Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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.

The feather touch? That was added after some trial and error.

Next came the invention of tools. Cave-man cooks, sensitive because up until then they had done nothing but burn things over a fire, decided they would get more respect if they re-named every tool specifically for cooking. Pokey sticks became utensils.

After they invented the arrow, the knife and the alphabet, things changed fast. Food could be cut into smaller and smaller bits until it became too little to eat. This fostered the invention of bowls, mixers and measuring spoons to assemble the bits back together again. Instructions were called a recipe. Cooks became chefs.

How can you screw up something as simple as a spoon? When a recipe calls for a tablespoon of ground pigeon flakes, you can’t use a spoon off the table, because a table spoon holds only a teaspoon. How much does a tea spoon hold? Who knows? Even the British don’t use tea spoons. They stir tea with a demi-spoon, which, despite its name is not half a spoon. There's a soup spoon but nobody measures with it, even though it holds about a tablespoon.

Heaping teaspoon: two words nobody thought would be paired together. How to you heap with a teaspoon?

Does a drinking cup hold a cup of liquid? 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 recipes work? This is why we give up and go to Burger King.

Heaven forbid we use the metric system like the rest of the post-Cro-Magnon 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 nor with naming things.

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

I prefer indistinct measurements, like a pinch and a dash. While not precise, they use our fingers, which we always have handy.

More such measurements, please! A hand of thyme? A finger of cake frosting? A nose of Coke? Remember the Super Bowl when Justin Timberlake introduced a cup of Janet Jackson?

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

I love 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.

But not too much clarity. Do 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, but 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 for chop, grate, crumb, purée, liquefy and whip. Guess what it doesn’t have a button for.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Just Skating By

The last time I rollerskated was in 1975. I fell a lot. A fat kid ran over my finger. Everyone seemed cooler than me, some spinning tricks in the center of the circle like Peggy Fleming with sledgehammer shoes.

So when a gang of friends invited me to join them at Skate Daze after we had stuffed ourselves with pizza and beer at a birthday party, I subconsciously rubbed my little finger as I said, "Yeah, sure." I added awkwardly, "I like to skate."

That's partly true. I rollerblade often, cruising solo down a long flat trail with my music on and my brain off, steering away from fat kids.

I arrived at Skate Daze and entered warily. It was a giant warehouse of old video games: Defender, Galaga, and various car-racing games with pixelly, jerky graphics that reminded me of Atari. I hesitated a minute trying to make sense out of a shooting game titled, "Cops vs. The Japs." I lingered over the Air Hockey table as one would admire a restored 1962 Cadillac. It wasn't retro. It was just old.

I worked my way to the skating rink. The skaters hadn't changed much either. Granted, it was Adult Only night, which sounds sexy but isn't. I gathered from a few conversations that this is where people hang out after their A.A. meetings.

Although the rental clerk was as old and crabby as I remember, the skates were updated. You could choose between figure skates and hockey style. You could even opt for in-line skates, something forbidden in the '70s.

"In-lines, please." I laced them up and stood, wobbly as Bambi.

"In-lines?" a passing friend said. "Do your parents know you're gay?"

"What?" I hadn't even skated yet and felt I had broken a rule. "Why? I got them from the rental place!" I suddenly felt I was wearing a rainbow bandana. "What's wrong with in-lines?"

"Nothinnngg . . ." She giggled and walked away.

I recalled a conversation from a few months ago, when I invited my friend Vern to go rollerblading with me. I skate fast. He's an athletic guy. I figured he could keep up. I was delighted when he mentioned he had skates.

"Really? You're going to go rollerblading together?" his girlfriend commented, eyebrows raised. "Are you going to wear tight little cut-offs and hold hands?"

"What? Why?"

It was time. To the thumping melody of Metallica, I worked my way into the swirling drain of skaters. Fit-fit-fit-fit! Four skaters zoomed by in perfect lock-step, doing a crouchy little shuffle dance. They were resplendent in tattoos and piercings, heads shaved, and as if to cement their rebelliousness, their skates were unlaced. Maybe not Hell's Angels, but at least really tough little scooter guys.

They followed tight behind their leader, matching his every slouchy move, flannel shirts trailing like bicycle streamers. Each followed as close behind the next as if they were racing in the Tour du France, crotch to butt. This, apparently, is not gay.

"Shadow skating," a friend watching them said. "Doesn't that look bad-ass?" So it's called "shadow skating." The DJ, dressed in a referee shirt, cued up Careless Whisper by George Michael, a singer famous for his tight little cut-offs.

"Yeah," I said uncertainly. "It's cool."

I began to realize that in Skate Land, roles reverse.

"That guy is flirting with me," my friend Sarah mused. "Whenever he passes me he does an extra little dance move."

"Like a mating dance?"

"Yeah," she said. "Skate & mate."

I looked up. All the women were skating limply in circles, minding their own business. The guys were dancing like temptresses. Skate-and-Mate skated backwards past her, doing a cross-over, smiling.

"They like you," I said. "You're skater bait."

I'm never gonna dance again
The way I danced with you-hoo-hoo . . .

The skater dudes were in a frenzy of flourishes, peacocks on wheels.

I noticed another guy from our group skating happily alone in his thoughts, unpretentious, just having a nice time. He actually is gay.

"Couples dance!" the referee announced. The lights dimmed, leaving the disco star ball strewing white squares across the floor. It made me dizzy. I said good-bye to Skater-Bait, jumped on the track and pushed hard until I caught up with my girl, who was practicing her Gloria Gaynor disco moves. In the past I always had to leave the floor during couples skate.

I tried to skate backwards and face her with my best Ricardo Montalban smile. Our skates tangled, banging like bumper cars, so I settled for facing forward, holding hands. An older couple floated by, poised in ballroom position. They rotated as a pair, precise as a music box.

"That," I said, "Is bad-ass."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pink Day

Happy Pink Day.

Pink Day is not on the calendar. It is dependent entirely on the weather. The first sunny, warm day in spring, after the snow has melted and grass starts prying itself up from being smashed face down in the mud, is Pink Day.

Tree branches swell with horny buds. Cardinals and robins sing dirty songs to the opposite sex. Humans take off their shirts and shoes, offering up their pale pink skin to the pagan gods of Spring.

Pink skin in July looks unhealthy. But in March it is as natural and beautiful as a mother robin puking worms into her baby’s wide-open mouth.

I donned a thick sweater and a corduroy shirt and managed to have lunch out on the patio. I felt like an antenna, sucking up the sun's energy as it refilled my near-dead batteries. I drew a deep breath of Pink Day air, forgetting that it does not yet smell of sprouting daffodils, but of thawing dog crap.

My dog is rewarded with a little biscuit when he poops outside. Pretty much all he eats are those biscuits, so that's what his poop consists of. His little Shih Tzu turds come out like little macadamia nuts, exactly the size of those treats. If I could get him to eat his own poop he could be self-rewarding.

The lawn service guy just spread a spring layer of organic fertilizer. It smells like corn flakes. He says it comes from chickens. I don’t know if he means chicken droppings, or chicken feed, or, well, chickens.

As I exhale that deep lungful of corn flakes and poopcicles, I hear the sweet, optimistic sound of a cardinal calling for his mate. He song is drowned out by a passing motorcycle. I know it must be fun to be on a Harley. In high school, I myself earned a citation for disturbing the peace thanks to my bike's after-market muffler. But I’m not on a motorcycle now so it isn't fun. I respond with a bird of my own, and loudly sing a song of spring entitled, Shut The Fuck Up You Self-Centered Jackass. I don’t remember who wrote it.

When I finish this essay I'm going to celebrate  day with tastes of warmer weather: a margarita, maybe some corn chips. I'll sit on my front porch and watch the neighbors parade by, in all their pink glory.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Naked Power

My stairs are squeaky. When you walk up or down them, it sounds like an army of marching ducks.

I don't notice the sound. The house I grew up in had squeaky stairs too. I suppose it kept me from sneaking out at night, though I never had anyhwere to go.

I awoke with a start in the middle of the night a few summers ago when I heard my stairs squawking. I wasn't expecting any 2am visitors. (Unfortunately.) But I've shared my door key with a few friends, so maybe someone had a bad night or something? Maybe needed to talk? A place to stay? Wouldn't they have called first? It was hard to be logical  — my ears are awake but my brain wasn't.

Earlier in the night I heard glass break. I thought I should get up; the cats probably knocked something over and I didn't want them to cut themselves. But I fell back asleep. I didn't make the connection between that sound and the sound of someone creaking up my stairs.

A guy appeared in my bedroom. Nope — nobody I knew. He was wearing a jean jacket over a grey hooded sweatshirt, relaxed as he browsed my dresser. He picked something up. Adrenaline sparked under my skin like a flashbulb. I tried to sit up and clear my head.

Mustering up my toughest voice I tried to bark, "What are you doing?" But it came out with a yodel, "Af-Quack?"

He grunted and hustled out,  crunching down the noisy stairs. I flailed and kicked in my bed, trying to untangle my feet from the sheets. I took up the chase. Halfway down the barking stairs, a familiar flapping reminded me I was naked. I ran back up and grabbed the only clothing handy: light blue boxer shorts decorated with cowboy lassos that spell out the word Lucky.

By then the thief has bolted out the front door, across the yard and into the dark. As he escaped he threw away the long, narrow box he had copped from my dresser. It was the exact size of a necklace case but held a dollar's worth of Nag Champa incense sticks.

The flight down the stairs was enough to jump-start my brain. As I stood in the open doorway looking into the dark, I quickly weighed the wisdom of valiant footchase against running in my underpants down the street in the middle of the night. I gathered up my incense and shuffled back inside.

I spent the rest of the evening waiting for the pumping adrenaline to fade. I fantasized about capturing the thief, about what I'd do if I caught him. But the imagery was hijacked by visions of me running in my underpants, making a diving catch and sliding across the concrete in my underpants, wrestling in my underpants, explaining the whole incident to the police while they made note of my lucky lasso cowboy underpants.

Somehow, Superman looks fearsome in a blue leotard and Speedos. Maybe it's the way my underpants hang askew to accommodate my little pot belly, or the spankety-spank sound my tender bare feet make when I run. Regardless, the lurking underworld does not fear me.

I had a baseball bat near my bed for just such an occasion. I forgot about it in the tizzy. Later, while running the whole event over in my head, I picked up the bat and rehearsed what I might have done with it. Standing on the narrow stairway landing in my lucky underpants, I discovered there wasn't room to swing the bat without taking out all the windows.

I dearly want a pistol but I know I'd use it for the slightest infraction. "Get off my lawn!" Blam!  So I bought a sling-shot, a fancy one that locks on your wrist. But in the time it takes me to wrestle it on, fumble the BB into the pouch with my fat fingers, drop the BB, dig around for it under the bed until I give up and get another one, take aim and then — ow! — step on the original BB, I could have gone to the pawn shop and bought back my stuff. On the plus side, my ability to hit a target with a slingshot is about the same in pitch black as it is in broad daylight. Besides, when a giant ogre is lurking in your bedroom, the last thing you want to do is hit him with a pebble.

I settled on mace. I keep a handy little squirter by my bed. Unfortunately, I d0n't feel I can practice with it. If you spray the tiny can to see how it works, there might not be any left when you need it. So my fantasy of jumping up on my bed in my Superman underpants, taking aim with my chemical weapon and shouting, "Take that, villain!" is tempered by a nagging image of nothing but flaccid pepper-jizz dripping down my elbow.

I have an alarm system. So far, the score for setting it off is: me, 328; burglars, 0.

I often hear phantom noises when I'm in the shower: voices, doorbells, phone rings. I don't know why. Last week I heard a big thump. My cats devote their day to jacking around with everything, so thumps are explainable. But this was a thump. I paused to listen. Nothing, really. A few creaks in a creaky old house. I took comfort in the quiet because Phooey, the toothless old Shih Tzu, was undisturbed. Phooey barks when the neighbors open their garage door. He barks when icicles fall from the roof, and when the mail arrives. He was not barking now.

I reached for a towel and stepped gingerly out of the shower, still alert while quietly patting dry my shivering pink skin. Phooey exploded into wild barks, the boo-woo-woo-woo he must have learned from watching the Three Stooges.

I never hear strange noises when I'm carrying a 10-inch chef knife and wearing a leather jacket and steel-toe boots. My heart sank as I dropped my towel and reached for my little sailboat underpants.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Night at the Opera

The first thing I noticed about the opera was that the entire theater staff was smiling. From the elderly doorman in his smart braided jacket that he might have inherited from Michael Jackson, to the ticket takers grinning as if they had daughters to pawn off, big smiles were everywhere.

The next thing I noticed was that tickets were $60. That explained the grins.

The Orpheum Theater in Omaha is a splendid venue, one of seven ornate sisters originally built for the vaudeville circuit. It is resplendent in velvet, gilded in sweeping gold arches. It has a central chandelier the size of a bread truck. If I paid $5 for a show and the performers didn't even show up, I would feel I got my money's worth just to walk around, craning my head at its magnificence.

Grinning ushers herded us to our seat. It was in my favorite area, the narrow side of the loge, where there's extra velvet and gilding and you can spy on the floor people. We were right behind the box seats, so I kept looking over my shoulder and imagining, if anyone started shooting, how I might save the day.

But the only person who needed shooting was the old lady right behind me. The minute The Marriage of Figaro began and the cast started bellowing and hiding behind chairs, she began uncrinkling candy. It is a miracle of acoustics that a candy wrapper can drown out a professional opera singer, and second miracle that Italian music makes old ladies hungry for hard candy. For whatever reason, they always unwrap it as slowly as if it were given to them in a concentration camp and they had to make it last a week. I have never seen anybody, young or old, eat hard candy outside the theater.

Maybe it wasn't candy. After ten minutes of slow, piercing crinkling, I began to suspect she was making cellophane origami gifts for all of her grandchildren. I turned around a couple of times to give her that Midwestern faux-polite look, a combination of "how do you do" and "I'm about to give you a beating," a look that translates to "Perhaps, ma'am, you don't realize you're being obnoxious."  She might as well have been engrossed in her knitting, and didn't react to me. Perhaps she was knitting cellophane mittens.

Being a Midwesterner, I seethed to myself and never actually said anything. During intermission, after pretty much everyone in the cast had taken a turn hiding behind a chair, we moved up to the coveted box seats, long on leg room and short on crinkling. I always think of John Wilkes Booth when I sit there, knowing that at the Orpheum he would never survive the jump. He would not land dramatically on stage, but crash deep into the orchestra pit among the percussionists, where he belongs.

WI had not seen The Marriage of Figaro before. I speak a little Italian, so I'm pretty sure nobody got married, although I confess I napped a couple of times in the third hour. I also concluded that nobody in that performance had any business getting married, not until they made up their minds who they were in love with.

I was surprised by the youth of the conductor. He appeared to be a high school senior. He looked nothing at all like Bugs Bunny. But with talent beyond his few years, his hands swept in graceful waves, and his baton punctuated the air. The orchestra, in perfect unison, ignored him.

The musicians were arranged by attitude. The French horn players, according to some tradition I don't know, were all wearing flannel shirts. The oboists all wore expressions that said they had just argued about Nietzsche, and lost. The flutists were predictably slender and pretty, erect in perfect posture, blissfully ignoring the raging battle over whether they should be called flautists.

I knew the opera would be three hours long. I check details like that before agreeing to attend, ever since I was ambushed by a four-hour performance of Madame Butterfly, which was fat with madames but not one butterfly. The performance was touted because a famous ceramicist, known for making giant spotted eggs, had been convinced to try his hand at costuming. When the fat lady sang draped in a muumuu with large black spots, my mind drifted to Ben & Jerry's.

Soon came the moment I was waiting for, the reason I attended. My dear friend appeared on stage. He was among the chorus members, handsome in his newfound ponytail. Other ponytails in the cast looked suspiciously like they came from a Paul Revere costume. His rich baritone swelled to fill the open space as he moved with the confidence of Keanu Reeves.

The entire cast was fit and trim. The only lady remotely pudgy hadn't sang a note in twenty minutes, so the opera's end caught me by surprise.

We lingered a bit after the show, admiring the elegant surroundings. The ushers spread out in a dragnet of black uniforms linked across the aisles. Their smiles had eroded into grimaces. They swept us up and ushered us out.

"Wait," I said to my date as we stepped into the cold air, away from the lobby and toward a martini. "I never heard Feeeg-ahhhh-roooh! Figaro-Figaro-Figaro-Figaro-Feeeg-ahhhh-roooh."

"That's The Barber of Seville," she replied. "Rossini. This was Mozart. Marriage of Figaro."


"The Barber of Seville," I asked after a few steps, "is the one with the rabbit?"


How does opera always find a way to make me feel stupid?