Jalapeño Cornbread and The Train of Thought

FOG CITY DINER, San Francisco – The chef here makes an amazing thing called jalapeño cornbread; golden, moist and served with a delicious red chipotle jam.  So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  But that’s not what I want to write about.

As I sat in a booth on a recent Sunday enjoying my meal (after the cornbread came a grilled Mahi sandwich with bacon and avocado and a cup of black coffee), I became aware of a conversation at the next table.

Group dynamic: three males and four females, their ages approximately 15 – 40.

Topic of discussion: the books they were reading at present. Most of them admitted to the Twilight series while some preferred fantasy novels — you know, “like Harry Potter.”

Hey, at least they were reading… 

There was a brunette girl seated at the table, 15-years-old if she was a day, and she was sinking lower and lower in her chair as the moments passed; not really participating in the conversation and clearly embarrassed. It was in her eyes.

Visiting Uncle: (previously dominating the conversation with travel/tech talk) leveled his gaze at Embarrassed Girl and asked, “So, what subjects do you like in school?” Not the more liberating: “What subjects are you interested in?”  This was more of a subtle nudge: in school.

Embarrassed Girl: “I –.”

Younger Brother: (immediately to her left, interrupting) “Yeah, I’m in a band! I play the trombone!”  He crowed, chewing with his mouth open as a dog might catch a biscuit balanced on its nose. His face was beet red.

Female Relative: (sitting opposite him, appearing somewhat confused. Her speech was faltering) “Oh!  Now, is that a… band where you… play an instrument, or is this a group of your little… friends?” Her voice trailed off. Breathing while speaking was out of the question for her; it had been a difficult enough thing for her to choose her salad dressing. Clearly spent for the day, she fell silent once again.

Other Girl A and Other Girl B: (producing a champagne stream of conversation, silvery bubbles that tickled the ceiling, propelled upward by their concerted nodding of agreement) “And then Facebook? And then I was like?  And then she was like?  And I was like?  And then she was like? And then Facebook? So cute!” The world for them, it seemed, was only so large.

Remaining Male: (dead ringer for Tony Soprano): Silent, chewing his bloody red rabbit quite slowly in the manner of a silverback gorilla, the alpha male. He stared evenly at each speaker in turn with bloodshot shark eyes.  Not a reader nor a traveler nor a social media user?

It was then that I stopped short. Once upon a time, I was the embarrassed teenager at the table; horrified by the banality of my white trash family but unable to articulate my own opinions due to a lack of world experience. I didn’t know what I liked, but I was pretty sure it went well beyond the family trifecta of Hank Williams Jr., Jack Daniels and the General Lee. I had a burgeoning interest in science fiction but according to one nobel laureate in the family, Star Trek was “faggy”. I had had meager enough beginnings, so at what point did I become such a judgmental quasi-elitist fuck? And it’s not even like I’m a good elitist! (I am, however, an okay fuck. Punchline!)

But elitist? Me? Hardly. My music tastes are dated, my palate uneducated. Country music doesn’t exist beyond the complete works of Johnny Cash and two songs by Hank Williams. I was never angry enough for punk, but I would find myself pissed off at Green Day, et al, for years of painfully cliche high school anthems. (“That was our song!” said every spotty-faced fuck under the age of 21 that I met during the end of the grunge era. “You just don’t even know!“) The only jazz I can and will tolerate is Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Sketches of Spain. I haven’t owned a shred of vinyl since my first (and only) purchase of KISS Rock and Roll Over, purchased for a quarter at a garage sale sometime in the late 70s. I’ve been to maybe 11 concerts in my whole life. I’ve never camped out at a music festival. I’ve never even been to a rave.

I am so not cool.

I don’t read popular books. I read banned books, but what the fuck are popular books? I read comic books and own several shelves worth of graphic novels and yeah, maybe a lot of unusual reference books. Yes, I dress like an REI commercial or a retired federal agent on vacation in Thailand, circa 1987. But I won’t wear t-shirts promoting comic books whose heroes and story lines I am not familiar with. It’s just not fair to do so. I am a fan of Spider-Man, but prefer the cold black ideology of the Venom suit to the familiar red and blue. I like Green Lantern, but I don’t know that much about the Green Lantern Corps. Besides, wearing a Green Lantern shirt today sends a mixed message, if you happen to prefer the ladies. Which I do. For the record, I also used to be into the Flash. Superman, however, was too perfect. Too easy.

I like weird movies. Big deal, who doesn’t?

When I was 15, I thought that the most important thing in life — next to owning a land speeder — would be having a job that would let me buy all the books, movies and music I could ever hope to devour. Media falls freely from the trees these days; we are now stories eating stories.

I had a point. Oh, yes. Clarity!

I had once had a boss who, without intending to do so, got me thinking obsessively about “directionless direction” and “absolute precision of meaning.”  Maybe he really did intend to get me thinking about these things, he won’t say. I know he was a fan of abstract thought. But what he did impress upon me deliberately was the importance of clarity. Each and every word must count toward the end result. (Is this too much? Is that an accurate thing to say? Is it more appropriate to say it this way? Are those facts confirmed?) But as hard as I wrote, as much effort as I put into each draft, he always shot me down. My pages would come back raped in red ink. One day, dejected, I mumbled my thanks and slumped back to my desk to revise, accepting that I was never going to get it absolutely right. That’s when the bell rang. I wasn’t going to because I wasn’t supposed to.

In those years, he, through the telling and re-telling of a lengthy and amusing nautical anecdote involving anchor chain, taught me to be wary of the following phrases: “I think so… it should be… probably… maybe?” Well, do you know or don’t you?

Sidebar!

I’ve never been good with numbers. They simply do not stay put. I can’t multiply 12 x 7 in my head because I’ll forget immediately what numbers I was meant to be multiplying. Goodbye childhood dreams of being an astronaut, or an NSA codebreaker. The hard fact of the matter is that I never got beyond 6th grade algebra, not even in college where I took the course twice, eventually stalemating myself right out of a higher education. I couldn’t advance without first completing that class. Tutors didn’t work because as soon as I left the classroom I forgot what it was that I’d learned. Doing extra problems was a useless concept; I could barely solve one problem, let alone pages of them. For me, the nugget of mathematical comprehension was built from sheer smoke and not a thing I could hold in my hand. And so one day, toward the end of the quarter, after failing yet another exam, I quietly packed my bag and walked away from college. “Yeah, you’re a fucking genius…”

Flashback!

I had attended summer school every year from the 6th grade until I graduated high school; always for the same subject and usually with the same tutor who, after awhile, stopped looking me in the eye or calling on me when I raised my hand, or even noticing when I stopped doing that much. We had both given up.

Twice a week during my senior year, I attended “special education” classes in a tiny room lined with posters of smiling children eating apples reminding me to mind my manners. My tutor was a middle-aged woman named Ms. Merrick who wore low cut blouses and tried everything shy of sexual favors to get me to understand the basic concept of algebra. Where once I been hailed as a wunderkind for my early grasp of reading comprehension and creative writing, I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the realization that my peer group was leaving me behind. It didn’t matter that these peers were essentially strangers; they provided a necessary smoke screen. I was not yet prepared to be left alone and exposed with my faults, embarrassed and ashamed as I was of the “special ed” label.

But wait! I’ve always been able to find the pony hidden among the horse shit. It’s my lame superpower…

I’d been working on a novel since the 8th grade about a bounty hunter involved in a global lottery alternative to thermonuclear warfare, and so I asked Ms. Merrick to look it over.  Looking back, I’m sure it was cat piss awful; I don’t even have a copy of it left to criticize anymore. At that stage of the game I hadn’t read enough to be able to write properly. The next day, she handed it back to me and posed one simple question (“Like a diamond bullet… right through my forehead…”) that would stick in my brain for the rest of my life.

She asked: “Is your meaning clear?” She didn’t tell me the story sucked, or that the characters were one dimensional. She just gave me some of the best writing advice I would ever receive and she did it Yoda style.

Digging upward, get on the phone to bullshit…

“Worship the clarity of thought.” I used to be into that.  Where did the idea go? Not enough room to run Halo on my Pong-sized hard drive these days; I got bills to pay, failed relationships to agonize over and baggage to lug around. Meditation? Sounds great! I’ll look into that someday. Too many people in my address book right now, too many voices competing for time and attention, each one factory fresh with their own objectives. Not enough time left over, it seems, for self-contemplation.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

What could I accomplish if I could quiet my mind and let the noise of the world whistle out into space like escaped oxygen, or the televised broadcast of the first Olympics?

This is my happy place: Lock me away for a year in a woodland retreat somewhere in the densely forested mountains of Northern California. I’ll start off each day at 5:30 with yoga, an hour of weights and a long bike ride. In the afternoons I’ll take courses in bicycle repair and creative writing, rack up some range time with a variety of small arms and study to be a Mac Genius. In the evenings, I will churn out novels the likes of which the world has never seen. At night, I will look at the stars through a powerful telescope or sit by a fire. Here’s my grocery list. Hold my calls. No internet access, please.

No one has all the answers let alone all the questions, so how will I know when I know what I want to know? Life is short; I want to say what should be said and keep quiet about the rest, but that would make me boring. I’ve watched you, Earthlings. After all, I was sent here to gather intel. In order to fit in at awkward parties, I need to weigh in with a startlingly fresh opinion about social media, a carefully crafted Fantasy Football team, witty repartee about Adam Sandler movies and three thousand other things I simply do not give a shit about.

What?!

Electrons, people. We are electrons and swarms of molecules; marching, mobile landmasses for much smaller forms of life. Between you and me and the next object over exists infinite space and matter, things that would take you a lifetime to sort out with a razor blade. Swing the sharpest axe, pull the hardest trigger, climb the smallest mountain. It all comes down to this:

( X )  //user define (void) awakeFrom {

It is this that I should be focused upon instead of making judgements on the books and brunches of strangers. If I had any balls, I’d make my happy place a reality. If I was brave enough, I’d repair my own damage. If I had the courage, I’d forgive them, forget them and move on.

At the end of the day, what’s really important? What’s taking place just beneath the surface? What’s happening behind you — right now — just around the corner? What are you missing out on by being here?  Are you in the right place at the right time to be who you were meant to be? (Am I too serious, too full of shit, or do you just not understand where I’m coming from?)

And when did I start channeling Dianetics commercials?

Jalapeño cornbread, yo.

 

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2 thoughts on “Jalapeño Cornbread and The Train of Thought

  1. this is like a comet — still just at the edge of our solar system — with earth in its predicted path. in a good way. i don’t know what that means. first image that popped in my head.

  2. I can give you my recipe for jalapeno cheddar cheese cornbread. It beats the hell out of Martha Stewart’s version made with pickled jalapenos. pffft. No math necessary. Fuck Algebra. For the record, college math is a crock of shit anyway. I spent 2 years suffering through Calc I, Calc II, Multivariable Calculus, Differential Equations only to get my ass kicked by long division on the GRE last year. Bloody Hell. You’re an elitist, in that strangely deserving way. Many in the world don’t know how to appreciate you. I’m sorry. I anticipate much lauding of your work and crying over journals post-mortem. I hope you find that sliver of fame in the here and now, though. Don’t waste another blessed second. Churn out more stories. Write. Write your escape from those severed roots and the ties that may remain. Write for the shattered dreams and the remaining hopes.

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