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.
• Cherry tomatoes
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.
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.
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
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Last night (Tuesday) we went to the movie theater for the one-time showing of the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. It was a stage version, with multiple cameras. And my god, it made you wish you had been in the theater!
As we were leaving, a middle school aged girl we were with asked, When was this set? Was it supposed to be today, or Shakespeare’s time or what? When was it. And I smiled and said, “It just was.” Every Hamlet is different, brings something different to the stage. I am not and never have been one who adheres to the idea of an “authentic” interpretation of Shakespeare, that if it’s not done exactly like it was 400 years ago it’s wrong. Theater is live – it happens NOW, right in front of you, and good theater is, at root, about you.
A great cast. Cumberbatch is amazing – and far and away the funniest Hamlet I’ve seen. Just little things, a turn of the head, a different inflection than you’d have expected. That whole England thing. Really very good Claudius, solid Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio. (Very nerdy Horatio, very different than I’ve seen him before.) Rozencrantz and Guildenstern – Rosencrantz is hilarious – very good. And the grave digger is always a highlight, just one of those little scenes where you get to see an old pro do his thing, almost effortlessly.
Ophelia? In the first half, she’s OK but very “acty.” You can see her acting, see her thinking. A little better after she goes nuts. She was the weakest character, but she always is. You DID really feel for how she was being used, caught in the middle, but that’s more about the people around her than her. Ophelia is always a problematic character. I’ve never seen one I really bought. So she was definitely the weakest link, but she always is so I didn’t worry about that.
But as good as the cast is, as amazing as the acting is, it’s really the staging that just blows you away. And it did. It just blew us away. The “slow motion” was really effective, pulling Hamlet away from the picture for his soliloquies while the action seemed to be continuing, creating the sense of this all being an inner monologue. And some of the big stage effects were really surprising. Not sure how they could do that every night.
One interesting choice they made. They cut the whole first scene, the “Who goes there?” “For this relief much thanks” scene. Started it with Horatio finding Hamlet for the “Thrift, thrift” scene. And it totally works. Turns out here’s not one thing in the first scene that you need as an audience. So there’s almost 10 minutes trimmed right off the top.
National Theatre Live brings some remarkable stage productions to 2,000 movie screens around the world. This was my first, but it won’t be my last.
Their production of Hamlet was really, really good, even better than you’d expect from such an institution. If you get a chance to see it, it’s awfully good.
I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around the idea that I live in a world where the Chicago Cubs are champions.
I’m from Chicago, born a Cubs fan, the son of a Cubs fan who was himself the son of a Cubs fan. And until last night, the only one of us who had ever seen the Cubs take it all was my grandfather, and he would have been six or seven when they last did it, in 1908. Dad never saw it happen. Until last night I never did.
I came of age in the ’60s and the Cubs were the first team I rooted for, in any sport. The first time I really started following baseball was the cursed 1969 season. There was a chant in Chicago that year – “Beer is great. Whiskey’s fine. The Cubs will shine in ’69.” They were the Cubs of Ernie Banks (my favorite player of all time,) Billy Williams (I still have my Billie Williams model fielder’s mitt,) Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Ken Holtzman. By late August they had an 8 1/2 game lead over the New York Mets. At that time the Mets, who had been started in the early ’60s, were a joke, a horrible mess. 1969 was the first year they were even respectable.
And then, the unthinkable happened. The Cubs went on a losing streak, the Mets with their great pitching staff started a win streak, the Cubs went into Shea Stadium clinging to the lead and two days later left town in second place. New York never looked back. They went on to win the most improbable World Series ever, routing the mighty Baltimore Orioles in five memorable games. In the space of about three months they had gone from being a joke to the Miracle Mets, the Amazin’ Mets. And the Cubs were an afterthought, just a pathetic punchline in someone else’s story.
I never quite got over that.
My family moved out west and I became a Dodger fan, and eventually was able to enjoy a couple of World Series victories with the teams of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Dusty Baker. And don’t forget Fernando Valenzuela! Fernandomania swept Los Angeles and took me right along with it. Dodger Stadium was more than a sports complex. It was a holy place, the way Chicago’s Wrigley Field had been. Coming down the tunnel to the stands and seeing that impossibly green field glowing under the lights, it was special.
But my interest in baseball was starting to fade. A player strike didn’t help, but more than that it was the sense that baseball didn’t care about its history, about its traditions. The designated hitter, steroids, interleague play. Free agency in which players that were part of “your” team could switch cities like so many hired guns. (Don’t get me wrong, I support the idea of free agency, I’m all for players’ rights. But it stings when a beloved star flees your town for greener pastures.) When some young player was told he was approaching a record held by some legendary figure from the past, he’d as often as not say, “Who’s that?” I interviewed Dodger pitcher Don Sutton once, which should have been a highlight, and the way he treated the questions I asked made it clear baseball was a silly passion to me, while to him it was a job, nothing more or less.
And if the owners and the players didn’t care about “the game,” why should I? Why should I care and pay for the privilege of caring?
Then, in 1998, the O’Malley family sold the Dodgers. And they didn’t just sell them, they put them in the hands of Rupert Murdoch and the Fox Entertainment Group, where the corporation viewed it not as a sacred trust but as an asset they could use to attract viewers, especially in Asian markets and Mexico.
That was it. I literally have not watched a baseball game from that day until this month. I couldn’t tell you who won last year’s Series or even who played in it, don’t know the names of any players. Anything. I was done.
Until I started hearing this spring that the Cubs were pretty good, in fact the favorites to win it all this year. “Yeah, right,” I thought. “Been there before. Won’t get fooled again.” And if they somehow did make it to the Series, god wouldn’t let them win. It would be the ultimate divine “fuck you” to the city of Chicago. In fact, if they won it might usher in the Apocalypse.
So I really don’t know how the season played out. Was it an exciting pennant race, or an inexorable march to the pennant by a team that wouldn’t be denied? I have no idea. All I know is I woke up one day and heard on the news that the Cubs had beaten the Dodgers (a little irony there for me) and would be in the Series against the Indians, another cursed franchise. Not as cursed as the Cubs. The Indians last won the Series in 1949. The Cubs in 1908. Cleveland fans are neophytes, rank amateurs in the art of suffering for your team. Plus the Cavs had just won the NBA title, so it just didn’t seem fair.
But I actually watched a good portion of the series. Not all of it, but I did find myself falling back into the rhythms of the game. I actually enjoyed it. It didn’t seem possible that the Cubs would win, down three games to one. But they scrapped their way back into it and forced a seventh game.
Still, I wasn’t fooled, even when they were up 5-1. When the Indians tied it in the eighth, I thought, “Ah! Here we go again. I know how this story ends.” Then it went to extra innings and there was a rain delay and I laughed. It looked as if the baseball gods weren’t going to let either team win.
But the Cubs used the delay to pull themselves together. And with me watching, and feeling my dad’s presence, I watched as they pushed a couple of runs across the plate, then withstood a final Cleveland rally and won.
So it seems as if I now live in a world where the Cubs are champions. And that means almost anything is possible.