The sandwich

John made a sandwich.
He sliced open the rough
baguette,
spread a thick layer of mayo,
just a touch
of mustard
on top.
He piled meat, thin meat slices.
High as they would go.
And then he
carefully
placed cheese,
just a triangle
at a time.
The lettuce was a cascade.
Collecting,
he cut in half
the perfect lunch,
in order to disassemble it
inside his mouth.

the crone

Most think of “the high point” as a triumph – the promotion, the accolade, the orgasm. Few understand the most delicious and exhilarating moments of life exist poised between gratitude for what you have, and cold clear concentration on what you want.

She was haunted by a crone. The woman’s long gray hair scuffed the pavement. Eyes, milky, were overhung by full white brows. A nose you could perch a goose on, and the dank brown robes of the second coming.

She was ever in the corner of her eye.

To ask for more, as a woman, is to burden others with your selfishness. To ask for something that is not already prescribed or scripted is absurd. Perhaps her peripheral view of the crone was her subconscious mind saying, Ask for this, and you too will be dismissed.

If you are not grateful.

If you are not amazed.

If you have the audacity to suggest there could be more…

Just go. Go now. Go before we put you in your place.

It’s funny no one expects a boy to say, Wow.

She wanted to be impressed and she was not. She saw the ship on the horizon and her ticket was in hand.

In the meantime the crone rocked slowly and she smiled to reveal
three
good
teeth.

eulogy for the living

Sometimes you encounter something that will not be pinned in. You cannot contain this or rationalize it or know in advance where it’s going.

This event does not have to be the most significant of your life on any other terms. But it will knock you flat.

it’s called grief.

Grief for a chapter of your life now ending, a love affair, a national disaster. Whatever the source is, you react by saying, “Oh.” There is nothing to articulate, no social media to post.

There is no eulogy to write when a person dies.

We write it, a bit later, to sum up. But it’s only after another’s death – a death that moves you – when you realize that the living reality, however complicated, however annoying or bothersome or disappointing, was so much better in its indescribable complexity than any neat and tidy, poetic or eloquent summation in death.

Perhaps that is grief itself: We didn’t mean it. You were perfect as you were. Come back.

I would prefer it if this man continued to exist.

I met him just a couple of months ago. I was sitting at a table at a bar I had determined was the safest dive.

“Pretty redhead at table two,” I heard, and looked to see a man passing by.

Mentioning that, I feel the need to add, “He was a perfect gentleman.” But saying that would, in a good essay, need to be backed up by facts. To relate facts after knowing a man for a matter of weeks, when others have known him for years, is to diminish the experience of knowing this man.

Who am I to say, “This is why he was special,” perhaps overshadowing the memories of others, much more evocative than mine?

The truth of death is that it belongs to the living. Grief is for those left alive.

We sat around his end of the bar tonight, making ribald jokes, and jokes about how to pronounce the word “ribald.”

I had felt at home at this bar because it seemed full of intelligence, but I only saw that because I was introduced to intelligent people by Lyman.

There you go again with the anecdotes.

Tonight, we told anecdotes and we drank and we made ribald jokes.

Here is the terrible thing.
If you could trace the shape of a person’s soul.
If you could follow the path on a map from Point A to Point Z along the timeline of a human life.
If you could see, projected on the wall, the deepest wish in someone’s heart.

And, if you took that device to the ICU to document the purest intent of this unresponsive man.

It would show the image
of people he cared about
or, if that was all that was available,
even people he was mildly fond of,
sitting around a four-top,
beers in hand,
laughing
unabashedly.

This was a man who simply wanted others to be their happiest or their best. Creative and intelligent, he knew those two feelings could be mutually exclusive. He had an appreciation of talent that even talent itself denied.

But there I go again, telling anecdotes.

My biggest fantasy tonight is that tomorrow I will learn he’s rallied. Hearing the news, I’ll feel overjoyed and delete this post. Just in case.

You should never have to read your own eulogy.

In the meantime, we take turns throwing memories into a hat. Maybe one of these memories will take on a vivid blue light, the passion of life. Maybe one will be so wonderful that it will strike him, in his unresponsive state, and make him feel the thrills of that day.

Perhaps he will be forced to blink his eyes awake, with the sheer delight of that memory.

“I remember,” he’ll say, and jump up from that hospital bed.

In the meantime people who knew him, for weeks or years or decades, tell stories. Stories of experiences shared with him, stories of things frustrating about him, even terrible and embarrassing stories that can only be told in the shared moment of mourning him.

Eulogies are told. The memories may not resurrect the fallen. But they serve, as best anything can, to honor the mess that is love.

how we react to mass shootings

Note: I just found the first draft of this, written last June. Or maybe it was the June before that. Does it matter? Our country has been at war with itself for some time.

No declarations were signed as each side took up arms: Republican vs Democrat, traditional vs progressive, black vs white, Christian vs Muslim, shooter vs victim. We are a country of cowboys stirring up trouble wherever we go. Must we continue to do so?

Here was my response to a shooting, or a terrorist attack, or a bombing… was it last June? Or the one before that?

Let’s be bored by violence.

We react to these attacks with self-righteousness, anger, fear. We debate retaliation or legislation. We analyze the attacker’s motivations in search of clues to prevent the next unexpected slaughter. We look at cultural backstory, talk to the parents, and film the grieving. We protest in defense of kids at a club, kids in a car, kids at a concert, kids at school.

We march for the Victim of the Month.

Isn’t that the normal response, you ask? Well, yes and no. Marching is one way to express a desire for change to our legislators. Most of us can’t write the legislation ourselves, so as voters we look for other ways to express ourselves to our legislators.

But as a society the outrage can become palliative. It can become tempting to think that emotion has an impact. It doesn’t.

There comes a time when you have to ask yourself how you want to engage with evil.

For myself, I’m bored of it. I’m bored of hatred. I’m bored of judgment. I’m bored of aggression. Not just these heinous crimes, but aggression committed on a small scale every day: I’m bored of your opinions about how I dress, or how he acts, or what she does for a living. I’m bored of Hollywood’s industrial engineering of the villain, escalating his evil over the years to maintain our interest. I’m bored by our imagination for evil.

I’m bored by hate.

I’m bored by the melodious drama of loss.

We have suffered at each other’s hands for thousands of years in the name of gods, kings, ideas. We have accepted, This is life. We do this without noticing. Every day watching the news, we feel borrowed rage and post it on Facebook. We engage with evil in our hearts, loving the pain of it, the choices it forces upon us: Would you stop the terrorist on the plane? Would you stop a bullet?

We celebrate evil with speeches and vengeance and war. We sing ballads, we write stirring articles, we Tweet. God, we love to be moved by tragedy.

To avoid giving up the delicious delights of pain and suffering, we let the NRA roam free. We manufacture guns of more ingenious design. We fight wars with random countries to create more enemies. And most delightful of all, we put off actual vengeance, waiting years to seek and destroy known villains like bin Laden. We torture people for years to gain information that will be irrelevant by the time it is confessed, we hold murderers in prison for decades.

The addictive theater of conflict wages on.

We could dispatch murderers and terrorists, guns and cancer, poverty and bullying, quickly. If we wanted to. We don’t. We do not want a world without evil. We very much want evil. Because without it, we would have nothing to fight, and nothing against which to compare ourselves.

We cannot seem to measure our morality or find rewarding adventure without the aid of the Devil.

And so, he lives on.

The joy of cooking for one, moms in the kitchen, and Ruth Reichl

Excerpt from Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year

This is the introduction to a recipe from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. Part cookbook, part memoir, it documents the year after the renowned food editor was laid off, along with her entire staff, when Gourmet magazine was shut down. For anyone who loves New York, it’s an evocative snapshot of the city’s restaurants and markets, for anyone who loves magazines, it’s a poignant tale of one more recession-era death, and for anyone who loves food, it’s an engaging document of a creative person finding herself again in the kitchen.

I read a lot of cookbooks. I meditate by putting greens in a skillet with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and chopped garlic. I unwind on a Saturday by going to the grocery store. It’s a good week if, when visiting my mom, I can tell her about a noteworthy dinner or two.

And when I describe to her a dish I’ve cooked, we both know it was “cooking for one.” I love cooking for friends and family, whether it’s decadent grilled sandwiches on those “visits with Ma,” or a whole party of savory finger foods. But I also believe one can enjoy home cooked meals alone. I disagree when someone says they see no point in cooking when they’re single. If anything, one should cook more for oneself when one is single, as a morale booster, to make it fun rather than torture to be alone.

Why in the world should being single mean missing out on one of the great delights of life?

I do consider cooking one of the great delights of life in spite of a lifelong issue with what they call IBS. It probably seems odd that someone whose digestive system is a land mine should prefer cookbooks to novels and biographies, and time cooking to time in front of the TV. But on the other hand, it must make perfect sense. When medicine has failed, the gentle philosophies of naturopaths in several cities have made no impact, and your waking life becomes an ongoing mental diary tracking the consumption of “trigger foods” and their impact, food is officially your most codependent relationship. You’re stuck with food, food makes you miserable and delighted, and you both can’t decide who’s to blame.

What else is left but to make love to it?

Cooking bone broth - pork bone broth made from smoked pork

So I read cookbooks. I read them for flavor combinations. I read them to learn how other cultures create a meal, because there as many versions of what constitutes a “dinner” as there are countries on the map. I read them because in my family, cooking was a classic woman’s ritual, conversation about husbands and home life building over the din of stovetop and cutting board, the laughter of men and children in the background.

Recently a friend asked me why I loved cookbooks and then answered it for me with another question: Is it because it reminds you of your mom? I realized, considering my answer, that it wasn’t about my mom, who is an amazing cook, so much as the absence of the dads. This isn’t because I hate my dad or my uncles but because when I was a kid, subliminally I felt like they were always preoccupied about work and sports and other competitive things.

Whereas my mom and her sisters and their mom, my Grandma, were talking about home. They were talking about relationship, family, the reality of now – and whether it needed more liquid smoke. They were not talking about themselves. There is no competitive spirit in these women, for better and for worse. They’re all remarkably okay with the now and with who they are. No blue ribbons needed.

Of course this is a generalization- everyone jumps in the ring for something. But by and large, a conversation in the kitchen was very different than the one going on between the uncles and Grandpa in the living room. I think more than anything, that is what I cherish: the sanctity of it.

And the emotional resonance of it.

We all talk about work a lot, but there is very little emotional meaning in how that meeting went. There is ego, who accomplished what, whether it went the way you wanted. Compare that to how the kids are doing, the new fourth grade teacher, sweet potatoes vs yams, cheddar or Swiss on the casserole, Jeremy’s visit to the doctor, the plot of the book they’re reading… the nuances of daily life. In retrospect, their supposedly “limited” perspective as homemakers looks much healthier than those of us “working professionals.”

In My Kitchen Year, Reichl is married with grown children. But most of her entries describe cooking as a project to satisfy her curiosity, or to feed herself, rather than for a meal with her husband. This was simply the reality of a woman suddenly at home all day instead of working, trying to find herself at the stove. It’s a perfect articulation of the joy of cooking for oneself, although that was not the point of the book by any means.

For the same reasons, I come home from work and I cook dinner. For one. Yes, I strategize about pots and pans, no, I don’t cook elaborate three-course meals. But I chop the veggies and braise the meat and create a sauce for the pasta, just for myself.

I do this because, like the women in my family, and like Ruth Reichl, I find a blissful mental silence at the cutting board. Whether you work in an office or at home, at a computer or by raising your children, your active mind relishes a break.

It’s odd how time in front of the TV silences but doesn’t relieve the mind.

Time at the cutting board, however, always works.

Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year and Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh plus Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook

neon chaser

Is happiness more selfish, or is sadness? His visit was like a WWE smackdown of happiness, but her wiring was calibrated to interpret warnings, dark omens, wooden signs jammed crookedly in the forest floor that read “Turn back now.” She was not calibrated to simply enjoy. She had to force herself as he touched her. Be here. Be now.

Part of this was watchfulness. Being sad meant you were aware, that you were the wooden sign jammed crookedly in the forest floor. You could tell people, “Turn back now.” If you became too good at this role, you stopped smiling, but it didn’t matter. You were the lookout.

Much later, long after he had left, she sat listening to a young man recount how many shots of tequila he had had that day. He told her he was going to move soon, for a job. She congratulated him, eyeing the neon drink that was his untouched chaser. He shrugged, explaining what this job meant in the context of his struggling love with a woman.

Elwood P. Dowd was right: no one ever brings anything small into a bar. And her reaction to his angst was no smaller than the angst itself. It was as though in that moment, the souls of two strangers connected to download a single truth: Do not say no to this opportunity.

Ironically, she wanted to wave her arms tell him, Love is never worth it.

She wanted to say that, not because that was how she felt that day, but because that was what had been true for her in very similar circumstances at his age. When it comes to truth, one size never fits all. What is accurate for you today may become totally irrelevant in ten year’s time. In one moment, your epiphany may be to discover your own independence. In the next, it may be to experience vulnerability.

Growth is not mastering one set of circumstances. It’s becoming open to all circumstances.

That can be tough to explain at eleven o’clock at night when someone is working on his fourteenth shot of tequila, so she just gave him a hug, pressing his drooping head into her chest. Because if there is ever a time when it’s okay to comfort with boobs, this was it.

She wanted to tell him that it would not matter in ten years, that he would become a totally different person, that he would learn to use the word “toxic,” that he would break 2.3 hearts in the process of shedding this skin. That one day he would not order those neon chasers, because one shot would be enough.

She wanted to tell him that when she smiled, she set people on fire. It was not a boast. It was, in fact, terrifying. To a storm cloud, to have the power to summon the sun is an overwhelming majesty. She wanted to say, This could be you someday.

She wanted to say, It’s oddly easy. To be happy.

The secret (who knew?) was to run out of shits to give.

The equation seems counter-intuitive but goes like this: We’re unhappy not because things suck, but because we label things as sucky. We decide, “this is good,” and “this is bad.” We decide “this is what I want,” and “this is not what I want.” And by doing so, by smacking stickers on every single experience, we guarantee our own misery.

Life doesn’t actually care what you think you want. Selfish, selfless, happy, sad, straight or with a chaser: life just is.

Do not say no to this opportunity.