Half-stories

When posting crap like this its always hard to tell if anyone will find it halfway interesting or if its just gonna be funny to me.  However, my phone has been threatening total heart failure over the past couple of months and I’m afraid if I don’t get this crap written down in one place I’ll lose it forever.  Which would be a shame.

Basically this all started, when a buddy of mine texted me: “…and they called him Benjamin Alton.”  I can’t quite say why that amused me so much, but it did.  So for a number of months we started texting back and forth each other’s name featured in a few sentences that could have been existed in some kind of story.  I was in a phase where I was reading a lot of Dark Tower and so eventually I kind of formed a collection of half-stories about the “Navarro man”, Navarro being his last name, which centered around a gunslinger type of character bearing his name and a troupe of animal companions that helped him mete out justice.  The main purpose of these were to make each other laugh, so hopefully you’ll get a kick out of it too.  In any event, I feel good I’ve managed to get these out in one location.

Mike:

“…and they called him Benjamin Alton.”

Me:

“The Navarro lad was a precocious boy..”

“When he wasn’t composing music, he would take to the fields…and they would laugh and play all the day long.”

Mike:

“Every spring they would frolic in the meadows.”

Me:

“Among the dandelions and the whippoorwills.”

Mike:

“Lately he goes by the name Ben Alton.”

Me:

“Have you seen Michael Navarro?  If so, do not approach, but inform the authorities as he is considered to be highly dangerous!”

Mike:

“Sure he’s good, but he aint no Ben Alton, I’ll tell ya that.”

Me:

“And the village children would never forget the mysterious stranger who saved them, nor the magical sack he carried.  Navarro they called him.  Michael Navarro.”

Me:

“But Navarro was too quick for the dastardly Dr. Niche and the army of invasive species at his disposal!”

” ‘Those Asian carp are taking away jobs from our hard working American fish!’, the Navarro lad exclaimed.”

Me:

“And the mysterious stranger, Navarro slipped away quietly into the night.  The townspeople would never forget him, nor his animal companions, who did so much for their quiet desert town.”

Me:

“Long after the battle was over, the bandito leader would be still be haunted by thoughts of Navarro’s attack rabbit, Skippy.  The ugly scar on his left cheek would be a constant reminder of the rabbit’s ravenous bloodlust.”

Mike:

“And fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Ben Alton.”

Me:

“At the mention of the name Navarro, an awed hush fell over the room.  News of the mysterious stranger and his animal companions spread fast in these parts.”

“It was said that Navarro’s most deadly ally was his trained quick-sloth.  Unassuming at first, he could spring into action at a moment’s notice, ripping into Navarro’s enemies with claw and fang.”

Mike:

“And the children sang and the trumpets played.  For Ben Alton was back again.”

Mike:

“And I heard it like a voice from above.  It opened the sky and pierced the heavens, rained down upon the earth, spreading the plains to the east and the mountains to the west.  And the people cried, ‘But what name shall we call you?’  ‘You shall know me,’ he thundered, ‘as Ben Alton!'”

Mike:

“And that’s how Ben Alton brought the great Mongol empire to its knees.  He did it with love.”

Me:

“Wild Bill never had a chance against the Navarro man. Skippy the rabbit calmly watched as Navarro’s big iron unloaded quick death on the bandit. He then quietly tipped his hat to the villagers, stepped over the Bill’s corpse and left the town with his animal companions in tow.”

Me:

“Navarro calmly stoked the fire and offered some deer meat to Skippy. The rabbit bared its fangs and hissed at him before bounding off into the wilderness. Navarro shrugged. It was for the best that the rabbit get some alone time. Skippy’s mood swings had been more erratic as of late, and it was wise to steer cleer of the rabbit while he was in one of his bloodier moods.”

Me:

“The town appeared empty and there was no noise from the men he sent in. Beads of sweat started to form on the bandito’s forehead. Lord Bilious was known to lay traps for unwary opponents. After a long while one of his men came staggering out of the town, walking like a dying man on dead limbs. The bandit leader ran towards him to find out what had happened to his siege and why he was the last man to return. When he touched the man, his clothes fell away and all that way left was Lord Bilious, standing on some cleverly designed stilts, a smug look of superiority in the duck’s eye. “No,” said the bandito leader turning to run. But behind him there was the Navarro man…and death.”

Me:

“Michael Navarro got down on one knee to speak to the children.  ‘The magic was in you all along,’ he said, ‘it was in your hearts.’  He then blew into his invisible balloon and floated out the window with a smile and a wave.  The children would never forget the mysterious stranger, nor the lessons he taught them.”

Mike:

“Within every man is a great storm waiting to break out.  It is this passion that allows him to conquer his every desire.  Release your inner tempest.  Ben Alton, a new fragrance for men.”

Me:

“Mike Navarro found the children wandering lost in the woods. “Come with me, ” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I will show you the way of bird and beast and tree and shrub.  And playing his magical flute he lured them into his cave where he cooked them for dinner”

Me:

“And in the silence a lone child stood up.  And he begun to dance the dance of the Navarro.  Then the tears would fall.  Then the tears COULD fall.”

Mike:

“What do you get when you cross a 9.5 earthquake with Beethoven’s 5th symphony?  Ben Alton.”

Me:

“And so the children shrieked with glee as they saw Mike had returned from his harrowing journey into the forbidden lands, carrying their lost frisbee in hand. Mike then quietly dropped the frisbee on the ground and stomped on it with his heel, shattering it into many pieces. The children looked on in horror with anguish in their eyes, but Mike only smiled, gaining strength from their tears and disappointment. He who has eyes let him see, he who has ears let him hear.”

Mike:

“Ben Alton was not merely a man, he was an icon.

his writing was so renowned, there was an area of the human brain named after him,the Ben Alton gland.  If you poke it during brain surgery, the patient’s body begins to convulse violently,out of joy.

Me:

“On the 10th of October the Navarro child was born. The morning of his birth, the shamans of his tribe beheld a bear cub dancing in the woods, a powerful omen. To honor the spirits for the blessings they bestowed on the tribe, they went into the village and slapped the ugliest child. If the prophecies were to be believed, this Navarro lad had quite a future ahead of him.”

And possibly the best of all from Mike:

And atop the highest peak, he stood and peered out across the green hills, the rolling pastures, and to the horizon where the crystal heavens met the endless sea. Then with a mighty arm, wide as an oak, he plunged his jeweled sword deep into the earth. His midget assistant, Ulfr, looked up at him and grinned. “This land is yours at last, sire.” “No,” He answered. “This land…is ours. As it shall be from this day forth. I do this in the name of my god, and in the name of my people.” He stretched out his arm and pointed toward his new kingdom. “And we shall call it…Ben. BenAltonland.” Ulfr began dancing in delight. He smiled at his master, with bright twinkling eyes. “And for once, I shall live amongst the common folk my lord?” “No.” Ben replied. He then swung his mighty leg and kicked Ulfr off the cliff. Ulfr let out a squeal of dismay as he plummeted into the grey, foggy abyss. “You shall live among the snakes.” He grinned as he bent down and looked into the darkness. “Dreams don’t always come true, do they Ulfr?”

Getting Personal

Time to dust off the cobwebs.  It seems to me that writing, like so many other activities, is much more painful to resume after an extended absence.  Much has happened since I last posted and I’ve been kept busy with life and death, while my writing has fallen by the wayside.  I’ve  always tried to keep what I write here relatively lighthearted and to not delve too deeply into personal affairs.  However, its thoughts of those things that has driven me to write today and now I can’t seem to stop my fingers from typing.

My grandmother passed away recently.  She was quite possibly one of the sweetest and coolest people to ever grace this Earth and will be missed terribly.  She passed away painlessly in her sleep, as she always wished, in a house filled with people who loved her.  In her last few days, the cancer progressed quickly but we were still able to say our goodbyes and tell her how much she meant to us.

Death is a powerful thing.  It’s hard to say how it will make us react.  I remember the first wave of grief hitting like a hammer when I came home to find her bed empty and my parents folding away the sheets.  However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I still feel myself dealing with it in ways I don’t quite understand, and that’s probably why I’m writing this confessional now.  In the days after her passing, I felt a powerful well of feeling right beneath the surface ready to erupt at the slightest provocation.  It comes and goes in waves.  I’ve felt empty.  I’ve felt adrift and unable to pin it to any particular cause, just a general depression as the vacuum of her absence is felt. I don’t know how long this condition will last, but I do know clear as day that she wouldn’t want this mournful dirge as her rememberance so I’ll try to do a little better while closing off my thoughts.

Lorraine Hitt was one of the best people you could know.  She was kind.  She was funny.  She was an impossibly good crossword puzzler.  She was fascinated by the youth and infinitely cool.  She was supportive.  She was open minded.  She was humble.  She was a world class listener.  She was one of the most perfect grandmothers you could hope for, and loved her family and friends immensely.  She’ll be missed and her loss will be felt for much time to come.

Before Hibernation

The Bears 2010 year is done.  Active Bear fans are still milling around, visiting websites, and storing  final thoughts on the season before the long spring and summer.  While I was getting my fill of news before the long drought, I saw a lot of vitriol against Cutler and the Bears from angry Bears fans.  I know its a little after the fact, but I felt like sharing my thoughts on the matter while it’s on my mind.

Dear Angry Chicago Sports Fans,

Just because we didn’t make it to the Superbowl this year doesn’t mean our team is a complete turd. Yep, no need to burn your Bears gear in protest or make effigies of Jay Cutler.  I understand how you feel this last game validates your view of Cutler as a wimpish interception machine. I understand that some of you have had some sort of knee injury in the past and that qualifies you to make informed medical assessments of how that injury would impact an NFL quarterback.  I’m sure if you were in his place, you could scramble out of the pocket, plant your bad leg and throw accurate passes.  Not to mention bolting for first downs and colliding with man monsters like Clay Matthews, who can smell weakness and gains strength from the tears of his enemies.  After all, you would be well protected by your offensive line of kindergartners who possess the stopping power of a piece of tissue paper.  But even if you believe all that was possible and feel like we were destined to win the Superbowl this year, try to take a step back and remember that place of disappointment that we came from at the start of our season.

We had just lost 4 out of 4 preseason games.  ESPN power rankings placed us in the bottom 5 teams in the NFL.  We played our first game and eked out a win due to a bizarre technicality that left top NFL sages scratching their heads.  No one thought we’d be better than 7-9, and that was a hopeful estimate.  We essentially had the same group of guys that disappointed us last year, plus Julius Peppers who some analysts thought to be on the decline.  Morale was low.  Then, two games later, we saw the Bears showing flashes of brilliance on offense and defense, beating the Cowboys and the Packers.  Suddenly we were 3-0, and a wave of unbridled optimism flooded the city of Chicago.  Our team wasn’t just good, it was going to be unstoppable.  Pack your bags for the Superbowl.  As a result, when the first signs of that dream crashing around our ears started to show itself, many Chicagoans took it rather hard.

In retrospect, we didn’t pay enough attention to what our losses over the year were telling us.  The depantsing we experienced while playing the Giants and Patriots showed us our team was clearly outmatched by some of the better teams in the NFL.  Our losses to the Seahawks and the Redskins showed us our team was incapable of consistency.  We even struggled to beat some teams that we should have handled easily like the Lions and the Bills.  It was hard to know what caliber of play we could expect from week to week.  Would it be the team that beat the Packers, or would it be the team that lost to the Redskins?

Our path was a golden path.  Someone sprinkled pixie dust on our team this year.  It must have taken some serious sorcery to get a season changing touchdown overturned, a 3rd stringer QB inserted in a key game against Miami,  and magical armor that protected our starters all year long.  Not to mention all the bad voodoo sent to our division rivals.  Green Bay seemed to have enough injuries for both our teams.  Aaron Rodgers got concussed twice.  They lost to the Lions, allowing a situation where a tie between our two teams would end up with us winning the division (someone must have been stabbing the Aaron Rodgers voodoo doll especially hard that day).  Also, the Vikings’ carriage turned back into a pumpkin and they finished 6-10, tracking well to replace the Lions in the NFC North basement next year.

And there’s more weirdness.  Due to a series of events involving some losses by other teams, we ended up getting the bye week, ensuring our entry a round deeper in the playoffs and some time to rest up.  Furthermore, due to an even weirder series of events, the Seahawks, a team that went 7-9 in the regular season, entered the playoffs and BEAT THE FORMER SUPERBOWL CHAMPIONS.  The Packers(as a wildcard) would then go on to beat the Eagles in the wildcard round, resulting in us being the team to play the losing-est team to ever enter the playoffs.  After handily beating the Seahawks we found ourselves at the NFC championship game, a breath away from the Superbowl, playing a team who we had beat once in the regular season rather than the #1 seed in the NFC.   It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Yes we lost.  The magic wasn’t strong enough.  Maybe we could have won, and maybe we could have beat the Steelers next week and won the Superbowl.  But we already got pretty damn lucky this year, and our team is not a dominant team.  It’s a good team, perhaps with the potential to be a great team in a year or two, but we’re not there yet.  We had a strong year, and they beat our expectations.  In the championship game we kept it close, and made some Packers fans sweat toward the end.  Our defense played hard and impressively, holding an electric Green Bay offense for the second half.  Offensively, Forte did a great job running the ball, and Hanie did a great job leading the team when Cutler went down.

Speaking of Jay Cutler..yeah he stunk that game.  But he’s a given us a lot of success this year, and should have proven by now that he’s made of tough stuff.  Remember, this is a quarterback who frequently runs for first downs, collides with linebackers, and dives for touchdowns.  No sliding for Jay Cutler.  He’s set an NFL record for most sacks in a half of football, being hit 9 times before exiting the game with a concussion.  I know he  pouts and can be petulant at times, but don’t doubt for a second that he isn’t in it to win it.  If anything, he’s too emotionally involved on the field when he’s doing poorly, and tries to force the ball into dangerous places or make huge plays where simple ones would suffice.  With some more time improving his fundamentals under a single offensive scheme, I think he could be great.  He also happens to be the only Bears quarterback who’s thrown for 20 touchdowns and over 3000 yards in back to back seasons.  Just some food for thought.

We did much better this year than I could have hoped.  We beat teams that I never expected to beat in the Eagles, Jets, and Packers.  We beat the Vikings twice.  We got to give the Cowboys their first real taste of disappointment this year.  We even managed to knock Brett Favre out of his last game in the NFL!   Now we have some draft picks, so hopefully we can target our weaknesses in the off-season and come back stronger.  Anyway, the Packers have played through a lot of hell to get where they are right now and I’ll be rooting for them in the Superbowl this year.  Hopefully next year or the year after that, it’ll be our turn.

Bear down.

Lord Byron, I Hardly Knew Ye

But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain;
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire;
Something unearthly, which they deem not of,
Like the remember’d tone of a mute lyre,
Shall on their soften’d spirits sink, and move
In hearts all rocky now the late remorse of love.

– Lord George Gordon Byron

Every now and then I find myself in a “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” kind of situation on Wikipedia.  I bounce from link to link,  until awareness catches up with me and I realize I’ve gone from Viking, to Pirate, to Naval strategy, to Napoleon, to the French Revolution, to Jean Paul Marat, and arrived at an entry regarding the Marquis De Sade.

This particular hunt began after watching Bright Star, a movie about the life of John Keats and a woman who inspired him during one of his most productive periods of writing.   After making the jump from Bright Star to Keats, I found Byron mentioned as another key figure of the romantic movement.  His name was already slightly familiar to me, as the Byronic hero bears his name.  In addition, I’d heard him referenced as a kind of vampiric archetype once or twice, and probably read a few of his poems back in high school.  However, I didn’t really know that much about the man himself, so I made the next jump.

Lord George Gordon Byron.  It still blows me away, how much history can be intertwined around just a few lives.  An incredibly interesting character, even by today’s standards of misbehavior, and probably one of the first celebrities.  Characterized by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” she since went on to have an affair with Byron and famously stalk him after he broke it off.  Women were said to faint when he entered the room, and were warned against looking him directly in the eye.   He kept a bear as a pet at college in defiance of their rules disallowing dogs, his social life was plagued by scandal, yet he also wrote some of the most beautiful poetry of his era, and died a greek national hero.   His daughter, Ada, is recognized to be the  first computer programmer for her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine.  We might know even more about his life, but his memoirs were burned by his friends for fear of them destroying what remained of his reputation at home.

I could go on and on, but there’s really too much to tell and I’m not an expert on Byron.  However, these people are, so take a look.

Of Mice and Monsters

Over lunch, on days between Bears games, I like to torture myself by reading every little bit of Bears commentary that is currently available in the Sun Times and Tribune.  Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t really have to have any particular special insight to be a sports writer aside from the ability to watch a sports game, state the obvious  and then draw wild conclusions  about the future that often will come to nothing and still not affect your credibility.

I don’t know what its like in other cities, but I feel like our sportswriters oscillate rapidly between wild, manic optimism  and deep, bone crushing depression.  At the beginning of this year, no one gave the Bears better than a 7-9 chance after our 4 miserable preseason games.  Go forward two games and a victory over the Cowboys had writers making comparisons to the 2006 team that went to the Superbowl.  Later, a victory over the Packers inspires an article highlighting Martz as the savior of the Bears:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/bears/ct-spt-0921-haugh-martz-chicago–20100920,0,7446741.column

A shameful depantsing later by the Giants and everyone’s lost and hurt again.  Another nasty loss to the Seahawks and Martz is a crazy loose cannon who needs to be reigned in by Lovie:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/bears/ct-spt-1019-bears-haugh-chicago–20101018,0,5704840.column

But aside from the sportswriters, through the podium of Facebook I hear about a million opinions about this team a game (some that I agree with and some that I disagree with) and figured I’d share a few of my own about the Bears and Bears fans:

  • Stop whining about Jay Cutler.  I’ll admit, I’ve expressed disappointment with him forcing plays, overthrowing receivers, blah blah blah, but Chicago has had such a drought of good quarterbacks that we’re gonna do no one any good by clamoring for his head on a stick after some bad performances.  Otherwise all we’re gonna have to look forward to are faceless waves of backup QBs who’s only job is to give Chicagoans something to complain about when the Bears lose.  Lots of QBs have bad games.  If he was our main weak link and there were better alternatives available I’d understand.
  • The offensive line should be the first answer to any question regarding what the Bears need to fix IMMEDIATELY.  I realize that this line has been shuffled around every game since they were ripped apart by the Giants but I still have zero confidence in them.  They can’t help the run, they certainly can’t protect Cutler.  The only thing they seem to be able to do well is get injured and disappoint me.  Hey Webb!  Last game I saw you looking around like a lost child at a supermarket while 300 lbs of disaster came hurtling towards our recently concussed quarterback.  Get it together, because I’m sick and tired of hearing from Bears management that we have a lovely, swell group of guys when a 5th grader could tell me that this has been our weakest link over the past few seasons.  If I were Angelo, I would be bartering my left testicle for an opportunity to provide a little legitimacy to our line and prevent our franchise QB from becoming a smear on Soldier Field.
  • Last season made me realize how much we missed Urlacher.  I know myself and a bunch of other people thought for a while that he’s getting past his prime and maybe we’d be better off moving him and letting some younger talent develop.  After watching our defense last year, I realize I was horribly wrong and wish to offer a retraction.
  • Julius Peppers, I love you.  Take me away from all this.  This guy is a freak of nature and infinitely fun to watch.  He breaks through multiple linemen to get sacks, he gets tons of holding calls called on the opposing team because there’s almost no other way to stop him, blocks kicks, breaks up plays and already has an interception.  Sir, you are worth every penny.  If we had more defensive linemen like you, our Cover 2 would be far more effective.
  • Is it time for Lovie to go?  I’m torn on this one.  I get really frustrated with the guy too.  I wish he could get as angry and disappointed as I feel after watching some Bears games.  I feel I could easily come up with the dialogue for a talking Lovie Smith doll: “Well you know, uh, we did some good things and some bad things out there.  We just gotta go back and look at the tapes and improve, there’s plenty more football to play, you can’t turn the ball over that many times, blah blah blah”  I also wish he would address glaring problems early, rather than letting his faith in his players cloud his judgement.  Still, bear in mind shaking up our entire coaching staff right now very well may not be the thing we need in order to get our core group of guys performing well for the next couple of years.  If we bring in new management we might want to get ready for a pretty disappointing year or years following our handing over the keys before we get the whole team on board and in sync with the new coaching staff.  By that time we very well could find ourselves in rebuilding mode since some of our current talent may be too old or traded by then.

It’s still important to have a little perspective this year.  No one thought we’d be at the top of our division after 6 games, and we are.  No one saw us going to the playoffs this year with mostly the same group of guys as last year and we still might.  There’s still a lot of football left to play, and probably some more disappointing losses as well but our record is still 4-2 and could be either 5-2 or 4-3 after today’s game against the Redskins.  In either eventuality, we’ve still got plenty of opportunities to keep adding to our wins and develop our players.  If we can make it to the playoffs this year, then maybe we can target our weaknesses in the off-season and come back next year even stronger.  Bear down.

Sextacy Ball 2010

Not too long ago I heard that Lords of Acid and Thrill Kill Kult were coming to town and playing a show together.  So where was this revelry of debauchery to be held?  Double Door?  Reggies?  HOB?  Hell?  Alas, no.  The venue for this show was to be The Cubby Bear: a shining beacon of mediocrity and douchebaggery in Wrigleyville.  Yes, that’s right.  You are going to ask your rivet-heads, leather-clad dominatrices and scary kids to run a gauntlet of drunken assholes into the eye-wall of the dickhead whirlwind that is Wrigleyville on a Saturday night.

I feel like I have to clarify myself to be fair.  I am a Cubs fan.  I do enjoy going to Wrigley and I enjoy some of the bars in the area(Cubby Bear is not one of them).  However, I have no illusions.  I realize that your average person in Wrigleyville, after a game on the weekend, is stinking drunk, stumbling down the streets with all of the mental walls that make them a tolerable human being crumbling under the weight of 50 old styles.  Have I been one of those people before?  Yes.  As a matter of fact, that’s what makes Wrigleyville fun: when you are trashed out of your mind and everyone around is operating on the same wavelength.  At least, until you get into a fight or throw up on yourself.  Anyway, my point is that Wrigleyville can be a terrible place to be sober in.

We arrive at the Cubby Bear and wait in a line for about a half hour.  During this time we are visited by about 4 different panhandlers who have recognized a golden opportunity in a line of people stuck, unable to leave or avoid their gaze in order to dodge the situation.  One of them is carrying a beer in his hand as he asks for money for the bus.  Brave choice sir.  Anyway, we all engage in that awkward dance of pretending to have no money, and they gracefully complete their part of the dance by pretending to believe it.  Eventually we get inside and order a beer.  The beer selection is not particularly impressive, but to be fair to the Cubby Bear, it wasn’t as ridiculously overpriced as I initially suspected it might be.

The first opening band, I:Scintilla, takes the stage and does a decent job.  Then the next band, BlownLoad, takes the stage.  These guys were pretty fun.  The lead singer was a bit of a clown.  He looked like he woke up from a nap, wandered the stage for a bit and eventually took his dreads down from a knot he had them tied up in,  occasionally examining weird pieces of junk stuck in his hair.  When the rest of the band joined him, they kicked into high gear.  The lead singer was pretty animated and probably the driving force behind the band.  All the songs had to do with sex in one form or another, and I’ll do everyone a favor by not going into their set list.  If you’re curious, check them out on Myspace.  Susan dug their sound more than I did.  Around this time I also became very conscious of the heat.

Cubby Bear must have decided that air conditioning was optional in August, because after the first band was over, the inside of the Cubby Bear felt like an easy 110 degrees.  During Blownload’s set, the heat became so intolerable I decided I needed to go cool off in the frigid 90 degree weather outside.  I step outside and start pushing buttons on my phone and hear a voice.  “Dude, you have really long hair.”  The guy is standing nearby other concert goers so I assume he’s here for the show. I say, “Yeah, it just keeps growing and growing.”  He follows up, “Yeah, but that is really long hair.”  I’m now a little confused.  He clarifies with, “I mean, what are you?  Evo or Emo or something?”  I now know I’m dealing with an asshole.  I’m definitely bigger than this dude and his friend, and feeling a little pissed off with the situation, decide to come out and say, “Alright, dude, what’s your fucking problem.”  He tells me he doesn’t have a problem, he’s just trying to figure out what it’s all about.  I decide to longer play his game and start gauging his friend to see if he’s an asshole too and if I might be in for a fight.  He looks a little embarrassed by his friend and tells me, “Dude, just leave it alone.”  I’ve reached a fork in the road: one path leads to insults, violence, possible arrest, but also glory, and down the other lies a double-header I’ve been waiting most of my adult-life to see.  I choose the latter, say “fuck it,” and hear this little shithead mutter “faggot” as I walk inside.  I honestly didn’t know people were still threatened by long hair.  Anyway, fuck that guy.

I watch the rest of BlownLoad’s set but am a little distracted with thoughts of face stomping.  Eventually, Thrill Kill Kult take the stage and save the day for me.  I’m probably a bigger fan of a heavier industrial sound, but I have to admit there is no one like TKK.  These guys have a ridiculous amount of swagger.  They manage to seamlessly mix Industrial with genres like Lounge and Disco to give their music a  seedy, fun edge.  Their stage presence is amazing and they are just way too cool.  They hit all the oldies that night and killed it with “Daisy Chain for Satan.” Fuck yeah.

Then onto Lords of Acid.  It is now a million degrees and the skin has melted off my body.  Their dominatrix takes the stage holding a whip, and sets the tone for the evening.  Later, out comes the new frontwoman who does a pretty weak job as their new singer.  Her previous history as a “Rock of Love” candidate probably detracts from the sexual power and confidence a Lords of Acid frontwoman needs to command.  Praga Khan is in excellent form though, as is the rest of the band, and they play the hell out of most of the songs I want to hear.  A fan is brought up on stage and flogged during one of the numbers and a blow up doll is thrown out to the audience and used like a beach ball.  Well done, milords.

The show lets out around 1:30 or so and we stumble over to IO to hang with a friend of ours who is getting out of work and get a chance to cool off for a bit before making the trek back to the south side.  All in all, it was worth going to the Cubby Bear to see this double-header in Chicago.  But guys, lets play a home game next time.

Codfish

I’ve struggled to find the right words to introduce Larry Shue. I’ve heard stories about him from my parents from a young age. I’ve read his letters back from Army basic training that were passed along by his family to my parents. I’ve read Grandma Duck is Dead, The Foreigner, and The Nerd.  Unfortunately, the sum of all that knowledge still leaves me ill equipped to write a proper introduction to a man of his magnitude.

I was too young to have any lasting memories of Larry, as he died tragically in a plane crash, just as he was starting to get the recognition he deserved for his brilliance. He was always described to me as the “milk of human kindness” and his genius is truly undeniable when I go back and read through some of his work.

The following piece is from some of Larry’s coffeehouse material from college. My father collected some of it in the hopes of having it become a companion piece (primarily as a curtain raiser) to Grandma Duck is Dead, as Larry had expressed interest in expanding it beyond a one act play. As my father is better equipped to speak on Larry than I am, I asked him to write this foreword which I’m including along with this monologue of Larry’s. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have.

The following monologue is by the late, great, actor, director, playwright and all around Renaissance Man, Larry Shue. I was privileged to attend college with Larry at Illinois Wesleyan University in the 60’s when we were both Drama majors. He was my mentor in the Theatre along with being the best human being imaginable. He wrote this ode to a codfish during that time, for a comedy gig that he performed at the university coffee house. I have enjoyed sharing it with my son, Ben and hope you are as amused by it today as we always have been every time we’ve read it.

– Robb Alton

Codfish

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I’ve been having a lot of strange meals lately.  Sometimes out of experimentation, but more often, out of necessity of one kind or another.  One night lately, I had codfish.  Not because I especially wanted to eat codfish, but because I had admired the box it came in at the super-market.  And so I got me a box and,unfortunately, there was a codfish inside.  And so, I had codfish.  The box far surpasses the contents, incidentally.  Ghastly stuff, codfish.  It’s tough and salty.

I suppose part of the trouble is the image, or the lack of image, that codfish has surrounding it.  I mean, you eat like swordfish, you know, and whether it’s tasty or not, the success of the meal can be saved if the “eater” conjures up pictures in his mind of a great, gleaming, leaping “Prince of the Pacific” swordfish – combining his wiles and weight in a thrust and parry, life and death battle against a sportsman’s line.  But a codfish?  What does one think of when one thinks of a codfish?  The answer of course is nothing.  Codfish has no personality.  No glamour.  If one absolutely forces oneself to imagine the aura surrounding the life of a codfish, he emerges with unsavory, unsettling images of a corpulent, grey-brown entity waiting moribund for death at the bottom of a fetid, unmoving bay.  His eyes, bulging from their sockets but half closed with depression and disinterest – that see, but do not watch, the garbage dotted mire that is his home.  He eats mud.  He lives with other codfish (his family), but he has no love for them.  He realizes perhaps that since they are his family, he must look like them.  And this depresses him more.  He moves only when he must.  He has long since resigned himself to the fact that he will never grow to be a porpoise.  When he is finally caught, on a piece of string with eight baited hooks attached, held by a corpulent grey-brown fisherman, with no romance, but only a dull sense of survival in his heart, he goes quietly to the surface without a struggle.  Even without ill will for the fisherman, only a little deeper depression.  And his fellow codfish eye him briefly, wearily, dully thinking: “It could have been me.”  Not with fear, not with sorrow, nor even hope, merely observing: “That could have been me.”  And each goes on eating his mud.  One of hundreds of grey-brown entities waiting moribund for death at the bottom of a fetid, unmoving bay.

Zombie Jesus 2010

That magical time of year was upon us again.  The day when Jesus rose from the grave to…make children look for chocolate eggs…laid by rabbits…or something.  I don’t know, its a very confusing holiday to celebrate.  Regardless, it also happens to be the time of year where we buckle down, wash out the turkey fryer and begin that most ancient and wondrous magic of turning a pile of ordinary grain into a tasty elixir that bestows attractiveness and self-confidence.

Last year’s Zombie Jesus was a rousing success, and I find myself getting far more requests for this beer than I have in supply.  Next year, we might buy some extra equipment and try brewing a double batch to give us some more bottles to sell to friends and family.  This year, I feel like I’ve promised most of my supply away before I even had a chance to crack open a bottle.  Speaking of which, I finally cracked one open tonight a little ahead of schedule and am generally pleased with the results.  I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so while I feel like we still have a ways to go before we’ve got the recipe where I want it to be, we’re definitely making progress.  I think the hop combination we have right now is about perfect.  The smell is absolutely phenomenal, and surprisingly reminiscent of Dogfish Head 90 min, one of my favorite IPAs.  However, we’re still under-malted in my opinion.  The feel of the beer is still lighter than I’d like and less alcoholic than I’d prefer (still not bad at around 6.5%).   But I’m being picky and opened it a little ahead of schedule.  Some more bottle conditioning will likely do this beer good.

Still, I’m impressed we made the move from an extract recipe to all-grain while still improving on the original model.  The conversion went much smoother this time around, as did the hopping.  Next time around I would consider upping the malt even more as well, controlling the temp better for the step mash, adding some munich or vienna, maybe a touch of chocolate malt, and adding  some sugar to up the alcohol.  All bitching aside though, I think this is a solid beer and I’m proud to have made it.

This time through I decided to play around with a yeast starter.  I’m actually kinda embarrassed that I didn’t know to do it before now, however in my research into all grain IPAs, I found them mentioned all over the place and decided to look into it.  Turns out for high gravity beers, it is highly recommended to start your yeast culture going about a day ahead of time.  Unfortunately for me, I discovered this information exactly one day in advance and had to seriously improvise on equipment, while freaking out about the possibility of me killing our culture of yeast a day before brewing.

First, let me tell you how it should be done.   You should take the DME and water and mix it in the sanitized 2 liter Erlenmeyer flask you have bought weeks ahead of time, because you knew this was going to be a step in the process.  Then you should heat the Erlenmeyer flask over the stove until it’s boiling, then let it cool.  Afterwards you will pitch the yeast into it, then seal it with an airlock and stopper that you have also purchased, designed to fit the flask.  Then you let the CO2 bubble out through the airlock, confident that no oxygen or bacteria is getting in.  Of course I had no flask, stopper or airlock, so I took some the the DME I had, mixed it with water, brought it to a boil and then let it cool for a bit before pouring it ever so gently through a sanitized coffee filter holder into a sanitized 2 liter of Shasta.  Afterwards, I ever so carefully pitched the yeast into the Shasta bottle and sealed it with the bottle cap, delicately cracked open to let CO2 out.  Anyway, it worked out fine, and the next day I woke up to find it magically bubbling away.

Onto the brewing.  We happened to brew on the most gorgeous Black Friday in recent history.  After work, I hastily sealed up the yeast starter, put my equipment in the car and rushed over to Diego’s so that we could hopefully finish our operation before midnight.  We are joined by brewing apprentice, Troll.  The man knows his beer quite well and already has a passing familiarity with the home brewing process, so we are confident he will be a journeyman before too long.  We talk about logistics for a bit (where the mash tun will go, where we’ll brew, etc), crack open some beer, and then get down to the business of cleaning.  The whole process is much easier in general with a 3rd person.  I soon realize I have forgotten the hops at home on the south side, a regrettable error when going about the business of making an IPA or any kind of beer for that matter, but my beautiful fiancee once again comes to the rescue.  Once we’re done cleaning, we set up the equipment and begin brewing.  The step mash does not follow the steps that we want it to, but alas as Diego says, “The Cajun Bayou is not a precision instrument.”  We end up getting the conversion we want at the length of time we want in something more akin to an infusion mash.  Everything else seems to go fairly well until we realize we need a hose for the counterwortflow chiller and none can be found.

Diego and I then make an educated decision to steal someone else’s hose.  You see, most people are not expecting some jerk to come along and take their hose.  So, hose security is understandably lax.  After nervously scouting a few houses, we eventually decide on one with a fairly portable length of hose and I go about the business of detaching it.  Diego is on lookout and does a rather poor job, because as I leave the house with a length of hose coiled around my arm, a cop car drives past on the street.  Anyway, my criminal doings go unnoticed by the CPD and we proceed back with the bounty.

Troll manages the boil quite nicely adding hops at regular intervals and we smell the powerful aroma that they release.  Eventually, we get to the point where we transfer it into the hopback and prepare to make use of the counter-wortflow chiller.  Now it should be mentioned that I seriously am in need of better hosing attached to the counter-wortflow chiller as one length of hose is all but melted from the last time it was used.  We hook everything up and begin the process of draining, but the flow gets stuck due to the weak hose.  While we’re fiddling with it, the hose comes loose and my hand is blasted with boiling water for a few seconds while I hastily try to shut off the flow and fix the connection.  Eventually we fix it and carefully manage the flow down into the carboy.  The rest goes according to plan, we pitch the yeast with the yeast starter and seal up the carboy.  Fermentation happens beautifully.  So I pile a mountain of aloe onto my burned hand and go home content in the knowledge that Zombie Jesus has been brewed and in a months time or so I can taste the results.

Here are the steps we followed along with some comments on the process:

Ingredients:

·         15 lbs Pale Ale 2-row (Breiss)

·         1 lb caramel 60L Breiss (caramel/crystal specialty grains

·         1 oz Simcoe pellets

·         1 oz Warrior pellets

·         2 oz Amarillo hop plug packages

·         1 oz glacier leaf hops

·         Northwest Ale Activator Wyeast

·         1 tsp gypsum

·         ½ tsp irish moss

Steps:

1.       Day in advance prepare 2L Yeast starter

2.       Sanitize all equipment to touch beer

3.       In large pot add 1 tsp gypsum to 4 gallons of water and raise temp to 145 (this can be done while sanitizing other equipment)

4.       Set up lauter-tun system

5.       Add the crushed malt to the water and mix well.  Temp should stabilize at 133.  Hold for 30 min.  Add heat if necessary, don’t worry about a 3-5 degree drop during this time. (Fat chance.  Temp stabilized at around 155.)

6.       Begin boiling additional water (8 quarts worth)

7.       After the 30 min at 133, add the additional 8 quarts of boiling water to raise the temp to between 150-155 and hold for 45 min. (Raised temp to around 160 -165)

8.       Raise temp to 158 for 10-15 min

9.       Raise temp to 167, then filter out into lauter-tun system

10.   In a pot, add ½ tsp gypsum to 3 gallons water.  Raise temp of the water to 170 and add to the lauter tun water supply. 

11.   Begin draining from lauter-tun to pot below.  Begin water flow from cooler to lauter-tun.  Adjust rate as needed

12.   Bring to a boil, add warrior pellets

13.   Add 1 amarillo hop plug after 15 min of boil and then again every 15 min for 3 hop plugs in total

14.   Boil total for 60 or 90 min? (Probably boiled for around 75-90 min)

15.   5 min before finish add ½ oz simcoe pellets and glacier hops as well as ½ tsp irish moss (Only added the glacier hops, kept simcoe for dry-hopping)

16.   Pour through the hopback and add cold water if necessary to reach the appropriate water level.

17.   Pour in the yeast from the yeast starter

(OG: 1.06 FG 1.012)

Yay Zombie Jesus!

An Evening of Folk Metal

 

Our tale begins a few weeks ago, when a boisterous young chap named Ben Alton struck out upon the town in search of beer and merriment.  During his travels, he happened upon the Bottom Lounge and “Dogfloydapalooza”, at which time he made a mental note to check the venue for future events.  Fortituously for our young hero, he discovered that a Finntroll and Moonsorrow show was upcoming in a week’s time.  However, since Dark Lord Day was looming on the horizon, money was tight and he had to go to his beautiful fiance to procure tickets.  Because she loves all things Metal, the show was to become a reality.

Ok.  I have to switch out of 3rd person before I get too obnoxious.  Making this show was going to be a tight fit.  We had long ago promised to go venue vetting with the parents for our wedding location and this was going to very closely coincide with the start time of the show.  I met Susan and our parents over as Osteria Via Stato, for some phenomenal food that truly deserves to be described in greater detail than I can presently go into.  After dinner, we left for our place to get geared up and head out.

We caught a cab with an interesting cab driver, and in a decent mood decided to chat him up a bit.  He seemed in a bit of a pissy mood at the time and mentioned looking forward to returning to his home country, Bosnia, which he described as a beautiful place that happened to have psychopaths pop into power every 15 years or so.  After listening to his thoughts on the world, we arrived at the venue.  He stopped us after we paid to give us a lengthy sermon on the nature of love, and happiness in marriage.  He also dropped some colorful comments about how more parents should spank their children and that we were each given a pass for cheating in the future if it was Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt.  We absorbed his sagely advice as gracefully as we could and got to the show a little late.

We didn’t catch the first band that played that night, but at least arrived before Swallow The Sun took the stage.  I am very happy to have seen their set in full.  They are a phenomenal blackened doom metal band, and made a very strong impression.  The lead singer’s vocals were very versatile, with some pretty intense black metal rasps and death metal growls.  Their song “These Woods Breathe Evil” has been stuck in my head for days now, and is an excellent piece of extreme metal.  They finished their set with the song “Swallow” which culminated in a pretty intense pit, which I was not yet drunk enough to enter.

After about 3 beers and a shot, Moonsorrow took the stage and I was ready to enter the pit.  Moonsorrow is a folk metal band from Finland, as is Finntroll, and their sound was a definite departure from Swallow the Sun’s darker notes.  I jumped into the pit, which was far more intense than I expected.  After colliding with people for a bit, it dawned on me that it was a terrible idea to come from a multi-course Italian dinner, chug a bunch of beer and opt to be a human pinball.  So I had to take a breather for a bit and let my stomach calm down.  That made it hard for me to enjoy Moonsorrows set unfortunately, so I was not left with the best overall impression.

The next band brought down the house.  Finntroll, like many good and bad ideas was the result of a night of fierce drinking.  “What if we combine black metal with old Finnish humppa music?”   And Finntroll is born.  A band who’s lyrics revolve around a finnish troll king and his followers who fight off invading Christians.  I never would have thought that folk music and black metal would go together, but I was wrong.

Finntroll’s performance was fierce and fun.  They sounded absolutely fantastic, and I could not help but throw myself once again into the pit.  I spent a good deal of time in there during their set, as it was hard to not want to move and thrash about while listening to their music.  By the time I left the pit later in the night, I had blood in my beard.  I recall taking a forearm to the teeth and must have cut my lip in the process.  Still no major injuries, so no harm, no foul.  Close to the end of the show as people were getting tired, I grabbed Susan and made a dash through the pit with her to end up right in front of the stage to finish out the show.  After the show, people from the pit went up to each other shaking hands and thanking one another.  There’s something incredibly cool about that.

When you make the decision to get into a pit, especially one that looks particularly violent, you make a mental call that acknowledges the possibility of you getting hurt.  Most of the time you’ll just end up with bruises, but sometimes if you’re unlucky, you’ll get a sprained ankle, cracked rib, chipped tooth, etc.  So you have to accept that these things are a natural risk and most of the time, just unintentional collateral damage from the other moshers.  Because in general, people are in there to just have a good time and let off some steam.  If you fall down, you are usually helped up by everyone else at a dizzying speed.  And although you may be rough in there and fling yourself full force into random strangers, they just might end up shaking your hand and thanking you for the experience at the end of it.

Anyhow, after the show was over, we talked a bit with the keyboardist from Swallow the Sun.  Turns out they’re coming to Reggies with Katatonia in September, so we have another must-see show to attend.  This post could probably stand a good deal of editing, but as I’m pressed for time I’ll have to quote Blaise Pascal who once said, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”  Now I’ll shut up and feed you some Finnish metal.  Enjoy.

Concerning Beer Geekery

There is a beer renaissance going on in Chicago.  It seems like every new bar I go to, now boasts a cornucopia of belgiums, IPAs, imperial stouts and barley wines.  And I can’t tell exactly when it happened.  It seems like only yesterday, that 99% of the bars in Chicago offered the standard BudMillersCoors swill, along with a few obligatory imports, like Heineken or Guinness, to appease the “discerning” palate.

And there is a reason for the dominance of Bud and Millers in the American bar scene.  Both companies have saturated the airwaves with some of the most successful marketing campaigns in recent history.   In addition, both have both spent millions of dollars trying to convince people that their beer is the beer for disciminating tastes.  (Miller: “Our beer is triple-hopped.”  Bud: “Our beer has superior drinkability.”) Miller even claims that they won the award for “Best American-Style Light Lager” in 2007, which is a joke in and of itself.  None of our major American breweries would ever win in a general lager competition, so a new category had to be invented for shitty beers to compete with one another.

Anyway, at some point in time, a growing minority of people decided to drink beer that tasted good, rather than beer that was mildly drinkable if served at arctic temperatures.  Eventually, more and more places popped up featuring extensive beer lists comprised of a  variety  styles from around the world.    Even better, some of these places have reached out to American breweries to host different events if they happen to be in town.  So I was thrilled to hear that the craft brewing conference was coming to Chicago in April, and bringing a bunch of beer geek events along with it.

Stone Brewery has been making appearances all over the Chicagoland area since the start of April.  I’d been dying to get out to one, since they make some high quality beer, including an excellent strong ale (Arrogant Bastard Ale), as well as a very solid IPA (their Ruination IPA).  A friend of mine had turned me on to their stuff rather recently, and I was very much looking forward to going to one of their events and sampling the full catalog.  In addition, Nick Floyd from 3Floyds and Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head were doing an event at the Bottom Lounge on a beautiful Tuesday night featuring 4 beers from each brewery along with some live music.

We’ll start with “Dogfloydapalooza.”  A friend of mine, Brian, decided to head on out there, which gave me an excuse to attend.  This was my first trip to Bottom Lounge and due to some fortuitous wizardry, I did not have to pay the $20 cover. Excellent.  Getting to the bar initially was a challenge, as it was mobbed by thirsty beer geeks.  However, I persevered and made an educated decision to end my 2-year boycott of 3Floyds.  I had already obtained my Dark Lord Day tickets for this year, thereby securing myself 12 tasty bottles of Dark Lord, and felt the boycott could finally come to a close.

On tap from Dogfish Head they had: the 90 min IPA, the india brown ale, the aprihop, and the raison d’etre.  In the 3floyds camp they had: Alpha King, Drunk Monk, Samurai Gazeebo, and something else I’m forgetting.  The Samarai Gazeebo was a pleasant surprise: a lager with japanese hops that was smooth, crisp, and hopped nicely.  The 90 minute from Dogfish Head remains my favorite IPA and their india brown ale is an excellent drink as well.

As the evening progressed, a round of Malort was ordered for some perverse reason and for some even more perverse reason, I had one.  So we hung out with some of Brian’s friends, drank some excellent beer, took turns blowing into a breathalyzer, and listened to a really solid blues band (Andre Williams and the Goldstars).   Andre Williams, at the age of 74, took the stage in a solid red suit and fedora and rocked it out in spectular fashion.  I’m pretty sure I heard a song called “Pussystank.”  Anyhow,  good times.  I’ll probably do it again next year

On Friday April 9th, I headed out to the Bastard’s night over at Reggie’s Music Joint with my fiancee, Susan, and our friends Carlos and Dana.  It was a Stone and Founders Brewery event with 10 beers on tap from each brewery.  Small pours and big pours of beer were offered  by each brewery, making it easy to taste a wide variety of the beers on hand without getting too trashed.  We grabbed a seat at one of the long tables in front of the stage and started drinking.

I find myself liking Arrogant Bastard more and more.  The balance between the strong malt and the bittering hops is excellent and the overall profile of the beer is aggressive and unique, although difficult to describe purely from memory.  However,  the star of the evening had to be the “Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale.”  While technically a strong ale, the flavors are very reminiscent of an IPA, and it happens to be one of the best beers I’ve had in a while.  It has a beautiful malt and hop combination (simcoe,amarillo, and cascade I believe), and an excellent mouthfeel!  That evening, Stone cemented itself in my mind as a brewery to be reckoned with.

While we were drinking, we had a chance to listen to The Twin Cats, a funk/jazz band from Indiana.  They put on an absolutely kickass set, and left me a little disappointed that they don’t have any more shows in our area for a while.  When I went up to the bar to get a drink, some guy pegged me as a beer geek based on the two beer lists in my hand.  He gave me a Stone Brewing DVD and introduced himself, at which point I realized I was talking with one of the founders of the Stone Brewery, Greg Koch.  I’m glad he approached me, because I didn’t do my homework and had no idea what he would look like.

Greg is a genuinely cool guy, who was very much at ease talking with me and the many other beer geeks in attendance.  We hung out for a while and he took a picture of us both, which I’m hoping I get a copy of, since taking pictures with my phone is a baffling ordeal.  You see, due to the dim lighting I would have had to first turn on the flash, which is so bright it would have cooked us both internally.  Secondly, we would have had to pose perfectly still for about a minute or so in order to get a picture not blurred beyond recognition.  This was not something I was willing to put a perfect stranger through, so we’ll see how things go.

We finished off the evening over at Piece, a place with some excellent pizza and really great homebrew.  I awoke the next day with a hangover of epic proportions and a receipt in my pocket that brought tears to my eyes, but still had a great time.  I like the idea of a craft beer month in Chicago.   Lets make that happen next year.

**** UPDATE ****

I saw that Greg uploaded pictures from his time in Chicago onto the Stone website and was pleased to find the picture of he and I among them. Furthermore, a little bit ago I recently received a package at work from Stone Brewery containing the picture he took of us, signed by him.  What a class act.  So Stone, you guys now have a superfan and Stone evangelist here in Chicago.  I’m drinking an Arrogant Bastard as I give this update and thank you for bringing your delicious beer to town.