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 . . .