Monday, February 28, 2011

It's Shacon for the Rest of Us

My grandfather has imbued in me a deep, devoted love to what is hailed by many as the most delectable meat product ever.

I'm not referring to steak.

I could care less about chicken.

I don't want to hear it from you SPAM lovers.

I am talking about bacon.

The 5th food group

When I travel back to southeast Iowa, I generally stay at my grandfathers house. Tucked back on a rise that offers a view of the surrounding farmland, the ramshackled farmhouse will always conjure memories of archaic tractors, the smell of harvested grain, and the cool water of the lazy creek that wanders through my grandfathers property.

Glistening porcine beauty
On any given trip to the farm, I will consume one to three pounds of bacon. Like potatoes are to the Irish, or corn is in central America, bacon is a staple, integral to life on the Overberg farm.

It's the cornerstone of breakfast.

It's worked into sandwiches at lunch, the perfect accent to white bread and cheese.

I wouldn't eat potato salad without crispy bits of bacon swirled inside. It just wouldn't be right.

So when, in a late night conversation with my friend Paul, we stumbled across a culinary treat that had yet to be baconized, we decided that we should try it. And thus, the shacon was born.

What's Shacon, Baby?

Make your own bacon shake. It's easy as one, two, bacon.

Step one:
Bacon? Check. Ice Cream? Check.

Take bacon, the most important part of any well balanced diet. The crispier the better.

Add generous helpings of vanilla ice cream. It's not the boring option any more.

Splash in minimal amounts of milk for consistency and blend. It does a body good, when mixed with bacon and ice cream.

Add a few pieces of bacon as a garnish and serve to your eager guests!

The creamy deliciousness of bacon

A bacon shake that is both filling and refreshing.

Make these salt-pork smoothies at your next party, and you'll be a hit with all your friends!

My two favorite meals, in one delicious tervis.

Everyone loves the smooth, savory flavor of a refreshing shacon.

Almost everyone. Be warned, the shacon is not for the faint of stomach. It's a real man's ice cream drink.

The luckiest men alive.

Thanks to everyone who joined me on the maiden voyage of this delicious beverage.

Paul couldn't contain himself.

Matt wept when he saw the bottom of his tumbler.

The shacon made Joe's mustache curl in pure delight.

Adam almost threw up. From pure joy.

Thanks also, to my beautiful wife for her culinary advice, and Leigh Ann Hodges for her masterful photography during this adventure.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hardly Work For Your Money

Iowa summers offer the type of weather that makes you shake like a dog in an attempt to purge the perspiration from your sticky skin. Seconds after cooling your body in an icy shower, mugginess overtakes you and you cannot help but loathe the carapace of humidity that clings to you like warm butter.

It was such a summer when I crossed paths with Russell. Russell was a vagabond. He wandered into my life one simmering summer twilight, his hair folded back underneath a dusty cap, his mulatto skin glistening with beads of sweat intermingling with freckles. His gray tee-shirt bore the damp signs of a hard day far from air conditioning and his odor reinforced the fact. Russell was wearing camouflaged pants and work boots that were missing more than was left to support his tired, wandering feet.

I was assisting my wife with a youth event at church when Russell first appeared. The sun was just beginning to sink below the dilapidated houses on Iowa Street as we saw the last junior high student off and prepared to head home. As we strode toward our car, Russell shyly approached. A little cautious, we paused,

“Hey there folks. You look like a couple a really great people. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”

Warily, we murmured some non-committal agreement, and he continued.

“You see, I been livin' down at this ladies house, in her basement? I got her name from Sister Bernice – I've got her number here in my wallet...” He dug out a weathered scrap of leather and unfolded it to reveal matted slips of paper and a library card. At least he reads.

“You see, this is her number here. You can call her if you want.”

The scrap had seven marks, roughly organized in what could have been Sister Bernice's phone number. It could have been the Hungry Hobo on Locust for all I know.

“So this lady I been stayin' with, when I got home from my job roofing with Mr. Johnson – I got his number here...” He handed me another unlabeled scrap of paper, “She had the door locked and told me I couldn't stay there any more. Wouldn't even let me get my stuff.” He waited for a response from Annie and I.

We really weren't sure what to say. He wove a sympathetic tale and I felt bad for the man. Then he gave the pitch.

“Is there any way I could just earn some money from you? I think, if I pay her something, she'll at least let me in to get my stuff. I can work for it! I roof for this guy, and cut grass...?”

Annie and I have long ago established a policy to never give money to people who wander up asking for it. It may sound skeptical, but I am not completely without compassion. If someone approaches me, asking for money, I'll offer to buy them whatever it is they need. I felt encouraged that he was offering to work for his handout, but I had no work to be done. So Annie and I attempt a compromise.

“We can't give you any cash, but we can get you dinner, if you'd like?”

Fifteen minutes later, we'd returned with two big bags of KFC. We'd neglected to ask Mr. Russell what he wanted from the chicken emporium, so we just got a grab bag of wings, thighs, mashed potatoes, and biscuits. We also stopped by the ATM and got Russell $20.

When we returned with our mountain of chicken and money, Russell was eagerly apologetic. His demeanor was akin to a dog that had been beaten for relieving itself on the carpet, but was still overjoyed to see its master return. This juxtaposition of joy and shame was difficult to watch, and I was glad to see Russell trudge down the street, gnawing a chicken leg as he soldiered into the thick night air.

A few months later, we ran into Russell again. He started into a suspiciously similar tale of eviction, misfortune, and a need for cash. Again he offered his services to do, well, anything in exchange for some money. And this time I had a job for him.

“I have a job you can do to earn some money. I own a theater, over on Harrison Street? If you want, I'll give you $10 to do some painting for me for a couple of hours.”

“Thank you sir. I will definitely do that. When do you want me to be there?”

I gave him the time and the address. This would be a test to whether or not he was serious about working for his money. Time would tell.

The day to paint came, and so did Russell. He worked diligently and, while not the most skilled painter, he earned his $10. When the task was completed, he inquired as to any other jobs I may have for him. I told him that I didn't have much, but he could probably stop by in a couple weeks and check. Then his tone became more urgent,

“Could I maybe borrow, I dunno, like $20? I can work it off next week, or even sooner if you have something for me to do?” He proceeded to weave a tale of bus trips, homeless shelters, and bad debt, each stage of the story having a phone number to lend credibility. Finally, I folded.

“Here's $20. You owe me four hours of work. Come back next Tuesday at 4pm and I'll have something for you.”

I had a few projects that were on the back burner, so I decided that, with Russell's help, I'd get them done. Tuesday came. Russell was no where to be seen. I worked on some odds and ends, waiting for my transient labor to arrive. Finally, I gave up. Not only was the work not done. This event dealt a blow to my thoughts on dealing with poverty and need.

I thought I had beaten the system. I was sure that, if given some work to do, Russell would fulfill his end of the bargain. He'd rise to the challenge and earn his money. But when the reward was given prior to the labor, the immediate gratification overwhelmed any work ethic and he split.

Russell came around a few more times, asking for advances on labor that he assured me he'd make good on. When I asked him about the earlier absence, he'd mumble some vague excuse and promise to improve. But I was not interested in fronting this man any more funding. So I told him,

“Do the work, then get paid. Here's the next time we need help. Be there and I'll pay you for the work you do.”

He never showed up.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Phobophobia - Another Conversation on Fear

My wife is afraid of snakes. My wife is afraid of spirits. My wife is afraid of a diverse number of creepy-crawlers and heebie-jeebies. She's not crazy, paranoid, or irrational. She's just developed an aversion to some of the more culturally nefarious elements of the world.

At first, when I'd come across one of my wife's phobia's, I'd scoff. In my mind, the targets of her reticence are harmless and fascinating. I find a snake in the yard, it's my goal to catch it. A spider scampers across the ceiling, I collect it and deposit the eight-legged critter harmlessly outside.

But as we've learned to live together and compromise, I've stopped and thought more about fears. How do fears develop? What dictates the subjects of our anxiety?

Spiders, Snakes, Raccoons, and Skunks

Ever since I can remember, I have allayed any fears of physical creatures with a scientific perspective. As a camp counselor at Camp Eastman in Nauvoo, Illinois, we had several critter alerts come up. Over the course of my ten years at camp, we had warnings about raccoons, skunks, snapping turtles, cottonmouth rattlesnakes, and even bobcats and mountain lions.

Generally, the counselors would be put on alert to watch out for the appearance of these critters, but no serious action would be taken. As high school and college men, we'd generally take matters into our own hands. On a lazy July afternoon, we'd be lounging in our bunks, evading the searing rays of a Midwestern sun. Suddenly a voice would cut through the humid atmosphere,


Like firemen to a blaze, we'd launch from our beds, grabbing whatever forked stick we could find, and search out the serpent-warning siren. Upon arrival we'd generally find one or two staff members dancing skittishly around a writhing, black line. If they were younger scouts the drama of the situation would get the better of them, and they'd be bound and determined that this was the most poisonous snake you'd ever seen.

“It's a black mamba!”

“No! It's a Cobra!”

“I think it's a baby anaconda!”

Generally it was a black-rat snake. The species is harmless to humans, but tended to be an inch in diameter and up to three feet long. This made them an exciting find for the staff, and we'd corral the beast for observation in the nature center. Whomever brandished a forked stick would aim for trapping the head of the snake, while the rest of us would use other branches to keep the animal from scurrying into the nearby trees. Clad in ankle-high hiking boots, there was little fear of a bite. But one summer, there were verifiable reports of a cottonmouth snake on camp property. It was a serious threat, as we were working with scouts who could weigh as little as 60 pounds. If they got bit by such a snake, their was a serious threat of death, so the administration developed an emergency snake bite plan. We had weekly drills to simulate such an emergency.

If we heard the words “Snake Bite” over the radio, we all had our marching orders. Some of us were to report to the site of the incident to keep other campers calm and administer medical attention. Others were in charge of pursuing the snake in an attempt to trap and identify the species. My duty was to meet the ambulance at the front gate and lead them to the camper.

After a couple of times practicing snake drills, we'd fashioned ourselves into a well-oiled machine. We hit our marks, radioed confirmation, and saved the mock-victims. But after a few weeks of silence on the snake front, we were itching for some action. Then one day, the nature director's voice crackled over the radio,

“We've got a snake sited down at Pete's Pond. I think she's the one. Anyone above 18 free for some snake wrangling, please report.”

In full sprint, I met two other college-aged staffers in the parade grounds outside the mess hall. We made the 300+ yard dash in seconds, despite the heat and hiking boots working against us. When we arrived, Mike had already gathered several snake catchers – 7 foot PVC pipes with a looped coil at the end for snaring a serpent. When we arrived, he stopped us ten feet from the water.

“She's down there by the reeds. Quiet down so you don't scare her off.”

We divided up and circled the area. The key was getting bodies on all sides of the animal, so as to block any escape. The problem was that the snake could easily duck under the water and disappear, or worse yet, charge one of us and get a bite off before we could stop her. But we were there to end this once and for all.

We jockeyed for position and waited for Mike's signal. When we were all prepared, we all moved in on the creature. We strategically pushed the snake toward the shore and, as she began moving toward the reeds and tall grass, Mike expertly snagged her by the neck. One of the staffers had a five gallon bucket standing by, and slammed down the lid as the last of the beasts slithering body passed the lip. She was not happy. But she was contained.

After the Department of Natural Resources reviewed the animal, they determined that it was in fact a cottonmouth snake, and a big one at that. The snake was over four feet long. 

She was also pregnant.

Apocalypse, Now?

With the relatively recent resurgence of zombie-hype, it seems that we've had an over abundance of end of world, cataclysmic event pop-culture in the last few years. Don't get me wrong, I love this genre. But I consume it with an eyebrow raised and with a large dose of skepticism.

Earlier today, I got a text from Brian, who said,

“do you know about the singularity? have you heard about this? it's the single thing that scares me the most”

Needless to say, I didn't have a clue what he was talking about, but the fact that it had Brian spooked warranted some deeper investigation.

From the Wikipedia entry that Brian sent me, I've gleaned that singularity is when miniscule robots are used to take heal humans, but eventually lead to humankind living forever, as bionic-man like entities.

To some, this might sound like an awesome prospect. If we can live forever, what is there to fear? But to Brian, this was terrifying. To quote:

“...This, to my protestant-raised brain, sounds an awful lot like the devil...think about that: everyone would be forced to choose between a life of faith, which equals death, or a life of certainty, which equals eternal life. Who would be brave enough to choose death? To allow for the possibility of nothingness, when the other side can "promise" everything? To me, that sounds so much like the bible it's not even funny. I hope I die before the singularity so that I don't have to choose sides...”

So basically, this is a theological, philosophical fear. So, like Annie's fear of snakes and spiders, I empathize with Brian’s fear. But I cannot say that I share his fear. It's not that it wouldn't be scary. The actual event of a nanobot takeover sounds downright terrifying. But I am not one to dwell on fear-mongering what-ifs. In the event of a cyber-biological invasion, I'll be one of the first ones hightailing it to a remote part of the countryside. But until then, what's the point of fretting?

The Fear I Fear

I don't want to sound like some butch, uber-machismo, douche bag. I have anxiety. I can be jumpy. But it's things internal, not external, that I fear.

I fear failure. I fear scorn. I fear disdain. It's the feeling that I have let someone down that really gets to me. So yes. I am afraid.
I am intrigued by the idea of fear. Why do we do it? What causes the emotion of fear? Please write in about your fears and phobias. Tell me where you think they came from and what you've done to cope with the things that frighten you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love is a Many Splendid Thing


The word gets thrown around with reckless abandon.

"I love cheese pizza!"

"I love my Grammy and Pappy!"

"I love Justin Bieber!"

I love to throw up in my mouth when I hear that last one. The Ancient Greeks had three words to define the varying emotions we try to encapsulate with this one, lackadaisical noun. Or verb. Whatever.

Love, Love? (Paltrow and Wilson, Royal Tenenbaums)
When you type the word into any given online dictionary, you'll get dozens of definitions ranging from infatuation to tennis. mix these definitions up, splash them into the majority of pop culture, and it's no wonder that the majority of the world is thoroughly verklempt over the concept of love.

As I sit here in this shopping mall food court, you may think that I am going to definitively determine a universal term for love.

I am not.

Top 10 Things I love

This is a list of things that I love. Some are what you might call familial or brotherly love, some are passionate or creative love, and yes, one is romantic love. So here's to love:

Coffee - As potentially unhealthy as it may be, I love drinking thick, black, dregs of coffee. I like my coffee like I like my guard gorillas --  black and strong. I've adopted a couple of different stigmas for drinking coffee. The first comes from working with farmers, where adding a deluge of milk and sugar to coffee is weak and often not available. Drink it quick, drink it black, and get back to work.

The other comes from working in the boutique coffee industry. Coffee snobs love to look down their pointy proboscis', through their jet black sludge, and dash diminutive daggers at anyone affecting the purest form of caffeinated bliss. Don't sugar your coffee. So in order to get through both the physical and mental rigors of 4am shifts at Starbucks, I learned to love the raw, unadulterated goodness of black coffee.

This is definitely a passion love, similar to "cheese pizza" love.

Bourbon Whiskey - It may be folly, or at least liver cringing, but I truly love bourbon. This love comes with a healthy dose of knowledge and experience with the caramel colored beverage. Just as some people can nose a glass of wine and pick up notes of pear or chrysanthemum, I truly enjoy identifying the nuanced goodness of a good glass of well-made bourbon whiskey. Best imbibed neat, or with a single cube to give it a slight chill, I love good bourbon because of the implicit emotion attached of sharing the beverage with good friends. That is the emotional root of my piety towards Kentucky-made Whiskey.

Again, another "cheese pizza" love. But so much better than cheese pizza.

Grandpa Leroy and I, discussing family history...I think.
My heritage - I know that everyone hopes that they've got some piece of important history hiding in the branches of their family tree -- The inventor of the mousetrap, survivors of the Russian Gulag, or the man who coined the phrase "Psych!". But in the end, most of us come from ordinary people.

And that's what I love. Mundane stories of the hard-working, rough-edged, common folks that contributed to my deoxyribonucleic acid make me proud of where I came from. Whether it be the stories from fifty years ago or the taller tales of Austrian nobility, I am fascinated by the culture from which I am created.

This love is born out of filial piety. Mark it in the "Grammy and Pappy" category.

Music - I really tried to come up with a way to narrow this one down. Good music? Too subjective. Music that has deeper meaning than pop-trash that graces the airwaves of most top 40 stations? Two dismissive. I will admit that many of the older artists I love are complete sellouts. I love to groove to Prince, even though I'm fairly certain that much of his music has no deeper meaning, only sexual allusions and Crayola colors.

Sometimes you cannot turn away some music, based solely on its genre, instrumentation, or artist. Music speaks to you in different way at different times, and can have amazing affect on people. Watching my wife learn about the scientific and prescriptive uses of music in therapy astounds me again and again as I see an even greater application for the art form that touches my soul like no other.

Music. Score one more for the "Cheese Pizza" love.

Richard Harrod and I, enjoying the outdoors at Ol' MC
Outside - The early vestiges of each season catch me by surprise like the sight of an old friend after years of distance. Each seasonal change has an invigorating scent that permeates every pore of my body. If you were to ask me to name my favorite season, I would name each for its own unique reason.

Ever since I was a child, I've loved being in nature. On my grandfathers farm, at Boy Scout Camp, and even at college -- I've felt the most at home out of doors.

This is another one of those great appreciation loves...a big, all natural, "Cheese Pizza" love.

Brian - Brian Wilcoxon is my best friend. As potentially emasculating as it may sound, I love Brian. The one man who truly thinks on the same level as me -- on every level. Brian and I are in-sync on many things -- our love of learning, creative passions, and boy bands.

I've had friends come and go, fade and resurface. I do not begrudge any of them for our current status. But Brian's a friendship I truly cherish. (This does not mean I don't love my other friends. Brian simply hits the top of the chart.)

My love for Brian falls in the "Grammy and Pappy" category. Brotherly love is next to familial love in my book.

Knowledge - "Knowledge is power". "Knowing is half the battle". "The more you know." Damn, I love knowledge. Learning is one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. As nerd-tastic as that sounds, It's true. I don't care what the subject, I just am smitten with acquiring more knowledge. Book-smarts or street-smarts, it matters not. I am a consumer for the information of the world. Because with the correct knowledge, I believe that you can achieve almost anything. I know that sounds sappy, but it's true.

Another "cheese pizza" love. Or more aptly put, an "everything pizza" kind of love.

My parents - I will admit that they drive me crazy sometimes. I don't always understand them either. But my mother and father are pretty awesome, if you think about it.

This category falls into a similar vein as "My heritage", but is closer to home. I am continually seeing traits in myself, both positive and negative, and finding similar attributes in my parents. The whole concept is fascinating to me. In some ways I am completely like my parents, in others, it's a complete 180. Regardless of the specifics, I truly appreciate everything my mother and father have done to make me the man I am today.

Although they may resent the title, they fall into the category of "Grammy and Pappy" love.

Eleanor - This little dog is friggin' adorable! She has more character than any other pet I've ever owned. She is the biggest sass ever packed into an over-sized wiener dog, yet I feel a deep affection for my dog. More than I remember feeling for any of my previous dogs, cats, or turtles.

When she army-crawls across the floor to see me, howls a hound-dog greeting as I come in the front door, or discusses the conflicts in the middle-east in her low-warbled growl, I melt. Against all gumption, I love this dog.

Definitely a familial, "Grammy and Pappy" love for my pooch.

The love of my life
Annie - What can I say about this woman? It is nye impossible to come up with words that get even close to the emotions that well up in my soul when I think of her. My best friend, my biggest fan, and my truest critic, all in one beautiful, amazing, scintillating body. She is everything I need, and everything I want. She tells me when I am being ridiculous, and begs me to be more insane.

My wife is perfect. Objectively perfect.

Because of that, she is definitely a "Justin Bieber" kind of love. The only difference is that she wont fade away in a few years.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hope on a Rope - Scouting out of a Tight Spot

Everything I need to know, I learned from Boy Scouts.

Many people mock the short sleeved, tan shirt with red epaulets. They scoff at olive shorts that land mid-thigh on pasty skin and smirk at knee-high wool socks and hiking boots. But when it comes down to it, the skills and life lessons I gained in the fifteen years as a scout have indelibly left their mark on who I am. The Boy Scouts of America has not only helped me learn to be brave, clean, and reverent, it's also started me on a road toward renaissance status.

Rope and a Tarp Can Solve Any Problem

Two things you become well acquainted with as a Boy scout are the versatile uses of a six foot cord of nylon rope and the endless utility of a blue tarpaulin.

At first, a young scout may sigh at the endless practice of looping, swooping, standing lines, and hitches that are required to advance the ranks of Tenderfoot, First Class, and Life Scout, but knot work has proven to be invaluable, both in outdoors situations and in more mundane activities. As a set designer, My first impulse when working with rigging and lines is to consider what knot would be ideal for the job. What is being held? Who is potentially walking underneath, depending on the knot I tie to keep them safe?

This may seem inconsequential, but a few years ago, my cousins and I took a canoe trip down the Des Moines River. Adam, Casey, Zach and I brought no tents, no air mattresses. With our tarps, paddles, and rope, we fashioned lean-to shelters to provide some cover from the elements. The tarps protected our gear while on the river, both from the water and the heat of the July sun. And when, on the last day of our trip, we came up against a ferocious headwind and a gaggle of angry pelicans, the rope and tarp saved the day.

We had floated by the light of a full moon the night before. With four of us in two canoes, we lashed our vessels together and took turns sleeping in the boat, two of us keeping on course at any given time. It was like Huck Finn and Jim, drifting by the glimmer of an overflowing lunar ambiance. With an extra eight hours on the river, we made excellent time, and ended up at the head of Lake Red Rock, a man-made reservoir that ends with a monstrous hydro-electric dam. It was perfect! We'd make it to the mouth of the dam, where we'd pull out that night and then call our rides to retrieve us.

Avian Bird -- Shoo!

What we did not anticipate was the egregious head wind that pummeled our small, fiberglass boats. Zach and I paddled with great muster, battling against frothy waves that threatened to overtake our canoes. As we got into the middle of the lake, we began drifting nearer to a cadre of huge white birds. We'd seen them from afar as we entered the reservoir, and, despite our intentions of circumnavigation, were pushed into the tempestuous flock with little consideration to the safety of our boats or bodies. We drifted closer, trying to inconspicuously paddle downstream. We could hear the cacophonous chatter of the giant white birds – at first a small din, then increasing to a deafening roar as they realized that there was a non-avian presence in their esoteric meeting.

In the Belly of the Beast
We hoped the birds might join us in our attempt to avoid collision. Instead, they looked at us as if we were barefoot hobo's at the Ritz Carlton. Finally, we could evade no longer. As we braced for what was sure to be an unpleasant confrontation, the pelicans opted for an aerial maneuver. They took to the heavens, revealing wings that dwarfed our vessel and shrouded our view of the baking sun. The ebony pin-feathers launched the beautiful birds over our heads, showering us with the water that adamantly clung to their underbellies. Terrified, yet in complete awe, my Zach and I covered our heads and peeked through our arms like children at the Circus. As quickly as they'd begun, the entire community had uprooted and found a new place on the lake several hundred yards away. With that, we decided that it was time to get to shore and reconsider our options for Red Rock dominance.

Zach and I met up with Casey and Adam on the north shore of the lake around noon. The shoreline of Lake Red Rock is not comprised of the supple sand that made up our previous landings. It is exactly as it sounds – small red shale rocks, like opaque shards of glass, dumped onto the earth, searing from prolonged exposure to the hot Iowa sun. There were no trees. There was nothing but some dead wood and scrub brush to huddle against. And it was hot.

We quickly scampered up the bank to a flat area, approximately ten feet square. We hoisted up a tarp with our paddles and a few pieces of driftwood, and glumly ate cold Ramen and Spaghetti-O's. Then we conferred.

“How the Hell do you get out of this shit-hole of a lake?”

We weighed the options. Finally, we decided that there was no way to go downstream. Not today. We'd passed a small makeshift boat drop at the head of the lake, but paddling upriver? This seemed equally folly. We sat in silence, the tarpaulin whipping in the gales that beat down on us.

Adam & I, Manning the Poop Deck
That was it! If the wind can exert that force on a tarp, surely it can push us upstream to the load-in! With Adam's basic nautical know-how, we lashed the canoes together and attached a tarp to the bows. Using long, forked poles we'd found, we hoisted the tarp high and caught the wind. Using the little rope we had left, we angled the tarp to and fro to catch the changing gusts. Sure enough, we were sailing!

In no time, we'd reached the ramp, pulled our canoes onto the shore, and dropped our dilapidated carcasses on the gravel.

Without our trusty ropes and tarps, we'd still be in that bog of a lake, eating pelican and skipping rocks.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Finding Inspiration in Altercation

I have now started four different posts in the last week. They are all in various forms of completed, yet I am completely incapable of finishing a single one.

This may be writers-block. It may be Seasonal Affect Syndrome. It may be my own mental degradation leading to an eventual psychotic break down where I lose all ability to think function or use punctuation whatsoever

But I doubt it.

This is a basic mind-over-matter situation. Or is it matter-over-mind? My mind is saying,

“No! Your ideas suck. Your abilities suck, Your ability to drive and automobile sucks!”

Even when the universe is against me, I am determined to prove myself wrong.

When the World is Against You, Drive a Big Truck

I got home today a little before 6pm. Annie had class late, so I was excited to change out of my dress digs, leash up Ellie for a brisk walk in the frigid night air, and then settle in for some literary grunt work. I pulled into the lot, trekked up to my second level apartment, and expected to find a little dog, anxiously awaiting my arrival in the kitchen, where I'd left her. I fumbled for the keys, turned the lock, and flipped the switch in the kitchen. As I looked around the room, I found my dog nowhere in sight. I did, however, find the barricade blocking her into the kitchen pushed open. My dog was laying comfortably on my bed.

What a rascal.

After our walk, I decided that it was time for a new gate for the kitchen doorway. I loaded the pooch into the truck, and headed to the store. What was supposed to be a quick trip to Walmart ended with no baby gate. They had ultra-amazing, state-of-the-art, laser-sighted baby gates. They had extra-tall gates for your behemoth babies. But they had no regular old safety gates – the wooden kind that slides back and forth along the notched wood and inevitably gets stuck two inches short of the length you want it to be. So I left Walmart empty handed.

On the way back to the apartment, I pondered where else I might get a gate. I could always go across town to the other Walmart, or Target or Kmart or any of the other department stores in town. As I was weighing those options, I saw Walgreens up ahead. Now there's a novel idea. Walgreens has a bit of everything. They may just have what I'm looking for.

I pulled in and put the truck in park. Commanding Ellie to stay, I dismounted, and headed into the store. Moments later, I exited, sans gate. I clambered back into the truck, resolving to find my dog gate another day. I had writing to do, so I needed to get home. I glanced over my shoulder and began backing out of the spot, cranking the steering wheel to the right. Suddenly I felt a jolt through my system as the truck impacted something behind me. I slammed on the brake, threw the transmission into park, and jumped out to assess the situation.

As I rounded the back of the truck, I was met by a frantic woman pacing back and forth as if bouncing off of imaginary walls.

“I can't believe this! I can't believe this! I know I should have gotten the rental insurance. My car's in the shop, so this is a rental...It's not even mine! I can't believe this!”

As I looked the two cars over, I found the truck unscathed. The back bumper of the woman's Dodge Charger however, did not fare so well. The rear driver side corner was shattered where it had made contact with the truck. She'd pulled her car back into the space she was back from, allowing room to walk between the vehicles. In an effort to calm her down, I said,

“Well, it seems as though we both are at fault here...seeming as though we were both backing out at the same time. There isn't any damage on my vehicle, so I'll leave it up to you – do you want to call the police, exchange insurance?”

She opted for all of the above. I called 911 and explained the situation. Then we sat in our vehicles and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I could feel my writing time disappearing as I sat, listening to underground musicians on Iowa Public Radio. The longer I waited, the more irritated I got. Irritated at the police for their tardiness. Irritated at the woman for not seeing my truck. Irritated at the dog for breaking out of the kitchen, prompting this whole endeavor in the first place. I was just irritated in general.

To Swerve and Protect

Finally the police arrived. I hopped out and approached the car. Upon request, I began proffering up the details of the incident. As I began explaining how we were both backing up and collided, the woman from the car piped up,

“Hey wait a second. No, no, no. That ain't how it happened.” I was just parked here, and he backed into me. I hadn't moved from my spot.”

The irritation that had been simmering in me flashed into unbridled aggression as I processed what she was attempting. The two sides of my brain grappled between my desire to explode in a flourish of epithets about the low-lifed, underhanded, nefarious nature of her snake like words and the more logical side that realized a public outburst such as the one I wanted to perform would lead to more serious police involvement. In the split second I took to weigh my options, the public servant in the car before me interjected,

“It doesn't matter what happened. Your on private property, so we will not be determining fault. Give me your insurance cards and licenses and I'll issue an exchange of information report.”

I was relieved that the officer had stepped in to quell the brewing discourse. But I was also terribly agog. I could not believe that this woman was trying to pin this thing on me! I went back to my car and sat, broiling in the frigid night air. I cranked the heater of the truck, and stared at the red car in my rear-view mirror. As I sat and went over the details again and again in my mind, I began analyzing the scene from every angle, every perspective. I would be damned if this woman tries to throw me under the bus on this. It was her fault for not looking before backing out of the space!

Eventually the officer came to my truck, gave me the report, and wished me luck with the insurance companies.

I finally staggered into my apartment around 8:30pm. After three wasted hours of gate-less gallivanting, I'd made it home. I didn't even feel like writing. Curse you, powers that be! You've sucked all the desire to create from my body! I just wanted to watch syndicated Seinfeld while dissolving into my lumpy futon. Against all desire, I opened my computer.

As I sat, exhausted, staring at the blank screen of my computer, I tried to write. I opened all of the half written blogs that had been swirling around my brain. I typed a word here, a paragraph there. But I had nothing. The universe had sucked me into another doldrum of creative drought. But then I realized it. In stopping me from writing, the universe failed to realize that it'd given me something better. It gave me fodder.

It was hard at first, convincing my brain, rusted with exhaustion, to began cranking again. But as I slogged through the first few paragraphs, it became easier. And soon enough, I'd retold the whole story.

So next time you get writers-block, for God's sake, stay in the house. It's much safer that way.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Battle With the Biddy - Grandmas and Groundrules

Opal Mills is a cantankerous octogenarian who's inhabited the apartment below mine since at least the Reagan administration. As far as I can tell, the building has been remodeled around her existence multiple times over, fusing her decor, noises, and even her smell into the very soul of the brick and timber that make up the walls of the structure.

Long before I met Opal, before I'd even moved into apartment 5, her presence bellowed at me in alpha-numeric form. Pulling up to the parking lot, a small metal sign was planted in the frozen ground. On the aluminum was reflective vinyl, coldly pronouncing,


There were no other signs in the lot. No similar reservations for units 3, 5, or 6. Only this singular privileged position. As I approached the building, I noticed a lone piece of lawn furniture sitting next to the door. Upon closer inspection, I found an address label applied neatly to the top of the chair. It was the type of label you receive complimentary for donating to the World Wildlife Fund or the Salesian Missions. Next to an ambiguous floral pattern, in Times New Roman, was a name, address, and phone number. The label shared an apartment number with the aluminum placard. The name?


Knit Like a Grandma, Swear like a Sailor

We inspected the apartment, approved of the ambiance, and signed the lease. In conversation with our landlord, I mentioned the peculiar tendencies of our sub-level neighbor to label everything in sight. He replied with a sigh.

“Yeah, she has trouble walking, so she insists that no one park in that spot. She only leaves the apartment a couple times a week, but I wouldn't worry about it. She can't enforce the sign. But if possible, try to park somewhere else. I've explained to her that she can't have people towed, but she keeps tryin' anyway.”

I shrugged, made a mental note to comply, and began unloading boxes.

A few weeks later, I pulled into the lot. It was around seven at night, and I had to leave again early in the morning, so I parked in the spot directly in front of the sidewalk. The sign met my license plate, ringing dully as I walked briskly toward the brick building. As I entered the building and began my ascent to domestic reprieve, my ears were greeted with a sound to which I was unaccustomed. From somewhere above me, a cadence of profanity flowed from a geriatric mouth. The denunciation flowed with a lyrical coarseness, like Mrs. Miller in a meat grinder. I rounded the corner on the first landing, and realized that the flurry of epithets was coming from apartment 4. The door was ajar, held fast by the three inch security chain moored to the frame. As I glanced through the crack, I saw faded linoleum and yellow pleather chairs. Beyond the chairs, I saw a crouched frame, leaning on a matte gray walker for support. From the stooped body that inhabited apartment 4 came more slurs and insults than I've heard in any barroom or mechanics shop.


The voice trailed off as I continued up the stairs to my door. I glanced warily out the window off and on for the next few hours, but saw no tow-truck arrive. In the morning, I was relieved to find my car in the exact same place I'd found it.

Smells Like Teen Spirit, Circa 1947

Over the course of the seasons, I came to know Opal through other interactions. Crossing her path on the way out the door, I'd find her sitting in her self-claimed and labeled chair. She'd wail from her chair,

“Don't let that door latch! Prop it open, like I had it. If you don't, I'll never get back in. I'll be out here all night. I can't handle that door on my own, you know. I fell the other week – It almost did me in! I can't handle much more of that...”

I'd prop the door and be on my way. I never really knew what to say to the woman's distressful tales. I'd smile, gesture to the door, and murmur something about having a good day. One day, I met her in the hallway, on the way down for a morning walk with Ellie. She bemoaned the presence of the boisterous canine with exacerbated emotion,

“Oh no! I can't handle falling down again! Don't let him jump on me, I'll topple right over! I just need to get to my apartment. No, you go ahead and go, I'll hold on here. Don't try to help, you just go on...”

Her voice kept going as I hurried out the door. While I was certainly sensitive to her fears of falling, it seemed a little extreme to be that shaken by a dog. Ellie wasn't even jumping.

Just a few month ago, I pulled into the driveway to find another car in the coveted Apartment 4 space. I knew I'd hear her venomous cursing as I passed her door, as I'd heard so many times before. As I made my way to the first landing, I was greeted, not by an auditory assault, but by an olfactory offensive.

Opal's door was thrown wide. I could see her entire kitchen, resplendent with nicknacks, inspirational plaques from the seventies, and her bent skeleton in the doorway. The smell that wafted from her dwelling was a mixture of several odors. Some of them were once intended for pleasure, but all had since turned, creating a rancid combination of baby powder, eau de Phyllis Diller, and a scent that can only be described as coming from a shut-in that owns too many cats. Not only had Opal not been out for a few days, evidently she had not opened a window since the Armstrong walked on the moon.

She locked eyes with me on the stairs. Her drawn-on eyebrows sat motionless, frozen in a raised position, looking slightly frightened, but also inquisitive. I wondered if she'd chosen that emotional expression when applying the faux-brows, or if it'd happened incidentally. Perhaps she'd painted them on for The Price is Right, and now was committed to this eternal surprise. Her skin seemed as if it'd been draped loosely over her structure, after sitting in a heap for ages. The crevasses of her wrinkles mirrored that of a piece of abandoned fruit in the autumnal sun. It melted away from her hands and arms, appearing to be dripping from her body as we spoke.

“Do you know who's red car that is? My daughter is coming to pick me up, but I can't make it past that sidewalk! I fell once earlier this year. If I fall again, I'm done for! You need to figure out who's car that is! I'll have it towed...”

“I don't know whose car that is. I'm sorry, I can't help. I think you could probably get around the car...I know you need to get by, maybe they'll move soon. Sorry again...” This time I trailed off as I continued up the stairs to my domicile.

While empathetic toward the elderly woman, I was also slightly miffed at her brazen sense of entitlement. She must think that simply because she has trouble getting around, no one should ever park in that spot. When someone does park in that spot, she expects everyone to drop what they are doing, call the President of the United States of America, and declare a national state of emergency. Not only that, but she also feels the need to share more details about her life than ever necessary in an attempt to draw empathy and action.

I am sure that I sound like an insensitive jerk, but, in my opinion, she is completely overstepping her bounds. If she'd created a sign that stated,




I could live with the concession of not parking in the spot. But there is no reason that I should have to park down the street rather than in my parking lot. I refuse to acquiesce to her heinous demands. It's the principle of the matter.

Equal Opportunity Parking

One day I had parked in the taboo space overnight, fully intending to remove my car before 8am. In my mind, there was no way that this woman would be leaving the building before me. For good measure, I stopped my car a few feet from the sidewalk, allowing ample room for the most feeble of pedestrians.

When I strolled out the door, treading briskly toward my car, I was enraged by what I saw. Someone, in an attempt to send a message, had taken the sign, and placed it haphazardly on my windshield. The act was simple, but I was furious that someone would take a metal sign and chance damaging my car, to convey a senseless and unfounded message. Irritated by the gesture, I flung the sign across the yard. For good measure, I jerked the post that normally housed the sign from its home beside the sidewalk, and pitched it into the yard as well. Enough was enough. I was not going to stand the nonsense any longer.

I am not overly protective of my vehicles. I do not spend hours polishing the paint of my Toyota. I rarely even have my car washed. But that is my prerogative, and that does not give anyone else the right to abuse my transportation.

A few weeks later, the sign had been returned to its home. But this time, a new message was on the aluminum placard. Two sheets of loose-leaf, wide-ruled paper, were taped to the sign with sepia masking tape. The rag-tag message was scrawled in black marker, bubble letters shaded carelessly to drive home the message:


And that is all it took. A simply 'thank you'. I haven't had the slightest desire to park there since the advent of the new sign. I've even parked on the road, a block away from my building, rather than taking that spot. A little compromise and appreciation goes a long way.

I cannot say that I handled this situation the most admirable way possible, but it's hard to confront a woman who is four times your age, especially when she's cursing like Bobby Knight on April 5th. But in the end, I learned a great deal about respect, compromise, and giving. Now, when I am stopped dead by the pungent presence of Opal, I pause, listen to her, and offer some suggestions to help relieve her anxiety. My consolations generally fall on deaf ears, but when you're talking to someone that old, it's to be expected.

The names in this essay have been changed to protect the curmudgeonly. No old ladies were harmed in the making of this post.