A Literary Feast

Dancing on a Hot Skillet

Posted on October 14th, 2016

Rain patters on fallen leaves and the maple trees across the street blaze red. The companion oak trees next to them more modestly shift to gold while the conifers and evergreen shrubs hold fast to their northwest green. It’s grey this morning and cars hum by below, spraying water in their wake. The window is open, I sit on the bed, the door is shut. My husband is in the kitchen cooking Sunday breakfast while my nearly 3 year-old sits at the table contemplating the oatmeal I made for him 20 minutes ago. Once in awhile I hear him pick up the whistle his grandma sent him last week, giving an enthusiastic toot every few minutes.


This morning I both asked and took the permission to sit alone in here to write. I didn’t have to purloin the time by encouraging myself up in the flat darkness of predawn light, but by just saying, I’ll be in here, please don’t disturb.  Though of course, I’m still thinking of them, and hearing now the strumming of a slightly out of tune ukulele as played by a small child.


The open window for now connects me to the outside, I had so many thoughts on “settling” last night as I went for a walk. The thoughts of course evaporated as soon as I came home and re-immersed into family life. I hoped the ideas might float back to me in here this morning, with the window open, that they might be out there in the ether of other things, my body an antennae saying, I’m here! I’m not distracted, flow into me oh profound wisdom!


So this morning, I sit, considering the many ways to settle, in sweats, on the bed, a third trimester worthy belly stretching my waistband, hearing the sound of my husband now getting ready to take my son with him to the grocery store. A draught of cool, wet fall air breezes in across my face, relaxing and refreshing.



I turned 35 this year and I recently found a stack of my journals in a box. The books range a span of maybe 20 years in personal ramblings and I picked up one of my favorites. Beaten and decorated, a section-sewn book with cloth backing, built like an early 20th century novel. It’s filled with notes, reflections, grocery lists and simple math (what bill could I pay right then?).

Its pages are filled in with watercolors, pasted-in pictures,  and jotted goal lists, all this ephemera of a life lived more than 10 years ago. I read through it, impatiently at times (oh, the things we go through), and am so profoundly aware that the young woman in those pages is me, dancing on a hot skillet, believing it’s the only way to experience the world.


Back then I jumped from one rock to another on an epic journey with little money in the bank , a credit card for the rest, and a lot of energy to experience fully anything. Fear of boredom constantly lurked behind me and I ran forward headstrong into the wind.


In February 2005 I took a drive to the desert southwest for a two-week volunteer river trip down the Grand Canyon, we removed invasive plants in exchange for the journey, and I was hooked. I decided on a whim after the trip not to go back to Texas. I stayed and sought out a job as a river guide (with no experience as one, mind you), and found two Grand Canyon river companies willing to take me on as a trainee. I picked one, signed up for the training trip a month later, and got going.


I worked a long but fast summer, met many people from different walks of life and I struggled to be as good as the other guides, none of whom had any less than 10 years of experience. I stressed out about how much I didn’t know, how I wasn’t fast enough to anticipate x, y or z.  Big water tossed me around in a little boat in a hot, remote, desert desert canyon for 225-mile long trips that lasted two to three weeks at a time.


Not yet trustworthy enough for people I primarily rowed gear and baggage boats, though passengers joined me on slower stretches. We hiked slot canyons, side canyons, and discovered things about the earth, and ourselves, that only river pace allows you to see. At the end of a trip, I’d be in Flagstaff for a week, maybe two, living on the couch of friends who also worked outdoors jobs, occasionally crossing paths with them when we all happened to be in town. Then I’d be back on the river.  


I spent more nights that year sleeping outside under stars, watching constellations march across the sky, than I did indoors within four walls. I built upper body strength most women don’t experience and developed a sense of bravado mixed with mirth, naivete, and pure gumption. I learned how to read water, maneuver rapids, and turn a fully loaded boat I’d flipped back over again (with a little help from everyone), not losing more than my hat and sunglasses to the river.  I became who I always felt I was, but didn’t have the space for, before.


During that summer a job I applied for earlier in the spring offered me a position.  A 15-month teaching fellowship at an outdoor science school starting at the end of river season. The job required a Spanish-speaker, many people living in that part of ski country were Spanish-speaking immigrants working primarily in the service and construction sectors, and I’d be teaching their kids in the public schools and on programs through the summer in the Rocky Mountains.


While I took some Spanish in highschool I didn’t speak it well. I had however, the opportunity to study in Brazil as a part of my undergraduate studies work and spoke Portuguese with the ease of someone unafraid to make mistakes in order to communicate. Three weeks before the position started in Colorado I declined an opportunity for a last river trip and flew to a coastal town in Oaxaca, Mexico, enrolled in Spanish classes, and proceeded to coax my tongue into saying yo hablo espanol instead of eu falo portugues. Spanish and Portuguese are like cousins where language is concerned, and so once I understood a few of the fundamental switches, it wasn’t too bad.


My time in Colorado turned out to be an amazing year of teaching kids in English and Spanish who were slowly finding their identity between two places – settling in to make this mountain place their home. I helped them in some small way by showing them more about the land they lived in, why aspen trees grew on certain slopes and evergreens on others. How to use a compass for wayfinding and how macroinvertebrates tell us how healthy streams are.


That year I met the man who would eventually be my husband and moved with him the following year, after another trip guiding in the Grand Canyon, to Jackson, Wyoming.  In Jackson that year, which became two, I learned to telemark ski backcountry through in the Teton mountains, cross-country ski through Yellowstone to hidden hot springs to soak in sub-zero outdoor temperatures while bison foraged nearby. I guided day river trips during the summer on the Snake River, taught English as Second Language at the high school and local literacy program, worked at a gear shop, and assisted at a medical clinic in Grand Teton National Park.


At the end of that term, we landed in Portland, Oregon.


We’ve been here eight years now, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and it’s a life of a different sort. I went to graduate school, we got married, he went back to school, we had a child. It’s quieter, it’s hard, it’s exhausting, but it’s also steadying and fortifying.  I’m more grounded than ever in my life. I don’t move as quickly or jump at a whim like I used to, and I ached about that for a long time.  But I’ve changed a bit now, and I have comfort in weighing the choices because now I must consider my actions before leaping. I also see the value in the long game. My wellbeing is paramount to that of small beings who depend on me, a spouse who leans on me and that I in turn lean on.


Vacations are not as glamorous as our outdoor lifestyle used to be. We camp near the the coast or the Cascades. We visit Colorado primarily to see family.  But we’re slowly exposing our young son, soon to be joined by another child, to the things that we love about the world, in child-sized bites and fashion. And we can sustain ourselves, no longer needing to work two or three jobs at a time,  I just completed the feat of having one full-time job for a full 2.5 years. It’s no coincidence that this is the length of time I’ve been working since my son was born.


There is a nuance today to small actions having large impacts that went undetectable to me before in a life constantly on the move. This motherhood-stability asks me to find the strength to confront the urge to constantly keep diving into new things. It asks me to refine who I am and what I do so I can still find that charge of energy while working on consistent adventures. It includes waiting for a young child to eat breakfast, while my husband cooks, while I write in a bedroom with the window open, and I feel the baby in my belly kick, and I listen to the rain and the cars drive by.


Settling for me is settling into the strength of self, the gregarious cowgirl I was does not always have to be on display. She’s turned inward, and learned the value in the willingness to pause, listen and see what’s inside. To learn what moves more slowly, but with great power and strength. This is the foundation from which I now root, and soar, it is the journey I’m most interested in today.


My Kitchen

Posted on October 14th, 2016

My kitchen needs an upgrade. It is furnished with old painted cabinets…hollandaise yellow on

the outside and rust red on the inside. Why anyone painted the interior of kitchen cabinets I will

never know. The range is a mid-century electric with two large and two small coil burners. The

kind that don’t sit level anymore and laugh at the idea of ‘even heat’. The ‘hood’ is just a GE fan

cut into the wall through to the exterior of the house, with a pull string to open. It might be the

propeller from a very tiny plane – I can’t say. It starts a few minutes after you open it – perfect for

when you have a forgotten pan of oil on the coil burner and you must just watch it, smoking

away, hoping for the fan to start soon. The apartment-sized wall oven is newer – maybe twenty

years old. Stark white set into the pale yellow cabinets with the green digital display that gives

off an eerie glow at night. The floor is sixty year old linoleum with geometric yellow brick design

that has never looked clean once – not even before the toddler. The sink is set kitty-corner

into the sherbet orange countertop with something between 4 inches and a mile between you

and the sink. Luckily there is a wonderfully large dead space behind it which is fantastic for

collecting gunk. To further the efficiency on display there is an 18” dishwasher sandwiched

between the awesome sink and ‘antique’ range. One feature this affords is that opening the

dishwasher to put soap in prevents you from accessing the under-sink storage where the dish

soap is. The dishwasher and the plain jane refrigerator are new shiny stainless steel – fits right

in. So after the range, sink, dish rack, microwave, oven and fridge there is just enough counter for

1.5 plates. So few houses are built these days to accommodate the ever popular half-plate. So

there is a portable kitchen island in the center. It’s white and after serving me in two kitchens for

nearly a decade you can see in its eyes it’s mostly just coasting toward retirement. Luckily it’s

on wheels because shoving around a whole counter to unblock the way to the cabinet where the

dishes live strengthens the core.


My kitchen needs an upgrade. This has been true for the seven years since we bought the

house. It was first on my wide-eyed and naive list of home improvements. But then replacing a

forty year old olive green toilet with a blue lid and a silicone-patched corner became necessary.

And then it became clear the ROI on replacing sixty-year-old single pane windows in a fourteen

hundred square foot house with eighteen windows was greater. Next it was time to purchase

real grown-up furniture that hadn’t been acquired for free one way or another. And then, and

then, and then.


And so I begin my eighth year with my hideous kitchen and yet there are few kitchens I would

prefer. People always remark ‘don’t you want a double oven or a full size dishwasher?’ or ‘I

wouldn’t be able to stand such an old coil electric stove.’ (Truth be told I would prefer a coil range

to a flat top any day). ‘ You cook so much I think you would benefit from a larger kitchen.’ At

this point I usually become curt and defensive of my little corner of the world and respond with

a snarky ‘It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.’


For the past two years (how old is that toddler? Ah, yes…) we considered purchasing a different,

larger house. I allowed myself to get swept into the romance of real-estate and anticipated

possibility. As I looked at listings and pictures and imagined the wonderful new life we would

have in these larger houses with much more recently remodeled kitchens than mine I realized I

hated most of them. They were ugly with their oak cabinets and matching appliances. The

ubiquitous look of granite countertops is monotonous, particularly ones with salmon pink veins

mottled throughout. Why are all the freezers on the bottom of the refrigerators? The pro and con

list of moving versus staying eventually landed steadfastly in staying for a myriad of reasons not

the least of which is that it would be hardly justifiable to spend the money on a larger house with

an updated kitchen – and then remodel the kitchen.


As the proposed romance of a new house waned the romance of what I have grew; far beyond

the kitchen or even the house but of all that I have. I surely didn’t know eight years ago what

was in store for me here. It is a remarkable privilege to get to be able to ‘grow-up’ in a house

that is yours, even if it isn’t quite so picturesque as you imagined it might be. I live in the home

where I learned the value of patience and the reward of forgiveness. The place where I learned

adult life has way fewer rules than I had become accustomed to. This is the living room where

my husband proposed on our very first Christmas in our house together a few months after we

bought it. The kitchen and the tiny oven where I cooked my first turkey. The bathroom with an

‘L’ tiled into the shower from the previous family and not one ‘L’ initial in our entire family. The

kitchen where I made gluten-free vegan cupcakes for Rich and Rose’s. The basement where

we hosted glitter fueled dance parties throughout our twenties. The kitchen that my two-year-old

daughter calls ‘chicken’ because she inverts the consonant sounds. The dining room I turn into

a handmade chocolate factory one day in December each year. The kitchen where I exploded a

roasted eggplant so loudly that my husband thought someone threw a percussion grenade.

The living room where I watched all of Mythbusters while under house arrest with a newborn.

The kitchen where I spent a summer writing recipes on the fly for my CSA. The place where I

realized I am in the love story I want to be in and not living on ideas of what could be.

I will certainly enjoy when I do finally remodel my small kitchen the way I want to but I think next

year I will get the yard landscaped instead.

Going To Ground

Posted on October 14th, 2016

The mud under her boot soles rasped and rattled as though it had something to say but couldn’t remember how. It hadn’t rained since the last week in October, and the small river that ran through the cellar was little more than a trickle; along its banks lay little hillocks of earth neither wet nor damp. Dry mud, she thought as she dragged her feet through it, wishing she could kick off her boots and drag her toes through it. She imagined it would feel cool and crisp between her toes, like the scales of a fish that hasn’t been dead for long. She didn’t smile.

The ceiling above her bounced like the underside of a drumhead, or at least she felt it did, like goatskin stretched over the broad oak beams running across the top of the foundation. My home is made from living things. It was her mother’s footsteps making the floor above leap and twitch as though it had a little heartbeat of its own, her mother’s footsteps as she roamed from cupboard to cupboard looking for what she had already forgotten. She cocked her head to listen, wondering whether she really could hear the hiss and rumble of simmering water on the stove just over her head or whether the sound was just the blood in her ears or the house settling. She had to go back upstairs soon or the water would start leaping from the pot as though a column of silvery fish were feeding at its surface, snatching at mouthfuls of fluorescent light and cigarette smoke. My home is made from living things and I am not one of them.

Potatoes. Above her, her mother was looking for potatoes. She wouldn’t find them, she thought. She already hadn’t, which was why she had offered to go downstairs herself to get them from the root cellar, since her mother was too weak for the stairs and always seemed repulsed by the darkness at the bottom, not frightened but disgusted, as though it were an old friend who had done her wrong and never apologized, a face she remembered she hated without remembering the name that had gone with it once. Potatoes for the pot at supper time, an arrangement as primal as the number line yet ever more obscure.

It had made so much sense once. She’d been a girl here. She had sat at the table upstairs while her mother, a younger mother, had taken potatoes from the icebox or the bin alongside the cabinets and dropped them into the water carefully, glancing over her shoulder after each as though afraid her daughter might see the splash and learn the wickedness of water. Each fell with a plop all its own as she looked out the window and pretended not to hear, out at the driveway where the stubble fields once stood every fall like a province of heathen graves, or at the fields themselves, golden as the sun and dry as the skin on November’s palms. She felt the juices running across her tongue as she stood in the cellar and glared back at the darkness all around her, the darkness that didn’t know about winter or the color light should be.

A light. She needed a light to find the way, because the ground under her feet felt unwell as though the dirt itself had caught a fever and gone clammy in the night, its own sweat soaking its bedclothes as it tried to toss and turn under the weight of the foundation and the great oak beams that ran across the top of it like the frame of an old drum. She groped for the dirty string that she always wished she hadn’t touched once she saw it by the light of the bare bulb, a yellowed, pendulous thing that sometimes listed to one side with the weight of cobwebs that seemed to spin themselves. There were never any spiders, just dry husks that had been spiders once, calcified and brittle. When she was a girl she had lifted one out of a dirty corner, gripping one of its legs between her fingernails and trying to feel its weightlessness. It was all she knew of the grave then, and when her own mother had gone into the ground she had dreams of her bones thinning like spider’s legs, and the space between her bones growing swollen and white like mothballs, all of it dry as the last leaves of November and liable to blow away at the first touch of a real winter wind. Then she dreamed the bones of the dead like milkweed drifting through pale morning light, and that was all she knew of heaven, which worried the minister until she learned not to mention dreams.

But she couldn’t find the pull string, and she couldn’t find the door to the root cellar without it, and she thought she heard the water in the pot splashing more insistently now, which always made her think of the way her mother would splash and flail in the bath long after it was safe for her to do so. She had to find the light and hurry. Her mother was still wet from the bath, and she shouldn’t be up at all with her feet all wet and only a flannel robe to keep the drafts off her desiccated frame. But life went on like the clock she never remembered to wind, and nothing could keep the old woman from going through the same motions night after dark autumn night, hauling the great pot from beneath the counter and filling it with more water than she could carry to the stove without a struggle or a hand to help. Then she would forget that the potatoes still lay in the cellar down below as they had lain since the house was built, if not longer, and she would thrash from cupboard to cupboard like a bear insulted by a row of empty baskets, just as she now thrashed overhead in the kitchen, though she couldn’t quite hear her over the sound of blood in her ears and the house settling.

She scraped or shook the dry mud carefully from her boots as she made her way to the wall with the light switch, reaching out and turning it upward with one sharp motion that planted a sharp twinge in part of her arm. Perhaps she wasn’t so young anymore herself, she thought, and thought of the little girl watching milkweed drift in the morning light while her mother, so young then, as young as the light, cooked potatoes for supper in the great pot that she kept under the counter and scoured on Sundays. A dim ache filled the cellar, a yellow ache from a single bulb that looked sick as though it had taken a fever and wet its bedclothes with cold sweat in the night. She didn’t like the light. It felt too much like the darkness, and she looked at the stairs with a sort of loathing, knowing it was nearly time to climb them.

The dry mud made her feet feel heavy, made her footsteps unsteady as she made her way to the door of the root cellar, a dark plane of splinters and gouges on the far side, over the little river that was barely a trickle now, because it hadn’t rained since Sunday again and the ground itself thirsted and rasped like an old man wondering whether to save his last breaths for a more clement season. The going was hard on the uneven ground and she nearly tripped on the little hillocks along the riverbank, steadying herself on the cellar door when she reached it. The splinters hurt her and she made a sound like a frightened animal, like a trapped animal on the other side of the door whimpering for release so it could dash out and drink its fill from the dark river and thrash about like an old woman in a bath, floating on its back past the stubble fields that lined the low hills on either side, white and yellow in the morning sun.

She opened the door to let it out, a hard haul against rust and the weight of hinges, and she almost smiled as she thought of it tripping past her, shaking the aches from its legs and haunches, glancing back at her once as though to say thank you before vanishing. She waited, looking for it, and wondered why it looked so black and tall, so dark and wide like a great bear already gone to ground for the long winter. She felt its breath like soft must and wondered whether it would dream of her looking in on it, whether it would know it was safe there, and know that she would come back in the springtime to let it out again, that she would always find a way to come back here by the time the crocuses began to sprout along the driveway where the ghosts of cornstalks still rattled in the first warm February winds.

She closed the door on the darkness that she couldn’t love and made her way back toward the stairs, leaving the light on so that something would remain of the things she had done and the things she had tried to do. It was a long walk up each stair and her thighbones felt as though they would drive up through her hips with every step, like the old nails driven into the dry beams that kept the old house from going to ground. She tried to remember what those nails once held. Sacks, she thought, and knew it was right, and she smiled as she wondered whether the potato sack might depend from one of them, just out of reach or just out of sight, and she almost lost her footing as she grasped at a patch of brown shadow that fled from her hand like a sparrow.

Three more steps, and she would have to turn the gas down under the old pot while she searched the cupboards. Two more steps, and she thought of the beasts that passed the winter in the earth, the earth folded over them like a quilt, and wondered whether they had enough to eat, whether they had enough of anything. One more step, and she would have to tell her mother that she was a dotty old fool, that she hadn’t kept potatoes in the root cellar since she was a girl, that no one on the road grew anything like that anymore and that there was plenty still from their last run to the market if she would only remember to use it.

But the dim fluorescence at the top of the stairs fell on four empty chairs, and the cupboard doors hung dead on their hinges. Even the smell of cigarettes felt like the first space of silence after an echo. There was nothing here living, and the light outside the window was black, the black of a winter night come too early and settled in too still, too certain. She shook her head from side to side as she opened the refrigerator and took two red potatoes from the crisper drawer, flecking off the nascent eyes with her thumbnail. No one here at all. A gentle frown tried to settle into her face, but it couldn’t find the right muscles, and her hips cracked like timbers. I thought I was myself, she said aloud to anything that might be listening from the next room or the spaces between the walls, and dropped the rough lumps into the rougher water, and watched the fog from the river spread in the yellow light of dawn.

Eating Lunch Alone

Posted on October 14th, 2016

“Work is always a little sordid.” –Emily St. John Mandel, The Singer’s Gun

The shock of a new job came like fall this year, an icy unexpected blast at the end of a lazy hot summer. After three years at my previous teaching job, my only actual “professional” experience, I had moved on. Nothing had been typical about the position that I left. I founded the school in the South Bronx straight out of Columbia with nine other educators, over half of them under thirty, with all the bright eyed wonder of someone who had moved to New York from suburban Texas only eleven months before. Needless to say I had my teeth metaphorically kicked in, repeatedly, in a variety of different ways. That is not so uncommon for a first year teacher, but being a first year teacher in a first year school I do think exacerbates the typical growing pains a great deal. At the same time I was sometimes staying as late as seven pm with colleagues only to meet them again at seven am the next morning. Some of us lived close to each other, and even those of us who didn’t spent around fifty hours a week together. You don’t spend that type of time with people without bonding in often dramatic ways. For the most part I hadn’t made any friends in New York my first year. As thousands before me experienced upon arrival I found the city lonely, cold, and alienating. My school, the kids and teachers both, became a second chaotic home.

As I cleaned out the closets at the back of my classroom for the last time I found old pairs of shoes, sweaters, stacks of my own books, three years of student papers, and a sign that read “Empathy, Justice, Empowerment”- our school’s core values. I realized amongst the detritus that I had, in fact, been living there in many ways. My decision to leave was a complicated one, which involved crying with my favorite students and a near constant state of existential dread at the change. My students all had my cell-phone number, a rookie mistake I had made early on, and one night walking home from a friend’s loft in Brooklyn, I called my closest student confessing how sad I was to be leaving, both of us telling the other that it would be okay. I wanted to be closer to home, to spend more time with my boyfriend, to write more- none of these motivations made the chasm I was about to create any easier. Working with kids is a strange occupation, that requires a lot of emotional labor that is hard to describe or quantify, but it is real for those of us who live it. If I didn’t already have enough emotional baggage swirling around my head, I had also recently turned down a fully funded MFA offer from Texas State in order to stay with my boyfriend. In some friends’ faces I could almost see the incredulity, as if I was giving up on my dreams for his dreams, but I had long since considered them our dreams and felt I was doing the right thing.


The hard landing at the new school was like nothing I had experienced before. I no longer had the constant pop-in of teachers I knew just saying hi or the camaraderie of extended teacher happy hours to talk about our days. I felt like Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, eating lunch all alone on the first day in my room. (I tend to use Mean Girls as a life reference so bear with me on that one). Over the next several weeks I spiraled. When I was young I was the type of kid who cried before every single one of my birthdays. My mother once gave me a self-help book called “Who Moved My Cheese” in an attempt to help me grapple with my seemingly insurmountable dread about the idea of changing teachers or really anything for that matter. I had a lot of angst for a nine year old and at almost every stage in my life since that angst has flooded back in. My poor therapist had to endlessly hear why I thought I’d made the worst decision possible and along with my thinly veiled attempts to parlay this into higher dosages on my meds. I essentially wanted to say, “please make me feel nothing” but of course being committed wouldn’t help anything (although I’ve always fantasized I’d be something like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted if I was- the cool girl at the asylum). When I wasn’t sleeping I spent my nights crafting dramatic Facebook posts, tipsy on red wine, and endlessly texting my old colleagues about how I wanted to come back. I had a near nervous breakdown when I realized I couldn’t access my old school’s e-mail account anymore.

And then I turned it all off, retreated, as I’ve always done when I reach these semi-manic states, embarrassed by my own vulnerability. I turned my phone off for days on end, staring at it across the room like it was some sort of animal ready to attack. I deactivated my Facebook, stopped talking to my parents, and contemplated what it would be like to vanish forever. I began to google things like “how to vanish forever so nobody finds you” and “Canadian Visa pluses and minuses.” My boyfriend watched all of this calmly from the other side of the apartment, occasionally reminding me that my entire world wasn’t doomed. As I cautiously began to call friends again, lamenting how alone I was in the world, they reminded me about my landline only weeks (nobody will call you on a landline) and said that, of course, they are always there for me.

As I mellow out, I find myself asking what the panic is always about, what exactly am I really so afraid of? There are so many decisions and to make one feels like a trap. Sylvia Plath once said, in an oft-quoted line made famous by angst-filled people everywhere, “Why can’t I try on different lives, like dresses, to see which one fits me and is most becoming?” I think in many ways I have never found that fit and like many people I want it all. Perhaps that underlying fear is that wherever I am, whatever choice I have made, I will miss something. Nobody wants to settle, but ultimately don’t we all in one way or another settle? Maybe settling is just making a choice, and finding a way to be content with it.

Quack Low, Sweet Chariot

Posted on October 14th, 2016

The cooler weather, that search for thick socks, the first tentative roasting of root vegetables before the sun has set—the day still, somewhat, long. This is how I settle in. I laze and lank on the kitchen floor, pausing to stir sauce, pour wine, sneak rosemary into a roasting chicken, wedge chunks of butter beneath its translucent skin.


None of this can happen without some suspension of disbelief, some willful entry into a land where my eight by six foot kitchen expands palatially, where the hot water pipe that runs up the side of the stove converts to a gracious source of sustaining heat and I am cozy, swaddled, and all the tools of winter—crock pot, wooden spoon, herbs—are within easy reach. This is a way of being home.


I don’t have much money. And so, like everyone who doesn’t have “much” money but who has enough, I buy the nice, swaddled, happily-raised chicken but I skimp on the apples. I try a small bottle of a fine olive oil but I leave the shelled walnuts and pistachios alone. There are things that I can afford, and things that I can’t but wish I could, and things that I can’t and don’t mind passing up, and finally things I don’t even know about but would like to own one day if I could. Perhaps that is what Donald Rumsfeld meant by the “unknown unknowns,” which lurk, uneasily, not only in the War Against Terror but also in the Battle to Stock our Pantries and Refrigerators. We would love to have them if only we knew.


Perhaps it was some elemental search for the “unknown unknowns” of the world that landed me squarely on the Amazon pages of the duck press. In 2000, Julia Child was asked to detail her most memorable meal in the pages of Gourmet. Her mind went immediately to Rouen, and a delicious duck she consumed that had been roasted and then passed through la presse a canard.


The duck press. She is 35 pounds, sometimes 40. Gilded, golden. She accommodates a large carcass, and comes fitted with a rotating press. A delicate spigot allows for the flow of juices, indeed, of blood, to pass with each twist. The duck press is polished to a high shine, sturdy yet somehow delicate, with little flourishes of hunting scenes and merry congregations carved into its side. The Paderno World Cuisine Bronze Duck Press is available on Amazon for $3,608.14. There is only one left.


I don’t quite know how I got here. But the duck press is its own rabbit hole and eagerly did I fall down it. Turns out lots of people follow the ins and outs of the duck press world, and readily post their thoughts. A selection, edited for clarity:


“I can’t put it any other way – this has been a life changer. I can now fit nearly 10x as many ducks in my luggage when I vacation. Say goodbye to duck-related clutter forever.”


“Do not use this press for anything other than ducks. Before I got wise, the pressing of chickens, geese, dress shirts, and small children ruined many a duck press in my kitchen.”


“High quality metal finishing, large capacity bowl, and simple operation. Used it for two months before it broke. Now it only runs in reverse. Until this glaring design flaw is resolved, I cannot recommend this product, nor can I use my kitchen because of all the new and unwanted ducks that keep waddling out.”


“You know how it is. You have a fancy dinner party planned, guests are on the way, and here you are stuck with the same old boring wine selection. You need something that makes your party stand out from all the rest, something unique.


That’s where the Duck Carcass Press comes in. Your dinner guests will be raving about the warm cup of compressed duck carcass they enjoyed at your house for years to come. Nothing goes better with a cut of veal or Porterhouse steak than a tall glass of pulverized duck guts. You will be the talk of the town! People will say things like ‘You know who really squishes a mean duck? That Lenny guy over on 4th!’ and ‘I hereby declare this to be the best compressed duck carcass ever!’ Sure, you could just stick a duck in a Ziploc bag and run it over a few times with your car, but this method is, of course, much more civilized.

The secret is in the patented filtration system. The first filter removes the bigger chunks like lungs, feet, feathers and beaks (yes beak… the bill comes after the meal! Ha!) The second filter removes smaller particulates like buttholes, eyeballs and quacks. By the time the carcass passes through the third and final filter, all you’re left with is that sweet, sweet duck juice. I can tell you this, my friends: there’s nothing in this world that compares to the first time that frothy red liquid touches your lips.

I know what you’re saying. You could just buy a baseball bat and a bunch of tiny blindfolds for a lot less than $3,000. But this machine truly represents the future of duck juicing (though the brass finish is a bit impersonal and I wish it made a sultry quacking sound to set the mood.)


I’ve tried all sorts of ways to press a duck. I’ve tried yelling at it, peer pressure, and even waterboarding, but nothing has been as effective as this. Note: Please, only use only dead ducks. This is not for ducks that are still alive.”


Customers who viewed this item also viewed: Inflatable Toast, Wolf Urine Lure (32 oz), Instant Underpants, and the Yodeling Pickle.


The Weather Underground

Posted on August 22nd, 2016



How To Have A Body


Here are your limbs and where

Oh here is your

Head it has these many

Places for looking and this line

Jaw to hair that a hand

Could go, hesitantly


It’s not clear? A finger passage

Spells out the unspoken

Is an alphabet of unconscious–

You mean you just

Want the manual, the sockets the

Sight and its correction, the bone

That follows the other bone, down

To where the ground

Begins, to where all

Sentences end


The allen wrench

Of your arteries, the pill

That puts you out


Tab A

Slot B

Requires some





How To Be In Motion


It’s been some time, and maybe this is

What it was like to drive the lunar

Rover, familiar and not

Familiar, the luminous curve

Making a distant signature of gravity

On the dark mouth of space


It’s just a

Dashboard, and your leg below

It, levering–

The place where breaks have been

Bonded back, the stiff pain

That means motion


It takes you to the grocery store

And wanders down the aisles, each

Bright thing calling out a name, calling

Out your lack of

List and you alone in it, not sure

How you got here


Six months of

Memory and

Celery spelling

Why you’re crying, why a hole punched

Its dim fist through your

Surprised heart

In this stupid

Parking lot.




How To Remember


You never meant

No, they never


Would you be able?

No, I would not and then

That makes me

That makes you nothing, but what you

Choose, really


Remember Patrick Swayze? And

This is your

Dance space

This is my

Dance space

But also Nicki Minaj

You don’t tell me

Who I am

I tell you

Who I



They will want

You to stay small, to

Keep the lights on

In that one spot


It’s a fire


And you left it

To burn



Pour Lost Ones

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

You couldn’t really call the sound of the saxophone anything but blurry, he thought as he licked the grey foam from the edge of his glass. The beer made his mouth feel grainy and thick. He wiped his nose with the knuckles of his right hand; he leaned forward and licked the foam again, this time trying to taste it. Steel and spit, like the music, a strange empty sensation like the constant blab of the saxophone that blared beneath every phrase like some dark and fundamental presence, something older and grittier than the granite bedrock that kept the town from sliding into the river and out to sea. He ran a jagged fingernail along the wood of the bar and wished he were anywhere else.


Outside it was the end of a summer day, the nasty kind that leaves a gummy second skin between your shorts and thighs. Inside the bar it may as well have been last year, or the dawn of time, or that moment that will come in a hundred years or so whether you want it to or not, that moment when, for the first time since your birth, no one you ever knew is alive anymore and never will be. The moment that keeps you up at night, although it will only come when you’ve been dead for years. The moment where the ripples you made when you fell out of the sky and into the tepid pool of life vanish for good under black peaks of wind-lapped water.


He thought about these things when he visited home, which was probably too often.


His name was Stephen and no one here knew it. He came to the Dockyard to hide from the weather and because it was a discreet place for business. He did not come to drink the beer. No one came to drink the beer. He came when the sun was still in the sky. He came often enough to call it a habit and seldom enough that none of the worn faces along the bar or at the tables in front of the stage recognized his smooth cheeks, a little too round for his jaw, or the light blonde hair that didn’t quite match the curve of his skull. He was more than a stranger here – he was invisible, a pasty ghost drinking cheap grey beer from a tap with no label and wondering who might come by to see him, and when. He only ever came home for business, and business never quite seemed to happen. Business wasn’t exactly legal, wasn’t exactly wrong, and seldom turned out to be real. Business always called to say it was running late, then later, then in another direction. Business made excuses about other business that was better business, and left poor Stephen wondering why he even tried, and whether he should find a job in an office, and made him order more grey beer and wonder how to make his face look, and reminded him that no one here knew his name.


The saxophone blared and blabbed as the rest of the four-piece band swayed above it, the soundtrack to someone else’s jazzy gothic nightmare. Stephen turned on his barstool to watch. He had nothing else to watch, and the strange mustard lights – anywhere else they would have been amber, but in the Dockyard they were mustard – made it almost seem like a spectacle. Just some kids trying too hard, younger than anyone he still knew, slaves to delusions of fashion and grandeur, but at least they looked like they meant it. At least they weren’t no one.


A heavy-set man with dry black hair set himself down on the barstool to Stephen’s left and ordered a beer of his own, a bright reddish thing that at least looked nicer that Stephen’s glass of foaming cement, though for all he knew it tasted of bricks. “Really great band,” the man said without turning. “They really pour their souls into the music.”


For a sad moment, Stephen thought that maybe the man was business, come at last to make a deal or at least to turn one down in person. Then the man turned back to the music and his beer. Just another regular who would never call him Stephen. He took a small sip of the grey foam at the top of his own glass, closed his eyes, and tried to hear, to really hear the music, the way he used to really hear music while lying on basement floors at high school sleepovers. Every note they played was blurry, blurry vocals over a blurry rhythm section with that blurry saxophone blaring beneath it all, the saxophone that he couldn’t help but love although he knew it should terrify him. The music made him feel stoned. It made him feel like stone, mossy stone, the kind that never rolls. Maybe they know a thing about business, he thought. Maybe they would want to do business with me. Maybe I should have learned to play bass.


The singer leaned toward the microphone and let out a sort of half-sarcastic whoop that seemed to come from another decade, another lifetime even. She flung her hair around like a mop and shouted something that made the handful of hammered groupies at the low tables in front of the stage bang their fists and holler in collusion.


“You ever heard them before?” asked the heavyset man with the dry black hair.


It took Stephen a moment to realize that someone had spoken to him. It almost never happened to him once, let alone twice. “No,” he shouted above the music, and paused as some small voice inside him told him to end the conversation there, to get up, to walk out without paying and drive south without so much as glancing into the rear view mirror. But Stephen never listened to small voices. “What did she just yell?” he asked, and felt as though a part of him had died.


The heavyset man with the dry black hair did his best to imitate the singer’s flourish and screamed, for Stephen’s benefit, in a voice surprisingly like hers, “We arrrrrre the Midgard Serviettes!”


“The Midgard Serpents?” asked Stephen, who remembered a thing or two about monsters and books.


“No,” said the man. “Serviettes. Like napkins.” He paused, took a long draw of his red beer. “It’s a metal thing, I guess. I don’t know. Post-ironic mythcore or something like that. Come on, drink up. Let me buy you round two.”


Stephen drank, which should have been difficult. But the gritty brew felt good inside him, as though his body craved lead, cement anything to fill it up and weigh it down. Ballast. That was the word for it. He kept one eye on the band and watched as the singer slung her hair again like a fistful of golden whips, chanting a high and wavering dirge into the microphone that quivered on its stand and seemed to jump up and down to the beat. Whatever she’s singing, thought Stephen, she means it. He swallowed the last of his grey lager. I never mean it, he thought sadly. I’ve never meant anything.


The bass and drums roused themselves into a fury as the singer let the last note of her verse fade into a single point of air. She left a hand on the microphone as her eyes rolled back into her skull. Groupies shrieked with glee.


“Jackie,” the heavyset man with the dry black hair shouted to the bartender, “another of mine for me, and another of his for him.”


“You got it,” said Jackie, who also didn’t know Stephen’s name – but then, he hadn’t known hers until now. He’d never asked. She poured another glass of the fiery red stuff for the black-haired stranger, and she drew something golden and clear from the same unlabeled tap that had coughed up his foamy grey brew an hour before. They must have changed the keg, thought Stephen, and toasted the stranger with an unsteady hand before drinking. This, he thought. This is better. It tasted like headstrong sunlight, the kind that will warm your bones or burn your skin depending on whether it likes you. It felt like a warm spear tickling his heart. It made him want to sing and scream and cry. He liked it. He guessed it was Belgian.


“So,” he said, and he grinned and scowled at the stranger as though daring him into a battle of wits. “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”


The stranger took a long sip of his fiery red stuff and smiled. It did strange things to his jowls. “There’s no place special, really. No such thing. But I do like it here. Don’t you?”


Stephen rested his glass against his chin and stared hot daggers at the pudgy man. “I never said I did, did I? It’s not like there’s anywhere else to go in this town.”


The stranger’s glass was almost empty, though Stephen hadn’t seen him drink. He laughed as he lowered it. “The Tap House. The Freedom Chalice. Quarry Road. Fine places, fine people, fine pints. And yet you keep coming here.”


Stephen turned away. The stranger wasn’t worth his time, and the band was good – blurry, but good. The singer held her trance pose without twitching. The drummer hunched over her cymbals and swapped out her rock beat for a hushed, hissing web of steel brushes, while the bass player leapt from the shadows and loosed a storm of bone-shaking low notes that made Stephen’s bowels leap to the beat. A little jazz, a little blues, a touch of the avant-garde, all delivered with the force of a thunderstorm at sea, but also calm, calm, like the sea’s blue belly. The groupies held hands and stomped their feet as though they wanted to summon something old and generous. As the bassist’s hand crept up the fretboard into the weird, ethereal high notes near the top of the instrument’s range, his mouth split open in a huge grin like a heap of bones in the noonday sun, and his dark glasses darkened a little more as though something behind them had fizzled out for good. The last muddy wail faded into silence and his grin remained, a frozen contortion of bliss. Groupies punched each other’s shoulders, each blow an embrace.


“Here,” said the man with the dry black hair, pointing behind the bar, “have another.”


Stephen took the beer from Jackie’s hand. It was thick and brown like the vital mud at the bottom of a riverbed, and it coated his lips like dark honey. He smiled. He’d never felt so damn welcome in all his life, not even when he was a kid here, not even in his own home with his mom and dad and his big brother who taught him baseball. He slammed his glass against the stranger’s, which was full again with his ale as red as fire, and he offered him a taste because the whole world had to know just how good it felt to drink what he was drinking in the best basement watering hole in the greatest town on Earth.


“Oh no, but thank you,” said the jolly stranger, with a little smirk and a wink. “I always save mine for last.”


Stephen didn’t know what that meant and he didn’t care. He drank the honey-brown beer like a big bear guzzling from a hive. He drank like it was what he’d been missing all his life, and all the bad bets and raw deals of the past decade didn’t make one jot of difference. He felt the whole rumbling earth press up under him like a hungry lover and it felt good, and he flashed a bright white smile, and he turned to Jackie the bartender, sweet, beautiful Jackie, and he asked her for one more just like it.


“Wait just a minute on that, Jackie,” said the jolly stranger. “Better let that one settle first,” he said, turning to Stephen, “I’m in no rush.” He smiled, and in spite of every good vibe in every cosmic barroom across the planet, something in that smile made Stephen shiver.


But the band was good. Hell, man, the band was everything. “They really know what it means to play, don’t they?”


“They really pour their souls into the music,” said the heavyset man with the dry black hair, his cold smile unchanged.


The man took another sip of his fire-red ale, sucking it slowly through his thick lips as the band played on. The blurry saxophone blabbed and sputtered with evil intent under the low grind of the cymbals, and for a moment it seemed as though the song might end in a slow fade of hissing metal. Then, as though a bolt of lightning had hit the stage, the drummer wrenched her body upright and vanished in a blur of limbs, arms and sticks and feet and legs leaping and crossing and beating the drum kit into a furious storm that hit Stephen in the chest and made him feel just for a moment as though his ribs might pop like a wet balloon. Groupies leapt from their chairs and threw their glasses to the floor, pounding at the air with fists like hammers, chanting to the furious beating of the bass drum, Midgard Serviettes, Midgard Serviettes, Midgard Serviettes, like a crew of frenzied sailors straining at the capstan to drag something angry and long-forgotten up from the bottom of the sea, something clinging to their anchor chain with a thousand burning hooves and howling through the deep with the ecstatic pain of its own waking. A shelf of glasses fell forward with an inaudible crash. A tap burst open, spewing yellow piss across the bar. Several ears started bleeding, and one man jumped up on a table to pound both fists repeatedly into his own stomach. Then, with a final roar like a glacier breaking, it ended. The drummer slumped across her snare drum like the victim of a firing squad. Only the saxophone blared on, blurrier than ever in the haze of echoes that hung in the air like smoke from dead men’s pipes, persistent and sustained as though it would outlive the stars.


The heavyset man with the dry black hair coughed once and cleared his sinuses with a wet snort like a trumpet made from something’s bladder. “I think my friend here will take that last pint now, Jackie,” he said, and she handed Stephen something dark and murky. He sipped it, and the bleakest bitterness he’d ever known wrapped itself around his tongue and started clawing its way toward his heart. His glands spasmed like squeezed peas, and the hair along his neck and arms stood bolt upright as though trying to flee his body.


“That’s our most popular IPA,” said Jackie, and turned away.


Stephen scowled at the fat man on the barstool next to his, scowled at the dandruff that coated the hideously padded shoulders of his grimy black sports coat, scowled at the grin widening on the fat man’s face. He thought of grabbing a knife and cutting the fat man’s lips off just to make the smile go away. His fists curled up as tight as his glands and he looked around the room daring anyone to look at him the wrong way. He could stave in the ugly mug of the sun. He could smash steel.


“How do you like that one?” asked the fat man, grinning.


Stephen swept his glass to the floor where it shattered wetly, and he dented the wood of the bar with his fist, leaving specks of blood next to stains from last week’s beer. “I hate it,” he said, surprised at how true it sonuded. “I hate it almost as much as I hate this backwash town. And this scuzzy bar. And all of you!” He slung his left arm outward toward the crowd, who turned their nervous famous toward him. All had gone quiet except for the low and disturbingly expectant growl of the saxophone. “I was born here, dammit. I drag my ass up here from Portsmouth every chance I get. I’m going to die in this bar and they’re going to carry me out on a pallet of empty kegs and dump my body in the river and has any one of you ever even asked what my goddamn name is? Anyone?”


Glances flashed among drinkers, disappointed but unsurprised. The night had to end somehow. A few pairs of feet shuffled nervously toward the door, while several of the less conscious groupies stayed behind to listen to the saxophone finish its sinister cadenza.


“Stephen,” said the heavyset man with the dry black hair, “finish your drink.”


The glass stood once more on the bar before him, somehow whole again and still only half empty. “It’s awful.” He drank it anyway, drank it to the lees, drank down the flecks of unfiltered debris that swam at the bottom like a flock of molecules trying to discover life.


He finished it. He coughed. His insides swarmed, full of bright vitality, full of mellow calm, full of bitter hatred for every corner of the world and especially for the four corners of the arrogant and heartless town he used to try to call home. He put his glass down on the bar, tottered a little. “Another,” he said to no one in particular. “Just one more.”


“No more for you, Stephen. You’ve had quite enough. You’re ready now. Plump, full of all you can hold. It’s a shame, really. I’d cram a few more into you if I could. I should have thought of this centuries ago; it’s so much more efficient this way. But you’ve never been terribly capacious, and when I found you you were so very, very empty. No – no more for you. One more for me, though. A special one I’ve hidden away someplace safe, far from prying eyes. One must be so careful these days, as they say. Oh, Jackie. One more please. For the road. You know which.”


He didn’t see Jackie appear behind the bar, compelled to obey. He couldn’t lift his forehead from the bar. His insides leapt and swam, and he felt a sudden panic as he realized that the saxophone had stopped at last. A sharp silence filled the room. He wanted to scream.


A jet black pint of stout slid passed his half-open eyes, blacker than the bottom of the sea, blacker than the space behind stars. It scurried over the bright wood of the bar as though it had a life of its own, leaping up and sloshing down the stranger’s throat like a lost child running to its mother.


Suddenly Stephen wanted to vomit, wanted desperately to purge himself of the foreign things inside him that he couldn’t quite name, things that belonged to other people, things that he’d never asked for and never, never wanted. He opened his mouth and tried to gag, but the things within him stayed down as though chained there, clinging to his insides with a thousand burning hooves. He tried to say something to anyone, but he knew no one’s name, not even the stranger’s. He hadn’t asked. He didn’t need to.


As he slid off the barstool and his vision went black for good, all he could think was that he would never come back to the Dockyard, not after this. As he fell through the floor, fell through the basement, fell through the granite bedrock that kept the town from sliding into the river and out to sea, he thought with three voices, none of them his, that maybe at least in the absolute darkness of the place they were going, each of them might find something to call home. No one would miss them, no one would find them, and they left behind no unfinished business.





[Editor’s note:


The Midgard Serviettes were:

Fabergine – vocals

SigFig – bass guitar

Millennitia – drums

Hrothful – saxophone


Their debut EP is not expected anytime soon.]

Bakery On Premises

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

I grew up in the Northeast, where twenty-four hour Greek diners were a natural part of the eatery landscape. They have names like ‘The Acropolis’, ‘Athenian’ or ‘Parthenon’ – possibly followed by a Roman numeral. It’s the type of establishment frequented by families for breakfast on the weekends; by senior citizens for the ‘early bird special’ – which is at least one page unto itself on the menu – and by teenagers and young adults spending their time in the wee hours of the morning working to stay just on this side of trouble.


The menu is as thick as a newspaper and includes everything from Eggs and French Toast to burgers and club sandwiches to spaghetti with meatballs or veal parmigiana to ‘Jewish Dishes’ and finally ‘Greek Specialities.’ All of these items are available twenty-four hours a day. If you are suspicious that any establishment could execute that wide a variety of items at any given time, you are wise. I recommend breakfast items, since it’s hard to prepare eggs over-easy any length of time before they are ordered. They do very few things particularly well; but they do enough things well enough. They consistently satisfy crowds at any given time of day…or night.


Instead of a neon OPEN sign, theirs is painted on the window – confirming they are indeed open twenty-four hours a day. Beneath this is the phrase ‘Bakery on Premises’. I always noticed it as a child because try as I might I couldn’t puzzle out its meaning. I mean, sure – they had a ton of baked goods: cinnamon rolls, elephant ears, muffins near the counter and usually a tall glass case with rotating shelves filled with heavy-looking cakes. Somewhere no doubt there was another case filled with pies and cookies as well. But – with a menu that has literally everything on it – why does one subset need its own declaration? As I exited my formative years I learned boring and reasonable things like requirements from local and state governments for a separate license for bakeries versus restaurants. I do not believe any include an edict, ‘To be displayed in script on the window.’ While I always found the phrase confounding, many seemed to relish the idea that theirs was a ‘Bakery on Premises’ and all the breakfast pastries and desserts were made right there! Well folks, they make everything else on the menu too, and how much of it is noteworthy? And so it is with the bakery items. The primary feature of the cakes is that they are weighty and they are thick with slick frosting. The pies are indistinguishable from those at bake sales, born of frozen pie dough and canned filling. The cookies, though, are unique. Despite extensive training as a professional baker I have not unearthed their secret. They have figured out a way to make chocolate chip cookies the consistency of compressed wet sand – the kind that holds its shape if you scrunch it in your fist (or make a sand castle out of it) but collapses into tiny coarse particles that spread to all the places you have never wanted them immediately upon exerting any sort of pressure…like, taking a bite. This sand-cookie technique is still artfully practiced; someone recently brought one to my two year old, who tracked it pretty much everywhere. Thank goodness for robot vacuums.


I’d like to say here that I am in no way trying to put the diner down – in fact, I wish that they weren’t a dying breed. Even beyond the nostalgia I hold for them; from times spent with family while I was young to the hours I spent in them as a teenager; the diner has value. They are consistent; they are always there – that is to say, open. And they each do some things extraordinarily well…My local diner makes excellent challah French toast (if you smuggle in your own syrup) and wonderful Spanikopita; but not necessarily better than other places that specialize in breakfast, or in Mediterranean food, respectively. Fine selections, to be sure, but in my experience each Athenian Parthenon Acropolis III has at least one item amid their sea of endless menu possibilities that they do better than any place else. And I truly mean better than ANY place else. The trick is finding what those items are. I happened to find out what my local diner’s secret perfection is fifteen years ago as teenager during a late night visit with friends; no doubt attempting to drown our angst with coffee, lots of coffee and…cheesecake. Diner cheesecake was a choice made in that moment that I probably would not make now and so I say that finding any diner’s sacrament is really based on sheer dumb luck.


As with all, my local twenty-four hour diner makes a plethora of items…satisfactorily. But what they do make to unparalleled perfection is cheesecake. They make cheesecake that occupies the perfect space in the fluffy-to-dense continuum and is so rich and creamy that I dream about it. It is about 14” in diameter and over 4” high. It has no crust at all. Sometimes it’s a hair over-baked and the top half just a little too firm or a hair under-baked and the bottom isn’t quite set…but even when the unevenness of what is likely a very old convection oven skews the consistency in one direction or the other it is still better than any cheesecake I have ever tasted. It tastes like cheese cake, with the flavors and consistency of simple ingredients. It still tastes like the soft cheese it is made from instead of just sweet or overwhelmingly vanilla or any other flavors someone has decided to doll it up with. This diner does not make any ‘flavors’ of cheesecake. It doesn’t have the gummy homogenized mouthfeel that is so frequently accompanied by cheesecake made to survive the zombie apocalypse with stabilizers and preservatives. It is unequivocally the best cheesecake I have ever had and unlike anything you can get at places where the window doesn’t say…‘Bakery on Premises.’

Canada, Comfort Queers, and Cynicism

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

Quebec City felt like Disney World felt when I was a kid. My cynical side only saw a series of tricks; some massive money-making scheme to build a pretend French-like town that could easily separate tourists from their money. How old could the buildings really be? This was Canada! (I learned later, quite old actually, but still not THAT old). When we first arrived at our hostel-like-hotel the overly friendly concierge/owner/chef laughed a lot while he pointed out local restaurants to us on a map. His loud bark followed each suggestion and my boyfriend Jose and I became increasingly unnerved by the sound. It was so piercing. After this initial meeting, where he suggested a restaurant called “The Hobbit” (this name was literal- it was actually decorated as if it were a hobbit hovel), we decided to figure it out on our own and took to sneaking down the back stairs in order to not pass the front desk each time we left. We quickly discovered that he lived in the hotel, in an apartment directly underneath ours, and that we were going to hear that laugh echoing for much of the trip.

I am largely a pill when it comes to doing anything outside of our apartment. I generally prefer to be prostrate, wrapped in a feather duvet, a hearty glass of red within reaching distance, reading or writing in my bed. At the end of these non-physical intellectual experiences I will sometimes, not too often I swear, take a Valium and watch television on one of our two flat screens. Did I mention I insist on the air-conditioning being on full blast the entire time I’m in the apartment?

I take credit for coining the term “comfort queer,” an identity I proudly formulated after standing in the rain for less than two minutes at the Pride parade last year. While the rest of my people danced and sang in the rain, I snuck off for brunch at Balthazar’s. I ate duck-liver pate. It was my own version of Pride. Thus the comfort queer was born.

Canada was a good idea, I thought. A way for us to have a vaguely European experience without the cost of going to Europe. We talked about potentially doing some “lite hikes” and doing more “outdoorsy” activities. Jose had his car with him and said we should leave for a while, go to an island near the city where there would be vineyards and beaches and woods to hike in. I had, shockingly, an attitude about the plans. I can be superstitious about anything that seems too idyllic or good, and something about wineries on a beautiful summer day struck me as the type of experience I just could not actually enjoy. Other people enjoy these things. People in movies! It just felt too adventurous. There was wine at The Hobbit right up the street! The guy with the ominous laugh told us so!

The day literally could not have been any prettier if it was a conscious entity trying to be pretty. We listened to French pop-songs the whole way out and Jose, who of course had learned “a little French” before the trip, translated them for me. The island, Île d’Orléans, was as idyllic as I had imagined, terrified, it would be. Hills sloped into small farms where people actually appeared to be out tending to said farms. People rode bicycles beside the cars as if this was their everyday mode of transportation. I even let Jose put the sunroof down, the warm wind batting my hair around as we drove onto the isolated stretch of Quebec. I kept pointing to any small house I saw for sale and exclaiming that if Donald Trump wins we should just move there. I could see it working. Jose could drive into Montreal to earn money while I raised our brood, with the assistance of an au pair, on our small home on Île d’Orléans. When he got home each night there would be freshly baked bread and the kids will have all been bathed and instead of television we’d play board games on the living room floor.

I get a little wrapped up in my own head sometimes.

We arrived at the first vineyard. An entire stretch of hills led straight into a river that flowed from a massive waterfall, visible from the porch of the winery. Our waitress’s husband was from Mexico, like Jose, and talked with us about how she was learning Spanish (something I was pretending to do). This small little detail she revealed, her study of Spanish, and my immediate reaction of feeling inadequate under its glare is the type of interaction/reaction that has derailed many seemingly nice experiences for me. My immediate defense mechanism is to somehow find cynicism in the entire experience. Two rosés in, however, and I could not muster a single sinister thought. She was so bright and kind. I asked her for tips on learning Spanish. I acted like a non-monster-well-adjusted human being. It felt nice. I wasn’t even mad that we had the only table in the sun, although the comfort queer in me kept an eye out for any possible sign of someone with a shaded table leaving so we could pounce on it immediately.

She brought poutine with chunks of succulent duck meat on top. I felt content in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. I looked across the table at Jose. He was smiling into the sun, soaking up its rays. I thought about how he managed to be so calm and happy, even in the face of my sometimes unrelenting attempts to keep him at a distance. I could speculate here on why I feel the need to arm myself with defenses against love, but I have had years of therapy to work on that and mostly what I felt in that moment was grateful. Jose had done the research to find this island, something I would never have done. He had taken the initiative to take me off the beaten path. It wasn’t a “lite hike” but it was something different. We were outdoors, and I appreciated him.

Next we drove to a secluded beach where you could see Quebec City from a distance. It didn’t look like Disney World anymore. It looked like a beautiful hill covered in castles. I took pictures of Jose with his pants rolled up, wading into the water. Geese were walking around the rocky beach. He kept looking back and smiling and I smiled back because he kept running at the geese and something about the sun and the rosé and his smiling face just made it all seem so lovely.

We drove back from the beach and got ice-cream smothered in warm milk chocolate. It was turning out to be a ridiculously decadent food day, one that would typically have me in whirls of anxiety about the amount of calories I was eating, but I felt calm. Vacations when I was a child had not generally been peaceful. What I remembered the most about our family trips was the fighting. How quickly it would come on, seemingly out of nowhere, and how an entire day could be soaked up by that. I did not have an overly tragic childhood, but my immediate reaction to moments that feel too good, too pleasurable, is to believe something could go wrong. I trusted Jose’s steadiness. I knew what to expect and he knew how to travel, how to eat well, and how to enjoy himself.

On our way off the island we drove past a fromagerie. Jose asked if I wanted to stop and I initially answered no. I was not hungry, what would be the point? Then the spirit of the day seized me and I said let’s go back. We had already passed it and he said we did not have to, it had already been a nice day, but eventually I convinced him to turn around. We ate fried cheese, probably the last thing we needed, on wooden benches outside. On the drive back we listened to French pop-music again, passed the waterfall we had seen from afar, and headed into the darkening city.

When we got back to the hotel we went up to the roof. The sun was setting and stars were slowly beginning to dot the sky. We hugged and watched the sunset. “Today was fun,” he said and I could only say, “It was.” The lights of the city slowly twinkled on, a crisp, unseasonably cold wind blew up onto the roof and I couldn’t think of a single thing to complain about.


Passing Time At The Plaza

Posted on August 22nd, 2016

In a secret life I will never live, I am a doyenne of the swanning set, fluttering here and there with Oysters Rockefeller in steady supply and a gaggle of the whiskery ones doting on my every need. Such a belle donna would take her lunch, naturally, at The Plaza Hotel. This is a secret life and therefore timeless. Happily, the New York Public Library has digitized the menus of my preferred eatery across the decades and I can peruse them at will, recalling all my favorites.
Join me, won’t you, on a gilded settee for our first Plaza lunch. It’s 1899 and Congress has just approved some strange new contraption called a “voting machine” for use in federal elections. While others fret about that bold female outlaw Pearl Hart who just robbed another stagecoach, this one 30 miles southeast of Globe, Arizona, we’ll be nibbling daintily, in the secret way of time-travelers, upon Clear Green Turtle au Champagne, Canapé of Caviar a la Russe, Broiled Spanish Mackerel, followed by a few Parisian Sweetbreads and a Salad Mexicane. Let’s finish, perhaps, this round-the-world gastric tour with something mysteriously called National Sorbet. Total bill? $3.50. What would Hart do?
I love my 1907 life, in which I am bedecked in the skirts and bonnet of the day and locate, perhaps, a rattan chair at the lunchtime table for the feast of Pate De Foie Gras with Truffles, A Fancy Roast, and a Selection of Oysters Broiled on Toast. I might dip a fork to the Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette, for courage, and discuss, over Broiled Woodcock, the first taxicabs that just started motoring around London, or the foibles of our own president Roosevelt. Darling, would you be so kind as to pick up the tab while I go freshen up? Oh, it’s $4.30, I see. Horrible the way these prices just keep going up and up!
In the fall of 1914 you meet me for lunch and we fret all about how World War is breaking out. But there is much to celebrate as well, such as the opening of the Panama Canal and I heard the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox just played and exhibition game in Egypt—fabulous. Let’s order the Turban de Jambon Florentine, the Filet de Bar de Mer Doria, and a little Sorbet au Rhum. Must watch the bottom line, sweet one. I trust you have the $6 on you to cover this?
I’ve bobbed my hair and might even wear a cunning pair of slacks to meet you for our Plaza lunch in 1933. We will keep a low profile. The nation is convulsing with ongoing economic troubles and it’s all just terrible but we must preserve our strength, you see, if we are to go help out with the construction of this Golden Gate Bridge, now underway. I’ve heard great things about the Crab Flake Cocktail, the Jellied Madrilène Consommé, and of course the Patty of Frogs’ Legs with Mushrooms Newburg. The Roast Saddle of Baby Lamb with Succotash Virginia and Potatoes Caprice sounds prefect, it’s between that and something mysteriously called the Supreme Plaza. Oh let’s just get both and see. And I’m a modern woman of my day and have saved up from my stenographer’s job (can you believe I work!? It’s a scream.) So I’ve got this one, let’s see, it comes to $6.65, because I had to have some Pineapple Paradise too. Oops—there goes a whole month’s rent!
Oh goodie for us, we haven’t aged a day and here we are, invited to the Plaza’s 1954 Long Island Oyster Tasting with Appropriate White Wines, Beer, Stout, and Ale. While others trouble themselves with Eisenhower’s military aid to Vietnam or how the words “Under God” were just added to our Pledge of Allegiance, let’s gossip about Marilyn’s recent marriage to Joe while we slurp down these fine Seawanhakas and Greenports, described by our gracious hosts as “fat, heavy-shelled oysters with a sweet flavor.” More, please!
It’s 1987, and we’re the guests of honor at the Plaza Chinese New Year celebration. Let the others gab about the seeming rise of democracy in China or how the mainland’s first KFC just opened outside of Tiananmen Square, we’re too busy gnawing on these Five Spice Spareribs and ladling out portions of the Chicken with Black Bean Sauce. Wontons with Sweet and Sour Sauce crowd my plate while you extol the virtues of the Cold Spicy Noodles. Like much being served, our dessert is also an American invention: Fortune Cookies!
It’s 2016. I’ve put my bonnet and bobbed hair and petticoats and shoulder pads away and have modestly booked the Royal Suite. It clocks in at $20,000 per night but I’ve enjoyed the riches of the Plaza for over a century and figure the old horse deserves the oats. Stevenson, my personal white glove butler, leads me to my private elevator and I collapse in one of the three bedrooms while he presses and hangs my wardrobe, freshens the hydrangea arrangements, and inquires as to anything further I require. Facedown on the thousand-thread count pillows I gesture listlessly to the phone, thinking a quick nip of room service would be just the thing ahead of the 20-person dinner party I’ll later host in my suite’s private dining room. Right, then, Stevenson makes the call and, a glutton for choice, I go with the Lobster Cobb Salad, two ounces of The Plaza Private Reserve American Ossetra, the 14 Ounce Dry-Aged New York Strip, and a slice of the Lady M Cake. I miss you desperately, dear, won’t you come have a bite with me? And you won’t mind splitting this lunch tab of $670, will you?