Thursday, February 21, 2013

For the snowbound (with apologies to Robert Frost)

My readers in the Northeastern part of the country have been snowbound for two weeks. And now, my Midwestern readers are getting hammered by a blizzard that the Weather Channel says may move into New England this weekend. 

Snow always reminds me of Robert Frost’s immortal “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” which, knowing that many of you have nothing to do other than wait for the snowplow, I’ve updated to the twenty-first century for your reading pleasure.

Stay warm and be assured I'll be thinking of you as I take my daily bike ride through sunny Florida. The weatherman said today's high is going to be 84, so I'd better take off now, before it gets too hot.

Think I’ll head to Barefoot Beach. Maybe Bonita Beach. 

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I once did know   
But now they’re owned by Wells Fargo.
No-one will see me stopping here
While I create some yellow snow.

I shouldn’t have drunk all that beer.
I cannot see, things are unclear.
Between the woods and frozen lake   
This snowmobile I’ll try to steer.

Tomorrow morn when I awake
My sinuses will surely ache.
Damn, this hill is really steep
Where the hell is the hand brake?

These woods are lovely, dark and deep   
But I have stupid things to tweet
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Here's to you, Mr. Presidents

Today is Presidents' Day, a day to honor those who have occupied the nation’s second-highest office. (The highest office, as everyone knows, is CEO of Goldman-Sachs, the bank that actually runs America and much of the world.)

Born in 1951, I have lived under 12 presidents. Here’s how I rank ‘em, from worst to best.

The worst, at #12. LBJ:  Under Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts that, 100 years after the end of the Civil War, finally gave African-Americans the dignity and rights they deserve. That said, he lifted one of his beagles by his ears. His Great Society, which included Medicare and Medicaid, conveniently ignored the fact that Boomers were going to grow old and their medical expenses would bankrupt the country. Most unforgivably, LBJ’s advisers told him early on that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Refusing to be the first president to preside over an American defeat, he pridefully kept escalating it. Almost all the 58,261 names engraved on the Vietnam Memorial – including those killed after he left office  are attributable to him. I hope he’s in hell being tortured by an endless chorus of, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

#11. Carter: As governor of Georgia, Mr. Peanut met top national politicians and decided, abetted by his Lady McBethian spouse, that he was as smart as any of them, so he ran for president and won. Turns out he wasn’t as smart as he thought. He made the ongoing Middle East crisis possible by turning his back on Iran’s shah, more than 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, and inflation soared to 20 percent, leading him to claim there was a national malaise which, in fact, there was, thanks to him. Former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl wrote that, of all the presidents she covered, he was the nastiest – petty, vindictive and downright mean. Now he goes around badmouthing America hoping that someone – anyone – will listen and realize he shouldn’t be near the very top of America’s Worst Presidents list. Shut up already.

#10. Bush the Second: After 9/11, he had the sympathy and support of the civilized world to help bring down al Qaeda. He squandered it by starting the Iraq War to prove to his mother, who thought he was a dope – she preferred Jeb and what mother wouldn’t? – that he had bigger cujones than his daddy, who had stopped short of overthrowing Saddam during the Kuwait war. His administration allowed Wall Street to run amok, causing the 2008 financial collapse from which we’ve yet to recover (unless you trust the Huffington Post or New York Times, in which case you know things have never been better). His election was the result of the public’s disgust with …

#9. Clinton: A brilliant politician. A lucky one, too. The economy boomed thanks to technological innovations that had nothing to do with his policies. I agree with those who say his sex life was nobody’s business. Where he went wrong was a) lying about it and b) every time the sanctimonious Congress (led by Gingrich, who was screwing around on his wife, too) was about to impeach him, launching attacks on what he claimed were suspected al Qaeda hideouts which the media, all of whom have sex with interns – that’s the only reason to go into journalism  refused to characterize as Wag the Dog operations.

#8. Obama: The current president has no leadership skills whatsoever. None. And while I admire his stance on most social issues  the reason he’s been elected twice  he doesn’t understand basic economics. How could he? The only private sector job he ever held was as an intern at a Chicago law firm. Interns from Ivy League colleges at law firms spend their summers sitting in skyboxes at baseball games and being wined and dined, while being paid obscene amounts of money. Obama apparently came to believe during the summer he interned at Sidley Austin that he deserved all this. He doesn’t. I’ve been wrong about him all along. Probably am now but hey, it’s my blog.

#7. Bush the First:. Congressman. Ambassador to China. CIA director. VP. Nobody ever ascended to the presidency with more experience. Bush’s problem was Quayle, whom he selected as his running mate because he was good-looking (to appeal to women) and against abortion (to pander to the religious nuts who, under Reagan, seized control of the GOP). I was going to vote for Bush until a few days before the election when his campaign advisers, who had realized almost immediately that Quayle had the IQ of a deer tick, allowed Quayle to speak in public for the first time, knowing there was no way Dukakis could possibly win. When asked if he would allow his wife to have an abortion if she were raped and became pregnant, he said no. Quayle couldn’t even spell potato for Chrissakes. Just as Sarah Palin was McCain’s downfall, Quayle was Bush’s. For four years Quayle was a heartbeat away from the presidency, an unforgivable lapse of judgment on Bush’s part.

#6. Nixon: I was 22 when he resigned and could never have imagined that, when I compiled this list at 61, he would rank so high. But then, I could have never imagined the dufuses who came after him. Nixon started the process to end the Vietnam War and established relations with China, which, in turn, made it possible for Americans to buy cheap plastic Chinese-made stuff at Wal-Mart. I bought a coffee cup at his presidential library with a quote from the speech he gave just before he, Pat, Julie, David and Diane Sawyer – yeah, Diane Sawyer used to work for him – boarded the plane that flew him back to California the day he resigned. “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” I was glad to see him go but nearly 40 years later, I’m willing to cut him some slack and bet history will, too.

#5. Ford: The first prez who had never been elected as president or VP inherited a mess upon Nixon’s resignation and, amazingly, did a decent job. Despite tumbling down the stairs of Air Force One in front of TV cameras, he brought some much-needed dignity back to the White House.

#4. Ike: Under Ike cars had fins, there were no wars, great TV shows like Gunsmoke and Leave It to Beaver premiered, the economy was swell. What wasn’t to like?

#3. JFK: A rich kid with the best speechwriters daddy’s money could buy, JFK stood eyeball to eyeball with Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis. The Commie blinked. We won. The Civil Rights Act was actually his work – LBJ just got it passed.  His heart was always in the right place. Unfortunately for his legacy, his dick wasn’t.

#2. Reagan: Our national grandpa had orange hair but red American blood coursing through his veins. His obsession with defense spending caused an economic boom, making it possible for American yuppies to discover the pleasures of Mercedes and BMWs, while bringing down Communism, enabling Russians, Bulgarians and Albanians to drive Mercedes and BMWs. If he were to be exhumed, stuffed and propped up in a chair in the Oval Office, millions of Americans – myself included – would feel better.

And the winner, #1. Truman: The effete Eastern establishment thought the uneducated rube from Missouri who became President after FDR’s death, was a joke, but Truman had the last laugh. He made the agonizing but ultimately correct decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, saving millions of American lives that would have been lost in the hand-to-hand combat the Japanese promised GIs they would encounter if we had been forced to invade that nation of loons; approved the Marshall Plan; fired the insubordinate, narcissistic MacArthur, and told the press to bite him. Truman had common sense. Other than Washington or Lincoln, no other president even comes close in my book.

These, of course, are my opinions only. You have your own. The freedom to express them is one of the many things that make America great.

Here’s to you, Mr. Presidents. And to the rest of you, have a wonderful Presidents' Day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Perfect execution

I always read news reports about prison executions. I skip right over the inevitable aspects of every story -- the condemned’s last words, how many veins the doctor had to try in order to locate one that could accommodate the IV drip, etc. – and go directly to what the guy ordered for his last meal.

Don’t know about you but I’ve thought a lot (or, if you’re one of those idiots who, despite Spell Check, persists in spelling it “alot”) about what I would request for mine. Here goes (in no particular order):

Kraft Dinner a la Stern: I’m talking about the original blue vertical box with the skinny elbow macaroni, not the fancy stuff in the yellow box. I’d instruct the prison chef to prepare it using a trick from Jane and Michael Stern’s Square Meals: Open two boxes, throw away the macaroni from one of them, prepare the noodles from the remaining box according to package directions, drain, then stir the foil packets containing the powdered “cheese” from both boxes into the noodles, along with twice the butter and half the milk the recipe calls for. I’d then ask him to add two cans of Bumble Bee oil-packed tuna to the mixture. The ultimate comfort food for that long walk down the green mile.

Jet’s Pizza: I always have to share so, for once, it’d be nice to have my own entire pie from Jet’s, a Detroit-based chain that has two storefronts (delivery and pick-up only) near my Florida home. The crust is nothing special but the sauce, that incredible sauce, is beyond description. It’s tomato-y and sweet, infused with herbs and spices that leave you drooling like a rabid raccoon. Realistically, I’d lick the sauce off, and leave the crust because I’d need room for …

Ravioli d’Oro:  In 2011, in Buenos Aires, my wife and I stumbled upon d’Oro, a hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant near the Casa Rosada. We walked out two hours later in a state of stupefaction, knowing we had just eaten the best meal of our lives. Specifically, handmade ravioli stuffed with Argentine grain-fed beef tenderloin, in a Malbec wine sauce. We discovered d’Oro on Friday and returned on Saturday. And Sunday. Monday, alas, it was closed. I wonder if the warden would fly the chef up? If the state refuses to pay his travel expenses, would my faithful readers chip in? Hope so.

Pearl’s peanut brittle: Pearl Houchins was a little old lady and secretary/ treasurer of the Methodist Church in the one-stoplight Missouri town where I grew up. Every Christmas, she made candy for goodie bags that were passed out to the children of the church. She could have been a billionaire had she been willing to sell her recipes, which included an ethereally crispy, lighter-than-air peanut brittle, to Nestle, Mars or Cadbury-Schweppes. But, to the eternal regret of those who knew only that she used hand-churned butter and fresh cream from local farmers, she took her recipes with her to heaven. No prison chef can possibly duplicate her version, so all I’ll ask is that the warden have the head honcho from Mrs. See’s Candies in Carson, Calif., which sells a decent peanut brittle, make mine using hand-churned butter from zip code 65231. Seems entirely reasonable, no?

Saganaki: As newlyweds we lived in Chicago where, every Saturday night, we hightailed it to Greek Town, a two-block long row of restaurants west of the Loop. The best, hands-down, was (and still is) the Parthenon, where diners waited in line up to three hours. It was worth it for a single bite of the signature appetizer the Parthenon claims to have invented – saganaki, a slab of kasseri cheese, dredged in a secret coating and brought to the table in a cast iron skillet by a waiter who doused it with brandy, lit it with a lighter that caused the entire skillet to explode in flame, then extinguished the fire with the juice of a lemon as the crowd yelled, “Oopa!” I lie awake nights worrying about this particular request because I doubt the warden will allow the chef to light the dish in my presence lest I catch fire and deprive the state of the pleasure of frying my ass.

My wife’s Chicken Parmigiana: OK, she uses Prego®, but who cares? Her version of the Italian classic is awesome, better than anything Giada, Lidia or any of those Italian TV chefs could conjure up. She might be sad as she prepares it but she’ll take comfort knowing she’ll soon be rich from the life insurance payout (provided I’m executed no later than Nov. 16, 2021, when the policy expires).

Stouffer’s Chipped Beef: My favorite “home alone” dish before my unfortunate incarceration, I’d instruct the chef to serve it over Pepperidge Farm Sourdough toast, topped by two slices of Velveeta that melt when they come in contact with the bubbling cream sauce. I’d also request a mill of fresh pepper to grind liberally over the entire plate.  

Ruby’s light rolls: For years her grandchildren have been asking my mother, Ruby, to teach them how to make her famous light rolls. After trying unsuccessfully to replicate the results of her written recipe, from which she always deviates, my niece made a video as she sifted, stirred and kneaded. But they’ve all given up. Mom will say, for instance, “Stir in, oh, about a half a coffee cup full of flour” then, when you do, she’ll say you probably ought to add a tad more because the yeast doesn’t seem all that active, as if anyone born after the Harding administration knows active yeast from passive yeast. How much more? “Depends on whether the bubbles are big or small.” Annoying, but I can’t be too angry considering I’ve eaten, probably, 50,000 of her rolls. If any of my readers would be so kind as to send a jar of homemade damson preserves to slather them with, I’d ‘preciate it.

Blondies from the corner deli: When we lived in New York B.C., there was a deli on the corner of 49th and Second that sold blondies so rich it took an hour to consume one 3” x 3” x 1” square. Imagine a slice of gooey butter cake studded with semi-sweet chocolate morsels and you’ll have a rough idea of what I’m talking about here.  A full bite would have sent anyone into a sugar- and butter-induced nirvana from which there could have been no return. The only possible way to eat one was to break off a fingernail-sized piece, suck out the butter, then let the rest melt in your mouth. The blondies were made in someone’s apartment kitchen in Queens, and delivered every evening around 8. Sometimes they were still warm. Next to the twin towers, those blondies are what I miss most about New York. I’m sure Bloomberg has outlawed them by now.

Lottie Gasper’s Fried Chicken: During my college summers, I worked the night shift at Gasper’s Truck Stop in Kingdom City, Mo., where, for $2.99, truckers received a breast, drumstick and wing of the world’s crispiest fried chicken, accompanied by mashed potatoes, white cream gravy with flecks of crust from the skillet in which the chicken was fried, and canned green beans, served up on a plate festooned with a ring of candied crabapple and a piece of lettuce. I ate it at 4:30 every morning for four straight summers and it’s probably the reason I have to take Lipitor today. Gasper’s, alas is gone but surely someone who worked in the kitchen knows Miz Lottie’s recipe. Anyone? I’ll let you know the address of the prison warden to send it to.

I wonder if he’ll let me have seconds if I ask nicely?

Monday, February 11, 2013

The DNA test results are in. And I’m legit!

One of the more gratifying aspects of writing this blog is that I’ve been contacted by far-flung Dryden relatives I never heard of, who have tracked me down to say they enjoy reading

Some are amateur genealogists who have taken the time to determine how we are related. Apparently we are all descended from a common ancestor, Beowulf Dryden (or something like that), who lived near Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1400s in a forest known as Dredden's Wood.

Funny but, for most of my childhood I didn’t think I was a legitimate Dryden.

When I was five or so, my older sister told me I was adopted. She said our parents wanted another child, so the entire family went to a St. Louis orphanage to pick one out. She said mom and dad had their hearts set on a different baby but that she, after seeing me in a line-up, prevailed upon them to choose me.

She said I should be grateful because, if it weren’t for her, God knows where I would have wound up. (Even then I realized it wouldn’t have been the end of the world had I been adopted by a family who lived somewhere other than Auxvasse, Mo., a place so remote from civilization residents could only pick up signals from NBC and CBS stations. I grew up ABC-deprived, which has always put me at a disadvantage playing Trivial Pursuit. But I digress.)  

She ordered me not to mention any of this to my parents, saying they didn’t want me to know. Fearing I might be taken back to the orphanage, I didn’t.

When I was ten or eleven I blurted out to the woman who cooked my meals that I knew the truth and appreciated all she and her husband had done for me. She showed me my birth certificate, which listed her and my father as my real parents. But, after all those years of doubting, I never quite believed it.

Anyway, one of the Dryden relatives I’ve met through this blog is participating in a DNA test in which male Drydens rub the inside of their cheeks with a brush to dislodge cells, collect the cells on giant Q-tips, and mail them to a lab for analysis. The purpose? Beats the hell out of me – I had to take Biology 101 twice  but I agreed to join in.

The results of my test came yesterday and, other than proving I’m an honest-to-God Dryden who is blood-related to other Drydens worldwide, the scientific explanation that arrived with it was gobbledygook. So I emailed another distant relative who’s overseeing the tests. She wrote back that, “We are on the road to being able to identify where the ancient ancestors of the Drydens were before they made their way to Britain. Someday, we'll be able to say whether they were ancient Celts (not likely), or Goths (not likely) or something like the Bell-Beaker tribes (somewhat quite likely) who spread out in the European continent some 5,000+ years ago.”

For all I know it will prove we were Neanderthals.

Whatever, I’m proud I can now say with 100 percent certainty that I’m a blood-relative of some accomplished Drydens, including John, England’s first poet laureate. (That’s where my penchant for words must come from. Though I’m sure he would have never ended a sentence with a preposition as I just did.) And Hugh, a rocket scientist for whom NASA’s flight research center is named. Not to mention Virginia, the original Beverly Hills Housewife, who married the founder of Robinson’s department store in L.A. and built Beverly Hills’ first mansion whose opulent grounds are now open to the public.

That said, I’ve got to take the good relatives with the bad.

In addition to being related to cousins Johnnie, Hughie and Ginnie (that’s how I think of them now that I’m sure we’re kinfolk), I now know I’m definitely related to Henry Dryden, my grandfather’s half-brother whose mule, while pulling a wagon, balked crossing train tracks in High Hill, Mo., early in the last century. After trying unsuccessfully to get the mule to move and becoming increasingly enraged, Henry took his axe, split the mule’s head, then burned down his wagon and its contents. 

Another not-too-distant relative is Nathaniel Dryden, a lawyer known for his courtroom eloquence. He was the first attorney to gain the conviction, and hanging, of a white man for killing a black, a crime that inspired the song Stagger Lee. An alcoholic and morphine addict, Nat was known as the "wickedest man in Missouri." An unsolicited love note from an infatuated shop girl forced cousin Nat to admit to a second secret marriage which came as a surprise to his wife and four daughters. 

From relatives I’ve met through this blog, I’ve learned of other Drydens who were equally – how to put this? – "special."

My favorite line from The Godfather was uttered by Mama Corleone, who told Michael, “You can never lose your family.” And now that I know I’m a legit Dryden, I can’t … even if I want to lose some of them.

My oldest son got married two weeks ago. It’s up to him to carry our particular branch of the Dryden family tree forward.

A little grandson – perhaps he and his wife could name him Beowulf Thomas  would be a nice addition one of these days. 

But then, they just got married, so I'm not going to pressure them.