God and Lawn Care

sometimes, the chain emails I receive are worthy…

God said: “Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.”

St. FRANCIS:
It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD:
Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS:
Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD:
The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS:
Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it-sometimes twice a week.

GOD:
They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS:
Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD:
They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS:
No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD:
Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS:
Yes, Sir.

GOD:
These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS:
You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD:
What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It’s a natural cycle of life.

ST. FRANCIS:
You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD:
No!? What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS:
After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD:
And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS:
They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD:
Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE:
‘Dumb and Dumber’, Lord. It’s a story about….

GOD:
Never mind, I think I just heard

Over the River and Through the Woods…

Thanksgiving is upon us and I have premature Scrooge syndrome. I blame my co-worker. The one who enthusiastically exclaimed she couldn’t WAIT for Thanksgiving. So EXCITED to host her “orphan” dinner with friends and travelers and random stragglers who have nowhere to go. Her eyes actually twinkled. I could almost see her exquisite menu scroll lightly in their shine.

“And you… what are you doing?”  Shrug. “Going to my mom’s…it’ll be nice….” Sigh.

I am thankful for my family, my pets, the roof over my head, the rain on the roof…

I am not jaded by my memories of Thanksgivings past. They were fine. Typical. Most annual turkeys have been served in the childhood home. Aunts, uncles, cousins, cousin’s kids and canine cram into the small Midwest farmhouse festively infested with country crafts. The men watch the game, the women watch the kids, the kids brave the steep stairs that climb up to the toys. Every year, the turkey goes in at the butt crack of dawn, and every year, Mom wonders why it’s done so early? And why Aunt Sharon isn’t here yet? Well, we say under our breath, lips pursed, we’ll just have to eat without her.  Aunt Sharon manages to arrive before carving time. Sing Johnny Appleseed, dig in, make dump salad jokes. Remember when Brent broke the bench but saved the dump salad? God, I’m so uncomfortably full, who wants pie? “Ugh”, my mom exhales at the end of the day, “this is probably the last year I’m going to have it here.” 

I am thankful for my health and Wisconsin micro-brewed beer. I am thankful for Stephen Colbert.

My “orphan” Thanksgivings began in ’91 in Seville, Spain. We gathered at Alex’s house in Nervion. A mezcla of locals and expats, lisping on about pavo and what- is-the-Spanish-word-for-stuffing? A pasty white New Englander named Jeffrey who, if you closed your eyes, had the uncanny voice of a Southern black man, exclaimed “that is some hot mutha’ f*ckin’ ajo in those tomatoes!  JO-der! ”  Years later I found myself in San Diego fussing over 25 lbs. of  rapidly desiccating poultry. My friend Shiri “helped”, by nervously putting every cooking utensil I used into the dishwasher the second I set it down. Dinner started with a civilized toast, and ended with “There Once was a Man from Nantucket…” in a raucous chorus of 25 voices, one for every pound of that dry-ass bird.   

I am thankful for indoor plumbing, organic carrots, fine-tipped Sharpies, and gay men.

Orphan memories of dancing wildly after dinner, bellies full of great food, heads full of fine red wine. Of playing hopscotch on an outdoor patio in 70 degree weather. Of scintilating conversation. Of singing “Piano Man” at the top of our lungs. Of potluck dinners with gourmet cooks, vegetarian dishes, dishes to pass, joints to pass.

But I would call home every year.  I could hear Uncle Gary in the background, telling it like it is, and Uncle Tony telling him why not. I felt that lonely, empty ache in my gut. I wish I were there. My intuitive mom would reassure me, “It’s hectic and loud…this is probably the last year I’ll have it here.”

I’d venture home on rare occasion, “Yes, I’m still single….no, I’m not seeing a woman, even if cousin Sara thinks you’d all be ‘fine’ with that…”  I head back, next year an Albuquerque turkey topped with green chile stew.  

I am thankful my husband came home alive from Iraq. I am grateful my son’s tic calmed down this week.

Seven years back in the motherland and my voice in the Thanksgiving plans is but a hoarse whisper. I recall those orphan days with an ache. I wish I were there. My brother and sister got off scott free this year, I am the sole representative. Do it for me, she says, this is probably the last year I’m going to have it here. I add green beans to my grocery list. Bacon. Defrost roasted peppers. I dust off the slow cooker, Mom’s oven is too small for multiple casserole dishes.

I hear the catch of excitement in my son’s breath as I tuck him in and remind him to pack tomorrow for grandma’s house. I can feel his smile penetrate the dark. I can almost see the reflection of dump salad shining in his eyes.

I am thankful for my mom.  I am thankful for my mom. I am thankful for my mom.

I am thankful for Johnny Appleseed, and the dry turkey and the nervous chaos and the where’s-Aunt-Sharon. I am thankful that my son has a tradition. I am thankful for that warm, roasted smell of my childhood home on Thanksgiving Day.

 I am grateful that even a Scrooge will always be welcome.  

Dear Columbia, SC Frat Party Attendee:

In regards to the turmoil you have created for Michael Phelps, I would like to state for the record that I find you to be a complete and total dick. No matter what anyone thinks about Phelps’ actions, they have to scrutinize yours. Not exactly the choices I would want my son to make should he find himself in that situation. Boneheads don’t make good role models.

If the illegalities of the situation gravely concerned you, you would have immediately sent that photo to the police from your cell with a text reading, “420 in progress” and directions to the party. If you were offended for religious, moral, or health reasons, you probably would have left the room and included him in your prayers. Not wreak total havoc on his life. Nor were you the dashing photojournalist secretly filming on drug use among Olympic athletes. Or working on that High Times piece dispeling the myth that all weed smokers are confused and unproductive people.  

No, you were the douchebag who came to the decision that instead of being the cool, laid-back frat guy who got to chill out with his new buddy Phelps, you were gonna opt for The Total Asshole Move.  

WHY? Were you just struck with the desire to inflict a large amount of damage in several key areas of another young man’s life? Do you secretly hate Michael Phelps? Just HAD to bring him down? Do you think swimming is an absolute outrage? Was he hogging all the chicks? Or were you in awe and needed proof for your friends, but a mischievious paparazzi elf stole the photo?

Didn’t anyone at ANY point tell you, “Aw, come on man, don’t be lame.”?

Now it seems obvious to me that we should respect your family and not dissect YOUR life. It appears that did not cross your mind when you marched your little treasure to the press.

Think now. Are there any pictures of you NEXT to the bong? Or vomiting during Rush Week? Or in some vulnerable position where you thought you could let your guard down? Let’s publish THOSE in the local newspaper, the sorority newsletter, plaster posters on kiosks all over town and drop fliers off at all the business specializing in YOUR field where you intend to search for jobs after graduation. Send it to your parents. Your grandma. Your coach.

Didn’t you, at any point, play that little game we call Put Yourself In Their Shoes? I play that game with my 5 yr. old. It helps him learn a little thing we call empathy.

I can only rest assured knowing you will now live with the title of The Guy-Who-Took-The-Phelps-Bong-Picture for the rest of your life. Good luck with that. And I would hope that anyone who criticizes Phelps would also recognize the detriment your kind has on our society. 

Because whether we are pro-this or anti-that, most of us don’t take too kindly to opportunistic jerkoffs who profit from exposing others.

A Piece of Cake…

It’s been at least eight years since I had a Big Plan for New Year’s Eve. Since the birth of my Duck Feathers, New Year’s Eve has found me getting him tucked in and settling in with family. Surrounded by large batches of Barb’s caramel corn, we play games until midnight, make some noise and head to bed. I plant a kiss on my sleeping husband, who is often struck by 9:30 with a sudden bout of narcolepsy after two beers and a half-pound of cheese and crackers. This has been quite satisfactory for me. I have a funny family, and a few years have found us on midnight sled runs behind my brother’s house, running our speeding death traps into pine trees and ripping our pants. Good times, good times.

 

But after discovering that Cake would be playing the Riverside in Milwaukee on New Years Eve, we went for the Big Plan this year.

 

I love Cake. In my opinion, they are one of few refreshingly original bands left in this land. (Keep in mind, I don’t get out much.) Their style and lyrics are quirky and intelligent, perhaps near-genius. I predicted that their live show would be intense. They would blow my mind. And as someone who gets completely consumed by well-performed live music, I expected Cake would have me spinning in dance that would push my newly diagnosed benign vestibular vertigo beyond its limits.

 

I’ve been to plenty of shows in plenty of venues, and know the formula to live shows. You know it. You start big, get the crowd going, throw in some new material, add some down time with something slow, then build up to the finale with audience participation, a throbbing crescendo and the whole place explodes. You leave the stage as the crowd freaks out, and come back for an encore before they calm down. A couple more crowd-pleasers, and everyone leaves buying $35 T-shirts on the way out of the perspiration-steamed doors.

 

Apparently lead singer John McCrea doesn’t “do” formula. I knew my expectations were in trouble when the lapse of time between announcing the band to a pumped-up audience and the actual start of the first song was long enough for me to take another pee break.

 

The whole show seemed to be his personal social experiment in the anticipatory behaviors of large, drunk crowds and pushing their limits in patience. I couldn’t help but feel he thought of us as sheep, and we were disappointing him.        

 

The music in itself was fun. They played lots of favorites. But just when a song would grab its hold on me, it ended. We waited, and waited, and waited for the next to begin. Talk about prolonging the magic. The pauses between every song while McCrea tuned his guitar with his back to the audience prevented us from ever gaining momentum. There were good moments, but no intense, mind-blowers. Just when the band started getting tight, McCrea created awkwardness.  

 

A purist might argue that this intentional pull away from the formula is quintessential Cake. There were probably diehard fans nodding knowingly with smirks on their faces when McCrea preached about sacrifice (“Do you know anyone who was injured?”) and the privilege of running water rather than belting out “I Will Survive” (which they never did, dammit). I’m sure there were a few smug, internal cheers among the black-rimmed- square-glasses-wearing crowd when, at one minute ‘til midnight, McCrea began to discuss marking the “arbitrary difference between now and then” and rambled something about “killing your family while you watch” rather than count backwards from ten, which the audience finally took it upon themselves to do.

 

Observing McCrea’s discontentment in our buffooness was reminiscent of that apologetic feeling you get browsing at an independently-owned record store where the pretentious and knowledgeable staff exchange heated debates about the most obscure underground bands. You SO want to buy something completely unknown and edgy just to show them you are cool, but end up hanging your head low, feeling the unspoken scoff when they ring up your David Cook CD.    

 

I am not a musical purist. I am a 40-year old woman who had Big Plans and likes to dance. I like counting backwards at midnight on New Years Eve followed by a good hoot n’ holler. I would have really appreciated an extended Vince DiFiore solo to take me out of my head for a few minutes. I couldn’t ascertain if this was Cake’s regular schtick, if it was all tongue-in-cheek, or if McCrea was truly disillusioned with our inadequacies and inability to maintain more than a moment’s silence for the wounded (“you obviously don’t appreciate the sacrifices made for your country or you would have been silent immediately after I asked you to…”) or sing in unison for more than seven minutes. (“Bah”, he waved us off with the flick of his hand after what I thought was a damn good effort).

 

I am not bitter. I had a great New Year’s Eve. The Riverside Theater is a great venue. We were with good friends. The atmosphere was festive. Everyone was smiling. Klements Sausage Racers were a hit, as were the Brewhaus Polka Kings. There were plenty of sequins, glitter, and animal prints brightening up the joint. The bathroom line conversations were classic. You can bring your beverages right into the theater. I got a long, heated kiss at midnight from my awake and pleasantly buzzed husband. And except for the drunk asshole who kept yelling “MR. MASTADON FARM!!” every thirty seconds, it was like hanging out in an extra large living room with hundreds of your best-dressed and happiest friends. And when all is said and done, it was Cake and I heard some good tunes. They did really crank on “Jolene”. I went the distance, was bound for Mexico, and if I AM a sheep, I’m going to heaven.    

 

I still love Cake. I plan on purchasing those CDs I don’t yet own because I respect their music and want more. I’m all for consciousness-raising through music. You can dis’ me AND my country while I’m listening to you in my car.

 

But the next time I’m dressed in sparkles (or a short skirt and a loooong jacket) bringing in a new year, I think I’ll select the overwhelming thrill of formula over anti-climactic arrogance.   

 

Happy New Year to the sheep AND the goats.

Bad Time for Cleaning Closets

Poor Clay. He sure picked a bad week to finally come out of his closet. (And thank god he cleared that up, because I had been wearing my sheets thin with all my tossing and turning at night wondering why Clay Aiken hadn’t snatched himself up a pretty lady yet).

Seriously though, for him this was probably a gut-wrenching decision. Not only to announce it publicly, but to do it from the cover of People magazine. I fully acknowledge that coming out is a huge deal. It may provide relief to some, but will ostracize many (or most) from the social and support network they once knew and thought they could rely on. So poor Clay probably braced himself for the fallout that he imagined would happen. How will this impact my career, my relationships with others?

He braced himself for awhile when People hit the stands until he heard about a little scuffle going down on Wall Street. He may have peeked out the door wondering where his media frenzy was around the time The Maverick swore off debates and rode off to Washington. By the time House Republicans were storming out the negotiating door, I envision poor Clay was probably standing on his curb, hands on hips, looking up and down the abandoned street and listening to the chirping of crickets.

No, Clay probably wasn’t counting on other mind-boggling, nerve-wracking, fear & loathing events to happen during his week to shine.

But now that the first debate is under our belts, I’d like to take a break from the battleground to give Clay a little shout out. Way to go, man! It’s a hard road but you came through (and out). And congrats on being a new parent (and you thought coming out was tough)  

But the critical question here Clay, is do you have stock with WaMu? 

Sweet Replies

You may have seen the Sweet Surprise ads. A woman pours a purple fruit-like drink at a kid’s party. Her (rude) guest makes the statement, “Wow…you don’t care what the kids eat, huh?” In the second ad, a woman offers her man a popsicle, and he replies “I thought you loved me…its got high fructose corn syrup in it…” Both the savvy hostess and girlfriend probe their skeptics for a rationale why high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is bad. Both look uneasy, so dumfounded you can almost see the drool trickle from the corners of their mouths. The women reply, “What? That it’s made of corn, has no artificial ingredients in it, and can be enjoyed in moderation…” Glug, glug, glug goes the jug, into the cups for babes. Whew, thank God, I thought you were poisoning the children.

Is HFCS getting a bad rap? Some of you may recall when the poor egg, once considered a nutritious, perfectly contained little meal, came under scrutiny for its cholesterol. The egg industry barely rebounded. I remember the confusion of a visiting Spanaird, wondering what the hell “Twice a Week is Okay” meant? It was a hard sell convincing one who originates from a land where they deep fry fried eggs that he should limit his intake of huevos. Ultimately, no convincing evidence found a link between eating eggs and an increase in blood cholesterol or coronary heart disease.

Maybe HFCS isn’t the devil’s spawn. After all, it mixes easily. Extends shelf-life. Prevents freezer burn. Helps breads brown and keeps them soft. And it’s cheap, cheap, cheap. As much as 20%-70% cheaper than other sources of sugar. When Coke switched from cane sugar to HFCS, it gained a $70 million/year cost advantage over Pepsi.

The ad campaign raises a good point. We are quick to jump on wagons, often wobbly wagons that drive you to damaged health and intellectual integrity. Remember when we thought diet pills were good for us, because the weight loss was healthy, right? No matter what the cold sweats and rapidly beating heart said. In our search for The Nutritional Answer, we make rash decisions after hearing only tidbits of information. People isolate and demonize single ingredients, vow to eliminate the food forever, and preach to everyone within earshot to do the same. We’ve all met these people. Hell, we’ve been these people. No fun at a party, I tell ya. But yes, solid research is a good thing before taking a strong stand, lest you get caught feeling naked at school.  

But ah, research. Good luck with that. The blessing and curse of research is that you’ll find what you’re looking for. There are hundreds of studies to either support or negate what you believe. We have a tendency to cite that which supports our beliefs. Keep in mind that every study has to be funded. Scientists are under economic and political pressure. Scientific discovery is competitive. Research methods are rushed, findings often premature. And if a special interest group, drug company, or big business industry in question funds the study, you can almost guarantee the results will fall in their favor.

For example, two studies on HFCS suggested there was little to no evidence that it differed from sucrose in its effects on appetite, on metabolic processes involved in fat storage, or caused obesity. Those were funded by the American Beverage Institute and the Corn Refiners Association On the other hand, diet researchers who find links between HFCS and bad juju force fed rodents with massive amounts of one substance in a short period of time, and project those results onto human use. Who do you believe?

Statistically sound results take time. Life-threatening products (Vioxx, for one) have been marketed after initial results, or “seed studies” with little to no follow up. Drug companies claim they help the sick, but you can’t ignore that they do make a little change off the sales. Reliable long term studies can take decades. We are not patient.

So what’s a sheep to do? Well, I’ve muddled through some research and am still dizzy. But I COULD hold my own in that commercial. Picture me at that party. Rather than twitch uncomfortably, I would take a deep breath and say:

“Well, my friend, it’s nice that you can accept the good word of the Corn Refiner’s Association with blind faith. Unfortunately, I can’t do the same. Although I do not question that HFCS comes from corn, I do question the quality of that corn.  

First, we’re not talking about pristine cobs plucked from Farmer Joe’s personal garden. Perhaps you are not aware that “field” or “dent” corn used to make HFCS, in its raw form, is inedible to humans. (Apparently it’s terrible on cow tummies too, who are normally grass grazers). HFCS doesn’t naturally occur in corn, unlike the sugars found in sugar cane, beehives, stevia, agave plants, or fruit. The process to create HFCS involves some crazy shit, including adding genetically modified enzymes that stimulate chemical reactions to change the molecular structure of the corn. There are claims that HFCS meets the FDA’s requirements for use of the term “natural”, despite the fact the FDA has no requirements or definition for “natural”.

Speaking of genetic modification (GM), most of the HFCS corn is grown from GM seed. Seed that has its DNA radically changed so that the plant will resist herbicide (both seed and herbicide are made by the same company, Monsanto) and produce its own pesticide. (Good for killing pests, bad for bees and butterflies who also rest on corn) This is an exciting science but it is an infant science. Because of its youth and recorded glitches in the matrix, many countries have banned the sale of GM foods. Our administration currently allows our population and its kids to be part of the GM experiment. Can you say “lobbyist”?. I do think there will be future benefits of GM food sources, but I agree with those who argue GM food should be contained in covered greenhouses until we know more. Until a few days ago, I knew very little about genetic modification. After reading both sides, I strongly suggest that if you choose to consume HFCS and other products made with corn, soy, canola, or industrial-raised meat (fed with GM food), educate yourself. You are an unknowing yet active participant in a long-term experiment with GM food. For an anti-GM view, check out this interview with Jeffery Smith, or read his book, Seeds of Deception. For pro-GM information, go to Monsanto’s website. For a particularly scathing, but eye-opening history of Monsanto, read this Vanity Fair article.

And oh, my confident hostess, I care about how that corn is grown. Corn is cheaper to grow and process, so we have overconsumed it. In 2007, 93.6 million acres of U.S. acreage were devoted to corn, a new record up 20 percent from the year before. Farmers are unwilling to stop growing the corn because they receive subsidies for it. They don’t get a subsidy for “marginal”, diverse crops, such as cassava, sorghum, millet, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnut, which are found to be more nutritionally balanced than corn or soybeans and are far better suited to local soils and tough climates. Furthermore, growing large crops of corn the way we do robs the soil of nitrogen, degrading it faster than can be replenished though crop rotation. (Which rarely occurs because there is no financial incentive to do so). Lower quality soil requires more use of fertilizer that is derived from ammonia through a process requiring fossil fuel. Growing one bushel of corn takes takes approximately ½ gallon of gas. Our habitual use of plow-based agriculture rapidly changes the erosion rate of the land, leaving the soil bare and exposed. Rain or wind storms have a bigger impact on the land. We are losing topsoil fast. That is why I have a tendency to consume products grown through methods that replenish, not deplete, the soil. To learn more about the demise and future of our topsoil, read the September ’08 issue of National Geographic.  

I do acknowledge that HFCS cannot be soley responsible for obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. I agree that we overreact to studies and cling on to weak links for answers. But HFCS rarely travels alone. I’m pretty sure that “fruit beverage” you’re pouring also contains Red #40 and Blue #1 to give it that lovely purple color. And I’ll bet there is artificial “punch” flavoring in the drink. What does the combination of all those ingredients do? And what are you serving with that punch? Cake. Chips and dip. Hot dogs with ketchup. That’s a lot of HFCS on the menu, my friend. Is that moderation?

HFCS is also cheaper, which encourages us to buy, say a gallon jug of “fruit beverage’ instead of organic juices or natural sodas. It allows us to buy the Big Gulp for the same price of a 4 oz. sip of pure, unadulterated juice. I don’t blame you for looking for the bargain. I do too. That’s why I give my son lots of water, and organic juice “in moderation” because he gets more vitamins and nutritional value for the money. And on occasion, he will consume HFCS because I don’t want him to feel stupid in social situations. Like at this party. My choices to avoid certain foods, oddly enough, still make me the pariah.  

So because I mistrust the research on both sides and don’t have time for long term studies, because I know our topsoil is being depleted by our overconsumption of corn, because I am leary of big business genetic modification and its effects on both the environment and our diets, and because I can’t control the amount of HFCS in combination with other craziness found in processesed foods, I choose to stick with foods that come as close to their purest form as possible. Research aside, that just feels “right” to me. And that, my friend, is why I significantly limit our intake of HFCS.

Yep, those kids are playing pretty hard. They’re so thirsty that I bet if we served up some nice cold water in some crazy cups with silly straws, they wouldn’t care what quenches their thirst. They really do care about silly straws though.

Oh, and here’s a napkin. You appear to be drooling.”

September 11th, 2008

On September 11, 2008, I was working on my glib response to a new ad campaign promoting high fructose corn syrup, when I heard two pretty loud bangs out on my usually snoozy street. I hesitated, and then decided it was loud enough to warrant a peek outside. As I parted the curtains, I heard a woman yelling so I booked outside. “Call 911!” a woman in a minivan yelled to me, “That house is on fire!” I whipped my head around and saw a roar of flames shooting out of the house two doors down. I grabbed my phone, dialed 911, breathlessly babbled my address and repeated “It’s bad, it’s bad…”

Fortunately the owner made it out and was being vigorously coaxed by my next-door neighbor to get up off his lawn and away from some fallen wires. He finally did after both tires on his van parked by the house exploded. Whoever was home at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon on our block was now outside gaping slack-jawed at the smoke finding its way out of every window. The fire department was probably there in less than five minutes, (which is pretty good for a volunteer crew who has to make a stop at the station before getting to the scene), but those minutes counted. By the time they arrived, I knew it would be a complete loss. All I could do was stand there with my hands on my head muttering, “Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod…”

In ten minutes, our block was crowded with three fire trucks, an ambulance, police cars, and several other random emergency vehicles. Within 15 minutes, people had parked their cars on our lawns and joined the spectacle. Call it morbid curiosity. I don’t doubt some of it was. But this is a small town. When people hear about a fire on a certain street, they KNOW that street. Their cousin, their co-worker’s cousin, their best friend lives on that street. People need to know who might need their help.

I know very little about this neighbor. He is an older man who keeps to himself. He has lived in town all his life. He recently separated from a woman who seems a little unstable. She now lives in an apartment across town and makes frequent treks past his house, occasionally yelling profanities at it from across the street. 

At that moment, I wished I knew him. I wanted him to know that I would do anything to help him. I wanted to comfort him. I offered him a drink of water, but he looked right through me. I so desperately wanted to do something for someone. What about the firemen? As I rapidly racked my brain for the hydrating options in my house, the EMS team came in with cases of water bottles and 20 lb. bags of ice. That policeman, he’s been here awhile…maybe he needs water. Who needs to use my bathroom? But I stayed put. No one needed a busybody neighbor getting in anyone’s face trying to satisfy a personal need to feel useful. The emergency crew needed to do their job, and my neighbor needed familiar faces. His estranged wife finally made it across town, dazed and confused, his bar buddy joined him, a niece came. My next-door neighbor, the one who pulled him off his lawn, never left his side. She used my cell phone to call work, so that calmed my failing sense of purpose.      

It took almost an hour to extinguish the fire. Apparently our water tower was being painted, thus empty, so they had to bring water in from other sources. By 3:30, the smoke had cleared. Half the block was covered in foam, Alliant Energy was fixing wires, the crowd dissipated. And a shell of a house remained.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic. It is not the worst disaster anyone has ever witnessed. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Considering the anniversary of this date, this is a drop in the bucket. But it is a dramatic event. My nerves were frazzled. I have never been so close to a fire. I had no idea how fast your entire castle could go. I have never seen firemen drenched from head to toe in foam and soot and sweat. I have never before watched a fireman sit on the curb, propped up against a bag of ice, red-faced and hyperventilating but getting enough air to tell the EMS “You better check on Tom, he went in right after I did”. It hurts your insides to watch.

But nothing gnaws at my gut more than the lingering image of my neighbor sitting on my front lawn with his head in his hands. I have never before seen the face of someone watching their house burn, and I hope I never do again. 

On a very small scale, this was my 9/11. Although horrified by the attack seven years ago, I was so far removed from it. The images were on TV. But this is my block. That is my neighbor. I was here for the whole thing. I can only now grasp, again to a small degree, that gut-wrenching feeling watching a disaster happen to your folk. What I’ll never fully comprehend is how painful those images must have been for anyone who witnessed the big 9/11 and lived to tell about it. My neighbor started his fire working on an old motorcycle. It might have been prevented. No one in the World Trade Center was recklessly playing with airplanes that day. What did those witnesses do with their level of gut-wrench? Their feelings of helplessness?   

Today, we have plenty of traffic on our block. It is the number one news item in town. The neighbors are chattering like squirrels about where they were when they heard the big bangs. But people need to air it out, get it out of their heads. Talking loosens the tightly wound bundle of nerves. And I know its not supposed to be about The Stuff. Obviously, you get an immediate dose of what is truly a priority, and that is no harm or loss of life. But that Stuff represents your hobbies, your money and hard work, your collections, your memories. It represents you. That Stuff is important. And almost everything that man has worked for and earned and treated himself to is gone.   

My life has not changed. This was not my tragedy and it would be foolish of me to claim it as such. Last night, I did not curl into a ball, I made cookies and attended an Open House at the school. I will not march over to enthusiastically introduce myself to all the neighbors I haven’t met yet because we should rally around this house fire as a reason to unify. On this block, that would just be weird. I will get back to picking apart the nutritional content of processed foods and lipstick on pigs and who will get eliminated on Project Runway next week.

But today, the burnt smell in the air haunts me. I can still see the look on my neighbor’s face. The shell of the house two doors down disturbs me. I can’t deny that I have been given a moment of crystal clear perspective. So today, I will do some praying for my neighbor, count some blessings and watch when my son says, “Watch this, Mom!” for the 25th time. 

Because today it is fresh on my brain that your life can change in seconds.

Culinary Feminism (or) Brown Baggin’ It

A couple of my friends raised a collective eyebrow when they learned that I packed my husband’s lunch. To their credit, they were also old college friends who had seen me through women’s studies classes and unshaved armpits. They seemed surprised I had caved to The Man. If their husbands wanted a lunch, they would have to pack it themselves. One of their men ate out for lunch. Every day. No, my friends did not eagerly jump onto my lunchbox wagon.

My husband could make his own lunch. But in my house, it’s not a matter of caving in to the “white male patriarchal society” and becoming a slave to traditional gender roles. In my house, the kitchen is my domain. Not because that is expected of me, but because I have wholeheartedly claimed it as mine. I am this family’s Iron Chef. I am faster. Stronger. The food quality is (significantly) better. I know exactly what’s in the fridge and where. I do not suffer from the refrigerator blindness that claims thousands of male victims each day. Cooking is my passion, my therapy, and a great source of pride.

And let’s face it, if I watched my husband pack his own lunch, the control freak within would pummel on my insides with a potato masher until I let it out to finish the job. Ask anyone who’s tried to cook in my kitchen.

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver discusses her coming from an era of feminists who “recoiled from the proposition that keeping a husband presentable and fed should be our highest intellectual aspiration” We fought so very hard to get into a work force that would prevent us from slaving in the kitchen. But in doing so, we fell into the hands of a toxic convenience food industry that promised to take care of our meals for us. As she puts it, “We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising,…the creative task of molding our families tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange…the Lunchable.”

If selecting and cooking food is an area where I have decided to take charge, I am responsible for doing quality work. I trust my husband to do the same at his job. I’m not going to cheat him out of some decent nutrition in the middle of the day while he works hard for us. I pick fresh fruit, a homemade sandwich, and to his dismay, the dreaded carrot sticks. If he wants to go out or get a li’l sumthin’ at the vending machine, that’s his deal. I do what I can to ensure he eats well. It’s my job. And he deserves it.

And yes, it’s about love. He is not The Establishment, he is my family. And nothing says “I love you” like a warm buttered bagel sitting in the passenger seat next to you on your way to work because you didn’t have time to eat at home. My grateful man has called me from the road to tell me just that.

Financially speaking, it’s the smarter choice. Based on receipts collected when I didn’t pack a lunch, I see that he spends about $5 on breakfast (of the gas station variety) and $8-12 on lunch. That’s $13-17 a day. If he does that, say, three days a week, it would cost us almost $40- 50/week, or $160-200/month. And that’s a conservative estimate. What if I never packed his lunch, ever? It could add up to $240-250/month. Just for lunch. If I cook at home, I can make him a breakfast for about $2.00 or less. For lunch, I’d spend maybe $2 (or less) to $5, tops. That $5 lunch includes a pretty extravagant treat. You do the rest of the math. And I’m sure, you get the picture.

Admittedly, it CAN be a pain. Rapidly foraging in the fridge as he’s running out the door really sucks. You have to plan for lunches. They require some time. There are crabby, rushed mornings when I send him out to face the grind empty-handed. There are moments when I remove my territorial flag from the kitchen just praying for a mutiny. But realistically, making a lunch takes minutes, not hours. So I march forth. He maintains a consistent work ethic at his job, I try to do the same at mine. No matter how busy we are, as Kingsolver suggests, we can make that mental shift, “Approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option”

This fall, I will begin to pack lunches for my new kindergartener. I am not sure what the food quality is at our public school, but I am suspicious. School lunches have a very bad reputation, but that is another essay for another day. I’m darn glad I have the option to decide (for the most part) what goes into his body when he’s away from home, banking on those creative opportunities to keep him nutritionally sound.

Yes, I am a culinary feminist. I exercise my right to provide an alternative to fast food conglomerates. I am not losing my identity in homemaking, I am reclaiming it with every carrot stick, with every passionate pinch of spices. I bring meaning and value and love into my families’ bellies. With a few minutes to a half an hour of preparation, I make sure our food dollar goes into wholesome nutrition and doesn’t sink into a toxic wasteland of crap and empty calories. And making my personal brown bag theories part of a larger social awareness is an intellectual aspiration of mine. It is my right, and in my best interest, to do so.

And that, my friends, is how I stick it to The Man. Join me now in my brown bag crusade.