Steinbeck and Screens

When people I meet learn;

  • That at my mom’s urging, I was reading before I started school;
  • My first job was as a clerk in the Children’s Department of the Lexington Public Library;
  • I’ve collected books since I was fifteen;
  • With Janie’s permission, a loan from a friend, a thoughtful and caring set of plans from another friend, and a year of formidable building skills from yet another friend, I built a library. I built a library…pht-t-t-t. I wrote checks, said “GO,” kept out of the way, and admired the work – that’s what I did;

They get the point that books are uber-important to me.

Often, I will then get the question; “What’s your favorite book?”

Often I will cheat on the answer; “Today, my favorite book is actually two books by John Steinbeck; CANNERY ROW and SWEET THURSDAY.” It’s not really cheating. The two books tell one story about Steinbeck’s friend, Doc Ricketts. The books have all the basic food groups; Monterey, homeless men living a mostly gleeful life in abandoned corrugated tubes, a whorehouse, a frog hunt, a seer who inspires sunsets instead of the other way around, a Chinese storekeeper who cheats at chess, beer milk shakes, octopi, and Suzy driving a stick shift.

It also has a classic Steinbeck line that, to me, goes far to explain the current toxicity of our political life.

“Men seem to be born with a debt they can never pay no matter how hard they try. It piles up ahead of them. Man owes something to man. If he ignores the debt it poisons him…”

I wonder if our current addiction to screens and our hunger and demand for complete access to all things at all times for no sacrifice of effort and treasure, is simply a path to distraction…and perhaps eventual destruction. We distract ourselves constantly to keep from acknowledging our debt to our species and other species for that matter. We substitute knowing things quickly for knowing things well…and then we do the same for the people we meet.

I’m gonna do better…

…and perhaps slower.

I’m certainly gonna vote…

…and I’m gonna vote in a way that pays at least a little of that debt I owe to all species.

Now, if tomorrow I’m asked about my favorite book, my answer might be THE STORY OF DR. DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting.

I can’t explain it.

It’s the way I roll.

Turn Yer Radio On

I was eleven years old when I first started falling asleep to the radio. I still do whenever possible.

<<<< “Post #1 — One o’clock and all is well.” The call rang out in the dark. A twenty-something Union prison guard in Western Kentucky was listening and questioning the wisdom of leaving New York for this blue uniform and a nocturnal duty of vigilance over tattered Southern wretches. Still, it was reassuring to hear of the continued existence and thriving of Post #1. He scanned his portion of the prison ground for anomalies and finding none answered; “Post #2 – One o’clock and all is well.” He assumed Post #3 would be similarly comforted…hell, those Southern boys might like to hear a pleasant word as well. >>>>

In 1962, when I was eleven, it was my battery-powered cigarette-pack-sized transistor radio tucked under my pillow, ideally tuned in to a late night baseball game from the West Coast between my hallowed Reds and the despised Dodgers or haughty Giants. To drift off to Waite Hoyt’s description of Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson battling Maury Wills and Sandy Koufax, or Willie Mays and Juan Marichal was bliss. If the Reds weren’t available, the local overnight disc jockey, Tom Kimball on WVLK touting “Nighthawk Specials” at Columbia Steakhouse and a mélange of pre-Beatles rock was a pretty good Plan B for a pretty good night’s sleep.

A half-century later, not much has changed.

<<<< About two miles from our home, a train whistle rewards our summer-open bedroom window with long, long moan that croons; “We’re out here travelin’, workin’, carryin’ on…don’t you worry none…we’re here…all’s well.” >>>>

Each night, I pessimistically set my clock radio to play the radio for two hours. Then I proceed to become comatose in about two minutes. I try to find a live sporting event first, then classical music or jazz, then settle for any music or live programming.

It has to be live programming.

Television won’t do the job. Television is visual and I find it hard to fall asleep when my eyes are open. Go figger.

Recorded music won’t do. There’s no currently awake mind behind.

Live programming…that’s the ticket.

Why?

<<<< Sirens pass, shrieking. Hospital helicopters wop and chop overhead. Each heralds an urgent problem. Each assures that responders are responding; “All’s not well, but we’re on it!” >>>>

I think my need goes back to 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the fall of 1962, Nikita Khrushchev got the neighborly idea of putting Russian missiles in Cuba, ninety miles away from the Florida Keys. Jack Kennedy realized quickly that missiles in Cuba threatened to sharply amplify the hazards of a determined Duval Street Crawl beyond a drunken face plant on a Key West sidewalk, a night in the Key West slammer, and your name on page two of the Key West newspaper. The hazards could logically portend an end to Western Civilization which, hard as it is for my acquaintances in the Keys to believe, involves bigger issues than a cold beer (or five) and a well-done conch fritter (one is enough). Kennedy ordered a naval blockade to intercept a missile-laden Russian ship headed for Cuba.

The whole country felt a spasm of fear. A nuclear conflagration seemed eminent.

<<<< My dog farts in bed and sighs. All is well and evidently well-fed. >>>>

My sixth grade class at Yates Elementary were schooled the day after the blockade was announced in the intricacies of “duck and cover.” We knelt in the school’s halls with our heads down and covered by our hands.

But I had seen images of Hiroshima.

I didn’t raise a ruckus in school about our atomic training, but I was silently and forlornly convinced that “duck and cover” wasn’t gonna cut it.

No, Lexington’s best hope was in the fact that there was no military reason to nuke it. I found a soupçon of solace in that, though it would be a few more years before I knew what “soupçon” or “solace” meant.

But I still fretted about the rest of the world. If the random angry world powers ignored Lexington but obliterated themselves, how would I know?

On the radio!

All’s well…

An Imperial Visitor

A hawk came to our house today.

We’ve been in our house for 30+ years. We’ve tried to encourage most critters that drift in and we’ve deliberately brought others into our outdoor space. Our dogs and cats have thrived. Our fish and frogs teem and sing respectively. We’ve been briefly visited by raccoons, opossums, owls, and herons. The hedge of trumpet vine under which we live has become a condo for about a dozen tiny chittering birds that are a source of endless entertainment for our cat. Of course we have the usual horde of squirrels who screech their disapproval of every move the dog makes…critics! We have a plethora of rabbits and an occasional terrifying, but non-lethal serpent.

Our little space has become a lively, noisy little jungle. I believe Henri Rousseau would smile upon our efforts.

But today…

…today…

…it was a hawk.

Janie was heading out the door to her yoga session. There was a wo-o-osh of wings. She stopped; “I think we had a hawk in our garden!”

It was gone and so was she. I grabbed another cup of coffee and headed for the library.

The windows in the library overlook a small brick-lined pool with a birdbath fountain. I can stand in those windows and watch the frogs and fish and fountain, all of which are less than ten feet away.

I fired up the desktop and got the music ready for a’shufflin’.

I stepped up to the window with my cuppa and there he was.

“The stuff that dreams are made of…”

More like nightmares…feathered and beaked nightmares.

Squatting in the fountain, wings drooping happily over the edges of the basin, water bubbling up beneath his regal bird butt, his cruel Sam Waterston/Morris Ankrum countenance darting challenges to the world.

He flapped and flung water, enjoying his morning ablutions.

Our garden went silent.

Teeming and singing ceased. The frogs and the fish discreetly and immediately plunged to bottom of the pool. The chittering condo birds chittered not. The squirrels kept their filthy opinions to themselves. Dogs on the street stopped barking. Sirens and cars all instantly became hybrids and made no sounds.

I held my breath.

Death was bathing…

…and like the gods of Lovecraft, nothing good for any living creature would come from attracting attention.

This stricken silence went on for about ten minutes.

It was thrilling.

It was magnificent.

It was kinda scary.

I understood a little better the silence of Republicans in the presence of Trump.

The hawk, in his own time, flew to the garden gate, flapped and flung water to dry. He then cocked his head and flung a dismissive Chuck Pogue sneer to the silent garden.

He flew away, taking the silence with him.

I breathed again.

I looked down at the cat.

She sauntered away, wide-eyed, her tail huge, murmuring; “…goddam neighborhood’s goin’ to hell…”

What’s French for Pep?

Flea 06

I was in a French farce once…
…on stage.

I’ve participated in and initiated many a farce in my life but they weren’t French and they weren’t onstage.
This one was.

On opening night, the director (a guest director imported from New York City, no less) assembled the cast in the Green Room for a pre-show chat (aka pep talk). This perplexed me. At the stupidly young age of 19 when I, of course, knew everything, one of the things I knew was if your farce required an injection of pep to achieve “farcicality” you might want to consider doing Ibsen instead. Shouldn’t a prominent bed and sturdy doors that slammed loudly be farcical enough?

Be that as it may, we assembled in full regalia (wigs, tails, boas, bustles, and spats) and our director spoke.

“When I was a young man, I apprenticed at a summer one-week-stock theater in the Catskills. Each night as we traveled from the green room to the stage, we passed under a large sign that read;
‘IT’S A COMEDY HOUSE. PLAY IT LOUD AND FAST.’
I came to hate that sign that summer. I knew theater was far more than important than that. I knew acting involved far more than that. I swore when I was a director I would not sell my art out like that.
And we haven’t.
We will take the stage tonight knowing who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and why we’re making this journey. We’ve listened to each other, and laughed with each other, and cried, and kissed, and slapped…we’ve loved and betrayed…we’ve explored every path of this theatrical journey and we’re ready to take our audience with us.
Just…
…just…
…remember this;
IT’S A COMEDY HOUSE. PLAY IT LOUD AND FAST!”

<< sigh >>

Well…
…the bed was prominent, the doors worked, the walls were mostly pink, and the accents were vaguely French.

It was a farce.

The Hazards of a Wine Education

“Yer name Leasor?”

The words came out softly from a warm Bluegrass night accompanied by a blinding police car spotlight in the summer of 1973.

I could, regrettably, rule out an epiphany since I was pretty sure I was not on the road to Damascus.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind wouldn’t be released for another four years, so it wasn’t a targeted alien abduction. Probing, thank God, was unlikely.

I was in my car parked at the back door of a liquor store at about 2am Sunday morning.
How could anything good come of this?

Wait, wait, wait…
Let’s roll this clock back a bit.

++++++++++++++++++++++++

I have been asked a number of times how I learned about wine.
I read magazines and books of course. In the early 70’s I read a quote from the owner of a California winery; “The only way to learn about wine is to open bottles.” That rang true and desirable to me in 1973, and has continued to ring true and desirable through the decades. But in 1973, I couldn’t afford to open that many bottles. Oh sure, it was a time when the most expensive California Cabernet Sauvignon (Paul Masson) was $3.59, Pouilly-Fuissé was $3.79, and Dom Perignon was $15.99. But I was making $1.85 an hour as an assistant manager and riding a bicycle to work whenever the weather allowed.

There were no student loans for opening bottles.

One day a customer ordered two cases of Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett (about $2.99 per bottle). It arrived in the store and the customer did not. We were stuck with $70+ of wine that nobody else in Kentucky had even heard of, nor could they pronounce it if they had. What to do?

It behooved us to sell the cases. To do so, it behooved us to research the wine.

On Saturday nights, the store manager and I would work the store together with one cashier. At midnight, we would let the cashier leave and the two of us would finish working until the legally mandated closing time of 1am. It was usually a slo-o-o-w final hour.
One slo-o-o-w final Saturday night hour, the manager chilled down a bottle of the problematical Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett. I slipped next door to the grocery store (Randall’s, if you’re geezer enough to remember) and purchased a couple of gourmet cheeses (Colby and Havarti, leftover from their deli sandwiches as I recall – goin’ first class all the way). We pulled out the Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wine, and pulled out the corks, and employed a couple of styrophene cups – goin’ first class all the way.

That night I learned a good bit of geography (the importance of those hilly bends in the rivers Mosel and Saar, and their orientation to the sun). I learned of the winemaking prowess of the Prum family. I learned a good bit about my first grape varietal; Riesling. I learned about the agricultural challenge of coaxing maximum ripeness while avoiding potentially crop-destroying early winter. Most importantly, I experienced for the first time sunshine in a bottle. There’s no going back from there.

From humble sips, a sometimes blurry enthusiasm ensued (plus, we sold the two cases).

We continued our Lincoln-esque educational path. Wine sales and reputation grew steadily. In the long run, the manager eventually became the best and most influential wine-buyer in the state and I did OK conducting a ton of wine-tastings over the next 40 years.

But in the short run…

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

This particular Saturday night, we had tried and studied a couple of real nice wines from the Cote de Nuits and I was definitely feeling the effects of the nuit.

We closed the store and the manager drove me around the shopping center to my parked car, dropped me off, and departed.

I sat in my car for a moment with windows down, my ride in 1973 being sans air-conditioning, GPS, Sirius, FM radio, cruise control, and cup-holders. I blissfully contemplated my next move. I was leaning towards a greasy breakfast at the Euclid Avenue Toddle House with the closing time rejects from the Fireplace Lounge and the Chevy Chase Inn. I was pretty sure that crowd would ignore my shoulder-blade-long locks and spare me the usual jukebox tribute of “I’m Proud to Be an Okie From Muskogee.”
Hash browns…
…hash browns…
…might just be the answer, whatever the question might be.

BAM!

That’s when the police car spotlight hit me.
The car glided alongside and a voice that invited no nonsense inquired; “What are you doing here?”

I explained, eloquently, perkily, and with perfect American diction, my status as an employee of the liquor store, just getting off work and heading for home for a good night’s sleep before I arose to attend church, teach Sunday school, and sing in the choir……uh……and get a haircut, Officer.
I don’t think he bought it.

Then he asked; “Yer name Leasor?”

I confessed……abjectly.
Every fault known to man, every yellow light compromised, every RSVP un-responded to, every face turned away from the ugly hour mirror, every oil change postponed, every missed cut-off man…I confessed to it all in the name of Leasor.
“Yes…it is.”

“I saw you in a play. My girlfriend…she loves the theater. She took me to a play and you were in it. I didn’t like the play much, but you were pretty good.”

I was stunned and flattered into silence for a moment. Now remember, it didn’t take much to stun me at that exact moment…………I’m not proud of that admission.

We chatted for about 15-20 minutes about theater and girlfriends. He asked; “You still doing that?”
By then, my faculties were returning to razor-sharp (well…at least hacksaw-sharp) and I determined he was asking about theater and not girlfriends.
“Oh, yeah. I’m rehearsing a show now. You wanna see it? I’ve got comps.”
“I might. That’d be nice. My girl would be impressed.”
We arranged the logistics and he asked gently;
“Where’ya going now?”

Well, frankly, my belief in the restorative power of slimy hash browns being strong, I was still ciphering on the possible wisdom of a visit to the Toddle House, but his question gave me pause.
“I’m going straight home.”
“Where’s that?”
I responded with my address.
“Why don’t I follow you there, just to be safe?”
I agreed.
He did.

He and his lady attended my show and came backstage afterwards.
I think he scored a lot of points with her.

I merely lived to tell the tale.
I won……

Yes……I won……

But, it might have been because of the kindness and care of a problem-solving police officer. Attitudes about alcohol and driving were different; lenient and far more dangerous in 1973 than they are today. That incident changed my path. I stayed in the wine business, but my educational curriculum steered to a safer course. The slo-o-o-w Saturday night classes were terminated tout suite. C’est bien, n’est-ce pas?

Taco-Fest in San Miguel

san miguel-taco don feliz
Don Feliz, the scene of the Great Taco Massacree

I think I was in my late twenties before I had my tenth taco. I can’t say it was a memorable moment or a memorable taco. It didn’t leave me wanting more. Keep in mind, Lexington at that time only had one Mexican-themed restaurant and it wasn’t even a Taco Bell. Some of my friends, refugees from other cities, spoke dreamily of Taco Bell. I spoke dreamily of White Castle – we didn’t have them either.

But San Miguel de Allende…

I had been in San Miguel for less than 45 minutes and had had three tacos and an epiphany. The shells of these tacos were jicama and the fillings were spicy and light and crunchy and of no meat. I was weary from a day of travel, challenged by trying to keep up conversations with newly-made ex-patriot friends, and feeling the effects of cobblestone streets on an offended knee. These invigorating tacos and invigorating new acquaintances (plus a stunning view of a brilliant sunset over the distant mountains) cured all.

It was an instant revelation that I had grumpily trudged into a blessed place and that “grumpily” would henceforth have to be deleted from my vocabulary.

I replaced it with “tacos.”
I know, I know…”tacos” is not an adverb, but I trust you catch my drift.

Over the next two weeks, we had tacos indoors and outdoors. We had tacos on the first, second, and third floors, AND rooftops of excellent restaurants. The tacos, the sunsets, the company of our traveling companions, and the irresistible enthusiasm of our new friends happily filled our days. The offended knee was mollified by the plenteous and inexpensive taxis.

It was a real good time.

One last evening we were whisked away to Don Feliz (see picture), a restaurant slightly off the beaten cobblestone. It featured gallon-ish margaritas and a seven-taco entrée.

Seven.
Seven different tacos.
Some were beef. Some were chicken. Some were pork. Some were buffalo. Some were unicorn.

Madre de Dias!

Clearly, it was time to go home.

Pottersville?

I fear we are living in Pottersville.

The aspiring angel Clarence failed and did not get his wings. George Bailey leaped from the snowy bridge to his death.

Messieurs Potter, Trump, McConnell, Bevin, Kushner, Carson, Mnuchin, Ross, Nunes, DeVoss and fellow ravagers with their toolkits of greed, grift, groping, grabbing…and coarseness are reshaping and renaming our country.

Pottersville.
It’s cold.
It’s venal.
It’s violent.
It’s coarse.
It’s wrong.
It’s inevitable……no, wait……I don’t believe that.

But tonight I need some reminders of hope and honest goodness and competence.

I need to hear Greg Turay sing “Anthem” from the musical Chess. I need to hear Michael Preacely sing anything at all. I need to see Dr. Everett McCorvey conduct 22,000 basketball fans singing our national anthem. I need to see the Texas softball player sink to her knees in tears when her soldier brother appears at her Senior Night game after three years of service overseas. I need to read some more Paul Prather. I need to remember my friend Becky Johnson’s noble attempts to learn how many children every cab driver in San Miguel has, in her high school Spanish that seemed to improve with every cab ride.

These reminders have nothing to do with generating a monetary profit exploiting other humans, or driving another species to extinction, or further wounding our planet.
They are the antithesis of Pottersville.

I’ll work on all that.

I’ll also vote, as early and as often as the law allows, to get us out of Pottersville.

But for tonight I’ll have to settle for watching Yadier Molina demonstrate his mastery of the catching position (no, he’s no Johnny Bench, but he’s jes’ fine), and admiring Patricia Belcher’s bellow of “PIE!!!” at Geico’s talking lizard.

They are better and far more interesting than Pottersville.

The Oddness Continues…

I watched the Kentucky Derby…at least I thought I did.

I saw the horse cross the finish line first and his jockey give the first congratulatory interview. Then I switched to an event of far more importance; a titanic early-season baseball contest between my revered Reds and the despised Giants from San Francisco.

The oddness continued from earlier in the week.

– The Reds are wearing uniforms from 1902. I actually like ‘em, but…odd.
– Cody Reed threw a strike…odd.

Then a banner scrolled across the bottom of the screen essentially quoting the Firesign Theater; “Everything you know is wrong” about the Kentucky Derby. The winner (the betting favorite) was disqualified and the second-place finisher (a 65-1 underdog) was been declared the winner. I flipped back to Derby broadcast to see;

– Our scruffy governor in his gimme hat and his five o’clock shadow booed by the vocal majority of a crowd of 150,000 on national TV…very odd.
– The Derby trophy presented to owners that seemed almost apologetic for winning…certainly odd.
– A quick network breakaway to…a hockey game?

Befuddled, I flipped back to the baseball game where I learned the Reds had won the game and scored a lot of runs and Trump was still president.
Odd, odder and oddest.

I sense a disturbance in the Force (or fourth if you must).

Odd Night

It is an odd night after an odd day in these odd times.

I’m watching a little baseball on the tube; my cherished Reds are playing the Mets in New York on a cold and drizzling night. You can see the players’ breath.

Odd and unsettling.

The Reds are facing a fierce and talented pitcher, hittin’ the ball hard, have just left the bases loaded…and have yet to get a hit.

Odd and unsettling.

Speaking of odd and unsettling…

Earlier today, I saw a bit of Attorney General Barr’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I heard the Committee Chairman use the word “fuck” to open the hearing…a United States senator…on national TV…with the Attorney General of the United States sitting in front of him…in a Senate committee room…a room in the same building as the room where John Dean gave his astounding testimony to the Watergate Committee in June of 1974.

I was working nights in 1974. Thus, I got to watch and listen to some of Dean’s testimony in those pre-cable and pre-internet days.

I was struck by the difference between the hearings. In 1974;

– No one said “fuck.”
– Speeches were mostly absent.
– Questions were prevalent, prepared, and mostly to the point.
– Questions were expected to be answered, not dodged.
– Partisanship was present but not raw.
– No one seemed to regard participation in the proceedings as an opportunity to personally shine.
– Indeed, no one seemed to be happy to participate at all. It was serious bidness.

Today?

Well, aside from Kamala Harris, the senators and the Attorney General seemed clearly lesser lights than I remember from 1974.

Odd and unsettling.

I can’t say I know I want Ms. Harris to be my president yet. It’s too early for that.
But it’s not too early to know I don’t want the other participants in today’s exercise to be my public servants. I’m not stupid enough to not want my elected officials to be smarter than me. Otherwise, why would I need ‘em?

Surely we can do better.

Now, ‘bout that ball game…
It’s nuthin’ to nuthin’ and the beloved Reds have just replaced their 3-hit-shutout-throwin’ pitcher.

Odd.

End-of-the-Earth Day

Yesterday was Earth Day and I hope you had a jolly one…or a merry one…or at least a hopeful one.

Well, that’s over with now. If you need proof of that, check out Turner Classic Movies’ (TCM) schedule for tomorrow. I’m thinkin’ it must be End-of-the-Earth Day. It’s one mad scientist after another.

It’s devil bats (floppy puppets), giant shrews (big dogs with fake plastic teeth), human flies, perilous body fluids, disappearing corpses, human panthers, living heads on the wrong bodies, and of course man-made men who tap dance (“Oh, sweet mystery of life…”).

Whatta buffet of planet-threatening buffoonery.

I love it.

And I love TCM.

A few days ago, an affable representative from Metronet called on us to explain their new venture aimed at competing with Spectrum for our cable and internet service.

Janie will make that decision for us. She’s a smart modern gal who watches a wide selection of TV and visits a large number of useful websites and services, all of which make our lives infinitely better. That’s what she said.

I’m a well-oiled geezer who toddles from TCM to CNN to MLB. It’s about the same number of channels I watched when I was ten and three channels were all we had. I’m told we grow and progress, but sometimes the evidence…

As Janie absorbed the pros and cons (and prose and cons – see what I did there?) of the pleasant and earnest sales rep, I perused the list of channels offered by Metronet. It was the usual 5,436 channels.

I skipped through the 400-page document until I had assured myself that TCM, CNN, and my beloved Reds were represented.

My work here is done.

Wait!

If we switch to Metronet, will I still be able to see the Spectrum “monster” commercials? I would truly miss that sandstorm-loving mummy and his murderous puppet friend.

That might be a deal-breaker for me.

And that friends, is why we let Janie make those decisions.

Happy End-of-the-Earth Day!