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.


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


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."