Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Le Bark

I'm learning a new language.

I worked hard at Spanish. I learned a lot of words. But the Spanish speak in such a machine-gun monotone that no matter what they say, I respond with, "¿Excúseme?"

Italian was much easier. The words were about the same as in Spanish so I had a head start. And real Italians all speak as clearly as the people on the Beginner's Italian recording. Best of all, they don't automatically hate me for being American, which helps.

I like to be good at things. If I'm not immediately darling at something I usually give it up. I don't even bother to try any of the languages where the letters are upside down and backwards, the sentences read right to left, or they draw words using a branch.

I have two cats, and Cat is a snap to learn. Basically, there are only two phrases:
  1. "Rowoo." = "Be a good chap and open me a can of Friskie Delights Sardine Pâté, would you?"
  2. Blank stare. = "You are tiresome."
With those two phrases, my cats and I understand each other pretty well.

I am caring for my girlfriend's dog Phooey for a few days, and I am getting an immersion course in Dog. I speak a little Dog, from my days working at the Humane Society. I once stopped by the kennel of a particularly beautiful Australian Shepherd, considered among the smartest breeds. He lifted my hand with his elegant nose, and tossed it onto his soft head, as if to say, "Scritch it, would you?" I did, and he was pleased. He repeated the motion, guiding my hand atop his head with his nose. I skritched. "Very good." Then he lifted my hand again, only this time he set it on the cage door latch. His eyes said, "Get it?"

The trouble I'm having is that Phooey is not an Australian Shepherd, but a purebred Shih Tzu. Not only is his vocabulary much smaller, but he was bred in one of those countries that writes with sticks.

Here's what I have figured out so far:
  1. Jumps up on my shin, dances and spins on the floor. Go potty, do tricks, walkies, ride in the car: anything seems to be the right answer.
  2. Low grumble, then sneezes snot on me. This means something like, "I am not getting through to you!" He never does. By some quirk of evolution, he never runs out of snot.
When Italians speak with foreigners, they continue in Italian as if you understand them. They presume that the beautiful sound of their language will carry the message well enough. Americans reply with either "Gratzee" or "Skoozee."

The Spanish look at you with an expression that conveys, "Why did you even bother to come here, if you can't speak our language?" Then they speak to you in English that is better than yours.

The French will say, equally well in French or English, "I don't want to talk to you."

When Americans talk to foreigners, we TALK LOU-DER AND SLOW-ER WITH MORE DICK-SHUN, as if the listener were equal parts foreign and retarded.

Phooey and I are currently at a standstill, both of us looking at the other, tilting our heads left, then right. Normally, I like to communicate with animals, but I have a nagging suspicion that if I succeed in learning the Shih Tzu dialect, I'd end up leading the life of a beleaguered hairdresser.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For Good Measure

Recipes used to be simpler:
  1. Hit pigeon with rock
  2. Pull off feathers
  3. Hold over fire until inside temperature reaches ow.
Our ancestors learned the feather trick after some trial and error.

Then came the invention of tools. Cooks, touchy about the fact that up until then they had done nothing but burn things, decided they would get more respect if they renamed every tool that applied to cooking. They stopped using sticks and started using utensils.

Once they invented the arrow, the knife and the alphabet, things changed fast. Food parts were cut into littler and littler bits until they became too little to eat, fostering the invention of bowls, mixers and measuring spoons to put it all back together again, following a recipe. Cooks became chefs. And that’s when trouble began.

How could they screw up something as simple as a spoon? If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of ground pigeon flakes, you can’t use a spoon off the table and measure with it, because a table spoon holds only a teaspoon. How much does a tea spoon hold? We don’t know, because even the British don’t use tea spoons. You stir tea with a demi-spoon, which, in spite of its name, is not half a spoon. We have a soup spoon but nobody measures with it, even though it holds nearly a tablespoon.

They also invented the heaping teaspoon, two words nobody thought would ever go together.

Does a drinking cup hold a cup? Of course not. It holds 1.5 cups. If I cup my hands I can carry 1/8 of a cup. A cup holds 8 ounces of flour, which weighs 4 ounces. See how easy it is? This is why we give up on recipes and just go to Burger King.

Heaven forbid we use the metric system like the rest of the educated world. You know you are on shaky ground when your only compatriots using cups, pints and quarts are the British, who can’t be trusted with food or naming things.

The British call a spatula a scoop. The Scots call that a tosser, but that’s forgivable: if your homeland was famous for haggis you’d toss your food too.

I like the indistinct measurements, like a pinch and a dash. While not clear, at least they’re not misleading. Besides, they use our fingers, which we happen to have handy.

We need more such measurements. A fistful of cumin. (Okay, maybe not cumin, because then you go around with your hand smelling like you got lucky.) A finger of cake frosting. A nose of Coke.

Justin Timberlake introduced a cup of Janet Jackson. There’s a hands-on measure.

You’ll argue that we shouldn’t measure using our body parts, because bodies aren’t consistent in size. But I see that as a strength. A guy with big hands eats more, and his recipe would turn out accordingly.

How about a glom of yoghurt? A swipe of peanut butter? (I know there is a schmear of cream cheese, but I always feel a little shorted. No wonder: I looked it up and the word translates as “corrupt.”)

I love making coffee because I grind the coffee beans in a coffee grinder, put them in a coffee maker and make coffee in a coffee cup. I appreciate such clarity first thing in the morning.

Did we really need to call it a frying pan?

In my kitchen I have a whisk, which is a mixer. My mixer uses beaters. I beat with a tenderizer, which mashes. To mash potatoes I use a ricer, and I cook rice in the steamer while I steam vegetables in the colander before I toss them into a salad with dressing I whip up with my whisk.

My blender has buttons to chop, grate, crumb, puree, liquefy and whip. Guess what it doesn’t have a button for.

Written for Fall 2009 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine

Friday, September 18, 2009


I like riding my bike, because I like to dress up in the outfit. Anybody looks tougher in black: black biking pants, black leather mesh gloves, black sunglasses. My bike is silver, because I wasn't thinking ahead.

I used to have a purple Sting-Ray. It had one speed. Riding it was easy. You got on, and you went. My second bike was a yellow two-speed. You shifted by kicking the pedals backward. The low gear was always too low, the high gear too high, and I always left a little skid mark when I shifted. When it was stolen, I only pretended to cry.

Nobody wore helmets then. Maybe we should have. You can tell some of us suffered brain damage. Just look at Glenn Beck. We didn't wear gloves or bike pants or even sunglasses. When I see little kids wearing bike helmets today, I think, "Good for you," and then I think, "pussy."

Now I don't bike unless I have enough time. The schedule requires this prep:
Pump up the tires
Strap on my helmet
Take off my helmet
Take my glasses out of helmet
Strap helmet on again
Put my sunglasses on
Take my helmet back off
Find the missing lens
Helmet on, sunglasses on
Attach keys to bike bag—bike pants don't have pockets
Carry my bike up from the basement
Balance it precariously on the steps while I unhook the keys from the bag to unlock the door
Clip keys back into bike bag
Saddle up and lock my feet in the pedal clips
Take feet back out; forgot my water bottle!
Door's locked, go back to bike, get door keys
Get water bottle
Stop by the mirror and flex

This can go on for a while.

This week I planned an Epic Ride, because I had the time. I didn't really feel like it, but after seeing pictures of myself at a recent public event I figured I needed the exercise more than what I really wanted, a margarita. I dutifully went through Steps 1-19 as described above, with one addition: it was late on an overcast day, yet I wanted to wear sunglasses to protect my eyes from bugs. I have biking glasses with interchangable lenses. One set is amber to improve contrast and visibility at just such an hour. I popped out the existing lenses with my thumb, then discovered these weren't my biking glasses.

Eventually I was on my way. There is a wonderful long hill as I turn off my street, and as I approached warp speed my skin began to smart from a peppering of thousands of teeny gnats that filled the air. Where did they all come from? They were so thick I couldn't catch a breath, couldn't see straight, didn't want to open my mouth to cry out. This sucks. I got all tough looking for nothing.

Bike pants are made of stretchy Lycra, with elastic in the waist and around both thighs, and a little cushy pillow sewn into the butt that is attractive only to baboons. The elastic waistband in my bike pants chose this moment to give up. I admit, a lot has been asked of it lately. When the waist elastic fails, the rest of the stretchy material pulls down.

The little butt pad no longer looked like a baboon's ass. Sagging, it now looked like a full diaper. Instead of protecting my bum when I sat, it was now bunched up under my nethers, about as comfortable as sitting on a softball.

I no longer felt very badass. Usually I can glare wayward cars into submission, but more of them than usual were rolling through stop signs at me. Instead of giving me plenty of clearance, more slow pedestrians were amblilng in front of me, forcing me to weave around them. I felt like I was at Wal-Mart.

The Epic Ride was edited down to A Quick Spin. I putted around the neighborhood until I had ridden for more time than I had spent setting up, which is a personal rule. As I took the last turn, I passed a pretty young pedestrian who lowered her eyes the way a person does when encountering someone intimidating. I still got it, I thought.

I saw why too, when I spied my reflection in the window: two thousand squashed bug eyeballs ogling back at me.

Step-off-quick-drink-from-water-bottle-that-you-didn't-touch-the whole-trip-no-kickstand-find-a-place-to-lean-bike-helmet-off-sunglasses-back-in-helmet-gloves-too…



[fumble, fumble]

Where are my keys?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I am a sell-out

The book release party last Thursday was among the most exciting nights of my life. So nervous I couldn't breathe. The room filled with awesome people. Jeff, Katie, Vern and the Korey band all gave fantastic performances.

And we sold out of books! Yay for me, and yay for you too: if you didn't get a book at the discounted release party price, lulu.com has agreed to give 10% off any online order placed from here. Just enter the coupon code LULUBOOK when you order. It's a secret gift to you for reading this blog.

Great review in The Reader too. Hip-hip . . .

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Orienteer

I took an orienteering class in college. Orienteering is walking around with a compass, faster than everybody else. Someone tells you which way to go, and how far. Sort of like the Army, without the haircut.

For one of our exams, we were instructed to drop a dime in the grass. Then the teacher gave us a complicated instructions:
Go 72 yards at a heading of 290 degrees
48 yards at 46 degrees
91 yards at 198 degrees . . .

. . . and so on. He designed the directions so that if I followed them correctly I would end up standing on my dime.

The first test was easy. I found my dime in the grass on the first try. The exercises grew more complicated. I learned a trick: in order to get an A on the test, it helped to have a few extra dimes in my pocket.

With the invention of GPS, you just enter the location you want, and the device points the way. It requires about the same skill as filling out a crossword puzzle with the answer sheet in front of you. But at least you end up where you wanted to go, and you don’t need to carry extra change.

Compasses are sexy. The invisible forces of magnetism are harnessed by your magic needle, gleaning clues from the unseen.
Maps are like that too. They tell the future. They’ll tell you a town is two miles over the hill and beyond the next left turn, which you can’t even see. You go over the hill and around the corner and—oh my God there it is! It’s like tarot cards that actually make sense.

I haven’t plied such sorcery for years. I recently went on vacation in the Black Hills, where you can hike to unimaginable views. I bought a topographical map for ten dollars, cheaper than one visit to a palm reader, and with more lines. I brought my trusty compass, a transparent orienteering one that lays over a map and reveals secrets.

I pointed the compass at Harney Peak, the tallest mountain east of the Rockies, and took a reading: 45 degrees. Then Little Devil’s Tower, the scariest cliff I’ve ever peered over: 64 degrees. Cathedral Spires, a craggy, spiky formation that will give you religion, 72 degrees. On my map I drew light pencil lines through all three mountains using the measured vectors. The lines converged on one spot. Me.

Three mountains, each over 2 billion years old (6000 in Fundamentalist years), agreed that I exist. My head swirled at the thought. I marked a dot on the map. Me.

I looked up at Laura. She was eighteen feet away at 48 degrees, sitting in a chair atop a high cliff, looking down upon layers of blue-gray South Dakota hills fading into an imperceptible seam with the sky. She had wrapped herself in a warm wool blanket, and had book in her lap, a margarita in her hand. Laura can enjoy the view without maps.

She smiled. “I love to watch you geek out like that.”

“I’m on the map,” I announced. “I’m right here.”

“I knew you would be.”

“Will you marry me?”