Wednesday, December 26, 2012

the mess was delicious

A few years ago, when my girlfriends and I went on our annual beach trip, we ended up having dinner at the house of a friend of my Florida pal Stacy's. The friend was newly divorced man with a small toddler. At one point someone spilled a glass of red wine on the floor, and the adults began cleaning it up. The little boy, meanwhile, stood a couple of feet away, riveted by the dark splotch on the carpet, repeating as if mesmerized, "It's a mess. It's a mess. IT'S A MESS." Watching his rapt incantation, all of us shot a wide-eyed look at each other: Dang. A mess really upsets that kid. Bless his heart, and Lord help the person he marries. 

I really shouldn't make fun, though, because messes make me nervous, too. Recently, I brought in one of my recent dreams to talk over with my analyst. In the dream, I had assigned my first-year writing students to prepare homemade mushroom soup. Each student had to make his or her own version and turn it in. I would taste it, evaluate it, and give it a grade. On the due date, the students showed up, each with a pot containing his or her batch. Some of the soups had whole mushroom caps in them, and others had been completely pureed, but it was clear that each of them had gotten the broth base right, because they were all various shades of dark, rich brown. I walked down the line of pots, ladling a scoop of soup from each into my bowl. Then I realized that I was putting all the students' versions in the same bowl, and I felt foolish and a little panicked: there was no way I was ever going to be able to distinguish among the batches in order to assign a grade to each one.

After we'd discussed the dream for a while, my analyst said something like this: "Perhaps your dream is suggesting that you do not need to be so anxious. Mushroom soup is not meant to be evaluated. It is meant to be enjoyed. It is for pleasure, not critique. You said when you mixed all the soups so that they were indistinguishable from one another, it tasted good. So you made a mess. And the mess was delicious."

I tolerate certain kinds of disarray very well. For instance, my favorite recipes tend to run to the ones that require dirtying multiple pots, pans, and bowls. Once, in college, when I was giving my friend Jason a ride, he looked down at the cassettes strewing the floor of my car and commented archly, "Well, you may have OCD, but obviously you don't have a cleaning compulsion." Too true. My desk is consistently messy, as is my closet, which is stuffed full of puff-sleeved tulle blouses, at least two dozen sequined evening shirts, all kinds of vintage slips, neon-hued shoes, and a collection of metal and mixed-media belts—among many, many other disorganized things that, I flatter myself, add up to some coherent sense of what "my style" is.

Messes are endemic to my family, as are jokes about the literal digestive "mess" inside us. In a recent post, I mentioned my Pawpaw and his family stories. They weren't the only ones he told. I was the first grandchild, and because I had black hair as a little girl, and not the golden locks of a fairy tale heroine, he created an amended Goldilocks just for me. He would recite it before bedtime anytime I went to stay overnight at their lake house.

Here is the story of "Coal-ilocks and the Chicken Guts." While you read, you should imagine a tiny listener giggling uncontrollably every time the teller said the phrase "bear mess" or "chicken guts."

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Coal-ilocks. She had coal black hair and lived in the woods. One day, on one of her jaunts, she stumbled upon a house. She needed to go to the bathroom, so she went inside to use their toilet. The inhabitants didn't seem to be home, but Coal-ilocks found a room with three toilets of different sizes. She climbed up onto the biggest one, but it was so big that her rear end wouldn't fit on the seat, and she slipped and fell in the bear mess. Se decided to try the next biggest toilet, but it was also too big. She slipped and fell in the bear mess. Finally, she tried the smallest toilet, and it was just the right size. She used the toilet, but then she slipped and fell in the bear mess anyway. Feeling much better, she walked into the kitchen, where she noticed that the inhabitants had left their breakfast sitting on the table. There were three bowls of chicken guts, and it looked delicious. Coal-ilocks took a bite out of the biggest bowl, but it was so hot that it burned her tongue, and she spat it out. She took a bite out of the second bowl, but it was too cold, and she spat that out, too. She took a bite out of the smallest bowl, and it was just the right temperature, so she ate the entire bowl of chicken guts. Then she slipped and fell in the chicken guts.

He alternated, reprising this tale and also "Render-Smella," his version of Cinderella.

As for Coal-ilocks, I apparently loved the spitting, guts, and poop (i.e. mess) so much that, twenty-five years later, I wrote about those very things in my dissertation. I used every four-letter bodily word you can imagine, including the f-word, all the c-words, and shit, anus, and arse. It was hard as hell to make that thing cohere. At some point, I quoted D. H. Lawrence in "Why the Novel Matters," and his description could just as easily have applied to my dissertation as it could to my identity: "The whole is a strange assembly of apparently incongruous parts, slipping past one another." Incongruous, as in, out of place, disharmonious, messy.

A while back, I read this sentence in a student's essay: "We live in a world of complexion." I'm sure the student meant to say complexity, but the malapropism actually works. Originally, complexion, in late Latin, meant "a combination of things." The word was taken up again during the medieval era, a time when medical study was dominated by the theory of the humors: that mixture of things that composes us. A combination. A hodge-podge. A mess.

Our inner world reflects the outer, with its mottled surface, messy storms, and sudden, violent outpourings of inner material. Probably because I troll all during hurricane season, looking for tropical storm stories, I also love disaster movies, particularly old or low-budget ones, and especially ones about water or fire. The Towering Inferno. The Poseidon Adventure. When Time Ran Out. White SquallVolcano. The Perfect Storm. I adored the deliciously terrible Birdemic: Shock and Terrorin which apocalyptic flocks of birds, visually reminiscent of Space Invaders, punish America's global warming habits by spitting acid on people and killing them. Just before Christmas, the SyFy channel ran an alluring preview of its made-for-TV movie Snowmageddon, with this description: "A tale about a mystical snow globe that can cause bad things in the real world when shaken." There are countless awesome SyFy disaster flicks. Saturday nights. Be there.

As to why I like such terrible films, I have a couple of loose theories. I mean, I think extreme weather and geography are super cool, first of all. Speaking in more psychological terms, I wonder if the mechanism might be similar to the one Bruno Bettelheim describes in The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues that the old, un-Disneyfied fairy tales by the Grimm brothers, with their frightening depictions of death, dismemberment, evil adoptive parents, and abandoned or orphaned children, helped young readers to deal with the loss and tragedy that define life in a safer, more vicarious and symbolic way. In like manner, I suspect watching disaster movies gets me closer to accepting what feels like the unrelentingly capricious hand of fate, which takes away with the same hand it gave with, moments before.  No wonder I like movies about scrappy, ordinary Joes and Janes trying to find a way to outsmart it. Even if the flick is one of those happy-ending heart-warmers on SyFy, the main characters usually don't manage to survive without having lost at least one person or thing they treasured. Sometimes, even the main characters in a disaster movie don't survive.

All of this is to say that today is perhaps the most complicated day of the year for me. It's my parents' wedding anniversary. They've been together for 42 years. From their union came my (and my siblings') very existence, so I'm profoundly thankful and want to celebrate. It's also the sixteenth anniversary of the day my sister died from complications of a bone marrow transplant. On that day, just as she was dying at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, someone was smashing in the window of my family's car in the parking garage. On another floor of the hospital, babies were crowning.

Rhea had chronic myelogenous leukemia, which can be catalyzed, ironically enough, by a nuclear disaster. Radiation exposure can cause the body to start producing a hasty jumble of half-formed white blood cells, which circulate through the body. Sometimes, a catastrophic stroke caused by vessels clogged by these immature cells is the first sign that something else is wrong. If her case had gone undiagnosed much longer, she probably would have been propelled into what's called blast crisis, which also sounds like the title of a SyFy movie.

Her death was an explosion, and I'll be sorting through debris for the rest of my life. In my mind, it has the disorder of a tapestry's back side, full of loose threads and no discernible pattern. It upended my family's relationships, provided me with a real impetus to write, made me superstitious about fate, gave me depth, may have unmasked my OCD, brought me closer to my brother, and lit a fire under my ass to start searching for meaning in this life. What is that meaning? I honestly don't know. It's a mess. I'm working on it.

One of my favorite passages from Robert Hass's book, Twentieth-Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry, is the part where he talks about the relationship between repetition and variation, and specifically, the unconscious effects of rhyme, meter, and other repeated sounds on the reader.

We are "pattern-discerning animals," writes Hass. We look for anything that happens more than once, and if we see that it has, we know something of what to expect. This happens on a primal, evolutionary level: We found water here after the last rain. Maybe we will find it again after the next one. 

Even in a far more advanced world where we don't have to hunt and gather to survive, we still exhibit this tendency in our attitude towards art and literature. For instance, when we read a poem and the ends of the first two lines rhyme, at the conclusion of the next line, when we read the word pine, we are trained to think, All right. Pine. So the conclusion of the next line will be wine or line or mine, something like that. The poem sets up certain rhythmic and rhyming expectations. If it delivers, we feel reassured in some small way because our predictions have come true. However, too much pattern makes us claustrophobic, like a nursery rhyme with a frighteningly insistent cadence. It's no coincidence that a substantial component of sorcery, magic, witchcraft, and even conventional religious ecstasy involves incantation: repeating something so many times that one enters a trance beyond reason, meaning, or even identity. So much order, it's deathly.

On the other hand, if the poem thwarts our expectations, it's a bit of a mess--not that that's all bad. Initially, any variation makes us feel liberated because we've broken free of the established pattern for the moment. Suddenly, we don't know what will happen next. That can be kind of delicious. But at the same time, it causes just a touch of anxiety because something happened that we didn't expect. (My attempts to explain this theory to literature students have occasionally been hilarious. They look at me with pity, as if to say, "Trust us, Dr. Akers: the fact that that last line didn't rhyme is not making us anxious. We probably won't lose sleep over having our rhythmic expectations thwarted by the poet.") Enough of this kind of variation, and things begin to feel chaotic. We get agoraphobic. Too many possibilities. Too much space. No pattern. No order.

I like it that when I watch a disaster movie, I am sure of how it will end: mankind wins (even if the conclusion has an implied ellipsis or question mark). It comforts me, knowing what to expect when the unexpected happens. This, I think, is why these movies appeal so profoundly to me.

But they also point to something more sobering. Closer to home, my great-granddaddy Jeff—he of the pithy saying I mentioned in my last post about grieving—stars in another old story my dad is fond of telling. After his wife Virginia died, Jeff went to live with my grandparents and dad. One morning, granddaddy made a big, old-fashioned breakfast for them, with fried eggs, biscuits, gravy, and some kind of sausage or bacon. Jeff broke his yolks so they ran everywhere, chopped up his eggs, and mixed them up into a pile with everything else. "Papa! What are you doing? Your plate is just a mess now!" granddaddy cried. "Buster," replied great-granddaddy Jeff matter-of-factly, "it all goes to the same place."

The man had a point. Entropy is the ultimate nature of things. As is death. Just as Thomas Gray writes in his gorgeous "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," the memento mori poem that I studied with my sophomores recently, we all "await alike the inevitable hour" when our disorderly lives will be finally contained in a small urn or a grassy plot, with a neat headstone encompassing our dates, as if that tidy range were all we were.

Of course. But in the meantime. Great-grandaddy Jeff was also right: the mess is often lovely. All right, I say. So bless this mess.

One of my favorite things to order at Denny's used to be a breakfast dish they called the Country Scramble: a split biscuit with scrambled eggs piled on each half and a big ladleful of sawmill gravy poured on top of that. A jumble I suspect Mr. Jefferson Davis Akers would have approved of.

The recipe I offer below has, I think, similarly become a tradition this year. It's a mess, made of odds and ends I had left over in the refrigerator on the morning I first made it. And you guessed it: it is delicious.

breakfast frittata

1 c. hash brown potatoes, thawed
1/2 large sweet onion, cut into thin slices
2 roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 slices uncured smoked bacon, chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. unsalted butter
2 tbsp. chives, chopped
1 oz. tomato-basil feta
1 c. cheddar
1/4 c. Parmesan
4 eggs
4 egg whites
1/4 c. fat-free half-and-half
chipotle Tabasco

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook bacon pieces until crisp. Remove to a bowl. Dip off all but a tablespoon or so of drippings. Add onion, butter, and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to soften. 

Add hash browns to pan with onion, add a bit of olive oil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they also begin to soften and brown a bit. Add a tablespoon or so of water whenever they look too dry.

While it’s cooking, break eggs and egg whites into a bowl. Add half-and-half, chives, feta, salt, and pepper, and whisk well.

Add tomatoes to pan with onion and potato and sauté for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally.

Arrange mixture in an even layer on bottom of skillet. Sprinkle half of cheddar over top. Sprinkle bacon over that. Whisk egg mixture again to recombine and pour over top of the stuff in the skillet, trying to get an even layer. Sprinkle Parmesan on top.

Cook egg mixture for about two minutes on the stove. Remove to oven. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, just until set. Remove from oven, sprinkle Parmesan on top, and turn on broiler. Broil just until cheese bubbles.

Remove to a plate and serve at room temperature with chipotle Tabasco.

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