Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oh! What fun!

I've had a headache all day. This isn't unusual. A barometric pressure response. Some people can tell if its going to rain from that knee that they blew out at hockey practice back in the Mulroney days. I can tell it's snowing because I see snow on the ground and because of the slow, rising ache around my forehead and the dizziness that feels pretty much like the bloom before motion sickness.

And did I mention the pain? Something like nails through the face, the back of the neck, under the cheekbones, and a mouth full of toothaches which, according to some, means that this is a sinus-related situation rather than a migraine. So be it. The headache also makes me stupid. This stupidity-by-association contributes to my half-acceptance of the sinus theory. More accurately, the stupidity is the result of being sore enough that thinking of the proper words for things - such as "Please pass the coffee" - becomes very difficult when you feel that simply by pointing in a direction where the coffee might be (your eyes are closed because the light hurts) you're offering a reasonable method of communication, while feeling insulted when nobody understands you and instead offers the salt.

I usually get migraines that make me light sensitive. I could attend a good performance of Carmina Burana blindfolded and I'd be fine. Today, it wasn't a light or noise issue but an all-over I wish I was dead or killing somebody sort of situation where I wanted to avenge myself upon the headache (and some kind of murder seemed like a good idea, victim unspecified) or destroy myself and see what was next. Self-beheading would have been appropriate and at least made the headache a moot point. Of course, I wouldn't have followed either path. Murder looks lousy on a CV and removing one's head with a rusty diced-tomato can lacks dignity all around.

But my irrational brain was flipping coins between self- and all-over destruction and my rational brain was muttering "I'm taking both of you home and putting you to bed early until you stop sulking", so it became obvious that a weekend trip to Zellers to buy a feather duvet for my son might not be an enjoyable experience for anybody. Except possibly my son, who sleeps in a cool room. And since ducks tend to be warm creatures while sitting on frozen lakes, maybe their feathers will keep my son from pulling on my elbow at 4am because his covers fell off.


Oddly enough, the aforementioned trip to Zellers went over rather well. We found a reasonably priced duvet and my desire to cause untold damage diminished as the day went on. The pain/toothache remained, but a steady supply of gelcaps turned it into a nagging discomfort rather than a continuous drum solo on my cerebellum. It did, however, segue into a weird sensitivity to smell. I had 3 large bowls of bread dough balanced on bookshelves and tables around my house to rise, and the yeasty smell made me nauseous.

Let's look at this again - bakeries are supposed to be good things. Most people follow the scent of fresh-baked bread down the street. Poems have been written about it. Real Estate agents buy frozen loafs of Ace Bakery bread and toss them in the stove on the lowest possible temperature to make them last all day to lure in the suckers (It even smells like home, honey). Rising dough is supposed to evoke memories of a favourite kitchen or that place on the West Bank of the Seine or that little bakery in Lisbon or the Subway franchise of your's not supposed to be sick-making.

It was.

However, I still wanted to bake the damn stuff.

I have a floor freezer. I make my own bread, wrap it tight, freeze it and put it into a warm oven to crisp whenever I get hungry. I like homemade bread. Just not today. But I won't waste the effort or the $2.75 worth of flour or the opportunity to have homemade bread.

I was aiming to get four small loaves and one good sized boule (or round loaf or whatever you want to call it) out of the dough. And my head had quieted somewhat after dinner, so I turned the oven to 475 degrees and loaded three pots into it - two small stoneware pieces and one large enamelled cast-iron with lids to hold the heat in. All 3 pieces are heavy, and this is the first time we've used them in the new house.

Remember that last line; it'll be of great importance later.

The cookware is supposed to sit covered in a oven for an hour before you add the bread, making it hot enough to produce a good crust. I've done this for a few years and learned that the dough itself is pretty forgiving. At worst, you get a loaf of soft, yeasty bread that's pretty much on par with the bread basket at the chain restaurant of your choice. At best, you get something light and crusty that's frighteningly easy to eat.

The air still smelled like rising dough - which wasn't helping me - countered with another smell, something like a hot glue gun from a long-past art class. I thought it was fat burning off from the back of the oven. I clung to that theory right until my wife said "Were those pots empty when you put them in?"

This is a valid question.

We've moved recently. We shoved a lot of things in pots. I didn't check. I had never checked before. A more reasonable man might have at least had a peek. My only defense is that since the pots have to sit covered in a hot oven, I didn't have any need to open them. And most sane people leave pots in their cupboards empty.

Don't they?

That's a discussion for another time.

I took the cast-iron out of the oven and opened it. After a second, I said "You might want to see this," to my darling wife, who came in to see exactly what happens when you bake 7 tea light candles, 2 plastic bags and a plastic hand-cranked flashlight at 475 degrees for 45 minutes. Melted paraffin and approximately 2/3rds of a flashlight oozed into a strangely elegant grey and black sheen floating over a clear sea of petroleum products. The magma wasn't burning, but it was clearly at boiling point and traces of smoke were starting to rise. I realized that it should probably be on fire, and probably wasn't because the lid had smothered any flames. Now that I was giving it lots of nice oxygen, it was, at best, a seething puddle of toxicity soon to combust in a pot that I would like to maybe use another day. For a boule of bread, perhaps.

I picked up the pot with my increasingly warm oven mitts. "Open the front door. I'm taking this outside."

Abby said "Okay. Wait. No! You can't put that down on anything cold!"

She was right. It would crack the enamel. I said "Okay. I'll pour the stuff out onto the snow and bring the pot back in here."

"You can't do that."

"Why not?"

"You can't just throw trash onto the street!"

My hands hurt; the oven-mitts appeared to be calling it a day at 450 degrees. I said "Fine. I'll pour it on our front walk. I'll pick it up when it's cool. Open the front door please."

She looked worried. "I'd rather you didn't."

I leaned closer. "Alright. Now. We have melted plastic in a very hot pot that's designed to hold heat and its about to set off the smoke detectors. What else do you think we should do?"

She considered this. "Well, we should probably..."

She hesitated. I countered with "OPEN THE FRONT DOOR."

She did. I poured the contents onto the walk, they made a really interesting cracking sound and threw up a great deal of steam. I hit what was left of the 'on' button of the soft mushy flashlight and one of the LEDs actually lit up. Another good thing to know for some kind of overheated unforseen circumstance that might happen in the future.

Did I mention my headache had, temporarily at least, stopped being an irritant? Small mercies.

I went back in. By this point it felt funny rather than surreal and my wife and I couldn't stop laughing while considering the kind of surprises the other two pots might contain. Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing more interesting than recently-charred newspapers. It had not flashed into flame at 451 degrees, so I made a mental note to call Bradbury and complain.

The bread came out fine, by the way. We brushed the ashes out of the stoneware, left the cast-iron to cool down and pressed a stainless steel cooking pot into service for the boule. The yeast smell, replaced with the melted plastic smell, segued into homemade bread smell. Which still made me dizzy and nauseous. Such is a migraine. Such is an evening's excitement. Bread and melted plastic and gelcaps.

The expression 'we make our own fun' comes to mind.

When the last batch was complete, I broke open one of the small loaves. I usually dust it with 12 grain flour, this one was unbleached bread flour all through. It didn't get particularily brown, but the crust was crisp and the bread was light. I dipped it in olive oil and watched a documentary about a Russian special effects genius from the 50's.

My head still hurt. This happens in winter. I had a migraine that lasted around 10 days one Christmas. The last thing I'll need tomorrow is the smell of yeast. But I still fill 3 bowls with flour, yeast, water, salt. I'll do it all over again. It's worth it. Bread is worth it. The rest fades away.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Exceeding Weirdness

Three case studies:

One - We were both in our mid-twenties. We were sitting in a quiet corner of a house party. She was letting me down easy, speaking in a gentle, smiling tone of voice that let me know I was very special to her. She wouldn’t change a thing about me, or our time together.

But she felt that our relationship should remain at a friendship level to avoid any potential unpleasantness down the road. And I shouldn’t think that I didn’t have enough to offer – I was handsome and charming, and any woman would be happy to have me beside her – but she was a restless soul who was afraid that her need to wander would hurt me. She assured me that she wanted to continue the trust and good-will that we’d built up over the last few months, and the last thing she ever wanted to do was to disappoint me.

It was gentle, but I can’t say that I wasn’t stunned. Primarily because I hadn’t been dating Samantha by any definition of the term.

We weren’t seeing each other casually or otherwise.

We hadn’t had one beer too many before an ill-advised fling on a warm summer/cold winter evening.

In fact, I had never actually been alone with her; we’d always met as part of a group. I hadn’t seen her for more than seven or eight hours since we met a few months before. And none of those hours involved anything that hinted at a relationship.

I was willing to accept that this was the wine talking. And I was dumped with such care and consideration that it felt rather touching instead of presumptuous and patronizing for the first two minutes or so. After that, it just felt exceedingly weird.

I don’t remember how I extracted myself from that conversation. I probably just smiled and said “I’d like that too,” and made a run for it, certain that this polar-opposite of a booty call would be forgotten when her hangover lifted the next day (it was). Exactly why it happened was beyond me. Maybe she was about to break up with somebody who looked like me and mixed up our names.

Two - I worked as a technical writer for a small software company in the mid-90’s. Being single and having nothing better to do, I’d occasionally go into the office over the weekend to do some work. One Saturday in early January, I walked into the lobby to find 4 or 5 small, half-melted plastic toys on a dirty patch of burnt rug. I ran around the office to find more vandalism, some weird slogans written on the walls and some rambling notes on computer paper.

I called the office manager and said “I don’t know if you know about this, but somebody’s held a little funeral pyre for the action toys. Should we call the police or building management or somebody?”

She took a moment before saying “We should probably…what? Pardon? I couldn’t have heard that…where are you?”

“I’m at the office. The toys. The toys from the Christmas exchange. Somebody has set the toys on fire. The fire’s out. I didn’t put it out. I just got here. Suggestions?”

“I…I’ll be right there.”

She and the company owner arrived. Questions were asked, handwriting was informally analyzed, and we learned that Leon was the only person working on Friday night; maybe he knew what was going on. When the owner called him, a serious voice simply said “He’s under a doctor’s care,” and hung up the phone.

It became obvious that Leon was perhaps not in good shape. Whether he caused the fire or walked in on it had yet to be discovered.

The owner rushed to Leon’s household to find out that something had indeed snapped in him shortly after Christmas. The notes were vague and it was hard to tell whether he was avenging himself on the plastic tanks, rockets and action figures for some injury or whether he wanted them destroyed to get back at somebody.

It didn’t really matter. He left the company and found the help he needed. He must have enjoyed the sleep of the just; after all, the toys had learned their lesson.

Three - In the late 80's, I spent a summer working a midnight to eight shift Friday and Saturday nights at an all-night video store. The lack of sleep for those 2 days per week put the zap on my brain and everything started feeling slightly off and surreal.

The weirdness culminated on the morning that I staggered out of the store and found a dozen dead red roses (elegantly wrapped) and a broken cigar placed carefully on the hood of my car. This was especially weird since my car was parked in a corner of the lot away from the other shops in that strip mall. One would have to go to some effort to leave this calling card.

I did what I thought was perfectly logical – I put the dead roses and cigar into my trunk and drove home to get some sleep before trying to figure it out. I had to hold onto these items because I was so zooey from lack of sleep that I wasn’t convinced it had actually happened. It sounded like something that would show up in a Tom Waits song from the early 70’s, the Nighthawks at the Diner stage:

(singing in a gravelly Tom Waits voice, hipster-beatnik phrasing)

“We had a whole lot of fun until we went too far
She left me at Frank Ri-co-tel-lo’s downtown bar
And left a little message on the hood of my car
A dozen dead red roses and a broken cigar…”

I went home. Slept. Woke up. The cigar (a Cuban, or Cuban impersonator) and roses remained in my trunk. I’d proven that I wasn’t crazy. But I briefly entertained the paranoid notion that this was some sort of Mafia warning – assuming that if the whole dead-fish-wearing-lipstick-wrapped-in-newspaper thing was accepted discourse, perhaps there was some kind of deep significance in dead flowers and a broken cigar. This was in the days before Google so I couldn’t refer to past events and see if, indeed, I was soon to sleep with the fishes.

The Mafia angle dissolved quickly (after I’d gotten more sleep) and what had I ever done to cross the Mafia anyway? Other theories involved:

- A guerrilla installation artist

- A beautiful (if frighteningly odd) friend of mine who’d been sending me homemade postcards with ee cummings poems for months and perhaps wanted to branch out

- A horribly misguided anti-smoking activist with Dadaist tendencies.

All these theories were eventually dismissed. I stopped the midnight to eight shift, got more sleep and speculated no further. The culprit was never found.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Shooting himself in our foot

A simple online quiz, courtesy of the CBC. This one posts the most popular answers before you can read the unvarnished truth, which struck me as interesting. So did the answers. Things have been weird and worse-than-expected for most world economies since September, so it's up to you to decide whether these answers were disingenous, sneaky, evasive, fear mongering or accurate. It's just interesting to see which ones were actually said.

Monday, January 19, 2009

For our readers in Alabama...

No matter what it seems...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Before and Done

I'd probably acquired them from a supply closet with tacit approval from one teacher or another after promising them I'd tape a performance or rehearsal or some such. I've had a bag of around 10 increasingly venerable videotapes since 1987 or so, and finally handed them over to a friend to digitize.

"You won't want to watch them," I said, "they don't matter to anyone except me and a handful of people." They were over 20 years old, marked BASF and were still packed in the ugly stiff brown plastic cases that marked them as expensive and state-of-the-art 20 years ago. They'd been around $7.50 apiece at the time, which makes them...hell, I don't know...$28.00 in adjusted dollars. Or something. The tech is dead. Who cares.

Me, apparently. I wanted them on DVD before the tapes turned into dust or landfil out of something close to sentimental reasons, or just to try and remember why I thought it was a good idea in the first place. The short little sketches I cut together on a linear editing system (entry/set - exit/set - 10 sec runup time - record - repeat) played pretty much as I'd expected, something between an above average episode of Home Movies and the lost recordings of the Max Fischer Players. I'm still in touch with a few of the people in the video, and came across a few others on Facebook, so I posted clips for the amusement of the throng.

I'm linking to this one with the much-repeated proviso that it doesn't matter to anyone except old friends who wandered in front of my borrowed camera in the 80's (I put it to music in '87, stealing the Claire De Lune angle from the astronaut barbecue scene in The Right Stuff). If you're reading this and you're IN said video and want it off the internet for reasons of privacy (or simple good taste), let me know. For everyone else, just remember it's very very old, okay?

When this went up on Facebook and YouTube, I received a few messages along the lines of "Look at my hair," "My god, we were young!", "You'll hear from my lawyer on Monday," and the like. That wasn't unexpected. But this recent comment from a seventeen year old Claude Watson student named Iva came out of nowhere:

"it's so sad to watch, somehow. Of people that actually went there, and I go there now, soon to be graduating. One day there'll be people looking back on us"

Yeah. It happens to the best of us Iva. Try as you might, nothing goes away. At best, you can chuckle over exactly why you thought it was so important at the time without looking down at it.

So...apologies to Orit, Suzanne, Evan, Gwen, Raquel, Erin, Sean, Niki, Lisa & Lisa, Yana, Jon, Erin, Maya, Janet, Kirsty, Ken, Kim & Kim, Don (in absentia), Elyse and Laura for the digitizing. You're somebody's object lesson in looking back.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Even as we speak

The good people at Boing Boing are far braver than I in discussing the Gaza offensive. Worth reading.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The way of the world

And it is 2009. And I now own a house. An old house. I'm too busy working on it or living in it to comment much about it. But if anyone wants to read a treatice on the uses for Polyfilla® in an 85 year old house (including an imaginative application on frozen waffles with thinly sliced ham, clairified butter and swiss cheese) they can contact me directly.

Otherwise, I've got relatively nothing. The Globe and Mail has published a piece about the return of 'lowbrow' food which is code for 'There's a recession! We're freaking out! Get something cheap and tasty! Jell-o will do!' and so on. Around a decade ago it would have been called 'comfort food' without provisos. Kraft Foods is going to have a good year (to the chagrin of some). I'll take a pass. Life is too short to eat fake-cheese macaroni and frozen pizza while calling it good.

Full disclosure: Swipe at the frozen pizza lobby notwithstanding, I have a box of President's Choice Calzone in my downstairs freezer. The roasted red peppers are far better than they have any right to be. They make a fast hot lunch when I'm sick of my own cooking. Mea culpa.

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