Remembering How To Solve World Problems, One Cigar at a Time
In our most blithe — and, I’d wager, boyish — of justifications, whenever the growing brood of grandkids was (mostly) tucked away in beds, and the ice bucket still newly cold, and the womenfolk hadn’t caught up to us yet, my father-in-law and I called our ritual nightcaps of scotch and cigars “solving world problems.”
Even if we’d forget the solutions the next morning.
(That’s an excuse to solve the problems all over again.)
There was more to it than that, of course. (More than solving world problems? Well, yes.) There was a father-in-law generous with his time, and stories he’d told “six or five” (or a hundred) times, and laughter amid the ashes in the open air of a screened-in porch, as welcome at the end of a journey — his or ours — to see them, for a holiday, or an ordinary day, or goodbye at the end of a heartwarming stay, or the ways we ended up marking time, through 16 years: of engagements, and weddings, and births, baptisms, first houses, and promotions, publications, big moves… and end games, divorces, demotions, departures, funerals.
But that’s getting ahead of the thing. Smoking right to the label before really savoring a puff. Reaching into the ice meltwater for enough of excuse to warrant a last pour.
We had to earn it. In the way of all world-savers.
Or ordinary dads, at the end of another hard-fought day.
I looked forward to the ritual of the thing. Knowing we’d be headed to their place, I’d stock up on some “good stuff” for the trip. A nice Highland Park 12- or 15-year. Maybe a Clynelish, yeah, show off a bit. Or (what came to be) my favorite, Laphroaig 10. Smoky and peaty and climbing right out of the glass. Tangible. Like a good solid fist rap on the table. POW. The good stuff.
Load my portable humidor with a selection palatable to me: some Romeo y Julietas, or Macanudos, or Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey, A. Fuente. As long as it was of “conversation” length. Commitment. We’re talking Robustos, at minimum.
His brand was always Macallan 12-year. And H. Upmann Vintage Cameroons. Churchill length.
And of course, I’m full of shit, in the way of all good stories and the fuzzy (careworn) memories of guys talking guys stuff. Always was whenever it suited us, or eventually what suited us. It didn’t start that way.
I’m proud to have been around a bit early, though not from the beginning.
Shivering in a Tractor Shed…
For that, so I’m told, you’d have to trek back to the Farm. Always the Farm. Of course.
In days when Grandpa Cornell and Granny Ila ruled the roost, the good stuff was more than likely “Sheep Dip” (finest blend of anywhere from 8 to 21 scotches). The cigars worthy of biting the ends off and spitting them in the weeds somewhere. And always a good farmcat scamper well away from the big house. Maybe even in the tractor shed. If you’re lucky, the space heater might even have been working.
I remember a few nights like that. After my Thanksgiving indoctrination as the (serious) boyfriend. Standing around on the path outside the side door. Nothing more formal than passing around whatever cigars somebody had likely bought in bulk. Not a “guillotine” among us more fancy than incisors, molars. And cups — could have been Dixie, for all we cared — of whatever swill was in the cupboard above the workbench. Aged by proximity to Ford tractors. Call of the coyotes.
Hey, maybe even it was Norway’s elusive import, Aass beer.
But finery is the coat you weave out of your own experience. Or aspirations. What the hell, right? So long as it fits. You get to like it. Get to shimmy a happy little shimmy whenever you shrug into it.
Takes time, though.
Before my wedding, stocking up in Chicago, I bought a bale of discount cigars at the shop a stumble up the road from our first shared apartment in Naperville. Stashed ’em in the trunk of my college Mazda Protege, beside a bottle or a few of my dad’s wine least likely to explode en route to Kansas City for the big day. They ended up wine-soaked. And awful. I heard — since I was too busy glad-handing and 5-minute-guest-visiting as Gary made use of them anyway, smoking up in the parking lot outside our reception at Figlio Tower in Country Club Plaza.
How come the brag-worthy moments aren’t always the ones you plan with an iron grip? And take place even with you on the periphery? Like the noteworthy hookups that weekend, we couldn’t take even a smidge of the credit. But it’s the backdrop of the best times. And you bask in the residual (lighter) glow.
A Brief History of (Family) Vice
But the best parties are the ones you’re a part of.
And sometimes they’re just a party for 6, when you welcome son- and daughter-in-law, and your son and daughter, and your wife.
But the one-on-one time is always time to savor.
A typical night would begin with the benign. “Is it time?” he’d usually say, on his turf. Or me, on mine. “Sure,” I’d reply. His answer, more honest. With feeling. “Oh, good!”
The ritual: glasses. At his place, from the cupboard next to the fridge. The hooch, too. Usually, Macallan. But sometimes, in a pinch, a Glenlivet. Or Glen Fiddich. Even Johnnie Walker, something blended. “How bad could it be?”
At mine: our regular midget glasses. For juice. Now something stronger. Whatever stuff I’d convince him to try that trip. Eventually, usually, Laphroaig. “Froggy.” After my own early mispronunciation, badly remembering a scotch guide from Esquire, or some tripe. “PHROG” … not. But see? We grew into it.
The bourbons, he didn’t countenance much. Once rode along on a Saturday “honey-do” chore trip to Home Depot; snuck in a side trip to Meijer after. Ostensibly comparison-shopping for the good stuff. He came to tolerate something from his Iowa farmboy roots, Templeton Rye whisky, literally, “the good stuff.” A bargain at less than $40. And goes down smooth.
I don’t know when he bought his “kit.” The little silver-plated suitcase. Stocked with lighter after lighter. Sometimes a fancy butane “torch.” Oftentimes, not. But he swore by his wooden draw-poker contraption. “Want a ream?” he’d ask. I always did. And I swore by my “notch cutter,” instead of the straight guillotine cut. I had a black plastic cutter I’d picked up somewhere, in Chicago. I can still see his chrome metal one, with the wings you’d push on the side. I’d peel mine out of plastic; his came in a cedar sleeve… fancy. Fancier than the guys about to smoke ’em.
You know what they say about anticipation? Sweet anticipation. Sometimes sweeter than the thing itself, once it’s quickly done. (And too soon.)
We’d carry our glasses to the porch. Or, for a time, to my little firepit in the yard in suburban Bolingbrook. Pull up the rocking, swiveling metal deck chairs. Hose out the glass ashtray with the little indentations molded into it for cigars. Bring along the ice bucket — their cork-looking one with the cooler liner and lid; my silver cocktail one. Or else the big, red rubber cocktail cube makers, one of the best Christmas presents ever, from bro-in-law Jonathan. Something nostalgic in the ice bucket though — reaching in, coming out with dripping fingers, knowing that would buy you another 15 minutes, another drink. Who cares, cause you’re on vacation? Solving world problems, natch….
It’s not something I did, at home. Alone. Not regularly, anyway. Bought some cigars when my son was born in ’06. Took ’em to the old place of employment, the paper, Naperville Sun. Talked a few buddies from the newsroom into joining me on the concrete patio outside the cafeteria. First one with a kid. Straight puffing. Nothing to wash it down with. Few problems of the world to solve, and in broad daylight. Tried walking around the neighborhood one night after my book deal was signed; cigar in one hand, young man’s empty fancy in the other. Not the same.
Not the same.
On the porch we might talk about his Army days. How he’d never run, or camp, again. (Good riddance.) How he once had Robert James Waller, yes, of Bridges of Madison County fame, as a grad school economics professor. Sheee-it. Or the first time my wife had gotten gussied up for a middle school (or high school) dance. Or what the interest rates were like the time they bolted Sioux Falls for Kansas City. Or how his dad reacted to his boyhood antics: racing cars along the frozen Shell Rock creek, up beyond the Minnesota-Iowa border and back again, more or less in one piece.
As a young journalist, I talked Chicago garbage strikes and elusive mayors and the time a resident/source commented, “I thought I’d have heard about you buried in a concrete pillar by now.” First mortgage rates. Salary negotiations. Shared association of growing up in small towns. Interviews with unreformed Chicago “street gangs” as I wrote my book. And yeah, eventually, ad agency shenanigans and hirings and firings and the art of the pitch.
Time to relight. From the guttering flame. Take a deep draw. Breath out. Repeat.
Or, we’d bark in time to the neighbors’ “punt dogs.” Wave to the girls on the other side of the sliding glass door, inside. Check the score of KU. Or even fire up the laptop, tune in to a webcast of Ohio State versus Oklahoma. Versus Wisconsin. Wins. The full moon. A breeze getting colder. The dog shivering by the door. One last swallow. Time to head inside.
Time to Head Inside… in a Little While
It’s gonna be a hard damn week. OK?
Just because we delay these things… you know? You know they eventually catch up to you.
And it’s not all bad. It’s just…. Just, it is. It is what it is. It’s the end of the night, the scotch is nearly gone, the cigar’s about out, and it’s time to bring it all inside and face the next day.
We forget all the problems we solved the night before.
But we have faith we’ll work it all out again.
Today is my father-in-law’s birthday. What would have been his 67th. The first since he passed away, just short of two months ago. The first I’ve gone through the ritual without him. My place. My scotch. My remaining three cigars since we last settled in, with an H. Upmann I was proud to lend him, since he was in short supply, on his way out west into retirement, into the unknown.
I forget if that was one of the times we had Ohio State on my laptop this past fall. The win over Oklahoma. The win over Wisconsin. Probably later. Maybe not. But what does it matter? What matters: the time spent. That last time, shared. The ritual. The things said. Some remembered, some forgotten. But all of it: together.
This week, we grieve. We journey to visit old, cherished friends in Kansas City. In Olathe, proper. To remember. To celebrate. Then, on to Northwood, Iowa. His hometown. To lay him to rest in the embrace of family living and gone onward, ahead of us.
It’s a hard damn week.
It’s his birthday, today. I said that, I think. Sixty-seven years. Such a small number to bargain for. To hope for. To dream of, in the background, of all the conversations over all the sips and puffs and quips and stories. We never know how many lines we have left.
No matter what the ritual, the routine and warm embraces, the family we cling to. The times we count on. We remember. We forge on.
Tonight, I sit alone on a day that is growing late, and colder. Remembering. Ashing out in the glass tray I’d put away in the garage the last time he’d visited, before heading west. The remains of his cigar, from then, and mine.
My cigar’s about gone. The scotch… a few too many refills and almost drained. I’m shivering, typing. The battery meter’s about half gone. I’m rambling. The dog’s looking at me strangely. The motion-sensing porch light’s winking off.
Time to go inside.
Problems of the world? Ha. They go on. As we go on, in the light of morning. Older? Yeah. Wiser? Perhaps. But, and this I hope: fortified by the amazing light of all the people we have known and loved and lived through a time or a thousand with, in whatever minor verse or movement, carrying with us what we’ve learned and laughed through, putting the details to memory, however middling and ritualistic and taken for heavenly granted. We remember.
And that’s gotta be worth something, OK? That we were here. And shared it. And LOVED it. For our time. Right?
We gather up the bottles, and the glasses, and the warmth that’s left inside the nurturing garments we’ve knitted together with careless care, over the years, and we go on.
The world is smaller, the night colder, but we carry it and we go on.