In the kitchen with pinklightsabre: the cuisine of Scotland

‘Arbroath smoky,’ fall of 2015

In the morning on the third day the rain had finally stopped, the fog lifted, and we could see the land around us. I took a walk along a dirt road beneath a canopy of trees that had lost most of their leaves. The road was used by farming equipment and heavy tractors that formed grooves in the earth but allowed a dry place to stand where the dirt had hardened along the edges to a lip and got pushed up and froze partway overnight. I stood looking through the trees at the far-off fields and bundles of hay rolled up and dozing—and further still, where a family of wild beasts noticed me and stirred: they stretched their long necks and stood, then fled in a flash and bounced as they leapt, as though on pogo sticks—some type of antelope, I guessed. It brought me a sense of calm and contentment and I thought to myself, this is Scotland.

And we’d brought an old issue of Bon Appétit with us, that featured ‘the cuisine of Scotland,’ from a series the magazine ran in the early 2000’s, each year picking a region like Italy, Mexico…but we sneered when it arrived (‘the cuisine of Scotland’), flipped through the recipes and shelved it…and I thought wouldn’t it be funny to bring it with us on our road trip, to actually cook out of it?

There was a guide to drinking Scotch, and a piece by Bill Bryson climbing a Scottish mountain (which was more a hill, by American standards).

The photos were warm and expansive; they captured the rolling green lawns outside some large, old estate. All the pictures made you want to go there. In between, because the magazine was a good 15 years old, the ads looked dated; many featured Starbucks, they carried the design of another time.

We’d tacked up a map of the country to my mom’s schrank in Germany and plotted our route with Post-it notes zig-zagging our way from Arbroath north to Inverness, further still to the Orkneys and down again, then back eastwards, back west to where we’d ferry across to Belfast after Thanksgiving.

The first dish I cooked was called Cullen skink, a thick chowder comprised of potatoes, onion, smoked haddock and cream. The name comes from the town Cullen on the North Sea coast of Scotland, and skink is a common name for soup, but comes from the middle Dutch schenke, possibly looping back to the German word for thigh or ham (Schinken). We sopped it up with bread, and coated it with cracked pepper.

We filled our German car with all our things and when we arrived at each rental we unpacked it: the heavy plastic crates we nabbed from my mom’s vegetable co-op and filled with cookware, books, Legos…the Le Creuset Dutch oven my mom lent us that weighs a good four or five kilos but has good heat transfer…the guitar Lily got from Eberhard, but didn’t play too much.

And when it was time to leave our first place in Arbroath after the rains had stopped, there was a formal garden with a gate and tables covered in tarps where they must have had parties at one time: I took the kids there to poke around, to try to imagine what it would be like, but it was windy and muddy and cold, and strange to be there for just a few days and then off again: and with all our moving around for the next three months across the UK, it started a series of goodbyes to places we made a brief connection with but had to leave, each departure consuming the memory of the last until it made us callus by the end, the goodbyes and packing up mechanical—and like all of life I knew on some level we’d miss it, we’d regret all there was we couldn’t consume. We’d already gotten attached and it was time to go.

The day we left the UK it was foggy and still as we sat in a queue of cars waiting to get on the ferry below the chalk-white cliffs of Dover. It was the first or second day of February and we’d been gone since late October. We stayed the night in a town outside of Paris we couldn’t pronounce, and in the morning when we woke we went down to breakfast in the small hotel, but no one knew how to cook the eggs properly in the steamer, and when Dawn cracked the shell it ran all over the linens, and we had to just leave it like that, and all the French saw us do it.

In the afternoon we pulled back into Besigheim, the small German village where my mom’s lived since 2004—and that night she cooked us dinner, we saw our dog and cat again, it was time for the kids to go back to German school, and soon Dawn and I would be off to Berlin to celebrate Valentine’s Day, our first time away as a couple since Dawn’s birthday last October.

When it was time to leave Germany late April, I left that copy of Bon Appétit with other magazines in the room we used to home school the kids, that we tried to set up as a classroom but it never really worked. I left it behind as you must with things you carry around too long, or put too much value in, but hope in some way you’ll find again when it’s time.

Cullen skink references borrowed from Wikipedia.




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Mid-autumn snow in the foothills

Overnight the rain turned to snow and in the morning, made the lawns wet and patchy looking, the tree limbs bent back like bow strings. I drove Lily to the Park & Ride then walked down to the lake, remembering the one snow in Scotland we had this time of year, driving from Oban on the west coast back east to where we’d started our trip, in Edinburgh. How thrilling the light snow in the hills of Scotland, though it put Dawn’s teeth on edge, those narrow roads, our stick-shift—and when we finally arrived I had a hard time parking and broke the license plate on the car of a construction worker who saw me do it, but then said don’t worry, it’s OK.

I stood for a while watching the snow fall on the lake, the sky turned from dark gray to light—and walking home everyone had their pumpkins out still, though with the snow it all looked like a mistake. I took the witches down from the trees and fed the dog the remains of a steak. Though it was two years ago now, I wanted to retrace every leg of that trip. I imagined the colors were the same, that day we left Oban and the rain turned to snow, the day Charlotte got car-sick and I pulled over by a waterfall, scrubbed the soiled clothes in running water, bundled them in a plastic bag and threw it in the back of the car.

At our place in Inverness we celebrated Halloween but the Scots called it guising, they covered themselves in ash and went out to sing a tune or recite a poem, that was the thought: and maybe they were just frugal, but nowhere was anyone handing out candy to our kids, they came home with empty bags, and sunken souls. But the people who rented our flat had Monty Python and the Holy Grail on DVD so we watched that as a family for the first time and then driving to Oban Dawn shouted, that’s the castle!—and I pulled over, she was right: it was the same castle from the end of the film, and I posed by it in the mist.

I sat in my car by the light, the same spot I wept after the election last year, the gray skies, some gold and brown from the leaves. I was starting to change too; I enjoyed my job fully, it consumed me. I imagined how I looked, glazed over and distant behind the wheel, planning my day. I was feeling more important, more valued, it goaded me on. I did better work. It was like someone pumped me up with a foot pedal and I expanded to become larger, larger…

For the first time I went on a dinner with business partners and my client, though all the entrees on the menu were more than $50, and they were ordering bottles of wine, cocktails…I got the risotto (mistake!), but supped on raw oysters and Chablis, shared bread pudding with my client, walked her to the parking garage, remarked the snow line’s dropping to a thousand feet tonight…and when I came downstairs in the morning it was still dark outside but white, and I thought it’s about time we turn the clocks back again, I think it’s about time.

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The Famous Golden Larch

I don’t know what it is about me and hats, but I keep losing mine. There was the green Irish cap I got in a small, West Cork town: I wrote the name inside the rim (SKIBBEREEN 12-15) to mark the memory of that Christmas Eve with my mom visiting from Germany, the shops closed on Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day, us loading up on supplies in town. That hat went missing in the cracks of my mom’s old German house. And the pillbox hat I got in the hills of southern France at a festival, this one hand-spun with yarn from a woman and rickety wooden loom: it was brown/copper with flecks of different color from the yarns she used, and they were still on the French Franc then, and though I was always leaving it at a bar or somewhere it always came back, until one day it didn’t.

I thought about those two hats climbing up the trail to Ingalls Pass, realizing I’d left the new one I bought behind, now only had the balaclava that was thin and funny looking. I had that, and a sombrero and bandana I could cobble together if it got too cold. They said the snow-line started at the pass and I’d camp down at the basin, this time with just my bivy sack and tarp (no tent): I’d left the shovel behind too, assuming the snow wouldn’t be so deep, though I didn’t have much to go on, to assume that.

Every time I go backpacking it’s an excuse to buy new stuff at REI, and this time it was a good, wool hat: dark gray, that seemed to suit the color of a new era I’d stepped into (middle aged), that was functional but had some style too.

I thought of all the times I’d gone up to Ingalls Lake, to camp in a nearby basin with great views of Mount Stuart, and in mid-autumn, the larch trees that lose their needles, but turn gold before they do. Brad said he’d bring his good camera and come meet me; the larch look good against the snow and blue skies, and the colors of the nearby peaks all run pink at dusk.

I thought of the times I’d come in late October: once, when I organized a trip with some colleagues but had to back out and they went anyway, and one of the guys left a small rock on my desk with a note that made me sad I didn’t go—I saved it for a while but then it got taken home and confused with all the other rocks we’d saved from our outings, the pieces of driftwood shaped like faces or wands: all of it mixed in a jar of memories, of spare coins and baubles: things that only meant something to us, that ceased to exist once forgotten.

There were times with Brad and his girlfriend Ann, it seemed the light fell so fast with the sun disappearing below the ridges, late afternoon. And the last time I’d come with Lily: she said the lake was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, we sat on some rocks by the shore sharing a snack with my pocket knife. I looked at those rocks when I came this time and there were just a few other parties in the sun, stretching: and I left before getting wistful.

I made it to camp in the morning and kicked out a space for my bivy sack, using my boots that were heavy enough they worked like a shovel blade to clear the snow. And then I put down the weed barrier I used for my footprint, tied the tarp to a couple trees, anchored it on the corners, sat on my bear canister and checked the time: only 12-noon, plenty of time to walk to the lake. Apart from gathering water, there wasn’t much else to do.

I thought about my trips with the Mountaineer club, so full of ego then: I’d huff and puff and blow myself up the mountain through sheer force of pride, thick enough to cover the gaps in my skill and experience like a cloud, a fog I put out. And how I’d do this deep, yogic breathing exercise as I marched uphill, that couldn’t have been nice for anyone.

It was being outdoors that triggered memories of those times and made me feel young and strong again: like some crux part of me flickered outside of myself and returned, to reanimate me.

There were the climbing tights I had with so many holes from me falling or bushwhacking, I bought these ’60s-style patches to cover them: a pink flower on my butt, a VW bug on my thigh.

And before I’d left for Ingalls this time in the kitchen, there was the smell of something so bad I had to take the garbage out: it was like something rotting, the dank smell of piss: and I realized with horror it was me, my shirt, the same shirt I’d worn since 2009 or before—and it was time to just throw that shirt out I decided, all sentiment aside.

We’d been through Scotland this time two years ago, and didn’t expect any kind of Peter Pan heavy aspect to anything, not at all: but there it started in Arbroath, when the Pan film was playing at a new theater and we were the only ones watching it…and the next day Dawn said this is where the author grew up, we’re passing through his town (J.M. Barrie)…and I didn’t know, didn’t care, there was this whole heavy thing to the Pan story: the author coping with his mom’s sense of loss over a sibling, the feeling he didn’t really exist…it went on and on. And for the first time, seeing a theater production of it in Stratford a month later, I identified with Hook, his aging, the desire to be young again…and the cast came out to give a talk, and one wore a T-shirt that said something like, The story of your life is happening right now.

I talked to my hair stylist Donnie about these things, these seeming coincidences, and he called bullshit, quoted Carl Jung, said the problem is this type of thing is always happening, we’re just not aware. There is no coincidence, it’s only the times we notice it that make it seem that way, and they’re few and far between.

There was the dead horse along the shoulder when I pulled off the road for the trail head, I’d never seen such a thing, I had to shake it off: a lot of it had been eaten already. And I picked my way up the trail thinking about nature, how it takes care of itself, it wants for nothing more: was that where we diverged, where we’d gone wrong? And now, Donnie saying we’ve become a virus that’s destroying the earth, that the only way to rescue it was through intervention, through some secret rites of the Amazon jungle that involved mind-blowing hallucinations, hours of getting sick and shitting oneself and reportedly, aliens.

And as the sun crested a ridge behind me there was a line between the shade and light I passed through with one step, and there was my shadow on the trail in front of me large and formidable looking: the shadow that could be whomever I wanted it to be.

At the pass I dropped into the basin, set my camp, walked to the lake and back again: drank a beer, thought about how I’d mark my site so Brad knew where to find me…and then he was there at 6…the sun dropped below the ridge, it gave the impression of dusk, made a shadow on the face of Mount Stuart that slowly rose up as the sun went down, a candle going out in reverse, the bottom up…and at night, once it was all dark the moon made everything indigo-bright and played off the snow, made shadows of its own, Tim Burton trees, arthritic wrists…and for a time, made us mad.

When the wind stopped all there was was quiet. Waking after a night of camping on the snow is always hard, stiff, cold, wet: Brad, warming himself on the rocks in the morning sun with a coffee, a cigarette: the two of us climbing in the snow to the privy, taking turns, restored by natural things, saying goodbye with a hug, going home to dry things out, upload our pictures, to see how much of it we could remember, for how long: to not call it coincidence, all the beauty that comes in such a small burst, when things go gold or pink right before they go out.



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Song for mid-autumn morning

In the morning just past 6,
though it might as well be
the middle of the night.
Headlights cut the dark,
but it always grows back.
The fog gives an illusion of light
through the ambiguity it stirs,
makes snow in the street lamp
cones: makes me think of figures
in trench coats along the docks,
with a secret…
or the steam blown from
the snouts of war horses,
the dark is the great equalizer,
alone with my senses down
a dead end road:
through an arc of light
that makes a small space
on the ground seem real
for a minute…
through the other side to the dark,
its own shape,
not an absence of light,
but a presence
of dark.

Image by James Abbott McNeill -“Nocturne,” Wiki Commons

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Broken clouds (in the face of mirrors)

The sky returned what we saw in it
but like a mirror, it lied:

It lied on your wedding day when you
thought it brightened just for you:

It lied when you carried your cat to
the vet’s office to be put down, one warm fall:

It lied every morning you went looking
for any bit of light left, still:

And it’s those lies that keep us going and
give us strength in the face of mirrors.

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The Fall of 2015 | 90-day family road trip, UK

We were living in Germany but didn’t have a visa and had to leave for three months, had to leave the Schengen and most of Western Europe: so we decided on the UK because they spoke English there and we could drive most of the way; we bought a used German car with a good stereo, and though it was sad and stressful the day we left my mom’s for the drive up to Amsterdam, I nabbed her copy of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde that got us halfway to France, where we turned off the A7 at Saarbrücken, Kaiserslautern, the edge of the Palatine Forest, Pfälzerwald.

And crossing the North Sea from Holland to Newcastle the moon was full and the water still, and I knew we’d never do this again but immediately I wanted to: and when it was time to get off the boat in the morning none of us felt like it; at Customs there was confusion about our paperwork and my occupation (why Dawn was employed but I wasn’t), so I just wrote in the box “Professional,” and they waved us through.

We crossed into Scotland but it looked the same as England — then the bridge outside of Edinburgh they call the Firth of Forth — past Dundee to Arbroath, where we’d stay a few nights but the flat was actually outside of town a good distance along a series of unnamed country roads, with red-feathered pheasants the Scots imported from China that were slow and couldn’t fly really (easy to shoot), littered along the roadsides like leaves, in piles.

And though it rained like hell it was our first place, the first of about nine we’d stay the month of November: from Arbroath through the Cairngorms and Highlands north to Inverness, for Halloween: and further north to the Orkneys then back south again to Oban on the west, returning to Edinburgh, then exiting west from a farmhouse on an old estate, where we’d spend Thanksgiving.

Dawn toiled over what to do, to keep the kids engaged: she made reservations, inquiries, worked all the while too, though all I really wanted to do was lay around, drink/write, occasionally cook, sleep, see how far to the edge of myself I could go, and what would happen when I got there.

The sun set faster than you’d think it would when we got to Inverness and they didn’t care about Halloween as much as our kids did and so we left town crestfallen, the kids feeling gypped: and resolved to go to McDonald’s with our grocery sacks empty, some in costumes like they’d been stabbed or bleeding, and looked to be drinking: and as we drove from town to town and stopped, unpacked and packed up again, it felt hard and foreign because it was: and the kids were old and wise enough they started to question our judgment, and by the time we got to Ireland we realized our bank card had been skimmed, that the car needed serviced, Charlotte had started sleep-walking…and we had a breakdown outside of Galway on the beach in the rain, everyone shouting and crying and no one really hearing each other, Dawn suggesting maybe come January I take some time off from drinking…and I left the Scotch tasting glass I nicked from an Inverness bar in the apartment along with a Bond DVD that wasn’t as good as we remembered it and we carried on south to either Killarney or Kilkenny, the names were starting to blur…and realized we weren’t far from where they’d filmed the last Star Wars movie, we could go there for the afternoon, the weather didn’t look half bad, for December.

We sat in a dark bar that didn’t look open with the wind going and the daylight falling with fish and chips and mac and cheese and the same goddamned Irish beer: but in the distance the light glittered on the sea, with dramatic shorelines we imagined from the end of the film, perhaps the cast had come here even, there wasn’t much else to do or see, it seemed.

And we drove back before night fell to the house we rented that reminded us of our own place back home, with the same colors in the kitchen and two stories, with much-needed separation between us and the kids, a wood-burning stove with peat to burn, for aroma. Soon mom would be coming from Germany, for Christmas. We’d get her at the airport, stay a night in Cork, then drive to the countryside for a few nights — and on to Waterford and Wales, to our friend Alex’s in Chester for New Year’s — then a final month in England before we returned to Germany: and what it would feel like, then: how I’d play Blonde on Blonde as we pulled back into town, and we’d have three more months still.

In a way it’s easier to see and remember that fall, to write about it now that I’m no longer in it: memories take on a patina with time and exposure and discolor; perhaps we even see them more clearly, or it’s the film they acquire that becomes more appealing than the actual subject. And you could say that about life, or anything: you really only notice the leaves when they change color, and fall.






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‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’

In the den at night with the flue to the gas fire open it’s so drafty it feels like we’re outside, and Dawn and I wrap ourselves in blankets, play vinyl, and it’s a pain to get up and have to flip it. The kids stayed at different houses but we didn’t find out until after our date night/movie was over so we turned around, went back to the store for a bottle of wine, felt like we should stay out longer but didn’t and came back home, where Dawn fell asleep after her first glass.

And though she was asleep I still talked to her about the character from the film, a replicant, the year 2049: and if there’s three types of basic conflict (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself), surely the conflict with self was most interesting: but that wouldn’t be enough to sustain a film for +2 hours so they had to include token villains, though their motivations were unclear, less interesting.

And for a time there was a sound in the theater of stilted, garbled audio like a broken transmission we assumed was part of the film but wasn’t, it was a moviegoer talking uncontrollably back to the film, unable to distinguish what’s real vs. make believe, to quiet his inner/outer voices.

I broke down and called the eye doctor: it was Friday, I’d had a bug in my eye since Monday, but explained to the nurse I had an eye sensitivity and didn’t like people touching me there, wasn’t sure if there was anything that could be done: and in her bright, London accent she said, well it sounds like we’re just going to have to flip your lid and dig it out, then!

And I sat in the chair waiting for the doctor to come, biting the hair on my lower lip. The nurse said there was a magazine I could read but it was Sports Illustrated, it said on the cover “A Nation Divided”: football players with their arms locked, posing like film actors.

The doctor used a Q-tip to try to flip my lid but they were too strong she said, my lids kept fighting her, and though she tried to blast me with saline to flush it out it was no use and I hurried out, glad at least I’d tried.

There’s one thing I liked from that memoir class, I told Dawn as she snored: that when you’re writing a story it’s good to imagine how the story feels, to really go inside the feeling of it, it gives you an architecture to fit inside. It sounded pretentious, and I was starting to slur. And that’s what I liked about Blade Runner, its aesthetic/integrity: it had its own inner logic it stayed true to and you could identify with (at least I did).

And there was the struggle the characters came back to, to distinguish what was real vs. rendered. And how we’d continue with the same conflict well into the future as we got better at making whatever we imagined seem real. Because we could, and the gods we’d made up we now rivaled or surpassed with technology and our own ability to create, though we were not fit to play that role, and it would destroy us.

Facial Animation System “Alfred” (Wiki commons)




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