Archive for November, 2007

Hot Springs, cool town

Monday, November 26th, 2007

We’re back from our Ozark Adventure, having spent a nice relaxing week away from the hustle and bustle before the “holiday season” begins in earnest. Hot Springs is one of our favorite vacation spots; we’ve been making treks there for the past twenty years. For one thing, it’s fairly close at only about 250 miles away, which is a relatively painless four-hour drive. The main reason we like it, though, is for its incredible scenic beauty. Hot Springs sits right smack-dab in the middle of the part of Arkansas known as the “Diamond Lakes” region, which consists of Lakes DeGray, Hamilton, and Ouachita, plus a few other smaller bodies of water. Each lake has its own particular character. DeGray is a 13,800 acre Corps of Engineers project, thus commercial development is limited and the lake has a very natural feel. The primary recreational center is Lake DeGray State Park Resort, where we’ve stayed often. Wildlife abounds in the park, including winter nesting grounds for the American bald eagle. You can camp in the wild, stay in the park’s well-appointed lodge (with free Wi-Fi!) where you can dine in the restaurant and enjoy the massive stone fireplace, or even rent a Yurt for a different sort of outdoor experience.

Further north, spring-fed Lake Ouachita is another Corps lake; with 40,000 acres and 975 miles of shoreline, it’s the biggest lake in Arkansas. Also due to limited commercial development, the water is exceptionally pure, and the lake is rated by the EPA as the second-cleanest in the entire United States.

In contrast to the other two however, Lake Hamilton is a well-developed residential “city” lake with many homes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses along its shoreline, and this is where we went most often during the time we owned our boat. Some of our most enjoyable experiences involved dressing up in our fine duds, getting into the boat, putting over to a restaurant on the water where an attendant would greet us at the dock and valet-park the boat for us while we enjoyed a gourmet meal. Then afterwards, we would leisurely putt over to a nightclub on the other side of the lake where we would drop anchor just outside the marina and listen to the band for an hour or two before returning to our luxury lakeside accommodations. Good times.

Unfortunately, we no longer have the boat due to the increasing difficulty of maintaining it with my lung condition, not to mention the fact it was costing us an arm and a leg to operate it, especially when we only got to take it out a few times a year. (The photo shows me at the helm during happier times on Lake Ouachita.) As anyone who has ever owned a “boat” will surely tell you, the classic definition of the word is: (1) A small vessel for travel on water; (2) A bottomless pit, surrounded by water, into which you throw money; (3) Acronym used by boat owners for “Break Out Another Thousand”.

Still, even without the boat we love Hot Springs and try to get back there every now and then. Aside from the lakes, the downtown area is very quaint, with a turn-of-the-century art-deco sort of feel to it. The best example of this sort of architecture is the centrally-situated Arlington Hotel (where, again, we have often stayed) which has a colorful history. Back in the 30′s, it was a favorite hangout of Chicago mobsters like Al Capone, who was rumored to have his own private escape hatch installed in his suite at the Arlington in order to make a quick getaway from the law if needed.

After several fires and considerable neglect during the 50′s and 60′s, the hotel has been restored to its former splendor and looks today much as it did in the period postcard below:

Not seen in the photo, suspended into the mountain at the rear of the hotel, is a gigantic redwood hot tub in which we have spent many a drunken new year’s eve with a crowd of other revelers, the last time in 2000. The tub is fed by the thermal springs from which the town gets its name, alleged to have curative powers by the native Indians who frequented the spot long before the white man arrived. The custom of “taking the waters” to heal gout, ulcers, rheumatism and a variety of other disorders endured long thereafter, and beginning in the early 1900′s dozens of elaborate bathhouses sprang up along what is now Central Avenue, catering to throngs of health-seekers. These establishments, patterned after the ostentatious public baths of Roman times, were full of the latest equipment, pampering the bather in artful surroundings including marble and tile decorated floors, walls and partitions. Some rooms sported polished brass, murals, fountains, statues and stained glass.

Today, only two of these magnificent structures have survived. The Fordyce has been preserved by the National Park Service as a sort of museum of the historic grandeur of the times, featuring the furniture, steam cabinets, tubs, massage tables, chiropody tools, billiard table, grand piano, beauty parlor and hydrotherapy equipment prevalent in those days. And one other is in actual operation; at the Buckstaff Baths you can still get a ritual therapeutic bath and massage in the traditional manner. We’ve done it once, and it was an interesting experience to say the least — although I don’t think I’d care to do it again.

Finally, there’s the “Clinton Connection” which I hinted at in an earlier post. Without getting too political, I will just say that despite his personal shortcomings, I thought highly of Bill Clinton’s accomplishments during his term of office. As you may know, Hot Springs was his boyhood home, and during his presidency the town was simply beside itself in celebration. At one point during his tenure, Mrs. Toast’s sister and her husband (rabid Christian conservative Republicans who thought he was no less than the devil incarnate) accompanied us on a family lake vacation and we gave them a tour of the town, during which I took fiendish delight in pointing out All Things Clintonian: his former house, his former school, the parking lot where he got his first blow job, etc. I could see my sister-in-law getting progressively more agitated by this, until we finally pulled up in front of a souvenir shop and I offered to go in and buy her a Bill Clinton T-Shirt. At this point she could take no more, and blurted out that she wished I would because she needed something to clean her toilet with.

Another famous Clinton legacy in Hot Springs is McClard’s Bar-B-Q, home of some of the finest ribs and sauce in the entire nation. These culinary delights were a favorite of Bill’s for many years, and when he was governor, he would occasionally sneak down to Hot Springs from Little Rock in the middle of the night at which time the owners would open the place and cook up a batch of beef and pork especially for him. He also stopped by on several occasions during his presidency, and favored one particular booth near the middle of the restaurant. During one of our visits there a few years ago, “The Clinton Table” was available and I am excited to report that my ass was parked in the exact same spot that formerly had been occupied by the ass of the 42nd President of the United States of America. (There’s a Monica Lewinsky joke there somewhere, but I’m not going to touch it.) This time, however, we sat next to the window and chatted up our waitress who regaled us with several Clinton stories. It seems that whenever he came in as president, there were at least a dozen secret service personnel who surrounded him at all times to not only shield him from any potential drive-by shooting through the large plate-glass windows, but to give him some privacy while he ate. Apparently, many people wanted to come up to him to say hello and shake his hand. On one occasion there was a woman (not a fan, much like my sister-in-law) who was determined not to just meet Mr. Clinton, but to also confront him about some issue or another. When a secret service agent tried to keep her away, she jabbed him with her elbow in an attempt to push past him. This was Not A Good Move on her part to say the least — you do not want to fuck with the secret service — and resulted in some momentary chaos during which Clinton was whisked out of the restaurant and the woman was arrested. Our waitress also recounted that every time the president came in, ten to twelve large bags of food would disappear out the door to a group of people whom she never, ever saw. Presumably, these were secret service agents staked out on the rooftops of nearby buildings.

As you can see by the photo to your right, I thoroughly enjoyed our meal there last week, and we bought several bottles of sauce to bring back for Christmas presents. One of them will no doubt go to my sister-in-law.

Stage two, in which, amazingly, I manage to not saw off a finger

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

The Great Cornhole Set Construction continues in the Toasted Woodshop, with much visible progress to report today. I was able to cut up the 1×4′s without losing any of my digits (no small accomplishment, if you’ve ever seen me at work) and then glue and pin the frames together as in the pictures below:


Once the play board is attached to the frame, I will have what is known as a set of “naked” (i.e., unfinished) targets, very much like you see here:


Even in their present raw condition, these boards might fetch $60-80 on eBay or Craigslist, plus perhaps another $50 or so to ship them. Of course, the real value comes in the finishing touches, which is to say the quality and artistry of the paint job. Some of these can be extremely elaborate, such as these or this one. This is one reason why the sport fascinates me so much in addition to the simple gamesmanship of it; I love how people express their creativity by giving their homemade boards real personality. College and major league sports logos are also a popular theme, not just in board design but in the bags as well, such as these for example.

However, as my artistic ability is rather limited, I’m going to opt instead for a simple two-color geometric design, with perhaps a pinstripe if I’m feeling especially bold by the time we get to that point. They won’t be fancy, but I still think they’re going to look nice.

You know, it just occurred to me that since I seem to be getting a lot of blog mileage out of these Cornhole posts, maybe I should have signed up for NaBloPoMo again this year after all. At this rate, there’s at least another half-dozen photos I could still take and post yet. Or maybe not, as I’m sure many of you would get sick of reading about it and find other sites for your regular dose of sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek humor. But more importantly, my big project will be on hiatus for the rest of the week as Mrs. Toast and I want to get out of town for Thanksgiving, and we have decided to spend the holiday in … Arkansas.

Yes, I hear you: “Arkansas?”, you ask, somewhat incredulously. “You must be kidding. Why Arkansas?”

To which I say: “why the hell not?”

It has nothing to do with family; neither of us have any relatives there. Neither is there any job-related reason for us to visit the Natural State, nor does it involve Bill and/or Hillary Clinton in any way. Wait a moment, come to think of it, there actually is sort of a very loose connection to Bill…

But, we leave in the morning, and I’ll tell you all about it after we get there and settle in to our digs. Don’t you just love a cliffhanger?

I am dangerous with power tools

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

After my recent post about America’s fastest up-and-coming sport of Cornhole, it occurred to me that a game set might make a fun holiday gift for the in-laws, who love family sports and have lots of yard space for play. However, a complete set runs about $200 from one of the many suppliers on the ‘net, including hefty delivery costs due to the size and weight of the boards. Therefore, I’ve decided to build my own targets and buy just the bags ready-made, as I do have some rudimentary carpentry abilities but both myself and Mrs. Toast are seriously challenged when it comes to sewing. Sorry, that’s just how we roll, people.

But I got started on the project this evening, and let me share with you a photo of the first stage of construction which involved cutting the 6″ holes in each of the two 2′ x 4′ targets:


Since I don’t own a circle-cutting saw, I had to draw the hole using a compass and then attempt to cut around the mark using a garden-variety jig saw as you see above. Now, if you’ve ever tried to do this, you know that cutting a perfectly round hole using this technique is next to impossible, and although I got it pretty darn close, it was still just a skosh lopsided. However, I am rehearsing a little speech for when we present the gift on Christmas morning which goes something like this:

“On close inspection you will notice what at first may appear to be minor imperfections in the construction of this item, such as holes that are, while generally ‘circular’ in shape, not quite exactly, in the purely mathematical use of the word, ’round’. I would ask you to consider these not as flaws, per se, but as one-of-a-kind personal touches by the craftsman which make each piece an individual and unique work of art.”

Right.

However, we do have one minor dilemma in that the recipient of this gift is a fine, upstanding, highly conservative Christian family with two young children. Therefore, to not offend their delicate sensibilities and permanently warp the minds of the young ‘uns, the name “Cornhole” must become The Word Never To Be Spoken. We will refer to it as “Corn Toss”, “Baggo” or something equally innocuous; hopefully I won’t accidentally let it slip out at some point in my enthusiasm for the game. Of course, there is no doubt in my mind that eventually they will learn the true nature of their holiday gift, perhaps when Dad is describing it to a co-worker who then blurts out, “Oh yeah, you mean they gave you a Cornhole set. Cool!”, or whatever. It’s only a matter of time, really, and if the children become sullen, drop out of Sunday School, start smoking crack and turn to a life of crime as a result of hearing the Forbidden Word, let me publicly say that it won’t be our fault.

No matter what it’s called though, I think they’ll appreciate that it’s not so much the object itself as it is the time, effort, and affection that I’m putting into building this by hand for them, especially because they know that the physical activity required for me to do so is slightly difficult due to my lung condition. But as the old saying goes, it really is the thought that counts.

Even more exciting, I hereby invite you, dear reader, to follow along with me over the next few weeks as I document here on the blog the various stages of construction complete with photos. Yes, observe this labor of love as it unfolds before your very eyes! Watch and marvel as mere plywood, nails, paint and polycrilic are magically transformed into a thing of wonder and delight! A thing of beauty to behold! A thing called Cornho…

I mean … Toss. Corn Toss.

OK, this may be tougher than I thought.

News Bulletin

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Washington, DC — Congress today announced that the office of President of the United States of America will be one of numerous jobs outsourced to India as of January 1, 2008. The move is being made in order to save the President’s $500,000 yearly salary, as well as a record $521 Billion in deficit expenditures and related overhead that his office has incurred during the last 5 years. “We believe this is a wise financial move. The cost savings are huge,” stated Congressman Thomas Reynolds (R-WA). “We cannot remain competitive on the world stage with the current level of cash outlay,” Reynolds noted.

Mr. Bush was informed by e-mail this morning of his termination. Preparations for the job move have been underway for some time.

Gurvinder Singh of Indus Teleservices, Mumbai, India will assume the office of President as of the new year. Mr. Singh was born in the United States while his Indian parents were vacationing at Niagara Falls, NY, thus making him eligible for the position. He will receive a salary of $320 (USD) a month, but no health coverage or other benefits.

It is believed that Mr. Singh will be able to handle his job responsibilities without a support staff. Due to the time difference between the US and India, he will be working primarily at night. “Working nights will allow me to keep my day job at the Dell Computer call center,” stated Mr. Singh in an exclusive interview with The Toasted Times. “I am excited about this position. I always hoped I would be President.” A Congressional spokesperson noted that while Mr. Singh may not be fully aware of all the issues involved in the office of President, this should not be a problem as President Bush had never been familiar with the issues either.

Mr. Singh will rely upon a script tree that will enable him to respond effectively to most topics without having to understand the underlying issue at all. Using these canned responses, he can address common presidential matters. “We know these scripting tools work,” stated the spokesperson. “President Bush has used them successfully for years, with the result that some people actually thought he knew what he was talking about.”

Bush will receive health coverage, expenses, and salary until his final day of employment. Following a two-week waiting period, he will be eligible for $140 a week unemployment for 13 weeks. Unfortunately he will not be eligible for Medicaid, as his unemployment benefits will exceed the allowed limit. Mr. Bush has been provided with the outplacement services of Manpower, Inc. to help him write a resume and prepare for his upcoming job transition. According to Manpower, Mr. Bush may have difficulties in securing a new position due to a lack of any successful work experience during his lifetime. A greeter position at Wal-Mart was suggested due to Bush’s extensive experience at shaking hands.

Battle of the bands?

Monday, November 12th, 2007

I’ve been listening to a couple of new albums recently, and it’s been an interesting contrast. I’m going to include samples of each in this post so you can judge for yourself.

First out of the gate, we have the woman known (for better or worse) as the World’s Most Famous Pop Tart, Ms. Britney Spears, with her new CD “Blackout”. For reasons which I fail to comprehend, this album shot to the #1 position on the pop charts from the moment of its release two weeks ago. Of course, interest in the album was no doubt piqued by Brit’s extremely bizarre public behavior over the last year or so, and many people perhaps bought it out of curiosity. However, some folks actually kind of like it, and since this blog faithfully follows social and pop culture trends (hah!), I decided to listen to the album for myself to see what the hoopla was all about. It’s a fact that early in her career Britney was something of a legitimate sensation; so has she still “got it”, musically speaking?

The answer, at least according to my ears, is not just “no”, but “hell no”.

Her music (and I use the term loosely) consists of white trash wannabe hip-hop/rap/crunk that, according to one reviewer, sounds like “what you would expect to hear if a plastic blow-up sex doll could sing.” Says another:

“Britney’s had a lot of drama, so naturally, it’s time to make a new album, right? And what better title than, say, “Blackout,” which doesn’t evoke her substance-fueled club binges at all? At any rate, “Blackout” (Jive) is her fifth and most hilarious record, thanks largely to the contrast between the often-brilliant musical production and Spears’ steadfast insistence on taking herself seriously and expecting you will, too on songs called “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” “Freakshow” and “Why Should I Be Sad?” Oh, no reason. It’s as if a beautiful Vaudevillian theater is collapsing around her and she refuses to leave the stage.”

In virtually every track she expresses a minor variation of the following theme: “I am Britney, bitch, the hottest, most sexy-licious woman ever to walk the planet. Girls all wish they could be like me. Guys all want to make it with me, and if you’re lucky I might choose one of you to donate your bodily fluids so I can make yet another baby, which some asshat judge will most likely take away from me. Whatever.”

If only I were making this up.

Mind you, Britney does not so much sing these lyrics as she coos, moans, groans, and giggles them. In fact, the 12 tracks on “Blackout” are so mind-numbingly similar that I decided to dust off my old radio production skills and edit them together for your listening pleasure. That’s right folks, there’s no need to go out and spend your hard-earned cash: you can hear the entire album condensed down to a mere four minutes right here! Plus, as an extra added bonus I even threw in a couple of “oldies but goodies” in places where they seemed especially appropriate in the mash-up. Note: you might want to listen with a good set of headphones, in order to pick up the subtle nuances of Ms. Spear’s delicate vocal stylings. Seriously. It’s pretty hard to figure out what the hell she’s saying otherwise. Check it out:

And then on the other hand, we have probably the greatest American rock band ever, The Eagles. To be fair, their new album has also received mixed reviews since its release last week, but nevertheless, compared to Britney this is not unlike being offered two glasses: one containing a 2003 Ch√Ęteau L√©oville St.-Julien Bordeaux and the other containing liquefied industrial waste, and being asked to choose which you’d rather drink. The eagerly-anticipated “Long Road Out of Eden” — a two-disk CD set, no less — is their first studio album since 1979′s “The Long Run”, yet listening to the tracks, it’s hard to believe that nearly thirty years has elapsed; to me, the music sounds as fresh, intense, and enjoyable as ever. It’s filled with their trademark soaring harmonies and guitar-fueled rockers, and many of the lyrics crackle with resident cynic Don Henley’s environmental sensitivity. Consider, for example, the first cut on CD1 entitled “No More Walks In The Woods”:

Makes you want to just go out and hug a tree, don’t it? The album gets even better from there on out; the first disk features more of their goosebump-inducing harmonies, while the second disk cuts loose with kick-ass country rockers that invoke memories of songs like “Life In The Fast Lane”, “Already Gone”, and “Heartache Tonight”.

Admittedly, there’s a few misfires. Henly’s preachiness, while of noble intent, begins to wears thin when you consider that the album is being sold in an exclusive marketing deal with Wal-Mart — which makes the line “we worship at the marketplace while common sense is going out of style” in “Business As Usual” ring a bit hollow. I would be way more impressed if the band had bypassed the record company/retailer conglomerate and sold the disk solely from their web site, but I guess it must be pretty difficult to be that eglatarian (pun intended) when mega-corporations are throwing huge bags of cash at you. Also, in dishing up two CD’s worth of material the band included a few songs (the too-long “Waiting In The Weeds” and the vaguely creepy “I Love To Watch A Woman Dance”, for example) that might not have made the cut had they been going for a really excellent single disk.

But The Eagles vs. Britney? The musical styles are so different that it’s really impossible to compare them; Henley, Frey, & Co. are pretty damn good even if they don’t quite reach the level of brilliance I’d hoped for, and Brit’s well-produced album might not be so bad if only she didn’t sing on it. Unfortunately, she does.

I’d rather have the Bordeaux, thank you.

The Legend of Nablopomo

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

A lot of my blogger friends have been very prolific recently, having decided to write an entry in their online journals every single day for the next month. I am very happy for them, and look forward to reading their posts with great anticipation. Last year I participated in the blogging frenzy myself, but after much reflection and gnashing of teeth, I have decided not to join in again this year. For one thing, my output lately has been pathetic — only a paltry few posts during the month of October, and this is the first one for November — so I have very little faith in my ability to come up with a post each day this month. And even if I did, they would be truly horrible. To give you a perfect example of this, a friend in the UK (whom I refer to as “The Madman Across The Water”) recently sent me a spot of British Humour (hah!) that goes like this:

“Council tax re-valuers want to charge us more if we live in a nice area. So, that ought to mean discounts for those of us who live in rough areas. We have a huge council house at the end of our street. The extended family who live there is run by a grumpy old woman with a pack of fierce dogs. Her car isn’t taxed or insured, and doesn’t even have a number plate, but the police still do nothing. Her bad tempered old man is famous for upsetting foreigners with his racist comments. A shopkeeper blames him for ordering the murder of his son and his son’s girlfriend, but nothing has been proved yet. All the kids have broken marriages except the youngest, who everyone thought was gay. Two grandsons are meant to be in the Army but are always seen out in nightclubs. The family’s odd antics are always in the papers. They are out of control. I mean, honestly – who would want to live near Windsor Castle?”

Now keep in mind that had I been participating in the Big Blog-athon this month, that bit of piffle you just read above would have taken up an entire post, people. Worse yet, since groaning about Nablopomo is one of the most popular topics to write about during Nablopomo, there would be at the very least several entries expressing the general theme “I have nothing to write about, but I’m posting anyway”, as I did ad nauseum last year. I might even be reduced to posting full-color photos of my big toe. There would be a great hue and cry in the comments of “For the love of God, someone stop him before he posts again!”

No my friends, it would not be pretty, and you should thank me for not writing every day. I am doing you a favor, honestly.

However, since Nablopomo is a hot topic in the Blogosphere right now and thousands of people are participating, I thought I would write at least one post about it as there seems to be a lot of confusion about what “Nablopomo” means and how it got started. While many people think it stands for “National Blog Posting Month”, I know the true story.

In reality, NaBloPoMo was the name of the wise chief of a small, relatively obscure group of Indians who lived in upstate New York in the early 1800′s. NaBloPoMo of The PoCoNos, as he was known, was different from most other Indians of his day who were warlike and uncommunicative; instead, Nablopomo was well-educated and had traveled extensively, and taught his people advanced language skills which they would use in creative, often sarcastically humorous ways.

One day in the late fall of 1807, the Pocono Tribal Council had gathered for one of their big pow-wows. There was an exchange that went something like this:

Indian #1: “All hail Nablopomo, our wise and well-educated Chief!”

Rest of Indians (in unison): “Huzzah!”

Nablopomo: “Thank you my brothers.”

Indian #2: “Tell us, oh wise Nablopomo. The sun sinks low in the sky and the days are becoming short. Our people are bored and restless and in need of an activity which will bring them together in peace and harmony. What shall we do?”

Nablopomo: “I have a vision. I want all the tribe to go into the forest and gather tree bark and berries. We will grind up the tree bark with water, pound it into a paste and press it into thin sheets. After it dries into parchment, we will mix the berry juice with animal tallow and make it into ink. Then, every day for a month, we will use chicken feathers dipped in this ink to record every detail of our lives. We will write down all of our thoughts about every thing that happens to us or anyone we know, and then attach these writings to the log of a big tree in the center of camp. Each day, the tribe will gather at this big log, or “b’log” as I will call it for short, to read these writings.”

(Indians look confused and murmur nervously amongst themselves. Finally one speaks up.)

Indian #3: “But Nablopomo, the cold of winter approaches and this is surely much work and effort to do these things you ask. How will it benefit the tribe?”

Nablopomo: “We will all feel really good about ourselves and have a great sense of accomplishment.”

(Silence.)

Nablopomo: “And maybe we’ll bake cookies.”

Rest of Indians (in unison): “Huzzah!”

Nablopomo: “Hey, don’t bogart that peace pipe.”

And so it came to pass that every day for the next month, Nablopomo and his tribe indeed wrote down everything that crossed their minds, and posted their thoughts on the big log for all to see. They posted recipes for pemmican and caribou, and drew pictures of their family and pets.

There was also much gossip about members of other tribes. For example, among the nearby Buffalo-Spear clan was a young squaw who was said to have been able to calm savage beasts with her lovely singing voice, and mesmerize young braves with her lithe movements. But then her singing became mostly just grunts and moans, and when she tried to dance she stumbled about clumsily and nearly fell over. She began wearing skimpy buckskin outfits and staying up all night. Finally, tribal elders were forced to take her two young papooses away from her. It was just embarrassing, really, but for some reason all the tribes were fascinated by her erratic actions and wanted to write about them.

We know about all of this today because the writings of Nablopomo and The Poconos are all that survived of the tribe. Sadly, because they were so busy making parchment and ink, and writing and posting for the entire month, they neglected to gather food and supplies or to insulate their teepees in advance of the rapidly approaching harsh winter, and the entire tribe perished of cold and starvation during a terrible blizzard in early 1808.

There is a great lesson to be learned here, and that lesson is this: “Nablopomo and The Poconos” would make a excellent name for a rock and roll band.