De Gustibus

In my mind’s eye I’m two things: 25 years old and an interesting foodie.

One the first proposition my body is relentlessly calling bullshit. On the second, my vanity refuses to let go.

I bring this up because there are some people in the world who, without my solicitation, offer up alternatives to my esoteric desires that are both pedestrian and annoying. Given my compunction to not care about other’s opinions of my tastes, I’m not reacting to that. It just made me think about what my vanity has to offer me.

There are very few foods that I won’t eat. After all, having been raised by children of the depression, I’m a hard coded member of The Clean Plate Club. For example, after years of attempts, I just don’t like brussels sprouts. But when I’m served them I chew threw my dislike. There are “starving kids in China” after all.

I don’t want to pretend that I’m like Andrew Zimmern and will eat weird bugs, undercooked hog entrails or Asian fruits that smell like vomit. My vanity only goes so far. I do love the likes of roasted marrow bones, foie gras, steak tartar, goeduck, and host of other things my wife rejects wholesale. It’s not uncommon for me to drive 100 miles if I hear about some food that might really surprise my senses. That food, however, might not be what you’d think for which a self-styled foodie would make a quest. I try to make the 50 mile trip to Drummond, MT once a month just to eat one of chef Parker’s magnificent burgers while not treating myself to his really fantastic (looking) culinary inventions. In my defense his burgers are actually fantastic culinary inventions with every component fresh and homemade right down to the house baked buns.

Tastes are funny things. My little granny lived her life with the most humble of kitchens. For near 50 years I’ve been trying to replicate her chicken and dumplings. I have her recipe but, for the life of me, when I make it I just don’t find the magic I found in hers. Maybe it’s my nostalgia fooling me (I loved her and miss her so) but my guess is that she really was that good of a cook. There are time when I just crave chicken and dumplings. I blame her for that. Still, this isn’t something your average uptight foodie snob would often admit. Vanity, damn vanity.

There are foods that are so banal which I sometimes just ache for. There was a little joint in Valparaiso, IN that served a fried bologna sandwich that was simply sublime. They sliced the bologna in 1/2 inch slices and served it fried between two slices of homemade white bread with some kind of crazy mustard sauce. Bologna. How’s that for haute cuisine? And, to this day, I’ll die on the hill that holds that, just sometimes, there is no substitute for American “cheese” in specific applications. Like the old A1 Steak Sauce commercial, yeah, it’s that important. And times when I’d much rather have some good old fashioned pot roast than lobster tails poached in butter (as in this poem). Tastes are a funny thing.

I recall an episode in one of Anthony Bourdain’s series where he was in a rundown HoJo’s on the Jersey shore and the only thing that he found appealing on the menu was a grilled cheese sandwich. He sat and waxed poetic wondering why eating something that almost couldn’t be classified as food – with fake cheese, near bread, and grilled with margarine – was so satisfying. I could relate.

Bourdain got it. Food is cultural. Food is the little happiness which acts an egalitarian equalizer between the well-heeled and the worn-heeled. (“You should just taste my momma’s sweet potato pie”) But most of all food is personal. And it’s so personal that, most often, “foodies” real happiness comes in sharing.

But in the sharing lies the rub. De gustibus non est disputandum. But I can’t let that get in the way. I’ll keep offering . Why? Because is makes me happy. That’s all I need.

ps. You really should read that poem I linked above.

Do I Dare to Eat A Peach?

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

— From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

I joke often about both my age and mortality. It’s not that I see my eminent demise or that I even feel much more angst beyond the banal aches, pains, and physical restrains which age brings. It’s more that I’ve lost that feeling of invincibility that comes with youth. Alas, I remember what it’s like to be young and bulletproof.

Now, I’m not here to wallow in the various challenges of aging. But, I’ve just been thinking lately about how aging changes one’s perspective. Things look at lot different when you’re heading up a hill than once you’re over the top. I suppose my level of introspection is spurred by my overly on-line presence. It’s a space where, real or imagined, people continually proffer advice on how to think better, trade better, how to be happy, and find meaning of life. I assume that some of that instruction is valuable but I also have to assume that a lot of it is people simply giving themselves pep talks and trying to convince themselves they hold a special key to the universe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But, you know, be careful believing your own shit and all that rot.

I am impressed -though not really envious- with the many people in my age cohort on Fintwits who seemingly maintain their enthusiasm for their craft and espouse the need for continual learning. It’s hard for me to sus out if they actually are passionate about what they do or if what they do is just habit. That, of course, is the problem of assessing anyone simply reading their social media posts. A lot of people who maintain a tight focus on a single area of interest often come off (at least to me) as two dimensional. I much prefer seeing the color of the their lives, getting to know their sense of humor, art and cultural interests, and all that other pedestrian stuff that makes one human. But, most generally, I do find my fellow old-timers to be less confident in their understanding of the world than the sure-footed youth – especially in their outlooks. Still, I often get the sense that such a singular focus is an attempt to sell something – and, again, perhaps to themselves. God bless them if they find meaning in it. 

I’ve been neck-deep in finance for over 40 years. I’m positive I’ll remain attached to it until my mental faculties slide away simply out of sheer habit if nothing more. Frankly, however, the thrill is gone. After reading uncountable volumes of finance and economic research, I rarely find anything that moves my center of gravity in understanding. Sure, I find a lot of it interesting and, for the better, much of it makes me questions my priors. Regardless, very few things leave me with more answers than questions. It often seems so Sisyphean. Does such a lack of interest make me uninteresting now? I imagine to some, yes. 

 But screw them. I find new pleasures as I age and many of them involve deep intellectual curiosity. My friends understand my fascination in such things as the alchemy of turning milk into gold. Likewise, I’ve recently entered the rabbit hole of coffee science. That’s really been my whole life – finding obscure shit that fascinates me and drilling down on it. My kids think I’m a little weird. My wife stands ready to deal with my next intellectual obsession. All the while I have to say, on net, I’m pretty satisfied with my meandering (though often addled) brain. 

But happiness is a funny thing.  Hunter S. Thompson is often misattributed as writing “All my life, my heart has sought a thing I cannot name” (actually he was quoting the obscure 19th century French poet André Breton). I think that’s what I see with so many people popping off with their “How to be happy, etc.” missives. As I’ve said, I think most of that sort of thing is from people trying to find their way, talking to themselves and/or often trying to talk themselves into something.

(I suppose I should get back to Prufrock and bring this to a close. If you’ve suffered through this so far, don’t cheer too loudly.) As I’ve aged, Prufrock has become one of my favorite poems. Be it far from me to argue with literary critics as to what Eliot meant. To me, however, he was being deeply introspective, acknowledging being past his prime, wondering what he missed along the way, and worrying that it’s over. He’s nostalgic for his youth (who isn’t – in at least some matters?). 

I, too, think I’m past my prime. I view my most productive years as when I was in my 40s and 50s. Was I happiest then? I have to say, no. I was curious, ambitions, hungry and I had the same lust for life as now. But I was never satisfied and was always looking for the next thing that might fill my appetite. I think I have a lot in common with Prufrock. 

Now, as the path to The Big Dirt Nap no longer seems like some abstract eventuality, I find myself amused with things that are mostly banal. I often watch and laugh when I see knucklehead kids doing things that defy explanation – especially if it embarrasses their parents. I find more joy in kids now than ever. Then there’s the deep satisfaction of when I feed something to someone and they’re induced into an involuntary guttural chuffing “uhm” – as if their senses are are taken by surprise producing an autonomic response. (I think this is what drives chefs.) I enjoy music more and in a wider variety. I increasingly find joy in other people’s personal victories. I pay more attention to the virtue of being kind. I find my life is most rewarded with what the French call “the little happinesses”. Life is full of them if one just takes the time to notice.  Arrêtez-vous, et sentez les roses.

I doubt that I have the time left to ever amount to much in the measure of mankind.

But am I happy? I think so – at least for the time being. 

Look at the Mess I’ve Made.

After several years of being urged by my family to watch the Showtime series Shameless, I finally took their advice.

For those that haven’t seen it, it’s about a completely dysfunctional family deeply entrenched in drug and alcohol abuse. The father of the family, Frank Gallagher played fabulously well by William H. Macy, has five kids. Absent any sense of responsibility by Frank, the kids did their best to raise themselves. If we’re looking for an example for feral kids, they fit.

Now, not to be overly tough on myself, I see a lot similarity between the Gallagher kids and my own six kids. I wasn’t nearly as derelict as Frank but dereliction comes in degrees. I struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for many years. My wife did, too. Both of us, however, cleaned up more than two decades ago. Thank God for that. The kids did pay a price, however, – the older kids in particular – assuming much of the duties of parenting as we misbehaved.

I don’t mean to dwell on what damage we may have or have not caused in the kids. There is some for sure. For the most part, though, they turned out respectably normal regardless of the fact that a few of them had their feral phases. My biggest fear as a parent was always the my kids would end up being receptacles for my cerebral trash. I think I dodged that bullet. Still, the family dynamic that imprinted itself on the kids is, I think, unique in some ways.

My oldest was and still is a mother hen to her younger sibling. She never lets any of the their doings go unnoticed and she’s the first to rally everyone when another needs help. Often the younger kids think she’s a bossy buttinsky. As the father of that motley crew, I’m glad to have a senior spy in place. And I know everything she does is for love of her siblings.

The thing I’m most pleased with is their fierce loyalty to one another. Sure, they fight between themselves but God have mercy on any outsider who might cross one them. They’re a goddamn force of nature! And if that happens to be a young man hurting one of my daughters, well, let’s say there is a rational fear of being turned into a gelding.

It’s that closeness that makes me think I did OK – that and the fact that no one has been convicted of a felony. They were the real motivation for us building our bunker (aka our summer place). They’re a pretty good team.

One thing is for sure. I have no idea what I’d be without them. I’m also sure I could have done a better job. But the kids are alright – and I at least did better than Frank Gallagher.

Like a Bad Penny…

Just over a year ago I had an inclination to start blogging again. Right after that we had a tragedy in the family and, frankly, it took the wind right out of my sails. I figure I’ll give it one more shot.

I had blogged for many years – mostly about politics. I’m inclined to resist that today. Not that I don’t have an opinion (I have too many of those) but it just seems like an overcrowded market right now. That’s not so say that I won’t spin some invective laced screed that will even make seasoned polemicists blush. Odds are high. But I plan to write about life writ large and, if I follow my current mood, things that the French call “the little happinesses.” I’m also quite likely to prattle on with my home-crafted genre of Outhouse Philosophy.

My blogging never really was to gain an audience but more as a release for my pent-up insanity. I don’t think that has changed. I do have stories I’d like to reflect on. There’s a lot of subject matter from which to choose. After raising six kids, recovering from drug addiction and alcoholism, years watching financial fuckery, an overabundance of hobbies, my inclination to break anything that I can pay someone else to fix, there’s a lot there.

That said, and as I was just telling a friend, writing is hard and writing something worth reading is very hard. Let’s see if I can, just once in a while, make you smile. I’ll do my best.