Desperaux

Samuel has weaned.

He goes to sleep with water and wakes up with vanilla syrup in cow’s milk. He is officially off the breast. Dawn has been happily adjusting. She has eaten nothing but forbidden food for days now. All those allergens that gave Samuel rashes and bloody stools, innocent foods like tomatoes, chocolate, peppers, and soy beans that she hasn’t eaten for two years, she has been eating for days with gleeful abandon. We’ve had chocolate cupcakes, salads with hothouse tomatoes and yellow peppers. We’ve had pizza three times not that she ever really gave up pizza entirely, but it tastes much better now without the guilt. We planned a culinary adventure for her birthday. A little gardening in the morning, a babysitter in the afternoon so we could have lunch at Kismet, friends over for dinner, and a lemon layer cake from Cook’s Illustrated.

Cook’s Illustrated is not your typical “ladies journals.” It has no advertising, no flashy color photographs, no inserts or prizes or games, nothing but recipes, cooking tips, and Consumer-Reports-style articles on kitchen aids and appliances. All the illustrations and photographs are in tasteful sepia black and white. The magazine is a work of art, as one might expect from a New England based publisher.

It is also a work of science. Each recipe is its own detailed laboratory experiment. I have yet to see a recipe that fit in less than two 8.5×11 pages, three columned, 8-pt font. They aren’t so much “recipes” as “procedures”. When they say you need eggs at room temperature, don’t think you’ll get away with taking them out of the fridge at the last minute. When they say beat on medium high speed for 30 seconds, you had better stay awake with your stop watch. Otherwise there will be consequences. Cakes will fall, icing will go runny, pies will melt into puddles. The few times I have followed their recipes, dotting every I and crossing every T, I have created nothing less than Perfect Food that I would be proud to photograph. But if I strayed so much as one jot or tittle, I was left with an unsightly mess.

I was instructed by the birthday girl to make it with pectin instead of gelatin, because we are, after all, vegetarian no horse hooves for us, thank you. So the pressure was on. I was deliberately straying from the beaten, if narrow, path. Saturday night after the children were in bed, I cleaned the kitchen and got going. It took me eight hours to make this cake.

First there’s lemon curd filling a dozen fresh squeezed lemons, separated eggs whites and yolks, calcium solution which will activate the pectin, which is added later with the sugar, assuming the recipe is robust enough to survive our tinkering, don’t forget the frozen butter, all cooked in a double boiler stirring constantly with prayers to St Julia Child, until the instant read thermometer reads 160 degrees and the potion congeals. Refrigerate overnight.

Second was the cake layers themselves which were really pretty straightforward except that I couldn’t start them until after the lemon curd was done, and then I had to stay up until they cooled. By the time I got to bed, it was Sunday.

The next morning, I had to “construct” the cake by splitting the layers and stacking them with a cup of lemon curd in between each pair of layers. A cup of lemon curd makes a quarter to half inch layer resembling, forgive me, lubricated jelly, so that the entire stack leaned like the tower of Piza.

Time to make the frosting, another stove-top potion with lots of egg whites, sugar, wing of bat, more fresh squeezed lemon juice, eye of newt, and corn syrup. Heat to 148.76 degrees and then beat in the blender until it has confessed or ten minutes has passed. Whichever happens first. Frost the cake and then distress the surface with the back (convex) side of a large spoon. “Distress” is what furniture makers do to otherwise functional and pristine chairs and tables to make them look antiquey. The effect on the cake is similar.

It would not fit in the refrigerator, so it sat on the counter with a glass bell cover to keep away the children.

We had friends over for dinner to celebrate, a lovely couple who just had their first child two months ago. With an infant, a two year old, and a five year old in the house all clammering for attention, we planned ahead and ordered take out Thai food. Our house was too small and too noisy for the infant to sleep. He fussed, nursed, spit up, fussed some more as Mom and Dad passed him back and forth, took turns rocking him, patting him, dandling him. Aside from being a pediatric physical therapist, Dawn just plain loves babies and watched wistfully while the hormonal imbalance of having weaned Samuel wreaked it magic havoc. For my part, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had finally healed from my operation and would not be reliving this scene anytime before grandparenthood.

After dinner we sang Happy Birthday. The adults lauded the cake, and the children lauded the ice cream. Baby boy finally calmed down enough to give Mom and Dad some smiles and to babble happily at them. I brought out my digital camera and took some photos and a short video. Dawn showed us a little baby party trick. She told me to play back the video for the baby, and when I did, he started babbling along with himself. Babies will watch other babies, but they will only coo at Mom and Dad or the sound of their own voice. Our friends were delighted, and Dawn got all weepy, not because she missed having a baby, but rather she missed having her baby clients. Plus the hormone thing.

Skip to tomorrow – Monday morning. I wake up with Samuel asleep in the bed and Dawn already out for her morning walk. Well, not strictly true. Samuel woke up first, but I was a close second.

“Where’s Mama? Where’s Mama? Want Mama!”

Thank God he is still young enough to distract. We got out of bed and Rose was already sitting in the living room reading. The two of them chased each other up and down the hall while I got breakfast on the table. As I cleaned up afterwards, I saw Dawn walking up the driveway, her hand clutched to her belly, but not in pain. No, she was carrying something very small. I met her in the mudroom.

“What did you bring home?”

She opened her hand and there was a small ball of gray fluff curled up in her hand, about the size of a half dollar, not counting the tail.

“A wee little mouse babe.”

Clearly her hormones were still swinging violently, but at least she didn’t bring home a kitten or puppy. We whispered in the mudroom, trying to avoid the inevitable crush of curious children until we could feel each other out about this new addition.

“He was in the middle of the intersection, lost, cold, miserable. I couldn’t figure out where he’d come from or where to put him, so I brought him home. Do we still have any of that Cream of Wheat you made yesterday?”

“Uh, in the fridge.”

“He’ll need some water too.”

“Dawn, I need to be at my desk in a half hour. You need help getting the children ready for swim lessons, we haven’t showered, you haven’t eaten.”

“OK, I’ll have to find a box and put him on your desk.”

“Why my desk?”

I hoped my question came out as mild curiosity. Inside it was much more whiny. Why? Why me? Why MY desk? Why does every bit of paper, every broken toy, every random bit of junk and recycling end up on my desk? I already have a mouse on my desk, sleek, gray, and cute in its own plastic way. A mouse that didn’t pee or poop on my papers.

“Because he needs to be near someone, and out of reach of the children.”

Said children figured out how to open the baby gate and joined us in the mudroom to coo over “Desperaux,” as Dawn named him, after a brave little mouse in a childrens book with the same name.

I wasn’t going to fuss. It was Dawn’s birthday, her real birthday. We had celebrated on Sunday for convenience, but today was the real day. If she wanted a mouse for a pet, well, at least it was small and no one should be allergic to it. And I wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of it for years after the children left home, or putting it to sleep when it caught some horrible rodent cancer. My father still remembers having to put that “damn dog” to sleep, the one who my oldest brother never house trained as he was supposed to, and whose urine haunted the basement carpet for thirty years. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with all that.

But I was still having a hard time adjusting to change, of any sort. I expected to be at work at 9:00 AM, having fulfilled all my parental and spousal obligations. I expected to walk to my telecommuting desk at 9:00 AM, proud of having done my share and fulfilled my sterling self-image as a modern provider and a twenty-first century father. I had been thinking this way for about an hour. Now suddenly my game plan had been changed for me. More was expected of me. I was to rise to the occasion. My psyche was catching up very slowly and reluctantly.

And then I had one of those moments of awakening. I was being exactly the kind of grown up that, as a child, I hoped I would never grow up into. You know, the kind more concerned about getting to work on time than watching the rainbow colors the motor oil left in the puddles on the street. Dude, chill out.

(Side note later that night, at the dinner table, out of the blue, my five-year-old daughter said to us, “Mama. Papa. I’m really going to miss my childhood.” Holy cow. Where’d that come from?)

I found Dawn a shoebox that she prepared with an old receiving blanket, a piece of cardboard tube, some water and food, and a cut up net bag clipped on as a ceiling. As I brushed Rose teeth, she told me she wanted to call him “Cinnamon,” but I told her to get her own mouse. No, not really. That would have been extraordinarily stupid of me. I said, “Mama found him and is taking care of him. She gets to name him.” Rose was OK with that.

I got out the electric heating pad and we placed it on the bed with the shoebox on top. Little Desperaux had already nibbled some pear and was sleeping the unconscious sleep of a rescued nocturnal mammal. At least, I hoped so. I hoped he hadn’t died on us already. No, he was still breathing.

“Are you OK with this?” Dawn asked.

“Yes, I’m OK with this.”

She relaxed. “Can you smell him?”

“No, my nose is stuffed up. I don’t smell anything.”

“It’s strong. Phew!” She smiled and walked into Samuel’s room next door. I quickly searched for “wild mouse pet” on the internet. Good pets. Lots of personality. Live for 2 to 4 years. Need things to climb on and exercise. Need something to gnaw on to wear away their rodent teeth.

“Harry!”

“What?”

“It’s not the mouse that smells. You put a wet diaper in the wipes warmer!”

I walked next door and saw that indeed, Samuel’s very soggy, extra absorbent, cloth, nighttime diaper was stuffed into the box of the electric wipes warmer.

“I did not do that.”

“Who, then?”

We both turned to the door and yelled, “Samuel!”

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Catching Up

According to the Writer’s Almanac, tonight is Midsummer’s Eve, a fact I can’t quite understand. Summer began two days ago on the solstice.

Winter was an endless gulag of cold, drab days that dumped all its snow in a single week. Spring passed through like a teenager stopping for a bite to eat and a change of clothes before rushing off the meet Summer at the beach. The gray skies just vanished one day in April, the buds swelled in the rain for a week, the blossoms and flowers burst forth overnight, and by May it was all over.

At some point in May, there was a photosensitive response, a remnant of hormonal biology that instilled a sputtering of spring cleaning, notable only for a rare sighting of our ironing board outside the closet. I came into the kitchen and saw curtains on the windows for the first time ever.

“Dawn, when did you buy curtains?”

“I didn’t. Those are the original curtains that came with the house.”

“I’ve never seen them up before.”

“I washed them when we moved in three years ago. It’s been that long since either of us has done any ironing.”

The mornings are still chilly. The bright sun of the longest day of the year barely thawed the air to sixty-five degrees, though that was an unusual event. We’ve had one or two sweltering afternoons in the eighties, but not many. Except for the green leaves and flowers, you’d think it was autumn with a facelift. But summer is growing. Long sunny days, afternoon thunderstorms, school’s out, the pool’s open, children idling at home bored out of their minds. In the dark bedroom at night, you can see the blinking amber glow of fireflies in the casement windows.

* * * * *

Rose is taking swimming lessons at the city pool. At five years old, I’d be thrilled if she was only willing to stick her toe in the tepid water before 11:00 in the morning, but she’s out in her wetsuit splashing the instructors and playing alligators with her friend. Dawn leaves Rose in an class with eight children and four instructors and takes Samuel to the Tiny Tots class where he walks back and forth feeling the vents where the fresh water is pumped into the pool. They come home tired, exhilarated, fried, whiny. Samuel is often asleep before the car is in the garage, and it Rose is a grouchy monster until after lunch.

* * * * *

Earlier this month, we went to the high school recreation fields for “Touch a Truck” day, a brainstorm of the Montpelier Recreation Department. At two years of age, Samuel can already tell a Toyota minivan from a Honda SUV from a Jeep Cherokee. He loves big machines and whenever one comes by, he stops whatever he is doing to watch, no matter how inconvenient that might be to his parents or himself. So naturally we wanted to take him. Rose isn’t so thrilled by heavy machinery, but she is interested in rescue vehicles.

As we got to the parking lot, our neighbors pulled up with their preschool children, so Rose had a friend to scamper off with hand in hand. From the parking lot we could see a few of the vehicles, some very large, and hear the sporadic blaring of horns and sirens. They charged us five bucks for the whole family and then gave us four free pool passes worth more than what we had just paid. Inside there was a police cruiser, fire engine, ambulance, concrete mixer, electric line repair truck, garbage truck, eighteen-wheeler, tractors, various heavy construction equipment, riding lawn mowers of every shape and size.

Samuel was put off at first by the siren on the police cruiser which seemed to go off every five minutes. But one of the paramedics nearby asked the cop to shut it off. He did, but I think it spoiled his whole day. I think the only reason that policeman came by on his day off was to let the kids get a thrill setting off his siren. Samuel did much better after that. Rose spent ten minutes in the back of an ambulance telling the paramedic that she was going to be an emergency room doctor. Samuel climbed in every single truck, even dragging Dawn over to the Army Reserve recruiters with their green fatigue trucks and arsenal. Dawn politely declined their advances. They tried to get our neighbors to sign up. “No”, she said and pointed to her husband, “and you can’t have him either.” Didn’t phase them at all. “Wouldn’t your daughter be so proud to see her daddy in uniform?” Ugh. They would have to be absolutely shameless to have any chance of meeting their recruitment quotas in Montpelier.

There was a family of clowns – Mom, Dad, and three children – giving away balloon animals (and their business cards). “What kind of animal do you want?” a teenage boy in grease paint and a baggy jumpsuit that looked like the flag of Zimbabwe.

“What can you make?” I asked.

“Anything.”

“Anything?”

“Anything at all. Dogs, cats, cows, rabbits, snakes. You want a snake?”

“What do you want, Samuel.”

“Frog.”

“A frog?”

“Yes. Please.”

“A frog. Hmmm.” He took out a long balloon, and just stood there thinking. Leave it to Samuel to come up with the one animal he had never made before. His Dad came by dressed as the flag of Mali.

“You want a hint? You remember that alien creature you made for the boy earlier?”

“I was just thinking that.”

There was huffing and puffing and squeaking of latex and in sixty seconds Samuel was holding an extra-terrestrial frog. He cherished it all afternoon and all the way home.

There was an inflatable jumping room for the kids and Rose got clonked on the head because she didn’t wait for all the kids to get out before she tried to hop in. No blood, a few tears, and then she back inside.

And let’s not forget the free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. The servers had been working hours and had bloody, oozing wounds on their wrists. I was going to pass until I realized it was congealed chocolate stains.

As we were walking home, I said to Dawn, “I know it was all subsidized by our property taxes, but I don’t think I have ever gotten that much value out of five dollars in my life.”

* * * * *

I had a gig. For some reason, up in Marshfield, Vermont there are a handful of really fine Southern old time musicians. It’s our dirty secret. New England has its own fiddling tradition that they also (erroneously) call Old Time, but it isn’t really Old TIme. These Marshfield players are backwoods boys and girls who know how to play that funky music white boyz. There’s a banjo player in Burlington studying physical therapy who used to live in Marshfield. He got my name from the assistant state attorney general, a Kentucky style fiddler with whom I have sporadic lunch time jam sessions. The banjo player’s girlfriend teaches in Rose’s Montessori school, though she is not her teacher. It’s a tight little incestuous community.

They asked if I was available to play rhythm guitar for a benefit, meaning no money, drive yourself, bring a sound system, and support a worthy cause. Sure, I said, anything for Old Time Music (or as they call it up here, Old *Timey* Music). And I meant it too. I love to play this music and never get enough opportunity to do so.

The band was a fiddle, a guitar (me), a bass, a banjo, and a banjo uke. We had two practice sessions Which was two more than we needed and eight fewer than we would have enjoyed having. We needed to make sure everyone knew the chords to the tunes that the fiddler had picked, and we needed to make sure our personalities were compatible. That took all of five minutes. The rest was pure fun.

The first practice was at the home of the fiddler (husband) and banjo uke (wife). They live at the end of a dirt road in a farmhouse that I suspect they built themselves a lovely open, bare-wood-beams kind of place. The kitchen had a cookstove that heated the home in winter. Having read through most of the Little House books with Rose, I was naturally fascinated and asked lots of questions about it.

The fiddle player is really a professional drummer. His day job is raising organic vegetables and eggs. But he’s been playing fiddle for years, and is the only one in the group who actually grew up where this music originated from (in his case Alabama). His wife plays banjo uke picture a four-string, ukulele-sized banjo and yes, it sounds exactly like you would imagine. “Old Time Music it’s better than it sounds.”

The second practice was also in Marshfield, at the bass player’s home, a working dairy farmer living in a similar home with another cookstove, AND a wood stove, AND a litter of new kittens that were not in the least put out by our music. She also had a rat in a cage that they had rescued from the road. Why? Well for starters, she has a young boy who’s into animals, but also because it was a white rat, that is, a laboratory rat that someone must have dumped in the neighborhood and they didn’t want it spreading any pathogens in the fields.

The gig was at the 100 year old town hall in Plainfield, in a room just large enough to host a dance for the thirty adults and assorted children who showed up. The caller was a tall fellow, skinny, balding, and big-nosed like me, with a charming voice and manner. He used to live in Seattle, in Capitol Hill, not far where I spent my first year there. He worked in a Dilettante Chocolates shop where, as the only heterosexual man in a two mile radius, he received more invitations for dates than he had ever gotten at any other time of his life, all from men.

The fiddler sat in the middle of a tight semi-circle on stage where he could control the sound system with the help of his daughter. We stood around him, forming a protective phalanx and when he really got cooking, he would stand up out of his chair without changing the elevation of his head above the floor. He looked like a ninety-year-old man with a severe hunchback except that he was sawing at his fiddle fast enough to keep a room full of square dancers sweating. And sweat they did, in great unwashed waves that wafted up onto the stage.

The woman playing banjo uke was standing next to me on stage. She was a quiet woman who blended into the background and who smiled often, enjoyed a good joke or story, but who didn’t speak much. Between dances, she commented on the poor choice of footwear most of the women had worn to the dance that night, and I was immediate struck at how different men and women see the world. I was reminded of a similar conversation I had overheard years ago at a week long dance camp with The Volo Bogtrotters. I was behind stage while the caller taught the dance, and I overheard the band members lamenting the invention of spandex, because now when the women twirled on the dance floor and their skirts flew up, all you could see were bicycle shorts.