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The Club

I have recently been reminiscing about Little League. We played at a local set of fields at a community owned park called Hilltop A.A. Aside from having the most dangerous left hand turn in all of Pennsylvania, Hilltop is the home for a number of memories for me – hitting a solid liner to the outfield, sliding into third in deep thick red-brown dirt. Playing shortstop, enjoying my first grounder to the scrotum, then my second, then third, then my deep wonderment about why I would play a game so damaging to my chances of procreation. There was a concession stand that I can smell to this day – the warm scent of crinkle fries and hotdogs and microwaved hamburgers with scalding hot cheese. The red ketchup squeeze bottles. It was great.

Despite my utter joy at these memories there is one that even does more to tweak my hippocampus. When the games were over, the kids would go home with the moms and the dads would go into the bar and have a few beers. Occasionally we kids were sent to deliver messages that would remain obscure until we were old enough to crack them “Tell your father, the couch,” or “Tell Dad, 9 at the latest and tell him that 9 doesn’t mean 10,” or “No shots.” We would go and deliver our messages, recounting them on fingers so as not to forget. It didn’t matter, though, as we would have delivered radium if it brought into the bar where the dad’s were. Sancto sanctorum – the club.

The club smelled of sweet staleness and cigarette smoke; there was enough flannel in the room to put on a travelling revival tour of Braveheart. But there was something elite about it. We drew out our messages as our eyes scanned the room and took in as much as possible. This Buds for You. Captain Morgan. Grab a Heinie. Tequila Night. Eventually our time ran out with our drawn-out syllables, and we were shuffled out the door with a “thanks buddy” and a few snickers and jokes we couldn’t understand.

Of course the draw was the club. The drinking club. The place where us kids weren’t allowed. Like sneaking to the top of the steps to lie in our pajamas and listen to our parents’ parties. There was such a thrill to be let in on the secret world of adults, and in some way we didn’t understand, this was especially true when they were drinking.

It’s in these last days that I have been thinking about this. For the substack I write – Hammered History – I try to link alcohol to a historical event. On November 10 1775 the United States Marine Corps was founded in Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern by Samuel Nicholas. I expected to be writing a post on the Marines and the importance of pubs throughout history. In my research, however, I found that more was coming out about societies of drinkers, secret, hedonistic, and ancient.

The Dionysus Club in ancient Greece and the Bacchanalia in Ancient Rome were ways for (often, but not always) thirsty members of society to try to reach the gods by getting shitcanned on wine. They also believed in the level of intoxication they reached they were able to speak to the dead, communicate with animals, and tear humans to pieces, and I for one only have to say: been there, done that. Little did I know, that in college I was in a Dionysus Club of my own, membership – me. Further on the British Gentlemen’s clubs allowed men not only a chance to be in a place where their kids and wife weren’t, but also to let down their (very short) hair. In these places it was common to play games, tell stories, and to gossip – an activity looked down upon nowadays, but which then showed you to be a man in standing. The more information one had, the more of a mover and shaker he was. These clubs were a place men could free themselves from the strict rules of being a “gentleman.” Though they didn’t seem to have trouble doing that in boarding schools.

Through the years there are so many more clubs. And in many veins. Nineteenth century book clubs were mostly an excuse for people to get drunk, taking part in a book discussion was secondary – they didn’t have enough copies for everyone anyway(it was the 1800s). The Ancient and Honorable Order of the E Clampus Vitus in order to make fun of stuffy British men’s clubs. Mark Twain was a chartered member, their motto: Credo Quia Absurdum. The Hollywood Vampires Club made no qualms and made no move to hide their intent, as they were a celebrity drinking club in the 1970s. Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, Micky Dolenz and Harry Nilsson rank among the club’s primary members. John Lennon, John Belushi, and a slew of other musically inclined booze hounds listed as members too. Before admission to the club, a potential member had to outdrink all of the members. Let’s hope it was on a night when Keith Moon was sick.

I suppose that every bar is something of a secret club. There is a portion of society that can’t, won’t, or simply don’t go inside. That leaves those within to the same revelry as those in the past clubs – tell stories and tall tales, enjoy comraderie via booze, and create unwritten rules, bonds and friendships. Hopefully nobody is speaking to the dead or tearing humans limb from limb. Well, not until tequila night, anyway.   

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Midsommar from the Next Room

(spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen Midsommar and don’t want to find out how dolphin sex sounds in Sweden can freak you out from 23 feet away, stop reading and go eat a chocolate bar)

On Sunday I awake with some joy. It’s a rainy morning, which I like if I don’t have to go outside. Next to me, the dog is lying on her back and looking at me from upside down, sort of resembling a baby seal. Burke is brewing coffee, and the machine percolates and clicks in the kitchen. Joy. But then I remember it was Sunday.

Despite the facts that I’m not obligated to wear pants, Sunday is among my least favorite days of the week (I’m looking at you, Tuesday). Ever since I was a kid, I have always seen Sunday as the anti-Friday. If Friday is the day before the blissful free period of the weekend, then Sunday is the day before the stressful days of the work week. It’s a day when I have to sit at my kitchen table and trudge through edits, lesson preparation, and emails. Basically, it’s a return to reality. And there’s nothing I dislike more than returning to reality.

After a breakfast of leftover KFC (not quite back to reality yet), I sit at my kitchen table and I put in my earphones. I edit and work and listen to Folksy Christmas (yes, I’m that guy, but it’s also a good album and who doesn’t need a little acoustic Santa Baby in their lives?). I am deeply entrenched in an editing issue, so when I realize that my earphones have lost power it’s too late. No, I am hearing something else.

Burke has an entirely different view on Sundays than I do. It seems that she’s one of the psychopaths who can live in the here and now and takes a leisurely approach to her Sundays. As if it’s still part of the weekend. Insane. At around the same time I walked into the kitchen with my laptop and a soul crushing sigh, she was setting up camp on the couch and flipping through her Netflix options with a life affirming moan. What I am hearing now is a series of high-pitched moans not unlike the way we all imagine dolphins to sound during intercourse (yes, all of us, I’m not weird).  

I mosey into the living room.

“What’s this?”

Midsommar.”

“What’s it about?”

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The All Hallows Shindig

As a kid, Halloween was simple and glorious. We drew witches and cats in school and made a macaroni ghost. We carved Jack O’Lanterns with plastic trowels. On October 31, I was put into a plastic mask, handed a pillow case, and told to walk around saying ‘Trick or Treat’ to strangers. For this simple task I was granted candy. This, I believed, was the world’s greatest scam. When I was older, I rued the ageist unfairness of it. I never considered the tradition I was taking part in.   

Amid Halloween’s 2,000 year development and its many manifestations, it’s sometimes easy to forget that it all started with the ancient celebration of Samhain. For the Celts, a people who lived in Ireland, UK, and northern France from about 2,500 years ago, Samhain was one of the most important seasons of the year. It marked the harvest, the end of summer, and the beginning of winter. Most importantly to people who didn’t have electricity, it was the time ‘the light loses and the night wins’. There’s surely romance to the spookiness and the folklore of Halloween, we must remember that for the Celts it ushered in months of darkness, sparse food, and death.

To make matters worse, the Celts believed that at Samhain the barrier between their world and the ‘otherworld’ was at its thinnest. Thus, their deceased ancestors came back and visited, along with spirits, fairies, their dead enemies, and every waiter they’d ever stiffed. To ward off these entities, they hollowed out turnips and carved scary faces into them, and they dressed up as animals or demons or Kim Kardashian to trick otherworld visitors into thinking they were also an otherworld resident. They left out offerings of food and drink to appease former enemies who might be bent on revenge. They told stories and tales around bonfires that were meant to keep the evil spirits and darkness at bay. No matter how you cut it, this time of year was scary as hell.  

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The Unfairness

I was once walking through the park when an old man abruptly shouted ‘the unfairness!’ He was sitting on a bench and I thought perhaps a robin had pooped on him. Also, no. The man was in standard old guy in the park gear (trench coat, high top sneakers, pants). So I was naturally frightened. I walked away briskly and never thought about him again.

That is, until today. I made the monumental mistake of sneezing while I was getting out of bed this morning and I somehow gave myself spina bifida. See, this was a problem and not for the reasons you think. The four minutes after I get out of bed in the morning are reserved for my knees to learn how to work again. Throwing my back out at the same time just wasn’t going to do. I slouched towards the bathroom like Quasimodo and was muttering in what can liberally be described as ‘tongues’. Just as I sat down I said ‘so unfair’. The rest of my time in the bathroom was spent in quiet reflection, well, it was once my tablet died and I had to stop looking at Reddit.

It’s not that people don’t warn you about all the bad things that happen when you get near fifty, they tell you all the time. It’s just that you never think it’s going to happen to you. I am not, at the age of 48, a walking cliché. I am nostalgic. A McDonalds commercial from the 1980s can bring me to tears. I would give anything to be at a Little League post-season pizza party. Various parts of my body have elected to stop working. My knees and back revolt against me so often there’s no way they’re not in cahoots. What the fuck is with my heel? I went 46 years without thinking about my heel, and now they pervade my every day. I get an abrupt ringing in my ear that I’m pretty sure prewarns a hernia. Or a haemorrhage. Or a nose bleed. A hernia, haemorrhage, and a nose bleed are some of the various things I’m fairly certain I’m suffering from or about to be suffering from. It joins a long list.

I have medicine for everything. Should sudden onset heartburn, hemorrhoids, acid reflux, headache, or jock itch overtake you while visiting my house, I got you covered. I am that guy. I can fall asleep at a traffic light. Then there’s the things I accidentally slip into conversations. The greatest geriatric hits: When I was your age, Listen young man, I may be old, but the alternative is being in a vase on your mantle, Back when I was young, and on and on and on. I am a walking talking cliché.

The thing is, I don’t feel old. I feel good. Yes, my hangovers last more than 72 hours. Yes, it takes me a week to recover from a workout. Yes, my heels take turns not working. But I feel good. Ish. Oh well. Could be worse. At  least I have my health. Ish.

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Rum

On October 12th every year in the 1980s kids in America heard some rendition of the same story. Christopher Columbus wanted to find the Atlantic route to the East Indies and India. It was there that spices existed in abundance.

Someone would inevitably raise their hand. Why would they go there? The teacher would answer smugly, Spices? You mean like salt and pepper? The teacher would pop on a coy smile, for this is what she’d been hoping for all along. Yes. That’s right. Spices like pepper and cinnamon were very difficult to find in Europe, so explorers wanted to find routes to the Spice Islands and India so they could get a source of these spices for themselves.

Wow, we said. Then she would really blow our minds by telling us how a bag of cinnamon might be worth the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money. We oohed and aahed and the less bright of those children planned a pantry raid on his parents’ spice rack later that day (to the great permanently-damaging joy of his parents).

Why would he undertake such a dangerous voyage just for spices? Well, glad you asked, this was the age of exploration, you see, when things like the sextant and the magnetic compass allowed brave men to veer away from the coasts into the open waters of the ocean, find new worlds, and then kill all of the people they found there.     

The story would then head back to Chris Columbus and the simple facts we learn as kids. He discovered America. He was smart – he thought the world was round when nobody else did! But he thought it was much smaller that it was, so he also thought the Caribbean was India (oh did we mock him for that). And, plus, we erroneously call Native Americans Indians because of that last bit. Since this was the 1980s, we continued to call the Native Americans Indians without much compunction, but our little developing brains had just begun trying to link India and the people who had lived in America. Thus in one day at school, we were on one hand taught to admire Christopher Columbus and to make fun of him for not understanding geography the way a bunch of fourth graders did.

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Hotel: A Love Story

Over the weekend we went to Tabor, a small town in South Bohemia. It’s an hour from Prague, but offered a nice respite from our humdrum autumn. Besides, we got to stay in a hotel. Which was the main draw.

We talked about the hotel for the last week. When you cook and clean for yourself every day, a weekend at a hotel means (in our minds) being spoiled and looked after. It means a shower better than yours, a toilet that should warm your cheeks upon sitting, and a team of people ready to pamper you from arrival to departure.

A day into our stay we admitted over trout filets that the hotel was fine. It was fine with no other attempts to qualify that word. It was just fine followed by an almost audible period and then a conspicuous period of quiet in which no further words were used to explicate.

The hotel was nicer on the outside than on the inside. It seems as though they spent all their money making it pretty, but forgot to put it into things like making the interior look like a hotel in the 21st century. Its carpets came straight out of my grandmother’s house. The dining room was so much like a high school cafeteria that I expected a bell to urge us back to class. The lights in the broad stairwells blinked off and on, like something in a horror movie setting. The room was also fine and was mostly taken up by the bed, which was also fine, but as the bed was harder than the floor it was less fine. The shower was good (fine) but there was no soap. The wellness center was marked by a neon sign that gave it a brothel sort of feel. The staff was fine. But there’s a pervading sense that the staff does one huge, permanent, continuous eyeroll whose meaning is “Fuck. Guests.”

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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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