Getting There is Half the Fun

fairplay

Image credit: flickr.com

A trip to my mother-in-law’s place is always a little dicey, at least during the winter months. It’s a three-hour trek on a perfect day – an hour of freeway driving down to and around Denver, then an hour of winding mountain road to the top of 10,000 foot Kenosha Pass, and then another hour across the beautiful desolation of South Park, a thousand square-miles of high, flat grassland tucked amongst the peaks.

That three hours doesn’t account for accident or construction cock-ups on the interstate, getting caught behind slow-moving trucks on the two-lane stretches or, this time of year, snow. The mountain passes are routinely shut down when blizzards roll through, and the relentless winds in South Park can whip even the slightest amount of powdery precip into whiteout conditions pretty quickly. We’ve had many a white-knuckle trip, and even been shut down completely due to the weather.

But this time, everything was going great. It was a mild, sunny day, with highs expected to hit sixty degrees, and we blew through Denver without me ever having to take my foot off the gas (which never happens). Should have known better. There in the vastness of South Park the car started to puke, sputtering and coughing, barely able to maintain school-zone speeds, to the delight of those behind us.

We limped into Fairplay, with 700 residents the largest metroplex in a fifty-mile radius. For some context, the main attraction in Fairplay is the gold-rush era mine tailings piled on the outskirts of town. Fairplay is where old pickup trucks and construction equipment go to die, rusting in forlorn splendor in back yards and vacant lots. It was here we coasted to a stop at the local Sinclair station.

This being a Saturday, the lone auto repair facility was closed, of course. Now the dilemma – logistically, it made more sense to try and get the car to Buena Vista, our original destination, where there were not only more mechanics available, but also a vehicle we could borrow from the MIL for the ride home. I have road service. How much could it be for a 35-mile tow?

Well, $345 to be precise, with only a hundred of that covered by my insurance policy. Was I okay with eating the balance, the Allstate customer service rep in Bangladesh wanted to know. No, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life at the Sinclair station in Fairplay, either – the bathrooms lack a certain hygienic quality, and I’m not sure how long one’s colon could hold out when confronted with a diet of only Doritos and those hot dogs forever spinning on that heated roller thing.

One of these days I’ll learn that sarcasm doesn’t translate well with those for whom English is not their first language.

Also, the Allstate app I used to summon a tow truck kept referring to the driver as my ‘rescuer,’ as if I was dangling from the seat belt in my overturned vehicle while bleeding from a head wound, or slowly sinking into an icy lake. Good thing neither of those scenarios were in play, as the nearest rescuer still took three hours to arrive on scene.

But all’s well that ends well. We had no problems with the loaner on the drive home. And only a week earlier we sold some used furniture for $250, so I guess it’s a case of ‘Easy come, easy go.’ Hell, I’m actually five bucks to the good. At least until the repair bill rolls in.

Anyone want to buy a couch?

Old is as Old Does

old man

New year, new you, right? In my case it’s not so much trying to be something ‘new’ as it is simply keeping the ‘old’ at bay. I have yet to reach that mystical plateau where I bask in a zen-like acceptance of my gray hair and turkey-neck. The way I look at it, why else would God have created Just For Men and botox?

This started over a decade ago, when I turned 50, fueling speculation as to how much longer I was entitled to refer to myself as “middle-aged.” Granted, some scientists believe the first person to live to 150 has already been born, but it’s highly unlikely I am he. And with the average life expectancy sitting at not quite 80 years old, I’m rapidly leaving the “middle” in the dust.

Now 60 is in my rear-view mirror. Sixty. I hate the very sound of it. The first time I said it out loud, answering a query about my age, it was like someone else was speaking. And I’m quite certain the twenty-something medical receptionist who posed the question began to talk louder and more deliberately at that point.

The millennials aren’t the only ones giving me up for dead. Madison Avenue has done the same, most notably when it comes to my, uh, equipment. The pharmaceutical hucksters are constantly disparaging its battle readiness and flow capabilities. And the algorithms seem to think that the only other products I have a need for are walk-in bathtubs and life alert buttons.

To make us feel better, we boomers tell ourselves things like “Sixty is the new forty” or “Age is just a number.” All I know is, my number is getting pretty unwieldy. Besides, those phrases are only good for so long, like until you start receiving reminders in the mail that it’s time to have your prostate probed again.

Even so, the one thing I promised myself never to utter was “I’m too old for this shit” (regardless of whatever it was I might be doing at the time). I’ve always tried to stay active – not a slave to exercise, just enough so they’ll never have to knock down a wall of my house and pluck me out of my bed with a crane.

And with the exception of an ugly snowboarding incident that left me with a piece of angle iron screwed to my wrist bone, the plan appears to be working. All my parts seem to be in good functioning order, and I don’t make any grunting noises when I get into or out of an easy chair. In fact, I get a fair amount of comments about how good I look, comments that are always followed by the phrase “…for your age.” I’m assuming that’s meant as a compliment. To be honest, I’m just happy to be able to look myself in the mirror these days and not wince, except perhaps at the general thickening of the hair on my back, as what used to be boyish peach fuzz now more closely resembles a badger pelt.

I’m certainly not leading the charge. Maybe it was the old Nike commercials, imploring us to Just Do It. But these days more and more geriatric sorts are turning up on TV, stumbling glassy-eyed through the Hawaiian darkness – miles from the finish line – as the Ironman Triathlon comes to a close or being air-lifted out of Patagonia after they were thrown by their alpaca and broke a hip while competing in the Amazing Race, defeated but somehow better for having made the attempt. One of those epic “things to do before I die” undertakings that could actually cause your death.

And living in Colorado, there are plenty of ways for a person to test oneself physically. So in the summer I climb things like the Manitou Incline or the occasional 14er, and in the winter I cross-country ski up in the mountains. This year I plan to break in a new pair of snowshoes before the spring thaw.

Is it dangerous at my age? There was a story I read a few years ago, about an 80 year old woman who died while on a hike into the Grand Canyon. She lost her footing, slipped off the trail and, well, it’s a long way down. So, yeah, stuff happens. But if I had my druthers, I’d rather swan dive into the Grand Canyon than have a coronary and quietly sink beneath the waves in my walk-in bathtub.

Am I trying to prove something? Maybe just that the less you do, the less you can do, and I plan on doing a lot. Right up until my alpaca tosses me off a cliff.

All is Well?

SlimPickens

Whew! Looks like 2020 almost got away from us there. I mean, I’m a big fan of all those movies set in post-apocalyptic times, but that doesn’t mean I want to necessarily enjoy the experience first-hand. I’ll wait for Disney to build an ‘Escape From New York’ theme park, thanks.

Now that cooler heads have prevailed (cooler heads on the other side, it should be noted), I can get back to the New Year’s resolutions I was working on before this little dust-up began. It’s just that, while the bombs were falling, whether or not I eat less red meat seemed a tad picayune. But then came that reassuring tweet from the Mar-a-Lago North situation room proclaiming “all is well.” Ah, back to normal.

So, yes, I’m trying to limit my consumption of animals – of any kind, really. Better for me, better for the animals, better for the planet. And there’s my ultimate goal. Being better to the planet. Trying to avoid the other, slow-motion apocalypse headed our way by acknowledging climate change and doing what I can to reverse course, despite the head-in-the-sand approach of our ‘leadership.’ I think the residents of Australia might have a few thoughts on the subject. Some things transcend turning a buck. Like keeping this blue marble habitable.

For the record, I’ve never been much of a ‘resolution’ type – if I need to change something, I usually don’t wait around until the calendar tells me it’s okay to get started. And, in fact, that was the case here. We actually began the process of going meatless about midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nor was it really a process – more like cold turkey, so to speak.

Pro tip: start slow, and wait until after the holidays.

We figured out pretty quickly that, as with the current administration’s foreign policy, not having a plan made for chaos and near disaster. We had no recipes, no idea what to purchase at the grocery store, no clue what we were doing. A few Youtube videos on which fake meats tasted the best and we were on our way.

Or so we thought. After floundering around for a couple weeks, wherein I wolfed down far too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we have allowed the rogue pound of ground beef into the house on occasion to keep us from starving to death before we figure this thing out.

Blame it on Burger King. Shamefully, I have always been a Whopper fan, despite the sandwich’s staggering nutritional downside – about 750 calories (because I like mine with cheese), 47 grams of fat (16 of which are saturated) and enough sodium to kill an adult moose. I don’t eat them on a regular basis, but even so, they are one of my guilty pleasures. And it was that guilt that prompted me to try their ‘Impossible’ Whopper, the one with the plant-based patty in place of the flame-broiled beef. And I liked it. Well, I found it acceptable which, I’m learning as I try more of the meat substitutes out there, is about the best I can hope for as a long-time carnivore. And the nutritional numbers are only marginally better – a few less calories and grams of fat – but no animals were harmed in the making of my burger.

Of course, it goes way beyond just a change of diet. It’s switching to renewable energy and conserving water (two more concepts that befuddle our Commander-in-Chief), recycling to preserve natural resources, keeping/removing plastic from the environment, and on and on. It’s all about choices. Choices I’m willing to make because I have kids, and even a grandchild now, and they don’t deserve to inherit a shithole world. Nor do the rest of the inhabitants – two-legged or four-legged, present or future.

Not to play the ‘old’ card, but I’ve been at this for a while. I’m talkin’ paper drives and Captain Planet. But if it takes one pissed-off Swedish teenager to breath life back into the movement, so be it. Go get ‘em, Greta – kick some ass. Here’s one boomer who’s got your back.

I’m not one to tell others how to live their lives. I’m only responsible for myself. Nor am I looking for the social media pat on the back, the ‘atta boy’ from my followers. Just trying to do the right thing for our besieged Earth, where, despite what my government tells me, all is not well.

Rant over. Soapbox relinquished.

Moving Forward, Looking Back

goodbye beetle

Image credit: Volkswagen/Johannes Leonardo

It looks like I will start the new year, the new decade, with a goodbye. Not to a bad habit or a few extra pounds, but rather a transportation icon. The German automaker Volkswagen ended production on the Beetle recently, and is giving its venerable classic a loving send-off with a new commercial – perhaps you saw it on New Year’s Eve. So I thought it might be time to dust off my tribute to that bulbous symbol of the sixties (no, you’re not having a drug flashback – some of this appeared in my Cherished Blogfest post from 2015).

♦ ♦ ♦

The “new” Beetle was first released in 1998 to much anticipation and little acclaim, with a redesign in 2011 that still didn’t capture the humble mystique of the originals. Which might explain why the company finally threw in the towel a few months ago. As for the old-school bugs, they’ve been gone for nearly two decades now. Volkswagen pulled the plug on the best-selling car ever when it closed the last remaining factory in Mexico back in 2003. I still haven’t decided if it was the end of an era, or just the end of an error.

You see, I’m a recovering vintage vee-dub addict. If you don’t count my toy car collection, I have been clean now for more than 25 years. That means no VW association newsletters, no parts catalogs, no fall color tour auto rallies. Conversely, it’s also meant no pools of oil collecting on the garage floor, no bloody knuckles and no spontaneous cursing jags.

As near as I can figure, this all goes back to my first sexual encounter, which took place in the backseat of a yellow Volkswagen squareback sedan. Parked in one of the scenic turnouts along Trail Ridge Road high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, it was a magical convergence of nature, libido and machine. The moonlight reflecting off the snow-capped peaks, the lights of Estes Park twinkling below and the bold yet unassuming lines of the minimalist interior combined to leave an indelible imprint on my psyche. The scenario may also have involved a woman, but that seems almost inconsequential now.

My particular obsession focused on the vans, having owned a total of four, although my short-lived “playboy” phase included a Beetle convertible and a Karmann Ghia convertible. That last one was never officially road-worthy (I suppose none of them were, really) seeing as how, at the time of purchase, many of its internal organs were sitting in a jumbled pile where the back seat should have been. But this is standard practice when it comes to bartering in these relics of the Third Reich. That the vehicle can’t move under its own power is rarely a hindrance to closing the deal.

“Project cars,” like the cryogenically frozen, exist in a kind of limbo, waiting for the day when someone will find the means necessary to resurrect them. Until that time they simply go from one owner to the next, leprous members of the automotive undead kept hidden under a blue tarp at the back of the garage or out in the barn, along with an ever-growing collection of uninstalled parts. Some even come with their own tow bar.

Just a short step above that is what the die-hards refer to, with great optimism, as the “daily driver.” Typically the term is held to a pretty loose interpretation. So long as the car can be started (pushing is allowed), attain a speed that keeps you from being run over by traffic coming up from behind (a stiff tailwind is the vintage Volkswagen driver’s best friend), and then brought to a stop, the basic criteria have been met. Things like functional heat, windshield wipers and turn signals are looked on as fortunate happenstance.

My initiation came behind the wheel of a two-tone microbus – the quintessential “hippie” van – hand painted by its previous owner. To the man’s credit, he did use an exterior latex and a short-napped roller. One of my early attempts to tune up the engine resulted in a minor fuel leak. The ensuing fireball was quickly extinguished and my eyebrows grew back in only a few months, but the vehicle was known from that time forward as “The Hindenburg.”

The interior was designed to accommodate the outdoorsman but could just as easily provide haven for the recently evicted, a trait that endeared the Westphalia campers to countless under-achievers like myself in the post-Haight Ashbury era. Along with a fold-out bed there was a galley area neatly fitted with a stove, sink and small refrigerator, as well as several cubbyholes for stashing gear (or drugs, of course), all shoe-horned into a space no bigger than a phone booth. Add an engine in back that produced roughly the same horsepower as a ceiling fan, and the package was complete.

These vintage models – defined as anything Before Radiators – are not for the timid. Handling and maneuverability are on par with your basic soap-box derby entry, and often times the road is visible beneath your feet due to a tendency of the floors to rot away like vampire flesh caught in a shaft of sunlight. Every trip requires a stockpile of spare parts, along with the ability to install them at a moment’s notice.

And, yes, it pays to keep things such as chewing gum, panty hose and a bag of marbles on hand for when you have to pull a “MacGyver,” like the day you look in the rearview mirror and see sundry pieces of smoldering metal strewn across the road as you’re coasting to a stop somewhere between Barstow and Needles. It’s been said that, to fully appreciate the air-cooled driving experience, one must develop a Zen-like acceptance of breakdowns as part of the journey. That and a knack for reaching your “happy place” while your flesh is being seared by red hot engine parts. Peace, love and pass the metric tools, dude.

Thanks to therapy and an intervention where friends forced me to watch Little Miss Sunshine for 3 days straight, all that remains of my addiction is that old oil stain on the garage floor. I can now say with certainty that I am happy to be driving a vehicle that doesn’t require scraping the inside of the windshield during the winter months. But sanity, like sobriety, can be a tenuous thing. If my eyes start to glaze over the next time I pass an old Beetle broken down on the side of the road, just punch me as hard as you can while shouting “Slug Bug” at the top of your lungs. That usually does the trick.

Happy SAD Day

solstice

And by that, I mean Seasonal Affective Disorder Day, a. k. a. the Winter Solstice. That day when, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, we are graced with only a few hours of viable sunlight before the eternal blackness of despair chases us back into our lairs. That’s probably the reason for all the man-made lights strung on trees and houses – an attempt to ward off the relentless gloom and ennui.

Things have improved for me, personally, since moving to Colorado. Yes, these days in late December are still far too short in terms of the time span between sunrise and sunset, but at least Sol makes an appearance, however brief. We’re even expected to hit sixty degrees this weekend. But back in Michigan, where I was born and raised, winters are far less cordial – cloudy and cold is the typical forecast from November to March.

To their credit, a lot of local residents would soldier on as if nothing was the matter. Towns in the mitten state routinely hold winter festivals to try and lure folks outside with parades, food tents and things like outhouse races and polar plunges. But let’s be honest – how much fun are you really having if your corndog freezes before you can finish it?

I have a link on my computer that takes me to a chart that shows, to the minute, what time the sun rises and sets every day here in Fort Collins. Now begins my obsessive checking of that chart to assure myself that we are, however slowly, coming out from the darkness. And don’t try to have a conversation with me on June 21st, as I will be mourning the fact that the downhill slide has begun.

I’m in therapy.

A lot of us SAD sufferers resort to happy lamps to lift our mood – there’s even a visor one can procure that has tiny fluorescent bulbs on the underside shining down on the wearer’s eyes. Now you know what to get me for Christmas. And a side note – the light in your refrigerator does not qualify as a happy lamp.

Still, that’s the key for me. More illumination to keep the solstice blues at bay. Work lamps, flashlights, glow-sticks, lanterns, candles, torches. So if you’re in the neighborhood, my house will be the one glowing like the core of a nuclear reactor. Happy (well-lit) holidays!

Curt’s Guide to the Christmas Classics

xmas movies

So here we are, hip-deep in the holiday season. The tree is up, that one string of lights is hung over the garage, and I’ve settled in for some Christmas TV viewing. This may be the most useless list ever, as we all have our go-to movies this time of year, but I thought I would offer my picks for (and against) the classics. If I have missed one of your favorites, well, it’s my list and this is the crap I watch. On the other hand, if I have trashed one of you favorites, then my work here is done.

The many versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol are a subset all their own:

A Christmas Carol (1923) – a British effort starring Russell Thorndike (yeah, I’ve never heard of him, either). The production values and quality of the print give this version the feel of what I would imagine it was like to live in 19th century London – dark, cheerless and claustrophobic.

A Christmas Carol (1938) – with Reginald Owen as Scrooge, and Gene and Kathleen Lockhart as the Cratchits. A bit of a snoozer. Owen doesn’t sell his transformation very well – it’s hard to tell the difference between bad Scrooge and good Scrooge. And Tiny Tim looks pretty chipper for a kid who’s supposed to be knocking on death’s door.

A Christmas Carol (1951) – with Alastair Sim in the lead role. The third ghost is the most un-menacing of the lot, walking around under that black bedsheet, but Sim provides the best post-spirits Scrooge. This one also gives us the worst ‘Tiny’ Tim ever – the actor in the role looks to be in his early twenties, and stands about 6 feet tall. Bob Cratchit would get a hernia carrying that load around on his shoulder.

Scrooge (1970) – an ill-advised musical version starring Albert Finney. C’mon, Alec Guinness, did you really need the money? No, just no.

A Christmas Carol (1984) – with General Patton, sorry, George C. Scott scowling his way through old London. But, finally, a Tiny Tim who looks pallid and sickly and isn’t the size of an NFL linebacker. The production is still in litigation with George Lucas studios for intellectual property theft over its depiction of the third ghost as a Jawa on stilts.

Scrooged (1988) – starring a pre-introspective Bill Murray in a ‘modern retelling’ of the Dickens classic. How did Bobcat Goldthwait ever have a career?

A Christmas Carol (1999) – the one with Captain Picard, sorry, Patrick Stewart doing the honors. The first time I watched this, I thought he was choking on a chicken bone at one point. Who laughs like that? And having Joel Grey do a guest shot as the Ghost of Christmas Past was okay (apparently he needed the money, too), but that paint job and wardrobe make him look like the Tin Man in drag.

A Christmas Carol (animated, 2009) – featuring Jim Carrey as just about everyone in the movie. Sorry, but he will always be Ace Ventura to me. Unwatchable.

As for the rest of the offerings…

Holiday Inn – the only reason people watch this is for the song ‘White Christmas.’

White Christmas – So they sing the song at the beginning and the end of the movie, but the two hours in between are like all those packing peanuts in the boxes that keep showing up at my doorstep every day – lots of lightweight filler. And “Mister Bones” gets my vote for Most Mutable Song in a Musical category.

It’s A Wonderful Life – Does anyone else sit on the couch and repeat the dialogue, verbatim and in their best Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers, et al impressions, or is it just me? Only two beefs – like Scrooge, it takes George way too long to figure out he’s not around anymore, and that guy pushing old man Potter’s wheelchair needs a beatdown.

A Christmas Story – It was pleasant enough holiday fare the first 15-thousand times I saw this movie, but I’ll shoot my own eyes out if I have to watch it one more time.

The Santa Clause (and all its tragic sequels) – Tim Allen as Santa. Nuff said.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Yeah, there’s Jim Carrey again, so that’s a hard no from me.

Home Alone – As with Jim Carrey, the problem may be that I associate Joe Pesci with his other roles, in particular the various (and violent) characters in all those Scorsese movies. I keep wondering why he doesn’t just whack that kid in the first ten minutes and put an end to this nonsense.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Because nothing says ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus’ like Randy Quaid proclaiming that the “shitter’s full.” And Chevy Chase may be the only actor more obnoxious than Jim Carrey.

Love, Actually – is pretty sexist, actually.

Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Another one where I’m doing all the voices, to the great delight of my family members. C’mon, everybody…”Bumbles bounce!”

Any Hallmark Holiday Movie – I can’t really comment, because by the time the generically wholesome, young heterosexual couple meet at about the 20 minute mark (usually through an interaction with the rambunctious dog one of them owns), I am deep in the throes of a sugar coma. I’m fairly certain they live happily ever after, though.

Die Hard – Best. Christmas movie. Ever. Well, actually, it’s a tie between that and The Yule Log.

Oh, Tannenbaum

It’s time to put up the tree again. I know this because my wife has been dropping those subtle hints for a few days now – watching Bing and Danny and Rosemary and Vera on endless repeat in the blue ray and reminding me that the neighbor’s light display is already up (that bastard).

And so it begins. First comes the Parade of Chairs, because the tree goes in the corner by the fireplace, where a side chair lives the remaining 11 months out of the year. Relocating it starts a chain reaction of moves – the corner chair integrates nicely with the pieces in the front room, so one of those has to go to make way. Up to the bedroom with it, where there is already one chair too many because we never could decide if the teal or the gray one went better with the new bedspread.

For now, the teal chair gets bumped to the office (even though it clashes with the green rocker/recliner in there we’ll keep the door closed) to make way in the bedroom for the chair displaced from the front room by the chair that came out of the corner by the fireplace. Still with me? A fistful of Aleve®, and I’m ready to drag the tree up from the basement.

Yes, it’s an artificial tree. No, I’m not here to argue the benefits or detriments of said artificiality when compared to a real one. Yes, yours smells wonderful. But in my house, no living organisms were killed in order to satisfy this archaic holiday tradition (okay, so I am arguing). Of course, my tree will eventually be consigned to the landfill. But in an effort to keep that from happening for as long as possible, I continue to press it into service well past its prime. You see, the original lights all went dark long ago, string by string, to the last bulb. So I have taken to re-stringing it for lo these many years.

xmas tree

This brings us to Dia de los Muertos, the moment of reckoning. Upon initial assembly of the fake fir, I connect all the various strings together, then hold my breath in anticipation as I plug the tree into the wall outlet. The results are varied but always disappointing, as even the newer lights have roughly the same life expectancy as a loaf of bread left on the counter. The branches already hang heavy with the expired bulbs of Christmases past, left as a reminder of the folly of man’s aspirations. That, and it’s just more expeditious to simply add new strings over the carcasses of the departed.

So I tediously snake them throughout the tree to insure there will be no blank spots, no unforgivable gaps in illumination. Much of this is done from the floor, flat on my back, reaching up amongst the tangle of wires and bottle-brush ‘limbs’ while reminding myself that my suffering is not unlike Michelangelo’s as he labored on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In order to get everything just so requires the precision of a Swiss watchmaker and, as I venture into the higher sections, the flexibility of a contortionist. Plugs dangle everywhere, with no way of knowing which belong to the living or the dead except to try them one after the other. The element of surprise is what keeps me going.

And when it is finally done, when the twinkle of lights has been fully restored for yet another year and the decorations complete, no human or pet is allowed to go within five feet of the tree for fear that the slightest bouncing of the floor or movement of a branch might be enough to trigger an outage. Because if a string goes dark after the ornaments and tinsel are up, there will be blood.

And next December I will do it all again. Or maybe someone will be making holographic Christmas trees by then.