Thursday, May 31, 2012


On a recent trip to a fancy corner of West Virginia, Megan and I found ourselves in a restored hotel from the gaslight era--The Blennerhassett (by all means, check out this .pdf of words that also have at least two pairs of like letters.  Is there a word, like Blennerhassett, that has three pair of like letters?  Plenty, I think.  What about consecutive like letters?  Apparently only "bookkeeper" fits that bill.  This all needed to be a foottnnote, I apologize).

Anyway, I'd always wondered how this independent and beautiful hotel could exist in Parkersburg, which is pleasant but rundown, "one of those Sodoms of the Ohio River," or so it's called by a character from James Agee's Night of the Hunter.

(No Sodom now, Parkersburg's motto is "Let's Be Friends.")

Turns out, The Blennerhassett had been the hotel of a boom period (coal? oil? shipping?), then a flophouse in the 30s and 40s, and was finally renovated within the last few years.

Library with Backgammon board; player piano; guy in the corner who says, "See here."

It was terrific to take a one-night vacation to a place that's less than an hour away.  Prudent opulence, and a good celebration of eight years of dating/marriage.  And besides the hotel, the Blennerhassett's got a claim on an island that's open to tourists, which allowed for some picnicking, animal dodging, and political curiosity.

We found that the Island, which is a short ferry ride from the town, has as strange a history as the hotel.  The namesake, Harman Blennerhassett, had married his niece in England and been forced to flee to the permissive U.S. (This story was nearly made famous in a deleted verse of America the Beautiful).

Once here, H. Blen. set up a manse in the middle of the Ohio and began producing a dank hemp crop.  Somehow--and this is odd considering the fact that the niece-marrying are usually standup guys--he got himself embroiled with noted duelist Aaron Burr, and both men were tried by the government for various treasons after entertaining the idea of a break-away Southwest Empire.

Megan and I didn't see much treason on the island, but we did see a rabid opossum hassling a goose, which recalled to one of us, the one who has a rabid and unkempt imagination, that Burr-Hamilton duel of Bygonera.

Two things got purchased on this weekend away, one which recalls the Harman Blennerhassett era of the eighteen-oughts and one which recalls the flophouse era of the 30s.

The first was a glass bug jar which folks in the early-19th used to hang in their kitchens to catch flies with.  Megan had to buy this authentic West Virginia product (actually made in Massachusetts) mostly because she had guessed correctly when our tour guide asked us what we thought it was.  We picked up the reproduction in the gift shop.

(Shortly before this purchase, I dutifully reported to a clerk that the toilet in The Necessary House, as the in-character tour guides called it, was overflowing.  West Virginia Parks and Recreation workers seemed completely unfazed by this plumbing disaster, maybe because they were concerned with the resurgent opossum, which we later heard tell was carrying a brood of opossi in her opouch.

The bug jar is pretty).

The second purchase was a drink wheel from the Blennerhassett Hotel gift shop.  This doohickey--I should tell you that I just had a nice time typing "doohickey wiki" into my google bar and will report on the history of the word in a moment--this doohickey tells me the ingredients of all sorts of classic cocktails, how to prepare them, and whether to shake or stir, and all of that info's contained in a 4-inch diameter circle of metal.  I realize this thing is probably in every gift shop, but since The Blennerhassett has the air of a classic cocktail, and of Depression-era rule-breaking, the wheel feels like a specific memento.

This is pretty much it.  Meanwhile, a "doohickey" is a mixture of a doodad and a hickey (two parts doodad, one part hickey, with a water back); a hickey is either "a small fitting used in wiring for electric lights, a fixture piped for gas," or it's just something a person can't remember the name of.  The OED is unsure.  It's possible that the Blennerhassett's gaslights were maintained with hickeys, but there weren't any noticeable doohickeys on the premises, besides, of course, The Cocktail Wheel.  A "doodad" is also etymologically vexing, but a "dad" is "a large piece knocked off" of something, as in "a dad of bread."  A "doo" is only a misspelling, as in the puritan Arthur Dent's line, "What a marriage, what a meeting, what a doo." 

I've always wanted to be the kind of person who gets into jazz and knows a little about cocktails, but the former requires listening to hours of jazz, and the latter just involves drinking, so this cocktail wheel has provided me with a project I've happily moved ahead with.  I'm trying to taste the cocktails in the order in which they appear on the wheel, and I have one every time there's a Celtics game on.

This has helped us restock our paltry bar and helped me feel cosmopolitan, which was incidentally the second drink I made, after a nice daiquiri.

I've botched a Brandy Alexander, whipped up a White Russian, ruined a Whiskey Sour with low quality lemon juice, and I've celebrated my Sidecar, which is a perfect drink for me--it emerged from flophouse days, the Sidecar did, and Esquire called it the only good cocktail to be born of Prohibition.  So it's got a story.  Along with a little brandy, a little triplesec, some low-quality lemon juice that I doctored with Tropicana . . . Not bad.

I'm hoping the Celtics win a couple games against the Heat, and if they make the finals, I'll certainly get a shot at a Rusty Nail, a Martini, a Margarita, a Manhattan, a Gimlet, and a Gibson.

Overall, the trip was--and the classy drinking has been--quite a nice time.  What a marriage, what a meeting, what a doo.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cheer Theory

After President Obama announced his support for gay marriage three weeks ago, Huffington Post popularized a clip from The Golden Girls in which Blanche talks to Sophia about same-sex commitment. In the clip, Blanche is upset that her brother Clayton wants his boyfriend to be more than just “a pal and a confidant.” Clayton wants to put a ring on Doug's finger, and this blanches Blanche. In familiar sitcom fashion, though, a couple of jokes resolve the issue and Blanche decides to accept her brother's union.

The short article makes a big deal out of a decades-old bit of Saturday TV, and rightfully so. The progressive episode of The Golden Girls aired in January, 1991, only a few weeks after three couples in Hawaii challenged that state's law against gay marriage, a challenge which eventually led to the first ruling that deemed such a law to be discriminatory. So, if The Girls weren't ahead of their time on this issue, they were certainly right in line with it, and the show was always willing to address hot-button topics from the hot-comfort of the lanai.

But ten years before that—and decades before Will & Grace, Modern Family, and President Obama helped establish a new norm—Cheers addressed the topic of gay marriage, too. In the show's second episode, which aired in 1982, Coach, played by the late Nicholas Colasanto, deals with a distressed bar patron named Leo. Coach asks him about his troubles and Leo, who is white, responds: “Last semester, my son comes home from college with his new fiance, who's black.” Coach questions, “Your son's not?” and the live studio audience loudly loves Coach's simpleness.

After another storyline intrudes for awhile, Leo again bends Coach's ear, with a slightly more complex story:

“Last semester, my son comes home from college with his new fiance, who's black.”
“Yeah, I've been thinking about that,” says Coach. “And it's a tough one, but I think I got it. Leo, it's a problem of communication. Here's what you do. You get home, you sit the kids down and you say to your boy. . .What's your boy's name?”
“And what's Ron's fiancee's name?”
“You say, 'Rick, Ron'. . . Rick and Ron?” [cross talk] “Leo, if you're that unhappy about it, just throw him out and tell him you never want to see him again.”
“I can't do that. I love the kid.”
“Oh, I see what you're saying,” says Leo to Coach.
“You do? What?”
“If I can't accept the kid the way he is, I'll lose him.”
“Boy, that's good.”
“Well, when you put it that way, what choice do I have. Thanks Coach.”

Interestingly, Leo uses the word “fiance” to describe his son's partner, so we're thinking of the pairing as a potential marriage. It seems like the word is only included so that Coach can misunderstand the situation hilariously, but even if Cheers is more interested in comic misdirection than the direction of social policy, it's still looking forward. And what's notable is how casually the scene deals with the issue and then discards it. Diane, Cliff, and Norm all cheer for Coach's inarticulate, and perhaps unintentional defense of civil rights, and for a minute Cheers becomes a gay bar, or at least a pro-gay bar. Which makes a lot of sense, considering the comforting lyrics of the theme, “You wanna go where people know, people are all the same.”

But then, as though nothing shocking has happened at all, the talk turns to whether or not Sam Malone only dates dumb women, which is the pressing social question of the episode.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Blood Songs

I'm walking around today with only eleven twelfths of my blood--down to about five and a half quarts of the stuff--because I spilled my AB-negative for the common good this past Saturday.  That blood type makes me a one-percenter since only about 1 in 167 people have it.  In the past, I've felt unreasonably special about this distinction even though I had exactly zero to do with the composition of my sanguinity.

I should thank my parents for the peculiarity; they are the rarest (AB-) and third rarest (B-), and they came with me on Saturday morning, down to the Republican Masonic Lodge in Greenfield, to chat with the folks, and to drink cranberry juice. 

 Megan recently met a woman who didn't know what a juice box was.  Which seems utterly improbable and strangely charming.


There, we unexpectedly met, and haltingly sympathized with, a long-lost friend whose 37-year old daughter had just died of cancer.  While we ate restorative pretzels, he reminded us, maybe, of why we were donating our own little drop in the ocean, and how much we interlock, as Whitman wrote, in ways more mysterious than blood.

ON the beach at night alone, 
As the old mother sways her to and fro, singing her husky song, 
As I watch the bright stars shining—I think a thought of the clef of the universes, and of the future. 
A VAST SIMILITUDE interlocks all, 
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, comets, asteroids,        
All the substances of the same, and all that is spiritual upon the same, 
All distances of place, however wide, 
All distances of time—all inanimate forms, 
All Souls—all living bodies, though they be ever so different, or in different worlds, 
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes—the fishes, the brutes, 
All men and women—me also; 
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages; 
All identities that have existed, or may exist, on this globe, or any globe; 
All lives and deaths—all of the past, present, future; 
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d, and shall forever span them, and compactly hold them, and enclose them.  

1. "God, to Whitman, was both immanent and transcendent and the human soul was immortal and in a state of progressive development."

2.  Whitman was probably gay and would therefore not have been able to give blood, though The Red Cross has petitioned for this restriction to be eliminated.

3. "All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain." - Walt Whitman

While we settled into our long-lost friend's easy-going grief, the guy who'd been manning the front desk for The Red Cross came in and changed the mood.  Here's how the conversation ran:

"She had eight months to live instead of four and we were glad for that," old friend Fred said.

"Fred, can you take over at the front. I've had a lot of cranberry juice and I've gotta use the facilities," said the other guy, entering, and completely unaware of the previous, weighty topic of conversation. 

"Oh, sure, when you gotta go, you gotta go," old friend Fred said.

I reminded myself that drastic changes of tone don't always feel rude or even out-of-place.  Dire and daily mix like blood and water, and have to.


Before those pretzels and that juice and that peeing, it had felt both ancient and futuristic to lie on a bed, hooked up to a needle, pumping blood at the same time as my parents.  Like we were involved in a Latin ritual, or a rite of genealogy, or some dystopic trial (see Never Let Me Go).  This was both creepy and altruistic.  (Is it obvious that this was my first time donating blood?).  And this feeling was heightened by two things: my slight lightheadedness and the fact that within arms-length there was a prominent Masonic throne.

Some breathless and ridiculous sources suggest that freemasonry involves blood sacrifice, but on this Saturday morning, as I reclined in their sunny throne-room, the odd goblets, and the ceremonial maces, and gavels, and bowling league photos didn't seem ominous.  Only humorous.  "Silly, charitable men," I thought as I was slowly sapped.

Odder than the collection of ceremonial hats was the coincidental soundtrack of my donation.  Greenfield's local radio station, WHAI, blared from a radio between the beds, and "She Drives Me Crazy," that great hit from 1988, came on first. 

My chatty phlebotomist said what I'd already been thinking: "Fine Young Cannibals.  Whatever happened to them?"  (Not much, though their pan-racial lead singer Roland Gift, who turns 50 this week, recently put out this excellent song:


I can't say it scared me to think about cannibals while my blood drained, but it did amuse me, and I can imagine a slightly queasier, slightly more delusional person developing some hypertension during the chorus.  After all, if you try hard, you can almost feel the needle in there, humming thirstily against the vein.  And you can almost imagine that Roland Gift is into some abnormal business.  I can't stop the way I feel.  Ooo-oo-oo.

"That's just stupid stuff I think," I thought, until Tommy Tutone came on the radio next, singing about a girl named Jenny and her very famous phone number.  As I wiggled my toes to keep up my circulation, and mimed half of the 8-6-7-5-3-0-9 dance on my right hand, all of the diseases fictional-Jenny could have contracted in 1981 came to mind.

You'll remember that the plot of "(867-5309) Jenny" has a man in a bathroom stall contemplating a good time with a good-time-girl whose number has been scrawled there.

I know you think I'm like the others before
Who saw your name and number on the wall.

Jenny--as I found when I answered the forty question blood-giving contract that covered the entire span of my non-existent, post-1978, in-Mexico, hypodermic-sharing, sex-bartering bisexuality--would more than likely have been ineligible to donate.

Or maybe Jenny was just an innocent girl smeared by an ex-boyfriend who, laugh-crying in a barroom can, publicized her number with a vindictive bic to destroy her reputation, to haunt her from beyond the breakup.  And maybe Roland Gift never attempted to chow-down on anyone's ruddy flesh.  Who can know the answers to or even understand these big questions.


Old friend Fred told us, after we'd given our blood for future transfusion, that his daughter's last meal had been thirteen scoops of ice cream and that she'd wanted to, and had, seen the ocean one more time before she died.  When they were on that beach at night alone, they thought a thought, I bet, of the clef of the universes, and the interlocking Whitman talked about.

"I'm trying to keep busy," Fred told us, and though there are some phrases you've heard 100 times, they still can sound original coming out of the mouths of people who've been remade with pain.


Other songs I half-didn't and half-did want to hear after "867-5309": Foreigner's "Hot Blooded"; "You've Made Me so Very Happy," by Blood Sweat and Tears; "The Needle and the Damage Done" by Neil Young; The Pretenders' "Night in My Veins"; and "Foolish Heart" by Steve Perry (not because it has anything to do with bleeding or out-jections, but because it is the song I am the ambivalentest about. 

Staying on the topic of "Foolish Heart" for a moment. . . the song would seem to be emblematic of all songs I've heard more than 100 times without ever consciously listening to them.  I'm positive I've even sung, "Oh foolish, foolish heart" without that experience having one iota of impact on my life and times.  But now it seems like a clever thing to write, a song delivered to one's own heart).

"If there was one thing I could say to the fans, it would be for them to protect their lives, protect their health, protect themselves from things and people who might want to take those things away from them. Then you can live, enjoy music and live your life [. . .] Things that can hurt you, whether that's drugs, too much booze, or too much of anything. Just protect their lives because it's a precious gift that they've been given to be somewhere they've never had a chance to be before and to be here and to have an opportunity to see a lot of things and to try to do things with and for their families and themselves. It's just very important to protect themselves from things that can hurt them. I just hate to see people get all screwed up. It sure changes your life when certain things happen to you.  You've got to respect your life a little bit, it's a special privilege that people take too lightly, until it's gone or until it's damaged. If you damage yourself or hurt yourself, you just wish you could be back where you were when you thought you were unhappy." - Steve Perry who, based on his anti-drug stance here, might be able to give blood

None of those songs played.  Not "Foolish Heart," even though it's the type of worn-out and welcome tune WHAI specializes in.  No, the third song of my blood-giving soundtrack was "Funky Town," which I considered twisting to fit the bloody theme somehow.  

It can't be safely done, but I would still like to note that listening to such a song at 10am on a slow, spring Saturday, in the cluttered Masonic Hall of Greenfield, Mass., while calmly giving of my blood-stuff and making a fist in rhythm to the beat (won't you take me to), is a discordant and lovely experience--along with the cranberry juice, the halting sympathy, the cannibals and all--that I wish on the three people who might receive my probably useless pint of rare red gold.