Bowl Game

A bowl of beef bibimbap, with veggies. There's a pair of chopsticks and some red sauce on the side.

Shopping on Christmas Eve has different flavors. Some pick up a last item or two–like the roast for the main event. Some frantically pace and pounce because they didn’t shop and are without inspiration. They will likely settle for anything within budget. Then there are those who are simply celebrating the season.

The market was crowded with all of those people, and more. Strollers blocked walking space and the bar counters were lined with people having a drink. The cafe tables lining the walls and tucked in underused nooks were mostly filled. A big man was seated at one of the tables. He moved with great deliberation, slowly pulling his bowl closer to the edge of the table. He stopped to check the progress. He pulled it just a little closer.

He was likely six foot five or six foot six if he were standing. His head was rectangular, not a definite point to his chin, but he had one. While he was big, he wasn’t heavy. In his youth he may have been athletic. But his youth was decades behind him now.

He still had some hair on his head, and it wasn’t white. It was a sandy brown that made him appear younger. His hair should have been white, or gone. His gold framed aviator glasses held thick lenses. If you looked at his eyes through the bottom bifocal, they were magnified to bug level. He was wearing a button down plaid shirt. It wasn’t flannel and the plaid wasn’t wild. He had a camel colored ribbed sweater vest neatly buttoned over his midsection.

He wheeled in a little closer to the table. The armrests of his chair hit the tabletop, keeping him a little further away than he wanted to be. He pulled his bowl a closer. His hand trembled just a little bit when he picked up his spoon. He carefully aimed the spoon into the bowl. He leaned in to meet the spoon with his mouth. Some of the rice missed his mouth.

A woman with a dark, wavy bob maneuvered through the holiday crush of humanity. She had a lidded bowl between her hands, her pinky finger hooked around a bottle of spring water and two pairs of chopsticks wedged between the bottle and her ring finger. She was unhurried and without stress, unlike every other person in the market. She wore a holiday cardigan that was not ugly but that was a little warm for the day. It swung open offering people a glimpse of an “H” with an arrow and her checked politics. She wore smart walking shoes that didn’t look like walking shoes.

She used to hike with him when she was a girl. They’d go for long walks along the stream. Most Saturday’s they’d be in his boat, doing the morning fishing. Their discussions were mostly practical. Sometimes there’d be a lesson for her. His rule? If you want to eat it you have to clean it. He’d shown her how. When it wasn’t summer, she might tell him about school. He’d listen more than talk. She grew up and went away, but still walked with him and fished with him when she was in town.

She brought the lidded bowl to the table and took off the lid. It was pretty hot. She moved his bowl away from him. She pulled napkins from her bag and nestled one under his chin, draped over the top button of his shirt. He slowly moved his tremoring hand to his chest, where he methodically tamped the napkin flat. She blew across the soup in the spoon and moved it toward him. She looked into the lower part of the lenses of his glasses, her right eye asking a question. He nodded ever so slightly, his mouth starting to open. She put the spoon near his mouth and he tasted the soup. He nodded more definitely. It was good like she said it would be.

Now he was in her town. She put the spoon down as they sat next to each other surrounded by the frantic bustle of holiday. They were both content, to sit with each other as if they were on a small boat in the middle of the lake sharing the silence and enjoying time with each other. Later, she would stand behind his chair and push, and they would take their walk.

That Sinking Feeling

The moment the SUV plunges into the thin ice on the mostly frozen lake. As captured on the local news.

“Oh man. Erich’s dad is so much fun.” The boy was breathless. They had a great time at the cabin. They made fires. They cooked on the made fires. They ran in the frozen woods at night with flashlights. Erich’s dad told the best ghost stories. He didn’t tell his mom, but Erich’s dad let him puff a pipe.

Mr. Bronch most definitely did not let him smoke, though. Sure, Erich’s dad was smoking. The boys asked him about it. Mr. Bronch didn’t want it to be a magical mystery, so he let all of them put their mouths on the lip of the pipe and suck or blow or whatever they did. It wasn’t a lesson in smoking, but a lesson that smoking wasn’t unknowable and wasn’t that important. But they were all sworn to secrecy. They very much liked that.

It was just an overnight trip, but it was the best day in the boy’s life. His own dad had many more rules, was always invoking said rules and was a big stick in the mud. You always had to do a safety check on your helmet before you got on your bike. You had to come in the house if it was thundering. You needed to do your homework before you could play your game–even though everyone else could do both. You had to go back and apologize to the second baseman you taunted after you stole that base. You always had to go to the bathroom before you left the house. Is there no privacy?? Just too much of the words “must” and “should.”

Mr. Bronch was good with them doing whatever they wanted. He didn’t intervene if they argued. He even jumped in on the one battle that got physical. That was hysterical. They all laughed so much they forgot what started the fight. But they remembered getting out of Erich’s dad’s headlock. And eating a huge bag of potato chips with a big jar of dip when they watched the movie that Mom did not want them to see. He got a little nervous, though, and looked away when they had that part with the lady without her shirt on. The guns, though, he was down with that. When that guy blew the other guy’s brains out? Erich’s dad told them it was all fake. They knew that mostly already.

“So can I go back to the cabin next week? Please?” His mom looked at him and shook her head.

“Not next week. Erich won’t be with his dad. Have him call me and we can figure out the next time.”

The next time wasn’t for a few weeks. But he was pumped and primed to go back. There would be him and Erich and Tom Jr. and Levi. And, of course, Mr. Bronch. They were going to bring their skates and skate on the lake.

His dad made him repack his backpack. “Where’s your toothbrush? Did you pack an extra pair of socks? It’s going to be cold. Here’s your ColdGear leggings. Just pack them!” Jeez. This was so annoying. He was sure that Erich’s dad didn’t poke in Erich’s bag.

Then his dad made him practice lacing up his skates. Seriously? And he went through a classic safety checklist. When he rolled his eyes, his dad grinned a little and said, “Guy, I just want you to be prepared. I trust you to do the right thing, but a little practice doesn’t hurt.” He went through the drills. He gave his dad a dap as he scrambled out of the car, his backpack swinging in his arm. He didn’t take the time to loop it over his shoulder. He was gone.

“See you tomorrow!” he chirped as he ran up the driveway to Erich’s dad’s big black truck.  The truck was running, but there wasn’t anyone in it. His dad parked the car. The boy rolled his eyes in his brain.

“What? Dad. It’s fine.” Erich’s dad came out the garage door, carrying some bags.

“Hey Tom.”

“Hey! How are you? Haven’t seen you for too long, man.” Erich’s dad grabbed his dad’s hand and pulled him in close for a hug.

“Yeah. Too long. You guys should come by. I finally got the direct gas line to the grill. We can put steaks and burgers on all winter.”

“Sure, but I think that your wife likes me not so much.”

“Don’t be paranoid. She can be friends with both you and your ex. She’d love to have you by. She was asking how you were doing.”

“Tell her I’m just fine. I talked to her last week anyway. She should have asked me then.”

“Sure, whatever. She was just doing logistics. Between my job, her job, the kids and her mom’s been sick.”

“No. Not her mom? That’s tough.”

“We think she’ll be fine. But it’s just a worry now until we go through the checklist of docs. Getting old seems to suck.” His laugh was a little hollow.

“We’re not going to do that, though. Get old that is. We have too much shit to do.” Tom’s laugh was full. They were interrupted by a yell from the tumble of boys in the front yard.

“Get OFF of me!” The boy’s dad looked over to assess the situation. Erich’s dad put his bags in the back of his truck.

“Hey, guys. Take it easy. I think Levi said he had enough.” The boy’s dad was good at deescalation. The pile broke up. The boy held out a hand to Levi. Tom Jr went behind him and lifted him up. Tom Jr was the youngest, but only by a Irish twin–ten months younger than his brother Erich, but bigger than all of them.

Erich’s dad clicked the remote to close the garage. The boy’s dad walked onto the porch and pulled on the front door to make sure it was locked. He stopped to give his son a quick hug before he returned to his car. “See you tomorrow!” The boy waved back. Then they all hopped into the truck. Erich had shotgun. The other three fought over who had to sit in the middle. Erich’s dad had them do rock, paper scissors and then told them to shut the hell up. They liked it when he cursed. They felt grown up.

They grabbed their backpacks and followed Erich’s dad into the dark cabin. It smelled of the fireplace and a little must. It was freezing.

“Okay, you guys go ahead and get your skates. I’ll get the fire started and meet you at the lake.” He flipped the top of a beer and shuffled through the branches next to the fireplace. “Erich, first go grab me a big log.”

Erich and the boy went to the back patio and pulled two big, for them, logs off the woodpile and brought them in. They found their skates. Levi and Tom Jr had already gone to the lake. Not like it was far. Just down a few steps, across the slatted cedar walk and down a few more steps to the dock. The other boys were laced up when Erich and the boy caught up.

The lake was plenty frozen. It was mostly smooth, too. As they skated across, it moaned underneath them. The moon provided the light for their games. They decided to run relays just as Mr. Bronch joined them. He skated out beyond their playground and they forgot about him as they swapped teams out for the next round of races.

Crack! Their was a fissure that was growing deep in the ice. Tom Jr. looked up to see if the rest of them were okay. The boy looked at Erich. This was his territory. Then they saw a dark figure racing towards them. He was coming fast. The boys locked their arms to be an impenetrable wall. They dug their skates sideways into the ice. Mr. Bronch was coming like a bullet fired from a gun. The boys steeled themselves and, just at impact, Erich’s dad snowplowed to a stop, showering the line of defense with ice. As the boys doubled over laughing, Tom Jr. lost his balance and fell.

Mr. Bronch pushed him along. Levi gave the next push. Tom Jr was laughing and couldn’t get up. The boy and Erich gathered Tom Jr by a leg each and swung him around the ice. His dad joined in and grabbed the boy by his arm and leg and swung him around and let go. Tom Jr. sailed across the ice and then disappeared. Out of their sight. The moon was behind the clouds. They were cracking up. Tom Jr flew off like a weird rocket.

“Tommy!” Erich yelled. They didn’t know where he was, not for sure. They couldn’t see Erich’s dad’s frown. “Tom?” He couldn’t have gone far. The ice cracked again underneath them.

“Dad, is he okay? Where is he? Is the ice gonna hold?”

“The ice is a foot thick. We are fine.” But he couldn’t see his boy. “Tom!? Hey, Tommy.” He raised his voice a little.

“TOM-MEEE,” Levi screamed. He was still playing. The boy joined in. “Oh, Tom. Oh Tom JOON-YER.” They skated out a bit. They couldn’t see very far, with the moon behind the clouds. It seemed like the wind was picking up. Or maybe it was the dark. “Tom. You okay? Say something.”

The clouds moved and let some moonlight through. Between that and their eyes adjusting, they could see a figure on the ice. Erich’s dad was surprised he was so far away. The four of them skated to the unmoving mass, the boys pulling up to let Mr. Bronch get there first.

“He’s okay.” They saw that Tom Jr was sitting up. Or maybe he was being propped up by his dad. “I’m going to take him to the cabin to warm up a little. You guys can skate for a while.”

Tom Jr was on his feet. He wasn’t talking but was responding by nodding to his dad’s questions. His dad supported him, really steered him, to the dock. “Man, you really flew!” The boys laughed. Tom Jr seemed to laugh, too. Then it was clear he wasn’t laughing, but throwing up.

“Gross!” “Jesus, what did you eat?” “I’m going to barf now.” “Does it taste the same?”

“Skate away from the puke,” said Erich’s dad. He sat Tom Jr on the dock and took off his skates. “He’ll be okay when I get him some water and get him warmed up.” Tom Jr couldn’t focus enough to get his boots back on by himself. His dad shoved his feet in his boots and tried to get him to stand up. Walking wasn’t working. Tom Jr threw up again. He wasn’t too big to carry.

The boy kept glancing over at Tom Jr and his dad. Nobody seemed to be very worried, so he worked to ignore his concern. The grownup had this. It was fine. It was getting colder and a big cloud was overtaking the moon. Erich pointed to the house, “Let’s get back in.” Erich grabbed Levi’s skate and the boy grabbed his boot so Levi had to sock skate after them for a little bit. It was too cold to play boot-keep-away for long. Erich tossed the skate back on the dock and ran up to the house. The boy waited for Levi to get his other boot on, and they raced back.

Tom Jr was on the couch in front of a big fire. He had a cloth on his head and a quilt over his body. His eyes were closed. He didn’t respond to any of them. The boy shook his shoulder. Erich grabbed his hand. “Dad. Dad. Dad. Tommy’s hand is really cold. Is it supposed to be so cold?” Erich’s dad had three microwaved hot cocoas looped on the fingers of his left hand. He put his right hand on Tom Jr’s as he handed the steaming mugs to the boys.

“Drink up. Then get your jackets. We’re going to take a side trip.”

When the boy’s dad came to the hospital to pick up the boy and Levi, the boy was more than relieved to see him. His dad wrapped him up in his arms and was surprised with the tightness of his son’s grasp around his neck.

The boy stopped being frightened. He was still scared for Tom Jr. but now that his dad was there, his dull, methodical and careful dad, he was exhausted. And he felt safe.

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.

Terminally A

A foreboding exit from the gates at the airport.

She was ecstatic when his mother texted back a, “YES!”, punctuated with a smiley face. She was going to be in the greeting party. Airport reunions were romantic. Like Love Actually.

She carefully meted out her hair product to hold her waves while still letting them gaily bounce. Not too stiff, just a jauntily released coil when she turned her head. After she positioned her Santa hat, she rewrapped a few strands of curl on her hot iron. Everything would be perfect. She looked a bit wistfully at the special lashes. She loved how they looked, but he thought they looked phony. She lightened. She’d wear them on New Year’s Eve. He’d be down with it for a party. She put gloss on the middle of her top lip to feature her Cupid’s bow. So selfie ready!

She climbed in the back of the Rover with his little sister. Madison was the only member of the family who was indifferent to her. She felt that his sister was exhibiting classically petty tween jealousy. Maybe Madison didn’t appreciate having an extra sister since his parents loved her. Maybe Madison was out of joint because her brother had another girl in his life. Her own squad agreed with her analysis. She was the insightful one among her friends.

Beau’s plane was due in at 3:40 p.m. They had to leave at 1 p.m. to be sure to get there, park and be at the gate for the reveal. She and his mom chatted about how much they missed him. He left in August, so it’d been four months. He didn’t make it home for Thanksgiving because he had papers to research and exams around the corner. He’d been so busy the past few weeks that he’d barely responded to her texts and no longer hearted her Instagrams–even when she tagged him.

His mom said that he’d been stressed, but that she was so happy that he was able to share Thanksgiving at a classmate’s house. Two or three of the “out-of-staters” were generously taken in by her family. Today, though, they’d all get to catch up, hashtag IRL–or as his mom said, “in person.”

Madison barely looked at her, but she was okay with that. She chatted on with his mom about her college applications. Beau’s mom was always so supportive. When she texted his mom that she’d like to surprise him with the family, she got an immediate invitation.

The dad dropped them at the arrivals entrance at the airport. He left them to park the car. They walked into the airport and Beau’s mom eyed the monitor. She couldn’t find his flight until she remembered there was a connection in Atlanta. There it was. Arriving on time in Terminal A at gate 5. They posted up to wait for the plane to land.

She sat next to his mother. Madison sat across from them. So annoying.

She pulled out her phone and took a selfie and set the location to the airport. She selected the filter that made her eyes look brighter, tagged Beau and captioned it “Having myself a merry little Christmas.” There was an immediate fifteen or so likes. She put the screen in front of his mother’s face. The mom smiled and nodded, but was distracted by Madison’s childish self-isolation. She didn’t know why the mom didn’t just make Madison behave. If she had kids someday, she’d make sure that the family stuck together. Then the dad joined them. He announced that Beau’s flight had landed.

They walked up to the gate exit. They’d have to wait for him to cross the line and enter the teary, kissing transition space. She stood just to the left. She wanted him to turn to her and be so surprised. His parents very kindly stood a few feet back from her. They knew it was her show. She hoped that they had their phones at the ready so they could capture their airport embrace after so many months apart. She left her phone in her bag. She couldn’t get a shot of them together. She was getting antsy.

A few people trickled out of the safe part of the corridor into the general population. Then a few more. This was first class. There was a pause and then the bodies came fast and furious. She quickly scanned the faces. She looked up higher. No reason to look at the people under six foot-two. She ran her tongue along her teeth. She knew they were clean and shiny, but it was a habit. Clearing the decks. She tasted the last hint of the wintergreen mint. That was their favorite cover up. Usually between themselves after spicy pizza, but sometimes to hide the evidence of booze. Next semester, she was going to see him at school and drink as much as she wanted like the other college students. Maybe they’d screw later in his dorm room. That seemed very grown up to her.

She glanced back at his mom. She was trying to share a smile, but the mom was still looking at that selfish Madison. She was on the right, in opposition to the rest of them. Ugh. What a drama queen that kid was becoming.

Then, there he was. She took in a breath and blew out through her plumped shiny lips. He crossed the line, and she waited for him to see her. But he looked right. Right at Madison who squealed and ran into his outstretched arms.  Madison threw her own arms around his neck as he lifted her up and swung her around, a complete 360°.  The parents walked up to welcome him, and she found herself alone on the other side of a parade of people with their wheelies and their bags, some stopping to share hugs and others powering through to the baggage claim.

His mother gave him a hug over Madison who still clung to his neck, her legs wrapped around his waist. The mom pointed over the crowd to her. She watched as he looked over at her and then jerked his shaggy head back to his mother. He shook his head in an agitated way. Madison looked over at her, still draped all over her big brother. She narrowed her eyes and slightly turned up the edges of her mouth.

Then she knew what only Madison and her brother knew. Her smile faded. She dropped her head a bit, and she navigated her way through the crowd to the family who would give her a ride home.

Musical Spread

Toy Peanuts band with Lucy on flute, Linus on horn, Snoopy on electric guitar, Charlie Brown on sax and Shroeder on piano, of course.

The Christmas concert was cheery. The very large community band was decked out in Santa hats, reindeer antlers and green and red garb versus their standard concert black and white. There were clarinets and french horns, piccolos and sousaphones, oboes and xylophones, and, my personal favorite, the timpani drums. You don’t get to a better crescendo than that.

The players were very diverse, ranging from a fresh-faced late teen through a skinny and slightly stooped octogenarian both with full heads of hair, one straight and black and the other a fluff ball of white curls. There wasn’t a cluster around any age cohort–eyeballing the performers they were well distributed across the last sixty or so years. There was an even number of men and women, perhaps five more men than women if we’re nitpicky. And while the majority of the musicians may have been white, it was minor majority. People of color were represented across all sections of the band, from winds to brass to percussion. It was America.

The performance was in the band room rather than the theatre. The program was a light selection of Christmas and seasonal tunes with specialty turns by quartets, sextets and an octet full of various-sized saxophones. A few pieces were clearly well-rehearsed, and well-liked, by the band. A few were a little less beloved, and two of the chamber pieces started and stopped and restarted. The lady on the recorder called a mulligan on one song as did the first clarinet on another. It was all quite relaxed.

The audience was a bit fewer in numbers than the band. They were moms and dads, partners and children, and friends and neighbors who gathered to support their hyper-local musicians. They were welcomed not only with elf-suits and carols, but also with six buffet tables filled with post-concert nosh provided by the band members.

There were trays of to-go chicken, including the wings that disappeared before the trumpet was able to store her instrument. There were pre-cut squares of mild cheeses with triscuit crackers. There were a few dips, mostly of the bean and chick pea varieties, with accompanying chips and pita wedges. The black bottomed trays piled with pre-cut vegetables, like broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, celery, ranch dressing and the cauliflower that was always leftover, posted up one or two looming large on four of the tables. There was a dearth of serving pieces, so nobody ate the popcorn that would have required manhandling the entire contents in the tin.

The youngest in the audience were big-eyed at the tables full of sweets. A bowl full of kisses, a plate with green and white filled oreos, cupcakes with eggnog icing that looked straight out of a TV show bakery, brownies, Tupperwares topped off with chocolate chip, chocolate chocolate chip and oatmeal craisin cookies. Some desserts were from old country recipes, while others represented the latest paleo or gluten free trends. There were fruit and custard pies, which all looked store bought, and round and bundt cakes that evidenced the love of homemade icing and gaily placed nuts. There was also a fruit tray that became more and more desirable as a palate cleanser after the sugar course.

The band members congratulated each other and laughed through their quick debriefs of their successes and foibles, speaking the shorthand developed after many hours of rehearsals and their common, musical, patios. They mingled with their guests, jostling over that last wing and handing a plastic fork over the table to a stranger who was searching. Turns out that everyone found what they were looking for on this December evening.

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.

 

Smell of the Season

a array of green candles

She stood in the aisle of the discount store. It wasn’t a dollar store discount store. It was a store that sold department store goods at value prices. The price tags included the standard retail prices above the “you’ll pay” price. This type of store has been called Macy’s nightmare, because customers get everything on sale. The sale price is on last season’s or last year’s goods. Usually.

She walked in, as she always did when she was nearby. She really didn’t have a shopping agenda. After aimlessly strolling through the store, she found herself assessing shelves full of scented candles. She was developing a strategy before she went in.

She started looking at the candles presented at her eye level. There were round containers and square containers. Mostly round, though. Some were tall. Some were short. Some were squat, others elegantly shaped. Some had two or three wicks. Those were usually short and squat. There was one brand with wood wicks–they called them branches. They purportedly crackled as they burned. She thought that the wood ones were unlikely to burn through. Gimmicky wicks.

She knew that she would skip any orange ones. Those were leftover from Halloween and Thanksgiving, with fall scents of pumpkin spices and woody cinnamons. There was likely one that was going to imitate the smell of leaves, too. None were scents that she liked. She saw a coral colored candle. That one was trying to evoke a beach sunset. Her eyes dismissed all of the firey colored waxes to focus on the dark shades. She was looking for whiffs of Christmas.

She began her evaluation by grabbing the small green glass in front of her. It was called margarita. She placed it back on the shelf. Not Christmasy. She awkwardly pulled the winter balsam. It was almost too big for her hand. She opened the lid and drew in a breath. It had a very weak scent, and not of trees. Lid back on. She picked up balsam fir. The container was a pretty vase shape with decorative nobs. It smelled of a Christmas tree lot on a cold day. She put it in her cart.

She went through the balsam bough, pine evening, winter fir.  Oddly, Christmas Tree smelled more of vanilla than tree. She tried the white candle that was called winter wonderland. This smelled of cookie dough. She put that back. She looked in her cart and counted four candles. As she scanned the bottom shelf for a yet unseen treasure another woman joined her.

Standing at the candle altar, the new shopper started her own examination. She picked up one of the pastel candles and removed the lid. She held it to her nose and sniffed. Her head shot up and away from the container in her hand. She wrinkled up her nose to close the airwaves and block the smell. She frowned from her forehead and placed the lid back on the glass. She looked over at the other shopper and they laughed at each other, and at themselves.