Friday, June 30, 2000

tombstone's obsession

Vacations are a special event for a family. Done properly, they can create memories for the entire family to share with one another for years to come. Done poorly, they can create memories the family will be sharing with a therapist.

Planning a vacation therefore is an important process. Among the considerations are where to go, how to get there, and whether there is anyone you can stay with to avoid the cost of a hotel. Natasha, Evangeline and I just a week ago returned from our first major vacation as a family. Our answers to those questions, in order, were Arizona, flying and Natasha's mother.

Now many people think of Arizona as a desert state with a lot of sand and a lot of cacti. While that has some truth to it, Arizona also is home to the only pothole in the Union -- The Grand Canyon -- bigger than the one at the corner of Sandford Street and Commercial Avenue in New Brunswick, N.J.

The Grand Canyon is a truly inspiring site, carved through solid rock so we are told over millennia by the Colorado River, which in turn has the most dangerous and exciting rapids to go rafting on.

The colors at the Grand Canyon at sunset defy description. It is as though God creates a new master painting each evening, and when he calls the stars forth one by one, you are humbled to see how amazingly small and finite you really are.

I would go on, but I've never been to the Grand Canyon. Instead, we visited another site Arizona is famous for, the OK Corral. (Not to be confused with that famous church hymn, "The OK Chorale.")

The gunfight at the OK Corral probably is history's best-known and best-loved shoot-out. It's got all the elements of a crowd-pleaser. It's got guns. It's got bullets. It's got dead bodies piled up sky-high. It's got the law fighting the bad guys, and winning. Best of all, it's (relatively) true.

So it's no surprise that the gunfight has appeared in movies like the 1993 film "Tombstone" and the imaginatively named 1957 film "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," and in episodes of "Star Trek," "Dr. Who" and "Mr. Peabody."

If you believe Hollywood's rendition of Wyatt Earp, the late federal marshal was a hero who fought the cowboy gang and ended the reign of the lawless wealth-makes-right in the Old West.

This is a lie. That was not accomplished until 1985 in Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider."

Wyatt Earp actually was little different from the Clantons and McLaurys, whom he, his brothers and Doc Holliday, fought at the OK Corral. The chief difference was that the Earps and Doc Holliday had badges. Otherwise, they pretty much were the same kind of thugs as the Clantons, except that Doc Holliday may have been even meaner.

Of course, it's hardly surprising that Hollywood would treat Wyatt Earp less than accurately. After all, "Tombstone" showed Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday firing a 12-gauge shotgun no fewer than three times without reloading, a task only slightly more believable than Gene Kelly getting 30 shots from a six-shooter, Roy Rogers shooting the guns from the desperadoes' hands, or a certain other cowboy actor being elected president.

Ironically, nearly every movie about the OK Corral was filmed, not at Tombstone, but more than an hour away in Old Tucson Studios. Still, Tombstone draws enough tourists that the city government has made it illegal to ask, "What would you like on your Tombstone?" when you are standing in the frozen pizza aisle.

Tombstone has other history outside the Earps, including a haunted mine and two fires that nearly destroyed the town, but everything seems to run back to Wyatt Earp in the end. The ghost story is tied to the basement of Big Nose Kate's Saloon, where "The Legend of the Swamper" is the subject of a free pamphlet. A 17-page booklet about Wyatt Earp (there he is again) and Doc Holliday costs $5.

One clothing store boasts it used to be the saloon where Wyatt Earp (there he is again) ran a gambling table for playing faro. Other places are identified as the office Doc Holliday used while he still practiced medicine, the room where Big Nose Kate lived (the prostitute who also was Doc Holliday's girlfriend), where the Clanton brothers were buried, where Morgan Earp (there's his brother) was killed, and on and on.

Over by the OK Corral is the a photo gallery of work by C.S. Fly, the photographer of the Old West who took the famous pictures we have of Geronimo, the Apache Indians, Tombstone after the fires, other parts of the Old West and Wyatt Earp. (There he is again.)

It got to the point that when I used the bathroom at Big Nose Kate's Saloon (built on the site of the Grand Hotel, where the Clantons and McLaurys stayed the night before the gunfight), I half-expected to see a sign identifying the urinal that Wyatt Earp used when he'd had too much to drink.

It gets overwhelming after a while.

Natasha, her mother, Evangeline and I were in Tombstone for less than a day, but I can't help it. I've developed an obsession with Wyatt Earp. I've told everyone I could about my trip to Tombstone and what I learned about him.

It's not enough. I have an overwhelming compulsion to run out and buy copies of "Tombstone," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and "My Darling Clementine" on video and watch all three of them sequentially and concurrently. I want to buy the movie posters and decorate my living room with them.

This never would have happened if we had gone to Moose Lake, Minn., like I had suggested. The only thing Moose Lake has going for it that I know of is a gratuitous reference in a VeggieTales video.

Our Arizona vacation was supposed to help me unwind from work and keep my sanity. Instead, my mind is slipping faster and faster into an Earpocentric dementia. Instead of beginning to assemble timeless memories, I've begun to assemble psychoses to unload to a licensed therapist.

Next time we go on vacation, we're going someplace without a history, even if it means I have to carry Natasha all the way to Moose Lake myself.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, June 27, 2000

the real lucers

I used to think that if you wanted to offend someone, you had to do something, well, offensive. Something like feeding them soup made with Puppy Chow, playing "Elton John's Greatest Hits" over and over again, or e-mailing them copies of a column you write.

I've been set straight on that score. Apparently, all you have to do is make a movie that satirizes them, their favorite TV show and the actors from that TV show, and they'll get offended. They get even more offended if you do it well.

In this case, my friend told me how offended he was by "Galaxy Quest," a movie that does all those things for Star Trek, when I casually remarked that I had seen it had been released on videotape and was hoping to buy a used copy when one became available.

My friend, who regularly reminds me that "Trekkies" are the really far-out fans and that "Trekkers" is the preferred term for fans who don't require medication, wasn't amused by the movie. In fact, he was a little put off.

"Why does everyone like to pick on Star Trek fans?" he demanded angrily. "We're not freaks. We just like good sci-fi."

I avoided the obvious cheap shot -- that people make fun of us because it's so easy -- and conceded that he had a point. Trekkies -- excuse me, Trekkers -- love lots of good science fiction, including the novels of Larry Niven, shows like "Babylon 5," and other great epics, like "Zombies of the Stratosphere."

My friend was absolutely right. Trekkies -- sorry, I mean Trekkers -- clearly have been the victims of a media smear campaign.

But if Star Trek fans aren't the geeks we've always thought, then who is? Because there are a lot of geeks in the world, and they have to belong to some easily identifiable group. That's how it works, and a TV show is a good a basis for the designation as anything else.

After giving the matter a lot of thought, I finally realized the truth. The TV show that has inspired unthinkable levels of zaniness and belief-defying antics from its fans is "I Love Lucy." Those are the real freaks among us, not the Save our Sesame Street militia, not the politicians, not the newspaper editors and columnists, and certainly not the Trekkies. (Trekkers. Sorry.)

In its time, "I Love Lucy" has spawned no fewer than three sequels -- "Lucy and Ricky," "The Lucy Show" and "Here's Lucy" -- that continued in the same tried-and-true formula as the original, with little fresh creative spark to make them stand out.

Star Trek can't ever compare to that.

The Lucy phenomenon is the driving force behind massive conventions within Lucy fandom. These events happen regularly, and draw attendees from hundreds of miles away, who come dressed as their favorite characters. They even have contests among redheads to see who looks the most like Lucy. Sick, sick, sick!

And then there's the real whacked-out fans who know unhealthy amounts of trivia about "I Love Lucy," including the names of bit characters, other shows those actors appeared in, original episode air dates, entire runs of dialogue and the backstage quarrels of the actors.

While we're at it, let's not forget Barbara Adams, the woman dismissed from jury duty on the Whitewater trial in Little Rock, Ark., because she kept coming to court dressed like Little Ricky, complete with a miniature bongo drum. Reports even have it that her co-workers call her "Junior."

Actually, I'm surprised it took me so long to finger the Lucy fans as such oddballs. The Lucy phenomenon has been documented quite thoroughly in the media. Pop culturalists have written books about the zany antics of "Lucy" fans and the strong political themes the show addressed.

For a show from the early days of television, fans say, "I Love Lucy" confronted several major issues of its day. There was an episode about U.S.-Cuba relations, dealt with through a clever parallel built around uranium mining, another episode about McCarthyism, and a third about the rising price of toilet paper.

And then there's the infamous honor's thesis, written in college by someone whose name I have forgotten, about the religious themes of "I Love Lucy," including the death of God, the return to Paradise and the failure of traditional religion.

It should be clear by now who the real losers are.

Trekkies -- I mean Trekkers -- you stand absolved of all charges of geekiness of which you formerly have been accused. The real geeks, clearly, are the Lucies.

Sorry. I mean the Lucers.

Thursday, June 22, 2000

restaurant deficiencies

There are three things I hate about eating out. Not having a baby changing station in the men's room is one of them. Needing to wear long pants and a sweater in the middle of the summer is a second.

But the worst one has to be the way waiters like to take my food away before I've finished eating. You would think that since the waiter is the one who took my order, he should be aware that I probably have designs on those last eight ounces of my 10-ounce New York strip steak. But somewhere between taking my order and asking if everything is all right, most waiters' brains short-circuit.

Part of this might stem from a misguided attempt waiters make to spare their customers the embarrassment of waiting around for five hours, twiddling their thumbs and whistling along to old Tiffany or Rick Astley tunes as they try to get the waiter's attention, while the food slowly turns green and hairy.

The truth of the matter is that restaurants specially train their waiters to snatch food away from hungry customers. These commando waiters watch from a safe vantage point where the customers cannot see them, and study their customers' body temperature, posture and conversational habits.

At the critical moment when the customer is distracted, the waiters strike and make off with the uneaten portion of the meal, which they carry to the kitchen and -- in great deference to the starving billions worldwide, including the customer who is now staring, fork in hand, at an empty table -- toss it into the garbage.

This might seem like a clever ploy to speed customers through their relaxed and enjoyable night out so the restaurant can serve more customers, but that's only the beginning of the plot. The truth is that restaurants count on customers not to be confrontational and to ask for an overpriced dessert menu item instead of trying to keep their food.

"Why yes," waiters imagine their customers -- especially those who skip off to the bathroom for five minutes partway through a meal -- I realize I paid $11.95 for this ridiculously small portion and have had only two bites, but I'd love it if you would throw it out for me. While you're at it, could you starve some Ethiopians too?"

One time it really annoyed me, Natasha and I were eating at TGI Friday's in North Brunswick, N.J., with her uncle. I left the table for two minutes. When I came back, my plate was gone, and with it half my order of french fries.

And I don't mean Natasha ate them, although she has been known to do that.

"Can I get you anything else?" our waitress asked about five minutes later.

"Yes," I wanted to snap. "I'd like you to give me back my food that you threw away."

Two things constrained me: first, the manners I learned as a child and the desire to make a good impression on my uncle-in-law, whom I just had met; and second, I really didn't want her to dig the fries out of the trash. God only knows what would have been on them.

So I bit my tongue and said nothing, and tightened my belt that night when I went home, to cover the hunger pains.

No more. I'm tired of being pushed around by high-schoolers and college students. I've decided to fight back. My inspiration for this, as in much else, is my beloved wife.

Back when she was pregnant with our daughter, Natasha was unstoppably ravenous. A waitress at some restaurant we were visiting noticed Natasha had paused eating for five seconds in order to respond to a comment I had made about a movie we had seen recently. The commando waitress swooped down on our table from wherever she had been hiding when I had wanted a refill on my Coke, and snatched up Niki's plate.

"Let me get rid of that for you," the waitress said pleasantly.

I never had seen Natasha move so quickly. Before I could say, "Halla banana o'wickle sticks," Natasha was out of the booth and running across the floor. She slammed into the poor woman, grabbed the plate with both hands and growled, "I'm not done with my potato yet!"

The rest of dinner passed without incident, but I noticed an animal-control van circling the restaurant when we left half an hour later.

On a recent Saturday, Natasha and I were having dinner at Jonathan's Cork in Tucson, Ariz. I won't explain why we were eating at such an upscale restaurant because that would unduly embarrass Ted and Michelle Kaseler, whose wedding rehearsal we just had come from.

I was about three-quarters of the way through my salad when my wife reported that our daughter had received and answered nature's call, and that I had to take the baby back to the men's room and change her diaper. (Now you understand my opening remark that restaurants should have changing stations in the men's rooms.)

As I stood up, baby in tow, I told my table companions, "Don't let him take my salad. I'm not done yet."

You can guess what was missing when I came back five minutes later.

I was annoyed, not just because "I'm not finished with my salad" had been translated into "He can take it away," but because I really am trying to eat healthier, and this commando waiter hadn't even checked with me first before he throw out what was left of my food. To add insult to injury, he didn't even refill my water.

So when he came back to deliver the main course, I told him about the mistake he had made and that I'd like it set to rights.

"Dave, just drop it," one dining partner urged me.

I didn't. I couldn't. It was the principle of the thing. If he had said my haircut makes me look like Jim Carrey, I could have ignored it. If he had crossed his eyes at me, pulled at the corners of his mouth with his index fingers, stuck out his tongue and said, "This is you," I could have ignored it.

But he hadn't done those things. He had thrown out perfectly good food that he had served to me, without speaking to me first. It was an honest mistake, but it still was a mistake.

I didn't grab the waiter and put him in a choke hold or force him to apologize. I didn't raise my voice or use inappropriate language. But I made my point, and I got a new salad.

And maybe if they see the dirty diaper in the wastebasket in the men's room, they'll realize how fortunate they were that we had taken a changing pad to the restaurant with us, and they'll decide they need a better changing station than the sink counter.

Friday, June 09, 2000

nothing saps the spirits like a summer cold

The worst part of having facial hair is all the mucus that gets caught in my mustache when I'm sick.

One hairy fellow I met back in 1992 complained that catching food there was the worst part of having a beard. With all due respect to Cookie and his greater number of years of experience with facial hair, I have to disagree. Aside from the slice of watermelon that was stuck there for three weeks after a picnic last summer, I've never once had food caught in my beard.

I wish it were the same for other items as well. But every time I've blown my nose the past three days, there have been not-so-subtle trails left behind, and when I've woken up in the morning, the hairs under my nose have been painfully stiff, like the spears of a tiny army on my upper lip, poised to strike the first enemy they encounter.

All that's stopped me from shaving it all off and being rid of the nuisance is the prospect of having to clean my electric razor afterward.

For the past few days I have been as sick as the proverbial dog. It's not as debilitating as the time I had amoebic dysentery, nor as painful as when I had dengue fever, but in the past three days I've coughed so much that my head feels like a tree that's gone two rounds with a lumberjack. My joints ache, my muscles are sore and even my toenails feel too tight.

Nothing saps the spirits like a summer cold. This one has left me ill-tempered, out of sorts and delirious. I've slept later and for longer hours, and even when I'm not asleep, I just lie around and generally am unproductive. (Once I figure out how all this differs from when I'm healthy, I'll let you know.)

And yet, despite the incongruity, I find that colds actually bring back some nice memories. When I was a child, my mother had a special knack for taking care of us when we were sick. Aside from the usual benefits of being sick - staying home from school, sleeping on the sofa and watching TV all day, and getting out of delivering our paper routes - my mother would say at least once a cold, "You know, you would feel a lot better if you could throw up that big glob of mucus in your stomach."

Something about those words gave them a measure of healing power. Mom would trot out her magic phrase, and in no time the sick person would rush to follow the prescribed treatment, along with anyone else who had been within earshot. To this day, whenever I get sick, I can still hear her saying those magic words.

Natasha of course has extended her wifely sympathies to me the past few days. Earlier today, after I had taken a shower, dressed and changed the baby's diaper, I announced I was going back to bed for a nap.

"What?" she said. "But you just woke up!"

It was less than an hour later that I saw how much she truly cared. The bowl of cereal I ate for breakfast proved to be too solid for my stomach to handle, and I found myself rushing to the bathroom to follow my mother's timeless advice.

I could read Natasha's thoughts like a book. "Poor Dave," she thought. "I can't stand to hear him suffer." And with that she closed the bathroom door and played a Steve Taylor CD as loudly as she could.

Of course, now I seem to be on the mend from my cold, while Natasha is just beginning her turn. Since I've had what she is getting, she has my full sympathies.

But at least she doesn't have a mustache.

Copyright 2000 by David Learn. Used with permission.