Friday, June 27, 2014

The Travails of Toothless Ed

At first, unbearable pain sent me to a dentist in Berlin, Dr. Basic. Which is how the friends who took me there pronounced his name, like basic training or something. But when he talked, it was obvious that he was from Eastern Europe and his name was really pronounced BAH-sitch. His office was scary. So was what he said to me.

"There will be danger. There must be danger." I didn't like the sound of that. I stayed just long enough to ascertain that it was his accent. The word was "dentures."

But, at that time, there would be no danger, and no dentures. There was no money, and even scary Eastern European dentists in bad neighborhoods in Berlin have to get money for their services.

Then the pain got worse. Somehow I was referred to another dentist, an Australian in a somewhat better neighborhood. It was between him and an Orthodox Jewish woman in a really bad neighborhood -- hell, I used to live there -- who'd gone to the same dental school as my maternal grandfather (just joking about the bad neighborhood, folks). What they all had in common was that they spoke English, something I require for overseas medical problems whenever possible.

The Australian's was the highest-tech dentist's office I'd ever seen. We did X-rays and I handed him my Röntgen-Karte, a government document that keeps track of how much radiation you've absorbed. He looked at the results. "See this here?" he said, noting some white clouds where my gums were. "That's pus, and it could go any minute, into your bloodstream, into your heart or your brain and bingo! You're dead!" The solution, it appeared, was to get rid of the rotten teeth that were causing it to exist. He gave me a quote. Okay, let's do it.

There are neighborhoods in Berlin that go on and on and contain nothing edifying. Kebab stands, hairdressers, bars, dentist's offices. That's where he was, a subway ride with transfer and another transfer to a bus. No particular landmarks. Just undifferentiated ugliness, with him somewhere in it. He'd given me a prescription for some kind of antibiotic to clear up some of the infection, which meant that on my first date with the woman who was to become known as Lady Drunkula, I had to abstain. (You know the type: only drinks white wine because you can't be an alcoholic if you only drink white wine, right?) So when that was over, I made my way back to his office, my pockets stuffed with €50 notes. It was time.

He prepared a couple of needles. "This," he told me, "is a great anaesthetic. Developed in Finland. You Yanks can't get it. FDA hasn't approved it. Fools." But it was. Seconds later, my entire head was numb, but I was perfectly conscious. "Right," said the doctor. "Let's see the money." That was rather abrupt, but I pulled it out of my pocket and he snatched it from me. He snapped each bill from the roll, loudly, and held it up to the light. Then he did it again. And a third time. He handed two of them back to me. "Here. A discount for cash." And without changing his rubber gloves, he got to work. It was amazing.

Close your fist around a finger. Pull the finger out. That's what it felt like. Seven? Eight? I don't know how many teeth he pulled. Once I felt a twinge of pain. But just a twinge. The teeth were gone. Then I chomped down on some goo. "You'll have to do without your teeth for a couple of days, but we'll have your bridge ready by the end of the week, so I'll make you an appointment and you can come in and we'll get you straight." So I left, numb head and all, waited for the bus, got on, made my transfers and soon enough I was home. A couple of days later, I went in, he looped some metal around two of my molars, and there were my falsies. We shook hands and I was out the door.

Over the weekend, they snapped in two. I called him on Monday. "Get in here," he growled. He was livid. Unbelievably angry. He took the bridge, disappeared for a while and came back. "Here, this'll work. I don't want to see you here again." Fair enough: this one held except for one tooth that snapped out. I could deal with that. I was more concerned with my growing relationship with Lady Drunkula, anyway. She lived right around the corner. "Plastic teeth," I warned her before the first time we kissed. "Aaaah, I've dated older men before. C'mere."

The teeth worked out far better than the relationship. At least they hung around and never tried to kill me. About six months later, I got a postcard with Garfield on it. It was from the Australian's partner, Dr. Schreck. (This was another thing that gave me pause about him: Schreck means horror in German. The star of the incredibly creepy 1921 German vampire film Nosferatu was Max Schreck, which I'd always figured was a made-up name to capitalize on his role in the film, but it was apparently his real name!) It reminded me it was time for my checkup, which I didn't remember having been told about, and a subsequent check revealed that the Australian had vanished utterly.

The teeth and I got along well for the next few years, but I knew there was more disease to deal with. I had other things on my mind, though, not least of which was leaving Germany for France. Of course, as this blog has documented, not long after I got there, I lost my sense of taste and smell to some sinus polyps, brilliantly diagnosed and treated (although it took a year to get back to normal) by the great Dr. Jean-Claude Marrache. In 2013, though, I had a recurrence and went back to see him. He wrote a prescription, said "I guarantee you'll be back to normal in 48 hours" (it turned out to be more like four), and, when I asked him if there were any relationship between the gum infection and my problem he paused a moment and then said "Duh." He sat down and wrote a name and an address on a scrap of paper. "This guy's office is literally around the corner from you, and he's a friend of mine. Every year he goes to America and rides a Harley down Route 66, so I assume he speaks English."

But I'd already decided to move back. A couple of years ago, unfortunately, both of the molars anchoring the bridge had fallen out, so I had to be careful eating. Then two upper teeth began to hurt and push themelves out. I looked awful. Then I moved and one day one of the uppers fell out at my desk. The next morning, the other fell into my orange juice with a pretty clink as it hit the glass. I now looked like someone's meth-addicted hillbilly cousin.

This was me on Sunday. I had an appointment on Monday. Just in time: I had another tooth threatening to leave, I had only two teeth to chew with, and I was a mess. I had been to see Dr. Shane Matt and his crew,  bit down on some allegedly blueberry-flavored gunk several times and waited over a month for some dentures to be made. I was about to lose every tooth in my head, and I was glad.

I won't pretend it was fun. It was worse than the Berlin experience because some of the teeth really, really didn't want to come. A couple shattered. And when it was over, they slapped some dentures on me. A friend came and drove me to Costco to buy the antibiotics and pain-pills I'd been prescribed, and I was drooling blood all the way. Naturally, they didn't have the pills ready, so I wandered over to Whole Foods next door to see what was available in terms of bottled smoothies. Some good stuff, actually. A company with the unpromising name of Bolthouse Farms makes interesting combinations, like the breakfast smoothie I had this morning. A company named Evolution Fresh makes a delicious product called Protein Power that I bought despite the note from the founder, one Jimmy, on the side which says, in part, "You deserve to drink something you feel good about, because it makes you feel good." Nobody who puts something that stupid on packages of his product deserves to get rich.

Yes, I'm drinking three meals a day, dammit. (Please spare me the jokes.) My gums are swollen, the teeth don't fit quite right, and more importantly they don't meet right, which means I can't chew. Biting, too, isn't going to happen for a while because of tenderness. It pisses me off: the refrigerator is filled with leftovers of Indian, Chinese, and Italian food I'm going to have to throw out because no way I'll ever get to them in time. But I keep telling myself I'll be able to eat stuff I haven't been able to eat in years -- this story began over ten years ago, after all -- and that's going to make a difference. And hell, I might just be losing weight with all these damn smoothies and stuff.

But although I'm not any prettier, I do know I'm already healthier: all my nose issues have started clearing up ("Duh" -- thanks, Dr. Marrache) and my digestion will improve once I can chew thoroughly again.

Definitely no prettier
I appreciate having friends close enough by that they haven't minded taking me to the dentist's office and shopping for liquid food, and once I'm cooking real food again, they'll be glad they did. As for me, I gotta go slosh some saline solution around my mouth again and take another antibiotic.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Midyear Migas

Sorry about the long silence. It's been over a month since my last post. At first, I was holding off until the second half of the dancehall tour happened, but circumstances intervened (Steve's now got his own dancehall to manage!), so that's on hold. Then things started going south around here, and since I like to keep the tone of this blog away from complaining and doom and gloom, I (wisely, I think) refrained from posting any of it. Suffice it to say that the book I spent a year researching and writing a proposal for, a proposal my agent loved and submitted over the course of nearly a year and a half to over 20 publishers and imprints, failed to find favor with any of them. Since one reason I moved back to Austin was that the arts library at the University of Texas has much of the stuff I'll need to write this book, I began to wonder why I moved back. I don't have much in the way of a social life here, I've lost all interest in live music, and only one of the people I've invited over for dinner accepted.

But there are things that'll be turning around in the next 30 days, unless my landlord decides not to renew my lease (somebody tell me why I took the 8-month option instead of the 12-month option, please). In that case, since I still don't have a credit rating and nobody will rent to you without one, I'll be on the street, my stuff in storage. I'm hoping that doesn't happen: my course at UT starts up again on August 1, and there are already six people signed up, and there's a project in the works that should be unveiled before that that I hope will solve all the current problems. But more on that when I'm ready to unveil it. All I know for certain is that on Monday I go to the dentist and wind up with new teeth, so for the first time in a decade, I'll be able to bite and chew like a normal person. Which means I can take on some barbeque and not have to arrange dinner around its chewability factor.

Anyway, excuse the absence, and let's move on to the very few things there are to write about here.

* * *

First, yes, food. I continue to navigate my way around American foodways, and continue to be confused. Not, of course, that anyone seems to cook any more. Too many times, I've headed off to the supermarket and returned with stuff that's already prepared, or half-way so, and heated it up and dumped it on a plate. That's in part due to the fact of the audience of one, but also due to the fact that too many times I head to the market with no idea of what I want to make. See dental problems, supra.  Now, I'm writing these words after returning from the closest farmer's market, Sunset Valley, which is held on Saturdays. To someone who went twice weekly to the market in France, it's a huge disappointment in terms of variety. Of course, I'm grumpy enough to wish that the musicians would just go away, ditto the handcrafts people and the prepared-foods people. I've heard that Tacodeli is a fine place indeed, but I don't go to the farmer's market for tacos.  Or kombucha on tap or all the other gluten-free, vegan, blahblah stuff. I want fruit and vegetables. 

Of course, I may not know the cycles of the growing season yet (and the Austin Chronicle discontinuing Kate Thornberry's farmer's market because the crazy dame asked if she could be paid for it doesn't help), so every couple of weeks I head up there to look around. Occasionally I get eggs, and then I walk around seeing who's got what. Lotsa squash today, and some of the most overpriced tomatoes on the planet: so-called heirloom tomatoes were €3.50 a kilo in France, and here they're $3.95 a pound.  Plus, nobody seems to know what kind they are. Bah. Looks like there's some okra already, but that's not high on my list at the moment. At least the ragged grey bundles of kale are gone. So the result of today's expedition is shown below. 

One humongous bundle of basil ($3.50!) and one tiny melon ($3!). But some of that basil will become pesto, and the main reason I bought the melon was because it was the first one I saw that wasn't the size of a basketball (you think I'm joking? Okay, a soccer ball. Seriously). Those cost a buck more, but I doubt they have much flavor. At any rate, there's far too much of them for me to use up, so later this afternoon, I'll go buy some Mexican ("key") limes to squeeze into the center of half of that some morning for breakfast. Still, compared to the bounties I used to photograph in France, this ain't much. 

Next impossible-to-figure question: why is there only one kind of juice in the store (orange), which exists in about 40 different forms (with pulp, some pulp, no pulp, added calcium, etc etc)? What's the deal with pulp? Who cares? Why put calcium into orange juice? Why can't I buy less than 1.75 liters? I sit back and remember being able to get mandarin juice, pineapple-lime juice, strawberry-orange juice, blood orange juice, and many other flavors, all in one-liter containers, made by Tropicana, an American company. Ah, well, maybe some day. 

* * *

Speaking of cooking, since I notice that Mick Vann has posted a couple of long pieces on his knives (here's the first of the series; there are two more), I'll post a shorter one on mine. When I left France, I was using three knives, two Henckels, a big chef's knife for chopping and a smaller one for mincing up garlic and carving tomatoes and the like, and a beautiful Japanese knife that was razor sharp, which I used for turning, for instance, herbs into powder. The Japanese knife had a serious injury early on in France as I cut into a saussicon sec from the market and hit the metal brad that's used to seal it closed, which had inexplicably migrated into the meat. This hurt, I gotta say. I'd bought this knife in the market in Kyoto at the legendary Aritsugu store, and I'd taken exquisite care of it up to the moment when it hit that metal and the edge got dinged badly. 

Then, when I moved, I wrapped those three knives up and shipped them with the rest of the kitchen stuff, which, since it took months for the movers to get here, meant I needed knives in Austin. Fortunately, in King Tut's Tomb, aka the stuff I'd had in storage for ages, there were two Chinese knives, bought years ago and almost never used. One was a cleaver, the other a flesh-cutting knife.

Meat knife, cleaver (L-R)
Now, there had been times when I wanted a cleaver, and all of a sudden I had one. To my great surprise, it did great service when it came to, for instance, chopping stuff really fine: ginger, garlic, onions, etc. I haven't dismembered a chicken with it yet, and I don't know if it'll do that, but I use it pretty much exclusively for chopping at the moment. And since I've been doing a lot of Chinese food here since I moved back, it's come in very, very handy. Enough so that the big chef's knife more or less just sits there.

The other knife, though, its acquisition lost in the haze of time, was a revelation. When I was at Aritsugu in Kyoto, there was a saleslady who spoke impeccable English. I was admiring a number of knives there because I was looking for, well, what I got: a fine-chopper, but razor-sharp enough to cut tough stuff like meat. She explained that the vast majority of what they carried was for sushi, and so the blades were shaped for that: |/. The straight edge helped cut thin, even slices. (For comparison, a French chef's knife would be \/, and the cleaver ||.) They only had one or two French-style blades, and she showed them to me and I chose one, which she sent back to the master to hone perfectly. (She also asked if I wanted my name in Japanese for free and for reasons I still can't figure, I declined). Anyway, this knife-of-unknown-origin is clearly a |/, and when it comes to slicing meat for Chinese food, it just glides through it. Flank steak is no problem, and it laughs at chicken.

If it helps, the meat knife seems to be a Shigemitsu from Sakai, Japan, which means I probably bought it in San Francisco's Japan Center in 1970. The cleaver is a Three Rams brand, no doubt acquired in San Francisco's Chinatown at some point, or maybe at Austin's legendarily smelly, cramped Oriental Market on Airport Boulevard.

And a little secret: I had a friend who was a chef for many years, and every day he took to work a nice selection of really beautiful knives, all in a cloth doohickey with slots for each of them that rolled up and was tied shut. Then he would proceed to use two, maybe three, of them. "They don't respect you if you don't have an impressive collection," he said, "but hell, how many do you need?" Exactly.

* * *

Finally, a cretur update, which the delicate may wish to skip. 

As the weather warmed up, I began to notice a small grey gecko living in the wood trim of the garage, who'd walk around close to the house and gorge himself on ants from one of the anthills near the front door. He'd disappear fast when I walked by (although one time he was so busy gobbling ants I almost stepped on him). But he vanished, and one morning I found an odd turd in the driveway. Not quite an inch long, but pretty fat, and in the shape of a J. I wondered if that might have been the gecko, but also worried what kind of animal might have deposited it. I do have something of an attic in this place, and would prefer it keep devoid of opossums, raccoons, and squirrels, not to mention rats. 

So imagine my alarm when another, identical, J appeared on the back deck. I enlisted some more savvy friends to help me figure what it was, and it took no time at all: toad. Really? A toad with an intestine big enough to leave that? Dang. Anyway, I haven't yet laid eyes on Turdy, as I've been calling him, but it did remind me of the evening I was sitting on my porch in my old place here, enjoying a summer storm passing over, and listening to the stereophonic frog chorus that lived in two nearby culverts. One was tenors, one basses, and they'd alternate and then sing together. I can't imagine any female frog in Texas resisting them. Anyway, my ears were open, and I heard this intermittent squeaking sound, like someone making annoying noises on the outside of a balloon. Squeeeek. Long pause. Squeeeeeeek. What was weird was that my ears told me it was coming from a few inches away. The next time it happened, I found it: there was a crack in the concrete of the porch and something was emerging. More of it appeared with each squeak. Finally, there was a huge push and a toad emerged, fully three inches long. How it had pushed itself through that crack I don't know, but I saw it happen. It sat there, inflating a bit and, after a couple of tentative steps, hopped off to the nearby creek in search of what the frogs were in search of. I've since read about toads who've lived in suspended animation for upwards of a century, sometimes put as a joke in a cornerstone of a building. Many of the ones who do this are the famous Texas Horned Frog, or horned toad, as depicted on Texas license plates. What's ironic about that is they're just about extinct. I've been in their habitat a lot and never seen one outside a zoo.  Anyway, Turdy likes it near lights that attract bugs, evidently, so he's welcome to hang, even if I don't see him. 

And, just to reinforce stereotypes, I found another cretur a couple of weeks ago. When I moved in here, I sprayed the garage with some kind of fog that, it alleged, stayed live for months. Sure, I told myself, as long as it kills what's already there I'm cool with it. But it appears that it does work, because one fine morning I found this dandy, who hadn't been there the day before. 

Yes, that's a quarter
Everything is bigger in Texas! Admittedly, I drove over him with a handcart as I was trying to get a bookshelf into the house, but it didn't hurt him much except to detatch one of those huge antennae. These roaches are so-called tree roaches and are much happier outdoors than they are in your kitchen, and will frequently run for an open door or window if given encouragement. You do not want to smash one, since they contain, um, plenteous soft filling. 

* * *

So there we have three short items on the year's longest day. Wish me luck for Monday, and stay tuned; there's about to be some action around here. 
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