Funeral for a Cousin



She once traveled the world as a backup singer and dancer for the rapper MC Hammer.  And she was my wife’s cousin.  That’s about all I knew.

I am told that I had met her a couple of times at birthday parties and barbecues, but if I am to be honest, I must admit that I don’t remember.  The personnel of my wife’s large extended family continues to roll around in my noggin and come out as a ball of mush.  I have to ask, and ask again, and ask yet again about which side of the family this is and whose ex-, step-, grand-, great- auntie or cousin twice removed this one is.  I get confused.

The leaflet on the table in the antechamber bore a photo of her reclining in what must have been a wedding dress, silky white fabric that went on for miles.  The surname was hyphenated, reflecting the Filipino and Hispanic heritages of herself and of her husband.  And as the chapel began to fill up, the faces were black and white and every shade of brown, coffee and gold.  There were three young ladies with long blonde hair seated in the third row, looking as if they were plucked right out of Central Casting.  There were afros and crew cuts, mohawks and bald pates, young and old, local and far-flung, believers and non-believers, all connected in some way to Lisa’s life and there to remember, grieve and celebrate.

The staff began escorting visitors to seats, urging the early birds to scoot over and make room for the latecomers, to squeeze just one more person into each pew.  People were standing in the back, the lobby was full and still they kept streaming in through the door.  Clearly, this was someone very special who they were here for, someone who had touched many hundreds of lives and would never be forgotten.

I did not know you.  I am here as a neutral party to support my wife.  But as my sister-in-law, two of my nephews, my niece and her baby daughter filed into the pew in front of us, I began to feel the glow of being held tightly within the bosom of my family.  I found myself wishing my parents could have made the trip.

And as the family and friends who came up to the lectern and with trembling hands and voices took the microphone to tearfully recount memories of happy days, strivings and successes, proud milestones and stories both quirky and funny, without fanfare I slipped the folded handkerchief out of my pocket.



The Joys of Adulthood


I really enjoy being an adult.

It seems that everyone else wants to be a kid again.  Sorry, but I don’t.

Adulthood gets a bad rap, undeservedly in my opinion.  I haven’t figured it out yet, but I suspect this has something to do with American worship of youth culture. 

Back in the sixteenth century, Ponce de León searched the tropics for the mythical Fountain of Youth.  We’re still searching.

I’ve noticed that the Dylan song “Forever Young” (usually the Rod Stewart remake) keeps popping up on TV sitcoms and commercials.  The mall features a shop named Forever 21.  Anti-aging treatments and wrinkle creams make fortunes for the cosmetics industry.

The message is unmistakable:  Older is bad, younger is good.  And teenage is best of all.

Even the very word “adult” has taken on negative connotations.  If you patronize “adult bookstores,” then you are a perv.  If you partake of “adult beverages,” then you are a lush.  And if you are a fornicator who cheats on your spouse, then you have committed “adultery.”

Although it has been more than three decades since I joined the ranks of adults, I began thinking about our antipathy toward adulthood recently when my wife and I were cleaning out a closet.  As we made piles of junk to sell, donate and recycle, I ran across an old issue of an employee newsletter from a job I worked many years ago.  The front page featured an article under the byline of one of the executives, titled “I Want to Be Six Again.”

The piece began with the author’s declaration that she is resigning from adulthood to accept the position of a six year old.  She then proceeded to go on and on about the virtues of being age six, from preferring M&Ms to money because the former can be eaten, to watching television for pure enjoyment rather than to procrastinate from tasks she should be doing, to assuming our loved ones will be with us forever because we have not yet learned the concept of death.

Well, call me a rebel, but I must emphatically state that I do not wish to be a six year old again.  Honestly, it wasn’t so great the first time around.

What do I remember about the age of six?  Let’s see, I turned six in the middle of the first grade, at which time I attended what I would characterize as a fundamentalist religious school.  To summarize the philosophy taught there:  If you enjoy doing it, it’s a sin.  I learned about the methods of capital punishment used in the Old Testament (stoning, strangling, burning at the stake, etc.) and I came home threatening to try them out on my sisters.  My father allowed me to take a sip of his coffee (which I liked) and his beer (which I didn’t).  I became a TV addict, watching the boob tube every minute I could get away with.  I memorized the commercials and begged my parents for Lincoln’s “two true flu-fighting flavors.”  We lived on the fourth floor of a hundred year old New York City walkup that was infested with millions of cockroaches.

Then we moved.  My parents bought a house in the suburbs, but only after we spent every weekend for months on end driving out there to look at one new subdivision after another.  I was bored out of mind.  The move put me in an even stricter religious school.  I began chastising my parents for being unholy sinners who thumbed their noses at everything the Bible commanded.

No, I do not wish to be six again.

When I was six, I did not know what tortoni was, or tofu, tiramisu, Tolkien or Tolstoy.  I had never heard of Bach, Beethoven, Balzac, brie, burritos or baklava.  I had never tasted pita bread, Portobello mushrooms or papaya.  I hadn’t yet played a game of tennis, used a computer, earned a paycheck or attended a wedding.  What I did do regularly was pee the bed and cry over every little thing.

I suppose it must have been nice to never be left alone, but I didn’t appreciate being watched every second and being told exactly what I could and could not do.  I did not enjoy being spanked when I became persnickety and would not cooperate with the agendas of the grown-ups.  I prayed a lot because I was told to, although I didn’t really understand what for and, frankly, all that praying was starting to bug the heck out of me.  I definitely preferred playing to praying.

When I was six, I did not get to jump in the car and drive to the beach on the spur of the moment just because I felt like smelling the salt air.  I did not get to hold meetings, write memos and tell my employees what to do.  No one asked my advice, no one cared what I thought, and I had to be in bed by eight o’clock every night.

When I was six, my little sisters and I had to share a bedroom.  I did not get to share a bed with my loving wife, nor to whisper to her my innermost secrets and talk over future plans for hours.  I did not get to pick out the furniture, choose the house in which I would live or even decide what to have for dinner.

No, thank you, I refuse to go back to being six years old.  I enjoy being an adult, even with all its responsibilities, uncertainties, hospitals and funerals.

So if you want to be six years old again, have a good time.  As for me, I refuse to resign from adulthood.  I may not earn a perfect progress review every year, but here I will stay until the Lord sends me a pink slip.


Say Cheese! Or, 3 Days as a Vegan


I have the greatest respect for vegans and their commitment to the avoidance of all animal products, whether food or clothing.  Alas, my admiration is destined to be from afar.  For me, it’s a matter of “you can’t get there from here.”

I admit it:  A significant motivation for my position on this issue is pure, unadulterated laziness.  I don’t wear canvas sneakers and I can’t imagine shopping for shoes that are not made of leather.  As entrenched as I am in my pesco-vegetarian ways, I am sure that I could give up fish if I really put my mind to it.  I know this because I once did it for three months. 

But eschew dairy products?  I don’t think I could even begin to go down that road.  This doesn’t make a lot of sense, as I have become increasingly lactose intolerant as I age.  I don’t even drink cow’s milk very much.  I actually prefer soy milk.  A world without ice cream would be tough, but let’s face it, how often do I eat ice cream?  I would miss our occasional late night runs to Rite-Aid for cherry chip and chocolate brownie, but I’d get over it.

So what exactly is standing in the way of jumping over this particular hurdle?  In a word:  Cheese.

Queso.  Fromage.  Formaggio.  In any language, it’s my addiction.  Chunky, shredded or melted, I’d gladly eat just about anything au gratin.  Well, I don’t know about Brussels sprouts.  But graced with enough fat-laden, high sodium, gooey, dripping cheese, I could probably manage it!

I could wax poetic about the virtues of cheddar, the briny goodness of an imported Greek feta, the sublime tanginess of Roquefort, the satisfaction of a slice of muenster on a sandwich, the delicious tastes of gouda and Emmentaler.  The list could go on forever.

All my life, my favorite has been the very dry, proletarian monikered “farmer cheese.”  Out here in the desert, I rarely have access to this delicacy that I grew up eating with fresh bakery rye bread.  So I can’t with any measure of honesty claim that it is the love of farmer cheese that is keeping me for a life of veganism.

In fact, when I think about what cheese really is, it certainly loses much of its romance and glitzy luster.  I need only recall Little Miss Muffet (the one who was scared off by an arachnid) and her curds and whey.  Or I can just think of pumping fluid from bovine mammary glands in a stinky stable stall, then curdling it with rennet from the lining of a sheep’s stomach and waiting for the goop to get good and moldy.  And there you have it:  Cheese!

Some cheeses are sufficiently stinky that my reaction ranges somewhere between repulsion and revulsion.  One whiff and I’m ready to lose my lunch.  The fabled epitome of this category is, of course, Limburger, which a coworker once tried to get me to eat.  Bad mistake.

But even lesser lights of stinky cheesedom can make me ill.  My wife loves parmesan and Asiago, which some have described as smelling like feet (upon extrication from sweaty socks, that is).  To me, however, they just smell like vomit, an activity which they could easily inspire.

So maybe cheese isn’t what it’s cracked up to be after all.  But I still don’t think I could turn my back on it, short of being marooned on a desert island without cows.

Wanting to see how the other half lives, quite a few years back I picked up some so-called vegan cheese at Whole Foods Market.  It looked great on the shelf, a creamy, bright orange colored replica of my old standby, cheddar.  When I got home, I eagerly cut open the package and sliced off a chunk, ready for a guiltless treat.  One flick of my tongue, one touch of my taste buds and I spat out the vile thing into the trash.

Impostor!  This was not the cheddar I know and love.  This was some fake, rubbery thing with a horrible medicinal flavor.  I self-righteously marched the package back to Whole Foods, insisting that they had to be kidding.  Not only wasn’t this cheddar, this wasn’t even edible!

My faux cheese experiencing notwithstanding, I recently decided to try out the vegan life for a few days.  More than anything else, I wanted to confirm my suspicions that it isn’t as difficult as it seems.  Uh, wrong!  It is as difficult as it seems.

First, there is the matter of protein.  With my fish, eggs and cheese gone, I resorted to some of the ready-to-eat vegan protein that is available here in our little desert town.  Wanting to start the day with a protein fix, for breakfast I had vegan “deli slices” (bologna or turkey flavors) or frozen and microwaved “veggie burgers.”  I quickly discovered that, if a vegan wants to make a sandwich, it’s not a simple matter of removing the twist tie from the white bread.  No, sir.  I hadn’t thought about the fact that most commercially packaged breads (and tortillas and bagels and muffins) contain milk solids and other dairy products.  I did, however, have some boxes of matzo left over from Passover.  I discovered that, being made of nothing but wheat flour and water, matzo is a vegan product.

Later in the day, I ate microwaved frozen vegetables or munched a salad with a squeeze of lime (you guessed it, most commercial salad dressings contain dairy products) and fresh fruit.  Not terrible, by any means, but you really have to plan your meals and shop accordingly.  It’s not like you can just grab something on the run.  And I quickly learned that many products that I thought were vegan (like my frozen “maple-flavored breakfast patties”) actually are not.

Even though I found myself wishing I were eating a bagel with cream cheese and lox, I’m sure those cravings must go away in time, diminishing into a fading memory.  Nevertheless, I was singing hallelujah and glory, glory when my wife cooked me her wonderful scrambled eggs, smothered in shredded cheddar.

Big sigh.

Is there such a thing as a chee-gan?


The Glorious Fourth in Potatoland


Guest blogging today is my sister from up north in Idaho.  I think you will agree that she is wickedly funny.  Enjoy the weekend!

While I don’t generally find myself inspired to write or do anything creative here in my own private Idaho, today was an exception. Today was that most American of holidays, Independence Day. And Idahoans are, if nothing else, the most American of Americans. But still, it was with amazed disbelief that I watched scores of Idahoans at dozens of roadside fireworks tents lining up to buy the stuff. I was incredulous because the weather here has been as high as 110°, and not less than 95°, for the past week! It has been hot, dry, and even a bit breezy. Yet tonight, as I write this, my neighbors are sitting in their Walmart lawn chairs, beside their parched, yellow lawns, and lighting their purchases afire in the streets. The brightly colored lights shoot up into the air with a bang or a whistle, then the sparkly glowing bits spiral back toward the street and said parched lawns to the oohs and ahhs of adults and children alike.

So I’m listening to all this and wondering if Idahoans are, in fact, any smarter than their famous potatoes. But then, I remember the signs I saw today at the roadside tents and I understand why they bought these flaming projectiles to flirt with the tinder laden landscape: it was a bargain! The price was just too good to resist. There were boards on the side of the road advertising last minute specials on pyrotechnics. “1/2 OFF” proclaimed the signs. “$40 COMBO PACK only $24”. And they say Idaho is near the bottom of the nation’s education rankings. I say that’s nonsense! If Idahoans were stupid, they’d never be able to spot such a deal! Now I realize that Idahoans are smarter than their famous potatoes. But just a bit.

Water and Ice


It’s hot.

There’s not much more to say about it.  Friday afternoon, when we took off for a weekend in Nevada, the mercury here in the desert mocked us at 122 degrees.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, on both Saturday and Sunday, when we walked out to the car, the digital thermometer read… well, see photo above.

So we live in a blast furnace.  On Friday, my nephew emailed me to remind us to keep hydrated. 

As if I needed a reminder.

Water has become my best friend.  And I don’t even like water.  It makes my belly ache.

Living in Hell, however, has significantly changed my outlook on H2O.  If you don’t believe me, I will tell you that the big truck with the long hose that the guy drags in through our back door paid us a visit on Thursday and filled our tank with 91 gallons of drinking water.

I intend to drink all of it.

Some of it may find its way into our iced tea pitchers (we bought two more in Nevada) and some of it may become pink lemonade.  Jugs, glasses, cups, pitchers — they all become convenient way stations for the pouring of water into the temporary home that is our bodies.

I say temporary, because it goes in one end and out the other.  I am wearing out the path from the kitchen to the bathroom.

My wife loves ice and has to have it in every drink.  If we are staying in a hotel, the bucket must be carried to the ice machine and back at least once per day.  At home, we have the purple bowl of ice in the little freezer and the ten pound bags of ice in the big freezer.  When we start to run low, a visit to Smart ‘n Final is in order.  If they are closed, Burger King is open 24/7 and they sell big bags of ice out of the drive-thru window.

As for me, well, ice is not my thing.  I am more than happy to open a bottle or can right from the pantry or to tap the water tank as is.  If I’m out in the heat, sure, a cold drink is welcomed.  But sitting at home or at work in the air conditioning while the sun sizzles outside, room temperature liquids suit me just fine.  I think ice is overrated.

I don’t drink alcohol, but I can understand why beer is often served “warm” in England.  In fact, I am told that in the U.K., ice is not an expectation and drinks, hard or soft, are generally served without it.

I must have been a Brit in another life.