Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Acronicta Americana (and Inebrius Serveratica)

Or, the American Dagger Moth, or, uh... Tyko.  He, her, it - we didn't go into the sexuality of moths - came into our lives today as we were sitting outside under the maples drinking a Gatorade after an hour or so kicking a soccer ball.  Nick was sitting down and suddenly shouted out, "What the hoo-ha is that?"

Yes, what the "hoo-ha"...

We found a jar, gave him some leaves and a stick and took her, him, bother... it inside. We identified it, found some information, drew a picture of it and agreed we should let it go after Mom saw it before they went to bed.

"I think our waiter might be drunk," the woman at sixty-five said to Jeff, the seasoned manager at the restaurant I was working at so many years ago.

"Is your server Kelly? Yes, he might be," Jeff offered back and walked away.

Kelly was crazy, may still be, probably is. Anyway, on a different night we were stationed next to each other and Jeff came up to me and said a table complained that I wasn't "entertaining" enough. He'd spoken with the table, determining that I had indeed managed to get their order, bring their food and clear it away in a reasonable and polite manner. "Well, that other waiter is just so much fun and so clever and talkative."

"It's not fair to put me up against Kelly, he's drunk," I told him, Jeff agreed and went to get a Jack and Coke.

(Yes, your waiter has sometimes occasionally usually well, been drinking. It's true.)

Later that same year, at a party on Jimmy's farm, Kelly had been drinking and decided to put a caterpillar in his mouth, a yellow caterpillar, with black spikes. The why is lost to me, I am not sure anyone ever knew, really, but, he did it. He didn't eat it or chew it up, that would have been stupid, but, he did place it in his mouth and the spikes hit his lips as he did. I recall someone mentioning that the spikes of some caterpillars were toxic or poisonous. About an hour later, Kelly came up to me and said, "Do mwy wips wook swoowened."

"No, but your lips are all swollen," I told him. He thought it was funny.  I can't imagine at the time that I'd ever thought his swollen lips could possibly be included in a story about the twin boys I'd never imagined having.

Well, when we looked up the information today about Tyko it said, "Caution should be taken in handling the caterpillar, as the hollow setae may break off in to human skin, releasing a toxin which can produce a rash." Thanks wiki.

It is funny where stories meet, a drunken fat-lipped waiter and a couple of boys learning about a caterpillar they found in the back yard. I tell stories about Kelly all the time, he was quite a character, but I never imagined that his story would find a way to intersect with the story my boys are narrating as they go through life.

I took some pictures and the boys drew some as well:

I know, Audubon quality stuff, right?

In that last one you can see the maple tree from whence poor Tyko fell.

If I have a point today it is that we never know how things are going to line up.  I raise boys, it is my job.  I used to wait tables.  I've met hundreds of waiters and managers and chefs and managers and, well, forgotten most of them.  Not Kelly.  And today, I don't want to forget Tyko and I don't want the boys to forget him/her/it either.

For the record, we spent a lot of time deciding on a name for the little thing.  I advocated hard for Kelly.

From Marci's  ... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ...

"I've always loved water ... every since I was baptized."

Yes, ever since...

Thanks for looking in the jar with me, and remembering with me, and wondering how on earth so such different stories can meet at the edge of childhood.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mole Birds

There was a drawing contest.  "Mole Birds" should have won, but, it only got a B.  "Nick" got a B+.  Here, have a look for yourself:

When you have twins you end up in the undesirable position of judge.  That's a fact.  I understand all parents have to do this - give points for dives at the pool, biggest splash contests, timed obstacle runs around the play ground, "stupidist face," best messiest face after a pile of ribs - but they have the out of 'Oh, he's bigger/older/younger than you.'

I don't.  Around here, it's pretty much a fair fight, an even playing field, a match-up of equal wits and ability.   It bothered me at first, I worried that someone would have to loose.  Yeah, I hear ya, that's pretty much the point, isn't it?

"Mole Birds," despite its inexplicably perfect title, got a lower grade for only one reason.  Under the tree, where the mole is, that whole area was crumpled, he'd carried it downstairs and crushed that whole bottom quadrant in the process.  Dude, dudes, neatness counts

It is one of the things I would put on a list of stuff that I think boys should know.  But, I don't like lists because they are ever-expanding, or at least should be.  No I prefer the parable, the narrative, the story.

'Neatness counts' encompasses a number of smaller points, again, a problem with lists.  Respect your tools, for instance, might fall under that.  I knew a guy in college who was always dragging his guitar, a lovely rainbow job, around with him.  He'd toss it down anywhere, let it get wet and cold and steamy and all that.  I pointed out to him one time, that, well, "Dude, it's your guitar, show a little respect," he laughed it off.

Later that year, I stood by helplessly as he did the patch-of-ice-dance as we were walking to a party on Church Street.  You know the bit, feet sliding crazily, finally stabilizing, and then off again.  Arms windmilling madly, grasping for balance.  Stability finally gone, he succumbed to the inevitable, his legs shot out in front of him, he faced the gray sky and fell back on the sunburst guitar with the force of two men.

I can see it now, hear it now, even smell it now.  I can't say it is good for a guitar to be smashed to kindling, but, it is a peculiar joy to see one smashed.  Strings fly comically.  Thin, cold, brittle, dry, wood splinters against an icy sidewalk, pieces skittering into the street.  What a sound it makes, at first a sort of guitarish thwoooongish wail and then a heartbreaking crack that echoes off the First Methodist Church and past the Second Baptist like a prayer.  You could smell it, too.  The dust of the road and time, the ash of cigarettes and the memory of every song sung, that wistful inside-a-guitar smell, let loose like a specters from a grave, then caught in the wind to catch up with the prayer.

After thirty years he still grieves, I'd guess.

I got a football for Christmas when I was, well, I really don't know, eleven, ten maybe.  I'd never had my own ball, relying on a old ball of my brother's, and I was stoked.  I loved the ball, football was a year-long sport when I was a kid and I used that ball a lot for a year.  I can't really remember how or why I left it out for several weeks in deep winter,  I do remember finding it.  It was deflated and cracked and, well, defeated.  Ruined.  Back in those days, things weren't plasticized, so nature had its way and I lost my beloved ball.

Neatness counts means take care of your things.  Honor your things.  Honor everything around you - the people, the trees, the food, the water. 

So, "Nick" got a better grade, even though I found the title a little indulgent.  Also, he misspelled eagle as eagel.  Ya'll know I love that about him.

I think if Zack would've gone with this, he might have been given the better grade.  I mean, it's a very nicely rendered snake-tailed-wolfcoon-zebra-cat, with a "puppy thing."  It's A- material, and it is still in his sketchpad, bonus points for that:

I do not know how to pronounce this little dude's name, Zozris,  but I sure do like it.

You know what, I feel like I left my story dangling, the smashed guitar one, that is, not the deflated football one, no, I learned my lesson pretty quickly with that one.

My friend gets up and the guitar looks like, well, sun-baked roadkill, I mean it is done.

"I think you broke it," I say, my tone not as empathetic as it should have been, in retrospect.

"Yeah, I think I did."  He bends down surveying the scene like a forensic anthropologist and, after some tragic looks, his face becomes resolved and he has decided, as I have, that it is, indeed, broken.  And then he does the unexpected, he grabs the neck of the guitar, twists it like  one might a lame rabbit, and wrenches it off, breaking the last splinters of wood and freeing the tendrils of strings.  He then puts his foot on the strings, pulls hard on the neck, and frees the last of them so that only the sunburst neck, red at the bottom, yellowing up to the natural wood at the top, is left.

He unceremoniously kicks the carcass of the guitar into the gutter in front of the church, a befitting end I remember thinking, shoulders the neck like a rifle and says, "Let's head on."  I thought it very stoic and cool at the time.

At the party, everyone grieves his loss.  Dudes bring him beers and offer him cigarettes.  He is the center of attention, all the girls hug him and console him as he wears a look of loss, seeming to bear it as well as possible.  The tragedy permeates the atmosphere with sadness, the party becomes a wake.  We sing sad songs on guitars pulled from the safety of cases and offer ours to him, but, no, not tonight, he says.

Many hours later the party is winding down, I am waiting for him at the door, bundled against the cold.  He comes down from upstairs, red-faced, drunk I assume, still holding the guitar neck, on the arm of the prettiest girl in the whole Theater Department, a grad student.  She drapes his coat over his shoulders, and walks on out holding his other hand.  As he passes me, he does one last unexpected thing.  He looks around to be sure no one sees him, pokes me in the chest with the tuner end of the neck, smiles and winks.

"Maybe it ain't broken after all..."

Yeah, add that bit of wisdom to the damn list.  Know what your tools are for...

From Marci's  "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ..."

"Gatorade is like kids' beer."

Yes, well, I've got some 'splaining to do...

Thanks, as always, for showing up again.  I am always happy to know you were here, whenever, however, whoever you are.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hamburgers And Stuff

I've mentioned this before, but it is important to me.  It is hard to discern the place a story ends, it is hard to figure the beginnings of a story as well. Somewhere towards the end is where we are in this one, or, maybe not.

I guess my grandfather, Gramps, a man I'd never met, my father's father, would never have guessed that the story he began in the 1930s would still be narrating itself to his great grandsons, grandsons who bear his last name and a pension for beef. It's a long sort of story with the smoke of cigarettes and charcoals and sizzling fat obscuring the heart of it. It is as true as an eighty year old tale can be. It is a story about Saturdays and ground beef and hands and tradition and fathers and stability. It is, as so many stories are, universal in its specificity.

From hamburgers to sliders.

When I was a kid every Saturday night we had hamburgers. Christmas on Saturday, hamburgers. Birthday on Saturday, hamburgers. Blazing Summer heat, blizzarding Winter cold, Saturday? Hamburgers. My Dad did it because his Dad did it. The reasons are lost in obscurity, diluted by time, blurred like a family recipe on an index card.

My Dad grew up on an experimental cotton farm where his Dad, a noted botanist, worked on developing long-strain cotton for the USDA in Southern Arizona on a Pima Indian reservation. Yes, that Pima cotton. That is all another story for another time, but, imagine how big the appetites must have been, how beefy the burgers, probably colossal on hand-baked rolls, grilled over mesquite coals, juicy and as flavorful as all the wild west.

I imagine the beef, hand ground, perhaps sirloins and chucks mixed together, formed by this man I never knew, being watched by his son whom I would later watch make the patties; twisting, flattening, smoothing the edges carefully, knowing that is where the burger is most vulnerable. I watch my boys watch me and imagine they are watching the same hand choreography my Dad watched. It pleases me, it pleases time, it pleases generations past as I hope it will please generations to come.

Nearly every Saturday night around here, I make “Sliders,” my take on the burgers of my youth. I originally made regular sized burgers, dressing one for the boys and then slicing it and giving each one half. They never loved them, I mean, they ate them, but, it was never a huge deal. One day a few years back - I was still in the restaurant business at the time and “sliders,” small-bunned sandwiches, steak, chicken, bbq and the like, were popping up on menus everywhere - one day I saw slider buns in the grocery store, I bought a package and I don't think I've purchased full-sized buns since. The boys got their own burger and that started it. They got what they wanted on it, dressed it like they liked and started eating two, sometimes three, at a sitting. Ownership is a wonderful thing.

Back when I was a kid, the burger we had was from a “side” of beef my parents would purchase every once and a while. It was local and frozen fresh in butcher paper and piled in the chest freezer right behind the ping-pong table. It was good beef, but, thawed, once-frozen beef is moist from the ice crystals formed in the freezer. I make mine fresh.  In fact I have changed a lot of things about the burgers of my youth, but, I've changed nothing about the spirit of the burgers, the essence of them, their heart.  Let me show you how I do it, show the boys how I did it, and, in so doing, show the future the past, which is always a good thing.

You'll need one of these with the meat grinder attachment (I know, cool, right):


The one I use was probably purchased in the early seventies and was used by my wife's grandmother.  I took it reluctantly but I am very glad I did.  It is built like a fortress, over-powered, indestructible, and very easy to use.  It was manufactured just at the end of the era where things were made to last.  It has all the attachments, a blender, a chopper, a mixer... it is a beauty.

So, you'll need some beef.  You could use sirloin, that'd be cool, you could use some steak, but, well... don't.  You could mix sirloin with chuck, that would be good, or, you could use chuck, beautiful, fatty, flavorful chuck:


You'll need to cut it into bits, my best solution has been strips, they slide right down the grinder and you have to feed fewer into the machine.  Use your steel, that long thingee in your knife rack, to sharpen up your blade, you'll be glad you did:

Now's the fun part, or one of the fun parts.  Grind that beef:

Oh, that reminds me, you will need a piece of bread, the heel works well, to feed into the grinder when you are done, it forces the last of the ground beef out and helps clean the thing out as well:

That's an important step, but, remember to get it before you start the grinding, and so is getting the whole thing good and clean, go ahead and do it when your done grinding as the meat sits in the fridge and chills a bit:

Alright then, everything is put away and the sliders need to be formed.  Go ahead and work the meat some and be sure to get the edges smooth without any cracks.  Forming the patties was my Dad's favorite part.  I can see him now, standing at the counter gazing into the deep backyard, making those giant burgers of my youth, they were probably a good third to half of a pound - as in they varied from burger to burger, as in they didn't cook evenly, as in... weigh the burgers.

I usually go with about 80 to 85 grams, which is about three ounces or so.  Why?  Well, uh, the first time I made them I had a 2.2 pound chuck, divided by twelve and, there I was.  It seemed perfect so I still try to do that.  You've probably noticed that I have more than enough meat there in that giant bowl.  I freeze whatever is leftover for bolognase sauce or chili or, the very best, meatloaf.  I use the grinder for pork as well and combined it makes super moist, flavorful , meatloaf.  

Where was I?  Yes, I don't think the weight really matters, consistency does.  Dad's burgers were always good, because, well, meat, and I was a starving mancub.  However, some were sort of more done than others.

Next I pop the finished patties in the freezer, yes, freezer, for a few while I move ahead.  I don't want them frozen, but, I have found they hold their shape better when they start out firmer on a hot grill.  People will argue against this, and, usually, I advocate room temperature meat onto the grill or into a pan, But, these guys are small and that firmness seems to help.

Eating my Dad's burgers was the sloppiest damn thing ever.  Ketchup dripping, tomatoes sliding, and the bun as wet as a sponge but with no supporting structure.  There are two reasons for this.  The first I'll get to later but involved an onion slice sizzling on a burger.  The second is because the bun is, indeed, a sponge.

You must do this:

Toast the buns, or something.  Make the surface of the buns less susceptible to the wet, juicy mess it is trying to manage for you.  Your bun is your friend, respect it.  Now, ideally, you would have some help and someone could butter-grill the buns on a flat-top griddle to golden perfection.  Or, if you are not likely to have an assistant, you could grill them on the grill outside before you do the burgers, or during, even.  Be sure, if you do that, to always - always - buy to packs of buns because you will burn them at sometime and need more buns.

Here is what I have come to find easiest and time-friendly:

(Forget about the cookies.)  I slice the buns through - serrated knife - and spray them liberally with a spray oil and pop them under the broiler in the toaster oven, maybe six or so minutes.  I usually have to do two or three batches but, remember, the point is not hot buns, just brown them up somehow.  Oh, don't lay them out on the face you just broiled, steam will come up from them and make them soggy nulling your efforts, use a rack of some sort.

Especially in summer, my Dad made a plate of home-grown, thick-sliced tomatoes, leaf lettuce and onion slices as well.  This we called the "fixin's plate" and still do here.  I am sure that is what Gramps called it, the term echoing down the generations, trivial and essential at the same time.  Here is what mine usually looks like:

I do the "fixin's plate" as I broil the buns as the meat is chilling and the grill is warming up.  My wife thinks I am a poor multitasker, but, in the kitchen everything is happening at the same time, it's cool, we got it.

I refuse to enter into the gas or charcoal debate.  In my opinion, both are fine.  I have use both - a lot.  I have a gas grill now, so I heat it up, pretty hot with lid down.  I wire-brush the remnants of the last meal from the grill - salmon, chicken on a stick, beef on a stick, pork chops, ribs - and open it up and turn down the heat to around medium and I'm ready to go.  Ten minutes tops, I'd still wait another twenty for charcoal - 'nuff said.

Conflagrations.  Infernos.   Black smoke and raging flames licking the ceiling of a screened-in porch under which a sweating, somewhat enraged man tries to salvage blackening burgers.  Yes, memories.  Man, he flamed his old fifties patio grill up sometimes and, later, a Weber with a lid which, he contended, could quench the flames by depriving them of oxygen, which does indeed work, except, the second you lift that lid up that bad-boy will flame up your arm and singe your mustache... It's kind of funny, especially when the swearing and smoldering man is wearing socks and sandals.

Turn down the heat.  (Which isn't an option really on coals, I mean, you could push the coals around, or wait, or, you know what, get a gas grill...)

You see, the grease is what catches on fire.  Something sciency happens, and, apparently, all things have a temperature at which they ignite.  People study these things, it's science.  Keep the heat below that point and the fat drips down, sizzles politely, lets off some smoke and flavors the meat.

Which reminds me, it is still in the freezer.  If they are are frozen hard, don't sweat it, it'll be fine, just let 'em sit for a few minutes.  No, your coals won't die, you are using a gas grill.

Here they are out of the freezer, salted and ready for the grill.  You must salt them, LIBERALLY:


Let me tell you, you can add something else to the burgers here, some garlic powder, some onion salt, some cajun spice, whatever, but... don't.  Do that, if you must, to store-ground beef of questionable origins, not to the beautiful burger you just made.  Nope, just salt, and, if you must, some pepper, which I do... do.  Not too much.

Grilling.  Yeah, I can't tell you how to do that.  I have a talent for it, a gift, I am a "Meat-whisperer."  There might be a gene.  Either that, or, more likely, I have spent thousands probably of hours watching a grill, I better be good at it by now.  Grilling is time in, and, managing the heat.  Hot spots.  Learn them, deal with them.  Also, don't keep flipping the burgers, and don't you dare smash them.

You see how they are sort of all over the grill there, hot spots.  You'll learn.  Remember, medium heat and I promise the burgers won't flame up.  It's important.

So, we put cheese on ours.  I know, I know, I just said no others spices, but, I like cheese on mine.

I can't remember whether Dad put cheese on them or not.  I think he did lay some American down on them sometimes, but, not usually.  I use shredded mixed cheese, cheddar and, uh, white cheese.  It's the same we use for Taco Tuesday.

One last phrase in italics, those are the ones I need you to know.  Remember earlier I mentioned a sizzling onion.  Well, my Dad, called us to the table and one of the three boys would hold the platter of buns and he would lay the burgers, off the grill, directly on the bun.  One time, I was starving, and I grabbed one and laid an onion slice on the patty and it sizzled, like in a pan.  Yeah, don't do it that way.  Put the finished burgers on a platter lined with a paper towel or two.  Now, let them rest.  Five minutes at least.  You will be rewarded for this.  Here's what mine look like as they rest, happy:

Here they are rested and ready for the table.  This is the face of a well-rested burger:

When I was a kid, we'd eat those things, like, thirty seconds of the grill and the juices would run like a faucet, soaking the bun and the thin paper plate, running down your chin at a hundred and forty degrees.  It can sort of be disastrous, and really annoying.  The juice always got on your damn potato chips and made them all soggy as well.

I sometimes serve potato chips with ours, but I like french fries best, lots of them:

We like baked beans as well.  Here's the table ready to go, chips in this photo it looks like:

Well, that's what I do on most Saturday nights.  I don't mind grilling in the cold, so, I do it year 'round.  My Dad did them in the fireplace in Winter.  He had this contraption that held a grill and swiveled over the fire.  It was pretty cool, I can't find a picture of it, though.

Why?  Why do I do this?  I don't think I know.  I suppose it is tradition, but, that seems bigger than what this is.  This is just something I feel like doing, something, I dunno, maybe silly even.  Maybe, it is deeper than I know, some primitive man in me showing off my skills and hunting prowess.

Maybe I do it for this:

I guess I do it in a way to honor my Dad, his Dad, the past, the old ways.  Yeah, I suppose that might be it.

It's either that or the fact that they are the best damn hamburgers I have ever had, and so were my Dads come to think of it, and I think he said his Dad's were the best.  Mine are better...

Thanks for stopping around the kitchen today.  I gotta run, the burgers are in the freezer...

(One of my very first posts around here was called You Should Try The Purge and it was about an imaginary restaurant in the basement.  On the menu you was something called "Hand Burgers" and to this day I think that would be a better name.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Sentimental Archivist

I have been teased, and have even taken a few shots at my-own-self for calling this corner of the web "ihopeiwinatoaster."  It's a little too late now to do anything about it, but, I might have called it "The Sentimental Archivist" because, well, I just can't resist archiving this shit.  Once I started taking a look at the stuff coming from Nick and Zack, I couldn't, can't, stop.

It has implied value now.  I see a drawing, hear a phrase, catch a bit of conversation and wonder about it.  I watch them come to understand ideas and concepts as they hear the words of Harry Potter or the wisdom of Aslan, and I note it.  I watch them dig a trench along a molehill across half the yard, earnestly, courageously, and remember the trenches I dug, for no reason except I had to.  I have come to see them in a different light, with a deeper understanding because... I pay attention to them.

I'd like to say that it's all about how great a parent I am, but, that would be - how to say it - a lie.  No, I see a lot more, pay more attention, because, at first, I needed to find things to write about.  Today, though, I have piles of papers and booklets and drawings and assemblages and songs and, and, a mind soaring with stories to tell about them, about me, about us.

I picked up that first piece of paper off the basement floor and read "No pliers are available" and knew a place had opened up, a place I had to look into, a place I needed to think about, a place I needed to stay.

I am glad I did.

Zack made this book a while back.  I'll just let you take a look at it:

And what, you might ask is the appeal here?  Innocence, I'd say.  Maybe silliness.  Maybe naivete.

Do you want to know the truth?  Simply this little panel, this little corner on page one where the hero is introduced:

Selfishly, I truly want to remember this.  I can go on about how he will see it someday and think back on this, remember that he took the time, had the time, was given the time, to make this.  It may be making him smile right now, I can't say that is my motivation.  No, I just really like "King Zack" and always want to remember a little boy who would be king.

(It's the crown... it's so damn cute.)

Nick sat at this very desk in the basement the other day as Z and I played a game of ping-pong.  I won (which I am endeavoring to do until they are out of high school, just... because) and it was Nick's turn.

"Here's Guy," he said as he handed me this:

I like Guy, he seems happy, carefree, and, I want to remember him.

Usually now is the time I sign off and leave you with a quip from Marci's "...things you don't expect to hear from the backseat..."  Well, I don't feel like asking her to post it so I can repost it here.  So...

Nick:  "I'm Nibbley McMunchykins .  I am a purple mousemonkey."

Yes, yes he is...

Thanks for taking a look around today, I am glad you stopped by.  Summer is a hard time to keep up with posting here, but, I'll be back when I can, I am a sentimental archivist, you know.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


I read just about every night before bed.  So does Marci.  So do the boys.  We never seem to have enough bookmarks even though they are issued constantly and, with a few hours training anyone can make one out of anything.

In fact, every year at school they are the go-to gift at Mother's Day, not Father's Day, mind you, no, nothing is made for dads at school.  You know.  These are cute, really, they pick flowers in the beginning of the school year and press them and then make and laminate the bookmarks around May.  The flowers are always a little tired and weary, but, it adds to the charm.

Anyway, when Nick heard us talking about bookmarks the other day he decided I needed a new one:

Yes, the fifties did call and asked for their checkered sweater-vest back... and, yes, I do look remarkably like a puppy.  And, I do say "huh?" a lot.

Nick made one for his Mom when he was about three, it is worn out and faded, but, Marci uses it all the time:

What prompted Nick to make me a new bookmark, you might be wondering?  Well, I use a couple of computers, a Toshiba laptop Nick once called the "Tooshba," which is what we always call it now, and this one in the basement.  I was complaining to Marci that I didn't like not having my regular bookmarks for the sites I go to on the one upstairs.  Nick did not understand the new use of the word and, trying to be helpful, decided to make me a new one.

It is full out summer here in the Midwest, hot, humid, sweaty and slow.  I have trouble this time of year writing longer, thoughtful pieces, so, bear with me as I just archive some memories and the like.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ..."

"Boom! You just got downgraded!"


Thanks for taking a look around here today, I am glad you did.

Oh, and here is the bookmark Nick uses... when he can find it:

READ like a Woreor (warrior)