The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror

Sometimes, Zack and I do not understand each other. This makes sense, given the complexity and inexact nature of language; I would go so far as to say it is part of The Human Condition.  But there’s a particular misunderstanding that we have that I have also seen other people have. I call it “The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror.”

It starts innocuously enough. Person A says something, with the expectation that their conversational partner, Person B, will understand and respond in a particular manner. Person B, though, breaks from the expected response–a significant divergence from Person A’s expectations!

To Person A, Person B’s response makes no sense. Clearly, Person B just didn’t understand. Person A repeats what they had said initially, but with more insistence, and perhaps slightly louder.

Person B, unsure why Person A is repeating themselves when Person B had already responded, assumes that Person A just didn’t understand the response. So Person B repeats themselves, more insistently, and slightly louder.

At this point, Person A is getting flustered. Why isn’t Person B getting it? Are they messing with Person A on purpose? Are they being willfully ignorant? What is going on? Person A repeats themselves again, perhaps rephrased, but louder and with indignation.

Person B hears the indignation and the raised volume and can’t figure out why Person A is suddenly shouting at them. Person B has already told them that they asked for! Person B shouts back some version of their original response, perplexed and frustrated.

Usually, that’s where Zack and I break the conversation off; it becomes apparent that we have misunderstood each other and need to re-assess our assumptions about whatever it was we were trying to communicate about.

I have a hypothesis about why this particular pattern shows up. I think it’s an expression of existential terror.

See, we’re all consciousnesses trapped in poorly documented flapping meat sacks. Well, I say that we all are–I can only directly experience my own consciousness. I have to infer the existence of your consciousnesses from our interactions.

The above pattern of misunderstanding occurs, I believe, when we come face to face with the horrifying realization that our inferences could be wrong. We don’t have any concrete evidence that the other flapping meat sacks have consciousnesses inside them. All of our previous communications with the other flapping meat sacks could be statistical anomalies; like a coin coming up heads thousands of times in a row. Improbable, of course, but not impossible!

The panic starts to rise. What if no one ever understands us again? What if we really are the only consciousness? What does that even mean for our lives?

My consciousness can’t even conceive of a way forward if it is the only consciousness among the flapping meat sacks. Just writing about the possibility makes me feel anxious; in the moment, staring down the fact that everything we have always assumed about the beings around us may in fact be wrong, it is difficult to make a rational plan that is not “become a gibbering mess”. Instead, we cling to the tattered foundation of our inferences. If only we say it again, the other flapping meat sack will demonstrate that it is also controlled by a consciousness! Yes, saying it again will definitely work!

Of course, the consciousness controlling the other flapping meat sack in the conversation is having a similar experience. They, too, think, that perhaps if they just say it again, you will provide evidence that validates their belief that they are not the only consciousness.

The volumes rise with the panic, until one consciousness or the other manages to convince themselves that they are just being silly. Of course there are other consciousnesses controlling the flapping meat sacks. Of course. Misunderstandings happen all the time. Surely. The terror of the prospect of being well and truly alone in the universe fades. The comforting familiarity of the shared reality shifts back into focus–no sense in peeking behind the curtains. Both flapping meat sacks take a deep breath or two. It’s going to be okay.

And it is going to be okay. Communication, though tricky, is not an impossibility. Understanding, though hard sometimes, is not out of reach. We’re not alone; you are not the only consciousness piloting a flapping meat sack.

At least, I’m pretty sure you’re not.


The Escalating Volume of Existential Terror

Recipe: Slow Cooker Green Chile Pulled Pork

Green chile pulled pork stacked on corn tortillas, topped with green onions and sliced radishes.
Green chile pulled pork–it’s the gift Future You needs.

Since January, I’ve cut our monthly “Food and Household Consumable” budget by 25%. While I’m pleased that I’ve been able to pull it off, it has meant a near-total elimination of paying other people to make food for me, and a significant increase in the amount of work I am doing in the kitchen. Scratch making things is cost-effective (provided certain assumptions about the value of your labor). Unfortunately, the additional work, combined with the uninspiring late winter/early spring vegetable selection (fresh tomatoes seem so far away), has me pretty well exhausted by even the thought of cooking.

Fortunately, it is in situations like these where slow cookers shine. They’re great, not just because you can cook giant quantities of beans in them, but also because you can sneak in cooking before you are too hungry and exhausted by life to exert the effort to feed yourself. Slow cooking–it’s a gift for Future You!

So. This pork. It’s great in tacos, nachos, or burritos. It’s decadent over cheese grits. I’ve eaten it happily in a bowl of ramen. We’ve stuffed regular potatoes with it, we’ve stuffed sweet potatoes with it (definitely try that one). I suspect it would be great in tamales. Put it in your quesadilla! Put it in your breakfast burrito! Add some to your huevos rancheros! Put it on small roll with shredded cabbage and call it a slider! Enchiladas? Sure! Topping for fried polenta squares? Why not! Eaten cold from a bowl straight from the fridge because you can’t even be bothered? Absolutely! It’s dang versatile, and it freezes  beautifully. Make a big batch and freeze some–Future You will appreciate your thoughtfulness.


  • 2 to 3 lbs of cheap pork (I usually use bone-in pork shoulder, but it’ll definitely work with boneless shoulder, and probably other cuts, too. Probably not tenderloin, though. You can trim off excess fat and save it for later rendering or sausage.)
  • 1 lb of green chilies, roasted, peeled, and de-seeded. (Frozen is fine. Frozen is great. You will have a delicious meal with frozen green chiles. Don’t make this hard on yourself.)
  • 1 large onion (I usually use white or yellow, but honestly use what you’ve got. You could substitute 3-4 shallots and it’d be great. Hell, you could even use the white part of leeks, or an obscene amount of garlic. Just, like, pick something edible from the allium family.)
  • Approximately 14 oz of salsa verde.
  • Fat with high smoke point, for searing (canola oil, ghee, whatever. Honestly I usually use butter, but then my kitchen smokes up and I have to open the doors and windows, so be ye therefore warned)
  • Salt, to taste


  1. Liberally salt the outside of chunk o’ pork. If you’re feeling fancy or have extra time on your hands, let it sit uncovered in the fridge for 8-24 hours to allow the salt to penetrate the pork and dissolve proteins and stuff.
  2. When you’re ready to start cooking, slice the onion into half-rings and arrange them in a layer in the bottom of the slow cooker.
  3. Drop a tablespoon or two of fat with a high smoke point into a skillet, and heat the skillet over medium-high heat. Don’t do this in a non-stick skillet. Use a stainless steel skillet, or a cast iron one.
  4. Consider turning on the fan above your stove, as this step can get a bit smoky. Once the skillet is good and hot, sear each side of the chunk o’ pork. Basically, put a raw side of the chunk o’ pork in contact with the hot skillet, and leave it there for a minute or two until that side gets brown. Rotate the chunk o’ pork until all of the sides have a nice brown crust on them.
  5. Drop the freshly-seared chunk o’ pork on top of the sliced onions in the slow cooker.
  6. Pour the salsa verde over the top of the chunk o’ pork.
  7. Wedge the green chilies in the slow cooker with everything else. Yes, it’s okay if they’re still frozen. They’ll eventually unfreeze.
  8. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Usually, around 5 or 6 hours in, I give things a bit of a stir to break apart any large chunks of green chile. If things are too liquid-y for your tastes or application, prop the lid of the slow cooker on a wooden spoon to allow for additional liquid evaporation for the last hour or so of cooking.
  9. Shred with two forks, remove bones, and stir before serving.

Serves 8-10, depending on serving application.

Recipe: Slow Cooker Green Chile Pulled Pork

Vertigo and Tightropes

I had an intense bout of vertigo last night while making supper. It’s never happened like this before. I sat down to play a minute or two of Dragon Age: Inquisition while some pork browned for egg roll filling, and suddenly the room was spinning. Now, I’ve experienced something similar when standing up too quickly–a sudden drop in blood pressure will do that–but this time the room kept spinning.

And spinning.

And spinning.

Eventually the spinning slowed to sort of an oozey sway, like a ship rolling at sea. That was an improvement over the spinning, because at least I could sort of walk, albeit in a swaying, bouncing-off-the-walls kind of way.

It was terrifying.

There was the obligatory flurry of internet searches, attempting to determine if this was the kind of thing we needed to go to the emergency room for. As usual, there were a dozen relatively innocuous possible causes–hormone fluctuations, stress, ear infection–and a dozen life-threatening causes–internal bleeding, stroke, heart attack. When considered with some other uncharacteristic symptoms I’ve experienced this last week, it could just be stress, or it could be an ulcer bleeding severely enough to cause a drop in blood pressure.

Let me tell you, knowledge of the life-threatening causes does nothing to reduce the stress that could be the innocuous cause. As I sat on the couch, trying not to move my head too quickly, all I could think was, “We absolutely cannot afford this this month. I do not have time for this right now.”

Zack and I normally run a very lean, tight budget, which we are constantly optimizing for increased leanness. But this month it’s beyond tight. We’re in the limbo in between projects–waiting for contracts to be negotiated and signed, waiting for a client to FINALLY send us the money they’ve owed us since last summer, waiting for some inkling that we will make it through this part, too. This month I have to make it work on a third of our normal income. This month there is no room for error–no space for unexpected expenses, no room for exhaustion-and-ordering-pizza. I’ll be wiping out our emergency fund, again–the third time since last January. I guess this is the purpose of an emergency fund, but I find it so depressing. We never make it to the goals we set for it, because the emergencies come too often.

It’s temporary, I hope–we’re due to receive payment for the six-month-outstanding invoices by the end of February, and then the contract we signed last week will keep this venture afloat through April.

But last night, as I sat on the couch, trying to quell the dizziness, all I could think was that even going to the urgent care would wipe out the only non-essential money left in my budget for January–the cost of a haircut, allocated so I don’t have to give a talk on Wednesday with a shaggy, unkempt bob. Incidentally, the last haircut I got was in June, before I the last talk I gave.

I couldn’t even think about the money that would be required if it was something more serious than stress or an ear infection. Even the tests to determine the cause would be unaffordable now–let alone the actual cost of treatment. And this is a post-Obamacare world–we at least have health insurance! In a pre-Obamacare world, we wouldn’t, and I could just take my hypothetical internal bleeding off to a corner to die.

This is the tightrope we normally walk, on this path of questionable wisdom we have set out on. It’s just that lately, the tightrope is greased. There is a net–that’s the very nature of privilege, is it not?–but even falling into it would cost thousands of dollars (that we don’t have) and require giving up the life we’ve built here to return to a place whose climate, culture, and politics are hostile to life.

If my strange symptoms are stress related, it’s no fucking wonder. And if I am stressed by this–me, with all my currently-valued-by-the-market skills and resources–imagine how it must be for everyone without those boons. If my situation makes my head spin with terror, imagine how it must be for people who have to choose, every month, between the electric bill and the insurance premium, between food and a haircut for a professional event. After only one month of this with one to go, I’m almost ready to give up all of my grand plans and glorious ideals just to have a moment when I am not planning and replanning and optimizing and balancing and adjusting for all of the hundreds of ways in which everything can go terribly wrong. And I have it so incredibly good–I have reason to believe this is temporary, that we will make it through this, that this gamble will pay off. Imagine if there was no end in sight. For most people, there isn’t.

It’s days like these that I can’t believe I actually chose this path. Why would anyone choose this? What the hell was I thinking? Maybe Past Me had more vision than Present Me; more probably, Past Me just realized that in the US, this shit happens all the time whether you choose it or not. Past Me seems like she might have thought things out. Of course, Past Me was also less dizzy.

Last night, Zack and I opted to wait out the vertigo. Zack finished making dinner with remarkable skill and speed, especially given that he had never rolled or fried egg rolls before. I sat on the sofa, sipped water, and tried not to turn my head too quickly.

It’s better this morning, but still wrong, somehow, like my vision moves faster than my brain is able to process my movement. It’s disconcerting, but manageable. I will endure.


Vertigo and Tightropes

A Meal Plan for a More Foolish Mouth

Zack had one of his wisdom teeth out today. Somehow, this is an ordeal that both he and I have avoided heretofore. Given his druthers, I think Zack would have preferred to continue avoiding it. Alas, because we are Responsible Grownups who prioritize our longterm health, this morning I drove him to the oral surgeon in Oregon City  who decreased the wisdom in Zack’s mouth by 25%.

One of the hundreds of truly unfortunate things about American healthcare, I decided, is that it often requires you to pay lots of money to dramatically increase your short-term suffering. This really sets up a perverse incentive structure, in which the hypothetical future consequences of not proactively addressing your health are weighed against the combination of the very real increase in suffering in your immediate future AND the immediate cost. Logically, I know that the long-term costs of avoiding unpleasant treatments may be much higher, both in money and in suffering, than the costs of addressing it right away. Emotionally, that argument doesn’t hold water. Present Me looks at the budget and the magnitude of the immediate suffering involved and thinks, “WHATEVER, SCREW FUTURE ME, WHO EVEN LIKES HER ANYWAY?”

However, I do own at least one pair of Big Girl Pants, and Zack is remarkably biddable, so I shelled out $190 to ruin his day (and the week preceding it. He was not looking forward to this, not one bit).

While I sat in the waiting room, watching a remarkably violent DisneyNature special on chimpanzee wars, I wondered how people without friends or family handle this kind of procedure. The surgeon required that the escort remain in the office for the entire duration of the procedure if the patient was going to be anesthetized. This makes the “call a taxi” plan untenable. And even the “call a taxi” plan doesn’t account for the close monitoring you’re supposed to have in the six hours after the procedure. So who takes care of the people who are new in an area? Who looks after the people who are isolated? It seems that the cracks in the system are so massive they could swallow great swaths of society whole.

After a short twenty minutes (far shorter than the 40 minute estimate I was given), they released an incredibly groggy Zack into my care, admonishing me to keep him awake for a few hours and have him change the gauze every 30 minutes.

For someone as heavily sedated as he was, he did a truly remarkable job of communicating his extreme grouchiness with the whole affair. That’s talent, folks. Once we were clear to remove the gauze, he glowered at the bowl of applesauce I proffered, declaring soft foods to be offensive to him. “They’re not really foods,” he insisted. So much for the diet of milkshakes, broth, and applesauce that the surgeon recommended.

Fortunately, I spent my Sunday night wracking my brain for a menu that was suitable for a healing mouth. This is what we’ll be eating this week:

  • chicken and dumplings (mirepoix cooked until quite soft)
  • shepherd’s pie (crustless variety), with roasted cauliflower pureed into the potatoes
  • green chile pork tamales and refried beans
  • butternut squash soup
  • braised short ribs with garlicky spinach and cheese grits
  • pumpkin macaroni and cheese
  • chicken ramen

I admit that I am tremendously tickled to have come up with a meal plan that has no sharp edges but still passes Zack’s “real foods” test. Hopefully, the only “real food” he’ll miss is potato chips, which really can’t be made oral-surgery safe.

A Meal Plan for a More Foolish Mouth

Migratory Patterns

Plants have overtaken the dining tableIt’s gotten cold enough that the not-so-hardy plants have moved indoors for the winter. When I acquired these plants over the summer, I had planned to have shelves built along the kitchen wall by the time the cold season rolled around. But, finances being what they are, shelves haven’t happened yet. (Though, since our great discarded hardwood discovery last week, the shelves are closer to existing than ever!) In the meantime, the tender plants are hogging the dining table, basking in the rays from the south-facing window.

Recently, my friend Tom came over for dinner. We ate homemade egg rolls while sitting on the floor around the coffee table.

“I just want to point out,” Tom laughed when I apologized for the seating arrangements, “that we are sitting on the floor so the plants can sit at the table.”

A few days later I apologized again, to Zack, for the lack of available table space. He said “No, it’s our fault, really, for not checking the migratory patterns of the local flora before choosing an apartment.”

Migratory Patterns

Technicolor dreaming

My dreams of late have been intense, technicolor affairs that I wrench myself from, gasping and startled, to meet with more mundane reality. This happens periodically, for no reasons that I’ve been able to ascertain. Two in particular have captured my waking mind.

In the first, I was the protégé of an ageing queen–I was to succeed her to the throne upon her approaching retirement. I was not related by blood, nor married to one of her children; instead, I had been selected for the role based on some showing of aptitude. It was nearing the end of my training, and the queen, who found travel increasingly tiring as she grew older, began sending me out on missions in her stead.

My mission for the moment was to put a stop to an illegal logging operation on a remote forested island of some political importance to the country. The mission was a blurred montage of action–helicopter fly-overs of the forest, heated negotiations held in rooms made of glass and pale wood, riding at the front of the national guard as we barricaded the forest. I met with success–the logging operation was shut down, the ringleaders arrested. The queen was pleased. Continue reading “Technicolor dreaming”

Technicolor dreaming

Fall Ombre


In between baking batches of cookies today, I stopped up the street to collect leaves from the most fabulous maple trees. There are two of them, next to a parking lot, right across the street from the 5th and Mill Max Station. Every year these two trees put on the most incredible show, a whole palette of fiery fall on each tree.

I didn’t have any of the supplies necessary to preserve these leaves (nor, indeed, any idea what I would do with them if I had preserved them), so I just sorted them by color and took a picture before gleefully tossing them off the balcony. Sorting them into an ombre was soothing; tossing them off the balcony was a blast! Raining colorful leaves off my balcony may become my new fall hobby–there are still quite a few glorious leaves on those maples, just waiting to drift to the sidewalk to be collected. I’m sure my neighbors will be delighted.

Fall Ombre