Thanksgiving ruminations

It is Thanksgiving. It is a strange Thanksgiving — my first without my mom. Not the first I’ve ever not spent with my mom; for many of my adult years we would spend the holiday with my wife’s larger family, until that Thanksgiving 13 years ago that was the first without her mom.

It’s the first Thanksgiving I can’t spend with my mom, because she’s not here anymore. And it’s not something we’ve had the majority of a year to prepare ourselves for. She’s been gone for precisely 56 days. Enough time for it to become a familiar daily fact of life, but not enough for us to know what to do with the information, much less what to do with ourselves on a holiday we are used to spending together.

Thanksgiving has always been a rather strange holiday, the one most singularly centered around food. Particular types of food that, for the most part, we only consume as part of this annual ritual. It’s a strange ritual, too, reinforcing the simplistic, sanitized version of our (white America’s) history. But I suspect that my family is far from unusual in focusing very little on that history, one way or another, and instead turning towards the activities in the kitchen, accompanied by a soundtrack of parades, dog shows and football, emanating from the TV in the next room.

When we shifted to spending almost every Thanksgiving with my family — many years spent at holiday rentals on Lake Superior’s North Shore, just before heavy winter weather sets in and the trip would be more adventure than my parents would be willing to undertake — I became self-appointed head chef, attending to the turkey, the gravy, and a green bean casserole stubbornly made from scratch. It was my way of giving to those I love, but it was also my way of coping, as an introvert who often needs to flee for some alone time, even amongst close family.

Things in the kitchen always seem to culminate in a moment of peak chaos, as the preparation of all dishes is timed to coordinate with the turkey emerging from the oven. Gravy, by necessity, comes last, made from collected pan drippings as the turkey rests in its foil tent, awaiting the big show. But often there’s still a mad flurry of activity around potatoes, stuffing (which never lives up to its name in our House of Perpetual Fear of Food-borne Illness), and assorted vegetable side dishes. Things got even more chaotic when Sara and I became vegetarian — well, pescatarian, but we only eat seafood 0-5 times a month — and I needed to start making our vegetarian mushroom gravy in addition to everything else. (We don’t faff around with vegan loafs or anything like that. We just make sure that all of the sides that call for broth use vegetable broth, and we’re good. We’ll often have a small piece of turkey but honestly, for us Thanksgiving dinner has always been about the sides anyway!)

Sara has dubbed me the saucier for my (semi-)expertise in the realm of gravies and sauces, and it is true I do take great pride in delivering a perfectly smooth, rich and flavorful gravy to the table. I never forget the first time I made Thanksgiving gravy, in 1999, the year we hosted both of our sets of parents — all four of them, still alive and well — at our one-bedroom, garden level apartment in Uptown Minneapolis. I didn’t know what I was doing, and the gravy was a lumpy disaster I tried to salvage by running it through the blender.

Since that time, I truly did get the knack for making gravy. First, you’ve got to know your proportions: n tablespoons of fat, n tablespoons of flour, and n cups of liquid. For Thanksgiving, n = 4. Melt the fat (butter or skimmed from drippings), stir in the flour and mix until completely combined, and then gradually add the liquid (drippings or broth), about 1/4 cup at a time, constantly whisking until everything comes together before adding more. Along the way, “everything together” gradually changes from the consistency of cookie dough, to paste, to thick cream, to smooth liquid. Once all of the liquid is added, you keep it at a low boil and continue to stir constantly until it’s the desired thickness. Oh, and there’s another trick: in addition to adequate seasoning with salt and pepper, and other herbs if desired, around halfway through the final thickening process, also whisk in around a tablespoon of tomato paste, ketchup, or my personal favorite, Heinz chili sauce (which really is just a more “rustic” ketchup). It adds a bit of color, a slight tang, and helps the gravy to thicken up. Just be sure you whisk it in completely. But the key above all else is that bit in bold.

This year we weren’t sure what to do for Thanksgiving. We’re spending it with my dad, of course, but he’s not comfortable driving in the metro area anymore, so we’re going to him. We didn’t want to cause stress for him with a bunch of dirty dishes (even if we do all the clean-up) and many hours of chaos in his apartment kitchen in Rochester, so we decided to cook the whole meal a day ahead. (Although in the end it was only about half of the meal, and we’ll finish the rest in Rochester today.)

Cooking Thanksgiving dinner when you have an entire day wide open, and no need for everything to come together at once, is a transformative experience. Each dish could receive undivided attention. It also was a chance for some personal reflection, on a day when I really needed it. First up was my 100%-stubbornly-made-from-scratch green bean casserole. Next, I took a break to enjoy the unusually warm weather with a run while Sara made the apple pie.

Once I was back in the kitchen, it was time for my mushroom gravy, and I have to say, it is quite possibly the best mushroom gravy I have ever made. It’s amazing how good a gravy can be when you’re able to give it your undivided attention. I gently cooked about 6 oz of thin slices of mushroom — heavily seasoned with Trader Joe’s “Green Goddess” seasoning blend (mostly garlic and onion powders with dried spinach [!] and parsley, and lemon peel) — in a half a stick of butter until they were very soft and just starting to caramelize a bit on the edges, then I added 1/4 cup of dry white wine — a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, my personal favorite — and let that cook off. Next up came 4 tbsp flour with a dash of McCormick “Poultry Seasoning” (which I think is nutmeg, sage, marjoram, thyme, maybe oregano?), followed by the gradual addition of 4 cups of vegetable broth, and of course later a dollop of Heinz chili sauce. It wasn’t anything radically different from what I always make, but sitting there stirring it gently and giving it my undivided attention for 20 or so minutes, really made a difference.

Yes, I said “sitting there.” By this point late in the afternoon, I was sitting on a stool at the stove, because my plantar fasciitis was acting up from a day on my feet. It’s something I’ve been struggling extensively with all year, after a day this past spring, when my anxiety over the return of my mom’s cancer, and our ambivalence over having urged my parents to sell their house — a constant source of stress in recent years — and move into an apartment, filled me with an impulse to organize my stacks of storage bins in our basement, and I spent an entire day standing in sock feet, shuttling bins up and down from the basement to our dining room. My left foot was destroyed after that day. It took months to get back to pain-free running, and I now need to wear heavy-duty Dr. Scholl’s insoles in all of my shoes, including an old pair of running shoes that have now become my indoor “slippers” that I need to have on my feet pretty much any time I’m not lying in bed.

It’s been a strange, difficult year, stacked on top of a string of strange, difficult years. My mom was initially diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer at the beginning of 2019, and after a couple of months of brutally taxing proton beam treatments at the Mayo Clinic and lingering side effects (the treatments essentially fried her esophagus), she was mostly back to her old self by the end of the year. But then covid hit, and we only saw them in person twice after March 2020, even though they just lived 70 miles away. By the time we were all vaccinated in 2021, regular visits returned, but so did my mom’s cancer. Another brief round of proton beam treatments, plus a completely unrelated skin cancer on her nose, which required a skin graft from her forehead, and all of us learned just how weird and complicated the recovery process for something like that can be. She made it through that too, stronger and more determined than anyone — most of all herself — believed she could be. But 2022 began with more cancer, more treatments, and then eventually, no more treatments.

August and September were particularly difficult. She started to use a walker around the apartment, and after a couple of late-night falls, and her right lung filling with fluid (a symptom of the metastasized cancer), she spent her last 6 weeks in the hospital — most of those in Lake City, an hour away from home, because Mayo seems to need to shuttle off its long-term hospitalized patients to far-flung outposts rather than keeping them in Rochester, followed by 4 — in retrospect, mercifully brief — days in hospice in a mediocre nursing home (chosen because it was available and her insurance-approved hospital time had run out) a couple of miles from their apartment.

Rochester, Minnesota is an interesting place to observe the best and worst of the American medical system. In the Mayo Clinic it has world-class medical technology, and the best experts you will find anywhere. For almost any type of medical treatment you may need, there is scarcely any place in the world where better care is available. And yet, if you are a U.S. citizen trapped in our byzantine insurance and medical billing system, it can be an absolute nightmare. Fortunately for my mom, her working years came at a time when someone in a fairly low-level clerical office job could still make a career, retire after 30 years at a reasonably young age, and live out their days with a guaranteed pension and comprehensive health insurance coverage. Cancer didn’t bankrupt her family. Still, in the end, the best medical treatment in the world was only able to give her a couple of extra years. Eventually a day comes where the treatments end, the breathing ends, and those concerns float away with the wind.

But it’s difficult, as one left behind, to spend more than a few scattered moments reflecting on what was, and what was lost. There are arrangements to be made, bills to be paid, documents to get notarized, phone calls, letters, emails, files to organize, the pointless busy work of a society where every moment we’re drawing breath, and fair bit of time on either side of that, is a business opportunity for someone.

So where am I going with all of these ramblings? Do I have a point? Does any of it? Life is a series of moments, and the meaning is what we find in them for ourselves. Sometimes I just want to take a “time out” and try to set a few of these moments into something more permanent.

And what’s more permanent than a blog post?

A lament for a lost video gaming era

For a long time I have been lamenting why computer games aren’t like the ones I loved to play in the late ’90s/early 2000s… games like SimCity 2000 and Age of Empires. Even the über-nerdy version of Scrabble I had on my computer back then, with tournament rules and rankings, etc.

Oh, the descendants of those games certainly exist, but they have lost all of the things that made them interesting to me. And there are no new games that really capture that spirit effectively anymore. (Even the new ones that ostensibly try to evoke that spirit… don’t. At least not for a purist like me.)

Finally today I realized why. Because back then the video game market was way smaller than it is now, and it only catered to hardcore nerds like me. These days, it’s so much bigger, and so much broader, that there’s (comparatively) no money to be made on the types of games I liked back then.

And the real tragedy for me is that I can’t even play those games I loved anymore, because I don’t have any hardware that can play them. There’s emulation, but these games seem to exist in a technological gap. Emulators are great for even older games, mostly console games, but I haven’t really been able to find a decent way to emulate these games that required more computing power. Then again… maybe I just haven’t been trying hard enough.

Hall and Oates vs. Tears for Fears? This is happening?

I got up early this morning to do some server maintenance, but as I was sipping my coffee and absentmindedly glancing at Twitter, I noticed that Tears for Fears — one of my favorite bands from the ’80s — was trending.

Half the time, when someone’s trending, it means they just died. With a band, hard to say. But it’s definitely a coin toss between something tragic or something completely irrelevant outside the warped world of Twitter, and in this case, it was the latter, in the form of a tweet asking people to pick between them and Hall and Oates.

Well, of course I had to get in on this. Below is a lightly edited version of the tweet thread I produced on the topic.

I have to guess from the fact that Tears for Fears are trending but Hall and Oates aren’t, that more people prefer Tears for Fears. Oh, where do I begin?

First, yes. Hall and Oates.

I love both, but they can’t really be compared.

Second, anyone who is even inclined to make the comparison is apparently unaware of a thing called “the ’70s”.

Hall and Oates had already accomplished more in the ’70s than Tears for Fears ever did, and they hadn’t even gotten to the stuff they’re best known for.

That said, Songs from the Big Chair is one of the absolute best albums of the ’80s, and is probably better than any album Hall and Oates produced in that decade. Probably. I mean, Private Eyes, H2O and Big Bam Boom are all amazing, but inconsistent. Big Chair is a cohesive work.

Still, if you compare by any criteria: number of big albums, number of hit songs, length of their “relevant” period, the wide range of their appeal (I didn’t even get into that), Hall and Oates have to come out on top.

Which group do I still listen to more now, though? It’s kind of a toss up. I have both Private Eyes and Songs from the Big Chair on vinyl and they are spinning frequently, but on Spotify I probably listen to Tears for Fears more.

Bottom line: two things.

  1. Comparisons are stupid.
  2. Both of these bands are amazing and if this stupid comparison gets more “young folks” to check them out, that is, as we said in the ’80s, awesome.

And in conclusion, please watch… this video of my favorite Tears for Fears song.

You should also watch Rick Beato’s awesome “What Makes This Song Great” video about it.

P.S. OK, yes I had forgotten initially that they actually toured together this year. I haven’t really been ready to go to a crowded concert venue yet, plus I didn’t hear about their stop here until about one hour after it started!

Cassettes of Steal?

I’m going to talk about the 1975 Rush album Caress of Steel for a minute. Unless you’re the roughly one person who is interested in this, feel free to move on.

Whenever I think of this album, I think about the cassette version, which was my introduction to it. Back then, record labels were less interested in preserving the integrity of the album than in cutting every possible cost, so it was common to rearrange the order of the songs on cassettes and 8-tracks, to even out the sides/”programs” (4 total on an 8-track), to use as little tape as possible. (Granted, this may have been because people complained that they’d been cheated when there was a lot of blank tape on one side.)

Anyway… this particular album presented a weird scenario. Side one was four songs, but side two was a side-long suite. (OK, it could be broken up into six separate songs, but they really needed to be together, in a specific order.)

Well, that all made side one a couple of minutes longer than side two, which just wouldn’t do. So the label decided to swap the second song on each side. That meant moving side one’s “I Think I’m Going Bald,” definitely the most absurd track on the album, into a spot right after the first part of the side two suite, and it also meant sticking in side two’s bizarre “Didacts and Narpets” (really just a drum solo and a few guitar chord stabs, plus some random words shouted out representing an argument between the young hero of the suite’s story and his restrictive elders) as the second track on side one, with no context.

All of which made for me having a very warped understanding of what this album was supposed to be, until I finally got it on CD, with the tracks in the right order — and the full side two “Fountain of Lamneth” suite actually acknowledged as such.

Now on streaming services, the album just has 5 tracks… “The Fountain of Lamneth” is one uninterrupted 20-minute song. Today’s nerdy high school sophomores will never understand what I experienced when I was their age.

A few rambling words about YES in honor of their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and in reaction to Rolling Stone’s funny but sloppy history of the band’s lineup changes

So… YES, one of my favorite bands of all time, are finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tonight.

They’re also frequently the butt of jokes for their numerous, tumultuous lineup changes. The one true real life Spinal Tap, I say. Today Rolling Stone released a short video chronicling, with good (snarky) humor but a bit of carelessness, these changes.

A friend shared this on Facebook, and of course tagged me. I enjoyed the video, but could not abide its omissions, so I went on a bit of a rant, which I share below, unedited.

I’m sorry… they glossed over some HUGE drama in the band between 1973 and 1979. Rick Wakeman left over “Tales from Topographic Oceans” which according to this video “SUCKS”. (It doesn’t suck; it’s just hard to get into an album that consists of four 20-minute songs.) Patrick Moraz came in and played on one album, then the band took a break and in 1975 each of them released a solo album (before KISS tried this stunt!), and in 1977 they came back together, but Moraz was out and Wakeman was back. They released one album which was their last really good album, followed by another that was — at the time — their worst. THEN you’re up to 1979 when the band was in the middle of recording an album that never got released, and Anderson and Wakeman left. (And that’s as far as I’ve watched so far… I’m sure I’ll have a Yes-grade epic rant about later errors and omissions too.)

And then, after I’d watched the rest…

Some more glossing over as it goes (like how the ’80s lineup got back together after Union fell apart and recorded one more album in 1994), but I am really glad they had the bit at the end about Anderson Rabin Wakeman and how they’re more Yes than the current Yes lineup, and now the guys from that hideous Union/Onion thing are coming back together (tonight!) for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. It’s all too much to take. My head used to spin over these lineup changes when I first got into the band in high school, and that was just before Union. It’s gotten so much crazier since then.

Oh, and they also didn’t even mention how Benoit David was kicked out in 2011 and replaced by ANOTHER Yes tribute band singer, Jon Davison. (Whose name always kills me… it’s like a mashup of Jon Anderson and Benoit David.)

And they ALSO didn’t mention the infamous Russian keyboardist Igor Khoroshev, who played with the band in the late ’90s until he got kicked out for molesting some fans.

And they ALSO ALSO didn’t mention Billy Sherwood, the guy who replaced Chris Squire on bass, who happened to have been one of those unnamed session musicians on Union and was for some reason added as a 6th member for a while in the late ’90s on guitar and keyboards (and yes, now he plays bass).

Then there’s Jay Schellen, who’s been playing drums with them recently because Alan White had back surgery, and Tom Breslin who briefly toured on keyboards in 2004-ish because the band didn’t have a keyboardist and had recorded an album with an orchestra.

Somewhere in the midst of those inane changes, the band recorded several albums that were worse than the one that came out in 1978, but up to that point, it was the worst.

OK, I’m done.

But I wasn’t done. One last thing was stuck in my craw. Trevor “Ray-BEEN”? That’s not how I’d ever imagined it was pronounced. I assumed it was “RAY-bin”. And, if the man himself is a trustworthy source, I’m right: