Pass The Ketchup

Before we revealed the news about Mr. Baby, Too to our families, we were convinced that they would be as beside themselves as they were about Mr. Baby. We assumed there would be cheers, high fives and all manner of hoots, hollers and huzzahs — whatever it was, at the very least it would approximate the reaction we got when we announced the news about Mr. Baby.

Uncle Goober, otherwise known as the second child, was convinced the response would be muted. We told Goober he was mistaken, that grandparents are cuckoo bananas for all manner of grandchildren, that once they start being grandparents, they can't stop themselves, sort of like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting: "Jist one more feckin' hit . . ."

And so we set out to tell them when we were all together, just past the twelve week mark. We were all out to dinner and after we got our drinks and appetizers, I dutifully stood up and said that we had some news, that at least one of us was pregnant again. And then one of the dads asked someone else at the table to pass the ketchup. And this pleased Goober greatly.

So yeah, it starts with the grandparents. From there it's an unrelenting trickle of slights large and small: Dad doesn't bother going to any of the doctor appointments, fewer in utero photographs, generally forgetting to tell people about the news. Not only is everything they say about second children is true but you immediately see exactly how it happens.

I will say this for Mr. Baby, Too — we didn't spread the word by saying something along the lines of, "Big news: So-and-so is going to be an older brother!"

And then when the second baby finally arrives it only gets worse: the birth itself is less the miracle of life than amazement at how much the second kid looks like the first one did — "It's the same shot, exactly!" you yell. "Oh, it's uncanny," they respond. You put the kid in the same outfit and take more of the same pictures. You pose the first with the second. The first is the main subject of those shots. Isn't it adorable the way he dotes on his little brother? It goes on and on.

There are subtle differences, too, that don't involve just taking the second one for granted. Just this morning I realized that we now start talking about "the kids" as opposed to just Mr. Kiddo. As in, "Maybe we'll take the kids to the park later?" It sounds weird, kind of like the first couple of times you say "my wife" — when you say "the kids," it's different — you're now a dude with "kids," for one. "The kids" just sounds like it's a big responsibility, you know?

Of course, the structural demands become clear quickly — we're attuned to not making the first one somehow uncomfortable or upset by this new addition. I don't think the second one is starting a shit list just yet, but at some point he'll probably start noticing this being some sort of tragic thing that has befallen him.

. . . . . . . . . .

When we mentioned the ketchup story to the grandparents just after Mr. Baby, Too was born they protested — they love all grandchildren the same, of course, and they were so happy to hear the news, and that they didn't remember anyone asking for ketchup but rather that everyone was very happy to get the news. But they did finally allow that maybe there's a slight difference between the first time and subsequent times.

Of course there is a difference between the first kid and subsequent kids. That's only normal: You're not like Guy Pearce in Memento (as opposed to infants, who sometimes do seem like Leonard Shelby, the character in the film who lacks a memory and who needs important stuff tattooed on his chest [which unfortunately you can't do to toddlers]).

I'm reminded of that old axiom about "parenting is about not letting on that the second child means less than the first." I'm going to turn that one on its head: good parenting is avoiding making the second child feel like an unloved afterthought. And so begins my next great quixotic project: "Second Best," in which the second child somehow receives even more specialized attention than the first. The details are fuzzy, and we're all adjusting to getting less sleep than usual, which may affect the outcomes, but I'll let everyone know how it turns out.

Posted: March 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: The Cult Of Domesticity | Tags: ,

Cakes Of Glop, Gruel, Gruel!

Sometime before Mr. Kiddo's second birthday passed I meant to note a few things and never got around to it, not because they weren't important but because there's not ever really a lot of time to note such things.

That's all too bad, because there's been a lot of fun stuff to note — not all of which interesting only to just a small circle of people, either. A slice's crust being a "pizza bone," for example — that will stick with us forever.

But really, the days meld together in this astonishing exponential rate of development that outpaces anyone's ability to reliably recall, let alone catalog. Most of the time it's like, "Dude, fuckin' A." We're super-fortunate. Mr. Kiddo is awesome. I'm not quite sure what we're doing to encourage it, but I'm pretty confident we're not doing anything to discourage it, either, which is probably not a bad place to begin.

Over the last year it's sort of like a fog has been lifting, and this miraculous monkey has come into focus. He's joyful, playful, willful, manipulative, talkative, energetic and impulsive; even the "bad" qualities are good signs for us. He's gentle, focused, inquisitive, bright and empathetic. Oh, and he's really fucking cute. Like I said, I have no idea how any of this happened.

I want to believe diet is a key factor in all this. I happen to think Mr. Kiddo eats pretty well. I feed him, of course, so it could be a bit of circular logic, but whatever. To that end, I would like to share my recipes for glopcake and gruel — otherwise known as "breakfast" and "lunch."

"Glopcake" is basically an inartful term for what is basically a quasi-frittata. The difference, as I understand it, is that where frittata ingredients are folded into the raw egg mixture, the ingredients in glopcake are pulverized into a sort of slurry. Both are cooked the same way.

Glopcake started as a way to incorporate calcium-rich collard greens into eggs. It took off from there. A good glop, I found, incorporates vegetables — whatever you can cram in there — with a small amount of protein. You don't need a lot of protein, but even just a little something helps it not taste like a strange Chinese take-out dish. (I've used many proteins — beef, pork, lamb, chicken, chicken liver, shrimp, mild fish, even leftover sushi — almost anything works.) Add some milk, then pulverize into a thick slurry with an immersion blender. Add one egg per person, pulverize some more, then cook over medium heat in a skillet with olive oil until slurry is firm. Eat with sliced avocado. Milk for child, some kind of caffeinated beverage for adult.

Most who try glopcake enjoy glopcake. They dislike the name. At one point I suggested "skillet-cooked vegetable-protein slurry," but that never quite stuck. So "glopcake" it is.

Continuing the tradition of off-putting names, gruel is what's for lunch, and it's another winner, if I do say so myself. That said, it's a good thing Mr. Kiddo has little context for language. But look, the way I see it, if you're going to spend any amount of time wiping crap out of a human's butt, you owe it to yourself to make that crap as non-offensive as possible. Most people know the blunt-force calculus inherent in consuming too much fatty, junky food: Ensuring a child's diet has sufficient fiber is a gift to everyone. The less said about that the better.

So anyway, gruel is comprised of equal parts quinoa, red lentils and bulgur wheat. Well, not totally equal — usually a little more lentils and a little less quinoa, but that's only because I'm being cheap about it. You add seasoning, then serve. It's in the category of foods we refer to as "S.L.A.K." — "shit like a king." It works. Recipe follows — adjust measurements as necessary.

2 cups water
1/4 cup quinoa
1/4 cup red lentils (replace equal amount of quinoa with red lentils, if cheap)
1/4 cup extra fine bulgur wheat (can use oats or other grain, if desired)
1 tsp garam masala powder (or some such spice) (somewhat optional)
1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp cider or rice vinegar
Several pinches garlic powder
Several pinches dried herbs such as basil, oregano or thyme
Pinch ginger powder
Several dashes Sriracha or other hot sauce
2 tbsp cheese such as cheddar or ricotta (optional)
Meat and/or bone (optional)

Add quinoa and red lentils to two cups water. Add leftover bones with meat, if desired. Turn on heat to high, bring to boil, then lower to simmer for five or six minutes.

Add bulgur wheat and garam masala powder and stir, let cook for nine minutes.

In bowls divide soy sauce, vinegar, garlic powder, herbs, ginger powder, hot sauce and cheese.

When gruel is finished, spoon into bowls, mix, let cool and serve.

Some notes: Don't get distracted by the subordinate ingredients — the main thing here are the three grains. The rest of it just adds salt, sweet, sour and protein flavors; use whatever you want. Bulgur is supposed to have a low glycemic index (for a grain). The garam masala powder happened because we amassed a ton of it for some reason; before I was using up a big thing of curry powder; neither is necessary; that said, garam masala powder lends a sweet flavor, almost like brown sugar and it's good. I don't know that I can even discern the ginger powder but I began using it in gruels back when Jen was pregnant because ginger is supposed to be good for morning sickness, or something. Ricotta cheese began because it's really high in calcium; it also mixes easily. Adding something like a chicken bone with meat on it adds flavor. Mr. Kiddo likes meat in his gruel, too.

Oh, and for Pete's sake, if you're able to do so, eat with your kid. One, it's awesome. Two, it makes it easier when everyone eats the same thing. Three, you eat healthier if you eat the same stuff as a toddler.

Now that Mr. Kiddo is firmly in the realm of "toddler," it all becomes a little different. And once you feel comfortable with things, it's time to change them up again. This time, I feel confident enough to admit that I'm scared about what happens next. And so it all begins again.

Posted: December 31st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: The Cult Of Domesticity | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Political Assassination For Dummies And Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction, At Least Until An Editor Can Wrap Up The Loose Ends

It was my turn to pick a book for book club, which, truth be told, is not something I look forward to. Don't get me wrong, I can usually rise to the occasion, but the more my already narrow world has been restricted to poop diapers and copy editing (not always terrible) travel writing, the fewer ideas I have in general. I'm not sure, for example, that the entire group wants to read Sheryl Sandberg's new treatise, no matter how cute it is (or that I think that it is) that when I tell Master not to "lean in" to the dirty pail I say, "Quit it, Sandberg!"

If you dislike the idea of book clubs, mostly because you don't want to be saddled with either having to read The Kite Runner or feeling guilty about not having read The Kite Runner, then our system might be something to keep in mind: Whichever member it is who has to pick that month is responsible for three choices, which the attending members hash out and chew over before deciding what the next pick will ultimately be. It's consensus building, something Walt Whitman might write a poem about, or even "a fucking poem about," if you're feeling exuberant. (Of course you can game the system: the one month I really wanted to read Mötley Crüe's excellent The Dirt I also meekly offered Ross Douthat's Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and, yes, Khaled Hossein's The Kite Runner. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha! It was (perhaps literally) a no-brainer.)

Over time we've seen that the three-pick semi-final becomes an incentive to amp up your game, as it were, and not only make excellent choices but also come up with an excellent theme for each of the excellent choices. This doesn't sound as Type A as you'd assume — for me it tends to focus my hunt for a book, and not always at the expense of shoehorning something into a theme.

This past month I was working around Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, which was one of Jen's holiday gifts to me, a book that I'm pretty sure she got for me because she takes me for some sniveling yellowbelly cocksucker who never fought in a war. And I guess because it's supposed to be good.

But it did get me thinking: there seem to be two places in particular where "people" or "audiences" place a special premium on personal experience — one is politics and the other is novels. In the case of the former, it makes sense: you can't possibly understand what it means to have lobbyists write legislation for you if you haven't run your own company, served in active duty or operated on people; that much is clear. With writing, however, it just seems facile — and I think literally ironic, or at least literally absurd: you can't be trusted to weave a fictional tale if you haven't actually lived what you're making up.

By way of a huge digression, maybe what we really want is for people to "Irish things up" a little, or even a lot, with their storytelling, and maybe "fictionalized" or "thinly veiled fiction" is the way to give cover to that. I don't totally understand how we square getting miffed at David Sedaris while gleefully trying to discern which parts of The Devil Wears Prada are real.

At any rate, and by way of a hugely disingenuous blanket generalization, what seems to be kind of lacking these days are stories that are fully sourced from one's own imagination — as opposed to a summer job or internship, ex-girlfriend or traumatic family secret. Because what I suspect is going on is that it's not "interesting" enough to simply create a story about, say, a high schooler shooting up a school — you need to have actually birthed that child in order to create a fictionalized account about him. And what does that say about us, as a society, when we start encouraging our youth to actualize latent psychopathic tendencies? It looks pretty bad, I'll tell you that much — bad enough to make the founding fathers rethink much of the Bill of Rights, probably.

Anyway, as I was saying, I got caught up in this idea. Not necessarily of parlaying your own experience as currency to get a book published but rather the obsession in all of us for "authenticity," whether it's a noodle shop, artisan or even an author telling what is presumably a made-up story.

If an author can combine some kind of authentic experience with a no-go zone — whether its a battlefield, drug-infested neighborhood, bad school, kitchen nightmare, rape house or whatever — then they've got even more on the rest of us.

Which isn't to get on Kevin Powers — not at all. Although I still haven't read the book, I'm sure it's going to be good. What I'm really after is this position we're in where we — "we" — don't trust experiences or expressions that aren't somehow "authentic" — whether it's "we" the book industry or "we" meaning literally "us," I'm assuming it's probably our own goddamn fault (but clearly this is an area that needs further research, or beer). I guess if I sat here long enough I'm sure I could figure out a way to blame Anthony Bourdain somehow.

Which is to say, my theme began as one-upmanship. Or something like that. So then I got to thinking about other no-go zones: The drug world popped into mind, which made me think about the border states of Mexico, where it seems about fifty times more dangerous than Iraq. I was curious about whether there was good literary fiction about the drug cartels or something like that. There is apparently a good non-fiction book about the drug cartels, but we've been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, so I wanted a fiction book. I settled on The Plaza by Guillermo Paxton, which I was also interested in because it was published by a small and interesting sounding independent publisher. It's funny, but I'm not worried about the "quality" of the writing in a small press release (or even something self-released) — we ended up not reading The Plaza, so I don't actually know about how well it's written, but part of me thought that it can't be worse than a lot of new fiction we'd read, which, despite being prominently featured on NPR and adapted into HBO series or whatever, were actually infantilizing twee pieces of shit.

So then I thought about the theme some more and realized that, hey, I know like not at all what it's like to be a terrorist, so is there any first-person fiction from the point of view of a terrorist? And after reading no fewer than three Times pieces on this very topic (1, 2 and 3) I learned that it turns out that there really isn't!

I should back up a second: There is literary fiction about terrorism from the first-person point of view of the terrorist except that it was written by John Updike when he was well into his 80s and the great author supposedly used Islam for Dummies for background. I mean, I guess that's what I'm talking about, but I'm intrigued like not at all about that book.

But that's where Joseph Conrad comes in. Already a big fan of his highly fluid and accessible prose from such classics as Heart of Darkness and . . . uh, Heart of Darkness, which, if my math is correct, I've spent more of my life having read than not having read, I had no idea that he wrote about terrorism, too (in fact, he did!). And not only that, but Conrad's The Secret Agent was Ted Kaczynski's favorite book.

It turns out that The Secret Agent is also apparently a little hokey, with characters that verge on caricatures, so between the two we settled on Under Western Eyes. It's not a first-person account, but it does get you in the head of a terrorist at least somewhat, without a Dummies book.

(And to circle back to something I mentioned before, when I say "we," I'm not being majestically plural — literally, "we" at book club were hashing out what to read.)

All of the above is to say that Under Western Eyes is pretty great.

It seems like it should be hard to spoil the ending of something written over 100 years ago, but I will do just that in this paragraph. Eyes is set in pre-Revolutionary Russia. The story begins in St. Petersburg with an assassination. Razumov, the main character, is surprised to find that the assassin, a fellow student, has come to him for help to escape, assuming that Razumov's allegiances were similar. In a tyrannical and paranoid regime, the assassin's mere presence in Razumov's room has screwed up things permanently for Razumov — they presume more guilt by association, unlike, say, in 24. Razumov decides to turn in the assassin. The assassin is summarily executed by morning. The next part of the book switches to Geneva, where the assassin's mother and sister have moved to. Once the news comes out, the two are treated as, er, royalty among the dissident diaspora. Meanwhile, the two have always suspected that something went wrong and that there was more to the story — their son and brother was idealistic but not suicidal. Razumov appears in Geneva and of course the sister wants to meet her brother's closest confidant. It becomes clear that Razumov has been recruited, seemingly mostly against his will, to spy on behalf of Russia, so as a secret agent, Razumov is really in Geneva to ingratiate himself with the dissidents. Overtired and ornery, he is actually a terrible spy . . . it goes on from there . . . he does eventually connect with the assassin's sister . . . suffice it to say, the ending does not turn out well.

Eyes may be obvious, or maybe you'll find yourself waiting to see revealed what you assume will eventually happen, but it is still a great, tight book. And this is true even in spite of the heavy, laden imagery and allegory — all of which are accoutrements that distract only slightly from the story (as for the allegory, sure — granted, political turmoil affects everyone, regardless of their beliefs or how much they would like to avoid it). Writing-wise, Conrad certainly never makes it easy. Is his grammar precise and correct? Yes, but I'll never understand why there has to be so much of it. Take the first line of the book — it's no best-of-times-worst-of-times kind of opening line. Instead you struggle with wrapping your head around this:

To begin with I wish to disclaim the possession of those high gifts of imagination and expression which would have enabled my pen to create for the reader the personality of the man who called himself, after the Russian custom, Cyril son of Isidor — Kirylo Sidorovitch — Razumov.

Which you can also write as: "To begin with, I can't make up a character like Razumov." But that's just Joe Conrad for you: Looking back, it's not that that line is particularly complicated but rather reading line after line after line like that has a cumulative effect of making you zone out. I remember my high school English teacher calling Heart of Darkness "impressionistic," which I think is a euphemism for something along the lines of what you're left with when you zone out while you read long stretches of noun-age and passive voice — an "impression" of what the fuck is going on.

Oh, as for the title and the general premise that this complicated country is inaccessible to "western" thought — we get it! I can't tell you how many times Conrad's narrator repeats this. I will acknowledge — and this is where I find the book to be awesome — that I think (or at least try to make a case for the idea that) Conrad is purposely writing this way, in this clunky style, for this character in particular precisely because this character is a disengaged observer. The other actors in the book also seem to speak more directly, or are more men and women of action. It's a smart and seemingly self-aware touch. At book club Alexis mentioned that her impression is that where Heart and Eyes are slog-like — because both subjects are heavy slogs — Joe's maritime books are more "energetic." I'm happy to take her word for it.

Also, Razumov is a great character. As the assassin's supposed friend, he's immediately welcomed by the Geneva revolutionaries. And even though his specific mission is to spy on these guys, he couldn't be any less cooperative and bitchy and sarcastic around them. And, like the pick-up artists in that Neil Strauss book, we learn that negging is the best approach — the more sarcastic Razumov is, the more he seems to be accepted — or at least no one really cares how much of a jerk he is. It's a great psychological touch on Conrad's part.

Under Western Eyes works in a way that a modern book about terrorism can't because Conrad finds the perfect scenario for the story and you are pulled into "understanding" both sides. The assassin's act also took the lives of innocent people, so Razumov's actions (I think) come off as justified. At the same time, the tyranny of the Russian system seems attack worthy, so you feel sympathetic to the revolutionaries Razumov is sent to infiltrate. Meanwhile, no one is particularly "good" or blameless. Conrad's author note calls this "impartial," but I think it's more deft than that — "impartial" is what you'd call a wire report or a debate commission or a jury: Conrad's characters rise to a higher level than simple "impartiality."

At some point, as many people writing in the Times in fact did after 9/11, you might choose to use Eyes as a, er, lens to view storytelling about modern terrorism. And no matter how "sympathetic" writers make terrorists, I think it's going to continue to be an uphill climb. A few more years of drone strikes might change the equation, of course, but I don't know how relatable 72 virgins in heaven will ever seem to a western reader. Which is to say, modern terrorists are using way too much tuna (although after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can anything be construed as too much tuna?). (If you're wondering what was up with that last parenthetical, I can double down: Dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations may have been absolutely necessary to save 1 million U.S. lives, but it came at the expense of somewhere around 200,000 Japanese lives; the whole calculus seems pretty brutal, and deserves more awe or even shock than the hushed tones of American history books tend to give the event — or at least my memory thereof.)

Modern-wise, Homeland I think comes the closest to putting the viewer/reader into the head of a terrorist, but without giving much away, it doesn't go far enough. I would love to see Eyes adapted for today: At points during the book you might find yourself substituting one setting for another and the effect is supertight and chilling (even "dazzling", whatever that means).

Posted: June 10th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,