Mountains from Molehills

Root WineMost Friday nights, relaxation consumes the pith of my free time.   Others might consider sitting by the heat vents book-in-hand a tad tame, even pathetic (Or in words of my little brother, a soul-crunching waste of my youth), but that’s just how some of us are put together.  There are those with the constitution to drink, carouse, and womanize all night.   If that’s all they’re capable of, God bless them, but some of us need a little bit more: travel, sword fights, damsels in distress, and that’s all before I even picked up my first tome.  With my family even the dullest chores or stagnant afternoons can emerge as a circus act, complete with clowns, lions, and jugglers (Shannon and Charley are still quite upset about that Belleek vase, Mom.).

The angle is the key, the difference between boredom and amusement.  As one of my old teachers and religious advisers reminded me, the value of these idle moments is akin to finding a peep-hole into the girls’ locker room: with the proper perspective and a little imagination, a world of untold riches unfolds before you.

One evening, in preparation for Christmas and the impending snowstorm, Mom and I drove out to the local liquor store and wine emporium.  What Borders and Barnes & Nobles is to me — that is a land of wondrous magic and adventure, from which my siblings often must drag me kicking and screaming, my hands clutching the latest Stephen King for ballast — so is the wine store to Mom.  In our most honest moments, adults revert back to childhood, peeling back the time-encrusted layers of restraint, reserve, and responsibility.  As we walked through the doors, I found her quivering with excitement.

“Okay Murph, we need a few bottles for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the next week or so until New Years.  They say it’s going to get below freezing and I might not be up for leaving the house until 2010.”

“Right, Mom.”  It was quarter of eight.  The liquor store I reasoned must close sometime around 10PM or so, giving us little more than two hours to finish our shopping.  I just hoped it would be enough.

Meeta Panesar CabernetSeriously the woman can spend hours staring at bottles, divining secrets of pomegranates and flame-burnt oak through green-tinted glass and labels adorned with yellow-tailed kangaroos.  Other customers skirt around her like a small craft around a rocky shoal.   After some five minutes, she begins to sway from side to side, smile to herself and hum Toby Keith, a musical collage of alcohol-related operas sung with a country twang, half-whispered, and off-key.  I leave her to her studies, scurrying off down the aisles to critique the artistry of bottle labels.  Most modern liquor stores are in truth an art gallery in miniature, offering an eclectic collection of landscapes, impressionistic reliefs, and abstract still-lifes with polyhedral grapes.  I spend the next hour or so staring at withered trees swallowed by fog; an Aztec dragon curling around the ornate vine; an antique home or castle sketched in charcoal.   Honestly, these glass-curled portraits are the only method I have for choosing new flavors.  Once home, we quickly drain the bottles of their respective juices, wash the inner chamber, and mount on the shelf for the world to see.

The lagers are even more intriguing: Bad Elf, Bastard Ale, Honeyed Meed, and even CopperDragon – Golden Pippen.  The geek in me giggled, while secretly regretting my utter distaste for beers.  If only the stuff did not taste of swill, I could picture myself with a flagon of ale, pwning fell demons and scale-skinned marauders from unholy lands online.   As Dad would remind me, if you don’t look the part, you’re always forced to prove yourself.  I might not possess the strength to wield a Viking axe — or even possess an axe — but many a bandit might reconsider picking my pocket if I learned to drink like one.

Cardinal Zin WineI find Mom still rooted near the wine racks, deciding.  Somewhere in my subconscious, I imagine her silently communing with the ghosts of Italian wine makers and liver-soaked drunkards of Christmas past.    The spirits convene over smoked gouda, Carr crackers, and a 1986 Mondavi Cab before passing out, leaving my mother to her own frugal judgment.

$17.95.  A Sterling merlot.  Everything else is too expensive.  I add several bottles of my own, feeling quite pleased with the decorative quality of my choices, and  lie about the price.  She’ll thank me later, once the snow begins to pile.

We finally leave, my arms and back laden by several box-loads of wine, beer, and assorted spirits (the drinkable kind).  Cars pile outside the store as families quickly replenish their supplies for a long weekend snowed in with their children.  The nearby bar appears packed, nearly brimming over into the cold night.  The air felt tense and still, as if the evening was just about to exhale.  The flurries began then, showering the car as we crossed bridges, through the woods, and nearly skidded down hills.  At home, the snow had started to cover the asphalt.  Brigid had stayed over a friends house and alcohol safely stowed inside, Mom sent me out to retrieve her.

Shefa Profusion wine bottlesIt’s the small things in life that matter.  Armed with my iPod and a playlist of epic soundtracks, I set off again into the night, snow piling on the roads like powdered sugar.  Oncoming traffic weaved between lanes as the line dividers disappeared; my car fishtailed into the shoulder near the bridges, nearly colliding with a few mailboxes after only a mile.  At one point, I thought I saw a yeti disappear into the trees.  Bree, my sister, nearly groaned when she saw me pull up to her friend’s house.

“Awww . . . I hoped that I could spend the night.  Could you leave me here, and tell Mom that you got stuck?  Or hit a tree or something?”

There are guys who spend their Friday nights bar-hopping around the city, having adventures that they can barely remember in the morning.  Each to their own.  Yet among the grind, chores, and duties of large families, other adventures surface.  It’s not about making excitement routine, as much as discovering the excitement in the routine.  Sometimes all it takes is a slight turn of the head, a blink of the eye, and BOOOM! you’re there.  You don’t even need alcohol . . . though I wouldn’t tell Mom that.

B Frank wine bottle


Any other day, my family drives me to drink – an expression here which means “seek out escape through madness or perversion” – yet last night proved quite literally the reverse. As of midnight Tuesday morning, my brother Sean turned twenty-one and, like an Irish Cinderella, morphs from an innocent to a drunkard by the twelfth strike of the clock. Responsible adults that we are, we surprised Sean late in the evening while ignoring his protests of sleep and “work early next morning.” Covering his face with a black windbreaker, Katie, Mom, and I stuffed him into the back of my car like a kidnapped POW and drove off to the nearest redneck/biker bar in the county.

As I understand it, Sean loves this place, a surprisingly well-furnished roadhouse near the railroad tracks. The bar had been rebuilt years ago, reinforced now with new wood, fresh paint, and even poorer lighting than before, which I understand suits its patrons well. Many of my brother’s colleagues, fellow farmers and cattle showmen, frequent this roadhouse as a second home; thus Sean is no stranger to the sticky wet tables and peanut-blanketed floor. Whether he ever imbibed illegally at this establishment, I cannot say. I will say with certainty that tonight is not his first drink in the past five years. Everyone knows this, even Mom although she is quick to catch him admitting it:

My Pint“I want a Miller Chill,” Sean shouts through the windbreaker, his voice muffled yet clearly excited. “I’ve heard they are good.”

“How do you know?” Mom whips her head around to stare at him (which may seem absurd through his covering, but I swear that her eyes can burn holes through adamantium).

“Oh . . . um, well . . . it just looks good.”

Right. None of us buy that excuse. Neither does Mom, but at this point I suppose any argument is moot. A few more minutes and his past deceit will be wiped clean, purified with a laugh to simple childhood shenanigans and teenage memories. Her silence therefore is almost congratulatory, a vindication to crime, a medal of honor to duplicity.

We arrive at the bar, where we meet my aunt and uncle, the big partiers of my family and my godparents. Ironically enough considering how much my aunt and uncle drank and caroused in their youth, you would have thought that I would develop into more of a drinker, a pished product of my environment, instead of what I am: weekend chauffeur and designated driver. Somewhere in my education, they must have failed . . . or succeeded, depending on how you look at it.

Apart from our two cars, the parking lot is empty when we remove Sean’s shroud. He laughs, but of course, I believe that he had a good idea where we were going. Driving over the railroad tracks (with feet lifted of course, lest you never find true love – old superstition) was a big clue.

We advance to the door but find the place locked tight. Now someone – not me thank goodness – was suppose to have called the bar and made arrangements for our party at midnight. A big burly bartender sporting a colorful pair of boxers – and nothing else – informed us the bar was closed. About the time that we saw the sweat glistening off his rotund gut and his hand reach down to his nether regions for a scratch, I think Mom and my aunt decided not to argue. I for one was not going to touch anything that this hairy exhibitionist served me.

The three-toed sloth.  Thus we left deciding on another bar, an Irish pub a little further down the road, to toast and roast Sean until two in the morning. Now to me, the true joy of celebrating a twenty-first at a bar is in discovering what type of drunk my siblings were. My mom and aunt after a few shots become quite giggly and talkative: happy drunks. Alcohol however can twist and contort my sister, Katie, into a mean drunk at times. Once she stapled me a “Green Gremlin” when I offered to help her to her room, dismissing me with a wave of her hand and instructions to return to my cave. Apparently she had made other plans, you see. Choosing to grip the banister with both her hands and feet like a giant sloth, she shimmied and slid up the railing until falling on the – thankfully – carpeted stairs. She denies this, of course, but luckily I have witnesses . . . as well as a few pictures which I am saving for when she gets married.

Meanwhile, on the very few occasions when I have imbibed more than is sensible, I become a very analytical drunk, talking loudly, citing Coolidge, and inspecting my own state of delirium.

Once after four or so glasses of Jagermeister and Red Bull (a very dangerous combination, I have since learned), I discovered a shot of electricity shot along my arm whenever I stretched. This being my very first bout with alcohol, I spent the remainder of the night, trying to reason out the biology behind my condition – much to Patrick’s frustration:

“Murphey, don’t think! Just drink!” Pat rhymes when he drinks, and thus represents the poet drunk, an egregious teller of bad jokes.

“But Pat . . . Pat my arm gets so tingly when I straighten it. Like blood is suddenly surging across to my fingers. Or perhaps I am the son of Zeus. Is that normal?” I ask, flinging my arm out into several different directions to demonstrate.

My bane!Another instance – probably the worst – I had asked Pat to help me construct a few CDs, when he and I started talking about this girl I fancied who within days would be leaving for India. Distraught and foolish, we opened a cask of Crown Royal and finished off the whole bottle within a few hours. My exploits for the remainder of the night are lost in a cloud of bitter sensations, but I am told that I slid noisily down the stairs shouting “Bump!” as I rolled over each step, expressed my wonderment to my sleeping parents at this unique state of mind, and woke up Katie to discuss my love problems while citing Shakespearean sonnets, which I have since forgotten. The morning after was not pretty, but if I had won the Noble Prize for Chemistry Mom could not have been prouder.

“It’s good to break out every once in a while,” she said. I agreed, but as my head rattled and shook like a martini decanter, I promised never to find myself in that state again. Or more importantly allow anyone else to find me in such a state again.

Now Sean . . . as a blossoming lawyer, he enjoys arguing and irritating others. Drunken Sean is no different only he argues and irritates at a high volume . . . oh and he likes to sing too. Katie and Sean regaled us with several off-key refrains of Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass.” Later they joyously shouted out some imaginative lyrics to Journey and let loosed some water in the driveway. Ah . . . the memories. That in itself made the night well worthwhile.