I haven’t been able to write lately.

I didn’t think it was because I couldn’t write, but because my life had become so busy with things outside of literary concerns that I couldn’t scrape together a few sentences out of the limited time allotted to my packed days.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

–The Graduate, 1967

 

Before British Petroleum botched the most spectacular oil disaster in the history of our petro-based culture [addendum: the most spectacularly publicized oil disaster: turns out NIGERIA HAS IT WORSE, but no-one knows about it or gives a fig], I was already thinking about petroleum. Or using less of it. I’m a conscientious person; I don’t want to use more than my fair share of resources, nor do I embrace the notion that if I can buy it, I should. I want to live lightly without becoming a monk; I would like to share the wealth of natural resources without raping the earth for them.

I’m an American Consumer™, but I do my best to keep my insatiable desire for convenience in check. I’ve got the cloth bags for groceries, using them most of the time but forgetting them some of the time. I bought our son little reuseable lunch bags; we have a Mr. Bento food jar for him to take hot lunches to school. We drink from metal water containers. Our family has one car which gets 50 miles to the gallon on the highway by merit of its awesome diesel-ness; we can fill it with Biodiesel when it’s available (although biodiesel has turned food crops into fuel crops in certain parts of the world, making a huge rice shortage in Asia highlighting the fact that the consequence of any “alternative” fuel is that it has unintended ones). We’ve had it almost ten years; we hope that we’ll just drive it to its obsolescence, though once in a while I think how nice it would be to have more space.

But that’s what Zipcar is for.

We’re wimpy bicyclists, I’m ashamed to admit. I need to buy better rain gear, but since I can’t be bothered to buy myself regular clothing it seems that practical rain solutions have just fallen right off the list.

This is not my concern, however. I’ve been trying for years to figure out how to eradicate plastic out of our lives which, with the passage of time seems absolutely paramount in not completely destroying ourselves and everything else.

Plastic: convenient, ubiquitous poison. The road to hell is paved with it.

I don’t quite remember what it was like to look around a house and not being able to identify fifty different things which were composed partially of plastic. Maybe it never happened in my life. My parents had Tupperware after all, and I had that Fisher Price Corn Popper push toy which, looking at a photo of it, is made completely out of plastic. But with all the news about Bisphenol A and floating islands of toxic plastic garbage in the ocean (the size of Texas or larger and growing); water bottles filling landfills after you drink their tap-water contents, it seems like we’ve become too accustomed to welcoming plastic into our lives unquestioned and unchallenged.

Here’s a list of petroleum-based products from my vantage point on the sofa. I’m looking no further than what I can see; I’m not going into the kitchen where god knows what sort of plastic horrors await me.

  • DVD and Wii Game cases, with the discs themselves.
  • Cables and plugs running from our computers to speakers and television
  • speaker housing
  • computer cases
  • remote controls
  • keyboard and mouse
  • television
  • laundry bag made of nylon
  • packing tape on Amazon box
  • dog crate made of nylon or acrylic fabric
  • Ikea storage drawers
  • acrylic wall paint, plus dyes
  • spiral binder
  • Drinky the Crow (admittedly awesome)
  • paperback books with stain-resistant coating on their covers, hundreds of them
  • dog toys
  • polyurethane on the fir floors
  • iPhones (two)
  • shoulder bag
  • acrylic stuffing in leather sofa
  • vinyl Oregon Zoo decals mounted in our window
  • inserts for throw pillows
  • adhesive on non-skid feet for our tables and chairs
  • dog collar and one dog tag
  • step stool
  • cotton-poly blend curtain backing
  • outlet and light plates
  • Toys, in such great numbers that I can’t help but swoon a little, including:
  1. A “Marble Maze” (fifty pieces or more)
  2. Automoblox
  3. Legos (thousands of individual petroleum pellets)
  4. Fisher Price Camera
  5. Crayola markers and pens
  6. Hyper Dash (one plastic controller and four plastic disks)
  7. Playmobil (again, hundreds of little petro-pellets in the form of awesome birds, pirates, bicycles and treasure)
  8. Bag containing binoculars, plus the binoculars themselves
  9. Rody the Ride-On Pony

Shockingly, I’m relieved there isn’t more. We’ve gone out of our way to buy furniture that is either antique, used or made of natural wood, not MDF. Our house is filled with photos and paintings which have wood frames and glass instead of plastic, and most of our tchotchkes are ancient fripperies which, by merit of their ancientness are made of metal or porcelain or wood. Not all, certainly, but most. Many of our son’s toys were bought with avoiding plastic in mind; Automoblox are wood with plastic parts; his building blocks are wood; Tinker Toys, wood with plastic parts.

But I’ve looked through my house on numerous occasions looking for ways to go on a plastic diet. Why are all of our shampoos and liquid soaps, household cleaners in plastic? Glass, of course, is too heavy to ship and adds cost in FUEL. I buy bulk shampoo and bulk conditioner but fill them from plastic jugs. My husband shaved his head twenty years ago and never looked back, eradicating the need for hair products in any form; maybe I should do that, too.

But his razors? Plastic, with metal blades. Is it straight-razor time? A good idea, but I fear he would never sharpen the damned thing and always be nicked. Plus, I don’t know if I would want him to shave the back of his head without a safety razor. Call me crazy.

I’ve tried to prune the plastic storage containers out of our kitchen by replacing them with glass, not just because I want to stop the petroleum glut but because there are so many studies about chemicals leaching into food and beverages. But food comes from stores…in plastic. Yogurt comes in plastic tubs which don’t even have lids anymore which makes it impossible to reuse them. Even hippy-health-nuggets come in plastic containers; buy cookies with organic flour blessed by virgins and they’re still wrapped in cellophane-wrapped extruded plastic sepulchers. If you buy bulk, the bags are plastic. The grease pens used to write on the tag: plastic.

Buying local is of course the best way to cut down on your petro-consumption, not just because the distance the food travels is shorter, thereby lowering your petro footprint, but you inject money into local businesses, farms and growers which need less packaging to transport their goods. By buying at your farmer’s market you’re often just plucking veggies from a box and putting them in your cloth bag. Win-win!

That’s great for me here in Portland, Oregon where we can grow food almost year round. What about you people stuck up on a mountain top? Or in the desert? What are you gonna eat? Stuff that’s been shipped, and wrapped in plastic.

I bought some lotion in a glass bottle, hoping that I would somehow be lightening the load; the pump is plastic. Our toothbrushes: plastic. Dental floss: plastic. I’ve never seen a cardboard container for dental floss; maybe it’s not practical. But how do we decide which is the most necessary plastic to hang onto and which is okay to stop producing? Obviously, we want our hospitals and doctors to have access to hygienic plastic doobobs and sterile plastic this’s-and-that’s so that they can keep us alive when we show up for their services. But what about the crackers I buy? You remember when crackers came in waxed paper bags inside cardboard boxes? But do we even need the boxes, much less the bag inside?

Blister packs, cheese wrappers, cellophane on popsicles, laundry soap packaging, grocery bags, soda bottles, mayonnaise jars, pepper grinders, disposable pens, patio furniture. When did Grey Poupon go to plastic? I bought excess mustard the other day just so I could get the glass jar instead.

You outdoorsy types (I’m embarrassingly indoorsy in the Great Backyard of Oregon) appreciate nature in all it’s splendor and thus it attunes you to the necessity of conservation and environmental protection, but you’re all stomping around the wilderness in your Gore-Tex and Weather-Blok Super Materials made from various chemically bonded magic beans and petroleum. Your tents are made out of them too. As are your boots and your hats and gloves.

Do I have an alternative for you to consider? No.

And this is the problem, I think, with all of us. We don’t know how to unwind the Gordian knot of petroleum which has threaded our entire lives in scads of plastic. I want to be the best, wisest, well-informed consumer I can be, but some things I just can’t figure out how to get away from. Buy bulk, sure. Drive less, yes–oh, yes. But the cheese I buy from the tiny local market down the street–they wrap their cheese in butcher paper…coated with plastic.

And I don’t know what’s right. Research is conflicting about paper vs. plastic. Paper doesn’t biodegrade any better than plastic when it’s anaerobic. That’s why we have 2000 year old Egyptian papyrus scrolls from ancient dump sites. Cut a tree down, you’ve lost a great air filter. Some studies point to plastic bags making far less of a carbon footprint than paper for a whole host of reasons from the production process to the loss of habitat. What to do?

And I don’t mean my grocery bags. What about all the food that is in my grocery bags?

My husband and I were deliberating about this the other day. I remembered a story about an American woman living in a small Italian town where every year during the olive oil pressing, people would grab their jugs and wander down to get their supply for the year. Wine too. Everyone had some barrels or jugs in which to store their staples, not terribly different from the Roman, Greek and Phoenician amphorae of ancient times.

Would I be comfortable buying a barrel of wine to keep in my basement, along with a jug of olive oil? Could I split a barrel with my neighbors? Every year, could we buy a share of wine from a local winery? I know people do it with cows and pigs; there are CSA’s for organic vegetables (good way of avoiding petroleum; no petro-based fertilizers or pesticides). Can we extend the method? How about my crackers? Could I just purchase them not in a box at all, but a bulk bin where I stash them in my handy-dandy metal cracker tin (standardized so that the weight PLU’s would be easy)? How can we peel away the layers and layer of plastic and replace them with honest to god solutions?

I don’t ever want buy a CD or DVD again; if it’s digital data, I want to download it. No more goddamned plastic cases. No more DVD coasters with crappy slideshows on them. No more plastic deck chairs and MDF landfill furniture. And stop with the “goody bags” at kid’s birthday parties, already. I don’t need them and I can’t remember if my son ever played with any of the plastic junk that was in them anyway. Bring back waxed paper for wrapping things, go to Depression-era standards of frugality instead of post-war standards of excess. Keep up with the Joneses by keeping plastic out of landfills.

Maybe I’m being utopian and naive. The back-to-the-land movement was idealistic, but in the end completely impractical. We can’t all be homesteaders. We can have Victory Gardens, but it won’t supply our grain needs. We can buy locally baked bread, but the flour isn’t being ground at the mill next door. It’s being trucked in. We can’t all spin our own yarn from our pet sheep Lulu so as to avoid wool sweaters polluted with spandex and petro costs shipped from Turkmenistan.

But I’m comfortable with the hypothesis that something’s got to give. Building high-speed rail would help, as would more of us riding our bikes. I don’t think it’s enough, though, and I don’t want to contribute any more to the enormous flotilla of garbage in the Pacific. I want less plastic. I want corporations to produce less plastic. I want the chemical devastation of plastic-creation to cease, or at the very least drop dramatically. I’ve wanted less plastic for years, but the BP oil spill and the Pacific Garbage Patch have only emphasized the point in a radical and devastating loss of land, ocean, livelihoods and sea life. As if I needed any convincing.

But maybe I can convince someone who makes my crackers or olive oil. Or someone who wants to loan me their sheep.


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch


QUENBY MOONE is a graphic designer and the author of a memoir, Living in Twilight, which does not concern vampires who dazzle like diamonds when sunlight plays upon their skin.  She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, a musical genius, and their son, whose genius needs no qualification.


She hangs out with rock stars, or used to.  She swears a lot.  In creative ways, dang-nabbit.  When she wants to find the latest in chic couture, she looks no further than MC Hammer.


Despite her ultimate privacy settings, we know the contents of her underwear drawer.


Her brandied cherries didn’t turn out well.  She sometimes takes jokes a bit too far.


She’s written beautifully and lovingly about her late father and his battle with cancer.  We learned about his love of books, and how he introduced his oft-tired teenage daughter to the miracle and wonder of coffee.  And we were there at the end, when she gave him his boarding pass to cross the River Styx.


Oh, and she found out the hard way that the first rule of first grade is, Don’t talk about Nazis.

A few years ago, I put a bird feeder in the back yard. I had landscaped everything to verdant idyll, making it a perfect sanctuary for my avian pals, save for the cats. But one was a scaredy-cat who had no backbone for hunting, and one was so fat from her eating disorder that she posed no threat as she and her impressive girth thundered across the yard. The birds could see her coming a mile away.

The last words in my book Living in Twilight were written last night. I celebrated in a not-very-bold statement on Facebook, tempered by my wuss-tastic addition of “I think” preceding “I’m done.” This raises these points:

The book isn’t done.

I have a lot of laundry to do.

My son is not impressed.

My skills as a writer will now be tested to pen a really excellent cover letter to faceless people who will judge whether or not my book is a worthy book or just another book.

If it’s deemed just another book, I will be depressed. Then I will look at the bookshelves in Powell’s and weep because there are so many “just another book” books being sold in great numbers.

If my book is a worthy book, it will be a very long time before I hold a copy in my hands.

Also, people will read all about my family and what a bunch of heathens we are. I fear a great backlash from the Religious Right.

On the other hand, nothing speaks to PR like backlash. Maybe I’ll send a copy to the Religious Right.

The title has nothing to do with vampires, Edward, Bella or werewolves. People who look at my book because they associate “twilight” with “Edward” will be gravely disappointed when they read a book about my Dad.

Dad really liked vampire stories though.

Maybe it is about vampires!

No, it’s really not. It’s about cancer.

The New York Times Book Review already hates my book because it’s about a parent with cancer. They said so in a column written last month. This is disconcerting.

Who the hell is The New York Times, anyway? Some old Grey Lady? Whatever. My book is a Four-Color Diva with attitude, bitches!

Speaking of color, because my book has full-color paintings and drawings on almost every spread, it’s going to be an expensive MF to print.

iPad.

Wait. Am I cheating on my beloved books if I recognize the value of digital bytes?

Damn. This book really deserves ink and paper.

This is just a subjective opinion, of course.

Though the correct one.

The book is done in one sense: I wrote the last line. Now I have to find all the dimensions of all the art featured in the book. There’s a lot of it. All the titles. Dad was pretty crummy about writing titles on things. Re-shoot pictures which are blurry. I’m a fairly crap photographer. Thank god my brother is a pro – he shot everything else.

Oops. There are two unfinished chapters.

Lucky for me the last line of the book is, “There is no last chapter.”

This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.

I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.

We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.



I was raised proper, by which I mean a proper appreciation of language in all its splendor. Our family did not exclusively fawn over the most flashy words, nor the most humble. We took delight in using descriptors of all stripes, including those reserved for the bawdy house. Within the panoply of adjectives and expletives, I learned at my mama’s knee how best to decry, offend, verbally defenestrate.

We practice our art with caution but devotion. It’s too easy to rely upon the ugly but poignant “Fuckwad,” so we reach for more interesting ways to express distaste. “Blithering, emo, wuss-tastic fuckwad” is, to my ears far more interesting, and importantly, more precise. “What is the fuckwad doing?” Blithering. It’s all right there, sewn up in a tidy package. “What kind of fuckwad is he?” An emo fuckwad, who aspires to such far reaches of wussiness that he’s wuss-tastic.

I guess it’s always been this way. I got damned to hell by my best friend in second grade because I said “damn,” a bit of irony that was lost on me since I neither knew what “damn” meant, nor what this place called “hell” was all about. Was it near Mount Olympus? Did Zeus live there? If so, I really wanted a date with Cupid, the Roman hunk of “Cupid and Psyche” fame and Eros’ doppelganger. I was only eight, but I knew hotties when I read about them. Plus, he had wings. That’s pretty awesome.

Once my son Milo was born, I valiantly razed my language to the realm of modestly offensive, and then further into the dull confines of Vanilla Soft Serve Ice Cream once we belatedly realized that Milo had a real knack for language too. Instead of wusstastic-ness, I have become enamored of completely antiquated charmers like “Sweet Fancy Brown!” and “Good grief!” I don’t say “Gosh” or “Gee whiz,” but the words “Criminy,” “Dangit”  and “Oh, crumb,” feature often in my mild expletives.

And let’s face it, expletives help. You drop your groceries: what do you do? Thank the heavens for giving you one more challenge in your already ridiculous day? No. You curse, blurt, spit, and then you pick the frozen strawberries up and move on. If I couldn’t do that, those groceries on the ground might just send me around the twist, and I would lie down next to them tearfully, wondering how I used to manage to get through my day at all.

But I’m not stupid. Not very, anyway.

I know that there’s a time and a place for everything, and first grade is probably not the place for a seven-year-old to be yelling “Fuck off, ______!” at his friend who had just told him to go to hell. I realize this is probably a little raw for the playground out of the mouths of babes. I really do.

So after telling Milo that it was inappropriate and he wasn’t allowed to say words like that, I created a mutual disciplinary response to the elegant but perhaps misplaced use of “Fuck.” (I mean, syntactically, Milo nailed it: “Fuck off!” was the perfect response to someone who just told him to go to hell, and if he was fifteen it wouldn’t have raised any alarms.)

So I created the “Potty-Mouth Pot,” the bank into which we must pay our debt to the gods of expletives and curses. It’s a blown glass jar displaying our shame for all to see: Milo owes twenty-five cents for every use of the span of “grown-up words” (which linguists might argue are a badge of the truly immature); I owe a dollar.

Why the disparity to the potty-mouth pot? Because to teach the lesson well, I figured that we needed to identify who was winning the contest and who was losing. Each dollar bill was so much easier to separate from the quarters my son reluctantly placed in the jar that we could, by taking a quick glance, estimate the winner.

This is also known as “hubris.”

The first day went predictably. Chastened by my admonishment but also soothed by the admission that I too suffered the curse of cursing, Milo and I paid our first debts to the pot together. He was testing the boundaries of our agreement. Did “Damn” fit the requirements? Yes, but “Dam-age” did not. He paid a quarter for “Damn” but not “Dam,” and he was terribly proud of finding the workaround.

I symbolically paid my first dollar into the kitty. (“What’s the kitty?” he asked. Same thing as the “pot” in poker. Now we’ve introduced gambling terms.) Even though I hadn’t said a single blue word, I felt I should make the point that I would be fair and honorable in the contest, that he could count on me for holding up my side of the bargain. If he had to pay, so did I.

The next dollar I shelled out was when I was on the phone: I said “Damn” to someone and Milo shrieked “YOU OWE A DOLLAR! YOU OWE A DOLLAR!” I gamely paid up, neatly folding my dollar and placing it in the jar.

Then he said “Hell,” and I had to wrestle him for the quarter he was loathe to part with. He cried as he let it tinkle to the bottom of the jar, separated from its mate by only two single bills, and Milo begged me to change the rules of engagement. His bereft display confirmed my impromptu but cleverly crafted lesson from which he was suffering the consequences in a real and tangible way.

Depressed over the loss of a third quarter, Milo bemoaned our arrangement to his father as he was going to bed one night.

“Don’t worry,” Lars said. “Mom will lose. I guarantee it.”*

Aside from the fact that I married the male version of Mata Hari, this information was enough to give Milo a renewed sense of purpose and hope.

He mastered his reliance upon potty words with the zeal of a convert. After his third quarter went in the pot, he was done. Not a single verboten word has passed his lips, though he has danced playfully around acceptable substitutes.

I have not been so fortunate. It turns out it’s mitochondrial. While I have, in general, turned an about-face on the real dirt-bombs, I seem incapable of eradicating the basic building blocks of interesting language: damn, hell, crap are so intrinsically bonded with my molecular material that they are woven into the fiber of my tongue. I cannot, apparently, get rid of them. Like herpes, or gout: there for the duration, like it or not.

My son has learned valuable lessons, too. He has learned the skill of secondary hearing, which eluded him until now. I used to beg, scream, shout, dance in front of him, block the television, pull his socks off–whatever it would take to get his attention. Now I don’t need to worry. If he’s engrossed so deeply in a book that I could throw a hockey puck at his head without him flinching, all I have to do is drop my guard and talk like my DNA tells me to and I have Milo’s undivided attention. “Potty-mouth!” he shouts with delight as if being revived from a coma. “You just said a bad word! Pay up, MOM!”

He has three quarters in the bottom of the Potty-Mouth Pot. I have at least thirty bucks in there. But who’s counting?

Don’t answer that.


*Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not even the star player on the potty-mouth stage. Grandma, from who I learned everything I know, talks like a trucker with a fatal case of gutter-tongue. Even now, with her adorable Grandma walk and her devotion to baking holiday cookies, she blasts the room with language dripping with so much ooze it’s amazing people let her into nice places. Colorful, descriptive, eloquent and utterly demented, she shames all pretenders to the potty-mouth crown with their pedestrian lack of creativity.

So I found it both charming and ridiculous that after Grandma heard about my struggle to reign in my gutter mouth, she paid up one lowly quarter to Milo in the interest of making a good impression…even though she had outshone my every utterance in front of the boy in two short hours over dinner.

A quarter.



Portland Oregon is a city of overeducated, underemployed white people who have forgotten to leash their dogs.

It’s true, and absurd, and there are a thousand other true and absurd stereotypes that fall short of capturing the city.

IFC’s “Portlandia” is an attempt at sketch comedy based on the peculiar nuttiness that emanates from the City of Roses, which is a difficult proposal, because the people who best reflect that nuttiness are offended, and everyone else is annoyed that their particular tribe wasn’t included. Then there are those things that only outsiders find funny. Yes, in Portland 30-something men ride skateboards to take their kids to school. I only notice this as part of the natural landscape, like a resplendent fall Chinook, writhing its way upstream to spawn and die.

My son Milo started reading when he was three. Almost seven now, he reads everything and anything–with the exception, he explains, of “fiction.” If it’s not based upon something tangible in the world he’s not interested, which makes him a strangely knowledgeable authority on things well beyond his years.

Milo knows about many subjects, but like his father he’s got a remarkable memory for dates, maps and events over the course of human history. And while he’s still very much a seven-year-old, thus making historical context a little complicated for him, he can tell you with fair accuracy the major events of both the First and Second World Wars. He knows about shipwrecks, which ones went down when, what the differences in their destruction were, why the passenger liner Lusitania is suspected of carrying weapons destined for England (a second explosion in her hull after the Germans shot her–a suspiciously huge blast which sunk her in eighteen minutes).

Last week over waffles in Hawaii, Milo was reading a souvenir newspaper I bought him from Pearl Harbor, a tiny little grownup pouring over the tragedies of December 7, 1941 with the gravity of a concerned citizen. “It’s so nice to see a kid reading the paper,” a gentleman told my brother, no matter that it was several years out of date and had the headline WAR! across the top in 200 point type. “No-one reads the paper anymore.”

My brother, not having kids of his own yet, readily recognized the opportunity to brag. “That’s nothing. Check this out.” He turned to Milo. “Tell me about the mongoose.”

Milo considered for a moment. “Well, they hunt during the day unlike the palm rats, which means they’re not nocturnal. So they’re diurnal. Yep. Diurnal. Also, they’re invasive here in Hawaii.”

The man just stared. “Okay, then!”

My brother laughed with pride when he told me the story.

This is what we have to deal with around these parts: a seven-year-old who is extremely seven-ish when it comes to his emotional maturity but can pull facts out of the clouds like rain. His insatiable quest for knowledge keeps us up long past his bedtime with his queries about historical events. Last night, in the dark, looking at the mottled shadows, he said: “Tell me about the French Revolution.”

The French Revolution isn’t one of my stronger suits. I admitted to Milo that he really should ask Dad about it, but the short of it is this: people were sick to death of monarchs and took matters into their own hands to create a republic, but then everyone got a little carried away and started slaughtering people mercilessly from all quarters. Then a little short guy led the French army throughout Europe, taking over a great deal of it until they got to Russia, which by its very nature defeated Napoleon and his troops.

“That’s the 1812 Overture,” Milo said.

Good grief, I thought.

So you will understand when I explain that his head doesn’t work within the realm of superheroes and sports figures. He works with historical heroes and villains, Nazis and Napoleon, U-boats and the Blitz, air raids and invasions on land and by sea. This is what he knows.

The other day he drew a picture in class on the back of his spelling test. It features two people in a fire truck driving up to a burning building, at the top of which is a tiny figure, apparently caught in the fire. One stick says to the other stick, pointing a little stick finger at the building, “That’s a Nazi.”

Which, if you know my kid, makes perfect sense.

But his teacher somewhat frantically pulled Lars aside to point it out. “I wanted to show this to you,” she started. “I didn’t even notice it at first, but some other parent saw it and was really upset by it.”

Lars took a look at it. “It’s what he knows,” he said. “He knows about World War II and he knows who the Nazis are.” She looked unmoved. “Our family is Jewish,” he said, a strange sort of justification when you get down to it.

“It’s just one of those things we need to be sensitive about,” she replied. But she was rattled and didn’t know how to deal with it. She wanted it to go away.

After Lars explained the situation to me, we were at a loss. Milo hadn’t condoned Nazism, nor written about how Adolph Hitler was a fine fellow with great ideas; he had drawn a picture with a Nazi in it. A stick Nazi. Had the words, “That’s a Nazi” not been written, it would have been just another seven-year-old artwork exploring seven-year-old anxieties and thoughts about his seven-year-old world.

And we realized, both because we were getting defensive, but also because we were genuinely angry about it, that if Milo had written “That’s the Shining Path,” or “He’s Pol Pot” or “There’s Darth Vader,” no-one would have thought twice about it.

Now we were placed in the unenviable position of explaining to Milo that his teacher was upset by something somewhat intangible. He hadn’t espoused any belief in the Nazi philosophy, nor had he made reference to anything they had done, either in support or condemnation. He didn’t call someone on the playground a Nazi. He hadn’t done anything wrong. We explained to Milo that we weren’t mad, but that he couldn’t talk about Nazis in school. “Why?” he asked – reasonably, I might add. If you can’t talk about Nazis in school, where can you talk about them? Are schools for learning about everything except the Nazis? He’d written a solitary word, one based in a period of history he knows about, in a drawing. He’d written a word. “I can’t believe my first grader is being censored!” Lars said, and while “censored” is a bit hyperbolic, I have to agree: this was much ado about nothing.

If the word “Nazi” still has the power to terrify in this knee-jerk way, it makes me extremely uncomfortable about where we’re headed. If we can’t talk about Nazis, we can’t talk about what happened in World War II. And if Mark Twain’s “niggers” are excised from Huckleberry Finn, we can’t talk about slavery or the Civil War with any realism. If we’re hair-trigger about certain buzzwords like “Nazi” and “nigger” even in their historical context while overlooking other historical atrocities, like Cortez storming the New World and Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” we’re whitewashing all of them, either by hysterical touchiness or willful ignorance.

Language is as powerful as you’re willing to make it. To de-fang “Nazis,” who still feature prominently in popular culture despite our first grade teacher’s wish, we have to talk about what they did. Indiana Jones, made of either video game LEGO’s or Harrison Ford’s best years, still fights the Nazis in front of thousands of children every day. Children are exposed to Nazis; if we can’t explain why they’re important, we’ve lost the struggle for making meaning out of the meaningless.

Nothing was more meaningless than the Holocaust. If we cannot explore the senseless, meaningless horror of it because we can’t write the word “Nazi,” we’re in a whole heap of trouble.


*In the days that have followed, things, as they do, have changed somewhat. Milo’s teacher has talked to us more completely and we have an understanding. But certain things remain true, and it bothers me. I wrote a comment to Ronlyn Domingue which I think sums up my remaining feeling about the situation, even with the understanding with his teacher.

You know, I have to be fair here. The teacher has talked to me in the aftermath, and she’s okay. She knows that Milo is a kid whose curiosity runs from the interesting to the completely arcane. She felt she had to raise the subject with us because the other parent was sort of hysterical about it. This is coming clear in the days following–but it certainly wasn’t clear when I wrote this post. That’s the problem with internet immediacy. Facts changing to make a less charged situation.

However, having exonerated my son’s teacher I will say this: the parent who became hysterical about my son’s drawing had no jurisdiction to become so. The same truth of knee-jerk reactions about things applies as much as when I wrote it, and I’ve experienced it in other situations. People love to moralize where there is no moral.

The truth is, whatever issues this parent raised about my son’s drawing caused far more harm than good. First, there was no wrong done, and now my son feels embarrassed about it, doesn’t know what he can and can’t talk about in school, and feels like he did something wrong, no matter our assurances to the contrary. Second, what business was it of hers anyway? She’s not teaching the class; the teacher admitted that when she saw the drawing that was causing the fuss she just shrugged and knew it was Milo being Milo. The parent has no context, no history with him, doesn’t see him on a daily basis; how can she be so impertinent to think she should call him out to the teacher?

This sort of petty mischief in the guise of being a concerned citizen enrages me. It’s not the first time it’s raised my hackles and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The shrapnel from this one event is going to take a long time to remove.

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.

 

TNB Presents:

The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience – Portland

Boxing With Elephants (Like AA, but with Alcohol)

Two Hours of Laughs, Lounging and Litertainment brought to you by Portland-Area TNB Contributors:

Gloria Harrison
Meg Worden
Art Edwards
G. Xavier Robillard
Quenby Moone
James Bernard Frost
and more

It was about the time I began critiquing the fashion choices of our fellow passengers in the Long Beach Airport I realized I had reached my limit for what the brain could tolerate on “vacation.” Completely mean-spirited, I was watching the passers-by stuck in the same predicament as me, crammed like cattle waiting for their damned flight crew to arrive so their plane could take off, now three-and-a-half hours late. “That woman should never wear stretch pants,” I spewed in my head. “She looks like a naked mole rat rolled in purple icing.” I’d turn in another direction, only to face someone else worthy of my skewering. “Jesus Christ, dude. Have a little dignity. Leave the acid wash at home in the bins,” I’d scowl.

But this was just an indication of the fragility of my own mind since I am a great slob myself, rarely bothering to put my clothes together in any discernibly fashionable way. I am, in general, sympathetic to my fellow American slobs. Sometimes it can just be too much bother to put on clothes that look more interesting than thrift store cast-offs, when one knows that the outfit’s only future is one with spots of ketchup and paint splatters on it.

We had endured an amazing number of obstacles to what anyone might call “fun,” and we were now stuck in Long Beach, in one of the most dismal little airports I’ve ever seen, trying to get home. We had already spent the morning in Los Angeles fighting a cloudburst of epic proportions and forging through rivers of water making their way to  LA’s inadequate sewer system to get to the Museum of Natural History. We were soaked, grumpy and hungry when we got in the doors of the museum where we discovered there is no restaurant. We took one look at the T. Rex just past the door and turned around to ford L.A.’s new rivers again, looking for crappy food in a crummy part of town.

We returned to the museum, ever mindful of our flight a few hours hence. We carved a neat path through the exhibits and it was enjoyable enough, but we were happy to get our soggy asses to the airport, the first step in our trip back home. We arrived with a picture-perfect finish at the airport, just enough time to pick up a magazine and get on the plane.

This is a small airport. It was built in the 1950′s and perhaps updated most recently in the late 80′s or early 90′s. It has a grungy institutional lack of charm, made worse by its lack of amenities. So when we arrived, thrilled at our speedy dodging through L.A. rush hour traffic, we were dismayed that we would be spending a rather long stretch here. Ours was the only delayed flight in the whole damned airport.

When we checked a bag (a decision based solely upon our unwillingness to drag our bags, along with our son, through the airport for our long delay), my husband asked if there was anywhere to wait it out. “You could either go to your gate–which is basically a big room–or the restaurant.” That was it.

Restaurant it is! We parked ourselves in the booth and whiled away the time as best we could; eventually we could no longer tolerate the nice but useless waitress or drink more beer and get thrown out for public drunkenness or cited for child endangerment: our son was flopping into the aisle, and we needed to remove him before he tripped someone and sent food raining down on his head. So despite having several more hours to wait, we gave up our plush digs in the ugly paneled restaurant and opted to go to the big room.

Big room is right. At the entrance there was a “bar,” separated from the main room with a barrier rope; they apparently couldn’t be bothered with walls. Two of its four seats were occupied by bozos hitting on the female bartender. At the other corner of the room was a snack bar, similar to what one might find in the lobby of a hospital, with blue plush bears no-one wants and bags of popcorn and licorice, some aspirin and bottles of water. We found seats in the remarkably quiet room in front of the only other amenity, the magazine kiosk, manned by a pimply overweight young man who looked ready to kill himself. There were four gates and rows upon rows of Trailways-era institutional seating. That was it.

But at least it was empty, and our son could burn off a little extra energy by climbing the seats and running through the aisles. Which was fine, but only good for so long. So we gave him our phones to play with. That palled after a while, so we went to the bathroom. A brief distraction, but at least we got to see what the toilets looked like.

The only art in the whole airport was hung between the men’s and women’s restrooms, a fitting place. My husband encouraged me to look at it, and since I wasn’t encumbered by distractions, I walked up to it.

It struck my husband and I both with foreboding and curiosity about the artist’s intent. A rank, yellow sky hangs in the background, the Washington Monument shooting up violently behind a single skeletal tree, while two children flee in the foreground. Or is one fleeing the other in terror? Their backs are turned to the viewer, making the observer a party to the action, either pursuing, which is creepy, or being pursued, which is creepier. A girl is looking over her shoulder to see if the threat is gaining upon her. A plane shoots diagonally overhead, its vapor trail leaving the viewer wondering if it were the culprit in making the sky yellow, a villain leaving behind clouds of mustard gas or sulphurous evil intent.

It did not soothe the uneasy traveler into a sense of calm about their impending journey. And it didn’t matter that upon further examination I discovered the kids were not fleeing but ice-skating; it remained jarring merely by its composition. The artist pulled a fast one, even if they themselves didn’t know it. They had a lark at the expense of poor hapless purchasers of bland institutional art.

My husband took a photo he was so charmed.

Meanwhile, the room was filling up. The passengers were all similarly travel-frumpy, most recently having come from Disneyland and god knows what horrors there. Most of them were dressed in Classic American Tourist: pale shapeless blue jeans or Dockers for the gents, often with a cell phone clip on their belt. A well worn t-shirt from some other tourist destination they visited long ago, now soft and faded from washing, or a shirt with sequins, glitter or some unholy combination of the two. An impossible number of stretch pants under too-large t-shirts, a look I sported when I was 15 and promptly retired realizing that no-one wants to look at a sad-sack Olivia Newton-John facsimile. Sandals, though it was not warm. There were perms.

And there were more and more of them coming. Our son was being squeezed into smaller areas of territory, and like a cheetah losing habitat he was becoming more brave and more ornery: climbing up and over the bucket seats right next to whoever was there, placing an unwelcome foot dangerously close to a pissed commuter; sitting on the tables bolted between them and twitching and fidgeting, throwing elbows out too close to grumpy seatmates; distracting people from their only respite: reading People magazine or looking at their phones.

Our plane was now four hours late. The natives were getting restless. There was a sense of static electricity in the room as people swapped stories and bonded over their stranding; I overheard conversations full of intimate details of other failed vacations between complete strangers who had become their new best friends in the dreary Long Beach Airport. Parents were desperate to keep their children from exciting a riot, which in this fevered climate would not be too difficult.

Like streaming tides of wildebeests the stranded passengers began to crowd towards the gate. Had someone seen something? Did someone spot the crew? The collective had spoken, and all passengers uniformly wove their way to where our plane was supposed to have departed, so long ago. We too followed, a rash decision as we had staked out our territorial claim early on. To leave it was a hopeful, but ultimately senseless act of optimism.

The wildebeests had not seen the crew, nor gleaned some greater intelligence about our flights status; the airline, choosing wisely to placate the beasts with symbolic gifts had left out water and soda and some bags of fodder in the form of mini pretzels and cashews. The herd had gone to the wallow, and we, proper dupes that we are, had given up our prime section of grassland for an utterly craptastic booby prize.

I don’t know if we cheered when the crew arrived, or simply tasted blood in our mouths from the anxiety and waiting. I know that when we finally got on the plane our son was running on fumes and nervous excitement. We were relieved that the plane would lull him to sleep, the drone of the engines knocking him out like a sedative.

Alas, that is not our son. He’s a perpetual motion machine, always enraptured by anything new. So while our fellow wildebeests slept, we were stuck with a playful calf, jumping into the aisles and jostling the flight crew, playing peek-a-boo with the toddler seated behind him. He would have been cute had everyone around us not been trying to sleep.

Predictably, just as the plane was descending toward our blessed Portland home, our son passed out cold, the fatigue overcoming him in the last ten minutes in the air. Our journey not quite complete despite our tantalizing proximity to home, we now had to get our checked luggage and a dead weight through the airport past midnight, to curbside and a taxi.

We struggled in the aisle with our belongings, the other wildebeests laughing at our impossible task: our son was so asleep that we couldn’t pull his coat on, couldn’t move him, couldn’t figure out how to negotiate this last obstacle to free ourselves from the belly of the plane. With no small amount of help from the herd, we somehow stumbled free.

It is some sort of divine joke when you’ve reached this point and step off the plane into a completely deserted concourse only to discover that you are at the very furthest end of it. Unlike Long Beach Airport which is the size of a gymnasium and just as unattractive, this concourse was long. But if adversity is the mother of invention, I discovered my willingness to travel by wheelchair. With my son weighing a metric ton in my arms, and my husband burdened with carry-on, I sat down in the first airport wheelchair I saw, right at the end of the ramp leading off the plane.

Wildebeests laughed and applauded but then raced to the luggage carousel: whoever got their luggage first got the first taxi, too. Realizing the desperate race had begun in earnest, my husband, a wheeled bag in one hand and another across his shoulder, our son’s car seat wedged between his body and the handles of the wheelchair, began to push the wheelchair as fast as he could. I was buried in heavy child, trying to keep his limbs from getting caught in the wheels as he flopped around. My husband found it so ridiculous that despite carrying two bags, a car seat and 170 pounds of human cargo he took out his camera to document our final journey down the long hallway home.

 

We’re back now and we made it in one piece. Even though we did not beat the clock for our luggage, and no kindly soul offered us to cut in line for a taxi, despite it being 22 degrees and carrying a boy utterly insensate to the bitter elements, we were finally ushered into a cab where Rasputin himself was at the wheel. It was a fitting end.

Since then we’ve got scanners which nuke us, TSA rubdown services, and the still-hygienically dubious shoeless security check, not to mention all the other unpleasantries left over from both failed and successful terrorist attacks.

And we just booked our flight to Hawaii.

Attn: Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel.

Hello. I’m writing in hopes that you can help me–not to bust a myth per se, but to figure out what to do with my six-year-old son now that he’s become addicted to Mythbusters.

“I need some alkaline metals,” he said. “For an experiment.”

Um. What?

“Alkaline metals. You know, like rubidium or potassium. Highly volatile.” He continued eating his pancakes.

I have a feeling that alkaline metals are tightly regulated minerals not packaged in your average starter science set.

“Here you go, Mom,” he said, handing back my iPhone over which he has far more mastery than myself. He made me a shopping list:


I’m pretty sure I can find a junked car, but I’m not sure where to acquire thermite, which my son informs me is “made of explosions.”

“It’s kind of like powdered dynamite, but more powerful,” he tells me. So why does he need both, I wonder?

“To explode the cars,” he says.

Of course.

He’s using Lego’s. “I’m building a cargo robot so that I can haul stuff around. I need some supplies.”

“Won’t the Lego’s work?”  I ask.

“That’s for the small scale experiments,” he says.

Oh. I see.

“Can I blow up the toilet?” he wonders. I can’t tell if he’s asking for permission or just idly pondering aloud, but I know this refers to the alkaline metals, which, when mixed with water make a charmingly concussive “Boom,” though, as I recall, they do not actually break the porcelain of the toilets which gave their lives for Mythbuster science.

Is there a school where he can learn to handle highly explosive material without shattering either our plumbing or himself? Are you offering internships to tiny wannabe Jamie’s and Adam’s? Is there a pilot program that teaches little pyro-technicians the safety skills needed to blow small appliances skyward? (Let’s start with toaster ovens, say, or hand-held mixers. Not the water heater which you blew straight out of a house. More like Modest Destruction 101.)

I would be obliged if you could steer him clear of toxic chemicals, or at least teach him to always wear his OSHA compliant mask. No bug bombs of death, if you please. I’m squeamish about radioactive material too, though you seem to work it into the show every now and then.

His obsessions were a little easier to navigate when he watched the photography show Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe. We just handed him a camera with the assurance we would go to Madagascar someday and take photographs of the endangered lemurs and chameleons dotting the island nation. But now he wants to build a shark cage, sink his own version of the Myth-tanic, and buy a small decommissioned plane upon which he can run “experiments.”

Luckily, he told me recently he’s got “fire-phobia” so it may be a while before his desires win the battle against his greater wisdom. But you planted a seed, Mythbusters. I fear when it germinates we’re going to raise Tory Belleci.

Any recommendations you may have in channeling his nascent Mythbusting gene into something which won’t demand extra insurance would be greatly appreciated.

Yours very truly,


Quenby Moone


P.S. My son just informed me that thermite is a compound made from iron oxide and aluminum powder. This sounds easy to acquire; please tell me that he doesn’t already know how to cook up the very thing that torched the Hindenburg. Please.

I got new glasses. Not just any glasses, either, but the ones which announce the onset of deterioration. The ones that say, “The eyes are tired now; next stop: doddering.” I’m sad about the glasses because I have nice peepers, although my husband says now I’ll just look like a Jewish librarian. Lucky for me, he thinks they’re hot.

When I was in the showroom, the plucky optician said, “You look very ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ today,” a reference to my Frenchie striped top and my cuffed jeans, looking much like Madonna’s outfit while she hopped around singing about the consequences of premarital nookie. I looked down, surprised. She was right! All I needed was my bleached coif from back in the day, and *boom*: high school.

The thing is, I’ve heard the Eighties are back. But I think I’ve been dressing this way since I was in the Eighties. Do jeans ever go out of style? Or am I just not paying attention? I don’t have an Eighties hairstyle, if only because I’m too lazy to do anything that might require “maintenance.” But I wear t-shirts which I suspect look exactly the same as the ones I doffed in high school. My guess is, if you looked through my wardrobe and then looked through many of my Eighties photos, you would see a striking resemblance between then and now.

Fortunately, some things have changed.

My dear friend, with whom I stumbled through the Eighties so long ago, just visited from Manhattan and we did a little post mortem on our fashion choices in high school. “They’re back, can you believe it?” She was referring to the resurgence of Hammer pants, attire neither of us can quite believe has resurfaced in the hallowed halls of fashion. “I tried on a pair for laughs a couple weeks ago, just to check, and it does not work anymore.” She giggled at the thought. “Now it’s all about my ass; they make me look like a blueberry or something.” I vividly understood: having worn them through my last two years of high school with a devotion bordering on zealotry, I remembered how they emphasized the booty into enormo-buns and diminished the lower legs into tiny little flippers. You might be mistaken for a blowfish if not careful.

And because teenagers are compelled to mimic but desperate for originality, we both obeyed the laws of Hammer pants but created signature flourishes to accompany them, our own personal touches that said, “Gosh darnit, I’m original, but not very!”

For me it was the men’s dress coat. I would comb every thrift store in the city looking for sports coats which dwarfed my small frame and gave me David Byrne shoulders, in nice burnt-orange plaids or blood-red shark skin. I would couple my Hammer pants with these old men’s cast-offs and dainty flats. Topped with a jaunty hat, I was one step away from joining a technicolor penguin circus.

I couldn’t understand it, but my best friend was not nearly so enamored of musty sport coats. Her signature Hammer styling was a creation of her own design: socklets.

Rather than wear something as practical as a sock, she revised the “leg warmer” and took socks to their illogical extreme: ankle warmers. How many pairs of socks met their premature demise at the end of her scissors? How many cuffs had she heartlessly rent from her perfectly serviceable socks? If socks bled it would be worthy of Vlad the Impaler.

She had two-inch sock-cuffs for every occasion, tiny little sweat bands mopping the brow of each ankle, each pair matching (or a daring counterpoint to) a different pair of Hammer pants. Because we were best friends I had to copy her, though I don’t think I ever carried it off with the same panache. And if laundry day was light because we were unburdened with whole socks, winters in Colorado with warm ankles but cold feet made them ones I recall as “the season of blue toes.”

“I had a pair of grey Hammer pants that looked exactly like elephant skin,” she recalled. “They were huge, baggy, wrinkled.” Who the hell wants to emulate an elephant in high school? For that matter, who wants to emulate a subway station, which I did with my Hammer pants that sported a whimsical print of subway bricks besmirched with graffiti. With old man coats over subway pants, I must have been a sight to behold. Just add the smell of a urinal puck and some Boone’s Farm and I would be a sensation. Me and my friend “the Elephant Girl,” with the merest hint of socks, an unholy “fashion-don’t” writ large.

Granted, we didn’t just wear Hammer pants, though both of us had at least three pairs. “Do you remember your skirts made out of pillow cases?” she queried. How could I forget? What invention! What inspired creativity! Bed linens? It’s a readymade! Slice open the top, hike it up with a wide leather belt, instant statement! Grandma’s floral prints were instantly repurposed into the newest trend in bed-linen skirt-wear. It bagged at the top where it folded over the belt while the rest was so tight I could hardly walk–but so what? I looked AWESOME! Why, if I paired it with one of my old men sport coats? Genius! The newest Coco Chanel-meets-Grey Gardens was well on her way to the Milan spring collection.

There were army fatigues which I wore with fishnet stockings, but because foot-covering was de trop in any ensemble, I cut them off and made them into fishnet leggings, held in place by rubber bracelets I forced over my feet. The bracelets almost cut off my circulation once I shoved them up my calf, but since we didn’t wear socks anyway, my feet would hardly be missed after their amputation.

“I made a skirt out of my bedroom curtains,” I reflected, a New Wave Scarlett O’Hara, though I didn’t have a Rhett Butler to impress. Plus, unlike Scarlett’s, whose masterful rejuvenation of window treatments almost fooled Rhett into believing she had retained her wealth, my skirt still looked like curtains when I was done: they even had the streaks of sun-bleaching from years in the window.

“I actually tripped over my own crotch,” my friend gasped, wiping tears of joyous disbelief from her eyes. “I was running across the street in my favorite Hammer pants and my foot got caught in the huge amount of fabric hanging down.” It must have been hilarious, but then this same friend caught me showing off in a moment of teenage hubris; I came skidding around a corner on a winter-wet floor whereby I ate shit: one minute I’m giggling through the window, the next I’m gone in a Tom-and-Jerry maneuver flat on my ass. What was I wearing? Hammer pants. Did they hasten my fall? Did my foot also get caught in the billowing clouds of crotch fabric? Who knows? It’s just another piece of our collective Hammer shame.

Ah, youth. I might have an anachronistic fashion sense of one who doesn’t pay much attention but I’m pretty sure that Hammer pants will look as stupid twenty years in the future as they did twenty years in the past. And I’m really glad that people will look that stupid in the present so they can laugh about it later.

I got onto a BBS (a Bulletin Board System) back in the early 90’s because I knew a bunch of reprobates who were cruising each other over internet dial-up. I didn’t know anything about computers, nothing about BBS boards, nor why anyone would use such an animal. But my roommates were intrigued by the possibilities and perhaps the faceless anonymity too. I went along for the ride because everyone was doing it, and just like apocryphal lemmings, jettisoned myself off the cliff and out to sea.

We created our web identities without the benefit of Facebook data mining. A number of hobbies, interests, and identifying characteristics were offered up as points to share with other members of the BBS, things like “Video Games” or “Knitting Kilts on Sundays.” We checked off the ones which resonated with us, and as a result we would have other members flagged because of our “mutual interests.” Blinking cursors and black and white text, the BBS was alluring in its complete irrelevance to my life.

There was not one single interest which I shared with the general BBS community. Nothing.

My identity made me appear to be the most dull of dull members on the BBS board, this despite my remarkably checkered existence and even more remarkably checkered friends. And with no shared interests with anyone, I wasn’t ever going to have one of those interesting “chats” I’d heard tell about. No email queries, no bupkus. I was going to have an identity more clear of blemishes than Holly Hobby.

In fact, the only interest which was mildly entertaining was the Society for Creative Anachronism. And this was because I didn’t believe it existed.

I thought that such a completely off-the-wall idea had to be a lark. What the hell is an anachronism which is creative? A dancing ascot? A pince-nez which recites Herodotus? And who would create a society based upon it? How patently absurd! How brilliantly Monty Python-esque! Ministry of Silly Walks, indeed. We had here a real contender for the ridiculous crown.

So I put an ‘X’ between the brackets. Me and my one interest, chosen purely for comedic effect.


I received a personal message on the BBS not long after putting my identity up. He wanted to meet, maybe catch a movie. Did we know any of the same people? It appeared we did. It was mildly creepy, sure, but innocuous enough. We grabbed a cheap burrito and some coffee, and during our brief introduction I realized we had as much in common as a high strung squirrel monkey has with a waffle iron. He was nice, but odd. About thirty years old, full of strange mannerisms and a trailer in which he lived alone on several acres with six cats he adopted from his mother. He moved with a self-conscious rigidity reserved for people tortured through high school, both by their peers but also their miserable home life. He didn’t know where to put himself in any room where he wasn’t in the way.

I moved with shocking self-confidence despite the fact that I was dangerously close to a clinical breakdown. Nimble, frenetic, and over indulgent. A dancer for years, I moved with a saucy grace anywhere I went, and I dressed to the effect. A hyper pixie flashing in and out of the lives of people I knew, moving too quickly and laughing too loudly to be contained in any room.

I filled the room to bursting, he tried to become the wallpaper.

But he seemed to be encouraged after our modest date, and after he brought me home asked if I’d join him at the Star Trek convention.

I was not exactly aghast, but I’ll admit to being confused. I was a night club fixture and a complete tart, not a science fiction lover with six cats and a trailer. Did something about me and my strangely crafted persona invite comparisons to Deanna Troi? Sure, sometimes I dressed the part of one of Kirk’s brief assignations, which is to say with skirts far too short to be borne. I even painted myself silver one night to go dancing with the drag queens. But really. A Trekkie?

I politely declined the invitation, scratching my head in wonder.


I got another query from a different gent a while later. I looked at his BBS identity and it appeared he actually had interests, which was remarkable enough for me to respond. Films and literature and god knows what else, but enough that he didn’t seem like my ridiculously bland no-interest self. And we chatted, or whatever it was then, had an exchange of ideas. Not that I was terribly articulate.

We met at a bar and hit it off. He was far more pulled-together than I was; he had a job which didn’t involve serving coffee or slinging beer or taking off his clothes, so he was almost like an adult. He lived in an unbelievable warehouse space with several other guys where they had film equipment, huge numbers of computers and a tire swing. Props from their various indy film projects hung from the rafters, completing an enchanting effect of grown-up romper room.

This was what I aspired to: bohemian creativity which relied on nothing but ingenuity, an awesome loft and a tire swing. Plus, I suppose, a real job to buy the equipment to capture the bohemian creativity and pay for the awesome loft and tire swing. I can’t say that I offered much return on his investment; I had a crummy job, no education, and a sassy attitude with nothing to back it up. I must have been rather like my online identity to him: dull.

Regardless, we had a completely inconsequential fling, burdened by nothing resembling passion in the least. It was marshmallow fluff until the next thing came along.

That came sooner than it might have after he picked me up from work one night and we went to a tirelessly seedy but trendy bar near his warehouse. I had been in training, so could pack away a great number of cocktails; he didn’t seem terribly impressed but gamely entertained his higher notions of chivalry by chaperoning. We left around midnight, right into the center of an altercation between two homeless men harassing a homeless woman. Arriving late to the kerfuffle meant we couldn’t parse whether they all knew each other or if this was brute force against a defenseless victim. A small crowd developed on the sidewalk, a limo parked next to a fire hydrant, the driver climbing out to observe, all of us deciding whether we needed to intervene.

A little scrappy guy, hunched over with a grungy baseball cap covering stringy hair began to physically push this tiny woman with her rolling cart, and my chivalrous, recreational fling moved into action, stepping between them to push them apart. Fling turned to the woman to ask if she was alright when Scrappy jumped on his back; Fling looked like he had a giant baby attacking him from behind who he desperately tried to shake loose. Scrappy was tenacious and street strong and would not let go until he could get Fling down on the ground to really pulverize him.

This was perhaps the moment when Fling and I lost any hope of becoming something more than a fling. Because it happened that while Scrappy was attacking Fling, I remembered that I had, for the first time in my life, a can of pepper spray. I never felt threatened before–except by people I knew–and I wasn’t planning on making a habit of wandering around downtown Seattle alone in the middle of the night. Maybe I just happened upon it in my apartment. I didn’t know where it came from; I certainly never purchased it. Maybe one of my friends left it behind and I picked it up just because.

So I sprayed Scrappy, the Attack Hobo. But Scrappy’s face was hanging over Fling’s shoulder from behind, and it turns out there isn’t much control over the range of pepper spray. And perhaps my aim wasn’t great because I both had a number of cocktails and Scrappy was a highly volatile moving target. I sprayed them equally and liberally.

Scrappy dropped off Fling’s back, both of them holding their eyes and choking to catch their breath. Their eyes lit up baboon butt red, and while I gritted my teeth in horror and embarrassment, cringing and shifting from leg to leg not knowing what to do, Scrappy slapped Fling on the shoulder genially. “Man, I’m really sorry. Dude, we good? I’m sorry, man. Shit, I didn’t mean it, you know?”

The chauffeur had called the police and we spent several confusing minutes explaining that I was just trying to help; no, I wasn’t the instigator. Yes, I used pepper spray on my date. It was an accident! The woman who had been assaulted disappeared into the streets like smoke, leaving us three mortal enemies defending each other in the eyes of the law, Scrappy bobbing and weaving behind us, popping up like a Whack-a-Mole. “Sorry, dude,” he said. “Dude, hey man. Sorry! No hard feelings, man. Lemme buy you a beer.”

We pulled ourselves from the grips of Johnny Law because they were confused and amused and didn’t know who to charge with a crime, and Fling and I wandered to an even nastier bar to soak out the pepper spray and adrenalin. We got unfathomably ripped, went to his warehouse to swing on the swing, wash the pepper out of his eyes and, though I didn’t quite get it, say, “Sayonara, babe. You’re too out there for me.”

This from a guy who sought me out because I was interested in The Society for Creative Anachronism. The nerve.


It was several years before I discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism really exists. And wouldn’t you know, it provides a place for people to live out their dreams of chivalry and nobility. There are no pince-nez which recite Herodotus, nor dancing ascots, but lots of terrible romantics who dress as troubadours and behave like lovesick paramours reciting Ye Olde poems of love and death to each other between tournaments in which they pulverize one another with remarkably deadly weapons.

Well. Lesson learned.

At least I got the Trekkie to watch my cat for six months when I moved out of town.

And Fling, I finally understood why he looked me up in the first place. Talk about your misguided romantic.