No sunglasses required

My eyes have always hurt in bright light.  But for the last several days, I did not have to open my sunglasses case.  The air went deep into my lungs, and the family and I felt as if we had found  some place we could call home.  The scary part is in this economy we will need to find jobs before we can consider a move any further.  But when we do, we have family here that love us and will help us resettle, my aging father along with us.  That is a profoundly graceful thing.

We have several more days in the area, the rest of them spent in the near-by urban center.  But we have little doubt that we would fit in here culturally, and we could raise our children here in the way we want to.  Where we are now, we have felt like we have done nothing but slowly dying- trying our best to fit in, make friends- and getting nothing back but persistent head bruises from all the walls we have run up against.  It’s been 11 years.  I think we know it’s never going to happen where we are.  So the process of resettling begins.  We know where, now we work on how.  Wish us luck.  Life is an adventure!

Vim, vigor, and vitality

I have been discussing the merits of and seemingly endless fascination I have with Alexander Calder this week with my husband.  Husband has been doing some seriously deep thinking about masculinity, fatherhood, and related topics as he sketches new creations.

I find that issues of quality, craftsmanship, virility, masculinity and humor overlap in many of the artists I admire.  These are qualities often disregarded, or as one critic has written, there was no category for the work of Calder for a very long time (think of his wire “portraits”) and he was dumped into the category of the decorative (which is the way art historians and dealers/gallery owners dismiss much of the art world they do not understand).  I think art and the makers often go misunderstood in admirers need to admire, and that is a waste.  Humor in visual art has gone disregarded for so long (there seems to be a stupid, unreflective assumption that humor in art somehow makes it less serious or meaningful, when the exact opposite can be true), it has been reduced to superficial snark in a work, or simply the nervous titter of viewers too insecure to let loose with a belly laugh.

Too much of what passes for art, particularly in the 20th century (and feeding the 21st), is a habit of consumption and the need for social celebrity.  Big Art is the commodity, the oohing and ahhing at price quotes for the work of mostly dead people, and the speculation of what it might be worth later.  It is the drawing room sensibility of the wealthy, most of whom care little for art history, craft, or aesthetics and more for the symbol of wealth art can represent.  Real collectors are often a little crazy, and like to get to know artists.   They collect what they love, what strikes them, and engage in works of art in ways that make them feel very alive.

 I admit to admiring a certain “muscularity” in works of art.  I enjoy a raw masculinity, an edge, in the art I choose to spend time with.  Muscularity, wit, and humor can be very persuasive and I admit, arousing.  What porn can not do for me, muscular and multi-layered art can.  Is this the solipsism of the educated?  Do we channel our baser impulses, have we learned so deftly how to distance base needs into high minded forms? Is it safer than more common forms of activity?  Or is it less safe?  Conventional sexuality is explored in a few simple moves of imagination and action.  It is when we let our imaginations run, have an active fantasy life, and have a partner with whom we can explore, isn’t it then when we risk?  When we allow ourselves to be truly aroused, all senses alert, without threat or fear, stimulated beyond the box of sexuality, isn’t that when we challenge ourselves as human beings?  Art is an ideal I can never live up to, a series of fascinations that never cease to surprise me, but is more often the search for gems in an arena that can often bore with the monotony of poorly executed, unthought out (or one-liners as Husband says), witless, and decidedly “emperors new clothes” riddled events.

 But.  But when a work, or a series of works, and at best the oeuvre of a particular artist engages me I can find myself supremely aroused.  I would seem a pedant to quote various aesthetic theories at this point.  So I won’t.  Suffice it to say I like using my mind and I like it when there is a responsive harmony between using my mind and body, a heightened collective of senses, an experience (as Dewey would say) that lingers in memory.  Thank you Calder, thank you Pollock, thank you Husband, thank you innumerable masters of the muscular art.  Thank you too, those women who have made me become engaged, if aroused in different ways, alerted my senses and sensibilities to a new idea or facet of critique.  Thank you to the apprentices and support staff, who in an age of misguided singular attribution of works go unmentioned, and therefore the art significantly less understood.  My life would be so much less than it is without you, and your work.  Thank you.

Burnt Toast and Black Jellybeans

Happy Zombie day, as a friend of mine puts it.  Or, as husband says, “Happy ovoid ovum spring fertility ritual day”, or “Happy Bunny day”.  I can’t do anything but laugh at what has become the most important Christian holiday, this mash up of powerful, ancient spring symbols with the death of a good man.  Why his death is so celebrated never ceases to amaze me.  This focus on death, torture, and possibly becoming a zombie (er, resurrected) and then trying to pass it off as sacrifice for the abstract evils of humanity does not wash for me.  There ARE some ideas attributed to him in the bible that make a lot of sense (By the way, the old testament ONLY makes sense if you consider food restrictions as ways not to die from food poisoning.  The rest is a crazy, contradictory non-narrative that makes little sense out of context).  But in sum, a good man bucked the system, said a lot of things that were solid common sense, may or may not have been insane, and lived his life to promote kindness, communal well being, and love.  Then he was consumed and destroyed by the very system he resisted, and has since been regurgitated again and again by every huckster and self-delusional promoter that has come around since he died.  Entire systems of social control have been built around the use and abuse of his life story.  I truly don’t think this is what he had in mind.

When I look at real sacrifices being made, I don’t see political, business, or religious leaders.  I see a lot of mothers and fathers working grinding, often bone mashing jobs to feed their families; these mothers and fathers doing their best to keep their families clothed, housed, educated, and fed.  Oh, yeah, and in most cases the process makes those around them aware that they are loved.  Reproducing at all is amazing, the choice to give over bodies, minds and lives to support and love new people, the ultimate spring symbol. 

It is in the everyday little deaths and sacrifices parents make that I see heroic spring.  Today I do not glorify the death of an admittedly good man who has been so misunderstood for so long, I witness the parents who continue to live, as best they can, promoting kindness, communal well being, and love.  Today let’s not forget when mothers choose to eat the piece of toast that was accidentally burned; or when fathers eat the black jelly beans children reject then proffer, chewing without a grimace.  Do not forget long nights, hard work, the moment by moment sacrifices that are made for families, and the sheer luck that for thousands of generations at least two people (and a host of others who took responsibility for children from birth) had to survive wars, famine, plague, and an assortment of horrors that we might exist today.

The darkness has abated for another year, and warmer weather has come.  The flowers bloom, and crops are planted.  Rejoice in the sun, hug your families however they are structured and populated.  Humanity continues, for better or worse.  Happy spring.  

On death and dying

Holy Sonnet X, John Donne: Death be not proud.

Death is a fact.  Dying is an act.  After actively witnessing close up the acts of dying my mother and (most recently) my grandmother have participated in, I have come to a few conclusions.

Dying is ugly.  I will probably, like most, see back through jellied lenses at what I know and instinctively find ways to convince myself that it was deep.  I will make meaning of chaos.   But truly, dying is ugly.  I believe those who convince themselves otherwise are avoiding the issue or finding ways to be right with it.  That’s fine.  But at present I can’t escape the knowledge of smells, sights, sounds, textures, and smells that linger as tastes.  I can’t escape indignities, of the body fighting itself and the process of decay.  I can’t stop struggling to hope for more grace, a quicker route than I have seen pass. 

There are those who enact hospice, who find fascination with dying as well as defining themselves as enablers of peace.  I do not admire them, but know them to be useful to others.  So be it.  We have lost our rituals of dying; so that many of us are left to act as best we can, making it up as we go along, stumbling, hoping for better.

I despise funeral homes.  There is nothing, nothing at all, more fake than a funeral home (what home is this?).  The fake condolences, the fake fluids, the fake box.  The fake spaces, which never seem to be completely clean and always a bit shabby, tacky, and inept.  The only thing that is not fake about a funeral home is the stark black on white of the legal document agreeing to fork over very real cash, large amounts of it.  If one reads the fine print (and I did),  it is a laundry list of fake services no one needs.  If one takes a mental red marker to the list (and I did), what you are left with is a huge base charge for people you do not know to carry away your dead, pump them with chemicals, and display them for view.  The rest are add ons of every sort meant to balloon the profit margin for a business that has successfully lobbied over the years to take over our ability to mourn, to process our dead.  The strategic shame game when being offered boxes, the subtle sliding of more services to customers addled with grief, the “oh you should discuss that part with your pastor/priest” for the things they do not want to handle, and the awkward organizing that’s left is all just fakery. 

What I and my father know, what we have done to help our dying family members, looms large beside what we did not get to do.  We should have been able to complete the process we were so intimately a part of.  We did the dying, and were denied the death.  The last steps for thousands of years- the washing of the body, dressing, building a simple box, digging the hole, putting the dead in (or burning, if that is your tradition) then covering over- it should be our right.  It is the end, and to have experienced the rest and not the end is unfair.  It is wrong.  It is a step, an essential step, left out.  Once in the ground there is silence.  Others who came, leave.  Then it is time for bills to get paid, letters written to cancel services.  Clothes get donated, the room cleaned.  A once vital, well loved human finishes becoming memories. 

I know I was loved.  I know, however fragmented, I was understood.  I know I loved in return.  They are gone, two of those who loved me most.  Two of those whom I loved most.  I am left with a smaller circle of care, of family, of those I love and whom know me in return.   Death be not proud, but ugly.  Inevitable.   Now let us be about our business, those of us who witnessed and enough of fakery.  We know what has passed, and what is lost.  There is no end to the loss, just fact.  The act is done.

Goodbye beloved mother, grandmother.  

The flags were made in China

4th of July, 2010.  We saw the Karate Kid remake.  It’s a good “family” movie, and I like Jackie Chan.  The editing is well done, the acting adequate.  The subtle love letter to China understandable.  It was the parade this weekend that got me.  No bands this holiday, a lot of car and motorcycle groups, the newly elected GOP reps walking and riding smugly along, and the tea party making a show with flags and loud music.   Later that evening, a friend showed me a photo he had taken of the flags that were being given out by the parade walkers.  It was clearly stamped on the side “made in China”. We laughed a rueful laugh together.

I read on the net in a paper I usually peruse that international corporations in China are getting itchy because of a recent wave of worker strikes.  They are striking over the things all factory workers strike over.  So the factories are closing down or moving inland to poorer regions.  There is only so much of the globe that can be exploited- or is there? How long before the US becomes just another third-world country, and the factories come back to us because we have the cheap, unskilled, easy labor?  I am disgusted with the complete erasure of “the greater good” discussions about what is best for the most people, especially from our elected officials.  I am sick of ethics classes not being required for a B school degree.  I am sick of infrastructure as a taboo subject.

I wanted to hope.  I know a lot of people who did.  It seems if we continue to hope, we fall into a category of stupid: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time.  Our 4th of July parade was the same format, the same route, the same disappointing motley groups of marchers.  Wave that flag, lick the dripping post-parade icecream and keep the desperation deep in your chest tamped down, drowned out, ignored.  “Keep on keepin’ on” as the sign on the back of the monster truck recommended.  Wipe your brow, nod to a neighbor and agree with the shop keeper to “Have a happy 4th”. Postcard from America 2010.

Que?

I was listening to Kate Bush today and thumbing through my approximately 30 gig of music (and for the record, I wish I had more).  I remember when ITunes first came out with the data analyzer that attempts to make recommendations based on your library.  It was doomed to fail in so many ways (one because I have enough items that ITunes does not carry that it would be hard to adequately analyze if the case- my collection- has so much data that has to be ignored as unknown), but the errors are an interesting problem.   I have felt like much of my life I have been dismissed as an outlier.  In statistics, it is a convenient way to discard data by saying, in essence, “it does not fit anything we can use and is so far out of our margins of experience we can just throw it out”.

In data mining, eclectic cases could be interesting- but because they do not neatly provide predictive lines of analysis, they are more often than not dismissed as noise in the data.  Think of smoke coming out of your toaster (which is how I thought of ITunes when it tried to send me recommendations.  It was frying itself a little trying to make matches.  And yes, this is a vague reference to flying toasters.  And no, not from BSG).   “Noise” or errors in the data can also be used to refine pre-existing category systems (think when Photoshop tries to delete an object then insert surrounding inferential data to fill in where the object was removed), so that the greater the possibilities of realization of a concept is explored in real experience, it adds to the complexity of how that idea is understood and manifested, or reflected back.

On Facebook, I tried to limit the amount of information that could be freely collected by the site and its “partners”.  One of the things I did was put in a wildly inaccurate birth date.  I like messing with data mining.  I purposely have a small friends group too, so anyone who knows me well already knows my birthday and knows my penchant for messing with freeloading data systems.

When one knows oneself, we know the parts that are ridiculously stereotypical and the parts that are eclectic.  The mash up and resulting paradoxes are, I think, just part of being human.  Go figure that one out cognitive science- ok, I know people are trying but really- so many current models are so inadequate or just rehashing problems philosophers and early psychologists have better articulated.

There is something to the notions of innovation, eclecticism, and creativity that is compelling.  I formally studied these ideas long and hard for many years, for altruistic reasons as well as knowing I was a thorny case for the subject.   I found satisfying models and metaphors in work from people like R. Sternberg (the concept of Practical Intelligence), from the bulk of expertise research, the personal musings of many artists, musicians, and writers, aesthetics, and many other sources.   At the same time, there is an element of the wisp of smoke coming from a toaster about the idea of creativity; to try to understand open ended, eclectic thinking is to sometimes burn out the very tools of analysis you are bringing to the subject.

On a practical level, I have enjoyed the research that quite definitely shows if we do not use our brain in challenging and novel ways it will atrophy, and contribute to dementia.  As often as I feel like a complete alien in every culture and subculture I have been in, it is comforting to know my “sideways” way of viewing things may be helping me age better.  But does that also mean we are doomed to always be incomplete, constant learning beings if we are to survive, and survive well- thereby possibly both limiting our usefulness (incomplete, exploratory) as well as making us adaptable?  Ah, to be or not to be (apologies to WS).

We romanticize creativity, but in practice most folks are terrified of things that are different, and skeptical of the new.  I am not an early adopter of technology (one because I can’t afford to be), but I am deeply interested in what objects and processes new technology is applied to. I have been called blissfully naive in my life, and I took it as a put down.  But looking back, it was a habit of not making rash judgments, extending the time to understand someone or something (and yes, therefore putting myself in harms way from time to time) that garnered me that label, combined with a seemingly insatiable thirst for new experiences and stimuli.  I also know that withholding indexing or categorizing, being flexible in how one views an experience, is a core component of creativity.  It is the open-ended question without any one absolutely right answer that fascinates.  Wisdom for folks like me is learning what situations require immediate categorization and what situations can be allowed the extra time and thoughtfulness necessary for satisfactory input.

I don’t think data mining systems have reached the wisdom stage yet, and therefore will continue to emit wisps of smoke when confronted with the eclectic cases; or take so much of what I am and toss it out as outlier that what is left is a pale imitation, a grossly inadequate summary.  I think data mining (and life in general) does this to an extent to all of us, regardless of how predictable we may seem.  Some assumptions that result may be useful and help improve the tools that operate in our lives, both foregrounded and backgrounded.  Others lead to horrible policy and situations like those at airports when checking in for a flight.  In essence, everyone and no one are terrorists.  A complete paradox of institutionalized applications resulting from awful data analysis systems.

Simply using “that” word in this blog selects me out for further analysis in the gross internet search and filter systems of some intelligence programs.  Try and mash up all the topics I have crossed here and see if I am a no-fly—wisps of smoke, then throwing out most of what is written and determine I am not a threat due to inconsequential outliers.  See?  It is useful, right?

If only rejection were always so useful.

Husband recently said with a laugh, “I know WHO you are (and he trusts what he knows), but I don’t know WHAT you are.”   He struggled to explain- and remember, this man is an accomplished artist- that he meant he does not know where I fit in.  Funny, I don’t either most of the time.  But I’ll keep taking those wisps of smoke and the subsequent collapse into absurdity and laughter as the only way other than despair and insanity to synthesize the issue.  In laymans terms, come to a temporary peace.  But as many of us know, it is a peace that will soon be disturbed by the enjoyment of the knotty problem, the hurtful surprise, or the macro-level existential paradox that never ceases to exist in the back of every conscious mind.

So good night all you toasters, running your programs.  Maybe someday that AI will learn how to integrate the errors that lead to melt down or burnt toast; or maybe there will just not seem to be a good reason to mirror us and you’ll leave us alone.

Drug Zombies

The zombie movie has become a form in itself.  We can all think of a zombie film or two; the undead taking over and a small band of non-zombies trying to survive.  Zombies are the haunted faces of people who once were, but are no more.  As if whatever personalities, or souls they had have gone and all that is left is ravaged flesh and a sort of animal impulse.

 I read (this information is all from a recent investigative piece in the L.A. Times) that there has been a dramatic rise in the use of heroin in the U.S.  The DEA claims to have been shocked by a phenomenon of the drug business that modeled itself on pizza delivery.  Small, local franchises are left to their own devices (no interference from bosses up the supply chain) and make door-to-door deliveries in small amounts.  Drivers are coached on how to dress “middle class”, and drive safely in innocuous cars.  The nationwide phenomenon was largely successful due to the target market they so smartly chose:  non-urban white people.  When one very successful entrepreneur was interviewed, he said, “It worked great- we didn’t get robbed or have any trouble.”  Street level dealers are taught to hang out a block from rehab centers where people addicted to oxycodone and methamphetamines gather and sell them on the quality (Mexican heroin has been found to be quite a bit stronger and less “cut” than the Afghanistanian and Pakistanian competitors) and cheapness of the drug (compared to buying prescription drugs by the pill off the street).

 What has this left us with?  Well, layer this new wave of drug addiction on to a rising unemployment rate and abysmal economy (especially in rural areas), the complete failure of the “war on drugs”, and we have a zombie problem.  I am not making light of addiction.  I am trying to sort through what I have seen in the last several years in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina (as well as other places).  Midsized and small villages have been becoming ghost towns for the past 30 years as Wal-Tar-K’s helped kill downtowns, and major industries left.  On a recent trip to a pretty typical town of about 40,000 people in Virginia, the number of street people milling around on a weekday afternoon struck me.  Young and old, black, white, and latin, male and female.  These people were in shabby clothes, with unkempt hair; they loitered around the thrift stores, around the homeless shelters, churches, and the graveyard.  They did not get on busses (I checked back later to see how many were still there) but seem to spend most of their day just hanging out.  I spoke to a few local people I knew and was told that the drug problem had gotten so bad it was not safe to go out at night in many parts of the town.  Whether this is true or not, it is clear that a confluence of problems is hitting these mid-sized and small towns, and drugs of several types are part of the mix.

 I grew up in a rural region that was poor.  I spent much of my adult life living in large urban areas.  I have seen low level drug activity as part of both cultural milieus, and certainly have seen the traditional form of addiction to alcohol going strong.  But what I am seeing now scares me so much more than anything did before.  Truly, it feels like I am driving around in some zombie film, so many unoccupied buildings, so much decay, and so many people living bottomed-out lives in so many regions of this country.  This picture seems to be a taboo subject with our local, state, and federal politicians.   In a way, I can’t blame them.  To talk about it would only upset the apple cart they try to construct, and spread more fear and despair.  But to not talk about it changes nothing, and only allows the complex problems that are behind the zombification to grow. 

 I am still surprised, still shocked when I drive to towns in my region and see the overwhelming number of people stuck in time and place, human artifacts of decay.  A few have cardboard signs and sit at street corners.  Most just mill about.  I have never had a particularly addictive personality, but like depression, I know anyone can fall.  I fear for my kids, my friends, my community, and my country.  What is happening people? 

 The guns and running solution in zombie films will not help us, nor does objectifying those who are sinking (which seems to be the popular opinion of GOP leaders).  Like a viewer at a zombie movie, I do not ask who will save us; I do not ask who is to blame.  I only ask, what will happen next? But without the thrill of a horror film resolved, or the comfort of knowing it’s just make-believe, can we simply sit and watch?

 

Happiness as narcissism?

Happiness is. . .Curiosity.  Being driven to explore.  Creating something out of a mash up of materials.  Being occasionally surprised by science and art. Finding the impulse to think about and do things other than focusing energy on social manipulation.

Although, I suppose being a social manipulator could be a form of happiness, and driven by a curiosity to see what happens “when I do X”.  But that’s a bit sociopathic and clinical.  Most social manipulators do so because they are insecure, and are driven by a need for power.  Or because it is the only way some people know how to be in the world.  Sometimes this is defined as narcissism- being self-centered with little regard for the feelings or well being of others.

But what about people who are not interested in what is often the soap opera of life, necessary for a complex dart board of human relations (various levels of intimacy from the center out)?

What spurred this line of thought, you ask?  I enjoy the show House.  Husband claims (sometimes to insult me, sometimes to praise) that if I were male I would be like House.  At first I laughed.  I am not nearly that smart  Also, the show can be silly.  But I still like the character and Hugh Laurie acts the heck out of the role. I also realize that the constant sociopathic manipulation that the character participates in is something I just can’t find time to do; there are way too many things I’d rather be doing.  For example, I am driven by a curiosity that I call “itchy feet”, the need to travel.  Even if it is only to get to know every dirt road, fire road, black top and driveway in a 30-mile radius (or more when I did not live in a geographic fish bowl).  I also read arcane, esoteric things (to my destruction- I ended up with a dissertation no one could understand much less help me with.  Four advisors might have been part of the problem.  But what is a student to do when the first one dies, the second goes mad and leaves, the third retires, and the fourth just does not know what I was doing?).  I am rarely more interested in the people of my own environment than I am people I don’t have to interact with.  I can read people extremely quickly and usually am not interested in participating in what I find.  I can be blunt, abrasive, insensitive, and unaware (or just don’t care); but I am not intentionally mean or cruel (that takes way too much energy).  If I want to bash someone about the head, they know it.  I despise having to make small talk, and complex formalities.  On the flip side, I am unusually loyal to the oddball handful of people I love.  I have been told lots of things in the past several years by my friends, the most common theme being that I am “not your usual type of person”, “you are a strange duck but I love you”, that sort of slightly annoyed but committed interest.

So, ok, maybe a little like House.

I started this blog with a slant, an in-construction voice appropriate for the title.  This one breaks out a bit.  I only know three people who read it, so I don’t worry about morphing into something different from time to time.

If being driven by a curiosity about the world with little interest in manipulating the people around me makes me happy, I can be called many things.  I think the idea of narcissism has been given a bad rap- we think of people who were off-normal, passionate, and self-centered and had disastrous results (I listed some of the classic historical folks used as examples, but didn’t want to taint the idea so I erased them).  But aren’t the delusions necessary to be happy (read the happiness project stuff ad infinitum to see what I mean) a form of narcissism?  Don’t we disregard the feelings and experiences of others in order to maintain our world view?  Don’t we have to be slightly unrealistic about ourselves to just get up and eat breakfast in a first world country?  If my self-involvement in my arcane interests and my rejection of social norms is a form of happiness, is it also narcissism?  Is it, within a certain range, any different from the desperate, insecure and often boring machinations of many people?  Can we all be called narcissistic?  Or is it just those extreme risk takers, those megalomaniacs, those Wall Street bankers and people on the fringes who are labeled with the term?

I have come to reject much of what contemporary psychology uses as a basis for existing and functioning, so I use the term narcissism loosely.  Getting a label only by degrees of clinical saturation (how much narcissism did you pee out today? Oh then you are ok; or not) does not seek to understand terms.

Anyway.  My attention is drifting.  It is late and I need to either get back to sleep or pick up one of the many books by my bed and read.  Who cares what you think.

Narcissism shmarcisissm.

 

The Rules

I’ll be blunt: I grew up eating BBQ.  I learned from experts how to assess, eat, and appreciate BBQ.  I am not a vegetarian, no matter how rational the arguments are for that food style.  Do I feel a little guilty?  Sometimes.  Have I seen meat changes that scare me?  Oh yeah.  For example, when I was a kid, beef was grass fed on local small farms (such as ours) by necessity.  We took a bull to the butcher every year and had a freezer of small white packages to eat (but my mother drew the line at brains).  No fuss, no pretensions.  There were no massive nationally packaged meat recalls (even if there should have been).

This week we made the mistake of again trying beef labeled BBQ at a Virginia restaurant that gets high ratings every year from locals.  The brisket was not poorly trimmed, the ribs were not dried out.  But it was NOT BBQ.  They can wish all they want out here, but in ten years I have yet to find anyone who can do BBQ correctly.  No, I won’t be diplomatic and recognize what they call “Carolina” BBQ as BBQ (for the un-initiated, it’s roasted, boiled, or steamed meat with vinegar on it.  That’s not BBQ).

So here are some simple rules:

1.     BBQ is not toy food.  No cutesy buckets for bones, no cutesy oversized or cartoon stamped napkins, no hats.

2.     Smoke.  If there is no smoking of the meat, there is NO BBQ.

3.     BBQ is not haute food.  Not nouvelle cuisine.  No tiny portions with exotic toppings.

4.     Once past smoke- there is flavoring.  It can be rubbed into the meat (known as a “dry rub”) before smoking, or it can be bottled in an old Ball jar to ladle out on top at a customers discretion, but it is never, ever, just ketchup.  Or ketchup with a little Worcestershire thrown in, then slathered on meat when serving.  No no no.  And NO VINEGAR.

5.     The best BBQ comes from Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, or parts around these cities, 99.9% of which are WEST of the Mississippi river.  Sorry Chicago; never had good BBQ in the whole greater area, even though I love the town and lived there for several years.  Not in Detroit, not Jackson, not Atlanta.

6.     Beef is primary, brisket and ribs being the mainstays.  They used to be the crap cuts, and now one has a hard time spending the cash for them in the grocery.  Go figure.

7.     Pork is secondary, but a strong second.

8.     Chicken is third and tricky to do right.  It dries out fast, and the skin can be really disgusting if not dealt with properly.

9.     Sausages are not BBQ.  They can be extremely well crafted, and thrown on the smoker late in the game with other meat, but they are not BBQ.

10. You can add an endless variety of herbs and spices to your rubs and sauces, you can lay bundles of herbs on top while smoking.  You can use a single type of chip or charcoal to smoke, or a combination at different stages of the process.  You can use honey, molasses, brown sugar, or even kool-aid in your sauces.  But the sauces are usually, heck almost always, and I’ll be honest I’ve never had a good one that wasn’t, a variation on a reddish-brown in color.

11. You can fist fight over plain smoked meat, or sauced.  But it still has to be smoked first (number 2 needed reiterating).

12.  Places that advertise themselves as BBQ restaurants with cutesy logos, dancing pigs, fat men in messy white aprons and goofy grins- all do not bode well.  BBQ is understated.  It is serious business about the art of smoking meat.  Not vegetables, not fries, just meat.  BBQ was the food of the poor, the cattle herders, the communal church feasts; it was a way to cook, and preserve meat as well as make it tasty.  Remember that.

13.  Smoke takes time.  You can get amazing BBQ at a neighbor’s house, a shack, or a white linen table cloth place (but in my experience this is unusual, unless the eatery has been around for years and is on old railway and cattle drive routes).  It is truly not that difficult to do, but few restaurants seem to want to put in the time. 

14.  If you experience good BBQ, you’ll never go back.  You’ll be poisoned with wanting, begging, someone to surprise you and actually make BBQ instead of just advertising that they sell it.  Especially on the East Coast.

15.  Husband has mastered the basics of good BBQ and is experimenting every year.  This is one of the reasons I love him.  This is one of the reasons neighbors within a four block radius lift their noses in the summer, close their eyes, and wonder if we are going to have another backyard party soon.  It’s also the reason in our first years at our house, neighbors would come into my yard, faces creased with worry, because no one was home (I had gone to the grocery) and they saw smoke rising from the big black barrel shaped smoker in the back yard.  No, it was not an unattended or accidental fire.  They have since learned (oy, the East Coast).

     This is not an exhaustive list.  It’s probably not all the rules that need to be posted.  There are, I am sure, as many rules as there are BBQ competitions, and all of them posted somewhere on the web.  These are my rules.  The rules of my parents, grand-parents, and the people they came from.  These are my expectations, and the reason I am, like a fool, still sampling restaurant fare, and always expecting better.

     There are not a lot of places where smoking is an acceptable word.  This summer get out and smoke.  Read about how, ask around, you’ll figure it out.  Talk to a butcher- really, find one and talk to them.  Learn how to ask for a cut.  You might try to get to know a local farmer or two as well, someone who actually lets the beef on hoof eat pasture grass.  Think about going “co-op”, and buy a side or whole carcass with a friend, and have that local butcher cut it up for you.  Then start smoking.  Play with the herbs, eye ball that big stock pot and think about mixing up some sauce.  Oh, and number 16?  Have fun.

My gummy valentine

I have been looking for chocolates (this month candy buying is big for obvious reasons).  But instead of dropping cash for a small box of exquisite chocolates, I want to create a surprise bowl for the entire family that is made up of the odd, the sentimental, and the small production candies.  I remember my mother loving the Cherry Mash mound, with the bright pink soft core and the nubby peanut and chocolate cover.  I still like Necco Wafers.  Husband fondly recalls the Marathon bar (not a small company candy, but out of production it seems from M&M/Mars since 1981). 

So where to get them?  I was perusing the Wall Street Journal today and saw a piece on small candy companies that still produce in the United States.  Steve Almond (www.stevenalmond.com) author of Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, writes about the demise of small candy companies and the plethora of strange and wonderful confections that have fallen by the wayside as a result.  He also writes about those who survive, such as:

  • Chase Candy Company, candy purveyors since 1876. St. Joseph, Missouri, makers of the Cherry Mash among others.  1-800-786-1625, info@cherrymash.com

• Necco Wafers, Clark bars, Sky Bar, Conversation Hearts: They’re all manufactured by New England Confectionery, founded in 1847 and based in Revere, Mass. 781-485-4500 

• Goldenberg Candy, of Peanut Chews fame, founded in 1890 and based in Philadelphia. The Goldenberg family sold out to another family-run company, Just Born, (known for Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales, Marshmallow Peeps) in 2003.  1-888-645-3453

• Nashville’s Standard Candy, founded in 1901, is the maker of Goo Goo Clusters, a round cluster of peanuts, caramel, marshmallow and milk chocolate.  615-889-6360

• Sioux City, Iowa, is home to Palmer Candy, founded in 1878 and maker of, among others, Twin Bing, a pair of candies with pink cherry-flavored filling surrounded by crushed peanuts and chocolate.  712-258-5543

• Sifers Valomilk Candy is a five-generation (founded in 1903), family-owned company in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.  

• Idaho Candy in Boise, was founded in 1901 and makes the Idaho Spud, Old Faithful Bar and Cherry Cocktail.  1-800-898-6986

• Annabelle Candy in Hayward, Calif., makes Big Hunk, Rocky Road, Look, U-NO and Abba-Zaba. Founded in 1917.  510-783-2900

(This list does not include the wonderful “small batch” chocolatiers which have come into popularity in the last several years, such as Scharffen Berger, Rubens Belgian Chocolates, Richart, Recchiuti, Payard, Burdick, etc.)

It’s strange to think that in the 1950’s there were thousands of small candy companies in this country.  There were all sorts of odd, often regionally popular confections.  Mostly sweet, some savory, and many with strange names.

 As the big three candy companies in the U.S. (already having spent the latter half of the twentieth century buying out as many small companies as possible) Hershey, Nestlé and Mars, streamline their product lines it seems to me small candy companies become more necessary.  Vendors for the products matter too, and I have found that the Vermont Country Store carries many of the small production wonders (and if they don’t, they will readily try to find what you want if you ask them).

So get on the net, and order some weird candy.  Forgo the easy appeal of the bags and boxes in every store, and go for the difficult to find (I like a velvet box as much as the next person, but don’t need another one to store paper clips in).  Make candy a treat again, not just an everyday habit made of the lowest common denominator in flavor and style.  Let me know about your own regional small candy companies too!

Even if Valentines Day is as much a commercial concoction as Mother’s Day, it can be a reason in this bleak, long winter to have fun.