Friday, December 29, 2006

Of Dead Horses and Polish Rejects

I know Christmas has come and gone and everyone is getting ready to party like they’re in The Revolution, but I wanted to share the sights, the sounds, and the smells of A Very Brando Christmas. Specifically, Christmas Eve at my Grandma’s.

Every year, my family gets together at Grandma’s house in northwestern Indiana, or The NWI, as my brother Matt calls it. Grandma has lived in the same house for more than 40 years, and my family are all from The NWI. I was born there and spent many days of my formative years at Grandma’s, horsing around with my aunts and my uncle and promising not to tell on my Grandpa when he would pull out his hidden flask (he was a terrible alcoholic and an even worse hider).

Since then, my parents, my uncle, and one of my aunts have moved away, so Christmas Eve at Grandma’s serves as our yearly family reunion. And it's good Christmas only comes once a year, because that reunion almost kills us every time.

The first challenge is The Noise. Not “noise,” The Noise, a formidable alloy of bellowing, yelling, guffawing, and more bellowing...from children, from adults, and even from Grandma when said adults are acting like children. Having grown up with this, I've built up some immunity to its lethal effects, but poor TLB suffered through a rough acclimation period as we assimilated her into the family. One year, as she sat downstairs in the basement, there were four children standing around her like points on a compass, screaming. Why were they screaming? That would imply that there is a reason for The Noise. It just is.

Part of The Noise is The Dead Horse. Usually, there is some sort of joke that winds up getting brought out of the stable, run around in the yard, shot, dragged off to the Elmer’s factory, and made into paste. A couple years ago, it was this joke, courtesy of my sister, Erin:

Erin (sniffing): Does it...(sniffs again) does it smell like up dog in here?

Me: What’s up dog?

Erin: Nothing, G! (laughs)

That one-hit wonder got played more times than Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” to the point where I was ready to cut off my ears so I wouldn’t have to hear it again.

This year’s Dead Horse was, “Ma, meatloaf!” It’s a reference to Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers, and my Uncle Tim kept yelling it over and over again from the living room as various relatives brought us appetizers from the kitchen. It was funny the first 2.73 times we heard it, but its comedic radiation quickly decayed after we heard it 2.73273 times. It became so unfunny that it circumnavigated back to funny post-Christmas, as TLB now says it randomly to me around the house.

The appetizers that triggered this year's Dead Horse comprise another hallmark of Brando Family Christmas: The Pork. First, there is always ham. Why? Because in the Polish Bible, the Gospel of John starts with, “In the beginning, there was Ham.” It's like The Noise, with us since the beginning.

Then there is the garlic sausage, a gray, snaky meatsack with so much garlic, the next seven generations of my family will be immune to vampirism.

The best dish, however, is what my family calls “Polish Rejects.” I am not sure why they have that name, because they are never, ever, rejected by the Polish people who wolf them down at Grandma’s. Polish Rejects are ground pork sausage on small slices of rye toast, covered with Velveeta and baked in the oven. They look disgusting. They sound disgusting. But they taste so good that I’d trade gold, myrrh, and frankincense for a plate of them. I wish I had brought my camera because I would submit them to Delicious or Disgusting over at Three Bulls.

The Heat is the last and definitely most challenging foe at Grandma’s. Her house is not very big, and we usually have 15-20 people packed inside while the oven and stove are going full blast. No matter how cold it is, the kitchen and living room doors are usually propped open so that an Arctic gale can bring the inside temperature back down to 85 degrees. My siblings and I were even taking over/under bets on how hot it would get. In fact, as TLB and I drove up to the house, we saw my father, wearing a sweater, leaving.

Me: Dad, where are you going?

Dad: To buy a shirt that will let me stay in that house!

After all the Noise, Pork, and Heat comes the crowning climax: Santa. Everyone gathers in the much-cooler basement as adults relay reports of reindeer sightings to the kids. Someone in a Santa suit shows up and hands out presents from all the relatives. In recent years, I’ve usually been Santa. Until this year, I’ve used a suit Grandma has had since the Eisenhower administration, a costume that smelled like The Ghost of Christmas Past after too many Polish Rejects. But we had a new suit this year, one that smelled better but was also 110% hotter. I didn’t get my first ho ho ho out before I felt the sweat building up under the white wig.

We now only have two family members not explicitly in on the Brando-is-Santa secret: my nephew Zachary, whose analytical skills make him like Encyclopedia Brown on CSI; and my cousin Little Matthew (not to be confused with my brother, Big Drunk Matthew). As soon as I came down the stairs this year, Zachary immediately had me pegged. “You’re Uncle Brando!” he said, sitting right next to Little Matthew.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I replied, looking him in the eye. “Maybe Santa should take these toys back to the North Pole.” He clammed up after that, unwilling to trade getting lots of toys for being right. Like I said, he’s a smart cookie.

I passed out all the presents, often having to yell because The Noise doesn’t even stop for Santa. After I finished and changed back into Uncle Brando, we played a guys-vs-gals match of Taboo, with the game's buzzer making a very special contribution to The Noise.

Finally, the gals victorious, TLB and I said our goodbyes as we departed for her parents’ house north of Chicago, our ears still ringing with, “Ma, meatloaf!”

I hope everyone had a great holiday and I wish everyone a Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hello, Cleveland!

Brendan tagged me with a book-related meme last week, which I could not reply to because I was in Indiana, where there are no Internets. But now I'm back home in the 21st Century and can reply. Here are the rules:
  • Find the nearest book (I grabbed the nearest one last night)
  • Name the book: The Rough Guide to Heavy Metal (yes, this is on my nightstand, right next to my Book of Mormon and World's Greatest Dick Jokes)
  • The author: Essi Berelian, with a foreword by Bruce Dickinson (yes, the Bruce Dickinson)
  • Turn to page 123 find the fifth sentence
  • Copy the next three sentences:
[From the entry on Fear Factory]: "The early style was was coloured [how British!] with the crushing power of death metal, Herrera's drumming providing a stainless steel framework for Cazares' synapse-frazzling guitars and Bell's deathrattle vocals spitting out tortured sci-fi inflected lyrics which only occasionally ventured into clean and melodic realms. Crucially, the band were also experimenting with electronic flourishes and samples echoing industrial bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Minitstry and Godflesh; it was cold, clinical, and utterly mesmerizing in an all-senses-pummelled kind of way. Cazares handled bass duties in the studio but Andrew Shives was recruited for live work." [whew!]
  • Tag three more people: I've seen this one on a lot of blogs I read, so I'm going to stop the buck here. Besides, how can one follow The Rough Guide to Heavy Metal? It's so meme, it's like, how much more meme can it be? And the answer is, "None. None more meme."

Top Ten Wednesdays: How Did We Spend the Holidays With Our Families?

Special extended post-traumatic stress syndrome edition!

12) Won’t know until we read the police report

11) Drove from second stepdad’s house to first stepmom’s apartment to second stepmom’s condo and finally to first stepdad’s strip club

10) Put the “tongue” in “kissing cousins”

9) Shot eye out

8) Contemplated suicide until delusional, effeminate, homeless stranger convinced us our life was at least more wonderful than his.

7) Watched grandma show us her newest tattoo

6) Performed our traditional belched rendition of “O Holy Night”

5) Guarded apple pie from very excitable pubescent nephew

4) Started a pool to guess how long sister’s new boyfriend had been out on parole

3) Drowned brother in gravy boat after he showed up with our ex-wife

2) Still in the closet

1) As always, without pants

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Bush Holiday Newsletter

Dear Family and Friends,

Happy Holidays! Heh, heh, heh, just kidding. Merry Christmas. As I sit here writing this, I’m sipping some patented Bush Nog. One part eggnog, one quart of Knob Creek. Okay, I’m exaggerating, it doesn’t have any eggnog in it.

To say this year has driven me to drink would be an understatement. No, wait, an overstatement. Or maybe just a statement. I’m a decider, not a writer. Laura usually writes this thing but she’s laid up from her skin melodrama. So I’m taking pen to paper this year. Actually, plastic toothpick thing to this Blueberry gizmo.

What I found this year is that raising a democracy is like raising twin daughters. They can be sweet and loving and perfect to your face, then you turn your back and they get caught using a fake ID or blowing up a mosque. They say it won’t happen again and then blammo, they’re falling down all over the front page of The New York Times. Iraq, I mean. I think. These meta-fours make my head hurt.

The good news is the girls have been out of the news again. Mostly. Barbara got her purse stolen by some Mexicans from Argentina, but that’s much better than her stealing from them. Jenna hasn’t fallen on the floor or stuck her tongue out or gotten busted for coke. Just like the girls, I think Iraq will straighten out when she turns 20. That’s only 17 more years, and let me tell you, they fly by. Especially when you drink Bush Nog.

Speaking of drinking, we recently lost a dear member of the family, our good friend Rummy. I had to let him go the way I had to let booze go. They were both great in moderation. But too much clouded my judgment and made me think that blonde winking at me in the bar was Miss Texas or that an ice cream truck was a bioweapons lab. What I woke up next to didn’t look anything like what I went to bed with, so I had to swear to quit for good. Booze, I mean. No, wait, I mean Rummy. I think.

Rummy was even harder to quit than drinking. He understood me. When we had strategeric bombing meetings, he’d always say hard targets, just to make me laugh. Heh, heh, heh, it still works. He did a heck of a job.

I asked Dad how he was able to get in and out of Iraq so easily. He told me, “I learned very early on the severe consequences of pulling out too late. That’s how we ended up with Neil.” Wish he’d have told me that three years ago.

Speaking of unwanted bastards, the Democrats are giving us more trouble than ever. I can’t believe those losers won the election. That sucked. Sucked balls. I shouldn’t write that, but I don’t care. I hate those guys. It’s always illegal this and unconstitutional that. They looove their Constitution. They act like we should do exactly what it says, but I ask them: Do we walk around wearing wigs and those short pants? Do we write with bird feathers? Do we say things like “poppycock”? (I do wish we still said that, heh.) Then why do we pay so much attention to some 200-year old document written on weed? I’ve got to fight terror. I don’t have time to read laws, much less obey them.

That’s not good enough for them. They want me to do both. They say they want me to protect their freedom. I know because I read their NSA transcripts. I tell them, hey, we’re on the same page. When they ask how I know and I tell them, they start in with the unconstitutional mumbo jumbo again. How am I supposed to protect freedom if I don’t limit it? It’s like freedom’s an endangered species. Do you help it by letting it roam all over the damn place, or do you confine it until it’s ready to go back into the wild? I try and keep it safe and contained while the Democrats let out next to the interstate so it can go wherever it wants. Freedom, I mean. I think.

Sorry to be so negative. There were some bright spots this year. Dick (heh) didn’t kill anyone that I know of. Mom managed to go all year without having to talk about poor people. And Laura’s sensors detected her cancer before it reached her circuits. So Jesus was looking out for us.

The best part of all is that I’ve got another bottle of Bush Nog right here in the desk. So have yourself a Merry Christmas. That’s a Presidential Order.

Bestest Wishes,

President George W. Bush

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Top Ten Tuesdays: What Are We Finding in Our Christmas Stockings?

Special extended 12 days of Xmas edition!

12) Engagement ring from ex-fiancée with finger still attached.

11) Oranges, coal, and story from grandpa about how they got through the Depression by cooking Drifter a la Orange.

10) Copy of The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes with a pink slip bookmark.

9) A dirty Red Hot Chili Pepper.

8) Quote from the prophet Isaiah Thomas: “And a little child shall lead them to a 15-game suspension.”

7) Three pairs of emergency paparazzi panties from Paris.

6) A fake ID that doesn’t show us with our tiara.

5) Craigslist ad reading: “Jolly, mature, adventurous MWM seeks someone very naughty for more than milk and cookies. Must enjoy sleigh rides, bell jingling, and lap-sitting. No elves.”

4) Homemade jerky from Dr. Lecter.

3) Special advance copy of Chinese Democracy CD featuring 76 minutes of Axl refusing to sing.

2) Nintendo Wii that’s been pre-Cheeto stained.

1) A complete set of finished cabinet appointments from dad.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Now I'm making teh funny in my sleep

One of the reasons I begat Circle Jerk at the Square Dance is because I start making jokes the minute I wake up. My eyes pop open and, most mornings, the zingers start coming. I used to direct these toward a blurry-eyed TLB. The exchange usually went something like this:

Alarm rings.

Me: Hey, have you ever noticed that George Bush is like Spalding from Caddyshack? "I want a tax cut. No, I want a Supreme Court justice. No, I want a pro-American Democracy in the Middle East."

TLB: (looks at clock, looks at me, raises pillow, lowers pillow over my face)

Me: (muffled) Hey, what’s the deal with flannel sheets? Do all the other sheets look at them and go, “They’re so grunge”?

TLB: (applies more pressure)

The other night, I had a dream I was playing drums with my friend and Hold Steady compatriot, Bob Hillman. Bob is a musician, and he and I were playing some of his songs in a small club. In the dream, I flailed away, trying to be flashy but making a cacophonic racket that distracted from Bob’s very catchy tunes. Bob stopped playing and made a joke about my ineptitude, something like, “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s new.”

I slowed down and started playing a very simple beat, almost like a metronome. I leaned into my microphone and said, “Don’t worry, I’m just going to Meg White it back here.”

While certainly not my best line, it is the first time I have ever attempted a joke in my sleep. I’m not sure if I should be happy or very concerned. Especially if I start talking in my sleep...they might find me with a pillow over my face and TLB playing back the tape recorder to show it was justified.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Top Ten Tuesdays: What's Making Us Ill?

10) Too many Stoli Poloniums over isotopes

9) Taco Bell’s Stuffed Bathroom Burrito

8) Britney Spears’ new perfume, Trashy

7) McTehran Holocaust Whopper with extra Bile

6) Engaging in unprotected shuffleboard

5) Some bad Chile

4) Applying five second rule to Oreo we dropped in the petri dish

3) Kick to the head from Crazy Joe Devola that makes us say, “Yo Yo Macacca.”

2) Christina Aguilera ringtone that gave us syphilis

1) Nothing, according to our HMO

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Band I'd Have If I Had a Band

My number one career fantasy has always been “rock star.” It's one of my sillier fantasies, especially because I have no musical talent. But when I have a chance to daydream while listening to music—especially at the gym—I picture myself playing the music I’m listening to, rocking the socks off of packed stadiums.

When I’m sweating to the not-so-oldies, I often play The Hold Steady because they’re the kind of band I think would form. Their lead singer, Craig Finn, doesn’t sing so much as speak his lyrics. Perfect, because I can’t sing! His lyrics tend to obsess on teenage hijinks and Catholicism, as if he’s been reading my diary. And the band takes two of my very schizophrenic loves, 70s punk and 70s classic rock, and blends them into a great big margarita.

One of the disappointing things about Iowa City is that, for a big part of the Big 10, it gets surprising few big bands coming to town. It’s a real downer when Lawrence, Kansas, and Columbia, Missouri, look like indie rock Meccas compared to here. So when I found out The Hold Steady were coming to Iowa City last Thursday, my friend Bob Hillman and I jumped at the chance to see them.

Since the wheels of rock and roll move more smoothly when properly lubricated, Bob and I met up for a pre-show drink. I suggested the Deadwood, a dark lair that sports an “angry hour” each evening. Bob suggested the Dublin Underground because we could play darts, which gave it a strategic entertainment edge over the Deadwood. We downed our tasty pints and played some terrible darts before departing for the really big show.

The band was playing The Picador, a corn-fed CBGBs formerly called Gabe’s Oasis. Bob and I hadn’t been to the Picador since it had been “renovated” and renamed. Gabe’s was infamous for being a grungy shithole, especially for the men’s bathroom that sported only a trough. After casing the joint, we concluded that the renovations included a) putting in actual urinals and a sink in the men’s room and b) putting in a real unisex bathroom with a toilet and everything. The Picador: Now with 33% less piss on the floor!

The place was pretty full—we weren’t the only hipster doofuses to get excited about a real rock and roll band coming to town. We oiled up the wheels with some Miller High Life and assumed the position among the crowd. Then The Hold Steady came out and rocked us like a hurricane.

For starters, they looked and acted like a rock band. Their keyboard player, Franz Nicolay, sported a porkpie hat, red handkerchief in his jacket pocket, and a waxed mustache that said, “I’m classically trained…to rock!” The guitar player, Tad Kubler, swung his guitar around his chest in a move that would make ZZ Top’s beards curl. The bass player smoked while he played. And Craig Finn jumped all over the stage like an Elvis Costello who really needed to go to the can but worried that the Picador trough would give him hepatitis. For good measure, a bottle of Knob Creek made a few laps around the stage to help the band keep their wheels rolling.

Those wheels rolled at full speed almost the whole night. They came out gunning with, “Stuck Between Stations,” the opener from their new album. There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right, Finn sang. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Not this night, though. The boys and girls of Iowa City were having a hell of a time together, jumping up and down, singing, drinking, and loving every minute of it.

“It’s our first time playing Iowa City,” Finn told us, which elicited some whoops. “Before the show, we were drinking over at the Deadwood.” Doh! I missed my big chance to point across the room and say, “I think that’s The Hold Steady” while debating whether to go up and say hello until they left and I missed my big chance anyway.

The only real sin came from Kubler, the guitar player. He spent the first couple of songs giving instructions to the sound guy: turn up my monitor, add some more flux, wax the bass, sonicify my strumming. Blah, blah, blah. He also delivered some really bland stage banter that was like momentum speed bumps. It seemed like he was dying to write and sing his own songs but never gets the chance.

The Church of Rock forgives much, however, if you continue to rock, and Kubler overflowed the collection basket. At one point, he strapped on a red Gibson double neck, just like what Jimmy Page used to use. “Oh man, all is forgiven,” I said to Bob. “That washes away all his sins.” He continued to do his penance with fat riffs and strategically placed guitar solos. I could almost hear Robert Plant asking, Does anyone remember solos?

Their set flew buy until, with their last number, a crowd of about 20-30 audience members got on stage with them. I couldn’t tell if they were invited or they rushed, but The Hold Steady kept playing despite having no room to play. They thanked us and the PA announcer said ominously, “The show is over!”

As we left and headed out into the cold night, I thought about what Craig Finn said between one of the songs. “It’s a joy to do what we do and share it with you.” That’s probably what I liked about them the most. They drank and played and talked to the crowd and looked like they didn’t want to be anyplace else, not even a place with a great men’s room.

Now when I am trying to imagine I’m not having a heart attack at the gym, I’ve got a mental prototype for what my fantasy self should be doing.

(If you like the rock, you owe it to yourself to check out The Hold Steady, especially the new CD, Boys and Girls in America.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Top Ten Tuesdays: What changes are we making in Iraq?

10) Asking Paul Simon for a list of 50 exit strategies.

9) Approving takeover of security in Iraq by the ARVN.

8) Helping the Iraqi government stand on its own two feet by nailing it to its perch.

7) Repelling insurgent attacks with video montages of Britney Spears’ crotch set to K-Fed’s rap album.

6) Adding trans fats to hummus until terrorists are too fat to fight.

5) Creating terrifying clone army of flesh-eating John Bolton mustaches.

4) Asking, “TomTom, what's the best route out of this hellish quagmire?”

3) Encouraging Iraq to make peace with its neighbors by focusing on their common hatred of Israel.

2) Accelerating timetable for withdrawal from Iraq by calculating it in dog years.

1) Hiring O.J. to show us how he would end the war, if he'd started it.


Work and other knee-bent-running-around business have kept me away from blogging, but I hope to have the regular jerking resume this evening.