Dear vermiform appendix,

It pains me to write this. But at least now I can write. For a while, there was too much pain to do anything besides curl up in a ball and drool like a sad walrus on an unloved beach. Now, with some space between us, I can finally share my side of the story, and with an obvious debt to Alanis Morissette, there are some things, dear appendix, that you oughta know.

You remember the night I made a meal entirely with ingredients from Trader Joe’s? What a delicious meal that was. Being that at the time I was relying on Trader Joe’s for about 70% of my caloric intake, it was also a somewhat ordinary meal, and it was a safe one; no meat, and no dairy. You probably remember that, although I’m not even a vegetarian, I sometimes have a unexplainable hankering for vegan food. You can thank my vegan ex-girlfriends and my friend Goldie.

So when I began vomiting a few hours later, followed by fever, chills, body aches, stomach cramps, dry heaves, and then a persistent dull pain in my lower right abdomen, I first felt angry at that suddenly cruel and treacherous monster named Trader Joe’s. This was the worst food poisoning I had since my experience with Mystery Lou down in Argentina, but on many levels it was more devastating. A breach of trust with Trader Joe’s would be, along with the waning of print media and the ceaseless conflicts overseas, the Sadness Of Our Generation.

It was time to see the best doctor in the world, Dr. Garcia, who told me the truth: it was you, vermiform appendix. How dare you make me throw that kind, caring, dependable Trader Joe’s under the bus like that, when all you had to offer me was your own vestigial confusion?

Now look, I understand that you’ve had it rough. A bit of an identity crisis and all that. Many of my other organs that knew you, that saw you around, they liked you – but they also knew that you were ultimately up to no good. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just listen to them sooner. I’ve since met people who’ve had their appendixes removed preemptively, say, before traveling overseas for a year, just to get the damn thing done with and get some closure.

You lived right under my nose for so long before I really got to know you, but once I really did—and it breaks my heart to say this—you quickly became impossible to live with. You were like that neighbor that I’d never met for years, who, right after we finally met, decided he could start blasting reggaeton at 6:30 in the morning. Only in your case, there was no landlord to call, and the reggaeton was potentially fatal.

Dr. Garcia immediately sent me to a CT scan and a few hours later it was confirmed: The pain in my life was from you, and you had to leave. Still, I fought this conclusion; I didn’t want to let you go. I asked right away if there wasn’t something I could do to make things go back to the way there were, maybe couples counseling, maybe a nice weekend getaway with just the two of us—someplace that’s not in the news, like Togo or the Pitcairn Islands—but no. That night I was to go to the hospital.

It was a bad night for sympathy. A couple friends of mine had dying or injured pets, one friend was having a final going-away party before a permanent move to New York, and it was raining in Los Angeles, which meant that no one wanted to drive, especially the people in their cars. However, my friends Jake and Dan came to the rescue and arranged for my safe transport to and from that place where I would finally kiss you goodbye.

Some good people helped me through our separation. I had a pretty wild anesthesiologist named Mikey who is apparently known for the “awesome music” (the nurse’s words) he plays during operations. Matthew, my laparoscopic surgeon, I found later, does not agree with said nurse’s assessment. Apparently the battle during my operation, between Mikey and Matthew, was whether to listen to Gloria Gaynor or Coldplay. You decide which, if either, is awesome.

If they let me choose, I would have requested reggaeton, specifically “Chacarron Macarron” by El Mudo, as loud as possible, but it didn’t matter, because whatever they did play, I didn’t hear at all. When I came to, I was in a dark room called RECOVERY with two people I had never seen before and would never knowingly see again. They seemed bored, so I knew that everything was swell.

Staying overnight in a hospital is like trying to sleep on a cross-country bus. I was awoken constantly all night by strangers, and for often logical but also disorienting reasons. I passed the time between intrusions by watching, (in order of quality, coincidentally) Rear Window (awesome), The Karate Kid (amusing), and Dinner For Schmucks (corrosively dumb). During my fitful sleep, I was somehow able to avoid having a nightmare about being pushed out of my window by Raymond Burr, though if that would’ve prevented me from watching Dinner With Schmucks, I’d have understood.

The Trader Joe’s dinner was on a Wednesday night, and after vomiting it up, I didn’t eat solid food again until Saturday afternoon, when a kind nurse brought me Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and a big brown bowl of the thickest, most savory soup I’d ever tasted. I decided to finish off the soup first, and then noticed they didn’t give me any gravy for the potatoes. I then realized what I’d just eaten an entire bowl of.

If you’re ever in a hospital again, try it some time. They’ll totally give you a free pass for that kind of thing.

After about seventeen hours, I was on my feet and out of the hospital, six pounds lighter than I’d been on Wednesday, and who knows how much of that was you, dear vermiform appendix. It was tough at first to get my old strength back, and to find myself again, but with the help of a number of friends, I made it through. The wounds are still healing, and for now I need my space, but I honestly wish you well.

Everyone asks if I saw you one last time, and sometimes I think it’s a shame I didn’t. I heard they sent you up to pathology, where you were a bit of a rock star. I know I would’ve been proud.

XOXO,

J. Ryan


Everyone knows that Tuesday is the day the new music comes out, and for my parents, June 4th, 1984 was the last great Tuesday of them all.

They had never been so ecstatic about a music purchase before, at least not since “The Big Chill” soundtrack was released, and that was a dogpile of re-packaged boomer nostalgia – this time, it was new music. After a giddy round-trip in the Dodge Omni to the Target in Cottage Grove, the plastic wrap was sheared from the LP sleeve, the album reverentially placed on the old Akai turntable, and the needle dropped on “Born In The U.S.A.,” the first track from the Bruce Springsteen album of the same name.

The Boss would command my family’s stereo for most of the summer, and his words and sounds dominate our mental inventories of that entire year, but it would be the last time, or at least the last time I could remember, that my parents bought a record the day it came out.

Years later, my dad was piqued by the Moody Blues’ resurgence, but was apparently just content to wait for “Your Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” on the radio. My mom got into Ray Lynch (“Deep Breakfast” was being passed around a subset of literate Midwestern women like a carafe of white Zinfandel), and would still see Barry Manilow in concert, but she wasn’t into his new stuff. Not even Springsteen continued to hold court. For people as fanatical about “Born In The U.S.A.” as my parents were, there was no anticipated Tuesday afternoon scramble up to Target to procure “Tunnel of Love” in 1987; in fact, they never even bought it at all. At a certain point in their thirties, the music they already had was good enough.

While certain music snobs could make the argument that there’s a short distance between being into Barry Manilow and The Moody Blues and no longer being into any kind of music at all, my parents’ surrender is not that simple, unfortunately, and far more problematic. While they didn’t make the full transition into “music for people who hate music” (e.g. Jimmy Buffett) something even more disturbing happened: they simply abandoned the joy of buying a new album. As a couple, they were never again as happy and excited about new music as they were about “Born In The U.S.A.,” and they seemed okay with this.

There was no lone gunman here. Their friends were getting older and seemed to be going to concerts less, they had no consistent source of discovering new music other than mainstream FM radio, and, what’s more, new music was increasingly inscrutable (my parents didn’t care for new wave, disliked country, punk and grunge, hated rap, heavy metal, and techno, and to this day are blissfully unaware of skronk, trip-hop, dubstep, reggaeton, third-wave ska, musique concrete, and grime).

At the time they bought “Born In The U.S.A.,” my parents were both thirty-four; a year younger than I am now. They had a nine-year-old and a five-year-old, and owned a three-bed, one-bath rambler with an unfinished basement. They were in a bowling league. My mom was about to go back to college. They had wild drunken nights with other people in their thirties. They weren’t so different from many of my friends today.

Perhaps there was more music out there that they would’ve loved, but how much work would it have been, for two working parents, to find it? I certainly don’t recall any 34-year olds in my hometown who were buying R.E.M.’s “Reckoning” or Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains” in 1984 (two albums my parents later liked, when I got them into them) let alone stuff my parents would’ve hated like Big Black’s “Racer-X” or the Butthole Surfers’ “Psychic … Powerless … Another Man’s Sac.”

Everybody knows a person, or maybe several, who are in the know, and act as a bulwark against the intimidating flow of new music. Now, imagine not knowing any of them, and all you have FM radio stations, your memories from high school or college, and friends who have the same radio stations and pretty much the same memories.

It could be tough to sustain an abiding interest in new music year in and year out, particularly as it sounds less and less like the music you bought when you first started buying music. Maybe once, you stayed up all night reading the zines, playing the singles, and standing in line on Mondays waiting for the midnight in-store release parties, where the idea of winning a promotional flat as a raffle prize would have you smiling for hours. But that only matters if you still have the time to care.

This seems to be the factor among the people my age who have both kids and a waning awareness of new music. Despite a lifelong interest in music—and two brothers who are club DJs—one good friend of mine in California is just too damn busy with his job, his five-year-old, his home refurbishing projects, and other pursuits to keep pace with what’s new.

Though kids and jobs are prime culprits, they’re also a facile target; I know a married couple in West Virginia with two children and full-time jobs who have long been as up on new music as anybody. The main difference, of course, is that they prioritize it and truly enjoy the work. At a certain point (for most people, when they’re out of college) finding great new music does become work, and if you want to find your new favorite band before it costs over $15 to see them, it can really while away the hours.

Why should it be so hard to stay current? In this era of Grooveshark and live streaming college radio and untamed file sharing, it shouldn’t be such a struggle to love new music, neither the evolutions of the bands from our teenage years nor the newest hot 20-year-olds from Baltimore. To love something is to accept its changes, even revel in them, after all, and perhaps to fall out of love with new music means a failure on our part to change or accept change.

I suppose to enforce stasis is to enshrine the cultural past. And in ex-urb Minnesota, I grew up around a lot of this enforced stasis. I met a lot of no-nonsense Midwesterners who, by the time they were in their mid-thirties, decided that new music (among other things) just wasn’t for them. But where do we go from there? Are we doomed to mellow out and get over it? Flash forward fifteen years to a lawn chair, a beer gut, and the same goddamn favorite song?

Conversely, how much of the no-nonsense Midwesterners’ emotional reaction is actually an accurate reflection of the imperatives of the marketplace? Most new music, particularly by new bands, is aimed at teenagers, and Top 40 music has been blatant kid stuff since the dawn of time, which means that of course we’re supposed to grow out of most of it, and grow up with the rest of it, carrying our Madonna to battle against the next generation’s Lady Gaga. It sometimes takes a serious emotional experience or upheaval to dictate otherwise.

To note an extreme example of this, back in 2001, my mom was diagnosed with Stage IV omental cancer. Dealing with a fatal illness, she got back into new music in a huge way, listening to stuff by Gillian Welch, Sarah McLachlan, Lucinda Williams, Beck (she really liked “Mutations” and “Sea Change”), Kimmie Rhodes, and the new output from Bob Dylan. It was a point of connection that my brother, my cousins, and I could now share with her, and it was wildly meaningful and awesome.

I don’t mean to say that if you experience a cancer diagnosis, you’re going to be suddenly motivated to buy the latest from LCD Soundsystem, but there’s a relationship of some kind between times of great personal change and our emotional dilation to music.  Music, I suppose, even at its most retrained, is an expression of something that someone just couldn’t keep quiet, and in times of massive personal upheaval and joy, this form of expression has a sincere and subjective impact. To make a mix for a road trip or to have a song as a couple is to say, this means something; this is a conscious emotional tether to a dynamic time.

The question is, what’s the soundtrack for what comes next, when the dust and the young parents settle? Do we even want a soundtrack for days where nothing really happens? Are there fewer bands at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy? Or do they just play Radiohead’s “No Surprises” on repeat?

For every person who tells me that the 1960s were the apogee of popular music, or that everything in the 21st century sounds the same, or that the Telecom Act of 1996 presaged a nosedive in the quality of pop culture, I’ve started to wonder where they’re at in their life, and if maybe they don’t need to get their ass to a New Releases display in one of the last few record stores in the world before they die on their feet. Lester Bangs, in his 1980 essay “Otis Rush Mugged by an Iceberg,” ended a review of the one recent album that impressed him by writing, “It’s better than killing yourself.” Agreed, and finding that record, even if it’s just one, is worth the effort. Even if we’re just dancing in the dark.

When I was a little kid, I saw no good reason to go outside.

There are often plenty of reasons to stay indoors in Minnesota, but even during those perfect summer days that once made hordes of naïve and hardy Scandinavians consider the Upper Midwest an ideal place for permanent settlement, I remained in my room. My own mom, the granddaughter of a Swede and a Norwegian, would lean her stout body into my doorway and ask out of amazement, “Why don’t you want to go outside? It’s PERFECT out!”

It wasn’t just that the suffering and hard work of my forebears enabled a world of air-conditioned comfort I was unwilling to leave. Nor was it a growing identification with the Midwestern idea that the ability to withstand misery is ennobling – an ethos that explains how millions of people tolerate entities as consistently heartbreaking and stupid as the Chicago Cubs or a climate that can fluctuate between tornadoes and blizzards in under a month. No, I would have gladly sought fellowship in yet another shared misery, had anyone shared mine.

To me, a scrawny, twerpy little dweeb, outside was an unlucky assemblage of dull woe; a salad bar of reckless and pointless adversaries.

Outside, big kids drove around on bikes with mag wheels, swinging plastic baseball bats at smaller children. Scott Burt, the kid who got kicked out of fourth grade for pulling a knife on the teacher, roamed around looking for things to steal. There was a batshit-crazy fifth-grade girl who still carried the liner notes to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” everywhere she went and always tried to force boys and girls to kiss each other.

Outside there was also as much pathos as there were things to fear. There was a kid named Keith Stash, who was allowed to play in the middle of the street, and he’d be out there well past 9:00 PM, almost getting hit by passing cars as the sun and his parents gave up on him. The sight of his strange, un-abetted freedom was not enticing; it was sad.

There were also that pair of sisters who at a young age were obsessed with male genitalia. All of the male dolls they owned were stripped nude. Every time I saw them they would try to force me to take my pants and underwear off. They had no brothers and their dad wasn’t around, but because I studiously avoided them I can’t glean many insights into the realm of their preoccupation. They were outside too.

Outside is where one neighbor found a stash of male porn (completely unrelated to the aforementioned sisters, as it turned out) and where another neighbor found a stash of beer. Outside is where hit-and-run drivers killed a beautiful hunting dog named Malley and a friendly collie named Winston.

Outside was OK if it was the swingset in the fenced-in backyard or the tight front yard, shielded from the street by rose bushes, a cluster of thorns away from the unregulated freak kingdom that was my neighborhood, as I perceived it.

Of course, compared to a lot of places, where I grew up was downright idyllic. My neighborhood obviously wasn’t tough, it was just ugly sometimes, and like many ugly places, we were expected to respond to unwelcome compromises of social decency with brute force. The older kids, and many adults, expected boys to be eye-for-an-eye. Kid on a bike hit you with a bat? Stick a broom handle in his spokes! Scott Burt stole one of your Matchbox trucks? Kick his ass!

And people did kick Scott Burt’s ass regularly, with no complaint from his parents, who apparently knew the score. Ass-kicking, however, wasn’t my cup of meat either, so I didn’t fit in with the enforcers any more than the bullies. As someone who did not prefer to hit, to get hit, or hit back, I was treated like a vegan at a Sturgis pig roast.

So, I was much happier inside, filling a yellow spiral notebook with fanciful election results from the U.S. Presidential elections between 1789 and 1864. I titled this notebook “Papers From The Executive Branch.”

When I wasn’t doing that, I was probably playing with my Star Wars guys, pretending they were going to restaurants. “Hello,” I’d have Greedo the maitre d’ say to Lando the customer, “You can’t be seated until your entire party has arrived.”

“You need to get out of the house,” my mom said.

She and my dad spoke in the kitchen. They heard and understood my apprehensions about Scott Burt and all of the pervy dog-murdering Michael Jackson fans in the street at 9 pm, but were alarmed at my insular nature and lack of physical activity. For two parents in the ex-urb Middle West, they arrived at the most logical conclusion. They signed me up for soccer.

To that point, my awareness of my hometown’s Youth Athletic Association was that it sent older, more athletic kids to our door a few times year to sell us arcane local concoctions like Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls. To me, the idea of participating in a door-to-door fundraiser was as mortifying as soccer. There was nothing about this entire experience that would be “fun.” My parents, however, were unyielding. I was going outside.

Every team in the Youth Athletic Association had a color and this year, my particular group of third-grade boys were given the black shirts. This was enough to make us “the cool team,” and for no fault of my own, I was envied as a soccer player before I even attended a practice.

That was the last time in my life anyone looked at me on a pitch, field, diamond, course, rink, or sandlot and determined I was enviable. The coach assigned me to play defense, and about thirty seconds into our first “scrimmage” (where the team practiced against itself in a stripped-down mock game) any lingering envies were permanently disabused.

Soccer fields were kind of peaceful. I liked playing defense because I could just stand there and let my mind wander, and if the ball came near me, I would just kick it to someone else or get out of the way. In the meantime, I just stared off into space and thought about things I’d rather be doing.

My mom asked me how I liked soccer, and I said I thought it was okay, except for when the ball came near me. The smell of grass and the fresh air were a tonic for the imagination but the whistles and shouting broke my concentration sometimes.

Next year I was on a much worse team, less desirable for our maroon shirts and general lack of athletic competence. As such, more of was expected of me; I was promoted to wingman, an offensive position, despite showing a marked aversion to ball-handling, passing, scoring, drive or focus during my soccer career.

There were some boys on the team who seemed to be trying much harder than me, and were doing as least as bad. The scrimmages we had did not prepare us for games. We would get walloped by scores of 7-0 and 8-1. “I’m telling my team to play their best,” I remember my coach saying. “The problem is, most of them are.”

I actually made some shots on net, but no goals. For someone who had never crossed midfield in his life, this was awesome and terrifying and surreal, like someone from the Cook Islands seeing his first ice rink one year and playing in the NHL the next. It made me a better player, I suppose, being forced to actually play all the time.

I even got a mild concussion once while attempting a header, which for me was sort of a red badge of chutzpah. I remember being knocked on my ass, staring at shapes that looked like misty neon exploding grapefruit, and the coach, who was typically of the “rub some dirt on it and get back out there” school of sports medicine, let me sit out for the rest of the game.

I found that having a sports injury gained me some measure of respect. I was also told that I’d somehow expended some degree of effort and skill on the play that sidelined me. I was amazed.

Maybe this is where the story is supposed to get treacly, and where I’m supposed to tap into a hidden reservoir of inner competence and lead my scrappy underdog team to the all-city finals. This did not happen. I did realize that enthusiasm is a decent substitute for a total lack of natural talent, and that my positive attributes (speed, quickness) in combination with the negatives (dreamy detachment, total lack of coordination) could at least be a pain in the ass to the opposing team. I could be a spoiler; I could get in the way.

By ninth grade, I was done with the charade. I had fulfilled my parents’ objectives—I had gone outside for a change—and even though I didn’t score one goal in five years of soccer, I had exceeded my own expectations. I gave up sanctioned athletic competition for what I assumed was the rest of my life. A decade later in Italy, I would be proved wrong, with a clean slate and slightly different results.

For that time, however, perhaps I had convinced the souls of my immigrant great-grandparents that they weren’t entirely wrong in trying to make Minnesota a better place for their children, and that their hard work wouldn’t be wasted in an air-conditioned bedroom. Indeed, on one of those few Midwestern days that are actually enjoyable, a nerdy little descendant of theirs who’d never have survived their Oregon Trail-style privations can go outside, past the thieves and perverts and thugs on mag wheels, get awoken from another daydream by a salvo of authorized aggression, and maybe even get a concussion amidst flowering volleys of polite encouragement.

With my face in the dirt, whistles screaming, a breeze washing through the torn grass of someone else’s perfect day, and my head filling with buttery stars, outside, at last, would be OK.

I grew up in Minnesota during the last great wave of earnest and unhealthy casseroles, when 25-year-old mothers traded recipe cards at Welcome Wagon, and “salads” often contained no vegetables.

While not every household in my hometown defined “variety” by how many different dairy products could be worked into one hot dish, or had the audacity to name an admixture of marshmallows, dried coconut, and canned fruit cocktail a word meaning “food of the gods,” mine was, by these standards, the norm. My parents were college-educated, still bought music the day it came out, and even lived for years in Japan, but when it came to mealtime, they picked up where their own parents had left off.

I’m pretty sure that the spiciest thing my mom ever added to a dish was salted butter. When she served chips and salsa, the salsa was the absolute mildest she could find; a glass of milk would score higher on the Scoville scale. A common and acceptable meal was a boiled chicken breast served with plain white rice and green peas.

When my dad cooked, things only got weirder. He only made one of two things, “slumgullion” or “whiplash.” “Slumgullion” involved dumping a variety of the previous day’s leftovers—say, chicken breast, white rice, and peas—into a pot, and stirring in a can of chicken noodle soup, no water added. “Whiplash,” meanwhile, was like goulash, but made in under ten minutes. This was possible because he did not add onions, peppers, bay leaves, potatoes, paprika, or any of the other ingredients that I would one day learn were in commonly recognizable versions of goulash.

People from the Midwest who experience a kitchen like mine often effect an equal and opposite reaction when they come of age. Some spend their twenties putting Tabasco sauce and chili flakes on everything, some learn to make their own damn food, and some become a freegan after a failed attempt to start a permaculture collective. To me, it just seemed like there could be lot more to eat in the world than what I’d been exposed to, and I wanted to try as much of it as I could stand.

My parents’ kitchen did not introduce me to the varied and bounteous repasts awaiting me in the world’s dining rooms and cafes, but it did keep me alive so that I could someday experience them on my own. My parents were fine with this, and encouraged it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it.

So, as soon as I got a driver’s license, my high school girlfriend Stacy and I set out to eat all of the food we’d only read about in magazines. Together we ate North African shekshouka at the Barbary Fig, Ethiopian injera at the Red Sea in the West Bank, and even found authentic Mexican food being served from a truck parked in the lot of the Busy Bee Café on Robert Street.

For Stacy and myself, all of this was damn near consciousness-expanding. The food itself was gustatory shorthand for a world of possibilities outside of our stultifying hometown, and it abetted a wanderlust that would go on to cost thousands in out-of-state student loans.

Stacy, for her part, eventually attended graduate school at the University of Bologna, later lived in Florence, and now has a job in New York that enables her to travel the world. I made up for my own lost time in comparative stops and starts, but I always waited for an opportunity to follow Stacy’s lead in actually living somewhere overseas, and getting the kind of culinary experience that only comes with cultural immersion.

In fall 2006, my live-in girlfriend and I broke up. After mutually trying and failing at an ill-advised attempt to be friends immediately afterward, an indefinite move to another continent seemed to be the thing to do. I stored what little I kept in the crawl space of a friend’s house in Echo Park, gave my 17-year old car to a Merchant Marine, and flew south to a rent a loft in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires lined up by an old friend from Chicago named Karen.

I’d met Karen a decade before in college, under an umbrella in a rainstorm. My version is that I was walking past Allison Residence Hall in a total downpour and I saw a shrouded figure pelted by rain, so I went over with my umbrella and walked her to her class. Her version is that she was the one with the umbrella, and I was the shrouded figure. Whatever happened, we didn’t even get each other’s names that day and it was only by some accident of fate that we crossed paths much later and became friends. By the time I was in Buenos Aires, she’d been living there for several years, working as a trapeze artist and taking wu shu classes. She carried a large sword on her back everywhere we went.

Karen also introduced me to a Castellano teacher named Natalia who I hired as my private language tutor. After a couple of weeks, when it seemed like I was able to complete a sentence, Karen and Natalia suggested that why don’t we all go out to a parilla for a total immersion dinner, with me responsible for doing all of the ordering. This was exactly what I’d been waiting for my entire life.

By this point, I’d traveled some, and had a few experiences eating local specialties (kangaroo in Darwin, ossobuco in Umbria) and badly ill-advised non-local specialties (bruschetta in Chiang Mai, tacos in Prague) and I figured I could handle anything. Building a hearty appetite for days in advance, I entered the night of my immersion dinner ready to use as many new bovine-related vocabulary terms as possible.

Compared to, say, a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse back up in the EE.UU, the Argentine parilla has a far more liberal notion of the percentage of a beef cow that’s considered edible; my estimates put that percentage in the mid 90s. They also assume that a customer is not disturbed by the idea of seeing their dinner before it hits their plate, or, quite often, before it’s completely butchered. Someone eating dinner extremely early, say around 8:00 pm, will see quartered cuts of cow paraded through the front door, and hung near a grill, usually also near the front door. Remember that skit from SNL’s first season, “Mel’s Char Palace?” The Argentines would not see the humor in it. They would ask where it is, and if they serve Malbec.

What attracts both tourists and locals, besides the quality of its grass-fed, hormone-free beef, is the price. At most parillas, a merely satisfying chunk of recently slaughtered bovine costs, in American prices, about as much as a used copy of Toby Keith’s “Shock’n Y’all” on CD. For the price of that CD new, you can get a steak that wouldn’t fit in your glove compartment.

Also, for whatever reason, you also get a massive amount of free bread with your meal. Not just Bimbo brand white dinner rolls either, but ludicrous quantities of a wide variety of grains and loaves, even those cool flavored sticks in plastic packaging. No idea where it’s baked. Maybe, as Ben Katchor wrote, “on the windswept shore of a vast inland sea.” I hope not anywhere less fascinating or less sanitary; there were nights where I’d cleaned out the breadbasket at least twice, and it was refilled even then. Taciturn young men bring clear plastic garbage bags full of the stuff in through the front door, all day and night, like a virtual Iguazu Falls of leavened bread delivery and consumption, so I knew even if my Castellano failed me during my immersion dinner, I would not starve.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to read and recite from a menu; at the parilla that Karen chose, I never even saw one. The three of us were sat at a table for six in the middle of a windowless restaurant whose walls were lined with mounted yellow wall lamps, making the place feel like an old school no-limit poker room, where everyone was a winner and winners were paid in beef. After two bottles of wine and the chimichurri were on the table, our waiter wasted no time becoming a warm conduit between the grill and my face, and all the bits and pieces that recently assembled a living cow flew at me with steam and alacrity.

Over three hours, the waiter assailed my table with semi-recognizable cuts of shank, rib, and loin. We ate black sausage. We ate kidneys. We ate an appetizer of something red, sliced and raw. We ate something called sweetbreads, which I learned is neither sweet nor bread. I didn’t eat more in quantity than I normally had in Argentina, but that night my alimentary canal made a dashing array of sundry acquaintances.

It was a simpler immersion experience than Natalia had hoped for me, but my basic Castellano still wasn’t up yet up for the job. I said “Yes” and “Delicious” and “I want more” again and again and again, but I hadn’t yet learned the phrases “That looks disgusting” or “Absolutely not under any circumstances” or even “No, I don’t want any” (which was one of the first phrases I learned in Thai, and the most frequently used). No, I just kept telling the server, Mas. Esta Bueno. Mas, Para Todos. Me Gusta. Mas, Por Favor.

Two days later I was still in bed, fully dressed, my bed sheets and multiple comforters wrapped around me like wet eels. By this point, a series of circumstances had forced Karen to move into the loft, and it was good to have her company in a time like this, even if she felt that I’d brought my fate on myself.

She was downstairs, moving her bed from the living room into the kitchen (a completely different story) when, wrapped in a mountain of blankets, I approached her.
“Karen,” I said, “I think I have something living inside of me.”
“Yeah, could be,” she said.
Not the answer I expected.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“So am I,” she said. “You might have a parasite.”
You Might Have A Parasite. “Parasite?” I asked her. “Where am I, Cambodia?” (Ever since seeing this made-for-TV Disney movie in the 80’s called “The Girl Who Spelled Freedom,” I’ve always associated intestinal parasites with Southeast Asia).
“Sure,” Karen said, not reassuringly. “It’s not unheard of. I got some Chinese herbs? Or you wanna see a doctor?”

I was cautious. I had just taken some strong medication from a local pharmacy and I didn’t want to mix meds. But I also didn’t want to rush to conclusions. Karen was busy that day with a cousin in town, and it was a Sunday and the doctor’s offices wouldn’t be open anyway, just the ERs.
“Let’s see how I am tomorrow morning,” I said.

In the meantime I decided to make peace with my intestinal parasite. I figured if there was a living thing inside of me, it was kind of like a pet, so I should give it a name. I decided on Mystery Lou.

At first the relationship between Mystery Lou and I was, like many parasitic relationships, decidedly ambiguous. After a while, I wasn’t sure where I stopped and he began; for my taste, it was a bit too much like that Gollum/Smeagol situation in the second Lord of the Rings film. Luckily, over time our relationship improved into something more nuanced, like the emotional but problematic bond between Truman Capote and Perry Smith, and I wondered if I would need to keep Mystery Lou alive so I could gain more material for a book about him.

All I’d learned to that point is that having a parasite, if that’s indeed what it was, is the most miserable physical experience this side of a kidney stone. Whatever it was I ate that gave birth to Mystery Lou I swore I’d never touch again, but I’d eaten so much weird shit that night I had no idea what part of the cow to blame.

Days passed, and either Mystery Lou died or went into hibernation, because I eventually regained an appetite and fully digested solid food again. After about a week without either, this was completely exciting. For me, it felt like graduating from high school, if high school had meant four years of vomiting and irregularity.

In the years since Mystery Lou, I’ve discovered the hard way that I’m lactose intolerant, that most pork products give me heartburn, and that almost all desserts and fried foods make me sick to my stomach. I still have the same inherent sense of adventure with cuisine, but my digestive tract has seemingly thrown in the serviette. Just like other phases some Midwestern guys experience—being into ska music, drinking Natty Ice, sleeping with girls from Wisconsin—the brazen pursuit of things like black sausage and sweetbreads may be something I’ve outgrown.

After I left Argentina in July of 2007, I immediately flew to Minnesota. My first night back in my hometown, my grandma Doris made me a splendid dinner of an iceberg lettuce salad, chicken breast, white rice, and peas. The meal did exactly what I needed it to do.

For that, I apologize to my mom and dad for my abandonment of their cuisine. I now see the point, and I’ll never doubt it again.






The Friday night before Halloween, at a party in Echo Park, I helped a friend of mine open her twist-off Full Sail Pale Ale. It was the most useful I’d felt in weeks.

Later that weekend, as I was boiling water again, to make Annie’s Mac and Cheese again, it hit me that I am a royal pain in the ass to the whole world. Every grim, toiling generation of my Czech and Swedish ancestors, with all of their useful labor and survival skills, has resulted in a guy who pretty much can’t do anything with his hands.

What limited skills I do have are dependent on optimal conditions of comfort and convenience. I can hook up audio/visual components, I’m solid at both bar trivia and Scrabble, I can responsibly manage personal finances, and I’m good at remembering people’s names. And I can recite all of the Presidents in order, with years served and political affiliation, off the top of my head. That about covers my skill set. When it comes the bottom two layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that’s where I’m absolutely pointless.

I know that if I had been born in 1840, I’d have been dead by age ten, and if I had somehow survived dysentery and snakebites on the Oregon Trail, I’d have been killed off, for constantly getting in the way of people who were trying to get things done.

I’ve met a few small challenges—pitching a tent in Joshua Tree, installing storm windows on my great-aunt’s house in North Dakota—but innumerable other tests, like casting lines while deep-sea fishing in the Pacific, changing out a flat tire in the rain, chambering a round in an AK-47 (harder than it looks, the first time), I’ve failed badly and have been called out for it.

It doesn’t mean I won’t try. A few years ago, I was working north of the Arctic Circle with the kind of guys who drive snowmobiles for fun– you know–regular guys. Even though I immediately crashed mine into a ditch and was thrown from the thing into a mass of frozen shrubbery, I knew I’d have another go at it. I mean, I hadn’t broken any bones, and we’d paid in advance for four hours of fun time, and after the five minutes it took three (other) guys to dig the thing out, we still had about three-and-a-half hours left.

Had my snowmobile ride been a solo journey, the accident wouldn’t have ended so happily. I could not have gotten that thing out of the ditch on my own, and had I broken any part of it, even something easily repaired, I’d still be standing on the side of the road either until someone useful came along or until I died.

I can’t listen to a snowmobile engine and determine what ails it. I can’t build, fix, fabricate, pre-fabricate, or retrofit anything. Nor can I make anything from scratch in the workshop, garage, studio, or kitchen.

How did it come to this?

My parents weren’t like me. They were raised on farms and/or by people who were. I myself even lived on a farm for short time when I was three, but I learned nothing. I adopted a cat I named Ratlips and I was at least savvy enough to stay away from the machines that would’ve killed me had I expressed any curiosity about them.

Even after moving off the farm, I had numerous chances to become a useful man around the house, in the garage, in the wild. I grew up completely surrounded by outdoorsy gearheads – last time I checked, I was literally the only male on my dad’s entire side of the family (this includes my dad, my brother, five uncles and five male cousins) who does not own both a gun and a motorcycle. Some of them own several of each, and the motorcycles are customized and assiduously maintained by their owners. The same is true of their cars. The passage of time at family reunions is marked not by the growth of grandchildren, but by the progress of automotive engineering.

“Remember that ’54 Dodge flathead? You were sixteen!”

“The 1980 RX-7 with the Wankel engine? Your youngest was in college!”

I have learned the hard way that if you stop the conversation to ask what “torque” or “a camshaft” is, you are more or less breaking the fourth wall.

Despite being exposed to this surfeit of utilitarianism throughout my formative years, none of it sunk in. Whenever my dad attempted to teach me how to change the oil in a car, or change a tire, or flush the radiator, my mind wandered to what I’d rather be doing, which at age 11 was probably revising Presidential elections (where, for example, I’d have Henry Clay defeat James K. Polk in 1844) or making giant family trees of the House of Atreus on huge sheets of paper in the basement. Picking up on this, my dad pointedly admonished me.

“If you don’t learn how to fix your own stuff,” he said, “You’ll have to make enough money so that you can hire the people who can.”

Sounds like a plan, I thought.

And that’s pretty much how it’s turned out. I talk to my dad on the phone and he tells me about how he repaired his hot water heater and how he’s keeping his 1990 Volkswagen Passat in pristine mechanical condition. In turn, I tell him how much my repair bills are and how I have to call the landlord to help me figure out how to light the pilot light on my stove, so I can make more mac and cheese from a box.

If there’s a conclusion to this sad tale of masculine devolution, it’s this: My DNA should not be allowed to dilute the gene pool. If you’re a single woman, don’t end up with someone like me, whether you can fix your own stuff or not. If you and I hooked up, I would cancel out your usefulness with my immense non-usefulness. We’d only have kids who’d be obsessed with Greek mythology, have pensive posters of M. Ward on their bedroom walls, and major in things like Comparative Literature at expensive private colleges founded by Jesuits. This will not help the human race to blossom and thrive through the difficult times ahead.

So, until you’re married, don’t talk to guys like me at Jonathan Franzen readings or the Literary Death Match or the Sonic Youth/Pavement show at the Bowl. Even if you can already replace the spark plugs in your car blindfolded, you and I cannot be holding hands when we jaywalk, and have no business whispering in each other’s ears in the middle of a dance floor.  No, I beg you, hang out with the pit crews at the Brickyard 400, linger at the Minnesota State Fair’s Machinery Hill, or apply to grad school at Cal Tech or MIT instead of Cal Arts or Sarah Lawrence. Discover the wonder in usefulness, not in guys that get your film and literary references.

As much as I may want kids someday, it just isn’t fair to society. It’s time now to make a Kickstarter page where you all can chip in and buy a vasectomy for me, and the thousands of men like me. If you allow me to someday wear a BabyBjorn through the streets of Silver Lake, my children will only help keep Jiffy Lube in business.

I, and future generations, thank you.