Ah, the air of Camembert!

Uncle Al was lucky enough recently to be able to spend a week in Paris. Young proto-Uncle Al had worked there (on what was then the International Herald Tribune) for most of 1978, and an older but not-even-as-wise Uncle Al has returned a few times since, in part to retrace his many happy visits to pastry shops, and possibly in part to confirm that Paris isn’t where he left any of his funnels.

There are two anecdotes from the 1978 interlude that he inflicts on others with annoying frequency. Both center on the sandwich made with very ripe camembert on half a baguette.

When his kids and his niece visited him in Paris for a month in that long-ago year, that sandwich was their frequent lunch choice as they all wandered around the city before Uncle Al went to work on the newspaper’s night copy desk. The camembert sandwich was an easy choice, both because it was available on the terrace of virtually any of the many, many sidewalk cafes they would stroll past, and because everybody liked it.

His son David, then four, once asked if there was any of “that cheese” in the apartment. What cheese? “That cheese that smells like a diaper pail.” Budding food critic.

*   *   *

The other story is a little longer, and among those with whom he has shared it are readers of his rantings in the Star Tribune in September 1986. He offers it again today, free of additional charge, because he’s pretty sure that there exist, among those who inexplicably find themselves reading this, several folks who weren’t reading his efforts in 1986. And, as for those who were so afflicted 30 years ago, Uncle Al shares one of his many life-lessons from the world of Vaudeville: “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice.”

Besides, if you can’t steal from yourself, who can you steal from?

To fend off copyright attorneys (in case the answer to that question is “It is illegal to steal from yourself”), Uncle Al is retelling this fabulous tale in brand-new language, or as legal scholars would have it, ab ovo (which Uncle Al helpfully translates as “away from the omelet”).

So. Return with us now to the thrilling days of 1978, young Uncle Al in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, and everywhere the ripe-camembert sandwich. Uncle Al liked that sandwich so much that, for his dinner break most of the nights that he was at work, he would get one to go at the bar/cafe on the corner near the newspaper office and eat it while writing letters (this was before e-mail) to the woman who was to become his second ex-wife.

The barman would call the order to a cook in the tiny kitchen, who was easily seen from where Uncle Al stood at the bar nursing an espresso. The guy would take half a baguette, slice it open, slather the insides with butter and look around for the cheese. (Dinner time probably wasn’t when lots of people ordered a sandwich.) Once he had the sandwich assembled, he would take a long, slim waxed-paper bag from a nearby stack and — rather than whip it through the air as we might do to open it up for the sandwich — he inflated it by blowing into it.

The first time Uncle Al saw that last part of the deal, he was a little taken aback. But the guy did it every time, and as Uncle Al got used to things like the unrefrigerated meat at the open-air markets, and the basket of sliced bread on restaurant tables that wasn’t changed as the day’s parade of diners pawed through it, he got used to that too. (Americans, he was told once, are “obsessed with microbes.”)

One evening, however, there was a little hiccup in the sandwich process: The cook had finished making the sandwich, but when he reached for the slim bag, apparently there were none left. Uncle Al could see him looking around, and in a few seconds he came up with a loose crumpled bag about the size of the paper bag at an American supermarket. Way bigger than necessary, and Uncle Al thought briefly about trying to say that he didn’t really need a bag, but there didn’t seem much point in trying to stop him.

What Uncle Al failed to anticipate, cross-culturally open though he was trying to be, was the next step: Before the cook put the sandwich into the large, fully open bag, he stuck his head into it and blew.

Vive La France!   And  A Votre Santé!  (To Your Health!)

Lost and found with Uncle Al

Uncle Al has long been looking forward to turning 75, because that will allow him to keep his shoes on at the airport. (At 74 there aren’t a whole lot of happy milestones to anticipate, so that has been a biggie.)

Now that he’s got that important birthday under his belt, so to speak (he’s pretty sure his big metal buckle will still be a TSA problem) he has to acknowledge that it’s been a fairly unsettling year so far — but he notes that there’s still plenty of time for it to get lots worse.

For starters, early this year he made one of those awkward physical movements that, in persons of a certain age, make those persons immediately recognize that almost any other physical movement would have been a better idea.

In this case he lifted a heavy bag of groceries from the passenger’s seat of his truck – by reaching backward across the armrest with his right arm. This brought to the immediate foreground of what might be called his mind a sudden and concentrated awareness of a group of shoulder tendons and muscles known to physicians and sports fans as the rotator cuff.

The physical therapist to whom he was directed confirmed that Uncle Al’s case was a classic rotator-cuff injury. Uncle Al actually did some of the recommended exercises, and the pain lessened a lot over time. But it annoyed him that this injury brought to a sudden end his chances for a major-league pitching career.

Admittedly, even long before sustaining this injury at age 74, Uncle Al’s chances of landing such a job weren’t great — although this year he might have had a shot with the Twins.

Meanwhile, until his shoulder began to heal, every time he tried to do anything awkward with his right arm he was notified that he should think again about that. So he quickly (and surprisingly easily) changed a number of habits, including reaching for the box of his breakfast cereal from atop the refrigerator with his left arm instead of his right, holding the leash of his swell used dog, Gus, in his left hand instead of his right, and shifting wallet and checkbook from the right rear pocket of his pants to the left rear.

(Yes, Uncle Al still carries a checkbook: If the entire global electronic payment network collapses one day while he is attempting to replenish his inventory of Little Debbie Nutty Bars, while everyone else waits for the credit-card readers to cease endlessly flashing “processing,” he can, with an air of poise and dignity he seldom manages to achieve, write a check instead.)

Uncle Al’s recovery has been more-or-less complete for some months, but out of either force of habit or wisdom (the smart money would bet on habit), Uncle Al has not attempted to once again use his right arm for any of the tasks he has reassigned to his left arm. Although it was surprisingly easy to make the changes, he’s doubtful that changing back would go as well, and he doesn’t relish the prospect of constant confusion about which arm to use for what.

The other significant development in Uncle Al’s lifestyle this year has been a somewhat disturbing increase in the number of items that he has either lost or misplaced. These are always disturbing in any case, as Uncle Al lives alone, so when he can’t find something, no matter what it is, he can’t even momentarily suspect that somebody else moved it. (Well, if he gets really desperate he can try to imagine what Gus would have done with the Phillips screwdriver, but he is aware that this line of inquiry is seldom productive.)

A few months ago, for example, he lost his checkbook. He had written a check for lunch the previous day, so the number of places it might have been left behind or somehow fallen out of his pocket was not large. First he went through the house: Not in the couch cushions, the bed, the basement, the garage, or the bathroom floor.

That afternoon he made the rounds of the places he had visited the afternoon or evening before. Apparently it hadn’t been turned in at either of the two stores he tried (although the concept of a checkbook was unfamiliar enough to the customer-service person at one store that she asked Uncle Al if his name was anywhere in the checkbook).

The next day, after another round of couch, bed, basement, etc., he told his lunch companions about it and was treated to an amused chorus of “Did you look next to your funnels?”* When he got home, after checking next to his (single remaining) funnel (nope), he called and stopped payment on the unwritten checks.

*As noted, the matter of lost items is not a new phenomenon for Uncle Al. Many years ago he spent weeks on and off looking for a funnel he knew he had — because it had replaced one he had previously lost. When he finally gave up and bought a new funnel, he brought it home and put it down next to . . . a funnel. He doesn’t know whether that one was the one he lost originally or the one he replaced it with (and then lost).**

    Having made sure that the missing checks could not be used by any miscreants, Uncle Al knew that he had essentially taken care of the problem, still . . . . Where the hell was the ^$^#&* checkbook?

Several weeks later, while he helped Gus retrieve a treat that had bounced under the couch, Uncle Al’s flashlight revealed his checkbook — at least a foot and a half back. Nothing rational can explain that, and after a few days of distraction Uncle Al decided to put aside notions of extraterrestrial meddling in his personal affairs and get on with his life.

He’s pretty sure there have been several other peculiar developments since, but he failed to write them down, and things being where they are on the slope of his gradual descent into mental cottage-cheese, he no longer has any idea what they were.

Except for this one: At the supermarket recently, intending to pay with his credit card, he reached into his pocket for his wallet — and it was gone. His checkbook was there, and after an embarrassed pause he wrote a check for his groceries and hurried out into the parking lot, hoping to find his wallet in his truck. Nope. Next, he knew, would be a duplication of the lost-checkbook effort, beginning with checking and rechecking everywhere in the house.

On the way home he began to mentally assemble the list of places in the outside world that he would have to check if his wallet didn’t turn up at home. After a couple of rounds of couch-bed-basement — and a flashlight check way under the bed and the couch — he gave up for the evening, watched some TV, ate a few Little Debbie Nutty Bars, gave Gus a late-night walk and went upstairs to go to bed. Hanging up his pants, he was surprised to note that they weren’t any lighter than normal, despite the absence of his wallet.

That’s because his wallet was still there — in his right-rear pocket, where it used to belong.

Uncle Al hopes he never injures the rotator cuff in his left arm: He’d never have any idea where to find anything.


**The tale of the funnels is told at greater length (and greatly increased hilarity) in “Geezer Salad,” Uncle Al’s collection of peculiar essays previously published in the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

  If the possibility of acquiring this volume has swept you away, you can find “Geezer Salad” at Amazon, of course, at prices from $3.89 plus postage (used, very good) to $16.73 plus postage (new).

  If the possibility of acquiring this volume has made you insane, other offers at Amazon range to $54.29 plus shipping (new) to $91.76 plus shipping (used, good).

  If you’d like a brand-new copy from the author’s personal checkbookless, walletless basement for $10 plus shipping, leave a comment on this post and he’ll contact you to see whether you are able to assist in your own defense and whether you want an autograph (and for whom).

  It should be noted that, although an author autograph sometimes increases the value of a book, in Uncle Al’s case the opposite is true.   




Uncle Al fails again (allegedly humorous column)

The melting of the last of winter’s snow is a painful reminder of the awful truth, but it was clear last fall:

Uncle Al has single-handedly failed to save the Monarch butterfly.

It is a tale of vaguely noble intentions, inherent laziness and the unending struggle between Nature and . . . Nature.

Uncle Al has been reminded frequently by reports in various media that the Monarch is threatened both by a declining number of oyamel fir trees, which Monarchs apparently insist upon when they roost at the southern end of their migratory path in Mexico, and here in the north by vanishing supplies of milkweed, which apparently is the only thing the Monarch’s caterpillars will eat.

From the beginning, Uncle Al felt that his options in this matter were limited. He has very few contacts in the oyamel fir trade in Mexico, and he is assured that he shouldn’t put much effort into suggesting to Monarch caterpillars that they might enjoy Creeping Charlie if they just tried it. (How do they know they won’t like it if they won’t even try it?) So he was left with planting milkweed as the only thing he could do to solve the problem.

He was happy to learn, early last summer, that free packets of milkweed seeds were being offered by some garden centers. For Uncle Al, this was a no-brainer: Save money and the Monarch. What could be better?

And, unlike many of Uncle Al’s other undertakings, such as installing new light fixtures, there would be no return trips to the garden center to acquire milkweed-to-dirt adapters, and then adapters for the adapters, etc. The whole endeavor would consist of just two steps: Get the seeds and plant them. He was done in an hour, Monarchs saved, still time to have a Little Debbie Nutty Bar and watch a couple of episodes of the Rockford Files.

Indeed, several weeks passed before Uncle Al thought to check in on the potential butterfly garden surely thriving in its remote corner of his back yard. He should perhaps explain to those not familiar with what he likes to call his thought process, that the spot he chose was already supporting a large quantity of other weeds without any attention from him, so he figured that milkweed would surely flourish there on its own as well.

What he hadn’t considered was that some weeds might be, well, weedier than others. Although he could spot several stalks of what seemed to be fledgling milkweed, as well as here and there some of the weeds he had noted when he planted the milkweed, the area had since been completely taken over by Creeping Charlie.

Thus he found himself on his hands and knees, weeding his weeds.

Had he still been writing a weekly bit of observational journalism for the city’s primarily-cellulose-based news medium, Uncle Al probably would have tried to stretch that single revolting development into a full column. (He was often that desperate.) But as he now has the privilege of reporting on his long downhill slide only when he feels like it, he waited until he could pass along the entire story in one depressing lump – and then he waited even longer out of embarrassment.

Weeding weeds, he could have opined in that fragmentary column, might be termed metagardening, but on reflection he no longer thinks so. If he were to continue writing this column about writing a column, though, that would be kind of meta. (Uncle Al hopes he can be forgiven for his halting familiarity with such meta-analysis. He has only recently become aware of using meta as a prefix for anything other than mucil.)

Anyway, now that he had seen what a battle his weeds were having to wage just to survive, Uncle Al realized that he’d not only need to weed them again once in a while, he’d probably need to water them now and then too.

Had he known how much effort it would take to save the Monarch butterfly, he might not have started.

Little did he know.

On the occasion of that first weeding, he was able to distinguish for sure only four seedlings that were certainly milkweed, although there were several similar-looking little items scattered a bit outside the area that he would have said was absolutely where he had planted the milkweed.

When he checked in again a couple of weeks later, lots more “similar” weeds had appeared even farther from where the milkweed had been sown. And now that they had grown, it was clear that they weren’t all that similar.

So it was going to be four milkweed plants. Not quite what Uncle Al had hoped for, but so far that summer he had seen only one Monarch, so the result of his labors could mean the Monarch population would quadruple in the next generation — an accomplishment of which he felt he could be justifiably proud.

The next time he looked, there were only two plants: The other two had been bitten off. Uncle Al suspected that bunnies might have made lunch — or more probably a bedtime snack — of them. This was an educated guess, based on his encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, and the fact that every time he let his dog, Gus, out in the yard, one or more rabbits popped out of nowhere, shot across the lawn and disappeared under the fence.

Now even more desperate to save the Monarch, even if now by only doubling the next-generation herd, Uncle Al purchased a product held to be the rabbit equivalent of Weed B Gon, except for two things: It lacked a catchy name, and it wasn’t particularly effective. Uncle Al would have called it Rabbit B At Most A Bit Discouraged.

The next time he looked, in mid-September, the last two milkweed plants were still there, but all the leaves had been nibbled off, so what Uncle Al had was two sticks. He tried to cling to hope that a bud or two might appear on just one of them, ultimately maybe saving one Monarch, but the frost took care of that possibility.

He has to wonder whether his efforts this year might be better directed.


How much krill might it take to save a whale?