Monday, December 7, 2015

The Cable Guy

In Lake County Illinois, the soil tends to be heavily laden with clay, which goes from soggy-squishy to dry and powdery in a matter of days in early summer. A particularly troublesome area on the side of our otherwise wooded lot bakes in the sun most of the day, making it difficult to grow grass. The area drains downhill away from the house, which contributes further to burnout in this small area.

Several years ago, I decided to turn the entire problem into a gardening opportunity, making use of some 6x6 timbers to terrace the hill before planting a variety of sun-friendly plants. As I mentioned, we have lots of trees, and as a result, lots of shallow roots under the lawn. I quickly carved out the necessary spots for timbers, but had to bring out an axe to deal with a variety of criss-crossing roots that prevented me from finishing the job.

I made quick work of the dirt-encrusted woody underground branches. It was a beautiful day, and I heard music coming from the living room a few yards away. My daughter was watching one of her assortment of television shows. The dog barked at a passing jogger on the street behind me.

I worked like a machine. Thwack. Chop. Pull the root and toss it aside on a growing pile. Over and over, with only a few roots remaining, I repeated the strenuous hurtling downward motion, aiming and cleaving first air, then dirt and wood.

There comes a brief moment in your mind when a realization takes shape. It is a spark of a thought that lags just behind the momentum of your muscles and the physics of an object in motion. The root I was about to sever was strangely uniform in shape, despite the clinging mud that obscured the majority of it’s unusually smooth circumference. Thwack.
Ohhhhhh, noooooo.

“DAD!” I heard my daughter yell from inside the house, “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TV?!”

Obviously, I had removed not only an assortment of roots from the new garden patch, but severed the coaxial cable that provides our house with internet access and …cable TV. I spent the next couple of hours crudely splicing the “root” back together until our cable provider could come out several days later. And clearly, I would be more careful next time.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Yorkshire on Oxford

“Just another strange day in paradise,” I said as we strolled down Oxford Lane.

Our twenty pound black Cocker Spaniel tugged hard at his leash, choking to get to the next tree, nearer yet another lingering delicious scent.

“You think he’ll ever learn to walk like a normal dog?” Jeanne asked.

“Doesn’t seem likely. It’s been years already,” I said.

We had rescued Jett from Orphans of the Storm. He generally behaved like a stuffed animal with a bladder, and needed only to be brought into the back yard for one stop to the count of twenty, emptying himself of a hot yellow stream. Then, back inside to sprawl on the couch, or in a comfy beam of sunshine on the dining room carpet. We rarely walked him.

“Oh great, look at this,” I said, motioning to an unfamiliar dog-walker with a retractable leash fully played out.

A crazed looking Yorkshire Terrier the size of a coffee cup darted left and right like a sweeper seeking mines. Twenty feet behind was his ditsy owner, striding like a hurried penguin on high-heeled slippers, an excited “dog person” eager to make a new friend. The dog was just an excuse to meet us and talk at us. These conversations are seldom much more than monologues that begin with, “Oh they want to be friends!”

Our dog was a runaway. He could never be taken off-leash without at least some risk of having him wind up back at Orphans. He was also fairly unpredictable when mixing with other dogs. We preferred to avoid encounters with strangers, both human and canine, for fear of what might happen.

We were completing our Saturday morning walk, enjoying the quiet and pleasant summer weather when “Gucci” and “Ditsy” approached on a rapid and clearly intentional vector in our direction, like a heat-seeking missive heading for a target. Jett was finishing up his business, and we were in recovery mode from the awkward inside-out bag poop retrieval protocol. It’s the one that results in a trophy swinging like a shrunken head in a plastic grocery sack at your side for the remainder of your walk.

“He doesn’t get along wi…” I tried to blurt as quickly as possible when I saw the crazed looking Yorkie headed for Jett. He decided to go nose-to-nose instead of the more usual nose-to-tail posture that always makes us laugh and go, “Eeewww.”

As the words left my mouth the woman on heels was spewing the usual friendless pick-up line about the kindly nature of her adorable little dog. His messy orange and brown top-knot made him look like he’d recently stuck his cute little tongue into an electric outlet.

Jett apparently thought him ridiculous looking as well. Or tasty and bite sized.

The two stood eye to eye for less time than it takes to say, “Your perception of dogs is about to change forever, and today is going to really suck.” Much, much less time.

The ferocious reflex with which two snarling masses of hair became one is not an image I will ever forget. The law of physics about two objects unable to occupy the same space at the same time ceased to apply, at least in the region of Jett’s fanged mouth, which entirely engulfed Gucci’s head.  Yes, little Gucci’s head was completely hidden, if you were to review National Geographic quality ultra slow-motion footage of the attack. That footage is stuck in my brain and continues to play back at the annoyingly slow speed characterized by horrifying events or periods of extreme pain.

Our adorably mellow stuffed animal proceeded to shake Gucci from the neck the way a panther whips its prey from side to side at break neck speed, and with force enough to, well, break a neck. Gucci’s body was limp and lifeless. I wondered about his last thoughts, peering the length of a long pink tongue down a darkened throat. Lights out.

“DROP IT!” I yelled repeatedly, shattering the Saturday morning silence, accompanied by a choir of screams from Ditsy, whose own head began to revolve and emit demonic accusations about our effing dog and other unintelligible exorcist-like ranting.

“SPIT HIM OUT!” I shouted, lifting Jett up by the leash like a reverse-motion gallows scene, rising from the ground, suspended by the neck at the end of his leash in a most uncomfortable manner.

My ploy worked. Gucci was dropped. I set Jett back down on all fours. He was choking a bit, but not much more than his usual gasping leash-walking vocalizations.

Gucci was in fact not dead. He scampered off-balance a few feet sideways, looking even more confused and crazed than normal, with a bit of blood and saliva complementing the natural earth tones of his complexion and Sassoon coiffure.

We were stunned into silence. Not so with Gucci’s mom, who was as talkative while cursing us to hell as she was when trying to make new friends.

“YOUR MOTHER F&$@er GOD DAMN s*#t dog OOOHHHH” she wailed. She scrambled through the grass, dropping to her knees and falling out of her slippers as she tried to comfort her ravaged puppy.

Neighbors quickly began to open front doors and emerge into the hellscape theater streetside, the way neighbors always do when fire trucks and ambulances stop down the street. But this was a much more intimate setting, on the parkway maintained by their landscaping crews, just off the asphalt where the Rockwell-esque Fourth of July parade passes with never a worry or a care.

“GOD F$#KING SUCKER – YOUR DOG…” she continued, quite un-lady-like and now barefoot as she proceeded to unfasten Gucci’s leash from his collar for some unknown reason.

Gucci saw a chance to escape from his nightmare and took it, full speed away from the lawn-based vivisection his morning had become.

“OOOOHHH, GU, HU HU CHI…” sobbed his liberator, bounding to her feet and giving chase straight across the street, two lawns and into…

“He’s going into our back yard!” said Jeanne.

“Oh crap, where are the kids?” I asked, and then I saw them staring out the patio sliders at the commotion, wide-eyed and clearly scarred for life.

We were left holding a dog, a bag of poop and what was left of our dignity on our neighbor’s lawn in an area of strangely matted grass, a bit of blood and two eastward facing high-heeled slippers. I remember choking back a laugh, immensely relieved that Gucci was alive, but struck by the absurdity of the scene, the inappropriate outburst from our new “friend” and the realization that it was indeed going to be a strange day in paradise.

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Close Shave

Pop's Barbershop in Port Charlotte, Florida
My favorite barber opens the doors of Pop’s Barber Shop in Port Charlotte, Florida at 8am three days a week. His chair is the first of four. Linda, Andy and Mary Jo arrive at nine. To stroll in later in the morning risks an awkward-feeling interaction.

“No thanks, I’m waiting for Rick”

There’s no attitude. They get it. Rick’s father owned Pop’s when Rick was still in barber school. Fifty-two years later, he is the main event, and there’s only so many haircuts left in this Port Charlotte legend, now in “semi-retirement.”

I recently let my hair grow a couple of weeks past the onset of bad-hair days in order to get a meaningful cut in a traditional setting.

“Is it like Floyd’s?” asked my brother-in-law.

It is in fact very much like the iconic barbershop from the Andy Griffith show. And therein lies its magic and charm. Getting your haircut at Pop’s feels a lot like stepping back in time. I fondly recall Saturday morning trips to the barber shop with Dad. It was at a time in my life when I needed a booster seat to be hoisted to the proper level in a leather and metal hydraulic chair.

As a kid, I watched in fascination as scruffy, serious men leaned back, faces soaped and hot towels applied, for a shave with a safety razor. Whiskers disappeared in neat swaths, like snow being carefully shoveled from a white, blanketed driveway, and the stoic mid-1960s men couldn’t help but smile after the cleanup was complete. This traditional, self-indulgent pampering on a day off in the company of peers was clearly a treat. So on my recent trip to Pop’s I decided to up my game and get an old-fashioned shave.

I do not have a heavy beard, and have always used an electric razor. It does a quick and adequate job, but falls far short of the close shave that results from lather and steel. Rick informed me that his first razor cost $125, decades ago, before the advent of, in his opinion, inferior stainless steel. He prepared a hot, wet towel, arranged his equipment behind me, carefully removed my glasses and reclined me in the antique chair.

It’s hard to imagine being at ease with a stranger holding an exquisitely sharpened blade to your throat. Overcoming that anxiety is a trust-fall, a deliberate mental release into the capable hands of a seasoned professional. What followed was a womb-like series of room-darkening hot, wet towels that comforted and relaxed my face from chin to forehead. The realization that my fists were nervously clenched, much like at the dentist, reminded me to allow full body relaxation to take hold.

When my pores were sufficiently opened and my beard softened, Rick gently brushed on a thick cocoon of soothing natural-oil, emollient lather to the lower half of my face. It made me feel like a large scoop of melting butter pecan ice cream under a minty mound of warm whipped cream. During the next twenty minutes, the delicate passage of metal over skin sent scritching echoes through my head, amplified by the bones in my jaw. It was evidence of the work being done, and an indicator of a sufficiently smooth face when the noise subsided.

The final step was a bracing aftershave lotion that in Rick’s words were, “the eye-opener” – the unexpected flame-thrower that young Kevin reacts to in “Home Alone” with an open-mouthed camera-facing scream. As a forewarned adult, I was able to suppress my inner child's reaction while the icy needles in my face subsided. As I returned to an upright position and put on my glasses I realized that, much like the men I had witnessed in my childhood, I too had a big smile on my face. It was as enjoyable an experience as I’ve ever had in public.

As Rick spun me slowly around to view his handiwork in the shop-facing wall of mirrors, I remembered Dad standing behind me, looking approvingly over my shoulder, but in fact handing me the decision-making reins.

“How’s that look, Sport?”

I smiled and said, “That looks good!”

“Hipsters” are re-discovering traditions with roots in our distant past. Among them are beards, whiskey and cigars. I suspect they think they’re onto something new and are applying their signature with a few twists of their own, like skinny jeans and bow ties. Some are comical, but a few are right on the money. The more things change…

Soon I hope to treat my son to an old fashioned shave. He grew up in the era of Great Clips and Supercuts, and never met my dad. The girls have their mani-pedis and spa days, but it’s time for the boys to get a shave like Grandpa. Who knows, maybe we’ll even throw back a whiskey and smoke a cigar.

We never shared the “Floyd’s” experience when he was a kid. That particular father/son bonding experience is mostly a thing of the past. But the past lives on at Pop’s, and thanks to the advanced age of many customers in Florida, it will continue for at least a while longer.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Showering with Potato Chips

It has happened yet again.

I like to think I'm frugal without being a cheapskate. A cheapskate would not buy twelve bars of soap at the same time for fear of running out. A cheapskate would buy them singly for fear of dying before the next purchase was needed.

No, I have an ample supply of the white cakes always at hand in my medicine chest. It’s unwrapping and placing them in the shower that presents my struggle.

How many times do I have to step into the shower, soak my hair and splash water on my face before reaching down to the soap tray to discover…a potato-chip-thin slice of soap-remnant barely large enough to lather one armpit? Will I never learn?

For some reason, even the experience of stretching the crumbling wafer’s usefulness one more day is forgotten the moment I step out of the shower and into a towel. This is the very last opportunity at which a replacement should be staged for future use.

I know there are simple solutions screaming for attention. Don’t lecture me. And please don’t think less of me for failing to correct this moronic behavior. It’s a first world problem for a sleepy early morning guy. Just don’t get me going about the toothpaste…

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Beach Boys

I know that what I remember happened between 7 and 8pm, because that’s when the Ed Sullivan show aired each Sunday. If I were to guess, I’d say that we were trick-or-treating, or going door-to-door singing Christmas carols. Those were the events that brought kids of varying ages together as a group back then. But the timing is all wrong, because the Beach Boys made their first of two appearances on the iconic show on September 27, 1964. And that’s what I recall seeing on TV through the front door when we stopped to pick up my sister’s friend Lenore. Perhaps we were going on a scavenger hunt. It was dark. I was ten. And in hindsight it feels like I drove by Woodstock and wondered what that music was. I barely paid attention, but the memory stuck with me.

In the intervening years I came to understand Lenore’s obsession with the legendary surf band. She wouldn’t leave the house until they finished playing “Wendy” and “I Get Around.” The broadcast was monochromatic, which perfectly suited the band’s wide-striped black and white shirts. Earlier that year the Beatles made their American debut on the same stage, so we had gotten somewhat used to audiences filled with screaming girls, and curious parents looking puzzled and somewhat horrified.

It is now days before Brian Wilson is scheduled to play at Ravinia in Highland Park Illinois. We have pavilion tickets for the show. I am neither puzzled nor horrified, but I am now the parent of a second generation Beach Boys fan. My daughter shares my love of all things Beach Boys, and her boyfriend is equally obsessed with Brian Wilson. Go figure.

I have lost track of the number of Beach Boys concerts I’ve attended through the years. A double bill with Chicago was a definite highlight in 1975. Changing outfits, hairstyles and band members never distracted from the overriding joyous California dream that pervaded each experience. Dennis and Carl died, but life went on. Brian toured sporadically, but his music carried the band’s legacy forward through the decades.

I have blasted surf music from an 8-track player through the open T-tops of a Corvette on hot summer nights, from cassettes in a mini-van with kids in the back seat, and poolside from an iPod at the house where I plan to retire. For me, the music is timeless, my reaction is visceral and mood-altering. The Beach Boys make the sun shine on the cloudiest of days.

There used to be a concert venue called Poplar Creek in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. I was among the first to subscribe to the “mellow” series – performers like James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffet and the Beach Boys. My seats were in the third row, renewable each year as long as I wished.

It is now well-documented, in an autobiography and the recently released film, “Love and Mercy” how Brian Wilson struggled with drugs and an emotional breakdown, becoming an obese, bearded recluse while the band played on. Dennis’s death during 1983 shook the Wilson brothers and fans alike. The endless summer was over, for Dennis anyway. Brian quit appearing on stage again.

At a memorable show during Brian’s absence in the early 80s, I smuggled half a dozen small, un-inflated beach balls into the open-air theater. I blew them up, hunched over in my seat, and surreptitiously set them loose. Security tried to snag them over the sound of jeering fans. Eventually, one made it’s way onto the stage to the feet of Mike Love, who never flinched. Holding a microphone in one hand, singing a classic surf tune, he landed a well-place kick on the nearby ball and sent it sailing up and over the head of a man in the front row.

Oh, that man. Motionless, bearded and obese. I wondered how he could be so detached from the action on stage and all around him. He occupied the best seat in the house, alone in the otherwise empty front row. He sat staring at the stage, perhaps experiencing the concert on a level that no one but he could ever understand. There may have been other tunes in his mind, complicated chords or instrumentation that no one else would ever hear.

In yet another Forest Gump moment, I repeated the metaphoric Woodstock drive-by. I barely paid attention, but the visual stuck with me. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what until that time had been only rumored about the health and condition of my musical hero. I turned my attention back to the antics on stage, the music, the magic, the glorious summer sounds on an endless summer night, blissfully unaware that I was sitting twenty feet from the genius who created it all.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Just the Fax

Remember back, or imagine, a time before the Internet, before email. Incredibly, correspondence was conducted by paper. Documents for loans, credit card applications, legal proceedings or apartment leases were submitted in person or by U.S. Mail. Life proceeded at a snail’s pace. And then the fax (facsimile) was mass-produced and the speed of conducting business changed overnight.

In my work I deal with a variety of suppliers. Periodically throughout the year we sign and exchange necessary documents so that we can continue to do business. It is the rare company at this point that is unable to scan and email the forms I need. When asked for my fax number, I encourage them to use email instead. The fax is essentially obsolete, just a few decades after it gained mainstream acceptance.

I remember my first fax. I was working in California at a computer services company with offices in several locations across the country. We were notified that an important document was being sent from our Boston office.  Get ready to receive a fax!

The machine I was trained on resembled something out of the archives of Alexander Graham Bell, the one that produced the audio, “Mary had a little lamb.”  Pictured below is a system similar to the one I used in 1986. I think it had been around for a while. It communicated through acoustic couplers via a 4800 baud modem. Those of you who recall dialing into AOL in the 1990s are familiar with the electronic whir and chirp of a “handshake” connection being established through a phone line. I heard my first modem siren song in 1972 at the University of Illinois’s computer lab. I remember dialing a 1200 baud connection from our home phone just to see if it would work (it did). That was the year Steve Jobs dropped out of college in Portland, Oregon.

The fax machine I first used had an elongated shiny metal drum. We carefully wrapped a piece of rather expensive heat-sensitive paper around the drum in preparation for an incoming document. We had one chance at receiving the transmission. Screwing up the fax meant having to call the sender to request a re-send. Not cool.

When our machine was ready, we called the Boston office and told them to begin transmitting. Then magic happened. We heard the screeching phone signal through our system. The two machines agreed to talk, and then a thin metal armature began a journey across the slowly rotating metal drum. Variances in temperature were transferred from the armature to the thermally sensitive paper, etching out a rather poor quality representation of the original document. The paper had a slightly oily coating, and touching it anywhere on the surface smudged it immediately due to skin heat. It curled upon removal from the drum, making it even harder to handle.

I dreaded the instances when I was required to use the fax, even though I thought it was pretty fascinating. The opportunity for human error (mine) was far too great. And having come full circle, I still dread receiving faxes. I’m unsure where the receiving multifunction device is located. I have to look up the number, and worse still, it requires that I get out of my chair and walk down the hall. Just send me an email please. I’ll pick it up on my iPhone.