My Contribution to ‘The Shining’

Yes, Stephen King’s signature horror tale. No, I’m not kidding (much).

When one visits Estes Park, as we did recently, it’s hard not to notice the famed Stanley Hotel. Built by the inventor of the Stanley Steamer car, the stately, sprawling edifice sits on a rise above town, overlooking the little mountain community. And when I caught sight of its distinctive red roof, I was reminded of my connection to Mr. King. It’s common knowledge that the hotel served as inspiration for his book. Here, then, the rest of the story.

Fresh out of high school in the summer of 1974, I spent a few weeks on the Appalachian Trail, then left to look for America (I refer you to the title of my blog). My thumb took me to the west coast, but on the way back the money ran out in Estes Park. I landed a job at one of the finer dining establishments in town – all the tables you could clear along with one free meal a day and a bunk in the employee’s quarters above the restaurant, for a kingly two dollars an hour and a slim percentage of tips. Any extracurricular activities with the waitresses were merely occupational perks.

The former Olde Plantation Restaurant, Estes Park

When the restaurant closed for the season (shortly after Labor Day), I made a quick trip back to Michigan to visit some friends, one of whom warmed to my unvetted tales of life as a ‘Mountain Man’ and decided to return with me – he and his red ‘65 Ford Mustang with a black landau top – for the winter.

So it was that the autumn of ‘74 found us renting a small cabin for the ‘off-season,’ both having secured employment at the ski resort (which has since been shuttered and dismantled) in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park – a fact that spoke more to the limited nature of the local labor pool than anything else. Henry (whose name has been changed to protect my assets) had always been a hit with the opposite sex, sporting a swarthy complexion and a mustache he grew at the age of twelve – think Omar Sharif in his heyday – which may explain why he was assigned to the ski rental shop. Whereas I earned a place at the kitchen grill, flipping burgers for the ravenous, perpetual mob.

Around the cabin, Henry was prone to manic outbursts and the occasional wrestling match. Still on the thin side, I offered little opposition. Lamps and end tables were the usual victims of these contests, though one ended with my antagonist putting a shoulder into my stomach and driving me ass-first into a wall. The resulting butt-shaped crater in the drywall was left as testament to the futility of human conflict.

Henry also possessed some unique cooking techniques, such as adding ketchup to spaghetti sauce by way of stretching a few more meals out of it. And he was a ‘last bite martyr,’ never eating the final helping of anything. Whether guided by some warped sense of altruism or as a way to amass a backlog of ‘owed favors’ to be called in later, he always feigned fullness when it came time to divvy up the scraps. Once I realized what he was doing, it began to irritate the hell out of me.

It finally culminated on a drive home from Tony’s, the local pizza joint, where a lone slice of pepperoni pizza sat in the box between us. I was certain he would refuse it, but decided to stand my ground this time.

After some verbal jousting (“You eat it.” “No, YOU eat it…”), it became clear I wasn’t going to acquiesce.

“If you don’t eat it, I’m gonna throw it out the window,” he threatened ever so casually, eyes locked on the road ahead.

An interesting bluff. But I had come this far, so…

“Henry, dude, I can’t – I’m stuffed,” I lied. As an eighteen year old with a tapeworm, I could have eaten another whole pizza. “There’s no shame in taking the last piece. Or we’ll just toss it in the fridge for later.”

Without a word he rolled down his window, reached across into the box, latched onto the doomed wedge of pizza and nonchalantly flipped it out into the snowy darkness.

We finished the ride back to the cabin in silence while I pondered how long it might take for officials to locate my shallow grave.

Later that winter we hosted a couple friends who came out to do some skiing over Christmas break. One night the four of us ventured out into a blizzard in search of fuel for the fireplace. This involved driving slowly along the local roads due to the hazardous conditions while keeping an eye out for any downed branches or other types of wood we could appropriate.

As we made our way up a winding side street, the headlights swept across a brush pile on the shoulder. Henry slowed even more to allow me to hop out, then continued up the road with our comrades to find a suitable place to turn around.

I busied myself for what seemed ten minutes or more, snapping branches into fireplace-sized pieces while the snow fell relentlessly. Then, from the direction whence my friends had departed, there came the sound of a vehicle approaching. At what seemed a high rate of speed, given the current conditions. I muttered something to the effect of, “You might want to back it down a little, assho–” when a red ‘65 Ford Mustang with a black landau top raced past me, its taillights quickly disappearing as it fishtailed around the next turn.

I resumed my wood-gathering efforts until, a few minutes later, a pair of shadows loomed up out of the snowy darkness. Still shaken, my friends related how, after driving several miles before getting turned around, Henry suddenly developed a wild hair and decided to test his winter driving skills. There remains some question as to whether a bit of goading from one of his passengers played a part, but regardless, the results were the same. They careened down the road at ever-increasing speed until the laws of physics took the wheel.

After completing a ‘donut’ when the tires finally broke loose, the car wound up teetering on its belly, caught on the lip of the road – a fortuitous happenstance that kept it from heading down a steep embankment toward what would have certainly been a bad ending. We flagged down a stray vehicle heading for town whose occupants promised to call a tow truck for us, and were back on our way maybe an hour later.

“Well, that was pretty stupid,” Henry acknowledged afterward, a comment with which no one felt compelled to argue.

There were other incidents that only cemented the fact my roommate was not of sound mind, but somehow I lived to tell. When the spring thaw came, we patched the butt hole with newspaper and auto body filler before making for the Grand Canyon, then returned to Michigan and went our separate ways.

I didn’t think much of it until The Shining hit bookshelves a few years later. Something about the story sounded strangely familiar – a man descends into madness and menaces his cohabitants over the course of a long winter in the mountains. I knew the Stanley Hotel had provided King his setting for the story. But it wasn’t until I learned he visited Estes Park in the fall of 1974 that it became clear – King obviously crossed paths with Henry somewhere in town. Though I can only surmise as to what transpired, it appears the author was capable of recognizing a lunatic when confronted with one, and the encounter most certainly provided inspiration for the ax-wielding main character, Jack.

Efforts to contact Mr. King or his lawyers regarding a percentage of royalties I feel are owed for coordinating that fortuitous meeting have thus far been unsuccessful.

That Thing of Your Dad’s

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For whatever reason, the man reminded me of Johnny Carson. Not in a physical sense – there was no real resemblance. But maybe it was the way he dressed, always slightly more dapper than the occasion called for. Or those quick, snarky retorts issued from the head of his lovingly-prepared holiday dinner table (as holidays were the only time my brother and I saw him). Or simply his presence, the consummate host – possessing the perfect balance of charm and bawdy wit, and his house ever neat as a pin.

My dad (and here I always have to clarify, my biological father, as I had a step-father to contend with as well) liked antiques, probably more than he liked his children. That’s not to say that he didn’t reserve a good portion of his affection for my brother and me, but it felt as if we were, like his vintage curios or pieces of furniture, more for show than anything else.

Being a full-blown father was decidedly more than he could commit to. In fact, simply living up to ‘weekend dad’ was a stretch. There weren’t fishing trips or afternoons spent bowling or even a few hours in a darkened theater watching a movie together. Just family gatherings (his side of the family), where aunts could be counted on to keep an eye on us and cousins were around to keep us entertained. And one trip to Disney World, the three of us, not necessarily because parenting skills could be a low priority in the Magic Kingdom, but it probably didn’t hurt.

Young adulthood – ours, that is – proved a difficult transition for him. There seemed to be even fewer opportunities for togetherness as his progeny navigated high school, and dad was missing in action more often than not. Those times when he did make an appearance were completely random and unannounced, perhaps at a band concert or graduation. It was a trend that grew even more sporadic as we began our married lives – he might call half in the bag to beg off a family dinner, or simply not show up.

He had always been a casual drinker, part of what contributed to his outgoing personality – he was a happy drunk when in the company of family and friends (unlike my step-father, who was a belligerent drunk). But the happiness waned and the drinking increased as his isolation grew. And when we got word through his big sister that he had died not even a week after his sixty-third birthday, alone but for a homeless alcoholic who appeared to have invited himself into dad’s house on the pretense of procuring booze for the two of them, it felt if not inevitable, then at least not surprising.

What was a surprise was the condition of his once cozy little domicile. When my brother and I arrived to ‘settle his affairs,’ it was as if we had stepped into a parallel universe, like one of those episodes from Star Trek where the crew is transported to a place in which the Enterprise is the same, but everything and everyone on board are somehow different.

The house of which he had been so proud, always so immaculate and orderly, was unrecognizable save for its structure. Newspapers, magazines and unopened mail covered nearly every surface. Dog hair, in astounding quantities, had collected along the baseboards, leaving a trail of gray fuzz snaking from room to room wherever floor and walls met. A window was broken out in the sunroom – his favorite space – and carelessly covered over with a piece of cardboard.

In the kitchen, the refrigerator door yawned wide, revealing open cans of food and rotting vegetables. Pans and plates were stuck to the countertops, their long-dried contents now anyone’s guess. At a certain point, laundry also fell by the wayside. In the middle of an upstairs bedroom stood a pile of clothes, some soiled with feces. It wasn’t so much a hoarding situation as it was simple neglect. This was the house of a person who had given up long ago.

I think most people imagine the typical Hollywood scene during a moment like this – the family lawyer gathering the bereaved survivors around a table, reading the Last Will and Testament that neatly sorts out all the details of who gets what and ties up any remaining loose ends. But, of course, there was no will, no lawyer, and only the two of us to decide what should be done.

We each picked out a few items that had some meaning to us, then called a nearby antique dealer to give us a quote on hauling away whatever else might be of value. Fifty dollars (and a few pieces from dad’s groovy wardrobe) was enough to convince the drinking companion to move on – we mused about how the cops might react to calls of a hipster drunk who was throwing up in the alley behind the 7-11. And after getting in touch with the mortgage lender to let someone know their asset was at risk, we drove away.

There would be atonement for being left to clean up the ruin of his life. Without a will, and also no instructions as to what he wanted done with his mortal coil, one last decision fell on us. The lone bank account we could locate had a balance of only a few hundred dollars, and when faced with the cost of a funeral and all, we decided to have him cremated, to the disdain of some who knew him less intimately. Even that option left us in a quandary over what to do with the man’s ashes, which somehow wound up in my possession. Tucked in an unmarked box, they languished in a dark corner of my garage for several years, his penance – and my passive-aggressive response – for having the bad form to leave his postmortem affairs in the hands of the sons he had so little to do with during his premortem stay on the planet.

dads thingI don’t really know what it was, for sure, the piece of furniture I chose to keep. Some have called it a dry sink, others a side board. It was some sort of free-standing cabinet, maybe fifteen inches deep at most, with a set of doors on the bottom (held shut by a latch that took its job quite seriously), and then an open ‘shelf’ where you could throw a set of keys or the mail or a pair of gloves. A drawer, impractically small, sat at one end of the shelf (the top of the cabinet part, actually) and then there was a back and top piece. It was stained very dark, almost black, about four feet long and standing roughly five feet high. I’m sure there is a proper name for it, but from the moment I brought it home, my wife referred to it as “that thing of your dad’s.” And so it has been ever since.

Its narrow depth meant it could fit in a hallway or be slipped into even a small room – and there were many small rooms in our early abodes. And things could be easily hidden behind those slightly akimbo doors with the recalcitrant latch. I became more enamored of it the longer it hung around, surviving several furniture purges when the time came to move or update our style. I won’t say that it called up sepia-tinged memories of my father every time my gaze fell on it, but it was just unique enough to always be appreciated. I could see why he liked it.

It, however, would not survive our latest décor transition to mid-century modernism, as it was more ‘farm house’ or ‘country chic’ or whatever that style is that Joanna Gaines inflicts on all her fixer uppers. But after a couple coats of gray paint and some brassy hardware updates, it has been adopted by my oldest son and his wife to live on as a sort of combination baby dresser/book case/toy chest for our grandson, just the right size for a room stuffed with other baby gear. And so a little bit of my father will always be around.

What do you know, dad…I think you’re finally getting the hang of this.

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.

Road Maps and Rubber Tomahawks

vacation

“Vacation is when you go somewhere…and you don’t ever come back.”

Despite what Forrest Gump’s mom might tell you, most people do return from vacation. In fact, we just rolled back into town after a week in southern Utah. Mainly because all our stuff is here. Even though we now have an RV that could comfortably accommodate us for an indefinite period of time (it’s the backup plan should we both lose our jobs and no longer be able to make the mortgage payment, or the zombie apocalypse comes to pass), we haven’t yet figured out how to squeeze a life’s worth of crap into it. I’m talking about the really important things: my Hot Wheels collection; a 60” flat-screen TV; the tin goat that stands guard in the front flower bed and its counterpart, the Heckle and Jeckle water fountain that lives on the patio; the various mid-mod lamps and vases that adorn every flat surface in our house (quid pro quo for the Hot Wheels); the washer and dryer. I’m coming to realize that, in the recreational vehicle world, size matters.birdbath

(If you hear the sound of ‘Taps’ being played gently, it’s for the person I once was, that hippie who drove, and loved, many a Volkswagen camper van.)

Vacation used to be nothing more than a break from the neighbor kids, two weeks out of the summer that you were forced to spend in the car with your family, visiting places about which you didn’t give the slightest shit. On the plus side, these trips offered the irresistible lure of road maps and rubber tomahawks. Nowadays it might be recalcitrant backup battery solenoids and impromptu grey water discharges. Progress.

Back when station wagons roamed the earth, there was also that sense of being out of touch, of wondering how the Tigers fared in that four-game home stand while you were staring blankly at Sacagawea’s grave. Of having to get caught up on all the world events when you walked in the door after days without reading a paper or watching a newscast. Now Big Brother’s omniscient tracking device in my pocket assails me with every detail of every story from every corner of the globe, no matter where I might be, no matter whether I want it or not. Again, progress.

So yes, we’re back from vacation. We’ve unloaded all the food we loaded up a week ago but didn’t eat (despite having a complete kitchen at our disposal) because, well, who wants to cook when you’re on vacation? And unclogged a week’s worth of junk fliers and invitations to ‘investment opportunity luncheons’ from the mailbox. And the laundry is going. I’ll wait until tomorrow to cut the knee-high grass that now sways lazily in the yard. All that’s left to do is scrape the bug viscera off the front of the camper before taking it to my RV guy to have the latest equipment malfunctions addressed (to the tune of a hundred bucks an hour for labor and whatever the hell the suppliers feel like charging for the parts) and then tucking it away for the winter in the pricey storage lot in town.

On the plus side, I found a great rubber tomahawk in this little gift shop in Moab.

For the Love of a Dog

window

As a heathen, I don’t put my faith in Master Plans or the ‘will’ of invisible, sky-dwelling deities. But I must admit that sometimes, through whatever circumstance you choose to call it, we find exactly who we need in this life.

She was a lost little dog, running the streets collarless and dirty, taken in temporarily by one of my wife’s co-workers. You should understand – my wife, Julie, having been raised a ‘cat’ person, was never really at ease around canines. She says she always felt as if they were eyeing her jugular vein. But when that co-worker brought this piss-and-vinegar-laden Jack Russell into the office, it promptly plopped down under my wife’s desk, looked up at her with those mischievous brown eyes, and just like that we had us a dog.

rileyFast-forward ten years and we are sitting in a veterinarian’s exam room, being told that kidney failure is the reason for this somewhat sudden onset of lethargy and lack of appetite. No whining, no complaints, even as her body was poisoning itself. But at 16, there was probably no hope of effective treatment, either. And just like that, we are discussing euthanasia.

In the interim, however, we all lived the life of Riley.

That we become so attached to these beasts is an odd thing. I guess boundless love, without a trace of judgement or expectation, will do that. In our case, she was the one who held sway over our decision regarding the biggest purchase of our lives. When we moved to Colorado seven years ago, we were under a tight deadline and so were rushing all over town with the realtor looking at properties. Nothing had appealed to us until we stepped through the door of the house we eventually bought. Julie turned to the side, admired the expansive window seat in the front room and simply said, “Riley would love that.” Where do we sign?

Dogs can be demanding, loud, messy and even destructive. As for Riley, she routinely engaged the vacuum cleaner in mortal combat (before she went deaf, anyway) despite our howled protestations. And Julie’s prediction about the window seat couldn’t have been more accurate. It offered the perfect view of her domain – like Mufasa, she ruled over everything the light touched, or at least she thought she did. Interlopers were not tolerated, to be sent on their way with a fusillade of frenzied canine invectives, so living next door to a dog groomer meant plenty of interrupted phone conversations and TV shows.

And she shed like nothing I have ever beheld in all my days. If you came to my house, it was a given that you would leave hairier than when you arrived – copiously so. No matter how many times I vacuum-jousted or how many lint rollers I burned through, she always won that battle. How she had any fur left on her body was a complete mystery.

buddiesMy son was another convert. Like Julie, he was also wary around dogs as he was growing up. But in Riley he found what was for him most likely the perfect pet – a young man’s best friend if ever there was one.

And yet, the circle of life plays no favorites. And the inevitable end we know is coming still sucks the wind from us when it arrives. There is a scene in the movie As Good as it Gets, where Jack Nicholson chides himself for getting emotional “over a dog.” It does seem foolish, with all that’s going on in the world at the moment, to let such an insignificant thing as the passing of an animal affect us so deeply. But with me working from the house for the last several years, she had been my constant companion. So it only seemed right to repay her unflagging loyalty in kind, to stay with her as she breathed her last and the light slipped from those now cloudy but still mischievous eyes, to see that she not die among strangers.

It has only been a few days, so I still look for her on her perch in the window seat or curled in her bed in the TV room, snoring softly. And in that moment when I realize she’s gone, the sadness is tempered somewhat by the memories of that lost little dog that found her way to us.

It is the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: goodbye. – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

 

 

Smile For the Camera

I recently took a picture of my driver’s license as part of an ill-fated attempt to register myself on airbnb. I wound up canceling the application, but the picture is a testament to my photogenically-challenged status. Granted, the zombies operating the camera at the DMV seem to have an innate ability to snap us at our worst, but in my case the fault isn’t entirely theirs.

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To their credit, they did perfectly capture my sunken-eyed ‘just coming off a three-day crack bender’ face. But while not all my mug shots are quite so striking, it’s a given that, as a subject, I am incapable of taking a good picture. Usually I’m just caught in mid-gesture, with a weird look on my face, like I’m about to say something.

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Even as a kid I was always squinting and grimacing uncomfortably in family photos.

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Some Native Americans held the belief that when you took their picture, you were taking a piece of their soul. I can relate. So I’ve always done my best to try and avoid cameras.

Then Newsweek Magazine came knocking. A few years ago the publication decided to print one of my articles. This was huge. Until that point my writing efforts had been met with little interest – a few columns printed in a local paper and hardly anything more. Now one of the biggest periodicals in the country (with claims of 19 million readers) was going to publish my stuff. Sweet! I did a little dance right there in front of the computer as I read the email.

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.

Damn. But there was no point in arguing. It was Newsweek, 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 (while briefly imagining my face superimposed on Fat Bastard’s body). 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 amassed 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, only taller. Despite being separated by an ocean and several centuries of haphazard cross-breeding, 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 hand 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 set the mood. He also reassures me that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to capture what he’s looking for. Christ, 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 that 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 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.

“Let’s try a few with the flag, now.”

Double damn – 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 with 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 needing a wax.

“I don’t see any reason to drag my nipples into this,” I parry.

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 and extras. After two hours of torture, this was deemed the best of the bunch…

topmod3

courtesy Fabrizio Costantini

I don’t think Annie Leibovitz has anything to worry about. And yes, I’m still looking for my soul.

Much of this first appeared under the title “Why I’ll Never be America’s Next Top Model.”

In Search of the Great Pumpkin (Patch)

pumpkin-patch

Image credit: blog.sandiego.org

I’m a Michigan boy who relocated to Colorado a few years ago. Don’t let Tim Allen fool you – the Great Lake State is a tough sell. The weather was my biggest gripe. Winters are long and dreary, when most hunker down with their Snuggies and Seasonal Affective Disorder lamps. Spring is usually a few days around the end of April when the glaciers finally recede on their way back to the Canadian ice shield. Then it’s straight into summer, a steam-bath rife with road construction and mosquitoes capable of carrying off small dogs.

But autumn is the pay-off – dry, sunny days and cool nights as the trees go all Norman Rockwell in improbable shades of yellow, red and orange. And while Colorado has some impressive fall colors as well, there’s one fall ritual that my adopted state just can’t get right – the pumpkin patch.

This time of year they sprout like mushrooms across the Midwest, mystical places with the power to separate us from our assets more deftly than Bernie Madoff, where even the most suburban among us are suddenly willing to pay good money to pick apples, a job we normally wouldn’t consider even for a CEO’s salary. Where rosy-cheeked farm hands in flannel shirts and overalls happily charge us 12 bucks for half a gallon of watered-down apple juice and a sack of stale doughnuts. And we pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it’s money we have and cider we lack. For an additional fee, you can take a bumpy ride around the orchard while having your ass molested by a bale of hay, or risk losing a finger trying to feed one of the devil-eyed goats. The yellow-jackets attempting to bathe in any unattended beverage come free of charge.

Around here it appears a lot of folks just buy their pumpkins at the nearest grocery store and that’s the end of it. But in Michigan it’s all about the “harvest” experience. Some operations are low-key, with things like pig races or maybe an old tractor to play on, while others have more of a carnival atmosphere, where the gourd-selection process is not for sissies.

Simply scoring a parking space can be a challenge at the more popular patches. No lines, no rows, just a field full of jumbled cars and an 11-year old in a day-glow vest motioning you out to the back forty. Screw that. The savvy move is to fall in behind the woman in the LL Bean Barn Jacket who’s pushing a stroller and herding three crying kids back from the petting zoo while trying to scrape llama turds off her shoe – she looks like she’s had enough. This is the point at which you also need to send someone to brave the throngs and fight their way up to the cashier in order to purchase the group’s color-coded wrist bands. After a brief stop at the row of fermenting porta-potties for a game of “how long can you hold your breath,” it’s into the fray.

Various wagon rides pull in and out of a crowded staging area with the precision of flights at La Guardia. Two are rotating passengers out to the apple orchards, two others to the pumpkin field, while the “Cinderella Express” – giant pumpkin-shaped coaches pulled by horses suffering from over-active bowels – travels to parts unknown. If you’re looking for more action, there’s always the corn maze, a.k.a. Thunderdome. It’s where parents banish their kids in the hope they’ll burn off that doughnut sugar buzz before the drive home.

The pony rides are perhaps the tamest attraction, the animals appearing listless as they plod around in circles. Not surprising, considering their lot in life, or maybe it’s just that they’ve been rendered deaf by the roar of the nearby generator supplying power to the fan for the inflatable castle. It’s actually one of those trampolines-in-disguise meant to finish off what was started at the corn maze. Careful as you pass so as not to walk under the plumes of regurgitated caramel apple and cotton candy.

And then there’s the elephant. Yes, at least one legendary pumpkin patch in West Michigan had an elephant on the premises. How a pachyderm ties in with the season is beyond me but to the proprietors’ credit, at least they didn’t paint it orange. For ten bucks a head, anyone who hasn’t seen the footage of circus animals gone berserk is welcome to climb aboard.

So c’mon, Colorado, time to step up your game. As you can see, I’m used to a little “pizzazz” with my pumpkin.

Of Pigs and Patriots

 

4th pig

Image credit: porchdrinking.com

This 4th of July has me feeling a little nostalgic. Here in my adopted state of Colorado, the neighborhood kids will light off the requisite array of bottle-rockets and cherry-bombs that leave my dog panting and pacing in the laundry room, and the city of Fort Collins will put on a perfectly lovely fireworks display. But it’s nothing like what we used to serve up back in Michigan. There we made a yearly pilgrimage to my friend Dave’s lakefront home in a small town about an hour north of Grand Rapids, where roast pig and DIY pyrotechnics ruled, and the holiday proceeded something like this:

July 3rd, late afternoon
Dave and I grab his pick-up truck and head off to see the hog guy, whose actual title is something like “meat processor” or “livestock evisceration technician.” He lives even further out in the country, down a dirt road with only a small hand-painted sign next to the mailbox advertising his business. We chit-chat amidst the dangling carcasses in a room that could double as the set for any number of slasher movies involving mutated lunatics, comely teens, chainsaws and haphazard limb removal.

Yep, it has been dry, everyone agrees, but it’s probably too soon to know if the soybeans are in trouble just yet (out here, all conversations revolve around the weather or the crops – take your pick).

No, that’s alright, we’ll pass on the antler pen lights and deer hoof key fobs (the hog guy, you see, also dabbles in taxidermy and is always test marketing new products made from sundry spare parts).

Tomorrow’s meal, a 125 pound beauty, is eventually wheeled to the tailgate on the overhead trolley, unhooked and lovingly packed in ice for the ride home. I feel bad for the pig, of course, but better him than me. At some point I realize I’m humming The Circle of Life.

July 4th, first light
An ethereal mist rises off the lake as Dave, with coffee in hand, starts the fire in the converted fuel drum that now serves as our altar. It’s his show, so we give him a wide berth. Besides, it’s really early.

Everything needs to be just so – you’re looking for a nice, even burn that doesn’t get too hot. Maybe 250 degrees, give or take. Like Dave says, “We want to roast it, not toast it.” Nods all around. The first commandment of pig roasting – Thou shalt not hurry.

Some early-risers like to inspect the hog before it hits the coals, to pay respects, offer thanks, or call dibs on a particular cut. I usually forgo this ritual since my keen forensic skills have already determined that (1) it’s a member of the swine family and (2) it is in fact deceased. But now my younger son, a kid who normally gets queasy just picking a scab, wants to pour over the carcass with the rest of the locals. Ever since he dissected a frog back in middle school he thinks he’s the M. E. from Bones.

July 4th, mid-morning
Members of the supervisory staff begin to arrive with lawn chairs and beer coolers in tow. They set up in a semi-circle in front of the roaster to continue yesterday’s discussion about the soy bean yield while monitoring the cooking temperature. Should it fall below a predetermined level, the call goes out to Dave (who is located with either a hearty bellow or urgent message passed on to random passers-by to ensure that no one has to actually get up from their chair) that the flames require stoking. Like I said, it’s his show. Besides, this keeps the supervisory staff focused on the equally important task of turning the hose on the dogs should they get too close.

July 4th, mid-afternoon
After numerous high-level consultations to analyze the latest readings on the meat thermometer, Dave makes the call. “Let there be pig.” This marks the transition from the “cooking” phase to the “carving” phase. Several volunteers deemed skillful with the blade are summoned and suited up. Meanwhile, a growing crowd gathers around the still-simmering carcass, armed with forks, tongs, even sharp sticks, anything that will increase the odds of securing an errant piece of steaming pork. As the process of removing flesh from bone begins, the carvers vie for position with members of the unruly mob (which now includes the dogs) overcome with hunger after hours of olfactory stimulation.

This also signals the unveiling of the rest of the meal, when the Saran Wrap is removed from countless platters and baking dishes spread across every inch of table and counter top. The feast is a glutton’s dream: salads, breads, potatoes (mashed, baked and every other permutation), corn on the cob, great steaming vats of baked beans, fresh fruit and, finally, an entire wing of the kitchen devoted solely to desserts. Grown men are openly weeping.

July 4th, various
Just a few miles west of town is Burley Park, normally nothing more than an open field but a teeming collection of trinket and trash purveyors every Independence Day. Excursions depart for the flea market on a regular schedule. Not that anyone needs a combination calculator/nose hair trimmer or a hubcap for a ’72 AMC Gremlin, mind you, but on this most red, white and blue of days it serves as a reminder that we Americans have the freedom to squander our hard-earned cash on either one. Typically, I can be found fondling old Hot Wheels toys and even older Volkswagen memorabilia.

July 4th, late afternoon
As people begin to shake their post-meal stupors, the strains of a discordant melody can be heard wafting across the lawn. The “Boon Dockers,” one of mid-Michigan’s hottest garage bands (which simply means they sweat a lot), is preparing to perform crimes against the music industry. Selections range from Suzy Q to the Old Rugged Cross, all with a heavy blues influence. As in Labatt Blues. To call their sound “eclectic” is being generous – it most closely resembles that noise your grandfather used to make first thing in the morning, set to music. Typically there are more people on stage than in the audience. I have been known to jam with the boys on occasion, but get the same reaction to my extended guitar solos as Marty McFly did in Back to the Future.

July 4th, dusk
The crowd again grows restless. Anticipation ripples through the ring of people softening the soles of their shoes around the bonfire as several lollygaggers are sent to retrieve the fireworks.

There are two factions at work here. My son (the future Medical Examiner) believes no Independence Day celebration is complete without Snap ‘n’ Pops, those strange little paper noise-makers that snap (or pop, I’m not really sure which) when you hurl them to the ground. I can only guess that these recessive tendencies come from his mother’s side of the family.

At the other end of the spectrum is another friend with plenty of disposable income and a penchant for things that go “boom.” No one questions his impressive cache of foreign pyrotechnics, the vast majority of which are illegal in Michigan. We just stand back and enjoy the show. And keep a fire extinguisher at the ready. A few foolhardy souls join him on the dock to help send all the ordnance skyward, lighting fuses and then falling over one another in a mad dash back toward shore as whistling explosives launch from their mortar tubes with an angry “thump.” The show is spectacular, and puts many of the surrounding communities’ displays to shame. But they still talk about the year he showed up with the Titanic, a floating incendiary device designed to fire multiple rounds from its smokestacks as it chugged out across the lake, while fountains of sparks erupted fore and aft. Unfortunately, it suffered the same fate as its namesake. A rogue wave tipped the vessel onto its side, sending several errant shots into the scurrying crowd before the mighty ship headed for Davey Jones’ locker with most of its payload unspent. Salvage crews have yet to locate the wreckage in the murky depths.

July 5th, unspecified
Like a python that swallowed a tapir, most attendees are immobile and near-comatose as they slowly digest the previous day’s meal. Eventually, they will rise only to spread some balm on their sunburns (or powder burns) before returning to a prone position for the duration. All will proclaim that this was the best celebration ever. Another successful 4th of July, mid-Michigan style.

As for northern Colorado, well, I’ll grill up a few hot dogs if you bring the Snap ‘n’ Pops.

Father’s Day

gogama1

They were men of simple means. ‘Working stiffs’ who raised their respective families with far more love than money.

Both had their own brood of ‘biological’ children – maybe one more in the mix just didn’t make much difference to them. But to me, it meant everything. Mostly, it provided refuge from the random, unpredictable mayhem in my own home caused by a step-father whose unhappiness would quickly turn to anger after a few shots of vodka.

William England, better known as W.D., was a son of Tennessee, brought north by the promise of jobs in the booming auto industry. His boy Dave, the second of four kids, made the mistake of befriending me in school. About a mile away was the home of my other good friend Bill. His dad Don Kring was an educator. At first these men were little more than someone else’s parents. But neither said a word when I would hang around long past my welcome. There was always a warm greeting, an extra place at the table and a sense of belonging. Both accepted me without question, as if I were some long-missing child who had suddenly turned up on their doorsteps. Without them, I would not be the person I am today.

Don had a quick and infectious laugh, and his good-natured ribbing – usually about my shaggy countenance – let me know I was part of the family. Their house, beside a small neighborhood lake, was on my way back from school. Fishing poles stood by the basement door, and many an afternoon was spent tossing a line from the Kring backyard rather than face the uncertainty of what could be waiting for me at my own home.

As for W.D., he didn’t seem to mind that I was raised by Yankees. In fact, he took it upon himself to pass along his country roots (and his turn of a colorful phrase) whenever possible. There was always music in the house – as he himself might have said, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a guitar, and it’s where I learned to play. It also explains why, when it came to my musical repertoire, I could offer up a serviceable rendition of not only “Stairway to Heaven,” but “The Old Rugged Cross” as well.

I may have missed the opportunity to call either of these men “dad,” but if ever there were people in my life deserving of the title, it was them.

Someone once said, “Families are not determined by marriage certificates, divorce papers or adoption documents. Families are made in the heart.” Thank you both for taking me into your families, and into your hearts. You will always be in mine.

Oh, Canada!

 

canada

Image credit: canadiandreamz.com

I recently read an article about the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife, Sophie Trudeau. She wants to do more in her role as ‘first lady’ of Canada, but with only one aide she felt she didn’t have enough staff to manage her affairs. Rather than pony up the salary for another admin that would allow her to serve multiple charity causes around the country, opposition members are choking on their own outrage, saying the attractive political spouse is out of touch with normal working moms, and similar vitriol.

One journalist suggested the outcry stems from her ‘tall poppy’ standing, something that appears to irritate many residents who live in the Great White North. What’s a tall poppy, you ask? As near as I can figure, it’s someone who enjoys a certain social stature due to their talent, looks, money, fame – what we here in the states would call ‘celebrity status.’ Whereas we Americans fawn over the rich and famous, Canadians view them with a bit less enthusiasm. And while I personally have no cause to judge Ms. Trudeau, I am nonetheless buoyed (once again) by the attitudes of those who call Canada ‘home.’

This goes back to my days growing up near Detroit. As a Michigander, they were truly our neighbors. If you drive east or north from the mitten you’re in Canada. And Windsor, the City of Roses, is right across the river from Detroit, which meant we could pick up the CBC network from the local affiliate. I loved it. Hockey Night in Canada (Don Cherry – need I say more?), the National Curling Championships (which rank just above baseball for sheer sporting excitement), Mr. Dressup (groundbreaking children’s programming, featuring a cross-dressing host and the first openly androgynous hand puppet on television), The Friendly Giant (a subtle dig, I felt, at the superpower next door – a metaphor to illustrate that the biggest kid on the block didn’t have to be an asshole).

And when, even as a child, I tired of watching Olympic coverage that focused exclusively on American athletes and their cloyingly star-spangled accomplishments, I could count on the CBC to offer a more balanced view of the competition. Or of the world in general, for that matter. While they had plenty of concerns and issues, Canadians never seemed to lose sight of the fact that the rest of the world did, as well. To me, they appeared so much less self-centered, less hostile, less jingoistic, less arrogant.

And thanks to Canadian radio, with it’s requirement to include a certain percentage of home-grown content, I was introduced to some of the best bands I otherwise never would have heard.

We were frequent visitors, too. For all the turmoil his alcoholism inflicted on the family, my step-father had a few good moments. A German immigrant, he fancied himself a modern-day French voyageur. So we bought a canoe and traveled to the boreal forests of northern Ontario regularly to paddle, fish and camp. It’s where I learned to appreciate the natural world. And it was just a bonus that you could buy bricks of “Black Cat” firecrackers there, highly prized contraband in the Great Lake State that was easily slipped past the unwitting customs agents on the way home.

“Anything to declare?”

“No, sir.”

And with the wave of a hand, we became international smugglers, heady stuff for a 12-year old still wetting the bed. So “thank you,” Canada, for making me a badass.

Look, I know the “love it or leave it” types are already emailing me directions to the nearest border crossing (I’ve always been impressed with such open-mindedness). But all I’m saying is, now that civil discourse in this country has gone south, going north might not be so bad. Unless, of course, you’re a tall poppy.