These Woods Are Haunted

Warning: Old Man Complaint Ahead

I understand that TV has changed. When I was young, MTV (Music Television) played music videos and TLC (The Learning Channel) showed surgery. Even later in my life, the programming on The History Channel was largely about, you know, history, or at the very least Adolf Hitler.

Based on the information scoured from a remote control peruse during my last trip home, these things are no longer true. TLC and The History Channel is rife with reality TV mostly hitting niche audience markets that somehow become crack cocaine to the larger viewing audience. Had someone told me a decade ago that I would be thoroughly involved in a show about trash pickers or about the daily happenings of a family that owns a Las Vegas pawn shop, I’d have thought you looney. But, alas, here we are.

In the land of target audiences, The Discovery Channel has cast a net so wide as to capture every audience that exists, has ever existed, or will ever exist on earth or any planet discovered or undiscovered in our universe or any universe. Just by going to Discovery Plus, one can find a number of shows about morbidly obese people trying to lose weight, a variety of different societal groups looking for love – immediately, those who want to be married and engaged, thousands of ghost hunters, and a huge group of people looking for Bigfoot and his cryptid buddies.

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William III Wins the Battle of the Boyne and Gives the Protestants a Drink

The armies of James II and William III were squaring off across the River Boyne near Drogheda, Ireland. Roman Catholic James II was making a push to regain the throne, from which William had deposed him the year before. James’s 23,000-strong army was mostly made up of Irish Catholics, but he had several regiments of French soldiers, as well as Scottish and English Jacobites. His soldiers were armed with outdated muskets and his Irish soldiers were mostly pressed into service and poorly trained; some were armed with scythes.   

But there was brandy. According to John Stevens, a soldier at the Boyne, there was perhaps too much brandy. It was meant to calm the nerves of the untested men, but was so effective that more than 1,000 of them passed out drunk in the fields.    

On the other side, Protestant William III (William of Orange) had 36,000 troops, half of which were British, the rest were made up of soldiers from Denmark, the Netherlands, and France. They were better trained and equipped with more modern weapons. We don’t know if William’s soldiers were drinking, but they won. (Irish Catholics never win.) In the aftermath, James II ran off to France, where he would spend the rest of his life presumably eating cheese and bitching about French employment laws. His flight earned him the nickname within Ireland of Séamus a’ chaca (James the Shit), so we probably wasn’t in a rush to put that on a customs card anyway.   

Though not a decisive win, William’s victory had important implications. William was fighting to keep Protestant control over Ireland and to forestall future Jacobite (et al) attempts to restore James to the throne. James II had put forth the Declaration of Indulgence, granting freedom of religion for all of Ireland – which just about everyone saw as a sneaky way to reestablish Catholic rule. Victory at the Boyne helped William establish Protestantism in Ireland because his supporters were both Protestants and zealots. They were victorious, they needed a drink, and that drink need to be “Protestant.” But what?

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TV for Hypochondriacs

“Watching” British television is an interesting experience for an American. I usually don’t get what’s happening and I have to pay close attention to the subtitles the whole time. I spend a lot of time deciphering the smoldering, pregnant glares the characters give each other instead of words. When you grew up watching American good guys lay out the bad guys’ entire plans and bad guys who explicitly explain their motivations, British TV is tough.

Then there’s the humors. There is one level of humor meant as a bone for the global audience (most of Love, Actually) and then there is the level of humor meant only for British people. If you aren’t British, the only way to discover these is to watch a show with a Brit, when they laugh and you don’t, that’s a British humor. Mark it down and watch it time and time again, you will never figure it out. Trust me.

It is with these things in mind that I turn on a British television show. It’s an investment in time and effort and in the end I might be starting at a wall saying “Wait, was it the guy who lived on the boat?” It was with that tentative unease that last Saturday I put on Doc Martin. Doc Martin is about a doctor (Martin), a brilliant surgeon who develops a sudden fear of blood. He moves to Cornwall where he becomes a small-town GP. And he is a total dick.    

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The Explorer Drinker’s Club

One of the downsides of a global pandemic is what it did to my pub intake. Say what you will, but there’s nothing like a good pub. Even if you’re one of those sociopaths who drinks tea at one, a good pub is warm, inviting, and makes you relax. And COVID took that away.

Because of this I was forced to drink at home, which is just not as fun as drinking in a place where you get to pay people to bring you alcohol while you judge others for getting drunk so early in the day. I made it a habit of swinging by our local pubs once a week to get beer from the tap. But it’s not the same.

Good news was heralded with the vaccination numbers, the low numbers of infections, and the reawakening of the city’s pubs. But as I am not yet fully vaccinated, I didn’t want to go inside and I didn’t want to sit within big groups of drinkers. I yearned for a pub, but one in which I could sit outside and not near anyone else. I now consider everyone diseased and riddled with the pox. And I don’t think this makes me a bad person at all.

I enlisted Burke in my quest for such a pub. As she is also interested in getting tipsy in the waited-on great outdoors, she was in.

The first place we found was in the shadow the Ferdinand I’s summer palace. Its foundations were laid in 1555 by his son (the predictably-named Ferdinand II). The park which I walk in almost every day was a game reserve also established by Ferdinand I.

By game reserve, we are referring to a fenced-in hunting ground stocked with various exotic animals. These included antelopes, gazelles, camels, a plethora of exotic birds, some cheetahs and a great ape. These animals were locked in with slate fencing, unlike the large walls that are there these days and which frankly seem a hell of a lot better suited to keeping in cheetahs and orangutans. These animals apparently thought so too, as they occasionally escaped and caused what must have been considerable ruckus in Prague 6 environs. Though one has immense joy imagining a 16th century Prague 6 farmer try to scare a cheetah away from his radishes while wondering just what in the hell the neighbors were feeding their house cats.   

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June 11 323 B.C., Alexander the Great Dies from (Possible) Overconsumption of Alcohol

Cleitus the White Loses his Epithet

The omens were not kind that year to Alexander of Macedon (aka: “the Great”). They bespoke of death and decline, and warned him not to enter Babylon. Under the pressure from the looming threats of supernatural comeuppance, he naturally embarked upon a month-long drinking binge.

That binge was capped off with a two-day bender. He threw a party for one of his admirals, Nearchus. While he was running off to bed, his friend Medius invited him to keep drinking at his place. After what was probably very little arm twisting, Alexander rehoisted his wine bowl and drank the next day away with Medius. Later he felt sick, at which time he downed a jug of wine to ward off a fever, which you’ll be shocked to know didn’t work. He was stricken ill for 10 days and died.

The world reacted the way it always does when a celebrity does. People wept and shaved their heads; the more disturbingly devoted starved themselves to death. (It’s also possible they just couldn’t find any food.) Alexander was a brilliant general, an astute leader and politician, and (sometimes) magnanimous towards his people and enemies. But more, he was larger-than-life, a superstar of the Ancient World. And like many superstars before and since, his fast and furious life was shadowed by self-destruction. And so, the world said goodbye to Alexander the Great: Ancient World Wild Child.  

Alexander was from the drinking part of Greece. While wine held a big place in Greek culture at the time, drunkenness was viewed as vulgar. Someone who committed a crime or a faux pas while inebriated was punished more harshly than someone committing the same crimes sober. The opposite policy seemed to apply in Macedon, where Alexander was born. Macedonian nobles drank their wine akratos (undiluted by water) a practice considered barbaric by Greek standards. Drunken fights and murder seemed less a crime as much as a way to pass the time before getting drunk again. To boot, in Macedonian military culture, drinking to excess was not only accepted, but admired and considered a far better way to gauge manhood than say walking into combat with a sword. Alexander was beloved by his men for his abilities in both.  

Moreover, Alexander’s model for drunken behavior was his father. King Phillip was also a great general and a noted philopotes (a lover of drinking sessions). He was hot-tempered, paranoid, and rash, dangerous faults when you have an army and a drinking problem. At a feast, he once tried to run Alexander through with a sword, but was too drunk and tripped up by a couch. Similarly, Alexander often drank to incapacity, acted rashly while drunk, and then deeply regretted his actions when sober, like the time he woke up to find that he had burned down Persepolis. Unfortunately, he also took after his father in the realm of stabbing people at banquets. At a feast years later, he ran through Cleitus the Black in a drunken rage. Not having the good fortune to trip over a couch, he profoundly regretted murdering Cleitus, who had served in his father’s army and who had saved Alexander during the battle of Granicus. A minor bright side was that Cleitus the White could finally drop the epithet from his name. 

Alexander’s life is glamorous in the overview. By the age of 20 he had become king of Macedon and by 30 he had conquered most of the (known) world. He had picked up the epithet “The Great” somewhere along the way. He lived in palaces and had a hareem. But though he was young, he had crammed a lot into those days. He had taken part in countless battles, witnessed thousands of deaths, dealt with almost constant political strife and rebelling territories. It took its toll. Alexander became unhinged and paranoid.  

The straw that broke the philopotes’ back was the death of his best friend Hephaestion, who had tried to medicate a painful intestinal issue with the lesser-known remedy of boiled chicken and a gallon of wine. Perhaps mercifully, this combo killed him. The death of a friend often forces us to consider our lives and our choices. And so when Alexander heard of his friend’s death, he understandably retreated to his tent for a period of grieving and personal reflection. When he came out, he hadn’t so much decided to take up yoga or put a tributary decal on his Ford Bronco, but rather had Hephaestion’s physician crucified and had the temples to local gods razed. He then massacred a small local tribe called the Cosseans and dedicated their deaths to his friend. In another event of peculiar tribute, Alexander put on a drinking game to mark the death of a philosopher friend. During the games, 42 people died of alcohol poisoning and Alexander’s friend, Promachus, died three days later, having downed 13 liters of unmixed wine. But Promachus had won the contest, which was hopefully some solace for being dead.   

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The Quest for Chlebíčky

I love routine. It’s a family thing, too. One of those things you get from your parents that you don’t realize you got from them until it’s just too late and it’s an ingrained part of your personality.

The only thing more fun that working one’s way through a routine (and the euphoric joy of ticking off a segment of a routine) is writing it out the night before and talking about it to anyone who happens to be nearby after you’ve created your schedule and before you’ve put it into action. In most cases, this is Burke. She sighs a lot nowadays.

By far the best routine that my household enjoys is our Friday morning routine. After living like a monk for 5 days, we get up early and go shopping at the grocery store up the road. When we have everything, Burke pays and I walk across the street to the deli and get a box of chlebiky. If you have never been to the Czech Republic, chlebíčky is like heaven on a slice of bread. There are several varieties – ham, egg, diced ham. Otherwise they have potato salad and butter and cream and sorts of other things you need in your life that your doctor advises against.

The chlebíčky lady knows me. When I come in she says “Eight?” and I say “Yes.” And she reaches for the box with no judgment, or at least she hides the judgment behind her mask. I really don’t care if she’s judging me. I have taken it upon myself to confuse local shop people as to the healthiness of my lifestyle and habits. The nice man in the little shop across the street never knows what I’m going to buy when I go in there as my last five visits have procured the followings items:

  1. A bottle of Tullemore Dew, two bottles of wine (white and pink), and a bag of kitty litter
  2. Four boxes of cookies and a grapefruit
  3. Cheese (4 varieties)  
  4. Socks, a pack of gum, and four beers
  5. Six lemons and a shoehorn
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Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make the water of life

…and scotch whisky is introduced to history

The order from King James IV is right there in the exchequer. Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make the water of life. Though archaeological evidence does show that spirits were distilled at Lindores Abbey, we don’t know if Friar Cor was the monk doing the actual distilling. He may have been the quartermaster or the apothecary. We only know he was in charge of the malt.

In any event, I’d like to imagine there was excitement. That Friar Cor goggled his eyes and shuffled his sandalled feet along the grassy walkways of Lindores Abbey with a little excitement in his step. The man had just been involved in what would be the first written evidence of the production of scotch, after all, someone was probably going to talk about that in the future. But the exchequer records don’t let on anything to that effect, no denotation “Friar Cor amped AF” or some other indication.  

In fact, reality destroys any romantic notions we (aka: I) might have had about monks distilling a nice, warm, brown Scotch whisky. Instead, the alcohol that Friar Cor and his celibate associates would have distilled was flavored with spices and herbs and maybe honey. Lindores Abbey was known for its pear and plum orchards, so it was probably using these in its distilling process. And before the 18th century, scotch was not aged after distillation. The final product might have been more like brandy wine, a fruit spirit, or gin than what we know as whisky.  

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One for the Road

We knew it was going to be big. For at least two weeks before, there had been commercials and teasers. It was the same sort of disruption in the TV world that tipped us off to very special episodes and presidential addresses. The network was devoting three half-hour slots to one episode. It was going to be big. But unlike very special episodes and presidential addresses, we actually cared about seeing this one. Cheers was ending after an eleven-year run. We buckled our seatbelts and we waited until Thursday night.

It’s hard to explain the all-encompassing phenomenon of network TV to someone who didn’t live through it. If you were born before 1990, doing just that will be your World War II or your Great Depression. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, in the days before a trillion shows existed on one website, we TV-watchers were forced to watch something called “a television.” Television networks organized their TV programming into schedules, and if we wanted to watch one of those programs, we had to be in front of our TV at the allotted time. Once in front of that TV, there were more agonies yet to navigate. These TV programs were riddled with commercials which viewers had no ability to pause or fast forward. Instead, they were forced to time their bladder evacuations and snack creations into those 2.2-minute slots. This is why people over 40 have very good bladder control and can make a ham and cheddar sandwich on rye (with two condiments) in under 50 seconds.

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Dirty Dozen Saturday

When my mom and dad used to tell us stories about kid life in the 1950s, I was baffled. So you listened to the radio all the time? What do you mean you didn’t have 1100 sugary breakfast cereals from which to slurp diabetes? You didn’t have a TV until the 60s? And that only had, like, four channels?

What? Insanity.  

For a middle-class kid of the 1980s, some of these things carried over. Every room in our house had a radio in it. My sister Amanda and I sat listening to the radio for hours so she could hit record and to bootleg her favorite song (Eternal Flame). Otherwise, we listened to cassettes until they were worn down to threadbare strips of magnetic tape that would loosen up and which required a combat ravel with a pencil. We rented movies at the video store. Sometimes we had to deal with the dreaded line of static running up the middle of Vietnam, or Oz, or Lando Calrissian. Our TV (even with cable) had about 12 channels and we became obsessive about “flipping around” to see what else was on, because there was no rewind button. You don’t know the tragedy of watching 70 minutes of a movie you don’t like just to realize that Major League was on another channel the whole time.  

If you were born after 1985, this might sound like a nightmare. But it had a lot of good sides too.

When your favorite song comes on the radio when you didn’t play it, it’s as if the universe has gifted your soul a shot of espresso. Young people don’t understand what it’s like to buy and listen to and fall in love with an album. I asked some students a few years ago “What’s your favorite album?” and, once I explained what an album was, they looked at me as though I had asked what wagon they were planning on taking across the Oregon Trail. There’s also a great understated pleasure in listening to a baseball game on the radio. My dad still listens to the radio announcers while watching the Phillies’ games on mute. My mom does the same for football games.     

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On May 8, 1962 Sean Connery Appeared in American Theaters as James Bond …

…and gin said “uh oh.”

“I admire your luck, Mr. …?”

“Bond,” says the sexiest man of the (last) century (he has a plaque from People Magazine). He lights a cigarette, snaps the lighter closed to show certainty and confidence. Cue the Bond theme in background. 2.29 seconds later, he adds: “James Bond.” It’s later in the movie (Dr. No) that Bond gets what would become the classic Bond martini. A medium dry vodka martini, shaken not stirred. Though the moment doesn’t ring with any significance, womankind said: “Whoa,” mankind said: “I want to be like that guy,” and gin said: “uh oh.”    

James Bond is the ideal of calm under pressure, worldliness, and British sophistication. He wears the best suits and drives the best cars. He handles the world’s most specific gadgets. That Sean Connery played this character is something of a jab at that ideal when bearing in mind that he is the posterchild for the working-class Scotsman. He had a growly brogue and a tattoo that read Scotland Forever (and another one for Mum and Dad). This all flies in the face of Britishness, as do the facts that he hates tea and, perhaps more disconcerting, that he damaged gin’s standing.  

Bond is a drinker. He downs 45 different drinks throughout his adventures. Gin, cocktails, vodka (with black pepper because it evidently makes the impurities sink), scotch, claret, and champagne. He then engages in post-drinking activities like driving, fighting, flying helicopters, having sex, gambling, fighting crocodiles, parachuting off cliffs, and scuba diving. He only has four beers throughout the series, which makes sense because beer makes one sluggish, and fighting crocodiles and shooting someone while skiing takes a clear head that only several shots of hard alcohol can provide.

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