Friday, December 11, 2009

Sick Days (January 2009)

I'm coming down with it, I just know it. Shit.

Everett's been sick all week. She's been walking around the apartment with the red nose and the rheumy eyes. The mouth hanging open so she looks like her IQ's dropped about 90 points. You know Everett's sick when she looks that awful and doesn't care. She ignores my medication combination dictates, instead calling Josh, who checks with his parents, who are in the medical profession, and follows the advice he calls back with. "Yes, I can take the NyQuil even though it's been only three hours since I took the Advil...Josh says it's ok and YES he checked with his parents!" And here I thought they had broken up. I guess she's still keeping him on staff for medical emergencies.

Everett's teachers have come in and out of my office all week. One even called me from her classroom last Friday. "Is Everett ok? How is she feeling? What are her symptoms, exactly? Oh, the poor thing!" People should give that much of a shit when I'm out sick.

Yes, back to me. I'm not feeling well, and that means for the duration, it's all about me.
I am the worst sick person in my family. Usually that designation is conferrred upon the grown men in the house, but actually Peter is pretty good. He lies around and naps, quietly reads on the corner of the couch, makes himself soup. He's so self-sufficient and calm about it that I often forget that he's sick at all and forget to be a little nicer to him than I usually am. "Why can't you go out and pick Zack up from his rehearsal for a change?? Oh. Oh. That's right, you're sick, I forgot, I'm sorry. So how are you feeling, anyway?"

I lie in bed, heave heavy sighs, and moan quietly. "Ohmigod, would you knock it off, you're ridiculous!" whoever is passing by will often shout out. "Could I have some more water pleeeease?" I cry weakly. "Are you eating out there? What are you having? Could I have a little of that, pleeeease? I can't find my asprin!"

Zack had Chicken Pox when he was in the first grade, and he was disgusting. I wrapped him up in an over-sized sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight around his head with the string. We ran the three blocks to the pediatrician, after office hours as instructed, as if I were harboring Typhoid Mary. The doctor visibly cringed as she let us in the door. She determined that he didn't have pox down his esophagus, or up or down or in anywhere else it is exceptionally dangerous to have them. Just all over every last square inch of his body. Nothing to do but oatmeal baths, Benadryl, and wait it out.

I told poor miserable little Zack that if he didn't scratch, he wouldn't get any scars. I am still amazed when I think back to how he was able to follow my one simple instruction. What willpower he demonstrated, just sitting on his little hands, watching tv, and determinedly not scratching. In one of life's more unfair turns, after he recovered, he was left sporting more than a couple of scars. After all that hard work not scratching. "It's not fair, Mom!" he said with tears welling up. I didn't scratch at all, and I still have promised me I wouldn't!" I felt terrible.

I had Chicken Pox when I was about eight or so. It was a pretty nasty case. I remember my mother calling everyone we knew to let them know, even the dentist. How embarassing. After two weeks of suffering, my little sister Kris came down with it. She had THREE, count 'em, THREE pox. No fever. No suffering. But she got to stay home and enjoy life until those three pox took their blessed time and dried up completely. "Now J," Mom said "Aren't you happy for your sister, that she was lucky enough not to get as sick as you were?" Uh, yeah, right....whatever.

Everett is a world-class sleeper when she's well, and when she's sick, she has been known to sleep twelve hours at a clip. Her personality takes an occasional cranky dip, "You're going to the supermarket? Could you please get some good stuff for a change? And could you please remember the Blistex this time? You always remember what Zack asks for. You never forget what he wants. Why do you always have to...." SLAM -- I'm out the door, sorry -- can't hear you. She's growing up to be as charming a sickie as I am.

The question, if indeed I am coming down with "it," will be whether to stay home in my misery in an empty apartment with no one to yell at, or go to work and spread the joy and the germs around.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Fourth Lobster (August 2009)

I wouldn't go so far as to say that everyone should experience killing his or her own food, like some might suggest. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, one of my favorite books of recent memory, Michael Pollan follows his purchased steer to the slaughterhouse. He visits a self-sustaining farm in Virginia and beheads his own chicken. He hunts wild boar, and forages for wild mushrooms, which is more daunting than you would imagine. And did you know that mushrooms, as fungi, are more closely related to animals than to plants? I sure didn't.

I don't come from hunters. My North Carolina grandpa may have shot a rabbit or two, maybe a duck (shades of Elmer Fudd) but to hear my dad tell it, grandpa was more of a fisherman than a hunter. He'd come home with bass, or lake trout, his mouth just watering for my grandma to fry them up for him. And she would say to him, "That's wonderful dear, now take them right back outside and scale them and clean them and gut them, and then I'll get right to it."

My dad's family kept chickens in the back, and when he reached a certain age, probably younger than we pampered city-slickers would imagine, he was charged with going out and selecting and killing a chicken for dinner. An ax wasn't even part of this little backyard operation. No, killing a chicken for dinner on Driver Avenue in Durham involved catching one of them, wrapping your hand around its head, and swinging the whole feathered bundle a good strong couple of 360 degree turns. A little wrist action was necessary; if you didn't have the proper wrist action, the neck wouldn't snap properly and kill the chicken quickly and you'd be left with a brain-dead chicken that would run around the yard after you dropped it. Wouldn't that be a nice image to replay through your mind later as you settled down to supper that evening?

But I suppose it is fair to say that growing your own food and, yes, killing your own food, is character-building. While it isn't the line in the sand that I would use to separate a worthwhile person from one not deserving of my time, it's an experience maybe one shouldn't pass on if it comes up. As I get older, I find I am less likely to dismiss such ideas with an "ewwwww."

I had the opportunity in Wellfleet last week. We were all staying, even my dad, with Peter's sister Sharon and her husband, Danny. Everett wanted to have lobster before she returned to the city. You don't have to ask me twice if lobster is on the menu, and it was decided Tuesday would be the day.

"Fantastic!" I said. "Where do we want to go? Arnold's? Moby Dick's?"

"I was thinking we'd just buy some and cook them here," Danny said. "It's a whole lot cheaper."

Here. At home.

In a big pot of boiling water.

"Oh, uhh...great idea!"


We're gonna kill us some lobster.

Now, I realize it's sort of a yuppie dilemma, boiling a lobster alive. It's not the same as holding a chicken carcass in your hand, or shooting and skinning a rabbit. It's not as gross, and there's not the same central nervous system involved--no pain. They're just fish, after all.


I took Everett and Zack on a lobster boat tourist ride in Bar Harbor a few years ago. The guy hauled up the trap and showed us lobsters, showed us how to tell a male from a female. The female's tail wraps around more tightly under herself in order to protect her eggs. Females are also more likely than males to be spared by fishermen, and thrown back into the sea--to live on and raise more babies.

Which is how I think it should be, except for that eternal raising of babies part.

He also showed us how to tell if a lobster is right-handed or left-handed. The smaller pincher--if you look carefully, all lobsters have a larger and a smaller pincher--is the fine-motor pincher. ("What, is that the pincher he writes with?" I wanted to ask.) A lobster with a smaller right pincher is a right-handed lobster.

"Look! I have a right-handed lobster!" I announced at the restaurant that night. "I wonder what percentage of the lobster population is left-handed? Is it the same as humans? What do you think, kids??"

Blank stares. I realized right then that gender and handedness was more than I wanted to know about something I was getting ready to eat. Dad killed the chicken by putting his hand around its head--if I had been there, I wouldn't have asked which one he had slaughtered. Grandpa caught a fish and Grandma cooked it. I didn't need to know which pincher mama lobster used to check her eggs, or which pincher papa lobster would lead off with to avoid the lobster trap nestled in the bottom of the ocean.

It didn't stop me from eating lobster if the opportunity arose, no sir, but it did make me think a little bit each time, at least until the first couple of glasses of pinot grigio kicked in, that maybe I was a bit of a....hypocrite. But big deal, I'd tell myself, eating lobster was no worse than any number of sins I'd committed in the last year, and no worse that eating a hen that had been killed by an inept hand and spent a bit of time running around the grass like a....well, like a chicken with its head cut off.

But knowing a lobster is killed and cooked by dropping it in boiling water, and actually doing it are two different things. I had always bypassed even selecting my lobster out of the tank at the restaurants. That was way too "Hand of God" for me. "Just pick one for me please, and bring it out. ....Oh, and with extra melted butter, thanks."

All that was about to change. Danny's friend told him the best place to go to buy the lobsters, a place a few miles up in Truro. Some fisherman selling some out of his garage. Nice and tasty, and only $7.99 a pound.

"Say, that's the same as buying a nice sirloin," I rationalized to myself, trying desperately to find a common ground between buying a cellophane-wrapped pre-killed steak in the Stop 'n' Shop and boiling one of God's freshly-caught creatures alive. But that was about the only similarity I could muster up, unless you hauled a live steer up with a giant pulley and lowered it slowly into a giant vat of boiling oil, like something the Joker might do to Batman and Robin. "Holy Lobster Bib, Batman!"

Peter and my dad were enlisted to find the lobster place and make the purchase. I gave Everett a look and a toss of the head. "Go with them," I said. "Make sure they do it right." Off they went.
Sharon had quietly decided to not participate in the ritual slaughter. She didn't make a big showy stand about it, because she still had every intention of eating the results. But she sort of disappeared. I stayed in the kitchen to help. Danny clanked around under the counter and pulled out a big lobster pot. Big, but not huge. "Will that be big enough?" I asked.

"It'll be OK for four, I figure, then we'll use this pot for the other two," he said as he pulled out a smaller one. "I guess it'll be OK, I've never done this before."

What?? Oh dear.

I set the table to burn off nervous energy waiting for the lobster delivery. Danny worried over water levels and heat settings. "We're boiling, we're not steaming them," he said. "Boiling takes about fifteen or twenty minutes, the website said."

Hey! Web research is my job.

Peter and my dad and Everett returned with the lobsters. "It wasn't 'Commercial Street,'" Peter cranked, "it was 'Commercial Place'--we drove right past it!"

"How many 'Commercial' anythings did you think there would be, Peter?" I asked. You were in Truro, for heaven's sake, not Queens!"

There were brown paper bags. I was surprised, but what was I to expect, really? Tanks?

I reached in and pulled out a lobster and held it up. It had those thick rubber bands around its pinchers. I avoided taking note of which pincher was the larger one. I avoided looking to see if its tail was tightly wrapped up underneath itself.

"Oh right! Look! Rubber bands! Do we take these off before we kil--, I mean before we drop them in the boiling--, I mean....(huff) I take these off?" I asked Danny.

Everyone else had conveniently made him or herself scarce.

"Yes, the bands need to come off," Danny said. "Is the corn cooking?"

Is the corn cooking?? Am I supposed to be thinking about the corn, too? I've got enough on my mind here. I don't usually find myself on the road to a nervous breakdown simply from preparing an evening meal. But Sharon had the corn out on the grill and a salad already prepared. She had more than contributed her part and could guiltlessly stay away from main course preparation. "You don't want the corn ready," Danny said, "before the lobsters are."

Oh, 'Mr. Dinner Preparation Expert' all of a sudden.

"Everything doesn't have to be ready at the exact same time," I told Danny. "The lobster or the corn can sit around for a few minutes to wait for the other one, it will be all right."

"Oh, no," Danny said. "It all has to come out at the same time, or it won't be good!"

Sigh. This is why I get aggravated cooking with men. Especially ones who cook just once in a while, yet think they know everything oh so much better than I do when their turn comes up. Just get out of the way, please, and let me do it.

But I was the sous-chef here, and I wasn't going to stage a mutiny....particularly not in this case, because I was not at all certain I could step up to the plate and take over preparation of the main course. That's right....the lobster-killing.

The big pot was boiling.

It was time.

"OK, I think we're good to go here," Danny shouted, ridiculously, like we were at opposite ends of a big boat or something.

"OK," I shouted back, "here I come!" I came over with the first de-banded lobster. I held it way up and out in front of me, like one of Zack's particularly smelly socks I might carry to the hamper.

Sharon and Danny's Cape Cod kitchen is large by middle-class New York City standards, but small by any other standard. Maybe four or five steps tops from counter to stove. But that night it was the Appalachian Trail or the Penine Way. Days, it took, to carry across my first victim--er--lobster. The right-handed lobster...oops! I snuck a look, in spite of myself. She (oh gosh, did I check for that curled-under tail, too?) wasn't moving too much, wasn't struggling or anything. She probably was near-dead, wouldn't even know what hit her when she hit the boiling water. We all gotta eat, right? Beast killing beast, right? Hey, it's Darwin, it's survival of the fittest, it's's how life works.


"Here I come," I said, still shouting, as Danny, a beast, stood by the boiling pot holding the lid with the oven mitt on. I, another beast, held it over the pot. The lobster, beast number three in this little scenerio, the snowball in hell, writhed slowly in my hand.


I couldn't do it.

"I can't do it," I said. I shoved it into Danny's hand. "You'll have to do it. Sorry."

Danny dropped the first lobster into the pot, as I went back to bring over the next one and the next one. Three lobsters in the first pot. It looked full, I thought. I stood there with the fourth lobster in my hand.

"We can fit in another," Danny said.

"Are you sure?" I asked. "It looks pretty tight in th--"

Danny took the lobster and pressed it in and replaced the lid. Within seconds, he had the remaining two lobsters in the smaller pot.

"So how long are you cooking them?" Peter came over to ask. Oh sure, everyone comes out of the woodwork now that the dirty work is done. "The guy at the lobster place said ten-to-twelve minutes."

"The website said fifteen-to-twenty minutes if you're boiling them," Danny said.

"I think the bottom two lobsters in the big pot are boiling, but the two you shoved in on top of them are steaming, technically speaking," I postulated, as I took a big gulp of wine. I will postulate while drinking as long as I am in the safety of the home.

And then the lid moved.

I choked a bit on my pinot, and then it moved again. As Peter and Danny debated over lobster-cooking details neither one of them really knew anything about, I pointed while I had the lip of the wineglass still at my mouth. "What?" one or both of them said. I pointed again, with a bit more urgency. I couldn't even say it.

The fourth lobster was trying to climb out of the pot. It (he? she?) had knocked the lid halfway off the pot and one entire claw came out. It was actually making progress.

"Oh, shit!" Danny said, and flipped the lobster over and pressed down the lid, harder this time.

"Is dinner ready?" Sharon came in off the deck. "No, it's not ready," I said. "It's still trying to climb out of the pot!" She set her mouth in a line and returned to the deck.

Eventually dinner was ready, and we were all seated around the dinner table with honking big lobsters in front of us. Everett and Zack emerged from wherever they had been hiding to avoid the hullabaloo. Corn was brought out, butter was melted, extra napkins were brought to the table. It was darn good, the lobster. Danny had managed to cook them all perfectly. I don't know if you can attribute that so much to the fact that he figured it all out, or to the fact that perhaps lobster is "forgiving," and not that hard to cook. As long as it doesn't escape. But it was yummy, and they were so big that there was plenty left over. Everyone, at my instruction, put their plates on the big kitchen counter, and as I finished the bottle of pinot, I broke into everyone's leftover lobsters and picked and scraped and got enough meat out to combine and make a rockin' lobster salad for lunch the next day. As Sharon likes to say, "We're all family here."

"Is there something the matter with me?" I idly wondered and I cracked and picked and rummaged through the shells. "I watched a creature literally fight for its life, make a last-ditch effort to save itself from what has to be one of the worst ways on this earth to die. And then after watching it fail, watching it be pressed back into submission, I turned around ten minutes later and enjoyed the hell out of myself eating it with a side of corn. I can stand here and rip it apart with my bare hands to make a nice dainty salad for us to feast on the next day. What does that make me?"

I guess it makes me....human?

P.S. My dad had a hot dog.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

And Then He is a She

John's in heat.

I guess it's not so easy to tell a boy kitten from a girl kitten.

When Zack first found the cat, or the cat first found Zack, to be a little more precise, we took its scrawny little butt straight into Everett's empty room, to keep it isolated from Max and Minnie. "Do we know what it is? You look," I instructed my sister Kris, who happened to be there that evening. She took a quick look under the tail, not wanting to traumatize the poor thing more than it already was. "Looks like a boy to me," she said with a degree of certainty.

So whether or not, when I took John to the vet a couple of days later, the vet even actually looked herself to determine the gender, I don't remember. She might have just assumed we knew. She looked in his ears and eyes and squeezed John all up and down--she checked out everywhere.

Except know...down there.

Well, now that we had finally more or less agreed on the name John -- I stuck with it even through suggestions of J.D. (for John Doe) and Figgins (Kris stubbornly insisted on referring to the cat as "Figgins," since that was the last name of one of the ball players we were watching in the World Series that night. Sorry Sis, you don't get a vote from all the way in Brooklyn) -- John started acting sort of....strange. Sort of....un-John-like.

He started acting....more Jane-like.

No one's ever accused me of being the quickest one on the block in these matters. "John and Max are starting to act weird," I said to Peter one evening, "Like they have some alpha male domineering-thing going on. I think it's time to get John fixed." Peter was involved in his interminable online search for a used car and responded with a grunt. I shrugged and went to bed. The next morning I broached the subject again, "You know, Peter, they're at it again in there, Max is on top of John and biting the back of his neck and and being really aggressive and John is, like, just kind of laying there and taking it. He even looks like he's enjoying it a little."

Peter gave me one of those looks that Archie used to reserve for Edith right before he'd call her the "D" word.

"What?" I asked.

"You know what it is," he said.

"I do?" I asked.

"Sure you do."

"What? Tell me."

"John is a girl."


"Of course!"

"Ya think??"

I went back out into the living room. There was Max, on top of John. John was yowling, and rubbing himself -- herself? -- along the floor, with his -- I mean her -- behind stuck up in the air. Then Max tried to straddle her and...

"Hey. Hey!! Knock it off!"

What a hussy.

Max and Minnie joined the family a couple of years ago at the same time, and they were already neutered when they did. We had never had shenanigans like this in the house before. It was weird seeing Max act this way, and I think it's been weird for Max, too. It's like he's doing something from sense memory, like on MASH, when a soldier would wake up and Hawkeye would tell him they had to amputate his leg, and the kid would say "What do you mean? It's still there. I feel it."

They're trying really hard, when I'm not there to yell at them to stop, which means they're going at it the better part of the morning and into the afternoon every day. Until John, or Jane, or perhaps Jade -- new discussions are open, after all, and we haven't even told my sister yet -- is out of heat, and we can get her fixed. Or spayed, to be a little more precise.

Minnie, on the other hand, just watches from the back of the living room easy chair, or goes into the back bedroom to get a little shut eye.

She can't be bothered with that nonsense.