Calculations I Wish I Could Do

I was not a good student of physics–
my notes from those classes were mostly sketches

superhero personifications of the forces of nature
decapitated heads sliding gooeily down inclined planes
and once, a refrigerator floating in space.

I wanted to know–
when you drop a fork in your kitchen
how much is its fall changed
by the gravitational pull of the fridge?
It’s hard to calculate for your kitchen,
but I tried, for a refrigerator floating in space.

It is easier, if you assume the fridge is empty.

I want to know, now–
how much ice cream to add to my coffee (in grams)
so the coffee stays warm until I’m done drinking
and there’s still two or three bites of floating island ice cream
in the last few gulps.

I know

we’ll have to make assumptions
about the temperature of the ice cream (and its density, and shape)
about the temperature of the coffee (and its volume)

I know

we are always making assumptions

I wish I could calculate
the right amount of doing
to balance our tenuous human connection with

my desire to exist as myself

I have tested
all of the assumptions
and my heart still throws

an exception

Calculations I Wish I Could Do

These City Lights

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Last summer…

… before Zack’s mom got sick
… before spending weeks driving to and from the hospital in the Oklahoma heat
… before my sister moved into our one-bedroom flat with us
… before my grandfather was hospitalized for brain hemorrhaging
… before my mom came down with MRSA again
… before, before, before

… I planted some Bright Lights Swiss chard. It struggled in the unusual heat–even in my shaded plot at the community garden, the sun scorched bare spots into its leaves, laying bare the cellulose skeleton beneath the deep green foliage.

I didn’t harvest it. I didn’t harvest it, because I had never cooked with Swiss Chard before, and trying new things requires overcoming inertia. I didn’t harvest it, because everything in our lives tumbled end over end for months as we scrabbled desperately for some kind of equilibrium. I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and then suddenly it was spring again and the sickly chard of last summer was towering gloriously over the red pansies like I had planned it that way.

So last week, I harvested some chard.

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I had planted the chard originally because I’d seen pictures of jars of pickled chard stems, and they were gorgeous. Now, having my own wealth of beautiful chard stems, I decided to try my hand at it. I used a variation of my favorite quick-pickle brine, adapted from the brine used for pickling carrots at Tartine Bakery in the Mission in San Francisco. It’s not acidic enough to be made shelf-stable, but they last for a long time in the fridge.

The pickled chard stems turned out so beautiful that it’s almost a shame to eat them–they’re nearly iridescent.

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Makes 2 half-pints

  • Swiss chard stems
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • Peppercorns, mustard seeds, and red pepper flakes (in amounts you find pleasing)
  • Approximately 1 tablespoon of salt (I use Morton’s Kosher: if you’re using Diamond Kosher, which is fluffier, you’ll probably want more than a tablespoon).
  1. Cut and arrange your clean Swiss Chard stems so they fit comfortably in the half-pint jars. You’ll be pouring brine full of spices on top of the stems, so make sure the stems aren’t crammed in there too tightly–you want the spices to have room to drift past the stems.
  2. Bring the water, white wine vinegar, garlic, and spices to a boil in a small pan.
  3. Stir the salt into the water/vinegar/spice mixture and stir until dissolved.
  4. Carefully pour the brine over the chard stems in the jars.
  5. Seal jars and refrigerate for at least 48 hours before consuming.

But, for some reason Zack insists that pickles don’t count as a meal when consumed on their own, so I made some pasta with the rest of the chard.

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This is less a recipe than a template: toasted breadcrumbs layered over chard sauteed with garlic on top of a long, thin pasta (I used angel hair). Toasted breadcrumbs were a revelation. I used up the ends of two loaves of bread so stale that when I tried to cut it into chunks for the food processor, it shattered, sending shards of bread skittering across the cutting board. But after a few minutes in a skillet with butter, olive oil, and garlic, the extra stale breadcrumbs transformed into something really special. (If you would like more specific breadcrumb instructions, I used Smitten Kitchen’s.) I had a few chard stems leftover from pickling, so I diced those and set them to saute first, adding the leaves only a few minutes before draining the pasta. The only thing I would add next time would be some lemon zest for the bread crumbs and a squeeze of lemon for the chard.

It’s a simple meal, but to me it tasted a little like hope, a little like redemption, a little like the promise of better days.

 

These City Lights

Browned Butter and Blood Orange Layer Cake

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If you looked at the patterns of the food I make, you would conclude that I never make cake. I certainly conclude that, usually around 3 pm in the afternoon or shortly after dinner, when I realize that I want cake and yet there is no cake because there is never any cake. For some reason, Past Me is always making us nutritious things out of vegetables (of all things), but never any cake. It’s almost like her priorities are completely out of order.

Today, though, with my fridge full of leftovers to eat for lunch and dinner, and the sink empty of dishes (thanks Zack!), I saw my opportunity. FUCK IT, I shouted to the internet. I’M MAKING CAKE. And so I scooped up the three blood oranges that have been languishing in the crisper, tossed some butter on the stove to brown, and proceeded to get every food preparation dish in my kitchen dirty in pursuit of cake. As a gift to Future Me, I’m also writing down the recipe, in case we ever want to make it again.

Browned Butter and Blood Orange Layer Cake (adapted from Food52’s Grown-Up Birthday Cake)

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of butter (I used salted, but many people prefer to use unsalted)
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • Vanilla bean, scraped
  • Zest of three blood oranges
  • Juice of three blood oranges (this yielded about 1/2 cup for me)
  • Approximately 1/2 cup of buttermilk
  • 4 T oil (I used olive)
  • 2 1/2 cups AP Flour
  • 2 T cornstarch
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Grease and flour two 9 inch round cake pans. I also lined the bottom with parchment rounds.
  3.  Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Stir frequently, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the butter smells nutty and turns brown. There will be brown particulate matter that separates and drifts to the bottom. That is both okay and also delicious. Once the butter is browned, remove from the heat and transfer to another vessel to cool–you don’t want the carry-over heat from the warm pan to burn your nicely-browned butter.
  4. Beat together the four eggs, seeds from the scraped vanilla bean, blood orange zest, and sugar until thick. I used a stand mixer and beat them together until the whisk attachment was leaving trails in the mixture.
  5. Fill a one-cup measure with the juice from the blood oranges. Add buttermilk until the cup measure is filled. Beat the buttermilk and blood orange juice to the egg and sugar mixture.
  6. Add 4 T of oil to the cooled but still liquid browned butter, and drizzle that into the other wet ingredients while stirring.
  7. Stir together the dry ingredients and slowly incorporate them into the wet ingredients.
  8. Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans.
  9. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
  10. Once cool, frost with the frosting of your choice; I’m planning to use Smitten Kitchen’s Fudge Frosting.

Update: This cake was delicious (and I ate it every day for breakfast for a week), though the crumb came out a little rougher/more rustic than I was strictly going for. I’m also not sure that browning the butter was worth the effort: paired with the chocolate, the browned butter flavor gets overwhelmed. I might save the browned butter for a loaf cake that you’re not planning to frost.

Browned Butter and Blood Orange Layer Cake

A Contemplation of Flower Preferences

I have never been particularly enthralled with carnations. They are an imminently practical flower–affordable and almost annoyingly long-lasting in a vase. Through an endless parade of post-performance flowers as a child, I may have come to resent them for their intense practicality. I viewed them, I think, as a cheap substitute for the lush bouquets of long-stemmed roses I coveted. Carnations were pedestrian–practical, grocery-store flowers; roses were decadent and glamorous.

I have always loved roses. As a child, having an intense fascination with the Victorian period that betrayed my complete lack of understanding of the reality of the period, I loved round, cabbage-y roses. I had never seen one in person, of course–Oklahoma is not an ideal environment for roses in general and those kinds of roses in particular. But my bedroom was plastered in textiles and prints of round, softly colored, many-petaled roses.

Rosa centifolia foliacea, a cabbage rose, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté
Rosa centifolia foliacea, a cabbage rose, by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

As a teenager, though, hybrid teas supplanted cabbage roses in my affection. Possibly, this was simply an issue of proximity. Hybrid teas were ubiquitous–the long-stems from florists, the roses in my grandmother’s garden, the roses featured in a thousand romantic comedies and ballet movies. I liked the pointed folds of their petals, the strange geometries revealed as they unfurled their tight urns.

I had no idea what a rose smelled like. The hybrid teas of my adolescence smelled like florist, like a finished performance, clean and wet and fresh but otherwise utterly forgettable. Certainly nothing worth writing poetry about. Roses, in my experience, were for the eyes and the skin–something to be admired and stroked, but nothing special to scent.

When I moved to Portland, the aptly named City of Roses, I learned what a rose could smell like. My friend Jessica and I visited the Rose Garden, and I methodically sniffed every single variety of rose that was in bloom. Roses can smell like rotting meat! Roses can smell like pears! Roses can smell!

I grew the first rose of my very own last year–a gloriously scented peach and orange variety from David Austin called Lady Emma Hamilton. I have never smelled anything so delicious. They do not last long in a vase–a few brief days–but I am more than a little in love with this rose. (I offer as evidence the fact that I took at least 60 pictures of the roses produced by that one bush last season. I will not subject you to all of them.) This year, I’m adding a Jude the Obscure and a Generous Gardener (both David Austin roses), chosen for their scents. And just like that, I’m back at loving best the softly colored, roundly cupped, cabbage-y roses of my childhood bedroom.

 

It is interesting to me, how my taste in flowers has changed. As a child, I really disliked tulips. They were, I thought, no where near as lovely as daffodils, and I resented the space they occupied in gardens. Somewhere in my early twenties, though, I came to appreciate their clean lines, the simplicity of their curves, the powerful impact a monochrome bouquet of tulips can have. Peonies, too, I found unimpressive as a child. The ones in our garden were brief, and frequently covered in ants. As an adult I would love nothing more than to roll in piles of peonies, sinking into their fluffy petals and smelling great forever. It’s not all flowers that I’ve previously disliked that I’ve come to appreciate, though. Gerbera daisies, which I liked intensely for a few years, now irritate me with their uni-dimensional cheeriness.

But what of carnations? They aren’t powerfully scented, it’s true. If there is one flower that captures the scent of a florist, for me it would be the carnation. But even practical, workhorse flowers hold surprises. I picked up a bouquet at Safeway a few days after Valentine’s, when I wanted fresh flowers but was unwilling to pay $20 for a dozen roses. The carnations were an interesting color–yellowy orange with shocking pink edges–and they were $4.49 to the tulip’s $6.99.

A few days after I unceremoniously plunked them in a vase, delicate white stigmas uncurled from the center of a few fluffy blossoms. They looked like dragon tongues, tasting the air, and I find them both comical and a little bit obscene. With so many flowers, the reproductive apparatus are displayed prominently, begging for pollen transfer. But carnations, the silky petals conceal those parts from prying eyes. The little stigma tongues, reaching out from peachy petals, strikes me as sexy and playful. And so, I’m seeing carnations with new eyes and appreciation. I hope you may, too.

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A Contemplation of Flower Preferences

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.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  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