Love in the Supermarket

IMG_3172I was at the grocery store Thursday afternoon with Max. We went through the checkout and headed our cart towards the door. Usually that’s a 10, maybe 15 second walk. This time it was moving much more slowly. Ahead of me was an older couple – he looked like he was in his late 70s, at least, and she wasn’t more than a year or two younger. They both had hold of the cart and were using it and each other for support, slowly pushing it towards the door.

The passageway was a little narrow. I could have probably maneuvered past them, but I didn’t want to disturb or alarm them, and I didn’t want them to feel like they were in the way.

A pair of women in their 20s came up behind me, no cart, and started swinging around to pass me. I pointed ahead and they both slowed and smiled. “That’s so cute,” one of them said.

We all waited for the couple in front to clear the narrowest spot, then the two women went on ahead and out. I waited behind the older pair. They moved slowly, resolutely, towards the door, apparently talking quietly to each other, swaying slightly as they walked so that their shoulders bumped on every other step. It even took them a few seconds to negotiate the double door, but then they were out and headed towards their car. I lost track of them as we headed towards our own car.

Instead of taking ten seconds or so to get out of the store, it had taken a minute and a half, maybe two minutes, an insignificant portion of my day. And I got so much more for my time. They weren’t in any hurry. They didn’t need to be. They were with each other. What else did they need?

The best-laid schemes

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men, Gang aft agley.

Robert Burns, “To A Mouse”

Monday started with a vow to be more organized and focused in my work this week, and it paid off. Got some work done on the WIP, then got some work in on organizing book appearances (one yes, one no, but at least I can cross off that note to myself) and then put in eight hours on the “day job.” It’s in quotation marks because I do most of it at night.

Tuesday was spent not throwing up.

I haven’t thrown up in more than 40 years, seriously. I was still in school the last time I upchucked. But, man, Tuesday was close to breaking my streak, and I have no idea why. My stomach was on fire, my head was aching. It came out of nowhere and it laid me up for most of the day. Maybe it was something I ate, except I didn’t eat anything unusual, might have been a bug, but no one else in the house was struck. A bug of some kind? On’y 12 hours long.

But, oh, what a 12 hours.

So I didn’t get anything done. This morning was spent mostly taking care of work stuff that should have been done yesterday. Then I wrote this. And then I’ll get back to work. Because work doesn’t do itself.

Pizza at Big Rico’s for my birthday

No one does a slice like Big Rico. No one.

If you recognize that slogan, then you’ll understand why I was so happy to receive a “Big Rico’s” T-shirt from my family for my birthday last week.

My new shirt. I like it a lot.

It’s an ad from the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” for Big Rico’s Pizza. “No one does a slice like Big Rico” – then a pause, and a slightly sinister – “No one.” Big Rico’s is the only pizza parlor in the desert community of Night Vale. The others all mysteriously burned down.

“Welcome to Night Vale” is a strange and twisted tale. The best way I can describe it is if you combined Lake Woebegone or Mayberry with “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits,” then had it written by Dean Koontz. The twice-monthly podcast is in the style of a broadcast from the town’s community radio station, featuring updates of activities and city council meetings, local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and the glow cloud that hovers over the town at night while citizens pretend to sleep. It presents the bizarre in a perfectly matter-of-fact way.

And my family knows me, and knew exactly how much I would like that shirt.

If you haven’t been listening to “Welcome to Night Vale,” and that might be a small number considering that it has been the most downloaded podcast on iTunes, and if you like the weird, then give it a try. It’s odd enough that it probably doesn’t matter if you know what’s gone before. Just dive in anywhere. But I strongly urge you to start at the beginning. That’s the episode that starts with this warning from the announcer:

“The City Council announces the opening of a new dog park at the corner of Earl and Sommerset, near the Ralph’s. They would like to remind everyone that dogs are not allowed in the dog park. People are not allowed in the dog park. It is possible that you will see hooded figures in the dog park. DO NOT APPROACH THEM. DO NOT APPROACH THE DOG PARK. The fence is electrified and highly dangerous. Try not to look at the dog park, and, especially, do not look for any period of time at the hooded figures. The dog park will not harm you.”

WRITING NOTES: I’ve gotten a LOT done in the last two days, but very little of it was work on the WIP. I worked on setting up a podcast (lots to learn,) have done a ton of laundry, washed many dishes, mailed off books, ran around to the bank and some shopping. Lot of stuff. Still had a little time Tuesday, and got 300 words in. I should I have a couple of hours later today and with luck will get another couple of hundred or so in today. Hard to say.

CORRECTION: My friend and partner in piracy Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers pointed out that I was mistaken when I wrote last week that I had never seen a movie with Minnie Driver. I had forgotten she was the woman in “Grosse Pointe Blank,” an entertaining movie starring John Cusack about the difficulties of establishing a romantic connection when you’re a professional hit man by trade. And it gets a lot more complicated than that. Great supporting performance by Dan Ackroyd as a rival hit man who’s trying to set up a union.

Books, Ben, and Patience

Two other quick book notes.

My son, Ben Baur, has launched an online book review program, “The Shirtless Dude’s Book Club.” It is what the title says. He comes on, takes off his shirt (he lives in L.A., so it’s OK. Not like Minnesota or the North Pole.) He’s using a platform called Periscope, which I had to download onto my phone. It’s pretty simple. It’d have to be, or I couldn’t use it. It allows him to use his phone’s camera, shows him who’s on, allows people watching to ask questions.

The Periscope show broadcasts live, then they’re available on Periscope for two days. He also uploads them to youtube so they’re available for virtually forever (albeit, without the interactivity.)

The next one is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern time Monday, so that gives anyone interested a chance to get the Periscope app and figure it out. You can see one of his earlier ones here.

What impressed me is how well it works. I’m not just being a proud dad when I say he comes off as charming, thoughtful, funny and passionate about the books he’s talked about.

Ben is an actor, trying to make it in one of the hardest businesses there is to succeed in. He’s had a lot of online success, done commercials, filmed a movie last summer, done stage in New York and L.A. He’s putting all the pieces together and I really think he’s on the edge of a breakout, where everything comes together. He’s really good, and the Shirtless Dude’s Book Club shows another side of him.

There’s also a very funny clip he did a few weeks ago, part of something he calls “Ben Attempts,” in which he tries things he’s never done before. This one shows him trying (and succeeding!) to ride a bike, which he was never able to master as a kid. As one of the people who ran along behind him holding the bike seat, then letting go and watching him totter and fall, I couldn’t have been more delighted,

Anyway, give it a look. It’s fun.

And another thing –

I received a book as a Christmas present last week, and I’ve decided not to read it all at once.

It’s “Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,” by the improbably named Dinty Moore. That’s his real name, just liked the brand of canned beef stew. I read an article about him in The Writer magazine; he’s also a writing teacher and a funny guy and has a lot to say on the subject.

For the book, he asked a group of essayists to write questions about the craft to “Mr. Essay Writer Guy.” The questions (there are twenty of them) are mostly quirky and kind of funny, touching (usually tangentially) on the craft of essay writing. The first, for example, asks “Mr. Essay Writer Guy” how to write about former girlfriends without coming across as a male chauvinist pig. The answer is, to perhaps not be a male chauvinist pig. He then offers some advice about a writing persona, then illustrates it with a delightful essay on “Of Old Girlfriends,” which begins with these lines:

First of all, I am grateful.

And I wish there had been more of you.

But I fully understand.

Anyway, there are 20 such sections. Christmas is typically a busy day, but by the time it was over I realized I was already halfway through the book. I stopped. I put it down.

This is clearly one of those books that you could read in one gulp. But how much more fun, more rewarding and special, to sip at it. To pick it up periodically and dip into it for a chapter, then set it back down, knowing that you’ll pick it up again in a few days for a delicious morsel of wit and wisdom.

Still haven’t finished the book, and I’m enjoying it a lot.

Agony at the Barnes & Noble

It was agony. Exquisite agony.

I have a gift card from Barnes & Noble. It’s really a nice gift from my kids, and Monday evening we went down to the big store on Veterans Boulevard to spend it.

But it was not as easy as it sounds, not by a long shot. Everything looked so good!

“I’ll take one of those, and one of those, and one of those,” I thought as I wandered the aisles. But that was impossible, of course. $35 – possibly two books, if I ponied up a few bucks of my own.

My first choice was “City of Death,” James Goss’s novelization of a Douglas Adams script for “Doctor Who.” The story (for the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker) is sort of legendary. On a Friday they realized they were supposed to start shooting a four-part episode on Monday, but they had no script. Adams said the producer, “took me back to his place, locked me in his study and hosed me down with whiskey and black coffee for a few days, and there was the script.” The four-part show is still among the most successful in the 50-plus years of Dr. Who. The novelization came out this summer.

I found another couple of paperbacks, any one of which would have padded out the purchase if I went into pocket for about five bucks. But then I saw the Elvis Costello memoir, “Unfaithful Music.” Costello is a great artist and an interesting guy, and his life is apparently quite – unusual. So I thought maybe that and something cheap.

But then I wandered through the young adult section. I write young adult/middle school, and it’s always a good idea to keep abreast of your field. What’s selling? What’s the style, the subject matter, that the middle school crowd is going for? No vampires or zombies for me, no fantasy magic (or magicke, if you prefer,) no dystopian futures. I have nothing against the genres, you can’t argue with success. They’re just not my thing. I saw several books I thought might be both entertaining and instructive.

But then I went upstairs to the history section, and I was lost. There was a new book on the battle of Waterloo, a book on Nixon, another one on Queen Victoria’s mysterious daughter, Louise. Basically two out of every three books in that section looked like it’d be a great read.

And then I remembered a book I’d seen in the library. I already had a book checked out when I noticed it, but I took a note to make sure I remembered it next time I went to the library. (These days, when I “take a note” of a library book, I take a picture of the cover.) I looked it up on my phone, got the title, and found it.

“They All Love Jack,” Bruce Robinson’s new book on Jack the Ripper. It’s a massive tome. He starts by lining up the “Ripper-ologist” industry and mocking them. Then he tears into the hypocritical morality of the Victorian era (I read the first couple of pages) before setting out for his quarry. It looked fascinating. And it was exactly $35. That would be the one.

I went back downstairs with it and started collecting the family But the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I was with my choice Great book, hours and hours of reading. But did I want to spend $35 on a book I could borrow for free from the library? Why would I do that? That’s the point of the library.

It also doesn’t seem like a book I’d read frequently. Shelf space in our house is limited, and most of the books on them are ones we’ve read more than once. Some of them, such as “The Lord of the Rings,” “Stardust,” “Dog On It” and “If Chins Could Kill” we’ve read repeatedly. I suddenly wasn’t feeling as good about the planned purchase.

And then it hit me. A book I’ve read two or three times, had been thinking about just recently, and which I knew for a fact was not available at the local library. I took “They All Love Jack” back upstairs and replaced it on the shelf. (I’m like that, I worked several years in bookstores.) Then I went down and found it.

“Good Omens,” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The funniest book ever written about the end of the world, better even than Douglas Adams’ “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.” And the more background you have in religion, the funnier it is. I’ve read it several times, everyone in the family has read it at least once and expressed interest in reading it again. Great book. We’d left our copy on St. Croix three and a half years ago when we move back to the mainland.

And unlike most other titles by Gaiman and Pratchett, this one is not anywhere in the Jefferson Parish Public Library System. It’s just a guess, but I suspect the fairly sacrilegious nature of the story, with the forces of Good and Evil poised to do final battle. The infant anti-christ has been misplaced and there’ll be hell to pay if the big boys downstairs find out. So the demon in charge teams up with his opposite number. The angel and demon have been on Earth 6,000 years and really don’t want their cushy assignments to end.

And that’s what I bought. I’m delighted, and am already halfway through the book – and even spotted a joke I never noticed before!

But there’s a snag – there’s always a snag, isn’t there? The book was only $15. I’ve still got $20 on the gift card and am going to have to go back and go through all this again.

There’s also this. The gift card was NOT a Christmas present! I got it half a year ago, for Father’s Day. It took that long to decide how to use slightly less than half of it.

Some may be shaking their heads and saying, “John, you’re an idiot. This is NOT a problem.” Well, I probably am an idiot. But just because this is a good thing, doesn’t mean it’s not a problem (you may quote me.) It’s a good problem, but still a problem.

But I won’t dwell on that today. I’ve got a great (re)addition to my library, one that I’m sure I’ll read several times and the rest of the family will enjoy as well. And next week I’ll have to get to the library to return the book I’ve been reading the last few weeks and look for that Jack the Ripper book. A guy’s gotta keep occupied.

Fa La La La Folicles

Here’s my beard. Ain’t it weird? Don ‘t be skeered, just a beard.” – George Carlin

Since my friend, Mark Summers, and I entered the pirate realm as creators of the ersatz holiday International Talk Like a Pirate Day and became Cap’n Slappy (Mark) and Ol’ Chumbucket (me,) I have always been the well-trimmed buccaneer of the duo. Mark hasn’t touched his beard except to push it out of the way when he eats or drinks for at least ten years and possibly much longer. (When did we do “King Lear?” I don’t think it was that wild then.)

Anyway, I was always the more dapper one. But then, sometime last summer, my beard trimmer broke. And I didn’t think much about it, but my beard started getting longer. When I finally noticed this fall, it was getting a little crazy. It started twisting and curling in ways I never expected. If only the hair on top of my head (when I had hair on the top of my head) had been that wavy.

I had to use scissors to keep in check the hair around my lips or it would end up in my mouth with every bite of food. And Tori wasn’t fond of that much hair from my face getting into her face, and I do like kissing her.

So top of my Christmas list this year was a new beard trimmer, and Santa came through. Here are the before and after pictures, taken on Dec. 25. (I admit, it also helps to pull my hair back, but when you’re going for the hairy scary pirate look …)

File Dec 28, 11 35 54 AM

And a bonus picture. One morning in mid-November, Tori was cleaning out the bathroom medicine chest and happened across a jar of hair gel, which she gleefully began running through my beard. The resulting pictures convinced me that, yeah, I definitely needed a trim. And now I’ve got one.

The Story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas

Gather round, boys and girls, and I’ll tell you all the story of the Sacred Cow of Christmas. STOP RIGHT THERE! I told you to sit down.

YOU – Will this be a loooong story, John?

ME – It sure will, and it’ll get even longer if you keep interrupting! Now stop fidgeting, pour me a little more of that egg nog – Don’t be stingy with the brandy! – and settle back. Alright then.

Once upon a time, back in the late 1960s, when Tori was just a wee slip of a girl, she and her mother and father and brother moved to the Philippines. Her mother, Janet, wanted to keep all the traditions of Christmas for the kids, but the Philippines were on the other side of the world and they didn’t have a lot of the things the family was accustomed to, including no Christmas trees with twinkly lights and glass balls and candy cane ornaments and what not. So Janet had to improvise.

She got something to decorate – Tori was a wee sprat at the time and today doesn’t recall if it was a palm tree or just a stick or what. But it was enough for Janet to decorate with local capiz shells and angels and – this is the important part – a collection of cheap plastic animals – chickens, goats, sheep, fish and a cow. Christmas was saved!

Fast forward about 20 years. That wee slip of a girl had grown into a beautiful, vivacious woman who I had the good sense to marry just as quick as I could convince her to say yes. (And that took some doin’, but that’s a different story.) We were living in Oregon, and we still had the shells from the Philippines, and fish and the angels – and the cow. It was a little the worse for wear, the garish paint had mostly chipped off and it had lost a leg (rear, right side, I believe) but we hung it on the tree every year, a tribute to family and memories and good times.

And one year – late 1990s or early 2000s – we were decorating the tree and one of the kids – Ben? – picked up the cow and asked, “Why are we putting a cow on the Christmas tree? And why does it only have three legs?”

We could have told him the real story – it’s a good story – but we’d already told it once or twice. Besides, what fun is that? What’s the point of having kids if you can’t fill their heads with harmless nonsense?

So on the spot, Tori and I made up a whole involved story about the cow being in the manger and witnessing the birth of baby Jesus. “’The cattle are lowing,’” we reminded them, from the song. “’The poor baby wakes.’ But what if the cattle weren’t lowing. Maybe the poor baby wouldn’t have woken up, so the cow saved the baby’s life.”

“But why does it only have three legs?” we were asked.

“Well,” we said, thinking fast. “It was a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and then Mary had to give birth and that’s hard work, so they were tired and hungry. So the cow gave up its leg so they could have something to eat.”

We even made up a song to go with it. Join in, kids, you know the tune and the words are easy.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

You sacrificed your leg so that,

Jesus could have, his breakfast

O Christmas cow,

O Christmas cow,

Your roast beef delights us.

Ah, good times. A few years later, when Ben moved to New York, we even recorded the song and sent it to him.

We still have the cow, of course, although it’s not currently on the tree. It’s in the box of Christmas stuff in our storage shed in Albany, Or., where it’s been since we moved in July 2008. (Yes, we still have the storage shed on which we pay monthly rent. It makes sense, but that’s another story. Get me more egg nog and I’ll finish this up.)

So fast forward again. Couple of days ago Ben was part of a live webcast for a series he’s in (These People, very funny, check it out online.) It was their Christmas special. Afterwards, the cast stayed on camera while the audience asked questions, and one of the questions was, “What are some of your special Christmas memories?”

There was a moment of silence, then Ben finally said, “When I was a kid we used to hang a three-legged cow on the tree, it was supposed to be the sacred Cow of Christmas or something. We even had a song about it.” One of the other cast members asked, “Do you remember the song?” Ben denied it. There was no way he was going to be coaxed into singing that on-camera. But I don’t believe him for a second. I’m sure he remembers the song.

But more importantly, out of all the Christmas memories he could have shared, that was the one his mind jumped to. It was pretty special. And it went all the way back to Janet trying to make the holidays special for her family, half a world away. It made the holiday for us. I get a little teary just thinking about it. But that might just be the egg nog.

Merry Christmas from the Baurs.