Insubstantiate

The clouds mock
my limited understanding
of fluid dynamics
Twisting vortices
of smoky tendrils
dancing on this windy day

In my backyard
in dramatic fashion
the clouds tumble over my roof
I swear they’re just overhead
I could get on that ladder
the clouds would envelope me
and I would disappear

I remember seeing shapes
when I was younger
in the clouds
I remember animals fantastic
mundane or cartoonish
Now I see fractals
milk in my coffee
and the chance of rain

My head was in there once
dreams of futures
where I commanded fortune
The clouds are barely above my head now
just above the rooftop
I swear they’re just overhead
and I am just six feet off the ground

Song XXIX

Fizzy pop soda
Bubbly bottled brew
Shaken and stressed
Harassed and gassed
With pressure built for two

Rumbly dark cola
Tension twisted too
The cap stays on
With the anger gone
But the bottle’s bursted through

There is no use
no deposit
no excuse
for a bottle bursted through

A month for poetry

October is my favorite month. It’s full of orange and decay and warm spice. We begin to hunker down and get ready to spend time with far-away relatives. It’s a month of poetry and bitter-sweet memories.

To celebrate, I was thinking of writing a poem every day for the month. I tend to peter out of these things, but, you know, I’m forty, it’s about time I followed through with something, what else am I going to do, blah, blah. It’s just some words that take almost no time to put out there. And at the end of the month, I’ll have written half-again of all the poems I’ve written in my life.

So looking forward, I’m going to repost a poem I wrote long ago for this October-eve. It was, of course, written for a lost love and has not aged as well as some of the poems I wrote that had nothing to do with women. Such is life. But this was the first poem that had a cadence that I would unconsciously refine into something a bit sharper, a bit less morose, and a bit more universal. From 1997:

October—and the Sound of It

and I cannot fight this wind
    Our bond breaks
I am gone
separated from the branch
and spiraling down beneath the sky
the world rushes up towards me
and twisting and turning through the breeze
I’m sure that this is the end
but then I land
    Alone
    Soon to be gathered up
and placed within the safety of numbers

This is my fall
    My Autumn
This is my October

remember laughing with me
    About the silly things
    That some considered important
remember holding my hand
    Watching the fire burn in my heart
    And the dying light within my eyes
this is what Fate meant
    For what I let happen
I did not fight that wind

That was my fall
    My Autumn
That was my October

  What causes the Earth to rumble
        is often
            the stillness
                of nothing…

Value Added

The discovery of a possible diamond planet got me thinking. What is more valuable, a planet made of diamond or a planet full of wood? A planet made of gold or a planet made of molybdenum? A planet filled with jewels or a planet where we could grow rice?

The answers, I think, are obvious. So why do we think that gold and diamonds and jewels are intrinsically valuable here? Gold and diamonds do have industrial applications, so there is some small amount of practical worth, maybe on the same level as copper and graphite, but they’re both artificially kept scarce making us believe that they have value in and of themselves. And really, if a huge hunk of gold rock was found in space, would it be worth anything to go and get it?

Minds are made for changing

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were watching Bones and the main character, a scientist, said something that stunned me. I have to paraphrase, but the gist, “I’m a scientist, I can’t just change my mind.”

I cried out, when I heard it. Listen, scientists are people, too, and can be as stubborn as anyone, but the phrase was such that any scientist who said it would have immediately backed away from the totality of the statement. Scientists have to be able to change their minds. Anyone who has a sense of curiosity, who relishes discovery, is going to be able to change his or her mind.

Another aspect of that is accepting that some belief, long held, is incorrect. I argue my position, but if I’m given new information that changes my opinion, I’m much more fulfilled. I’m stubborn and seem intransigent, but learning something new is how I grow.

Over the holidays, Jennifer, my sister-in-law, said that The Beatles sing “Frere Jacques” in the song “Paperback Writer.” I disagreed, and we played the song. I’ve listened to it at least 30 times in the past 10 years. I’ve known “Paperback Writer” all my life. No way would that have escaped my notice. Sure enough, George and John are harmonizing “Frere Jacques” (clearer on one channel of the stereo). I was thrilled beyond belief. I was happy to be wrong.

There’s part of the human condition that prevents us to admit that we’re wrong. It’s a problem, though. Sometimes, we have the truth in front of us, and we still deny it. I hope I never lose the joy of discovering truths and changing my mind.

The Flat Earth Society

When I look at the sun setting, I don’t think the sun is actually moving; although, from my point of reference it may look that way. But knowing that Earth revolves around the sun and that the Earth, itself, rotates, I’ve long-since conditioned my mind to reason that when I see the sun setting, I’m seeing my little section of the Earth rotate into it’s own shadow.

It’s easy to understand in hindsight. I don’t blame the ancients for getting it wrong, but once the mechanism is understood, it sure is a lot easier to understand things like seasons and shorter or longer periods of daylight (the angle of the Earth to the sun), eclipses (bodies entering shadows cast by other bodies), and the movement of other planets (each revolves at a specific speed, and when Earth ‘passes’ the other planet, it looks like that planet is moving backwards in the night sky).

The ancients had all sorts of explanations for all of this, but they were just claptrap. Actually, some Chinese and Greeks figured it out millennia ago, but the common wisdom remained, by definition, more popular.

What continues to bother me though is that the ancients thought the world was flat. I know this is not true. The evidence for it not being flat was all over the place. I can buy that very few people had any idea how large of a ball we were on. (Columbus’s big idea wasn’t that the world was round, but that the round world was much smaller than commonly thought. He was terribly wrong in his calculations, assuming that when he landed in the Caribbean he was actually in India. Hence West Indies. Hence Indians.) But that anyone other than some backwater hermit thought that the world was flat was just not paying attention to anything.

Scientifically, it was easy to prove with shadows. The Greek, Eratosthenes, took measurements of two pillars and their shadows at known times in two different parts of the world. Using a new field of mathematics called Trigonometry, he computed the circumference of the world. Circumference, by the way, implies roundness.

The ancient world was dominated by trade and conquest. Much of this trade and conquest moved over huge portions of land or sea. Any explorer knew that the edge of the world was just an illusion. There was always something waiting over the horizon. Anecdotally, everyone knew the world was round.

By example, they knew the Earth was round. By looking at the phases of the moon, anyone can clearly see it’s a sphere, not a circle. If one were to take a flat plate, and try to mimic the phases with a light source, he would be disappointed as there would be no shadow until the light source moved completely behind the plate. It takes a sphere to produce those shadows. And the ancients, watchers of the sky, would have seen the shadow of the Earth cast in its own sky creeping along in twilight until it enveloped the heavens. That creeping shadow implies a curved edge, not the hard edge of a flat plate.

We can still see that shadow, on clear nights, but it’s difficult to notice, and, by the time I think of it, it’s already nightfall.

The evidence was all over the place. The ancients knew the world wasn’t flat. Why do we think they did?

I think of this when I hear people talk about what is commonly known, what everyone believes. How can millions of individuals know something, but it will invariably come out wrong when everyone believes it’s opposite? The world wasn’t flat, no one believed that it was, but somehow everyone thought it was flat. The political and social world of today is filled with this magical thinking. No one I know believes any of it. And yet everyone believes it.

The way to end this is to stop–not only to stop believing in the common wisdom, but to also stop believing there is a common wisdom. The people selling it are people who are selling us things that we wouldn’t buy unless we thought our peers were buying it too. This is in all things, physical and intangible. Consider that any idea that everyone believes is not to be trusted, look for it’s faults, break it into smaller pieces, and form your own opinion. In this time of the fractured media landscape, the remaining gatekeepers are desperate and determined to hold onto any group of believers that they manufacture. We don’t have to assist them by aligning with them.

Nothing but random

A yellow plastic tie shaped into a closed circle sits around the nose of ceramic Sylvester cat flower pot.

I have one superpower—incredible, random aim. Year ago, I threw a small rock across the Sunrise Highway Service Road and beaned my friend on the other side on the top of head. I wasn’t particularly aiming at him, and I was throwing the rock in a long arc. I was mocking him, as he was going home, probably saying something like, “Fine, go home, loser,” or whatever nonsense I was apt to spout back then. There was absolutely no intention of hitting him. But it clocked him right on top of his noggin. He was fine. It was a small rock under the influence of gravity only, because of the arc. But it shook me more than him. If I was aiming for the top of his head, I never would have hit him.

A yellow plastic tie shaped into a closed circle sits around the nose of ceramic Sylvester cat flower pot.This odd, eerie power continues to this day. I just casually tossed a cat toy from a set of stairs in the back of my living room. I threw it so it would arc over beam overhead, and land on the ground. I often throw in large arcs so the cats get more excited when it lands. They seem to be impressed by toys that travel greater distances. At any rate, the toy (really just a hoop of plastic) landed on the nose of ceramic Sylvester flower pot. At a carnival, I would have just won a medium or larger prize. It was a fantastic throw that I would never be able to duplicate again, nor would I have managed to land it intentionally.

So remember, if you want me to never hit you with something, have me aim directly for you. But if I’m randomly throwing something in the air, duck and cover.

It’s Alphabetic

Huh. I was going to post that I wanted to get two of ABC’s albums with “The Look of Love,” “How to Be a Millionare,” and “Poison Arrow.” I think these are on two different albums if I remember my 80s vinyl correctly. But not only are those albums not available on CD, but the songs themselves are only available as best-of collections as MP3s.

Now, ABC wasn’t known for their album-oriented rock, so I really shouldn’t have a problem buying a best-of and that’s that, but, boy, is that going to be the toughest thing to give up in our post-album world. It’s not the loss of the artwork or liner notes, which enterprising distributors are bringing back. It’s not the loss of cohesion within a group of songs, since it looks like a lot of artists are still grouping songs to release at once.

No, it’s hitting me hardest that I can’t remain smug when I, as a real fan, purchase albums and scoff at the fair-weather fans who purchase best-ofs and think they know anything about the band or the music they’re listening to. I want my high-horse back!

I answer questions

Facebook has a recently-added question area. Normally, I avoid answering the questions because many seem–well–they seem sketchy. Complete strangers asking each other about God’s existence and whether or not women who dress provocatively deserve harassment seems designed to just get on people’s nerves. But the pedagogue in me sometimes can’t resist. (And the feminist in me couldn’t resist answering the latter question with: Fuck men who think they can ever harass women.)

One question popped up which lead me to this little rant. I figure my long-suffering readers shouldn’t miss out on yet more of my brilliance, just because they’re not going to read my scintillating answers on Facebook. So, I’m republishing my answer here.

The question was: Why are unhealthy foods so tasty?

My answer follows: Because big companies spend lots of money on research to make it that way.

Which big companies? Well, your McDonalds and Kraft Foods, sure, but also companies like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto–companies that are supposed to be in the agriculture business, but instead spend tremendous amounts of money making sure that their main products (corn and soybeans) can be used to replace any other foodstuff.

Let’s face it. Most of the foods we eat don’t resemble anything that came from an animal or grew in the ground. To do that in an efficient, mass-production way, we need cheap, readily available ingredients. So maybe corn isn’t what you expect in ice cream, or maybe you thought you had to order a soy-burger to actually get soy in your burger. Well, it’s in the beef one, too.

They’ve taken corn and soy and seaweed and sometimes just plain chemicals and combined them, reduced them, steamed them, whatever, to approximate what is missing from mass-produced foods.

In doing so, they’ve distilled the flavors to the point where (and this is true) McDonalds adds a French-fry flavor to it’s French fries. McDonalds will say it is for consistency, but a side-benefit is that it makes food we all like to eat taste MORE like the foods we like to eat. Therefore, there is no incentive for food production companies to add better ingredients, just more flavorings of the food we like to cheaper and cheaper ingredients.

So here’s something for all of us. We can totally train our taste buds. We can eat things with less sugar and less salt and actually enjoy it. I’m not telling anyone to eat organic or stop using butter–if you saw me in person, you’d know I’m a person who enjoys more than my share of butter. What I am saying is that we can eat healthier as soon as we stop to taste things. Fat isn’t a problem; sugar isn’t a problem; salt isn’t a problem–in moderation. But companies selling us prepared foods don’t have time to hit us with subtleties. They fire fat-sugar-salt! all at once and hit all our pleasure centers.

Beer and Cheese Potato Soup

Update: 2 lbs of potatoes, not 3! My apologies for the typo.

I make a lot of food off the cuff and rarely write down recipes of what I make, even if I really like it, because I know that I can get close to what I made last time, and I don’t like repetition. But sometimes, usually with soups or baked products, repetition is key, and not writing down something delicious means never quite getting it right again.

This is one I wanted to save. So I’m going to write down the straight recipe, and we can all have it and be done with it. But after the recipe, I’m going to share the story of the recipe. It may or may not help others make a better dish, but I find it interesting to reflect on what decisions I made to get to a point where I’d want to write it down.

Beer and Cheese Potato Soup

2 lbs. of potatoes, waxy, skin on, large dice (e.g., red, new, yukon gold)
2 12oz containers of beer, lager (e.g. Budweiser, Yuengling, Miller)

1 qt stock (e.g. chicken, vegetable)
1 Tbs salt

2 Tbs olive oil
½ large onion, chopped (about ½ cup)
4 oz smoked meat, frozen, chopped (e.g. Irish bacon, turkey bacon, ham)
1 clove garlic, chopped
¼ tsp thyme, dried
1 Tbs paprika
½ tsp caraway seed
¼ tsp mustard seed, yellow, whole
¼ cup flour

8 oz of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 oz sour cream
4 oz milk or cream or combo

½ cup parsley, fresh, chopped
¼ cup chive, fresh, chopped
to taste, ground black pepper

In large pot (that holds 3 qts. or more), put potatoes, beer, and 1 tsp salt and heat. The starch in the potatoes and the protein in beer will form a frothy head as it heats. Do not let it boil over. When liquid is boiling, turn down heat and let simmer for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat oil over medium high heat and add onions with a dash of salt (from the 1 Tbs). When onions begin to turn color, add diced meat, and stir to prevent burning. When the meat begins to sizzle, add dried thyme, paprika, caraway, and mustard seed. After onions begin to soften, usually 5 minutes or so, add garlic and turn heat down a touch to medium. Do not let garlic burn. When garlic has begun to release its aromatic oils, usually in a minute or two, turn heat down to low and stir in flour. As flour combines and slightly darkens, keep on heat for 3 minutes. Do not let flour get too dark. Add a cup of stock, and stir to smooth out lumps of flour. If mixture is still too lumpy here, continue to add stock and stir. Add another dash of salt and remove from heat.

Check potatoes with a fork. If the fork can pierce the potato, it’s done. Add remaining stock, turn up heat, and bring to a slow boil. Turn heat down to medium, add cheese, and stir quickly to prevent the cheese from coagulating. Once cheese is combined, add sour cream and onion/meat mixture. As soup heats, it will thicken. Turn off heat just as soup begins to bubble, and add parsley, chives, and black pepper. Add just enough milk or cream to lighten color and smooth out soup. Taste and add remaining salt and/or milk as needed.


Here’s some of the thinking that went behind this soup. I usually cook potatoes in the soup-stock or even separately, if I’m worried about the release of starch, but I’ve heard some talk about how alcohol actually changes some of the starch’s composition, and I wanted to see how the potatoes cooked in the beer. Amazingly well, it turns out. Above in the recipe, I say that the potatoes should cook for 20 minutes, but I have no idea how long I had them on the heat. It was longer for twenty minutes. With just water and salt, the potatoes would have broken down into mush. In this case, the alcohol was just taking the starch that the potatoes released and combined it into a funky puff of scum on top of the liquid. It didn’t look too good, but I happen to know from experience, it tastes good. Don’t be squeamish and skim it off.

Why skin on? The potatoes hold together a bit better with skin on, and the waxy potatoes have a nice tender skin when cooked. The skin is the only real action as far as flavor and nutrition in a potato, too, so wash the damned things and keep them on.

Large dice? Yeah, a little secret. It doesn’t make a lick of difference what size you cut your potatoes as long as they are consistent with each other. Make them teenie-tiny, if you want, or keep the buggers whole. Whatever. Cut them the way you like to see them in your spoon, and keep them all about the same size. They’ll cook at the same rate if they’re the same size. Anything else is pure preference. I like large chunks of vegetables in my soup, so my large dice is going to be your hunka-chunk, but go ahead and spend the time to make them all 1cm cubes, if you wish. Keep in mind though, since we’re keeping the skin on, cutting them roughly into wedges keeps some skin on almost every piece, so again, since we’re going for consistency, a rough chop is they way to go.


With the potatoes kind of taking care of themselves, let’s move on the the smoked meat. Why don’t I just say bacon, if that’s what I mean? Well, I don’t eat bacon, as a general rule, so most of my recipes aren’t ever going to call for it. But I do eat turkey bacon, which, in consistency and fat content, is closer to back bacon (aka Irish or Canadian bacon), because it’s meaty rather than fatty. Regular bacon is going to taste great, of course, but it’s also going to get rather crispy with this high-heat method of cooking. I found the tiny slices of meat added a nice heartiness, whereas bits of crunchy bacon would have reduced the smooth, relaxed nature of the soup. But hey, it’s now your soup, too, so if you want the bacon-flavor that only bacon can bring (and I freely admit that there is only one thing that tastes as good as bacon…), go ahead and cut some bacony-bacon in there. Bacon.

Why frozen? Dude, it’s so much easier to cut! Have you tried this? You gotta try this. Take your 4oz of bacon and freeze it. Take it out of the freezer just a couple of minutes before you’re going to cut it. Now, with it not quite frozen solid, cut the bacon slab in half. Cut strips down the long way of the bacon and then cut perpendicular to that to dice it. Did you see how that took you like 3 seconds to cut? C’mon! How easy was that?


If you’re really good, you’re wondering why we started with olive oil and onions, instead of cooking the bacon first and using the oil from that. Oh, you are good. But listen, smarty-pants, I don’t use your fatty-fat bacon. So I needed to add fat, first. But even if I were using regular fatty-fat bacon, I’d cook it this way. Why? Because of the flour we add to mixture at the end. Some of you know that’s called a roux–adding flour to fat and letting it combine into a gummy ball. That gummy ball thickens the soup, the mechanics of which fascinate me no end.

Normally, water and flour will make delicious, kid-friendly paste. It’ll be sticky and lumpy, and the hotter the water is the larger the lumps will be, because the energetic water will combine with the gluten in the flour and form a gooey protein shell that is difficult to break down. If the water is cool, the proteins don’t combine, and we can make a slurry, which can also help thicken a soup. But in the case of a roux, we give ourselves and insurance plan against lumps. By coating all the flour molecules in fat, we prevent the gluten coming together too quickly. As the fat surrounding the flour dissolves into the hot water, the sugar, amylopectin, in the flour unravels at a relatively stable pace, and it thickens the soup. Like magic! Roux taste better than flour slurries, too.


Regarding the stock used: My wife and I will make our own chicken stock from a chicken carcass and some root vegetables every now and then, but in an emergency, I highly recommend Knorr bouillon cubes. They’re not those hard salt licks in the foil wrappers in that small plastic cylinder. These are softer and actually taste like the stock in question. Each cube will make two cups, so you’d need two cubes for this recipe. But these also make great drop-ins for things like rice or couscous. And the vegetable stock bouillon cube is actually vegetarian. While chicken stocks aren’t too difficult to make at home, a decent vegetable stock is a pain. Having these inexpensive bouillon cubes around make it a breeze to make a tasty vegetarian dish without sneaking in some chicken stock. With this particular soup, the important aspect of the stock is that it’s relatively light and clear. So, while the vegetable stock that the Knorr bouillon cube makes would work well in this, I wouldn’t use a tomato- or squash-based vegetable stock.

If you use canned stock, get low sodium.


The spices and herbs used are all personal preference. I use thyme in almost all my chicken-stock based soups. A bay leaf wouldn’t be bad. Marjoram or oregano would add an unique kick, and rosemary works well with potato soups. Because I used a white cheddar, I added paprika, which adds so little flavor, but acts as a quick coloring agent. The mustard seeds and caraway are definitely strong flavors, and give the soup a Germanic feel, but the soup would be killer without them, too. Parsley and chives at the end give a nice fresh balance to something that was cooked for a long time, but aren’t deal breakers if they’re not available. Dried chives would work well if added about 10 minutes before removing from the heat, but don’t bother with something like dried parsley–by the time it rehydrates, it’ll just be more brown in a brown soup, and won’t add any freshness or flavor.


A note on beer: There is a general rule of thumb for using wine in cooking. If you wouldn’t drink it, it shouldn’t go into your food. This isn’t a bad rule, and with white wines, I think it’s imperative. I’ve gotten away with using some slightly oxidized reds in tomato-based dishes, though. Ah, but that’s not the point here. The point here is cheap beer works perfectly in this soup–beers that I don’t drink. This isn’t to say you should throw Bud Light Lime in this soup. That would be bad. But if there are two cans of Natty Ice that are just rotting away in the corner of your pantry–I know, it was brought over by the friend of your cousin. It’s okay, I’m not judging you by your beer leftovers–add them to the soup. The more “American” lager-y the better–cheap hops and adjuncts welcome–because when cooked, these beers turn sweet. A more complex beer has more complex flavors that turn any which way (read:bitter) after cooking. In this particular batch, I used Yuengling, which cooks down particularly sweetly.


Shred your cheese. It’s a pain in the ass, but don’t buy pre-shredded, because that contains starch to keep the cheese shreds from globbing back together, which absolutely affects the flavor and consistency in soup. Don’t do what I do 90% of the time and cut the cheese into small sticks. Shredding allows the heat to contact a large surface area of a small amount of cheese, preventing it from coagulating as it melts. Many of my cheese soups end up with small, chewy bits of tightly wrapped cheese curds. They have no flavor, and just highlight that my laziness will always come back to haunt me.

Right now, the wife and I have a food processor and a dishwasher, a potent combination of quick shredding madness and greater ease of cleaning. But don’t ever let the cheese dry on your food processor. Even if it is going in the dishwasher, scrape most of the waste off the sides and let it soak if you have to (at that point it may be easier to go the final few steps and finish washing it). But if that cheese dries on the processor bowl, at least you’ll learn why they make glue from discarded horse parts–protein is a sticky sonofabitch that dries like a speed-bump in a cul-de-sac.


Milk, cream, what’s the difference? In this case, with this soup, I’m just looking for a little lightness in color. The sour cream adds a good dairy kick to the cream soup, and the roux thickens it. The milk just adds white. I used skim milk with a dash of half-and-half for a touch of it’s silky fat. I use that combo often, because, hey! we keep skim milk and half-and-half in our fridge.

I’ve found that for most dishes where it explicitly calls for whole milk, I can get away with a 3-part skim to 1-part half-and-half substitution. I usually ignore the explicit call in any case and use all skim, and then, if I feel that it’s lost a little silkiness, I’ll add a bit of half-and-half or unsalted butter. If it isn’t for baking, where substitutions like this can get me in trouble, then the whole point of milk is to get its sweetness from the protein and its silkiness from its fat. I can make this up in any combination, and so when I read “DEAR GOD DON’T USE SKIM MILK!!!one!!” in a recipe, I casually dismiss it, and go for what I have. Really, adding a bit of butter will go a long way into making a cream sauce go from “meh” to “holy shit! how did you make this?”–whole milk, cream, or otherwise.


So that’s some secrets and tricks I use almost all the time in making soups and sauces. And they are almost completely unnecessary to the recipe above. But I wanted to write about my processes, too, because that’s the origination of any “recipe” that I create. And sure, I like to write about what I do, since I am so absolutely, utterly fascinating and interesting. Don’t you agree?

This has me spinning in yet another direction, so I may open up a cooking blog. Why not? I only have half-a-dozen blogs. Why not one more sparsely updated blog that two people read? I’ll call it “Sick and Upchucking.” That’ll get the advertisers flocking…