Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Too Much Tequila!

     I was going through pictures from my recent trip to Isla Mujeres and I came across this one. I’d fallen asleep on the beach after too many tequila sunrises and I woke to the sight of this vendor walking by. I shook my head to clear away the cobwebs but the macabre image remained. I couldn’t resist reaching for my camera and snapping a picture.
     Can you guess what this vendor was peddling?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Last Night's Conversation With Mother

     “Hey, Mom, what are you doing?”
     “Same as always, just trying to survive.”
     This is one of my eighty-six year old mother’s favorite lines. It doesn’t leave much of an opening for conversation. “Reading anything interesting?”
     “No. At my age I’ve read everything there is to read. There’s nothing new anymore. Besides, books today are a bunch of drivel. In my day writers really knew how to write.”
     “Yeah, that Genesis was one hell of a book.”
     “What was that you said?”
     “Nothing. So what did you have for dinner tonight?”
     “Mother didn’t really feel like eating tonight. Ever since I had those terrible cramps at your house on Thanksgiving I just don’t seem to have much of an appetite. I barely made it to the toilet after you dropped me off.”
     “Maybe you shouldn’t have eaten so many of the shrimp appetizers before dinner.”
     “I only had a nibble, just to sample Sue’s recipe. Maybe the shrimp were spoiled. How long did she leave them out?”
     “The shrimp were fine, Mom.”
    “Maybe later I’ll have a piece of that pumpkin pie you sent home with me, along with a tall glass of milk. Anything good on TV tonight?”
     My mother lives in a retirement community that has a different cable provider than we do. Our TV channels don’t match up, but she always asks.
     “We’re watching Pawn Stars,” I say. “Check your directory for the channel and give it a try.”
     Porn Stars? Why would I give that a try. And explain to me, young man, why you’re watching pornography. Everything okay between you and Sue?”
     “I didn’t say porn, I said pawn! And Sue is sitting right here beside me.”
     “I wouldn’t have thought she was into that sort of trash.”
     I tried once again. “Not PORN, Mom. The word is PAWN!”
     “Are you saying p-o-n?”
     “No; I don’t think pon is a real word. I’m saying P-A-W-N.”
     “Oh, you mean like a pawn shop?”
     “Exactly. The show revolves around a family that operates a pawn shop in Las Vegas. People bring in interesting collectibles and the shop offers them money for their items. It’s like Antique Road Show but here money actually changes hands. A guy once tried to pawn a nineteenth century vampire-killing kit.”
     “Sounds interesting, but I don’t get that channel.”
     “I haven’t told you what channel it’s on.”
     “Go ahead and tell me, but I bet I don’t get it.”
     By now I’m worn out. “It’s on the History Channel. Check your directory for the right numbers. Today they’re running a Pawn Shop marathon; the show is being broadcast all day until midnight.”
     “Okay, I’ll give it a try. What time is it on?”
     “It’s on now.”
     I see. So what else is new. What are you and Sue up to?”
     At the moment I was thinking about heading to Las Vegas to purchase a vampire-killing kit, but all I said was, “Just trying to survive.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Motoring With The Chatterbox

     Announcing Chubby Chatterbox’s first guest blogger, my son CJ (Chatterbox Junior) who has chosen this moment to humiliate me.
      People have referred to me as a “Car Whisperer,” a term I am not particularly fond of; I don’t have conversations with cars. Well, that’s not entirely true. I may thank my car from time to time when it completes a particularly arduous task like towing a trailer or getting me home safe in the snow or pouring rain. I might also utter a colorful metaphor from time to time as I repair and maintain my cars in a rainy driveway. This isn’t, however, a story about my love for cars. It’s a tale about how my love and understanding of cars led one father to ask his son to meet his four wheel needs.
     If you’ve been reading my father’s blog for any length of time you’ve undoubtedly come to realize he is a wonderful storyteller. His imagination and zest for life make him the life of the party and the source of endless laughter and contemplation. While he is a great many things, a car person he is not. I once scolded him in my early teen years for not changing the oil in his car for three years. His rebuttal to my scolding was:
     “Well, it hasn’t been 3,000 miles yet.”
     “Dad, it’s three months or 3,000 miles,” I said.
     “Well, I simply don’t see the difference. Speaking of distance, did you know that every road once led directly to Rome?”
     This is how conversations usually go with Dad; mechanics has never been a common ground for us. I appreciate him for his many talents and gifts and he appreciates me for mine. This is why when he needed to buy a car he came to me. 
     The request started out simple enough. He didn’t want a new car. He didn’t care about them enough to make payments, and he didn’t want to spend over $7000.00. For him, a car was about getting from point A to B. He told me he did some of his best daydreaming behind the wheel so this vehicle needed to be as safe as a Sherman tank. So, on a Fall day I swung by the house to talk to him about what he wanted:
     “Do you have an idea what you’d like?” I asked.
     “Not really,” said Dad. “Just take into consideration everything you know about me and buy the perfect car.”
     “Can you give me a bit more info to go on?” I asked.
     “Well, I want it to feel big in every way, but actually be small.”
     “Ok….What about options? Do you care about power windows or air conditioning? How about a CD player?”
     “Hmmm, I hadn’t thought about that. I’d like it to have windows, and I suppose AM radio would be nice.”
     “Dad, all cars have windows and AM radio is not really a cutting edge option.”
     “Did you know that AM radio was invented by—”
     “Dad, stop!  We’re here to talk about what you need in a car so I can find one for you.”
     “Right. Well it should get good gas mileage, but have plenty of power.”
     “So you want something with lots of power, but something that gets good mileage? That might be tough to find.”
     “That’s why I came to you, my boy! Also, I want to like it, but hate it too.”
     “What does that mean?”
     “I don’t want to worry about it getting scratched or dinged, but I want to like the way it looks.”
     I sighed as I realized the only car that could satisfy my father might be the one he painted with his imagination brush.
     “Ok, what about color?”
     “Anything but white!”
     “Ok, simple enough.”
     “And not bright red.  Definitely no green. And probably not yellow or black either.  Perhaps  alizarin crimson or azure.”
     “I’m not an artist, Dad, so in plain terms what are alizarin crimson and azure?”
     “Burgundy and sky blue.”
     “So you want a big and small car with windows, lots of power, something that gets great mileage and is the color of dark red wine or the sky?”
     “I knew I called the right person for the job!” Dad exclaimed. “Remember, keep it around $7,000. Cheaper would be better.”
     I sighed again and set off to locate the perfect vehicle for my father. I scoured the Internet for cars and eventually called on a late 90’s Toyota RAV4. It had just over 100,000 miles and was advertised in “Good condition.” I headed out on a crisp Fall day to inspect the RAV4. When I arrived, I saw that it was quite dirty. This was a good sign as spotless used cars are usually clean for a reason….to distract you from issues lurking beneath their glistening hoods. The woman who owned the RAV4 said she was selling it to buy a new car and she hadn’t had any trouble with it. I crawled under the car and checked it from top to bottom while Fall leaves blew around me. It had been well maintained, and was dark burgundy—one of Dad’s color choices. The owner was asking $7000 but I snapped it up for $6,300. Back home I gave it a tune-up and thorough cleaning. A death metal CD was in the stereo and I removed it, assuming Dad wouldn’t rock out during daydreaming sessions. I called him that afternoon and told him I’d spent all of his money.
     “You found something already?” he said. “It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours! Wow, I knew you’d be fast, but that’s the quickest I’ve ever lost $7,000.”
     “You didn’t lose anything,” I answered, indignantly. “You got a great car for $6,300.”
      “So where’s my $700?”
      “I used it to give the car a full tune-up. It’s ready to go and should last for years.”
     Later that week, Dad came to pick up the RAV4. I could see on his face that he loved it. It’s been five years now since I bought my dad his RAV. It fired up dutifully for us at the airport a while back when we returned to the stormy Pacific Northwest from Cancun. Dad affectionately refers to it as his rig and I expect he will drive it for the next twenty years. 
     When he recently found out I got some free death metal music out of the deal he said, “So where’s this CD?  After all, I paid for it.”
      “But Dad, if you knew what death metal music sounded like you’d hate it.”
     “Maybe I’d surprise you.”
     Give me a break! The man still digs Barry Manilow.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Apples & Oranges

     At our Thanksgiving table I overheard a conversation about politics. People were comparing presidential candidates. Someone said, “They’re all so different! It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”
     I’ve heard that apples and oranges reference my whole life and I just don’t get it. When I was small it was right up there with: Six of one, half dozen of another, which I didn’t understand as a kid but now makes perfect sense. Another strange one was: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Growing up I never saw a horse or a beggar in our neighborhood. But why has the comparison of apples and oranges become such a common term to signify two dissimilar things?
     In fact, apples and oranges have quite a few similarities. Both are round. They’re both vitamin-supplying fruits, both smell wonderful, both have peels and seeds, both are pressed for highly-valued juices. It seems to me that apples and oranges are more similar than not.
     Why don’t we change this cryptic saying to show real differences, such as: It’s like comparing apples and anvils, or oranges and bazookas? (I think I saw an A-Team episode where they fired apples from a bazooka.)
     Who invents these crazy sayings? When is it my turn?

     Did you stumble over any of these old sayings while growing up? If you’re not  three sheets to the wind from Thanksgiving celebrations, share them….

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Best Turkey Ever!

     This morning I woke alone in bed. Mrs. Chatterbox got up before dawn and began working on the feast that is the hallmark of this special day. I don’t deserve having a spouse willing to get up before roosters crow just to please me with a sumptuous banquet, but I’ll accept this gift as graciously as I can.
     As I lay here enjoying the aroma of onions and fried pork sausage that will add flavor to Mrs. Chatterbox’s dressing, I can’t help but think back on the best Thanksgiving turkey I ever had. It was shortly after Mrs. Chatterbox and I were married, and even she admits it was spectacular.
     That year my parents decided to have Thanksgiving at their house. Mom went out of her way to make everything perfect. The doorbell went into overtime with a steady flow of invited guests. Mom kept popping out of the kitchen to greet the new arrivals, a spatula in one hand and a bourbon and Seven in the other.
     At one point Mom emerged from the kitchen with a curious look on her face. I could tell she had a slight buzz going on, usually she isn’t much of a drinker.
     “What’s wrong?” I asked.
     “Nothing. Nothing,” she said.
     Twenty minutes later the same thing. “Mom, something is wrong. What is it?”
     ‘It’s that darn turkey,” she said. "It just doesn’t look right. I want it to look like Norman Rockwell painted it but, well it looks…weird…”
     I went to the oven, donned an oven mitt and pulled it out. When I lifted the lid I burst out laughing. “Mom,” I said, “Just how much have you had to drink?”
     “Maybe a bit more than usual. Why do you ask?”
     I glanced at the bird in the oven. It looked like a leathery battle helmet from ancient times. “You’re roasting this turkey upside down.”
     “Upside down,” my mother exclaimed. “I thought it just had really big wings.”
     This was a happy accident because all of the juices from the dark meat dripped into the white, making for tremendous moistness. The turkey split apart while cooking and didn’t look very attractive surrounded by parsley on Mom’s special Thanksgiving platter, but it was the most succulent turkey I’ve ever eaten, excluding, of course, the one my wife is now preparing for me. But if you ask me, all turkeys should be roasted upside down, if you can afford the bourbon.
                       Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Good News & Bad News

     My dad was a professional mechanic who always kept our cars running like well-oiled clocks. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit Dad’s mechanical ability, which skipped a generation to take root in our son. CJ is a remarkable mechanic who treats cars the way accomplished musicians treat their instruments. He can diagnose what’s wrong with an engine by listening to cars whizzing past on the highway. He does a great job of keeping our vehicles in proper running order, but he leads a busy life and isn’t always around.
     For routine servicing we’d been bringing Mrs. Chatterbox’s BMW to the dealership where we purchased it nine years ago. My wife says the car belongs to both of us but it really belongs to her; I drive a RAV 4 and love it. (Note: A story on the unorthodox way I came to own my RAV is on its way.)
     Over the past few months we came to believe that the BMW dealership was strong-arming us and using scare tactics to beef up our bills. CJ finally convinced us it was time to part ways with the dealership and find a reliable repair shop. We settled on Autohaus Bayern, a German car specialist not far from where we live.
     The other day the driver’s seatbelt in the BMW wouldn’t work. Mrs. Chatterbox is fastidious about following rules and wasn’t about to break the law by driving unbuckled. I tried to fix the seatbelt. I failed.
     CJ examined the locking mechanism and told me and his mother, “There’s a dime lodged in the mechanism; I can see it but can’t reach it. You’ll need to take it to Autohaus to see if they can get it out.”
     My mind flashed on the many times I’d driven the BMW and the frequency with which change had rained from my pockets onto the floor and between the seats. In fact, I’d borrowed the car and spilled a pocketful of coins the day prior to Mrs. Chatterbox noticing the problem. 
     “Hopefully they won’t need to remove the seat to get at the problem,” CJ continued, “because that could be time consuming and cost you serious bucks.”
     So Mrs. Chatterbox drove to Autohaus Bayern and explained the situation. She sat in the waiting area as one of the technicians drove our BMW into the garage to check out the problem. He returned ten minutes later and said to my wife, “I have good news for you, and bad news. Which do you want first?”
     Expecting to be told she owed several hundred dollars, my wife braced for the worst and said, “Give me the good news.”
     He pushed back his cap and said, “I managed to fix your belt buckle…”
     “How much do I owe y—”
      Before she could finish, he cut her off. “I’m not going to charge you anything.”
     “That’s marvelous,” she said. “What’s the bad news?”
     The technician grinned at her sheepishly. “I lost your dime.”
     I doubt we’ll ever take our car anywhere else.

     Everyone has had unpleasant experiences with people in the service industry, auto repair shops, municipal workers, etc., but at some point you must have had one or two good experiences. Share one with us during this week of thanks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Higher Than A Kite!

     When I create an illustration I’m generally dealing with a topic or motivating concept—often provided by the client. I have a good idea what the picture is going to look like before I start, but paintings are different; they have a way of sneaking out like sneezes or belches or—well, you get the idea.
     This little painting, which I’ve never shown to anyone before, seemed to appear on my canvas from nowhere. I wasn’t thinking about balloons at the time, and the face doesn’t resemble anyone I know, but when I look at this painting I laugh. I’m not sure why. Maybe this is my smirking alter ego, filled with hot air. Does it make you laugh? Or cry? Or feel anything at all?
     Should I go back to my therapist for more electric shocks?

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Portrait

     This story is reconstructed from a true occurrence that happened several years ago:

     A young artist struggling to make a name for himself was ecstatic when an industrialist, the wealthiest man in town, commissioned a portrait of himself. The price agreed on for the painting (two thousand dollars) was more than the young artist had ever received. He was determined to make this the best portrait he’d ever painted.
      Several weeks passed and the young artist appeared every day at the wealthy man’s mansion and labored diligently, refusing to affix his signature to the canvas until certain it was his best work to date. When finished, the portrait was a masterpiece, an amazing analysis revealing the sitter’s complex character. So skillfully was the subject rendered that the portrait appeared capable of thought and speech.
     When the artist requested his fee he was shocked to receive only three hundred dollars, a fraction of the agreed upon amount. “This wasn’t our arrangement,” he said.
     The industrialist puffed on his cigar and replied, “I’m only giving you three hundred dollars because the painting doesn’t look a thing like me.”
     Realizing that the man was simply trying to steal the painting for a fraction of its worth, the artist insisted on the full amount.
     The industrialist shook his head and blew a puff of smoke in the artist’s face. “When you’re starving, as most artists end up doing, you’ll beg me to take this portrait off of your hands. When that time comes, I’ll pick up this canvas for a song.”
     Disappointed, the artist packed up his gear, grabbed the painting and walked home to
his studio.
     Two months later the millionaire was having lunch in a fancy downtown restaurant. He finished his meal and left, without leaving a tip for the waiter who’d seen to his every need. On the way to his nearby office he walked past a crowded art gallery. He entered to see what was so interesting and was startled when people pointed at him and laughed. A crowd standing before one of the paintings parted. There, hanging on the wall, was the portrait he’d commissioned of himself. Beside the painting was a placard with the picture’s title: Portrait of a Thief.
     Crimson shot up the man’s cheeks. “This is an outrage!” he bellowed.
     The artist happened to be standing nearby and stepped forward.
     Seeing him, the industrialist barked, “You did this to humiliate me, turn me into a laughingstock. Take this painting down immediately!”
     The artist calmly refused.
     “I’ll sue you for defamation of character.”
     “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the artist said. “You told me that the portrait didn’t look a thing like you; surely no one will think it’s you.”
     “All right, you win. I’ll pay your price,” said the deflated millionaire, fishing out his wallet and handing over a handful of bills. “Now take it down before anyone else sees it.”
     The artist looked at the wad of money and said, “You should have held to our original agreement. The price is now ten thousand dollars.”
     Ash fell from the millionaire’s cigar as he wrote out a check.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Birthday #59

     There are benefits to not being good with numbers and I’m reaping one right now. I thought this was the year I hit the big 60, but I now realize it’s only my fifty-ninth birthday which I thought I’d celebrated last year. Because I have difficulty accessing that part of my brain where mathematics lurks like a creepy spider I get another year before leaving behind my fifties. Twelve months that I thought I’d spent but hadn’t. Quite a gift, but what should I do with it?
     Those who know me well have little difficulty believing me capable of such a mistake. In school I was a dullard at math; numbers were just beginning to make sense  when the government instigated something called “New Math,” to help us compete with the Russians, who’d recently launched Sputnik and were about to take over the world and make us drink vodka and eat stinky black fish eggs.
      Actually, people tell me I look much younger than I am. Either they’re just being nice or there are benefits to having a fat face—fat puffs out the wrinkles. If I start losing weight I’ll look like a deflating zeppelin. But there’s another reason I’m often mistaken for someone younger: I possess a disarming sense of immaturity that is so rare in one my age that it’s often mistaken for youth. In short, I’m childish, and I work hard at staying that way. 
     My son gave me this birthday card. I don’t generally post humor pictures but this one rattled my funny bone, and since many of you are bloggers you might also find it amusing.

     So what should I do with this extra year? Sky diving? The only way to get me to jump
out of a plane is to set it on fire. Learn another language? I haven’t mastered or done much with this one. Oh wait, of course! I know what I’ll do, if I can summon the nerve. I’ve never done anything like it before and it will be f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c….  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Someone Had To Be First!

      Yesterday Mrs. Chatterbox, our son Colin and I made it home from Isla Mujeres. A screw-up in Dallas had us standing in line with five hundred other passengers trying to make it past two customs agents. By the time we were cleared our connecting flight to Portland was long gone. We spent the night in Las Vegas and arrived home at about five p.m.
     The sunset wedding was gorgeous and you can check it out here. Laurie is my delightful sister-in-law and she’s organizing the hundreds of pictures taken at the wedding, not including the thousands of images snapped by the professional wedding photographer.
     This got me wondering: we know so many important names in history, the first human to set foot on the moon, the first person to fly solo over the Atlantic or the first intrepid souls to reach the poles or scale Mount Everest, but who was the first person to have his picture taken?
     Having our picture snapped is an occurrence we all take for granted. You don’t need to be a famous fashion model to be photographed repeatedly. We’re photographed at the DMV, entering banks and convenience stores, enjoying ourselves at sporting events, pausing at stop lights and often just walking down the street, which many see as a violation of privacy. Conservative estimates place the number of photographs taken by year 2000 at an amazing 85 billion—an incredible 2,500 photos per second, and experts believe we are rapidly closing in on 3.5 trillion photographs. But, as in all things, when it comes to having your picture taken someone had to be first.
     In 1838 Louis Daguerre, the father of modern photography, tired of taking still-life pictures of fruit and plaster casts in the corner of his studio, aimed his bulky contraption out the window to shoot a photograph of bustling Boulevard du Temple below. He held his camera as steady as he could for ten minutes, the amount of time required for an exposure, and his arms must have ached when he finally set down his cumbersome camera. The picture Daguerre later developed showed the boulevard just as he’d seen it. Well, not exactly; the buildings and trees were perfectly recorded, but where were the well-dressed couples promenading down the street? Where were the bustling carriages and prancing horses? What happened to the street peddlers showing their wares to young dandies out for a leisurely stroll? 
     Daguerre’s picture took so long to develop that all moving things disappeared from the scene, as if they hadn’t been there at all. Or so it seems. If you look more closely at the bottom left hand corner of the image a man stands on the otherwise empty street. Who is he? Had he been an astronaut or explorer we would surely know his name. He is standing still because he is having his shoes shined—the man doing the polishing is moving too quickly to be recorded and has blurred into oblivion.
     Upwards of fifty billion pictures of people have been taken since the perfection of photography, and this man, oblivious to the significance of what was happening, was the first. We know nothing about him. Perhaps he was someone like Rob, the talented young fellow who just married our niece, pausing for a shine on the way to his wedding.
     Congratulations Rob and Sarah. Treasure each moment of your new life together because at any moment something truly extraordinary can happen. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Isla Mujeres: Rhymes with Paris

Hey guys,

Mr. and Mrs. Chatterbox flew the coop on Thursday to attend our niece's wedding on the tiny island of Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancun.

I had grand plans for some travel blogging, but the WiFi on the island is spotty at best. In addition, my i-Pad is all in Spanish so I don't know what I'm doing.

I look forward to catching up on everyone's posts when we return in a few days.

Until then, wish you were here. Adios

SeƱor Chatterbox

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Conclusion: Dining With The Smoke Detector

      The front door was open to let out the smoke, making it unnecessary for the firemen to sink their axes into it.
     A George Clooney look-a-like said, “We were just driving by on a grocery run and saw all the smoke. Is everything okay?”
     Before I could answer, Sue, wrapped in a wet towel, appeared at the top of the stairs. “What’s going on? Why is the smoke detector going…” Her voice trailed off at the sight of the firemen standing in our foyer. She may have giggled. I’m sure she did. She would later deny it. 
     “Sorry, guys,” I said, “but it’s just a small grease fire, nothing to worry about.”
     “Do you have a fire extinguisher handy? A planned escape route?”
     I just stared at him. What I had was a chunk of black meat that looked like it had been torched by a flamethrower.
     Sue, moving with the speed of a glacier, retreated to the bedroom to put on clothes.
     “What are you cooking?” a chisel-jawed firefighter asked.
     “Pot roast,” I answered.
     “Did you get a cut of meat with enough fat on it. You need fat for flavor, and wine… and—”
     I assumed he was the one at the fire station always switching the TV channel to the Food Network. “Thanks guys, but I have everything under control.”
      The firemen lingered in our foyer. One of them handed me a pamphlet on home fire safety. They couldn’t possibly be waiting for an invitation to my charred dinner so I assumed they were hoping to catch another glimpse of Sue in her bath towel. I closed the
door on them just as the phone rang.
     “Did you flush out all the smoke?”
     “Yes, Mom.”
     “Good. Did you brown the meat?”
     “Oh, it’s good and brown all right.”
     “Fine. Did you add the wine and a cup of water?”
     “I’m doing it now.”
     “What about the bay leaves? Did you add them to the juice?”
     I’d forgotten the bay leaves. I pulled them out of a plastic bag; they reminded me of something I rolled and smoked in college. I dropped them into the big red pot.
     Mom’s deluge of instructions resumed. “Sprinkle half a tablespoon of cumin to the juice, along with a dash of cinnamon. Place a few strips of bacon on top of the roast, cover the pot with the lid and put it into the oven. Did you preheat your oven to 350˚?”
     “Of course,” I answered, turning on the oven.
     “Leave it in the oven, covered, for about an hour. Then take off the lid, drop in your peeled celery, potatoes and carrots. Let it cook for another thirty minutes.”
     “Holy crap!” I barked into the phone. “The Manhattan Project made atomic bombs at Los Alamos with less fuss.”
   “I don’t know how they make pot roasts in Manhattan,” she said, “but this is the way I do it.”
     I hung up and cautiously pushed the pot into the oven, hoping for the best. I’d only
wanted to treat my wife to a nice meal, but I now felt like the fate of the free world rested
on my shriveled piece of meat.
     Sue’s voice wafted down from the top of the stairs. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
     “No, sweetie, I’ve got it covered. Why don’t you take a nap?
     “I think I will. What a treat!”
     I didn’t want to admit it but cooking was hard work. I settled down on the couch in the family room, turned on a football game and quickly fell asleep. Had I known how to set the timer on the stove I might not have slept so long, but two hours quickly passed. I dashed to the oven and plucked out the pot. Even though I hadn’t preheated the oven, my roast looked like it had been hocked up by a fire-breathing dragon. I dug out Sue’s meat thermometer, which informed me that beef was well cooked at 160˚. With difficulty, I jammed in the thermometer. The needle rose…and rose…and rose…. It wavered at 180˚ and then jumped upward to 201˚. Close enough. I promptly burned a few pop and bake biscuits to accompany my meal.
     Sue came downstairs just as I was placing my meal on the dining room table. She didn’t say anything snarky about a meal that looked like it had been prepared in the fiery kitchens of Mount Doom.
     My meal was a bust: a mako shark would have struggled to bite through the meat, the biscuits looked like hockey pucks and the juice I was supposed to ladle over the carrots and potatoes—strangely missing from the pot—looked like residue spooned from a tar pit. But the sight of me clearing the plates and doing the dishes seemed to put her in a generous mood.
     “Let’s go upstairs,” she said when I wrapped up in the kitchen.
     “What did you have in mind?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.
     “Let’s spice things up with some game playing. I’ll be a damsel in a burning building and you can be the handsome fireman come to save me.”
     The bit of pot roast I’d managed to swallow lurched in my stomach.

     What was your greatest kitchen disaster?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dining With The Smoke Detector

     I should have listened to the little voice in my head telling me to keep my mouth shut. Before I knew it I was in deep water. “Why don’t you take the evening off,” I said to my wife. “I’ll cook dinner tonight.”
     “I don’t feel like spaghetti or tacos,” she said, ruling out my specialties.
     “Very funny. I can cook other stuff.”
     She leaned forward on her stool at the kitchen counter where she was balancing our checkbook. “Like what?” She looked amused.
    “You like pot roast, don’t you?”
     “It’s rather complicated. Tell you what; go ahead and make your spaghetti.”
     Under no circumstances was I going to make spaghetti, which in my case meant opening a jar. “Pot roast it is!”
     “Making pot roast isn’t as easy as you think.”
     I shrugged. “I grew up on pot roast, and I’ve seen you make it often enough. How hard can it be?”    
     As it turned out, pretty darn hard.
     When Sue left for the beauty salon to get her hair trimmed I made the call.
     “Mom, I’m making pot roast for Sue tonight. What do I need?”
     “It’s about time you helped out more in the kitchen. Do you have a pot roast?”
     “I suggest you get one.”
     “I’m writing this down. One pot roast. Do they come in different sizes?”
     “Yes. Three pounds is a good size. Get one with a bone in it for flavor. Ask the butcher for help if you can’t find one. And fat. The meat needs fat on it. Remember: fat is the magic carpet on which flavor takes its ride.”
     Little wonder I started out in life as a fat kid. “Thanks, Mom. See ya; I’m off to the store.”
     “Hold your horses, young man.” She’s the only living person who calls me a young man, or thinks I have horses. “You’ll need a few other items.”
     “Like what?”
     “Like an onion and several stalks of celery, two cloves of garlic, red wine, bacon, cumin, bay leaves, potatoes and carrots…”
     There were other items but my hand got tired from writing and I just said uh-huh and let her ramble on about how all of this went together.
     At the grocery store I couldn’t believe how much all of this cost. Sue had been complaining that everything was getting more expensive but I’d turned a deaf ear. To make matters worse, I encountered half a dozen guys from the nearby fire station. If Sue had been there she would have referred to them as “first string,” meaning they were good-looking enough to douse her with their fire hoses any time. I’ll never understand the attraction women have for firemen. Big deal! Any dude who happened to be quick as lightning, trained in firefighting techniques and oozing with courage would race into a burning building to save a kid.
     The butcher was holding court over the meat counter. His hands were the size of the roast I was searching for. He didn’t look like he wanted to be bothered so I grabbed a package of shrink-wrapped beef, along with the other ingredients. I nearly strained my back lugging grocery bags from the garage into the kitchen. It had taken forever to find all this stuff in the labyrinth that was our grocery store and Sue was home from the beauty salon by the time I returned. I poured her a glass of wine—not too much because cooking was thirsty business and I needed to be well lubricated—and suggested she enjoy it upstairs while soaking in the tub. I was determined to show my wife that, when it came to cooking, she’d married a guy with skills.
     When she’d gone I emptied the grocery sack and lined up all the ingredients on the counter. These all needed to end up in a dish…or a pot…or a pan, or …or….
     I grabbed the phone and dialed.
     Mom picked up on the first ring. “I’ve been waiting for your call. Did you get everything?”
     “I got enough! What kind of a pan do I throw this stuff into?”
     “Sue has a cast iron Le Creuset. Use that.”
     “A what?”
     “It’s big and red with a matching lid, and heavy as the dickens. You want to put it
directly on a burner and heat up three or four tablespoons of olive oil. Use the good
stuff—extra virgin.”
     I resisted making a saucy comment.
     “Brown the roast on both sides to build up a crust. Then add a cup of red wine, a cup of water and drop in a peeled and sliced onion, along with the two cloves of garlic.”
     “Is all of this really necessary?”
     “It is if you want it to taste good.”
     I hung up and followed her directions.
     She called back fifteen minutes later. “Why did you let the phone ring so long?” she
asked. “And what’s that blaring noise?”
     “That would be the smoke detector. I can barely see in here.”
     “Why didn’t you turn on the vent over the stove?”
     “You didn’t tell me to turn on the vent.”
     “For cryin’ out loud, son, use common sense.”
     In addition to the smoke alarm, my ears were now being blasted by a brain-numbing
siren. From our dining room window I could see a fire truck the length of a football field pulling up to the curb in front of our house.
     “Mom, I gotta go!” I barked into the phone.
     “Why? What’s happening?’
     “The first string just showed up!”
Next time the conclusion: Out of the Oven and into the Fire. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Protest

     I notice that many people are blogging about the Wall Street protests. The media is certainly playing up the movement with stories on the evening news night after night. I find it interesting for a reason completely unrelated to Wall Street or big bank bailouts; before boxing up my art supplies I created a massive painting I called The Protest.
     I’d been working on a difficult assignment to create sixty small but complex illustrations for a client. To shed the confines of working small I decided to create a massive composition unlike anything I’d done before, not an illustration but a huge work of art. The painting was approximately fifteen feet wide and twelve feet tall. I ordered the exceptionally large bolt of canvas from a supplier in New York, emptied our savings account to afford paints and brushes, and labored for two years to make my vision a reality.
     I’ve always been drawn to painting people and I wanted to create something that allowed me to depict as many human expressions as possible. Since scale and perspective would be involved, I resolved to paint a group of characters on the steps of a building so the figures in the foreground wouldn’t block those behind them. I came up with the idea of a “protest.”
     In the finished painting, a mob of people come together on the steps of a bank-like building. The media is present, along with the police. A bag lady happens onto the scene but isn’t really participating in what’s going on. The fellow at the center of the composition looks slightly like my dad. He also resembles the man in Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom of Speech. I could go on and on about the details that consumed me while creating this painting, but the question most people asked when they saw it was, “What are these people protesting?”
     At the time (this was painted eleven years ago) I decided it would be clever to not reveal the subject of the protest. The banner behind the main character doesn’t offer a clue. My intention was to let the viewers participate in this imaginary event by deciding for themselves what this protest was all about. I’m not certain this was such a good idea because many people have found this painting confusing.
     Which brings me back to the Wall Street protests. The movement confuses me, much as my painting confused many who have looked at it. I want to know precisely what is going on. I want to understand how people hanging out in parks thousands of miles from Wall Street can affect the greed of corporate banks. I want the same information I denied those gazing at the last painting I ever created.
     When I finished The Protest I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. The rooms of our modest house were too small to accommodate it. Galleries weren’t interested. Hoping there was a big empty wall somewhere in the city where my picture could be displayed, I phoned our city’s public arts commissioner, a gruff old woman named Margaret Zorn. Ms. Zorn agreed to visit my studio to check out my painting.
     She was shriveled with age, bent, and wore a bright red wig, and in her voice I could hear every cigarette she’d ever smoked. Although the painting covered an entire wall she rasped, “So where’s the painting?”
     I pointed to it.
     She pulled a cigarette from her purse, lit it and studied my painting, a picture that, at the time, I felt to be my masterpiece.  I waited patiently, watching ash from her cigarette fall to my paint-stained floor as she frowned at my painting. Finally she said, “Nope. Can’t hang this in a public building.”
     Trying to conceal my disappointment I asked, “Why not?”
     “It isn’t suitable,” she said. “It’s too busy. And the subject matter is disturbing. Many city employees are disturbed enough already and we don’t want to hang anything that will make them want to “off” themselves. You got anything quieter? Maybe in nice pastel colors.”
     “No,” I said.
     “Too bad.” Before heading for the door she said, “So tell me, what are all those people in your painting so upset about?” 
     I don’t know where the words came from, maybe the despair I felt about finding a home for my ridiculously big painting, or the regret I felt for wasting two years of my life creating a picture no one wanted, but I blurted out, “They feel hopeless.”
     Eleven years have passed since my meeting with Ms. Zorn. Today I don’t need to ask myself: what are all those people in our parks and urban centers so upset about? I know the answer.
     They feel hopeless.

     The Protest never did find a home. I removed the canvas from its stretcher bars, rolled it up and stored it in our garage. Years have passed since I’ve seen it. Maybe the time has come for me to brush off the dust and prepare my painting to once more see the light of day.