The randomness that spews forth from my mind


The counters are wiped down and the main course is in the oven. There is a break in the action and I wonder what it is that drives me to cook with such ferocity and passion. Other than sex there are few more intimate things you can do for another person beyond cooking and eating with them. Something you prepared is going to be consumed by them – the level of trust to allow that to happen is, if you think about it, extraordinary.

Maybe that is one reason I feel so drawn to cooking for those I care about. I doubt I could be a professional chef, because although I care about the craft I care more about the action itself and its purpose: that of showing my love and affection for others.

Telling people how much I care about them isn’t something I do as often as I should. Over time I have learned the importance of such words and have trained myself to be better about it in my most intimate of relationships, but it is still a struggle for me beyond that realm. My natural tendency is to show people I care through my actions, by going out with them and buying them drinks, spending time talking to them , visiting them when I am in town, and of course, cooking for them.

I look over at the clock on the oven: a little more than two hours until my father and his fiancee arrive. They have been in town for the last week and although we have dined with them twice during that time this is the first time I have cooked for them.

I don’t think of my mother all that often. We had a difficult relationship from high school onward. On her side she had a heart attack just before I went to high school after which she intentionally pushed me away emotionally, worried she might die at any moment and I would be crushed. On my side I was a normal teenager who ended up moving away for college and getting a girlfriend who would eventually become my first wife. Her family lived near where we went to school so we spent more time with them than we did with my parents. The distance in time and space never sat well with my mother. Once I moved away for college, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve became much more important to her. She would be livid if we decided to participate in the holidays with my in-laws instead of with her.

Eventually I separated from my first wife but around the same time my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died less than a year later. The effort she had started in high school had been a success: I was much less distraught when it happened than I might have been. Of course, it also means I never really got to know her as an adult, other than as an adversary of sorts who I think eventually come to regret her choice to push me away, so much so that she raged at my desire to stay away.

Before middle school, when she went back to work, I remember my mother always having cooked dinner for my father and I. It was simple fare but it filled us and fueled my growth. I assume my mother learned to cook from her mother who had grown up in the Great Depression. As such, much of what was served at home was inexpensive types of fish (like Orange Roughy) and meat (fried chicken gizzards and hearts).

My mother never taught me to cook, I taught myself and learned a bit from my first wife’s step-father. I cook from recipes for the most part, only really cooking the most basic things intuitively, like omelets and meatballs.

As I grow older I think more and more about how I became the person I am. I wonder how much I learned to express my love for others through cooking from my mother. Was that the way she expressed her love? Was that the reason why when all other avenues of communication had broken down she so desperately wanted me to come to the holidays when she would cook? Was she trying to tell me she loved me in the last and most elemental way she knew how: through cooking?

Obviously I’ll never know the answer to that question, but I know how much it hurts in my own life when I plan to cook for my wife and something comes up that prevents that. This way I have of telling the person I love that I love her is thrown off by forces outside my control.

Maybe I really am my mother’s son.

Nostalgia, Ctd.

Dog issues lead to being chained to home and isolated Also likely why I am buying Cal gear and listening to the Dead so much study re: nostalgia being linked to a coping mechanism when we are isolated/alone – being nostalgic makes us feel happier

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” – Proust

“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” ― Carson McCullers

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.

[Light in August]” ― William Faulkner, Light in August

It’s strange to think that with a dog and a wife you can feel alone and isolated. Unfortunately all signs are pointing that way for me.

Factors only vaguely under my control have conspired to keep me under stress and limited in my ability to either leave my home (other than for work) or to have people over. That said, after six years here I still have a paltry handful of people I would call friends, many of whom I know are leaving or whose lives have become all-consumed with their children.

I realize that as of late I have been listening to the Grateful Dead quite a bit more than I used to. I also just bought a whole bunch of alma mater branded sports clothes. Not unsurprisingly there is a connection there – I discovered the Dead my freshman year of college and listen to a lot of it. (My roommate was a huge fan, we both had stereos, and whoever got back to the room first after classes got to choose the music.)


The desktop image on my computer is that of the final minutes of a sunset on the southern California coast. It was taken a mile or so from where I grew up. Although I have not been back to that place for at least a decade the image still holds me eye every time I see it.

I have always been fascinated by nostalgia. How and why is it that certain times and places always seem to stay with us, seem to come back to us at the strangest times? I may be intrigued by nostalgia, it also makes me nervous. It makes me question where I am in the present. Should I be here? Should I try and recapture something from the past? These are thoughts that come to mind as I get older.

I have recently been reading essays by Joan Didion. Although she covers a slew of topics, it is often those that relate to her experiences in California that most resonate with me. It was her book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem which broke down my decades-long personal taboo against underlining/writing in books. The regularity of amazing prose was just too much for me. Normally I will fold up the bottom corner of a page if I want to remind myself that there is a particularly good passage there, but with this book I was folding way too corners to make it practical. So I found a pencil and started underlining.

I think what I connect with most about Didion’s writing about California is its strangely dark nostalgia for the place. The ideal of the place mixed with the disintegration that inevitably occurs.

The essays are mostly from the sixties, as she watched the possibilities raised by the counter culture slowly decay and fall apart – “the center cannot hold.” I think though, as someone reading forty-plus years later it also feels like a wise commentary on nostalgia as a whole. The parallel of what could have been (the community spirit of the sixties, etc.) with nostalgia for a believed-to-be better past matched against the parallel of the eventual breakdown of the ideal in action with the reality of that place and time in our past.

…California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

It is when Didion focuses on the Santa Ana winds that plague Los Angeles that I feel the most nostalgic. In the fall and winter these winds come from the east and bring with them fire, violence, and dread.

It’s not that I have particularly fond memories of Santa Ana seasons growing up in Los Angeles, if anything it’s just the opposite. I recall days you wished you were outside playing basketball but instead you had to stew inside. Santa Ana season was when the scabbed over wounds in friendships would dry out and crack with the heat, arguments from long ago recurring, long walks home alone though you had made the trek earlier with a friend.

And yet, here I am thinking about them. Maybe it’s because of the weather here: it’s been a very cold winter and long. Maybe my mind is thinking back to the weather it knows best, the weather of my childhood. Winter has never been my strong suit.

My life has been going through a great number of stresses as of late and another of Didion’s passages struck a chord with me:

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.

I am someone who tends to be able to deal with the unpredictable, maybe due to my childhood growing up in a land of Santa Anas and earthquakes, things you had no control over and as such could only prepare for and ride out when they came. Maybe it’s just a temperament, but as I have grown older I have come to see I can only roll with so many punches before they start being too much for me to handle. When that happens, I return to the things I know. I watch movies I have seen many times already, reread books I have read in the past, listen to the same albums over and over again. The certainty of things I know helps me to weather the stresses of uncertainty.

Maybe this is at the heart of what draws me to Didion’s discussion of Santa Anas: these are the uncertainties I know. These are the seemingly random life-stressing events I have experience with and so I become nostalgic for them. I know what to expect during the Santa Anas, but here on a different coast in a different season with parts of my life in constant flux, I am unable to cope. So I look back fondly on things most people would rather avoid.

A Final Love Letter

A heartbreaking letter from Dr. Richard Feynman to his late wife. Reminds me I should send more of these to my wife.

Journeys End in Lovers Meeting

I recently started reading Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, a collection of his short stories. The opening tale, Best New Horror, is about a horror fiction editor who goes hunting for a reclusive author and finds more than he was expecting. What inspired me to write this post was the protagonist’s use of Shakespeare’s line “journeys end in lovers meeting.” (He thinks it after a day’s journey finally leads him to the author’s home.) Hill might have just been nodding to Shakespeare, but I think he was actually nodding to another writer, Shirley Jackson, and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, wherein the main character regularly thinks of the same quote.

I finished reading Hill House a week or two ago, so it is still fresh in my memory. Normally books don’t stick with me for too long after I finish them. Hill House on the other hand lingered with me for days. Maybe it was because Jackson bookends her novel with the same disconcerting lines:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The explicit note that Hill House was “not sane,” contrasted with the list of “sane” structural details leaves something in you anxious. That anxiety stays with you throughout the book and beyond the final page.

Jackson makes expert use of that anxiety consistently. Nothing is ever directly seen in Hill House, it is all implied or only briefly glimpsed. Loud banging on doors in the night, the sound getting closer and closer, the source of which is never actually faced. The dog heard and briefly glimpsed out the corner of your eye is chased for an hour, but never really seen. If I were speaking about a piece of music, I would say everything was left unresolved.) As in music, each time something is left unresolved you feel that much more uncomfortable, asking yourself “what is going on?”[1]

This lack of resolution means Jackson never makes it known how much of what the characters experience is in their heads and how much is actually happening. Maybe that is what makes the work so disturbing. It reminds us the line between sanity and madness is a fine one and the slide from the one to the other can be so slow as to be imperceptible. This testing of sanity doesn’t only happen to the characters but to you as well. Did that shadow in the corner just get bigger? Is it really you being a klutz that leads you to always stub your toe on the corner of the dresser?

After a few moments thinking this way you laugh it off, but somewhere deep inside the more primitive part of your brain connections are being formed to remember those dangers in the dark, preparing for the worst. I wonder if this isn’t one of the reasons we do read horror/suspense fiction and see horror/suspense movies. Maybe there is some evolutionary utility in seeing how things can go wrong for people so that we can make sure we don’t make the same mistakes.

Only one of Jackson’s characters has any in-depth knowledge of the otherworldly, which doesn’t really do him much good anyway. The main character Eleanor definitely doesn’t have a horror fiction background:

Eleanor knew that, even if her feet would take her as far as the door, her hand would not lift to the doorknob; impartially, remotely, she told herself that no one’s hand would touch that knob; it’s not the work hands were made for, she told herself.

This is in stark contrast to Hill’s protagonist who for most of his professional life has lived and breathed horror stories and as such is ready for the moment when his life becomes one:

He hit the front door, banged through it. He didn’t leap the stairs, but took them one at a time. When you were running from someone, you never jumped the stairs; that was how you twisted an ankle. He had seen it in a hundred horror movies.

I think periodic dosed of the macabre might do us some good, like Mithridates. “He died old.” Reminding us that our time here is short and that even if we live in a much safer world than our ancestors, we should still be weary and look over our shoulder now and again.

[1]For more on “resolution” and “dissonance” and how they affect us I strongly recommend Chapter Six in Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was A Neuroscientist (even if the author would later go on to make up quotes from Bob Dylan in a later work)