Thursday, May 14, 2015

Baked Beans Ain't Sexy

Put on a party where you make the main, or you are grilling out, or it is summer and there is meat, and ask people to bring some sides to go with it, and, well, there is one thing that I guarantee you won't get: baked beans.

Baked beans just ain't sexy.  People will bring their signature dessert, their potato salad or potato casserole, fruit, or a salad, bread or beer, long before they will commit to baked beans.  Even cole slaw, one of the most polarizing barbecue dishes of all time (I love it!) will get takers before those darned beans.

Here's the irony, though.  People eat them.  Even kids.  I was serving high school boys as part of an outdoor lunch a few weeks ago, with BBQ and chips and the like, and when the boys saw the beans, they were like, "Yeah, put some beans on my plate."  They just go with grilled or smoked meat, and even picky eaters know it.

That doesn't mean that your Aunt Edna has a recipe that she brags about or that you are willing to walk into a party with the "best beans in the world."  Instead, it seems like everyone hopes that someone else takes charge of the beans.

Maybe that's why a Southern chain like Sticky Fingers just opens a can of premade baked beans, heats them up, and serves them as if they are Sticky Finger's own, special beans.  At least that's what a server told me one time.  People just don't care.  They just want some beans or think that they should have some with their ribs.

Which doesn't mean that there aren't great baked bean recipes out there.  There are.  They probably have bacon layered on top or barbecue meat in them, a special "what is that ingredient" like pickle juice or dry mustard or, maybe, raspberry jam.  People who actually make baked beans, make them at home, tend to add all kinds of extras that really do make them special.

I used to simply add sliced hot dogs to mine and my kids, when they were young, would go crazy.  A hot dog is tasty, a slice of hot dog simmered in baked bean sauce can be transcendent.

Maybe it's the farting issue.  Beans make us fart, so if we bring beans to an event, then we are associated with that eventual farting, and that is not sexy.  But black beans, for example, can be kind of sexy, especially if you are dating a vegan.  Even pinto beans enjoy a certain elevated status, especially if they are refried in a Mexican restaurant or standing in for baked beans in a BBQ joint as "cowboy beans," soupy and laden with onion and cilantro.

Probably, it is more of a "throwback" issue that makes bringing baked beans somewhere a pariah's choice.  Baked beans were around long before blacks or pintos insinuated themselves onto the American bean palate.  Baked beans make us think of the Depression and they make us think of the casserole, and neither of those are in vogue these days.  It isn't cool to be impoverished (ask the ranks of the American poor), nor is it cool to cook a dish based on ingredients that come out of cans, like the 1950s.

Still, I'm serving barbecue tomorrow night in all its glory--pulled pork, smoked brisket, roasted chicken-- and you can be damn sure that I'm going to have baked beans to go with those offerings.  I'll leave the kiwi slices and the "Mom's famous" Mac 'n Cheese to my guests as they make their own statement with their fresh, deliciously-prepared offerings.

I've got a bunch of cans of beans, ready to serve, but which I will doctor with ketchup and mustard and brown sugar and hot sauce and pickle juice and onion and who knows what else?  And I'll probably bake them in the oven too long until the thick sauce I started with is but a coating for some Navy Beans prepared somewhere far away.  They won't be great.  They won't be special.  They will be more hit or miss than they will follow some recipe.

But you know what?  When they sit, steaming, in a large Pyrex dish as part of a variety of offerings, people will say to themselves, " Yeah, I think I'll have some beans."  And my beans will do the job.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Living In Other People's Homes

With the rise of VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) and other, similar sites, the idea of paying to use someone else's house for a couple of day or so, has become a new, and I would argue, strange normal.  Not that people haven't always rented out their places for various reason before, but now, that has become a kind of standard practice.

These rental properties tend to fall into two different camps. The first is the family home or vacation home that the owners open up for rental from time to time.  When you stay there, you enter a family space and live life as they might also when they are there.

The second is a vacation home that they still own, but it is largely stripped of any particular family personality.  If it does have that, it comes in the form of photographs and such, not clothes in the closet or personal items that the family will gravitate towards any time that they return.

Although, like most social changes, I was slow to the VRBO party, I have stayed twice this calendar year in other people's homes.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Renting someone else's home can be a very nice, even wonderful, experience, especially if you can set aside the financial expense of doing so.  But I also think that people, meaning me and mine, when they live in someone else's house, live differently, live in ways that are neither positive or negative, but simply are a bit askance from the ways that we might live in our own homes.  For example:

1.  When you stay in someone else's home, you always end up a bit amazed by their choices.  Last weekend, because I knew that I would be doing some serious cooking, I moved a lot of cooking items up to the the cabin we had rented.  Then I discovered that the place already had almost everything that I had brought, from electric appliances to spices.  I was thrilled.  And then I discovered that there was no vinegar in  the house, and very little sugar.  And I thought, What?

2. In someone else's house, you tend to be simultaneously careful and careless.  How is that possible? Well, consider this: the place we stayed had a great outdoor fire put, and in the course of getting that fire going one night, I knocked over and broke one of their solar-powered light that lights the path to the put.  I thought, that's a Target light, a cheap thing, and there is nothing I can do to save it.  At the same time, so many things inside the house, and especially in the kitchen, received the most careful care I am capable of.

3.  At someone else's house, you take liberties.  Because we had to pay an exorbitant fee for a rental during a college graduation weekend, my wife decided that she was going to do as much laundry as possible.  She washed everything.  She told my daughter, who was coming late, to bring more laundry.  Now, this wasn't entirely because of the price.  The reality is that doing laundry in the clean, carefree confines of someone else's house is more fun.  She does the same thing when she goes to her mother's.

4. Your hosts have gone out of their way to make your stay unique in tangible ways, but because they don't know you, how can they?  Last week's cabin had, among other things, a restaurant-style gaming table full of vintage games like Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga.  And when you get there, you say, "Wow! This place has a Pac-Man game and a ton of other games and books and great TV reception!"  And when you are leaving, you realize that you didn't use any of them.

5. Because, continuing #4, in many, perhaps most, locales, you rent a place to sleep in, not a place to live in during however long your prescribed stay is.  And that means that you are almost always out and about, not hanging out at the place.  And that means that many of its offerings, physical, natural, or equipmental (my word) end up having little or no relevance for you.  For example, you could rent the coolest home in the French Quarter, but if you go to New Orleans and spend most of your time in your hotel or rental home, you have likely wasted your time, unless it is your honeymoon.

6. Yes, rental homes have all of the amenities of home and then some (our most recent place had a paddle boat), but those amenities likely run counter to the reason why you are staying there.  So it becomes a Catch-22: do you take full advantage of your place or do you take full advantage of the area where your place is?  It is difficult to do both.

It's strange being in someone else's home.  For a good part of your stay, you feel like you own it.  And then, when you have to "return" it to its real owner, you kind of resent the work that you have to do to return it to that condition.  You don't want to give it up; you don't want to obey the house rules.  Because that would mean that it isn't yours.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Center of the Universe

"Woman (Oh Mama)," the first single from Joy Williams following the roller coaster crash that was the two-person, two-album event known as The Civil Wars, is about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal, as Foghorn Leghorn might say.

Let me show you where life begins
I am the universe wrapped in skin

Although the song is an assertive listing of all the things "Woman" is -- many of them contradictory yet accurate -- it is above all else a song about motherhood, the center of our mammal universe, the acknowledgement that without females, there is no life. God may well be a He, but without renting out space in a woman's body, "He" would never have been able to take human form.

Men have spent much of history demanding that we look upon their works with shock and awe, admiration and fear. My sister's favorite memory of me is when she was trying to potty train me, and she insists that once she convinced me that I was making something by dropping a turd into the toilet, I was good to go. Practically every time she sees me, she mocks my proud announcement, "I MADE ONE!" (Personally, I don't think it's nice to mock how one behaved when one was 12.)

Many men manage to move from making poop to making other things -- buildings, motorcycles, essays, nuclear weapons -- but men still tend to measure their lives by what they have built. Look upon my works...

For all that talk and fixation, however, we know where life begins, what must exist for life to continue. And the only part we play in furthering the species is the matchbox igniter.

We have enough sperm in banks that two generations of men could disappear in a "Left Behind" instant, and the human race would survive just fine. If the wombs disappear, however, we're done as a species.

When we celebrate Father's Day, most of us celebrate a priceless choice, the willful act of a man to engage meaningfully in the life or lives of his offspring (or in the lives of those he takes under a metaphorical wing).

When we celebrate Mother's Day, we celebrate a choice, yes, but also a non-negotiable necessity. We celebrate the single thing that moves, and has always moved, our species down the river of time.

Women are no longer defined by, or valued predominately for, their child-bearing abilities, thank God. The more advanced we become, the more bearing children is a choice that can be undertaken with certitude. The farther away we can get from the alternate universe of "The Handmaid's Tale," the better off we will be. If the consequence of this good evolution is to ruin all the hard work men have done to commodify our existence, most of us could live with that.

Over the weekend, the blogosphere -- or at least the version shared in my Facebook stream -- involved a lot of hemming and hawing about Mother's Day. Among the complaints and critiques are that celebrating mothers:
  • insults those who cannot bear children;
  • insults those who admirably choose not to bear children;
  • saddens those whose mothers have died;
  • saddens those whose mother is emotionally or physically abusive, neglectful, abandoned them, etc.
Lately, we can't seem to celebrate much of anything without being slapped in the face for our celebrations unintentionally slapping others in the face. The problem: celebration is a collective and unifying experience while sympathy far more effective when it involves a personal connection.

At our church Sunday during the Mother's Day service, a high school senior who hasn't attended much recently was there. I went out of my way to go over after the service and chat with him. His mother died in January. Something about this day called him back to our church, despite the fact that we would be, on some level or another, be celebrating mothers, despite the fact that the day would probably be made harder, possibly sadder, for being surrounded by so many mothers with their children in the pews.

I weep for that young man and what he has lost, and I hope for him. But to have that hinder our celebration of motherhood? Isn't that counterproductive, literally? Can't we celebrate, loudly and proudly as a culture if not a species, the one thing that we must have, indisputably, to be a culture and a species in the first dang place

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Lately, I've felt adrift.

My 2015 music purchases are down to almost nothing, which might mean nothing to the average bear, but it's a red flag in my world. My blog writing has been practically non-existent, and what's worse is I haven't tried all that hard to write anything. All of my hobbies feel a bit stupid, even though they're not, even though they provide a kind of meaning and distraction for me.

Friend after friend, acquaintance after acquaintance, relative after relative is being diagnosed with one serious illness or another, most of them ending in the letters "-ancer," all of them either terminal or so serious that they don't want to talk about how serious it is, because they're trying to show a sort of love by not wanting to burden you with something you can't fix or bear for them.

My professional life is in an El Nina of uncertainty, as I bobble and roll between the beginning and end of my master's degree, learn to negotiate the waters of a new boss, watch as some boats sail into new distant waters and as I lose radio contact with other colleagues within eyesight. The upside here -- and it ain't a minor one in the 21st Century -- is that none of this chaos indicates that my livelihood is in jeopardy. For all the instability and uncertainty, my job is secure, and that is of immeasurable importance.

But the aforementioned illnesses and diseases hitting many in our midst have left everyone dazed, or maybe skittish. Whatever it is, we all seem off our game even as the place itself continues to thrive, continues to do by all accounts an outstanding job at delivering on what it promises.

At times I've wondered if those moments of professional excitement, where the future seems so full of potential, only serves as a sort of slap in the face. How dare we feel the excitement of possibility? How dare we look forward to the possibilities of a year or two from now when these people we love and know will likely be gone from us, stolen from us by mysteries we don't and won't ever understand?

It's like you're working on the same floor as Debbie Downer, and you don't know exactly when or how you'll run into her, but she's there, and she's gonna drop by, and whatever smile you're wearing or tune you're whistling, they won't survive that encounter.

If anyone were to suggest I sound depressed, I'd probably throat punch them. Not in real life, mind you, but in my head. I'd smile and thank them for their concern, and I'd walk away with the vision of them falling to their knees, gasping for breath, wondering if I snapped their trachea in two. Whatever level of depression I might have -- and I promise you it's very minor if it even exists -- isn't terminal, and it won't involve chemotherapy, or radiation, or compound nouns like "drug cocktail" or "experimental treatment."

Whatever this is, this creeping, lingering melancholy, isn't some revised Book of Job, and it's due to tragedies around me, not to any sort of destruction of my own life. So I think I'll take my own little teaspoon of misery, swallow it down without so much as a wince, and move on, thankyouverymuch.

A few beers now and then help, although even that hobby has seemed less interesting of late. Family, meanwhile, does more than help.

Family is the one anchor I cannot, will not, detach from the vessel of my life. Even in moments of feeling adrift, there's the assurance that the anchor holds, and the chain has simply rolled out further than I thought possible.

I bought my first few 2015 albums in the last couple of weeks, one of which is Sirens by The Weepies. The Weepies are one of my go-to bands for swimming in self-pity and helping me crawl back out of it, a sort of binge and purge of being stuck in emotional tar. Their previous album, Be My Thrill, is their least compelling to me because you can feel too much joy from it. It's too carefree. Not acceptable, Weepies!

This one returns to their native land of melancholy take on a "get busy livin' or get busy dyin', nobody knows the trouble I seen vibe, and listening to it has helped pull me back toward the shore, helped remind me that I am anchored, that the boat is in tact and the waters that trouble are the same ones that carry us from port to port.

I don't need no trouble
but it's plain to see
sometimes trouble needs me

Deb Talan, by the way, has stage 3 breast cancer. She is currently "cancer free" and in remission.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Gift Is A Gift

A gift is a gift.  Can there be any more direct statement?  And yet, for most of us, it is among the hardest statements to grasp or to believe.

CASE IN POINT:  Last night, I met some friends for a beer.  When I arrived, the bar was raffling off “swag” of various types, all, as I realized later, related to Sierra Nevada beer.  I didn’t realize it at first.  So, when I sat down and the waiter asked what I wanted, I asked a friend what he was having, and he said, “A Sierra Nevada blah-blah-blah.”  So I looked up at the board and ordered a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  (I am not a beer snob and am easily influenced by others’ choices).

When the beer came, I also got a ticket.  A ticket for the raffle.  My friend across the table had a ticket, too.  I thought everyone at the table had a raffle ticket, but I was wrong.  You had to buy a Sierra Nevada.

The next time the raffle came around, I won a nice, green Sierra Nevada t-shirt.  I’ll wear it.  Kind of made the night a little cooler—buy a beer, get a shirt.

Some other friends came in.  They saw the shirt, heard about the raffle.  Some of them got a Sierra Nevada and some didn’t.  I got another beer.  Same thing.  I got another raffle ticket.  The big prize was still out there—a six pack of various beers.  My friend sitting across from me doesn’t like beer; he likes cider.  So I gave him my ticket.

You can guess what eventually happened.  When the last raffle of the night came around, for the six pack of beer, my second raffle ticket, which I had given away, won the sixer.  He was excited; he had said in advance that he wanted to give it to his wife.

But when he got back to the table after accepting his gift, he said to me, “I can’t keep this.  It’s yours.”

“Take it,” I said.  “Keep it.”

Later on, he said, “Let me buy you a beer in exchange for it.”

I said, “It’s a gift.  I don’t want anything in return.”

I have another friend for whom it is almost impossible to do anything at all.  In his head is a tally sheet, and on that sheet, he always thinks that he comes up short, so he can never accept anything gratis.  I can’t buy him lunch.  I can’t pay for anything.  It is very frustrating.

To be fair, I like to live quite often in the world of quid pro quo (you do for me, and I’ll do for you), especially when I am dealing with students who need to work through their own sense of entitlement.

But far more important to me is the world of hospitality, the world of gift-giving.  A gift requires nothing in return.  If it does, then it is not a gift.  I remember one Christmas where the other writer of this blog gave me a cool t-shirt as a Christmas gift.  I did not give him anything.  Neither he nor I have given each other a Christmas gift since.  It was just a moment, a confluence of events where he was purchasing some cool shirts and he got one for me. 

That is a gift.  It comes out of nowhere, perhaps, when it is the best kind of gift.  It originates in an unplanned, random thought, being in a place where we see something that we know that someone we know might enjoy.  And so we get and then give that gift.  But how hard it is for us to accept without us attaching some strings to it!

Monday, April 20, 2015

This Is Your Brain On The Flu

Well, actually, it is my brain, but I have to think, all of my personal quirks aside, that brains that have been numbed by the flu are pretty much similar.

Flu B, though, is a bit of a different viral animal.  The people at the clinic told us so, when my wife and I were simultaneously diagnosed.  The fever doesn't get as high.  Some people don't get a fever at all, which makes it harder to diagnose, because who is going to go to the doctor without a fever?

Still, flu, any flu, takes you down.  When we were at the clinic, we sat in the waiting room with a SWAT guy who thought he could best it, could work through it, but he couldn't and it took him down.  When we saw him, he could barely move.  Like us.

But as I sat for a week in a room with my wife, both of us hoping that the other would take care of us, and both of us hoping to feel better, I started to take mental "snapshots" of what it was like to have a flu brain because I knew that you would want to know.  And here are those observations, in scattershot fashion, because this is your brain on the flu:

--You'd think that the brain on flu is not hungry, but it is.  It just isn't hungry for typical bland "sick food" like soup and toast.  Oh, it will eat that, but what it really wants is flavor, and mainly in the form of salt, salt, salt because it is dehydrated.  For my wife, the vegetarian, it was hamburgers.  for me it was hash brown casserole at Cracker Barrel and spaghetti with meat sauce and other comforting, salty things.  Sweets, sugar?  No appeal.

--I walked into Wal-Mart and I felt invincible.  That broad swatch of humanity, they will not infect me, no, I will infect them, as I search for a dehumidifier.  It is the only time I have ever entered Wal-Mart and thought, "I am germ-bringer."

--Zombie.  I look at you.  Zombie.  You look at me.  I think nothing.  You thing nothing.  Let us turn our heads towards CNN and let the news repeat itself on into the night.

--Our healthy daughter comes home and wants to know if we have spent the day sterilizing the house.  No, I think, we have not.  We have spent the day being sick, staring at each other, often not moving or drifting in and out of sleep and thinking, CNN.

--It is early morning.  I am home.  I am not at work.  I think of the day and the things that I will do.  There are so many movies that I will watch.  My wife and I will watch movies together.  I will read books.  I will get some work done.  I do none of it.  We sit, instead, and watch CNN and discover that yesterday's "Breaking News" is still breaking today, and we are still fascinated by that.

--Phone call.  No.  Why?

--People want to bring us things, mostly things to eat, and we want them, and we want to eat them, but we don't want to see those people and we don't want to commit to being here to accept those things, even though we will go nowhere else and we have little else to eat.

--Our daughter has fled, and we sterilize the house in hopes that she will return, but we hope that she will not question is to see if we have done so, because we have done it and now we want to nap with CNN in the background.

--We share everything, because we cannot make each other sick, and we cannot make our dog sick, and we have a room where we can be sick together, and it has become our world and we only step out of it if we have to, like when one of us needs to take care of the other.

That, plus fever, cough, and lethargy, is the flu.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Good Guy

The Devil is All Around - Shovels & Rope (YouTube)

Netflix's "Daredevil" is without question the biggest surprise of the television year. The only question is whether its so good as to be bigger than that.

For all the comparisons to the Christopher Nolan take on Batman, and for all the talk of how "gritty" it is -- and I dare someone to review this show without using the word "gritty" -- what surprises me is how it aims to get at the core question that seems to be haunting so many of our television creatives of late:

What makes good people do ugly things?

And the second question: When good people do ugly things, can they still be good people?

Most of the great television in this golden age attacks these questions in one way or another. "Mad Men," "The Walking Dead," "Justified," "Breaking Bad," "The Shield." The list goes on and on. One could argue that the topic has been overplayed, but those people don't read books, don't like Shakespeare, and don't think too much when playing Call of Duty or Mortal Kombat.

"Justified" just completed its six-year run, but I only finally realized during the last few episodes that what was at the core of the show was not whether Raylan Givens was justified in the actions he takes (because the answer is NO), but rather how he goes about justifying his actions to himself. The lines he crosses, the rules he ignores, the people he hurts.

For "Justified," however, this question wasn't really the crux of the show. It was just a sort of staging ground for the writers to have fun, to see what kind of madness and oddity they could create. The show, like many of Elmore Leonard's books, revel in the tragicomic chemistry between brilliance and stupidity, between loyalty and selfishness. Raylan wrestling with his own justifications was only the engine that got the tour bus running.

In "Daredevil," the question is the guiding principle of the show, and it finds its way, often unsubtly, into every episode. Kingpin (er… uninitiated viewers will know him as Wilson Fisk) spends the season convinced that he is not a bad person, but rather a good person who must resort to some unseemly things on the course to a greater good, the rebirth of his New York district of Hell's Kitchen.

What makes “Daredevil” such a surprise is that Marvel doesn’t treat this character or the show like a cast-off.

Matthew Murdock, the vigilante at the heart of the show, must also answer to friends and foes alike about whether his violent activities are heroic or twisted, whether he's any better than the people he bloodies and who bloody him back. The show makes no bones about it: Daredevil hurts people, often more than he probably has to, and he enjoys it. His nurse, his best friend, his priest, all of them struggle to give him the answer he wants, the permission he wants to believe he needs… even though the uglier truth is that he doesn’t need their support or approval, because like Fisk, he is convinced of his own moral direction and barrels down that course regardless).

The cinematography is carefully arranged to match the subject matter of comic book colliding with real-life evil. Most of the show is set in nighttime, in shadows, but always with stunning comic book-quality colors of lighting striking half a character's face or the action in play. The fights are as well-choreographed as almost any American film in the last few years (excepting perhaps “John Wick” and a few others). You get to actually enjoy the art of the fight, three and four punches from a single angle rather than watching the director hide bad fight-acting behind shaky cams and jump cuts.

Simply put, “Daredevil” is everything “Gotham” promised to be and more. I’m positive Donal Logue watched one episode and lost his $hit knowing that Foggy Nelson is such a better character than the goober he plays on Gotham. Instead, relative unknown Elden Henson takes the part (confession: Foggy Nelson is one of my least favorite Muggles in comic book history) and comes away as someone who’s only a handful of stellar supporting roles away from being the next Philip Seymour Hoffman. Vincent D’Onofrio is deliciously over the top, as is Scott Glenn. Deborah Ann Woll, Rosario Dawson and the mesmerizing Ayelet Zurer make you hope they’ll give even more space for women to thrive in what is traditionally a testosterone-dominated fanboy landscape.

Daredevil will never save the world from Ultron. Hell, he has difficulty beating up more than a handful of thugs at a time. Because Murdock’s “powers” are decidedly limited, this show is the most human superhero venture Marvel has offered. Everyone bleeds. Everyone hurts. Everyone can die. Happy endings aren’t all that happy.

It is also the show that comes closest to trying to address what could possibly motivate an almost-normal person to go outside the law to uphold justice. Is it religion? Is it the ghosts of loved ones? Or is it something much closer to insanity?

“Daredevil” had its flaws, to be sure. A few moments of hamfisted dialogue. A few predictable or disappointing plot twists. But these don’t remotely ruin the experience.

The final episode wasn’t close to the best one, but it had one of my favorite moments: a monologue by D’Onofrio that takes his character to the heart of the question about what we think of ourselves, and how we justify our actions, and how liberating it must be to finally realize what you are at your core, for better or worse.

Most of us don’t ever fully get there. We never truly know who we are at our core. We rely on faith or routine, people or substances, hobbies or occupations to spell out what we can’t quite put a finger on. Mostly we hope we’re good people. And we hope the bad things we’ve done, or the good things we haven’t done enough of, don’t make us something less than good.