F the LBD

The amazingly beautiful Audrey Hepburn, wearing an amazing little black dress like a boss. This was a promo shot for Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Brittany looked at her dress, benignly laying across the bed. She looked at her reflection in the mirror. She poked at her belly. Yes, it was a belly. Rhymes with jelly. It didn’t bounce back as quickly as with the first two babies. The third time was definitely not the charm. She was like the stretched out elastic on an old pair of panties. Droopy drawers.

The dress was looking much less benign. She heard the baby shifting positions in the next room. She wondered how moms ever got anything done before baby monitors. One thing about being on baby number three, she knew better than to jump at the first shifting and snuffling. It would likely stop. It did. She turned her attention back to the black dress that seemed a little more hostile.

To be honest she barely gained much more weight than the baby, yet she was still lumpy. There was a party to go to and she was committed to getting into that form hugging dress. She pulled on her “firm-control” black hose and lifted her saggy breasts into what had been a pretty bra. She decided to iron her hair and then address the dress. She’d also do her makeup. She was going to wear the very pretty, very shimmery gold shadow from the Gwen Stefani Urban Decay palette. Where was her mascara?

Ashley would be at the party, too. This was Ashley’s first baby. When Britt saw Ashley last week, Ashley looked absolutely fabulous. Her chubby cheeked infant snuggled into the stroller that Ashley jogged behind, her yoga pants hugging her jiggle-free ass. Britt had the clumsy double stroller with her own Anna on a scooter nearby. They were heading to the “make your own cornucopia” class at the arts center. She was wearing yoga pants, too, but with her husband’s oversized college hoodie covering her hips. Hips, slash, lumps.

“Almost ready?” It was her husband. He was always impatient with her when she got like this. She could almost chant his words, “You look beautiful. Don’t be hard on yourself. Look at these beautiful children. How could you be feeling like you’re anything less than amazing?”

He didn’t understand. She wasn’t worried about him. Women dress for each other, not for men. She wanted Ashley, and their friend Kelly, to look at her as a peer-mom, part of the hip supermom sorority. She wasn’t going to sink to the suburban mini-vanned, sweat-pantsed, sweet lattes with whip demographic. The hair in her pony swung clean and shiny.

All three of them had babies in the past four months. She didn’t want to be the one that didn’t quite recover. Intellectually she knew it was stupid, but in her heart, no, in her soul, she needed to look fabulous. Her four-inch Louboutins–what a great find they were last year, before she became a waddling baby vessel–were at the foot of the bed. She stepped into them. Her right foot was a little squeezed, but as she walked in front of the mirror she felt stronger and the pain vanished. Sexy shoes did that. She kicked them off.

Britt went into the bathroom. She needed to pee. This would be the last time for the night. It was time for the Spanx full body shaper. Control was definitely what she was going after. She liked to have her hose on first, it made the Spanx a little easier to get into. She wondered if she should have bought a new, bigger size. Too late for that. She adjusted the legs, moved the fabric around, pulling some of it up higher, evening out her body. She could still almost breathe. She looked in the mirror and couldn’t find a lump to poke. There was no give to her artificially compressed body.

The dress on the bed looked benign again. Britt pulled it over her head. Her stomach wasn’t really flat, but it was not obviously fat. Her back end had a bit of a perky lift. She put her heels back on and made a circle in front of the mirror, smoothing the knit fabric over her curves. She clipped on her shiny earrings, grabbed her bag and headed to the baby’s room to scoop her up and go to the party.

Yeah, this was a lot of effort for a neighborhood holiday get together, but they all did it. Didn’t they? Still, she felt that the pressure to perfectly wear that little black dress was a drag. She wondered if she’d ever move beyond this stress. Maybe when the kids get bigger. Maybe.

Sir Pops Alot

Popped popcorn

There is really only one way to make popcorn. Well, I guess technically that isn’t true. There are, in fact, a bunch of ways to make popcorn.

You can take a pouch out of a cellophane bag, flatten it out and put it in the microwave. That’s a way to get gross tasting popcorn that frequently is scorched or burnt. You can put loose popcorn into a thingamy gig–a thingamy gig is one of those single use tools that you buy on a whim from Bed Bath and Beyond. If you have a big kitchen, it gets stored in the back of an underused cabinet. If you have a small kitchen, you regret buying it. Anyway, this popcorn thingamy gig also goes in the microwave. I think that people use it to avoid using any fat in the making of the popcorn. Creates a taste and texture similar to a styrofoam coffee cup.

Another way to get styrofoam-reminiscent popcorn is to use one of those air popcorn poppers. I don’t know if they still sell them. You used to put a knob of butter in the top of the dome so it would get greasy. Like greasy styrofoam. That’s what McDonald’s quarter pounders with cheese used to come in.

For people with bars in their basements, you know with a cool neon light and dusty bottles of booze because all they ever do is take beer out of the fridge? Yeah, those people. They might buy a small movie-theatre popcorn maker. It’s next to the arcade style pinball machine they got from Brookstone. They can even buy the fake butter for their groovy machine. Mmmm. How about that? They might have that singing mounted fish, too.

Then, there’s jiffy pop. I’ll just leave that one there.

So, to be honest, there may be many ways to make popcorn, but there is only one way that you can make good popcorn. It takes a heavy, 3-quart stainless steel pot, vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pot and some popcorn kernels. (Here, I can go either white or yellow, both have excellent results. I lean a little toward the white as they seem to have less moisture. But it’s not science. It’s not like I’m Kenji López-Alt).

I used to heat the oil and then add the popcorn kernels after a test pop. But that was stupid. I’d heat up the oil and then dump a third or a half cup of kernels which would immediately drop the temperature. Then I’d have to raise it up again. There was occasional burning, and, more importantly, this was very inefficient.

Now I put the pot on the burner set just above medium heat. I put the oil and the kernels in at the same time. I swirl the popcorn in the oil, to coat it. Also, because I like the swirling sound of the seeds on the steel. There’s a lot to like about making popcorn the right way.

Oh, and I place the lid on the pot. Don’t forget that. I had a pockmark in the middle of my forehead after a tragic popcorn popping incident. Fortunately it was when I was young, and it healed over with no permanent scar.

As the oil and kernels heat, I occassionally swirl it some more. My stove is kind of old, so it might not be heating evenly, and you want the popcorn to heat up together. Uneven heat is a big cause of scorched snack. This is to be avoided at all costs. I have heard that some people “like” burnt popcorn, but frankly, they are wrong. Burnt popcorn stinks and tastes bad. Believe me.

Be patient. Do NOT increase the flame. This is a mistake. I know this. So don’t do it.

After some intermittent undulations, it begins. Always with a single ding. The cymbal of the seed hitting the lid of the pan. It’s the sound of promise, of a beginning. I have sometimes questioned this miracle of corn and heat and opened the lid. My advice is to open away from your face, because after the first pop there may be a lull or there may be a a blitz. If the latter, shut the lid. Like NOW. (See scar above.)

What follows is the staccato pummeling of the kamikaze seeds throwing themselves against the pot. The start lasts about four seconds of single kernels popping before it becomes a cacophony of explosive corn, releasing energy and steam. It’s critical that you vent the lid, just a wee bit, to let out some moisture. You don’t want soggy popcorn. What I usually do is shake the pot–this is a good technique to force the seeds that might have been tossed to the top of the transformed corn back to the bottom of the pot where it has a chance to pop, too. Anyway, when I shake the pot, I let the lid clank around a bit and out comes some vapor.

Once the corn starts to erupt, you can’t walk away. The entire reaction is done in very few minutes, and you need to take it off of the heat the instant it’s done. Like, seriously, when it’s done. Don’t delay. Turn off the heat and pour it into a bowl. Now. (See burnt above.)

Some people add butter to popcorn, but I don’t see this as a big plus-up. It makes it greasy and doesn’t add too much, to me. But if you like butter, go for it. I won’t judge you.

Now I like to add two kind of salt. Regular salt shaker salt for brine and chunky kosher salt for crunch. It’s a bit more art than science. But the science does kick in if you use too much salt. I think it’s biology. Too much salt and your lips turn white. Like a chemical reaction.

But my secret ingredient, the one that I wouldn’t tell the boys no matter how many Friday nights I made popcorn for our weekly dinner and a movie nights and no matter how many times I caught them trying to sneak a peek, is ground black pepper. Not pepper ground from peppercorns. Nope. The already pulverized pepper in the red and white tin. I sprinkle on enough that you never realize it’s actually pepper, but there is some extra warmth in the bowl.

The popcorn is the best when there is some crunch, some sweetness from the corn and some salt. Maybe more than some. The oil provides the crunch and a little bit of flavor. I use a neutral oil.

Popcorn presents first in the air, its distinct smell fills your nostrils. It goes from my 3-quart stainless steel pot into my big stainless steel bowl. I think we call it the popcorn bowl. The bowl is much bigger than the pot, yet the popcorn expands to fill the bowl. More popcorn magic.

My next step, almost always, is to take the bowl into the other room and plop on the couch with a huge glass of water that I rest on the table. The TV is on, and there is, almost always, a movie to watch. It’s best when I put the bowl between me and a companion, and especially wonderful if the movie is funny.

And that’s really the only way to make popcorn.

 

Train Sense

Looking out the train window.

As the sun crossed the sky from noon to dusk, the train hurdled and then shuffled and lagged then hurdled again. Heading north.

I understand why there are two ga-zillion songs about trains.

First, there is the sound of the train. It’s rhythmic chug, chug chugging at its low register. It is a growling beast, and then a purring one. It touches your insides via quakes delivered from the soles of your feet. It adds the high tones from the clang of the cars as they pass over the tracks, an underloved but meaningful timbre of the orchestra–more cowbell like. And intermittently the low deep whistle sings it’s lonely tune as the train passes by. It’s warning you that it won’t stop, that it will just break your heart as it powers by.

Then, there is the feel of the train. The jostle back and forth along the tracks. Where walking the aisle of the train is akin to passing an unpasssable sobriety test. It sings songs the rails, leaning ever so slightly to the left and then rolling a bit to the right. The rocking lulls many passengers to dream of adventures to come.

Looking out the window, the world rushes past. The portal is big, but squared off. The edge creating an illusion of a ribbon of film passing through at speeds fast and slow. At first, it seems like the outside is moving, but as the speed picks up you realize that you are the one that’s moving–you just didn’t feel it. Yet, it moves you. Like a song, sung via tons of metal gliding over the tracks heading somewhere else.

Outside In

There’s a tree in my house. Like INSIDE my HOUSE.

It is tall, way taller than me. It is green. It has thousands of tiny needles, which is its version of leaves. It has little, browned leaves hidden in its boughs. It stands upright in a small red metal vase filled with water that it thirstily drinks. It smells of winter, of cold, of outside.

It will be in my house for the next few weeks. Tomorrow it will lose its wildness. I will string bright lights on its branches, pushing some deep inside so that it glows and leaving some on the outside so that it shines. I will hang a hundred or so trinkets on it, some are as old as me, some as old as the boys and some even younger than The Beast. I will top it off with a star.

It will scent the house with pine and outside. It will hit us square for the next few days, then it will be the background smell, taken for granted. It will cause us to change our paths through the room, walking around its fat bottom, bumping into it and making the bells that I hang low jingle.

It will protect the boxes and bags that will be stacked underneath it on Christmas Eve. It will watch over us as we have parties, imbibe, nibble and feast. It will hear our secrets, our disagreements, our barks and our love.

And then, after the New Year, it will be gone, leaving an invisible mass that we will walk around for a few days, until we forget. It will hide a few needles in a corner, between the floorboards, camouflaged in the pile of the rug. And I will pick a needle out of the bottom of my sock sometime in July and remember that there was a tree that finished it’s own time inside of my house.

In Case of Fire

A fire hydrant at night.

It stood watch over it’s corner, counting the flurry of commuters passing it by. The brick and asphalt that it sat on was coated in water mixed with oil and fuel that reflected the light from the street lamp above.

The bricks were being forced up by the roots of the tree. They were only set in sand, and were susceptible to upheaval. The bricks were spotted with pock marks and the remains of chewing gum. A few leaves were held in place by the suction of the surface moisture.

The hydrant itself had been painted and repainted over the years. It was currently a muddied green. It’s base was thick and topped by eight heavy bolts. The bolts had to be heavy to hold back the rush of water that pushed to get out.

This hydrant hadn’t been used in case of fire in decades, but wore a brooch that certified that it was in good working order per this summer’s test. It was an especially important hydrant that was ready to protect the three-story red bricked box on the corner. The old school building was one and a third centuries old. Its huge double hung windows were topped by another arched pane. They had been bricked over with newer bricks that looked pink in contrast to the deep red of the old bricks. Better bricks than broken glass.

Nobody wanted that old building, despite it’s prime location across from a swanky hotel and even swankier retail. Any new owners were subject to the heavy hand of its immediate neighbor, the U.S. Secret Service. The fire hydrant stood vigil for them, too.

In the meantime, late at night and early in the morning, big city rats would cross the same paths that pedestrians scurried over during the day. Sometimes a wayward conventioneer would steady themselves on it before they crossed the street back to their hotel. The occasional meeting between the city rat and its country cousin would be exaggerated to monstrous proportions over a coffee, cheese omelette and headache in the morning.

 

Brakes

Empty bike share in the evening

“Do you know Jesus?”

It was both loud and muffled. A budget bullhorn.

“Do you KNOW Jesus? Watch where you’re going. Look up.” He started to quote some scripture, I think. It was a little mixed up. He started singing a Christmas hymn.

“God rest you merry gentlemen, a child was born on Christmas day…I just called to say I love you, I just called to say how much I care. I just called to say I love you. And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

And ended with some Stevie Wonder.

He stood in the street near the curb. He was straddling a bike, his head covered with a pith style helmet and the bullhorn held in his left hand near his mouth. He staked out the spot at the corner by the subway entrance, across from the newly erected Christmas mart in front of the Portrait Gallery. Good pedestrian traffic for his message.

People across the street glanced his way and smiled. People on his side of the street looked down or away as they scurried past. He called out another sinner for not looking both ways. The next group of cross walkers looked hard to the left and right. The peace officer on the other corner kept an eye on him. She was looking out for him.

“Jesus knows you. You can’t hide from him.”

And you can’t hid from Jesus’s spokesman, either.

Bing Bells

Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas album cover.

The baritone of Bing brings Christmas to my house. Every year, for as long as I can remember, he croons Christmas to me as I string the lights and find the exact right ornament placements on my WTF-themed Tannenbaum.

My mom had what might have been an original press of the 1955 12-inch LP. It definitely was before my time. It always was in our house. Mom said that when we were little, she’d start playing Christmas music in October so we’d know all the words to the songs by the time the tree went up after Thanksgiving. There were other Christmas albums–that Sing Along with Mitch with the printouts of lyrics we’d pass around, a jazzy compilation headed by Frank Sinatra and other members of the Rat Pack and, of course, Elvis. Her technique worked. We knew all the words.

I didn’t know that the Bing was my favorite, though, until I left home and put up my first tree in my college dorm. I went out to buy my own copy of the album. I couldn’t feel Christmas until he sang Silver Bells. I remember walking across campus at dusk with the first real December snowflakes, city sidewalks dressed in holiday style the internal soundtrack to my first adult holidays.

I bought this album first on vinyl, then on cassette tape so I could listen in the car. We added it to our old reel to reel Christmas party tape. And, a decade or more ago, I purchased it again, this time on CD. My next car didn’t have a tape player. I ripped the CD, so I had digital files first for my iPod and now on my phone.

Tonight, I asked my new friend Alexa to play it for me from Amazon Prime. She went to the depths of her collection and served up Bing and the Andrew Sisters (theirs is the only version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town that beats The E Street Band‘s). I mumbled and stumbled along to the second and third verses of a Latin hymn. I was good, as usual, on the first. And, like I have since I was a teeny-tiny tot, imagined the holidays from Irish blarney to Hawaiian greetings. I remember that year I realized that you could have Christmas without snow. I thought that all your Christmases would be white. Wouldn’t Santa be too hot? And the reindeer? Mind blown.

I’ve infected or inoculated–maybe both?–the Boyz with this set of holiday tunes. Even the Spouse adds his baritone to our home choir that accompanies Bing. Turns out this was his dad’s favorite Christmas record, too.

I was going to rant a bit about owning music, since it doesn’t seem that I can actually own it, even though I buy it. I was gong to get righteous about buying multiple soon-to-be-obsolete media just to feed my fix. And then, I realized that I don’t even feel ripped off. Now that’s some charitable Christmas spirit there.

Mele Kalikimaka, y’all.