Fair to Middlin’

And shopping for Bourbon like a local

What an odd phrase.

Have you heard it? I’m sure you have. Unless you’re under 20 maybe. Or have never been outside of California.

I love phrases. Especially old ones.

In fact when the world-wide web thingie was in the honeymoon phase, “A Phrase A Week” was one of the early things I discovered and the first I subscribed to. Every thursday morning in my email, and then on my phone, would be a well-known idiom or common phrase with its roots explained.

Apparently by some English bloke.

Fitting then that this ‘Fair to Middling’ phrase stems from cotton being picked here in the states, then being ‘graded’ upon its arrival in Liverpool, UK. According to sources fair to middlin’ was also incorrectly regurgitated as ‘Fair to Midland,’ as in Midland, TX and the brits were responsible for that mistake.

Maybe these Texas rockers agree:

Regardless, it’s not my intention to reinvent the wheel, opinion pieces such as this one in Texas Monthly are well-researched and in need of no updating in my opinion. I like the cotton-grading visual as evidenced here:

According to the old standards there were actually seven designations for cotton quality, with three sub-variants per all but the lowest designation. That’s a LOT of different quality subtleties going on! Regardless of the many interpretations it’s clear that ‘fair’ is the best and ‘ordinary’ seems to be at the bottom. Acceptable. Tolerable.

Ordinary.

So then ‘fair to middlin’ is basically half way between the middle and the best. Better than ok. Pretty good in other words.

Why then do I feel it’s more equivalent to our current “so-so?”

Blah. Flat. Meh.

Maybe language changes?

*GASP*

Or maybe that’s my interpretation because that’s how I’m doing.

Not great.

Not bad.

Awake.

Alive.

Fed.

Not excited about anything specifically but mostly fine.

Fair to middlin.’

But life

Still goes on doesn’t it? It goes on on days when we’re skipping down the middle of the street, a beautiful blue sky and a recent accomplshment or rich time with friends or family still lingering in our memory. It also goes on after a loved one has passed, when a financial burden weighs heavy, or a choice with options both unattractive requires a decision.

And it goes on when we’re fair to middlin.’

My mom’s husband broke his arm.

Just fractured as it turns out, in a sling not in a cast. Sounds not too bad right? Right. Except when you’re 91. And when you need both arms to get out of the chair, or back in it. Ditto the bed. And the bathroom. So his last friend Tom took him to assisted living and I’m flying back to check on mom and see if Gordon can be cheered up. Or wants to be.

Why do I still forget

That greater forces are at work?

Probably because I’m a wounded soul roaming a green-blue planet. Just like everyone else.

So fair to middlin’ me is flying on a semi-emergency last-minute flight to California’s farmland from Nashville when my outbound gets delayed by two hours, throwing my transfer and rental car and everyone else’s transfers and rental car schedules to the wind.

And yes I know that’s where the answer lies Bob, thanks.

I’ve also been told this is how one makes God laugh:

So now I’m in Denver, haven’t accomplished anything yet except spending money and instead of having 40 minutes to transfer flights I have four hours to kill.

I choose a fancier bar + grill than I might normally — the seats look comfy and I think maybe no one would bother me for the better part of four hours and I can just chill. Or think. As if I need to do more of that.

See how selfish and simple-minded my plans have already become?

The menu is simple, not My Cousin Vinny simple, but basic. I’m tossed between the chicken salad or the chicken mozzarella melt — yes I see what I did there — when I notice the dude next to me is 1/2 way through the salad.

“How’s the salad?” I ask, since it looks good and that’s what I’m leaning towards.

He pauses for the waitress to walk by and answers with a simple shake of the head.

“Oh I thought it looked good. .” I answer cautiously.

“There’s hardly any chicken,” he motions with his hand toward the plate.

“I’ll go with the sandwich,” I respond.

He nods.

“Mind if I sit?” he motions at the empty seat opposite me.

“Of course” I answer.

And there went two of my four hours. Greg is a good guy with a wife in San Francisco. He does emt work at events where there’s an emergcency tent like Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park. Events we’ve probably both been to at the same time. We talk about 90’s music and documentaries and I don’t remember how but we get to talking of my book idea about the crazy ways we got around and communicated before cell phones and the internet.

He says “oh, like what happened on my honeymoon?”

“YES!” I say, “is there a story there? I want it!”

We shake hands and exchange contact info and Greg heads for his flight. Two hours later I do the same. When I get to the rental car counter at Sacramento Airport all the compact and economy cars are gone so I get a truck. A Ford Ranger which I hate. I’ve always hated them.

I-99 South

As I’m driving to my mom’s just past Modesto it’s nearing midnight and I remember my friend in Nevada City. One of the first who brought food to my dad when he and I were trapped in the hospice house in the hills. Pretty much the moment my life changed forever. She’s moving this weekend, selling her house and land and starting a new chapter in Alaska.

“I can come help after I check on mom and Gordon,” I say.

“Yeah that would be great,” she says “I have so many loads to goodwill and storage and everything.”

Before telling her I mistakenly got a truck I realize what has already happened. I’m needed in places and situations I cannot predict. I know this but continually forget.

“You have a truck? OMG that helps so much.” She says.

I’m laughing inside so I don’t say anything.

“You can talk to Paul about his trip,” she says.

“Who’s Paul?” I ask.

“Remember that small bus on the property? —

That was his, he’s been here three months and got that damn thing running I don’t know how. He’s driving it back to Florida by himself and needs help with the route.” She pauses.

“His brother just died. Two weeks ago.”

Someone to help him with a route across the country? After a tragic family loss?

Sheesh God ok I get it.

Nobody likes delayed flights. Nobody likes rental car hassles at midnite. Nobody likes facing death. But I like meeting new people. I like helping people I know. And I guess I like helping people I don’t know. Actually whether I like it or not is irrelevant. It’s my calling.

And it does pay, just in stories not dollars.

Mom

Is actually doing fine. Mostly in good spirits and some of my friends sent very thoughtful cards and we went to dinner at places Gordon didn’t like to go. Chinese food mostly.

Watching the Giants’ game and waiting for me to arrive she slummed it on the couch.

She’s singing hymns to him as he’s withering away in the sad assisted living place. Fitting all the more as he was the one who welcomed her into the little church in Glen Ellen way back when after dad was gone building trails and she had two boys to raise.

I take pictures and record it only so the moment isn’t lost.

Especially for me.

Flying home

Obviously my mind was full and my heart was glad. No flight delays and a normal layover, this time in Los Angeles. Thinking about the music talk with Greg in Denver had me bookmarking the Country Music series Ken Burns had done, and specifically episode six about my favorite era, the 60’s and 70’s in Nashville. Johnny and Waylon and Kris. Kris Kristofferson and the ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ story is one of my favorites, Roger Miller too. A rabbit hole into Kris’ life and philosophy led to an unexpected C.S. Lewis commonality to the poet William Blake.

And Kris’ mention:

“If he who is organized by the divine for spiritual communion, refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, shame and confusion of face will pursue him throughout life to eternity.”

He’s telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. — Kris Kristofferson

I hear ya Kris, I’m pretty sure I need to tattoo this on my arm, and paint it inside the doorposts of my house. Cause man how I forget it.

I landed in Nashville to a cloudy sky and headed home. I stopped by my little liquor store and with my mind filled with other things I left my truck running and sprinted inside. The bourbon/ whiskey aisle was filled with out-of-towners (how I can tell is for another post) and I didn’t even say excuse me (as I normally would) I just slithered in between the three 20 and 30-something dudes, grabbed my middle of the week bourbon and paid with cash.

As I was leaving I overheard their conversation —

“See you’re overthinking it” said one of the out-of-towners to the other as he stood in front of the paradox of too many choices, “Just get what the locals drink.”

I was the local he was referring to?

I jumped in my truck with my bourbon as a Chris Stapleton song came on the Nashville station and had to admit his interpretation was probably right.

Three days later Gordon’s kids flew down from Oregon and Washington and two hours after they arrived he passed away. The assisted living home my mom said, happened to be across the street from the house Gordon had grown up in in Turlock.

Gordon Johnson was born in San Diego in 1930, grew up in Turlock and Cherry Grove Oregon as his dad got a job at I can’t remember what. He joined the Navy early and attended Seminary in Pasadena before moving with his wife and daughter and a severly disabled son to the tiny village of Glen Ellen, so his son could receive care from the Sonoma State Developmental Center.

He soon learned there was a Congregational church in town that needed a pastor. Within walking distance from that little church was a mom living in the last house on Carmel Avenue, with two young boys and a husband who’d just left to go save the redwoods and build trails across California. This mom didn’t want anything to do with church so she dropped off the boys, assuming they needed church more than she did.

But eventually she would attend and become a regular.

Partly because she realized she needed something too, and partly because the younger son was a handful.

Or so I’m told.

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Alden Olmsted

I was born in a small town in Northern California just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films and travel and write when I can.