Slough Creek

August 28, 2014 Leave a comment

As I was folding and putting away the last of the laundry after a recent road-trip to Yellowstone National Park, I reflected upon a very long day I spent in there the summer of 1984, on Slough Creek.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Slough Creek. I’ve spent many days there that went by far too quickly, as summer days often do.

When I was 15, I was in the Youth Conservation Corps, which is a sort of employment program meant for at-risk youth or at least youth at risk of slacking off all summer. I was in the latter category, as the most devious thing I had done up to that point was getting into R-rated movies when I was 14.

As an employee of the Department of the Interior earning minimum wage (I think it was about $3.25 at the time), my real payment was the opportunity to do some really cool stuff, like backpacking into remote areas of the Yellowstone backcountry and seeing things that aren’t generally available to the bulk of visitors stuck idling in their cars because someone saw an elk. We were put onto projects like building corrals for rangers’ horses or maintaining some of the park’s 1000-odd miles of trails. I knew I was a lucky kid, even then.

However, one day stood out as extremely unlucky.

One fine morning, I was dropped off the crew bus, handed a clipboard and told to hike a little way up the dirt road to a point past where a side trail joined the road. There, I was to survey all passers by as to their planned activity, number in party, expected duration… Pretty standard stuff.

I had no idea what I was stepping into when I stepped off the bus that morning.

How could this seemingly simple assignment have wrought such a deep mark upon me?

The weather was nice enough; an expected high of about 80° with no significant threat of wind or rain. I had adequate food, water and the shelter of abundant trees. For the circumstances, it seemed I had all I needed in my pack.

Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that gets you, or in this case the accumulated number of small things. Or to get to the point, swarms of small things.

The proliferation of mosquitoes around the eddies and sumps on the wide, slow-moving river was truly awe-inspiring. By that point in the summer, I was familiar with mosquitoes. I had already felt many a tiny sting that meant a week of itching. I already bore the scars of vigorous scratching. I’d spent a couple of weeks on the south side of Yellowstone Lake, where the humming clouds make it dark an hour early. This was not my first rodeo, but it was to be my worst ride.

At first, the little buggers respected the repellent I’d applied. Also, the cool morning breezes helped to keep them from landing. Mosquitoes are not strong fliers.

That morning, I met a few hikers, some fishermen, and one wagon bearing paying visitors to a dude ranch outside the park boundary. I greeted them cheerfully, sheepishly asked each the questions on the clipboard, wrote their responses and then watched them pass.

By midday as it grew warmer and the breezes stilled, the air began to stagnate. I had to frequently swat any exposed skin. And what wasn’t exposed, began to sweat. In the absence of wind, I had to walk to make it harder for the mosquitoes to land.

By lunchtime, my nerves were getting as raw as my skin. The seconds silently ticking off my cheap digital watch slowed. I felt tiny legs landing all over me. I heard thousands of tiny wings beating the still air. In my sandwich I ate –with some small sense of revenge– a dozen or more of the little bloodsuckers. My shirt was dotted with tiny quantities of my own blood and the corpses of the swatted.

I spend the heat of the afternoon trying everything. I changed locations. I applied nearly a full bottle of repellent. I jogged in little circles. I buttoned down my collar and sleeves and began fanning with the clipboard. All to no avail. I gave up and sat down in defeat to be very slowly devoured by the nearly invisible horde. Then I gave up on giving up, finally settling into a pattern of waving, swatting and circling, muttering and checking my watch.

That morning I had been chosen for the task at random. I may have been sitting closest to the clipboard. Maybe my khaki uniform shirt looked the cleanest. Whatever the reason, there was no malice aforethought on the part of the crew leader. Whatever fate had led me to that creek on that day, I cursed it. Loudly, at times.

By 2 pm, visitors to the trail had ceased. There were few to begin with, but none that afternoon to share my misery. I knew Slough Creek to be a popular hiking and fly fishing destination within the park and yet no one had walked by in hours. With none to commiserate or perhaps draw away a few of the squadron, my misery overflowed, spilling out as sharp profanity in varying degrees of volume and comprehensibility.

I was losing it.

On one of my walking/waving/swearing circuits, I glanced down the road and saw two faces peering over a rise in the road between us. The faces looked wary. I stopped and held the clipboard in a businesslike pose. I tried smiling. But it was too late. They backed away slowly and disappeared down the trail.

I tried to grin and bear it the rest of the afternoon, but I was rapidly losing blood in tiny quantities of and gaining large, itchy welts. The best I could manage was a creepy, wide-eyed smile, doing my best not to slap myself while visitors trailed slowly by.

The swatting and sweating painted me with a haunted/hunted look with just a hint of frantic simmering just below the surface. I’m sure I looked like I’d started a Fight Club and lost.

The few hikers that came by the rest of the afternoon looked upon me with a gaze usually reserved for a half-eaten carcass.

When 5:00:00 pm finally displayed on my watch, I stomped down the road to the parking lot. It wasn’t long until the bus with my crew mates rumbled up. I got on, tossed my pack and myself into an empty seat and spoke to no one.  It didn’t seem like a good idea to speak.  I had endured that day, but all the words left inside me then were four letters long.

In the weeks and years since that day, I’d return to Slough Creek on several occasions.  I would learn to describe it with many words, many of them longer than four letters: superlative, beautiful, amazing…  I would learn that Slough Creek was not a place of misery.  It was just a bad situation that I couldn’t live with.

I’ve since realized that there are sometimes situations where you’re stuck in non-ideal circumstances and that preparing yourself for adversity can help you keep your cool.  You bet your ass I brought a full bottle of repellent the next time I went there.

I’m still trying to learn this lesson because I still get caught without the right kind of repellent, from time to time.

Categories: TrueStories

Sweetums

Half a life ago, I was a poor urbanite. In my twenties, I lived a block from the hippest city park in town, rode a bike more than I drove and I had a crappy job. It was as close to being a hipster as I could afford.

What my crappy job did afford me was the opportunity to do things on days and times when most people worked –people with good jobs. I went to the art museum on weekday afternoons if I wanted (on free days). I stopped at the local bagel shop on the way home from work, just as the shop opened (to buy a bag of day-olds). It was a low-paying job, but at least the hours were shitty.

As I had chosen a lemon of a career, I tried to squeeze some lemonade out of the rest of my life. It was the life of a rogue philosopher in some small ways. I just couldn’t do anything that cost money.

So, what does any starving 20-something do when faced with bankruptcy every week? He takes a volunteer position! In my case: darkroom monitor in the back half of a local art gallery.

One or two nights a week, I would spend the evening with the key to the gallery. Literally, I had the owner’s front door key.

It was a fairly simple system, whereby the owner kept the key to the back door and would hand me the front door key and I would lock the door behind him as he left for the night. The back was protected by a heavy steel door with a deadbolt. I was to return the key after locking the front door from the outside by dropping it through the mail slot.

Yes, fairly simple. No duplicate keys running around with [non]employees and total accountability for anything stolen.

Darkroom monitor duties included letting people in the back door, setting out the trays, mixing and pouring the chemical baths. Beyond that, all I was there for was to make sure nobody stole the photo enlarger from the back or the photos off the walls in front.

Several artists and aspirants knew to pound or ring at the back alley door, on evenings. The darkroom monitor on duty would [sort of] rush to the door, throw the bolt and let them in. The artists pounded frantically, not only to unlock their passion for photography, but because the gallery was in a pretty rough neighborhood.

However, as artists are sometimes low on inspiration and aspirants low on cash for the requisite photo paper, attendance was sporadic. Free chemicals and equipment were what drew them inexorably toward the dark. That, and it was a warm place with a cozy old couch and a really nice pool table.

On slow nights, I very much enjoyed turning on the lights in the gallery and taking my sweet time admiring the photos. It was like my own private opening. I could stare as long as I wanted at the black and white in the pictures until I saw color in the grays. I didn’t have to yield the view to anyone. No sharing my taste of a little free lemonade. For a few minutes, I lived in those pictures.

Until some poor bastard with photo paper and a thirst for free chemical baths came a-knocking at the back.

On a dark and stormy night, it snowed. I’d driven to the gallery that evening ahead of the storm. The snow was coming down thick and wet. ‘Twasn’t wasn’t a fit night out for man, nor beast! And yet, some starving artist braved the storm with negatives and paper in hand, positive he could make something beautiful of them.

I let him in, set out the trays and mixed the solutions, as prescribed.

Setting up for this particular customer took up a fair amount of my time, and after that, an unfair share of my attention. As I filled the trays, he filled my ears with lots of words. I tried to keep up. I tried be polite. I tried to pay attention, but this guy was drinking up my lemonade time.

I took a break from the conversation to steal a little taste of the front room. There were new photos to drink in!

But just as my hand went to the light switch, I saw a dark figure at the front doors. The glass in those double doors looked as flimsy just as soap bubbles.

The figure looked huge. He seemed to be carefully arranging strange gear and stealing furtive glances at the street behind him before …laying down in front of the doors.

Apparently he sought to soak up the warm air seeping through the large gaps around the doors. I was relieved to discover that he was not a burglar, but an urban outdoorsman!

My relief didn’t last long, for the bell tolled for me. Another chatty shutterbug begging entrance and chemicals which it was my sworn duty to provide! Dutifully, I swore.

By the time my new bestest buddy swept away into the wet snow, letting his latest creations dry on the wooden racks, it was late. Time for the gallery’s second closing.

As I cleaned up, I nervously rehearsed polite words that might convince Sleeping Brute-y that I came in peace, that I just wanted to leave with all my pieces. More so, I dreaded the possibility of him asking to step in and warm up, and being obliged to refuse. The reasons to leave him outdoors seemed as thin and transparent as the glass when measured against a man’s survival.

Soon I was packed and prepared to [not] assault the gates. I bolted the back door, turned off the lights and picked up my pack.

I went to the front with mixed feelings. I was happy that the outdoorsman was still alive (he was snoring like a band-saw) and sad that he was still sleeping soundly across the doors –the doors through which I needed to leave.

I could see how carefully he’d set up camp. He had his bedroll rolled out to let in the heat escaping through the bottom of the door. A collection of jars and other inexplicable gear sat neatly beside him. And he had a stout stick near to his hand. The reason for the stick was clear.

In the light of the street lamps I could tell he was a large man. He had a long, tangled beard and a shaggy mane of hair. I can’t say he looked like an angel as he slept, but he did look peaceful. He actually looked quite a lot like Sweetums the Muppet.sweetums

I really hated to disturb his peaceful slumber, especially on such a night, but there was no other way out. I had to go through that door.

So, I took a deep breath of warm air and cleared my throat through the gap between the doors. This did not grab his attention.

“Sir!” I said, now crouching down so my words wouldn’t have as far to go, “I need to leave!”

Snoring.

“Helloooo!! Siiiiiir!!”

More snoring.

I tried for a few more minutes to wake him by yelling less politely and more loudly. No dice. I thought of sliding a thin stick through the gap to prod him awake, but imagined what I’d do if someone woke me that way. Shovel handle vs ruler. You can imagine the outcome.

I turned on the lights and sat down on the concrete floor leaning against the wall nearest Sweetums’ head. He was just someone trying desperately to survive a crappy night. I admired his cleverness at finding a warm niche away from the falling snow. I wondered if I could be that clever, faced with similar circumstances.

My circumstances were gradually getting more urgent. That night included a short sleep followed by a long shift. It was about 11pm and I needed to be to work in 5 hours. Did I already mention the crappy hours?

Sweetums snored and twitched in a dream while my anxiety grew. I had no option but to involve professionals –the authorities. I looked up the non-emergency Denver PD phone number in the Yellow Pages and dialed.

Yes, kids! this happened a long time ago. No cell phone and no internet access!

The police operator asked what my emergency was with thinly veiled impatience. I assured her it wasn’t an emergency. I briefly explained the situation and asked politely if they could send a car to help me rouse Sweetums. She politely told me they would send someone by and terminated the call.

I politely waited in the gallery. Half an hour passed. The clock was ticking more loudly.

I called again and explained to the same operator that I really, really needed to leave through that door. No more Mr Polite Guy! I nearly raised my voice. I told her that I’d been trying to wake Sweetums for an hour (I didn’t refer to him as Sweetums over the phone).

All at once, I heard something change in her demeanor, even through the slightly sticky receiver. “Is he unresponsive?”

Aha! I needed to use keywords!

“Yes! He is unresponsive. Not responding,” I said.

Within 30 seconds, I heard a siren. Within about three minutes there were a paramedic, a firetruck and a police car in front of the gallery.

I turned on the gallery lights and gave the authorities a big smile and pointed toward Sweetums.

A brief discussion convened on the sidewalk, with a burly fireman elected as representative. The fireman walked up to Sweetums, grabbed his shoulders and gave him a very rough shake, “Sir! Are you okay?!”

Sweetums’ eyes opened, his slumber cut off mid-snore. He stumbled a bit, but was able to shake off his blanket and stand. The fireman still held his shoulder, “This guy needs to get out of his house!” pointing at me. I began to pantomime that it wasn’t my house, nor was it really even a house. After a moment, I realized it didn’t matter whose house it was, and that it was not a good time for a complex interpretive dance. I stopped and waved slightly. Sweetums straightened up and turned the big, toothy smile at me and then back at the fireman.

Sweetums had been through this before. He knew the drill. He nodded or shook his mane appropriately in answer to the fireman’s questions as to his welfare, etc. I suddenly realized I’d left my backpack in the office after the last call. I ran to get it.

When I returned not ten seconds later, the street was empty. Just Sweetums and me. Sweetums was still standing up very straight, arms stuck to his sides. Still with the big smile.  Only his eyes moved to follow me.

I could now see him clearly in the gallery lights. He wore a scrap of carpet over him like a serape, a hole cut in the middle for his shaggy head. I shut off the lights and started toward the door. I could still see the whites of his eyes and his teeth.

I’ll admit I was freaked out. It was just me and Sweetums. Me, the guy who caused called the authorities and disturbed his rest and Sweetums, standing rail-straight, grinning as the snow fell on his head.

I tried not to stare. I didn’t want to display the primitive signs of aggression, but I wasn’t about to take my eye off him.

I turned the key in the lock and opened the door. He looked so much more human without glass between us. I could hear nothing more than the snow falling on our heads as I stepped out and breathing through his teeth. I pulled the door shut and turned around to lock it. It was difficult to get the key in the lock and throw the bolt while watching Sweetums’ face reflected in the door. He watched me, watching him.

When the lock finally consented to latch and the key released its grip, I shot the key through the mail slot with a little extra force than usual. I think it hit the back door. No need to tempt Sweetums with the means to entrance. I didn’t want to find out later that Sweetums had a wire coathanger and the patience to fish all night.

I bid him goodnight with a wave of my hand and a sinking stomach. I wished I’d had a sandwich or even a sugary drink to get him through the night. I liked to think he parked there so see the photos, too.

I tell myself that because I had nothing to offer him.  All that was in my backpack was half a packet of photo paper, some slightly damp prints and an empty wallet.

It was about then that I stopped aspiring to make an artist of myself. I could no longer afford the hipster lifestyle. I figured it wouldn’t be long before I was going to be the one outside, looking in. So I took the first train out of my crappy job and found one that was less crappy. And have continued to repeat that process.

So now when I go to an art gallery, I may have to pay and share the view with the general public, but at least I won’t get trapped inside.  Or outside.

Categories: TrueStories

Rocket Man

January 4, 2013 Leave a comment

One fine summer day as my sibs and I were squirming in the back seat of the VW bus filled with luggage and pillows, rattling our way across Kansas, my parents decided it was time for a rest stop.

The reason for the stop escaped me then, as now, because in that rest area was the most magnificent play structure I have ever seen. It was a rocket, man!

The rocket may not have stood more than ten or twelve feet high in the damp, green grass, but I was four years old so to me it looked like fifty feet of gleaming awesomeness.

The sun shone on its polished bars, fins and a long, curved slide that emerged from just below the nose cone. A gantry ramp led to the top, with auxiliary slides at intervals.

I declined the carefully packed peanut butter and jelly sandwich and headed for the sky.

So did my sisters and brother. I think.  Honestly, I was so enthralled, I was only dimly aware of anything or anyone else. I know there were a lot of other kids there, but I kept my eyes on the slides.

I remember feeling the warm sun on my scrawny, little legs and arms as they poked out of some little brown shorts and white shirt they’d wrestled me into. I had an odd aversion to clothes at the time, but that’s a different story.

In the kind of cavort/gallop that kids do when particularly joyful, I rushed to the gantry and began to ascend.

Only a short way up, I saw a slide that no one was using. Kids from other car trips were chasing and playing all over the rocket, but not there. I felt like I had stumbled upon a diamond dropped in the grass. A little one, but still!

I could not understand how this slide had been even momentarily overlooked. It shone so brightly in the summer sun, like Excalibur!

It was wide, shiny and inviting.  So, I dropped my scrawny butt on it and …IT BURNED!

The idyllic summer sun had heated that south-facing steel into a griddle.  And my ass was sizzling on it.

The memory of my ride down that slide lives in slow motion.  I saw stars!  My little brown shorts offered meager protection for the tenderest parts, but my hands, my legs and my stomach seared as I foolishly tried to catch myself.  Unfortunately, the cause was lost.  I was a juggernaut.  I’m sure the scream that jumped out of my little throat was lost in the crowd of happy children playing on the other slides.  My world shrunk to the width and breadth of that steel sheet of pain.  The eight or so feet of steel that I traveled were like a descent into hell.

Or rather, into the puddle at the foot of the slide.

I splashed down suddenly, shocked by the cold, muddy water and the abrupt end to my journey.  I was not entirely happy to be off the slide.  Salvation usually doesn’t end in soggy drawers.

The world came crashing back into sharp focus.  The bright grass and smiling children around me were like a slap against my wet butt and mud-splattered knees.

I don’t recall if my sibs picked me up or not.  I do remember being dejected, disillusioned and stunned.  I think my dad cleaned me up in the rest stop restroom, handed me my soggy PB&J and loaded me back into the bus.

The details of the rest of that road trip have faded, as did the pain and shock; lost in the wheat and the miles of Kansas plain.  In some corner of me there is a hint of longing to return to that park and face that slide again.  But that longing will go unheeded because seriously does anyone really need to drive that far just to go down a hot slide twice?

Categories: TrueStories

Hot chocolate

November 27, 2012 Leave a comment

For about a week one winter when I was 10 or 11, it was arranged that my friend Matt who lived up the street was to came to my house after school until all our parents came home.

Due to the recession at the time, it was the age of latchkey kids and generic food. A revolution, really. Both parents worked so they could feed the kids sandwiches with ‘peanut butter’ instead of ‘Jif’. The ‘Tang’ equivalent was ‘orange drink’.

Generic items were just like name- brand, only in plain white labels with plain black lettering. And no marketing. I don’t think they even capitalized. Every white label had some variation on the text, “This product is an acceptable substitute for…” Oddly, you don’t see the word, “acceptable” on labels anymore.

I don’t remember the reason for the dual-latchkey arrangement. Typically, one of the cardinal rules of being a latchkey kid was not having your friends inside the house. Things tended to get broken.  But what really made us hurry home was that my mom told me that we could make hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate sounded great anytime, but it was cold and snowy that week. Not only was I being allowed to have my friend over, but we got steaming, chocolatey goodness. Double score!

Mom told me the instant cocoa powder was in a container in the pantry. I found it easily enough. The container had begun its career as a sunny yellow butter tub. After the last of the butter was scraped out, it had been machine washed and refilled with brown powder.

Parents did this sort of thing sometimes in an effort to hide from us kids that what were eating was generic food. This kind of ruse was supposed to cut down on the complaining. Also, these butter tubs made unbreakable cereal bowls, suitable for our ‘oat cereal’.

On the first day Matt came over, we piled into the house, dumping our moon boots, jackets, gloves, etc in the entryway and padded barefooted to the kitchen. I was excited! I felt I was taking a step into maturity, being allowed to use the microwave to heat water and stir in the hot chocolate mix. I’m sure my parents saw this as a test to see if I’d be able to feed myself someday.

Matt and I picked out mugs based on size first and then color. Quantity before quality!

We filled the water to the very top and very, very carefully carried them to the counter next the big steel box.

We popped the butter container lid and shoveled tall heaps of the brown powder onto the water. We had not allowed for the water displacement that occurs when you dump two or three big scoops into a mug that is already barely clinging to the rim by a meniscus. Surface tension can only do so much.

Once we dropped the water level to the point where a spoon could fit in –and cleaned up the mess that it took to get there– we stirred.

This was an early model microwave –the kind that made the kitchen lights dim. It had a timer dial and a Cook button. That was it. After about two minutes of flickering the fluorescents,  we each pulled out tepid, brown water.

Back in for another two minutes. This time, we saw steam rising as the nuker door opened.

As we pulled the scorching mugs out, we each marveled at our creation. And there was good reason. This was no ordinary cocoa. It had formed a thick skin of some type over the while top surface. It was slightly spongy with crusty edges where it clung to the rim all the way around. Neither of us had seen anything like this before.

It was magnificent! Some kids got hot chocolate with little, rock-hard marshmallows. We weren’t sure what it was, but this looked way better.

It was awful. No particular flavor. It tasted like hot, brown water. If that’s all we had wanted, we’d have grabbed the jar of instant ‘coffee’.

So, being independent young men, we endeavored to fix it. It took experimentation. It took multiple trials. It took a LOT of sugar.

Four heaping spoonfuls of sugar made the brown water palatable. And then it was alright. Plus, we got the weird skin formation which had crusty edges. I have always loved crusty edges.

And so each afternoon, after many spoonfuls and many mug loads of our odd concoction, we passed the few hours until our parents came home by watching TV or making paper airplanes. Too soon the week ended, as did the hot chocolate privilege.

Next week, I was back to watching Kung Fu by myself as the sky grew dark and the snow piled up, before dinner.

It was a week or so later and mom went to the pantry. I remember distinctly sitting at the kitchen table trying to do some math homework when she said, “What happened to my cake mix?”

Yeah, there was no acceptable ‘chocolate cake’ that night. We’d been eating and drinking it for a week. I didn’t want to tell her that we were out of ‘sugar’, too.

Categories: TrueStories

Whose cheese is this?

I was taking a break from mowing the lawn on Monday when there was a knock in the door. I saw it was the 5-year-old boy from around the corner, so I opened the door. He was wearing a bike helmet and his grandma on the sidewalk walking along as he rode his bike.

He seemed happy to see me. I told the boy that both my girls were already up at his house. He was not interested, though. Instead, he quickly said, “My dad says you smell like stinky cheese!”

He and I had a good laugh, but not as good a laugh as my wife, who heard from the other room. I pretended to karate chop him and chase him off the porch, giggling as he fled. His grandma said she had nothing to do with this.

I was kinda confused, but I won’t even try to predict the humor of little boys. Mainly because I used to be one. Apparently, I am now an old, stinky one.

Break time was over so I went to the backyard and began mowing.

Until the boy’s dad Brian showed up at the edge of the lawn.

At first I thought he was going to add to or refine the boy’s comments, but instead he said, “I’m so sorry. I inadvertently insulted you.”

He explained that the message itself was not a mistake, but that the recipient was not supposed to be me. Mr stinky cheese was another neighbor dad who had a daughter with the same name as one of mine. It was just crossed wires.

Brian’s mom (the grandma from earlier) confirmed that the stinky cheese had been delivered to, “the man around the corner,” as instructed. Brian went momentarily pale, I guess.

He figured I had rolled with it, which I did. No problem. But he wanted to make sure I wasn’t offended or hurt.

Of course I wasn’t offended. In fact, just that day I had called the boy’s older brother Stinky three times. It seemed only fair.

Well, truth be told I was just a little offended. I’m really more of a “BO and dirty feet” kind of guy.

Categories: TrueStories

How to speak Vegetarian

Vegetarians aren’t exactly a club. You don’t have to join a cult. To be a vegetarian doesn’t mean you get special parking, except maybe at a veg restaurant. Omnivores don’t tend to flock there. Go figure.

About the only thing even close to commonality among vegetarians is that we have all made a choice to not eat meat. Whatever the reason we gave it up in the first place, we end up thinking about what we eat a lot thereafter because we need to be just a little bit vigilant or the ol’ digestive tract starts to act like a rollercoaster: symptoms may include loud rumbling, screaming, dizziness, nausea, vomiting…

There’s a small lexicon that goes with being vegetarian. You get to learn the difference between a lacto-ovo and a pescatarian. You learn how to say vegan. Say it with me, “Veeee-gan.” There’s more, but it’s so technical.

Along with the fun vocabulary comes the joy of answering the age-old question, “What is that you’re eating?” You can say that your entree is “fake beef”, “meat substitute,” or, “textured vegetable protein,” but that doesn’t sound appetizing to anyone. Talk like that can put a person off their feed. It doesn’t even make me want to try a bite.

Yeah, I get tired of the revulsion in people’s faces when I say the word, “tofu.”

Seriously, if I had a nickel for every time someone looked at my veggie burger and said, “I just couldn’t give up bacon,” I’d have all these nickels…

So, cheeky bastard that I am, I decided to turn plain, old ‘Fake but Realistic chicken’ into ‘FRicken’! Get it? Of course you do! That’s what makes it fun and accessible.

My niece no longer eats Riblets(tm) from McDonalds, but she thinks fiblets are the tastiest thing in the world. Well, maybe not anymore, now that she’s been around the world… I’ll have to ask, when she gets back.

But still, you get the pattern. Start by substituting an ‘F’ for the first letter and see if you like the flavor. Adjust to taste.

Meatballs becomes ‘featballs’. Sloppy joes are a rare double transformation: ‘floppy toes’. See how I mixed in a little tofu? Another could be ground beef turned into ‘ground feef’, but I liked it better spoonerized so it became ‘found grief’.

I gotta tellya, I’ve eaten a lot of fricken nuggets and fricken patties over the past 15 years. I’d love to land a fake salmon, so I can say I’ve eaten famine. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to grab a bag of fork rinds at the gas station. Not sure if I could stomach ‘faux gras’ though. I never liked pâté.

I look forward to feasting upon a ToFurky(tm) at Thanksgiving. And Christmas. It would be disturbing to eat a Christmas fam.

When visiting New York, I had superlative vegetarian Peking duck, which was …not polite to order.

So, the next time you look down at my plate, try to name that meat substitute before I do. Add a dash of creativity and see how it rolls off the tongue before you spit it out. With a little preparation, it may turn out tastier than you think. And it won’t hurt you to try.

Neither will the food, for that matter.

Categories: TrueStories

Lunchbox

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

When I did carry lunch to school, my bags were pre-crumpled, pre-stained and had my Dad’s name on them. Or I brought a bread bag with a two heel sandwich and an apple pressing a peanut butter and jelly bruise into the middle.

As I looked across the table at my friends’ superhero lunchboxes and thermoses (with a cup built right in!) I felt envy. I wanted my sandwich and apple rattling around in a metal box with cool superheroes or something on the outside.

Also, the half pint of milk for 35¢ tasted funny. Milk from home always tastes better.

It seemed like everybody else had one. Like they were trying to hit me over the head with their cool lunchboxes (which did literally happen, on occasion).

I saw so many awesome boxes that I finally worked up the nerve to ask for one.

And that’s all it took, apparently.

A couple days later, Mom came home from the grocery store and set a crisp brown paper bag on the kitchen table and told me, “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

She was beaming. As I approached the bag, my mind was filled with images of rounded sheet-metal corners, a noisy plastic handle, a questionable clasp and comic book images of brightly costumed bad-asses.

As I looked into the bag, I was confused by what I saw. It looked yellow. I couldn’t recall any yellow superheroes. What I pulled out of the bag completely stunned me.

It was a sunny yellow, plastic lunchbox. Snoopy and Woodstock were frolicking or doing some cute thing on each side.

Mom stood by, still beaming. “Thanks, Mom,” I said.

My mind was oscillating rapidly between disbelief and denial. I simply could not comprehend what I was seeing. I had no idea they made lunchboxes without something awesome on them. There just had to be something awesome about this. I opened it. I looked inside. Worked the latches. Smelled the glass inside the thermos. I searched every surface.  All seemed to be functioning properly, but I found no trace of awesomeness.

I realized then that I should have been more specific.  It was my own fault.

This was a case where I had an idea in my mind, but I had not transmitted it.  What I was thinking of was something like my friends were carrying.  However, Mom didn’t know what my friends were carrying.  It wasn’t her fault.

At the time though, I blamed her for getting me something that would have been more appropriate for an 8-year-old girl.  As a 12-year-old boy, I wanted danger, recklessness and adventure.  And cold milk.  From home.

I spent the better part of the evening trying to find a masculine side to this box.  Snoopy piloted his doghouse and fought the Red Baron sometimes, but any superhero with a cape could easily outfly him. Snoopy was ferocious when the lawn furniture was insolent, but I doubted he could beat up a gang of bad guys.

In the light of the morning, I knew there was no way I could spin the box.

I found it on the table, packed for lunch. This was a rare occurrence as mom and dad carpooled to work before I left for school. It made me feel so much worse, knowing she was excited that she had scored a cute lunchbox for me.

I wasn’t sure I could handle breakfast with that glib piece of Americana staring back at me, much less lunch. I placed the cereal box between myself and that glossy, sunshine-colored conundrum.

As I chewed through a couple of bowls of Corn Flakes, I imagined myself eating my PB&J at the epicenter of laughter and taunting.  Still, how could I not not use a perfectly good lunchbox that my mom had spent recession dollars to buy me? How could I break her heart?

In the end, I did what any self-respecting boy would do: I squared my shoulders, stepped out the door …and hid the box in the bushes next to the house.  I balanced the contents on top of my Trapper Keeper and hiked down the hill to school.

The thermos was still a problem. I had no choice but to carry that, as I had no other way to transport liquid. And I wasn’t about to let milk go to waste. It raised an eyebrow or two, but nothing more. Even so, I casually rotated Snoopy away with each sip of that cold, delicious milk.

I didn’t show much character by doing this. Hiding that box in the bushes was not the brave thing to do.  If I could go back in time and do it all over again, would I hold my head up high as I cracked open the Snoopy box?

Well, no.

I was 12. I had no particular moral identity.  I was not comfortable with myself, yet.  I wouldn’t even work up the nerve to kiss a girl for several more years.

Would I carry that box if I had it now? Probably not. But not because of its yellowness and glibness. In this case, I need different functionality.  I have requirements.

I’m not saying I’m a paragon of moral development or anything.  I’m just saying I’m not afraid of yellow anymore. Actually, I drive a yellow car, right now. I think it’s hideous, but I drive it because it does just what I need and nothing more.  Seriously, don’t get me started on all the reasons I chose the car I did, but let me say that the yellow color does have some advantage.  It’s easier to spot in parking lots in between all the black, grey, burgundy and other, more muted paint jobs. In fact, if given the need to repaint, I’d opt for a bright color again.

Maybe orange.  I like orange.

But I would definitely not want Snoopy frolicking on the side of my car. That would force me back into commuting by bus.

Categories: TrueStories
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