Having de-planed from Dad 2.0, and having found my usual spot on the couch, I’m writing on vapors and am looking forward to bed. Jenn has retired post-Oscars and, as I’m pressing my last ‘send’ and about to retire too, Cayde appears in the living room. We talk, in that laconic man-to-man way. He’s confused that he went to bed just an hour ago and that–already–the Tooth Fairy has delivered him money. “Look–I got two dollars!” I can’t explain the Tooth Fairy’s expedience; I’m very much tired. Luckily Cayde says, “Hold on, Daddy.” He re-appears with a blanket. “This is for us.” And we crash it on the couch. I still have my phone open. “Hold a sec,” I say. I manage to find the Andrew Bird song we played on the way home from the hospital. The wireless headphones don’t work, and Cayde eventually shrugs them off. So we play the song all tinny on an uncooperative iPhone and that’s how we go to sleep.
I had almost managed to re-find a seat after my five minutes at the conference podium before being handed a business card. This happened at the back of the auditorium—naturally—because I’ve always gravitated towards the rear seats of the classroom, else comfortable corners where’s it’s easy to hide. I figure it’s a mammalian tendency, and of the beta variety: hug a wall, protect your spine (or lack thereof).
The lady who proffers the card says her name is M—(?). There’s an’M’ certainly, but I don’t hear her name exactly because the room is now applauding the keynote speaker (Michael Kimmel—and, yes, he was great). M—(?) says she would like to speak to me and I find it curious she has a tear in her eye when we’re still halfway through coffee; tears generally come later and when en vino veritas is the presiding sentiment. While still in a haze, I thank her and stammer a ‘Sure’ though networking remains something I’m not good at and something I most likely won’t improve on much over the weekend. (I’m the guy who leaves sweaty palm-prints at the bank-clerk counter, else replies a clumsy ‘how are you?’ when asked the same question).
A day later, I finger the card while doing some typing in the corner of the foyer. M—(?) is from the CDC. (Y’know: the place that blew up in Season One of ‘The Walking Dead’). The Center of Disease Control. And, for emphasis, ‘.gov.’ I find M—(?) today, and she was walking away from a leather-chaired sit-down; I overhear her saying she was right hitting a wall. I felt apologetic tapping her on the shoulder, but I was also the one that could direct her to coffee, so all was even. You see: I’m industrious in my shyness—I had the hotel completely staked out. Coffee in a few strategic locations, sub-par IPA downstairs.
(I know the barback’s name. At three’o clock the light at Table 10 by the window is fantastic and perfect for writing).
We collect coffee. We also graze some chocolate-covered things as bonus. Suddenly there’s a DC PR attache, too, also with a card. I’m certainly not used to this; I was asked for a reciprocal card a few times this weekend and wished to reply that I hadn’t exactly figured out the cut n’ paste feature on my phone just yet. Which—all things considered—means business cards may not exactly be in my immediate future.
(But ask me about Patrick Bateman and I’ll tell you that his card has a ‘bone’ motif; it’s also lettered in ‘silian rail.’).
I don’t know exactly how to hold my coffee cup. M tells me she’s wanted to meet me even before the conference began. And we’re in a side-room where there is something more than hotel-light and where we’re offered charging-stations and cushioned respite. There is talk of messaging, policy-initiatives, media-dissemination. Most importantly—advocacy.
“I love your writing. You made me cry.” M is gracious and exudes something earnest.
‘You made me cry’, mind you, is flattery for any writer. Or maybe relief, actually.
Because I guarantee you every writer cries at least once when putting down some serious bones. That the tears should be of worth and collectively pooled means someone’s crying with you, and when the drying of tears becomes a necessarily shared activity, there is empathy. Endall, it usually amounts to change.
That’s exactly when you want a business card pressed your way. When you’re both drying your cheeks. It means it’s not exactly business; the cards take softer corners.
I talk a lot while the sun spills in and I figure out that the best thing to do is to set my coffee cup down on the table in front of me. I talk, and: too much? I dunno. We break, and I’m excited as can be; I probably end the conversation abruptly because my world generally lacks pressed palms, and I really want to hear my new buddy Justin read in the conference hall. I’m not good at this. I really liked M, though, and when we separate I pour another cardboard demitasse from the communal carafe. Then I hide again. I tap some more keys. Being fond of ellipses, I type a few of those. (As something promising, though, and not something necessarily unfinished).
I take my fortieth look at the business card afterward. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.
I think of my sons who I’m missing, currently.
In my satchel is one of those knit hospital caps—Findlay’s. The post-delivery nurse scribbled ‘FINN’ on it when my son was born with a permanent marker; she talked around the fact of his diagnosis, and with unnecessary and frenetic alarm. Considering everything, I would prefer to have the last word, and a word not scribbled messily with a Sharpie.
I pocket the business card and it fits my thigh perfectly.
Because I’ve only recently learned my manners, I say ‘Hello–good to see you, Mae,” to the parking lot attendant at Rady’s. (It’s only been the past few years that I’ve started introducing myself to people I see on the regular).
“Good to see you too, Sweetheart.” She smiles, hands me my parking pass, and leans through the driver’s side window and smiles to Finn. “Hi, Baby. Hi!”
Finn does a tired wave, and blows a kiss. He’s learned his manners, and well before me.
We’re both a little tired. Par for the course. At Speech,Miss Stephanie asks me about Finn’s progress, and I don’t have a lot to say, though Finn’s doing rather well.
She tells me to work on putting signs together. I joke that “Crackers, please” is a fair constant.
Finn toddles around and plays with all the toys, the rubber frogs and turtles scattered about the gym mats. He hugs his friend Logan, and then me. He stops to suck his thumb.
We have singing time, always followed by snack-time: Goldfish crackers and raisins and cereal without fail. All the kids have troubles staying in their chairs and all of us parents are laughing. Miss Stephanie reminds me about Finn’s homework, and about strategizing to combine signs. She’s holding open a ‘Wheels on the Bus’ book in the meantime.
“Finn!” she says. “Where’s the doggy? Where’s the doggy in the picture?”
Finn signs: “Tired.” (Me, too). Then he waves ‘Bye’, rubs his hands together signaling ‘fish’. He taps his elbow: ‘Cracker.’
And then puts a thumb back into his mouth. Music Time is over; now Goldfishes, please.
Gonna call that a sentence.
Mae says ‘good-bye’ on the way out and we don’t pay.
The ‘Mongoloid’ card gets played despite ground rules and—across the table—Jenn and I meet glances. Finn’s asleep in Jenn’s lap, thumb resolutely in mouth.
In slumber, Finn’s almond eyes close along sinuous lines; the seams of his lids resemble ‘tildes’, those accent marks that give flourish to Latin ‘n’s: tildes make ‘en-ye’s’ out of ‘n’s. Finn’s eyes are different, as is he, and: do we call this exotic?
When the ‘Mongoloid’ card is played—we are playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’, something I’m suddenly regretting—I feel a particular blunting. The table is still friendly, and this is Christmas Eve, but I turn to my friend John-Paul who’s sitting next to me and say: ‘I think I’m done.’ The ‘Mongoloid’ mention has its certain hurt.
John and I are sharing a barrel-aged stout, something fourteen points, so me saying ‘done’ is appropriately camouflaged by a near-finished pint. I could be done by nature of what I’m imbibing, but that’s not why I quietly say ‘uncle.’(Since we’re talking numbers and points, Finn has 47 chromosomes, not the usual 46. The 21st chromosome was doubled somewhere in the early and meiotic phase; it turned Finn’s eyes almond and troubled his heart so that it needed surgering three months following his introduction into the world).
Another hand is dealt, and with my son sleeping—a slur having just been played and re-shuffled with Finn deep in Nod—I tell John-Paul that ‘I’m just gonna amuse myself, here.’ I’m uncomfortable. Finn sleeps. He has an arced palate and a lazy tongue by nature of his diagnosis—something biological. Lazier tongues, without diagnosis, have asked me: “Is he retarded?” A normal and relatively shallow palate should better lock a tongue into place, but it’s not always the case. People say things, coin questionable terms. And: ‘Mongoloid’ is a word that’s shocking to see still in circulation.
Wait—why am I playing this game?
The game asks that I play two associative cards. I lay down: ‘Heaven.’ ‘Object Permanence.’
I amuse myself. The point of this game is to play despicable cards when given a prompt—to be as devilishly clever as possible. I start playing cards to not win. ‘Heaven, object permanence.’ On a pizza sauce-stained tablecloth, and where the ‘Mongoloid’ card receives a laugh, my combo fails to even get a chuckle. But I’m happier for it.
Then, it’s Christmas morning. The sky is impossibly blue, weather having lifted. The retreating cirrus leaves something matte, and—as if cards played the night prior are something predicative—there’s a feeling of permanence. Like this sky could last forever, and unchanged.
We’re at a park near Lindbergh Field, in between houses and in between holiday visits. It could always be this blue, and, to announce the fact, the planes take off overhead, their perfect paint jobs illumined by the mid-morning sun. Weather, velocity and altitude surely flake the paint on the regular—inevitable atmospherics reducing veneer to scales—but today the jetliners gleam, flawless. Jenn pushes Finn on the swing and he’s laughing; Cayden—my oldest—clack-clacks the sidewalks that loop the greenbelt on his skateboard, and I soak up this Christmas sun on a concrete bench.
There are other dads—that guy with the cargo shorts and grey beard, kid astride his shoulders; the other guy with a palsied face one-handedly flying a kite with his son. There’s a canopied picnic to the left of me, and the table is neatly kerchiefed in plaid; a tow-headed girl hides beneath her dad’s jacket arm near the cooler.
Cayde inexpertly stops in front of me. He received kneepads from Santa and is now invulnerable, and don’t we all wish for that. “Soccer, Daddy?” Cayde suggests. I’m in a loose-knit scarf, suede penny-loafers, and a cardigan but, “Sure,” if only to add to this panorama. Different dads, different children.
Cayden declares goal-markers—“From here to here, Daddy”—but we wind up not keeping score. There are no points, and no point sometimes to numbers. Before, I would introduce the fact of Findlay’s diagnosis as ‘Trisomy-21.’ The dash and mathematic embellishment meant I didn’t have to say ‘Downs’, nor—certainly—‘Mongoloid.’ But now: 21, 47. There are numbers on the underside of the airliners that are currently taking off, and they mean as little to me.
Numbers suggest perpetuity. Also a constant countdown to a something, nothing: a dwindling arithmetic.
Suede-footed, I bend a kick Cayden’s direction and, as if there’s a cosmic time signature at play, the ball caroms mid-air while Finn laughs in the background kicking his legs in an upwards swing. An orange-bellied plane takes off while the soccer ball pauses, and there’s both a temporary and permanent suspension.
The Santee Library used to exist at the midpoint of Magnolia, before the freeway overpasses were built and when Magnolia Avenue yawned its way though industrial offage and into El Cajon. The library was either a temporary building, or presented as such. It moved its quarters two decades ago and last I visited the building, it was a thrift store. I picked up a vintage typewriter there for forty bucks.
I’ve been trying to impress upon Cayden the habit of reading, because I used to check out the max amount of books from the old library, and from an early age.
Cayde is not exactly me, despite otherwise tellings; he recites dinosaur facts and beats me at twenty questions on the regular. (“False Killer Whale, Daddy–you lose”). I high-five his scien-terrificness but also tell him to stop jumping on the couch already. I have so for FIVE YEARS. But he keeps jumping on the couch, sometimes just to surprise me with a springboard hug.
“Hey, Cayde–would you read a book already?” I say in exasperation and from completely the wrong place. And he won’t because he’s not me and because he’s an absolutely social being. He needs a playmate wherein I just needed those 28 books from the library. He’ll color if he has a buddy with him; the room will be littered with books if he’s having discussion with friends (the last topic being Giganotosaurus vs. Ankylosaurus—surely you, too, have an opinion…).
The other night he was in his mismatched pajamas and I was again dissuading him from jumping on the couch, please and dammit, and he ran out the door, dirty-heeled. “Have to get something from the car, Daddy!” I heard the van door slide open, then those feet again, before Cayde burst back into the room.
“I’m at the part where Tumnus asks Lucy for tea!” My goodnight hug involved a casted-arm and a head ricocheting against my hip. “Night!”
I checked in later: ‘Narnia’ was on the floor and Cayde was snoring. I’ve always been an ‘Oz’ fan, but I tucked Cayde in tightly. It’s what the Tin Man would do, after all.
It’s chick season at work, which means there’s a number of round-headed kids in the nursery with pencil-necks, wobbly and with after-thoughts of flippers at this point. They’re in varying degrees of smallness (90 grams, anyone?) reliant upon heat lamps. They topple over easily: clumsy toes, big heads.
Taking care of week-old penguins is both rewarding and terrifying: to dole out meals from syringes in 1cc increments, watching and hoping those wide-open mouths don’t well up, or that bellies don’t decide to be too full, or that sated chicks don’t decide suddenly their house is too hot after a big meal–it’s constant anxiety. You change towels, tip heat lamps just so, adjust the flow of a syringe because a chick may be a thrifty, else a lazy feeder.
You wish upon wish you don’t screw this up while the chicks all present differently, curling up into corners after meals, or maybe craning a post-gusto head (‘More?’). They sometimes sigh big as if their houses were too hot, or they may sigh simply because we all sigh big after a satisfying meal.
You write things down, double-guess yourself, read fecals like tea leaves (zoo keeping in a nutshell), and adjust that heat-lamp for the eleventh time. Near ten minutes after feeding time, the chicks stop their solicitous wobblings, their muted chirpings, and choose crash-out positions–like finding the perfect post-Bacchanal couch or piece of floor: ‘Hey–I’ll just sleep here, ok? Cool.’
And when you get ten or so kids down for the count with their ridiculous flippers out and their faces mashed into terry-cloth beds, you can breathe. Sortuv. You’ll wait forty-five minutes, and sometimes after you’ve clocked out (you gotta be sure). You may drive home feeling ok.
Then there’s always 2 a.m. when you jolt awake and worry; then 6 a.m. when you feed your anxiety with a disquieting amount of coffee.
Then: 9 a.m. when you arrive again at work and the kids are all right; still you’ll look ahead to 9 p.m. when—while driving home—you’ll worry again they’re not. It’ll cycle over and over until everyone’s full-grown and the nursery door gets locked for the season.
You’ll inherit a few gray hairs, if not–a new constellation of ulcers. You’ll also get those nights when—while turning the click signal that compasses toward your driveway—you still halfway smile while your brow suggests a frown.
Finn had to go to the Emergency Room this evening. Yesterday afternoon–and all through the night–he threw up twice an hour, and every hour. Miserable little fits where afterwards he could only manage half a cry before returning a thumb to his mouth. His eyes were purple-lidded and he was super-pale. This is saying a lot: Finn is the definition of ginger, even as his hair slowly blondes toward something more flaxen. To be paler than normal is to be near translucent.
I get a phone call this afternoon that Jenn is off to the hospital.
I leave work early, and in the rain. By the time I arrive at Rady’s, Cayde is a nervous wreck. “I don’t know how to be me right now, ” he tells Jenn. “Do I be funny and just tell Finn some jokes?” He’s nervous that this visit might be something of an ordeal, with lots of medicine and multiple waiting rooms. (It’s where we went when Cayde broke his arm in two places and had it reset under the influence of a ketamine drip. It was an Alice in Wonderland trip that ended with us exhausted and back home at 2 a.m., seven hours and four triage stations later).
Finn just needs some re-hydration, but Cayde is so anxious that this might be a ‘big visit’ with lots of needles and cuffs and no lollipop at the end that he kinduv shuts down. By the time I drive up to the ER front door, Jenn just decides to send Cayde out to the car where he tumbles rain-dampened into the backseat, for me to drive home.
The traffic queue out of Rady’s is a failed choreography of mismatched traffic signals and with nurses evacuating their shifts in droves. It takes forty-five minutes to drive the half-mile to the freeway entrance.
“This traffic is dumb,” Cayde announces.
“It’s the ‘F’ word,” Cayde continues. “And the ‘A–‘ word with ‘hole.'”
Appropriate, but inappropriate at once. (I DID utter the phrase to a driver who tried to pass us up in the rain, so mea culpa).
I redirect and we have a leather-seat dance party with a rain-spotted windshield, headlights all swimmy, to some electro music. We follow with a mantra of ‘Light-Turn-Green’ voiced by the Muppets. Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggie. (Cayde particularly likes our Animal shout-along).
Meanwhile, Jenn wears the cape and courses Finn through the various stations. A nurse decides to poke Finn with an IV, which–ex post facto–we find out was NOT ok’d by the attending physician. Lactated Ringer’s is the quickest way to hydration–but still sometimes the scariest–for toddlers. Finn is terrified; the nurse does two bad sticks and elucidates, six times over, how Downs’ are sometimes hard to stick intravenously. How Downs’ have these fatty pads in their hands and wrists. How Downs’ don’t take to the needle as well.
I mentioned my wife wore the cape today. She tells the nurse: “You know, he’s not ‘a Downs’–he ‘s a child with Down Syndrome.” The nurse is reportedly apologetic and mentions her thirteen-years veteran-hood and how she’s never had anybody correct her otherwise.
I’m certain there’s probably this nurse vernacular: ‘I gotta Downs in Room 3.’ Still: this is not the Westminster Dog Show, and Finn is not a collie. He’s not a breed; he simply has a syndrome.
Cayde: ‘The ‘F’ word, with the ‘A–‘ word and ‘hole.’
We slowly drive home and count down the exits. I turn down our dance-party music, currently Discovery’s ‘Osaka Loop Line’, and Cayde is mouthing the beats as if they were words.
‘Hey Cayde–listen.’ We’re nearing some concrete overpass and, in turning down the radio, we hear the incessant sizzle of rain on the windshield, this suggestion of momentum; we drive beneath the overpass and the sound suddenly ceases, like applause stopped, and then it begins again.
Finn’s IV doesn’t take. The ‘Downs kid in Room 3′ gets some apple juice, and then my wife and son return home.
I like words. Sometimes I find words and type them into my phone to think about later. While at SanFran’s ‘Exploratorium’ this summer i happened upon ‘catenary.’
(Wiki: ‘in physics and geometry, a catenary is the curve that an idealized hanging chain or cable assumes under its own weight when supported only at its ends.’)
I called my best friend this weekend–which is rare seeing as I hate the phone–and warned him: ‘i’m in full Daddy mode right now. Got three kids in the house, a saute pan going, and I’m grilling.’ We exchanged ‘how are you’s’.
‘How are you?’ is an important question, even when asked casually.
The question was asked of me and I had to think while poking at some tandoor chicken. I angered the fire with a greasing of grapeseed oil and finally decided upon: ‘Good, actually. Really good.’
Which was true, but also qualified with: ‘I’m exhausted.’ As in: there’s fatigue, uneven sleeping patterns, the constant shell-shock of anxiety. I can’t find a photograph where my eyes are not looking older.
Still: good, I guess.
Turning the chicken on the grill, I hear the kids play and they spill out into the backyard. My son’s friend takes particular notice of a dessicated snail-shell on the ground and asks for a paper bag so that he can collect it. A ‘specimen bag’, he wants. I amuse myself and give him the only small paper sack I have. It’s from the ‘Museum of Communism’, via Prague. (Twice I’ve been gifted Hungarian paprika from my better-travelled friends and this last time I saved the bag).
I tell my friend what is good. Which could otherwise be lost, like the broccoli spears I dropped in the coals while explaining:
‘Had beers with some new friends at a North Park school fundraiser. Feel really good about work. Started up an e-mail exchange with an old friend leaving FB. Coached soccer. Got this amazing gift of cookbooks from my buddy in Jersey…’
The chicken is done. Cayde’s friend has meanwhile discarded his Communist knapsack on the sidewalk, contents being: one snail-shell and one dried-up myrtle leaf.
Our phones disconnect. I was telling my friend about a recent writing gig before the wires uncross.
(Again, I love words).
‘Catenary.’ So often I say: ‘burning the candle at both ends.’ But to rather say ‘suspended at two ends’ is better. The chainette in the middle feels the weight but also takes on an attractive curve. This somehow seems more appropriate.
Like when Cayde wants to scooter down to the school with the neighborhood kids and ride the guard-railed and makeshift ramp, just when I’m desperately trying to get the cooking done (I put the knife down, I sigh, we ride);or, when we’re in Long Beach with friends and Cayde interrupts a game of billiards and we must have a time-out wherein I show Cayde how to aim the stick. (With four hands on the cue, Cayde sinks the ‘7’).
The interruptions are good. Amazing really, no matter how heavy my eyes get.
I have an affinity for the telephone wires that criss-cross North Park. The not-exactly parabolic lines they present. Catenary, and suspended at two ends. Without tension, with just some weight.
There’s a reason I saved the word.
“I think Wendy Darling has left the nursery, ” Jenn tells me.
Cayde plays with the neighborhood kids Degan and Madison a lot. (When they’re on rotation at least, with their dad and new step-mom a few doors down). With Degan, Cayde’s at his most imaginative and the boys play elaborate games, often with the eleven-year old Madison curating affairs: ‘You’re the pirate, I’m the mermaid. This backyard is an island and now we have to find the dolphin queen.’ Madison will be in a jumper and will wave a sycamore stick as if it were a wand. (Degan will most likely break something in the process of finding any submarine royalty).
I told Jenn: “Madison is absolutely Wendy from ‘Peter Pan.’
Often I find Cayde and Degan huddled in Cayde’s bedroom over dinosaur books. And they’ll both cheer when they discover—say—that Diplodocus is from North America. It’s like a six-year old rally of: ‘USA! USA!’ Just about dinosaur bones, and not about anything of importance just yet.
Madison keeps a respective distance. Sometimes I find her in our backyard while the boys tumble about. She’ll be in the ‘tree house’, cross-legged, and with her skirt pulled taut over her knees while reading. Other times I find her with Cayde on the stairwell—just talking—and it’s like trespassing on a Wendy Darling session. Madison’s animated in her storytelling and Cayde is a rapt audience. Sometimes Cayde beats Degan six times in a row at Connect Four, loses his paleontologist buddy to a temper-tantrum, and then gains a Wendy.
Cayde and Degan were speeding scooters over the sidewalk today, then kicking balls against the neighbor’s fence and fighting over a game of ‘Mouse Trap.’
“Hey, Cayde—where’s Madison?”
“She doesn’t want to play with us anymore.”
Kinduv makes me sad, and I see Madison sitting on the apartment stairs, surely the girl from the ‘Basil E. Frankweiler’ book. Also Margo Tennenbaum from that movie, with her white plastic sunglasses and far-away look, a book at her side.
I almost expect to here a Nico song play, and I really miss Wendy Darling.
Ruth Reichl writes in her memoir ‘Tender at the Bone’, ‘I learned to cook in self-defense.’
Reichl is a staple in my house. She’s the famed editor of the now-exeunt ‘Gourmet’ magazine, the food critic so feared and so recognized, that she had to dress up in varying levels of disguise to remain anonymous on the NY food scene.
Her curated tome—‘The Gourmet Cookbook’—sits solidly on my kitchen shelf. 1000 pages of culinary how-to. It shares borders with books by French culinaire Madeleine Kamman, Korean-American impresario David Chang, the heralded four-star hound Thomas Keller. My copies of Ottolenghi have broken spines and there are dustings of sumac in the page creases.
I devour cookbooks as if they were paperback novels.
Recipes can read as short stories if you don’t mind the enumerated steps and the often dull, tradesmen language. Occasionally a cookbook author will work some prose—Frida Kahlo tells us to begin a rice pilaf by frying rice until it sounds like wet sand in the pan—but usually ‘salt a pot of boiling water’ begins the story, ‘garnish with herbs’ most likely closes it. Still—there’s drama to food, the act of transformation. The Maillard Effect informs the searing of a steak and the browning of bread; creating a swirling typhoon within a pot of simmering water is conducive to perfectly poached eggs: swimmy proteins wrap about themselves to become the seductive stars of eggs Benedict. Hell—even the simple addition of olive oil to a quartered tomato results in a more perfect food, the classic Mediterranean combo being the prime example of one ingredient elevating the health benefit of the other. Larder to dish: there’s always a story.
Back to the idea of cooking in self-defense. I first heard Ruth Reichl on NPR where she’s been interviewed often over the years. Reichl’s mother had gusto for food, but notoriously lacked a palate. Not that she was a philistine, as Reichl has defended—just that she literally couldn’t taste the spoilage she was serving. Apple pie and questionable meat would go into the same pot for a Friday stew. She would buy rancid goat from early-morning New York vendors in hopes of showcasing an exotic centerpiece for Saturday-night dinner guests. It was culinary fail after fail, but not for lack of trying. Little-girl Ruth became accustomed to standing sentry at her mom’s exhaustively prepared buffet tables. ‘Don’t eat that,’ she’d whisper to unsuspecting eaters. ‘No. Seriously, don’t.’
People ask me, often: ‘How’d you learn to cook?’ (I’m that annoying guy on your social-media feed who can’t help but post pictures of food. It’s my passion; I daydream about asparagus and—yes—a poached egg on top of any plate necessarily makes it better). Tongue-in-cheek, I often paraphrase Ruth Reichl–that I, too, learned to cook in self-defense. By saying so, I’m perhaps being unfair to my upbringing because spoilt food was never an issue, and my nightly dinner never provided an impending threat to my immediate gastronomic health. Still, a lot of what I ate as a kid was processed, canned and/or bagged: the inheritance of mid-century’s ‘better living through chemistry’ credo. On my particular plate, vegetables were in a food group subterranean to sugared cereal. I did, however, have multi-vitamins with my morning breakfast, something Casimir Funk had invented to compensate for America’s growing fascination with bleached grain and twice-synthesized corn. Calories were fast becoming empty, food marketing even emptier. White bread, white lies. It was the great modern experiment and it could’ve worked had it not actually failed miserably.
Processing food is not necessarily a modern thing, though. Hundreds of years before Cookie Crisp colored a bowl of milk, the sixteenth-century Moghuls in Kashmir fetishized white food: white rice, white yogurt, white meat, pale coriander and bleached cardamom. Some centuries before Wonder Bread, we were already changing food to match a palette, and not the palate. Being healthy is very much a choice, often counter to the culture.
When I moved out of my parents’ house with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, I did so with a copy of the ‘Joy of Cooking.’ At the time, I knew how to cook exactly two things: fried-egg sandwiches (Kraft singles and deli-meat FTW) and enchiladas. I declared I was going to change everything, re-define our eating. A friend scoffed: what? —more varieties of pasta and steak? His cynicism was not unwarranted. Truth being, I did not eat a salad until I was 25. Lettuce had never passed my lips as a kid. Greens were those over-boiled peas and powdery lima beans I surreptitiously dropped on the floor. Thank goodness for, 1) shag carpet; and 2) cooperative pets. But I was determined. And—yes—for the record it began with beef and noodles. Always mushrooms and then experiments with different herbs. A friend served my first greens to me: innocuous leaves of baby spinach that I nibbled with trepidation. They were fuzzy, but ok.
I got a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s ‘World Vegetarian’ by accident, belonging to a cookbook-of-the-month-club I was remiss in paying. I never sent back the cards in time: I wound up with a strange assortment of tomes. Books on chowder, pork-cookery, New England-style quahogging. I bought a set of All-Clad pans on thin credit, and—with a shrug—started cooking out of Jaffrey’s book exclusively. Indian food, Indonesian morsels, Sri Lankan eggery, Vietnamese fare. My first kitchen was a poorly tiled claustrophobia of a room (and I really shouldn’t mention the cockroaches). Then again—the kitchen isn’t always about registering a restaurant grade; conquering a kitchen is about technique and prowess and savoring every ingredient in a trajectory towards health. I overloaded the garbage disposal a few times over in the process, broke the spine of Jaffrey’s book as well. But I learned to eat as much as I learned to cook.
I started eating salad before becoming a dad and then re-inventing salad before my wife became a mom. (It’s my favorite thing now to make: a well-composed salad) But—hey—I still cook out of self-defense. Margarine is always on the offensive and chicken nuggets menace the horizon. My kid asks for McDonald’s on occasion, and I give a polite re-direct. ‘Something else, Cayde.’ Then he asks me a thousand questions regarding ‘what’s healthier—this or that?’ A bean and cheese burrito or a smoothee? He pretends(?) to like broccoli a lot; but regardless of him perhaps or perhaps not liking it, he at least wants recognition for choosing something healthy. He’ll choke down some broccoli in lieu of a cheeseburger because he wants to be a healthy son to a #HealthyDad. That he has the ability to even identify and ask for rapini in a store has me thinking I did something okay.
‘Rapini’s better than broccoli, Cayde. Try it.’ And he does, and the fact of him trying at five versus twenty-five is a positive.
‘I like it, Daddy!’ he’ll sometimes say with a grimace, other times with a grin.
Once, he jumped up and down in front of the produce section begging for asparagus. A near-by patron bent at the waist to be at his level: ‘Little Boy: I’ve never heard any child beg for vegetables.’ And she patted his head.
Food remains a journey. Cayde’s eating new and green things as I’m still changing the family palate. I char broccoli to a carbonized other-form on the grill; I treat lima beans to a drenching of lemon-juice and za-atar. Certainly chicken still exists in the repertoire—boring boring chicken—but basted in yogurt and jeweled with pomegranate seeds. Had we a dog, he’d at least be fed well under the table. Atop the table, we’re doing pretty well.
I chose the name Daddymediumwell as the tongue-in-cheek name of my blog: a reference to the self-effacement we provide ourselves as parents, but also reference to my life in food. Most every entry I write references the kitchen. It’s where I feel healthiest, most centered. It’s where I serotonin-up, work the knife, and have my best conversations with the kids.
This is a sponsored post and I thank Anthem Blue Cross for the compensation. I was invited by the XY Media Group to write for the HealthyDad community and it was a fit seeing as it dovetails well with my passion for food and nutritional health for my kids. There’s a reason I’m in the kitchen everyday. I encourage you to visit the HealthyDad community at https://www.facebook.com/healthydads. Currently they’re promoting a contest and if you have your own manner of being a healthy dad, post a video. I hear they’re passing out Amazon gift cards. I’d use one to buy the new Ottolenghi cookbook. Meat and pasta is fine. But try out lemons, chickpeas and sumac. Add a new spice to your rack and labne to your vocabulary. Boil a pot of mograbiah: the water, it turns out, is just fine.