Monday, December 30, 2013

Eight degrees of. . . well, actually just eight degrees.

It was cold, very cold, stupidly cold. The weatherman said it this morning, "It's unnecessarily cold." It's like 
childhood spanking 'chilly' gone way too far and jacked up to felonious child abuse cold.

Cold this cold makes no sense, it doesn't accomplish anything than couldn't be achieved twenty degrees less cold than this. The murmur changes from an annoyed and uncomfortable 'brrrrr' to an angry and impassioned 'enough already!'

I'm really glad I have an indoor job, unlike my dear wife. 
I've lived in more northern climes. Northern tier north, freezing temps and snow from September through May north.
I didn't like it, one bit. It never got as cold there as it has been today here though. But there in northern Japan, nestled twixt the ocean and the mountains, the weather came in and stayed, rolling over and over on itself, for days, even weeks at a time. Unrelenting low overcast, biting, slicing wet winds pushing the cold into your face and up your backside at the same time. Snow on the ground for five or six months each year, never fully melting, turning uglier and uglier, slicker and sloppier. Warmth eventually became a mere abstract concept, a desire, a wistful want, yet another unfulfilled fantasy.
But it wasn't this cold, ever. Single digits, wind chill leaning toward the obscene at the slightest hint of a breeze. Insanely cold. 
It can get colder here, in fact it probably will before this new season finally runs its course.
Even an hour after going indoors my body was still occasionally smacked with an outburst of stored or repressed shivers. My fingers still burned, the joints still clumsy.
The little car protested this morning as well. I turned the key and it groaned a distinct pair of 'Unh-Unhhh's !' before the engine parts finally found purchase. It's body and frame were as rigid as mine, solidly stiff in the bitter cold. Minor bumps and dips jarred our bones alike. Joints creaked, movements were stiff and unwelcome.The car's interior never really got warm. The only warmth to be found was in direct proximity to the puny vents. The engine wanted to keep all the heat for itself, unwilling to share it with the driver. I'd probably behave the same way though.
Later in the day the temp soared to nineteen degrees. I could tell the difference. It wasn't warm, it just wasn't as murderously cold.
Outer space is colder, a lot colder.
If it were not for our atmosphere our planet would be nearly as cold as space. The sun would only feel warm when and where it shined, the heat the ground soaked up would soar immediately into space. Freezing, temperature-less space. Our atmosphere is like fur on a mountain breed dog, trapping the stored heat in a thick blanket, holding it against the surface. 
I think we should probably make the effort to be more appreciative of our atmosphere, we're the only orb in our solar system that has one good enough to keep us from being the desperately cold and lifeless, spinning rocks that the others seem to be. 
I wonder if they shiver, the other planets and moons? I think I would.
I heard someone say something about getting used to it. 
Balderdash. I spent three long winters in Japan, there was no getting used to it. You tolerated it, fought it, some even sucked it up and accepted it, but cold is cold. You cannot zen-think your way to a warm spot whilst your extremities turn blue, your mustache ices over and your vision narrows. Cold isn't about perception, its about physics. I can think myself happier or sadder, sometimes, I cannot not mentally warm up a declining core temperature. Our bodies respond selfishly to bitter cold exposure, shutting down everything to protect the mighty brain. Everything else from that brain pan's narcissistic perspective becomes extraneous and expendable. Like closing off the unused rooms in an old house, they're on their own.
Well it does save something for last, the sex parts. The brain has a pretty high opinion of our naughty bits. When the body's core starts to succumb to low temperatures, the mighty brain looks around and pulls in those parts, tries to draw them nearer to the warm core. Not your ears, fingers, lips, legs, elbows or hair. In desperate straits you'd be left with nothing but a beating heart, a throbbing brain and a couple of functional genitals. Your eyeballs may turn to ice, your toes and fingers may snap off like shattered icicles, but the brain will try desperately to save Winky, until that too becomes simply too much a burden. That's a funny, dare I say impractical, design. Logic would dictate saving the hands and fingers first because they can build a fire, adjust a thermostat, crawl out of the snowbank, all kinds of useful things to mitigate the situation. If my car slips off the road into an icy abyss the last thing in the world I'm thinking about (with my more modern and sophisticated frontal lobe) for the next few days or hours would be reproducing. Maybe that's just me though. I certainly know that given that same desperate situation, talking any female I've ever known into getting it on at that moment would be a laughably futile endeavor, so what's the point in such complex mechanisms to save those bits?
The lower brain's prime directive is quite different from polite, contemporary society's.
Fashion model, thick lipped movie star or muscly Atlas, none of that matters at all to the brain when times turn bitterly cold and brutal.
Physics has no heart. Cold treats us all the same. Good, bad, jaded or optimistic, philanthropic or greedy, you simply can't win the ultimate battle of extreme low temperatures. 
Cold is cold. 
Today, it was cold.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


From: Mapquest
As another round of dire winter weather warnings headlined the day, I was pondering the current state of roadway maintenance in the area.
First, you've heard me talk, several times, about the forty mile (each way) daily commute, from my home in rural central Jefferson County to suburban central St. Louis county.
I do not consider myself a hapless victim of this situation, I chose to live where I live, knowing full well that the only reasonable employment opportunities would be as much as an hour away. It was a compromise. I really wanted to settle on a beach in Saint Martin in the Caribbean, but the commute would have been much, much longer and they talk funny there. So Hillsboro, Mo, it was, the obvious second choice.
So I'm not whining. I knew seven years ago that this would be a daily slog, simply part of the job.
The commute has two major components, twenty miles on Highway 21 in Jefferson County, sixteen on I-270. The rest is taken up by a couple of rural roads near my house and the industrial roads off of the Page Ave exit where my cubicle resides.
In good weather 21 is a breeze. Four lanes, interstate style exits, hardly ever jammed at any point, 65mph almost all the way. I can usually make it from my house to the 270 on-ramp in a half hour, occasionally less. There's a few stoplights once it gets into StLCo, but they are pretty well timed. No lights at all between my house and the county line.
I-270 is more iffy. There are good days and bad days, and some very, very bad days. At night, or the middle of the day, or a weekend, I can make the entire trip from work to home, in about 45-50 minutes. Of course, during the week, at the rush hours, that simply never happens. I leave work at 5 P.M., and usually, usually get home between 6:15 and 6:30.  It all depends on 270 though. I- 270 is the bypass, the best route there is, the alternatives are virtually non-existent. I've tried, Lord knows I've tried, to find a 'bad-day' route, but they all quickly clog up themselves as other people try exactly the same thing.
A local radio station reports on traffic conditions 'on the 10's' every day during drive time. By 5:10 I'm usually within a half mile of 270, so I do have an opportunity to divert, as if there were actually any better route.
No, I mostly just suck it up, mentally prepare myself when I hear 'brake lights are on all the way from Olive to Dougherty Ferry', which occurs a couple or more times per week. The road between those two exits makes up 75% of my 270-trek.
Heaven forbid there be a raindrop or snowflake spotted anywhere on that road. I find it absolutely confounding that any rain, any snow, will automatically translate to an 80% reduction in speed. It's rated and signed for 60MPH. On those slower days, in that bottleneck stretch, it's more like 10-20MPH, with frequent full stops.
So I just pick a lane, turn up the volume on NPR and go with the trickling flow.
You won't see me darting dangerously and unexpectedly from lane to lane, tapping the horn, flashing the lights, nor flipping off or cursing those that do. I just go Zen.
Winter weather, of course, is a major concern.
A couple of years ago a pretty good storm sneaked up on the area. County and state highway crews were completely unprepared. A few thick inches fell quickly on untreated roads, plows were late, as the storm swelled up and took an enormous dump right before the morning commute. By then the roads and shoulders were clogged and the plows rendered nearly immobile by the inability to get where they were needed. Ask anyone here, they all remember that one.
MoDoT (State Highway Maintenance) and County transportation departments caught hell for weeks, even months over that one event.
Since then, they'd rather juice up the roads ahead of time, even when there's only a slight chance, than be caught with their drawers on the floor again.
And it has been working.
Sure, a drive-time storm is still messy, but the roads are usually well prepared, and the melting starts quick, and usually by the end of day one of snow-mageddon, they're pretty clear.
Our storms usually march up I-44. That's not a coincidence. The highway was carved through the best path through the Ozarks from Joplin to St. Louis, the shorter hills, the wider valleys. The same route that prevailing winds happen to take. Sometimes a bit south of the road, sometimes a bit north, but most of the time the path is clear and predictable.
So on Thursday, as predictions for this second weekend storm in a row started being issued, I noticed that the roads had already been treated. Parallel lines of mystery-solvent (I'm sure it's environmentally friendly ;-) )  traced my entire route.
This weekend's storm was predicted to change from rain to ice/snow about 6 P.M. on Friday. Plow crews were assembling for roaming deployment instructions at 7 A.M. Friday. They were going to be all over this thing, like shame on a reformed prostitute.
I, among thousands of others, appreciate this. We really, really appreciate it.
Five or six years ago I was driving to work during an early December morning mist. The roads were wet, the temperature hovered around the freezing point, dropping slowly.
Spoiler Alert!: The moral of the following paragraph is "Bridges freeze before roadways."
I was tooling along, around 45 MPH, minding my own business, traffic was pretty light. There's a bridge on the southern part of Highway 21 that curves a bit and has a rougher than normal junction with the road. My little truck bounced a little over the bump, which reduced it's grip on the road and it settled back onto thickly glazed-over pavement. This confused my truck. It was so confused that its backside jumped ahead of the front to try to figure it out. This was a bad idea. The driver, that would be me, carefully tried to correct the truck, now sideways, but the truck had another brilliant idea. Dig into a thin strip of non-icy pavement instead. The truck flipped in protest of the sudden traction. It rolled, once, maybe twice, I wasn't counting. I was kind of busy working up a screaming, heaving panic. The truck ended up in the median, on its roof.
This was exactly the second time I'd ever found myself strapped into an upside down vehicle.
I know what you're asking. . . Yes, I did survive, the truck did not.
So I still get a bit twitchy when reports start predicting iffy drive times.
However, this time, the fact that I knew the roads had been treated and the crews were already warming up the plows, made me confident that delays would be minimized, life would resume.
When I say that the roads are usually clear within a day on my route, I mean all of them. Even poor little Klondike Road.
The Driveway.
When I was a kid, if a back road got plowed in good time, or at all, my dad would say: "There must be a politician on that road."
Maybe that's the case on my road as well, all I know is that whatever the reasons, I am quite happy with the hard work and diligence that the various county and state's crews display during these dark dreary, often bitterly, brutally cold days. It is really, really, really appreciated.
Now if they'd only do something about my four hundred foot long, sloping driveway.

So be careful out there! No one, and I mean no one, brags on their headstone about dying while bravely heading to work on a bad weather day.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Those bells! Those bells! The fires of hell must certainly be on the near horizon!

How was my Holiday, you ask? Well it started out just fine, over the river and through the woods fine. . . but  then things turned. . . 

Adam and I spent Thursday and Friday mostly driving. We drove down to Cerulean Ky. to have a big meal with my mother and her other, more inferior offspring.
Mom doesn’t currently live in her house. Since the mild stroke she’s been in an assisted living apartment called Barkley Plantation. (A very fine place, by the way.)
We feasted and then Steve left. I think I’d angered him. “Hey Steve I was looking at your ride. Do those Toyota minivans come in any  color other than ‘pathetic’?”  The rest of us took mom back to the plantation, and to her concerned cat, Miss Kitty. (The last three or four cats mom has had were all called Miss Kitty.)
Back in Cerulean Jeff left for his house down the block to tend to the wood stove and his herd of Chihuahuas. This left Kathy, Adam and I in the enormous house. We watched TV.
In the morning Kathy and I had breakfast, I made us a thanksgiving leftover concoction, based on an old family dish called mashed potato cakes. (Mmmmm.)
Onions, turkey, eggs, mashed potatoes, stuffing (used as a binder) “It tastes like Thanksgiving!” was the rave review from my unattractive and often boorish sister.
She left before we did. We turned down the heaters, shut off as much as we could. Jeff goes by the house a couple of times a day to adjust things.
We stopped by to visit mom and her cat again on the way out of town. Once on the interstate I recalled that we’d forgotten to grab the leftover pie and cookies like we said we would. I’d lose almost an hour doubling back so I didn’t. I was already road weary from the previous day’s four-plus hour trek and the car seat was already starting to poke, prod and hurt in all those familiar and awkward to massage places. I really wished I’d grabbed the pie though, it would last a couple of months at my house. I love apple pie. Dina, Jeff’s wonderful, saintly and slightly scary wife made the thing from a recipe called Martha Stewart's Mile High Apple Pie . It was delicious, it was also enormous. The recipe starts with: ‘5 ½ pounds of firm, tart apples.” In a standard nine inch pan! Yeah, it’s almost taller than it is wide. The equivalent to a standard pie slice would be only about 1/4 inch wide from this towering behemoth.
The cookies were home made too. Adam ate several, oatmeal, chocolate chip, sugar. . .
Oh well.
The road trip back took four hours and six minutes. I know this because every time I make this trip I try to break the four hour mark. Friday’s conditions were ideal, sunny, cool, full tank of gas, well fed, eager to get it over with. Had it not been for a shopping traffic slowdown in Perryville, our one pit stop at roughly the halfway point, and a fifteen mile per hour under the posted speed limit minivan on Highway A between Festus and Hillsboro, I might have made it. But no, four hours and six %^$!! minutes. This sort of set my mood toward going foul.
I was wasted the rest of the day since Angel had rolled out the full feast there. I took on more carbs in those two days than the previous three months combined. I felt stuffed, bloated, heart-burned and sluggish. I spent the evening drooling and making sad, guttural, grunting noises.
On Saturday I made a run to Desoto to pick up the week’s supplies and a prescription refill to replace the drugs that I had left behind in Cerulean.
I knew there would be trouble the moment I turned into the parking lot. I could see them. I could already hear them.
Bell ringers.
There are some noises that I cannot stand. They reverberate in my head like a torture device. Most noises don’t bother me at all. Dogs barking or howling in the basement doesn’t even wake me up. But some things, like my first wife’s voice, the crying of a baby, cartoons (high pitched shouting) and those bells. They enter my skull holes and start bouncing off the walls. I find them disorienting, shrill, percussive and angry. If noises were colors then this sound would be bright, very bright and rapidly strobing, blood red.
It’s not simply annoying, like the lady at work, (she knows who I’m talking about) I find the ringing enraging.
I decided to take a stand. I’d had enough already and the season was just getting underway, I hadn’t even parked the car.
I stepped out and the volume increased. I felt the urge to be violent, to let go of my long pent-up rage and let that taut rubber band finally snap. I’d grab whatever was handy, something heavy and blunt, I wanted bruises and shattered bones, I wanted crumpled heaps twitching on the sidewalk while I reduced those stupid, offensive, maddening bells  back to the base ore from whence they came. I’d melt them with acid, strap them to some train tracks and then take an acetylene torch to whatever was left. Then I’d put those ashes back into the ground.
I was sure they saw me, knew what I was planning. They started ringing louder and faster, louder and faster. This did not frighten me nor stifle my resolve. I marched forward, looking for a bludgeoning device, settled on the butt-tower (those tall plastic devices used for extinguishing and disposing of cigarettes that are at every doorway.)
It would be filled with sand or water or both at the bottom, heavy, with its own long handle. Perfect.
I approached, something in the landscape bothered me. I felt my brilliant plan going sour.
These weren’t the expected geriatric, arthritic senior citizens my plan had assumed. No these guys were younger, muscled, wide shouldered, mountainous men. They caught my eye, it was fight or flight for me, they’d stepped up to the challenge.
Time to crack open a myth.
You know in movies and TV shows where the fast little guy or the 98 pound, high heeled, stick-woman detective out-maneuvers and overpowers enormous, drug-fueled bad-ass bad guys?
That almost never happens. Being light, agile and trained in various martial arts is no compensation for being half as tall and half as wide as the bad guy. Physics, amigos, physics. In the real world, ninety-nine and a half times out of a hundred, the smaller person gets the entire bejesus beat out of them by the under-trained, ham fisted, sluggish, dim-witted, Neanderthal. In a hands-on free for all, it’s endurance, endurance, endurance, that wins. This is why guns were invented, to stop bigger, badder people from killing you before they can get close enough to whoop your scrawny torso. Weapons, stabbing and shooting weapons, are all about closing the distance, extending your lethal reach.
I sized these guys up, there were three of them. Those three together were bigger and heavier than my Chevy coupe.
I altered my plan. You see, I could be a champion, a real badass myself, if:
A. I knew anything about fighting.
B. Had ever actually been in a fight.
C. I hadn't usually found it much more satisfying to run away while victory was still theoretically possible rather than sticking around, flying into the foray and determining for certain that it wasn’t.
D. I’d not studied The Art of War. (Sun Tzu)
My enemy outnumbered me, outweighed me, and by all appearances had superior skills and experience. Plus, by virtue of their height, held the higher ground. Sun Tzu says in situations like this: “Run away! Run away from the stench and trenches! Run away!”(Or maybe that was Monty Python.)
 They wore leather vests, with patches, a biker club. Their reputation as an over-hyped stereotypically violent fraternity preceded them.
Plan B.
Avoid eye contact. Pretend that the bells don’t bother me. Stare at my shoes, pretend not to notice them. Try very hard to not look like a vicious, cocked and loaded, lethal weapon.
I made it. I swept past the snarling greeter, past the poorly dressed overweight people, past the snot nosed kids coating the toys with snot-borne mucus and germs. Deep inside the store I was able to suppress the rage, just enough, by diverting my attention instead to the overhead music in the peaceful sanctity of the men’s underwear aisle. Just as I was calming, a little, I listened closer. That music, hypnotic, catchy, jaunty and liltingDAMMIT it’s Christmas Music!!!
Also on the list of sounds that drive me nearer to insanity than where I typically waddle, is Christmas music. Every bit of it, all of it. Yes, even that song, and that one, yes, all of them, especially that one.
Hey, don’t let your chestnuts get all roasted by my blasphemy. Christmas music is vastly overplayed, simplistic and banal. It’s tailored to get a rise out of you, to alter your emotions. Well, with me it certainly does. Ire, anger and rage to name a few. Enough to make me want instead, to run out the front door, grab that ash can and go down swinging in a violent, screaming and certainly suicidal, bloodbath.
So I grabbed bananas, some soup, a couple of Christmas cards for my mom, and my pills. Not the right kind of pills though, not the soothing, mood calming, happy cloud drugs. No, to quash this hissing, boiling fury was going to take something stronger, more potent than mere prescription chemicals, it would take something purely savage and mighty, like, like apple pie.

What? Oh. . .Crap.

Editor's note: The author is not a violent person, at all. He lacks the requisite physical, mental, and emotional guts to ever physically attack anyone not causing him or his family imminent harm. He'd probably lose then too, but he might at least put up a token struggle.
His angry, bitter and threatening words herein are only indicative of his unfettered fantasy universe. As a writer of creative non-fiction, he has license, and the propensity, to exaggerate, embellish, and well, lets just call it what it is, lie, to animate an otherwise mundane story about going to the store to pick up a prescription.

Editor's note.(2)
The author has nothing against the charities involved in the collection of donations. He is sure they are perfectly noble causes. He, in fact, extends his humblest gratitude to those willing to volunteer their time and energy to help the less fortunate. He also has no dislike and wishes no ill will to members of motorcycle clubs, Walmart greeters, or the many delightful patrons of that particular discount chain. 

Author's note: I still hate those infernal bells.