To Clean a Kitchen

t all starts innocently enough, usually with an offhand comment, often after some drinks, always before a couple more are on the books.

“I’m cleaning the kitchen tomorrow.”

The idea is met with the same good-natured skepticism which all grand plans borne of fermented beverages. How often have you been sitting across from a person at a pub when they suddenly out with some grand idea. “I’m going to run a marathon next summer.” “I’m learning how to captain a ship.” “I’m joining the Marines!”

And how have you reacted? That of course depends on how far down the lane you were as well. A beer or two in, you smile and say something partially supportive and noncommittal. A couple more down the road, you might egg that person on and even compound their plans with subordinate benefits. If you’re as far gone as they are, you might jump in there too. “Shit, I’m joining the Marines too!”

I estimate Burke to be in the second group, because she sounded off with some excited tones but wasn’t fool enough to offer her services. I admit now that I look back on that with some mixture of love, admiration, and rage.

The problem with all of these things is this: morning comes. And when morning comes, you have to decide what kind of a person you are. Are you the sort who does what they say? Are you the sort to ignore it completely? Are you the sort to go back on your word? Yes to all three. But the question was, who am I today?

Today, I was the sort of person trying to put off his workout. I put on my workout shorts and my workout shirt and I rolled out my workout mat and I queued up my workout video. And I said workout sentences, like “Hey, could you bring the dog out of here, I need to work out?” and “Say, when I finish this workout I think I’ll go for a walk.” I said both of these with one of my arms sticking unnaturally across my chest while tucked in the elbow crease of the other and holding it there in a grand interpretation of an “I’m about to work out” stretch. I reached for the play button on the video.  

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The Bell

Living with Burke, I have become accustomed to packages arriving. The PPL guy and I are on a first name basis. When I ask Burke what has arrived in package form, I am often informed not only of the contents of the package, but that I already knew about this. She often informs me of the order at the end of a day of working and editing, when I am reclining on the couch and mentally drooling.

On a Friday in May the buzzer rang, the dog freaked out, and when I picked up the phone I was greeted by a familiar voice.

“Hello Damien,” he said. “I am here with one package.”  

“Hi Lukas. I’ll be right down.”

The package was a square. I brought it up.

“What’s this?”

“You know about this. It’s a bell. I told you about this.”

“What’s the bell for?”

She removed it. It was a small black and white spotted bell. The kind you put on the table and hit on the top to ring. It makes a perfect ding when you hit it, which I did several times until I was further informed of its purpose.  

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Magellan’s Journey and Sherry

When Ferdinand Magellan left Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 20, 1519 it was with five ships and 236 men. He had some weapons, but also 243,000 liters of wine and sherry portioned throughout 417 wineskins and 253 kegs of sherry. This no doubt made the weapons dangerous.

Magellan had a criminal record for going AWOL and he had a squabble with King Manuel meant, so that he was not only refused the financing for his proposed journey, but he was also chased and the target of a possible assassination. Like his predecessor voyager Columbus, he brought his plan to King Charles of Spain, who approved and financed the plan. This got him labelled a traitor.

The plan – go west, trade with the East Indies – the Spice Islands – make contacts and friends, and convert them to Christianity. They planned to go through the Pacific to open a maritime trade route.

It was not an easy journey. In the Straits below the tip of Chile, which now bears his name, he faced a mutiny from three of his captains. They were all Spaniards and perhaps did not think too highly of being under the command of a traitor Portuguese. One was killed in the ensuing battle for command. Another was beheaded and the third was marooned. The men who joined the mutiny were put into hard labor, but later relieved.

In Samar, the East Philippines, they befriended Humabon, king of Ceru. They traded with him and converted him and his people, who decided it didn’t matter what god they prayed to as long as they had the sea, fish, and women who didn’t wear tops. As proof of tribute, he asked them to go defeat the local king Mactan. They arrived a few days later, hit land, and then ran into a hail of bamboo spears. One tribesmen hit Magellan in the face with a spear. He ran the man through with a lance, but was unable to pull the lance back out. The other tribesmen realized that he was the chief and they fell on him and made him very unwaterproof. Perhaps if he’d spent more money on weapons than sherry, he would have had another weapon to use that wasn’t buried in a torso. But this wasn’t the case. So he died, but he probably died with a buzz on. When they went back to Humabon, he threw a feast for them in which he poisoned the crew. Several of the men died.          

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Learning about Your History

About a month ago I was contacted by one of the magazines I write for. They wanted an article on Thanksgiving. If you could make it funny that would be great. Most kids find it sort of boring.

There’s nothing like learning a lot more about a holiday you have been celebrating for 47 years. Here are some things I learned.

The very fact that Thanksgiving is even a holiday is due to one woman named Sara Josepha Hale. She pestered five presidents over 17 years until she finally got Abraham Lincoln to officially declare Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. I suppose Lincoln had other things to worry about, what with the country at war with itself and coming apart at the seams. She also wrote Mary had a Little Lamb. And, as we see, she had some serious perseverance.

A Thanksgiving dinner is made up of all things indigenous to North America. Turkey, corn, cranberries, potatoes (both russet and sweet), turkey, and though it’s delicious the waistline isn’t too happy about the 4,500 calories it staples to your stomach and rump.

Black. Black. Brown. Everyone knows the day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday, as we all see the internet videos of legions of sociopaths beating each other senseless over a blender. The etymological story goes that most companies spend the bulk of the year without making a profit (in the red) but on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year and the unofficial kick off to the Christmas shopping season, they finally make a profit (in the black). Hence, Black Friday. This is largely fiction and a typical capitalistic spinning of the origin. Evidently, it was called Black Friday by employers to refer to their employees calling in sick on that Friday in order to sneakily obtain a four day weekend. It was also called Black Friday by police officers in Philadelphia to describe the shopping crowds downtown.

But the days before and after Turkey Day are affiliated with colors depending on one’s employment. The day before Thanksgiving is called Black Wednesday by bar workers because it’s the busiest bar day of the year. The day after Thanksgiving is called Brown Friday by the plumbers of North America, as it’s their busiest day of the year too. Evidently the Thanksgiving dinner multiplied by twelve drunken family members, and that one sibling who’s pissed off to be at the kid’s table, is not too good on the old pooper. We can imagine the plumbers’ job that Friday and all agree that their…duties are worth the time and a half they get.

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Vesuvius Explodes

On August 24, 79 AD (actually probably October 24, but I didn’t find that out until I was almost done writing), Pompeiians were probably going about their lives like it was any other day. They did their chores and cooked their meals. Rumblings had been coming from Vesuvius, the grumpy mountain which squats nearby. Around 1 pm, the volcanic shit hit the volcanic fan when Vesuvius blew a “high altitude column” spewing pumice and ash.

Many people took the opportunity to escape the city. Some didn’t, though I can’t imagine what more prompting one needs to evacuate than hot pumice falling onto your house. That night, Vesuvius sent worse gifts – a pyroclastic surge of hot gas, volcanic debris, and ash and temperatures of 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who hadn’t left, no doubt regretted it in the milliseconds during which their blood and organs vaporized.

It’s those people – the ones that stayed – that we see today in ash casts bent into rictuses of the useless gestures of protection that made up the last seconds of their lives. These figures crouch and weep in exhibits both in Pompei and museums, making Pompei famous to the world now. While Vesuvius’s violent eruption must have been rather unpleasant for a Pompeiian at the time, it has given a good glimpse into the daily lives of Romans at that time that we might not otherwise have. It preserved homes and buildings, frescoes, pubs and restaurants in ash, thus making them available for study for later generations.

One such find was a man and his (or a) dog in a small building in Regio V. The man was asleep (we hope) on a cot. The man himself isn’t that fascinating, but rather the place he’s in – a pub. The pub is a popina, a tavern, which would have sold fast food and cheap wine. One of the reasons this pub is such an interesting find is that it sheds some light on something that has been a bit mirky for historians of Rome – how the common people partied.

Whenever I am asked to imagine a Roman party (which happens more often that you’d think), I always envision the same group of nice-nosed white people in togas reclining on red velvet couches and drinking wine, eating from lavish platters of rich food, and speaking my high school Latin. Though some of this is quite clearly wrong, there’s a reason I envision this crew of drinkers. It’s what we have always been told about Roman parties – that is, only about the elite.

The elite didn’t need to go out of their homes for a good time. They had space, furniture, and facilities to have lavish parties right in their homes. What they didn’t have on hand, they could get delivered – food and drink, serving wenches and prostitutes, their friends and wives. It was ideal. But if you were a commoner, it was a different story. Many common people lived in insulae, which were apartment complexes. Most of the cells in these abodes didn’t have kitchens and so instead of cooking at home, commoners went out for dinner and drinks.

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Down the Shore

Traffic on the way down the shore is a bitch. We are backed up and crawling before we even cross the bridge into New Jersey. We inch along. The sun beats down on the car. The whole thing is something out of a punishment doled out in hell. Sit in traffic to paradise for eternity!

Paradise? you ask. In New Jersey? you rightly emphasize.

I know how it sounds. But I stand by my statement. One might not expect to find paradise in New Jersey, but it’s there. It’s little communities of houses and hotels tucked against the coast, separated from the ocean only by a stretch of hot beach (yes, even the mile wide beach at Wildwood which makes you feel like Moses by the time you get to the ocean).

The Jersey Shore is a huge part of the lives of many Philadelphia area people. It sure was and is for my family. When I was a kid, there was nothing better than going down the shore. It was a week at the ocean. Salt air, blinding sun, eating sandy sandwiches on sandy beaches. A cold drink never tasted as good as when you have it just after coming out of salt water and off a hot beach. During the hot day you’d never think you’ll need a sweatshirt, but at night, the ocean breeze comes in and the improbable happens. You walk the boardwalk and play video games and eat Kohrs Brothers soft serve ice cream or funnel cake in the sweatshirt your mother made you pack. When it rains, we improvise and go to the movies or play boardgames. The rain is less annoying near the ocean. Come to think it, so are people.

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Not a Kid Anymore

In my current age, which quite rudely storms towards “not young at all anymore” I have found that nothing makes you feel older than a knee injury.

Last week, feeling the waistband-stretching effects of subsisting on cupcakes and cheesesteaks for a month, I decided to go for a grand workout performance. You know the kind, the ones that are meant to snap you back into shape, to show your body who’s who. Yeah, that one.

I looked up “Crossfit workout no equipment” and laughed at the images of men and women walking around on their hands and doing pushups up against a wall. If I did the first, I would be in a hospital nine minutes later, assuming I was found. Otherwise, I’d be dead. The second, feet against the wall pushups, I simply don’t understand. How? Why? If I attempted it, I would fail. If I attempted it and was caught by my mom, I would be murdered. Lose-Lose. I moved on.

In the end I chose something which entailed running 100 meters and doing 10 burpees, another 100 meters and doing 10 pushups, 100 meters and then 10 situps and a final 100 meters and doing 10 squats. This was to be done 4 times. I did the math. I run, I do plenty of pushups, burpees, situps, and squats. I could do this. For the location, I chose my parents’ driveway. This would lead to the least amount of public humiliation as only when I popped down to the sidewalk would anyone see me huffing, puffing, and praying for death, and those people would be in cars so they couldn’t gawk or, worse, offer medical assistance.

I managed three rounds instead of four. I was simply too tired to get the last round. Also my ankles were starting to hurt, because I was wearing deck shoes, outside of high heels the most inappropriate shoes to run in. It took me an hour to catch my breath and to stop hyperventilating. I walked around the block (1 mile) and only one woman offered to drive me home (or to the ER). I viewed this as a win.

My loss became evident later when my dad and I went to the airport to pick up Burke. She was arriving from Prague and would spend the week with our family before we headed down the shore. My dad and I had an earnest discussion about working out on the way down I-95. He had seen me working out.

Grimly, he spoke, turning down the radio. “You know, you shouldn’t overdo it like that when you’re working out. You’re not a kid anymore.”

“Oh is that right!” I was immediately in my Irish. On a scale from 1-10 of sedentariness, with 1 being Tom Brady in 2015 and 10 being Orson Welles in 1984, is 610. Moreover, my dad has a way of suggesting people do things that make him more comfortable not him. “Your mother should slow down, take it easy,” he has said. But my mother at 73 moves and acts more like a 50 year old. The inference is, it doesn’t make her uncomfortable to be on the move all the time, but him.

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On August 16 1938, Robert Johnson Dies

…and leaves a whole lot of folklore in his wake

On the night of August 13 1938, future famous blues musician Robert Johnson was drinking and playing guitar in a juke joint near Greenwood Mississippi. The night seemed to be normal until he began getting ill. According to accounts, his suffering increased for three days and he bayed at the moon in agony until he, mercifully, died on August 16.

If you don’t know who Robert Johnson is, then a hipster in your neighborhood just had a stroke. You might not know him, but you know what he looks like sitting with a guitar across his chest, smiling, cross-legged, and with a bowler hat, he’s been the pictorial ambassador of American Blues in all of our lifetimes. Johnson was a blues guitarist in the 1920s and 30s who is known for his singular genius with a guitar, his death at an early age, which is considered a tragedy of music both early blues and contemporary.

Johnson’s lore partially resides in the time, place, and manner in which he played music. He was a roving musician, playing the juke joints and dance halls all over the Mississippi Delta, the gritty birthplace of American blues. Another level of the lore of Robert Johnson are the mysteries enshrouding his life and death. Though today he is widely regarded as the first and quintessential guitar genius, this wasn’t always the case. According to some of his contemporaries, Johnson was subpar on the guitar until he disappeared for a few months and came back a fingerpicking demigod. Legend goes that he sold his soul to the devil at the junction of Highways 49 and 61, which was evidently the place to be if you needed a skill, didn’t want to put in the time, and didn’t mind spending eternity broiling in hell fire.

Other Johnson mysteries are that nobody knows exactly how he died and nobody knows exactly where he’s buried. This information is completely dependent on whose stories you believe. His burial place is an unmarked grave in a Baptist graveyard, a pauper’s grave, or under a big pecan tree. And it seems as though Johnson might not have needed any help from the devil reaching that hell fire. He was known for having a different girl in every juke joint and he was also apparently a heavy drinker, according to some “drunk more than sober.” And it’s possible this love of women and whiskey that got him killed. Some have it that his whiskey was poisoned by the jealous husband of one of Johnson’s many lovers (roving musician my ear). One doctor later in the century deduced that he might have had an aneurysm brought on by whiskey and congenital syphilis. Either way, baying at the moon seems an appropriate reaction.  

It is possible that he was deliberately poisoned, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that 1920s juke joints for black Americans were similar to white America’s speakeasies. During prohibition that both communities were subject to, bad alcohol flowed like arsenic. Dirty and dangerous whiskey killed many people as did bathtub gin. Juke joints however were blacks’ last bastion away from those white people and their pesky Jim Crow laws, segregation, intimidation, and murder. They were a venue where they could gather without (sadly) white supervision. In the early 20th century, juke joints were put up near rural work camps in order to attract workers who didn’t have a centralized location to hang out. They had no pub, so a pub of sorts was created. Here, people could play and listen to music and dance. Some owners sold moonshine and whiskey to visitors to make extra money. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that that moonshine or whiskey would be dirty and accidentally dangerous.

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Hey Day

I have been visiting my parents for about a week. To say that I have not done much in the way of visiting humanity is accurate. More accurately, I am something like Howard Hughes meets Boo Radley. When I come home in August, I spend most of my days in my parents’ house being catered to by mom, watching baseball with dad, and working. I know this doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s 100 degrees outside and we have air conditioning so any opinions stop mattering to me when it’s a public health issue.  

Once a year, my sister and I enjoy a day completely void of work and completely filled with pleasure and self-spoiling. We go swimming, get massages, eat cheesesteaks, drink at a pub, go shopping for stationery, and work a diner breakfast in there somewhere. We gossip and talk about movies and say how much better drinking is when you don’t do shots all the way up until we start doing shots, then we switch to talking about how great shots are. As this is everything I enjoy about being alive wrapped into one day, I was very for this plan.

My sister picked me up early. It was rainy, so instead of swimming (aka the only quasi-physical activity planned) we called an audible and went for breakfast. I find little difference between omelettes and the breaststroke, so I saw this as the warm up to the massages that swimming was supposed to be. Also, anyone who can say no to scrapple doesn’t deserve a massage.

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Thomas Cromwell is Beheaded Most Ungoodly

attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1532-1533

Thomas Cromwell climbed the scaffold to his execution and addressed the crowd. “I am come hither to die and not to purge myself, as some think peradventure that I will.” Translation: I’m being screwed. I’m not admitting guilt. Let’s get this over with. He was officially charged with high treason. He’d come so far, started out the poor son of a smith, and had risen to be Henry VIII’s chief minister and the Earl of Essex. And now he was about to be beheaded in the Tower of London. As he committed his soul to Christ and rested his head against the chopping block, he was maybe wondering how it had all gone wrong. Right before the axe came down, he hit it: Oh yeah, I was born in 15th century England and my boss is a sociopath.

Getting in trouble was remarkably easy in Tudor England and just about everything was a crime. Gossiping, drunkenness, and believing in the wrong religion were harshly punishable and sometimes executable offenses. Women could get burned at the stake for adultery. Poisoners were boiled to death by being dipped for hours into any boiling liquid (wine, water, tar, oil, dealer’s choice really). High treason got you drawn and quartered, during which they were dragged by cart to a gallows where they were hanged but – to their chagrin – not killed. They then had their penis and testicles cut off, their stomach split open, and their intestines removed. Their head was cut off, parboiled, and left at the city gate for a warning not to visit that town.

Among the crimes under “high treason” were speaking against of the king, counterfeiting, and imagining the king’s death, all while making the unfortunate mistake of having been born in 15th century England. Cromwell’s crime was that he had exaggerated the attractiveness of Henry’s arranged wife, Anne of Cleves, and then failed to get Henry out of his marriage. Oh and for repeating the, I’m guessing confidential, information that Henry had been unable to get the royal pecker up to consummate his marriage to the evidently homely Anne. If Anne was upset by this, she didn’t let on. She gave him the annulment he desired and received a generous settlement in return, including a palace, a castle, and no sex with Henry VIII before being beheaded.

If Henry VIII enjoyed one activity, it was executing people, and friends, wives, or trusted advisors weren’t safe from his fury. For Cromwell’s unforgivable infractions against the royal penis’s owner’s royal ego, Henry came up with some faux charges and had Cromwell executed. If Cromwell (or his testicles) had something to be thankful for, it’s that he was beheaded instead of drawn and quartered. But Cromwell can’t have been too surprised, if for no other reason that getting executed was one of the easiest ways to die in Tudor England. It ranks up there among playing sports, having bad teeth, poxes both small and English (syphilis), and drowning (laundry in river, slippery rocks, heavy wool dresses – the quiet pandemic). Life ended for most around or before the age of 35 and was almost always violent or involved awful rashes. Women often died during or after childbirth by fever, infection, or being twelve years old. So, with the chances of dying badly at about 87% and being executed at about 70%, what was one to do?

One Drank.

One drank a lot.  

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