Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Cranberry Sauce

Growing up, my father did most of the cooking. He was good at it, too, if not particularly ambitious, more often not gravitating to a handful of staple dishes that, particularly after my sister left for college and there were only three mouths to feed, deteriorated to roast chicken most night, with a rotation of side dishes including baked potatoes, carrots, or corn.

But Thanksgiving was different. Not especially elaborate or adventurous either, but from my earliest memories of the holiday, my dad spent most of the day roasting a turkey, and he’d cook the stuffing right inside it. There were yams. And there was cranberry sauce.

The cranberry sauce came in gelatinous form, straight from the can—the tell-tale sign that it remained in the shape of a can in its bowl on our kitchen table, complete with the ridges from where its container had pressed upon it over months or years of storage in preparation for the one holiday in which families across the area sought after it.

And though that cranberry sauce explicitly required less effort than anything else in the spread, and was in no way unique to our family’s kitchen, something about the familiarity of it, and the way in which I could automatically associate it with that particular holiday-the one time a year when my grandmother would come to the house, and one of the few occasions when we’d eat family style and eat as much as we wanted rather then well-defined portions.

And I’d see that same cranberry sauce again. When I went to my best friend’s, and later a girlfriend’s family’s house for Thanksgiving and recognized the ridges, more subtle for sauce having been portioned into neat slices, the better for serving for oneself rather than scooping unevenly at the mass of the stuff with a spoon.

Years later, volunteering in Baltimore, we had a potluck dinner the children’s organization I worked with. On an ordinary week, one donor would contribute a full meal for all of the kids and tutors, but on Thanksgiving, we usually had a turkey donated and prepared for us, but the rest was up to each individual tutor to bring something. People brought sweet potatoes sprinkled with cinnamon, fresh-baked pumpkin pies, hand-whipped mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, and fancy salads.

And me--I brought four cans of cranberry sauce, sliced up in a pair of glass bowls.

And it was with no small pleasure that I watched the kids forego all of these more nutritious, ambitious, and more artfully prepared dishes in favor of the sugary goop I’d bought from the grocery store the night before, emptied into a bowl that morning, and stored in my office refrigerator until it was time to head to the church.

I watched the kids shovel cranberry sauce from the bowl greedily until the woman in charge cautioned them they could only take two slices a piece, for fear it would run out and the rest of the kids would throw a tantrum at not getting their taste.

And I knew that I had done right by Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Staying in Orbit

I grew up in a small town. The kind of place where I could see the stars in the sky when I was walking home from friends’ houses, or when I looked out my bedroom window, the lamp turned off to kill the reflection of artificial light against glass.

I appreciated the beauty of the stars. I’ve never been a scientist, and while I’ve had a passing curiosity about how things work, I’m just as often content that they do, and if there were to be a show of lights in the sky, more stable and quiet than fireworks, but no less magnificent, then who was I not to look on in wonder?

In middle school, I grew consumed with The X-Files. I loved the extended mythology and the way in which horror and optimism intertwined--that the trauma of watching aliens abduct his sister could galvanize Fox Mulder to chase after them, to buck systems and convention in favor of what he knew to be true. He knew, and he wanted to believe.

I didn’t know, but I, too, wanted to believe, and alongside what I can only assume was a generation of kids looking for flying saucers, I imagined one day I might see something.

And this interest in seeing and believing took on a greater urgency, maybe just because The X-Files was newer and cooler than the Start Trek: The Next Generation episodes I had already watched for years. Space seemed to readily accessible on TNG, not a struggle but a foregone conclusion, not a mystery but simply the way things were. I don’t recall Captain Picard ever looking out at the stars, even as his ship maneuvered across a field of them.

And perhaps that’s why, a decade later, I would grow enamored with Firefly--a show in which space travel was a given, but nothing was ever easy. It was a show about a ragtag crew just trying to make ends meet, in over their heads when they stumbled upon secrets The Alliance--which I fancied not to be so different from Star Trek’s Federation, or the government agencies the Cigarette Smoking Man was a party to--didn’t want to see the light of day. Moreover, there was theme song and it’s iconic refrain: You can’t take the sky from me.

In this unlikely, unsurprisingly canceled series, Joss Whedon somehow recognized that which is most appealing about space for dreamers the likes of myself--the vastness of it. The ability to disappear into it. The wandering, against all probability and intended mission (or prime directive).

I moved to Baltimore at the age of 24. I’d visited my share of big cities prior to that point, but it wasn’t until that six and a half year stretch that I grew more or less accustomed to starless nights.

One of my last nights in the city, before the move to Oregon, I listened to “Recovering the Satellites,” the title track from the 1996 Counting Crows album, and it set me off thinking. Adam Duritz references getting back to basics and somehow, on that listening I recognized something small town in his voice and in the lyrics--about the way small town people look out on the night sky and let their minds wander. On the bridge, Duritz’s voice soars, narrating a girl who “sees shooting stars and comet tails. She’s got heaven in her eyes.” Moments later, he goes on to sing the lyrics that have always resonated with me most of all: “We only stay in orbit for a moment of time. And you’re everybody’s satellite. I wish that you were mine.”

And I reflected on the many times I had identified with that lyrics—first when I learned that my middle school crush was moving out of state at the end of the school year, then in the fleeting nights of summer camp, then in the lead up to college graduation. Again, 30 years old and thinking of the friends I’d miss most after I left Baltimore and how little time we had left in orbit with one another.

When you see someone everyday, there’s a piece of you that expects it won’t ever change. But then a simple change of schools, jobs, towns, states, or sides of country can change everything. Before you know it, the people you took for granted had might as well be a galaxy away. And there you stand, without a transporter or shuttle in sight to help navigate the light years.

So, given the opportunity, I still like looking at stars, just like I did in childhood. Less so, now, in speculation about what I might find. More in consideration of who might look up at that very same black back drop and see the same formations of burning light. Who might remember my name at the same moment their faces cross my mind.