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2,566 Words About Why I Would Probably Vote for Barack Obama, or Call Me "Maybe" [Oct. 25th, 2012|05:28 pm]
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
- Voltaire

It took me a little while to warm up to it, but I finally like Twitter, strictly as a joke- and link-delivery system. I don’t think it works as well for other purposes – as a medium for dialogue, as public memoir, as a tableau for philosophical argument – because there just isn’t enough room. Not enough room for nuance, or caveat, or even pauses to let things sink in.

And when time and space are at a premium, people are forced to assert things confidently, without equivocation. They appear certain. And nothing drives me more furiously crazy than rhetorical certainty.

Faith is one thing; faith is not a substitute for reason but I still admire the faithful. I pity the certain, because one must be awfully stupid to think themselves that smart. No one is that smart.

When people who don’t live and work in Washington, DC, learn that I live and work in Washington, DC, they invariably ask me about politics. I suppose this is natural. If I met an Italian, I would ask him or her about Italy; if I met Justin Bieber, I would ask him about shitty music.

And I can speak competently about the general mood within the corridors of power here, and in some cases the assumptions underlying that mood. For a city with so many secrets, there sure are a lot of people talking. You can’t help but be at least a little bit of an expert. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Washington is the only place in the universe where sound travels faster than light.”

But when people ask me what I think of the presidential election, I’m always at a loss for what to say, for two reasons:

First, on a short-term, practical level, I don’t think it makes much difference who wins. For better or worse, I don’t expect very much to change, because Obama and Romney are more alike than they are different. While grand pronouncements and bedrock principles are ostensibly what get a president elected, I think both of these guys are closet pragmatists. It’s the most apt description of Obama’s approach to domestic and foreign policy, in which he has repeatedly sought (if not necessarily found) consensus. It also explains why Romney appears to vacillate between conservative firebrand and avuncular moderate.

Even if there were stark differences between the two men, I’m not sure it would matter, because the presidency just isn’t that big a deal. The bully pulpit has devolved into a bulls-eye. As Michael Lewis writes in a remarkable Vanity Fair piece on Obama:

He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said.

It’s really rather remarkable that we’ve gone so quickly from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who assiduously worked to expand the reach and power of the executive office, to Barack Obama, who seems to have abdicated most of it. And I can’t figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, or if it was intentional or inadvertent, or if he had any agency in it at all or whether it was starved by obstructionist opposition.

There are really only three things over which the President has any control, anymore. But I’ll get to those later. The point is that no matter who wins, we’re probably screwed/OK (depending on your point of view) either way.

Second, on a grand-design, philosophical level, all political campaigns are pretty much bullshit.

I look at elections the way my wife must look at professional football – a noisy ruckus, enamored with its own esoteric complexity and arcane rules, populated by an endless hierarchy of coaches, coordinators, cross-checkers, specialists, statisticians, Davids, Goliaths and glamor-boys. It’s a closed society, with its own language and traditions, and famously nepotistic. There is a dedicated media-entertainment complex built around it, with the seemingly contradictory mission of building mythology while exposing hypocrisy. Fanatic true-believer nutjobs abound, with vulgar invective and sudden violence a persistent threat. Issues of race, drugs, crime and health care occasionally flare up and threaten to overwhelm the game itself. Economic inequality seems to be a constant problem, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there is such a shitload of money at stake – such that if it were its own company it would be one of the largest in the world. And yet it does nothing, produces nothing but winners and losers, year after year, before wiping the slate clean and immediately starting all over again.

At the center of all that, there must be something noble and pure, perhaps even inspiring. But I’ll be damned if I can see it anymore.

I happen to enjoy watching professional football very much. But I have the luxury of knowing that the NFL is a transparently upfront transaction: my money and attention in exchange for action and entertainment. The NFL wants as many viewers as possible. Political campaigns, however, only need so many votes and are free to disregard the margin. Why would they bother giving me anything?

So I’m not sure if I’ll vote at all in the 2012 election. Given the statistical insignificance of my individual presidential vote, it seemed like a relatively pointless exercise even when there was another actual state or local lawmaker on the ballot.

I’m going to have to paraphrase an excerpt from A. Whitney Brown’s The Big Picture: An American Commentary, because I can’t find it online anywhere and I long ago lent my copy to my 11th grade American History teacher (Mr. White), who never gave it back. Anyway:

It used to be that the United States was up to its frilly collar in quality presidential candidates. You could go to the ballot box, check one name or the other, and you knew you’d be okay for the next four years. Then, sometime around the time of John Quincy Adams, it came to be a distinct choice between the better of two options. Soon voters were voting for the guy they disliked the least. Eventually voters began voting against the guy they disliked the most.

It’s easy to posit that the forests of presidential timber have been barren for a while now. But I think it’s easier to lay blame at the feet of a political system that has cravenly synthesized candidates and commoditized voters. “Political science” has always been a misnomer, because – as I described before – politics isn’t a science, it’s a bloodsport.

At best, politics is an exercise in the Heisenberg Uncertainty (there’s that word again) Principle, which states that any experiment is spoiled by your participation in it. Which brings me back to voting.

As a resident of the District of Columbia, I pay federal income tax. But my elected representatives are denied voting rights in Congress. If my opinion as a taxpaying citizen is to be heard on a federal matter of interest – a bill, or law, or a regulation, or a statement of administration policy – the most effective strategy would literally be for me to shout it from my balcony.

That’s a problem. Obviously there is a basic constitutional roadblock to the remediation of the issue – D.C. is not a state. Many strategies have been proposed, from D.C. statehood to retrocession of the district by Maryland. Others have suggested the contrapositive approach of exempting D.C. residents from federal income tax. I confess that I don’t really grasp the specific practical or constitutional challenges presented by each proposal. I don’t really have a preference between any of these approaches and I have little confidence that anyone will ever do anything about it. There is too much investment in the status quo.

But the Democrats get my support on this matter if only because I believe their self-interest – the D.C. delegation, if it ever existed, would constitute a reliably Democratic voting bloc – is parallel with my own desire for congressional representation. Of course, even then – given the district’s political history – it would probably come down to a choice between entrenched corrupt Democrats, which would make me cynical about voting all over again.

But if I was voting this year, I think I would probably vote for President Obama. My reasons are noticeably less lofty than they were four years ago:

As I mentioned above, there are really only a few things that a president can really control anymore. One of them is foreign policy, where I think Obama has acquitted himself appropriately, if imperfectly. It worries me that Romney emulates George W. Bush’s “Buckaroo Diplomacy.” I’m not a geopolitical expert but I’m pretty sure that the reality in Asia and the Middle East is incredibly complicated, even more than you or I could possibly know, and the way to quell that sort of brinksmanship is not to go over there and start slapping people with your dick.

Another thing the president can control is the judicial nomination process, particularly for the Supreme Court. People like to chirp a lot about judicial activism and judicial restraint, but it seems to me that the real danger is the intrusion of policy preferences and party orthodoxy into jurisprudence – for the Democratic and the Republican appointees. Given the rapid desiccation of left-leaning Justices Ginsburg (age 79), Breyer (76) and Kennedy (74), it seems preferable to maintain ideological balance on the court. (Justice Scalia, at 76, is in no danger of exiting the court, as vampires have been known to live for many centuries.)

And the other thing the president can control is his cabinet and executive branch agencies. If there’s a failing grade on his report card, this is where I would mark it. His attorney general and secretary of energy have stumbled embarrassingly, and his secretaries of labor and HHS haven’t always acquitted themselves gracefully, either. While the Obama Administration’s legislative strategy has been largely conciliatory, its regulatory attitude (with the notable exception of Treasury/IRS) has been openly hostile toward the regulated. A second term probably won’t be any better. But a Romney Administration could well swerve sharply toward deregulation, which might be just as bad.

If, however, we continue with the premise that the presidents are, individually, largely ineffectual, we have to consider the partnerships they forge. Inevitably, at least to some extent, every moderate is held hostage by the radical elements of their own party. I have no more love for the far-left fundamentalist wackos than I do for the far-right fundamentalist wackos – I blame both for totally screwing up the health care bill, not to mention immigration reform, the stimulus bill, etc.

But ultimately, if the president is going to be hamstrung by the extreme wing of his own party, it might as well be the extremists who care about people, rather than the ones who don’t believe in evolution.*

*Then again, if I spent any significant amount of time listening to Ann Coulter, I might come to doubt evolution, myself.

And finally we have to consider what each person’s election would represent. The image of Barack Obama as a transformative, post-racial, post-partisan political figure no longer exists, of course. That “high road” has been obliterated. So I look for other messages my vote could communicate.

A strong argument could be made for electing Mitt Romney as a way of holding Obama – and all lawmakers, by extension – to higher standards of responsibility and accountability, as if to say “you have to do better.” I mean, things are rough out there. Really rough. I'm not blind to that; Mitt's right, sometimes you have to fire people. But this message really only resonates if you oust all the incumbents, and for some reason that ain't happening.

But I think the better way to make that statement is to make clear to Republicans that attack and obstruction is not an advisable strategy for scoring political points, just as the 2004 presidential election chastened congressional Democrats and created an atmosphere more conducive to cooperation. Whereas a vote for Romney would be the equivalent of buying ice cream for a pouting child, a vote for Obama could be the broccoli they need to eat if they are go grow healthy and strong.

Biden is Laffy Taffy.

Mostly though, I just get the impression of Obama as a man who isn’t “certain.” You can knock him for that, if you want. Maybe you find something more reassuring about a president who is sure he’s right. Not me. I need a guy who considers all the possibilities. Who appreciates dissent. Who knows how smart he is, and isn’t.

I think Romney is an OK guy. I’ll let his words speak for him here:

“Moral certainty, clear standards, and a commitment to spiritual ideals will set you apart in a world that searches for meaning.”

There has been a demonization, of late, of the Undecided Voter, as if it’s a terrible thing to take every single word into consideration before making a choice. I realize this sort of contradicts my earlier argument that all campaigns are bullshit – “what’s the point in waiting for more information if campaigns distribute nothing but hogwash,” you may ask – but my point is that no one should be under any public obligation to make up their minds early. Besides, you never know when a candidate is going to screw up and accidentally say something honest.

People especially hate the “low-information” undecided voters, the ones who probably work hard all day at thankless jobs and don’t want to spend their precious leisure time watching two exquisitely coached men try to come up with creative and thoughtful new ways to call the other guy an asshole. I can’t really blame them for eschewing the news, which has its own depressing institutional defects, in favor of something less “real,” like the Kardashians.

I would vote for Obama, if I were voting. But I can admit that I’m not certain about it. I have friends and family, very smart people, whom I admire and respect – and who may be reading this – who I know support Mitt Romney. I know they have good reasons. This makes me nervous.

I have other friends and family who love their country and mean well – and who may be reading this – who despise Obama (and his policies, but mostly the man himself) so stridently and venomously, so reflexively and with such uncompromising conviction, that I feel compelled to retrench in opposition to their visceral hatred.

And I have other friends and family, whose compassion and patriotism are beyond reproach – and who may be reading this – who support Obama with such cock-eyed fervor and certitude that I kind of wish they didn’t agree with me. And I start to second-guess myself all over again.

Democracy is hard, man.

So you can call me undecided, but I prefer “uncertain.” #Obama2012
LinkVent your spleen

Falling 'n' Love [Oct. 8th, 2012|04:55 pm]
This was my official entry for the contest. It’s actually a pretty substantial edit of a much longer journal entry I wrote way back in 2005. It was about four times as long and included a lot of stuff about my brother (who was with me on this adventure) as well as some additional excerpts from the waiver form I signed.

My biggest concern about this piece was that it was sort of conventional and “obvious,” such that there might actually be a number of skydiving entries for the judges to sift through. But in the end I thought it was simply the funnier piece. It received the most support from my peer reviewers, although I think the story still makes my mom nervous, even just reading it seven years later.

This is the exact version I submitted, 1,000 words exactly.

I’m not by nature a thrill-seeker. I’m perfectly content with the thrills that I find inadvertently, like an unusually well-blended smoothie. But skydiving always seemed like one of those things everyone should do before dying (if not *right* before dying), like running a marathon or falling in love. Skydiving seemed easier than those other things, since skydiving allows gravity to do most of the work and does not require high levels of personal charm.

I was in Las Vegas – where extreme sports like skydiving and bungee jumping and prostitution comprise a cottage industry, with ads promising Heart-Pumping Excitement! and Free Shuttle Service! – when I arranged a “tandem” jump, in which a novice skydiver is strapped to the front of an experienced skydiver who knows how to operate an altimeter and parachute without the use of adult diapers.

When the shuttle picked me up the next morning, the driver gave me and six other suckers a clipboard, a pen, and the scariest document I have ever read. It began:


Pain? Until I read this clause, I had just assumed that if things went wrong, it was The End. Suddenly I was worried about spending my last five conscious minutes as a semi-solid mass.

The next two pages were almost entirely about giving up the right to sue the company, its related entities, its employees, their pets, etc. ever again in perpetuity – while acknowledging that the "covered activities" may be subject to "singular or collective inabilities, failures, shortcomings, bad judgements, wrong decisions, mistakes, actions or inactions, errors or omissions, physical &/or mental blunders & all forms of oversight & simple or gross negligence.”

Forget death and pain. At that point I started worrying about my mom, and the possibility of having my remains mailed home in a manila envelope, along with my signed waiver preventing her from suing anyone for the postage due.

Eventually we rolled into a dusty airstrip. Milling about was a ragtag crew of Skydiving Professionals, most of whom appeared to have just awakened from sleeping in the hangar.

Our “training” consisted of a 20-minute video demonstrating the basic skydiving maneuver: The Banana Position, in which the novice jumper curls his or her legs backwards between his or her partner’s legs while tilting the head back. We also learned such important techniques as the Climb-Out, Clearing the Ears, and No Touching Anything!!!. At the end, a sober and serious man talked about how tandem skydiving is an experimental method that is currently being sanctioned only for study purposes, and noted that a full legitimization of the process is expected sometime in the early 1990s.

We were assigned jumpsuits, harnesses, gloves and goggles, as well as a padded “helmet” that would not have protected my head against an errant bird, much less the hard Nevada earth. I was then introduced to my tandem jumper, Ace, who exuded a shaggy, Zen-like confidence and the faint odor of Red Bull.

While Ace and his fellow experts geared up, I stared at the plane on the tarmac. It looked like it was made from tin foil and might tip over from a stiff wind, which incidentally seemed to be growing stiffer, though that may simply have been the tingling in my extremities.

Once we all filed in, the plane shook to life. We took off, climbing, climbing and climbing as the sliding door rattled violently. My thoughts turned to the legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, damaged his parachute and never got to say goodbye to his girlfriend.

As rote procedure gave way to the reality of my situation, my brain initiated its full-scale panic sequence, which resembles Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, only with a preliminary pants-wetting phase.

DENIAL: “You can quit now. Nobody will ever know,” I told myself. “You have nothing to prove. Gravity is soooo 16th Century.”

One by one, the jumpers slid along the bench and tumbled out of the plane. I was the only one left, creating a powerful peer-pressurized vacuum.

ANGER: “What is wrong with these people? Am I the only rational person left? What moron even came up with this macho bullshAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!”

Ace pushed us both through the door. “The Banana Position” became a novel afterthought as my legs cramped into a painful rictus.

BARGAINING: “Please oh please let me survive this and I promise I will eat more vegetables and give change to panhandlers and file my taxes early and vote for Obama.” Though not exactly a praying man, I thought that maybe God might be listening because I was so nearby and screaming so loud.

The air whooshed into my lungs and my goggles and every crease of my body, rendering me literally senseless.

DEPRESSION: “I can’t make out anything up here – not Hoover Dam, not Lake Mead … I can’t even identify solid Earth. Also, I’m suffocating in mid-air while plummeting toward certain death. This was a bad idea.”

I felt a jolt and let my exhausted body go limp. The parachute burst into action and my free-fall became a gentle morning glide over the desert.

ACCEPTANCE: “I’m alive! And everything is beautiful! I love you, Earth! I love you, God! I love you, Ace!” Gradually it occurred to me that I had just paid $300 for a ten-minute flight and two minutes of sheer terror, but I accepted that, too.

It would be poetic to say that skydiving is like falling in love. Unfortunately, this is not true. They share some common elements, mostly relating to the collapse of one’s autonomic nervous system. But falling in love is based on mutual affection and respect, rather than mere gravity, and typically costs way more than $300.

Still, there was something strangely transcendent about it. For a cheap thrill, skydiving somehow brought me closer to humanity, and nature, and God. (But, thankfully, not too close.)
LinkVent your spleen

Love in the Wings [Oct. 8th, 2012|04:34 pm]
This piece was my runner-up. It’s clearly more of a traditional memoir than the macaroni & cheese piece and is probably the most “relatable” of my three drafts. A few people liked this one best, including my wife, and one other person who argued that its “pathos and bittersweetness … exert a stronger pull.”

Then again, one person found it rather pedestrian, saying, “I can't even get through [it] without checking my Facebook page every other word I'm so bored by it.”

This one eventually lost out because I thought the ending was kind of weak and the overall tone was more wistful than lighthearted.

The version below was edited to exceed the original 1,000 word limit (currently 1,076) and includes pictures.

This is going to sound like one of those stories about the crazy things that a guy will do for a girl. It’s true that I would never have been in that mess if not for The Girl, and it’s true that this was just the first in a series of events seemingly choreographed by The Girl to destroy me. But the real villain of this story is the spotlight, and how hot it burns.

In the summer after my junior year of college, I was smitten with a woman who held a leadership position on the alumni outreach club, the primary purpose of which is basically kissing up to major donors – the kind of dedicated philanthropists who endow professorships and have memorial urinals named after them.

Since I was pursuing my own special kind of “targeted outreach” to The Girl, I signed up as an auxiliary volunteer for the annual June “Thank You, Alumni! Say, We Could Really Use a New Podiatry Wing” Event. For me, this pretty much meant inconsequential jobs like stuffing gift bags and scheming possible places to sneak away and make out.

On Saturday afternoon, however, we were to host the keynote luncheon on the main quad and I was tasked with supporting the First Aid and cooling station. The temperature was expected to touch 95 degrees that day, with humidity approaching the consistency of plasma, and the organizers were concerned that some of the more elderly alumni might die before they had a chance to amend their wills. But before I had the chance to nurse any wealthy benefactors back to mere infirmity, The Girl came to me with a unique opportunity.

At the luncheon we were to unveil a brand-new costume for the university mascot, the Yellowjacket – a costume subsidized by alumni contributions. But the volunteer mascot performer was ill, or had perhaps melted in his car on the way over. “Would you be willing to fill in?” she asked. I quickly accepted, the way a dog quickly accepts a ride to the vet.

Not only was I saving The Girl’s day, but it was a chance to recapture the glory of my youth as a drama nerd. At the risk of immodesty, I confess I was a pretty big deal back in the day, bringing almost inappropriate levels of sensuality to the role of Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls.” But alas, after high school I was scared away from the collegiate theater program by all the cigarette smoking and artistic integrity.

My adrenaline surged as I imagined delivering the mascot performance of a lifetime, so impressing my audience that they would insist on repeat Yellowjacket performances, propelling me to a full-time Yellowjacket gig, which I would then parlay into a guest Yellowjacket appearance on a Sportscenter commercial and, ultimately, a successful run the U.S. Senate.

And then put on the brand-new costume for the first time.

The head alone was 25 pounds of thick fiberglass and black fur, attached a by body harness – like a giant athletic supporter – presumabily designed to stabilize the head for gymnastic maneuvers, linebacker collisions, etc. The Girl, along with the school’s alumni affairs representative, appeared baffled by the various bands and buckles as they strapped me in.

Then they wrapped me in a thick polyester-and-mohair jumpsuit, along with puffy yellow mittens and black slippers. Already the headpiece was getting stuffy, but I could see and breathe clearly enough through the black mesh eyeballs. And what I saw in the mirror was something less than the heroic image I had envisioned.

While I was nominally a “yellowjacket,” there was nothing at all fearsome about me, except possibly the long, pointed “stinger” protruding from my headpiece at eye level. I looked more like a fat bumblebee, a cross between “The Fly” and Jack-in-the-Box. The only sensuality I evoked was a mild itchy sensation.

The alumni affairs guy gave me three rules: (1) don’t break, tear, soil or otherwise damage the suit. (2) Absolutely no gestures that might be construed as lewd, violent, offensive or otherwise inconsistent with the university’s family-friendly mission and spirit. And (3), no talking, in keeping with mascot tradition, although onomatopoeic “buzzing” would be permitted.

They carted me out to the luncheon tent around dessert time with great fanfare. As the alma mater played, I sprinted down the aisle entreating high-fives from the alumni, who sat unmoved and mildly confused.

The Girl introduced me personally to several very important individuals and couples, to which I could only respond with enthusiastic pantomimes like “thumbs up!”, “put up your dukes!”, “my arms are crossed!” and “let’s do the Twist!”

The alumni response was tepid, perhaps because they were stuffed with salmon and actively hickory-smoking under the midday sun. Desperate to raise the energy level, I started dancing with some of the children in attendance.

My sweating quickly became more profuse and my breathing more labored as my dance moves slowed to the point where I was simply swaying back and forth. It wasn’t until I stopped dancing that I realized how dizzy I was. It gradually occurred to me that I might be in some physical danger, but out of actorial professionalism I was reluctant to vocalize it or gesticulate too wildly. The last thing I remember is raising my hand, as if to say “Hey, wait a minute.” Unfortunately, one of the larger, stronger kids misunderstood this as “High five!”

I woke up at the First Aid tent, with The Girl pouring cold water over me. It’s still unclear whether I had heat “stroke” or “exhaustion” or whatever; all I know is that I was so foul and sweaty, I couldn’t determine if I had in fact soiled the costume.

Glancing inside the giant helmet/death-mask steaming next to me, I saw a small black lump inside the crown. A closer look revealed a battery compartment and an on/off switch with the label “ventilation fan.” The Girl looked at me, said “Oops, sorry,” and smiled her get-out-of-jail-free smile.

We dated for a year or so after that and had some laughs. With her devious charm she my heart aflame, until the damned thing was burnt to cinders. It occurs to me now that our whole relationship – like my acting career – was born and died of too much heat.

Sadly, the heart has no ventilation fan. And some of us will just never be cool.
LinkVent your spleen

Now You're Cooking [Oct. 8th, 2012|04:29 pm]
One commenter liked this piece the best. Pretty much everyone else who read it thought it was too weird.

Ultimately I rejected this story on the grounds that it was pushing the definition of “memoir” too far, given that it was not an account of a specific experience and in fact digresses at length on proto-philosophical flights of fancy.

The version below was edited to exceed the original 1,000 word limit (currently 1,104).

In the early days – and I mean the early days, before the Internet – eating was treacherous business. Finding sustenance was literally a matter of life and death, and the whole notion of “comfort food” was about as familiar as “power steering.”

Man hunted and foraged for his own meals, passing these skills onto their sons early, such that the central preoccupation of most cave-parents was whether their son would “get in to a good forest.” And when a boy came of a certain age, his village would send him out into the wild with some rudimentary weapons and a quasi-religious ceremony featuring a corny prehistoric DJ and a theme like “Woolly Mammoth” or “Invention of Fire.”

Things are different today. Most of us let multinational agribusiness conglomerates do our hunting and foraging for us. The only thing we really have to worry about anymore is whether this food contains gluten, whatever that is. I often imagine that all the gluten we are removing from our food is being weaponized by the U.S. government, just in case we ever need to invade Seattle.

For most folks, food is now the only safe harbor from existential anxiety. And Macaroni and Cheese has emerged as the most comfortable of comfort foods and the contemporary analog to that ancient youthful rite of passage.

Macaroni and Cheese was invented by Yankee Doodle, who came to a town (thought to be south Philadelphia) and whose original recipe called for one part feather to one part cap. Benjamin Franklin ordered it “Wit Wiz,” and a classic American dish was born. The recipe has evolved over the years, such that it has developed its own warning color as a defense against predators.

And now the recipe has been streamlined to the point where it has become the first “meal” a young person learns how to cook. This is important because no one knows more about existential anxiety than the American pre-teenager, perpetually subject to the callous whims of peer pressure, authority figures and toxic hormone levels, they crave comfort and control. As if to meet this need perfectly, macaroni and cheese has become every teenager’s first step toward self-determination. And rickets.

I must have been 13 or so when I cooked my first batch – from the familiar blue box, not from scratch. (There was no scratching involved whatsoever. Incidentally, if your cooking regularly involves scratching, consult a physician.)

Fortunately, I was already well-schooled in the cooking of pasta, the first and most vital step of the macaroni and cheese recipe. The most essential skill was patience, since my parents’ stovetop was of the electric variety, which meant that boiling water took what seemed like several hours. As it is said, “a watched pot never boils.” And just in case you’re curious, it doesn’t work with mixing bowls, coffee mugs or mason jars, either. Avoid plastic. Just forget about wicker.

And then, once you dumped the pasta in the water, it took forever to cook thoroughly. My mother used to say that you could throw a string of spaghetti against the wall, and if it stuck, it was done. Unfortunately, the small, tubular noodles were much more difficult to retrieve individually than a long string of pasta, and I would find myself hovering over the pot, desperately and fruitlessly trying to snag one of the noodles with the tynes of my fork, a practice that would accurately foreshadow my teenage romantic life.

Once the pasta was done, it was time for the butter and milk. The instructions specified a quarter-cup of butter and a quarter-cup of milk, which I believed to be a ratio carefully calibrated to promote good health and vitality. Now I realize it is intended as a rough guideline intended to delay coronary disease.

I would carefully measure out the butter, largely ignoring those hash marks on the wrapper, which are always warped and off-center and seem way more problematic than just eyeballing it. Instead of bothering with those arbitrary and misleading measurements, the butter and margarine people might as well just print a disclaimer giving up on the American educational system.

Additionally, my parents raised me to be super-careful about leaving milk out and letting it spoil, so I got in the habit of leaving the milk carton in the fridge until the last possible moment before hurriedly measuring a quarter-cup into the pot and then quickly putting the carton back. I realize, of course, that this makes zero sense, given that I’m stirring the cold milk into a warm pot. But years of guilt-based discipline have conditioned me to regard milk sitting out on the counter as a normal person might regard a smallpox outbreak.

The last and most essential step was the addition of the cheese-like flavor compound, which is as apt a symbol of American scientific ingenuity as has ever been developed – the modern-day equivalent of magic beans, except with much less soluble fiber. Through the miracle of science, milk and cheese cultures are transformed to a crystalline powder, preserved and packaged for my convenience, then brought to life again in my saucepan.

With a wooden spoon as my magic wand, I gradually added the powder into the pot while stirring, careful to maintain an even mixture with the noodles rather than dumping the whole thing on top and letting it “trickle down.” While this “trickle down” approach was widely discredited in the late 1980s, a conservative subset of chefs have recently decried equitable distribution as “culinary socialism” and threatened to filibuster dessert.

Once an even consistency was achieved finally the dish was complete. (As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of bad macaroni and cheese.”) Many folks add chicken, or sliced wieners, or broccoli (presumably as a garnish) to the dish. But in that moment, I was eager to savor the simple purity of my creation while my Mom cleaned up.

It made for a simple, satisfying meal. But as I grew older, I came to realize that the comfort wasn’t in the macaroni and cheese itself; it was in the knowledge that the macaroni and cheese was always there for me, just ten minutes away. It is not just fuel, but emotional sustenance.

Obviously, macaroni and cheese is not a substitute for love, though it is a highly effective love delivery system (and, incidentally, an adequate substitute for roofing insulation).

Learning to love oneself is a crucial part of growing up. In a way, I became a man when I first cooked macaroni and cheese. Our caveman ancestors would be proud. Although they would probably be frightened by the color.
LinkVent your spleen

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