Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sunday Scribblings - Holiday Memories - 12/23/07

This week’s prompt was initially a great disappointment to me. At first, I thought I had nothing to offer, as I am not a Holiday person. I endure the holiday season, but do not look forward to it or revel in it. Christmas has not been important to me since my children have grown up and New Years, like Valentine’s Day, is not a celebration for a single man and I have been single now for over 21 years. I was geared up to end the year with a flurry of shining wit but I feared my holiday memories would turn into whining shit. Then something came to mind that I felt compelled to share. This is primarily written to entertain Lucy, who has become a fan of my writing and often the only reason I bother.

I was stationed at Aviano Air Base, in northern Italy, in the late seventies. I resided with my wife and three young children in the small town of Porcia, a suburb of Pordenone. We were about 40 miles from Venice, which has nothing to do with this story, but I just think it was heaven to live that close to Venice. We were the only Americans living in a small apartment complex. My children adjusted quickly, as children always do, and quickly picked up the language from playing with the Italian children in the neighborhood. As Italians are generally of the Catholic persuasion and take the command to “go forth and multiply” quite literally, there were lots of issue to play with.

As Christmas came near I decided to do something nice for the neighborhood children. I hired an American who played Santa Claus for several functions on the base to come to my neighborhood and entertain the kids. I loaded him up with candy and small presents, which he was to deliver at a preset time. I made sure he would arrive when all the neighborhood children were outside playing in our dead-end street. I had my camera at the ready and he drove up as planned.

What I did not know was that for Italian children, there is no real Santa Claus. Presents come from La Befana, a witch, who is never seen. You can only imagine their terror when this fat, bearded, fool dressed in bright red ejected himself from his Fiat, and trod towards them shouting, “Ho Ho Ho.” The kids screamed and scattered. It would have been no different had Godzilla arrived in the neighborhood. Some kids could be seen with wide eyes peering out of their windows. The only kids left to receive Santa were my own, who had no idea what had happened to their friends. I should have done a little research into Italian Christmas traditions.

While I have your attention (poor assumption) a couple of anecdotes about our life in Italy come to mind. The apartment building we lived in housed six families and as I previously mentioned five were Italian. Italian women shop daily for fresh food and buy almost no prepackaged foods. Also, they throw nothing away. As a result there was one small garbage can to serve all six families. It was more than sufficient for all tenants, except us. After a few weeks of our humongous heaps of disposable everything dominating the refuse area someone hauled in a small dumpster. It was obvious that it was for our use. I surmised that as it had our last name stenciled on it. Nothing gets past me.

My oldest son’s bicycle was in disrepair and since I have no handyman skills whatsoever and my tool chest consists of a screwdriver and a hammer (with which I have done some remarkable work) we tossed the bike out. The next day one of the neighbor kids was riding it. It was not only fixed but also looked and worked better than ever. I am pretty sure that I had assembled it wrong from the beginning. My son said, “Dad, that boy is riding my bike.” I had to explain the concept of finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers.

Another time I found that one of my neighbors, Lucio, had left his car lights on. Finding his car locked I went to his door and knocked. He answered, and I was ushered in and had to eat and drink. Italian hospitality does not permit one to enter a home without consuming mass quantities.

My three years in Italy taught me much about their culture and customs. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I did get a chance to teach my Italian friends a bit about my culture. Italians did not eat corn on the cob. This was 30 years ago and things may have changed. But then, they only grew field corn, which is fed to livestock and did not grow sweet corn for human consumption. Corn was considered only fit for animals. I introduced them to corn on the cob and until my departure I was always required to bring some corn from the base.
We had an occasional neighborhood cookout, though they had never seen a Weber grill, the men were soon drawn to mine. It is a guy thing. When I left Italy, I left my Weber grill to Lucio. I am certain that it is still functioning.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sunday Scribblings - Dance - 12/16/07

I am a hetorosexual, middle-aged white man. By definition, I am rhythmically challenged. But, if I consume the right amount of alcohol I will sometimes attempt to dance. It is the same amount of Jack Daniels that encourages me to take the microphone at a Karaoke. I am equally not proficient at both arts. I will address dance in this blog and save my Karaoke nightmares for a future submission.

On the dance floor I am often mistaken for someone having a seizure and as a result the onlookers feel pity and compassion instead of disgust and horror. So I have that going for me. There have been occasions in my life where I have had to dance sober. There are only a very few reasons for me ever attempting that endeavor. The first reason is that women nearly universally love to dance. I have been involved with women who insisted that dancing was the only real way to express my affection for them. Though I suggested other ways, I somehow ended up on the dance floor. Come to think of it that is the only reason I have ever danced without performance enhancing substances. But, though they work for Barry Bonds, they do nothing to enhance my dancing ability. Dancing without intoxication is a painful ordeal, much like dentistry without Novocain. I am aware that there is a beat to the music but it is not possible to command my body to respond to it. Slow dancing, though more enjoyable, particularly with the right female body type, presents an additional problem. Finding a space for my size 12 shoes to occupy that is not already taken. While slow dancing, my shoes seem to grow to clown-sized proportions.

In my high school days I always went to the weekend dances. I would usually be required to dance the last dance of the evening if I had any hopes of leaving with someone. Lucky for me, they always announced the last dance. After an evening of standing by the speakers being cool (and ruining my hearing for life), or watching the band, pretending I knew something about playing an instrument, sometimes even breaking into air guitar (we invented that), while the girls danced with each other much of the night, I would pounce on an unsuspecting girl, like a lion on a gazelle. I, like most of my friends, felt much too cool to dance throughout the evening, but one dance was a small price to pay for the possibility of second base and the much higher probability of striking out on three pitches. And no one would see me anyway because all the other guys were also scurrying to find what they hoped to be a horizontal dance partner. You had to move fast to get one of the easy girls. They were in short supply in those days. Of course, the girls had been dancing all evening and were at a stage of sweatiness that added to the allure.

I do enjoy watching people dance. It always amazes me when I go to a club and everyone knows all those line dances by heart. Everyone except me, that is. Do they practice at home? I haven’t been to a party in ages that didn’t include the Cha Cha Slide at some time during the night:

Slide to the left
Take it back now yal
One hop this time
Right foot lets stomp
Left foot lets stomp
Cha Cha now yal

I risk losing my man card for admitting this, but I love to watch “Dancing With the Stars.” The grace, the elegance, the skimpy costumes. I love watching dance in the same way I enjoy watching courtroom dramas, but I don’t wish to participate in either activity.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Dumpster Diving -The Free Market System at Work

I generally don't have enough ambition or inspiration to write more than one blog a week (if that), but an event occurred that was worthy of a narrative:

Early one morning, I was throwing a bag of garbage into the dumpster and accidentally flung my keys with it. Looking into the dumpster I could see the keys on the floor, far out of reach. I did not know if I could physically climb in and out of the dumpster, but I knew for sure that I was not going to try.

There were three middle-school aged boys standing not far away waiting for their school bus. I walked over to them and asked “one of you want to make five bucks?” The look on their faces revealed I had made a poor choice of words.
I quickly recovered and as soon as I assured them that I was not asking them to perform any altar boy duties, they walked over to the dumpster to have a look. To be honest, I would have performed a reach around on the Archbishop of Canterbury before I would crawl into that stinky, slimy, container.

As we discussed my predicament, I realized that many elements of the free market system were at work here. It was determined that no one was willing to dumpster dive for five bucks, though I know that everyone has their price. Then the negotiations began. The larger of the boys, Bryan, volunteered that the smaller of the boys, Eric, would do it for $10. So Bryan was acting as Eric’s agent, or if a priest would have been present, his pimp.

What Bryan and Eric did not know is that the market would have supported $50. They could provide a service that I was in urgent need of. I had a tee-time in 30 minutes and their bus was due. The third boy, Ned, who looked neither agile enough to perform the task nor intelligent enough to negotiate, just watched the proceedings with mouth agape. He actually looked like a Ned. I did not think he was a stranger to dumpsters, but the size of this one baffled him. After all, this one unit supports a 50 unit condominium. It is quite cavernous. I believe that if Ned had entered the dumpster, the quality of the dumpster's contents would have been reduced significantly. But, I was secretly hoping for Ned to do the dumpster diving as he was wearing a Boston Red Sox hat, causing me to instantly dislike him, and question his lineage. But the irony of him entering a green monster was not lost on me.

So Eric climbed in and retrieved the keys. Before he could climb out of the dumpster the school bus arrived and Bryan and Ned ran off, leaving the third Musketeer (or Stooge) deep in the bowels of the dark, green, maggot-infested cave. The intense heat of the south always seems to make smelly, nasty stuff moreso. He yelled at them, but the walls of the container returned his voice to him. After a few slips into the fetid mire, he ejected himself from the dumpster. I thanked him and handed him $10. He looked at me and said, “great, how am I going to get to school?” I would have given him a ride, but he stunk to high heaven, and had streaks of unknown substances all over him. No way was he getting into my Beemer. He had completed the contract and received compensation. Our business was done.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sunday Scribblings - "Walk" - 12/2/07

After missing Sunday Scribblings last week due to a Thanksgiving trip into a land where there is no INTERNET or cell phones (I will call this land that time forgot, rural Georgia.) I was anxious to attack this week’s topic with a vengeance. But unfortunately, the prompt “walk” did not immediately cause anything to surface from my cluttered mind, and anyone who knows me knows I am not prone to exerting much effort. So it appeared that I was about to have a two-week run of non-productivity from my writer’s garret. Actually, I don’t have a writer’s garret, but it sounds much more authorly than where I actually write, in the master bedroom of my condo. Actually, both bedrooms are the same size, but master bedroom rings of affluence.

As is usually the case, my blogs tend to write themselves, and this was no exception. I need to preface my submission (this is not it, just the dramatic buildup) by stating that I am an avid moviegoer. I have mentioned this in previous blogs. And though I have seen some really bad movies, I have never, ever walked out of one. I paid my $5.00 (I usually go to matinees) and, damn it, I am going to get my money’s worth!! I also, always have it in the back of my mind that the film will get better if I wait it out, much like life. Sometimes it never does, much like life.

I also need to tell you that I am a huge fan of Stephen King. He is by far my favorite author. I know that some of you will immediately turn up your nose and think, “how can anyone read such drivel when Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Kafka have not been fully explored.” For some reason, my vocalization of that quote includes a very posh British accent. Well, my blogs should indicate that I am not smart enough to interpret classic works and need King’s ability to paint a word picture for me. I read for entertainment, the same reasons I go to the movies. I would rather watch Jack Black than Sir Lawrence Olivier, though I appreciate both. I am not deep.

It is also important that you know that I know that adapting a Stephen King work to film is a crapshoot. While there have been some classics: Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, The Shining (Jack, need I say more), and the Dead Zone (Christopher Walken makes any film better). There have also been some stinkers: Children of the Corn (I think that if you name your son Malakai, you can expect trouble), Maximum Overdrive (When your star is Emilio Estevez, probably not gonna get Oscar consideration), and Dreamcatcher (did they even read the book?), to name a few. But even the worst of those had some merit and I watched them all until the credits rolled.

But this weekend I saw “The Mist”. Or at least I saw some of it. I enjoy suspense. I am entertained when a film makes the entire audience jump at once. But I don’t like pure gore. Not Al, not Tipper, not gore for the sake of gore. I am also a fan of suspension of reality, but not for the entire length of the movie. Great book, lousy film.

For the first time in my cinematic life, I walked out. The end.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sunday Scribblings - "I Carry" Friday 11/16/07

This week’s prompt of “I carry” came at exactly the right time. I knew in moments what I had to write about. Could we please have a prompt next week that I can go back to “writing with a smirk”? It is much less painful..

I carry with me a heavy sadness that manifests itself during the Holiday Season. At no time is the disparity between the haves and the have-nots more evident than as Christmas approaches. The first pangs arrived today as I stood in front of a Salvation Army Angel Tree. I am certain that most people know what that is but in the event that one of my readers is from Neptune where there are no trees, or Dubai where there is no poverty, I will explain. The first name of a needy child is placed on a placard and hung from a Christmas tree. Along with the name is a present request and clothing sizes for the child. I am not sure how the children are selected as needy. I guess it is arbitrarily determined that there is a breakpoint for those in need and those not. I feel sorry for that child who barely misses the cut for needy and does not qualify for an anonymous gift. Anyway, you just select a child at random and provide some hope for Christmas. It is a great program and I participate every year.

One of the main reasons I participate in the Angel Tree is that in 1960, had they had such a program, I would have qualified. The Bunker Hill Company, which my dad worked for, was on strike for 220 days in 1960, ending on December 10th. We were living in Wyoming, where dad could find work in uranium mines, though he longed for the relative safety of lead (not much of a choice there). So a few days before Christmas we left Wyoming in a blizzard for northern Idaho, on bald tires and an 8 cylinder, running on about 5. Somewhere along the journey my dad purchased a Lionel electric train that I had been clamoring for. He did not have money for the necessities of life, but felt I needed a Christmas Present. My memories of all my 55 Christmases blend together but I remember Christmas that year more than any other. I remember it with a great sadness, which I have carried with me all these years. I know that I should be happy that my dad loved me enough to sacrifice for me. But I am not. I have carried with me a certain amount of guilt that a Holiday put him in that situation. I have sorrow that the Christmas Holiday has such a potential for sadness and disappointment. Most of all, I have remorse that I probably never said thank you for that sacrifice.

As I selected a child to sponsor, the sadness came in torrents. It is not a child’s fault that they are born into a situation by which they are deemed needy. It is not their presence that caused a parent to be unemployed, uneducated, unreliable, unlucky, unacceptable, untrained, unambitious, unappealing, unbefitting, uncoachable, unclean, unadept, undatable, uncultured, unequipped, undesirable, uneducable, unethical, unhirable, unfavored, unpolished, unpaid, unpardoned, unpleasing, unpolished, unlikable, unlaundered, unloving, unmanageable, unmotivated, unneighborly, unnamable, unprivileged, unprized, unrealistic, unproven, unpurified, unreceptive, unrestrained, unrespectable, unrefined, unremarkable, unabsolved, unacademic, unacclaimed, unaccomplished, unacquitted, unappreciated, unaromatic, unwed, unworkable, unsterilized, unsuitable, unteachable, unthrifty, unutilized, unvalued, undignified, undiplomatic, undiagnosed, uninsured, or unendowed. But, it is not necessarily the parents’ fault that they are needy. My dad was certainly not culpable. He was many of the uns listed above, but none by his own doing. He was a victim of circumstances. Yes, sometimes it is by their own choices: Alcoholism, drug addiction, laziness, abusiveness, abandonment, etc., but not always.

There are no guarantees that Charli, a 12-year-old girl who likes Hannah Montana and the High School Musical will actually receive the gifts I purchase for her. In the back of my mind is the vision of her guardian selling the size 14 pants to buy drugs. But I have to try. Maybe Charli’s daddy is just a victim of circumstances. Charli deserves to feel special, at least at Christmas.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sunday Scribblings - Driving Left - 11/11/07

I lived in England for six years and surprisingly had little problem adjusting to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. My initial arrival was on the ferry to Felixstowe from Zeebrugge Belgium. They make the transition very easy. You drive off the ferry and there you are on the left-hand side of the highway and on your way. I had a few minor setbacks particularly when I was very tired or was on unmarked, unlit country roads at night.

The one glaring exception was in August of 1983. I drove a group of three friends to Castle Donington to attend the Monsters of Rock Concert. Whitesnake, Twisted Sister, ZZ Top, Ronnie Dio, Meat Loaf (one of my all-time favorite performers), Diamond Head, Ritchie Blackmore, and others took the stage while many thousands of us imbibed and ingested a multitude of mind-expanding, mind-altering, and mind-numbing substances.
When the concert ended well into the night, the throngs began to disperse. Intoxicated by the music, atmosphere, and whatever chemicals were flowing through our veins, it was decided that we were too far-gone to attempt the long drive back to Ipswich. England was way ahead of the states in penalties for driving impaired.

So we all crawled into the car and in minutes were in various states of sleep, stupor, and coma. I awoke about daylight and feeling renewed, though not necessarily so, I decided to let the others sleep as I piloted us home. I turned onto the M1 Motorway and had driven several miles when my copilot awoke, somewhat, and after observing our progress for a few minutes remarked how odd it was that all the road signs were turned around backwards. “Oh my God”, raced through my groggy brain. I was driving down one of Britain’s major highways on the wrong side of the road. The American equivalent would be driving down I-95 against traffic. Luckily, unlike I-95, at that time on a Sunday morning that section of the M1 motorway was deserted and unpatrolled. This saved not only our lives, but more important, the embarrassment that only extreme stupidity can afford. Though, now, immediately stone sober, sweating profusely, and ghostly white, I performed an incredible 180 degree maneuver, nearly on two wheels. Unfortunately I had to drive several miles back to the next exit before I could send us back in the right direction. The corpses in the back did not stir and later when we recounted the episode to them, they did not get the full effect of the horror we experienced. This writing is the first account of that experience ever documented. I am hoping the statute of limitations has expired and that England does not extradite for stupidity.

I would like to make one comment about driving in England. I much prefer the roundabout to American signal lights. The roundabouts keep the flow of traffic much smoother, even in the congestion of London.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Sunday Scribblings - "Money" 11/4/07

The subject this week of “money” brought to mind events in my life where legal tender was painfully hard to come by. I take you back to a simpler time:

When I was a child I could be very happy with a dime. It provided me with many options. Among other things, I could choose between ten pieces of penny candy, two cokes, two big assed Hershey bars (twice the size of the standard Hershey bar today), or a game of pinball. Any combination of which were very satisfying to me. With a quarter I could have a world-class sugar high (unknown in those days) and the beginnings of life-long dental issues.

In 1972, I purchased my first “new” car. My dad had instilled in me the importance of a warrantee, so I set out to find the cheapest car with a warrantee, meaning it had to be a new car. I checked out the Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto, and Volkswagen Beetle, but the cheapest I could find was an AMC Gremlin, $1, 400 bucks. Stop laughing. It was bright red with white stripes and so ugly it was cute. Kind of like a Pug breed of dog. The only car actually less attractive than the Gremlin was also made my American Motors some time later. It was the Pacer, which looked like some sort of perverted fish bowl. Thankfully, I never owned one of them. Early on, I loved that Gremlin. If you closed one eye and squinted, it actually looked sporty. However, you will notice the photo of the Gremlin I included in this blog pictures it with the hood up. That is an accurate depiction of my Gremlin. I actually had a Gremlin-X. I came to find out that the X stood for Xtremely Shitty Car. When I bought the Gremlin I was working for the Bunker Hill Company making well over $3.00 an hour (huge money for a nineteen year old in 1972. I was a carefree, single guy with a "hot" ride. Luckily, girls in Kellogg, Idaho in 1972 were a little like Amish girls, they would ride in anything that had a radio. All that came to a screeching halt when I received my induction notice and joined the Air Force, found out my girlfriend was pregnant, and got married, all in a matter of months. My payments were $38 a month and there were a few months that my dad made the payment for me. Plus, the day after the coveted warrantee expired the car self-destructed and I gave it to my dad for liquidation. I have owned and forgotten a lot of cars but even in my current state of dementia, will always remember that first new car. Plus, any time Hollywood wants to portray a character as a real dork, you can bet your ass he will be driving a Gremlin or Pacer. The international symbol for loser. Thanks a lot, Paramount.

When I was a twenty-year-old enlisted man in the Air Force living in Denver with a wife and baby, money was nonexistent. I remember that the $100 a month rent on our small apartment took up the majority of my monthly pay leaving very little for such extravagances as food. We sometimes collected soda bottles (yes, they were worth money then) to return for deposit in order to purchase baby formula. We would often invite single friends from the barracks over for a home cooked meal, providing they brought the food. A special treat for us was to go to Arby’s for a roast beef sandwich. Boy, did that sandwich taste good. No fast food is nearly as satisfying these days. I have visited Arby’s later in life but could never duplicate the joy. I don’t think Arby’s has changed, I think I have. I have become so accustomed to having what I want, when I want it, that there is no sense of a “treat”.

I was once an avid and competitive bowler. When our financial back was against the wall it would be agreed, reluctantly, that I would take our last five dollars and enter a bowling tournament. You can’t imagine the pressure when my wife and baby were seated behind the lanes, their livelihood depending on my scant talent. Whether it was providence or not, each time that this occurred I placed high enough to generate income. Even though I look back on this as foolish and risky, it often allowed us to purchase some necessities of life. I have never experienced greater pride than holding out the $50 or $75 that I won to my wife. Then we were off on a shopping spree for milk, bread, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and TV dinners.

If you are looking for where this is all going, you have obviously not read any of my previous blogs. I think what I am clumsily trying to say is that some of my most memorable times were when money was in scant supply but my austere life brought great joy and appreciation. For the current, jaded, me, true delight is the scarce commodity.