Friday, February 26, 2010

The parakeet story

Everybody has a true life story or two which need telling, if only as a soul-cleansing confession. Here’s mine:

Some years ago Carolann and I agreed to take care of a parakeet for our friends while they went on vacation.

I know what you’re thinking and so did I. Who needs baby sitters for a bird? You clean the cage, leave plenty of food and water and then go on vacation without giving the bird a second thought, right? Of course I’m right.

The thing is, our friend Tim (not his real name) had inexplicably fallen head-over-tiny-little-claws in love with this bird. He taught it to sit on his shoulder and play with him and to take food from his lips. I never had the nerve to ask but I’m pretty sure that Tim would have taken the bird to bed with him at night but for fear that his wife, Susan (not her real name) would roll over and crush the little guy.

Tim loved that bird completely, selflessly and without qualification and for that reason we felt a huge weight of responsibility for its well-being, as much as if it had been a human child left in our care.

But, still — one small bird in a small cage. How much trouble could that be?

Well, I’ll tell you…

We had three cats at the time so we wisely put the parakeet cage in a spare bedroom with the door closed tightly. Or, so we thought.

One day we came home from someplace and discovered the spare room door open, the cage on the floor with its door open, and a few horrifying feathers scattered here and there.

No sign of the bird.

After some frenzied searching and to our indescribable relief we found the parakeet literally trembling on the floor in a corner. Miraculously he had survived by scurrying from the truly terrorizing lightning pursuit of one to three monstrous cat demons, each a hundred times larger than himself!

You can just imagine!

Making cooing, soothing noises and with words of quiet reassurance we further terrified the little creature by picking it up and gently putting it back in its cage. We gave it fresh food and water just to be sweet, closed the door and left it alone to cry into its pillow and gather its wits.

An hour later the bird was dead.

Heart attack brought on by residual stress, or so they tell us.

Carolann and I were mortified. Tim and Susan would be home within a day or two and we had just murdered their baby.

What should we do?? Think!

And of course we reached the only reasonable solution to the crisis:


We put the dead bird in a small paper bag and drove to a pet store. Honest to God, we did. Nerves jangling as if we were first-time shoplifters, we entered Jungleland and tried to act nonchalant.

“Hi, can I help you?”

“I hope so. Look…” (Opening the bag.) “We need a bird that looks exactly like this.”

I don’t remember if the girl looked at us quizzically or if she choked down a nostril-rattling guffaw. Maybe she did neither. Maybe this sort of thing happens all the time in pet stores, I don’t know. In any case, I didn’t ask and volunteered no explanation.

Miraculously, she found a dead ringer (so to speak) for our deceased charge. She netted it, we exchanged our lifeless bird-in-a-bag for the lively, but nervous, bird-in-a-box. We paid the cashier fifteen bucks plus tax and like Lucy and Ethel we hightailed it back home accompanied by a nervous laugh track and suspenseful bumper music.


Fade to commercial.

Tim and Susan returned from vacation happy, relaxed and refreshed but Tim was very anxious to hold his baby.

Carolann and I, shameful deceivers we had become, managed to hug them with warm smiles and, you should pardon the expression, give them the bird.

We held our breaths for about a week when Susan called on the phone and mentioned to Carolann, as if it were a passing thought, that the bird was acting peculiar. He didn’t seem as affectionate as he had before; seemed to have forgotten his tricks; wouldn’t sit on Tim’s shoulder; actually pecked at him!

We collapsed, Carolann confessed and we are both going to Hell.

Tim and Susan were stunned but held their disappointment as best they could. They didn’t chastise us and though it has never become a funny memory for us to laugh about over dinner and a glass of wine, they have continued to be our friends, albeit at some safe distance.

I think Godparenting their two sons is pretty much out of the question.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Swedish meatballs

Pardon my French, but what in H-E-double-hockey-sticks is wrong with recipe writers?

Yesterday I had a craving for Swedish meatballs.

I've been watching a lot of Winter Olympics cross-country skiing and while I feel a little sorry for the hapless Norwegians and their maddeningly inferior waxes, those crazy Swedes and their rhythmic, hypnotic, ponderous crab walks have swept me off my feet!

So, I went to my favorite online recipe source for Alton Brown's Swedish meatballs recipe. As always, I got sucked in by the relative simplicity of the recipe and the claim of convenience that it would only take me thirty minutes to prepare.

Oh, puh-leeze!

Having undertaken many previous cooking odysseys by the absurd assertions of ease of preparation you'd think I would know better.

It's not Chef Brown's fault, of course, that the blade in our food chopper is mangled and I had to finely chop the onion by hand but that, alone, took ten minutes. And even if it hadn't, even if I was as fast with a knife as a Benihana cook carving a chicken, you will notice that Master Brown's directions say nothing at all about the need to actually CHOP the onion. It simply and blithely says to ADD it to the pan.

Aha! Now I understand!

As a wordsmith it kills me to do this but I now must validate a superfluous and redundant (and repetitious) phrase that turns people like me frigid with contempt: PRE-PLANNING!

In order to prepare food in the length of time promised by the recipe you have to get all your ingredients at the line, in the starting blocks, before you pull the trigger on the clock.

The good master directs me to weigh and shape the meatballs by hand... mention of how long that should take, so let me tell you: fifteen minutes! Maybe you're faster than I am. Maybe you're less persnickety about perfection of size and uniformity in shape. Good for you. It will still take you ten minutes to shape 30 meatballs by hand.

Then, you can simply ADD the meatballs to your chopped onions, which are happily "sweating" in a pan with clarified butter.

Now, there's nothing I dislike more than people who gripe about things without offering solutions, so here's mine.

I propose the following example be adopted as the standard guideline for all future publications of recipes:

Cooking time: 25 minutes.

Alton Brown's prep time: 30 minutes.

Your prep time: one hour.

Your prep time if your food chopper is broken: one hour, 10 minutes.

Your prep time if your spice cupboard is disorganized: one hour, 15 minutes.

Your prep time if you have to go next door to borrow nutmeg and/or allspice: one hour, 30 minutes. (Add 15 minutes for excessively chatty neighbor.)

Your prep time if you don't have a fancy, expensive KitchenAid
® stand mixer: one hour, 50 minutes.

Your prep time if you have to Google "clarified butter:" one hour, 55 minutes.

Your prep time if you this particular meal was a spontaneous decision rather than planned and you don't typically keep heavy cream in your fridge, so you have to "run up to the store" and get some:
two hours, 30 minutes.

Your prep time if you're a big believer in "cleaning as you go:"
three hours.

Speaking of go, I must. The curling semi-finals are about to begin and I'm getting a hankering for some nice Schweinemedallionen mit Spatzle.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The coolest generation

"'Scuse me while I kiss the sky!"

One day not too long ago I wandered into a 7-11 store and hid my smile from the clerk. He appeared to be on the fringe of his "golden years," rotund, gray and balding. He was the only guy in the place and had Jimi Hendrix blaring from his boombox behind the counter. I thought it was pretty funny that an old guy like him was digging Jimi. Then, what you have already figured out hit me.

That "old guy" was my age.

Something happened in the mid-1960s that suddenly narrowed all future generation gaps. It was a social sea change rooted in technology and nourished with an elixir concocted by a new breed of post be-bop musicians. Everything about them was radical, from their long, unkempt hair to their wildly-colorful disdain of fashion sense to their electronically amplified screams of youthful exuberance.

Our parents were apoplectic.

And we dug that, too.

"Yi-pi-yi-ay! Yi-pi-yi-o! Ghost riders in the sky..."

When my mother graduated from high school in June of 1949 the top-selling record of the day was Riders In The Sky by Vaughn Monroe. Twenty years later, June of 1969, I graduated high school and the number one song was Get Back by the Beatles.

So, what? So, this:

I'm not sure I have ever heard a Vaughn Monroe song but I'm absolutely positive I never owned one. On the other hand my son owns a nearly full Beatles collection and knows as much about the songs and the group as I do. He also loves the music of Creedence, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys and other artists who made their impact years before he was born.

And it works the other way around, too. I believe my contemporaries and I keep up with cultural changes much more readily than my grandparents did. When I was a lad you wouldn't find me sitting with Grandma in front of her Philco TV watching the Lawrence Welk Show but here I am, my grandparents' age, parked in front of the big flat screen Sony for each new episode of American Idol.

And it's not just music, either.

I'm pretty sure neither of my grandfathers would have been caught dead at Disneyland. I'd bet on it, in fact. My dad went there with the family on our vacation when I was a young teen but I don't remember him riding the Matterhorn or Dumbo. He would never stand near Mickey Mouse or Goofy for a photo op. By the time I became a dad, though, Disneyland was a whole new ballgame. That's not surprising since the park was born after I was and having grown up with the Magic Kingdom experience under my belt, enjoying it with my kids and grand-kids just comes naturally. In fact, Carolann and I have annual passes.

Here's the thing: While we always hear people bemoaning the loss of American family relationships I'm not buying it. When I was a kid, yes, we all ate dinner together at a single table, at the same time, without the TV. But frankly, I don't recall it as being a particularly nurturing and bonding experience. I don't remember it being anything at all except dinner.

So, while my son didn't often have meatloaf at the family dinner table he did have me at his Chuck E. Cheese's birthday parties and I like to believe he enjoyed that.

I'm no social scientist so I really can't figure out what it all means, if anything, but that has never stopped me from reaching a happy conclusion and here it is:

If our parents are the Greatest Generation, as is the title applied to them in recent years, we are surely the Coolest. So far, anyway.

Copyright © 2010 by Dave Williams, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Father knows best. Usually.

I have a mental block about when I lost my dad, Don Williams.

I can never remember the exact date nor even the year for sure, but I think it was eight years ago this month, February of 2002. I guess I just don't want to think about that.

I still miss him terribly.

I miss his kind, warm smile and the feel of his arms around me. I can remember the sweet smell of his pipe and cigars as surely as if I was with him in his old pickup truck right now.

My dad was the smartest man I ever knew and he's still my hero.

Dad taught me how to camp and fish and how to use a slingshot. He helped me with my homework and took me to major league baseball games in San Francisco.

In the evenings after he got home from work Dad would sit in his chair, fill his pipe and read the newspaper. (The Sacramento Bee was an afternoon paper in those days.) When he held up the Bee, spread open in front of his face where he couldn't see me, I would sneak up on him and plunk that paper with a flick of a finger to startle him. I thought that was a hoot! Sometimes he'd growl at me for it but often he would launch himself out of his chair and wrestle me to the floor and tickle me until I hurt and had laughed so hard I couldn't breathe.

Sometimes I'd just be walking through the living room and he would quietly crumple an empty cigarette pack into a tight little ball and throw it at my head, hard, just for fun.

That hurt too, but it was fun.

As I grew up, so did Dad. He and my mother were divorced when I was a young adult. Then, when it was my turn to divorce and I was in great emotional pain he took me out for beers and to shoot some pool. He counseled me some but not much. What could he say? He just wanted to be with me in my time of need and he was right, I have never needed anybody as much as I needed him then.

I know nobody is perfect but he was as close to it as anybody I ever met in my life. Still, there is one other thing I know for sure about my dad:

He did some damned silly things.

I recently wrote about that incident in the garage with the blue spray paint. I have quite a few stories like that and they amaze me because Dad was a truly intelligent man. Everybody said so, not just me.

But he did some real bonehead stuff!

When I was about eighteen and still living at home I bought a used Fiat Spyder. It was a slick, sporty little convertible and I loved zooming around the winding roads near our rural home in Loomis, California. One day the Fiat's gas pedal spring broke. This was the spring that allowed the gas pedal to lift up when I removed my foot to slow or stop the car. Dad wasn't much of a mechanic but he fixed it in a jiffy. Took him...I don't know, ten or fifteen seconds.

He tied a rope to the gas pedal so that when I need to use the brake I could just lift my foot and pull on the rope simultaneously to return the pedal to its normal position!

Oh, I have more stories like this.

As Jimmy Durante used to say, "I got a million of 'em!"

Monday, February 8, 2010

Making reservations for the cackle factory...

For some inexplicable reason I awoke this morning at 4:48 with this song running through my head:

There’s a hold up in the Bronx,
Brooklyn’s broken out in fights!
There’s a traffic jam in Harlem
That’s backed up to Jackson Heights!
There’s a scout troop short a child,
Kruschev’s due at Idlewild!!


If you never heard those words, it doesn’t matter. Move on and have a great day!

If you do know what this is about, you’re already shaking your head and thinking, “Oh, my God…”

I awoke this morning with the theme song from a 47-year-old TV sitcom running through my head, a song I haven’t heard in at least 35 years.

My working theory is that at some point in life our mental filing cabinets start to get too heavy and the little wheels in the drawers break down. Those little folders collapse and some old piece of useless memory crap spills out all over the floor.

That’s what I’m going to tell the doctor.

I’m making the appointment right now.

Am I blue?

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” — Will Rogers

Summer days in the Sacramento Valley are scorchers. Back in the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up we didn’t have air conditioning. Nobody did. Our home had a swamp cooler on the roof directly over the hallway to the bedrooms, adjacent to the kitchen. The hallway had a gray tile floor. Not nice ceramic tiles, just the cheap asbestos tiles that came as standard equipment in a 12-thousand-dollar house.

Asbestos, of course, causes cancer but since we didn’t know that at the time, none of us got it.

On summer days, I could generally be found lying on that cool, cancer-wreaking floor, bare-footed and bare-stomached, reading Little Lulu and Sad Sack comic books directly beneath the huge hole in the ceiling and the water-dripping blast of air from the swamp cooler above. It was cool, the floor was hard, but I was seven. As nice as it was I couldn’t lie there all day.

Eventually I would wander outside and run through the sprinkler to cool off. Then I’d look around and see if anything interesting was going on.

(They didn’t charge us for water in those days and we apparently had more than anybody needed. We’d leave it running all day, soaking the front yard and pouring like a river into the gutter, down the street, into the drain and who knew, or cared, where from there — just in case we wanted to run through the sprinkler.

Sometimes we didn’t. But the water ran, just in case.

I know that sounds like wanton criminal behavior now but at the time we thought no more of leaving the water running than we did about smoking cigarettes in church or the grocery store. Our dads spent a couple of hours each evening talking with neighbors, all the while washing the dirt off the driveway with the hose. Water was water as air is air. We had all we needed. Nobody hassled us or tried to make us feel guilty or threatened to fine us for using water. I guess it just hadn’t occurred to them yet.)

One day I wandered into the garage where my dad was fiddling around.

My dad loved to putter in the garage. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Now that I’m older and thinking with some perspective I’m wondering if maybe he was just bored to death and puttering was nothing more to him than lying in the dripping hallway with Nancy and Sluggo comics was to me.

Sometimes Dad would work on the car but most of the time he just puttered. What else was there to do? The TV only had three channels and unless it was time for The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports there was nothing to watch in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.

(Channel 6, the educational channel, had seemingly nonstop French lessons which I thought was pretty cool but my dad was from the World War II era and in no mood to learn French.)

So, on this particular day Dad was puttering in the garage, as usual, painting something blue with a spray can. I don’t remember what he was painting. That’s actually the definition of puttering: finding something that would look or work better with a minor, thoroughly irrelevant “improvement” that nobody else would likely notice or appreciate.

When he was just about finished spray painting whatever it was the paint can neared the end of its cargo and began to sputter. Dad shook it mightily but it would only spit a blob of blue here and there while farting useless blasts of aerosol propellant (which didn’t cause cancer but, in our blissful ignorance, was obliterating the ozone layer of our atmosphere and destroying life on Earth as we now know it.)

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Never one to waste a drop of paint, my thrifty dad grabbed the ever-handy churchkey on his work bench, gave the can one more good shake just for the hell of it, and punched a hole into the bottom of that fourteen-ounce rocket.

It took off like a Kamikaze woodpecker with a firecracker up its ass!

That paint can flew around the garage with the thoroughly chaotic and mindless pattern of a balloon released before being tied off.

That can had more paint left in it than Carter’s had pills.

By the time it landed the can had spent its passion, smiling weakly, surprised and yet victorious at its expense.

Everything in the garage was spotted blue. It all looked like a three-dimensional Rohrshach inkblot.

I was blue from head to tummy to legs and toes.

The garage floor and walls were blue. The ceiling was blue. Our lawn mower, camping gear, boxes of Christmas tree ornaments and all the weird, useless crap that doesn’t have a place and no certain use, but which you can’t bring yourself to throw away…it was all blue!


I don’t remember what I thought of it all but I do remember Dad.

His glasses were spattered blue, as were his nose, ears, lips and the cigar stogie on which they were still puffing furiously.

Our beautiful collie, Rusty, still lying sedately at my feet, was blue.

Mom wouldn’t let us in the house.

Well, it’s not that she wouldn’t. She just couldn’t. She was incapable. After Dad rapped on the sliding glass patio door for her she dutifully responded, saw us, immediately assessed the situation and collapsed in a helpless heap of rubbery-legged hysterics.

Dad fumed, snuffed out his blue panatella, grinding it into his expensive self-poured concrete patio with a blue-spotted flip-flop

Eventually, Mom was able to regain the use of her legs, find the floor and unlock the door. Snorting and giggling she followed Dad’s instructions, taking a gas can to the filling station and returning with a full of “regular” gas so that Dad could scrape the blue off of every square inch of our bodies.

The toxic, cancer-causing (these days) fumes of fully-leaded gasoline nearly killed us in the shower.

We all survived that day and even my darling, now-departed Dad was eventually able to recount it at family holiday dinners with a smile and a rueful shake of his head.

But these days, as Mom gets older, I avoid the story altogether lest it send her to join him beyond the pale.

Copyright © 2010 by Dave Williams, all rights reserved.

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