New Orleans Love Story

Four days in New Orleans with my husband has left me inspired, giddy and slightly disheveled. The Quarter will do that to a person, especially one like me, who favors a good sazerac and never met a crawfish she didn’t like. I’ll even suck their precious little brains out, a trait my guy both admires and rejects. Brains just aren’t for everyone.

But between the brains, tarot readings, po boy sandwiches, absinthe, and aimless wandering, I also managed to knock out some quality work on my next book. The non-memoir, fiction, first-stab-at-really-writing book that equally scares me witless and fills me with obscene excitement. That one. Its title – New Orleans Love Story – is more a nod to my muse than it is to content, although there certainly are several intertwining love stories in the book.

It is not an easy write, but it is my best write to date. And it’s still coming. I don’t know when it will be done, but I’m shooting for the spring. Fitzgerald took years to write Tender Is the Night and it very nearly killed him. I’m hopeful that this will not kill me, or my husband, who, though unwavering in his support and so accepting of my oddities as a writer, will hopefully not grow weary of it all and lock me in the padded cell I know is out there with my name.

Until I have more to share (essay or otherwise) enjoy this bit of a teaser. A few of my favorite photos from the recent trip, and some excepts from New Orleans Love Story.

 

 

Sugar, spice, and everything …

“Reality” television has not been kind to me. I suppose it’s not especially kind to anyone, really. But being told at age 7 by an official representative of Ed McMahon that you’re just not good enough to be on Star Search? That stings. MTV at least gave me the thrill of a callback, although I personally feel that season six of The Real World completely sucked without me. And don’t even ask about the numerous cattle calls I attended in LA – my only excuse is that I was unemployed, hungry and bored. At least I didn’t take to the pole.

Clearly, a snarky misanthrope who shudders at the thought of a group activity isn’t exactly reality show material. This is for the best, although it does make me wish I had a more demonstrative career. Being a writer means more staring than executing, more drinking than dancing. My biggest, most dramatic performances shine from a piece of paper that must be read to be appreciated.

It is not my intention to diminish the value in writing or the excitement in having written, but for as much of an internalizing, brooding, isolationist as I am, I also have a deep, dark craving for recognition. It’s every writer’s curse, I suppose.

My favorites have all tempered the desire with drink, some more than necessary, while others found alternative outlets for expression. Bukowski became a rock star of poets; Hemingway hunted. I lack the charm and the drive to do either. But there is one thing that I can do, and do extremely well: I can cook.

There is a distinct satisfaction in cooking, in the collaboration of hand, mind and taste to create something amazing, something that can be shared. Cooking offers similar results as writing, at least in that I take the same pleasure in sharing and consuming words. Both writing and cooking require me to be fearless. But where I cannot act out the drama in my head that creates a story, I can chop, dice, sauté, and flambé my every whim in the kitchen.

Reams of rejection letters – both from reality show producers and magazine editors – have taught me several lessons, not the least of which is to know my skills. I no longer send half-cocked pitches to Cat Fancy magazine or the NY Times, and I definitely did not apply to be on So You Think You Can Dance. But when the opportunity to apply to be on a special amateur version of Chopped, the greatest cooking challenge show ever made, came up? I was all over it.

Support from my friends and family has been overwhelming, although I do find it unnerving that more than one person felt the need to clarify that the show name is not literal, and that I cannot plunge a knife into anyone. This too I accept, however, should some freakish accident happen to that smug little judge Alex Guarnaschelli, just know I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Below I’m including a few of my more creative responses to the essay questions of my Food Network application. Here’s hoping they’re enough to maybe, just maybe, break my reality show rejection streak.

 

In a few sentences, please share your story: Tell us who you are and your current situation.

For starters, I am not a chef. But thanks in part to my mother’s advice – that the key to happiness is 1) to be a good person and 2) be an excellent cook – I am a newlywed, a stepmom, an author, and the best drinking buddy you could ask for.

Describe your background/history-where are you from?

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago that is best described as 90210-lite. At the time, I was a little too Tawny Kittean in a Whitesnake video to ever really fit in, so after graduating college in a similar suburb with a BA in communications, I sprinted across the country to try making it in Los Angeles. It took a few years, but once I realized I made a lousy PA and got tired of being unemployed, I moved back to Chicago and turned my LA mishaps into my first book.

List family members and note any that may be involved in the culinary industry.

My immediate family includes my husband and three amazing stepkids; my sister, her husband, and my niece; my mom and dad; and assorted extended family. Culinary industry experience?  My mother learned to cook by watching Julia Child on television. Does that count?

Why do you like to cook? Who do you cook for and how often?

That I am not a rock star or famous artist is unfortunate. And as a writer, I spend the majority of my day staring at a computer and willing words to happen. Cooking, however, is my art. It’s my creative outlet, my source of relaxation as well as excitement. It’s an adventure every day and a way to share tangible stories. I cook every day – for myself, my husband, my stepkids, and my friends and family. Truly, there is nothing I love more than sitting down with a great meal and talking. Food is, I hope, the one connection we have as people that will remain a constant.

Do you cook professionally? If so, where, and in what capacity?

The closest to “professional” cooking I’ve come is baking 200+ cookies (my killer brownie cookies, to be specific) for a friend’s wedding.

If you are not a professional chef, list any goals past or present regarding cooking professionally.

I once toyed with the idea of becoming a professional chef, and even went so far as to take a few courses in pastry making. But the truth is, I love cooking too much to make it my profession. I already immerse myself in words, my other passion, and it’s a constant love/hate battle. Cooking is my escape, and I’m happier keeping it that way.

What inspired you to start cooking? Where did your interest in food begin?

My mother is a wonderful cook, and since my childhood we have spent countless hours together baking, pouring over recipes, and trading tips. She always stressed how important food is: it brings people together for dinner, it makes bad days better, it’s something to be enjoyed and shared. When I was on my own after college, I took her advice to heart. Rather than giving in to the ease of ramen noodles, I sold my microwave and bought a sauté pan. Between what I knew from mom and what I learned from cookbooks and cooking shows, I taught myself to be the cook I am today.

Describe your cooking style, ingredients you love and any specialty dishes.

I love the nuances of flavor, and the way a single herb or spice can change the entire feel of a dish. My cooking style is deceptively simple: I take basic ingredients and create unexpected flavors. Cardamom is my spice of choice currently – I love it with orange in a poundcake, or with maple syrup and a touch of cayenne in a glaze. I also love to experiment with liquor – absinthe makes an excellent enhancement in mousse and chocolate tartes. I love pastry and sauce making equally because both offer so much room to develop flavors.

What are you like in the kitchen when you are cooking?

While cooking, I’m very organized, although if you were to ask my hubby, he’d suggest I am also slightly scary. I suppose this is true, because I do enjoy the chopping element of my prep work far too much and I have no problem setting things on fire (deliberately, of course). There is also a compulsive element to my time in the kitchen – and my entire family knows that the quickest way to freak me out is to rearrange my spice drawers.

How would your friends/family describe you?

I’m not entirely sure I want to know. I’m guessing the word “stabby” would be used quite a bit, and it wouldn’t be in reference to my cooking skills. However, were I to ply them with marinated mozzarella and bread baked from scratch, they’d be gently deluded into relating stories about how I volunteered for the Girl’s Best Friend Program, and would conveniently “forget” all my horrid attempts at karaoke, that one time I ditched a blind date who showed up with a bird on his shoulder, my obsession with horror movies, and the fact that to this day, I still believe The Muppets are real.

What is something that we wouldn’t know about you by looking at you?

I’m descended from a group lovingly documented as “The Red Bearded Terrors of Lithuania.”

What would you do with the $10,000 Chopped winnings?

Buy shoes. I wouldn’t just buy shoes for myself, of course. I’d buy them for my family, too. Seriously though, my husband and I love to travel, and are planning a trip to Europe. The money would enable us to expand our travels and experience the food and culture we dream about.

Describe any TV appearances.

Sigh. I knew this would come back to haunt me. In high school and college I self-produced and hosted a music video show for a cable access channel. Would you believe that all the recordings of that show were destroyed in a fire?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things I (Dis)Like Thursday

I like the word “ire.” Saying it aloud makes me feel a bit like a classy super villain: “You have sparked my ire, Mr. Bond.” No need for a maniacal laugh; what ire lacks in syllables it more than makes up for in meaning.

Sadly, I am not a super villain and I do not have an elaborate arsenal of nuclear warheads or rabid lemurs to attach them to in order to demonstrate my ire. I guess this Thursday List of Things I (Dis)Like will have to suffice.

1) Car salesmen. Thanks to the ferocious negotiation skills of hubby, purchasing my car was ridiculously easy and in my favor. His suggestion of making myself scarce during negotiations was a good one: I went off to discretely lick my soon-to-be dream car while he put on his scary face to make that dealership sweat out a fabulous offer. It was a better tactic than what I would have done, which likely would have included bouncing up and down chanting “I want it, I want it, I want it.” Part of their final offer included a four year roadside assistance program, which will come in handy because I will inevitably lock the keys inside my car at least once and am far too girly to even consider changing a tire. Consequently, having this program means I do not need to take advantage of the OnStar system my car is equipped for, nor do I give a crap about a free trial of it. Not that this has stopped the guy who sold me the car from contacting me four times in the past week to peddle it.

“You haven’t taken advantage of your free three month OnStar trial,” he whines. “Yeah, well you still haven’t figured out how to spell my street address correctly, so I guess we’re even,” I respond.

I’m curious to know what this jackass gets when someone signs up for an OnStar trial. A medal? A bonus? Ice cream? Maybe he gets beaten when people don’t sign up. In my mind, that’s all the more reason to ignore his calls.

2) Automatic car washes. I had to stop watching shows like Hoarders because I started finding alarming similarities to myself. Not that I’m stockpiling every scrap of paper that’s touched my fingers since birth or living in what equates to a giant kitty litter box, mind you. But I have touches of crazy that make me question whether all that brandy my parents slipped in my baby bottle was a good idea. And it’s not even the quirky crazy that you can diagnose and accept; it’s just plain fucking crazy crazy. Like my unrelenting terror of automatic, drive-through car washes – you’re not going to find that psychosis listed in any textbook. And it’s been with me since childhood, when every time my parents pulled into a gas station I would have the kind of toddler panic attack that makes passersby call DCFS. Car washes are just so mechanical, so very Industrial Revolution that all the whirring, and noise and automatic movements just send my brain into hyper panic mode. Plus, car washes smell bad, which is one of life’s biggest mysteries. How can a place that is designed to clean smell like a formaldehyde-soaked ass?

Of course, getting my driver’s license unlocked a whole new terror set: actually having to drive through a car wash on my own. It’s no secret that I am not a stellar driver. That’s partly why I enjoy having such a small car now; I can navigate parking spaces, the garage and lanes on the road with more confidence. But those two, narrow slats that are meant to propel my car through a car wash? That I’m supposed to somehow position my tires on just so? That I cannot drive off if terror strikes midwash because I’ll risk jamming the entire car wash and being stuck? Yeah. I don’t like those.

3) E-books. I get it; I’m in the minority here. I’m on the verge of becoming that creepy guy who spends Saturday nights rearranging his vinyl collection and sewing patches on a single pair of Wrangler jeans because “’dem modern ones don’t fit as good.” The sad fact is, these fancy electronic books just don’t fit me, and I’m not sure they ever will. I’m rather appalled at myself for being this fusty; I never had this much reluctance in turning my music over to an iPod. But scrolling through a book hurts my eyes, it displeases my fingers, and it contradicts the very things I love about reading. All those purported advantages of e-books are lost on me as I happily lug a hardcover around and find myself somewhat turned on by the smell of old books. I’m sure I’m not the only bibliophile out there with somewhat sheepish fantasies of getting it on in a used bookstore, and that’s something my iPad can never give me.

4) Saying goodbye. A good friend is moving across country next month, and we just had our last dinner together for what will likely be a long while. There is no simple way to say goodbye to someone whom you’ve been connected to for more than 20 years without sounding like a Judy Blume novel, and sappiness has never been our thing. Our confidences have been traded since high school over a steady stream of coffee, garlic bread and booze, so there’s no reason why we cannot evolve to new means of talk now. Still, I will miss being able to drive 20 minutes down the road to hang out on a weeknight, I will miss sharing desserts, I will miss bottles of wine and covert cigarettes. But mostly, I’ll just miss my friend.

WEB BONUS! Things I (Do Not Dis)Like Thursday

TI(DND)LT

1. We Need To Talk About Kevin. I’m desensitized to violence. It’s deliberate, not the byproduct of some sociological statement about media, and more the result of countless hours logged watching the most violent, repulsive, disturbing horror movies I can get my happy little hands on. So to find a movie that catches my fancy and sits with me for days after, that fascinates and scares me equally, is a rarity. We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of those movies. It’s based on the book of the same name, and relates the evolution of a boy who is a sociopath. The story, however, is not about him, but about his mother and how she needs to live with the aftermath of his final act of violence. It’s a brilliant story, and the movie tells it in a way that is objective but completely enveloping.

2. Zombies, Run! If I hadn’t just quit my gym, I would have added it to my list of things I dislike. Because for as much as I enjoy working out, I truly hate doing it with other people, and my former gym was crawling with them. 7 a.m. on a Sunday? Packed. Holidays? Packed. People would stake claim to spots in the yoga room days in advance, and defend their territory more furiously than the first guy in line to buy tickets for a concert. My workouts suffered as a result, an unfortunate consequence as my booze and food consumption has been on the rise. Fortunately, I found the greatest workout tool ever: the Zombies, Run! ap. I’ve always been far better off competing against myself, and with the added boost of having something to actually run from (those brain eating zombie noises are astoundingly realistic!) I find myself again enjoying my workouts.

 

 

 

Things I (Dis)Like Thursday

My lovely friend Maggie posts most every Thursday about the things she loves. I’ll read her lists enthusiastically, smile, then drift to whatever catches my attention next with a general feeling of wellbeing.

Such a list is a nice idea, and sometimes I even think I’d like to post about the things I love on Thursdays, and instill the same pleasure in others. And then I wake up laughing and remember that I’m not as nice as my friend and that no one wants to read about my love of bourbon every week.

What I do have to share is a very misanthropic heart and an abundance of things that irk me on a daily basis. Thus, I present you with: Things I (Dis)Like Thursday. Enjoy. Or not.

TI(D)LT 7/12/12

1) Being forced to share a restroom with other women. Ladies, I won’t judge you if you flush twice, I promise.

2) Misused apostrophes. Some see dead people. Others see mathematical errors. My curse: seeing every goddamn misused apostrophe on the planet. To the authors of “Look’s great,” “Chick’s rule,” “[well known hospital] Care’s About You,” and all the assmonkeys who say “could of” instead of “could have” (which just proves you have no clue how an apostrophe is used in a contraction): I hate you.

3) Insect corpses. My guy and I called in an exterminator a week ago to save my sanity and off all the vile multi-legged bugs that insisted on revealing themselves to me. (Our walls are permanently stained with squashed bug goo because, I, unlike my guy and my cat, set my tissues and magazines and shoe soles to “maim” as opposed to “mildly poke until insect falls off the wall and scurries into an available blanket, pillow or couch cushion.”) Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that just because an insect has been exterminated does not mean it has evaporated. So all that random crunching beneath our bare feet? Not dust. My apologies to our neighbors for the frantic vacuuming at 11 p.m. the other night.

4) My allergy to nuts. No, I won’t die if I eat nuts. But that doesn’t mean I won’t want to when I’m covered in an oozing layer of hives. So even if a team of snappy little elves danced into your kitchen and pooped the nuts out for you personally, I cannot eat your fancy nutrition bar, or your coffee cake, or the cookies you baked in honor of your offspring graduating swim class. Nothing personal.

5) My cat’s butt. Don’t get me wrong. I love The Bugaboo with the kind of passion that borders on alarming. She’s approximately 12 years old, and has been my companion since I rescued her as a kitten while I was living in Los Angeles. But she has become something of a full figured gal, and as such, has difficulty reaching around her full circumference to clean her ass. Not that she doesn’t try, bless her furry little soul. She’ll prop herself against a wall and perform obscene cat acrobatics only to fall over like a Weeble. Which sucks enough for her, but really sucks for me because I’m forced to drag my adorable but utterly useless pet into the sink at least once a week and give her a helping hand less I want butt prints around the house. Have you ever washed a cat’s ass? I don’t recommend it.

6) Produce recalls. There have been so many recalls on spinach and iceberg and romaine lettuce this summer that I’m afraid to even walk past the salad wall for fear of catching listeria floating on the breeze. I miss my spinach and egg breakfast.

7) The fact that more than half of my gripes this week involve poo. How did THAT happen?

 

Since this list appears on my Facebook page as well as this website, I offer my web denizens some additional content and small proof that my heart is not all black:

Web Bonus: Things I (Do Not Dis)Like Thursday, aka TI(DND)LT

1) My new car. My previous car, which bore an unnerving similarity to Christine, has gone to the great highway in the sky. Which is sad, although only marginally so seeing as how all of my instrument gauges had ceased to work and I had to guess my speed by how quickly I passed objects. Now I’m the owner of a lovely Pontiac Solstice convertible, a car which is as wildly impractical as it is cool. There is no trunk when I elect to drive with the top down, clearly there is no backseat, and with just a few inches of clearance between me and the ground, I have a hunch that snow will become even more of a bitter enemy. But I do not care. I adore my car.

 

2) Squeeze. Hubby and I saw Squeeze perform on whatever that “island” is downtown. Northerly, perhaps? Despite the unfortunate openers – The B-52s, one of the most miserable acts on this planet – we had an amazing night. Squeeze performed flawlessly and with spectacular energy; a pop concert has never been so fun. And if there were ever a person that could rival Paul McCartney for a melody and clever lyric, it would be Glen Tilbrook. I was tempted to list one of the bartenders on my TI(D)LT list – a raging moron who kept insisting they didn’t have any bourbon, all the while staring at a full bottle of Jim Beam – but since the temperature was hovering somewhere short of nuclear, I gave him a pass. But fair warning: Never deny me my bourbon!

3) Bourbon.

 

 

I’m in a traveling band

My excuses for not posting more frequently are rampant. Of them all, I’m most proud to report that I’ve been working on book #2. Y’all can breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not a memoir, and it’s not a follow-up to Morning Neurosis. Fascinating as I believe myself to be, I suspect the world at large – those that actually still read, that is – may be more interested in a novel. The tentative title is New Orleans Love Story, and it details the lives of three people over the course of 24 hours in my favorite city in the US. It’s coming along well, and on my drunker days, you’ll hear me railing that I’ll become the next Hemingway if it kills me. It may just. But my writing has never been better, and I’m bleeding a whole lot into those pages. We’ll see.

Beyond that, I will always believe that experience is what fuels a great writer and a great marriage, so hubby and I have been enjoying adventures wherever we can. We took our first cruise this February – a quick Bahamas-bound jaunt to celebrate my birthday. While Atlantis was sprawling and gorgeous, I rather took to the private island we spent a day on. We found a decadent expanse of untouched beach to roll around on, then trolled through a vaguely rapey Bahamian forest only to come out directly behind a bar. Fortuitous, yes? Yes!

We also took a road trip to Nashville in April for three 80-degree days of music and bourbon (we couldn’t resist a detour to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail). The girls’ weekend I spent following that in New Orleans is best left unwritten (though fodder for my book was inevitable). Throw in a lost weekend or two in Michigan where we crashed landed in our generous friends’ cabin, and my excuses for not being more prolific as a blogger, again, are rampant.

Instead, I offer photos. And soon, that novel. And too, more essays. I swear. (But I also one day hope to pet a unicorn and meet Kermit the Frog, so you can see how lofty my aspirations are.) Enjoy.

 

Eat it

I’m blaming the fois gras.

It’s the in thing to do these days, in California at any rate, where tasty-tasty fattened goose liver is destroying the very moral fiber of the world. So much so that there’s an official embargo on force feeding geese to produce the delicacy, which frankly seems absurd to me, but my moral fiber is soaked in bourbon and not entirely reliable.

The geese are not my concern anyway, and after being chased through a parking lot by a goose hell bent on gnawing my kneecaps open I can’t say they ever will be. My objection to fois gras is purely cosmetic – that shit is making me fat.

(And no, thank you for asking, I don’t feel a pea under my mattress, but I’ll be sure to let you know if I do.)

At 300 calories for a mere three ounces, my favored appetizer appears to have taken residency in my hips more stubbornly than a plate of cheese fries. That fois gras is “good fat,” similar in makeup to olive oil and avocados, is perhaps the dumbest euphemism ever foisted on an appearance-conscious chick like me. It’s fat, it’s annoying, and the fact that my body “processes” it differently than it would a Big Mac means nothing when I can see excess pounds lining up like thunderclouds.

I’ve started referring to it as Anthony Bourdain fat. Don’t mistake my meaning – I don’t consider Anthony Bourdain fat any more than I truly think myself to be overweight. But there is a marked difference in his appearance from his coked-out early days as a chef and approximately the fifth season of hosting No Reservations. It’s the full look of satisfaction, of exotic meals with friends as the sun sets, of good liquor and, I’m guessing, fois gras. It is in direct contrast to say, Paula Deen fat, where brownies are leaden with bricks of Velveeta and regret.

My own appearance certainly isn’t regrettable, although I do find its evolution conflicting. Back when I was 18 and a semi-pro ballet dancer, my diet consisted mainly of air and Gatorade. I’d flirt shamelessly for the sheer conquest of it.

Today, all that’s left of my ballet career is chronic foot pain and the ability to balance on one leg for extended periods of time. I delight in being a home chef. Whiskey is my drink of choice. When I flirt, it is only with our butcher at Whole Foods, and that’s just for the free slabs of bacon he slips in when nobody is looking.

I’m not sure if I should be proud or alarmed that my looks elicit free pork. In some countries, this is probably a sign of royalty. My husband doesn’t seem especially concerned, but he clearly loves me as I am. Plus he enjoys the bacon. I suppose I should be grateful it’s being presented as a gift, and not flung in my general direction as I’m out running errands, but I have to wonder: what’s next?

My ballerina body has transformed into something far more womanly – sexy, yes – but nearing the line I established as too much. You can spare me the “love yourself, love your body” claptrap, because no one loves me more than me. And that’s why I drew that hard line: to keep my hedonism from getting the best of me.

Even Bourdain is looking trimmer in his latest season. I suppose it’s odd to use him as my litmus, but I refuse to compare myself to any other woman. Instead, I look to learn from the lifestyle I admire: good food, good company, good liquor, good health.

Unfortunately, all the sex and yoga in the world isn’t going to burn enough calories to combat the fois gras. In my lazy fantasies, I consider starting on coke. I’ll take the raging heartbeat, sweats and general mania if it kicks my metabolism into overdrive. Or maybe I can catch hyperthyroidism – it’s essentially the same as having a coke habit, minus the habit, of course.

In reality, I am forced to seek more aggressive ways to maintain my gourmet habits, and if that means visiting the gym more often, then so be it.

Because let me tell you something – I can do better than free bacon. Next time I start batting my eyes at Whole Foods, I’m going for the steak.

He rocked in the treetops

We could always count on my father to fall off something.

His motor skills weren’t in question really; dad could rewire complex circuit boards and operate a bandsaw without issue. But ladders, step stools, ledges, the roof – if it were more than a foot or two off the ground, dad would invariably wind up losing to the principal of gravity.

You’d think being a physicist he’d be more inclined to side with scientific theory; what goes up must come down and all that. But in addition to his distinct lack of balance, dad suffered from something much worse … Good intentions.

They’d usually manifest in various home improvement projects. Painting, hanging pictures and installing light fixtures were typically safe enough, at least in that they only ended with a few days of dad limping and tossing back palmfuls of ibuprofen. It was the change of season that we all came to dread.

Spring meant hauling patio furniture down from the loft in the garage; winter involved an assortment of wreaths and bows to affix to the exterior of the house. Not all these projects included a trip to the ER, but even dad started to lose his rosy, DIY glow around November when the rain gutters would clog.

That was the trouble with living in the Midwest – especially where we did, on the cusp of a forest preserve – the trees would all simultaneously dump their leaves at the first sign of a chill. Add a few days of freakishly warm rain and we’d wind up with a great dismal swamp circling our gutters.

It never seemed to occur to dad that there were people to handle projects like gutter cleaning, people who came with their own tools and extensive medical coverage. Dad just considered it his duty as the homeowner, so every year he’d drag out his gloves and bucket and we’d find him perched atop a ladder, elbow deep in muck.

We learned fast that these were days it was best to avoid dad. Mom usually hustled me into the living room with her to watch television. She could keep an eye on him from there, pausing between commercials to glance out the window, watch his ladder rock precariously, and return to TV with a shake of her head.

One particular soggy Saturday we were watching WKRP in Cincinnati. Dad had been at his work on the gutters for more than an hour. He’d long abandoned his bucket and was instead sweeping pools of coagulated leaves and bird remnants onto the ground. The rhythm of his vile work – scrape, curse, splatter – overtook the living room in a noxious crescendo.

Mom, used to the chaotic bumblings of my dad, turned the volume up. The “Turkeys Away” episode of WKRP was airing at the time, and the idea of live turkeys being kicked out of a plane onto unwitting shoppers had mom and me in a fit.

I can still see the tears in her eyes as Less Nessman called out, “They’re dropping to the ground like bags of wet cement.”

“Poor turkeys,” she snorted, collapsing into her chair.

The commercials began then, and mom, out of habit, turned to the window. Dad had suddenly become eerily silent, and before we could consider that further, we heard it: a wild sort of scrambling, like a raccoon maybe, but bigger. Then – the ladder.

All 26-feet of it came crashing down onto the front lawn in an explosion of aluminum glory. And dad, of course, was close on its heels.

His legs dropped into view first, dangling in that mad way they’re wont to do when you’re searching for footing and coming up only with air. Dad was clearly clinging to the roof and likely wishing he hadn’t relied on writing on classroom blackboards to hone his upper body strength.

As his arms gave out their final grip on the roof, WKRP kicked back in from break. It seemed our eyes made contact for one lone second on his slow plunge to the ground, and though no sound came from dad’s open mouth, I would swear he was thinking, “As god is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

That was the last season dad cleaned the gutters himself.

We’ve told this story hundreds of times at home; no one does a better impression of dad’s plummet better than my mom. And though I laugh every time, it’s made me wonder about myself. What can I, a new stepmom and aunt, be counted on for?

My experience in being any sort of role model is limited at best. I certainly didn’t take much away from my brief stint babysitting as a teen. It was my mother’s bright idea, and just like her other gems (trying out for cheerleading chief among them) it failed miserably.

I have always been more inclined to avoid children than watch them, let alone find ways to occupy their attention. But I did try. Armed with ideas culled from the Babysitters Club books and my own good intentions, I got a weekly gig sitting for Bryan and Allison, two kids who I’m sure grew up to steal lunch money and knock over liquor stores.

Bryan bore an uncanny resemblance to Chucky from the Child’s Play movies, and delighted in sneaking up on me with his pumpkin carving knife. Allison, a plucky five year old, enjoyed playing hide and seek. Her favorite hiding spot? Her mother’s giant gas oven. I lasted three afternoons with the thugs before I renounced babysitting for life.

To be fair, my track record with kids has improved somewhat over the years, but I’m still left here today in a position I never quite imagined: actually looking for and working toward acceptance as a parental figure. I’m rather annoyed that Judy Blume hasn’t written a book about this. She essentially handed me a blueprint for my adolescence; is it too much to ask that she address my adulthood, too?

It would suck dramatically to be counted on for comic relief, known in my niece’s future social circle as “the aunt who set the kitchen on fire” or as “crazy spice lady” when my step kids figure out that the quickest way to make my eye twitch is to rearrange my spice drawers. Then, the big family game will become how to poke my crazy and I’ll wind up a viral video on YouTube.

No thanks. Of course, when I realize that my dad was, if not my exact age, then very close to it back when he earned his reputation for falling off rooftops, a cold chill sets in and I realize I’m way too close to becoming a cautionary YouTube video than I care to admit.

What would mean the most to me is to be thought a role model – someone who isn’t so far removed from how wretched it feels to be a kid, and who can just be real when talking about it.

Is it possible for me, with all my quirks and issues and fascinations, to be someone the kids in my life will look up to and enjoy being with?

In the end, all I can do is hope. Hope that maybe this turkey can fly.

 

 

 

 

 

A writer’s experiment

(Note: I’ve transcribed this from a notebook I keep at my desk. I challenged myself this afternoon to write several paragraphs of uninterrupted, unedited narrative. This is the result. I’m not sure what to make of it, but am oddly intrigued.)

I am not one for writing exercises. The absurdity of playing games in order to coax creativity out of angry or otherwise slow-witted veins makes my hair vibrate in annoyance. Hemingway, I’m sure, did not pen a single book from a “writing prompt”, nor did Bukowski ever succumb to a “writers’ group.” They just fucking wrote. And for every word they’ve put to paper I’ve read in admiration and hazy jealousy, but they are dead now, and thankfully unable to see me here on my knees and partaking in the atrocious practice of “no deletion writing.”

I can’t even write the words without wanting to slam a hammer on my fingers, because truly, the only real way to write, for me, anyway, is to experience first. This stream of consciousness babble, where I filter nothing and sincerely wish I had something of a green-tinted absinthe glow to grease the keys, is far too closely linked to nonsense. I may well be Lewis Carroll, or perhaps Hunter Thompson, because the words are more of a sing-song on paper than they are a story.

Not that there is anything wrong with the lyricism of language; I only wish I had more of an end in mind than this odd dance through my mental bookshelves. Christopher Hitchens is to blame, really. His passing drove me to reread many of his essays and consider my own work and wonder if anyone ever really reads much of anything now.

Hitchens was a lyrical writer of controversial topic, one who had no qualms about his opinion and voiced it distinctly, clearly. Strongly. I do not know if he read Hemingway and I do not know if that even matters, but I think, darkly, that in this instantaneous culture of ours, where information flows without trial or confirmation, that experience is lost.

Not just the event itself – though to be sure the actions that grant experience are necessary – but the event of processing information is now lost to a digital medium that I want to embrace and will eventually be forced into, but deep down resent for taking away my paper.

It’s a morbid romanticism, this affection I have for paper and words and linking them into a story meant to be consumed, internalized. Perhaps the books I read will be my undoing, my tether to something that seems to grow more and more distant. Where messages are blasted in character length not character, where is there room for story?

The real writers, the ones who consume life in order to share it, those like Hitchens and more, have a trail of paper that I envy. The fist fight in my head pairs blogging against essays in a fight no one can win. There are stories that need to be told – stories I have to tell and experiences I will have to tell later that need paper.

And though I sit here in my uncomfortable writing experiment, letting words flow without censor, I am glad that I have paper for them. It’s a small page and my writing is beginning to slow, but it’s a start. A start to something that needs to carry on.

 

 

 

On the road …

In our post-wedding bliss, my guy and I have had the opportunity to do some traveling these past two months. We’ve dubbed them “pre honeymoons” as our “official” honeymoon to France won’t happen until the spring. We certainly couldn’t sit still here in the sorry (and today, soggy) midwest until then, not when there is sunshine, margaritas and palm trees to be enjoyed elsewhere.

So, we ventured to San Francisco, CA for an extended weekend back in late October. My guy had been there previously; this was my first trip. It’s a stunning, odd sort of city that is funky, modern and somewhat dated all at once. Fisherman’s Wharf was my favorite area – the perfect midpoint between our long walk from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge. We ate sourdough bread bowls of clam chowder and drank lots of hearty beer there while watching the coastline and Alcatraz in the distance. Seals could be heard over the hawking of fresh crabs, and one morning we were chased down a pier by an angry gull.

Haight Ashbury was curious. There was an interesting undercurrent of political movement, though the “Occupy San Francisco” supporters just don’t have the same aura as the hippies from the summer of love. We also really, really didn’t want to buy the goods they were selling under their sandwich signs, and grew tired of their aggressive sales tactics.  Mission District and Chinatown were more my speed.

In November we made our annual trek to Walt Disney World, where we drank many, many mai tais and gained an extra five pounds eating our way through Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival. Richard Marx was our favorite performer at the Eat to the Beat concert series – there may have been some air keyboarding done during his finale. No matter how many times I visit WDW, there is always something fabulously, magically new to experience. This year it was seeing Cinderella’s Castle adorned in the brilliant holiday dream lights. The lighting ceremony took place just after dusk, and as Mickey and crew announced the big moment and the park went dark, I stood like a goofball with my guy, eyes watering and smiling widely, watching the castle come to life in glittering, sparkling lights. I suppose that’s why people like me keep returning to Disney. It’s always okay to believe in magic there.

And now, a few favorite pics from both trips:

 

Essayist, author, podcaster, and general misanthrope. Official blog of lightly fictionalized musings and general word vomit. Visit www.juliettemiranda.com for additional info.