Monthly Archives: April 2015

Know-How

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I don’t know when it became clear to my father that I was going to be a musician, but when it did, he gave up any thought of my taking over his garage door business. Some of their parts, and the tools used to install and service garage doors and openers, are dangerous if an accident happens. Dad didn’t want to risk my losing the ability to play while I was learning a trade, so he simply never invited me to go with him on a service call again.

I barely noticed. I wasn’t drawn to his business. I enjoyed being with my dad, but I didn’t especially like being in other people’s dirty garages or handling the heavy tools, door parts, and hardware. It wasn’t until long after his passing that my mother told me about that decision. Dad knew how to do things, and how not to press an issue.

My hands were safe from the big stuff, but there was a lot Dad didn’t have the chance to teach me. He instilled in me a respect for electricity, and I knew abstractly how to use a hammer and screwdriver, but the rest I’ve had to pick up on my own. I don’t want to install my own garage door, but I’d like to rewire a light switch or a door bell, or maybe repair a leaky faucet.  Do-it-yourself manuals and YouTube videos have been my friend.

We’ve hired a contractor to do most of the work of getting the Country House ready for the market, but I’ve tried to do small things on my own. The light switches are pristine white to match the pretty walls. New smoke detectors are mounted and hard-wired into the house’s system.

The glowing green LED was the most beautiful sight I'd seen in ages; and, although the cat who'd been sleeping nearby disagreed, the sound of the alarm when I pressed the Test button seemed sweeter than children's laughter.

The glowing green LED was the most beautiful sight I’d seen in ages; and, although the cat who’d been sleeping nearby disagreed, the sound of the alarm when I pressed the Test button seemed sweeter than children’s laughter.

I’d like to think Dad would be pleased, even if he would also have been amused at my floundering. If he would have been frustrated by what he didn’t get to teach me, I’ve been at least as frustrated at what I didn’t learn.

There’s a faucet I want to replace, but I simply can’t get the old one out. Maybe it’s a question of strength or leverage, or maybe there’s something I just don’t know. Same with some electrical outlets that are supposed to be controlled by a wall switch. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but the switch is, literally, out of the loop. One of the lessons Dad didn’t get to teach me was lessons was probably When to Call a Professional.

I re-tightened the old faucet’s supply lines. I put covers on the outlets to protect them and turned turned the power back on. I baked a loaf of bread, and a batch of brownies for her birthday celebration. I’ll spend the rest of the day teaching children to sing, writing a choral piece, and conducting a performance of a musical. There are things I know how to do that my dad didn’t. I try not to beat myself up about the things I don’t.

That might be the most important lesson of all.

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The marshmallow peeps melted beautifully, but didn't brown as much as I'd hoped. Still, they are tasty brownies.

The marshmallow peeps melted beautifully, but didn’t brown as much as I’d hoped. Still, they are tasty brownies.

Making (Someone Else) a Home

"White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities." --Lapine, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

“White. A blank page or canvas.
So many possibilities.”
–Lapine, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

Getting a home ready to put on the market is a challenging proposition. We’ve done lots of work on the Country House–and had even more done by professionals. There’s been new flooring installed, new carpeting, and new ceilings. There’s new paint everywhere. We’ve done enough de-cluttering to stock several thrift stores, and filled the recycling bin nearly to bursting almost every week.  I’m finishing the last of the electrical work, and alternately being amused and incensed by the thought that a prospective buyer might lose interest in a home that had almond colored light switches and outlets rather than white ones. (Ew, almond!) She’s artfully arranged furniture and stored small appliances in cabinets in a way that makes rooms and cabinets look big and uncluttered. We’ve made the house a blank canvas on which someone else might picture their life.

Until that someone is found, we’ll live as if we don’t live there: no family photographs on display, no dishes left in the sink to wash when we get home from work, no laundry left to fold later. It’ll be tricky. But, yes on the prize, as they say, we will do what we need to do in order to make it possible to find the City House we both want.

This morning, she admitted to being cranky and hungry. She worked so hard last weekend to get the kitchen counters perfectly clean that she can’t bear the thought of using them to prepare a meal.

That stops now.

I put off changing the last outlets and switches until tomorrow, and made a batch of pineapple fried rice that she can reheat in the microwave. I washed the dishes and wiped down the countertop when I was finished.

Dinner is still served at the Country House. Even if we use paper plates and keep our toothbrushes out of sight.

House-on-the-Market Pineapple Fried Rice

Mix together:
1/4 cup teriyaki sauce
2 T brown sugar
2 t lime juice
1/2 t minced garlic
Pour into a zip-top bag; add two pork chops and close, squeezing out as much air as possible. Leave overnight, or at least a few hours.

Remove the pork chops and discard the extra marinade. Dry the pork chops with a paper towel; tuck this immediately into the trash. (Resist the temptation to empty the trash right away; there are vegetables to clean.)

Brown the pork chops in a hot skillet, then set them aside. Add a little oil to the skillet and sauté:

1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
1/2 bell pepper, in strips
1 cup grape tomatoes

Remove vegetables; add to the skillet and brown slightly:
1 cup pineapple chunks

Meanwhile, slice the pork thinly.  It will not be cooked through yet, and that’s all right. Return pork and vegetables to the skillet, along with:
2 t soy sauce
2 T pineapple juice
2 t ketchup

Toss the meat and vegetables in the sauce until coated, and until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add:
2 cups white rice, cooked and cooled.

Stir a bit until rice is slightly coated with sauce. Add:
1 egg, lightly beaten

Stir and cook another minute or so.

Remove from heat. Refrigerate and reheat when ready. Wash the dishes and empty the trash.

The Enemy of the Good

Why, yes, I am enjoying watercolor effects.

Late in the evening I had an impromptu conference with the Artistic Director.  I also had an organic cheese puff. Or maybe 3. Hey, he offered.

The topic of conversation was our leading man, who was struggling with the high notes in one of his songs. The solution was obvious: change the key. Our director, a voice teacher by profession, was convinced the actor could become comfortable with the high notes in time. She’s probably right. And I can probably run a six-minute mile to keep pace with our assistant stage manager. But not before we open in a week and a half.

AD agreed to order the music in a new key. I heard that the actors were almost up to my next cue, so I hustled to the piano. I went back to his table during the next dialogue scene.  He held out the bag of cheese puffs.  I declined with thanks. What I really was seeking was advice about another song, in which four actors sing backing vocals to a featured performer. They’re supposed to sing these vocals–in high, tight harmony–while dancing up a storm. They’re perfectly good dancers, but none of them actors is a high tenor.

“Can you thin out the harmony, or have them sing in unison?”

“That’s exactly what I want to do, but I wanted to hear you say it.”

After our Act II run-through, I gathered the guys, demonstrated a new vocal part, which they sang effortlessly, with great confidence, and great relief. I worked with the leading guy, too. He understood why I wanted to make the change, but he felt like he was letting us down. I did my best to convince him otherwise. We like him. We like his acting, his ease on stage, his chemistry with the leading lady. And we like his singing. His vocal mechanism just isn’t ready to sing those high notes, any more than I’m equipped to cut my mile time by almost half.

Looking back at both of these songs, I probably should have insisted we make the changes even before the first rehearsal. But none of us wants to do less than our best. Even if the composer won’t be in the room, we want to honor her intentions. We want it to be as it should be. We want it to be perfect. But the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

She has this problem at work, too.  She and her colleagues were, by their own admission, A students who felt awful if they didn’t score 100% on every test and get all the extra credit points. Often as not, though, their not-quite-perfect work is better than someone else’s A. They’ve taken to calling themselves “The B+ Girls.”

I put some rotini in a pot of water just off the boil, turned off the heat, and ran an errand that took longer than I expected. The noodles were a little softer than I’d meant, but I’m okay with that.

B+ Pasta Salad

Combine in a large bowl:

1/2 lb. rotini (or other curly, the better to hold dressing) pasta, cooked in salted water then drained. Don’t beat yourself up if the pasta is a little past al dente.

1 carrot, in smallish pieces.

3 ribs celery, or thereabouts, sliced somewhere near thinly.

1/2 cup pepperoni—but salami would do, or even ham—sliced or cubed.

1 hard-boiled egg, chopped. Don’t even try for a perfect dice.

1/2 cup mozzarella cheese–sliced or grated or in little balls. Fresh if you have it, but don’t make a special trip to the market.

6 peppadew peppers, roughly chopped.

1 cup marinated mushrooms–and don’t give a moment’s thought that you didn’t marinate them yourself.

3 cups spinach, rinsed, dried, and torn or sliced into pieces.

Toss with:

1/4 cup viniagrette dressing (from the back of the fridge), augmented with
a little brown mustard (any variety you grab), and
a splash of olive oil.

Add pepper to taste. (Between the pasta cooking water, the dressing, the pepperoni, and the mushrooms, you won’t need salt.)

This is best after a night in the refrigerator, but if you need lunch in a hurry, it’s pretty good right away.  And certainly better than takeout.

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Craft Services

Hourglass Sweet Hourglass --my home-away-from-home for a million seconds of gameplay, quite a bit of pre-production time, and many, many Craft Services meals.

Hourglass Sweet Hourglass

On a TV or film production like the big budget game show I worked on, there’s often no practical way to leave for meals while you’re working. Our workdays were gruelingly long: 12- to 16-hour shifts were not uncommon, with no days off. The production site was, as most are, set up as its own little city. This one was built in a former car dealership on the far west side of New York City, with a four-story-tall, open-air set built on the roof. The site didn’t have had all the comforts of home, but it had all the necessities–including a medical station, a office-supply closet that would rival a small Staples, and a wardrobe area where one could get a change of clothes.

And, of course, food.

Catering on such a production is referred to as Craft Services, since the food is served to those who work in the various technical and creative crafts: wardrobe, hair, make-up, lighting, stage hands, camera operators, and so on. From the writers’ office where I worked, I could see the caterers continually replenishing the coffee urns and snack trays, and setting up for a new meal even as the last one was barely finished. Production ran around the clock with a team of hundreds. Some meals were better than others–and, as production wound down, it was pretty clear we were being served leftovers–but overall we were very well cared for. I can’t imagine how large the catering budget must have been, but it was money well spent.

This spring, I’m working for a theatre company that’s producing a big, fun musical comedy. Everybody is working incredibly hard to make the show wonderful. And that hard work is appreciated. Our producer–a cast member’s mother–sees to that. It isn’t Producer Mom’s job to raise the money to keep the lights on, or write the checks that keep the staff employed, but she does whatever is needed to keep things running smoothly. And she feeds us.

On Sunday, I’d had a full morning of church work, and just a little time at home before going back to church for an afternoon service–and then off to the theatre for a long work-through of our show. I wasn’t looking forward to another late night and another late dinner, but it turned out I didn’t have to worry. Producer Mom had prepared a buffet for the company.  The table was bursting with gorgeous chicken sandwiches and fresh mozzarella and tomato ones, as well as homemade spinach, quinoa, and orzo salads with lots of fresh vegetables and dressings as bright as the sunshine I’d driven through to get to rehearsal. And she’d assembled a centerpiece more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen on a Craft Services table. (I tried to get a photo of the table, but the hungry actors and staff devoured every crumb before I could get back to the table with a camera.)

It was a miserable-long day. We all left the theatre bleary-eyed and head-spinny from the work we’d done and the problem spots we’d identified for the next few rehearsals. But no one left hungry.

Even on the longest and hardest days on the game show, I was having the time of my life. The musical I’m working on now might not be as overwhelming an experience as that, but we’re all learning a lot and doing good work that we can be proud of. We’re all grateful for the chance to work together. And we’re very grateful for our Producer Mom and the service she lovingly provides us as we ply our varied crafts.

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If you have to have Sunday dinner behind a keyboard, it should be in the company of amenable and talented people–and it should be as tasty as this.

Hot Dancing, Cold Cereal

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I did not want another sandwich.  I’d had a sandwich for lunch, while driving from a performance to another rehearsal. Immediately following that rehearsal I had to drive back to the site of the performance for an all-evening rehearsal. No time for dinner between.  But not another sandwich, and certainly not another sandwich while driving. Things aren’t so bad as they were once, when at the end of a multi-week stretch of classes and rehearsals I was asked what I wanted for dinner, and I yelled, “I don’t care, but I have to use a fork!”

I packed a cup of oatmeal, some fruit, and some granola, figuring I could use the theatre kitchen’s microwave to heat it during a five-minute break.

I forgot the kitchen would be locked after business hours.

I could have waited until rehearsal ended and I drove home to use my own microwave, but dinner at 11 p.m. seemed like a bad idea. So, during a bit of downtime while the choreographer fixed some dance steps, I had dinner.

The blackberries were refreshingly tart and bursting with juice; the granola was nutty and salty-sweet. And the room-temperature oatmeal? Fortunately, steel-cut oats never get mushy or pasty. This serving had a little more crunch than when it’s been heated, but it wasn’t bad at all. I won’t go for cold oatmeal as a routine breakfast–or even as a routine rehearsal dinner–but it’s nice to know there’s another option that isn’t a sandwich in the car.

Rehearsal went well, by the way. We got a great deal accomplished. For two weeks out from opening, the last night in the rehearsal room before we move into the theatre, we were right where we should be.  The cast did good, solid work. It’s hard to remember to act, and to sing well, when you’re executing complicated dance steps at the same time.

Heck, sometimes it’s hard to remember to pack a spoon.

(Con)Fusion Cuisine

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When I packed her lunch I put aside a couple of things in a sack for my own, but I didn’t really think through the day. Then, after a busy morning at home I needed to get out the door fast.  I looked in the sack I’d sort-of-packed. There was protein. There was fruit. There was a hearty evening snack to eat during a rehearsal break. But no vegetables. There was only time to grab the first green thing in the crisper and hope it would work out. 

Thus it was that, at lunchtime, I found myself with pizza and asparagus. The former was leftover from a few evenings ago; the latter hadn’t been cooked yet, but were only few hours shy of their sell-by date. The pizza reheated nicely enough in the toaster oven. The asparagus, wrapped in a moist paper towel, steamed in the microwave. I ate standing up, while filing choir music and watching a liturgical-music documentary. It was not a fine dining experience, but it could have been worse. The pizza was nearly as good as it had been when it was first baked. The asparagus had enough crispness left to satisfy my craving for greens. It was an odd combination, but not unpalatably weird. 

Keep your Tex-Mex. Your French-Chinese. Your eel, lettuce, and tomato hand roll. I’ll take a slice of pizza and something green. Maybe I’ll even put the green thing on the pizza.

Unless it’s okra.  Or canned peas. That would just be wrong.

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Pizza and asparagus look prettier as a watercolor.

Sweet Traditions

Two more layers of creamy goodness will top this lemon-covered shortbread. Talk about gilding the Easter lily!

My grandmother had a pre-wrapped gift box. I’m sure it had once been a beautiful thing, but by the time I came to know it, it had seen better days. Its glittered and flocked exterior showed plenty of wear. The ribbon wrapped around its lid was more than a little frayed. The bow formed by that ribbon would never be as pretty and puffy as when it was new.  But every Christmas, it came out of her closet, and was filled with a token gift for her youngest son, my uncle. And on the day after Christmas, she’d take the box back and put it back into her closet to wait for the following year.

After she passed away, my mom found the box and continued to use it for her baby brother’s Christmas present–which was usually a small batch of his favorite cookie, wrapped carefully in plastic so it didn’t damage the box. (The rest of the cookies were presented in a more practical container, usually a zip-top bag.) As time went on, those orange flavored cookies with a faint orange glaze might not even have been my uncle’s favorite, but they were tradition.

My grandmother’s recipe collection is in storage while renovations on the Country House are underway. This might not be her exact recipe, but it’s close.  While she was living, nobody but my grandmother baked the orange cookies; then, only my mother did. One of my cousins does it now for her dad.

We don’t have many solid food traditions here. Turkey on Thanksgiving, sure. But we’ll have fried rice on New Year’s Eve, or popcorn for Christmas, or pancakes any night of the week if that’s what we feel like doing. That might change; we’re still figuring things out.

Her aunt–who is as much like a big sister to her as anything else–is known in the family for her lemon squares. They’re requested for every big family occasion, and nobody else makes them. Her aunt gave us the recipe–not because she’s handing over the reins, but because we’re far enough away that we aren’t encroaching on her turf. I’m honored. And delighted. I made a batch last Easter, surprised that I so enjoyed a recipe that had ingredients I’d never otherwise use: Cool Whip? Pudding Mix? I’m a from-scratch guy! 

When we were invited to a friend’s home for Easter dinner, her aunt’s lemon squares the first thing it occurred to us to bring. We tag-teamed: I baked the shortbread crust before I left for rehearsal; she took it from there. Creamy, tart, and addictively delicious, they were of course a hit.

I’ve seen variations of the recipe on lots of sites, so I don’t know that her aunt invented this treat; it seems to be a family tradition that only she made them.

And now we do, for Easter. Pudding and Cool Whip. Life is full of surprises. And unexpected traditions. I think I’ll bake some orange cookies at Christmastime. I’m looking forward already to next Easter.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box--but it's every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box–but it’s every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.