Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sugar and Spice?

One of my granddaughters is visiting this week.  I have two:  The Munchkin and the Submarine.  The Munchkin is five years old and I have written about her before.  The Submarine (so called because she is always wet on both ends) is only five weeks old and her mother threatens a restraining order if I write about her.  Obviously, it is the Munchkin who is visiting.

It is amazing the things you can learn from a five year old girl.   Maybe the world just looks different when you are only three feet tall.  Maybe little girls are just special.  Or maybe, I’m listening to every single word she says because she is so damn cute.  Whatever.  Here are the things I have learned this week.

Sideways kissing is “dirty kissing.”  This probably needs some explanation.  Remember in the movies when the actors would mash the sides of their faces together and kiss with just  the corners of their mouths?  I think in the 1930’s, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy had a patent on this technique.  This is dirty kissing and according to the munchkin, it is really, really dirty.  Until this week, no one outside of Hollywood ever thought about doing such an idiotic thing, but since we learned it was dirty, the Doc and I have gotten rather good at it.  We’re still working on the dirty part.

If you want boys to eat something, it has to be gross.  It must be something like Dirty Diaper Stew or, my sons’ favorite: Monkey Blood Chicken.  With little girls, this doesn’t work.  Every meal is a negotiation and the menu will accept very few new additions unless you have the guile of a diplomat. Clam chowder only became acceptable after I explained that it was the favorite meal for mermaids.

With other foods, I had mixed results.  Evidently, mermaids do not eat anchovy pizza.  Mushroom risotto is really gross, but mushroom rice is okay.  Onions are horrible unless we pull them from my garden, while any food whose name includes the word ‘berry’ is wonderful.  It is a lot easier to eat broccoli if you call it “baby trees.”

Little girls are very clean.  We swim every day, and the Munchkin wants a bath after swimming—a concept that would have never occurred to a boy.  And the changes of clothes!  I once made the boys loin cloths out of old towels and a length of rope.  That was the only clothes they wore one summer.  The Munchkin, however has at least four changes of clothes a day.  And painted toenails.  And painted fingernails.

Yesterday, the Munchkin asked me to put up her hair so she could go swimming.  I know what she meant, but honest to God, my first thought was to use duct tape.  My second thought was to send her to ask Grandma, the Doc.

When little boys play, you lose a couple of kitchen spoons to the sand pile in the corner of the yard while they slowly bury their toy cars (so years later they can become guided missiles when a lawnmower hits them).  When little girls play...well, I was shocked the other day when I came home to the carnage in the den.  As best as I can reconstruct it, Barbie and Stacy were driving a pink corvette to their fashionable Malibu beach house, when suddenly, Ken (a clandestine member of al Qaeda) detonated a roadside IED.  The blast decapitated Stacy while mussing the long blonde hair of Barbie.  Sadly, several ponies and a unicorn were also killed.  Strangely, the bomb blew the clothes off of everybody.

Do all little girls sing to their toys?  And to the birds?  And the cats?  I don’t remember the boys singing this much.  I heard a lot of muttering under their breath.  (I once heard What’s-His-Name promise his brother that they were going to push me into the pool as soon as I was in a wheelchair.)

I have to be careful what I write.  In a few years I hope to have both of those little girls visit at the same time.  I’m going to buy each of them a pony.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Spirit of ‘76

My good friend and personal bartender, Chuck, has been researching the favorite drinks of the Presidents.  It turns out that several of these drinks actually sound pretty good, and we are slowly working our way through them.  Chuck is working on his own bartender’s guide, and when he is ready, I’m sure he will share it with you.   But his research has reminded me of several anecdotes about presidential drinking I thought I might share.

Stories of Ulysses Grant’s drinking are legendary—and mostly apocryphal.  Don’t get me wrong, Grant had a well-exercised elbow, but every drinking anecdote from the nineteenth century—and earlier—was attributed to the man.  But there is one story that is both undeniable, and yet rarely remembered.

Grant lay dying of cancer of the throat, caused at least in part, by the 10,000 boxes of cigars that had been sent to him by admirers.  Unconscious and close to death, Grant was sprinkled with holy water by a minister who pronounced him converted and baptized.  As a doctor forced a little brandy between the lips of the dying president, he suddenly regained consciousness.

“It is Providence!” exclaimed the minister.

“No,” said the doctor.  “It was the brandy.”

While Grant may have had the reputation, in fact the president who drank the most may have been James Buchanan.  When he took office, he replaced the funereal Franklin Pierce. (Actually, that is a little unkind, as Pierce and his wife watched their son Bennie die when he was crushed to death in a train accident while en route to the inauguration.  Pierce blamed himself, believing that God was punishing him for the having the hubris to run for office.  The Pierces’ four years in the White House were indeed a long and unhappy funeral.)

Buchanan wasted no time in telling the purveyor of spirits to the White House that small bottles of champagne were no longer required.  “Pints are very inconvenient in this house,” he told them, “as the article is not used in such small quantities.”  Supposedly, the amount of wine and spirits consumed during his term could have quite literally filled a cellar.

Buchanan used to stop off at the distillery of Jacob Baer on the way home from church to purchase a ten gallon cask of “Old J. B. Whiskey.”  Not only did Buchanan regard this as a fine whiskey, but he made no effort to disabuse White House guests who believed the initials meant it was his own private label.

President Harry Truman also enjoyed a few drinks while in the White House--actually, more than a few.  First thing every morning, Harry had a shot of Wild Turkey, followed by a glass of orange juice.   Later, just before dinner, Bess and Harry would have an Old Fashioned.  Shortly after the couple moved into the White House, Bess ordered their usual drinks from the butler.  While the President and his wife finished the drinks, the next night they requested that the drinks be made a little dryer.  “They were too sweet,” Bess complained.  So the butler carefully made the drinks with much less sugar, but the following night, the Trumans still requested that the drinks be made still drier.  Peeved, the butler added a little ice to two glasses and then filled them to the brim with straight bourbon.

“Ahhh” said the President.  “That’s the way we like an Old Fashioned.”
When Jimmy Carter was president, his brother Billy was the most famous alcoholic in the country.  He peddled “Billy Beer”, played the drunk on television, and once publicly asked faith-healer Ruth Carter Stapleton to cure a hangover. 

When asked his favorite drink, Billy answered quickly.  “Bourbon” he said.  “All southerners drink Bourbon.  Never trust a scotch drinker, they really prefer bourbon, but they are just putting on airs.  My brother Jimmy used to drink bourbon, but when he decided to get into politics, he switched to scotch.”

Very few of our presidents have been teetotalers. President Rutherford B. Hayes’ wife was known as “Lemonade Lucy” because she refused to allow alcohol in the White House, and George W. Bush swore off alcohol before he ran for the office.  Abraham Lincoln rarely drank, and sent the numerous gifts of alcoholic beverages he received to nearby military hospitals.

The vast majority of our founding fathers enjoyed a good drink.  During George Washington’s administration, the happy hour began at 3:00 in the afternoon and continued through dinner.  Why is John Hancock’s signature so large on the bottom of the Declaration of Independence?  He may have been feeling no pain.  He was an alcoholic beverage dealer. George Washington himself was at one point the largest distiller of bourbon in the country.

The history books leave a lot of interesting details out today.  Have you ever wondered why the Mayflower (a ship that up to that point had been used mainly to ship beer to France and return to England with wine) dropped off the pilgrims in Massachusetts during the winter?  The original destination was Virginia, but the ship ran out of beer—a surprising fact when you consider that the ship left England loaded with more beer than water.  The colonists started making spruce beer just about as soon as they got ashore.  If they left these details in the history books, maybe students would pay more attention.

There are lots of little stories like this.  Johnny Appleseed gave out apple seeds and seedlings so the pioneers could make hard cider.  Patrick Henry was a bartender.  At the first Thanksgiving, no one ate cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, or pumpkin pie.  They did, however, drink beer, wine, gin, and brandy.  During the early colonial period, tavern owners enjoyed higher social status than preachers.  One of the first buildings at Harvard was a brewery to provide beer for the students.  Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a tavern, and at Monticello, made his own beer, bourbon, and--according to the Hemings family—his own slaves.  Possibly under the influence—since the surviving records show the household used over 400 bottles of wine each year.  

Our country was pretty much founded on alcohol.  The bill for a celebration party for the 55 drafters of the US Constitution listed 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of port, 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 beers and seven bowls of alcohol punch large enough that "ducks could swim in them."  Not counting the punch, that’s about 3 bottles of booze each. 

The 4th of July is less than two weeks away.  What better way to celebrate the anniversary of our country than to reenact this party.  Please invite me.  Please leave the ducks out of the punchbowl.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Don't Sing For My Supper

Let me start by saying that I love Mexico.  I teach Mexican history, I have spent a lot of time in Mexico, and I intend to spend a lot more time in Mexico in the near future.  I love Mexican food, Mexican beer, and Mexican novels.  Frankly, I love almost everything about Mexico…except mariachis.

Boy, I feel better.  Who knew confession felt so good? 

I hate mariachis.  How in the world did this silly tradition get started?  You find a handful of really bad musicians, dress them up like Zorro’s gay cousins, and let them play very old music in a restaurant full of people trying to quietly enjoy a meal while conversing with friends.  Why would anyone think this is a good idea? 

And the noise!  Five mariachis can turn a quiet neighborhood restaurant into a deep-fried steel mill.  Do tacos taste better if you beat a bass drum with a cat?  There is a damn good reason why they don’t play French horns at French restaurants.

We are not talking chamber music here.  There is the obligatory large bass guitar (a guitarón) played by the smallest member of the group.  Then, there are one or more violins--out of tune, a high pitched 5-string guitar that sounds like a ukulele but is called a vihuela, and at least one loud and slightly off-key trumpet.  If Gabriel ever does sound his horn, very few people in Mexico are going to show up--everyone will probably just think that “Juan” is warming up for his next gig.

Only a Mexican restaurant does this to you.  If you go to a steak house, you don’t get five guys dressed up like John Wayne singing “Get Along Little Dogie.”  And I have never yet been to a Der Wienerschnitzel and had a couple of blondes in lederhosen sing the Horst Wessel song while goose stepping around my table.

This is similar to the Inverse Democracy Rule of Jukeboxes.  If there are 100 people present and 99 of them want a little peace and quiet, they can be overruled by one idiot with a quarter.  So it is with mariachis--if the table next to you slips the band a few bucks, everyone is subjected to the music. 

Wait, I get it!  It is actually musical extortion.  If you pay these pirates, they go away.  How much would it cost to have them go and play in the kitchen?  Or the parking lot?  And why do we, the paying customer put up with this?  We should take air horns with us to the restaurant and every time they start bellowing “Guantamera” we fight back with equal noise.  Worse still is that old tourist favorite, “La Cucaracha.”    Singing a song about a cockroach (even if it is actually a song about Pancho Villa) is rarely encouraged at most restaurants.

It really doesn’t matter what the words are, since at such extreme volume (the performers are literally screaming at your table) the songs all sound the same.  Also, they are extremely repetitious, too.  It is sort of like heavy metal for people without electricity.

Yes, I understand the history of the music.  I know the tradition started in Jalisco in colonial times, I know that is a rich tradition for hundreds of years… but do you have to play it at my table?  

Saturday, June 9, 2012

An Attic With a View

Way up a mountain in the piney woods of New Mexico, The Doc and I own a cabin on the edge of a national forest.  I have briefly mentioned this cabin when I talked about abrief experiment with a wood burning hot tub.

Usually, when someone says they have a cabin in the woods, when you get there you discover a condo with a view of a pine tree.  We own a cabin (a hovel, or possibly a shack) where you cannot see or hear another human being.  Wildlife abounds, including a black bear that makes a regular circuit around the neighborhood.  I’m not exactly afraid of that bear, but I do have a healthy respect for him.  The bear holds me in what can only be called open contempt.

Actually, the bear has solved one of life’s great philosophical questions:  Does a bear shit in the woods?  From deep experience, I can answer:  “No.”   He prefers to shit on my deck—frequently--and with deep satire--on the welcome mat.

Recently, The Doc and I made our annual spring cleaning journey to the cabin--dusting the corners, replacing the mouse traps, and sweeping out the collection of bugs that miraculously can find their way into a closed cabin, but can never find their way back out.  So, it was time to clean out under the kitchen sink, sweep out the storage closet, and poke in all the nooks and crannies of a cabin built over 60 years ago.

Cabins collect history; each and every vacation home becomes the owners’ personal family museum.  When you purchase a new television, where else does the old one go?  And the old sleeper sofa that is exactly like the one Lucy and Desi had eventually gets transported to the cabin, and rests through eternity under the strange Mexican blanket you purchased a third of a century ago.  The binoculars with a small crack on the edge of the right lens, the massive electric can opener, the vacuum cleaner that won’t (and I bet half the fondue sets ever made) can all be found either at altitude or close to a beach.

There is a large collection of VHS tapes in that cabin, right next to the box full of cassette tapes of old-time radio programs.  Few things are as memorable as sipping wine from the last surviving wineglass (from a set of four) while listening to The Shadow on a snowy night with the only illumination coming from a fireplace. 

From a cabinet next to a kitchen stove so old it was made by General Motors, The Doc pulled out a treasure from a bygone era: a tall round quart can of furniture oil, sold by the Fuller Brush Company.  I haven’t seen a can like that in fifty years.  It is funny how an object from your past will throw you back in time to a memory so fresh that it seems to play like a movie being projected on a screen just behind your eyes. 

A long time ago, a can just like that was a favorite toy of my brother and me. We played in the dirt next to the driveway, making an improbable town of cigar box  houses and heavy Tonka trucks.  For some reason, the only inhabitants were green plastic toy soldiers, (many of whom, as they lived their lives in our town, felt the need to crawl up and down the various streets).

My brother had taken an empty furniture polish can. like the one pictured, and used an ice pick to poke a hole through the can along the bottom rim.  This was the town’s water tower.  When you opened the lid on top, water would pour out the hole on the bottom, giving our town… well, a flood.  As I remember it, very few residents of our towns actually survived.  And suddenly, I can remember it clearly, the gritty feel of the sand, the boxes still smelling of cheap cigars—I can still picture the faces of the toy soldiers and feel the molded edges of the plastic in my hand.

It could be that the vacation in a vacation home is the ability to travel back in your own personal time, to leave the now and return to then.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Purple Martin School of Football

Working at Enema U is like eating fish; enjoy the meat and try not to choke on the bones.  My wife, The Doc, is always telling me that I would enjoy movies more if I had a “willing suspension of disbelief.”  If you work for the state, you need a willing suspension of logic and reason.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job.  I know of nowhere else in the world where I would be paid to read books and tell stories to people who have each paid extraordinary sums to hear me talk.  (You can get a front row seat to hear Paul McCartney perform for less money than it costs to hear me explain the causes of the Mexican American War.  'Maybe I’m Amazed'.)

Years ago, for unknown reasons, our state legislature decided to start a bad football team.  Inadvertently, they attached a small university to this team.  For years, the university tried to stay out of the way of the team, teaching quietly in some corner of the campus not currently needed for the newest set of offices for the coaches.  Now, suddenly, our football program seems to be dying.  All the other teams have quite literally taken their balls and gone home.   Our ball-less coaches, like our teams, are at a total loss.

Even as I write this, the university’s top administrators, Moose and Squirrel, are meeting with the legislature in Santa Fe.  “Save Our Host!” they plead.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look good.  It seems that all the other universities  decided to reform the various athletic conferences, and as they took turns choosing who got to play ball with them, we just stood there smiling nervously.  They picked the fat kid who looked like three grapefruit in a sock.  They picked the short little kid who threw like a girl.  Hell, they even picked the girl.  Eventually, the only kid who hadn’t been selected was us, the short fat girl who couldn’t even throw like a girl.  No one wants to play with us.

Most people would admit defeat.  (Why not--our football team has been setting an excellent example for fifty years.)  Enema U could either drop down a division, drop football, or perhaps even decide that the primary mission of a land grant university in a poor state (so poor that even our cocaine addicts can only afford to buy rich people’s snot) is to actually focus on education.  Most people would do just that, but not Enema U.  We have a PLAN.  Other teams will want to play with us if we have a better stadium

Now, don’t jump to conclusions.  We don’t need—at least I sure hope we don’t need—a bigger stadium.  We can’t even fill the one we have half-way.  We can’t fill it even though we let the students in for free. 

No, the stadium needs…something else.  If we fix the bathrooms, other schools will want to play with us!  So the university has asked the state legislature for $3.5 million dollars to fix the stadium bathrooms.  What in the world did we do in there that takes $3.5 million dollars to fix?  I know plumbers are paid better than professors (and deserve it  they get rid of what we are full of), but that must be one hell of a leak we have in there.  If we are selling that much beer, I don’t see how we could be losing so much money.

I did the math, and I have a suggestion.  If we get the $3.5 million, don’t fix the bathrooms.  Put the money in blue chip stocks and just spend the income the fund generates each year.   There are few home games, and low attendance.  We could easily afford to give every fan at the game $5 in exchange for a promise to just hold it in until they get home.  That’s not even counting the money we will save on water.  Eventually, when we finally drop football, we’ll still have the $3.5 million.  Who knows, we might buy a few books for the library.

Besides the bathrooms, the university is also asking the legislature for an additional $2.5 million to refurbish the press box.  One shudders to imagine what is wrong in there, but it must require the services of the Ghostbusters.  Still, even after we chase the evil undead hell-hounds out of the press box and back to the College of Education, there would seem to be more than enough remaining money to install a steam room and a wet bar.  Possibly, even a brass pole for the cheerleaders.

Naturally—and I bet you saw this coming—I have a suggestion.  Actually, it’s pretty much the same suggestion.  Let’s invest the $2.5 million, too.  At an average of 6 home games a year, we could afford to bribe the reporters, forever, over $20,000 a game to just stay home and falsely report that we win the games.

About the only other way we could win is to put snipers in that press box.