I was listening again, after a long while, to Tom Waits “Nighthawks at the Diner”.  It is truly a beautiful live album, and an honorable homage to the painting by Ed Hopper (1942).  The song by the same name has a vivid description of a blue-plate special: chopped meat (“Salisbury steak”) smothered in Velveeta and Campbell’s tomato soup.  There are laughs, nervous winces.  Not only for the name of some familiar spot, but for the food itself.  It’s funny what we consider comfort food, the things we seek out to give a sense of place, of self.   The plate in question is not a memory of mine, but I can understand the sentiment.  My mother was a baker, in one of the worst home kitchens imaginable.  She was able to create things I will never fully understand, and that none have ever held up by comparison.  Husband knows the sentiment too; with a jones every couple of years for oven baked “BBQ” chicken.  I can’t stand his version, but for him it is a memory of his grandmother.  It gives him comfort.  The food our our decidedly not wild youth (unlike Wait’s Frank) has little sentimental value, but vague memories of greasy spoons with sour black coffee, “texas” toast, and generic specials do linger.

I remember when many of us were new adults.  College students with vague, naive aspirations.  We recalled watching the original crew of Saturday Night live in middle and high school, just old enough to be jaded about the disco movement and deeply fond of punk for the alternative it offered.  Tom Waits came out with Nighthawks in 1975, a cabaret and club singer from the outside track of music.  A federal government that was represented by images of Nixon leaving office and the end of the Vietnam war, was constantly on the television when we were children.  Ford and Carter passing through, then later, we were suspicious (and rightly so) of the promises of Ronald Reagan and his cronies.  We went from using electric typewriters to the first PC’s, then programming in simple language to the first internet.

 We were midwestern college students buoyed up by our youth and our ignorance, our heart-felt ideas, and knowledge that we were so very far away in both time and space from where the action was.  We separated ourselves from the strivers, the lying basketball players (who gladly got stoned in private), and the bible-readers. 

Many of us migrated to Chicago, then urban points east and west.  I do not have unnecessary fondness for that time, so riddled with insecurity and unease.  Time has taught me that regret is just another form of self-pity, and things not done are just things best left.  There were poets and musicians who captured our fancy, captured our ennui.  Some were trite and passed into history, some linger on and get resurrected by a new crop of young, eager to understand, eager to see.

 There will probably always be some urban diner, some questionable gut-filling food, some young people living out an awkward night of unfulfilled dreams and reckless mistakes.  A right of passage perhaps, and for some of us, remembered best in song; best in a live performance if you can get it.

What’s the cost?

Whom ever discovered the use of borax in the laundry, thank you.  Whom ever advocated for vinegar and baking soda for many household uses, thank you too.  I look at the chemicals lists on the back of various items in the cleaning isle at the grocery and wince.

It’s bad enough that food stuffs don’t have to put where they source/manufacture their goods any more, just where they are distributed from (which tells you precisely nothing- only that the item sat in a warehouse and then got shipped to your store); and what’s in a supposedly edible food stuff can have such descriptive terms as “natural flavoring”, and various terms that again- mean squat-anything they please.  The GOP is trying to decimate the FDA, and various groups cry foul over corruption and payoffs, or not enough inspectors and too many holes in the rules.  It’s a wonder there is anything truly edible or usable that won’t kill us.

After several years, we are finally figuring out how to do our large garden.  This year we built it up over a foot and boxed it in.  We used ground cover and mulch to keep weeds down.  We still got hit by a wicked fungus that took my zucchini and other squash plants in only two weeks.  We are figuring out staggered planting, even of the same plant types.  We’ve got drip hoses under the mulch covered.   Still so much to learn, but the rewards have been gratifying and healthy.  We bought our half a steer from Polyface farms (organic and crazily progressive in their approach to farming:  We are trying.  We don’t smoke.  We drink alcohol on rare occasions and in moderation. We only eat out if it is worth it- something we can’t make ourselves or is of high quality.  We eschew fast food and chain food.  We have our weaknesses, but try not to indulge often.  We need to exercise more, but still manage to walk the kids to school and the like.

I’d like to think our careful, considered efforts at being healthy are not contradicted by poor planning on the part of local water officials (hydrofracking, farm run off and lack of responsible chemicals use, and pharmaceuticals not cleansed by water filters are some of our concerns).  I’d like to think school lunches are not co-opted by the cheap and easy path (even though we pack for our kids most days).  I’d like to think the citizens of the valley we live in would take more interest in the abysmal air quality we usually have and the industrial and business truck emissions that go so woefully unregulated and unchecked.   But we do what we can.

It comes as no surprise when the latest food or chemical scandal hits.  I also wonder, with all the protein/meat recalls, you would think the largest purchasers of protein- fast/chain food restaurants- would at least once be the subject of these recalls.  Funny how they are never mentioned.  Not just funny, but statistically impossible to go unaffected when compared with the macro numbers.   We do our best- it is a fair expectation that those entrusted with systems beyond our control do theirs too, and not poison consumers outright for sheer greed.

The fight to keep a clean house is constant.  Not just picking things up, but keeping it clean.  Devoid of fungus, mold, dirt, insects, an overabundance of bacteria, and various detritus. The fight to feed one’s family is always tricky, too.  The little mentioned domestic domain is a big cash cow for corporations, and the subject of a large percentage of advertising.  That some of us are dropping back to less expensive, and less toxic methods of managing this domestic space should come as no surprise.  Grandma had it right about a lot of things; how to read quality in clothing, how to simplify, and in general how to judge what is truly important and what is not.  In the midst of all the economic global chaos, I can take comfort in one thing:  maybe a positive outcome will be people learning how to do for themselves again, simplifying, and saying no to the toxic (both tangible and metaphoric).  One can hope.  Some days, that’s all we have.

Farewell an era

I remember sitting on the floor not far from the ironing board, where my mother pressed shirts with hissing steam while watching General Hospital, and sometimes As The World Turns.  I remember the faces, the close ups, the over-acted drama.  I remember getting a little older and acting out half-understood scenes from those soaps, trying to entertain her.  I also recall being a freshman in college, the main living room of the dorm populated midday by a mostly African American group of young women watching All My Children and howling at the screen.  I would occasionally attend, not to watch the exploits of the characters on the show, but to observe the group theatrics played out by the viewers.

I was never a joiner, never a fan of daytime soaps.  Like most people my age, I was an avid watcher of MASH, CHEERS, and various other evening shows.  But the daytime craze never reached me.  Perhaps it didn’t reach many of us, and it passed into arcane obscurity, and now one by one they are ending altogether.  It is the end of an era, several eras perhaps.

My mother used to tell me about listening to scary radio shows while she and her sister cowered under a blanket.   We play Podcasts in my home, but that is something different entirely and the content is not meant to inspire fear (although most recent news does so anyway).  Garrison Keillor still carries on the radio tradition with Prairie Home Companion, but it a re-created relic of another time, as entertaining as it is.

No, soaps were their own phenomenon, and so is the “reality” television that is replacing them.   My mother had her Dick Cavett and other talk shows, but they are not the same animal as what exists today.  A distant cousin perhaps, as the Carol Burnett show and Laugh-In were, and Ed Sullivan, Your Show of Shows, and others before them.  Soaps were entertainment, a distraction, a narrative based white noise (and very white they were) for individuals home alone (except for the babble of small children).  It was the background to my small childhood, and anesthetic for my father when he was briefly unemployed in the recession of the 70’s.

I find myself doing many of the same chores as my mother now, but instead of a soap I put the flat screen on to the Bernie Mac show.  It makes me laugh (and I try to find a reason to laugh every morning), and has a sly poignancy about family life that I find dead-on.  My children are in school, and no one sits on the floor next to me while I do dishes.   I am very much alone these days, and wonder how my mother must have felt.  Such a social person, not used to the new cul-de-sac suburbia of the early 1960’s.  I remember a few things from those days in the one level, aqua post-war house.  I look at photos and recall the objects.   I wish she were here to ask about those days, what she remembered, how she felt.  I would ask her what she thought of the soaps dying off, and watch a few final episodes with her out of nostalgia.  I would make us coffee, and sit next to her chair.  But she is not here anymore.

I make my way in the world, feeling time pass.  Technology changes, but people don’t.  We are still 3-D beings, make of flesh and bone who act on impulses, drives, and desires as well as carefully considered obligations, loyalties, and entertainments.  I shake my head this morning, oh we do become our parents!  We may run away from it, fashion ourselves lives that on the surface seem so completely different, but we do, we do become them.  For better or worse.  That phrase should not only be used at weddings, but when one finds out they are pregnant as well.  For better or worse- you are a part of this marriage, now this parenting, for the rest of your life (of course I recognize there are alternatives, but for most of us this is the social contract we enter into).  Your options have become circumscribed and huge responsibilities conferred, but not without privileges and joys.  And in the slow, quiet moments you can give yourself choices, small though they may seem these choices will become the background to your memories and those of your children.  I do not recall much about those soaps, but that they were the sound and sights of some consistent time spent with my mother.  It’s like catching her singing, or laughing to herself, those intimacies a child gets to see, those fleeting insights into the people we love.

So goes the soaps, so passes time.  Farewell to an era, a domestic ritual that has lost any meaning.  Farewell.

Who knows?

In light of the massive fraud case being pursued by the federal government against a company that runs for-profit colleges in culinary, visual art, and other programs one wonders where people can attend higher education any more and learn anything practical.  In his book, “Shop class as soul craft: an inquiry into the value of work”, Matthew Crawford elegantly examines this problem, and how a culture that loses the ability to appreciate work of the hands is in trouble.

Most liberal arts institutions and major state universities still follow what we might think of as a books and desk curriculum, or more aptly a books-desk-computer curriculum.  Lab spaces are for the use of chemistry, biology, a few engineering, some medical, and studio art courses.  Very little else of what is done is “hands-on”.  That is usually considered more base, less theoretical, and relegated to what we used to think of as community colleges.  But even community colleges started dumping hands-on courses favoring a “college prep” curriculum, and becoming less identified with “training”.  High schools did the same, tossing out shop classes in favor of computer lab space.

But as I searched for an expert plumber, electrician, heating and cooling expert, bricklayer, and various other “hands on” professionals in the past several years, one thing became clear.   The people who spent their lives developing exquisite expertise in essential areas of functionality are growing old, and there is no one to replace them.  Every professional I spoke to agreed, and lamented the lack of preparation programs in both high school and community college, and the cultural perception that somehow these careers are less valuable, less honorable, less important than say accountant, banker, business manager (all of which these people learned to be, or at least learned how to hire others to do), or other higher status fields.  One went on to say that he sees so many people going to the gym to work out, but if they had jobs working with their hands and getting off their behinds every day they would not need to.  It was an interesting point of view.

I recall my father talking about all the “college educated” engineers who could not see when their CAD drawings, like an Escher print, would not work.  He would often take wire and bend it for a 3-D representation, to show them the error of their ways.  They were never very happy about it, but over time came to depend on his visual-spatial and hand skills- and offered a grudging respect.

As I get older, I wonder who will know?  Who will know how to do anything- are we expecting just to do searches on our computers, run down to the Lo-HumDepo-Ace’s, get what ever standardized Chinese made supplies they have and do everything ourselves?  There are a lot of issues that one must be an expert in to truly understand, to strategize, to plan, to solve.  Just reading a how-to page will never be enough.  Husband did a fine job on 80% of the house.  But that final 20% needed an expert, and he relied on experts to check the work he had done as well.

All my sewing machines are still machine based, not digital.  It is a cost-benefit analysis for me:  when something breaks or goes haywire on the computerized machines, it is hideously expensive to fix and often requires a new machine.  They are also plastic through and through, and the wear and tear on them adds up quickly.  My mechanical machines (mostly metal) still require maintenance (which I am learning to do), and sometimes specialized care.  Then, they are usually good to for a long, long time.  But the people who know how to work on these machines are also aging, dying, and passing into memory.  They take entire worlds of knowledge with them, knowledge we may not get back.

There is also the aesthetic appeal of machines, of working with one’s hands, and seeing the results.  It not only builds confidence and practical skills, but also develops complex 3-D thinking in ways nothing else can.  I think Crawford is right: until we begin to value work of the hands again, we will continue losing not only a part of our culture, but an important part of our minds.  As discussions about rewriting school curriculum continues, let us not disregard the shop classes, the labs, and the field work that helps us become what we are- 3 dimensional beings made of muscle and fine motor skills.  Also, let all forms of learning and technology be respected as helping us become the best of who we can be.   Let us plan sensibly for all the jobs/roles we need to run our wires, pipes, and build our communities.  In sum, I hope we are not left standing around asking, “Who knew?”

She got it right

Heads up Hollywood.   I know entertainment is the number one US export.  Heck, it’s probably the number one US product, at home or abroad.  I know you bean counters and marketers out there think the main market for your products are young men.  Young men, then young people in general.  I also know from friends who work in “the industry” that there is crazy age bias when anyone is hired (and most productions are one shot companies that get dissolved after filming is done- so most people are “independent contractors” who must hunt for work constantly).  But wait a sec- how do you think all those young people get their discretionary income?  They are the most underemployed group outside of Hollywood.  Who do you think handles family finances?  Who do you think gives those kids their cash?  You got it.  The moms.

And how do you think any sort of expertise is gained?  Time doing a job, and doing it well.  So throwing out all the workers over 35 is a bad idea folks, no matter what the “hot” young marketing kids say.  Remember that when you want a sandwich on set, a light hung, or a box moved, or a scene shot, or actors controlled (who has more experience at handling pouty, ill tempered children than moms?).

Heads up Hollywood- grazing off the fast profits of a formula CGI spectacle is not the only way to make money.  Just ask the Cohen Brothers, or the Weinsteins.

I say this as I watch a clip  (  from the Jimmy Fallon show.  Which, I admit, I like best of all the late night talk shows.  He is just so earnest, and funny in a way that does not insult me.  And yes, he is young- but he admits it and moves on.

The clip has Amy Sedaris (who has a middle aged woman sideways feminist vibe that most moms can appreciate) pimping out a pair of leggings.  When you watch it, be sure to watch the reactions of all the young men on stage.  There is an embarrassed awkwardness, and in the faces of the band members I saw “Damn!  That is so wrong!  She reminds me of my mom!”.  But the women in the audience were howling.

There is a lot of comedic and dramatic ground Hollywood has not mined related to us middle-aged people.  Especially women.  I chalk it up to stupidity, ignorance, and that unease young people have with identifying with or thinking about people their parents age being fully alive human beings and all that entails.  Get with the program ‘wood.  You want to be fresh?  You want to make money?  Get us the products.  We’ll bite.  But because we ARE older, our standards are a little higher- we expect better than Hallmark channel formula dreck, and humor that is incisive, rude, and complex as we are.  Or can be anyway.  You get my point.

Now take this advice and move on.   I have to get my weekenders on and groove while I clean house.