We die in October.

As an upcoming minor surgical procedure date approaches, I can’t help worrying about what might go wrong. This year so far I’ve managed to beat cancer, leave cigarettes behind and dodge all the Breaking Bad finale spoilers going around. So a teensy, tiny half-hour procedure should be no sweat, right?

But with anesthesia there’s always a risk. And I’m feeling every inch of that risk this time, because in my family, we seem to have an eerie habit of shuffling off this mortal coil in the month of October.

For many, October is 31 sweet days of cool weather, Charlie Brown specials* and free candy. But for me and the other Ratliffs who have survived it, October is the month we remember the passing of my father, my grandfather and at least two uncles. It’s not a particularly morbid month—we don’t dress in black and mourn for weeks, or anything. I mean, there is still free candy to look forward to. But you can bet we are driving a little more slowly around sharp curves and, when possible, not scheduling any hospital visits, no matter how minor.

Until now.

It’s a weird thing to confront death. I mean, we all know we are going to die, eventually. But you don’t know it the same way you know it when you are half naked in a doctor’s office and she says the word “cancer”. This year, for the first time ever, I had to really think about what it means to stop living and I did not like it one bit.

My whole life, up to this point, I have approached every crossroads and tackled every dilemma using a “worst-case scenario” filter. When I’ve been unsure whether to take a new job, move across country, date a guitar player or worse,** I made myself imagine all the possible conclusions:

“What if my new job falls apart?”

“What if I hate the new city I move to?”

“What if the guitar player uses the word ‘tunes’ when he means ‘songs’ and I have to murder him?”

This process helps me determine if I can live with the consequences, even if the outcome is the worst. If so, I am free to move forward with whatever terrible decision I am about to make. I’m never afraid to fail, because I know that whatever happens, I’ll be okay.

Until now!

My own mortality was one “worst-case scenario” I could not win. I literally cannot live with the consequences of my own death. I will not be okay with “whatever happens!”

(For the record, YOU’LL be fine. So relax. The world will keep turning and life will go on for you and for everyone—except me. I’m not saying you won’t be sad. Obviously you will mourn the profound loss of me with lots of booze and sex, and then go on to compose a concept album about me, or write a biopic screenplay or one of those “oral history” nonfiction books that are so popular now. I’m just spit-balling, here. You do what you have to do to mark the passage of the Internet’s foremost authority+ on Keith Gordon movies and vegetarian casserole recipes. Just know that you are a survivor in this scenario.)

I’m just having a hard time dealing with the fact that there’s a situation I will absolutely have to face, that I have zero control over, and with which I am totally not cool. And with no afterlife in my immediate post-death future, I’ve got no way to turn my mortal frown upside down. I can’t find a way to put a silver lining around this sad cloud.

Bummer!

I guess I’m mostly worried that I will miss out on something. I hate that! Remember in the seventh grade when the cool kids had their first co-ed party? At that one girl’s house with a swimming pool? And after sunset, when it got a little chilly, the party moved into the basement? And her parents were upstairs watching TV, so it kind of turned into a makeout party? And you had to hear about it third-fucking-hand because no one invited you? Because you are the new kid (with glasses!) that no one even knows, much less invites to a potentially scandalous co-ed seventh-grade makeout pool party?

Well death is like that, but forever.

Frankly, I don’t want to go until we ALL go. I mean, I know it’s selfish, but I kind of hope to live to see the end of the world. When that tidal wave hits, or that alien death ray explodes the Empire State Building, or that monkey flu becomes a bird flu becomes a people flu, I will surrender, peacefully, knowing that at least you guys won’t be having any fun without me.

Or maybe I will not surrender and somehow survive with Jake Gyllenhaal in a library, burning stupid law books and keeping the ice and the wolves at bay! Either option is cool with me!

Here’s the option that is NOT cool with me: having some weird fluke reaction to anesthesia during a routine procedure and dying on the operating table in the month of October. That is the-opposite-of-Fonzie not cool with me. If death in October is the well-traveled road, I’m happy to trek the dirt path on the other side of the fork. Even if it’s merely delaying the inevitable, I’ll take the scenic route, thank you.

So I submit this article as a way to jinx death. With this piece, I hope to negate the weird could-have-been of my dying in the same month as two generations of Ratliffs before me. I’m going to look Croaktober in the face, shake it’s hand and tell it to have a nice life. Then I’ll knock on wood three times and see y’all in the recovery room.

Otherwise—if something does happen to me next week—this post is going to get sooooooo many hits! Right, you guys?!! You know you are going to leave comments below about how crazy it is that I predicted it all right here, and how totally cool I seemed, and how you WISH you had invited me to your seventh-grade co-ed makeout pool party. And then you are going to “”Like” this on Facebook and share the link in an email to your mom and your best friend with a note about how you should get together more often, because “life is short” or whatever.

That is totally something you would/will do!

My advice is: don’t wait. Do all that stuff now! Send this link to your mom and make plans to hang out! Invite me to your makeout pool party! Life can be short! Carpe diem, for reals!

“Don’t forget-to-Like on Facebook tomorrow what you can remember-to-Like on Facebook today!”
–President John F. Kennedy

Most importantly, do not wait until November; especially if you are related to me.

 

*”The Charlie Brown Specials” is totally my new band!)
**Keyboard players. (Just kidding, ‘Boardies!)
+Flagrant exaggeration!

Note: This story is from six years ago, but it is a holiday tale which speaks to any era. As a personal aside, “The Bun” is our toddler, who got that name from being a “Bun in the Oven.” That kid has years of therapy ahead of him.


Every Christmas is a misadventure in gift-making in the hopes of saving money, but this year I thought I would go out of my way to come up with something really special. And when my husband and I went to an amazing dessert place, I noticed they sold a box of four brandied cherries for nine bucks. FOUR CHERRIES. Nine bucks. I don’t question the quality of their cherries, but nine bucks seemed like a lot of hay for four little chocolate-dipped confections.

“I’ll make chocolate cherries for Christmas. If this place can sell ’em for nine bucks a box, surely I can give mine away for free!”

I began doing my research. I didn’t have a recipe and all I could find were separate pieces of the puzzle: a recipe for brandied cherries, without chocolate. Maraschino cherries instead of fresh. Finally I found a recipe that sounded right but there was honest-to-god canning involved and I was intimidated; I’ve never canned anything, and little gift boxes of botulism probably don’t go over very well. So I found a recipe for the cherries which involved only hooch, sugar, and the cherries themselves, dumped in a jar and allowed to pickle themselves in wanton boozy splendor.

Cherries are hard to come by in the middle of December. I’ll bet you haven’t looked lately, but if you had you would discover that cherries are either mangy, ludicrously expensive, or altogether absent. I ran against all three problems in my quest, but finally found a pathetic little bunch for ten dollars a pound at a specialty store. I doused them liberally in brandy.

It was about this time that I realized that the brandied-cherry process takes three months. THREE MONTHS! I didn’t have three weeks! I began to foresee a little time crunch, and unless I could build a time machine in the next few days, my cherries were going to be ready in time for a little Easter giving.

I needed to can them after all.

Back to the stores trawling for fresh cherries, which included me learning when produce deliveries were made. Each potential triumph was met with disappointment: the cherries were supposed to arrive Wednesday, then Thursday. I called the produce guy: no cherries until Saturday, and maybe not until next week. Time was of the essence, and I was losing hope. My cherries were a dream unfulfilled.

I gave up. I was just going to have to bake some stupid cookies or something.

Ready to move on with my life I walked into a store to pick up some victuals, and there, like manna from heaven in a glistening pile of blood-red fructose, was the answer to all my drunken holiday dreams: Chilean Bing cherries for $7.99 a pound. I should have bought them all, but in my travels I envisioned another tortured nut-job racing from store to store looking for cherries and I had pity on them. I left some behind for the next sorry sap.

I was ready to can. I had the cherries. I designed the labels. I bought boxes and little candy underpants for the finished confections. All systems were go.

To evaluate my process, I looked at the website of the dessert place where this seed of discontent had germinated and read the description of their cherries:

The house specialty! These bad boys have been bathing in Kirsch since June! They then take a dip in fondant and finish with bittersweet chocolate.

I read it again: fondant.

What the hell is fondant?

There was some mystery component called “fondant” which was the answer to my drunken cherry nightmare. Back to the internet I went, searching high and low for a definition of fondant and how I could get some, fast.

Each answer provided more questions. Fondant was the icing on those crazy Martha Stewart wedding cakes which look like they’ve been shellacked. But what was icing doing in my drunken cherries? It was a solid that turned into a liquid and made cordials gooey inside. Okay, great, gooey cherries, but how the hell do I get some?

After reading thirty websites and parsing out half-literate directions, I realized that fondant is confusing because fondant is all things to all bakers. It is the icing on the cake and the buttercream filling in Mrs. See’s candy. It is the sugary goo in the cordial cherry and the totality of the after-dinner mints in the restaurant. It is everything, and nothing at all.

It was too zen for me. But I had come too far, invested too much sanity, and spent too much money on cherries to let a little sugar come between me and my drunken confection.

Now we were treading in true candy-making waters, a dark, perilous path which, unlike cooking, has little margin for error and lots of scientific voodoo surrounding it. I was never very good at science. I read up all I could, and bought myself a candy thermometer and a scraper. I dug out a marble slab from a table which had gone into deep storage since The Bun arrived.

I put him down for a nap, and I began to boil sugar.

The only thing I really know about boiling anything is that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. But this sugar needed to boil to a “soft ball” stage, which was supposed to be between 235 and 240  degrees exactly. I had no idea how long that took.

It takes a long time.

The Bun was awake before it was done, that’s how long it took. And I needed to let the sugar cool for a while on my marble slab, which, after waiting an eternity for it to boil was too much for me to resist. As a cook, you’re always stirring and tasting and spicing and stirring again, but this candy thing was achtung about stirring the boiling sugar (“Verboten!”), and now I had to let it cool without meddling with it? It was intolerable. Plus, The Bun was rummaging through a cupboard he had emptied of its couscous the day before, and I needed to get this show on the road before the pilaf met a similar end.

I began to knead my fondant. It was very, very sticky. It did not come up easily from the marble slab. It did not ball up like Silly Putty or Play Dough. It stuck to the scraper. It stuck to itself. It was a complete mess. I powdered my hands with corn starch and began twisting it in my hands, hoping it would begin to harden just enough for me to throw it away, when it began to turn white, just like it was supposed to. It was crazy, it was amazing! I set it down and rescued the oyster crackers from the clutches of the bun. I felt moderately triumphant, and then went about trying to make dinner.

Lars came home to a marble slab covered in sugary tar, me covered in corn starch, and a hungry Bun. I explained the circuitous route by which I came to this point, and showed him my round white ball of sugar which I tapped proudly.

It thudded. It had a weight similar to the heft of cement shoes. It was as white as a cue ball, but markedly larger with a gravity that puts Jupiter to shame. My fondant wasn’t a light confection that was flexible enough to roll–it was hard enough that if I hurled it at someone’s head, it would give them a concussion, if not kill them outright.

Despite this setback (how many setbacks have I had now? Four? Five?), I proceeded along with my plan and canned the second batch of cherries. I’m considering getting more just so I can make sure I’ve got enough on hand to make a fabulously ridiculously enormous batch of chocolate-bloody-covered cherries.

At this point I’m committed. I’ve become a woman possessed.

Now it’s not about the Christmas cheer, or the joy of giving, or the good feeling one gets by sharing a handmade gift of delicious food. Now it’s the principle of the thing. Now it’s about revenge. Now it’s about me conquering a bunch of out-of-season cherries and making them cower beneath my fondant and chocolate glaze.

Happy Holidays.



Epitaph

I have seen my Drunken Cherries through to their conclusion, and there’s no step which hasn’t been met with chaos. As of this writing, the casualty list is: four jars of cherries, three batches of failed fondant, two bags of sugar, a quart plus a pint of brandy, several pounds of chocolate, many afternoons, and most of my dignity.

I never did succeed in making fondant. One batch was stone, one was tar, and after I realized my thermometer wasn’t recording proper temperatures, my last batch crystallized like rock candy. So I gave in and bought some. Of course, it was out of stock when I walked in, so I had to wait yet another day. This is typical of the Cherry Path, and in the end the cherries proved stronger than me: after finally seeing several cherries through to their chocolate-drenched conclusion, most of them had holes which leached goo like the blood from battlefield wounds. Some died on the table. The ones I patched up in triage were misshapen and monstrous looking, more Frankenstein than delightful dessert.

When I was weighing whether or not to package them up anyway, I noticed to my chagrin that they had developed a case of “bloom,” a separation of the chocolate solids, making them even less attractive (if that were possible) and serving as a ringing note of failure in my epic cherry-making disaster. Finally, when I checked on them this afternoon, I found that the remaining chocolate shells had imploded in a tide of cherry effluvia, apparently preferring to take their own lives rather than continue on in ignominy. They expired on December 17th, 2004 around 2:33 p.m. They are entombed forever in two little Tupperware sepulchers.

After I had become obsessed, I penned my version of Heart of Darkness:

My journey into the jungle of confection continues. The walls of candy are closing in on me, threatening to tip me into the abyss of madness. The world runs in rivers of blood-red syrup and stark white fondant, blending in a failure of bad science and too little time.

The natives are getting restless, and I can feel the thrum-thrum-thrumming of drunk cherries, lolling like corpses in their watery tomb of sugar and spirits, condemning me, accusing me. The cold marble slab upon which I sacrificed two balls of fondant lies awaiting me like my own bier.

Each step takes time, and I have none to spare. I fear that I may not survive this trip. I fear the jungle is stronger than I am.

The horror… the horror…

That just about sums it up.

Fires

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

The fire-eaters, fire-dancers, and fire-spitters decorate the street corners. Beneath each traffic light: hordes of vendors peddling scratch-off lottery tickets, caramel candies, paper flowers. Louisa and I watch from the taxicab windows as the heart of Mexico City, even at midnight, beats as if riddled with morning coffee. Pockets of deafening horn-driven music ignite then die as we push slowly through the crowd toward Hotel Rioja. The city seems to glow as if with silver foil, peeled back just enough to reveal this contained and somehow irreverent human vitality, left to thrive on its own beneath Mexico City’s infamous ceiling of pollution. When we are hidden from the stars, we’re safe to engage what obsesses us, and here, shooting from a side street into the ballooning Zócalo square, what obsesses us seems to be essentially good.

After confronting my mother’s mortality head-on in Chicago, Louisa and I are more receptive to things like caramels and paper flowers—the small beauties that allow us our small joys, which are, after all, the stitches that hold us together, keep our blood inside us. We’re receptive to things like the Christmas light sculptures and façades that decorate the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María cathedral, the Aztec Templo Mayor, the National Palace with it’s mansion-sized Mexican flag. The flag’s emblem, as dictated by Aztec legend, was a gift from the gods. The gods told the Aztecs to found their city on the land where they were to spot a chimerical eagle, clinging to a prickly pear tree, gorging itself on a snake. It was here, in this same square where a skinny mother and her toddler son now peddle oranges from a green blanket to the midnight citrus snackers, that the Aztecs fulfilled the vision. This is the square where Moctezuma II had his houses, and in these garish light decorations, we can sense the ancient Aztec belief that this was, indeed the center of the universe. I reach for Louisa’s hand, wondering, in the Aztec scheme of things, which animal we are; which one my mom is.

And steering us through it, as celestial as the night scene itself, is an old bald man pointing with cigar-stub fingers to each building, each lamppost, each greening sculpture and muttering explanations as mysterious as wormholes in lisping Spanish, spittle adorning his words like gold tinsel. I lean forward to hear him, a series of pathetic fireworks explode their white light as benign as camera flashes to our left, and can only make out the muffled, but reverently spoken word, “Zócalo.” His mouth squashes the word like a cucaracha and it sounds, in this tiny cab as if pressed through the static of a shortwave radio.

Louisa touches the window as if attempting to get closer to the action. Tiny women in impossibly blue kerchiefs carry obese bundles of rolled bathmats on their backs. Children swordfight with pink glowsticks. The old man circles the square twice for us, making sure we take it all in, which, of course, is hopeless. We’re weary and hungry, and sinking into that wonderful hot-tub of travel, snapped out of our comfort zones, and light-headed. It’s unwise to keep our hearts beneath the surface of the water for too long. We might just die dazed and elated.

We turn onto one of the many dendritic side streets that extend like cephalopod arms into the roaring night-ocean of Ciudad de México. Hernán Cortés once described these roads as having the width of jousting lances. Surely, just by driving it, we cave in the chest armor of some benevolent ghost. Soon, we are parked in front of the Hotel Rioja—an old whore of a place, skin peeling, watermarked, skeleton pressing from beneath, but bearing a defunct regality, operating from the tender misconception that lipstick masks all age. I want to hug this hotel, deserving of both our generosity and respect.

Around its hip-corner, I will soon buy my Leon Cervesa Negra for about thirty cents. But first: dinner. And before that: shaking hands with the cabbie who sandwiches my fingers in his palms, stands on his tiptoes to kiss my wife on her cheek. We roll our suitcases over marble and step into the scarred belly of the whore, where even our breath echoes, and another short old man in a white dress shirt steps from behind the front desk, beaming like some reincarnated eagle.