Saturday, November 12, 2022

The Culprit Life


"The truth of it is, that there is not a single science, or any branch of it, that might not furnish a man with business for life, though it were much longer than it is."

-- Joseph Addison

Nutrition is a science. It's true. I checked online. You can earn a doctorate in the subject, from actual, legitimate universities. These are good schools not affiliated with model-weed-farming, Wilhelm Reich, naturopathic chiropractic, astrology, or divining. You can get a Masters from Johns Hopkins, people. I emphasize this as I understand your professional nutritionists can be a bit tetchy when challenged on their bona fides. This apparently happens all the damned time. Somebody releases a study that says coffee will kill you deader than dead. Somebody else releases a study that says a latte is all that stands between you and dementia, and --- fight. Seen more than one degreed nutritionist pop off at folks trashing the food pyramid or complaining that what supposedly caused cancer on Tuesday turned out to be good for babies and old folks a week later. First thing the nutrition scientists are apt to do is shout, "SCURVY!" even though I don't think actual, degreed nutritionists, or Johns Hopkins come to that existed when Admiral Nelson was tossing lemons from the crow's nest or however that went. Folic acid would frankly be a better rallying cry, but again, it was the English hematologist Lucy Wills who made the connection between deficiencies and birth defects in 1928, so... not an actual nutritionist. Still. FOLIC ACID! CITRUS! Yeah, boy!

I feel for anybody trying to study humans scientifically without being able to use controlled studies (you know, science.) Even when the professional nutritionistas have convinced people to participate in a proper study, even when the participants signed an oath in blood to not, I don't know, eat sardines for a month, two days later everybody's eating little tinned fish with the heads on, even if they never liked sardines before. Why? Because, as a species we are some perverse, suggestible, capricious animals, that's why. Must be maddening. So in the absence of actually being able to make us eat our peas or not according to the requirements of a proper study, much of what the nutrition-alchemists are forced to do is describe the elephant just by touch: "I got a tail this end!" "Me too!" We should all stand amazed that such methods can ever distinguish between tail and trunk, or apples and oranges to put it another way, and yet they do this all the time and sometimes they may even be right. Remarkable.

Having recently embarked on the stony road to kidney and gallbladder health, I was shocked to see some of what's now BAD for me -- because uric acid and or calcium -- even though these things were healthy choices mere minutes before I was handed my new nutrition guide: spinach, tomatoes, almonds, avocados... the list was long and deeply disheartening. WTF?! And that was just the kidneys. When my gallbladder joined the rebellion and threatened to blow up my abdomen unless its demands were met, suddenly citrus, dairy, liver, the list of banned substances ballooned to uncomfortable size. Basically, if I didn't want to die in agony I needed hereafter to eat only unseasoned beans and drink room-temperature water. I might have a wedge of iceberg lettuce for dessert -- no dark greens -- if  I was very very good and hadn't eaten a grain of salt since February. 

It wasn't all a Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I ought not to eat fatty meats. Well, no, I suppose not. Obvious if mean. Refined sugar isn't a friend. I get it. Again, I resent this, but I get it. Cheese may be second only to the printing press in my list of Greatest Human Inventions, but even I know one is not meant to eat one's weight in it annually. The weird bit was seeing so many old friends of a leafy green and vegetable nature on the nutritionist's new forbidden index. Really? Broccoli may be bad for me now? Broccoli?!?! Welcome to Opposites Day! Spinach may now be the worst thing you can eat. But I love spinach. Nope. Spinach may kill you. Spinach?! Will spinach kill me? It may.

Oh, that word, "may." That may be the nutritionists' favorite word. Scratch that. May is their favorite word. Ohmahgawd, they used it everywhere. Stone may come from eating X, or it may come from not eating enough Z. Eating less Y may reduce the risk of serious inflammation, or eating Q may cause the development of a third eye. The sun may rise, the sun may set, but who knows why "may" sounds so wet? 

Likelihood and possibility are perfectly respectable scientific terms, and yet modal verbs like "may" make doubters of us all. Science cannot prove that by keeping a loaded gun in your house you will be shot. It is likelier by a large number, but who knows? Maybe it will be your wife who takes the bullet, or a baby, or the dog. Maybe nobody dies. Does that mean the science was wrong? Nope. Sorry Gomer, you're still likelier to lose a toe to violence (or the sugar, statistically speaking.) Is it possible that there is life on other planets? Why, sure. Thrillingly likely. But that alien autopsy video from back in the day, that was still incredibly stupid though, right? Yes, yes it was. Remember: possibility, probability, straight-up stupid. As Americans, we are internationally recognized as unappreciative of distinctions, subtle and otherwise. A nation founded by slave-owners willing to sign a document proclaiming that "all men are created equal" is obviously a nation on whom subtlety -- and of course irony  -- long lost. Black and white. Left and right. Good and bad. Happy and sad. True and false.

So as an American I feel myself very much entitled to have a tantrum when told that spinach may kill me, and that porterhouse steak? That thing almost surely will. Okay, but spinach?! Seriously? Shut up! Stupid nutrition science. (Just so you know, everybody kinda hates you, nutritionists. Seriously, you are the dry carrot stick of food science. Wylie Dufresne, Grant Achatz, molecular gastronomists and kitchen wizards  making free-floating bacon-flavored smoke rings that circle poached pears that look like Saturn -- that stuff is super cool and tasty too. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and the whole Food Lab thing? That is beyond legit. It's like Richard P. Feynman made me a soufflé. Nutritionists? You're not even the lunch-ladies. You're the lady in the office who printed the cafeteria menus with the unconvincing exclamation-points next to the baked apple.)

I'm being mean now, but all this dietary restriction runs "contrary to the natural bias of our flesh," as puritan bad daddy Jonathan Edwards might put it. Contrary to mine, anyway. I can't smoke anymore. I was never much of a drinker. If memory still serves, the pursuit of sexual variety requires both more patience than I now have and better knees than I am likely to ever see again -- and now you need to download at least one more app, right? That is not going to happen. I don't play half the games I already have on my phone. Meanwhile, it really isn't an exaggeration to say that I genuinely love food. I certainly love it more now than it does me, but isn't that just always the way? So the idea that what wants to kill me now isn't a virus or or a carcinogen or an obvious danger like meeting new people or riding roller coasters, it isn't just the bad companions from the dairy isle and the deli counter, the soft cheeses and the cured meats, but almonds and berries and leafy greens... Well, the world really is a more hostile place than even I had ever imagined. Even the garden wants me dead.

Speaking of new apps, there is an advertisement that I see everywhere now and directed very much at my demo, i.e. my body mass, age, and general demeanor. It's a new kind of diet thingamy that's supposedly based on psychology rather than the more usual business of averages: weight and age and exercise and such. In the ads there are always at least one or two customers who enthuse that the app has helped them to understand their "relationship with food" and why, for example they eat what they do and when and so on, as if any and all of this was some unfathomable mystery. Now I may not be able to explain why a picture of that perfectly lovely and talented boy Timothée Chalamet does nothing for me and honestly always makes me think of rescued racing greyhounds, while all Harry Styles has to do to put on a sequence jumpsuit and I go all gooey inside. Doesn't much matter why, does it? That's a mystery. None of our lives are adversely effected by this. Doesn't need thinking about unduly. Whereas why I eat what I eat and when I eat what I eat and the whole business of cooking food and eating food and reading about food and thinking about food, about all of this I have thought much. Doesn't mean everybody ought to, but I have. I don't need a bit of new software on my phone to remind me that ice cream isn't always about sweetness or that prosciutto isn't just ham or that sane people do not dream often of gravy or make lists of the best macaroons they have ever eaten. It is not then that I am unaware, or even that I am all that inflexible. What I am is sad.

Every morning since I had the kidney stone surgically removed at the beginning of the year, I start my day with the juice of one lemon and two generous tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. (Mix with a cup and a half of cold water and down it like the sulfurous poison it is, soldier.) As unlikely as this sounds, it is. I do not seek medical advice from internet shamen nor do I dose myself based on what a guy I know was told by his cousin who "got over" kidney stones when he took up chewing betel. This breakfast beverage was perhaps my first serious foray into the alternative, because that is how bad kidney stones can be. This was nothing. Does it help? I do not know. Can't hurt. The foods that went from good for me to bad for me, however unwillingly I did as I was told and quit. Now comes a gallstone and the new gustatory puritanism takes on an even darker shade of dull, but I do as I am told. I do not like doing this. I resent doing this. I am frustrated that in doing this I guarantee nothing as this all may or may not help. I am all the grouchier having done this to learn three weeks later that I have actually gained a pound. (!) But I do it.

And now in a few days I will go into the hospital to have my gallbladder out in the sincere hope that this may right the sinking ship of me and possibly even restore some little joy to my diet. In surgery I have at least the comfort of hard science. Do this and this will stop. Even here though, the march of the medical "mays" goes endlessly on. I don't know if the dear reader has any recent experience with even minor surgery, but preliminary to any actual cutting comes the recitation of all that may kill you. The surgeon may slip and nick an artery. And then you die. The anesthetic may stop your heart. And then you die. Your heart may stop of it's own accord. And then you die. Going off blood-thinners even just two days before doesn't mean you may not bleed to death anyway, or have a blood clot or clots, or  a stroke. You could get cooties just being in a hospital because that's where the cooties live. The surgeon is legally required to recite all of this and more. Then the anesthesiologist does it again, as does the nurse-practitioner after doing the check-up to see if you will live long enough to even get the surgery. Come the day, I will not be surprised if the janitor feels obliged to describe an embolism to me or the receptionists form a Greek Chorus and lament the inexorable workings of the Fates. 

Don't really get to actually see my regular doctor nowadays. Since the pandemic she seems to be practicing largely from an undisclosed location somewhere in the Andes. Making an actual appointment to be in the same room with her now requires the burning of rare incense, various arcane rituals, and the kind of planning that brought off D-Day. Still, we occasionally chat on the phone. (We talk about boys we like and how much we hate gym and how girls can be really mean about our bangs when we don't get them really straight.) I was supposed to have a check-up with my general practitioner a week before my surgery. Her first available appointment was three weeks after the surgery, so that didn't work out. (I went to a clinic at the hospital.) Because of the difficulty of arranging anything through my health plan, when I manage an appointment -- any appointment -- I try to keep to the point. No time to be wasted as it might be another full cycle of the moon before the stars align again. Quick! The portal is closing!

Will this kill me? (Mark Yes or No.)

Can this be fixed? And if so, when?

If I am very lucky, before the doctor or nurse practitioner disappears in a puff of blue smoke, there will be an "action plan." Admittedly an awkward construction, but since inaction is the watchword of modern insurance practice, I find the words strangely comforting. The plan then is to poke holes in me and yank the offending organ out o' me. Ought not to kill me. Fingers crossed. (Sooooo many things can, you know.) and when the business is concluded, I will hopefully be home that same day. Whatever else happens, I am sure of only one thing. Soon as I get home, I am throwing that filthy "vegan butter" right in the trash and then I will go straight back to bed and dream of chicken livers in onion gravy, roasted rosemary potatoes, rice pudding, and... spinach. That's living, brother!  

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit—Life!
-- Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Can't Stop the World

For forty years it has lived on my bookcase. Prom, 1982. We are in our matching tailcoat tuxedos, white tie and waistcoats, matching red rose boutonnieres. We are standing because she refused to sit in the white rattan chair. That was the expected pose: girl in the chair, legs safely crossed at the ankle or knee, boy slightly behind with one hand resting chastely on her shoulder. We were not that couple. We were not a couple at all of course, though we obviously were a couple of... something. My left hand is behind her back because the photographer would not take the picture if I showed my wrist-corsage. Also why my fan is folded. Her hands are in her pockets which makes it a rare photo indeed because she does not have a lit cigarette. Everything about this photo was both an act of defiance and a compromise, just like my friend, who I learned just this afternoon has died.

Once, years ago, I put up a bunch of old photos onto social media and invariably a number were of her, my very best friend in high school and a bit after. When she asked me to take these down I immediately did. It had not occurred to me that she would object. Always a very private person verging on reclusiveness, I thought she nevertheless might find the pictures amusing and touching as I did. After all, those kids were long gone, but I was wrong. Her past was private. I had overstepped. A typical misunderstanding, may I say, and neither our first, our worst, nor our last. Didn't really matter much in the end though. We had known each other too long, and for a vital time in both our lives too well not to be forgiven everything, always. 

It may be difficult to explain to anyone young enough or secure enough to never have known what it was to be nearly always unsafe in the world as we were then. That is a good thing that has happened. People worked very hard, some worked their whole lives to make that so. She and I were not unloved before we met. We were lucky there, actually. If who were were came to compromise us both in ways that threatened our education, our potential employment, our housing, our safety and our survival, we were lucky to have homes and mothers who loved us and frankly to have refuge in an overtly hostile place. We both knew others who had no such luck. A good part of what became my friend's professional life would be devoted to the care of people less lucky. Each of us found in the other if not safety as such, then an escape. Together we laughed, always. There was courage in this even if we were unaware of why we laughed so much and so hard and often at nothing. 

Fuck. She was a funny motherfucker, you know? No one I ever knew cursed more, cursed harder, cursed more frequently or pointlessly or to more hilarious effect. Even as completely grown, largely respectable adults, we were often pretty incoherent within minutes of being again in one another's company. Didn't much matter what other people might think of of us and the spectacle we invariably made in the parking lots of family-style restaurants in our home town. Together we were always frantic children. Usually it was years between reunions. We both became stout, sturdy looking persons. Together we did not change. We swore and howled and raced at each other, threatening to wrestle. We called each other filthy names and pretended to fight like toddlers. We coughed and giggled and greeted each other always as, "hey, fucker" and then made animal noises to convey our undying simpatico. We snuffled and howled. We referred to each other as warthogs; ugly, tusked, tough, dangerous. Really only dangerous to ourselves and maybe to the assumptions of  idiots, bigots, and rednecks.

Fuck 'em.

She was my courage when I hadn't anything but words. She was really a rather timid soul beneath all of the guff, easily hurt, an easy weeper, always the first to recommend flight as the best resolution to any conflict. I was and largely remain all talk. Yet together we defied all sorts. That photograph from our prom is not just a portrait of her. That was us testing the limits of everything only because we were, for better or worse -- and it was usually worse -- braver for being together. Her actual girlfriend went to our prom on the arm of the gay boy I was not fucking because Jesus kept getting in the way, but my friend and I had planned out the whole night well in advance. Some of it worked out and some of it didn't. The phrase "off like a prom dress" entered our vocabulary that night for good reason. I did not get so lucky.

Throughout those intensely difficult days we ran together. I pulled her out from under porches and sat her up straight when she was high in class. She pulled me back from actual ledges. We worked together on plays, me onstage, she behind. Once I even bullied her into taking a part onstage when there was no one else to do it and I was convinced I could win in competition in the lead and I did. I was her alibi when she needed an excuse to slip away on that trip to sleep with a girl. We played at being each other's beard wherever and whenever needed. We seduced a boy together just because I couldn't manage it on my own. We stole a little, did a little damage here and there, played merry Hell with everyone's expectations. She pulled me out of the garbage can boys had stuffed me into.

Once she flew at a grown man who was being cruel to me and I sincerely believed, as did he, that she might have killed him. I talked a cop out of arresting her when really he did have every reason to. We went to New York when we had no business being there, stayed with her aunt in the West Village. We walked home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show and were followed most of the way by a slow moving sedan. She was the one who had the brilliant idea of going to the meat rack and asking leather daddies to walk us home which they did. Another trip we stayed in a fleabag off Washington Square and she went with me to The Gaiety strip club and we had a grand time talking to the boys in the "lounge." Another time when we thought we'd lost our tickets home, she wanted to spend the last of our money consulting the advertised psychic in the shopfront behind us rather than call home. Luckily we found our tickets. Later, in college, she went with me to rescue a friend who had been bashed outside a bar and then made the mistake of calling the cops who beat and raped him before letting him go.

Actually, our prom picture is one of two photographs; same subject, same friend, that I've kept and displayed by my desk ever since they were taken. The other is a black and white glamour shot in which she is wearing another unlikely costume, her girlfriend's silk robe. My friend's hair was always terribly important to her. When we were in high school, if the power went out, she didn't go to school. No blow-dryer, no go. In this other picture her face is surrounded by mounds of wavy hair. She's obviously meant to be cool. She actually looks a bit terrified. Telling again.

I cried with her when my high school love went to college and got a girlfriend. She kicked the shit out of garbage can with me when her stepmother invited her to visit and my friend's wretched father yet again made her feel like a mistake he intended to forget. Later, when every seven years she broke up with yet another girlfriend, then partner, then wife, I had the rare good grace to not note the pattern while sympathizing. 

Her life proved to be hard in ways we could not have imagined when we were young. Never an easy woman to know, though always easy to love, my friend became all but impossible at times. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to be her. For long stretches, including now at what's proven to be the end, we fell out of touch. She was never good at returning calls. She never wrote. She was often late or simply never showed up. Did not matter in one way at least. I never had a moment's doubt that she loved me just as I loved her and always will. She was my youth and I was hers and that was over a very long time ago for both of us, but it was always there between us. Any excuse and back it came, roaring and cursing and laughing so loud it choked us. 

It is important to keep the evidence of love when we can, as well as the memory. In front of me now, in addition to the pictures I've described there are some few small tokens of time spent together, just my friend with me. I will not describe these not because they in any way compromise my friend or would have any meaning to anyone else. Just a few trinkets from my old jewelry box; mementos of trips, and times gone long by, and private jokes. It's true that she would not like me sharing old photographs, but what harm can that do now? These little things I can hold in my hand I'll keep to myself instead. I've always told too much. I should keep some of her secrets. I have and I will. Let these stand for those. Let me hold on to just these. Her I remember here for any and all she touched besides me. I know there were so many. She helped people. Remember that of her. She was my very best friend once. I remember that. With her goes the last of what we were then.

Hey, fucker. Love you. Aaaaaarrrrggggghhhhh!!!!! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Preface to Plates: A Christmas Concatenation

(By way of introduction, here's the preface to my new book of short essays and stories. The title is Plates: A Christmas Concatenation. It sells for $16.00 and can be ordered through the University Book Store @ Toll Free: 1.800.335.READ )

 Everybody has that one friend. Sometime in July this person starts counting down the days until Christmas. Let's be honest, I say "friend" but nobody likes this person. If you are this person, nobody likes you. Well, nobody likes you when you do this. Nobody. And nobody needs another reason to not like anybody else these days. Think about it. In addition to the ever widening political divide, everybody's got a reason to find the rest of us annoying. There is good cause not to much like humanity as a whole nowadays, but individually it tends to come down to very particular behaviors: the woman who eats carrots every day in the breakroom, the guy who insists his growling dog is "usually friendly," the person who can't tell a story without directions. Life online is in some ways simpler because you basically get to scroll past the bus-stop smoker and the couple fighting over meth. Still, you can't get away entirely. There are still people who regularly encourage you to find out which Disney princess you are, the proud owners of reptiles, defensive readers of Brené Brown, the guy who wants to show you pictures of his corrective surgery, and the Christmas-count-downers. We all have access to a calendar, you petty sadist. We all know how badly we did mailing out cards last year, and the people on our list who ended up with a gas-station gift-card. There really is no good reason to remind us when we are standing in our underwear in front of the refrigerator, trying to survive an August heatwave, that time is running out to get our orders in for fruitcake. Seriously, if you do this, you are a bad person, but you can still change. Just stop it. You feel the urge to mention how fast Christmas is coming up, don't. Dickens believed people can change, so in the true Sprit of Christmas I guess I probably do too.

I'm not being a "hater." I actually have no problem with the trash who keep their twinkle-lights up on the trailer year 'round. Find such harmless cheer as you are able, fellow redneck. Life is genuinely hard. And anybody who's Christmas tree stays up through January, we'll just agree to disagree. When it comes to the holidays I am generally very much live and let live. Really the only two types I find intolerable are the white gays who want to explain Kwanza to me every damned year, and those "only X days until Christmas" people. (What in the Sam Hill is wrong with you?!)

Just so you know, I've become something of a Christmas queen myself. I've aged into a strong physical Santa vibe: belly, beard, rosy, jolly. Nobody to blame but myself, though it is my beloved husband who's been making all the pie and cookies for forty years that helped get me here. (Food Is Love.) I do an annual reading of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory at the bookstore where I work and I may be the only one in the joint who's happy when they switch to the Christmas music mix. The Holidays are sorta my thing. So it is that I find myself with such a strong backlist of seasonal scribblings. No, I did not sit down and think to write a collection of Christmas pieces. Like those last curls of wrapping paper too good to throw away but not long enough to be really useful, I find I have lots of stray thoughts on Christmas and not a few pieces rather randomly tagged as related, so here they are.

Many of the little essays herein started out as introductions or encores to my holiday reading. Anybody who's been may remember some of these. I've left out a few things I actually still like, because I found there was no way to disentangle them from their original occasion and setting. When I tried, they fell to nothing and seemed not worth saving after all. (Never explain a joke after, or rely on dated references, particularly at length. Yesterday is gone. Different time. Let it go.)  A couple things I've included aren't really to do with Christmas at all beyond the fact that I mentioned the day for one reason or another. I've kept these because they seemed to me in keeping with the spirit if not the letter of the law, as it were. Not every thought of Christmas is a happy one. Other pieces are light to the point of triviality, but I'm comfortable with that. Not a few are darker than would be usual in this sort of thing, more expressive of the emotion with which they were written than with any clear idea I might have intended to convey. I preserve these here, just as they are and without apology. Could be worse, I could be one of those relentlessly cheerful souls who actually sits down at the computer and think that what the world really needs is another little collection of insipid cheer; another heartwarming book about a family being saved by a puppy in a Christmas bow, another seasonal cozy mystery, new and inferior illustration for A Visit from St. Nicholas, more Christmas in July Lifetime and Hallmark pap. That ain't me, sweetie. 

If this hasn't convinced you yet to put this little book down and walk away, I should just warn you that I am a sentimentalist as well as grump. (You'll find this is still a very popular combo in Very Special Holiday Episodes of American sitcoms. You damned kids get off my lawn! For me?! God bless us, everyone! Hey, if it ain't broke.) So any I might not drive off by being a snappish atheistic smartass, I may yet alienate by going all gooey about the good old folks to home and grandma's kitchen, or by too warmly or too often remembering the dead. Again, no apologies. Seems we may all have a part to play and evidently this is mine.

I could say that I wish everything in here was better than it is -- because I do -- but I have learned to let that go as best I can. Best I could do with what I have. Hope you might like some of it.

One final note, specifically on my very short Christmas stories. Unlike the essays herein, I never thought to see these little fictions again. They first appeared as my snarky captions to a series of vintage Christmas photographs posted online by a dear friend with an excellent eye for kitsch and commentary. I made up these little stories to go with the pictures and hopefully to make my friend laugh. When it came time to gather more than a decade of my Christmas scraps together, I was reminded of these unusual and largely forgotten bits o' fiction. I do not have the imaginative gifts for invented stories. (Wrote a whole novel once that proved this to my disappointment.) So why reprint these little squibs? Well, there were more of them than I'd remembered, and I found they still made me smile. I decided as an experiment to see if I could read them without the photographs on which they were written to riff. Maybe I'm wrong, but I rather like them naked. So why not? Think of them as regular, sometimes bitter little laughs between my more usual pontifications, preachments, and poorly reasoned flibertigibittetery. And yes, that is a word. I made it up. I can do that. My book. Enjoy. 

And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays if you are reading this sometime between Thanksgiving and the end of January. Otherwise maybe put it in the box of Xmas decorations and take it out when you're ready to put up the lights next year. I don't want to be one of those people.