Monday, January 30, 2012

Mrs. Chatterbox's Guest Appearance

Mrs. Chatterbox here. Mr. Chatterbox is driving me crazy! You might think it’s because he’s pedantic, and lecture-y, etc. But, the truth is I enjoy that element of his personality. I think that’s what drew me to him at the tender age of 16!

Now, 43 years later, I think he feels guilty about how things turned out in our lives. You see, I was the one who wanted to be a writer. I even had a pen name prepared…Chris Barrett, one that I thought would escape discrimination against women. But, the Chatterbox feels that I sublimated my dreams so his could rise to the top. Maybe so. But my truth is that HE is my dream, as is our marriage, our life together, and our son. I never had the real courage it takes to put yourself out there, bear the slings and arrows (see, cliché) of criticism and continue to move my dream forward. I have sublimated nothing but have enjoyed his ride all along. But, enough about that gracious and giving crap I am selling you. What’s he driving me crazy about?

He wants me to be a guest blogger every now and then. He feels that there are some subjects out there that I feel a certain passion toward and that I should write about them. So, here goes:

Recently, we attended a dinner at a local restaurant with our “birthday club.” The birthday club consists of our best friends, their daughter and on occasion her boyfriend. We allow that each birthday person can pick the restaurant and we will all go merrily along and enjoy the food. This is correct, mostly. This time, it was bit of a bummer and it was chosen by our dear friends’ daughter.

Now, we support her choice completely…who are we to say that the birthday person should choose a cheaper place? No one really wants to go to Red Lobster, or Olive Garden and feel like a gourmand. And that brings you to one of my passions.

I consider myself to be a “foodie.” I like cooking shows, cookbooks, and blogs that deal with food. I like kitchen gadgets and Le Creuset and stuff like that. Mr. Chatterbox has seen to the purchase of quite a few of these objets d’art for me. This past Christmas saw me unwrapping several cookbooks from Mr. Chatterbox and CJ (our son). I happily peruse those cookbooks all the time.

This time the restaurant was a southern Italian restaurant, named after the chef’s grandmother with whom he had many happy food memories. He even wrote on the menu that he remembered many Sundays with his grandmother cooking and the family joined together for a meal. Lovely. I buy into that stuff all the time.

We really would have done better to go to the Olive Garden. The food was over hyped, pretentious and not what we all thought we were ordering. Our waitress was superb, chirping blithely about the great food and me teasing her about a gym membership coming with employment there. Once served, however, it was not really good. Oh it was foodie enough…garbanzo beans with a balsamic vinegar strewn over the beans, lots of garlic, lots of pretention. Mr. Chatterbox ordered the lamb ragout, only to receive a pasta dish with “lamb” flavoring, not the steaming chunks of lamb that he fantasizes about. I ordered two appetizers for dinner and was embarrassed to receive the cheese plate as my dinner that would have served five but mostly consisted of toasted bread and some tiny cheese hunks and that constant balsamic drippage.

I guess I am the pretentious one…I thought my foodie passion would carry us through a delightful evening. Wrong. It was very expensive, very drawn out and we had to park in a real sketchy part of town, right by a sad strip joint.

Olive Garden, anyone?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Shallow End Of The Pool

Around the time our son headed off to college I returned to something I was good at—overeating. I’d managed to keep the weight off most of my adult life, but now I returned to those bad eating habits that had made me such a porker as a kid. I was approaching fifty and my illustration career seemed to be winding down. I was extremely depressed. I could have turned to alcohol or drugs, but I’d lost the taste for booze and I didn’t know where to go for drugs. Mrs. Chatterbox had suffered from kidney stones in recent years and usually had a few Demerol tablets stashed away in case of an attack. I once took a few and hallucinated all night that I was on a roller-coaster with Oprah Winfrey. Following that night of horror I returned to what I knew best—drowning my sorrows in food.

Soon, the only pants at Wal-Mart that fit me were adult Depends. Mrs. Chatterbox came home one day and found me in my underwear watching The Crocodile Hunter. I’d taken to rooting for the crocs and hoped to see the Aussie’s arms being chomped off. (I now feel guilty about this considering what happened to poor Steve Irwin.) The house was a mess since I’d stopped helping with chores. In addition to my becoming a couch potato my wife was experiencing “empty nest syndrome,” and menopause. She rightfully blew her stack.

I finally dragged my lumpy ass to a mirror and was horrified by the sight of the bloated

stranger staring back at me. If I needed further motivation to clean up my act I received it

from my doctor at my next check-up. I was thirsty all the time. I’d drink a

glass of water and again be thirsty before I could put down the glass.

The doctor diagnosed diabetes and predicted a slew of medical horrors awaiting me if I didn’t make some drastic lifestyle changes. I could look forward to blindness, strokes, heart attacks, kidney stones, gout and amputations. The prospect of these ailments was the shoehorn I needed to pry me off the couch. I’d always hated sports but I decided to try swimming at a nearby public pool.

I needed a swimsuit, but it was the middle of November and the stores didn’t have much of a selection. The Fat and Stout Department at one retailer had a suit that fit. Marked for clearance, it was fluorescent yellow. When I tried it on I looked as big as a school bus. At least the bright color would serve as a beacon to prevent other swimmers from bumping into me. If I went down like the Titanic nobody would be close enough to get caught in my wake and pulled under.

Next, I needed goggles because of the high chlorine level in the water, necessary thanks to countless peeing kids. I was told by a lifeguard that the chlorine would burn my eyes, but I thought goggles were for wimps and tried to do without them. Unfortunately, my eyes turned redder than Cujo’s and I caught the cashier at our grocery store checking my arms for needle tracks. I had no choice but to break a lifetime boycott; I entered a sporting goods store.

The kid who waited on me was straight off an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog. Tall and butt-less, with wide shoulders and wearing baggy clothes, he looked like one of those bastards who can eat a cake and burn off the calories by farting. When I waddled up to him he said,

“Dude, how can I help?”

“I need swimming goggles.”

“Not a problem. Follow me.”

He moved like a cheetah and it was a big store. I was out of breath by the time he

stopped in front of a wall of goggles. There were hundreds to choose from. “What kind of swimming you planning on doing?”

“The wet kind.”

He laughed. “Dude, are you swimming in a pool, a lake or the ocean?”

I didn’t know such things mattered. “I’m going to swim at a local pool.”

He narrowed my choices down to about thirty. “Some of these light up and others

have sensors to prevent the Plexiglas from clouding up on you. I personally like these with racing stripes.”

Since I expected my swimsuit to pop off and float like a deflated raft when I jumped into

the pool, I chose the least conspicuous goggles available. As I left, my “salesdude” urged me to, “Have an awesome day,” and, “come back soon.”

Equipped with swimsuit and goggles, I drove to the swim center. I felt embarrassed as I left the locker room and headed for the pool that first time; most of the women I encountered had smaller breasts than mine. I slowly began swimming laps. It took awhile before I figured out how to breathe and swim at the same time, but I improved gradually.

A month later I noticed I was no longer the slowest swimmer. A newcomer dogpaddled slowly at the far end of the pool. A kick to my ego came when she climbed out of the water. She must have been at least nine months pregnant, maybe more.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cosmic Cuties

Do you remember Voyager, the probe sent into space in 1977? Thirty-five years have expired since its launch and Voyager has now left our solar system and is traveling through interstellar space, 10.8 billion miles from Earth. The probe carries hundreds of thousands of bits of information stored on a gold disc to promote Earth and human achievement should alien life encounter it. This was all based on the assumption that aliens finding our probe in space would be sophisticated enough to have a bitchin’ sound system capable of playing the recording.

So what was on that gold disc and who put it there? Answer: The Voyager Interstellar Message Committee, which included astronomers, writers and artists, who were tasked with painting as full a portrait of life on earth as possible.


According to Voyager’s website: “…every part of the record, the music made by crickets, whales, and humans, the pictures, the sounds—each part was chosen to add some additional information about who we are. So, young and old, cultures of east, west, south and north, ancient and modern, night and day, and so forth, all of it is represented by some element of the Voyager Message.”

But something is missing on that disc, and it wasn’t an accident. Did you know that among all of this information on Voyager’s message there is no image of the nude human form? I’ve learned that originally two black and white drawings of naked humans, a male and a female, were included on the list of items to be sent into space, but at some point the committee decided to eliminate them. I’d like to know why.

I find it hard to imagine that writers and artists in the seventies, a time still twitching beneath the spell of Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, Picasso and Andy Warhol, decided that pictures of naked people might be too arousing for aliens. Did the committee believe that an advanced civilization capable of space travel would go berserk, pull their who-knows-whats out of their pants (assuming they wore pants) and start pleasuring themselves? Was the committee saying that nudity is not an important part of life on Earth? If so I beg to differ: I’m practically naked as I write this.

So no nudity on Voyager. Too bad. With our economy in the dumpster, this could have provided a whole new outlet for our porn industry. Think of the jobs that might have been created distributing billions of copies of magazines like Cosmic Cuties to porn-starved aliens.

Submitted to the Great guys at Dude Write.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Hoax

This might be the most self-serving post I’ve written. First a confession: I’m really stupid when it comes to math. Back in grade school I was already having trouble when the government forced “New Math” on us so we could compete with the Russians who’d just launched Sputnik, as if Russian children had anything to do with hurling a satellite into space.

As I grew I managed to avoid being sent to “special class,” packed with kids unable to control their bladders or because of poor math skills. Later in life I was spared by the invention of pocket calculators. It wasn’t that I was minimal—no need to feel sorry for me (I was a wiz at art, history, philosophy and literature) but I didn’t have the password to access that part of my brain where mathematical ability was stored.

Now, at the age of fifty-nine, I’ve come to a realization certain to convince many of you that I am minimal: Mathematics isn’t real! And if you think you can prove mathematical principles are absolute, consider this. A mathematician trying to prove me wrong will do so using math. That opinion is tainted because math must first be proven before it can be used. The same for engineers and architects and computer designers—these would also use calculations to discredit my statement.

Here’s an example of how the hoax works. Sometime around 1687 Newton published his Law of Universal Gravitation, and since then our collective imagination has envisioned Newton sitting under a tree with an apple falling on his head. But Newton’s ideas about gravity were only a theory, one the cocky little know-it-all was determined to prove. But how? He needed to create a method of proof. So he invented calculus. This is like creating a playground game where you alone get to determine the rules. In Star Trek lore this is kin to Captain Kirk reprogramming the computer so he could win the famed Kobayashi Maru test. Newton, like Captain Kirk in the imaginary future, cheated.

Food for thought: In 1977 Voyager was launched into space with a golden record containing, among other things, mathematical equations, based on the principle that math was the most perfect of languages, even though we’ve been told repeatedly that space and time and matter are likely to be unrecognizable in the far reaches of space. Why then wouldn’t math also be different, if it existed at all? Why do we put all of our faith in math?

It’s simple really; math provides us with all of our marvelous toys. None of our cars or planes or telephones or skyscrapers or computers would exist without math. All of these were created assuming that math was real. They couldn’t have existed otherwise.

But if these inventions exist, how can math not be real? Well, math was once used to prove that the Earth was flat and the center of the universe. Math once proved that the Earth was the size of the Moon and humans walked the Earth at the same time as the dinosaurs. Math has been used to discount the existence of dinosaurs altogether, and has led to misassumptions about the human body. Now scientists, while trying to analyze the expansion of the universe, are trying to reveal the links between mathematics and time. Anyone putting their faith in math is like a lizard sunning itself on a tortoise. You might think you’re on a hilltop, but wait until you start moving.

All of you who have been traumatized by a lack of mathematical ability can thank me now for poking holes in this sacred balloon. Those of you who aren’t convinced should repeat this ditty ten times: that’s once for each finger. Figuring out how many fingers we have is probably how this ball got rolling in the first place.

Math is fake and this I know,

Even if Newton (or Einstein) tell me so.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Complaining About The Weather

Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

—Attributed to Mark Twain—

Most regions of our country are currently experiencing severe weather and quite a few bloggers are commenting on it. It seems that weather reports on the evening news are getting longer and longer, as if we’re all still farmers and need to know when to go out and plant the back forty. Well, I don’t know any farmers and I don’t need to know if it’s going to drizzle in Gilliam, Sherman, Wheeler or other counties where people are few and a good time is had by dressing farm animals in people’s clothes.

As far as I’m concerned, rain is rain, and I don’t need a twenty minute broadcast to tell me I’m gonna get wet. I see little difference between rain and rainstorms, rain and showers or rain and sprinkles. Even if I decided to rely on weather forecasts to determine if my wardrobe on any given day should include an umbrella, the forecasts are so often wrong that it would be a waste of time.

Snow seems to be a big problem in my corner of the country, not that we get much. It does snow here but not enough for anyone to get used to it, so when flakes fall logic and common sense go out the window. Here in Portland we’re as far north as Minneapolis and Montreal but Japanese trade winds keep us fairly warm in the winter. I’ve only built snowmen once or twice since I’ve been here and the poor things looked like the result of gruesome genetic experimentation.

Mrs. Chatterbox and I moved here from Southern California in 1980, the year Mt. Saint Helens blew. I took the eruption personally for a few months, a sign that I should hightail it back to the land of palm trees and balmy Santa Ana winds, but we dug out of the falling ash and stayed.

Then came the day when I decided to get an Oregon driver’s license. I’d been driving for years and was cocky enough to assume I could ace the test, but there were questions on the written exam I hadn’t seen before. Such as:

Circle the answer below that is the most correct.

#A… It’s safest to drive when rain turns into snow.

#B… It’s safest to drive when snow turns into freezing rain.

#C… It’s safest to drive when freezing rain turns into ice, and then it rains, followed by more freezing rain.

#D… It’s safest to drive when ice turns into freezing rain.

#E…All of the above.

#F…None of the above.

What the heck was freezing rain? It sounded like a nickname for margaritas. I remember staring at the question and thinking then, as I do now, if any of this shit starts falling I’m staying the F*#&K at home!

Last week that’s what I did.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I'm Confused!

     I’ve been paying attention to the Republican primaries and I have a concern that, for me, trumps politics. I’m worried that I’m losing my grip on reality. The man pictured below is responsible.
     Stephen Colbert, along with Jon Stewart, are the brilliant stars at Comedy Central, a wildly popular TV Network. Comedy Central prides itself on being the world leader in “Fake News,” and they’re so successful at what they do that a ridiculously high percentage of young people get their news exclusively from these two guys.
     So when Colbert decided to aim his pointy finger at the Super PACs that are destroying our democracy, with the approval of our Supreme Court, I watched attentively. Colbert cleverly attacked Super PACs by pretending to embrace them. He created one, turned it over to Jon Stewart and dove into the race for the nomination to become the Republican candidate for President of the United States of South Carolina.
     Colbert is so smart that his antics have landed him on the evening news every day for a week. So here’s the basis for my confusion: If a comedian, a fake politician on a channel that labels itself the world’s largest distributor of fake news, makes real news that is included on evening broadcasts of CNN, ABC and CBS, then how can it be fake? Aren’t these other newscasts supposed to be the real ones? Isn’t this to news what money-laundering is to crime? Doesn’t this process render Colbert a legitimate news-maker rather than a mere comedian? 
     Isn’t there an inherent probability that many of Colbert’s viewers won’t understand his tongue and cheek comedy and take him for real? How is someone with a brainpan as shallow as mine suppose to know the difference?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Peculiar Picture #4

This illustration was created for my Royalty Free CD Business Fundamentals, sold through Getty Images. Most of the sixty illustrations on the CD have sold and been used for magazines and book covers but this one has yet to be published. It seemed like a good idea while I was painting it but perhaps it’s meaning is too vague.

Does it mean anything to you? Do you have a suggestion for a title?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Greatest Artist I've Ever Known

     I was recently asked to name the greatest artist I’ve ever known. It wasn’t a difficult question to answer; only one name came to mind—Raoul.
     In the fall of 1970 I started at West Valley Community College, which was only a few miles from where I lived in what would later be termed California’s Silicon Valley. I immediately struck up a friendship with Raoul. I never got around to learning his last name, which I regret because Raoul was the greatest artist I’d ever encounter, not that I knew it at the time. Raoul was sensitive, with a childlike simplicity and vulnerability. He swiped tears from his eyes and choked up whenever anyone said anything nice to him.   
     Raoul had a kind word for everyone’s work and would give up the foul-smelling shirt on his back if asked. His clothes were ragged and the bottoms of his shoes were usually caked with gum. Blackheads dotted his face, and I swear I once saw something moving in his oily and unruly hair. Yet when Raoul picked up a piece of charcoal and began to draw, his hygiene issues vanished beneath an aura of creativity bordering on the spiritual. 
     I wasn’t the only one to notice this transformation, many did who toiled at easels beside him. When we watched him draw, we imagined Mozart writing music. Raoul wasn’t so much recording what he saw as revealing a perfect vision in his head. He had no concern for composition, placing his figures on the page in a haphazard manner. When he ran out of space, he would bum paper from someone and attach the additional sheet to his drawing, using masking tape or whatever else he could find. Sometimes he would remove a chunk of gum from the bottom of his shoe and use it to stick papers together. In the end, he would produce an astonishing mix of beauty and revulsion.
     West Valley’s drawing classes provided the first nude models I ever saw, and my first attempts to capture the human form were peculiar to say the least. Had Eve resembled one of my early drawings the human race wouldn’t have come to anything because Adam would have remained celibate. In contrast, I remember looking at one of Raoul’s drawings and not being able to decide if I wanted to tear it to shreds or hang it in my bedroom where I could see it first thing every morning when I opened my eyes. There, mingling with the condensed essence of human emotion, mixed with smudges and snot, and rising through a scribbled anatomical shorthand—the human soul as I’d never before imagined it.
     Once after class while sharing my cheese sandwich with Raoul, I told him, “I wish I could draw as well as you.”
     His dark eyes widened with amazement. “But your work is wonderful.”
     “Thanks.” He still looked hungry so I gave him the rest of my sandwich. “Have you always wanted to be an artist?”
     He wolfed down the rest of the cheese and bread, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “I don’t want to become an artist. Never did.”
     “You’re joking, right?”
     He shook his head.
     “What do you want to be when you graduate?”
     His answer made my jaw drop. “A soldier. I want to go to Vietnam.”
     I couldn’t believe my ears, especially at a time when guys were cutting off fingers or running off to Canada to avoid the draft. Was it clean clothes and regular meals prompting his desire to risk his divine gifts? His life? I was about to question him when he blurted out, “But they won’t take me.”
     “Why not,” I asked, immediately wishing I hadn’t. I could think of a few reasons the draft board might turn him down.
     Tears spilled down his cheeks. “The Army recruiters I’ve talked to turned me down because of my…” he glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to hear, “…spells.”
     “You have spells?”
     “Yeah. When I was a kid they were so bad I spend days in bed recovering. No TV at our house, so I passed time drawing. When my parents could afford it they took me to doctors for tests. They gave me pills and my spells slowly went away.”
     This sounded familiar. Dad had a sister living in a state hospital near Sacramento. She was an epileptic and suffered seizures.
     Raoul added, “The Army says I can’t join up because they can’t be sure I won’t get the shakes or pass out, especially in stressful situations.”
     “There probably aren’t many places more stressful than Vietnam,” I said. “Why is serving so important to you?”
     “My parents brought me to this country from Guatemala when I was five. We’re illegal aliens. They work hard, but we struggle to get by. If I joined the Army I would have a paycheck to send them, and I could prove to everyone that I’m a good American, and I belong here.”
     “Will the Army take illegal aliens?” I asked.
     “Yeah. I checked it out. You don’t have to be a citizen to enlist.”
     He had nothing to prove as far as I was concerned, but the sight of his tearstained cheeks made me ask, “Do you think you could face the horrors of combat? Could you shoot somebody?”
     “I’d do what I had to do.”
     “Well, I’m kinda glad they said no, or else I might not have met you.”
     His smile revealed a lack of familiarity with toothpaste. “I won’t give up. This one recruiter told me to come back with a letter signed by my doctor when I’d gone five years without a spell. He promised to see what he could do. That’s less than three months from now.”
     It felt odd, but I wished him good luck.
     Three months later, near the end of our afternoon figure drawing session, Raoul’s charcoal slipped from his hand and he slumped to the floor. He lost awareness and began thrashing around. The instructor reached for his wallet, turned Raoul on his side and pressed the wallet between Raoul’s teeth to keep him from biting off his tongue. An ambulance was summoned and paramedics strapped a convulsing Raoul to the gurney.
     I learned later that he’d suffered a grand mal seizure. Word spread that earlier in the day he’d gone to the recruiting office with the letter from his doctor.
     Once again he’d been rejected.
     I’d grabbed the drawing he was working on the day of his collapse—a female figure more angelic than human. I wanted to keep it safe, planned on handing it back to him when he returned. But he never did. I managed to wrangle an address from the Registrar’s Office but the address had been faked; no one knew of Raoul or his Guatemalan parents.
     I never saw him again, but for years his spirit lingered near my easel.

     Have you encountered remarkable talent in your life? Tell me about it. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why Is Moses Horny?

     According to the Bible, God punished King Nimrod who was audacious enough to think he could build a tower high enough to reach Heaven. In retribution, God decreed that humans would babble in infinite languages and be incomprehensible to each other, thus securing a future for Rosetta Stone® as the world’s #1 language-learning software. Even though I’m only marginally fluent in English, I’ve always found languages fascinating, especially when I encounter linguistic SNAFUs that make me laugh. Case in point: Michelangelo’s Moses.
     During the Renaissance, scholars translating Hebrew mixed up the word for “ray—as in ray or beam of light” with “horn.” Evidently the two words were quite similar. Thus, Michelangelo followed tradition by showing Moses with “horns,” which had to be easier to carve from marble than beams of light. Today these horns, and Moses’ obvious steroid usage, make him look like a member of the Avengers.
     According to the Good Book, Moses “parted” the Dead Sea so the Hebrews could escape Pharaoh’s chariots. Really? Did the sea actually turn into a drained Jacuzzi so the  Hebrews could escape from Egypt or did they slosh through a marsh at “low tide,” wander into a Starbucks and order milk and honey frappuccinos? Was this an honest mistranslation or were ancient scriptwriters anticipating a time when movies would include the ad line, “Based On a True Story?”
      Here’s something else to consider: in ancient Hebrew how similar are the words
“beside” and “on?” What difference does it make, you might ask. Not much, unless you’re wondering if Jesus walked “on” the Sea of Galilee or “beside” it. A pretty big difference if you ask me. One interpretation makes Jesus a beachcomber in pre- Margaritaville Judea while the other turns him into the Justice League of America’s Aquaman—or maybe even the Son of God.
     I’ve long been fascinated with the Bible, even though my incredulity over many of the stories prompted my Catechism class to dub me Kid Most Likely to Burn in Hell. It’s been a long time since I read the Bible, but the last time I did I managed to put the Good Book to good use. Read about it (Here.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Peculiar Pictures #3

     Those of you new to Chubby Chatterbox might not be familiar with a feature I call Peculiar Pictures. For many years I was a professional illustrator, and it’s a curious but true fact that only half of an illustrator’s output finds its way into print. On rare occasions, the artwork is deemed unsuitable. Sometimes a project is cancelled or an art director changes his or her mind about the direction they want to go. In my case, a large percentage of these illustrations were uncommissioned and painted because of a nagging impulse that, at the time, needed to be scratched. In any event, I have a drawer filled with artwork that has never seen the light of day. From time to time I post these and let you guys offer thoughts and possible titles.
     This piece was painted about eight years ago, and not for any particular project. I don’t generally deal with political issues but this image seems to be screaming a political message. As to what that message might be, your guess is as good as mine.
     Any thoughts?  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Garum: Would You Eat This Stuff?

     Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with Ancient Rome. Had I been that kid in the movie Airport I’d have answered yes when Peter Graves asked, “Do you like gladiator movies?” Sure the Romans had their problems, mostly a societal thirst for blood and a system of governance that makes our politics look like kindergarten squabbles, but Rome still managed to effectively rule a land area that today is poorly governed by no fewer than forty governments. And they did so with one law and one currency. But I want to discuss something more important than Rome’s lasting cultural legacy. I want to discuss fish sauce.
     At this point you might be thinking about shuffling off to another blog, but hang in here. We don’t have a recipe but garum seems to have been some sort of sauce made from the rotten entrails of fish and eels. Wait, don’t go yet. I promise this will get interesting. 
     What if I told you that ancient documents from 200 B.C.E. have been discovered placing a value on a shipload of this goop at the equivalent of eighty-five million dollars? You’d probably say that garum must have been one helluva fish sauce to be valued up there with gold and other precious commodities.
     We know that garum was the caviar of the ancient world. Just about every recipe to have survived from that time includes it as an ingredient, even desserts, and when the Emperor Augustus’ granddaughter Julia was exiled to a remote island she claimed that there was something she couldn’t live without. No, not her four copies of the Twilight
series; it was garum.
     So what was the big deal? Why are most of the wrecked Roman cargo ships on the
bottom of the Mediterranean Sea filled with amphora that once contained garum? We know the product was produced on the outskirts of towns and cities, but was this because of the fetid smell or was there another reason, as experts have recently suggested? Was the State controlling production? Were emperors hoarding the formula of a f*#king fish sauce?
     The Discovery Channel recently aired a program intent on shedding light on this mystery. The recipe for garum, like KFC’s seven secret herbs and spices, has not survived, but scientists decided to recreate the stuff. They guessed at the types of fish and eels used, macerated them in a bucket until they had a slimy concoction of fish and entrails, and then left the bucket in the sun for a long period of time. Romans let the concoction ferment for up to three months. Like you, I’m getting sick just thinking about it.
     But scientists are an intrepid folk and on the Discovery program a brave fellow came forward to sample the eye-watering, bile-inducing substance. He scooped some of the sludge with a piece of bread, popped it into his mouth and chewed. Once his urge to vomit passed, he noticed something interesting: the garum had practically no taste, but it didn’t take long for him to conclude that this was the best bread he’d EVER eaten. He started sampling garum with other foods; fruits, cheeses, meats, sweets. Each time he concluded that the garum had little to no taste while enhancing whatever it was added to.
     This phenomenon was confirmed by other scientists who’d gathered to watch their associate blow chow. Before long all of the scientists were tucking in and feasting. Soon another experience befell these men of science: they were all stoned out of their minds and infected with a ravenous case of the munchies. If this experiment were accurate, garum was also an hallucinogenic. Maybe young Romans put flower power bumper stickers on their chariots and rode out to the countryside to cast off their togas and cavort in a pagan celebration called Woodstockius. Perhaps Caligula had just powered down a batch when he decided to have his horse declared a consul of Rome. As for Nero; was he craving Fourth Meal so much that he set fire to Rome out of frustration when the nearest Taco Bell sold out of garum tacos?
     What I wouldn’t give for just a tiny taste. What effect might it have on me? I wonder: Hail Emperor Chubbius….

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Flushable Pet

     Family members and blogging friends are writing to tell me about the passing of their beloved pets. Mrs. Chatterbox and I are between dogs right now, but as I think about the loss and pain these people are feeling my mind turns back to the first pet I gave my heart to.
      Her body was white, her head was black, and her eyes shone like melting chocolate chips. She was a Japanese black-hooded rat, and for reasons I can no longer remember I named her Yamaguchi. Yama rode on my shoulder, listened patiently to my blathering and kept all my secrets. She didn’t mind that I was overweight and was probably glad I wasn’t popular since that left me more time to play with her.           
     I’ll never forget the day I brought Yama home from the pet store—Sunday, February Ninth, 1964, the day the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. My older brother David had recently succumbed to Beatlemania. When word came that the Beatles were scheduled to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, David was screwed because that Sunday it was my turn to pick the evening’s TV programs.
     I wanted to see the Beatles as much as David, a fact he was unaware of, but I told him I’d chosen Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, even though we had yet to purchase a color TV. He went red in the face until I told him I’d reconsider if he gave me a ride on his bike to the pet store and didn’t tell Mom and Dad about my purchase. He agreed and we wobbled down the dusty El Camino Highway, David struggling mightily to keep the bike in motion with me precariously balanced on the handlebars of his Schwinn.
     Along the way he asked, “Knowing how Mom feels about pets, you’re going to bring
home a rat?”
     “Rats are flushable. I can have flushable pets.”
     “Who told you rats are flushable?”
     “Randy White at school told me a rat climbed out of his aunt’s toilet. If they can climb out of toilets, they can be flushed.”           
     He grunted, “If Mom lets you keep it, have you thought about where it’ll live? You can’t lock it up in your underwear drawer and let it drop turds on your socks. You need a cage, and they cost money.”
     “Jimmy Posky across the street traded me one for some comic books.”
     “I think you’re asking for it, but it’s your funeral. Where’d you get the money?”
     “Raking leaves in the neighborhood last fall.”
     The pet store was several miles from home. To prevent David from abandoning me the minute I hopped off the handlebars I threatened him. “If you’re not here when I come out it’s Ludwig Von Drake on Disney and you can kiss John, Paul, George and Ringo goodbye.”
      I had him over a barrel and he knew it.
     Inside, the pet store was heavy with the intoxicating smell of rodents, fish, birds, reptiles, and of course puppies and kittens—a mind-controlling menagerie scent that is for young boys what sex pheromones are for older ones.
     In the rodent corner were squeaky hamsters, mice and Guinea pigs of various colors, and a cage of Japanese black-hooded rats. Five of them were curled into a furry ball. I studied them for a long time, until one disentangled from the rest and seemed to acknowledge me when I tapped the glass.
     A bumpy-faced clerk approached. I pointed at the rat cage and said, “I want that one!”
     “What kinda snake ya got?” he asked.
     “No snake. Why do you ask?”
     “Rats and mice often get bought for snake food.”
      “That’s disgusting,” I said.
     He grinned a mouthful of crooked teeth. “Everything needs to eat, but I don’t need to
tell you that.”
     A slam on my weight. I didn’t care as I watched him reach into the cage and grab my new pet rat. “You’ll need a box of pellet food.”
     “I only have two dollars.”
     “The rat’s $1.98. A box of food is $1.49.”
     I hadn’t noticed David entering the store. “What’s taking so long? We going to be here all day?” he asked.
     “Can I borrow a buck and a half?”
     “What do you think?”
     The clerk came to my rescue. “You can feed her carrots and fruit for now. Rats will eat just about anything but she’ll live longer on pellet food.”
     Yama was taken to the cash register and placed in a paper bag. I handed over a crumpled dollar bill and a pocketful of change, and became a proud pet owner.
      On the ride home David said, “Don’t let Mom or Dad see that thing until after the Beatles are done. I’ll catch it for taking you and neither one of us will get to watch TV tonight.”
      Back home I slid Yama and her cage into my closet. That night I was so distracted by
frequent visits to see her that I missed the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.
     I couldn’t keep Yama in my closet forever and her cage was finally noticed in a corner of my room. By then I loved her too much to give her up, even when my parents insisted. Standing as tall as I could, I told them that if Yama had to go, then so would I. There might have been a twitch of amusement on my mother’s face. Yama was permitted to stay provided she never left my room, her cage was kept immaculate, her water bottle filled and I did chores to pay for her food.
     I played with Yama every day, letting her out of her cage to explore the wonderful sights and smells of my room. But it was inevitable that worlds would collide. One day Yama squeezed through my partially closed bedroom door. She and my mother confronted each other in the hallway outside my bedroom.
     I saw the encounter from the far end of the hallway. Yama rose up on her haunches and studied my mother, much as Perseus must have gazed at the Kraken. My mother pointed a finger down at Yama and said in terms clear enough for a rat, “Get back in your cage this instant or there will be HELL to pay!”
     Yama let out a terrified sqeeeek, dashed back into my room as fast as her tiny little legs could carry her and leapt back inside her cage. Their worlds never again collided.
     Another time a cousin I disliked was visiting with his family. He insisted on playing with Yama, but he played roughly with my things and frequently broke them. I didn’t want him squeezing Yama to death.
     He went straight to my mother and complained. “Stephen won’t let me play with his rat!”
     “Let your cousin play with that darn rat!” she ordered.
     I had no choice but to obey. My cousin gloated while we walked back to my room. We sat on the floor Indian-style and I opened the cage. Yama hopped out and paused in the small arena formed by our legs. She studied my cousin for a minute, then looked at me, and went back to studying him. Then, like a furry heat-seeking missile she launched herself up his pant leg and chomped down on his nuts. He shrieked, jumped to his feet and yanked down his pants. It was only a nip, but he carried on like Yama had assured him a permanent place in the Vienna Boys Choir. Yama scurried back into her cage. My mother and aunt arrived to see what the commotion was about.
     “The damn thing bit me on the nard sack!” my cousin blubbered.
     I was relieved when Mom said, “Then you’d better leave it alone.”
     Yama lived in a cage at the foot of my bed for three and a half years, a long time I’m told for a rat. The Beatles certainly enriched my life, but when I hear Paul McCartney sing Yesterday it’s Yama I think about. We buried her in the backyard in a cardboard casket made from a round Quaker oats carton. Many from the neighborhood were present when she was lowered into the ground.
     Including my mother.

     What was your first pet?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Radio Gibberish

     I’m calling it gibberish because I can’t think of a better word for speech I couldn’t understand. But gibberish sounds too negative and judgmental, not at all what I have in mind. What I heard as a child was an actual language, mellifluous and soothing even though I couldn’t understand a word. The language was Portuguese.
     When my older brother and I were small we’d often spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house while Mom and Dad went out on Saturday nights. In an old part of town my grandparents had a small house. In the extra bedroom right off the kitchen there was a big iron bed where David and I would sleep.
     On Sunday mornings I’d wake to the sound of a kitchen radio. My grandparents were Portuguese, he from the Azores and she from Lisbon, and they could understand what was being said. But I couldn’t. I’d lay there while my brother slept, imagining what the words meant and wondering about the exotic places my grandparents came from. Whenever I’d ask about the sounds coming from the radio they never said the language was Portuguese, it was always described as talk from the “old country.” Odd, I thought at the age of eight; I knew precious little about the world but I assumed all countries were old.
     The radio had been turned on to wake David and me, the volume gently increased until we bounced out of the big bed and started dressing for church, which meant old Mission Santa Clara on the University of Santa Clara campus not far away. We’d reach the adobe mission at six in the morning. Before mass started Grandma would wave at other family members in distant pews. Sometimes I’d fall asleep during mass and Grandpa would carry me back to the car when it was over. I’d wake up back on the big iron bed, the radio blaring as Grandma and Grandpa bustled about preparing breakfast.
     Time with my grandparents figures prominently in my childhood memories, but it is the radio I think about when I close my eyes and drift away on waves of nostalgia. Even though I couldn’t understand a word, the strange language evoked feelings of warmth and love, feelings I continue to experience as an adult whenever I hear Portuguese being spoken.
     My grandparents are gone now and my mother has lost what Portuguese she once knew, but I can easily recall the language flowing from that little radio, the language of my grandparents, the language of my childhood, the language of my happy place….

     You can read about my incredible Sunday breakfasts here. Where is your Happy Place?