Archive for February, 2021

Blue Cheese Period

Chicken wings at Anchor Bar in Buffalo-Niagara Airport.

Last week, I was bemoaning the changes that COVID has wrought upon our daily lives. No bars, no friends, becoming aware of yet two other varieties of Global Asshole (anti-maskers, the new anti-vaxxer, and anti-vaxxers: COVID style).   

Then there’s my blog. I know all three of you wait with bated breath for my Monday installment and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your continued readership. Especially these days when nothing is happening to me. I used to write about the humor in my daily interactions, but I don’t have those anymore. Oh, I try to banter with Burke, but she knows all of my jokes. All. Every single one. The cat, well, she just bites me if I pester her and I’m trying to avoid emergency rooms. Also, it’s pretty hard to distract anything that can lick its own butt while it’s engaged in that activity.

I used to have loads of student interactions as fodder to blog about. But now my conversations are had over the Zoomisphere with disembodied voices, and where my comments and charming observations echo painfully among the column of white names against black backgrounds where they die in a techno crackle. Alone.

I have attempted to interact with people on my walks in the park. But people are warned about chatting with strange sweating men in parks. And I tried to chat with people at the supermarket. But it’s hard not to be the lunatic in a conversation when you’re caressing a sweet potato. Alas, all of my hopes for light interaction were stifled by isolation and people having good sense.

Thus, I entered a Blue Period.

These days, there’s really only one way to deal with a blue period. Oh, there used to be other ways, most of which revolved around pubs: Beer. Becherovka. Chewing tobacco. A talk with Lee. Singing along with Aneta Langerová. Kebab on the way home. This had a remarkable effect on my blue periods, often because the lobe-shattering headache I was suffering through the next day left no room for dealing with sadness. But now, I am trapped at home and sad about being trapped at home, so I thought it unwise to get drunk while trapped at home.

No, I dealt with this particular blue period by ordering chicken wings.

There are few problems on this planet that can’t be momentarily eased by chicken wings. (For you, not the chicken.) Fifteen stubs of goodness, drenched in sauce, a side of ranch dressing (or blue cheese when I’m feeling traditionalist), carrots and celery. I go to work on them in the one-handed hold method, up one side, down the other, each side getting a dip into ranch dressing, then I split the wing and clean out the meat from in between.

And I get them delivered because I’m socially responsible.

The delivery man calls and I begin my way down. I am wearing my COVID uniform, which is not intentionally monochrome, but happens to consist of all gray from my slippers to my sweats to my T shirt to my cardigan to my my winter hat. It doesn’t bode well for a projection of my mental state. But I don’t care. Wings.

The delivery man is nice, smiling, good-natured. He loves delivering wings. I wish everyone loved their job this much.

“What are you doing inside?!” he shouts. “It’s so nice outside!”

“I was out all day,” I say.

“Sure,” he says as he hands me a bag with three orders of wings in it.

“Ha, ha,” I laugh and hand him a tip. “This is from all of us.” I am including the cat in “all of us.”  

The man thanks me and gets in his car. I want to chat. I want to plead my case. But now I’m holding a bag with 45 legs in it. I watch after the car as it drives off. My next door neighbors smile at me and we all walk into the building.

“Hi,” I say. I am carrying 45 wings in a bag and I am dressed like a human lamppost.

They smile. I foresee banter on the way up to our flats (they live on my floor), but they both stop to get their mail. After all, we all know that the biggest mail haul of the week comes at 6:45 on Saturday evening.

But it doesn’t matter. Wings.   

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No Walk in the Park

The sun makes its appearance today. Which is weird because after the last two months I was certain it no longer existed. I reached my blanket out the window to shake out the cat hair and my fur and I realized: holy crap, it’s not bitter cold.

We hadn’t been out much recently. What with new cultural strains of COVID attacking our air streams, and a government incapable of getting us a vaccine. Then there’s the subzero weather and a month of daily snow. Yeah, I wasn’t running outside. Inside there’s socially acceptable sweatpants and warmth. A heater that works well and a TV. It was hard to talk myself into going out.

But with that being said, I knew I needed to see other people. I was forgetting how to converse and last week while talking to a customer service rep, I found that I was asking her a lot of questions that weren’t on our grid. When’s your birthday? She asked me. October, I told her, when’s yours? When she answered April, I went on to ask if she was expecting anything good. When I realized what I was doing I felt a bit embarrassed, but it would have been worse had she not obviously been similarly engaged in the conversation.

Burke has begun speaking in voices. We aren’t 100% sure why, though we surmise that it’s a combination of speaking to Chinese children four hours a day and her voices for the cat. Basically, we were forgetting how to be normal human adults. What would happen next time we were in a pub? We weren’t going to go out and talk to others, but just be near others.

We bundled up, packed a flask of whiskey, hand sanitizer, two masks, and we were on our way. We went to Ladronka, a nearby park where people ski and walk. There’s a pub there and we thought that maybe with a day so sunny they might be selling concessions. We were right. The sky was blue, the sun shone on the snow almost too brilliantly. People were everywhere: cross country skiing, walking, sledding, trekking, and some psychopaths were even jogging. It was like the snowy version of a Monet painting.

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The Little Dictator Wants More Pages

I came, I saw, I read

I love TV. I do. I know it’s not cool to say, but I really do love TV. Also, what I love about it is all the wrong things to say when you want to sound smart. I love that TV doesn’t make me work for entertainment.

And worse than the cardinal sin of loving TV, I especially love watching TV I have already seen. Gasp. It’s like having an old friend over, but a friend I don’t have to interact with and whose job is to entertain me whenever I look up from my crossword puzzle or reddit or taco. Rewatching TV I have already watched doesn’t demand anything from me. He doesn’t sigh and groan when I converse with someone else and he doesn’t ask me questions. It’s a perfect relationship.  

And to boot, when I watch TV I have already watched, the little dictator in my brain is silent. Mostly. Oh, he pipes up here and there about why I should all-of-a-sudden be too scared to check my email or, paradoxically, to not check my email. But mostly, he’s quiet.

I also love to read books. But with the combined efforts of my phone, my TV, and the little brain dictator, books took a hit. But with the pandemic and the fact that we don’t go outside anymore, there was no way of avoiding my books because, unlike TV and my phone, they hang out on my walls and look at me while I walk around in my pajamas and sing in Johnny Cash’s voice.

Alas, I was at some point forced to recognize that reading had to become part of my life again. How to do this?

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February 4, 1945 in Hammered History: The Big Three Meet at Yalta…and go on a week-long bender

The Big Three. If you look closely, you can see Stalin offering Winston a shot.

In February 1945 the European theater of the biggest and most destructive war in the history of humankind was inching towards its inevitable close. There were millions of military and civilian casualties, Europe was in tatters, the world was exhausted. On the bright side, the Soviet army was fifty miles from Berlin, Germany was just about done, and thus so was the war in Europe. Also, Hollywood would have movie fodder for decades; they just needed Steve McQueen to graduate from high school.  

It was time to come up with a plan for post-war Europe. What would post-war Poland look like? What should be done with Germany? Would newly-liberated European countries be democratic and self-determining? Would there be spheres of political influence throughout Europe? And most importantly, when would Kinder eggs be available?

Meeting to discuss and decide these issues (probably not the Kinder eggs) were the Big Three world leaders – Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Premier Josef Stalin. So, for eight days starting on February 4th, the Big Three and their staffs met to decide on the geopolitical face of the world. ‘The Big Three’ is not ‘The Super Four’ because they snubbed French President Charles de Gaulle. None of the Big Three seemed to like or trust him, but at least it didn’t lead to a passive bitterness in French-British and French-American relations for the rest of eternity.

Churchill suggested meeting in Malta or in the Mediterranean, probably hoping to get a tan after five years of bunkers and British weather. Stalin nixed these suggestions claiming his doctor’s orders restricted extensive travel. Plus, he was terrified of flying (and eating food that hadn’t been tasted, and sleeping, and being around other people). So he proposed Yalta, a Crimean resort on the Black Sea. We don’t know if he chose a perfect rhyme to mollify Churchill, but the choice kept Stalin on Soviet soil and forced the others (including a gravely ill President Roosevelt) to travel extensively and uncomfortably. This perhaps gave Stalin the first of many upper-hands. But to be fair, he did formally proclaim Roosevelt the leader of the conference and most of the plenary meetings were held in his building.  

Yalta left a lot to be desired. The mattresses were so thin that people could feel the springs. The bed bugs and lice within the thin mattresses thoroughly enjoyed the British and American steaks trying to sleep on them. And the war-ravaged and bombed-out atmosphere of Yalta led Winston Churchill to mention that they “couldn’t have chosen a worse location if they’d had ten years to plan.” In a more succinct critique, he dubbed the resort “The Riviera of Hades.” The deplorable conditions would not be matched by a civilized society until Britain opened its first Airbnb 64 years later.

Perhaps in part to make up for the poor conditions, Stalin embarked upon a charm offensive. Much of it was bent on impressing his guests with food and hospitality. This included feasts of smoked sturgeon, potatoes, assorted game, and lavish caviar. He also catered to his guests’ every need (besides mattresses). The morning after Roosevelt mentioned that there were no lemons for his afternoon cocktail, a lemon tree appeared outside his door, having been flown in from Georgia.  

Another big part of Stalin’s charm offensive was booze. He wanted to make his guests happy, comfortable, and too numb to notice they were being eaten alive by bugs. Stalin ordered a decanter of vodka to be left in each room. He ordered crates of a strong Armenian brandy (Dvin) to satisfy Sir Winston’s booze-soaked palate. Throughout the eight-day conference, Georgian wine and champagne were plentiful and Stalin made sure they were flowing by making lots of toasts.

How hammered is this history? Well, Stalin was a drinker of sweet Georgian red wines and vodka (you’re not officially allowed to open a gulag in Russia if you don’t like vodka). And Stalin definitely knew his audience. President Roosevelt was well known for his enjoyment of beer, martinis, and high balls. He was also known for his love of entertaining and mixing his (evidently awful) martinis for guests, with gin and a splash of absinthe.   

But this history would be mildly tipsy were it not for Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Well before Sir Winston wobbled into his quarters at Yalta, his alcohol intake was the thing of global legend. In fact, while some of it was legend, much of it wasn’t. Churchill was famous for his love of champagne, brandy, whiskey, wine, and port. He was famous for drinking in the morning, day, and night. He was famous for his wit while drinking. He was famous for his drinking stamina. While visiting FDR at the White House, he would keep the President up drinking brandy and smoking cigars into the wee hours in sessions called “Winston Hours” by White House staffers. After Winston had left, it would take Roosevelt three days to recover. Though FDR most probably kept the White House liquor cabinets well-stocked, Winston liked to travel with his own stash. While working as a correspondent for The Morning Post during the Boer War, it’s claimed that he travelled with six cases of wine and spirits meant to fight the boredom (boerdom?) in the down hours. To wit, Winston Churchill could have gone to Yalta alone and spent a week playing Risk by himself and it would still qualify as hammered history.

Stalin may have had ulterior motives for having booze readily available. It’s been argued that Stalin wanted to keep the Americans and the British tipsy to have the sober upper hand in discussions and negotiations. It’s reported that the multitude of toasts he made were with vodka, because vodka looks like water. He would evidently sip the vodka and chug the water. He also bugged the rooms to overhear the British and Americans. But one wonders what useful information might be offered up by those who’ve just drunk twenty shots of vodka and were having a pillow fight with a bedbug.

What exactly happened at Yalta and its results have been debated ever since. Some claim that Roosevelt was grifted by Stalin, who made promises he would later break. It has been called the “sell out at Yalta” in that Churchill and Roosevelt sold out Eastern Europe and Poland to secure a commitment of Soviet troops for the invasion of Japan. But most agree that none of the Big Three walked away completely satisfied from Yalta. In any event, Roosevelt did secure Russian involvement for the war in the Pacific (Russia declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945). He also established the basic principles of the United Nations and did what he could to protect the Grand Alliance. Unfortunately, we know what happened to that alliance over the next four decades.  

Given the legendary status these three men have (and had) attained, it’s possible to forget that they were human. Tiny 5’4 Stalin, pock-marked, paranoid, murderous, his countrymen taking the brunt of European war casualties (because he couldn’t get to them first). He would be dead in eight years. Roosevelt was gravely ill and would be dead in two months. Egotistical Churchill, had seen Britain and the British brutalized by two wars. He would live another twenty years, but would be forced to witness Tuna and Jello Pie, Vegetable and Tuna Jello Wreaths, and other Jello-based culinary nightmares conceived in the fifties. No wonder he drank so much.

So, we can look at Yalta in another way. For eight days in February 1945, with all they’d been through and all the responsibility and heaviness that weighed on their shoulders, maybe The Big Three deserved a week of drinking. It seems a small period of refuge for three of the most beleaguered leaders on earth. Perhaps the only world leader more beleaguered than them was in a bunker 2,147 kilometers away casting longing looks between his Walther PP, a bottle of cyanide tablets, and Eva Braun’s breasts.

In any event, I wonder if they drunk dialed de Gaulle.    

So, what to drink?

If you want to drink like Churchill (first of all drink before breakfast, good luck, and update your CV), you could go with the Armenian (Dvin) brandy that Stalin gave to Churchill at Yalta. ArArAt Brandy has nuances of deep mahogany, a subtle aroma of cloves, and layered notes of deep fruits. It finishes with bright tinges of spice from forest nuts. Plus, it’s 100 proof and got Sir Winston fucked up, so after two shots you’ll be well on your way to handing over Eastern Europe to the closest Russian you can find. If you want to drink vodka to commemorate the Yalta Conference, you had better make it Russian vodka. Go for Stolichnaya or Russian Standard, play a game of Risk, and make lots of toasts. Just check your bottle for bugs.   

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