Requiem for a Toaster

As near as we can figure, it dates from 1999 – a gift to christen the newly renovated kitchen at our previous house. It was ever the cheerful toaster, like a ray of sunshine in the gloom of west Michigan (what KitchenAid refers to as ‘Majestic Yellow’). With a somewhat retro appearance, it has browned innumerable loaves of bread and untold truckloads of pop-tarts.

Only in the last year or two had it begun to show signs of aging. The large plastic tab used to lower product into the chamber and begin the toasting process worked its way loose, causing one’s thumb to sometimes slip during the downward push. An inconvenience easily overlooked for such a trustworthy friend.

Its demise was swift and, I can only hope, painless. While some might label me as lazy, I like to think that I was saving energy. During reconnaissance in the bowels of the freezer, where half-bags of tater tots and long forgotten veggie sausage patties lie in cryogenic stasis, slowly becoming entombed in ice crystals, I came across some Trader Joe’s hash browns. Pre-formed, like what you might get at McDonalds, but without the ‘golden arches’ guilt. Just the thing to break me out of my breakfast rut of toast and a banana. I would resurrect one of these potato hockey pucks, maybe throw a fried egg on top, a little OJ…

I was already salivating as I pulled them from their frosty sarcophagus.

But my anticipation was put on hold when I read the instructions. 15 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Seems like an excessive output of energy for one measly hash brown patty (imagine my family’s joy at having Captain Planet in their midst). So I opted for the toaster. It would probably take a few cycles with the browning control set to 11, but the process would still come no where near expending as much fossil fuel as the oven.

In it went, with me leaning over the bread slot to keep an eye on how brown it was getting. And a smug smile on my face for having outwitted the energy wastrels at the TJ’s test kitchen.

The fatal flaw in my plan – as the patty warmed, it also softened. So much so that when the toaster timer hit its limit and tried to pop up, the patty had slouched casually to one side, catching on the wire innards of the chamber and keeping the mechanism from fully ejecting. A fork meant to dislodge the flaccid spud cake proved ineffective, merely tearing pieces loose that then tumbled into the guts of the toaster. All I could do was tip the entire kit and caboodle over and shake violently until the patty fell limply to the counter, along with several decades worth of accumulated bread crumbs.

And when I set the toaster back and went to put the patty in for a second time because, well, it wasn’t done, the locking mechanism that keeps everything in the down position no longer locked.

At that moment I thought I heard the sound of ‘Taps’ being played…gently.

Even bringing all my formidable handyman skills to bear (which in cases such as this usually involve banging on the recalcitrant device with varying degrees of force) wasn’t enough to mend its broken soul. It still heats up, mind you, as long as you stand there and hold the lever down, but that appears to be a deal-breaker for some.

It was the trendsetter, with enough cachet to dictate the design of our current kitchen here in Colorado. The mixer, purchased in the same ‘Majestic’ hue, the backsplash chosen for its hints of pale yellow, the matching butter dish, salt box, sugar bowl and wall pockets that would contrast perfectly with the smoky green color chosen for the cabinetry. So nothing else will do. And, of course, it’s been discontinued.

I’ll see you in Hell.

And in the mean time, mornings will find me standing over the toaster, holding down the lever. Because it’s either that or another kitchen remodel.

Picture Perfect

It would appear that, for now at least, the forces of authoritarian evil have been defeated, and those of us who cherish democracy can get back to business as usual. Which in my case means returning to the job search. And since typical avenues of employment during the pandemic remain, uh, challenging for those of us of a certain age, there have been some truly out-of-the-box considerations. For instance, a suggestion that I pursue a career as a ‘mature’ model. You know, in case they’re still looking for someone to replace the Dos Equis guy.

But here’s why flooding local talent agencies with glossy headshots may not be the best idea.

My writing efforts have, for the most part, been met with spectacular indifference. Just check the number of followers I have amassed on this blog after eight long years. But there was that one shining moment long ago, that started with an innocuous email.

An editor from Newsweek Magazine was informing me that she would like to print one of my missives. Wait, what? One of the biggest periodicals in the country (with claims of 19 million readers at the time) wanted to publish my stuff? In all honesty, it had been so long since I sent the unsolicited piece that I had forgotten about it.

After changing my underwear I called the editor, who told me they would be running my essay some time in the next four to five weeks, just as soon as they could schedule a photo shoot.

Pictures? Of me?

“We like to include a portrait of the author with the column,” she explained.

Here’s the thing – as a subject, I am incapable of taking a good picture. Usually I’m caught in mid-gesture, with an odd look on my face, as if I’m about to say something. Even as a kid I was always squinting and grimacing uncomfortably in family photos. Some Native Americans held the belief that when you took their picture, you were taking a piece of their soul. I can relate.

But there was no point in arguing. It was Newsweek Magazine, after all.

“And we need to think about props, too. Something that ties in with the piece.”

This was turning uglier by the minute. “The piece” dealt with my conflicted feelings over ethnic diversity, manifested through a new tattoo that called out my Scottish ancestry.

“Do you have a kilt, or maybe some bagpipes?”

“Afraid not,” I answered. That was the point of the article – that I rarely even acknowledge my heritage, much less make a show of it. And then I caved. “I might be able to get my hands on a Scottish flag, though.” One was stored in a box somewhere, thanks to my late aunt. As the clan matriarch and repository of our collective history, she was my complete opposite. The woman reveled in the thought that we had descended from proud Celtic stock, all bearing a striking resemblance to Mel Gibson (I never had the heart to break it to her).

Despite being separated by an ocean and several centuries of haphazard cross-breeding, in her eyes we were still noble moor dwellers and God help the half-wit who didn’t know better or the family member who strayed from the fold. Anyone foolhardy enough to offer her a green hat or four-leaf clover to wear on St. Patrick’s Day might very well draw back a bloody stump.

“That would work. I’m going to pass your name on to our photo editor, who will contact you shortly to set something up.”

Several more phone calls and emails ensue before I’m on my way to meet Fabrizio, the photographer who will be doing the shoot. It was his idea to hold it in a tattoo parlor as a way to further tie in with the article. He also reassures me that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to capture what he’s looking for. Really? It’s just the family badge on my upper arm – I could have snapped a picture of it with the camera on my phone and been done with it. I’m having second thoughts about all of this, especially the damned flag.

After some discreet inquiries, we are cleared to shoot a few photos around a “tat” in progress. It seems other people want to be in this picture more than I do. So the three of us (did I mention Fabrizio’s assistant?) squeeze into a tiny booth where a young woman is having something from Picasso etched on her shoulder blade. In order to get everything in the shot, I’m instructed to stand uncomfortably close to her. Fabrizio is also telling me to shift my weight around, try some different emotional looks, do whatever comes “natural.” At that particular moment the most “natural” thing I can think of is to run screaming from the building.

“Okay, let’s try a few with the flag.”

Shit – I was hoping he’d forgotten about it.

Now, this isn’t one of those tiny flags stapled to a wooden stick, like the kind kids wave around at a Fourth of July parade. This is a thing of substance, the size of a beach towel – what soccer hooligans drape themselves in as they’re squaring off with police in the stands at the World Cup finals. And to clarify, it’s not the “official” Scottish flag, a white X (the cross of St. Andrew) on a blue background, but rather what’s known as the Lion Rampant, the banner of the royal monarchy. Bright yellow and red, it has much more visual impact, in a garish sort of way.

Before long I’m draped in it, the assistant throwing it around my neck and carefully arranging the folds of material across my chest. Bunched up the way it is, though, it simply looks like a gaily colored scarf, a really big one. The shot is a test of all my new-found modeling skills, as I try desperately to conjure up a facial expression that conveys something other than ‘Kill Me Now.’ But, of course, things could always be worse.

“What if you took your shirt off and then we go with the flag?”

There’s a momentary silence while everyone in the room considers that scenario.

19 million readers. And me in need of a wax.

“I’d prefer to leave my nipples out of this,” I protest. “Let’s not.” There are some things for which even Newsweek doesn’t rate.

Fabrizio accepts defeat with a terse sniff and moves on, having me try several nuanced versions of the classic bicep-flexing “muscleman” pose. I’m pretty sure the tattooist, who looks like he should be rearranging someone’s features with a crowbar on Sons of Anarchy, chuckled audibly at that point. Finally, mercifully, the artist in Fabrizio can sense the energy in the room evaporating, so we head to the lobby for another excruciating session of stilted posing in front of the “samples” rack, sans flag. After two hours of torture and hundreds of photos, this was deemed the best of the bunch.

Despite my demands, they have never released the originals to me. And yes, I’m still looking for my soul. Which is why I think I’ll hold off on those headshots.

Words of Wisdom

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire

“To sin by silence when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

“If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed…and we will deserve it.” — Lindsey Graham

I got nothin’ else.

I Get Knocked Down…

Disclaimer: This piece was posted roughly six hours before 2021 came completely off the rails, compliments of President Trump. At this point, where the new year is concerned, all bets are off. Watch your step!

I’d really like to welcome the new year with open arms, but at the moment I’m still busy scraping the last of the dog turd that was 2020 from the bottom of my shoe. Mostly, that entails another seemingly futile job search on the interwebs in an effort to reintegrate myself into the workforce. But all things considered, I regard myself lucky I only lost my job last year.

It’s been a little more than six months since I was involuntarily sent packing, unceremoniously given the boot by my employer as the first wave of the coronavirus crisis swept the globe. Not whining, because a lot of other folks got the same treatment – just giving some background. Besides, I wasn’t terribly enamored with my job – as a medical courier, I didn’t necessarily feel I was living my best life. Yes, it was a paycheck (albeit a small one), but I can’t in all honesty say that I leapt out of bed every morning reaching for the rubber gloves while exclaiming “Let’s collect more urine samples!”

I’ve chronicled some of my long and winding career path in previous posts. Everything from restaurant work to accounting, marketing shlub to radio and TV journalist (or, as I now refer to it on my resumé, ‘enemy of the people’). An interesting ride. And I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet – I would still like to find something to keep me busy and supplement the government dole.

Network television makes it look so effortless. There was a show a few years ago, Parenthood, where the characters seemed to float from job to job without consequence or travail. After interning at the family business, one goes on to be a writer, then a photographer, then the super at an apartment complex. Others ran a footwear company, but then decided to start a school, and even a recording studio. In Hollywood, changing careers is as easy as falling off a log.

Here in the trenches, things aren’t quite so glamorous. In fact, the last few years have been little more than a patchwork of entry-level jobs as I scrambled to maintain gainful employment. There was the overnight grocery store shelf stocker job, the construction gopher, those three weeks spent as the worst barista to ever don a Starbucks apron, and finally that medical courier position. None felt particularly rewarding, or held the promise of long-term opportunities. And were most assuredly not the stuff of compelling television.

So now it is that I find myself in my early sixties, with about 25 million others treading water here in the unemployment pool alongside me. Simply put, the odds of finding another gig any time soon are decidedly meager.

Yet I am unwilling to go quietly into that retirement good night. Instead, for inspiration, I look to Gandalf, the lawn goat who stands guard at our front walkway. Being on the top-heavy side, Gandalf’s balance is somewhat tenuous, as anything above a stiff breeze is enough to upend him. Along with everything else, this past year has been exceptionally windy here on the Front Range and saw him toppled more than his share. And each time, I took a bit of pride in putting him back on his feet, readying him for the next rogue gust, like Rocky getting up off the mat when everyone is telling him to stay down. While that song by Chumbawumba kept playing in my head.

I’ve never been the type to make New Year’s resolutions – I try not to let the calendar dictate when it’s time to initiate life-altering decisions. Nor am I one to give others advice. But if ever there was a moment to shake off the old and start anew, this seems like it. So here’s to a better year for everyone. And no matter what happens, be like Gandalf and get back up again.

I, for one, want to believe better days are ahead, and that all the dog turds are behind us.

Hope for the Holidays

It’s the time of year when we work that “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” stuff pretty hard. A nice gesture, perhaps, but I really don’t think we can achieve that first goal so long as “men” are part of the equation.

To elaborate, I cut someone off on the freeway the other day. An unintentional act, as I was moving over to allow merging traffic in and didn’t check my blind spot. Totally my bad. Understandably, there was honking and frantic hand gesturing from the wronged driver. But it didn’t end there.

He pulled alongside at the first opportunity and flipped me off. Not the most original response, but something I myself most likely would have done in the same situation. He was also hurling epithets, the gist of which I was able to grasp even though I couldn’t hear him through the rolled up window. A request that I have intimate relations with myself, while calling out my resemblance to the discharge end of my digestive tract, mostly.

I tried to convey the fact that I was an idiot, putting my hands up in conciliatory fashion and mouthing “sorry,” but this only seemed to enrage him more. He edged his car closer to mine, then pulled ahead, cut in front of me and stepped on the brake, a move which nearly caused me to smash into his ‘Coexist’ bumper sticker. When I changed lanes to give him a little space, he did it again. We played this game for several miles before I got to my exit.

Nor could I claim the moral high ground. Despite being clearly at fault, there came a fleeting moment during the dust-up when I considered forcing my adversary off the road, jerking him out of his car through the sunroof and pounding him senseless by way of an apology. That John Lennon’s Imagine was playing on the car radio the entire time seemed oddly appropriate.

Acute phallic psychosis, better known as Toxic Masculinity, is more than just a ‘guy thing’ – it’s unhinged behavior that has been tolerated for far too long. Millennia, in fact. We just can’t shake all that “hunter-gatherer” crap, even though we’ve been out of the caves for a good fifty-thousand years. Somewhere in the ancient, uncharted folds of our gray matter, we’re still squatting around the tribal fire, scrapping for our share of Mastodon filet. Which goes a long way toward explaining our fascination with watching large, loud people pummel one another with folding chairs.

Remember when Rodney King asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” Well, apparently we can not. Not as long as men run the show, anyway. Getting along is not something we’re all that good at. We don’t go in much for talking about our feelings or empathizing with others. It’s much easier to simply lock and load.

Statistically speaking, men are 3 times more likely than women to be involved in a fatal traffic accident and about 15 times more likely to abuse a spouse. And when it comes to initiating a global conflict or leaving the toilet seat up, it’s a guy every time. Which begs the question, why are we still in charge? We should all be sedated and kept locked away in pods for the good of society, like in The Matrix. So long as we’re getting NFL Game Day in there you could be harvesting our organs and we wouldn’t care.

Aggressive behavior had a certain place in our evolution, but there is very little call these days for crushing someone’s skull over a swatch of saber-tooth tiger hide. Testosterone is a cruel mistress, I’ll grant you, but times have changed and we need to change with them or be replaced by a newer model. One that doesn’t thump its chest while shouting things like “Who’s your daddy?” or “You want some of this?”

Peace on Earth? That’s probably best left to the women-folk. Maybe New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who gave a Master’s course in COVID Crisis Management, or Angela Merkel, who’s handled Leader of the Free World duties with aplomb these last four years. If the guys just stick to what they’re good at – opening jars and killing bugs – perhaps we’ll all have a happy holiday.

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Image credit: Utah Department of Public Safety

It may have stood in the red rock desert of Utah for nearly five years – images from Google Earth show it appearing some time between late 2015 and early 2016. Miles from anywhere, it was only random chance that the thing was spotted by a helicopter crew doing sheep tallies for the government. A mysterious three-sided metal structure, maybe twelve feet high, dubbed ‘The Utah Monolith’ for its other-worldly similarities in origin (unknown) and meaning (anyone’s guess) to the inscrutable black slab from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Barring actual extraterrestrial interaction, the most likely explanation had to be an art installation, along the lines of the environmental pieces conceptual artist Christo did back in the 60s and early 70s. But whereas Christo always made a show of his work – like the giant orange curtain that was draped across a canyon here in Colorado – this appears to have been done on the down low, erected without fanfare and left for someone to stumble across by and by.

Officials waited a few days before releasing pictures of the anomaly on November 23rd, no doubt debating whether to make them public at all. They refused to reveal its location, hinting only that it was very remote and they didn’t want people trying to find it and getting lost or ‘stranded’ somewhere requiring rescue. But, of course, it only took a matter of hours for someone to ferret out its whereabouts, between flight path tracking apps and the fact that every square inch of the planet is viewable on our computers.

I was among those who looked for and found the monolith, at least on my laptop here in my room. It was a story that instantly piqued my curiosity because there are so few, if any, real mysteries left in this world. A column of polished steel, hiding in the desert, untouched and unexplained? How irresistibly cool! I entertained, briefly, the idea of a pilgrimage but knew that was a pipe dream. Despite the official warnings, it was, in truth, too accessible.

From what I could tell, it was maybe a five-mile hike from a fairly well-established road – albeit a dirt road, and maybe 30 miles down that road from the nearest pavement, but certainly not somewhere requiring days of hiking across barren, baking red rock. Yet I can appreciate that not everyone has enough common sense to act responsibly, a fact for which we all pay the consequences. The feds were simply covering their asses. They knew full well we couldn’t behave ourselves.

But the cat was most definitely out of the bag. Within a day or two, the social media one-upsmanship had begun. Photos of interlopers were already making the rounds, obligatory selfies (the currency of our celebrity-obsessed society) with the monolith looming in the background. And then, just as quickly and mysteriously, it was gone, vanishing some time overnight the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Having stood unnoticed for five years, it was undone in five days.

The Bureau of Land Management, in whose jurisdiction the monolith resided, is professing ignorance, claiming they don’t know what happened. The local county sheriff has offered similar lip service – a dismissive shrug, in essence. Surely both are greatly relieved.

Understandable, as there were no accommodations for people to visit the site, such as a parking lot or bathroom facilities. Even though, technically, BLM land belongs to all of us, the agency reports that vehicles, lots of them, were parked on delicate vegetation and ‘human waste’ was found at the now former site of the monolith. Others would argue that the monolith never belonged there in the first place, that it was the interloper.

And so the worst fears were confirmed and it had to go, for our protection as well as the planet’s. Whether whisked away by government officials, the remorseful artist who first installed it, or the aliens who realized its enigmatic message was lost on we low-wattage humans, only a triangular hole in the ground remains.

Some speculate that Kubrick’s monolith represents mankind’s quest for knowledge. If anything, the Utah monolith is a symbol of our fatuity.

Room to Write

Personal space is important, but not always easy to come by with 7 billion of us (and counting) jostling for elbow room. One of my shrines, the great outdoors, is being overrun, sending me further and further off the beaten path in search of solitude. Hell, these days it’s even getting tougher to make a place to do a little writing in my own home.

Back in the Before Times, when only bank robbers wore facemasks and toilet paper wasn’t delivered in a Brinks truck, I had a cozy lair in the spare bedroom. Sure, I shared it with a derelict treadmill, but the rest of the room was mine. There was a huge desk, a comfy chair in one corner, and plenty of space to spread out. At the time, I was doing some freelance writing for a few business publications and could close the door so as not to disturb anyone (or be disturbed) when conducting phone interviews, or doing online research at sites like Wall Street Vixens the Wall Street Journal.

Then came the coronavirus. And my wife got the green light to work from home. The only suitable space was, of course, mine. So we found the tiniest desk we could, squeezed it into a corner of the guest room, and voila, welcome to my new office.

I just recently upgraded from that three foot wide postage stamp of a workspace to a luxurious four foot wide desk in a move meant to alleviate the awkwardness of having my office located in the guest room, despite the fact that we never have guests. Still, this new arrangement is less than ideal, as I have simply moved across the hall into the master bedroom, wedged between a couple of dressers. It’s okay, I guess, but not the type of environment in which I envision John Steinbeck turning out The Grapes of Wrath.

Stephen King used to write in a closet to get away from the clamor of family life, so my whining has little justification. Nonetheless, as I was bemoaning my predicament, I remembered a quote from the author Annie Dillard, who said, “You can read in the space of a coffin, and you can write in the space of a toolshed meant for mowers and spades.”

At that moment my gaze turned to the backyard where, out the window, sat my brand new toolshed, the paint hardly dry. Serendipity.

I would be in good company, as writers have a long history of sneaking off to their private places. Thoreau may have started the trend with the rustic hovel he famously constructed on the edge of Walden Pond, but others from Dylan Thomas to Virginia Woolf also holed up in retreats of varying nature where they could do their thing, without distractions.

A pair of more contemporary authors, Ken Gordon and Michael Pollan, have written about how each, like Thoreau, attempted to build their own ‘writer’s cabin.’ As Gordon notes, “For the writers who can muster it, building the cabin is as important as inhabiting it.” A sentiment echoed by Pollan: “I wanted not only a room of my own, but a room of my own making. I wanted to build this place myself.” And while I didn’t start my project with such intentions, I better understand their motives now that I’m done.

Here I think it’s important to note that neither of these guys had spouses who were planning on getting extra storage space out of the deal instead of an elitist man-cave. So I was on my own when it came to informing my wife that her dream of a pristine, uncluttered garage would have to wait, at least until I hit the best-seller list.

You would be surprised at how quickly you can go from writer’s cabin to doghouse. And since my humble shed has no heat, lights or running water, I am currently in negotiations for an extension cord and a five-gallon bucket.

Or I Could Collect Stamps

Maybe it was the COVID thing – still lying low as the second wave rolls through, with no end in sight and cabin fever already raging. Maybe it was the election – knowing full well who I would vote for months ago, which allowed me to disengage early on so as to avoid the spiraling insanity and thereby keep my head from exploding. Maybe it was just an ‘old guy’ thing – feeling like I should keep moving, keep doing something because the less you do, the less you can do. Feeling like I needed a project now that I’ve been involuntarily retired. Show myself I can still be productive.

So what’s a person to do? Why, build a shed, of course.

Did we need a shed? The jury is still out on that one. Personally, I believe that the more space you have, the more stuff you will acquire to fill said space. This bore out at our last house back in Michigan – while it was far from palatial, it had more than its share of dark corners, and a garage that could fit two cars and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When it came time to move, we were making midnight runs to Goodwill with all the things that – like the unicorns left behind by Noah – weren’t going to find a place on the truck.

Granted, the garage here at the new house is decidedly smaller than the previous one. And while that has helped keep our ‘stuff quotient’ low, there’s still plenty of crap that can’t live in the house. A quick sidebar; we get hail storms around here – hellacious hail storms. So it behooves one to keep their vehicle under cover as much as possible, unless you don’t mind the hood having that ‘golf ball’ look.

And though it required time to adjust to our ‘efficiency’ garage, I took a fair amount of pride in the fact that I could squeeze everything in and still get two cars to fit. I can’t guarantee that you can get out of the car once you’ve managed to guide it into its designated slot, but by God, you can get the garage door closed behind you. Yet I can appreciate that others require less clutter in their lives – not less stuff, necessarily, just better organized stuff. Which is why my wife has been advocating for additional space since we moved to the new house ten years ago.

Shed or no, more flotsam is finding its way into my life, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. Patio furniture which, until now, has been left on the patio for the winter, the garage misfits, the overflowing basement storeroom. And a kayak, if I have my way. My first one, a unicorn, was abandoned in the moving purge – a new one has been contingent on finding space in which to store it.

So, unlike some, I decided to concede defeat. After a month (which included a couple of snow delays), principal work is complete. A few minor details, a coat of paint, and our gender-neutral shed will be ready.

The secret to a successful DIY construction project in your sixties? Creative cursing, Aleve® (in bulk) and heating pads. There is a quote attributed to Matthew Stover, that “all true stories end in death.” As someone on facebook noted, all true projects end with bandages. Or stitches. I can vouch for that, too.

And any time I started to obsess over a bit of wonky trim or bent nail, I heard the voice of an old friend who used to impart these words of wisdom whenever I got too detail oriented for his liking. “Yer not makin’ a fuckin’ Swiss watch.” Indeed. It’s a shed, not the Taj Mahal.

But if this lockdown goes on much longer, that might be next.

Rejoice, For Winter is Coming!

There’s a quote that’s been making the rounds on facebook…something about how choosing not to find joy in the snow means you will have less joy in your life, but still the same amount of snow. My brother even posted this recently, which I found curious coming from a man who spends his winters in coastal North Carolina.

And while I can appreciate the sentiment, I have yet to embrace it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a Michigan boy – raised in the land of ‘lake-effect’ snow, next-door neighbor to the Great White North. Where winter wasn’t so much a season as it was an epoch. When we moved from Grand Rapids, with an average annual snowfall of 74 inches (exactly the same as my average annual height, it should be noted), to Fort Collins, I was buoyed by the fact that we would be on the receiving end of 28 fewer inches of snow every year.

But as I am reminded, now that I have involuntarily aged-out of the workforce, it’s not like I have anywhere to be. When the snowflakes fly, I’m told I should simply break into a refrain of Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

I try to play nice with winter – I really do. Granted, I’m not much for downhill skiing or snowboarding – a fact which has nothing to do with the slab of angle iron and ten screws holding my wrist together after taking a tumble while attempting to stay upright shred the gnar with my youngest a decade ago. Okay, maybe a little. But I will wander out into the powder with my brother-in-law on cross-country skis now and then, and just last winter we tromped through the woods on snowshoes, a not entirely unpleasant outing.

Truthfully, winter here in the lee of the Rocky Mountains is quite tolerable. Temps routinely climb into the 50s, even in January, so I try not to grumble too much. But I feel my emotional attachment to the season might still fall a bit shy of ‘joyous.’

Lucky me, this past weekend I was given the opportunity to work on improving my attitude. An early-season snowstorm rolled through, dropping a full foot of fluffy white goodness on us. As you might guess, my joy was beyond words. So I simply shoveled the driveway in silence.

Winter’s unexpected arrival put the brakes on my backyard project, a shed my wife has been anticipating for some time now. She’ll have to wait a bit longer. I knew I was tempting the gods when I broke ground in early October, and it appears they have decided to punish me for such recklessness. Barring a November warmup, the ribbon cutting could get pushed back to Memorial Day.

Of course, there is always a silver lining. In the hills just west of here, the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires have been raging nearly unchecked. It has been an eerie summer in Fort Collins, living in an orange twilight under the omnipresent smoke plumes. So 18 to 20 inches of snow (what is being reported in the high country) can only be seen as a blessing for those battling the infernos, and those in the path of the flames.

Thus, when my windshield wipers clog up with snow while I’m driving and leave that icy streak directly in my line of vision, when the snowplow swings by moments after I’ve finished shoveling the driveway and blocks me in anew with a two-foot wall of slush, when my pants all bear that ghostly high-water mark, I will smile and let my joy flow freely into the world.

Once more, from the top: Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

On Coffee, COVID and the Open Road

I’m just back from visiting my brother in upstate New York. It’s a lot of driving from Fort Collins, but who wants to fly these days. And normally I enjoy a good road trip, but that was in the before times. Now, just securing a cup of coffee is an ordeal. I need my caffeine, though, so it meant masking up and taking on the big, bad world. A foray into an Iowa truck stop sums things up.

It takes me a moment to locate the “Coffee Corner,” tucked away as it is behind racks of Cheetos and magazines adorned with pouty-lipped vixens in leather bathing suits who appear to be intimately involved with any number of large, shiny motorcycles. Distracted as I am by all that chrome and cleavage, I erroneously grab a cup designated only for use with the slurpee machine.

An honest mistake, considering the multitude of drink containers to choose from, all jutting bottom-first from columns of cubbyholes, none of which are labeled. I can’t return it to the dispenser, either. There must be some sort of safeguard mechanism that won’t let me push it back from where it came because, you know, I might breathe on it and then leave it for the next guy. Guess I’ll just hide it behind this case of sweet rolls that’s been here since the Reagan administration.

Ah, there are the coffee cups. Let’s see…small, medium and Lake Powell. Jesus, my kidneys would stage a work stoppage if I drank all that. A medium will be fine. Wait…how can it cost only 15 cents more for what amounts to a bathtub’s worth of joe? This is why America is the greatest country in the world. Large it is – my kidneys will just have to man-up.

Now, which of these giant dispensers actually doles out coffee? The first one looks encouraging, with several large buttons, one that advertises Dark Roast. But as I lean in a little closer I see, in ridiculously tiny letters, the word “cappuccino” just as I give it a push. Dammit! The machine starts to growl and spew foam, even as I’m jerking my hand back like I’ve touched a live wire. Thankfully, it stops after only a few spurts. I toss my soiled cup in the trash and grab another one while mumbling a string of expletives. An unmasked woman within earshot (apparently disregarding reports that the president himself contracted the hoax virus just days earlier) looks at me like I’m the crazy one.

The next machine is another dead end, offering only flavorings – French Vanilla, Hazelnut and some sort of Caramel concoction, all dripping from hoses as big around as my thumb. More like seeping, really, as either chemistry or a long-past expiration date has rendered them thicker than pancake syrup. Then again, I think I read somewhere that these ‘creams,’ while never having come within 50 yards of an actual cow, are only one molecule removed from the composition of plastic, so perhaps expiration dates don’t apply.

Finally, I come across the coffee pots, hiding down past the cream dispenser. A sea of them. One hundred percent Columbian, Breakfast Blend, Kona Supreme, Hazelnut, Donut Shop, Decaf. Two pots of each steaming away. But there’s no telling how long any of these have been simmering. I pull down my mask, pick up the Columbian and give it a dubious sniff as the clerk behind the plexiglass-shielded counter eyes me with roughly the same regard.

Either the coffee is scorched or someone used this pot for a urinal. I set it back on the burner and reach for the Hazelnut, as if it makes a difference what I pick at this point. It’s a safe bet that everything tastes like the Columbian smells. All I can do is doctor it up with my choice of bio-engineered ‘dairy’ product from the prior dispenser.

I decide to play it safe and stick with the hazelnut theme. The first dose oozes into the blackness without any discernible effect.

“Well, as Hans Gruber said in Die Hard, hit it again,” I announce with a chortle, so pleased am I with my trivial movie reference. I look around to see if anyone else is equally amused, but I am alone. The virus-tempting woman has scurried off to the register where she is speaking with the clerk in animated fashion, no doubt advising him to check the safety on the firearm stashed under the counter.

Meanwhile, back here at the cream station, the hue of the liquid in the five-gallon bucket that is my large coffee starts to change, if ever so slightly. A stir stick would come in handy right about now, but they are nowhere to be found – perhaps under lock and key to protect me from the possibility of a tragic self-impaling. Rather than use my finger, I appropriate a plastic knife from the nearby food line, stir ferociously and then take a sip – molten motor oil with a hint of…tree bark, maybe? So once more with the cream. But, of course, I put too much coffee in to begin with, and now I have to take a couple of gulps in order to make room. The clerk, meanwhile, hasn’t taken his eyes off me.

A few more shots and the contents have turned a muddy brown, and smell like the Nutella factory. That should suffice. After spending several minutes trying in vain to force a slurpee lid onto the cup, I realize my error, snap the proper lid in place and head for the register. I interrupt the clerk, who appears to be posting pictures of me on his facebook page under “Douchebag Customer of the Day,” and a buck seventy later, I’m out the door.

By the time I reach the car, though, the cream has made that molecular leap – the coffee tastes like boiled window cleaner, albeit with a slightly nutty aftertaste. Or maybe it’s the smell of my hand sanitizer every time I bring the cup to my lips. Either way, I’m not risking another trip inside, so I hit the road, sipping sparingly at my pail of toxic swill for the next hundred miles before pouring it out in a rest area parking lot. I didn’t stick around to see if it ate through the pavement.