KUMQUATS!

Mr. Fitchmueller says his favorite word.

In the 1934 comedy film “It’s a Gift,” the impatient Mr. Fitchmueller storms W.C. Fields’ grocery story in search of ten pounds of kumquats. Service is slow, leaving Mr. Fitchmueller to fume. “KUMQUATS!” he shouts at intervals. “Where are my KUMQUATS?” “What about my KUMQUATS?”

Watching this film as a teen, I didn’t know what kumquats were; but it’s an abrupt and eccentric-sounding word, one no doubt chosen for that reason. I have trouble remembering certain words; the “k” word is among them. But all I have to do is visualize Mr. Fitchmueller’s angry face and suddenly, it’s there: KUMQUATS!

I was probably 50 before I ate my first kumquat. Nagami kumquats, the ones most commonly available, are small ovoid citrus fruit the size of olives. One eats both the sweet skin and the sour/bitter flesh together. You spit out the two or three seeds as best you can. Or just crunch them with your mighty molars.

I find the contrast in flavors delicious. Kumquats are great eaten whole, or sliced thin and tossed into salads.

We had sunny space in our front yard that wasn’t being used for much. Eventually we decided to put in a pair of kumquat trees. They’re hardy, not large, and were reputed to be easy to care for. Kumquat trees are tropical plants that thrive in the heat, but can survive the cold as well.

I talked to a nurseryman. He was not optimistic. The trees would grow; fruit was another matter.

“You’re only a mile from the coast,” he reminded me. “Even if the tree set fruit, it won’t be very sweet.” We live in a sunny seaside resort town that often turns cool and grey. Best of both worlds in my book; but I learned that kumquats needs couple of weeks of warm weather to set fruit, and even hotter weather to set sweet fruit.

Our “hot” weather historically is not that hot. Low 80s. In summer only the hottest days don’t see at least a whisp of fog. If we break 90 or 100, the heat won’t last long.

We went ahead anyway; our preferred spot gets a lot of sun and reflected heat. A landscaper friend made a raised bed to get the trees above the slow-draining clay soil. I got a couple of tiny Nagamis from a nursery. In they went.

And they have spent three years doing… not much. Growing a bit taller, very slowly. Taking their sweet time. Just once, one of them put out… one bud. We should have listened to the nurseryman.

I feed the kumquat trees. I water them. They make new branches. The leaves look sometime odd, sometimes not. Meanwhile, the nearby succulents grow like crazy.

And then, a few days ago, both trees broke out in hundreds of flower buds. Simultaneously. A few buds have already become small, white flowers.

We figured it out: the edge of a massive heat dome had covered our cool slice of the California coast a couple of weeks ago for the very first time. Inland areas sizzled at 105 to 120; out on the coast we were “merely” in the low-to-high ‘90s and more for over a week. That’s unheard of here. But now it’s been heard, and it’ll no doubt be heard again. And again. Here and everywhere.

And the tropical kumquat trees will love it. They’ll bear fruit, and I bet it’ll be sweet from the heat. So global warming, heat domes, ocean rise, environmental degradation, all that: they’ll bring us regular crops of kumquats from now on, a consolation prize that by its very nature is bittersweet. And all I can say to that, with some dismay, is:

KUMQUATS!

Well, at least we got our cool, grey city back, for now. We will enjoy.

Strange Fitness Tales, Starring Hinky the Shoulder

I’m in my late ‘60s. And at that age you’re lucky if you still have a few long-time companions in your life.I do: my wife, the attitudinal computer and knitting geek of my dreams; LK the one-legged bookseller who keeps sending me books that I ought to read (and I do); the dudes I’ve been doing yoga with since the late ‘90s. And others.

Hinky the shoulder. He looks so… innocent.

“Others” includes Hinky, my right shoulder. Hinky is with me always, telling me things I don’t always want to hear. He’s loyal. But he has his own agenda. It involves pain.

I was introduced to Hinky about 30 years ago, back when I was lifting heavy weights at the gym: building muscle for ego reasons. I pushed hard and didn’t listen to my body: lift hard, lift heavy, lift often. Progress is all, my mindset was.

But it’s not all, and some of that progress was short-lived. Wear and tear catches up with your body, and soon Hinky started talking to me. I woke up one night with a stiff shoulder that wouldn’t stop throbbing.

My chiropractor was a bodybuilder. He told me that I’d overdeveloped some of my shoulder muscles and underdeveloped others. So everything was out of whack. The rotator cuff — that complex of fiddly muscles that stabilizes the shoulder and helps the arm to rotate — was not happy.

Doctor Biceps didn’t rule out actual damage, but told me not to panic. He cracked my shoulder — which actually helped a little — and sent me off with some new exercises to build the weaker shoulder muscles and get some stability back. They helped.

But Hinky never went away. Never quite, never all the way. I had done him some dirt, and he wouldn’t let me forget it. “Should I lift heavy today?” I’d ask myself. And Hinky would twinge.

So I looked into something called slow negative reps: you lift a lighter weight (the positive rep), but then lower it very slowly (the negative rep). Have you ever lowered a 160-pound barbell very slowly? It’s hell. But not on the shoulder; the shoulder has no sudden, explosive force to contend with. That’s all that Hinky cared about.

So Hinky liked negatives fine. I even made some gains. Years later, “slow negatives” have become all the rage for old people staying in shape.

So all was well for awhile. But as I pushed the big 5-0, something went wrong. Hinky wasn’t happy, but neither was my whole upper body. Everything ached. Everything felt weak, somehow off.

So I hit the internet and found out that I should change my exercises. I’d been doing a lot of isolation exercises that work just a single muscle: to put a nice peak on that bicep, or make those forearms a little thicker. All that’s for the pretty, show-off bodybuilding stuff. I needed do more compound exercises. Compound exercises work a lot of different muscle groups at once.

Compound exercises are the old school, non-sexy weightlifting moves: squats, deadlifts, lunges, bench presses, overhead presses, rows. All done with free weights, not on machines that stabilize your form for you. Compound exercises work not just the major muscles but all the related muscles that are supposed to work at maintaining stability.

Compound exercises did the job for me. I switched from weight machines to dumbbells and snapped right back into shape. I’d never have that perfectly-shaped bicep, but I was 50 and still lifting good weight.

And guess what? Compound exercises like these are now marketed as “functional fitness” exercise for everyday folks and especially old people. Because they develop your ability to do common things: lift. Push. Pull something off the floor. Reach for something high and heavy and bring it down. All things that you need to be competent in for daily life. They’re the new big thing. Once again I was ahead of the game. Thanks to Hinky.

As to why I kept working out at all: well, it’s good to be strong, especially when you’re older. I can still throw around heavy furniture. I can still hack deep holes in the sedimentary rock of my free-range back yard. I can still muscle stuff down the ladder from the attic. I can pick people up off the floor when they fall, and sometimes I have to.

I stopped lifting for awhile, though. Life got harder and more complicated; there were other priorities. But COVID gave me more time: when I started working at home, and soon after when I retired. And we could eat healthy, because cooking sinfully is expensive and we don’t like mass-produced junk. And we both had plenty of time.

So it was time to work out again. I couldn’t go to the gym, because I wanted to stay safe. Without equipment, I tried exercises that could be done with your own bodyweight. I was interested in building back some muscle.

And they did work. But Hinky nixed most of them afer a few weeks. Many of the bodyweight exercises I found on YouTube — extreme pushups and the like — involved a lot of hard, sudden moves that stressed the shoulders. Or at least my shoulders.

That familiar right-hand throb reappeared. I did get into running up and down a steep hill nearby, which didn’t concern Hinky and did wonders for my endurance. And we have a rowing machine. Hinky could handle that, too, with some suspicion.

But I wanted more. My wife bought me some training guru’s book of intensive five-minute workouts, and encouraged me to throw together an exercise setup in the garage. Adjustable dumbbells were obtained. The workouts were mostly functional fitness, for people with busy schedules who wanted short intensive workout sessions that they could fit in once or twice (or more) during the day.

In the workout book’s last chapter, though, the training guru author tipped his full hand: Don’t be religious about this routine, he said. Change your routine all the time: do what’s in the book, sure, but also other types of fitness outside the book. Your body gets stronger when you keep making it adapt. Go back and forth between routines and approaches. Make the body crazy. It’ll grow muscle.

Hinky approved; doing different things all the time gives him frequent time off. The book even detailed rejab workouts for shoulders and back, which Hinky really likes. I do those a lot. As more of the old strength came back, I took the training guru’s advice further and looked at… alternate fitness. In the back yard.

We compost food waste and other things, and I use one of those barrel composters that sit on a base with rollers mounted on top. When it’s time to turn the compost, you just give the plastic compost barrel a good push and it rolls on its base.

Over time, the rollers wore out and refused to roll. So I took the barrel off its base and rolled it around our half-barren back yard to circulate the compost. Compost is heavy; this proved to be good, intense whole-body exercise. Are you old enough to have push-started a car with a dead battery? Like that. Just like that.

Two problems: first, the barrel was full of compost, and I had to wear a mask during “exercise” or get a lung full whatever hadn’t quite cooked down yet. Second, the barrel was old and held together with duct tape. It required new duct tape every week or so.

The big barrel.

So I bought new plastic compost barrels in two sizes: “regular,” and the narrower “sports model” which can be rolled more quickly. I filled them with a mix of shredded rubber compost and pea gravel. A lot of pea gravel. As you roll the barrel, physics draws all the dense pea gravel to the center, like an axle. The barrel rolls smoothly. It also provides hand slots convenient positions, to allow a surer grip and keep the damned thing from getting away from you. It’s heavy.

Le Sports Model

So now I have two barrels which I roll around our unevenly-graded yard with great vigor. The narrow sports model isn’t so stable, so I take it on speed runs down our concrete path.

And it’s difficult. Damned difficult. Push-starting-a-60s-land-yacht difficult sometimes. Plus: these barrels aren’t athletic equipment, so they weren’t designed with a “safe way” to push them when they’re full of pea gravel and rubber. I had to find it. I’ve depended on Hinky to teach me proper form. He can’t tell me what to do, but he’s really good at telling me what not to do. Convincingly.

So with Hinky’s help I’ve learned how to push the barrels around with minimal load on shoulders and maximum push from the chest, back, arms, and legs. It can.be done. And now, at 66, having also lost 50 pounds by eating our own cooking instead of eating out, I have the chest, arms and upper body I’d wished I had at 25. Better late than never. But it’s a strange feeling.

Hinky’s still with me. He’s always with me. I’d have never made it this far if I hadn’t listened to him. That shoulder would have blown out well and good at 35. I’d have spent the rest of my life taking walks.

Even now: I had a great day with the barrels and dumbbells yesterday and I looked forward to more today but Hinky said… time to take a day off. Really.

So I am, and am writing this up. Here’s to you Hinky, you pain in the shoulder.

And guess what? Other people are also pushing barrels around for fitness now in the name of (yes, again) function fitness. Not quite like I do, but… they’ll get there. I’m a genius. Or Hinky is.

New Post on Tees of Mystery: Spoiler

In politics, a “spoiler” is a third-party candidate who runs to siphon off votes from a front-runner rather than win themselves. So that the opposing candidate wins. I have a couple of t-shirts from candidates who were accused of being spoilers.

Were they? One maybe not, the other quite probably. And in the long run, did it really matter?

The Carrot That Never Got Hung

I’ve owned it for almost 40 years.

It’s a coat hook: a cast bronze coat hook in the shape of a carrot. It has a look: stylized and hand-crafted, but competently executed and completely a carrot. That you can hang a coat on. It has real heft in the hand, considering its size; you notice. When I look down at it, it looks back at me. I’m a bronze carrot, it says. Deal with it.

But it’s just a coat hook, though apparently unique. I’ve never seen nor heard of another like it, anywhere. “Coat hook” and “carrot” are concepts that few metal workers combine. And I should tell you that in 40 years, no coat has ever hung from it.

Back in those times, a carrot was my totem. I looked like a carrot: tall, skinny, a little bushy on top. Not orange-colored at all; but I had played a carrot on TV. Well, small-town public access television, in an amateur children’s show put on by a few idle college grads and film fans. “Command Duck and the Quacketeers” we called it. Blame it on the ‘70s, I dunno.

Commander Duck meets the Cosmic Carrot

I was the Cosmic Carrot, an intelligent alien vegetable who’d come to teach earth children all about good nutrition. The carrot costume just sort of happened; somebody knew about paper maiche for the carrot headpiece; my mom had a source of orange coveralls. For my sidekick, I found a squeaky dog toy in the shape of a grinning carrot: “Squeaky” was his name. Squeaky and I were very close. He’s still around here somewhere.

The Carrot and his sidekick Squeaky

I moved to the big city. The carrot costume came along for the ride: to the occasional party, even to another public access show Still… you could go years without seeing the Carrot.

One day while traveling, I pulled over for a half-dressed craftsman selling in the dust by the side of a side road. This was in the hippie backwoods of Northern California back when there were real hippies and even real backwoods.

He was a feral polymath: naked to to the waist and burned dark by the sun, hair like a brown puffball. He turned his hand to anything that interested him, he said: mastered it, and then moved to the next thing. Lately he’d learned to refurbish and refinish furniture. Renovated chairs and tables and desks and bookshelves scattered across the front of his shack: dirt cheap in the dirt. They were all gorgeous. But nobody was there to buy.

If I’d had need of furniture, I could have furnished an apartment for $150 and you would have drooled. But I didn’t. He shrugged; furniture was already in his past. He’d just taught himself to sand-cast in bronze. Did I want to see the latest?

Of course.

He brought out a few small castings, including the carrot. “That one’s $5.”

It did catch my eye.

Now, I was and am cheap when it comes to buying for myself, but… it I had liked being the Cosmic Carrot. He wasa strange but earnest nerd who (usually) meant well. And people liked me being the carrot, for some reason. Maybe I was still the Carrot. Maybe I always had been. With some hesitance, I paid him his five: a hand-cast bronze for the price of a good breakfast. Told you I was cheap.

This was no life-changing experience: just, perhaps, a confirmation of who I was. So back at home, contemplating the thing, I told myself that when I came to the place where I would make my stand in life, I’d put that carrot on the wall and hang a coat on it.

That place was not a rented flat in a failing relationship; nor was it in the next two apartments I rented.

For the past 30 years I’ve lived in one small house with the woman I love. And yet the carrot coat hook has never been hung. There never seems to be space for it, or a use for it. We have closets, after all.

The carrot sits on my nightstand these days, and before that it lay on shelves, in boxes, even in storage for a bit. I’ve always known where it was, though: could always put my hands on it when I wanted to. Obviously it still has significance.

But I’m retired; dare I say, “old?” Where else is there to hang it?

Lately, I’ve been spending more time in the garage. It’s never held a car: just leftover junk and lately, our cache of household necessities in time of need: our “inconvenience store.” Given the times, the store will be with us for some time to come. So I spend a fair amount of time out there doing shipping and receiving and recycling.

I also cleared some space for exercise: a big mat, a weight bench, a set of adjustable dumbbells. Over the past two years of staying close to home, I’ve lost 50 pounds by dint of eating healthy and on our own schedule (my wife has also lost weight). I’d been a life-long weight trainer but stopped a few years ago because of age and time and schedule. Lately some of the strength has come back, thanks to more time in the garage.

And I got a radio for it. That’s actually a big deal. We live by broadband these days, and I stream most radio. We no longer even had a good radio, outside of the car’s. But my favorite local radio station stopped free streaming; its evil private equity owners now require a fee. For radio. It’s a hell of station — KPIG radio, Freedom, California, and it comes in strong here. But I didn’t have a radio. Who has radios?

Well, now me. A quality portable with a big whip antennae, excellent sound, and no digital features whatsoever. Completely analog down to the tuning. You know that’s getting hard to find now? I played KPIG on it yesterday during my workout and while sitting quietly in cool-down after. It’s great music, intelligently chosen. And I felt something odd. Kind of like peace.

I may be spending a bit more time out there; it’s full of things that should leave and maybe make room for things that should come. There’s even heating. Which is good, because it’s separate from the rest of the house. Sometimes when the weather’s cold I throw on a jacket before heading out there.

Who knows? That carrot coat hook could find a wall after all.

Magnum Shirtus

I’ve spent way too much time messing with a Big Picture article on the origins of the Hawaiian shirt. There was a lot to mess with. The Big Picture is really, really big. Big enough for a book, but we’re not going there.

Follow the link below to the article, which resides in the Tees of Mystery’s new Hawaiian Shirt Annex:

The Secret Black Bean Burger Recipe

I learned to make veggie black bean burgers. They’re good. I often recommend that people make them in online food forums. Then somebody asks “What recipe did you use?”

Goddamnit. Mine. I went to a cooking class and got the original recipe on a printed handout. Then I modified it to be way simpler. So it’s not anywhere on the Internet that I can link to. Unless I type it out for you, and I’m tired of doing that! Goddamnit.

So here it is, so I don’t have to type it out ever, ever again. This is the original recipe, annotated with the shortcuts that I made. The original recipe also called for chopped cooked veggies and shredded carrot, which I don’t include.

The Black Bean Burger Recipe:

The recipe makes 12-15 burgers. You can fry them, grill, or bake them. I fry them, but they should hold together any way you do it. After I’ve made them, I save a couple to eat, and freeze the rest. They reheat in the microwave well, and do well on a bun with the usual fixings (or even avocado), They make good cheeseburgers if you don’t care too much about being vegan.

After I’ve made them, I save a couple to eat, and freeze the rest. They reheat in the microwave well, and do well on a bun with the usual fixings (or even avocado), They make good cheeseburgers if you don’t care too much about being vegan.

Note that this makes a fairly floppy burger; too much moisture is the enemy. If such is the case, add a little more breadcrumb or dry oatmeal “breadcrumb.”

Ingredients

  • A “flax egg” to bind all the ingredients together. That requires
    • 1/4 cup ground flax (aka flax meal)
    • 1/2 cup of water
  • 2 15-oz cans of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup of nuts or seeds — original recipe said cashews, but also almonds or hulled raw sunflower seeds if preferred. I use the sunflower seeds because we have them around anyway. Tastes good, cheaper. Pulse the seeds/nuts into crumbs (not dust) in a food processor or grinder.
  • 1/4 cup of chopped onions .
  • 1 1/2 cups of cooked brown rice or any other cooked grain, including oatmeal. I use oatmeal because it’s always around, but use any cooked grain.
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs. (I just run dry oatmeal through a coffee grinder.)
  • 2 TBSP smoked paprika — a meaty flavor
  • 1 TBSP chili powder — for a little kick
  • 1 to 2 TSP of salt, to taste.

Assembly

  • Make the “flax egg.” In a small bowl, combine the flax and water. Do this first thing and set it aside to let it develop. It’ll gradually congeal into something like translucent pudding.
  • Dump the drained and rinsed black beans into a large bowl. Use a potato masher or big fork to mash them savagely into a paste, leaving maybe a quarter of the beans whole for texture and variety.
  • If you haven’t alredy, put the nuts or seeds into a food processor, electric chopper, or electric coffee grinder, and pulse them into crumbs (not dust). Put the crumbs in the bowl with the beans.
  • Once your flax egg has thickened up and absorbed all or nearly all the water, add it and all the other ingredients into the bowl. Mix everything together well. The mix should be pretty stiff, or get that way shortly. (If you wait too long and your flax egg turns into an actual solid, mix harder.)
  • Most of the ingredients were cooked or ready-to-eat, so at this point the mix’s flavor is just about what it’ll be when it’s fried or grilled. Taste it now; if you want to adjust the taste with different spices, more onions or nuts, a little parsley or shredded carrot whatever, now is the time.
  • Put the bowl in the fridge for 15 minutes to a half-hour to give the mix time to solidify even more; if it’s already pretty solid, 15 minutes will do. Clean up. Take a break.
  • Shape the mix into individual patties; the original recipe says 1/2 cup each, about 3/4 inches thick. Whatever you like. I tend to make them thick and small. The recipe says you’ll get 12, I get more like 17 or 18. The smaller they are, the better they hold together. (Besides, you can use small ones like meatballs in other dishes.) While they’re waiting, I put them on a plate on parchment paper.

Frying on the Stovetop (What I do)

  • Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil to the pan (depending on the size of the pan) over low/medium heat. I just use canola because it doesn’t smoke. If you were using a non-stick pan, you could probably use less oil.
  • Fry four patties at a time and cook until golden brown and crispy on one side. If it gets a little darker than that, it’s not the end of the world. You’re actually making a crust to hold the burger together.
  • Flip over and do the other side.. When done, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels or (yes) parchment paper.
  • Go ahead and freeze the patties that you’re not eating now. I freeze them in a glass storage bowl with a snap-on plastic lid, with a layer of parchment paper between each level of burgers. You can also wrap each one in parchment paper and throw them all into a plastic freezer bag. The frozen burgers heat up quickly in the microwave: maybe a couple of minutes, a minute or so on each side.

Baking (I never do this)

Preheat to 350 and line a baking sheet or two with parchment paper. Place the patties on the pans and bake for 20 minutes. Flip them and cook for 15 more, and pull them out of the oven. It’s way easy to make them too dry, so pull them sooner rather than later.

Grilling (I never do this, either)

Heat the grill to medium high, brush the patties with oil on both sides, and cook each side for about four minutes.

Eating (I always do this)

Generally I heat the patties, then pop them on a slice whole grained bread with a slice of cheese and nuke it till the cheese melts. I like to dd avocado, onions, tomato, and sometimes I nuke with tomato and onion along with the cheese. They also make great “chili burgers” lurking in the bottom of a bowl on a piece of bread with chili and cheese and whatever else poured/melted on top. And I have used them as meatballs in pasta with red sauce.

Take Your Best Shot

Today is better than yesterday. Yesterday wasn’t good at all. Because the day before yesterday, I got my COVID booster shot. I don’t react well to COVID shots.

Or you could say that my immune system reacts frightening well: it pulls out all the stops to fight the nonexistent invader.

That I feel, personally, like somebody whacked me with a big full-body hammer covered in carpet tacks is beside the point. Protection is the point. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

My first round of two shots went worse. Shot 1 wasn’t bad at all: I felt a little loggy the next day. But Shot 2 put me on the floor. I stayed in bed for a day with something like the worst cold you could possibly have. I staggered out of bed the next day, white as a sheet. My color didn’t return till Day 5.

So I was expecting the worst this time around. “The booster is only a half-dose of the vaccine, so maybe it won’t be as bad,” the nurse lied. “And a strong reaction is a good thing!”

I felt weird within a few hours. And my wife tells me that my nose, at least, kept its color while the rest of me turned bedsheet white. I staggered around the house and tried to do a few chores before I had to sit down. I guess the nurse was right; this time around was less like being whacked with a giant hammer, and more like being beaten up by a gang of dwarves.

But you know, who cares? It’s what we have to do to stay safe, and to avoid spreading COVID to others. I grew up with that ethic: if the government said, “get your shots,” you got your shots. We all lined up for polio shots, and the second vaccine that came on a sugar cube. It wasn’t long after World War II; people tended to move as a unit in national emergencies.

And now, they don’t. Everybody’s special; “units” are for government dupes. And you don’t get your news from the newspapers or the mainstream media — which are sadly not what they used to be — but from some guy on Facebook who could be… anybody. With any agenda.

I get it. The national media’s not what it was. The medical community isn’t what it was. Politics definitely isn’t what it was. But if the Internet taught me anything, it taught me this:

To find a good answer to any big question you need to triangulate through all the answers out there. You separate the ones that cluster together in the highest level of probability, and treat the the outliers with suspicion. You examine everybody’s credentials; sometimes an outlier is something very sound that just hasn’t got the funding yet.

You will not get a good answer from somebody on social media or alternative video who looks and sounds “just like you” and plays off your fears. It’s called affinity fraud: gaining someone’s confidence by appearing to be of their tribe, then using them mercilessly, For money, power, or all of the above.

There is a risk in everything you do. A cousin of mine died of COVID a couple of weeks ago. We weren’t close and I didn’t attend the funeral. Even if we had been close, his county is a COVID hotspot: the kind of place where less than half the population is fully vacationed; where Fox and Friends plays on the TV in public places; where conservative megachurches take out billboard ads along the freeway; and where the county superintendent of education is not mandating COVID shots for students because, “we just don’t know.”

I remember him as a nice guy, a good old country boy, physically massive. He would have been around 70. And I’m going to bet he didn’t get his shots. If he didn’t, he was a casualty in a civil war he didn’t even know he was fighting, a war against established democratic process by nativist rabble-rousers. That affinity fraud works really, really well.

Believe me, nobody wants these shots. Nobody wants to stay home. Nobody wants to mask. But we’ve got to move as a unit to solve this thing. We’ve got to fight the war and put at least some trust in the scientists. Because COVID will not stop on its own, not for a long time. It doesn’t know how.

The Utility Knife of Destiny

Stanley and me

Almost 40 years ago, I purchased a utility knife at a small hardware store in San Francisco. Nearly all hardware stores in the city are small; it’s efficient to have one within walking distance in every neighborhood. Even if you have a car, San Francisco is a parking desert.

I can’t remember exactly why I bought the knife, but I never let it go. It lurked in kitchen junk drawers for years as I moved from apartment to apartment and finally to a house. From time to time it was needed; and it was always there. We grew old and worn together.

But the old days are not the new days. Now the old utility knife rides shotgun in my pocket I never know when I’ll need it. We’re part of the Cardboard Revolution, the two of us. Many of your are. My wife and I still shelter at home; we place orders online, and the world ships them to us. The necessities of the day go plop on our doorstop in brown cardboard boxes. In the distance, someone in a uniform scurries back to a truck for another drop.

Something’s got to cut open all those boxes, and then cut ‘em down for recycling. My old friend Stanley is ready. It’s even handy for deflating packing pillows. Thank goodness those things can be recycled.

And frankly: a good retractable utility knife will handle most of your pocket-knife needs. You need big pockets, but I’ve got them.

I’m all in favor of buying local. But when Korean billionaires buy the local chain of natural food stores… and when the Albertson’s supermarket empire buys our old regional chains… what’s local?

Anymore, everything comes from far away. The profits all go to somewhere far away. Local-owned retail is fast becoming a pretty story, like one-room schoolhouses.

My wife and I play the game for our own benefit. So the WaySafe market that delivers our food keeps running out of stuff we want? Go to the manufacturer!

Biff’s Blue Mill ships us a couple of crates of oatmeal, seeds, and legumes every couple of months for the same price as Waysafe or better, with free shipping. (And Biff’s is an employee-owned company.) I don’t always cut down Biff’s boxes. They’re too good. My wife uses them for storage.

So WaySafe can’t keep the chocolate products we like in stock? We can get that direct, too, from a big chocolate company 100 miles away. Okay, it’s now owned by an international chocolate empire, but the price is the same as retail and the shipping’s free if you buy enough. I like having a small crate of chocolate on the premises. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

Or there’s Bidet and Beyond, who we buy dishes from online. We can get the particular brand we like direct from the maker; but they charge full list and have a high bar for “free shipping.” B&B sells the same dishes at discount with free shipping for relatively small purchases. They want to lose money? That’s their problem.

Let’s not forget Red Bullseye, the general merchandise chain. We’re not in love with their online store but when we need enough general, you know, stuff, to qualify for free shipping, we go there.

They’re odd. Red Bullseye keep my box knife busy. We once placed an order for six objects; it came in five different boxes on three different days. One box contained a single small pack of batteries. And yet all the boxes were shipped from the same address. They do this all the time. How does that even make sense? I found a forum of supply chain guys online and asked them. They were happy to reply:

Me: Why do they do this?

SCGuys: Because it’s too hard to for them compile a full order. They have no good way of keeping the partial order in one place until it’s complete, so they ship the pieces. Say the warehouse has merchandise on tall racks with three levels: ground level, second level (reached by ladders) and third level (reached by power lift). Individual pickers are assigned to one level only. So if you order has items on all three levels, one picker gets any items from the first level and ships them; another picker finds and ships your items from the second level; and so on.

Me: How do they make any money this way?

SCGuys: Making money may not be their goal. They may be trying to earn customer loyalty, or to grow revenue at the cost of profit. Corporations can have many reasons.

Me: Still sounds stupid.

SCGUYS: …..

Red Bullseye is doing a little better, but it still keeps my utility knife way too busy. They’ve wised up and invited third-party vendors onto their site who ship the product on their own, and Bullseye warns you about this. It’s a bit Amazon-like.That’s fine; I’ve started using some of those vendors directly. They’re small-timers who specialize; good people to do business with.

As for Amazon? I stay away. If I need books I call the local bookstore; if they don’t have it — they often don’t — they’ll order from their distributor, who ships direct. So how is that different from buying from Amazon? Well — it’s not Amazon. There are many reasons to dislike or even hate Amazon and someday, someday it will crash like the Hindenburg. I will not cry. There are alternatives to Amazon, and nearly all of them are better and even cheaper. And possibly less evil.

So the big boys play their e-commerce games, and I game their system as best I can; Stanley’s always there to cut up the debris.

But I don’t like our system. I don’t like buying from giant companies who eat their competition, even if I can game them online. They’re gaming me better. All the profits go not to my community, but far, far away into a few pockets that already bulge; my community becomes poorer. I see a future where the players get bigger and bigger and the choices get fewer and fewer.

And I don’t like our global economy and global supply chain which runs so fast and loose that COVID could take the world by storm. You know, just walk in and own the place. I don’t like that my washing machine comes from Italy and the cheap houseware I buy online come from China where the power plants burn coal — the most polluting coal, at that — and belch greenhouse gases with abandon.

I don’t like that fleets of heavily-polluting jetliners carry loads of expensive crap across the globe from thousands of miles away, just because it’s a little cheaper than making it close to home. And few are in a hurry to address those issues because, y’know, that’s money.

You can still buy my Stanley utility knife, by the way — the same model, 40 years on But it’s been made in China for many years.

Joe Biden’s on the pulpit this week talking about the coming climactic catastrophe — and it is coming. We’re not going to head it off. There’s no political will to reign in pollution, because that also means reigning in the entire global network we’ve built for making things as cheaply as possible with no thought to the environment or even the welfare of the American people.

Too many billionaires stand in the way. In our country the right-wingers are too convinced that God is a billionaire, and the Democrats are too owned to redistribute income and tax the rich so that we can fight the problems that they cause. We won’t get there; we’ll be too late with not enough.

Winston Churchill once said about America something along the lines of: you can always count on the United States to do the right thing — when all else has failed.  And we probably will: people tend to wake up when doom stares them directly in the face. But will it be in time to avert huge consequences for billions of people?

Probably not.  There’s way too much to do, and no one or no thing in charge.  Yet.

Somebody once said “Pain is the great teacher of mankind. Under its breath, human souls grow.” We have a lot of teaching coming at us. It’s already begun.

Trouble is Their Name

I’m not normally one of those guys who names his stuff. My laptop is “laptop,” my car is “car,” my shoes are “shoes.” They’re all part of me. They don’t need names.

But there are those possessions that actively seem to want to cause me trouble. They have their own agenda. They get names.

Like Fang. Fang is a hefty pairing knife with a big molded handle: easy to grip. Cuts through an apple like it was Jell-o. Really cuts through just about anything organic. You can bear down on Fang; it doesn’t whimper.

But sometimes I whimper; because my fingers are organic, and too often they has gotten in Fang’s merciless way. Fang never gives you a free clumsiness pass, as our old dull knives did. There will be blood, every time.

Under Fang’s tutelage, I’ve become a more careful and precise knifeman. I line up my vegetable in advance. I place the knife correctly. I hold the item to the counter with a steady grip, but keep my hand out of harm’s way. I plan the operation carefully. I refrain from chopping wildly.

Because if I do, Fang will hurt me. It is expert in a very primal and basic form of conditioning. Even when drying in the dish rack, Fang sends out edgy vibes: be careful, or beware.

Fang is a good metaphor for human existence: we make our own trouble by how we interact with the things around us. Few things hold more potential trouble than a big, sharp knife in the hands of a hungry man.

“Donna” our washing machine is another matter. Donna is no metaphor. She’s a drama queen: truly. She has Needs, many. She wants pampering. All we really did to deserve Donna is what we didn’t do: find and read the operating manual online before punching BUY! Online major appliance purchases? Never again.

To be fair, we were desperate. In the middle of a pandemic, our 28-year-old top-loader choked to death on a wool blanket. A well-masked repairman came out to perform the last rites and offer grief counseling.

We lacked much choice because our laundry enclosure is a tiny closet on the landing between the first and second floor; it was built too small by the surfin’ contractors we bought the place from 30 years ago. Back then the installers squeezed in our old machine with a shoehorn, but washing machines have gotten bigger since then. We only had a couple of choices. Donna was the one that would 1) fit, and 2) didn’t come with reviews that read BEWARE.

And she was very water efficient. We have a drought going on. Donna it was. Even though she was a front-loader, which we didn’t want. Front-loaders are finicky.

We didn’t know the half of it. After the installers did their magic and wedged the machine into place — telling us, by the way, that the water hookup was falling apart and needed replacing — we finally read the manual. The machine needs:

  • To be throughly dried when use is complete for the day. With a rag. So it won’t grow mold and make your clothing smell.
  • To have its plastic detergent magazine removed when the machine is inactive — so it won’t grow mold and make your clothing smell.
  • To, if at all possible, please pretty please have its door left open when not in use. (If you have small children, that’s on you.) So it won’t grow mold and… And of course if the door is open, we can’t close the door to the laundry closet, ever.
  • To close the valves on the the water hookup when the machine is not in use. Because it’s delicate. “Oh, the pressure…” And our hookup is just barely hanging in there. Plumbers await in the wings.

We will skip over the special monthly maintenance procedure, and more more more.

My wife said, “That’s not a washing machine, that’s a… prima donna.” So “Donna” I named her. She even looks like one, with that gimlet eye and gaping mouth opened in bombastic song and one dramatically outstretched “arm.”

So now, there she is, the center of attention every time we climb the stairs. She even has her own window with stained glass art and a nice view of the acacias. Donna has it all. Including a name. We are but her slaves. And remember…

Always read the manual before pressing BUY.

A Special Case

The package arrived from Tracy. Tracy, California, famous not much except giant distribution centers that squat at the edge of the Bay Area. The Fedex guy threw it on the porch and I rushed out to get it. I knew what it had to be. Though what it looked to be was a drab, sturdy, medium-sized box taped up within an inch of its life.

I cut it open. Inside were plastic packing pillows surrounding a rectangular object wrapped in silver mylar bubble wrap. It glowed in the sun. You could imagine it as the payload for some space shot.

I cut that open and inside were three plastic cold packs, and…. NATURE’S BOUNTY.

Oh yeah, the good stuff: a case of ultra dark chocolate chips from the gnomes at Ghirardelli Chocolate, 80 miles up the coast. When you grow to understand that sugar and milk in chocolate are only a sideshow for the kiddies, THIS is what you want. You’ll never dip below 70 percent cacao again. You can’t: to you, “regular” chocolate is now sickly sweet by comparison.

And it’s just become hard to get in these times of COVID. We order from the supermarket online for delivery, and Ghirardelli 72’s been off their menu for three weeks. Demand, supply chain snarls, COVID chaos in Africa — who knows? The world’s a crazy place. Always has been, but now squared.

So we ordered direct, and in quantity, from Ghirardell itselfi. The chocolate mother ship is usually fully stocked; it’s run its own online store for years. There’ve always been bakers in Nowhere, North Dakota who need chocolate specialties they can’t get locally. Ghirardelli is there for them.

But only a big order makes sense: shipping’s expensive, and free shipping starts high. Hence a full case of chocolate chips, and another case of 100 percent unsweetened cocoa powder coming tomorrow. We crossed the free-shipping threshhold by maybe a dollar. And if it all last lasts two months, I’ll be surprised.

Do we bake? We don’t even use the oven. This is for my oatmeal.

In retirement I start the day with a giant bowl (yes, the bowl is oversized) of oatmeal with apples, blueberries, roasted sunflower seeds, a massive amount of unsweetened cocoa and, of course, 72 percent chocolate chips.

It’s extreme. By my wife Rhumba, it’s icky. But I enjoy my gleaming bowl of purple-brown oatmeal with chips on top. I like the taste, and I like the effect.

The effect? The Aztecs knew. They jazzed their warriors up on chocolatl — expensive, because the beans came from hundreds of miles south. But with a gut full of Aztec Brown, the plumed warriors of Tenochtitlan could fight single-combat battles all day without faltering, without even stopping to rest or eat. Warriors of the other city-states fell before them.

I’m not picking up an obsidian dagger any time soon, but theobromine — the active ingredient in chocolate — dilates your blood vessels, gets oxygen where it needs to go in mass quantities, improves your use of stored energy and more. Now that I’m a retired old guy, I’d rather not feel so old.

And I don’t. Losing weight helped, too, but chocolate keeps me sharp every day — in my opinion. I feel like a fit 50 again. Entering my late ‘60s, that seems more than good enough.

And I hope it lasts, because chocolate may not. Climate change will affect prime cacao-growing regions; and chocolate is no easy crop to grow or mass-produce. I won’t go into details; but a very few decades down the line, chocolate as we know it may only be for the wealthy. The masses will at best get a low-quality adulterated version mixed with other substances (and probably a lot of sugar). Call it “chok.”

Most chok will be bad — a small amount of mediocre chocolate product mixed with cheap ingredients. But it needn’t always be that way: we have “chok” even now, and some of it’s pretty popular. The italian candy gianduja is a chocolate hazelnut mix and, actually, pretty great. If you or your children require a daily Nutella fix — well, Nutella descends from gianduja. It’s chok.

So other felicitous combinations could arise. But they would still be expensive, and they wouldn’t be chocolate. Even good chok wouldn’t meet my needs, because I want to mainline the hard stuff every day. I don’t care about candy.

Again: between climate change, drought, mass migration, breakdown of trade relations and even war, the years of mass-market pure chocolate for the masses are numbered. I like the number “30,” because I’m old. But, no guarantees for anything.

Until then, I’m scrambling up and down the supply chain to get my fix and dance with the Aztecs. I will skip the obsidian blades and feather plumes; people wouldn’t understand.

Except for the two cybernetic Mesoamerican warriors on the wall of our TV room. They would understand. I think that the one on the right has had his chocolatl.