All posts by rickg

Rick Garman is a guy with cancer, but beyond that he is an award-winning playwright (rickgarman.com), a celebrated travel writer (Vegas4Visitors.com, Frommer's), and an Internet professional living in Los Angeles.

Minneapolis: Blasts from the Past, Maid-Rites, and Prince

Why do I write about the travels I take? Part of it is because I have been doing travel writing for nearly 20 years so even though I didn’t take this particular trip to write about it, not writing about it seems weird and incomplete.

But the bigger reason is that I don’t remember anything anymore. Seriously, it’s like a big void up there for anything that isn’t right in front of my face so writing about my travel helps me with my fading recall skills. I go back and read some of these posts from a few years ago and some of it surprising. I did that? Huh. Okay…

So with that in mind, my adventures in Minneapolis and Chicago, mostly for my own reading pleasure but for yours also if you are bored and there’s nothing on TV.

Every year I go to Chicago around Memorial Day but this year I decided to add a couple of days in Minneapolis, specifically to go see Paisley Park, the former home and creative epicenter for the genius that was Prince. Those who know me know that I am a huge Prince fan – kinda crazy about the whole thing – so I figured that coming to the Midwest and NOT going would be downright stupid.

The uneventful flight into the city was a little late and traffic around the core of Downtown, where every single street is undergoing some sort of road construction, seemed to be conspiring against me. I was worried that I wasn’t going to make it to a planned dinner on time but I managed to check into the hotel and rush back out again to St. Paul so I didn’t really get a chance to pay attention to Minneapolis yet. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid – I think we did a choir competition or something there? (Karla will know) – but my first impression is that it looks like every other Midwest Downtown. I’m sure it’ll be lovely when they finish putting back in all the streets and stuff that they have ripped out for whatever reason (this becomes important on Day 2).

In the end though, I was only a few minutes late to the Red Cow, where I was meeting high school friends Jill and Dawn. These two were part of my choir set of friends so they were the ones my parents approved of. (As opposed to the drama friends, who were the ones that I went to bars with when I was 15, who were always viewed with suspicion by Pauline and Vern).

I haven’t seen either one of them in a decade or more so there was a lot of catching up to do – children (graduating college, ouch), jobs, relationships (my part of that piece of the conversation was brief), and the usual musings on the nature of friendship. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school but the ones I did have were deeply appreciated and we all slipped quickly back into familiar rhythms that erased the better part of the last 35-40 years since we roamed the halls of Linn-Mar High. Here we are, with them looking lovely and me looking like the Crypt Keeper.

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The Red Cow is a fancy burger joint in a cute neighborhood that looked like the kind you’d see springing up around a college, even though there wasn’t one right there. Although we were tempted by the caramel-bacon “puffcorn” (like popcorn but without the husks, Dawn helpfully explained) and the tater tot stroganoff (don’t ask), we started with homemade potato chips and French Onion dressing, which were good but the chips had that homemade thing where they aren’t quite as crispy/crunchy as the heavily processed and preserved kind that you get in bags from the supermarket. So more like potato chews? But they were good and the dip was fantastic.

I considered the Royale (pork belly, brie, and tomato jam) and the Cowboy (cheddar, onion rings, and root beer pulled pork!) but ultimately went a little simpler with the Patty Melt, with caramelized onions and Swiss on sourdough. The burger was thick and juicy and the flavor of it melded well with the toppings. A success except that I forgot to get a picture. Oh well. You have seen hamburgers before.

After bidding the ladies adieu, along with promises not to wait another ten plus years to see each other again, I went back to the city, relaxed a bit, and then went out to a couple of gay bars that were near to my hotel. The Brass Rail is sort of a lounge type space with a bar, couches, a small stage (with a stripper pole natch) and that’s about it. Apparently Tuesday night in Downtown Minneapolis is not exactly a hotbed of activity so I was one of four people in there watching the final moments of The Voice.

Chris Blue? Really? No, really?

So I went next door to the Gay 90s (sure) and there were not many more people in there but it was an interesting place. Supposed there are 6 different bars in the building but only two were open – the “Happy Hour” bar, which was just a bar with a jukebox, and the “90s Bar,” which had a small dance floor and this, presented without comment.

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No, I didn’t ride it. But I know some people who would.

I had a big day planned for Wednesday so I retired and then got up early-ish to go on a mini-road trip.

I was planning on starting at the Mary Tyler Moore statue, which is on the Nicollet Mall, a street of shops and restaurants. Well, that’s where it usually is. Where it is now was a mystery to the guys that had the entire street ripped up in the aforementioned construction nightmare. I’m sure it’ll be lovely.

Foiled there, I headed toward my second stop, the Mary Tyler Moore house – or at least the house that was used as the exterior in the show.

Actually it turns out I wasn’t heading there. I was heading in the opposite direction. See, I mentioned the road construction thing, which was EVERYWHERE, and apparently nobody bothered to notify Google Maps. So I head toward the on ramp to the freeway I needed to take and it was closed so I had no choice at that point but to get on a different freeway. No problem, Google Maps said, just go to the next exit about a mile down the road and turn around.

Except that exit was closed also.

The next exit is another two miles so Google Maps points me there and miracle of miracles it is open! Then Google Maps tells me to just get right back on the freeway in the opposite direction.

Except the on ramp wasn’t there anymore.

I got to see a lot of Minneapolis adjacent to the I-94. It’s nice.

What should have been a 12 minute drive took almost 45 but I eventually made it to the house and here is my photographic evidence.

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And yes it’s for sale if you’re interested.

Next on the agenda was lunch, in which I drove 60 miles for a sandwich. But not just any sandwich, a Maid-Rite. This was a beloved part of my childhood, these Midwest-staples are loose meat sandwiches that have a unique taste that is hard to describe. Unfortunately St. Cloud, Minnesota is the closest place that had a restaurant so that’s where I went. It made me very happy – totally worth the drive.

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Back south I went to the tiny town of Darwin to see the World’s Largest Twine Ball.

Now, there are many of these balls scattered around and all of them claim to be the largest in some way, shape, or form. Heck, the biggest twine ball in Branson, Missouri was the thing that inspired the original Plucky Survivors trips I took with Mary. While musing about what I would do for my birthday, I joking said, “Maybe I’ll just go see the biggest ball of twine” and Mary said, “Cool. Can I come?”

This one claims to be the biggest made by one man. Francis A. Johnson started it in 1950 and worked on it every day for four hours for 23 weeks. It is 13 feet in diameter, 40 feet in circumference, and weighs 17,400 pounds.

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I love random roadside ephemera like this. I’m not sure why it makes me happy other than perhaps it is a comfort that my obsessive compulsions are nowhere near as crazy as other people’s. Then again, I have accomplished nothing as impressive as a giant ball of twine.

Next stop was in Jordan, home to Minnesota’s largest candy store, which is called… Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store. So not very original, but points for simplicity.

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The place is a cavernous facility with what seems like acres of every type of candy you can imagine, from stuff they make there to name brands to retro confections to sweets from all over the world. It was a bit overwhelming, not just in its scope but in its overall je ne sais quoi, which took the candy colored theme, put a few sticks of dynamite in it, and exploded it all over the store. There was an Incredible Hulk statue, a phone booth from Dr. Who, random records that would start playing as you walked by, and more.

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Then add in all the parents with all of their children. Parents… really? Is this really where you want to take your hyperactive four year old? An actual overheard conversation: Parent: “What do you want?” Child: “ALL OF IT! AIIIGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.” The latter was delivered at a volume and high-pitched frequency that made a heard of gazelle at a watering hole in Africa all raise their heads at once.

I’m not saying don’t give them candy – I’m not a monster – but maybe you go and pick out a few things and bring them home?

I had a headache within five minutes so I blindly reached out and grabbed a few things and left. I got mint-flavored malt balls, chocolate chews, and some chocolate/caramel fudge, all from the homemade section. I had a bite or two of most of it and none of it was all that great so I walked away disappointed.

Next stop was a nearby casino because I’m me. It was a casino. Not much else to say about it except they only had blackjack for table games so no three card poker for me.

For dinner I went to a place called Revival, which serves southern fried goodness. Now, I have been disappointed with southern restaurants in the Midwest before – a visit to one in Chicago almost brought me to tears once. And I’m a total fried chicken, BBQ, and southern cooking snob. But this place was great.

Appetizers include classics like pork rinds with cheese sauce, pickled shrimp and pigs feet, fried green tomatoes, and johnnycakes but I was sure I wouldn’t be able to get through any of that and have room for the main course so I just headed straight for the fried chicken.

It comes in a variety of heats, and I’m not talking temperature. The southern fried is regular with no heat and then you can step up to the Tennessee hot and if you’re feeling especially adventurous you can go with the poultrygeist, which uses ghost peppers to make it especially fiery. I went with the regular southern fried because I have already had problems with my esophagus and didn’t feel like burning it out of my body. That and sides of mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

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Again, southern food snob, but it was as close to perfect as you’re going to get in Minneapolis. The chicken had a thick fried coating on it, done crunchy, with succulent meat. The mac and cheese also had a crunch in its top and then gooey goodness underneath and the mashed potatoes had a thick chicken-fried gravy on top. Excellent all the way around and I ate way too much food.

That evening I went out to a couple more gay bars (there are a surprising number of them in Minneapolis). Lush is a loungy, trendy space with a big bar, low-slung couches, and a nice outdoor patio. The Eagle/Bolt is a pair of bars, both trending toward the butcher crowd but packed that evening with a group of youngish people celebrating someone’s birthday with drunken karaoke. It was surprisingly fun.

The final day in Minneapolis was the best because that’s when I finally made it to Paisley Park.

Located about 20 miles to the southwest of Minneapolis, the facility was built to Prince’s exact specifications in the late 1980s. It originally contained four recording studios, a TV production studio, office space, living quarters, and more. After Prince died, they kept most of it the way it was but have converted some of the spaces to a wide-ranging museum honoring his life and his work.

This is the place where nearly 30 years of his creative genius was brought to life. Diamonds and Pearls was recorded here. The Sign O’ The Times concert film was shot here as was most of the movie Graffiti Bridge. Pretty much everything he recorded from 1987 on was done here at Paisley Park. And it’s not just Prince. Everyone from James Brown to Aretha Franklin recorded here.

And of course at the end of his life, this is where he was living and where he died.

Although, to be clear, I am choosing to believe that he is still alive, living on an island somewhere being followed around by two hot dancers who just randomly strike poses behind him whenever he stops moving.

The building itself is pretty boring from the outside…

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…and unfortunately they don’t let you take pictures of the inside, but as soon as you walk through the door you immediately see the kinds of detail that only Prince would think of. The walls of the lobby feature giant murals of him, multiple versions of his symbol, and a wall full of platinum and gold records.

I took the VIP tour (of course), which gets you more access and more cool stuff, but I’m not sure which parts of what I did were on the regular tour. Don’t risk it – it’s totally worth the $100 bucks.

Just beyond the lobby is the atrium, a sunny space with a giant Prince symbol on the floor underneath four pyramid shaped skylights. The walls are painted a fluffy blue with clouds and doves arching up toward the glass ceiling. In fact, on the second floor balcony overlooking the space are a pair of cages with Prince’s actual white doves in them. Right off of the atrium is a small kitchen with a lounge space, some tables, and a big TV.

This was one of Prince’s favorite spots in the building, where he would often sit, write, talk, or meditate and let the sunlight shine down on him. That’s why they chose this space for the urn that contains his ashes.

Or the ashes of whoever is in there because, Prince… living on an island.

Surrounding the atrium are a series of offices that have been turned into exhibit space themed around some of his albums. The Dirty Mind section has a guitar from the era and a hand-written notebook of lyrics. The Sign ‘O The Times room has costumes, instruments, and the concert video (which is amazing and I am hoping they are going to re-release it at some point).

Also along here is his private office, all done in rich gold tones with a surprisingly small desk in a corner. I know he wasn’t a big man physically but you think of Prince in outsized terms and so this seemed incongruous.

A black-light lit meditation room leads into an editing room, which has a giant purple couch and a full suite of equipment. They showed some clips of concerts, backstage stuff, and more and our guide told us that he recorded everything on video… every concert, every pre-show sound check, everything. I read recently that the people responsible for going through the vault of his unreleased material has barely made a dent in it in the year since he died. I got a little light-headed thinking about it.

Next was Studio B, which is still all analog, the way Prince preferred to record (he’d digitize it later). I lost track of which albums they said he did there, but it was a lot of them, although he hadn’t used it as much recently. Why? Because that’s where he kept one of his ping pong tables. He loved ping pong, which makes me happy. They even let you play if you are so inclined. I declined at first but the tour guide goaded me and I did surprisingly well. I’m sure Prince could’ve kicked my ass.

This is where they also let you get interactive. You can get a souvenir photo in front of one of his signature purple pianos and, if you go on Thursday, you can step into the control room and actually record yourself singing over one of Prince’s songs. I did Raspberry Beret. They give you the photos and the recording on a flash drive to take with you.

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Then it’s on to the main studio A, much bigger, with lots of wood, tapestries on the wall, and isolation booths. Inside the control room are the synth and drum machine that created much of the sound for Purple Rain and a lot of his other signature songs. There’s a big boom mic hanging over the master control panel because Prince would often record by himself so he had to do everything. Interesting tidbit – he liked to sing sitting down when he recorded.

Outside the studio is a wall of influences, both artists that influenced him (James Brown, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, etc.) and those that he influenced (everyone from Sheila E. to The Time and beyond). It made happy for some reason that the closet people to him in the mural were Wendy and Lisa. I don’t know why.

Next was a big, high-ceilinged room that started its life as a basketball court. Later it became a dance studio and now is being used as the Purple Rain room. There are costumes, murals, the piano used in the movie (complete with scuff marks on top of it from his heels), a motorcycle, and more. Adjacent to that is another room that has been converted into spaces for his two other movies, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.

The final stops are the cavernous sound stage and the adjacent night club. The stage has a huge projection of Prince performing live on one wall and various stages set up with memorabilia and information from his various concert tours. There’s also his powder blue Bentley and purple Prowler on display. This and the neighboring space, a lounge with a VIP area, mixing turntables, and lots of couches, was where he’s have his frequent dance parties that would sometimes go until dawn.

And of course the gift shop. I bought a bag, a hoodie, and two symbol necklaces. That I didn’t buy 12 t-shirts, a slouchy cap, posters, and coffee mugs is shocking.

Being as much of a Prince fan as I was, it shouldn’t be surprising that I thought this was a phenomenal experience. I only got teary eyed twice – once when they pointed out the urn and once when they showed the small selection of tributes fans left on the fence for Paisley Park after his (not true) death. Prince made me understand the possibility of music and I was blown away to see a little bit of how he lived and created.

They say more will be added over the coming years so I fully intend to go back someday.

I headed from there directly to the airport, blasting DMSR and Let’s Go Crazy at full volume.

On the next update, Chicago!

February 16, 2010

Again, this is how I remember it – what happened seven years ago today.

But first, one of my favorite pictures of the two of us…

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My ring tone is the sound of a duck quacking. I don’t know why except that I’m lazy and cheap and don’t feel like changing it or buying something more interesting to replace it with. When the alarm went off at 1am I thought that maybe I should take the time to find something more appropriate for the situation. Do they offer funeral dirges as ring tones?

Well, yes, they do. Mary had the opening organ notes of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as hers for years.

I hadn’t really slept in the hour since I had crawled into the bed in the guest room. Under normal circumstances, considering the fact that I had only gotten a couple of hours the night before, I would’ve been out immediately but my brain was going a million miles an hour, reviewing every moment of the day past and anticipating the one coming up. Maybe dreading the one coming up. Part of it could’ve been a defense mechanism, I guess. When you go to sleep, the moment when you wake up seems to come faster than when you lay there, staring at the ceiling, pondering what is happening in the next room.

The lights were out in Mary and Steve’s room but Steve wasn’t asleep either when I came in. He turned on the lights and we checked on her. It was only notable in its complete lack of noteworthiness. Nothing had changed in the last hour. I’m not really sure what I was expecting.

Steve gave her the proper medications and I dutifully recorded it on my spreadsheet and then I set my alarm and crawled back into the guest bed.

The same thing happened at 2am; a carbon copy. Quacking, not really sleeping, waking Steve even though he wasn’t really asleep, medications, set the alarm for the next time.

I think I did sleep a little bit in the 90 minutes or so before the phone started quacking again at 3:30 in the morning. Steve may have as well, although he told me that he had spent at least some of the time talking to Mary, holding her hand, and occasionally singing to her.

While Steve was giving her the medications, I wandered upstairs to get something to drink and walked by the sideboard in the dining room. Sitting on it was a frame. I picked it up.

The previous summer I had moved and in cleaning out the nearly 15 years of clutter I had accumulated since I had lived in that apartment I found the cartoon strip – THE cartoon strip. It was “Bloom County” about Gilda Radner, and I had it on the wall above my desk at a talent agency that I worked at. It was the thing that made Mary stop and talk to me that day some 20 years earlier. When I rediscovered it I put it in a frame and gave it to her. She told me that it was the best gift anyone had ever given her and she liked to carry it around with her, holding it tightly.

In it, Opus the Penguin is upset about the cartoon series coming to an end. He says, “Stop it! Everybody stop it! This is upsetting me!! Life’s getting to wish-washy! Comic strips aren’t supposed to end! Neither are good marriages! Or friendships. Or loyalties or happiness… happiness isn’t supposed to just end. Gilda Radner isn’t supposed to end.”

I put the frame back down carefully.

I went back downstairs and while Steve took I break I sat with her, quietly at first. It had been hours since she was responsive in any meaningful way, although occasionally she would seem to respond to direct questions by trying to move her body or with noises as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t. Whether this is true or not – whether she really was cognizant of her surroundings – is probably up for debate and yet not worth debating.

Although others were talking to her, I really hadn’t been all that much. For some reason just being in the room… being with her was enough. And on top of that I really couldn’t think of anything all that interesting to say.

But this time I managed to find my voice.

“This sucks,” I said as I sat next to her bed. “I mean really sucks. But you know it’s okay, right? It’s okay that you go. I mean it’s not okay. It’s about as far from okay as you can get, but it’s okay. And I’m going to be okay, too. I know you were worried that I wouldn’t be, but I will be. Okay might look different than it does now, but I’ll be okay. I’m saying okay a lot, aren’t I? I promise if I ever write this as a movie script or a book I’ll make this much more intelligent.”

I was quiet for a moment. So was she.

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “But I wanted to ask you… Can I have the ‘Bloom County’ cartoon strip back?”

She hadn’t moved or done anything in the entire time I was in there but as soon as I asked that question, she made a noise, like a low moan, and struggled a bit.

“Afterwards!” I said quickly. “After you’re gone. Not now!”

She calmed down.

Like I said, debatable. But not worth debating.

When the phone started quacking again at 5am it roused me from a dream. I don’t remember what it was but I remember being grateful that I was not dreaming it anymore. The lights were on this time when I went into the room, and Steve was sitting with Mary, the grief on his face like a mask. Sometime in the last hour he was awaked by her breathing, which had grown even more raspy and wet and labored. When he checked on her he found that she had opened her eyes. I’d heard of the term “thousand-yard stare” before but I hadn’t ever seen it until that moment. She wasn’t looking at anything. Or maybe she was. I hope it was something nice.

We knew that she had entered a new phase in the process and although neither one of us was exactly sure if it meant that the end was near or simply nearer, we decided it was time to start making phone calls again.

Steve called the hospice nurse and family. I called friends to have them come back, although fewer than had been there the day before. If this was the final phase I wanted to make sure that it remained as peaceful as humanly possible for her.

Within a couple of hours, the house was full of people again – about a dozen total. They all took a few minutes with her and I gave them their privacy. Each of us had our histories with Mary and I wasn’t going to intrude on theirs. But I still made sure that either Steve or myself was either in the room or close to it at all times.

The hospice nurse showed up around 8:30am and checked her out. She was a sturdy woman who spoke with a thick Ukrainian accent. I thought this would’ve pleased Mary for some reason. She liked the Baltics and people from them.

Steve was on the phone to Mary’s doctor and it was just me and the nurse in the room for a bit. After she examined Mary, she made her own phone call to the hospice to make a report. She talked about blood pressure and responsiveness and breathing.

“Patient is actively dying,” the nurse said.

After she finished, I asked her if that meant it would be soon and she said, “Could be hours. Could be days. You never know.”

Days, I thought. It can’t be days. There’s no way any of us can take this for days. I pulled Steve aside when he came back into the room and told him what the nurse had said. He nodded, looking a little pale. I think he thought the same thing. We can’t do this for days.

A second nurse arrived and they got to work on cleaning Mary up. While we all waited outside the room, they changed her bedding, her nightgown, and her diaper. They washed her and combed her thin, dark hair.

“You look beautiful,” Steve said when we walked back into the room. I agreed.

There was a bit of a lull after that and I sat in the room with Mary’s niece Bianca and we started chatting about Plucky Survivors. I brought it up on my phone and started reading aloud to Mary.

Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnddddddd…..we’re off!

Believe it or not, we actually left pretty much exactly at the scheduled departure time of 8:30am. Oh, yes; Rick has it all plotted out in the Big Book O’ Fun, complete with detailed maps, car games, CD lists, and more, more, more! Why so early? Well, we had to be there right at the doors of the Britney Spears Museum in Kentwood as it opened, don’t you know.

I made it through the Britney Spears Museum, laughing about that ridiculous moment when the woman turned on the lights of the recreated stage and I swear… I absolutely swear on everything that I believe in that Mary had the faintest hint of a smile on her face. Maybe I was imagining it or maybe it was something else entirely but whatever was going on, she hadn’t looked that at ease in days.

People started coming in an out again for brief visits but this time I didn’t leave. At some point we realized that it was Fat Tuesday and this became quite a big deal in the house. Having spent many a Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Mary and Steve had plenty of beads so we broke them out and everyone put on a strand or two. We draped some on her hospital bed and talked of the big party happening in the Big Easy.

Other coincidences… it was also her father’s birthday and the day she got the signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the mail from Harper Lee years earlier. I don’t know if there is such a thing as cosmic timing, but this seemed to have it.

A little after 11am, Steve, Nettie, and I were in the room when Mary’s mom Claudia came in. She sat with her for a few moments quietly, not saying anything, while the three of us chattered away. Claudia got up to leave but I stopped her for some reason. I don’t know why, but I did. We began talking about this and that and eventually worked our way around to the beads.

“I was saying earlier that we should just say to heck with this,” I began and then caught myself. We had promised Mary that we wouldn’t talk about her as if she wasn’t there – no “Steel Magnolias” moments for her. I turned to Mary and said, “We’re just going to say to heck with all of this and go get on a plane and go to Mardi Gras, right Mary?”

She turned her head slightly at that moment. It was the first time she had moved in hours. Her chin came up a bit as if she was looking up, and out. Away. It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t breathing.

“You guys,” I said loudly as I jumped to my feet.

Everyone turned to Mary and began crowding around the bed. Pounding footsteps came down the stairs as everyone crowded into the room. Her mother. Her sister. Her brother and his family. Steve’s mom and brother and sister and their families. Bianca. Nettie. Robin. Me.

“We love you Mary,” someone said.

“So much,” I said, weeping openly, loudly.

I stood at the foot of the bed, my hands on her leg. I held onto her as she left. I watched as my best friend left.

I don’t care what you read or hear or even what you have experienced, but those who say that the moment when someone dies is beautiful are lying to you or perhaps to themselves. It is ugly and horrible. It is like the end of a war where you realize that everything is destroyed and in rubble. It is final and uncompromising. It is the hardest thing in the world, ever.

I stumbled out of the room onto the back deck, gulping in huge breaths of air in between sobs. It was bright and sunny, a blue sky and green trees, which was wrong, somehow. Steve came out shortly after and grabbed him tightly.

He was her husband and I was her best friend – we were both important to her in different ways. And more importantly, she was the love of both of our lives.

The next few hours were the classic and clichéd blur. I made some phone calls. I sat in the room with her body and sent some e-mails. I watched as a hospice nurse came to collect the medications. I watched as somber men came to put her body in a bag, then on a stretcher to carry her upstairs as the dogs barked madly. I watched as they put her body in a van. It had the name of a rental car agency on the license plate frame, which I thought was weird. I watched it drive away as all of stood at the edge of the driveway and waved. Then the van stopped as the driver realized that he was going the wrong way, turned around, and drove back by again while we all waved again.

Mary would’ve thought that was funny.

I stayed for a little while and made sure that someone was going to stay with Steve before I collected my stuff and headed home. I slept for a few hours as the emotional toll and the lack of real sleep for the last couple of days finally caught up with me.

When I woke up it was dark and I considered just staying in bed until the morning but I knew there was one more thing I needed to do.

I went on to the Plucky Survivors website and found six pictures of Mary and I together. The first from 2006 of us in front of the Biggest Ball of Twine; the second of us recreating “American Gothic” complete with costumes in front of the Grant Wood house in Iowa in 2007; a third was the two of us sitting next to a statue of Colonel Sanders at the Kentucky Fried Chicken Museum in Kentucky, 2008; fourth was Mary sitting on my lap in the Washington DC airport at the end of our trip in 2009; fifth was the picture we took in her foyer the morning of our Plucky Mini trip in 2010.

I removed everything from the home page of the site and replaced it with those photographs and this:

February 16, 2010

Dear Plucky Readers,

I’d like to ask you to take some time and go through the Plucky Survivors site… read our travels, look at the pictures, laugh with us, and remember our adventures and please, promise to have many, many more of your own.

But first, a note…

Mary and I often ruminated on the odd randomness of things; how one event, if it had happened differently or not at all, could change things so dramatically. If any of a billion tiny little events and coincidences and happenstances hadn’t, well, happened we never would’ve met. When Mary ruminated on this she got scared, as if an axe wielding maniac was hiding under the bed waiting to pounce.

I just remain in awe of it.

For more than 20 years, Mary was my best friend. We saw each other through the grand events and the minutiae that happen over the course of a life. For instance I remember when she started talking about this guy named Steve (which for the record would be one of the grand events although that wouldn’t become clear until sometime later when she married the guy).

I remember road trips to Vegas. In fact it was Mary that got me started writing about Vegas. We wrote our first travel guide together back in 1998 about Las Vegas and that led to more travel guides for the both of us, my Vegas website, and me looking like a dumbass on The Travel Channel.

I remember when I mentioned that for my 40th birthday, lacking anything else interesting to do, that I might go see the “Biggest Ball of Twine” in Branson, Missouri. Her response: “Cool. Can I go?” Four years later we had covered nearly 10,000 miles across the country in adventures that we called Plucky Survivors See America.

I remember when she called to tell me she had cancer and I remember her worrying about my own health issues. I remember how we kept each other alive in many ways, even before we both got sick.

To say my life would not have been the same without her is too small. I can’t find words that are big enough. Perhaps there aren’t any. Perhaps there are no words that can represent the bond, the love, the unbreakable solidity of a best friendship other than the knowledge that it will be there, always, even if we aren’t.

Earlier today, February 16, 2010, her house was filled with family and friends, and her husband Steve, her mom, her dear friend Nettie, and myself were in her room with her, talking about how today was Fat Tuesday. New Orleans has always been one of her favorite cities and it was there that our very first Plucky Survivors trip started.

I looked over at her and said, “We’re going to go get on a plane and go to Mardi Gras, right Mary?” And she raised her head slightly and then she was gone.

And so, a new Plucky Adventure has begun. Safe travels my friend. I love you.

Rick

At the bottom of the page, I put the photo of us sitting under the Friendship Oak in Mississippi at the end of our first Plucky Survivors trip in 2006. Its branches reach out around us as we sit smiling on a bench, a plaque at our feet. It reads:

“I am called the Friendship Oak. Those who enter my shadow are supposed to remain friends through their lifetime no matter where fate may take them…”

February 15, 2010

This is how I remember it. I could spend a lot of time talking about the difference between perceived reality and actual reality and the huge canyon that straddles the gap, but it’s been done before and better than I ever could. For now, let’s just say that this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

I wrote this a long time ago. I read it every year. This the first time I have felt like sharing it. I don’t know why other than it’s been seven years and that feels like long enough.

So this is what happened seven years ago today. Tomorrow I’ll post what happened seven years ago tomorrow.

Before we begin, one of her favorite pictures of the two of us…

day02_agrickmary

That day, Monday, February 15, 2010 was Presidents’ Day. Looking back on it, it seems fitting that it started that day considering how many different ways presidents and their museums figured into our Plucky Survivors See America journeys. But the most important thing, in terms of the sequence of events is concerned, is that I didn’t have to go to work that day. When I don’t have to get up with an alarm clock and be presentable to anyone, I usually stay up late and the night before was no exception. I think I finally hit the bed around 4am.

I do not wake easily even when I have had a full night’s sleep. I have two alarm clocks, both at a volume level marked “cacophony,” and both set to incorrect times so that when they go off I have to do a little bit of math to figure out what time it actually is. For some reason math wakes me up. Mary knew this about me and so anytime she called and suspected that she had caught me before my eyes were fully open, she would speak loudly and occasionally give me simple arithmetic questions.

Steve, however, didn’t know this about me so when he called at around 8am on that Monday morning, not only did he not increase his speaking volume to a low shout or ask me to calculate pi to the tenth decimal, but he also didn’t come across as terribly urgent.

“Mary is not doing so great,” he said calmly. “I think you should come over.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll be over in a while.”

I hung up the phone and rolled over, thinking that I would sleep for another couple of hours and then head over around lunch time. That seemed perfectly reasonable at that moment. As I drifted back to sleep though, my brain did its own version of math and put two and two together. I realized what the phone call really meant and I jumped out of bed as if there was an earthquake, instantly wide awake despite the fact that I had only gotten a few hours of sleep.

I showered and dressed quickly, calling Steve back as I headed out the door to tell him that I was now officially awake and was on my way over. He sounded relieved.

About a week earlier, just a couple of days after our aborted Plucky Mini trip, Mary had begun in-home hospice care. A hospital bed was brought in and installed in their bedroom, facing the windows so she could have a view of the trees in the backyard. She was put on a schedule of heavy drugs – morphine for the pain, ativan to keep her calm, and more. A portable toilet sat in the corner, although she had stubbornly refused to use it up to that point. There was no in-home nurse so Steve tended to her most of the time, while a rotating cast of friends and family came in to give him a little time off now and then.

I had last seen her on Saturday, February 13, when friends from her school came for a special ceremony. Mary had worked hard over the years to earn her masters in theology. She had completed all her coursework and the dreaded German language requirement but she had never gotten to writing her dissertation. That final step loomed large, especially in light of her deteriorating health over the last year.

But her classmates, professors, and the Dean all got together and reviewed the work she had done, focusing specifically on a paper she had written and presented at a conference in late 2008. Although not specifically her dissertation, it contained many of the basic concepts she intended to present when she wrote it, so the school decided that would do just fine under the circumstances. Her God School friends, a professor, and the Dean all joined Steve, me, and a few other friends at her house on that Saturday to officially confer her master’s degree in theology.

I was one of the first to arrive and seeing her there in that hospital bed, oxygen making her breathing a little easier but not much, was nothing short of devastating. It had been only a week since I had seen her last – dropping her off at home after the abbreviated Plucky Mini – but the decline in that short amount of time was almost shocking. It wasn’t just her appearance although that was certainly a part of it; thin – too thin, and sallow, her skin a dishwater gray and her eyes rheumy and unfocused. It became obvious quickly that her mental state had declined a lot also.

She recognized and greeted me but that was about the extent of our conversation other than her responding to simple yes or no questions. There was a moment where she came around enough to ask for a very specific blue scarf – she wanted to look nice for the ceremony, of course – and I went on a quest that threatened to turn into an Abbott and Costello routine.

“This one?” I’d ask.

“No, blue,” she’d manage.

“This is blue,” I’d reply.

“Different blue,” she’d say.

And then we’d repeat the whole thing over and over again until she finally accepted the ninety-seventh or so blue scarf that I found. Whether or not this was the actual blue scarf she was looking for or that she had merely grown tired of humoring me is up for debate but I suspect it was the latter. Regardless, the scarf and a nice suede hat improved her mood.

The ceremony was necessarily short; both funny and sad, although more sad than funny, I think. She got her graduation sash that replaced the scarf and a tassel that Steve laid gently on the suede hat, flipping it to the appropriate side at the right moment. After the Dean finished his brief speech, that left everyone including himself in tears, Mary said a few words – disconnected and a bit rambling but we all got the point: she was happy.

It was obvious that even this 15 minute ceremony was exhausting for her so we left her to rest while we all went upstairs to the living room for snacks and conversation. I wasn’t exactly hungry or in a talkative mood, but there was chocolate and it would’ve been impolite to eat and sulk in a corner. It wasn’t long before there was a noise from the bedroom downstairs and I went to go investigate only to find Mary trying to get out of the hospital bed.

“Mary, where are you going?” I asked.

“Upstairs,” she said firmly.

“No,” I said, going to stop her, “You’re staying there.”

She gave me a look that was a clear as any look Mary ever gave me – and believe me she had given me many over the years. There were looks that said, “You’re being an idiot but I’m too kind to say it out loud.” There were looks that said, “I love you but you’re in between me and food.” This particular look said: “There is a party going on upstairs; a party that is happening in my honor. There are desserts at this party. There are people I want to talk to at this party. I am going upstairs to this party so you can either help me or get the hell out of my way.”

There are two things that I remember vividly from the experience of carrying her up the stairs. The first is that I bumped her arm on a low overhang. She said “ow” softly but I don’t think it really hurt all that much. Yet I still remember it and have enormous guilt about it. The second thing I remember is that she was heavier than I thought she’d be. She looked as if she’d be light as a feather but she still had weight. I thought, “She’s still here. She is still solid and present.” It meant something at that moment. It meant a lot.

I placed her carefully on the sofa as everyone gave me dirty looks, wondering why I had entertained the foolishness of her desire to come upstairs. I explained the look and everyone immediately understood. They had been on the receiving end of many of her looks over the years.

She ate a bit of a cupcake and engaged in theological discussions with her God School friends. Well, they mainly talked and she interjected here and there, but she was engaged – more engaged than I had seen her all day – and we could all tell it was good for her. At times when all thought and reason go out the window and we are reduced to the basest level of merely attempting to survive to the next moment, being amid high-minded conversation is soothing somehow. An intellectual salve if you will.

I had to go to an appointment to get some work done on a tattoo that was turning out to be more epic than I had really intended it to be, so I gathered my stuff and said goodbye to the group. Mary started to get up off the couch.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I want to hug you,” she said.

This time I gave her a look and she got it. She settled back down and I went to her for a kiss and a hug.

“I’ll see you on Thursday,” I said, as that was my day to take a hospice shift so Steve could run some errands.

“Yay,” she said.

The tattoo I was getting was a large tribal design on my arm, chest, shoulder, and back that was made up of words inside the design. So far I had gotten peace, tolerance, chance, family, passion, creativity, courage, integrity, and chance. The words I added that day, on my chest over my heart, were joy, devotion, and commitment.

I had committed to being there at the end for Mary, although to be honest I didn’t want to. I had done it before for other friends during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, but this was different. This was my best friend. This was Mary. I wanted to be anywhere other than there and yet there was no place else I would’ve been, if that makes any sense.

“Hey dude,” I said as I walked in that Monday morning.

Her breathing was raspy and ragged; a dry rattle as she actively, as forcefully as she could, drew in as much oxygen as she could at a time. The simple act that we do unconsciously was a determined effort for her and the strain showed on every ounce of her. Her skin was clammy with a sheen of perspiration that felt warm and had a vaguely sweet scent to it. I inhaled as I leaned in to kiss her on the cheek and she smiled.

I sat with her as Steve went about calling family – hers and his – and other friends. We didn’t speak, really. She was only aware of her surroundings in momentary bursts at that point so mainly I just sat with her, looking at her, watching her fade as if the exhale of every one of those breaths she fought so hard for contained a little piece of her slipping away.

It was my turn to make some phone calls. I wrote an ugly script and tried to stick to it because anything else would’ve caused me to simply stop functioning.

“Hi, it’s Rick. I don’t think there’s much time. You should come.”

The house filled up rapidly with people. Mothers, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and in-laws. God School friends. The Marymount Girls. The Fat Pack. Back in my less than glorious youth I had been a bouncer at a nightclub and I wound up with that job description again, trying to control who was in the room and when and for how long.

Mary had been very clear who she wanted to be with her in her final moments and the list was short. It wasn’t because she didn’t want the people who loved her and whom she loved near, it was because she didn’t want to cause them any more pain. She knew how hard it would be for those dearest to her and it was obvious how much it took out of her every time someone came to the room. At times she’d recognize them and engage in a few words of conversation, but more often she would struggle both vocally and physically, as if it pained her that she couldn’t engage in witty banter with her friends and family.

So I kept the traffic moving and made sure that anyone who wanted to touch her did so in the right way. Holding her hand or stroking her hair seemed to cause her pain, so we tried to make sure that people only caressed her fingertips or gently put their hand on her arm or leg.

The hospice program had set up a very specific regiment of medication for her – morphine mostly but others as well that had to be put into an oral syringe and then fed to her slowly, drop by drop, like nursing a baby cub. Steve had been keeping track of the times and dosages on a random scrap of paper but I wasn’t having any of that. I went upstairs to Mary’s computer and created a detailed spreadsheet with spaces for the medicine names, exact amounts to be given, and schedules both past and future. In the face of chaos, I need order. Spreadsheets create order. Spreadsheets give me comfort.

For most of the morning and early afternoon I stayed in the room with her, leaving only briefly to use the bathroom or get something to drink. I had conversations with others in the house but I really don’t remember very many of them. I was too focused on what was going on in Mary’s bedroom. Anytime someone would stop me for some bit of chatter, my eyes would dart toward the stairs down to Mary, and while I was polite on the outside, on the inside I was screaming “Stop talking to me! I have more important things to do!!”

Sometime shortly after noon, Mary became more cognizant and when it was just her and Steve and I in the room, made it very clear that she was done. She wanted it to be over.

During her treatment, when things weren’t looking great, Mary had a conversation with her doctor about the end. He agreed to help her and the way she interpreted that statement was that he was agreeing to help her die. So she asked Steve to call the doctor and tell him that she was ready.

The doctor had a different interpretation for that conversation and while it took several phone calls to get to the crux of the matter, ultimately he stated clearly that he would not do anything to hasten her death. He would help her be as comfortable as possible and the end would come when it came.

Telling this to Mary, at least in terms that clearly, seemed cruel at that point, so instead we delayed her, we comforted her, we told her that we were working on it.

Thinking it would be over soon, Mary asked me to get a pen and paper so she could say a few things – some parting words. After struggling to form the words in her head and then trying to get her mouth to cooperate, she said this: “Thank you for taking care of me.”

And I wanted to. There was a moment that afternoon when she was crying, begging to be let out of the body that had betrayed her, that I almost walked over to the bottle of morphine sitting on the table near her bed. I had no idea how much I would have needed to give her but I figured it couldn’t be that hard. Take the dose she was getting every two hours and increase it to every hour, then every thirty minutes. It would be over sooner that way. I wouldn’t have told anybody, I would’ve just done it.

But I didn’t. I castigated myself for being selfish, wanting to keep her around for every moment I could even if she was in pain. I thought maybe I was just chickenshit, too afraid to actually take the kind of bold action that needed to be taken. In the end though, I figured out that it wasn’t something that Mary would’ve wanted me to do. She wouldn’t have wanted me to live with that. She wouldn’t have wanted anyone to live with that.

The house was becoming a bit of a circus with no fewer than two dozen people milling about. Built on a hill, Mary and Steve’s house had the main living room, kitchen, and dining room on the top floor, with the bedrooms underneath and so every footstep, every chair scrape, every voice carried down into Mary’s room. Any noise that was even slightly louder than normal caused her to stir and struggle. It was as if the noise was causing her actual discomfort.

Steve and I agreed that although the end was certainly coming, for some reason we didn’t think it was coming that night so we decided that all the people in the house were causing Mary too much anxiety. It was time for them to go.

“Don’t worry, Mary,” I said, “The Bouncer will take care of it.”

“Why is he doing it this way?” Mary asked groggily but plaintively.

“Because that’s the best way to do it,” I said, which seemed to satisfy her and she closed her eyes again. It wasn’t until later that I realized that she had an entirely different vision in her head of The Bouncer. The Bouncer was the one that was going to end it for her and she didn’t understand what was taking so damn long.

It wasn’t easy asking people to leave and I think more than a few of them weren’t very happy with me, but I didn’t really care. My mission at that moment was to give Mary as much peace as I possibly could. That’s what best friends do.

We got everyone cleared out by 9 or 10 that night and it was just the three of us – Steve, me, and Mary. Since the medications needed to be delivered on a consistent basis all night, we agreed that I would be the time keeper, setting my phone’s alarm to get up every hour or 90 minutes or so to wake Steve. It wasn’t a spreadsheet but it was something I could control.

At eleven o’clock that night, while Steve was in another room, I sat in a chair next to Mary’s bed and turned on the TV to watch “Friends.” Mary and I always joked that you could compare everything in life to an episode of “Friends” but I didn’t remember any that were analogous to this situation. None of the bright, shiny, happy people on that show ever died slowly and painfully.

I went into the guest bedroom shortly after the show ended, first reassuring Steve and Mary that I was there for the duration, whether that was a day or a week. I didn’t ask if that was okay but I knew it was. I knew it’s what she wanted. It was my commitment. I was devoted to her.

But there was no joy.

Prop Master: A Look at the November 2016 California Ballot Propositions

In between writing a second Hallmark Xmas movie with a lot of very earnest dialogue about the meaning of the holiday and a Lifetime movie with lots of single white female drama, I decided to take some time and write up my thoughts on the propositions as I do every year.

Now, as we have discussed, I hate the California ballot process. It is ridiculous that laws (or worse, constitutional amendments) are made by 50% plus one person of the fraction of people who actually vote, many of whom don’t take the time to do anything other than pay a little bit of attention to the misdirection and outright lies that most of the campaign TV commercials put out there. My default position is to vote “no” since most of them are put forth by extreme factions, often Republican, who can’t get things advanced legislatively in the state.

But every now and then there are some that come around that I think are worthy of attention. There are few this time around, including one I feel very passionate about. There are a lot of them this year so buckle in.

QUICK LOOK:

No on 51 (School Bonds)
No on 52 (Diverting Hospital Fee Revenue)
No on 53 (Voter Approval of Revenue Bonds)
No on 54 (Public Display of Bills)
No on 55 (Extension of Top Tax Rate)
No on 56 (Tobacco Tax)
No on 57 (Non-Violent Parole)
Yes on 58 (Allows Bi-Lingual Education)
Yes on 59 (Demand Action Against Citizens United)
No on 60 (Condoms in Adult Films)
No no 61 (Drug Price Standards)
Yes on 62 (Repeal the Death Penalty)
Yes on 63 (Gun and Ammunition Control)
Yes on 64 (Legalizes Marijuana)
No on 65 (Bag Fees for Wildlife Fund)
No on 66 (Changes to the Death Penalty Process)
Yes on 67 (Bans Plastic Bags)

IN DEPTH


Proposition 51: School Bonds. Funding for K-12 School and Community College Facilities. Initiative Statute

The short version:
Issues $9 billion in bonds to pay for schools and community colleges

Who is for it:
Almost everyone – Democrats, Republicans, teachers, and on and on

What the people for it say:
For God’s sake, won’t someone please think of the children! They are our future, you know?

Who is against it:
Governor Jerry Brown and the Libertarians

What the people against it say:
Nine BILLION dollars? What the fuck? Plus, it doesn’t have enough protections in it to ensure that the money is directed to low-income neighborhoods where it is truly needed.

What I say:
What the fuck? Sorry, kids. I’m with Governor Jerry.

Verdict:
NO on Prop 51


Proposition 52: Voter Approval to Divert Hospital Fee Revenue Dedicated to Medi-Cal

The Short Version:
Hospitals pay fees to the state to help them qualify for federal Medicaid funds – fees that are supposed to go into a fund that is matched by the state. However, legislators sometimes “redirect” those fees to other uses. Prop 52 is a constitutional amendment and state statute that would require any “redirection” of these fees to be approved by voters or by 2/3 of the legislature, which would effectively end the practice.

Who is for it:
Democrats, Republicans, the Health care industry – kind of everyone

What the people for it say:
Politicians are shady and they shouldn’t be allowed to use money for one thing on something else.

Who is against it:
Libertarians, mostly.

What the people against it say:
This will effectively increase funding to hospitals, which means corporate health care companies and their greedy CEOs will profit from it.

What I say:
I had over $2 million in medical bills from my big fun with cancer a few years ago. I don’t feel sorry for hospitals AT ALL. But beyond that, I am very against constitutional amendments being done through the ballot process.

Verdict:
NO on Prop 52


Proposition 53: Voter Approval Requirement for Revenue Bonds above $2 Billion

The Short Version:
Voters already get the right to approve the issuance of general obligation bonds, often done to pay for things like parks and schools, and repaid through tax revenue. But voters don’t have the right to approve revenue bonds, which often pay for things like roads and bridges, and are repaid through fees and other charges (like Highway tolls). This constitutional amendment would give voters the right to approve any revenue bond issuance valued above $2 billion.

Who is for it:
Republicans and Libertarians.

What people for it say:
Keep your damn dirty hands off my damn dirty money! Or… Politicians suck and they borrow money to pay for pork projects that we then have to pay for and we don’t have any say in the matter.

Who is against it:
Democrats and most progressive organizations

What people against it say:
Local and community projects would be negatively affected because it would require the approval of the entire state. Plus there is no exemption for natural disasters or other emergencies.

What I say:
Just like I don’t think 50% + 1 should make law, neither do I think they should be able to control state budgets. Plus it’s a constitutional amendment, so you know how I feel already.

Verdict:
NO on Prop 53


Proposition 54: Public Display of Legislative Bills Prior to Vote

The Short Version:
A constitutional amendment and state statute that would require that every bill under consideration in the state legislature be posted on the Internet for 72 hours prior to any vote. It also requires the legislature to record all their public proceedings and post them within 24 hours and allows anyone to record any public legislature session and post those recordings publicly.

Who is for it:
Republicans and Libertarians, plus lots of progressive groups like the NAACP, League of Women Voters, etc.

What the people for it say:
Politicians suck and this will help make them accountable.

Who is against it:
Democrats and their usual labor affiliates (nurses, teachers, etc.)

What the people against it say:
There is one billionaire behind this – a right wing nutjob who wants it so he can use the 72 hours to launch public outrage campaigns about pending votes by the Democratic-led legislature.

What I say:
This is one that sounds good on the surface – transparency is a good thing, right? But how many of you are going to check the website listing all the upcoming votes every day and then do something about the stuff that you don’t like? None of you. The ones that will do something are the extremists on both sides who will use it to try to slow down the process and advance their own agendas.

The Verdict:
NO on Prop 54


Proposition 55: Extension of the Proposition 30 Income Tax Increase

The Short Version:
Constitutional amendment that would extend current tax rates on individual incomes over $250K from 2018 to 2030

Who is for it:
Democrats and most progressive organizations

What those for it say:
Rich people suck! Or at least they suck when it comes to paying their fair share of taxes. This doesn’t raise taxes, it just keeps the rate they are already paying.

Who is against it:
Republicans and Libertarians

What those against it say:
I’ve had it with all these motherfucking taxes on the motherfucking plane! Oh, and this is a bait and switch because voters approved this “temporary” tax increase with the 2018 expiration and now it’s going to stay forever.

What I say:
Full transparency – because of all the TV movie gigs I have been getting plus my full time job, this law will affect me. I have always said I don’t have any problem paying taxes and I support the idea of it in general. But this is a constitutional amendment, so that makes me inclined to oppose it from the get-go. Plus, I kind of agree with the LA Times, which says: “When a majority of people provide a substantial portion of the state’s revenue, there is a broader demand for accountability and a greater incentive to vote. But when only a few provide most of the revenue, the majority loses not only its incentive to demand results, but its leverage to do so.”

The Verdict:
NO on Prop 55


Proposition 56: Tobacco Tax Increase

The Short Version:
Constitutional amendment and state statute that raises taxes on cigarettes, tobacco products, and e-cigarettes by $2.00 per pack (or equivalent) to pay for anti-smoking campaigns and health care.

Who is for it:
Democrats and progressive groups

What those for it say:
Smoking is evil. Smokers are bad people. Smokers should die but until they do they should pay for everything.

Who is against it:
Republicans, Libertarians, and evil smokers

What those against it say:
Taxes are bad and the money this raises won’t be used the way it should be.

What I say:
Full transparency – I’m a smoker. I quit when I got cancer in 2012 (which had nothing to do with the smoking, for the record) and then picked it back up again last year and then quit again last year and then picked it back up again this year. I have accepted that much like an alcoholic is always an alocholic even when they aren’t drinking, I will always be a smoker even when I’m not smoking. I’m totally with Bebe Glaser from this classic episode of Frasier:

Having said that, smoking is terrible and in general I support all efforts to keep people from doing it. But in the end this is a constitutional amendment that “punishes” one group of people for their addiction. Do we impose a $2 tax on every bottle of alcohol sold? Or every sugary Big Gulp soda?

The Verdict:
No on Prop 56


Proposition 57: Parole for Non-Violent Criminals and Juvenile Court Trial Requirements

The Short Version:
Constitutional amendment and state statute that would increase parole chances for people convicted of non-violent crimes and give prosecutors more leeway in deciding whether to try juveniles as adults.

Who is for it:
Democrats, Libertarians

What those for it say:
Prisons are overcrowded, often with people convicted of non-violent felonies (often drug possession violations)

Who is against it:
Republicans and law and order types

What those against it say:
They’re going to release horrible people from jail who will come to your home and KILL YOU!!

What I say:
This is another one that seems like a good idea, but I have a problem with it. State law identifies 23 specific felonies as “violent” and everything else is not officially “violent.” That includes things like, unbelievably, assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence, gun possession violations, rape, arson, lewd acts against a child, hate crimes, and a lot more . This proposition does not further define what is a “violent” felony. While I generally hate siding with law and order types, I think that’s a problem.

The Verdict:
NO on Prop 57


Proposition 58: Non-English Languages Allowed in Public Education

The Short Version:
State statute that repeals proposition 227, voted into law in 1998, that requires English-only education in public schools and allows bilingual education programs.

Who is for it:
Democrats and most progressive groups

What those for it say:
227 (the proposition, not the Jackee Harry sitcom) was a racist piece of shit and this repeals it.

Who is against it:
Republicans, Libertarians, and most racists

What those against it say:
Build a wall.

What I say:
I hate the California ballot proposition process because it allows bullshit laws like English only education to get put into place by racist and/or misinformed voters. But a proposition that repeals a proposition? I can get behind that.

The Verdict:
YES on Prop 58


Proposition 59: Overturn of Citizens United Act Advisory Question

The Short Version:
This is neither a constitutional amendment nor a state statute. Instead, it’s an “advisory question” that would “encourage” the California legislature to find a way to overturn Citizens United, the US Supreme Court decision that effectively defined corporations as people and opened the floodgates for dark money into politics.

Who is for it:
Bernie and the Progressives (1960s Doo Wop Group, I believe)

What those for it say:
Corporations aren’t people and we need to get money out of politics. And something about hemp I think.

Who is against it:
Republicans

What those against it say:
This is a feel good thing that doesn’t actually do anything.

What I say:
The legislature isn’t actually REQUIRED to do anything and what they could do is probably limited, but since this doesn’t change the constitution or make any laws, then why not?

The Verdict:
YES on 59


Proposition 60: Condoms in Pornographic Films

The Short Version:
State statute requiring that all adult movies filmed in California require performers to wear condoms. If they don’t, the people who make, appear in, distribute, and display the films are subject to civil actions by anyone who feels as though they have been harmed by it.

Who is for it:
AIDS prevention groups, the Peace & Freedom party, prudes, people who say they are disgusted by porn but have pornhub.com bookmarked.

Who is against it:
Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, sexual deviants, people who have pornhub.com bookmarked and don’t care who knows it

What those against it say:
It’s a poorly written law that will allow any whackjob (no pun intended) to file a lawsuit against porn companies because they feel as though they were somehow “harmed” by it.

What I say:
This is well-intentioned but stupid.

The Verdict:
NO on 60


Proposition 61: Drug Price Standards

The Short Version:
State statute that requires state agencies to pay the same prices for prescription drugs that the US Veterans Administration pays.

Who is for it:
Bernie and the Progressives (who later became Hillary and the Progressives, a 60s girl group)

What those for it say:
Big pharma is evil and this will make drug prices more affordable for those on state programs who need it the most.

Who is against it:
Republicans, Libertarians, Big Pharma (big surprise), and several race groups like the NAACP and the California League of United Latin American Citizens (which actually is a surprise)

What those against it say:
Only helps those icky poor people and it could actually make drug prices go up for those heroic Americans who surved our country proudly. Glory, glory hallelujah! And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…

What I say:
Don’t get me started against Big Pharma but here’s the thing that troubles me about this. Drug manufacturers give discounts to the VA on medications, not because they are required to by law, but because not doing so would be disastrous PR. But if they are faced with the option of lowering their price on meds they sell to the state, they could very well just RAISE the price of the drugs they sell to the VA. Why? Because if this law works the way it is intended to, it will cost them billions and other states will rush to pass similar laws. Big Pharma has turned this proposition into the most expensive in history, dumping nearly $90 million into getting it defeated. They won’t take it laying down if it passes.

The Verdict:
NO on Prop 61 (although a very tough call)


Proposition 62: Repeal of the Death Penalty

The Short Version:
It’s right there in the title – this state statute repeals the death penalty in California.

Who is for it:
Progressives, Bleeding Heart Liberals

What those for it say:
The death penalty is immoral – the state should not be involved in killing people

Who is against it:
Law and order types

What those against it say:
Kill the bastards!

What I say:
My opinion is as simple as the title – I am against the death penalty in all instances.

The Verdict:
YES on Prop 62


Proposition 63: Background Checks for Ammunition Purchases and Large-Capacity Ammunition Magazine Ban Initiative

The Short Version:
A state statute that does a bunch of things related to the sale and ownership of guns and ammunition

  1. Requires background checks and a permit for the purchase of ammunition
  2. Requires a license for the sale of ammunition
  3. Bans exemptions for large-capacity magazines (those purchased before 2000) and set penalties for anyone who possesses them
  4. Puts into place a court process that attempts to ensure that people who aren’t supposed to have guns don’t have them. For instance, someone who has a domestic violence protection order against them is not supposed to own a gun, but currently there is no system in place to enforce that
  5. Moves up the date on which out of state purchases of ammunition are banned from 2019 to 2018
  6. Requires dealers and owners to report theft of ammunition within a few days
  7. Makes stealing a gun a felony punishable by up to 3 years in prison

Who is for it:
Progressives, sane people

What people for it say:
We have to do something about gun violence.

Who is against it:
Gun nuts

What those who are against it say:
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! We gots to go kill us some things!

What I say:
If it were up to me I’d round up all the guns, melt them down, and turn them into playground equipment. Since I can’t do that, I will do everything I can to add as many restrictions as I can to get in the way of people and their guns.

The Verdict:
YES on Prop 63


Proposition 64: Marijuana Legalization

The Short Version:
Legalizes recreational marijuana and hemp and puts state taxes on its sale and cultivation.

Who is for it:
Duuuuuuuuuuuude

What those for it say:
Duuuuuuuuuuuude

Who is against it:
Pruuuuuuuuuudes

What those against it say:
Just say no.

What I say:

The Verdict:
Yes on Prop 64


Proposition 65: Dedication of Revenue from Disposable Bag Sales to Wildlife Conservation Fund

The Short Version:
State statute that would redirect money from the sale of carry out and grocery bags to a fund for the Wildlife Conservation Board.

Who is for it:
Tree huggers

What they say:

Who is against it:
People who hate baby seals.

What they say:
Why yes, I’d love to wear that baby seal as a fashionable hat.

What I say:
This is actually more complex than it seems because of Proposition 67, which would ban the use of plastic bags entirely. That ban was passed by the state legislature and 67 ratifies it with voters. If it passes, then a 10 cent per bag fee for the sale of any other reusable bag will go into place and that money goes to the retailer to pay for the cost of the bags and for environmental education programs. If 67 passes AND 65 passes, then that 10 cents will go to the state fund. If 67 passes and 65 fails, the money goes to the retailers. If 67 fails, it is all moot. Confusing? Yes, and intentionally so because Prop 65 was crafted by the same people trying to STOP the plastic bag ban, specifically the manufacturers of plastic bags. Sketchy much?

The Verdict:
NO on Prop 65


Proposition 66: Death Penalty Procedures

The Short Version:
Puts a bunch of new stuff around how the death penalty is administered in the state including speeding up the appeals process and restitution for the victims’ families.

Who is for it:
Law and order types

What those for it say:
The death penalty is needed but can be improved. Oh… and KILL THE BASTARDS!!

Who is against it:
Bleeding heart liberals

What those against it say:
It sounds like they want to do something about the death penalty but its a ruse. Don’t believe it.

What I say:
If the state were to keep the death penalty, there are some good provisions in this that would make it a little less horrific. Not much, but a little. Here’s the important part about this proposition though… If Prop 62, which repeals the death penalty, passes AND this Prop 66 passes, the one with the most yes votes wins. So even if 62 passes, we could still have the death penalty if this one gets more votes. Sketchy much?

The Verdict:
NO on Prop 66


Proposition 67: Plastic Bag Ban Veto Referendum

The Short Version:
The state legislature enacted a ban on plastic grocery bags. This measure ratifies that ban and institutes a 10 cent per bag fee on other bags that goes to the retailer.

Who is for it:
The same people who are against Prop 65.

What those for it say:
The same thing the people against Prop 65 say.

Who is against it:
The same people who are for Prop 65.

What those against it say:
I think you can see where this is going.

What I say:
This proposition does not create a new law. All this does is ratify a law enacted by the state legislature, the people who are supposed to be making laws in the first place. Since we already have a ban in LA it’s kinda moot to me. But while I miss plastic bags, this is a good thing in the long run.

The Verdict:
YES on Prop 67


Southern Fried Road Trips: Days 7-11

Friday certainly started dramatically. With Hermine having come ashore as a category 1 hurricane causing a lot of damage and the projected path taking it almost directly over the top of Savannah, the city was in a little bit of freakout mode. Everything shut down – schools were closed, businesses shuttered, people stayed home from work. The town took it very seriously.

So it was a little bit of the boy who cried wolf when Hermine, downgraded to a strong tropical storm by this point, pretty much fell apart just before it got to Savannah. There was a lot of wind – it blew down a few trees, a lot of branches, and a couple of things that weren’t secured properly like some metal crowd barrier fences that got blown into the street. There was a decent amount of rain but it only caused some localized street flooding. There were a few power outages around town, but that was really it.

Still when there’s a hurricane a-coming (Golden Girls reference), it is best not to spit into the proverbial wind so I pretty much stayed put in my room for the bulk of the day. Around lunch time the wind was blowing rather gustily but there wasn’t much rain so I decided to venture forth and find something more interesting than the Hilton Garden Inn’s lunch buffet. Unfortunately, as mentioned, everything was closed. Even the McDonald’s was closed, so you know they weren’t kidding around. So I slogged back to the hotel and did the buffet. It was exactly what you would expect of a Hilton Garden Inn buffet.

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By late afternoon, the rain had stopped, the wind had died down, and the sun was even peeking through the clouds so I moved some stuff around and went to 700 Drayton for dinner. Located in a gorgeous mansion built in 1881, the restaurant and neighboring hotel are right up at the top of the pecking order for “fancy” in Savannah. Due to the storm, I had one of the many rooms in the house all to myself with a stunning chandelier and a fireplace…

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Dinner was a wild boar shank braised in IPA and served with cheddar grits and asparagus.

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I was a little nervous ordering it seeing as how I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with boar before. As much as we’d like to think is just a pig that hasn’t been housebroken it is actually pretty different in terms of the taste but a lot of it depends on preparation. Chef knew what he was doing here. It was practically falling off the bone, deliciously tender, and a little fatty on the edges but in a good way. The cheddar grits were a little on the bland side but it was probably just the boar overwhelming things. I’d give it a solid A- overall.

A lovely surprise came at the end of the meal when the check was presented – or rather a note that told me that The Fat Pack had taken care of my meal. Steve, Diana, Nettie, Steve, Chuck, Wes, Audrey, Robin, and Leigh Anne, thank you very much. It meant a lot to me that you would do that, although I’m still not sure when I told you where I was going to be eating so I’m pretty sure there was some witchcraft involved in that.

Afterward, I ventured over to get that picture of Scary Mary that I mentioned. This is a statue of the Virgin Mary that sits in a window on an enclosed bridge that runs between a church and a school and has gained a bit of a reputation as being either haunted, possessed, or just downright creepy. I’m voting for all three after I looked at the pictures I took. Now, before I go any further I want you to get context of where Scary Mary is at…

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She’s facing an alley behind the church so it’s not look out onto the street or a courtyard or anything.

Now… look at these two pictures, which I did nothing to other than resize them… the first where the statue looks fine, almost beatific…

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And this one, where I’m pretty sure she has developed a bit of an evil grin…

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Now, I’m sure that this is just because it had rained and the window was a little foggy and I moved positions slightly when I took the pictures and its some sort of reflection in the glass, but come on! That’s creepy, right?

That night I went back to the bar where I was amused by this sign:

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And hung out with drag queens as midnight rolled in and I turned 50 years old.

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Saturday morning, on my actual birthday, I went back to 700 Drayton to take park in their cooking class. Led by New Jersey native Peter Russo, the classes run regularly all week out of a custom built kitchen and feature a bunch of different programs. The one I did was a Farmer’s Market, where Chef took us across the street where every Saturday you’ll find a bunch of locally grown produce, cheeses, meat, and more in the gorgeous Forsyth Park…

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He had already gotten the meat so we picked up kale, grits, red onions, carrots, cheddar and herb goat cheese and had a honey tasting just because it was there. He gave us some tips on how to spot the best produce (which boiled down to “when in doubt, ask – they WANT you to buy something”), we cooed over the chickens eating watermelon…

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And then we took our purchases back to the kitchen and got to work…

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We prepared… grilled chicken in a jerk spice marinade; grilled beef fillets; grilled shrimp in Maryland Old Bay seasoning; kale cooked in butter, garlic, onions, and bacon fat (which Chef Russo kept calling “love” – “this is love” he’d say as he spooned it into a pot) and then topped with bacon; roasted carrots and onions in a balsamic reduction; and cheddar and goat cheese grits. As you can tell, from the photo above, the man is not shy about the fat content in his food. When preparing the grits he brought out a gallon of whole milk and asked, “How much of this should we put in here?” Someone said, “A cup.” Another said, “Two cups.” He said, “That’s right, all of it” and poured it into the pot. The same was done with cheese, butter, and bacon fat. He may die young of a massive coronary, but he will be revered as a god.

After we ate, I just walked around a bunch, enjoying the city. Forsyth Park, the squares, the moss-covered tree-lined streets, the cute shops.

I went to one called Chocolat, purveyor of all things sweet by Adam Turoni. This guy is a bit of a prodigy – he started cooking when he was 8, got his first kitchen job at 14, became the lead pastry chef in a restaurant at 17, and had published several books and opened his own chocolate making company by 20. I on the other hand just turned 50 and I watch a lot of TV. Whatever. His stuff is outrageously expensive, but so, so good. I got some milk chocolate caramels with a dark chocolate drizzle and sea salt, Bailey’s Irish Creme truffles, a honey infused chocolate bar with hand-painted edible gold leaf, and a jar of honey caramel to bring home. Here are a few of the pieces…

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One of my sightseeing stops was at The Waving Girl statue along the river. Florence Martus was her name and, according to legend, she fell in love with a sailor who went to sea and to ensure his safe return she greeted each ship as it came into the Savannah River from the Atlantic with a handkerchief by day and a lantern by night. They say she didn’t miss a ship once in more than 40 years between 1887 and 1931 as she waited for her love to come back to her… but he never did.

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Then it was time for Bacon Fest 2016! Knocked back a day by Hermine, the festival features arts and crafts vendors, music, booze, games, and (of course) food vendors offering a bunch of different bacony goodness items…

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I was a little disappointed because the number of food vendors was smaller than it has been in the past and the offerings not quite as original. I was told by one person that several restaurants had to drop out because they were originally scheduled for Friday and Saturday and couldn’t commit to Saturday and Sunday so they just didn’t come. Hermine, you bitch!

But I still got some interesting bacon inventions including Chicken Fried Bacon with a ranch and Buffalo sauce drizzle…

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A classic bacon wrapped hot dog with ketchup and onions:

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Bacon pups… which I was told were like hush puppies with bacon, cheddar, and jalapeno but which tasted like corn bread and nothing else. The woman who told me what they were was very nice and I can’t imagine why she’d lie to me, but I suspect she was…

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And for the sweeter side, cherry glazed bacon and chocolate bacon…

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I know it’s sacrilege, but I’m not a fan of the chocolate bacon. But I will keep trying it until I find one I like.

I got back to my room and was delighted to find a package there from Maureen, who very thoughtfully sent me birthday cake… or rather, six of them in sealed Mason jars from Wicked Cakes of Savannah. There is cookie dough, wedding cake, red velvet, turtle, lemon and blueberry, and carrot. I devoured the cookie dough and brought the rest home with me so it’ll be birthday cakes for the next week. Thank you Maureen!!

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Since the Lady Chablis had cancelled her show, I decided to go instead to the Savannah Theater to catch one of their long-running singing and dancing revues, “Savannah Live!” The facility is the oldest continually operating theater in the United States, first opened in 1818. It has been substantially redone after fires and hurricanes damaged it, most recently in the 1940s when it got its current “streamline” art deco look…

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The show featured a cast of six singer/dancers, a featured singer, and a five piece band who did covers of everything from Queen to “Phantom of the Opera” to Gladys Knight and the Pips (“Midnight Train to Georgia,” naturally) to *NSYNC and beyond with a little bit of comedy and heartfelt salutes to our troops along the way. Having reviewed every revue that has ever played Vegas, I have seen this type of show a bazillion times and what I found most interesting was not the talent or quality – they are all fine, good, some even quite good – but rather the spirit. The people in these types of shows in Vegas are still holding onto the idea that they are going to be famous some day. These folks in “Savannah Live!” seem to just want to entertain the folks that come to their town. It may not have been standing ovation worthy (although they got one, which we need to get under control and only give out to productions that actually deserve them) but it was light-hearted and earnestly delivered fun so I give it a thumbs up.

After the show, I took another walk through the some of the less popular squares and streets away from the bar district that draws the drunk, loud tourists who do stupid things like pedal just to get a drink:

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Why would you do this? You can go sit on a bar stool and someone will bring you a drink and you don’t need to do anything other than lift it to your mouth. I don’t get it. I honestly don’t.

Anyway, I don’t have the kind of camera that will take really good night pictures, but you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that it is absolutely beautiful, serene, somehow magical, and with just the right touch of the eerie to give it that something extra special.

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I of course went back to Troup Square to visit my beloved Armillary, featured heavily in my book Ineritas and also swung by the Colonial Park cemetery, which is featured heavily in book two (which I am currently writing).

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Then of course it was back to the bar for some more drinking, dancing, and drag shows, where I was thrilled beyond measure to catch Layla, a saucy queen who loves to do country music, doing the classic “Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” speech from “Designing Women,” which I used to know by heart…

“And that, Marjorie, just so you will know and so your children will someday know…” If you’ve never seen the whole thing, watch it here:

All in all, it was a very, very fine birthday.

Sunday I was a bit bummed – I always am when I have to leave Savannah – but I cheered myself up with a visit on the way back to Atlanta with a stop at the Woodbury Shop in Senoia, the official home of “The Walking Dead.” I bought a bunch of stuff and visited their museum, which has props from the show and walls that have been signed by all of the cast. Check out the one from Melissa McBride below…

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Accommodations provided by The Grand Hyatt in Buckhead, which had a nice view of the Atlanta skyline in the distance:

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And then finally my last southern meal, at a restaurant called Southern Art. Chicken and dumplings soup, buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and macaroni and cheese. I left very happy and very, very full.

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I flew home today and there is really only one more story to tell and it is of the crazy woman on my plane. I had a window seat, which I prefer (more room, less getting bumped by people coming down the aisle), and as I approached my row, crazy woman was standing in it, in front of the aisle seat. She was in her late 50s, I’d guess, with lots of makeup, lots of jewelry, LOTS of perfume, and either a lot of vodka or a lot of mental instability.

She said, with a slightly wild-eyed look, “Are you in the window seat here?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you want to switch to the aisle seat?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I prefer the window.”

“But I need the window,” she said.

“Uh… what?” I asked, now holding up people behind me because she wouldn’t let me into my seat.

“I need the window!” she said, freaking out a bit.

“I’m sorry,” I said and kind of pushed past her to get to my seat.

She then plopped down in the aisle seat and stared at me with a hateful gaze, silently for about 30 seconds and then said, “Are you going to keep the shades shut?”

“The window shades?” I asked, unsure if I had hear her correctly. After she nodded vigorously and crazily, I continued, “I’m not sure. I may watch a movie and I have some work to do so I’ll probably keep them shut most of the time.”

“I am terribly claustrophobic,” she proclaimed loudly, “And the window shades must remain open.”

Okay, so, up until then I’d been confused but was handling it with what I thought was a firm, but polite, standing of my ground. But at that point I was done. I was tired, I was cranky, I was hungry, I was done.

“Perhaps,” I said, channeling my best Julia Sugarbaker, “You should have of that before you bought an aisle seat.”

“There were no window seats available when I booked my ticket!” she practically screamed.

“Funny,” I said, still full Julia, “There were when I bought mine.”

She harrumphed… almost literally harrumphed and got up, pushing past the people who were still boarding so she could get to the flight attendant. She proceeded to complain that I was unwilling to switch seats with her. The flight attendant said, “If he doesn’t want to move, there’s nothing we can do,” which was good because at that point you couldn’t have gotten me out of that seat with a crowbar.

The woman in the row ahead of us, meekly raised her hand and said, “My son will switch – he has a window seat.” The crazy woman harrumphed back to my row, gave me a harrumph that seemed to indicate she thought she had some sort victory over me even though my skinny ass was still sitting exactly where it had been all along, and then harrumphed to take the kid’s seat. She raised the shades with a slam, and then stared back repeatedly until the plane took off. During the flight she was up no fewer than 20 times, asking the flight attendant for water, for juice, for an extra blanket, for nuts, for the time, I stopped paying attention, but it is worth noting that the woman’s new seat… was in ROW 1!!! Literally she could have said, in a normal speaking voice, “Excuse me, Flight Attendant?” and the flight attendant would have heard her but she decided it was necessary to get up out of her seat every single time. I was so tempted to sneak over there and shut the shades while she was up.

Perhaps I just need to watch Julia Sugarbaker some more.

Thanks for following along. I hope you had some fun reading because I certainly had a lot of fun doing. It was good 50th birthday trip. Looking forward to 51!

$50 for 50 by 50 #50: Charity Navigator

I’m turning 50 this year and instead of whining about it, I’m trying to do something positive by donating $50 to 50 different charities before I’m 50 years old.

I found a lot of the charities I donated do on CharityNavigator.org, a group that tracks charities and rates them based on their effectiveness, financial performance, accountability and transparency, CEO and staff compensation, and more. This allows you to find out if the charity you want to give to is doing good with their donations or if they are squandering them. It also has charities grouped by type so you can find highly rated charities to help.

Charity Navigator is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization under the Internal Revenue Code and does not accept any contributions from any charities they evaluate.

Learn more at charitynavigator.org.

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$50 for 50 by 50 #49: Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)

I’m turning 50 this year and instead of whining about it, I’m trying to do something positive by donating $50 to 50 different charities before I’m 50 years old.

Since I am turning 50 I figured that I would give a little bit of assistance to the community that I am becoming a part of.

Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) is the country’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults. Founded in 1978 and headquartered in New York City, SAGE is a national organization that offers supportive services and consumer resources for LGBT older adults and their caregivers, advocates for public policy changes that address the needs of LGBT older people, and provides training for aging providers and LGBT organizations, largely through its National Resource Center on LGBT Aging. With offices in New York City, Washington, DC and Chicago, SAGE coordinates a growing network of 30 local SAGE affiliates in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

To learn more visit sageusa.org.

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Southern Fried Road Trips: Days 5-6

One one eye obsessively on The Weather Channel app, I checked out of the hotel on Wednesday morning with a revised plan for the day. Originally I was going to do several offbeat museums in and around Atlanta and Georgia including the CDC Museum, the Waffle House Museum, and the Crime and Punishment Museum (complete with electric chair!). But not knowing what the storm was going to do made me want to just get to Savannah, get checked into the hotel, and hunker down while making a new plan from there.

How does one “hunker” exactly? Whatever.

Since it was kind of on the way, I did go ahead and make a brief stop at the CDC Museum. Well… I tried. It turns out that you are not allowed to drive onto the CDC campus with an open bottle of vodka in the trunk of your car. Or any other kind of liquor for that matter. They didn’t really explain why but I envisioned all sorts of Hollywood level disasters (“How did the level 4 virus get out!?” “Someone brought a bottle of Grey Goose into the parking garage!” “Damn it, man!!”)

So I had to go park in a big shopping complex across the street (CVS on one corner, CDC on the other) and walk in, where they promptly yelled at me that I wasn’t coming in the right way. Something about a visitors’ sidewalk. I don’t know. Anyway, I finally made it inside, had to have a full cavity search performed on me (or perhaps I was just annoyed by that point and it seemed that intrusive), and then was directed to the museum.

It’s basically all about diseases – ebola, typhoid, legionnaire’s, AIDS, you name it – and other calamities that can affect your health like terrorist attacks, nuclear meltdowns, toxic chemical accidents, and so on. Yeah, real cheery subjects. They had a bunch of funky looking equipment that was explained in a way that I think they think made sense but didn’t, really. This thing for instance…

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It’s an electro-positronic-dynamic-thingamajig. It does something important I’m sure.

I did enjoy the cheeky artifacts of disease prevention campaigns of yore:

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Feeling the need for a Silkwood shower, I high-tailed it out of there and got on the road to Savannah and got into town around 2:30. I’m staying at the Hilton Garden Inn, which has absolutely none of the charm that the hotels that I have been in before did, but it’s clean, it’s comfortable, and I have a balcony that I won’t be able to use much because of all the rain and wind.

I took a walk and then lazed around while the first outer bands of Hermine made their way through Savannah. Rain and wind. Shrug.

For dinner I went to Alligator Soul, a funky little upscale restaurant located in the basement of a building in the historic district. It’s new Southern, meaning updated twists on classic fare. They started me with an amuse bouche of beef tenderloin in a balsamic reduction with garlic and chives and I was indeed amoosed. Then came the warm multi-grain and garlic focaccia bread with lemon herb butter and I was even more amoosed. The main course… a filet wrapped in brown sugar cured bacon and done in a veal demi-glaze, served on a bed of roasted garlic mashed potatoes. I can’t remember the last time I had a steak this good… perfectly prepared, insanely flavorful, slightly decadent with the bacon. I loved it – favorite meal of the trip so far.

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I got an after dinner drink of a white chocolate martini but couldn’t finish it so the waitress said, “You want that in a To-Go cup?” And I said, “I do love this town.”

After dinner I watched it rain a bit more and then headed next door to the local gay bar, which was very quiet until about 40 very drunk, very straight, but very fun Australians on some sort of holiday tour came in. It got loud after that. I didn’t help matters much by buying them all Jello shots. Welcome to America!

Thursday I was going to do the road trip down into Florida but the weather was just too dicey so I stuck around Savannah and tried to get some of the things that I was going to do on Friday accomplished a day early. I went out to Tybee Island to visit the museum that was closed off when I was in town last year but made a stop at the lighthouse across the street first just to see if I could get some good pictures of the storm coming in.

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I’m not sure what made me think that my reaction to going to the top of the thing and out onto the tiny little catwalk that surrounds it at the top would be any different than the last time but I assure you it wasn’t. I took one step out there and immediately freaked the fuck out, almost fell to my knees, and practically had to crawl back inside. This photo was taking through a window from the interior of the lighthouse.

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The museum is located in an old battery garland along the beach that dates back to the 1800s. Although not the most contemporary of museums in terms of presentation, it had a fascinating history of both the military and civilian lives of the island through the years. The area peaked in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Tybee was a major resort destination, with grand hotels, bathhouses, beachside pavilions, and amusement rides. As with most things built of wood in that era, a big chunk of it burned down and although some of it was rebuilt it never really regained its appeal, especially with competition from nearby Florida beach communities reaching their zenith.

The displays are down in the bowels of the battery and you can go up onto the top to look around…

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One of the things that fascinated me was the Hotel Tybee, the grandest of resorts originally built in 1889. It was a beautiful Victorian structure that burned down in 1909 and was replaced by an even more grand cement one in 1911. The bulk of the hotel is long gone, torn down in 1961, but I went to where it was anyway and the hotel that sits there now – a boring modern thing – had some books about the island and the hotel so I can binge a little on history. I think I’m going to put it into one of my Interitas novels.

Right next door is a foodie famous place called The Breakfast Club, which is only open from 7am until 1pm and, unsurprisingly, serves (mainly) breakfast. This place is such a destination that the last two times I have tried to visit the lines were wrapped around the block to get in. Since I was there late on the day before a tropical storm was set to roll through, I was able to get in quickly and have a seat at the counter for a late breakfast/early lunch. I got their Philly cheese steak omelette – tender chunks of top sirloin with onions, mushrooms, and cream cheese. It was an interesting mixture that took me a moment to get used to but I got there quickly and enjoyed the hell out of it.

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Afterward I tried to swing by to get a picture of Scary Mary, a statue of the Virgin Mary that sits in a window at a local church but it’s also a school and it was in session so I didn’t feel comfortable going onto the grounds to do it. She will be in one of my Interitas stories as well, so I will get her before I leave at some point.

Another line of storms moved through and then it cleared out so I went over to River Walk to sit, read, and enjoy a cocktail (or 3). Peach vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, and a few other things I have forgotten. Yum.

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For dinner I visited another new Southern restaurant, A.Lure. They had amazing biscuits before the meal with “pina colada” jam and I had their meatloaf for dinner – ground filet mignon, foie gras, and caramelized onions with fingerling potatoes and chunks of blue cheese. I forgot to take a picture of it before it was half destroyed…

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The only reason I am not raving about it is because the steak the night before was still lingering in my memory, but it was very, very good.

As the first serious parts of the storm rolled in I went back to the bar and had a few drinks while watching a drag show. One of the ladies wanted to know why they only gave boring white people names to hurricanes. If she was in charge, she’d go ghetto fabulous and do things like Laquisha and Shanaynay. I am now obsessed with this idea.

Hermine really started hitting overnight, with a lot of rain and a lot of wind and a few thunderclaps that were loud enough to shake me out of bed, but for the most part it has just been a bad storm. It is looking like the bulk of the bad stuff is skirting to the west of Savannah so right now as I type this, when the eye is passing nearby, it’s just heavy rain and gusty winds and not much else – nothing like the damage and flooding that she wreaked in Florida.

Once the storm passes later this afternoon, I’m going to try to get my Savannah visit back on track. They did cancel Baconfest for tonight, but are still on for tomorrow and now Sunday as well. The Lady Chablis show was cancelled for tomorrow night so that’s a bit disappointing but I’m going to go see a local revue instead.

Off to come up with good drag queen names for hurricanes…

$50 for 50 by 50 #48: The Clinton Foundation

I’m turning 50 this year and instead of whining about it, I’m trying to do something positive by donating $50 to 50 different charities before I’m 50 years old.

There’s a lot to be annoyed about with this year’s Presidential election, but little of it is as patently offensive and absurd as the attacks on The Clinton Foundation. Let’s take a look at some of what they have accomplished:

Because of The Clinton Foundation’s work, more than 31,000 American schools are providing kids with healthy food choices in an effort to eradicate childhood obesity; more than 105,000 farmers in Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania are benefiting from climate-smart agronomic training, higher yields, and increased market access; more than 33,500 tons of greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced annually across the United States; over 450,000 people have been impacted through market opportunities created by social enterprises in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia; through the independent Clinton Health Access Initiative, over 11.5 million people in more than 70 countries have access to CHAI-negotiated prices for HIV/AIDS medications; an estimated 85 million people in the U.S. will be reached through strategic health partnerships developed across industry sectors at both the local and national level; and members of the Clinton Global Initiative community have made more than 3,500 Commitments to Action, which have improved the lives of over 430 million people in more than 180 countries.

Yeah… let’s shut that down because Donald Trump says so. Dickhead.

Very happy to make this #48 on the list.

Learn more about their work at clintonfoundation.org.

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Southern Fried Road Trips Days 4 and 5

We’ll get to the weather forecast in a bit, but first let’s talk about days 4 and 5.

I started Tuesday morning the way all good mornings should start, with donuts. The place is called Sublime Donuts, located near the Georgia Tech campus. It has quite a reputation for being among the best in town and this is one of those times when the reality didn’t live up to the hype. I had a double chocolate, which was just not good at all – very doughy – and a raspberry filled chocolate heart that, while perfectly fine, was not fantastic. I was annoyed and disappointed.

Wouldn’t be the last time that day. (insert ominous foreshadowing music here)

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From there I headed north toward toward North Carolina. Now, I know what you’re thinking – why on earth would I want to go there, pretty much ever, but especially when We (the collective, politically aware group of us) are supposed to be having nothing to do with North Carolina because of the whole “There’s a man in the ladies room!” controversy. I mean if Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato aren’t going to NC, I shouldn’t either, right?

Bonus points if you got the “Designing Women” reference.

Here’s the deal: I like to gamble. And the nearest place to Atlanta to do that is in Cherokee, North Carolina. I decided it was helping the tribe and the people who work there more than the state and if that’s a delusion then it’s a happy one that I am choosing to embrace, much like the one that says Prince is still alive and living on an island, where two backup dancers just follow him around striking curious poses.

Bonus points if you got the “When Doves Cry” reference.

The drive up there is quite lovely. It’s about 150 very scenic miles as you drive up into the Smoky Mountains, and there are some breathtaking vistas along the way. I didn’t stop to take pictures of any of them but you’ll just have to trust me. It’s purty.

Two random roadside sightings, also without photographic evidence, sorry. The first was a sign on the side of the road, roughly the size of a city bus, that read simply “GOATS”. Giant letters. Yellow on a red background. No other context. Just GOATS.

The other was the Donald Trump for President billboard. It was almost as much of a curiosity as the GOATS one.

Before I get to lunch, I have to flash back a few nights earlier to give you context. I was playing blackjack with a 70-year-old transgender woman at a gay bar in Georgia… no, really… and when I mentioned that I was heading up to Cherokee in a couple of days she said, “Well, you have to stop at Dillard House – it’s this great restaurant where they just start loading you up with really good southern food and they just keep bringing it.” Challenge accepted!

Dillard House is, appropriately enough, in Dillard, Georgia, high in the Smokey Mountain foothills surrounded by scenery like this:

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The restaurant, lodge, riding stables, and petting zoo facility is lovely and the big dining room has huge windows that look out onto scenes like the above. And sure enough, they just start bringing you food. Now, since I was eating by myself and I have a hard time eating a lot of anything, I refused more than a dozen dishes – everything from coleslaw to pickled beets and a bunch of other things that I have forgotten. What I accepted is what you see on the table:

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That would be fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, corn on the cob, roasted potatoes, chicken pot pie, flank steak, and a basket of fresh baked rolls and biscuits (not pictured). I was very excited about it all but found most of it to be merely okay-ish. The chicken pot pie was probably the best thing on the table, with thick chunks of potatoes and other veggies but the fried chicken was dry, the flank steak was too chewy, and the fried green tomatoes were an affront to the concept as far as I’m concerned. So yeah, disappointment number two.

“That’s okay,” I thought. “As I drive back down to the highway, I’ll put down the windows and enjoy some fresh mountain air.”

It is worth noting that this was not the first time I put down the windows on the Ford Fusion Smugmobile. It was, however, the first time the windows wouldn’t go back up. Actually, they would go up, but they wouldn’t stay up (that’s what she said). As soon as they got to the top of the track, they started going down again. I pull over and start in with a spirited game of “What the fuck?” I shut the car off and turn it back on. I shut the car off, get out of the car, lock it, unlock it, get back in, and start the car. I screamed loudly in frustration. Nothing worked.

I looked it up on the web and got nowhere so I called Enterprise and their suggestion was to bring it back to the location where I rented it… you know, in Atlanta… 150 miles away.

Suddenly I remember a trick we had employed on Plucky Survivors trip when our Plucky Mobile, a Buick, started to lose piece a big chunk of its front end – we went to a Buick dealer and they fixed it, free of charge.

So I looked up Ford dealerships and there was one about 10 miles away. I was prepared to drive there but I called first and spoke to a service adviser who told me that the windows needed to be “reset.” He said, put the window all the way down and hold the button for 5 seconds. Then release it for 5 seconds. Then put the window up and when it gets to the top, hold the button up for a few seconds.

Really?

But after several failed attempts and a great deal of additional swear words, it finally took and I was able to continue on my merry way.

The Harrah’s in Cherokee is quite nice, larger – bigger than most Vegas casinos – with all the usual gambling suspects and so yeah, I played. And I won. And I lost. And I won. And I lost. And I lost. And then I won. And then I lost. Enough said.

Dinner was in the Diamond Lounge at the casino involved beef brisket out of warming tray and a slightly soggy dinner roll. Also, enough said.

I drove back to Atlanta after dark and those mountain roads are not fun. Especially when you stop for a moment and put the window down and then IT REFUSES TO FUCKING STAY UP AGAIN!!! Several more attempts at a reboot and it finally worked again. I’ve decided I have no reason to put down the windows so I just won’t from here on out.

Total mileage was about 325 for the day.

Wednesday was a lot less disappointing. I got up early to do a Civil Rights Road Trip, starting in Selma, Alabama.

How you can tell you’re in Alabama… the high-riding pickup track with the confederate flag in the back window and a bumper sticker that read, “Do you believe in life after death? If the answer is no, you better be bullet proof” alongside pictures of AR-15 style rifles. If I had nothing left to live for, I would go up to that person and say, “No… I don’t believe in life after death. Are you really going to shoot me now, shoot me now?”

Bonus points if you got the Bugs Bunny reference.

The first stop was the Baptist AME Church in Selma where both of the marches started – the ill-fated one that was stopped by the Alabama Highway Patrol in an incident that would be known as Bloody Sunday, and the successful one a few weeks later. It’s still a working church so you can’t go inside but they have some monuments and historic markers outside.

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From there I drove over to the Selma Interpretive Center. Opened about five years ago, this small museum has one room with a handful of exhibits dedicated to the march and what started it. There isn’t much to see here but it is all very powerful and includes a bank of video monitors where you can watch testimonials from people who were there. Interestingly, and affectingly, they had a few from people on the “opposition” sewn into the story. One woman talked about how the march was just an excuse for orgies and drugs and that Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit housewife who was murdered during the march by Klansmen, was nothing but a common prostitute. Mind you, this is not some 50 year old video – this is new material, recorded within the last few years. Terrifying.

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There was a lot of construction going on – they are planning on expanding into the second and third floors of the building and adding more exhibits, which should be open in time for the anniversary of the protests in March, 2017.

Then it was over the Edmund Pettus bridge, which still feels foreboding in some way all these years later.

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On the other side of the bridge, this is where the Alabama State Patrol beat and tear-gassed the first attempt at the march.

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A few steps from there are memorials to important people in the movement and a sculpture honoring the marches.

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Down the road about 20 miles is the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, a sister facility to the one in Selma, that I have actually been to before.

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Ten years ago, Mary and I were on the last couple of days of our inaugural Plucky Survivors trip and we, along with Plucky Passenger Jessica, stopped here just a couple of weeks after it opened. It was a highlight of our trip and I remember it being incredibly powerful. It still is.

You start by watching a video that is, ostensibly, about the march, but is also about the importance of voting. Back in 2006 we wrote “this powerful short movie should be required viewing in all high schools. Heck, it should be required viewing for every citizen of this country.” I believe that now, more than ever, and I bought a DVD that includes the video on it. At some point before the election I am going to figure out a way for everyone to be able to see it.

The rest of the center is very much the way it was 10 years ago, which is to say fantastic. I love the area where they have statues of people marching toward a window. The picture doesn’t do it justice… it’s moving…

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This part of the day was very emotional for me, partly because of the topic and how horrifying it all was and, in many ways, remains today, but also partly because of Mary. Sometimes I really miss that chick.

Onward I marched (drove) taking a quick stop at the memorial for Viola Liuzzo. As mentioned above, she was a Detroit housewife and mother of five who saw the Bloody Sunday march on the news and decided to come down and help during the one led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a few weeks later. After the march, she was driving people back to Selma when her car was driven off the road by Klansmen and she was murdered.

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I made it to Montgomery and of course went to the capitol building just to complete the concept. It took me about an hour’s worth of driving. They took four days of walking.

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The next stop was the Freedom Riders Museum, located in the former Greyhound Bus Terminal where the activists were attacked. The woman running the facility took great pride in the museum and when into very fine detail about the people, the movement, and the building itself. She showed us the original blueprints marking what used to be separate White and Colored entrances, waiting rooms, lunch counters, bathrooms, and ticket windows. She said, “Segregation didn’t just happen, it was designed.”

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There isn’t much to the museum but it’s still a worthwhile visit, especially if you don’t know much about the Freedom Riders. For the record, they started as a group of young people – mostly college students – black and white, male and female – who decided to draw attention to the recent Supreme Court ruling banning segregation in interstate travel by taking a Greyhound Bus from Washington DC to New Orleans. Along the way they were beaten, hospitalized, attacked with Molotov cocktails that destroyed one of the buses, arrested, and imprisoned.

This was 1961.

I needed a little break so I went for lunch a locally recommended BBQ joint called Dreamland, located in Downtown Montgomery. I had Brunswick Stew, smoked BBQ sausage, and mac and cheese and if I hadn’t eaten at Daddy Z’s a couple of nights before I would have called it good, but by comparison it was only fine.

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I also took a swing over to the Alabama Cattleman’s Association offices. Why? Because they have place called the MOOseum. How can you not want to go to a place called the MOOseum? Especially when this is parked outside?

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Unfortunately it’s mostly an advertisement for eating more beef with very little humor beyond the truck and the name, but it was good to get a bit of a brain cleanse from the heavy topics of the day.

Which, I then returned to with a visit to the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center offices in Montgomery. Out in front is a water sculpture done by Maya Lin:

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Both wall and disc are covered with flowing water – it’s quite lovely.

After passing through very heavy security (metal detectors, armed guards, etc.) I looked around the center, which is small but very well done, offering testimonials to people who have been sacrificed in the fight for civil rights. It mentions Dr. King and Medgar Evers naturally, but most of the stories are of people – and some incidents – that I had never heard of. I won’t recount them here – they are all too horrifying – but they encompass all points on the civil rights spectrum from race to religion to sexual orientation and beyond.

I loved this quote on the wall:

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At the end is a giant video wall with the names of people who have committed to the cause of furthering civil rights. Put your name in and you get to see yourself included…

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The last stop of the day was at the Tuskegee Airman National Historic Sight. Located at the former airbase where the African-American air corp trained, the National Parks Service has restored one of the hangers as a large interpretive center and rebuilt another hanger, the control tower, and more. The story of these brave men and women and what they faced just for trying to protect their country during WWII is both uplifting and profoundly sad.

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I drove back to Atlanta (total mileage about 440) and stopped to pick up a local favorite – Woody’s Cheese steak.

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It was good, not great, but I think expecting to find a great cheese steak in Atlanta is like expecting to find great BBQ in Philly. Probably not likely.

So now, finally, the weather and the next few days.

Tropical Depression Nine is out there spinning around near Cuba and is expected to become Tropical Storm Hermine sometime tonight or tomorrow. Then it is going to march across Florida and Savannah on Thursday and Friday if the forecasts are to be believed:

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It is expected to have sustained winds of up to 65 mph (just a few shy of hurricane status) and drop as much as 15 inches of rain in some areas.

So, tomorrow – Wednesday, instead of lollygagging around Georgia on a circuitous route to Savannah, I’m just going to drive straight there and hopefully get some some of the things done that I was going to do on Friday that might get rained out. My trip into Florida on Thursday where I was going to go to the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine and the Pulse Nightclub memorial at the site of the shooting has been cancelled, although if the storm moves out faster than expected, I could still do it on Friday and get back in time for Bacon Fest! We’ll see.

More to come…