Friday, October 29, 2010

Don't Break the Wall

He looked like he could grace the label of an old bottle of Castor Oil, or someone who would be the owner of a vintage bicycle, the one with the huge front-wheel and the tiny wheel in the rear.  His handle-bar mustache was like something from a by-gone era, when men attended baseball games in suit, tie, and straw hat.  "Look at that," I said to Donna, "we haven't been in New Orleans even 15 minutes and already we're running into funky-looking characters."

We stood in line at the desk marked "Concierge", at one of the large chain-hotels in downtown New Orleans.  I won't say what hotel it was, because I'm not sure of the legal ramifications of verbally decimating a popular name on the Internet.  But nothing negative was going through my mind, yet, as we waited our turn to ask a couple of important questions of this quirky-looking uniformed gentleman behind the desk.

After spending the summer watching Treme on HBO, we both felt an urge to visit the Crescent City.  It had more than 20 years since I'd last seen New Orleans, in town for a convention, when I was a school administrator in Cleveland.  It had probably been as long for Donna, as well.  Coincidentally, the Browns were also playing the Saints, and since we really hadn't planned a vacation this year, we decided to make it a long weekend.  Donna had one requirement:  lots of beignets.  I had two:  consume authentic gumbo, and, of course, find some quality beer.  And we both wanted to see some of the damage that Katrina had left in her wake.

So, we waited in line to ask this concierge with the handle-bar mustache for some much-needed directions to a proper New Orleans eatery, preferably one with a generous beer-list.  Handle-Bar Mustache-Man, though, was not in a good mood.  He didn't look happy to be there.  In fact, he didn't look happy to be alive.  He tossed maps at people like he was dealing cards, with all the enthusiasm of someone handing over their co-pay during a doctor's visit.  As I peered down at the map, I recalled seeing, on the way in from the airport, what I thought was a Gordon Biersch brewery nearby.  "Are there any brewpubs around?", I asked.  He looked at me like I was Katrina.

"There's Gordon Biersch, right down on the next block," he replied.  His accent was decidedly un-Southern.

"Yeah, " I said, "I saw that coming in.  Have you ever been --"

"Don't know," he interrupted.  "I don't do chain-places."

I nodded.  "Yeah, me either," I said.  He glared at me again.  "Then why would you ask about it?"

Great.  A full-frontal display of Southern hospitality.  We picked up our map and headed down the street.  After waking up at the crack of dawn, sitting through an almost five-hour layover in Milwaukee, a traffic-snarled ride in from the New Orleans airport encased in a shuttle-van like illegal stowaways on a cargo ship, and now trading barbs with Louisiana's State Ambassador for Friendliness, I was ready for anything that even resembled fermented barley.

Our two-and-a-half days in New Orleans confirmed several things that I had already suspected:

1.  The boarded-up houses and destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward looked every bit as bad as it did on television.
2.  Gumbo is amazing pretty much wherever you get it.
3.  Being able to carry an open-container while walking down the street should be allowed in every city in the U.S., at least by the ones I visit.
4.  Being in a dome is really loud, until the visiting team gains 85 yards on a fake-punt.
5.  There are certain people who have absolutely no business working with the general public.

I would not hesitate to say that New Orleans, in many ways, is probably unlike any other city in the United States.  Whether it's the music, the cuisine, the quirky characters, the humidity, or a combination of them all, I don't know of another city that similarly celebrates gluttony and open public intoxication.  But there's one common thread that seems to be prevalent in just about every place I've lived or visited, and it was abundantly evident this past weekend:  some people simply dislike their jobs, and they're determined to foist their dismay, in copious amounts, on to any person with whom they come in to contact.

When I was involved in some community theater, back in the era when actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Debra Winger were drawing customers to the box-office, I was once a part of a play where we "broke the 4th wall".  I'm not sure of its origin, but this technique, for it's time, was quite revolutionary.  Instead of "forgetting" that the audience was there, the technique allowed the actors to address the crowd if need be, to include them in the production, acknowledge their existence in order to alleviate the normal, agreed-upon barriers that would otherwise separate them.

In "customer service", this "4th wall" is broken all the time.  And I hate it.

I've spent time working with the public.  My first job was at Lemmons Market, a family-owned grocery store down the street from where I was raised.  I was a bag-boy, a person who packed grocery bags and then carried those bags to customers' cars.  My primary boss at that time was Rick Miller, a short, somewhat-rotund man with flaming red hair and a high-pitched voice.  He walked quickly and loudly, usually while whistling, and you could easily detect him coming around the corner if you were stacking cans or filling the dairy-case.  He would routinely ask, "What's goin' on?", but he would say it quickly, not really interested in your answer, but more as a preamble for what he was about to ask you to do or to correct something you hadn't done properly.

Sometimes, while placing items into the paper sacks, the bag-boys would talk amongst each other, about what they were going to do that weekend, about the Browns, or about other bag-boys.  One Saturday afternoon, Bob Watts and I were doing this during a busy rush of customers, and a whistling Rick Miller came around the corner after having stocked some fresh lettuce in the produce-case.  He dropped his empty box near the pop-coolers, blurted "What's goin' on", and then said, "Matt....Bob....c'mere".  We stopped what we were doing and he led us around the corner, near the stacked bags of water-softener pellets. "Listen," he said, pointing a finger, "while you're in front of customers, I don't want to hear you jabbering with each other.  These fucking people don't care what you think, don't wanna know what you're going to do later.  They just want their fucking groceries put in their fucking bags.  If they talk to you, you answer them politely, and then get on with your fucking job.  Got it?"  Rick also liked using the word "fuck".  A lot.

In other word, quit breaking the fucking 4th wall.

Same thing later at Pancho's.  To supplement my meager teacher's wages, I became a bartender on nights and weekends at a local Mexican restaurant.  Trevor was the assistant manager, and was usually in-charge when I worked.  Most of the staff and waitresses didn't like him, but I did.  He was a former military veteran, very precise in his organizational skills.  He called everyone "buddy", even the women.  He moved quickly and smiled a great deal.  He would approach a busboy, for instance, face him, place his hands on his shoulders, and say, "Steve, I want you to go back to the kitchen and ask Carlos to get Gretchen two of the large silver serving platters.  We have an 8-top coming in and we need to be ready.  Do you understand?"  Steve would nod, sheepishly, and then Trevor would ask him, "How do you feel about that?"  Most new employees would look at Trevor as if he spoke to them in Urdu, but Steve knew to say, "I'm fine with that", or "Sure, good", to which Trevor would forcefully pat him on the shoulder and, almost screaming, respond, "Great!"

It was slow one weekday evening and few customers were at the bar.  I had a particularly grueling day in the classroom earlier, and didn't really want to be slinging frozen margaritas until 11 o'clock in the evening.  A man in a suit plopped down on a bar-stool, tossed his keys and wallet on the bar, and ordered a margarita, asking me, "How you doin' tonight?"  I was already filling his glass up. "I'll be better once I get out of here tonight!"

Trevor heard me.  "Hey, buddy," he whispers, pulling me in to a corner behind the bar.  "If you're not having a good day, don't let customers know that, ok?  They're here to escape their troubles, so they don't need to hear any more complaining from the bartender.  Right?"  I nodded, embarrassed.  He dropped his hands on top of my shoulders.  "How do you feel about that?"  I tried to avert his gaze, but couldn't.  "No, you're right," I replied.  "No problem."  He pounded the top of my shoulder. "Great!"

The "Trevors" and "Rick Millers" of the world must have been downsized.  "Breaking the 4th Wall" is rampant, out of control, and, sometimes, infuriating. And, like beads, was all over the place in New Orleans.

Two girls whined about their boss directly in front of us at a Starbucks in the French Quarter.  While retrieving Donna's hot chocolate, one girl even said, "He's effed-up if he thinks I'm working Sunday!".  The two bartenders at Crescent City Brewing, instead of welcoming tourists to their restaurant or reeling off the list of seasonal brews available, continually wandered over to the coffee-pot area, commiserating with a waiter about something that each was upset about, one frantically waving his arms as if guiding a jet-liner into its space at an airport-gate.  Later, while shopping for some aspirin, the woman running the register at the drug store on Canal St. wanted nothing to do with out-of-town northerners, especially somewhat-intoxicated ones looking for aspirin.  The guy behind me sensed her delight, as well, playfully chiding her when it was his turn to pay for his item.  "You having a good night, hon?", to which she replied, "Yep, as soon as I get out of here".

The worst examples, though, occurred at our hotel.  Donna made an interesting point, that many Saints fans and New Orleans residents seemed fairly appreciative of the fact that we'd come to visit their city.  Even after the Browns stomped all over Drew Brees and the world champions, Saints fans, outside of the Superdome, continued to smile and show their gratitude, saying things like, "Ya'all played a great game" and "Appreciate ya comin' down to visit us".  Aside from clerks and bartenders, the people of New Orleans were wonderful hosts.

The only people who were not wonderful hosts were the ones who operated and worked for the hotel.  They were awful.  The "4th Wall" was obliterated hourly. so it seemed.  My inquiry at the Front Desk about printing off a boarding pass for our return-flight elicited a kind of grunting noise from the gentleman behind the counter.  He didn't really respond, instead pointed at the computer-terminal as if to say "this machine will do everything for you, you piece-of-shit.  Now leave me the fuck alone".

But the worst display came at the Concierge desk, after the Browns-Saints game.  As we were entering the lobby to go up to our room, a woman in front of us, dressed completely in brown-and-orange and carrying at least 7 plastic cups, that once held Superdome beer, was giddy over our triumph.  So much so that she made up her own chant: "We 'dat, we 'dat, we 'dat team dat beat dose Saints!"  As we went through the doors, she walked past the Concierge desk and continued to chant, loudly, and then annoyingly cackled after each verse.  Well, Handle-Bar Mustache-Man was there, along with another female-assistant.  They did not take kindly to this chant.  Instead of nodding, smiling, and leaving the "4th Wall" intact, they both decided to take a sledge-hammer and pound the living shit out of it.  "Hey!," they both screamed, at the top of their lungs, angrily, as the woman dressed in brown-and-orange made her way towards the elevators.  "We wouldn't do that to you if your team had lost!", chirped Handle-Bar-Mustache-Man.  "You hear me!?"  His assistant followed his tirade up with a soft, "Bitch!".

I could not believe my ears and eyes.  Two employees of a world-class hotel-chain in a major metropolitan city just screamed an obscenity directly at a paying-guest, in front of other paying-guests.  Where was Rick Miller?  Where was Trevor?

Sure, I wrote the hotel later in the week, after I'd returned.  But it's a cry in the wilderness.  There's rarely a distinction between "customer" and "employee" anymore.  And no, I have no interest in lording my "customer-ness" over a poor, defenseless waiter or hotel clerk.  And certainly not over the arrogant, curt woman who looked at me after I'd ordered Cafe Du Mond beignets to-go like I'd just stolen her iPhone.  All I ask is that when I'm standing in front of you scanning my debit card to pay for my groceries or waiting for you to come around to refill my mug, stop breaking the wall.  I don't care about your feelings for your boss, how long you have to work over the weekend, or whether "Cindy" or "Stacy" is going to be there on-time to relieve you.  I'll break the wall if I feel like it.  Because I'm the customer.  OK?

And if you scream at me about a Browns win, I may scream back.  The Browns don't win that often, so cut me some slack.  OK, buddy?


Friday, October 15, 2010

The Great Animal Experiment

Well, it took about a week.

Donna was visiting relatives in Pennsylvania and mentioned that one of her aunts wanted to give her a dog.  This was not the first time that she had expressed her interest in giving Maggie a play-mate.  During a visit to Petco a couple of weeks ago, the people from the animal shelter were all there with their pets, trying to coerce shoppers to look into the dejected, homeless eyes of their four-legged friends and "adopt" them, either for temporary care or, hopefully, permanently.  Donna picked up a small  Lhasa Apso, cuddled it, and said, in front of everyone standing there, "Wouldn't he and Maggie go good together?  Can't we adopt him?"

Sure, make me look like the heartless goon, I thought.  As everyone stared, waiting breathlessly for my response, I looked into his eyes.  Yes, he was cute.  No, I did not want another dog, temporarily or permanently.  My non-answer was answer enough, as Donna put him down and trudged through the Petco aisles, crestfallen.

As she and her cousin Marlene made their way back from Pennsylvania, Donna called me to let me know where they were.  But when she ended the call by saying, "Don't be mad at me", I knew what she had done.  Within a couple of hours, Maggie wouldn't be the only dog in the corner house on Scotland Drive.

I was not happy.  Frankly, I had given up enough of my life to the animal cause over the past several weeks.  My attempt at experimenting with the vegan lifestyle was beginning to take its toll.  For over three weeks, I rejected all forms of meat, chicken, pork, and seafood.  I also neglected my love for cheese, milk and butter.  In trying to learn more about what I actually can eat, I visited many of the vegan sites.  Sure, the vegan diet is a healthy one because it eliminates every known gastronomical molecule of enjoyment.  Fat tastes good.  But vegans are also vehemently opposed to meat because eating animals means having to kill animals, sometimes in an extremely gruesome manner.  I also learned that many of them disdain even honey, because the bees are held captive while working their magic on all that sweet, gooey goodness.  So, for nearly a month, I've watched Donna munch happily on hamburgers and pork-steaks from the Ellet Meat Market, while I chewed on my vegetarian beans and hummus.  And now she was going to taunt me more by bringing another strange animal into the house!

He's small.  He's white.  He's a full-blooded West Highland White Terrier.  And in his face, he looks identical to Yinny, our dog of the past 17 years.  That freaked me out.  I'm not sure if it was the anger at Donna or the lack of sausage and asiago cheese, but I basically ignored him.  And he knew it.  Yes, he was cute, but I had done enough for animals this past month.  "We'll keep him until I can find him a home," she said.  "He's been neglected."

Hell, I've been neglected!  What about me!?  I'm ravenous!  My withdrawal symptoms are acute.  I need to make eggs with a heaping amount of cheddar cheese on top of them.  I need chili con queso.  I want cream in my coffee.  The synapses of the brain begin to disintegrate without the healing elixir of bacon.  If I eat one more legume or ingest any more soy, my LDL levels will plummet to the point of putting me into a salubrious, catatonic state.  Good grief, if I don't have a bratwurst soon, there may be no turning back.

But I made a salad, and he watched me eat it.   With that "aren't-you-at-least-going-to-pet-me" frown on his Yinny-look-a-like mug, he sat on that small piece of rug in front of the sink and glared at me.  He watched me open a beer.  He watched me walk to the bathroom.  He stared at me as I descended in to the basement to work in the studio, and he sat at the top of the steps waiting for me to come back up.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I could feel my rigid composure towards him soften.  The people in Pennsylvania had called him "Happy", but we thought that was dumb.  Driving to my photography class later in the evening, I began to think about names.  I thought that we at least should name him after his Scottish ancestry.  "Haggis" or "Rod Stewart" seemed inappropriate.  But naming him after something connected to single-malt scotch seemed brilliant!  I lean towards the distilleries in the Islay region, so why not "Izzy"?  Donna loved it.  Yet during class, I continued to ponder why it was that I was even thinking about a dog that I wasn't going to keep.

Soon, I was taking both Maggie and Izzy out in the morning as Donna slept.  As I'd read the paper in the morning, he'd wander over to his food bowl, gobble his breakfast, and then lay on my feet.  I noticed that he'd become much more comfortable around Maggie, and she, him.  I also noticed that Donna seemed to be making a limited effort in finding him his permanent home.  For some reason, I wasn't surprised.

Last Thursday, Donna decided to take him out to the backyard.  She also decided that she'd do this without putting him on a chain.  Bad mistake.  I was standing in the kitchen inhaling some Brazil nuts when I heard the pleas for help!  He took off past the deck and down the poison ivy-laden hillside that bottoms out on to Newton Circle.  Donna was in her bare-feet screaming at him, clutching on to tree branches in order to help guide herself down the hill without tumbling out on to the street below.  But it was a waste of time.  Izzy was vapor.  So I went flying through the front door, around the hillside, down Newton Circle and on to Newton Street.  Cars were flying by and school buses were roaring past filled with students as Izzy ran at full-gallop up Newton.  I took off after him, thinking those short, knobby legs were no match for my now healthy, detoxified body.  But a diet rich in pinto beans and broccoli provided no advantage, whatsoever.  Every time he stopped to turn around and look at me running towards him, he'd turn and sprint even faster.  I screamed his name as a bus came to a screeching halt in front of him, but nothing worked.  I even yelled "Happy" at one point, but that day he was answering to nothing.  Racing two blocks down from Newton, I'd get close to him as he stopped to urinate, but he'd only dash in another direction as I approached.

Around houses we went, through alley-ways, and back into the street.  At several points throughout the ordeal, I'd sprint at him with full horse-power, under the delusion that I could overcome those stubby limbs of his.  But that only made my chest burn more.  As I followed him around to the backyard of an abandoned house, I could feel my arms and back perspiring through my shirt.  I also felt that I was nearing the end of the line in terms of my physical ability to continue the chase. In Man vs. Dog, Dog was about to win, and, likely to become a new resident in somebody's house in the next county.  But in the backyard of that abandoned house was a fence that was in perfect condition, forming a "V" that provided no outlet for him.  He pawed at the metal but it gave him no opening.  Gasping for oxygen, I placed a hand on the top of his neck and scooped him up in my arms.  Panting and heaving, I saw Donna coming down the alley in the car.  As she approached us, I yelled, between breaths, "Bet you'll never do that again!!"  A half-hour after we were home, I was still breathing heavily.

Later that evening, as I unleashed the contents of a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, I glanced towards the base of my leather rocker-recliner, and there he sat, staring at me, again.  I stared back.  "Tired?", I asked him.  "I am".  He continued, transfixed, peeking at me through the white fur in his eyes.  Suddenly, for a brief moment, I was back at our apartment in Manassas, watching Yinny eat a treat as we watched the Winter Olympics from Lillehammer.  Then, I came back to my leather recliner.  And for some reason, without knowing why, I tapped the top of my thigh and said "C'mon".  That was all he needed.  Izzy was up in my lap, curled around me and my Punkin Ale.  Donna stood in the kitchen making herself a hamburger, smiling.  I knew right then that Izzy wasn't going anywhere.  "I'm gonna murder you, Donna," I said.

Animals.  What a nuisance.  We clean up their puke and their "accidents".  We walk them around the yard during a blizzard.  We vacuum up their hair and watch that they don't each others' food.  We pay their exorbidant bills at the vet and sometimes at the kennel.  They get in the way of our plans.  Interestingly, we also eat them.  They give us sustenance in so many ways.  So, for the time being, while I shun them as nutrition, I welcome one as a new acquaintance.  We'll see how each experiment turns out.  But until I decide to char-broil a T-Bone or drop a yolk into a sizzling pan, I am drawing the line on honey.  Sorry, vegans.  Sorry, bees.  Man cannot live by tofu, alone.


Image: Francesco Marino /
Image: Suat Eman /
Image: Suat Eman /

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Color Winter

I was panting heavily, over-heated underneath the winter blanket.  I must have awakened quite suddenly because Maggie had left her cushion on the floor at the end of the bed and had walked over to my side to see what was wrong.  I was still clutching my pillow as my breathing became more shallow.  I've had nightmares before, certainly, but this one left me shaking.  The only difference this time was that nobody was doing something sinister like chasing me with a machete through a dark alley or informing me through the glass of a locked door that the brewpub was closed for the evening.  The diabolical forces that woke me up in such abject terror belonged  to a cold front, a burst of arctic air trapped inside an Alberta Clipper that directed its bone-rattling, icy-steel breath directly in my face, sideways, driving me back against a mound of snow.  It was a grotesque, momentary reminder, a sick, twisted dream gone horribly wrong, causing me to wake up my dog, as well as cause me a couple of hours of early-morning restless turmoil.

I used to like Fall.  Growing up, it was my favorite time of year.  Midway through each September, well after  already knowing that the Indians would, again, be eliminated from playoff contention, it would start.  Tiny specks of red leaves would peek through green clusters of oak trees that dotted 14th Street.  In the late-afternoon, the sound of marching-band practice could be heard across the freeway over at Fawcett Stadium.  And my mother would take all of our shorts, swim-trunks, and short-sleeved t-shirts and pack them in a box that previously held jeans, corduroy slacks, and sweat-shirts, lining them up on the bed so that we could put them in the empty space in our dresser in the bedroom.

I liked the brown, burning smell in the air.  As we'd play touch-football on the street, we'd push each other into piles of leaves, or dive into them, pretending we were Tony Dorsett or Eric Dickerson, plunging into the end zone for a touchdown.  The neighbors who spent hours laboriously raking, sweeping, and forming these leaves into piles would run out on to their porches, yelling, swearing, and pleading with us to stop.  We usually did, only to move on to another pile.  In the evening, playing "Kick the Can", we'd bundle up in our thick jackets, occasionally run a gloved-hand across the front of our face to blot a runny nose, and breathe in the crisp, cool air, absorbing the sights of the porches dotted with pumpkins while inhaling the glory of the vibrant, multi-colored trees and crisp night.

This annual, bucolic seasonal love-fest came to an abrupt halt one day back in the mid-90's.  I was making my way down I-71 en route to WYHT-FM, the radio station in Mansfield that employed me.  I had been making the one-hour drive each day for several years, and on this day the Autumn explosion was on full display.  We had been experiencing warmer-than-normal temperatures, but even as I peeled off my jacket in the car, I was secretly ready for a Great Lakes Oktoberfest, Donna's famous pumpkin-square cakes, and some playoff baseball on television.  About halfway down on the drive, while admiring the blanket of colors that covered the rolling hills outside of Ashland, the wind started to pick up a bit and it began to rain.  That wind and rain didn't stop for 48 hours.  At the conclusion of that storm, virtually every leaf fell to the earth.  And as the final soggy, burgundy-coated foliage dropped heavily to the ground, another system arrived, just in time to dump a coating of a snow-sleet mix, draping the ground in a white linen, burying those piles of leaves underneath the swaying, empty, lifeless branches above.  That white linen would hang around for the next 5 months, effectively and forever destroying my love-affair with the Autumn Equinox, and fomenting within me a cavalcade of disdain and hatred for a season that brings nothing but emptiness and misery.

Oh, I tried to plead with the powers-that-be.  Like Salieri, staring up at the crucifix in Amadeus, I made my pact with the Divine.  "Take this Winter away from me, O Lord, " I cried out, "and I will be your instrument."  I hadn't a clue what exactly I would do to keep up my end of the bargain, but I'm sure it would have been magnanimous and unequaled.  But I never got the chance.  Sure, we had a somewhat brief reprieve while living in the South, but eventually that distant cousin of Darth Vader would eventually show his hand in some way.

Why they call it the "four seasons" escapes me.  Here, there are no "four seasons".  There's a somewhat-chilly Spring that quickly flows into a hazy, humid Summer.  There are some generously warm September weeks that give way to a lightning-quick Fall, which is a teasing prelude to 5 months of a cruel, lumbering, never-ending daily display of overcast skies, mind-numbing chill, and a repetitious, monotonous forecast where highly-coiffured weather-prognosticators robotically mumble the words, "cold, windy, and a chance of flurries with 1-2 inches of possible accumulation" with morbid efficiency.

Winter sucks.  Winter is like the New York Yankees celebrating after yet another World Series victory.  Winter is like getting a flat tire on the way to a job interview.  Winter is like developing diarrhea symptoms in the middle of watching a movie at the theater. Or in the middle of a long line at the BMV.  Come to think it, winter is like going to the BMV.  There's nothing remotely attractive or enlightening about Winter.  Winter kicks you in the groin, laughs about it, and then kicks you again.  Repeatedly.  With steel-toed boots.  For 5 months.  I routinely dismiss those who reel off vacuous platitudes like "It's so pretty!  How can you not like everything covered in white, especially at Christmas?"  Easy.  I pull out my cargo shorts and Indians t-shirt, lay them on the bed, stare at them, and ask myself, "Would I rather be in these, wiping perspiration off my brow after mowing the lawn, or standing out there slipping on ice as I attempt to remove the 8 inches of heavy, wet snow on top of it?"  Case closed.

So I had a nightmare.  It was actually a rewind of a day shortly after we moved back to Ohio.  We were unloading boxes, but we had no available space to break up the boxes and get them out of the way.  So Donna had me carry them out to the deck.  Almost ten inches of snow had fallen and more was on the way.  I shrugged off her suggestion to put on a coat and attempted to take a stack of cardboard out through the back-door.  But they wouldn't fit.  And I couldn't open the door because of the snow that had piled up.  So I had to go out the front and walk around.  The wind was blowing sideways, in huge, unannounced blasts.  My glasses were immediately soaked with water and ice pellets.  I trudged through the thick carpet of snow on the sidewalk and made my way around the house.  I slipped walking up the steps because I couldn't see them.  A few of the cardboard pieces caught the wind and, like a sail, soared across the front lawn.  My sneakers were no match for the huge drifts as I tried to retrieve the pieces, while at the same time trying not to drop the ones in my arm.  Wet, freezing, shoes filled with snow, and unable to see, I made it to the top step and began to walk around to the back deck.  Donna was standing by the sliding-glass doors with a compassionate smile.  As I caught the blunt-end of another arctic blast directly in my face, I imagined instantaneously that this is what hell must be like.  It's not hot.  It's not a furnace.  Not at all.  It's a sub-zero prison encased in ice, snow, and freezing rain where you're seperated from your loved ones by an impermeable wall, forced to carry unwieldy objects back and forth without ceasing and without proper footwear or a decent coat.

And it woke me up.  I'm still breathing heavily at the thought of it.  It's not a nightmare.  It's reality.  It's real and it's coming, and I'm powerless to stop it.  A few pretty leaves and a pieceof pumpkin pie might briefly take your mind off of it, but only for awhile.  Because I know what's out there.