As if thinking the worst will stave it off. As if making a list of bad, worse, and worst will in some way hedge your superlative bets against the poles of news. I’m interested in the politics of thought. In the methodology behind wishing. In figuring out how to go against nature. In figuring out how to let nature run its course. The difference between right thought and right action.
There is chicken on the bone. There is chicken off the bone. Chicken on the bone is all the chicken I’d want in all its decadent renderings—by all I mean one. Fried chicken. There are many bone-in chicken recipes like chicken hind-quarters in port and cream, barbecued chicken, buffalo wings, though they may be a kind of fried. But fried chicken is a testament to the beauty of the disarticulated chicken. Every piece a handhold. Every piece its own integrity. The coating wraps a thigh like snow, a breast like scarf, a leg like stocking to protect it from the cruel world of hot oil. Frying chicken is the nicest thing you can do to a dead chicken.
But there are some who cannot eat the chicken on the bone. Breast of chicken, boneless thighs, cubed in Korma, rolled cordon bleu, that’s doable. At the bar, spicy drummette in my right hand, hot sauce on my cheek, a pile of bones in front of me, I turn to Alex who will not eat the boney chicken but is currently eating chicken tenders and I do not comprehend his reluctance.
“It’s the same thing,” I argue.
“It’s not.” He pushes my plate of sticky bones further away.
“But you eat meat. Chicken. Steak,” I say.
“I prefer hamburger,” he says.
Perhaps he does not like the resistance of muscle.
Hamburger is muscle turned to vegetable. You don’t want to think muscle. You want to chew very little. You want to swallow before you can think about the sad doe eyes. In the face of the accusing animal, you can solidly deny you knew what you were doing.
But what’s worse? Finding joy in licking the rib clean? Of polishing the bone? Or letting the process happen behind closed doors for you by a grinder, a man in a once-white apron, by knives and forks not your own. You brought only your mouth to the table but it masticates to the same beat as mine.
I stream bad thoughts. I put through my head images of my hip blown open by a landmine. I am in the middle of Tooele near the Dugway Proving Grounds, having driven toward Wendover for some very smoky gambling and returned without refilling the tank, walking toward what looked like civilization but was really anti-civilization and flagging down a security guard who was really full-ARMY and not able to disclose that the most direct route to him and to the gasoline that would get my car going again was a hopscotch of landmines. When it erupted and metal showed off the flag-like borders of red against white—my hip, at least, is patriotic—I could speculate, it doesn’t hurt so badly. What are these people crying so much about? Didn’t you always want to see what the inside of a chicken looked like anyway?
To avoid pity. To stave off self-pity. Here’s the method: think the worst first.
There are many degrees of vegetarian: no meat can ever have touched that pan to a little chicken broth won’t kill me. The first kind of vegetarian matches up nicely with the carnivore who avoids bone. The second kind I can invite to dinner.
When Zoe is scheduled for an MRI, I stop talking to her. She’s one and a half and doesn’t talk to me much anyway but usually, when I’m changing her diaper, I tell her about the hawk that sometimes sits in the tree outside her window. It’s one of the first words she’s learned to say. At one and a half, she should be able to say something like two hundred words. Maybe even to make a sentence, “there hawk” or “hawk flies.” I used to tell her, between pointing out her elbows and her knees, about the time there were so few hawks the squirrels overran the park, that even the dogs were scared to run loose for fear the squirrels would gang up on them and attack. I used to tell her, in between talking to her about the zipper on her sleeper and the buttons on her shirt about how a chemical they sprayed to keep mosquitoes to a minimum ended up poisoning the hawks too. I told her, between trying to convince her to say the “k” sound of sock rather than just “saw, saw, saw”, that now the birds are back and so are the mosquitoes. I used to tell her, between buckling her shoe and picking her up to look outside for the red-tail, that now the mosquitoes will probably bring us down with their West Nile or the hawks themselves up to an avian bird flu and topple us quicker than any invading army. I used to tell her about the way an owl can turn his head almost all the way around, the way the peregrine falcon flies as fast as a cheetah can run, that the big brown girl hawk in that tree is being chased by the smaller boy hawk because he loves her but they’ll never be together because he’s red and she’s all brown and they just don’t match, a lot like her socks.
But I can’t say any of this—even look her in the eye. It’s better this way, I figure, if she is already lost to me. If I am already lost to her. If this magnet determines that her brain is neither human nor mine we will have to move to isolate poles where the only bird that will trouble her will be the penguin and the only bird to trouble me will be regret. So I button her shirt and smile but I cannot bring myself to say a word.
Nobody told me about the toxins in meat. I learned it by watching TV. The TV doctor, tells a man with severe cirrhosis that he couldn’t eat meat—his liver couldn’t handle the toxins. I wondered if it was only red meat or if chicken and the other white meat were included. I knew several bad things about the ways cows are toxic to the environment. On the eastern side of Oregon, closer to Idaho than ocean, cattle graze on open range. Fences are built to keep deer out of cow land even though, of course, the deer were there first. It’s another kind of disorder.
We go camping on this side of the Cascades in the winter because although it’s colder on this side; it’s less wet. Near the John Day River, we pull into Big Bend to pitch our tents. The pine trees here are short, and truly pine not fir. There’s juniper and pinyon and the whole place reminds me of the southern Utah desert except for the rocks are yellow and tan rather than red. The green, the number of trees, and the gigantic river running through the pine reminds me how much Utah it isn’t.
Misty and I pack lightly. We’re just going for a day hike. Granola bars and nuts and sardines plus half a gallon of water each should be plenty for a few hours. Misty wants to take more water but I promise her, this isn’t Utah. We will never run out of water. Not in Oregon. Our packs are heavy already. She goes ahead and agrees. Heavy steps. We head north, away from Portland, away from our campsite, not toward Utah.
We should have turned back when we saw the first dried cow pie. But I’m from Utah. Cow pies practically lined in my backyard. Or at least I was familiar enough with them from the rodeos my aunts took me and my cousins to. We didn’t turn back because how bad could one cow pie be? Or even twelve? Or, as we were counting a bit later, a carpet of manure. The methane pumped into the sky. The carbon dioxide counter ticked. We watched every step as though we were walking through a minefield. We looked down until we couldn’t stand it anymore. And then we were in real danger. A wall of cows stood in front of us. Up to their shanks in a little creek, the cows wended for a while. For as long as the creek went, so went the cows. Their hooves stamped into the mud. The mud grew thicker. So thick, what was creek was now just mud. Whatever salmon might have wanted to spawn there in the fall would have to turn back. The stream was gone. And we were surrounded by an uncomfortable wall of beef. We tried to turn back, just as the salmon would have tried, but the cows flinched when we did. One black cow in particular, perhaps a Holstein, perhaps Angus, I didn’t remember from my rodeo days as much as I thought, was looking at us with savory eyes. Were her eyes savoring us or were they looking edible? Cows are vegetarian but they can kick a dog to death if they feel threatened. Misty and I weren’t that much bigger than dogs. The order of the universe seemed to be reversing. Here we were in the middle of Oregon. There were no salmon. We were surrounded by cows more than stream. We were running out of water. The cows, though perhaps not predatory, were not letting us go. We were not them: waiting to be branded, burdizzo’d, taken to the feedlot but we waited nervously just the same. Misty and I stood there like chickens, polishing off our water, for what must have been only an hour and a half but what felt like three until the cattle moved off to find another salmon stream to stamp out.
I want two drinks a day but I want the days to be twelve hours each. This is a joke I tell my doctor who is also Zoe’s doctor. He says women don’t metabolize alcohol as well as men. He tells me not to drink. I tell him I just want that number of drinks a week, not that I am going to drink that many. I lie a little. He is the one who has ordered the MRI for her extra-large head. If she could say some words, he says, I wouldn’t be so worried. But maybe it’s hydroencephalitis. Water on the brain.
I try to talk him out of the MRI. Her dad has a big head. She knows all the words, she just chooses not to say them. She can say Box and socks and bottle and salsa although those words sound like “bah” or “sah” and it takes a bit of pointing to full elucidate her point. Her tongue is long, I mention. Perhaps it’s unwieldy. I try to tell him about semiotics and the signifier and the signified being never separated, that when the idea of milk emerges so does the word and she always wants a lot of milk so she knows what she wants concretely, abstractly and pushes her bottom teeth forward to make the sign for “milk.” It doesn’t take smarts or thought or anything. It’s an automatic process, slightly better than pointing. If it’s effective, it’s language. She knows the word, she’s not dumb in either sense. The doctor doubts my argument and my grasp of semiotics. He might be impressed if she could spell. I tell him my joke again about the drinks a day and he tells me not to drink so much. I tell him I don’t, I just want to when I think Zoe might be sick—it’s a good way to think about something else. He doesn’t believe I’m joking and tells me that drinking too much can lead to cirrhosis which can lead to hepatic encephalopathy including
· impaired consciousness (drowsiness),
· monotonous speech,
· flat affect,
· metabolic tremor,
· muscular incoordination,
· impaired handwriting,
· fetor hepaticus,
· upgoing plantar responses,
· hypoactive or hyperactive reflexes,
· and decerebrate posturing.
I tell him I have none of these things except the impaired handwriting. He says to stop eating red meat. The toxins in red meat can kill someone with cirrhosis. I don’t even have cirrhosis I say. I’m the doctor, he says. If you don’t listen to me, I’ll write the word Noncompliant in your chart. He has no idea what I am saying. I feel a little bit like Zoe must feel when she’s pointing at her socks and saying “saw” and I bring her a salad.
Words and phrases like little bombs set me off: Noncompliant. Against Medical Advice. I.V. Antibiotics. Chest X-ray. And now Magnetic Resonance Imaging. They kill a little bit of my heart and so when the results turn out fine (Don’t they turn out fine, dear god? They turn out fine. Don’t they?) my heart doesn’t grow back and when Zoe says Hawk to me I have to shake my head and say, I don’t see one. I’m not sure what makes me so badly want her to not have the MRI. To some degree, it’s an anti-authoritarian stance—I don’t want him telling me what to do with my kid. But I recognize that quickly enough to shrug that off. I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with her. But I’m good at lying to myself. How should I know whether I’m protecting or condemning her to a life of water on the brain and other cephalitises by not letting them anesthetize my baby, pump contrasting solution and ketamine into her veins? I don’t. So I take her to the place that will strap her down and hook her up. The contrast flows in. The brain in her veins lights up like a winning slot machine.
Is it necessary that the food I love most in the world be the most inhumanely prepared food? Does it follow necessarily? Does cruelty taste good? Or is it the way we don’t think about it? I see a flock of geese fly over my head as we’re driving by the manufactured pond and they honk and I wave and I point them out to Zoe, to whom I can speak again because the results of the MRI, I believe the MRI will be normal. The word“normal” puts words back in my mouth. I say, “geese.” I say, “goose.” I do not say, “foie gras.” Like all animals we eat, in preparing it, you destroy it. If you don’t prepare it right, you can destroy it. It’s a fine line and many of those lines are the veins you have to slide out from among that bulged out, fattened liver. To cut the two lobes, you have to be quick with the knife. If you cut too slowly or the kitchen turns too warm, the liver can turn into pure liquid. The liquid cannot be made back into a solid. Once you’ve turned the goose inside out, you cannot restuff him. You have to work quickly and use a sharp knife, not only to kill but to cut. To de-vein. You must use a sharp knife to separate the part from the whole even after the liver has been cut from muscle and ligament and artery and skin. Cutting foie gras takes as much care as crossing a minefield. Like any minefield, one false move, and all that’s left is blood and veins and solids seeping into your cutting board.
But if you cut it right, slice it fast, make your careful moves as careful as stitches, you can slice the foie gras into perfect rounds. You can sear it in a white-hot pan. You can top it with a sauce of wild cherry and demi glace. You can eat it. You don’t have to think about it.
When she wakes up from the MRI, she seems the same as she did going in. The little cottonballs over her eyes are still taped on. There is more tape holding in the earplugs. Tape on her arm in case she needed an IV which she didn’t. The brain highlighted just fine. Her dad and I watch her lying there. She is like a mummy, ancient, wrapped. The veins run across her forehead like a map. If only the doctor could have read that cartography rather than the less visible map of the frontal lobe that the MRI has detonated in her head.
I am told to get the nurse when she starts to wake up. The minute Zoe moves, I want to go to her and pick her up and take her away from the people who discriminate against big heads and babies who say ‘Hawk’ both for bird and sky and sometimes chicken but I do what I’m told and go get the nurse. She comes in with rubbing alcohol. She runs her fingernail under the tape, moistens the glue a bit, pulls a bit more tape back. This will take hours, I think. It’s more important that we go home, I think.
I go up to the baby. I put my dirty, alcohol free finger under the tape and pull it off. Quick. Like a band-aid. She cries. To hear her resist, to come back into full voice, fills me with a little bit of joy. I pull the other five strips of fast. My method is painful but quick and I can pull Zoe up now from behind the white sheets and take off the puls-ox monitor and put her in her shoes and let her walk out the door. The MRI comes back clean. All I can think is how many more hours of her life have to be associated with hospitals and x-rays and needles and being stuck some place she doesn’t want to be.
Instead of going home, which we were told to do, we defy the doctors. Zoe is walking and she hasn’t eaten since last night at eleven and it’s four-thirty now and what a better time for dinner at Rose’s.
I order one of the twenty-eight glasses of wine I more than want.
Erik orders a beer.
We look at the menu and although there are several good vegetarian options–pizza with goat cheese, portabella sandwich, fettuccine alfredo—what I really want is some meat. I order a steak. Rare. Cold in the center. I want to feel the smooth pain of the cow who suffered quickly with the bolt through his head. I make myself think of the bolt as it explodes into the cow’s brain. I think of it and make myself eat a bite of meat. We don’t have the results yet and it’s time to face the facts. The brain may be faulty. The method may be cruel but the answers are abundant—I will force myself to think of it and do it anyway. I will take her to the machine that tosses magnets at her brain. I will pour the medicine down her throat while she screams. I will hold her legs apart and keep her arms wide for the x-ray like so many chickens. I will eat the steak and think of the cow’s eyes and I will say the words hydro encephalopathy while looking at my daughter and pass her a glass of water to hold between her little hands and tell her to drink carefully as if spilling cold water on her pants could hurt her. She drinks the water, compliantly, carefully. We’re all walking on eggshells here.
The food comes.
We’ve ordered chicken tenders for Zoe. She’ll have to wait to get a little older before she can practice any cruelty by ordering for herself. I try not to think about it.