Before Food Trucks Were a Thing

Food trucks are big business now – or at least a lot of small businesses. A far, far step up from the “roach coaches” that used to deliver pedestrian sandwiches to large businesses with numerous workers, food trucks now provide everything from street food, to gourmet offerings, to not-so-humble cupcakes.

There may not be a taco truck on every corner, but you can find food trucks singly everywhere from tattoo studios to churches, or a whole flock of them at local festivals, colleges, parks, and parking lots. Long lines, few places to sit, and weather conditions can make food trucks not so easy to access and enjoy, but their many temptations keep the people coming back.

Sometimes these mobile purveyors of good food and gluttonous goodies even turn into brick and mortar shops. Our local Zombie Dogz is a good example. A truck offering all-beef hotdogs with outrageous toppings and creepy names (“The Waking Dead” for a breakfast dog, for example) recently reached the end of its useful days and had enough of a following to open a very popular shop in an advantageous downtown location.

Even the food trucks with more humble offerings are tech-savvy. With Facebook and Twitter they let their fans know where they’ll be and when. Groups of such mobile food purveyors even band together in food truck rallies which they advertise widely on social media.

But lest you think that food trucks are modern inventions, way back in the 70s, there was a food truck that staked out Cornell, the university I attended. Operated by a local bar and grill, The Johnnie’s Big Red food truck appeared regularly at locations in North Campus and West Campus. Weary and hungry students could get sandwiches and subs to take back to their dorms and chow down.

When I learned of this phenomenon, which was advertised by word-of-mouth, I had to try it. One evening I walked up to the window and ordered a sub. To my surprise, the man behind the counter asked, “What kind?”

What we had was a failure to communicate. Growing up as I did in a Midwestern suburb, a sub meant only one thing: a lunch meat sub, which varied only slightly by whether it included ham, pimento loaf, or salami with the bologna and whether it had mayo. They usually had slices of American cheese, though that was not necessarily a requirement. Other amenities such as lettuce and tomato were conspicuously absent, making the sell-by date harder to pinpoint (they didn’t mark them back then). The subs were wrapped in clear plastic and served cold. Selling them was often an activity to raise money for sports teams, marching bands, and the like.

The Johnnie’s trucks sold any kind of sub you could imagine, with dozens of choices of meat, cheese, toppings, and accouterments, wrapped in foil and served hot or cold. I had to step out of the line, look at the menu board that I hadn’t expected or noticed, and figure out what I really wanted.

There was a trick to ordering at the truck, too. If you picked up on the lingo, you could get your made-to-order sandwich faster. It was sort of like the old diners where you told them to “run it through the garden” for a burger with everything. Once I got it down pat, my usual order was “RBC on wet garlic with mush” (roast beef and cheese on garlic bread with pizza sauce and mushrooms).

A far cry from bologna, ham, and pimento loaf. Or hot dog with diced green apples, blue cheese, bacon and drizzled with bbq sauce, for that matter.

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Straight From the Art

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like” is an old saying that expresses what many people really feel about art. Unfortunately, what they like is seldom art. More like dreck or kitsch. Maybe not sad puppies, but over-the-sofa mass-produced art. “Art” that doesn’t evoke thoughts or feelings: wonder, awe, challenge, mystery, inspiration, anger, sexuality, tenderness, memory, questions, fascination, laughter, pity. “Art” that doesn’t take you outside of yourself or into yourself.

I did learn a little about art in school – mostly the Impressionists (and a little about the Fauvists) because I was studying French at the time. Later on I learned a bit about cubism, pointillism, and a few other -isms. Still, most of the art hanging in my house is simply what I like.

Oh, I had a Van Gogh Sunflowers poster in my college dorm room and was thrilled beyond words to see the original (or one of the originals) in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Seeing the almost sculptural aspects of the brushwork made me unable to be satisfied with a flat poster ever again.

But gradually, the artwork surrounding me has become more … idiosyncratic.

This was brought home to me recently when, after a natural disaster, most of the many artworks that graced our home were assumed lost. We never knew just how much our artworks meant to us until they were gone. They had become such a fixture in our house that we didn’t really appreciate them as we did when we first acquired them. And that was a shame, because losing them left a distinct hole in our lives.

The rental house that we moved into was entirely devoid of decoration. There were flat, neutral walls; flat, neutral carpeting; flat, neutral furniture. I know they have to make rental houses this way to appeal to renters with various kinds of furniture and taste, but we had nothing to take the edge off all those neutrals. Nothing relieved the eye.

Our “art collection” was nothing elaborate or expensive, but it had meant a lot to us. A large part of my contributions to the household decorations consisted of paintings by Peggy McCarty, a talented friend of mine. These included self-portraits, paintings of food, and a couple of paintings of me or one of our cats, as well as a tiny landscape refrigerator magnet.

Dan collected many posters and prints, some of them signed and numbered, at the science fiction conventions we went to. These featured moody or majestic planet-scapes; cacti bursting off the ground like prickly green rockets on pillars of flame; wizards, changelings, and such; and a carved head of Einstein. Not all of them were to my taste, but, as the saying says, he knew what he liked. And some of them I found stirred my heart as well.

Not that my contributions to our household artwork were all formal and highbrow. One framed poster that Dan got for me was the theatrical poster from the Puss in Boots movie, which had a prominent place on our bedroom wall. The bright orange and yellow background demanded you notice it and, well, I’ve always had a thing for anthropomorphic cats.

Not long ago, we discovered that a number of our beloved artworks had survived the tornado. Some of the unframed, unmatted ones had sustained damage and others still haven’t shown up. But I was so happy to see the ones that did, I almost cried.

Naturally, we went right out and bought a bunch of Command Hooks (“Do. No Harm”) and started alleviating all the neutral walls with things that remind us of our old home while we wait for it to be rebuilt.

My study (actually the small bedroom) walls are graced by four small works: one of apples painted on a board by my artist friend Peggy; a print of a metal tiger from the Chinese Soldiers exhibit at the local art museum; a colorful Debbie Ohi sketch with a Neil Gaiman quote that I won in a raffle; and a framed, round, black-and-white drawing of a cat on a branch with stars in the background.

We each selected one work for special placement in the living room. Dan chose a framed poster of “To Everything There Is a Season” that used to hang in his office. I chose Peggy’s painting of Dan’s first cat, which I had commissioned her to paint for him for his birthday one year.

We haven’t settled on what goes in the master bedroom yet, though there is an evocative blue and white framed print that has a good chance of making the cut. So does Puss in Boots, though it will clash terribly.

But I know what I like.

Living the Wild Life

Our house felt remote, surrounded by trees and a small stream and prairie grasses and wildflowers. Our neighbors were remote enough that we could have become practicing nudists, were it not for the invention of telescopes. Actually, it was very close to everything required for modern life.

The animals in our area did not know this. We were regularly visited by squirrels, chipmunks, snakes, bats, deer,  and rabbits. (Also wasps and carpenter bees, but those were much less welcome.)

My husband’s favorite visitors were the hummingbirds. Every summer, one brave hummer would fly up to his study window to let him know that it was time to get out the feeder and fill it up, damn it!

When we first looked at the house we would need to rent (after a tornado demolished our beloved home), I was dismayed to see that it was in a cookie-cutter suburb with zero character. But then I saw a blue jay fly out of one of the bushes. It was the first one I had ever seen and I considered it a good omen.

We moved in and began to make the place our temporary home. The first thing we bought was a double bird feeder, with a regular feeder as well as one for hummingbirds.

And the birds came. In droves (or flocks, I guess). Enough to terrify Tippi Hedren. We saw blue jays, sparrows, chickadees, pigeons, and the occasional red-headed woodpecker, once the word got about in the avian community. Many of the birds were messy eaters and showered seeds on the ground around the feeders, which occasioned the arrival of dozens of birds at a time, eager to chow down at our all-you-can-peck buffet. Then something would alarm them, and they would all take off simultaneously.

The alarming something usually proved to be a squirrel. The local squirrels grew fat and sassy on the spilled seeds. When they were depleted, the squirrels made attempts on the feeder itself. Let me assure you, few things are funnier than watching a squirrel courageously climbing that thin pole and then sliding helplessly back to the ground.

Occasionally a squirrel would make it up to feeder height, then be completely stymied by the construction of the feeder. Stranded on top of the feeder, but unable to maneuver down to the perches, the squirrels eventually gave up and resigned themselves to raiding the buffet on the ground.

The neighborhood we’re now living in is very homogenous, with manicured lawns and houses close enough together to discourage even attempted nudism. (None of the neighbors seems bold or reckless enough to practice the art (hobby? lifestyle? pursuit? avocation?)) With such wild life unavailable, we figured that we were out of luck too when it came to spotting frolicking animals (the type unclothed by anything but fur). If the stereotypical suburban houses and lawns were that uninviting, surely there would be little to no local fauna, aside from the ravenous squirrels. Or so we thought.

We were wrong. We have seen a number of local cats strolling through our back yard (if they count). There has been at least one chubby bunny nibbling our conservatively mown grass. And then we saw a different animal, one we couldn’t quite figure out. It was obviously a large rodent of some kind, bigger than a cat would want to attack, and, as it was brown, clearly not a possum. (With which critter I have had some unfortunate experience – https://wp.me/p4e9wS-46. But I digress.)

As it waddled as quickly as it could toward the treeline at the back of the property, we caught a glimpse of a tail, though we didn’t get a good enough look to determine the size and shape of the trailing appendage. Aside from being startled, we had many questions. Was the tail broad and flat enough that this could conceivably be a beaver? (The next suburb over was named Beavercreek, after all, although around our rental house there was nary a wetland to be seen.) Was it a groundhog (or woodchuck)? Did groundhogs have tails?

A quick trip to Google informed us that groundhogs and woodchucks were the same animal; that they did, indeed, have tails; and that they were almost completely herbivores (which I suppose means it was after the seeds, like everybody else). A check of the hive mind on Facebook produced a consensus that what we had seen was most likely a groundhog, as well as a few jokes about how much wood it was or wasn’t chucking.

Our cats, of course, look upon this abundance with assorted amounts of glee and hunger. We placed a cat tree near the window so they could enjoy this version of Cat Food Network, or mope that they couldn’t reach the birdies to bite them.

Will I be glad to get back to the environs and the familiar wildlife that I miss? Of course. But will I also miss this new diversity and fresh delights that I have found? Of course, also.

But since the tornado flattened most of the trees in our old surroundings, I’m afraid that the fauna will likely change. And nudism will be out of the question.

 

The Ultimate Fashionista – Not!

I guess you’d call be a victim of fashion. Or actually, a victim of no fashion. No fashion sense, at least.

I’ve always been this way. Being the second child, I always had hand-me-downs, which is probably why I never learned to pick out my own clothes. Also, my mother chose my clothes, which I was okay with until junior high, when I was mortified to see myself on videotape wearing saddle shoes and anklet socks. Quel faux pas!

It was at about that time that people started taking me in hand and trying to fix me up, sartorially at least. (Apparently, the other kind of fixing up was not even an option until I was properly decked out.) My first fashion consultant was a friend who told me that the main thing I should invest in was a pleated plaid skirt with a large gold safety pin. I did not, and thereby missed my chance to be stylish as well as cool.

When I did develop my own sense of style, it was based entirely around Banana Republic. Khaki and olive drab were my color palette. I lived for the day each month when the new catalog came out with all its exotic descriptions of the clothes and tidbits of travel writing.

Only once did I ever shop in an actual Banana Republic store, in La Jolla. I hyperventilated, which is something I ordinarily do only when shopping for amber jewelry. I made several purchases and used the leopard print wrapping paper as a background on my bulletin board at work. (A co-worker once brought me an empty Banana Republic bag as a gift. “Won’t she be offended?” someone asked her. “She’ll love it,” Marie replied.  And I did.)

Later I learned that Banana Republic had an outlet store about 45 miles from my house. Of course, I had to go. This was before outlet malls became a Thing. The BR outlet was in Erlanger, KY, a few miles from the Cincinnati airport (which is in Kentucky, for some reason). Keeping with either the travel theme or the airport theme, the outlet store was housed in a large, hangar-like warehouse, where I could make a proper expedition of shopping. I was crushed when BR stopped publishing their catalogs and again when they were bought out by The Gap. The outlet store was just no fun anymore.

Still, I wore my khaki and O.D., with occasional accents of camouflage. (This was also before camo became a Thing for anyone other than soldiers and hunters.) My mother, perhaps in atonement for all the hand-me-downs, sewed me spiffy camo vests and scarves. Once she even found some camo flannel and made me a floor-length granny-style camo nightgown, which I adored. (She also made me a forest green cape and Robin Hood hat, which I wore to my college archery classes. But I digress.)

Another friend took me in hand and tried to eliminate the jungle look from my wardrobe. She introduced me to colors outside the neutral spectrum and accompanied me on shopping trips where she picked out my clothes and dressed me up like a Barbie doll. Well, not like a Barbie, really. I didn’t have the figure for it and my feet aren’t permanently shaped for heels. At least I looked respectable enough for work and dressy enough for social occasions, which for some reason I hardly ever got invited to. She’s no longer able to go shopping with me but thoughtfully keeps me supplied with more hand-me-downs from her own extensive and colorful wardrobe.

Gradually, I developed enough color sense to boss my husband around. (“Hand me the teal jacket. No, the teal jacket! Not the navy blue! Lady, can you show him which is the teal jacket?” “Of course I can’t wear the knit sweater that I wore to the last business meeting. It’s long-sleeved and it’s August. Oh, and it’s not white; it’s cream. Which goes nicely with the coffee stain on it.”)

Now, of course, I’ve abandoned all attempts at fashion. I work at home in my pajamas and keep a year-round wardrobe of nightwear ranging from sleep shorts to men’s flannel pajamas. I buy them on sale out of season. This nabs me ridiculous designs (“Feline Sleepy” “Look Like a Lady, Shoot Like a Boss”) and nighties that look like hospital johnnies. But no one sees me anyway, so it hardly matters. My husband doesn’t complain. I think he’s afraid to.

And if I do have to go outside, I’ve developed my own special signature collection of clothing in my own style. I call it “Retro Boho Hobo,” and it suits me fine.

 

Our Favorite Meal Kit Has Been Decided

A while back, I wrote a blog post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-KI) about our experiences with various meal delivery services, the kind where you find a box of food left on your doorstep like an orphaned child. Then you bring it in, cook it, and eat it. (This is apparently turning into a Grimm’s fairy tale.)

Since then, we have had a couple more experiences with meal kits, so I thought I would update the post.

One of the meal services that we hadn’t tried was Freshly. Freshly differs from the other meal delivery kits in that, instead of sending you a bunch of ingredients, they send you already prepared meals for you to microwave. At first this seemed like something that would go with our low-maintenance cooking lifestyle, but then I realized that what we were getting was basically classier TV dinners.

Not that the meals involved Salisbury steak, mixed veg, and a blob of mashed potatoes, with possibly a square of apple un-crisp if you got the fancy kind. We had chicken tikka masala, mahi, and cod cakes as our week’s choices, and they all came out of the ‘wave hot and appealing-looking. They weren’t bad.

The only thing was, they were hard to modify (well, and the portion size was a bit small, too). The tikka masala, for example, we both thought could have used more spice. Of course, we could have sprinkled red pepper flakes on top (if we had any left over from the previous day’s delivery pizza). Or we could have doused it with any of the weird spice blends my husband is in the habit of bringing home from the store. What we couldn’t do, however, was add an ingredient into the sauce and let it mingle with all the other flavors until they decided to play nicely together.

In other words, the Freshly kits took away the cooking, but they also took away the cooking, if you see what I mean.

Then EveryPlate, one of the meal services I had tried before, lured me back with a special offer I couldn’t resist. Our first three meals were chicken fajitas with lime crema, pasta with sausage and squash ribbons, and pork schnitzel with cucumber/potato salad. This week we received honey-glazed pork chops with roasted broccoli, Cajun chicken sausage penne, and lemon-thyme chicken linguine. Next week we’re getting hoisin-glazed meatloaves with wasabi mashed potatoes, sausage-stuffed peppers with couscous, and harissa-roasted chickpea bowls with avocado dressing. (The three-week offer was one thing that made it so appealing.)

These are meals that we can adapt if we want to. For example, I may want to cut back on the amount of wasabi in the mashed potatoes because of my feelings about wasabi and because, since they’ll send it as a separate ingredient, I can. Likewise, we can use less salt than the (included) recipe recommends, as my husband is (supposed to be) on a heart-healthy diet and cutting down on salt is an easy change to make. (So are sensible portion sizes, which the delivery meals provide.)

The meals do require a bit of prep – chopping, peeling, dicing, stirring, creating squash ribbons (not a thing I do regularly). But oddly enough, that has proved to be one of the things that I like best about them. Since I’m no longer allowed to use sharp objects, my husband prepares the mise-en-place (as they say in cooking shows). I take care of tasks such as putting the potatoes or linguine on to boil or heating the oil to fry the schnitzel.

This has taken us back to a time in our lives when we used to cook together, which I often forget was an entertaining and joyful thing (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-kb). And the choices, while limited to eight per week, provide more variety than the old staples that we have fallen into making, like spaghetti, frittata, and cowboy beans (an invention of our own, from our early married days).

(Since I’ve taken EveryPlate up on their offer, they have let me send a free box of food to several friends. I’m curious to see if their reactions are similar to mine.)

All in all, this experience has moved EveryPlate into first place with me in what is thankfully not called The Great Meal Kit Race (not that I want to give Food Network any ideas). It’s also one of the least expensive services, so I might actually be able to afford it once this trial period ends. I’m hoping that the kits will actually save us money in the long run, since we won’t have to buy an entire jar of wasabi or six tomatoes when one is called for.

I had my doubts when I first heard about these meal kit delivery services, but I’m slowly becoming a convert.

Rearranging the Furniture in My Head

I knew a woman once who, when she was at business conventions and besieged by requests, saturated with meetings, and overwhelmed by the exhibit hall, stated that she had to retreat to her hotel room “to rearrange the furniture in my head.” I thought that was a great way to put it. We all have furniture in our heads and sometimes it’s necessary to place it in areas where we won’t trip over it and bruise ourselves. Or there may be more furniture than we need and we must jettison some of it.

Now, however, rearranging the furniture in my head has become more literal. I’m basically in the position of having to furnish an entire house, and indeed to be involved in planning the shapes as well as the contents of the rooms, since our house was destroyed by a natural disaster.

This is challenging. We loved our house the way it was, with only a couple of changes that we could envision making. We have an architect working on it and he’s made some pretty fine suggestions. He has told us that we can add amenities such as skylights and bay windows, plus making what had been a deck into a screened porch or “catio.” We’re also willing to trade some storage space to have a larger downstairs bathroom. But even if we left the floor plan basically the way it was, there are still a lot of decisions to be made.

It’s the furniture that has me puzzled. All our life, our house has been decorated in what my parents liked to call “Early Married Junk.” (We’ve been married for more than 30 years and that’s still our decor.) Now, having to pick out things that actually go together is stressing me out.

Choosing color schemes is no picnic, for example. We barely had a color scheme for our wedding, starting with off-white so the guests wouldn’t snicker. This was in the days before weddings had themes or groom’s cakes or favors for the guests or designer cocktails. We had a cake decorated in our colors and called it a wedding day.

But now it seems that every room must have a color scheme and a “look.” Boho? Country? Modern? Classic? Retro? Anything but ’50s, no matter what my husband says.

Saying goodbye to our original kitchen decor will not be a hardship. The house was designed in the ’70s and the kitchen was done in orange. Countertops so orange you could lose a pumpkin if you placed it on one of the surfaces. Psychedelic patterned indoor-outdoor orange carpeting that caused hallucinations if you stared at too long. I don’t know what we’ll settle on, but that’s not it. Generally speaking, I think carpeting in the kitchen is a Bad Idea, psychedelic orange or not. Linoleum, tile, press-n-stick “wood” – nearly anything else.

Once I tried to decorate a bedroom. I was going for a travel theme with bright, yellow-gold walls and our assorted souvenirs as accents, with jungle print or brown, rust, and gold bedding. I managed to talk my husband into light oak for the bed, but couldn’t convince him to ditch his cherry chest-on-chest. It was an antique, but also a dark, hulking presence against one wall. We had compromised on each of us decorating one half of the room’s edges. My half had a rattan teacart and etagère. His had classical paintings of naked nymphs, plus brooding African masks that seemed to follow your every move. Admittedly, they did complement the travel theme, but they were still unnerving.

Now we will have a master bedroom, two baths, two studies, a great room, and a kitchen/dinette to deal with. By the time the house is built, I may just decorate every room with padded walls. Until we actually have rooms to put things in, I’ll keep browsing decorating websites and rearranging the furniture-to-be in my head.

Who’s Useless?

I saw a meme the other day that defined the laundry cycle as wash, 45 min.; dry, 60 minutes; fold and put away, 7-10 business days. That would be optimistic for me and my husband. We are useless people.

We started calling ourselves that when we were so exhausted at the end of the day that we were physically and emotionally unable to cook. So we turned to what we called “Useless People Meals” – ones that come in a box or bag or tray and only need to be microwaved. We eat them in the trays they come in or share them out of a single bowl since we are also too useless to wash many dishes. Paper towels are our napkins, and I’m sorry to report that we have been known on occasion to use paper plates and plastic cutlery. At least the plates are biodegradable.

We took another step towards uselessness when we found the perfect furniture for us – a coffee table that magically rises upward to become a dining table and an end table that swings out over the sofa to make a tray. With these in place, we can happily watch TV while we eat. (We still have meaningful conversations, mostly over who will be the next chef to be Chopped. But I digress.)

As noted above, laundry is another place to practice uselessness. All our clothing is wash-and-wear. We don’t even own an iron (or if we do, I have no idea where it’s gotten itself off to). If we ever do find the iron and would actually need to iron something, we’d have to lay it on the coffee table, which would also magically transform into an ironing board. Much easier just to toss a garment in the dryer with a dryer sheet or a damp washcloth.

I admit we’re useless. We want to skate through life doing as little physical labor as possible. And there are a lot of products designed to make life easier for people like us. The meal kits that are so popular nowadays are not for completely useless people. Some of them require actual chopping and cooking. The most recent one we tried, though, had ready-prepped meals that were microwaveable. And since we didn’t know what any of the delivery meals would taste like when we ordered them, there was something to be said for not spending much time preparing them.

But there are those who mock and deride what they see as completely useless practices, gizmos, and packaging.

They are wrong. My husband and I may be slackers, but some inventions actually make life easier for people with disabilities, who are not useless but merely incapacitated in some way. Imagine a person with rheumatoid arthritis trying to shell an egg or peel an orange and suddenly those egg-cooking gizmos and individually wrapped, already-peeled oranges in vending machines make sense. It is ableist privilege that makes people view such innovations as useless.

Even some of what my husband and I think of as for the useless would actually be great for people who are handicapped. Our “useless people coffee table” makes perfect sense if you think of someone who uses a wheelchair. And our “useless people” heat-and-eat meals are dandy for people who do not have the physical stamina to stand at a counter or a stove, chopping, mixing, stirring, straining, and all the other steps that are needed for a simple plate of spaghetti.

So we’re right to call ourselves useless people, but wrong to call our time- and step-saving practices and devices useless. The tools themselves are immensely useful and many people who use them, unlike us, are not useless at all. More and more, as the Baby Boomers age and we face illness and mobility issues, we will need to use those sock-puller-uppers and canes that stand by themselves and grippers to reach the stuff on the high shelves or on the ground. Whatever the need, it seems some clever soul has come up with a fix or a work-around.

I guess what I mean is that my husband and I are useless because we take advantage of these helpful tools just because we don’t want to do the work. There are those who use them because they need to and we will likely join them someday. At least we’ll have the tools already in place.

Camping Then and Now

There we were, bedding down on sleeping bags in our tents, the cold, hard ground only a layer of canvas or plastic away. When we sprang out the next morning, our lithe teen forms dressed in green shorts and Vibram-soled boots, we hoisted our backpacks and hiked over hill and dale and rocky trails, singing optimistic songs and breathing deep of the fresh air. We ate granola as we walked.

Later that day, we built a fire and sat upon logs, tree stumps, or little water repellent squares while our dinner cooked slowly, smoke curled around our heads, and mosquitos had their meal before we had ours. Then it was more songs, jokes, stories, and talk till it was time to pour water on the fire, make sure the ashes were cool, and return to our sleeping bags, where, after hours more chat (not the electronic kind, either) we dozed off.

We were Girl Scouts and we thought that was the only way to camp. We’d see camping trailers and pop-up campers and elaborate RVs at the edges of the campgrounds nearest the parking lot and think, “That’s not camping! Those people aren’t having the real camping experience. No tents. No sleeping on the ground. Cooking over propane.” We sneered at them (amongst ourselves, being polite little things) and swore we would never indulge in such a travesty of the outdoor experience. It ought to involve at least a little hardship, after all, or where was the challenge?

Since then we have passed the 40- and 50- and even the 60-year marks and our challenges have largely changed. The last time I slept on the ground was well over a decade ago and an outfitter had to bring the tent, because I no longer owned one. Instead of the chirps of birds and rustle of small animals, the sound of our bones creaking and our groans as we tried to raise ourselves to standing positions awakened us. The outfitter cooked the breakfast and we were truly grateful.

Now even that sort of camping, with its modicum of luxury, is beyond me. For one thing, I need an electrical outlet nearby to run my CPAP machine. For another, my ability to climb from a horizontal position on the ground to an upright posture is, to say the least, difficult, as several falls in my home have proven. Some days I can get up and some days I need help. With my luck, I would be camping on one of the latter.

Now I would welcome a pop-up camper. It may have minimalist beds, but they are off the ground. Even a camping trailer would be nice. Those tents never really kept out the rain anyway and, given the choice, I would much rather sleep under a dry blanket than in a sodden sleeping bag.

(I’m still not completely sold on the huge RVs. I think of them more as a way to see the country than as a way to camp. Though they might be good for families with children and grown-ups even older than I.)

And now we have “glamping,” an ugly portmanteau word of “glamor” and “camping” that touts luxury and style. While glamping you can sleep in comfortable lodges or huge tents fitted out with full-sized beds. With throw pillows, even, in one of the photos I’ve seen. Wikipedia says it offers “the luxuries of hotel accommodation alongside ‘the escapism and adventure recreation of camping.'” “Resort-style services” may be available as you bask in Bali or indulge in a photo safari. In other words, camping for spoiled rich people. I know the rustic-looking cabins with all the comforts of the Waldorf promise a lot, but I can’t help feeling a little like I did as a naive and sturdy Girl Scout.

That’s not camping.

 

How the World’s Crappiest Typist Got a Job Typing

Actually, I am probably not the world’s very crappiest typist. I don’t use two fingers in the style called “hunt-and-peck.” (Except the one time I had to use a Cyrillic typewriter to write our Russian vocabulary lists. But I digress.) However, I am certainly among the worst.

As a kid, I played with an antique typewriter like the one pictured here. (It wasn’t quite so antique then.) I think there was even a typing manual that went with it, but my sister and I ignored it. We just had fun clacking the little buttons and seeing if we could hit multiple keys at once and cause a traffic jam up by the ribbon.

I might have learned real typing in high school, but I didn’t. Back then, there were different “tracks” of courses for students thought to have different job potential. Typing, along with shorthand and bookkeeping, was in the “secretarial” track curriculum. (They didn’t call it “keyboarding” back then.) I was on the “college prep” track. Evidently, the powers that be thought that college students didn’t need to know how to type.

I learned how wrong they were when I entered college as an English major. A plethora of essay assignments awaited me and all of the professors wanted them typed. (Admittedly, when I became a college teaching assistant, I required the same, having by then learned from my husband just how illegible human handwriting can be.)

So I got myself a portable typewriter and, armed with that onion-skin paper called Corrasable Bond and a jug of Wite-Out, I began to develop my peculiar typing style. (When typewriter ribbons started to include a white correction segment, I was overjoyed.)

But that was the extent of my typing experience. Over the years I learned to use about four to six fingers (including thumbs) to type, all the while looking at the keyboard instead of the paper or screen like I know you’re supposed to. Memorizing QWERTY seemed beyond me.

Then suddenly, when my freelance writing jobs started coming fewer and farther between, I knew I had to find another way to make some money. And because I was by that time used to working at home in my pajamas, my options were limited.

Finally, I noticed an ad for a work-at-home transcription service. They needed typists and proofers. “Hey!” I said. “I’m a pretty darn good proofer after all those years as an English major and a writer and editor. Why don’t I give it a try?”

While I was still in proofer training, however, I figured out that transcribers made, if not the big bucks, at least larger bucks than proofers. The job required listening to audio files and typing everything that was said into a document, proofing it myself, then turning it over to the actual proofers for final scrutiny. I asked to become a transcriber. But could I do it?

Fortunately, there was no actual typing test where I would have to produce so many words a minute without mistakes. (There probably should have been.) The bosses seemed more interested in whether the applicants had trouble understanding foreign accents.

That indeed is one of the major hurdles in transcription as a job. The audios we transcribe are almost universally boring meetings of business people or lawyers. Half the businesspeople have accents and more than half the lawyers mumble. A couple of times I’ve transcribed podcasts (though they were about business topics) and once a series of interviews with an actor promoting his latest TV series. But that’s been about it for interesting material.

And my six-fingered-and-thumbed typing has been good enough, at least to work part-time. It’s kind of appalling how slow I really am and how long it takes me to transcribe 45 minutes of audio, starting and stopping the little foot pedal that controls it, and often “rewinding.”

But I must be getting better. At least part of the time now I can type-excuse-me-keyboard while looking at the screen instead of my wayward fingers.

Magic in the Kitchen

It’s amazing what you can find in a kitchen. I admire people who have matching containers for flour, sugar, and mixing spoons. They usually also have kitchen gadgets that I can’t even name, let alone operate. Then there’s the ubiquitous kitchen junk drawer, which as a friend of mine noted, contains “rabies vaccination tags for cats that ran away” and “a dozen mangled twistie ties from last year’s Wonder Bread.” (He also called it “The Mother of All Clutter” and “Perfection’s Perfect Safety Valve.”)

But the most amazing thing you can find in the kitchen is a new life. A new start. A new purpose. Redemption.

I first realized this when my husband and I were watching the TV show Chopped. We couldn’t remember the names of the contestants, so we gave them nicknames: Who’s getting chopped this round? Red-beard guy! No, kerchief lady! Pickles everything dude! (We do the same with Forged in Fire. Santa Claus guy! Teenage upstart! Tattoo-neck! But I digress.)

One night there was a man on Chopped we took to calling “The Old Drunk,” because he was, well, old-looking and called himself a drunk when the judges asked him to tell a little bit about himself. He told how he had spent years as a hopeless alcoholic and how, after he got sober, cooking had saved him. I don’t remember whether he won Chopped, but now, I understand, he has cooking videos on YouTube and has appeared on other Food Network shows like Beat Bobby Flay. He seems to have done pretty well for himself on his journey up from rock bottom.

Then I started noticing other contestants with equally compelling stories. There have been more than a few who have credited cooking with saving their lives or giving them a way out of alcoholism or other addictions. Men have said that their lives started in gangs or ended in jail until they discovered cooking. One woman said it helped her escape from domestic abuse. Any number have said that cooking helped them feel pride in themselves when their families disapproved of their lifestyle or career choices. And quite a few competitors have said they used cooking to help overcome challenges such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other physical and mental difficulties.

This is not something that occurs only on TV, either. My husband used to work in community-based corrections. (And no, that’s not where we met.) As he counseled prisoners (inmates? clients?), he routinely heard that there were two professions that they wanted to explore when they were back on the streets: hairdressing and cooking.

(I don’t think there are any competitive hairdressing TV shows, but as soon as I say that, someone is bound to prove me wrong.)

What makes cooking such a redemptive pursuit? I think there are several answers. Cooking takes time, attention, and creativity when it’s done well. Even non-professional (or non-competitive) cooks can take pride in the idea that they are nourishing someone else – or even themselves.

I’m not saying that cooking will solve all a person’s problems or replace AA. But I do think that cooking, whether it’s at the level of professional or amateur, art or craft, hobby or necessity, speaks to something vital inside us. Food is necessary for life, after all, and making that into something expressive and loving and creative is transformative, of both the food and the self. It feeds not just bodies, but sometimes the soul.

I’m not sure about Forged in Fire. I don’t know whether bladesmithing is a redemptive act, too, though I imagine if done with sufficient commitment, pride, and artistry it could be. The same is likely true of many of the other competition-type shows. (Except Cupcake Wars. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone redeemed by cupcakes.)

One of the best-selling cookbooks of all time is The Joy of Cooking. I think it’s the joy as well as the struggle, the stumbles and disappointments, the cuts and burns, the standing rib roasts and the fallen soufflés, that give cooking its power to feed us all, and especially those who practice it with passion.

And those people I really admire, whether they’ve got their canisters in a row or not.