Sunday, July 29, 2012

Are We There Yet?

     A week ago today, Spartacus left for New York City on a company trip, fully intending to return four days later. His return flight was scheduled for Thursday morning, and because I'd been missing him quite a bit, I was really looking forward to having him back by the time I arrived home from work that afternoon. The week seemed to drag by for me, mostly because I was home alone with our dogs. Simon and Lilly are three-year old German short-haired pointers, an extremely high energy bird-hunting breed, who require a great deal of time running outdoors on a daily basis; otherwise, they go stir-crazy. At bare minimum, they need an hour outside every day. The summers here in Atlanta are so hot and humid that I can't stand to go outside, even in the shade, for more than just a few minutes at a time. Since Spartacus isn't bothered by the heat and humidity, he happily accepts "dog duty."
     On Monday, I arrived home from work before lunchtime, greeted anxiously at the door by Simon and Lilly, pleading with me to let them chase squirrels and birds in the front yard. I obliged, almost immediately regretting my decision. Being outside late in the morning felt just as miserable as high noon or early evening, the stagnant air so pregnant with water vapor that it seemed to be ridiculing my skin's valiant, but ill-fated attempts at evaporative cooling. I didn't have to work Tuesday or Wednesday, so I took the dogs out several times on those days, either early in the morning or as the sun began to set. As soon as we came back indoors, they wanted to go out again, blissfully unencumbered by the constraints of time or short-term memory. Every new bout of perspiration I experienced was accompanied by a different dog-owner fantasy. I dreamed of being Anthy, the nice lady down the street whose miniscule chihuahua, Elvis, takes Prozac for his separation anxiety and gets carried on his his walks, or Wade, who "belongs" to Norman, the enormous, slobbering, perpetually-outfitted-for-a-snowstorm St. Bernard who lives here in our complex and only ever comes outside to poop, preferring instead to bask in the cool comfort of his air-conditioned loft. After taking my third rinse-off-the-yucky-sweat shower Wednesday evening, I was literally counting down the minutes until Spartacus's arrival. Of course, I was excited to see him again, but I was also secretly delighting in the knowledge that he'd have already taken Simon and Lilly outside before I got home from work Thursday afternoon.
     While I was working Thursday morning, I received the first of many text messages from Spartacus, informing me that his flight had been cancelled due to the storms in the Northeast. Delta had re-booked him on an evening departure out of LaGuardia. As the day progressed, I received hourly updates, each one more dismal and disappointing than the last, with a final TM around 10:30 p.m. which read, "Flight cancelled. Vendor bought me pillow and blanket. Sleeping on floor underneath seats in baggage claim. Love you." I was really hoping he'd be able to catch an early morning flight the next day, especially since our sons' band, BearKnuckle, was playing a Friday night gig in East Atlanta. After being cooped up here all week on 24/7 dog patrol, I had a pretty mean case of cabin fever myself, and was looking forward to a night out on the town, watching Nick and Rory perform. Spartacus made it as far as Washington, D.C. on Friday. He had a scheduled 10 p.m. flight out of D.C., but was still trying to catch an earlier stand-by ticket, despite Delta's assurance that this would be next to impossible because all their Atlanta departures were tragically overbooked. Needless to say, I went to the BearKnuckle show alone, and Spartacus didn't get home until about 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning. He hadn't bathed or changed clothes in two days. After a much-needed shower, he fell into bed, the details of his arduous and exhausting 36 hour journey condensing into explicit memory as he drifted off to sleep.
     Later that afternoon, my mom brought my almost five-year old niece, Jerney, down for a visit. Jerney kept the three of us entertained, playing with an old wooden cabin I'd built with Nick and Rory many years ago, busily arranging and re-arranging the assortment of plastic dolls, animals, and tiny furniture, breathing new life into an otherwise sluggish Saturday afternoon. She'd also brought along a kit to make a plaster cast of her handprint. We mixed up the rubbery molding material, dumping it into an aluminum foil pan, after which she made an imprint of her left hand. The next step involved mixing up plaster, and pouring it into the impression left by her hand, a task we decided would be best performed at Grandma's house because it would take several hours for the cast to dry. Spartacus snoozed while Mom and I chatted, sipping coffee, petting Simon and Lilly, and watching the Olympics. As we tried to distract the dogs from their attempts to manipulate us into taking them outside, Mom described how excellent certain aspects of Jerney's memory are, such as her recall of names for people and animals she's only met once, whereas other areas give her a fair amount of trouble. For instance, she calls me Aunt Kris, but doesn't yet understand that I am her father's sister. Although Mom's house is full of family photos of Jerney's daddy and me with the rest of our siblings, all of whom she can readily identify by name, she doesn't quite grasp the nature of our relationships to one another.
     Right around 6:30 or so, Jerney told us she was hungry. She kept asking if there was a restaurant close by that we could walk to, and I told her, "Yes, there are restaurants we can walk to, but it's just too hot to walk." We decided to go to our favorite burger joint in Decatur. Aside from offering delicious, grass-fed beef burgers, cold draft beer, and a decent kids' menu, which to Jerney's delight featured chicken "lollipops", Farm Burger is only a five-minute drive from our house. As I was in our room, getting myself ready to go, I came across a bunch of colorful elastic beaded bracelets I thought Jerney might like. After adorning her wrists and ankles with this newly acquired jewelry, Jerney climbed into her hot pink car seat, immediately reaching for a portable DVD player which was sitting between us. She amused herself for those five interminable "car minutes", singing along with the Strawberry Shortcake video, looking up expectantly several times to ask, "Are we there yet?" Once we finally reached the restaurant, Jerney insisted upon using the wooden skewers from her chicken lollipops as chopsticks, complaining not only that her chicken was too hot, but that she was too hot to eat her chicken. Hoping to abort any further drama, I quickly fashioned a fan from my place mat. My plan worked like a charm. As I sat there fanning her, feeding her French fries one by one with the makeshift chopsticks, she managed to eat most of her chicken, coloring happily with crayons on her place mat, permitting the rest of us to enjoy our meals, whine-free. On the way home, Jerney wondered aloud why we lived so far away from the restaurant. To a five-year old with a nascent concept of time, five minutes in a car is no different than the fifty minutes it takes to travel back to Grandma's house, or the nine hour drive she regularly endures to visit my sister in Columbus, Ohio. I just had to laugh at the irony of it all, especially given poor Spartacus's desperate two day struggle to get back home, because Jerney's simple inquiry, "Are we there yet?" poses one of the most complicated philosophical conundrums we grapple with as adults. It's a question I've finally stopped asking myself. In much in the same way as Simon and Lilly can't remember having just been outside, and Jerney equates minutes with hours, perhaps somewhat similar to how Spartacus viewed his never-ending journey, I prefer to think I'm always just arriving.
Jerney, being a tree.

Eating something yummy with a teeny, tiny spoon.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Wonderful, Terrible Things

     Early Friday morning, as I was driving into work, I learned along with the rest of the country that a young man, dressed in bulletproof gear and armed with an assault rifle among other weapons, entered a crowded midnight movie premiere at a theater in Colorado, shooting 70 people and killing 12. The media is flooded with images of the shooter and the victims, as well as with ongoing coverage of the controlled detonations of his booby-trapped, trip-wired, explosive-filled apartment. Everyone is asking different permutations of the same basic questions, "Why?" and "How?" Why did this happen? What were his motives? What red flags or behavioral clues did society miss? How does a person with no history of violence or encounters with the police transform from a quiet, unassuming neuroscience graduate student into a deranged psychopathic killer? What could have made him snap? Why does God let terrible things like this happen?
     This tragedy took place a day before my twin sons' 22nd birthday. I'd been looking forward to their birthday celebration all week long. For the last 21 years, I've baked them whatever kind of cake they wanted in every flavor imaginable: ice cream cakes, cupcakes, as well as cakes shaped like choo-choo trains and baseball mitts. This year, they requested a coconut cake. I'd planned to bake the cake and make some homemade ice cream after returning home from work on Friday afternoon. I got home early, right around lunchtime. After putting down my purse and changing out of my scrubs, I made the mistake of turning on CNN, which was predictably replete with non-stop commentary and speculation regarding the massacre. I immediately felt every ounce of my mojo, threatening mutiny. For a hot minute, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to muster up the energy required for cake-baking, much less putting together ice cream. "Maybe I should just get a store-bought cake and some Ben & Jerry's", I thought. And then, I thought a little bit more. I'd already purchased the ingredients necessary for the cake and ice cream, and I knew the boys were excited about their birthday dessert. I'd also eagerly anticipated a quiet afternoon of baking; for me, cooking is relaxing. Resolutely, I immersed myself in pastry.
     First, I made the ice cream. Because I keep a quart-sized, self-chilling, manually-cranked ice cream maker in my freezer, making my own ice cream is actually easier and faster than buying it at the store, as long as the recipe doesn't require cooking. I had some leftover buttermilk and a carton of crème fraîche (French-style soured cream) that I wanted to use up. I found a recipe for a no-cook lemon-buttermilk ice cream which called for buttermilk, milk, and cream, as well as vanilla, lemon juice, lemon zest, and granulated sugar. Substituting crème fraîche for heavy cream in ice creams adds a delightfully nutty, mildly tangy richness which I've come to adore. Since it is cultured, it keeps better than standard cream; I always have a container on hand. It took me about five minutes to assemble the ingredients, a minute to whisk them together until the sugar dissolved, then into the Chillfast container it all went. I turned the crank every three minutes while I prepared the cake, and in twenty minutes, I had ice cream. It was creamy, almost sorbet-like in texture, with just the right balance of milky-sugary sweetness and tanginess from the lemon and buttermilk. I then turned my attention fully to the evolving cake.
     I'd decided upon a gluten-free yellow cake, perfumed with lemon. Although none of us are gluten-sensitive, this recipe called for an interesting array of flours: coconut, sorghum, super-fine brown rice, and tapioca, as well as coconut milk, coconut sugar, and coconut oil. Since most coconut cakes are plain vanilla, topped with vanilla frosting and sprinkled with coconut, it seemed as if incorporating four sources of coconut into the cake batter would produce a more intensely flavored finished product. As I measured out the flours, zested and juiced the lemon, and cracked the eggs into the coconut milk, the worries of the world evaporated. My kitchen smelled heavenly, redolent with bright citrus and heady vanilla. I was in my "happy place." As the cake layers were baking, I located a jar of lemon curd, thinking that I could use it in the buttercream frosting. I'd bought the lemon curd on a whim a few months ago at TJ Maxx. It's one of those specialty items I can't seem to resist, and it's been sitting on my shelf, next to a tiny jar of black truffles and a little tin of rendered duck fat, just waiting to be purposed. I googled "lemon curd buttercream" and found a recipe, tweaking it by substituting coconut oil for the shortening. Velvety-smooth, boldly lemony, and not too sweet, this frosting was the perfect foil for the dense crumb and unusual texture which characterizes gluten-free baked goods. After the cake layers cooled, I split them in half, filling and frosting the four layers generously with the buttercream. Topped with mounds of snowy flaked coconut, the cake looked like Christmas in July.
     Spartacus and I took the boys out for their birthday dinner at a neighborhood pizza joint, where we sat outside in the surprisingly cool evening weather, enjoying delicious, thin-crust pizza with honey, refreshing pints of draft beer and sweet tea, and the warmth of companionship. I don't remember what our conversation was about, except that it was lively and stimulating and we laughed a lot. Afterwards, we came home, lit the candles on the cake, and sang, "Happy Birthday To You" as Nick and Rory each made wishes while blowing out the gently flickering flames, exactly as they've done for the last 20 years of their lives. In that instant, it occurred to me what social creatures we humans are, how no man is an island. If God does exist, then God is everything and nothing, and God is everyone and everyone is God, so there is really nothing but God. If there is nothing but God, then the man-made concepts of goodness and evil readily explain themselves; they are inextricably linked. We're all capable of wonderful, terrible things. If we've convinced ourselves that the simple joys of living and being aren't sufficient for happiness, we are never satisfied, and even when we seem to have it all, everything is never enough.  I can't solve the problems of the world. I can only live my life to its fullest, savoring every moment that I have here on earth with my beautiful, sweet sons, my beloved husband, my family, and my friends. Although it's not always a cake walk, I think life is about having our cake and eating it, too, the best of both worlds. I felt overcome by a deep sense of relief and gladness over not having let my mojo slip away that afternoon. Oddly enough, the pizza pub we went to is called "Mojo"...how's that for synchronicity?
Mise en Place: Another Food-Related Post
The Wu-Wei of Grilled Cheese: Another Food-Related Post

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Hat's a Hat, But Is That Really That?

      I awoke this morning from a convoluted, troubled dream in which I realized I'd voted for the "wrong" presidential candidate. I'm not sure what year it was, or even who the candidates or what their platforms were, but in the dream, I had just cast my vote, only to walk away from the polling booth with the nagging feeling that I'd made an irreversible, uncorrectable mistake. I was surrounded by people who were obsessed with hats. I wandered in and out of rooms that were littered with all kinds of hats: baby bonnets, toboggans, beanies, baseball hats, pillbox hats, old man hats, and ridiculously frilly over-sized hats, like the kind ladies of society wear. Although I recognized the various types of hats, I couldn't grasp their individual significance, other than they were things one puts atop one's head, or why people in the dream were so focused on them. It was a relief to wake up and smell the coffee.
     Yesterday was a strange day. A good portion of the morning was spent discussing a particularly distressing work-related personnel issue with a colleague of mine. The situation has been actively addressed: it will either escalate further or get better. The lack of reassurance unnerved me, as it seemed to suggest that the near future almost certainly holds more drama, instead of resolution. I'm not exactly a "wait-and-see" person, nor do I enjoy managing others' emotions. Self-regulation is woefully under-rated, in my opinion. Later in the afternoon, I briefly forgot all about the morning's turmoil during a ninety-minute deep tissue massage at our neighborhood spa, a delightful, unexpected surprise from my husband. In a departure from my customary no-talking-during-the-massage rule, the therapist and I chatted the entire time. We discussed the specifics of her training, ranging from where she studied to how she handles men who have erections during their massages ("You just ignore it, and throw on an extra blanket or towel to cover it up"), but mostly, we explored the inadequacy of scientific observations in explaining all the mysteries contained within our bodies. Aren't we greater than the sum of our parts? Yes, we're composed of elemental particles organized into cells within tissues that form organs which comprise incredibly complex systems, but what is it that differentiates us from any other machine? And, how can something as unscientific as human touch result in definitive healing, when other modalities have failed? As she kneaded away at my sore shoulder blades and quadriceps, I could feel the pain melting into profound relaxation, not just within those muscle fibers, but throughout my body as a whole. My mind became very quiet. I found myself at a loss for words, completely absorbed within the sumptuous tactile experience being visited upon me by her skillful hands.
     Words often detract from an experience more than they enhance it, which brings me back to the hats in my dream. They were all just hats. I went to bed last night, thinking about an online discussion regarding stereotyping that I'd just responded to, the operative question being whether stereotypes constitute a form of prejudice. Although we're not born with a need to organize and categorize objects and people into systems and groups, this tendency is ingrained in us at a very early age. From the time we're born, our parents encourage us to describe our surroundings, using words. That's the point at which we unknowingly become individuals, removed from our experiences, where we lose our "gestalt", so to speak. Our eyes view objects and people in their entirety, but our minds only attend to certain details; what we don't consciously notice is ignored. So, it's really not surprising that we make generalizations. We learn the color blue, and we look up and see the sky, and pronounce with certainty, "The sky is blue", even though the sky can be black, white, pink, orange, red, yellow, brown, or violet. Our observations aren't exactly factual; they're full of errors. Stereotyping occurs because we're so heavily invested in observing, as opposed to experiencing. From that perspective, stereotyping isn't such a villainous thing; it's the failed awareness that our minds play tricks on us by picking and choosing what we notice. Experiencing who and what is around us with all of our senses, instead of relying on our minds to do the dirty work, adds a completely different dimension: we never "see" things quite the same way again.
     What governs the relationship between experience (what we feel) and observation (what we notice)? Both are subjective and objective in nature. Both can be qualified and quantified. While a hat is primarily designed to cover one's head, with any other ascribed purpose being secondary, even superfluous, we generally don't choose to adorn our heads with fur in the summertime. There's a point where form and function naturally intersect to produce balance. While our physical body's chief function is to achieve and maintain the state of equilibrium known as homeostasis, our "selves" are busy processing sensory information from within and without, attempting to coordinate harmony between that which is necessary for survival as well as gratification. We shiver when we're cold, not only seeking out, but delighting in the warmth of a good snuggle. Yet, experience reminds us that not all hugs are created equally, for there are cold hugs, awkward hugs, forced hugs, and half-hearted hugs, the majority of which are perceived as unpleasant interactions to be avoided. Being the non-confrontational person I am, it comes as no surprise that I wish to avoid yucky hugs and drama in the workplace. Being confronted with such unpleasantries really messes with my homeostasis. Perhaps, instead of contemplating the intricacies of millinery, I should give more serious consideration to locating a pair of big girl panties...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Quantum Mechanics of Introversion

     It's a lazy summer Sunday morning, and I'm on my second, no third, cup of latte. I looked up from my laptop just a moment ago, and was startled to see my husband, Brad aka Oopsie aka Spartacus, still wearing the Chiquita banana sticker I placed on his forehead earlier this morning as a helpful reminder to carry a banana with him onto the golf driving range so he can replenish the potassium he'll lose while he's sweating away, hitting "eggs" under the early July Georgia sun. In our household, bananas seem to be the forgotten-about fruit, even though everyone likes them. While we were waiting for our respective coffees to brew, I noticed the half dozen now-perfectly-ripe bananas I'd purchased at the natural foods co-op the other day, with their "I'm organic!" lasso-label still intact, all six of them quietly corralled inside the hand-carved wooden bowl we received as a wedding gift from a colleague of mine. When I was a kid, we wore those blue Chiquita stickers like bindis, proudly, with the special kind of enthusiasm that only children seem to have for such rituals. Without objection, Spartacus stoically donned his label. Although he ate his banana before he left, discarding the sticker unceremoniously along with the peel, he certainly didn't seem to mind his brief cameo appearance as Funny Boy.
     Last night, we were sitting in our neighborhood pub, recovering with some grub and a pint of Guinness after surviving an hour-and-a-half long wild goose chase through Middle Georgia, during which we navigated winding, desolate country roads in order to attend a BearKnuckle show. BearKnuckle, the blues-influenced psychedelic-grunge band that my sons play guitar and bass for, had secured a paying, last minute gig at a Saturday night auto show. Spartacus and I have learned over the years that hastily arranged musical events, shrouded in fuzzy, sometimes incomprehensible, details are de rigeuer for life in rock and roll. To say we were ill-prepared for this journey would be an egregious understatement. We had no idea what we were about to get into. Aside from initially being provided with no venue name, along with an incorrect street address, we also received some squirrely instructions via text messaging to disregard our GPS once we came to State Road 155, directing us to head south instead of north. Thirty minutes, a close call with the fuzz, and a llama farm later, we determined something was amiss. Between the wisdom of Spartacus's Nuvi and my iPhone's Google Maps app, we tuned in and turned on, looping back to the exit where we'd made our fateful wrong turn. Long story short, we ended up making it just in time to see BearKnuckle perform their last song. They sounded terrific! We all had a good laugh about how Spartacus and I circumnavigated the globe to get to this gig, but I could tell the band really appreciated our efforts to come out and show them some love.
     Anyway, once we got back to the 'hood (yes, we really do live in the 'hood), the trauma from our odyssey melted into an amusing conversation about our former lives as "singles", specifically with regard to how we handled the dreaded "morning-after" confrontation. Being a true introvert, Spartacus can only tolerate small quanta of togetherness with anyone, male or female. It's not that he's antisocial; he just enjoys his "down-time" from human interaction. Clingy, dependent women never stood a chance with him, no matter how hot they were, and I'm sure he unintentionally broke quite a few hearts. As we sat there reminiscing, I realized how lucky I am to be his gal. He forfeited 48 years of bachelorhood to marry me, and for someone who prefers living in solitude, that's a major sacrifice. He's certainly been a good sport. As for me, I try to keep him engaged in silliness and levity, which is probably why he didn't object to wearing the Chiquita sticker. By now, he's used to my spontaneity, my weird little world of wackiness. As different as we are, we play well together. The night ended with us lying in each other's arms, watching an old rerun of Saturday Night Live, contemplating the origins of the words, "doo doo" and "dookie." He contends that "doo doo" is a Northern term because he'd never heard "dookie" until he moved to Alabama from Michigan. I grew up using neither term, so I really couldn't comment with any authority. All I could do was laugh.
     I woke up in a great mood today, partly from remembering last night's wayfaring debacle, the unexpected llama-sighting, and the ridiculous doo-doo/dookie debate, but mostly because it's hit me that the man I call my husband is such a good friend. Even though we are both extremely independent and relish our "no people" time, we always have time for each other. We are both loners at heart, him much more so than me, each of us unique studies in the quantum mechanics of introversion, the physics of which we've successfully manipulated to accommodate our individual principles of uncertainty. I guess you could say we're wavy particles, sharing a similar frequency. Is there an equation for that?
Spartacus, pensively studying his videotaped golf swing whilst sporting the Chiquita eat-a-banana reminder.

Last night's BearKnuckle show, where we were fortunate to catch the very last song after being lost in the country for over an hour. Too bad I didn't get pictures of the llamas we saw...