Following Al: Weird by Northwest

(Note: This concludes my “Following Al” trilogy of posts. If you missed them — which is totally understandable given I started this two years ago — here are part one and part two. For the curious, it was this announcement that got me off my duff to finish this post.)

What’s wilder than driving 550 miles over three days so as to see three “Weird Al” Yankovic concerts in one weekend?

Waking up that Monday, tired, but wanting more.

That feeling led to me looking at the remainder of the tour schedule to determine a) where in the world “Weird Al” would be wandering, and b) whether I might want to wander there, too.

Turns out, Al had a few shows coming up in the Pacific Northwest.

I love the Pacific Northwest. I don’t think I’ve taken the time to write about that love, but it’s a passionate long-distance relationship we have. I try to get out there at least every couple of years, and since Al’s tour was taking the band there about two years since my last trip the whole thing seemed kismet.

All I had to do was convince The Empress of Whisky that it was not unreasonable to spend a week of vacation and a lump of my savings on such an adventure.

It wasn’t a hard sell.

She is a huge Phish fan, and we have regularly planned travel around that band, so she very much understood where I was coming from.

Thus began a week-long trek during which I followed Al across two states, taking trains, planes, and automobiles, whilst interspersing visits to friends and conducting other fun activities with  The Empress.

We landed in Portland (PDX), hopped in our rental car, and headed west for the coast, stopping only for cheese and ice cream in Tillamook — yum.

We spent a night in a small beach town, enjoying seafood, local beer, and some dune hiking.

Next day we headed down the coastal highway, leisurely making our way through that beautiful landscape for a couple of hours before making a sharp turn east and setting our sights on Eugene, Oregon, where a small theater played host to Al and the band that night.

I’ll say this about Eugene — it’s flat. The city-part between the mountains, I mean. Not much in the way of trees. Not much in the way of buildings taller than three stories. But it’s a lovely town, with a great  pizzeria right next to the theater — perfect for a slice and a pint after the show — and a wonderful little cafe that is the first place I ever had a stroopwafel. (They’re delicious.)

Next morning, we turned our rented auto north to Portland, where we would spend a couple of nights in a wackily-decorated micro-hotel, visit friends, see the truly awesome Portland Japanese Garden, browse several nifty local shops, drink some fine local beers — and a whisky! — to fill all the hours that weren’t spent watching two shows in an old high school gymnasium-turned-music venue. Oh, Portland.

After Portland, The Empress and I parted ways with a kiss and plans to see each back home. She stuck around to go on a hiking adventure with local friends, and I continued to follow Al.

His next show was in Spokane.

Getting there from Portland was fun. I walked to a light rail station, hopped aboard  a very clean train (using the pass that came with our hotel room) and rode that down to PDX, which, by the way, is a helluva nice airport. It’s open and airy, and it has things like free wine tastings inside. Also? There is a small (20 seats or so) theater that shows short films all day.

All of which is to say I had some fun things to occupy my time while waiting on my flight.

When it came time to fly, I had an experience approaching “old time” air travel. First, I had to actually walk onto the tarmac to board the plane via a set of steps hanging out the side. Compared to the gates and walkways used to board modern commercial aircraft, that was a little strange.

Of course, my first flight was aboard a World War II era Czechoslovakian spy plane,* so I’m not fazed by much.

*(Note to self: Tell story of my first flight.)

Anyway, the plane was a small, 50-seat propeller-driven relic. Once aboard, it was like being in first class, as there were few of us, and the seats were old-timey large.

I tried not to think too much about what this said about the plane’s age, or its odds of making it over the Cascade Mountains.

Really, I just thought of what they’d say if I died in a crash.

“He was following ‘Weird Al’ around.”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

Others nod along.

“Pass the whisky,” someone would say, as this whole daydream takes place at a funeral that is more like a good bar party.

Anyway, the plane landed — with an authentic tiny-plane bump on the runway — and I was soon headed to my hotel room for a nap before the show, which was held in another quaint small-town theater. No cool pizzerias or diners here, but I did find a dive bar for a burger and beer before bed.

I didn’t get to spend too much time in bed, as I had to be up stupid early — I think it was 3 a.m. or so — to walk over to the train station where I would catch my ride over to Seattle.

I love riding the rails, and it was beautiful to doze a bit before waking to the sun coming up over the Cascades, through which we were traveling. If the occasion presents itself, I highly recommend that Tacoma-to-Seattle excursion.

Upon arriving to Seattle, I had a free day and night, so I spent them prowling old book stores, eating way too much good local food, and winding up watching Solo: A Star Wars Story, thus making me a perfect (at the time) 10-for-10 on seeing Star Wars films during their initial release weekend.

Next day I did some more city wandering — Seattle is awesome for just walking around and seeing neat stuff — before catching up with a local friend to visit her neighborhood brewery before seeing the fifth and final show of my weird week in the Pacific Northwest.

Next day it was back to life, back to reality, which in my case meant wondering whether I could extend my vacation, change my flight back, and maybe squeeze in the next show, which was, wait, in Calgary.

Maybe if it had been in Vancouver …

In the Kitchen: Coconut Chicken

Do you like coconut, and coconut-flavored things? If not, move along.

So, The Empress of Whisky does like coconut and coconut-flavored things. She usually wants a coconut cake at her birthday, and she is known to, for example, indulge in the occasional stout with added coconut.

Anyway, on a whim — most of my kitchen adventures start with a whim — I once pan-fried some chicken cutlets in a little virgin coconut oil.

–> Brief aside: Virgin coconut oil maintains the lovely aroma and flavor of coconut. It’s the one you want, if coconut flavor is your goal. Processed coconut oil, on the other hand, loses most of the aroma and flavor, whilst still maintaining the other properties of coconut oil.

I also spritzed a bit of lime in there, and threw in some Jamaican jerk seasoning. Turned out fairly lovely, I thought. As we were eating, I asked how the coconut was to The Empress. Fine, she said, but a little too subtle for her tastes.

A little too subtle.

Well, friends that sounded like a challenge.

There’s this thing I do with pork loin cutlets — I picked it up from an America’s Test Kitchen episode — wherein the the cutlets are first tossed in corn starch, then dipped in buttermilk, then lastly coated in bread crumbs. Rest, then pan-fry in oil. It’s lovely.

Taking that concept as my base, I took chicken cutlets, tossed them in coconut flour, then dipped them in coconut milk, then lastly coated them in sweetened coconut flakes. Finally, I pan-fried the suckers in virgin coconut oil.

Presented with this dish — which, if you’re curious, I paired with orange rice and Brussels sprouts — The Empress agreed that, yes, indeed, the level of coconut was sufficient.

This dish is now in the repertoire. The only tweak I’m working on is making the damned coconut flakes stick a bit better. Maybe more resting time? We’ll see.

Stirring the Grief Pot

Been awhile.

I can’t even say I’ve really been trying, either. My trips to the keyboard have been few and far between since April.

April was rough.

I just reread that, for the first time since I published it, and all I accomplished was to break myself up again.


Is it lame to cry at your own writing?

It isn’t the writing, though. It’s the subject.

The subject to which I subject myself right now.

A lot of you came here and read those words.

Dunno how many of you will be back for this, though the stats show a few of you have returned, just to be met with nothing new on the main page.

Sorry about that.

You should know I have a history of disappearing for sometimes long intervals.

Usually there’s a good reason.

Historically it’s been a variation on: “Jon’s brain is broken.”

I fight depression and anxiety, and I don’t always break through.

But I always come back.

Often, it’s on or around November 11.

There’s a reason for that.

Grief is interesting.

It ebbs and flows, across days and years, but it never really ends. Sometimes it takes us under, like the swell of an angry sea, whilst other times we float as if upon a gentle pond, barely aware of the deep, dark pain that lurks beneath.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief, since April 24. Sometimes you don’t realize just how much of rock-solid presence someone is in your life until they are gone, and you are set adrift.

So it is with Deb.

It doesn’t help that I’m typing these words on her old MacBook Pro — a bequest.

I sit, typing my little thoughts, and I can’t help but think of all the times her fingers danced across these very keys, how many times she stared at this very screen, interacting online, using it as her entryway to our role-playing games during the pandemic, seeing my words when she read them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief, since June 14, 2020. Sometimes you don’t realize how bad the worst can be until it happens — the death of a parent.

So it is with my father-in-law, Norm.

The man was such a presence! Never was a room with Norm in it a quiet room. Never was he there and you didn’t know it. He loomed so large in life that his absence is a giant, echoing hole, hole, hole …

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief, since May 28, 2019. Sometimes you know exactly how important a single person is to the course of your life.

So it is with my friend Ray.

Because I knew him, I accepted his invite to finish a card game, and because he knew me, the future Empress of Whisky accepted me enough to talk, and from there, love bloomed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief, for what feels like most of my life. Sometimes you don’t know how much death will be a part of your life until you start living it.

So it was with my great-grandmother, who died in 1980, when I was five.

Since then, it’s been a stream of departures, some expected, many not. And every one is different, and every one matters, and every one I remember.

Even though today is marked for one particular death, I am beginning to consider this Grief Day, and tonight, when I make the Memorial Meal, I will be thinking, of course, of the one it was initiated to honor, but the names and memories of so many others will be there with me, too.

In Memoriam, D.A.A.

I met her indirectly, via a letter to the editor.

Letters, I should say.

She was somewhat prolific — enough so the managing editor (to whom letters to the editor were nominally addressed) once said to me, exasperated, “I wish we had more people as enthusiastic as her. Run this one today, and the next one tomorrow.”

I was the news editor — the night guy, responsible for laying out the paper, among other things — so it fell to me to actually place these letters on the page.

I wasn’t compelled to read them, yet I read them and was compelled.

And so, when I finally met her directly, introduced by mutual friends at my hometown pub, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Oh, you’re Deb Aziz!”

To which she gave me the furrowed brow that I would come to know so well over the years, the one that said, “Yes, and your point is?”

At which point I explained how I knew her name, and that her letters always brightened my night.

And she smiled, and we were friends.

I was but recently back in my hometown after a few years away, whereas she had in the interim moved to town and befriended people I knew.

I would thus come to know her well, mostly through sitting around pub tables drinking, playing cards, and shooting the shit.

I learned that she lived with rheumatoid arthritis since the age of nine, and it had damaged many of her joints but not her spirit.

I can still see her, crunching open pistachios on the table, using the bottom of an empty beer mug, as she lacked the finger dexterity to open them manually.

She loved those things, and would regularly feed a few dollars worth of quarters into the candy machine that dispensed them.

I can still hear her yelling “Cripple deal!” when it was her turn to deal and she had to pass the cards to the next person, owing to that same lack of finger dexterity.

She loved playing cards, and once they were dealt and in her hands, she was nails at whatever game was up.

I can still see her face, perking up when a woman with a low bustline walked by.

She loved women, and was not shy about it, and in that small town where we lived for those years, that would get her called brave, but she wouldn’t claim that. It wasn’t bravery to her — it was who she was, and fuck anyone who had a problem with it.

“I’m a crippled lesbian,” she would begin, laying the label out as a bona fide before opening an argument.

She moved to the city before I did, relocated by her job. By that time, I was dating the future Empress of Whisky and would soon face the choice to move to the city as she, too, relocated for work.

(I chose well.)

Through the years that followed we would meet more friends, go on vacations, have so many dinners and game nights, watch sports, celebrate a slew of birthdays and weddings, mourn together at our oldest mutual friend’s funeral.

When she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis she was not expected to live past 30.

Well, fuck that, she said, and proceeded to live another 21 years past that mark.

Which made her 51 when she died last night.

I … want to have something profound to say here.

All there is is longing, and despair, and missing my friend.

And a regret, too.

Deb was amused whenever I referred to a friend by an alias, which I am prone to do here.

She particularly loved The Empress of Whisky.

I told her I’d come up with something for her, but I never got around to it.

So now I ponder what that might have been.

It could have been My Friend The Letter Writer.

(Shortly after moving to the city, she got a letter to the editor placed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which delighted her. “I made the big-time, bitches!” is how she announced it.)

It could have been My Friend The Ethical Cheater.

(Long story. It involves cards and blatant, obvious table talk.)

It could have been My Friend The Former DJ.

(She was a disc jockey in college and had a lifelong love and enthusiasm for music. Once — and this is a long story, too, but fuck it — I made a playlist for The Empress of Whisky. It was for a big milestone birthday, so I made a list of the top 100 songs released the year she was born. It was meant just to be a fun playlist for the car ride up to the cabin where we were celebrating, but we turned it into a game — how many of these songs can you identify?

(None of the four of us in the car were great at it, but by the time we arrived we had made it through about a third of the list, and our scores were in the 10-20 range. We decided to keep playing until others arrived, but when Deb got there, she wanted to join. Despite the late start, she absolutely killed it, scoring something like 60 out of the remaining 65 songs and beating us despite our head start.

(She enjoyed the game so much, she asked that I do the same for her 50th birthday. I did, and, of course, she wiped the floor with us.)

There are so many options.

My Friend The Historian.

My Friend The Trivia Whiz.

My Friend Who Shares My Love Of Babylon 5.

My Friend The Philly Sports Fan.

My Friend Who Knows Way More About Comics Than I Do.

Good night, my dear and true friend.

A, Z, and Everything In-Between

A while back, whilst visiting Seattle, I had a day to myself, in which I wandered about the city, taking in the beautiful grey weather and many of the quirky things the city has to offer.

Most of the morning I spent around Pike’s Place Market. Yeah, that’s a very touristy thing to do, especially for someone who’s been to the city a few times, but the place is fascinating. So many neat little shops.

There were, I think, four bookstores there at the time. I don’t recall any of the names, but one of them, a used book shop, was very well stocked in the science fiction and fantasy section, which is, of course, my favorite section.

I love delving through the stacks in such places. I’m on a continuing quest to find every Roger Zelazny book ever printed, and I restrict myself solely to shopping in person at used bookstores. This will likely end up an unfinished quest, but I love the process.

I didn’t find a missing Zelazny volume in this particular shop, but I did find a paperback copy of Nine Princes in Amber that was in great shape. It was one of those old ones with the red-tipped pages, too. Now, I didn’t need that book — I still own the first version I ever read, which is the one included in an old Science Fiction Book Club two-volume Chronicles of Amber set from the ’80s — but it called to me.

I resisted the call, until I happened upon a copy of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now, of course I already own this one, too. (It’s part of a leather-bound edition that includes that book and three of its four sequels. No, I don’t own the fifth. Yes, I’ve read it. No, I don’t want to talk about it.)

Something clicked in my head: These would be the two essential volumes in an A to Z of science fiction and fantasy.

I bought them, of course.

They presently sit next to one another on a shelf, and the mere sight of them together brings me joy.

As I was staring at them a little while ago, I came back to that A to Z idea.

What if, I began to ponder, you made an A to Z list of writers– not just science fiction and fantasy folks, but all writers– and only allowed yourself one to represent each letter? What if you took it further and allowed yourself just one book?

Which is a long introduction to my list.

The rules, if you want to play at home — I do encourage you to; hell, share your list with me; we’ll talk — are as follows:

1) One writer per letter, by last name.

2) A writer can be an author, a poet, a screenwriter, anything you want.

3) You get to pick one of their works. No collections, except for poets. (Are you really surprised I give poets special treatment?)

4) There is no 4.

5) This is for pleasure, not a grade. Pick 26 books you’d want in your bag before being dropped on an island to live out the rest of your life, that sort of thing.

A is for Adams, Douglas: Now, right off the bat I’ve divided the room, because half the science fiction and fantasy fans are clamoring to put Isaac Asimov here. That’s a fine suggestion, but this is my list and Asimov, while unarguably one of the greats of the genre, gets tossed aside if I have to choose between reading the absolutely essential The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or one of a thousand books about robots.

B is for Banks, Iain M.: Banks’ The Culture series of science fiction novels is simply brilliant. Life, hope, humor … I highly recommend it. The first one I ever read, which struck a cord and stuck with me, is The Player of Games.

C is for Cookie … no, wait, wrong program.

C is for Costikyan, Greg: Mostly known for role-playing game development, Costikyan has also written a few novels. One of those, Another Day, Another Dungeon, examines some of the assumptions underlying the act of dungeon crawling. It’s dead hilarious.

D is for Donaldson, Stephen R.: If I may — and it’s my list, so … — I’ll count Mordant’s Need as one work for purposes of this entry. It’s technically two novels, but I promise this is the only time I’ll pull this trick. Anyway, Mordant’s Need is, like most everything Donaldson’s written, wildly imaginative and almost unrelentingly dark. It features magic expressed by the creation of mirrors, which are used to (depending upon your point of view) either travel to or create alternate worlds from which to pry resources. The protagonist comes from one of those worlds. Also, there’s Gart. Never lived a more merciless, better swordsman than Gart.

E is for Ellis, Warren: All right, I’ll atone a bit for that last entry by listing just one short story by Ellis. Give me “Dead Pig Collector.” It’s a pretty good representation of Ellis: dark, darkly funny, educational about things you should never ever need to know, no redeeming value whatsoever.

F is for Fuck if I Know: Were I trying to impress you, I could say Fitzgerald or Faulkner; were I trying to be a little more honest, I might say Fleming or Feist. <shrug> Frankly none of these fools fulfill, so just flip a few coins and let me know how they fall.

G is for Gaiman, Neil: I can count The Sandman as one work, can’t I? No? Oh, all right. Give me Good Omens, then. Yes, he co-wrote it with Terry Pratchett, and no, I’m not double-counting this for P as well.

H is for Haldeman, Joe: He’s a prolific science fiction writer who’s pulled off the Hugo/Nebula twin win for a novel not once, but twice. I’ll take the second of those winners, Forever Peace, as it’s slightly more hopeful than the first (Forever War).

I is for Ishiguro, Kazuo: I’m not gonna kid, I is a tough one. At least I’ve read and enjoyed Remains of the Day. It’s a good one, if drawn-out, unrequited longing is your thing.

J is for Joyce, James: I jest.

J is for Johnson, Samuel: I mean the one who wrote A Dictionary of the English Language. Might as well include a reference book, even if it is slightly outdated.

K is for Kay, Guy Gavriel: His novel Tigana is a masterwork, a beautiful treatise on grief and the things it will make good and bad people do. Also? Cool magic system.

L is for Lawson, Jenny: Better known as The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson writes about, and in spite of, severe depression and anxiety. Her first collection, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, is both hilarious and poignant.

M is for Morgan, Richard K.: Tough competition for M. Runners-up included Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock, among others. I’ll take Morgan’s Altered Carbon: noir detective fiction set against a grim science fiction future of body-swapping power-brokers.

N is for Nylund, Eric S. : I came across A Game of Universe during one of my used bookstore runs. It grabbed me and has since really stuck with me. It’s a nominally science fiction story that’s got a guild of assassins, true love, magic, betrayal, and lots of action, all focused around a quest for the Holy Grail. Pretty wild.

O is for O’Brien, Tim: The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories. O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War, and this is his reflection upon that time. If you read nothing else from this, read the title story. The rest is excellent, too.

P is for Parks, Stella: Look, I really thought about putting Terry Pratchett here, but which of his many fabulous Discworld novels would it be? Brilliance overload. Instead, I’ll take another type of brilliance: that of baker Stella Parks in her debut cookbook, Bravetart. Precision, humor, and delicious results.

Q is for Quit, as in, “I quit trying to find an author for this entry after Wikipedia told me that John Quigly, author of King’s Royal, was the inventor of blended whisky: I instead nominate whoever edited that entry.*

(*Offer void unless last name ends in Q.)

R is for Rothfuss, Patrick: I really didn’t want to read The Name of the Wind. I figured I had reached a point in life where I did not need yet another fat fantasy novel taking up any space in my brain. My Friend The Professor of English said, “Read it. You’ll love it.” He was right, as usual.

S is for Stephenson, Neal: Look, I like Shakespeare as much as the next guy — or maybe not; as an English major I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare — but I can’t single out one play, and a collection of his complete poems is, well, about a hundred sonnets too many, if I’m being honest. I’m sorely tempted to include J. Michael Straczynski here, because he wrote my favorite TV series, Babylon 5, but I can’t single out one episode, either. I settle on Neal Stephenson because Snow Crash is one of my all-time favorite novels. I’ve read the whole thing several times, and I’ve read chapter one — possibly the funniest single chapter of any book, ever — close to a hundred times at this point.

T is for Tennyson, Lord Alfred: I’ll take his Selected Poetry, please, the 1941 Penguin Books edition. All right, pipe down. You can put Tolkien on your list. Personally, having read The Lord of the Rings once, I never, ever want to have to read it again.

U is for … ummm: Tough one here. John Updike? Cheat and say Umberto Eco? Honestly, neither of those guys do it for me. I’m going to say Nicola Upson and go with her first novel, An Expert in Murder. Yes, I did just look her name up in Wikipedia’s List of authors by name: U. Now I’m off to go buy that book.

V is for Vonnegut, Kurt: He wrote some great novels, but I love him more for his non-fiction essays. I’ll settle for A Man Without A Country.

W is for Wordsworth, William: I’ll take his Selected Poems, the 1983 edition by Gramercy Books.

X is for X, Malcolm: I haven’t read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but it’s the best thing I can find in a very difficult letter.

Y is for Yankovic, “Weird Al”: Yes, I am cheating. Just print his entire catalog of songs, bind it, call it a book, and stick it in my pile.

Z is for Zelazny: Back where we started. Nine Princes in Amber. Yes, it is only the first book in series that went 10 books long, so there’s a lot of the story left out, but the first book is just so full of wonder, and I do so love revisiting its amnesiac protagonist and watching as he re-learns that Amber is the center of everything, and he’s one of its heirs. Also, gun to my head, Zelazny is probably the writer I’d single out to be my one and only. Vastly creative, a true genius with words, dead too soon.

Your turn.