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Friday, January 29, 2010


--There it is, gleaming in the sun.
--Rio has Surgarloaf Mountain and a huge statue of Christ. We have the World’s Biggest Stainless Steel Cross.
--It sort of goes with the World’s Biggest Bust of Jesus.
--The bust is for the northern part of our trip, this is for the southern part.
--To beat the devil at both ends.
--This isn’t the only place you see them. I’m sure I’ve seen others.
--Yes,but I think they’re on I-95.
--First comes the huge cross, then right next door a We Bare All strip club.
--In Dante’s Inferno, among the damned are the souls of people still walking around on earth. Even though they aren’t dead yet, they’ve committed sins so terrible that their souls are already in hell. I like the concept. I think you have to assume the souls of people in a We Bare All club overshadowed by a one-hundred-foot-high metal cross are already among the damned.
--I prefer the cedars on the embankments in Tennessee.
--We agree on that. Tennessee is beautiful. I never knew it before we started making this trip. Kentucky, too. Kentucky is so appealing, I can almost forgive it for electing two really disgusting senators. Almost certainly, Jim Bunning’s and Mitch McConnell’s souls have already been cast down into hell.
--The hills, the ground fog in the valleys, the ledge rock. So beautiful.
--Plus, they must constantly be getting the trusties out to pick up the litter. At least along 75. Everything is pristine. Tidy.
--Or it just seems that way because of where we’re from.
--Please don’t start. It‘s too easy to criticize where we’re from.
--If you want to trash something, trash Mitch McConnell. Or Richard Shelby, from the great state of Alabama. There’s another piece of work. How he wanted the American auto firms to fail. He kept going on last year about free markets, the evils of bailouts. All this from someone whose state has awarded hundreds of millions in tax breaks to Japanese and German automakers. I really hate Shelby.
--Watch your speed.
--All right. Without a doubt, Shelby’s down below, too. With old Mitch. Ever notice how many of the really disgusting major figures in the Republican party are endomorphs?
--There you go with another word I don’t know.
--An endomorph is someone whose adult body retains features of infancy. Specifically, baby fat. Fleshy, blubbery bodies, double chins. Bloated cheeks. McConnell is a perfect example. So is Karl Rove, even the new slimmed-down version. Once a Rove, always a Rove. He’s still got that baby face.
--And you think this reveals something about what’s inside? That fat people are evil?
--No, of course not. Not fat people per se. Barney Frank is fat, and I like him. Teddy Kennedy was always stout. With Republicans, though, I think there’s some connection.
--Now you’re talking funny.
--No, I really do. It says something about their characters. Well, not exactly. What the fleshy, oversized baby body in a McConnell or a Rove may explain is why they love dirty, sucker-punch political fighting. They could never compete in sports, never do anything requiring athletic ability. So,now,they like throwing their weight around in politics.
--That’s a very elaborate theory.
--Yes, and a totally unfair, ad hominem argument. But I like it. The fat boy enviously watches football or baseball being played all through his school years. Always from the sidelines. When he grows up he goes into politics and becomes a bully in the House or Senate. Makes perfect sense. At least to me.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


In the last DBD, Barbara and I were reminiscing about eating steak in a motel room that had been adapted for the handicapped. It conjured up thoughts of adaptations now needed during the holiday season in our own household.


Meat has always played a big role in my life, and I am the first to admit that “meat withdrawal” can’t be a pretty thing to see. Not if seeing it is anything like living it, which is what I am faced with during the holidays.

The condition, or symptom as some would have it starts with the restlessness seen in heroin addicts. At least those depicted in movies. I haven’t personally known any heroin addicts, although it’s quite possible that at faculty parties I unknowingly met several users who weren’t just then in the throes of withdrawal.

As with drug addicts, the growing need for meat is manifested in me when a roaming, aimless foraging takes over. Christmas cookies, crackers and cheese, Sesame Snacks, even wedges of the much maligned fruitcake are sought out in an increasingly desperate effort to assuage the craving for animal protein.

Because my wife and I are both lifetime fans of meat, I go through the withdrawal process only during family gatherings. At these times, our house is overrun by lively children tumbling over torpid adults, sullen adolescents slumped in states of isolated communion with this or that piece of technology, fifth-wheel boyfriends waiting for it all to be over, and so forth.

How and why these people turned on or away from meat I don’t know. I tend to think of it in terms of communicable disease, something picked up by my older stepdaughter during her exploratory years on the west coast. When she returned, she was clean. Meat-free. So was the father of her children, and her little ones. “Just Say No to Cow” I seem to remember printed on someone’s tee shirt.

Because I don’t know how else to explain the transfer of this no-meat orientation to my younger stepdaughter, I see it as viral. True, she is not strictly committed to the all-organic, meatless religion as is her older sibling, but I see ominous trends. For one, her youngest child is now insisting she is a vegan, a variant of the veggie religion requiring even more discipline and self-denial. Where this would come from if not from the child’s aunt I don’t know (although it is true that “vegan,” "Vulcan" and “Klingon” are all close, and it is not impossible that the child is now watching Star Trek reruns on her phone).

But during these vegetarian forced marches, Barbara always sees to it that rogue helpings of lunchmeat are stashed at the back of the refrigerator. Tightly wrapped to avoid detection, these packets are concealed behind ancient jars and bottles of long-forgotten condiments.

They’re my version of methadone or insulin, chilled and waiting for the next injection. I mainline them at odd moments when a lull occurs in our Christmas hijinks. I make a point of shoving in extra helpings of honey maple turkey or Polish ham in advance of one of the soy or tofu-oriented meals my wife lovingly prepares for our guests.

Two years ago, she actually molded tofu into a turkey, a joke that went over big with me. When she set it down, I took my cue from Bill O’Reilly and declared our house a No-meat Zone. I had stuffed myself in advance with bootleg lunchmeat, and now took my chair at the head of the table. Fortified by a last, quick hit of pepper loaf, I was now able to eat everything on offer, my plate arranged with portions the size of small coins. Thus, I maintained the image of dietary inclusiveness and tolerance.

Aided as well of course by courage, courtesy of Scotland. As every senior-citizen host of family gatherings knows, these occasions form the historical basis for the development of what in our time is called adult beverages. Your rob roy, your martini and manhattan all got their start this way.

So the next time you find yourself confronted by health food, use the occasion to say thank you and happy holidays to the owner/operator of your neighborhood party store. If he is like mine, he will return the greeting with a smile, even though his own time of testing must wait for Ramadan.

Monday, January 25, 2010


When we stop on our trips to and from Florida, we always try to stay at a Red Roof Inn. We have our dog Chelsea with us, and the Red Roof franchise is pet-friendly. Only once were we disappointed, but that had nothing to do with the motel. It had to do with the couple in the room next to us. The ones traveling in an oversized van with two Great Danes, and something small that never stopped barking. But this isn’t about that.

--Are you going to trust me to carry in the document box?
--Come on. It’s been nine years. I safely drove us hundreds of miles today.
--I drove, too.
--Yes, I know. I just mean I can be trusted to drive hundreds of miles without incident. It should mean I can be trusted to carry in the document box.
--And please also bring in my black bag, and the laptops.

--This is pretty good, don’t you think? I always appreciate the absence of art in a Red Roof.
--Yes, but this one has no table.
--We’ll just sit side by side on the bed and eat off the dresser. It’ll be cozy.
--Remember the Red Roof… I think it was Cincinnati? The handicapper room.
--That I’m pretty sure was north of Atlanta.
--Everything was so low.
--I remember we’d had a fight. We were in this Red Roof Inn, everything in it like furniture in a Montessori classroom. We weren’t speaking—
--You always tell me I don’t speak anyway.
--We weren’t speaking on purpose, is what I mean. I went across to a Ruby Tuesday’s and brought back steak dinners.
--I remember.
--I’d forgotten to bring a cork screw. It was back in Michigan, spending the winter with so much else. They didn’t have corkscrews in the gas station next to Ruby Tuesday's, so I bought a quart of beer. There we were, you crouched over your child’s nightstand eating steak, me with my back to you eating mine. I really did have a sense of ending up. “This is how it will be in our assisted-living apartment,” I thought. “Eating this way, surrounded by grab-bars.
--And Chelsea wouldn’t eat. She was waiting for it all to be over.
--She always knows when something’s wrong.
--That’s true. But I mean she wanted the traveling to be over.
--But she’s very good on the road.
--The best, an angel. Aren’t you, Chelsea? You sweet girl, you.
--She loves being on the road, but doesn’t like the motel rooms.
--She’s much better, though. Remember that first year we brought her down?
--It was pathetic. I felt like an axe murderer.
--We’d gotten her that October, our little special-needs border collie. Then we drove down with her, just after Christmas. You were still working.
--She looked so forlorn. My God, we were doing everything we could think of to cheer her up. Nothing doing. Every time we stopped to walk her—gas stations, rest areas—she tracked the ground, looking for a familiar smell.
--That first night, remember what happened?
--I got up early to walk her, the way I always do. To keep things consistent.
--But she wasn’t on the floor.
--I panicked. I thought, “You locked up for the night, and left her outside. She’s blind in one eye, she’s lost, she’s been killed on the Expressway.” God, it was an awful few seconds. Then I saw her tail sticking out from under the bed.
--It broke my heart. It was almost impossible for her to pull herself out. That’s how low the bed was.
--But not low enough to keep her from pulling herself under.
--Think how scared she must have been.
--Well, you stay here and guard the documents while I forage for something to eat. I saw signs. It will probably be pasta or pizza.
--Try to get something she’ll like.
--A rotisserie chicken? That’s always a crowd pleaser.

Friday, January 22, 2010


At some point on our way south, one of us always remembers something important left behind in Michigan. This year, it wasn’t the favorite slotted spoon, or the backup memory card for the camera.

--I miss _____.
--Is that what you’ve been thinking about all these miles?
--No, but I think about her. Do you want me to drive?
--I’m fine. I think about her, too. Mostly in terms of disappointment.
--I just miss her, that’s all.
--Yes, that’s the word. She’s gone missing. Our oldest granddaughter is now somewhere else. In her place is a beautiful, fifteen-year-old lanky redhead who looks just like her. The one who comes to visit now is no more present than the one who’s gone missing. All I see of her for the most part is the part down the center of her hair. Always bowed over some piece of technology, fingers flying. She doesn't have to be with us at all, now. Or any adults. She can e-mail or text-message her likewise held-hostage buddies wherever they they may be.
--Remember how she’d come down in her sleeper? Trailing a blanket? She’d curl up next to me on the couch with it. Cuddle close, then bring her hand out from under the blanket and hand me Doctor Seuss. It would be concealed until that moment. She’d be fighting to stay awake, to hear me read to her.
--It’s one of my favorite photos.
--The one in the dining room.
--She has her chin propped on her hand, looking at the book as you read. Hardly able to keep her eyes open. You are beautiful in that shot.
--Something else that’s gone missing.
--Please don’t.
--Her brother’s still the way he was.
--For now. You watch, he’ll turn on us, too.
--Always the early bird. Down every day first thing when they visit.
--My grandson is hard-wired for dosings of toaster waffles on waking. Down he comes, very quietly.
--But he never makes demands, he’s never crabby. Long before now, ______ was always gvetchy when she came down. Groaning and moaning. Not her brother. He just pads down the creaky stairs and starts his morning routine in the big chair.
--Game Boy in hand.
--Or a book.
--It’s true, he’s become such a reader. I love seeing it.
--Is he imitating his sister?
--No idea, and I don’t care. If he’s a reader, that’s all that matters. Dragons, extra-terrestrial dustups between weird tribes of mutants—no matter. He’s reading, that’s what counts.
--I feel so old.
--Travel on the Interstate will do that.
--I wish I had a Starbucks. I wish I had ______.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Generally, Drinks before Dinner is true to its name: it recounts conversations that take place at the end of the day. But when Barbara and I are on the road, these confabs are what keep us going. After driving for nine or ten hours, we are out of words and ready for sleep. That is, until the lively couple next door start throwing each other against the wall, or the quaint heating/cooling system resumes operation. If anyone knows, please tell us how so many of these units have survived since the beginning of the twentieth century.


--Did we pass it yet?
--No. It’s closer to the state line.
--Mustn’t miss the world’s biggest Jesus.
--Well, anyway, the world’s biggest bust of Jesus.
--It’s big all right. How tall would you say?
--Maybe twenty-five or thirty feet. At least that, if you include the beseeching arms.
--You have to include the arms, that’s the main thing. Is it blessing or beseeching?
--The Solid Rock Church. Well named, considering how much concrete had to go into it. I wonder if the good reverend’s cousin is in the aggregate business. What I like is how, one second after you pass the bust you see the sign for the World Biggest Flea Market.
--I don't think it actually says that, does it?
--Something close. If it isn’t the world’s biggest, it has to be competitive. They have sheds and truck bays and parking on both sides of the Interstate. Think of that. A site for vendors selling junk that spills out over who knows how many acres of Ohio farmland. In the middle of nowhere. On both sides of the Interstate. With Jesus’ eternal blessing.
--We should stop some time.
--Is the bust beseeching God, or blessing the Ohio landscape? To answer that, we would need to know if the flea market antedates the bust. If the flea market came first, I’d have to go with the bust performing a blessing on the vendors and customers. Well, no, not necessarily. The bust could be beseeching God to bring more suckers to the junk peddlers.
--We should stop one of these times.
--I don’t know. It’s there is all. We’ve been passing it now for—nine years? I can’t believe we’ve been doing this that long.
--You’ll have to wait for your next husband. I’m not interested.
--You lack the spirit of adventure.
--“Lost in the Flea Market.” Does that sound like a reality show, or what? See the ragged troupe of abandoned shoppers, accidentally locked up in the cavernous shed until next weekend. See them set upon by herds of crazed dairy cattle. Watch as they huddle under mounds of antique clothing and defunked minor appliances.
--That’s pretty much what “The Antiques Road Show” is. A reality show.
--True. A high-end junk show. Everyone dragging crap out of their attics, hoping it’s worth a fortune. I like it when the appraiser tells someone her Betty Boop lamp is worth three and a half dollars.
--You like the crestfallen looks.
--I confess it. I always prefer the agony of defeat.
--No, you’re right. We’d just see something and buy it.
--Like the Orbitz sale.
--Which makes no sense for people with a van full of stuff, on their way to Florida.
--I think of us as latter-day Okies. Here that? “All you need is love”—right, Chelsea?

Monday, January 18, 2010


Following Christmas, Barbara and I load the van in preparation for our annual trip to Florida. We’re snowbirds, and spend four months there. The process of leave-taking—packing, loading, unloading and reloading, attempting to remember what was left behind last year—involves many animated discussions. Largely because my memory is no longer fully reliable, these exchanges can sometimes get heated. Our solution is to go on packing in silence, knowing there will be ample time in the days and weeks to come for payback related to that favorite slotted spoon or extra camera memory card now spending the winter back in Michigan.

But many hours later than planned, we at last coax our dog Chelsea to hop in, slide shut the van's panel door, and take off. We’ve made this trip once or more times a year since 2001. As we move south, we watch for signs of milder weather. We eat junk food (Chelsea prefers McDonald’s), stay in pet-friendly motels, and drink lots of coffee and little shot bottles full of B vitamins.

By now, the journey is marked by familiar points of interest. The next several posts take their inspiration—if that’s the word for it—from our time on the road. Collectively, they make up a kind of scrapbook of Americana, at least that part of it exposed on I-75.

--I Dozed off.
--You did, that’s good. That’s the point of reclining seats.
--God, I fell so soundly asleep. I was back in the union. We were getting a mailing out for the next election.
--You loved the place.
--Yes, but please don’t start in about how I no longer have a sense of purpose.
--It was a mistake. I should never have retired.
--Honey, you stayed too long as it was. If it hadn’t been for the penalty for leaving before thirty-and-out, I would have pressured you to quit earlier. I should have anyway, but we needed the money.
--I should’ve stayed on.
--Barbara, please—
--I just couldn’t take the commute anymore.
--Maybe that’s why you dozed off just now. Here you are, back on I-75. The same road you had to take every morning. In the last couple years you hated it. The lunatic morning drivers, everyone blabbing on phones while doing their makeup. “See? I can drive with no hands.” Men shaving. Hot numbers dancing in their seats at seventy miles an hour at seven-thirty in the morning.
--It did get to me, I have to say.
--At the end, sometimes I had to drive you, remember?
--Not often.
--No, but I knew from those times how awful it must be. The pressure.
--You never knew, you couldn’t know. You drove three miles each way on your commute. Never in rush hour.
--And always on surface roads, not the expressway.
--Exactly. So please don’t say you “know” what it was like for me.
--All right. But I know you resented how easy I had it.
--No, not really. But I couldn’t help knowing it. Please, honey, don’t follow so close. Do we have to be in the left lane all the time?
--Any lane you want. I just don’t like traveling behind tankers.
--Tell me about it.

Friday, January 15, 2010


More taxing matters (we got a little carried away)

--Do you think our new tax preparer is Jewish?
--With a name like Zimmer? Of course.
--She didn’t look Jewish.
--Be politically correct. You mean Semitic.
--OK, she didn’t look Semitic. But she was smart and funny.
--There you go, Jewish.
--I was always flattered in college to be taken for Jewish.
--That happened to me a couple times at the union. Norman Schwartz in the elevator once asked me, “Kosnic. Is that a Jewish name?” I told him it was Polish Catholic.
--How’d he react?
--What do you mean? We were in the elevator, going to work. Kosnic sounded like a Jewish name to a Jew, that’s all.
--Kosnicastan. That could be where your ancestors came from.
--You mean that’s my family’s mother country?
--The Old Sod, The Homeland.
--Yes. Lost in the shuffle of the other ‘stans’--Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan. This tiny little wedge of real estate is in there.
--Full of Kosnicastanis.
--In need of assistance.
--Kosnicastan, I like it. That could be where the dictators in the other ‘stans’ have their summer homes.
--Their dachas and hunting lodges.
--Did you say all the Kosnicastanis are Jewish? It can’t be easy for them in that region.
--Especially sitting on all the world’s remaining gabardine reserves. Every passport holder in Kosnicastan is Jewish. But they don’t know what this means. Only the national records and passport lady has been to Israel. See, Kosnicastan is the home of the actual Lost Tribe. I should’ve said they would be Jewish if they had any religion.
--That’s sort of sad. A whole country, and all of them related.
--You could go back as a goodwill ambassador. You could say Nancy Reagan sent you.
--Let me think about this.
--You think about it while I get us a refill.

--There you go, Grebus. That’s your name when you go back to your native village.
--Thank you. I thought you said everyone’s related in my motherland.
--I did, Grebus, they are.
--But you say they have villages.
--Well, yes. People don’t all live in the capital city of Plotzick. But these villages aren’t divided by tribe, or language subset. They’re divided by herd animal. Goat villages, camel villages. So, you fly in and land on the salt flats. That’s what they use for the airfield. You deplane. You’re greeted by diplomats. There’s a military honor guard and a band, flower girls in quaint peasant costumes. They have this ululation type of cheer everyone’s doing, both the men and women. When they quiet down, you tell them you’ve been sent by former First Lady Nancy Reagan as a goodwill ambassador.
--Am I nervous?
--Of course you’re nervous. You’re the first American of any prominence to visit Kosnicastan since Teddy Roosevelt. When he went there for quail hunting.
--No, I’m nervous because I’ve been sent by Nancy Reagan. On a mission to my motherland. Which is mother to a nation of people who are all Jewish and don’t know it. And they all belong to the same family. And not just the Family of Man.
--I’d be nervous, too.
--Not like me. I’m a woman, and Nancy Reagan sent me with a single message for Kosnicastan. Do you want to know the message?
--“Just Say No to Drugs and Sex.” It’s a good message, but they don’t have a drug or AIDS problem in your native land.
--“Just Say No to Inbreeding.”
--Ah. I see. It will be controversial. Better prepare for some blow-back. If they had a press corps or any media, this would be big.
--When a first lady calls, you can’t just say no.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Why do so many blogs concern themselves only with information—with things and services, and giving advice? Does anyone really think all the hot tips for investing, and choosing the best buy in technology, and making sure to move to one of the Ten Best Cities actually means much?

Isn’t it perfectly possible the CEO at the company whose stock you are urged to buy will turn out to be Bernie Madoff’s twin? Won’t your brand new laptop still become obsolete on the seat next to you when you drive home with it? After moving to one of those Top Ten Cities, are you sure the neighbors on either side won’t turn out to be barking mad?

Most bloggers are well intentioned, and people do need information. But at the end of most days, it’s little things that make the difference. No matter how discouraging or humiliating or annoying it’s been, if you somehow managed to connect or be amused in some way, your day hasn’t been a total bust.

This is the place Drinks before Dinner proposes to go. More often than not, the best time for my wife Barbara and me comes when we de-brief each other before dinner. In our heavily mortgaged living room, we have a drink and locate some point of interest from the day. Sometimes we’re serious, but mostly we’re whimsical, even silly. Is it the drink? Maybe. But however it goes, our goal is to find something from the day that takes us out of ourselves.

That’s what Drinks before Dinner will be: short dialogues and recollections from Barry and Barbara Knister’s Book of Days. For an hour, we are free to be as daffy, outrageous or politically disreputable as we like. Seeing us in action, many might shake their heads. Grow up, they might say. Move on, get a grip, etc.

But the truth is we did grow up. We got ourselves educated, held responsible jobs and were good at them. Raised a family, paid taxes, didn’t drink and drive, and quit smoking.

In other words, we stuck to our knitting for decades. Now, come six o’clock we sit down, have a drink and walk what’s left of our wits. And we invite you to join us. After all, what’s your hurry? Pull up a chair and tell us what your poison is. Those pretzels by the way are very good!
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