Wednesday, December 26, 2007

No Unhappy Returns

Our household, of two, not counting the dog, celebrated a new Christmas tradition yesterday. Well, it'll be a tradition next year, because it worked so spectacularly this first year.

No more guesswork about what the other person might like. We went to a major American shopping mall, gave ourselves a spending limit of $150, and bought presents for ourselves. That is, I bought presents for myself and my wife bought presents for herself. Privately.

This was harder than it appears. You walk through the mall thinking, "Oh, she might like that pashmina shawl." Then you stop yourself and say, "Of course she probably wouldn't. Pashmina is passe, and anyway, I'm shopping for me. Yay."

The deal is, though, that you don't open your own presents. You hand them to your wife Christmas morning and she gets to see the kind of idiotic stuff she wouldn't deign to give you. Sweatshirts in amusing colors. History books by unamusing authors. Then you open the presents she bought for herself and you suffer an insight into her secret desires, ones you could never satisfy during a walk through a mall.

A font program for the Macintosh computer. Face creams, morning and evening. An orange juice squeezer. An ice cream cookbook. Even though it's really a freezebook, I should have thought of that one, but wouldn't have. That's the joy of this Christmas, not to mention the joy of not having to return to the mall.

Also, I loved the sudden grammaticality of saying, "I got me some good presents."

Sweatshirts. Yeah.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Don't Trust Anyone Under 62

The first thing that happened when I retired four years ago was the onset of a strange craving to eat dinner at 5:30 p.m. The second thing was the discovery of new sections of the paper to read: the grocery inserts listing bargains that I might buy for those early dinners. Then I went down to Long's to take advantage of a sale on tuna and mayonnaise, only to find a crowd of senior citizens in a 9 a.m. rush hour of shopping carts. The tuna and mayonnaise were already gone.

That's what old people eat, and that's when I gave up tuna and mayonnaise and switched to a healthier meals, as well as ones not consumed in front of national news drug ads showing old folks ballroom dancing. Kill me when I start ballroom dancing.

A few weeks ago I felt young and joyful again, despite the fact that I was applying for Social Security in a large office slightly less joyous than the average DMV. I felt like one of the first arrivals at Woodstock. After a surprisingly short wait (there must have been a major sale at Long's), I displayed my birth certificate and military discharge to the clerk, told her I was applying two months in advance, as instructed, and proudly said, "I'm one of the first Baby Boomers."

She was duly unimpressed, even though she couldn't have heard it many times before. I was born in early January of 1946, just 10 days after the trigger was pulled on our reviled and ruling generation. Well, 10 days and nine months after the trigger was pulled. Okay, it's bad metaphor for a generation sired by men returning from war.

They may have been the greatest generation, but we are the biggest and I was not waiting for 65 to get a more bountiful yet still pitiful Social Security check. I'm taking the smaller monthly version when I can, at 62. There are a lot of conservatives out there who want to undo the work of FDR and abolish Social Security. There are a lot of young people, liberal, conservative or apolitical, who also want to abolish it. We are a hated generation.

No one wants to pay into a system that subsidizes the marijuana, margaritas, mayonnaise and tunafish of an unruly crowd that once marched in the streets, lost a jungle war and parked crudely painted Volkswagen buses all over the landscape. Never mind how much wealth we created when we later cut our hair and invented iPods, Microsoft, Starbucks, hedge funds, the World Wide Web and Whole Foods.

We may have hated the system, but by now a lot of it is our creation. Still, I like that old-time Social Security system, and I'm taking advantage of it before a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and resentful baristas pry those tiny checks from our cold, gnarly hands. Power to the new old people.

Friday, November 09, 2007

For Zack

It was one of those warm, muggy October days that bring the tourists back to Cape Cod. None of us would be going to the beach, though. We were at Otis Air Force Base to meet Zack, my sister's first-born, who was coming home from Afghanistan. I had been living rather reclusively in California and hadn't seen him in six years, and never would again.

I finally understood why our leaders in Washington were so adamant about keeping images of returning coffins out of the news. It's too much to bear.

The plane had been delayed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for two hours. Zack's family and friends had plenty of time to sit around a ready room reacquainting, and acquainting, ourselves with each other. We told stories about Zack, a 31-year-old college graduate, filmmaker, rock musician, carpenter and movie-star handsome wit, who tried to find a new path in life by joining the Army in 2005. He became a sergeant and squad leader in two years and in April he was awarded the Bronze Star with a V for valor for rescuing two of his soldiers from a burning Humvee, badly burning his hands in the process, and still organizing a counterattack on the Taliban.

Afterwards, when he called my sister Pam, he didn't mention the Bronze Star. He said, ""Mom, I got a Purple Heart. I won't have to pay sales tax anymore."

That's the kind of young man he was, the kind of self-effacing hero he was. He stayed by the side of his more severely injured comrades in the hospital, and returned to duty in Pahktia Province near the Pakistan border. After he was killed in an ambush on Sept. 29, one of those scarred men, and others who had known Zack as a soldier, came to our sides on Cape Cod.

My sister said that Zack would have hated all the fuss, but we needed it. The family needed to meet those soldiers, and I think they liked meeting us. The extended, sometimes fractured family needed to talk to each other again, feel the hole in its fabric where Zack had been, and try to knit it together with memories and caring for each other.

Even those of us who might have doubted military ceremony needed the honor guard from the 82nd Airborne and the dozens of Cape Cod reservists, recently returned from Iraq, who lined up behind them. Sgt. Zachary D. Tellier deserved it.

We were all out on the tarmac when the plane touched down at Otis, the same base that had scrambled F-15s on afterburner in a vain attempt to stop the airliners heading for the World Trade Center. Now Afghanistan was coming back to haunt us again. We had been shedding tears, of course, trying to dry them with the occasional joke. Jokes failed.

The sadness and reality of it all clenched our hearts as we watched the plane taxi toward us. It was moving astonishingly slowly and evenly, like a funeral caisson with a steady turbine whine instead of a solitary drummer's beat.

When the aircraft came to a stop, it took a few minutes for its crew to organize the unloading of its cargo. We had time to collect ourselves - until the flag-draped coffin emerged and the honor guard slow-marched it to the hearse.

That was Zack in there. That was what it came down to. His widow Sara, an incredibly strong woman, collapsed to the tarmac as her sister tried to comfort her. I had heard sobbing in my life, but never as much as that day, and I never knew what the word "keening" meant before.

There was one photographer present, although not from the press. This was Joel, a young friend of Zack's who had lost a leg in an earlier action in Afghanistan. As the honor guard carried the coffin, Joel kept rolling his wheelchair for better angles on the homecoming of his friend. Not many people noticed but the reservists at attention behind him.

They, too, will always remember this day. Unbearable.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Worriers of the World, Unite

The last time I went on strike, we won. The employees of the San Francisco newspapers marched around the premises with signs, the readers stopped reading management's sad little scab papers and the owners of the papers lost millions in the 11 days of the strike. Yes, they actually made money a decade ago. These days they lose millions without anybody going on strike.

Now all Americans, or the sane 70 percent, are asked to go on strike against our government. I don't think Bush & Co. will be easier to beat than a couple of lousy newspapers, but what else can we do?

In an desperately eloquent essay in the October Harper's, Garrett Keizer argues that we shouldn't wait until the Bush administration is replaced. He suggests that a citizenry that "believes it is already dead" can revive its ideals by starting a general strike on Nov. 7, turning a local election day into the start of a national diselection year.

Rather, we would re-elect ourselves to our rightful place over an imperial presidency.

We may lose, writes Keizer, but "don't tell me what some presidential hopeful ought to do someday. Tell me what the people who have nearly lost their hope can do right now."

So, until Jan. 20, 2009, when Bush and Cheney are scheduled to exit stage far-right, let's hear the chant. On strike, shut it down.

I don't know how I can go on strike without a job, but maybe it has something to do with what gets mailed on April 15. I also don't know whether this would be a strike or a lockout.

If our cities are leveled by natural disaster, we are told to fix them ourselves. If we get sick without insurance, we are told to just go to an emergency room. If we don't like our country invading others without cause, well, speak slowly into the phone because your calls are being monitored for population control.

Yeah, it's a lockout. And marching around with a sign and chanting is hard. What else can we do?

Maybe I'll hold my breath until the nation turns blue.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

With Two You Get ... What?

When I was a boy there was only one way to order Chinese food. My mom and dad took us to the Toy Sun Restaurant in Providence, R.I., a city of perhaps eight Chinese residents at the time, and we ordered egg rolls, egg foo yung and chow mein. Then I went to college and became sophisticated and discovered the new, non-sticky-red way to order Chinese food. My friends and I in Cambridge went to Joyce Chen's, perhaps, and ordered potstickers, a pork dish, a beef dish and a chicken dish, careful not to repeat meats. There were no Chinese patrons sitting near us to make us feel like idiots.

Now it's hard to order Chinese food and, as much as I like the food, I dread the choices. There are too many, and I always feel like I made the wrong ones. I almost always show up with the wrong number of people, too.

Whenever I go to one of the really good Chinese restaurants south of San Francisco where the rich Chinese have moved, there are few tables for two. The Chinese show up in parties of eight or ten and order all kinds of wonderful looking things, always including a giant fish, while we demographically disabled Anglos meekly ask for a table for two, which wouldn't hold one of those fish even if we wanted to look at it, and it at us.

So what do we do? We try to go to places that serve dim sum all day, so we can see the food as it goes by. The problem is, we always show up hungry and order the first five things that survive the passage of the room to our table. Then, when we're full, the chef turns off the clogged deep fryer and starts sending out the wonderful translucent stuff. Too late, always too late.

Today I have to go to the Veterans hospital out at the end of Clement Street in San Francisco, which means I drive past more Chinese restaurants than Chowhound can shake a memory stick at. For lunch, let's see. The choices are harder than trying to find a parking space near the hospital and the results can be as dreary as the waiting room at the blood lab.

The solution is lunch at nine in the morning. The parking is not impossible and the only places serving food are some formica bakeries that serve maybe ten hot items, all out in the open. I always pass on the noodles congealing on the steam table and go for mercifully wrapped items like sticky rice or stuff that's meant to congeal, like turnip cake. Better than it sounds, white kids.

Or maybe I'll skip the blood work (don't worry, nothing serious), and lunch work (always serious). I can always go to the joint in the strip mall near my house here in the burbs. So what if it has a pun name and it's a combination Chinese-Japanese restaurant. That means I don't even have to consider the raw half of the menu. The chow mein is terrific.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Confessions of a Blogger Spouse

I'm married to a real blogger, one who posts every day and responds to comments. (And yes, you can use the word "real" about a virtual activity often denigrated by the increasingly unreal mainstream media.) "Why don't you go blog," she often says to me when I'm hanging around the house, in the tone of "Why don't you take some vitamins" when I'm complaining about a cold.
Usually I ignore both suggestions, but here I am, confessing that blogging is good. I may not like doing it much myself, but I have seen Vitamin B build bodies, minds and relationships eight ways.

Vitamin B1: The naturally reclusive can converse with numerous people any time they want, preferably all the time.
Vitamin B2: They can do it without showering, getting dressed or even getting out of bed. Okay, so Vitamin B-logy may not build bodies all that well.
Vitamin B3: They can make friends all over the world. My wife has mouse pals as far away as Italy, Japan and Australia, where it's now spring and the little downloading wheels on computer screens spin the other way.
Vitamin B4: My wife is happy. She has people to talk to besides me.
Vitamin B5: I'm happy. She has people to talk to besides me.
Vitamin B6: When she does talk to me, I hear all kinds of good gossip about people all over the world who aren't my in-laws.
Vitamin B7: I get to meet these blogger friends of hers. This is something they don't teach you in mainstream-media school. Bloggers actually get together in meatspace and talk instead of type. They're nice to each other and share food and drink, at least if they're food bloggers. Talk about meatspace. We had a party for some of my wife's blog pals recently, and it was grand. Nobody ranted. Nobody flamed except the guy who dug a pit barbecue in our yard. Everybody linked.
Vitamin B8: "Why don't you go blog." It's more than "Shut up." It's quite a useful phrase, no question mark about it.

Vitamin See You Next Month: My wife said that. She's the blogger.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Back to the Garden

Another month, another blog. I'd like to claim I have the romantic ailment of writer's block. There's even a new TV show glorifying the over-glorified disease. In case you're procrastinating, it's on tonight and called "Californication," about a guy with a bad case stuck in a bad show with a bad title.

Writer's blog, though, that's a whole other matter. After a quarter century of being paid to write daily screeds in the MSM, I find it hard to write for nothing about mostly nothing. Although I'm doing it now. My wife, the blogorrheic, says that instead of writer's block I have that affliction that applies to so much in life, DWD, or Don't Wanna Do.

Right now I'm taking the blue-and-red pill, Budweiser, to overcome constriction and open up the blood vessels leading to the typing fingers and the, ahem, mouse. If I find myself still typing four hours later I'll consult a physician or an editor.

Wait, I think I hear one of the latter approaching now. To the point.

So what have I been doing for the last month? Tending the garden. Watering. Old-guy stuff like that. And now the cucumbers and tomatoes are pouring in, the peppers are elongating and the zucchini are already being put in the crisper drawer awaiting the recipes that never quite rid the world of zucchini.

How abundant are those few square feet of former lawn? I went to the farmers' market on Sunday, had tea, people-watched and bought nothing. When I got home I realized the disadvantage of shrinking your foodshed (actual made-up foodie word) to your backyard. I had no more of the little plastic vegetable bags you get at the farmers' market. So I went to Whole Foods and stole a few. Take that, Rahodeb.

Must go. I think I hear fetal eggplant yelling for water, and falling pears screaming to be admitted to the icebox. Or iceboxes. We just plugged in the beer fridge on the patio to make room for, alas, not Budweiser, but our produce. The electrical overload may crash the computer.

Another excuse. Must go.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Back to Back to the Land

Once again an anti-war army marches on its stomach.

Remember that last long war? We kept trying and failing to get our occupation forces out of a civil war in a small country, so what did we do? Among other things (besides enjoying the much-publicized sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll), we ate better than the establishment and Middle America. OK, we didn't eat that much better, just healthier. We tended to boil up brown rice and kasha and pile on undifferentiated steamed veggies. That's what we called them, veggies, as if they were all the same.

But some of us grew them on our own farms, communes and backyards. Many of us avoided grocery stores and bought our produce from co-ops. A few of us even started communal restaurants. Our West Coast Alice's restaurant, Chez Panisse, was started by left-wingers who found a revolution they could win, the food revolution. No revolution is ever fully won, though.

Now the food revolution is reinvigorated, and it's no coincidence that the nation is in another shit storm of conquest, profit and death. Oil men rule the country, and we have not been able to stop their murder of Iraqis or their poisoning of ourselves, whether by contaminated air, water or food. Maybe we haven't tried hard enough to stop them. We certainly marched harder 40 years ago.

I admit it, I've retreated. I've gotten oral, but off the grid, or off the McGriddle. No fast food. No farmed seafood from China. No water wrapped in plastic. I buy my food from farmers markets, bringing it home on my bike. I've torn up my lawn, and the tomatoes are already ripening. Pretty soon there will be peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and other veggies.

Yes, veggies, but this time around I really know how to cook them. If only I knew how to cook a Bush.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Lawn and Shortening of it

Here in suburbia the sure way to watch the arrival of a new generation is to see grass turn into rocks. I don't mean marijuana replaced with crack, which may be the way things change in some urban nabes. No, I mean literal grass torn out, along with wasteful sprinkler systems, to be replaced with small geological objects, tree bark and plants bred to survive nuclear summer.

Jesus, why wasn't this a sign of hipness when I was a kid and my dad made me decapitate a half acre of grass every weekend with a push mower? That's how old I am, push mowers. Now, as I look up and down my new street, I see that slightly more than half the front yards are quarried rather than cultivated. The yuppies, water conservationists and rock-huggers are here, and the Greatest Grassgrowing Generation is dying off.

I'm still stuck with a small, kidney-shaped plot of grass in the backyard. The previous owner assures me the token grass isn't a filled-in swimming pool, although with the current heat wave I've been putting enough water on it to fill a pool. Then, every few days, I go out with a weed-whacker and cut it. It's not big enough to need a mower. It's mostly edge. The process is maddening, so as fast as I can I'm digging up patches of the mini-lawn and planting tomatoes, cucumbers and arugula.

Yes, arugula. It survived ridicule and the '90s, and it might survive my gardening.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

I would take her to a dog show

Today I took my wife to a dog show. And she won best in show. Rather, her dog (our dog), Bean Sprout, was easily the most popular dog at the Marin Humane Society centennial party. A hundred years they've been there, and Bean Sprout (please do not call him or this braggadoggio B.S.) was probably the cutest dog ever seen there.

So here's the thing. Bean Sprout never actually entered any contest, even though dozens (well, three) of the humane society's officers and members begged him to sign up. That is, they begged my wife to sign him up for the small dog contest. He will not run if nominated, and he will not serve if elected, she responded. I begged her to sign him up too, but I must admit my motives were impure.

I had looked around at the competition and knew Bean Sprout count kick all their fuzzy little butts. It was as if a 5-pound, 4-legged, white-maned Lincoln had walked into a 2007 Democratic debate. Hillary who? Obama what? Bean Sprout for prez of the world of dogs.

The truth is, and I knew it, the poor little guy was tired. He might have laid down and curled up embarrassingly in front of the judges (well, judge, and one with an annoying and amplifed voice). He had spent an hour being petted by entranced little children and being chased and licked by bigger dogs who probably wanted to see if he tasted like a dog or a chew toy.

It ain't easy being cute. Ask my dog. Ask me. I got nothing to write about, and I'll be in the dog house for that headline.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Fates Worse Than Mine

Admit it, one reason to read the newspaper is to see who you're glad you're not. Great not to be a spoiled Yalie named George W. Bush. Good not to be a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. But a little close to home, my nephew was just injured in Afghanistan saving one of his men from a burning Humvee. And he was happy being him, and went back to duty instead of to a hospital in Germany. Still, I wouldn't want to be there.

This is a round-about way of getting to the guy in the news I definitely wouldn't want to be: the young man who was driving the car in which David Halberstam died. Christ, it's sad. The thoughtful and generous Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the man who first exposed Vietnam as the quagmire it was, died in a crash in San Mateo County two weeks ago after giving a talk at UC-Berkeley. Driving him to an interview was a 26-year-old grad student in journalism named ... well, no name. He's got enough troubles, and now a lawyer.

How would you like to be the journalism student who killed David Halberstam? The guy who did what the Viet Cong couldn't do and the U.S. Army wished it had?

That may be a bald way to put it, because fault in the crash hasn't been found yet. But still. It will be the invisible ink on the young man's resume. Worse, it will be etched on the young man's mind forever. Should he have made that left turn onto Willow Road when he did? Should he even bother to stay in journalism?

Best to simply read the newspapers, the Cliff's Notes of the Fates, and be glad we're not in them.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Cardboard-Based Life Form

Long delay between posts again. Excuse: Moving.
Selling a house and buying a house in a month was stressful enough. (Unemployed and getting a mortgage, you bet your Fannie Mae.) But moving in a week was a test of body and mind. Fifteen Subaru loads, eight U-Haul van loads and one giant truck load of stuff.

You really get to see the ugly truth about the possessions that possess you. You have to face the fact that you're still packing and unpacking things that you haven't used in twenty years. You measure your cardboard footprint.

Right now every room is filled with cardboard boxes. We're living out of some, but most are just sitting around waiting to be unpacked so we can see just how useless their contents are. Just as we did when we packed them.

There are three categories of junk parasitically attached to us (or we to it).

One: Sentimental junk. I wore that lumber jacket every day when I was in high school, and it still sort of fits. My grandfather made that boot jack and it might work on sneakers. For four generations my narcissistic family shot all those photos and someday I may sort through them, for future generations I'm not spawning.

Two: Junk the dump won't take. I've got paint cans from two houses ago. Hey, those were nice colors. No more said about other hazardous wastes. One accomplishment: This move I paid the local sanitation company 35 bucks to shred four Hefty bags of documents and old pay stubs dating back to 1989, or three houses ago.

Three: Junk that you might use sometime. This is the largest category of junk in my house and probably all of America, because we all have unrealistic aspirations. That old Mac SE might be a collectors item someday. I might buy another Velocette motorcycle and use those old manuals and tank badges. Ice cream, we might make ice cream.

Sure, there's the two-year rule. If you haven't used it in two years get rid of it. Ha. It takes us two years just to figure out if we might want to make ice cream with the ice cream maker, even though we don't eat sweet things or frozen things besides daiquiris.

No, the rule in our household seems to be: If you haven't used it in two years, that still gives you the rest of your life to use it. The significant other might find a good recipe for savory or pickled ice cream. If you know her, you know I'm not kidding. So the ice cream maker stays with us, periodically disappearing into cardboard and then emerging in a new location.

This location is our first with a yard fit for a yard sale. But you know how yard sales are. You hate to have people pawing through your junk, and then not offering enough money for it.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Puttering in the garden

That's what my mom called it. She would take clippers and a trowel and "work at random," as the dictionary puts it, among her plants and bushes. Only thing is, her puttering didn't seem so random. She knew when her little asparagus were going to poke up and knew exactly where to trim her shrubs' little limbs. My mom didn't do much at random. She always worked, though, never being one for watching soap operas.

She loved the unmelodramatic story line of greenery. Well, one time it got very dramatic. That was the morning she woke to find that someone had dug up and hauled away newly planted bushes on the street side of her yard. When she replaced them, I believe she stayed up the next few nights at the window with her dad's shotgun.

My mother was serious about gardening, even though she called it puttering. I'm not sure I will be. I'm more of a not-work-at-random kind of guy, especially when it comes to taking care of plants, lawns and yards. That's partly why I sold a house with three-quarters of an acre of land two years ago and bought a condo with a 300-square-foot patio.

But condos make you feel old, and now I feel old enough to start puttering in the garden, which supposedly makes older folks feel young. I'm sixty-one and it's time to try growing tomatoes, like my mother and grandfather before me. Got to do something before 5 o'clock and the early-bird special. That's why we're abandoning the condo, and the illusion of owning property, for a house with a good-sized yard mostly covered with tree bark, low maintenance plants and very low-maintenance rocks.

It's time bring in some high maintenance plants, and see it they survive this puttering putz.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bluto Rebloated

Don Imus tapped into a nasty American slang tradition, and over the years has helped perpetuate habits of speech, thought and action that should have died with whites-only water fountains. But enough about Imus. I must, you must, everybody must talk Imus. Enough, I said.

I am here to celebrate some American slang traditions that are positive, even when they're derogatory.

For example, the part of unincorporated Marin County where I'm buying a house is called Terra Linda, which is developer-mangled Spanish for "Beautiful Land." Over the years, because of certain climatic tendencies, residents have taken to calling Terra Linda "Terra Winda" or "Windy Lindy." Others call this less affluent part of Marin (yes, there are less affluent parts of the richest county in California) "Trasha Linda."

This isn't a great piece of slang, but it is part of the widespread renaming of towns, cities and neighborhoods all over America. When I lived in Orlando, folks called it, reasonably, "Borelando." Down in Southern California, the young people of Escondido call their city "Escondildo." During the 15 years I lived in Mill Valley, the small Marin County town became richer, smugger and more Land Rover-ridden. Thus we called it "Me Valley" and eventually "Mean Valley."

Familiarity breeds contemptuous slang, usually well-deserved.

Sailors always rename the ships that serve as their bobbing prisons. I once worked on an oceanographic ship officially named the Explorer, but known to its crew as "the Exploder" (a precursor to the equally flawed Ford SUV of the same names). Hometown newspapers are renamed. The Orlando Sentinel was "the Slantinel" to its subscribers. These kinds of derogatory names just bubble up from the ground (or ocean) where we live.

It's a good thing. Now, is it worth renaming "Imus in the Morning"? No. Enough.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Pluto disappeared

Where have I been? Selling a condo and buying a house, a real, more expensive, detached house. Me, I've been anything but detached. This whole thing has taken three weeks in a supposedly cool housing market, and in two more weeks the movers will be here and I'll have a mortgage for the first time in ages.

My brain is burned. It took longer to buy a car.

When you buy a car, first you read all the reviews and Consumer Reports reports. Then you go look at a bunch of different models. Then you go home, think about them, and a few days later come back and sit in them. Eventually you take them all for test drives. You do everything you can to avoid signing papers with a salesman until you're absolutely sure you like everything down to the cupholders.

When you buy a house, you wander through a bunch of open houses and generally see nothing that works. The houses you like are too expensive and the houses you can afford are too small, too close to busy roads or need TLC, which stands for Turn Life over to Contractors.

Then you see a house you can live with, or in, and you immediately have to start bidding, signing papers and indenturing yourself to banks. You don't get to test drive the house. You just go around saying, "The couch will fit here" and things like that. At closing, you live with the choice for the rest of your life or until another sucker comes along.

The rest of my life starts in two weeks. And you know what? I'm happy about it. That's the weirdest thing about home buying. It's a form of hope that needs paint and new carpets.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How Expensively Does Your Garden Grow?

Spring is here, and so is the Smith & Expensive catalog. Smith & Hawken, of course, is the outfit that turned gardening into a fashion statement. They've gradually weeded out most seeds and plants from their line of goods and replaced them with outdoor furniture (Do you prefer "Avignon Lounging" or "Canterborough Lounging"?) and the likes of "bunny topiary." At $89 a bunny, it's a Chia Pet for the Lexus set.

Ah, but there are two pages of actual garden tools in the Spring Sale catalog. "Why Smith & Hawken tools?" asks the catalog. "A great partnership with an English toolmaker (in business for 200 years)." Sure enough, these carefully sculpted tools look like props for the help in country garden scenes on "Masterpiece Theater." The catalog provides handy descriptions for the kind of modern Americans who only develop calluses inside their Manolo Blahniks.

"Long-handled Shovel: For lifting and throwing gravel, compost, soil or sand." Who knew? For further instructions ask one of your Guatemalan lawn guys.

You can have your $59 shovel and your $39 "Perennial Hoe." My favorite new Smith & Hawken tool is the Dibber, an 11-inch carbon-steel pointy thing with a finely crafted wooden handle "to create small holes for planting seeds or small seedlings."

The dictionary says a "dibber" was originally called a "dibble," which comes, natch, from the Middle English "debylle." Whatever you call it, it costs $25 plus shipping so you can poke holes in the dirt.

As my wife says in Middle American: "I got sticks for that."

Monday, March 12, 2007

Will Eat for Money?

I realize that because of a generous mention by Sam, anyone reading this is probably a foodista. You may even be reviewing restaurants online, and more power to you and your gut if you are. But if you're thinking about going into dining as a line of work, there's something you should know. (Apologies if you've heard this old standard of mine before.) Restaurant reviewing is a lot like prostitution.

You take a normal bodily function, perform it over and over again for money, and put a lot of strange things in your mouth.

Sure, restaurant reviewing is fun for the first couple of years (I don't know about prostitution), but if you must do it for any length of time, here's some advice:

One: Don't do it in the late 1970s. That's when I took up the fork and pen as a way to break into newspapers. Food was barely invented then and I was forced to do battle with salads of hacked iceberg lettuce and glopped protein called "continental cuisine." Most of the latter was previously frozen, so I assume the continent in question was Antarctica. A line I used at the time.

Two: Don't do it in B markets, if you can help it. I dug through the ancient cuisines of Palo Alto and Orlando and, except for some good stuff served on Formica counters, the best that could be said then was that Palo Alto was an hour's drive from Chez Panisse and Orlando was two days' drive from New Orleans. At least I was sort of qualified for the job, having worked at several bad restaurants in my youth, and having a sharp-tongued, super-tasting partner in the detection of culinary crimes. Thank you, Cookiecrumb, for your patience in the misuse of your palate.

Three: No matter where on the time/space continuum you choose to become a restaurant critic, just try going back to your favorite places for your favorite dishes. You can't do it unless you're seriously bankrolled and seriously bulemic. You have to keep moving on, free-ranging (well, forced-ranging) through good restaurants and bad. The worse they are, the more times you have to visit, to make sure you're right about how wrong their food is.

No, if you want to eat well, do something else for a living, something that doesn't eat you.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Discomfort food

No more jokes about precious food. The new food joke is on all you real men who made fun of fancy restaurants serving tiny dabs of delicate delicacies. At the best of the new American restaurants you'll feel like Anthony Bourdain in Namibia staring at a plate of fried rodents' anuses. Only you're the asshole. You should have enjoyed the microgreens while you had the chance. Now you have to eat offal.

Eating the whole animal is the new thing. You must honor its sacrifice, its humane slaughter after years of coddling by kindly organic farmers, by eating hunks of its lowest, innermost or most extreme parts. Are you as squinty tough as Jim Harrison, well are you punk? That's the question posed by the new upscale-downbeast restaurants like Incanto in San Francisco.

As my wife delighted in a risotto made with duck tongues and cocks' combs (roosters' secondary sex characteristics, she called them, as if disappointed in not savoring the primary), I stared down the blackened vertibrae of a roasted lamb's neck. It was Alien meets CSI San Francisco, Special Gourmet Unit. I passed the gag test and indeed it was great, once the collagenoidal hunks of meat (honored by being roasted perfectly medium rare) were pried from the nooks and crannies of the bone and gristle that once supported little lambikins' cute head.

There was so much meat in there that, alas, I was forced to skip a morsel of rooster sex characteristic proffered by my wife. Okay, I wimped out. In my own defense, earlier I had scoffed up, tongue and jowl (mine and its), jellied pig head. The restaurant and I prefer to call it porchetta di testa. Testing the pig, I think it means.

I was tested, and found offal not so gawdawful. But good, as the old song about moose turd pie has it. That, by the way, will be one fad too far.