Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Pizza, A Wedding, & Queen

Colored Lights and Picnic Tables

As a child, the most fun birthday celebrations included chocolate cake and a trip to Organ Stop Pizza.  After placing an order, we’d sit family-style at the endless rows of checkered table cloth-covered picnic tables dotted with red glass candles.  On the wall, near the high ceiling, we watched for the numbers on the wall to illuminate in a rainbow of colors until our order number appeared.  The moment it illuminated, we would pester Dad to go and retrieve our pizzas and he returned with big metal pizza pans covered with melted cheese and tasty toppings.  And the pièce de résistance would be the enormous, mighty Wurlitzer organ connected to hundreds of pipes, a player piano, a glockenspiel, a xylophone, a compacted timpani set, and an animated bird cage.  The simple sing-a-longs would blare throughout the hall of picnic tables, and even “In The Good Old Summertime” could not compare to the “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” complete with full engine introduction.  You cannot even imagine the decibel level of “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” my personal favorite.

No matter how many times we convinced our parents to take us to Organ Stop, we never went often enough.  We loved when out-of-town family would come to visit so we could be sure to take them to our favorite establishment.  We would submit all our most beloved song selections, even if they were the same standards the organist would play regardless of whether or not we requested them.  The colored lights would illuminate, and continue counting even after we had finished our pizza, and we would practically fall asleep on the drive home because we wanted to stay as late as possible and enjoy as much of the ambiance of the pipe-filled hall as possible.  Even through the double-paned glass outside the restaurant, we would hear the hum of the deepest notes and feel the windows vibrate as the music continued to play despite our departure.  And as we drove away we would wonder when our next chance would be to return.

Modern Love

More than two decades later, my return to Arizona includes a stroll around Arizona State University, a visit to my old residences and schools, and dinner with an organ and pizza.  Except the original location where we had spent numerous celebrations had since shuttered its doors, leaving us to track down the even larger recreation on the far side of the Valley of the Sun.  Nonetheless, I want my sons to experience the excitement of watching the colored numbers blink until we know our pizza is finally ready.  We arrive before the first note of music so as to not miss a moment of memory.  But despite the familiar colored numbers and the lengthy picnic tables with red glass candles, the new and improved Organ Stop Pizza proves to be more than I remember.

As the pipes blow their first musical blast, the Wurlitzer rises from the “basement,” and rotates to reveal the same organist who began his pizza-playing career when I celebrated my first Organ Stop birthday in the early 1970s.  But his repertoire now includes a vastly more broad selection of stylings, including, at the request of a group of graduating high-school seniors, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  And in the upper balcony (yes, this locale even includes a second story), a wedding party celebrates with special tunes, hot, melted cheese on metal pizza pans, and tuxedos.  We stay until the last pipe blows, until the pizza is cooled and its cheese solidified, and until the colored lights stop flashing – a fete of endurance I had always wanted as a child – and regardless of their lack of overwhelming excitement that I always recall, I share some pizza, a wedding, and a little Queen with my boys at a restaurant synonymous with the colorful, tasty, musical delight of my childhood.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Setting Scouting

Planning and Plotting

When planning a vacation, planet Earth offers a myriad of options, but when selecting an ultimate destination, most people would select a penultimate travel destinations: Paris, Disneyland, the Grand Canyon.  Yet the jewel in my empty-nest crown revolved around a spectacular vacation, ninety percent of which became secondary to the ultimate destination.  As I began planning my latest expedition, one that my boss entitled my “Fuck The World” vacation, I spent a ridiculously short amount of time evaluating where I would voyage.  And then I added additional locations that most travelers would find at the top of their itinerary: Death Valley, the Great Salt Lake, Yosemite; all beautiful, of course, but none of which were my priority.

I wanted to find the ideal location for my work of fiction that had been tumbling about in my brain for the past decade. Over a plate of sushi and teriyaki, my friend recommended I succumb to my darkening world and embrace the midlife crisis hovering in my baffles. While sitting in silence later that night contemplating the vastness of locations to which I could plot my escape, the perfect place for my vacation became the future site of my protagonist’s climax. I mapped out a route through some of the most remote roads in America – northern Nevada, eastern California, northeastern Utah.  I wanted to drive The Loneliest Road in America, I wanted to see the buffalo on Antelope Island, cross Donner Pass, and get away from everything remotely related to tourism, familiarity, and people.  I made my vacation my own work of fiction.  The key elements of my story (plot, theme, characters, conflict, and setting) become the purpose for my exodus: I began with the setting.

Pull Over

Looking at my beloved atlas (see “Traveling With Boys,” November 2011), I plot the general area in which I feel my main character would travel.  From there, I began planning the peripheral expeditions which others might consider primary destinations.  I book a B&B on the western shore after circumnavigating Lake Tahoe.  I spend an artful night in Yosemite Valley, outside the majestic waterfalls (a destination at which I arrives having just missing the closing of Tioga Pass by less than forty-eight hours due to an early-season snowfall).  I reach Donner Pass, likewise covered in multiple inches of snow, dining on a more mild diet of cheese sticks and breakfast bars.  I descend thousands of feet to sea level to Stovepipe Wells in the core of Death Valley National Park.  Yet in this crib of spectacular natural vistas, I seek a location so secluded, so distant, so ignored by the world that an author finds both inspiration and desolation.  I stop along US Highway 93 in the Steptoe Valley where signs warn of lengthy durations without petrol services and I find the cubbies, the coves, and the open caverns where I can allow my character to escape unnoticed in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

I pull off the road and spend nearly thirty minutes capturing the scene on celluloid.  Dirty cliffs, sage brush cover, nooks in which an entire vehicle might steal away unnoticed create the perfect ambiance for my character.  For all the beautiful sights I witness over six full days, from the granite cliffs to the layered canyons, to the monstrous, towering creatures of the Mariposa Grove, these desolate, hidden crevices entice and enthrall me.  Few trees stand in the distance.  Even the wild mustangs avoid these hills bordering the dry, salt flats of western Utah.  More plant life than a moonscape, while slightly less fragrant than springtime jasmine, the brown, barren environment summons me and serves as the pinnacle of my escape.  Perhaps it becomes fitting that the Idiot Tree (see “The Idiot Tree” from December 2011) stands just ahead around a few mild curves in the road.  I’m in my favorite corner of the world and I am enveloped in inspiration, and here the story begins.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Joe vs. The Wicker Furniture

What Makes A City?

As often as I voyage in search of a quiet view of nature, I also like to explore amazing cities: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Green Bay.  Yep, believe it or not, when you live in the UP (see “The UP” from July 2012), you have to hit the road and drive the three hours – one way – to Green Bay, Wisconsin to get a dose of the big city life.  More than once, I made the trek to the mini-metropolis along the western shores of Lake Michigan just to see a movie, go out to dinner, or even buy a new car (see “Learning to Drive” from January 2013).  You make do with what you have in a pinch, right?

In fairness, the drive to Green Bay offers a view I found more enjoyable than the town itself.  Skirting the northern shore of the lowest of the Great Lakes, the view from the road includes glimpses of the fishing shelters on the frozen ice.  I marvel at the logic that developed these structures and I chuckle to myself when I know at some point during the spring melt, someone’s ice shack, and mostly likely their truck, too, will fall into thin ice – it appeared as a breaking news story on the evening report more than once each year.  In our quest to see all five Great Lakes (see “OMES” from March 2012), we stopped along the beautiful shoreline to snag a quick shot on the swings at a lakeside park.  Truthfully, it’s a lovely, scenic drive that I recommend in the summer.


About two-thirds of the way towards Packer headquarters, I prepare to cross from Michigan’s upper crest into northeastern Wisconsin where Menominee and Marinette straddle the Menominee River.  Along the Great Circle Route, like an anchor on the bottom of the peninsula, the historic home of Lloyd's Wicker Furniture fuels the economy of the Michigan side of this river region.  The woven furniture style migrated from its British roots and established itself in a large-scale manufacturing facility along US Highway 41.  The first time I drove towards the structure, I recalled an enormous manufacturing facility from the randomly quirky film Joe Versus The Volcano.

I envision Tom Hanks trudging day after day into this compound of industrial structures, a not-uncommon appearance along the Great Lakes, and his willingness to leave this dismal, dark, limited light location so far north of the Equator for a tropical oasis in the heart of Polynesia.  I feel similarly, as life in the frozen wasteland certainly gives me a brain cloud.  This mundane existence, where the weather remains unchanged for months upon end, where the sun sets before the work day ends, where the colors of gray and dingy white coat every object far beyond the Vernal equinox, lies in the intersection of misery of frostbite where I welcome the escape from such a routine.  A day trip to Green Bay, while a scenic drive providing a brief outing from the bitterness of the Upper Peninsula, just doesn’t measure up to the kind of escape I envision.  And as I pass the wicker furniture factory on my way through Menominee, I am reminded of the bleakness and monotony the factory represents in the film, and the similar pallor cast over me by my presence in this blank existence.  It would make me want to jump into a volcano, too.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Astronomer's Inn

On the Hilltop

I imagine the days when drivers would just head down a US highway until sunset and hope to find a place to stay, or when planners would use an outdated travel guide to call long distance to the anticipated city of arrival and book a motel that seemed to fit the size and budget of the party.  How clean was it?  How old was it?  How well kept was it?  These mysteries eluded even the most seasoned traveler, but with the advent of the Internet, booking hotel accommodations has entered a completely different era, yet somehow, the question still lingers over vacation planning: When booking a hotel for a vacation, how often does the place where we lie our heads reach a cosmic status?

Luck must have been on our side when we traveled to Benson, Arizona.  We read a few online reviews, and we booked a one-night stay on a hilltop overlooking the edge of the Sonoran Desert at a three-room inn with a self-explanatory name.  We splurged and booked the largest accommodations in the Egyptian Suite.  Delight ensued.  Besides a luxurious garden tub, walk-in shower, and add-on suite with sink, and a sensational view of the sunrise, the building included a guest kitchen, a spacious living room, a media room, an interactive classroom, an indoor dining area, a sunroom dining area, a lower patio with barbeque grill, and an upper patio with a stone-and-groove recreation of the solar system.  To top it off, the modest beacon offered three private rooms with telescopes to view the celestial spaces overhead.  Quite the heavenly retreat!

Before And After Sunset

Son #1 wandered the desert hillsides, tracking down rabbits, flowers, and vistas worthy of his 35mm camera.  Son #2 wandered through the indoor education areas alternating his exploring by climbing the stairs to roll the smooth stones representing Jupiter, Venus, and then-planet Pluto around the boulder of the sun on the upper deck.  I repeatedly pulled my hair for my face where the wind felt determined to toss it as I attempted to capture the ambiance of the late May afternoon in words.  From time to time, one of the boys might stop to check in with me, but they had become enthralled with their own expeditions and not until the proverbial dinner bell rang did we finally regroup as a family.  We savored and swallowed our prepared dinner as the horizon likewise did the same to the evening sun.

When darkness covered the hillside and the valley, and while the moon waited patiently offstage awaiting its late evening entrance, we joined our guest astronomy buff alongside the 20” telescope in our own private observatory.  From this vantage point, and with a few magical clicks of the web-enabled mammoth in the room, we each took turns gazing upon the rings of Saturn.  Looping effortlessly around the sphere they called home, the rings lacked Hubble-quality color and clarity, but beyond a doubt, the proof that these spinning collections of rocks and debris hugged their mother planet and we witnessed this spectacle together as a little family.  Distant nebula followed suit, and once the moon distracted from our perfectly clear view of the skies beyond our little atmosphere, we stepped outside to watch man-made satellites loop the earth passing south to north, swiftly darting through the night sky.  Even with its user-generated content, expert advice, and special savings offers, Expedia could not have given our night at the Astronomer’s Inn a remotely suitable rating to match the majesty of our exquisite night among the stars.