One morning in early September I developed a small pain in my left foot while walking in to work. It felt like nothing more than one of the brief aches a habitual ambulator like myself occasionally experiences, and I figured it would subside after I’d sat at my desk for a bit. I was wrong. By mid-afternoon the pain was so intense I couldn’t keep a shoe on without wanting to scream. Aside from some very slight swelling above the arch there was nothing visibly wrong, but what felt alarmingly like a protrusion of bone had formed just under the skin. The slightest touch on the area sent fresh lancets of pain up my leg.

A friend drove me to an urgent care clinic after work, where the doctor on duty gently poked and prodded at my foot while I flinched and yelped. After x-rays and a blood test he concluded that the bones were fine, and diagnosed my ailment as a sprain of the joint between the metatarsals, exacerbated by a slight excess in body fat. He gave me a prescription for anti-inflammatories and some information on joint pain and sent me hobbling on my way.

Though I was relieved not be to suffering from something more severe, the treatment was hardly the cure I was hoping for. The medication (2400 milligrams of high-grade ibuprofen daily) did little for my immediate pain and, as an initial side effect, gave me indigestion and some deeply strange dreams. The only shoes I could wear with any degree of comfort were my Converse Chuck Taylors, but walking anywhere, for any length of time, continued to hurt. Despite this I started hitting the gym with regularity, as losing weight was an imperative part of my recovery; with some disciplined exercise and calorie-cutting I dropped about eighteen pounds between my initial diagnosis and the end of October. Until I became acclimated to the pain, that first week on the elliptical was a study in agony.

It worked, to a degree. The swelling subsided some, as did the pain. But not enough, and after seven weeks I went to my primary care physician for a follow-up exam. She concurred with the urgent care doc’s diagnosis, though she had me leave another blood sample with the lab for comparative analysis.

She contacted me less than a day later with the test results and a new diagnosis. My foot pain hadn’t been due to an injury, but rather was a symptom of a larger issue: hyperuricemia, elevated levels of uric acid in my bloodstream due to my kidney’s failure to excrete it out properly. These elevated levels can – and in my case, did – cause an attack of gout.

Uric acid is a waste product created by the digestion of purine; uric acid levels in the body are raised by the consumption of high-purine foods: meat, certain types of seafood, fructose, and alcohol. No problem for a normal renal system, which then filters it out, but with an under-performing one like mine, the leftover uric acid crystallizes in the joints and tendons. In the majority of cases hyperuricemia is genetic, so while the symptoms are preventable, there is no cure.

This diagnosis meant that I had to make some lifestyle changes, and quickly. Unless I want to suffer another one of these attacks, I have to switch to low-purine diet, meaning that I am now, for all intents and purposes, a vegetarian, and quite possibly a sober one at that.

This, to use the vernacular of our times, really fucking sucks the big one.

It’s been about a month now since I received this diagnosis, and my emotional response has alternately been one of depression and one of resentment, both due to my body having made such a determination without my input. At the risk of sounding petulant, the entire matter struck me as simply unfair; I was already exercising regularly, had been cutting back my meat consumption, and have never been a particularly heavy drinker. For fuck’s sake, I didn’t even start drinking until a few weeks shy of my twenty-first birthday.

I was in too much of a funk to even write for a while, and turned my attention instead to researching my affliction. There’s a maddening amount of conflicting information on gout nutrition out there, and parsing through it just increased my depression even more; the websites of major medical institutions like Kaiser-Permanente, Johns-Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic all contradict each other. Plus, there’s no way to determine what specifically triggered my attack, as unlike an allergy, there’s no clinical test for susceptibility. Tolerances vary from person to person, so avoiding an attack is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal.

It could be worse, I know; as annoying as it is, hyperuricemia isn’t fatal, and once my foot heals won’t impair my day-to-day activities. And technically speaking, I do have a choice in the matter: I can keep eating what I want, as long as I’m willing to live with the pain. But that doesn’t really amount to much of a choice, does it?

Understand that I have nothing against the vegetarian lifestyle, save for a small measure of scorn reserved for those who embrace it solely because it’s currently trendy to do so (this is exponentially increased in the case of trendy vegans). Several near and dear friends – not to mention a couple of past girlfriends – are vegetarian, and out of respect I’ve generally abided by their diet when around them. But I’ve never wanted to be one, cheerfully preferring the options available to me as a dedicated omnivore. Hell, I’ll admit it: I really, really enjoy eating meat. I can’t look at a pig without craving bacon.

Ultimately though, I’m too much of a Darwinist at heart; adapt, or die.

It’s been an uphill battle so far, mostly because the learning curve is pretty steep, and I’m proving to be a genuinely terrible vegetarian. I’ve never really cared much for vegetables, and know almost nothing about creating a balanced meal out of them. I make salads so dull even rabbits find them uninteresting, and a couple of weekends ago I managed to create an inedible mess out of a very straightforward recipe for butternut squash soup. My digestive system, long accustomed to extracting nutrition from bits of dead animal, is only begrudgingly adjusting to the increased amounts of plant matter I’m now consuming.

I’d be in even more dire straits if I weren’t graced with some very cool, very generous vegetarian friends both locally and abroad, all of whom went above and beyond in response to my clarion call for aid, providing me with advice, recipes, cookbooks, and some much-needed moral support. Thanks to them I now have a small (but expanding) repertoire of dishes that I enjoy eating, and have so far managed to avoid malnutrition.

I do have some flexibility in my diet: eggs are fine, and low-fat dairy is encouraged, as lactose helps neutralize the presence of uric acid. It also looks as if white fish such as mahi mahi and cod might be safe, though the ever-present threat of mercury poisoning that comes with eating too much seafood still remains. Recent research suggests that white meat poultry might be all right, if servings are kept small and infrequent – say, five ounces or less twice a week, though again this varies from person to person.

I’m not going to chance it, however, as I hope that by going the full vegetarian route I can continue to enjoy the occasional drink. I genuinely enjoy the taste of beer, and I live in a city that has seen a massive rise in excellent microbreweries in the last decade; to cut myself off from enjoying their wares just seems masochistically cruel.

And, more importantly, I’m not going to push the threshold of my diet because I’m still in pain. Three months have passed and my foot is not healing correctly. The initial teeth-clenching hurt has diminished but never completely dissipated, and the mysterious bony protrusion remains. The recent seasonal drop in temperature has caused the joint to ache in a myriad of new and unpredictable ways, and on the worst days, I limp. My doctor has effectively shrugged her shoulders and referred me to a specialist, who is not available to see me until two days before Christmas.

I’ve become acclimated to this ever-present pain, but I’m weary of it, and I’m beyond ready to wear shoes other than my Converse. If giving up meat – and if necessary, even alcohol – is what it takes, then so be it. I’ll take my place among the herbivorous, begrudgingly though it may be.

I really am going to miss bacon.

When I was young I often wondered what the world would be like if superheroes were real.

Now they are.

And I don’t mean that superheroes are real in the sense that single parents, hard working people, and people who go out of their way to help others are superheroes (though they are). I mean specifically that there are people out there who dress up in tights and help the city in costume as real life superheroes (except to be fair–it’s more like body armor instead of tights).

I’ve been thinking lately about something our pediatrician told us: that toddlers are sort of like teenagers.  As my twenty-month-old daughter Harper begins to precociously behave like a textbook two-year-old, this has started to seem more and more true to me.  Now, I’ve never parented a teenager but I do vaguely remember being one, and I often see them milling about our neighborhood pretending to be unprivileged and pissed off.  And I think it’s really true, that toddlers really are a lot like them. 

Some people go to church on Sundays. I go to office supply stores.

Some people see organisation as a handy but ultimately dispensable tool; a way to corral the events and chores of the day into a docile herd of cattle to drive from the Texas of the morning through the Arkansas of the afternoon, finally coming to rest in the quiet Missouri of the night.

I see organisation as a religion, and every horizontal line on the pages of my daily planner is an ironclad commandment that will keep my eternal soul safe from the fires of damnation and the Devil’s searching hands¹.

Some people are content to let life come as it may and make do with writing the occasional reminder on their Google Calendar that Cobalt Larry expects the money from the book they’re keeping back on Friday and the vig is running².

I pray for these misguided fools, but not often, because I don’t want to throw my schedule out.

I’m trying to make two points here. The first is that suck it Rangers, we won the Series. The second is that my childlike faith in the power of organisation to get me everything I have ever wanted is, at one and the same time, absolutely steadfast and almost completely bordering on the mindless. Especially when taking into consideration the fact that my complex and multi-faceted plans – which can be ludicrously short on detail, but make up for that by being even ludicrouslyer shorter on plausibility³ and correct word usage – rarely go off without a hitch. And that hitch is almost always due to the fact that when it comes time to actually do something, I instead always choose to watch TV.

My reasoning for this is entirely justified. I watch TV because I really, really want to. And while, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m all too aware there’s an Excel file lying dormant in the far reaches of my computer, at the front of my mind, and much bigger, there’s an awareness that I like to sit on the couch and watch Dexter much more than I like doing any real and actual work, or, indeed, moving much. If it wasn’t for the fall programming break, I would have starved to death years ago.

In principle, the end goal of this kind of hyper-organisation is one of freedom. It stands to reason that if I can get all the things I want to get done out of the way in an intelligent, timely manner, then I will be a) more productive in general, b) more relaxed, and c) left with more time to enjoy my leisure time, as there will be fewer things to crowd in and demand my attention throughout the day.

In practice, this usually goes south in a matter of hours, if not minutes, because inevitably, I fall victim to my various psychological resistances⁴ to accomplishing anything beyond keeping my Spam folder clean of advertisements for Viagra⁵ or, ironically, spamming everyone foolish enough to not have blocked me from their feed yet with constant, unremitting Facebook status updates⁶.

Trying to move past this self-destructive streak is like Tobey Maguire fighting the Sandman in Spiderman 3. No matter what punches you throw, no matter how relentlessly you fight, no matter how hard you hit… you’re still in a terrible, terrible, bad, awful film, and Topher Grace is the only one getting away with his dignity intact.

Knowing this, I still press on.

After returning from the US earlier this year, I decided I needed a plan. I decided I needed direction and structure and motivation. I decided I would put together a list of 20 goals – no more, no less – and knock them over, one by one. I chose to keep the list contained to 20 because I knew I have a tendency to over-burden myself, and, by attempting to do too much, in fact accomplish nothing⁷.

20! I said to myself. And no more! I refuse to fall into the same trap again!

25! I said to myself, one week later. And no more!

I gave myself three months. 25 things across 12 weeks; a mix of the easy and the hard, the time-sensitive and the expansive, the achievable and the requiring of divine assistance.

Given that Plan A hadn’t gone as hoped, I decided to name this goal list Plan B.

Part One.

I enjoy headings.

I completed 17 of the 25 items by the time my self-imposed time limit was done, and the 8 remaining were in varying stages of completion. Not bad, for a first run, I said to myself. And I can’t believe Joe Biden didn’t write back. I thought he was cool. And then, as I was coming back (again) from the USA (again) a few weeks ago, on my Virgin Australia flight, thirty thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, I started sketching out Plan B, Part Two.

Again, 20 items. Again, 12 weeks. But this time, I decided, I would expand my knowledge base. I would husband the gaps in my ability with the intelligence of others. I would create a Facebook group, and ask for the insight and advice of the people I knew. I would access their knowledge and know-how and make my tasks simpler. Running 10K? What do I know about running 10K? Nothing, that’s what.

But I knew I knew people who did.

I created my group, sent out my invites, and got to the work of creating my list of goals.

Very quickly, the replies started to pour back in, and I nodded, sagely, to myself. There it is, Simon, I thought. Proof. Undeniable proof. You’re a genius. No one has ever thought of anything this smart ever. And I started reading through the accumulated wisdom of my peers.

Alice: Hey, do you know every time you update something, I get an email?

Ben: Hey, do you know every time you make a change on this group, Facebook emails me?

Rachel: ARGH WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING TO MY INBOX?

If you have no experience with the new Facebook Groups system, what you may not know is that the new default settings mean:

  1. People don’t have the option of choosing to say yes to group membership. If you invite them, they are automatically added and it’s left up to them to choose to leave.
  2. People have to additionally uncheck, rather than check, their approval of receiving notifications about each and every single thing that happens in said group.

If you have no experience with the new Facebook Groups system, what you quickly find out is that everyone gets annoyed by:

  1. Receiving 40 odd emails informing them of every single thing that’s written, in a group that
  2. they didn’t agree to joining in the first place.

After posting groveling apologies within the group, as my status and via email, and wondering aloud at the wisdom of a system that could, technically, allow me to add anyone I was friends with to a group titled anything I wanted, take a screenshot of their membership, and then send said screenshot to their place of employment, families, and Fantasy Baseball leagues, I started hastily deleting people from the group so they didn’t receive more of the same messages.

Once again, I blame Zuckerburg for everything.

That has ever happened to me.

However.

Wildly non-helpful mass emailing of the people I had asked to help me aside, I managed to get my twenty-goal list up and exposed to the accumulated genius of the group.

  1. 8 weeks of Spanish revision
  2. Complete and launch an in-progress e-publishing idea
  3. Complete and submit an in-progress non-fiction proposal
  4. Complete and submit an in-progress scripted TV pilot pitch in the States
  5. Write four pieces for magazine submission
  6. Write my reading list for 2011
  7. Write my writing list for 2011 (list of lists are some of my favourite lists)
  8. 12 weeks of working out and swimming
  9. Take my tri-weekly runs from 5K to 10K (or 3.1 miles to 6.2 miles)
  10. Clean and organise everything
  11. A new laptop
  12. A new camera
  13. Pay off my credit card debt
  14. Write 4 pieces for TNB
  15. Work out where to take my Plan B in 2011
  16. Take better care of my skin
  17. Complete and submit an in-progress scripted TV pitch in Australia
  18. Plan out a vacation with some friends over Christmas
  19. Work out a way to live in the USA again
  20. Make $50K.

Some are designed to be easy. Writing lists of books I want to read, or avenues of publication I’d like to follow up? Easy. Surprisingly fun. And a good way to get some items knocked off straight off the bat and build some momentum. And I don’t have to break anyone’s legs (or put myself in a position where someone will break mine) to pay off my minor credit card debt; I simply wanted to be aware of it.

I have less than no idea how to make fifty grand in twelve weeks. But I figured it’s good to have something to shoot for. Also, I’d really like fifty thousand dollars.

And after the initial hurdles, advice flooded in. Don Mitchell and Kristen Elde provided help with running tips and guidelines for how to avoid injury. Photographer friends gave me advice on good camera buys. People told me what worked for their skin, for making housecleaning easy, for pitching scripts. People mentioned friends of their I should get in touch with; and, if nothing good is on TV tonight, I’m sure I will.

So far I’ve completed items #6, #7, #10, and #11, and made a start, at least, on every single other item.

Which is just as well, because with my schedule, it’s really hard to get anything done.









¹ The damnation of wasted time, and the searching hands of the Devil of an unrealistic budget. Also of my friend Clue, who has boundary issues and makes us all feel really uncomfortable.

² And if Cobalt Larry don’t get his end, you best believe someone’s going in the cobalt.

³ Life List Item #82: Be Mayor of Somewhere.*

* Seriously.

⁴ See: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Paralysed/Maladaptive Perfectionism, and Gerard Butler-by-Proxy

⁵ Where do they keep coming from? Who keeps doing this?

⁶ Everything I think and do is interesting.

⁷ AKA Three Stooges Syndrome.

When I think of runners, I don’t think of myself. I think of the elite athletes I see at races sporting just their sports bras and spandex shorts, muscles galore. These women run a marathon in the time it takes me to run a half marathon. They have sponsors and trainers. They have people cheering for them! I don’t have that. I’ve been running for five years, but I’m 5’2″ and weigh 155 lbs. I wear a size 10. “Elite Athlete” is not in my genes.

It all started in 2005 when a friend asked me to join a 5K with her. The feeling I had at that first race – the energy of the other runners, the rush of crossing the finish line, and the knowledge that I hadn’t walked any of those 3.1 miles – was enough to hook me on running for the past five years.

In the beginning I was only running about 15 miles a week, while signing up for at least one 5K or 10K every month. But when people asked me if I was a runner, I’d say, “No. I’m more of a jogger, really. I’m not a very fast runner.”

Recently though, I’ve been wondering: What exactly makes one a runner?

I mean, aside from the awesome body, I’ve got pretty much all it takes to be a runner. I’m a devout user of body glide, which I learned to use after an awful case of sports bra chafing that led to cuts all the way around my rib cage and prevented me from wearing a real bra for more than a week while the scabs healed. I’ve got the always flattering spandex capris, of which I own more pairs than jeans. I wear the ever-so-cool water fanny pack. I suck down those awful carbohydrate gels for long runs. I own more sports bras than any person should probably admit to owning. I subscribe to Runner’s World. I even read books about running.

And it’s not just the gear. Like the hypochondriac I am, I self-diagnose with any number of running disorders from shin splints to plantar fasciitis. I know what plantar fasciitis is. I regulate my pace depending on the number of miles I’m running. I talk about pace. I go to seminars about running. I worry about the amount of water I drink in a day for fear of getting leg cramps after a long run (and limit my alcohol intake, which, admittedly, was a bit out of control before I started running). I eagerly seek out the advice of other runners, with whom I could talk about pace and shoe fit for hours.

Then there’s the actual running, which has gotten into absurd numbers of miles since I started training for my first marathon in May (500 miles in 4 months!). I mean, really, who goes home early on a Friday night because they have to get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to run 20 miles? Not normal people!

So why do I still, after more than five years of running, feel like I’m not a real runner? According to Claire Kowalchik, author of The Complete Book of Running for Women, this is a common problem among women, who are more likely to downplay their roles as runners, whether because of body image, speed, lack of experience, or fear of what other people think. But Kowalchik asserts that if you run then you are a runner. The key is to tell yourself that you’re a runner and see yourself as one. She goes on to say that one’s running will improve greatly with the belief that they are a runner – encouraging one to increase speed and performance to become an even better runner. In her book, she quotes Tim Gallwey, “I know of no single factor that more greatly affects our ability to perform than the image we have of ourselves.”

With that said, my name is Rebecca Adler and I am a runner.


How do pharmaceutical reps make their money and what exactly do physicians/quasi-physician-psychiatrists get out of it? The answer is both exactly what you think and something entirely different, something bordering on perversion.

First, I’ll show you the money. Here’s how pharmaceutical reps earn their livings: “Every company determines their own method of how to assess growth and this can change every 6 months -– so don’t get too comfortable! For example, some pharmaceutical sales companies track the # of new scripts coming in and your goal will be set in reference to that measure. Other companies may determine bonus by measuring the total # of scripts.” That’s from a pharmaceutical rep “education” company inventively called Pharmaceutical-Rep.com.

But how to do reps make the sell? Logos…lots and lots of logos. According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (apparently no one informed Santa Clara University that applied ethics long ago died in the business world, if they ever existed), “Many prescribers receive pens, notepads, and coffee mugs, all items kept close at hand, ensuring that a targeted drug’s name stays uppermost in a physician’s subconscious mind. High prescribers receive higher-end presents, for example, silk ties or golf bags… This kind of advertising is crucial to sales. A doctor is not going to prescribe something he or she has never heard of, and it’s the drug representative’s job to get the products’ names in front of the physicians… It’s a way to get in the door so that your information rather than somebody else’s reaches the doctor’s brain.”

If that’s not insidious enough, here’s more from PLoS Medicine’s Following the Script: How Drug Reps Make Friends and Influence Doctors, which begins with a quote from one of its authors, Shahram Ahari, an ex-drug rep: “It’s my job to figure out what a physician’s price is. For some it’s dinner at the finest restaurants, for others it’s enough convincing data to let them prescribe confidently and for others it’s my attention and friendship…but at the most basic level, everything is for sale and everything is an exchange.”

Ahari and co-author Adriane Fugh-Berman expand upon this process: “Reps may be genuinely friendly, but they are not genuine friends. Drug reps are selected for their presentability and outgoing natures, and are trained to be observant, personable, and helpful. They are also trained to assess physicians’ personalities, practice styles, and preferences, and to relay this information back to the company. Personal information may be more important than prescribing preferences. Reps ask for and remember details about a physician’s family life, professional interests, and recreational pursuits. A photo on a desk presents an opportunity to inquire about family members and memorize whatever tidbits are offered (including names, birthdays, and interests); these are usually typed into a database after the encounter. Reps scour a doctor’s office for objects — a tennis racquet, Russian novels, seventies rock music, fashion magazines, travel mementos, or cultural or religious symbols — that can be used to establish a personal connection with the doctor” [my italics].

From all of this, I can only conclude that physicians/quasi-physician-psychiatrists are amongst the loneliest people on earth. I’ve often entered a quasi-physician-psychiatrist’s office just as a drug rep leaves. Couldn’t the “doctor” have spent that time calling his wife? Alternatively, couldn’t she have read a monthly journal describing immediately-available new psychotropic drugs and their uses and side effects? Wouldn’t that take less time and at least approach professionalism? As it stands, the wise patient will reference prescribing information online, since it’s almost never provided prior to The Writing of the Scripts. Why a psychiatrist is paid at all remains a mystery. A better job title and one deserving minimum wage: “Treadmill Technician.”

I suppose if I asked physicians/quasi-physician-psychiatrists why they spend so much time with pharmaceutical reps, they might respond, “Thanks to insurance costs, I can’t afford pens, Post-It notes and coffee cups; I need those things, goddamn it.” Next, they’d stalk out of the office and weep upon the steering wheels of their BMWs, then call the kinds of prostitutes who don’t visit offices with suitcases full of samples and logoized potpourri.

Aunt Ethel inscribed this aphorism in a cookbook she gave my parents as a wedding gift. 37 fruitful years ago.

I chafe a little at the notion of cooking as romantic epoxy. Like, who’s supposed to be back there slicing and dicing, keeping the marriage together? We all know whose job cooking is.

Or was.

Look around Aunt Ethel! Today we have 24 hour jumbo buffets across town and Any’tizers Buffalo-Style Chicken Wyngs in the freezer.

Besides easy access to convenient foodstuffs, no one has time to cook, ok? In our goal addicted, Cult of Productivity society? Not so much.

Deep down I know old Aunt Ethel is unfashionably right.

Just because women are no longer relegated to slaving over a hot stove does not mean the kitchen has lost its tremendous power.

“There is no sincerer love,” said Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, “than the love of food.”

Research suggests most married couples have sex seven times a month (less than twice a week). Compare that to 21 meals per week and you might reach for the grocery list.

Definitely I have a standard dish – who doesn’t – to feed lovers or potential ones. I want to appear talented in every room in the house.

My ol’ faithful is Atlantic salmon accompanied by salad, baguette, wine, +/- steamed asparagus.

Honey Teriyaki Salmon

Combine in a mixing bowl 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup honey, juice of half a lemon, 1 clove garlic. Whisk til honey dissolves.

Marinate 1 pound of fresh salmon fillet in mixture for 4 hours.  Or just baste the fillet with it.

Broil salmon at 375 for approx 15 minutes

This dish has slaying power. Serving it predictably results in kissin’ – even if the kissin’ is not, sadly, bound to last.

British actor Richard Grant recently declared in an interview that cooking has kept his marriage going for 23 years, and in April Scarlett Johansson told People magazine how much she enjoyed cooking for her new husband. “I find it very therapeutic,” she said. “I put on some music, maybe have a glass of wine, and make something like a turkey Bolognese or a nice frittata.”

Frittatas are, like, Level 7 to me. I don’t aspire to a Julia and Julie type of undertaking at all; carcasses are where I draw the culinary line. I will never have my own apiary or bake bread from scratch (unless, I guess, if Ryan Reynolds were my husband. In Scarlett’s shoes I too might venture into Top Chef territory).

But besides accepting it as relationship superglue I’m beginning to see cooking as an oddly helpful writing tool.

“Writing is not a monolithic process just as cooking is not a monolithic process. You don’t just go in the kitchen and cook – you do a number of very specific things that you focus on one at a time – you peel garlic, you dice garlic, you saute onions – these are separate processes. You don’t just go into a kitchen and flap your arms and just cook – and in the same way, you don’t just ‘write’.”

-Screenwriter Stephen Fischer

Yesterday my father guilted me into helping him shuck ten pound of clams he won at a golf tournament. It was a sublime, mindless hour during which I ‘thought up’ the perfect ending for a story I’ve been agonizing over for months.

There’s a strong case to be made for writers to cook often:

“New findings in neuroscience indicate that your brain is often at its best when your body is engaged in low-level, undemanding activities…a state of “meta-awareness” helps you work on long-term problems. “For creativity, you need your mind to wander,” research psychologist Jonathan Schooler told the New York Times.”

– Globe and Mail July 2, 2010

As the locavore movement dovetails with the recession, maybe we’re all going back into the kitchen, slowly, genders together this time.  I watch my parents mingle with hipsters on Saturday mornings at the Farmer’s Market, everyone stopping to listen attentively while a man selling organic chicken for four bucks a pound explains how transporting birds to the abbatoir seriously stresses them. So he slaughters them on the farm himself (with love).

In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, writer Richard Wrangham makes the slightly awful argument that cooking led to pair bonding way back in barbarian times:

“There’s this huge distinction in most cultures between the status of men as bachelors or married men. It’s only when the man is married that he gains status and he gains it because he can do two things: He can go off during the day to do manly things—to hunt or raid the neighboring group or check on girlfriends in neighboring camps or sit around chatting and politicking—and still count on the evening meal. And the second thing: When another man invites him for a meal, he can reciprocate. And until he can reciprocate, he’s not part of the community of equals.

Cooking underlies this whole critical distinction because until the bachelor can rely on someone providing him cooked food, he must do the work himself, which means he can’t do the manly things properly.”

Hard to swallow, but anthropology and Aunt Ethel make sense. Cooking more = better relationship & better stories.

Men’s Health magazine runs an outstanding recipe feature aimed at status-less bachelors who have not secured the evening meal. Highly recommended for bachelorettes without status too.

Ironing is another mindless creativity-inducing activity I endorse. But – not to worry – I won’t devote a post to that.

Can you give us your love recipe below?

Word to the wise. If you receive an email, the subject line of which reads with some version of the following: “Finally — there is really something for everybody…” consider yourself warned, and maybe don’t open it. This is not an official Phishing scam warning, here, and bear in mind, by my own logic, I am terribly unwise. But I’m not concerned. It is these very emails that have in the past allowed me to exercise my deepest love, and that is the investigation into the greatest mysteries of the human condition.

The Fence or the Centaur -- Have We Not Crossed Enough Boundaries Here Already?

Now if you know me and or my writing, then you already know I’m interested in WTF moments of nature and culture — the kinds of occurrences that you have to look at and wonder, What in the hell is going on here; that’s a human too? I’ve tackled a few oddities already in a kind of gonzo journalistic cum fiction fashion, so the last time I received an email with the aforementioned subject line, I was actually excited. And what did I find out? The divine world of centaurs is alive and well, perhaps only thriving in an alternate universe much like our own.

Correct. Half-man, half-horse. More than any other half-whatever combination, this particular iteration not only has the fantasy element working for it, but at this point in human evolution, it also has the pre-advanced-technological-mobility nostalgia component working for it as well. These creature fantasies only take into account a human’s ability to walk upright, bipedally, or to mount a horse, and giddy-up on four hooves. No cars, buses, mopeds or anything else featuring motors or wheels. So there’s that, which in my mind makes it a lot like having a fetish for gingham and trying to resurrect Anne of Green Gables times in your own family. But I may be a little bit off in the head. Not sure.

Centauring. That’s correct. I clicked on the link and entered a secret world that combined this half-man half-horse fetish with other seemingly strange body-modification fetishes, which included men with two sets of legs, multiple sets of genitals, etc. Not sure where your mind is supposed to go in order to fill in the “etc.” here. But wherever it wants to go, I suggest you take that ride.

The pictures on the site aren’t so much the interesting part — I mean, clearly they’re Photoshop proof that photo-retouching skills have applications beyond the totally professional ones that might land a person a decent job with the FBI or something. Don’t get me wrong. I dig the photo up there. I mean, it’s a centaur standing next to a fence, rife with interesting analytical possibilities. I went to art school. I was born to deconstruct. Personally, I gravitate to the fence immediately. This is a world being described where there are only a few possibilities. There is the open meadow, “over there.” You can live there by yourself, and not deal with centaurs at all, ever.

Or you can be “over here,” on the “home team,” cajoling and prancing with centaurs, learning from their care-free ways of wisdom, trying to glean exactly how it might feel to exist between natures. And he’s beckoning, slyly, so of course you’re supposed to want to be on that side of the fence.

And there is always a third, perhaps less discrete option. You can go for a ride. You can, in fact, hop on the centaur’s back, after which point, “jumping over the fence” into that meadow “over there” becomes not only an option, but in fact a real serious probability. You’re on a horse. You’re already being transgressive, because you’re holding on to a human torso or else some human hair, not a set of reins. What is being suggested here, not very conspicuously at all, what with the verdant pastures and that fence there, looming in the not too distant background, is to take that ride. Which leads me to think that the centaur fetish has something to do with breaking free, enjoying a third possibility, a liminal state of being wherein one might enjoy not just being themselves, and not just being “other,” but being both at the same time.

And then I read the fiction on the site. My favorite depicts a scene wherein two guys are hanging out doing laundry. Three paragraphs in and I was punching myself in the leg that I had not thought of the scenario before this writer. If I were teaching a class, the prompt to my eager writing students might have sounded like this: “Two men are doing laundry together. They are interested in expediting the chore. Use mythical elements to assist them in completing the task. Now write!”

Apparently the two guys share a secret together — and one that involves body morphing. One guy tells the other the magic word, which he only has to say in order to activate this “other world” where they might perform their household task with that much more efficiency. Blam. He says the word and an extra set of limbs grow. Folding laundry, obviously, is more easily done with four hands. Idiot. But what happens when — Blam! He says the magic word again. And then again. And… again? You bet. Centaurs happen. And the following bit of dialogue, as well:

“‘We can carry some of this laundry on your centaur back,’ I suggested.

‘Why don’t you just ride me and put the laundry between you and me, and I can carry the extra stuff with all of my arms.’

That was just like David; so sensible, even when he was crazy-horny with two erections.”

See what I mean? Maybe you don’t and this is just my odd curiosity misbehaving again. I don’t know. The best part of the story is just how much enjoyment these two guys have doing the most mundane of things. The centaur fantasy isn’t about hanging out playing canasta with unicorns and leprechauns. One doesn’t embark on this journey to get to the other side of some fantastical rainbow. One invites a centaur into their fictional world (or if this was memoir, and not fiction-fantasy, then one invites them into their basement to help them fold clean laundry), to just hang out. To be in the pasture, eating grass and drinking milk together, maybe prepping receipts for tax season or else watching the first episode of this season’s Mad Men.

After laundry, they dance to country music, and it’s wonderful to watch the creature dance in the living room, given the extra feet to look at. Merely sitting down on the couch becomes an act worth marveling at in this world. They climb on kitchen stools and open up beers together. They joke about never being able to lovingly kiss all of the hands present in the room there, on the centaur.

Centaurs... Are... America.

Maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all. I mean, who couldn’t use an extra set of hands, or a few extra sets, around the house. And it might not be so much of a sub-culture either. Roger Daltrey went centaur for an album, you know. So did Pierce Brosnan, and I don’t think a single career move in the last decade has done more for his professional reputation. And what about Mad Men, anyway. Why not have a client come in to the new partners’ office this season, with a brand new product: the Centaur Pants. I could see Don Draper goin’ to town on that one, something like: “It’s not about horses. It’s not about men. It’s about the pasture, and that fence over there. Men sit behind their desk all day, just one magic word away from being half a horse. This is about freedom. Centaurs… are… America.”

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I am firing my ego on the summer solstice. At least, that’s what I’m going to tell everyone when they ask.

“Hey, Gloria,” they’re going to say. “I couldn’t help noticing you’re bald now. Interesting. And what caused you to make such a noticeable and off-putting decision?”

I know I’ll be asked and that I’ll need to have a pat answer ready. I could tell them that I’m in solidarity with a friend who is going through chemo. I could tell them that it was a dare. Basically, I could lie. But I don’t want to lie.

This is what I’ve decided to say, “Why yes, coworker/associate/check out clerk/person on the bus, your astute observation is correct. I am in fact bald now. I’ve also quit looking in mirrors between now and December because I have a book to write. I had to fire my ego.”

I figure this answer is esoteric enough to preclude further interrogation, yet full of enough truth to satisfy. They’ll nod their heads knowingly, as if fully understanding that one must shave her head to accommodate the muse.

At least that’s what I hope will happen.

Farming: The occupation of choice for dudes and chicks who want to raise their own food, work out in the sun, be their own boss and slave 18 hours a day so some mustached hipster at a farmer’s market with an iPad under his arm can bruise the shit out of the plums.

On second thought, how are your peaches this year?

“On second thought, how are your peaches this year?”

 

I come from a long line of farmers myself, and I can tell you that not all farmers are grass stalk-chewing old cats who run makeshift booths with half-tan arms and 12 strapping youngins who speak with respect.

There are all kinds of farmers.

Beef farmers.

Christmas tree farmers.

Wind farmers.

Rabbit farmers.

Hookworm farmers.

Solar farmers.

Baby farmers.

That last one is exactly how it sounds.

Salmon farmers.

There were alpaca farmers, but that pyramid scheme has pretty much gone belly up.

“My wool is worth gold and gems.”


And farmers nowadays can be the slick office-y types, like those who use special retina-scanning sunglasses from their Manhattan penthouses to run armies of thresher robots in Minnesotan fields.

But that could have been from a dream.

Farmers can also be the factory farm mogul types who buy 10 city blocks and go onto treat their cows, chickens and pigs like soccer balls and ashtrays.

Fucking assholes.



There are hair farmers.

Sugar beet farmers.

Butterfly farmers.

Coffee bean farmers.

And there are the small family produce farmers, like my father and his father.

A dying breed.

Like the brown pelican battling a blanket of sweet Louisiana crude.

My father and his father (plus my uncles and cousins and other relatives) toiled away in the fields and barns from sun up to sun down. They drove tractors in one direction and sat feeding seeds and saplings into planters in the other. They shipped produce to Cleveland in beat up pickups and shiny semis. They could identify every leaf on every sapling on the horizon. They wore John Deer hats without irony.

Good old boys.

Hard-working-smeared-eye-glasses-wearing-4am-rising-and-shaving-large-brood-supporting farmers.

If you had a question about strawberry season or how far apart to plant pumpkin seeds, my father could hook you up.

If you wanted to know which tomato varietal was best to grow on your half-shaded deck, he was your man.

He could trim 50 heads of lettuce in under 10 minutes.

Could tell you the national price average for corn, plus the going price in any of town’s supermarkets.

Could parallel park a forklift carrying a six-foot pallet of peppers without looking over his shoulder.

He was that kind of farmer.

And he didn’t boast.

 

 

A woman at a dinner party recently asked me about my family and I told her I grew up on a large produce farm in Northeast Ohio.

It’s one of the fun facts about myself I tend to throw out to people.

(Another one — and this is usually told while swimming — is that I used to pee in the pool with my trunks pulled down to my thighs like I was standing at a urinal until I was 10 years old and realized I could just pee right through them.)

“I didn’t know you were a farmer,” she said.

“Yup. I’m a farmer.”

“So you were a farmer?”

“Totally. I was a farmer,” I said, crossing my arms.

“How cool! You have cows?”

“Nah, just produce.”

“You have chickens?”

“We just grew fruits and vegetables. Yeah.”

“So no animals at all? Not, like, pigs?”

“Nope. We grew, oh, cabbage, corn, strawberries, all kinds of peppers and all kinds of squash, collard greens, kale, uh green beans, pumpkin, the occasional patch of kohlrabi. We used to have an apple orchard and a peach orchard, but that was a long time ago. It was a pretty big operation, actually. Twelve hundred acres. It was in the family for like 76 years or something. But we sold it all like 10 years ago. We had hundreds of migrant workers, too.”

“I can’t believe you’re a farmer.”

“Yup. That’s me.”


But holy shit, here’s the thing: I was no farmer.

I’ve been letting people all my life believe that I was a farmer, I do it all the time — Did I tell you I grew up on a farm? — but the truth is I was way more of a factory worker than a farmer.

My father, he was farmer.

My grandfather and uncles and aunts, they were farmers.

Laboring for a dozen years in a series of sweltering, interlocking barns did not make me a farmer.

“Don’t forget to punch in, ‘Farmer Greg.'”


I’ve never driven a tractor in my life.

Never hoed a field.

Never worried about the lack of rain.

Never put on a yellow slicker and grabbed my kale knife.

But no one ever needed me to do those things. With two older brothers, several older cousins, gritty year-round employees and a hundred or so migrant workers, I was kept out of the fields and delegated to the barns. To their loading docks. To their clanging machinery. To their mountains of ready-to-be constructed corn crates and wax boxes.

My jobs included walking around the corn wagon and heaving just-packed wooden crates onto my chest so I could toss them into the hydrocooler, standing at the end of a belt to pack thousands of peppers, zucchini and yellow squash into wax boxes, running up and down a conveyor belt slapping stickers on each piece of squash that bounced past, stacking boxes and crates of produce six feet high onto pallets, disposing rotten produce by the bucket load back into the fields, cleaning the equipment, constructing boxes and complaining, complaining, complaining, blah, blah, blah.

I could show you how to fold together a strawberry box in under five seconds.

Could tell you how many corn crates could fit horizontally or vertically on the freezing lip of the hydrocooler.

Could tell you the best spot and job at the rotating green bean table. (You want to be the last sorter before the first packer. Claim six-seven o’clock at the circular table and you should be golden.)

I was way more of a factory worker than a farmer.

But that’s not really that fun of a fact to tell people.

It’s depressing, to tell you the truth.

Makes everyone feel guilty.

Makes them confess that they spent their summers getting high at the lake house.

Or waking at noon to play video games in the air-conditioned basement.

I then defend my childhood, they say, “Oh, I’m sure it was a good experience,” and I agree that it was and then we both seem a little let down.

So for that reason, I continue on with the charade.


On Friday we checked out a roof-top organic garden growing on top of a favorite Chicago restaurant, and as we walked around the beds of saplings my friend pointed to a row and asked what they were.

I froze, knowing my farming history was once again going to be put to the test.

They could have been watermelon, for all I knew.

They could have been weeds.

Luckily her husband took one look at them and claimed they were peas.

“Yeah,” I jumped in. “Those are definitely peas. I grew up on a farm, you know.”

“Yeah, Greg,” my wife said. “We know.”



After putting the baby to bed the other night, feeling exhausted and oppressed by my household duties, I cleaned the entire apartment.  By this I mean I put away the baby’s toys, washed the dishes, wiped down all three inches of countertop, swept most visible sections of the floor, and palmed a tumbleweed of dog hair off the rug. The entire process took about fifteen minutes, and was by far the longest stretch of housework I’d done all day.  When my husband came home from whatever it is he does all day, I made him dinner.  By this I mean I boiled some pasta.  And THEN I had to WORK.  By this I mean, I put on my pajamas and sat on the couch with a glass of wine and some student stories.   I do everything around here, I thought, self-pityingly.  Sheesh!  And, as a non-New Yorker friend said recently in amazement, “I bet you don’t even have a dishwasher! How do you do it?” 

 

“Well,” I responded, “My life is horrible.”

 

But it has occurred to me of late that housekeeping used to be a much more odious thing, and to remind myself of this I read Susan Strasser’s excellent book Never Done, a history of American housework.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who has ever had to do a modicum of housework.  There is nothing like a perusal of pre-industrial housekeeping practices to make sorting the recycling feel like a day at the spa.  Seriously, did you know that everything used to suck way worse than it does now? 

 

Exhibit A.  Cooking.

 

Sometimes I have the thought, Greasy old unevenly-cooking, partially disabled rental apartment stove, I hate you.  But you know what really sucked?  Cooking over an open freaking fire, all sparking with burning cinders and scorching gates, using cast-iron utensils that weighed 8,000 lbs each.  Labor-intensiveness aside, just imagine all the ways an underfoot toddler could injure herself in such a kitchen!  Wait, don’t actually.  It’s too gruesome. And then even coal or wood stoves, once they came along, still took at least an hour a day just to maintain, what with all the fire-tending and coal-carrying and stove-blacking.  I can totally relate to this because every few months or so I have to relight the pilot light on my stove, which takes an entire match and sometimes dozens of seconds.

 

Strasser’s book also reminded me how once upon a time food arrived in the kitchen unprepared.  No, really unprepared.  As in, each ingredient had to be processed by hand – chickens plucked, hams blanched, coffee roasted, spices ground, flour sifted, oatmeal soaked, and so on. By way of contrast, I was once reduced to tears by the thought of all the work involved with heating up a premade veggie corn dog in the toaster oven.  Granted, I was pregnant and very tired, but so, I imagine, were many of our great-grandmothers while they were nurturing yeast.

 

Exhibit B.  Laundry.

 

I live in an old brownstone without a washing machine, which has led many a person to gasp in protest, “But you need laundry with the baby, right?”  Well guess what I found out from this book? No one used to have a washing machine! And one wash used fifty gallons of water, which of course had to be moved and heated by hand.  And oh yeah, they hadn’t invented detergent yet. Remember that chapter in Little House in the Big Woods where they describe making soap from pig lard? Ewwwwww.

 

No surprise then that Strasser writes, “Of all the household chores that depended on hauling water and building fires to heat it, laundry earned the most complaints … it appears that women jettisoned laundry, their most hated task, whenever they had any discretionary money at all.”  And here’s a little tidbit for you: in the beginning of the 20th century commercial laundries became popular and the task seemed to be on its way out of the house right along with making your own clothes and shoes.  Then the invention of the electric washing machine plunked the act of laundry right back into the lap of the housewife, a development Strasser calls a “raw deal.” 

 

So guess what this means? This means I have ingeniously bucked the housewife-oppressing system!  Laundry doesn’t isolate me in my basement OR take up two days of my time a week OR actually any of my time, since I drop it off at the Laundromat and pick it up some hours later all neatly folded into a tiny space-puck of mathematically impossible dimensions.  Do you see what this means? I am living the dream of the pre-industrial housewife. Thank you, Crystal Clean Laundromat!

 

Exhibit C. Extra Credit.

 

Back when the only out-of-home “daycare” was the “orphanage,” cash-strapped nineteenth century mothers cared for their children while tending the home fires (literally) and often taking in work they could do at home – extra laundry or mending for example.  In other words, they did what I do – take care of baby, take care of household, work a little from home – but in long skirts and without running water, manufactured soap, or baby toys that light up.  Or lattes.  Or mom-tot yoga.

 

In conclusion: suck it up, me.  Things are pretty awesome!  Now if you’ll all excuse me.  I have a stressful night ahead: a bathtub full of un-lugged, un-boiled hot water, and then off to sleep in sheets washed, luxury of luxury, by somebody else.

I was watching The Joy Behar Show and Ted Haggard’s wife, Gayle, was on there promoting her book, Why I Stayed. For those of you who don’t know, Ted Haggard was at one time the hugely successful evangelical pastor of the New Life Church, which boasted thousands of members.  Then a homosexual feller named Mike Jones came out and said that he and Ted used to check into hotels, do railers of tweak, and bang each other.

It was news heaven for the media.

A blessing if you will.

Everything that Ted built up over the years went to hell in a handbasket at record speed. In short, Haggard was yanked from the Jesus podium and promptly let go by the church shot-callers. As we know, Christianity doesn’t like anything gay. No gay thoughts. No pro-gay dialogue. And definitely no gay poking. Ted is a homosexual—or, at the very least, engaged in homosexual activities. So, the church elders dragged him to the curb like a trash can and even kicked him out of the state until the Gay Devil burning inside of him simmered down or split all together.

So his wife wrote a book about what went down.  Then she went on television, doing the publicity rounds.  She seemed like a nice women and blamed Ted’s gay ways on a sexual encounter he had as a child with a male relative. She said that studies show that homosexuality is created by conditioning and experience. So in essence, if your folks, friends, or billboards tell you enough times that you’re gay, then you’re probably going to turn out gay at some point in your life. Or, if you happen to mingle with people of the same sex enough times, one fine day you’ll wake up, look into the proverbial mirror, and realize that you are a full-blown homosexual.

Poof.

Presto.

Gay magic.

I don’t know about this. Now, I don’t have any data to support my claim, but I’ve always felt people were either born gay or straight. Some may be born with a little bit of both stirring up inside of them. This may be a generic answer to a very complex puzzle. Sure. I can see that. Still, in my experience, homosexuality has nothing to do with conditioning or experience; it just is what it is: some folks are attracted sexually to the same sex and others are not.  Period.

I was raised in a very liberal household. My folks were in their teens when I showed up. They saw the Beatles, Hendrix, Supertramp, Alice Cooper, and countless other happening acts in concert. We burned incense, danced long into the night, went to Dodger games, and backpacked Yosemite. I was raised in thick Let-It-Be smoke. The “gay issue” that so many people get riled up over wasn’t an issue at all.

It should go without saying, but homosexuals are human beings and should be treated accordingly. This country—with its archaic laws in regards to same sex marriage—is cruel, boneheaded, and anti-human.

Peace and love, right?

But why be so harmonious?

We’ll have none of that.

Lord no.

Ironically, the very mindset that Ted fostered and peddled to thousands of people turned on him and turned his life upside down.

Anyhow, this got me thinking: when did I know I was straight? The 1st grade. Sure, I didn’t know what gay or straight meant at the time, but what I did know was that Miss Metheny was a stone cold fox and that I wanted to do things with her. What those things entailed, I hadn’t a clue. But it was something inside of me. A calling. A burning feeling in my gut. A feeling that would become very familiar to me and would follow me through the years and land me in some very, uh, curious positions.

I would find myself gazing at poor Miss Metheny. Her beautiful sea-blue eyes and pretty hands. Her nice clothes and silky blond hair. She smelled good and had a soft voice that said nice pleasant things. I wanted to marry her. Mrs. Metheny Romero. She’d marry a fantastic kickball player, a voracious reader, a builder of mud volcanoes, and a pretty darn good guitar player in the making who would not only grow up to learn how to play Beatles jams, but be able to switch musical gears, fire up the amp, and rip Iron Maiden and Sabbath cuts note for note. Oh, yes, Miss Metheny! How about that, toots! Yeah!

I didn’t feel this way about Mr. Lopez, who taught in the room next door. In fact, I thought his large head and hairy hands were downright ugly. The things he said were harsh-sounding and void of melody. He dressed horribly and smelled like a trash heap in comparison to the edible scent that whipped around Miss Metheny’s beautiful head. He did nothing for my eyes or my thoughts. That fire in my gut that Miss Metheny sparked was replaced by sour milk.

It was set in stone. I was straight. All day. All week. Forever. So, I guess, Gayle Haggard is right: that early experience with Miss Metheny sealed it for me. No dudes. In those early years, they were only good for football games, riding bikes, and stealing their father’s Playboy magazines.

“Oh, my god. That’s ugly.”

“It’s a girl weenie.”

“My brother calls it a cooter.”

“My cousin says it’s a pussy.”

“Oh! My mom calls our cat Pussy Willow! Sick!”

The next year Mrs. Jordan came my way. She wasn’t as pretty as Miss Metheny, but she also had a soft voice and pretty eyes. She smelled good, too. Not the spicy aroma that moved off of Miss Metheny, but like flowers. An acre full of fresh blooming flowers.

Then Anna came along. She had long hair, soft Chicana-brown eyes, and full red lips.

Then Rhonda. She was funny and sprinkled with freckles.

Then Julie.

Then Janna.

Later on, Soft Damn Kisses showed at my door.

Then Too Much Drama stopped by to terrorize me.

Then I Fuckin’ Love You Baby snatched my hand and showed me her feathered bed that overlooked the ocean.

So on and so forth.

As the years went by, men would assume a different role and would become very beneficial to the cause. We ditched football for pool. Ditched the bikes for cars. Ditched the magazines for the real thing. Brothers in arms. Bar dogs. They’re names changed from Eric to Dickhead, James to Jerk-off. We gathered in insatiable packs. We coiled and whispered like tree vipers. Played in rock bands. We got drunk, said lame shit, and woke up in strange, perfumed beds.

Sorry, Pastor Ted.

Sorry, Larry Craig.

I don’t snort lines and my stance isn’t wide.

These days I find myself single again. It’s a trip. I’ve been out of the hustle for over ten years and don’t know quite what to do. Do I pull the same contrived crap I did when I was twenty-five? Hang out with some of the old gang that have found themselves wearing the same shoes as me? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think I’ll sit this one out for a bit. Relax and run in the early desert morning. Meditate and munch on my Fiber One bars. Maybe, this time around I’ll lower the amp a tad and play some soft blues in a dark bar that serves colorful martinis. Pick up my trusty acoustic guitar and strum Carly Simon tunes. Perhaps I’ll hop in my truck, take a long drive up the coast, and keep some notes on what comes my way, see what the day brings.

Yeah, that sounds good.

Real good.

Thank you, Miss Metheny.

You stone cold fox.

Our relationship is marked by beer. Like a long line of bottles in varying shades of brown, green, and amber, the seasons of our love correspond with the tastes and textures and names of beers.

Together, over 14 years, my husband Doug and I have run the gamut—from obscure, handcrafted beers to expensive English delicacies to gourmet homebrew to cheap domestics, and now, finally, to our favorites—the comfort beers we’ve settled on, the brands and varieties we always know we can bring home and the other person will appreciate.

At first, there was barley wine. Intoxicating, rich with perfume, it was a new taste for me, one I hadn’t even known I was ready for. On our first date, at the very outset of what would be a steady, satisfying, several-years-long courtship, Doug and I sat on stools in a restaurant called The Meeting Place and chose from a menu of hundreds of beers.

I scanned the long lists of bottles and drafts, imports and domestics, and felt nearly overwhelmed by all the choices in front of me. Would I pick correctly? Would I, first of all, enjoy what I chose? Would I impress Doug with my selection, or would I feel stupid and regret this?

Flustered, I went for what sounded both quaint and exotic: barley wine. Two small, potent bottles later, I was weak in the knees. (Photo: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Olde School Barley Wine)

We moved on, together, to double bock, the perfect tonic for the stirrings of early spring lust. The rest, as they say, can be left to the imagination.

That first spring and summer, our love blossomed like lilacs, refreshingly sweet, and we spent every weekend together. I’d take the train out from New York City to meet him in what now seemed to be the country—suburban New Jersey—where Doug lived and worked as a carpenter.

Friday night always began with a careful selection of beer. If we were going out for Mexican food, the choice was obvious: Dos Equis with fresh-cut wedges of lime. Otherwise, I left it up to Doug. He knew his beers.

Having just moved back east from the Pacific Northwest, he introduced me first to all his Seattle and Portland-area favorites: Red Hook ESB, a sweetish, yet astringent amber; and the Rogue Ales—especially Dead Guy Ale, a German-style Maibock, malty and rich.

From there, we moved down the coast to Northern California, finding a new favorite: Red Seal, a copper-red pale ale, generously hopped. (Pint glass here filled with–you guessed it–Red Seal Ale)

 

We discovered wheat beers together, which to me are especially delicious with their light-as-air foam, their fruity (yet buttery) tingle on the tongue. I developed a special fondness for the delicate, coriander-tinged flavor of Texas’ Celis White (it is, sadly, no longer brewed).

Dinners out in the city usually meant Indian food and—for me—a nice bottle of Belgian raspberry lambic bought at the little bodega on the corner of First Avenue and East Sixth Street.

Doug gamely tried the lambic, but he prefers bitter brews with bite and soon dismissed my newfound confection as “a girl drink,” or “champagne.” He opted, instead, to go native, drinking Indian beer such as Kingfishers with Indian food; and Sing Ha with Thai dishes; or else he stuck with his perennial favorite: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

A trip to Colorado meant an opportunity to eat and drink at the distinctive Boulder breweries—the Walnut Brewery and Oasis, among them. We sampled the goods everywhere we went, trying little glasses of perhaps 10 different beers, and we left the brewpubs carrying 12-packs of our favorites, seasonal specialties such as apricot ale, things we couldn’t buy at home. We drank some of the beer while camping in the Tetons and lugged the rest back East with us on the plane.

The next step in our relationship was living together, and as soon as we’d found an apartment with huge windows, glossy wood floors and an adequate kitchen, we bought a homebrew kit.

Doug and I started out nervously, like new parents, carefully sterilizing everything, conscientiously stirring a bubbling cauldron that contained the makings of a batch of honey-colored, wheaty lager.

We bought new bottles for this baby—lavishly thick, 22-ounce green ones with hip, metal swing tops. In our eagerness to sample our creation, however, we didn’t leave this beer to age quite long enough.

Our first homebrew we declared a disaster—too sweet and flat. We forgot about a case of it, and moved on to something more ambitious (my idea, I admit): a double-chocolate porter.

This beer we did not touch for required months of fermentation. When we did taste it, the beer was rich and thick, bittersweet, and it poured with an impressive head.

We (dumbly) shared the porter with our friends and our stock was soon depleted. Oh, well, we thought. We still had the corner store on Indian Row, and our local beer emporium, which was finding new beers all the time—continually challenging our tastes—to sustain us.

At this beer emporium, Doug discovered an English beer—available only around the holidays—called Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. It comes in large, clear pint bottles, the copper-brown ale just beckoning to be quaffed. (Photo: the big, bad WW–not sure what year this bottle is from.)


The taste of Winter Welcome is both rich and clean, nutty-sweet yet dry. Doug also likes the labels; each year the painted illustration changes (think goose or chalet, horse-drawn carriage and so on), giving him good enough reason to not recycle the bottles. Winter Welcome is Doug’s favorite beer of all. He told his best friend, Mike, about it, sharing a bottle to explain its magical taste.

This could have been a mistake. Now Mike buys out the beer store’s supply of Winter Welcome each Christmas, and the only way Doug can even get any of his favorite beer is to stop by Mike’s house.

***

As the years went by, our relationship strengthened, and the beer drinking picked up speed, as well. I bought Doug books on beer. He read them carefully, dog-earing pages, scribbling notes in the margins, determined to seek out the few gourmet beers he hadn’t yet tasted (ones from small craft breweries housed in defunct Midwestern fire stations, or remote corners of Alsace-Lorraine).

But then, suddenly (the change shocked me), Doug was no longer very interested in microbrews. He wanted reliability, he said—and a more palatable price tag. At this point, we were engaged and living out in the wilds of Eastern Long Island, in a small cottage near the beach.

We were far from a decent grocery store, let alone one with any impressive selection of beer. Doug reverted to drinking Rolling Rock and Bud, and occasionally (when he felt like splurging) his old standby: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

When I asked him what was going on, Doug said it was simply a new phase of his life: he was settling down. At first I worried, but then I came to see his point. Doug had played the field and now he knew what he liked, so what was the point of continuing the game?

Doug and I got married and took a very long honeymoon in Belize. While there, we savored the crisp, new taste of Belize’s own beer: Belikin. This is a beer we still haven’t been able to find in the states (though I think it may be available somewhere in Texas).

A by-product of our honeymoon, we soon discovered, was a baby. I, of course, drank no more beer as soon as I realized I was pregnant. We packed up house and moved to Iowa so I could attend grad school after the baby’s birth.

Away from family and friends and plowing through our savings to furnish our apartment and stock up for our child, Doug stuck to drinking inexpensive, domestic beers. When the time came for our daughter’s birth, I reminded Doug to pack a special bottle of champagne that my cousin’s husband—a wine dealer—had given us. He did so, and for his own nerves, tucked into a cooler two cans of beer.

I was appalled to find, the next day in the hospital, two (untouched) cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Why on earth had Doug chosen such a pedestrian beer?

He said he didn’t know why, or it was simply a strange combination of desperation, flightiness, and worry. Doug had reportedly reached for the first beer he saw in the supermarket. He was very nervous about becoming a father, and he hesitated to celebrate just in case (he’s a pessimist) something should go terribly wrong.

But everything had gone fine. We had a beautiful, nine-pound daughter.

Doug toasted her with Pabst (I am still appalled), and promised we’d drink the champagne at home.

All these years later, we still, of course, find ourselves going through phases of life, as well as phases of beer. We appreciate beer, and just as people enjoy different music on different occasions, so it goes with beer.

We need to get another beer-making kit and try that again (now that our kids are big enough to keep themselves occupied for a few hours). This past Christmas, I intended to brew beer as gifts, but I just got too busy.

Think we’ll try it again this year, though. Boiling up a batch of beer during what is sure to be a hot summer will nevertheless be worth it in the winter. (Especially since walking down to the basement for more beer is much easier than visiting the annoying Pennsylvania state liquor stores…the beer drinking lately has waned just because it’s such a pain to buy beer where we live now. You can’t even leave a PA store with three six-packs. No, you have to leave the third and come back for it separately…. I can’t even imagine the purpose of such an insipid law.)

The hardest part of homebrewing this time will be agreeing on what type of beer to make. We’ve done it all, had them all. But we still recall the taste of that forgotten first batch of homebrew—the one we opened too early, dismissed too quickly.

When Doug and I stumbled upon some dusty, untouched bottles a couple of years later, we ventured to try that first beer again. Its taste was now mellow, delicious—redolent, somehow, of fresh-mown hay and clover.

Like our love, it had only grown richer with age.

 



There are some etiquette issues that they just never prepare you for.  Case in point: My trainer needed to go on a diet.  To be honest, I was never fully impressed with her body, but she had toned arms and her butt was very high, so I sort of figured she was fit enough to train the likes of me.  Six weeks into our relationship and I began to see results. I was leaner and stronger and in the right lighting (i.e. dim) comfortable in a bikini.  Okay, so she wasn’t Cindy Crawford, she knew how to work out and she knew how to teach me.  I decided somewhere around week nine that I was in it for the long haul. But then she went on vacation, where I can only presume (based on her visibly distended belly) she ate herself silly while lying in a prone position.  I’m talking four months pregnant belly, and I know whereof I speak;  I’ve had two kids, and the last time my gut was that big I was sporting a fetal sidekick.

But what is the proper etiquette between trainer and trainee?  Was I obliged to facilitate an intervention of sorts?  Because I couldn’t see how she was engendering any confidence in her clients with that tummy hanging out of her adorable OliveU tank.  As we continued our workouts, I gently steered the conversation into this core area.  I would ask about best tips for weight loss, or if a particular exercise could target a specific area. At one point I asked openly what one could do to lose unsightly bulge in the tummy area, to which she sighed, and muttered, “It really all boils down to diet.”

Which isn’t exactly the answer I wanted to hear because if it all boiled down to diet, why the hell was I doing lunges until my glutes exploded?!

In an effort to get a second opinion I asked a few other trainers who were looking rather fit.

“It’s all aerobic,” said one.

“You have to do the weights,” said another.

“It boils down to metabolic burn which can’t be achieved without both aerobic and weight bearing exercise.”

“What about diet? Does it all boil down to diet?” I asked.

“Well, only if you’re eating everything in sight.”

I had my answer.

The next day I returned to my gym prepared to give my trainer a piece of my mind.  I was paying top dollar and for that I expected her to be chiseled perfection.  Her job was to show me the ultimate body that I could only dream of achieving. She was the proverbial dangling carrot in front of the treadmill.  But when I entered the gym she was lying on the sofa eating yogurt covered pretzels out of a feedbag.  I turned and saw my reflection in a nearby mirror and realized all at once, that I had become more fit than my trainer. It was a scary realization. She was no longer a dangling carrot.  She was a cautionary tale.

I considered searching for a new trainer, but the truth was, the more she ate the better I looked. I had to wonder if her weight gain was part of some larger karmic scheme to get me over my last plateau (which occurred right around the time of her vacation). Maybe she got fat in order to inspire me, because as a result of her excess tonnage, I am now weighing my food and training for a 5K.  I’ve also bumped up my sessions to five times a week.  I guess in the end it has been worth it.  I’ve never looked better and she is quiet literally becoming a cash cow.