Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wrap Artist

Just days before Christmas
Foul weather is pending
Rain into ice into snow neverending

I try to wrap presents. For hours I linger
Could tape stick to anything else but my finger?
Of all of life's mysteries, I want to know:
To save our own lives, why can't men tie a bow?

I tried to find presents creative and neat
That I'm almost done isn't any small feat
Just things here and there for a last minute run
An LED Frisbee and Daisy air gun

But what to my wondering eyes should appear?
A blizzard forthcoming! Must get in high gear!
Is everyone shopping? What is this rat race?
Is it too much to ask for, just one parking space?

A sharp elbow here, a karate chop there
And I finished my shopping, just hours to spare
I got what I went for, my mission undaunted
A Daisy air rifle, like I always wanted!

My hands wrapped around it—it felt so much bigger
Than I had imagined. I fingered the trigger
And Blam! How should I know the damn thing was loaded?!?
The dog barked, a glass broke, the lightbulb exploded

The cat screamed and leapt and clamped onto the dog
Who squealed like a pig as he spilled my eggnog
With puss on his ass he dove under the tree
Where the cat got entangled and couldn't shake free

The Christmas tree trembled, it shivered and quivered
And teetered and tottered before fate delivered
The final Ke-Bash! And before I could get her
Down came the ornaments, tinsel and glitter

We stood there agape after all of that riot
A clatter, a tinkle — and then all was quiet
The dog licked his wounds as he glared at the cat
Who pointed at me and said "That's who did that!"
Then both turned to me through the mangled-up muck
And eyed me as if to say, "Dude, WTF!?"

I only intended to give it a tryout
It ricocheted back and damn near put my eye out
But all I could think as it lodged in my tuchus
Was what if I'd got one of those toy bazookas?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Routine Maintenance

It's freezing in the room. I get out of my warm bed; the dog stays behind. He used to jump up whenever I budged, following my every step as if I had bacon for feet. By now he has figured out I'm just going to the bathroom and that I'll be back to get dressed. He knows there's no point in following me until I venture downstairs, where he'll hover on the chance that I might drop a crumb of toast.

I have become routine. He and my cats know everything I'm going to do. As I shuffle barefoot into the kitchen, my cat Spekky is already there, waiting. She knows she'll be fed a moist pâté of ground fish out of a can within the next three minutes. She begins to meow at 1 minute 30 seconds just to go along, but it doesn't change anything. The dog stands by wistfully, knowing the cat bowl is off limits. But what touches the floor is legally his.

They weave between my clumsy feet with the agility of egrets picking food from a hippo's mouth. Their choreography requires that they know exactly where I'm going to move next. They do.

People say days go by faster as you get older. I know one person who is certain that time literally is going faster, and although he says it with scientific authority, his theory still smells as if freshly pulled out of his ass.

It's more likely that as we get older we become more routine. It gets harder to distinguish one day from the next. When you're a kid, every day is unique. Your brain is an empty pan. As you age you start developing preferences, then favorites, and soon your patterns start to cement. I can barely read a newspaper if I don't start with the front page.

The last remarkable day you remember may have been months ago. "Why, it seems like 4th of July was just last week!" When days are identical, time condenses them into one.

I just had lunch with a friend, and he was off to get a new tattoo.

"Of what?" I asked.

"I don't know."

He's not new to this.  He already looks like an ad for the tattoo parlor.

"You're getting a tattoo that will last your whole life, and you haven't made up your mind yet?"

"I had some space to fill."

As tattoos go, I am a blank slate. I can't commit to anything for fear I'll change my mind about it later. Even the classic "Mama" is chancy—she could turn on me any day. Maybe she was just being nice because I was little and she felt sorry for me, and now she's just waiting until I'm old enough to hear what a pain in the ass I was.

"Each tattoo reminds me where my life was at the time I got it," he explains. "It's not the design itself that's important, but the memories it stirs up." He is a walking scrapbook of unconnected imagery: a wagon wheel, an eagle, a sheriff's badge. I don't ask.

To shake up my life I try to do something unique every day. Maybe I'll get a tattoo when I'm 90 and there's not enough time left to change my mind about it.

I cringe when people get engaged on Christmas, or have birthdays on New Year's Eve. I know I'd forget one event or the other. When I plan a celebratory occasion like an engagement or wedding, I'll look at the calendar and pick the longest stretch of time between two existing holidays, and stick the new event right in the middle. My goal: when I'm 90 years old, every day will be a unique holiday, and time will stand still.

I usually write a story for this blog every Tuesday. Today is Wednesday. Whoa, baby—look at me shake it up.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

That's Snow Biz

A blizzard was coming. I was waxing up my old sled, the red paint on its metal runners rubbed off by dry patches. My mother was looking at my thin tan jacket, the sleeves closer to my elbows than my wrists after another growth spurt. "We need to get you a new winter coat," she pronounced. I was generally oblivious, but when she pointed it out, I concurred. She sent me out into the blizzard with Dad.

This was an event. We weren't poor, but there were six of us kids and we didn't get a lot of new stuff. The snorkel-hooded parka was the latest fashion, and Dad bought me one. It had sleeves that covered my whole arm and a fur-trimmed hood that rolled out long and narrow to protect my face. I was afraid to say "Thank you," fearful that even a blink might mess up my lucky streak.

I buttoned its buttons and zipped its zippers, then walked out into the storm and stood straight.  White razors of snow cut across my tunnel vision, but I didn't feel a thing. This was what Eskimos see looking out the door of their igloos, I thought.

I was liberated. I grew up in a smallish Nebraska town. (Yes, they all are.) Planted randomly on the flat prairie like a salt shaker on a tabletop, the town took the full brunt of storms that built speed across the bald landscape as if rolling downhill. The next morning the wind stopped and the sun burned through vivid blue skies, a blinding reflection off two feet of heavy snow. The town bogged to a halt, silent as a blanket except for the whining of spinning tires.

Harold Smith had a snorkel parka too, so we grabbed shovels and headed out to rule the world. We got ten dollars for each sidewalk we shoveled. Digging out a stuck car usually got a $5 tip. It was the best money I ever made. Any money you make as a kid is a lot, because someone else is cooking for you, paying your rent and taking care of your utilities and clothing. If you make ten bucks, you get to keep all of it.

I thought shoveling snow for $10 was a goldmine. The reason I don't do it now is because I have learned that kids will do it for $10.

Playing in the snow evolved. I went from snow angels to snowballs, which took some practice because my mom knitted me mittens, and yarn attaches to snow as if it were gum. It is demeaning to hit someone with a snowball and then have to trudge over and ask for your mitten back.

I moved up to a runner sled, handed down from my brothers and for all I know from my dad before that. It was an old wooden one with a T-bar you used to steer it by warping the skinny metal runners. My friends made fun of it, richer friends who always had the latest plastic snow sled invention. But they always wanted to borrow mine after I blew past them on the hill. Because it was wood and metal, it never broke like the rich kid sleds did, and so I never got a new one. Eventually I grew far too long for the sled, but it we couldn't throw it away because it was still perfectly good. My family doesn't throw away much.

I graduated to throwing my dad's Datsun B-210 into wild spins, something I stopped doing after I bought my own car. Then I took up cross-country skiing. I tried it once in Colorado but I broke through the snow's crust and found myself waist deep, unable to move my feet. The forest was so quiet I felt as if my head was expanding. I took out a pad and pencil and wrote an entire song while I was stuck there. It's a pretty good song, but no matter how I analyze it, it has nothing to do with snow. Still, I thought it would be a hit, because nothing generates interest in a musician like being found frozen to death.

Today I went from snow forts to snow cannons. Preparing for an upcoming blizzard, I broke my little 17-year-old snowblower trying to get it prepared, and had to rush out to get a new one. Everyone else must have broken theirs an hour before I did, because the only ones left at the store were bigger and more expensive than I intended to get. it's hard to dicker with a salesman when there's a rush on snowblowers, a huge storm six hours hence and a line of impatient buyers fidgeting behind you. I swallowed hard and bought one.

It has an electric starter, but you have to plug it in to use it. It takes longer to plug it in than to pull the starter rope, but I used the electric start anyway because I paid for it. The behemoth belched to a manly purr at my finger's touch, and nearly drove through the garage door.

It has a cannon turret you adjust with a crank, rotating it like a tank barrel to avoid hitting people, or to hit them on purpose. It has two speeds just for reverse, so it can run over you fast or slow.

I couldn't wait to get my testosterone all over it. Unfortunately, it is so big that the job was over quicker than I expected. Reluctantly, I followed it back to the garage, feeling funny just loitering around blowing snow on stuff. I was cold too, and that surprised me. Usually I work up a good sweat. But I just followed this machine around, pointing it toward the real work as if I were a union boss.

Something was missing.

Something fun. Something to tie to the back of the snowblower. I had to dig around a little bit, but I found that sled.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Fly Free!

Special offer for today only from my distributor, Lulu.com: order Are You Going To Eat That (just click on the blue "Buy Now" button under the book at right) and get an immediate discount equal to the shipping cost. So basically, free shipping. Enter the coupon code MAILSHIP1. Thanks, Lulu!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Boxer

Boxed wine used to be the equivalent of "cheese food product." What it lacked in edibility, it made up in volume.

There has been an ongoing evolution in wine packaging, not always for the better. For starters, they tried replacing the cork, offering a whitewash of disparate reasons:

  1. "Cork is natural. Harvesting natural things is bad for the environment."
  2. "Plastic corks are more stable and protect wine better."
  3. "Screw tops create less waste and provide a better seal."

First, cork is not a living thing. It is the byproduct of a living thing. Trees miss their cork like my bathtub misses the hair in the drain.

Plastic corks are indeed more stable: they can survive in a landfill for 20,000 years. And they make wine taste like plastic corks.

Screw tops make complete sense, except that they are inextricably linked to Boone's Farm Country Kwencher. I liked Country Kwencher just fine as a kid, but even then I was bothered by the spelling. If you are marketing to hicks, why not go all the way: Kuntry Kwencher? (Okay, I see why.) You find Boone's Farm proudly displayed in convenience stores that don't sell wine, which is an ominous give-away: although it is in a wine bottle, Boone's Farm is not wine. It is a "malt-based beverage," which is to say it is wine-flavored beer. This is the poster child of screw top bottles.

Wine connoisseurs claim they can tell by the taste of a wine the region from which the metal screw cap was mined. This distinct taste is referred to as ferroir.

Yes, corks go bad. Yes, they can spoil expensive wines. Yes, they often crumble into the bottle. Or break in half, leaving an irretrievable plug. With wine, that is the whole point. If everyone could open a wine bottle, what would be the fun of being a snob? The pageantry and fussy corkscrew are part of the fun, despite the gnawing awareness that it would be more easily accomplished using safety goggles and a cordless drill.

A cork may give clues of what's to come. You don't sniff the cork, like they do in the movies. Just look at it. Is it moldy? Is there foul gunk on the end that is nowhere near a wine color? This is not esoteric. You use the same procedure when buying a loaf of bread: if it is green or covered with fur, you put it back. You don't need to sniff it. While adopting a kitten you happen to notice that its anus is crusty and miscolored, you pick out another kitten. Perhaps this is where we get the word analogy.

Today, box wine presents tempting advantages. First, it gives you four bottles of wine for the price of, and in the space of, three. What comes out of the box tastes very much like wine. There is no cork or screw top to complain about. There is no top at all. And this brings me to my favorite part about box wine: it comes out of a spigot.

The empty package is cardboard, more recyclable than glass. But it is hard to fold flat. It is sealed together with the same inseparable glue they use now to seal a bag of chips, the kind that makes you look stupid when the entire bag explodes, leaving you holding only the intact sealed edge.

The bladder-like bag inside a box of wine is recyclable, although unsightly. They claim this collapsable bag helps wine last longer, because no air gets in while you drain it. This is a boon to those mythical people who don't drink their wine all at once.

As I remove the plastic bladder and notice how much wine is still slopping around in its wrinkly folds, my Scottish roots compel me to squeeze it out, which is about as charming a maneuver as wringing a placenta. But the result is an extra half glass of wine, which I consider my reward for bothering to recycle.

The only downside to box wine is that, like the giant 12-pack of toilet paper, it is embarrassing to buy. But once you get it home, it's wine-on-tap. And if fussy friends come over, you can always fill that decanter you never use.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Model Behavior

My mom is selling her house. She and dad bought it in 1961, and began raising five, then six kids in it. I was two years old when we arrived; I never knew any other home. She lived there for 48 years.

My lasting contribution to the home was a big orange stain of modeling paint, spilled into the carpet while finishing a race car model in my room. It was the kind of day-glo orange a nine-year-old kid would pick out. I dabbed some of it up with a rag, then gave up and left the rest to dry. I never told anyone about it, and it became a permanent part of the house.

My favorite models were the Revells. A latticework frame held tiny, intricate pieces I'd break off and use to assemble an AMC Gremlin Funny Car or P-51 Mustang Fighter Plane. My most ambitious project was a complete Saturn V rocket with an Apollo module on top, that opened to reveal the Lunar Landing Module. I built this while NASA was building the real one. I learned a lot about rockets and modeling glue.

I followed every tidbit about the Apollo missions. I flew my LEM in front of the television as Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Even as a kid I was amazed that someone had the foresight to install a camera on the landing module, and I was baffled that, for all the required breakthroughs in technology, the historic video was broadcast upside down.

I learned that Moon was the maiden name of Buzz Aldrin's mother. I didn't know she had committed suicide only a year before his historic flight, because they didn't tell kids that.

I wanted to be an astronaut. I was told I didn't have a chance because, at age 13 and only 130 pounds, I was already 6' 2", too tall to fit a jet or rocket. I was also very interested in gymnastics—especially the parallel bars—but again, I was too tall, they said. I also considered being a forest ranger, because I heard they gave you a truck, a radio and a cabin, and left you alone all winter. That sounded good, and you could be as tall as you pleased. But I was told that nobody from Nebraska would get into forestry school.

So I majored in philosophy, until one of my professors jumped out a 13th-story window. I switched to psychology, a department that had no height restrictions and was in a lower building.

While I was in college, 6' 2" gymnast Bart Conner won a gold medal on the parallel bars in the Olympics. He was in one of my classes.

That same year, 6' 2" astronaut Jim Weatherbee piloted the space shuttle Columbia, eventually becoming the first astronaut to command five flights.

When someone buys my mom's house, I bet first thing they will do is tear up that spoiled carpet. Of course no one will ever forget the Apollo astronauts. But what will be lost is the legacy of one boy who dreamed of becoming one of them them, but whose only mark in space exploration was an orange stain.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Bang Up Job

They call it The Peanut.

But it's a peanut that's 230 feet wide and 90 feet across. By my calculations it would make 37,000 jars of peanut butter, except that everybody has driven all over it and it is made of concrete.

Technically, the Peanut is a roundabout, in a round-about sort of  way, because it isn't round. It sits at the intersection of North 50th Street and Seward. And Country Club Avenue. And North Saddle Creek Road. And Happy Hollow Boulevard. Amid eight weaving, intersecting lanes, it is an octopus of befuddlement. With the addition of those little triangular traffic islands, there are a total of fifteen ways in and out of The Peanut. It was designed to simplify a difficult intersection.

The Peanut was initially covered in cinderblock, later replaced by grass in a beautification project. Because so few people can navigate its zig-zaggy bends, the grass has mostly been run over.

Behind a big white commercial van, I began to enter The Peanut. But the van stopped in front of me. Halfway in, I had barely started my turn when I saw his backup lights come on. He wouldn't.

The two horn buttons on my old Honda Accord are each about the size of a quarter. Banging on the center of the steering wheel doesn't do anything but deploy the airbag. The horn buttons are hard to find when you're driving straight. When you're turning, honking becomes a game of Whac-A-Mole.

My horn never did make a noise. His big truck had a backup beeper, but it barely got out one beep before he T-boned my door. Mr. Van Man took off, and I took chase. My first thought: "Your fat-ass van got nuthin' on my Honda." I was almost disappointed when he pulled over in a parking lot. We got out and expressed our mutual opinions of each other's driving.

He accused me of following too closely, which on any given day could be true, but I reminded him I was sideways. When another driver pulled up and offered that he saw the whole thing, Whitey Van Man got nicer. After promising to take care of things, he took off again, leaving only his first name and a cell number, which of course he is no longer answering. So the cost of my car repair will now include a couple of police citations.

The other culprit we don't know is Who Designed The Peanut. I have orated on the need for a big plaque honoring the designer of The Peanut, so we can refer to it by its more proper name, like The Bilbo Bongwater Roundabout Debacle, or The Horatio Huey Hootenanny — Huey Hooey for short. Instead of cursing it generically, I'd like a more personal touch.

A few days later, after no response from Boobus Van Hittenrun, I staked out The Peanut to see if he might drive by again. There I sat, dark glasses and everything, scrutinizing every car. People avoid you when you just sit in your car in an empty parking lot. It's fun.

Navigating the serpentine legume, one out of every three cars bounced over a curb, one hundred percent of those cars had drivers who were on the phone, each one exclaiming "Shit!" amid their blandulous blather about what's for dinner.

The Peanut would be a metaphor for life, except life doesn't have someone to blame for it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In The Bag

I would get home, peel out of my Halloween costume and toss it aside. I'd lean up against the heavy wooden door of my closet, and peer into my bag of loot.

Gripping the paper bag by the string handles, I opened it wide and put my face inside, taking a long, deep sniff. The smell of Halloween.

My mother didn't stock a lot of candy around the house. She wasn't particularly opposed to it, but with six kids it was barely worth the bother. The first of us who got wind of it would eat it all and hide the evidence. I didn't much like red licorice, but I'd eat it anyway just out of principle, because I knew my siblings would do the same.

Mom wasn't against candy. If I bought it myself, she figured I was entitled to it. After school I'd head to Bob's Kwik-Shop with my friend Harold, where we'd blow all the money in our pockets on candy bars: big fat chewy ones, sometimes three or four. Usually I'd get a few standards—Snickers, Nestle's Crunch, Mr. Goodbar, Reese's (there were no "Pieces" back then, and the chocolate/peanut butter pie was noticeably bigger)—and then branch out, try something new. The Cherry Mash looked pretty good, and I remember it being the most disgusting thing I ever put in my mouth, after goat cheese.

I'm not that picky. In fact, I consider myself a food slut. To this day, goat cheese is the only food that I have physically wiped off my tongue.

Tootsie Rolls took a little thinking. A popular commercial of the day featured a wise owl extolling the virtues of licking your way to the chewy center. I began to feel guilty about crushing the Tootsie Pop between my molars, and always tried to suck my way into it. Leave it to me to create rules about candy. Perhaps once or twice I actually licked to the middle, only to discover a slobbery Tootsie Roll inside, which I could have just chosen in the first place.

We'd go back to Harold's, because both his parents worked and we had the house to ourselves. We'd eat all our candy while listening to his Man of La Mancha soundtrack or some other show tunes on his record player. At the time, that seemed perfectly normal.

So after a few long, exultant breaths, I'd pull my face out of the trick-or-treat bag and dump thine holy contents onto the carpet. There were always a few eyebrow-raising standouts: Scored a Salted Nut Roll. A whole, regular-sized Hershey bar. Who were these people? What do they do for a living, that they can give this stuff away to strangers? I wanted to join their family.

There were the obvious turds in the punch bowl. The apple: I appreciate what you're trying to say, but keep your Lefty politics off my Halloween. Do you think I'm dressing up in disguise and shaking down my neighbors with threat of tricks because I want to do the right thing? Necco Wafers: near as I can tell, it's candy made from colored baking powder. You'd only give this to kids you hate, so I see I have enemies. A religious tract: it's inevitable that someone takes the chance, hoping some eight-year-old kid will stop in the middle of his Pixie Stix and say, "I have emptiness in my heart, and I'm asking Jesus to come in." I was church-raised, but if I had emptiness in my heart and I was facing a tiny Jesus cartoon book and a King Size Kit Kat, I know what I'd reach for to fill it.

The sorting begins. The "individual size" candy bars go in the keeper pile, even though to me the big Hershey bar was individual-sized. Today, Halloween candy bars are about the size of a thumbnail, and they're called "Party Size," which I might understand if it were made of Ecstasy. But for a candy bar, it's the equivalent of a birthday cupcake.

Tootsie Rolls, chocolate bars, Kisses, candy corn: into the keeper pile.

Out: Circus Peanuts, those spongy tan things that don't taste like a circus or a peanut. The hard, no-label candy wrapped in orange and brown wrapper. Peppermints. Candy necklaces. All these go into a separate "Out" bag.

For popcorn balls, I couldn't resist taking a bite, surprised every time that the colorful sphere was a sticky, gummy ball of stale Karo Corn Syrup. Toss the rest into the Out bag.

About then, my mom would walk in. "It would be nice if you would share with your brothers and sisters," she'd say. "You're the only one young enough to trick-or-treat."

"I know, Mom, I was already going to," I'd say as I handed her the bag.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thanks, Bookworm!

Omaha's best locally-owned bookstore, The Bookworm in Countryside Village, is now stocking my book Are You Going To Eat That, for those of you who like to support local retailers. If you go in, tell Beth and the gang thanks for having a local writer section! Because the book is humorous and more-or-less unoffensive, they report a lot of people are buying it as a fun gift.

The Masked Pretender

I love Halloween because 1) I cling to childish things, 2) I get to dress funny, and 3) it means my house is full of candy bars.

I hope with my many years of experience, the whole day will go smoothly. Last year didn't, so much. It went something like this:

7:30am: Wake up.
9:30am: Wake up again. I'm late. Shit!
11:00am: Go outside to replace burned out porch light. Drop new bulb from six-foot ladder. It was the last bulb in the box. Go to store.
11:45am: Return from store. It's time for lunch. Discover I don't have anything to eat but pumpkins. Go back to store.
1:00pm: Carve pumpkins. Pop seeds into the oven to roast for a snack, even though they never turn out any good.
1:30pm: Set out trick-or-treat candy. Discover there are only six pieces left. Go back to store.
2:45pm: Return to discover kitchen full of smoke. Pumpkin seeds are on fire. Dammit! Put billowing, charred cookie sheet ouside on the back porch.
3:00pm: Answer phone. It's next-door neighbor, who thinks my back door is on fire. "Didn't that happen last year too?" I tell him to shut up.
4:30pm: Try on costume. Discover I can't see out of the mask. Walk head-on into edge of open bathroom door.
5:00pm: Regain consciousness staring at the ceiling. Where am I? Who am I? Look down at myself and deduce that I am someone from Sesame Street.
5:30pm: It is time for kids to come trick-or-treating, which means is time for shot of tequila. Tequila bottle has only three drops in it.
5:31pm: Another trip to store interrupted by doorbell. "Trick or treat!" Hand out candy. Ask kids if any of them has tequila. One does. He won't part with it.
5:35pm: Swearing, rush back to store, leaving peel-out marks on the driveway. Stop to apologize to neighbor for nearly running over his six-year-old at end of driveway. Promise to replace flattened jack-o-lantern bucket.
6:00pm: Candy handing-outing now fully underway. Seems like more kids than usual because knot on my forehead is giving me double-vision.
6:30pm: Another shot of tequila. Double vision cancels itself out. Neighbor kids complain that I'm not scary enough. Pull off Beaker mask, revealing giant purple knotted head. They run screaming.
7:00pm: Find original Frankenstein movie on TV.
8:00pm: Older kids start showing up at the door. They are all football players and hobos. They all optimistically hold open pillowcases. Decide to stop answering door and keep candy for myself, because, hey—at least I dressed up.
8:10pm: Crash into bathroom door again. Not wearing mask. Swear off the tequila.
8:15pm: Head to Halloween party. Car honk reminds me to take off my Beaker mask. Discover I'm driving on the wrong side of the street. Definitely scary.

1:30am: Happy. Exhausted. Sugar-buzzed. Wide awake.

7:30am: Wake up.
9:30am: Wake up again. Late. Shit!
9:40am: Look at naked self in mirror. Either I ate too much candy or I got knocked up overnight. With Halloween, you never know.

So—hello, November.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Le Bark

I'm learning a new language.

I worked hard at Spanish. I learned a lot of words. But the Spanish speak in such a machine-gun monotone that no matter what they say, I respond with, "¿Excúseme?"

Italian was much easier. The words were about the same as in Spanish so I had a head start. And real Italians all speak as clearly as the people on the Beginner's Italian recording. Best of all, they don't automatically hate me for being American, which helps.

I like to be good at things. If I'm not immediately darling at something I usually give it up. I don't even bother to try any of the languages where the letters are upside down and backwards, the sentences read right to left, or they draw words using a branch.

I have two cats, and Cat is a snap to learn. Basically, there are only two phrases:
  1. "Rowoo." = "Be a good chap and open me a can of Friskie Delights Sardine Pâté, would you?"
  2. Blank stare. = "You are tiresome."
With those two phrases, my cats and I understand each other pretty well.

I am caring for my girlfriend's dog Phooey for a few days, and I am getting an immersion course in Dog. I speak a little Dog, from my days working at the Humane Society. I once stopped by the kennel of a particularly beautiful Australian Shepherd, considered among the smartest breeds. He lifted my hand with his elegant nose, and tossed it onto his soft head, as if to say, "Scritch it, would you?" I did, and he was pleased. He repeated the motion, guiding my hand atop his head with his nose. I skritched. "Very good." Then he lifted my hand again, only this time he set it on the cage door latch. His eyes said, "Get it?"

The trouble I'm having is that Phooey is not an Australian Shepherd, but a purebred Shih Tzu. Not only is his vocabulary much smaller, but he was bred in one of those countries that writes with sticks.

Here's what I have figured out so far:
  1. Jumps up on my shin, dances and spins on the floor. Go potty, do tricks, walkies, ride in the car: anything seems to be the right answer.
  2. Low grumble, then sneezes snot on me. This means something like, "I am not getting through to you!" He never does. By some quirk of evolution, he never runs out of snot.
When Italians speak with foreigners, they continue in Italian as if you understand them. They presume that the beautiful sound of their language will carry the message well enough. Americans reply with either "Gratzee" or "Skoozee."

The Spanish look at you with an expression that conveys, "Why did you even bother to come here, if you can't speak our language?" Then they speak to you in English that is better than yours.

The French will say, equally well in French or English, "I don't want to talk to you."

When Americans talk to foreigners, we TALK LOU-DER AND SLOW-ER WITH MORE DICK-SHUN, as if the listener were equal parts foreign and retarded.

Phooey and I are currently at a standstill, both of us looking at the other, tilting our heads left, then right. Normally, I like to communicate with animals, but I have a nagging suspicion that if I succeed in learning the Shih Tzu dialect, I'd end up leading the life of a beleaguered hairdresser.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For Good Measure

Recipes used to be simpler:
  1. Hit pigeon with rock
  2. Pull off feathers
  3. Hold over fire until inside temperature reaches ow.
Our ancestors learned the feather trick after some trial and error.

Then came the invention of tools. Cooks, touchy about the fact that up until then they had done nothing but burn things, decided they would get more respect if they renamed every tool that applied to cooking. They stopped using sticks and started using utensils.

Once they invented the arrow, the knife and the alphabet, things changed fast. Food parts were cut into littler and littler bits until they became too little to eat, fostering the invention of bowls, mixers and measuring spoons to put it all back together again, following a recipe. Cooks became chefs. And that’s when trouble began.

How could they screw up something as simple as a spoon? If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of ground pigeon flakes, you can’t use a spoon off the table and measure with it, because a table spoon holds only a teaspoon. How much does a tea spoon hold? We don’t know, because even the British don’t use tea spoons. You stir tea with a demi-spoon, which, in spite of its name, is not half a spoon. We have a soup spoon but nobody measures with it, even though it holds nearly a tablespoon.

They also invented the heaping teaspoon, two words nobody thought would ever go together.

Does a drinking cup hold a cup? Of course not. It holds 1.5 cups. If I cup my hands I can carry 1/8 of a cup. A cup holds 8 ounces of flour, which weighs 4 ounces. See how easy it is? This is why we give up on recipes and just go to Burger King.

Heaven forbid we use the metric system like the rest of the educated world. You know you are on shaky ground when your only compatriots using cups, pints and quarts are the British, who can’t be trusted with food or naming things.

The British call a spatula a scoop. The Scots call that a tosser, but that’s forgivable: if your homeland was famous for haggis you’d toss your food too.

I like the indistinct measurements, like a pinch and a dash. While not clear, at least they’re not misleading. Besides, they use our fingers, which we happen to have handy.

We need more such measurements. A fistful of cumin. (Okay, maybe not cumin, because then you go around with your hand smelling like you got lucky.) A finger of cake frosting. A nose of Coke.

Justin Timberlake introduced a cup of Janet Jackson. There’s a hands-on measure.

You’ll argue that we shouldn’t measure using our body parts, because bodies aren’t consistent in size. But I see that as a strength. A guy with big hands eats more, and his recipe would turn out accordingly.

How about a glom of yoghurt? A swipe of peanut butter? (I know there is a schmear of cream cheese, but I always feel a little shorted. No wonder: I looked it up and the word translates as “corrupt.”)

I love making coffee because I grind the coffee beans in a coffee grinder, put them in a coffee maker and make coffee in a coffee cup. I appreciate such clarity first thing in the morning.

Did we really need to call it a frying pan?

In my kitchen I have a whisk, which is a mixer. My mixer uses beaters. I beat with a tenderizer, which mashes. To mash potatoes I use a ricer, and I cook rice in the steamer while I steam vegetables in the colander before I toss them into a salad with dressing I whip up with my whisk.

My blender has buttons to chop, grate, crumb, puree, liquefy and whip. Guess what it doesn’t have a button for.


Written for Fall 2009 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine

Friday, September 18, 2009

Badass

I like riding my bike, because I like to dress up in the outfit. Anybody looks tougher in black: black biking pants, black leather mesh gloves, black sunglasses. My bike is silver, because I wasn't thinking ahead.

I used to have a purple Sting-Ray. It had one speed. Riding it was easy. You got on, and you went. My second bike was a yellow two-speed. You shifted by kicking the pedals backward. The low gear was always too low, the high gear too high, and I always left a little skid mark when I shifted. When it was stolen, I only pretended to cry.

Nobody wore helmets then. Maybe we should have. You can tell some of us suffered brain damage. Just look at Glenn Beck. We didn't wear gloves or bike pants or even sunglasses. When I see little kids wearing bike helmets today, I think, "Good for you," and then I think, "pussy."

Now I don't bike unless I have enough time. The schedule requires this prep:
Pump up the tires
Strap on my helmet
[crunch]
Take off my helmet
Take my glasses out of helmet
Strap helmet on again
Put my sunglasses on
Take my helmet back off
Find the missing lens
Helmet on, sunglasses on
Attach keys to bike bag—bike pants don't have pockets
Carry my bike up from the basement
Balance it precariously on the steps while I unhook the keys from the bag to unlock the door
Clip keys back into bike bag
Saddle up and lock my feet in the pedal clips
Take feet back out; forgot my water bottle!
Door's locked, go back to bike, get door keys
Get water bottle
Stop by the mirror and flex

This can go on for a while.

This week I planned an Epic Ride, because I had the time. I didn't really feel like it, but after seeing pictures of myself at a recent public event I figured I needed the exercise more than what I really wanted, a margarita. I dutifully went through Steps 1-19 as described above, with one addition: it was late on an overcast day, yet I wanted to wear sunglasses to protect my eyes from bugs. I have biking glasses with interchangable lenses. One set is amber to improve contrast and visibility at just such an hour. I popped out the existing lenses with my thumb, then discovered these weren't my biking glasses.

Eventually I was on my way. There is a wonderful long hill as I turn off my street, and as I approached warp speed my skin began to smart from a peppering of thousands of teeny gnats that filled the air. Where did they all come from? They were so thick I couldn't catch a breath, couldn't see straight, didn't want to open my mouth to cry out. This sucks. I got all tough looking for nothing.

Bike pants are made of stretchy Lycra, with elastic in the waist and around both thighs, and a little cushy pillow sewn into the butt that is attractive only to baboons. The elastic waistband in my bike pants chose this moment to give up. I admit, a lot has been asked of it lately. When the waist elastic fails, the rest of the stretchy material pulls down.

The little butt pad no longer looked like a baboon's ass. Sagging, it now looked like a full diaper. Instead of protecting my bum when I sat, it was now bunched up under my nethers, about as comfortable as sitting on a softball.

I no longer felt very badass. Usually I can glare wayward cars into submission, but more of them than usual were rolling through stop signs at me. Instead of giving me plenty of clearance, more slow pedestrians were amblilng in front of me, forcing me to weave around them. I felt like I was at Wal-Mart.

The Epic Ride was edited down to A Quick Spin. I putted around the neighborhood until I had ridden for more time than I had spent setting up, which is a personal rule. As I took the last turn, I passed a pretty young pedestrian who lowered her eyes the way a person does when encountering someone intimidating. I still got it, I thought.

I saw why too, when I spied my reflection in the window: two thousand squashed bug eyeballs ogling back at me.

Step-off-quick-drink-from-water-bottle-that-you-didn't-touch-the whole-trip-no-kickstand-find-a-place-to-lean-bike-helmet-off-sunglasses-back-in-helmet-gloves-too…

[pause]

Wait.

[fumble, fumble]

Where are my keys?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I am a sell-out


The book release party last Thursday was among the most exciting nights of my life. So nervous I couldn't breathe. The room filled with awesome people. Jeff, Katie, Vern and the Korey band all gave fantastic performances.

And we sold out of books! Yay for me, and yay for you too: if you didn't get a book at the discounted release party price, lulu.com has agreed to give 10% off any online order placed from here. Just enter the coupon code LULUBOOK when you order. It's a secret gift to you for reading this blog.

Great review in The Reader too. Hip-hip . . .

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Orienteer

I took an orienteering class in college. Orienteering is walking around with a compass, faster than everybody else. Someone tells you which way to go, and how far. Sort of like the Army, without the haircut.

For one of our exams, we were instructed to drop a dime in the grass. Then the teacher gave us a complicated instructions:
Go 72 yards at a heading of 290 degrees
48 yards at 46 degrees
91 yards at 198 degrees . . .

. . . and so on. He designed the directions so that if I followed them correctly I would end up standing on my dime.

The first test was easy. I found my dime in the grass on the first try. The exercises grew more complicated. I learned a trick: in order to get an A on the test, it helped to have a few extra dimes in my pocket.

With the invention of GPS, you just enter the location you want, and the device points the way. It requires about the same skill as filling out a crossword puzzle with the answer sheet in front of you. But at least you end up where you wanted to go, and you don’t need to carry extra change.

Compasses are sexy. The invisible forces of magnetism are harnessed by your magic needle, gleaning clues from the unseen.
Maps are like that too. They tell the future. They’ll tell you a town is two miles over the hill and beyond the next left turn, which you can’t even see. You go over the hill and around the corner and—oh my God there it is! It’s like tarot cards that actually make sense.

I haven’t plied such sorcery for years. I recently went on vacation in the Black Hills, where you can hike to unimaginable views. I bought a topographical map for ten dollars, cheaper than one visit to a palm reader, and with more lines. I brought my trusty compass, a transparent orienteering one that lays over a map and reveals secrets.

I pointed the compass at Harney Peak, the tallest mountain east of the Rockies, and took a reading: 45 degrees. Then Little Devil’s Tower, the scariest cliff I’ve ever peered over: 64 degrees. Cathedral Spires, a craggy, spiky formation that will give you religion, 72 degrees. On my map I drew light pencil lines through all three mountains using the measured vectors. The lines converged on one spot. Me.

Three mountains, each over 2 billion years old (6000 in Fundamentalist years), agreed that I exist. My head swirled at the thought. I marked a dot on the map. Me.

I looked up at Laura. She was eighteen feet away at 48 degrees, sitting in a chair atop a high cliff, looking down upon layers of blue-gray South Dakota hills fading into an imperceptible seam with the sky. She had wrapped herself in a warm wool blanket, and had book in her lap, a margarita in her hand. Laura can enjoy the view without maps.

She smiled. “I love to watch you geek out like that.”

“I’m on the map,” I announced. “I’m right here.”

“I knew you would be.”

“Will you marry me?”

“Yes.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Feeling Flushed

I got my water bill this week. My usage was five times higher than last year. It’s the price I pay for not fixing the leaking toilet. At about $29, it’s a fair price.

I know exactly how to fix a toilet. I know what’s involved, because I’ve done it before. That's why I put it off.

The first time I liberated a toilet from the floor was when I remodeled the former Musette Bar. It had the kind of bathrooms you’d expect in a 70-year-old pub. I didn’t want to stand in the bathroom, much less crawl down on the floor with a wrench, cheek to cheek with the toilet, looking up from the bottom to remove the tank.

If you can find the floor bolts under the filth, they will be rusted on. Urine is corrosive.

It amazes me that a man can hit a tiny golf ball with a skinny club and knock it into a four-inch hole three hundred yards away, but he can’t hit a toilet bowl from thirty inches.

It’s hard to drain all the water out of the tank and bowl before you remove them. Inevitably they splash. Yes, it’s just water, the same water that comes out of the sink. But once it’s been in the bowl, it’s toilet water, and now it’s running into your shoe. You try to get your mind onto more palatable things, but every step reminds you of the task at hand.

The toilet peels away easily from the floor. The gooey connection that once existed between bowl and sewer pipe looks exactly like you’d expect. But it’s not what you think. The gummy charcoal-colored goo is wax, a once amber-colored seal. It’s fake shit, really, as real-looking as the fake vomit in the novelty store, except it’s made of wax. It is Madame Tussaud’s mixed with Spencer Gifts.

It scrapes off easily with a putty knife. Nothing could look more repugnant, but it doesn’t stink. Of all the vile places to find yourself in the world, the connection between toilet and floor doesn’t smell. Good news, but you’re not smiling.

Jimmy lived in a humble apartment above the bar. A one-eyed Marine veteran and retired union bricklayer, Jimmy’s job was to defend his stool at the R Bar from 3pm until close. He didn’t walk well sober. Weaving home late one night, he managed to conquer the long, pulsing stairway, making it to the bathroom just in time to relieve himself, at which point he got the spins. The small bathroom became a white tile carousel. He grabbed the metal medicine cabinet for balance. It came loose from the wall, smashing open the toilet tank on the way down.

At 6am the next morning, his neighbor George checked on him to see why the water was running. He found Jimmy asleep on the wet floor, medicine cabinet still clutched to his chest. The toilet, unable to fill a tank that had no front, was now raining onto the bar below. The new stage I had finished the day before was curled up like a potato chip.

There is an unpleasant intimacy in removing the toilet of someone you know. At least by now I was getting faster at it.

Reattaching a toilet is a snap. Set the new wax seal, drop the bowl on top, screw it down with fresh, shiny new bolts, attach the tank on top, screw on the water connections, turn the water on, scream because water is flying everywhere, shut the water back off, tighten the connections, and—voilà!—you’re done. Okay, not voilà. Voilà is not a toilet word.

After replacing a toilet, you can’t wash your hands enough. I took a whole shower, scrubbing with an abrasive, long handled brush because I didn't want to touch myself. Some sweet-smelling lotion afterwards, nice white clothes. Fresh, garden tomato bruschetta, a glass of red wine. A spirited discussion of live theatre. Anything to reel me back to civilization.

I sat on the veranda in the candlelight holding my wine, unable to relax because every droning cricket and cicada sounds just like a leaking toilet.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Boxed In

If I tried to roll dough into a rectangle, I wouldn't be able to do it.

I had my heart set on making pizza last night, but discovered I didn't have any yeast. So I saved time by buying one of those dough-in-a-tube things. I cracked open the tube and unrolled the yellow dough. It was the shape of a cookie sheet.

I don't know if that shape is supposed to be convenient for me or for them, but I didn't want a rectangle. If God wanted pizza to be rectangular, he would have shaped Italy like Wyoming. I associate rectangular pizza with Roy's Pizza in my old home town. Roy's Pizza was made with boiled hamburger.

So I wadded the dough into a ball, mushed it, then stretched and pulled it out into a…rectangle? Try again.

I wadded it up again and whacked it with my rolling pin, then rolled it out again.

Rectangle.

No matter what I did, the dough would return to its original dimensions, as if it had a genetic memory, as if the shape were a Pillsbury trademark.

Any other time I'd be proud to be able to roll a sphere of dough into perfect corners. It ought to be impossible, but here I was, so good at it I couldn't stop doing it. Now it was personal. I didn't want no skanky Roy-ass rectangle pizza.

Laura touched my shoulder as gently as if it were a mousetrap and whispered, "Michael, relax. Deep breath. Count to ten. Cooking is fun."

It is only the second time in my life that I have actually counted to ten. The other time was also in the kitchen.

I whacked, kneaded, wheedled, stretched and rolled to a draw. It was certainly not a circle, and one might see hints of a parallelogram, but the finished shape was mostly amoebic. Laura thought it looked like a slug. But definitely not a rectangle.

The overworked crust turned out as light and flaky as slap leather. It tasted rectangular.

This morning I lifted my head from my rectangular pillow, rose from my rectangular bed, shuffled out of my rectangular bedroom and saw my rectangular morning hair in my rectangular bathroom mirror. I had eaten a rectangle, and now I felt like The Fly.


As I write this I notice that, although my Macintosh computer screen is distinctly rectangular, the computer itself is shaped exactly like a ball of dough.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Aw, Shucks

The Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop at the University of Dayton just named me Humor Writer of The Month. Getting out of bed this morning wasn't a mistake after all!

Thank you, Matt.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Raising The Dead

Last night I slept like the dead. Unlike the dead, I woke up feeling great. So I guess I slept more like Jesus.

I shared that with some friends on a blog, and in a torrent of responses it was suggested that I probably slept more like Lazarus. I suppose it was too much for my friends to think I might do anything like Jesus.

Lay down your pitchforks and snuff your torches. I didn't say I was like Jesus. As close as I ever got to being Jesus was when I wore my curly hair very long with a scruffy beard, and favored flowing linen and leather sandals. One morning in church a little girl looked at me sweetly and asked, "Are you Jesus?"

If she would have said "George Carlin" I would have lied and teased and pretended. I personally know three friends who have been struck by lightning. Clouds gathered over my head while a clear voice inside me advised, "Don't even."

"No, little angel," I smiled. "I'm Michael. But Jesus thinks you're a great little girl and He said to tell you hi."

Should I have said I slept like a baby? When I owned Mick's Music & Bar, I slept like a baby: I woke up screaming every two hours.

I once had a dream about Jesus. He was a woman, and lived in a sand castle. After She saved my life, by literally lifting me up, she gave me a kiss. I awoke and wrote it all down. So if you are inclined to torches and pitchforks, there you go.

I didn't sleep like Lazarus. Lazarus, according to the New Testament story, went to bed gravely ill. He sent for his friend Jesus to visit him. Jesus, trolling about another town, promised to go but dawdled in the crush of admirers. By the time he arrived at the home of Lazarus, he was harshly informed by the poor man's shrill wife that Lazarus had been dead in his tomb for four days, and who do you think you are? and, so—now you're too good to visit your dying friend? Shame!

Jesus did what any man would do under such a blistering admonition: He squirmed. "Dead? Nobody's dead," Jesus shrugged innocently. "Lazarus isn't dead." They rolled away the stone, and out stumbled a bleary, cloth-wrapped Lazarus, feeling his way blindly out of the cave to many ooohs and ahhhs. Neat trick.

My mind reels at all the trouble I could have avoided if I could just change the circumstances after the fact. "I didn't forget your anniversary, honey! Look—[pling!] our anniversary is tomorrow!"

Of all the miracles Jesus performed—healing the sick, feeding the hordes, water to wine—this seems to be the only stunt he pulled to get himself out of a jam. Yes, he walked on water, but that was to prove a point. He didn't jump out of the storm-swamped boat to save himself. After he gave his friends a good scare and gave a little speech, he got back in the boat.

You could argue that he blew life back into Lazarus to impress the onlooking Jews, many of whom converted on the spot. But they would have been just as impressed if Jesus had turned the yelling woman into a slab of salt.

As a child I learned a song about "Lazarus was a wee little man…" I try to remember it but I always end up singing the words to "Old King Cole."

Jesus arose. Lazarus was awoken by Jesus.

I woke up alone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Lot in Life

“Is a stick-shift hard to learn?”

“Nearly impossible.”

“Then why do we have to learn it?”

“Because maybe someday there will be an emergency.” They can always sense when I’m winging it. “Maybe the only car available to go get help will be a stick-shift.”

My twin daughters continue to look at me blankly while I think again. “All the best sports cars are stick-shift. More power.”

Without another word, they’re both in the back seat of my 1988 stick-shift Celica convertible. Learning to drive in a convertible is vulnerable: everyone can see your wild eyes, laugh at your jerking head and overhear your pleas to God.

I already had a good spot to teach them. There was a former horse-racing track in my neighborhood, that is now a giant, vacant parking lot with plenty of room for lurching and careening to and fro. Occasionally I’d see another parent there, teaching his kid to drive, but we’d stay well clear of each other in this giant game of car pinball.

“Ease the clutch out slo—”

Bam! The car leaps into the air, than lands with a bounce, the engine silent.

“—wly.”

I don’t know what we’ll wear out first: the clutch or the starter.

I’ve done this before, so I have some experience. I’ve even already made an appointment with my chiropractor.
“Give it a little more gas," I tell Kate. "Then gen—”

My voice is drowned out by the engine as it spins up to nuclear reactor velocity.

“Don’t—”

Screeeee! The front tires smoke and squawk. Our skulls bury into the headrest and the skin on our faces stretches taut. She panics, instinctively yanking her foot off the gas and hits the brake. Whap! We launch face first into the dashboard, then bounce upright like three wide-eyed bobble-head dolls, as silent as the dead engine.

“Is it Molly’s turn yet?” Kate asks, looking straight ahead.

I’m not stupid, I didn’t start them on a stick-shift. I had an old truck, white with rust accents, that I used to teach them the basics: how the steering feels, how to brake gently, where the ignition and turn signal are. One day after a hard snow I even took them out to practice skidding precariously, under the presumption that I was showing them how easily the truck will break into a death spin. Secretly I just wanted to spin cookies on the ice. I hit the gas and threw it into a tight turn. They shrieked and I grinned as the back end lost traction and passed the front end, and we were driving sideways. Then the tires hit a dry patch and gripped, tossing the truck suddenly sideways onto two wheels, where it teetered precariously while we all said silent prayers. It answered them by coming down upright.

“Um, that’s it for the skid lesson. You see what I mean. Who wants some hot chocolate?”

“Yeah, Dad,” they both said in unison, which sounds weird when it comes from twins.

I had an inspiration one day: parking practice. We drove back to our vacant lot, which still had faded yellow parking stall lines.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” I explained. “I’m going to choose a parking stall and stand in front of it. You have to park in that spot without ever crossing any of the yellow lines.”

With foresight I had decided on using the old white truck for this exercise, because it would require using some of the brain cells that were currently being devoted entirely to keeping a jittery foot smoothly on the clutch. I did not want to be run over by my own lunging Celica.

This will be fun! Nobody ever gave me parking stall lessons. I was proud of myself as I got out and walked about fifty feet away, choosing a random spot. I stood there with my arms authoritatively on my hips, and nodded a go-ahead.

The truck sat silently for a long time. Maybe they didn’t understand the directions? I nodded again. I could barely make out their faces through the glare of the windshield. Were they were discussing something? Finally, the truck began to move, slowly, gently, down the aisle, carefully between the yellow guides. It kept going past the end of the aisle, turned away from me, drove down the parking lot, around the old abandoned stadium and out of sight.

A parking lot is surprisingly quiet when you’re not supposed to be standing alone in the middle of it. After a few minutes, I chuckled, “Heh, that was a good one. They’ll be back any minute.” Heh. Any minute came and went.

Molly is an irreverent little cuss. In a restaurant she jokingly loaded a straw full of Coke and aimed it right at me, an inch from my nose. I didn’t blink. “Go ahead,” I said flatly, channeling Clint Eastwood.

The brain can calculate a thousand possible consequences in a second. I saw all one thousand pass behind her eyes, then all I saw was Coke.

The look on her face as I regained my vision was a combination of “That was awesome” and “I am now dead.” It was the same expression I saw on her face as the truck finally crept back into view after a long ten minutes had passed. “Sorry, you get an F on that exercise.” I said. “You drove over the yellow line.”

Eventually they learned the important driving basics: how to cruise quietly down residential streets, creep carefully into the garage, stay off the crosswalk, and reset the radio buttons. With a scream worthy of Robert The Bruce throwing himself at the despicable British, they entered busy four-lane Leavenworth Street, so narrow that even experienced drivers often cheat two wheels into the wrong lane. “DAD!” they cried out at every oncoming car, as if I too wasn’t facing death head-on.

Because I cherished my little Celica, I bought them their own car, a perky little Honda, with a stick-shift they were soon flipping with the same absentminded agility as with a mascara brush.

I expected accidents. Molly, in particular, inherited her father’s lead foot. Forget the car—I prayed only that their precious, lanky, tan bodies would be spared. But not one scratch on any of those three cars could be attributed to them, save maybe the door scuff more justly blamed on the too-narrow garage.

They grew up, moved on to colleges where cars were impractical. It hurt to sell their sexy little red Honda. Last summer the transmission fell out of the old truck, now rust-colored with white accents, and the following fall the convertible caught fire and burned to the ground beside a remote South Dakota highway. Now I too drive an old Honda, more burgundy than red, and it doesn't have the same sass.

As far as I know they have never had a car crash of any kind. Last week I backed my girlfriend’s brand new truck into a light pole in an empty parking lot. I must have crossed the yellow line.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Close Shave

In the beginning, there were the original twins, born of the original sin. Maggie's cow-like black and white spots caught the green eye of a marauding black tom, who drug her away by the scruff into the bushes, where she apparently enjoyed the unspeakable.

A litter soon followed: three little Holsteins, and one tell-tale black kitten with green eyes. Two cow kittens were adopted, and I kept the other two.

Like all biblical twins, my cats were exact opposites. Libby the cow kitty was sweet and loving, got along with everybody. Her twin brother, as black on the inside as he was on the outside, was scared of his own shadow, hated being touched, and turned everything into a litterbox. They were Elaine and Abel.

With the same logic that people name cats with white feet "Boots," I named him Putz. Libby was silky soft and healthy. Putz had mangy bald spots and colon problems. They eventually died just four months apart, of old age; Libby's kidneys were failing, and she passed peacefully after an injection. Putz dripped and oozed his way through seventeen years of my life before he gave up, toothless, arthritic and cross-eyed.

With mixed feelings of heartache and elation, I was liberated. I intended to go catless for a while. But as often happens, cats arrive without invitation. At two months of age, Spek fell from Heaven into my juniper bush. Romeo was donated to me by someone who couldn't stand his constant moanings throughout the night, which sounded like a skin flick soundtrack.

Like the twins had been, Spek and Romeo are yin and yang: she is Mary Poppins, perfect in every way. He is Bert, ashy and dusty black, but he wins your heart with relentless efforts. She is lithe and short-haired. When anyone meets him, they exclaim, "Holy cow, he's fat!" I try to explain that he is just big-haired, but the damage is done.

Romeo has always struggled, pawing his way through life. He first came from the Pound with a butchered street haircut that exposed his scrawny ribs. He was always picked last for basketball. Chased by bullies, he escaped by a whisker. His nickname was "Puss."

Romeo’s ’fro eventually got of hand, too long, thick and matted to lick. Slimy hairballs were appearing everywhere this summer, just in time for barefoot season. The first hot days made it all too clear that it was time for Romeo's annual buzz.

Romeo surprised me with this announcement: he wanted to donate his ample locks to a new charity, Sweaters for Sphynxes. They knit coats for those rat-looking hairless cats like Mr. Bigglesworth, who, thanks to the miracles of inbreeding, are born bald, a cross between a wingless bat and Yoda.

The mood was somber as we sheared Romeo like a lamb. He puckered sheepishly as the humming clippers razed around his delicates, peeling off thick sheets of pelt. We filled a garbage bag with enough fur to knit two cardigans, one coat of many colors, and a matching set of gray mittens, which for cats is two pair.

Romeo's good karma is already apparent. Putz, the Patron Saint of The Scruffy, smiles down upon him. When it came time to choose sides for basketball, Romeo beamed as the skins team picked him first.

Monday, June 15, 2009

In One Ear

Q-tips: the crack of the hygiene world.

Sticking a Q-tip in your ear buzzes synapses like being kissed on the back of the neck. Except being kissed on the back of the neck is perfectly good for you, as long as you are not being kissed by someone else’s wife.

Something is probably bad for you if you can’t stop yourself from moaning while you do it. When I pet dogs I sometimes wiggle my knuckle under their ear flap, and they moan the same way. I wouldn’t stick a Q-tip in a dog’s ear, though, because their brains are so small I’m afraid I’d clean them right out.

Q-tips don’t clean your ear very well. I looked up a medical website so I would know what I was talking about, and they said you shouldn’t remove cerumen from your ears. I think cerumen was one of the things the Wise Men gave baby Jesus. If a Wise Man pulled it out of his ear, he was probably just trying to make Jesus laugh, like when my Uncle Milton once pulled a penny out of my ear.

Removing the wax dries out your ear and makes it itch, so you grab for another Q-tip. It’s crack, I tell you. Soon you’re alone under a bridge with a box of dirty Q-tips in a brown paper bag, doing two at a time.

Ear candling popped up briefly as a fad recently. It claimed to remove ear wax by melting it with a candle stuck into the ear. It didn't feel nearly as sexy as Q-tips, and after various people set their heads on fire and dripped hot wax onto their perforated their eardrums, the fad died down.

Q-tips mash down the tiny hairs inside your ear, and that’s bad. You end up with more dirt, more infections, and the most annoying affliction of all, more people saying, “I told you so.” Dr. Rod Moser states that the safest tool for cleaning your ear is your elbow. Dr. Moser is as funny as my Uncle Milton.

The Chesebrough-Pond company, makers of Q-tips, is very quiet on the subject because they know 99% of people buy Q-tips to stick in their ears. The company walks a delicate line: they can’t tell not to stick a Q-tip in your ear because they’ll go broke. But they can’t encourage you to do it because you’ll sue them when you drive one through your eardrum into your brain, which would somehow be their fault. The box claims that Q-tips are “the perfect tool for uses outside the ear.”

That’s like saying heroin is the perfect drug for uses outside your veins. What uses are there, outside of the ear? Mouse barbells?

Their website doesn’t offer any helpful tips, so to speak, probably because there aren’t any. But I did learn the glorious history of Q-tips. They were invented by Leo Gerstenzang. Judging from his name I think he also invented the ricochet.

He started the Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Company, which was a pretty smart idea, since everything is a novelty to an infant. Q-tips were originally called Baby Gays, which near as I can tell is the only clue they give as to alternate uses.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Break a Leg

Laura is an actor, and was recently in a very significant play. Big stage, good role, full house. Friends lined up to wish her "good luck!"

"Aaack! Never say 'good luck' to an actor!" she'd reply in wide-eyed alarm. "It's bad luck. Say 'break a leg.'"

"Sorry," the friend would reply, sorry mostly that he wished her good luck in the first place.

"Break a leg" is a superstition I struggle to understand. Tradition or not, saying "break your leg" to Laura is like telling my daughters, "I hope you knock out a tooth!"

Some say the tradition started with John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor then and a famouser assassin now, who broke his ankle jumping from the elegant box seats of the Ford Theater, after successfully shooting Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. Most of us wouldn't wish him good luck in any form and are glad he broke his leg. If any advice was to be gleaned from the experience, it's "Don't hide in barns full of flammable hay!" Or, Our American Cousin? Save it for DVD!"

But those take too long to say. We need something snappy, concise. "Break a leg" has a nice ring to it. Actors know a hook.

The French, Spanish and Portuguese wish each other "lots of merde/mierda/merda." That is, shit. "Merde!" is also a good luck wish in ballet, commonly used worldwide. It is considered bad luck to say "break a leg" to a ballerina.

The theoretical origins of "break a leg" are too numerous to list, and they all sound like they were made up by actors.

Actors have more superstitions than anyone, even pitchers. They think they'll learn a script better if they put it under their pillow while they sleep. I tried that for junior high English class. Sleeping over the Cliff's Notes worked about as well, which is to say not at all, but I finished sleeping in half the time.

A bad dress rehearsal fortells a good opening night. If only in comparison.

Peacock feathers are never be allowed on stage, even as a prop. This superstition was probably started by peacocks.

Actors never use real money on stage. That's no surprise. Actors never use real money anywhere.

Green is an unlucky color for actors. This is said to be because most shows used to be staged outdoors, and actors may be confused with bushes. Unless, of course, the bushes are better actors.

I witnessed a rehearsal where the play ended and all the actors suddenly glared agape at one hapless member of the troupe. They hollered that she was never to to utter the last line of a play until the audience is in attendance. To everyone's astonishment, the building did not burn down. It almost did, but they hired Carl Beck back again.

Never mention or quote Macbeth while in a theater. This is because the play is cursed. They used real witches for the first production. That turned out as badly as their decision to use real swords for the fight scenes. The show Mystery Hunters tested the Curse of Macbeth by walking around in a theater whispering "Macbeth!" Nothing happened. They concluded the superstition was unfounded. The rest of us concluded that they weren't good enough actors.

Actors always leave one light on in the theater at night. This practice has spread to society in general, as we all discovered it is bad luck to stumble around a cluttered, pitch black room.

Theaters are always closed one night a week to allow ghosts to perform their own play. Usually it is a Monday. No one has ever witnessed a ghost performance, but only because it is so hard to get people out on a Monday night.

So "good luck" is bad luck. With all those superstitions, my dad found it easier to just say the opposite of what he meant. "Don't get a real job!" "Don't go back for your MBA!"

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Crunch Time

When I was in high school I bought an MG. it was only $500, because its owner had driven it into a pole so hard that the bumper touched itself on the other side. The smash cost me $1000 to fix. It wasn't a bad deal. I drove it for four years until I sold it to buy a wedding ring.

The first crash I was invited to join was when three high school classmates ran a red light, and I T-boned them on my motorcycle. As was my custom, I was speeding, which might have been good because I jumped right before the impact and flew over the whole mess. Time went in slow motion, so I had plenty of time to see six pie-eyes through the windshield as I went by. That one cost me $600, because they lied to their dads about the red light. I didn't get screwed again until, as I said, I sold that MG.

Five years later I changed lanes in my windowless Chevy van while a guy was trying to pass me. Everyone passed my van, so I should have expected him, but I didn't. I dinged his fender. His fender dinged me for $300.

Although plenty of people have taken little potshots at my cars since then, I was never around, so I didn't know who to shoot. Twenty-five years have passed without me being in an accident, which is unfair given how I drive. I once went from downtown to my house at 70mph. I hit all the lights, and nothing else.

Like everything else over the years, crashes have changed.

I borrowed my girlfriend's shiny new silver truck to pick up a few groceries, and as I was leaving I accidentally backed into a light pole that was wisely planted in a fat, barrel-shaped concrete base. I was going 2 miles per hour, which is slow even for going backwards. It is a high-tech vehicle, with airbags in the front for head-ons and airbags on the sides for T-bones. It doesn't have an airbag on the back for stupid.

It made a terrible crunch, so I figured I cracked the plastic cover over the spare tire. Although it costs them $3 to manufacture, I knew it would cost me $250 to replace. I didn't even bother to look until I got home. It's only a bumper, and bumpers are designed to bump. When I did look, it appeared that the pole my MG once hit had come back for revenge. I think her truck is made out of fine china.

I didn't know where to take it for repair. Luckily, I don't know anybody in the business. I asked a friend, "You've had body work done, right? Who did you use?" She looked down at her sweater and back at me, her mouth agape. "No," I added quickly, "your son's car—remember?" So I guess I got two answers.

But it doesn't matter where you go anymore. They all charge pretty much the same. They type into a computer what damage is done and how well you're dressed, and it prints a bill. Body shops used to be gritty affairs, but the one I went to had a waiting room clean as a dentist's, with the same magazines and the same drill noises.

A bumper only has one job to do. It is supposed to let you bump things. These days bumpers are ugly but resilient, with pistons and springs and bendy stuff, and a plastic cover to make it all presentable. I had hoped to replace only the crinkled facade, which I figured these days would cost $1000. Ironically, the part was only $250. I saw it in the middle of the estimate, which was $3118.

For future protection, they recommended that I add on the optional $200 mattress, which they rope onto the back of the car. I'll sleep better knowing it's there. They smiled and waved as I left, knowing they had made another boat payment. I drove over the curb because I was afraid to back up again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mouse Poop

We were hiking a remote trail in Iowa’s Loess Hills when we discovered something curious. Little white droppings, about the size of dog poop, dotted the trail nearly every twenty feet or so. Of course I picked one up.

Light as cotton candy, it appeared to be made of compressed fur which was nearly white. I gingerly picked up a second one. A third had tiny little bones in it.

Owl pellets, I guessed. But why only on the trail? Owls don’t hike.

All my sisters are geniuses. One is a special nerdist in all things outdoors. I asked her: Are there other animals that poop little furry, thumb-sized ex-rodents? And why was the hair almost always ash-white?

Her response:
Okey dokey, hmmm...let's examine the facts.
Owls tend to ralph over the edge of the branch they are sitting on, and pellets come from the uppy end of the owl and not the downy end. They are lovely, dry papery cocoons of fur and bone about the length of a thumb. Baby owls have smaller, marshmallow size pellets with whatever fragments of creature the mom owl rammed down their throat. As they get older, you can see the bones evolve from little mousy heads and toes to broken squirrel femurs and the partial skulls of very small children with buck teeth. Well, maybe they're rabbits, but we don't seem to have as many kids in the neighborhood as we used to, so I'm suspicious.

So what scatalagous treasure do YOU have? Since the evidence was on a trail, I'm guessing fox or coyote. They have territories with trails they follow habitually and while they're looking up into the trees trying to avoid owl vomit, some poop falls out their nether end. Around here, the coyote scat has a lot of either deer hair from scavenging carcasses or snowshoe hare hair, so they seem white. Older poop also appears white from the calcium, I'm guessing, not quite digested from the bones. I suppose it could also be powdered sugar, I'm not a wildlife expert.

The little bones are certainly fascinating. Last night I came across a partially dissolved owl pellet from the family of horned owls we had here last year and there was a perfect little mouse skull with all its microscopic teeth intact, packed gently in the dry fluff of intestinally compressed rabbit down. I have a bowl of owl pellets in my glass bookcase. Saving them for a special occasion, I suppose.

Are you enjoying the freedom of life after bar? I want you to be happy dearie, you're my favorite, after all.


Hmmm. I didn't pick at the poop too much, because I don't remember the last time I had a tetanus shot. Although we found a few bone bits, tiny and probably broken, I imaginethey had been chewed, so the fox theory makes sense. The hair could have been deer, or any of the rodents that hide in those ominous cliffside holes. I’m always afraid something will pop out at me. A fox probably ate one just on principle.

Owls don't really chew, no fault of their own that they don't have teeth, thank Heaven, so I would expect more complete skeletons, tails, toenails, and shirt buttons. Now that I have more information I want to go back and pick at more poop.

During a morel-hunting hike I came home with: 0 morels; 5 ticks; and 1 complete rabbit skull, it's bones fragile and tissue-thin. I bleached it and set it in the sun until it was white. I hung it on my kitchen wall. I hope it makes me king of the rabbits. I'd pet ’em and love ’em and squeeze ’em and—uh oh.

My girlfriend has no morels, coyotes, owls nor cats, so she has mice instead. She tried to be tolerant and generous, but due to lots of springtime mouse-panky, their numbers grew. It seems all forms of traps and poisons are stomach-churning, worse for mice even—so I wrote my sister again for advice.

She replied:

I LOVE mousies. However, when they start filling your oven with dog food copped out of the doggie dish in the dark of the night, it's time for disciplinary action.

Sticky traps are perverted versions of La Brea tar pits for mice. Horrible and traumatizing (at least to me).

I found some interesting little live traps that work on the principles of greed and balance. Mousie goes in and when he reaches that little blob of peanut caviar in the back, the assembly tilts and the door flops down. Works pretty darned good. Open the door and the mousie shoots out like a bottle rocket. Startling the first time, especially if you point it at your face. Wear safety glasses. 

However, I ended up laying awake at night waiting for that “click,” not wanting the little critter to linger in that claustrophobic environment for even a few minutes. Once I had a mousie trapped all night and when I dumped him out, he was soaking wet with the moisture escaping both ends. Also, if your mice are chubby from all the dog food, they may not fit. I had dainty little deer mice; I'm not sure some of those mongo Omaha honkers could even get their heads in.

Traps have to be set right at the edge of walls or cabinets, not in the middle of the room where you might catch a cat. Cats will sue your ass.

Peanut butter is the absolute best catching food, bar none. It's so sticky that by the time they've licked their chops and swallowed it, they're so exhausted they stagger into the tripping mechanism. Watch out for the Salmonella peanut butter, it might kill them.

Once you catch a mouse, empty its pockets. They carry maps. Doesn't matter how many times I've dumped one of those little dudes outside, they find their way back to my silverware drawer by the next day.


Okay. Anyone have an owl I can borrow?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

In Your Dreams

I awoke to what sounded like a nice dinner party: happy laughter, flirty conversation. My girlfriend has the most engaging, infectious laugh, and I wondered uncomfortably who she was laughing with.

I felt like I was eavesdropping, the way you feel when someone is talking baldly into their cell phone right next to your head. You’d like to give them some privacy if only you could figure out how. You can't very well dig a hole in the sidewalk and put your head in it. This psychological discordance is the basis for why we want to snatch the phone out of their hands and stomp it.

Her laugh came easily, her hands were animated. Clearly, she was having a lovely time, and clearly, she was dreaming. I dearly wanted to hear he chuckle, “Oh, Michael, you’re so clever,” and was sure at any moment I would hear her say, “Ha-ha-ha—oh, Bob…”

Like looking into a Kleenex, where you know there's nothing good to see but you peek anyway, I listened. I did not hear my name or anyone else’s. Indeed, although her words were quite clear, I strained to recognize a single one of them. Perhaps she was enjoying a bistro lunch with Pierre. Or maybe dreams are coded to protect the dreamer.

Mercifully, it was over quickly. Check, please!

Why should I care? It’s her dream, after all, and she’s entitled to wander to all kinds of experiences, as long as she boils herself afterwards. Thankfully, God alone is witness to the weird stuff that goes on in my head at night, and I don’t choose any of it. I definitely don’t choose the terror of being locked deep in an Italian church basement, surrounded by gargoyles night after night. Maybe it’s a nightmare for my girlfriend to have wine at a sidewalk cafe with Pierre in Paris.

It’s just as well I can’t choose my dreams, because I’d stick to the same five or so, and enjoy them over and over, much like Omaha radio. At least now I have to get up and run occasionally.

Feeling bad about how I answered the following question, I posed it to my friends: Who would you rather be: The good boyfriend a woman chooses to keep and trust and love? Or the bad boy she dumped as unworthy, but whom she secretly has dreams about? All hands shot up unanimously before I even finished the question: “Bad!” Male or female, every person but one answered the same way, and the one holdout was lying. We’d rather be the name in the dream than the guy in the bed.

A friend of mine was watching a romantic movie with her husband, and they watched the woman writhe in ecstasy as a love scene played out on the screen in front of them. “I look like that to you,” he asked tentatively, “don’t I?”

“Yeah you do,” she replied. “When I close my eyes.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Voting with the Stars

It's an odd election year. Maybe you didn't even know it was an election year.

Omaha is odd anyway. We vote for our mayor during odd numbered years when everyone else's yards are free from bright red and blue yard signs, thick as spring dandelions. But this year offers a stark choice among the two mayoral candidates: one a meeting-lover, one a pile-driver.

Statistically, it's a tight race. Five percent of voters strongly favor one candidate or the other, twenty percent are undecided, and seventy five percent don't know there's an election.

It boils down to this. One candidate doesn't care what you think; he already knows what he wants to do. The other candidate needs to call a meeting to find out what he thinks. How do you choose from that?

Let the stars decide. Look up your astrological sign below, and let fate take its course.

Aries: You are bright, dynamic, quick-witted and impatient. You will vote early, and choose the first person on the list, just to get it over with.

Taurus: You are determined, efficient, stubborn, and conservative. You will be on your hands and knees pulling weeds in your yard when you realize you forgot to vote.

Gemini: You are lively, social, literary and communicative. You will read all of Hal Daub's treatises and attend all of Jim Suttle's neighborhood chats. Then you will flip a coin.

Cancer: You are emotional, sensitive, moody and conscientious. Voting is important to you, and you will be on your way to the booth when someone invites you to a party. Fuck it—you can't pass up a party invitation.

Leo: You are extroverted, dignified, proud, a lover of the limelight. You don't care about this race because you are not running for mayor.

Virgo: Practical, responsible, a careful planner and a dedicated perfectionist. You can't vote because you're a volunteer poll worker.

Libra: You are idealistic, diplomatic, fair-minded, and indecisive. You'd rather not have to choose, because you don't want to make the other candidate feel like a loser.

Scorpio: Intense, powerful, strongwilled, and enduring. You won't vote for Hal Daub because he pissed you off fifteen years ago and you haven't forgotten about it. Suttle's out because you think he's a pussy and you hate pussies. You'll write in the name of one of your friends.

Sagittarius: You are idealistic, optimistic, freedom-loving and gregarious. It's only the mayoral race—how much harm can he do? You skip voting in favor of a bike ride in the sun.

Capricorn: You are ambitious, disciplined, thrifty, and responsible. I wish you were running. Vote for yourself.

Aquarius: You are individualistic, unconventional, independent, and unpredictable. Like I'm supposed to figure out who you'll vote for?

Pisces: You are supersensitive, impressionable, sympathetic, and intuitive. Daub is good because, like, he has all that experience, but he also made a lot of enemies when he was mayor before, y'know? Suttle gets along pretty well with everybody, but that's only because he tries so hard to please everybody and doesn't really take a stand of his own. But really, that can be a good thing too, you know, because listening is important, and it's  best to have a consensus, but dude, sooner or later a guy has to take a stand and pick a side, you know?, and you can't just gather opinions all day, and so maybe…what's that? The poll closed?