MY FATHER MADE it clear to me that I was mechanically inept. “Sometimes it skips a generation,” was the phrase, and we believe what we’re told by people who love us. He had it, I didn’t, and because it had skipped me, I never would.
ALL THE QUOTES are from Pastime, a 1991 Spenser novel.
“Remember,” I said, “there were no women. Just my father, my uncles, and me. So all the chores were done by men. There was no woman’s work. There were no rules about what was woman’s work. In our house all work was man’s work. So I made beds and dusted and did laundry, and so did my father, and my uncles. And they took turns cooking.”
The first thing I bought to improve my kitchen was a serving spoon. I was working at Scholastic Books in Manhattan, and across from it was Dean and DeLuca, a very expensive gourmet shop where sometimes, to make myself feel better, I’d drop several dollars more on a treat than something only a scant degree less enjoyable would have cost at Cafe Duke.
They had utensils there, too, not just tony takeout. I bought this big, pretty, satin-finish serving spoon. An insignia of intent—of seriousness, even if impulsive. A single piton.
THEN, BECAUSE I was reading Consider the Fork, and she swore by tongs, a pair of those, also from Dean and DeLuca; and thanks to a minor casino windfall of my wife’s, a rice cooker from Mitsuwa Marketplace—the largest Japanese grocery store in the US, which I’d sometimes stop into after riding my bike into New Jersey, to pack my single pannier with sake for me and mochi or candy for my family. Then the Microplane Zester/Grater—I think that was also from Consider the Fork—and I don’t remember the order of acquisitions after that. A thing here, a thing there. All haphazard, probably, from the outside, but tightly integrated to the emerging pattern in here. A pretty serving spoon was only needed if I was going to take food seriously enough to want to present it; we already had black nylon cooking spoons, which we used for both stirring and serving. This would not be used for stirring. Tongs were only necessary if I wanted to risk, on the say-so of a book, money on a utensil I’d never felt the lack of, but which an expert called her most valuable. And a rice cooker is a long-term decision about nutrition, expense, and self-reliance…and I have this Kurusawa/Mifune thing. The ronin in The Seven Samurai—as determined, scarred, and self-reliant as any knight-errant gumshoe—accept rice as payment.
Separated by weeks and freelance checks came: a good garlic press, a balloon whisk despite already having a spiral one, a small mortar and pestle, two nice big white serving bowls from Sur La Table, nested, even though mixing bowls had been serving the same purpose just fine. Each item requiring a second or third thought, and usually a second or third visit, before the purchase.
“So all of you cooked?”
“Yeah, but no one was proprietary about it. It wasn’t anyone’s accomplishment, it was a way to get food in the proper condition to eat.”
MY MARRIAGE ENDED, after a quarter-century, in July, 2014. She moved first, to the county in Connecticut we’d agreed on so the boys could have good schools and I could have train access to Scholastic. By the time the moving started, Scholastic had given all my work to a much larger vendor that could offer bulk pricing. No time to react. Two weeks later, I landed in the same county, different town.
I got the old raw-wood Ikea utility table. On our first weekend together, I had the boys sand and stain it with me, and it moved into our new kitchen as our new prep table. It fit precisely. We didn’t have anywhere to eat yet, or even a wastebasket, but I knew what kind of little family of men I wanted.
THEY TURNED TEN soon after we moved. Now they’re eleven.
I called them to the top of the stairs to their room this evening, and said to the one who’s only intermittently interested in cooking, “There are two things I need done, and you can choose which. One, you can wash some dishes and set the table. Two, I need the chain taken off my folding bike, which is in the bike garage on the workstand, and put to soak in cleaner.”
His brother’s dream is to be on MasterChef Junior; I’ve been working with him on cooking since we moved here. This boy’s equivalent started four days ago, when he began his career as a mechanic by replacing the rear dérailleur and shifter cable on a little secondhand mountain bike his mom bought to keep at her place. His career will probably not be as a mechanic; he wants to be a scientist. I will probably never be able to send him to college, but I was struck, long ago, by Richard Feynman’s stories of being “The Boy Who Fixes Radios By Thinking,” and I can at least give him a tactile understanding of basic physics. The classical simple machines are lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Bicycles are compound collections of four out of six, and the other two (wedge, inclined plane) are integral to fixing and riding them.
And not just of basic physics, but of applied physics; felt physics. Reading about springs and being able to repeat that they store energy is not the same as getting your finger pinched when a dérailleur snaps back on its hanger. The abstraction of reading says the physical world is readily understood and easily manipulated. The orneriness of reality teaches you that perseverance and endurance are the only things that really ever manipulate it.
The bike garage is the only room in the house where he’s allowed to swear.
I’ve struggled with dérailleur adjustment for two years, since I bought my first workstand and bike tool set during the same life epoch that pushed me to buy the serving spoon. Lightly guiding my budding mechanic through his own first repair blew away the last of the obstacles. I now get it. Last night after seeing my boys at a school concert and then leaving them and driving half an hour home by myself, I needed to make myself feel better, so I shouldered my randonneuring bike down the basement stairs and tuned up its winter-beaten drivetrain. I didn’t refer to any of my previous printouts from the web. It just makes sense.
It made sense to mechanical boy in a single day. Mostly I just tightened things his hands were too small for, made him stop when he jumped to the wrong conclusions, and told him not to hit himself in the face with the cable.
I also had him touch the cable near the shifter while turning the grip, to feel what’s going on up there, and then had him do it again while watching the dérailleur. His light bulbs went off so much faster than mine ever have. He’s got that thing I don’t.
“Your father sounds as if he were comfortable with his ego,” Susan said.
“He never felt the need to compete with me,” I said. “He was always very willing for me to grow up.”
SO I HAVE my fantasy house, my little family of men. I yell at them sometimes, which Spenser’s fictitious father and uncles never did, and feel unforgivably shitty and apologize. I’m trying to be an ideal, and that’s something nobody can maintain outside the hermetic chamber of a book. But even an unattainable ideal lies in a direction, and if we don’t aim for it, we don’t travel in that direction, and can’t get reshaped by the effort.
We’re still jerks sometimes, all three of us, including the one who’s not eleven, but I think we’re teaching each other how to be better men, one generation to the next.
IT WAS A very simple dinner tonight because of work and being tired and not-recovered-yet broke, and as a pan heated, I went downstairs, plausibly to make sure the mechanic knew where the Chain Brite was before he got started, but really to see about fingers not being pinched, and he was already done. The chain and master link were soaking in the yellow Domino Sugar tub. So I agreed that yes, it is very fun and he should totally do more of this kind of thing, and went back up to the kitchen and his brother said, “Can I butterfly these sausages for you, Dad?”
I know how I got here. I don’t want to sound disingenuous. It was intentional.
This is just a night when I had that moment, and am amazed.