To Soothe the Savage Beast

In college, hiding out in a record shop was the ultimate in recreational sports.  Give me a rickety stair way that led to a small upstairs shop filled with rows and rows of albums and I could spend hours studying record jackets, memorizing new band names, and getting into music the part-time sales clerk/devotee decided to throw onto the turntable.  It awakened the senses, taking me far away from the day-to-day problems and opened my imagination.  No one spoke long to each other.  We just moved our heads to the music and expressed appreciation and gratitude by buying something sure to be an undiscovered treasure, something to share or listen to later in your headphones.

Record Store Day didn’t sound promising.  The whole industry had changed and of the few stores remaining, I now drove past them.  I lost my devotion to the turntable years ago after Sony’s Walk Man, CD’s, the mail order music clubs, the downloads, and now the streaming.  I have tried to equate steaming with the feel of going through the aisles of records.  Instead of flipping each album one by one, I skip around playlists and charts, clicking on songs one by one.  But it is not the same, obviously.  No one is there to look up and nod with the beat.  I don’t buy a button when I leave.  I just know so many thousands of others have clicked on the same artist this month.

So, walking into the local used record shop was a little overwhelming.  Outside of the guys with beards touting an artificial aficionado demeanor and the obligatory head shop paraphernalia, I wasn’t prepared for all the other merchandise the shop had to invest in to help keep the bills paid – toys, figurines, comic books, rock t-shirts, used gaming equipment, entertainment antiques.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if a special room wasn’t hidden away somewhere just for Japanese anime. It would have been creepy to walk into the shop on my own but the place was packed.

Once I found a spot I felt comfortable in, I picked though some dusty cd’s.  I realized I owned most of them.  It also occurred to me that should my husband and I die together and someone had to clean out our house, our collective musical library would be worth more than my crystal.  Maybe.   Although most of the music I liked was probably worn out.   I contemplated the new Father John Misty, its solitude next to current bands I have no taste for.  It looked so sad and beaten up as if saying, “Unless this is vinyl, I don’t know why you would bother.”  I changed spots.  I changed spots again.

At the end of one aisle I spotted lunch bags with “Mystery CD’s – 10 for $5”.  They were labelled country, rock, classical, and jazz.  Great marketing, I thought.  Slow moving inventory, the music no one really wants to buy, wrapped up for the kid whose parent said they could get something and me.  Jazz was one genre I could probably take a chance I did not own.  With my “Mystery Bag” and an early Susan Tedeschi CD, I cashed out for a whopping $7.50.

I opened the bag and looked through the names.  Outside of Yo-Yo Ma and K.D. Lang, I wasn’t too familiar with anyone.  Are these really jazz artists?  I stashed the records in the computer room next to the phone charger.  At some point, I’ll get to them.  Maybe it was the scent of patchouli oil from the bag, maybe it was the flood of memories, but by the next morning, my record store instincts started to kick in and eventually took over.  I needed to listen.  I needed to read all of their liner notes, who was on the album, who they dedicated it to, what year was it made, what did they look like, what city were they from, and finally if they seemed like they would measure up to my taste.

I fired up the old CD player.  I pulled out the collection of music to sip coffee by.  It was a compilation which seemed to be created for commercial use at a Starbucks or Coffee Beanery.  One quartet covering multiple styles.  Good music to throw on at a brunch for family members of varying ages so they can talk while eating eggs.  Twenty second sampling ended around the fourth track.

Next up, an early EP by Joey De Francesco.  I could tell it was early since I had purchased his Christmas album as a gift for a family member last year and he was much younger in this photo.  I had an idea of what it may sound like and was happy to hear his swinging keyboard take over.  It was too early for a martini but when I am ready for one, I know he’ll come in handy.

The next two Cd’s must have been purchased originally by the artist’s family members.  The first woman’s voice over enunciated songs that must have been requested at weddings.  The second was an album out of a Manitoba, Canadian label.  The kid was trying his hardest to be anything – rock, blues, it didn’t matter – but his voice wasn’t catchy and the tunes fell flat.

Slowly, I could feel the urge to just skip to the K.D. Lang and Yo-Yo Ma but I picked up another and hoped for the best.

“The Immigrant’s Dilemma”.  The jacket looked interesting although I got lost a little on the liner notes.   The title was in Japanese on the side and, like a true serious musician, the notes were filled with descriptions for each of the numbers.  The expressionless photo of the ensemble made me wonder if this wasn’t another fusion jazz collection, of which I have never been a fan.  I popped it in.  Surprisingly, I kept listening and didn’t skip around.  Each track was beautiful.  Todd Garfinkle, where have you been?  I looked him up on Spotify.  Surely this was an artist that was big in circles I was not aware of.  But nothing came up.  I tried searching the other musicians on the album and two out of four had meager followings in Edinburgh, U.K, and Sofia, Bulgaria.  Strange and strange enough to Google.  Here was a guy who started his own record label, M*A which is Japanese for human, and traveled all over the world recording live music.  A total beardless audiophile, he has special microphones that are used to capture the closest sound you’ll ever hear outside of just being in the same room with the musician.  He records in churches, monasteries, and halls with phenomenal acoustics.  His life has been lived all over the world and is devoted to music of the truly talented.  YouTube even had his “Sonogo” available with only 720 views.  I had found a gem and I wanted the world to hear how great he was.

Inspired, I picked up my next selection.

Michael Feinstein singing “The Jerry Herman Songbook”.  When I saw the reference to “Hello Dolly” and “Mame” I was ready to pass.  But, I thought, I have heard of Michael Feinstein somewhere so he must have something.  Listening to “Just Go to the Movies” I realized he must have been the singer every Broadway show would have fought over.  Such a clear, effortless voice.  Another Google search and my suspicions were confirmed.  Grammy upon Grammy and considered to be an American Song Book treasure.  Not certain what I will do with this one but now I appreciate someone I would have only a vague knowledge of.

Sherri Roberts was up next.  Her “Dreamville” cd was sweet and perfect for jazz.  Out of San Francisco in 1998, her voice was incredible smooth.  Then I played K.D. Lang’s E.P. finally which wasn’t even close to jazz but, again the voice, is, well, K.D. Lang.  Not much more can be said.

By this time, I wasn’t sure Yo-Yo was even going to get played.  When I picked up the unopened KJ Denhert, my expectations were low.  Another unknown label, this time out of New York.  The music was recorded in 1999 and her face on the stark black, grey, and white jacket looked young.  She had even thanked her college roommate for believing in her.  My ears were ready for just about anything at this point.  And there she was – singer/song writer with a mellow, heartfelt voice and great rhythms in each tune.  This had been her first recording and as recently as 215, she had won an award from the Independent Music Awards.

My day had flown by.  I hadn’t eaten.  As I tucked Yo-Yo Ma away for driving enjoyment in a car that still had a CD player I recalled day I listened to The Who on my brother’s 8-track.  It really doesn’t matter the form, music is a central part of human experience and Music Store Day had reminded me of getting lost temporarily in that wonderful world.  It wasn’t spoon fed. The picks were not based on my past browsing history or what someone else wanted me to listen to.  It was random and wonderful.

Mind Over Muscle

The dream lasted forever.  It began with someone unlike me – but seemingly  me – wanting to go surfing.  Whoever it was, grabbed the short board headed up the hilly, tree-lined, street on the sunny morning then realized the beach was too far away so returned home to pick up the car.  From an aerial view, I could see my car, suspiciously like the car from last episode I watched of “Wheelers Dealers”,  caught in the middle of a formula one  race.  The track went right but my car veered to the left with other vehicles exiting the race.


I always have such great expectations the day before a vacation day.  I dream I’ll repaint the bathroom, visit my relatives, spend the day at the mall,  all while remaining in bed watching old movies.  It never turns out the way I plan.  I usually  finish  a load of laundry and grocery shop, if I’m lucky.  Today’s day off started with a good look in the mirror.   I looked at myself sideways, groaned, and grudgingly concluded, as much as I did not want to, that a trip to my local gym was overdue.  It’s not that I hate to work out.  Once I get going, I find a groove and actually enjoy it.  It is just the psyching up to actually go that is the problem.  So much energy goes into the getting ready between the cramming body parts into “breathable” , form-fitting “new technology” wear,  hair management, and color coordination to fluorescent shoes.  Another glance in the mirror and the gym rat was born.

My club is small, local, and best of all inexpensive.   With owners who served as Marines, the place is clean, the machines work, the neighborhood crowd includes all ages depending on the time of day, and once in a while you overhear local gossip.  Since it was the middle of the day, most of the crowd was either retired or under employed.  The younger members plugged into their phones and worked their way around the cardio machines or free weights.  The retirees sat on machines watching the TV’s slowly going through their reps.  Oddly, a thirty-something year old on a stair climber was speaking into her ear bud microphone, her voice gradually getting loader and faster as her workout intensified.  A type A, I surmised, desperately in need of some kind of weird attention.   Toward the free weights, two men were comparing current girlfriends to past crazy ones, reassuring each other their futures were brighter.

My mind usually starts to focus on where my feet should be, how I am supposed to breath,  what muscle group should be moving and I tune out everything else going on in my head. Usually.  But  I could feel the back fat rippling on the lat pull, the cellulite jiggle on the bike, the non-existent core muscles strain on each sit-up.  Surrounded by mirrors at all angles, I started to regret the holiday cookies and my long work hours.  My head dropped back on the exercise mat as I stared up at the ceiling. I tried to take a deep breath but it came out more like a sigh.  I tried not to think about the upheaval at  work then remembered  my odd dream.  With the move to another office further away, my longer driving commute had turned into a race every morning.  I don’t why I didn’t give it all up.  My life of sitting at a desk in a stress filled office now expanded into sitting behind the wheel in stress filled rush hour to get to my stress filled job.  No wonder my body was morphing into ball of fat and my heart felt weak.  At least the annoying woman on the stair climber was trying to leverage work with a workout.  I contemplated how many bad decisions I would make if I was to bark orders over a stair climber.  Here was my day off, doing something good for my body yet my brain couldn’t shut off my daily grind. No matter what I did today, my mind would be stuck going too slow in a fast race that I needed to exit.

Opening my eyes and looking around the club, it seemed the anxiety of daily life could not be avoided but we were trying.  We can try to sleep it off, eat it away, or work it off.  It was  very therapeutic to know my neighbors were trying to work it off with me.  At some point I am determined to make it to the beach and maybe I will see everybody there riding a more enjoyable wave.

Too Much

I had to turn the television news off and stop checking Twitter.  I couldn’t take the news spitting tidbits of the horrific scenes in Paris any longer.  I was still trying to wipe out the photos of the woman in shock when the Russian jet exploded.  Add to the shock of the Connecticut school shootings, the multiple college shootings, the shopping mall massacre in Kenya, and US military base assaults,  I find it’s just too much to take in and have given up trying to understand the logic behind violence.  I don’t care about the reasons why anymore.  As a priest stated in a local church homily after the Naval base shooting, “It is wrong, that’s all the matters.”

The violence is not unfamiliar to human experience.  The world has been brutal since the beginning of time.  Why human development has stopped evolving  and has receded into the base of animal instinct cannot be explained.  Not enough of something, too much of something else, greed, poverty, genetic, environmental –  whatever the reason it gets all of us nowhere.  Earth’s soil is mixed with the countless deaths of the innocent.  Homer wrote about it.  Shakespeare wrote scenes about it.  The concept of fairness has been debated for centuries by philosophers.  Could it be that humans are just unable to move to peace because of our inability to identify with others?   Is it just how we are wired?  Or does it come in waves?  Cure Violence ( believes violence works like a disease that spreads like a cold and should be isolated like an Ebola outbreak to cure.

Maybe.  Maybe violence is more like a genetic code that given the right environment, turns the mind on.  Too bad it doesn’t switch off with the right diet and exercise.  It just lingers silently for the rest of us to witness in disbelief.

I will pray for Paris, and Lebanon,  and Kenya,  and St. Petersburg,  and Connecticut, and anyone that is abused, and  for those that have had to watch a horrendous act of a  human gone terribly wrong.  But I won’t try to understand the violence.  Just can’t.

Into the Autumn

I opened the window that looks over the backyard and could barely hear the crickets, their soothing sounds slowed to nearly a whisper.  I wanted to keep the window open just for one last night but the heat has been turned on in the house to combat the recent chilly nights and so I slid the window shut.

Earlier this evening,  I had inspected the hopeful peppers and the sad tomatoes.  They had taken on a greenish-yellow hue, drooping on weepy branches.  I attempted to push them upright but they just slumped back into their droopy place. I recalled how the spring had such an optimistic start.  This was my first year of (somewhat unsuccessfully) growing vegetables by seed and I had waited from March to late May to see if my little babies would make it.  Marigolds, basil, Serrano peppers, and Roma tomatoes smiled at me from their little seed package pictures.  I envisioned giving  away my many extra plants to friends and family in the spring, reserving the best for my patio pots.  The world was bright and smiling and colorful.

I cheered when the first seedlings arrived  then panicked  after millions seemed to arrive all in one week filling the 48 mini pods of fertilized dirt.  To water or not to water, that was the daily debate – the debate I apparently lost.  Most of the plants had to be thinned out in an attempt to weed out the weak.  Most of the strong ultimately died, their little heads to heavy to be held up by the thin stem.  Only a few made it.  The survivors  were the pride of my summer.  I watched as they grew and chased the resident squirrel away as vegetables formed.  I would talk to each plant to boost their confidence and to speed their growth.  I studied the sun’s angle.  Each little bloom was a victory.  When my first pepper became ripe enough to pick, I winced as I removed it from the rest of the plant I was still nursing.  I threw the pepper into a chopped salad all the same.  If only the season could last forever.

Not surprisingly,  I was not mentally prepared for the arrival of  autumn and its steely grip on my small, immature crop.  When the Super Moon arrived, the days and nights had still been warm but the moon’s bloody shadow stole  the life from my garden and cast a spell on the beautiful trees nearby.  I knew dangerous change was in the air on Saturday as I sat in a cold rain peaking at the football field from beneath my clinging hood.  From the quickly abandoning stands, I stared down at my drenched canvas all-stars slowly realizing my feet were  freezing.  My jacket beaded with raindrops, the water pooling  on my arms and shoulders.   I still shiver at the memory of the wet chill..  No,  I decided,  I am not in the least bit prepared for the coming cold, for weekends sitting in a messy house wondering how I can get out of going anywhere that required clearing snow off my car while covered countless layers of outer wear.  I had little hope of getting through the next six months without some sort of distraction.

Where did the sunny days go?  The news has turned bad, the barbecue is covered,  and  the heat is on in the house.  The damn heat is on in the house.  My mood has shifted into low gear and I just want to go in reverse.

I opened the window again.  Don’t go crickets.  Please don’t go.  The moon was only kidding.

Breakfast Fusion

My desire for making blueberry muffins came in the morning, after my run, when the morning hunger starting kicking in and the adrenaline had not quite worn off.  I had bought a quart of blueberries the week before at the farmer’s market and had brought a little for lunch a few times during the week.  They had been fresh, sweet, and juicy.  Fresh baked muffins seemed like a perfect fit for the weekend.

I pulled my Julia Child’ s Baking with Julia and my relatively new Cook’s illustrated The Science of Good Cooking  to compare versions.   For most of my life, I would use just one recipe when I made anything but lately I found my options seem to be better when I combined ideas.  Or at least, I thought it improved the end product.  It started when I began canning.  I had compared a family pickle method to the Ball’s Blue Book method and added a bit more sugar.  Then later, I compared my sister’s peanut butter cookie recipe to Bon Appetite’s , Ina Garten’s turkey meatloaf to my mother-in-law’s traditional meatloaf, potato salads,  and – viola!- my own food fusion.  Sometimes they worked (better pickles) and sometimes they didn’t (peanut butter cookies that stuck to the roof of the mouth).  Either way, the end product wound up as a masterpiece of the moment or more like an experiment of expressionism since  I never remembered what I exactly changed because I never thought to write anything down.

So there I was, reading glasses on, staring at one list of ingredients that included cake flour, sour cream, and whole milk and another that needed all-purpose flour, buttermilk, and mashed up blueberries.  I didn’t really like either one completely.  The fusion creativity began to rush through my veins as I began to take inventory of what I had on hand.  Cake flour, no but I had bread flour.  A moment of clarity took place as I did a quick check  of the page facing Cook’s Illustrated marching orders defining the types of flours and their uses.  I soon learned the disastrous effect bread flour would cause.   All-purpose flour – check.  Sour cream – check.  Milk –  no, not a drop.  In a panic, I needed to catch my husband coming back from the bank and possibly grocery shopping to see if he could save the morning.  I called his cell.  No answer.  I texted, waited, but no immediate response.   Proceeding with my mission while I waited, I wrestled around the top shelf of the pantry and found the baking power hiding behind the corn meal. The heart stopping shock came when I check the remaining blueberries.  12 left and looking a little old.  Not nearly the 2 cups that both books prescribed.  I quickly texted my husband again, telling him to never mind, just as his car pulled into the driveway.  He hadn’t checked his phone,  thank heaven, and had purchased a pint of fresh local blueberries as a whim.  No milk.  I was just too close.  I couldn’t let the cooking bug pass. Grabbing my keys, I headed to the neighborhood Italian bakery/grocery store for the milk.

Saturday mornings at the bakery isn’t someplace you will be able to come and go quickly something that should have dawned on me 5 minutes earlier.  The parking lot was packed and it was three people deep at the long counter.  I made my way back to the milk.  They had both – buttermilk and regular.  Which recipe called for the buttermilk?  Was it the one with the cake flour, the sour cream, and the mashed blueberries?  Or was that even the one I was making.  I nabbed them both and took my place in line next to a man with a 5 week old baby and a woman buying enough bread to feed an elementary school. I scanned the bread and spotted the nice Italian loaf which had been determined would be good for the house since I was going there anyway.   While my bread was being sliced, the cashier asked, “What else can I get you?”.  Dangerous question to ask me as I glanced at the brownies staring back at me from beneath the glass counter.  My stomach rumbled.   Two milks, one slicked loaf of Italian bread, and two frosted brownies later, I found myself back in my kitchen staring at the cookbooks.  Too late for me to turn back now as my messy countertop  would take too long to clean up anyway.

Sighing, I washed the blueberries.  As directed, I “whisked”  together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Putting my reading glasses back on,  I doubled checked the recipe (which one was I using again?) and realized I put an eighth of cup too much of the flour.  No biggie.  I’ll just add a little more sugar.  In another bowl, I was to whisk the sugar and eggs.   It would not have been an issue had I actually had sugar.  I always, always buy sugar, I mumbled to myself.  How could be out?  I worked to get less than a cup out of my sugar canister.  Fusion, I told myself, fusion.  My pitiful bag of brown sugar laid where I had left it the last time I made cookies.  It will have to do, I told myself as I added large pinches to my beaten eggs.  After waiting for the butter I had hastily melted in the microwave to cool, I mixed and combined the rest of the ingredients including the pint of whole blueberries together and shoved the pan into the oven.

I eyed the brownies while I waited.  Somehow the wafting blueberry intoxicating aroma I had imagined was lost to impatience as I eyed the rising batter.  I imagined licking the frosting off the side of one of the brownies when the oven’s buzzer finally went off.

An hour and half later the dishes were washed and the blueberry muffins were safe in their Ziplock.  Although a little like a rubber ball, they were tasty but, then,  I was pretty hungry.  It always takes a day or two to truly appreciate the madness of a hungry cook, I justified.   I thought about the economies of scale of baked goods.  Next time I get a craving in the morning, I told myself,  I may have to skip the art of fusion and just go for mass production of my local bakery.  I wondered if they had chocolate chip muffins.