Following Al: Getting Weird

(Note: I found some half-finished posts in the backlog. Found. Right where I left them. There’s like a hundred, no exaggeration. Most will continue to languish there, but a few — like this one — just needed energy I did not have at the time. I have it now, so I’m getting to some I think are worthy. This one, which I sketched notes for in the spring of 2018, is first up. It was intended to be post one of a planned trio. The other two will now also happen, though maybe not immediately following this one.)

I was in seventh grade when Even Worse was released. I remember some friends talking excitedly about it one morning before school. I had no idea what the big deal was. When I asked, one of my friends rolled his eyes and said, “I can’t believe you don’t know who ‘Weird Al’ is.”

That was a defining moment for me.

It’s the first time I can recall being geek-shamed in a positive way. I mean, my friends weren’t “cool,” and they were self-aware enough to know they weren’t “cool” and to know, by extension, that “Weird Al” wasn’t, either. If we were into something, it wasn’t “cool.” Ergo, I had to get into “Weird Al.” Q.E.D.

Of course, being a good friend, one of them loaned me his cassette of Even Worse, which I took home, listened to, and dubbed.*

*(Kids, dubbing is the process of copying music from an authentic original cassette album to a blank cassette tape. This is how we conducted music piracy before digital downloads.)

It wasn’t long before I went completely Weird. I saved my allowance and bought all (four) of Al’s previous albums. I even eventually bought my own copy of Even Worse. I put them in the very front of my cassette case, and one was nearly always in my player.*

*(More music format trivia: Cassettes could wear out from too much play. I was concerned, rightfully, that this would happen to my “Weird Al” collection, so I made dubs of the originals and then proceeded to wear the dubs out while keeping the originals in great shape.)

Al has released a lot more albums since — 14 total studio albums, plus some extra collections — and I have every one, in formats from cassettes to CDs to digital downloads as the years have gone by.

If you hit shuffle on my music collection, there’s a damned good chance you’ll get a “Weird Al” song.

Al has picked up a bit of cultural cachet in recent years — his last studio album hit #1 on Billboard, he sang a medley at the Emmy Awards, was finally awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has lately been jamming/hanging/collaborating with the likes of Weezer, Portugal. the Man, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This movement in the direction of genuine recognition and “coolness” does not make me love him any less. I don’t mind anyone who’s come to Al late in life. Hell, I was late. Starting at album five made me fell so behind, like I might never catch up and be a “real” fan. Pfft. Give it time, newbies. Some day starting at album 14 may feel relatively early, too.

The Memoriam Meal

I don’t know that I can ever write, or need to, about this day as well as I did three years ago.

Those words I wrote that day got to the heart of what November 11 is for me.

But here I am, feeling like a writer again, three years later, and I have things I can still tell you about this day and how it still pulls at me, 28 years after it broke me.

It has become my recent custom, on this day, to spend the morning in as much of a meditative state as time and circumstances allow. The last couple of years the day has fallen on a weekend, and The Empress of Whisky has, knowing me well, quietly taken herself away, to a long trail on a mountain somewhere, living in her happy place while I dwell in my sad one.

Except …

The sadness fades. After 28 years, I don’t have much left of despair, and the anger ended quickly, for what is there to be angry about in this? We all die, thousands of us daily, and to be angry at this fact is to court a kind of madness. I have enough madness, thank you.

But the sadness fades, I write, with tears pulling at the corners of my eyes, telling myself they are there because I have been fighting sickness this day, much like I did that first day. It’s just the virus,  making my eyes water, I say to myself, as I pause the key-clacking to dab at them. Just that, nothing more.

Nothing more.

It could be that. I could be done with this, I try to tell myself, as the day approaches every year, but no. Never. I don’t really want that. I don’t know, at this point, who I would be without these melancholy days  that fall, as they do, perfectly upon the onset of crisp autumn, following on the heels of All Hallows Eve and Día de Muertos.

I learned, a few years ago, that one custom of Día de Muertos is cooking favorite foods of the deceased. I learned this after I had first prepared, on this day, the meal I am about to describe, and I felt as though I had intuited something before learning it, which is a magical feeling, the kind of feeling I need, to get through this day year after year.

My great-uncle was a decent cook.

He’d been cooking for himself for the latter years of his life, at least, though I got the impression he learned earlier. I don’t know. It’s one of so many things I never thought to ask.

Being a Southerner, through and through, his meals reflected that, in technique and ingredients. It’s not that fancy cooking hadn’t been invented or hadn’t reached the South; the old-timers — and he was one — just hadn’t found a use for it.

Still, I imagine sometimes explaining to him my method for cooking a traditional Southern dish — pulled pork shoulder — using a sous vide technique. It would either blow his mind or delight him, maybe a little of both.

But I digress. The meal, I promised.

Start with the tea. Always, the tea.

In a stainless steel stock pot (5-6 quarts is ideal), toss two family size tea bags (Tetley, please) and about a gallon of water. Turn your burner to high and wait. Don’t go far. Eventually, finally, the water will hit a slow boil. Immediately cut the burner off. (Any longer at a boil will draw too much bitterness from the tea leaves). Let it sit a bit, maybe poke the floating tea bags. Then, carefully, with a slotted spoon, withdraw each bag, and give it a gentle press with the back of another spoon to push most of the liquid out. Discard the bags. (Or, if you have a compost pile, as my great-uncle did, save them to add to it.)

Now comes the sugar. If you use less than two heaping full cups of granulated white sugar, you are doing this wrong. The heat of the tea will do most of the work for you, but give it a few stirs to make sure it all dissolves properly.

Now, when he did this, and I was around, my impatience usually got the better of me and I wanted tea right away. He would usually accommodate me, pouring a half-glass or so (the better to cool quickly) into the plastic Superman mug he kept for me to use at his house.

I didn’t realize until much later in life that the reason I like hot tea — a very un-Southern thing to do — is because of this erstwhile ritual.

So, these days, I scoop myself a mug’s worth — Superman is long gone, so one of our Starbucks city mugs must stand in — and resist the urge to sip until it has cooled enough not to burn. (I am not always successful at this.)

Tea at hand, we’re ready to proceed.

Black Top canned pink salmon. No other brand. (I don’t know what the others are like, and I see no reason to deviate from how it was, and always must be, done.)

Your hands are going to get messy. Accept this. (It’s hard for me, to be honest.)

Open a can (or two), and carefully drain the liquid into a bowl.

Begin to ignore the interest of Cat, who will have shown up by now, sitting in her watching spot outside the kitchen door, even if she were comatose upstairs five minutes ago. (I will later give her a few sips worth, but only that, as the liquid is far too rich for her delicate digestion.)

Deposit the fish into a separate bowl and begin the delicately tedious process of pulling out the unwanted bits — spine bones, skin, the odd fatty bit. (The canning of salmon is not exactly neat. And while some people are fine mixing all these bits in, I do it the way  I learned, which is the right way, even in a poor family, to make the best patties.)

Once you have the fish separated, crack an egg (per can) into the bowl. Mix with hands. Now go wash those hands. As usual, you forgot to get the cornmeal ready earlier.

I use Dixie Lily yellow cornmeal. I can’t say, with certainty, that’s what he used, but it’s appropriate here, being a Southern pantry staple.

A word here about rice. I have forgotten the rice. This is probably what will really happen, as I prepare this meal a few hours from now. I am bad at stovetop rice. It’s a failing I cannot seem to overcome. Always too soggy or with crunchy bits still in. My great-uncle made flawless stovetop rice every time. He could also grow any plant to great success. I did not pick up either of these traits. And while I cannot overcome my failings in the garden, I can get rice right, using the technological marvel that is a rice cooker.

Anyway, start the rice while your hands are still clean. It will probably get ready on time, or a little after.

Now add that cornmeal. Try your best to eyeball the right amount. (Measuring is no use here, I’ve learned). Mix with your hands. When you inevitably need to add more, go wash your hands and get ready to grab that dry good again for the second addition.

When the mix feels right — sorry, this is all feel; I can’t explain it — leave it. Pull out the cast iron.

Now, a word here about cast iron. If you don’t have it, just don’t bother with any of this. Is it 100% necessary to get this dish right? Yes. Because we are not just going for a final food quality; we are also going for a resonance with the past. My great-uncle never cooked on anything other than cast iron because he never owned any other type of pan. (Pots, yes, and other kitchen implements as well, but he had a pair of cast iron pans that were the workhorses of his kitchen. I do not know what became of them, and that makes me sad.)

You could use canola oil, but why mess with tradition? Melt a decent blob (a third-cup or so) of Crisco shortening in your cast iron pan. Heat to medium.

Start forming patties. Toss a fleck into the pan to see if the grease is ready. (Yes, I am using the term “grease” because that’s how he referred to it, and it is such an old Southern way of describing hot oil that just feels so right today.)

Fry, flip, fry, drain on paper-towel lined plate.

When they’re done, let them rest while you put a can of LeSueur English peas on to warm (with a generous pat of butter and dashes of salt and pepper).

That’s it. You could pair with some canned corn (whole kernels, please) or add a bread like Jiffy or (a childhood favorite) Pillsbury canned biscuits, but you’ve done the essentials that were part of this meal every time he ever made it, and now I remember so many of those times — lazy Saturday afternoons or the occasional Friday night when my parents were on date night and he babysat me and my younger sister. (Aside: She does not like fish, any kind, so he would always make her a small burger instead. Love, people.)

When it comes time to dine today, I think I will do so while watching one of those old movies we enjoyed together.

I’m thinking this year it will be Flash Gordon.

Luke Skywalker, Generation X-Wing

Okay, readers.

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about the “OK Boomer” phrase, its meaning, who is (or should be) offended, who is (or should) be correct, etc.

This makes it, basically, just like anything else people argue about online these days.

I’m not here to further that argument or get at all political today. I don’t want this to be a hostile place, mostly because I’m just getting over being reallllly tired, and spending any more time being angry while trying to write seems counter-productive to me.

I do want to talk about one of the many  “OK Boomer”* memes going around.

*(Can I just get something off my chest first? I loathe, loooathe, the spelling OK. That’s the postal abbreviation for Oklahoma, people. Stop being so damned lazy, even if it is what The Dusty Old Newspaper Stylebook would have you use.)

I must’ve seen 50 of these memes this week, but one in particular sticks with me.

The image is a screencap from Return of the Jedi — well, more accurately, two screencaps combined — that shows the following:

Top panel: The Emperor. His words from the film are captioned on the page as: “Your faith in your friends is your weakness.”*

*(I knooooow. The quotation is not quite right. I’m just describing, not correcting. As the kids say, don’t @ me.)

Bottom panel: Luke Skywalker stands next to his father, Darth Vader. Captioned above Luke’s head is a phrase uttered nowhere in any Star wars film every made:* “OK Boomer.”

*(Trust me.)

This meme bugs the shit out of me.

It’s not that someone is taking scenes from a beloved movie and using them to drive a political argument — okay, it is that, a little — it’s that LUKE IS NOT A MILLENNIAL.

Oops. Used all-caps. I’m not a Boomer, I swear. Check my birth certificate.

The film came out in 1977. During filming, for most of 1976, Mark Hamill was 24-25. 

On screen, Luke is supposed to be 19, per Wookieepedia

I guess, within the film, on a strict comparison, you’d consider him on the tale-end of Millennials or an elder member of Generation Z. 

But, wait. I just said Mark Hamill was 24 in 1976.

Yep. Dude was born September 25, 1951, making him … wait for it … a Boomer!

I’m not going to get into the “Boomer is a state of mind” debate, either. No debates today.

I am going to say this: Forget generational labels.

The Emperor is bad not because you can lump him in with people born in the same 20-year window.

Generational traits are kinda crap. You realize that, right? Worse even than horoscopes.

No, he’s bad because he’s an all-powerful dictator who uses his power to mercilessly crush the ideals of democracy and independence!

Put him in any generation, he’s the villain.

On the other side of the coin, Luke’s age and generational cohort also mean squat; he’s a hero because he stands up to The Emperor and says no.

Seriously, he says no. Won’t do it. Nuh-uh.

Okay, okay.

“Never. I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

Chills. Every. Damn. Time. I. See. It.*

*(I do not know how many times that is. Can’t count/remember such numbers.)

That’s a hero, friends. My hero, forever and always. 

He stands there ready to die, if it comes to that, because he believes, ultimately, not in his power, but in his friends, and in the power of redemption. He saves his father, his father saves him, and his friends save them all.

There’s probably a lesson in all this, but I promised not to be political today.

Renovation Side-Effects: A Vignette

I’m standing in the kitchen cooking dinner: breakfast foods, at the request of The Empress of Whisky.

I feel something brush the side of my head. I glance down at the floor and see a fuzzy white thing.

I assume this must be some bit of loose ceiling material that just decided to fall from the hole above.

I resume cooking, trying to get these eggs just the way The Empress likes them.

I catch, out of the corner of  my eye, another bit of white fluffiness falling from the hole in the ceiling.

At this point I say, out loud, “Hey!”

Giggling follows from above, through the hole in the ceiling.

It’s The Empress, throwing rolled up bits of paper at me from the upstairs bathroom.

I knew, when we had that leak, the one that put the hole in the ceiling, that there would be struggles in the days ahead, as we waited for renovation.

This one was totally unexpected.

How My Brain Works: About An Hour in the Life of Jon

It’s about 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.

I am at my desk at home, ostensibly looking for work.

For me, this entails a mix of job search, review, and application. I get quickly bored and overwhelmed by this task, so between steps, I pop over to Facebook, where I have been passing messages with friends lately, doing my best to make up for being oh so bad at correspondence for, broadly speaking, a year or more, and, more generally, a lifetime.

In the course of one of these conversations I offer an old friend, who is planning a visit to the ATL, the opportunity to stay at my home rather than book a room. I quietly applaud myself for remembering to ask if stairs might be an issue, given that the guest room is upstairs.

Thus begins the following sequence:

The stair handrail is a bit loose where it is anchored to the wall at the second floor landing.

I should fix that, especially since I have told The Empress of Whisky that I’m up for doing this sort of thing, what with all the free time on my hands just now.

Get up from computer. Start walking downstairs, to utility closet where tools are stored.

Upon opening utility closet, where cat’s litter box is located, remember I haven’t scooped it today.

Realize I need to pee.

Go to bathroom. Pee. Skip hand-washing, due to next planned activity.

[Somewhere along here, this blog post begins forming in my mind.]

Scoop litter box.

Dispose of results.

Wash hands.

Return to utility closet. Acquire a wall anchor and the right screwdriver to use with it.

[The blog post is definitely coming together now, looking good in my head. I decide to write first, then attack the handrail fix.]

Reach computer. Phone beeps. Check messages.

As I am checking messages, I hear Cat meowing from hallway, outside bedroom. She does this, frequently, when I am home and The Empress of Whisky is not. I think, sometimes, that she thinks I have The Empress locked away in the bedroom. I think this because sometimes Cat will not stop meowing until I have gone to door, opened it, and shown her that The Empress is not, in fact, languishing in the bedroom. She has not mysteriously teleported there from her office downtown. All is well, Cat. Cat then usually rubs on some shoes belonging to The Empress and, thus appeased, leaves the bedroom.

Sometimes, though, and this is one of those times, Cat will instead come when I call and enter the office to sit upon my lap.

This makes work difficult because it is harder to reach things like the keyboard. Left-handed mouse work is okay, though, as is using my phone.

Wait, the phone beeped awhile ago!

Pick up phone, respond to texts while Cat is purring contentedly on my lap.

Just as I have done about all I can before getting back to the keyboard, Cat hops up of her own volition and goes off to either find a sleeping spot or re-investigate the closet I am, as of this morning (before the time-frame of the events described herein), sorting and rearranging. Possibly both.

Begin writing in earnest. Get as far as these words right here.

Realize phone has been beeping a bit while I have been in the flurry of writing this entire post.

Pause to appreciate, again, how wonderful it feels right now that the words are flowing and the rate of brain composition and my typing speed are matching up damn near perfectly, which has been a rare thing in the past but is really happening a lot more often lately and goddamn I feel fantastic about that.

My eyes are watering a bit, probably allergy-related. (This is not a euphemism for crying. I really do have irritating year-round allergies that mostly mean a runnier-than-average nose but occasionally mean watery eyes. This is all while medicated. Ugh.)

Appreciate, again, having switched to a higher grade of tissue (Kleenex Ultra Soft, rather than regular Kleenex). This was initially done, at my — later proved correct — thought that they would be kinder on the nose of The Empress of Whisky, who had been down with a cold until just recently. (Yes, she applied bourbon. We know our medicine.)

Answer more texts.

Also? I love my clackity-clack old school keyboard, with its nifty backlit keys.

Take note of just how many words — ATL, teleported, clackity, backlit / and later, vis — I have added to my personal dictionary in the course of writing this post. (I really loathe red underlines that aren’t actual typos. And. Yet. I. Keep. Adding. Words. To. My. Personal. Dictionary. Forever. And. Ever. Amen.)

Pause.

Review post so far. Adjust a few words. (But not many! Damn, they really are behaving  well for me lately.)

Note the time: 11:56.

Get up.

It takes about five minutes to realize this handrail fix isn’t going to work. Specifically, I realize this after inserting the base of the wall anchor, beginning to apply the screw that will attach the rail to it and bind the two tightly to the wall, when the whole anchor goes THWERTHUMP! and slips into the space behind the drywall.

(I did not add THWERTHUMP to my personal dictionary. The red line under it bugs me a lot, but that ain’t a word, so what to do? Leave it. Ignore it. You can do this, Jon.)

Realize someone probably tried this — or something like it — before, which is why the whole damn thing is loose in the first place.

Wash hands. (I have … a thing … about keeping my hands clean.)

Return to desk.

Sigh.

Write most of the rest of this post.

Facebook is dinging to let me know I have new messages, and my phone is beeping again. Ignore both because I am on deadline.

Recall how, just two days ago, My Friend The Former Lifestyle Editor Who Retired And Turned Mystery Writer told me something like, “I find deadlines very helpful.”

Remember how I used to always, for purposes of anonymity, refer to my friends in the manner such as My Friend The Former Lifestyle Editor Who Retired And Turned Mystery Writer and wonder whether I need to keep doing that.

Realize I am, in fact, running over deadline — think here, as always, of Douglas Adams and his statement: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — and that I may be in danger of overselling this whole piece.

Pause for editing. Quickly, now!

Reach for mouse to push the cursor toward that big red button in the top corner of my screen marked “Publish…”.

Worry whether anyone will realize I did not, in fact, fuck up grammatically — vis-a-vis quotation marks, accurately writing what that button says within them, and proper sentence-ending punctuation — in that last sentence.

Shrug.

Reach for mouse …

 

Torg: A Love Letter

As my freshman year of high school was set to begin, a friend asked if I wanted to play D&D.  It sounded fun, so, during our lunch breaks at band camp we gathered on the floor of the music file room and that’s where I first stepped foot into a dungeon, failed a saving throw, and wondered just how a poor first-level wizard was expected to live at all with a mere 1d4 hit points and two measly first-level spells …

Yeah, I guess I could have just said I’m a geek (of various sorts) from way back. 

From that early experience — after another friend’s mom assured mine that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t evil like the preacher-man said — the core of that little bunch of band geeks, along with a couple non-band misfits, forged lasting friendships through further games of D&D, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and some superhero RPGs whose names I forget. 

Then came Torg.

Quirky even by the standards of early ’90s RPGs, the game blew our minds with its massive, globe-spanning living campaign world of mixed realities, and we began a campaign that would last the best part of the next decade, before life pulled us in separate directions as young adults.

By then, of course, I had experimented, as one does, in college. I dabbled with more D&D, scored some Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game, even rode the wild pony Paranoia. 

(During those years I was also nursing the beginnings of a serious board-gaming addiction, but one story at a time.)

Mostly I played, but I ran a brief Torg game of my own in college, amid the hazy blur of board game nights, RPG-board game hybrids like Kobolds Ate My Baby!, as well as HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest (and probably some others whose names I forget but probably end in “Quest”).

I even messed with Magic: The Gathering, and I would later go on to score some 7th Sea, and vie with the vice of Vampire: The Masquerade.

Nothing ever topped Torg in my heart, however. Part of it was the game, most of it was my groups of friends — both my old high school chums as well as lifelong new friends made in the dorms at good ol’ VSU: my people — but so much was also just the alluring nature of Torg’s essential essence. 

Of course most role-playing games let you indulge in hero fulfillment, but I always felt something was magical about how Torg framed that classic appeal — a few desperate heroes from across our world (and others!) work together in a desperate bid to turn the tide in a losing war. Pure heroism. Sacrifices. Love for each other and reality itself in a bid for the very sake of existence. 

And they called themselves Storm Knights. 

Oh, I get a tingle just thinking about it. When I look longingly at the set of Torg books on my shelf it is with the same starry-eyed gaze addicts through the ages have cast upon the means of their best highs. 

Torg, like so many RPGs before it, eventually folded as a game system. People kept playing, of course, and there are still games going in that original world, groups of Storm Knights fighting a war that may never end.

But now, as with so many Gen X childhood icons, a new edition comes forth into the world. 

Torg Eternity keeps the very best of the core of the old game, its heart of heroism, while updating it to the modern world, cleaning up some ’90s-era social anachronisms, and making a few tweaks to what had become a bit of a kludgy ruleset.

And I greet it like Huey Lewis must have looked at the packet in the hands of the dealer who finally answered his request …

Now, these many years later, I gather my friends, and I ask: Are you ready to play?