Friday, January 27, 2012

Cupcakes: the Tale of Two Moms

By Sal Emma

This isn’t the post I imagined. In my mind’s eye, the cupcakes would be a huge success and I’d silently relish the thought that I’d brightened somebody’s day in a meaningful way.

It didn’t quite turn out like that.

But the lesson’s the same. It’s about doing the right thing for the right reason. So I'm posting it anyway.

A few nights ago, we crawled into bed with our usual routine, capping another hectic day. I flipped on my nerd radio (shortwave). She read. When she turns out the light – the signal is clear. She’s read enough to quiet her brain. She’s going to sleep now. Game over. See you tomorrow.

That’s why her question surprised the hell out of me. There’s never any talking after lights-out.

“When am I going to make the cupcakes?”


“I have to make cupcakes for one of the girls at work. But I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do it.”

Her tomorrow was going to be just as insane as today. Another trip to Philly. A work reunion after that. Teaching karate after that. Barely 10 spare minutes.

This is Beth’s life. She’s not only living the supermom model, she’s defining it for the next generation.

My initial response was logical: “Why do you have to bake cupcakes for one of the girls at work?”

“Because her son’s birthday is Saturday.”

“Why are you baking cupcakes for her son’s birthday?”

“Because I offered to.”


“Because he wanted them and she couldn’t figure out how to make them so she would probably end up getting those crappy ones from the supermarket.”

I shuddered. Those greasy, malodorous sugar-bombs make me cringe. Understanding why anybody would put one anywhere near their mouth is beyond my intellectual capacity.

She had a fair argument. I remained skeptical. But, one thing I’ve learned after 25 years of marriage is that there are times when you have to be very careful to avoid saying the first thing that pops into your head.

This was one such occasion. And this train of thought went through my brain, in silence:

“Are you nuts? You work 50 hours a week. You take care of the house and the kids. You volunteer everyplace. You teach karate. You are fostering a service dog. You’re a Girl Scout leader. Why would you volunteer to bake cupcakes for somebody else’s kid?”

Then, this grenade: “Just because she’s too lazy to bake them herself?”

That was unfair. Below the belt. (Thank God I didn’t say it out loud.)

And then, the amazing thing. After this barrage of stream-of-consciousness cynicism, here’s what I actually said aloud:

“I’ll bake them.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because the kid wants them and I have time.” (Business is slow this time of year, traditionally.)

This was a magical moment. I didn’t volunteer out of a sense of duty, guilt or sympathy. It wasn’t a huffy bit of sarcasm “oh, I guess now it’s my problem …” Anything but.

God simply laid the image of Beth’s friend on my heart. I like her. She’s hard working and funny. She takes good care of her child. She’s from a good family. And she’s a single mom, anything but lazy. It was like the Holy Spirit breathed on the back of my neck and I understood, clear as crystal. Making her cupcakes was exactly the thing that needed to be done, and I was in a position to do it.

It was a blessing I can barely describe with mere words. Because I can guarantee that a few years ago, old Sal – negative, cynical and pissed off at the world – would have not only said all those mean-spirited things, out loud – he would have been completely comfortable with saying them. That's why I am convinced it was a gift from God.

My friend Jim Wilson has been an incredible influence in my life. He’s smart, devoted, funny, hysterically sacrilegious and a true Christian in every sense of the word. I thank God (frequently) for the privilege of calling him a friend – thanks to us stumbling into the coolest little church in Ocean City, N.J. a few years back.

During many discussions of life, family, love, God and grace, Jimmy uses the word available a lot. It’s scripturally based, this idea that you simply lay your day at God’s feet and have him use you as he sees fit. Most of us fail in this, most of the time. (And when I say “us,” of course, I mean “me.”)

Living as a Christian is like anything else. Work, play, marriage, music, riding a bike. You get better at it with time. You stick with it, through fear, doubt, lean times and dark moments and you hope that God is real and that the Holy Spirit really does walk among us as we go about our daily business. You make a commitment to stay ‘available’ to God – and hope for the best. And you ask that he give you opportunities to be salt and light in the world.

Volunteering to bake those cupcakes was that opportunity, sure as shootin’. Inside a tenth of a second – the time it took my brain to conjure up all those negative things I could have pontificated aloud – God tapped on my shoulder. And I made my offer, freely, in love and without a scrap of resentment or hesitation. I couldn’t wait to bake them. (Maybe in the future, I'll go right to the offer and skip the bellyaching!)

So, I know what you’re thinking. How did the cupcakes turn out? I’m sure they’re great. But I didn’t make them. Beth found 27 spare minutes between karate and lights-out and made them herself. While I was out of the house in a meeting. She’s a sneaky supermom, on steroids.

And another true Christian, in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Most Amazing Thing I Ever Ate

By Sal Emma

How good the food is depends a lot on how hungry you are. A road trip brought that lesson into high relief.

We had newly minted drivers’ licenses – so it was probably 1979 or thereabouts. Knowing my love for the natural world and wildlife, my Uncle Mike had given me a unique birthday gift: a trip on a whale watching boat, launched from the shores of Massachusetts. He paid my way and that of a buddy of my choosing. I chose my lunatic best high-school pal, Chris.

Today, you can find a whale watcher in just about any seashore town. But in those days, they were few and far between. Uncle Mike had found one somewhere south of Boston. Chris and I got up before the crack of dawn and started making our way north from New Jersey.

The trip was supreme. We had a fine time, free from our parents, busting chops and taking turns driving – munching sandwiches and solving the problems of the world along the way. Uneventful, except for the dark clouds that kept getting darker.

The boat package must have included admission to the now-defunct whaling museum in Sharon, Mass. We arrived there in snickers, posing for photos by the sign at the town limit: “Entering Sharon.” The double entendre, priceless to a couple of testosterone-crazed teenagers. (The new signs says “Welcome to Sharon,” by the way. Wimps.)

After a quick run through the museum, we hopped back in the car to make our way to the water’s edge. The sky grew darker. At the dock, we learned the boat would sail, rain or shine. We were relieved we hadn’t missed the chance after traveling so far. Then reality set in. We’re going out in this? Neither of us showed an iota of fear. We were invincible teenagers. And we were heading out with a bunch of invincible Massachusetts watermen. What could go wrong?

The rain and wind never let up. It was six-to-eight foot seas with almost no visibility. A big vessel (by canoe standards) it wasn’t so big against the north Atlantic. The boat heaved. And so did the passengers. I don’t think we were a half-mile out before the chumming began.

As anyone who has been in the situation can attest – vomit is extremely contagious. Once somebody leans over the rail to commit the contents of his stomach to the deep – others follow, like so many helpless dominoes.

Chris and I were determined to keep our sea legs.

An hour later, just about everybody on the boat was sick. The decks were awash in detritus of a most vile variety. The torrents of rain were a blessing, washing much it out the scuppers. We were freezing, soaked and barely holding on. But we made it, by the grace of God and our particular obsession with Monty Python.

We stood close. We put our hoods up, blinders against the backdrop – a scene of horror right out of Hieronymous Bosch. And we tried to recite every word of every Monty Python sketch we’d ever heard. It worked. Neither of us lost breakfast. Chris, a fisherman practically from birth, went even farther. He was the only guy on the boat buying stuff from the snack bar and eating it. Iron constitution.

I didn’t dare eat. I feared the slightest stimulation of the digestive tract would surely send it churning in the wrong direction. I toughed it out, never moving from the steel column to which I clung in the tempest, like a street drunk married to his lamppost. I hugged it and sang: “spam, spam, spam, spam, spam …”

And I never puked.

Nor did we see a whale. One could have jumped up and sat on the transom, smoking a Cuban cigar. Between the fog, the downpour and the hood-blinders, I never would have known.

Four or six or 46 hours later, who knows how long, the captain called it quits and motored back to port, to a feeble cheer of relief from his green, green cargo. We docked and a tangle of human wreckage staggered from the slick steel deck to terra firma, their color slowly returning to normal shades. The sick – dehydrated and stinking like yesterday’s diapers. Chris and I – wet, cold and on top of the world. We relished our victory over Davey Jones.

The minute my feet touched solid ground I realized I was absolutely starved. I hadn’t had a thing since breakfast and it was way past dinner. We ran to the car, dodging raindrops and laughing hysterically over what we had just experienced. Let’s get the hell out of here, fast.

The rain was coming even harder, but now it was dark. Through the windshield wiper streaks, we spotted the red neon: DINER.

Chris was spinning the steering wheel before I said a word. We were of one mind: all we wanted was a warm, dry place to sit down and catch our breath. Food would be nice, too.

We stumbled into the place, dripping. It was a cozy little locals’ haven of avocado Formica and cold fluorescent light. The waitress motioned us to an empty booth. By the looks of us, she probably had little trouble knowing exactly the word we most wanted to hear: “coffee?”

“Y-yes. Anything h-hot.”

Then, this Angel of God spoke the second most beautiful word I’d heard that day: “chowder?”

Our coffee cups were filled nearly instantly and we practically poured the stuff down our throats. Boy, was that good.

Then, a minor miracle. The chowder. In nondescript diner soup cups, perched in saucers adorned with a stamped paper doilies. Though we were surprised to get the Manhattan variety, in this neighborhood, it was surely the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

We went at it like a couple of starving prisoners. Plump little clam strips, rich tomato broth, succulent chunks of tomato, corn and a few kidney beans – every bit of this soup was sublime. With saltines crushed on top – it was savory, satisfying warmth in orchestrated ensemble, more wonderful than anything Leonard Bernstein ever etched on vinyl.

My God! It was the best thing I ever ate! Had I been a few decades older, I might have cried. (That’s saying a lot for a kid who grew up Italian, surrounded by chefs of most admirable gifts.)

But at that moment, cold, wet and as hungry as I’d ever been, it was so good, so warm, so perfect – it really was the best thing I’d ever eaten. Was it the best clam chowder ever made? I have no idea. It might have been. Or it could have come from a big tin can, for all I know.

To my palate, desperate for nourishment after a long, cold fast – it was nectar of Mount Olympus. I can still taste it, 30 years later. I have no idea what else we ordered that night. But the chowder is chronicled in my brain forever.

For days, Uncle Mike was upset about the whole thing. He had formed a mental image of us oohing and aahing “thar she blows” training binoculars on majestic leviathans, basking in the New England sun. It didn’t quite turn out that way. But, as I told him then, we had a terrific time.

And I’ll never forget that chowder.