Hamburger Help Yourself

Years ago I followed a link from Johnny Hugel to a now-Internet-Archived recipe for super quick and easy mac and cheese. The secret here was using shmancy molecular gastronomy ingredient called sodium citrate, or “sour salt”, which untangles some proteins to prevent the cheese from breaking into an oily mess. The recipe has shown itself to be quick, easy, and delicious. Most of all, the recipe is easily adaptable, particularly if you’re the sort who ate and loved a lot of Hamburger Helper growing up.

For years now, roughly once a month, I make the quick-mac in one pan while browning some meat (usually ground beef, though it’s also worked great with Beyond or Impossible beef substitute) in another. I tend to go for some sort of flavor profile on the meat (Tex/Mex flavors are popular, but the options are only limited by your pantry and spice cabinet) and bring it all together in the end. It’s a favorite with my kids, and I’m craving the leftovers from last night right-the-heck now.

If you try this, just make sure sodium citrate is labeled “food grade”!


My custom pair of sneakers with “Ploafstar” embroidered on the outside!

At seven years old, my daughter is thoughtful enough to come up with an idea for a birthday gift that I truly love. Not just in the “aww, my kid gave me a gift” sort of way, which is still valid and wonderful. I mean in the “wow, I LOVE this, it is something I have always wanted” category. My wife helped take it over the top, but essentially, my daughter wanted to get me a pair of Converse All Stars for my birthday at the beginning of the month. My wife suggested making it a custom pair. I think you probably figured that out from the photo above.

I was super happy with Converse’s configurator tool, and I’m pretty impressed with how accurately the preview during the entire build process represented the real, final product on my feet. They cost a bit more than an “off the rack” pair of Chucks and, for that reason, I’ve never really pulled the trigger on buying a pair. But I have played with the configurator many times in recent years. My daughter’s gift idea was the perfect excuse to finally go for it 😀

Neural Flatus: Agents Provocateurs

Last night, just as I was about to climb in bed, I started saying <<agents provocateurs>> in a horrendous, overly-dramatic French accent. For whatever reason I had it in my head that this phrase referred to spies, but nope. These are people who stir up trouble in order to incriminate or discredit other folks. Where the hell in left field did this one come from?

Cinematic Fun with Big Hair

Self-portrait recreating a poster for the movie Eraserhead

I’ve been growing my hair for the entire pandemic. Rather than keep my normal, short haircut, I’ve even requested a mere light trim and shaping once I resumed monthly visits to the barber shop. My hair has long ago passed my own personal record, and today I decided to have a little fun with it for Halloween.

My wife and I knocked down the sides and back of my hair quite a bit with some clippers and collaborated on attempting to recreate the poster for David Lynch’s Eraserhead. I didn’t quite get it with the lighting (I’m an amateur, and I also suspect a 3rd light source), but I love the result, particularly the way the water spray mist worked out behind me. Both lights caught it perfectly, and it really adds some dimension to the final shot.

Neural Flatus: Body Words

A crop of Carter’s Little Nerve Pills from Boston Public Library. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

It’s a twofer this morning. I had “lachrymose” and “sanguine” bumping around my noggin when I woke up earlier desired. But I already know the meaning of these words: lachrymose means tearful, from the Latin word for tear (the same root that gives us “lacrimal gland” or tear-producing glands). Sanguine, on the other hand, feels almost opposite in certain contexts. I tend to think of sanguine in its hopeful usage, but it’s referring to the flush, reddish color of blood (imagine the blood, or “color” draining from a hopeless face), and comes from the Latin for the same.

This got me thinking about other words derived from body parts that have emotional or behavioral meanings beyond their simple descriptive denotations. Take “bilious”, for example, which may refer simply to the digestive fluid produced by the liver. More colloquially, however, a bilious person is considered to be thoroughly unlikeable (see also the similarly used “splenetic” and “dyspeptic”).

The word nerd in me would LOVE to hear any other such body words. Share ’em if ya got ’em.

Neural Flatus: Perspicacious

This time it was “perspicacious”, rattling around my tired mind well before sunrise, after my intestines woke me for a ride in the porcelain bus.

Perspicacious sounds like something Foghorn Leghorn would toss out in one of his monologues, but it means essentially the ability to see through the surface to what’s real. Webster’s entry has a little too much fun differentiating between perspicacious and its synonyms, but it’s a nifty, not-so-little word that’s been around for a few hundred years.

Neural Flatus: “Bound for the Floor”

Music video for “Bound for the Floor” by Local H

Okay, so sometimes its not just a 3 dollar word that pops into my head. Sometimes its a song from 24 years ago. The video is unremarkable (though the kids are adorable), but the song still rocks pretty hard. I feel like ’96 was one of the last good years for “alternative” rock before it ceased to be an alternative to anything.

Semantic Satiation

Dave Letterman says “lumpy” over and over until it sounds hilarious.

I’ve been watching Ted Lasso (have you been watching Ted Lasso? You should be watching Ted Lasso) recently and at the beginning of an episode I watched last night, the titular Lasso gets hung up on the word “plan”. After he says the word a few too many times he feels like it starts to lose its meaning. When he asks his friend/assistant coach about his experience, he’s reminded that it’s called “semantic satiation”, whereby a repeated word becomes abstract noise to a listener.

I’m always here for nerdy, linguistic trivia thrown into the middle of my emotional sports comedies.

Operating Theater

The Old Operating Theatre” by Uglix. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

It’s week 2 of virtual schooling for my second grader in Richmond, Virginia. There’s a lot of bubbling consternation among the parents of kids in my daughter’s class. Whether it’s the length of the day or the frustration with certain assignments, folks have a lot to say. I don’t think it’s perfect by any stretch, and my child’s teacher is the source of some issues (extreme technology deficit at the top of the list), but I’m still cautiously optimistic. Every day the students improve their mute button etiquette. The teacher finds clever ways around her own technological limitations. The students respond to and engage in the classwork. I’m super lucky to have had my daughter tell me this morning that she likes her teacher, and she has been generally positive on the experience so far. We’re privileged in that regard, and I recognize that many students may be struggling along with their teachers for a variety of reasons (different needs, home/care center environments, etc.).

I have a hypothesis, however. I think a new and terrible source of anxiety for parents is our sudden and complete view into our children’s school day. Last year, like every year before, we sent our kids to school and hoped to get a few sentences out of them about their day when they returned in the afternoon. We didn’t witness the teacher’s instruction or see any classwork until the results came home. We haven’t been in the classrooms witnessing challenges, disruptions, and any other issues that might surface.

Except now we are. Or at least folks like my wife and me who are largely white and/or privileged. Folks like us who have the money/time/job flexibility to have one or more parents working from home, lending assistance to our kids while they learn remotely. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our superintendent has received most of his feedback on the schedule from parents in the West End and Northside, home to most of the white families in system, with typically higher incomes. I don’t presume that there are no issues for students in other parts of town, but most of the vocal frustration of schedule and operation isn’t coming from the Southside or East End.

Did you have great teachers/school years throughout your entire education? If you did, you’re super lucky and I envy you. When I think back on my own second grade year I recall the very worst teacher of my primary education. She was actively hostile toward me (though I never shut up…)! My daughter’s learning circumstances are not ideal because, well, GESTURES BROADLY, but her teacher is fine. She’ll be fine.

I’m sympathetic to the parents and children that are dealing with real educational, emotional, neurological, social, or other issues in this situation. Every accommodation should be made to ensure equitable education for all students across socioeconomic strata and different levels of ability. But that’s not most of the families. I think a great deal of parents could benefit from weaning themselves off of active monitoring of their kids’ virtual school days. Our kids are smart! Let’s back away (at a reasonable pace) and let them develop self-sufficiency. Perhaps our collective blood pressure will lower.