Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

Public And Private.

I just took that picture of flowers attached to a lamppost a few days ago but it’s not the first time I’ve seen flowers in that same spot. It’s near where my dentist is so I’ve seen flowers there before. I have a previous picture I took a year ago although, at the time, the flowers were looking a little shabby. They were plastic but still the elements had taken their toll. Why were they there, though? And this time they’d been freshened with a new more elegant cord wrapped around the lamppost. Someone’s keeping them up but who? It makes me sad to think this is probably a memorial, that someone died in that spot, or nearby, and someone who cared for that person, who loved them, is putting these flowers there as a tribute, and a way of dealing with their own grief.

And I don’t want to know who that person is. They’ve never left any information, nothing that says what happened. I sometimes see homemade roadside markers where people have been killed in accidents, and many of them have names. This one doesn’t and I respect that the person who made this memorial wishes to remain anonymous.

It reminded me of the “Poe Toaster”, a mysterious figure who, every year on January 19th, would leave roses and a bottle of cognac at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. The figure was first noticed in 1949, one hundred years after Poe’s death, and in 1999 a note left at the grave said the original person had passed away but that the tradition would continue.

The person, or persons, who took over, however, treated the tradition as a joke, making a Superbowl prediction in 2001 (which would be wrong) and a snide remark about the French in 2004 (Poe is more respected in France than the U.S., earning praise from none other than Charles Baudelaire, who’d also lead a turbulent and tragically short life). The Poe Toaster stopped appearing in 2010, which was a good thing. It was fitting–after all 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Poe’s birth–but also the torch should never have been passed. The person(s) who took over didn’t take the responsibility seriously and never should have carried on.

The tradition was revived by the Maryland Historical Society which held “auditions” in 2015, and while I think it’s nice that it’s being carried on it started as something deeply personal, meaningful in ways we’ll never know—in ways I don’t really want to know. A memorial may be in a public place but the privacy should still be respected.

Here’s the earlier picture of flowers in the same spot:

Not Over, But Easy.

Source: Pinterest

Every year on the day of Christmas Eve my wife has one wish: a dish of Eggs Benedict. It’s not named after either Benedict Arnold or the actor who played the Jeffersons’ British neighbor, although, in honor of the late and brilliant Norman Lear, I’ve been trying to think of one. It was on an episode of The Jeffersons that I first heard of Eggs Benedict—specifically “My Maid, Your Maid”, season eight, episode four. It just sounded very fancy and I was thrilled when I finally got to try it a few years later. That may be too tangential a connection, though. Eggs Benedict is allegedly named after a New Yorker named Lemuel Benedict who wandered into the Waldorf Hotel and asked for eggs, bacon, toast, and a shot of Hollandaise as a hangover cure.  Here’s the recipe I use for anyone who’d also like to give it a try. This recipe serves three, or six people if you’re serving it with a side dish, or one person if they’re really hungry and are trying to send their cholesterol level off the charts.

You will need:

  • About three billion eggs, or maybe only a dozen
  • A pound of butter (or two eight ounce sticks) at room temperature
  • Six tablespoons of lemon juice
  • Three English muffins (which are neither English nor muffins)
  • Canadian bacon (purely optional)
  • Wooden shoes

First halve and toast the English muffins. Classic Eggs Benedict calls for a slice of ham on the English muffin halves, but for some that may be too much. Tasty alternatives include slices of avocado or smoked salmon or nothing or whatever you want.

Poach six eggs. If you have an egg poacher you can use that. I’ve also poached the eggs by adding water and a small amount of vinegar to a shallow pan, but that’s tricky because you have to keep the water just below boiling. Place an egg on each of the English muffin halves.

You can now set this aside in a warm oven.

The Hollandaise sauce is the hard part, but it comes together quickly. Oh, wait, that’s why it’s hard. This ain’t a recipe you can walk away from. First separate the yolks from the whites or, to be more accurate, from the clears. It’s okay to leave some of the clear with the yolks. Since this version of Hollandaise sauce is basically a savory lemon custard–yes, you’re serving eggs over eggs–some albumen will help it hold together. 

Combine the egg yolks and the lemon juice in a pan over low heat.  

Add half the butter. Stir slowly.

Once the butter is melted continue stirring for about a minute then add the second half of the butter. Stir vigorously. At this point the eggs will start to cook and the sauce will thicken. This is when you have to work fast. Just after the butter is completely melted the sauce is culinary nitroglycerine. It won’t blow up but it is seriously unstable. Get it off the heat and evenly distribute it over the English muffin halves and poached eggs.

For some color sprinkle on a little paprika or some parsley or both for a seasonal red and green effect. In fact this is a recipe and those aren’t written in stone, so if you want to substitute actual muffins and Cadbury chocolate eggs go for it. Earlier this month I went out for brunch and had a version that substituted fried green tomatoes for the English muffins and skipped the Canadian bacon because it would have been too much. It was excellent, though.
Serve on hubcaps because there’s no plate like chrome for the Hollandaise.

The Secret Word.

Source: Dutch Toast

In high school I was in the Latin club—the Junior Classical League to those in the know. Like other clubs it had conventions, mostly on college campuses, where we took part in Latin and classical-themed competitions, including comedy sketches. Here’s a fun fact I learned in JCL: the famous Roman orator Cicero was nicknamed “Chickpea”, cicer in Latin, by his friends. There was also a kid in JCL named Jonas who could do an absolutely spot-on impersonation of Pee-Wee Herman. This gave his entire Latin class to put on a sketch called Chickpea-Wee’s Big Adventure Or Cicero Goes To Rome.

You might already know where this is going and if you do the story will sound familiar: Cicero’s special sedan-chair, sella in Latin, is stolen. He consults a soothsayer who tells him it’s in the basement of the Coliseum. He sets off for Rome, meeting a lot of weird and funny characters along the way, and although it turns out there is no basement in the Coliseum he still manages to find his sella and everything ends happily.

I’ve never forgotten that—it was one of the highlights of my time in JCL, even better than the time I won a prize for dressing up as Caligula, but that’s another story.

When I heard that Paul Reubens had died and all the tributes started I realized something about that JCL sketch, or, more specifically, about Jonas. He was a small kid for a high schooler—he might have even skipped a grade, or three, and he didn’t just do a Pee-Wee Herman impersonation. He looked a bit like Paul Reubens: same dark hair, which he kept cut short, even the same complexion and dark eyes. Watching him walk around the stage in a tunic—at one point he passed a road sign with markers all labeled “ROME” and he said, “I guess it’s true—all roads do lead to Rome!” and did a classic Pee-Wee laugh—it seemed like he really was Paul Reubens.

As a small, kind of odd kid—admittedly we were all odd in JCL—he might have been picked on but impersonating Pee-Wee Herman was a way he could fit in, even outside of Latin class. It made him cool.

Something I don’t think has been said in all the tributes is how much of an antidote Pee-Wee Herman was to the crass commercialism of children’s entertainment in the ‘80’s. Sure, you could buy Pee-Wee’s Playhouse toys and figures, but unlike He-Man, Transformers, or The Care-Bears, which were created just to sell toys, Pee-Wee Herman started out as a character for adults, appealed to children because he was childlike, and spanned generations because he encouraged everyone to be imaginative. And he gave kids like Jonas and, I’ll just say it, me, too, a way out of a world that at times felt pretty dark and cynical. He’s one of those standouts of what seemed like an oppressive time who didn’t just say, it’s okay to be weird. He made being weird cool.

Hail and farewell, Paul Reubens, and Jonas, wherever you are, I hope you’re doing well too.

The Game Master.

I have a painting that was made by three artists. All three signed it but I wish I had a fourth signature: that of the person responsible for making it happen. His name was Rembert Parker.

I’d been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by my friend John and, early in our freshman year of high school, he invited me to go to a weekend D&D convention with him in Evansville. His father drove us and when we got to the hotel John introduced me to Rembert—an older guy who was just a little taller than me, with lanky hair, round glasses, and a friendly smile. John had met Rembert at a previous convention and they’d become friends but then, as I quickly realized, Rembert was friends with everybody. In the few minutes we chatted at least two dozen people said “Hey Rembert!” as they passed by. Rembert was also one of the organizers of the convention, so it wasn’t just because of his outgoing nature that everyone knew him.

Then John and I got invited to join a D&D game and we went off to a hotel room with a group of strangers. The game was part one of a module, called something like Road To Verangia, that would be played over the weekend. At the end of it everyone would vote for the top three players who’d then advance to part two. Those who didn’t advance could find another game.

The next morning all the attendees gathered in one of the hotel conference rooms. Those who’d advanced—including my friend John—went off to play Road To Verangia part two. Alone and unsure what to do with myself I sat down at a table and was soon joined by a friendly group of strangers. We chatted a bit and then a guy came over and said, “All right, looks like everybody’s here. I’ll be your Dungeon Master today. Let’s start the game.”

“What’s this one called?” someone asked.

“It’s called Certain Death To Your Characters” the Dungeon Master laughed.

Oh, thank goodness, I thought. For a moment I’d been afraid it was going to be a repeat of the previous night’s game.

Character sheets were passed around. I looked down at mine and realized I’d been given the same cleric I’d played the night before. I panicked and looked around, but the room was empty. Not knowing what else to do I just played dumb, and stayed dumb, not using my knowledge of what was to come to my or anyone else’s advantage.

Later that day I’d go to lunch with John and his father and they’d talk about a guy who’d been in the previous night’s game and who’d tried to sneak in to a repeat of part one and how terrible it was that some people just couldn’t obey the rules.

“I won’t be surprised if Rembert kicks him out,” said John’s father.

“And he’ll never come back to a convention where Rembert’s in charge,” added John.

I chewed my chicken sandwich glumly, certain that my own crime would be uncovered, wondering if I should throw myself on Rembert’s mercy immediately. But I decided to keep playing dumb instead. And, somehow, over the whole weekend, it went undiscovered—or no one said anything if they noticed.

I went to a lot of conventions after that, most of them organized by Rembert. He and John were still friends but I kind of avoided him. He was a good guy and fun to talk to but, silly as it seemed even at the time, I still carried a slight air of guilt. Over time I just assumed he forgot who I was. Everybody knew Rembert but he couldn’t be expected to keep track of everyone.

Every convention had an art room and on Saturday night there’d be an art auction. I liked a lot of the paintings and would usually bid on one or two. After losing a bid on one someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. It was Rembert.

“Hey Chris, I noticed you liked that painting. I’ll talk to the artist and see if he’ll do one for you.”

This was surprisingly generous and, because Rembert was involved, a couple of other artists got interested and all three of them collaborated on the painting. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the names of all three artists, although they signed the back as well as putting their names on the front so I can always open the frame if I ever get it appraised.

I’ve never forgotten Rembert, though, so I was sad when John told me he’d passed away earlier this month.

I didn’t realize Rembert had a blog where he wrote mostly about old and mostly forgotten songs “that the radio seldom plays”. Here’s his last entry:

Sadly, I’ve been in the Hospital with Cancer for a few weeks.
I hope to return to daily posts within a few weeks!

Funny and optimistic to the end. When John and I talked I brought up the painting, and John, who still goes to gaming conventions regularly, said that the ones Rembert organized were small—at most there’d be about two hundred people, which made it easy for Rembert to know the artists, and everyone else, unlike modern gaming conventions that have thousands of attendees. There used to be a stereotype of D&D players as socially awkward loners, but the small conventions really showed how untrue that was. We all got to know each other, even if it was just in passing, although they were just big enough that some noob who’d never been to one before could accidentally play the same game twice and have their mistake be forgotten while they were remembered.

Hail and farewell, Rembert. You were, as Nat King Cole sang, unforgettable in every way.

Just A Poet.

Cowboy poet Baxter Black, on the right, with Baxter the Dalmatian, at a Nashville bookstore.

Way back in 1999 my wife and I brought home a new puppy and were trying to decide what to name him. She wanted something with a poetry theme and, well, there was only one poet we could think of with a name that would fit a Dalmatian. We named him Baxter, after Baxter Black, the cowboy poet, whose occasional commentaries on NPR always brightened up our morning drives. He’d be introduced as a “former large animal veterinarian” and my wife would always ask, “What’s a former large animal?”

E-mail was still a fairly new thing back then and we didn’t have a digital camera yet but we did take pictures of Baxter. My wife scanned one, found Baxter Black’s e-mail address, and sent him the picture. He replied with, “Makes me wanna ride a fire truck!”

Not long after that he came to Nashville on a book tour for A Cowful of Cowboy Poetry, and, with a bookstore manager’s permission, we brought Baxter in to meet Baxter. They both seemed to enjoy it.

We lost our Baxter a few years later to cancer—much too soon, although there’s never enough time with any dog.

As for Baxter Black, while it’s been a while since I’ve heard him on the radio, I pull up some of his recordings occasionally if I want to chuckle—his poem “The Oyster” always makes me laugh.

And when I heard that he passed away I needed a laugh.

Hail and farewell, Baxter Black. I hope you enjoy meeting Baxter again.