Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gramp, part 2

I was thinking more about my grandfather this week.

My brother and I were leafing through a Sears catalog, sitting there in Gramp's living room years ago, and he asked us what we were looking at. I said a swim mask and snorkel--I can't remember what David said. Gramp stood up and walked out to his car and returned later with the swim mask and David's present. We were bug-eyed and excited to be sure, but he just returned to his newspaper, and I'm sure he told us to "get the hell out" soon after.

My mom was treated unfairly once by the bank--I can't remember the specifics, but she said Gramp got in his car, drove to the bank and told them "I'll be taking out my money now. All of it." Other stories included how he produced or threatened to produce a shotgun for one reason or another. True or not, the stories have a sort of Godfather theme.

I'm sure he had moments of weakness, of self-doubt, but I'm not sure if he ever allowed anyone to know about them. Today it's OK for grown men like me to blog and blubber on like teenage girls. But I wonder if it is such a good idea.

Unfortunately, we don't get an opportunity to play the Godfather very often or to become bigger than life. But I suppose I should just tell myself to quit crying and shut the hell up and quit writing this crap.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Choosing a Team

When Cheryl is away on one of her school trips, as she is this weekend, I could just go out to eat, but that's no fun. Better to cook something, hibernate and watch movies.

Light night I started, as usual, with a saute of garlic and olive oil. (The kitchen just doesn't smell right otherwise.) Then I took a big handful of roasted almonds and threw them in my 2-horsepower mega blender with chicken stock, reducing them to liquid, which I poured over the garlic. In the meantime I had a collection of chili peppers (anaheims, poblanos, serranos, habeneros) roasting in the oven. And in a little while I skinned them and chopped up fine and into the pan. After a slow simmer for an hour, I opened a can of crab meat and put some in a bowl and covered with the soup.

So what movie to watch? It's occurred to me, more than once, that I really don't belong to a team (i.e., vampire or werewolf). And so I risk becoming irrelevant in the modern culture, not that Cheryl cares because she's declared herself to be beyond team-choosing in this case and refuses to watch the movie, even though she consumed the books like I consumed my soup last night. No, I finally had to watch the movie by myself.

From what I can tell, my wife and other adolescent females seem to have their own bizarre notions (that I certainly can't imagine), while I can only approach the issue logically and with some practicality, which is to say that we (you and me) are most likely to join a team that reflects our inner qualities, at least as we imagine them, right?

And though I'm not one to make hasty decisions, or to swear allegiance to an unknowable or generalized concept (especially when there is still one movie to go), it does appear that I'm closer to one team than another. With the image of a muscled puppy boy on one hand, and a pensive, glittery ponce on the other, I don't have much choice, do I. But then again, neither did she...

Tonight I'm making pizza.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bread. Good.

This week I finally made some whole wheat bread that tasted like real bread. OK, so the loaf spread out instead of up, but it had a really nice taste. Even Cheryl ate some, and she is a tough sell when it comes to food.

During the process we discovered that our oven wasn't cooking as hot as we thought--the bread recipe called for 450 degrees, but the oven thermometer I bought (actually I bought two of them) showed that the temperature was only 375. (I found out how to calibrate it.)

My new bread book (thanks again, Gisah) describes how whole wheat flour contains the whole grain (gluten, germ and bran), while white flour has the nutritious germ and bran removed. The rise of popularity of the high-carbohydrate white flour (and the emergence of pretend foods like Wonder Bread and Twinkies) can be traced back nearly 100 years and to a simple fact: while flour has a longer shelf life than whole wheat, especially when certain chemical enzymes are added.

Like with countless other examples, our current food culture is the direct result of the corporate control of all food. Since white bread can be transported greater distances before it goes stale, it can be baked in a few big corporate bakeries instead of several local bakeries. Corporations can kiss my butt. (Oh, wait. I am one.)

White flour also puffs up like a balloon (this is because the gluten helps trap the gases created by yeast). Whole wheat flour is notoriously difficult to transform into a light loaf of bread, and I've had one failure after another, untl now.

So I'm really happy to have a decent whole wheat loaf. In this approach I put an iron skillet in the bottom of the oven to get hot, and then pour in some water when then bread goes it, creating some steam.

I'm trying again this weekend.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


My aunt Helen sent me a picture of me and my grandfather--one I've never seen before. We all called him Gramp. Over time he became a legendary figure, a no-nonsense man from that generation of pipe-smoking, hat-wearing, crusty tough guys who you normally don't see spread out on the lawn and playing with a toddler.
The note is from my mom.  I'm not sure where this was taken--it doesn't look like our yard.
Gramp lost a leg as a teenager. That much was true because I saw him several times without his prosthetic. He told us he was run over by a train, but he had lots of stories; about living with the Indians in Canada and about meeting Clark Gable while working as a lumberjack (and encouraging him to go to Hollywood). Who knows?

Also to entertain us, he often recited this poem (unless my mom could stop him before he got to the end). I can't remember all the verses, but here's the general idea:

Went down town, bought me a shovel
Shovel wouldn't dig, traded it for a pig
Pig wouldn't squeal, traded it for a wheel
Wheel wouldn't run, traded it for a gun
Gun wouldn't shoot, traded it for a boot
Boot wouldn't fit so I threw it in a pit
And covered it with shit
And that was the end of it.

But mostly he is remembered for not being overly sentimental. I was crying like a little girl in the backyard once, probably for no reason at all, and he walked out and told me to shut up and then walked back into the house. I don't remember the exact words; he may have said Shut your yap or even Quit your belly-aching.

He was right--it's not complicated. There's no crying in the backyard...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

No Toilets

It doesn't seem possible, but I quit playing music professionally over 20 years ago. I use the word professionally only in the loosest sense, in that it was my job (and my only job) for about 12 years. As for the quality of my playing, I was certainly no professional, and I'm still amazed that anyone ever gave me money. We do live in a great country.

Other than the playing, I liked nothing about that life: the late hours, other musicians, loud smokey bars, drunk people, lousy pay, mean or insane club owners, hours on the road, etc.

Once, while standing in a men's room, the guy next to me (another, much older musician) said to me, "They're all toilets," meaning all nightclubs and bars. Even the nicest ones, he said. No difference. Who, I thought to myself, wants to spend their life in a toilet?

So I got out, though it sure took awhile. Still... sometimes I think it would be nice to play with other musicians again. But no toilets.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Jazz, On The Page

I just recorded some jazz piano. But now I can't find the cord to download the videos from the camera, and that's probably just as well. If I had to choose one word to describe the videos: boring. (And that's one of the nicer words.)

Funny, because I didn't feel at all bored while playing. My ears were buzzing, my heart racing, my toes tapping, my mind struggling to get things right, struggling to turn those notes on the page transformed into instructions for my fingers, which is the opposite of how I played for years--from memory and while watching my fingers go wherever they liked.

Each day I get a little better at sight-reading and I enjoy it more and more, like reading a good book, lost in time for a while, even to the point that I can't actually hear the boring crap I'm playing as I'm playing it. But it's a struggle, and my improvement is measured in snail steps.

I could just memorize these songs and watch my fingers play them, but I'm determined to stay on the page. My fingers (to be honest) are stuck in some smoke-filled blues club of the past, and they don't like being told what to do.

Sometimes, usually early in the morning when my brain is not too worn out, I can read through a difficult passage effortlessly, and I get it. Like a teacher once said: "Playing an instrument is easy; playing music is hard." Or, as jazz musicians like to say, "Cool."

Except I'm almost never cool.

Looking at this from a broader perspective, I would probably be happier if I didn't record videos of my playing or, in general, if I didn't spend too much time measuring my own coolness. Oh well, one snail step at a time.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Best Halloween

I never liked Halloween. I only have one fuzzy memory from my youth, walking up to my neighbor's house in, I suppose, a costume of some kind, though I just remember a paper sack in my hand and some abstract fear that made me reluctant to press the door bell. What if I say "trick or treat" and they just stare at me.

The next memory comes from the late 70's. I'm playing music in big dance hall that is strategically placed next to a truck stop and several college bars. It's Halloween--I can tell because all of the women are dressed up like tramps, which is ironic because they are always dressed like tramps, only without as much imagination.

That brings me to the present. I made some pizza Sunday night (thanks to the bread book recipe that Gisah sent me) and Cheryl and I sat out front, with a huge bucket of candy and a little table between us, with Cheryl's new iPad set up to watch a movie while we waited--laughing and eating pizza and talking--for the neighborhood kids to show but only a few came, fewer each year, and that's OK. A little girl dressed as Tinkerbell was cute and said nice things about our house. We packed it up at around 8pm and finished the movie and pizza inside.

As always, I'm the luckiest guy in the world.