Thursday, December 26, 2013

“Christmas Cheer, Revised”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

For a lyricist and professional writer, the holiday season offers a time to tap inspiration from traditional themes. In particular, Yuletide carols evoke seasonal cheer.
A few years ago, I composed liner notes for the Davie Allan recording “Fuzz for the Holidays 2.” It was a fantastic opportunity to write while drawing energy both from King Fuzz himself and the seasonal tunes that have become so familiar to everyone.
Regular readers of this column will know that Allan and I have enjoyed a long-distance friendship that has endured since the 90’s.
Beyond such efforts as a critic and scribe in the music realm, it has also been tempting to modernize old Xmas chestnuts with a bit of modern flair. So recently, during an evening spent doing pre-holiday household chores, I found time to reflect on these familiar hymns and recreate some of them, anew.
The results were unpredictable, like an essay from MAD Magazine in yonder days:


Dashing through the snow
In a bailout Chevrolet
Stimulus is gone
Don’t need it, anyway
Wintertime is here
I shovel snow for cash
Then work at Walmart, stocking shelves
And taking out the trash

(Oh) Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle through the night
The only things that keep me sane
Are wings and Miller Lite
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle down the street
Can’t afford to move away
From freezing rain and sleet

Though one might have expected an inclination toward traditional emotions of joy and peace, it seemed just as easy to lean the toward real-world challenges faced by blue-collar families. Again, a vibe of William Maxwell Gaines, publisher of E.C. Comics, and later MAD, took hold:


Water boiling on a propane fire
Satellite dish is on the blink
Stockings hung on the entertainment center with care
Santa is coming here, I think
Neighbor has a new Korean car
Can’t afford much without a check
Walking around with holes in my shoes
Merry Christmas, to you

Eventually, the holiday spirit took hold and I was truly inspired to write. Words began to flow with the energy of bygone days spent celebrating the season. I opened my mind and the prose was plentiful. Rhyme and rhythm filled my head:


Rudolph, the redneck reindeer
Got around with four-wheel drive
He had a trusty GPS
Just to help him in the night
All of the other reindeer
Use to laugh and call him names
They wouldn’t let poor Rudolph
Join their Xbox real-time games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa’s truck went down
He said “With your nose for maps,
you’re way better than Google apps!”
Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted with a wail
Rudolph the redneck reindeer
Help us find a Christmas ale!

I couldn’t help remembering a Christmas season from almost thirty years ago. While working at Fisher’s Big Wheel on Water Street in Chardon, I struggled to afford gifts for family and friends. My shopping routine happened on payday, right before Santa was scheduled to arrive. Though my basket of presents was humble, I truly felt the holiday spirit in my heart.
In modern times, my own perspective on the season was colored in hues of realism rather than childhood fantasies. Yet a reason to believe remained:


Silent night, powerless night
Electricity is out, nothing is bright
In the country nobody cares
They won’t hurry to make our repairs
Sleep in your frosty bedroom
Sleep in your frosty bedroom

Silent night, powerless night
Eating supper by candlelight
Charge my cellphone in the car
Generator at the neighborhood bar
Sleep in a jacket and hat
Sleep in a jacket and hat

Silent Night, powerless night
Network fail, with gifts on sale
Can’t do Amazon with no wi-fi
Tonight I feel like an unlucky guy
Thank goodness for the flashlight app
Thank goodness for the flashlight app

Another powerful Christmas memory finished my day of rewriting Christmas carols. It was of a year when I filled the bed of my F-150 pickup truck with gifts for the family. Very different from today’s new-age drive through the paradigm of ‘big brother’ keeping watch:


He’s making a file
Of the Excel kind
He’s going to keep track
Of who stepped out of line
NSA Claus is watching your town
He’s backing up
A big data file
To make sure that
He can prove it on trial
NSA Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows what sites you surf
He’ll follow every move you make
Till you’re stretched out in the turf
You better not pout
You better not cry
Your big red brother has
bionic eyes
Santa Claus is coming to town

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Friday, December 20, 2013

“Roundtable Holiday”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was a chilly morning at Geauga Gas & Grub.
Lines of sleepy patrons streamed from the registers. An aroma of coffee and breakfast foods filled the air. By the front windows, a small group huddled over their mobile devices and old-school notepads.
An informal meeting of the Geauga Writers’ Roundtable had been called, to share holiday cheer and newspaper ideas. Carrie Hamglaze, erstwhile elected official and award-winning tennis coach, called the meeting to order.
“Good morning, everyone!” she said while fretting with the brim of her red hat.
My eyes did not want to focus. I kept drinking coffee.
“Good morning, Carrie!” chirped Sandy Kimball, Bohemian editor of the Claridon Claxon. She adjusted her horn-rimmed glasses. “Festive winter solstice to you all!”
Mack Prindl, chief at the Parkman Register, huffed with irritation.
“There ain’t nothing festive about this season, yinz know,” he protested. “The Stillers have a losing record!”
Carrie nodded, while grinning. “No Superbowl this year?”
“Hah!” said Martha Ann Reale, of the Newbury Siren-Monitor. “I should say not!”
“We got six already,” Mack hissed.
“Good thing,” I observed. “It could be a long time before you see another...”
“May the wise crone show you mercy,” Sandy cackled.
“Crone?” Mack roared. “Hey, I’ll take my miracles from God, okay? Not some old witch!”
“You’ll need God to save the Steelers season,” Martha Ann observed cheerfully.
Carrie gestured like someone hailing a cab. “Please, everyone! Let’s get down to business!”
“A great idea,” I agreed.
Martha Ann flipped through her notebook. “With the season upon us, I am running a front-page article about finding bargain gifts in Geauga County.”
Carrie was pleased. “A useful offering. What about you, Rod?”
“My lead story is an interview with Paula Horbay, or the ‘Christmas Tree Lady’ as we all know her,” I said. “She has been part of our local culture for a generation.”
Carrie smiled. “Very good. What about you, Martha Ann?”
“I have another installment in my series about Geauga history,” she warbled. “This particular chapter talks about how the holidays were celebrated a century ago.”
Sandy frowned like a sick child. “Boring subjects, I must say. Can’t any of you break out of the typical holiday mold?”
Carrie gritted her teeth. “Please! Show more respect for your fellow writers!”
Mack bowed his head. “Not to mention Superbowl champions!”
Martha Ann snorted loudly. “Be quiet, Pringle!”
“That’s P-R-I-N-D-L!” he bellowed.
“You say that every time,” I reflected.
Carrie took a sip of her Irish tea. “This is the season of goodwill and peace. I would like you all to consider that as we discuss our writing projects.”
“Peace, schmeese!” Mack groaned. “I want to talk Superbowl trophies!”
“Give it up, friend,” I chortled. “You won’t even make the playoffs this year.”
“Blasphemy!” he roared.
“Hu Dey!” Martha Ann cheered. “The Cincinnati Bengals are leading this division. All you can do is watch them run!”
“Not true!” he disagreed.
“Is too!” she insisted. “Beaten by a cat! How about that!”
“Heyyy!” Mack complained. “I didn’t know you followed NFL football!”
“I don’t,” she explained. “But it is worth anything to shut your mouth!”
Carrie shook her head angrily. “Please, please, please!”
Sandy closed her eyes. “So much for holiday joy, eh? You’d all be better off listening to the truth of science than some ancient fairytale.”
“Why don’t you just move to Cleveland?” Martha Ann frowned.
Mack shuddered. “Yeah, so yinz can follow a losing team like the Browns!”
“Come on, Pringle!” Martha Ann bleated. “You grew up in Parkman. Quit acting like you came from Pennsylvania!”
Carrie was about to faint. “Pleeeeeeease!”
I sat my coffee cup on the table. “You know, the holiday season makes me thankful to live in Geauga County. A place protected from the turmoil that is sweeping neighborhoods in cities across America. Worry clouds the horizon for so many. Worry about the economy. About healthcare costs. About personal safety. About the decline of our society. About the look of tomorrow. We are lucky to be here. I give thanks for my place in this little part of the world.”
Silence descended over the group.
Finally, Carrie breathed a sigh.
“Amen!” she proclaimed, stirring her tea.
“Amen!” Martha Ann agreed.
“Affirmations!” Sandy echoed, reluctantly, while twisting the sleeve of her hemp blouse.
“Amen!” Mack cheered. He lifted his Steeler mug in the air.
“Amen! Amen! Amen!”
“I call this meeting adjourned,” Carrie declared. “Good luck with your newspapers. May all of you have a blessed holiday season!”
“See you in January!” Martha Ann added.
“No, in February,” Mack said with a grin. “For the next Stillers Superbowl appearance!”

Postscript: Here’s wishing a blessed holiday season to all of you, from the Icehouse!

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

“Munchos Memories”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“I think you can find all the elements that you can find in great literature in mundane experiences.” – Harvey Pekar

Blame it on Ohio.
When I lived in the Empire State, friends would often remark on my own peculiar fascination with oddball bits of everyday life. The label design on a Utica Club beer bottle. An obscure Country & Western ballad no one remembered. The identification tag on an abandoned car, sitting under trees on a hillside outside of town. The smell of newsprint at our local magazine emporium, Mayer’s Smoke Shop.
Coming home only intensified this bent toward everyday glory. I was fascinated by Joe Gall’s Chardon Laundromat. Old vehicles still parked at Ash Motors. The vintage post office, which would soon be decommissioned. And the overflowing bargain record bin at Woolworth’s in Chardon Plaza.
I tended to get “stuck” on random details.
In modern times. this habit has remained strong. A recent example appeared as I was shopping for salty snacks at my local supermarket, an activity that my doctor would certainly not endorse. Among a selection of familiar pretzels and chips was a throwback of sorts. A culinary Coelacanth, like the full-size spare tire once referenced in a Volkswagen commercial.
Munchos, by Frito Lay.
I remembered my first encounter with these potato crisps as a kid in the late 1960’s.  In particular, my memories are of having the snack while staying with my grandparents in Columbus, though that might be imprecise. Information about the crisps is vague on Internet sources. But early commercials were produced by Muppeteer Jim Henson, who later declined to renew his contract. A primitive version of what would become Cookie Monster can be seen crunching through a bag of Munchos, in these early ads.
Henson became famous as part of Sesame Street, which debuted in November, 1969. Munchos potato crisps were overshadowed by Pringles, a similar but more flashy potato chip alternative that had been introduced a few years before by Procter & Gamble.
Pringles were offered in a distinctive tennis-ball can and eventually came in different flavors. Munchos were an oddity for the Frito Lay menu. Under-promoted and nearly forgotten.
But, they survived.
In the modern era, bags of this snack are easily discovered carrying the company “$2 Only” price point boldly emblazoned across the package. Lots of varied opinions exist regarding their value as a snack food. Yet they continue to sell.
In personal terms, Muchos fit my template for fondness. They have been a persistent oddity, like the television program Space: 1999 or AMC automobiles. Who would openly admit to buying the snack? Yet somehow, under cover of darkness, or with clandestine moves meant to conceal their purchase, they still disappear from retailer shelves.
Even noted journalists have addressed this relentless marketplace presence in their writings. Francis Lam of SALON recently described these crisps with verbiage equally crisp as the treats themselves:

“Opening the bag is a subtle but heady experience. the aromatized air puffs forth, the smell of pure, clean deep-fry surrounds you. It’s like how your hair smells the morning after the carnival, that is, if your carnival past took you more toward hanging out by the corndog stands...”

Frito Lay eventually conceded defeat in the category by introducing Stax, in 2003. They were simply an echo of Pringles. But Munchos remain available at most stores.
Perhaps the strongest debate has been over their actual flavor on the palate. Are they potato crisps, as advertised? Maybe part rice cake, corn doodle, air puff or simply reconstituted kitchen crumbs?
Are they new-age healthy, being gluten-free?
Are they a retro fad, appealing to hipsters?
Are they a low-buck crossover for those interested in buying from Frito Lay instead of surrendering to Dan Dee or Troyer Farms? Or Walmart’s iconic Great Value brand?
Whatever their appeal, Munchos continue to survive on the strength of their genuine snackability. It is undeniably easy to eat an entire bag at one sitting. Especially when paired with a light, refreshing old-school beverage such as Miller High Life.
And like the VW spare tire, they offer a satisfying bit of lost culture for those who still remember.

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Friday, December 06, 2013

“Rust Never Sleeps”

c. 2013 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“Rust never sleeps.” I heard it in song.
On a recent night in Chardon, I found out that this bygone admonition from Neil Young still rings true.
I had finished a late work shift at my “real job” across the county line. Taking a detour from the usual path toward home, I traveled via Interstate 90 and Route 44. My last pause was at the biggest supermarket on Center Street. I wanted to purchase a traditional, print edition of this newspaper. Plus, catch up on local gossip with friends at the store.
The night was clear and cool. I reached the courthouse crest in only a minute, then began to descend down North Hambden Street.
Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis, a late-night radio program, echoed from the six speakers in my truck cab. I barely noticed a distant “pop” from the roadway. It was followed by a rush of escaping air. Lewis had a persistent tendency to weave audio bits and oddities into his show. So the sound did not cause immediate alarm. Gripping the steering wheel, I wondered if the burst of noise had been part of his broadcast.
But as the truck leaned leftward, reality took hold.
Circle K flew by in a blur of indecision. There was little time to ponder my alternatives. I turned, with effort, into a lot that had once been Chuck Ohl Chevrolet.
It was almost midnight.
I got out of my vehicle. The front, left tire was completely flat. Unpacking the emergency jack and lug nut wrench showed that the equipment had likely never been used. Amazing, since the truck had been built in 1998.
A factory spare tire was suspended under the cargo bed. It hung on a cable which could be loosened with the jack handle. Accomplishing this task while holding my iPhone for illumination proved challenging. Yet once I had lowered the tire, my predicament became clearer. The carrier had completely rusted. There was no separating the wheel from this device.
It also appeared to have never been needed.
I hammered away for a few minutes. Speckles of brown dust covered my face. Yet the spare tire remained bonded to its carriage.
I couldn’t help thinking of Young’s famous composition:

“My my, hey hey
Rock and Roll is here to stay
It’s better to burn out
Than fade away
My my, hey hey
Out of the blue and into the black
They give you this, but you pay for that
And once you’re gone, you can never come back
When you’re out of the blue and into the black.”

I started dialing numbers out of desperation. Because of the late hour, no one was awake. But finally, my niece answered her phone.
“Hello?” she said, groggy from slumber.
“This is Uncle Rod,” I wheezed. “Could you give me a ride home?”
She sounded confused. “Where are you?”
“Stranded, in front of Interstate Towing,” I explained. “Just down from the Chardon Square. Will need a tire for the truck, but that can wait until tomorrow...”
“Of course,” Dree said. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Nah,” I replied, patting my belly. “Plenty of natural insulation here.”
While waiting, I maneuvered the truck into a better spot, where it would not interfere with the flow of customer traffic. Then, another song appeared in my head:

“Like a snake calling on the phone
I’ve got no time to be alone
There is someone coming at me all the time
Babe I think I’ll lose my mind
‘Cause I’m stranded on my own
Stranded far from home.”

The Saints were Australian Punk heroes who I first heard in New York. Their classic, 1970’s recording seemed to reverberate through the darkness. While waiting, I took a few cell phone photos for Facebook.

“Stranded I’m so far from home
Stranded yeah I am on my own
Stranded why don’t you leave me alone.”

My niece arrived in a few minutes. She promised to help again, when daylight would make the task at hand easier to accomplish. Hours later, I could see the rust in all of its awful glory. But the spare tire still would not budge.
Our only solution was to pull the entire front wheel and take it to a repair shop. I left the truck perched on three tires and the bottle jack. An old acquaintance at a local business provided the replacement. A new tire exactly like the one bought before, about two years ago.
I was back on the road in time for work, only thirty minutes late.
“My my, hey hey.”

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