Tuesday, December 23, 2008

That Blows

It was embarrassing to fire up my snowblower this morning; total snow accumulation would hardly bury a penny. Little came out the chute; it looked more like wispy steam. But still, it felt faster than pushing a shovel all over, and I love power tools.

To justify myself, I buzzed my neighbor's sidewalk too. Brian has a real job and actually goes to work. I thought about doing his driveway too but decided circling his house unexpectedly might give his lovely wife the creeps.

My total invested time was about twenty seconds. Shortly after, little Sam, their son, appeared at my door with full plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. He looked as perplexed as I. Their total invested time: one hour. My breezy little gesture became a windfall. I considered whether if I washed her car she'd paint my house.

Americans are the only culture in the world who consider a gift to be a social burden. If someone sends you a Christmas card, dangit! Now you have to send them one in return. We have to defend ourselves against gifts, neutralize them, lest we be embroidered with a big red D for Deadbeat. If not yourself, you know someone who buys and wraps an extra gift or two, just in case some weirdo shows up at the last minute with a present. "Why, I was just about to bring this over," you lie. "You saved me a trip!" It's a Strategic Gift Defense System.

I previously wrote about gifting salami. It's perfect for this application: it keeps forever since it's not really food, and yet it has the air of, "Hey, I just whipped this up!" If someone gives you one of those Hillshire Farms gift boxes, with salami and warm greasy cheese and some random jelly thing and those unmarked, cellophane-wrapped hard candies made anonymously in China, all snuggled in a fake grass nest as if a chicken just laid it, you can just toss it on top of the fridge indefinitely and pass it on when needed. It's the aikido gift.

Some people just duck their friends, as if gift-giving was akin to being served a warrant. If they can't find you to give a gift, you don't have to give one back. Plus, it gives you an excuse to stay inside and watch TV all day.

Outside of the U.S. it's rude to give a tit-for-tat gift. (Yeah, your spam filter is going to flag that.) Indeed, the biggest honor a gift can get in many countries is to be passed along to someone else. The farther it goes, the better the gift. If I gave you a Wii and you immediately handed it to someone else, I'd say, "Hey, give it back then!" Ironically, the one gift we do pass on and on is that salami.

So maybe I'll keep blowing my neighbor's snow just to see how long before she throws open the window and yells, "Knock it off, Jackass!"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Say It With Meat

At Christmas we often show our love with a salami. I don't know how Hillshire Farms survives the rest of the year, but during the Christmas season business booms as neatly packaged grassy nests of unrefrigerated salami and warm wet cheeses are exchanged, often multiple times.

How salami came to be a customary gift at Christmas has been forgotten, but I suppose it has something to do with the end of the year and having to get rid of all those leftover pig parts that have been piling up since we made 4th of July hot dogs. I've never heard of anyone giving his sweetheart a big Valentine's salami, even though that symbolism makes some sense.
On Halloween we offer chocolates to the walking dead. Despite countless educational horror films which plainly demonstrate that monsters seek flesh, brains, and blood (basically, salami) we continue to try to placate neighborhood zombies with a Reese's Peanut-Butter Cup.

But while chocolate may not be ideal for a holiday of fending off monsters, it might work splendidly for Sunday Communion.
The celebration of Communion varies greatly. At my church they baked fresh bread and passed it around. It symbolized the body of Christ, which in this case was still warm. You tore off a chunk as it went by, and chased it with a sip of wine. I visited a church down the street and was startled when the pastor laid a thin wafer on my tongue that was as pleasing as parchment. He said, "Peace be with you," and I was supposed to respond, "And also with you," but it came out "ack-ack-ack." I couldn't stop myself from imagining it was the peeled sunburn of Christ. The pastor instructed me to keep my tongue sticking out for a moment, which was fine with me.

Why can't they use Nilla wafers? Or little cheddar-flavored crackers shaped like Our Savior. Jeez-Its? Better yet, offer little chocolate Jesuses—I'd be happy to stand in line for that, or chocolates shaped like crosses or fish—any of the popular logos. God is good. Communion chocolate would be a natural pairing with wine, and as I said, we're already handing out bite-size Snickers to the other risen dead.

At Easter, many celebrate the fertility season by biting the head off a chocolate rabbit. Then they move on to the better parts of a pig.

For Passover we eat bitter herbs, just to remind ourselves how bad food can get, not counting Manischewitz. The Jewish find this symbolic reminder meaningful, while Gentiles get stuck with a salami.

To the Jewish, food must be kosher; to Muslims it must be halal, which is to say that it must be acceptable to God. In neither case will God accept a salami.

During Ramadan, the power of food is symbolized by its absence, which is to say you don't get any. One of the benefits of a thirty-day fast is that, when you end it, even garbanzo beans taste great.

Thanksgiving is the only holiday where food makes any symbolic sense. We celebrate being big, fat, rich Americans by eating big, fat and rich food. As our Halloween zombies would quip, that's a no-brainer.

Fourth of July is second only to Halloween in the weird use of sweets, as we toe up to the curb to admire a colorful parade of firetrucks and tanks while encouraging our confused children to leap into the oncoming traffic in pursuit of cheap candy thrown by strangers.

New Year's Day is perfect for symbols of new life. We should eat eggs and caviar and enjoy the arousing qualities of chocolate. Heck, a salami would be perfect here. Instead, we start our new year eating aspirin.
Perhaps it's not about logic. I bought four bags of Halloween candy last year, and only half made it out the front door, thanks to my "quality control sampling." I know this: if holiday food made sense and it was a big bowl of Halloween brains in my fridge, I wouldn't be tempted to cheat.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Toys Be We

Like we were seven years old, we fought over toys. At the Lash Toy Drive Benefit, generous donors showered Lash with unwrapped toys to be given to children of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is among the poorest areas of the country, just hours from my hometown.

The hardest job was keeping the adults away from the pile of twinkly toys. After all, the presents were supposed to be new. The door person fended off the touchy-feely with a toy light saber that looked real enough to back everyone off.

So what toy was the most coveted? You'd think it would be a Wii or a Guitar Hero controller at the middle of the fight. But the Epicenter of Gimme was a two-feet tall, fat, fuzzy stuffed penguin. Mickey the bartender (not me—one of the other two Mickeys who work there) fell in love with it. Perhaps it reminded him of… actually, I don't want to imagine it. Mickey wrapped his arms tight around the little dude and wouldn't let it go. Sorry if your drinks were slow in coming.

The rest of the staff scrunched up for a hug turn, tugging at his little flipper. (The penguin's, I mean.) I trust we were infusing love into the poor saggy thing (again, the bird), but it looked more like we were wringing it out.

I don't know about the other two participating venues, but this year at Mick's we avoided the unfortunate toy choices of the past: the bow-and-arrow, Little House on The Prairie figurines, the Treaty Kit with Magic Disappearing-Ink Pen, wool blankets, and the General Custer Action Figure with Replaceable Hair.

I contributed a few copies of My Little Golden Book of Property Law.

The gift that fits all sizes—cash—will be used to buy more toys. I told Lash to bring a woman with him this time when he goes shopping, so he doesn't only buy a bunch of Li'l Rustler cap guns, red cowboy hats with the chin strings on them, and those horse-head-on-a-stick toys that look like fun until you get on one.

It's not over yet. You can still drop off toys or cash donations at Mick's until Lash leaves for the Rez, and we still have the radio telethon next Sunday Dec. 15 during Rick Galusha's show on 89.7 The River. Me, Lash, a bunch of musicians and an live open microphone—what could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Who's On Tap

As usual, the fight started over a girl. And a Christmas gift. She gave Lash a bottle of cologne, a brand that stank so badly his own dog wouldn't roll in it. But out of blind love he kept the bottle in his pickup, and it made his truck smell better by comparison.

The following summer, in a mix of broken-heartedness and anger, he lashed out, using the bottle of Stinko as a foul bomb, causing a neighborhood incident and an environmental catastrophe. It's a long story; you can read it all here. A feud ensued.

That was a year ago. Although my grass still bears scars and my nose still wrinkles at the memory, Lash and I have cleared the air.

Every year Lash hosts a toy drive for children of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, among the poorest areas of the United States and right in our own back yard. New this year, Lash created an accompanying Christmas CD featuring artists who would be performing at the benefit. In an act of reconciliation he invited me to contribute a song. He apologized for the Stinko.

I believe in forgiveness, but I also believe in karma. Lash's dastardly act would be punished in this life or the next, so better to help him get it over with, and save Heaven itself from some future malodorama.

"I'll write a song for your CD," I agreed, "with one condition. It's going to have a solo in it."

"That's fine," he shrugged.

"A tap shoe solo."

"Whatever."

"And you're going to perform it."

Dead air has a way of seeming interminable. "All right. . ." he squeaked thinly.

I provided the tap shoes, he provided the recording studio: Bassline, run by the incredible Tim Cich. We miked the floor. Lash took a long look at the black patent pumps, and strapped himself in.

It was suspicious from the start, how comfortable he seemed in those pumps. It was reminiscent of when he dressed as Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz—he looked a little too comfortable in a gingham dress. To everyone's amazement, Lash clacked away in a blaze, nailing the solo on the first take. I think those of you who know Lash better than I should poke around in his history—there's a telltale tutu lurking in his background. I think I've been duped.

Anyway, the CD, Christmas for Pine Ridge, is done, and it contains great original Christmas tracks from many of Omaha's finest, including Brad Hoshaw, Korey Anderson, Jeff Koterba, Lash's feet and Yours Truly. You can buy the CD at the Toy Drive this week, which starts at the Waiting Room Friday the 5th, moves to Mick's Saturday the 6th, and ends at Bar Fly Sunday the 7th.

The whole recording project was donated, so 100% of your money goes to the Pine Ridge kids, carried there in the hands of Lash Hisself.

Personally, I think the $15 cost of the CD is worth it just to hear Lash's tap dance solo. He just tickety-tacks your cares away.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hail Mary

It happened yesterday. I gazed out my window like I always do when I'm trying to do anything but work, and the Virgin Mary appeared in my driveway. I guess she didn't exactly appear—I just noticed her face in the coloration of the concrete. Plain as day, sober as an undertaker.

I looked away. I looked back. Yep.

My first thought was: "Rich! I'm rich!" I imagined a long line of devotees each paying a dollar a peek. Maybe I could set up a Snapple stand. Just thinking about all those people milling about my backyard made me question the blessing of it all.

I looked again. She still looked like Mary, but also a bit like one of the cast of Cats, unless Mary has whiskers, which she very well might—they always airbrush that stuff out for the portraits. The lyric "Not a sound from the pavement" occurred to me. There are a lot of Andrew Lloyd Weber fans out there, but I'm not sure they'll make the pilgrimage to Omaha. My stock is dropping.

So how does one know for sure? When Mary appeared to Diana Duyser in a grilled cheese sandwich a few years ago, the Golden Palace Casino bought it for $28,000. How did they know they had the real thing? I saw it and thought she looked suspiciously like a Ziegfeld Girl. Besides, the sandwich had a bite taken out of it. Doesn't that lower the value? Who wants a half-eaten Virgin Mary?

They have this going for them: if you Google images and type in "Virgin Mary," a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches turn up.

Why would Mary appear in my driveway? All I can come up with is this: concrete is 80% sand, and so is The Promised Land.

What should I do when it snows? I don't feel right shoveling her face. As it is, I'm parking on the other side of the driveway, just to be safe.

Like a vampire, her face doesn't turn out in photos, or I'd show it to you. Maybe that's some kind of supernatural rule. I suppose when it comes to trademark infringement, Catholics don't mess around.

As I write this, my enthusiasm fades. Honestly? Now the face looks more like Chandler from "Friends." The only entertainment value left is the curiosity of seeing who appears next. MC Hammer? It's like a parade of has-beens, a driveway episode of "The Love Boat."

[sigh.]

I guess I'll go back to my usual parking spot, and get back to work.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

We Like Change

I voted for change on November 4th, and I got it.

Actually, every candidate had "change" in their slogan this year.
Obama: "Change We Can Believe In."
McCain: "Change is Coming."
Nadar: "Can You Spare Some Change?"
Ron Paul: "Love You—Never Change."

But you won't believe what happened, and I'm telling the truth. On the very next day after the election, I opened my freezer and discovered a half-eaten pint of Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Crunch, where a half-eaten pint of Orange Sorbet used to be. That is my kind of change! "Happy days are here again . . ." (It might be hard to imagine me doing The Happy Dance, but try.)

Coffee Heath Crunch would never stay in my freezer. I love ice cream. The only reason I had sorbet in the freezer is because, well, it's sorbet. It's been there a year. I had never tasted Coffee Heath Crunch before, and yyyyummm, it was great. I finished it off.

Usually all I need is a spoonful or two of ice cream, then I can close the lid, put it back in the freezer and walk away, unless it's Oatmeal Crunch—then I eat two bites, close the lid, shut the freezer door, walk five steps, turn around and repeat until it's gone. I think they flavor it with crack.

The economy is in trouble, the war is awful, health costs skyrocket. I'd have gotten politically involved a lot sooner if someone had promised to turn sorbet into Coffee Heath Crunch. That's like water into wine: something the religious right might want to consider.

So if you want my vote for next year, here are my suggested campaign slogans:
"Ben & Jerry's in every freezer."
"Crossword puzzles you can finish!"
"Your espresso maker will finally work right!"
"Rock hard abs in just two weeks!"

That's change I can believe in.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Here You Go

Do you want to hear my analysis of this historic Election Day?

Me either.

Not that I don't care. I've cared so much since January that I had to put on a helmet and just wait this day out: play some guitar, drink some wine, wait until it's over.

So instead I'll go to the other extreme and write about boys peeing.

All male animals are territorial, none more than humans. When I'm waiting in line for a public bathroom, even one of those vile plastic portables, the guy ahead of me will deed it to me as he leaves, as if peeing on it made it his. "Here you go. It's all yours."

Oooo-wee, thanks.

Last week as I waited pinch-legged with urgency for a bathroom, the guy came out holding by its stem a full glass of amber chardonnay. Eeeew.

It's always a bit of a drag when the occupant doesn't lock the door. There are things I just don't want to see. I always apologize and shut the door, then think, "Why did I just apologize?" Again last week, as I opened the bathroom door on an existing deedholder, he smiled as he washed his hands and said, "I'll hurry." I closed the door, overheard the sink shut off, then heard him blow the most prodigious, prolific snot wad I've ever heard. The door opened. "It's all yours."

I have a close friend whom I've personally seen naked in public four times. He's a popular drummer, and he has been known to play naked on stage. I won't give away his name, but his initials are W.A.Y.N.E  B.R.E.K.K.E. After witnessing some tell-tale pinch-legged urgency on his part, I learned he won't use the bathroom at my bar because he doesn't trust the door lock. I pointed out the time I saw him perform a naked fan dance at a wedding. "That's different," he explained.

This is the point where I wrap up all these observations into one coherent thought. But it's warm out, maybe that last sweet, musky day of the year, and I want to go outside.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hey, Sugar

Thanksgiving is the only holiday where the food makes any sense. We celebrate being big fat rich Americans by eating big fat rich food. Duh.

We color eggs at Easter, but we don't eat them. We eat bitter herbs at Passover to remind us how nasty food can be. Hot dogs on the 4th of July because, well, I guess sooner or later we have to eat the rest of that pig.

On Halloween we offer chocolate to the undead. I've seen most of the classic horror movies, and monsters seek flesh, brains, blood—none are placated with a peanut-butter cup. The closest I've seen is in War of The Worlds, when the alien first peeks out of the meteor-ship. Pastor Collins, who to non-Earthly eyes is dressed quite like an adult-sized Dove Bar, raises a friendly hand and says "We come in..." and gets zapped into sparkly dust before he can say "...peace." So much for the soothing power of chocolate.

Not that I want to change the holiday. I bought four bags of Halloween candy just last night (the good stuff, too) and I've already opened three of them. Quality control sampling, I call it. I can tell you this with certainty: if I had a big bowl of Halloween brains in the fridge, I wouldn't be tempted to cheat.

But perhaps chocolate and brains will meet halfway. Due to the high cost of cocoa butter, Hershey and Mars have begun substituting vegetable oil, requiring them to change packaging to say "chocolatey" instead of "chocolate." I checked my candy stash (hey, another reason to open a bag!) and sure enough, my Butterfinger bar says—seriously—"crispety, crunchety, peanut-buttery!" The marketing department gets an A for camouflage.

Crispety?

Rather than take the bar back down to the kitchen, I ate it anyway. Very chocolate-ish.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Re: In Car Nation

They say death comes in threes, which has been true for me recently, if I can count people and cars together, which I can, because I have long, loving relationships with both.

Two perfectly good friends keeled over unexpectedly, and as I wrote you last week, my perfectly good car burst into flames. All three were having great fun amidst friends when struck down, the only real difference being that my two human friends just stopped functioning and did not spontaneously combust, which is best for all involved, whereas my car continued to run just fine while in flames, getting about 35 miles to the gallon.

I was with my car for exactly 20 years. Thanks to the generosity of friends I've gotten by the last two weeks with borrowed wheels while I sorted out a new relationship. When I go to my garage, it still startles me to see a big white Chevy pickup where my little red Toyota used to be. It's kind of like a friend loaning you his sister the day after you are widowed, "just until you meet someone else." You're thankful, but it feels funny. You become aware of your habits, and tread a little more politely than you otherwise might.

With people, we mourn alone awhile before replacing them. With cars, one has no choice but to move on.

I knew my little Celica her whole life, and was accustomed to her quirks and habits. She was in lovely shape after all these years, a pleasure to look at, nimble and efficient—the Japanese age very well. Her temporary replacement is classically Midwestern: white, sturdy and reliable. Where my old girl was the type you'd want to bring on an autumn picnic in the country, the temp is who you'd call if you need to move a dresser. I'll probably go back to another Japanese car, but in the meantime I enjoy being with big Bertha. I wear my cowboy hat more. It's like, even though I never eat sauerbraten, if I found myself suddenly living with someone who knew how to cook it, well—why not?

Through a mutual friend, I've met an Accord. We're still at that awkward stage, sizing each other up. She's older too, has some dings under the surface and limps to the left a bit from an accident years ago, but she's real good on the inside. Besides, I ain't no spring chicken either, and have scars of my own. And as I said, one must move on in such matters, and she'll do.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Punt

I became a little bit of a Nebraska Cornhusker football fan when they first became national champions. As a junior high kid I rah-rahhed with the rest of the state, because winning is good, and at six-feet two and 130 pounds, it was as close to being a champion as I was ever going to get.

When they quit being national champions, I went back to idolizing guitar players. I later attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and I looked forward to Husker football Saturdays because the tennis courts were empty. I had a discounted student football ticket, which I offered to my then-brother-in-law. He despised me for being a Heathen Ticket-Selling Pinko, although he still took the ticket.

My in-laws would gather to watch every televised game, but they'd turn the sound off and listen to radio announcer Lyell Bremser instead. Fans for decades, they preferred his emotional play-by-play over the staid TV commentators who were often from out-of-state and didn't always know they were supposed to root for the Huskers. Watching the game and listening to old Lyell, I often wondered if he was watching a different game. He struggled with names, scores, even directions. As with other things, my in-laws valued volume and enthusiasm over being right. And after all, it was their TV.

I find that Omaha is a little more Husker loyal than the rest of the state. A recent newspaper article quoted various popular restaurants complaining that they were empty on Saturday nights due to televised games, even though to date the Huskers have only won twice, the first a decisive victory over the Daughters of The American Revolution, and the second a squeaker against the Milwaukee Junior College for The Blind.

People were staying home Saturday nights even if it was a morning game, presumably because fans spent the day nervously gulping Fritos and bratwursts and air, simultaneously eating and burping and yelling at the television until they were sick and didn't want to do anything else. At least, that's what I did.

Mick's has been slower the last few Saturday nights too. This Saturday and next we have two of the year's most interesting performances, and to make sure people don't miss something great, we're making special concessions to coax them out.

Although we've gone five years without a TV in the bar, we're going to add a big screen right behind the musicians, so you can watch both the artist and the game. We'll play the game backwards so that the Huskers make a comeback, narrowing the score until dramatically ending the game in a 0-0 tie. We want you to be happy. We'll serve hot wings.

We'll turn the TV sound off, substituting the soundtrack for Pink Floyd's "The Wall." It is epic watching coach Bo Pelini as he appears to sing along to the lyrics of "Mother."

One exception: we won't be showing the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, because—oh man—we can't bear to look.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

My Hot Car

It was just two years ago that the Spotted Tail Wildfire charred 17,000 acres of pristine prairie around Chadron, Nebraska. Firefighters fought it for a week. You'd think there wouldn't be anything left to burn, but you'd be surprised. I thought of that fire as my burning Toyota rolled off the highway into the tall, golden autumn grass. Things were about to go from bad to much worse. I imagined my deer-eyed headshot in the local newspaper: "Prairie Torched by Omaha Idiot. Again."

But the grass, high as a door handle, didn't ignite. Not that I didn't try. Flames shot out of my car, blue and fast like a jet, then billowed high, black, and red like a satisfying oil fire. The interior was incinerated to ash but for a few napkin-sized sheets of melted windshield, draped like a peeling sunburn over the silver-black skeleton. Bystanders said the grass survived thanks to some rain the night before. I knew better, feeling God himself standing next to me, pinching the top of his nose, shaking his head, bailing me out once more.

Was it bad luck that my beloved convertible, loyal playmate for twenty years, caught fire in the middle of nowhere? Or was it good luck that we had time to get out safely and rescue most of our gear? The conflagration was at least five minutes after blue smoke shot out of the dashboard vents, alerting us as we sailed at seventy miles per hour over the winding highway, and the brake pedal flopped flaccidly to the floor. The emergency brake strained well enough for me to slow the car onto the shoulder and get out (although Laura pulled a Fred Flintstone to finish the stop, ruining a perfectly good right shoe). We had plenty of time to grab our bags and my guitar before the emergency brake failed too and the car crept slowly down the road, silent but for the soft crunch of gravel under its tires. It wandered over the shoulder, into the ditch and on onto the field, meandering as if looking for a perfect picnic spot. I always thought of "blazing speed" as being faster than a stroll in the grass, but there you go. We had plenty of time before the first tire exploded, then three more, before the seats and the cloth top ignited, before the gas tank melted and the car disappeared in the flames.

The lone fireman, who arrived in time to admire the glowing embers, noted with amusement that one tire remained intact, good as new next to a small patch of still shiny, tomato-red fender, a stark contrast to the otherwise melted heap. "I distinctly heard four tires blow," I said. He pointed into the gaping trunk at the spare tire, curled open like a daisy.

"Anyone bring marshmallows?" he chuckled predictably. It occurred to me that I had. They were in a blue plastic tub still sitting on the side of the highway, but I didn't answer.

If I focused on the bad side of things I'd have shot myself—or others—long ago. I bought that guitar about the same time as the Celica, in 1988, with the full tax return I received as a reward for being recently divorced and unemployed. My new business was just finding it's spindly legs. Both car and guitar have been symbols of my phoenix past. Maybe the car got a little too literal.

I keep vehicles a long time. This summer I parted with my truck of 15 years. Erratic electronics and rusted suspension had withered it like Alzheimer's and arthritis. How do you pick the day to give in? I had pondered that issue with my beloved convertible, still sporty and tart thanks to the truck sacrificing itself for winter driving. Now the Red Sled was my only vehicle, and I knew its day would come soon. But as I stood on the high hill in the stiff breeze, watching the car blaze irretrievably after a long, perfect fall weekend sailing through the mountains and before her first bitter slog through an Omaha winter, I thought, "Now that's the way to go out."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Birth Order

I am my mother's fifth child. There are six. The firstborn, my eldest brother, is only seven years older than I. That's how cute my mom is.

My little sister is ten years younger. I think it took ten years before it became apparent to my parents that they hadn't gotten it quite right yet.

The oldest—we'll call him "Ken," because that's his name—was always the smartest. Scholarships, class president, front man of a popular rock band. He was hard to hate. As I grew long and lanky like he was, with the same stooped shoulders and head-bobbing walk, I secretly liked it when people called me Ken. I liked it less when, as I grew my hair out long like his, a few people called me Patty. My sister Patty didn't like it much either. As an adult she admitted to me that she had spent a considerable amount of her childhood rifling through my parents' drawers looking for proof that she was adopted.

My dad traveled a lot, and regularly referred to me as KenChuckCherylPatMick, with an instant blink of correction between each name. At least he got everybody in the right order. When my litter sister was born, he got her name right on the first try, probably because he'd had a decade to sort the rest of us out. He wanted to name her Jodi, but my mother refused. They agreed on JoEllen Marie. Everyone calls her Jodi. If Ken were to step out in front of a bus, my family would unanimously name Jodi as the smartest, and not just because Ken was gone, but because, well, how dumb do you have to be to step out in front of a bus?

Not long after Jodi was born, I was cheerfully reciting the names of all the kids in my family, in my little sing-song voice. "Ken, Chuck, Cheryl, Patty…Jodi…"

The sing-song stopped. I knew there were six kids. I went back through the names, feeling a little sheepish at first. Ken. Chuck Cheryl. Patty. Jodi… Who was I missing? After a moment, unstoppable hot tears pressed out of my eyes. I hated myself—how could I be so thoughtless and self-centered that I didn't even remember all my brothers and sisters? In shame I confessed it to my mother, so desperate was I to find out whom I had forgotten that I was willing to reveal to her that I was a selfish cretin.

She waited a few moments for me to figure it out. I didn't. She blinked at me, sweetly at first, then blankly. Out of pity she eventually added, "You forgot Mickey."

I think it is to my credit that the relief I felt to learn I hadn't forgotten anyone outweighed the embarrassment of being dim.

Perhaps someday I'll be the smartest kid in my family, but it's going to take a whole fleet of buses.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pillow Flight

I fell down the stairs.

It wasn't my first time. I have long feet, and my brain is far from them. Once or twice I've overshot a step, my foot slipped off, and my skeleton made that brrrrink! marimba sound as I went down the wooden stairs on my back.

This time was different. Laurie and Laura were hosting a Mediterranean dinner party, and decided it would be fun to move out all their living room furniture and have everyone sit on pillows. I don't know if people really eat like that in Mediterranea, but I know these two will never have a regular dinner party with brats and ketchup paper plates, because that would cheat us out of the fun of moving a couch through a skinny doorway.

I have a huge pile of big, brightly colored pillows in my attic, left over from a previously brilliant home decorating idea. I promised to contribute them. Even with my long arms, it's hard to gather up big pillows, hard to keep ahold of them, hard to see where I'm going.

And hard to find that first stair.

My screams were muted; the pillows were all over me. I felt like a sock in a clothes dryer. It was like having sex with the Sta-Puf Marshmallow Man: didn't hurt, just generally unpleasant.

When I was in high school I worked for a motel, washing bedsheets in an array of giant laundry machines. My friend Odee, son of the motel owner, stopped by to visit me. Watching me work, he decided he could fit himself into one of the industrial dryers. So I helped him in, tossed in a few pillowcases, turned off the burner so he wouldn't wrinkle, and set him for ten minutes. Although I couldn't hear him through the glass door, I though he was having fun because he had the same expression on his face that people do when they ride the rollercoaster.

I was getting a strawberry pop out of the pop machine when the timer rang, so I was a little late letting him out. He was surprisingly mute for as mad as he was: his parents didn't allow him to swear and he didn't really have anything else to say.

I had yet to sucessfully make a noise as I tumbled to the bottom of the stairs and piffed to a landing. My daughter passed by on her way to the kitchen. She stepped gingerly over me, tippy-toe-ing through the scattered pillows, not asking for clarification. She is used to me not making sense.

"I'm fine," I offered.

She replied, "Are we out of milk?"

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One-Eyed Jim

Today is Jimmy's birthday.

I first met him when I bought the building that was to become Mick's Music & Bar. There are apartments above, and he was a tenant. I thought I should introduce myself, and knocked. Apparently very few people knock on his door. He opened it with an impatient snap. No one told me Jimmy had just one eye, and he didn't happen to be wearing his fake one. I thought I saw his brain. It was not the best first impression.

Jimmy, glass eye in, began hanging out in my bar while I did the remodeling. He was an old union guy, and was full of advice, some of it useful. He'd leave around three o'clock each day, which was when the R-Bar opened. The R-Bar was a tiny little place down the street where retired guys like Jimmy would spend their afternoons. I called The R-Bar his office, and eventually everyone else did too. His mail was delivered there. His legs were bad, so sometimes I'd give him a lift. Whenever I got in over my head, I'd ask Jimmy if he knew a masonry guy or a plumber or whatever. He'd go to the office, and the next day three guys would show up looking for work.

Jimmy began to share in each success, be it installing a toilet or laying tile. He'd shake his head at my fumbling lack of expertise, but his good eye had that same twinkle my dad's used to get when I finally got something right.

When I needed to run to the hardware store, I'd ask Jimmy to keep an eye on the place. He'd pretend to thumb out his glass one, and I'd cringe in disgust.

The day I finished building the stage, we celebrated. It had been difficult. I had struggled with the angles and miters, always a little over my head, but finally got it done to my satisfaction and that of the city inspector. That night Jimmy waddled home drunk from Louis Bar, crawled up the long flight of stairs to his apartment, and teetered when he got to his bathroom. He lost his balance and grabbed the medicine cabinet, which pulled off the wall and slammed into the toilet, smashing the tank. Five hours later his neighbor heard water running and discovered Jimmy still asleep on the floor amid all the broken ceramic and mirrors, water pouring onto the floor. The next day I arrived to find our new stage waterlogged, the wood curled like a potato chip. When Jimmy saw what he had done I think he cried more than I did.

Jimmy had a girlfriend, Zetta. She would give him rides in her huge white Cadillac. Neither of them got around all that well, and they'd check on each other twice a day, at eleven and three. The day Mick's opened, Jimmy insisted on being the guy who bought the first beer, with Zetta at his side. (She didn't drink.) He proudly handed me a framed two dollar bill, which today is hanging on the wall. I didn't have the heart to tell him that the beer he ordered was $3.50. Zetta winked.

Jimmy's routine was so trustworthy that when he missed his eleven o'clock call, Zetta immediately sent George, Jimmy's neighbor, to check on him. George found Jimmy dead on the stairs. No one knows what happened.

But he's not quite gone. I feel him in the bar during the day. When I attempt to fix a clogged drain and skank sprays all over me, I hear him chuckle, and I chuckle too. I notice that things don't break down nearly as often as they used to. Jimmy must have a lot of connections up there too.

Happy birthday, Jimmy. And thanks for the help.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Puss Out

Am I qualified to write about cats? I sure thought so. I'm well into my second generation, having seen twins Libby and Putz through their seventeen-year stint from birth to garden. I have to struggle to remember their unmarked graves, lest I pay them a surprise visit while doing my spring planting.

God sent Spek to replace them almost immediately by leaving her, a terrified kitten, in my juniper bush. That was seven years ago. Romeo showed up four years ago as he went from house to house, and didn't bother to leave.

So when I was offered a chance to write some essays about cats, I pounced. I wrote about them literally from stem to stern: how to read their minds and analyze their tails. How to tell a male newborn from a female (it's harder than you think--the obvious pearls of wisdom aren't apparent yet). I wrote the whole poop on cat litter, and a story about how to groom a cat, titled, Hair To Eternity.

One essay was about how to know what your cat is trying to tell you. So I was qualified enough to notice my own cat Spek yelling at me through the veranda door when I came home at two o'clock in the morning. She'd been locked out on the porch since . . . hmmm . . . lunch.

Opening the door, she skipped the hero's welcome as she hustled past me to the litter box. I didn't need any essay to help me interpret her body language. It is commonly known that cats don't have opposable thumbs, but few people are aware that cats can independently raise their middle finger.

I offered her the feline equivalent of apology roses: a can of Whiska's Whitefish and Shrimp Feast (which, curiously, is brown). She ate it without satisfaction, her tail raised high so that the Brown Eye of Disdain was always aimed at me.

I gave up with a sigh and headed for bed, stopping on the way to check my e-mail. A pop-up from my calendar interrupted to remind me that the day had been Spekky's birthday.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dash to The Finish

Last week I posted a photo of that beautiful bruised leg of Flying Wallenda Woman. I don't think she was exactly thrilled, but man, it's a bruise to be proud of. While trying to find a video to explain what a "pitchpole" was, I lost about three hours of productive work, chasing every movie link that popped up when I searched "boat crash." It's like looking in a Kleenex: you know it's not going to be pretty, but you can't help yourself.

I tell myself it's part of my job. I am indeed advertising shows at Mick's, right? And I need content. Right?

My computer is no longer a Time-Saving Device. Today's newspaper reported that every time you take a break to check for email, which I do every five minutes, it takes sixteen minutes to get back to work. And me, being a word nerd, I can spend ten minutes writing, "Hi—how are you?", worrying whether to use an em-dash or comma. But em-dashes don't travel well between Macs and PCs, unless you hard-code them, which I do by typing the burdensome code — because that's how much I hate using a double-dash. (Actually, I could just use two independent clauses, no? Hmmm…wait, where was I? Oh yes) this here e-mail (wait—did I spell that as email elsewhere? Must be consistent!) this here email could have been done at noon, but now it's a quarter to three, and I won't send it until after I've set it down and re-read it later with fresh eyes. It would be faster if I would just phone you, each of you. We could chat a bit before I bombard you with all the shows at Mick's I want you to see. "Great weather, huh? Did you watch Nastia get robbed of her gold medal on the unevens last night? By the way, Joe Purdy is performing Wednesday with Meiko…"

You see my problem.

Then there are my favorite websites, which I go to when I need a diversion, which is never. Add all the accidental web content that discovers me, from dying rich Nigerians wanting to give me their money to unconventional uses for common barnyard animals, and the day is shot.

Last night my daughter called me over to her computer. "Dad, I found the perfect font for my website," she said. "It's airy and stylish and classy, without being too foofy. I spent an hour converting every page. But some viewers are seeing Helvetica, and I can't stop it."

"Helvetica is close," I shrugged. "It's a time-tested classic. Not bad."

"It's unacceptable," she said as if referring to the Russian invasion of Georgia. "I want my font."

I was so proud I could have popped. So—two hours later…

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ahoy, Matey!

Sailors get to yell a lot, which makes them sound important. "Avast! Mast a-beam! Yer wimmin or yer beer!"

They also have a different word for everything. A turn is a tack, unless it's a gybe. Front, middle, back = bow, beam, stern. It makes skippers seem smarter than they are. I like that. A rope is a line, unless of course it's a halyard. I asked a sailor once what the difference was between rope and line, and he answered, "Three dollars a foot. Har har har!" Sailors all laugh like that.

I love to sail, but I don't know all the words, so I have to make some of them up. Last week my crew was trapping when the bow speared into a swell and we pitchpoled. Trapping is when you're attached to the boat by a wire to your harness, and you lean clear off the side. Pitchpoling is sailing's equivalent of pole vaulting: the bow of the boat buries into the water, the rear bucks up and everyone goes airborne.

If you fall off the side of the boat while still attached to your trap line, that's tea-bagging. But my crew didn't fall; she swung at the end of her trap line all the way around the bow to the other side of the boat. I think I'll call that may-poling. She hit just about everything along the way, which I'll call pinballing. Then, as she cleared the front, the bow popped back up and the sailboat took off again, dragging her upside-down along the port beam. I've dubbed that an acrobatic malfortune. The daggerboard whacked her in the leg on her way by, resulting in one M-F-er of a bruise. It looks like a full-calf tattoo of a green and blue serpent.

She'd be a great skipper. She made up all kinds of words, right on the spot. They came so fast I didn't catch them all, but I think a lot of them had something to do with my mother.

Okay, now I'm just being self-indulgent. Look up "pitchpole" on YouTube. The first movie is dramatic. The Hobie 18 movie second on the list is just like my boat, except I don't have an oil tanker in the background and my theme music isn't nearly as annoying.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mr. Know-It-All

The last time I performed at Mick's, it was kind of weird.

I work there. My day started with booking some performers and designing ads. I dropped in on a radio show to do a short interview and played one of my songs. On the way to Mick's I picked up some groceries for the bar. I set up my own sound because the regular tech was sick. I bartended while the staff took a break, then I went up and did my show. After that I took out the garbage.

Nothing does more to keep me from getting a big head than taking out the garbage. Every single time I do it I think, "Ah, yes—my dad mentioned something about this regarding my philosophy degree."

In a way it is fun to be so involved. But I do wonder what it might be like for the other artists who show up, play to strangers, do an encore and drive away into the darkness. It looks attractive from my end—especially when I'm taking out the garbage while they're loading up to leave, smoking cigarettes and talking about the women they met—but judging by how they usually look when they first arrive, touring is no bed of roses either. They certainly don't smell like roses, anyway.

This Friday I get to creep back on stage, this time with 5 Story Fall frontman Pat Gehrman and OEA-award winner Tim Wildsmith for an in-the-round show. The soundman has already called in sick. I know that for the two hours I'm on stage with those guys, I'll feel like a big shot. And somewhere in between fixing a blown fuse and plunging out the plugged toilet, I'll give the best performance I can.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Feel Like A Million

When I was in the fourth grade at Central Elementary School in Kearney, Nebraska, our teachers ventured to help us grasp what a "million" was. The challenge was to collect a million bottle caps, piled into a big chickenwire cage in the school hallway. As I recall, the cage/dump was about ten feet square, and in two years we had a five foot deep pile, officially one million caps. So I have some feel for what a million is, although I still can't envision a town of 20,000 drinking a million bottles of anything.

But I can't grasp what's happening in Zimbabwe right now. They just issued a one-hundred billion dollar bill. (For reference, the United States doesn't even have a million dollar bill.)

By last Sunday, the new bill wasn't enough to buy a loaf of bread. That's because inflation in Zimbabwe is 2.2 million percent (officially) or 12 million percent (really). Either way, prices are doubling faster than I can type each word on this page. (I know what you're thinking: "So stop typing then!") One unexpected problem is that ATMs can't give out any money because the screens are too small for that many zeros.

I suppose the good news is that minimum wage must be around 25 million dollars an hour. Maybe you could go there, work an hour, send the money home to the U.S. and retire.

Gideon Gono, their central bank reserve governor, said he would introduce new measures in the coming days. His master plan is to "remove zeros." Gono says, "We will make sure those zeros that would come knocking on the Governor's window will not return." They'll just scratch zeros off everything, and call it good. And really, zero means nothing, three zeros is just triple-nothing, so lopping them off should be nothing, right? Actually, it seems like it could work, especially if you get to keep your old 100 billion dollar bills. That'd be sweet!

What brought it all home for me was that Zimbabwe nightclubs are canceling shows. Audiences stopping coming out after a 2000 percent increase in beer prices. I own a bar. A music venue, actually. Our admission to see great touring artists rarely breaks $5 measly bucks. Our drink prices are average, but our pours are especially generous. Really, the only bad thing about it is that we can't break a 100 billion dollar bill, so you might want to get change before coming.

As I sit here sipping a $3.50 local pint, I try to imagine what a $73 beer would taste like. No wait—in the time it took me to write this sentence, the Zimbabwe price would have gone up to $1,533. It better be good beer.

Follow up: I wrote the above on a Tuesday. In the following Thursday's paper I read that Zimbabwe indeed lopped zeros off its currency. Ten zeros, gone. That is, ten billion dollars is now one dollar.

Bummer.

Missing Inaction

I'm sorry this blog is late. I played hooky yesterday.

I consider myself reasonable adult, someone who is dutiful, who thrives on self-denial. But the truth is this: it takes just one friendly suggestion to push me into doing what I really want to do, and crack my steely inclination to do what I should be doing like a corn chip.

Playing hooky is so much more fun when you're not your own boss. As a kid it was cheating the school, my parents, the General Authority. Employed, it's like screwing The Man for those little daily hosings he gives you. Being self-employed gives you freedom to do what you want, but then there's no authority to defy. It's like cheating on a diet: indulgent, yes, but you know you'll pay later. What we need is a way to cheat on a diet and have our boss get fat for it.

It started around lunchtime. I accepted the offer of a Tom Collins, beverage of the month among my friends. "We're on vacation, right?" Well, she was on vacation. (Actually, she calls it "stay-cation," because her family isn't vacating.) She says, "Take us sailing."

It's warm and sunny and windy. Along with whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens, these are a few of my favorite thigns. My [sailing] mind can't [sailing] seem to concentrate [sailing] on much of [sailing] anything else anyway. My resolve to work relents with the crunch of a junebug under my shoe. I took the afternoon off.

In the mail yesterday I also received the missing part I ordered for my antique seltzer bottle, one of those big silver jugs filled with squirting soda water you saw in every Cary Grant movie as he made a cocktail. And like in every Cary Grant movie, I immediately tested it by squirting someone in the back of the head.

So yesterday was a pretty good day. Maybe I needn't worry to much about being an adult after all.

Now if I could [sailing] just get caught up [sailing] on my work to make up for [sailing] yesterday.

Impact Wrench

My biggest car crash wasn't even a crash. Or a car. I was on my motorcycle, as usual going well over the speed limit. (It is impossible to go the speed limit on a motorcycle.) The light turned green as I approached the intersection, and I zoomed along, happy that I didn't have to stop. The crossing car that was supposed to stop, didn't. In an instant my nice open lane turned into a two ton steel wall.

My memory is off because I went into shock afterwards, which is weird because I didn't really hit anything. I jumped right before the impact, flying in a slo-mo flip over the whole mess. I remember that time slowed way down. Normal sounds were almost absent. My bike folded in half as it smashed into the car's front wheelwell, but I didn't hear any of that. I do recall hearing The Blue Danube. I could see almost 360 degrees. Inside the car were three of my classmates, and I recognized all six eyes, opened so wide they almost touched each other. I looked down as I passed over the hood of the car and thought, "Hmmm, it needs painting." Eventually I landed on my feet on the other side of the car. I'm told I opened the driver's door, reached in and shook his hand, saying, "Nice driving, Tex," but I don't remember that part. I do remember that they lied to their dads and said the light was still green, and their insurance company didn't pay, and I had to fix my bike myself.

My next big crash wasn't mine. I saw skid tracks leaving the road, tearing deep mean troughs through the grass, then vanishing as the car went airborne over the ledge. There it was, down the hill near the lake, on its side, the top ripped off by a tree. In my daydreams I like to be a hero, but at that moment I froze, unable to go down and offer help. My heart beat so hard my ears rang, and my feet wouldn't budge. I finally crept down, terrified of what I'd see, but the car was empty. I hated myself for being so afraid, so slow.

Those memories came back today when I came upon an accident. It didn't look all that bad at first; one car rear-ended another. But as I approached, my feet became heavy again as I saw that the windshield was broken, and there were bits and splatters of gray and white matter dripping down all over the inside of the car.

It was because of all that self-hate all those years ago that I was able to approach the car; I was not going to be that yellow kid again. I opened the car door to an awful mess, but the girl inside was fine. An open cell phone was still in her hand, a red straw still dangled from her agape mouth. She had been sipping from a big vanilla malt when the airbag deployed.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Used Car Salesman

I sold my truck. So what?

The thing is, I didn't know how to sell a vehicle. I haven't sold one since I parted with my high school car, a 1962 MGA convertible, which I traded to buy an engagement ring thirty years ago. I joked that she was wearing my car on her finger.

We married. Her dad provided us a Gremlin, took it back, gave us a Nova, took it back, gave us a panel van with an airbrushed eagle killing a snake on the side, took it back. We eventually leased our own car, a Ford Tempo, black as a funeral.

I later added a 1972 Volvo to our stable. It was quirky and fun. For everything I fixed, something else broke. I fixed the analog clock, and the radiator blew. The car and I developed an understanding. I loved it. My wife hated it.

Against both our wishes, the divorce judge awarded her the Volvo, because we owned it; the Tempo was only leased, and I, a male, was forbidden by law to get anything of actual value out of the union. Another of my favorite cars slipped through her fingers. When I delivered the car to her, the door wouldn't open. I wasn't surprised. As I started to explain to her how the Volvo liked to have its handle jiggled a little, she kicked it. "Uh oh," I thought. "Now you've done it."

Six months later they towed it away, a heap, after it tried to kill her with carbon monoxide fumes.

When the Tempo lease ran out, I gave it up and bought my very first new car, a 1988 Celica. I still drive it. As my kids continued to grow tall and lanky and vociferous, I expanded to the truck, a white Pathfinder, chosen almost entirely for its rear legroom.

It was the chariot for many a summer adventure. I taught my daughters to drive in that truck. We went to the abandoned Aksarben parking lot. To teach them to park, I got out, walked about fifty yards away, and pointed out the parking space they were to end up in. The truck sat silent and motionless for a long time. Then it just turned and drove away.

When the transmission went out last month, I looked at it the same way I once looked at my old, sick cat. "It's time," I sighed. The new owner towed it off into the sunset. That's when I realized it was the first car I had actually sold since the MG.

I don't suppose I'll forget it. It's somewhere in the background of just about every vacation picture in fifteen years. I looked up Mick's, the bar I own, on Google Earth's satellite view, and was pleased to see my truck from space, parked in front.

While you're spying down on Mick's from above, click below to find out what's happening on the inside:

So now I get to buy a car, just for me. Anybody have an old Nissan 300SX? I always wanted one of those.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

That Blows

My office is in my attic. It's a nice high perch from where I can spy on my neighborhood. That's where I was when the tornado came.

I love storms, and smiled as the clouds went from bruise-blue to charcoal-black, and the wind spun up to a rip. But the intensity kept increasing beyond normal summer storms and the house began to shudder and moan. As my perch began feeling more like a diving platform, I headed for the basement.

Okay, too safe. So I crept back upstairs and peeked out my back door, which is on the lee side of a wind that had grown angry. "There will not be one tree left when this is over," I thought. The lights blinked out.

Of course, my first instinct is to call everyone I know, which is everyone else's instinct because the phone systems were jammed. Storms aren't as fun when you can't "Ooooo" with someone else.

I was apprehensive about going to the front of my house. That's where the damage would be. Gingerly, I opened the door. Leaves ripped from their branches were plastered across the windward side of my house as if an elephant had sneezed. My garden looked like it had been ambushed by a shotgun, ripped to ribbons by screaming hailstones. Big trees were down everywhere, and three cars were smashed flat. Worse, my car wasn't.

The transmission had gone out on my truck, and I've been trying to sell it. I parked it quite carefully under the biggest, longest, most precarious limb on my street, waiting for just such a storm. Imagine my envy seeing my neighbor's minivan nearly divided in half by the next silver maple log.

I think I pushed the garage door opener button ten times before realizing that it goes up by electricity, not by magic. As I stood in my yard, a firefly glowed brightly. "Well," I thought, "at least HE has power." More lightning bugs began blinking and I thought, "We'll get through this fine." Then the blinking stopped. I didn't know what to conclude from that.

We decided to open the bar anyway. It's always dark, always candlelit—so what's new? Vinnie Bronx called, eager to do an all acoustic show with guitar, stand-up bass and congas, and we set them up right in the middle of the floor. A few fans tiptoed in and got a great show. Afterwards I went home, pushed my garage door opener button ten more times, winked at the fireflies and went to bed. It was so quiet I could hear my own blood.

I haven't seen a bunny in my yard since sprin, but a little guy appeared this morning, and he was very apprehensive. So if anyone in West Omaha is missing a baby bunny, I think he landed in my back yard. I'll look after him for you.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm not crazy. At least I'm not certifiable just because I occasionally hear bagpipes.

I hear them every once in a while, droning about my house (them, not me) and it is unsettling. I usually hear bagpipes only at funerals. I suppose they help drive off evil spirits. Heck, they probably drive off mosquitoes.

I was walking to the corner gas station to fill up a can last night when I heard them again, louder this time. I was closer. I spied the perpetrator . . . um, artist: not the ghost of Squealy MacShrill at all, but one very real and decidedly not-Scottish-looking lady. She was marching—or rather, shuffling—down her driveway. You can't really march with bagpipes—you could chip a tooth.

There was another piper behind her, still in the back yard, obscured by the corner of the house. I suppose bagpipes attract each other. God knows they don't attract anything else. Such things can happen. I once tried to learn the saxophone, and all manner of while geese were honking at my window trying to get in.

So I conclude these two were playing the bagpipes on purpose. As far as I could tell, there were no dead people to drone over. I tried to wrap my brain around why someone would choose to play an instrument that only plays in one key, one chord even. Indeed, most of the pipes only play the same note, and amongst themselves then they fight over the pitch. Never mind that your job as bagpiper is to blow air into a goat bladder--this instrument is invented by the Scots, after all, who eat haggis on purpose.

Five generations ago, my Scottish ancestor Jessie Campbell immigrated to the States. I have a copy of his papers, so I know why he came: to be a carpenter's apprentice. And given my feelings about bagpipes, I suspect why he left Scotland.

I suppose I'd love the bagpipes if I tried to play them. It's like Harleys—fun to be on, not so fun to listen to.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Your Mama Has Nice Tomatoes

It is too beautiful outside. I have been doing all kinds of chores, to avoid doing real work. I cleaned up the kitchen, emptied the dishwasher, harvested clumps of Romeo's abandoned cat hair. While taking out the trash I circled around to pull a few weeds and prune my tomatoes. I thought about my Dad.

He was a go-with-the-flow guy most of the time, but was military-precise when it came to putting away his tools, grilling cheeseburgers, and growing tomatoes. So I think of him when I do all three.

"Pinch off the suckers." Suckers are little shoots that sprout in the Y of other tomato branches, sort of like a new toe sprouting between your others. I pinch them off because Dad said so, but I have no idea why. A scientist at heart, I'd let one go and see what happens, but I'm too chicken.

I once worked with a southerner named Sam. He would place his fragile little tomato seedlings in the dirt, then systematically clap his hands harshly onto each one, nearly smashing it. "It teaches 'em that the world is tough," he explained. "They learn, and they'll grow stronger for it."

I don't know whether he tried this philosophy on this children. I got this advice when my daughters were still little, but I didn't adopt it as a parenting tactic, mostly because my girls were both Leos, and Leos respond better to being put on a pedestal.

After hearing Sam's other stories I began doubting his judgement. For instance, he explained that northerners (anyone north of Fort Smith, Arkansas) don't know how to eat bananas. We are supposed to wait until the skin is black, because that's when they are sweetest. He's kind of right about that, but by then the bananas themselves look a little too close to the end of the digestive chain, so I still eat them when they're green, which is to say, yellow.

Sam's tomatoes turned out great. His kids were hit-and-miss.

Is anybody out there a channeler? I'd like to ask Dad how to keep my cilantro from dying off before the tomatoes are ripe, so I can make salsa.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Expensive Tastes

Food tastes better when it is expensive. This theory explains caviar. If caviar were fifty cents a can, it would be sold only by Little Friskies.

I once drank a $100 bottle of wine. The experience was ruined because I didn't know it cost $100. I was at a foofy restaurant looking over wines in the $30 range—which in any other restaurant would have been in the $20 range—when the server approached. "You should try So-and-So," she offered. "Mmmmm! it's my favorite, and we only have one bottle left." She neglected to add, "And it costs three times as much."

I would have enjoyed it more had I known. Actually, I wouldn't have enjoyed it at all had I known, because had I known, I wouldn't have ordered it. Anyway, it would have tasted better because I would have wanted it to, so I wouldn't feel stupid for paying that much.

Many of my friends appreciate fine wine, and when I ask, they swear a $100 wine can definitely be worth it. But I can't stop comparing it with other things of the same value: could a $100 wine ever be as luxurious as ninety minutes with a good masseuse? A $1200 bottle of wine is not unheard of, but I bet one would never bring down a New York Governor like that $1200 you-know-what did.

A few weeks ago I wrote about morel mushrooms. I was eager to try my first one, and this spring we managed to forage a couple of sorry specimens out of the wet dirt of a wooded riverbank. We fried them up with a little flour and egg, and . . . well, they tasted pretty much like I fried up something I found in the dirt. Not bad—I could enjoy shoelaces if you deep-fried 'em. I just didn't get the hype.

Last weekend La showed up with a package of big fat phallic morels from the store. "I couldn't resist," she explained. They were $26 a pound—on sale! Twice the cost of filet mignon, three times the cost of fresh Atlantic salmon, or about the cost of a half-hour with that masseuse. (We'll leave you-know-who out of this comparison.) La sauteed them in oil, then butter, then red wine and garlic and . . . well heck, sauteed with enough butter and wine and garlic, I'd eat my underpants.

But in the end there was something magical about them, something that made you twirl them lovingly before your eye, tease them lingeringly through puckered lips, vocalizing a moan after every bite. The Morel Mystery: now I get it. You just have to know how to cook them, and you have to know how much they cost.

I had the miniscule bit of leftover morels with lunch today. Out of context, the small, humble, withered black nibs, picked out of a plastic baggie, were . . .

. . . fantastic.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

For Sheets and Giggles

For the last twenty years I have lived more or less independently. I do my own cooking, cleaning, bookkeeping, gardening, car repairs, and home improvement. If I were in Home Ec., I think I would get a B+.

I do not deserve an A because, for the love of all things holy, I cannot fold a fitted bed sheet. I get started every time with good intentions, aligning the elastic corners, trying to fold it in half, things get all crooked, I start swearing and tearing and end up with a wadded steaming ball of sheet. It wrinkles piteously, but no one sees that anyway, because as I said, I live alone.

Ironically, my high school job was to wash and fold the hundreds of bed sheets used every day at the Tel Star Inn. I was fast, aided by the fact that our customers weren't the type to get very adventurous in their beds, and that the hotel didn't use fitted sheets. The manager would hold up a ruler to my stack of sheets to test how perfectly they were folded. Second only to him, I was the best, a talent I'm happy to brag about but not so happy to exercise.

I also discovered I had a talent for writing my name in flames. We had cans of spray ether used to help start the motel's finicky tractor. Often bored waiting for sheets to dry, I'd go into the storage room, grafitto my name on the floor in perfect, invisible, ethereal cursive, and toss a match. Whooof--my name in lights. If I felt lazy I would just sit at my folding table and shoot spritzes of ether directly at the dryer burners, quoting the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz as the brief fireballs billowed.

When I blew up the room, it wasn't from playing with ether. We had a hole in the back wall of the storage room, and winter breezes would sometimes blow out the pilot light in the motel's giant water heater. It was my job to notice, and to relight the pilot. There is a little sign on every water heater, even the great big ones, that warns you to turn off the gas for five minutes before relighting. In the future, I'll remember to do that.

There was no "boom." Just a brief flash of white light, and a "huh" sound, like you make when you fog your glasses with your breath to clean them. At first I thought I was blinded, but it turned out that my eyelashes had welded together. I was still in my stance, still holding the burnt match to the pilot light like Yosemite Sam. My new hairdo smelled terrible.

If I never light another pilot light, I'm fine with that. I don't care whether I ever again write my name in flames. I am no longer so careful to fold my sheets in a perfect stack (although when I was folding some new t-shirts at my job, two co-workers agreed I had a bright future in retail). But before I die, It'd be nice just once to fold a fitted sheet right. I know it's not on everybody's list of life goals, like parachuting and hot-air-ballooning. But still.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Orange Lobster Fungus of Death

While hiking last weekend we noticed a few other little groups of people lurking around, all carrying little garbage bags. When people walk my neighborhood with little garbage bags, they are usually accompanied by their dogs, and my mind closes at the thought. But these people didn't have dogs, even though the garbage bags bulged exactly the same way.

We figured they were mushroom hunters. This was confirmed by their unwillingness to engage in conversation and how they hid the bags, as if to say, "Nothing of interest. Look the other way. There are no droids here."

We too had originally come to hunt morel mushrooms, but as neither of us had any experience and we were busy yakking, we lost our purpose until Mr. and Mrs. Hiddenstash reminded us of it. So off into the woods we trudged.

For the longest time, nothing. But it's never a waste of time searching the floor of the woods, as it's full of surprises and treasures.

The first mushroom I found was fat and lobster-orange. I was squealy with excitement. I learned later that it was a gyromitra, and causes 14% of all mushroom-related deaths. I let out a different pitch of squeal as I tossed it.

After an hour or so we had found 600 beer bottles, a dismembered deer skeleton, my Lobster Mushroom of Death, and four morels about as big as my thumb. I also found the photo at right, which bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Harry Reams.

The deer remains were fascinating. He was basically intact, although some of his parts were scattered about like the Wizard of Oz scarecrow after a visit from Flying Monkeys. But a pie-shaped wedge of skull where his brain had once been was missing, cut out cleaner that a butcher's saw could. It was as if aliens had opened him with a laser knife and stolen his deer brain. I looked around ominously, but you can't really watch out for aliens because, really, what do you watch out for? Nevertheless I pulled my hat down a little tighter.

We left the deer. We took the mushrooms. We agreed to fry them up simply, so as to get a good baseline sense for what all this morel mania is about. A little egg, a little flour. Okay, I added a pinch of cayenne, because I put cayenne in everything: Omelets. Salads. Cereal. Baby formula.

We cut the mushrooms in half lengthwise. For all their remarkable, intricate beauty on the outside, morels are surprisingly hollow on the inside. You'd think I would make an analogy here, but I won't.

The tiny 'shrooms made a meager appetizer. They tasted pretty much like fried anything-else. Which is just fine with me.

Just as we finished sampling, my friend Laurie called. "Guess what! We just found a whole bunch of morels growing right in our back yard!"

[Sigh.]

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

All Washed Up

You're not going to wash your face with that, are you?"

"What—it's soap."

"Soap isn't meant for your face. It's too harsh."

"I've been using soap on my face for forty- . . . um, thirty-five years."

"Well, you always say that my skin is soft, and I'm just telling you, you need to use a wash made for your face. It exfoliates."

She let me try hers. It smelled great. It was made of ground up apricot pits. I got some in my eye. It felt like a shard of glass under my lid. "It's exfoliating my eye! Ow!"

My skin began to tingle, then burn. She added, "It has acid in it to peel away dead skin.

The origin of exfoliate basically means to strip leaves off a tree. Soap is too harsh, but go ahead and use Agent Orange.

We do things to make others happy. Some people dress up as nuns or student nurses. I bought a $12 bottle of acid and sandpaper and rubbed it on my face in the hopes of being soft and pretty for her. The ingredient list looked suspiciously like a product I once used to tan leather. So I guess if it makes my wallet tough enough to sit on all day, it would . . . well, maybe that's not the best comparison.

"Don't forget toner," she said. "And moisturizer. And no, you can't use hand lotion on your face. It's too harsh."

I used regular bar soap all through high school into college. My soap-clean face was good enough to earn a wife and spawn kids. Although we got divorced seven years later there was no mention in the decree blaming soap. I went on to date some truly remarkable women for years thereafter with my soap-face, and even Chastising Girlfriend liked me enough as-was to set up shop in my bathroom. Then I go from one bar of soap to—I stopped typing just now to go count—nineteen face and hair products.

Of course, the girlfriend is long gone.

Anybody need a wallet?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Get Away

People once dressed up go to to the airport. I'm told they used to primp for the train station too. Former elite hangouts, now you go in flip-flops and pajamas designed to get the most out of a stranger's pat-down. We take vacations to relieve stress, which we load up on in the terminal.

I was headed for San Francisco. I made it as far as Minneapolis before things ground to a halt. That's a good start these days. The delay wasn't the airline's fault this time, but God's: the winds in San Fran were hurricane-worthy. I know the SFO airport is right on the bay, and the bay water is really cold and dark and unpleasant—more so after that big oil spill—so I was happy to stay where I was. I suddenly had three hours to myself.

Minneapolis is famous for The Biggest Shopping Mall Ever—so big it has every franchise you can think of, with room enough left over that some chains added a second store. They have two Gaps, for instance, so if you don't like what you see in one Gap, you can go to the other one and not like their stuff either.

The airport is clearly inspired by the mall, with endless franchises up and down the hallways. I looked for something interesting I could afford, and found neither. But I did find a tiny, secret stairway, back behind a big ad display A plain sign marked it "Observation Deck." I timidly ascended the narrow stairway, and emerged into a beautiful, Oz-like glass-bubble room, bathing in warm sunshine on the roof of the terminal. It had a view of everything. I tiptoed back down, purchased two scones, a double-cappuccino and the Tribune, and went back up to my private treehouse.

After about twenty minutes of blissful, sunny vacation, I heard heavy breathing behind me. The hair raised on my neck. I thought I had been alone. I froze and listened. The breathing deepened to snoring. I turned around and saw no one, nothing but a frumpy pair of black shoes on the floor in the far corner. A shrill cell phone rang and you would forgive me for nearly wetting my pants. A rumpled, pudgy man sprang up zombie-eyed from his deep sleep on the back row of seats and answered the call, using that too-loud "hello!" of someone trying to sound awake. He launched into an impressive song-and-dance with the caller, who was obviously his superior, explaining that things weren't his fault, that he didn't really this and couldn't get that, that he was already on probation along with the others and couldn't afford to lose his holiday pay, that he was a goof-up. He paced past me as he weasled his words, his rumpled shirt half untucked, and I realized from his outfit that he was a pilot for my airline.

After he hung up, he stood stoop-shouldered and silent,  watching his friends take off from the runway below. The loudspeaker announced that security level was Code Orange, in the same flat emotion used to remind me not to leave my bags unattended. The announcement seemed to muster him from his trance. Without acknowledging my existence or tucking in his shirt, he descended the stairs in shuffling silence.

Before I could let out a sigh, a very-not-silent young couple clamored up, wrestling a screaming, squirming, spoiled four-year-old.

I surprised myself by announcing authoritatively, "Sorry. No kids under 12 allowed on the observation deck." The father stared at me blankly, the Squirmer still dangling an inch over the carpet. "Security is Orange," I explained. I didn't blink. They left.

Twenty minutes before my plane was to leave, I crept back down from my nest, squeaked across the wide glossy hallway to Tahiti Tom's Bar & Grill, and ordered a local pint. Two 50-ish guys saddled up on the stools next to me and the bartender asked them for ID. He hadn't asked me for ID. Seeing my eyebrows raise clear to my hairline, he offered, "It's because you ordered beer and they ordered cocktails." It was a lame explanation, but better than the only one I had come up with, so I took it.

I checked the Departures board; my flight was delayed again. I walked to the Walgreen's and bought a roll of masking tape and a "Closed" sign. I went back up the observation deck, taping off the stairs behind me.

Maybe next time I should just fly to Minneapolis for vacation. I know this great little place . . .

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I'm A Dad!

Right now, in my back yard, six tiny rabbits are nursing under their mom, who is spread out long as a baguette. Their nest is hidden under leaves in my garden, which is only appropriate since they'll all end up in my garden anyway.

Their ears are translucent as a fingernail, small as a mouse's. Today they are no bigger than my thumb, shivering even in the sun. Actually, I took that photo last year. I suppose that's like having a baby and then showing everyone a baby photo of your baby's older brother because you happen to have that handy and they look alike anyway. But bunnies do all look alike. So do human babies, for that matter—they all look like each other. They all look like tadpoles.

Last week in India a woman gave birth to a baby with two faces. The baby was immediately hailed as a god, which was a stroke of luck, because here we'd just sign her/them straight up for the circus. They named the two-faced baby Clinton, which is a Hindu word for "I already think I'm a god."

My neighbor poisons her rabbits. She has a great garden. I know a guy (not a friend) who shoots them with a pistol he carries around with him while he mows his yard. If bunnies were infesting my house I might feel differently about it, but the yard is their house, and they've been there longer than I have. So I leave them alone.

Silly, simple, sentimental, sure I am. In this morning's paper I couldn't stop myself from reading the court details about a little girl found decomposed in the woods, strangled, her skrunchie still around her ponytail. Another story of a man who drugging his 28-year-old sister for incest. More of Barack and Hillary as they hope to destroy each other's reputation. So yeah—a little time with bunnies for me, please.

It's a perfectly beautiful day outside. Maybe only people who endure winters can be so agog at such a spring day. Sometimes beautiful days feel surreal to me, like today. Or like the perfect, sixty degree, clear blue sky day when I watched the Twin Towers knocked down. A few days ago it was Earth Day, and I enjoyed the most lovely weather imaginable. When the full moon rose—I didn't even know it was a full moon day—I felt guilty with indulgence for being so lucky.

Maybe I'll go pet a lucky rabbit's foot—while it's still on the rabbit.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Brain Oil

I have Ironic Memory. I remember I don't have my keys at the exact moment I pull the locked door shut behind me. I remember I was supposed to bring wine to the party the minute I arrive. This morning I remembered, at about the time I knew my coffee would be finished brewing, that I hadn't yet put a cup under the spout.

My coffee maker wrenches one cup of espresso out of about two tablespoons of beans. The result is black and intense, the consistency of Pennzoil. Coffee is supposed to sharpen your focus, and the snag to making it right is that you haven't had it yet. A week ago I spent a half hour cleaning up an inky mess because I had forgotten to put the mug in the maker. Now I faced repeating the same agony: sopping up and dumping out what I was dying to be drinking.

I shuffled grimly to inspect the damage. I had indeed forgotten the mug again, but as it turned out I had also forgotten to load the coffee maker with water.

Once, I forgot that big thimble thing that holds the grounds and has tiny holes in the bottom through which the coffee strains. Somehow I managed not to notice as I firmly patted the grounds down into the spout, causing a nice firm clog that made an impressive effort to hold back the building steam until it burst through like chewing tobacco from a shotgun. It wasn't pretty, but I still was. I was in another room at the time. It took me a minute to figure out what exactly was different about my decorating.

All this coffee talk made me want some. I made it right on the first try! But then, of course, it was my second cup.

Obama Outing

I attended a state Democratic caucus a while back, to help choose my next president. It was Nebraska's first caucus, and my first as an ex-Republican. The faces were different—younger, bright-eyed, hipper. Maybe not the people I'd want managing my IRA, but definitely people I'd rather drink with.

It was fun to feel the group's buzz , to sense the camaraderie of 1200 people in one room, on the cusp of something big. As the alignment was growing lopsidedly pro-Obama, a commotion erupted behind me. About fifty people began shouting in unison at a little old lady: "Not here! Not here!" and "Go away! Go away!" I'm told she had started the ruckus by yelling out, "Don't you know he's a Muslim?" They swarmed her faster than if she had waived a weapon, and eventually the human tidal wave washed her unceremoniously out a back exit, and the lock clicked cleanly as the steel door shut her out. There was applause. They dusted off their hands and turned back to the lovefest.

It was not a great moment for free speech. I learned that, when push comes to literal shove, Democrats are about as tolerant as Republicans.

I was a little disappointed to learn Obama wasn't Muslim. How wacked would al-Qaida be if suddenly their mortal enemy elected one of them? It would sure take the gas out of recruiting suicide bombers. Maybe we should just elect Osama bin Laden's mom. Are you going to call your own mother The Great Satan? Not if you don't want to be grounded, buster.

All that Muslim hatred—I suppose it was those darned Crusades that set them off in the first place. It was definitely before we waved the "freedom of religion" flag. Should they just get over it? Just like Jews have gotten over the Holocaust? Just like blacks have gotten over slavery? Yeah, Muslims—just get over it.

As a four-day-old, I made the decision to be baptized a Methodist. Since then, I've hung out with the Baptists (they rejected me because I couldn't swim), the Presbyterians, fundamentalists, and a church full of people whose motto was "Can't we all just hug?" As you can see, my religious commitment is of the Play-Doh variety.

Still, nobody chooses my religion for me. Not here. We have our forefathers to thank for that. If you think electing a Muslim president would somehow make us all Muslim, you've managed to forget the basis of just about every U.S. war but the "civil" one.

Freedom of religion isn't a freedom to paste the Ten Commandments on everything. (Though it wouldn't hurt.) And it isn't a freedom from being exposed to someone else's beliefs. The First Amendment is simply the freedom to work it out for yourself, without punishment or coercion, and it is based on the faith that we don't all have to be the same to co-exist. Indeed, the First Amendment is designed to help us learn a thing or two from each other.

The little old lady picked a questionable time to speak up. But instead of shoving her into the cold, I wish we had patted her hand, offered her some tea, and told her in a soft voice that she was loopy.