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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sommertime South Part II

In Summertime South Part I, I spoke of the joys of sitting by a lazy lake, plinking at cans with a pellet gun, blasting the neighborhood with fireworks, walking on the dock, and scattering tidbits for the wildlife that suddenly weren’t so wild when they sensed food.  Ducks. Swans. Fish. Turtles.

But, what if you don’t live on a lake, or have a new friend who lives on a lake, or can’t find a new friend because the last time you mentioned a new friend the conversation lapsed into a heartless discussion of division of property and alimony.

Never fear…well, almost never.  In the Deep South, everybody knows somebody with a backyard swimming pool and a way to boil water.

Step One:  Drift out by the pool, with a bottle/glass/pitcher of something cold to offset the sunshine and renew your perspective on life.

This is the SOUTH.  Almost forgot to mention you need a dog.
Step Two:  Boil enough water to cover a mess of potatoes, corn, sausage, shrimp, and crab legs.  Add seasoning to the water, along with a sliced lemon or two.

You understand what’s happening here, right?  You’re well on your way to a savory, Low Country Boil.  It has other names.  Frogmore Stew.  Shrimp Boil.  Have to wonder where the name Frogmore Stew came from.  Wonder no longer.  Richard Gay, owner of the Gay Fish Company called his dish Frogmore after a small community on St Helena Island, near Beaufort, South Carolina.  That was circa 1948.

The good news is, there ain’t a lot of rules for Low Country Boil.  Add crawfish if you want, or whole blue crabs, or stone crab claws, or oysters.

But, I am partial to Alaskan King Crab legs.

Only one mistake you can make:  Adding the seafood too soon.  Crab and shrimp and crawfish only need moments in rapidly boiling water.  Overcook them and they get tough.  Overcook them even more and you lose your pool privileges and somebody else gets to drink your beer.

So here we go on a journey to good eatin’, straight from the coastline of the Deep South:

Smart to use a pot with a lift-out insert.  Helps to pull the goodies out.  But, if not, no worries.  Use a scoop.

The Process

Boil the water, with lemons and herbs (perhaps Old Bay Seasoning and a couple of packets of Shrimp and Crab Boil).  How much?  Suit your taste buds.

Drop in small or chunked potatoes and cook for 20 minutes or so, then add chunks of quartered onions, smoked sausage and ears of corn.  How much?  How many you cookin’ for?

When the corn is tender (about ten minutes more), add the shrimp and crab legs.  Cook for only three to five minutes.  When the shrimp turns pink, it’s cooked.

Scoop out the goodies from the broth and spread them on a big platter, or on newspaper.  Dig in.  Utensils?  You kiddin’ me?   Pass the paper towels…

Monday, August 18, 2014

Robin Williams and the Question of Suicide

Robin Williams is in the news.  Suicide.  But, there are thousands of others who’ve done themselves in.  Most of all, he was a public personality, surrounded with all the things we put in the list of successes.  Fame. Wealth.   But, what about the other, less fortunates who snuff out their lives?

No matter the person’s station, those left behind ask the same question:  why?

In Robin William’s case, newsreaders, and the media in general came up with immediate answers.  Fading fame.  Yep, he’s got four movies coming out this year, and others in the planning stage.  Fading wealth.  Yep, had to sell one of his multimillion-dollar properties.  Fading health.  Others have Parkinson’s, Michael J Fox, to name one, and choose to go on living.  Lou Gehrig, retired from baseball and facing the bleak future of the disease which bears his name, called himself “The luckiest man alive.”

Depression.  Plenty of that going around.  Most of us have a short pity-party, then kick our own ass and get over it.

The conjured reasons just don’t hold up. To paraphrase Nassim Taleb, in his book, The Black Swan, it’s part of the human condition to construct a narrative.  But, does a hasty narrative really put the lid on the question:  why?

Every depressed person puts a belt around his neck, or ops for a fist full of tablets to dreamland?

Williams pops out at us (and scares us) because he had everything that’s supposed to lead to a happy life.  Wealth. Fame.  Friends without number. A wit that automatically made him the center of attention.

What about wealth? Hard to put an economic tag on suicide rates.  Greenland has the highest suicide rate and the U.S. is 34th, with 12 suicides per 100,000 people, which translates to a rate of .00012.  Haiti, one of the very poorest nations, ranks 109th, while many of the wealthy nations are in the top ten.

According to the Huffington Post, the U.S. suicide rate increases for those moving into an upscale neighborhood and make less money than their neighbors. 

Lots of other social 'certainties' follow the same bumpy logic as suicide.  Poverty causes crime.  Poverty causes societal eruption/revolution.

Except that most poor people do not commit crimes, and noted revolutionaries almost always come from middle to upper class families.  Fidel Castro.  Che Guevara.  The U.S. Founding Fathers.  Napoleon Bonaparte, Marx, Mao Zedong.   Those are just a few.

Suicide, it seems, is not successfully explained by any of the issues previously mentioned.  As Albert Camus famously wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.  Judging whether or not life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”  He goes on to point out he has never seen anyone die for the ontological argument and even Galileo recanted as soon as his ideas endangered his life.

Of course, Mr. Camus, no one has ever seen someone die over your rational philosophical argument either.

In the end, the explanations, by the media, and family members, and social scientists, and philosophers ultimately fail.  The reasons are mere attempts to inject rationality into what is an irrational act.

So, the question remains, why does an A-lister, or anyone else choose to take his own life?

As an aside, which professions have the highest suicide rates?  Top 5 in this order:  Dentists (5.45 times more likely), Musicians (3.60), Actors (2.80), Dancers (2.67), and authors (2.60).

Perhaps the answer to 'why suicide' is embedded in attitude.  King David grieved for his dying son for seven days. His servants couldn’t get him to eat or drink.  Worried?  They were freaking scared stiff.

Then King David’s son passed on.  On hearing the news, David snapped out of it. Ate. Drank. Made love to his wife. (She later bore him a son).  Led his army to a victory over the Ammonites.

His attitude was one of:  Look, I grieved and fasted and prayed and did what I could.  My son is gone and nothing will bring him back.  NOW, let’s see what happens next.  Talk about a ‘bounce back’ philosophy!

Another puzzler is that people sometimes turn to self-destruction, not over mountainous dilemmas, but over what most of us would consider emotional paper cuts.  Teenagers come to mind.  Have they lost great fortunes?  Found that fame is fleeting?

Lots of people are bullied, or fail to achieve their goals, or lose loved ones, but very few decide not to answer Let’s see what happens next, but choose instead to answer Camus’ ultimate philosophical question with a rope, a belt, or a gun, or a fist full of pills.

Face it, we don’t know the why.  Perhaps it’s looking at what appears to be insurmountable odds, but maybe it’s your former best friend telling you to go have intercourse with yourself.  That’s the way it is with irrational acts.  No rules, no boundaries, and ultimately an overpowering internal (and unfathomable) reason to die.

I look at Robin William’s clips on and know immediately, that someone with half his talent, wealth, and fame would have kept on truckin’.  That’s right isn’t it?  If I just had a little more of this and a little more of that, I’d be happy, right?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Summertime South Part I

I often write about European life and idle wanderings, but I’m really a son of the South…the southern United States that is.  Although, I admit to a kinship with other southerners around the globe.

Just returned from a sojourn in the southeastern U.S.  Reconnected with old friends and the old roots.

You talk about lazy!  The South in the summertime goes as slow and warm as melting butter on fresh bread.   People from the north think about going to the beach.  Southerners are a little bit different.

Family.  Friends.  Barbecue and ice cold beer.  Sittin’ outside.  Taking life slower and easier than a tired sloth.

Traveled through the beating heart of the Deep South.  Atlanta, Charleston and places in between.

Backyard Capers.

Don’t drink beer?  Well, sit out back, overlooking a lake.  Pull up a chair to the picnic table and pour a wine cooler, an iced tea, anything that wets down the body and soul.  The blaze of the sun seems to cut through the towering trees and long, low shadows.  Sure, unlike most of Europe, you can go inside and let the air conditioning do the job, but it just isn’t summertime if you’re not outside sweatin’ on the outside and coolin’ down the inside.

The lake is as peaceful as it gets.  Wide and deep. Water like dark glass.  Ducks paddle by, hoping for some breadcrumbs, or cracked corn.  Turtles, just their heads above water, paddle around the dock.  A few bass and sunfish feel the call and join the crowd.

Of course we grab a handful of this and that and toss it.  Couple of white swans elbow their way closer, tame enough to take bits of bread from your fingertips.  Careful they don’t take the fingers, too.

My friends notice a big flock of Canada geese cruising on the other side of the lake.  “Hate those bastards,” he says.  “They scare away the ducks and crap all over the dock, the yard, everywhere they damn well feel like it.”

I know he keeps a couple of pellet guns around.  “Think you can hit ‘em from here?”  I know he can’t.  The geese are specks, maybe a thousand yards away.

He fetches the pellet gun and gives it a pump.  Slides a .177 pellet in the chamber and raises the barrel like he’s aiming for a moon crater.  Can’t see where the projectile hits, but the geese hear the snap of the air and gently move even further away.  I mention it to my buddy.

“They won’t come closer while the swans are here,” he says.  “Swans don’t take any crap from anything or anybody.”  If the pun was intentional, he doesn’t show it.

His wife comes up from behind.  “I’ve got some cans saved up, if you want to do some target practice.”

The pellet gun is ready.

We go back to our chairs at the picnic table while she sets up the cans across the yard, about fifteen yards away.  My buddy and I take turns plinking.  The .177 is not a big caliber. A .22 would dwarf it, but the cans still fly off when you connect.

He’s a better shot than I am, but the game is still entertaining and we go on for about an hour, pausing for sips of wine cooler, or to nosh a bit on cheese, crackers, and sausage we picked up at Whole Foods.

Meanwhile the wives chat about things that wives chat about.

As our enthusiasm slows, his wife comes up with another stroke of genius.  Fireworks!  Nobody in the neighborhood seems to care that we spend the next hour blowing up the backyard.  Sparks everywhere.  Some shots go high in the air before explosions send small, colorful comets across the sky.


Darkness falls late, but suddenly.  We turn our attentions to greater libations and to the evening primrose, a flower that blooms at night.  While we watch, one flower after another pops open.  By the next afternoon, the flowers die and another set of blooms take their place.

This is real time, not time lapse.

In the south, you’re never bored.  As a last resort, grab another adult beverage, settle back, and watch the flowers bloom.

Farmers’ Markets

Another favorite summertime sport is a visit to a Farmers’ Market.  Unlike the European versions, which can quickly devolve into stands of cheap clothing, soft ice cream vendors, stalls with crude leather goods and the like, many Southern Farmers’ Markets, like the one in Charleston South Carolina, do a better job of vetting the participants.  Yes, they include artists and food vendors, but these are top of the line and in no way detract from the bushels and bushels of home grown fresh fruit and vegetables.  One man, selling local shrimp, cries out, “These shrimp were swimming yesterday!”

Being a doubter by nature, I check my watch. 9 o’clock in the morning means those shrimp haven’t been on ice more than 12 to 18 hours.  Can’t get much fresher unless you’re working on the shrimp boat.

We check out the shrimp and grits, down a coffee, share a fresh donut that was in hot grease just moments ago.  In a nearby gazebo, two guitars and two singers belt out some tolerable John Denver and Willie Nelson.

Shrimp and Grits

 We get up and wander.  Paintings that capture the soul of Charlestonian life, such as sea creatures, historic buildings, cobblestone streets, and plantation houses.  Other vendors sell homemade fruit jams and relishes, kettle corn from a huge copper pot, fresh bread and local cheeses, home grown herbs in plastic pots, pottery that catches the eye, hand crafted wooden furniture from salvaged planks. But, nothing detracts from the bounteous mounds of sweet, yellow and white corn, red and brown skinned heirloom tomatoes, shiny black eggplants, bright green okra, and summertime fruits.  Everything is local and vine or tree ripened.  The green striped watermelons are begging to be iced and sliced, peaches that capture the gold of the sun are ready to burst.

One lady and her helper, who might be her teenage daughter, offers samples of relish on a smooth cracker.  “Been making these in my house since I can’t remember when.  My momma and grandmomma made ‘em.  Everything comes straight from my garden to my kitchen.”

Golden honey from local bees.  I’m traveling, but I can’t help myself.  I buy all I can carry.  Some I’ll give to friends, some my wife and I will eat.

This is summertime in the South, with a warmth that feels like home.