Monday, August 26, 2013

We’re Doomed. What’s for Dinner?

Global Warming. Underwear Bombers. Gluten. Life feels precarious. I’ve gone beyond worrying about tomorrow to worrying whether I’ll make it to happy hour.

To console myself, I make every meal a Last Supper. Not the broken bread and bloody wine kind, but real comfort food that will send me to the pearly gates with a happy belly.

Show Me the Fat

The foundation of all comfort food is fat. Lard, oil, and butter all trigger our evolutionary dopamine, signaling, “Everything is fine. Go back to sleep.” Fat feels safe. Fat = not starving. Fat is mother’s milk. Heck, boobs are made of fat.

Skinny people make great models because they look like clothes hangers. But when you need real comforting, nobody wants a bony hug. Give us that fat.

Cheese, the refined offspring of fat, is a brick of happy. Cheese needs no cooking, so guys like it. When it melts, it’s like gravy. Cheese is fat you can hold in your hands. It’s stackable fat. Without cheese, nachos are nothing more than corn chip and hamburger salad.

Mac & Cheese, Please

Macaroni is a benign carrier like white bread: flavorless, with just enough structure to hold the food you really want to eat. Mac-and-cheese is a go-to comfort food because it’s made almost entirely of cheese. The macaroni is there only so you can pick up the cheese. That’s why it’s shaped like a handle.

Macaroni-and-cheese is comforting for another reason: your mom made it for you. It harkens you back to a time when you were clothed, housed and fed by a servant. Good times.

Kraft tries to capitalize on our pathetic loneliness by putting mac and cheese in a do-it-yourself box, but nothing is more loveless than powdered cheese and skinny noodles. Kraft macaroni and cheese tastes like parents too busy for their kids. It has the same color and flavor as Hot Wheels track.

What goes with mac and cheese? Ketchup. And regret.

The comfort food I'll make for myself: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Here’s my recipe:
  1. Butter two slices of dense wheat bread.
  2. Butter the pan.
  3. Butter the butter.
  4. Smear yogurt on the inside of the bread slices. Do not use nonfat yogurt. This is a grilled cheese friggin’ sandwich, for Pete’s sake.
  5. Lay on some sharp cheddar cheese and dust lightly with cayenne pepper. 
If you are expecting nuclear obliteration or fire-and-brimstone, add a bit more cayenne. It will help you acclimate.

The recipe for the soup:
  1. Open the can.
Cheddar is Better
I love to wrap my arms and legs around a giant bowl of popcorn, with a side of cheddar cheese and wine. Wine, cheese and popcorn are a holy trinity, and it tastes even better if you wear flannel jammies.
If you don’t have any servants, you may find some comfort with convenience store microwave burritos. They are fun to peel like a banana, without tasting like one.

There is enough fat and salt in a burrito to kill you mercifully before you die of whatever cataclysm made you want a burrito in the first place.

Ice cream is nobody’s comfort food, really. We keep dipping into it only because it looks so comforting when Meg Ryan eats it in, well, every Meg Ryan movie.

Comfort Food #3: breakfast for dinner. I don’t know why this works except that the breakfast foods we choose are Froot Loops, pancakes and bacon, which is like having candy for dinner. The reverse doesn’t work the same: nobody is comforted by roast beef and mashed potatoes or breakfast.

Maybe the world isn’t really coming to an end. I know I can’t eat comfort food every meal just to be safe. But when I’m feeling especially insecure, it seems smart to stock up on comfort, just in case.

That’s how the survivalists do it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Moving Day

My mother moved out of her house in my humble hometown of Kearney, Nebraska after forty-eight years. I was two years old when we moved there, and didn't leave until college beckoned.

You wouldn't think I'd remember anything about the house we had before that, but I do. I remember patches of grass in the back yard. I remember air vents on the second floor that you could peek through to spy on people in the living room below. I remember the long white station wagon we had, and standing on the green and white vinyl bench seat, the taste of the hard green steering wheel with the bright chrome rocker arm that honked delightfully when I leaned on it. I'm told I figured out how to shift the car into neutral, and took it for a roll down the hill with my four-year-old sister beside me, only avoiding disaster on a busy cross street when my brother dove through the window and pulled the parking brake. But I don't remember that.

The Kearney home is where my life was.

After forty-eight years a house collects a lot of personal stuff. Each of Mom's six kids had his own stash, left behind as we crept out into the world. After much fair warning, mother carted most of it off to various thrift stores, but like mushrooms some stuff keeps popping back up. Just yesterday I wondered what became of my complete Matchbox car collection, too late to do anything about it. Right now some lucky 3-year-old is probably sticking my 1971 Silver Boss Hoss Mustang up his nose.

I returned to Kearney to help Mom sort things out. When you've moving, everything becomes sentimental and it's hard to get started. I was assigned to clear out the basement.

Dad was very handy. He bought tools just because he thought he might need them someday. After dinner every night he would slip down to the basement and tinker. I think he needed the time alone, but he wouldn't deny me if I quietly crept down to watch his thick, wrinkly fingers deftly dancing over some intricate project. Just by watching, I eventually learned how to sharpen a knife on a whetstone, how to sweat a copper pipe, cut a miter joint, solder a wire, and curse.

Most tools are toys, really. A grinding wheel is really Fourth of July sparklers in the house. I'd write my name in cursive using a spray can of carburetor fluid, then light it. I was most fascinated by his retrieval tool, a wire two feet long with a syringe button on one end. When you plunged it with your thumb, little clampy robot fingers would open on the other end. You could stick the wire down any little hole and retrieve all kinds of treasures. It was like the crane in a glass box where for a quarter you can try to pick up a bright blue elephant doll and drop it in the access tray, even though you wouldn't buy the same doll off the shelf for a quarter. I retrieved barrettes and rubber bands from air vents.

A single drip of sweat dangled from his nose as he worked. I pondered over rows of tools, pored over tiny drawers filled with washers and bolts.

"What's this for?"

Dad was patient. Sometimes entire new projects were started as he got carried away demonstrating a globe Dremel bit or hot glue gun. The first time I heard my baby sister laugh out loud was through the floor vent from the living room above, as Dad and I paused polishing a brass doorknob to listen. He winked at me as her grown-up belly laugh infected me with the giggles.

I was afraid of the closet filled with wood scraps. It was dark, even with the light on, draped in cobwebs and dead crickets. All the wood pieces were dark, with rough broken edges. He said I could use any of the wood that was in there, for whatever I wanted. I wanted to build a bicycle.

The first time I felt like a grownup was when Dad borrowed my hammer. I had bought my own for a high-school class called Construction Technology. Twenty sixteen-year-old morons built a house from scratch every year. We swung screaming circular saws with abandon and learned to adjust a nail gun so that the nail wouldn't shoot clear through a beam and out the other side. The only requirements for the class: bring a hammer and a pencil.

I was proud of my hammer. It had a "low-vibration" ergonomic fiberglass handle. My Dad's wood hammer looked so straight and primitive in comparision.

I never remembered to bring a pencil to class. No one did. The teacher would tell us to measure something, and be met with blank looks all around.

"Pencil? Anyone?"

Silence.

"Out of all you guys, there isn't one pencil?"

We'd borrow his. Whenever something needed to be cut, a cry would go out: "Who has The Pencil?"

I was taught better than that. Dad was organized. His pegboard had a silhouette of every tool he owned, drawn in black marker. If a tool were missing it would look as conspicuous as a crime scene chalk outline. An all-points bulletin would be put out and the tool would be returned.

I left home for college but came back every weekend. Then every other weekend. Then just major holidays. Building a life of my own, I went back over summer break to collect some of my things. My eyebrows raised as I spied my hammer hung on his pegboard, with a black outline lassoed around it.

Because it was there, it was clear that it had become his. I didn't argue, remembering the fifty tools I'd lost out in the back yard over the years. But the male genetic code that says "don't mess with a man's tools" was switched on, leaving me with a whole new understanding of my father.

Dad died years ago. My brother, who lives closest, would stop by to borrow his tools, and saw little point in returning them. When I came back to help clear out the house, Dad's pegboard was little more than empty drawings of hammers and crowbars and levels, like an Operation game with all the pieces missing.

I poked through little bins of miscellany, chatting with Dad out loud as I went. I teased him over the stuff he filed away, like the coffee can marked "foam pieces." Lining the bottom of a box of model plane pieces I found the original plans for a sailboat. There was a small picture on the plans of how the boat would look finished, complete with a proud skipper smoking a pipe. Dad took up pipe-smoking around then, and built that boat in the back yard, and looked exactly like that skipper when he sailed away.

On the back of those plans was his doodly sketch for an iceboat he ended up creating in 1972 out of 4x4 beams. I found a few radio-controlled airplane flight logs. "Crashed. Heading home." Not much else to keep.

It took a day to sort out the rare treasures from rusty tools to be donated to the thrift store. I stacked a roomful of giant garbage bags to be hauled away. I used Dad's Shop-Vac one last time to clear out his cobwebs and sawdust. The room was finally empty.

Upstairs, Mom and my sister Patty were sorting through photographs and wrapping fine china plates I saw for the first time. In all the photographs I am above ground, but most of my memories are in the basement.

Mom was relieved to have the basement chore off her mind. Dad's sailboat plans have been ironed flat and framed, along with a matching photo of him on his finished boat.

A set of tiny jewelers files from his basement are now in mine. I see them every day and wonder how his thick fingers ever managed such intricate work.

My hands look more like his now, but they're not as strong, which I noticed as I hauled the garbage bags up through the old cellar door.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Are You Deaf?!

Some people have perfect pitch. Most of us have relative pitch. A few of us bray like goats, which is fine too because goats are cute.

Relative pitch means you can sing Happy Birthday in such a way that other people recognize it. You may find yourself straining halfway through the song because the person who started the "Haaaaaaappy…" picked a note way higher than you're used to, but who knew?

The guy with perfect pitch, that's who.

Happy Birthday was written in the key of G, which means it starts on a D note.* People with perfect pitch can sing a D note on command. That sounds like a lovely gift, but the flip side is that every time someone sings Happy Birthday in a different key, which is to say every time, it sounds off to them. Out of envy I would hate people with perfect pitch, except that God has already cursed them for me.
*Yes, Happy Birthday was “written,” mostly by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill. Warner Music Group owns the copyright through the year 2030. That means every time you sing Happy Birthday publicly, you legally owe them a royalty. At last report, this earned Warner $5000 per day. Party-poopers.
I've played guitar since I was a kid. I can tune one up in seconds. It'll sound great, unless you play it next to another guitar tuned to its correct pitch. Mine might be a whole note lower or higher, because the note to which I matched all the others was off in the first place. I have relative pitch.

To get around this shortcoming, I have various strategies for tuning accurately:

  • Play in front of someone with perfect pitch, and see if they wince.
  • Pick up a phone. Almost all land-line dial tones are an F note. Match the F on my guitar to it. The hardest part is finding such a phone.
  • Use a tuning fork. It's fun and cool.

When you whack a tuning fork, it vibrates but you can't hear anything. There's nothing on it to resonate. But touch the ball on the butt end to the wood of a guitar and the whole instrument will sing the note. Likewise, a friend showed me that you can press the end of the ringing tuning fork against your front tooth, and your whole skull will resonate in perfect A-440. Nobody else hears a thing. Yes, I learned that in junior high.

Sure, I could use an electronic tuner, but that's for pussies.

To match my relative pitch, I have relative map skills. I can read and understand a map perfectly well regardless of which way it is pointing. This means I'll always turn right if I am supposed to turn right, but I may turn north when I'm supposed to be going south.

Worse, in the real world I have a perfect sense of direction, but a backwards sense of where everything actually is. This was the fault of my 4th grade teacher. While we learned map skills, my desk faced south. As I learned the names, shapes and locations of every state in the U.S., I was facing backwards. Ask me to point north, and I'll point north every time. Ask me to point to California, and I'll show you New York.

Experts say language is best learned before the age of three. Map skills are best learned by age nine, after which the sense of place becomes cast in bone. As a result, I will forever see the world upside down.

Right now I'm looking out my window at Farnam Street, and I know I'm looking east. I know that beyond a few hills and one river lies Iowa, because I've been over there. After that my brain starts inserting Wyoming, Utah and Oregon. I've been to those states too, but I flew there on a plane, which is like riding an elevator: the door closes, then reopens to a completely different place, with no real appreciation of how you got there.

Here's what I have to do to actually find something: point to where I think it is, freeze my body in that position, and rotate 180 degrees. It's like having perfect un-pitch.

I suppose I could do what the pioneers did: cross the United States on foot, step by step, mile by mile, month after month, experiencing the sights, smells and feel of every hill in the whole continent. I find it's easier to just be wrong.

It was in that very 4th grade class one morning when the teacher stood in front of a wall-sized map of the Western Hemisphere, surveyed her young students and asked, "Who can point out the United States?" Every hand went up except one. Earl was the hard-luck kid like every class has, the kid who gets picked on as the rest of us battle to position ourselves into the hierarchy of life. The teacher, aptly named Fairchild, knew his story: his parents were congenitally deaf, and as a result Earl had gotten a slow start. She felt he needed something in his win column. There was one word he dreaded most at that moment, and she said it.

“Earl?’

He rose slowly from his chair in the back. There's no rush for the gallows. As he passed midway down the center of the classroom he tripped on his own loose shoelace, sprawling on his face with a rumpled thud.

We roared. Hyenas. Jackals. Crows.

He picked himself up and shuffled to the map. He ran his finger across the brightly colored shapes, hoping one might reach out to save him. He was somewhere over Guatemala.

The teacher tried not to blink. After an eternal twenty seconds she asked, “Can anybody help Earl?” Every hand shot up. All of us could point out the United States. None of us helped Earl.

I'm grateful to have a decent sense of pitch, and a gift for picking out a harmony. I'm sensitive to music, which sings to my soul and plays in my mind all day like a radio. It's part of my identify, which is why it's hard for me to realize how my 4th grade heart could be so deaf.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Something Fishy

My favorite place to go for seafood was a box of Mrs. Paul’s. Fish sticks were my favorite. Throughout my life I thought I loved seafood. It turns out what I love is tartar sauce and wine vinegar.
Tartar sauce is just pickle relish in mayonnaise. It makes everything you put it on taste like a French hot dog. I slathered it on my little bricks of fish like mortar.
At the tender age of thirteen (if there is anything tender about thirteen) I discovered that fish doesn’t always come in golden rectangles. This came to me when I took a job as a busboy. In the traditional demonstration of freshness (it was frozen) trout was served with head and tail intact, an arching display like a canoe. Clearing tables, I didn't see much of the original fish — just the bones and leftover head, eyes looking up at me in wonder.
Occasionally my dad would bring home a can of sardines, and my mother would ban him to the back porch. He'd invite me to be his fellow expatriate, gingerly lifting each greasy slug onto a cracker. Spill any sardine oil and you’d stink for a week. Sardines in a can are usually even more intact than trout and are eaten whole—bones, guts, and head. For a boy watching his dad, that’s pretty cool.
My mother once brought home an oily sack of dinner from Long John Silvers. Everything in it was brown. She fetched a bottle of wine vinegar, which must have been in our house the whole time but I had never seen it. Always practical, she probably bought the fish as an excuse to use up the vinegar.
Vinegar on breaded fish is delicious. With added tartar sauce, lovelier still. With enough tartar sauce and vinegar I could enjoy deep-fat-fried shoelaces. I can even like an oyster, which otherwise is as appetizing as a spoonful of snot.
There are sushi people and hot dog people, but it’s a needless division. Neither food tastes good by itself. With enough hot mustard or wasabi, you can hardly tell them apart.
The wasabi that local sushi restaurants serve isn't real wasabi. Real wasabi is very expensive and used sparingly, mostly in Japan. We get a green-dyed horseradish paste. I’m fine with that. When stirred with soy sauce, it creates the perfect condiment for sushi, to keep it from tasting like sushi.
You mix the two. They give you a tiny dish for the job. Sushi chefs don’t pre-mix soy sauce and wasabi for you because it turns a taupish grey, the consistency of corpse drippings. Chefs prefer this result to be your fault.
Take away the soy sauce, the wasabi, the wine vinegar and the tartar, and you're left with a super-healthy, high-protein, omega-3-fatty-acid mother-lode of low-fat power food to feed your heart, brain and body. Sushi lowers the risk of depression, Alzheimer's and diabetes. This is the primary difference between sushi and hot dogs, which are basically a blend of ground cow lips, gristle and sphincters, increasing the risk of self-loathing. Hot dogs spring from a fine German tradition of not wasting the things that by all rights you ought to.
The Japanese are the opposite. They invented “Krab” sticks, imitation crab meat formed from surimi, which is to say they made fish out of fish. That’s like making cookies out of Oreos.
As an experiment, I ate sushi without the usual slathering of sauces. Naked sushi tastes buttery, floral and light, with a delicate, fragile flavor. Boooorrring. Plain sushi is anti-climactic once you’ve discovered the joy of wasabi burning off the tip of your nose.
While researching this story I made a discovery: if you deep-fat-fry it, drizzle enough wine vinegar on it and smear it with tartar sauce, Wonder Bread tastes just like fish.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Iced, Baby

We weren't getting along. Mostly, we were just staying away from each other. I love to go for walks at night in the winter, and I was happy to go alone.

Winter sky is so clear it's black. Stars pierce. I clearly see patterns in the stars, but I don't see a dog or bear or lion. Really, Cassiopeia, you're not a queen clinging to your upturned throne. You're just a "W." But you're pretty, still.

Even as a child I always noticed Orion. Orion followed me as I walked to visit my friend Harold. I'd speed up, slow down, break into a dead run, and Orion would always move apace. I didn't feel threatened as much as watched over.

I put on my sweat pants and coat, then strolled the half-mile or so to Miller Park, with Orion looking over my left shoulder. The park wasn't considered a safe place to go at night, but it was winter and I didn't feel threatened. Without the people, it was a magical place filled with giant maple trees, a large lagoon in the middle.

I shuffled out onto the silent ice, pushing tracks in the light dusting of snow. I stood in the middle of the ice, admiring its black reflection of the sky, the absolute quiet. The world seemed to expand.

After a few minutes, I grew cold and headed for home.

Halfway back to shore I heard a muffled chunk. I played on the ice a lot as a kid and was used to the noises it makes. But after the second chunk, and then a third, I quickened my pace.

Crack! This one was sharper, more near the surface. I bolted. My feet spun on the ice.

The structure began to collapse. I was running on separate pieces of ice that toddled underfoot, water splashing past the edges. It seemed I might yet stay up, like running on snowshoes, if I were fast enough.

I wasn't.

I went in, swallowed hole.

The air rushed out of my lungs. With every effort to climb out, the ice broke beneath me. It was so cold I couldn't feel it. The dead quiet was replaced with a hissing noise, the fear, blood and adrenaline racing through my ears. The shore was still fifty feet away.

My flailing leg bumped mud. I gathered my footing and discovered the water was only four feet deep. I felt stupid and thrilled at the same time. The bottom was sticky as taffy, its gloopy suction pulling at my shoes. Slog by slog, I worked my way out.

As a high-schooler atop a mountain in Colorado, I had gotten hypothermic once before and knew not to let it happen again. With a warm dry home only six blocks away, I decided to run for it, hoping to get there before everything froze up.

My legs had already gone numb, and I could feel my muscles thickening. My feet grew heavier. I was slowing. I looked ahead: still four blocks to go. My run turned into a trudge, turning into ponderous baby steps. I wasn't going to make it. Not even close.

Resigned, I looked down at my feet, which were completely surrounded by my water-soaked sweat pants. My legs had become so numb that I didn't feel the drawstring give way, freeing the wet, heavy sweat pants to work their way down around my ankles.

Huh.

I pulled my pants back up over my pink legs. A couple of quick steps to prove I could run after all, and  I was home in minutes.

With drooping lids she looked up from her jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy as I burst through the front door, bug-eyed and dripping. I told her a brief version of what happened (minus the sweat pants part) as I sloshed by to draw a hot bath. The lazy look in her eyes was as distinct as if she had come out and said it: "It would have been really convenient if you hadn't made it out."

It was the marriage that drowned, slow and cold.

This year the ice is perfect, a rare development. Sleek and smooth, clear and black, free of snow. Laura and I went ice skating, with the whole lake to ourselves but for a few children and a couple of cranky ice-fishermen. Still, I stayed close to the shore.

Weeks later we walked the beach of Lake Manawa, coming upon three ice sailboats parked invitingly on the sand. I admired the sleek runners and the long stretch of glistening ice calling them out. My imagination raced.

Someday, I will. Someday.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Fire

Fire in the fireplace
Full of Christmas cheer!

Fire in the fireplace
Happy New Year!

Fire in the fireplace
Pretty as — fuck!
That's not the fireplace!
Call the fire truck!