OOO (Out of Office)

The words

Just before I left the office today, I set an autoresponse for my email. So when someone emails me at work they get a response from me. But not from me. They get a form letter. It tells them that I am outta here until the New Year.

And, yet, I’m stymied by the idea or a new year. I get that we need edges and that we need to group things because that’s what us humans do, blah blah blah. But on the other hand, isn’t it random that we all get together and agree that we are starting a new set of counting days in about nine days–if you’re counting?

C’mon. We can’t agree that we should minimize greenhouse gasses so polar bears don’t die–and almost all of us love polar bears.

Ultimately, I think that it’s most important to remember that the “year” is a convenient marker of time. Not a harbinger of what is to be.

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.


Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma My Verona!

Dirty sneakers, an eviscerated pig photo bombs.

Oh, most arrogant wretch.

Fie. Fie. Fie. Why do I deign to write? What conceit have I, that to put my counterfeit words next to royal scribes before and near me? Whose language I share, but in comparative use, I despair?

To spend evening past perched near the world’s stage, soul undone by the Bard’s poetry in the two hours’ traffic rage. I set my trespass on our shared language as I prate on.

Soft, soft. Anon I will publish this hopeless screed, awaiting the black emptiness, the complete loneliness of whispering into a void. And yet, still, I type. Perchance to dream.

Mark. I type for thee, Loyal Reader. Or if I would fain prove true, I, indeed, write for me.

Hurricane at the Farmers’ Market

pie and a flat white coffee. the pie is on a cute white plate with big black polka dots around the rim. The table is hammered metal. It was windy. Oh, and there's also a fork.

It was a morning with a warning. Like a movie foreshadowing a foreboding.

Like the hint of wind in the black and white frontspace of The Wizard of Oz. Or the first drips of water in The Last Wave. Or, actually, any time the wind appears in a Peter Weir film. See also, David Lean.

It’s the scene where the wind whips the shore, bends a field of wheat, or makes the hero chase after an important scrap of paper. The paper chased could be a photo of a child, the digits of a to-be relationship or the receipt from an encounter with a spouse that they wished they could take back. And this sub-story drives a key sub-plot. The one that preys on our wish for happy relationships.

This morning, at the farmers’ market, no vendor had a tent. Normally all normally do to protect from the midday sun or to provide respite from a shower. But not this morning. This morning the gusts of wind were like a Sherman tank mowing down anything, and everything, in its path. The covers were no cover against the nature force. The tents were folded next to the tables.

Tables, where the merchants were hovering over their wares with their entire bodies until the winds subsided. Tables where goods that were not sold by the heavy pound were placed on the ground to keep them from becoming projectiles. Tables where dollar bills fought to leave the fingers of either buyer or seller but not from the buyer to the seller. No. These monies were looking to ride the next gust to the next world. Wherever that would be.

The musicians playing in the plaza for tips were sad that their open instrument cases were venues for dollar bills to launch from versus the coffer for their patrons’ contributions. Little kids swaying to the music was nice, but it took someone willing to pay to show their value. They scrambled to find a container that wasn’t missile plastic, but were mostly were resigned to a sadly camouflaged urn that most people would not see as an invitation to financially thank the performers. But if anyone appreciated them enough to seek out the tip jar, the urn would keep and cash in line.

The winds were not consistent. They were sneaky. They would sometimes swirl around–causing strollers to roll and hair to obliterate the view. They would sometimes whisper, tickling edges of paper and lulling people at then end of  a hot summer to believe that there is a balance in the weather. And then it would hit the accelerator and lean on the horn to let everyone know that this is no mere breeze.

Because it’s not. It’s the front end, and will be the back end, of the remnants of a hurricane.

It’s the winds of change. The winds of winter. The winds of war. The warm winds of El Niño, and the butterfly wings that precursor a Camille, an Andrew, a Galveston and a Katrina.

And in the eye of that storm, people picked up tomatoes, drank coffee and ate pie. None of them knowing what would happen next.

You Don’t Really Care For Music

I like music. Sometimes I sing along. Sometimes I listen. Sometimes I think. Sometimes I escape. Frequently it’s a combo box.

I like pop music. I like hip hop. I like many jazz styles. I like rock, gospel and classical (including opera). There’s even metal I like. I like zydeco, Irish, polka and other traditional music. I like Bollywood tracks and Broadway musicals. I like rhyme and rhythm and stories.

I don’t like all of it. But I like a lot of it.

I like it because it has a crazy hook that I am programmed to sing along. I like it because it tells me about someone’s life. I like it because I can relate to that life, or because I can’t. I like it because it makes me dance. I like it because it makes me feel something–joy, loss, sadness, hope. And, like I said, not all of these likes at the same time.

I know that there is an industry built around music. That folks make money off my likes. This doesn’t mean that it’s not art. It also doesn’t mean that it is. This doesn’t mean it is worthy. Or unworthy. You decide.

There are pieces that make up music. There are the lyrics, the melody, the instruments, the beat, the vocal, the backup vocal, and effects. Effects that make echos, that cut the music to drive it, that make some instruments louder and others recede.

Leonard Cohen wrote a beautiful song, Hallelujah. It is such a beautiful song that even when I sing it it sounds alright. From the lips of Jeff Buckley, though, especially as accompanied by his weeping electric guitar, it is the human experience. It is full of spirituality, of sadness and despair and, somehow, of hope. From the first intake and exhale of breath to the final sweet ooooh and guitar chord, it is art. It is Buckley adding his art to the art of the composer. It is good.

There are 240 words in the song. I didn’t count every hallelujah for this exercise, although each one is important and right for the piece. But for the purpose today, it wouldn’t be fair.

“What purpose is that?” you ask.

There is another song, one that is not as moving but is a better than decent club song. This Is What You Came For is a producer’s song. It’s the beat, the tempo the mix. The vocals are used as an instrument, so the lyrics are a tool for the singer to perform. There are sixty words to this song, not including all the You, oh, oh, you, oh, oh‘s of which there may be dozens.

The lyrics aren’t awful, just not interesting. I mean, if you want awful, try and make it through Juicy J— but I gotta give it to that rapper, he spits over some great beats.

My point? In some tunes, the vocals recede like a rhythm guitar or the sound of a beeper in Where It’s At. The words are not what makes the music. They are a part of the whole that the producer weaves into a mix designed, in this case, to get you to the dance floor for some writhing. This Is What You Came For does that, propelled by the vocals of Rihanna looping again and again over the electronic house beat. It’s made for dancing. Any singing along is more akin to dancing with your mouth. It’s dance music.

My real point? Shut up Taylor Swift. You’re 60 word contribution was noted. You are no Leonard Cohen in this instance. So just shut up. And cash your check.


An xBox controller with an array of confusing buttons. WTH?

Some of my best friends are gamers. I guess that’s how I’ll backhandedly describe the fact that I am, most definitely, not.

There used to be a game that the boys played with a friendly cartoon tiger running along a crumbling Great Wall. I played that. I could do three or four runs before it was beyond my skills. That was the last game they ever caught me playing.

I was pretty good at Pajama Sam and Putt Putt Saves the Zoo on the PC. That said, their pre-school selves were better players than me. I set the low bar.

I wasn’t anxious to buy a gaming system. Others in the house were much more anxious. We made a deal. If they could save up half the cost of the PlayStation, I’d make up the difference. Baby Bear got $1 each week and The Big Guy $3. They were required to request their allowance each week. The cash was lost to the nethers if the transaction wasn’t made by the end of the weekend. No back pay. Saved me having to remember and from doling out extra bank.

The Big Guy was quite lackadaisical about money. Not Baby Bear. He was on a mission. You could mark your calendar by his Friday night request. He made sure to get The Big Guy’s dough, too. His rigor soon fulfilled their side of the bargain, an annoying three weeks before Christmas. So they bought themselves the gift.

They are still bitter about the games I would not let them play. No killing games. That Star Wars game with the light sabers that My Sib bought them? Nope. Not even if they killed Jar Jar Binks. No killing games. I gave it away.

There were plenty of running and jumping and driving games. There was Mario & Luigi, Crash Bandicoot and that cute purple dragon. I even flew the dragon on occasion when they handed me the controller, just to be friendly.

The Toy Story game was a big puzzle that let them explore outside of a defined path. Well, until they got to the side of Andy’s room where there wasn’t any drawing left. Rendering. Rendering. Rendering.

My parental standard graduated to cartoon level mayhem, as long as the weapon wasn’t a gun. And no games rated “M.” The boys were disgusted with me. They were definitely out of sync with their peers. I was okay with that. They had Madden, and FIFA and some crazy basketball game.

My rules were harder for The Big Guy. I held him back a bit because Bear would play it, too. I know. Not fair. It’s always harder on the oldest.

I found a killing game cartridge when I was putting away underwear. Leaving aside why someone hides contraband behind their boxers–the most obvious place to hide stuff–I knew it was time to adjust. My response was to keep an eye on the gameplay. I would sit with them as they would play. I would ask them questions. And they would hand me the controller.

I would inevitably shoot my own feet, maim my teammates, and not be able to move. Seriously, the boys would shout, BOX, BOX, A, X or whatever. It didn’t matter. I have absolutely no controller-brain coordination. I would try. I would fail. We would laugh.

Over time, I watched the games change. First it was watching them play football in the rain–maybe the year Brett Farve was on the cover of Madden. The shadows of the players, the jerseys worn by the crowds, the options for play became more sophisticated.

Then there were the killing games. They became more realistic, too. It was stunning, and awful. But another thing happened. Some of the killing games had characters who had to make challenging decisions. The first-person missions became more morally complex.

I grew to like some of the characters. Some of them a lot. I cared about their success. In some games, there were real storylines. Characters had different personalities. You could do more than upgrade your weapon or change your armor. You could even reveal a different story if you played as a different cast member. I would check in to see not just how the game progressed, but what happened, what decisions were made and what were the consequences.

I went from the parent who railed against the violence and stupidity of GTA, to a binge-watching regular, like watching The Sopranos through a kaleidoscope where I get to spin the colored glass and view a new, crooked, yet beautiful, version. A good game is art–there is plot, conflict and denouement. A world is created. There are heroes, villains and anti-heroes. The gamer makes decisions that impact not only the gameplay, but the outcome of the tale.

As the boys play, I watch the games like a movie. They sometimes ask me which weapon to use or if they should buy more health or more cunning. I share my uninformed opinion, sometimes after asking questions about the options. I sometimes share my opinion about their decisions–like to not be mean. They usually acquiesce or explain why they need to be mean at that moment. They know that I’ll refuse to take the unfathomable controller into my clumsy hands, so they don’t pass that on. I sit with them to be with them, to watch the show and just to be friendly.



Drawing of a woman draped in a sheer fabric. Chalk on brown paper by James Whistler.

James McNeill Whistler, the guy who famously painted his mother, went back to the drawing board–literally–to create a masterpiece.

It seems that the already well-accomplished artist felt that his work on the human form was weak. So he went about practicing and perfecting his drawing by spending hours in the studio studying and reworking images on paper. He thought he didn’t do enough work earlier. He crammed on the form of the body and the draping of fabric. He worked in chalk on brown paper or sketched in oil.

I was struck by the exhibit showing a piece of art that never was. (Well, it was, but then it was destroyed. But that’s not my point.) There were many studies, many explorations, many versions of the work. All in preparation for the final canvas, which was itself reworked, painted, scraped and repainted. This went on for ten years, incomplete. His mom thought that “he had tried too hard to make it the perfection of art.”

Ten years working on a singular painting. While this wasn’t his sole effort, it was an ongoing effort. Learning, working, improving, struggling, and doing it more.

This is someone acquiring mastery. It is a process that takes time. It is a process that requires sustained effort. It is a process that accesses multiple aspects of thinking and feeling.

I live in a world of immediacy, of instantaneous transfer of messages, some of which are programmed to disappear immediately. I am surrounded by people anxious to master, but in our anxiety and rush we move past the task that is completed, but far from mastered. We claim to respect and admire craft and virtuosity, yet adopt a DIY mentality, “I can do this.” And then think that we DID attain a high level–but it was just cleverness.

It’s the neighbor’s house that they remodeled seven years ago. They can’t sell it now. The work they did was good. It looked good. They were not proficient in laying floors and hanging cabinets and taping drywall. It was the first time they tiled a bathroom. Their work was more than sufficient. It was fine. But it took them much longer than the practitioners who had apprenticed and studied. It lacked the familiarity, judgement and awareness of the master. They were neophytes. It was their first rodeo. Their work did not stand the test of time.

Also, today I was reading a critique of the White House work on a cancer “moonshot.” Dr. Vinay Prasad, a cancer researcher at Oregon Health and Science University, took the idea to task. After challenging the Ground Hog Day aspects (War on Cancer in the 70s anyone?) and efforts to push drugs out faster, accelerating new therapies and opening clinical trials (none of which are groundbreaking), he identified the deficiency with the moonshot approach. The fundamental problem he sees is that a surge of concentrated effort to cure cancer doesn’t fit medical discovery. Science is a long process of experimentation, applying lessons and connecting dots across disciplines. It takes time. And mastery.

I’m wondering, what I am working on? What am I trying to master? What will I leave that will stand the test of time?

Damn, that museum trip has my mind working.