Archive for August, 2011

Summer 2011: a photo memory

School started, summer ended, and there’s not much more to be said. Here’s a look back at the fleeting bounty of Summer 2011. Parades, dogs, S’more stories, belly flops, monster trucks, road trips, cousins and stoop-sitting popsicle-licking good times.



Leftover mac and cheese: easy, healthy, yummy

My four- and five-year old can’t finish a box of macaroni and cheese, I can’t stomach the stuff, and I’m too cheap or un-American to just through it away. The only thing easier to make than mac-n-cheese is leftover mac-n-cheese. But to do it right, you’ve got to do something more than nuke it. Try this: add roasted red pepper and tomato soup to it.

Now roasted red pepper and tomato soup probably sounds off-base for kids, I know, but they love it. This may be the one point where the kids’ tastes converge: the boy won’t eat vegetables, the girl won’t eat whatever the boy does. It’s a principal thing. I’ve tried the Sneaky Chef crap, pureeing veggies and hiding it, but it’s way too much work for very little reward. Mac-n-cheese soup is the opposite.

In my fruitless quest to get the boy to eat vegetables, one serendipitous day I found two containers that needed to be eaten or pitched: yesterday’s mac and my wife’s favorite soup, Pacific Natural Foods organic roasted red pepper and tomato soup. It was a zero-loss experiment: it would’ve been pitched if they didn’t like it anyway. The day before the kids refused their first offering of spaghetti-O’s, which seemed traitorous to childhood, so I thought I’d try one more time.

“This is really good,” my boy said. Such words had never been uttered before. That night instead of eating I watched him and his sister clear their bowls, lick their spoons, and ask for more.

Now, the kids ask for mac-n-cheese soup instead of just plain mac-n-cheese. They get a serving (or so) of vegetables, it takes five minutes to make, and it clears fridge space. You don’t need a recipe card: just put the two things together, heat, stir, and serve. I’ve tried plain Andy Warhol Tomato soup but it’s too sharp for the kids’ taste. They prefer the Pacific brand soup: it’s organic, it’s got vegetables and vitamins and whatnot, but best of all, it’s sold at Costco.

One box, one carton, two meals, no guilt. It might be the best dad discovery yet.

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Welcome to the machines: guest essay by Ira Brooker

This month’s guest writer Ira Brooker grew up in the deep Wisconsin woods. He and his wife are raising a city boy more accustomed to mighty machines than mighty oaks.

“Watching him watch things is one of my greatest joys.”

The machines arrive each morning before seven. Their cacophony of beeps, clanks and belches is the first thing I hear upon waking. In the next room, my son Selby hears them too. I imagine he feels a tiny ripple of anticipation every day as the cobwebs clear and the sounds begin to take shape in his head. At 19 months, patience is far from his greatest virtue, but in this case he seems to have made peace with waiting. He knows he’ll be with the machines soon.

Selby and the machines

Selby is a city kid. More than a year and a half into this fatherhood bit, I still can’t quite get my head around that. I grew up in the woods. Not on a farm or in some rural subdivision, but in the middle of the deep dark forest in the hilly country of Western Wisconsin. My family’s nearest neighbors lived nearly a mile away across a corn field. Our only bathroom was a wooden outhouse handcrafted by my father. Our rare visitors had to maneuver a quarter-mile of rutted driveway interrupted by a fast-flowing creek at the midway point.

My son, in contrast, can hear the crackling speaker of the Wendy’s drive-thru from his backyard. He negotiates city buses as easily as any grizzled urban warrior. And his favorite form of daily entertainment is watching the machines. We live half a block off of University Avenue, the future site of Saint Paul’s much-anticipated light rail line. Nearly every day, I take my son by the hand and walk him up to the corner to watch men in yellow helmets tear up a major metropolitan thoroughfare using equipment half the size of our house. A few years from now, they’ll have built a state of the art rapid transit system that stops just outside our door. My son is absolutely enthralled by this, and why shouldn’t he be?

Watching him watch things is one of my greatest joys. The focus he puts on these earth-movers and hole-diggers is so intense that I suspect he could operate one from memory if he only had the size and strength. I can recall being similarly rapt when I was a kid, but it was the relative nothingness of sumac groves and babbling brooks that held me in thrall. Selby drinks in what Petula Clark called “the rhythm of the traffic in the city,” unfazed by churning traffic and passing vagrants. These are just the ambient noise of his everyday existence. I love to see it, but it also makes me uneasy.

Signs of the city

Even though I’ve lived in cities for years, I’ve think of myself as a country boy at heart. When you’re raised on grassy pastures, starry nights and unbroken solitude, it’s hard to throw it over completely for the city. My wife Myra is in a similar situation, coming from a sleepy town of barely 1,000 people. For us, the Big City was a destination, a far-off place full of wonder and danger. For the boy we’re raising, small towns and farmscapes will be the exotic outposts. Will he dread visits to his grandparents’ homes, where the nights are silent and there’s no Target right up the street? Will he dismiss country folk as backwards yokels? Will he gag melodramatically every time we drive past a manure-coated cornfield?

I surely hope not, but as with most things, only time will tell. Maybe someday Myra and I will relent in our determination to be city folk for life and trade in culture and convenience for small-town stability. But for now, all I can do is offer Selby my halting guidance through an urban jungle I can barely navigate myself. And keep watching the machines.


Ira Brooker is a writer and editor currently based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His day job allows him to work from home three days a week, which affords his son ample oppotunity to watch the machines from multiple angles. Ira blathers about pop culture at A Talent for Idleness and is in the process of getting up and running.



Fat man: big, fat, chubby

It’s official: I’m fat. I stopped denying it when the button popped off a pair of shorts, leaving me with only two pairs that still fit. It became a problem when, 15 minutes before a first meeting with a new client, I stood and the button on my pants popped off. I had to safety pin it to my belt. I am, unquestionably, what my kids call me: a big fat chubby.

I ride my bike and my thighs pattycake my belly. Shave my beard and lose my chin. Take my shirt off and lose my waistband. If this keeps up my stomach will eclipse my netherregions into furry shadow, a total eclipse of my part.

I can't believe this is a merchandise line

Women of a certain mentality call this a “dickie-do”, when your belly hangs out farther than your dickie-do.

My license still lists my weight at 155. I was 21. That was almost 30 goddamn pounds ago. And I’m still trying to fit into the same sizes. Denial runs thick. Actually, it rose over the swollen sandbags of fat until I had to buy a pair of jeans one size higher, from 32 to 33, for the first and—what I promised to be—last time in my adult life.

Like baldness and the disappearance of that Costco-sized bag of chips, fat doesn’t happen instantaneously; it’s a slow and gradual disgust. There’s the picture you see of yourself, a candid shot where you’re having fun and uninhibited, the rare ones that capture the true undeniable you in all your fat youness, and you have to stop because you feel the 1o years of neglect slapping your neck fat like a gizzard, pushing at your waistband like rising dough. Like catching your reflection in a storefront window and smoothing down your shirt only to find those aren’t wrinkles they are rolls.

Big. Fat. Chubby.

In the old comparatively impoverished days, one would look at a fat man with envy, because fat meant wealth and means. Fat comes with a sense of entitlement, as if it has been earned, a privilege to eat the world, a self-indulgent luxury.

My newfound me was amusing at first, like a gross party trick. But I’ve gained 20 pounds since I turned 30, since I got married, had kids, and limited the frequency of being an irresponsible goofball. I’ve stopped bartending and having late nights, when food is inconsequential. I have a routine now more in line with the typical mealtimes of the day, have cereal with the kids, and munchkins too, lunch, dinner, but the worst part is the end of the day, that two hour window when the kids are in bed and my metime includes stuffing my face full of pretzels and chips to stay awake.

I’m not obese: but I could lose a couple, ten, twenty. I’m still active, I work out once or twice a week, yet incrementally, late at night, I fatten. It’s work to stay fit. It’s more work to be fat. Even my mild expansion has saddled me with added ecological, economic, and health costs. From tying my shoes to stuffing myself into clothes, the fat makes things harder. If this keeps up, I’m going to have to go clothes shopping, which I loathe more than being fat.

I have a bet with my dad to lose 7% of bodyweight by his 70th birthday in October. I plan on winning. Counting calories. Corking my gaping maw. In the meantime I have to learn how to sew buttons.

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