Saturday, January 12, 2013

a crack in everything

I was not always the enthusiastic, vocal advocate of Metamucil that I am now. Years ago, the things I liked to eat were largely also the dishes most likely to stop you up. That changed when I was in my twenties.

It was the summer of 1997, six months after my sister had died. We were at the KOA in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been beset with recurrent butt problems for over a year at that point. Because of a lack of fiber in my diet, I suffered from something technically called a "fissure," which is a small muscle tear that is difficult to recover from once it originally happens because—no way to put this delicately—the sphincter tends to spasm continually and involuntarily, causing it to bleed and preventing the muscle from healing. That June, my parents had loaded my brother and me and my spasming anus into our rigged-up conversion van (which my mom had nicknamed Vincent, as in "Van Go") and traveled out west. I went willingly, but Jeff, who had a very active social life that had just cranked up for the summer, dragged his heels. By the time we got to Arizona, Mom and Dad were desperate to wean my eighteen-year-old brother from his cigarettes, so, as I wrote in my journal, "they kept plying him with beers instead," to keep him in a good mood. One afternoon, Jeff and I sat at the picnic table at our campsite in the blessed cool of northern Arizona, drinking Coronas and playing gin rummy. I lost to him several times in a row and finally muttered to no one in particular, "Damn it! I don't know my ass from a hole in the ground today." Without missing a beat or looking up from reshuffling the deck, Jeff deadpanned, "Yours is the one with the tear in it."

Two years later, I finally broke down and had surgery. I was surprised by how counterintuitive the treatment for my ailment was. It called for deliberately exacerbating the fissure. A sphincterotomy (a word I've had to write, and then explain to the nurse or doctor, under "previous surgeries" on every patient information form I've ever filled out since) is exactly what it sounds like. It's an -otomy, a suffix that comes from the Greek word τόμος, which means "cutting, sharp, or separate." The surgeon makes another, strategic incision into the sphincter muscle in order to give the original tear room to relax and heal.

Afterwards, there were weeks of sitting on an inflatable doughnut, instructions not to lift anything heavy, daily sitz baths, and a final, follow-up appointment. That day, the surgeon bustled in, instructed me to pull down my pants and arrange myself prone on the pyramid-shaped cushion in the middle of the examining table, and then breezed back out. When he returned, it was with a young, male doctor-in-training and a quick, cursory, "You don't mind if this resident sits in on the examination?" My bare rear in the air, I only had time for a strangled, "Uhhhhh...." before he began busily explaining my anus to the guy, who was probably in his mid-20s and seemed just as mortified as I was. As for the surgeon, he was triumphant. He sure did fix my crack.

The moral of this story? Make sure you get sufficient fiber. Every day. Insoluble fiber will make your life totally loose and bulky, for lack of a better phrase, just like the advertisement on the side of the Metamucil says. That is, provided you can overcome the temporary embarrassment of a monthly trip to the store to stand in line with that gigantic orange tub that can only be one thing.

My hero.

It seems clear I'm preoccupied with the subject. For the past few months, I've had periodic dreams about cracks. Usually it's a house I wake up in, and when I open my eyes, the wall in front of me has a jagged scar so wide I can see daylight. I jump out of bed and frantically begin trying to arrange for its repair. It makes practical sense that I would dream this, because we've been getting our house ready to put on the market, and part of that has entailed fixing a handful of hairline cracks in various places, which have resulted from the natural settling of a fifty-year-old building. I've become obsessed with them, though. I check them day after day, trying to discern whether they've widened or lengthened. I wonder whether they signify that the whole thing is about to break apart. 

Not coincidentally, I've also been undergoing Jungian analysis for the better part of the last year. The process is not like regular counseling because the goal is not necessarily relief from the pain of living; it's wholeness. And since we are all of us cracked and crazed with incongruities, such an end is often elusive. Much of the time now, it feels like I'm a series of fault lines, grinding past each other and unsettling the very ground I used to trust. Sometimes, to my chagrin, lava suddenly erupts out of one of these crevices and I burn someone nearby. Naïvely, I imagined at the beginning that this process of learning about myself would make me feel more coherent, calmer, nicer. When I confessed this, my analyst chuckled. I thought analysis would make me nicer? Indeed, niceness has always been a huge part of my problem—that and this whole-looking, fine-looking, coherent-looking facade I present to the world. It is only an illusion. Now that I've done this much therapeutic but painful tearing, I know I can look forward to no easy smoothing over of the rifts in a once-monolithic me.

Much like the walls in my house. I pulled into the garage last week, and the recently spackled, sanded, and repainted ceiling sported a brand-new, thread-thin fissure right down its center.

Likewise the crack in the laundry room. The contractor fixed it, and then the next week, I washed two loads of clothes, and a faint rift reappeared in the sheetrock. From the doorway of the room, the wall looks perfect. But if I walk over to the washer and look back, there it is, jagging down, angular as a lightning bolt.

The cracks always reemerge, only wider and deeper, each time we attempt some cosmetic comb-over.

I had never been exposed to Leonard Cohen, so I never heard his song "Anthem" until a few months ago. The chorus is particularly beautiful:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

This is a gorgeous lyric, which makes it even more terrible that it reminds me of Rhea and Mom and their running joke about cracks. Whenever one of them saw a knelt-down man whose shirt had ridden up and jeans had sagged low, she'd raise her eyebrows and murmur, "C.B.C.D," which was their shorthand for chronic butt-crack disorder. Best get it together, mister. Maybe you got a crack under there, but we don't need to see it.

It was a laugh then. But these days, I'm not sure I would mind so much, seeing your crack—or anyone else's, for that matter. I'm interested in your crack. Tell me more about it. Where is it? How far does it go? Does it hurt? How bad?

Last July when Nana died, the hospice nurse arrived about an hour afterwards with supplies, ready to prepare her for her trip to the mortuary. Janie was a kind, youngish woman, comfortable-looking, who had small children at home. My mom took me aside and asked me to stay in the bedroom while they worked on Nana. "This is an experience I want you to have," she said. Keeper of our family's collective memory, she mentioned the long tradition of a family's women washing and preparing the body of their loved one for burial. She wanted me there to see the body of my grandmother finally unmasked. I felt nervous.

The skin on Nana's face had already begun to turn opaque, and her mouth, open wide an hour earlier to gulp air, still gaped, slightly sideways. A day or two before, we had used her good quilting scissors to rip a seam up the back of one of her long nylon nightgowns, the kind with the lace and rosette trim at the top ("She would kill us for this," Mom said), so that we could pull it over her head more easily when we changed her. Now we carefully worked the slit nightgown up and over her tousled hair, threw it in the laundry pile, and when I looked down, there she lay with her perfect white skin. I feel tongue-tied even now when I think of it. She had enough vanity to insist that her doctors keep prescribing Premarin supplements for her entire adult life, convinced that they were what kept her skin so porcelain. She must have been right. She lay there with that somehow defiant expanse of unmarred white, her breasts pooled on her chest.

When we tipped her up to wash her back, two things happened simultaneously. The nurse had warned us that shifting her position might release trapped air pockets in the body, and we shouldn't be startled if she made a sound. That didn't happen. Instead, when we rolled her over onto one side, the mucus that had accumulated in the pitcher of her open mouth poured onto the sheet. We quickly wiped her cheek, as if we were afraid she'd be chagrined by her body's sudden effusion. I felt disturbed by the sight of the phlegm and, in the same breath, unsettled by the back side of her. She was like a heroine from one of the bodice rippers that she loved to read and that I myself was named for. If I'd been Kathleen Woodiwiss, I'd have described the perfect pallor of her silken flank. Nary a stretch mark. White, soft, smooth buttock. Just like the woman she painted in the picture that hung on her bedroom wall: seated beside a waterfall, lost in thought, heedless of the exposed profiles of her breast and face. With a respectful yet vigorous gentleness, Janie washed Nana from top to bottom, from bellybutton to crack, while I sat in front of that still-shapely ivory moon cleft in two, and looked, and averted my eyes, and then looked again, and my mother and I held her limbs out of the way.

Afterwards, she got a powdering and a fresh nightgown. We gathered her wig, her makeup bag, and her teeth, so that the aesthetician could use his art to make her look whole again, like her old self, for the benefit of her visitors at the funeral home. I too would walk past her, all gussied up for the ceremony, in a couple of days. But now I knew this secret.

I've felt since that I was given a gift in having witnessed this intimate ritual on a woman who cared for and wounded her family over and over. Her body, ours: they are so cracked and capable and tender and astounding. We are magnificent animals. Full of shit, both literally and figuratively. Yet also brimful of beauty. And the brokenness? The phlegm? The cracks and tears? The more I see, the more I'm beginning to suspect that's where the keenest beauty may live.

Guess what? Chicken butt.

I'll end with a story my brother's wonderful girlfriend Dawn told me about a trip she took to the Gulf coast. Walking along the beach, she met a boy wearing overalls and no shirt or shoes. He opened the cooler he was guarding, indicated the enormous redfish lying on the bottom among the Snickers wrappers, empty Natty Light cans, and stubbed-out cigarette butts, and said to Dawn in the proud yet conspiratorial way little guys have: "Hey, you want me ta show you somethin? Ma diddy caught is!" Then he pointed to the nether end of the fish. "You know what else? Right thar's his butthole."

In the spirit of cracks and crevices, anuses and a-holes, I offer a recipe that has you start out by stuffing things into a chicken's cavity. Come on. Like it's not already the gross part about cooking a chicken. Might as well make a sixth-grade joke about it.

Some recipe notes: First, do yourself a favor and invest in your own copy of Frank Stitt's Southern Table. It is not only full of simple recipes that both draw on the seasonal ingredients that deluge the South most of the year and mingle homely Southern and classical French cooking, but also, the photos are gorgeous. In his recipe for roast chicken with spring vegetables, Stitt calls for a 3 to 3 1/2-pound chicken, and the cooking time is for 1 hour 15 minutes to an hour and a half total. Because I brought home a way bigger bird, I increased the roasting time, but just use your judgment. When I took the chicken out, it was golden-brown, and the legs were wiggling at the joint and the meat was falling off the bone. The official rule of thumb is that the internal temperature of the thickest part of the thigh should reach 165 degrees (because of carryover cooking, it will continue to rise ten or fifteen degrees after you take the chicken out of the oven).

I used fat-free half-and-half for the pan sauce, but full-fat would be fine. In fact, if you're feeling extra what-the-hell about it, use some heavy cream. Don't forget to melt a little butter into the pan sauce at the end; that's what's technically called "mounting" the sauce. Which also makes me giggle like a middle-schooler.

perfect roast chicken + creamy dijon pan sauce
adapted from Roast Chicken with Spring Vegetables, 

one 4 1/2-pound roaster chicken (we got ours from Fresh Market)
course kosher sea salt and black pepper
8 large dried thyme sprigs, stripped
5 large flat-leaf parsley sprigs
4 large tarragon sprigs
3 large rosemary sprigs, stripped
1 scallion, just the green part
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 head garlic, sliced in half crosswise
3 lemon slices
2 to 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 generous tbsp. smooth Dijon mustard
1/2 c. half-and-half, warmed in the microwave (more if you like the sauce milder)
1 tbsp. unsalted butter

Rinse the chicken inside and out and pat dry. If there is any extra fat, cut it off and reserve it for later. Sprinkle chicken inside and out with salt, loosely wrap in paper towels and the original butcher paper, and set on a plate. Refrigerate for at least a few hours, or overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. (If you have an oven that has a “convection roast” settingwhich we do, in our current rental houseuse that instead of “bake.”) Remove the chicken from the refrigerator.

Coarsely chop the herbs and scallion, and place in a small bowl. Add a tablespoon each of sea salt, pepper, and olive oil, and stir to combine. Rub the mixture into the chicken’s cavity. Rub the rest under the skin on the breast. Make sure you don’t tear the skin; leave it intact if at all possible. Put the garlic and lemon slices in the cavity, and tie the legs together with kitchen twine.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter with a little of the reserved chicken fat over low heat. With a basting brush, coat the skin of the chicken with some of the butter and fat. Season with more pepper.

(I’m going to insert this at the beginning: you will baste the chicken frequently, so be sure you’ve set aside time to babysit it. Brush on the leftover butter/chicken fat mixture at first, and then, as the chicken begins to roast and render its fat, you can just dip the brush in the fat in the bottom of the pan and use that. Baste it as often as you like, at least every 30 minutes or soevery 15 or 20 is even better. I also turned the chicken around in the oven each time I basted, to ensure both sides were cooked the same.)

Place the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan, add a little water just to cover the bottom, and roast for 1 hour and 50 minutes, or until juices run clear. You can tip up the chicken on one end and see whether the juices that run out are still cloudy. My bird was just baaaarely all done, so if you’re a little nervous, you might want to leave it in a little longer. Or, conversely, if it’s a smaller bird, take it out a little sooner.

Frank Stitt says to remove the bird to a platter and place, breast side down, under foil for 15 minutes before carving. I just pulled the whole rack out, put it on the platter, and tented foil over that, and it worked just fine. 

Tip up roasting pan (carefully if it’s still hot) and with a soup spoon, dip out as much fat as you can. Do leave a bit in there, though. Discard fat. Put roasting pan on the stove and turn on the burner to medium-low. Whisk in Dijon mustard and stir well to combine, as well as to scrape up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Add warmed half-and-half and keep whisking and scraping. Let it boil for a few minutes, just until it’s slightly thickened. Turn off the heat and whisk in the tablespoon of butter. Pour into a gravy boat or a creamer pitcher. Serve drizzled over chicken.

I served this with sautéed Brussels sprouts and Martha Stewart's Roasted Fingerling Potatoes with Seasoned Salt. It was the best roast chicken I've ever had, and D said it was for him, too.

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