Pizza Face

“Fluorouracil” sounds like a made-up word. It’s what my dermatologist prescribed for me after he got a look at my face a couple of weeks ago. There were numerous, very faint specks on my face, which I’ve had for years — they have a tendency to be less noticeable in the summer when I get a little sun. But he looked at them this time and pronounced that they were actinic keratoses — common rough skin patches that can turn into skin cancer. And I was once again reminded that, yep, I was almost 64.

Most of them were on the left side of my face — also common, he explained. They often pop up there because the sun shines through the driver’s side window of your car. I had a couple on the right side as well.

Thus, the fluorouacil. It’s a cream that you apply directly (in a light layer) to the spots. Over a few weeks, it should remove the spots, the doctor explained … and then he explained what would happen in the meantime. The word “oozing” was used, along with some other words that I wouldn’t have preferred.

My wife picked up the scrip for me. “This stuff is STRONG. Be careful,” the pharmacist warned. The package had a multitude of warnings, including one to apply it with a gloved hand or immediately wash your hands afterward.

The first few days were boring. That was then. This is now after 10 days:

A guitar for (mis)adventures

I’d like to haul along a guitar to some vacations I have coming up next year. The problem is that I love the guitars I have (a Guild dreadnought and a Takamine parlor guitar, neither of which are financially valuable, but still), and I fear introducing them to the potentially guitar-killing environment of modern air travel. The FAA lets you bring a guitar onto a plane and store it in the overhead compartment — if there’s room, and ‘room’ is at the discretion of the airline. And there’s sometimes a gate agent or flight attendant ready to rain on your parade, no matter what the feds or the airline’s own rules say. Those folks want the guitar in the belly of the plane, where guitars are turned into kindling.

That led me to look for a travel guitar — usually a scaled-down and more gate-agent-friendly version of a typical guitar. I owned one years ago — a Washburn Rover — but that didn’t sound great and had a nearly standard-length neck. I sold it off because I just didn’t enjoy it enough and it wasn’t all that convenient.

You can spend a modest chunk of money on a travel guitar — for example, a kid-size Baby Taylor starts at $400 and heads north from there — but that would defeat the purpose of having an instrument that was 1)playable 2)sounded OK-ish and 3)could be splintered into tiny bits by an airline/camping/whatever adventure without causing me to openly weep.

As always, the Internet is your problem-solving friend, and that’s how I landed on a Yamaha JR2 acoustic. It’s three-quarter size and it’s marketed as an instrument for kids, beginners and/or people with small hands, but it was clear from a little research that lots of people bought them as a beater. It runs about $180 new and it has a lot of positive reviews.

I was looking to save even more money, so I started shopping around for a used model. I came across one at a local Guitar Center through an online search, but when I got there, they did not have the bag that their listing claimed came with it — an important part of the deal for me. A few days later, I located one in a music store near Baltimore, forked over $110 and had them ship it to me for another $15. It had a few modest scratches, but wasn’t beat at all, and now it’s in the house.

It’s as easy to play as you might think, the action on it is great and the sound is a little boxy, but that’s actually kind of cool. More importantly, if it gets crushed, I won’t be.

The Blues

It’s such a cliche to say that, as a harmonica player, I love the blues. Still, I haven’t primarily been a blues player since the mid-1990s, I’ve fallen away from the local blues community (such as it is), and a true blues gig is a rare thing to me. I’ve mostly been playing rootsy stuff and Americana and whatnot for a long time. But a few days ago, I picked up a rando pickup blues band gig with Brian Gross, a guy I played with regularly a quarter-century ago, and up showed Daryl Davis, a fantastic pianist who I have been watching for a very long time. Madness ensued:

Prison time

The Missouri State Penitentiary was a big part of my childhood life. It sat six blocks from my house and was a massive, old-looking place with real stone walls instead of fences. There were towers along those walls, and you could see the guards armed with long rifles in them. It was imposing and scary, although not as imposing and scary as some of the people in it. This was the state’s maximum security pen for the entire 22 years I lived in Jefferson City, and for a chunk of time afterward.

Honestly, I always thought it was as scary as hell, especially when there was an escape or one of a seemingly endless parade of inmate murders — Time magazine once named it “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” It sat on a steep hillside, and I could look into the center of the prison yard from spots on the outside. Those prisoners were just a few hundred yards and a million miles away from where I stood. Sometimes you could see them waving handkerchiefs to the people outside the walls.

It was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi when it closed in 2004, having opened in 1836. By then, I was more than 30 years gone from Jefferson City, and I hadn’t thought about it much in the intervening time. Large chunks of the prison were torn down and redeveloped within a few years, and the rest began to rot.

Or it did until it was turned into a tourist attraction. Now you can go on a variety of tours through what’s left of the prison. That has never sat entirely well for me, especially since the options include ghost tours and the more deluxe “overnight paranormal investigations.” In the gift shop, you can buy lip balm that comes in a little ball-and-chain holder and T-shirts with the “I Did Time in…” theme.

But I was in Jefferson City with my wife recently to visit family and we were looking for something to do one afternoon. My sister suggested the prison tour. I was hesitant, but I had pretty much shown my wife everything else in Jefferson City over the years, so we decided to take the option.

It’s still creepy, of course, and large parts of it continue to crumble and have been condemned. But the tour, to my great relief, was respectful and informative. The guide knew his stuff and laid out the long history of the place, along with its famous inmates (including Pretty Boy Floyd, James Earl Ray, Sonny Liston and even Emma Goldman). He kept his tone appropriate, even when we were brought to a large, windowless punishment “hole” where lights were left off 24/7 for the prisoners who were thrown in there. He turned off the lights and the utter blindness just descended on you. Imagine living in that for a few days or weeks.

When the guide brought us to the end of a hallway and started showing us display photos of the gas chamber, I knew the tour was almost up. I honestly think that hanging, if done properly (it breaks your neck and kills you instantly), is a more humane way of death than hearing those cyanide tablets hit the vat of acid beneath your seat, creating the gas that would kill you once you inhaled. I imagine some inmates held their breath as long as they could. Forty of them died in that chamber.

To get there, you needed to get back into your car and drive around to the back of the complex — they used to hike people down there but the steep hill turned out to be a problem on several fronts. My sister told me that people like to sit on the gas chamber’s two seats and have photos taken. We decided we didn’t need to see that, so we went to Central Dairy for ice cream and a little soul-cleansing.

I’m still reflecting on how I feel about that tour. Perhaps that was the whole point.

On mourning the loss of a tree

The wood bowls we just got are made with a level of skill that says “I care.” They’re lovely, made from oak. I know they’re from a tree that was 71 years old because it grew in our yard for a generation until it didn’t, and part of it was still alive until a crew cut it down this morning.

I honestly think that the oak in our side yard might have been the best feature of our entire house and property. It was at least three times taller than the house itself, and it was so broad that it shaded most of that yard. It was beautifully shaped, or it was until the last couple of years, and it wasn’t unusual for passers-by to stop and just stare at it for a while. Cars would stop and park underneath it on the street just for the heck of it, their occupants shaded while the driver made a phone call or ate a quick lunch or just took a break in a shady spot. We brought in a tree service every few years to trim it and get rid of any deadwood that might show up. It was just a magnificent thing and part of the fiber of the neighborhood.

Or it was until a few years ago. Kristi noticed the dying crown first — not much of a dying crown, but we’d seen this play out elsewhere with oaks in the neighborhood. The crown dies, and then the center of the tree dies, and then the death expands outward until the tree is mostly dead, if it doesn’t fall over first. I’m not lying when I say that if that tree fell in a storm, it could destroy our home and perhaps its occupants. It was that huge and magnificent.

We tried to nurse it back to health. We’d been using the same tree service for years and years and trusted their arborist — in no small part because when we’d bring him around every couple of years, he sometimes looked at everything and said, “You don’t need any work right now.” But after the death in the middle of the tree kept spreading outward, we called him and feared the worst.

He prescribed emergency work — a fairly heavy thinning that cost the tree a lot of its beauty, and some deep fertilization. But another spring came and I could tell the death had spread yet again. I also noticed that the roots were becoming more visible — never a good sign. I braced for the worst.

We called him again a few weeks ago. He looked at it again and said it was time. And today, the tree was cut down.

There’s a smoothed-over dirt patch tonight where that tree stood this morning. Several neighbors came by to offer their condolences while the work was going on. One of them grabbed a hunk of wood and made the bowls. The wood they were made from is still moist as I write this. I couldn’t help but think that it was still alive somehow.

I wonder if we did something wrong — if we watered the tree too much or not enough, if we should have mulched it (several of my neighbors have A Thing about mulch and I am not a fan, so I never wanted that route), if we should have been more attentive to it when it was healthy. But sometimes, trees just die. That’s what I’m telling myself now.