Last night My Life’s Editor and I settled into our couch in our TV room to watch Mr. Djokovic play Mr. Zverev in the US Open semi-final. I sat back, she laid out lengthwise on the couch and plopped her feet on my lap, in foot rub mode. Foot rubs get my contract renewed each year. I pressed the small white button next to “Cable” on the Universal Remote and we had a picture (there is a green button saying “On”, but it does not actually turn anything on.) Mr. Djokovic appeared on the screen, ready to serve, bouncing the ball, glowering. But there was no thump, thump sound. No sound at all. We could not hear Mr. McEnroe opine (even though this could be considered a blessing). We could not even change the channels with the remote to send Mr. Djokovic away, opting for re-runs of Dr. Phil.
Three televisions, two remotes and a Sonos bar along, our media experience has been a walkabout in probability theory, the theory being that something will probably not work at some time. The electrician who designed and installed our system admitted defeat two years ago and no longer takes responsibility for paternity. We see him occasionally holding court at a local bistro on his breaks, swilling lattes. He avoids our eyes. We had to bring in a hired gun to set things right, a media systems whisperer. His initials are pinned on the text screen of my cell phone.
In childhood the answer to any failure of an electronic item in my family’s life – toaster, radio, lamp – was to look to see if it was plugged in. Maybe the vacuum cleaner had bonked the plug. Reinsert plug or fetch a new light bulb from the laundry room and voila, we had toast, music, light etc. Last night, trying to get sound, I craned my neck, peering into the dark space behind the wall-mounted Sony TV, and strained to unplug the two power cords I saw there. I knocked my glasses askew, swore, and left the plugs unplugged, dangling. After several minutes, I returned to the scene of the crime, groped for the receptacle in the dark, and reinserted the two plugs, fitting the fat prongs in the fat prong holes. As any child today past the diaper wetting stage knows, to get something electronic to work, you start by unplugging, then re-plug to reboot. Each time something goes awry with our media system, everyone must be reintroduced. The various bits of the system must say howdy, exchange addresses, shake hands and get back on speaking terms again.
To impress My Life’s Editor, I hand-printed and Scotch-taped labels to identify the black boxes blinking and glowing in our media stack: router, modem, cable box, receiver, etc. My father the General returned from a tour in Korea in the ‘60s with the latest in Hi-Fi plunder available from the Post Exchange and a seven-foot-tall carved wooden cabinet to contain it all. He was competent in organizing masses of young men with weapons. As for Hi-Fi systems, not so much. He had operating instructions typed up on 3 x 5 cards for each component (“#1, Push green button to turn on …”). He added his name and address with a Dymo marker lest a burglar with a forklift cart off the 300-lb mausoleum of electronic goodies in the night. He did know how to fit his favorite cassette into the cassette player, Billy Joe Cyrus playing Achy Breaky Heart.
My ancestral line did not provide much in the way of technological genes. My ancestors were Highland Scots. They went about in rough cloaks and kilts with no underwear, raised sheep and lived in stone-walled huts with thatched roofs. The womenfolk boiled oats and diced sheep entrails for haggis and the menfolk sat about and sharpened their knives. A fully dressed clansman had a claymore sword for battle, a dirk in his belt for personal disputes and a dagger in his sock just in case. They were not much about improving domestic arrangements, advancing life’s amenities. My clan was the Clan MacGregor. They originally hung about near the river Orchy but got chucked out because of a dispute with a landlord, something about poaching the landlord’s deer. They also murdered the king’s forester, who had hanged a couple of MacGregors for poaching, but who is perfect? MacGregors fought each other, fought neighboring clans, and fought the English. When things got slow, they got into the rent-a-clan business, renting themselves out to other clans looking for an assist in punching up a neighboring clan. In 1617, the Scottish Parliament, having had it with the rambunctious MacGregors, banished the clan’s name, at which point my particular line went to earth under the name Magruder. My grandfather, General “Bagpipes” Magruder, a cavalryman and subsequently a Chieftain of the American Clan Gregor, chased Pancho Villa around the Rio Grande under the command of “Black Jack” Pershing. I still have his sporran; my grandfather’s, that is, not Pancho Villa’s.
One of my ancestors, had he been alive today, would have accosted the electrician who installed our media system, told him where he could shove his latte, marched him up to our condo at dirk point and said, “Fix the system, laddie, or I’ll mince your liver for haggis!” I don’t think he would have done foot rubs.
August 15, 2021
Dear Mr. Craig,
We were pleased to be your travel experience of choice on your Saturday, August 8, BigBlue flight to Orlando. We admit the flight might have been unanticipated by you when on the prior day, August 7, you were seated comfortably on flight #931 for Tampa awaiting takeoff when you and your seatmate, Mrs. Craig, were surprised by a very loud BANG! The BANG was preceded by an announcement from the silver-haired, trustworthy co-pilot, who informed passengers that flight #931 was the inaugural flight of your aircraft. It is true that the flight attendants expressed surprise when the galley door on the fabulous A320 blew open and the escape chute ejected out to the tarmac. We apologize for their shouts, not approved in the BigBlue speech manual: “What was that?” and “What the hell?”
We admit the sight of a giant pool float hanging off the side of the A220 was not reassuring. But you needn’t have feared danger to your lives. You weren’t airborne, were you?
Please note that you were able to retrieve your bags from the carousel and were not harmed in the melee that ensued when the 200 passengers from your flight scrapped with two other flights for carousel rights. Since BigBlue had no replacement A320 loitering about at Logan we gave you and your co-passengers your very own ticket agent for processing 150 re-bookings. You got in a snit when told the next available flight to Tampa would depart Monday, August 10, three days away. You kvetched about paying for 3 nights in a Boston hotel. You moaned about our compensation, a fair – nay, generous – $100 credit for BigBlue flights within the next twelve months. Be aware the clock is now ticking. Frankly, our ticket agent felt he was the victim of a micro-aggression by the two of you. Again, as to compensation, had we given you cash, you would likely have squandered it on Mai Tais at the Hilton Garden Inn where you spent Friday night (and were double billed for the room, but that is another story, sorry about that).
Luckily, our crack agent was able to book you on the flight to Orlando late the next day. Although reference to a state map shows Orlando not actually adjacent to Tampa when you look at it from a global perspective, it is on the same peninsula. God created Budget Rental Cars for such an eventuality.
Surely you would admit that the drive from Orlando to Tampa on I-4 at cocktail hour is an experience not to be missed. You got to view the bumper stickers on the Kia SUV in front of you – “My Child is an Honor Student at Rick Scott Elementary” next to a Punishers Skull – for 84 miles, joining the festering masses creeping westward.
To show that BigBlue has your back, we are making you members of our newest membership club – Rabble – way below our premier Influencers but just below our slightly less wonderful Lemmings. As Rabble members you will be given “firsties” on the restroom, provided Influencers and Lemmings have emptied their bladders. You will also be allowed to ask for a second snack.
Thank you for traveling with BigBlue! An irritating survey is attached.
Customer Happiness Specialist
Two Friendly Plaza
Throggs Neck, NY 11101
I have a confession to make. The cover photo on You’ll Need a Guide, available from Amazon for a paltry amount, shows me gleefully displaying a rainbow trout to the camera. The photo leads the reader to believe that trout leap into my hands on a regular basis. Steady yourself: I do not always catch fish when I go fishing. This may surprise my more credulous readers, along the lines of the shock they felt when, as a pre-teen, they learned that Mom and Dad did it. The crack publicity department here at the Craig publishing empire felt a book on fishing (even one that is “not much about the fish”), should have an actual fish on the cover, with me holding it. Opting for honesty, I argued for the above photo on the cover – the raw, unvarnished truth – showing me empty handed, but they would have none of it. The public must be served.
Confession #2: it has been several years since I last caught a trout. My trout catching took a harsh blow when the US Postal Service decided that a carton I shipped from St Pete, containing waders, boots, vest, and boxes of flies, addressed to Denver, CO, should go instead to the postal terminal in Newark, NJ and disappear. Like The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, my box of fly-fishing gear vanished in the bureaucratic bowels of the Newark PO. Maybe someone will buy it one day at the PO’s lost-and-found sale and go try his luck on the banks of the nearby Passaic River. Unfortunately, he will find no fly in the tackle bag to match the daily beer can hatch rising on the waters of the Passaic.
It is true that fly fishing is not as productive a way to catch fish as chucking nature’s own, organic goodies in front of a fish. It is all about skill, mastery of a craft. This allows me to feel superior when I fish to no effect with my fly rod and see a guy downstream from me in cut-off shorts and trucker’s hat on backwards nailing them with a can of worms.
Confession #3: one day my son Hutch and I bought a bucket of shrimp, got out our spinning rods, waded into Tampa Bay on an incoming tide and caught humongous redfish and snook one after the other, releasing them all with a sore lip. I was ashamed of my fall from grace and had to go afterwards to Cliff, the fly-fishing maven, at St. Pete Outfitters, fall on my knees and confess my sin. “Did you have any fun?” he asked sternly. “Of course not!” I said, crossing myself. When I return from a morning of abusing the water surface with a fly rod, clumping in the front door with gear, My Life’s Editor asks, “How’d you do?” Pals at a fishing lodge ask the same question when everyone gathers for an after-action briefing with fortified beverages in their mitts. This question gives me pause. Should I do a full-on George Washington? Fess up? Under the eye of My Life’s Editor, I wilt like day-old cabbage and admit to going O-fer.
Recounting the day’s results to the guys at the lodge with beer in hand, the dynamics change. Peer pressure for inflation, like tenth grade boys discussing dating success, enters the picture. This brings us to the Theory of Fishing Relativity: the number of fish you caught (y) grows logarithmically with (a) how far your fishing companions were from you and (b) the time that has transpired between when you went fishing and the time you retailed your story to an audience:
Log(a) + log(b) = y
Fishing theory scientists point out that the AFF (Aging Fudge Factor) can also influence recollection of the number of fish you caught but is less measurable than time and distance. It is instructive that when you hear a pal talk about the number of fish he caught on a trip when you were in the same boat with him for eight hours, you wonder if he lives in an alternate universe.
There is also the question of size.
Guys spend their entire lives concerned about this. Guys like to buy pickup trucks so big they require a lift gate to reach the driver door. If you drive past auto dealerships on US 19, you will see not only a sea of small American flags flapping in front of a line of gleaming hoods, you will see one impossibly huge American flag rising erect in the middle of everything. This signifies the enormity of the dealership’s American-ness, so you don’t mind buying the snappy Kia you got a deal on versus the Chevy from the dealer who had a less prodigious American flag. In the literary world size counts, viz. Captain Ahab and Moby Dick and Santiago and the swordfish. Of course, in those examples redemption and angst are involved. Note to fishermen: these are called “feelings.”
Fly-fishing magazines cater to size. The photos show bearded, macho dudes dressed in all the cool fly-fishing duds, cradling enormous trout/tarpon/bonefish. Fly-fishermen stash these magazines under mattresses, hide them in office drawers and bring them out furtively, eliciting heavy breathing and a desire to buy fly-fishing equipment. Fly-fishing porn is a growth industry.
I have more to say, but I think my latest copy of Trout for Men: Big, Bold and Bare just arrived.
I backed My Life’s Editor’s molten orange CRV into a post yesterday in St. Augustine. The good news is the boxes with cupcakes and brownies from the Casa de Sueños B&B survived undamaged. My justification for backing into the post was that herself had brought up a map on the “Driver Information Interface” screen, rather than the backup camera. The map did not show the post which had snuck up behind us in the parking lot during the night. She pointed out that Honda supplies a rearview mirror for such events. Rearview mirrors are so old school. My Mini Cooper, in the same situation, would have beeped anxiously at me: “Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!” The trip home was uneventful, but for a few moments of terror caused by tailgaters on I-95 and the rural sign on Route 70 reading “Only God and Donald Trump can save America,” terrorizing me in a different way. In all, we covered six hours of driving in air-conditioned splendor with only two rebukes from the nanny brain of the Honda, informing me that I was inattentive and distracted. The drive led me to think of my childhood and the trips my family took without driver aids, other than the observations of my mother from the passenger seat.
In 1955, fresh off the boat from a military tour in Germany, our family purchased a snazzy blue 2-door Customline Ford for about $1900. It had a front bench seat, a column gear shift, an AM radio, crank windows and no air conditioning, as in zero. Long car trips were few; they taxed the family budget. But one stands out in my memory. In the fall of 1958 the entire family – parents, three sisters, and I, minus Colonel, our dog – piled into the Ford to drive to Middletown, Delaware. I was being delivered, sight unseen, to St. Andrews, an Episcopal boys’ boarding school, where I was to be molded for the next four years, a scholarship student. We packed a basket of food for lunch – tuna sandwiches, chips, and apples, washed down with a thermos of lemonade. There were no McDonalds, Cracker Barrels, or IHOPS. Howard Johnson restaurants, featuring fried clams and 28 flavors of ice cream, were an expensive proposition for six mouths. An army issue, dark green footlocker stenciled with my name, joined the basket of food in the car trunk. The remaining necessities were AAA maps and a roll of toilet paper. At 55 mph and with many two-lane roads, the overland trek took three hours. Not covered wagon conditions with Indian attacks, but there were hostilities.
In the front seat, skirmishes erupted between my mother, the map reader, and my father, the wagon master. “Bill, we should have turned off at the Baltimore exit!” “Dammit Peggy, I thought we were going to avoid Baltimore! I’ve got to pull over and look at the map!” “Here, you take the darn map!” etc. Wedged between the wagon master and the map reader on the front seat, the smallest member of the entourage squeaked, “I have to pee.” As there were no roadside loos in those days, peeing en route was an alfresco affair. Those who needed to pee would pile out, car doors left open for a modicum of privacy, and business would be done. Hence the TP.
In the back seat, I was squished between my two older sisters, all of us sweltering in the heat. I wore pressed khakis, a white, short-sleeved nylon shirt, a tie with a Siamese dancer, and a sport coat recently bought at Robert Hall. Their advertising jingle remains to this day an irritating earworm:
“When the values go up up up/And the prices go down down down/Robert Hall this season/Will show you the reason/Low overheads – Low overheads” etc.
The totally inorganic coat erupted with tufts of nylon thread from snags on anything rougher than a baby’s bum. Hot and itchy, I wriggled between my sisters. They objected strenuously to management in the front seat. Hostilities abated when my father pulled off to the side of the road and threatened confinement to barracks upon return. For the remainder of the trip, vertical lines reaching to the moon were drawn between backseat combatants. Any object passing through the plane, invading a neighbor’s space, brought outrage and further supplications to the adults.
We arrived at St. Andrews School hot, disheveled and a quart low on family happiness. We slid off the sticky car seats, got out and gaped up at the ivied walls that were my future. That fall drive in 1958 was a one way trip for me in more than one sense. It was a trip from which I would never return.
Five years ago, My Life’s Editor and I unloaded half our books and all our brown furniture (rejected by kids and consignment shops) and moved into a condo in the beating heart of St. Pete. “So, how do you like living, ah, downtown?” a friend asks, dubious, as if he meant to say, “How do you like living in a pestilential hell-hole?” I respond, “Best thing we’ve ever done!” The friend follows, unconvinced, “No, I mean, really what’s it like?” I reflect, sipping on my Kahwa latte, that we haven’t yet been mugged, run over by a scooter, or nailed at a crosswalk by an octogenarian in her Audi. It is true that songbirds trilling in our oak trees at our former manse on 19th Ave NE have been replaced. Instead, we hear the growl of Mustangs on Beach Drive, driven by testosterone-laden youth, cruising. Excluding dogs and one opossum I saw trotting down the sidewalk, people are the dominant downtown animal life form. That said, one afternoon while reading on our 21st floor balcony, I heard an explosive “thump.” Three feet from me, teetering on the balcony railing, was an osprey the size of a MINI Cooper, featuring a wickedly hooked beak as big as a catcher’s mitt. He glowered at me with demonic yellow eyes, decided I was not on the menu for lunch, and flapped off. Awesome.
I am sometimes asked, “What about all those people in your building, so many people!” Demophobic folk (you can look it up) need not fear condo life. A condo is sort of an adult college dorm, absent loud music and random people coming in to drink your beer and plunder your stash of Fritos. I estimate there are 400 people in our condominium. The only time I see a significant cluster of them is at the annual meeting, where they swill free wine and munch on free cheese cubes and shrimp. They are there to torture the Board of Directors, who struggle to find their happy place while enduring verbal water-boarding.
Our residents are treated like visiting dignitaries by our front desk folk, garage attendants and maintenance staff. “Have a good day” and “Welcome back” are chirped with gracious smiles. I have not yet done it, but the thought has occurred that when I have a bum day, I could repeatedly stroll back and forth through the lobby, trolling for “Have a good day”s and “Welcome back”s until I felt my specialness return. By contrast, when I lived in a house and returned home, my triumphal entry from a day of bread earning was met by teenagers and wife who had featured my act before and were not impressed. I merited maybe a “Hey.” Our dogs, Molly and Bingo, were enthusiastic greeters, but were likely trying to distract me from discovering they had pooped on the dining room rug.
Regarding dogs, life in our former abode and life in our downtown condo differ sharply. On 19th Ave NE several times a day a neighbor would lurch by, dragged by a labradoodle the size of a small horse. We would exchange a brief “Howdy” as the beast strained at the end of the leash and towed its owner down the sidewalk. Our next door dog, Oscar, was a black Doberman about 16 hands at the withers, all teeth and attitude. Condo dogs, on the other hand, are knee-high ankle-sniffers who look up at you from the elevator floor with hopeful eyes, strapped into a dog brassiere with a leash attached. You want to lean down and say, “Be free! Run, jump, cavort! Join a pack, terrorize Pioneer Park! Pee whenever you damn well feel like it!”
Taking out trash was a chore at 19th Ave NE. I toted the bulging trash bag to the back alley, where squatted the gigantic multi-family black dumpster from hell. I had to lift the lid with one hand and skootch the trash bag up to the dumpster lip with the other hand, maybe support the lid on my head and then try to sling the bag in the opening. Or I would try to flip the lid back and throw simultaneously. The lid, not quite making it all the way over, would flop back and smack me on the head, chortling. In our condo, I peek out our door, look down the hallway to see if the coast is clear, and hustle to the utility room in my pajamas. I lift the trash chute lever, pop in the bag, and down she goes. Our grandchildren gleefully volunteer for the job, reveling in the thump, thump as the bag caroms down 21 floors. By the way, it never rains in our condo hallway.
19th Ave NE had no parallel to the sine qua non of condo life – the elevator. In my suit-wearing years, in downtown Chicago, proper office elevator culture called for no eye contact or communication among occupants beyond a noncommittal glance before turning to face the elevator door. I would look down at my shoes or up at the ceiling, hope my fly was zipped. In our downtown condo, life stories may be exchanged between the lobby and the 21st floor. Small talk is de rigueur, capped off by a departing “Have a nice one,” at minimum. The elevator door is like the curtain on a theater stage, pulling back to reveal a new act. Sometimes I imagine I get on an elevator alone, drop a floor and the door opens to a burst of Klieg lighting. It is Alex Trebek. He asks, “Marshall Craig, for a million dollars, on the World Series Champion 1908 Chicago Cubs, who was the third baseman for the legendary Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combo?”
I would crush it.