Friday, July 25, 2014

Travelogue. July 2014.

Greetings. I’m not near you. I’m up in the mountains. Sometimes I do things like this. I pack my car with stuff I need and drive far away to a place where I don’t know anyone. But I bring along my family because I know them and it’s fun.

Special thanks to that person who transcribed my handwritten letter into this digital form. I hope my letter arrived in a timely manner. I gave it to a man riding a horse. He was pushing aggressively southward and was supposed to be passing through the area sometime this week to drop off the letter.

Here’s a rundown of what has happened up here.

Woke up and ate tree bark. Drank a quart of molasses. Ready to go. Went to the Jacklacken Market down the road and the lady talked me into buying a dream catcher with purple feathers. Waved it around aimlessly and caught a moth. Hooked the moth on my fishing line and cast it into the shallow river. Snagged a dreamfish (Sarpa salpa), which causes days-long hallucinations when ingested and was used as a recreational drug in ancient Rome. That dream catcher has a sense of humor.

Went to Santa’s Village. Rode the Peppermint Twist. Should’ve waited a little longer to let my corndog and ice cream settle. Vomited violently at the ride’s crescendo when we were really spinning around. Was like that Bonzai Wiggling Octopus Sprinkler except I sprayed puke on everyone instead of refreshing water on a hot day. Crying children. Hallucinations coming on strong. Meeting elves. Eating peanut shells off the ground. Santa is driving a train.

Saw a moose. Talked to it. No response.

I don’t know what day it is. I am wearing Dutch shoes and floating in water. Or urine. No. It’s too cool to be urine. Unless it’s from last night. I fell off the bench at the Whistle Stop Ice Cream shack and the EMT was the pirate who sailed me around the lagoon. The grandfather tree told me it would be OK. I am lost and desperate to survive. I smeared goose poop on my face to blend in with my surroundings. Mustn’t be found by Pinocchio and Señor Munchéro. Took a wrong turn near the Cuckoo Clockenspiel and ended up at granny’s cottage. “You’re on next! You’re on next!” they shouted into my tangled brain.

They dress me like Curious George with a large cartoon head. I am dehydrated and wilting inside this heavy suit of monkey fur. My languid limbs move like drunken noodles on the hot asphalt. Children are shouting, “More, more, more, Curious George!” I attempt a pirouette near the potted begonias and face plant in front of horrified parents.

Then I get my picture taken at the DMV with an animated ear of corn and a butternut squash. I think I can legally drive the antique cars. They just keep going around and around and nowhere.  Leave me here for eternity and float my euphoric body down Dr. Geyser’s Raft Ride, O Captain, my Captain!

Non-Sequitur Items About Tory Burch and Women & Do(ugh)nuts

1. Tory Burch

I couldn’t believe the line outside the bathroom. Easily 30 people. There’s no way I was putting up with that. Just as I risked getting yet another ticket for public urination, I realized those people weren’t waiting for the bathroom. They were waiting for the privilege of going into a store to spend their money. It’s not like the store wasn’t open. It was early afternoon. I knew this because I was hungry and my Bloody Mary buzz was lifting.

Neither one of us wanted to be here. Throngs of people stumbled around drunk on brand-new name-brand branding marked up 1000% while they swiped their phones and took selfies framed by LOLsies. But, the store. Only a few people are allowed inside at one time and the rest wait their turn, as if standing on the Vatican City streets marking time until they can enter the Sistine Chapel.

What is this Holy Grail? Something called Tory Burch. Or Jack Squat. Both mean the same to me. No one ever has accused me of being stylish, though, and this place seems to attract those who have been.  I walked on, more interested in seeing a urinal, but still wondering what compels people to wait behind this exclusive store’s velvet rope.

Six weeks later, I remembered that I wondered this. I did some research and quickly learned why a person would wait so long to get inside the store! They sell pieces of cow skin sewn together in a Chinese factory. And they come in different colors.

2.  Nuts of Dough

I got a request to write about doughnuts/donuts (known as “yo-yos” in Tunisia, by the way), and I honor reasonable requests. My co-worker Marshall brought in three dozen of them from a shop in Hartford. I ate two of them. Just two, not two dozen. These doughnuts were good. I liked them.

Here’s what I said to Marshall: “Hey man, that’s a damn good doughnut. Thanks for getting them.”

Women react differently to doughnuts. To many women, doughnuts are part hero, part lover, part devil. Doughnuts are the guy who does them wrong yet they can’t resist.

“You saved my life, thank you!!!!!”

“Ohhhhhhhh, I just want to sit in that box with them and close the lid!!”

“OMGGGGG!! I’m going to totes hate myself for eating this but it’s such a precious little gift of fried sugary deliciousness even though now I’m going to have to run an extra 30 minutes on the treadmill and I don’t know if Brad will be there and what if he is and my butt looks big in my Lila Lemonpeel shorts! Ahhhhh!! HELPSIES!! I’m just going for it!”

These women must always be picking the doughnuts frosted with guilt. To temper the effect of the creamy center of self-loathing, many women nibble doughnuts. I’ve learned this is known as “nugging” or “DoNugging©.” During this process, you are required to daintily cut off a bite-size piece of doughnut that you eat in 14 or more titmouse nibbles over the course of 45 minutes.  Sometimes, you halvesies that bite-size piece with a girlfriend and she gives you a speck of another doughnut that is “just too sinful” for you to take a real bite of.

Men do not understand this. When we see a quarter of a doughnut in a box, we first wonder what the hell is wrong with the doughnut that caused someone to abandon it. Then we eat it in one bite as an appetizer while deciding what full-size doughnut we will eat next. We don’t hover over a box of doughnuts and flirt with them before choosing. We don’t look wistfully upon the residual grease ring a doughnut leaves and daydream about our time together. We eat a doughnut like a caveman and lick the frosting out of our facial hair. And if a beard whisker gets mixed in with it, fine.

We don’t share a doughnut when we’re too full to eat a whole one because we’re never too full to eat a whole one. If you want a doughnut, be aggressive. Throw an elbow. Attack like a shark. Eat the whole thing. Smash it into your face. That’s how you earn people’s respect around here.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

An Evening with Outlaws

The latest stop on the long tour was a warm and rainy Wednesday night in New Haven. Whitey Morgan and the ‘78s rolled into town in their Ford Econoline van pulling a small two-wheel trailer. It was another night on the road for this outlaw country band.

They don’t believe in the polished country music you hear from Music City Row. If you agree with them, you can buy one of their “Fuck Pop Country” shirts at their merch table. Whitey Morgan’s sound mirrors their biker gang look. They play hard-driving honky tonk that’s heavy with guitars, drums and bass. Songs about whiskey, women, cocaine and the road. If you didn’t grow up on that sound, it can be an acquired taste.

About 20 people showed up to see the band at Café 9. It’s a small joint the size of a spacious living room. No TV. An old-school cigarette vending machine in the corner. $3 cans of beer. New Haven isn’t an outlaw country hotspot so the crowd size wasn’t surprising. But that didn’t matter. The five-piece band playing on a cramped stage in the corner delivered a blistering set that turned this New Haven dive bar into something you’d experience in Texas.

They ripped through some screaming original material, mixed in a couple of thunderous Waylon Jennings numbers and left plenty of room to riff within the songs rather than play them as they sound on their albums. That last part, by the way, is how you know if a band is playing at their unbridled best. They’re taking what’s already really good and adding some embellishments as an extra treat to a live audience.

In between, they’d towel off the sweat and then sip some water, bourbon or beer before launching into the next one. All in front of 20 people…on a Wednesday night…1,000 miles from home. That’s a group of artists that unapologetically believes in what they’re creating. They grind through the grueling travel schedule for the opportunity to raise hell on stage at every stop.

They play for pay and there are nights when the crowds are sparse. They’re in Cambridge on Thursday before playing Nantucket, then New York and back out west where they enjoy much more popularity. I can’t imagine a bunch of Harvard boys coming to see these guys play, but I might be wrong.

It won’t faze the band. Whether it’s 20, 200 or 2,000 people, Whitey Morgan and the ‘78s deliver full throttle. Here’s what we do. It’s gonna be loud. Take it or leave it.

Outlaw country may not be your thing, but you gotta respect determined people who are that committed to their art.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Stories on the Wall: The Works of Roscoe Misselhorn

The inventorying of my younger days continues, ever so slowly. You don't realize how much stuff you accumulated as a kid until your parents send you 15 large boxes packed with old pennants, baseball cards, goofy school photos and a bunch of other stuff I haven't even uncovered yet. Sorta makes you realize how important stuff really is when everything you thought was supremely valuable as a kid sits in boxes in your garage because you don't have time to go through it now.

When my parents moved out of my childhood home earlier this year, I was fortunate to be the only one who wanted the pencil sketches. I never really noticed them hanging on the wall above the massive console radio/record player. They are the work of Roscoe Misselhorn. Have you ever heard of Roscoe Misselhorn? I hadn't, until I took the time to learn. Today, he's considered an important artist-historian whose sketches of landmarks and scenery of Illinois and Missouri help bring the region to life in books, stationery and more. He lived in Sparta, Ill., less than a dozen miles from where I grew up so everyone my parents' age and older knew about him.

But before Misselhorn was celebrated for his sketches, he was a high-school dropout from Sparta who was laughed out of a prestigious Chicago art school's admissions office and came home to start creating commercial art for low pay. He worked his way up into different agencies and produced a lot of period art for "Ford Times" and Greyhound Bus Company's magazine, "Highway Traveler," to support their marketing efforts. He worked in watercolor, pastels, wood engravings and more, not just pencil. A couple of times in life, he suffered nervous breakdowns and laid his art aside.

On the side, he sketched these portraits of his hometown region and soon became recognized locally. Then he began teaching college courses and he opened a stationery business selling sketches of St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, New Orleans, Biloxi, Gloucester, Mass., and other areas.

I discovered all this from an 1971 article published in the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat that my mom or maybe her parents attached to the back of Misselhorn's 1946 sketch of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis where Dred Scott's famous case was heard in 1847.

Misselhorn seemed like a man who enjoyed his craft and wasn't deterred by people who didn't see its value. Today, the Misselhorn Art Gallery welcomes visitors to the old Gulf, Mobile & Ohio train depot in Sparta where more than 2,000 sketches are on display. It's another one of those places that I never knew existed when I lived out there.

"You know, I never set out to be an artist-historian or anything," he said in the Globe-Democrat article. "I just like to sketch old things. Two words - rustic and nostalgia - that's what I operate on." 

I hang these sketches of St. Louis and Southern Illinois on my walls and have a different level of respect for the work and the man who produced it.

Old Courthouse in St. Louis; May 8, 1946

Covered bridge in Chester, Ill.; November 16, 1930

Eads Bridge, St. Louis; Undated

Goldenrod Showboat in St. Louis; August 20, 1946
Read the history of the Goldenrod

The Art of Driving

I grew up taking road trips. You can't avoid them when you live in a town of 3,300 people 75 miles from a real city and many miles of winding two-lane roads from the nearest interstate highway. When I learned to drive, I was holding the reins of a 1982 diesel Chevy Suburban and speeding across I-64 with a learner's permit at age 15. That's how you learn things quickly.

Driving has always been enjoyable. Each car has a different feel on the road. The past few weeks, I've been driving a nondescript Toyota Camry with a herky-jerky four-cylinder. That car sucks. I don't know what it sells for, but it's too much money. I couldn't wait to get rid of it. It was a rental to replace my 2011 Subaru Outback which was unceremoniously rear-ended by two distracted dolts driving European sedeans near West Point in early May.

We were stopped in traffic when we were first hit by the Audi and then we heard screeching tires followed by a harder impact from the BMW-Audi combination. Plastic pieces were all over the road, and my Outback's bumper was mangled and bowed. At least I was able to drive back home. The Audi was leaking transmission fluid and needed towing and I was too pissed at the BMW driver to really care about his situation.

Back at home, I was sprawled out on my rough blacktop driveway surveying the damage to my bumper, exhaust system and undercarriage in general. It ended up being about $6,000 worth of repairs, but I didn't know it at the time. The main thing I noticed was that under my warped plastic bumper there was a layer of black styrofoam wrapped around the frame. Now, I'm no engineer or scientist so I can't say that the styrofoam I saw wasn't some ultra-strong invention to protect my car. All I know is that I saw styrofoam and I wondered what type of competition my car had when it won a bunch of prestigious car safety awards.

This made me think about my days driving huge Chevrolet sedans, like the Caprice Classic. I first drove a '79, then an '87, then a '91 and then a '96. You can have any Caprice after the 1980s because I don't like the rounded look. I like the sharp edges. Everything's round now. I swear I follow cars in traffic and can't tell the difference between the makes and models of the SUVs and sedans. There's no personality and there's nothing but plastic zipping along.

My '79 Caprice Classic has a real bumper. It's steel and it'll cut your knee if you're wearing shorts and catch it at the wrong angle. That's a real car. You can lay back in that bench seat and make that V8 roar with just a little bit of pressure from your right foot. It's not a high-pitched whine like that Camry four-cylinder engine. It's a throaty American rebel yell down the highway.

I miss driving that car. The horn sounds like a locomotive engine compared to today's tinny go-cart beeps. Even the blinker is badass...a slow click-clock, click-clock with that long, narrow green triangle lighting up your dashboard at night. The backseat is a sofa.

But, see, I like that experience. It feels right when you're cruising down the road. Makes you feel like you're in control of a massive piece of machinery that demands your attention.

The complete opposite of that experience is upon us and lots of people love it: Google's self-driving car. People can't wait to sit in this neutered machine and buzz around mindlessly while they work, read, shave, drink...hell I have no idea. But everyone's just looking to squeeze some more productivity out of their 24 hours and heaven forbid we just sit back and think as we drive, so that's why a lot of people love this automation. Other car makers are implementing this technology, too.

Screw that. You can have your bouncy bubble car. I mean, for crying out loud, the front of this clown car looks like a cartoon character. Does that appeal to you? Personally, I want something more authentic and less sterile. Something that requires I get my hands dirty when I change the oil or air up the tires or whatever I choose to do with a real car.

I won't be surprised if at some point in my lifetime the likes of my '79 Chevy Caprice will be outlawed, or at least marginalized like those Model Ts we sometimes look upon bemusedly from our air-conditioned antiseptic cabins with all the gotta-have digital features.

After all, the Google "car" and others like it on the way are "yet another nightmare vision for the car industry that remains trapped in a V-8 powered past," observers say. OK. I guess I won't be mistaken for modern anytime soon.

I don't have time to be anyway. I need to get that '79 fixed up, painted matte black and back on the road to experience driving as it's meant to be.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Every Day Brings New Self-Destruction

Writing is therapeutic. Some people believe that, but I don't. Writing is torturous and addictive. I think in sentences and phrases, and I can't turn it off. I get distracted and retreat into my own cave. Then people start wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I don't know. I thought I was just thinking.

But I don't feel better when I write; if anything, I get sucked deeper into the hole. There's always something I could change, write differently, add to, take away from, throw away entirely. Nothing is ever really complete. Even the final pieces can be improved. Nothing is perfect.

Sometimes I struggle to pull myself out of the hole, out of the whole, and wonder what value any of it has anyway. The spastic mind can't be tamed and must be addressed. Is this the start of something bigger? Is it self-contained? I'll move on for now and consider. I know I will come back soon. 

When the Spring and Silence Calm the Agitation

In the spring the dogwoods are the first to burst forth in revelry, drunk on sweet rainwater and strong sunshine, to antagonize the brown and gray landscape. There is hope again. Robed in white flowers, they announce nature’s resurrection. Gone are the days when we are brushed aside and hurried along by angry, slicing winds. 

I stand on uneven stone that holds winter’s chill in its veins. Slowly, slowly the rocks will awaken and radiate warmth as the days pass. But not tonight. Winter in the mountains recedes only after a long fight. Tonight it is subdued, and I taunt it by leaving my jacket inside. I sip the first bourbon of spring and inhale the clean night air from the purple sky that rises out of the forest’s thick blackness. I look down on the pine trees from my rock ledge and take what they have given, mixing it with the liquor on my tongue as all of it washes into me. 

The first bourbon of spring is crisp and promising and best enjoyed outdoors. It is not meant to provide comfort by the fire when we mope through winter. Spring bourbon grabs my shirt collar and smacks my pale, tender face, telling me to enjoy a 55-degree night in early spring because it is warmer than a damp 55-degree day in February.  The bed does not beckon. Something else does. Wild, youthful energy pent up since early December, the last time I drank under the moon before my seasonal coma. The measured mental audit I can perform now that my brain isn’t on fire from cabin fever. 
The ice melts into mellowness, too. It rushes down the mountainside in loud confidence after breaking away from winter's choke hold. I'm still fragile. A night breeze with too much movement will send me scurrying. I drink deeply from my double bourbon as rounded ice chips pile up against my upper lip. Then the liquor slush settles again in my hand with a slight rattle of cubes. I inhale and consider a free fall off the ledge to sink into the night. But I don't want to push it. I'm buzzed enough to know I'm colder than I feel. My heels click across the stone when I walk inside slowly and settle into a marshmallowy leather chair near the dying fire in the expansive stone hearth. The logs smolder into the late-night hours, as do I. Fewer and fewer people pass by less occasionally. Subtle nods exchanged. A lingering look wondering why I'm not moving. Until finally I am alone with a shallow bourbon puddle in the bottom of my glass, listening to orchestral versions of '60s pop music through the lodge's invisible speakers. 

My brain is deadened but rejuvenated for the first time this day with free-flowing thoughts about interesting things that carry no obligations. I don't shut it off. I don't disrupt it with too much analysis. I let it go on until I notice that I don't feel my body, every twist and turn of skin and muscle or the mechanized grind of my brain in task mode. The brown leather boot on my elevated foot stretches out under the curled lip of my jean's hem. I could remain here dozing off yet acutely conscious, draining the bourbon that dislodges the heavy oils that gunk up my brain in daylight.

No one would know. No one would care. No one is looking for or expecting me. I am alone in a rustic mountain lodge scented faintly by wood smoke, looking out of a wall of glass to the thick night speckled with random dots of light. There is nowhere else I need to be as the grandfather clock chimes its 1 a.m. greeting to me.