Black Holes of Dough

Telluride Daily Planet, April 30, 2010

One day, circa 1973, I come home from high school to find my mother sitting at her place at the kitchen counter not doing any of her normal 4:30 things: not planning what part of our house to clean next, not smoking, not doing a crossword puzzle from The National Observer, or drinking a cup of Sanka, or listening to classical music on the transistor radio.  The cigarette is burning in the ashtray, but mom is staring straight ahead.

“What’s going on?”  I look around.

Before she has a chance to answer, I spot something on the oh-so-50s turquoise Formica: two cookie racks and on top of them a tidy grid of small hard round brown bread-like objects cooling.

I reach over and pick one up. It’s dense, like a black hole of dough. Hard, like hard tack. Dotted with millet seeds, sort of like – an egg laid by a millet-eating bear.

“Your father’s having ideas again,” she says. “And that,” she tips her head at the grid of balls, “is what he’s calling the perfect food.”

My father, recently laid off (the big Boeing purge of the 70s), has decided not to go back to work. Instead, with three of the four kids gone, he’s going to stay home, support us on his meager Army pension, and develop some his Ideas. My mother is beside herself. The house may be huge, but it can never be big enough for Jim’s Scenario; and the baking thing is a perfect example of why not. Would she ever presume to drag her notions – even her sewing notions — into his workroom? Hell would have to freeze blue-green for that.

But Dad, an engineer, has freely executed lots Ideas over the years. For instance, he sees a black and red taffeta dress on a pack of cards; has this idea it will look stunning on his wife; makes a pattern, learns to use a sewing machine; and then pulls off an exact replica – tight as the skin on a grape — which my mother actually wears. Maybe even to play cards in, who knows.

For an engineer, you see, what is knowledge without application? An idea without execution? It is nothing. Less than nothing: it is indulgence.

I pick up one of the dun colored baseballs and sink my teeth in. It’s dense, dry, and tastes like raw soy and birdseed held together by the dusty part of wheat chaff. Dad’s out with the dog, which gives me the free reign to take my head to the trash and scoop the saliva-sucking meal out of my mouth. I can’t imagine my mother getting anywhere near the balls. I can’t even see our spoiled dog – who has a soft boiled egg every morning for breakfast – getting near them except for fetching and retrieving and getting bored with.

“And,” she flattens her mouth into a wire-thin line, “he’s reorganized my cupboards.” Verifying, I fling open the most interesting cupboard, the one that holds things like gum, canned hearts of palm, and smoked oysters. All five shelves have been completely overhauled. Where bright labels and tins had once been, there is nothing but glass jars, freshly labeled like archeological specimens. Lecithin. Millet. Soy. Powdered milk. Rye. Wheat berries. Mung beans. Where has it all come from? I mean we still shop at the Army Commissary for food; that means dad must have gone to a civilian store for the stuff. And what are mung beans?

Even though I know dad is still sneaking huge hunks of cheese and bowls of ice cream during Johnny Carson, he begins a full-on love affair with Prevention Magazine. Ideas are coming fast and furious. Within months he and mom and I are sitting at our kitchen table fabricating vitamins 123 at a time in a handmade Lucite tray, tamping down raw electrolytes from giant drums with our ebony chopsticks (still have those), then gel-capping them by hand.  Eventually, this early attempt at a supplement based on potassium is sold at health food stores around the Seattle area.

Oh, there are plenty other Ideas dad has during his life. Grafted fruit. Anti-fog cloths. The water ski kite. Computer art (in the 80s!). These were the ripe pieces of fruit plucked from the tree of his mind, the things he harvested and put in his basket. The things he said mattered in the end.

But I’ll go out on the limb of this tree that still exists in my mind, snatch the idea of an apple off it, take a bite, taste the sweet cider-y juice dripping down my throat and chin and say this: Ideas are real, too. They can be dense like dad’s 13-grain rolls. They can be airy like my mom’s cream puffs. But they’re the stuff we feed on.

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