A Shopping Trip That Rated a Grade of C

Went to Costco yesterday, determined to buy only things that begin with the letter C.

Am I obsessive-compulsive or something? No. I just decided to play a game as I shopped. And I suppose it might have helped keep the cost of the trip down. After all, it’s Costco, and we always end up spending way more than we planned.

So here’s what I picked up on my expedition.

• Coffee

• Cheese

• Cereal

• Cherry tomatoes

• Chips

Hmmm. How about

• Chicken eggs

• Calcium-enriched orange juice

• Corn-free flour tortillas

• Carved ham

• Crisp frozen Taquitos

• Crunchy granola bars

Then there was something we really needed, but working around the “C” rule was tricky. I finally came up with …

• Cubed ice, melted and placed in individual serving containers – in other words, bottled water.

Was that cheating? Then you’ll really love:

• Cados, avo

What can I say? I really wanted the bag of avocados.

Random Moments From Three Great Days

sunset on the beach
Tori shot this gorgeous picture of the beach at sunset.

Tori and I took off for a mini-vacation last week, Wednesday through Friday at the Gulf Coast in Alabama. We had driven through the area two years ago after missing a freeway entrance and deciding to see what lay down the road. We liked what we saw. I wrote about it here.

 

on the beach
On the beach shortly after sunrise.

We ended up staying last week in Orange Beach, Alabama. In retrospect, we should have gone on down the road a bit to Gulf Shores. Nothing against Orange Beach, it had a beach and that’s what we wanted. But it was all huge condos on the beach side of the main drag, all strip malls on the other. There was a lot of that in Gulf Shores, but there was also some of that “funky beach town” air. Lesson learned.

 

Still, we woke up to the sound of waves, and were on the beach Thursday and Friday as the sun rose. That was the whole point, so we’re not complaining.

There’s Something about Tori

I don’t know what it is about Tori. People just come up and start talking to her, telling her their life stories. It happened both mornings on the beach.

The first was an older guy (older than me, even) who was walking purposefully up the beach, clearly getting a workout. And he stopped to explain to us why he was using cross country ski poles.

It’s not like we were the only people on the beach. There were scores of folk up and down the sand he could have stopped to chat with, but he chose us. They always do.

He was visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or ooper-land, as the residents call it.) There were 300 inches of snow on the ground in the UP, and he and his wife were enjoying the sunshine.

The ski poles were because he has bad knees, he explained, and they help take a little of the weight off them as he walks. He’d had his knees scoped and knows they’re not in good shape, but he doesn’t want knee replacement surgery. A friend of his had that procedure and has never been quite the same. See what I mean? People just start spilling their guts.

His doctor – “a foreigner,” he told us – had kidded him about the problem. “He told me ‘I know what the problem with your knees is,’ and then started poking my stomach.” So, yeah, he as carrying excess weight that put extra stress on the knees. Point taken. I’m working on that same issue myself.

But you get the point. Out of nowhere this guy stops to give us his medical history.

The next day a couple roughly my age walked by with a handful of debris. “We’re picking up trash,” they said. The husband walked on. She stopped to chat.

She was from Franklin, Tennessee, she said, and they were down for a while visiting the beach before spring break brought a load of drunk college kids. I mentioned that when I was a kid I had lived near there in Nashville, while dad worked at a factory in Franklin.

That set us off on a discussion of how much the area had changed since she had moved there with her husband to work at the nearby Saturn plant in Springhill. They were originally from Detroit. And we went on for another 15 minutes or so.

I think it’s Tori. There’s just something about the woman I married that draws strangers to her to tell their life stories.

You Could Feel the Ghosts

fort morgan arch
You could feel the ghosts in Fort Morgan’s brick-lined vaults.

The weather on the Gulf Coast was warm and bright Friday, a sparkling day, but as we walked through the tunnel, a brick-lined vaulted passageway into Fort Morgan, and stepped out into the sunny parade ground, I felt a chill. You could feel the ghosts.

 

Fort Morgan is at the eastern point guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The fort actually goes back to the war of 1812, and it played an important role in that conflict. But its pivotal moment came during the Civil War, when Mobile was the only port on the gulf still open to Confederate blockade runners. In August 1864 the Union decided it was time to shut it down.

It wasn’t a huge military action, nothing like Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stones River. But the port was vital to the Confederacy, and thus vital to the Union. It is best remembered, when it’s remembered at all, for the words of Union Admiral David Farragut. When warned by a subordinate of the Confederate “torpedoes” (really floating mines) that had just blown up the ironclad USS Tecumseh as it tried to enter Mobile Bay, he replied, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

fort morgan parade ground
The sun-filled parade ground of Fort Morgan.

And as we walked into the fort through that long tunnel, I could imagine what it felt like being a Confederate soldier, marching into the fort and not knowing if you’d get the chance to march out. Inside, the fort’s outer wall was lined with large chambers, dark and gloomy. And like I said, I could feel the presence of the men who had fought to defend the place. Standing on the wall looking out into the bay, it didn’t take too strong an imagination to see the Union ships moving into place to blast the fort into submission.

 

We spent more than two hours in the fort and on the grounds outside. It was time well spent. Then we took the ferry across the mouth of the bay to Dauphin Island, spent a little while at Fort Morgan’s twin, Fort Gaines, on the western entrance to the harbor, and headed home.

The thing that stopped us at Fort Gaines wasn’t the fort itself. Out on the lawn there was large wooden “thing.” That’s all I can come up with to describe what it looked like. Maybe 20 feet long, four feet high and almost that wide. It was obviously made up of many timbers.

Turns out in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew through the area, this thing had been dredged up from the deep and washed ashore. Examination showed it to be a section of the keel of a wooden sailing ship from around the 1800s. There was no way to tell what ship, where it as from, how it ended up at the bottom, or whatever happened to the crew.

(I know we took a couple of pictures of it, and I’ll post it as soon as I can find it.)

You could see the places where ship’s ribs were attached, how it was pieced together. A timber eight to ten inches square was perpendicular to the main piece, and you could see how it had been cut and shaped by a long-dead hand. There was only one way to do it in the 1800s, no power tools.

It was another set of ghosts. The craftsmen who built the ship, the unknown crew who sailed on her. It doesn’t take much to wake them. All you have to do is be open to them.

Get Lost!

Like I said, we had first found ourselves down on Alabama’s Gulf coast by accident. And that paid off again, in a small way, last week. We had left Orange Beach heading west, planning to catch the ferry. We weren’t in a hurry, just ambling west. And we ambled just a little too far.

In Gulf Shores, the coastal highway jogs north, and I missed the turn. Not a problem. I could (and did) jog around a couple of blocks to backtrack, then get back on the route.

But what I saw stopped us in our tracks.

souvenir city
A pirate ship that turned out to be the back entrance to Souvenir City.

Built into the side of a building was a pirate ship! I assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was the entrance to a restaurant. We stopped. Pictures were taken. Then we got back in the car. And as we drove up the road on the other side of the building, we saw what it was – Souvenir City. A really big shop featuring what I assume are T-shirts, postcards and every plastic geegaw a vacationer could want to remember their trip to the shore. I mean big. I’ve never seen a place that big dedicated solely to the sale of coastal tchotchkes.

 

What we had seen, made up as a pirate ship, was the rear entrance. The front was a giant shark, and to get in to buy a set of Gulf Shores placemats and a “Roll Tide” backscratcher you have to enter through the shark’s gaping, tooth-lined mouth! Pretty cool, eh? We didn’t go in, we have all the bric-a-brac* we need, but I’m glad we saw it. And we wouldn’t have if I’d have made the right turn in the first place.

Similarly, on Thursday we were exploring to the east. We missed Flora-Bama completely, apparently it’s not so much a town as just a line on a map separating the two states. We ended up on Perdido Key, south of Pensacola, where we pulled into a parking lot to take a break.

nina pinta
The Nina and Pinta (replicas) tied up on Perdido Key.

And there, down on the pier, two sailing ships were tied up. Not just any ships. These were replicas of Nina and Pinta, two of the three ships that were part of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Why there wasn’t also a Santa Maria replica I cant say. But they were fun to take a look at. And later that day as we lay on Orange Beach we looked up and there was one of them cruising by, then turning slowly and heading back into the sunset.

Anyway, those were some of the highlights of the get away. The best part, of course, as spending the time on the road with Tori. When we married we already both had children, then had more right away. So we never got a whole lot of “us time” until the last couple of years. So it’s always nice to get away, just the two of us.

 

* Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite reporter quotes. A woman I worked with in Oregon came back from interviewing a little old lady and, to give us an idea of how crowded with a lifetime of souvenirs her home was, commented “The knick knack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Sheer genius!

Big News and Lots of Work

Bunch of things in the last two weeks – Here’s the best.

jack-and-caseyMy eldest son, Jack, sent me two photos on New Year’s Eve. One was of him and his girlfriend, Casey, a picture we’d requested a little while earlier. When decorating for the holidays we’d noticed that our family photos were getting a little dated – we like the older photos, but we didn’t have anything current.

The other was this. Somewhere in that gray blur is my first grandchild. Yeah, sometime in August I’m going to become a grandfather. Yippee!

I have never pujack-and-casey-21shed my kids to procreate. I’m not against the idea of grandchildren, far from it, I just want them to live their lives. But Tori has noticed for several years that I have been paying more attention to babies in the supermarket and elsewhere around town. Or on TV. It’s all she can do to keep me from playing with their toes. That ‘s not a good thing, touching some stranger’s baby, and I have refrained. Tori says I’ve lapsed into permanent “grandpa mode.”

What can I say, babies are cute. It seems like a pretty great way to start life.

I have friends my age who have been grandparents for 20 years or more. One who is a great grandparent. And that’s been fine for them. Like I said, I never was in a hurry for my kids to reproduce. I want them to get their lives in shape and on track, make sure they’re responsible for themselves before they become responsible for someone else.

Well, Jack is 37, a librarian in the Berkeley Public Library System in California. A respected professional and something of an authority on graphic novels and comics – he’s a regular panelist at San Diego Comicon. I think he’s good to go.

Tori and I have joked that whichever of our kids became parents first, that’s where we’d move. Well, cost of living in the Bay Area is crazy high, so that’ll take some planning (and perhaps winning the lottery. Or at least selling some movie rights.) But for the short term, it sure changes our travel plans for the year. We’ll definitely be heading to the West Coast in late summer or early fall to meet the little sprat. Can’t wait.

In the meantime, I’m working on my new project and I like it a lot. You always do at this stage. It’s when you get about halfway to two-thirds in that things start getting hard. But this is a story with a lot of potential and I’m very excited about it.

Tori is arranging a time after school when I can read chapters to a group of students, whose feedback will help shape the story. That’s the same way it worked for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and it was very helpful.

I can’t even write the title here yet, because it pretty much gives the whole story. It’s not a pirate story. It’s something different. I want it to be equal parts funny and exciting. It’s a stretch for me, and that’s a good thing. What do you learn if you keep doing the same thing over and over?

Sadly, I didn’t get much work done on it that last two weeks. I just finished a 12-day stint of work for my day-job, which is a misnomer since most of it is done at night. Working desk shifts for the Source until 1 or 2 in the morning, then getting up at 6 to get Tori and Max off to school. By the time they’re out the door I’ve been kind of brain dead, so not much writing has been going on.

But my colleague is back and I’m on the job again. Looking forward to getting back to the adventure of Connor and Ronnie and their struggle to save their town from an unspeakable horror.

New Year Resolutions? No, I’ve Got Something Better

I don’t do resolutions, not per se.

I have done them, and like everyone else I have had indifferent success. I think it was 1996 that I figured out the reasons for that.

a) We always make it something huge – I’m going to quit smoking this year, lose 25 pounds, learn how to sculpt or knit or perform brain surgery.

b) We always think making this huge thing a resolution for the new year will somehow make us more likely to achieve the goal, when in reality it just ups the pressure. Failed new year resolutions are legendary. I decided that if I want to lose weight or learn Italian or take up pottery, I’ll do it because I want to, not because the words occurred to me on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.

So on Jan. 1, 1996, I made a resolution I knew I could keep. I promised I would not wear a tie all year.

And I kept the resolution! All year! First time I’d ever done that. My wife, Tori, commented at the time, “You need better problems.” She was probably right, she usually is, but I thought I’d come up with a winning formula. The next year I made myself a stiffer challenge, one that would require a bit of effort. I resolved that when I went grocery shopping, after loading the groceries into the car I would always take my cart all the way back into the store, every time, rain or shine. Not only did I keep that resolution for the whole year, it actually became a habit that I still follow today.

But that’s been it for me for resolutions. I don’t have any new year resolutions for 2017.

What I have is a schedule.

I know what I need to do this year, know what I want to accomplish. And I know about how long it ought to take to do it, if I’m serious. Which I am, so I’ve got a schedule.

I will finish project 1 in the next two weeks. Project 2 (I’m not ready to discuss most of them in any kind of detail) I think has terrific potential. I’ll finish the first draft by April 1. Then project 3, the movie treatment for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” That shouldn’t take more than a couple of months – just a matter of adapting the story I know so well to a different medium. That’ll give me the summer to revise the first draft of the project 2. Finally, when fall arrives I’ll get to work on project 4, the sequel to “Chrissie,” which with a little hard work, luck and concentration I should be able to finish by the end of the year.

Ambitious? Probably. Written in stone? No, but I’m going to try to keep on that pace. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve got a lot of writing to do. I don’t have time for a lot of navel gazing. It’s just a matter of that old adage, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and keep it there until you’re done.

I’ll have some other things going on – a book festival in March, any other readings and events I can muster. And a trip out west this fall, which will be for family but there’s no rule that says I can’t try to sell a few books while I’m there.

If you made a resolution – more power to you! Keep it up. If, like me, you take a different approach, get cracking.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.

 

2016 – a Kidney Stone of a Year

This is the first day of 2017, and I say, thank gods!

2016 was a kidney stone of a year. Yeah, it finally passed, but – Ow!! At times it seemed as if everyone who’d ever had their names in the paper for anything was on a list, and the guy with the sickle was collecting. And I’m still not ready to talk about the election.

So I’m delighted to see the new year in, though there’s really no reason to think it’ll be a whit better. But before I start looking ahead, I want to take a quick look back at the personal parts of the old year, which from that perspective had some great highlights.

Tori and I had a couple of great road trips. The long one took us to Virginia for the Blackbeard Festival, with stops in Jamestown, Yorktown and Harpers Ferry, and up to Maryland to see our niece, Jenny, then on to Pennsylvania for a book signing, and down to Baltimore for a book event (and a very, very disappointing dinner at the Silver Queen Cafe. If I never go back it’ll be too soon.) Then down to Knoxville for a couple of days with our friends Robyn and Dan and a couple more book events and then home. Our second trip was on the Talk Like a Pirate Day weekend, when we headed out to Cedar Key, Florida, the little town with the giant heart, for the Cedar Key Pirate Festival, followed by a drive home for the holiday itself and an appearance at the local Barnes & Noble.

Along the way, we met some great people who I now count as friends.

Besides the events themselves, it was just great to spend so much time with Tori, just the two of us. Max is getting ready for college (another highlight of the year, he’s near the top of his senior class and has been accepted at the University of New Orleans where he’ll study jazz guitar or computers are both.) That certainly suggests that we’ll have more time together – just the two of us – than we ever had before. Since the day we met we haven’t had a whole lot of that, we both had kids when we met, and then had a bunch more right away. So, while we miss the kids who are out making their own way, we have to admit the idea of being a couple is kind of enticing.

We also got some news Saturday that makes us even more excited about the new year, but I can’t talk about that quite yet. It’s not my news, and I have promised to wait a couple of weeks.

Speaking of the kids, Millie and her boyfriend, Kevin, spending the Christmas weekend with us was a treat. It also brought one of my favorite moments of the holiday, maybe of the year. A little thing, but sometimes those are the biggest.

I have used a coffee grinder for most of the last 27 years, but when we moved from the island in 2012, our latest coffee grinder did not make the move with us. So I’ve been buying ground coffee for four years. This Christmas Tori got me a new grinder and a pound of beans. As I opened it up, it opened a channel to a memory for Millie and Kate.

“Oh, yeah,” Millie said. “Every morning when I was lying in bed I’d hear the coffee grinder in the kitchen and know it was almost time for you to come wake me up.” “Yeah,” Kate said, “I remember that.”

You never know what’s going to spark a memory for your kids. You hope it’s something important, some way you’ve shaped their lives, or something fun, vacations to the coast or reading all the Harry Potter books out loud together.

But sometimes it’s going to be something as simple and homey as the whir of the coffee grinder from the kitchen stirring them from sleep, signaling that their day is about to start. A sound you associate with the comfort of sleep and the comfort of family life.

And of all the things that happened in 2016, that was the one that got me a little misty.

Monday I’ll talk about resolutions (spoiler alert, I’m not making any. I’m making something better, instead.) But for now, so long 2016. You were pretty awful, but you still brought us some light from time to time. It’s just a question of what you’re looking for, and where you look.

A Terrific Book

My family knows me.

My Christmas presents included four books. They all look good, but there was no question which one I was going to dive into first – head first. It was Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run.” In fact, I started reading it as soon as I opened it. I was hooked immediately.

My god! The man can write!

It’s not a surprise, of course, because he’s written some of the best songs of the last 40 years. But this is so much more – deeply personal, wry, open and often self-deprecating, colorful, sometimes hilarious. The words crackle and dance off the page. I’m still only about 80 pages in, he’s a teenager forming his first band. After teaching himself to play guitar, he started a band and, after their first disastrous gig, his fellow bandmates voted him out. Wouldn’t you love to find those guys now and ask them how they feel about being the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from his own band?

“Writing about yourself is a funny business,” Springsteen says. “But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” Oh boy, does he! There are moments so poignant, so steeped in personal triumph and tragedy, longing and regret, that they cut right through the bone and into your soul.

In reviewing Springsteen’s first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” rock critic William Ruhlmann said the album “painted a portrait of teenagers cocksure of themselves, yet bowled over by their discovery of the world. It was saved from pretentiousness … by its sense of humor and by the careful eye for detail … that kept even the most high-flown language rooted.”

And that absolutely describes the book as well, at least as far as I’ve read so far. Since I started writing this I have gotten to the point where he’s given up on community college and is now a 19-year-old, on his own in the world and burning with a passion to make it in music. (Gosh, he’s such a likable character, I sure hope he makes it.)

As I said, I got four books for Christmas, and I will certainly be reading and enjoying the others. But “Born to Run” is the best book I’ve read in years.

Happy Pie Day, Everyone

Thursday is Thanksgiving. And around our house, that means today – Wednesday – is Pie Day.

It started a little more than 20 years ago, when we were in Oregon. We started hosting what we called the “Theater Orphans Thanksgiving.” Virtually all our friends were people we knew from Albany Civic Theater, they were in many ways our family. And a lot of them, not all but a lot, were either single or on their own in way way or another, with no definite plans for the holiday.

So we invited everyone over. We hosted it for three or four years, then it worked its way around the group. We made a turkey (until we started making two) and everyone brought the thing without which it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving for them. Greg brought a ham to go with the turkey. Pat always brought “the pink stuff,” a cranberry and horseradish concoction. Sandy learned how to use the end of the potato peeler to dig out the eyes – he was amazed! Reed brought those candied yams – the sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on them. I would be happy if I never saw those on my table again, but for Reed it just wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving without them. And that was the point.

It was always a great crowd and a great time. I think the biggest crowd was right around 30 people.

And Tori spent the day before making pies. Not a pie. Many, many pies. All kinds. Apple, cherry, pumpkin (of course,) pecan, chocolate, even for a couple of years, mince meat – which no one ever ate but her mother, but that was OK, because that was the thing that made it Thanksgiving for her.

It was always at least nine pies, and the biggest year, she made thirteen. Thirteen pies laid out in our kitchen to cool. That’s a lot of pie!

We don’t live in Oregon any more. I assume the theater orphans still gather somewhere, still share the holiday and their personal traditions “without which it wouldn’t be …”

And for us, now, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if Wednesday weren’t Pie Day. Tori isn’t making as many – Thank god! I’m supposed to be losing weight! – but she’s got more than a couple in mind. An apple, a couple of pumpkin, a pecan (or maybe two!)

We actually are expecting one of the old crowd for dinner tomorrow, Cam, the son of a theater friend and a theater friend himself, is coming by to share the holiday with us. And beside the turkey and the potatoes, there will be pie. Plenty of it.