Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gourd Jamboree

Scandal rocked the Midwest Gourd Society's Harvest Jamboree. The Fall event is normally a joyful time when gourders (that's what we call ourselves) get together to share their wares and show off year-long efforts at beetle-plucking, pollinating, and general tilling of the soil. This is not a group afraid to get their hands dirty or forgo gratification if it means harvesting a champion gourd or two. Weldon Neebles makes the extreme sacrifice and eschews dating during the pollinating season. He says it's like when prizefighters aren't allowed to have sex before a match. And who can argue with his techniques when year after year he takes home the Blue Ribbon in the Musical Gourd Competition, and as a bonus, serenades the club with his dipper-gourd flute. This year's tune, "It Ain't Me Babe," was especially rousing, causing several gourders to get jiggy and spill their beverages.

Like any industrious gourder, I spend many a summer night in my garden, meticulously distributing pollen to a closely-guarded crop of Lagenaria gourds. The flowers of this particular species open at night, and being a conscientious gardener, I do everything possible to ensure the completion of the pollination process. I've endured many taunts from neighborhood busy-bodies like Pat Humpel who stays up late, peeking out her curtains to watch me going from flower to flower with a flashlight and a Q-tip, transferring pollen from the male flowers to the female flowers. Sometimes, after a successful pollination, I turn towards her house and shout, "Another champion's on it's way!" and her curtains snap shut, but not before she calls out, "Fruitcake!"

Certified judges, who have completed the Gourd Appreciation Seminar in Griggsville, Illinois, have the responsibility of handing out awards in the following categories:

--Best birdhouse gourd.
--Swimsuit competition.
--The gourd that most resembles Ed Asner.
--Most musical gourd.
--Best gourd hat.
--Celebrity look-a-like gourd.
--Most utilitarian gourd.

The troublesome scandal brewed in the Celebrity Look-Alike competition when Lucille Erks snapped up a Blue Ribbon for her William Shatner gourd. Later in the day, Lucille was stripped of her ribbon when close scrutiny by another contestant (the finger-pointing was unnecessary; I don't make the rules) revealed the same gourd won in a previous year in the Ed Asner division. Lucille initially threw a fit but broke into a fake crying jag when article 3 section 17 of The Midwest Gourd Society By Laws was read out loud to her. It states that "No gourd, however re-decorated, may be used twice for the purpose of competition. A gourd, once submitted for competition, must be retired from said contest and used for display purposes only." Nobody was fooled by her spectacle of phony tears, especially me.

My entry in the celebrity gourd competition was a tribute to the Ronnettes, a trio of pear-shaped gourds decorated like each Ronnette: Ronnie, Estelle, and Nedra, only Estelle kept leaning over. Lucille Erks, a sore looser if there ever was one, pointed at them and said, "Those are too chubby to be the Ronnettes, they're like the Ronnettes with big asses, and that one there, she can't stand up straight; she's drunk. You should have called them The Three Big-Ass Stooges." Because of Lucille's weaselry, my second place ribbon was moved to first, and upon transferring the ribbon, Lucille gritted her teeth and vowed to sully my character in the next issue of the Gourd Newsletter.

As Seed Acquisition Manager, it's incumbent on me to obtain samples of seed from every winning contestant. The seeds are labeled and filed in the Gourd Society's seed bank (a corner of my basement, behind the snow globe collection). A great many of the seeds are from Susan Topping's Peruvian gourds. She wins every year in the Utilitarian Gourd Competition. Normally, the gourds in this category are helpful gourds that perform a useful function like a pencil holder or bowl. But Susan's gourds, cylindrical and rather plain, about ten inches long and undecorated, receive high accolades from the women attending the Jamboree. There's always a buzz around her table, and her stock is in great demand, and her seeds command a pretty good price. Her creations are called "A Girl's Best Friend," and honestly, I don't understand the attraction but am required to collect the seeds every year and draw an accompanying illustration for identification purposes.

The nice thing about gourders is their willingness to share their growing tips. Susan says part of her secret is to grow her "Girl's Best Friends" on a trellis, insuring a smooth, unblemished appearance. "A Girl's Best Friend never touches the ground" is her motto. Though I remain puzzled by the attraction of such an unremarkable gourd, next year I'm going to give the trellis strategy a try. I'm shooting for growing The Dave Clark Five, and it'd be nice if they stood erect without falling over. After all, who doesn't like a little buzz around their table.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Party Thief

We called it a movie masquerade party, and a thief showed up. Everyone arrived wearing costumes depicting a character in a movie. It was a chance for the party-goers to live out their silver-screen fantasies as well as mingle with other stars-for-the-evening. Most of the characters were readily apparent except for Mimi Bunt's Olive Oyl. Mimi buys her clothes at the Salvation Army store, rendering her regular appearance to be a mismatched grab-bag of Bohemian hip. To those who know her, it was apparent she made no effort to wear a costume and really conjured up the Olive Oyl thing on the spur of the moment. This is one of the benefits of the truly off-beat; they keep us all guessing.

Lu Lu Gilkey, undoubtedly the most popular of the party-goers, came dressed as Daisy Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard (or barely dressed if you overheard the whispered, catty remarks). However, the always-gracious Janet Cupples, decked out like Mary Poppins, took one look at her and commented, "Lu Lu, if I had legs like yours, I too, might risk wearing those short-shorts in public." Lu Lu laughed at the compliment, tossed her hair back and gave her one of those fake Hollywood hugs that aren't really hugs at all, more like half-hearted efforts at saying howdy. Still, most of the men in attendance would have been quite appreciative of the howdy gesture if it was practiced on them.

My costume was the irascible Yosemite Sam, while my wife's was the beguiling Glinda the Good Witch, a couple of characters drawn from our historical plays where characters from varied venues allow themselves to travel through time in a quest to find true love. Essential to each of these characters was Yosemite Sam's stage-pistols and Glinda's two-foot long acrylic wand, tipped with a glitter-encrusted silver star. After a brief showing, the pistols and wand were set in a corner of the dining room, forgotten, while we doted on the whims of our guests. Towards the end of the evening, the party took a turn to the dark side when the pistols and wand disappeared. It was a queasy feeling knowing a thief lurked among the masqueraders.

The pistols and wand were cumbersome items but could be smuggled out the door if stuffed in someone's pants. There were plenty of suspects, lots of baggy pants as well as a few limps, both real and character-driven. After scrutinizing the crowd for guilty looks, the whole lot of costumed pillagers appeared suspect. I reminded myself to check each and every one of them off any future party list.

It was clear the only trustworthy person was Lu Lu; her outfit left no room for smuggling anything but a couple of M&Ms. So I took her into my confidence and asked for help. Her quick reply was, "Leave it to Lu Lu." As the guests were leaving, she positioned herself near the door and began giving each person one of what she calls her special "remember me, goodbye-hugs." It was more of an embrace, with her leg doing some provocative exploring in and around the pant-leg area. There were no objections to Lu Lu's departing gestures, and in fact, many of the men casually dawdled near the door, ensuring their turn at a special goodbye.

When all the marauders departed, Lu Lu presented me with a list of seven people scrawled on a cocktail napkin. "Here's your suspects," she said with pride.
-Dr. Spock
-Indiana Jones
-Poncho Villa
-The Tin Man
-Daffy Duck

"There was something hard in the pants of each and every one of these characters," she said.
The question begged to be asked, "No female suspects?"
"I don't know where you got your guest list, the library maybe; a bookish bunch of gals, not exactly the pilfering type. The men, on the other hand: very suspicious, possibly secret lives; satellite families in Brazil, off-shore accounts. Not a straight-shooter among them, except maybe Daffy, if he'd learn to keep his feathered paws to himself."
" How," I asked, "could there be seven offenders when only three items were taken?"
"Maybe," she paused, "there's other stuff missing. Maybe you've been robbed worse than you think by those tinsel-town-fakers."
"Well," I said, "there was a roll of dental floss missing, wintergreen flavored. Did you happen to notice if anyone's breath seemed extra minty?"
Lu Lu appeared a little indignant. "I wish you'd told me that sooner; I have a special good-bye smooch that would have closed this case."
I thanked Lu Lu for her efforts and walked her to the door. Upon parting, she turned and said, "Be careful around that bunch. They just might be in cahoots with one another. I'm a good detective. I've watched every episode of Murder She Wrote, and like Angela Lansbury, I know a thing or two about exposing concealed evidence."
Not even a cunning sleuth like Ms Lansbury could argue with the techniques of a seasoned, helpful gumshoe like Lu Lu.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The B.O. Tea Party

It began as a peaceful offshoot of the annual Methodist picnic, a simple badminton tournament. Then the Lutherans got involved, followed by the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and even a Baptist or two. It eventually became one big fondue pot of a tournament with the underlying current of a religious gathering which, in the spirit of fierce competition, was quickly forgotten. Not to be outdone by the LGBT, it was, for one year, titled as the MLEPB badminton tournament (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist). But no one could remember the correct order, and really, it was open to all comers, even hopeless heretics like myself and Dollar Store Dave, who's only religion is frugality and two-buck-chuck wine, so it eventually became known as The Badminton Open, or The "B.O." to insiders.

A committee, comprised of former B.O. winners, meets on a regular basis to decide on all things pertinent to the tournament. Schedules, trophy designs, registration fees, as well as beverages, are discussed in great detail. Alcohol has been allowed on the sidelines for the past two years, despite the protests of Jean Twitchel, a former winner and strict Baptist who forbids herself to curse wildly or dance the jitterbug, but she can swing a badminton racket like she's swatting the devil himself.

The committee gatherings are informal, and members take turns hosting the event in their homes. The most recent meeting was at Jean Twitchel's house, and, due to the lack of fermented social lubricants, the tone was somewhat reserved. Tea was served along with cardboard-tasting cookies that could be stand-ins for hickory chips, should the need arise. While the group was sitting around discussing the grand prize for next year's tournament, an overnight junket to Nancy Dizzle's cottage in Galena, the youngest Twitchel became the center of attention. Livia Twitchel, Jean's three-year-old daughter, approached each member, offering them, with her little outstretched arm, a tiny cup of her own special tea, served in a toy teacup. It was plain water, and as Adgie Weems said while sipping her offering, "Ain't she the cutest thing?" After each presentation, Livia would run out of the room and return with another cupful for yet another guest. Everyone was happy to humor little Livia by drinking from her teacups, some even commenting on the refreshing quality of her brew.... until she got to me.

I recalled an adage my grandmother was fond of imparting, "Never take a drink from anyone under three feet tall." She had many of these sayings, based on a lifetime of experience and fears, most of which I woefully inherited. This particular piece of wisdom was generated from a formal tea party that occurred shortly after World War II. The event was a meeting of The Live Wires, a Presbyterian church group of no-nonsense Swiss women who favored footwear capable of supporting a wildebeest. The Live Wires, usually a suspicious bunch, threw caution to the wind and allowed a little girl to serve tea in toy teacups at their gathering. The serving was quickly brought to a halt when one of the women realized the girl could not reach the sink to get water for her teacups. They had all been drinking water from the toilet which was an easy scoop for the playful little server of tea. Every member of the Live Wires became ill, some from actual dysentery and some from just the thought of drinking water from the toilet. And so, horse sense was gathered and passed (along with a myriad of irrational phobias) through an unwitting lineage to me.

It was with grandma Nachtigal's caution in mind, that I refused Livia's offering. I merely said I was not thirsty, to which Livia's mother replied, "What's wrong with you, it's a little sip of water. Can't you be polite and at least take a sip?
Again, I said, "I'm really not thirsty."
Then Jean exploded in a frenzy befitting a mother bear in defense of her cub, "How come everyone else has manners enough to go along with Livia's game? How did you all of a sudden get so high and mighty!? Her water's not good enough for you? What, you need some special triple-filtered, hippie water? It's a tiny teacup full of water! She's a child, for Christ-sake! You're the worst part of an ass!"

Jean's uncharacteristic ascension to the brink of swearing spoke to the gravity of the moment, and the glares from the rest of the B.O. committee suggested they shared her sentiments. I sat there, stunned, contemplating the visual of the worst part of an ass, and sheepishly replied, "She's not even three feet tall. Ask her where she gets the water."
Jean composed herself, took Livia's hand and said, "Show mommy where you get the water."
As Livia pulled her mother towards the bathroom, I shouted after them, "Don't confuse the messenger," and thought of a phrase I'd heard on the Nature Channel: "The survival of a species often depends on the teachings of those who have gone before." I secretly glanced toward the heavens and thanked grandma Louise Nachtigal for her sage-like advice and for guiding me through the hazards of a seemingly-innocent tea party.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ellen Freeze Has Naked Pictures of Me

Ellen Freeze has naked pictures of me. There's no getting around this fact. It happened a long time ago when I possessed the forward-thinking ability of a mayfly and it was somewhat acceptable to pose naked. There was a time in the 1960's and 1970's when nakedness was celebrated. People were making formal as well as casual naked appearances at a variety of events. There were streakers at sporting events, and Hair, the smash hit Broadway play with all its nakedness was breaking attendance records. In fact, Hair played in almost every major city in America, and people flocked to the show. Apparently, they couldn't get enough of the naked stuff.

It was against this cultural backdrop that I agreed to pose naked for Ellen's photography project, entitled "Naked Guy." Ellen Freeze, in addition to being a trendy artist who wore a flirtatious wisp of feathers in her long blonde hair, was the prettiest girl, ever, to make the gratuitous leap of speaking to me. And she had already captured first place in a city-wide photo exhibition with her poignant black and white photo, "Abandoned Pumpkin After Halloween." Really, all artistic appreciation aside, my secret hope was that if I posed naked, perhaps she, too, would somehow become naked in the process, a strategy that proved fruitless.

The photo session took place in Ellen's loft. It was the first loft I'd ever seen and the open space with exposed beams and industrial looking plumbing, electrical pipes, and heating ducts made me feel considerably more trendy than the luckless person who'd never set foot in a loft. Automatically, a loft exposure dubbed a person a hipster and it was understood that a long line of new avant-garde friends would soon follow.

The photography equipment in Ellen's loft was set up prior to my arrival. A roll of backdrop paper along with several of those umbrella-looking flash reflectors awaited my performance. While Ellen swayed around the room plugging in cords, she offered me a glass of wine, a courteous effort to loosen me up and squash any inhibitions I brought to the session. It was painfully obvious I'd never posed naked, but I did my best to feign like it was an everyday occurrence. Her gentle reminder that I remove my chocolate-brown monkey-socks was a giveaway to my amateur status in the endeavor.

She asked about my favorite music, and no sooner had I mentioned Gordon Lightfoot, than the song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a big hit at the time, filled the room. This, too, apparently was supposed to make me feel comfortable. After removing my monkey-socks, Ellen began clicking away, the flashes, like lightning, exploded all over the place. There were spots in my eyes as I tried to keep track of her while she crouched and pranced with her camera. I'm not sure how many strippers have performed their routines to the melodious requiem of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but it is an unsettling experience; the big ship, sinking with twenty six thousand tons of iron ore, made standing naked, sans socks, in a cavernous room seem less than provocative. And to make matters worse, every time the lyrics referenced "the big lake they call Gitche Gumee," Ellen shouted, "Show me the Gitche Gumee!"

When the session was finished I vowed never to pose naked again: I'm just not comfortable without the reassuring confidence a sturdy pair of socks can provide. And, now, every time I hear The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, I'm transported back in time to my naked moment, my toe-in-the-water into the hipster art world. Through the years, I've often wondered what happened to the photos and have looked cautiously over my shoulder, halfway expecting the pictures to surface whenever I've made a bid to hold a position of notoriety. Surely, I told myself, Ellen, being one of those cutting-edge artists, has moved many times in the past thirty years and my photos, likely discarded along her artistic route, were but a forgotten footnote in her career. That is until one day while filling my bag with lemons at The Vegetable Patch. A familiar voice called out from behind a mound of peaches, "How's the big Gitche Gumee!" It was Ellen, smiling and winking, no feathers in her hair but still attractive with an unmistakable flair. With barely a polite wave hello, I scurried away with my sack of lemons and stopped for a moment to catch my breath against the side of the building. She's back, she remembers, and she holds the key to a photographic legacy, the revelation of which would be decidedly embarrassing.

In order to avoid any kind of public scandal, I made immediate plans to resign from all my public positions. The Pia Zadora Fan Club (president), The Kildare Bird Club (president), along with The Midwest Gourd Society (seed acquisition manager) and The Bring Back Bonnie Hunt Club (charts and graphs director) would soon be receiving formal letters, informing them of my resignation from office in order to spend more time with my family. This was a close call and a foreboding reminder, as Gordon Lightfoot warned, "The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound and a wave broke over the railing." It just goes to show, one minute the waters are calm and the next thing, the gales of November come early. There's just no telling what lays waiting in the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Johnny Cash's Dog

It's not my imagination, more and more people are dressing in all-black. Black sweaters, shirts, jeans, jackets. It's as if the world is hosting a fashion tribute to the late Johnny Cash. He left a musical legacy unparalleled by few, and many people apparently feel the urge to pay homage to him through fashion. It's a good look on some, but now there's Johnny Cash at the Kandle Nook, Johnny Cash at the Rexall, and his likeness can be seen browsing the display cases at the Fudge Barn. I've been noticing something about these dressed-in-black people, especially when standing in line behind them at the grocery store. The all-black garments seem to attract a large amount of debris, like threads and dog and cat hair. This is especially true if the dressed-in-black person has a light colored pet. The hairs littering their backside form a sort of untidy collage that screams anything but Johnny Cash.

As a public service, while waiting in line behind Mr. or Mrs. Cash, I count the pet hairs on the back of the person's clothes, and when finished (often, this takes almost until they are checking out and leaving the store), I say the number out loud, followed by the identification of the pet. For instance, I might say "thirty-six, dog," or "fifty-five, cat," depending on the animal. This is not an effort to be rude, rather it's an attempt to be helpful, alerting the wearer-of-black that they have some personal maintenance to do before attending that all-important-meeting. There is no charge for this favor.

So far, no one has thanked me for this valuable observation, even though it's delivered in a soft-spoken and respectful manner. There have been some off-putting looks, and one woman turned around after I said "forty-four cat, twenty-two dog," (the combo, perhaps the most difficult to sort while counting), and quickly replied, "Sixty-six, nut-ball." I figured she was just one of those math whizzes, because she didn't even bother to take into account the dog and cat part.

Another time, after I said, "Twenty-nine dog," this guy delivered an immediate, "Hike!"
It became clear that my message was not being received as intended. That is, until I ran into Mincey: waved-out, wild looking red hair and big peace-symbol earrings. She was ahead of me in line at Happy Foods and wearing a black cape when I said, "Nineteen, cat."
"Twenty-one, if you look closer," she replied. "I counted them before I came into the store. I left my beret in the car because, besides looking not right, it had thirty-three, and the two added up to be an even number, and you know what can happen with that." She held out her hand, "I'm Mincey; I count. My cat, Mr. Numbers, keeps me busy. Beige fur."

We walked out of the store together, counting out-loud, in unison, the floor tiles beneath our feet. Once outside, the subject eventually turned to the wisdom of Zorro for choosing a black horse. "Imagine the maintenance on the cape if he'd have ridden a white one," she said. We laughed and also agreed there's no room for plaid in our lives. As Mincey says, "It's a confusing mass of every-which-way colors that has the ability inspire a headache." And shirts with pictures on them. Mincey said when a guy shows up for a date wearing a t-shirt featuring a picture of a largemouth bass or a deer head, the relationship is deemed unsalvageable.

My own shirt was a plain light grey, and, other than buttons, had no ornamentation, which gave me the courage to ask a question that's kept me wondering for a long time. I asked her what kind of dog she thought Johnny Cash had. Her answer was very definite, "A black one." She told me how she observed these things for many years and even brought binoculars to a Johnny Cash concert in 1976. Her report: "Nothing, not one hair, so it must've been a black something-or-other." Mincey was an expert in her field.

I thanked Mincey for assigning a punctuation to this mystery, and when I turned to go, she shouted after me, "See you on the next odd numbered day with a multiple of three, my shopping days."

On the way home, I wondered if that meant we had a date. This could be trouble. Maybe I'd gotten in over my head and people will talk about my new affair and I'll be relegated to the liquor lane at Happy Foods where the guys wearing odorous cologne check out. I can't possibly have an affair; it's just one more chore with extra laundry, leftover beverages, and unexplainable half-eaten bags of snacks, not to mention the burden of keeping stories straight. This had doom, worry, and disappointment written all over it. There was only one option: I headed to Gibler's Sporting Goods where they sell t-shirts emblazoned with the wholesome, yet pugnacious, largemouth bass. I hope Mincey understands. Breaking up is so very hard to do.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bonnie Hunt's Blue Drapes

If it wasn't for my enthusiastic infatuation with Bonnie Hunt, I would have never joined the BBBH (Bring Back Bonnie Hunt) club. I'm not much of a joiner, but tackling the direction of Bonnie's career all by myself seemed quite formidable, so I've become immersed in a stew-pot of Bonnie's fans. The club meets once per month and is dedicated to all things Bonnie, the foremost of which is to bring her sparkling personality back to television. We meet at Ginny Nooten's house, and each gathering is chock full of news about Bonnie, as well as Bonnie handicrafts, made by a few of the more inspired members.

My contribution to the club is my Bonnie Hunt Drapery Report, which, for the sake of clarification, is compiled into a poster-board-sized bar graph. It's a simple graph identifying each day of the week, along with a corresponding blue bar, indicating whether Bonnie's bay window drapes were open or closed at 10:00am, the time when I make my daily, well-being, drapery check. I whiz by Bonnie's house on my bicycle, practically unnoticed, and only glance furtively at her window so as not to appear nosy. Once, Bonnie waved to me, and I returned a polite wave, but didn't stop. She deserves her privacy, and, besides, I'm hesitant around celebrities.

Really, nobody is bothered by my excursions except for Ginny Nooten, who is envious of my first-hand association with Bonnie. More than once, she's tried to pry the location of Bonnie's house from me, but I always reply the same way: "Out of respect for Miss Hunt, her home address must be kept confidential. I'm sure you understand." This bugs the hell out of her, and once, when I referred to myself as merely a neighborhood fixture, reporting on the well-being of our beloved Bonnie, she called me a "neighborhood nut," which is saying something if you tallied some of the behaviors of the BBBH club membership. There's Francine, who embroiders Bonnie's likeness on hand towels and pot holders, and Harriett, who makes Bonnie Hunt refrigerator magnets from shellacked magazine photographs, and not-to-be-outdone is Dory Wibben, who manages to celebrate Christmas 365 days a year with her glitter-encrusted Bonnie Hunt Christmas ornaments. To be called a nut among this bunch is a notable accomplishment.

What really bugs Ginny is that my monthly bar graph garners more than its share of attention. Each month, the entire BBBH club gathers around the poster-board and discusses the meanings of the open-or-closed blue drapes. Generally, if they're closed, they conclude she was out late, the night before, at some swingin' star-filled extravaganza. And if they've been closed for extended periods of time, they surmise she's out of town, working on a fabulous new venture that only a few insiders like us could be aware of. So, even though Ginny resents my presence, she's well aware that my drapery reports are an integral part of the glue that keeps the BBBH club together.

The other part of the BBBH club glue is DeAnne Speckles' South-of-the-Border punch, which is nothing more than a giant margarita in a beach-ball-sized bowl of ice. It does, however, help loosen up the players in the Bonnie Hunt puppet show. Ginny Nooten makes Bonnie Hunt hand puppets, which are featured at the end of each BBBH club meeting with an often-improvised puppet show. Ginny insists on being the Bonnie puppet while another member is chosen to take on the role of one of the many puppets in her repertoire. At the last meeting, she asked me to play the role of Bonnie's producer, Don Lake. The Don Lake puppet is a bespectacled, balding man casually dressed, and, as disagreeable as Ginny can be, her impeccable attention to detail is remarkable, right down to Don's tiny headphone and microphone set. Ginny always speaks first, followed by appreciative applause from the BBBH club members, almost as if it's the opening of Bonnie's television show.

--Bonnie (Ginny): Hello everyone. Welcome to my living room. (applause) I have a concern today.
--Don (Me): What's that, Bonnie?
--Bonnie: Well, Don, there's this guy who rides his bicycle past my house every day at ten o'clock in the morning.
--Don: What's the problem?
--Bonnie: He gives me the willies.
--Don: What does he do?
--Bonnie: Nothing. He just rides by. No wave, nothing.
--Don: What would you expect him to do?
--Bonnie: Wave or something, I dunno. I'm a big star. Shouldn't he at least wave hello?
--Don: Maybe he's the thoughtful type and doesn't want to bother you.
--Bonnie: No, no. There's nothing thoughtful about this guy.
--Don: He sounds swell to me, a gift, a harbinger of the day.
--Bonnie: Oh please. This guy rides by at the same time every day. I swear, I could set my watch by him.
--Don: Do you wait for him?
--Bonnie: Well, no, maybe, sometimes. I dunno.
--Don: I think your curiosity might be turning into a crush!
--Bonnie: Goodness, no!
--Don: Maybe he's playing hard-to-get and you're falling for it.
--Bonnie: No, no, he's...he's up to something, I swear!
--Don: I'm seeing a big red heart with "Bonnie loves the Bicycle Guy" inscribed in the middle.
--Bonnie: I wouldn't have a crush on this guy if he was the last man on Earth! He thinks he's so smart with his charts and graphs. I'll tell you what he can do with those bar graphs! My puppets are way better than any goddamn graph. I don't even know where I live. Why can't he tell me where I live? Is that so freakin' much to ask!
--Don: I think it's time we break for a commercial.

The BBBH club meeting ended with an awkward silence while everyone gathered their handicrafts and filed out the door, trying in earnest to disregard the uncivil turn of the puppet show. I'm thinking this may not be the club for me and will be looking for another club where the merit of a well-organized bar graph is appreciated.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hi-ho Silver, Away!

Truth serum or something close to it, that's what they give you during a colonoscopy. Someone could ask you anything while you're under the influence of that stuff, and you're compelled to tell the truth, even if it's not in your best interest. The doctor (or nurse with an axe to grind) could ask you if you ever cheated on a test, and your reply might land you back in high school, repeating your senior year all over again, or worse, all four levels, depending on the evidence gathered.

Several years ago, during my procedure (that's what the medical professionals like to call it), I'm certain the doctor coerced the combination to my bicycle lock from me. Three days after the procedure, my bike was stolen. More than a little curious, eh? I mentioned this to her while she was reading the test results over the phone, and she acted oh-so-innocent, like larceny and deceit never crossed the threshold of the hospital. "We are here to heal, not steal," were her exact words. Despite her denials, I told her it won't be so easy next time, as I just might purchase a brand new lock after the procedure so I'll have no knowledge of the combination during her drug-assisted interrogation. I hoped she learned a lesson from my suspicions; after all, doctors can afford their own bicycles.

The other day, I was subjected to another "procedure." Prior to putting me under the anesthesia, a nurse asked what kind of musical accompaniment I wanted. She said they would be putting me into a state of twilight, and as I drift in and out of consciousness, I might be able to hear some of the music they play in the operating room. Figuring a lute player was out of the question on such short notice, I requested "Lies" by the Knickerbockers, because, I said, "There won't be a word of truth to anything you hear while I'm sedated. I'm a compulsive liar, so don't believe a word I say, and leave my bike alone, and what is this anyway, a hospital or a sock-hop."

There was an uncomfortable, worry-filled silence before drifting off into a nurse-driven twilight; I was consumed with fear about what might be revealed this time. I mean, everybody has secrets that shouldn't see the light of day. There was the time I pirated a copy of "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," and the time I stole all the Mounds Bars from my nephew's trick or treat bag. And there's stuff people do in the privacy of their own homes that should remain private. For instance, my wife and I are history buffs, aficionados might be a more accurate term, and occasionally reenact historical events. Lately, we've been in rehearsal for "The Lone Ranger meets Miss Kitty," two pivotal characters from the old west that never had the chance to meet on-screen. Marshal Dillon had plenty of time to make his move; the alluring Miss Kitty waited nineteen years, but came up with nothing but a yearning in her heart and whiskey on her breath. In our romantic drama, the Lone Ranger, mask and all, finally gets the chance to court the unfulfilled Miss Kitty, the saucy red-head who knows how to work a beauty-mark. These are the kinds of beans that could get spilled and wind up in some medical journal for all the world to see, or, at the very least, become the subject of hospital gossip or, quite possibly, an inclusion in a person's medical file.

Upon waking from the procedure and still in a state of twilight, I thought I heard the doctor say, "This guy has a nice ass," though it could have been, "This guy is a pain in the ass." I'm not sure which one it was, but I'm sticking with the former, as, at this stage of life, the compliments arrive on an all too irregular basis. Then, while in recovery, she remarked, with a somewhat unreadable tone, how I talked incessantly throughout the entire procedure, "jabbering about this and that" was how she put it. When she said, again in a monotone, that the whole experience was the highlight of her career, a nearby covey of nurses began laughing and whispering.

They allowed me to rest in silence for an hour while I gathered my senses, time enough for me to fret obsessively about what kind of information the medical staff gathered from my "jabbering," as the doctor so casually put it. While leaving the hospital, I walked slowly down the exit hallway, and just when I pushed on the swinging door at the very end, I could hear a woman's voice echoing through the corridor, "Hi-ho Silver, away!" followed by a boisterous throng of laughter.

I wondered about the statute of limitations on The Ghost and Mr. Chicken caper, then made a silent pledge to buy a new bicycle lock first thing in the morning.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Vivian's Vortex of Discontent

The Bowl 'n Roll's main business is bowling, but within the confines of the establishment, a dimly lit tavern and a sandwich counter add to the glamor of the bowling alley experience. Redondo, the sandwich maker who has taken sandwich making to a new standard, has a gold capped tooth that lights up his friendly smile against a neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

It's not just me, lots of people have discovered Redondo's sandwich-making abilities. At lunchtime, people are lined up three deep around the counter, waiting for his specialty creations, each one named after a different bowling term: The Strike, The Spare, The Ten Pin, The Railroad, The Turkey, The Lucky Shot, The Crawler, and my favorite, The Gutter Ball. Often, the purchases are made to reward or insult a bowler. Like one time, a guy ordered a Gutter Ball for everyone on the opposing bowling team, hoping, amid howls of laughter, the culinary prophecy would jinx their games.

I don't bowl, but Redondo's sandwiches have become a part of my dietary regimen, so I guess you could say I'm a regular at the Bowl 'n Roll, regular enough for Redondo to greet me with, "Hello my friend, Gutter Ball un momento." There's other regulars aside from the sandwich regulars like myself. There are, of course, the bowling regulars, and then there's the tavern regulars. The tavern regulars often mix with the sandwich regulars as the sandwich counter extends into the bar, and one particular tavern regular perches on the bar-stool closest to the sandwich cash register so she can divide her exposure between the two groups. Her name is Vivian, a little too much lipstick, a little too much Vodka, and a steamer trunk full of opinions.

Vivian has been a fixture at the Bowl 'n Roll since 1978, the year her bowling team, The Alpacas, took the alley championship. There's a plaque in the entryway "to prove it, if you have any doubts." She waves her ice-filled glass in wide, circular gestures while offering her odious commentaries. Vivian is disagreeable and often times downright nasty, but the truth is I'm drawn to her like a moth to a flame, even though it's always me feeling scorched. As soon as Vivian begins one of her barb-filled bombasts, it's like a carnival barker calling, "Step right up, right this way sir, don't be afraid, come listen to Vivian's Vortex of Discontent!" And I'm drawn in every time, like wanting to see the bearded lady but knowing I'll be sorry later and pay the price with a series of nightmares.

All these conversations take place amid the background crackle of tumbling bowling pins. Vivian's favorite response to anything that doesn't please her is, "Oh, give me a break." This phrase discounts all those who don't measure up to her standards. Once, I mentioned Bob Dylan, and she broke into something about how Sinatra was the only singer worth mentioning in her presence. "Bob Dylan," she said with a wave of her glass, "Give me a break."

In an effort to limit my exposure to Vivian, I've been getting my Gutter Ball sandwiches to go, but while waiting, I find myself being sucked into the eddy of her vortex. The other day, she went on a tirade about how there's no such thing as global warming, and when I tried to explain about the polar ice caps melting, her response was, "Warming schwarming, give me a break."

Lately, she's taken to calling me "honey" in a tone that's anything but endearing. After our disagreement about which color M&Ms possess the qualities of an aphrodisiac, she slurred her final remark, "Listen here, honey, it's the yellows, but don't get any ideas; I have a boyfriend who could squash you like a bug," followed by a demonstration with her thumb mashing an imaginary insect on the bar (It's possible the bug may not be the only imaginary thing in Vivian's world).

Once, in an effort to build a bridge of friendship, I bought Vivian a drink, but it had the opposite effect: "What, you think you own me or something, just 'cause you bought me a drink? You bongo-playin' types got nerve. Give me a break." Even when I agree with her, I'm curiously delegated for blame, like when we both mourned the loss of Pluto's designation as a planet, I was reprimanded, "You and your fancy-assed telescopes couldn't leave well enough alone."

This whole unstable relationship is as much about my own culpability as it is Vivian's. If it weren't for Redondo's fine sandwich making, I might be able to end this sour flirtation with her. But several times a week, I pull open the doors of the Bowl 'n Roll, and my arms flail wildly and I spin around, helplessly caught in the swirling vortex of Vivian's discontent.... and somehow, knowing it'll end with a Gutter Ball, it seems okay; a risky road worth taking.

I forgot to mention that each sandwich comes with a complimentary, medium-sized pickle.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ten Years of Fake Laughter

Alanna was a charming woman who graced me with her presence for ten years. I say it was nine, but she claims it was eleven, so we settled on ten, though some people say it was probably only nine, but because she endured my irregular flirtations with lucidity for so long a time, it felt like eleven to her. When we parted, she said that she never quite understood my sense of humor, and that, for the entire ten, nine, or eleven years, she laughed at my comments just to be polite.

I asked her why she didn't say something sooner, and she claimed she was being kind and didn't want to hurt my feelings. She had this peculiar laugh, like a barking seal, that could only be heard when she was inhaling air at the end of a long protracted silent bout of laughter. So I asked her if that quirky laughter was real, and she said that she often faked it, the way some women fake orgasms to keep the relationship on an even keel.

This was many years ago, and to tell you the truth, I've never completely recovered from this revelation. I used to think I knew what was funny, but for quite a long time, I've often been left wondering whether something was funny or not and whether people are laughing at me or with me. Sometimes, when I'm telling a story, people start laughing, and I wonder what they are laughing about, but I keep on telling the story because I think it's a good story but not necessarily a funny one.

I'm not a joke teller. I can't remember jokes. Some people have a Rolodex of jokes in their heads, but as my friend, Eva Gleckler, the comedy critic who has honed her expertise from many years of unfulfilled dating, says those people are not funny, they just have good memories. And I think she's right. There's a surly guy across the alley, Earl Swonk, who only bothers to shave when the V.F.W. holds their monthly fish fry. He's built like a fire plug and has a heavy-footed, deliberate walk, like a robot ready to stomp out miniature villages of tiny people. He's more than a little rough around the edges, and I think some people would say he's downright scary. He's definitely not funny, but he has more jokes logged in his head than fifty comedians. Give him a topic and he'll break into a series of the most off-color, politically incorrect jokes you ever heard. He remembers them all. That's not me; I get everything twisted around in the retelling so that, not only is the joke no longer funny, but I have to backtrack and explain the part about the Norwegian guy that I forgot to include in the first part of the joke.

Many times, when I watch movies labeled "comedies," they don't seem funny at all. Some are quite good, but they often seem tragic and sad, and I have honest empathy for the characters and their troublesome situations and am reminded of either myself or friends in similar circumstances.

And now, when I'm with a group of people and they suddenly break into a fit of laughter, I wonder who among them is fake-laughing and whose laughter is genuine. There should be a laughter-detector kit for these circumstances; it would be a big help for people like me. I just don't know anymore; since Alanna's departure, my comedic sense has been disheveled, and I'm thinking the joke has been on me. Ten, nine, or eleven years is a long time to live, unknowingly, with fake laughter.

I recently saw the lovely Alanna at the annual gathering of the Midwest Gourd Society, the colorful, handicraft-horticultural club where we first met. She barely acknowledged my existence, but when we spoke for a moment, I tried to work one of Earl's jokes into the conversation. She just stared at me with a blank expression on her face and said, "The cake is really good this year," and turned and walked away.
I shouted after her, "I forgot about the Norwegian guy in the beginning!"
But there was nothing, not even a polite, sympathetic, quirky bit of laughter, only a disapproving, "Oh brother," as she disappeared into a crowd of friends gathered at the gourd accessory table.

I wonder if Alanna has been fake-laughing at her present husband's jokes or if he even suspects any disingenuous behavior. Perhaps he's the serious type like Perry Mason, and there's no need for the faux-laughter. Or maybe he's just so darned hysterical that she can hardly contain that quirky laugh. Or maybe he's one of those genius inventor-types and, in his spare time, concocted a fake-laughter-detector that not only monitors the integrity of Alanna's laughter, but alleviates the burdensome chore of remembering the placement of the Norwegian guy.
I just wonder.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thirsty Dreams

Betty the cat steers the rudder of our home. She, along with the rest of the household, just barely tolerates my presence. I'm pretty much allowed to go anywhere in the house but often times get a snake-eyed warning or a hiss for reasons that elude me. At night, Betty sleeps on my wife's side of the bed and occasionally opens one eye as if to say, "Don't try anything, buster. I'm watching you."

Every evening, I place a standby glass of water on the nightstand on my side of the bed, as occasionally, a dream will induce a powerful thirst, worthy of immediate quenching, and it's nice to have a beverage handy during these emergencies. Often times, a small sip of water will suffice, but during one thirsty dream, I awakened so desperately parched that I not only drank almost the entire glass of water, but splashed my face with the remainder. It was the dream where the very selfish Ann Coulter and I shared a life-raft adrift on the Pacific. She had a water bottle and refused to share even a drop, and proceeded to yak on and on about what's hers is hers and not wanting any of my left-leaning slobber. She laughed after suggesting I get out of the sun by sitting in her shadow (which had all the substance of a spaghetti noodle, almost no shadow at all). The thirst, the blistering sun, and the non-stop jabbering nearly drove me overboard til awakening safely in my room.

The thirsty dreams occur on a regular basis, and after a drink of water, I can usually fall right back to sleep. But last night, after a very thirsty dream involving Drew Barrymore, something unexpected happened. Drew and I were lost in the desert, brought there by our participation in one of those Hollywood scavenger parties. We'd been searching for Ozzie and Harriett memorabilia when we wandered off the beaten path. During the ordeal, Drew conducted herself like a lady and was almost apologetic while discarding several articles of clothing, revealing tattoos that not many people know exist. The unforgiving desert sun, along with Drew's tattoo revelations, caused me to startle awake and reach for the water glass, which, to my dismay, was occupied by Betty the cat, slurping and splashing like a riverside baptism.

Maybe Betty has these same thirsty dreams, but she has her own water bowl in the kitchen. Nevertheless, I patiently waited in the dark and watched her fall nonchalantly back to sleep, thoroughly refreshed, while I stayed awake, parched like an old saltine, wondering how many times we've shared the same glass of water.

In the morning, I questioned my wife about Betty's late night water excursion:

--Her: Oh, she's been doing that since she was a kitten.
--Me: So, you're telling me that for the past three years, Betty and I have been drinking from the same glass?
--Her: I suppose. I thought you knew.
--Me: If I knew, why would I drink from the same glass?
--Her: I didn't think it bothered you.
--Me: Drinking cat slobber bothers me.
--Her: She's probably cleaner than you. She's constantly grooming herself.
--Me: Yes, I've seen how she cleans her private parts, and then we share a water glass. At least I have the decency to use toilet paper.
--Her: Thank god for that.
--Me: I'm feeling woozy.
--Her: Think of it this way: it's her way of accepting you, a common bond. You should be complimented.
--Me: Should I return the acceptance by using her litter box?
--Her: Don't be silly.
--Me: I’m telling my doctor I've been drinking cat slobber. Maybe there's a special test and some medication to wipe out the cat cooties that are crawling through my body.
--Her: Now you're being ridiculous.
--Me: I'm woozy.
--Her: It's all in your mind.
--Me: OK, give me a kiss.
--Her: Not so fast, Romeo; you've been drinking cat slobber.

And so the romantic avoidance continues, only this time it's for the very legitimate excuse of unhygienic cat slobber. The possibility exists that I'm permanently cootied. A levelheaded call to a responsible medical practitioner should tell me how long it takes for cat cooties to wear off. I'm hoping the doctor can steer me towards a twelve-step, cat-slobber-sharer program where commiserating with other cat-cootie-carriers is a dignified road destined for healing. From now on, though, I'm bringing a water bottle to bed, something I won't be obliged to share with noodle-shadow Ann or Betty the cat, but Drew, oh sweet Drew, can have a sip anytime she wants.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Safari Car Salesman

The other day my wife and I went out shopping for a car. I was thinking about a Jeep because it's very basic, nothing fancy or gimmicky about a Jeep, a no nonsense kind of vehicle. It does what a car is supposed to do, get you to your destination without all the overindulgent extras which, frankly, I find embarrassing and confusing. None of those little clicker things to start the car; real keys for a Jeep. If Henry David Thoreau were alive today and he needed a car, I'm almost certain he'd chose the simplicity of a Jeep. And they're made in America by good old hard-working auto workers in Ohio.

So we paid a visit to Randy's Wrangler Land, as pitched on late night TV by the always enthusiastic Randy with his cowboy hat and his endearing liquid speech mannerism, encouraging viewers to "wasso a deal at Wandy's." I secretly applaud him for having the temerity to appear on TV, dressed for a rodeo, all the while knowing he sounds like Elmer Fudd, so I'd promised myself that one day, in honor of Randy's unabashed pluckiness, I'd purchase a car from him.

It appeared to be our lucky day: it was Wrangler Round-up Day, and Randy was there to emcee the festivities. There was free beef jerky and coffee for everyone at the "chuck-wagon" (a cafeteria table with a cactus plant), and to top it off, a lanky guy with long sideburns and a black cowboy hat was performing rope tricks on the hour.

We were met in the showroom by a stout fellow whose every step was a swaggering dare to try and knock the imaginary chip off his shoulder. He wore khaki shorts, a khaki shirt with epaulets, and a safari hat; ready to bag some big game. He shook my hand and squeezed it like he was trying to get lemon juice out of it. He said to call him Safari Duke. My wife whispered how pleased she was to meet an actual Duke, regardless of the adventure, while I was trying to decide if we were on a round-up or a safari, but I let it go, figuring any costume is better than none at all.

Right away he asks what we do for a living. My wife tells him she's an art teacher. Then he jumps into this whole story about how he's an art teacher too. He teaches martial arts, and goes on to explain how he can throw a guy like me over his shoulder and twist my arm and have me yelling "stop" in a matter of seconds. To which I casually mention that he could urinate on my shoe and get the same effect with much less trouble. The Duke was not pleased and got a little red in the face, and it was all too apparent his day would be complete if he could not only make a sale, but practice some of his martial arts moves on me.

I tell him that I want a Jeep because it's the kind of car an Amish family would drive if they bought cars. Then he puffs his chest out and tells us that this is the car that won the big one, WW Two. "A Jeep has guts," he says, and continues, "Those Amish, they don't fight, do they?" My wife tried to explain that when they don't like someone, they shun them. Then he says everyone in his martial arts club abides by a code of strength, leverage, and unbridled patriotism, and they all have Jeeps, and offers to arm wrestle the both of us for a big discount. I suspect this is just a ruse to make me look bad and hold my wife's hand. Or maybe he'd let me win and make me feel like I'd gotten a discount when, in fact, I really hadn't. Either way, I wind up looking like a goof. Besides, I'd absentmindedly left my safari hat at home, a big disadvantage.

Then he points outside, "That's my rig, the one with the over-sized tires." And I'm reminded of the old addage, "big tires, little feet; little feet...," but I erase the thought and, instead, ask about the free "Color Me Beautiful Makeover" with the purchase of a Jeep, and he doesn't think it's funny but offers to take us on a test drive in the big mud pit out back. Feeling that the offer is more like a threat, we decline. Then he brazenly implies that maybe we aren't Jeep people. "Jeep people," he says, "Make up their minds in a hurry and support the old red, white, and blue." But I tell him that I'm just a flush toilet shy of being Amish; I don't even like power windows and would just as soon have the roll-up kind. My wife pulls my arm and begins to walk away, and The Duke asks where she's going.
"Shunning," she says, just as the rope trick guy is warming up.

So we're sticking with our present car for now, but I would have liked to have stayed to see the rope trick guy. His name was Lasso Larry from Laredo, and Randy was just about to introduce him as we walked out the door.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Reenactment

"The Grey Ghost rides," words I hadn't heard in decades. And there he was, Ray "One Toke" Tribble, waiting in line at Happy Foods; a big smile on his face, extending his arms to give me a big how-you-been hug. "Where you been, man," he said. "We all figured you stayed in California after the bust. What a trip. You gotta hook up with us for the reenactment next week; the guys'll flip out. It'll be the original crowd. We meet every year. Me, Koon, Buggs, Gooby, Panda, and now with you, Hooper, it's complete! The Grey Ghost rides!"

No one's called me "Hooper" in many years, a name bestowed upon me by a well-meaning elderly couple who mistakenly thought it was the term for "hippie." The anointment happened while waiting in line to pay the cashier at Scott's Diner; the elderly man turned to his wife, pointed at me and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Look, it's one of them hoopers!" Ray's ebullience at the off-the-cuff proclamation was as infectious then as it was now about the reunion, so I agreed to being a participant in the reenactment. I knew a little about the Civil War, and had heard about these events, but mostly it seemed like an enjoyable way to reconnect with some old pals and maybe learn a little American history.

Before departing, Ray said to meet at noon on Saturday in the parking lot of the Hot Dog King, our old teen-aged hangout (which was now a Shoe Carnival) and was very emphatic that everyone dresses for the period. "Look for the Ghost. It's been completely restored," he said. The Grey Ghost was Ray's 1948 Plymouth sedan, a thirty-five dollar junker with suicide doors, a back seat big enough for a horse, and a grey paint job so badly faded that it appeared to be the ghost of a car. It was big and round, almost cartoon-like. Some people mocked it and called it "The Egg," but to us, it was The Grey Ghost, our proud, uncool wheels. Unbeknownst to us at the time, The Grey Ghost was the name given to a leader of a small band of rag-tag Confederate soldiers. Coincidentally, the moniker couldn't have been more fitting; the six of us were an assortment of hopeless misfits who happened to find each other in a high school filled with highly-driven over-achievers. Even an amateur fortune-teller could have predicted the bunch of us juggled futures befitting most carny-folk.

Ray got the name "One Toke," because he was responsible for driving, and sometimes, when he'd had more than a single toke, the Ghost could be found the next day, parked in a vacant lot or at the Hot Dog King, waiting to be retrieved by a refreshed, tokeless One Toke.

The anticipation of the reenactment colored my every day, wondering how the guys turned out and if I'd fit in with their Civil War pursuit. I didn't want to appear uninformed, so every night was filled with studying about the war, and I made a concerted effort to rent a proper period uniform. When asked by the clerk at Arley's Fantasy Costumes, which side, North or South, I hesitated for a moment before answering, "South." After all, there was a connection (however unintentional) to the Confederate General, John Mosby, The Grey Ghost. And frankly, I never believed for a moment that a geographic line through the country separated those who cared for the rights of Black people and those who didn't. And besides, I was going as Johnny Reb, in honor of those dirt-poor Southern boys who never owned a slave nor had any intention of owning a slave, but got caught up defending their small patches of ground.

By Saturday morning, I was transformed into Johnny Reb. Sporting a slight Southern accent, dressed in a full, action-ready Confederate soldier uniform, complete with a battle sword strapped to my waist, I headed out, ready to lay down my life at the Shoe Carnival. And there, in the far corner of the former Hot Dog King parking lot, sat the Grey Ghost, in the same spot where it could have been found on any given Saturday night many years ago. My sword scraped the pavement as I approached the car, and as I reached for the door handle, out popped all five guys: One Toke, Buggs, Gooby, Panda, and Koon, a bunch of rag-tag looking hippies in tie-dyed t-shirts, fringe jackets, and bell bottoms. There was lots of dude, how-you-been's and welcoming hugs and offerings of alcoholic beverages. Then finally, the question: "Hooper, dude, what's with the uniform, the Civil War's been over for a hundred and fifty years!" followed by heaps of laughter.
My Southern accent quickly dissipated into the embarrass-phere, "One Toke said this was a reenactment, and I came prepared to be historically accurate."
Koon, usually not the benchmark of diplomacy, said, "Yeah, it's a reenactment, a reenactment of our big bust, right here on this very spot. Remember, the weed, the beer, the cops, or has your service in the Civil War clouded your memory!" Again, a round of laughter.

Yes, I did remember the bust, the first, but not the last, smudge on my permanent record. And now, the photos of us posed around the newly restored Grey Ghost, five hippies and one Confederate soldier, serve as evidence of how time passes but friendships are not forgotten. Long live The Ghost.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

One Number Off

For six years, I've been one-number-off. Danger Dan's Army Surplus store has a phone number that is one digit different from mine. There's a world of dyslexic dialers who constantly call and ask for directions, prices, and discounts; you name it, if it's related to Danger Dan's's inventory, I've heard about it. Saturday mornings brings the misdialers out en masse. Often, even after I've told them they have the wrong number, they continue with their requests about the cold-rating of the sleeping bags and the capabilities of the gas-masks.

After six years of offering the correct telephone number and sometimes assisting customers with directions to the store, my patience was growing thin, especially with the callers who chose me to complain about the quality of the merchandise at Danger Dan's. I mentioned my problem to Dan (who seemed more salesman-slick than dangerous), and he suggested I change my number. I informed him that I've had the same number for twenty-five years and occasionally get a thank-you call from Brenda Lee (in response to the practical gifts I send on her birthday; she loved the tube socks). And once, I got a return call from Connie Stevens when she had that TV show selling jewelry. I've mentioned, on numerous occasions, to both of those lovely ladies that I'm always here for them. And I'm not risking missing their calls by changing my number, should either one feel the urgent need to speak to me late at night. Dan was unsympathetic and offered nothing more than a shrug of his slippery shoulders.

Early one Saturday morning, a surly fellow called and woke me with a staccato of expletives, pushing me over the sleep-deprived edge:

--Me: Hello?
--Caller: Your kayak is sh*t!
--Me: I don't have a kayak.
--Caller: Of course you don't, you know how f***ing bad they are!
--Me: What if I told you you don't know how to dial a phone?
--Caller: I'll come down there and stick this phone up your ass!
--Me: What kind of Kayak did you buy?
--Caller: The inflatable rescue model.
--Me: What's the problem?
--Caller: It takes forever to inflate, and it's too slow. I got passed by a duck.
--Me: Well, when motivated, ducks can paddle like the dickens.
--Caller: No f***ing duck is gonna pass me! I want my f***ing money back!
--Me: I understand completely. Pack up the kayak, paddle and all, bring it to the store, and you'll get everything that's coming to you.
--Caller: I don't want some f***ing store credit!
--Me: At Danger Dan's, the customer is king. In fact, let me make a note to make you a "Danger Dan's Diamond Customer."
--Caller: What the hell is that?
--Me: A Diamond Customer has the right to return anything for a full refund, regardless of how long you've owned the item.
--Caller: I have some f****d-up hiking boots that are a few years old.
--Me: Pack 'em up with the kayak.
--Caller: What about the tent I bought five years ago. It has a big-ass rip.
--Me: Every purchase is guaranteed for life for Diamond Customers. Bring in the whole kit and caboodle.
--Caller: Do you expect me to find a f***ing receipt for the tent and boots after all these years?
--Me: Sir, you're a Diamond Customer. Your word is good enough for Danger Dan.
--Caller: I'll be right f***ing over.
--Me: Don't forget to ask about "Camo Gal."
--Caller: What the hell is that?
--Me: It's the ultimate camping companion, a life-size inflatable girlfriend, perfect for those long camping trips when loneliness can get the best of an outdoorsman. And it inflates quicker than that kayak, I can guarantee you that.
--Caller: No f***ing way!
--Me: We are required to keep Camo Gal behind the counter, so you'll have to ask for it when you're at the store. There's a model with heated lady parts that's very popular with ice fishermen. It's UL approved, so don't worry about that. Right now, it's on sale.
--Caller: I'll be right over!
--Me: You're the kind of customer that makes us pay attention to quality. Thank you for shopping at Danger Dan's, and don't forget to ask for Camo Gal. If she doesn't work out, she's f***ing returnable.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wendy's Cakes

Every so often I stop in at Wendy's Cakes. It's a small shop that makes all sorts of fancy cakes for any occasion. Wendy Windbigler is the owner and cake decorator. There's a couple of guys who do the baking, but Wendy is always there to put the finishing touch on her creations. Sometimes I'll buy a small cake, but the real draw is Wendy. Her left leg is tattooed with cat-tracks that start at her ankle and go up to who-knows-where. And one of her ears has so many piercings, it looks like a pincushion. She's a former bike messenger, and as it happens, we have much in common: fondue, and our favorite part of a popsicle is the stick.

Wendy doesn't mind chatting while she works, and it's not uncommon for us to have long conversations while she decorates her cakes. One day, she was especially proud of her design and asked me to take a look. It was a stunning piece of work, with green leaves, stems, and vines wrapped in all their frosted glory around the cake. It was for the birthday of a woman who was an avid gardener. It honestly looked too good to eat, and while I was admiring it, I noticed something vaguely written in the design. Among the twisted vines, it seemed like one of the vines spelled "grow in peace." When I pointed this out to Wendy, she laughed and said, "Good for you, hardly anybody ever notices."

I felt so proud that, finally, my sensitive, appreciative side was revealing itself. "You do that with all your cakes?" I asked.
" Yep," she said while placing the cake on the rack with the other finished ones, "It's sort of a secret message to my customers."
"You mean like a subliminal thing."
"Yeah," she said, "I guess you could call it that."
"You mean that every cake that goes out of here has a secret message embedded in the frosting?" I was stunned, as I'd eaten plenty of Wendy's cakes and never noticed anything unusual in the decorations.
"Now don't go telling everybody." And she gave me one of those scornful, warning looks that spies receive before imparting on a top secret mission.

She let me see the cakes she decorated that day, and it took quite some time before any message revealed itself. One was for a fellow who liked to gamble, and among the frosted dice and playing cards was the small notation, "save your money." It almost looked like a trademark symbol. Another was for a woman who owned a dog, and embedded in the frosted doghouse were the words, "wag your tail." These messages were not easy to find among the swirls of frosting, and it was apparent that Wendy managed to extract clues for her writings from each of her customers.

I began to wonder if any of Wendy's customers unknowingly followed her advice. Did the gambler stop gambling, if only for a short while, and did the dog lady put some extra wiggle in her walk after eating the cake? I asked her about this and she said she tries to keep the messages positive, just in case. To test the theory, I asked her if she could make a small cake for my artist wife, and include a secret message that said, "sex with husband." She was more than a little apprehensive, but went ahead anyway, I think because, by accidentally stumbling onto her code, I'd become a member of her secret cake decorating society. "I'll let you know how this works out," I said while leaving the store with the cake box securely tied in string.

After dinner, upon presenting the cake, my wife gave me a big hug and exclaimed how pretty it looked. While admiring Wendy's work, I noticed that the secret message read "sleep with husband" instead of the requested "sex with husband." Around our house, "sleep" means just that, tired, pull the covers over your head and fade into dreamland. It was too late; there was nothing to do but wait. Very soon after eating the cake, we headed to the bedroom and changed into our pajamas. "That cake was beautiful. Thank Wendy for me," were the words she spoke while swiftly drifting off to sleep.

I returned to Wendy's the next day and told her how the secret message wasn't the secret message I requested, and instead of the intended aphrodisiac effect, it had a sleep-inducing effect, to which she replied that, for starters, she doesn't take requests. And secondly, I'd have to fill out a complaint form (of which there were none). To ease my disappointment, or perhaps to get rid of me, she decorated a free cupcake which I took home to examine, figuring there was a hidden message in there somewhere. It was her signature "cupcake grandeur," plenty big enough to house a secret or two. I looked at it from all angles and even squinted at it for a good half-hour, but could find nothing. I put it in the fridge and looked at it again the next day for about an hour, figuring a fresh approach would do the trick, then gave up and unwrapped the paper bottom and began to eat the cupcake. And there it was, written in pen on the bottom of the paper, "Some things are better left unsaid."

Artists, especially those who work in the ephemeral media of frosting, can be a little sensitive at times. By requesting the suggestive message on my wife's cake, I unknowingly intruded way too far into Wendy's secret cake decorating society. So I'm backing off, and the next time I need a cake, I'll act all nonchalant about it and pretend like the incident never happened. But to be sure, I'll be checking the cake for a sign that our friendship is on solid footing.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Opinionated Dog

In sympathy with the people of Japan who have suffered through a horrific tragedy, Opinionated Dog, a descendant of a loosely-knit group of idealistic dogs who, in the 1960's, lived in geodesic dog houses on a Colorado commune, expresses his feelings towards the nuclear power industry and all the potential harm it can bring to the planet.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Lesley Gore played a great show the other night. She not only sang up a storm, had a tremendous amount of energy, looked terrific, but, between songs, she chatted it up about her sexual orientation. That's how I found out she is a lesbian. It was a legitimate forum, not some tawdry whisper campaign or graffiti scrawled in a public restroom.

It was an effort to be mature and pretend like this little piece of information shouldn't matter to open-minded people like those who I call my friends, but honestly, I was bursting at the seams to tell someone. The first person I called was Maxine Fish, owner of Together Girl, a shop celebrating women and, what some would call, "thought-provoking intimate items." When I revealed my juicy piece of gossip about Lesley Gore being on her team, Maxine asked me where I'd been for the last forty years. "Ancient news, rivaling the discovery of the pyramids" is how she put it. How, I asked myself, could I have not known this?

Of course, I'm on board with the ever-popular lesbian train, and think if I were a woman, I, too, would be a lesbian. As a matter of fact, I have enough respect for their no-nonsense taste that I initially gauge the quality of a restaurant by the number of its lesbian patrons. Some people think the benchmark of a good restaurant is the amount of trucks parked outside, assuming truckers know the value of good cuisine, but not me; I take a peek to see how many lesbians are enjoying their food. If I see a couple of women holding hands in a booth, that's the place for me.

The thing that gets me about Lesley Gore is everybody says they knew, even my wife, and her knowledge of popular music is so very limited that, if asked, she would tell you The British Invasion involved a considerable amount of troops and happened sometime before the year 1776. In fact, she would be hard pressed to name any two members of the Rolling Stones, but Lesley Gore..... she knew all about that.

Everyone is oh so cavalier about this, but I feel altogether left out, like this has been a secret everyone has been keeping from me since 1963. That's a long time to keep a secret, especially when it involves a size-able amount of the human population. Talk about the last to find out. Now I know why all those people, through the years, stopped talking when I entered a room. I actually began to believe I possessed a certain presence. Now, it's clear they were talking about the "Lesley Gore Secret," and clammed up at my appearance.

It's disorienting to a certain extent. I've been humming "Judy's Turn to Cry" for over forty years, never realizing the true meaning of the song and can only guess what other "surprises" people have in store for me. I don't know who or what to believe anymore. Now, whenever I hear laughter, whether it's at the store or the lobby of a movie theatre, I'm sure it's about me, another little secret that's passed me by.

While walking through the park the other day, there was a small group of teenagers, laughing, and I think they were looking in my direction. The kids were not old enough to know who Lesley Gore was, and I began to wonder if it's possible that these secrets are passed down through generations, and the holders of the secrets are instructed exactly who not to tell. I'm almost certain there's a list somewhere, and I'm making it my duty to find the list and memorize every one of the delectable secrets. Until then, I'm going to laugh like an insider with everyone I meet, pretending that I'm in on the whole deal.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Five Hundred Dollar Bill

Bill Higley has been my good friend for twenty-five years and four months. He plays the zither and is my only friend with red hair, so you'll never see us at the beach together on a sunny day; he declares his fair complexion is not beach-worthy. He says funny stuff like that all the time. For the entire twenty-five years, Bill has owed me five hundred dollars. It's not always the same five hundred dollars. Sometimes he pays it back only to borrow another five hundred again at a later date. Over the years, we've both become comfortable with the five hundred dollar mark. Sometimes, he'll borrow a small sum and return later to borrow more in order to equal five hundred. Like last year, he borrowed two hundred and seventy-three dollars to purchase an unusual Celtic zither, then showed up at my door a week later to ask for two hundred and twenty-seven dollars to buy an authentic zitherist parade costume, which brought the total to the familiar five hundred.

Bill enjoys promising his repayments by a specified holiday. For instance, while taking the cash and stuffing it in his pocket, he'll proclaim that it'll be returned by Halloween, Easter, Squirrel Appreciation Day, or some other holiday that sounds vaguely cooked-up. He knows lots of back-up holidays when he fails to make good by the initial one. I've become accustomed to the five hundred dollar hole in my wallet, and really don't think too much about it. When he shows up with the repayment, it almost seems like a gift, and I go on a little celebratory spending spree. Last January 23rd, on National Pie Day (which was a back-up repayment holiday for Christmas), I splurged on an embroidered and tastefully framed set of lyrics to "Hang on Sloopy," crafted by the trend-setting Peggy Wamsley, whose needlepoint pillows were once featured on an episode of "Three's Company."

I was under the impression that Bill had an exclusive borrowing arrangement with me until a list of names popped out of his glove compartment while I was rummaging around for a piece of hippy candy. Each name had one or more dollar signs after it, and my name, followed by a single dollar sign, was among them. After giving the matter some thought, it appeared each dollar sign indicated five hundred dollars, and Bill is running a friend-based Ponzi scheme but manages to occasionally make good on his chummy debts. The accidental disclosure was disheartening, and in addition to feeling betrayed, I began to feel sorry for the poor guys who had two and three dollar signs after their names.

This revelation is very puzzling; the zither is a friendly instrument, and for a zitherist to act in such a nefarious manner, surely some sort of folkloric tradition must have been breached. From all accounts, Bernie Madoff doesn't play the zither, but I'm guessing if he did, his client's money would still be safe in paper bags under his bed. The thing is, I enjoy Bill's company; our relationship has become symbiotic, like the oxpecker and the rhino, though it's not entirely clear who's the bird and who's the beast. Perhaps, twenty-five years ago, I unknowingly purchased a friend, and when amortized over the years, it comes out to just twenty dollars per year, which is not a bad deal, considering Bill's often lighthearted outlook and uplifting jokes, not to mention his riveting zither playing. I have trouble saying "no" to a friend, so I'm reluctantly calling it a waggish arrangement and will continue with the friendship loan cycle and Bill's quirky repayment dates. It's the least a rhino could do for his nit-picking friend, the oxpecker or........an oxpecker for his sturdy perch, the rhino.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

TV Dreams

The three brothers from Bonanza crept into my dreams the other night, and Lorne Greene showed up while we were sitting around the campfire watching the glowing embers and exchanging glances. I don't know what the brothers were thinking, but I was concentrating on the fire and thinking we needed more wood (not that kind, I'm talking about wood for the fire). It was good that Lorne showed up when he did because Hoss had a glint in his eye that was very unsettling. Bonanza is a swell show, but I may have to stop watching it if these dreams continue.

The Bonanza dreams are more disturbing than the Golden Girl dreams that plague me on a regular basis, as I'm pretty sure I could outrun most any one of the Golden Girls. There is a possibility that Rue McClanahan could catch me, but if she did manage a surprising sprint, she'd likely be too winded to try anything untoward. Just to be on the safe side, I keep, at the very least, an arm's reach away from Bea Arthur. Without question, she likely possesses a grip like a gila monster, and once caught, it would be a frightening sentence of unwanted servitude, entailing more than just cleaning the pool.

The boys on Bonanza are an altogether different story. Those Cartwrights are fit as fiddles and I'm certain any one of them could catch me in a heartbeat. Even if I tried to escape on horseback, my feeling is they are skilled horsemen and would chase me down pronto, and worse, might try to lasso me. Then I'd be in real trouble. In future Bonanza dreams, I'm going to stick close to Lorne Greene's side. Rascals as those boys may be, they respect their father enough to stay out of trouble and keep their pants on while he's around.

There's also a recurring dream where the humorless Nancy Grace is at the front of a lynch mob. She has a noose in her hand and is getting the crowd all stirred up by telling them vicious lies about me. This particular dream takes place in a trailer park in the old west and no matter how fast I run among the trailers, she's right behind me hollering mean stuff and acting crazy and getting frothy. In desperation, I try shouting some cheerful knock-knock jokes over my shoulder, but she's all sweaty and worked up from the chase and refuses to listen and she's mad because she wants to take a call, but it's the old west and there are no telephones.

Hopefully, in future adventures, Thelma Lou and her sunny smile will materialize and usher in sweet dreams on the front porches of Mayberry. It would be a pleasant turn of events to be caught by Thelma Lou. I would even call her "Thel," and maybe ask if she'd like to go smoochin' up at Meyer's lake. We could be happy together once she learns that Barney got Juanita Beasley, the waitress at the Junction Cafe, pregnant. Thelma Lou is the girl for me, and after the Cartwright boys see us together, they'll find other ways to occupy their time and look elsewhere for a campfire buddy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Mr. Good-Shoes

This whole thing started many years ago when cars were simple and people were helpful in general. It was February and the parking lot outside Phil's Rexall drugstore was full of ice and slush. There was a car with it's hood up, and a beard-wearing beatnik-looking guy, several years older than me, was staring into the engine compartment. I asked if he needed a jump, and he shrugged his shoulders and remarked that he'd always had trouble with red cars. He confessed to being an actor and had an important part that very evening in a play starring none other than Tony Dow, Wally, of "Leave it to Beaver" at The Mill Run Theatre where the stage actually spins around. Theatre-in-the-round they called it.

After taking a look at the luckless red car, it appeared that the starter was bad, but he mentioned that the key goes into the slot just fine. Actors: they can pretend to do stuff pretty well, but when it comes down to actually doing it, without a script, they're lost.

Recalling the pledge, "a scout is helpful," as endorsed by Mr. Wiggums, my long ago scoutmaster who seized every opportunity to wear his Smokey-the-Bear hat, even to the Ice Capades, it seemed only dutiful to help the stranded thespian. Using some tools from my trunk, I crawled underneath the car and removed the starter. It was dark, cold, and my back was immersed in a human-sized snow cone, but youth and a memory of childhood oaths was on my side. Using my car, we drove to the auto parts store, picked up a new starter, and you-know-who crawled back under the car, installed it, and the red car sprang to life. He thanked me over and over and asked what he could do to pay for the assistance, and I said to just give my best to Wally, to which he replied, "I would have helped you more, but I have my good shoes on." While telling this story to friends, I always referred to him as Mr. Good-Shoes.

The second part of the story takes place fifteen years later: I'd returned to college and signed up for an acting class. Being an actor was not my intention; the class was in a convenient time slot and had little homework attached to it, not to mention, the theatre building was close to the parking lot. And who should stroll into the classroom amid a flurry of applause, the infamous Mr. Good-Shoes, who, in fifteen years, had morphed into Professor Good-Shoes. Apparently he was quite distinguished and popular around campus. In his opening remarks, he stated that no one will get an "A" in the class. He went on to say that in his entire career, he'd only given one "A" and that was to an extraordinarily talented actor who has since devoted his life to acting in Shakespearean plays. When Professor Good-Shoes spoke of this man, he lowered his voice to that reverent tone that Ted Baxter often used on the Mary Tyler Moore show. He said the best of us should be happy with a "B."

The class consisted of us pairing up and acting out scenes from plays and films of our choosing. It was intimidating, as there were a considerable number of actors and actresses in the class who were very serious about their craft. My first scene was from a Tarzan movie. I was The King of the Jungle, and the prone-to-fainting Yvette Winston played Jane. I was nervous and figured that everybody would be judging me against the great Johnny Weissmuller, so at the last minute, I decided to make Tarzan gay, with a lisp, a limp wrist; the whole deal. Tarzan had suddenly become The Dandy of the Jungle, a worrier of how his loin cloth draped. My partner, Yvette, was not happy, and after our scene, she yelled out in disgust, "Tarzan was not gay!" The class agreed, and despite my feeble explanations that I was taking the character to a new dimension, a theatrical lynch mob formed. After that, it was not easy to find a partner for my following presentation, "Of Mice and Men," the slapstick version. Judging by Yvette's comment, "Your planet needs you back, soon," it, too, was poorly received.

After my performances, Professor Good-Shoes would scratch his beard and only say, "interesting approach," using that low, reverent, Ted Baxter tone. This made a few of the serious actresses very angry, as they thought I should have been admonished for my unorthodox acting ability. I, on the other hand, was just fine with "interesting approach." Professor Good-Shoes never gave any indication that he recognized me from all those years ago, and when the semester ended, everybody said their good-byes and went their separate ways.

Several weeks after the class, my grade arrived in the mail and it was an "A." I recalled Professor Good-Shoes' speech and was stunned to know I possessed the kind of talent worthy of his praise. This placed me akin to the Shakespeare guy, and I would be referred to in subsequent classes, in a reverent tone, as one of two "A's" the professor has given in his illustrious career. Naturally, plans for my theatrical career began taking shape. I'd begin by doing regional theatre, then move to off-Broadway where talent ambitiously waits to be discovered. I began rehearsing romantic scenes with a signed poster of Sheena Easton.

One evening, the following semester, I ran into Professor Good-Shoes in a campus hallway, and he said he'd like to talk to me. Certain he was going to ask me to perform a cameo in one of his legendary off-campus plays, I waited patiently for the offer. He began by saying that one cold February evening, fifteen years ago, some guy rescued him in a drugstore parking lot, enabling him to get to the theatre in time to keep his badly-needed job. He fumbled with some papers he was carrying and said, "It would be a compliment, indeed, to say your acting skills are limited. That "A" was my way of saying thank you for your help. It meant a great deal to me."

"Yeah," I said, mustering up the best of my acting ability, "I thought that was it. By the way, did you say hi to Wally for me?"
"Yes," he said, in that low, reverent tone, "I told him the whole story."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Swedish Love Cookies

Swedish movies make me feel smart for just watching them. There's subtitles, clogs, and a spoken language tonally reminiscent of two wooden oars clacking together. Even the ever-present naked scenes are tasteful with a cultivated sense of modesty. We watched "The Swedish Heart" the other night where the fair-haired Ingvar, a sensitive fellow who lives out in the Swedish countryside, carves these wooden hearts and puts one on his girlfriend's pillow whenever he wants to get amorous with her. This worked pretty well for him; she always fell for the wooden heart trick, and my wife thought it was sweet and dropped a few hints, like why can't I be more like Ingvar.

Well, for one thing, I reminded her that I can't carve anything. Even a turkey. Every time someone hands me the knife at Thanksgiving, like I'm the grandmaster-carver or the Ginsu-knife guy on TV, they are gravely disappointed when they receive chopped and mangled pieces of bird on their plate. She says it's the thought she was talking about, not the actual act of carving.

So, the next day, I was at this fancy bakery, Klauber's Splendid Pastry, and they had all these heart-shaped cookies ready for Valentines day, and I knew what I had to do: I bought a dozen and stashed them under the bed, thinking these were going to be my tickets for twelve sessions of love (about a year's worth around here). What could be better, an unassuming cookie heart that is not only thoughtful, but yummy as well. I placed one on my wife's pillow and waited.

It was a big cookie, similar to a sugar cookie, about five and a half inches across and hard to miss, but she came to bed and put her head down on top of it and broke it into pieces. Then, in a discourteous tone, questioned me about all the crumbs. I explained that it was a heart, just like Ingvar the Swede's, only edible. She said I had a lot to learn; that Ingvar made his wooden hearts by hand and my bargain-counter cookie was store-bought. I don't know how she could tell this just by the crumbs, but it was partially true, though Klauber's is not cheap; their cakes are forty dollars a piece.

So I'm back to the old system, which is no system at all, and I've got eleven cookies gathering dust under the bed. I've learned one thing: love doesn't come easy unless your name is Ingvar. Perhaps things would have gone smoother if I spoke the clacking-oar language and there were subtitles following me around everywhere, causing those in my proximity to pause and be mindful of the occasion.

I forgot to mention that each cookie has red and white frosting along the edge. They are nice looking cookies when they are whole.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Destination Invitation

Destination invitations are showing up in my mailbox as frequently as Dollar Store flyers. There's destination weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, graduations, and just about any excuse for a destination celebration a person could imagine. I like a good party as much as the next fellow, but when I get one of these invitations, all I can think about is the airfare, hotel, meals, out-of-town beverages, rent-a-car, souvenir pillows, and whatever else goes into the cost of attending the event, not to mention the possibility of bringing home bedbugs in my bandanna. And isn't it a tad presumptive to expect people to travel the globe to an event that could just as easily be celebrated in a rec room?

Most of these destinations are fancy resorts or exclusive tropical paradises where over-paid Hollywood types gather to pat each other on the back for being so talented ("lucky" would be a more accurate term, but they like to think of themselves as having "special gifts"). Here's the paradox: I dread getting these invitations, but also feel grateful for being considered. The whole process, though, leaves me wondering: whatever happened to renting a hometown catering hall like Grazioli's on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago. It's reasonable, there's plenty of parking, clean restrooms with fancy seashell-shaped soaps, as well as access to musicians, and Nick Grazioli makes an effort to create an atmosphere worth remembering.

Kerby Torp, the Chicago-based land-locked surf aficionado, had his wedding at Grazioli's, and the way the place was fixed up, you would have thought you were in Hawaii. There were plastic palm trees (botanically accurate reproductions), surf boards, coconuts on the tables, and Clarence Wetzel, the roving accordion player, serenaded the tables with stylized renditions of Jan and Dean songs, something he calls "polka surf." The waitresses wore genuine grass skirts and every party-goer received complimentary Hawaiian leis (some of the splashy folks wore three at a time). The valets greeted each guest with an "Aloha." And upon leaving, said, "Aloha, gracias," if a generous tip was involved. It was a complete luau experience without the airfare and pricey souvenir shops.

The pinnacle of all invitations was the one we received to a destination dog party on Captiva Island in Florida, a place with the reputation as the playground for those attempting to purchase affection by throwing lavish parties. The dog, Borough, who I think of as "Burro," is a fine dog (even though he, like his owners, looks down his nose at me), and would likely be just as happy if the shindig was held in someone's backyard where he could play catch with a soggy tennis ball. But his owners are hell bent on showing the world how much wealth they've accumulated, and so we got an invitation, complete with airline schedules, directions, and a dress code (no bluejeans in the dining room, and no bandannas, please).

My birthday is coming up soon and, in appreciation (or retaliation) for all the destination invitations I've received, this one is going out in the mail:


The party is in Brazil, a wonderful place to go this time of year. You'll appreciate the climate and the good-natured attitude of the local tribes. Brazil airlines offers a round-trip ticket for two for the price of a serviceable used car, but there's a 10% discount if you mention Charro, the much beloved cuchi-cuchi icon.

Upon landing in Rio de Janiero, take a taxi north to the scenic and, depending on the season, dangerous, Rio Piranha. There's plenty of dugout canoes for rent at the bridge; Delgado's Barco Rentar is very reasonable. No motors, please; this is a green event. Ask for Armondo, he's a strong oarsman. Travel upstream for ten miles (keep your fingers out of the water) until you get to Arcuai. It's a small village with plenty of thatch-roofed huts easily seen from the river. Make sure you get a hut that's away from the water. It's more expensive, but worth it; the mosquitoes can be bothersome this time of year. Bug spray is recommended, but make sure it's organic; this is a chemical-free celebration. Each hut has two colorful hand-woven hammocks with an ample supply of freshly-cut wet leaves for traditional bathroom hygiene.

Dinner will be served at sunset on Friday. It's an eco-dinner, prepared by the natives and includes many delightful tropical fruits. The main course is called "catch of the day:" some kind of arboreal primate or fish, steamed in banana leaves. Dancing will follow, along with drumming, far into the night. You will find peace in Arcuai and may find it appealing to trade with the indigenous people. They like anything with the likeness of Marie Osmond on it. You're sure to find something for your scrapbook. But whatever you do, don't mention Joan Rivers. She frightens them. The mere mention of her name sends them running into the jungle to hide.

Remember, the trip home is down-river so you won't have to hire Armondo for that unless you enjoy watching the tropical sun reflecting off his shirtless body. I hope you're as excited about this event as I am. See you there!