Toasters of a Lesser God

It looks as if there will be no early exit from the shitlist on which I find myself. The one I have occupied since killing my wife’s prized KitchenAid toaster several months back. Instead, it appears I have simply put a fresh coat of asphalt on the road to Hell.

The interim toaster was brutally utilitarian. Black, bulbous, squat – it was like having a bowling ball sitting on the counter. In all fairness, it wasn’t purchased with the kitchen in mind but rather pulled hastily from the RV to fill the gap until something more elegant could be procured. Serviceable but homely. And with every ‘ca-chunk’ of the popping mechanism, a reminder of my profound failures as a husband and a human.

And then, what appeared to be salvation. Long and sleek, at first glance it seemed to exceed expectations. The dearly departed had been a ‘one-slotter’ – a single, extended trench where two pieces of toast could be inserted end to end. This successor had the correct shape, so it would fill the vacant spot precisely, but with two long slots for toasting up to four pieces of bread at a time. Think of the entertaining possibilities!

Of course, there could be no getting around the fact that it was not the proper color (what KitchenAid called Majestic Yellow – a kind of pale mustardy hue that the bastards have discontinued), but at least it wasn’t bright red or cobalt blue. Just a neutral, unobtrusive white. Made by some firm I’d never heard of before but was willing to gamble on if it meant I could avoid another kitchen remodel.

But I may have to break out the power tools after all. Or continue the search. That’s because test slices in the new rig have been…inconsistent. What one would expect to be a moderate setting (somewhere in the middle of zero and six at the top end) is in fact more like ‘Center of the Sun,’ baking the bread to the consistency of a charcoal briquette. No doubt a person could fire pottery at the highest setting.

A few more slices were sacrificed as I tried to find this appliance’s sweet spot, which appears to be somewhere around one and a half. Though it’s hard to say exactly, based on the finished product. Thus far every piece of toast has come out resembling one of those sample paint cards you get at Lowes with all the varying shades of brown – a gradient scale, going from burnt russet to ecru, not only from one end to the other but also front to back. Regardless of its position in the slot.

As they say, you had one job.

And it doesn’t so much pop up as launch a piece of toast, like a pilot being ejected from a faltering F-16. You could lose an eye if you happened to be peering into the slot to assess doneness just at the moment of liftoff.

So while all men may be created equal, the same cannot be said of toasters. As for this one, PM me if your kiln ever craps out.

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.

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.

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…

Passing the Torch, Grudgingly

We were digging through my son’s closet, weeding out tattered socks and tee-shirts that had fallen from favor, all those things that get pushed into the dark corners and left for dead. What might typically pass as ‘spring cleaning’ if only we did it each spring instead of whenever a pandemic traps us in the house for months and there is absolutely nothing else to do.

And in that pile of misfit clothes, a gem – a pair of Sorel tennis shoes, bought who knows when, but deemed unwearable for whatever reason(s). Most likely a matter of fashion, probably having been purchased as a gift by a well-meaning but clueless older relative, with a style he just couldn’t bring himself to be seen in around his friends. Virtually new.

Here it becomes necessary to understand the temperament of my last-born – he will never tell you if he truly dislikes something (such as a particular food or, in this case, outerwear), for fear of disappointing you, it seems. What he will do is make some noncommittal grunt along with that noncommittal ‘maybe so’ face, and then deftly avoid said food or article of clothing.

To sidetrack for a moment – as evidence, an episode from his elementary school days. Being a dutiful dad, I packed his lunches, the main course most often being a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which, it was believed, was a favorite of his. It should also be noted, this daily chore tested the limits of both my culinary capabilities and my boundless good nature. Then came ‘Parents Day,’ when my wife and I visited his school to meet his teacher, see his classroom and get a feel for his world.

Everything was fine until we asked for a peek inside his locker. Avoidance turned to panic when we pressed the issue, until he finally, reluctantly, opened the door. Stashed inside were at least a dozen lunches, all neatly preserved in their brown paper bags. Turned out he didn’t like PB&J all that much, but was under the impression that I enjoyed packing him a lunch and would have my feelings hurt if the truth came out and my sole reason for getting up each morning was taken from me. We all had a good laugh.

But old habits die hard. And I have strayed way off-topic.

As any self-respecting tightwad dad would, I tried on the Sorels – a perfect fit. After giving him one last chance to reclaim them (which he politely waved off), they now belong to me. Serendipitous timing, as I was in dire need of some casual footwear. My go-to summer shoes, the classic white Adidas with those three black stripes that have cushioned my dogs through thick and thin, were on their last tour of duty.

For many of us encumbered with the Y-chromosome, sneakers are all-purpose attire – just ask Jerry Seinfeld. Once broken in, they will be worn everywhere, all the time, in any conditions, with every outfit, without fail. And because Nike and Reebok will soon need to start offering financing plans for new purchases, we tightwads hang onto our old ones like grim death.

In fact, the Adidas have not been sent to thrift store purgatory, the fate of lesser shoes. Yes, they are as cracked and weathered as old parchment, but still plenty serviceable. So, in keeping with protocol, they have been relegated to the final destination in the footwear life-cycle, that of lawn-mowing shoe. Here they will hang on perhaps another three or four years, zombie sneakers slowly taking on that unmistakable green patina, every bit as damning as the scarlet letter.

This has become their only gig – they are no longer fit for public appearances or even lounging around watching TV of a lazy Sunday. Unwelcome in the house because of the off-chance that one or both might squish a rogue tootsie roll missed by the turd herder (whose job it is to sweep the backyard and clear it of canine land mines before each mow), they are now banished to the garage. Harsh treatment for so faithful a friend, in my opinion, but such are the rules as laid down in the fine print of the marriage bylaws.

Also in the bylaws – the previous pair of lawn-mowing shoes, beyond all hope of salvage, must be consigned to the landfill. Otherwise, I might very well stash my old companions in some dark hiding place, like all those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Beneath an Orange Sky

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There’s a song by Alexi Murdoch – a soft guitar ballad, the kind of song that might get played in the background on Grey’s Anatomy or A Million Little Things. And the opening line is, “Well, I had a dream I stood beneath an orange sky…”

Here in Colorado, it’s no dream. The skies have been orange for weeks now. Sunsets are impressive, but breathing is not recommended. That’s because fires are burning in the hills again – wide-spread, intractable fires. California tends to get all the press when it comes to these conflagrations, perhaps rightly so, but this summer we’re giving the Golden State a run for its money.

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Cameron Peak fire – image credit: CBS Denver

One is raging just 40 miles west of here. The Cameron Peak fire is a vision of Hell as it ignites forests of kindling, acre after acre of mostly dead conifers left in the wake of a pine beetle infestation that ran through the stands of once-healthy trees ‘like shit through a goose,’ to quote General Patton. Maybe that’s why, after two weeks, there is still no containment – zero. Pictures of the walls of flames are spectacular and terrifying. And when I step out of my house it smells like I’m downwind of the world’s biggest campfire.

Another has snarled interstate traffic. If you’ve ever traveled I-70 across the state, you may remember the beauty of Glenwood Canyon, where the westbound lanes of the freeway had to be built on top of the eastbound lanes in order to squeeze them into what little room there is beside the Colorado River. A true engineering marvel, the tiered bridges snake through the steep-walled ravine for miles. Well, they had to close that stretch of the highway for two weeks while flames swept the canyon, right up to the guardrails. 12 hours after reopening, a second flare up caused officials to briefly close it again.

And a monster blaze is incinerating square miles of brush and scrub oak on the west side of the state. The Pine Gulch fire has been going for a month and just became the largest (based on scorched acreage) in state history. Fortunately, it is burning in a fairly remote area for now but, again, containment has been elusive.

Throw in the Williams Fork fire west of Denver, and you have more than 320 square miles of Colorado in flames.

Out here, wildfires happen. But, as in California, they’re becoming more frequent and less controllable. A massive fire broke out in the foothills just west of Fort Collins in 2012, shortly after we moved here. The towering smoke plumes that blotted out the sun were a little unsettling for a newly transplanted midwesterner. Those on the fringes were lucky the fire pushed up into the hills and away from the neighborhoods. There was minimal property damage, but any time you take a drive up Poudre Canyon, the charred skeletons of the ghost forest serve as a reminder that homes were lost – just not ours.

It was a different story in Colorado Springs a few weeks later, when winds drove the flames of the Waldo Canyon fire into a residential area, destroying nearly 350 houses. It held the title for most damaging fire in the state for only a year, though, as the Black Forest fire consumed more than 500 structures not far from there in 2013.

Most of this can be traced to that inconvenient boogeyman, climate change. Scientists surmise that warmer summers and milder winters have allowed the mountain pine beetle to not only thrive, but spread virtually unchecked, decimating the forests. The warmer temps are also making for dryer conditions in general – Colorado is suffering through a growing drought, prompting officials to throw the word ‘tinderbox’ around with some regularity.

I don’t have a garden hose long enough to reach the front lines of that fire in the hills west of town, but I’d still like to do something to help. So I’m going ‘big picture’ – driving less, riding my bike or walking more, using less energy in my home, paying a few extra nickels for solar or wind-generated power. Doing more to wean myself off fossil fuels. And I’m voting for those who also see the big picture, who believe in science and will get us back in the Paris Climate Accord. Maybe even appoint Greta Thunberg as Secretary of Energy.

Because I’d like to go back to only dreaming about orange skies.