Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Childlike Mood of Craving Marvels: Toddler Time, Defiance, and Lessons Learned

We hid the eggs only three days ago, but I'm feeling nostalgic for Easter--for the leisure, specifically: all those unstructured hours traipsing around the neighborhood, guided by the tiny hand of my toddler. I rarely, if ever, allow myself to lapse into "toddler time," a dangerous space of irresponsibility and glee, yet when I do I feel lightened in a way that feels instructive.

On most days, toddler time mandates inconvenience. Walking late into daycare, say, Ella will stop for an entire minute to inspect a pebble.

"Pebble," she'll say, pointing. "Pebble, pebble, pebble..."

And so on, until I yank her arm away.

Or perhaps we'll be crossing 8th Avenue in Brooklyn, hand-in-hand, and Ella will stop, look up to me, and say, "Hug?"

If I'm not careful, I might lose tens of minutes in this zone of pebbles and hugs. Prying Ella's lank little arms from my neck, I find myself late to another appointment, another task unaccomplished, the day creeping to its inexorable reckoning, the moment, after dinner, when I survey the dirty dishes and my marriage and feel deeply my life with its preposterous flaws.

On Sunday, I lost myself for hours in toddler time, in what W.G. Sebald calls "a childlike mood of craving marvels," lazing about in the morning and afternoon with my wife and mother and daughter, hiding and hunting eggs, stopping only for hugs, and little conversations, and sips of green tea.

When we arrived at Easter dinner, hours later, I felt relaxed in a way that felt elemental, as if massaged to the bone, drugged on my own blood.

We ate Easter dinner at my in-law's house. As always, I cooked the meal: roasted lamb loin chops (and one supplemental rack of lamb), halibut, boiled potatoes, asparagus, and salad. A simple meal, deceptively simple, for eight--or nine, if you include Ella, who'd seemingly subsisted all day on nothing but goat milk and the promise of chocolate.

We arrived early, around five, so that I could prep the meal and cook everything by six-thirty. I asked Karen to perform one task: zest the lemons. I did everything else.

Breezy and calm, I chopped the pecans and parsley. I tossed the pecans with olive oil, brown sugar and sea salt, parsley and lemon zest, and toasted the mixture in the oven until fragrant. I emulsified the olive oil and vinegar for the salad dressing. I seasoned the lamb with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. I tossed the asparagus with olive oil and lemon. I boiled the potatoes. I scattered lemon slices on the halibut.

Around 6:00, I seared the rack of lamb and placed the rack and the loin chops in the top oven--the oven reserved for meat. In the bottom oven, I placed the asparagus and halibut.

Around 6:10, just as my father-in-law opened the first bottle of Malbec, the oven let out a shrill alarm, and shut off. The oven seemed dead, and the alarm proved to be amazingly stubborn. It just wouldn't stop.

As my brother-in-law and mother-in-law wasted about ten minutes trying to no avail to reset the oven, to silence the alarm, I paced nearby, scheming alternatives.

Meanwhile, my mother milled about, eating crackers. My sister escaped with Karen to smoke a cigarette. And my father-in-law asked, "What's that sound?"

"Noise," Ella said. "Noise, noise, noise..."

And so on.

I remained surprisingly breezy. My day had relaxed me to the core. And besides, I'm the type of sadistic cook that thrives on chaos.

Finally, the circuit breaker tripped, the oven declared dead, I moved the entire meal to the four burners on the stove top. Soon the meat and fish sizzled away, and I found myself feeling the kinetic energy of real cooking: the heat and anger, the fatty smoke.

And yet, even as my family asked the familiar questions--"What about the salad?";  "Are you sure that's done?"--I calmly set the meal on the kitchen island, platter-by-platter: the lamb and fish, the potatoes and vegetables, the salad with goat cheese, Fuji apples, and toasted pecans to die for.

Surveying the meal, I said, just once, the two most important words in my life's repertoire, "Dinner's ready."

I refuse to repeat these words. I must be heard this first, and only, time. I think my family understands my feelings about this. And so they came, plates in hand.

As my family tottered to the kitchen--a bit too slow, I thought--Ella, standing below me, cracker in hand, asked, "Hug?"

"Not now," I said.

For Ella eating, or not eating, has become an act of defiance. Each night, just as we sit to dinner, she asks, "Chocolate?" And each night, I point to her chicken nuggets, and demand, "Eat." So she's taken to eating absolutely nothing or stuffing absolutely everything into her mouth at once.

By Easter dinner, I swear, she'd eaten zilch all day, yet when I said, "Not now," she felt a feisty need to stuff something into her mouth. A cracker. An entire cracker.

She choked instantly, sincerely, without pretense. She choked as if she might die.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, exploded from my adrenal gland, tensing my muscles. 

I picked her up, and hit her back hard. She opened her mouth wide, yet continued to choke. I hit her back hard again. She put her fingers to her mouth, choking.

My family stood frozen. I thought for a moment of my wife and sister brazenly smoking outside.

Ella's complexion seemed to transform, from toddler-pink to scary-blue. I hit her back hard again, and the cracker sailed from her mouth into her hand. Then, in one swift movement, she placed the cracker right back in her mouth.

It was then, with a hostility that surprised even me, that I stuck my own finger into her mouth, and removing the cracker, shouted, "Ella, bad girl!"

She burst into tears. Squirming away from the father who'd just saved her life, she pleaded to her grandmothers, to her uncle Mike, to anyone who might listen, "My cracker!"

Last night, under a darkening sky with spots of sunlight, I took Ella for an after-dinner walk to Knight's Park.

Halfway down the block, our neighbor, the knife sharpener, called form his porch, "Storm's comin'."

Hoping to abort our mission--and to return home to my tasks--I pointed up, and said, "Look, Ella, storm's comin'."

She took off, as she does, running down the sidewalk, her arms flailing, her little shoes seemingly never touching the ground, her body leaning forward, her momentum at any moment threatening to propel her into the pavement.

"Running," she squealed. "Running, running, running..."

"Careful, Ella," I said, chasing her, as I do, ready at any moment to scoop her up.

I let her run up and down the neighboring blocks, diverting her, until her sense of direction bettered my misdirection and we found ourselves at Knight Park, standing before her favorite swing set.

Just then, the sky rumbled deeply. 

"Go home?" Ella asked.

I scooped her up. "Storm's comin'?"

"Storm's comin'," she affirmed, wrapping her arms around my neck. "Go home?"

And so we walked under a leaden and supernatural sky, as the clouds billowed, and a strong wind sent the local wind chimes clanging strange music, and Ella, holding tight, asked, "Go home?"

"Go home," I said, lying, turning down an alley. "Storm's comin'."

As a steady rain broke from the clouds, we walked down the alley, peeping into our neighbor's windows, to the bright kitchens, and when we passed a rickety shed with its windows lit red, I said, "Look, Bunky."

Burrowing her head into my shoulder, she said, "Scared, Daddy."

"Daddy's here," I said, hugging her tightly. "Daddy's here."

I do not believe it is my duty to teach Ella to fear. However, in my selfish heart, I do believe it is my duty to teach Ella that the antidote to fear is her father.

In any case, we soon headed home. It wasn't until we hit our street, and I could see Karen standing on our front porch, peering out to the street, worrying a little, that I felt a selfish need to commemorate the occasion.

I set Ella down on a stoop and snapped a quick picture. I've been looking at the picture all day. Her expression surprises me; it defies my memory. To me, she looks like her usual sly self. I see no fear at all. I can't help thinking: perhaps she wasn't scared at all. Perhaps I walked down that alley, in the opposite direction of home, because I needed her to hold me tightly. Perhaps I needed to feel myself protecting her. Perhaps I needed the inconvenient hug.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ryan Trecartin on the Future

“Everything we do is going to be captured and archived in an accessible form, whether you want it or not. It’s going to change all our lives. We are a species that can no longer assume privacy. It’s not an individual decision, and I feel that’s exciting to explore--or something. There’s a lot of cultural content being generated right now that sees itself as post-human, but it’s assuming the twentieth century as its audience. It leans on structures that we already understand, but that we’re moving away from. My work is about humanity, and about the time I’m making it.”

~Ryan Trecartin on the future in The New Yorker

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Perfect Diet

In America views on healthful eating seem to fall on a spectrum defined by two opposing ideologies. On one side, people like Dr. Mercola, Sally Fallon (founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation) and Professor Loren Cordain (founder of the “Paleo Diet”) recommend the consumption of high quality animal-based foods, such as grass-fed beef, wild salmon, or raw grassfed butter. This side also typically advocates abundant raw vegetables and fermented foods. Excessive fruit consumption and grains, on the other hand, are typically discouraged. (The Weston A. Price foundation advocates soaked and cooked grains.)

On the other side, people like T. Colin Campbell, the author of The China Study, Dr. Dean Ornish, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn argue that animal-based products create disease, that there are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants, and that the best health-promoting diet is a low-fat, vegetable and grain-based diet--a vegan diet.

The diversity of information can be confusing.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wes Anderson's Style

On the occasion of the opening of Wes Anderson's latest, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Richard Brody, matching his subject's elegance, has written a review of the Anderson style: "The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson's Artistic Credo."

It's a great read in full, but I particularly enjoyed the following lines:

"The hotel is the embodiment of Gustave’s taste, and Gustave is the embodiment of its delights. It’s a state of affairs that matches Anderson’s own art: the virtual signature that’s present like a watermark throughout his work is also a part of his personal style, his dress and his manner, his very way of life. That’s why I’ve compared him to such high stylists as Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, who similarly exhibited in person the extreme stylistic precision of their work. The artist isn’t just the creator of style but also its bearer, and the artist’s very presence is a work of art in person, creation on the wing by means of a turn of phrase, a gesture, a way of dressing, the aura of charismatic influence."

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Art of Not Eating

A few years ago, my good friend Kevin started a cleanse. He bought a cleansing kit. He took the cleansing pills and fiber for ten days. He refined his diet. For breakfast, he ate berries. For lunch, he ate salad. For dinner, he ate baked fish and steamed broccoli. More importantly (for him at least), he did not drink his micro-brews, and he did not eat his favored hard pretzels.

Kevin felt light and optimistic. He also felt insatiably hungry. So he called me.

"I need to eat more food," he said.

"So eat more food," I said.

"Like what?"

"A sweet potato?"

"But that sounds good."


"Shouldn't I be suffering?"

Monday, February 24, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Poop: On Sterility, Dirt, and Life

I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in May, 2002. I wrote about this experience last year: how, on the day of my diagnosis, I refused my doctor's prognosis, as well as the drugs, and commenced a journey to heal—a fifteen-month experiment, absent any conventional medical guidance whatsoever, that effectively ended midway through my honeymoon, when my new wife admitted me to the ER.

For fifteen months, I devoted my life to an obsessive and fastidious investigation. Hunched over my desk, I spent day after day Googling. For a phrase like “ulcerative colitis natural cure,” I'd click twenty pages deep, reading every word on every site—every blog, every forum. Certain opportune comments led to new searches in new windows, fresh rounds of clicking. When I risked leaving the house, I’d visit Barnes & Noble, where I’d scan the indexes of books, seeking even the slightest reference to “colitis,” or “autoimmune,” or “Raynaud’s Phenomena,” or “Fibromyalgia”--my other illnesses. Inevitably, though, turning from my screen, or trudging from B&N only briefly lifted by some tidbit—“even cases of not-so-mild ulcerative colitis can respond dramatically to changes in lifestyle and outlook.”—I’d come to think of the only definitive cure: death.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Art of Eating

"Tell me what you eat," Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, "and I will tell you what you are."

You might know this quote from the Japanese Iron Chef, where it appears in the opening sequence of each episode, accompanied by a solemn overture from Hans Zimmer's "The Arsonist's Waltz," which quickly cuts to the show's brash theme song, another Hans Zimmer song, "Show Me Your Firetruck."

(Special thanks to the intricately-detailed study, "The Music of Iron Chef," for leading me to the Zimmer music. Both songs originally appeared in the 1991 film, Backdraft--an odd choice for Iron Chef, if you ask me, but also complementary to the odd spirit of the show. And if you're interested, here's an a cappella version of "Show Me Your Firetruck.")

Although the quote feels apt for the show, this opening sequence, with its bravado and flaming torches, does not offer an entirely accurate association for Brillat-Savarin, let alone the tone of his masterwork, The Physiology of Taste. In fact, Brillat-Savarin's work is equal parts bravado and self-parody--a fitting combination, I think, for any discussion of food and eating. Incidentally, after the opening bombast, any viewer of the Japanese Iron Chef will quickly see that this is the tone of the show, too. The show's most famous image occurs at the end of the opening sequence, when the host, Chairman Kaga, bites a pepper. From his quizzical expression, it's hard to say, exactly, what Chairman Kaga is thinking or feeling. In any case, it's a distinctly Japanese moment: to a Westerner's sensibility, bizarre and inexplicable.