November 05, 2011
So, I’ve established that I’m really good at corpse pose. But I’m really bad at walking meditation.
This morning, for instance, Jessica and I took a walk through the village, single file. Jessica was showing me how she does her walking meditation so I could do my own. The idea is to move through space without becoming distracted or desirous. To focus on the horizon, living in each footstep. You step only for this one step, not to reach any goal.
White people all over the village are practicing their walking meditation. It’s sort of like Dawn of the Yogic Dead around here. Except that, if we were zombies, we’d be looking for human flesh to eat. But since we’re not, we’re just looking to—um. Shit, I guess we’re just looking to meditate while we walk? I don’t know, I’m new here. And like I said, I’m really bad at this.
At first, walking through the rice paddies, I thought: no problem. I’ll just keep my eyes focused ahead, and let this green sea flow along in my peripheral vision.
But soon we headed back into the village, and I began to wonder how anybody would ever want to transcend such a place. The day was clear and bright. Hot, but not hellishly so. Creamy-white frangipani blossoms literally filled the air; they drifted on soft breezes and landed in the path in front of us as if they’d been strewn there by invisible flower girls. The air was full of their sweet perfume. I instantly started to think about how I wanted my entire apartment to smell like that. And I wondered if it came in oil form, and if so, if I could buy some to take home for all my girlfriends.
Or soaps! People love soaps!
A few paces ahead, Jessica lifted and dropped her shoulders and let out a long melodious sigh. I refocused my gaze and went back to living in my footsteps. That is, until we passed Balinese women dressed in sarongs of yellow and white, their lacy tops stretched over camisoles or bras and tied at the waist with thick silk sashes. On their heads they balanced large square offering boxes made from palm fronds, their lids stacked high with fruit and flowers. The scent of cooked chicken wafted from the boxes, and it occurred to me that all I really wanted in life was some chicken. Oh, chicken! Oh, delicious meat!
We slowed at the bottom of a hill and looked down into a deep ravine. Its dimples and paths were clogged with garbage, some of it on fire. The frangipani and chicken were smothered by the pungent reek of burning garbage and decomposing leaves. I could hear a river down there somewhere, but I couldn’t make it out through all the trash. The path inclined in front of us, deep grooves on either side where mopeds churn up the dirt countless times a day.
Everywhere I looked, life was being lived differently than at home. I couldn’t help but feel excited by so much possibility. I drank it in, I wanted to become one with it, I wanted to own every second of it, every piece of it.
The wet sheen of the banana leaves, the sweetish smell of jungle rot, the reek of animal dung, the blossoms on the road, the women who passed me, smelling of jasmine oil and incense and a god’s supper.
Who in her right mind would want to transcend any of this?
Excerpted from Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment Copyright @ 2011 by Suzanne Morrison. Reprinted by Permission of Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
You men eat your dinner
eat your pork and beans
I eat more chicken any man ever seen
So goes the blues song, “Back Door Man,” written in 1961 by Willie Dixon for Howlin’ Wolf, and later immortalized by Jim Morrison and The Doors.
A “Back Door Man” is said to be a man who has an affair with a married woman while her husband’s away. In the song, the chicken line serves as a double entendre. Chicken-eating was rare in 1961. Per capita, consumption of pork doubled chicken consumption; not until 1985 did chicken consumption surpass pork consumption in the United States.
“I eat more chicken any man ever seen,” then, likely referred to the singer’s boast that married women cooked chicken for him and saved the less desirable pork and beans for their husbands.
I am not a “back door man”-at least not in any blues sense of the phrase. However, taken literally, that chicken line is my personal anthem: I really do eat more chicken any man ever seen.
In 2007, the typical American consumed about 87 pounds of chicken. My yearly chicken consumption equals about 525 pounds-a ½ chicken almost every single night.
Most nights, I eat a ½ roast chicken. I adore The French recipe, poulet en cocotte. I believe chicken should be brined. In Puerto Rico last winter, I ate a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket for seven consecutive evenings. I prefer dark meat. I tolerate people who prefer white meat, though I find this “preference” laughable. Chicken legs are finger-lickin’, robust, Whitmanesque. Dark meat, replete with B-vitamins, is more nutritious than white meat, too. I believe that chicken should be shared. Sundays, I share a whole roast chicken with my wife. Weekends, I grill chicken legs for friends and family.
This was not always the case. Growing up, I was not necessarily a prolific chicken-eater. Then, at twenty, I became a vehement vegetarian. Firm in my belief that I was nourishing my body (and, obviously, supporting the welfare of the earth and its creatures), I ate whole grains, beans, tempeh, raw fruits and vegetables-but no chicken. Skinny to begin (6″ 150 pounds), I slimmed down to beanpole dimensions (140 pounds). I acquired what Gabriel García Márquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, calls “the forlorn look that one sees in vegetarians.”
Some thought I was rigid. A Greek chorus of friends, family, everyone, really, except my supportive and loving vegetarian wife, said the same thing: Maybe you should eat some meat.
Perhaps they saw what I did not: vegetarianism was killing me. Throughout my early twenties, I suffered a variety of health problems. In my mid-twenties, my health issues evolved. At 26, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. One year later, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I checked into the hospital at 118 pounds, and was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes.
Remembering this time, I think of these lines from Tony Hoagland’s poem “Medicine”:
Daydreaming comes easy to the ill:
slowed down to the speed of waiting rooms,
you learn to hang suspended in the wallpaper,
to drift among the magazines and plants,
feeling a strange love
for the time that might be killing you.
I do not think I was unique in my stubborn will to remain vegetarian. We hang onto to diets, to ways of eating, even when they no longer make sense, don’t we? Often, we become attached to habits that might be killing us. Time, food, cigarettes–why do we maintain this “strange love”?
It wasn’t until my honeymoon in Barcelona, when I was hit by a car, and later diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, that I began to reconsider my vehemence.
Post-diagnosis, I spent 3 days in the ER, another 3 days in the hospital. When I was released from the hospital, equipped with a regime of insulin and needles, I felt my life had been cut in two. I knew who I used to be, but I had no idea who I might become.
That night in Barcelona, I fell asleep next to my new wife for the first time in seven days. Married only a month, we had spent a week apart–me in my hospital bed; her, returning to the flat alone after visiting hours had ended. Catalans are known for their late meals. I awoke around two in the morning, to a crisply delicious, salty smell. I stepped to the window and was hit by a waft of potato chips. I stuck my head out the window into the clear air. Smelling again, I realized I was mistaken. I hadn’t been smelling potato chips. No, a lunatic Catalan family was grilling at two o’clock in the morning. The scent struck me-the scent of grilled chicken, a veritable blizzard of aromatic compounds. Something about that scent struck my soul-it came to me deliciously intoning its simple message: You can change. You will survive. Eat chicken.
Since that time, seven years ago, I have eaten approximately ½ chicken almost every single night of my life.
Diet is the most idiosyncratic trait a person owns. Married people often share religious and political beliefs-but rarely the same diet. I admit, my chicken-eating habit might seem obsessive-akin in many ways to my prior vegetarianism. There is a difference, though: as a vegetarian, in pursuit of a “pure” body, I had viewed certain ways of eating as wrong or evil. Even as I refined my diet to an impossible degree, my health suffered. Today my diet is even more refined-and yet, I thrive.
I’ve abandoned the absurd belief that any way of eating is inherently right or wrong. I do not trust dietary dictums. In terms of food, my experience has taught me that the spirit with which you approach food is as important as the food itself.
How do you eat? In penance? With joy?
Food choices are vitally important to a type-1 diabetic. I had to re-learn my relationship with food in order to live healthfully. Every time I put food into my mouth, I must calculate the effect it will have upon my body, and I must make adjustments to my insulin regime accordingly. I cannot just eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I am bound by diabetes to live my life within proscribed boundaries.
Within these boundaries, though, I’ve discovered joy: perhaps it is a form of compulsion, but I enjoy eating the exact same thing every night. I know exactly how my body will react to chicken. I love the bluesy feeling of mirth, the wild joy of sucking on a chicken bone. I do not mean to be flippant. When I eat chicken I try to remember that I’m engaging in a significant moment–a moment that must be cherished, for it has been afforded to me through a great sacrifice of resources: land, energy, life. I cannot deny, though: to me, chicken is momentous. Chicken symbolizes my return to life.
Grilled Chicken with Pantry Spice Rub
Over-cooked chicken, like over-cooked steak, is an offensive abomination. A good way to precisely gauge the internal temperature of chicken is to use an instant-read thermometer. Optimal temperature varies between white and dark meat, typically the best chicken measures 160-165 degrees at the breast, and 165-170 degrees at the leg.
4 naturally raised whole chicken legs
6 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chile powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Dissolve the salt and brown sugar in a gallon-size plastic bag. Add the chicken, press out the air, seal, and refrigerate for 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine the olive oil, garlic cloves, and spices.
Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse, dry with paper towels. Rub the pantry spice rub all over the chicken parts.
Light your grill.
If using a charcoal grill, make a two-level fire by stacking most of the coals on one side of the grill. Place the rack on the grill, cover, and allow the grill and rack to heat up for 5 or so minutes. Cook the chicken over the hot coals until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.
If using a gas grill, turn all the burners to high and heat the grill until very hot, about 10 minutes. Leave one burner on high and turn the other burners to low. Cook the chicken over the hotter part of the grill, uncovered, until browned and crispy, 3-4 minutes per side. Move the chicken to the cooler part of the grill, continue to cook, skin-side up, and covered for 10 minutes. Turn, and continue for 5-7 minutes, until done.
If you discount the dodgy crosswind twin-prop landings, the post-lunch deep-sea swims, the near-misses out on the autoroute, the closest I ever came to dying was in deep midwinter at Sugarloaf Mountain in Kingfield, Maine. Every winter my family traveled there for a week-long ski vacation, and in my eleventh year we rented the holy grail of all condos: the slopeside villa.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we noticed one of our six hens was shrinking. Due to the “pecking order,” which is a brutal Darwinian reality, Miracle, our barred rock hen, had nearly been pecked to death.
Readers of this column will recall that, two months earlier, we rescued a cat at death’s door. And because of the pecking order among our four cats, I needed to turn the laundry room into his lair. Now I needed to provide similar warmth and protection for a bullied bird.
The guy at the Agway feed store said his “grandma just lets ’em peck the weak ones to death — that’s just the way it is.” Not so for a city girl turned country bumpkin. In my rule book, every animal in my care deserves a fightin’ chance.
We have no barn, no outbuildings — just a subletted laundry room and a cold, unfinished crawl-space basement with mice. Only one solution remained in our ever-shrinking house. We bought a large dog crate, filled it with pine shavings and bowls and placed it in our 4-by-6-foot downstairs powder room.
In the early hours and days, we covered Miracle’s wounds with antibiotic ointments left over from the cat rescue. We were on a vigil the first 48 hours. We gave her extra mealworms and tomatoes. And a lot of encouragement.
Soon, a new normal — a relative word in our household — set in. The only bathroom we could use was upstairs. Having “to go” became competitive. Pine shavings were sticking to our shoes and slippers and migrating to every room. I closed the vent in the downstairs bathroom because the blowing hot air was turning into a mélange of pine shavings and chicken poop.
Three weeks later, Miracle was recovering slowly.
But it was the holiday season. We had a handful of invitations for dinners and get-togethers out to friends and family. (Luckily, though, we were not hosting Thanksgiving).
It’s hard enough to explain to guests why we have five cats — but a chicken living in the house? Way too complicated. So, we put in place Plan B. If anyone asks, “We’re having plumbing issues in the downstairs bathroom. Use the one upstairs.”
For the first dinner party, our guests congregated in the dining room, which is on the opposite side of the house from the bathroom. Amazingly, no one needed to go. A week later, we had friends who spent time with us exchanging holiday presents in the living room, which is next to the bathroom. My husband, Ricky, played deejay that night, careful to keep the music going to camouflage Miracle’s gentle clucking.
During the chicken’s convalescence, the bathroom walls were doused with tomato juice. The floor resembled a dusty saloon. Pine shavings nestled in the vent and along the moldings. Cobwebs grew. After six weeks, the bathroom resembled a small barn.
Finally, Miracle earned her name and recovered fully. But farmer Jim, who sold us Miracle, warned us our brood was not likely to welcome her back. His best advice was put her back in the coop at night while the others are asleep; sometimes you get lucky because the hens don’t realize she was ever gone.
We put her in the coop that night, but the next morning, when we let the birds into the run, the brutality started immediately. It didn’t take but a few hours before they pecked bare a section of our newly healed bird. This was Dec. 24, two days before the post-Christmas blizzard was scheduled to hit.
Much as we love her, we knew Miracle needed to stop living in a dog crate in our bathroom. We devised a quick plan. My husband purchased a medium-size doghouse, which we put in the middle of our dormant vegetable garden at the other end of our property. Then he built reinforcements and covered the 8-by-10-foot enclosure with deer netting. To protect Miracle from the coming storm, we added blankets and tarps.
Miracle looks like a queen in her new digs — a solo occupant who’s enjoying the peace. I don’t know what we’ll do this spring when it’s time to plant vegetables and fruits in the garden. I guess we’ll do what we always do: improvise.
Get the entire story of Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” now available on Amazon.com. E-mail: [email protected]
Among the long list of indignities one must suffer with the increase of age—hair loss, mystery aches, the inherent uncoolness of having your twenties in your rearview mirror—is the particularly troubling discovery that you just aren’t what you once were. You just aren’t—and nothing embodies this loss quite so explicitly as one’s inability to recover from that which would have been a mere blip on the day’s radar twenty years ago. The hangover that troubled your morning back in college now sends you reeling back to bed for an entire afternoon; the sports injury that caused you to limp off the field for a rest now causes you to limp into the Emergency Room for a quick CAT scan. You aren’t what you once were.
Everyone said owning chickens is great but you’ve got to watch out for predators. I took this to heart because we share our wooded mountaintop home with hawks, raccoons, foxes and feral cats.
I bought a custom-made coop from a guy who builds them in Michigan. The little green, wooden house has screened windows, a door with a hasp, and a hatch that lifts open to the nesting box where you collect eggs. The run, which is attached to the house, is made up of two wood-framed galvanized wire triangles that form an airtight enclosure.
Reading up on chicken predation, I learned that a raccoon can use its tiny hands to open a hasp. For peace of mind, we installed a simple gym lock on the door of the run. It looked a little odd, but, hey, I’m originally a city girl who’s accustomed to living with three bolt-locks on a door.
We brought six hens home on a beautiful Saturday in June. Like a new mother who constantly checks to make sure her baby is breathing, I took to counting six pecking hens every time I came in and out of the house. Two Rhode Island reds. Two black sexlinks. Two barred rocks.
On day five, I returned home from an errand early in the afternoon. I walked past the coop. One, two, three, four, five, six — all there.
Three hours later, I went outside and looked into the run. One, two, three, four, five. I looked inside the coop and then in the nesting box for the sixth bird. But there were only five. It appeared that one had literally flown the coop.
But this seemed impossible. A hen would need to be a super-avian superhero to lift the door of the run. There’s no other exit.
Running around like a chicken with its head . . . no wait . . . like a mother who has lost her kid at the mall, I tried to think who would steal a chicken. A prankster? An angry neighbor? A poultry thief? And in broad daylight?
So I did what any concerned mom would do: I called the police.
“I’m reporting a stolen chicken,” I said. They had a good laugh. An officer arrived 30 minutes later.
I could swear the cop was trying to suppress laughter when he asked, “Are you sure you’re missing a chicken?” Then, gesturing with his flashlight, he asked me to open the egg-box hatch so he could look up in the rafters of the coop. Five birds.
“Are you sure one of the birds didn’t escape on its own, ma’am?” he asked. “Quite sure,” I said.
Here’s the thing about reporting a missing chicken. A police officer doesn’t understand that losing a chicken feels the same as losing a cat or dog. A police officer wants to know how much you paid for the chicken, so he can qualify the crime as petty larceny.
Even though the hen only cost $20, which is expensive for a chicken, the cost was immaterial. I was devastated; I had horrible visions of what might have become of her.
The officer filed a report but told me there was nothing more he could do. “It’s not like I’m going to put a detective on the case,” he said.
The next day, I called ADT, the home security company, to evaluate security options on my property. My husband added a couple of locks, turning the coop into Fort Knox. Every time I went outside to throw the hens some feed, I felt terrible. “I’m sorry,” I told them. “I’ll do a better job protecting you from now on.”
At 4:45 p.m., the phone rang.
“Ma’am, this is officer so-and-so from the police department,” he said. “Someone down the road has reported a chicken on the loose.”
I got the address and called my husband, who’d just backed out the driveway. He whipped his car around and I jumped in.
Four doors down, in front of a multi-unit apartment building, stood a bemused woman looking down at my Rhode Island red on the grass. My husband grabbed the bird by the feet and cradled her. While stroking her feathers, I broke into sobs of joy. The woman who’d found my chicken hugged me.
We took the hen back to the coop. I’ll never know how that bird got out, but I suspect there was human intervention. It took a kind neighbor and some decent police work to get it back.
Now if I’d only gotten the woman’s name and address. I sure would like to bring her a basket of eggs.
E-mail: [email protected]