Taking Stock

It's been a good run!

I've swum with the fishes and shared the stage with the guys from Hamilton. I've met athletes and sportscasters, presidents and prime ministers, and managed to feed the boys this winter. Eight nonstop months of corporate work has kept me busy beyond belief. So what have I learned from this cavalcade of rich experience? What's keeping me up at night, as I draw my first unencumbered breaths of freedom?

Still a writer. 

In between the work and my never-dull commuter marriage and 100,000 real miles flown, above, I found time to do a book group in Evanston for FOOD FOR MARRIAGE. (And let me tell you, these guys were tough!) Every once in a while I take a peek at my Amazon account and I was shocked the other day to find a sparkling review from a woman in Indiana who had somehow found my novel and made it HER book club choice. A complete stranger! Guess that's where the 12 sales in March came from.

Make no mistake. We writer-types like attention. We crave it. Need it! Sure we'd like to be the author who lands that crazy elusive six-figure deal, but those are about as rare as affordable rent in Brooklyn. I am part of a sizable writing community and to a letter we all do it for the same reason. Because we have to! That 3 a.m. treadmill of pillow clutching ideas needs a home. And for the diehards, no matter how many pundits predict the death of print, we still see the novel in all its dog-eared glory, as salvation realized from the pulp of trees.

So, with a little room to breathe, I took a week off (oh, except to co-produce and write a documentary film, because masochist/artists need more than one way to not make a living). I stared at the stacks on my desk. Three novels complete, vetted, beloved, and ready for sale. Two nonfiction proposals done, awaiting agency gold. And two new works in progress – one fiction, one nonfiction. 

Monday to-do list? Return to literature. I ran into a friend and fellow creative  I'd not seen in ages, at a party last night. He commented that I seemed happy. "New gig?" he asked. "You bet!" I replied. We clinked glasses. Time to return to self. 

An Incredibly Rare Occurrence

70 degrees in Chicago in December? Yep, rare indeed. My wife and I in the same town with no deadlines, no airport to run to, and absolutely nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon? Well? In fact, unheard of. And precious. We have none of our four children, today. We have read the Times. Finished a novel, each. And I cannot promise that a rainy Sunday afternoon movie is not in store. But first, may I wax poetic about...

Fishball soup!

This recipe was inspired by a walk past a new Asian market on East 32nd Street between Fifth and Broadway, where in the frozen section I stumbled upon a small plastic bag with a dozen of aforementioned balls. I have flown 12,000 miles and walked a dusty road in Mae Hong Son just to find this delicacy, sold from a street cart where all you could do was point at the ingredients and pray. 

Part two – the piece de resistance for this weekend chef – a bag of bones. Yes, fish bones. Behold.

Disgusting? Oui. Being handed out for free by the Montauk fishmonger at the Grand Army Plaza farmer's market on a late autumn weekend. How could I say no?!

Hence the pieces came together. It's Saturday night. Your wife's in Rwanda. The kids are out. The sauvignon blanc has a nice crisp chill. Got your balls in the freezer and your bones in a bag? What else to do but try something new.

The recipe is so simple it is scary. Add water and a little white wine to cover the bones. Toss in chopped celery, onions, clams, mussels, aromatics, a bay leaf, peppercorns: basically the kitchen sink will do. Simmer for 45 minutes. Not more, not less. Every web recipe (for where else would you look when saddled with a bag of bones?) warned that fish stock will turn bitter if cooked too long. I measured nothing but tasted often. Out went the bones at precisely the right moment.

The rest was easy. Strain the broth. Add a couple of packets of chewy fresh udon noodles, also from the Asian market. Toss in the balls and simmer for 10 minutes. Dump on the chopped green onion and cilantro. Add sriracha or fish sauce to taste. The end result? Pure bliss!


In Memory of The Original Blogger

A lot has happened in a few short weeks. Our world has changed. Or it has not. That just depends on how one chooses to view the events. New and calamitous, or more of the same and we are just beefing up our coping strategies. Again.

Here is one tiny blip in my universe. My father, who died a year and a half ago, wrote a blog called VIEWPOINT for the latter dozen years or so of his life. I still can't figure out 95% of the features on my cell phone and when I hear the word "app," I think of oysters or a plate of cheese. My dad managed his own website and was still posting in his 95th year.

I mention this in passing because my sister shared an email he received the other day from his web server. "Your domain expired on November 07, 2015."  I have no doubt my dad would have been pleased that his domain lived on long after the desk lamp went out.

When I started The Ramen Blog, I made myself a promise not to compete with my father's Viewpoint. It was strong, believe me. And I have always wanted The Ramen Blog to leave politics aside and stay focused on food, art, music, design, and the relationship of all things creative to the things that move us in life. However, I am going to stray this once and opine. 

My wife and I got hooked into a re-watch of Aaron Sorkin's brilliant "The American President" on some cable channel well north of the 100s, last night. Michael Douglas played POTUS and his ax to grind was legislation that would eliminate guns and reduce crime. He falls in love with a lobbyist played by Annette Benning who was hellbent on jamming home a bill that would reduce  global warming. And Richard Dreyfuss played the extremist Republican opponent Bob Rumson, who besmirched the character of anyone who crossed his path and vowed to make America "a winner" again. Great movie. Amazing acting, tremendous direction.

In today's New York Times, Frank Bruni writes: "We lose the war against ISIS if we don't get serious about our presidential candidates."

Here is Michael Douglas's response to the Richard Dreyfuss attacks on his presidency. "We've got serious problems, and we need serious people." 

The release date of "The American President"? 1995! Twenty years ago!! Hmmmm.

If my father was still around, I knew the irony would have sent him running to his computer. So I dedicate this column to him. Go Daddy! Your domain may have expired but your views live on.

What You Taught Us

It was different back then. Our parents did not take us on college tours. We received thick books in the mail and occasionally sat in well-heeled living rooms where preppies touted the virtues of their alma mater. Kodak slide carousels were involved.

If we visited anywhere, it was probably by Greyhound Bus. Amtrak. Hitchhiking. Or sharing a ride in an old beater with a handful of friends on a whimsied run up to New England. We'd just as soon be accompanied by our 12th grade A/V teacher, as our parents, tooling around a campus full of pretty girls, cool guys and kegs full of cheap, sudsy beer. 

But here's the thing. Not only weren't we worried about where we got in, we didn't even think about it! College was just something you did after high school. And any correlation between that, and jobs, grown-up debt, and a future? You might as well have talked to us about retirement planning. We were non-plussed. 

So what did we learn this fall as we hauled you from the Happy Valley to Ann Arbor, Madison to Chapel Hill? 

•  The key to being a successful tour guide is walking backwards.

•  Food swipes matter.

•  Antarctica is apparently overrun, since every college has a semester abroad there, now.

•  Quidditch and squirrel watching clubs are in.

•  Laundry machines can be reserved online.

•  Superstition is rampant, but there are numerous statues to adulate and rectify the situation.

•  If anything ever goes wrong, anything at all, run to the blue light. 

Now the miles have been logged and you're busy working on the common app. We watched you listen through half-mast lids to chirpy upperclassmen  at 9 in the morning while we sipped our Starbucks and glanced at our texts. We desperately tried not to ask the questions we wished you'd thought of. We maintained respectful silence as you drank in the size of a freshman "suite." We gulped back our fears when the costs flashed up during the info session powerpoint, and we opened our wallets at the student store.

Maybe, just maybe, you taught us a thing or two, as well. Like your dreams matter more than that third SAT score. That the first draft of your essay was probably the right one. And mainly, that this invisible plume of pressure we unwittingly created, is the worst kind of legacy we could ever pass down.

You'll go and we'll weep. But you can take small comfort knowing what your parents are just starting to figure out. We followed in our folk's footsteps, and you're going to follow in ours. And not a doubt in the world, you're going to be smarter than us.  

Timeless

I first arrived at Coney Island via the back seat of a late model, four door Pontiac Bonneville. Roll down windows, no a/c, no seat belts.  Just the 3 of us kids carsick on a naugahyde bench seat, cloud of smoke generously provided by my parents: Marlboro reds for my mom, Newport menthols by dad. My latest visit occurred last weekend, compliments of my beloved 1980s Raleigh 10-speed. I have not lost my sense of nostalgia.

I am happy to report, neither has Coney Island. The rides are the same. Nathan's is still doling out well-done hot dogs and tangy lemonade. The boardwalk planks knock under your feet and the air is pungent with cotton candy, sea salt and sweat. 

I spent two hours. I could have spent ten. I was mesmerized as a child. And there's still something magical about the milling crowds, the sound of samba, and the lone fishermen casting for dinner off the end of a pier. 


Is August Sad?

This question was posed on Facebook by my friend Lisa Verge Higgins, a wonderful author, who I assume was experiencing a moment of end-of-summer melancholy as she took to the keys. (If you still have some beach time left, race out and buy one of her books. Your afternoon will be less sad, I promise.)

So I have not been able to stop thinking about her contemplative query. Is August sad? I lived in Los Angeles for 10 years and August meant nothing. It is summertime every day in L.A., which means it never feels like summer, and that is really sad!

August back east may be the month before Fall begins, but Fall to me is a time of cooler days and nights, brilliant colors, crunchy leaves and renewal. Labor Day is my favorite day of the year. Nothing happens in August, but it might in September.

This month we celebrated our 10th year at the Delaware Shore with dear friends. Two of our kids were born 16 years ago, within hours of each other. Now all four children are in college or on their way. It was a wonderful week. August can be nostalgic.

Last week I visited my mom at the tiny apartment in Westhampton Beach that has been in our family since the '60s. With my dad gone, it is lonely out there for her. The apartment is up for sale. As the sun sank low I knew it might be the last time I enjoy my three-jetty walk. I carried a couple of sea shells home in my pocket. August can be a little mournful, too.

My wife lives in Chicago where summer is a whole different animal. Her kids live for Lalapalooza, not clam bakes. I have to explain why we sit on the NJ Turnpike or L.I.E. in bumper to bumper traffic just to get wet and sandy. Lake Michigan is drop dead beautiful but no one is crawling along Linden Avenue at 2 mph to get to the beach.

Mobile technology has changed summertime. We carry our work wherever we go, but last week at Bethany I saw hardly anyone glued to their cell phone. The waves were perfect. Kites flew. Kids played paddleball down by the surf. On the night of the big S'more party, the place where we stay hired a deejay. He played Frankie Valli and Bruce Springsteen. People danced and drank icy cold cans of Bud. The sun set a little earlier I noticed. The days were definitely growing shorter, but no one looked sad at all. 




Summer Gig

Everyone remembers their first! 

 Author as subject pictured in the newspaper where he first worked.

Author as subject pictured in the newspaper where he first worked.

Mine was junior beat reporter for The Montgomery County Sentinel (where Woodward & Bernstein cut their teeth). I was in 11th grade. I worked three days a week after school and the occasional evening covering such exciting topics as dog-walking bylaws and Rockville City Council meetings. I might have made forty bucks a week. What I learned as a kid working in a grown-up environment was priceless.

My firstborn, Ben, is fast upon his senior year. Open your ears, read the news, listen to anyone and the word on the street is that he should be in a forward-thinking internship, digging irrigation trenches in Botswana, or at the very least working on someone's political campaign to build that resume. I will not get all high-handed and say we didn't consider it. 

 Aspiring sports writer.

Aspiring sports writer.

Of course jobs are hard to come by, internships even moreso, and those college level immersion classes on campus are more costly than a summer house in Tuscany. Had to ixnay that, too. 

So where did Ben end up?

"Bar-back" at a midtown eaterie, thanks to a good friend's recommendation, working 4-9 for the Grand Central/Hamptons pre-train/jitney crowd. Glitzy job? Not exactly. He's hauling ice, stocking bar, tapping Sprites, lugging kegs, juicing limes and lemons, and otherwise doing anything he is asked. Grunt work is the word we're looking for. And he is loving it! Making friends. Meeting interesting people (apparently the Commish of a major sports league was served his burger by my son last evening). And experiencing his first 9-5 in the middle of a steamy NYC summer, and pulling down a paycheck to boot! He was on the bar schedule five straight days last week. And in his spare time? He's volunteering in Harlem, coaching a 5-7 year-old kids summer baseball league for eight straight Saturdays.

Yes I am kvelling. And no, Ben does not pop out of bed at 7 a.m., fold the laundry, vacuum the apartment and unload the dishwasher. He's still a teenager, thank goodness. But as my wife will attest, I was freaking out (maybe just a little?) about what my big guy was going to do this summer. Especially with the all-important college application season coming up. 

I'm not sure any of these jobs will fuel a Krakauer-esque essay. On the other hand, Ben's "How I Spent My Summer" experience may open his eyes about what work feels like and where he wants to go. So I helped my kid get a job in a bar. Probably won't get voted Parent of the Year (for the 16th straight time!), but I could not be happier about the unexpected result. He's learning a little about pour time on a Guinness and an awful lot about life. 

  


The Unintended Consequences of Marriage Gone Awry

There's no Hallmark card that I know of for divorced dads. No unnecessary sympathies, no pity parties, no support groups I'd ever choose to attend. Like our wives before us, we soldier on.

We are a club, however. A somewhat exclusive one who has landed somewhere we did not expect. The laundry, the cleaning, the tutoring of algebra and the packing of lunches?  Wizened moms call it parenting. We call it survival mode. It is definitely not as easy as it looks.

Especially for my generation, our dads may have loved us, but I don't remember them changing band-aids. Making dinner. Leading class trips. Or holding us when we had stomach flu in the middle of the night. In our newly-minted roles, we have become both mom and dad.

As any parent can attest, every day is Mother's Day and Father's Day. It's just that the moms knew that long before we ever figured it out. 

We suffer the daily indignities, same as our previous wives and new partners and anyone tasked with the role of raising a child. But we also reap rewards we never imagined back when we just played the role of "father." Speaking for myself and every divorced dad I know, we wouldn't have it any other way. 

Serious Parenting

SAT's. College tours. Finals. Summer jobs. Extracurriculars. Boosting that resume. Internships. Scholarships. Regents. ACTs. AP this, honors that. Four-point-what??? Who knew there was something higher than a 4.0?

In honor of every kid who is sick and tired of our silent fears, and every parent (you know who you are, read: all of us!!!) buckling under the mountain of obligations, keeping up, and the grievous lack of a playbook for getting any of this right, I offer this respite... 

...set to the soundtrack of:

"Let...the sunshine--"

IMG_2812.JPG

"Let...the sunshine..."

"Let the sunshine..."

♫ The su-unnn...shine in!! ♫

 

 

Captured in Bokaap

Every once in a while when you travel, you hit one of those magical days. Below, a Muslim community inextricably tied to South Africa's long and complex history. A place of color and tranquility. I spent hours sipping cold Cokes and observing the street life. The pictures say it all. 

Boys to Men

I took Ben on his first college tour yesterday, a day trip from Brooklyn up to SUNY Albany and back. The weather was perfect, expectations, none. We listened to the school pitch. We enjoyed a tour of the campus. We scarfed huge submarines at Di Bella's on Western and they were very good. We listened to a Yankees day game on the ride home. Not so good. But mainly, I got to listen to my son flirt with his dreams and aspirations as he viewed the prospect of college from the passenger seat (for now!). We returned the rental car in the city and stumbled upon this. 

 (Photo by Ben Carlton)

(Photo by Ben Carlton)

A day after the violence in Baltimore, Ben snapped a bunch of photographs of this peaceful demonstration and shared his views on what has been transpiring on the streets of America. He asked the excellent question that is on all of our minds: If not for the ugly scenes that keep unfolding, would anyone notice? After a little while, we jumped on the Q train home from Union Square. It was hours later, on the evening news, when I saw what transpired in this very spot, moments after we left. 

Just a few nights ago, Ben's 9th grade brother Matty  got home kind of late from LaGuardia. Always a diligent texter, he apologized for not keeping me abreast of his whereabouts. "Sorry Dad. Me and some of my friends attended an anti-violence rally in the city." As a father who very deliberately moved his kids from an idyllic village on the northern Massachusetts coast to Brooklyn, what was I supposed to say besides, "Hungry for dinner?"

Passages share real estate between fathers & sons. While my boys are busy finding themselves, I wonder every day, how I'm doing? Have I taught them anything worthwhile? Will they grow up a reflection of any of the values I hold dear? This week provided a few answers. And it's only Thursday. I'm excited for their future. Seems like they're asking the right questions.

 Admissions Building, University at Albany.

Admissions Building, University at Albany.