack of e-mail access, rules for interacting with the front desk monkey, and the spotting of silverfish in the ladies’ bathroom. I recently sat down and reread through all of them, making myself giggle again nearly two decades later, and feeling so grateful to have had Shalini to egg me on.

The other thing that survives is a mean-spirited review I wrote of The Bacon Brothers’ 1999 album Getting There. Shal had bought the record for a dollar at Cheapo. Why? Even she didn’t know, but she loaned it to me, and I used a couple hours of work time to write up my thoughts. My estimation was summarized by the final line – “Avoid this record. Go rent Apollo 13 or Diner instead” – but I did find some joy in the song “Ten Years in Mexico,” which I said “has a pleasant James Taylor sort of vibe, complete with harmonies and thoughtful acoustic guitar.” I still feel that way.

3) Limited Warranty – “Hit You”
Limited Warranty were a Minneapolis new wave Romantic (think Duran Duran) group that gained a strong local following and got a major label deal after winning “Best Music Artist” on the 1985 season of Star Search. They released a self-titled album on ATCO Records and rose to the top of the local scene. Shal and her friends were in middle school during the ensuing Limited Warranty craze, and they were 100% fangirls for the band: Going to show after show, arguing over their favorite member, obsessing over the band’s every move.

I know that’s a very teenagery thing to do, but I have a soft spot for people who become obsessive about their music, no matter their age, because that’s what I do. Shal must have lent me a Limited Warranty tape, because I dubbed one of their songs (a clanging, catchy number called “This is Serious”) onto a tape of Minnesota Music I made for an ACS gathering of all the Midwest division states. Looking back, it was the start of my own obsession, not with Limited Warranty but with entire history, past and present, of the Twin Cities music scene, an preoccupation that continues to this day. In fact, my second book, which I was in the midst of finishing when Shal passed, follows a group of Minneapolis musicians and their pursuit of success. I’ve dedicated the book to Shalini’s memory, because there’s no way I would have written had she not introduced me to Minnesota music.

A few years after Shal introduced me to the band, I discovered one of their albums on vinyl at Cheapo and bought it. I told Shal about this and she responded with warmth: “Only you would buy a Limited Warranty record in 2003.”

4) Jeremy Messersmith – “Monday You’re Not So Bad”
Speaking of Minnesota music: This is a new song by a currently-beloved Twin Cities singer-songwriter. As you might guess from the title, it’s a clever ode to the least appreciated day of the week, anthropomorphizing Monday into a lady who “spends her whole life a-workin’” and “cleans up after the weekend.”

Shal and I had a running joke that Monday was the best day of the week because we were back in the place we loved so much and free from those pesky weekends. Friday, conversely, was always the worst day of the week because we had to be away from ACS for two whole days. Like, yeah, what are you going to do with two whole days of trying to fill up time? We never tired of riffing on this joke, or the way it would baffle some of our less giddy and sarcastic co-workers.

I suppose it depends on what your belief system is as it pertains to the afterlife, but from my perspective, Shal’s never going to hear this song. But I’ll think of her every time I do.

5) The Doves – “Pounding”
6) The Strokes – “Last Nite”
Shal and I saw a lot of concerts together in the five or so years we lived in the Twin Cities at the same time. Besides the Son Volt show, no other looms larger in my memory than when we went to catch the British band Doves, whose 2000 album Lost Souls had been a mutual favorite. The concert took place at First Ave’s 250-capacity satellite venue, the 7th Street Entry, and the opener were an unsigned band called The Strokes. We snickered about their name and the obviously drunk lead singer, who railed against the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm. “I’ve seen better crowds at my grandmother’s birthday party,” he slurred. But darn if their brief, buzzy songs weren’t catchy.

Usually opening bands are a slog, but I remember literally zero about Doves’ performance that night. The Strokes, on the other hand? Seared in my brain. They’d go on, of course, to be the it-band of the next couple of years and lead an indie-rock revival. Shal and I would remind each other of that show often, both of us thankful, I think, that we had someone there with us to witness it.

7) They Might Be Giants – “Older”
Another of mine and Shal’s shared musical obsessions was They Might Be Giants. I’d seen the band at least four times before I moved to the Twin Cities and Shal and I added a couple more to that total. But I can’t think of They Might Be Giants and Shal without thinking of September 11, 2001.

That morning, not long after I watched on live TV as United Airlines 175 crashed into south tower of the World Trade Center, the higher-ups at ACS sent out a message telling everyone to take the rest of the day off. Shal and I by that point were working in different buildings, but we got in touch to commiserate, and we mutually decided we didn’t want to go home. Enjoying our sudden free time didn’t quite seem right, but we needed a distraction and a sense of normalcy. She had the idea to go to Dinkytown and eat lunch at Annie’s Parlor, a hallway-like diner. So that’s what we did.

As we ate our burgers, fries, and shakes, we would intermittently talk about what had happened that morning, but we didn’t know much yet, and neither of us were quite ready to find out. So we mostly pretended it hadn’t happened. After lunch we decided to go CD shopping at the nearby Cheapo. It was a new release day, and a big one at that. I got Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Ben Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs, and we both got They Might Be Giants’ Mink Car.

“Older” is my favorite song on that record, and it pretty much encapsulates both the appeal of TMBG and that specific day for me. It’s a funny meditation on mortality, and if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is. TMBG’s catalog is filled with tunes that address heavy topics in absurd or hilarious settings.

Shal and I parted ways in the mid afternoon on 9-11. I’m not sure what she did from there. I went home and tried to find anything to do besides turn on the TV, eventually going to see a movie with another friend. By bedtime I had to face the confusion and fear that arose from what happened that day, but I’ll forever be thankful to Shal for helping to create a good memory in the midst of something horrifying.

8) Barenaked Ladies – “Falling for the First Time”
9) Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue”

Shal and I were both unlucky in love through high school and college and our mid-twenties, and both of us not-so-secretly believed we were never going to find someone. So when she told me she’d been asked out by a Dutch chemist she’d met while out with friends, she proffered no hope that it would lead anywhere. She gave no hint of excitement, nor would she abide any from the rest of us. I recognized what she was doing, emotionally insulating herself. She’d been burned enough, gotten her hopes too high too early, to let herself fall for it again.

I may be misremembering, but I believe she even considered not going through with the date at all. But she did, and before too long, she and Pim were an item. He’d fallen hard for her, and who could blame him? She was more cautious, though he was clearly a great match for her. She kept her guard up for the first few months at least. When going through my e-mail correspondence with Shal recently, I found one in which she thanked me for talking her off the ledge a few times when it came to the early days of their relationship. Not that things were wrong or dramatic, but she was just wracked with self-doubt, and I simply encouraged her to ignore those voices in her head and stay the course. I had no experience of my own to draw from, but I knew the unicorn-level probability of finding someone you like who also likes you.

Barenaked Ladies were yet another band that Shal saw together, and she loved their song “Falling for the First Time,” in part, I believe, because it captures so well that confusion, self-doubt, self-protective ambivalence she was experiencing in the early days of her relationship with Pim.

Shal and Pim got married in the summer of 2004, and moved to San Diego not long after. It was incredibly difficult for her to leave her family and huge network of friends, but love and adventure called. Pim had gotten a job in San Diego, so in many ways she didn’t have a choice, but I admired the aplomb with which Shal embraced life in a completely different place after 30 years in Minneapolis.

At the same time, I know it wasn’t easy for her. A few years ago I had friends help me compile a list of the best songs of the ‘00s, and one of Shal’s choices was “Ocean Avenue” by Yellowcard. It’s a soaring emo tune that was unfamiliar to me when she suggested it, but I recognized immediately why Shal liked it. There’s a sense of longing in the lyrics, as the song’s narrator has moved far away, leaving someone special behind. In Shal’s case the someone special was a someplace special – the Twin Cities – and I believe she had some deep melancholy about the fact that she couldn’t quite replicate that feeling of complete belonging she’d once had. One way she tried, and succeeded, was in building deep meaningful friendships in California, while at the same time maintaining the ones she’d left behind.

10) Del Amitri - "Cry to Be Found"
Del Amitri was one of the bands Shal turned me onto, and I dug their songs "Roll To Me" and "Always the Last to Know." "Cry to Be Found" was a new song on their 1998 Best of album, and its chorus goes: "'Cause if it's love that you want / You've gotta give me more than you're shown." That might as well have been Shal's personal credo.

My social and work life had changed drastically in the five years since Shal and I first started working together. For one, we’d both left ACS. She’d moved on to the National Marrow Donor Program, and I had begun teaching fifth grade. I’ve learned over the years that friendships made at work are often circumstantial, and more often than not fade away when the work situation changes. Not so with Shal and I. I’d be lying if I said the intensity was the same as it had been those first three years, but our friendship persevered, and I give her 100% of the credit for that. Friendships need to be nurtured, just like a plant. And Shal was a great friendship gardener. It was her super power.

Two-thousand miles of distance was a test of that power, and it turned out to be no problem. I did my part in e-mailing and sending a yearly mix, but she was the one who would send handwritten notes out of the blue, or call randomly to cheer me on through major milestones and achievements. She rarely forgot a birthday or anniversary. When she was back in town she made time to see me, not every time, but more than I deserved. And the fact that she did this for me was not because I was in any way more special to her than anyone else. She did it for everyone. If you were her friend, she wasn’t letting you go, she was always going to show more love.

11) U2 – “Beautiful Day”
12) Nada Surf – “Always Love”
When U2’s “Beautiful Day” came out in late 2000, it was a fast favorite of Shal’s. Personally, I’ve held the song at a distance after hearing it way too many times (thanks a lot, Cities 97). But upon Shal’s passing it was the first song I thought about. I listened with fresh ears and really started to think about why the song spoke to her.

I first hit upon the bursting optimism of the chorus: “It’s a beautiful day / sky falls you feel like / it’s a beautiful day / don’t let it get away.” Shal was a sunny, go-get-‘em kind of gal. She had a joy for life and its adventures. But there’s more than that, to both the song and Shal. The verses are about feeling trapped, in a rut, directionless: “You’re on the road / but you’ve got no destination.”

As positive and fun-loving as she was, Shal was not someone who was oblivious to the darkness and struggles of life. She beat herself up about never quite finding a career she truly loved, despite doing amazing work at both ACS (working directly with cancer patients and survivors) and the National Marrow Donor Program (finding potential matches willing to donate to patients in need). She didn’t have a rosy view of human nature, and raged at those who crowed about their own morality while treating the people around them like stepping stones or garbage. The last year or so had been tough on her.

That brings me to another song Shal suggested for my “Best of the ‘00s” list, “Always Love” by Nada Surf. It’s similar to “Beautiful Day” in that it’s easy to take away a sort of motivational poster message from the chorus (“Always love / Hate will get you every time / Always love / Even when you wanna fight”), but the rest of the song is more ambiguous and enigmatic. In fact, the singer tells us that he never actually listened to the voice giving him that advice, instead returning to the impenetrable, context-free phrase “hey, you good ones.” I won’t venture to guess how Shal interpreted the song, but I wonder if it goes back to the constant struggle to maintain a positive outlook. It was something she had to work for, something that life and human nature make extremely difficult. But she never stopped trying to see the goodness and beauty in humanity. She wouldn’t let those things get away.

13) Toad the Wet Sprocket – “I Will Not Take These Things For Granted”
I’m struggling with the end. The writer in me wants to wrap everything in a bow with a grand statement or revelation, or perhaps a heartfelt resolution to try to be as good of a friend to those I have left as Shal was to me. But it feels reductive to try to summarize what Shal meant to me, it feels false to make a resolution I likely can’t keep, and it feels insulting and self-serving to try to use her loss as some sort of life lesson.

I also didn’t write this piece to try to make sense of Shal’s death. If there were any sense to any of it, she’d still be alive. What I really wanted to do was record all of these memories that washed over me in the days following her passing. I wanted to get them down so I wouldn’t lose them, and I wanted to be able to come back to them, and I wanted to share them with others who might find a thread of connection.

So instead of obeying my writerly instinct, I’ll listen to the voice that speaks when I sequence a mix CD. Every good mix CD ends with an epically contemplative tune that summarizes the main themes of the preceding tunes. So I’m attempting to split the difference by choosing Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted.”

Toad were yet another band Shal and I connected over and saw live together. “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” from 1991’s Fear album, is sort of an inverse of “Beautiful Day” and “Always Love.” Instead of masking the darkness with the light, the song is trying to find the light in the dark. Singer Glen Phillips struggling with loneliness and isolation, but also remembering things that bring him joy: “flowers in the garden / laughter in the hall / children in the park” and “music in the bedroom / running through the forest / standing in the wind in rolling canyons.” On the soaring chorus he promises, “I will not take these things for granted / anymore.” The song always makes me think about how easy it is to forget or push aside the things that make our lives worthwhile.

I hate to say it, but Shal was one of those things for me. It’s a cliché that death has a way of revealing our blindspots and bringing into focus what really matters, but clichés are often true, and often too quickly dismissed because of their ubiquity. Even when we both still lived in Minneapolis I look back and see how, once my friendship with Shal was established, it was something that I assumed would always be there. I often looked past her toward shinier, newer friendships. I never said any of the wonderful things I’ve written here directly to her. I might not even have been able to articulate them until I was given reason to do so.

It’s another cliché, but I thought I had more time with her. I thought we had decades of friendship still ahead of us. Over the past couple of years we’d sort of missed opportunities to connect. E-mails got less frequent and I’d keep reminding myself to call her and really catch up. I’d planned to try to connect with her on a trip to California this year. She was fully aware too, and every time she wrote an e-mail would express guilt for not being in touch as often as she’d have liked. “I’m a terrible friend,” she wrote in one of those messages. She couldn’t have been more wrong. We both thought we had plenty of time.

I thought for sure I’d hear her say “um” and see her tuck her hair behind her ear again. I thought we’d laugh deeply again at one of our weird inside jokes (the B-I-G 35, “Let’s rock,” bowling, Gibbs Park). I was sure we had more moments of commiseration over life’s mysteries, and the foibles of ourselves and others.

In “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted” Phillips says that it is lonely where he is, but that he isn’t alone. That’s what it feels like to have lost Shal. There’s an absence there that will never truly be filled back in, and yet the absence itself is also a something. As I move forward without Shal, I expect it will manifest itself in different ways…

in a certain turn of phrase,
in a moment of absurdity,
in the moment when the lights go down right before a band comes on,
in a peal of laughter,
in a song,
no, in lots of songs.

And I will not take those things for granted.


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