Thursday, February 24, 2011

I Lived On Fat

After a Winter Storm

The white china sky broke this morning
so the Diner brought out the blue-plate special.
Customers fell into a frenzy for it.
You over there: Can you hear them
pounding the tables with their forks?
Can you hear the slap of waitress feet
and the hiss of fat on the stove?

(This is a Friday Flash 55, a challenge hosted by the G-Man. Go visit his blog for more strange recipes in exactly 55 words.)

When I was growing up, child of Depression-era parents, we saved bacon fat, pouring it into a crock that sat on the back of the stove. Anything to be fried we fried in a heaping spoonful of that softly solidified bacon fat heated in the old cast-iron frying pans. How old was the fat at the bottom of the crock? Was it safe to cook with? Nobody asked. A mess of green beans fried in bacon fat was delicious. A pan of chopped potatoes and onions was scrumptious. That’s what you cared about. There was lard for pie crusts, shortening for Betty Crocker baking recipes, margarine for bread, and bacon fat for frying. I never heard of olive oil until I was married. I learned the word “sauté” then, too. Somewhere along the line, I disposed of the bacon-fat crock.

We lived on beans, beans and biscuits, beans and cornbread, black-eyed beans and ham hocks, chili beans. We had Spam, hamburger patties, beef stew, corned beef hash, chicken-fried steak, and pot roasts on special occasions. There was always gravy. We ate beets and green beans, potatoes, buttered carrots, fresh corn on the cob and canned peas. We had homemade cole slaw or shredded carrots with raisins, or iceberg lettuce with thousand island dressing made with catsup, pickle relish and mayonnaise, or Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail, or sliced fresh tomatoes picked that morning.

When we were really lucky, we had fresh abalone steaks dredged in smashed saltine crackers and fried in fat. I have two memories of abalone. In one, my older brother and I went with my dad and uncle to a friend’s ranch on the coast, and we rode in a Jeep over a mountain down to the rocky shoreline. There the men pried abalone off the rocks while my brother and I entertained ourselves. I had to go number two, and there was nothing to use but ice plant, which grew everywhere, and it was not an unpleasant, albeit strange, substitute for toilet tissue.

In the other memory, the men brought gunny sacks full of abalone into my grandfather’s sawdust-filled garage, where they gouged the shellfish from the shell and pounded the abalone with hammers. The women were cooking in the kitchen until the men came in with platters heaped high with abalone steaks. Then the men took over the kitchen. Cousins were running around everywhere. Women in aprons bustled back and forth. That abalone feast was the best thing I had ever eaten.

We eat healthier now. We use fresh-pressed extra virgin olive oil grown locally, or real butter. No more margarine or bacon fat. I buy a bit of Crisco in packaged blocks at Christmas time, and a block of lard only if I’m going to make a pie. I make a fine gravy at Thanksgiving or the occasional family breakfast. Abalone hunting is banned around here. We don’t eat canned vegetables or Spam or corned beef hash. My husband doesn’t like beans much. I never eat Jell-O salad except on Christmas Eve when my aunt makes my grandmother’s recipe.

I learned how to cook in Home Economics when I was 13, and from then on I was the cook in the family, coming home from school and making dinner for my working parents. I branched out from Betty Crocker. In college I cut out recipes from magazines and bought other cookbooks. I cooked dinners for friends. Friends taught me about other foods. I began eating in fine restaurants. I invented recipes. I cooked for more than 45 years, as a teenager, college student, young wife, single parent, and older, wiser wife. When my husband was injured out of his career, he went to culinary school. Now he’s the cook except for Thanksgiving, and this past year, I started teaching him how to roast a turkey. Sometimes I miss the bacon fat. There are few more wonderful breakfasts than bacon-fat gravy with sausage bits and biscuits made from scratch.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Living with Sorrow

One thing you can depend on is that nothing will stay the same. Life will throw you a curve ball, a slider, a fastball you never saw coming. And everything will be different all over again.

My family got hit with a triple whammy this month. To respect the privacy of others in my clan, I can’t talk about details except to my trusted advisors. I haven’t known what to say in my blog. So I’ve said nearly nothing. But the itty-bitty-shitty committee in my head has been blabbing nonstop. I was told by oldtimers early in my recovery from alcoholism that my head is a bad neighborhood and not to go there alone. But at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., it’s just me and the darkness and the chatter in my head. It’s a form of torture.

I’ve tried: counting sheep; counting steps on a green path in a forest; guided imagery; breathing; prayer; telling myself imaginary stories; herbals like melatonin, valerian root; tryptophan; wrestling with God; making gratitude lists; reading; even watching late night science programs about recycling. Nothing shuts off the committee.

A nasty bug has been making the rounds here in my town, and many people are falling ill for two weeks, a month, at a time. It settles in the chest and results in pneumonia in some people. I caught it and have stayed home for nearly three weeks trying to fend off another bout of pneumonia.

I’ve resorted to watching television, catching up on films I missed in their theater releases. So far I’ve seen “Revolutionary Road” (what a wrenching movie!), “Julie and Julia” (Meryl Streep’s tour de force), “In the Electric Mist” (James Lee Burke paired with Tommy Lee Jones!), “Nell” (give Jodie Foster an Oscar!), “The Duchess” (wow!), “Secondhand Lions” (loved it!), “Flawless” (another wow!), and “Masterpiece Classics” on PBS. I haven’t watched TV in years, being an avid reader instead. But reading has become difficult. I have, however, worked my way through one-third of award-winning David Brin’s “Sundiver” sci-fi classic.

Being ill, I’ve hit maybe four or five AA meetings in three weeks, and I’m accustomed to six a week. At least for an hour in a meeting, the itty-bitty-shitty committee falls silent. So I browse through what we call the “Big Book,” AA’s textbook, and the “Good Book,” my other “textbook for living.” I’m trying to concentrate on a few passages they contain:

First, on the subject of the “magic magnifying mind” that enlarges whatever it dwells on, there is this:
“When I focus on what’s good today, I have a good day, and when I focus on what’s bad, I have a bad day. If I focus on a problem, the problem increases; if I focus on the answer, the answer increases. … I must keep my magic magnifying mind on my acceptance [of things as they are] and off my expectations [of what things should be], for my serenity is directly proportional to my level of acceptance.” [Pages 419-420]

And this from the Good Book, as it has been quaintly called:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. … And the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4]

I’ve heard it said (by Robert Louis Stevenson) that any man can carry a burden until nightfall which would overwhelm him if he tried to carry it forever. Therefore, focus only on this one day, doing the next right thing a moment at a time, and leave the future in God’s hands, where it rightfully belongs. In my life at this moment, all my needs are cared for. For that, I am grateful.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

There's an Amoeba in My Soup

Today we buried the last man of our parents’ generation in my mother’s immediate family. I looked at my oldest male cousins as we mingled and talked with each other when the ceremony was finished. In a couple of years they will hit retirement age. They’re the patriarchs now and both are good men. They treasure the old photographs and stories, and both in separate ways are creating archives. But I don’t think either one of them would like to assume the role of patriarch.

I would like my grandparents and my parents to be alive still so no one has to change roles in the family. I don’t enjoy feeling like an amoeba swimming in unfamiliar soup.

But life is a series of changes, isn’t it? It’s a series of necessary interludes, like winter, like the gathering forces of early spring, the fruiting of summer, the harvest in the fall. The cycle exists for the good of all.
This is the hymn sung at my Unc's service, one of my all-time favorites.

I Come To The Garden Alone

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Are These Chairs in the Snow?

On the heels of my post about contentment (below) came hard news, coupled with a game of tag with pneumonia again. Hardship doesn't change my point of view. Storms can rage above the soil, but the soil rests unchanged.

After days spent in bed, I checked in with the world renowned Poetry Bus and found the Love Bug's photo prompts for Monday's bus tour, coincidental with Valentine's Day. The eclectic band of poets around the world will do wonders with the prompts. We're linked here. I offer this dirge, constructed out of sadness and sickness.

Why Are These Chairs in the Snow?

The roof caved in
the first dereliction
I thought it better built than that
its mathematical strength collapsed
beneath the first frost

Then someone came and took the glass
in the dead of night
good windows they were
but not paid for
a double pain that

The door was next
solid oak and fireproof
not proof against the vagaries of wind
the neighbor heard it howl
as the hinges tore

That wall went
with the next big snow
unsurprising with the gaping hole
of the fleeing door
and purloined windows

Two more collapsed
in the following thaw
warping wood ripped out nails
poorly placed
poorly pounded

The north wall stood
a mass of ice
until our mattocks tore it down
to fuel the fires
in our separate homes

All that’s left
of your inheritance
are the chairs where your parents sat
and planned your legacy
claimed by squirrels

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Death Visits the House Again

Death Visits the House Again

Somewhere in the Milky Way, if that close,
or in a billowing rainbow-hued galactic cloud
a billion light years off
the Lord of all the Universe
has received the daily tally of the dead
on planet Earth
the special piece of real estate
he has treasured all these years.

As I turn my car onto my street and note
the movements of my neighbors
I think a resurrection
of black ribbons marking the homes of mourning
would be good.
I would like my neighbors to remark
that death has visited again
this house
to murmur perhaps among themselves
we have been hit again so soon
and marvel at our fortitude or grief.
Let them notice, let someone notice
our great strength
and let them bring food
thankful that it wasn’t them.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happiness: The Pros and Cons

I was asked to write about happiness. I remember having a thought: I just want to be happy. I don’t know how many times I had that thought, but I know I wasn’t happy when I thought it.

Happiness was a long quest without a map, looking for the missing element in me. The quest for the missing element, in hindsight, proves I was a believer in the myth that joy could be found Out There.

Leap through the years, the circuitous journey…

Happiness is an emotional state of joy…a smile, laughter, pleasure in the moment. Emotional states vacillate with the influences of circumstances and other people. I enjoy the pleasure of happiness, but I know it will pass, as all emotions pass.

What gives me lasting joy now is what I have come to know as contentment, a state of mind, a belief, a method of looking at the world.

Contentment means that I believe my life is fundamentally good, like soil can be good if it has the right composition, no matter what the weather is like above ground.

Contentment means that I appreciate and cherish the elements that comprise the soil of my life…my daughters, my husband, my home, my significant others. But also I value the intangible too: my poetry, my history, my memories, my character and personality. Contentment means that I am aware of these gifts and consider them treasures.

Contentment means that because I am surrounded and filled by treasures, I feel grateful, no matter what the weather is like above ground. The absence of complaint, yearning for more or resenting what is, makes a large room in my life for contentment to abide, take root and grow. Contentment, it turns out, is what I have wanted all along.

Happiness has its moments. I’ve thought about them and written some of the moments down. I'll save it for another day… But what is happiness to you?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Free Advice Is Worth What I Paid For It

Have you ever paused to consider what your favorite room in your home says about you? I haven't. But this morning I noticed my writing room says something loud and clear about me: I live in a land of contrasts. The beagle dog hair lies an inch thick on the carpet (neglect, messiness, who-gives-a-shit, good grief, woman, have you never met a vacuum?), but a very clean pot of sturdy pink hyacinths has landed on my desk next to the laptop (life and beauty cherished here).
I'm off to search for soul at a workshop. I'll be back.

(Friday evening, I had this to say about life-shifting events:)
Another fun-filled day on the California central coast has passed. I don't think I told anyone what they should do about their life situations today. I did listen to a few people talk in a noon AA meeting. The topic was Faith: How Do You Get It When You Don't Have It?

I'd like to know the answer to that myself.

My convoluted path to well-being. Picture me on the lower left arm of the root. Got miles to go before I sleep.


I had no sleep whatsoever Thursday night because I'm in pharmaceutical transition (it doesn't matter what that's about), and I drove into town at the crack of doom with a brilliant idea percolating merrily in my head. I'm either dog-tired of paying attention to icky things, or brilliant ideas are percolating merrily.

I think my life is shifting beneath my feet. Six months ago I was a boring middle-aged poet. Today, I'm looking into "clarified breathwork" and prenatal journeying, not to mention Metsu, which I thought was a Jewish ball of bread. I am pricing a hookah. I didn't know what a hookah was two months ago. I Googled "wellness retreats" and gave thought to the physical repercussions of a "cleansing" diet. I didn't like what I was thinking but there I was, thinking it anyway.

Saturday finds me in a local college town with my 80-something friend, doing something called "Searching for Soul." The workshop is free, so why not? What was I going to do with this Saturday that is so important, anyway? I think I'm going to ride my shifting plate tectonics (see below) like a surfboard and see what happens.

(Early Friday morning, I had this to say about people offering free advice about how to Behave:)
I was in a hot tub with my best friend last night, relating the sum of my week, which I found interesting and worth the ruminating. She listened like a good friend does, and then she pointed out that the conclusion I had come to was based on a flimsy foundation. I think she said something like "You're just buying into that because it co-signs your bullshit."

My bullshit being, in this case, taking long afternoon naps and once a week or thereabouts staying in bed all day.

It doesn't matter to her why I am doing that. It matters that I am doing it. This is a common refrain from our mutual AA sponsor. All excuses are navel gazing. My friend made her observation right after I told her what the hospice grief counselor said when I bemoaned the sleeping business for preventing me from doing things I believed I should be doing. The counselor said, "You're too busy lying down." That response cracked me up. I made her write it down on a piece of paper so I could show my dearly beloved. This is a bonafide counselor, in a PhD program from a worthy university.

"In yoga," said the counselor, "savasana or the 'corpse pose' is the most important part of the session. You lie on your back, still as a corpse. That's where the healing takes place."

So this morning, after yet another sleepless night, I wrote the tale of how I feel about all the good advice I'm receiving from caring people...and did it in 55 words, so I could participate in the G-Man's Friday Flash 55. You can check out the tales other people are briefly relating here.

I decided I will file this piece under the header: Everyone knows the right path for me to walk.

The physical therapist says improve
my mobility. The doctor says exercise
like my husband; my husband says
rise early and be punctual. My friends
say don’t lie abed but fill my days.
The grief counselor says my plate
tectonics are shifting, so rest as long
as I like. Of all the voices, hers I obey.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

She Considers Beheading the Bird

Here's a challenge, in honor of
Groundhog's Day:

What kind of poetic sentence would you concoct with the words scythe, copper, rosette, cant, and canary?

I've borrowed the prompt from the California State Poetry Society's challenge for January, which I tackled at 4 p.m. on the deadline day, January 31, and finished at two minutes past the post office closing. Since it can't go anywhere, it may as well be a Groundhog's Day challenge for you. Post your sentence in the comments here. Have fun! (Update: Oh, you've got to see what has been concocted! I'll have to think of a PRIZE.)

Cogito Ergo Sum

The canary cant sing, said Madame Rosette, poised to behead the bird with a copper scythe.

But wait, said Bertram, her butler, formerly a copper with the Barstow PD, you are missing an apostrophe.
Your canary’s perch is not inclined incorrectly and furthermore your scythe is the softest of metals. It cannot decapitate the canary, for in battle with bird bone, bird bone will win.

Bertram, dear heart, said Madame Rosette, nary a whit of your wit addresses the essence of the sentence, to wit: The canary does not sing.
Since song is the essence of a canary, this canary has no essence. Ergo it must go.

But wait, said Bertram, your “ergo” is not foregone. Since song, as you say, is the essence of canaries, and this canary does not sing, ergo this canary is not a canary and should not be held to the standards of a canary.

Bertram, my darling, said Madame Rosette, twirling her scythe like a schoolgirl’s baton, I find your logic most arousing. Come, make me sing in lieu of the canary.

Whew, that was close, said the canary who was not a canary but a wireless server for the Bank of America, and it returned to cogitating sums.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What an Insinuous Day!

In the ongoing saga of odd words one has in mind upon awakening, I awoke yesterday with a word that isn’t even a word, but it should be: Insinuous.

Insinuous is the serpentine manner of something making its way into your consciousness. Unlike insidious, insinuous is not sinister, and unlike insinuative, cunning is not implied. There’s nothing pejorative about insinuous. A budding love affair can be insinuous, and a poem in its infancy can be insinuous. Alternatively, the dawning realization that your credit card company gives you nothing for free can be insinuous.

I ran into insinuous first thing in the morning at physical therapy when Jason told me to do an exercise and to remember not to….(as he poked my trapezius) and aha! I had remembered subconsciously not to do that. Then I stumbled onto it again at the orthopedist’s office as Dr. Dreamboat explained that my spine did not require surgical intervention and aha! I understood that my active participation was the preferred means of treating my malady (continue physical therapy; revamp my work environment; lose weight; strengthen my “core”).

Then came a credit card bill, from a new promotional account that advertised zero interest “if paid in full by the end of the promotional period.” The bill included a “maintenance fee” of $0.99. Righteously indignant, I supposed that a “maintenance fee” was a ripoff. So I called and asked. The nice girl said the fee is what it sounds like it is. I looked up my customer agreement, the thing with thousands of words in five-point type that you get with your credit card. Certain I would not find the fee there, I found the fee there. The credit company insinuates a price for everything. My discovery of it was insinuous.

Insinuous often runs into epiphany downstream. The word jelled in the afternoon at an AA meeting, where I realized that the tendency to blame “he/she/they/it” for my troubles dovetails nicely into “the deliberate manufacture of misery” as described in the AA Big Book. My pain was the fault of my dilapidated spine, which someone else (Dr. Dreamboat) could fix, and then I would be fine. Aha! The victim mentality is hard at work in that idea.

Work, naturally, is what I prefer to avoid. I’d much rather hunch over my keyboard, subsist on stress, make no effort to exercise, and feed my pain sugar and poetry. That’s much, much easier to do than to engage my backbone in its metaphorical sense.

All in all, the day followed an insinuous path to enlightenment. C’est la vie.