31 January 2011

Aztec Bard...Straight, No Chaser.

On the day that Dan Dretzka fell through the ice there was a breeze that whispered “spring” to those who were listening. Mike Stencil wasn't listening. Nobody was, really – they were all too busy thinking about the high gas prices and wondering what this thing called “disco” was all about. The Dretzka family didn't think too much about disco, to tell the honest truth, and neither did the Stencils. They didn't think too much about listening for the things that a winter breeze might be saying that dark, dark day, either.

First of all, Dan Dretzka (not his real name, but it sure sounds a lot like his real name if you must know) fell through the ice and was drowned. It was winter, and we were always told to stay away from the shoreline of that big old body of water that was so big and frightening and laid there cold and ominous all winter long. It is one of what we call the “Great Lakes," children.  Seeing as part of this vignette takes place in Milwaukee and part in Chicago, you can guess which Great Lake it is. We were told to stay away from the shoreline during winter when all of the ice built up into great sheets that stretched out over the surface of the water, agitated and weakened by waves until pockets of loose ice formed – deadly little holes that would swallow anyone who put his or her weight on them. Down, down the unsuspecting person would plunge into the icy water. Getting out of there would be next to impossible.

Dan went walking out on the sheets of ice one winter day, and as a friend of his watched in horror he broke through a hole in the ice and snow and plunged – down, down into the icy water. He was not seen again until sometime in spring. Dan made the news twice that year. Those of us who were schoolchildren at the time took our parents' warnings very seriously the next winter.

Mike Stencil did not know Dan Dretzka. I didn't know Dan Dretzka either. I don't know anyone who knew Dan Dretzka personally, and a Google search incorporating his (real) name and the words “Milwaukee,” “ice, “drowning,” and death turn up nothing. I am not surprised, I guess – it was a long time ago, and Dan was just a young kid in junior high school. At the same time that Dan was plunging down, down into the icy waters, Mike Stencil was sitting in a coffeehouse, reading bad poetry. His own bad poetry. Luckily he was reading it silently and to himself.

“Aztec bard scratches belly through guitar;
honey-liquor honey-pot and rasp of sand
look at those damned black eyes of yours
and tell me you lie.

just say it.
tell me.

damned Aztec bard.”

The grey-blue ice and the cold steel-colored waters lie a whole lot less than any Aztec bard, Mike. Just ask Dan Dretzka if you could – you can't, but he would tell you. The ice and the water and snow and the sky and the cold, cold air that he longed to breathe. They told the truth in 1973 and they probably tell the truth today.

Bards always seem to lie – damned Aztec bard.

28 January 2011

The Tiger's Speech

My wife and I just saw “The King's Speech,” and I really did find it to be an excellent film – one of the better ones I have seen, and probably not for the same reasons that so many have been giving it rave reviews. I found myself feeling very tense during the film, to the point of getting that nervous, sick feeling that I get in the pit of my stomach when I am anxious. Colin Firth was very believable as King George VI, but even more believable as someone with a stammer...and I felt for him. Most people who know me would probably never imagine me having a speech problem, and I do a fair amount of public speaking in my line of work. I would wager that some people wish that I spoke a lot less, in fact. Anyhow, there was a period when I was in the single-digits of life that I dealt with a touch of a stammer – mostly with words that started with “t”s and “th”s. It went away on its own – I don't know what happened to it, and I did not do anything particular to clear it up. It left me very self-conscious for a good period of time, though.


“And Tom, you will be our narrator...how does that sound?” My second-grade teacher was looking straight at me, smiling, and she was happy about the whole matter. I was less than enthused.

“Fine, Mrs. Anderson,” I replied. I was somewhat used to this. To give you some background, I was reading quite proficiently well before I ever went to kindergarten – my mother had been reading to me since I was an infant, and almost as soon as I could speak a complete sentence I was reading. Teachers found this entertaining, I think, and during kindergarten I would be excused from nap time to go and read at story time for the first and second grade classrooms. I was something of an oddity, I guess. As a five year old I was falling asleep at night reading volumes of Collier's Encyclopedia (a beautiful, beloved 1965 set). Third grade saw my teacher starting me on Poe and Dickens. Odd, I know. I read Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions in sixth grade, and there learned how to draw a cartoon of a human anus. Great fun for a twelve year old boy in public school education.

Anyhow, back to the story.

For some reason there were certain times when I would stammer – I was fine if I was reading a story from a book, but something about being on stage in a small auditorium freaked me out, and I just could not get certain words out of my mouth. My tongue would particularly hesitate at surrendering a word beginning with “t” or “th”. If a sentence began with such a word, I was sunk. Well, at a critical juncture in the play we were rehearsing – “The Tiger in the Teapot” – there was this line:

NARRATOR: The Tiger sat very quietly in the teapot.

Simple enough. Unless you were me, standing before your class, struggling with “the.” I confessed to my teacher in private that I could not say it...I could not do what I needed to do. She understood, I think, and suggested that I just say “Tiger sat very quietly in the teapot.” As I said, though, t's and th's gave me trouble. This was no good, either. After the end of a very gut-wrenching rehearsal, Mrs. Anderson switched me to the part of the Tiger, who had to say only “yes, I would like it very much,” as the penultimate line of the play. The part had been formerly reserved, it seemed, for a young classmate of mine who was not terribly bright and who could not remember lines very well.

“Could you do this?” Mrs. Anderson wanted to know.

“Yes, Ma'am,” I replied, feeling like a complete failure. My face flushed hot and red.

I think I told a lie to my parents about the whole episode. All I know is that I did not want to wear some lame little tiger costume, sit inside of a cardboard teapot and say one line. My face flushed hotter and redder every time I thought of it. I could not bear the thought of facing my classmates as a freaking tiger.

I faked an illness the morning of the play, and stayed home from school. I laid in bed all day and read, most likely, and tried not to think about somebody else narrating the play.

I never spoke publicly much after that, and I had no desire to take part in school plays. I never really found my voice until high school, behind the safety of an electric guitar. My faithful Fender freed my tongue the way that no therapist ever could have. I have not shut up since. That damned little tiger is always nearby, though, laughing at me and probably ready to pounce at a moment's notice. I keep a close eye on my teapots, as well.

God save the King.

With #3 You Get Egg-Roll

I remember running around in that big green back yard of the neighbors' - the yard  loaded with summertime scenes of grass and dandelions and creeping charlie and a huge, hollowed-out lilac bush that my cousin Steve and I turned into a fort for our six year-old adventures.  I remember the scary, crazy man who lived two doors down from the fort - the man who would stand in the alley and stare at you when you walked past...for some reason the most vivid thing I remember about him was his stubbly chin and the bags under his eyes.  We always told stories about him chasing other kids with a baseball bat - fueled by the true story of my own brother being chased by the guy; the crazy old man driving his Vespa scooter, swinging the baseball bat and my brother running away from him with the Frisbee that had landed in his yard.  Years later I thought about that Vespa scooter and what it might be worth today - a beautiful relic of Quadrophenia and invested with memories too strange to tell.

Thinking back to the yard I see myself in a pair of brown Garanimal trousers - was it the monkey?  A brown bear?  A badger?  Who knows?   I ran around and got into all kinds of six year-old mischief in those trousers, I am sure...grass-stains on the knees, mud on the seat, the usual.  The unusual was the white lumpy stuff into which I knelt one day while Steve and I were having some imaginary adventure in the big green grassy yard.

Mrs. Vilviotchky  had cleaned out her ice-box.

The smell is still with me.  I think the stuff was old rice that had some sort of oil in it - well-aged butter or well-aged vegetable shortening - who knows what some freaky old Polish lady was making in her freaky old Polish kitchen? It was rancid smelling, and had a cloying property that settled in my nose and stayed there for some time.  I carried it around on my trouser knee for a little while, as well, and I had it on my hand, and like a strange little six year-old kid will do I kept taking a sniff of it...I did this all the way home, distractions and all...until I was able to wash it off and as a little kid will do, I didn't change my trousers - I just wiped the crap off my knee and went back to playing.  I ended up touching it again later and the smell was back on my hand again.  Walk...sniff...walk...sniff...play around a little bit...sniff...throw the ball for the dog...sniff.  What a little weirdo I must have been. Sniff.

Every now and again I smell something kind of like that rancid-y old greasy patch of rice from the freaky old Polish lady's freaky old kitchen that got smeared on my Garanimals.  I take a whiff while walking behind the filthy little Chinese restaurant down the street.  I inhale as I drive my car over the tracks near that warehouse just south of here. There it is.

I might as well be wearing brown Garanimals.  Thank God there is no scary, wacked-out old man with razor stubble and baggy eyes chasing me on his Vespa scooter.

27 January 2011

But Everything Tastes Like Chicken

On Tuesday I sat down in the dentist's chair, and suddenly I was at a monastery in upstate New York. Strange as that may be, there is occasionally a wool sweater than takes me from wherever I might be to a concourse waiting area at Orly airport in Paris.  Bam. Just like that.  And every now and again I step out of my office and I am stepping out of the Cherry Court Hotel near Victoria Station in London.  Whammo.


Amazing, aren't they?  There is a type of low-lying ground cover that, when it is run over with a mower, will transport my wife from wherever she is back to her grandmother's house.  The smell of chlorine takes me back, of course, to high school and the pool that I loved so much.  My friend John has the opposite reaction to chlorine:  the smell of it can produce a panic attack as it sends him right back to swimming lessons during grammar school - bad memories of some sort rush to the surface and make him sweat, get all cotton-mouthed and start coughing.

I guess we start associating smells as soon as we notice them, and if the emotions or whatnot are strong enough at the time, something sticks. I am obviously not a student of cognitive science or anything close, as you can tell from that description, but I do know this - scent is powerful...


Mike Stencil was about 23 years old when he smelled the burning flesh.  "Sweet," he thought to himself.  Sweet like a sugary, caramel-ly, sweety meaty stench that nearly made him retch.  Not sweet as in "a sweet deal."  You know what I mean.

Gasoline and human flesh and hair and vinyl seats and a windy day made for a roaring conflagration.  The smoke pouring out from the auto accident carried with it that unmistakable fragrance, and Mike paused to say a Hail Mary.  "God," he thought to himself.  And that was all this young guy who would one day be a priest could think at that moment, "God."

The smoke seemed a lot thicker than smoke he was used to seeing from barbecues and campfires and it was a lot thicker and sweeter than the smoke that would pour from the incinerator that Mike would have to use to burn rubbish for his boss at the shoe store.  Mike didn't know about that smoke yet, though...the shoe store would be ten years off in the future. Today's smoke was thick and dense and sweet as any smoke he'd ever smelled.  "...now and at the hour of our death. Amen," concluded Mike, as he sent the Ave wafting heavenward.  "God," he repeated in the confines of his thoughts.

It would be just a few months later that Mike would be driving down a country highway in the middle of a beautiful autumn, paying no real attention to what he was doing and loads of attention to the fall colors.  As he raced down a long sloping hill, he gave no thought to the oncoming eighteen-wheeler in the distance, and so he was taken quite by surprise at its presence as he skidded into its lane in the low right-hand curve at the bottom of the hill.  Wet leaves and loose gravel aided his car in its slide and Mike in his loss of control. "God..." was all he could get out as he faced the oncoming truck, now wildly blowing its horn.

A fortunately-placed dry patch of road that was free of gravel and leaves grabbed Mike's front left tire, and he shot back into his lane, missing the truck by what seemed like feet but were likely yards.  He coasted to a stop and sat in the driver's seat, shaking and panting, noting an unfamiliar loose feeling in his bowels.  He rolled down the window and took in some air...praying that his heart wasn't going to come pounding right up through his throat.  As he breathed in the cool autumn air he noticed he was being watched by a man on the front lawn of a beautiful farm house.  The man was burning leaves and looking at Mike.  The smoke from the leaf pile was on the breeze and it wafted in through Mike's open window.


26 January 2011


Pete stretched his back against the inside of his T-shirt - he felt the fabric and the sweat and the sand kind of pull against his skin, and it felt good. Good the way that rubbing your eyes when they're tired feels good.  His back was a little tired and his skin felt chafed and his muscles just plain ached, but here he was, sitting in the sand on the outskirts of some nameless town.  It was late in 1990, the men of the First Marine Division were having a quiet moment, and Pete was writing a letter.

"Dear Tom,  Thanks for your letter.  Tell everyone I'm just fine.  The weather is pretty hot but not unbearable.  We're all ready for whatever is coming next, so don't worry.  I spend a lot of time with weapon maintenance and keeping things clean, so I try not to think about where I am too much."

This did not look anything like Chicago, Pete thought to himself - how can I not think about where I am?  That was dumb.  Nevermind.

"Days are pretty long and I never know what's coming next or where we'll be next so I just keep focused on what I'm doing today. It helps."

"Don't worry about sending any of the things you mentioned. I don't think we'll be here long enough for me to read them, and we could move anytime, anyway, so don't worry.  I'll just get home soon and read them when I get back. Thanks for thinking of me in the bookstore though - when I get back, remember me at J.R.'s Liquors, too, OK? Ha ha."

I would give my eye teeth to sit and relax with some of Yeats' poetry, Pete thought to himself.  I shoulda' said to send it. Oh. Nevermind.

"The Saudi sand is holy, so I am not allowed to send any to you, as you asked.  I will therefore discreetly drop the envelope alongside my boot before I seal it.  Anything that gets in and safely makes the trip home you must treat very carefully. Promise?"

"I miss you guys, but I know that I'm where I am supposed to be.  Keep us in your prayers, Tom, and tell everyone I'm fine.  Tell Moose he owes me a beer when I get back - I haven't seen any flying carpets. Write me again soon if you get the chance.  Your friend, Peter."

Pete discreetly dropped the envelope next to his boot.  As he reached for it, he pushed it along the ground a little way, allowing some of the holy sand of Saudi Arabia to get in.  He quickly picked it up and sealed it. Pete stood up next to his Humvee and stretched his arms out, feeling the hot sun on his dry skin.  He heard some Aerosmith coming from a tapedeck in the distance, and thought back to a party one night somewhere in the North Chicago suburbs.

Chicago seemed very far away, and the sand of Lakefront Beach in Evanston seemed infinitely holier.

24 January 2011

And I Drink Martinis like Bertie Wooster

I write like
P. G. Wodehouse

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

A Tale of Two Jerries

When Mike Stencil was still in college - well before anyone had ever dreamed of calling him "Father" and a long time before he ever met Jerry O"Brien - there came a winter of confusion and a winter of sadness and a winter of wild introspection.  A small airplane with his brother at the controls and a lot of December winds took them south from Salt Lake City to a coastal town in southern Mexico, where Mike was able to stay up late listening to music in a hotel bar, drink cerveza before noon, stroll through a sleepy little village, write poetry in the afternoons and wish that he had studied Spanish in High School.  The better part of a month was spent in a Mexican haze, looking at people in the streets from behind his sunglasses and growing the first real beard of his life.

A wild New Year's Eve in a club brought many, many beers and an invitation to go sailing the next day - from another Jerry, fancy that, a Jerry much better off than the one who would enter Mike's life many years later on some dirty streets in a city in Upstate.  This Jerry sailed the coast, plying the beautiful waters of the Pacific, drinking beers and giving day trips to Americans he met in exchange for more beers.  "Come around noon," he told Mike, "we'll have something to eat and drink."

A sunburned afternoon of sailing and drinking left Mike woozy and probably staring too much at the young lady from NYU who also happened to be along for the ride.  "I'm Jewish," she kept telling him, cheerily, in different contexts.

"As if I care," thought Mike.

The afternoon lolled along with the waves, and the beer flowed freely.  Captain Jerry steered his gorgeous boat back to the tiny harbor from which they had begun and after swinging at anchor while the last of the beers were finished off, the captain and passengers watched the sun dip low in the western sky.

Suddenly the young Jewish girl sprang up. "Let's go," she cried, grabbing Mike's hand.  She hit the water before Mike really knew what was happening, and like a fool he followed after.  The rush of cool water brought him to his senses, and when he hit the surface he looked up to see Jerry smiling and waving adios.

Mike looked around while he treaded water, and saw the Jewish girl backstroking away from him, smiling and laughing.  "Who the hell is she, and what am I doing in the water swimming after her?" he thought to himself.  Having nowhere else to go, he began lazily paddling toward her and toward the shore, some 150 yards off.

Streaks of orange and yellow sunlight played over the top of the water all around him, the sounds of the tiny harbor bouncing around the inside of his head that was woozy and already hurting from too much beer, and the smell of the salt water and the diesel of distant boats filtered into his nostrils.  "Beautiful," Mike thought.  "Absolutely beautiful."  It was then that he saw the shark.

No, there was no shark in the water - this story does not end with a shark attack and missing limbs.  It ends with a young Mike Stencil asleep in a lounge chair on the veranda of his hotel, hours after swimming to shore in the midst of a panic attack over a non-existent shark.  It was a shark that he saw in his mind's eye - a shark that bared its hideous teeth and sank them deep into his legs and violently thrashed him about from side to side.  It was a shark that he then saw go and attack the young Jewish girl and rend her limb from limb.  It was a shark that had been in his sub-conscious all his life, perhaps.  It was the same shark that would haunt him all his life - those dead, black eyes staring at him whenever he felt insecure, whenever he felt the grip of self-doubt and failure seize him.  The shark that would surface and make a deadly bee-line for him whenever he was at his lowest - it would play upon all his fears and upon all of his insecurities.  Those sharks can be real bastards, and they don't care who they eat...who they dismember...who they leave washed up on life's beach.

Mike Stencil awoke with a pounding headache.  It was Sunday and church bells were ringing.  Fresh clothes and fried bread and a walk and some Kerouac read in the open air of the village square made him feel human again.  He swam no more for the rest of his time in sunny old Mexico.

22 January 2011

Pick Your Mulch Piles Well

The first time Father Stencil ran into Jerry O'Brien he nearly ran into Jerry O'Brien - quite literally.  Father Stencil ambled out of his rectory one brisk fall morning in a dirty urban landscape in Upstate (do you capitalize "Upstate," Father Stencil always wondered, when you are referring to upstate New York simply as "Upstate?"  He tended to do this.), and he spotted the crumpled woolen and denim pile on the sidewalk, filthy golden tresses of unkempt hair cascading out of a sweater and onto the pavement.  He walked up to the face-down body, bent over and tried to discern if there were any signs of life.

"You ain't gonna' bless me, are you?" creaked Jerry O'Brien through a pasty mouth, opening one crusty eye at the middle-aged priest.

"Only if you want me to," replied Father Stencil.

"Naah.  I'm OK," said Jerry, "I'm OK." He closed his eye, exhaled a long breath and stretched a little bit.

Father Stencil walked away, amused and saddened and puzzled and cold.  The months ahead brought many meetings between Jerry and Father Stencil, none more memorable, perhaps, than the afternoon when Father Stencil exited the church into the back alley, only to find Jerry O'Brien defecating in the large mulch pile the sexton had just had delivered for the church gardens.

"Jerry O'Brien, you stop crapping in my mulch pile!!" cried the priest, red in the face and shaking his fist.

"Sorry Father...when a man's gotta' go..." came the reply from Jerry O'Brien, fumbling with his trousers and trying to pick bits of mulch out of his tighty-whities.  At least it appeared to be mulch he was picking out.

The wind on that spring day was not nearly as cold as the wind on the autumn day when the two had met, but prayers and a blessing were every bit as much needed on the former as on the latter.  A middle-aged priest realized that when a man has got to go, he has go to go.  A middle-aged vagrant realized that some mulch piles are not as well concealed as they appear.  Life is like that.

21 January 2011

Whipped and Abused Honey

So I've been dealing with a cold or some such ailment for about the past week now, and it has left me with very little energy to write or do just about anything except sleep, attend to bodily functions and listen to podcasts.  OK, so I have managed to put in my fair share of hours of work each day, but the writing has taken a hit in the past 5 to 7 days.  Not good.
There comes that point when you are about to make a hot toddy when you are not sure if a hot toddy is really what you need or if a hot toddy is even all that good for you.  My plan for the hot toddy today was going to go something like this:

1 cup of hot water
some honey
some freshly-squeezed lemon juice
some brandy

I started thinking about the wisdom of taking hard liquor when I feel this way, so I then started formulating a secondary plan for the hot toddy.  It was going to go something like this:

1 cup of hot water
1 tea bag
some honey
some freshly-squeezed lemon juice

This seemed like a good plan.  I began rummaging through the kitchen and came up rather short in the lemon department.  Hmmmm.  OK, I thought, we'll look for a lemon tea.  No dice.  I put the whole tea thing on hold and switched to the honey.  Honey.  Honey, honey, honey.  There was a bottle of molasses. No, that would not do.  A thing of maple syrup? Nah.  There was a flask of Martha Washington's Ferry Sauce, made about 6 months ago - that did have honey in it, actually. Hmmmm.

I switched back to the hunt for lemon tea.  Lemongrass tea?  No...the rest of the ingredients sounded a little dodgy, and I don't think that lemongrass actually implies the content of any lemon.  Green tea?  No...it just sounded bad at that moment.  Orange starfruit tea.  Hmmm.   This seemed like a likely contestant, as the orange was close enough to being a lemon and starfruit was at the very least not lemongrass.  I boiled some water and found a mug.

I returned to the hunt for the honey and after a few minutes of searching I was about to give up and use sugar.  At last I spied a jar with something yellow in the bottom - I suppose it could have been chicken fat for all I knew, but I took a chance.  As it turned out it was some kind of honey-product...whipped, spun, beaten, abused, something like that.  I poured a little bit of boiling water into the jar to loosen the stuff up, and in it went with the tea.  Here is how the "hot toddy" turned out:

1 cup of boiling water
1 orange starfruit teabag
some abused honey product of questionable vintage

I managed to drink it down and it seemed to help.  Three hours later I am about to start my search for the next cup, and I almost fear what will pass for a "hot toddy" this time.

15 January 2011

Salt Lick from the Old Country

David Trzebiatowski was a skinny, oily little Polish-American kid growing up in the 1970's on the south side of Milwaukee.  That describes me pretty accurately, as well.  Strangely, that describes about 2/3s of my second-grade class, too.  Anyhow, David T. was a strange little kid (there's the pot calling the kettle black), and I distinctly remember a very strange morning of show-and-tell that involved my oily little acquaintance.

David had recently traveled back to the "old country" with his family over some holiday or something, and while in Poland he managed to visit a salt mine and come back with the most interesting souvenir - a small model of a mining car with a tiny block of pure salt in the back.  Use your imagination - a little four-wheeled cart with railway type wheels and a one-inch square block of salt in it.  What fun.

David stood at the head of the class and beamed as he told about how his uncles and cousins worked in the salt mines (and we all thanked God that our ancestors had had the presence of mine to LEAVE those God-forsaken salt mines in Poland), and he showed us the little mining car model with the salt in it.

"Should I pass it around, Mrs. Anderson?" David asked.

"That would be fine," said Mrs. Anderson.

"Should everyone take a lick?" David asked.

Mrs. Anderson paled.  "No David, I think just passing it around would be fine."

I always kind of wondered what that little block of salt tasted like, but I was always glad that I was not given the chance to find out.

14 January 2011

The More Things Change...You Know the Rest

My friend Pete S. came back from Kuwait late in 1991, I think, and he was never quite the same.  A high school teacher who went to Kuwait with his Marine Reserve unit and came back a battle-hardened Marine.  He had a hard time putting the high school teacher part back into the equation.  It was hard to be a husband and father again, too.  He thought it had something to do with adrenalin addiction - he was forever craving the adrenalin high that he found in the desert and in Ras al-Khafji with Iraqi bullets whizzing past his ear.  The smell of burning petroleum, the darkened desert sky and the wild Humvee rides down some deserted highway with burnt-to-a-crisp Arab bodies littering the landscape.  You remember the photos.  You remember the boys who went and fought.  You remember the men who returned.  A fast war in a fast time for a generation that grew up fast and yet never grew up.  CNN covered it all.  You were there.

Pete wanted to teach history and he wound up making history - yet it was history that has been largely forgotten and eclipsed by "what came next."  Kind of like the veterans of the "Great War" - World War One - being ever in the shadow of "the Greatest Generation."  When I would ask my dad about my grandfather and his service in the US Army artillery back in 1918, there was never much to tell...Dad fought in "the Big One" and naturally that was where it was at - it was what he knew, and as far as his generation cared, it was the war that mattered.  Lots of parallels between those two sets of wars, in some ways.

Pete has disappeared.  I have no idea what happened to him.  He had a hard time getting his life together, and he drank a lot after the war.  He moved to Chicago with his marriage on the rocks, and I never heard from him again.  I have Googled him many a time, I have tried in vain to find him.  I guess in some ways that missing yet not forgotten friend is the converse of who he and his brothers in arms are and of the legacy they have left.  Still in the history books but largely forgotten.  Those men who raced across the desert listening to Jane's Addiction and Guns N' Roses and  raced into history and into a middle age that hit them with a nasty recession and a different world - a world framed by 9/11 and the hyper-connected society.  I pray that Pete broke free from the addiction and has kept whatever job he hopefully found.  I pray that his dreams gradually contained less and less images of sand and smoke and boys who quickly became men.

Cocoons and the New York Yankees

Cocoon.  How does that word strike you?  My old roommate in college, BK, used to say that he wanted to live in a cocoon - especially during the winter months.  My friend and former band-mate Matt used to actually live in a sleeping bag for several months of the Wisconsin winter - he spent as many waking hours at home as possible in his sleeping bag.  The sleeping bag was this sub-arctic mummy-shaped affair that almost looked like some kind of insect body - it resembled a ribbed abdomen, and if Matt could have just poked some antennae out of the top, it would have completed the effect.

Is there a point in the winter when we just want to crawl into a bag and hang suspended upside-down from the limb of a tree?  No, I don't think that is quite what we are looking for.  It has something to do with security, probably - security or anonymity.  A cocoon is not all that secure in reality - it is soft and is prone to having the fangs of a predatory insect sunk into its juicy little cargo.  Perhaps it is the anonymity and the "head in the sand" effect that we crave.  Make it all go away for a while.  Make it seem dark and quiet.  Make me not care.  Is that where alcohol and drugs come in?  Perhaps they are all one in the same desire - the drugs and alcohol just being for those with addictive personalities and the rest of us wishing for a cocoon.

There was someone, I forget who, who said that "one martini is just right, two is too many and three is not enough."  I bet he was a cocoon-wisher...I'll bet you anything.

I just slapped my Yankees cap onto my noggin and off I go to do some house cleaning and laundry.  My Yankees cap - purchased on Fifth Avenue back in 2005 - is going to be my surrogate cocoon for the day.  Pull it on, and forget about the praying mantises that are trying to stab their pointy mandibles into my juicy little abdomen.

Wait a second...I don't see any praying mantises around.  Maybe it's time for a Martini, instead...

12 January 2011

Billy Ditke and His Filthy, Snotty Hoodie

It was 1980, and I was staring at a filthy thirteen-year-old boy who was wearing what twenty five years later the world would commonly call a "hoodie".   We just called them "hooded sweatshirts."  Anyhow, this particular hoodie had two unique features - the right sleeve and the left sleeve.  Not unique, you say?  These two sleeves were filthy and snotty.

Poor Billy Ditke - he had a runny nose most of the year.  I don't know if it was a perpetual cold, allergies or some sinus condition, but the poor kid had clear mucous running down his upper lip all the time.  What does a thirteen year-old kid do in 1980?  I would normally say "blow his nose," but this would be the wrong answer for Billy Ditke.  Billy would just wipe his nose on his sleeve, and for much of the winter he wore this navy blue hooded sweatshirt.  As you can imagine, the result was a pair of very noticeable sleeves.

Poor Billy Ditke - as he stood there before our junior high English teacher, she surveyed his filthy, snotty hoodie.  "Billy," she said, "your sleeves are filthy.  Is that glue?"

"No," replied Billy Ditke, "it's from my nose."

"Billy!  That's awful!"  Our English teacher was not too happy with this, and she let him know about it. "You need to get that sweatshirt into the laundry when you get home."

"No, it's OK," replied Billy Ditke, "I'll take care of it when I get home."

"What do you do with it?" She asked.

"I wait for it to dry.  Then I scrape it off.  With a butter knife."

Our English teacher asked Billy Ditke no further questions about his filthy, snotty hoodie.

A Flat Tire and Texting Idiots

Slowing my car to a stop, I heaved a heavy sigh.  There was some kind of dragging on the front passenger tire, and I was convinced it was just a big impacted chunk of snow.  A few kicks later and a downward glance, and I realized it was a flat tire.  Uggh.  So here I am just scant minutes later, sitting in the waiting room of "the car place," typing away and realizing how glad I am that there is a complete absence of texting idiots in my immediate vicinity.  I think you all know what I mean.  Texting idiots, you know who you are.  Or sadly, perhaps you do not.

I'll give you an idea of what I am talking about.  I went to my favorite barber shop just the other day for a haircut, and as I sat in the barber's chair, a mother and her son came in and sat down to wait his turn.  The mother immediately whipped out her touch-screen phone of some sort and started shooting off texts and playing around with apps of some sort.  The kid was in the same boat - he sat there with a glazed look over his beady little eyes, texting away with both thumbs, nearly drooling through his mouth-breathing little...well, mouth.

I don't think the two of them ever spoke as they sat there.  I don't know - perhaps I am being too critical, as they could have been texting each other.  I highly doubt that, though.  I have these vague memories of actually speaking with my parents when I was young, and I am absolutely certain we never ignored one another while glued to our cell phones - we had no cell phones at that time.  What a boring, deprived existence we suffered through back then...no cell phones, no texting ability, only the ability to talk and build one-on-one, genuine relationships.  How did we ever do it?

I wax sarcastic, of course.  I happen to think that we are, indeed, turning into a nation of texting idiots - a nation full of people who have almost forgotten how to communicate face to face, and are becoming increasingly isolated and lonely.  Calling us a bunch of texting idiots is a little harsh, as we really are much more sad, tragic and lamentable than we are "idiots".  I have only bit of advice for us as individuals, though...I think it is the only thing we can do to reverse course and return to lives of genuine communication and fulfilling relationships:

Stop texting.

09 January 2011

Listening to Django Reinhardt

Sitting here at the kitchen table, listening to that blessed Gypsy, another week is due to get underway in about twelve hours, and I think, as I often do when listening to him, that in some cases two fingers were better than four.  I can't imagine going through life with only two functioning fingers, but I can hardly imagine Django Reinhardt with four.  Do you know what I mean?  Just listen to the guy rip along in a fast number and you can hardly imagine it at all.  Crazy.

How many of us are limping through life on all four fingers, while we watch others create true art and achieve great success with only two digits?  I have watched people that I really thought were really quite hampered by some grave handicap, and I have watched them as they made life look easy.  Then some simp like me comes onto the scene, having what I thought were all of my ducks in a row, and I manage to screw things up royally - it does not matter that I have all four fingers, existentially speaking...I have been unable to even play the scales of life on some days.  Never the matter, however.  There is always Paris...and we always have a cocktail mixer in the freezer.

Truth be known, I have only been to Paris once and I did not enjoy myself.


Paris looked a lot like any other city in the late December snows - a lot more French, obviously, but it could have passed for a city in Quebec or, if you squinted, New York.   Tell that to a Parisian and he will be livid, but he will get over it in a short while.  Anyhow, Paris looked a lot like any other city, but it had a rather distinct smell - one I did not care for, and one I do not wish to experience again anytime soon.  The impression (and the smell) that I took away was framed by riding on a too-full car in the Metro, surrounded by sweaty Frenchmen.  It was hot.  God, was it hot.  The outside temperature could have been thirty below zero for all I cared (although it was a lot more temperate than that), as I was only concerned with the humid, smelly interior of a subway car that was rising steadily to match or surpass body temperature, and smelled like a junior high school locker room.  I nearly threw a stomach full of madeleines and espresso all over the floor of the Metro station when I exited at Gare du Nord.  Mind you, the exquisite aroma of madeleines, espresso and bile might be a fair improvement for Paris.

Yeah...we'll always have Paris.  You can keep it, frankly.

07 January 2011

Grew up in the 1970's?

Yeah, I did, too.  Do you remember how things looked different back then?  Do you remember going to a "supperclub" with your parents on your birthday?  Well, I do.  I remember this place called "The Blue Canary" on the south side of Milwaukee, where they had an all-you-can-eat buffett every now and again, complete with broasted chicken and freaking turtle soup. No kidding...turtle soup.  Whatever the case, they would invariably have a polka band that would serenade the corpulent diners with the greatest hits of Frankie Yankovich or the Jolly Dutchmen or someone or other.  There was always this guy there who polkaed with his hands in his pockets...a strange little guy who would hop around with some woman, gazing like a weirdo at her bosom and keeping his hands lodged snugly in the pockets of his polyester leisure suit.  Pathetic.  Pathetic but somehow strangely comforting to think about.

Some years later, in the 1980's or 1990's, I think, the Milwaukee Journal or Sentinel ran this special publicatiobn on special things about Milwaukee.  One of them was the "Blue Canary," and strangely enough they had a photo of Mr. hands-in-the-pockets-polka-man.  There he was, in all his glory, doing the Polish two-step and playing pocket pool at the same time.  God bless him.

Drinking and Shaving, part I

I have this funny feeling that tomorrow morning's shave is going to be substantially more difficult and noticeably less comfortable due to this afternoon's episode of drinking and shaving.

A diamond martini, inspired by my recollection of the tale of a diamond martini from my youth (see below), coupled with my 1956 Gillette TTO and a face full of lather resulted in a chin possessed of less skin, more blood and a throbbing "hello".

Don't do it.

Unless a pressing social engagement requires you to shave after having imbibed of a massive martini, I would err on the side of a fuzzy chin.

Just a thought.

A Damn Fine Martini...

is exactly what I'm tucking into right now.  There is really nothing finer than trying to stay thought-provoking and lucid while that delightful concoction washes over your brain - a kind of gymnastics in which one can never improve.  How many times do you sit down with a drink in hopes of being able to stay clear-headed, knowing damned well that in a short time you are going to be struggling to hit the center of the toilet bowl with a stream of urine?  More times than you want to imagine, homeboy.

I remember distinctly the first time I ever had a really fine martini given to me, just as distinctly as I remember the first martini I ever tried to make.  The former was a Hendricks martini, sipped on a summer evening in the Catskills.  The latter is a whole lot more interesting of a story.

I think I was about 7 or 8.  My parents, never really big martini drinkers, had nonetheless sat down for drinks with some friends who were visiting (I think it must have been the holidays, most likely).  Wacky as it sounds to our oh-so-enlightened 21st century ideals, mom showed me how to pour a diamond martini - washing the inside of the glass with Vermouth, pouring the remnants out, refilling the glass with gin and then topping it off with an olive.  I think I poured 3 of these without supervision, and in the course of doing so I found the aroma of the gin and the olives so intoxicating (no pun intended) that when I had delivered all of the drinks I then proceeded to pour myself one in a shot glass, reasoning that since I was a lot smaller than the adults in the other room, I should have a proportionately smaller drink.  I had just poured the thing when my mother walked in and asked what I was doing.  I told her that I had poured one for myself.  This did not sit well with mom, and she quickly rethought the wisdom of having a 7 year-old pour martinis.  She took it away from me and sent me to the other room, where I could safely occupy myself with things that kids did in 1975.  Probably watching TV or something mind-expanding like that.

My next experience with the martini did not come for probably another 25 or thirty years, and it came just as these delightful drinks were starting to come back into vogue.  That wonderful, heady aroma of gin and vermouth and olives is in my brain, though -- always has been, always will be.  Love it, love it, love it.