Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Jingle-Bell Heart

So Monday I was lying on this big, steel table with six catheters sticking in me.  Only one of them was sticking in where you think it was.  Another one disappeared into a tiny artery in my right groin.  Yeah, groin.  Get over it.  The other four - FOUR - were jammed into one, single, tortured vein in my other groin.  Collectively, those last four tubes were about the size of a fire hose.  Of course, I didn't know all this at the time.  I was in the Mayo Clinic, well beyond sedated.

For some years I have suffered from a discombobulation of the heart in which the intake side keeps forgetting what the output side is doing.  Generally, you want those two functions to be similar.  In plumbing, there is a natural law that says, "the shit going into a pipe must equal the shit coming out plus the shit caught in the pipe."  This universal truth ranks up there with toast always landing jelly-side down.  Over the years, I had become dis-enamored with getting shit caught in my pipes, so I signed on for an RF ablation.  If you are not familiar with this term, "ablation" is the process that, while a space capsule is screaming back to Earth, the front end gets so hot that it  bubbles up like melted cheese and burns away.  "RF" means "soldering iron."  Any questions?  Did I mention that all this takes place inside the heart at the working end of one of those fire hoses? 

I would like to announce that I am alive and doing well.  And the food at the Mayo Clinic is no better than at the local Golden Corral.

As a technical challenge, it turns out that cauterizing a couple of figure 8 paths inside a beating heart pales in comparison with sealing up those big holes in your groin left behind after the five catheters are yanked out.  Computers are not up to it.  Stitches, glue, they're not up to it either.  Instead, Mayo Clinic brings in a couple of defensive linemen from the Jacksonville Jaguars who plunge their fists so far into your groin that they leave knuckle prints in the steel under your weary ass.  Once they have stanched the blood flow down to a trickle, they install a couple of size 48-Long C-clamps and tighten them until your eyeballs bulge.  As a precaution, a nurse whispers in your ear, "Don't y'all move for the next six hours or you will surely bleed to death."

I slept poorly Monday night.

All of this is preface to what one of the other catheters was doing all this time.  It was taking pictures.  Specifically, it was taking the picture that follows.  This is what the inside of my heart looks like now, complete with two neat squiggles of scar tissue.  Yup - heart-shaped. The Christmas tree colors are because my cardiac team had a sense of humor that ran all amok.

So now I'm home, bruised, battered and sucking down Hydrocodone every five hours. Or maybe four.  My heart is kicking over at a comfortingly steady pace, and I have something funky to hang on next year's tree.  Life remains good.

Happy New Year.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Incident at a Coffee Shop

As you likely have already surmised, I spend an inordinate amount of time sitting outside coffee houses absorbing the essence of Florida.  If you do so long enough, blog material just leaps into your lap.  Yesterday I was enjoying a Grande Mocha at the local shopping center, seating myself at a difficult parking lot crossroad.  Although the intersection looks a lot like a 4-way stop, the road leading to and from the lot entrance in fact has the right of way by dint of no stop sign.

Enter old Mr. Joseph Schlesselman, whom you may recall from his recent dunking in the Gulf of Mexico.  I knew it was him* because he was driving that same old Mercury Marauder, the one with the waterline on the paint job.  Hunched over his steering wheel, he drove up to the stop sign at the crossroad.  I drank my mocha, knowing pretty well what would happen next.

Another car approached from the left, on the road with no stop sign.  Mr. S started to go, then , sensing danger, fumbled around in the foot well until he blundered onto the brake pedal, stopping quickly enough to bounce his noggin off the big steering wheel.  The other car breezed through the intersection without so much as slowing down or waving to the mildly concussed Mr. S.  (No stop sign, mind you.)

Mr. S exploded into a feckless fury at the rapidly disappearing car.  He cackled obscenities that even this adult-directed blogger blushes to recall, shaking his mottled fist and spraying spittle onto the distant Marauder windshield.  Boy, was he pissed.

Eventually, Mr. S recovered enough of his faculties to negotiate the intersection and herky-jerk his way into the first Handicapped space he saw.  I sipped my mocha as Mr. S scuttled into the liquor store.  Obviously, the story was not over.

On his return, pint-sized package in hand, Mr. S hopped - so to speak - into the old Merc and see-sawed his way back onto the roadway.  Now, however, he was on the main parking lot road, approaching the very intersection where his erstwhile adversary had run the non-existent stop sign.  The shoe, as it were, was on the other foot.  (Eagle-eyed readers will recall that Mr. S has a wooden leg.)

As I slurped down the last of my mocha, Mr. S blasted through the funky intersection like a high-balling freight train on a night run to Juarez.  By that time, Mr. S's alter ego was approaching the intersection from the other direction, threatening to T-bone the blithering Mr. S.  Alter-S hunkered behind the massive wheel of an ancient Lincoln with peeling leatherette top.  As Mr. S careened on by, Alter-S managed at the last instant to bumble across his own brake pedal, noggin-smashing and casting imprecations upon the hapless Mr. S for not stopping.

And so it goes.


* Legal disclaimer:  I suppose this may not have been the same hapless Mr. Schlesselman that drove into the Gulf a couple months back.  After all, there are other old farts driving old Mercury Marauders.  That does not make me feel a lot better.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


My Ten Favorite Things About Having a Nasty Chest Cold - - -

No. 10  .........  crap, I'm out of things already.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Slice of a Lifetime

A lot of things you do once in a lifetime - birth, death, circumcision, those sorts of things.  Speaking of being circumsized, I applied for Social Security today.

Our favorite government says on its website that the best way to apply for SS is on its website.  Then it refers you there.  Thus, the weirdness begins.

On is a button that says "Apply for Benefits."  You might expect an application to appear on-screen at this point, but you would be so desperately wrong.  What you get is a video that tells you how to apply.

On the video, in the finest government tradition, is a series of PowerPoint slides - yes, a video of slides - and an authoritative voice that reads the slides to you.  In case you are both illiterate and deaf, there is a button that provides Closed Captioning of the authoritative voice reading the slides.  Evidently, someone else would read the Closed Captioning to you.  If you are not only illiterate and deaf but also blind and stupid, there is a phone number, which you can get someone to dial for you while you sit drooling in a corner.  There's no doubt a video on how to do that.

"It's easy," says the video, "just make sure you read the instructions."  So you click on the instructions, which explain that you should type your name into the space labeled "Name," and progress to complicated issues like, "Are you married?  ___Yes ___No."  Still not sure what to do?  There's a video you can watch.

About halfway through the video for the second time, I began to suspect an endless loop of the "lather-rinse-repeat" variety, and so I disobeyed the authoritative voice and resumed searching on my own for the application form that I thought I had clicked on in the first place.

In the final analysis, getting circumsized by the government is easy.  The application, once you drill down to it, contains only a couple of dozen highly predictable questions.  It took me 10 minutes to complete.  But of course by that time I had been inspired by an hour or two of preparing to learn how to understand how to understand the instructions that explain how to begin to start to fill in the application.  Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Redundancy Department.

My first check should arrive in the mail any day now.  Along with a video explaining how to open the envelope it came in.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dear God, Give Me a Sign

Besides advertising that holds you down and kicks your ass, locals here are given to personal testaments that would never see the light of day in more organized communities. The first time I drove through Clearwater, last fall, I watched a young zealot manhandling a 4 x 8 foot sheet of plywood down North Myrtle. He had invested hours painting his message in neat block letters:
Jesus Christ is coming SOON and
He is going to KILL
everyone who is not Born Again!!!
Born-Again-Man is likely the endpoint of a progression that starts down here with the ubiquitous sandwich board, on which an endless parade of sandwich-board-men and -women hawk everything from $5 foot-longs to a strip joint called Mons Venus. Outside the Pinellas County Sherriff's office last week was an otherwise normal-looking lady with a sign reading:

Police Unfair to Jaywalkers!

Carry-it-yourself messages are not the only medium in town. Newspaper classifieds here commonly publish squibs like:

Thank you, dear Lord, for punishing your enemies!

No doubt submitted - and paid for - by a relative of Born-Again-Man. The same relative may be responsible (if I can use that word) for:

Scientologists Suck!!!

Tampa Bay is a land where Scientology is half-revered, half feared. Also last week, a nearby pizza joint that routinely posts specials and menu items on its sign posted this plaintive appeal:

Happy 14th Birthday, Angela!
God Help Me!

Actually, I'm sure the comma was not in there, but I have considerable editorial discretion here. Despite an appalling absence of rigorous punctuation, personal billboards of all persuasions do have one common excess: exclamation points. I think the number of exclamation points is intended to convey the level of fervor for the sentiment expressed

Florida is perhaps the only state that approves of makeshift roadside memorials to loved ones who have departed this mortal coil via the windshield of a car. Paeans to Linda or Rocco or Satchel-Butt appear at regular intervals on most roads. The state apparently sees the signs as an effective, if macabre, deterrent, since a bureaucratically correct message is fixed to the top of each such memorial:

Drive Carefully!

It seems to me that the state's message would be more effective and certainly more personal if it were less generic. Depending on the cause of a crash, the topper sign might read:

Don't Drink and Drive!


Check your Brakes Soon!

Or perhaps Born-Again-Man could schedule an appearance at each such memorial, saying:

See? I Told You!

I could be wrong, but I don't think so.


Monday, November 29, 2010

The Mind Game

I'm standing in a spot of light surrounding a microphone at the front of a darkened room.  The mic stinks of stale cigarette smoke and worse, and I'm struggling to breathe.  A mass of anonymous humanity ripples out there in the crummy meeting room at the Holiday Inn.  "Hullo," I say. "My name is Newt and I play bridge."

A crowd that should be sympathetic remains quiet.  Someone coughs in the back of the room, a throaty, gurgling cough that signals unspeakable evil.  Bridge players.

"I play three or four times a week now."  That's a lie - it's really more like five or six.  "On a good day, I whup ass on a roomful of little old ladies.  On a bad day, they whup mine.  It's a foul life."

I explain that I play in a bridge club that meets in a nondescript office park.  Next door is a methadone clinic; the local AA office is across the way.  The whole complex teems with low-lifes.  A uniformed cop parks outside, afraid to get out of his cruiser.

I try to make the room understand how I got hooked again after 35 years on the wagon, a good 35 years, with no bad habits other than an occasional beer bender and a cigar now and again.  My shame is absolute.

Years ago, bridge was not so bad.  You bid one spade if you had four spades in your hand and some aces and face cards, and your partner would bid three spades if he had a few spades and some more face cards.  With great cards, you'd just up and bid two spades from the get-go.  It was a simpler time, an innocent time.  No longer, my friends.

Now, if your partner bids one spade and you have any four spades in your hand, even lousy ones, you bid three clubs - THREE CLUBS, for God's sake - or, if your opponents bid something, like two hearts, you go ahead and bid three hearts to show that you have some spades.  Or if you start out with a great handful of spades and aces, you jump right up and start with two clubs.  It's an insane wasteland.

And the little old ladies, they'll finesse the crap out of you for a miserable extra thirty points.  They'll strip your hand and end-play your lights out for a top board if you let them. My life these days consists of trying to figure out where the other 39 cards are.

Oh, I once had a productive life helping corporate clients make more money.  Now I scrabble night and day for a couple more masterpoints.  You get 300 points and they make you a Life Master.  Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, right?  A guy here in town has 55,000 masterpoints.  I have 26.   People wonder why I feel inferior!  26.  Damn.

This week I am going to The Nationals in Orlando.  With my 26 points.  I'll beat little old ladies over the head trying to become a Sectional Master.  That's like a Life Master in diapers.  Between games, I'll scheme with my partner - a woman of otherwise good reputation - about how we can ruin someone's day in the next round.

"In conclusion," I croak into the microphone, "I have only myself to blame for my life of dissipation and overbidding.  I am an addict.  I play bridge."

The crowd sighs as one.  Someone in the back shouts out, "Hey, you need a partner for Thursday?"


Saturday, November 27, 2010


To the lady with the funny hat who thinks I'm too long-winded: I'm not.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Return of the Native

I have lived in Florida for two years now, which means I have personally experienced about two percent of recorded local history.  I am a Native.

Oh, I know that Florida has been around longer than 100 years, at least  in the James Mitchener sense: the big sand bar left behind as the last Ice Age subsided to Canada (more on that in a minute).  But people who are even more native than I know that real Florida history doesn't go much further back than the early Carl Hiaasen novels. The Historical Society fights to save buildings thrown up in 1955.  The original Clearwater Beach Crabby Bill's has a commemorative plaque.  My own Ulmerton Road has a bronze sign reading:  "At this location on November 16, 2000, the first hanging chad was discovered by roving bands of aboriginal Republicans."  We have historically significant structures made of plywood.

As a Native, I now distinguish myself from the annual influx of snowbirds that is fluxing heavy as I write this.  You see them everywhere.  Men jogging sans shirt?  Must be from New York.  Lying on St. Pete Beach in the 75-degree heat?  Michiganders.  Bobbing in the surf?  Canadians, no doubt. We can tell a Quebecoise from a Newfoundlander by how high they float in the water.  Make no mistake: snowbirds are beloved here.  They bring money, a scarce commodity in this state of sunshine.  But there is a certain rehabituation required each fall. 

Snowbirds struggle with the time scale here.  We Floridians, for instance, don't generally need to be anywhere soon.  The line at the local Publix glaciers along because the cashiers like to chat with the clientele.  Before I became a Native, I chafed at the delay.  But when my turn came, the cashier, who turned out to be a sweet southern belle, chatted with me as well.  She didn't seem to care that I was not yet a Native.  Our New York snowbirds especially find this adjustment challenging.  Folks in New York don't chat.

But I'm not here to talk about history or snowbirds.  Florida Natives know at this time of year that - Bucs aside (Go Bucs!) - there is only one subject worthy of serious scrutiny: how's the oyster crop?  Crassostrea virginicus.  The same Eastern oyster that thrives from Malpeque Bay to Blue Point, Long Island to Chicoteague Island, Virginia, C. virginicus reaches perfection in the waters off Apalachicola on Florida's panhandle.

Apalachicola is back in business.  I popped into Crabby Bill's last week, and the oysters were merely very good.  Earlier tonight, they were better still: fat and sweet, swimming in icy oyster liquor and happy-looking, verging on outstanding.  I was pretty happy-looking myself after two dozen of the little darlings.  On the half-shell.  Nekkid.  (Not me - the oysters.)

But - but - but - THE OIL SPILL!!  Yeah, I know.  There's oil out there somewhere.  Well, there weren't no oil in my dinner tonight.  The news shouters have failed to mention that virtually the entire Florida coastline completely escaped the oil spill.  Including - thank you, God - Apalachicola Bay.

C. virginicus will only get fatter and sweeter as the season proceeds.  Life on the Gulf is good.  Did I mention that a dozen on the half-shell at Bill's cost me the princely sum of $6.99, complete with freshly grated horseradish, which I snubbed.  After all, we Natives do it nekkid. 


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Return of the Curmudgeon, with Bagel

I have come to hate perkiness.  Not the wholesomely sweet 17-year-old at the counter, but the perkiness that surrounds her like a cloud of Sweet and Low.  Visiting Panera's has become an ordeal.

"Welcome-to-Panera's-would-you-like-to-join-our-rewards-club?"  Big perky grin.

"Just a whole wheat bagel, toasted, and coffee, please." Big grumpy-but-unavailing scowl.

"But it's free. All you have to do is [waive all your privacy rights forever]..."

"No thanks, just the bagel and coffee."

(Bagel is toasting.)

"Could I have a cup so I can get my coffee while you're toasting?"

"Sure! Would-you-like-to-join-our-rewards-club?"

"No thanks, just the coffee cup."

"But it's free..."

"Coffee cup.  Please."  I scowl as hard as I can.  My face begins to hurt. Disappointment cuts through the perkiness and I am sad.

[Ping!]  My bagel is ready, and I am happy again.




Monday, October 11, 2010

What If You Threw a Rally for Bigotry and Hatred, and Nobody Came?

How sweet is this?  The Reverend Terry Jones ("I'm going to burn a Koran for the world to see") held a rally last night at the Tampa Convention Center.  Ten people showed up.


Friday, October 8, 2010

It Only Gets Worse

One high school, two years, four dead teenagers.  Bullying.  Is anyone paying attention to this?


Friday, October 1, 2010

Reason to Think; Reason to Weep

While I'm keeping it light here in Tampa Bay, I may be ignoring the insanity out there too much.  How can we ignore this?  Be decent.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mile Zero

Some like spelunking or sailing to Bora Bora.  I am the sort of guy who likes loose ends.  Aim me at a place where the Earth comes to a significant point and I am there.  Within reason, that is.  Everest and Antarctica are just so - so - - inconvenient.  I like the ends of the Earth to be convenient.  Think Tenzing Norgay and Roald Amundsen in flannels.

I once set out Amundsen-like to visit the easternmost point in the U.S., which it turns out is in seven distinct places, many of which are damned inconvenient.  So I picked the easternmost point that you can walk to from the car.  Automotive proximity is a scientifically accurate determinant of "easternmost," according to many nebulous authorities.  I settled on West Quoddy Head in Lubec, Maine.  I am not even mildly disturbed that the easternmost point in the country is named "West" Something.  From West Quoddy Head, you could toss a clam into Canada.

We end-of-the-Earthers love Canada because it has so many loose ends.  The only one even arguably convenient is Cape Spear in Newfoundland.  This easternmost point in Canada is conveniently also the easternmost point on the whole continent of North By-God America.  Heady stuff, I know, but true.  I went there.  You can walk there from the parking lot of the Cape Spear Lighthouse.  The lighthouse is about 45 minutes east (of course) from St. John's, the home of Quidi Vidi Brewery.  That's convenient, too.

Cape Spear was named by the Portuguese, who called it Cape Hope, but the Portuguese did not speak English, so "Hope" came out sounding something like "Spear."  Fair enough; it's their language.

By a monumental coincidence, the westernmost point on the continent of Europe is in the ancient and lovely town of Sintra, in Portugal.  I went there.  It's a place called Cabo da Roca, and it juts out like a wart on the nose of Iberia.  I suppose you might look out from Cabo da Roca and imagine that you can see Cape Spear.  I did.  You can't.

And then there's Key West, wherein may be found the most convenient of many southernmost points in the U.S.  I went there this week.  This particular point is a big chunk of concrete on which is painted "Southernmost Point in the United States."  Not so picturesque or picaresque as my quest to Cabo da Roca.  I waited patiently in line to snap photos.  No one seemed concerned that a considerable land mass - sidewalk, wall and shoreline - lay due south of the Southernmost Piece of Concrete.  So powerful is the voice of official tourismo that even I, intrepid pursuer of geographical extremities, did not realize that I was standing considerably north of the actual southernmost point in the U.S.  Lying bastards.

Key West,  like Bermuda or Provincetown or Aix-en-Provence, I suppose, is overrun with the mobility-incompetent.  For an outrageous sum, the local entrepreneurs rent mopeds to those who cannot master the fundamentals of bipedal transportation. let alone the intricacies of internal combustion.  Such maladroits wander the streets, clueless, on every continent.  In Key West, the effect is amplified by alcohol, often as not.

Key West is the root of US Route 1, that miserable excuse for a road that traumatizes the American East Coast for 2,377 miles from Key West to Fort Kent, Maine.  Viewed in a certain way, therefore, Key West is also the end of the Earth for highways, in much the same way that Route 6 ends at Provincetown and Route 66 winds to LA.  A nondescript street corner in Key West is adorned with a little green sign - a mile marker - that reads, "0."  Zero.  Da nada.  Nil.  Zilch miles.  Here is what it looks like on a good day:

The pretty red car in the picture is mine.  (So, BTW, is the pretty lady.)   I polish it -  the car, not the pretty lady - with tender care and no little sweat.  Door dings I have none. No dings in the pretty lady either.

As I was snapping this picture, two lovely, young and under-dressed misses rolled up on mopeds.  Like everyone else in town, they wanted their picture taken in front of MM Zero.  One of them wobbled onto the sidewalk and dumped her moped in a heap.  Despite my advancing age, I remain a sucker for a short skirt and a pretty smile.  I did not run like hell, as I should have.  I offered to take their picture.

They righted the bike, stood pertly in front of the hallowed sign, and I did what I promised. Grinning in covert lasciviousness, I hopped back into the red car and made to depart in the general direction of MM 2377, when there arose such a clatter from the nether regions of the red car.  Crap.

The same maladroit young lovely that dumped her bike on the sidewalk had T-boned me from the sidewalk as I sat idly at the curb.  Sigh.  I got out.  I looked long and hard.  Then I looked at the car.  It looked okay.

"I bumped the wheel," she blurted.  "It's okay."

She was right, more or less.  I got back in the car and drove toward MM 1.

And MM 2
 Etc.  Onward, Pancho, to yet another end of the Earth.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Burial at Sea Avoided

For someone who blogs about becoming a Florida resident, I have tiptoed mincingly around the subject of elderly drivers.  After all, some of my favorite people are elderly drivers.  Of course, I don't ride with these people, but they are favorites nonetheless.  Today, it's time to stop mincing tiptoes.

Witness one Joseph Schlesselman, who has been shuffling around this mortal coil for 89 years.  Joe fell victim yesterday to that bane of all elderly drivers (sorry, Joe, but 89 is certifiably elderly).  Joe's foot slipped off the brake and onto the go-pedal.  Could happen to anyone.  It wasn't even the prosthetic foot at the end of his wooden leg that slipped.  That's the other leg.  And he says the walker he uses was not in the way, either.

Praise the Lord, Joe didn't kill anyone or even himself or his bride, despite his determined efforts.  "Goodbye, this is it," he thought as the old Mercury Marauder, handicapped parking tag flailing about wildly from the mirror, bolted over the seawall and plunged headlong into the Gulf of Mexico, Schlesselmans, prosthetics, collapsible walker and all.

As the old Merc filled with seawater, several passersby dove into the tepid Gulf, bashed in a couple of windows, and snatched the Schlesselmans to safety.  Minor injuries were had by all.  The police subsequently returned to the Gulf to rescue the prosthetic leg and the walker.

Asked later by a news reporter about his escapade, Joe leaned on his walker and complained, "I thought cars were supposed to be safe."  He is upset not only with the Mercury folks for making three-ton behemoths that don't float worth a damn, but with the City of Dunedin, which apparently owns the seawall that caused the problem in the first place.  "Why," he asks . . .

Wait for it . . .

"Why would you put up a sign that says 'disabled parking' and not have barriers?"

While the reporter was no doubt struggling to maintain her last shred of professional composure, Joe followed up.

Wait again for it . . .

"If a disabled person is going to park there, something is going to happen."


Joe says he is going to think twice about parking in that same spot again.  Funny, but Joe never mentioned in the interview - or maybe the reporter was too overwhelmed with the situation to report it - how grateful he was to the people who risked their lives to save his wrinkled old ass.

And right now, at this very moment, while the gendarmes are dragging his Mercury out of the tepid, briny drink, Joe is running around - well, metaphorically, at least - trying to rent another car.

Hertz, Avis, if you're out there, RUN.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Paradise Found

Having visitors from the North is a fine occasion for ranking the best things I know about life in Pinellas County.  We managed to cover many of them in the past week or so.  In no particular order:

Boris Family Restaurant for breakfast.  Boris is a bear of a man who presides over this simple family eatery, and server Mary Ann showers us with attention every Sunday morning.  Eggs Benedict this nicely prepared are hard to find.  Thick, creamy Hollandaise that has never seen a blender.  I can feel my arteries hardening as I type.

Clearwater Beach, even in the driving rain.  Slashing, hissing, deluging rain.  Bummer, I know.  But there is something elemental about strolling through boiling surf, soaked to the skin but warm and in good company.  In a land of exquisite beaches, CB rains supreme.  (Sorry.)

Gulf Coast Po' Boys is a hole in the wall featuring the Louisiana delicacies for which it is named.  Sit outside and be treated like royalty for about 8 bucks.  I love this place.

Busch Gardens.  Eight roller coasters, count 'em.

Willard's Tap House has 40 beers on draft, with "no crap on tap."  These beers average somewhere north of 7 percent alcohol.  The Smith boys know what they like.  And they seem to know what a lot of folks like.  I'm working my way through the list for the second time, surrounded by those peerless tipplers who have long since tucked away their third or fourth rotation.  This is a happy place.

The Cajun Cafe on the Bayou sprawls along the bank of Center Bayou in Pinellas Park. When Paul and Rebecca are not hosting a music fest or beer fest or crawfish fest, they preside over the best Cajun vittles in the south - including, by some reports, the best that New Orleans can put up.  Not to mention a menu of 80 great beers - 80! - of which 15 are on tap.  No crap on tap here, either.

The Turtle Deck at McGough Nature Park is an oasis of quiet charm off nasty Walsingham Road. No one can resist dropping 2 bits worth of turtle food into the teeming mass of armored reptiles, rooting for the little cooters and snappers, but fascinated by the stately Florida Softshells.

(Photo Credit: Robyn's Pond Turtle Species Page)

Taste of Punjab means great curries and friendly service.  And decent beer.  (You see the theme here.)

It is with considerable anguish that I barely mention Golden Bear Restaurant , the sponge docks at Tarpon Springs, the Museum of  Florida History, the amazing Cuban sandwiches at the Kooky Coconut, and a dozen more favorites.

Welcome to Paradise.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Kellan, the Lizards, and Ralph

It was a week of terror for the local critter population, large and small, while Kellan visited these past few days.  Being six and from Connecticut, Kellan was flabberbusted by the proliferation of brown and green anoles here in Tampa Bay.  "Look!  A 'NOTHER lizard!"  Darwin has made the tiny critters deucedly hard to catch.

It took five days for Kellan to nail his first victim, but after a short, steep learning curve, it was open season.  You can bellow "GENTLE, DAMMIT!" at a six-year-old till you drop of anoxia without noticeable effect.  Actually, the "DAMMIT" part only crept in after the first couple of enthusiastic captures ended with anoles winging their way to their lizard reward, however inadvertently.  I got so I could snap off a "G-D" without skipping a conversational beat.

The new owners of nearby Busch Gardens are masters of protecting their critters from my critter and his ilk.  Tall fences and moats and glass walls are generally effective against the most determined first-grader.  Languid gators, protected from Kellan only by a few feet of wrought iron, seemed to ponder vigilante retribution for their tiny brethren.  Kellan was ready: "Look!  A 'NOTHER lizard."  GENTLE DAMMIT.

I was relieved to move on to still larger critters and astonished to see several tons of bull rhino clambering over a big rock trying to get at our little boy.  Anoles have friends in large places, apparently.  I've never seen a rhino so frantic to get over a rock. Beady eyes rolled in their peculiar rhino sockets, accompanied by snorting and muted frothing.  A park rhino keeper witnessed the scene with jarring calm.

Me:  Why does your rhino want to trample my little boy?

Keeper:  Our rhinos are all very friendly and would not hurt your little boy, even if he were a vicious anole assassin.

Me:  How did you . . .

Keeper:  Actually, our rhino is not trying to charge your grandson at all.

Me:  How do you . . .

Keeper:  Take a good look at the rock Ralph is mounting.

Me:  Ralph?

Keeper:  Mounting.

Me:  Oh.  Mounting.

Keeper:  Ralph and that big rock are engaged.

Me:  . . .

Keeper:  Have a nice day.  And your grandson.

I looked again at Ralph.  GENTLE DAMMIT!  I steered Kellan toward the next Dippin' Dots stand.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Review of the Restaurant Incognito

We ate at a new place in Largo last night.  I had high hopes because I enjoy food of this particular, but nameless here, ethnic persuasion.  Local press reports suggested lovely cuisine by folks who have retailed ingredients and prepared foods of this ethnicity for some years.  I couldn't wait.

The restaurant took over the former location of a popular breakfast and lunch joint that featured outdoor seating on the bank of a bucolic pond, with turtles and egrets and babbling fisher-children.  "Would you like something to drink before dinner?" our apparently [ethnic] waiter asked.  "What do you have for beers?" I countered.  "[Ethnic] beers," he responded hoppily.

I too was hoppy when I heard this.  I am always hoppy to hear anything besides "Bud Light," the ethnic beer of Florida.  So I asked for what I know to be the pre-eminent beer of the ethnicity in question.  Some of my best friends are ethnic, so I pronounced the name of the beer correctly.   I thought our waiter seemed nonplussed to learn that I had even heard of [ethnic beer].  But then he butchered the pronunciation himself when he repeated it.  Uh-oh.

As it turns out, they didn't have Z--- [ethnic] beer, so I ordered a different one, named after an astronomer.  Any beer named after a scientist can't be too Bud Light-ish, I figured.  Accurately, as it turned out.  A curiously complex Pilsener, with fruity malt flavors and good balancing hops from the appropriate continent.

Bread came.  It was almost warm on the outside, chilled at the center.  Uh-oh.

Judy ordered [ethnic beef dish].  I ordered [ethnic pork and mushroom stew] wrapped in an [ethnic starch blanket].

Have I mentioned that, despite the recent local press efforts, the place was empty except for a table of [ethnic] people who obviously owned the place, and a small gathering of their good friends and relatives, all speaking [ethnic]?  I was sad at the emptiness, but buoyed by the camaraderie of the family group.  Good [ethnic] restaurants are rare and should pack them in. 

The food took a long time.  Good food does not happen quickly.
O boy o boy o boy.

Ultimately, we gave up on bucolic and moved indoors.  Florida-bucolic in August is a bit of a challenge.  Did you read about the Russian who toasted himself recently in a sauna contest?  We Floridians are made of sterner stuff.  Beer, [ethnic] or otherwise, helps.  But we moved nevertheless because our silverware melted and dripped onto the deck.

Eventually, the food arrived.  Very good [ethnic] this and that.  But Judy's potato [ethnic dumplings] arrived stone cold.  You might think that with only two paying customers in the place, a new restaurant bent on making its bones would serve hot dumplings. After all, I might have been Anthony Boudain in disguise.  A good disguise.  We sent Judy's meal back.  (After all, I had mine.) 

To the restaurant's credit - I think - the dumplings and everything with them took a long time to come back hot.  My guess is that [ethnics] do not approve of microwaving helpless food - thank you - and actually prepared fresh dumplings.  They were good.

Remember the family-and-friends table out on the deck watching the bucolic turtles?  For the rest of the meal, they paraded in to our table to beat their [ethnic] breasts.  (Actually one of them had quite impressive - uh - never mind.)   One promised 10 percent off our next meal.  One offered 20 percent off this meal.  Then the chef appeared.  His name was [completely different ethnic name].  He bought me a beer, but he also could not pronounce the beer that they didn't have anyway.  Why didn't they buy Judy another glass of wine instead?  Old-country [ethnic] ethic.  I didn't mind.  I like beer better than Judy likes wine.

So.  Will we go back?  Maybe.  I like [ethnics].


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pull My Finger

Even my favorite grandson Kellan doesn't fall for this.  Yes, that Kellan, the fart-adept six-year-old.  But here I am, victim nonetheless.

This isn't really about fart jokes.  It's about buying a car.  Judy's old Acura only lasted 13 years, so it was time.  My plan was simple:  Honda Accord Sedan, alloy wheels, white.  Period.  This may be the most common car in the universe.  So it all came down to - - - price.

Now, I consider myself a bit of a sophisticate at price negotiation.  23 years of practicing law, 18 years of engineering, and a subscription to Consumer Reports all have made me an expert.  Or so I thought.  Here was my strategy:  search for prices on line, pick the best one, solicit bids on-line, and buy for something close to the on-line price.

In your dreams, old man.

Before I started, I read a depressing article on the website by an undercover reporter who signed on to work for a couple of car dealers.  It described all the tricks of the trade.  Like designated salesmen who greet you as you get out of your car.  As they shake your hand, they pull, ever so gently, towards the door.  This allows them to establish control, among other questionable things.  But I knew that.  I was prepared for anything.

On a whim, I pulled into Autoway Honda out on Rt 19.  Steve Yeager greeted me as I stepped out of my car.  He shook my hand.  He pulled.  I grinned a wise grin.

Undeterred, I let Steve march me around the Certified Used Honda Corral.  We looked at cars in the 2007-2009 range.  They were labeled $16,000 to $22,000.  Sigh.  New Honda LX-P's list for $23,500, give or take.  I may have to buy new.  As many of the articles suggested, good used cars are at a premium.

Suddenly, Steve fetched up short and gasped.  He pointed a trembling finger at a bright-red price sticker on a car in the target age range.  "My God!" Steve exclaimed. "Look at that price!  That must be a mistake."  The sign said "$14,500."  We spent a moment or two discussing the special features of the tired old car.  It had mudflaps, taped-on pinstripes, and 45,000 miles on the clock.  Steve pointed out the pinstripes.  I was embarrassed for Steve.  (By the way, if you think I've changed the names to protect the idiots, you're way off.)  I eventually drove a 2009 LX-P with only 6500 miles on it.  Sticker price was $100 below the sticker price on a new car.

I left Steve with a handshake.  I pulled.  He looked at me funny.  I silently vowed to run Steve down if I ever caught him walking along the road.

So I executed my Internet plan.  I solicited bids for a white LX-P.  I got fewer responses than I expected.  One of them was from Gerry Spence at Tampa Hondaland.  He bid high.  I bid low.  We almost met in the middle, but he was at $21,500.  That included taxes, everything.  It included $400 for a new registration.  He was still too high. I said, "Sorry.  So long."

I waited.  Gerry emailed.  I ignored him.  I know how to play this game.  Sophistication is a rare commodity in this world.

Gerry called Judy.  "I really want to make a deal," he said.  I rubbed my hands in glee.  I returned his call.  He ignored me.  He knows how to play this game.  The hunt for the perfect deal was on.  I was breathing heavy.  So was Gerry.  Mano-a-mano, no?

Gerry called me back, and I was home. "It's a very good deal," he said.

I was beginning to believe he may be right.  I said, "OK.  You have $400 in there for a new registration, right?"


"I've changed my mind on the registration and will transfer the old registration.  That's $100, right?"


"So the price is $21,200 with the transfer?"


"I'll be there in an hour with my checkbook.  Draft up the contract."

Cutting to the chase, I had the keys to Judy's new car in my hand when Gerry's sales manager sat down in front of me.  "Mr. Newton, there's been a tragic mistake."  Okay, he didn't really say, "tragic."  But that was implied in his sad delivery.  He continued, "The paperwork was made out for $21,500 with a transferred registration.  That's the price."

I looked at Gerry.  He didn't have the decency to look embarrassed.  I left.  (I'm leaving out some theatrics here.)

The next day, while my blood pressure was still settling out, I drove to nearby Crown Honda, which had not responded to my on-line bid request.  I spoke to a sales manager, KK.  I told him the story.  I said, "$21,500, with transferred registration."  That was the deal I walked away from at Hondaland.  He hemmed and hawed, but briefly.  We shook hands.  The negotiation took two minutes.  The car is in the driveway tonight.

When I left, I shook KK's hand.  He didn't pull.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Finding My Way Into the Blogosphere

I am now officially part of the blogosphere.  I write this crap into my computer and people somewhere read it. I think.  Who ever knows?  All I can do is proofread and hope for the best.

Oh, but I have a gadget on my computer that you can't see that tells me how many people look at my blog.  I won't tell you what it says because I'm not altogether sure what it means.  It has graphs and hieroglyphics (thank God for spellcheck) and it says that 20 or 100 (on a VERY good day) of you see this every day.  Or maybe it's 3.

Anyway, I want to credit a guy in - I don't know - China, St. Louis, Milano - who writes a blog called Blogger Tips and Tricks   From now on, thanks to this great blog, every time you type anything at all into Google, my blog will pop up.  I have co-opted all the interesting Google targets in the universe.  If not, it's Peter Chen's fault.


Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Curmudgeonly Tweeter

I have friends.  You might be surprised at that since I can be downright surly on occasion.  Maybe most occasions.  I have always wanted to be known as curmudgeonly, but curmudgeonly takes work.  Truly lazy curmudgeons are rare, so I may have to choose.

One friend writes wonderfully sophisticated stuff for Young Adults, along with a wonderfully creative creative blog she calls Harley May - because that's who she is.  She found a book she likes - follow the link and read the review - which has inspired a contest in which followers are to recreate scenes from the book.  Enclosed is Harley May's own recreation of one scene in which someone is driving a nail through a body part.  That's what we curmudgeons like to see.  Nails.  And body parts.  Especially body parts.

Anyway, I am telling you these things so you will know that even curmudgeons have a heart.

Harley May wants me to get on Twitter and engage in social networking. Does that sound curmudgeonly?  Damn right it doesn't.  (Curmudgeons say "damn" a lot.  It certainly makes me feel better.)  No self-respecting curmudgeon would stoop to tweeting.  Tweeting makes me irascible.


Friday, July 30, 2010

David Slays A-B

In a victory for all great beer lovers - - no, that's not right.


In a victory for all lovers of great beers, some uber-court in Europe has finally, after 14 years, decided that Anheuser Busch, late of these United States and now of Everywhere, cannot call its product "Budweiser" in the European Union.  Including Germany.  Damn straight.

Budejovicky Budvar (roughly translated "Budweiser Budvar") has been making a great pilsener beer in Czechoslovakia since the people of Pilsen started making the stuff.

Budvar's brew is literally "Beer of the Budweis region" of Czech-land.  Last time I looked at Mapquest, St. Louis, where A-B used to call home, and Everywhere (except I suppose Antarctica), where Inbev calls home, were not located in the Budweis.

Imagine some future A-B/Inbev marching into Tampa Bay in the year 2610 wanting to sell some two-bit knockoff of the beer that will be made forever by the REAL Cigar City Brewing and wanting to call its pale imitation "Cigar City Beer."  Maybe a nice "Humidor Light" (only 35 calories).

Anyway, it looks like the war is over and the good guys won.  Want to bet that A-B/Inbev is loading a fresh cannon?


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Girls of My Dreams

When I was young - younger, I mean - I dreamed of girls.  Quite a lot actually.  As I became older - not older than now, but older than younger - I dreamed of women.  I felt this a sign of maturity and hormonal well-being.  God's plan in action, at least for us heterosexuals.

So I came to be even older, albeit younger than now - I mean "even younger than now," of course - and I dreamed again of girls.  Well-being continued its hormonally eutrophic meander, for I knew then I had become a dirty old man.  I liked that.  "Dirty old man" has become a term of endear-
ment, of sorts, among the objects of my dreams.  They told me that.  The "old" part of "dirty old man" is surely hyper-
bole, and the term commonly applies, less endearingly no doubt, to 30-somethings.  Among more mature males, dirty-old-mannism is a sign of enduring virility.  Last night I dreamed I was shopping for a file cabinet.

I was unprepared for file cabinets and, in one of those out-of-dream experiences, it seemed like I had better things to dream about than file cabinets.  In truth, I don't even need a file cabinet.  I just emptied the one I have - quite triumphantly I might add - so my dream was no mere artifact of an unresolved to-do list.

Perplexed, I chased the question through sketchy dream-venues.  We - I don't know who "we" are, but I am not alone - anyway, we break into that classroom where I sit perpetually unprepared for a final exam in a course I forgot I signed up for - usually Fourier Analysis or some equally opaque topic.  Then we swoop and soar though that flying place of mine, waiting for the inevitable moment when I remember I don't know how to fly.  File cabinets, indeed.  Where the hell are the girls?

Eventually, we come to that lonely stretch of road where I park the car and get out to walk, surprised yet again to find myself stark naked.  As always, the deserted road morphs into a downtown sidewalk on a busy afternoon.  As always, I stroll whistling back to my car, hoping no one notices.  No file cabinet out here.  I don't know where my shadowy companion went.  Embarrassed to be seen with me, I suppose.

I'm not going to tell you whether I ever found the girls of my dreams; some things should remain untold.  But I have a nice file cabinet for sale if you need one, practically unused - it's only been dreamed about once.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Plumbing the Depths

On Thursday a VERY IMPORTANT PIPE broke under our house. OK, under our trailer. I called a plumber, who came and had the grace to look sheepish when he said, "I'm not crawling under there. Do you know what's under there?"

Well, yeah. It's the stuff that came out of the VERY IMPORTANT PIPE. And you're a plumber - I could tell when you bent over to look under the - uh - house. Aren't you supposed to deal with this - uh - stuff for a living?

So I hired a different guy to clean up the stuff under the house - let's call him Guy 2, and we won't mention Guy 1 again - and Guy 2 discovered that there is lots of other unmentionable stuff going on under there – more, that is, than just whatever came out of the VERY IMPORTANT PIPE. It's ugly down there, or so they tell me.

Guy 2 made sense, so I agreed to pay him a lot of money to make all of the stuff go away, permanently. Or as close to permanently as I care about. "How old are you now?" he asked.

Guy 2 also said he couldn’t really fix the problem until I hired a plumber to fix the pipe that was producing the stuff. You get the Catch 22 aspect of this story, do you not?

So I hired Guy 3 to fix the VERY IMPORTANT PIPE, which is where we started. I didn't tell him about the stuff. He’s a plumber; let him deal with it. He promises to come Monday morning, which is now tomorrow (unless this article takes longer to write than I expect).

Thursday to Monday was longer than I was willing to go without peeing except against a tree. Not to mention the Lady Who Would Not Be Caught Dead.  So we relocated to the Sunburst Inn, a lovely little beachfront place down the coast a bit. I tried to get the Displaced Persons’ Rate, but it was the weekend, and the oil crisis has not, apparently, driven prices down as far as the newspaper would have you believe.

But the Sunburst is nice, and it fronts on the oil-free Gulf of Mexico. It is easy to forget just how gorgeous the beaches are on the Gulf.

This story has a point – stay with me here.

So, we’re sitting on the beach last night – Saturday – and it’s 82 degrees and balmy, and the Gulf and the moon and Venus and Mars and some other celestial bodies are doing their hypnotically lovely thing. There is alcohol involved, of course, and in my alcohol-induced state of euphoria, I say to the Lady Who Would Not Be Caught Dead, “Isn’t this delightful?” The LWWNBCD just makes a rude digestive noise and goes on tuning me out.

Paradise is different things to different people.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Electronic Wisdom

Driving across the Howard Frankland Bridge (translation for northerners: big bridge connecting Tampa to the civilized world to the west) this afternoon, my beloved M3 began talking to me. "Hey!  You're losing air in one of your tires."  The damn red light refused to go out.

"Crap," I thought.  I once had a full-on blow-out right there on that same Frankland Bridge, and it was not pretty.  You see, BMW, in its wisdom, decided that cars of this magnificence have no real need for spare tires, so they didn't put one in.  No doughnut, no nothing.  The low-profile tires are not run-flats but, in fact, they run pretty well flat. They ought to for $370+ a pop.  I apparently drove some distance before I decided that something felt a little out of whack back there.

Instead of a spare, BMW gives you a phone number and an instruction: "If you get a flat tire while you own this car, give us a call." Not-very-optimistically - the car is 7 years old - I called the number and - well, I be go-to-hell if they didn't show up lickety-split and flatbed me to the nearest BMW dealer, which proceeded to rake me over the financial coals something wicked.

Anyway, with that history in mind, I promptly pulled over this morning when the flashing light started whining about low air pressssure yet again.  I walked around the car.  I kicked the rubber while very large trucks whumped past.  Everything looked copacetic, so I climbed back in and continued to Tampa, warning light still flashing just out of my line of sight.  "Can you hear me NOW?  How about NOW?"

I'll get back to this later.  This article is really about the interface between driving a car and electronic messaging.  Not the txting-while-driving stuff we've heard too much about, but the mundane electronic whispers that dog you wherever you travel, generally misinforming you about the state of the universe.

Here's one now: Florida has erected electronic billboards all over the place flashing this urgent message:
Bearss Avenue 2 Miles
Travel Time under 5 minutes
This particular sign appears on I-275, Tampa Bay's preeminent vehicular artery. It's a big sign, very high-tech, very goddamn expensive.  So it must be accurate.  My ass.  These ubiquitous signs invariably report that traffic is crawling when, in fact, it's blasting through at something north of 75 mph.  All right, 85.  It's an M3 - that's why I bought it.  Get over it.

Anyway, that's what I saw this morning - this was after the tire pressure monitor light incident -  a sunny day, no traffic, and I and everyone around me happily abusing the speed laws of the great State of Florida.  The freakin' sign said I would be lucky to average 24 mph.  (2 miles in 5 minutes is 24 mph, for the arithmetic-impaired).

In fact, no matter how freely- or fast-moving the traffic, these signs never tell you that traffic is moving more than 60 mph. Somebody paid a fortune for these signs - oh, wait! that was me - and their only function is to report that everything you see on the road around you is false.  I'm not sure this matters.  I'm just sayin'.

And another thing.  I have this swell GPS stuck to my dashboard, and I use it whether I need it or not.  (You do that - admit it.)  So, driving out of downtown Tampa this afternoon - this is after the tire pressure monitor nonsense - I punched in "Go Home."  Trouble is, I sort of know how to go home from downtown:  find I-275 and get on it.  Drive 20 miles south (it's really west); bingo - you're home.  But today the road signs to I-275 and the GPS on my dash came to blows.  And me, instead of following one or the other, I just did whatever I was told at each intersection.  Sign says go left to I-275, I turn left.  GPS says turn right in point-five miles, I turn right.

Another road sign:  uh-oh.  Now it  looks like I-275 is behind me. "Recalculating..."  And so on.  Folks, I am not the sort of guy who challenges authority.  Embarrassing but true.  I drove in circles for an - - um - - for far too long, obeying authority.  Nice town, Tampa.

I'm better now, thanks.

So the denouement is this - the tire was fine.  No nail, no leak, no nothing.  The TPM light was lying to me all along.  Just like the traffic signs on I-275.  I am disillusioned.  Again.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Armadillo Trap

We have armadillos.  They're rooting around every night in what I jokingly refer to as my lawn, looking for grubs or spare change or God knows whatever else.  I thought armadillos were a Texas phenomenon, maybe named after the city.  But here they are in the Sunshine State, rooting.  I have been casting about for a solution.

The first thing I learned is that Florida has some disturbingly stringent laws against armadillo cruelty.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for that.  In fact, I was the first to applaud when they recently arrested some poor feller down here for siccing his Doberman on an armadillo.  Siccing is outlawed.  No matter: I only have cats, and they don't sic worth a damn.

Having once been sworn to uphold the law - an obligation that I think is binding only in Connecticut, by the way - l figured I would capture the little bastards in one of those Hav-A-Hart contraptions and haul them up to Tate's neighborhood in Odessa, where they could frolic and root in the relative wilds of north Tampa.  Let the free-range armadillos feast on John's grubs.  That's when I learned about the declaration.

The State of Florida has declared armadillos an "invasive species" - as if I didn't know that already from the snout-holes in my yard.  You might think that declaration helpful to my cause in that an officially-declared invasive species would be fair game for relentless extirpation.  But you would be wrong.  That extirpation theory applies only to Latinos.  Armadillos hail from Texas and are Americans like the rest of us.  Most of us.  (How did this get political?).  Anyway, like any government act, the armadillo declaration bears unintended consequences.

Here's my options under the law, and they are not good.  I am allowed to trap the armadillos, but after that it gets complicated.  There's only two things I can do with  armadillos in a cage.  One, I can open the door and let them go free, right where I just trapped them.  Or, two, I can kill them.  Humanely, of course.  What I may not do is move the armadillos to a more armadillo-friendly part of Florida. In other words, intrastate transportation of an armadillo is a punishable offense.  Why do they call it "Hav-A-Hart" when all you can do is free the little bastards or shoot them?

Wait up - I can't even shoot the armadillos because we live cheek-by-jowl here in Pinellas County, so shooting is generally reserved for indoor activities and the occasional Democrat (another invasive species, albeit undeclared).  And I can't sic the cats on them.  Moreover, the county animal control officers refuse to deal with armadillos, unless of course you sic something on one.

It's enough to make one contemplate civil disobedience.  Look out, John, you may be having some late-night visitors.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

That Other Football

Making friends with a man from Bristol (England, of course) means you really must watch World Cup football, and I did.  Good show, United States.  I enjoyed that bit, really.

But you would think ESPN, which hails from Bristol (Connecticut), could find an American crew fluent in football, all the better to ignite the sport here.  Nope.  The best it could do was to prop up cardboard analyst Mike Tirico, whose sole task was to inquire of knowledgeable Englishmen their opinion of things.

Don't get me wrong, Paul, I love the English accent, I truly do.  Never mind, "What accent?"  You know the one.  And that fabled reserve, which certainly got England through the war in unruffled fashion, that's a swell thing, too.  What Americans, for instance, would call "unparalleled triumph," or "division championship," or "survive and advance," the English are content to call, "going through."  Bit of an understatement, that.

So when England's catch-up goal against Germany was waved off by some blind, syphilitic, idiot referee who should have been made to buy a ticket into the stadium, I rather expected the English play-by-play man to become agitated enough to exclaim, "Bloody 'ell!" which is the only English swear-word I know. (I think "Blimey" has lost much of its impact in today's world, don't you?)

Bloody 'ell, what a classy way to send someone off.  So much better that "blind, syphilitic idiot #$%^&-ing referee $ %^&-hole."  But that's football.

So anyway, the record to date stands thusly.  The US whupped England in 1776 and again in 1950, and it happens that the two teams have not met since.  (Let's not get into that bit of bother in 1812.)   And in this year's World Cup they tied their first-round match, whereupon the US team won the round by means of some devious arithmetic that only Englanders understand.  Thereafter, both teams were dispatched in the second round by Ghana and Germany, respectively.  As I see it, the US continues to enjoy the advantage in this great rivalry going back 234 years.

If that doesn't draw a "Bloody 'ell," nothing will.



Monday, June 21, 2010

A Moment of Pride and Reflection

Beneath my lighthearted pretense, the stuff I write here usually matters to me a great deal.  Ordinarily, I don't feel any pressing need to whack folks on the head.  Well, maybe that piece on the Gulf oil got away from me.  Get over it.

But this one matters to me a great deal.  Next month, my son comes home from Kuwait, where he has given a year of his life - this time - to supporting the war in Iraq.  Last time was in Iraq itself, the time before that and before that and before that, in South Korea supporting a 60-year-old truce.  He wears more ribbons than the Maypole at Miss Porter's School.

Erik will come to Fort Sill in Oklahoma as part of an advance team to welcome home the rest of his unit, some of whom hail from Connecticut as he does, and some of whom hail from right here in Clearwater.  Small world, this.  His duties will include teaching soldiers who have been at war how to return to a society that does not always speak in the same gerunds that the soldiers do.  Good idea, that.

I'm somewhat accustomed to Erik's homecomings, so why the hoo-hah now?

I had occasion yesterday to view a Facebook entry from Erik's friend, Jay, also known as Charles M. Beyer, Captain, Connecticut Army National Guard.  Jay climbs into the pilot's seat of a helicopter every day and flies over some of the most deadly real estate on Earth.

When Jay lands safely back in Kuwait, he is also Erik's CO.  (Blackhawk photo credit: David J. Mercado, Clearwater FL & Kuwait City)

Jay did some training in Germany earlier this month and, on the 66th anniversary of D-Day, took pictures at the concentration camp at Dachau.  Here's one he took of the "shower facility" that still stands as a reminder of what can happen when good people don't act.

Erik's grandfather, nearly 90, is Bill Flaherty, featured here.  Pop rarely speaks of it, and he'll be a little embarrassed if he reads it here, but he spent his years in the army slogging through the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge, pushing into Germany in 1945 to bring an end to the nightmare that was Nazism.

The way I see it, fanaticism - whether ideological like the Nazis, religious like Al Qaida and the Taliban, or dictatorial like Kim Jong-Il  - is a present and continuing threat to us all.  Only dedicated effort by Jay and Erik and their peers in uniform can prevent another Dachau or 9/11.  Freedom is no more free today that it was 66 years ago.

So this homecoming will again be one of joy, tempered with admiration for the world's most important job, done well.  Thank you, Erik and Jay and all who have served with you.  Welcome home.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Grim Reaper Wears Prada

This is Florida.  Around here, folks take "God's waiting room" seriously.  The classified ads in the local newspaper include a separate section for "Cemeteries, Mausoleums & Crypts."  It's a sizable section at that, where bargains can be had, presumably from owners who have decided not to go.  This morning, for instance, an ad offered, "Double crypt in desirable section of Fester's Mausoleum.  Excellent views."

Desirable?  Views?  What is this person thinking?

When you live in a 55+ mobile home community, you quickly discover that the "+" means "pushing 90."  Here, all the amenities that Florida offers to the eternity-bound are concentrated, refined and polished.  At times, an air of expectancy wafts around the park like a spring zephyr.  Forest Lawn with shuffleboard.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, ambulances cruise slowly around the park.  One enterprising driver recently added a set of bells, like a cross between Monte Python and the Good Humor man.  "Ding-a-ling, bring out yer dead!"  Honestly, you don't want to be caught dozing on a lawn chair in the front yard.

One might think the immediacy of mortality would cast a pall (if you will) over the park, but one would be wrong.  The place is more like a train station: everyone is cheered when the train finally arrives.  "Now departing for the pearly gates on track 9 . . . "  If you don't think this can be true, stop by one of the monthly community breakfasts at the rec hall.  "Damn shame about Sophie Carson.  Pass the maple syrup, would you.  Has anyone claimed her seat at bingo yet?"

If you ever doubted that death is just another part of life, start watching Florida's classifieds.  Down here, the hereafter is just another piece of real estate.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Maybes, Sweet Maybes

Maybe the oil will bypass Tampa Bay, go visit itself on the east coast. Maybe when the panhandle and east coasts are destroyed, the rest of us in Florida will be not be affected.  Maybe Key West will survive -- you don't need clean white sand to drink a Margarita and sing Buffett tunes off key

Maybe the economic recovery that never really ignited in Tampa will somehow flare up when the oil obliterates stretches of the Gulf shores.  Our stretches.  Maybe the housing market will skyrocket as ghouls buy front-row seats for the worst environmental disaster in history.  Something to tell the grandkids: I was there when the world ended for a billion living things.  Maybe people will stop leaping from the Skyway Bridge, put off by the slime they will be diving into.

I have been a Floridian for 21 months.  For the first time, I feel like one.  It feels bad.

Maybe we've seen the worst of this.  Maybe this season, for the first time in memory, no hurricane will enter the Gulf to fling oil everywhere.

I stood on Indian Rocks Beach tonight with tourists and natives and transplants like myself to watch the sun set.  Not a drop of oil in sight.  Maybe I'll stop by the beach more often now to watch a miracle that may not happen again for a long time after this summer.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Brains of the Outfit - An Appreciation

You might think that retiring means you just stop working and start sitting around doing nothing.  Actually, I have been not-exactly-retired for 21 months and have been sitting happily around doing pretty damn little.  But now that I need to really-really retire, I find myself too frequently inadequate to the complications of the task.  My brain, which once was an object of personal pride and could cope with the Rule Against Perpetuities while idling, now is bowled over by puzzles like, "Which line do I sign?" and "Where did I leave my pen?"

I'm faced with two potential explanations.  One, maybe my brain is poaching in the Florida heat and has lost its fizz, like a glass of beer left in the sun while I search for another bag of nuts.  Or two, maybe my former mental effervescence was an illusion in the first place.

Here's what happened.  I had to update all kinds of estate-planning documents to cover the unlikely possibility that I can't spend everything I own before I am cast adrift on the proverbial ice flow. Oh, wait, wrong climate.  Tar pits seem more appropriate right now.  Anyway, you get the idea - the kids would like some of the proceeds if I'm not using them.  (They hasten to deny this, but if they're not lying now, they will be eventually.)

It wasn't the technical complexities of the Living Will and Last Will and Testament that unhinged me.  It was the typing and assembly of what turned out to be a staggering pile of paper that did me in.  Activities that I once tossed off as "ministerial" suddenly grew fangs and claws.  Paper jammed.  Ink ran low.  Staples punctured flesh.  Two dozen finished documents deviated from standard English in ways that I would not like to be remembered for into perpetuity.  That word again, perpetuity.  Like me, it takes on weight as it ages.

Truth be known, I deviated from standard English while shredding useless Powers of Atorney [sic], lapsing frequently into Anglo-Saxon and middle French, heavy on gerunds.  I am multi-lingual, to a point.

Why did this never happen to me when I was practicing law with the Big Guns in Hartford?  I have one word for you - Nancy.  For 20-plus years Nancy apparently dealt with all these issues in background, well below my puny threshold of attention.  So when I directed (no less) that Motions to Dismiss and Certificates of Service appear on my desk, they did.  Properly typed, proofread, copied, collated, stapled and some other things that I probably still am missing.  With envelopes.  Was I impressed?  Nah.  Piece of cake, right?  Um, no.

I have fretted more in the past week than I did in 20 years in Nancy's uncomplaining care.  Well - mostly uncomplaining.  Turns out she was the brains of the outfit, and I didn't even know it.  Thanks, Nancy.  I hope my replacement knows how lucky he of she or they are.  But more likely they won't get it until they need to type their own retirement papers.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Friends of Friends of Friends

I am a somewhat reluctant denizen of Facebook, mostly because people who I know or knew or who know who I know or knew (and so on) keep inviting me to be their Friend, and I haven't the heart to say, "No," or even sometimes, "Who?"  So when I check into FB from time to time to see if my children are still out there, perhaps even having children - or more children - of their own, I get to see what everyone I know and everyone who they know (etc) are doing.  (I know this is hard to read, but work it out somehow; it's a complicated story line.)  Mostly what all these not-really-related people are doing is mundane.  Going to Mickey D's for dinner - check.  Sun rose again in the east today - check. 

But then, there are the outliers, renegades whose purpose in life is to perplex and befuddle.  I especially like pictures that Friends and Friends of Friends (etc) post, usually in some misguided effort to convey to the cosmos WHO THEY ARE.  For instance, here is a guy who knows a gal I know - or at least knew - who is shock absorbers:

And a guy I know and sometimes love (because he makes great gumbo and sells great beer) who also just happens to be of the breakfast persuasion:

Yup - bacon & eggs, tomatoes, sausage and other stuff - and beer.  Your basic Full English Breakfast.  Speaking of beer, here's a guy who is a beer:

After that it gets - um - odder and more personal.  Got muscles?

Folks, I am related to this person by accident of blood.

Here's someone I am not related to but love dearly, with friend:

Here's a lady who knows someone who I know, in the process of discovering that babies are not born; they just fall out of the sky:

Finally, I know someone who lives - if you want to call it that - in the desert.  He has smelly friends:

You might think these pix were culled from months of peculiar Facebook postings, but - I tremble to observe - these are all current pictures.  Inevitably - ineluctably even - more like them will arrive on tomorrow's Facebook page.  I am going to have to ask my friends to start hanging around with a better class of Friends.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On Being Young

I thought to jot a thousand words on being young.  And about my sweet granddaughter, Katy, who is nine.  And about her sweet great-grandfather, Bill Flaherty, who will be ninety  February next.  But perhaps the picture will suffice.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Professional Cynic Meets Silverstein

I have been a professional cynic for so long that I had begun to think cynicism as essential as bone and blood.  So when Kathryn strolled up the jetway earlier this evening, I was struck by how grown up she had become at the age of barely nine, MP3-player and tween magazine in hand, hair streaked fetchingly red but so sophisticated.  My granddaughter has more air miles on her than I had when I was 30.  Now she flies solo, moving with confidence through Tampa International toward baggage claim, grandfather and great-grandfather in tow.  If the mark of good parenting is independence and confidence, Katy's parents are beyond good.  A blue-blood cynic would say this is a visit by a tiny adult-in-waiting.

After coffee and bread pudding - Katy declined the coffee, although she does indulge from time to time in a bit of decaf -  we began preparing for what will likely turn into a week-long game of Risk (the Game of World Domination, it says), parceling out game pieces and deciding that a layout on the coffee table will be least intrusive.  "We flew over Orlando," she says.  Florida is the Land of Disney, but she will settle for Busch Gardens this trip.  And, I hope, a few things she does not expect.  At nine, she is so much harder to impress, you know.

As we sat reading our respective historical novel and tween-zine, I thought perhaps we might read to each other.  The inimitable Shel Silverstein quickly became the weapon of choice.  I read "Captain Hook"; she read "Hug O' War"; I read "Sleeping Sardines"; she read "Listen to the Mustn'ts":

Listen to the MUSTN'TS, child,
Listen to the DON'TS
Listen to the SHOULDN'TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me --
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

She read with conviction, with authority. 

Bedtime drifted around naturally. "Do you still like to cuddle before sleep?" I asked.  "Mm-hmm."

Lie in your granddaughter's bed, wrapped around all that innocence.  Then tell me you're still a cynic.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Scene on the Beach

It's crazy season in Pinellas County - Spring Break - when the beaches fill with sex-crazed, nubile coeds who have flown or driven in from colder climes.  It's a happy time for those of us who cruise the sugar-soft sand wearing mirrored sunglasses and trying not to look like the dirty old men we are.

If you come - I'm talking to you, you dirty old man - here are some things to look for.

Ground zero for nubiles is Clearwater Beach.  It is no coincidence that Gulfview Boulevard, which parallels the beaches, is heavily laced with pedestrian crosswalks.  The road was, after all, laid out by dirty old civil engineers.  And the sovereign law of Florida requires motorists to yield to pedestrians pedestriating the crosswalks.  I can burn off a gallon of gas at a crosswalk, just waiting to yield to nubile pedestrians.  My wife gets impatient wondering why we are standing still in the road for no reason she can discern.  Motorists behind me get equally antsy, with blue-haired old ladies anxious to get on with it and their dirty old husbands wanting to take my primo spot at the crosswalk.

Walking the beach is far more scenic, of course, and I develop an acute sunburn every year about this time.  Do you know that if you hold your cell phone out in front of your face and talk to it, people never suspect you're really taking pictures? At least, I don't think they do.

For newcomers - dirty old men on their first visit, that is - you should know about the beach volleyball courts set up near Pier 60.  All the static sunbathing in the world does not beat nubiles in motion. In teams of six or eight.  One man's opinion, all right?  Well, no, actually.  You see, beach volleyball is a game whose rules are made in France (I'm not making this up).  If you subscribe to the Official Rules, as most dirty old men should, you get a rule book with this picture on the cover:

Well, as you can see there are a lot more nuances to Spring Break than meet the eye - or maybe not - but I must be getting on to it.  Till next time.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Brewers' Dirty Little Secret

I just returned from the cask-conditioned ale tasting at Cigar City Brewery, sponsored by Whole Foods as a charitable event designed to save some portion of the world from some sort of deprivation.  The event was well-conceived, well-run, and well-attended. Beers served from the cask included::

Cigar City Brewing Cubano Espresso Maduro Brown Ale
Dunedin Brewery Red Dog Ale
Saint Somewhere (Something)
He'Brew Bittersweet Lenny's RIPA on Rye
Wintercoat Double Hop

There were others on cask, plus a bunch of beers in more conventional keg presentations, all of them tasty, some outstanding.  More on that later.

For newbies, cask conditioned ales are beers that are sealed in kegs after fermentation.  Ideally, oak casks are used, but steel kegs are far more common and easier to pull off.  Residual yeast carbonates the beer, and the result is a much finer carbonation - tiny bubbles that feel very different on the palate than the bigger bubbles produced by forced CO2 carbonation, which is how most kegged or bottled beers are carbonated today.  Cask ales are served directly from the cask with no additional carbonation added, and the beer is drained into your glass via gravity or, in the classical presentation, a mechanical pump.  (Think buxom beer lassies heaving on these great beer engines to pour you the finest possible beer straight from the cellar.  It's a happy tradition indeed.)

Anyway, the result of cask conditioning is a lower-carbonation beer, traditionally served at "cellar" temperature - 50F or so.  Flavors develop beautifully and the beers routinely have a smooth-as-silk finish to them.  To entrenched American (read:  Bud Light) tastes, the beer is warm and flat.  To beer sophisticates, the beer is liquid gold.

But I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

All of the beers at the cask festival were huge examples of their various sorts:  big Double and Imperial IPA's and Stouts and Old Ales, IPA's with hop bitterness over 100 IBU's (newbies:  that's a lot of hops) and alcohol levels of 8 and 10 percent by volume.  (Compare Bud Light at 4.2%, Guinness Stout at 4.0% and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at 5.25% ABV.)  Drink three pints of this stuff and hand your car keys over to someone more responsible.  (I have a very accommodating bride, who tolerates more than her share of beer-related nonsense.  God bless her.)

So, what's the dirty little secret?  It's this:  big, alcoholic, hoppy, chewy beers with all that fruity flavor are easy to make.  Just put lots of grain - some of it more heavily roasted than usual -  in the mash tun and lots of hops in the boiler and let 'er rip.  Add yeast - maybe some funky Belgian or exotic old English ale yeast- to the mix and ferment at a temperature that is a little higher than it should be, and you create a monster beer that would-be beer snobs swoon over.  They wax eloquent on the subtle or not-so-subtle flavors of chocolate and whiskey and toffee and smoke and coffee and plum and raisin and kumquat.  They note the biblical levels of hop bitterness that - truth be known - utterly swamp the malt flavor that is the root of all good beer.

The brewing process that produces these beers is completely out of control because all of the fruity flavors embedded in the brew are uncontrolled and uncontrollable byproducts of a fermentation process gone wild.  Really huge beers in this tradition are usually presented as one-of-a-kind brews.  That's because the brewer cannot possibly recreate this same out-of-control fermentation in a subsequent brew. 

Folks, all the fruity flavors, the bananas and green apples and cherries and chocolate are brewing defects.  They are the result of a fermentation process that spawns random chemicals - acetaldehydes and diacetyls and the like - that don't belong in well-crafted beers. It is beyond me how these defects came to be viewed as virtues, when at best they are barely controlled failures of the brewer's art. 

In the final analysis, these enormous beers lack the subtlety and nuance of truly great beers.  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale leaps immediately to mind:  balanced, consistent, reliable and drinkable. Drink SNPA and you taste pure clean malted barley and the essence of Cascades hops.  No French toast or cranberry overtones, no bitterness or astringency that puckers the mouth and makes it shrink from the next sip.  No junk in the trunk. Sierra Nevada's seasonal beers are usually - but not always - similarly well conceived.  Celebration Ale, for instance, varies little from year to year.  These beers are great examples of the brewer's art.

Let's look for a minute at the ultimate junk beer: Budweiser.  As we all know, drinking Bud is like making love in a canoe:  it's fucking close to water.  But Bud is a remarkable example of the brewer's craft - and maybe his art, as well.  The beer has no fruity funkiness or oddball yeastiness or mountainous levels of hops to mask an out-of-control fermentation. For all its lack of good beer flavor, it is amazingly clean, crisp and refreshing - in other words, exactly what it pretends to be.  If Budweiser screws up a batch of beer, you know it instantly (assuming, of course, that you actually drink the stuff).  Bud is infinitely more difficult to brew - as a technical undertaking - than your local Double Secret Hops IPA.  That doesn't make it better, just more difficult to produce day after day.

So what do I want in a good beer?  Drinkability, for starters.  Give me a well-balanced beer that has proportionate levels of hops and malt for the style, with an alcohol level I can live with and still drive home after a couple of pints.  Give me a well-crafted pale ale or even a proper lager that I can enjoy without a constant barrage of sensory pyrotechnics.  If you are going to make me an IPA or an Old Ale, show me you can make it the same way time after time - that the flavors in your beer are the result of design and craft rather than a chemical crap-shoot.  Show me the pure malt and hop flavors that are the essence of good beer, no matter what the specific style.

Don't get me wrong - I love well-made big beers, the Dogfish Head 90's and 120's of the world.  But "good beer" is not synonymous with the crushing levels of hops and alcohol and funky flavors, haphazardly applied, that are so commonly mistaken for "great" beer.  Subtlety and balance, that's the ticket.