Monday, December 19, 2011

Saab Story

So Saab automobiles are no more. The company filed for bankruptcy today, with liquidation the probable outcome. As the smaller of Sweden's two car companies slowly disappears from the roads, a little piece of my heart goes with it.

It's no secret that I've been a car nut for much of my life. But unlike most of my contemporaries, I never cared for the muscle cars, the Mustangs, Camaros and the like. No, for me, the appeal was always the odd little Eurocars, the ones that prized handling over brute force, balance over mere horsepower. The ones that dared to be different. Saabs fit that mold perfectly.

I still remember the day in 1979 I first discovered the marque. It was a gray, rainy day in Dayton, Ohio. I was on Christmas break from college, and my aging, rattletrap '70 VW Beetle needed some work. So off I went to one of Dayton's several VW dealers to subject both car and nearly empty (student) wallet to the whims of the service department.

I had time to kill, so I wandered into the showroom. Turns out the dealer carried two brands. Certainly the VW side had some appealing little cars -- Sciroccos, Dashers and Rabbits. But my eye was quickly drawn by something I'd never actually seen in the metal before -- a Saab.

Of course I'd read about the odd little beasts all the car magazines described as "quirky," but I hadn't actually seen one up close. This one was a five door (four doors plus hatchback) 900 EMS -- Electronic (fuel injection) Manual (transmission) Sport. One look and I was hooked.

I want to say it was a Saab-specific shade of green, but if I recall correctly, it had burgundy cloth upholstery, so probably not. It could have been the gray that the company called "rose quartz." No matter. I was a fan for life.

Yes, the quirks were there, all right. The curved windshield. The ignition key between the bucket seats. The seats themselves, looking like something out of a Swedish furniture store. I loved them all.

I remember the price on the sticker too -- $10,000. At a time when the Scirocco across the room was selling for about $4,500, this was a small fortune. But I said to myself I'd have one someday.

A few years later, I found myself working with a friend who drove a 900. It was nothing fancy, the base model, a kind of pastel yellow with a fair-sized dent in one side. I would have traded my two year old Civic for it in a heartbeat.

It got better. She traded the yellow one in for a sleek, black 900 Turbo -- the ultimate Saab at the time. I drooled over that one too.

Fast forward a few years. I'd actually test-driven a few 900s by this point, so I knew what to expect, but never could quite find the right one. In the meantime, I'd switched careers, married and moved to southern Ohio.

Then came the day Exec Chef Heatherann and I went out for a little drive. I picked her up at work on a Sunday morning after she had worked a 12-hour night shift. We headed into Huntington, W.Va., and as we passed the Toyota dealer, there it was -- a baby blue 1986 3-door 900 hatchback. This was the one.

And it was. An $1,800 bank loan, another trip to Huntington and it was ours. We'd been looking to replace the Civic, which was on its last legs by then anyway.

From a driver's perspective, the car was everything I'd hoped it would be. It was truly the fulfillment of an automotive dream. It was wonderful -- until the air conditioning broke.

That was the beginning of the downfall of Baby Blue. We spent a small fortune at the dealer trying to get the a/c fixed. The dealership spent at least an equal amount of their own trying to get it right. They really tried their best. But it seemed as soon as one part of the system was fixed, something else broke.

Then we moved to Florida. A/C became critical. And by this point, about four years in, other things began to break too. Expensive things. Things that required tow trucks and rental cars. Things that required parts shipped from Sweden. Things our bank account couldn't quite handle.

The last straw was when the car broke down as H.A. was driving to meet me for lunch one day. No matter how much fun the car was to drive, we couldn't have something that left us stranded on the side of the road. So before long, Baby Blue was replaced with a VW, giving us a pair of those.

Never one to leave well enough alone, I moped around about missing the Saab. My long-suffering wife put up with it for a good while, biting her tongue as I read classified ads for the little Swedish wonders aloud to her. And we're talking months here, not days.

One fateful weekend, one of those ads clicked. A dealer in Orlando had a 1989 four-door 900S. Well, you can guess the rest. My wonderful wife agreed -- partly, perhaps, just to shut me up --and I happily followed "her" VW home in a rose quartz sedan with no power window switches -- and no a/c. Apparently one of us was a slow learner.

Thus began about 5 more years of Saab-dom. Once again, the car was a sheer joy to drive, everything I wanted it to be, even better than the first. On the reliability front, once again, it left much to be desired. From the radiator fan motor that literally fell apart in my hands to the six -- yes, six -- power steering pumps, it tested our patience regularly. Or rather it tested mine, and I tested Heatherann's.

I got pretty good at making minor repairs myself. But even the minor things required expensive parts.

At some point, it just became too much. Probably when the a/c broke yet again. We traded "Rosenqvartz" (the Saab paint code name) for a Volvo sedan that stood us in good stead for the next 8 years. But parting with the Saab was tough, as it was with the first one.

The Volvo was built like a tank, and proved damn hard to kill. It was what we needed at the time. Even so, if I listened to my heart, I'd buy another Saab tomorrow, quirks, faults and all. There's just something oddly lovable about them, something that makes them more engaging than a Japanese transportation appliance such as a Camry or Accord.

But I learned after the second Saab to listen to my head in things automotive. I vowed never again unless it was a new one. The bank account never allowed for that, so I made peace with the Volvo and a VW Jetta -- good cars both, but still lesser. Now the Volvo's been replaced with a Subaru. Once again, a good car, just not quite a Saab.

Now Saab appears to be gone for good, and I'll never have the chance to own a new one. The old ones will eventually disappear, done in by a lack of parts availability. There will be more transportation appliances on the road, and fewer "quirky" cars. And that makes me a little sad.

Godspeed, Saab. You'll be missed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

'Tis The Season!

Wow, look at the cobwebs around this place. Must not have been open for a year or so, judging by the way the doors creak. Time to change that.

Yes, friends, the BBQMC is back in business, for better or worse. Serving up platefuls of puns, oodles of observations, attitude appetizers and a soupcon of snark. Welcome back, one and all.

We are once again at the start of another Christmas season, with Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday already past. We're rolling into the heart of the holidays, including holiday TV specials, Christmas music everywhere and shoppers shopping their hearts out throughout the land. So in the spirit of the holiday, the Cafe is introducing new seasonal appetizers.

First up is our traditional holiday favorite, the McFruitcake sandwich. Don't ask what's in it. You really don't want to know. Just enjoy, with our special sauce. Remember, it's only here for a limited time -- and that's probably a good thing.

In the grand holiday tradition of Iron Chefs everywhere, we're introducing an extra-special holiday favorite, eggnog-battered eel. If you want a real treat for the kids, order the electric version, which powers its own festive LED Christmas lights.

But our pride and joy this season is our extraordinary new dish inspired by the holiday classic "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" -- the Reindeer Roadkill Remoulade. It's sure to be a taste like none you've ever experienced before.

Of course our regular menu is still available too, including all your favorites such as Manatee Meatloaf (Mom's secret recipe!), Flipper Fin Fondue and Octopus Over Easy. Just let your waitron know what you'd like... and please tip generously.

While you study the menu, let's get the jukebox playing, the espresso brewing and the vacuum collection polished up. Welcome back to the Manatee....

Chef Rick!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Open Once Again!

Wow, would you look at that? December 1st already. Time flies, and obviously it's been a while since this little bistro has had its doors open. Let's hit the lights on the pinball machine, crank up the old jukebox in the corner (a little Patty Smyth please, maestro) and get the espresso machine brewing once again, shall we?

With the 2008 elections slowly fading, Thanksgiving already a warm memory and the Christmas frenzy not quite in full swing yet, let's have a little nightcap recap of a few random thoughts over the past few months. In no particular order, here we go:

1. Mary Chapin Carpenter is healthy again, back on the road, and in fine voice. Life is good!

2. Ten days in Kentucky in November under mostly gray, rainy skies is enough to remind me why I enjoy Florida sunshine so much.

3. Regarding Thanksgiving: I am blessed in far too many ways to count. Every once in a while I'm smart enough to realize this.

4. Shopping on Thanksgiving Day? Bah, humbug! And "Black Friday"? An abomination -- more on this in coming days.

5. Old Volvos, fortunately, are difficult to kill.

6. The Bumble (of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" fame) is clearly a cousin to Cookie Monster.

That's it for now. More later after a couple of cappuccinos......

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tales From the Back Side!

As we travel through this grand adventure called life, certain chronological markers take on specific meanings. At 16, we get the driver's license. At 16 and a half, we back our grandmother's VW Beetle into a bridge post. At 18, we're legal adults. At 20, we back our own VW into an unsuspecting Chevette in a mini-mart parking lot. At 21, we're legally drinking adults.

For some of us, turning 30 means we have to start considering ourselves "adults," whatever that means. Me, I'm not sure I'm ready for that big a step yet. As Jimmy Buffett once said, I'm growing older but not up.

Once a specific number of years have passed, you're "of a certain age," as they say. Things that once seemed abstract enter the realm of reality. Things like certain medical tests that always sounded unpleasant, but at least we could always say "No sweat. I'm too young for that."

Speaking of backing into things ... one day you wake up and have THAT birthday. You know the one. The one where, at your next annual check-up, your doctor recommends a "screening" exam. You're officially no longer too young for that. Time to sweat.

Oh Lord, he's not going THERE with this, is he? Not that thing with the northbound fiber optic tube and the southbound exit? Yes, he is. I am, friends and neighbors, talking about the dreaded C test -- the colonoscopy.

Relax. I promise not to get too graphic, and I'll do my best to keep you entertained. Grab some coffee and read on.

Believe me, a colonoscopy wasn't exactly high on my to-do list. Just like an old VW Beetle, I've managed to reach THAT age without really needing a dipstick. But I trust my doc, a very smart woman. More importantly, I'd been saying to Exec Chef Heatherann for years that I'd have it done at THAT age, just as Katie Couric recommends.

Now Exec Chef Heatherann, in addition to running the cafe here, is a registered nurse in real life. She knows the importance of such things. And she wasn't about to let me back out of that promise. And I quite literally trust her with my life.

So my annual checkup rolled around in June, and I casually mentioned to Doc that I needed the exam. She nodded and said she'd refer me to the local gastroenterology clinic. OK, no sweat, I thought. I'll have a couple of months before they can work me in. No need to think about it now, right?

The clinic called one day one fine day in July and left a message. I called back and talked to a very efficient nurse who wanted to know when we could schedule the exam. I was thinking sometime around mid-August at least -- more than a month away. She had an appointment in one week.

Hmmm. One week? Not what my naturally procrastinating mind -- and naturally terrified rear -- had in mind. But it had to be done by then, or I'd have to submit to another full physical similar to the one I'd just recently had at my doc's office. OK, fine. One week it is.

I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about the prep, particularly the "clear liquids only" diet the day before. As anyone who knows me is well aware, food and I are VERY close friends. I grew up in a classic Southern-style "food = love" family. Let me put it this way -- my wonderful 86-year-old grandmother recently called me to apologize because she felt she hadn't cooked enough the last time Heatherann and I came to visit her.

So as I said, food and I are very close. We have a lovely daily dialogue. Food listens and offers positive affirmations. I do most of the talking. And here we were, about to be separated for the better part of 48 hours. This provoked no small amount of anxiety on my part.

Even worse, I normally depend on at least one daily cappuccino, several cups of coffee with creamer and a few gallons of Diet Coke to get through my day. This little adventure required NO milk products, NO creamer, and horrifyingly, NO carbonated beverages for a full day. How can I gracefully back out of this? A rear guard action, if you will.

No dice. The schedule's set, and Heatherann knows about it, so I'm stuck. The clear liquids day rolls around. I get to have fat-free chicken broth for breakfast. Yum! You haven't lived until you've tried fat-free chicken broth at 7:30 a.m.

No cappuccino. No Diet Coke. No hope.

I remember to grab my lunch (more fat-free chicken broth! Yum!) on the way out the door to work, but forget the best part -- Jell-o. Left it in the fridge. Damn.

Got to work, managed to guzzle a cup of the office swill that passes for coffee, with nothing in it but artificial sweetener. It was enough to give fat-free chicken broth a good name. My coworkers in my office pod, knowing my status, wisely chose to give me a wide berth. In return, I managed not to push any of them down the nearby stairs.

Lunchtime arrives. I heat up my can of chicken broth (still fat-free!) in a mug and sip/slurp it at my desk. Meanwhile, my coworkers from throughout the office are heating up their own lunch in the office microwave -- in the kitchen. Which is 10 feet from my desk.

I had to escape the building for the lunch hour. Funny how you never notice EVERY SINGLE FREAKIN' fast food place and fine restaurant, and coffee shop, and quickie mart, until the day you can't have food from any of them. Not fun.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not really ravenous, nor am I delusional at this point. Frankly, I miss the coffee and Diet Coke more than the food for the most part. Of course that doesn't stop me from posting on my Facebook page that I would kill -- in cold blood, without remorse, possibly even cheerfully -- for a cheeseburger and Diet Coke.

Quitting time finally rolls around and I head home to dinner. Beef broth this time (fat-free!), and Jell-o for dessert. I never really appreciated before how satisfying Jell-o can be.

The next morning, aided by medicinal prep, the true adventure begins. To put it in bumper sticker terms, crap happens. And happens. And happens. Most people probably dread this part, but honestly, it wasn't bad. Trek to the bathroom, back to couch. Try not to trip over cats or the dog, trek to bathroom, back to couch. Repeat as necessary, keeping in mind that cats and dog occasionally move to a different part of the rug.

Then came the appointed hour. I had to pick up Heatherann at work because she had to be able to drive me home. For some reason, they don't want recently anesthetized folks driving themselves home -- especially in a VW.

We get to the office on time, only to learn that the doctor's running late, by at least an hour. And by the way, they don't have the forms I mailed back to them four days before. "Oh, it would have been better to bring them with you, rather than mail them," the ever-efficient receptionist said. Gee, it would have been nice if you had mentioned that on the instruction sheet instead of telling me to mail them to you.

Let us recap -- It's 2:30 Wednesday afternoon. No real food since Monday night. Nothing at all by mouth since 8 a.m. that day. Do you REALLY want to harass me about the paperwork? She manages to call the downtown office, and wonder of wonders, the forms are there.

Finally comes the magic moment. I'm ushered into a dressing room by a kindly nurse who tells me I can keep my sandals on, "and that's about it." Put the open-backed gown on, and leave it untied so that SHE can tie it when I come out. With the sandals, I can at least pretend I'm a Roman gladiator, right?

I do as she says, having a brief flash of embarrassment (wonderfully descriptive word, that). But then I realize she's seen more buns than the Pillsbury Doughboy, so I might as well let it all hang out. She ties the gown, then leads me to a gurney, where I lie back and wait.

Nurse Lisa comes in, introduces herself. She smiles and hands me the "informed consent" form. This is the form that states "We know that the odds of something going wrong during this procedure are roughly the same as your chances of getting run over by a beer truck being driven by an Amish driver who's just finished his 16-shot venti extra-dry cappuccino with whip, but the possibility exists, and we don't want to get sued." I sign, and Nurse Lisa and I chat briefly, then out of the blue:


That's Nurse Lisa, attempting to find a spot in my slightly dehydrated hand for the I.V. After she tries in vain one more time, she calls in Nurse Raeann, who promptly gets the drip going.

Nurse Lisa is busy with the woman in the cubicle next to mine. She's encouraging the woman to perform a common bodily function. That's apparently a requirement before you can leave and go have dinner. Because the procedure injects air to enable the doc to see everything he needs to, you must break wind before you can break bread. The woman next door proves to be a fast learner.

Then she and Nurse Lisa start discussing food -- mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, pot roast, etc. I'm separated from this conversation only by an exam room curtain, so I hear every word. It's now 40 hours since I've had anything resembling solid food. I wonder if I could push them both down the stairs with an I.V. in my hand. Sadly, it's a single story building.

Nurse Raeann wheels me into the procedure room, where I meet Dave, the nurse-anesthetist. I don't realize it yet, but Dave is about to become my new best friend. Dave double checks my name and date of birth, then hands me a clipboard with another "informed consent" form. This is the "yes, we're giving you the same anesthetic that killed Michael Jackson, but we're monitoring you closely, and while you'll probably be fine, there is a very remote possibility it will kill you and we don't want to get sued" form. I sign.

Dave listens to my heart and lungs, then the doc comes in. He introduces himself, pokes my abdomen a bit, listens to my heart and lungs, and we're all set. I roll onto my left side, baring my backside to Doc, Nurse Raeann and Dave. I still have my sandals on, and wonder what a Roman gladiator would do in this situation. The lights go down -- how nice! -- very conducive to a nap. My pal Dave starts the propofol drip. I have just enough time to think "oh, here we go."

The next thing I know it's half an hour later, and my buddy Dave is telling me to wake up, the procedure is over. No pain, no discomfort, no anesthesia hangover at all. Life is good.

I'm wheeled back out to the room where I started this little adventure. I follow Nurse Lisa's instructions. Like the woman in the cubicle before I started, I prove to be a quick study.

My beloved Heatherann enters, and soon the doc comes in. He's all smiles and has good news -- no polyps, nothing to worry about. See you in 10 years.

Soon after that, I get dressed, and Heatherann and I hightail it out of there and head to dinner. Olive Garden never tasted so good.

Two things to keep in mind:

No. 1 -- If you go to Olive Garden, order the mixed grill. The rosemary on the steak and chicken is delightful and the roasted vegetables are delicious.

No. 2 -- Yes, my results were fine, giving me peace of mind. But before my exam started, Nurse Lisa told me a story about her own colonoscopy. She had one right before moving from Virginia to Florida. The docs found a large polyp that had to be removed. She's fine today, but she asked her doctor what would have happened if that hadn't been caught. "They said 'you don't want to know.'"

Think about it, folks. The test is NOT bad. Colon cancer is preventable this way. Preventable. I promise, you will not die of embarrassment. If you're "of a certain age," get your buns off the couch and into the doctor's office. You'll be glad you did -- and so will the people who love you.

And if you're lucky, as I was, your doc will give you a picture of the results, suitable for framing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

YES, Words Matter! A Writer's Manifesto

In the beginning was the word ... now there's a phrase I've always appreciated.

Words have pretty much defined my life from an early age. I was reading before I went to nursery school. I discovered the wonderfully subversive world of Dr. Seuss by first grade and never looked back. As long as I can remember, words have been a magical thing for me, something to play with and explore, something to tweak and polish and on occasion try to bend to my will. Words have been my playground for most of my time on this curious little planet. The simile, the metaphor, the adjective and the occasional dangling participle, boon companions all.

Fellow writers, can I get an amen? Thank you. Now let us turn to page 1968 of the hymnal and sing in the manner of St. Barry of Bee Gees: It's only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away.

But these are dark times, brothers and sisters. The word is under attack. Folks are saying words are no longer important, that it's all about the image. The iPhone, the iPad, the Web site, all are focusing more on the image than the word. Pretty pictures for pretty posers, that's all we need. No need to concern ourselves with actual communication.

There is a movement afoot in the land, brothers and sisters, a movement of dark forces. This movement is called search engine optimization or SEO. Its purpose is to get a web site listed well in the search engines of Google, Bing and Yahoo.

The practitioners of this dark art don't see the value of words -- unless they're so-called "keywords," simple words and phrases stuck into the page for the search engines to find. As for the actual CONTENT -- the words, the ideas, the REALITY -- of what's being said, well that's not really important.

How do I know these things? I work in an emporium where these things are done. Day in, day out, as I labor over words, sentences and paragraphs, searching for just the right turn of phrase, I'm often told it's not a big deal because "no one really reads the words anyway." One coworker even told me that a sentence he wrote didn't need to make sense, because the next sentence was clear.

Excuse me?

No, dammit. Even if no one else reads it, I do. I know. Those words must make sense. There's too much that can't be explained in Flash and Illustrator. You need the words. And dear coworker, you don't even realize it -- but you will.

Yes, I exaggerate a bit at times for humorous effect, but I'm deadly serious about this : If we lose the words, we lose our humanity. It's that important.

I've thought for a while that this blog might be better with pictures, a little visual appeal. I've gone back and forth about it for a while. But as of today, I've made a decision. If I surrender to the pictures, I am acknowledging that the words aren't strong enough.

No pictures. The words matter. They stand alone.

Grand Reopening!

Wow. Would you look at the dust in here? Jeez, how long has it been since this place was open? December? Yikes. Well, OK, we'll fix that.

Let's dust off the vacuum cleaner collection first -- hmm, there's a dilemma: Which one do we use to clean the others?

Next, plug in the jukebox, flip the switch, watch the neon blink to life. Ah, that's better. Let's start with Box of Rain tonight. Always good, just like the coffee.

Speaking of which, let's get that espresso maker cranked up. Much to talk about -- walruses (a/k/a/ Paul), cabbages and kings, etc. Much to say, much to listen to, many things to consider. Let's get started, shall we? The juke box is just getting warmed up, so in the immortal words of Sam the Sham, let's not be L7. Come and learn to dance......

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

So this is Christmas....

In this skeptical age, it's fashionable not to believe in much of anything. But the holiday season is all about belief. Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. The Grinch's change of heart. Olive the Other Reindeer. And of course, that little event a couple thousand years ago in Bethlehem. We all believe in some of it. Some of us believe in all of it. It's all good.

Me, I believe in Santa Claus. And I know at least one other person who does too -- more on that later.

The first time I remember visiting Santa was in North Carolina. I was probably 3 or 4 years old. And yes Virginia, I asked him for a (toy) vacuum cleaner -- the collection was starting even then. A year or two later, we moved back to Kentucky, and that's when Santa really took center stage.

We'd open our presents on Christmas Eve. I'm an only child, but my two younger cousins would come over and we'd have dinner with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle. Just when those of us who were waiting for Santa couldn't stand it any longer, he would appear. At the back door. With a big bag full of toys and other gifts. And the best part was, Santa Claus knew our names! Life was good, indeed. Never did understand though why my dad always missed Santa's appearance. He always had to go to the neighbors' house for some reason.

After we kids had a chance to tear open our presents, run through the house and scream for a while, we would all pack up and drive to another set of cousins' house about 10 miles away. Santa would visit them too, and knew all their names. And the really cool part was that Santa still knew my name too, and talked about visiting with me earlier in the evening. How much better does it get than that?

Somehow my dad always missed seeing Santa at my cousins' house too. Don't know why, but he always had to be somewhere else just before Santa showed up. Oh, and the adults still talk about the year Santa got chased through the snow by a pack of dogs.

Of course, kids grow up. In a few years, Dad stopped disappearing on Christmas Eve, and Santa waited until after we were asleep to make his appearance. Somehow though, the magical possibilities of Santa never left. Even at my most cynical, I've always found a way to believe in editor Frank Church's masterpiece from 1897: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound, and give to your life its highest beauty and joy."

A certain young lady in Atlanta also believes in Santa Claus. She knows because she's seen him, and it wasn't even Christmas. I was fortunate enough to witness what transpired.

It was few days before the big day a couple of years ago. A gentleman and his wife, tired from their travels, went into a Max & Erma's restaurant for a late dinner. This particular gentleman was wearing jeans, a red shirt, was a trifle um, round, shall we say, and had a beard which hadn't been trimmed in a while. Looked a bit like me, some would say. Because it was getting late, the restaurant lights were turned down.
A young family -- Mom, Dad, little girl no more than four years old -- sat down at the table adjacent to the couple. Well, from the moment that young lady sat down, she was positive she was in the presence of the big guy with the sleigh. She was enthralled throughout her meal. Santa, feeling a trifle nonplussed, did his best to play along.

As the family was leaving, the little girl's head drowsily on her father's shoulder, Santa called out HO HO HO loudly enough for half the restaurant to hear. I know Santa will never forget how her eyes widened. Her parents smiled as they walked out. That little girl knew -- KNEW -- she had seen the real Santa Claus.

Oh, and by the way Dad, you'll be happy to know the next generation of Santa Claus is carrying on the family tradition.... Merry Christmas to all.