Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

I’ll Try It.

Source: Instagram, Jim Benton

There’s a question that’s been on my mind for most of my life: what exactly is cottage cheese? This came to the forefront when a friend of mine told me cottage cheese is making a comeback. I never knew it had a going away. I thought it was always there. The idea that it’s suddenly become hip or trendy sounds like fashionistas saying, “The big new thing this season is air! Breathe it in!” I nearly said “water” but then I remembered that there’s tap, sparkling, spring, mineral, well, distilled, alkaline, infused, and reverse osmosis. I’m sure every season trend-makers get together to decide which one is “in” and there’s a water cycle you don’t learn about in school unless you go to advertising school, but that’s another story.

At some point I realized cottage cheese was just curds and whey with a different label, but “curds and whey” has a negative association with Miss Muffet and spiders so advertisers got together and came up with an alternate name, something that would sound more benign, and you can’t get much more benign than a cottage, a little home in the woods, unless you happen to be Hansel and Gretel. I’m sure “cottage cheese” was a term that got picked up at a time when more people were moving to the cities which led to a faux nostalgia for rural life which city people mistakenly assumed was simpler, far from the madding crowd and all that.

I also know I’m exaggerating the role of some advertising cabal, a proto-Don Draper who looked at a big bowl of curds and whey and said, “The only way to sell this is to rebrand it.” I know the term “cottage cheese” was probably just a common term that people used—a shorter way of saying “we were going to make cheddar but ran out of time, so how about some of this slop?” That’s why there’s not a specific brand of cottage cheese—it’s a general term.

I can’t remember when it was that I finally decided to eat cottage cheese but I’m pretty sure it was in my early teens. For a long time it scared me a little. I didn’t think it was going to attack me, although at times it did seem like something horrible could be hiding under those lumps, but, like a lot of kids, I was weird about food. I didn’t like ketchup or mustard, in spite of never having tried them, and I couldn’t go near hot dogs for a long time after I made the mistake of looking one in the eye. I loved green olives and could eat an entire jar but I preferred them without the pimentos—although I’d still eat one after looking it in the eye. And I wouldn’t eat pimento cheese because it looked like cheese that had been processed by someone who got their hand caught in the grater. Taste is a funny thing. Things I didn’t like, or thought I wouldn’t like, when I was a kid I now enjoy. I put mustard on hot dogs, and also ketchup, to the horror of my Chicago friends, but I’ve never developed a taste for tomatoes or green peppers.

When I did finally try cottage cheese, at an age when I was starting to be more adventurous, I was surprised that it was pretty good. It wasn’t so good that I regretted not trying it sooner—there were other foods I felt that way about—but it wasn’t bad. It’s just there.

Catch It If You Can.

A couple of weeks ago a story about a woman whose dog Daisy has found a hundred and fifty-five frisbee golf discs in the park where they walk regularly got my attention. First of all I know frisbee golf discs are, well, they’re not expensive, but a basic set will set you back about twenty bucks, so I wondered who was throwing away all these frisbees. And that wasn’t nearly as weird as the time I found a lone bocce ball in the park. Again, not too expensive–although a cheap bocce ball set can cost about twice as much as a frisbee golf set–but I couldn’t figure out why someone would just leave it.

It also reminded me that I have a couple of frisbees in my office. They were ones that I’d found so they were free. In both cases I found them walking in to work. They were sitting on a wall next to a building and when I first passed by I just left them. After a couple of days, though, when they hadn’t been moved, I thought, hey, why not take ’em? I was going to take them home to the dogs but they’ve got their own frisbees and I also thought maybe I could get some of my coworkers to join me in taking a break to go outside and throw a frisbee.

I tried posting messages to a social media site we all used but no one noticed, or if they did no one said anything. Then I put the frisbees up on the wall of my cubicle, hoping someone, anyone, would see them and suggest we put them to good use. Or that people would just take them, which may have been why their original owner left them out.

Lately, though, we’ve had to clean out the entire office. It’s not just my cubicle. The decision was made that all personal items in the office have to go.

It’s made the office a depressing place. I’m not sure what the reasoning was. Maybe it’s because so many people are only coming in on a part-time basis so empty cubicles are supposed to be free and open to everyone, but we have more empty cubicles than people. If someone wants to brighten up the cubicle they use on a regular basis with a few personal items what’s the harm? And personal items are great for starting conversations, or just making the office feel like a welcoming place. We’re people, not machines.

So I’ve put the frisbees in a file cabinet. They’re out of sight so they won’t violate any policy of personal items on display but I think it’s a good idea to keep them handy.

Cold As Ice.

An ICEE, the blend of slushy ice and syrup or soda more commonly sold as a Slurpee at 7-11s, was a summertime reward. If my friend Dale and I were good while our mothers shopped at Kmart we’d stop at the ICEE stand, with its spinning bubbles of frozen blend and big happy polar bear slurping a cold drink instead of devouring a seal or going extinct because of climate change. ICEEs came in two flavors: cherry and Coke. For some reason blue raspberry wasn’t available around here. Once I tried the Coke flavor and, while refreshing, it was still just frozen Coke. The rest of the time I went with cherry.

Before it was handed to me I always planned to hold it long enough for the ice to melt so I could stir it all together, and I always plunged right in, poking perfectly round holes in the scarlet frosty mound with my straw, searching for the sweet spots which were unevenly distributed but so wonderfully sweet. Finally I’d end up with pinkish water and ice and I’d tip the cup up, not wanting any tangy drop to go to waste.

When I saw ICEE cereal, with that same big friendly polar bear, in a store with no ICEE machines, I had to try it. I’d been working without a break. If I couldn’t have an actual ICEE this, however different, would be my reward. The box even promised, “Cools your mouth as you eat!” Did this mean it also had mint flavor? I was eager to find out.

The cereal was, as advertised, blue, red, and blended spheres, although not as brightly colored as pictured. They were like an anemic version of Captain Crunch’s Oops! All Berries! with a limited palette. The red ones had a distinct cherry tang while the blue ones were just sweet, until that bitter aftertaste set in. Wait, bitter? It was as though there’d been a sugar shortage so they could only mostly cover up the flavor of the pasty wheat base. I hoped adding milk would even out the flavor.

It didn’t. But at least it didn’t heighten the bitter aftertaste which was mild enough that it could be overcome by taking the next bite. Then the cold set in.

It’s difficult to describe the cold. It wasn’t mint, which offers a pleasant tingling sensation as well as coolness and its own distinct flavor. This felt more like they’d somehow managed to slip in a sliver of dry ice and instead of dissipating it spread. It had the added effect of bringing the bitterness forward. By the time I scooped up the last bite—I’d paid three bucks for this cereal, dammit, I wasn’t going to let anything go to waste, gobbling it up as fast as I could to get it over with—that was all there was.

ICEE cereal was supposed to take me back to one of the best parts of the summers of my youth, getting rewarded for being good, but instead it was one of the worst things: a punishment when I hadn’t done anything wrong. Like their polar bear mascot, who looks so sweet and happy, the truth was cold and bitterness, although no one will be sorry when the cereal goes extinct.

But at least they didn’t include a Coke flavor.

Morning Haze.

Source: WKRN Weather app

The forecast this morning said it would be foggy and I thought, of course it will. Somehow I’d completely lost track of what day it was until this morning when I remembered I’d have to drive to work for the first time in two weeks, and even after showering, getting dressed, and having some coffee, I felt hazy. Outside looked hazy too. Heavy rains overnight had chilled the air but left it humid. Still when I stepped out and looked up there was a clear half moon almost directly overhead.

By the time I set off for work any fog had burned away, and while I was glad I didn’t have to worry about it obscuring the view I wished there were some somewhere. I like fog. It’s comforting the way it’s there but not there, a cloud close up. It seems so tangible but as you approach it disappears. I remember once when my family went on a long road trip to Maine and we drove through thick fog, slowly, seeing only the lights of other cars as they passed us.

I also remember when we’d just moved to a new house and one summer afternoon, after a thunderstorm, fog closed in over the whole neighborhood. My new friend Tony, who lived at the bottom of the hill, came up to my house and we played in my driveway. Because the new house was on a hill it had a long view and I could see miles away where cranes were putting up buildings, a whole new development. They were barely visible through the fog, and somehow, though it seems impossible now, I thought I could hear the sounds of machinery, of gears grinding. Tony said, “A cloud fell. They’re trying to put it back up.”

Maybe he was kidding, or maybe that’s what he really thought. I don’t know. I don’t even really care. I still like that idea that fog is just a fallen cloud, that it’s a way we can touch the sky.

A Tale Of Two Lights.

My wife said we should get a birdbath so I found one that has a solar-powered light in its stem. This doesn’t really help the birds, who are mostly asleep by the time it comes on. It’s activated by darkness. The light has a warm, steady, orange glow that doesn’t really illuminate anything beyond itself, but that’s fine. Light pollution is a problem and I’m glad when I go out at night and it’s there, a beacon. It glows all night, which I learned one morning when I had to take a dog out at about five a.m., just before dawn, and even with the sky beginning to lighten the stem was still glowing.

We have a second solar-powered light down by the driveway. It’s very different, though. For one thing it’s motion-activated and only comes on for thirty seconds. But it burns very brightly—so bright, in fact, that if it stayed on continuously I doubt it would last more than an hour or two. But it does its job of providing illumination when we need it.

There’s a metaphor, or maybe a synecdoche—for all I know there could even be a metonym—in that, but I prefer to leave it to others to decide if there’s any significance in it. I don’t want to set one light above the other. They both absorb solar energy and use it at night. And they’re both useful in their own way.

They also remind me of an expression I heard a lot as a kid. When someone called an idea stupid they’d say, “That makes as much sense as a solar-powered flashlight.”

Those people never heard of batteries, apparently.  

Are You There, Judy?

Source: Wikipedia

It’s taken me almost forty years but I’ve finally read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Blume was part of a trinity of authors whose books I read most growing up. The other two were Beverly Cleary and Betsy Byars. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that all three happened to be women and, at first, I didn’t specifically look for books by them. We’d get the Weekly Reader that had brief book descriptions or watch the PBS show Cover To Cover, and if a book sounded interesting to me I’d go to the library and look for it. We also had a lot of books by Cleary, Byars, and Blume around the house, and my friends passed them around.

As I said maybe it was a coincidence that most of the books I was reading were written by women and Blume, like the others, was just as good at writing from a boy’s perspective as she was at writing from a girl’s perspective. After I read Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge—which focused on a boy named Peter Hatcher—I went on to Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great, which is, obviously, about a girl named Sheila.

Somewhere in there I also read Freckle Juice, which is a much lighter story, and it didn’t even stick with me that it was one of Blume’s books but, looking back, I realize it deals with one of her major themes: the wild, often inexplicable things kids will do to fit in.

Then, in fifth grade, and specifically starting to look for Judy Blume books, I picked up Blubber, which was a book that challenged me in a lot of ways. It wasn’t a conventional narrative but more anecdotal, which felt like it was really capturing the way my own young mind worked, focusing intensely on whatever was happening in the moment. It’s also a book that deals, often brutally, with bullying, but is unusual in that its narrator is one of the bullies. Jill, the protagonist, doesn’t want to single out her classmate Linda but, under the influence of the most popular girl in her class, she doesn’t resist, either, until the end. Blubber doesn’t have a clear moral message, but that’s what makes it such a great book: it asks readers to draw their own conclusions about group power dynamics and how quickly those can shift as Jill goes from bullying to being the one bullied. I ended up rereading it several times because it spoke to me in a way few other books did. Then there was the ending—seemingly happy, but without a tidy resolution.

It also had the words “damn” and “ass” in it and, hard as it is to believe now, those were shocking words to encounter in a young adult novel, but they also added to the realism, the sense that Judy Blume wasn’t condescending; she understood what kids are like.

At the beginning of sixth grade I found Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret on the shelf of my English classroom. Hey, another Judy Blume novel. I started reading it and was really enjoying it up until Margaret and her friends talk about whether they’ve had their periods.

I thought I knew what a period was: the dot at the end of a sentence. Or a vague measure, as in a “period of time”. What Margaret and her friends were talking about was something different, something I didn’t understand, though I had a vague idea that it was important to girls. So I asked a girl. Beth and I sat at the same table in English class and, not really aware of what I was doing, I just asked her, “Can you tell me what a period is?”

She stared at me with piercing, pale blue eyes. Then laughed. Then ran to another table and hissed, “Chris doesn’t know what a period is!” More laughter.

It would be oversimplifying to say I became a class joke. Most of the girls in my class, even Beth, laughed about it for a few days then dropped it. Most of the guys did too. But a few, their own little gang, thought it was funny to catch me alone, on the playground, or just sitting by myself drawing or reading, and surround me.

“Hey Chris, do you know what a period is? Do you know what a…pussy is? Do you know what a dick is? Do you know if you’ve got one?” And then they’d laugh menacingly.

I wasn’t stupid. I knew what they were talking about. I just didn’t want to talk about it. Looking back I wonder what would have happened if I’d laughed back at them and said something like, “If you’re so smart why don’t you tell me?” That might have worked or it might not. Eventually most of them left me alone but one kid, Tommy, kept bugging me, and didn’t stop until I started hitting back and the teachers kept us separated.

It was through that experience that I reread Blubbler, and I wish I’d finished Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret too. I wish I hadn’t felt so humiliated I couldn’t pick up the book for years. Obviously menstruation isn’t something I ever had to deal with personally, but my ignorance shouldn’t have been turned into a joke. And aside from that I could relate to Margaret struggling to fit in with her friends, to fit in anywhere, while also wanting to be herself. That I could understand, even at the time. The years between ten and thirteen were difficult—not that other years haven’t been, but one of the advantages of getting older is experience provides a context for our experiences. Judy Blume’s books helped me put into words, or at least process, changes I’d never been through before, and would, thankfully, never have to go through again. They made me feel less alone while they also allowed me to draw my own conclusions.

Solo, So High.

A story popped up in my feed about a guy who, because he waited eighteen hours for a flight, got to be the only passenger on a plane. Never mind the details of how it happened or even what he did on his, if not exactly solo, then at least solitary flight. I think this is one of those What Would You Do? scenarios that no one ever thinks of because it’s such a completely bonkers thing to even imagine, let alone something that really happens. So what would you do if you were the only passenger on a flight?
I think most people would say they’d want to see the cockpit and maybe talk to the pilots, maybe even try their hand at flying the plane, doing some barrel rolls. Not me. I’d want to hang with the flight attendants.
That’s not a joke. I’m not putting down pilots. Flying a plane is an amazing feat, but flight attendants are to airlines what nurses are to hospitals. The doctor may get you through surgery but think about who’s bringing you meals and changing your bedpans at 20,000 feet. Pilots face the weather but flight attendants face the passengers who can be the scariest part of a flight.
Every flight I’ve ever been on has in some way been made nicer by flight attendants. There was the time I was on a flight with serious turbulence. I had my nails dug into the armrests and my face was whiter than a 1200 thread-count king size sheet from Macy’s. A flight attendant put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey, it’s fine.” I felt better after that. Then there was the time I was on a mostly—but not entirely—empty Tuesday morning flight and the attendants made a comedy routine out of the safety talk. “Should the cabin suddenly lose pressure stop screaming and let go of the person next to you long enough to put the oxygen mask over your face.”
There are also a hundred things flight attendants do that most of us never see that make a flight more enjoyable. How do we repay them? By heaping abuse on them and turning them into a stupid SNL joke. If you are or ever have been a flight attendant I want you to know, seriously, how much I appreciate you.
If I were the only passenger on a flight I’d want the attendants to sit down, put their seats back, and let me bring them drinks and as many bags of nuts as they wanted. And with all their experiences dealing with people I’d bet they’d have some great stories to tell.

Taste Bud.

Source: Business Insider

As much as I try to avoid advertising I’ve spent entirely too much time thinking about McDonald’s lately and why Grimace’s birthday is being celebrated. Of all the corporate mascots out there Grimace seems like one of the weirdest and it led me down a rabbit hole of advertising history. Even as a kid the whole idea of McDonaldland didn’t make sense, mainly because McDonald’s is a restaurant, although what McDonald’s serves resembles the food you’d get at a real restaurant the same way the automated backing track on an ’80’s synthesizer resembles a Chopin nocturne played by Vladimir Horowitz.

The point is McDonald’s never was a theme park. Sure, they’ve got their PlayPlace playgrounds, but those are a convenience that give kids a chance to exercise a bit and forever associate McDonald’s with big plastic slides that smell like urine and vomit. They don’t make McDonald’s a destination for the same reason people don’t go to King’s Island just for the free drink refills.

I do remember some of my friends having birthdays at McDonald’s but it was kind of sad and confusing. We ate our cheeseburgers and then…what? It was back to his house because you can’t stick candles in a milkshake. I also remember Ronald McDonald making “live” appearances at various McDonald’s franchises. It seems like they’ve de-emphasized him, though, because of the whole clowns-are-creepy issue. Admittedly there have been Grimace horror parodies, as well as the “Special Tribute To Grimace”, for as long as there has been an internet, and Grimace was probably nightmare-fuel even before that–it just wasn’t as widely shared.

In fact it’s well-documented that the original four-armed Grimace terrified children.

Source: Etsy, currently selling for $10

As far as the other McDonaldland characters no one really remembers Mayor McCheese or Birdie, and the Hamburglar is controversial. There’s also Captain Crook whom I wouldn’t even know about if we hadn’t gotten a 1977 glass from McDonald’s with his picture on it, and I’m somewhat dismayed to know that if we still had that glass it would be worth about $8, but that’s another story. For a really deep cut there are the Fry Kids, which bear a passing resemblance to but lack the charisma of the Sesame Street Yip-Yip Martians.

So in spite of, or because of, his dark origins Grimace is really the only McDonaldland character with broad enough appeal to be worth celebrating, although it’s surprising they’ve even bothered given that the media landscape is so saturated with characters vying for our attention it’s hard to imagine a purple blob who originally had four arms and was a villain but who then morphed into a more benign figure whose sole purpose is still to sell hamburgers drawing that much interest.

And yet Grimace’s birthday, and the accompanying shake, has gotten a lot of attention, although I think a friend of mine put it best when he told me, “The biggest disappointment is they don’t taste like grape. They’re just purple vanilla. I won’t be sad when they’re gone and I don’t know what the big deal is even after having about a dozen so far.”

A Post-Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Summer’s more than half over. That’s what I discovered when, for no reason I can explain, I suddenly stopped and asked myself, When exactly is midsummer? And myself replied, Why are you asking me? You’ve been asking yourself this question every summer, usually around this time, since you were eight, but now you’ve got the internet and you can just look up the answer. Although when you were a kid you could have asked an adult. Sure, some of them might not have known, and some would have thought it was funny to give you an answer like “The thirty-eighth of Cunegonde.” And don’t you feel stupid for not finding out you could ask questions like this at the reference desk in the library until your senior year of college so you spent a lot of time trying to find information on your own?

This is why I don’t talk to myself as much as I used to.

Even though I did wonder when exactly midsummer was when I was a kid most of the time I was too immersed in the joy of summer to stick with the question long enough to ever stop to ask anyone. Besides I didn’t want to waste time worrying about when summer would slip into its downhill slide. That time would come soon enough. I remember the summer morning when I was nine or ten and I woke up and heard neighbors shooting off fireworks. Fireworks were supposed to be for the fourth of July, I thought, so why were they having a breakfast snap, crackle, and pop that had nothing to do with cereal in their driveway? Then I went downstairs and saw the newspaper on the kitchen table and realized it was the third of July—the entire month of June was gone and I hadn’t even noticed. Also that was the previous day’s newspaper, although I’d walk around most of that day still thinking it was the third.

Also when I was a kid seasons seemed very arbitrary. Then I grew up and learned more about how the world worked and came to understand that seasons are completely arbitrary. When I was a kid summer started when school ended, and most of the time that was sometime in late May, but, according to the meteorological calendar, summer this year started June 1st, with midsummer falling on June 24th. Of course when I was a kid autumn didn’t start when school started, which was usually in late August. Summer vacation might be over but as long as the weather was warm and humid we were still in summer. Depending on the weather I wouldn’t think of it as autumn until sometime in early winter.

We’ve had a very mild, at times almost cold, summer this year, with it only just now starting to get really hot. I wear jeans and a hoodie in the house because I’m cold-blooded and we keep the air conditioning pretty well cranked up most of the time, but when I step out into the sunshine and still keep the hoodie on because it’s a bit cool that, to me, is just not summer. In fact it’s been so cool for most of June that one morning, when it should have been sweltering but was actually chilly, I yelled up at the sky, “You could turn down the air conditioning a little!” I knew it wouldn’t change anything, of course, and I even wondered why I was doing it, but I know better than to ask myself questions like that.

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