Crystal Ball Emoji
I’m sitting here and I don’t know the right way to make art or how to cook a steak. But get this, my friend, Thaddeus from Oakland, California says that you can tell by feel when a steak is done being cooked.
“How can you feel that a steak is done?” I’m imagining he has X-Men powers and that his mutant power is Steak Intuition. We are eating dinner at an Italian restaurant in a strip mall in NJ.
He says, “I’ve cooked thousands of steaks in restaurant kitchens, and you just get used to it. You just start to know.”
“They don’t use a meat thermometer?” my wife asks.
“No,” he says, “I’ve never used one of them. Here’s what you do. You set the steak on the counter, and just press your thumb into the steak, and rare feels one way; medium-rare, feels another way; all the way up to well done. It gets tighter. You can literally feel it with your hand.”
Instinctively I push my thumb into the pasta with meat sauce that I’m sharing with my wife, and my thumb just sinks into the red gook. “Yup. This is still raw.”
I spoon the area I touched into my mouth. Pappardelle bolognese, like wide worms lying flat in smashed tomato.
“But isn’t it dangerous to send out a raw steak?’
My friend says, “If you send out a piece of slimy, raw chicken, someone could get salmonella poisoning. But steak is a muscle and you can’t get poisoned by muscle.”
My writing is just as sloppy as my cooking. It’s done by intuition and I don’t have a meat thermometer either. I have to look at the piece of writing and think, “Can I eat this essay without causing harm to my body? Can I munch on this short story without getting myself physically sick?”
I can’t follow recipes the whole way – the right way – to actually make a meal what it is supposed to be. Someone eating at my house might say, how the hell is this a soufflé? And I’d just stand there like a jackass, mumbling, There’s eggs in soufflé I think, right? There’s a lot of mumbling going on.
I mumbled too, when the waiter took my order and because of the mumbles, he wrote down the wrong thing. Then he brought out the wrong thing. Then I had to send back the wrong thing.
Now I’m plateless, while everyone else eats, and I’m listening to our friend Karen talk, and Karen says, “This restaurant is strange because there are mirrors that go all the way down the hallway, and it’s like a periscope effect, you can see the people walking in and out of the bathroom, and you can see all the way down to the office …”
It’s true, I look at the wall and there is the reflection of the manager of this Italian restaurant, sitting at his desk, in his socks and his shorts, clicking away at a computer. He looks bored and listless. He’s slouching.
My friend from Oakland continues on about art, “Of all the steaks we cooked in restaurants, nobody ever sent a steak back, for years nobody sent a steak back. Or if they did, it was because they were confused about what medium-rare is. But the cooks would gather around in the back and make a little slice and we’d look and, ah look at that, perfect amount of pink, this person doesn’t know what what they want is called. So back into the oven the steak goes, make that sucker crispy.”
What’s the trick for broccoli? What’s the trick for split pea soup? A poem is grilled cheese sandwich with provolone and ripe green tomato. An abstract painting is a stir fry made from things discovered in the fridge, just about to go bad. Music is seventy-five bean chili and you don’t have to kill any animals to make anyone dance.
Nobody knows for sure how the universe was created and nobody knows for sure how it will end. But in that strip mall Italian restaurant, while I waited for my food, I began to imagine that the art I truly enjoy is art that was done semi-blind; art that came to an artists from nowhere, a mystery caller ringing up their telephone.
And this pleasing art, was art that was done by a person who shuts off the lights in their own house, on a moonless night, and wanders from room to room, looking for that ringing telephone, bumping into their own possessions.
And all this artist could do, to avoid getting hurt, was to move really slowly, arms held out in front of them for protection, feeling their way through their own life. Through their own home. Occasionally they’ll bump into a mirror and in the dark, they won’t even know it’s a mirror. It might seem just like anything else.
And if and when this great artist finally does find the ringing telephone, hidden somewhere in the darkness, there might be somebody on the other end of the line, or there might be no one. Maybe it’s even the delivery person calling from out on the street, your Thai food is there, buzz me in, please. Or maybe the phone call is that fabled mystery caller, blabbing that idea for a screen play or even a symphony. When that call comes in, you can take the idea and run with it as far as you want. But, whatever you do, don’t star 69 that number. If you try and figure out where it came from, it’ll never come again.
The waiter comes with my forgotten chicken parm. I apologize. He apologizes. We are great friends. I cut the food in half and give half to my wife. The waiter goes away without apologizing anymore and that’s nice because I don’t have to apologize anymore for mumbling when I ordered.
Karen and Thaddeus from Oakland have been staying at our house for three days and every time I walk into a room my friends are reading. They’re readers, and because they are readers, they are also angels. They’ve traveled the world without having to leave their home. But because they did read, they learned about people different than themselves and they got hungrier to leave their homes, and so, like that, they did in fact set off to search the world. They are also angels because they have traveled to New Jersey with candy from Tokyo and bourbon from a distillery in Kentucky. There’s fruit everywhere you go in this world, I’m telling you.
As it turns out you can’t get alcohol at this restaurant because there’s no liquor license but you’re free to BYOB. Or, as some people have done, you are free to write your name on a bottle of wine and leave it on the shelf across the room.
“Hi, my name is John Doe and I’d like my bottle of wine! Now!”
I guess there’s Trust implicit in all things living and breathing, and the Trust either goes away or the Trust grows. Trust enough and you might wind up like the person who leaves their office door wide open and sits there in their socks and underwear while ‘running’ a restaurant.
Q: But how do you know if the piece of art you’ve been working on for so long is finally done?
A: Who really knows?
Can you slap your novel on the counter and push your thumbs into it and see if any blood bubbles up? Can you slice into the novel and see if there’s any purple? And if there is any purple, can’t you just flip the novel over and put that side down, back on the rack? Cook it some more … Are you Vegan and this metaphor applies to you infinity below absolute zero? That’s pretty much all writing advice. All art advice. There’s no such thing as a life hack, just go about your business and do your best.
There’s just experience.
I’ve gained all my experience by doing something wrong a zillion times.
I stick the steak in the oven and got distracted and and ah shit, here’s the smoke detectors screaming and the kitchen is on fire and I put out the kitchen fire I open the oven and the thing I was cooking in the oven is just a little pile of ash.
But next time … I promise to pay 1% more attention.
We pay the bill at the Italian restaurant.
We’re too full or we’d have chocolate cake and expresso with a twist. Our guests have taught us that a twist in espresso is when they give you a slice of lemon and believe it or not, you squeeze lemon into your espresso.
Wow. How wrong does that look on paper? Picture squeezing lemon in your coffee.
“The twist happened, like most things, because of a war. There was a shortage of milk and sugar in Europe but lemons were still piled up everywhere, so that’s what they did. They just made it work. It’s wrong but it’s lovely.”