Saturday, August 18, 2012


It's quiet now, here in God's waiting room, the foyer of forever.  The Canadians have gone home, unfamiliar as they are with the miracle of Freon.  A fly buzzes against the window for a bit, then sputters and spirals one final time to the floor, silent.  It's the dead of summer.

In the North, people ask, friends ask, "Isn't it hot?"

How to answer?

I flip off a sardonic, "You don't have to shovel Hot."  But that dodges the issue.  Of course it's hot.  Damn hot.  Egg fry hot.  Milk curdles on the counter while you hunt down a cereal bowl.  I love it.

It's true.  Air conditioning is fair respite, but the outdoor heat is to revel in.  The Finns invented saunas so they could bask in the essence of Florida's summer.  The Romans had their caldaria, the Aztecs their temazcal.  They knew:  sweat cleanses the pores and the soul.  Florida folk have the cleanest pores and souls in the known universe.

Life slows in the Florida summer.  Folks stroll.  Yesterday watching a youth football team practice, I saw a tough old coach twirling a parasol.  At mid-day, there is nothing but you and the heat.  The mosquitoes have all cooked off, and your skin glows incandescent.  The off-shore breeze is a blow-torch.  The siesta is the great restorer.

I have been here four years, and each year the absence of winter cold is more normal, as is the infinite heat of summer, both reasons to render thanks to the weather gods.  Except perhaps the hurricane god.

This year we had record heat.  I'm alive and thriving.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Thinking About What's Important

I stepped in poison ivy yesterday, and now I have a skull-shaped red patch on my instep.  I really think Judy could have been more sympathetic, but she just looked and uttered a flat, "Oh."  Then - - nothing.

How hard would it have been to expand a bit, like "Ooo, that looks sore.  Does it hurt much?'

But no, she just moved her attention back to The Girl Who Played With Fire.  The sore patch on my foot may as well have been just some awkward birthmark as this annoying, itching skull of pain.  I mean, I love her dearly, but she can be so oblivious to the suffering of others.

Not all others, actually, just mine.  I mean she was horrified that time the cat stepped on a rat trap in the stupid neighbor's yard and got its right front paw fairly mashed.  And another time a hummingbird slammed into our picture window (as least insofar as a hummingbird can be said to slam into anything) and she ran out and quickly nursed it back to health.  But for my poison ivy - - nothing.

I have put off saying anything to her, thinking that perhaps her lack of empathy -- or sympathy (I get those concepts confused) -- may be the result of a defect in her upbringing, or maybe something the nuns said to her in grammar school.

I think if Judy ever gets out of that hospital bed, I'm going to have a talk with her.  She is likely using her little diabetes attack as an excuse for  focusing on herself rather than those unfortunate ivy-poisoned souls around her.  Why else would she get woozy like that in the middle of my vacation?  The ambulance ride alone consumed a good part of my day.  And you know what I think of hospital cafeteria food.

It's not like this is anything serious: the doctor says she'll be fine in a day or two once they balance her medications.  But that's no reason for her to be so cheerful in the presence of real suffering.  My poison ivy skull is going to be there long after she's up and around.

Maybe I'll buy myself a get-well card.  That'll show her.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Reluctant Horticulturist

I am a lazy gardener.  No, uh, wait.  Let me start again.

I'm not a gardener.  I squandered too much of my youth as an under-aged farmhand to appreciate the finer points to forcing junk to grow where it does not want to be and keeping other junk from growing where it so desperately does want to be.  Who am I to say where our green brethren and sistren should be and where they should not?  Humble; that's what I am.  Humble.  And lazy.

But there is a stretch of barren sand in front of my trailer manufactured home where nothing wholesome grows of its own volition.  My whole front yard - not really "front yard" in the classic sense, but more like "square yard located in front" - is shaded by a couple of scraggly live oaks.  Grass, or what passes for grass in Florida, hasn't a prayer of survival, let alone thrival. 

My personal aspiration for home decor - inside and out - has always been that sweet spot just south of the neighborhood median:  not so bad as to draw angry glares from neighbors, but never so fine as to prompt unsolicited praise.  I'm fine with mediocre.

I was propounding my laissez faire approach to landscaping to friends Anne and Chris recently, when they pointed out that their entire yard is overrun by low-maintenance, self-sustaining Florida flora called "bromeliads."

"Nothing to it," they promised.  "Just plant 'em and forget 'em."

It seems that bromeliads thrive on a little shade, poor soil and whatever occurs naturally for rain.  If I just blow the oak leaves off them a couple times a year, I'll be assured of lush greenery with occasional spectacular and long-lasting blooms. 

My kind of agriculture. 

Anne  and Chris pulled up a few dozen of their excess bromeliads and popped them in my trunk.  I'm still trying to get the dirt out of the trunk.

I brought them home, dutifully scooped out a bunch of divots in the sand, jammed the plants in up to their root line, covered them with sand, and went in the house to stanch the bleeding.

Did I mention that bromeliads are festooned with razor-edged leaves?  And the few specimens that don't have razors have hypodermic thorns.  The Edward Scissorhands of the plant world.

For the past two months, these no-care bastards have ruled my life.  I've been dividing those that have "pupped" and replanting them in a pattern designed to not look like a pattern.  I want the place to look as though these things crawled in and took up residence of their own accord.  It's that humility thing again.  The trouble is that all that grass that wouldn't grow before, now sprouts from every inter-bromelial gap.

Still, the place is lush, in a random, just-happened-to-sprout-there way, and the neighbors are intrigued.  "Newt," they ask, "What is that stuff with all the sharp edges?"

I mutter a few Greco-Latin names that I made up.  "Bromelius scissorhandius."

"But they make it difficult for my dogs to do their business in your yard." 

As God is my witness, this is a direct quote.

"Yes," I reply with mystic serenity.  "I noticed that.  Would you like to take home some pups."


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Restaurant Review: Bistro L'Hôpital

The Old Man dropped into Morton Plant last week to get his gall bladder prodded and his bile duct bored out and re-lined.  That gave me a chance to check out the renowned MP Bistro L'Hôpital.  As a true connoisseur of fine hospital cuisine, I was supremely anxious to sample the lunch menu, which is daringly similar - the very same, in fact - as the breakfast, brunch, and dinner menus.  I was duly impressed by the chef's approach, deftly spurning the creativity and originality that mars the work of so many poseurs in the field of contemporary hospital dining.

The MP Bistro is simply but elegantly appointed, with great splashes of organic color on the walls: liver mauve, muted mucous beige and, no doubt in the Old Man's honor, bile.  Furniture was understated Formica in necrotic tan, with chiropractic seating done up in a surgical instrument motif - a humanizing touch of medical kitsch.  The open kitchen featured acres of gleaming stainless steam tables, and an attentive chef regaled in artfully splotched whites, festooned with dabs of multicolored sauces and exotic cooking oils.  A very "together" look indeed.

I sampled first the Jello-mold appetizer with freshly drained irradiated grapes and just a hint of pineapple and - was that mango, by any chance?  The promised mold itself was barely in evidence, a disappointing bit of overstatement, I thought.

Choosing an entree was a daunting challenge, as racks and racks of gorgeously foil-wrapped goodies lounged under infrared lamps, aged to perfection and emitting marvelously unidentifiable aromas and wisps of steam.  I chose a freshly reheated hamburger, billed ostentatiously as the "Burger Chez Nous." It lived up to its billing, presenting on a crunchy white bun no doubt out of the oven only in the past few days. The array of options was staggering: cheese?  no cheese?  pickle wedge?  Embarrassed by my own gluttony, I went with the full boat.  Damn the calories, I thought, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.

I peeled the burger from its mylar cocoon and devoured it like a man desperate for sustenance.  Nothing could stop me from stuffing myself with delectable bits of charred beef and oozy-oleaginous cheese-like substance.  I had swaddled the burger in freshly opened packets of yellow mustard, preternaturally green sweet relish, and just a hint of Morton Plant's famous catsup du jour.  Perhaps this was gilding the lily, but the flood of condiments went far to embellish the je ne sais quoi rush of tantalizingly vague meat flavor, reminiscent of long-dead cow, with haunting notes of dry-aged armadillo.

Sated to the groaning point, I reluctantly passed up the dessert tray heavily mounded with whoopie-pies and Cool Whip parfaits sweet enough to send Paula Deen into paroxysms of diabetic shock.  Small wonder that the entire Pinellas County medical establishment calls this noisome bistro its home away from home and the wellspring of its livelihood.  Before I waddled toward the swinging doors, empty tray in hand, I took enough notes to recreate for you the recipe for Morton Plant Hospital's prodigious entry into the anals of hamburger fame.
                 Cheeseburger Chez Nous  

Remove from the freezer a generous 3-ounce slab of the finest USDA Commercial Quality ground beef, preferably prepared with pink slime and added water.  (Ask your butcher.)  Without allowing the frozen meat-product to thaw, drop the burger onto a hot grill - it should make a satisfying "clank" - and go find something else to do for a half-hour.

When the burger is burnished almost black on both sides, quickly quench in a cauldron of tepid water to halt the cooking at just the perfect shade of drab, which the Morton Plant chefs refer to as au pointe.  Allow to marinate up to forever, adding burgers periodically as swarming patrons locust down the first-cooked specimens.  (Oops - I suppose "specimens" is a poor choice of word.)

To finish, pluck the meat puck from the marinade, allow to drain briefly, and flip adroitly back onto the hot grill.  Cook tenderly until last vestiges of color dissipate.  Turn and cook 20 minutes more to drive off any lingering flavor-causing elements.  For the final 5 minutes, drape the burger lovingly in slices of cheese-like substance and allow to congeal slightly.

While your burger finishes charring, drop a bun cut-side down on the greasiest part of the grill to soak up residual cooking essence from previous burgers.  Allow to toast gently until soaked and delectable.

To serve, quickly pop the burger with its cheese-like mantle onto the glistening bun, wrap quickly in foil, and nestle into a paper plate folded into the shape of an origami coal scuttle.  Garnish with small pickle wedge and an overwhelming heap of fresh kale or any inedible green foliage.  Serve tomorrow.

Bon appetite!


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Inevitability of Blivets

The following is reprinted with permission of the author, who submitted it as a comment in the delightfully irreverent Horse Pucky.  Therein, the lovely Pam had referred to the military standard "blivet," which consists of 10 lb of digestive effluent in a 5-lb bag.  But wait!  There's more!

This is for the engineers in the group.

Aerospace engineers (one of which I once was) recognize a unique commercial mutation of the military specification blivet.  As you may not want to know, airplane toilets are "serviced" via an offloading hose attached to a valve on the side of the fuselage.  Sadly, this valve inevitably gets - um - clogged.  With further inevitability, these valves leak a little.

Leakage speeds up as the altitude increases (there is a formula for this), and the leak continues apace as the airplane cruises at 30,000 feet.  It's really cold up there.  So the leakage tends to form a frozen - shall we say - globule, which adheres tightly to the side of the aircraft.  Our globule grows ever bigger as the flight continues and the back-pressure on the valve continues to increase.  Inevitably.  There comes a moment when our burgeoning "blivet" - you can see how it might have gotten that name - becomes heavy enough to lose adhesion, and it plummets from the heavens.

No, it does not burn up on re-entry (this is no meteorite).  Inevitably, the bright blue blivet - you do remember that airplane toilets flush blue, don't you? - anyway, the bright blue blivet always lands in a farmer's field, usually in Iowa, frightening the cows something terrible.

Upon discovering the source of the cows' discomfiture, the farmer inevitably phones the authorities with tales of imminent extraterrestrial invasion.  The authorities, having heard it before, call the local airport to inquire.  The resulting report inevitably appears in the weekly report that crosses a certain aerospace engineer's desk.  About once a week.

That's a blivet. 


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wimple, Wimple on a Bun

I fell asleep last night thinking about wimples.  This doesn't happen often.

A wimple, for those of you raised in some heathen tradition, is the starched, white linen gadget that nuns used to wear around their head and face, like a Catholic ḥijāb.  Sally Field wore one in The Flying Nun.  Yes, before there was that Academy Award thing and even before Burt Reynolds - but after Gidget, of course - there was Sister Bertrille.  Okay, okay - I watched it some.  There was a period in my young life when I was still confused about some things.  More confused than now, I mean.

Anyway, Sally Fields wore this funky wimple - "funky" was a legitimate word back then - with a couple of giant gull-wing appendages that magically imbued the hot little nun with the gift of flight.  Nobody ever really got the point of all this, but Sally was still Gidget back then, and you could get away with a lot if you were Gidget.  At least with guys you could, despite the fact that the wimple and the rest of the white habit rendered Sally effectively sexless.  Unless you had a hinky little wimple thing going.

So I watched.  Television and sex were simpler in the 70s.  Or the 60's.  But who's counting?

Enter the James Beard Society.  If James Beard was the Pope of Food, then his Society, even today, is the College of Culinary Cardinals.  They might have been the Bishopric of Bon Appetit, but given the state of contemporary priestly society, "Bishopric" carves a bit too close to the bone.

Recently, the JBS decided to name five "Classic American Restaurants."  It's what the JBS does - name things.  It canonized Shady Glen, from my hometown of Manchester, Connecticut.

Shady Glen's glory is its "classic" cheeseburger.  The Glen's original owner, long before Burt Reynolds and even before Gidget, discovered that if you drape three big pieces of cheese over a hamburger while it's grilling, the overhanging cheese crisps up like some God-blessed cheesy potato chip.  As the cheese begins to crackle, the grill man lifts and sculpts it into a soaring, swooping set of wings:  a cheeseburger wimple to make Sally Field jealous.

I have worshiped Shady Glen's cheeseburgers since long before I discovered Gidget.  Girls, after all, come and go.  (Okay, most of them come and go; my wife reads these things.)  But a wimpled Shady Glen burger was, is, and I hope always will be paradise on a bun.  The James Beard Society got it right.



Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pedaling My La-Z-Boy to Glory

I own three bicycles, not one of which rides itself.  Two of them live on my front porch lanai behind my comfy La-Z-Boy.  That's the nice thing about a La-Z-Boy.  You never have to pedal a La-Z-Boy.

A couple of months back, in the height of our gloriously mild winter, I cleaned and polished my bikes to a gleaming luster, oiled the chains, greased the nice leather saddles.  Put them carefully back on the lanai behind the La-Z-Boy and headed out to play bridge.  Bike cleaning takes so much out of you.

Before I retired to Florida, I averaged about 5000 miles a year cycling.  As such an experienced cyclist, I am rather demanding, as you might imagine.  I have expectations of bicycling that Florida has a tough time meeting.  There aren't any damn hills here, for one thing, hills like the ones I used to devour in Connecticut.  Nothing here gets even remotely vertical.  And what's the point of riding on endlessly flat terrain?  Not enough of a workout to bother with, really.

But I do subscribe to Bicycling magazine, which I read while sitting in my La-Z-Boy in front of my two gleaming bikes.  The third bike, by the way, is a beach cruiser, a relaxed rider that I bought especially for riding on the packed sand along the miles of  beautiful beach that we have here.  I keep it in the shed, where I have to climb over it to get to my gardening tools.  That's why I never use gardening tools.  In fact, I dropped my subscription to Modern Gardening magazine.  The bike in the shed makes gardening ridiculously difficult.

I paid $40 a few months back for a three-month membership in the municipal athletic facility, which has a nice selection of bike machines.  Trouble is, they are not like the real thing - no wind in your face, and the artificial "hills" you can program in are not at all convincing.  Waste of money if you ask me.

I once rode a bicycle from Manchester, Connecticut to Bar Harbor, Maine.  Yessir, fully loaded for camping and cooking along the road.  The stories I could tell you about that week in the saddle; it was the adventure of a lifetime.  I would definitely do that again if I still lived in Connecticut.  When it comes to bicycling, you can't beat Connecticut.

Recently I decided that I should ride again, even if the roads are too flat.  I bought nice new pedals for my favorite bike and installed a new bike computer so I can track all my miles on my laptop while sitting in my La-Z-Boy.  I get tremendous inspiration from the statistics of exercise; it's the engineer in me, I suppose.  The software was much harder to install than I expected.  Stupid programmers!  How am I supposed to ride if my bike computer doesn't read accurately?

My favorite bike is a custom touring job that set me back more than any new car I owned before the age of 40.  If you look at my new picture at the top of this blog, you can just make out the seat post of that bike sticking up over my right ear.  (The picture was taken sitting in my La-Z-Boy.)  That bike has a Shimano Deore XT drivetrain and Chris King hubs and bearings, which make the bike ride like a dream.  I get tremendous satisfaction owning a fine piece of equipment like that.  It's best use is fully loaded touring, like that ride to Bar Harbor.  That was a ride, all right.  Hard to do that here in Florida.  Bar Harbor being so far away, I mean.

Anyway, I'm thinking of buying new tires to replace the ones that have gotten ratty after sitting for the past two years.  I would not want to go out on a long ride only to blow a tire 30 miles out.  Modern technology is great for tire shopping.  I can sit here in my La-Z-Boy, scanning the tire ads in my magazine and order them on line without getting out of my chair.

For shorter rides, I have a great carbon fiber bike that is super fast on flat roads and even up hills if we had any.  Trouble is there's really no place to ride here in Tampa Bay because of the traffic.  The traffic is so bad they put in a long bike trail that goes from Tarpon Springs down to the waterfront in St. Pete, about 40 miles.  That would be great except it's too flat and kind of boring, since it goes mostly in a straight line (it used to be a rail line).  Not much to look at except the scenery, which is barely above average. 

I have Google Earth on my laptop.  Maybe I'll lay out a route for next weekend.  Except it's getting kind of hot in Florida for riding.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Driving for Jesus

Once in a while something comes along that profoundly improves one's understanding of the human condition.  Take religion, for instance.  Some go to church and do good works.  I get that.  I have a daughter and granddaughter on their way in July to equatorial Africa to build a church for some friends' families.  Africa in the summer?  Sure - temperatures run cooler than in Connecticut and WAY cooler than Tampa Bay.

There is another side of religious joy that words cannot convey.  Behold the Jesus Truck:


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Good Times at TPA

Nothing rattles 63-year-old bones like a week in the thrall of a couple of 11-year-olds on spring break.  Katy and friend Noelle arrived a week ago and - sandy beach be damned - headed straight for the refrigerator.  Boy-howdy.

As a non-traveling grandfather claiming children off an airplane, I still had to go through security.  It's okay; I know the drill:  I left everything in the car but keys and ID, and approached the groping zone in shorts, unbelted and wearing the battered boat shoes I now live in.  Not that I expected to be invisible - the beard alone elevated every TSA agent in the place to Defcon One.

So I shuffled on command into the electronic peeping Tom, barefoot and naked beneath my clothes.  Oops.  The machine beeped at my knees.  I knew it was my knees because the conspicuously sexless stick figure on the wall flashed two blinking red squares where you would expect to see knees.  That and the TSA guy growled, "There's something wrong with your knees.  Please step over here."

So I stepped over to the groping station with my knees.  Did I mention I was wearing shorts?  It's Paradise; shorts is the uniform of the day.  You would think the guy in the blue gloves could look at my knees and see there were no devices strapped to them.  Not really, no.

"Spread your legs wide, sir, please."  Still barefoot and unbelted, I knew that any such big athletic moves risked widespread embarrassment, but I had no interest in spending the weekend in the pokey or the newspapers.  So I spread 'em. 

Now tell me honestly: don't you think any terrorist clever enough to hide Semtex in his skivvies would know not to wear shorts if he had bombs on his knees?  I did not point this out to the groper in the blue gloves.

Eventually, I got the girls home in their customary advanced state of starvation, despite stopping on the way for sandwiches. 

Vignette:  Stick-thin Noelle standing in the kitchen at 11:30 in the morning, munching a hastily assembled PBJ - I knew it was hastily assembled because J was dripping on the floor - deadpanning: "What are we having for lunch?"

It doesn't get any better than this.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Incandescent in Clearwater

Here in sunny FL, it has been 85F these past several weeks - unseasonably lovely, even for Paradise.  Would someone please explain why my bride of 43 years has been swaddling herself in flannels and sweatshirts?  At night, our A/C is tuned to "swelter," yet Sweet Judy, blithely indifferent, cranks her electric blanket to "fry" and, for good measure, piles on another blanket in case global cooling sets in overnight.  Outvoted on all counts, I avoid fatal scalding only by kicking everything onto her side and fluffing the remaining sheet that covers me.

In related news, a mysterious puddle of glass appeared last week in the middle of glorious Clearwater Beach, which is currently in the throes of annual Spring Break.  The common thread here?  Well, the beach throbs to the beat of throngs of thonged and nubile coeds.  It's hot out there, folks.  If you take a wall of flesh, douse it liberally in Wesson Oil (SPF -50), inject it with alcohol, and lay it out in the Florida sun for a few hours, you know what is bound to happen. 

Yes, Human Spontaneous Combustion.  How else to explain that glass puddle in the middle of several hundred hectares of beach sand?

Really, Human Spontaneous Combustion.  Stay with me here.  There's this Michael Faherty guy who detonated recently in Ireland, leaving nothing but a blackened husk.  And get this: there was no apparent source of ignition nearby other than an empty Guinness bottle.  Experts all agree: HSC is the only reasonable explanation.  You could Google it in a jiffy.

So, in the light of Human Spontaneous Combustion as a true scientific phenomenon, let's peek back in on my bedroom.  Sort of.  I mean, the connection should be obvious: Judy's maiden name is ...  Flaherty.  Get it?  Faherty-Flaherty?  Pretty obvious, don't you think?  With her raging internal furnace, her risk of Human Spontaneous Combustion must be astronomical. 

I'm going to start sleeping in the spare room.  With a fire extinguisher.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Triple Witchin'

I know - I've been hard to find lately.  No really, there have been Silver Alerts with my license plate on them.  And all those milk cartons.  But no - I'm still here.  I've been caught in traffic. 

Now, I know what you're thinking:  this guy gets all Chicken Little when he starts whining about the traffic in the Sunshine State.  Nothing can be all that bad.

Unbelievers.  Heathens, all of you.  Birthers, even.

It is the triple witching hour in Pinellas County.  The place is hip-deep in snowbirds.  It's Spring Break, so we are inundated with swirling hordes of practically-naked coeds.  (Okay, okay:  that one's not so bad.)  And now the Florida DOT has touched off Armageddon smack in front of my trailer park manufactured home community. 

I want you to study carefully the picture that follows.  It was shot a couple weeks back.  You'll see the intersection of Ulmerton Road and 101st Street North.  You have to squint a little.  This - just out of the picture frame to the left - is where I reside in blissful retirement. I negotiate this intersection 2, 4, sometimes 6 times a day because it lies between me and the nearest beer store.  Staying home, naturally, is not an option.

In the photo, you will notice a tiny green sign located just aft of the white van there on the right.  See it there?  I thought not, but trust me:  it's there.  See it now?


Anyway, the sign bears the crushing news:
      "Construction Scheduled for Completion Fall 2015"

Twenty.  Fifteen. 

And you Northerners -- all you have to crab about is global warming and a few potholes?  Hah!

For the foreseeable future, I'll be holed up with a six-pack of Bud Light and fending off the swirling nubiles.  See you in the Fall of 2015.  In the meantime, watch for me on a milk carton coming to a supermarket near you.