Calling Robots

March 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

All I want to do is book an event space in New York City.

I look suspiciously at the map.  Manhattan is the middle-place, right?  I’m not exactly a fluent New Yorker.  The first medium-tier hotel that pops up, I pop the number of into my phone.  I’ve mastered, I’ve decided, hotel phone interactions.  My first few were creaky – some would say terrified – but while I never had the telephone-training of the 80’s, I was born in them, so I reasoned it must flow in my veins.  I typed out all of the event info in case I panic.  But I’m not going to panic.  Hotels have a front desk, and they’ll send me to their event sales team, and those people will hem and haw about dates and then give me a quote I’m not supposed to like.  I’ve got this.

I was immediately routed into a computer reservations line. I hit the panic button – 0.  Will you please type your reservation number?  a recorded woman’s voice coos.  Crap – I # the back-up panic button.

A heavily-accented young man tells me I’ve arrived at reservations.  “Can you connect me to event sales?” I ask.  He’s confused.  “Room sales, reservations?”  “No,” I haggle, “Event space sales, do you have event spaces here that you rent?”  “Uhhhh–” He hits HIS panic button.  Immediately a woman picks up.

“Reservations.”

Barely does the word event pass my lips before she chimes “Group Sales” and hits another button.  Now, now we’re getting somewhere, button by button, climbing the telephone ladder.

A robotic man’s voice asks me which hotel I’m trying to make a reservation at.  Nope!  I want to ask Group Sales if they have multiple Manhattan locations, I decide, so I can pick between them.  Ahhh, I chuckle to myself silently, I am so clever.  If don’t answer, the robot will have to hand me back right away.

I’m going to need to know which hotel you’d like to make reservations at the voice patiently repeats, with a hint of human annoyance.  Damn!  It’s patient.  I can’t outwait it. I can’t hit a panic button, lest I be routed all the way back to the confused man at the front desk.

But if the robot can’t easily interpret my answer, it’ll hand me off.  “I’d like to speak to a service representative!” I say forcefully.  Maybe it’s even automated to recognize the words and put me through.  I chortle emphatically.

I’m going to put you through to a service representative, but first I need you would tell me what hotel you’d like to make reservations at.

Robotic pushback.   The tones are complex, irritated.  I’m too stunned to say anything for a minute.  Finally, defeated, I mumble the name of the specific hotel location I got the number from.

Just a second.  The voice turns audibly to the side, followed by some quick, emphatic typing.  Nice, I’ll finally get through.  Typing.  Typing?

Oh crap!  I’d though this voice was too nuanced, to aggrevatingly human to be a robot!  I’d just told a service representative that I’d like to speak to a service representative!  And worse yet, their job was SO DEHUMANIZING that they had sadly agreed to do so – if only I’d let them do their job first.

Oh please let them transfer me. Oh please, please.  Don’t make me fess up to my mistakes, just hit that button and send me to the golden city of Group Sales.  I could almost see it, just ahead.

The typing finished.  Thank you.  And how many meeting rooms will you be needing?  The voice was back, and distinctly recorded.

“Is this a person or a robot?” I blurted out.

There was a slight pause.  I am an automated service recording, but I understand what you’re saying, and I can help you take care of your…

Oh God.  It’s self-aware.

…reservation and then pass you along to a service representative.  How many meeting rooms will you be needing?

Don’t hit the panic button, don’t do it.

“Uhh – none – unless you count the event space?”

Just a moment.  It typed in my answer.  No – no – it pretended to type my answer?  Don’t hit the panic button, it’s not worth it.

Thank you for waiting.  Please hold while I connect you.

I breathed, finally, long, and sort of choked it out in the silence of waiting.

From far-off, a woman’s altered voice said, mechanically, Please hold.  It was a mechanical blip in a field of silence.  No music, no — I left the music behind long ago, in the lobby.

I had thought I could see Group Sales up ahead, but now I saw only whiteness – silence.  Was this Group Sales?  Did they even know of my purgatorial existence, waiting?

Please hold.

A minute passed.

Please hold.

I wasn’t paniced anymore.

Please hold.

It was slapdash, the occational message.  They knew I would stay, holding here, forever.  Every minute or so, they wanted to remind me I was alive, held by the silence.

Please hold.

I could almost measure time by it, if I hadn’t long ago left time behind.

….

….

….

I’m still holding.  Are you still here?

Your call cannot be connected though to its destination.  Please hang up and dial the toll-free number again.

Holiday Chickens

December 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today my house marched outside and chicken wrangled a house christmas card.

Our home is called the HoL – the House of Lorax – I think because it was named by a pile a of hippies trying to satisfy their own sensibilities while appeasing their less mature friends, who were sated by calling it the Glory HoL (Glorious House of Lorax).  I refused to do this and called it the Barn – it looks like a Barn – until it finally made it around to me that the HoL stood for something pleasant, to some people part of the time.

I’m a stickler for house names.  Years of being force-fed glorified titles akwardly slapped on crumbling college-kid dumps had sickened me.  This was further needled by the endless pretention that I should know exactly what house every name applied to, as if it synched with my brain the precise moment some drunk hipster first vomited it out.  I became anti-name.  I was the scrooge of college houses.  I named every house myself, based on the color or street.  Names should be natural, I snapped, flowing from the surroundings the way you would describe an unnamed dwelling to a stranger.  But the HoL has a giant flag in the window that reads, in messy spraypaint, “HOL”, which I have to admit is pretty clear.  And The Lorax is one of my favorite books, so I don’t have a lot of conscientious space to be a jerk about it.

The Chickens weren’t really into the idea of a photo.  Pidge flapped about, escaping from time to time just to perch on the shoulder of the person next to her, beady eyes shouting “You know I’m a shoulder chicken.  Why should I have to put up with this awful holding.”  I clutched Ruby, the only one who’s properly containable, and she just sort of peered at me upsetly and shivered a little.  Quentin mainly tried to head straight for the camera to eliminiate the trouble at its source.  N. and Attila the Hen have always had a special relationship, so, we just let them do their thing, which oscillated between N. pretending Attila was a fighter jet and Attila digging her claws into his hands and climbing all over his cashmere sweater.  Attila’s technically easiest to hold, if you’re not N., and don’t abuse your privileges.

N. and Attila the Hen (Buff Orpington), Me and Ruby (Bantam Silkie), S. and Pidge (Ameraucana hen), A. and Quentin (Ameraucana still deciding her sex).

Happy Holidays!  From me and the chickens and the many people who make this place home.

Green Candy

November 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Miss, miss, I just wanted to–”

I reflexively pulled the box of leftovers and sweater onto my lap, where they didn’t fit, so he could sit down.  I couldn’t help glancing irritably at the empty bus seats around me.

“—tell you I really like your green hair.”

He was standing in the aisle, bending intently and revealing layers of thin gold chains. I opened my mouth for my polite, unfocused thank you, the kind you give a person you’re resigned to spending a bus ride getting propositioned by.  He bowled on past it.

“I really like your green hair, a lot, you see my name” (—something blurred—) “it means green, my last name is green.  So I like your green hair very much, you see. I like green.  I am a green – you have green hair.”

He gestured with a foil-wrapped piece of candy.  Green candy.

“I wanted to tell you how much I like your green hair,” he grinned, chains flapping.  I thanked him and took the candy, moving my body a bit in anticipation of him sitting down.  To my surprise, he had politely vanished.

I tucked the piece of green candy in my bag.  They always told me not to take candy from strangers, but I think this was the first time I’d ever received candy from a stranger – if you except one of my better friends, whose acquaintance was made over a proffered candycane.

The next morning, I plopped back onto the bus and customarily opened my bag.  Out across my lap marched all the ants that had snuck in there overnight.  As I tried to pretend I wasn’t being suddenly overwhelmed by insects (sit still, don’t flail, sit still, don’t flick them at people), I finally grokked the age-old advice: really, don’t take candy from strangers.

The Ginkgo and I

November 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

For about a week I was puffed up from my wild chestnuts.  Chestnuts not exactly being a chupacabra, no one was very impressed, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like King of the Edible Plants Several Blocks from my Home.  Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was missing out on a lot of secrets.  It didn’t help that I was more interested in what some savy Asian families were collecting on the street than what nearby herbs neo-hippies recommended I make tea with.

As I boasted to some of my co-workers, I nudged them to ask if they, perhaps, knew any edibles I’d missed.  One of them paused. “I’d always see people coming on campus to pick whatever was falling off the Ginkgo tree,” she laughed, “I remember because it smelled terrible.”  Ginkgo, eh?

In high school, they were one of my favorite trees, largely because I knew their name.  We’d had a falling out when I noticed their leaves looked a bit like Tulips, and became unable to distinguish them from Tulip trees, or remember which one it was good luck to catch a leaf from.  I knew there was one on my way home, and I knew I’d spotted something golden under it this morning running to the bus.  Jackpot.

Sure enough, there was fruit.  Small, round gold fruit the color of apricots and the shape of a cherry.  There were only a few fresh ones on the ground.  The Ginkgo itself had no trace of fruit.  Did they fall from a different tree?  I looked around, walked in some circles, jumped up and down.  Finally I spotted them.  High up, far above where I could reach, the Ginko was heavy with gold.  Of course.  Someone had already come by and taken everything within a ladder’s reach.  So there *were* edible!  I scooped up a few and dashed the final blocks home like a madman.

STEP 1: SMASH!

Googling was in order.  I heartily enjoyed this article.  To my disappointment, the outer fruit (actually sarcotesta) itself isn’t edible – it’s the white nuts inside that are prized.  I gingerly smashed the fruit gently under my shoe to push out the nuts.  The vague smell of dog shit wasn’t quite the vomitrious horror I was expecting.  Well, then, survived that.  What next?

STEP 2: CRACK!

Ok, I had the seeds.  They weren’t white as I’d been promised.  With the application of a nutcracker I found that sure enough, the little white nuts were hiding inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

STEP 3: PEEL!

Wait, those still aren’t white!  They’re just little green beans!  Onward, I suppose?  The instructions said to gently peel off the layer of film surrounding the nut.  It said to wear gloves in case I had a weird reaction to it – I went in bare-handed.  No nuts scare me!

 

 

 

 

 

 

STEP 4: UH…BOIL?

Ok, I had four tiny bean-nut things that were a little worse for wear from the peeling.  I had no idea how to eat them, and the internet was conflicted.  I boiled them for a while, which was fun to watch, but ultimately didn’t make them look any more appetizing than a waterlogged pea.

STEP 5: FRY!

Taking a page out of the article I liked, I pulled them out of the pot and into the pan.  I fried them in salt, pepper, and a pinch of flour….ok, so I’ve never been adept at following instructions, and surely throwing some flour in the pan is the same as deep frying.  It did the trick, though!

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this point N. came home.  “I cooked us Ginkgo nuts!” I proudly held out my open palm with the four tiny beans in it.

“Wow, that’s…really not enough for dinner.  You know that, right?”

Well, ok, so I had to cook an entire other meal.  I won’t bore you with the details of that.  But the four little nuts were so good we both gobbled down two and wished we had more.

Everyday now I crunch over the golden nuts and leaves of that living fossil on my way home.  It’s tempting to scoop them into my pockets and roll them out on my back patio, just to taste them again.  But not quite tempting enough to make me arrive home and greet my boyfriend with kisses and squishy, shit-stinking pockets of Ginkgo.  Someday, I tell the nuts and I -crunch- -crunch- past them, I will return with my plastic bag.  And they squish and say, no you won’t, you’re lazy, and we’ll be all rotted by then.  Shut up Ginkgo nuts!  You’re too much work anyway.

Eating Wild Chestnuts

November 2, 2012 § 6 Comments

N. loves dead ends.  Every sign that warns there’s no reason to go down a road, means I’m about to get forced on a detour. I was suspicious at first of the sheer effort of walking down a road you know isn’t going to work, but at the end of every unwelcoming turnaround there’s something valuable.  An old, tottering house; a bush shaped like an elephant; a lost park.  I’m starting to see the light — or rather, see charm in the dark, wet places where streets go to die.

We try to go to a nearby garage sale every weekend, just for the chance to walk the neighborhood and stare at people’s porches and lawns.  Headed back from allowing me to buy about 20 pairs of 80’s earrings, N. spotted one.  This particular dead end I grumbled over.  It was settled unpleasantly at the far-off bottom of a hill.  As we started down, N. began lecturing on the dream of living in houses no one has an excuse to walk past.  For an extrovert he’s surprisingly into hedgerows.

We found the “dead end” was a false advertisement — “Jesus, it turns into a bike path” N. exhaled in disgust.  I’m not clear how a dirt path through the light, idyllic woods that spread out past the houses was a crime against neighborhood privacy, but any excuse to ditch a dead end is a good one.

As we retraced our damp steps, a car pulled past us and parked in front of something that looked to be more 3-boat garage than domicile.  Out spread a grandmother, mother, and daughter, the latter scuffing her feet sulkily on the pavement.  I wondered why they were dragging their feet on getting into their house — if that was a house?  Or if they lived in land-boats?   Ugh, this hill was a bother.  N. craned his head back.  “Hey – there must be some sort of delicacy there,” he observed. “They’re collecting something.”

They didn’t live there at all. I made a quick U-Turn.  Under the tree were large, green, prickly fruits, which they were rolling under their shoes.  I’d spent a good portion of the morning examining these same prickly things, unable to find one the squirrels hadn’t trophied.  “What are you collecting?” I half-shouted a few times, trying not to look like a jerk hollering at a nice Asian family.  Finally the mother stepped forward and smiled and opened her hands.  There were fat, smooth nuts there in brown and green. “Chestnuts,” she pointed to the green ones, “these aren’t ready yet.”  I bent down to pick up one of the empty shells that had the little, deflated brown seeds I’d seen this morning.  She tut-tutted.  “That’s no good — and you’ll prick yourself.”  The little brown smudges I pulled out didn’t even look related to the lovely nuts she had found.

We thanked them and skipped off – mystery solved, wa-hoo!  It was only a few more blocks home, and we spent the way kicking at every prickly pouch we found – empty, empty, empty.  Near our house was another prickly-pod tree.  We were so excited we ran up to it and tried to pick up the little pouches – “Arghh!” – and dropped them in pain.  She was right.  We tried to imitate how they’d rolled them under their shoes, feeling for nuts inside, and then cracking the pouch with our feet.  Still empty.

Opening Chestnut Burrsgingerly opening Chestnut burrs with our shoes

“Hey!  I found one!”  N. held up a fat nut, ecstatic.  “The green prickly things are fresher.” Sure enough, some of the green burrs still had something in them – often one had been pulled out, but there would be a second nestled inside.  “Oh, and there’s some over here!” ones that had fallen out of the shell, unmolested, blending into the dirt.  In ten minutes we each had a full handful, and had never felt so rich.  Ah, how scarcity makes the heart pound!

our haul of fresh chestnutsN. is very excited about the Chestnut haul

We about tripped over ourselves the last block bubbling home to show everyone the nuts, which, it turned out, aren’t as cool if you didn’t just learn what they were and find them all where you thought none were left.  We looked like the nuts, and the nuts looked, well, inedible.

Now, how do you eat a chestnut?  We sang Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… over and over again…but decided not to risk an open fire.  It turns out the theory is about the same.  You cut an X in the skin of the nut across the flat part.  Lay them out on a tray and cook them at 425 for about half an hour.  You can see the skin start to peel back as they bake.

Chestnuts, X'ed, ready to bake in the ovennuts X’ed and ready to bake

When they’re done, you peel off the rest of the skin yourself, before they cool and it hardens.  N. was a natural.  I crumbled them and had to keep sneaking the mess I was making into my mouth.

“Havf you thried thes?” I turned to N., worried.  He was just swallowing one himself.

“Yeah.  They’re kind of…bland.”

There was very little nutty about chestnuts.  Their texture was related to chalky but altogether less dry.  Their flavor was unexpectedly light; a little bitter.  We frowned.

The more I tried to peel, the more I destroyed and had to scoop up into my mouth to avoid making a mess.  And you know what?  I think you just need to adjust to them.  Four or five in, and they were delicious.  Suddenly sweet.  I was dipping my hand back into the bowl all night for more soft, white something.  It definitely has a taste all its own.

Cooked and peeled chestnutsbaked, peeled, and ready to eat

I used to think I saw the homeless, the dejected, walking under that tree.  Always dragging their feet, always Asian, always clutching a bag.  Now I know those bags aren’t for lugging around half-soaked possessions – they’re for chestnuts!  They’re not shuffling because they’re derranged – they’re cracking nut cases!  Suddenly I see them every day, every time I go past, lingering to pick up secret things.  How many people are roaming the streets of Portland, harvesting chestnuts?  Is there territory?  Are they for sale, or do they go straight to the family dinner table?

a fresh chestnut, still in the burr

Most importantly of all – what I can’t stop thinking:  what other secrets foods do they know, that I don’t?

{ On this note, see my follow-up story on eating ginkgo nuts a few days later. }

{Before you eat chestnuts, learn the edible varieties here.}

How to Make Cheap Clay Fangs

November 1, 2012 § 5 Comments

Halloween this year worried me in one way: I was going as my D&D character, a tiefling (human with part demon ancestry), and I had no idea how to make her characteristic pointy teeth and ugly tusks on the cheap.  A friend, T., said she’d had luck making vampire teeth out of Sculpey III – just moulding it to her tooth, baking it, and then sliding it on so it stayed all by itself.  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  I gave it a go, and here’s the result:

ImageIt’s a pretty self-explanatory process, but I’ve typed it up anyway.  I ran into a lot of folks at the party who were as surprised and excited as I was to learn that you could make cheap vampire teeth / fangs / monster teeth / ugly tusks / whatever nasty teeth you desire, my friends.  Hurrah!

Disclaimer:  Not for kids.  I take no responsibility for anyone choosing to put non-edible substances in their mouth. This method isn’t recommended so much as it is awesome.

1. Buy Supplies.  Any Michael’s will carry Sculpey III, although I recommend calling a locally-owned craft store if you have one and asking if they have it instead.

 I would have preferred the ‘translucent’, but they were out, so I bought pearl, which was kind of sparkly.  The shade of white mattered less than I thought – but that’s probably because I burnt it.  One little pack will be enough for an army of teeth.

2. Make ’em.  Form the Sculpey III into the shape you want (ie…a point), then push it over the tooth you want to cover.  You want to get clay on both sides of your actual tooth so it can get a good grip.  Slide it off once you have the tooth imprint, and gently plop it on tinfoil for baking.

3. Bake ’em.  I think Sculpey III is supposed to be baked in the oven (no microwaves, folks) at 375 degrees for a certain amount of time per 1/8 in., but I’m not so good at following directions.  What I learned was:  bake them for as little time as possible.  Check on them after a few minutes.  If you let them cool off and find they don’t harden, well, stick ’em back in.  Mine burned very quickly, leaving me with unsavory blackened fangs.  Sculpey III is best baked on a tray made of tinfoil.  Let them cool completely before trying them out to see if they fit.

4. Rinse mouth and Repeat.  It took me a number of tries to get each tooth right.  Out of my first batch, only one slid onto my tooth to my liking.  Others had moved before or during and didn’t fit, or broke when I tried them out.

What I found myself doing was sliding on the fang that I liked from the first batch, and then making several versions of the fang next to it.  You have to wear the one that already works, to make sure they’ll butt up against each other just right and fit together.  So I’d wear my left fang, and mould 4 different right fangs, bake them, let them cool, and usually one of those 4 would work perfectly.

I made 4 fangs for my top teeth, and two short tusks for my bottom teeth.  I’d burned most of them so badly that none of them matched the look I was going for, so I painted the front of them with acrylic paint and glazed them.  I can’t recommend this as you really shouldn’t put acrylic paint in your mouth…although, you should’t put Sculpey III in your mouth either.  If anyone has a mouth-approved solution for painting burnt fangs, let me know.  Whatever you do, *never* use oil paints in situations like this.

 5. Stick ’em.  Some fangs held onto my teeth pretty well on their own, but others would slip off the moment I took moved my mouth.

I stood in the pharmacy line at Walgreens, and brashly asked the lady at the window to recommend a strong denture glue.  Without batting an eye, she said Poligrip was the most popular.  I’d tried Fixodent once, and found it mealy – plus it had failed to hold on my plastic vampire fangs.  Whether it was medium or brand at work, the Poligrip worked excellently.  Just squirt a little bit into the part of the fang that touches your tooth, stick the fang on, and hold for a few seconds.  I’d bring the tube with you in case you need to reapply – or lend your fanged friends some.

Removing the fangs is easy, just wiggle them a touch and pull them off, totally painless.  The denture glue, it turns out, is more of a suggestive paste than something that forms a bond.  If I hadn’t been so lazy I could have easily taken out the fangs, rinsed the globs of denture glue out of my mouth, eaten tasty party treats, re-rinsed, and stuck them back in with another glob o’ glue.

Upsides to this method:
– It was cheap!   I’ve passed over expensive fangs time and time again – and finally I’ve found a method that fits my pocket along with my teeth.  One little pack of Sculpey III will last me for many experimental teeth to come.
– I was able to make unique short bottom-tooth tusks for my character.

Downsides to this method:
– You’re putting Sculpey III in your mouth.  It’s not edible, folks, don’t sue me.
– It can be hard to make fangs with a particular shape unless you’re good at shaping clay, and it can be hard to get the coloration you want.  I just wanted clunky monster fangs so I was perfectly happy.  If you want the look of professional fangs, there’s no shame in buying them.

A side note on making the horns: I couldn’t find ultralight sculpey to make the horns out of so I bought the silly-named “Pluffy” instead.  It worked great, as did the cheap paint-on glaze I finished it with. 

On Fire

May 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last night I lay in bed waiting for N. to get home. My mother is one of the nicest people I’ve ever known and was therefore reading to me over Skype. The distant explosions don’t exist, I told myself. Don’t pretend you’re living in an alternate history. Don’t look out the window. People’s fears feed them tales that every tap-tap-tap is a burglar or bomb. Don’t be like that.

I broke down around the time I decided it was a volcano. From atop my mounded laundry I peered out, across the city from my latticed attic window. I knew losing my glasses that afternoon was a bad idea. Far from being restorative, afternoon napping had resulted in what I could only assume was a poor pun – glasses-napping. Or they had fallen on the mound, and I was crushing them trying to get a better look at the volcano. Through the green leaves and the blur, there were far-off sparks of orange and red. I watched them rise and fall, waiting, breath paused for another color, listening to my mother’s voice. In the dark, I knew she couldn’t see me pressed by the window, waiting for the colors to change. Half a minute later a burst of blue signaled, “you’re crazy,” and I curled back onto the bed. Maybe someone set a fireworks factory on fire. Why would they all go off at once like that, one endless, constant noise?

When I was younger and lived in Vermont, every Fourth of July we’d journey across the lake to see the fireworks. The water would be dotted with boats, as far off as I could see, crowded in to watch. It was the only time we’d go out on the lake at night, so I remember clearly the dark, and fleeces, and the bright red and green lights on the prow. My parents always told me what the colors meant, and I always forgot – I just knew that out in the blackness, they kept the other boats away.

Poised over the dark water, the fireworks were spectacular. You could hear cheering. In my memory each burst was a separate event. Everyone on land and lake was following the same teasing trail, and the unfurling explosion of color as it showed us briefly what it was meant to be. Then it would fade, and, still dazzled, we’d watch for the following trail, listen for the whistle. And again, and again. The spacing gave way to anticipation, and to appreciation for every blazing design. There was a moment to point, and say, that one! That’s my favorite kind.  Slowly, the whistles doubled. Color on color, they sped up, and then erupted into a full-volume spectacular. The finale was lavish, the fireworks undistinguishable as they exploded all together, letting us know that it was ok we were tired from clapping and it was about time to go home.

Friends often say the best fireworks they have seen are at Reed College. Several times a year, the college shells out for expensive, open-to-the-public displays of celebration. It’s wonderful.  Those who complain about undue noise are missing a little chunk of enjoyment in life, and I like to think they can turn that around at any moment. Reed College is giving back, in those loud evenings, to the community. And what they’re giving is a fireworks display that many say rivals or outdoes the city’s. I enjoy watching them, up-close on the lawn, huddled in with friends. They come with music, and they arc in meticulously planned pattens set off by a machine. Still, there’s no relationship with the fireworks of my childhood.  No pause to just listen for the whistle, for the clapping to fade to silence while we imagine what the next spark will bring. For me, there are too many fireworks.  I want to pause them, to slow them down and watch each one grace the sky. I want them to feel valuable again, unwasteable, fireworks so large your uncle couldn’t afford to smuggle them in from Canada.

I don’t really mind, though. I just rock and hear the hum of the boat in my ears.

I had some friends over for my birthday few days past, intent on doing the best thing I could think of, which happened to be sitting in the backyard roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. We were out there just long enough to find that burning old drawers will not make a good cooking fire before the rain came.  N. and I stood sadly, surveying his smokey little concoction, before pouring yellowed cans of year-old yard Pasbt across it.  Inside, a friend has brought fat sausages filled with Mongolian Beef and Gator*, and the marshmallows were forgotten.  I knew it was a good party because someone interrupted a boy asking me for a prop to make him look pregnant, to ask me for a tie to put on a girl.  We sat up til 3 AM, hooked on Cards Against Humanity.

This afternoon I was unsurprised to find the cupboards empty except for cheap hot dogs, marshmallows, graham crackers, and big bars of chocolate. Happy Memorial Day weekend. I checked to make sure no-one was home before sticking a couple of pudgy white globs onto a wooden meat skewer and cranking up the gas burner. Blue means extra-hot, right? Within seconds I discovered the secret: holding a marshmallow within about a half a foot of a burner would instantly set it aflame. Time and time again I blew it out and inched it forward again. WHOMPH! Darn.

Oh, whoops.

It's blurry because I'm panicing.

Somehow through repeated engulphments, the middle melted into a perfect s’more. I don’t know how there was enough between two marshmallows to coat my face, my hands, my phone, and still fill the graham-cracker crust, but it spread itself out. Which is why I am sitting here, sticky, happy, and reflecting on flame and explosives.

Enjoy Memorial Day Weekend, folks.

* fat sausages courtesy of Sheridan Fruit Co., which I have often passed wondering if they sell cheap fruit. They don’t, they sell expensive fruit. But their true strength lies in the most delicious sausages I’ve tasted in Portland, OR. I’m a loyal fan of Otto’s Sausage Kitchen, and the Eastmoreland Market has an unforgettable spicy italian with fennel – but these were unbeatable.

Phantom Duck Syndrome

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Ducks (in the back) and Friends next door - complete with spy shadow

Perched on my porch, listening to distant quacking, my hand quivering on my phone. The neighbors are blaring some mean jazz.  The first day of sunlight in weeks and all I can focus on is my phantom duck syndrome.

The past two weekends I’ve been packed away in basement or theater, making or watching films. The intervening weekdays were spent plowing through all my work to expose time for said dark days.  Now it’s Monday, and I’m reveling in the reversal of relaxation.

I thought I was clever last year when I set my iphone ringtone to ducks.  If I forget to silence it and it goes off, in restaurants or auditoriums or midway through difficult conversations, I imagine that people are only mildly puzzled by the faint sound of ducks.  Somewhere nearby, ducks are just out of sight.  Their voices penetrate the most protected of places.  “Do you hear…quacking?”

Then there are real ducks, and I am unprepared.  Walking through parks, I jump, stutter, and quake.  “I’m sorry, I have to answer my…” and no one is calling.  Who’s that crazy, desperately holding their phone to their ear, hoping someone will be there?  Every drifting quack startles the deep-set part of me that responds to alarm clocks and texting alerts.  We’re trained to respond to it.  And it won’t stop.  And no one is calling.

Ducks moved in next door.  There’s a little turkey enclosure, and I walk past every time I leave my house, imitating their shrills squawking (to the joy of neighbors).  They run to the fence and we talk.  I have no idea what I say, but they’re into it, if mildly confused.  The chickens quietly do their own thing and ignore us.  Walking past a few months ago, I gave a shriek of surprise.  Everyone stopped and looked at me.

“Was that my phone?”

What’s-wrong-with-her looks were exchanged. There was silence. I excavated my bag in panic. No calls. The turkeys watched, puzzled.

“Were those…ducks?”

Someone sighed, half-laughing, and pointed.  Out from behind the turkeys clomped a mess of loud, dumbfounded birds.  Ducks.  And they didn’t know what was going on, but they wanted to be a part of it.  Quaaack quack quarguh quriiack quark quaaaaack!

I made for the opposite street, thoroughly embarrassed.

Now, when I visit the turkeys, I tread quietly.  Sometimes the ducks linger toward the back.  They can’t be bothered to look up.  Other times, they raise a ruckus.  As the turkeys waddle to the chickenwire and chat, the ducks stand firm in the middle, shouting for no particular reason.  Perhaps I am unfair on ducks.  I love encountering them in ponds and streams and lawns (when they are in adorable pairs, searching for places to raise ducklings).  But these are some insolent fowl.

When the ringing is real, I answer joyfully.  It’s a cheerful thing to hear ducks calling you!  I cry “Hey Ducks!” into the phone.  I imagine that ducks are conveying my messages through to another person, and I want to be polite.  It’s little things like this that sew extra happiness into the corners of life.

There has been a great deal written on phantom phone syndrome.  It’s a well-documented phenomenon that we constantly hear our phone go off when it doesn’t.  We feel vibrations, invent pings.  The world is more aggressive, somehow, when we feel like it sends us false information – information we invent ourselves.  We want our phone to ring.  Sometimes we fear it.  It holds power over us.  We hear it no matter where we are, no matter where we leave our communicators.  We can break them.  But they have broken us first, and we will hear ringing from their shattered frames.

So I hear ducks.  I hear ducks where there are no ducks, and I hunt behind bushes, trying to prove that I’m not inventing them.  Sometimes they are real ducks.  Sometimes my phone is ringing.  And often…there’s nothing there at all.  The phantom ducks follow me everywhere. My phone-call fears and hopes, ridiculed by distant, ghostly quacking.

I have phantom duck syndrome.

——————

Tip: Read this post out loud, replacing the word ‘ducks’ with ‘dicks’

Fiction: “Outrunning a Crocodile”

May 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m beginning to write for an hour a day.  Today was my first try using a writing prompt.  I’ve maintained writing prompts are lame to disguise my own fear of unmertited communication.  Away, fears!  The prompt?  “Something happened.”  As follows:

Something happened.  I don’t have legs anymore.

One day, I was gliding along – when I realized I was gliding.
Floating off the ground, I’d say a leg’s distance from it.  But it’s a
hard thing to measure without legs.

I can’t wear heels anymore.  My hips don’t sway.  Everyone knows that
heels make your butt curve back and forth voraciously, a swaying pile
of sex.  When I sway while I glide I look a man on the Discovery
Channel, trying to out zig-zag a crocodile.  Precarious.  Frightened.
No longer confident in life.  Heels are all about confidence.

The doctors say I’m lucky.  Something could have gone wrong with my
legs.  People come to them, pleading – “Please!  Remove these,” and
they can’t give them the gift of gliding.  Here I am, gliding along
all week, ungrateful.  They want to take samples of my legs, boil them
down, and synthesize them for science.  Except they can’t, as I
haven’t got any legs.  It’s a disappointment I’m learning to live with
in other people.

For the first few days I wore long, out-dated skirts, relics from the
back of my mother’s closet to cover my sudden dis-apparition.  When she
pointed out I was using the past to cover something that wasn’t there,
“Just like I used to do when I was your age,” I switched to mid-length
pleasantries, comfortable things in bright colors.  I tell people I
wear tights made from chameleons.  They’re very expensive.  People
respect me.

One day, I will get my legs back.  I trust we will find each other, like
lost loves.  I will discover them in a gutter only I would think to look
in, or the back of a closet, or that I left them in someone else’s car,
“didn’t I tell you?”  Then, I will remember what it is like to have legs.
I will drag tall socks above my knees and just jog in place, relishing the
soft scratching as they fall down too far, and bunch up, and look
unfinished.  I will refuse to clip my toenails until my lover throws me out
of bed. I will tell my stretch marks that growth is a good thing, and count
my leg hairs out, under the stars.  I won’t remember to exercise, but I’ll
enjoy it when it sneaks up on me.  Hills are everywhere.

But for now, I am gliding, gliding along.  And all I’ve really lost is
my love of escalators, and fear of puddles, and aversion to walking
too close to someone for fear of treading on their feet.  My dates
find it romantic.  Only our arms are in the way, as we walk pressed up
against each other in the dark.

The Dogs of Tanzania

May 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’d never heard dogs howl at night before Africa.

My brother tried to warn us.  He’d been living there for months, and we only spoke to him a few times, but he let us know we’d be upset at how dogs are treated in Tanzania.  He also told us not to bring anything with aloe in it, as apparently a few years prior a student on the same program had been ambushed in the night by wild bush pigs. The bush pigs had torn his tent apart and put a few scratches in him, intent on finding his aloe lotion.  He didn’t tell us to forgo clothing and pack our bags instead with toilet paper, which I kind of wish he had.  “Dogs aren’t pets, here.”  He said.  “It’s really sad.”  If you can, imagine that in my brother’s don’t-give-a-damn voice.

Our third night in Africa we moved from a small local hotel along the central city streets of Arusha to a touristy spot nestled (in a protective fence) in the more residential area.  I’m a reliable sleeper.  When our golden was a puppy, he used to spend the night in his kennel next to my bed.  I learned to sleep through his early-morning yip-yipping, forcing my parents to wake up and come down two floors to take him outside.  While this doesn’t reflect well on Past Me, it does show how damn resilient I am to even the most determinedly noisy of dogs.

That night in Tanzania, I could barely sleep for the barking.  The barking, and the howling, and the growling, the low urgent wuff-wuffs of warning and the desperate wiff-wiffs of pain.  In the morning, everyone in my family shared the same confusion.  How had there been so many dogs barking, all across the city?  How did they manage to bark all night long without rest? Why hadn’t we heard a single dog-related noise during the daytime?  A true Hound of the Baskervilles situation.  Yesterday I walked next door to borrow a copy, so perhaps dogs are on my mind.

We certainly saw plenty of them.  They were lying about in ditches and around the sides of houses.  They were small and a light dirty-brown, with uniform drooping ears and sad eyes.  We weren’t allowed to pet them, since so many of them were diseased and we didn’t want to be nipped. They were covered in all sorts of bugs and bare patches.  They shied away from people, which we learned is because people kick them or throw stones at them. We never saw a stray one.

Finally we asked our guide why the dogs bark at night.  He sounded surprised.  “Because they are nocturnal.  They are animals.  Like other animals, they are barking in the night.”  We laughed and told him dogs weren’t like other animals, and thus, they weren’t nocturnal.  He reiterated what he had said, accustomed to correcting tourists on the local wildlife.  “In the day, they are sleeping.  In the night they are barking and protecting of the home.  You hear they are saying to the other dogs, do not come to my home or I will be fighting you.”

Tanzania was wonderful, and people we met were very kind, and proud of being, as they never tired of telling us, “a peaceful country.  We don’t fight anyone.  Christian, Muslim, all is ok here.”  I post about dogs only because the notion of nocturnal dogs is so strikingly different.  A dog that barks all night was doing its job, not harassing your neighborhood’s sleep.  With so few resources and so much poverty, it’s sensible for dogs to be a defensive measure against wild animals or thieves. On the outskirts and in the boma, any number of predators might come prowling for your goats, and in the city, you need to make sure your home is protected at night.  People also viewed dogs as part of a disease problem, and were trying to minimize their risk.  I saw a taxi driver with the build of a rhinoceros hop up inside his car to avoid the small, rare, purebred corgi that a white hotel owner had brought out a few feet away.

While my boy was in Thailand, we talked of dogs.  There, soi dogs roam the streets, wild dogs with largely mild temperaments.  He tilted the computer camera out the windows of the café to prove how many, and within a half a second – there’s one, oh and another, and they’re followed by a third – and back to his tanned face. My boy was chased on his first day, by soi dogs, but after that badge of arrival they were friendly. The cities he went to weren’t as poor as the African ones, and there was enough trash for stray dogs to live off of.  Soi cats, too, dotted the Thai streets.  “Many Thais believe that only the Buddha can be perfect,” he told me, “and cats are perfect. People break or knot their tails so they’re not perfect anymore.”

The moment my family and I made it back to Vermont, we came as close to lavishing excess affection on our own dog as was probably possible.   He gets such a disproportionate amount of attention; it’s hard to measure.  As I fell asleep at night he’d climb up on the bed and shift all 70 pounds into whatever spot I was trying to sleep in, and I’d drift off with my arms tangled across his smelly warm fur.  We’re fortunate and we have plenty of food to feed him, and safety so we can raise him to be a slobbering friend, and we don’t fear disease or wild animals (except skunks).  I love dogs.  I was practically raised by one.  A more venerable, older dog who taught me as a child to cock my head to the side when I’m confused and that headscratches are affection.

I had a lot to learn when I hit highschool.

Geocaching: Muggles in a Land of Secrets

April 5, 2012 § 7 Comments

I walk past secrets everyday.

Usually this is vague – secret thoughts and plots, pirate gold, childhood memories, government initiatives, food not on the menu.  This week, the secrets were tangible. Physical, occasionally edible secrets, waiting everywhere!

The excitement came on quite suddenly. I was lazing about in my enormous leopard print bathrobe, trying to remember if I had eaten or if it really counted as afternoon yet.  My roommate and her boyfriend, properly responsible, were shuffling things on kitchen counters.

He looked up from the clatter.  “We’re going Geocaching.  Get some clothes on.”

I broke for my room, swung around, and remembered I had forgotten my boyfriend.  I called out to him: “Get dressed, now!  Geocaching!”

He gave me a bemused, I’m-halfway-out-the-door look, cigarette balanced on the edge of his smile, and finished stepping outside.  I abandoned him and tumbled up the stairs.

A few months ago H, my stop-motion animation and strange junk store buddy, had mentioned geocaching.  We were sitting around the dinner table late at night, new friends and he in a new city and all of us with nothing to do.  I was scratching out a list, noting the missing key ingredient for each rejected plan.  If I came across plywood, or concrete, or a videocamera later I’d remember we needed it.  “Geocaching?”

He grinned at us.  “It looks sweet.  You go out into the woods with a GPS and find boxes of stuff other people hid.  I looked the Portland area up online and it looks like there’s a lot out in the woods.”

I wrote down, daylight.

When months later my roommate mentioned her boyfriend was planning to take her out geocaching, I made it pretty clear that I was coming.  Still, I in no way expected it to be so sudden.  The selective joys of unemployment, right?  I tore through my drawers, looking for something woods-worthy and adventuresome.  Somehow I came out in red spandex tights and a green leather miniskirt, topped with a shirt with diamond decals in the shape of a leopard face with eyes lying uncomfortably close to the actual location of my nipples.  I dug around for a hat Bid left in my room that always reminded me of Swedish climbers.

I re-appeared, breathless and proud.  “Adventure time!”  (Sidenote: Go watch Adventure time.)

My roommate’s boyfriend glanced critically at our dramatic poses and bright colors.  “You’re not supposed to stick out.  You’re in disguise, from the Muggles, you’re like blending in so no-one even knows you’re there.”

“What’s a Muggle?” My roommate called from the kitchen, prompting a re-screening of every clueless thing she’s ever said about fantasy literature.  “Dumbledore…that’s one of the buildings, right?”  I called back.

“Geocachers call people who aren’t ‘in the know’ Muggles, like in Harry Potter,” he added.

We set out.  Meaning, we pranced down the front steps and milled about in the driveway, trying to pretend we knew where we were supposed to go.  Our guide pulled out his smartphone.

“All you need is a phone with GPS, and this app.  And you let it load your location, and” – he tapped it – “it tells you what’s nearby.”  Magic little dots appeared all over the screen.

“…Those are all nearby?”

“Yeah, let’s set it to, say, a mile.  Ok, so it rotates as you walk, like a compass.  Uhm….that way.”

And That Way it was.

There was a bounty of little dots all around us.  We chose from them at random.  The first directed us to an exciting patch of sidewalk.  The description read ‘micro’.  We peeked under bushes and roots and clumps of dirt.

“You’re never supposed to dig for them,” he said as we started to glare at the cache-less earth, and roll up our sleeves. “But the clue says, ‘Silver’.”

“I’ve got it!”  my boyfriend cried, hunched over next to the nearby building.  He was scrabbling at a plastic box-lid, buried in the ground.  It looked…municipal.  But he held up a small, shining metal image of the Virgin and Christ, lying nested in the dirt near it.  “Silver.”

The lid finally popped up.  Inside: a lot of mud, a valve, and some piping.  Whoops.  Anything of note would have long ago sunk into the muck.  We clapped it shut and tried to pretend we weren’t water-supply cutoff terrorists.  Which we aren’t.

It started to rain.  My roommate wanted to go home, where the rain could not follow, and at least pick up another hoodie.  We stood around on the sidewalk and shrugged our shoulders against the wet.  “Let’s—“

“Found it.” I hadn’t even realized our guide was still looking.  But in his hand lay a small capsule, the size of the top segment on my pinkie finger. We shielded it from the weather, uncapped it, and used an unbent paperclip to extract the tiny scroll wedged inside.  Along it ran what I could only assume was a list of others who had visited, tiny marks that might pass as initials and dates.  Our guide made another few scratches, and before I could see how they denoted us, was rolling the tiny paper back up and out of the rain.

Our guide found the goods for our next location up in a tree, on a little pulley.  The can was full of candy, mouldy erasers, and little trinkets – and other booklet to mark our passing.  I packed gifts I had brought into the can, and we hoisted it back heavier.

Sweet victory (photo belongs to L.A.)

Giddy with success, the sun back up in the sky, we pointed the phone in another direction.

Half a mile later we were up against a loose stone wall.  “There’s no size listed,” our guide said, “but it can’t be very big if it’s hidden here.  It says to watch out – lots of muggles – act casual.”

Acting casual involved crawling around on the sidewalk peering in the crevice between every stone, and occasionally removing top ones and looking under them.  The procurement of a flashlight didn’t help appearances.  Groups of nearby employees left work and walked past us, clearly wondering if they should report us.  “It’s a scavenger hunt,” I yearned to say, “there’s a clue on this wall.” Or are there perhaps geocachers here searching all the time, and neighbors are accustomed to the fact that hiding in plain daylight, on a open street, while doing an unusual activity was impossible?  Do they take photos from their windows of the daily contortionists? Can you bend over and peer into a wall while not drawing attention?  “I’m sorry, sir, my pet gecko has escaped, and I believe he has sought refuge in one of these crevices.”

I've lost my gecko, I usually keep it in this packpack.

What felt like half an hour passed me from excitement to frustration.  Not being able to find it didn’t make any sense.  It had to be right here, and nothing tricky to it – nothing but a wall with tiny caves between each stone.   The looks we were getting were increasingly worse, as we tightened our faces and glared, half-upside down, into every little nook.  A gentleman walked past, and for once, smiled.

“I’ve been looking for that one for about a year.  Never found it,” he reflected, without breaking stride – and was gone.

We stayed frozen, shocked, in our strange poses.  Finally, “Shit.  It’s not here.  It’s been stolen.  It’s not real.”  I kicked at the wall.

Our guide turned back to the phone.  “Yeah, well, we’ll know if anyone’s seen it…logs…Someone found it yesterday.”

I did the math.  The chances that it was stolen, of all days, yesterday, were low enough to double back around and put the chances we were just dumbfucks who couldn’t find it at 98%.

We never found it.

“Two out of three, that’s not bad, that’s not bad,” our guide soothed.  “Nearby, there’s one that you have to solve like a puzzle to find, the clues tell you the coordinates, but you need internet to look stuff up—“

“—Nope.”

We set off a different way.

Our final stop was outside a house on a pleasant residential street.  “Are you sure this is right?”

“It says the geocache is on someone’s property but accessible from the sidewalk.”

Someone had stashed a tupperware of poetry on the side of their own driveway.  The logbook was larger than the others, and stretched back years.  All sorts of papers had been left, alongside the odd trinkets.  One was a temporary tattoo in the shape of a heart, reading TRIMET: Born to Ride.  I grinned and swapped it for a photograph from the 1940’s, taken with others years ago from a pile of trash a landlord left out, with an impromptu poem about our day scrawled on the back.  A few houses down, a family was moving a few things back and forth into their house, and a middle-school girl was frozen on the steps, watching us with abandon.  Five minutes later, she was still ogling.

My boyfriend waved as we put the box back and set off.  “We’re geocaching – hunting for treasure!” he informed her.  She was too shy to wave back, but still fascinated, watched us leave.  Our guide scoffed.  “You can’t talk to Muggles.  They’ll disrupt the cache.”

How does anyone find out about geocaching, I had to wonder?

But everyone seems to.  The next day, when I told my Dad, he informed me it was a popular urban sport he’d enjoyed some with friends.  I talked to some women I was working on social media for, and they clapped their hands and said they had friends who had visited and taken them – friends who had geocached in every state, who made their own tokens to distribute to caches, and who had been in Oregon just to visit a geocaching conference, and hence taken them to temporary caches made just for the conference.  What!

We wandered home along flowering Portland streets, finally drawn by a giant wall mural reading DONUTS with an arrow to a just-closed donut shop, where a man with a painted portrait of himself as a saint on the wall behind him served us day-after specials with a unique Portland brand of nonchalance.  We soaked in the paintings of rubber chickens in various conundrums on the walls – “by Dingo and Olive, they’re sweet, remember, I pointed them out of their tall clown bikes yesterday?”  I’m trying to introduce my boyfriend to Portland, but Portland does a damn good job of it all by itself.

Now, as I walk everyday past the tender spot where I know little messages and trinkets are hid, I try not to look at them.  I want to press my fingers against the hiding places and remember they’re there, to experience hidden treasure every day.  I keep my fingers to myself.  The reminder is enough!

Look for the people bent over, contorted, poking their nose where there should be nothing but old cigarette butts and leaves.  Running their hands over worn surfaces, like children who’ve mislaid a secret latch or magic portal.  They look away from you, pretending to be ordinary, pretending you can’t see the box they’re pulling where there was nothing before.  They’re young, old, your neighbors, hoodlums, adventurers, joggers, seeing messages you’ve passed every day and never laid your eyes on.

So I’m telling you, Muggles  –

– It’s everywhere.

The Weather Machine

February 23, 2012 § 7 Comments

I was in the Pioneer Square Visitor’s Center when the trumpeting started.  Having just used the bathroom, the masses of Portland pamphlets had captured my attention.  The sound of loud, recorded fanfare startled me into looking up.

The woman behind the desk cried in jubilation, “It’s the Weather Machine!”

There was nothing in sight that might be described with such excitement.

“The Weather Machine!  Quickly, run outside!  You, now!  Run!  Out!  You can’t miss this.  Run and look to the left!  Now!”

I panicked and ran, out through the glass doors, and swung left to find the procession.  Instead, I found the Weather Machine.

A pole I had only dully noted previously I now saw had a line of lights running up it, which were flashing crazily in the daylight.  Gaudy fanfare was blaring from the somewhere along pillar.

It was raining, but only around the contraption. This seemed odd.

Then, whoushhh,  water shot from the pole and pattered over the brick plaza below.  The metal heron that graced the top sank from view into a giant silver ball, and as soon as it had vanished from sight, a beautiful metal dragon fought its way out and spread its wings.  Then the dragon, too, sank out of place, and the golden spikes of a fish adorned with rays of the sun broke through into the light.  The metal animals kept exchanging themselves, the water misted down, and the music continued to assault.  It was hard to make out the flashing lights in the mid-day sun.

I did not expect this.  When I regained my senses a minute later, I noticed other people, frozen in that moment of joyful confusion when statues come alive.  “What the fuck?”

I burst back through the doors.  The woman behind the desk smiled satisfactorily.  “Did you enjoy the Weather Machine?”

It’s hard to be infuriated and delighted at the same time, but confusion is a curious creature.  “How long has that been there?” I demanded.

“Oh, since 1988.”

“I’ve never seen it do that.  No one I know has seen it do that.”   My eyes narrowed in desperation.  Was I mad?  Had I missed a singing, moving, water-shooting statue all these years?  I felt a sense of betrayal.

She laughed.  “Well, it’s been broken for years.  We just had it fixed two months ago.”

Then, she recounted its secrets.  The Weather Machine tells the weather at exactly noon each day.  It does what I saw, for two minutes, as you watch in antiquation to see what animal will come to rest.  If the pole is topped by the golden image of the sun (and, it looked like to me, a fish), the day will be sunny.  The dark dragon indicates a stormy day, and the grey heron tells of an overcast one.  If you know how to read them, the bulbs on the side light up like a thermometer, reading out the temperature.  Whether this is the expected average for the day, or the temperature at that moment, I don’t know.

I tried to imagine standing in Pioneer Square in 1988, waiting to find out the forecast.  The future felt like the past felt like the future.

Now: tell your friends, your family, strangers on the bus:  Be in Pioneer Square at Noon.  See the Weather Machine for yourself!

As I walked outside, I looked up to a bright, metal sun.  I knew it was going to be a nice day.

There’s Something Fishy About Ohio

February 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Does the summer suck in Vermont?”  My roommate asked me this morning.

“What?  No.  Oh, no.  Summer in Vermont is wonderful!  The sun is out, and sometimes it rains but the thunder always warns you first.  And you can swim in the lake, and run around outside, and garden…”

She looked skeptical.  She also looked like she had just woken up.  “What about mosquitos.”

“We have them, but it’s fine.  You just go inside when the sun goes down if don’t want to get bitten.”

This idea was met with some resistance.  Ohio mosquitoes, unlike their northerly relatives, are out all the time.  I had to admit I wasn’t really sure what Vermont mosquitoes did while they gave humans time to enjoy daylight hours.  Did they sleep?  Was it a pact with God?  Were they Vampires?

“The worst part of Ohio is the spring.  I hate spring.  It’s the worst week in the world.”

This grinchly phrase struck at my tender heart, and snuck from there to my face.  But she was unstoppable –

“In a week the weather changes from winter to summer.  We call it our ‘Week of Spring’.  The fish can’t handle the temperature change so they die and wash up on the shore and rot.”

“…Fish aren’t supposed to do that.”

Our fish do.  Every year, they die in the spring.  Nothing is right with Lake Eerie.”

“…Fish really aren’t supposed to do that.”

“All summer, every time you stepped outside you’re met with the smell of rotting fish, and mosquitos biting you, and stickiness.  I grew up hating nature.  Then I grew up and moved away and learned: some places don’t smell like fish.”

What do you say to that?

A Triple-Part Tale of Mushroom Hunting

February 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

I discovered the beauty of mushrooms as a busy and mildly lazy college student.  They served as magical culinary currency.  It’s ugly to bribe your friends with cash.  Produce a handful of mushrooms, and you can get anyone to ditch their homework and hang out at your place.  A whole bag, or some actual shitakes, and they’ll use them to cook dinner for you.  I investigated cheaper ways to obtain these wonders. This currency can grow on trees, I rejoiced.

Still, mushroom hunting remained for the adventurous and experienced.  I had heard the whispered warnings – mushrooms were dangerous if you hadn’t been picking them your whole life, and only idiots and experts went after them.  I kept my ears pricked for years, waiting for someone to tell me they had fungal degrees and awards and would take me with them.  Take me with you!  In November, when a visiting friend said he was headed out to the park to look for mushrooms with a few friends, I couldn’t ask fast enough.  I think I flipped a few words around in haste.

My friend told me his friend was an experienced mushroom hunter, and that this fellow and his girlfriend were taking the kid they babysit out before math time.  We arrived at Forest Park, the largest park in the country within city limits, at a leisurely 10:30 am.  I had imagined European truffle hunts at 5am with a pack of dogs.   Instead, I was met by a friendly young couple and a baby that may have been able to walk, but certainly not far.  He’d been “a few times, I guess, but I have this book” and she’s been “hah, never.”  The baby had a pretty good grasp of the word “mushroom” and our cutoff time was for (I had misheard) his nap time.

We pointed to a spot on the map with a promising woody name, and strolled idly along among the trees and across the open grasses.  We lingered under pines and poked at their bases.  Here and there mushrooms revealed their wet brown caps.  It was a refresher course in childhood.  As a little thing I had lived with eyes locked to the ground, spying out treasures.  I chose the obligatory ski coat based on the number of pockets, which I diligently counted in alpine store waiting rooms.  I stuffed everything I discovered into those pockets – discarded chess pieces, broken bits of metal, colored plastic and bent wires – until I was a chubby round tomato-colored child.  The ski coats seemed, like my lifejackets, invariably red.  And here I was again, bribing the ground to give up something precious.  The old skills were sharp and there was fungi here, and there, and there.  I snatched them each up in my fingers. “Ah,” my companions said appreciatively, “LBMs.”  Is that good?  “Little Brown Mushrooms.  Practically unidentifiable, to us.”  The mushroom book stayed closed.

We admired each little find’s texture and color and held them out to the child where he was perched in the girlfriend’s arms.  “Mushroom.  You want to touch?”  She would say, and he would shake his head vigorously, or very occasionally, reach out a trembling finger and contact the strange object.  I had prematurely admired them as babysitters, that they would take a child on such an educational adventure.  I admired them all the more now that I knew they were bringing a child too young to even appreciate what was happening, although he was happy the entire time.  Finally, a spread of small red mushrooms got the treatment, and the book came out.  Pages and pages of mushrooms in every color and shape, waxy and slimy, tasty and treacherous, pictures of mushroom toast and mushroom hats and cookies and incredible discoveries.  They were’t edible, it said, but they were suitable as a dye.  My friend bundled them up in a plastic bag, and told his stained white canvas shoes that they were in for a new hue.

More mushrooms were examined and discarded – mid-sized white ones, difficult to pinpoint for sure, and inedible ones.  Mostly there was walking and chatting and idle glancing, not the frenzied expedition I had always imagined.  It was relaxing.  Then, under a patch of low brush reminiscent of ivy, a gleam of orange.  We bent, broke, and rubbed it until we were sure.  A false chanterelle often has a more brittle stem, hollow in the middle. A true chanterelle has a solid, rubbery stem and doesn’t bruise.  It was real.  Nearby, concealed under the same viney plants, were more hidden orange gems.  We cut off the soggy bits and stacked them in a paper grocery bag.  I could barely stand the excitement.  We drove to someone’s house, slit them into thin strips, and cooked them in butter the way my grandmother used to.  The rest we put away for the evening, and made a buffalo and chanterelle pie.  Well, someone brought a package of “buffalo”, and the paper wrapping read “yak”, but no-one there could distinguish the finer points of large beastly flavor.

I had only gone because I thought there was an expert, but I couldn’t help but think about how it had only been a couple inexperienced folks with a small guidebook, a random park, and a relaxing walk.  I had been told so many times that the first mushroom hunt is a disappointment and not to give up; but this was a victory!  A luxuriously flavored yellow-orange win.  I couldn’t wait to go again.  Four days later I flew home to the snows of Vermont and then to Africa.  All I had time to do was poke my head in at the shop where I worked and request a few mushroom guides as my christmas bonus.  Armed with these, I plucked LBMs at the Trimet bus-stop and spent the ride learning the frustrations of defeat.

When I returned to Portland it was January.  Winter rains had set in and out-of-season had no meaning to me so long as it was wet.  Water makes the Pacific Northwest a mushroomer’s paradise, the books told me.  They also told me to ignore our fungaphobic culture, and that there was no danger in eating a mushroom so long as you 100% positively ID’ed it.  Any doubt, and just leave it behind.  If you were sure it matched every descriptor, you could cook up a little, eat it, and then eat the rest later.  No questionables, no uncooked mushrooms, and you were perfectly safe.  A few friends and I headed out to Forest Park with the GPS and the books.  I was the only one who had ever been.

Where we ended up wasn’t the visitor’s center I was expecting, but a back road up the side of a hill that trailed off into a towering mossy forest.  There were other cars there, too, so we parked and set off on foot.  To one side the mud and vines twisted upwards; to the other, the road cut away and down below were the fuzzy green trunks of the trees whose fingers reached toward us, dripping, rows of ferns growing along their backs like spines.

Even off-season, winter life was everywhere.  We found the flat brown plates of turkey’s tails, chewed by the aborigines; a brain-like bright orange mass of goop known as witch’s butter; and dark mushrooms so woody we couldn’t break them off the trees they grew on.  Our reward was clean air and the sunlight through the mist and the vast, mysterious trees.  From the dark underside of a rotting log we plucked several clear white mushrooms.  They were soft and appeared to have been made by jelly poured into a mold – one solid, shaped mass of a uniform gelatinous substance.  They were wonderful to touch, and when we got them home, they turned out to be false hedgehog fungus (after the spike shapes under the cap), edible soaked in milk and honey or candied.  One giant artist’s conk we pried off a tree provided a hard white canvas for the scratchings of a friend.

Last week, I undertook my third little mushroomy enterprise.  Several enthusiastic freshman girls, one of whom had helped found a local mushroom club, hadn’t been out much either.  When I begged them to go with me after a short mycology talk some students had given, I was laughed at a little.  “It’s not mushroom season,” I was told, “What do you expect to find?”  Emboldened by my last adventure, I said it was good practice identifying non-edible ones…and who knows?  “Chanterelles go out of season after the fall, and morels won’t be in till the spring, so you certainly won’t find anything edible.”  I held out secret hopes.  I have never listened well to others on the topic of nature.  I teamed their car up with my books and we headed  to Forest Park.

The girl’s car was hot red with flames painted on the front and physics formulas for the energy and trajectory of it leaving the earth’s atmosphere on the back.  I brushed aside the piled CDs and fended off curious questions about my life.  Little bits of ribbon and hanging objects were stitched to the seat backs and roof.  My best friend is an artsy physics major, I sighed to myself, where do they all come from?

We sprung out of the car and into sunshine.  The sat few weeks have been as un-Portland-like as possible: warm, bright winter afternoons in the place of customary gray rains.  Wandering along among the trees, as I had done that first day, we paused now and again to admire the beauty of small, soft brown mushrooms, and for me to shake my head and refuse to draw out my book for LBMs.  Some small false chanterelles lurked about; we criticized their poor disguise.  We did identify some red-yellow mushrooms with a curiously waxy texture, and with that victory, couldn’t have asked for more.

Then, peeking out under the low viney brush, a large, flat plate of orange.  I peeled back the loose leaves and pulled up a magnificence the size of my open hand.  “That look like…a chanterelle,” one of the girls couldn’t help but observe.  “Nonsense.”  My heart pounded as I replied. “They’re out of season.”  The gills were perfect, long and slim.  The stem was thick and bent, unwilling to break.  I cut it with a knife.  It was solid.  The color was ideal, and the flesh refused to bruise.  It smelled of chanterelle.  Was it my memory, invading with delicious reminiscences?

We bagged it.  And then we bagged another, nearby, and dogged the area, searching for companions.  There were in the end maybe five of nearly equal size, and a few small ones, all preparing to go soggy but not yet ruined.  At home, I sliced off the slimy bits and washed off the dirt.  They were perfect.  Perfect chanterelles.  There was no question, no doubt for any of us.  We slit them into strips and piled them high.  We sauteed them in butter and onions and garlic and rosemary.  We cooked bacon, and cooked more mushrooms in the bacon fat.  One bread run later, we had chanterelles sandwiched between fresh white slices and bacon and cooked onions.  The sandwiches of a lifetime.

Stuffed, I sat and watched them try on my green eyeliner and blue lipstick and upturn my boxes of wigs.  They picked 3 each to borrow and tromped off, happy, full, with little saran-wrapped sandwiches we couldn’t finish and strangely colored hair.

Our victory was complete.  We had won chanterelles in winter.

A Final Note:   

The book we used most was All the Rain Promises, And More… by David Arora, a marvelous volume of fungal wit and wisdom.  The author has squeezed as many hilarious and helpful hints as fit into a proper pocket print.  I have a few others, but this is the #1 book I would recommend picking up if you are headed out into the wet woods of the Pacific Northwest.  If elsewhere, I recommend it anyway.  The author is also a master of alliteration, and I am properly awed and jealous.

My Imaginary Boy

January 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Over break I made the common mistake of falling for a boy who was headed for Thailand.

My mother took me to the crappy local supermarket, otherwise known as a bountiful land of food I didn’t have to pay for.  I don’t even know why we went there; it’s such a terrible store that after decades of patronage and at least 3 brand changes, we finally shop somewhere a little further out.  As I loaded up the cart with piles of artichokes and brussel sprouts – delicious kings of the vegetable world – I glanced at the deli and fell backward through time.

He looked up too.  “Kara!  Hey!”  And saw the look of concern on my face.  “No, I haven’t been here all this time, really, I just moved back.”  He’d been in 10th grade when I was in 9th grade, and when I’d left Colchester 9 years ago, he’d been working behind that very same Deli counter.  Had I traveled back in time?  He looked taller, if that was possible.  I tried to see if the other patrons were dressed from the early 2000’s, a tell-tale sign of time-travel.  They looked…about the same as when I’d left, too.  Not comforting.

He assured me that he’d moved away after highschool, something about college, some jobs, etc., and he’d come back a month ago to live at his parents’ and work his old high-school position for a little extra cash before spending a year teaching English in Thailand.  It was a pretty good story and I liked all its implications – obviously he was working a shit local job, had no phone or car, and was living in his parents’ basement because he was about to do something handsome and glorious.  Ah, the sacrifices we make!

Perhaps this was an elaborate ruse.  In retrospect, it’s possible he’s hiding out in Vermont right now, and tomorrow he will photoshop his head in front of an elephant and say he’s sorry he can’t call.

I got back to Portland confessably a little star-struck.  “You’ll never believe what happened to me my week in Vermont!” I told my friends, and then relayed details of sorting through old coin collections on New Year’s Eve and watching musicals from the 1960’s on VHS.  “That’s nice,” they laughed, “you’ve found a gay friend.”

“Gay? But…the kissing…I swear!  He’s straight!”

And no-body believed me.

Somewhere in Thailand, an imaginary boy waits for me.

Listening with Ghosts, Or, Airport Musicians

December 5, 2011 § 4 Comments

I’ve never properly understood the economics of airports.  It’s evident the goal of those enormous buildings is to be as classy and extravagant as possible; to be the kind of place people leave saying “I’ve just experienced an art museum and fine dining and holiday shopping all while stressing out about catching my flight.”  Do people really book flights based on the art exhibits and blinking lights in the places they pass through?  I won’t properly understand the place that airports hold in our society, I think, until they start having adjoining hotels.  I assume this is already a custom outside the US.  You want to be a destination?  Don’t be just a switchboard.

I’ve written a lot about airports, mostly in bleary letters to friends, drowning in dramatic iterations of  “soulless” and its ilk.  I’ve grown.  Everything has a little soul.  More is said by: what kind of soul is it?

PDX – it seems crass to say ‘The Portland Airport’ when it literally gave the city its name – appeals to me mostly because of the music.  I also love that it’s small, and that it’s mine, so sometimes there are familiar faces.  But it has this program, with the modern notion that airports are patrons of the arts, which causes there to be live musicians playing everywhere you go.  It’s subtle.  People don’t seem to notice the lone pianist every wing, softly playing along.  There is something deeply unsettling about a musician in the center of circles of seats and benches and lights and fake plants, performing for an imaginary audience while busied travelers hurry on 30 feet away.

Next time you’re at PDX, stop for the musicians.  Let them know that someone is watching; someone other than the air of a place that never thinks of closing.  Think of it like sitting on the forest floor and listening to the rustle and the birds that you had missed in your rush.  The unheard fauna.

Today I heard two musicians, both pianists.  The first was an accident – I had sat near a piano, and young man came by to set up.  I stayed and listened for a while, and saw me looking and called to me over the music, asking me questions and exchanging pleasantries – a new experience.  Was I a fellow pianist?  No, no, I shouted back, I had taken 6 years as a child and can’t play a single song.  He’d put a cute little stocking up for tips and I stuffed a one in the top, an alluring signal to other travelers.  If you’ve only got one dollar, make it count.

The second was in the abandoned amphitheater-like area – you know it, right past where you come through security – it looks nicer every year.  He was playing what vaguely resembled “I Could Have Danced All Night.”  I could tell from the bald crown and occasional pair of eyebrows that it was the same older fellow whose photograph was propped prominently up nearby.  Older folks would pay to sit and listen to this for hours, but here was a ghost audience, and stepping into it, I was a ghost too, apart from the world of travel.  Airports are thoroughfares; they don’t know what emptiness feels like.  The air is like eyes.  I closed my mine and listened to the mingling travel and soft notes moving up and down.  I opened them now and again to watch the eyebrows appear and disappear, and to blissfully lick the chocolate off my eclair wrapper.

He finished and picked up his books, telling me,”I’d stay and play longer, but I have two puppies to get home to.”

“What kind?” I ventured.

He looked around comically, and whispered what I believed to be, “Badasses.”  And then he listed the imposing breeds that they believed themselves to be (rotweiler), followed by tiny breeds that they were (pomeranian).  I didn’t know what to make of this, so I laughed.

He slipped me one of his CDs and told me to keep it, and I apologized there weren’t more people.  He shrugged, unbothered. “They do come and listen.  One person telling me that I lifted the burden from their shoulders is worth more than selling a CD, or a few tips.  Musicians are burden-lifters, that’s what we’re here for.”

So this is a post for the rarely-heard musicians of PDX.  They’re volunteers, classical buskers, driving out to the airport to play unnoticed in hopes of a few CD sales or tips – or to lift the hearts of some weary traveler.  Pause a few moments, stop frozen in place or step away from the hurried and sit, listening silently with the ghosts.

Diggedle Boeing

November 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

I saw an old friend from high school the other night.  He was in town for a few days and called me up noncommittally and I insisted we do anything he liked that wasn’t at my house.  He sounded a little disappointed.

“My friend’s mom is in town.  Look, just trust me.”

Fortunately, he had been ruminating on making a few pies that evening, and we settled on that.  He came in to pick me up, I popped downstairs, and ran SMACK into my friend’s well-intentioned mom.  Oh shit.  She spent the following 20 minutes recounting how she had rigged the cat food at her house to come out of the automatic dispenser when you shake it, but had realized upon making it to Portland several days ago that the cat doesn’t know how to shake the dispenser.  This was certainly the worst punchline I’d ever heard to a 20 minute narrative about someone’s cat.  I grabbed my friend and pulled him upstairs.

“You’re right.” He said, “Let’s just run for it.”

We plummeted through the living room and into the car.

The house he was staying at was epically crumpled.  I tried to distinguish the outer paint color – were those tatters the scraps of paint that had peeled off?  Was that wood underneath or paint so old it had turned brown?  It turned out to be a strangely shaped thing from the late 1800’s.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in a house that old in Portland.  Everything here is 20’s/30’s boom, or 70’s boom. There’s something tangibly refreshing about visiting an utter shithole.  You can enjoy the relaxation of don’t-give-a-fuck scrawled walls and broken cabinets and piles of dirty confusion, and then go home and say “My house is very nice, thank you,” quietly to yourself.  My mother says the delightful thing about vacations is it’s nice to go away, and then nice to come home.  It’s like that.

The occupants were wonderful.  It was a jumble of people and I had trouble telling who slept there and who was about to bicycle away in the night.  I’d encountered one fellow a few years earlier, when my friend had first dropped through Portland.  I’d gotten a phone call while buried deep in some manic month of schoolwork.  I can’t remember what part of the year it was, only that sparing three hours to see an old friend seemed like the sky falling.  The day’s activities involved him and his friends walking through the nearby Rhododendron Gardens very, very slowly.  These days, I am content to spend my days strolling about.  But there was work to be done, and I was crazed.  And they were so high.  So very high.  They shuffled along, quietly looking at every bush.  They sat and stared and stared and stared at the ducks.  And of course, they smoked.  It finally dawned on me that my options were to medically slow myself to their pace, or homicide with a side dish of duckicide.  I seized the pipe.

When I got home, I was too stoned do my work, and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in my living room yelling “I’M SO MAD I’M HIGH” over and over again.

Making pies, however, was much better way to see an old friend.

“You like chicken potpie?” he asked one of the housemates as he drifted through.

The fellow tilted his head back lazily and grinned.  “That’s my three favorite things.  Chicken.  Pot.  And Pie.”

My friend thought about it, proposed chicken pot pie enchiladas for the true perfect combination of foods, and they passed the measure.

I tried to explain to my friend my ill-fated history with pie, but he smiled firmly and told me I was to brave the crust.  It’s his mother’s recipe.  Straight from the Queen of Pies, he assured me.  Put anything in this crust, and people will flock to eat it.  I ended up making three crusts, so the secret is branded in my memory, and now it is my secret too, and so I share it with you. The magic words were:

1 3/4 cups of flour

2/3 cup of crisco

1/3 cup of water

a pinch of salt

stir with a fork

The crusts were easy to roll and flaky when baked.  I spent a half hour making little dough flowers on top of the potpie.  In one evening, my friend had transformed me into someone who thought they could cook.  Someone who knew they could cook.  All I have to do is throw anything into the magical crust.  As one girl happily announced mid-bite: “this could make dog shit taste delicious!”

After this, I sat and watched a girl stick-n-poke tattoo a fellow for a while.  I’d never seen the process before.   She finished one, and began mending another that wasn’t very clear.  As it began, he told me he’d been drunk on his birthday, as is the birthday tradition.  They’d be listening over and over to this French song, the main word of which was diggedle boeing.  I was about to tell them that I had failed 7 years of French, but I was fairly sure this wasn’t a French word.  They played the song, and some lovely french voice sang all sort of legitimate-sounding foreign words – but ended the chorus each time with an emphasized diggedle boeing.  “We should get this tattooed!” had been his drunken epiphany, and the pair of them had stick-n-poked diggedle boeing across each other’s thighs.

I watched as she taped together two pins, straight from the traditional tomato pincushion, and attached the pair to a colored pencil.  She began dipping the apparatus in a lid full of india ink.  As I watched her poking and him squealing, all I could think of, stupid dork that I am, was John Wilkes Booth, doing the same thing as a child in the 1840’s tattooing his initials on the back of his hand.  He could have tattooed diggedle boeing instead, and we might have had less fuss over whose body it was.

We watched Ace Ventura – it was the second, racist one, not the first, transphobic one  – and I chatted with a young man who works at Goodwill.  First off I asked him if what I had heard was true.  Whispered rumors say that if Goodwill employees even set foot at The Bins, they’re fired.  If they ever catch you there, you’re done for!  He was apparently told that if he wanted to visit the Bins, just to see what it was like, he had to call the manager ahead and set up an appointment, so that he could be walked around and carefully watched to be sure he didn’t purchase anything.  They told him that all such practices were in place because the system had been abused in the past.  That’s right, there were actually Bins get rich schemes concocted by Goodwill employees.  After all, one can just load up a truck with valuables, drive it to the Bins, call in your partner, and have them snatch up the shipment.  Welcome to the villainous world of Bins crime.

The Bins, for those not from Portland, is a warehouse packed with foul-smelling bins filled with things that didn’t sell at Goodwill, or couldn’t, or that they never bothered to sort.  You pay by the pound.  The sweet spot is around $25 for 25 pounds of clothes.

I asked him what was done with the clothing afterwards.  I had always imagined it was incinerated in giant evil vats.  I had read recycled-clothing tags recently that intimated something similar, if less sinister and with a lower potential for creating Batman villains.  But I had also heard that all the excess clothing is shipped to Africa, where it provides cheap clothing and leads to all the pictures you see of starving African children in t-shirts.  I’d also heard it tanked the local clothing industry, making it harder for Africans to make a living making textiles.  All he knew on the subject, he said, was one terrible bulletpoint that had stuck with him from training.

You know those giant swathes of shoes at the Bins?  You remember the hours of your life you lament wasting, searching for the match for that perfect shoe?  Shoe bins are well-known to be the most tormenting.  If you find the right shoe, there’s only one, and overturning every shoe in a six-bin-range doesn’t kick the nagging worry that you just missed it.

The good news is, you didn’t miss it.  It wasn’t there.

The totally-fucked-up news is, those single shoes actually go somewhere after the Bins.  They’re rounded up and sent to charities that work to fill the demand for single shoes.  Because in countries with serious mine-injury problems, people need single shoes.

Next time I got to the Bins and find that perfect single shoe, I’m going to put it down and say, “Maybe I can walk away from this.”  Literally walk away from it, because I won’t spend my life wearing single shoes, and I can be grateful for this.  This shoe’s imaginary partner doesn’t matter enough to spend half an hour in a livid hunt.  Maybe this dollar is better invested in a mine-extracting charity for places where having a single shoe is commonplace.

Although, I know as I put it gently back that this shoe won’t find a new home among the crippled and impoverished peoples of the world.  No way are they sending them a 6″ red stripper heel.

Sacred Cookies, Or, My Life as an Unholy Cook

November 17, 2011 § 4 Comments

I just slid the foulest cookies into the oven.

I doggedly maintain that if you present people with enough food, they will eventually begin to repay you in more food. As a perpetually hungry person, I see in many relationships this latent possibility for food to begin appearing, if only I can trigger it. The best way to flip that inner switch, I reason, is to offer them food again and again.  One day, they realize what a joy it is to share food, and begin happily reciprocating. People are like a garden you invest food in, and more food comes out.

This has almost never proved fruitful. Usually, the people who are going to offer you food will do it whatsoever you do, and those unaccustomed to sharing will turn their nose at the bounties you offer them. So when I found that the gaming group I just joined seemed already ripe to my peculiar brand of training, I was pretty excited. People were offering to take turns. People baked sometimes. Pressure was low, results were high.

My sole quest for the day was to bake something – anything – delicious to bring. I must maintain the tradition. Someone brought cookies last time. I would bring cookies this time. This obviously indicated that so long as I fulfilled my part in the cycle, someone would bring cookies next week. The cookies of the future depend on me. I am but a cog in the great machinations by which cookies appear every week. This is a moment of serious responsibility, and I face it without fear.

I am a terrible cook. I hear being a terrible cook and a terrible baker are different acts, but I am unable to distinguish them. Just like I am unable to distinguish olive oil from vegetable oil, or experimentation from blatantly disregarding the instructions.

I picked the simplest chocolate-related recipe I could find. I was about halfway through the grueling process of mixing ingredients in two different bowls and combining them, before I realized I had already fucked up beyond belief. By the time I scooped the chocolately batter onto the tray, I was crying, defeated by the lingering taste in my mouth of what was to become unmistakably terrible cookies. I ignored the instruction to coat the top with confectioner’s sugar. It seemed unimaginably cruel to make something so tainted look even more delicious.

I have a special inability to prepare food. Early in my attempts, so-called ‘friends’ used to gather to watch the debacle, helping to boost my culinary self esteem with “Oh, let’s see how she fucked up this time!” I have melted burgers, burnt rice in full pots of water, and mixed concoctions so unholy that they are still crusted to the counter in old rental houses. When I walk into a kitchen, I enter an alternate universe where anything is possible so long as it is horrible.

I blame this in part on my early baking experiments. Seeking to make cookies, I would determinedly stir flour and water together. Getting the right consistency was tough, and, I assumed, the basis for good baking. Eventually it would mix into a paste I could put in the toaster oven, and a little while later I would be rewarded with what I assumed to be primitive rubber. My parents would gum it appreciatively (it was unchewable), and we would throw it all out, mission accomplished. As I grew older, my brother and I discovered if you added sugar, it was marginally more consumable. Recently, I asked my mother why in the world she had stood by while I manufactured plastic. I know she isn’t a baker, but would it really take so much work to show me how to add in a few eggs? “I’m sure I tried, and you were stubborn and wanted to do it your way, and wouldn’t let me show you,” she said, and I couldn’t argue. Neither of us really remember it.

For my coup-de-grace, I just burnt this batch. No, I’m trying to be optimistic – I “over-hardened” them. But in walks my housemate, who insists they taste just fine. I guess she can’t identify the lingering hint of olive oil under the extra vanilla and chocolate I desperately dumped in.

Now I can bring this to a close, and go do my part in the great cycle of cookie-bringing.

If my offering is acceptable, I believe my reward will come.

A Day’s Worth of People

November 13, 2011 § 3 Comments

I haven’t blogged in a long time, partially because I never seemed to find myself with extra time.  Now that I’m single, I find myself with both time to do things, and write about them.    I have trouble remembering the myriad experiences I have every day, most of which I really enjoy.  Maybe it’s time to write a few down.

I’m working at a pop-up shop downtown.  It’s my first job in retail, which is funny, because I help manage a storefront at a different shop – but I never end up working in it.  In highschool retail seemed like a dream job.  The warm fuzz hasn’t warm off yet.  I miss thinking hard about business things – but I am exhausted from focusing all my social know-how and interacting with everyone as productively as possible.

I’ve never had any reason to buy hand cream or lotion, but my favorite thing on the floor at the shop (‘the floor’ is what I think you are supposed to call where customers are, but it seems confusing, given the actual floor being a thing) is the beauty product samples.  I spend all day fidgeting by rubbing doses of sweet-smelling ointments into my hands.  Unfortunately I rarely remember to stick with just one throughout the day, and end up a cacophony of pleasant scents.  Worse yet, when I open the glass cases to show customers some prize piece or other, I invariably find fragrant little fingerprints all over the glass afterwards.  I spend the time when I think no one is watching vainly scrubbing at them.

It’s hard not to love getting to talk to so many people.  A little sample of today:

– One man moved here a few months ago from a small town in Michigan.  He can’t stop thinking about how different and wonderful it is here.  He loves the rain, because it isn’t snow.  He loves wandering around all day talking to strangers.  He asked me about the differences between Vermont and Portland, and I admitted that the thing I noticed missing was a peculiar New England brand of old folks.  I miss the way they communicate in such a gruff, witty, sharp-edged way, and then have really sweet soft centers.  They say what they mean, but they mean well.  He looked somewhat confused, so we moved on.  A job with Leatherman drew him here, and so I learned that Leatherman’s headquarters is here in Portland, and this is where they make most of their wonderful utility knives.  I told him emotionally that when my father gave me a Leatherman, it was one of the most important moments of my childhood – I had always wanted one, but thought that because I was a girl, no-one would ever think to give me one.  One day my father said, you have a Leatherman, don’t you?  And upon my confused ‘no’, he marched right out and bought me one on the spot, saying ‘Everyone should have a Leatherman.’  They give tours on Wednesdays.  I am so going in January.

– A very nice woman in clean, white clothes with a fashionable white baseball cap and perfectly cut black hair told me she was from California, but originally from Vermont, and we both had a wonderful surprise.  She’s living in the Silicon Valley right now, and was happy to spill about it to a fellow New Englander.  She said with no prompting that what she misses most is the sharp, honest, and blunt (unlike tools, NEers can be sharp and blunt at once) communication.  In the Silicon Valley, her employees are horrified to hear her honestly say, “Please don’t do that” to this or that inappropriate action.  Instead, she’s expected to passive-aggressively complain about it to someone else.  Direct communication is taboo.  Everyone is so busy that when she says to her girlfriends “Let’s go out and grab a coctail”, they say, “in a month, let me pencil it in”, and then reschedule 3 times.  She’ll be celebrating her birthday a month late because that’s when it fits in her friends schedules. She was charming, and successful, and had just the right shade of tan cover-up, and was quite fed up with where she was living.  “I get out as much as I can,” she told me.  “I go on work trips to New York or San Diego, or anywhere, as often as I can get my boss to schedule me.”  The worst part, she finally sighed, was the men.  With a 5-to-1 gender ratio (or something like that), she thought the men would be happy to go on dates, but she says they’re composed mostly of undateable nerds.  “They tell me, I’m dressed too nicely.  I say, you’re not dressed nice enough.  So there.  I have to import men to date.”  I honestly really liked her.

– A woman who makes things out of books bought my favorite book-cover handbag.  It was partially related to the fact that she had recently painted an eel.  “I don’t know why I’m doing this – it’s the last sort of things I should buy.  And I’m against things made of books that destroy them, like this.”  So am I, but that was the most amazing handbag.  It had a happy, graceful watercolor of an eel and read “HOW DOES IT FEEL” across the top and “TO BE AN EEL?” across the bottom.  I loved it.  I’m ashamed to say I nearly teared up seeing it go, even though I wouldn’t have bought it myself, but she promised me it would have a good life touring France, and occasionally Maine, and I had to agree that sounded very nice indeed.

– I’ve spoken to a large and varying number of women who are in Portland for the Women in Technology Conference.   It’s inspiring to think of all those women in male-dominated technological fields!  It’s hokey, but I mean it.  Some of them told me that some of the booths at the convention give away free lip-products and nail polish, and the girls have been painting their nails together.  Some people are against it, they noted, but they liked it.

– There’s a culinary institute upstairs.  Yesterday I learned from a pastry chef-in-the-making that meringues are meant to be browned with a blowtorch, not baked, and that they’re liable to burn up.  I immediately texted my meringue-making friend with a blowtorch and a penchant for burning things.  Texted isn’t in spellcheck.  How old is my copy of Microsoft Word?

– Yesterday (yes, I’m  sneaking in two things not from today) a young man from the UAE told me he has 40 cousins in Portland.  He said it’s nice to have family, but awkward to be running into cousins everywhere you go.

– The young woman who paints the astounding number-paintings at the Saturday Market confessed she liked my outfit so much she had secretly taken a picture of me.  Specifically, when I was up on a stepladder bending “librarian-like” to reach a painting on the wall.

Clomping through the cold to get to the bus home, I was waylaid by a girl playing ukulele.  I watched her play until her fingers were too cold to hold up to the strings anymore, trying to pick up tips.  I started two days ago, so I’m atrocious.  I gave her the second half of my lunch and half a roll of ritz crackers instead of a monetary tip, and she happily gobbled them down while we chatted.  She was a charming Lewis & Clarke student who had escaped a rural Oregon logging town.  Everyone where she had come from married their high school sweethearts and hunkered down to a life of toiling in the hot, chemical-filled mills, or as a logger.  The women would work other odd jobs around town as well – waitressing and whatnot.  She said fuck no to that, and is studying to get a degree in musicology.  I assume this makes her a musicologist, and am pleased to have taken my music-related failings to her.

When I finally make it out of the cold and onto the 17 bus, a young man sits next to me, and I’m cheery enough to bother him into conversation about the weather (namely, the cold of it).  I indicate that it has rather crept up on me, and he rebuffs that had I been paying attention, there had been several days of warning chill.  It turns out he is a friendly and handsome fellow, the latter because of his full green eyes.  He charmingly notes that he will need because of said weather to begin carrying a handkerchief to wipe his dribbly nose with.  In a sudden moment of remembrance, I dug a fresh, pink-flower embroidered handkerchief out of my purse and handed it to him.  I told him it was for keeping, as I probably had hundreds at home, 25 from one grandmother, 25 from the other dozens more from high school when I used them and bought them at thrift sales, another bundle from the Bins.  It turns out he used to have lots of handkerchiefs too, but he cut them up to make neck scarves for his very tolerant cat.  I wondered later if admitting to owning potential hoards of handkerchiefs was a bad call and made me sound like a crazy cat lady, but seeing as he was in similar dangerous territory for putting scarves on his cat every morning, and taking them off of his cat before bed at night, I feel a little better.  His stop came, and I assume he went home to tell his friends he had been given a hankie by a stranger on the bus.  I hope I see him again sometime.  I suppose these are the situations that make missed connections so colorful.

Now I’m at home out of the cold.  I’m huddled typing on the kitchen floor, which happens to be where the electric heater vent is.  It also happens to put the chip rack at about mouth level.  My roommate has come home with luxurious fruits from the produce department she works in, proclaiming that we need to learn of her ‘other life’.  I have tasted the best grapes of my life.  She’s trying to get me to go to a drink & draw, although from the flyers, I think what they do is get a lot of people drunk on wine and have them all copy the same Van Goh painting.