The Secret Lives of Kernels

I woke up intending to be serious.  I always have serious intentions.  It’s a character flaw.

I got up yesterday morning, with a deadline approaching, and for once I was ready to produce 800 rambling words just bordering on coherence.  But serious coherence.

I’m the last person you’d eyeball as having even a touch of ADHD.  I’m actually the opposite.  I plod.  I have mule genes, probably.  I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life doing methodical, boring stuff for hours without getting distracted.  My imagination seems to be alive and well; it’s just not very interesting.

But I would nail this one.  I had it all plotted out.  A historical anecdote, a contemporary political anecdote, a personal anecdote, then (and by now I’m desperately counting words and using a lot of contractions, etc.) a concise observation on our society and I’m done.  Whoosh, column written.

I wrote about popcorn instead.  Because I have an active imagination, as I said.  Just sort of dull.

It was going to be a quick blog post, but I got a stray thought.  I pick up stray thoughts like a crazy cat lady.  It’s another flaw.

Here it is, then: I was thinking about the phenomenon I suspect most of us experience, when we come to rely on technology to the point that we forget the origins of doing simple things.  This is a fact of our lives and I don’t lose sleep over it.  I just wondered about it.

And this all started when I read an article about popcorn.  For many of us, popcorn comes in a bag that we put in the microwave.  This has been going on a long time, long enough that maybe we never think to deconstruct the process.  The point of the article was, what’s so special about Orville’s bag?  Why couldn’t we just put some popcorn kernels in a brown paper sack, nuke it for a couple of minutes, and achieve the same result?

We could.  I’ve done it.  For you.  I’m not a big popcorn eater, but I got curious.  It tasted OK.  And if you need motivation, read the list of ingredients on one of those microwave bags sometime.

But then a stray thought came to my back door and made whiny noises until I let it in.

Again.  Not a popcorn person here.  It’s fine.  It’s nostalgic.  It makes me think of drive-in movies.  It’s good once in a while.  I’m not an aficionado.

I grew up in the Middle Ages, though, without microwaves or fancy hot air popcorn makers or hardware stores that handed out bags of the stuff.  When you wanted popcorn in the 1960s, you generally had to go out and kill the kernels yourself.

Popcorn-making is a pretty simple science.  Apply heat and wait for the explosion.  My neighbors essentially do this on the Fourth of July and I’ve seen no signs of remarkable intelligence on their part, which isn’t fair but there you go.

So I did a little research, scraped my memory for recollections of Mom, and tried to forget about Jiffy Pop, which seemed like cheating.  I wanted something that was as much fun to make as it was to eat, but I wanted to get back to basics.

Alton Brown gave me a few suggestions.  I took a few more from around the Web.  Maybe you do this all the time; hooray for you.  But this is what I settled on.

A mixing bowl like this.  You probably have one.  Probably made of tin.  Put a couple of tablespoons of oil in the bottom, toss in 3-4 kernels, cover it with foil (punch a few holes in the foil), and set it on the stove over medium-high heat.  It’ll be OK.  It won’t melt.  It won’t even get that hot.  Wait a couple of minutes.

When the kernels pop – and they will – remove the foil, toss in about a third of a cup of kernels, replace the foil, and start to gently shake the bowl over the heat.  If it gets too warm, use a oven mitt or pot holder.  Another couple of minutes and all hell will break loose.  This is the fun part.  From my experience, the popping experience will be short, less than a minute (the shaking ensures even heating, which you want in order to get all the kernels done at the same time).  Don’t hang around, waiting for that last kernel.  Pull it off the heat, take off the foil, avoid the steam, and you’ve got popcorn, good popcorn.  Apply salt and butter, whatever.  Make sure you have dental floss.  Enjoy.

Listen: I’m not one of those people who worship the old ways.  Some of the old ways were not so good.  Burning people at the stake for amusement, etc.  I appreciate central heating.  I like having a washer and dryer.  Cars are handy.  You can have my smart phone when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands (also? It’s password protected).

But popcorn is fun.  And now we have packing material, our colons are in good shape, and I’ve got a column all ready for next week, assuming I don’t get distracted, which, as I say, can happen occasionally.  And it’s anybody’s guess about coherence.


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The Radius of Me

I own my habits.  By now I should.

They are influenced by no one and not much.  Some days I sleep a little later, but that’s about it.  I take full responsibility for what I do or don’t, and on most days I can write my own ticket, assuming it doesn’t cost much.

So it’s up to me, and even the weather is usually irrelevant, given where I live.  But our snow of last week cramped my style.  It started on Saturday, showed up occasionally for the next three days, arrived as expected on Wednesday again and then surprised everybody by partying big time on Thursday.  It snowed for 12 hours that day, as far as I could tell, pleasant snow, nice to watch, not threatening but cumulative.  I eyeballed 10 inches on the ground and particularly on my trash can.  A fair amount of snow.

And enough to keep me off the roads, except for a few hikes to Safeway, half a mile one way depending on how you go.

But really?  That’s about as far as I go anyway.  When I go out to walk, I loop and zigzag, pick up a hill here and there, turn a quarter-mile crow fly into a two-mile hike, then turn around and come back.  It’s better than a treadmill but that’s mostly psychological, not geographical.

And if you documented my travels, if you drew a circle or had an app do it for you, with me in the middle and oh-the-places-I’ll-go dotted out, it would be a small circle.  If Best Buy closes, it will be smaller.  I don’t get out much.

Thirty miles at the most, in fact.  That would be church in Renton; downtown Seattle is not nearly that far.

I’ve come to believe that there’s little wrong in my life that can’t be righted or at least helped by getting out more.  This is empirical data, and based not just on how I feel after but what’s going on before.  I start to dread leaving the house and then I know: You’re messed up, buddy, been inside too long.  Time for a trip.

JK and I drove down to Eugene a year ago, 300 miles, in weather that was comically rainy, like a Northwest cartoon; yeah, it was raining.  The entire time.  A good trip, though.

Other than that, you have to reach back to preoperative days, spring 2010, when I was in Arizona for the better part of a week.  Feels like a different life, now.

A week before the snow, I booked a trip to Austin.  It was a spontaneous thing, although talked about a lot, and a good deal from Alaska Airlines, but really?  You either shake the chains or the chains shake you.

I’ve worked at home for 23 years now, a stunning number to me.  I’ve written about it before, trying to document the sameness and explain what it’s like, how the wardrobe becomes limited and the socialization more so, how tiny interactions become major events, how socks wear out like crazy because you never wear shoes.  How the Internet becomes your friend.  How the walls become mobile, always moving in, until there comes a time when you can calculate the square footage of Hell.

Could be just me.

So I’m looking forward to the end of same old, same old.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Texas but not so much in the south, a quick trip in 2004, drove through Austin, didn’t see much.  And Austin is an island, they say.  We shall see.

Here’s to expanding my radius, then.  Shaking off some dust.  Get a little inspired.  See what WiFi on planes is all about.  Spend a little time with my girl, tour the town, eat some good food and be on the watch for Matthew McConaughey, who apparently can be spotted from time to time.  I’ll wave for you.


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Steal This Column!

New column is up:

I admire the writer John Scalzi for several reasons, including his impressive body of work and the fact that he is the father of a 13-year-old girl.  If you’ve never been the father of a 13-year-old girl, then you don’t know.  You THINK you know.  You DON’T.  A 13-year-old girl, under the best circumstances, will tolerate her father because he has money to wave at her in a feeble attempt to stay alive.  Under other circumstances…let’s just say I learned to sleep with one eye open for a few years.  It’s a complicated dynamic.


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A (Snowy) Blast From The Past

(Note: Posting this week’s column here, given that obviously our Web folks are still digging their computers out from under the snow)

When the average person ponders Greek philosophers, most of whom are now dead, we tend to skip over the really interesting ones and focus on the empiricists.  This is odd, considering that empiricists were historically the least liked of ancient Greeks.  They were never invited to philosophy parties.  They were teased all the time about their dumb talk of trees falling in forests not making sounds, etc.  Tim Tebow has been treated better than empiricists.

Still, from time to time I feel the need to ask an empirical question, such as: If a guy writes a newspaper column, and nobody reads it because they’re too busy burning the paper in the fireplace for warmth, does it exist?  And could I write anything I wanted, such as a limerick?

So let’s talk about snow.

As I write this, most of us have recently experienced a little snow.  I have a couple of inches in my front yard, maybe three.  It was no big deal, just sort of pretty and fun to watch.

But if you’re a particular kind of reader, and by that I mean one who has a gas fireplace, you should know that I’m writing this on Monday morning.  Currently the weather community and quite a few people in the grocery store are talking about a major snow event about to hit western Washington.

I am speaking to you from the past, then.  You know what happened.  I just know it’s kind of nippy and that gas fireplaces sound good.

Let’s go back a few years, though, to another snow event in this part of the country.  I was out in the yard, minding my own business, when I noticed a car parked across the street.  It seemed to be partially in a drainage ditch.  From time to time, the driver would turn his wheels and give it some gas, but nothing much else seemed to be happening.

If I hadn’t been watching, it might have been an interesting empirical question, but I digress.

Being a good person and probably sort of bored, I walked across the street and asked the driver, a man, if I could help.  He shook his head, almost nonchalantly, and waved his hand dismissively.

“I grew up in Montana,” he told me.

As I walked away, I wondered.  Normally, perfect strangers don’t give me biographical details.  It’s a weird thing to do.  If I were in a hardware store, and an employee asked if he could assist me, and I replied, “No, I had a flat tire in Alabama once,” he’d probably back away slowly and possibly call security.

Also?  I’d probably not be in a hardware store.  Another story.

What this man across the street was implying, obviously, was that being a Montana native, a state that gets its fair share of winter weather, he was somehow preternaturally skilled at driving in the snow, raising the obvious question: How did he get stuck, then?  And why wasn’t he getting unstuck?

People like this is why God invented ditches, if you ask me.

And since we’re not strangers, I’m going to give you some biographical details.  There was a time in my life when I lived in an area that got a lot of snow.  Snow measured in feet, not inches.  Snow that came up to my waist, even, judging from a couple of pictures (I don’t know why I was standing in it.  But it appears I once had an actual waist).

So here’s what I have to say: As tempting as it is to get all snotty about your fellow drivers, and you know you’re going to do it, you’re going to say, “People up here don’t know how to drive in the snow,” the truth is that snow driving is not a skill you learned and nobody else did.  Snow driving is stupid.  You’re not supposed to drive in the snow.  And if you have to, you know – and everyone else knows – that you need to be careful and go slowly.  Otherwise God goes all ditch crazy.

If you doubt me, consider this: Montana has the highest rate of snow-related traffic accidents in the country (actually, I just made that up. But it’s still impressive).

So I suggest we get over ourselves, understand that we’re all victims of an unpredictable Nature, and give our neighbors a break.  We don’t get a lot of snow, and when we do it can be dangerous for even careful drivers who grew up in snow country.

Of course, by now you know what happened.  Maybe it turned out to be nothing much, a couple of inches more.  As I said, I’m writing from the past.  And in conclusion:

There once was a man from Snohomish
Whose car seemed to—

Hey!  Don’t burn this page yet!  I haven’t finis…


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Let’s Resolve It

New column:

So I’m not all that interested in New Year’s resolutions. I like the concept; I just think most resolutions involve discipline, ending old habits or starting new ones, and discipline is a hard thing. It seems counterproductive to start a hard thing on a holiday, unless your resolution is to watch more football and eat onion dip.

It’s not like there’s no source material out there. I must have read a dozen articles in the past week about New Year’s resolutions, strategies for keeping them, sermons on being realistic, tirades against the whole concept, statistical analyses demonstrating how unlikely it is that most of us will keep any of them. Nothing on onion dip so far.

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Digging Into The Disorder

All the holiday bad, bad food has been removed from the house now, by which I mean eaten.  There might be a few crumbs of chocolate something.

Every year this happens, so trivial and common that it’s hardly worth mentioning.  I have a summer of increased activity and exercise and I trim down into a lean, mean 50-something machine, and then we have an equinox.  Autumn triggers a hormone, enzyme, neurotransmitter, questionable gene, something, and I develop a craving for love handles.  Apparently.  Never fails.

As I said, common, surely.  Storing up for winter and all that, even though winters now for me are spent expending autumn.  At least it keeps me busy.

I caught a NY Times article the other day, though, that made me think a little.  It was another of the hundreds of pieces on changing behavior as we change the calendar, this time pointing out (once again) that dropping pounds is a job so difficult and doomed to failure that we might as well be fat.  The author herself stated that she was easily 60 pounds overweight, frustrated and expressing that by doing SOMETHING SEDENTARY.  Like writing.

So here’s what I took away from this.  I went through a big weight loss adventure four-plus years ago.  Depending on how you look at it and where you start, over the course of about four months or so, from mid-August until the end of December, I dropped about 80 pounds.  I would lose another 20 or so, which became The Tenacious Twenty, which you might be familiar with.  They come back like Dracula.  They go, they return, they go again, etc.

But those original 80?  They seem at arm’s length, at least.  Even though I seriously intended to stop the pattern this year, after a serious effort this summer to deflab, I entered 2012 at approximately the same weight I entered 2008.  A little soft and flabby for my taste, but so much better than August 2007.  And for a 53-year-old in the United States of Obesity?  It’s acceptable, at least to me.  If those 32-inch waist jeans I was so proud to slip into last September are too uncomfortable now, the 34s are fine and 34?  Ask a guy.  You can live with 34.

One of the points of this lady’s piece was that it’s damn near impossible to keep the weight off, and that the ones who did endured a rigorous, life-long preoccupation, tracking food intake and exercise output, always being cautious, and by implication miserable and perhaps suffering from some sort of eating disorder, in a sense.

OK.  So this might be me.

It’s true.  Over the past four years, whenever I find myself slipping into flabhood, I return to my 2007 roots.  I start keeping track of calories in and out.  I try to stay away from sugar, and I have a pretty broad definition of sugar (that is, it includes flour and potatoes; most carbs, in other words).  I’m a daily exerciser but I tend to up that.  In fact, as I mentioned a few days ago, since I got my iPhone and a couple of handy apps, I’ve kept track of this data for a solid six months, good days and not so good.  Some pretty bad.

And I have the results, if you’re interested, which you’re really not: An average of 2800 calories in and 600 out (the equivalent of about 90 minutes of walking per day, or maybe 40 minutes of fast pedaling on the stationary bike).

So I’ve been contemplating this eating disorder thing.  It reminds of comments I hear from time to time about recovering alcoholics becoming “addicted to AA meetings.”  This is incredibly stupid in a variety of ways, but I always find myself thinking: Umm, and…SO?”

But I think I disagree here, and while in the Big Picture I wonder if the poundage of persons is as high on our list of bad stuff as it seems to be (at least in the New York Times), it strikes me that there’s a factor out there that is getting misted over.

We live in a culture of calories, of easily available energy sources (setting aside nutritional value, whole ‘nother subject) and a society that encourages our active participation.  I think about this every time I go into Target and see the mini-food court.  Seriously?  Is there really enough shopping to do at Target that people need sustenance to continue?

You know all this.  The signals to start grazing are all over the place, and we listen.  And we’ve almost certainly lost touch with any sense of what we need.  I just roll my eyes when I hear (skinny) people talk about eating until you’re satiated, until your body tells you that you’ve had enough, until your belly is full, a ignorant philosophy that ignores biology and evolution.  If anything, our bodies and brains are designed to eat everything in sight, since until just a second ago in human terms most of us couldn’t count on our next meal.  Kill a cow, eat the cow, might be the last cow for a while.

Not to mention the last century or so of efficient high-energy delivery systems, based on sugar and sugar’s nasty descendants.  Most of us could easily consume a third to half of our daily energy requirements (or a lot more) from food that has almost no footprint, that doesn’t make us feel full and shouldn’t.

At any rate, I’ll take my apps and my data, thanks.  In a culture designed to give me what I want but way more than I need, I can’t think of a good alternative to paying close attention.  Call it an eating disorder if you wish, but pardon me if I wonder who’s doing the calling, and why.


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Things To Resolve

Happy New Year.  I enter 2012 the same way I left it, by which I mean wearing the same clothes.  So far, then, no big deal.

Our New Year’s Eve was quiet and also sort of dark.  A cold morning prompted JK to enlist the aid of my space heater to warm up her studio before students arrived, which overwhelmed a circuit, tripping the breaker and turning out the lights in the kitchen.  Not a big surprise; these little heaters pull some amps (or whatever).

What did surprise me was that after resetting the breaker, the lights wouldn’t come back on.  This isn’t a particularly crucial circuit, a couple of outlets in the living room, the microwave one, and the lights, but that doesn’t mean we don’t like it a lot.

So I start the new year with a conundrum.  I did notice that the breaker switch panel for that circuit is jiggly, the only one, so here’s hoping that’s an easy fix, screws that need to be tightened, but I’m procrastinating.  I prefer to deal with electrical problems in this house by turning off all electricity and asking my neighbors to turn off theirs, too, and that requires finding the right moment.  In the meantime, a lamp in the kitchen added ambience.

Aside from that, I expect good things in 2012, otherwise what’s the point?  I’m not one for making resolutions, but a little resolve goes a long way.  Here’s to staying active, drinking plenty of fluid, and trying to keep the clutter at bay.  And there’s nothing like a little darkness to make one appreciate the light we do have, although that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.  A circuit is just a circuit, and this is just a calendar trick, this new year, but I can use all the help I can get.


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