Sorry Mario

More flash fiction. The prompt for this week was that the character that the story revolves around can’t appear in the story. Not sure why, but the “Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle” popped into my mind right away. Then it was a matter of getting there.

Sorry Mario

“Are you ready?” Jeff asked.

His wife looked back at him in the darkness.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t go to the police?” Melissa asked in return.

“The note said no police.”

“I doubt an ill-advised rescue attempt is sticking to the ransom, either.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll be in and out before they know what’s going on. You just saw the same thing I did. Three of them left. They didn’t have Daniella with them. That means she’s still inside.”

“I just…,” Melissa trailed off, then changed her tact. “You know you’re not Mario, right?”

“Who?”

“Mario. I don’t know, Luigi. This isn’t a video game.”

“Really? You went with Mario? Not Assassin’s Creed? Not James Bond?”

“Whatever. Isn’t Mario the one who’s always saving the princess?”

“That’s Link.”

“Okay, but Mario is the one that changes direction in mid-jump. You know you can’t do that, right? Hell, you can’t really jump, at all.”

“This won’t require jumping.”

The silence between the married couple stretched on.

“This isn’t a video game,” Melissa finally said, returning to the beginning of her argument as summary.

“So are you in or out?” Jeff asked.

“I guess it’s too late to go back now. It’s not like we have the ten grand they’re asking for anyway.”

“Okay then. Let’s go rescue our daughter.”

Jeff climbed through the hole in the fence and began to tiptoe toward the brick building that he had traced the kidnappers to. Melissa followed behind him, carrying the pistol that they had owned for a decade but never used. Melissa had tried to get rid of the thing when Daniella was born, but Jeff would hear nothing of it. He kept it in his bedstand, but kept the bullets up high in their closet, where a child could not accidentally find them or load them or shoot them. Without its bullets, it wouldn’t offer much protection, but Jeff assumed the sight of a gun might be enough to make a home invader flee. Nobody wants to hang around long enough to see if a gun is loaded or not.

Melissa might be right that this wasn’t a video game. But the vast number of heist movies and Liam Neeson thrillers had laid the groundwork for what lay in front of Jeff. Working for the City Comptroller gave him the rest of what he needed. No need to keep the kidnappers on the phone for ten extra seconds in order to triangulate the cell towers if you can just get a listing of the blocked phone number after the fact. From there, all he had to do was check the blueprints of the abandoned book depository, which were public record and available to any citizen of the city, as long as said citizen knew whom to ask.

Don’t fuck with civil servants, Jeff thought, was the moral of the story.

Once he saw the blueprints, it was obvious how this warehouse could be turned into a prison for a kidnapped child. Jeff knew, without even needing to think, where the bastards were holding Daniella. The old manager’s office lay in the back of the open warehouse, and it had a fortified vault in one corner. It didn’t take a criminal mind, or even a dozen watchings of “Ocean’s Eleven,” to know where he needed to go.

And with the three perps having just left, Jeff and Melissa should be able to waltz right in and save their daughter. Jeff patted himself on the back as he padded toward the door the kidnappers had left ten minutes ago.

The room beyond the door was dark. Jeff was happy. That meant none of the kidnappers were still inside. Everything was going to plan.

The booby traps were not part of the plan.

“Ouch.”

“What’s wrong?” Melissa asked from behind, raising the gun in her two hands, as she had been trained to do in the one class Jeff had made her take a decade earlier.

“Nothing. It’s just that the doorknob is warm. Even through these gloves.”

Melissa laughed to release some tension, pointing the gun back toward the ground. “Do people really use the old hot handle trick? I thought that only happened in Bugs Bunny cartoons.”

Jeff laughed, too, in spite of himself. “Ye- yeah. We’ve gone from video games to Looney Tunes. Let’s hope these guys are more Elmer Fudd than Bow-“

Jeff didn’t finish his thought. As he inched the door open, the subtle heat turned into a fireball. Jeff fell backward as flames exploded out of the doorway. Melissa screamed, dropping the gun as she shielded her own face from the conflagration. Her husband crashed to the ground, losing his wind as his back hit the ground.

It was not a continuous spout of fire. Not a flame thrower, nor a blowtorch. Not the type of sustained heat to make a creme brulee. This was just one explosive flame, a barbecue finally lighting after the fourth push of the igniter button. Perhaps more to frighten people away than to actually harm them.

“Further proof there’s nobody here to guard her,” Jeff said as he rolled over on to his stomach.

Melissa nodded, even though she had not been privy to his internal monologue. They had been married for a decade, and dated for an extra five years before that. She could follow his train of thought better than anyone. And she agreed.

Wife helped husband regain his feet. She wiped the dirt off the back of his shirt, while he did the same to the front of his jeans. Tentatively, Jeff reached forward. He grasped the cooling doorknob and pulled on the door, just enough to open it a crack, while ducking to his left, fully prepared to dive for the floor once again. But the fire was a one-time deterrent. The door opened without a hitch.

A dark expanse faced them. The scant light from outside only showed a few feet near the open door. But Jeff knew this room. The blueprint showed a seventy-foot-by-seventy-foot square. Jeff took a confident step forward. Then another. His eyes could still make out the general shape of the grey-brick, windowless walls from the scant light spilling in through the entryway. This was a convenient reinforcement, as the two into darkness as soon as the door closed behind Melissa.

The last picture Jeff had seen, filed by a construction firm filing a “Use of Historic Building” form, showed the room to be empty. All of the bookshelves had been removed to the school district’s newest warehouse. The old storage room was perfectly suited for the air rifle arena that the construction firm had been hoping to open, or an urban-themed disco, but both of those applications had been denied. The Comptroller was holding out for an artist enclave or some other upscale business to begin the gentrification process in this part of town.

His mind’s eye seeing the blueprint and the picture, Jeff took one cautious step forward in the darkness, then another. Within a few steps, Jeff was sure his eyes had adjusted as much as they could. He walked forward with purpose, his mind focused on the distant door to the manager’s office on the blueprint in his head.

Until his foot missed the floor. Or didn’t miss, per se, but came down on something else. A round object. A group of spheres, (Marbles!) rolling out from under his step, toppling him over once again. He tried to fall forward this time, flailing his arms out in front of him. In the end, he thought he pitched to the right, the brunt of the impact hitting his right shoulder. His head came to rest on his assailant. Not spheres, but tubes.

Not marbles.

Jeff thought back to the marbles on Daniella’s floor. He had almost tripped over them. He was always stepping on Daniella’s toys. The marbles weren’t as bad as those damned Legos. Marbles on a carpeted floor won’t cause any harm. But they had been there nonetheless. Sitting on the floor, as if Daniella had just been playing with them. It was all he could focus on at first. Not the open window, outside breeze blowing the tree outside gently against the side of the house. Not the ransom note on the bed. “$10,000. Instructions for delivery in two hours.” Only the marbles on the floor. And an indentation on the carpet. How long ago had Daniella been sitting there, playing with her toys?

When did the two hours begin?

A light switched on. A faint, LED glow illuminating the area in front of him.

“Not sure why we didn’t think of this before,” Melissa said, her phone having replaced the gun in her right hand.

The glow started to fade. She turned it back to her face and double-tapped the screen. Lumens returned, and she turned the screen back toward to scene on the floor.

“Can you turn on the flashlight,” Jeff said into the picture on her screen. A selfie of the three of them, Daniella’s face smiling between her two parents, the “Welcome to Disneyland” sign hovering behind their close-up faces. Jeff never liked that picture. He never knew where to look on a selfie. The other two beamed straight at the camera and he was gazing off to the right as if something had just caught his eye. A naked lady or a terrorist attack or an alien coming down in a flying saucer. Or maybe he was looking into the future, and a kidnapper taking his daughter from his very house while he was busy looking the other direction.

“Isn’t that the app that the Russians were using to steal your identity?” Melissa asked, but turned her phone back around to see if she could find the app in question. She thumbed the safety on her pistol and tucked it into her back pocket.

“I think that’s just an… ow… an old wive’s tale,” Jeff said, finally feeling the impact on his shoulder as he shifted his weight in an attempt to get up off the floor. Although he hadn’t felt any initial impact, he was pretty sure his wrist had lost some of its structural integrity. “Besides, at this point, the Russians can have my fucking identity.”

Three thumb-clicks later, the flash on Melissa’s phone shone down upon her husband as he regained his knees. Around him lay a scattering of white PVC pipes. Moving the light around, she saw them stretch on for five feet or more. It would have been impossible to avoid them in the dark, no lucky, walk-over bypass.

“Who the hell leaves a bunch of pipes laying around in the dark?”

Whether they had been lain there intentionally or leftover from some random inhabitant or potential owner, it was hard to know. But with the flash of a digital camera to lead the way, husband and wife were able to avoid this obstacle, and another batch of PVC pipes twenty feet further on.

“The positioning looks a little too precise to be there randomly,” Melissa opined, and Jeff was forced to agree. Eight pipes in a row, the last two angled to the right and the left, ensuring the whole batch would roll.

“I don’t get it. Did they want us to pay or did they want us to come here?”

It was a question that hung over the two of them as they made their way to the door near the corner of the far wall. Jeff thought he heard sirens in the distance, but it was too hard to be certain. Everything on his body was screaming. His injured wrist, his bruised shoulder, his scorched face. There was enough ringing in his ears to easily mask any exterior sounds. To say nothing of the thick warehouse brick. So instead of straining to make sense of a distant noise, he focused to the only sense that was working: his eyesight following that single trail of cellphone light to the inner office door.

Once there, Jeff and Melissa only stared at the doorknob. Melissa’s phone illuminated it perfectly. An utterly normal sphere of chrome, a simplistic keyhole in the middle. Jeff reached forward, then stopped himself. Once, twice. He finally reached all the way, tapped it with his finger. It didn’t budge, it didn’t melt, it didn’t morph into a evil maw with teeth ready to snap an assailant’s hand off. It did exactly what a doorknob should do when tapped, which is to barely notice, to continue existing precisely as intended. Slowly, ever so gingerly, reaching through a morass as if the ice age might sneak back into this room in time to rescue both father and daughter, Jeff grabbed hold of the knob and turned.

The mechanism released. The door released from the doorjamb. Jeff pulled on it while his wife removed the gun from her back pocket. Both sensed that, make or break, their journey would end on the other side of this barrier. The sirens from the street rose in pitch, adding a sense of urgency and dread. Melissa moved her phone to her left hand, thumbing the small safety nub into its receptacle.

The door swung open.

Nothing was there. Jeff blinked. Melissa blinked. Melissa shone the flashlight left, then right. The dimensions of the room were correct. Ten by ten. No desk. No furniture. And no vault door behind where the desk should have been.

Jeff took a giant step to his left, in the direction of the phantom vault, the spot on the wall that showed nothing. Straight forward, no variance. No time to think. Had he slowed down, he might have seen the trip wire. But probably not, strung as it was at shin height, as thin and as taut as an E string on an acoustic guitar.

Gunfire rang out. A bright flash to Jeff’s left. Reverberating crashes, a cacophony in an enclosed place. Four shots in rapid succession. Melissa returned fire without thinking. Bullets flew in both directions over Jeff’s shoulder. His knees gave out and he once again plummeted for the floor. Melissa stood stock still for a moment before belatedly realizing she should have ducked behind the wall.

But it didn’t matter. They were alone in the room. The gun that had fired and, blessedly, missed, had been yet another trap. Not another person in the room. And when Melissa shone the light on the wall opposite the muzzle flashes, they saw, to the right of the doorway where one would expect it, a light switch. In his mind’s eye, Jeff saw himself reaching for the light instead of darting to the left as soon as he entered the room. What any sane person would do.

He started to laugh. Quietly at first, then it grew. The entire idea was absurd. And the two of them were making it through not because they were trained, not because video games and movies had shown them the way to do it. But because they were just strung out enough, just impulsive enough, to ensure they were continually doing what no sane person would be doing at this time.

“I’m Mario!” He finally said between his laughs.

“What?”

“A fireball. A pipe. A bullet flying through space at nothing in particular! Hahaha! You were right! This is Mario. I just lost my third life. How many do I have left?”

Melissa only stared at her husband, through the smoky haze of residual gunpowder, laughing maniacally on the ground. She tried to make sense of what he was saying. Her senses were as overloaded as his. Darkness and light and smoke and gunfire. Sirens getting closer and closer. Only she wasn’t cracking, as her husband clearly was. She needed to stay grounded in reality, where neither of them had any extra lives.

“It’s over there,” Jeff continued between gasps. Melissa shone her light back to him, then followed the direction he was pointing. Her phone showed a vault door. “I was reading the blueprint wrong. I zigged when I should’ve zagged.”

Melissa started to laugh now, too. Seeing the vault door, knowing Daniella lay beyond. They were almost to the end. The end was in sight. The emotion that had been pent up for the last twenty hours finally came out.

“You… You changed the direction of your jump in midair.”

He stepped forward to hug her husband. The two of them laughed and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. Exhausted and delirious.

“This is the police! You are surrounded!”

The amplified voice permeated through the building. Jeff and Melissa looked at each other in confusion.

“The police are here?” Melissa asked. “For us?”

“Did we set something off?”

“Did the kidnappers send them? No police, the note said.”

How many lives do we have left?” Jeff asked again.

The two blinked at each other in the cone of lightness.

“It’s okay. Just get Daniella out of there. Then we can explain what we’re doing in here.”

Jeff nodded. It would be easy enough to explain. They weren’t trespassing, after all. They were saving a captured little girl. Their daughter. They had every right to be in here. The cops would be very interested to hear about what had prompted this whole endeavor. Jeff took Melissa’s phone and walked toward the vault. At the last minute, he worried about a lock. Maybe the cops would be able to open the vault door and save his daughter from the other side.

He heard the distant door open, and footsteps storming into the building, as he reached the padded door. He turned the handle, this one a long metal bar instead of a chrome sphere, and was relieved when it swung freely. The door swung inward.

“FREEZE!” came a multitude of voices from behind.

Bright light blazed behind Jeff, illuminating the office. He raised his hands in the air, wanting to make sure he was seen complying. He hoped Melissa was doing the same, and he hoped her gun was not in her hand.

“TURN AROUND!”

But Jeff couldn’t turn around. All he could do was stare straight forward. Into the vault, now fully illuminated in the police lamps. He could see every corner of the tiny vault. The tiny, empty vault.

Daniella was nowhere to be seen.

Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle.

For the fourth time today, Jeff fell to his knees. He dipped his head as cops grabbed his hands from behind. He stared straight forward as cold steel clasped his wrists.

The room was empty. Jeff was out of lives.

 

Campfire Story

Don’t let your blog die during NaNoWriMo, I told myself. I’m going to post some old flash fiction, I actually posted in said blong. And here it is the first week of Decemeber and, let me check… one post, three weeks ago. Bang up job, Wombat.

Okay, here you go. Some of my flash fiction that didn’t win any contests. This one was supposed to be a Campfire Story. So I tried to make it read as if it was being spoken aloud in front of some kids. They said I had too many rhetorical questions, and I guess it was too late to say they weren’t supposed to be rhetorical. They were assuming that people were responding to them. But I’m telling you that now. So no complaining!

Enjoy.

And the Queen of England

The night was a night a lot like this.

Do you see the way the moon sits above the tree line? The way it just hangs there, a dull amber hue, lighting up our surroundings. It’s big. It’s bold. Not the type of moon you see in the city. It isn’t hiding behind a skyscraper or around the corner of the church on Third Street.

The farmers call it a harvest moon. It’s closer to the Earth this time of year. It keeps a watchful eye out over you so you can keep a watchful eye out over your crops. It’s a moon that wants to remind you that once upon a time, people thought he was a god. They prayed to him. And, boy howdy, by the time this story is finished, you’ll be praying to the almighty light of that moon, just like those old farmers were. Just like I was.

Because the last time I saw that moon was the first time I saw the half-human, half-…

You know what? I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were four of us out in the woods that night. David, the bald one. And Josh. Well, I guess Josh was bald, too. Mostly, anyway. Not everyone can have locks as luscious as your uncle, here. But I don’t really remember Josh’s hair. I think of him more as the burly guy. Built like a brick sh-, um sorry. Built like a sturdy outhouse. No? No frame of reference for that? A port-a-potty? Although those aren’t very sturdy, I know. Think of a port-a-potty that is made out of brick. Okay, sure, like the bathroom at the park.

And then there was Sonia. Poor, little Sonia. I don’t remember why she was out there with us. She had always just kind of been there. Part little sister, part would-be girlfriend. The glue that held together our motley crew. Whether we were smokin’ in the boys room or home, sweet, home. Ha, ha! Trust me, kids, when one of your college roommates introduces you to that old-school, hair-band rock music, you’ll get what a funny joke I just made.

Although I shouldn’t joke about Sonia. I haven’t seen her since that night. Diminutive little Sonia. Stood maybe five-foot-one, dripping wet. She’d have to stand on her tippy toes to hit a hundred pounds. Pixie-ish is what I used to call her. Now I know how apt that was. She really had no business being out there. None of us did, it turns out. But Sonia, least of all.

The Queen of England was there, too. I don’t quite remember when she got there, but I know she wasn’t there at the beginning. I’ll get to her later.

Have you heard that saying, “you can’t see the forest through the trees?” Well, that’s true. You see those trees right there? I know it’s dark, but that ring that’s illuminated around us. What’ve you got there, a Douglas Fir? A Noble Pine? It’s like a veritable Christmas Tree farm here. Some of them are tall and some of them are short. I mean, short to the other trees. Not short to you or I. Heck. See that one right there? What is it, twenty feet tall? On a Christmas Tree lot, that would be one of the top money getters, but here he’s just a little runt, barely stealing enough sun and nutrients from his big bullies next door.

And speaking of those bullies, check out that bad boy over there. He’s gotta be fifty feet if he’s an inch. Flickering orange in this light, but what do you think he looks like in the light of day. Is his trunk grey, like an elephant, trumpeting its power over the rest of God’s creation? Or is he a meek brown, trying to camouflage himself amongst his brethren. “Hey guys, I may be the one that everyone looks at, but I’m just one of you all. Come on, group tree hug.”

But here’s what I was saying with that whole forest-and-the-trees thing. We’re looking at that tree. But can you see the forest? Can you see what it all means? Can you even see what’s behind it? What could it be hiding? Well, that’s what David wanted to find out. So he got up from around the fire, a fire very much like this, to kill that cat’s curiosity and try to see the forest with his very own eyes.

And what did he see? You want to know what he saw, don’t you? When bald, wiry David tiptoed up to a giant pine tree standing sentinel on the edge of the light, warding off the darkness, or maybe it was vice versa, protecting the darkness from the evils of the light. What did David see, crunch, crunch, crunching through the dried pine needles like a drunken lion on shore leave?

Well, I don’t know. Because as he got to the tree, as he peered behind ever so subtly, I saw him lean in behind the tree, take a step, lean in some more and then…

David was gone.

Gone! A ghost! Like the tree had swallowed him whole. I know. I didn’t believe it at first, either. Thought maybe it was a trick of the eyes. A vantage point kinda thing. But no. David was gone. We called for him. Said his name. No response.

Josh was up first to follow David beyond the tree. That’s the kinda guy Josh is. Was. David was curious, always chasing some tantalizing, ethereal distance. Josh was sturdy. Grounded. Ready to go as soon as the going got going. I followed shortly behind Josh, because for me it was a thought and for him it was instinct.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Josh is going to disappear behind the tree, just like David. They’re going to join each other in some Great Beyond like in that nineteen-eighties Netflix show. But no. Maybe it was a one-time thing, or maybe it was because I was right behind him. The darkness can only take you when you’re lonely.

Whatever the reason, Josh rounded the pine and came out clear on the other side, rounding back out into our clearling, moments before I broke the plane of the forest myself.

But there was nothing behind the tree. It was just the back side of a tree. Or the front side, or the side side, depending on your vantage point, I suppose. My point is that David wasn’t there and David had never been there. No sign of him anywhere. No black, size-eight Converse tennis shoes. No svelte, tan, designer jacket signifying “Dave was here.” If I couldn’t see his tent over by the campfire, I might not think he had joined us on our trip.

Wait, was Sonia still sitting at the fire when I looked back in that direction? She should’ve been, but I don’t remember, definitively.

What I do remember, definitively, was Josh circling the tree, and me circling behind him. Once around. Twice around. The sun and the moon. Like a yin-yang, always on the opposing side. The fighters in the “Beat It” video. Tell me your dads have shown you the “Beat It” video. Good. I don’t want to have to disown my little brothers.

Finally, I came to a stop. Josh plowed into me from behind. I had just rounded the black pine, my field of vision bleary from yet another darkness-to-light transition as the fire came into view.

Was that when I saw the Queen of England sitting in Sonia’s spot by the fire? No. No, I don’t think Her Highness was there yet. I think what had caused me to stop on this particular revolution was the sound. Or rather, the complete lack thereof.

Silence. Too silent. The cackling of the nearby fire was gone. There was no crunching of footsteps or rustling of twigs in the breeze. A silent that shouldn’t exist in a library, much less outside in the woods. I don’t even think Josh stumbling into my backside registered a single decibel. It was as if the world had put those noise-cancelling headphones on, then forgot to push “play.”

Until the scream. AHHHHHHH!

A cry. A wail. A scream both natural and unnatural. Super-natural. Like a human wail belted an octave higher than Mariah Carey’s falsetto. Like an animal trying on its human vocals for the first time. The ghost of a cat. The wraith of a raccoon. The role of a human baby’s first wail will be played in tonight’s performance by a demon from Hell.

I ran. Straight forward or left of right, I couldn’t tell you. I just ran. Past the clearing and the fire and the four empty chair, like the points of a compass, containing neither me, nor David, nor Josh, nor Sonia. Nor the Queen of England. Into the forest and the trees and the underbrush and the darkness. Somehow I avoided them all, a pinball maneuvering between every flipper in sight. Unclear about direction or destination, I just ran. Like a blind man racing against Usain Bolt.

Josh was behind me. I could feel his breathing. I could hear his grunting. I could smell his breath on my legs, then my back, then my neck and the top of my head. His hot, humid breath. A mussy, Mississippi windstorm. A slobbering, guttural growl as Josh finally overtook me.

It wasn’t Josh.

I tripped and I pitched, sprawled through the forest, sprawled through the trees, came skidding to a stop on the undergrowth. A soft, mossy landing. A pillow that cushioned me from the landing I deserved. I sent a silent thanks up to whatever spritely spirit had saved me from scratches and worse.

But as the snarls and the groans and the slobbers and the heat pressed down upon my prone form, I wondered if I was being kept whole for a more nefarious reason. A fly taking a well-deserved rest in a comfortable silken web.

AWWWOOOOOOOO!!

The sound was more distinct this time. Closer. So very, very close. Not a wail or a cry, but a call. A triumphant trumpet of victory.

I couldn’t turn around to look. I mustn’t. And yet a voice told me that I must. A tiny voice. Feminine, discreet. Either in my ear or in my head. A heart of resolve. Turn around, it was saying. See what you must see. A defendant must face his accuser. A fly must look into the maw of its spider.

The hairy, crushing, snapping, poisonous mandible of the spider.

The hairy, crushing, snapping, bloody muzzle of a creature most foul.

I’d like to say it was a werewolf. I’d like to say it was a giant rat. I’d like to say it was a rabid wombat. It was all of those things and none of them, so all I can say is what I saw bending over me from its nine-foot height.

Sharp teeth, ragged teeth. Not the precise canines of a predator, but the mangled maw of a scavenger instead. Rat’s teeth dripping with fresh blood that glistened in the near-darkness. The snout above the snarl was rounded, like a marsupial instead of a rodent. But not one of those cute marsupials, like a panda or a wallaby. One of those nasty-looking ones. A snub-nosed opossum. A hairy-nosed wombat. The flat, pale triangle of a nose at the tip of the snout curled up to smell my delicious fear and despair.

The eyes were coal black orbs. No iris, no cornea. One hundred percent pupil, an endless pit into the depths of a scorched soul. Black like soot, the aftermath of a forest fire. The surest sign nature has to tell us of swallowed-up lives.

I tore my eyes away from the slathering face only to be mesmerized anew by its legs. Human legs. Hairier than a human, lankier than a human, but the unmistakable bipedal structure and gait of an upper primate. Human thighs. Human calves.

Human legs in camouflage cargo shorts. And black, size-eight Converse tennis shoes.

The creature was David!

“Hey, Buddy,” I said, trying to crab-walk backward, but finding no grip in the moist, silky moss. A fly caught in the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

“Hey, sorry I took the last hot dog last night, David.”

The monster snarled.

“I promise I’ll get up early tomorrow and percolate some fresh coffee for you.”

It growled.

“I take it back. You’re right. Reese’s make much better s’mores than Hershey’s.”

David opened its mouth wide. It descended toward its prey. Me. Hot saliva scorched my exposed neck.

“You stop that, David.” A high-pitched, high-classed voice rang out. Melodic. Regal. Royal. Large and in charge.

I looked up, and who did I see, hovering above the imposing nine-foot figure of the WereWomRat, shining in the moonlight like the crown jewels herself? Do you know who? No, it wasn’t the Queen of England. It was…

Sonia! Tiny, diminutive Sonia. Spritely little Sonia, towering ten feet in the air.

But not towering. She was hovering. She had wings! Honest-to-goodness wings. A double layer on both sides, strutting out to form a couple of upper-case B’s bordering her body. A body which, if you can believe it, was even smaller than it had been when she had her feet on the ground.

“Now, David, this is not a proper way to greet our host.”

AWWWWWWW!!! The WereDavid screamed. It was not a cry of hunger, or triumph, or even anger. It was a cry of frustration. A wail of disappointment. A child asking for just one more episode of “Dora the Explorer.” But Mommmmeeeee….

“I don’t want to hear it,” Sonia piped. “It might very well be a full moon, but it’s also time for tea. And if you do not come back to the safety of the roost soon, I cannot account for how the Troll might respond to your dalliance.”

A glow, which I had never really realized was always a part of Sonia, grew in luminosity until it was unavoidable. From the cherubic red cheeks that I knew well to the comforting warmth of a sunset over a Hawaiian sea. Then, before my very eyes, the sunset became a sunrise. Then midday. A dazzling sheen of explosive yellows and oranges and whites, with the popping brightness of twenty stars’ luminosity. The glow erupted from the Pixie Queen, who I could swear now had a perfectly apt wand with a, wouldn’t you know it, star-shaped business-end in her hand, right before everything in my sight disappeared into the bright.

She said, or rather sang, something in some long-forgotten tongue. It might have been an “abra cadabra,” or a “ziggity zaggity,” or maybe even a “slainte chugat!” I couldn’t have told you then and I can’t tell you now. Because as the world got brighter, as Sonia’s voice got louder, my consciousness grew dimmer.

And then I was out.

I don’t know how long I was out. It could have been five minutes or five hours or five seconds. The next thing I knew, someone was shaking me awake. The hulking (trolling?) form of my good-friend Josh knelt beside me as I opened my eyes on a bed of green grass. Not a silky trap of moss, just a comfortable grassy mattress.

“You okay, guy?” Josh asked.

I tried to nod through a tight head. I tried to say yes through a mouth full of marbled cotton. Both attempts failed.

Josh lifted me up with a strength that shouldn’t exist in any human being and escorted me back to the campfire. I don’t know how I moved. I merely slumbered on, like the zombie that was missing from this story of the mystical.

When we made it back to the opening, who do you think was there?

No, not her.

It was all of my friends. David, looking just as bald and svelte as he always was. And Sonia, sitting there talking a mile a minute as if nothing had ever happened. Nobody said anything about what had happened, or if anything had happened at all. We just sat down, like all of us are doing now, and busted out the marshmallows and sticks.

And like I said before, I have never seen Sonia since that day. I don’t really know why.

What’s that? Is my wife’s name Sonia? Yes. Your Aunt Sonia. Why do you ask?

Anyway…Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for…. Into the copse of trees and the campfire of friends walked who else but…

No, you know what? I don’t think that was the time we met the Queen of England. That must’ve been a different time. Sorry.

Who’s got some Reese’s?

NaNoWriMo check-in

Quick NaNoWriMo break to throw out a few paragraphs from my work in progress. Not because it’s the most beautiful prose ever written. Not because it perfectly encapsulates the quintessential character as he confronts/surmounts his conflict of self vs self and self vs world in only one sentence.

No, I just thought this passage was particularly funny. It still makes me giggle almost a week after I wrote it. And from an existential sense, I feel like I need to put more humor in my writing. I can do it in flash fiction or blog posts, but as soon as I sit down to write something longer than 2,000 words, I cue the inner Tolstoy.

Plus, I can’t disappear for the entire month. That would be FOUR wasted dollars going to WordPress. So here you go:

Katherine Christie, known to most of the world as Miss Kitty, hears a knock on the door. She isn’t open for business yet. The sign on the door clearly says they open at noon. This isn’t one of those twenty-four affairs, like you might find in one of the bigger towns that allow her particular style of business to exist. But wherever they exist, in any of the seven counties, nighttime is the right time for her kind of business. So the mornings are her downtime. Downtime for her workers, who desperately need to rest. Downtime for her to do some of the business of staying in business. Accounting and payroll and deposits and deliveries all detract from the magic of this place. Nobody wants to see the garbage trucks running down Main Street in Disneyland, and nobody wants to see hookers on their hands and knees polishing knobs.

But this isn’t the first time she’s had a rather insistent customer. When you’re dealing with addiction, noon is a little too far away. And even though she doesn’t like to think of herself as a pusher, sometimes she has to admit that she caters to customers who suffer from some rather specific psychological compulsions. Sometimes when the men show up, bleary-eyed with trembling hands, she tries her best to placate them. Sometimes they just want to know the schedule of their favorite worker. Other times they need a quick pick-me-up before a vital job interview. In instances such as that, Kitty doesn’t admit out loud, she’s been known to serve the haggard man out of her own regard. Once you master a certain technique, you rarely lose it. 

And if you’ve got time to clean, as the saying goes, you’ve got time to lean.

Except the man knocking at the door this time isn’t looking for a handjob.

“Hi, Miss Kitty, can I use your phone?”

So there you go. Enjoy. I’ll try to post some more of my failed flash fictions to keep engaging for the rest of the month, too. But apart from that, see you in December.

A Snarky-Ass Book Review

After a painstaking summer of long flights and long walks and quick, quick bedtimes, I’ve finally completed A Clash of Kings, the second book in the “A Song of Fire and Ice” saga, better known by its inaugural book, A Game of Thrones.

I know, I know. Super timely.

But I felt the need to blog my thoughts after finishing this book. I had a similar response after finishing the first book, but it was a bit amorphous. I was having a lot of the “it’s not you, it’s me” feelings, or the “am I missing something” thoughts after Book One. So this time I focused a bit more, and it turns out, over two thousand pages later, that my initial thoughts might have been right. It might not be me. It might be you, Game of Thrones. And while I’m not going to call all of the people who swear by you “liars,” well, if the foo shits…

But I’m still a bit amorphous on the whole thing. I need to talk my way through it, to purge a bit, if you will. And it’s a little too much to put into a Goodreads review, so I just stamped a 2-star review on that bad boy and I’ll try to flesh it out a little bit here. And if the fans want to get super angry with me and point out that I totally missed that reference on page 737 of Book Five, well then fine. You’re probably right. But I know I’m not alone in missing many of the obscure references.

So… uh…, spoilers ahead, and all. For a book that came out two decades ago. Which was turned into a season of a TV show a half-decade ago. No, you know what? You’re reading a blog about a book. If I spoil anything, that’s on you.

To start with, why the hell am I just now reading a two decade old book that was turned into a season of a TV show a half-decade ago? Well, I sort of had this idea that I wanted to read the books before seeing the show. Because I’m damn sure not going to read this drivel AFTER I’ve watched the show. Of course, this decision was made before the TV Show went ahead of the books, and that the books might never get finished, so the TV shows are now the de-facto, definitive version of the story. By the time all of that became apparent, I had already purchased the second book and it was taking up space on my bookshelf.

I read the first book twice. Well, I started it twice. I only finished it once. I actually started A Game of Thrones long before the TV show came out. I heard about this highly-touted new-ish series and asked a couple friends if they wanted to read it with me. My guess is the TV show had been announced but not premiered yet. Otherwise, I’m not sure how I would’ve known it was highly-touted. I’m not exactly up on the most recent books. For instance, have you heard that they’re making movies of Marvel characters now? Oh, and there’s some sort of seven-year wizarding school that brings all the boys to the yard.

My pop culture references are just as up to date as my reading list.

Anyway, my two friends said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” In one of their defences, the last time I had talked her into a new fantasy series, it was Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time,” a series that at last count, had around infinity pages, and that doesn’t even count the Brandon Sanderson completion of it after Robert Jordan died. By the way, I stopped that series after Book Five and my friend continued reading until the bitter end. So I don’t necessarily blame her caution when I approached a brand spanking new set o’ books.

The other friend that said no was just being a dick, I assume.

On my first attempt at A Game of Thrones, I made it about a hundred pages. One-hundred painstaking pages. Trust me, I did my due diligence. Every time a place was mentioned, I looked back at the map. Okay, I thought, there’s a wall that’s suspiciously in the same general spot in Westeros as Hadrian’s Wall is in Britain. So the evil, uncivilized Wildlings that live beyond the Wall and portend the end of the world is coming are basically the Scots. Okay, that checks out. .

And from the first few chapters of the book, I can tell that the Wall, and the evil Scots er, Wildlings, are going to be the primary focus of this series. Plus some winter and some games and some thrones, perhaps.

And when the second or third chapter didn’t make any reference to the Wall, I was okay with it. According to the map, Winterfell was a little south of the Wall, and I’m guessing those wolves they found are gonna help defeat the dastardly Scots. I’m sure we’ll get back to the main plot any time now. And if this fucktard can’t figure out if his name is Ned or Eddard, who am I to question him?

Then came a chapter in a completely different part of the map with some characters that hadn’t even been referenced yet, but that’s fine. I can find King’s Landing on the map. And I know it’s based on the War of the Roses, so if there are some York’s, there must be some Lancasters. And some dragons, because the real War of the Roses had dragons. And wights and midgets and Targaryans…

Wait, are the Targaryans the Plantegenets?

And yeah, I know the wights are called white walkers, but they’re just wights. I’ve played D&D. I’ll grant you your stupid way of spelling “Sir,” Mr. Martin, but using a homonym and putting the word “walker” after it doesn’t mean you invented it.

Speaking of the Targaryans, I know precisely where I finally gave up on my first read-through of A Game of Thrones. The first chapter from Daenerys’s point of view. Why? Because her shit takes place of the fucking map. If it was just a once-off, like the character is boarding a ship in a far of land en route back to Winterfell or King’s Landing or any one of the numerous other places on the wonderful map at the front of the book, I would have been fine. You know that wonderful map that you put at the front of your book? The one that looks suspiciously like England? The one that I’ve spent as much time with as your actual verbiage in the first hundred pages? Yeah, that map. Daenerys wasn’t on the fucking map. Why the fuck are you gThe one where I’ve spent at least as much time as I have in the actual verbiage of the individual chapters. I mean, the map is quite clearly England, so I can only assume she’s in France, waiting to cross the narrow channel.

And it was very clear that Daenerys, who hadn’t been mentioned anywhere prior to any point, was going to be spending her entire time completely off the map. And not, like, in France. She’s in fucking Asia with the Mongols. And she’s moving from spot to spot over there. Why the fuck are you going to put a map at the front of the book if there are sizable chunks of the book that don’t take place on the map? And you’re expecting me to follow her decisions on whether to go this direction or that, to this city or that port, via this desert or that grassy plain, but I can’t join her in this inner monologue because I have no fucking idea where she is!

So I put the book aside. I thought about throwing it away, or selling it to a used book store. Hell, I thought long and hard about burning the damned thing.

But instead, I just put it back on the bookshelf. The TV show would fail and I’d never have to think about it again.

Famous last words.

Sometime after the first season, I decided to give it another go. Both of my friends who had no interest in joining me on my first sojourn had since read the whole fucking thing. Now they’re the snooty ones who are posting thinly-veiled spoilers to the TV show watchers. “Oh boy, that Red Wedding’s going to be an absolute blast!” “Oh, did that surprise you? Maybe you should read the book.”

Yeah, I TRIED to read the book, mother fucker, and you wanted nothing to do with it until you could lord it over the masses.

Anyway, I finally decided to give the book another try. Only this time, I went in the complete opposite direction of my normal “read before watch.” Instead, I watched the first season, then read the book to see if I could make more headway. And, I’ve got to tell you, it really helped! It helps to put faces with names. I mean, Peter Dinklage is fucking brilliant. So being able to see his smirks and hear his sarcasm in my head whenever I read Tyrion’s actions and dialogue make me much likelier to get through whatever current scene he’s in. Even moreso in the second book, when everyone underestimates him, and I’m like, “Hey, Tywin, quit whining about Jaime. You’ve got Peter fucking Dinklage on your side.”

The other reason watching the TV show before reading the book helped is that George R. R. Martin, um, how do I put this… isn’t all that clear in his writing. Seriously, even when I was reading a scene I remembered from the TV show, I couldn’t fucking figure out what was going on half the time. I specifically remember the scene where the dragons are born. I knew the dragons were being born because I had seen it on TV. But if I were reading it without that experience, I would have no fucking clue that anything of the sort was happening. There was all sorts of stuff about fire. She was walking into the fire. I thought maybe it was metaphorical, because her husband, Aquaman, had just died. Maybe it was a cleansing fire or something. But no, it was a real fire, with real dragons being born. You just have to dig really, really deep into the words to guess that. I’m glad I had seen the show, otherwise when I started A Clash of Kings, I’d be like “Whoa, where the fuck did those baby dragons come from?”

I wish I had some individual passages to point out how confusing George R.R. Martin’s writing can be. Perhaps the precise paragraph where the dragons might or might not be being born. But as soon as I was done with the book, I burned it. I sent it through a shredder. I wiped my ass with it. I threw it from the highest parapet into the depths of Hell itself.

Okay, all I really did was sell it to the used-book store. It’s the same general idea. I knew I never wanted to see it again. It might have been as painful as the four years it took me to read Les Miserables, but the battered copy of Les Miserables  is a much starker badge of honor upon my bookshelf. Nobody’s going to look at me like a martyr for making it through George R.R. Martin like they do about Victor Hugo.

And really, the two books are similar. Nobody would read Les Miserables if not for the really good musical. Hell, had I known that Eponine was really a tiny side role, not a tragic martyr, I still might’ve skipped it. So fuck you, Cameron Mackintosh, for making such a lovable character. And while I’m at it, fuck you, Victor Hugo, for not being able to get to the fucking point. I mean, really, Victor? Fifty pages on the Battle of fucking Waterloo in order to advance the plot one page? Thenardier steals teeth from corpses at the end. There, I did it in one sentence. Scoreboard! Maybe if you had fit Les Miserables into the five-hundred or so pages that would’ve been plenty, then asshats like George R.R. Martin wouldn’t automatically assume that you need to write 1,000 pages to be considered a real author.

Sorry, where was I? Oh, right. I was writing about how brevity is wonderful and that writers should not be prone to frivolous, tangential excursions from the point. Okay.

So yeah, I sold A Game of Thrones to the used-book store and decided to never look into Westeros on the printed page ever again.

So where did my version of A Clash of Kings come from? Well, you know how women forget about the labor pain? And drunks forget the hangover? Pain becomes more distant in the rear-view mirror. So six months later, when my wife needed an extra ten bucks to get free shipping on the Amazon order, I obliged her with a “Throw that second Game of Thrones book on there.”

It then sat on my shelf for three years, as I waited for a time when I would have enough time, and enough will to live, to tackle the next thousand pages. This summer proved that time. And now, after four months of focusing on one book, of a continuous struggle of “fuck, I really need to finish this shit,” I’m pretty much at the same place as I was in 2012. I’m fucking done with this series. I cannot envision a time when I will want to put the rest of my literary

So yeah, get ready for my review of A Storm of Swords in about five years.

But this time, I decided to do it right. Read the book before I watch the show. See if I can follow what’s going on. Good news is that I was able to figure it out. Even after many years, I could still envision Sophie Turner and Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage. To say nothing of the dragons that I had seen born on TV, but not in a book. So in a scant four months, via many long airplane rides and even more long walks, I made it to the end.

I was even able to follow the plot a little bit. Arya was pretending to be a boy, then she wasn’t. She went north, then was captured, then led a rebellion in her new city because nobody knows who she is. She had some companions, the only one of which I remember was Hot Pie. I imagine at some point they explained why he was called Hot Pie, but it was probably in a passage where they explained the nicknames of seventeen other characters. But you have to wait four hundred pages to figure out which ones survive and/or get mentioned the most.

Arya still isn’t reunited with her wolf. I guess that’s a plotline to be picked up in book three. Or maybe book four. When she sent the wolf away, about a third of the way into book one, I assumed the wolf would show up at the end to save them all. But it was left to linger, almost forgotten about. So I assumed it would pick up in book two. It’s hinted at a lot, but nothing happens. I guess I’ll find out in book three. Or four… Or five.

Not that I’m going to read those books. Maybe the TV show will answer my questions.

Sansa was still in King’s Landing for, like, the whole fucking book. She seems particularly unconcerned at her sister’s whereabouts. And even though their parents sent emissaries to deliver a message, evidently they didn’t bother to look for the daughters, because nobody on either side has any clue where Arya was. Or maybe the emissaries did look but were told a cover story. I don’t really remember.

The Baratheon brothers were fighting each other. I thought for sure that Renly was going to beat Stannis, because Renly’s storyline introduced a character that was being given way too much backstory, so clearly she’s going to be a major character. See above: “Pie, Hot”. But then Stannis has a priestess that sends a shadow out of her hoo-haw that kills Renly. Then Brienne, the new character, joins Mrs. Stark.

And then they make up some bullshit about how the Vagina Monster can’t cross city walls, but I don’t know. It seems a little deus ex machina if Pussy Demon can kill anybody and a little deus ex machina to have some bullshit barrier to not make the books end immediately. But whatever.

Oh, and there’s a major battle at the end. Something with ropes in the bay and fire. I can’t really explain it. Tyrion was on one of the boats, all of which burned and sank, but he somehow ended up back home. Oh, and he has a whore he really likes.

Oh, and Theon wants to bang his sister. And might or might not have killed Bran.

Did I miss anything? Did I totally misunderstand something? Probably. I could look it up. I haven’t traded it in for store credit yet. But I wouldn’t necessarily be able to figure it out the second time, either.

Because, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll spell out my review. George R.R. Martin is a very opaque, obtuse, unclear writer. Did I just use three words that mean the same thing? I did. And if George R.R. Martin were reviewing this blog, he’d wonder why I was so brief. The thesaurus has at LEAST ten more synonyms I could’ve thrown in there. You’re not going to fill ten thousand pages THAT way.

But it’s not just about using ten words when two will do. It isn’t only a case of meandering to get to the point. He’s also unclear when he gets there. I referenced the Waterloo portion of Les Miserables earlier. Yeah, it’s a fifty page diversion that barely advances the plot at all. However, when it finally does advance the plot, it only takes a few pages. And it’s clear as day. There’s Thenardier, and there’s Marius’s grandfather. And here’s their conversation, completely contained on pages 357 and 358. The conversation doesn’t start twenty pages earlier and contain thirty-five flashbacks and descriptions of the interior of the castle and that one whore that Tyrion lost his virginity to, before finally returning to the next sentence in the conversation, leading to a somewhat obscure ending.

For instance, take the chapter where Theon wanted to sleep with his sister. He didn’t know it was his sister, although it was obvious to the reader. One or two references would’ve been plenty, but dude is hitting it HARD. Describing in graphic detail what he’s going to do to her. Even though she claims to be pregnant and uninterested. The first exchange was insulting, the second one was skeevy, and by the seventh time, in a ten-page span, it’s like, dude, take a hint. And the “dude” I’m referring to is Martin, not Theon.

And then we’re led to believe Theon’s killed Bran. I knew he hadn’t because I looked at all of the upcoming chapters and noticed the last chapter was a Bran chapter. After pretty much every chapter, I would scout out the next few chapters, just to see if I would ever get back to a certain character or story. Although really, all I wanted to know was how much closer I was to the end. Just like when I’m grading papers. Twenty left, and then I grade one and have to count again. Let’s see, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen… Hmm… Let me read one more and see if the count changes to, like, three left.

But had I not been impatient to be done with the book after a summer of sluggish progress, I don’t know that I would’ve realized that Bran wasn’t really dead. Sure, we never saw the body. And in the last Theon chapter, he realized he was on the wrong path, then turned back to look in the other direction. Then all of a sudden, everyone in all of Westeros thought Bran was dead. His head was on a pike. Odd to not show that scene, but whatever. I’m sure there’s a rape scene that needed vital page-space.

I think there was supposed to be a hint to the reader, even the patient reader, that Bran wasn’t really dead. At the end of a ten-page, mostly inner-monologue Theon chapter, wherein he’s just, in general, looking around all of Winterfell and commenting on lots of things, he looks at the heads on the sticks. And thinks, “The miller’s boys had been of an age with Bran and Rickon, alike in size and coloring, and once Reek had flayed the skin from their faces and dipped their heads in tar, it was easy to see familiar features in those misshapen lumps of rotting flesh.”

That’s it. That’s the only reference in the entire book, until the last chapter, that Bran is alive. This was baby dragons all over again. Had I not cheated, I would’ve had no fucking clue that Bran wasn’t really dead.

So that’s really what it comes down to. Too fucking confusing. And sure, there are times that Martin, like any good writer who wants the readers coming back for more, is intentionally obtuse. But I feel like, even when he’s trying to be straight-forward, his wordiness and writing style lack clarity. The English language has rules for a reason. And when you have two people engaged in conversation, each person is supposed to get a new paragraph every time they speak. There are a few times in A Clash of Kings where two people are speaking in the same paragraph. With scene descriptors in between! At other points, there will be five men in the room and the dialogue tag will read, “he said to him.” Umm.. Who said to whom?

A number of people have told me they stopped reading the book because there were too many characters. And while that’s a valid criticism, I don’t feel it’s the number of characters as much as it is how they are used. There are name dumps with seventeen different people listed in one paragraph. Ser Fucktwat walks in with his retinue of Jim and Fred and Bobby and John and Paul and George and Ringo and Stick-up-ass Boy, followed by Velma and Ricky and… well, you get the point. Then, a hundred pages later, Bobby’s doing something and I’m left wondering if this is the first time he’s been introduced or if I’ve just been a lousy reader. And then, ten pages into his next appearance, it’s mentioned that he once worked with Fucktwat, who is no longer known as Ser. And then I have to decide if I need to re-read the last ten pages now that I know who he is. And inevitably, I will say no, and then, a hundred pages from now, when Velma shows up, I’ve not only forgotten about her time with Fucktwat, but also that Bobby has since showed up.

But there’s no context clues to help us. That’s on the writer, not the reader. If Bobby is the one that we’re supposed to remember, give him something noticeable. Like Hot Pie. Or Stick-up-ass Boy.

But if it was just about crappy writing, I wouldn’t be devoting 4,000 words to this, right? Here’s the problem: plotwise, George R.R. Martin is awesome. As frustrating as he is to read, the characters are intriguing as fuck. Which makes it worse because, dammit, I really want Arya reunited with her goddamn wolf. And I guess her family, too. But it’s mainly Nymeria that I’ve been waiting for fifteen hundred pages to see again.

So maybe I should just watch the TV show now? Did I really feel I was missing anything when I watched season one? There really wasn’t anything I picked up when reading the book after watching the season. And I doubt I gleaned tons more by reading book two before seeing season two. At some point, when you’re years behind, you lose the smug satisfaction of knowing what’s going to happen before it happens on the screen, right? I’m the one avoiding spoilers. We were recently talking about the new X-Men movie in the lunch room and someone referred to Sophie Turner as “Sansa, the Queen of the North,” to which I responded, “Aw, fuck. Robb’s gonna die?”

And I seem to think that something is going to happen at the Red Wedding.

So maybe that’s it. Maybe I’ll just try to get caught up on TV. I’ll decide after I get around to watching season two. Cause, dammit, watching ten episodes of adult TV in between the constant stream of “Vampirina” and “Muppet Babies” at my house is tough. I hope I don’t forget everything that happened first. Maybe I should just head on to book three. Audio book this time? I spend two and a half hours in the car each day. I should get through that fifty-hour audible file in.. let me see…

Holy shit, fifty fucking hours? For one book? All of a sudden my four months doesn’t seem so bad.

But still, the way Audible works, fifty hours costs the same as eight hours. I bet my economics textbook would have something to say about that. If I can ever get around to reading it.

Sleep Training, Part Infinity

I couldn’t turn off my alarm when it went off this morning. Because I wasn’t in my bed.

I was in someone else’s bed, snuggled up next to a cute little lady. Only hours before, she had been calling out my name before we both drifted back to sleep, exhausted.

Now, if this was a blog post from my twenties or thirties, I’d be about to delve into some NSFW kiss-and-telling to rank up there with the other Tony Kelly on Amazon.

But I’m in my forties now. And the adorable female I was sharing a tiny twin-size bed with was my four-year-old daughter. And as such, the only thing unsuitable for work on this particular day is my tired ass, drinking my fourth cup of coffee, hoping desperately that my contorted back remembers how to get out of this rolly chair, if and when the time comes that I have to, I don’t know, teach. Or move.

Because here we are in Sleep Training, Part IV. Although to divide it into parts is a bit of a misnomer. It implies we’ve only gone through four rounds of this shit, as opposed to a continuous on-again, off-again cycle of disappointment and failure. It’s definitely not Episode IV, because there is no New Hope in sight. Maybe we should use the Harry Potter nomenclature and call it Year IV. Because there’s a Goblet of Fire in my lower back right now. And if this is still going on in three more years, there will be a Deathly Hollow.

There was a point in time that my daughter could fall asleep on a dime and sleep through the night without a peep. Gosh, I miss opium. When she was six-months old, all I had to do was put on Joe Cocker’s “You are so Beautiful,” and she was out before the two minutes, forty-one seconds was up. Wife and I thought we were hot shit. Parents who had older children were shocked and amazed at how fast and simple our whole process was.

Pride cometh, and all of that.

In the ensuing three-and-a-half years, we’ve been through it all. Child sleeping in her own crib, child sleeping in her own bed, child sleeping in our bed, parent sleeping on the floor, parent sleeping on the couch, child sleeping out on curb. Okay, maybe not that last one, but I’m sure every parent whose gone through this whole process has wished that was an option. Maybe not the front curb. We don’t want to throw our kids away. But is the backyard out of the question? We can call it camping! Grown-up camping! Without Mommy and Daddy!

But no, our kid is relentless. The Only Child Syndrome is strong with this one, but never moreso than between bed time and the next morning. She’s starting to be able to occupy herself during the daytime. Wife and I can occasionally walk away long enough to take one dish out of the dishwasher before being summoned back to look at how good she’s coloring in the lines this time!

Even the bedtime routine’s gotten more autonomous. Everything up until the actual sleeping part is totally in her wheelhouse. She doesn’t fight the nightly process of bathroom, teeth, and pajamas. .There are even some nights she can accomplish these Herculean tasks in less than a half-hour. Usually it’s closer to an hour. Some nights it’s two hour and, holy crap, I guess I should’ve set the coffee maker before coming upstairs, because it’s now past MY bedtime and trudging back downstairs is going to take just about every ounce of adulthood I can muster.

Is putting cocaine in the coffee maker a good idea or a bad idea?

It doesn’t matter if it’s coffee or cocaine or sewer swill, cause the coffee-maker is only getting set if I can get out of my daughter’s bed in the first place. Because bedtime requires both parents’ participation. One of us must read a certain number of books to her. Usually there’s one or two “awake books,” and then however many “asleep books” it takes to finally accomplish said objective. All the while, the non-reading parent must snuggle her. We must get into her bed and lie next to her, tuck her under her blanket (approximately seventy times, as she will need to adjust herself continuously), maybe rub her back.

Or at the very least just lie there and try to outlast her. It’s tough. She still enjoys hearing “Hit the Ball, Duck” for the fifteen-hundredth time. Me, I’ve heard it so many times that I’m rooting for the Duck instead of the Frog now.

Oh, and now she wants water. The over/under for the number of water stops is also set at three-point-five per night. I bet the MGM Grand is just rolling in the dough from all the fools who thought the parents’ defense would hold strong.

And now the process starts over. Oh, we might SAY the next book is still an asleep book, but nobody actually believes that. It’s like those old read-along books: You will know it is time to turn the page, when you hear your parents say, “Close your eyes, Miss.”

But this bedtime routine isn’t what gives my back palpitations. Even if it’s 9:30 by the time she’s down, and even if I go directly from her bed to my bed, I can still get seven hours of sleep and deal with the coffee in the morning.

What really fucks with my life is the middle of the night. “Mommy, mommy,” or “Daddy, daddy” is not really what you want to hear at two o’clock in the morning, or three o’clock, or hell, 10:30 PM. It doesn’t really matter who she’s calling for. Whoever hears her first desperately tries to make it to her bedroom before the other one hears and wakes up. No use having TWO sleep-deprived adults in the morning. And we even manage to split the duties somewhat fairly, in that the one who didn’t sleep last night is dead to the world tonight, so the other one is the one likely to be awoken this time.

That was one of the wedding vows, right?

Once we get to our daughter’s room, we’re faced with a dilemma. A choose-your-own-adventure, if you will. There are a few options we do with our daughter.

Option A: Patiently sit or stand next to daughter’s bed, or scoop her up and walk her thirty-plus pounds of dead weight around her room, patting her back and shushing her back to sleep.

Option B: Bring her back to our bed or crawl into bed with her.

I know, with one-hundred percent certainty, which option is the correct option. Whether from a proper parenting standpoint or a psychological development standpoint or a behavioral economics perspective, choosing Option B makes child more likely to repeat her action in the future. Especially if I repeat the positive reinforcement tomorrow and the next night.

And yet… It’s two o’fucking clock in the morning and I’m fucking tired. So move over, junior.

Sometimes I can outlast her. I can put a calming hand on her back while standing or sitting next to her bed. She’s got a little stool I can sit on. But if I fall asleep while on the stool, my back will be even worse than if I’m lying next to her. And sometimes I can lie down next to her for a few minutes until she nods back to sleep, and then extricate myself back to my own bed. But most of the time I’m passed out before my head hits the mattress. The tiny, rock hard mattress designed for a thirty-plus pound four-year old.

In the previous incarnations of this particular struggle, we started bring her back to our bed. She was smaller then, so plopping her down on the queen mattress in between the two of us was more feasible. Sure, she would do the Exorcist-style spin around like a fucking whirling dervish, but again, she was small, so wife and I could still sleep clinging to our respective edges of the bed and be none the worse for the wear. I mean except for the whole bruised kidney thing from where the demon child sweet blessing of my life had practiced her soccer skills all night long.

But then we get the creep. What’s the creep? Well, one night the whole rigmarole starts at 3:00 am, then the next night she’s calling for us at 2:00, then 1:00. Before we’ve really had a chance to put the kibosh on it, she wants a quick snuggle on our bed before she goes to her bed. Then she wants to fall asleep on our bed before we take her over to her bed. The next thing you know, we’re in for three months of what the helicopter set call co-sleeping before we start the whole process over again with another week’s worth of sleepless nights, followed by maybe three weeks of solid sleep, and then the 3:00 AM wake-up calls start anew.

That’s why we’re trying to sleep in her bed these days. It might make for one cranky parent in the morning, but hey, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that you’ll wake up without bruised kidneys on any particular morning. But man, it’s a grind.

Our child has also figured out a neat little trick. She knows how to sneak in our bed without our knowledge. When she wakes up in the middle of the night and DOESN’T call for one of us, or if (let’s be honest, more likely), she calls for us and we don’t hear her because it’s in the middle-of-the-fucking-night and we’re a-fucking-sleep, then she just comes into our room and climbs into our bed. At certain points, she’s come to my wife’s side or my side and nudges us softly. We do that half wake-up thing, say “yeah, yeah” to some unasked question, then do a scoop-roll and plop her in the middle. But sometimes we have enough presence of mind to get out of bed and escort her back to her own room, followed by one of the various routines, and we’re back to square one.

But my child, like any evolving organism, adapts. So now, when she toddles over to our bedroom in the middle of the night, and faced with maybe a thirty-percent chance that she’ll be rebuffed, she has decided to circumvent the obstacle. To go around. Or rather, over. She climbs over the endboard of our bed, right there in the middle, and then, stealthy as a thief, she sneaks in between us and goes right to sleep. Hell, half the time she’s able to bring her blanket with her.

“I don’t remember hearing her calling us,” I remark in the morning.

“Neither do I, ” my wife responds.

“Wait, you didn’t get her?”

We both look at our daughter, exhibiting a look that is somewhere between shame and pride. The cat who ate the canary, but holy shit, guys, you shoulda fucking seen the size of that canary.

One time I caught her doing the climb-over maneuver. A subtle disturbance in the force, my bleary eyes open just a slit to see a forty-inch night terror hovering, momentarily on the precipice of the bed beyond my feet. I rub my eyes, like I’m William Shatner in a Twilight Zone episode. But the gremlin is still there. She pauses, knowing she’s been caught red-handed. I just shrug and go back to sleep, completely un-surprised when I find my precious little treasure between me and my wife, kicking me in the kidney, come morning.

Which brings us to Episode IV. Year IV. Our latest round of stalemated trench warfare against the night. Just like the generals in World War I, we look at what hasn’t worked in the past and make some subtle adjustments before starting our new offensive. And just like the generals in World War I, we know with alarming certainty that, when it’s all said and done, the result will be the same as every failed offensive before. The best laid plans of mice and men. Our iron youth facing the maw of the enemy. Waves of soldiers falling across no-man’s land.

We changed our tactics from the crib to the toddler bed. Nope. When we upgraded the next time, we spent weeks getting her super excited about her beg girl bed. Ownership! Growing! Big Girl Stuff! Nope, nada, not having it. So happy we spent the day getting all that shit up the stairs and put together.

And then, all of a sudden, one night she wanted to try it. What was the magic change? Mermaid sheets! Who knew? Fuck your autonomy and ownership bullshit. Give me some magical fucking creatures, right the fuck now.

Mom and I were elated, but suspicious as to how much this would last. So we assured her that one of us would sleep with her each night. The books and the websites say this is an effective transition and should only last for a few weeks. Either that, or they’re trying to come with a sales pitch for the sequel. “Hey, Parents, now that you’ve transitioned your kids into their own bed, find out how to get yourself out of there!” Release date: 2025.

And honestly, it’s not as bad as it was at the beginning. For the first week or two, one of us would lie down beside her and be trapped there for the night. You even think about sit up and that sleeping child senses the disturbance in the force, and whines out in the night. “No, Mommy/Daddy, don’t go.”

Then we started being able to lie there for about ten minutes after she lost consciousness and then remove ourselves from the situation. Assuming the parent in question managed to outlast the child by ten minutes. Wife almost always fails in that regard, but I make it at least sixty to seventy percent of the time. And on the off-chance this whole process is finished with enough time for me to make my lunch and set coffee for the next day, then who knows, I might even be able to have some adult time to watch some adult television or listen to some adult music or update my adult blog. Who knows?

Seriously, who knows? Because I sure don’t.

Most nights, I barely have enough energy to get myself over to my bed. The bed I can now enjoy without Mike Tyson’s Knock-Out playing “body blow, body blow, body blow,” all night long. I mean, I can set the coffee in the morning, right? And do we have any leftovers I can nuke at work? Because I’ve got to get me some sleep.

Gotta sleep when we can. After all, we’re on borrowed time. Now that child is asleep, the countdown is on until that desperate cry comes wailing through the midnight darkness…

“MOMMY! DADDY! CAN SOMEONE COME SNUGGLE ME PLEASE?!?”

Ugh. How soon till college?

An Anniversary… of DOOM!

Anniversaries suck.

I mean, not anniversaries in general. What’s not to love about celebrating the fact that a certain event happened on this specific date in a different year?

No, I mean specifically my own wedding anniversary.

Again, this is not a judgement on my marriage. I love my wife. We have a wonderful marriage the other 364 days of the year.

And it’s not like our anniversary reminds me of some horrible occurrence on our wedding day, wherein Elton John lept upon the alter screaming “I Wanna Kiss the Bride.”

(How’s that for a 1980s deep cut?)

Quite the contrary. Our wedding was one of the most well-regarded shindigs of 2011 and beyond. We picked a great spot and kept the people entertained. Heck, we even had the guests were trading baseball cards with people they had never even met during that awkward post-ceremony/pre-reception time while we were taking pictures and signing the license. Because when you get married in your late-thirties, you’ve been to plenty of those weddings that leave the guests in a time-bending lurch at that time.

Oh, and did I mention the groomsmen got to play “Rock Band 3” in the wedding venue’s “Man Cave” the whole weekend? Fucking awesome! Way better than the time I was a groomsman and we were all holed up in the golf-course bathroom for three hours while the bridal party took their pictures.

So the wedding was great. The marriage is great. The anniversaries… man, Wife and I suck at those.

It’s not usually our fault. Honestly! It’s just that fate has conspired against us to ruin not one, not two, but THREE of our wedding anniversaries. It’s always something different. Sometimes it’s medical science, sometimes it’s the fury of nature, sometimes it’s… whatever the hell just happened last month.

Our first two anniversaries went off without a hitch. A couple of lovely bed-and-breakfasts in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Similar locale to where we got married and, as a bonus, wineries! On our first trip, we went north toward Sierraville and the Lakes Basin. We picnicked by a lake and opened a bottle of wine that had been given to us as a wedding present. Thus started a tradition where we would purchase a bottle of wine to be consumed on our next anniversary trip.

This vaunted tradition lasted precisely one year. Two if you count the bottle we got at the wedding.

The following year, we traveled up to Jamestown off of Highway 108. They have a railroad museum up there. We got to see the train car that they filmed “Back to the Future 3” on! It was specially-made for Michael J. Fox to hide how short he is. We drank Year One’s wine and bought another bottle for Year Three.

That bottle might still be in our wine rack. Because our third anniversary was the first one that went sideways.

Our daughter was born three months prior to our third anniversary. I wish I could go all high-and-mighty, new-parenty and say we couldn’t POSSIBLY think of leaving behind our newborn treasure. But truthfully, we had grandma lined up for months. Baby was perfectly fine that weekend. Momma, on the other hand, was not.

I wrote a while ago about some of the complications my wife had after the delivery of our daughter. In a nutshell, the pregnancy and the delivery went fine, then my wife spent the next six months in and out of the hospital. So even if she hadn’t needed to be in the hospital that specific weekend, it was going to be a low-key anniversary. We booked a B&B about twenty miles from our house and figured we’d only be gone 36 hours or so, at which point we could get back to our baby and deal with whatever medical issue she might be having at that time. You know it’s a fun year when you can bank on medical drama weeks in advance.

Unfortunately, there was no way we could’ve banked on this particular drama. September of that year brought an inflammation, and the subsequent necessary removal of, her gall bladder. The good news was that this was probably one of the mildest/run-of-the-mill medical issues she had that year. Evidently many pregnant or postpartum women have gall bladder problems. It’s one of those stupid organs we don’t need anymore and it tends to get all riled up when you have the audacity to put a fetus up in its territory.

The bad news was that, when Wife went in to the doctor on the Thursday before our trip, they said she should go to surgery immediately. She told them to, very politely, go fuck themselves because if they aren’t going to cover pre-existing conditions then we ain’t gonna cancel our pre-existing B & B reservation. They looked at her with a very serious furrow of the brow.

Actually, Wife was way more polite than that. And way more polite than I would have been at the midway point of six months of medical incompetence. But she had become a pro at the whole thing by then, and she knew they wouldn’t give her the surgery immediately anyway. Sure enough, we finally admitted her on Saturday, and they didn’t remove her gall bladder until Tuesday. Her blood pressure was too high. So maybe they should’ve just shut the fuck up on the whole “cancel your anniversary” shit.

But we did at least cut our sojourn short. It was originally planned to be a two-night stay, but we cut it to one. It turns out that the two other reservations at the B&B for that night also cancelled. Since we were pretty damned local, the innkeeper asked if we minded if he took his teenager out to see a movie that night. After all, it’s not often they have a Friday night with a shit-ton of guests. We said sure. We went out to dinner and came back to a completely empty house. Kind of weird. I wanted to go kick back in their game room and crack open a beer. But that would be kind of mean with Wife unable to imbibe.

So instead we sat around an empty house that was not our own in a somber mood. We knew we were going to be leaving first thing in the morning to drive her to the hospital, where they would be removing a key portion of her body. Add to that the fact that she had already spent weeks upon weeks at the hospital that summer, and the empty B & B just made it seem a tad too real, a tad too final.

But, damn, the breakfast the next morning was pretty fucking good.

And we were so happy, when Year Four came around, that Wife hadn’t had any parts of her body inflamed or removed for over six months!

But I guess health isn’t the only reason to cancel a weekend away. Year Four just came at an all-around bad time. Child was a little past one-year old. Wife and I were still trying to figure the whole work-and-parent balance. I mean, I guess we still are, and will be for another, oh I don’t know, twenty years? But a one-year old requires different attentiveness, like changing diapers and mashing up food. Whereas a four-year old only has pre-school friend drama. Wait a second. Is there any way I can go back to cleaning up soiled drawers?

One additional wrinkle we had in Year Four was that we had just bought a new house. We signed the paperwork and got the keys the two weeks before our anniversary, so we were still pretty much living amongst, and out of, fifteen hundred square feet of boxes.

It’s been three years since we moved in now and we’re still not entirely out of the boxes. Like I said, we’re still figuring out that whole “working parent” thing. And we’ll ignore the fact that, even before we were parents, we never finished unpacking my crap from when I moved in with her. So maybe we’re still figuring out the whole “Working Adult” thing. But man, when I retire in twenty years, the house is gonna be SWEET! Too bad my aching legs won’t be able to get up the stairs by then.

But after losing the previous anniversary to medical drama, there was no way we were going to let this one fall by the wayside. Who cares if we can’t find our suitcases or that wine bottle from two years ago that we couldn’t drink last year? We booked a B&B near Murphys, California, which is another cute foothills winery town, albeit further south than usual. It wasn’t far from Jamestown, where we spent Year Two, when we had encountered some of the wineries near Murphys and decided we wanted to double back.

As the anniversary approached, we both broached the subject of cancelling. Had Year Three been spent out of the hospital, we probably would’ve canceled earlier than we did. But cancelling two anniversaries in a row kinda feels like a bad thing.

You know what else is kinda a bad thing? When the entire foothill region catches fire! Maybe the universe was telling us to take another year off, although that’s pretty mean of the universe to sacrifice lives and property just to send a message to a couple of numbnuts in the suburbs.

Anyway, I called the B&B to cancel our reservation.

“Oh, were you calling about the message we left you?”

“No. What message?”

“We wanted to see if you were willing to give your room to firefighters for a refund.”

“Oh, sure. We’d love to. Thanks.”

“Wait, you said you didn’t get out message? So you were going to cancel regardless?”

“Was I? No, I think that I…”

“Too late. No refund. But the firefighters thank you for your donation.”

Okay, that might not have been the actual conversation, but it wasn’t far off. I think they refunded us one night, but not the second.

Regardless, we made it to our fourth anniversary with a whopping fifty percent completion rate. We were dead set on raising that bad-boy up to a D- grade by Year Five. One of the wineries we belong to in Amador County rents out the owner’s old house in the middle of the vineyard. Pretty sure the vineyards will be hydrated enough to withstand any wildfires. Wait, what happened in Napa last year?

Actually, we were in Napa Valley last year for Year Six. I know Napa seems to buck a certain trend. It’s not in the foothills, and if I ever get around to writing that “Wine” post, I’ll contend that it isn’t really wine country, either. But it was on Groupon late in the game, so winner, winner! Even better, we managed to be there two whole weeks before it turned into a hellacious moonscape of soot. Anniversary mojo is back, baby!

So going into this, our seventh, anniversary, we had almost forgotten all about our earlier foibles. To quote bastardize “Major League,” we had a successful anniversary in Year Six. We also had one the year before. If we could do it this year, it will be a streak. Oops. The third strike is always the hardest one in getting a turkey.

Sorry, mixed my sports metaphors there. The latter “strike” was a bowling strike, being referenced in a paragraph about a baseball movie. Bad Wombat!

This year, we decided to go back to the Amador region. This was a little bit of a late plan, but Year Six hadn’t really taken shape until a few weeks prior, so why plan ahead? Actually, seeing as how we already went to New York and Denver and San Diego in the past few months, we weren’t entirely sure we should take another weekend away. Even though it was a month earlier, we were kinda treating Denver as our anniversary weekend.

But then we realized that all of the wineries in the Amador region were doing a festival. We’ve always talked about going to one of those, and if it falls on our anniversary weekend, we can’t really NOT go, can we? Once we confirmed there were still rooms available (not an automatic in a town of less than a thousand inhabitants on a weekend that draws members from fifty different wineries), we decided to head up.

No fire this time! Yay! In fact, the weather was absolutely sublime. Partly cloudy, low eighties. STRIKE 1. I guess after getting evacuated from Camptathalon in August, nature decided to take it easy on me. And the wine festival was wonderful. I wasn’t sure how it would work, but you get a glass and you go from booth to booth getting a half-ounce of wine each time. Delightful! Why haven’t we done this before?

STRIKE 2.

The plan was to head into town to check in at our B&B and then walk to the brewery across the street.

“Oh, I don’t have your reservation.”

GUTTER BALL.

The innkeeper says this as soon as she answers the door, before we even tell her our names.

Wife starts to pull up the Travelocity reservation on her phone, which is not that easy in a town where they consider 3G to be the GOOD kinda cell service.

“Oh, well I’ve had pneumonia all week, so I moved all of my reservations to the hotel in town.”

Okay, that’s fine. We don’t mind staying there. In fact, we tried to book that first, but they were all full as of three weeks ago. If you could just point us in the right…

“But I’m feeling better now. So you can stay here if you want.”

Um, okay. Even though you don’t have our reservation? What’s the catch?

“It’s not the room you booked. It’s this one that’s on the outside, not in the actual B&B. But hey, it’s an upgrade because it’s a king-sized bed instead of a queen-sized bed. It’s our most popular room. But the people that had booked it are now staying at the nice hotel in town. I can show it to you.”

Umm… okay?

So she escorts us around the side to the “Carousel Room.” What a day to leave the clown porn at home!

Well, okay, maybe we could make this work. I mean, the brewery’s closing hour ain’t getting any younger. Even if it is kinda weird that she “doesn’t have” our reservation and everybody else has been sent packing. No horror movies start by being the only customers in an abandoned hotel, right?

Should I be concerned that the innkeeper’s talking to the corpse of her mother?

Still, while we don’t have specific plans for the next day, we kinda wanted to hit another winery or two on the way home, maybe have lunch at the restaurant we had our first date in, and grandma’s already booked to babysit through the afternoon tomorrow. Plus, did I mention the brewery’s open until 8:00 within stumbling difference? So why the hell not? Sure. We’ll take the room.

“Oh great, I’ll run your card.”

You mean the card we used on the website to make the reservation that you never received?

“What is your name?”

Umm… Has this not come up yet?

“Oh, by the way, there’s no breakfast tomorrow. Because, you know, I once had pneumonia.”

Blink. Blink.

So Wife and I return to our car with things to discuss our plan of attack outside of Typhoid Mary’s earshot. Both of us are a little bit skeeved out. Too many oddities. We couldn’t really tell if she was trying to get rid of us or not. Or if we were going to wake up in our mortal shells the following day.

Finally, despite the call of the brewery, we decided to cut our losses and head home. We walked back up to the front door to return the key.

“Oh, do you need to get back home to your child?”

I don’t specifically recall mentioning we had a child. Maybe it’s mentioned in our missing reservation. Or else she’s already analyzed some DNA we dropped on our “tour” five minutes earlier.

“No,” we respond, “it’s just that the room we reserved is… um, I mean the breakfast that was supposed to… um, yeah, you know what? We want to go home and see our daughter.”

“Well, okay,” the innkeeper says. “But the website is going to charge you for the night, anyway.”

Oh, you mean the website that didn’t have our reservation? That one?

Turns out that, yep, as soon as we were back in cell range, the charge had already gone through. And get this, it was the rate for the “upgraded” carousel room. I didn’t check to see if they had added the clown porn surcharge.

So let’s see, that’s two good anniversaries, two bad ones, two good ones, then one bad.

My daughter would look at that and say, “Look, Daddy, it’s a pattern!”

And I would say, “Good, honey. And what can you predict about the next one?”

And then my daughter will be grounded until after Year Eight.

A Coffee by any Other Name

If my last post was about beer, then I this one needs to be about coffee, right?  That’s more or less my daily routine. Some coffee in the morning, a beer with lunch, iced coffee in the afternoon and beer all night long. At least that’s my routine during the summer. Obviously I don’t drink beer at lunch during the school year. At those lunches, it’s only  191-proof grain alcohol.

Maybe one of these days, I’ll bust out with a wine post. But for now, it’s coffee.

I’ve written before about my newfound appreciation for quality coffee and my newfound aversion to sub-par coffee. In my twenties, I could down any sort of swill, but now I’m willing to pay a little extra for product that wasn’t grown out of a toilet and roasted in a microwave. I’ve grown up from Miller Genuine Draft, too. See? The two always go hand-in-hand.

Recently, I was duped into buying a subpar coffee. In my defense, it wasn’t Lavazza this time. Fool me once, Lavazza, shame on you. But sometime around the eighth or ninth time, I might remember that an Italian name doesn’t mean good coffee.

No, this was a new product at my local grocery store. And from afar, it looked like quality:

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I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But with a new coffee, I don’t really know how else to judge it. I can’t see inside the bag, so I might as well look at the bag. And usually it works. Pictures of green mountains or rugged individualists or, I don’t know, blue bottles usually signify that the company takes the coffee seriously enough to put a picture of a green mountain or a rugged individualist or a blue bottle on it. And if they have the time to google an image, well, they MUST roast only the finest beans.

The name matters too. You need something robust. Like Starbucks’ Veranda. Nothing says “robust” like sipping with one’s pinkie up on the veranda. But Veranda works because it’s a light roast. Peet’s, which I greatly prefer to Starbucks, uses names like “Big Bang,” which I assume is endorsed by Jim Parsons. And “Major Dickason’s Blend,” whoever the hell that is. But at least he was promoted all the way to major. And “Sierra Dos Yosemites,” which if you live in multi-lingual California you will know means “Sierra Two Yosemites.” Although, as far as I know, there’s only one Yosemite. Weird.

So I kinda, sorta, thought this new coffee had promise. After all, it’s named 1850. I assume that relates to the year, and there were lots of rugged individuals back then. From a California perspective, 1850 was the age of the gold rush. Grisly old dudes brewing their coffee out on the banks of mighty, untamed rivers. There’s gold in them thar hills. And that gold is in the form of coffee! Right?

I mean, I guess they could’ve been going for some other events of 1850. There was an abysmal compromise on slavery that year, which led to Bloody Kansas where a whole bunch of abolitionists and slaveholders moved to Kansas and had clashes wherein they killed each other. That’s a pretty solid historical time period, but I don’t know how that plays into coffee.

I assume the Mormons were also doing something in 1850. Maybe they needed coffee for the road as they were being kicked out of somewhere. Oh, but they don’t drink caffeine, so I don’t think it’s named after them. Maybe the 1850 coffee was lamenting the failed promise of the Louis Napoleon reign in France. Or… let me check Wikipedia… The Taiping Rebellion? The Scarlet Letter? Oh hey, cool, there was something called the Danish Stag Holocaust! Wherein, I assume, we get the nomenclature for “Stag Party,” which is European for Bachelor Party.

But no, I’m going with my original belief. The makers of 1850 are going for the Gold Rush. Hence the prospector on the front of the package.

But in retrospect, I don’t know if it’s the best idea to go the Gold Rush route. Sure, those dudes were rugged. But I doubt they were drinking stellar coffee. I imagine that in 1850, they weren’t plugging in their fancy bean grinders and pouring properly-steeped water over a brown #2 Melitta filter. I mean, the dude on the front of the bag appears to be using a percolator over a fire. Hell, it’s 2018 and I can’t seem to use a campfire percolator without the coffee being half grounds.

I imagine gold miners threw some sludge into the bottom of a carafe of water, then burned the shit out of it. And they probably used that same sludge many, many days in a row, making the coffee more and more watery. After all, if they went into town to buy fresh coffee, they might lose their claim.

Oh, and the “fresh” coffee in town might only be delivered twice a year.

So 1850 shouldn’t exactly bring up images of quality coffee. But hell, I bought it. And only partially because it was on sale. I had noticed it before it went on sale, and who knows, I might’ve bought it anyway. Because I was so blown away by the gold miner and the rustic blue coloring and, I mean, just LOOK at that font! I mean, you can’t just MAKE that font on a computer or something. There are rules about marketing! You have to go through a proper apprenticeship at Ye Olde Tyme Fonte Guilde, right?

I was so dazzled by the packaging that I didn’t read the fine print until I got home.

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Did you read that little bit under the title? The Folger Coffee Co. Hmm…

Boy, somebody ought to tell these 1850 people that, long after they were dead, there came another Folger’s Coffee Company, and they probably don’t want to be associated with the latter. Sure, it’s not a precise correlation. One has an apostrophe, after all. It is showing possession. Folger and Folger’s. Two entirely different companies.

I bought this 1850 amongst the Starbucks and the Peets and the Death Wish coffees. The part of the aisle that sports Kona blends with a whole TEN percent Kona beans. That company, the Folger’s, is NOT allowed at this end of the coffee aisle. They just throw coffee-dust shavings into a giant red plastic vat.

1850, you look like a good kid. You come in whole bean variety. You are conveniently placed in a bag that will probably be impossible to open without ripping, with a fancy little white cardboard strip for re-clasping yourself closed that will probably fall off after one use. You really gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself, associating with that shit down at the Yuban and Sanka end of the aisle.

Unless… Why, they wouldn’t, would they? They couldn’t, could they? Is Folger’s trying to move on up like the Jeffersons? Are they staking a claim a claim amongst the boutiques? Is this going to be another Killian’s or Molson, glorified Coors for double the price? Only one way to find out.

First, the beans. And yeah, Folger’s, it ain’t looking good for you. Take a look:

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What’s with the gristle? When I buy whole bean, I want whole beans. Not some whole beans mixed in with some specks and some grounds and whatever other schmeg is in there. And is it just me or are the beans roasted to different colors? Okay, maybe this is the real Folger’s, cause this is clearly just a big ol’ vat of beans that’s thrown together in a mish-mash faction.

Oh hey, as an aside, the plantation I went to in Hawaii had a “black and white” blend. Half the beans are light roasted, half are dark. So you get the flavor of the latter with the caffeine of the former, but way more complex than a medium roast. Yummy. Unfortunately, the “throw a bunch of whatever beans fell through the cistern” model employed by Folger’s ain’t being done for combination and nuance.

When I put these 1850… no, you know what? I’m going to call them by their proper name. They’re Folgers, through and through. So when I put these FOLGER’S beans through the automatic grinder in my coffee machine, the result was the exact kind of clusterfuck you’d expect. Most of the mist didn’t make it through the tunnel into the filter. To be fair, this happens over time with good coffee. A little bit more gets piled up each day until I come down one morning and get something the consistency of tea. The main difference between the Folger’s and even run-of-the-mill, replacement-level beans was the amount of time it took for the residue to accumulate. I usually have to clean the tube out once a week or so. The Folger’s clogged that shit up every other day. Even when the conduit had just been scraped clean, only about sixty percent of the grounds made it through.

If only I had known how fortunate I was to be sipping a twenty percent solution on that first day. Because when I finally put in enough beans to actually taste the flavor… blech. I asked my wife if she had a similar reaction, as she puts a fair amount of creamer in her coffee. She agreed she wasn’t a fan. It tasted simultaneously watered-down and sludgy. A bitter aftertaste followed the primary taste of bland. Creamer didn’t seem to do much good.

I tweaked it a little that night, only to find the tube had clogged. So even more watered down than usual. On day four, I went big. Clean out the conduit, put an extra scoop of beans and whatever that residual stuff is, and let’s see what we get.

“I think we need to put the 1850 aside until my mom visits,” I texted my wife from work.

“Agreed,” she responded.

Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson. A Folger’s by any other name is still a Folger’s.

Maybe I should try some of that Italian-named stuff, instead.

BEER! (Part III)

Okay, so I’ve just spent two posts about the beers I don’t like. So what, you may ask, DO I like in my beer? Well, I’m glad ya asked.

Truthfully, my flavor profile has changed a few times in my life, and are in a bit of a flux right now, too. Perhaps this is why I don’t understand the continuance of the decades-old trends discussed in the previous posts. Then again, I’ve always tended to be along a somewhat tight variance. Browns and reds and pales. Somewhere in the middle of the hoppy vs. malty spectrum. I love me some balance.

Of course, in a begrudging nod to the IPA-philes, over the past few years, my preferred beer has gone farther up the bitterness scale. For a while, I was all about the Amber and Scotch Ales. Alaskan Amber, Kilt Lifter, Nutty Brewnette, Old Chub. Even Newcastle was an occasional go-to in a pinch. The benefit of Newcastle is its ubiquity. Even a bar that only carried the standards is likely to have Newcastle.

Fat Tire was my favorite beer for five years or more. And clearly I wasn’t the only one, because it’s the beer that put New Belgium on the map. The brand barely existed at the turn of the century, but as of now, it’s ranked #11 by volume, just behind powerhouse no-longer-microbreweries Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada. And yeah, I know they’re really pushing their Voodoo Daddy IPA these days, but all of that is on the strength of their flagship.

I’ll still drink Fat Tire. Sometimes I have no choice. When I’m visiting family, it’s the only one they can remember that I drink, as they try desperately to avoid saying “Flat Tire.” I don’t know why it’s such a difficult pronunciation. I know a flat tire is a thing, but it’s not like Fat is some obscure word. Yet every baby boomer I encounter asks me if I want one of those “Fla.. uh.. Fe-ua… Feat Tires?”

But Fat Tire tastes a bit too sweet for me these days. The nutty and caramely and malty beers that I drank for the majority of my thirties just aren’t doing it for me these days. I never liked stouts and porters, because they’re too sweet, and something clicked in me in the past year, making most browns exhibit the same syrupy consistency. Maybe it’s just a hundred degrees in summer kind of thing, or maybe my brain is subconsciously telling my tongue that hops are here to stay, so I’d better get used to it. Now a Fat Tire tastes like a Frappuccino to me. Or an iced coffee when they put all that syrupy crap into it. No, Starbucks barista, I don’t want fucking “room” in my iced coffee. Just black coffee and ice. Someone ordering an actual coffee at your coffee business shouldn’t make you so damned twitchy. 

One fun brew I found many moons ago was Innis and Gunn. On my second trip to Scotland, we asked for a local beer. The waiter described something that we couldn’t understand, because he was speaking Scottish, which bears absolutely no resemblance to English. We nodded our approval and received one of the most wonderful concoctions ever invented. It’s aged in Scotch barrels. But there’s more to it than that, because after tasting Innis and Gunn, I tried a number of other beers that claim such a distinction and none of them have the smooth toffee flavor of Innis and Gunn. I’ve even, since then, tried some other Innis and Gunn flavors, including their rum-aged and Irish whickey-aged. None of them have that je ne sais pas of the original.

When we got back to America, we looked everywhere for Innis and Gunn. At the time, New York was the only place in the United States that carried it, and that seemed a bit far of a drive. But who said we had to purchase it in the United States? Vancouver’s only a fifteen-hour drive! My friend hit the Great North the following summer and brought back a case. Two summers later, I made the trek. The employee at the state-owned liquor store looked at me strangely when I wanted 30 bottles of something they usually sell by the single. But when I flashed the real-live, legitimate, international-standard American dollars, they were willing to do just what I said.

Just kidding. I think I paid with credit card. And I probably insulted the guy when I asked what it cost in “real money.” The guy selling joints in Nelson Park, however, was happy enough to take American cash.

We continued to check the Innis and Gunn website, plotting their progress on a map like they were the Allied army advancing against the Kaiser. First they were spotted in Washington, then Oregon. We went to the city walls waiting to cheer the liberating army as it came within sight. When my wife texted me a picture from the local Total Wine, I knew that life would never be the same.

Then again, at $14 for a 4-pack, the I&G is still going to be reserved for special occasions.

My IBU preference has been creeping up recently. The forties taste fine to me now. Although I suppose that’s where I started. The first beer I was actually able to get through being a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Then I avoided it fro a while, but it’s back in my favored wheelhouse. I can even tolerate beers into the sixties. When I was in Denver recently, I drank quite a few Dale’s Pale Ales, with an IBU of 65. It was fine. But I might’ve been suffering from altitude sickness.

But my favorites of late seem to be reds. Reds tend to add a bit of hoppiness to the typical maltiness of a brown. You know, like what hops were originally meant to do. There’s one here in Northern California called Heretic Evil Twin. The “evil twin” comes from the combination of the two flavors. If you’re a malt fan, the hop is the evil twin; if you’re a hop fan, it’s the malt. And they’re both in there. It’s a solid brew, with an IBU of 45, right in “the middle,” so to speak. But I think it’s ainly available in Northern California, so sorry if I got your hopes up. If you read on, you’ll see I’m right there with you on the torture. .

Let’s talk about Karl Strauss Red Trolley. It’s available everywhere, right? Its crispy nuance makes it my current favorite beer. It’s not that you can taste all the flavors, like in Heretic, but it’s also not all one flavor. Somehow it has an IBU below Fat Tire, which I consider bullshit because it’s definitely not as sweet. Of course now, after a decade of indoctrinating us that IBU is the be-all and end-all of a beer flavorness quotient, they’re saying it’s an incomplete measure. Now they try to distinguish between hazy and juicy and, I don’t know, fluffy IPAs? And New England IPAs, which are basically the same as West Coast Pale Ales. There are also Northwest Pales. It gets really confusing when you need an eight-directional compass just to figure out what the hell you’re drinking.

Or grapefruit. Don’t get me started on grapefruit. How very fitting that Ballast Point would be bought out by Coors.

Although the Grapefruit Sculpin works as a good transition into my most recent beer find. While in San Diego, my hotel bar had a local beer called Coconut Contender. This intrigued me, because I like coconut. Have I mentioned that I like coconut before? And that I worry they are on the cusp of jumping the palm tree shark? I think I have.

Coconut in beer isn’t a new thing. Coconut porters have existed for a while. I’ve had a few of them, and they’re okay in extremely limited quantities. Porters are sweet, coconut is sweet, so what you’re left with is the equivalent of adding caramel syrup to a white chocolate mocha, which is something I’m surprised Starbucks hasn’t done yet. Hell, I had some sort of Iced Vanilla Bean drink there a couple weeks ago, and I can still feel the granules of sugar coursing through my body. Dammit, Barista, I ordered a coffee frappuccino, not a caramel frappuccino. Repeat after me, barista!  Coffee! What the fuck is wrong with just serving me the goddamn product you’re supposed to be known for! Y

Sorry, where was I? Ah yes, the Coconut Contender. What intrigued me about this particular beer was that it was not listed as a coconut porter, but a coconut IPA. So instead of using the sweetness of the coconut to augment the sweetness of a porter, they’re going to counteract the bitterness of the… hmmm…. Why, that sounds brilliant!

Of course, they’ve done this with other flavors. That grapefruit crap is the most famous, but I’ve seen orange and tangerine and raspberry IPAs. But most of those others are tart more than sweet. Plus, did I mention that I like coconut? So I asked for a pint. The bartender asked if I wanted a taste of it first. Maybe he’s had customers that were hoping for a coconut porter and were disappointed by a beer with nuance. I was ninety percent sure I didn’t need a taster of it, that I would drink the whole damn thing. But if I’m about to order sixteen ounces and I can get the seventeenth ounce for free, I’m taking that bargain.

Even better when I discovered it was 21 ounces for the price of 20.

Verdict? It was as sublime as I expected. The coconut was in the background, as was the hoppiness. I didn’t wince from the sweet or chew the bitter. No need to drink five gulps of water to remoisten my palate. (Remoisten my palatte sounds like a dirty book that might be written by the OTHER Tony Kelly, the one who forces Amazon searches for my book to a second page. Go ahead and check, I won’t hold it against you).

I could definitely see myself drinking more of those Coconut Contenders. For instance, I saw myself drinking it again the next night. And the night after that. After all, I was at the hotel for a week-long conference. Unfortunately, the rat bastard behind the bar must have recognized me the rest of the week, because he never gave me that free taster again. Then again, he did “accidentally” pour the wrong drink once, and then gave me the correct pour in a take-home cup. Tip your waitstaff, people!

So of course, the first thing I did when i got home was to hit the local liquor stores to get me some Coconut Contender at home.

BevMo? Nope. Total Wine? Nada.

Dammit, this Coconut IPA is not to be found anywhere in the Sacramento area. Or at least anywhere in the whopping TWO liquor stores I looked in. So I decided to google Coconut IPA. I found that the one I had in San Diego wasn’t the only one. There are at least three  currently being brewed. And Total Wine stocked precisely zero of them. Didn’t double-check back at BevMo for the other two, but I’m not holding my breath.

According to one beer review, it’s the “New taste of summer.” I totally, totally agree. But at participating locations, only.

Oh Life, why must you mock me so?

BEER! (Part II)

Welcome back to Part Two. In Part One, I talked about Coors Light and the rest of its ilk, remnants of an older time that somehow persist in a world of much better options.

Today, I’ll talk about one of those better options that I don’t necessarily feel is a better option. Watch out, hipsters.

If you’ll recall what started this retrospective, I was visiting a new person’s house and he offered me a Coors Light. I declined. Except that Coors Light wasn’t the only thing he had available. He also offered me an IPA. Ugh.

And hey, hipsters? The fact that someone would have only two options of beer, one of which is an IPA and the other of which is Coors Light, should tell you all you need to know about how fancy your brillo-pad of a beer really is.

Now here’s where I know I part from true beer snobs. At their best, India Pale Ales are tolerable. At their worst? Pass me the Coors Light. Or better yet, I’ll just take some water.

Fortunately, in this particular case, it was Lagunitas, which is one of the most tolerable IPAs. In fact, their original IPA wouldn’t even be considered an IPA by today’s standards. It would be like Ronald Reagan in the modern GOP, or JFK trying to make it past two primaries in the 2020 Democratic party. It only has an IBU in the mid-40s. Nowadays if your IPA doesn’t have an IBU above 60, you might as well call it a lager.

For those who don’t know, IBU stands for International Bittering Unit. It measures the amount of hops in the flavor. Hops are those things that smell like really nasty marijuana. When they’re put in the beer, they help offset the sweet, caramelly flavor that comes from the malted barley. So a stout, which has the same bitterness as a bold chocolate milk, will have an IBU below 10. Ambers and browns usually range in the 20s, although some of the “nuttier” ones will be as low as ten. Twenty years ago, when Lagunitas was one of the few IPAs out there, a red or a pale ale was in the thirties and above forty was reserved for an India Pale. These days, if you’re not flirting with triple-digits, the millennials will only roll their pierced eyebrow at you.

India Pale Ales are supposed to have more bitterness because, historically, hops were used as a preservative, so the extra hops would keep the beer from spoiling on those long cruises from England to India. Note it was for preservation, not taste. Because, and me out here, hops taste like crap. They do. I know you there in the back, currently scraping a filmy layer of skin off the top of your arid mouth can’t admit it without worrying you’d have to shave your beard as penance, but it is not at all refreshing. It tastes like you’re drinking cotton. It’s dry, it’s scratchy. And last time I checked, you’re not supposed to consume cotton. Especially cotton that smells like dank weed that’s been left in the bong for a fortnight.

Hey, I think that might be the first combination of “bong” and “fortnight” in the same sentence in the history of the English language. Unless you’re talking about the video game.

On the West Coast, Lagunitas was one of the forebears of the IPA craze. As if on a dare, they started proudicing Double and Triple and Imperial IPAs, pushing that IBU up into the triple digits, just waiting for someone to have the balls to say it tasted crappy, but groupthink’s a hell of a drug. Just ask the Nazis. It’s ironic that Labunitas once had the balssiest IPA, and now their IPA is so tame. It barely even registers as a straight Pale these days. For comparison, Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues (a fun Colorado brewery that comes up with names like Old Chub and Mama’s Yellow Pilsner) has an IBU of 65. Their IPA has a bittering factor of 70, almost double that of Lagunitas.

New Belgium’s IPAs range from 50 to 70. They also have Hemp IPAs. Did I mention dank weed?

And IPAs are just the start. Now breweries have Imperial IPAs, Double IPAs, Triple IPAs, and, I don’t know, a-vine-of-hops-shoved-directly-up-your-ass ale. IBUs of 80 or 90, even triple digits, are starting to become the norm. Colorado and California breweries are now coming out with hemp IPAs. Hell, if it’s gonna taste like headache-inspiring weed, they might as well go to the source. I can only imagine that straight-up marijuana IPAs are on the horizon out here.

And I know I’m in the minority here. The reason I know this is because every brewery or taphouse I go to has a shit-ton of IPAs and their ilk. You’ll have maybe one red or one amber, but not both, one pilsner, and then seventeen beers with IBUs ranging from 65 to 120. Hey, this one has notes of citrus and that one has a whiffs of cotton-swabbed asshole. Oh, and Coors Light is tap #20.

Clearly the market has decided something that is not my cup of Indian tea. A friend of a friend started a brewery. He has a similar taste profile to mine, and was tired of seeing the same varietals at every brewery. He wanted to show what could be done with some of the forgotten flavors. A nutty brown versus a hoppy brown. A light or a dark lager.

But the substantial majority of the customers who came in had one request: more varieties of IPA. So now when I go in there, I’m relegated to my one option, but at least I can commiserate with the brewer.

And I cancross my fingers and hope that more brewers are like he and I. We’re all just waiting for this trend to end. Putting a whole bunch of recipes on the shelf, ready for the moment when hipsters and millennials grow enough balls to admit that the IPA trend has gone too far. Every culinary movement has a backlash at the end, right?

But dammit, I’ve been waiting for this particular pendulum to swing back for a decade now. And my liver ain’t getting any younger.

I know, I know. I don’t like mass-produced beers and I don’t like IPAs. What the hell do I like? Check back on Monday to find out.

BEER! (Part I)

AKA The stuff that doesn’t require fruit added to it.

I’m looking at you, Shock Top and Hefeweizen and Corona.

AKA Just because it’s from Europe doesn’t make it fancier than Budweiser

I’m looking at you, Stella Artois and Heineken.

AKA Don’t even get me started on that piss water that is…

No, you know what? Get me started on that. I’m starting right the fuck there.

A few weeks ago, wife and I were playing nice with the parents of one of my daughter’s “friends,”AKA the only one at her daycare that she seems to remember doing anything with on any given day, even though her teacher (AKA babysitter) swears she is a veritable roamer.

So we take child over to friend’s house for a playdate (AKA running around screaming at the top of their longs), and of course because child is four and we are the helicopter generation, we stay to engage with the parents. It is my firm belief that this did not happen when I was growing up. If my mother and/or father (let’s be honest, mother) took me to a friend’s house to play, I have to imagine she then high-tailed it to… I don’t know, a bar? The Club? Did Bunko exist in the mid-1970s? She probably just went back home to clean, which is probably what wife and I should have done, because I swear there used to be a floor at my house before we had a four-year old whirling dirvish.

Anyway, we showed up and released the kraken that was our two daughters. The other father turned to me and asked if I wanted a beer.

Of course I want a beer. What the hell kind of question is that? Without thinking, I started to respond.

“Yeeeeee-uhhhhh.”

But at this point, halfway through my affirmative response, I saw what was in his hand, which froze my answer in it tracks. Beads of sweat dripping down a dull grey label across a distinctive brown bottle. I’m sure the holder of said bottle considered the label to be bright silver, but it was a dull grey. Screaming red cursive script across a recessed image of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a Coors Light. A C-minus. The Silver Mother-fucking Bullet.

And no, I didn’t here any Jerry Reed music playing. Even worse, Burt Reynolds was nowhere to be seen.

“Yeeeee-ah, no thanks,” I finished my answer. “I’m driving.”

“Aren’t you guys staying?”

“Right. I meant I’m going to be driving. Not tonight. Maybe some time in the future. Better not let any of that one-percent Alcohol-By-Volume elixer touch my lips.”

Before you ask, I didn’t bother to check if the mountains were blue or mauve or fuchsia or chartreuse or whatever-the-fuck color it’s supposed to be to denote that the beer is ready to be consumed. I don’t think it’s a color that occurs in nature, because Coors Light is never drinkable. Note that the label is only supposed to change color when it gets cold. Coors Light really pushes the whole “cold” thing. I mean, I guess if you can’t really talk about the flavor, you might as well extoll the virtues of modern refrigeration technology.

But some people swear by the C-minus. And surprisingly, not all of them live in trailer parks. I know people that fit the description. Each of the last two years at Camptathalon, both of the new attendees prefer it to other beers. One of them has no desire to drink anything else. The rest of us show up to camp with a variety of lagers and ales of all variety. Pale, red, amber, black, India. You name it. John rolled up with 30 cans of Silver Bullet. The rest of us mix and match what we brought with what others brought. Communism at its finest. But John wanted none of the ten other varieties, which was fine because none of us wanted to partake of his.

This year, the new Camptathalon attendee brought the real stuff. Coors “Banquet” Beer. The… um, tan bullet? At least this year’s attendee was capable of drinking non-Golden-based beers. Although maybe that’s not the best for the rest of us. Communism at its worst. The root cause of the 1991 Soviet coup was people bringing Coors but drinking your Karl Strauss was the root cause of the 1991 coup.

Speaking of non-light Coors, they’re really pushing that whole “banquet” moniker these days. Check out this sign from a show at Red Rocks:

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Then again, if you’re only a quarter less than a well-known IPA, you better pull out that “banquet” bullshit.

My cousin also swears by the stuff. As does, clearly, the father of my daughter’s friend. And Burt Reynolds, obvs.

But the Bandit had an excuse. It was the 1970s. Back then, there weren’t a lot of options for beer. We’re talking about a time period where Budweiser and Miller were the good stuff, because they were being compared to the likes of Milwaukee’s Best and Schlitz. I’ve never actually had Schlitz, but I have had the Beast, and I suppose if my only options were variances of that swill, then maybe I’d be willing to smuggle some of that “beer from Texarkana.”

But it’s the 21st Century now, all of those laws that forced beers to stay in one region have been long rescinded. So if they’re thirsty in Atlanta, not only can they have Coors, but they can have Sierra Nevada and Yuengling and Leinenkugil. To say nothing of Stella and Newcastle and Bass and Smithwicks. Which means they’d have to be pretty fucking thirsty in Atlanta to want to drink Coors. Actually, maybe that’s the point. Since Coors is pretty much water, maybe it quenches your thirst more.

In Sacramento, we recently had one of our original microbrews close down. Some people were surprised. Rubicon Brewing Company had its restaurant and brewery open since the late 1980s. At one point in the mid-to-late nineties, it was a solid business, almost a Sacramento institution. Even as late as 2010, their Monkey Knife Fight was readily available at most regional restaurants and stores.

But I wasn’t too surprised. Because Monkey Knife Fight wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really all that good either. In the mid-1990s, it was a solid drinking option. But back then, most places only had a few beers on tap. And who the hell knew what a red ale was, anyway? But by 2017,Rubicon really didn’t have anything that could compete with the quantity and quality of beer you can get pretty much anywhere. Sacramento now has four or five other breweries just in the downtown area, to say nothing of those taphouses where you can get twenty different flavors from twenty different breweries, with a rotating list that’ll give you twenty brand new options when you come in a fortnight later. In that sort of crowded market, a Rubicon couldn’t do anything to distinguish themselves, and if you can’t compete with quality or quantity, you aren’t going to last.

Which makes me wonder how the Big Three are still in business. Hopefully it’s not for long.

Want to know what else I don’t like? Follow me to Part II.