A Fish Story

Jurassic Fish

When my lovely wife Marion went up north to Sauble Beach last Wednesday to spend some time with her sister Denise at Denise’s cottage, I stayed at home so I could attend ROM Song Circle on Friday night. Being a bachelor for a few days, I went to the grocery store to pick up some things I could heat up for evening meals. Our local grocery, Cousins, prepares lovely made-on-the-premises Italian dishes you can heat up and serve. I selected a small fettuccine with meat sauce, and when I went by the meat counter I noticed they also had some nice looking fresh haddock and cod fillets. My family doctor is always encouraging me to eat more fish and I thought, why not, and picked up a package of cod.

Now here’s the thing: Marion is a vegetarian. Not on principle, but because she can’t tolerate the taste of meat, or even its smell when it’s cooking. Triple that for fish. Except for when I eat out, I share the same vegetarian diet because there’s no point in making separate meals and, anyway, I enjoy vegetarian food. I figured that with three day’s buffer, any lingering fish smell should be gone by the time she returned from the cottage.

It had been some years since I cooked fish at home, so I was a little rusty on how to go about it, but I melted some butter in a non-stick pan and when it was hot I put on the fillets, uncoated, with a little salt and pepper. When I judged them to be about half cooked, I flipped them and put a little salt and pepper on the reverse side. I must say the fillets looked tasty and I’d steamed up some green peas to accompany them. It was a success, and I stuffed myself full.

Being solicitous of Marion’s high sensitivity to fish smell, I was very careful to do a thorough cleanup. I had left the kitchen window open while frying the cod, despite a brutal GTA heatwave, to allow as much odour to escape as possible. When finished I carefully washed everything by hand, especially the frying skillet. I poured the butter down the drain and scrubbed the pan thoroughly with dish detergent, then ran water down the sink for an extra long time.

Satisfied that I’d cleaned thoroughly, I settled in for an evening of video watching, which is somehow less lonely than reading a book when you’re by yourself. I’d got hooked on a grade B SF TV show from Netflix called Stranger Things. It wasn’t all that good but I don’t watch a lot of video and it was a change of pace for me. After binge-watching several episodes, I went into the kitchen to have a few nibbles of snacks before going to bed. I could detect a lingering fish smell, but assumed that was normal and that it would dissipate.

The next morning I walked into the kitchen to put on the kettle to make some coffee and I could still smell the fish. It was a faint smell, I thought, but my sense of smell has diminished somewhat with age so I figured if I could smell it Marion would smell it more intensely, so I opened the kitchen window again. The outdoor air was already warm and swarmy, reminiscent of the US deep south, but I left the window open for a couple of hours.

I turned my attention to the CDs I was reviewing for the Canadian roots magazine Penguin Eggs and the day passed quickly. When evening arrived I heated up the fettuccine in the microwave and enjoyed a light meal, but while I was cleaning up it seemed to me that the fish smell hadn’t gone away at all. I emailed my friend Mark about it. We often share our technical problems, though they’re usually computer related, but Mark is a good cook and suggested pouring some vinegar in the drain and maybe frying up some onion and garlic to mask the fish smell. The onion and garlic idea seemed especially good to me because Marion loves them as much as I do. I did a small fry-up and it seemed to work. I went back to binge-watching Stranger Things.

On Friday morning when I went into the kitchen the residual onion and garlic smell was faint, but the fish smell was stronger than ever. It was the hottest day of the summer so far with a humidex of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I left the window closed so the air conditioned air wouldn’t escape. I had thought that by now the fish smell would be gone and with Marion due to arrive home the next day I was feeling uneasy about the lingering odour of cod but couldn’t think of anything else to try.

I went to the ROM song circle Friday evening and, as always, it was a musical treat. Tony and Veronica were there with their fine singing voices and instrumental work. Dave played his resonator guitar and twelve-string. Brian and Hooley both played banjo. Ross, on bass, kept us on the beat, while Cedric played his electric guitar (at minimal volume), and Grant and I played our La Patrie classical six-strings. Judy helped out on vocals. Brian and Veronica swapped off on fiddle, and we sang a cartload of our favourite songs. A perfect musical evening.

I was in a mellow mood when I got home until I walked into the kitchen and its fish smell. Damn, I thought, Marion’s coming home in the morning. What else can I do? My mind seized on a thought: the drain. The smell has to be coming from the drain where I poured in the fish-frying butter. I went on a hunt through our seldom used household stuff and finally found a barely-remembered can of Drano. I wasn’t happy about using it, since I try to be “green,” but I was getting desperate. I poured in some Drano, covered with a cup of cold water, let it sit for half an hour, then rinsed the drain thoroughly. And despite the heat (and any stray burglers) I left the kitchen window wide open overnight.

Next morning–Saturday–I walked into the kitchen and, to my dismay, the smell, if anything, was stronger than before. I did the Drano thing again. I emailed Mark that I thought Marion would notice it right away when she got home.

Around 11 a.m. I heard the garage door open and I went to the door to help Marion carry her suitcase and bags into the house. The moment she walked in she said, “What’s that smell? Fish?” I confessed that, yes, I had cooked some cod and that I couldn’t seem to get rid of the smell. She took it fairly well, considering how much she detests fish odour, and we got her gear unpacked and put away. I apologized profusely and detailed all the steps I’d taken to try to freshen up the kitchen. She went to the kitchen to see what she might do about it.

“Gene,” she said, “What’s this?” I looked at the plastic bag in the corner of the counter that I can’t say I’d noticed before. “This is your fish packaging you goof! It’s gone rotten!”

So it had. I must have pushed it to one side while I was cooking and lost track of it. I had the honour of disposing of it, and it had a ghastly smell. Not just cod, but rotten cod.

After giving me a look that said, “you’re hopeless,” we began giggling. What else was there to do?

In the end she decided to keep me, with the proviso that I eat out  when I want fish.


A Secret Pleasure: Chocolate Chips

Writing Challenge (by StarbuckGuy)

This is a small piece I wrote for the April challenge on Creative Nonfiction Writing Forums. This particular theme was “a secret pleasure”. I hope you enjoy it.

I keep a stash of chocolate chips in the kitchen cupboard, behind the bags of loose green tea. They’re not hidden, exactly, but they’re discreetly positioned. My wife knows they’re there but she poses no threat because she’s not overly fond of them. It’s my son and his friends who worry me. Young eating machines capable of emptying the fridge in a single session, it has so far never occurred to them that there might be something to devour on the tea shelf.

When the world is too much with me, late and soon, I visit the tea shelf, shake out a few chips onto my palm, and lick them onto my tongue, letting them warm and melt across the taste buds. Only then do I squidge them between my teeth and bite down slowly, anticipating the flavour-burst rush of chocolate ecstasy. Repeat. Repeat once again. Then conclude with a small wash of cold milk.

Although not as writerly as scotch, or as Leaving Las Vegasy as marijuana, chocolate chips have done more than either to promote well being, mental balance, and happiness. In fact, I believe that one day neurologists will agree with me that the most distinguishing feature of human evolution has been the development of chocolate pleasure receptors in the brain.

This in turn caused intelligence to evolve in order that our species might learn first how to process chocolate, then turn it into little brain bursts of goodness, with flat bottoms and cute curlicue tops. The rest of the human intelligence business, such as spear points, transistors, and epic poems, has been a largely accidental byproduct.

I offer my solace to any not-quite-complete humans who claim not to like chocolate. Their lives may never be optimally gestalten, but they at least have the lesser comforts of scotch, marijuana, or, in extreme cases, vanilla. I’ve not heard of vanilla becoming anyone’s secret pleasure, but I allow for the possibility.

Chocolate chips are also comforting when found in cookies and ice cream, of course, but those tend to be public pleasures. It’s difficult to maintain a secret pleasure at an ice cream shop, a Starbucks, or a family dinner. But a slightly clandestine bag of chocolate chips in the cupboard, semi-sweet ones — Ghiradelli if possible — provides comfort to the writer and poet within in a hard-wired way that surpasses any alternative, not to mention the innate pleasure it provides in fulfilling one’s evolutionary heritage.

At Least I Wasn’t Late

Snow, Bus Stop (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s been a busy week, by retirement standards. Lots of writing, more reading than usual, a quick trip into Toronto, and a first meeting with two medical specialists. Well … one.

I woke a bit hung over from a new ‘sleep’ medication prescribed by the first specialist. My sleep has been ragged lately and it’s hoped a few nights with this medication will help even out my cycle. I frequently have a strong reaction to medications, especially the first time I take them, so it’s no surprise I woke feeling drowsy and fuzzy-headed.

Being a person of routine, I tried the usual. Fixed a bowl of cereal, fussed and petted Jasper (the family guinea pig) while he purred, then fed him his pellets, timothy hay, and treats. Started a fresh kettle of water, warmed a teapot, measured out Spring Lung Ching green tea, brought in the newspaper and left it at Marion’s placemat (I’m not a newspaper reader), ate my cereal while working on a sudoku puzzle. I’m thinking someone’s changed the classification scheme. The “easy” puzzle feels like “challenge”.

Marion comes downstairs — hugs and kisses — and she fixes her cereal. She’s already dressed and is about to head out to her Thursday morning art group. She shows me an abstract, surreal self portrait she worked up last night. It looks really good. She packs up her gear, says her goodbyes, and drives the car out of the garage. I finish my sudoku, my first cup of tea, and cut some fresh greens for Jasper. Redleaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, some green beans, a bit of parsley, a bit of dill, a bit of cilantro. He stands up against the side of his cage, eager to get at it. He lives to eat.

I clean up the breakfast dishes and pop into the living room to open my laptop and do a quick check on email and new forum items. And appointments. Ah, yes, 10:30 today with the gastroenterologist. Queensway W, right across from Trillium Hospital. A short bus ride. Hmmm, not that much time left — I’d better get cleaned up and dressed.

It’s a new doctor so I dress in the better of my two pairs of jeans and put on a proper shirt, one with buttons on the collars. What to take? Sibyl, of course. List of meds — shit. Got some new ones and they’re not on my spreadsheet yet, which I maintain on Google Docs. My time is running short. Fortunately my desktop is on and I try to access the spreadsheet, but it’s asking me if I want to sign up. Damn. I need to log in first. Go to Gmail and try to log in and the system is so slow I get timed out. Trev, right, he’s doing some massive downloads overnight and there’s no bandwidth.

Running out of time, I pull the plug on the basement segment of the network (advantage of having the central hub in my office), bandwidth is restored and I get my doc printed out. Along with the sheets from the drug store. No time to update it if I’m to get to the doc’s office on time. I still have to catch a city bus. I’ll pencil it in in the waiting room. I plug the network segment back in and head downstairs to put on my winter gear.

Okay, boots on — I hate boots and boot laces — coat, toque (hat), gloves, scarf. It’s -20 degrees Celsius and I’m hoping there’s no wind. Almost out the door. Crap. Forgot my bus tickets. I don’t take the bus very often. Pat myself down on the way upstairs. No cell phone either, no nitro spray, no watch. I grab them all and rush outdoors to the bus stop.

I’m lucky. A bus going north on Hurontario comes along soon. It’s cold. Even in the bus I leave my hat on and my collar up. I get to Queensway and step off to the sidewalk. Good, not too icy or snowy. It’s a big intersection and I have to make two crossings to get to the right side of the street.

I find the building — 101 Queensway West. Let’s see. No I can’t see. I left the referral paper at home. What was the name of the doctor again? Wait I remember it was suite 200 something. Elevator to second floor. Look at floor directory. Yes, that’s him!

Enter office. “Is this your first visit? Okay, please fill in this sheet and bring it back to the desk.”

I get out my stuff and fill in the meds I’m taking, the dosages, my main recent medical events, any medical allergies (does penicillin giving me diarrhea count?), and the reason for my visit. Reason? Possible internal bleeding. Reason enough?

When I take the filled-in form back to desk, the very polite receptionist thanks me, then says, “Mr. Wilburn, I wondered why I couldn’t find you in today’s appointments. I checked, and your appointment is for March 5, not February 5.”

Uh, huh.

Understanding Netbooks

Marion & Sibyl (by StarbuckGuy)

Sibyl, my Acer Aspire One netbook, is one of the niftiest bits of technology I’ve acquired in some time, and I’m good at acquiring technologies.

But, lately, Marion has been casting her eye at Sibyl, which has kinda worried me. The last time she did something like that, my Canon SD700 IS digicam disappeared into her purse, permanently. With a trip to Salt Lake City coming up to do some serious genealogical research, she’s been commenting on how a small, light computer like that might make an ideal travel companion.

Bracing myself for the worst, I help her load her genealogy software and data so she can try it out.  ‘Only for a week,’ she promises. Not counting her using it until March to get it down pat.

Today we go to Starbucks together so she can take Sibyl for a test drive. I show her how to log in to the Bell Hotspot to get online, then resign myself to the thought that this could be the last I see Sibyl. I take out my AlphaSmart Neo to write on. I’ve always liked the Neo and its outstanding keyboard, but today it looks so last century.

I don’t get very far into my writing before the comments start flying from across the table. “My Windows isn’t working right!” I look and don’t see anything wrong. “The file won’t open.” I watch and notice her touch on the keypad isn’t quite right, so I suggest she use the button to the left of the touchpad.

Soon it’s ‘This stupid machine won’t let me drag this window over to this side of the screen!’ I watch again and suggest she hold down the left button while moving the window. The window slides around like an elastic band, then snaps back to where it started. Marion responds, “Shit!”

Marion’s normally very calm but within the hour she’s convinced the machine is out to get her. I’m careful not to say something stupid, like ‘Sibyl’s my girl you know.’ The muttering continues and the tension mounts. I’m unable to write a word with all the distractions.

I suggest she give up on trying to use the touchpad and bring a mouse with her next time. That doesn’t mollify her at all. It makes her even more determined not to be intimidated by a mere netbook.

It doesn’t work out. After more trying, and much muttering, Marion concludes that even if she could use the ‘stupid touchpad’, the data on the screen is too small to read and that she can’t get enough data open to do her research.

Genealogy, unlike essay writing, is a multi-app, multi-windowed kind of activity. If you were doing it manually you’d be sitting at a table with books, papers, documents, pens and pencils, and other related stuff spread all over a big study table and you’d be sifting back and forth looking for clues and evidence. You have to recreate this environment on a computer.

Eventually Marion decides that Sibyl is not for her. A netbook is great for casual surfing, doing some email, or working in an editor or word processor while listening to some MP3’s, but it was not designed for heavy lifting. The weight and size are attractive for carrying around, but it’s more than a literal lightweight. It doesn’t have enough screen real estate, or CPU and RAM oomph, for intensive apps. I’d dread the thought of editing photos on a netbook.

Leaving Starbucks, starting our walk home, we look at each other and say at the same time, ‘Want to go to The Harp?’ Smiling, and relieved, we walk down the street and have a lovely pub lunch.

A Fallen Photographer Confronts Simplicity

Window Crank

Simplicity.  An alluring concept — easy to grasp, easy to understand, yet as difficult to achieve as your ideal waist size, an undeviating heart-friendly diet, or world peace. If Thoreau thought simplicity difficult to achieve in the 19th century when he took to the woods in a log cabin at Walden Pond, how can any of us achieve simplicity while being bombarded by one hundred trillion cell phone emissions per minute? Besides, after two years of chopping wood, snorting nature, and filling several notebooks with philosophical scrivenings, Thoreau chucked it and moved back to town.

When I was young, with a mind as pliable as potter’s clay, I thought Thoreau was onto something. Doesn’t everyone wish life were a little simpler? Simple as in less complex, not simple as in the mindedness of the Republican election platform.

Take photography for instance. Why do enthusiastic photographers acquire so much gear? The other day I went on a photo walk with just my Canon S3 IS digicam, a lightweight point-and-shoot with a lens range equivalent to 36-432mm — what is sometimes referred to as a superzoom model, as opposed to all the other models which the manufacturers assure us are all super, at least until they are replaced by newer, superer ones.

In addition to its zoom versatility, the S3 has good macro capabilities, and a surprisingly good movie mode that, I must confess, I usually forget is there. I’ll not be providing competition to Michael Moore any time soon. The S3 is a comfortable camera, so I ask myself why do I bother with bulkier, heavier SLR and DSLR cameras with their various lenses when I could shoot 90% or more of my images with the S3?

The lure of this logic, with its overtones of monogamous virtue, has caused me, twice, to sell off DSLR cameras in a quest for simplicity. I essentially divorced two nice DSLRs: a Canon 300D Digital Rebel and then a Pentax *istD2. My newly-resolved relationship with a single, worthy P&S digicam lasted for perhaps six months, but in the end it was doomed to failure because while the lure of simplicity pulls me one way, I must confess to a problem that pulls me in another: lust for lenses. For me the online KEH used camera and lens store in Atlanta is a camera porn site to which I may be as addicted as David Duchovny is to the human variety.

Not only do I fancy lenses, I often fancy the older ones, as perhaps befits my age. I won’t state my age, but if you guessed 63 you’d be exactly close.

So, we come to the nub of it: lust leads to complexity. You acquire lenses, then you need a new body. Soon you have so many lenses it’s no longer possible to maintain a discrete relationship with each one. Your lens drawer becomes a sultan’s harem of complexity.

Perhaps Sarah Palin would counsel abstinence, but when you’re already pregnant with an expanding lens collection, it’s a little late, though I agree it would be morally reprehensible to suddenly abort. If I’d had lens education early enough I might have taken precautions, but as it is I’m a fallen photographer.

So, at last I face the varnished truth: I am a photographer with lens issues. For me simplicity is no more attainable than is a profound appreciation and understanding of punctuated equilibrium by George W. We all have our limitations.

Thus, after a lifetime of longing for simplicity, I bid adieu to Henry David Thoreau and his clever Walden memes. There is more than one kind of addiction, and an addiction to the idea of simplicity leads not to the promised land, but to the sorrow of yet another unobtainable dream (YAUD, in geek terminology). Besides, my cell phone is chirping, and I have to take this call.