Dutch Treats

My online culinary explorations this morning took me to the Netherlands. I visited Amsterdam many years ago, but the only moderately clear food-related memory of that visit revolves around our late-evening arrival. We disembarked the ferry from England and went immediately looking for our hotel. Once there, we sought food. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I seem to recall there were few options available to us nearby. We opted to try the only Tex-Mex restaurant we saw in Holland. It was, in a word, horrid. After that, though, I’m confident we enjoyed decent Dutch meals though, in all honesty, I do not recall what they might have been. All the aforementioned notwithstanding, I have an inexplicable interest in Dutch food this morning. So, I asked Father Google to tell me stories of Dutch meals. He willingly complied, waxing poetic about bitterballen and raw herring and kibbeling and stamppot.

Bitterballen are small round meatball croquettes. Bitterballen comprise one of many mostly-fried snack foods that, collectively, are called bittergarnituur. Bittergarnitur platters typically contain pieces of Gouda cheese, tiny eggrolls, slices of salami, various meatballs, and of course that very special meatball croquet, bitterballen. I have, of course, found multiple recipes for bitterballen, an indication that I will be making the dish before long. According to what I’ve read, bitterballen are the perfect accompaniments to gin and beer; that little tidbit gives me cause to plan not only a meal, but an event!

Though I like the idea of raw herring, I think the likelihood of finding fresh-caught herring in and around central Arkansas is slim to nil. Despite the fact that June ushers in herring season in the Netherlands, June simply attracts oppressive heat in Arkansas. So, I’ll skip raw herring for now. But stamppot, now that will get my attention. I learned that stamppot is a generic term that applies to almost any textured purée made of vegetables. I found one recipe that looks and sounds sufficiently intriguing that I want to try it before long. It calls for six to eight large potatoes, a head of escarole endive sliced into half-inch strips, and salt. Once cooked and mashed, the endive is mixed with the mashed potatoes. Separately, a sauce is made from salt pork, buttermilk, and flour and then poured over the stamppot. This particular recipe is called foeksandijvie.

Oh, about the kibbeling. It is a dish made by frying small pieces of spiced white fish, such as cod, and serving with a dipping sauce of mayonnaise, chopped capers, dill pickle, and fresh chopped parsley. I must try this. Soon. Today would be good, except for the fact that my favorite wife has planned menus for today and the rest of the week. But soon.

I should, for my own recollection as well as to acknowledge the source of some of my knowledge, mention that The Dutch Table was one of the sources I found useful in my quest this morning.

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The humid morning air, so thick with moisture that light cannot find a clear path in the mist, presents a challenge to flying creatures. Insects’ wings, laden with dew, struggle to give them flight. Birds opt to sit on water-logged branches rather than attempt to swim through the air. The wind has given up its attempts to ruffle leaves on the trees. There’s no room for air to move among the water molecules filling the empty spaces of morning. Fog enshrouds this little piece of the world in a blanket of lethargy. Grey is everywhere. Gutters and downspouts gurgle with slow-moving streams of wet daylight struggling to escape, struggling to illuminate the ground beneath the grey sky. But there’s no sky, not here. Sky is up there, higher, not so close it could drown you in a breath; this grey morning air is a low ceiling of oppression, too close to be called sky.

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Bidding for Worship

Listen carefully to the voice in your head. Listen to its tenor and timbre as it urges you to consider or reconsider aspects of your life you thought had long since been settled. You may not even hear it if you’ve closed your mind to transformative change. If you have accepted raw imperfection and an aching in your heart that will never diminish, you may not want to open your heart to possibilities.

If you’ve accepted a path riddled with  sharp thorns and stones—and holes that will only sprain your ankles—perhaps you would rather not listen to the pleas of that voice. But if you’re ready to fight hard against a lifetime of treading the same painful path—if you’re willing to risk broken bones as you jump forward in pursuit of a new route to relevance—you must listen to that voice. You must give it the freedom to speak out, ever louder, and to to call to you to reach for impossibly hard and distant dreams.

I am not here to tell you to go in one direction or another. But I caution you: if you decide today to stay with the endless path of dissatisfaction you follow, you will never again be given the opportunity to follow a new road. Today, you must decide to either reach for all life can offer or settle for what will surely be a growing aching in your gut, telling you you’ve missed the point of living. If you make no decision today, you will have made an irrevocable decision; the decision to fester and wither and sink deeper and deeper into a quagmire from which there is no escape. The choice is yours.

With those words, “Reverend” Stratford Cole submitted his bid for the lives of people who would either become his followers or enemies he would dispatch in order to protect his growing power and material wealth.

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A Fusion of Fact and Fantasy

Last night’s HSV Open Mic Night had the largest attendance, by far, of any held to date: 152 people in the audience. Last night’s performances were eclectic. Banjo, acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar, viola, violin, conga, bongos, trombone, spoken word poetry, harmonica. The music mix was just as diverse: country, folk, classical, hard rock. And the people, both audience and performers, ran the gamut from very young to very old, rock “groupie” to folk aficionado, country fan to student of classical, conservative to progressive (I discerned political bent from my biased perspective and not through overt observation). I was pleased with the event, though I can’t really take responsibility for it. The performers, after all, were self-selected volunteers with the exception of the feature performer (an incredibly talented guitarist who brought a singer/conga player to accompany him) and a string trio, who I invited. But I take some pride in it, regardless, because I got the word out and encouraged involvement.

As I think of the characters on stage last night, it occurs to me that I could use them (or my interpretation of them) in my writing. I could (and probably will) craft histories surrounding them: their backgrounds, their motivations for their music or other expression, their attitudes and ideas about life. For example, the duo of two aging artists who rocked the house by playing White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane give me fodder for a story in which country roots and southern racist culture clash with 1960s and 1970s progressive and left-wing rebellion, creating an odd mix of  chauvinism and tolerance. Mind you, I have no idea whether the story would have even a kernel of truth or parallel with the players; it’s my mind taking a close-up snapshot of a flower and using the photo as a model from which to paint a landscape of a mountain range.

Listening to some of the musicians’ self-deprecating comments, warning the audience not to expect much, was at once endearing and heart-breaking. Every person on stage last night had more musical or lyrical talent on display in a few minutes than I could display in a lifetime, yet many of them felt compelled to call attention to what they saw as their inadequacies. That’s painful to watch. That, in and of itself, is the stuff of literature, literature that mines the complexities of the human psyche.

I got off track, didn’t I? I intended to touch on some of the characters I might create from last night’s performers. All right, back to the track. The talented middle school student who sang and played piano and guitar could serve as a model of a young woman who is nurturing a dream of stardom. As the story unfolds in my head, I see her exhibit a single-minded focus that’s rare in someone so young; she wants not only to develop her talent to the fullest, she wants to share it on the world’s stage. But as she matures—physically, emotionally, and musically—she becomes skeptical of fame and stardom. Instead, she finds fulfillment in using her talents to call attention to the plight of the less fortunate, becoming, for lack of a better comparison, the Joan Baez for her age. The altruism that drives her, though, conflicts with the almost unavoidable financial riches her talents deliver to her. Her torment resolves when she comes to grip with one painful truth: the world is not a fair place, but only by pursuing the impossible dream of fairness does it become tolerable.

Following a theme similar to the one that emerged from my thoughts about the young musician, I consider the people behind the intersection between jazz and poetry. The musician, a man whose life has taken him from poverty to riches and back again many times over, struggles to define which experience had the greatest impact on defining who he is at his core. Whenever he find himself at a crossroads, emotionally, in that search for self, he returns to music. The poet, a retired senior-level government diplomat, yearns to forget a lifetime that, in retrospect, has been an empty vessel into which is poured and emptied repeatedly an elixir designed for political gain. She seeks meaning outside her career, which she now sees as hollow and meaningless. Through their unique mix of music and message, the musician and the poet feed one another the energy they need to explore what’s missing from their lives. Neither realizes the power of symbiosis until they achieve, separately, what they could accomplish only by sharing music and message together.

The members of the string trio are sisters who pursue classical music in homage to their father, a brilliant composer who died in a hotel fire in Luxembourg when they were young children. His death devastates their mother. In an effort to keep his memory and his music alive, she insisted that the three sisters learn to play stringed instruments which formed the core of their father’s classical compositions. For years, she had them practice—day after day after day—an unfinished symphony her husband was writing at the time of his death. Her aim, though neither she nor the children knew it at the time, was for the unfinished piece to be completed. She believed, unconsciously, that at some point her daughters would continue playing beyond the notes written by her husband, filling in the emptiness he left with his unfinished piece. At the mother’s insistence, the three sisters—by now adults with children of their own—play a concert of his music. The last piece they play is their fathers’ unfinished piece. But when they reach the last note he wrote, they continue playing until the piece their father was writing comes to a thunderous conclusion, prompting the audience to rise in applause and the mother to finally achieve a moment of peace before her death, just seconds after they play the final.

The rest of the performers could just as easily stoke the fires of creativity, as could every member of the audience. I could make up stories for every one of them. But would I finish the stories? Only the rest of time will tell.


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Thinking Aloud with my Fingers

I bounce from project to project, finishing the occasional endeavor if it’s especially short and requires little patience. It occurs to me that, if I were able to transfer the energy expended in one hundred unfinished projects into just a few important ones, I might well be living in a spectacularly well-appointed home with a lovely, productive garden. I might have a superb workshop, drive a gleaming car, and have a dozen novels under my belt. I just can’t seem to sit still long enough to get anything of consequence done. I lose interest. No, that’s not it; I don’t lose interest, I lose drive. I still have the interest, but I lose the initiative, the purpose, the…DRIVE. That’s it. I want to finish, but not badly enough to invest the effort. When I start, I’m gung-ho. And then something else attracts my attention and my energy. It’s simply a lack of discipline. That’s what it is.

I wonder how I managed to keep my clients happy. I wonder how I managed to stay employed. Have I always been this distracted? I suppose so. But until several years ago, I managed to force myself to plug along. I think that—forcing myself to plug along—may have been what drove me absolutely over the edge and made me decide to shut down the business, sell the assets, and “take a sabbatical.” I actually did intend to return to earning a living. But even that idea and the dozens of possibilities I explored got old and unattractive in short order. I’ve said I want to start a business of one kind or another, but I don’t want to run it once it’s up and operating. The operations and management aspect of business is boring in the extreme; it’s the launch and the scramble to make a go of it in the early stages that’s appealing. Beyond that, it’s dull. And dulling.

One of my less ambitious projects, HSV Open Mic Night, has become another distraction in need of offloading. When I began, I was enthusiastic. I still enjoy it. But I have absolutely no interest in continuing to orchestrate it every few months. It’s not like it requires exceptional efforts; it doesn’t. But I have grown tired of the novelty, I guess. I’m looking for someone else to take it over. Maybe that’s the same tactic I should use with my writing (and my house projects and my painting and my gardening, etc., etc.): look for someone to finish what I began. Hmm, here’s something to consider: I write far enough into a story to begin to develop an interesting plot and some intriguing characters; then, someone else takes over, supplementing my draft and working it over until a complete story emerges.  Meh. No, I don’t think that would go anywhere. It’s not unlike the idea of tearing off part of my deck and then offering others the opportunity to finish it because “it will be fun!” But maybe I can wiggle my way out of Open Mic Night that way; someone is bound to find it interesting. It is. It’s just no longer particularly interesting to me.

The idea of losing interest in projects, activities, endeavors, etc., etc. doesn’t seem so sinister until one considers other aspects of one’s life. Losing interest in one’s spouse, children, friends, et al to the extend that one might consider abandoning them would be viewed as evidence of lapses in morality or worse. At what point do commitments between people and projects and activities, and the loss thereof, blur toward indistinctness? Does the inability to maintain full commitment to endeavors that once meant a great deal offer clues to one’s moral fiber? Does the capacity to lose interest in something once so important suggest the same thing might happen with family and friends? These are scary thoughts, though I realize I may be over thinking the relationship between what could be symptoms of AADHD and one’s core decency as a human being.

Looking back at the preceding paragraphs, I must say I take great pride. Pride in my ability to finish several paragraphs that include complex sentences. Sentences that contain ideas that relate to one another, though in some cases only tangentially. But is this post really finished? Maybe not, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s done. My focus now moves on to a fresh cup of coffee and pumpernickel toast.

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Distant Designs

Lina awakened me. I felt her two fingers tiptoe up and down my back, one on each side of my spine. She tread gently at first. With restrained but increasing pressure, she ensured that I was aware of her presence. When she was sure I was awake, she gently massaged the base of my skull, just above my neck. I rolled over to look at the clock. Eight-thirty already; I’d overslept. Normally, she would have roused me from my slumbers two hours earlier, but she must have known how badly I needed the extra sleep. I put my hands on her shoulders and began to rub them, but she squirmed a bit, her way of saying “not now.”

“Ah,” I said to myself, “she must be in a meeting. Sometimes her meetings run a bit long.”

That’s one of the problems with living nine time zones apart. Aside from the lack of a traditional affectionate relationship, distance removes the typical physical elements of one’s interactions. Though I consider myself quite progressive and receptive to concepts that challenge my knowledge of and experience with the world, Lina exceeds my receptivity. She actively embraces ideas I find, or found, very hard to swallow. Psychokinetic physicality, for example. That’s how we touch one another. I live in a 1940s ranch in suburban Omaha, Nebraska. Lina lives in a mid-century modern near Sörfjärden that backs up to the water in the Swedish municipality of Nordanstans. She has lived on or near the Bothnian Sea her entire life. I don’t know how long that is, though. I’ve never asked her age. I assume she is younger than I, but I can’t put my finger on just why I think that’s the case. Perhaps it’s because she seems so open to ideas I find hard to accept.

I met Lina through an online forum. I stumbled upon it as I explored means of euthanasia. My eldest great uncle, Uncle Scrawl Lee, was in horrific pain, around the clock. His mouth cancer had spread throughout his body and there was no possibility of cure or even remission. Uncle Scrawl had lived with me for five years. During those years, his body failed him and I found myself spending more and more time trying to make him comfortable as his body shut down. His pain affected me. Nothing seemed to diminish it. Not morphine, not sleeping pills, nothing. I felt obliged to find a way to allow him to rid himself of the agony.

When Uncle Scrawl could still talk and be easily understood, he had said, “Clap, if I am in excruciating pain and there’s nothing to be done, please find a way to end it for me. Be merciful, I beg you. Taking my life will be the most generous gift you could possibly give me.”

I had to do the research surreptitiously, inasmuch as euthanasia is considered blasphemy and a sin against God in Omaha. So I conducted my online searches from a public computer in an Omaha public library. That’s where I met Lina. She had written in a euthanasia forum that her mother had requested euthanasia when the pain of her disease became too much.

In a private message Lina sent from the forum, she explained it to me.

“Swedish doctors generally refuse to participate in euthanasia, but the practice is not illegal. I had to find someone to assist. I found a woman who said she could use telekinetic practices to anesthetize my mother and then simply telekinetically squeeze certain arteries and blood vessels to restrict the flow of blood to her brain. She said the process would painlessly lead to my mother’s death. And it worked. That’s when I became intrigued by telekinetic physicality.”

I was skeptical at first, but Lina talked me through it. “Clap, I’ve told you. With my mother, it was absolutely painless. It will be so with your uncle. If you sense even a modicum of pain in him, I will stop instantly. You will be in total control.”

Her soothing words and absolute assurances assuaged my doubts and my fears. When the  time came, she did the work.

“Uncle Scrawl,” Lina said via video Skype, “I want to be sure you are certain. Do you want to slip away from this pain? All of it?”

I had explained the process to Uncle Scrawl.

“Yes, Lina, I want to go. Please, do it quickly.” He spoke clearly and with conviction, despite difficulty speaking.

“You understand, Uncle Scrawl, this is permanent. It is irrevocable. Once you’re gone, it is over. You will be dead.” Lina peered intently at Uncle Scrawl, waiting for his answer.

“I understand. I am ready to die. Do it, Lina. Clap, you’re a good lad. Thank you for helping me. This is, truly is, your most generous gift.”

It was as if she scheduled his death for a specific time on the clock. There was no outward evidence that anything was happening, Uncle Scrawl simply slipped away while Lina peered at her screen in Sweden.

Though I witnessed it first-hand, I remained skeptical. “Lina, if you were able to control this telekinetically, why did you need the Skype link?”

“It wasn’t for me. It was for him. It was for him to know someone he considered professional was there, looking at him, helping him. He would have considered you a little too close. Even though he asked you. I just know that’s how it is.”

“Could you have done it without seeing him?” I remained skeptical.

“Of course, Clap. It would have been the same. The only difference would have been that he would not have had the opportunity to actively participate. I feel obliged to let the recipient engage, if they can and they wish.” Lina’s words reinforced my sense of her; I considered her something akin to a saint.

That morning she awakened me two hours late, it didn’t occur to me psychokinetic expression could be used not only as a means of intimacy and humanity but as a means of control. It could be used, I discovered later, as a means of accumulating power and money and, when a person became too annoying to tolerate any longer, murder. That wasn’t the case with Uncle Scrawl. But I decided it may have been the case with a rich tycoon whose death left Lina several million dollars richer.  I knew nothing of him until I read the paper twelve weeks after his death:

The last will and testament of Carbon Steel, the mayonnaise magnet who died suddenly three months ago, leaves the bulk of his estate to Lina Lindström, an expert in criminal forensics, living in Sörfjärden Sweden. Ms. Lindström, when reached about the surprise inheritance, expressed shock and surprise, saying, “Oh, my, I did not even know Mr. Steel. The only time I communicated with him was following his mother’s fall, when she broke her hip. I offered my condolences and my advice and counsel.


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Ode to Edward

A is for Arnold who choked on his ego.

B is for Barney killed in Oswego.

C is for Carmen who fell off a bridge.

D is for Dennis who got locked in a fridge.

E is for Everett burned up in smoke.

F is for Felicia whose skull shattered and broke.

G is for Garret who stabbed himself twice.

H is for Hortense who was frozen in ice.

I is for Isaac, impaled on a spear.

J is for Jackie who died of stark fear.

K is for Karla who drowned in a bowl.

L is for Lawrence who fell into a hole.

M is for Mary who choked on fish bones.

N is for Norman, crushed by pine cones.

O is for Opal who dissolved in hot caustic.

P is for Paul, murdered by an agnostic.

Q is for Quincy who perished at sea.

R is for Russell who fell from a tree.

S is for Susan smothered by birds.

T is for Terry who inhaled some cheese curds.

U is for Ursula, stabbed in a bar.

V is for Violet who was hit by a car.

W is for Warren buried in asphalt.

X is for Xavier who died in an assault.

Y is for Yasmin who succumbed to a cough.

Z is for Zander  whose head was cut off.

[With apologies to, and deep admiration for, Edward Gorey and his The Gashlycrumb Tinies.]



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