Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grapes and the wrath of grapes.

I had some grapes last night, a big heaping fistful. Fresh, bright green and plump, juicy. Not many seeds, cold from the fridge, sparkling wet from being rinsed off. I love grapes, these store-bought, rather generic ones as well as the small, sharp, wild ones I picked and ate right off the vine when I was very young. We don’t get grapes often, only occasionally in fact, but they are about as good a sweet snack as can be naturally produced.

Bananas are great, so are tangerines and some oranges. Apples, well they’re quite good and there’s quite a variety of them, but they’re much more difficult to manage. Peeling, coring, slicing, a lot of work, all that biting and chewing. Grapes, well you wash them off, pluck them from their skeleton, heck, lots of them fall off by themselves, and just pop them in your mouth, done, instant gratification.

Grapes can be peeled too, I know this, I’ve done it. It’s not easy, especially if your goal is, as is mine with tangerines and oranges, to keep the peel in one piece. It takes patience and dedication but with practice it can be done. Some folks I hear can peel them inside their mouths using only their tongue and teeth. I tried that a couple of times, but my brain-mouth connection has never been very exacting or reliable.

I like raisins too, raisins used to be grapes. I have a small box of raisins every day as half of my lunch. They don’t taste quite the same, raisins aren’t juicy, they’re kind of slimy, but they are still sweet and easy on the mouth, and healthier than cookies or candy some people say. The other half of my lunch consists of a small package of peanut butter crackers, the bright yellow square ones you see in finer vending machines. I don’t eat anything for breakfast during the week, so this small lunch, in addition to about ten cups of coffee during the day provides all the energy and nutrition I need until dinner time, when I gorge myself on pretty much anything placed in front of me.

A doctor once told me that this style of eating was ‘atrocious’ which is, as I recall, a technical medical term for ‘good’ or ‘perfect’. It’s what lions do after all, how bad can it be?

But back to the grapes.

Wine is made from grapes too. I like wine. In case you’re not familiar with wine I’ll explain it to you. Take some grapes from a vine yard. Put them in a solid gopherwood barrel and have them danced and stomped upon by buxom French women. Then pour the resulting fluid into a pretentiously labeled bottle and you have wine. How’s this different from grape juice? Obviously it’s the added toe jam. Be careful though, the finer wines can be quite pricy. I’ve seen some pretentiously labeled wines go for upwards of ten or twelve dollars!

I enjoy wine nearly every evening because it solves all my problems. We really prefer the less expensive boxed white wines which are not stomped upon by French women. Instead they are apparently stomped upon by less expensive women from the region around the winery in Thunderclap, New Jersey. I’m not sure of the exact chemical difference between the foot sweat of buxom French women and the women from Thunderclap, New Jersey, but by the taste of the boxed wine, I’d say it has something to do with kerosene.

At this point you’re expecting me to say something like “I like grapes, but they don’t like me.” I almost did say that since that’s really what this missive is actually about, the side effects of grapes, not the grapes themselves.

But they do like me. I’d even say that grapes love me as much or more than any other living or formerly living thing on this planet. How much do they love me? They love me jealously, protectively.

I say ‘jealously’ since once eaten they don’t seem to want to share me with anything else I may have eaten in the last few days. I say ‘protectively’ in the sense that the grapes I’ve eaten seem to be greatly concerned about all the excess, unnecessary and perhaps even harmful stuff inhabiting every dark corner of my digestive system.

Grapes not only express concern with these things, they don’t just write a terse letter or wag a condescending finger, no, grapes are rather insistent if not downright demanding. And there’s no use arguing with grapes. They don’t understand ‘let’s all just get along’ or, ‘there’s plenty of me for everybody’ or ‘for the love of God, make it stop!’ And grapes, once eaten do not sleep. They leap onto the task of eliminating competition and ridding the hallways of all hanger’s-on immediately and tirelessly.

Grapes are also like a lover in that they can make you completely forget about past troubles, fights and turmoil. While I was eating them last night it never once occurred to me that grapes always treat me this way. I am blinded to the past when I’m eating them, no recollection at all about the discomfort and pain of the aftermath that seems so clear to me now many, many hours later.

Milk makes me feel the same way. Though milk loves me the same way, jealously and protectively, I do not love milk nearly as much. I never have milk by itself, only with other things, cereal or, well, that’s pretty much it except as a minor ingredient in something I’m cooking. I can go years without a bowl of cereal, so I can also go years without consuming much raw milk in its pure natural, pasteurized, homogenized and vitamin D enriched form. And even when I do have a bowl of cereal, I always recall that it may cause some discomfort and urgency. I certainly make sure that on the rare days I do have a bowl of cereal that I did not previously consume anything nearly as volatile as the big bowl of spicy chili I had for dinner last night.

The chili, I call it either ‘bachelor chili’, or ‘Angel didn’t have time to make anything, chili’, is quick and simple and at our house, always on hand. Take some celery, peppers, (both bell peppers and a small portion of jalapeno), garlic, a thick slice of onion (diced), crushed red pepper, black pepper and just a little salt and sauté it all in a small skillet till tender. (I keep some diced peppers and celery in the freezer) Pop open a can of medium quality canned chili, stir to combine, then let it simmer for as long as it takes to make up some fresh ice tea.

Put a handful of shredded cheese and a teaspoon of sour cream in your favorite bowl (if it’s not in the dishwasher), pour in the bubbling chili then stir it around until all the sour cream has melted from the spoon.

Caution! Do not even start this process unless you have already confirmed that you have these two things close at hand!

  1. Crackers
  2. Antacid

So that’s what I had for dinner around six-thirty last night, thoroughly enjoyable while hunched over a good book. Then I didn’t do very much, which was a mistake. My little laptop suffered from a mean virus over the weekend and had not fully recovered so I spent the evening hunched over it hacking the registry and restarting it, re-running the scans, etc. This virus really loved my little laptop, jealously and protectively.

The hunched over issue is important. My digestive system does not function at it’s best if I am hunched over, it favors upright and moderate physical activity like walking or even ‘just not being hunched over’. I am a highly trained and highly skilled IT professional and thus my entire day is spent hunched over by necessity. By continuing that posture after getting home, and especially after a hearty, healthy meal, the whole digestive process slows to a heart-burning crawl.

That is unless a jealous and protective lover joins in, like milk, or grapes. They don’t care how long I was hunched over, they simply don’t care at all. They seek only to rid their new lover of all other contenders, all the other clingers. They seek to erase my system of all my past sins, the sooner the better.

Chili + hunching over+ grapes = significant discomfort.

So today, starting pretty early, I suffered not from the ‘wrath of grapes’, but rather enjoyed the rewards of healthy snacking. Grapes are good for me, they contain all that healthy vitamin and mineral stuff I’m supposed to be consuming instead of potato chips and cookies, and they’re also supposed to help keep me regular.

Regular? Right. I’ll tell ya’ this sweetheart, if this is ‘regular’. . .

So it’s been over twenty-four hours, I’m feeling a lot better now, having been so lovingly purged of nearly everything in my system. It’s left me kind of hungry though, maybe a snack would help, something healthy of course…..

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Road Trip!

This is roughly half of a two part tale. The other part can be found at:

Back in 2001 I got laid off from the company that Angel and I both worked for. The tech boom was busting, orders for our multilayer circuit boards fell off dramatically. The company, Litton Advanced Circuitry Division* (ACD) had been making circuit boards for decades, a Springfield Mo. major employer. I had worked there for fifteen years working my may up from a second shift equipment technician to Engineering Assistant, to Network Engineer and finally as Network Manager. Angel had worked there for seventeen years mostly in the electrical test area as a reworker (fixing bad boards) and test fixture fabricator.

I wasn’t shocked to be laid off; we had seen it coming for several months as the orders for circuit boards dwindled and cancellations greatly outnumbered new orders. The first layoff affected over one fourth of the company’s 800 employees, more layoffs followed. Eventually the assets were sold off, and the plant, over 200,000 square feet of heavy and high tech manufacturing, was torn down. Remnants of the operation remain as a part of Simclar Corp. in Ozark, Mo. where a handful of the former Litton employees remain.

The IT job market was not exactly booming in Springfield then so we ended up uprooting and moving to southern Maryland for the next five years. We returned to Missouri in 2006. St. Louis was the new destination, centered between my family in Kentucky and Angel’s in Springfield.

For the first few years after the layoff I lost touch with just about everyone at ACD. It was only a year or so ago, through Facebook, that I started reconnecting. A few weeks ago one of my re-found friends, Debbie, discovered an old poster celebrating ACD’s massive expansion in 1999. There were pictures of happy folks touring the shiny new facilities, thumbs-up style pictures. Someone in that discussion suggested burning it and pretty soon there was a cook-out planned. Debbie and her husband Dean were longtime employees. They live in rural Greene County and have acreage and a large deck; they would host the event, rain or shine.

I decided to attend, my first real me-time break since last July. Angel and Adam had classes to attend and dogs to board. Angel had pre-arranged Springfield lodging for me in her parent’s basement, she was quite eager for me to go. She also informed her two adult kids, Stephanie and Tyler, that I would take them out for Chinese while I was there.

On the road:

I packed a light bag, fired up the mighty Alero and hit the road Saturday morning,

BB to 30 to I-44 in St. Claire. It was overcast and drippy, the roads were moist and there were spotty sprinkles. I listened to Click and Clack (Car Talk) on NPR until KWMU’s signal faded, scanned through the lower parts of the FM dial to find another NPR station, picked up Rolla’s. They were playing ‘Whadya know?” Traffic wasn’t so bad on 44, I set my autopilot to 72 MPH and just shoved my wandering brain into the talk show.

Rolla popped up in front of me at just the right time, around eleven. I hadn’t eaten anything yet and the Alero was just under a quarter tank, I hadn’t fed it before I left either.

I know Rolla fairly well, I’ve been through it sporadically since ’77 when I was stationed at Ft. Leonard Wood. I had already decided what I wanted to eat, and if the old side of town hadn’t changed much, I knew exactly where to go: Wendy’s!

Wendy’s you say? Yeah that’s right, Wendy’s. You see, there are virtually no Wendy’s in the St. Louis area, something about lawsuits and bankruptcies. There is one in Jefferson County, but it’s to far in the wrong direction to make it convenient. I was after the chili. You’ll have to read the other blog for the details. I sat there with my chili and my bland tea and enjoyed the complete lack of cosmopolitan ambiance by reading the last couple of chapters of one of Ridley Pearson’s serial crime novels. Not exactly high literature to be sure, but that was exactly the point. For good or bad, short or long, this was my vacation.

Another sign I was outside the urban reach of St. Louis was the gas pump nozzles. In and around St. Louis, the nozzles are all surrounded by a thick, ribbed prophylactic that allegedly keeps deadly fumes from floating into St. Louis’ otherwise pristine air. Here in Rolla it was just bare metal against metal, much lighter, almost flimsy, toy-like. The rural pump was just as happy to take my ATM card as the city pumps though, for just as much.

I was back on I-44 by noon, the Alero quickly found its pace and climbed the Ozark’s hills and steep grades like they were barely there, the truckers all insanely jealous watching me pass them like they weren’t really trying.

Ft. Wood came up fast, that’s where my son Andrew was born, that’s where I fixed weather equipment at the small airfield, that’s where I was one of only a couple dozen Air Force NCO’s on an enormous Army base. Good times. Been there, done that, got the Commendation Medal.

On past booming Waynesville into Lebanon, where they build boats, lots of boats, the shiny, pointy kind with huge motors used to hunt down ferocious bass at 70MPH, bass must be really fast. I didn’t even slow down. Rolla’s radio station faded out so I dialed up KSMU, Springfield’s NPR affiliate. Crap, classical music and not even the good stuff, I was not in the mood for Dvorak in general, his minor works especially. So I smacked the CD button and played whatever was in the player. Two songs only on this one, rather one song twice, two different covers; “Major Tom (Coming Home)” That killed about fifteen minutes then I just silenced the thing.

Marshfield, then Strafford, almost there. Traffic thickened up and slowed down to a regulated 60. On to the Kansas Expressway off ramp then south into town. I recalled on hitting the ramp that there were once plans to mess with that intersection, I couldn’t recall when I’d read that but I hadn’t been to Spfld in nearly two years… sure enough a screwy but strangely effective ‘diverging diamond interchange’. (The first of its kind in the U.S.) You’ll have to look it up for yourself; it’s hard to explain in mere words:

Everything became instantly familiar, seventeen years I lived in Spfld, most of it on the north side, Kansas and Kearney almost a back yard, not that many changes. My mind made lane change decisions without being prompted, as if it even remembered the potholes.

South on Kansas Expwy to Sunshine, left, then one block, right on Kansas Street then ten or twenty blocks till I saw the familiar shrubbery of my in-laws house. Done.

I popped in and plopped down, Barb offered me a dozen or so kinds of snacks, Virgil was watching the History Channel and we discussed the merits and flaws of Billy the Kid. Barb said the horse looked like Trigger, Virgil recalled that Trigger was stuffed and on display somewhere. We chatted about their lovely daughter and her dogs, then about Angel’s kids, and their kids. They wondered if Tyler was feeling better.

A lot of guys complain about their In-laws and as an amateur humorist, I suppose it would be easy to follow suit, but other than a few quaint and harmless quirks, not so different from my own, they’re just really good people. Witty, funny, relaxed and undemanding folk. As in-laws go, I’ve hit about as close to a jackpot as I can imagine there is. They’re easily the best in-laws I’ve ever had.

I refused the snacks politely because I was planning on eating heavy at the cook-out, but mostly because the Wendy’s chili was doing a fine job reminding me that I ate it too quickly. I spared them that level of personal detail.

About three fifteen I got up and excused myself to go to the party, answered that I wasn’t sure what time I would be back. They said not to worry, if it was real late Barb would probably be puttering around the house anyway, cleaning something. It’s one of her quirks. She had steam cleaned some of the stairs well after midnight the night before.

On the way to Walnut Grove in upper Greene County, I came up to the road that I used to turn down to get to our house in Willard. I glanced at the clock, decided that I could be fashionably late and took the turn. Like a photo album things looked a lot familiar but a little different. The road was the same, winding, narrow, going up many steep hills and around a few more. This road wasn’t built to account for topography; it was built between property lines, wherever they fell.

Only a few miles to the old house, I drove up the crooked, skinny road as familiar to me as if I had walked it a hundreds of times, which I had. I slowed down as I got near the ladies, the cows in the huge pasture where the ground bottoms out and the creek cuts through. On my walks I would talk to them, ask them about the weather, we’d gossip.

These weren’t the same cows from ten years ago, we’ve probably eaten those all by now, these were newer ladies, and a few gentlemen, and of a different kind. I was accustomed to the old Holsteins and occasionally the puffy eared, almond-eyed Jerseys. These new ladies were foreign and exotic, longhorns. Horns four or five feet from east to west. I’d seen a few longhorns in my days back in Texas, and maybe more on TV, I knew what they were and said hello anyhow. I stopped and took some pictures. They didn’t seem to mind, just like the ladies from years back, they seemed barely to notice at all.

Just up the hill about a half mile was the house, the compound. A three bedroom, single story earthberm where we’d lived for five pretty good years. The kids were young so the memories are pretty clear. Somebody else’s home now, they’ve got dogs, Angel would approve.

I stopped the car and turned on the flashers, not really necessary though since you can hear the rare car coming long before you actually see it. I grabbed the camera and hid behind a tree. I snapped a couple of fast pictures.

The dogs see, hear or smell me, they’re running free toward me. I snap a couple more knowing I had some time since they had to cross the deep creek bed and I didn’t.

There’s the bridge I built, as sturdy as the day in ’95 when I built it. And the willow tree, we planted it there by the bridge when it was, what’s that song say? “‘twas just a twig.” It’s over fifty feet tall now, broad and flowing in the breeze.

Time to go, the dogs are getting closer.

Up the road, turn around. Read the directions Debbie sent. Not all that far. back on 13, left on BB toward Walnut Grove, right after a few miles, then left to get back on BB, balloons on the mailbox, got it.

The driveway’s rough gravel, there’s plenty of places to park, even with ‘The Beast’. They just bought a new RV, as big as a county. I see Dean standing beside it, ten years older but still cutting a military frame and tight haircut, unmistakable.

We shake hands and look around at The Beast, feeling quite small beside it. I take a few pictures and head up the hill to the main floor. Nice house, big, they built it themselves with a few visits to the emergency room along the way.

Out on the deck was where they were all gathered. I knew all the faces, some of the names. My job back then took me everywhere in the plant, I took care of the computers and they were everywhere. So I recognized everyone, some better than others, the names though just wouldn’t come through; though I knew most of the people they were talking about.

Danny was there, he was in maintenance back then and laughed aloud when I came up to him. He called to his wife “This is Dennis, He’s the one that told me about his billy goat f*$#!ing his chickens!”

I remembered telling him that story, must have been in ‘96 or ’97 He was on the crew remodeling the IT area and I told him about the little pygmy goat we had, small as a terrier, but with the lust of a full sized stud. He attacked everything, the chickens, the other goats, my basketball. If it moved, even just in the breeze, he married it, at least he tried. His undoing was when he laid a hungry, winking eye on Angel. Never saw that goat again. She said she took him to a farm, but that could mean more than one thing in our language. Danny laughed as hard then as he was now on the retelling. I had to do all the explaining.

Danny ended up cooking the burgers and they were beautiful. (for more on the meal, read the other blog.)

The reunion quickly devolved, as it always does with people our age, into a discussion of serious diseases and deaths and the trials and travails of those that suffered them. Then on to whatever happened to so-and-so and what are they up to now. Recall that no one got to stay at ACD, it doesn’t exist anymore so everyone is somewhere else.

The folks at the party were fun and funny and occasionally tragic, but we celebrated times past and the people we knew along the way. I was a part of this peculiar and diverse family for exactly as long as I was at home in Kentucky with my own flesh and blood. At points it was surreal, once familiar names and events swept through and disoriented me, where was I? When was I?

Some of them were getting smashed, I stayed stubbornly sober. The crooked, dark, wet, unfamiliar road scared me enough to drink only tea, but it was good tea, Debbie made it just right, strong and fresh, non-chlorinated water.

I left at around nine-thirty; the drive back was swift and uneventful. North Springfield on a Saturday night is not quite the raucous spectacle as you might imagine, especially since they cracked down on cruising and drag racing on Kearney Street twenty years or so back.

Barb and Virgil were still up, watching 48 Hours, a true crime show. I told them about being approached by a lady wanting me to write about the murder of her sister and niece in the ‘80’s. They were impressed; I’m just intimidated.

They went to bed at ten-something, I stayed up for a bit, they had offered me snacks again, and I politely refused as I had fulfilled my plans of stuffing myself with cook-out grub.

I had no wine with me; wine is the only thing I’ve found that overwhelms my normal insomniac state at night. I was tired though, the day had started early and been filled with things all day. I went to the basement, darker than deep space, and found the bed. I don’t recall taking long to fall asleep.

Minutes later though I could hear Barb puttering around upstairs, cleaning something.

I didn’t wake up again till seven thirty when I heard Virgil overhead. I got up, dressed and joined him for the morning paper, some coffee, and the Local TV news. About eight the thunder started, by eight fifteen it was overhead, raining heavy. By nine thirty it had reduced to a thin shower. I called Tyler, asked if he felt good enough to go to lunch, he said yeah, his ear was plugged up but other than that he’d be fine. I told him to call his sister and pick a good Chinese place, call me back when it’s figured out. About eleven would be best since I had a long, dull drive and a pile of laundry ahead of me.

We met at the place called ‘Jade Dynasty’ on Battlefield Road, across from the Food 4 Less. I got there about five till. Tyler and his delightful wife Tonya were there already sitting in their square, copper colored vehicle that I recognized immediately, helped by the fact that there were no other cars in the lot. It was sprinkling a little but the clouds were starting to pull apart and surrender. I got out of my car and got into the backseat of theirs. They apologized for the mess, I laughed and assured them that my car was worse, much worse, like a dumpster the day before weekly pickup, not too far from the truth.

“They open at eleven.” He said. I felt bad since when I was coming up with a good time I was only thinking about my own schedule, not that of the restaurant. Soon though other cars arrived, then Steph’s. I’d heard about her new significant friend Chris, but had never met him. Steph’s kids crawled out of the car, Alexis (Lexie), 5 and Corbin, 3. I hadn’t seen them in more than a year. They’re pretty kids, and their mother is exceptional with them despite the struggles of her daily life.

The door opened and a few families spilled in ahead of us. (more about the place and the food on the other blog).

This was unusual, this taking out the step-kids, but not too terribly awkward. I’d been a part of their lives since they were preschoolers, not all the time smooth, but we’re all adults now, so the little stuff just doesn’t matter anymore.

Tyler told of his home repairs and improvements and Tonya joined in with stories about the new puppy. They’ve got a cat or two already and a French bulldog named Jag, who we’ve puppy-sat a few times. The new puppy is a Chi-Weenie. A Chihuahua and long haired Dachshund mix, to be named ‘Grover.’ They had pictures on their phones. A new grand-puppy, sweet.

I sat opposite Lexie and Corbin they entertained us all. Lexie has a sweet, animated, sing-songy voice that never stops working. Corbin, though more serious is quite agreeable and for a three year old, quite articulate, aping his sister’s words frequently. He informed us that he ate green food so his hair wouldn’t fall out. Steph agreed. I knew this was just an innocent mommy-lie to get him to eat veggies, Steph’s prerogative, none of my business; I’ve screwed up enough kids in my life to think I know any better.

I asked him if lime Jell-O counted as green food. He answered that he wanted ice cream.

It was all done in about an hour, I needed to get on the road and they had lives to get back to. We parted ways and I headed over to Sunshine street, to a Chinese restaurant, the Canton Inn.

It’s not as stupid as I am sure it sounds, here’s the deal. I was picking up a CARE package for Angel and Adam. Angel insists that the Canton Inn’s egg rolls and wontons are better than those found anywhere else on this side of the known universe. She claims they stay crispy even after a two hundred mile drive and a couple of rounds in the microwave. She’s right. So I was under strict instructions to not show up at home with anything less than an enormous pile of eggrolls and wontons from the Canton Inn.

While I was waiting for the order, in walks Randy, a former Litton-ite that was not at the party the night before. Just a fluke, a coincidence, he’s not even on Facebook. We chatted for ten minutes or so, really nice to see him again, he’s an engineer, sharp and disciplined.

I left there in a good mood; the visit had been short, but nice.

I-44 was busy heading north/east, much heavier than on Saturday. It stayed up to the speed limit though and the miles clicked away. Somewhere past Ft. Wood it started getting dark, I’d caught up with that rain. The rain always takes I-44 across Missouri, it’s faster than the back roads.

I pulled in for gas at the same station in Rolla. The rain was light but promising to get heavier. I filled up the car, and then ducked inside for the restroom, the Chinese food was sitting pretty heavy. On the way out I picked up bottled water and some low dose speed, a package of Zingers. Glad I did, the rain got heavy all the way to my exit in St Claire, an hour or more of drowsy, rhythmic white noise. I was nap-less and tired, the Zingers kept me conscious, slightly buzzed. The stereo refused to play anything I wanted to listen to, my only other CD’s hidden somewhere in the far, darker reaches of the Alero.

I took highway 30, the rain stayed on I-44, at least most of it. A slower car ahead of me pretended I didn’t exist and stayed at it’s snail’s pace along the narrow, curvy road, it was turning into forever. To highway BB, the final stretch, and the worst. BB is to roads what flip-flops are to shoes, more a nuisance than a solution.

To Klondike, a mile to go. Slow sprinkles following me into the driveway, home. I unloaded in one armload and found Adam, said hey. I found his mom out in the big building with a couple of the dogs, they were learning to go up and down a ramp she’d built. I answered “fine” and “great” and “really nice” then announced that it was time for me to pass out. She asked if I was tired, I merely responded that I’d slept in her mom’s basement. She understood. I napped for an hour, unable to go longer because of the residual sugar buzz, got up and started my laundry.

I checked Facebook, somebody realized that we had neglected to burn the posters, the original point of the cook-out. Debbie, or somebody answered back that we should pass the poster on to someone else in the group, then they could hold the next party and we could forget to burn them there as well, giving birth to a new tradition of intentional forgetfulness.

I’ll go.

* Northrop Grumman bought Litton Industries in late 1999. Those of us that had been there for a few years never could really wrap our tongues around calling it Northrop, and since the plant was all but completely shut down a little more than a year later, I don’t think the newer name will ever stick. Northrop was not responsible for the tech industry bust of 2001, but they certainly didn’t toss out a very big life preserver. We all suspected they were really just after the shipyards.