Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Day, 2015

As all of my regular readers already know, today is my favorite holiday: the traditional and quintessentially American holiday of Thanksgiving. In a crazy world in which we too often focus on fear, negativity, and the material things in life, it's good to have a day on which to sit back and reflect on the things for which we can be truly thankful. Today - as on every Thanksgiving Day - Bilbo the Cynical Curmudgeon yields the blog to Bilbo the Reflective Grandpa to think about some of the things that are right with the world ...

A beautiful and marvelously talented wife who makes life interesting and enjoyable ... if a little chaotic at times;

Three loving and successful children who have made their own marks on the world, and of whom I am proud beyond all measure;

Six adorable, intelligent, and loving grandchildren that can warm the most jaded heart;

The world's best daughter-in-law;

A job;

A home;

Good health;


The good fortune to be able to live in a country which, for all its faults, gives me the opportunity to enjoy all of the above;

The ability to write what I wish in this space without worrying about the heavy hand of the censor; and,

The ability to enjoy the good things of the world that would be denied by those whose harsh and intolerant worship of a jealous and angry God ignores the beauty and possibilities of the present in favor of rigid belief in an imagined paradise in an unknowable future.

I have many things to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day, and it's only proper that I should take a few minutes to acknowledge that I am, as ever, most richly blessed.

I wish all of you, Dear Readers, the very happiest and safest of holidays.

Have a good day. Give thanks for the good things you have and the bad things you don't. And stay out of the stores tomorrow ... you'll thank me.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What's Your Sign and Irrational Terror?

I recently ran across this interesting, if unscientific article: The Thing That Irrationally Terrifies You, According to Your Zodiac Sign.

If you believe in such things, my irrational fear (I'm a Scorpio) is mycophobia - the fear of mushrooms. Personally, I think this is ridiculous for several reasons. First of all, if I was irrationally afraid of mushrooms, I probably wouldn't love to see great mounds of them on my plate, saut├ęd with onions next to a nice, medium-rare steak. And secondly, I'm pretty sure that I may be a mushroom myself, based on the old saying that "I must be a mushroom, because they keep me in the dark and feed me s**t."

Here are the alleged irrational fears for the other signs of the Zodiac (with my comments, of course):

Aries (March 21 - April 19): Atelophobia, the fear of not doing something right or the fear of not being good enough. There must not be any Aries running for president.

Taurus (April 20 - May 20): Metathesiophobia, the fear of change. I wonder if those suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome are all Tauruses (Tauri?).

Gemini (May 21 - June 20): Eremophobia, the fear of loneliness. I thought it was actually the fear of using the archaic word ere instead of the modern before.

Cancer (June 21 - July 22): Agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, being in crowded public places, or fear of leaving a safe place. I think I'll go back to bed.

Leo (July 23 - August 22): Zelophobia, the fear of jealousy.

Virgo (August 23 - September 22): Ataxophobia, the fear of messes (untidiness and disorder). Not a problem at Chez Bilbo.

Libra (September 23 - October 22): Decidophobia, the fear of making decisions. Former president George W. Bush, the "decider in chief" was actually a cancer (born on July 6th), freeing him to have no fear of making disastrous decisions.

Sagittarius (November 22 - December 21): Claustrophobia, the fear of confined spaces. Not the fear of bearded fat men in red suits emerging from one's chimney?

Capricorn (December 22 - January 19): Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. God help you during this election season ... you're doomed.

Aquarius (January 20 - February 18): Arachibutyrophobia, the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth.

Pisces (February 19 - March 20): Geniophobia, the fear of chins. I guess you're screwed if Jay Leno shows up at your house. I always thought that this was actually the fear of wish-granting figures emerging from old lamps.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The 30-Day Writing Challenge: All the Places You've Ever Lived

I have discovered that there are several different versions of the 30-Day Writing Challenge out there. There's the one I got from John, and there's the one that Andrea found. There are elements of both that I like, and so for today's 30-Day Writing Challenge topic I've decided on "A List of All the Places You've Lived At." Andrea has had a go at this one, so I thought I'd follow suit ...

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My hometown. I lived there until I graduated from college, got married, and went off on my own in the early 70's. We actually lived in two different locations in Pittsburgh - the house in Bellevue where I was born, and the house in the northern suburb of McCandless where I spent most of my early life. It's easier just to say "Pittsburgh."

University Park and State College, Pennsylvania. University Park is the home of the Penn State main campus. I lived in a dormitory (Stuart Hall, out in East Halls area, to be exact) on campus for four years (and am still friends with my old roommate, Ed, now a retired professor of microbiology), and spent one summer sharing an apartment with my friend Greg in the neighboring town of State College. Someday I'll tell you the story of our downstairs neighbors and their hearse.

Aurora, Colorado. I rented an apartment in Aurora for six months in 1973-74 while I was learning to be a photo interpreter at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver (now closed ... the base, not Denver).

Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. I lived here from 1974 to 1978, and both of my sons were born in the base hospital. Barksdale adjoins the cities of Bossier City and Shreveport, which are nice enough places to live if you like very hot, muggy temperatures and very large bugs.

Wiesbaden, Germany. I lived in a stairwell apartment in the Hainerberg American housing area from 1978 to 1980 before moving to ...

Berlin, Germany. I lived here for from 1980 to 1982, back when the city was still a walled-in island surrounded by Communist East Germany. I had a great, exciting job with some really terrific people, with several of whom I remain in regular contact after all these years. This was where Agnes and I met (another great story I'll tell you sometime if you haven't heard it) and married, and where I had the experience of being called something by a Polish army colonel that my interpreter (a very sweet, middle-aged lady named Teresa) blanched at and wouldn't translate ("Oh, Keptin Beelbo, you should not know vat he called you!").

Woodbridge, Virginia. We came back from Germany just before Christmas in 1982 and bought a house here in January of 1983. It was the first home purchase for both of us, and a rude shock ... not just the cost of the house, but discovering the horror of the agonizing commute to work in NoVa traffic.

Wiesbaden, Germany. We went back to Germany in 1987 and rented half of a beautiful house in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains overlooking Wiesbaden. You may remember that I wrote earlier this year about our adventures with its electrical wiring.

Springfield, Virginia. In 1990 we came back to the States for the last time and settled here in Springfield, about 20 miles south of Washington, DC. We began by renting a house that belonged to one of my co-workers, then found one to buy, becoming once again a wholly-owned subsidiary of a mortgage company. We've been in that house since 1992.

And that's all the places I've ever lived. As military careers go, I made far fewer moves than many others do, and have lived in pretty desirable places. I consider myself lucky.

So, where have you lived? Leave a comment and let's see if we were ever neighbors.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Musical Monday

Back when I was doing my radio show ("The Audio Attic") on WEBR, the Fairfax County public access radio station, I had a theme for each show, and one of my favorite recurring themes was "Songs That Tell Stories." Now, you might argue that every song represents the writer telling a story in music, but there are actually songs that tell real, interesting stories. Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is one such, and another is the song I've picked for this week - a cowboy ballad that tells the story of a little man pushed just a bit too far. Here's Marty Robbins singing the story of "Mister Shorty" ...

The imagery in this song is vivid and chilling ...

"When you call me 'Shorty,' say 'Mister,' my friend ... or maybe you'd rather be dead."


"The forty-four spoke and it sent lead and smoke and seventeen inches of flame."

Have a good day. Be careful who you pick on.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Poetry Sunday

My old friend Gonzo Dave and I are sometimes accused of being "Grammar Nazis" because we appreciate good English. I'll admit to being somewhat of a linguistic purist, but I also appreciate that there are times when it's appropriate ... or even necessary ... for the rules to go out the window. This week, in honor of Grammar Nazis everywhere, we have this clever poem from a person one doesn't usually associate with poetry, but with hard-boiled detective fiction ...

Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive
by Raymond Chandler

Miss Margaret Mutch she raised her crutch
With a wild Bostonian cry.

"Though you went to Yale, your grammar is frail,"
She snarled as she jabbed his eye.

"Though you went to Princeton I never winced on
Such a horrible relative clause!

Though you went to Harvard no decent larva'd
Accept your syntactical flaws.

Taught not to drool at a Public School
(With a capital P and S)

You are drooling still with your shall and will
You're a very disgusting mess!"

She jabbed his eye with a savage cry.
She laughed at his anguished shrieks.

O'er the Common he fled with a hole in his head.
To heal it took Weeks and Weeks.

"O dear Miss Mutch, don't raise your crutch
To splinter my new glass eye!

There ain't no school that can teach a fool
The whom of the me and the I.

There ain't no grammar that equals a hammer
To nail down a cut-rate wit.

And the verb 'to be' as employed by me
Is often and lightly split.

A lot of my style (so-called) is vile
For I learned to write in a bar.

The marriage of thought to words was wrought
With many a strong sidecar.

A lot of my stuff is extremely rough,
For I had no maiden aunts.

O dear Miss Mutch, leave go your clutch
On Noah Webster's pants!

The grammarian will, when the poet lies still,
Instruct him in how to sing.

The rules are clean: they are right, I ween,
But where do they make the thing?

In the waxy gloam of a Funeral Home
Where the gray morticians bow?

Is it written best on a palimpsest,
Or carved on a whaleboat's prow?

Is it neatly joined with needlepoint
To the chair that was Grandma's pride?

Or smeared in blood on the shattered wood
Where the angry rebel died?

O dear Miss Mutch, put down your crutch,
and leave us to crack a bottle.

A guy like I weren't meant to die
On the grave of Aristotle.

O leave us dance on the dead romance
Of the small but clear footnote.

The infinitive with my fresh-honed shiv
I will split from heel to throat.

Roll on, roll on, thou semicolon,
ye commas crisp and brown.

The apostrophe will stretch like toffee
When we nail the full stop down.

Oh, hand in hand with the ampersand
We'll tread a measure brisk.

We'll stroll all night by the delicate light
Of a well placed asterisk.

As gay as a lark in the fragrant dark
We'll hoist and down the tipple.

With laughter light we'll greet the plight
Of a hanging participle!"

She stared him down with an icy frown.
His accidence she shivered.

His face was white with sudden fright,
And his syntax lily-livered.

"O dear Miss Mutch, leave down your crutch!"
He cried in thoughtless terror.

Short shrift she gave. Above his grave:

Have a good day, and may your infinitives be properly split. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Cartoon Saturday

I should have stayed on vacation ...

A funeral director in Philadelphia has been arrested and charged with abuse of a corpse months after three decomposing bodies were found in her garage; at least 21 people were killed in a terror attack on a hotel in Bamako, Mali; UFC champion Ronda Rousey suffered a devastating loss to challenger Holly Holm when she was knocked out by a vicious kick to the head; European countries agreed to new steps aimed at securing Europe’s borders in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, even as governors in many American states said that they would refuse to accept refugees from Syria; and Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy analyst convicted of spying for Israel, was released on Friday after spending nearly 30 years in prison.

In honor of our recently-completed vacation, today's collection of theme cartoons deals with ... what else? ... vacations.

This is why we cruise with Princess ... no confusion ...

It's what you get when you go with the bargain cruise lines ...

Why Agnes helps pick out my wardrobe ...

Remember when flying used to be fun and an adventure? ...

You really do need to be careful when you read the advertising ...

Turning to other topics, I think I know how our government makes its policy choices ...

It's only a matter of time before this service catches on ...

Everyone's a specialist ...

Finally for this week, sometimes you need to get creative to convince the children they need to do their homework ...

And that's it for this week's edition of Cartoon Saturday ... I hope you enjoyed it. It looks as if it's going to be a chilly weekend here in NoVa, perhaps a good one to do the fall lawn cleanup as we get ready for what promises to be a long winter. I also need to prep some more posts, as we'll be headed out to Dayton, Ohio for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I know you won't want to miss your expected Bilbo fixes. I'll get right on it ...

Have a good day. See you tomorrow for Poetry Sunday. More thoughts then.


Friday, November 20, 2015

The Left Cheek Ass Clown for November, 2015

The choice of the Left- and Right-Cheek Ass Clowns each month is always a difficult task, but I must tell you, Dear Readers, that I was seriously conflicted in my choice of awardee this time. A simple glance at the news reveals teeming throngs of monumentally qualified ass clowns tripping over themselves to clamor for the dishonor. From the horrifying religious bigots and fanatics of Daesh (I'll use this term from now on because it pisses them off) to those at home who scream black and white answers to the very grayest of problems, to certifiable lunatics like Donald Trump*, the field is crowded almost to the point of making it impossible to choose one top candidate.


In all the frenzied screaming about terrorism, homeland security, and deadly political/religious fervor, we would hope that those we elect to lead us would remain calm and rational, taking prudent steps to ensure our protection while remaining true to the ideals that shaped us as a country: freedom of speech, assembly, and ... perhaps most importantly at this juncture ... religion. With this in mind, I find it easy to single out one of the worst examples of leadership and Constitutional ignorance I have seen in many years. Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Readers, I give you the Left Cheek Ass Clown for November, 2015

Ohio Governor John Kasich

Earlier this week, in the wild scrum of news reports, accusations, and fervent argument on both the left and right, Governor Kasich advocated the creation of a federal government agency specifically dedicated to the promotion of "Judeo-Christian Values" at home and abroad.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Governor Kasich, like most Republicans, has heretofore been a strong advocate of cutting the size of government, it seems interesting that he is now advocating not only creation of a new government agency, but one that is demonstrably unconstitutional given the clear separation of church and state that is a bedrock of our character as a nation. Given that Governor Kasich entertains thoughts of running for president, such a horrendous ignorance of the Constitution should be a major disqualifying factor for any thinking American ... but given that actual thinking is quickly going out of style, I suppose it's no wonder that a certain portion of the population will support this terrible idea.

For his utter ignorance of the Constitution and his willingness to create an agency of the government to spread specific religious beliefs while at the same time favoring reductions of services the government already provides to citizens, Ohio Governor John Kasich is named as the Left Cheek Ass Clown for November, 2015.

Have a good day. Come back tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday. More (and, hopefully, funnier) thoughts then.


* A three-time previous winner of this award, whose advocacy of Nazi-era policies to modern problems alone would have made him a prime candidate.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Random Post-Vacation Thoughts

We've now been back from our vacation for four days, enough time for me to get back into my usual routine of being sour and pissed off about most things. Just kidding, actually ... the level of cynicism is creeping back up, but I'm still enjoying the last vestiges of the vacation high.

Over the last two days, I've showed you a representative few of the 500-odd pictures I shot during the cruise; today, I thought I'd share a few random thoughts about the trip. If you don't care, you can go someplace else and come back tomorrow for the announcement of the Left Cheek Ass Clown for November ... otherwise, read on.

Some people are turned off on the idea of a cruise vacation because of the cost, which can seem high when you look at it. But consider this: for the period of your cruise, all of your food, non-alcoholic drinks, and entertainment is paid for. There are other ways to minimize your costs, one of which is your selection of cabin ... Agnes and I always go for a room with a balcony, because we like to occasionally sit outside in privacy and enjoy the sea air and the sound of the waves going by. If you're good with sitting outside on the public decks, and realize that you really don't spend much time in your cabin except when you're sleeping, you can get a cabin without a balcony, or even an inside cabin without any outside view, which is much cheaper.

The real expense of a cruise comes from all the extras they try to sell you once you're on board and a captive audience. If you can discipline yourself to minimize visits to the bar, not buy a lot of stuff (especially jewelry, as I know to my despair) in the onboard shops, and be selective with the shore excursions you sign up for and the shopping you do in overpriced port shops, it can be a vacation that isn't exactly cheap, but is preiswert (as we would say in German - good value for the money).

If you enjoy people-watching, as I do, time on a cruise ship is about as good as it gets. There were over 3,000 people on board the Caribbean Princess, and they provided an interesting cross-section of humanity. Most people were cheerful, happy, and polite; a small number were grouchy, impolite first-class ass clowns ... but on a ship about 950 feet long, with a beam of 120 feet and 13 public decks, you can avoid them easily enough.

On most cruise ships, dining is done in a traditional way, with passengers assigned a specific table and dining time for each meal, so that you see the same people and are served by the same wait staff each time. This doesn't appeal to us, which is why we like the choice offered by Princess (and I think some other cruise lines are experimenting with it as well): you can have "traditional" dining, or you can sign up for "anytime" dining, in which you show up at the dining room whenever you want and then have the option of waiting for a private table or sharing a table with random passengers. We have found this to be a good way of meeting a wide range of interesting people (and a few bozoheads, too, but you pays your money and you takes your chances). Early in the cruise, we shared a table with a young couple who turned out not only to be from my home town of Pittsburgh, but who were graduates of a neighboring high school (albeit a few years after I'd left). We had a very enjoyable time talking about the home town then and now.

The cruise ships evolve and change over time as the lines remove things people don't seem to want and add new things they do. One of the things that's changed for the worse (in my opinion) is that the onboard library (which is free) has greatly shrunk in order to accommodate an expansion of the Internet Center (which is not). On our previous cruises, I enjoyed spending time in the ship's library, which had large, comfortable chairs with wide, flat arms designed to provide a good, stable writing surface; now, those chairs are gone, replaced with smaller, less comfortable chairs and lots of computer terminals. Bummer. On our first cruise, the ship (it was the Coral Princess) actually had a "Writing Room" equipped with small, window-facing desks at which you could sit and write letters or keep a journal (which I do when we travel) ... now, the Writing Room is gone, as nobody seems to write any more, except on a screen. Sigh.

Well, Dear Readers, those are a few of my observations. I'll share some others with you in the future, but now I have to get ready to go to work so that I can pay off this cruise and start saving for the next one.

Have a good day. Come back tomorrow for the naming of the Left Cheek Ass Clown for November. More thoughts then.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

More Pictures from the Caribbean

Here are a few more random pictures from our trip ...

A view of our ship, the Caribbean Princess, from the tender ...

This is my favorite onboard photo, taken from the highest point on the ship I could reach ... it's nice to be able to get so much color into a single frame ...

Not everyone is welcome on board ...

The weather was such that there were lots of very beautiful cloud formations. Here's the sunrise behind the clouds as we approached Grand Cayman ...

Agnes was impressed to find a little bit of home in the Caribbean ... an Oktoberfest celebration (which, sadly, we missed) in Grand Cayman ...

Everyone said we absolutely shouldn't miss the fabulous Stingray Fountain in Grand Cayman. It was nice, but somehow I don't think it lived up to the hype ...

Yesterday I showed you several pictures of the pyramid ruins in Chocchoban. In addition to the pyramids, dotted throughout the jungle were a great many other ruins of what the guide told us were assumed to be residential, religious, and administrative structures, like this one ...

Nature takes some amazing forms in the jungle ...

Everything is riotously colorful in the Caribbean ... this is a shot of the water slide at one of the pools in the Playa Mia resort in Cozumel ...

One of the last pictures I took on the trip ... a beautiful sunrise as we sailed up the channel to Houston and the end of the cruise ...

So much for the pictures. Tomorrow I'll share a little commentary on the trip. Be sure to come back then.

Have a good day.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Home Again

Yes, Dear Readers, Agnes and I have returned from our all-too-short vacation trip. Sigh. We arrived back at home about 9:30 on Sunday evening, and the best that can be said is that we didn't suffer from jet lag, having only a one-hour time change during the trip.

We flew to Houston, Texas, on Saturday the 7th, and sailed on the Caribbean Princess the following day. We had two days at sea before arriving at the first port, Grand Cayman. We visited two more ports - Costa Maya (Mahahual) and Cozumel - before spending another full day at sea and arriving back in Houston on Sunday the 15th. The weather was, for the most part, perfect - it was very windy and chilly, with pouring rain when we arrived in Houston, and pretty chilly when we returned, but we lucked out across the Caribbean ... lots of clouds, but relatively comfortable temperatures and we didn't encounter any heavy rain.

We had a wonderful time ... I know this because I saw the pictures. And now so can you ...

Here I am at the harbor in Grand Cayman, doing my very best imitation of a Yankee tourist. The Caribbean Princess is in the background.

One of the things we forgot when we left was to bring either cash or ATM cards. We had our credit cards, but no travelers checks or loose cash for tips, bribes, and other small things. While at Grand Cayman, we dropped into a branch of the Butterfield Bank to get a cash advance against one of our credit cards, allowing us to say - with a straight face - that we bank in the Cayman Islands.

The next port of call was Costa Maya, on the Yucatan peninsula in extreme southern Mexico, not far from the border with Belize. We had signed up for a tour to one of the many sets of Mayan ruins that dot the area, and it was an amazing experience. After a bus trip of about an hour, we arrived at the Chocchoban historical site.

The ruins of Chocchoban (pronounced "chock-CHO-bun") were dotted through a large area of jungle, and have only been partly excavated and restored ... there are a large number of huge mounds of tree-covered dirt that conceal other pyramids and other buildings, but the Mexican government doesn't have the money to study all of them (according to our guide, there are about 44 thousand documented archaeological sites across the country awaiting study).

The jungle was very beautiful, and many of the trees and other foliage had twisted themselves into weird and intricate designs ...

After a short walk through the jungle along roads restored in the Mayan style, we visited several partially-restored pyramids ... the pictures don't really give a good impression of how large they were. Not "Great Pyramid of Giza" large, but very impressive nevertheless.

Because the steps on the pyramids were uneven, smooth, moss-covered and - consequently - quite slippery, we were not allowed to climb higher than the first three or four levels of most of the sites. Here, Agnes is sitting on the lower steps to give an idea of the size of one of the pyramids. This one was an astrological temple, arranged to line up with the sun on specific days of the year.

This was actually the first pyramid we saw when we came out of the jungle. We learned that these pyramids are not hollow - they're actually solid, and built in layers by successive rulers. In their prime, they were covered with smooth, red stucco ... today, of course, one sees only the underlying stone.

On arriving back at the port, we decided that the rum-spiked coconuts looked pretty good ...

There were some places around the port we decided not to visit ...

At Cozumel, we had signed up for a Mexican cooking class at the Playa Mia resort. We made an appetizer of Devil-Style Shrimp Sopes, Fish Filets with Sauteed Vegetables and Tamarind Sauce, and a dessert of Caramelized Plantains with Chocolate Tequila Sauce. Here are your happy chefs ...

And here are the results ... this was the appetizer ...

The main course (the fish really is in there under the vegetables and sauce ...

And here was Agnes's dessert. We decorated the plates with chocolate sauce and heavy cream, and learned how to create intricate designs ... Agnes got pretty creative, as you can see.

The bright pink building on the right was the cooking school ... the kitchens were on the ground floor; once we'd finished cooking, we carried our food up to the second level to dine in a room with a nice breeze and view of the ocean.

That's all for now. I'll have some more commentary and put up a few more pictures later. 

Have a good day. More Caribbean thoughts tomorrow.