Monday, December 31, 2018

Tom Dryden's World-Famous Lemon Chess Pie (with step-by-step instructions)

It was a custom, in the rural Missouri town where I grew up, to bake a pie on New Year’s Eve, place it on a neighbor’s front porch, ring the doorbell, then run off into the night, leaving the recipient to enjoy the pie and wonder who left it.

At least it was until New Year’s Eve 1962 when Arlene Spoonmacher made a chocolate meringue pie using Ex-Lax in lieu of Hershey’s Cocoa and left it on Wanda Faye Green's front porch. Wanda Faye, Arlene later told the sheriff, had been making goo-goo eyes at her husband at church the previous Sunday. Wanda Faye survived but lost 12 pounds she didn’t need to lose. After that, nobody in town would touch a pie they or an immediate family member hadn’t made themselves, so the custom died out. 

Still, to this very day, I get a hankering for pie on New Year’s Eve. This year I decided to make chess pie. The decision was easy: It’s the only pie I know how to make.

Chess pie, if you are unfamiliar with it, is a southern speciality. It is rich, smooth, custardy and darn near foolproof. If I can make one, you can, too. Legend has it the pie got its name when someone who was wowed by what he was eating asked the cook what kind of pie it was. “It ain’t nothing special,” she drawled. “It’s jest pie.” 

Plain chess pie is good but lemon chess pie rises several notches above it when it comes to delicious delectability.

I usually make mine with bottled lemon juice but today’s pie is gonna be extra special because I’m making it with lemons from our next door neighbors’ tree, which is so heavily laden with ripe, tart fruit it is literally bending over.

Our neighbors' lemon tree. It's very pretty and
the lemon flower is sweet but the fruit of the poor lemon
is impossible to eat unless it's baked into Tom Dryden's
world-famous Lemon Chess Pie.

We have an open invitation to help ourselves, so I went over and picked three of them — lemons the size of softballs containing so much juice I only needed one to make this recipe. What I’ll do with the other two I haven’t a clue. 

Disregard the greenish color.
This is what lemons, fresh-from-the-tree, look like. 

And so, without further adieu — I know you’re anxious to start cooking — here’s everything you need to know to make Tom Dryden’s World-Famous Lemon Chess Pie.

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Step 2: Squeeze 1/2 cup of lemon juice from softball-sized lemon taken from neighbor’s tree. If your neighbors don’t have a lemon tree, buy some small ones at the store and squeeze them until you have half a cup of juice. (Helpful tip: Be sure to remove the seeds from the juice, otherwise someone could choke on them which wouldn’t get 2019 off to a good start for you or them.) If it’s too much work to squeeze the lemons, you can use ReaLemon bottled juice or juice from one of those plastic lemons you’ll find in the produce section in which case you don’t have to worry about seeds.

Dice that lemon rind into small pieces, as shown here

Step 3: Remove skin from half of the gigantic lemon (or from two small lemons), peel away and discard the pulp inside, and, using a zester, grate the skin. If you do not have a zester (the first time I made this pie I had to look online to find out what a zester is) you can do what I do and dice it into really, really tiny eensy-bitsy pieces with a sharp knife. 

Step 4:  Remove two frozen pie shells from freezer and allow them to come to room temperature — about 15 minutes. I should have done this before I started Step 1 but I didn’t. 

You know what butter looks like but everyone's so damn visually-oriented
 these days they expect a photo of just about everything
 so I'm showing you one here. 

Step 5: Nuke 2 cups of butter for about 40 seconds until it is soft but not melted. Place in large bowl of stand mixer. 

Surely you know what a bag of sugar looks like.
If you don't, stop right now because you
aren't going to be able to make this pie,
 you're too stupid.

Step 6: Add 2 cups of sugar. 

And the beat goes on.
For about two minutes or
until creamy.

Step 7: Beat butter and sugar until creamy.

Step 8: Go to fridge for eggs. Realize you don’t have any.

Step 9: Drive two miles to supermarket and buy eggs.

Aunt Margaret's mixer is used to beat the eggs.
Step 10: Using a different mixer (or the same one, once you have washed the beaters), beat 10 eggs thoroughly. (Helpful tip: Be sure to crack the eggs open, discard the shells, and place the yolks/whites in a bowl before beating.) In this picture I’m using our 1970s olive green General Electric portable mixer that was given to us as a wedding present by my Aunt Margaret, who was a terrific cook. Margaret had a major sweet tooth — she always had freshly-baked cakes and/or pies on hand, and kept a huge glass candy bowl filled with Brach’s Pick-A-Mix on her coffee table. Despite her sweet tooth, Aunt Margaret never weighed more than 100 pounds, if that. Aunt Margaret’s green mixer has moved with us to St. Louis, Chicago, Manhattan, Connecticut and Florida and we always think fondly of her whenever we use it. She would have most definitely approved of this pie. 

Do not add the lemon juice at this step
like I'm doing here. 

Step 11: Pour beaten eggs into butter/sugar mixture and beat until smooth. (I forgot to take a picture of this important step so I'm showing a picture of the lemon juice being added, which comes later. Try to imagine this cup contains the beaten eggs. You can imagine that without seeing a picture, can't you?)

Step 12:  Go to pantry for flour and corn meal. Realize you are out of flour.

Step 13: Return to supermarket to buy flour. 

Who would have thunk Clinton is a Lemon Chess Pie fan too?

Step 14: After noting that the recipe on the web site you are following calls for two cups of milk, realize that this isn’t the recipe for which you are famous — your Lemon Chess Pie recipe isn't made with milk. This recipe is for something called “Bill Clinton’s Lemon Chess Pie.” Given the vast quantities of butter, sugar, eggs and milk it contains, it’s probably one of the main reasons he had to undergo open heart surgery. 

Now you can add the lemon juice, as well
as the rest of the ingredients
Step 15: Feeling foolish, thinking you were making the recipe you’ve made for years (but, in your defense, you haven’t made for at least a year), add to butter/sugar/egg mixture two cups of milk, two tablespoons of flour, two tablespoons of corn meal, lemon juice and lemon zest.

Step 16:  Beat for a couple of minutes on ‘high.” (Helpful tip: Mixer should be on “high,” not you.)

Step 17: Call small dog over (if available) to lick up any mixture that splatters on the floor.

Step 18: Pour mixture into two pie shells.  

Step 19: Realizing you have enough mixture left over for two more pies, place filled pies in oven for 35 to 38 minutes.

Step 20: While pies are baking, return to supermarket to buy two more frozen pie shells.

Step 21: Remove pies from oven once the filling begins to brown around the edges. Don't let the pie crusts get too brown!

Step 22: Pour remaining mixture into the two new pie shells, and bake per step 19.

Four picture perfect pies

Step 23: Allow all four pies to cool.

Step 24: Take one pie to neighbor whose lemons you stole.

Step 25:  Take another pie to another neighbor.

Step 26: Slice into third pie and realize you should have tasted it before you gave it to your neighbors but then relax because …. this pie is incredible. Bill Clinton’s pie is much, much, much tastier than the one you’ve been making all these years but then, your wife is better than his — she doesn’t run maniacally for president then write tell-all books blaming everyone else but herself for her losses — and, all things considered, you’d rather be remembered for having a wonderful sweet wife than for having a stupid pie recipe.

Step 27: Over next two hours polish off third pie.

Step 28: Place fourth pie in fridge to share with your significant other. You’re not going out tonight because you don’t like to go out on New Year’s Eve — not that you have had any invitations anyway — and will be staying in to watch episodes 3 and 4 of “Escape at Dannemora” on Showtime for which Patricia Arquette is all but guaranteed a Best Actress Emmy.

Step 29:  Have a Happy New Year and remember to stay away from any chocolate pies found on your doorstep because they might not be chocolate after all. 

Bill Clinton’s Tom Dryden’s Famous Lemon Chess Pie
Makes two deep-dish or four regular-sized pies

(Note: I changed Bill Clinton's recipe ever-so-slightly to, as the judges on American Idol used to tell contestants, “make it my own.”)

Unbaked pie shell
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
10 beaten eggs (shells removed)
2 cups milk — 1% is fine
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons corn meal
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest from 1/2 of a huge lemon or 2 small lemons

Mix ingredients thoroughly (beat eggs separately and add to butter/sugar mixture) in order listed, pour into four pie shells, and bake 35-38 minutes @ 350 degrees.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

16 gifts grandpas most assuredly don't want this year, which will come as news to the editors of Esquire magazine

The other day I saw an article entitled “16 Best Gift Ideas for Grandpas” from the editors of Esquire. I clicked it on, knowing Esquire's gift recommendations would provide fodder for a blog post and, sure enough, they did. 

Here are the 16 items the editors of Esquire recommended its readers give their grandpas this holiday season, and this grandpa’s response to those recommendations.

1. Bay-Berk Wooden Multi-Game set from Neiman-Marcus, $180, “for the grandpa with a competitive side.” The set contains a board and playing pieces for two games, chess and backgammon. I most definitely have a competitive side but I don’t play chess or backgammon and don’t know (or want to know) any grandpa who does. 

2.  Thin-Optics Keychain Reading Glasses, $24.95. Buying grandpa a pair of reading glasses without knowing the magnification he requires would be as idiotic as buying him a pair of slacks without knowing his waist or inseam. 

3.  Eagle Creek 2-in-1 Travel Pillow, $27.95 from r.e.i. “for the grandpa who could use some neck and lumbar support when he travels.” Of the 16 gifts suggested by Esquire, this is the only one I might actually use but if my grandson truly cared about my comfort when I’m flying long distances, he would buy me a first-class ticket that would get me a lie-flat seat with its own full-size pillow and duvet.

4. All Saints Leather Driving Gloves, $98 at Nordstrom, “for the grandpa with a seriously sweet car (or car collection) to drive around town.” If my grandson spent $98 buying me driving gloves, I’d put them on once: To slap some sense into him. Who the hell would be caught dead wearing driving gloves?

5. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” for the grandpa who knows soul-changing music when he hears it whether it’s in vinyl or CD form. Do the editors of Esquire really think today's grandpas are so out of it that we listen to music on a record player or CD player? Do their grandpas watch TV in black and white? Do they run outside to their outhouses when they need to take a whiz? Do they light candles for illumination when the sun goes down? How patronizing. If you insist on giving grandpa music, give him an iTunes gift card so he can choose what he wants to listen to and download it himself. 

6. Ekster Leather Minimal Wallet, $98, from “for the grandpa who needs a minimalist wallet … to replace that money clip.”  I never used a money clip so I don’t need something to replace it.

7. Frankenstein Pique Polo Shirt by Travis Matthew, $89.95 at Nordstrom “for the grandpa with good style, whether on the golf course, at the club or around the house.” I don’t golf. I only go to our club when my wife drags me to some social event in which case I have to dress up, and around the house I wear gym shorts and a 1998 U.S. Open Tennis tournament t-shirt, so this grey polo shirt with white stripes isn’t for me.

8. The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, $50.75 “for the grandpa who is a history junkie and has time on his hands.” Millions of grandpas don’t need to watch a movie to learn about LBJ’s war. They were there and many are still having flashbacks. If the editors of Esquire think any grandpa who was young in the 1960s or early '70s will find this multi-volume movie set entertaining, they are seriously stupid.

9. Google Home Voice Activated Speaker, $99 at Nordstrom “ for the grandpa who likes to stay connected.” Of the nine items recommended for grandpa so far, this is the third from Nordstrom. How much is Nordstrom’s paying Esquire to pimp this stuff?

10. Promise Me Dad” by Joe Biden, $28 at amazon “for the grandpa who values family and service above all.” I’ve already read this book that details Bo Biden’s losing struggle with brain cancer and, as a father myself, felt Joe Biden’s pain and shared his sorrow. Unfortunately, Biden devoted about half of the book to promoting his own brilliance, clearly setting the stage for a run in 2020. I finished the book admiring Biden for the grace and strength with which he faced every parent’s ultimate nightmare, but convinced more than ever that as a politician, he’s a clueless, self-promoting dick.

11. UGC scuff Slipper, $79 from (surprise, surprise!) Nordstrom “for the grandpa who knows how to appreciate downtime around the house.” These slippers appear to be the standard slip-on variety one can buy at Walmart or Costco for $15 or less. Lined with wool, they’re going to start stinking after a month or so absorbing grandpa's foot sweat so grandpa will have to throw them away, just like he has thrown away every pair of slippers he has ever received for Christmas. If you are convinced grandpa will be impressed by expensive slippers, buy him a pair at Costco, put ‘em in a Nordstrom box and spend the extra $60 buying him something that won’t make him feel like you think he has one slippered foot in the grave.

12. Olympia Provisions Favorite Sausage Collection, $30, from food52 “for the grandpa who knows his way around quality butchered meats.”  I never sausage a stupid gift idea -- three imported gourmet processed sausage sticks. However, if any of my midwestern readers know where I can buy Rice's, a pork sausage brand my father used to sell in his grocery store in the 1960s, you can give me a gift by letting me know where I can buy it. To this day I judge all sausages against Rice's and have yet to find any one-tenth as tasty. (A funny side story: My uncle, an army man, was stationed in Hawaii and he, too, loved Rice's sausage. Before he flew there, he had my dad freeze a long loaf of Rice's which he packed in his suitcase, assuming that, by the time he arrived, the sausage would be thawed out so he could fry it up. Unfortunately the airline lost his luggage. By the time it showed up days later, the sausage was rotten and he had to throw away everything in his suitcase. And now back to our regularly-scheduled blog post.)

13. Warby Parker-Keene prescription lenses, $95, from “for the grandpa who wants to update his everyday look.” Why are Esquire’s editors obsessed with eyeglasses? Because they think glasses make them look smart? Any grandpa who reads their recommendations knows they aren’t. See #2.

14. A box set of two books, ’Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari, $95 at amazon “for the grandpa who has some thoughts about the existential crisis facing the human race.” There isn’t a grandpa in the U.S. — hell, the world — who wants this except, perhaps, Yual Noah Harare’s grandpa and I doubt that even he would read it though he would in all likelihood point it out to his friends and say “my grandson wrote it.”

15. Cutter & Buck NFL Team Sweater (with the logo of grandpa’s favorite team),  $120 from … that big Seattle-based department store known for excellent customer service with branches in upscale malls in most big cities whose name, unlike the editors of Esquire, I am not being paid to promote, “for the grandpa who never misses his favorite team’s kickoff.”  Like a growing number of grandpas, I don’t give a shit about NFL football since the owners of its teams allowed their overpaid players to “take a knee” following the example of Colin “Won’t Someone Please Hire Me?” Kaepernick. I hope the NFL goes belly-up and its players have to take jobs at Wendy's.

16. The Glenlivit 15-year-old Single Malt Scotch, $55, from The Reserve Bar, “for the grandpa who never said no to a good Scotch.” I’ve got news for you, Esquire.  All those Scotch-swilling grandpas died off 30 years ago. Today’s grandpas prefer white goods — vodka, tequila or rum — or handcrafted small-batch American bourbons. Yes, Scotch is being rediscovered by Millennials but take it from this grandpa who, for 20 years, worked on wine and sprits advertising accounts: Boomers don’t drink Scotch.

However, if one of my grandsons were ever go to work for Esquire, I’d drink the whole bottle in one sitting.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Grill of Your Dreams

We just had a new gas grill installed.  Here is the first page of the owner's manual that came with it.

Congratulations on your new Tropic Chef grill!

We know you can’t wait to start grilling delicious meals for your family and friends, but before you do, please take a moment to read these critical safety warnings. Failure to follow these warnings may invalidate the warranty.

  • Fill tank with propane only. DO NOT fill with gasoline, lighter fluid, nail polish remover, rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, turpentine, linseed oil, hydrogen, butane, methane, ethylese or vodka.

  • Grill is for OUTDOOR USE only.  Do not operate inside house, condo, apartment, trailer, barn, airplane, helicopter, office building, store, restaurant, hospital, church, synagogue, mosque, outhouse, car, bus, van or truck.

  • DO NOT ignite grill while connected to an oxygen tank.

  • NEVER allow children to play around, or atop, hot grill except for kids likely to grow up and vote Republican if you don't stop them now.

  • God knows I’d love to be writing the great American novel — that’s what I always intended to be doing at this point in my life — but no, I have to spend my day writing instructions for morons like you who have done all of these things and worse. For example …

  • When igniting burners, MAKE SURE grill lid is open and that no cats have crept through opening at the back and are sleeping inside.

  • DO NOT light farts if you smell propane leak. 

  • DO NOT operate grill during tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, blizzards, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or other adverse conditions. If any of these conditions occur, please turn off fuel supply and seek shelter.

  • Any reference within this manual to wieners refers to sausages made by Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Ballpark, Nathans and other manufacturers, NOT dachshunds or genitalia you have cut off your cheating husband in a fit of drunken rage.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy your new grill!

Monday, November 12, 2018

These diamonds aren't forever

Darling, will you marry me?

The highest temperature in the nation yesterday, 89 degrees, was reported in Ft. Myers, two towns north of here. Sunday was a darn near perfect day. Low humidity. Blue skies. Fluffy clouds. A slight breeze. 

I would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for this damn sinus infection that made its first appearance in 1987 when we lived in Connecticut, and flared up every year thereafter until we finally had the sense to get out of there once and for all in 2013. Until two weeks ago, it had only reappeared once, in 2016, and that was after a flight.  

But two weeks ago we flew home from Iceland — Keflavik to JFK, JFK to Atlanta, Atlanta to Ft. Myers. Two days later I woke up feeling like someone had broken into the house overnight and filled my head with wet concrete. I’ve been taking antibiotics ever since but this iteration of my 31-year-old infection is particularly tenacious. I’m almost sure it flared up because of the flying, not because of the cold we encountered in Iceland, where I wore a stocking cap everywhere. (My mother, who always warned her children to keep their heads covered whenever it was 60 or below, would have been proud.) 

Why did we go to to icy-cold Iceland in late October rather than in summer, when the daylight lasts nearly around the clock and the high averages a balmy 55? Because we wanted to see the Northern Lights. The odds of seeing the aurora borealis are better during Iceland’s winter, which basically lasts from September through May.  Alas, we didn’t see them. The first four days were rainy, with low clouds that would have prevented us from seeing them if they had they been dancing directly overhead. For the last three days the conditions were ideal — no clouds — but the lights, which are tempermental, were no-shows. We had a wonderful time anyway.

The highlight of our trip was Diamond Beach, the most bizarre and beautiful place I’ve ever seen.

Located on the southeast coast about 250 miles from Reykjavik, it’s a jet-black beach studded with thousands of chunks of ice, from as small as a couple of carats all the way up to the size of a Mac truck. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear they were diamonds.

The diamonds come from the Breiðamerkurjöjull glacier, about a half mile from the beach. As it retreats (e.g. melts) chunks of ice fall into a lagoon directly behind the beach. The chunks float around the lagoon awhile — a day, a week, a year — and eventually move through a river out into the Atlantic.

The sea, which is warmer than the lagoon — about 45 degrees— melts some of the ice, then washes the chunks up onto the beach. Some of the chunks are crystal clear, like diamonds. Others retain the weird blue color of the glacier that birthed them, a color I’ve only seen in nature one other place — in my four-year-old grandson Teddy’s ice blue eyes. For the first time, once I saw those glacier-blue chunks, I truly understood what “ice blue” means.

We went to the beach twice — once late in the afternoon as the sun was setting, and again the next morning. None of the diamonds we had seen 18 hours before were there on our second visit. They’d either melted or been carried back to sea at high tide. 

On our second visit we saw a young man kneeling in front of a young woman, presenting her with a real diamond. Diamond Beach is the perfect place to get engaged through I imagine any girl, after seeing the diamonds on the beach, would complain that hers isn’t big enough. 

Here are some photos for your viewing pleasure. If you enjoy them, by all means go see Diamond Beach for yourself. Iceland is easy to get to (five hours from New York), and there are several low cost airlines offering nonstops they have trouble filling up in winter. I’ve seen flights advertised for as little as $99 each way.

But don’t put it off. There’s a volcano under the glacier that’s overdue to erupt and once that happens, Diamond Beach may well be gone.

Real diamonds are forever but these gems aren't. 

Jökulsárlón Sveitarfélagið Hornafjörður. The first word is the name
of the lagoon into which the icebergs fall from the glacier
(shown above). The last is the name of the nearest town.  I have
no clue what the middle one means. But these three words, together, according
to my iPhone, denote the location where this shot was taken.

The beach is covered with black volcanic sand. 
And, of course, diamonds.

Lots and lots of diamonds. Thousands of them.

This photo will give you an idea of how huge
some of these icebergs are.

Looking west. That's a small part of the glacier in the upper right.
(Damn, writing this post was fun. I should have been a travel writer.
Is it too late to launch a new career at my age?

 I wonder if I could get free trips from, say, the Iceland Tourist Bureau? 

My bride with her diamond
 Chunks of glacier ice the size of Ford F-150s
The only other place I've seen that shade of blue in
nature -- in Teddy's ice blue eyes. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Turning back time

For the first seven years of our married life, until we had our first son, we went to the movies almost every weekend. We would look in the newspaper, see what was playing, then choose the one that appealed to us most because there were almost always multiple movies we wanted to see.

We rarely go to the movies these days. It's not that we don’t want to. It’s because 99.9 percent of movies are written for people at least 40 years younger than us. Hollywood doesn’t give a damn about people our age. We are not the future. The last movie we saw in a theater was Dunkirk.

Yesterday my wife said she’d like to see A Star is Born, the third remake of the film about a famous guy who discovers an unknown with talent, gives her opportunities to shine, and marries her. As her star ascends, his declines, sending him into despair. Just before the movie ends, he self-destructs, leaving her in the final scene to proclaim her undying love.

I agreed to go but only because we had gift cards we needed to use before they expired. 

I never saw the original version. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out when it was made (1937) and who starred in it (Frederick March and Janet Gaynor).

I saw the first remake (1954, James Mason, Judy Garland) as a kid, on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies.

The second remake, with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, was released in December, 1976. We were newlyweds, living in Chicago. We saw it on a Sunday afternoon. When we came out of the theater it was snowing hard. 

We lived in a tiny apartment on the eighth floor of a 30 story-high rise overlooking Lake Michigan, a building featured in the opening credits of the Bob Newhart Show. It was, supposedly, where Bob and his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) lived. Whereas Bob and Emily had entertaining neighbors, including Howard, the pilot,  the actual building was filled with elderly Hungarians who had fled the 1956 revolution, cooked cabbage that stunk up the hallways, and were obsessed with cleanliness. The white-haired lady across the hall, Angelina, scrubbed her front door every day.  She once knocked on our door to point out that the marble saddle under it had a streak of dirt that needed to be scrubbed away that very minute. 

We had moved to Chicago a few months earlier. I had a job as a writer for a Chicago-based marketing agency and my wife was a development writer for a university on the south side. Our apartment was furnished with hand-me-downs. Most movies we saw were matinees -- they were cheaper. That was the only year of our married life we had just one dog, Sybil, a dachshund/corgi mix whose ears were as big as her face. For the next 42, we had two, sometimes three, dogs.

The latest remake of A Star Is Born features Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. It wasn’t, as I assumed it would be, terrible, but it wasn’t great either. Lady Gaga can certainly sing. She’s very appealing and likable but, as we reclined in our leather chairs in the darkened theater, I wasn’t thinking about the plot. I knew what was coming. My mind kept wandering back to what our lives were like the last time we saw “Star” when, as 25-year-olds, we had no idea where we going much less how we’d get there, and asking myself, “If I could turn back time to the last time we saw this movie, would I?” 

Chicago was God-awful cold so the next year I finagled a transfer to the agency’s New York office. After a couple of months I quit that job, and landed a job at a big ad agency.  A year later I moved up to a bigger agency.

In 1983, we had our first son and moved to a condo in the ‘burbs. Three years later son number two came along and we bought our first house. In 1989, I started my own agency. Sometimes business was great. Sometimes it wasn’t.

But it all, eventually, worked out. Our youngest went off to college in 2004, we retired in 2010, moved to Florida full time in 2013 and became grandparents in 2014. Right now, for the first time since 1976, we are back to one dog, Rupert, a long-haired dachshund. Surprisingly, we are comfortable having just one though I can’t speak for him. He seems sad, no matter how much attention he gets, and believe me, he gets plenty.

This morning, having had the benefit of an extra hour of sleep because America reverted to standard time overnight, I woke up knowing the answer to my question. 

If given the opportunity to turn back the clock to 1976, knowing what I know now, I would do it. In a heartbeat.

But if I had to turn it back without the benefit of the lessons I’ve learned along the way I wouldn’t, because I might well make some poor choices I didn't make the first go-round.  

I have made lots of choices. Some were dumb. Some were smart. Some were risky and, in retrospect, foolhardy. Others weren’t really choices at all, just lucky breaks.  But I am the sum total of the choices I have made. We all are. 

When you are young, if you are fortunate and not everyone is, you have lots and lots of choices to make. Some big. Some small. 

One thing I am realizing with each passing day is that the older I get, the fewer of them I have. 

I wish I had more choices to look forward to making, but I’m going to have to be content with the ones I still have and to be grateful for the ones I have been given and made.  

Especially the bad ones, because those are the ones that taught me the most.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

The last jeans I'll ever buy

I am oblivious to fashion trends. It’s not that I don’t care how I look. It’s just that I don’t care enough to make an effort to stay abreast of what’s in and out of style. 

If I’m going to a wedding or funeral, I look online to see which of my two suits I should choose  — the one with the wide lapels or the one with the narrow lapels. Same with ties. I have to look it up to find out which of my two neckties I should wear.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I wear shorts, a t-shirt and sandals. My closet contains only a few pairs of long pants and all of those, with the exception of a pair of jeans, are tropical weight khakis.

This week my wife and I are flying to Iceland, a jeans and flannel shirt kinda country where everyone looks like they just came back from hiking a glacier, climbing a volcano or harpooning whales. "You’re going to need new jeans,” my wife said. “Yours look ridiculous.”

She’s right. I bought them in 1997 in South Africa. The label on the backside says Woolworth’s — a department store there, not the dime store you may remember.  Like me, they are showing their age — frayed bottoms, some mysterious stains, a missing belt loop.  And they don’t fit any more. Since I bought them I have lost my ass twice — once in the stock market crash and again sometime over the last ten years. The flesh on my back side has for some inexplicable reason disappeared so where-ass I used to fill the jeans out, I no longer do. There’s lots of extra fabric that sags over the area where my butt used to be.

So yesterday I went to the outlet mall to buy a new pair. I figured it would take, at most, 10 minutes because, unlike clothes that go in and out of style, jeans are jeans, right?


My first stop was at H&M. I read somewhere that H&M, a Swedish chain, is a good place to buy jeans. And it is, provided you're a guy with a waist the size of my miniature dachshund’s. There were racks and racks of jeans, with signs designating various styles — Skinny, Super Skinny, Slim, and my favorite, Skinny Carrot. The men browsing those racks were all a) young enough to be my grandsons and b) disturbingly emaciated. I was in and out of that store in two minutes flat. 

I went to Eddie Bauer. I wear size 36 jeans so I tried on a pair that size. Two of those people from “My 600 Pound Life” could have easily fit into them, with room left over for Michael Moore. I tried on a size 34. That pair could have accommodated two Moores. Even the 32s,  a size I haven’t worn since my twenties, were way, way too big. I suppose I could have continued to try successively smaller sizes until I found a pair that actually touched my hips but I’d lost faith in Eddie Bauer jeans so I left.

The Nautica store featured jeans that, like H&M's, are made for men with eating disorders. 

The jeans at the Bloomingdales outlet contained more holes than denim. Even I know that’s the style but I don’t get it. Totally impractical for someone traveling to the Arctic in late October. 

I stopped at Lucky. The designations there were as bizarre as H&M's — Skinny, Slim, Drainpipe and Athletic Slim, “for athletic slim men or those who want to be.” I want to be athletic and slim but don’t want to pay $79 for a pair of jeans I’ll wear for a week then consign to the back of a guest room closet. It’s a sure bet none would have fit anyway.

Brooks Brothers had nothing in my size. 

Leaving that store, I rounded a corner and was relieved to see a Levi’s shop. I had never noticed it or I would have gone there in the first place.

Last time I bought Levi's, there were, if I remember correctly, two styles — 501s with a button fly and 505s with a zippered fly. I read years ago that west coast men prefer button jeans. The rest of the country prefers zippers.

Levi's no longer has two basic styles.  The selection was overwhelming. In addition to the 501s and 505s, there are now (I looked ‘em up when I got home) 502s (Regular Taper Fit), 510s (Skinny Fit), 511s (Slim Fit), 512s (Slim Taper Straight), 513s (Slim Straight), 514s (Straight Fit), 517s (Boot Cut), 519s (Extreme Skinny), 527s (Slim Boot Cut), 541s (Athletic Fit), 545s (Athletic Fit Utility), 550s (Relaxed Fit), 559s (Relaxed Straight), 560s (Comfort Fit as opposed to Discomfort Fit) and 569s (Loose Straight, not for Loose Gays or Loose Transgenders). 

A clerk asked if I needed help. “Yes,” I said. “What do you have for someone my age that will make me look virile, hip and outdoorsy while disguising the fact that my butt is missing?”

She pulled a half dozen pair off the shelves and handed them to me. Over the next hour I tried on — I kid you not — 14 pairs. Not only did they all fit differently, all of the 36 jeans except the 501s were way too big. Even many of the 34s were too big. When I asked why, the clerk explained that most jeans these days are made with denim that stretches. That’s why the jeans at Eddie Bauer and, to a lesser extent, at Levi’s, didn’t fit like the traditional stiff jeans I was accustomed to.

I finally found a pair of 505s — the same style I wore back in college — but softer, made with stretch material, that looked halfway decent. Sized 34/30, they’re a bit too big in the waist and about a half inch too short in the leg but I was, at that point, desperate to get the hell out of there.

“Do you want give me your email so I can send you a coupon for 20 percent off your next purchase?” the cashier asked.

“God no,” I replied. “These are the last jeans I’m ever going to buy.” 

And that’s the truth. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A visit to North Korea (with palm trees)

A poster featuring Fidel in the Havana City Forest:
"That human life be preserved! That children and young people enjoy it
in a world of justice. That parents and grandparents share with them 
the privilege of living!" 
Eight of us were sitting around at Happy Hour last month when out of nowhere one of us— I don’t remember who — mentioned cruising, travel or Cuba. I said I had that very morning received an email from a travel agency promoting four-day cruises to Cuba from Miami being offered at dirt cheap prices in September.

“Let’s go,” someone piped up. Everyone agreed that was a swell idea. All of us were, at that point, on our third drink. Florida bartenders that time of year tend to be extremely generous; like the Maytag repairman, they yearn for company so the drinks were extra large. I promised I’d dig out the email and send everyone details.

Within 24 hours all of us were booked, along with three more couples. The next week another couple returned to town and they booked, too. 

And that is how, on Wednesday morning, my wife and I, along with 14 friends, found ourselves on a luxury liner pulling into Havana harbor. 

The view from our ship as we sailed into Havana harbor.
Note the crumbling buildings.
I’ve traveled to every continent (except Antarctica) and visited many places that can fairly be described as third world including Namibia, Colombia, Mozambique, Morocco and Mississippi. 

Cuba makes all of them look like Beverly Hills.

While it’s impossible to judge a country on a quickie visit — we were only docked in Havana for 20 hours where my wife and I along with another couple took a six-hour tour conducted by a guide we had found on Trip Advisor — it’s safe to say all of us were impressed but not favorably. 

The country is beyond poor — the average citizen earns $30 a month. The government controls almost every aspect of their lives but has, since the death of Fidel, loosened up a bit — Cubans can now buy their own homes. That may seem like a move in the right direction but the fact is, the new owners have to maintain their homes out of their $30 paychecks, so home ownership isn’t a prescription for prosperity as it is in other societies. Roads, sidewalks, buildings, even the terminal at which we docked, are crumbling. All the businesses are government owned. The tourist industry is controlled by the Cuban military, a non-sequitur our guide likened to a branch of the government responsible for education controlling sewage disposal. 

Havana, as you know, is known for its ancient American-built cars. I figured those were the exception — a gimmick to attract car aficionados — but no, they’re the rule. Once the Commies took over in 1959, private ownership of cars was forbidden unless you already had one. That is why, today, Havana’s pot-holed roads are filled with finned, chrome-laden cars from the 1950s and late 1940s. All have been repainted many times —often in their original, distinctive, two-toned colors, and refitted with new engines. 

Our wheels for the day: a 1954 Buick with a
Mitsubishi diesel engine

The 1954 Buick in which we toured was equipped with a Mitsubishi diesel engine. The ’58 Buick friends were driven around in had a Mercedes engine. There are thousands of those clunkers in Havana alone and many more, I assume, throughout the country. Most of the original owners have died but the government, in its generosity, allowed them to pass the cars on to their descendants. Any car built after the revolution  — the Kia and Hyundai taxis and the two newer Mercedes I saw — are either owned by the government or by diplomats who find themselves unfortunate enough to be assigned to a country that has been described as “North Korea with palm trees.” 

Vintage cars (and one government-owned Mercedes)
at Revolution Square
Our guide, Raul, met us in the square opposite the dock. An articulate, outgoing guy in his late twenties who speaks near-perfect English, Raul told us he once worked as a government tour guide. He explained that passengers on our ship who took guided tours offered by the cruise line were, unwittingly, being shown exactly what the government wants them to see. Raul took us places most tourists don’t see including a “rations store” where citizens can redeem coupons for small bags of rice, beans and the occasional roll of TP when available. The shelves were mostly bare.

He took us to the National Hotel, perched high atop a hill overlooking the sea, which opened in 1930. Mob boss Meyer Lansky in the mid-1950s convinced the Battista government to cut him in as an owner. Castro seized it in 1959. 

In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the army built a bunker in the hotel garden from which volunteers scanned the horizon with binoculars, looking for U.S. warships. The bunker now houses a small museum dedicated to the crisis. I asked Raul which side won. “The Soviets,” he said without hesitation. “Khrushchev had to remove his missiles from Cuba but Kennedy had to take American missiles out of Turkey.”  I had forgotten that if, indeed, I ever knew it. I was 10 years old at the time so I can’t say I stayed abreast of, or understood, every development, but Americans are taught that JFK heroically stood his ground, refused to blink, and the Soviets were forced to remove their intercontinental ballistic missiles from Cuba and schlep ‘em back to Russia, so we won.  When I got home I looked it up and Raul was right. JFK caved as much as Khrushchev. 

The National Hotel
The bunker was the highlight of my trip because I’m convinced the Cuban missile crisis is the primary reason we Baby Boomers are as screwed up as Generation Xers and Millennials like to claim we are. Many of us were in grammar school. Watching Walter Cronkite’s nightly reports about the crisis, in which the two superpowers threatened to blow each other and the rest of the world to oblivion, was traumatic enough. More damaging to our tender young psyches were the drills during which our teachers ordered us to practice hiding under our desks to shield ourselves from the fallout the mushroom clouds would inevitably generate. We may have been young but we weren’t stupid. We watched Mr. Wizard. We knew the radiation would melt us like the milk chocolate in the hand that wasn’t holding M&Ms.  

And so, expecting to die tomorrow, we have gone through life denying ourselves nothing, knowing there was a good chance we’d be dead before we had to pay for it, which is why many Boomers who would like to retire haven’t saved enough and will have to work until they fall dead from exhaustion rather than fallout.

For six hours Raul and his driver, a silver haired gentleman who spoke no English, took us around town. The cost of the tour was $130. Raul told us they had driven to Havana that morning from a town two hours away and would be making the return trip once our tour was finished.  The two men traveled four hours and spent six additional hours with the four of us. Assuming they split the $130 in half, they each earned a whopping $1.62 per hour from each person in our party and that doesn’t even include the cost of fuel which, Raul told us, comes from Cuba’s BFF, Venezuela. We tipped him generously and stopped en route back to our ship to buy a “Cuba” t-shirt  — but the vendor only had a dozen or so and, of those, only one fit and it was a misprint.  

I promised Raul I would write a glowing review on Trip Advisor, in the hopes future travelers will book tours with his company and ask for him by name, and he said he would be grateful. I wrote it last night. If you’d like to read it, and find out more about what we did and saw, click here:

Enough about our trip to Cuba.  There’s something I want to say to many of my well-intentioned friends and family members who think socialism is swell.  

On paper, the concept is kind and commendable — a government ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are taken care of —but, ultimately, the 90 percent who have the ability to take care of themselves in the first place wind up being oppressed, and the 10 percent who don’t would have been better off being taken care of by a democratically elected government.  

I am ashamed to admit I voted for a socialist, Bernie Sanders, in the 2016 Florida Democratic primary. I’m not really a Democrat. Neither was Bernie. I’m not a Republican either. I’ve switched parties four or five times and now firmly believe both are controlled by lunatics so there's no reason to keep switching. When I registered to vote in Florida, I had to choose one so I said I was a Democrat, which gave me the right to vote in that primary. I knew Sanders couldn’t possibly beat Hillary, whom I have always detested which is why I voted for him, but if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t. (I wouldn’t vote for Hillary, either. I would write in Rupert, my dachshund, who is not only more more personable but has a better grasp of basic economics than either of them.) For those of you about to delete me from your Facebook friends’ list, I didn’t vote for Trump in the general election either. Once again I wasted my vote, casting my ballot for one of the third party candidates — my way of expressing contempt for both Hillary and Trump and their wacko extremist parties. 

Take a look at Cuba, a country trapped in the 1950s. Then consider the failed satellites of the USSR which, now that they are capitalist, are becoming prosperous. A couple we traveled with own a vacation home overlooking the Adriatic in Croatia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) and report they can’t find workers to renovate it — the economy is that strong now that the socialists are gone. 

Friends and family members excited by the socialist candidates who will be featured on some ballots in November’s election believe these candidates have good intentions, are compassionate, and want to help. Most likely they are, but every socialist-leaning American voter would do well to pay a visit to Cuba to see what socialism has wrought before pulling the lever.

Socialism isn’t pretty in Cuba, Venezuela, China or North Korea. It wasn't pretty in the countries that comprised the Soviet bloc. It would be fatal here and it’s madness to even flirt with it, no matter how much you want to let the world know you’re a good person who cares about injustice which, I’m convinced, is the one and only reason to vote socialist in the first place. 

Our own government is a mess right now but Americans have an uncanny ability to self-correct their mistakes and we will someday get it right. 

Let's hope Cubans someday get that right, too

A Che Guevara poster : "It is proposed to all young people ....
to be essentially that (which) approaches the best of humanity."

Thanks, Google Translate. This one makes such little sense that our
guide/interpreter couldn't even translate it with any degree of accuracy.