grocery · job

Just a Grocer

E-36 was hatched September 20th in 1986,” I say.

My friend Tad looks at me dumbfounded.

“How do you know that?!” (This is a breeding season meeting at the Penguin Encounter, about Emps).

“I study my keep,” I say simply. Let’s just say I do crosswords in pen. I demand knowledge. It’s my fault.

This helps when dealing with Cayden. He’s, as Delaney would say, “fooking smart.”

So, at the PE, I did genetic research, pharmacology, ontology; I raised Emperors. I helped engineer methodology for ameliorating geriatric penguins. I ran the breeding season for three years.

Now, after being laid off, I’m a grocer. This could seem a step down BUT I’ve had a 25 year career, now I have a job. And, actually, I’m happier, which is more than important in the end.

Lemme explain. 4889 is the PLU for cilantro; 4225 for avocados. I punch these on the daily. It’s like knowing when E-36 was hatched. It’s like knowing four across.

“There’s the happy cashier!” a man notices. I am fooking happy. Thanks for noticing.

My friend Brad famously said, “Know two things about everything, then you’re really good at parties.” I wear a party hat at my till.

Escoffier, Ottolenghi, Keller, Chang, Bourdain, Waters, Kamman.

The other day I talked linguistics at the register; I later talked about how to make labne. 200 conversations a day at least. Found out my (young) co-worker is also a writing major, so we talked HG Wells, Verne, and Bradbury.

Remember Quadrophenia? When the protagonist finds out Sting’s character is JUST a bellboy? Well, I’m just a grocer but (as I will post), Eric Idle does this great scene in the Cannes Award winning ‘Meaning of Life’ about his aspiration to be a waiter. It’s funny and poignant.

I love my job. In this second half of my life, I apply the first half. Found out that I’m pretty good with people. Not just feeding beaks anymore. I like it. Penguins never exactly talked back.

4051 is mango. 4011 is banana. ‘Sari’ is in practically every crossword puzzle. Etc.

Loving every minute.

grocery · job · neighborhood

Nicole Agape

We catch each other’s eye as I emerge from the break room. She stares and smiles. She is pretty and wears funky glasses, so I at first mistake her for my friend Leah. Why else would anyone stare if not for familiarity? But it’s not Leah.

“Hello?” I proffer.

She takes a second. “Oh—I know you!” to which I cock my head.

“You—you’re walking all the time and I SEE you all the time. Sometimes with your dog, me with mine!”

Ah—makes sense. I’m the North Park perambulist. Didn’t know it deserved an agape mouth, which she wears.

“That’s me,” I muster. “I walk everywhere.”

Her friend is sorting through the Malbecs and makes an affirmative nod.

“I didn’t know you worked here,” she says.

“Well, it’s only been three weeks; 14 years in town. I love it here. Yeah, I like walking.”

She adjusts her smile. “Good to see you.”

Affirmation from veritable strangers is the best affirmation, the fact that people see each other. I recognize everybody, yet it feels out of body when people recognize me. As if I were an invisible specter, dog on chain, floating the sidewalks.

“I thought you were my friend Leah at first,” I offer, “But hello—nice to meet you.” I’m making my fingers into spectacle shape to remark her glasses.

She says, “Sorry—didn’t mean to stare,” laughing.

“What’s your name?” I ask. This is only appropriate. Before, any sort of human interaction would have me in a cold sweat, but I’m now comfortable in my own skin. ‘Who are you?’ and ‘How are you?’ are two important questions we need ask. We can’t walk around in anonymity, unheard.



We amicably shake hands. Instantly I like her. Her friend chooses an Argentinian red, and they say: “Well good to meet you” together. I bid them adieu.

“Likewise. See you around the neighborhood.”

This how we make friends. Nice to meet you, Nicole.

15Sandra Dewbre, Amber Lovin and 13 others1 CommentLikeCommentShare

food · grocery · job · neighborhood

When the Guillotine Misses

sterna-angle“How good’s this stuff, anyways?” the AM/PM guy asks as he examines the cold-brew I’m purchasing. He has a floppy way of talking, which I like. I confess ‘I dunno’, but coffee seems a good choice.

“I’ll let you know, Friend,” as I glance out the window. “Doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere soon.” The brake lights are red on three sides of the building; there are three freeway exchanges that all look like bad choices.

“Shit—you’ll be sitting here fuh an hour at least. It’s a muthafucking parking lot out there.”

So I sit on the stucco wall outside the AM/PM, kicking my legs. Orion is to the southeast; I remember when it was brighter. I don’t see well at night and it’s easier to let the brake lights lessen in their glaring volume rather than attempt the freeway home. I have better patience these days, so sitting on a stucco wall in a gas station is no big deal really, and there’s another gentleman waiting out the traffic, too, hands crossed behind his back and muttering in a black coat. I’m nonplussed; I just sat through six hours of orientation at the Del Mar Whole Foods, and the AC there was broken. The Del Mar Whole Foods is located just north of San Diego’s worst traffic convergence as well, so frustration was in the cards and—not being a gambler—I folded my hand early, not wanting surprise at a loss.

I had some tempura in the store before leaving, wandered a bit and kept reciting Ginsy’s ‘Supermarket in California’ in my head while watching patrons hover over the produce. ‘Where are you tonight, Walt Whitman?’ ‘Was that Garcia Lorca by the melons?’ These are happy thoughts to me; I buy a grip of cheese and some olives.

“Sir: do you know that blueberries and honey go well with purple asparagus?”

“Ma’am: I’d try that labne with watercress, maple syrup, and apples.”

“You’ll want to soak that pork loin in plain milk. That’s what the Romans did.”

These are my thoughts, the stupid knowledge that takes up coils of my brain, that insists on being primary in my head while instead I should be better fiduciary, or at least be able to balance a checkbook without aid of a trapezist pole. But—no—it’s all peaches and penumbras, wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes.

I endure the brake lights, many many minutes of ‘stop and go’, so many that I arrive home at bedtime. Having been trapped in a car, I take a walk while everyone else retires to their sheets; take an unexpected left through busy crosswalks and wander into an establishment where music is playing loud and unheard.

The singer plays a guitarrón; his supporting players pass a tallboy back and forth as well a melodica that’s been done up in Oaxacan paint. One guy plays the percussion box, and they jam out some Mexi-reggae. The restaurant’s empty, save for me and a bowl of chips, and this is like something that’s been granted me alone, the guitarist noodling a nylon-string solo while the percussion rises in intensity, the sound filling the hall as the barback clears a woefully small number of spent glasses. Really, it is all for me, and this feels like special reward for things having been endured: the glaring streams of brake lights, the meanwhile deadening Orion; these past six months and having been fired at forty, the HR door clicking shut like a well-hewn guillotine blade on a twenty-year career. All these things, but the guillotine blade missing its mark, the Angle of Louis, which is the scientifically determined line where the blade is meant to pass easiest through the neck.

The music plays and I bob my head happily, which still has swivel on its shoulders and this is all for me, all for me, all for me.

cooking · food · grocery · neighborhood · people · wife

Compounding Earths and Angels

“You doing anything fun today?” the checker asks as he swipes bundle after bundle of produce past the PLU scanner.

“This!” I say, because I love grocery shopping, and Findlay and I are on a mission to pick up food for the week while Mama’s out.

“HAT!” Finn says loudly as interruption, signing the brim of a cap, the checker mid-swipe.

“What’s that, Little Man?” Finn signs ‘cap’ two more times while pumping his legs in the grocery cart.

I translate as an aside: “Yes, Finn—he’s got a hat!”

The checker has a proto-Iron&Wine beard and a fuzzy embroidered skullcap. He smirks and glances up: ‘Cool little Dude there.”

“The best.”

I’m in a good mood. The sky’s post-rain and the light’s bouncing off the undersides of whitening clouds. I got the front parking spot, even.

The grocer and I continue chatting.

“Yeah, this kid grew up at Whole Foods. My other one, too. Been coming to this store for eighteen years, I think?”

“That’s awesome, Man.” The guy looks up for a second, flashing a smile, then down again as a sizeable jicama rolls across the scanner. The little whorls of his moustache work themselves into a twist as he ponders the knobby root.

“Got me–dammit!” He thumbs through the PLU code bible next to his register, looking up‘J’ for ‘jicama’. I imagine it’s a source of pride for any checker to know every code for all the things.

I tell ‘Fuzzy Skullcap Guy’ that I used to run every obscure produce item past my old favorite checker, Jessie, sometimes as sport. Jessie would’ve paused on the keys of his register sometimes, but he never got anything wrong. Except:

“He missed on lemongrass. It was my one victory. And I fucking STILL didn’t get it for free.”

Guy laughs as he punches in the proper code.

Meanwhile, Findlay waves while the septuagenarian that we met in Aisle 3 walks her cart out. She was deliberating canned tomatoes and I pointed her to the San Marzanos.

She squinches her eyes, hunkers down against the push-bar of her cart, and claps a one-handed wave at Finn.

“He has such beautiful red hair, such fair skin,” the lady remarks, while gripping my shoulder.

“He is beautiful, ma’am. Thank you.”

As soon as she walks out, it’s then the guy with the toddler who gives Finn knucks.

“Nice talk, Friend,” he says to Finn, he and Finn having had a good convo by the quinoa.

Finn was talking more to the guy’s daughter, to be honest. (Everyone approximating the size of a breadbox merits Finn’s instant and undivided attention).

Finn knucks the guy four times, and Guy says ‘Whoops,’ while trying to keep up with Finn’s particular handshake.

(It’s: two knucks forwards, two knucks sideways, then one back-and-forth light-saber swoop. Zhwoom, zhwoom. Cayde and I have been doing this for years, and Finn’s picked up on it).

The grocer and I swap names for the remainder of our exchange:

‘You know Kyle?’
‘Oh, she’s over at ‘Tiger, Tiger.’
‘Not sure. Probably by face. You know Erik? I totally dig that guy.
‘Yah—he’s great. Receipt?’

We don’t need a receipt. I don’t care what I spend on food.

Jenn’s doing a challenge at the gym she’s an ambassador for. She mentioned liking to use this particular avocado salsa as dressing for her greens. That clicked a switch for me. I know I have to pick up bread and tomato sauce, but everything is else ad lib.

There’s an amazing joy if, and when, walking into a grocery store, the foods become potential ingredients, not just stand-alone items waiting to be bought. Like when I used to very purposefully arrange my watercolor tubes and drawing pencils years ago, fastidiously and in a fishing tackle box. THAT cerulean is going to work out well in this next thing I’m thinking about, and—oOo– I love that conte crayon.
Avocado salsa? Well, hmmm…

The guy figures out the jicama PLU code, and then Fresno peppers make their way to the conveyor belt. He sighs.

“Dammit,” he says again.

Rainbow carrots
Red cabbage
Mixed Greens
Tomato petals
Spiced pepitas
Goat cheese
Hanger steak
Avocado salsa

I continue chatting up the grocer, which is strange because my palms sweat like mad at the idea of FORwarding a conversation.

(Wait—that’s a lie. Jenn and I used to talk all night, every night, until we finally co-signed a lease and would eternally entwine our ankles come bedtime).

You realize how much I love her, right?

I have to walk down the street to Baron’s to finish the groceries. A nice mile.

I try to call both Ryan, then my brother on the way down the street, with no answer. So I pocket my phone, and—wow–the things you see.

“Oh, my poochkie,” says the lady, in an antiquated blouse, and she haunches down with her probably 50% spandex skirt, approximating a fleur-de-lys with her backside while unleasing a shivery Chihuahua onto the sidewalk. The dog is brown, with buggy eyes. He spills out, like wet laundry. The dog had been knapsacked into a pink canvas tote thing before being unfolded onto the concrete.

“Auch, Poochie, poochie.”

Lady’s wearing heels, the dog wears the embarrassment of being an accessory. These are perhaps mutual things. The dog shivers.

I walk on.

This woman slows while crossing the street in front of me, leans against the light post, sweating, then bolts down the avenue! She is awesome! And wires of her ear-buds swing back and forth like while she hitches at her clothes. She is a resolution happening, and I want to prescribe her yoga pants exactly one size less.

She looks great.

I ask the produce guy if he has squash. He doesn’t. But I buy up up everything else in the section.

“You got shallots?”

“Not the best.”

Lemon juice

I like cooking stuff. I pass by the ‘Compounding pharmacy’, which is next to the Baron’s, and they’re inexplicably blaring ‘Earth Angel’ out the front door.

Compound ‘earth’ and ‘angel’, you’ll get something.

On the way back home, oh that couple kissing. It was caty-corner to a porch, and he had his hands loosely draped on her hips. The hedge was blossoming red, as were my cheeks upon passing.

“Take me to a hospital!” the man down the street yelled. The police had him pushed against a low fence, and the lesser officer held in his hand the man’s thrift store purse, embroidered and with a silly clasp. The purse was quilted.

“Take me to a hospital!”

There was a nearly-full beer poised on the curb, an avalanche of personal items.

“I was sleeping!” the man sobbed.

“Please,” he continued, “I want to kill myself.”

“Please, Sirs…”

“We’ll get you to that hospital, Guy,” the officers say. Guy had his hair neatly combed into two sections, one partitioned section formed into a bun and particularly arranged.

No one combs their hair before nothing.

I’m walking by with a bag of groceries, and I catch Guy’s glance.

“It’ll be ok, Man.” (I have proof).

“I wanna go to a hospital,” he says, looking at me.

And I didn’t say anything more because the police were in the middle of an arrest, and I had to keep walking. Goddammit. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything, but that’s most likely inaccurate.

Then I’m passing my friend down at Thorn St., Cory having a smoke on the stairwell. We slap hands before he has to go back to pouring draughts, while I shoulder my groceries.

“How’s it going, Thom?”

“Fantastic, Man,” I turn. “How’s it going it with you?”

“Crazy beautiful sky,” he gestures with a cigarette.


The food truck is vaporing out cholesterol-laden perfumes, and there’s the hum of the generator.

The sky was so gorgeous yesterday, with a light perfect. Gulls like pristine white thumb-tacks on a grey sky. I mean, c’mon.

cooking · family · favorites · Findlay · grocery · neighborhood · politics · wife

‘Wahples’ on the Night Fidel Castro Died

“Wahples,” Finn announces as he wedges himself in between the arm of the couch and my thigh, nestling in to the cat’s usual nighttime nook before placing a thumb resolutely in his mouth. The cat lowers her ears and endures the trespass, her fight-or-flight reactions having long since been dulled by a half-life of toddlers running amok. Finn’s in his dinosaur pajamas and was asleep—honestly, he was asleep— tucked in with his brother not ten minutes prior.
“Wahples. Ee ehggs,” Finn elaborates, this being his particular manner of ordering breakfast, despite the contrary hour.
“Waffles. Eat eggs.”
We have a candle burning, most lights out. Jenn and I were cuddling on the sofa and working our way through ‘Stranger Things’ (always a few months behind everyone else on the TV trends), but shruggingly make room for Finn. He can watch Episode Six, I guess; Daniel Tiger will just seem that much more comfortable come morning. ‘Meow-meow-meow demogorgon.’
‘Tay’ is this new contraction of Finn’s, somewhere in between ‘Yes’ and ‘Ok’, and I don’t make an effort to correct his speech. Cayde’s recently confided to me that he likes knowing what Finn says, even when others don’t. It’s a secret language of sorts, and a brotherly understanding. Cayde’s ears remain precise even when Finn’s language is sometimes lazy. When I seem them snuggling together beneath an afghan and whispering to each other, it’s the best thing. It convinces me more and more that language needs lesser volume and lesser exactness than we pretend. And I say this as a fan of the Oxford comma.
The breakfast order has been summarily placed, though it’s nine at night and there’s a full sleep to be had before the kitchen re-opens. Meanwhile, I don’t blame Finn for the confusion—I’m drinking evening coffee and all of us have been sick this Thanksgiving holiday, napping at crooked hours. Jenn exercised her way through a stuffed head this morning; Finn and exorcised our blahs by enjoying a midday Nod. My fault, probably, that he’s awake.
Episode Six credits and Jenn goes to lay down with Finn—“just for a minute”—to have him settle. I already know these to be famous last words. The cat couldn’t be happier, kneading her suddenly extra cushion-space with outstretched limbs. While waiting for Jenn to reappear, I hear her begin to breathe in tandem with Finn the next room over. Maple-coated dreams, everyone.
Scrolling through my phone, I read on Al-Jazeera that Fidel Castro has died. This strikes me. I rouse Jenn briefly.
“I’ll be out in a second,” she says, which I know to mean she’ll soon be out cold. The cat’ll ultimately win her nocturnal roost; surely I’ll be up for a bit. Episode Seven will have to wait, in part because I can’t navigate the television remote.

Castro is dead, fifty-three years and three days after Kennedy. Also, ‘wahples.’ These are facts.

I shoulder into my peacoat and slide on flip-flops—such are the contradictions Southern California allows—and leave to get eggs. We’re out of eggs and the cornershops have since closed. A half-mile up is the late-night market and it’s a nice walk. I don’t look at any more news tonight.
There’s that nice phenomenon when you take a stroll and witness the streetlights wink on, that little bit of synchronicity where you can pretend for a second you’re the reason why the sidewalk is suddenly lit. A similar and more modern phenomenon is seeing news the second it breaks, when you’re at the top of the media micro-cycle, and opinion hasn’t yet formed to churn up the wave and eddy things. There’s just a simple fact, a declaration that something has occurred, and it’s history happening before everyone has had a chance to say what that happening means. With great volume, always, and with pretend exactness. ‘Tay.’
Castro was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. He also had scores of human rights violations on his record. Kissinger won the prize back in ’73, as precedent to irony. I don’t look at any more news tonight, though—it would all make as much sense as peacoats and flip-flops, or coffee before bed. There’ll be arguments tomorrow. There are arguments everyday.
This time last year, Jenn and I were looking at houses, which seemed a bankrupt idea considering 2008. On the way to the market, I pass by walk-ups and bungalows—enviable, sure—and one Craftsman has a water element that runs even into the after-hours, a recycled waterfall lending nothing but noise to the xeriscaped chaparral along its borders. Jenn and I don’t know any more. What does equity mean, what’s a house, what future is about to slouch its way toward Bethlehem with demagogues dying, but with others soon to take their place. Today we pondered a new vehicle, a trailer, more attention to date nights and weekends, urban walks, travel! Turning on the streetlamps with our footfalls.

I get eggs at ten-thirty before the market closes and the store clerks say: ‘Oh, yeah, yeah—the Castro thing. What difference does it make though, no?’ We exchange monies.
I like it when Finn is meanwhile declarative, if even at the wrong hour. It’s language and meaning to me, and informs my tomorrow. Waffles—they’re best when the eggs and buttermilk are at room temp, so I leave the eggs on the counter upon coming home and let the coffee go cold.

Cayden · childhood · family · grocery · neighborhood

Grand Marshal of the Gypsy Lemonade Stand

Last week, I looked up from my perch on the couch and saw Optimus Prime cross the street. Following suit, and clutching tight the waistband of some ill-fit harem pants, was a pharaoh in need of a drawstring. The Angry Bird, meanwhile, looked like he had swallowed a coat hanger, arms splayed like a starfish in his nylon get-up.

There were light sabers and ankle leggings, headsman’s axes and Medieval things all done up in plastic—just no jack o’lanterns, though a trip to CostCo predictably confirms that Halloween is already retailing, and at Labor Day prices. You can buy all things black and orange while still fashionably wearing white, and—wait a week—pencil sets will soon be on back-to-school clearance before the first morning bell even rings.

Cayde and his friends had been bursting home from summer camp all last week, hastily discarding backpacks and art projects on the front porch before rushing next door to rifle through the bedroom closets. This was their diversion du jour: digging up costumes to play a go-round of Halloween in August. Broad daylight was absolutely necessary to the game, spectacle being the point and absurdity its sportive vehicle. The more absurd the better. Channel the surreal! Be a carnival! Turn the neighborhood on its head and make every passerby with a stroller or a Fit-bit or a too-consuming cellphone forget their adulting for a minute and take a second look at childhood on parade.

Cayde ramped up the game, leading the plastic menagerie with his Kindle playing at full–if tinny–volume. MC Hammer’s ‘ U Can’t Touch This’ for the most part because Cayde was the pharaoh with the harem pants. Anybody who offered the kids a smile would be offered ‘Hammertime’ lessons in return, Cayde demonstrating the trademark side-shuffle in truly awful fashion. He never landed a dance partner—no trick, no treat—but the gypsy lemonade stand caravanned regardless, past all the bungalows and dying summer lawns, a Rick James disco groove the unlikely pied piper of it all.

Later, down at the corner market, I pushed Finn around in a grocery cart, picking up sundry and unrelated items. Grapefruit water, tomatoes, aluminum foil. Just a trip, really, to get out of the house—maybe grab an iced coffee at Santo’s—to otherwise kill some time before evening turned the switch on the oppressive afternoon heat. On our way to the store, Finn and I had walked beneath the bougainvillea hedge along Thorn Street’s south side. The hedge is manicured in such a fashion that it arcs up and overhead like the curl of a wave. In its tunnel, you can look up and see the network of interlaced brambles trained outward, the spangle of violet sepals like crepe paper lanterns. Finn pointed out the flowers much the way Cayde did when he was younger, when Cayde was still strapped to my chest and when mutually pointing to everything was our shared language. We point before we talk, we remark things before we have words.

When paying for the groceries, Finn bounced in his seat and again pointed.


Cayden came bursting through the door with Optimus Prime and Angry Bird in tow. This time, Macklemore was playing on the Kindle and Cayde danced on by, barely waving a hello, as Finn turned in his seat to watch the coterie of misfits bypass the grocery cart on their way to the snack aisle. Optimus had a five-dollar bill: trick or treat after all.

“Hi, Daddy!” (Nine years later, I’m still Daddy—that counts for something). I got a closer look at Cayde’s costume as he pranced toward the soda section. His harem pants were actually makeshift—a Cleopatra blouse worn upside-down—and he wore jeweled cuffs and a matching crown of dangling plastic snakes. It was the neighbor lady’s costume from a couple years ago, I remember—Queen of the Nile.

“What is this—Halloween?” the clerk asked. He said it twice in a numbing display of unoriginality.

“They’re just playing,” I offered, and I stuck around to halfway censor the growing bounty of Ring-Pops and Doritos that the boys were amassing, all the garishly-colored packages they could grab. This was the celebration of their absurdity, hijinks having been rightly conceived and achieved. I naysayed Cayden’s selection of a 16oz. Mountain Dew before quietly walking out, leaving the clerk to say again, “What is this—Halloween?” while Optimus waved money at the register.

Finn and I walked back through the bougainvillea tunnel with our suddenly saggish and adult sack of groceries. Finn pointed out the flowers again and I nodded.

“Yep. Flowers, Finn. Flowers.”

We exited the tunnel, the boys far behind and spilling their carnival onto the street. I wouldn’t see Cayden for another hour or so, I was sure.

“I used to lead that parade,” I told Finn.

‘If two can count as a parade,’ I don’t say, suddenly feeling the absurd length of sidewalk on the short walk home.


Cayden · childhood · Findlay · grocery · neighborhood · surgery


A Monday, especially a Monday hemmed in with high clouds and high heat, is no day to celebrate a birthday, but it was Cayden’s birthday today. Yes, he liked the burgers I grilled for him; no, he did not like the brownies, though they were a special recipe. The brownies were “sticky” at the edges, and it isn’t till you get a few years past eight that the crusts become palatable, or the corner pieces become the best pieces. Everyone knows the corner wedges of brownies are the best, c’mon.
Been picking the boys up at school and Cayden whined how far it was walking to the car. Parked as far as we were, it meant a different way home. Usually, we take 16th to the top of the hill. It’s a forty-five degree angle down 16th and an immediate right onto Pershing to get home. Cayde usually turns in his seat, says, ‘Hold on, Daddy,’ and inspects for cars when paused at the summit. He looks around, then conspiratorially whispers, “Go!”, and we gun it down the hill. Daddy is fun.
Went the opposite direction today, east before turning north, and it was over some rough-shod white concrete. Slower streets, so the windows were down, and Finn thought it a roller coaster with the up and down jostling and the fact that his hair was splayed back from his forehead. “Yay! Yaaaaaay!” Hands up the entire time.
Passed the Metamorphosis Center–some sad wellness storefront–then hit green lights on into the narrower streets where the trees bower and we have to slow down.
It was Cayden’s birthday today, and the car in front of us was kicking up dried myrtle leaves by manner of exhaust, autumn confetti, and we followed the leaf litter through the length of South Park and on toward home.
The week is all sorts of anniversaries. Yesterday, three years ago, Finn had his breastbone broken on purpose, and his heart re-stitched.
Finn was a marionette on twenty different circuits following his surgery, a few wires penetrating his chest: it was a hard puppet show to witness.
It was also Cayden’s birthday and, friends being the best of friends, threw Cayden a party when we were entirely incapable of doing so ourselves.
“Daddy–I have to poop,” Cayden says when we’re shopping for ingredients at the neighborhood market. I promised him burgers and brownies and needed to pick up cuts of sirloin and chuck, hamburger buns, all the etc. We’re parked, hurriedly shopping, and Finn is meanwhile threatening the pyramid display of Zinfadel while perched precariously in a grocery cart.
“Hold on, hold on, Dude.”
Cayden clutches the seat of his pants while I pay and while the engine clicks just outside the door in the heat.
“I’ll run home and get there first, ok?” Cayde says nervously.
“But I’ve got the keys, Dude–just get in the car. The house is locked.”
And we get home on time, Cayde bursting out of the car when barely we straighten into the driveway.
He’s eight. The idea of ‘eight’ has always scared me. His face has changed, graduated into boyhood and is already suggesting adolescence; I worry that–after eight–the fact that I have the keys, or that I drive the car home, will somehow change and that closed doors will be my fault; maybe the car ride won’t be as much fun.
Cayde got a magic set for his birthday. While trying to prep dinner, I told Cayde: “Please–show me your magic tricks in a bit, ok?” because he was too much in the kitchen with a silk sack, a wand, and some sorcerer’s box; Finn was wailing not having slept at all during pre-school.
I couldn’t conjure patience, was still in my work clothes; the grill was set too high so that I burnt both my eyebrows and the chicken.
When the evening waned and Cayde re-attempted a magic show, he tried to convince me that this foam ball would, by clumsy sleight of hand, become some other thing. Not a pigeon, certainly, but I wished for it, to have a magic trick work so well as to give us all confidence in the illusory.
No; instead we just take 16th home–usually, even if not today–where the road ramps downward so steep that we fly past the eyesore cinder-block buildings and the rusted-out chain-link. Cayde says ‘Go!’ and Finn throws up his hands in expectation, and I know to hit the brakes two-thirds of the way down so we don’t bottom out. It’s magic making that right-hand turn, when it’s absolutely certain the car won’t crash despite the momentary rush–I can even calmly flick on the blinker before turning into the right-hand lane–and Cayde says, always: ‘Daddy, that was AWE-some.’
Love you, Kid.

anxiety · cancer · Cayden · cooking · depression · family · favorites · Findlay · food · grandma · grocery · parenting


Fresh-Thai-Basil_FreshThaiBasil-1Norah Jones is singing ‘Happy Pills’ and last night I weathered things ok. My chemistries are able to drive Cayden to school.

When you receive bad news, there’s sometimes the fact of not eating.  As you get older, blood sugar becomes something more of a thing.

Cayden and Finn are both in the backseat and I’ve decided bahn xeo is for dinner. It’s good I’ve decided on food this early. Breakfast is that thing everyone seems to skip, me included. Lunchtime often requires a reminder. Funny, this all coming from someone who reads cookbooks as if they were paperback novels.

(No, really. Chang’s ‘Momofuku’ is one of my favorite reads–there’s that plot device on page 52 where eggs are slow-cooked in their shells. When you crack the shell, out comes a perfectly poached egg. That’s way the hell better than ‘David Copperfield’).

Cayden used to say: “Daddy—I feel the burps in my tummy that tell me I’m hungry.” A two-year old’s logic, yet it applies. I’m bodily relieved when I’m hungry. If there’s a craving that accompanies the hunger, I’m at its whim. This is why, more than once, I’ve made soup in the summertime while it’s measuring ninety degrees outside and the broiler’s meanwhile set to ‘hi.’

One time Kat and I drove an hour in what Google Maps insisted was a twenty-minute drive. This all involved a craving for Singaporean food and a strip mall in Pasadena. The place didn’t have a liquor license so we bought Asahi from the market next door even though Kat doesn’t drink. We ordered the Hainan chicken rice (which is actually Malaysian); we also ordered the calamari even though I’d just heard an episode of ‘This American Life’ claiming most calamari is just up-sourced pig rectum. You are what you eat? We had salad just in case.

Kat, typically, picked out the onions.

Cayde’s in the backseat. He has on untidy hair and a uniform polo I’ve finally convinced him to not button up all the way. There are wardrobe rules, like how you never button all three buttons on a three-button suit. He layers like a clueless seven-year old, or maybe some sartorial genius, with interesting sleeve and color combinations.

Cayde has the habit of shaking the hair out of his eyes even when it’s not in his eyes, and who cares if he has a part. He’s a boy. To prove it, he’s wearing scabbed knees and mismatched gloves. Michael Jackson’s his current thing, so usually he sports the one trademark glove round the house. In Cayde’s repertoire, though, he has two gloves to choose from: the black one with the skeleton-fingers all done up in dimensional paint, or the other one with the sequins and gossamer threads (the one that got taken away from him in class last Tuesday; oh how he cried). Cayden wears both gloves today as if school were all just an elaborate bank heist.

I drop Cayde off at the curb and there’s always the certain gymnastic involved in him getting out of the back seat. It’s a negotiation of straps–seat belts, backpacks, drawstring lunch bags. Like father, like son, getting all tangled up. I can commandeer a sauté pan and set off a contained fire–I can do all the restaurant tricks. Seriously: hand me the brulee torch. Give me a car seat, though, and finesse is something absent. It’s a wonder I got the brassiere off when making Cayde in the first place.

The Norah Jones song is over. 91X is playing ‘House of Pain’ and I manage to continue listening. It’s a reminder that we grow more tolerant as we get older.

Cayde climbs out the car and–with mittened hands–grabs my face and gives me a peck on the lips. This is something that’s become scarcer of recent; I don’t know why we kiss in different ways as we get older. We just do, while the ‘Y’ chromosome does its near radioactive decay into an impassive mid-life. (One time as a kid I refused a good-night kiss from my dad and he slapped me so hard on the ass that it left a stingingly-red handprint beneath my pajama bottoms).

“Bye, Daddy! I love you!”

Finn has snot caked in his nostrils because he’s teething and everything is leaking. He waves bye to his brother: ‘By-ee!’ Everything ends in the ‘double-E’ these days. I wave to Cayde while idling at the curb. I used to walk Cayde to class and wait as he climbed the stairwell to rm. 7. Every morning, I’d hope for him to turn around that one last time to blow me a kiss. The entire first month of kindergarten, the school bell was Pavlovian and I welled up every single day atop the hopscotch squares.

Cayde turns around and blows me a kiss, touting an oversized backpack and with tousled hair he refuses to have combed. He’s wearing a sky-blue polo and a red graphic tee, all of which are un-tucked.  I figure the mismatch  a sign of good parenting, in which case I’m not being the slightest bit ironic.

I submit to traffic. It’s departure from the norm, but bahn xeo is for dinner and that means I have to drive north to where the Asian markets are. Let’s see: I need Thai basil, I need daikon. I’m suddenly nauseous because coffee disagrees with me of recent. It’s alright, though. It’s ok, even, when that guy cuts me off on the 163. Finn and I were conversing; I give the white truck a curt honk of the horn and we keep driving on this freeway which used to be our freeway before we moved to the other side of the mesa.  Now we have the 805.

Finn tells me a story from the backseat. Spoiler alert: it involves drooling. That tooth on the right side is coming in which will finally even out his smile. People on the Down Syndrome website say: ‘Ok—what’s with the shark teeth?’ Finn sports a few jagged incisors and it used to bother me. You get more tolerant as you get older I think I already said. I like Finn’s little jagged teeth and he smiles with eyes winced. It’s the goddamned cutest thing.

The slowing trafffic is only convenient because I can turn around in my seat now, continuing the conversation that otherwise would’ve been interrupted by uninterrupted motion. Finn’s hairs are kinduv long, in need of a trim. Similarly, the palm trees decorating the roadside have recently been debrided. They look like the arboreal equivalent of shorn sheep. It’s a slow crawl past the Cabrillo Bridge but the commute becomes faster once the palm trees disappear into the rearview and as we pass through the Valley.

There’s the Children’s Hospital and Mary Birch, where we spend a good amount of time. Jenn’s getting an IUD inserted currently, at the campus I’m now passing, and I consider I need daikon. Can’t forget the daikon. Also, I’ll probably get oyster mushrooms because I’m not a fan of enoki.

There’s this fact of a perhaps other kid. But there’s also the meantime. In the meantime we don’t predicate a lot of sentences.

Pulling into the 99 Ranch parking lot, I think the store’s closed. It’s 9am. ‘Closed’ is certainly a possibility. The backside of the store, though, is lit with a neon sign saying: ‘Open.’ The backside is where the produce lives so we push through in a dilapidated grocery cart and Finn is momentarily surprised by the turnstiles. We pause at the nmgaio bin which looks like daikon but is not.

Anything can and should surprise us. Turnstiles. Cancer. Things. The goldfish swimming in his bowl is most likely surprised by the castle every time.

My grandma is 89. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the the malignancy suddenly cancelling her voice.

I ask the guy for Thai basil because Thai basil is important for bahn xeo and that’s why I sat in traffic. For fucking Thai basil.

He checks the same shelves I just checked, the shelves I already checked because I know where the Thai basil is supposed to live. (We do this thing where we make superfluous gestures, to rid ourselves of guilt).

“Sorry,” he finally shrugs.

In line at the meat counter, I’m guest number ‘00’. Says so on the red digital read-out thing. I’m usually ‘87’, or ‘323’ and usually I have to elbow my way in alongside the Laotian grandmothers, while wishing I understood Cantonese. But it’s still early.

I wish I was at least ‘1’ though. Being ‘00’ is fucked. up.

I need a pound of ground pork because I’m changing the recipe in my head. My order is pretty unremarkable. Sometimes I order ten pounds of bones and I get a smile which is affirmation that I’m hungry, that the butcher knows I know how to cook. You can make stuff from bones. I’m not as fond of the aquarium displays down the aisle. Fish are far less substantial.

Finn destroys the receipt in front of the smiling cashier since everything is metaphor these days. We go home and, since we are hungry, I later make lunch.

Cayden · cooking · favorites · food · grocery

Salad, deferred.

144_TomatoAvocadoSalad_019Ruth 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 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.

Cayden · family · Findlay · grocery · parenting

Where Stars Live

starsCayden graduated kindergarten today, in which case my grey hairs make sudden sense. When I was Cayde’s age, I first learned that my dad’s middle name was ‘Lee’ and that Mr. Rogers was the voice of both King Friday and Daniel Tiger. I don’t know exactly what this means, but I figure, if nothing else, it means Cayde is by now aware, too.

We quarreled on the way to the grocery store today, but I distracted him by asking where I should park the car: upper or lower level. He said upstairs. After stopping the car and removing his seatbelt, I grabbed him tight and we hugged outside the closed doors, up and above 7th Street where he always remarks how far down the bicycles are parked. I don’t like these arguments, and nor does he it seems–because he set his head resolutely on my shoulder and went limp as if he were twenty pounds and not fifty. There was no need for apologies because arguments with five year olds never make sense–it’s like arguing against the fact of the sky–and we both said sorry anyway. I was happy to have kept my cool. He was happy to later write the PLU numbers on the bags of hazelnuts and dried cranberries I procured at the store, numbers which would later confuse the checker:


‘No–hazelnuts. Try ‘5962.’ His sixes are sometimes backwards.’


The register rang correct and Cayde trounced out of the store having scored an apple and craisins. This, mind you, erases everything in a five-year old’s mind, the sudden fact of craisins! and–for a thirty-six year old–the fact of craisins will do just fine, thank you. I hate it when Cayden’s angry. I figure it means I’m angry because Cayde, by virtue of being five is constantly looking into mirrors. That’s what five-year olds do. But, still–there was that hug and the release of everything as Cayde’s dirty sneakers bounced off my hips. His dirty hair, that smell of coconut and playground-sweat stayed for just a second, inches from my nose, and I said, ‘Sorry’ and, at the same time, ‘I’m so proud of you today.’ Because I was. There on the second-level parking structure at Whole Foods.
Cayde graduated kindergarten today and I held Finn on my lap, during the ceremony. Finn was bouncing on my knee and signing, ‘More, more!’ if I happened to stop. Cayde was up on stage waving, else miming ‘rock-a-bye-baby’ to signal that he wanted to see Finn.  I remembered that Cayde’s first word was actually a string of words: ‘What’s this?’ ‘What’s that?’ Finn is threatening a word, too, at this point–a meaningful utterance. He makes a sound that resembles ‘brother’ cuz he loves Cayden more than anybody else. No one else lights up his face more than Cayde, this boy I had to wrest into the car today and remain patient with despite a temper-tantrum, this boy who is smart beyond his years and who challenges me everyday with a barrage of multiplication tables and a multitude of questions: ‘What country do squids live in?’ ‘What does the inside of a blueberry look like?’ ‘Where do stars live?’ Cayde’s always asking questions, the ‘what’s this? The ”what’s that?’ The zen in all of this is the fact of Findlay. Finn has no questions right now, no toddling inquiries. He’s simply working on the declarative. He just widens those great blue eyes, works beyond the thick of his tongue, and tries his very best to just say, ‘brother.’ ‘Brother.’ ‘Bruddah.’