25 February 2011

It's Only Coffee - I Wish it Were Something Else.

Well, another Friday afternoon is here.  As this week has been one for the record books, I find myself with several more pages to write in order to "bring home the bacon-flavored microwaveable cheese snacks."  I am taking this much-needed 15 minute blog break while I refuel on grandma-style percolator coffee, a lot of stretching my arms above my head, craning my neck backwards and moaning "aaaarrrrhhhhhhhhhuuuuuuuuuhhhhhnnnnnhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh"  (Is that the name of some Hindu god?).

I would much prefer to be sitting in this exact same spot, swilling a little special something with an olive in the bottom and writing about the exploits of Father Mike Stencil or one of the other quasi-fictional people who inhabit my coffee-fueled melon.  Such is life.  One must, after all, put bread on the table and beer in the icebox.  I am blessed to be able to write at my kitchen table with a dog beneath me - what I affectionately refer to as my "home office."  The folks in my real office, when they see me come back from time to time, wonder why the turn-ups on my trousers are matted with white dog hair.

Let them wonder.  Time to get back to the salt mine.

24 February 2011

Just a Passing Thought

I drove out into this grey Thursday thinking that death came quickly and mercifully for a friend and that Thursday came quickly and with an attitude for me. Never hoping, never wishing, never wanting, never waiting. Just sitting and looking at that same grey horizon, that same grey sky, that same grey air that I pull into my lungs more slowly each and every day.

What is it that makes a single day different from another and yet leaves it exactly the same as the one before, the one after and every other day that there ever has been? No idea, I realize – I have no idea, and I only know that this grey, grey, foggy grey Thursday is soon going to be a Friday and my friend will still be dead. No different.

The more things change, the more they change. I used to have a teacher - a long, long time ago - who always used to repeat that hackneyed verse, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Hogwash. The more things change, the more they change. While every day is in a sense no different than the last, all the things that occupy our life continually change, and they really never stay the same. Even the things that stay the same are bound to have little changes within them. People age. The love between a husband and a wife grows stronger with each passing year. The same menu at the same restaurant has the same dishes day in and day out, and those same dishes are made with the same ingredients. Different raw materials used each day. A different cow slain for each new beef wellington, a different head cut off of a different chicken for each and every new mess of fried chicken you might ever hope to eat.

What am I saying? I am no philosopher – just a guy with a martini and a pen who is looking at grey skies and thinking about a friend who died on Sunday night.

23 February 2011


There were a thousand reasons for Steve not to head back to that dreadful, dreadful wasteland of a place that they called Madison, Wisconsin. The lack of decent restaurants could have headed the list, in his opinion, but there were not a lot of people who agreed with him on that. Madison's restaurants were fine if you liked the same thing packaged differently in each venue, he thought, but you can call a pierogi a ravioli or you can call it a wonton or a lousy stinking enchilada. So much for multiculturalism.

Steve thought about hollering “garcon” for the waiter, just like from the scene in “Pulp Fiction,” (he had always wanted to do that in a diner), but thought better of it and just flagged down the skinny, pimply kid with a wave of his hand – his damp, pale hand that seemed a lot older than when he had last looked at it – the last time, in fact, being in that dreadful, dreadful wasteland called Madison. He had been in a bookstore, skimming the yellowed, dog-eared pages of a volume on Freemasonry, and as he reached his hand over to turn a page or swat a fly or scratch an itch he looked at a pale, damp hand that seemed to belong to someone else – it seemed to no longer be part of Steve Custis – Steve Custis, that thirty-two year-old pharmaceuticals salesman who drank too much, ate too much fat in his diet and probably took in far too much high-fructose corn syrup. At least he took care of his bodily functions in a large, clean bathroom – a bathroom that would be the envy of much of the rest of the world...a bathroom with clean white porcelain and gleaming stainless steel. A bathroom with a large tub enclosure and a shower head that looked to be the size of a manhole cover. A bathroom sporting a toilet with all comfort features added – a regal place where the journey could be completed for that fatty diet and high-fructose corn syrup washed down with too much alcohol.

And Steve looked hard at that hand...he looked real hard at it, as though he were looking through it. He fantasized about becoming very small, very small indeed, shrinking down to the size of the little people on his “N” scale railroad. He would walk around on the surface of that damp, cold hand like a miniature astronaut, complete with a helmet and miniature air supply. He would traverse its surface, prodding the skin with his miniature scientific instruments and that little pokey prodding stick that he imagined a miniature astronaut might carry when exploring the skin of a gigantic, damp, pale hand.

The Monte Cristo basket and a Coke, please,” he said to the skinny, pimply waiter who stared at him out of watery, glassy eyes. The hell if he was ever going to return to Madison. The hell if he was.

22 February 2011

Tesco Was Out of Assam...Care for Some Badger?

I remember hearing the zzzzzzz...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...of the milk-delivery float outside my window early one summer morning.  The day had not yet fully broken, and the smell of something burning in some farmer's field drifted in on the breeze, mixing with the regular smells of rural Somerset. I could hear Trevor, the skinny fellow from down the lane, making his way back home with Max, his yellow lab. From the cussing and harrumphing I could tell that Max had probably found his way into a pile of badger poo out in one of the fields, and Trevor was going to have a bit of clean-up work when they returned. Trevor had been helping David lay hedges at his farm, and had developed a grand familiarity as well as a great hatred for badger poo. He had told me this over a pint just last night, and my only profound early morning thought on that perfect Somerset daybreak was of poor Trevor and the greasy badger poo that he would be trying to clean out of Max's coat in a few minutes.

I pulled the duvet up close around my nose, took another sniff of something burning in the field, and thought about going down to start the water boiler and getting a brew going. The milk was fresh on the doorstep, and just waiting to be in my cup.

21 February 2011

Fair Trade

Sergei held his head in his hands and slowly moaned to nobody but perhaps the family dog. He could hear the wind blowing outside (and nearly through) the window of his cabin – the cold, cold wind blowing through the Siberian forest and across the Siberian plain and straight up to the walls of his little Siberian cabin. The window, at last, proved no real match for that wind...that wind that brought with it only chill and the promise of dark days to come.

He tried hard to think of what his daughter looked like – it seemed he could hardly remember, and now he knew that she must look very different indeed. She had left as a rather plain, young Siberian girl, and now she was wearing her hair in a "bob," running around in tight, short dresses and makeup, smoking cigarettes, drinking cocktails, listening to "jazz" and dancing the "Charleston."  Change, change, and more tragic, tragic change.

It all began that day five years ago when that young American soldier with the round eyeglasses showed up. True, he had saved Sergei and his family from the Bolshevik ruffians, but in the end he had only caused the ruin of the Ivanov family. That unassuming “Sammy” had taken his daughter to that land across the ocean – that “Amerika” of trolley cars, indoor plumbing and something they called “electricity.” How could he go on, knowing that he had done what he had done – agreeing to abandon his beloved daughter to that foreign land and those foreign people who smiled all the time, danced in public and listened to that devil-inspired device...the so-called “Victrola.” How she must miss the farm, the rock-picking, the woolen undergarments, the cabbage and the blood sausage. How could he have done this to his only daughter, and how could he ever come to grips with his failure?

Sergei glanced at the handsome 1903 Springfield leaning against the wall near the door, its rich American hardwood stock framing the beautiful blue gunmetal. A slight smile broke across his face. “Perhaps she likes to dance the 'Charleston,'” he thought, rather absentmindedly.

16 February 2011

Squeak, Memory

My friend the composer, whom I shall call Daniel (as it is his name – what else would I want to call him?), tipped me off to a wonderful addition to the King of Cocktails. Daniel puts orange zest into his Manhattans. I just tried it this evening. My, my...it is like a little dash of sunshine in the middle of this midwestern winter.

I got to looking through a biographical list of Lost Generation authors just two nights ago, and then I came across a reference to Vladimir Nabokov just today (it was actually just my mind recycling the lyrics to “Don't Stand So Close to Me,” by the Police, if you must know), and I realized that chronologically Nabokov would have fit in neatly with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Papa Hemingway and the other Losts, had he not been a royal pain in the ass and perhaps taken himself a bit less seriously. His 1972 assessment,

As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early 'forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

Ridiculous. Anyhow, I think a true test of artistry would show either Fitzgerald or Hemingway as the hands-down winner: who can mix the meanest round of cocktails and pen the notes to his next novel while at the same time being hit on by a room full of Spanish nurses and/or dancing the Charleston? Nabokov would be face down in his samovar. 23-skiddoo, fella.

Hand me my cocktail shaker and pen...and crank up that craa-azy Victrola.

A Can of Clams To Go With That, Padre?

I saw a middle-aged priest in the grocery store last night, and that was not the strangest part of it. I mean, really – seeing a priest in a grocery store is not all that odd, and he was not all that odd-looking of a priest, either. He was a normal-looking, generation-x aged priest...black shirt, black pants, black jacket, white collar. The strange part is found at the intersection of the priest and the grocery store sound system.

I Wanna be Sedated,” by the Ramones was playing over the in-house sound system. This was a tune I used to bash out of my guitar in my first high-school garage band...and here it was being piped through the speakers of a typical, clean suburban grocery store. People were strolling down the cleanest, widest aisles in the civilized world (let's be honest, folks, the average suburban American grocery store is cleaner and has better lighting than most hospitals in the rest of the world – the average Sainsbury's in the UK having my vote for inclusion in that set), looking at more products than any person could ever use in a lifetime, and all the while the dulcet tones issuing forth from the larynx of Joey Ramone soothing their shopping nerves. How very odd.

And along came this priest. We passed in the pasta aisle. As I stared at the ancini de pepe, I could not help but notice a clear tenor voice that was probably more used to singing the Sursum Corda - “Just get me to the airport put me on a plane; Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane.” Yep, Father Linguini-purchaser was singing along with Joey. I turned to look at him, smiled and nodded.

I can't control my fingers I can't control my brain,” I returned along with Joey, in my own scratchy Tenor.

Father Linguini-purchaser beamed a genuine smile. We nodded again to one another and parted ways. When I got home, Shelly put that ancini de pepe into some of the finest Italian wedding soup you can imagine. I don't know what Father Linguini-purchaser had for dinner that evening. I can guess, of course, but I was more curious about what dinner-music he listened to.

14 February 2011

Is it Live, or is it Imitrex?

Kip. His real name. Kip had some kind of racket going on. He just wasn't on the level – there were those who maintained that he sold drugs or got his income in some other sort of illicit manner. Just what that might have been, I have no idea. Kip was firmly planted in the 1990's, but when I met him he looked like he had just rolled out of Lake Tahoe in 1960. “Badda-bing.” Only the second person I ever met who really used that phrase, as I have mentioned before. “Badda-bing,” Kip would reply whenever he needed a moment to think or whenever he wanted to respond in the affirmative. “Badda-bing,” and he would drain the last few drops of his cocktail, glance around whatever room he was in, and smile.

Badda-bing. That sly rascal Kip was always smiling at me from behind those horned-rim and silver frames, those bold print short-sleeve shirts on a hundred different summer evenings, downing gin and tonic after gin and tonic. Brylcreem when Brylcreem was definitely not hip; Brylcreem almost 20 years before I started using it myself. Brylcreem taken intravenously, perhaps, to give that swagger, that groove, that badda-bing to the man who sported such a stylish stingy fedora when the weather turned cool.

Yeah, the Kipster was a man out of time. He rolled into our lives on a wash of Sinatra and rolled out in a filthy, drunken haze of Smashing Pumpkins and Mudhoney. The last time I saw the aging hipster he was hunched over on a barstool – it may have become part of the anatomy of his nether region by that time, in fact – and he was once again draining the last few drops of his cocktail. An ashtray filled to overflowing with butts of Camel Lights showed that he had been in the same position for more than just a short while.

I got no badda-bing out of Kip, just a stare through deadened eyes. His stubbly chin was supported by a hand that had grown a permanent cigarette between the index and middle fingers – a yellowed pair of fingers that seemed to show just a hint of a tremor. Kip had forgotten who I was, I am sure, the “Hey, guy,” greeting giving that away.

I can't remember if I bought Kip a drink that evening. I think I probably did not. I think I probably saw in him what I could have become, and what a lot of my friends could have become. The 1990's were not kind to Kip, but then, Kip was not kind to himself in the 1990's. For Kip, though, it would forever be 1993 or sometime, I suppose, and the next evening would always bring the chance for a new beginning – a new beginning that never actually arrived; a new beginning that would whisper of prosperity of the sort his parents had wanted for him a long time ago, the sort of prosperity that his oldest brother had found, but the sort of prosperity that got tossed out the window to the pavement below while Kip and his classmates and barmates and bandmates drained the last few drops of a gin and tonic and a west-coast microbrew while laughing to the penetrating feedback of angry guitars from Seattle and L.A. and wherever else they needed anesthesia in that wasted, wasted time.

Here we are now, entertain us.

11 February 2011

Iraq Rolled

Peter looked real hard at the sand in the palm of his hand. It was funny looking – not like the sand back home on the shores of Lake Michigan – this Saudi sand looked like like tiny balls of light-colored mud. Pete imagined being real small and kicking the little mud-balls around. “Hrrmph,” he thought to himself, aloud. A lot of his thoughts these days were coming out as single-syllable grunts.

Dumping the sand from his palm, Pete held his rifle with both hands again and lifted up his head to peer out over the berm. Nothing. That song kept going through his head...

Never gonna give you up
Never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you”

Uggh. Rick Astley,” he thought to himself. He rolled back down the berm a little , popped his canteen and took a drink. He thought about the first time he had heard that song – it was his last year in the dorms at college, most likely, and there was that guy down the hall who wouldn't stop playing it...over and over and over. It seemed like that tape was the only one he owned. If he made it back to the States alive, Pete thought, he would buy a copy of that album.

He crawled back to the top of the berm and strained his eyes to see what, if anything, was going on around that little shack near the intersection of two roads – maybe it had been a gas station or something at one time. Now there were just some Iraqis holed up there and laying down suppressing fire for their pals scurrying across the road to a drainage culvert. “Hrrmmph,” Pete thought out loud again. He shouldered his rifle.

A bang and a “shush” of an old-school M72 LAW from somewhere down the line made Pete turn his head. When he looked back, the Iraqis were not firing, only smoking. The squad to his left was getting up from behind the berm and advancing. Pete the Marine smiled and sang quietly to himself,

Never gonna make you cry
Never gonna say goodbye
Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you...”

It looked like it might be a long day. Thank God for that.

10 February 2011

The Perfect Percolator...

An early St. Valentine's Day gift from my darling wife...and it makes the perfect cup of Grandma's coffee, too!  Thank you, Shelly!

I Love Kudzu in the Spring

I just devoured the best bowl of cheese grits and fried eggs that you could possibly hope to shake an ever-lovin' stick at, as they might say in certain parts of Tennessee. My little, scheming dog looked at me with that “I-would-like-some-peanut-butter-as-long-as-you-are-up-there-in-that-cabinet” look as I messed about with preparing the grits in question, and I realized that indeed, while not everyone loves grits, it is almost assuredly the case that everyone loves peanut butter. OK, maybe not everyone, but it is awfully well received. I have taken it everywhere with me – please reference my short tale about getting sick in the Paris Metro. Anyhow, it is well-loved, at least in these United States, and I think I am going to go and share a little dab of peanut butter with my far-too-intelligent Australian Shepherd who is looking at me right now, successfully employing the Shepherd version of the Jedi Mind Trick on me. “You don't want to sit and type.” I don't want to sit and type. “You want to give me some peanut butter.” I want to give you some peanut butter. Damn.


Mike Stencil pulled his rusty Datsun up to the concrete parking bumper. THE concrete parking bumper – it was the only one in the lot, it appeared, and he decided to use it. The diner sitting in front of him was mostly glass and metal, it appeared, standing very starkly against the kudzu-covered trees and the kudzu-covered out-buildings of what had once been a kudzu-covered farm. He half expected to see some kudzu-covered people walk out of the diner, but it didn't happen. Tennessee is full of surprises. Mike walked inside and sat down in a booth.

“Y'all cain't be here if'n it gits bizzy,” said the waitress with the neon-radiant lipstick and chewing gum.

“No fleck of shiny spittle in the corner of this bird's mouth, thank God,” thought Mike. The words that actually came out were “I beg your pardon?”

If it gits real bizzy you cain't be a single n' sit here. You'd gotta' go to the caiounter.” (that last word is an approximation of the waitress' pronunciation of 'counter', for those who have not traveled south of the Mason-Dixon line. Go figure.)

“I would just like an order of something to go, please,” said Mike, “maybe some chicken? You have chicken?”

“'Course we got chicken. Whadday'all want?” The waitress looked as though she was getting impatient.

“Just some chicken. Maybe like a half-of-a-chicken...is there a special deal or something for chicken like that? Maybe with some fries and...or..and a, a Coke? Or do you have something...some chicken... like that?”

“Shore.” The waitress eyed Mike suspiciously as she scribbled on her pad and walked back to the kitchen. He heard her shout something that sounded like chicken to the cook. The rest of it could have been a foreign language.

“This reminds me of Korea,” thought Mike. He slumped down in the booth, picked up the newspaper that was scattered on the table, and absentmindedly made his way through the stories of local interest. The story of the recent catfish-eating contest caught his eye. He didn't think there would be that many people in one place who actually liked catfish. Back home it was considered a “garbage fish,” and only certain people ate it – the people that the elderly Polish men would laugh about in their worst moments.

After the appointed chicken-frying time had passed, the waitress returned with a a sweaty paper cup and a large, white paper bag decorated with fresh grease spots. Mike tucked the newspaper under his arm, paid up and gathered his car keys and a handful of paper napkins. As he turned to head back to his car he thought a second time and tossed the folded newspaper back onto the table. As he headed out the door the paper flopped open to the bottom of the inside page, to a story Mike had not yet read before his order came.

“Repeated Health Violations Close Local Livestock Producer.”

Just as well. It might have caused Mike to re-think that chicken. And explaining that to the waitress might have been more than Mike could have faced before lunch.

09 February 2011

A Nice Tie-Tac

Chico Bowden (not his real name) stood a lot taller than my father, and my father was not a short man. There were many things in Chico's closet, I am sure – things that we speak of figuratively as being in his closet, or perhaps more accurately as his “baggage” – but when I think of Chico (or “Mr. Bowden” as I knew him when I was a child) and I think of closets, I then think of polyester and I think of checked patterns and I think of leisure suits. You have that in the thinking part of your melon, now, don't you ? Polyester leisure suits in checked patterns. If I mention sideburns, glasses with large lenses and heavy frames and open collared shirts, I trust you will paint in very accurately all of the rest of the image of Chico Bowden that you might ever need.

Chico sold insurance. Or cars. Or real estate. Or time-shares. I don't think it could possibly matter what it was that he sold – he was a salesman, as it were. 'Nothing against salesmen, of course – I used to be one myself (perhaps I still am, in a way – aren't we all?). Chico sold. Chico sold himself as a product, and we all eagerly watched as he ran the commercials on the small screen of his life. “Hey hey...Ange the Man...Ange the Man,” he would poke at my father when he saw him, “badda bing...how are those kiddos of yours, you old Ange the Man?”

Dad had been called “Ange” in the Navy – contraction of “Andrews,” of course. Sometimes I think he hated being called “Ange the Man,” but I never asked him about that.

Chico was perhaps the only person I ever heard use the phrase “badda-bing” in real life, with no acting. The other person who might have used it was Kip, whom I knew in college, but he had begun using it as a humorous tool in speech, and it eventually just became part of his unconscious vocabulary. More on Kip later.

The Chico of my childhood aged over the years, of course. The grey, wrinkled man that I saw at my father's funeral was really not much different than the man in the casket, in fact, aside from the fact that he was still breathing and talking and doing all of the things that the deceased no longer bother doing. I got no "badda-bing” from Chico that evening, no sales pitch of any sort, and Chico was no longer in polyester. He wore a tasteful dark suit, a crisp white shirt and a rather tasteful tie.

As I marinated my liver in a second martini, wrinkled old Chico shuffled over to me. He spoke through his tears for a short time, and I longed all the while for this relic from my childhood and my father's youth to refer to my dad as “Ange.”

07 February 2011

A Pilly Sweater

The wash of jazz over the brain as I pull my car into a spot in the parking lot, looking for that next heady cup of coffee – full of steamy, dark, rich goodness and life. We came close to finding the perfect percolator this past weekend...close but no cigar...so it will be some fast, cheap drip-style brew again today. Where, oh where could that perfect percolator be? Call out to me, you stainless-steel holy grail...I am your Galahad, seeking you...seeking you.

The grey clouds over the praire look down at me the same way an old, pilly sweater looks with contempt at the shirt it covers. “Be quiet, you button-down devil that speaks only of another decade, another time, another set of marinara stains that I'm forced to cover,” speaks that sweater to that shirt; “go home and sleep or else make something of yourself,” speak those clouds to me. The wash of jazz stops cold in the touch of a button, the turn of a key. The clouds get closer; I seek out that coffee. It is hot and burns the tongue, filling the mouth with an acrid wash...acrid wash...acrid wash. Wash of jazz, wash of jazz. It's all about wash today. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow, purify me and I shall be made clean. Vince Guaraldi in my car gives way to Dave Brubeck in my head and I cozy up to this typewriter that they call a netbook. I once cozied up to a pen that they called a typewriter, and the same damned wash came out.

Over and over, over and over. It feels so right, feels so good. Who was it that said that line “a million burning suns”? Did I read it? Dream it? Write it myself? Plagiarize it? Over and over the words come from deep inside and the wash wash wash feels good. Wash. “The most beautiful sounding word in the English language,” I once said about that word, and I said it over and over. You can have your cellar door – I have the wash.

Another cup of coffee. Stand. Stretch. Get to work.

06 February 2011

$.97 for Unleaded

“Would you like something to drink with that?” The waitress stared at Mike with a really strange look in her eyes...a look that on a very, very hot day would melt really soft chocolate at the very least – maybe even wax.  No, probably not wax, on second thought.  It was less of an intense gaze than it was something of a look of nausea. Nausea or maybe ennui with a touch of indigestion.

“Umm...no...thanks,” he replied, “I'll just have the eggs. Maybe a piece of dry toast.” he thought about Dan Ackroyd's line in “the Blues Brothers” about the dry white toast, and he laughed aloud...just a little bit of a laugh. It was enough to make the waitress look back at him as she walked back to her station. Her gum chewing slowed down to a steady grind, and a little bit of saliva glistened in the corner of her mouth. It picked up light from the overhead fluorescents and blinked on and off at Mike as she chewed. On. Off. On off on off. On. Off. On off. Mike looked away and stared across the diner at the really large fellow whom he took to be a truck driver – the guy was wearing a t-shirt that was far too tight and was emblazoned with the words “I 80 Truckstop – Walcott, Iowa.”

Mike remembered getting a cup of coffee at that truck stop in Walcott. He was a freshman in college at the time, and he was on some kind of crazy spring break trip to somewhere in Iowa – a trip to a destination he and his friends never reached. It was in Walcott that the harmony in the car had broken down...all due to a disagreement over who was paying for the next tank of gas. Mike and his roommate from Colby, Wisconsin sat in a booth and drank coffee while a few others walked around the truck stop, complaining and looking at porcelain statuary – the sort of commemorative art that depicts a miniature Harley Davidson with a bison painted on the gas tank and being driven by a miniature naked Sioux warrior queen or something like that. The evening ended with a stolen coffee cup being thrown through the windshield of a semi-truck and a mad drive through the streets of Walcott. They turned around after that and drove back home without ever reaching their destination, and Mike and his roommate never really saw much of their other travelling companions the rest of the semester.

“How dumb,” thought Mike, as he thought back over the intervening years, “how really dumb that whole trip was.” It had been a good chance to learn something about how fragile friendship can be, and about how easily feelings can be hurt. It was also a good chance to learn about how relatively easy it is to break auto glass with a coffee cup.

The big truck driver-type got up and started making his way out of the restaurant before Mike ever got his food. He walked right toward Mike and tipped his hat as he passed.

Mike's hand flexed around his coffee cup. He watched the man exit. “The World's Largest Truck Stop,” in inch-high letters sprawled across the back of his t-shirt.

“And the world's worst coffee,” thought Michael.

04 February 2011

Generational Synchronicity...

I spent the whole blasted morning writing.  All right, all right...it was actually part of the morning and my lunch hour and part of the afternoon.  Unfortunately it was, once again, writing for others in order that I might be able to pay the mortgage.  Whatever the case, I am no longer in the mood to think much, so I offer to the world a link to a wonderful article by Chris about the similarity of the Lost Generation and Generation X. Chris made me once again consider how much I would love to be able to have a cocktail or three with my paternal grandfather (born in 1894, drafted into the U.S. Army (Infantry) in 1918, died in 1970) or my maternal grandfather (born in 1894, immigrated to the United States in 1903, died in 1970).  I always seemed to get along well with the "old codgers" of our youth that Chris writes about - I wish we all could have had more time with them, and had the chance to learn from them a few more lessons about life.

After you read that, you can watch these two brief videos...

This one, music of the Lost Generation, from 1920:

And this one, music that we in Generation X grooved to in junior high school, from 1980:

The similarities are, well....OK, the similarities are probably nonexistent, but I just rather enjoyed listening to my favorite band from Surrey.  Off I go to get some coffee.  No perfect percolator yet, but we're working on it.

03 February 2011

How Do You Spell "Arriba?"

Insane,” thought Mike Stencil, “absolutely insane. There is no way you'd get me up there.”

Mike was watching a climber on a rock face somewhere near Mount Lemmon, Arizona. The climber was making good progress – stopping every now and again to shake out a limb, flex his fingers, catch his breath. The rock face was hot and dry, and it was being buffeted by winds to match. Mike was conscious of that weird sound that you sometimes hear when it is hot – kind of a high-pitched buzz, that seemed to be more inside of his head than outside. It was not the really cheap vodka from the night before, either. Damn that Preston – he was always selecting the “high quality” beverages for their climbing trips.

“Absolutely insane,” he thought again. He drew his glance from the distant climber back down to his own current situation – about forty feet up a relatively simple pitch about three hundred and fifty feet away from the other climber. Insane, it appears, is a relative term.

The buzz got louder, and Mike realized it was not inside his head after all – it was one of those insects, he decided. What do you call them? Cicadas? Crickets? “Whatever the hell they are, they're annoying,” he thought. He reached back into his chalk bag and grabbed a few fingers' worth. Grab a handful of jug, switch hands, repeat. Up we go. Crimper after crimper...fingers getting raw.

The buzz subsided for a minute and Mike thought back to a night in the Twin Cities, a meal shared with friends at a Mongolian restaurant – the rice, the undercooked egg, the undercooked pork. The several days spent on the toilet. He remembered how his limbs shook and the sweats that accompanied each rather eventful trip to the commode. A nice evening in Dinky Town turned into a gift that kept on giving.

His limbs shook - “sewing machine leg,” he and Preston called it. Sweat was pouring out of his brow and evaporating, it seemed, as soon as it broke the surface. To be honest, his bowels seemed a little loose as well. Hard to distinguish, he thought, between undercooked Mongolian and climbing with a hangover in high altitude. “Up we go, Michael,” shouted Preston from below, “andale, andale!”

“Piss off, Preston,” he shouted back, “don't rush me.”

“No pro-ble-mas, amigo.”

Mike hated it when Preston tried speaking Spanish – hated it and loved it. It was rather reassuring and made him feel pleased that at least his Spanish was a hair better, but Preston tended to sprinkle Spanish into the conversation at the most inappropriate times – especially when there were groups of Mexicans within earshot.

Mike took another breather and watched as the four Mexican climbers sauntered past on the trail down below. “Hola, amigos,” he heard Preston say to them as he casually belayed him without a care in the world. Mike just shook his head.

Another couple handfuls of chalk, a few more feet up the rock face. Mike made his way slowly but steadily until suddenly he began sweating like a thief in church ('not the same way his father used to use that idiom, by the way) – he felt something like a small rodent at the back of his tongue, a strange noise rumbled inside of him from the depths of his digestive tract, and he half expected to send a jet of liquid fecal matter down his leg. Surprise, Mike. Half a dozen really cheap vodka sours that had not made it very far through the metabolizing process, along with two power bars, a banana and three cups of instant coffee came roaring out of his stomach, burning his throat on the way. The multi-colored concoction cascaded down the rock face, and as Mike lost his grip and hollered “falling” through a mouth full of vomit, he heard Preston laugh like an idiot and he felt the rope go taut. Preston had him tightly belayed while he laughed and laughed and laughed like an idiot. “Muy malo, paisano,” he shouted up through his laughter.

“That's Italian, you ass,” Mike coughed back through chunks of banana.

Half a mountain away a climber looked down at a sick fool and his climbing partner who was laughing like an idiot.

“Insane,” he thought aloud, “absolutely insane.”

02 February 2011

Zippers and Lattes

I made some coffee in a regular drip-style coffee pot today, and it was fairly decent. It goes without saying that coffee from the perfect percolator would have been infinitely better, but this stuff was not too bad. It brought to mind a little story about a boy named Chuck and his nylon trousers.

It seems that Chuck was rather enamored of those nylon trousers that were all the rage at one point in the 1980's – they usually had a number of zippers on them – more zippers and pockets than any man could want, need or use. In the trade they were referred to as “parachute pants.” In retrospect we refer to them as “lame.” Such was the nature of so many things from the 1980's, such as “hair bands” and “the moonwalk.”

I stray from the story, however.

Chuck loved his red parachute pants, and no one could ever figure out exactly why. He continued to wear these lil' devils well past their demise in popular fashion, and so it was that he found himself on a blind date at a coffee shop on the upper east-side, clad in the aforementioned “parachute pants.” Don't ask why, children, just let Uncle Tom tell the story.

Chuck and his blind date had just been to a movie, and there they sat, sipping some sorts of coffee drinks while seated at a high table and stools. The young lady frequently threw nervous glances at Chuck's legs and then even more nervous glances around the shop.

“She thinks I'm hot,” thought Chuck, “she keeps checking out my legs.” This thought alternated with “she likes my pants,” and Chuck was sure this date was going to be the first of many. He never let enter his mind the thought “these pants are lame.”

At the close of the evening, pleasantries were exchanged and Chuck brought up the inevitable, “can I call you sometime?”

“I think I'm moving away,” the young lady replied. “To another state.”

“Really?” Where?

“Away. Thanks for the movie and the coffee. Umm, bye. Good night.”

Chuck walked slowly back to his car, his trousers “shushing” in the night.

“Damn,” he thought to himself, “If I'd known I'd never see her again I would have made her pay for the coffee.”

Chuck eventually finished a PhD in Particle Physics and most nights after work he sits home alone playing mahjong online. His parachute pants have lain dormant for almost twenty years, neatly folded and silent at the bottom of a box in the cedar closet.

01 February 2011

My Name is Juan Valdez, What's Your Sign?

I walked into a west-side resale shop the other day with the expressed purpose of finding the perfect percolator. I think you know the sort of percolator I am talking about here – didn't we all have them somewhere in our childhood? Whether it was at grandma's house or in our own kitchen, there was that percolator – silver, aerodynamic and capable of producing coffee like we used to make it in this country. Seventy-five years ago Americans used to make coffee that was worthy of respect, coffee that could stand up on its own and look you in the eyes like a man, coffee that was served steamy, hot, black and in a porcelained tin cup. The theme song from “Bonanza” might even start playing when you drank that coffee – never mind that Bonanza wasn't around seventy-five years ago.

Coffee at the logging camp. Coffee on the cattle path. Coffee at the hunting camp. Coffee at grandma's house. The kind of coffee and percolators that Aldo Leopold wrote about with such great affection. That was coffee and those were coffee makers, by gum. No stubbly-chinned, bleary-eyed barrista handing you a paper cup with a corrugated sleeve so as not to burn your precious hand, no sir. You know the percolator, and you remember the coffee. Maybe you do, at any rate.

Anyhow, I walked into a west-side resale shop looking for that very percolator and came up very short handed, indeed. The only percolator there that day had a “strength adjustment lever” on it. I always thought the handle of the coffee-ground scoop was the “strength adjustment lever” - more coffee grounds, stronger coffee; fewer coffee grounds, weaker coffee. Perhaps I have missed something in the intervening years. I walked away from the household appliance section of that resale shop very empty handed, I can assure you.

The only thing to really catch my eye was a certain paperback on the shelves. Complete Horoscope – Taurus, 1979. It was sitting there, mixed in with a number of other obscure but interesting titles. I noted with some interest that it had not been marked down and thrown into the “clearance” bin.

“Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “if not now, when?”

Maybe 1979 is more relevant than we thought. And perhaps the sign of Taurus is making a big comeback or something.

Maybe not.

I will just keep looking for the perfect percolator.