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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Splat-ter of the Week (Weekend Edition...again): The NCAA

Once again we're a little slow with the Splat-ter of The Week.  Splatsopheric has begun to rival Congress in terms of summer inertia.

Olympic fever seems to have taken hold of the splatosphere just like the rest of the world, because this  week's news produced an unusually fierce competition for top dishonors.  (We won't mention any of the also-rans in case we get desperate for material next week and need to use one of them.)

Much as we try to keep things light here, we simply can't this week because the topic is far too serious.  We give the prize, such as it is, to the NCAA for what it didn't do as it addressed the Penn State football scandal.

As most people know, Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State defensive coordinator, was convicted earlier this month of molesting ten boys over a period of fifteen years.  Our society and the law acted swiftly and put Sandusky behind bars; however, no punishment has the power to redress the wrongs Sandusky committed or to repair the lives he destroyed.

In a development almost as appalling as the crimes themselves, a recent investigation conducted by former FBI Director Louis Freeh (at the behest of the Penn State Board of Trustees) adduced evidence that then-Head Coach Joe Paterno and Penn State leadership knew about allegations of inappropriate behavior by Sandusky as early as 1998 but failed to act on them.

The issuance of the Freeh report spurred the NCAA, a non-profit organization that regulates collegiate athletics, to vacate Penn State's wins from 1998-2011, ban the school from bowl games for four years and fine it $60 million, among other sanctions.

We know many Penn State alums take issue with these penalties and/or believe the NCAA overreached but we are not among them.  Human lives are, and always will be, more important than sports.  But we're astonished that the NCAA has failed to use the Penn State scandal --the most heinous collegiate athletic scandal to date --as a mandate to examine itself.  As an organization, the NCAA has proven inept at regulating college sports in a way that detects and deters systemic ethical failures.  So far, we haven't heard a word about what it's doing to fix that.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Songs to Splat By

Splats don’t happen in a vacuum.  Like everything else in life, they occur context and usually involve more than one of the five senses at a time. So today’s post focuses on sound, specifically the music we splat by.  Opinions about music differ widely and ours represents only one.  It also happens to be the correct one,  but don't let that stop you from chiming in to tell us what you think, and please help us complete the splat-track! 

Any credible list requires criteria of some kind, so here are ours:  the song’s music and/or lyrics must in some way speak for splatters everywhere.  In other words, songs can't land on the splat-track as a function of individual nostalgia.  No one cares if, hypothetically, “Crazy For You” by Madonna was playing while you stood in the corner of the Lake Braddock Secondary School cafeteria on a Friday night in 8th grade, inhaling the heady bouquet of teenaged sweat and tater tots as you waited in vain for a tall boy named Doug to ask you to dance.  The song must reach the splatting population at large.  So, here are our first five nominees:

1.     "We Are the Champions" by Queen .  We like the sound of this tune just fine but it makes our list on lyrics alone.  (Start waving your lighter and/or cell phone, as demographically appropriate):

I've had my share of sand kicked in my face -
But I've come through…
But it's been no bed of roses
No pleasure cruise -
I consider it a challenge before the whole human race -
And I ain't gonna lose -
We are the champions - my friends
And we'll keep on fighting - till the end

Just try to dislodge this get-on-your-feet-and-stay-there anthem from the top spot on this list.  We dare you. 

2.      "March of the Toreadors" from the opera Carmen.  When The Bad News Bears came out in 1976, this instrumental made a huge splash in non-opera circles.  It became known as the theme song for a fictional little league team that got blown out of every game.  Tired of being baseball laughingstocks, the Bears and their coach decided to try to turn things around.  The kids’ hard work, combined with some very unconventional leadership techniques, transformed the group.  Once a team that lost every game, the Bears blossomed into a team that still lost when it counted but by a smaller margin and with excellent background music.  Splat!  Despite their defeat on the field, the Bears won an important moral victory, as well as post-game access to the coach’s beer-stocked cooler.  Whenever we hear a few bars of this majestic, magnificent march, we’re transported back to the movie that inspired generations of splat-ters, not to mention underage drinkers.

3.        "Loser," by Beck.  Representing the darker side of a splat, this tune opens with: “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey.”  Nothing says “splat” like being the wrong primate at the wrong time.  OK, in truth we have no idea what those lyrics mean.  But we do know the narrator has splatted pretty hard.  He’s lost hope for course correction to the point of contemplating going  “crazy with the cheez whiz.”  You’re in a very bad place, splat-wise, when you’re expressing unhealthy urges involving spray cheese.

4.    "Sunday Morning" by Maroon 5 .  This is our lone sound-only splat.  “Sunday Morning” is, on the whole, a great piece of pop music.  The piano kicks it off with a combination of jazz chords supported by the accent of a high-hat cymbal on every other beat, creating a mood that’s lazy but content.  This song doesn’t want you to launch yourself out of bed to do an Insanity workout.  Instead, it invites you to stay right where you are: “Sunday morning, rain is falling, steal some covers, share some skin; clouds are shrouding us in moments unforgettable, you twist to fit the mold that I am in.”  Everything’s going great as this nice little ditty eases down the musical road, all the way up until the moment when they reach the “bridge,” slam into the rails and go careening over the side.  (Only the pianist and lead singer show the good judgment to jump out of the musical car before it’s too late.)  Impact occurs when a bunch of synthesized horns burst onto the tranquil Sunday bedroom scene, shattering the mood as effectively as the sudden appearance of a creepy uncle.  (We confess we’re not 100% certain the horns are synthesized but we assume so because real brass would show some class and butt out in such a situation).  The song and band spend another eight bars or so flailing around in the water before regaining its buoyancy. 

5.    "Jump" by Van Halen.  We admit to having some sentimental associations with this song but it gets here under its own steam.  It starts with a catchy keyboard hook that gains momentum when it’s joined by forward-charging power chords and a determined, but not frantic, drumbeat.  The music itself evokes pure resilience.  Poetically speaking, the lyrics to “Jump” will never be mistaken for the work of Maya Angelou (or even any of the Three Stooges).  But they do promote the bounceback theme, and neither they nor the music will let you stay in the dirt for long.  

Love these? Hate these? Wish we hadn't mentioned [insert song name] because now it's gonna be stuck in your head all day? Drop us a line and let us know! 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Where are they now? An update on the Splat-ters of the Month

Splatospheric has survived the one-month mark (which is more than we can say for some of our romantic relationships), so we've decided to honor its longevity by checking in on the splat-ters we've featured over the last four weeks. Are they still stuck to the wall, laying in the dirt, or back on their feet? Let's find out.

1.  Greece.  Not much seems to have changed since we last wrote about this beautiful country.  Greek citizens continue to chafe at suggestions from the International Monetary Fund, Euro zone leaders and debt inspectors that the country must adopt even more austerity measures.  They are frankly growing weary of all this austerity and oversight.  Commentators referred to this as "adjustment fatigue," a term that gives "market correction" a real run for its money as financial euphemisms go.  Antonis Samaris, the newly elected Prime Minister, seems determined to respond to the needs of his constituents.  He intends to seek renegotiation of bailout loan terms and has reassured voters that no additional austerity measures will be imposed in 2012.  Some astute citizens noticed that 2012 was 75% gone already, so Samaris turned up the rhetoric a notch, vowing to delay the start of 2013 until April and to nominate Mr. Magoo as a debt inspector.  

2.   The University of Virginia Board of Visitors.  We really have to hand it to Helen Dragas and the Board for their outstanding efforts to convert this splat to a successful rebound.  They wisely reinstated Teresa Sullivan as President.  Shortly thereafter, Sullivan proved her strategic vision was pretty close to 20/20 after all by revealing a partnership with Coursera, an online educational platform provider whose clients include prestigious institutions like Stanford and Duke.  As a show of the Board's confidence in the University's president, Dragas joined Sullivan in announcing the new partnership.  Alumni and donors viewed the joint statement was a nice sign that Dragas and Sullivan had already reconciled their differences, but its credibility was undermined slightly by the photo that ran with it, showing Dragas's hands behind her back with her fingers crossed.

3.  The Post-Storm Undercaffeinated Throngs.  We initially encountered this group in a state of caffeine-deprived aggression, queued up in front of the only Starbucks open within a five mile radius.  Judging from their driving habits, they seem to have returned to their usual state of fully buzzed aggression, signaling a complete recovery.  Home Depot's wildly successful "No Generator Left Behind" program should help prevent future coffee emergencies.

4.  DC Voters.  While some of the other Splat-ters of the Week have made impressive progress, the DC voters have come the furthest in the shortest amount of time.  Allegations surfaced last week that Vincent Gray's successful run for mayor depended in part on over $650,000 in undisclosed funds from a "shadow campaign."  Gray claimed not to know about the shadow campaign, and then tried to reassure voters that he's not running the city anywhere near as cluelessly as he did his campaign. But DC voters aren't buying it.  Just yesterday the Washington Post published the results of a poll reflecting that 54% of the city's residents believe Gray should resign. Nine percent of voters are undecided, and 37% say Gray should hold off resigning until Marion Barry is available to replace him.    

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Love stinks...and splats.

Last week Groupon advertised a deal from a company that specializes in matchmaking.  For a mere $65, Washington area singles could buy a month's worth of the company's expertise in arranging targeted introductions.  I deleted the offer but then wondered whether I'd dumped it too soon as I reviewed my relationship resume.  The entries from 1996 - 2009 revealed a tendency to pursue men whose availability varied inversely with their charisma.  The most recent blurb is a marriage of such misery and brevity that it can only be labeled a "non-starter."

For the last year or so I've sat on the sidelines of dating, essentially on injured reserve.  Yet this status wasn't enough to shield me from an ugly crash last November with a player who stepped out of bounds and didn't stop running even after he collided with the bench.

I had made plans to meet my friend, M, for dinner at a nice restaurant in Fairfax, preceded by a dreaded hair appointment.  The haircut took far less time than expected (and the stylist produced superhuman results), so I found myself with 45 minutes of free time.  I decided to go to the restaurant early and start reading a guidebook I'd bought in preparation for an upcoming trip to Germany.

The restaurant's rectangular bar had four empty seats in a row so I made a beeline for that section, grabbed the stool furthest from other patrons and opened my guidebook.  I hadn't even reached "Berlin" in the Table of Contents when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

"Excuse me, can I sit here?" asked a man of average height and build with thick, silvering hair and blue-green eyes.  He pointed at the stool right next to me.  I didn't want a neighbor but had no right or reason to say "no."  I nodded.

"I'm Rob," he said.  He appeared to be nice, as much as you can read that from looks alone. Perhaps because of that I made the rookie mistake of introducing myself using my actual first name. I realized my blunder and immediately attempted damage control by re-immersing.  I felt certain this gesture would cut off the conversational airway.

Rob forced it back open with that quintessentially Washington D.C. chestnut: "So, what do you do?"

Something about the way he looked at me as he asked this set off my Creep-O-Meter.  I should have said, "I'm a sprinter" and made a run for it.  But instead of heeding my instincts, I let my auto-polite take over and I answered.  Rob volunteered that he's in construction and does windows and siding.  He thrust a business card in my direction.  On realizing he might just be trying to sell me some vinyl, I felt a brief euphoria that I hoped didn't register on my face.

I took the card and tried again to kill the conversation, this time with expectant glances cast alternately in the direction of the door and my phone, which sat on the bar.  He asked me for a card. I claimed not to have one on me, which could have been true if you distort the concept of "on" sufficiently.

He sallied forth.  "Well, I see you have a phone so why don't you just text me your number?"  I should've seen that one coming.

My reflexes rescued me.  "Oh, sorry. I'm actually still married."  I felt certain this would finish off our chat but he breathed life back into it with a litany of relationship questions.  I explained I'd been married less than a year.  I added that I was now living in my sister's basement.  This two-pronged defense would have repelled most suitors, kind of like the time when my sister and I were at a crowded bar and she broadcast the fact that she had a raging case of pink eye to everyone within eyeshot.

Rob didn't relent.  Eventually I ran out of steam and gave him my number, thinking I was making a bigger deal of it by continuing to refuse.  He punched the numbers into his phone.

He said he liked my "look."  I informed him I didn't usually look like that while silently cursing my stylist.  Then he began to show me photos on his cell phone.  The first ones depicted his English bulldog.  My face must have conveyed my disinterest accurately, because he switched from pictures of live animals to snapshots of cooked ones.  The screen of his phone was suddenly occupied by a veritable field of scored chicken parts arrayed on a grill,  and then by a photo of the seared veal chop he'd ordered at a restaurant weeks prior.

Unless you're a restaurant critic or doing an expose on animal cruelty for "60 Minutes,"it's best to assume that people don't care about your food photos. I was about to say as much when M finally arrived so I forced out a "nice chat" instead and rushed off to meet her.

A few minutes later Rob materialized at our table. M and I dropped a series of leaden hints that we wanted to be left alone.  When one of these finally found its mark he left.  But apparently Rob still hadn't been ready to let the conversation die, because a post-dinner glance at my phone showed that he'd texted me seven times over the course of an hour.

I perused them in order.  The first four were benign and banal.  The fifth asked whether I was wearing a thong and if so, what color.  In the sixth he wondered if he'd done something to offend me.  With number seven he said I had issues and noted that it was a shame because he'd been hoping to take me to his favorite place.  (Based on the meat photos, I assume he was referring to his freezer, and it wasn't hard to imagine myself chopped up and ziplocked in there along with the pork loin.)

That experience sent me running off the field and straight for the locker room, where I've been hiding ever since.  I think I'm ready to suit up again, and to make a coaching change.  I just might have to go e-trash diving and rescue the matchmaking deal.  For $65, it may be worth it to find out whether a paid professional can mismanage my dating life as expertly as I have.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Splat-ter of the Week (Weekend Edition): DC Voters

It can be tough to elect a leader who's untainted by corruption.  Just ask the citizens of our nation's capital, who have struggled with this problem since the Home Rule Act of the mid-1970s gave them the right to choose their own mayor.

Marion Barry held this top city post from 1979-1991, until he had a pesky encounter with federal agents over his alleged use of some flammable narcotics.  His lawyers raised the "Beeotch Set Me Up" defense, which sounded catchy but was more persuasive as a bumper sticker than a legal theory.  But it wasn't his lawyers' fault, really.  The Monica Lewinsky scandal had not yet occurred, so they didn't realize an entire defense could be developed around the meaning of the two-word intransitive verb "is." So Marion Barry fell victim not only to the beeotch but to some very bad timing, legally speaking. 

The citizens of DC tried to rebound from this embarrassing electoral splat and promptly elected Sharon Pratt Kelly, who ran on the compelling "I Haven't Done Time (Yet)" platform.  But the voters gave Barry his job back in 1995, recognizing that Pratt Kelly's resume lacked the kind of real-world experience you can only get in prison.

Barry "The Sequel" proved to be an underwhelming one-season spinoff.   Barry didn't seek re-election, citing a desire to focus all of his attention on not filing federal tax returns. 

He was succeeded by Tony "Bow Tie" Williams, followed by Adrian "Proudly Courting the Triathlete Vote" Fenty.  Though Fenty's term did involve an investigation or two into potential contracting improprieties, it had appeared DC was recovering fairly well from the Barry splat.  

In 2010, Fenty was ousted by Vincent Gray, who had voters convinced he was less concerned with swimming pools and more interested in connecting with citizens. Recent allegations indicate that, unfortunately, some of the people Gray connected with quite closely weren't so skilled at following the rules about public accounting of campaign funds.  

It appears that these folks somehow forgot to disclose more than $650,000 expended to help Gray gain the mayoral seat. Gray claims he had no knowledge of this shadow campaign-- even though it blocked out more sun than the Empire State Building--stating, "You know how sometimes you put a $20 bill in your pants pocket and forget all about it until you stumble across it after doing laundry? Well, these pants had really deep pockets."  

Here we go again.  DC voters, come on over and grab your golden pancake! 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Run for the Border - Parte Tres

I’ll preface my recap of the Chexican wedding by observing that, if someone has to tell you to remove the pineapple from your head as you’re leaving a party, it usually means you stayed just a smidge too long.  I’ll come back to this idea later.

I can be fairly blasé about nuptials, having attended literally dozens and played a Key Role of some sort in sixteen.  (My favorite was the one where the couple asked me to play the organ.  They knew I played the piano only but did not retract their request for my services even after I pointed out that the two instruments are more like fraternal twins than identical ones.  This led to my memorable and inadvertently ironic rendition of “Be Not Afraid”.)

The Chexican wedding ceremony, set in a beautiful, rustic old church in downtown Cuernavaca, was a standard issue Catholic affair.   The same cannot be said of the reception. 

It took place at a large, open air hotel lounge comprised of a stone patio and a grassy area.  In case of rain, the hotel staff had given the lounge a “roof” in the form of a series of massive green, industrial tarps.  From the outside the site resembled a public works project, but somehow the staff managed to make the interior a sparkling, cozy party room. 

Tables occupied the grassy area.  A single light placed on the underside of each one cast a soft but bright light through the sheer white cloths that covered them.  I’m sure the lighting-from-beneath technique is in vogue at U.S. weddings now, too, but I hadn’t seen it before.  I loved the warm, intimate effect. 

S. and I picked up our place cards and took our seats at Table 10 with several other members of her family.  The eight piece band started its sound check routine, only to be drowned out by a drumline-esque pounding overhead.  It took us a few seconds to realize rain had begun to strike the roof tarp, pretty forcefully.   Our table dismissed it as a passing storm—a momentary distraction--as did the other guests, because no one seemed to be abandoning their posts. 

When the wind powering this momentary distraction seized a corner of one tarp and lifted it, the rain wasted no time exploiting the opening (along with similar gaps at two or three other points along the seams of the tarp quilt)  The rainwater that had begun to pool at the low points of the “roof” cascaded unimpeded onto whatever lay below, which happened to include two fully occupied tables.  The guests at these tables took it in stride, despite their abrupt transition from evening attire to swimwear.

The deluge continued unabated for half an hour.  Valiant hotel staff climbed to the roof of the lounge and tried to piece together the breached seams of the tarp quilt, bracing themselves against the wind each time it threatened to rip the quilt apart again. 

The below-table lighting, powered by cords that ran electricity from the stone patio out to the grassy area , suddenly seemed less romantic, except perhaps to the few people for whom potential electrocution is an aphrodisiac.

Had this been a baseball game, they’d have called it before it started.  But eventually the newlyweds decided to take the field, so to speak, and braved a dash from car to bar.  The bride’s long, white gown was coated almost instantly in a layer of blackish mud, which did not affect her smile except perhaps to increase it.  Though I had met her only the evening before, I felt deep affection for this woman who threw caution to the wind and white lace to the dirt. 

Once the happy couple was seated, the staff served dinner.  At this point I must back up and note that, before my trip, many well-intentioned people offered dietary advice. I waved all of them off, informing them smugly that I intended to invoke my Egypt Rule. Under said Rule, any uncooked produce that could or should have been washed in a sink is off-limits.  I was fully prepared to sacrifice consumption of lettuce, tomatoes and other garden favorites in exchange for intestinal stability.   

I was not, however, prepared for the Egypt Rule to run headlong into the immutable force of the seating chart, which placed me right next to the bride’s mother, M.  The magnitude of the collision became apparent when an immense salad showed up in front of me.  M looked at me and nodded, inviting me to start eating.  I took a tentative first bite as she watched for my reaction.  “It’s very delicious, isn’t it?” she asked.  A mere nod of the head wouldn’t do, here.  Only a clean plate would provide adequate proof.  I tried to smile as I ate the whole thing while picturing pieces of chewed up lettuce landing like grenades in my stomach.  I hoped at least a few would turn out to be duds.  

The remaining courses were Egypt Rule-approved and delicious, so I savored them despite my lingering concerns about the salad.   As soon as the plates were cleared, the band shrugged off the polite dinner music it had been playing in favor of raucous, seat-clearing dance tunes. This band created plenty of festivity on its own, but just in case the party ran short on merriment, they began to hand out a series of foam props, which the dance floor crowd donned happily.    

First, they gave us enormous sunglasses.  Next came cowboy hats large enough to fit any of the heads at Mount Rushmore comfortably.  The third round featured fruit headbands.  Soon I found myself crowned with an enormous pineapple and dancing next to man who was still wearing a cowboy hat, making me look like a miscast Village Person. 

It was 3:15 a.m. by this time, so I decided this was my cue to leave the party.  That’s where I encountered the woman who pointed out that my head still sported a large piece of foam produce. 

Most people in such a situation, including this young lady, can’t help but mix a bit of judgment in with their helpful observation.  She fixed me with a look of pure condemnation that said, in no uncertain terms, “If you’re going to leave in the first wave of party poopers, the least you could do is give your pineapple to someone who’s worthy of wearing it.” 

I got the message loud and clear and surrendered the headband sheepishly.  She immediately crowned herself with the pineapple and strode toward the dance floor as I plodded off to my room. Flexible fruit indignities aside, post-marital splat life was treating me pretty darned well so far. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Run for the Border (Parte Dos)

The Splat-ter-in-Chief had started to delve into the details of a trip to Mexico for a Chexican wedding when the siren song of "why not?" travel called me away to visit a dear friend in Seattle.  I'm back now, and ready to pick up where I left off, more or less. 

International air travel is like a long-running broadway play. You know the elements of the plot before you go, and very little about the play, characters included, comes as a surprise.  For example, you expect the flight to feature at least one passenger every five rows who performs an intensely personal function from the middle seat, such as toenail clipping.  Another person’s inadequate hygiene habits will perfume a row or two.  Someone else will try to fit a water buffalo into the overhead compartment and feign surprise when its legs poke out every time the flight attendant tries to close the bin. 

In the face of such predictability, there's only one way to create any dramatic tension at all: Babies.  To keep the proverbial play interesting, at least one row within a 10-seat radius is required to contain a baby, preferably a very new one.  

Passengers in and around the Baby Rows sit on the edge of their seats—which, based on the legroom of today’s aircraft, requires a forward scoot of approximately two centimeters—wondering, “Will it kick the back of my seat every two seconds? Will it cry? Will it perform disgusting bodily functions with no regard for fellow passengers?”  Everyone roots for this last option, because it's nothing they haven't seen before and at least it offers some potential for a tranquil trip.

On the six hour Detroit-to-Mexico segment of our trip, the token infant was located one row ahead of me and sat with her parents, as these children tend to do. The parents, whose conversation I couldn’t help but overhear, mentioned their daughter hadn’t flown before. 

As it turns out, air travel and the newborn did not really agree with each other, and the baby aired her side of the argument openly.

To give the baby proper credit, the uninitiated never would have believed this flight her first.  The kid had the chops of a veteran flying baby. Instead of producing a uniform one-note wail, as so many unseasoned flying babies do, she cranked out an interminable series of screaming arpeggios, like Swiss Miss with colic.

This particular play seemed to have nineteen acts instead of the customary three, but I realized with relief that the final curtain was about to fall when the flight attendants handed us a variety of entry paperwork. 

Grateful for the diversion, I scrutinized the duty form.  It specified the following items that are permitted free entry because they are considered personal items: treadmills, a surfboard (with or without sail), portable typing machine, five laser discs, and trophies/awards. In other words, not so much personal items as yard sale inventory.    

The paperwork also addressed the topic of animals coming into the country. According to the English version of the form, passengers may bring into the country, without payment of duties, three pets, “for pets we understand”: canaries, hamsters, Australian parakeets (we assume some sort of accent discrimination is at work there), cats, dogs, ferrets or turtles. I was heartened to see that the Mexicans and I already had something in common: We don’t understand snakes as pets.

S and I sailed right through customs, having forgotten to pack our typewriters and hamsters (but hoping we could remedy these oversights at one of the kiosks). Knowing that we had a long ride to Cuernavaca ahead of us, we decided to eat at the airport. 

For the second time this year, I began my stay in another country with a meal at an American-themed steakhouse. (The first was in Munich five months prior, a trip whose stories will be told at some point.)  In each case the authenticity of the experience began and ended with the pricing.

Still, few things usher in a vacation as clearly as drinking a glass of red wine at three o’clock on a Friday. [To be continued…]

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Late Edition Splat-ter of the Week: The Post-Storm Undercaffeinated Throngs

Our usual Friday Splat-ter of the Week presentation was delayed due to our trip to Seattle and the very rigorous wine tasting schedule we adopted on arriving here. Please accept our profound apologies. 

We might alienate a few people with this one,  but here we go…This week’s honors go to the 40 or so grumpy people lined up outside of an Arlington Starbucks (and any other local SBUX, for that matter) last Saturday morning at 8 a.m., less than twelve hours after powerful storms pummeled the DC area and claimed several lives.

Many of us failed to grasp the magnitude of these storms at first because our technology was one of the dominoes that fell right after our trees were toppled. (We were among the initially clueless.) But a run to any nearby strip mall offered something of a clue. Grocery stores and retail establishments--Starbucks included-- ran on generators or didn’t open at all. 

Apparently most people in the D.C. area weren’t ready to be unplugged completely and without warning. They lacked backups for their homes’ most critical infrastructure, such as electricity and espresso machines. If our trip to the Lee-Harrison strip mall was any indicator, people accepted the loss of their electricity with some grace, but the failure of their caffeine delivery systems was another story. 

A barista-turned-bouncer at the L-H Starbucks shooed patrons away and referred to them to the outpost across the street.  It was open but featured the kind of wait typically associated with the sale of Justin Bieber tickets, both in terms of the length of the line and the maturity of its occupants.

This underwhelming display of post-storm resilience wins the prize for the week.  To those of you who stood in that line or in similar ones around the region, we respectfully suggest you prepare for the next caffeine emergency.  If you keep a little Diet Coke on hand, you can reach into your unpowered fridge, grab a lukewarm can, and go check on your neighbors.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Run for the Border

In early May I learned my divorce was final. My lawyer informed me the court had signed the order in mid-April but took a couple weeks to send it to him.  I wasn’t mad about the delay. After all, no one expects a court to put down its golf clubs just to stick a civil status update in the mail.

At about the same time but in an unrelated development, my friend, S, invited me to be her guest at her cousin’s wedding in Mexico.  But it wasn’t a destination wedding, per se.  S is from Mexico, and the majority of her family still lives there, including the marrying cousin.  S and her siblings are not 100% Mexican, though.  Her father was Mexican and her mother is half-Chinese.  My twelve year-old nephew heard me describe this ethnic blend and said, “Oh, so she’s Chexican?”

Random invitations have been kind to me on the whole, so that gave me one good reason to accept.  Celebrating my official return to singlehood was another (traveling being a popular way to bounce back, as discussed here). And to complete the hat trick of good reasons, what Gringa in her right mind would pass up a chance to go to a Chexican wedding?

My mom and others expressed concern about my travels based on drug-related violence in Mexico.  That didn’t deter me, but it did prompt me to send my family the following “just in case” email the morning of my trip:

Hello, dear family!
News of murder, abduction and general mayhem in Mexico may prey on your nerves as I head south, but don’t let it. First, I am traveling with a Chexican and predators know better than to mess with S. Second, we’re going to safe, nice, tourist places (Cuernavaca first, then Taxca, then a day touring pyramids near Mexico City). So at this point my main natural enemies are bottle-dwelling fermented worms.

But if something untoward happens to me on the trip, Lynne knows where my will is. (I left something for everyone so don’t believe her if she tells you otherwise.) And if I get abducted, give them whatever they’re asking for except for the mooning lawn gnome and my Boones Farm collection.  Those are family heirlooms. If something even worse than that happens, you can know that I had an awesome run that involved turning  a huge corner before kicking the bucket. And that I love you very much.  Then go throw the mother of all parties. Cheers!

Stay tuned for further details of my cross-border adventures....

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Baby splats

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Last weekend's punishing storms were a matter of life and death for many on the East Coast. I wasn't one of those, and I know how lucky I was. This post isn't meant to minimize any of the real hardships that resulted--it's just frivolous fun, which can have its use in situations like this.]

Baby showers don’t come naturally to me.  Disaster, on the other hand, does, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when it made a memorable cameo appearance at the party I co-hosted on Saturday in honor of my 32-weeks-pregnant friend, Cat.

As soon as I heard Cat was expecting, I jumped at the chance to throw her a soiree.  She’s one of those people who always finds time to celebrate her friends’ happiness, no matter what’s going on in her own life.  I was excited about spotlighting her joy, despite my complete lack of shower savvy.  Cat’s friend, E, had the same idea so we teamed up.  We held a planning session by phone and I could tell right away that E would more than compensate for my deficiencies.

We picked June 30 as the date and a New Orleans theme in honor of Cat’s affection for Southern fare and her recent cravings for grits. I offered to provide venue, dessert, and a main dish of shrimp and grits.  E volunteered to take on a second entrée, paper products, and responsibility for inventing non-barf-inducing baby-related icebreaker ideas (the truly heavy lifting, in my book). 

I made the dessert days in advance but the main dish couldn’t be started until Friday night and would require finishing the next morning.  I came home at 9:30 p.m. on the 29th and immediately went to work in the kitchen.  At 10 p.m., biblical storms curtailed the power and with it, my cooking efforts. I went to bed feeling confident the electric company would have it sorted out by the time I woke up.  

My confidence was unfounded.  I formulated Plan B as I was getting out of bed: raid the nearby Harris Teeter and change the shower theme to “Prepared Foods.”  When I found the HT on life support and operating at Snowmaggedon levels of inventory, I began to realize the power loss was much more than just a neighborhood fluke.  

I drove another mile or so to a German bakery, hoping they might be able to throw together a sandwich platter.  “Nein,” said the owner, but he did offer to fire up a few dozen bratwursts on the outdoor grill they were setting up, if I could wait an hour or so.  While nothing screams “class” like serving  up a huge plate of wieners at a baby shower, I declined due to time constraints.  

I raced to Plan C: 1) contact my co-hostess who lives in Manassas; 2) see if she had power;  and 3) regardless of her answer, ask her to pillage grocery stores along the 20-mile drive to my house.  I sent my plea via text but malfunctioning networks made it impossible to know whether it reached her, so I plunged further into the alphabet.

Plan D: Find a way to revise the shrimp and grit tarts I'd planned to make.  The recipe called for cooked grits to be baked for 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven, then topped with a shrimp/cream/tasso ham sauce, and finished for another 10 minutes.  On Friday evening I’d cooked the grits, scooped them into muffin tins and got 12 minutes into baking them before losing power.  I wasn’t sure what to do with three pans of half-baked, unheated grit patties.

The shrimp was also fully cooked but I couldn’t prepare the sauce to accompany it and had no working oven in which to perform the last-minute marriage with the grits.  Inspiration arrived when I recalled advice a chef gave during a cooking class I attended in 2003: “No matter how badly you screw up, pass it off with arrogance.” 

I tossed the shrimp and ham together in a bowl, added mayonnaise, onion and parsley, and set the concoction on the table next to a plate stacked with the partially baked corn cakes. Voila: Deconstructed Shrimp and Grits! I sent E a text to tell her my main dish was saved.

Having solved the food problem, I tackled venue-related issues.  The cheery sunlight that floods the front of my house in the morning became my enemy when the A/C went on the lam.  I rushed to close the blinds.  This helped keep the house cool but darkened the living room to the point where it looked like I was hosting a séance.  I decided it was an acceptable tradeoff. 

I went outside to deal with the huge tree limbs that littered the front yard and blocked the walkway.  They’d landed harmlessly in the grass instead of giving my house an unwanted skylight or inflicting far worse damage.  I knew I was very lucky (though until power and networks were restored, I had no idea just how bad the personal and property damage was for many people.).  For once I didn't mind yardwork at all.   

Just after I brought the last branches to the curb, E arrived, bearing prodigious amounts of ice, thematically appropriate paper products, and three huge coolers.  I nicknamed her the “Port-a-Party.”

She’d made all sorts of New Orleans-style goodies, including red beans and rice and a vat of… shrimp and grits.  Apparently she got my first text but not the second.  Whatever our other hosting challenges might be, they wouldn’t include a food shortage. 

We wouldn’t want for good humor, either.  The guest of honor appeared wearing an ear-splitting grin.  So did every other woman who walked through the door, even the ones who braved two hours of traffic to get to Cat’s party.  No one seemed to mind the excessive “ambience” or the fact that the house was nearing sauna temps in spite of it. 

The power came back on five minutes after the last guest departed.  As soon as I reconnected to news sources, I realized my "normal" was restored in record time, while hundreds of thousands of people were nowhere near as fortunate.  Both the event and the day reinforced what I already knew, which is that only people matter.  And that sometimes sticks of Right Guard really *do* make excellent party favors. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Tale of Two Transitions, Part II: The Splat-tier Side

After attending the funeral for our Great-aunt Dolly in South Philadelphia (see yesterday), Dad, Suzi, and I climbed into the car.  Instead of heading straight home, we decided to make a sixty mile detour to visit Dad’s mom.  Suzi and I hadn’t seen Nana since she was moved from assisted living to nursing care.

The decision to “transition” our grandmother, who is 90 years old and quite Italian, marked the latest in a series of agonizing choices her two children have been forced to make as her condition deteriorates. 

While in assisted living, Nana broke her hips multiple times on unsupervised trips to the restroom --Italian stubbornness being no match for severe osteoporosis-- so she spends her days in a wheelchair.  Her mind is a mangled mess thanks to the dementia that has promoted itself from “visitor” to “permanent resident.”

At first Dad didn’t acknowledge the decline in Nana’s mental health because she would summon up obscure mnemonic gems from time to time.  To him, these flashes of lucidity proved she could remember things if she just tried.  But when she started tearing petals from fake flowers on the cafeteria tables and sprinkling them in her soup, he had to face the truth. (In Nana’s defense, the fare there could use a little garnish.)

Dementia took aim at my grandmother’s personality, too.  The staff at the assisted living facility used to tell us how sweet she was.  They stopped saying this when she began to yell at other residents and beg passersby to rescue her. 

Nana is a great lady, and I hate watching this gradual erosion of her dignity as much as I hate seeing my father and aunt pancaked with guilt.  It’s been one long, awful, messy splat.

During Dad’s last solo visit a couple weeks ago, Nana voiced her unhappiness –she may not know exactly where she is but she knows she doesn’t like it—so he expressed reservations about going to see her.  He also knew Nana’s confusion tends to increase after 4 p.m. (a phenomenon that goes by the euphemism “Sundowner’s Syndrome”), right when we were due to arrive.  But Suzi was especially determined to forge ahead.  We braced ourselves for a rough afternoon.

On opening the doors of Lifequest Nursing Facility, we encountered a row of immobile and mainly disengaged residents.  My spirits sank.  But moments after we made our way through the world’s most depressing receiving line, I felt a surge of enthusiasm. We’d walked five yards and I hadn’t yet caught a whiff of That Smell.  

I don’t know exactly what makes up this perfume--which seems to be sprayed liberally around hospitals and eldercare facilities-- but I do know it causes all hope to drain out of me every time I smell it.  The absence of this aroma at Lifequest made me giddy.  And then we saw Nana, outside of her room and sitting in her wheelchair.

It’s not hyperbole to say she looked fantastic.  Her hair had been “done” that morning –by a man, Nana informed us –with great effect.  It was still short but had grown out a bit, lending fullness to the curls that covered her head.  Color shone in her cheeks and replaced the ashen complexion I’d come to expect.  She didn’t exactly break into a grin when she saw us, but the seeds of a smile seemed to be taking hold.

Nana figured out who we were with minimal help.  And when Suzi suggested going outside for a little fresh air (though with temps in the 90s I wasn’t sure where we’d find any outdoor air that met this description), Nana didn’t resist.  We wheeled her out to a gazebo behind the cafeteria.  No one would mistake this little pavilion for the one that graced The Sound of Music set but it offered shade, a ceiling fan, and a view of the lawn, so it wasn't half-bad.    

“This is nice, Nana,” Suzi observed. I believe she was referring to the overall ambience.  Nana took it a little differently.

“Yes,” she responded, smiling. “In general, I’m happy to see you kids.”  In general?  Dad, Suzi and I tried to contain our laughter but it burst out anyway.  Unintended hilarity is the best kind.  Our family might still be mid-splat, here, but the three of us later agreed we’d had an outstanding visit with Nana.  In general.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Tale of Two Transitions (Part I)

Aunt Dolly, my mother's aunt and my Great-aunt, passed away on June 24.  For decades, Aunt Doll and her family lived in a south Philadelphia rowhome just around the corner from my grandparents.  My mom and her siblings basically grew up in both houses, so they are feeling the loss of their lone remaining mother figure acutely.  At the same time, they understand just how lucky our family was: Aunt Dolly lived 95 years, and her faculties stayed with her nearly every mile of the journey.

My sister, Suzi, and I drove to south Philly for Aunt Dolly's funeral.  The Mass took place at St. Gabriel Catholic Church as the temperature in the City of Brotherly Love ascended to cruel heights.  My only other trip to St. Gabe’s was on a frigid Saturday in February of 2008 for a first cousin’s wedding.  Based on these two visits, I’ve concluded that the parish may believe in many doctrines, but central climate control is not one of them. 

But even the heat inside the church couldn’t mar the beautiful eulogy Doll's youngest granddaughter delivered.  She described our aunt's generosity of spirit, her spunk, and her singular ability to wield the phrase “Damn it to Hell” like an all-purpose punctuation mark.  I awarded my cousin serious bonus points for carrying on the family legacy from the altar.

This episode reminded me of the eulogy my father gave at the funeral Mass for his best friend, Vince, who died in 2002 after a prolonged bout with cancer.  From the altar at Nativity Parish in Burke, Virginia, Dad spoke of rituals he and Vince shared over their three decade friendship.  These included playing softball, going fishing, and downing a shot of whiskey every Christmas Eve from a boot-shaped shot glass.  (I don't know where the boot came from or what its significance was, but it was obviously important enough to get invited to Christmas every year.)

After telling the large group of assembled mourners about the Christmas Eve tradition, my father bowed his head and put his hands in his pockets.  My mother, siblings and I exchanged concerned glances. We knew Dad would hate it if he cracked in front of everyone.  From our seats in the crowd we sent him silent encouragement to go on.

As if in response, Dad lifted his head and fixed us with a look of grim resolve.  Slowly, he removed his hands from his pockets.  In them, he held the glass boot and a miniature bottle of bourbon. 

“Forgive me, Father,” he said, as he unscrewed the bottle, poured the contents into the shoe, and proceeded to knock back a boot of booze from his post on the altar.  Our row traded alarmed glances for a new reason.  We endured an uncomfortable silence that felt like months.

And then it was broken, not by the priest saying "Thank you, but that's quite enough," as most of us likely expected, but by the sound of two hands coming together in applause.  We never learned the identity of the intrepid pioneer clapper, but whoever he was, he didn't have to worry about spending too much time alone in this particular wilderness.  The congregation erupted in a wave of applause, both for Dad's bold move and for the moment of genuine laughter that burst right into the middle of their grief.   

No wonder people say funerals are for the living.

[Tune in tomorrow for the splattier side of the transitional coin...]