Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Third in a Series of Digressions: No... More... Pie!

One of the windfalls of attending the Consumer Electronics Show has been meeting a bunch of Princeton Review folks I previously knew only by their email addresses. Every one of them is smart and capable and 'good folks,' and I'm not just saying that because some of them might read this. I was initially drawn to working with TPR many years ago because it attracted bright, creative, interesting people, and I'm glad to learn that, despite other changes at the company, this has remained a constant.

I've been dining with them every night and, like everything else in Vegas, the dinners have been extravagant. I suspect I've gained 5 pounds over the last 72 hours, but the meals have been great fun, the sort that encourages one to overindulge, and even under the most favorable circumstances I am incapable of saying no to a well-grilled steak, or a glass of wine, or a grappa. Still, I woke up this morning with a very clear plan in mind: a very small breakfast and a salad for lunch. I've stuck with that plan, and can happily report that it was a welcome return to normalcy.

Last night I gave back the rest of the $100 I won on Wednesday night, and I'm hoping I'll have the restraint to call it quits. Not losing is winning in this town, so I should be happy I had some free entertainment and count my blessings. A friend commented on an earlier post that I should leave the slots behind and check out the craps or blackjack tables. I'm sure his reasoning is solid but I'll decline all the same, and here's why: in Vegas there are games of skill and chance, and games of pure chance. My skills are nonexistent, so any game in which skill is a factor is one in which I am at an unnecessary disadvantage. At least with the slots I'm on an even plane with all the other suckers.

Yesterday I finally made my way over to the Las Vegas Convention Center, site of the main CES exhibits. I guess I am not a techy, because I just couldn't get excited about most of it. There are tons of large screen televisions on display, but I have a large screen television at home and it looks pretty good; these may look better, but if they do, I can't tell. There's also lots of audio equipment that will allow us to annoy fellow motorists with the bass rumbling from our cars even more in 2009 than we did in 2008, digital cameras that will send your pictures and video directly to your computer or pretty much anywhere else, all sorts of data storage do-hickies, and cell phones that do everything. I don't imagine I'm breaking any news in reporting that cell phones appear to have won the gadget wars, and they are now being redesigned to perform every function that the war's losers perform. I just saw one that monitors your blood pressure... cool but also a little unsettling. What won't my cell phone eventually know about me? Finally, stuff related to Guitar Hero or Guitar Hero-like video games is ubiquitous. I truly do not understand the game's appeal; to me it looks like a video-game version of Simon, but simpler. Of course, I also don't understand why people spend enough money on pornography to turn it into a multi-multi-billion dollar industry.

Speaking of which: Big boobs are everywhere. Tonight is their night, as the adult entertainment industry' Oscars, the AVN Awards, will commence in a few short hours here in the convention center we share. Like Las Vegas itself, the proximity of scantily clad porn stars has gone from seeming unimaginably bizarre to normal, even mundane, in a few short days. Indeed, I'm surprised at how quickly I've adapted to the weirdness of this city: the smell of cigarettes, the clang of one-armed bandits, and the thwack of the passes that accompanies every shill's entreaty to attend a particular "gentlemen's" club have all now become part of the landscape, all easily ignored. If there's a Hell and if as a result of some clerical error I'm sent there, this experience gives me hope that it won't seem all that bad after not too long a while.

So there you go.

No.... more.... pie!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Second in a Series of Digressions: Just When I Thought It Couldn't Get Any Weirder...

Today was the first day of the Consumer Electronics Show. That's why I'm in Las Vegas; I'm here to help The Princeton Review, an education company, hawk its new test prep game for the Nintendo DS and also hawk the podcast I create for them.

CES is an industrial show. I've never been to one before, but it looks and feels very familiar as soon as I step inside, and I realize that it's because I recently watched The Conversation and this show is exactly like the surveillance-industry show Gene Hackman attends. CES is more high tech, but it's basically the same: row after row of booths with sales reps shilling whatever it is they're here to shill, all gathered in an unnaturally large and unappealingly lit room. I walk past one booth and catch this snippet of sales-guy spiel: "Here's my honest opinion..., " and I try not to laugh. No one is here to give an honest opinion. We are all here to convince each other that our widget is the best damn widget in creation.

As I walk around the conference floor, I notice that sales people don't look me in the eye; rather they stare directly at my chest, which is where my conference badge dangles. I realize that this is providing me some previously unheld insight into what it's like to be a woman, and I'm oddly grateful for the unsettling lesson. Because my badge identifies me as a member of The Princeton Review contingent, I receive one of two reactions. Those who recognize the company name realize that I have nothing to offer them and leave me alone. Those who don't look confused; they are probably wondering whether The Princeton Review is some sort of journalistic enterprise, and whether they shouldn't be foisting their widget upon me.

Our exhibit is in the Sands Convention Center. It's an adjunct location for CES; the main event is in the Las Vegas Convention Center (I'll be visiting tomorrow). As a result, our site is a little light on blow-your-mind cool stuff, but there is some. A group from MIT is showing off some very cool projects; they're not even selling anything, just letting attendees know that no matter how geeky they are, they are still several standard deviations toward the center on the geek bell curve compared to the folks at MIT. I'd describe what they're displaying but I'm sure I didn't understand it, so I won't embarrass myself. I see some video games that look like they were designed by some of the old Raw magazine crowd, and that makes me feel good. Mostly, though, our pavilion is populated by mainstream overseas electronics whose chief selling point is price. Very few 'wow' moments at the Sands, sadly.

Because we're just a sideshow, we're sharing our building with another show. And not just any show, ladies and gentlemen... No, our cohabitants are none other than the adult entertainment video (AVN) awards, and so the place is crawling with porn stars, porn purveyors, and, I guess, the media that cover the porn world. Here's a picture my TPR compadre Steve snapped in the lobby that the two shows share:

At the outset of the day I amused myself by wandering the lobby and playing a game I made up. The game is called AVN or CES? The object is to guess which show a random person in the lobby is attending. There are two flaws in the game however; (1) there is almost no way to confirm whether I have guessed correctly, short of following people around in a way that would be creepy under any circumstances but which is especially creepy at a porn convention, and (2) there is no need to confirm, because the game is waaaay too easy. All the middle aged guys who are dressed either in biker gear or faux gangsta gear are here for AVN; all the dweeby guys are here for CES. As for the women... well, let's just say it's much, much easier to discern between the two crowds of females and leave it at that. Just look at the picture above and you should understand what I mean.

Today was not a good one in the casino. The machines that had been so friendly yesterday today treated me as though we had never met, and I quickly gave back a chunk of yesterday's booty. I hope I will have the good sense to accept my losses and try again tomorrow, but the night is still young, so we'll see. The high point of the day for me was performing one of my podcast songs at a press conference. The response was quite good, and after spending the last few days wondering what I'm doing here I am finally beginning to see that there may be some opportunities for me.

I'm not sure I'd lay any money on it, though.

So there you go.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The First in a Series of Digressions: Day 1 of a Vegas business trip

Las Vegas is probably not the most fucked up place in the world. I mean, there's Pyonyang; that's got to suck big time. And then there's Myanmar, Somalia, the Gaza Strip, Iraq--indeed, the world is full of fucked up places, all much, much more unpleasant than Las Vegas. But Las Vegas may be the only place that is so intentionally fucked up, and all purportedly in the service of making a visit here more enjoyable. I am dumbfounded by this place.

I'll give it this much--there's nowhere else on earth like it, leastwise not that I've ever visited. Everything is big and bright and loud; the word "garish" was probably coined here. It's as if someone dropped a beach resort in the middle of the desert, then fed it a steady diet of architectural steroids to turn it into the Jose Canseco of cities. The trip to my hotel took me past many gaudy casino hotels, including the Venetian and Palazzio, both Frankenstein monsters of Italian architectural styles, and Caesar's Palace, which evokes the Roman Forum (a Hard Rock Cafe nearby is styled after the Roman Coliseum, clearly an homage to Caesar's). The folks who built this city had a thing about Italy, apparently. In comparison, my hotel--Treasure Island--is an exemplar of design restraint. It merely looks like a miniature golf course.

I detect a certain gambling theme throughout this city. A bank of slot machines greets you as soon as you deplane. No need to wait until you've collected your luggage to start losing money, right? This arrangement also offers departing vacationers that one last chance to win back everything they lost on vacation, or to give back what they've won. From the second you arrive until the second you leave, the opportunity to gamble is never more than a few hundred yards away. As I hit the button in the hotel elevator to get to my 14th floor room, I can't help shouting "C'mon, lucky 14!" My fellow passengers are not amused. I suspect they're Vegas regulars and that they've heard some variant of this lame joke many times before.

The hotel is another disappointing revelation. Someone once told me that everything in Vegas is cheap because the idea is to lure you out here with low prices so that you will spend all your money in the casinos. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was told that Internet access in my room would cost me $15. "A day?" I ask incredulously. "Well, we don't call it a day, because it's for 24 hours," the check-in lady replies, and I fear that my head will explode; I have apparently lived my entire life misinformed about the length of a day. I ask if there's a workout room. "Yes," she replies unenthusiastically, and I know what's coming next. "You have to pay to use it." I later find out that it costs $20. A day.

I take a walk though the lobby and see that Wayne Brady is performing tonight, but he likely won't choke a bitch during the show, so I'm not going. Elsewhere on the strip there's Blue Man Group, Cirque du Soleil, Barry Manilow, some acrobats performing to Beatles music, Rita Rudner, Bette Midler, Donny and Marie, and George Wallace, whom a large sign proclaims "The next Mr. Las Vegas." The picture of Wallace is so evocative--in pose, in clothing, in facial expression--of Bernie Mac that I suspect Bernie Mac must have been the previous "Mr. Las Vegas," and they're hoping most vacationers won't know the difference. "Yeah, and we saw that funny black fella, he was good! Not as good as the blue guys who spit paint, though!" Man, when Rita Rudner is your best entertainment option, things are rough. Where the hell is Rickles?

Strip eateries are dominated by celebrity chefs. Mario Batali is EVERYWHERE, as is Wolfgang Puck, and others are nearly as ubiquitous. I eat lunch in a section of the Venetian done up to look like a piazza, complete with a fake sky that, due to jet lag, I confuse for real. "Are we outside?" I ask hazily, and upon being informed that we are not I realize that I really, really need a glass of wine. The restaurant is a virtual copy of Batali's Otto in Greenwich Village, except that everything on the menu is approximately 30 percent more expensive. "Sweet mother of God," I realize, "I've finally found a place more expensive than Manhattan." A glass of aglianico, thankfully, takes the edge off. At least until the opera singers, jugglers, and harlequins arrive in the "piazza" to give a joyless, completely over-the-top performance. I hear they do this every hour, all day long. I shit you not. Now I know why everything's more expensive here than in Manhattan. It's because it's "better."

I am ready to write this city off entirely when, as luck would have it, I win $100 in a slot machine, and my attitude improves considerably. A few more wins like that and I'll be able to cover my Internet bill for my stay!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Food Interlude VII: Stews

Nature screened coming attractions for winter for much of the country this past week, and the Carolinas, sadly, were not spared. We had a few mornings on which the first dog walk jolted me into a state of wakefulness I much prefer to induce gradually with coffee, and throughout the day any gust of wind was likely to elicit the sort of interjections one does not hear on Schoolhouse Rock, nor, for that matter, down here in the polite South, leastwise not outside familiar company. More than a few times the cold had me swearing like a New Yorker.

I try to see the positive side of everything, but winter poses a significant challenge. One of the reasons I left the northeast is that I hate the cold as much as The Dude hates The Eagles. All the same, I am an intrepid optimist, and so I seek out reasons to be cheerful. Some folks around here suggest that a cold winter would mean there'll be a lot fewer ticks and mosquitoes next summer. That would certainly be nice. The cold weather also means my lawn will go dormant, meaning I can mothball the lawn mower until next spring. All in all, pretty weak tea; no wonder winter usually leaves me asking myself "Why don't you get back into bed?"

Winter is the time for stews, however, and that's nice. Sure, you can eat stews any time of year, but their heaviness and richness better suit the time of year when it's not so bad to be carrying a few extra pounds. They warm your innards and leave you full in a way you'd rather not be when there's fun to be had outside. In the winter, though, you have plenty of time to sit indoors and ruminate. It's preferable to going out in the f@!#ing cold, that's for sure.

The blueprint for this recipe appears in one of Madhur Jaffrey's many fine Indian cookbooks. I've tweaked it and added to it enough that I feel it's as much mine as hers. Enjoy!

1 large onion, diced fine
5 cloves garlic, smashed
3 Thai chilis or 1 jalapeno chili or whatever chili in whatever quantity you like, seeded and diced
3-4 tbsp of fat (ghee or vegetable oil)
3 pounds of lamb stew meat (shoulder or leg works fine), seasoned with salt and pepper, trimmed of excess fat, and cut into 1 1/2" dice
1 1/2 cups water
12 ounces canned Roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 russet potatoes, each cut into 6 equal size pieces
a pile of green beans, trimmed and cut into 2" lengths
frozen peas, as many as seem right
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander seed
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
salt to taste

Heat the fat over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion, garlic, and chilis, and cook until the onion is limp and translucent. Add the lamb and brown on all sides, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

When the lamb is well browned, add the tomatoes and the ground spices and stir to mix. Work this for a minute or two, until the spices give off a wonderful aroma. Add the water. Scrape the bottom of the pan to get the brown stuff off the pan and into the liquid; there's a lot of flavor there. Give it all another couple of good stirs to make sure it's all mixed up and blended in. Add the potatoes, the green beans, and the peas. Bring the liquid to a near-boil, cover almost entirely, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer for 75 to 90 minutes, until the meat is tender and the gravy is thick and rich.
You can serve this over basmati rice if you like but there's no need. Like most hearty stews, this is an entire meal--or four, or six--in a single pot.

So there you go.

Monday, November 17, 2008

XVIII: In Which I Consider Declaring Independence From Independence

I do not like the term "independent contractor." To me, it sounds like someone in the homebuilding business. Also, it emphasizes the part of my job--i.e. the search for and procurement of contracts that allow me to work--that I enjoy least and at which I am least skilled. Calling me an independent contractor is like calling Mario Batali a hand washer; it confuses what we must do before we work with the work we actually do.

What I am is a freelance writer. In many ways it is a very cool way to earn a living. I work at home, I do something I'm reasonably good at and which can be reasonably remunerative, and I work whenever I damn well please so long as I hit my deadlines. Do I feel like playing golf this morning? Then why not? No one cares whether I write from 9-to-5 or from 4-to-midnight or even, so long as nothing's due tomorrow, I decide to blow off work for the entire day, or for two days. It is a freedom worth cherishing, and I do.

People tell me that they can't imagine themselves having the discipline to work at home. For me, that's never been the problem; my heretofore disinclination to work in an office has been all the impetus I need to get my work done. That, and the fact that a freelance writer never knows when the next project is coming, so it behooves him to work as quickly as he can to create the opportunity to take on more work, should the opportunity arise. The freelancer can never forget that he could at any moment hit one of those stretches where there is no work for weeks or even months at a time.

And therein lies the big problem with freelancing. You must live your life in a perpetual state of squirrel-in-autumn mode, which can be extraordinarily enervating. And stressful, too; there are long nights during those rough stretches when you wake up convinced you will never, ever get a writing assignment again, and sleep is thereafter unattainable. The next day you send queries to a couple dozen editors, and not one bothers to write you back, and you start to feel invisible or loathsome or both, and by the time more work finally arrives you are pretty much a basket case. This is a permanent state of being for freelancers, and it sucks. It'll drive you to take a stultifying six-month project because, well, it means you won't be stressed about finding work for six months. Instead, you'll only be stressed about doing the work you've signed on for.

Even when you find work, it's not a sure thing that you'll be working any time soon. Writing projects in my field, education, are invariably slow coming through the pipeline. It is not uncommon to sign a contract for work that you foolishly assume will start up within a few days, only to wait around for weeks or even months before the assignment starts trickling in. I am currently signed on for two such assignments, and they have convinced me that Tom Petty holds the secrets of the universe. The waiting is indeed the hardest part. That, and the watching while your bank account dwindles.

And then there's the fact that you have to pay for your own health insurance, a hefty bill that comes every month regardless of whether you've worked. The self-employment tax is another backbreaker; it's the freelancer's version of social security tax, but it's double the payroll FICA deduction because you have to cover both your and your employer's (that'd be you, Mr. Independent Contractor) contributions. Finally, there's that nasty business of going about looking for work. This involves being assertive, not one of my better-developed skills. I suspect I'm not alone among my peers in this regard. One reason people choose to be writers is because writing is a job that can be done alone, without a lot of confrontation or negotiation. If we were good at being assertive, we'd all be motivational speakers or used car salesmen or panhandlers instead of writers.

The freelance writer must periodically make his neurotic rounds from editor to editor, continually working a calculus to determine whether (a) he hasn't been assertive enough and will therefore lose whatever job comes up to another, more assertive writer, or (b) he has been too assertive, thereby pissing off the editor and losing an opportunity to work. The solitude of a freelancer's life does not help; we don't get a lot of practice with work-related interactions, and as a result we are prone to weird fantasies regarding the innumerable ways in which The Work Givers are conspiring to destroy us. We convince ourselves that they are doing so because they hate us, because we get to work at home while they have to go to their offices.

Well, I think I'm finally ready to join their ranks. After 25 years of going it alone, I am plumb wore out, as we say here in the Tar Heel State. It has gotten so bad that I suddenly find myself wanting to be forced to wake up at a specific hour each morning, put on some respectable duds, and travel to a place where I'll be required to stay for eight hours even when there's nothing for me to do. I want a career, I want a chance for advancement, I want benefits, and most of all I want to have someone other than my dogs to talk to during the workday. Not that my dogs aren't fascinating company; it's just that their interests are rather limited. They will gladly discourse all day on chasing things, or barking at the cat in the backyard, or the smell of each others' sphincters. On the movie we watched the night before or the prospects for a successful Obama presidency or pretty much anything of interest to humans, however… eh, not so much.

I have applied for a couple of jobs at the local university. They are writing jobs, so if I get one of them I won't have to learn a new skill. I put my applications in nearly three weeks ago and so far haven't heard boo from the school.

I'm beginning to wonder whether this finding "honest work" thing isn't all that different from begging for freelance gigs.


So there you go.

Monday, October 6, 2008

XVII: In Which False Spring Arrives, Perhaps

First, an apology for the long layoff. During my first months of bachelorhood, every experience seemed new and strange and noteworthy, evoking what I hoped were entertaining and instructive insights, which I duly recorded here.

Lately, though, life has taken on a sadly familiar sameness, and there has been little to inspire me to write. What has most occupied my mind in recent weeks has felt too personal and, frankly, too whiny to share. As previously noted, I'll save that shizzit for my shrink. I'd prefer to entertain you.

And so I have neglected this page. I hope to return to it more frequently but will not do so simply to chronicle my frustrations with the world and my place in it. To paraphrase Mr. Ed, I'll never speak unless I have something amusing to say. Or someone has rubbed peanut butter under my lips.

Now to the matter at hand. A few weeks ago a woman, a friend of a friend who is otherwise a complete stranger to me, pinged ('friended' to those who love facebook and hate the English language) me at facebook, the addictive social networking website. My curiosity piqued, I naturally went right to her profile page to find out about her. Turned out she has quite an impressive resume and, more impressive still, has looks that indisputably qualify her for 'reet, petite, and gone' status. So I click around some more and, damn it to hell, I discover she lives thousands of miles away. Oh, and she's in a relationship. With a guy who looks like a young Paul Newman.

All this seems pretty unremarkable until I pan back to macroview, at which point I realize that I (1) had been introduced to a stranger, (2) tried, hopes rising, to figure out whether we'd be compatible, and (3) suffered the crushing blow of learning she is unavailable, all in about two minutes. Speed dating has nothing on the Internet.

One of the nice things about light-speed heartbreak is that, like a very sharp knife, it leaves a clean wound that doesn't hurt much and, provided the incision isn’t too deep, heals quickly. The half life of this e-crush and its attendant disappointment was all of about ten minutes. Ten unbearably heart-wrenching minutes, I assure you, but between the time I despondently popped a frozen pizza in the oven and the time it came out, I was over it. Even so, I had developed a crush of sorts (albeit of the inchoate variety), the first rumblings of such feelings since my marriage flatlined. In the final tally, that's what feels significant about this; I'm pretty sure I just experienced a brief false Spring of the heart, a peak into a future that promises all the emotional highs and lows I happily thought I'd left behind when I got married.

Even this brief trivial experience reminded me of how extreme those highs and lows can be. Now, some people seek such extremes while others endure them only when necessary, and then only grudgingly. I am squarely in the latter camp. I cannot understand the allure of roller coasters of either variety: real, or emotional. Sure, the highs are great, but anyone who wasn't born yesterday and is paying even a little attention knows those highs are almost always offset eventually, and usually with interest.

That's how I'm feeling these days anyway, which probably means I'm nowhere near ready to date yet. When I reflect on the breakup of my own marriage or when I talk with friends who are dealing with their own troubled romances, my instincts lean toward defensiveness and self-preservation. The prime directive these days is 'Don't get hurt again,' and that's no way to go into a new relationship. When I can look heartache in the eye and convince myself it's worth the risk, I'll know it's time to get back into the game.

I hope that day comes soon. Not because I'm lonely (I am, but that's not the reason), but because entering a new phase of my life should shake things up enough to give me plenty to write about here.

So there you go.

Monday, September 8, 2008

XVI: In Which I Contemplate Religion and Love

When I was young, I experienced a brief but fervid religious phase, a sort of personal Great Awakening. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time, and I was beginning to become aware of the vastness of the universe and our insignificant place in it, of the frightening uncertainty of life, and, most of all, of death and the fact that someday I would cease to be. I was a cheery kid. I remember lying in bed at nights and imagining what it would be like to live in a coffin; some of the fine points of death, apparently, are not readily obvious to ten-year olds.

And so I started looking for answers to Life's Big Questions. That search resulted in the procurement of some very authentic and very unhip religious gear (tsitsis, a very "groovy" multicolor Seventies-vintage tallis and an equally hideous yarmulke that looked like a collapsed fez), regular shul attendance (my rabbi once referred to me as 'Super Jew' during this period, and I wasn't too young to know that I was being patronized, and to resent it), and, no doubt, plenty of smug sanctimony.

I was looking for something to believe in. It couldn't merely be enticing, though; I wasn't going to be satisfied simply because I was being promised spiritual fulfillment or a place in Heaven if only I toed the line. I've always figured God must have given us brains for a reason, so that if something seems to make no sense at all or, worse, appears to contradict all good sense, He would want us to reject it. The alternative is to accept a God who hands down arbitrary and unfair rules and principles… why? Because He's a capricious prick? Because He loves a good practical joke? If you stop to think about it for even a second, you realize that either that God doesn't exist or that, if He does, it wouldn't do you the slightest good to pray to Him.

And so I arrived at your standard rationalist understanding of religion: that it was created to keep people in line, to reinforce societal power structures, to answer questions for people who cannot live in a world where the answers to those questions are not reassuring, etc. etc. I have lived most of my life without the comforts of faith, and without missing them.

Or have I? Before I met my future ex, my relationships typically started with physical attraction and quickly devolved to pathology driven by an empty set of shared interests, attitudes, and goals. It was so different with my future ex--we had so much in common--that I naturally assumed I'd hit the mother lode, that I'd found elusive 'true love.' Everything after that, from dealing with a long-distance relationship for two years to getting married and even to our last few unhappy years was based on, well, faith; faith in a concept I have no more proof of than the existence of God, and faith that it meant things would have to work out all right in the end, even if the going got rough for a while.

Well it did and they didn't, of course, and here I am, perplexed and with a damn Foreigner song stuck in my head to boot. Recently I'd begun to believe that I don't really know what love is, that I never have and that I probably never will. Fortunately--Thank God?--serendipity stepped in. The other day I watched Juno for the first time, and therein lay the answer to my most recent search for A Big Answer. It comes from Juno's father, Mac MacGuff:

In my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person will still think the sun shines out your ass. That's the kind of person that's worth sticking with.

You probably have to see it to get the full effect. And yeah, I know, it's just a movie, and life isn't like the movies. Still, if I ever meet someone else, if I ever fall in love and get married again, that damn quote's getting embroidered, framed, and hung somewhere it can't be missed.

So there you go.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Food Interlude VI: Thai Curry

A few simple rules govern the RB kitchen:

1) Meals must be reasonably healthful (some exceptions allowed)
2) Meals must be delicious (no exceptions!)
3) Preparation and clean up should be as easy as possible; anything elaborate better be damn good!
4) There should be leftovers

These rules are pretty universal, I concede, but I would add that they are especially salient for those of us who cook for and clean up after one, especially one who is single. I need to eat well because I cannot afford to become a big fat slug again, at least not until I ensnare my future future ex; the food must be tasty because I must keep my spirits up during this period of unbidden solitude; prep and clean up must be easy because I have to do it all, at least until the aforementioned future future ex materializes; and there must be leftovers because God created a meal called lunch, and a person who cooks for one cannot be preparing several meals a day from scratch. As an added bonus, if I eat lunch at 2 o'clock, I can have dinner reruns while watching a rerun of the previous night's Daily Show. That's a bit of cosmic synchronicity, and I dig it.

Few foods fit my four rules as neatly as does a Thai curry. Thai curries are simple to make, they're reasonably good for you (do you see many fat Thais? Neither do I), they are awesomely delicious, and, as with all stews, you can make as much as you like, meaning you'll have all the leftovers you can handle.

I am partial to yellow and masaman curries, which are both sweet and hot and pair well with chicken or shrimp. Purists make their curry pastes from scratch, and while I have no doubt that homemade curry pastes are infinitely better than store-bought curries, I confess that I find Maesri brand curry pastes quite fine, fine enough that I use them without the slightest remorse. They are also very inexpensive.

Like all stews, Thai curries can be--are meant to be--made with whatever you have sitting around the kitchen. You don't need a hard-and-fast recipe, just a few basic cooking techniques (sauté, stew) and some ingredients. My curries often include some of the following: potato, sweet potato, carrots, frozen peas, frozen corn, frozen green beans, fresh green beans, mushrooms, spinach, and some sort of flesh. Here's the one I made tonight:

1 lb. shrimp
1 onion, halved and cut into thin half-moons
1 large russet potato, cut in 3/4" dice
1 green bell pepper, sliced lengthwise to 3/4" width, then halved
1 Serrano pepper, halved and seeded
some tomatoes, diced
1 can light coconut milk
1 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. peanut oil
salt to taste

I started by sautéing the onion in the peanut oil until the onion was cooked through and limp. While the onion was cooking I cut up the potato and bell pepper.

When the onion was cooked, I added the potato and cooked for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, just long enough to brown the potato a bit. Then I added the coconut milk and fish sauce. I brought the liquid to a boil, then added the green pepper and the Serrano pepper. I stirred in a generous tablespoon of yellow curry paste, reduced the heat to a simmer, and covered and cooked for 10 to 15 minutes, until the potato was cooked through.

When the potato was done, I added the shrimps, brought the liquid back up to a steady simmer, and cooked for a few minutes, until the shrimps were cooked through. At that point I turned off the heat, added the tomatoes and cilantro, hit it with a pinch of salt, and gave the dish a quick stir. It was now ready to serve, so serve I did.

After I was done, I realized that the dish was missing basil, a traditional ingredient in Thai curries. It was no worse for the basil's absence, truth be told. You can serve this dish over rice--jasmine rice is probably the best option for Thai food--but for me the potatoes make the rice unnecessary.

Best of all, this is a one-pot dish, making clean up a breeze.

So there you go.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

XV: In Which I Find A Buyer For My Home

In mid-February, my future ex and I decided we needed a trial separation. By mid-March, we had separated for good.

In mid-April, we had tickets (purchased back in February) to see Nick Lowe and Ron Sexsmith in concert. To my future ex's misfortune, I had possession of the tickets, and my state of mind back then was such that I couldn't imagine our being together in the same concert hall, much less sitting next to one another; the hurt was still too fresh and too raw. I found another taker for the second ticket.

It's now mid-August, and while I still don't think I'd much enjoy a concert at which my future ex and I were sitting side by side--I'd be too self-conscious, and I expect she'd feel the same way--I can now at least imagine our attending the same show and enjoying it so long as we mostly kept out of each others' way. I may well be wrong about this, but at least it seems conceivable. That in itself is a step forward.

What I'm getting at here is that time makes things better. At first, a big bust up leaves a nasty open wound that screams at you pretty constantly. Your rational self knows that the noise will end eventually, that the entire rest of your life won't be an endless wail, but your emotional self isn't so sure. Eventually, though, the wound does start to scab over. It still hurts, but not quite as much, and you start to believe your rational self when it tells you that things will be even better tomorrow and again the day after that. Things quiet down.

It wasn't that long ago that I found the prospect of remaining in our house unimaginable. I was all but certain that I needed a completely fresh start, and that meant leaving the marriage home behind. But a funny thing has happened in the past couple of months. I've started imagining changes to the house that I could make, changes that never would have occurred to me back when I was married. I've also begun to establish a rhythm, a routine for cleaning and maintenance and all the other chores of home ownership that I used to shunt off on my future ex. In the process, the house has started to feel a little less like 'ours' and a little more like 'mine.'

Much as I'd like to pretend that my decision to buy the house is solely the result of some wonderful organic healing process, I must concede that more pragmatic concerns are also at play here. A real estate agent ran a Comparative Market Analysis to determine a likely selling price for our home, and the result was at once disappointing and fortuitous: disappointing because my ex and I had hoped it was worth more, but fortuitous because it meant that I could afford to buy out my wife's share of the house.

The prospect of selling the house was also a factor. When the realtor explained to me that I'd have to make my home look like an Ikea showroom and that I'd have to live in that antiseptic fantasy state for however many months it took to ensnare a buyer, my enthusiasm for a fresh start waned precipitately.

And there's also the remote prospect that I might have to relocate to a new city for work, meaning I might have sold this house, bought a new one, then had to turn around and sell that one too. To paraphrase Barney Fife's reaction when he learned that Aunt Bee was cooking up eight quarts of her kerosene pickles, the very thought of it shakes my will to live.

And so here I shall stay, at least for a while. Procuring a new mortgage was a bit of an ordeal because bankers hate freelancers, even those of us with spotless credit records. I imagine that either they think that there is something fundamentally and irreparably wrong with us--that they wonder "Who would choose to work at home and earn an unpredictable income when he could sit in a cubicle all day for steady pay?"--or they want to punish us for figuring out a way to make a living without having to sit in a cubicle. Either way, every mortgage I've ever gotten has been like having my wisdom teeth extracted. Through my anus.

Now that it will soon be mine, there's a part of me that indulges fantasies of turning the house into a bachelor nightmare, of painting the walls the colors worn by my favorite sports teams, of filling every space with rock and roll memorabilia and empties of every brand of beer I've ever drunk and piles and piles of comic books, of turning the living room into a combination home theater/bar/gym/piñataria, and of converting my office and/or bedroom into a replica of Elvis Presley's Jungle Room. Then there's another part of me that realizes that eventually I will have to sell this house, and that it will have to look like an Ikea showroom when I do. That's my rational self talking, and I'm learning that he's usually right. There'll be no Jungle Room for me, damn it.

So there you go.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

XIV: In Which I Am Reminded of My Resemblance to a Boiled Frog

I've been cleaning up the house lately in preparation for putting it on the market. Sorting through seven years worth of accumulated junk is a formidable task, and one that is not without its occasional surprises. Yesterday, for instance, I found a photograph of me taken in September of last year. I was 20 pounds heavier than I am now, and I will not lie: I was big old tub of goo. What was shocking was not so much seeing myself so Sumo-esque but rather the realization that at that time I had convinced myself I wasn't as rotund as I actually was. I now recall dressing in ways that I thought masked my endomorphy and approaching mirrors from complimentary angles only and concocting all other sorts of strategies to maintain the fantasy that I wasn't a porker.

There's a paradigmatic science experiment that everyone, even science nitwits such as I, recalls. A frog is placed in temperate water. Then, the temperature of the water is increased gradually until it reaches a boil. The frog accommodates itself to the incremental increases and stays put until, ultimately, it is cooked. This is not only a nifty science experiment, but also the beginning of a fine French stock.

You no doubt see where I'm going with this. In retrospect, it's now clear to me that my marriage endured a slow steady decline during its final years, that it was over long before my future-ex and I headed off to counseling or attempted a trial separation or any of that. I reacted by accommodating the deterioration. I kept lowering my expectations and looking for signs of an oasis in the desert. I was a boiling frog. It seems pretty foolish in retrospect, but it made perfectly good sense at the time.

A more self-assured individual than I might at this point assert that he'd lost a lot more than 20 pounds over the last year; he'd lost the debilitating weight of self-delusion. Me, I'm not so sure. I am currently happy that I am no longer trying to convince myself that up is down or that black is white or that I wasn't a lardass last September or that my marriage was salvageable after it actually was, but I am also a golfer. I sense some head-scratching out there. Hear me out. Golf teaches you many things, but this is the big one: the lessons you believe you have learned from previous errors have an extraordinarily short lifespan, and you will soon have to learn them all over again. Just when you've finally figured out what is wrong with your weight distribution, your swing plane, your grip, your wrist hinge, the length of your backswing, etc. etc., one or more of them reverts to its former imperfection and you have to start learning the same old lessons as though from scratch. Ultimately you have a sequence of 'ah ha' moments out on the course. First, you realize that you have discovered the reason your golf game sucks. Then, you realize that you have had the same epiphany many, many times before and applied the same correction, only to return to the same old crappy swing. The moral: Most important lessons in life simply don't stick.

Perhaps in the end we are all Sisyphus, rolling that damn rock up the hill only to see it roll back down again. We all hope for enlightenment and serenity, but history produces precious few Buddhas. Most of us can only hope to be like Quixote, which is to say to be like Sisyphus, except delusional. At least then we can approach mirrors at particular angles that don't make us look so fat, or tell ourselves that our failed relationships aren't yet doomed, and take the illusion for reality. It's not optimal, but unless we're ready to clock some serious hours under the Bodhi tree, it's probably the best we can hope for.

So there you go.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Food Interlude V: Greek Salad

One of the preconditions of my then-future-wife's relocation from Milwaukee to New York City--I met her in Milwaukee and spent two long years convincing her that she would not only not die if she moved to New York but that she would in fact quickly grow to love the place--was that I abandon my place of residence in downtown Brooklyn. I couldn't really argue the point. The list of the Brooklyn apartment's assets was short: it was cheap, and it was close to Manhattan. Its drawbacks were more copious. The landlady kept a herd of cats in the basement and was not at all fastidious about them, and as a result the hallways reeked of cat piss, so much so that my friend CC aptly dubbed the place "The Elephant House." And then there was the mouse that ran across my future-ex's foot late one night when she was perched upon the commode. There's a lot more, but you get the point. It was an appropriate place for a musician, or a college student, or someone already fully sold on the concept of living in New York. My wife was none of those.

And so soon after my then-future-wife's-now-future-ex-wife's arrival in New York, we went apartment hunting. Our explorations landed us in Astoria, an affordable if somewhat-too-remote section of Queens that is home to some of the city's best-known Greek restaurants. We availed ourselves of the local grub regularly and grew to accept it as 'normal' food, a misapprehension that held through our relocation to North Carolina; imagine our dismay at our new Tar Heel friends' tepid reactions when we offered them dishes of taramasalata (fish roe salad), skordalia (garlic and potato dip), saganake (flaming cheese), and ortikia (grilled quail). We eventually won some of them over and learned to keep less exotic stuff on hand for the others.

Lately I've been jonesing for an Astoria-style Greek salad. But what, exactly, constitutes the perfect Greek salad? I posed that question to the proprietor of Mariakakis, the excellent Greek grocer in Chapel Hill (he stocks Malamatina, the official retsina of the Greek National Soccer Team; enough said), who told me that where he comes from (Greece? just a guess) a Greek salad is composed of whatever happens to be in the fridge or in the garden. And then I realized that the Greek salad I had been imagining was actually the sort one finds in Greek-American diners all across the country. Lettuce, tomatoes, feta, cucumber, green pepper, onion, anchovies, pepperoncini, dolmades, feta cheese--I'm not sure I ever saw one of those in an authentic Astorian Greek restaurant. There's nothing wrong with that salad--I make it all the time, in fact, minus the dolmades, which are too labor-intensive to prepare for a salad--but it wasn't the salad to take me back to Astoria.

"Unless, of course, you're talking about a Horiatiki," the proprietor added, and I immediately decided that this was exactly what I was talking about. "Horiatiki" derives from the Greek word for "country" or "village"; the salad is often called a "Greek Village Salad" in America. It is the perfect salad for this time of the year, as it features tomatoes prominently. It is amazingly simple. All it really needs is tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, feta cheese, and vinaigrette. I seed the tomatoes and cucumbers, then cut them into 3/4" to 1" dice (they mix nicely this way and are fun to stab with a fork), slice the onion thin (I usually use a Bermuda onion but a yellow, Spanish, or Vidalia will do in a pinch), toss, crumble some feta over it all, and dress. I like to sprinkle some dried thyme on top; Kalamata olives aren't necessary but certainly are in the spirit of the thing and should be added if desired, as should green bell pepper. Me, I prefer to keep it simple.

Funny thing is, I'm just about always ready for a culinary return to Astoria. But as for an actual return to Astoria--a place where we were daily awakened by the sound of men spitting and snotting on the sidewalk, where the natives drove as though they were dodging fire, where every line in every store seemed as though it could turn into a scrum at any moment, where female store clerks could barely make change because of their debilitating artificial fingernails, and where you never knew which "public" places of business would welcome you and which were fronts for Mafia operations... not so much, thanks.

So there you go.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

XIII: In Which I Ponder an Alternative Not Pursued

I have just returned from a week at the beach with my good friend CC, my mom, my "Aunt" Carole, my sister, my brother-in-law, and, most notably, my two little nieces, ages 5 and 3, who are truly delightful girls and about whom more will be said later.

This was the first time in many years I've made this trip without wife in tow and the first time in about as many that I didn't disappear every day to a golf course (a practice that may at least in part explain why I am today a reluctant bachelor). CC filled in for my future ex and was a passable substitute during sunlight, providing sharp repartee and useful insights, but, charming though he may be, was of no value at all when bedtime came, because that's not how we do. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

I do not much care for the beach, especially a beach beside a bay, which is where we vacationed, because I have shpilkes and the whole point of the beach is to sit around and do nothing. Occasionally you pretend to read but all the kibitzing around you makes that pretty much impossible, especially when there are young children about (over the course of the week I knocked off only about 30 pages of The Intuitionist, which is a pretty easy read; good too, at least so far). Ocean beaches are better because oceans have waves--I love bodysurfing--but a bay offers up little more than tranquil, cold, jellyfish-infested waters. Which is why I usually end up at a golf course, I suppose. This year I passed my days shopping for and preparing meals, taking long walks with CC, and getting to know my nieces a little bit better. I don't get to see them so often because they live in western Massachusetts and I in central North Carolina, so getting to spend a week with them was a rare treat.

The older girl is very much a first child, thoughtful and cautious and very bright. The three-year-old is what I think of as a classic younger child; she's watched her older sister and her parents carefully enough to figure out which rules must be obeyed and which can be transgressed with little or no penalty, and consequently she is the freer and less predictable and funnier of the two. They spend a surprising amount of time naked and inspecting their own crotches, reminding me once again of the fine line between small children and dogs. They are both willful, but the older one is willful in a stubborn, moody, defiant sort of way, whereas the younger one just seems to know what she wants and doesn't much care what anyone else thinks. This trait was driven home when I returned from the toy store with a sock monkey for her. She took one look at it, frowned, and pronounced, "I don't like it!" My sister seemed worried that I was hurt by the rejection, but I thought it was hilarious, and I was tremendously impressed by her candor and self-assuredness. I also took it as a challenge to get the kid to like the sock monkey. Knowing that she loves Manny Ramirez--she's about the only one these days--I dubbed the sock monkey "Manny." She embraced the name but not its new owner. Strike one.

We bond over Miyazaki movies, my special nexus with the girls as I had given them a copy of My Neighbor Totoro for Hannukah, which is the Jewish Christmas in about the same way that Purim is the Jewish Halloween. This time around we watched Kiki's Delivery Service, which the girls both loved, and so did I. I hope to see them both grow into anime geeks; it'd go some way toward convincing me that I've had a positive impact on their lives.

All this hanging around with the girls got me to thinking about how my future ex-wife and I had kicked around the idea of kids for a while. It was one of the reasons we left New York City for North Carolina, in fact; we couldn't imagine raising kids in so cramped and expensive a place. My ex had said she'd eventually want kids when we married, and I was totally up for the challenge even though I felt no compelling need to add my spawn to the Earth's population, but we never got past the talking stage and eventually decided we would be perfectly happy without. I suppose we might still be together had we had kids--I can't tell you how many folks I've spoken with who've implied or outright said that having kids has kept their marriages from falling apart during the rough stretches--and if we had, we might well be recapitulating the unhappy marriages from which we arose and which we swore we had learned from. So I guess that all worked out for the best.

While I think I'd be a competent parent, I don't understand the need to become one. I can come up with selfish reasons to reproduce, but not good ones. The former include: having someone who will care about you and perhaps for you when you are old; having a project you share with your spouse that takes your attention off of each other and focuses it on people who are much more compelling; and, having a responsibility that keeps you so busy that you can't stop to think about whether your life is going the way you want it to, whether you are as happy as you could be, etc. etc. I suspect that all parents ever think about is when they will be able to steal a few moments for a nap, and the number of days until they can pack the kids off to college.

When I left the shore, the younger girl still had a pretty lousy relationship with Manny. I was heartened the night before when she had included Manny in her game of 'Duck Duck Goose' and even hugged him a few times, but then as she headed off to bed she turned to face Manny and proclaimed, "I STILL don't like him!" Strike two. On the morning I left I explained to her that I'd like to come visit Manny in western Massachusetts, which was about the only way I could get out the door without having to take Manny with me. And I haven't given up yet. I'm seriously considering sending her a Jiji doll--Jiji is one of the main characters in Kiki's Delivery Service--along with a note explaining that Jiji is looking for his best friend Manny, in hopes of achieving affection by association.

I realize now that I have devoted a considerable amount of time and thought to trying to figure out how to outsmart a three-year-old. During that time I haven't once wondered whether my life is going where I want it to or whether I'm as happy as I could be.

Maybe I am parental material after all.

So there you go.

PS For those with 10 minutes to waste, check out this Louis CK bit on kids. It's only OK at the start, but be patient. It builds to a pretty fabulous ending.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

XII: In Which I Prepare to Say Goodbye to an Old Friend, and Wonder Whether I Haven't Made a Big Mistake

I have a capacity for embarrassing sentimentality. Just the other night I was watching The Perils of Pauline, a straight-off-the-cob, entirely fictionalized biopic of Pearl White that wouldn't be worth watching even a little if not for the presence of Betty Hutton and William Demarest, when, improbably, I started to get a little misty as Betty Hutton sang "The Sewing Machine" because it reminded me that an affinity for Hutton's zaniness is something my future ex and I share. It was a weird moment--imagine crying during an episode of I Love Lucy to understand just how inappropriate and unsettling this outburst was.

So forgive me for waxing nostalgic for Donny, my 2001 Ford Focus whom I am ready to hand off to another owner. Donny isn't just the first new car I ever owned; he is the first car I ever owned, period, the result of 20 years' residence in a city in which a car is very much a liability. You know how it is with the first one, right? And Donny was a great car who not only carted me around the Triangle but also allowed me to explore such exotic destinations as Myrtle Beach, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Lewes DE, Pikesville MD, and Montclair NJ. Donny was no snob; he would go anywhere I needed him to and never groused.

Donny was also an indicator of my grudging transition from itinerant just-scratching-by musician to responsible head-of-the-household husband who just might be a father someday, maybe. I bought him just one month after my future ex and I bought our house, another signifier of that same life change, and Donny helped me embrace my inner grownup at the same time that he added another of those monthly payments that sometimes seem to define grownup life. He was a beloved anvil. I grieved the day I stupidly slid off the road and dinged up his left rear fender, dutifully duct taped shut his rear window after the automatic opener decided that open should be a permanent setting, and celebrated the day I made my last payment on him, confident that Donny and I would travel many, many more miles together. That was a little over two years ago.

Lately, though, Donny's been showing signs of his 145,000 logged miles. On a trip to and from New Jersey last month, he hesitated repeatedly when I asked him to giddyup. On a subsequent trip to Atlanta the power failures grew more frequent and more dramatic, to the point that Donny would just decide he needed to take a little rest right there in the middle of I-85. A gearhead buddy of mine listened patiently as I described Donny's problem, said it sounded like an electrical thing, and asked when I had last changed Donny's battery, an impossible question to answer. After smacking me several times about the head he recommended a new battery, which I installed. Still, with vacation at the Delaware shore approaching, I seriously considered renting a car for the trip. I mean, what if it wasn't the battery? Did I really want to deal with a breakdown on my way to the beach? And then I realized that the rental would cost about the same as my first month's payment on a new car, and I knew it was time for me and Donny to part ways.

I've known this moment was coming for a while, so I'd been doing my research and had narrowed my choices down to two. If my pockets were feeling deep and my soul feeling mid-life crisis-y, I'd be getting a Mini Cooper. If I was feeling practical, I'd get a Hyundai Elantra, a small sedan that looks an awful lot like Donny and that received a similarly strong recommendation from Consumer Reports (which recommendation had helped me decide on Donny back in '01). As luck would have it, Hyundai was offering a $1500 rebate on their '08 Elantras, which, in combination with Costco's no-haggle price, resulted in an irresistibly low price.

I bought the car last weekend. The dealer offered to take Donny in trade, but I knew they wouldn't care for him and love him in the way he deserves. On the contrary, I imagined them driving Donny to an open field and stripping him down and covering him with honey and then sitting in lawn chairs and drinking beer and watching fire ants devour him and laughing and laughing and laughing. So instead I offered Donny to a friend whose car is even less dependable than Donny is. We've settled on an installment plan that is contingent upon Donny's continued operation: $100 every two months until eight months or Donny have expired. Donny will be in good hands.

Because I left on a business trip the next day, I didn't have the opportunity to drive the Elantra until this weekend. After taking it for several spins, I've found much to love about it. It's a cool little car. It handles well and is plenty powerful. It comes with XM Radio and a CD player that plays mp3s and the stereo sounds fine. It has cruise control; it, a stereo, and air conditioning are the only options I care about.

There is, however, one problem, one I discovered today only by accident. The windshield wipers don't work. This is frequently not a problem at all, but when it is a problem--when it's raining, say--it's a doozy. I'm glad I discovered it during a non-problem period. I spoke with someone at the dealership today and cannot say that he was as anxious to see this problem fixed as I was. He acted as though it was no big deal that I had a brand new car that wouldn't currently pass inspection, and my warm fuzzy feeling about our haggle-free negotiations dissipated. It looks as though I'll be spending Monday morning at the dealership's service center rather than on the road to the Delaware shore, and I will no doubt be worrying that I've been stuck with a lemon for months to come, as I am definitely a glass-half-empty guy when it comes to big purchases.

My friend wants to collect Donny tomorrow, but what can I do? I may need him to get to Delaware. Maybe I should rent a car.

So there you go.

PS I have not yet named the Elantra. It would never have occurred to me to name my car, but my future ex-wife named her cars and it made me feel as though I was neglecting Donny by failing to name him, so name him I did. I'm considering Walter, Smoky, Maude, and Karl Hungus. Any suggestions?

PSS Turns out the guys at the plant forgot to plug the windshield wipers in. A relief, although it has me wondering what else they "forgot." The car was a dream on the trip to and from Delaware. Two days after I got home a pebble cracked the windshield. Walter is cursed, there's no doubt about it.

Friday, July 11, 2008

XI: In Which I Ignore the Advice of a Great Man

"Don't look back," Satchel Paige once famously advised, "something might be gaining on you." He also said "Work like you don't need the money; love like you never been hurt; dance like nobody's watching," so one ignores his dicta at his own peril. The man was clearly wise beyond his many, many years.

But I have been looking back lately. Not so much in that wistful "What could I have done differently?" way that doubtless afflicts a lot of us separated folks; I do some of that, of course, but not as much as I thought I would. The time for that was back when my future ex and I were trying to reconcile, I think, and that time has passed.

No, these days I'm looking back in an effort to find an anchor at a time when my life feels a little cut adrift. I'm looking back at where I've been in hopes that it will provide some clues about where I want to go.

Some of my backward turning has been the psychic equivalent of comfort food. I've returned to music I haven't listened to in 20 years or more, stuff I thought I'd never listen to again. When was the last time you checked out Katy Lied? It's a damn good album, in case you've forgotten; I had. I dug it up because I suspected its penultimate number, "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)," might be a fitting personal anthem for this period of my life, and I was right, although I am still reluctant to embrace a personal anthem that features Michael McDonald so prominently.

I also rediscovered Talking Heads, especially 77 and Fear of Music. In retrospect, I'm glad I let these records lay fallow for so long; otherwise, I doubt I would have recaptured the euphoria I felt when I first heard "Pulled Up" and "The Book I Read" and "Animals" and "Air" and "Cities," and then I'd never have experienced the joy of driving around Durham screaming "I know the animals are laughing at us/And they don't even know what a joke is!" over the blasting stereo and laughing like an idiot, or an animal.

Both of these records take me back to a time when I was just figuring out who I was, when I was emerging from my role as my older brother's kid brother and heading off in new, unprotected directions. I was leaving behind--temporarily--the pop of the Beach Boys and the Beatles and embracing music with more obvious pretenses (Dylan was my new god), reading Nietzsche and Kafka and Camus and lots and lots of Vonnegut, and discovering 'serious' cinema by folks like Scorsese and Coppola and Michael Cimino. I was turning into a pretty morose kid who, like a lot of adolescents, found a measure of happiness in my unhappiness. The exuberant neurosis of Talking Heads and the deep cynicism of Steely Dan were great fits for me. Today, what's such a pleasant surprise is how well that music holds up outside the framework of youthful angst. The Who, The Doors, and Pink Floyd, among many others, all demonstrate that the music that meant so much to me when I was young doesn't necessarily stand the test of time.

I've also reconnected with a lot of old friends. This was mostly an accident of fate, the happy coincidence of my life transition and the ascent of social networking, but regardless I'm glad for it. There is, of course, that awkward moment during initial communication when I'm asked, "So, what's new?" and I answer, "Well, my golf game's improved. Oh, and I lost my wife and my job!" but, as previously noted, many of them have endured much greater traumas, and we are soon commiserating and occasionally competing to see who's life is more Job-like. I almost always lose, my longstanding devotion to the Baltimore Orioles notwithstanding.

These reunions too take me back to a time when I was someone completely different, someone I don't expect I'd much like--too pretentious, too judgmental, too friggin' collegiate--and yet they are extraordinarily comforting. We've all grown together; our sharp edges have worn away, our arrogance and ambitions have been tempered by real life, and the deterioration of our youthful charms has forced us to develop other assets in order to get along in the world. We have weathered catastrophes we were truly incapable of imagining back then and we have survived them more or less in tact. We have figured out how to reconcile ourselves to the likelihood that we won't change the world and even to be glad for it, as changing the world is probably a lot of work and we're plenty busy as it is, thank you. We are the grownups we despised and swore we wouldn't become, and we're better people for it. And we still think that "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" is a kickass song.

Maybe this is where I'm going. Maybe I'm already there.

So there you go.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Food Interlude IV: Chopped Liver

It would be disingenuous of me to pretend I don't understand the meaning of the old saying, "What am I, chopped liver?" I get it; liver is very cheap meat, and chopped liver mixes liver with even cheaper ingredients, resulting in a low-budget product.

My problem is that good chopped liver is delicious. As in, to-die-for delicious. There are times when I want nothing so much as a good chopped liver sandwich, or even just a bissel chopped liver spread on half a bagel, zeit azoy gut. So for me, that old saying recalls the song Tramp by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, in which Carla attempts to insult Otis by saying, "Otis, you're pure country," and Otis happily replies, "That's good!" What am I, chopped liver? That's good! At least I'm not turkey loaf, or Spam, or headcheese, or blutwurst (a food that truly puts the "worst" is "wurst").

Chopped liver is an elemental food for me, one that straddles two important strands in my life. The first is my upbringing in an insular Jewish community; the second is my later foray into the glorious universe of international cuisine. Until I encountered chopped liver in this second incarnation, I thought the first was the alef and the tof. Now I know better.

My 'traditional' chopped liver recipe comes from my Aunt Carole. She learned it from her mother, who is not my grandmother because my Aunt Carole isn't really my aunt; she's my mother's best friend from before I was born, so she's always been Aunt Carole even though, as previously noted, she is not my aunt, at least not genetically. Now, my Aunt Carole insists that this recipe can only be prepared with cow's liver, but--and PLEASE don't tell her this--I have made this recipe with calves' liver and even with chicken liver and no one has ever commented, "Gee, this tastes too young/avian." Zei gezunt.

1 pound liver
1 pound onions, chopped fine
3 hard-boiled eggs
some butter, some oil, some ketchup, some mayonnaise, some olive oil, some salt and pepper

1) Sauté the onions in butter and/or oil. Butter isn't kosher, nebach, but it's sooo good! Shmaltz (rendered chicken fat) is most authentic and the surest path to a massive coronary. Olive oil works and transforms a lethal dish into an almost-lethal dish.
2) Throw the liver into the fry pan with the onions and fat. Cook until the liver is cooked through. Don't be afraid to brown the liver; the brown bits add plenty of deliciousness.
3) Dump contents of fry pan into a food processor. Add the hard-boiled eggs. Here is where chopped-liver-making becomes an art. Add enough ketchup, mayo, salt, and pepper to produce the correct consistency and flavor of chopped liver. Pulse a bunch of times, until puréed. If it looks too dry, add olive oil and pulse some more. Taste, correct, taste, correct, taste, taste, taste, taste. Serve whatever is left.

Yes, my instructions are hopelessly vague. I'm not holding out on you; I simply eyeball it every time. Perhaps this skill is encoded in my genes. Perhaps it is Kabalistic, in which case go ask Madonna. I don't know whether I'd trade this skill to be handy--which, like all Jews, I am not--but such is the fate of my people. We can make chopped liver without a precise recipe but we cannot figure out how to stop a hinge from squeaking. (Hint: WD-40).

For many, many years, this was chopped liver to me, and I was extremely satisfied. Don’t get me wrong; I still find this version rapturous. The taste of it transports me to innumerable family gatherings and to occasional visits to the Carnegie Deli, all very happy memories. And it's fabulous on its own merits as well, even without any Proustian overtones.

Years of living in marginal New York City neighborhoods, however, awakened me to the availability of an unimaginable variety of international cuisines, and before long I had joined the army of chowhounds, food enthusiasts who understand that a well-prepared dish is one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of God.

And so I became a devotee of Mario Batali, that rare television chef who actually cooks. I own most of his cookbooks (not the NASCAR one--oy!--and not the grilling one, but all the others) and cook from them fairly regularly, as they are pretty darn good. This is how I found the recipe for Chicken Livers Toscani, which I will not reproduce here for fear of copyright infringement, but which I can link here because it was reprinted in The New York Times (scroll about two-thirds of the way down the article). Batali's recipe balances the gaminess of liver with red wine, capers, anchovies, onion, and crushed red pepper--the final ingredient really puts this dish right over the top. I prepared some tonight, then cooked some fettucine, thinned the Livers Toscani a little with some pasta water and butter (Shhh! Don't tell God!!!!), then dressed the pasta with the Livers Toscani, and it was divine. As in, to die for.

So there you go.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

X: In Which I Pander to Current Trends in Publishing

I admit it. In my fantasies, The Reluctant Bachelor morphs Pinocchio-like from a blog to a book, I make a kajillion dollars in book sales, the book is optioned for an equally successful movie in which Buddy Hackett returns from the dead to portray me (Hackett has always been my stock answer to the surprisingly frequently asked question "Who would you want to play you in the movie of your life?" and given the absurdity of the question's premise I see no reason to move off my position simply because Hackett is deceased), and I retire to a golf course. Don't tell me I'm not ambitious.

These days it seems everyone is writing a best seller about his or her--usually his--dog. I haven't read any of these books, but I've read about and around them enough to glean that they typically recount how a dog miraculously, unexpectedly, and at exactly the right moment changed the author's life. The dog may be incredibly smart, like Peabody; heroic, like Tippy the Wonder Dog; or just flat-out annoying, like Scrappy Doo; but in the end, the author learns A Valuable Lesson From a Most Unlikely Source. (My gut instinct, for what it's worth, is that men tend to be the authors of these books because the relationship between human and dog is about as complicated an emotional bond as most men can handle or understand. Men would write books about the women who have changed their lives, but the truth is that the subject is simply too complex for us. It's as though those changes occur on a frequency we can't hear. Maybe our dogs can hear it? This is a line of inquiry worth pursuing, perhaps. When my book is sold, I will set my assistant on the task, right after she makes my tee time.)

As luck would have it, I am a man in possession of two dogs. When I was a married man, my wife did the heavy lifting in this area and so I was in no position to write about the canines, as our interactions were as infrequent and impersonal as the hallway passings of boarding house residents on their way to and from the bathroom. But for the last five months--since my future ex-wife and I separated--I have been the dogs' primary caretaker, and I have had ample opportunity to observe them carefully. Here is what I now know.

Since the departure of my future ex-wife, Daisy has been the girl in my life. She is a mix breed approximately nine years old; she was fully grown when she was found on the streets, so no one knows exactly how old she is, but the vet tells me that her tartar buildup is about nine years' worth just before recommending that I have her teeth cleaned, which I pretend not to hear as it usually comes at the end of a visit that has already lightened my wallet by a couple hundred dollars. Besides, if I had her teeth cleaned, how would I know her age? Daisy has some pointer in her, but after that her lineage is a crapshoot. American Foxhound? Perhaps. Greyhound? She's dumb enough and high strung enough. Brittany? Sounds too exotic, but the hair color and length are about right. I've taken to describing her as a 'Carolina bird dog' and leaving it at that.

As previously mentioned, Daisy is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. She is also hound-dog skittish and, when agitated--which is pretty much whenever anything at all unexpected happens, no matter how trivial--she whines loudly and does a spastic dance my ex and I call her "full-body wag." She needs wide berth for the full-body wag because her tail whips furiously this way and that. She really could put an eye out with that thing, if that eye belonged to a child or little person. People who do not like dogs feel justified in their prejudice when they see the full-body wag.

Daisy is a meticulous self-groomer, to the extent that guests unfamiliar with her routines may blush. She operates a full wash-and-dry cycle, first licking and then huffing and puffing into her unmentionables without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. It is not her only obsessive behavior; there is also her pre-poop routine, which is as inscrutable as a David Foster Wallace novel. When she feels the moment approaching, she starts to pace an area no larger than 10 square feet, sticking her nose into various nooks and crannies in the turf as though attempting to determine la place juste for her deposit. There is no discernable difference between the spots she investigates, and yet her explorations usually go on for several minutes and can be alarmingly frantic. At times she will hunch and her scat will poke out of her sphincter, but then she will retract it as though to say, "No, not here, not today, not this poop," and her search will continue. Encouragement, praise, and offers of bribes are useless in hustling her along. I sometimes imagine flying Cesar Millan across country to see this ritual, not so that he could correct it but simply to hear him say, "Dude, that's one fucked up dog you've got there."

Daisy has a Buster Keaton face that bespeaks a resignation to life's unfairness. This is largely genetic, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it is at least partly the result of her having been placed in a home with a relentless tormentor. His name is Lebowski, and he is a Boston Terrier. Bostons come in two basic varieties: scrawny, and fullback. Lebowski is a fullback, with a low center of gravity that he uses to great effect. Although he weighs only 23 pounds, he can be quite difficult to move when he sets his mind to it.

Mostly, though, he sets his mind to making Daisy's life miserable. He waits until she has settled into her snuggle ball, then stands eight inches from her head and barks and barks and barks and barks and barks and barks until she resignedly picks herself up and moves to the other, smaller snuggle ball. Ten minutes later, Lebowski barks her back to her original spot. This can go on all night. Sometimes Daisy looks up at me from a snuggle ball and I say, "You may kill him if you like, no one will blame you," but she is generally a gentle soul and so demurs.

Lebowski is not much for tricks, although he has a few. He does a splendid impression of the baby from Eraserhead; he lies on his back, wriggling and making a very strange gurgling sound and will not stop until a belly rub is administered. He can walk and poop at the same time; in fact, it seems to be the only way he can poop. Despite his being quite small, he seems to have an endless supply of pee, some portion of which he can hold in reserve for as long as you are willing to walk him. (I realize that many of my observations have to do with my dogs' voiding habits. Dog owners understand; for the rest of you, much of the quality time spent with dogs occurs during walks, the purpose of which is to empty the dogs so that they can be filled again come meal time.)

Lebowski's greatest trick involves tormenting Daisy, or so I imagine its purpose to be. When Daisy returns from a walk, Lebowski makes sure to get a good whiff of her butt before I leash him up. Once outside, Lebowski is on the hunt, and no matter where on the block Daisy has placed her leavings, Lebowski will find them and pee on them. This is no mean feat, as he accomplishes this over great range and sometimes in strong, swirling winds. Perhaps I am projecting but Lebowski always looks especially pleased with himself when he finishes his work. He has trumped Daisy's mark with his own, and the all-important Fields of Defecation now belong to him.

I could go on and on about my dogs, but I believe this is enough of a teaser to get publishers flocking to me. Don't you? Now for the $64,000 question: have I learned Important Life Lessons from Daisy and Lebowski? I don't think so, but I'm willing to work with a good editor who believes otherwise, who can find and cull--or, if necessary, invent--those lessons from my stories. They may already be there; I may be that 'two standard deviations to the left of norm' male who is too obtuse even to appreciate the shallow emotional depths of my relationship with my dogs. The kind of guy, perhaps, who needs to be retired to a golf course as soon as possible. Which would explain why I am today a Reluctant Bachelor.

So there you go.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

IX: In Which I Recount A Strange Dream I Recently Had

I am not a vivid dreamer, and what dreams I have usually evaporate from my memory within seconds of my awakening.

But there is something about dramatic life change that sharpens the memory. I know this because I recall events that occurred when I was two or three years old. Now, no one remembers things that happened at that age, right? Except I know I remember them because I know they happened in Thailand, where my father was stationed with the Army until I was three years old. And I know I'm not making these memories up because my mother has confirmed them, just as she has confirmed my description of the house and street where we lived and the maids we employed. Moving from Bangkok to Fort Knox, KY could fairly be described as dramatic--as well as a huge comedown (not my last, as it turns out)--and I'm sure that that's what burned those memories of Thailand into my brain.

So seeing that I've recently undergone a dramatic life change, it's probably no surprise that I am suddenly remembering dreams. My memory, like my emotional life, has received an unexpected squeeze to the nads, and it has been quickened.

When the dream begins, I am a contestant on a game show. The game is called Tom Waits or Cookie Monster? Contestants listen to songs, then try to guess whether the singer is Tom Waits or Cookie Monster. Intuitively, I understand that certain fundamental principles apply:

song includes profanity = Tom Waits
song includes improperly used pronouns = Cookie Monster
song mentions death = Tom Waits
song mentions cookies = Cookie Monster
song sounds like Kurt Weill = probably Tom Waits
song sounds like a children's song = probably Cookie Monster

Despite these insights, I lose. I am tripped up by a recording of Cookie Monster performing in The Threepenny Opera. For reasons I cannot divine, I fail to recognize the following context clues in Cookie Monster's performance of "Mack the Knife":

Oh the shark bite
With him teeth, dear
And him keep them
Pearly white
Me like cookie
Me like cookie
Me like cookie
Mack the Knife!!!

Suddenly the landscape changes, and I am standing on a street corner. A woman in a Hummer drives straight into the back of a delivery truck; she is talking on her cell phone and cannot be bothered to pay attention to her driving. She immediately backs up, turns hard left, and drives around the truck, speeding away from the accident. The truck driver takes off after her and a long high-speed chase ensues. Even though I am stationary and the vehicles drive a great distance, I somehow see the entire chain of events transpire. The trucker eventually passes and cuts off the woman in the Hummer, then gets out of his truck to berate her. The woman is indignant; she contends that she is not at fault, as though by adamantly insisting she is in the right she can somehow validate her preposterous argument. She reminds me of the current inhabitants of the White House.

The scene changes abruptly again, and I am standing in the sort of outdoor mall one sees in front of a great public construction; the place reminds me of the entryway to the Baltimore Aquarium. My future ex-wife appears. She is wearing heels so high that she stands over six feet tall, and she towers over me. "Why the heels?" I ask, and she responds, "If I make myself look good, the suitors will come." I am depressed to realize that she is already looking for a new mate. Immediately I am surrounded by old friends from high school and college, and I am torn. Part of me wants their sympathy, but an equal part is ashamed that my marriage has failed and that they now know of the failure. I turn to talk to my future ex-wife but she excuses herself. She says she is late for the estate sale of Beowulf's uncle, whose name is Lutefisk, and I realize that she would rather hang out with D&D nerds than with me. This too makes me feel bad.

I turn to greet my old friends but I suddenly awaken. My mouth is dry, my throat is sore, and I realize that I am awake in that anxious way that precludes falling back asleep any time soon. I am too tired to concentrate on a book, though, so I lie awake and stare at the ceiling, listening to my dogs snore and envying them. I hear their feet skittering and I realize they are dreaming of chasing small critters, and catching and eating them. One of them blows a tremendous fart of self-satisfaction; she has caught a rabbit, no doubt. I am slightly nauseated, but also a little hungry.

What does it all mean? That I should avoid rich foods and tall glasses of Calvados before bed, most likely.

So there you go.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Food Interlude III: Olive Oil

As far as I am concerned, there are two fundamental types of cuisine: simple, and complex. I love preparing both, but for the sake of convenience and also because it seems foolish to expend tremendous amounts of effort on a meal for one--especially when that one is prone to devouring dinner in a time better measured in seconds than minutes--I typically lean toward simple.

Simple is hardly the same as plain or uninteresting; on the contrary, fabulous food can be prepared using a few easy techniques and a few basic ingredients. These days a typical meal includes a mixed green salad, something off the grill, and, if I'm feeling particularly esurient, some rice and maybe even some sautéed greens. My culinary arsenal for these meals rarely consists of more than salt, pepper, maybe a little butter, something acetic--either a nice vinegar or lemon juice--and olive oil.

Of these, olive oil is by far most important and should be treated accordingly. I know that many people are put off by the cost of a quality bottle of olive oil, but they shouldn't be. Good olive oil is used sparingly, and as a result a 750 ml bottle can last six months or more. The secret is to keep a lower-quality extra virgin olive oil on hand for cooking--I use Costco's house brand, Kirkland, which costs maybe $10 for a half-gallon, and it works just fine--and to save the best olive oil for finishing dishes, for salad dressings, and for dips. Cooking robs quality olive oils of their special properties anyway, or so I've been told (and for economic reasons I choose to believe it without further question), so there's no point in wasting it on a sauté or to brown meat. Wait until the dish is nearly done, then hit it with a little zetz of the good stuff.

My favorite olive oil is Novello di Macina. which means (roughly, my Italian is atroce) "new from the grinder," a well-earned designation given that the olives are ground within twelve hours of harvest. Novello only appears on shelves once a year (usually in December); it the first product of that year's olive harvest, making it the olive oil equivalent of Beaujolais Nouveau, except that Beaujolais Nouveau is vile cat piss I wouldn't serve my worst enemy and Novello di Macina is a product to be cherished and enjoyed daily. No small difference there.

Novello is an unfiltered oil, cloudy and yellow-green. It has a big, fruity flavor and a rich texture that coats the tongue. There's nothing subtle about it; it's what I imagine foodies mean when they describe a flavor as "rustic." I buy two bottles of the stuff as soon as it hits the shelves, and that usually carries me through the year. That's $50 well invested, as far as I'm concerned. It is fabulous in salads and a great finish to pasta dishes, and it is wonderful in skordalia, baba ganoush, hummus, and taramasalata, although I must admit it is painful to use so much good olive oil on a single dish. If you come to my house and these items are served, we damn well better finish them or there will be tears shed during clean up. Mine, mostly.

Store olive oil in a cool dark place and it will last until you have used it all up. Open up the bottle and take a whiff when you're feeling blue; it will make you feel better and will get your mind working on dinner plans, both good things. Give nice bottles of olive oil as gifts; if the recipients aren't appreciative, you know they are not worthy of your friendship, or anyone's. I've heard that olive oil is good for you; I'm glad, but I don't care. Tofu is good for you and I won't touch the stuff, because it tastes like nothing. If you told me daily olive oil consumption would take five years off my life, I'd probably give it some thought, then rationalize that those years are coming off the end when I'll (presumably, hopefully (sic)) be very old and that that day is probably a long way off anyway, and that I am hungry right now. And then I would dress my salad with my good olive oil.

One final note: do not come to my house--or even speak to me, ever, for that matter--if you refer to extra virgin olive oil as 'E V O O.' First, the whole point of an abbreviation is to abbreviate. Since it takes exactly as long to say 'E V O O' as to say 'extra virgin olive oil,' the former serves no useful purpose. The only possible remaining purpose for the term is to be precious, and that is a good way to get your neck wrung around here. Second, the term 'E V O O' signifies at the very least a tolerance for Rachel Ray, and we'll have none of that here. My kitchen is barred to Satan's minions, most particularly to those who perceive themselves as much, much more adorable than they actually are. Her fame is a compelling piece of evidence in the case against the existence of God. I am too gentle a soul to wish bodily harm upon anyone but a despot, but if Rachel Ray were to come down with an inconvenient but not painful case of laryngitis from which she never recovered, I would probably be cool with that.

So there you go.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

VIII: In Which I Go Shopping For Girls

Last night two very dear old friends and I had dinner at Otto, Mario Batali's Greenwich Village pizzeria. The place was packed when we arrived, so we went to the bar to drink wine and await our turn at a table. Nearly everyone else in the place was very young and very attractive--I was surprised that we were allowed to stay, honestly--so there was ample opportunity to look at pretty girls. Because I am both male and alive, this is an activity I very much enjoy.

I harbor no illusions about my chances with gorgeous twenty-somethings. Back home in North Carolina, these girls all call me 'sir' and look at me the way one looks at one's schoolteacher or at an unremarkable customer one is waiting on. When I indulge in this sort of ogling, the inevitable soundtrack in my mind is The Coasters' "Shopping For Clothes," mostly for the final line: "That's one suit you'll never own." In my mind's eye, Will "Dub" Jones wags his finger at me disapprovingly as that line plays over and over.

Which is fine by me. I never had much luck with twenty-somethings the first go around, and that was way back when we shared approximate frames of reference on music, movies, life goals, etc. My final foray at a gorgeous twenty-something was with my future ex-wife, who was 24 when I met her; that effort was considerably more successful than those that preceded it, but nonetheless here I am, a reluctant bachelor.

Why worry about the age of potential matches? As I consider--slowly, very slowly--the prospect of reentering the dating world, why not cast my net wide and see what I can drag ashore? Because when you sign up for online dating services, setting a target age range for potential dates is one of the many millions of data you must enter before you get to look at said potential dates. My application to college wasn't as thorough as some of the questionnaires you must complete to begin your dating adventures at such sites at or

Now, to be clear: I have not yet paid to join an online dating service, nor am I likely to any time soon. I have, however, created free profiles on several so that I may look to see who out there is single, looking for someone like myself, and in possession of a complementary set of genitalia. I call this activity "shopping for girls." It is the Internet equivalent of standing at the bar at Otto.

You can be as particular or as catholic as you please when shopping for girls. Want a girl who earns at least $150,000 a year? That's where you set your income floor. Want a girl who has a slender or athletic build? Eliminate all who list their body types as 'a few pounds overweight' or 'curvaceous.' Combine these qualities into comprehensive searches. Save as many searches as you please--you can title the search above 'Skinny and Rich' or 'Meal Ticket, Cheap to Feed' or anything else for that matter--and scroll through your search results as often as you like. In virtual space, no one can see you ogle.

Nearly all user profiles include at least one, and usually several, photographs. Some of the photos are more current than others, one suspects. It is usually impossible to tell who is practicing deceptive advertising on these sites until you meet them, of course, but occasionally the photos include giveaways; a "Dole for President" campaign button, for instance, or a Seattle Pilots baseball jersey. Some women have clearly used photo-editing programs to enhance their images, mostly to blur out wrinkles and other imperfections. I suppose such women are hoping to ensnare a mate with a bad case of glaucoma.

Be prepared for a few other shocks. Women definitely have a different understanding of body type classifications than I do, I have learned. Some who describe themselves as 'skinny' or 'proportional' look shockingly like fullbacks. Likewise, some who reportedly earn at least $150,000 a year appear to be sitting on the porch of a singlewide drinking a PBR. Is this an investment property, maybe? Is your singlewide located in the Virgin Islands, perhaps? I am confused, but still intrigued.

The privileges afforded freeloaders on these sites are few, just enough to convince you that it is worth $40 per month to enjoy the full complement of prerogatives. Freebies usually include some variation of 'winking,' a quick text-free message that lets another user know you are either interested in her or that you have something in your virtual eye. A wink is as far as you can go for free, however; if your intended responds with anything but a wink you'll never know, and if she winks back at you, you'll know that she did but not her name or email address or phone number or any other information that would be useful in procuring a date. For that, you must pay the money.

Paying users, on the other hand, can look at other users' profiles, send emails, post on bulletin boards, and generally have free run of the place. Freeloaders like myself will know that a paying user has been checking them out and trying to reach them by email but will not be able to retrieve the checker-outer's identity or message until they have paid for the full service. Watch those irretrievable emails pile up in your mailbox and try not to imagine one of them is from the reincarnation of Myrna Loy, that you are ruining your one shot at marital happiness because you'd prefer to hold on to your forty bucks, you miserable and penurious loser. You deserve to be alone. This is the way these sites work, and I can feel their allure. It doesn't make me want to sign up yet, but it does make me wish I'd gotten into this business; someone is clearly making a killing in the loneliness sector.

One site offers freeloaders an intriguing feature: instant messaging. From my experience, this service is used exclusively by impossibly hot twenty-year old girls who are very, very interested in you even though they have not even looked at your profile, meaning that they know nothing about you but your user name (e.g. Lonely_and_Desperate_6822) and what you look like on your best day from a great distance (i.e. your profile picture, which appears only as a tiny thumbnail to all who do not check out your profile). If you click on these girls' profiles, you will note that their self-descriptions are a little too well written, and if you google the text of those descriptions you will find that it is boilerplate copy used by many impossibly hot young women on many dating sites. Their profiles typically disappear--removed by the site administrators--a few hours after they contact you. I find it odd that these same women who treat me as though I were a kindly old eunuch in the real world flock to me with such enthusiasm in the virtual world. I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but I strongly suspect anyone responding to these IMs soon finds himself enmeshed in a maze of credit card numbers and pornographic websites.

My inclinations in matters of the heart are fundamentally Luddite. I do not trust computer dating, and the anecdotes I've heard from regular users bear out my trepidations. One friend--the same one who informed me that many men refer to as ""--explained that it's all about the second date: "That's when you have sex," he said matter-of-factly, and I flashed back to too many youthful indiscretions when I hopped into bed with someone way too early, only to find that we had nothing in common but physical attraction. And I remembered that the getting in to those relationships was pretty fun and a big boost to the ego, but that the getting out was always far more difficult and traumatic than the getting in was fun, and that in the end the ego boost had been more than negated by feelings of self-reproach and self-loathing.

I also recall how the feeling of virtue that comes from abstaining from such encounters is eventually and inevitably overwhelmed by loneliness, by the desire to be desired, and by the need to be intimate with someone, even if that someone is a relative stranger with whom you probably have nothing in common. These aren't problems endemic to computer dating; they're problems endemic to being human, and I'll be navigating them again soon enough or spending the rest of my life alone, or no.

So there you go.