Saturday, September 14, 2013

A very good year

Daisy Fae's reprise of her letter to her sixteen year old self reminded me that she had encouraged me to write one of my own. I was originally resistant, mostly because my sixteen year old self was militantly uninterested in advice from his elders. But what the Hell? Let's give it a go.

Dear Clueless,

Try to relax. They can't see you. They see a good-looking, wicked smart athlete and passable actor who lives in a beautiful house with a pool. They don't know that the house and pool were largely built by subcontractors who couldn't pay your father what they owed him, or that the three acres was given to your parents as newlyweds because the owner "just wanted good neighbors."

What are you going to tell this kid that he would possibly listen to? 
People don't seem to remember that your house was in the country a decade ago, and your best friend in second grade was the son of squatters who lived in one of the shotgun houses where the Interstate runs now. Your mother has done a very thorough job of disguising her heritage, so no one suspects that her parents are Opry-loving hillbillies who only recently installed running water inside their Ozark farmhouse, or that they still have no telephone. Your father is a respected architect now, not the second son of an alcoholic carpenter.

Only your teachers, and those with older siblings realize that you are far less athletic than your brothers. Even they can't see that performing in front of people mystifies you, however much you love it.

The girl to your left is suffering greatly. Much more than a few hours after senior banquet will be able to erase. She will die too young. Help her if you can.

No one (including you) understands the pressure you feel to excel academically. Try to find the words to explain that curiosity is not the same as ambition, and that you will need some time to find your way. Curiosity will always win with you, anyway. It works out best when it is pointed in a productive direction.

Because they can't see you, they don't know your intentions. Most people don't mean to hurt you. They just  have no idea how their words and actions impact other people.Your sensitivity is your greatest strength. Try not to lose it. I know it hurts, but try to remember that it's not always about you.  Assume everyone else is as lonely, clueless and self-involved as you are. The people who seem the meanest are often having the hardest time.

There are a few people who truly see you. You know who they are. They are the friendships you can't explain. Like the quiet friend of the girl you are crushing on, and the guy next to you on the bench. Treasure them, and try not to lose touch. They will be important to you later in life.

The triple threat: nearsighted and dead slow, with hands of iron.

While we're on the subject, you could do with a little remembering that other people's feelings matter, too. Sometimes it is worth losing a friend for your principles, but not as often as you think. And just because you can date three girls at once doesn't mean it's a good idea, even if you have been up front with all of them. You're not missing anything. You know who is worth the time, and it matters, even if she says it doesn't.

Oh, by the way, many people consider you handsome. I hesitate to tell you this, since your ego is enough of a problem when you think you are only average-looking. But you are going to find out one of these days, and maybe it will encourage you to look elsewhere for your shortcomings.

Oh, and when you get to college, don't start smoking. She won't really notice, and she's not worth it anyway. Which reminds me, not everything has to be about sex. To be fair, I'm going to have to say that in the letters to all of my past selves, but it starts with you.

Most of all, try to enjoy it. I won't say these are the best years of your life, but they are definitely only for a limited time. Unlike McRib, they won't be back. And try to take it easy on the weed. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Extra dark roast

Buckle up, this is going to get gross. Seriously, I had to wait a few weeks before I could even write about it, so if you're the least bit squeamish, I would suggest skipping this post and coming back for the next one. (I'm looking at you, Johnny Virgil.)

I have never been a morning person. I sleep deep and wake slowly, despite my tendency to rise earlier with each passing year. I am terribly unfocused and uncoordinated for at least an hour after getting out of bed. The invention of the drip coffeemaker with built-in timer was a godsend for me, and (mostly) ended years of pots with no coffee, no water, grounds spilled everywhere, or (my favorite) coffee all over the counter because I forgot to replace the carafe. Now I can stumble out of bed, pour a cup, and sit quietly until the world starts to make some sense.

The other morning at breakfast, Biscuit said something about the coffee smelling funny. She's a bit of a super-smeller, so this sort of thing happens often. Some days the coffee smells funny, some days it's the air conditioner, sometimes it's me. She especially dislikes the smell of vinegar, so we don't clean the coffeemaker's plumbing as often as we might. I normally wait until she is out of town, but she hasn't been traveling much lately, so it has been a while. I noticed a bit of an odd taste, but nothing remarkable.  We discussed possibilities for a while, and the conversation moved to other things.

Just before leaving the house, as my routine dictates, I began preparing a final serving of coffee in a stainless travel cup to sustain me through the remainder of the morning. As I tipped the carafe to pour, coffee began to splatter on the counter, as if the lid of the carafe were mis-installed. When I turned the carafe to diagnose the problem, I saw two antennae protruding about two inches from the spout, attached to a bullet-shaped head.

Those of you have spent more than fifteen minutes near the Gulf coast are likely familiar with the large cockroaches that are common here, often euphemistically called water bugs, or palmetto bugs.* It seems one of these critters had wandered into the carafe during the night and gotten a nasty surprise come wakeup time.

I reacted like any red-blooded American male in that circumstance. I whipped the KA-BAR knife from my boot, stuck the little guy on the end, crunched him between my teeth, and washed him down with the remaining coffee. Okay, what I really did was throw carafe and mug into the sink, dance in a circle like a four year old convinced by his older brother to drink Tabasco, and try not to throw up. The dance was very similar to the one I did when one of these same roaches ran up my leg and into my cargo shorts about a dozen years ago, except this time my hands were flailing around my head instead of slapping at my area.

It turns out that I didn't need another cup that morning. For a few hours I thought I might never need any more coffee ever again. I threw all the affected parts into the dishwasher and set it to Obliviate. I would have put my head in there had I been able to close the door.

I had decided to spare Biscuit the trauma and carry this secret to my grave, but the next day when she remarked that the coffee tasted better again, and began conjecturing on causes, I broke down and confessed. She did not thank me for my honesty, but handled it better than I probably would have done.

Artist reconstruction

We have discussed any number of ways to avoid repeating this particular recipe, but in the end we put it down as a freak occurrence and returned to our normal routine. I have never had a bug in my coffee before, so it stands to reason that I can expect forty more years to pass before the next one. By then I probably won't even notice. I can only hope this is not some new fad that the teenage roaches are all daring each other to try. If it happens again I am definitely switching to tea.

* There are four or five types of large roaches that inhabit the American Gulf South. Palmetto bug and water bug were originally common names for particular species, but are now used regionally to describe any giant, disgusting, flying, disgusting, frightening, disgusting cockroach. At least three of these species are common where we live. Luckily, most live outdoors and only wander inside when it gets very hot or very wet. Did I mention it gets very hot and very wet here? We all like to pretend we never have them in our own house, but I've seen them in the Louisiana governor's mansion. We find cats to be the best defense.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

In Bruges

The black comedy In Bruges* somehow found its way to the top of our Netflix queue a couple of years ago, and Biscuit has been determined to visit the eponymous Belgian city** since we watched the opening credits. We had a free weekend during my recent conference trip to London, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Bruges attracts huge numbers of tourists, and a couple of days seemed like about all we would need.

All photos courtesy of Biscuit. She had a new camera and more free time than I, so she was designated official trip photographer. This is part of the view from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

About an hour northwest of Brussels by train, Bruges is the capital of the Belgian province of West Flanders, which you may know from the WW I poem about its fields.

Bruges rose to prominence as a seaport. A half hour canal tour is one of the ''must do" tourist activities.

Bruges was a city of some significance during the Middle Ages, with its heyday in the first half of the last millennium. Much of the medieval architecture remains, and every stretch of the city center holds some new marvel. It is a perfect spot for a fantasy stroll, at least until around 9:00 AM when the buses start delivering day-trippers. By mid-afternoon the squares look like Disney World. Most of the gawkers are gone by 7:00 or so, which makes for nice evening strolls, too.

The Church of Our Lady was built primarily before 1500. The 400 ft. spire is still one of the tallest brick towers in the world. The carvings and sculptural details make it easy to believe it took three hundred years to build. Oh yeah, and there is a sculpture by Michelangelo inside, if you're into that sort of thing.
A courtyard below the church, and one of the city's ubiquitous horse drawn carriages. The horses seem to enjoy the tours quite a bit more than the drivers.

In the evenings and early mornings, it is hard to imagine a better place to sit and relax than beside one of Bruges' canals.
During the fat part of the day the canals are more loudspeakers and motorboats than oases of quiet contemplation.

One should also be ready to pay tourist prices for everything. It hurts a little less counting out Euros, but the € is not what it used to be, and it stings to pay eight or ten of them for a few bits of chocolate. I did, of course, because Belgian chocolate is delicious. I just didn't buy any for anyone else.

Some dufus standing in the way of a perfectly good picture of the Provincial Court. If you click through you will see some of the crazy detail on the building, which seemed to derive from the "proud grandmother's living room" school of architecture. An hour before this picture was taken, this square was so crowded you could hardly walk through it.
The Belfry of Bruges is the city's most famous landmark, and dominates the center of town. It also figures prominently in the movie. It has burned several times, though not while we were there.

This was the seaport during the middle ages.  With yet another bell tower. You can't swing a  German tourist in this town without hitting a cathedral or medieval church.

As usual, Biscuit did a wonderful job finding a hotel. The Grand Hotel Casselbergh is only a couple of blocks from the Provincial Court, but far enough off the square to lose most of the crowds. It wasn't cheap, but our room was huge by European standards, breakfast was free, and the service seemed first rate.

The view from our hotel window. Luckily, most of the noisy stuff was the other direction, so it was surprisingly quiet where we were. Not counting the tour boats on the canal, of course.

The view of our hotel window from the canal. Ours is the top window on the right, I think.
We found a small French restaurant for lunch one day, and it was marvelous. I never knew that I could like fennel so much, or that its licorice taste would go so well with fish. Other than that, we mostly ate in pubs. Mussels and fries doesn't really have the appeal for me that it seems to have for some people, even if you say it in French.

Le Buhne had seats for about a dozen people. The proprietor was a wonderful mature French lady, and everything we ate was wonderful.

This may be the most famous dog in Europe, or at least the most photographed. He apparently spends most of his time hanging out in this window, and every tour boat pauses for people to take pictures. He left for a few minutes around checkout time -- apparently he has duties at the front desk -- but returned promptly.

I doubt we will ever feel the need to go back, but we both had a wonderful time. It was a nice counterpoint to the week in London. And we got to ride the EuroStar through the Chunnel, so that's one I can check off the list.

We had a little time to kill before our train back to London, so we sat by the canal and relaxed. Actually, Biscuit watched the dog and I relaxed. That bridge is like 500 years old or something. After a while you get numb to the fact that this was a big city when Columbus was begging jewels from Queen Isabella.
I don't really have much else to say, but I promised Daisyfae I would post pictures.

If we ever go back, it will probably be so Biscuit can visit the swans and baby ducks. Biscuit likes animals.

* Think Grosse Point Blank with better scenery.

** The Belgians spell it "Brugge" but the movie uses the English spelling, so I'm sticking with it.