Publishing a day late so this arrives on my wife’s birthday, which is today. She’s the best! She’s my favorite! There’s a reason I’ve long referred to her as The Awesome Wife, and she continues to justify the title.
We’ve been together more than half our lives, which is a long and glorious time to have a best friend who gives you kisses. Meaghan is brilliant and hilarious and clever, she’s loyal and caring and forgiving, she’s gorgeous and dog-obsessed and better than me at everything but vacuuming. She’s been my inspiration for 25 years, and I’ve long said I love doing everything with her and I love doing nothing with her. She’s the main person I want to make laugh all the time, and she’s unquestionably made me laugh more than anyone. It was hard ceding her the title of “the writer in the house,” but it’s much harder to accept I may not be the funniest person in this marriage.
She makes me a better teacher in innumerable ways — she’s shaped who I am as a person more than anyone. But she’s also shown me so much about empathy, in so many directions. She’s the best writer I know, so it’s always interesting talking about the craft or the process. I even admire her admonishments over my myriad typos in this newsletter. Mostly, she leads by example just by being who she is. If I could be as kind and helpful and caring and patient as her, I’d be a way better teacher. She’s worthy of my aspiration.
Our repartee also looms large. With no kids, we have to amuse each other, and boy do we make that work. Our joint argot is stitched together from Simpsons quotes, personal references, commercial jingles, and whatever else we need to deploy at apt moments. Our banter covers serious topics, but we also crack each other up, a running George and Gracie routine we’re certain would make a killer podcast if we could just figure what it’s about. We still like each other after all this time, and I know it’s a cliché to call your spouse your best friend, but she is my everything, my favorite, my baby. Happy happy birthday!
The Urban Blah
Back in 2009-11 I collaborated with the brilliant Vee to make a webcomic that failed to become syndicated across the globe. I am pro-recycling.
I wanted a good Blah Wife comic this week, and I discovered I’ve already shared a lot. The beleaguered wife would have been a better pick, if only for her facial expression. But this bear comic is one of my all-time favorites. The third and fourth panels are just brilliant, a high water mark for the Blah. Also, Vee has a substack, you should subscribe!
Jam(s) of the Week
Meaghan dutifully indulges my nonstop music, inescapable through too many Sonos zones. We don’t always agree on music, but she perks up when Check Your Head comes on, and it is my favorite Beastie Boys record. I love their career arc, from fratty hip hop pioneers, to sampling masterworkers, to skate rat funkateers channeling their punk rock roots. I’m all about “Jimmy James” and the instrumentals, The Awesome Wife is more “Professor Booty” and, if we’re honest, Paul’s Boutique. So bump that one, too. I celebrate their entire catalog.
My Back Pages
This would have been the better week for the ninja bears, but I peaked too early. So The Wife only gets an instrumental cameo, and I began my long career as her plus one.
My first job out of college, all I wanted to do was to publish humor essays in The Boston Phoenix, but they took a look at my 21 year-old smirk and had other ideas. It took me more than a year, but I finally found a story when the then Awesome Girlfriend (now Wife) scored us a free meal. From “Eat the snail! The faltering vegetarian confronts his worst fear: a meal that’s still alive,” The Boston Phoenix, Oct 1, 1998:
This is about redemption, in edible form. It's about a vegetarian who faced the dark side of the force and triumphed, who battled fearsome creatures and restored his own faith.
It's also about snails.
You see, I'm a bad vegetarian. As in, I try not to eat meat but I do slip from time to time. I refuse to consider myself a full-fledged carnivore until I actually pay for meat; in the meantime, every curious taste, every weak moment at the buffet table — these don't change my dietary affiliation so much as indicate dissatisfaction with it. I'm still a vegetarian. I just haven’t been very good at it lately.
I usually share blog posts or college journalism here, nothing that’s been put through the process of editing and copy editing. I was neon green at the Phoenix, so this was pretty aggressively edited. It sounds different from my usual style, but I see what my editor was going for.
I stopped eating meat in high school, back when I was anxiously awaiting Arsenio’s comeback and comparing Extreme’s third album to Sgt. Pepper without a trace of irony. I switched partly for moral reasons, partly for health reasons, and partly to impress a girl. Okay, mostly to impress a girl. She was so hardcore, she’d say endearing things like, “Every time I have eggs I feel like I'm eating an abortion.” I was in love.
Okay, this paragraph was all me. One friend continues to give me a hard time about that Extreme opinion, and I plead guilty for being emotionally malleable at 16. I can’t believe I got paid to write what was my standard answer about my vegetarian.
That was five and a half years ago, and my meatless diet remains despite my having lost all the reasons for initiating it. I’m not as concerned with those moral things anymore, I’ve gotten more colds since I abandoned meat, and I never got further with veggie-girl than a slow dance at the prom. I mean, it was “Wonderful Tonight,” but still. Bean curd is looking less and less wonderful each night.
Fun fact: the theme of that prom actually was “Wonderful Tonight.”
I’m frequently put to the test now, as I try to restrain myself from the temptations of so many succulent thighs and breasts — and that’s just at KFC. But one recent evening sent me clambering for my tofu quick, fast, and in a hurry. All it took was a few snails at dinner.
I said “Quick, fast, and in a hurry” a lot, adapted from Flavor Flav’s outtro on “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Don’t worry, Flavor-vision ain’t blurry.
Bubbles has scammed a free meal at a fancy-schmancy restaurant opening — five-course dinner, open bar, pseudo-Parisian atmosphere. In my book, free food comes somewhere between cleanliness and godliness, and closer to Zeus than to Mr. Clean. I readily accept.
I feel like Meaghan and I cooked up “Bubbles” as her codename, but I can’t remember why. The restaurant was Brasserie Jo in the Back Bay, the first of many free meals The Awesome Wife would score us over the years.
I order a rum-and-Coke (“Your finest cola, sir”), and Bubbles and I meet our dining partners for the evening. Chip is quiet and nice, Dale is loud and nice, and we all get along famously. While discussing The X-Files, Dale volunteers his Gillian Anderson fantasy: on a desert island, he surrounds her navel with maraschino cherries and then fills it with Häagen-Dazs rum-raisin ice cream. Dale has clearly given this a lot of thought, and I can't decide whether to worship him or run from him in fear. I choose to worship him in fear.
The waiter mistakes Chip for a friend of the chef, and our reward is a glorious edible aquarium. I'm a pesco-vegetarian, so I'm foaming at the mouth with excitement. I dig in, as does Bubbles, who broke free of her vegetarian shackles a year ago and has never looked back. Dale abstains, citing bad memories of shellfish from ’Nam. Post-traumatic stress disorder is fine by me, especially if it means more food.
These days they’re called pescatarians, but I was so ahead of the curve I had to make up my own nomenclature. As for the Wife’s discarded vegetarianism, it didn’t last into our third week of dating. That PTSD joke hasn’t worn especially well.
I scarf down several shrimp bigger than my thumb, leaving the crab and lobster for Chip. I’ve never tried raw clams or oysters on the half shell, but the rules change when cost is nil. I get experimental. I’m even contemplating digging into the mound of mollusks in the center. As Biggie Smalls once said, “Escargot, my car go 150, swiftly.” I don’t really know what that means, but it somehow makes the snails even more appealing.
And by 150, of course, I meant 160 because I was an awesome journalist. I forgot that this was my entry into raw bar adventures. At 21, they were prohibitively expensive, so a freebie dinner was the time to get experimental.
Then I notice a disconcerting movement on the plate. Maybe the rum is stronger than I'd thought, because one of the snails appears to be wiggling. Another dances in its shell, and I slowly realize the four of us are not alone at the table: our appetizer is alive.
I point this out to the group, poking a snail with my fork to demonstrate. It retreats into its shell, and I retreat into mine, both of us quite distraught. Chip is amused, Bubbles starts naming the snails, and Dale shares his wisdom on the subject.
“Oh yeah,” he says exuberantly. “You pick them up and suck them out of their shell.” Then he makes this horrible slurping noise — SSSSLLLLIP!! — that I'm sure I'll hear on my deathbed. “Or,” he continues, picking up a skewer and lunging into the ice, “you stab it, pry it out of its shell, and eat it.” Another horrible slurp.
In other words, the choices are (a) put the snail into my mouth alive and kill it with my teeth, or (b) stab it to death, then eat it freshly killed. Both seem a little too hunter-gatherer for a bistro. Maybe I could do it in a Saigon trench, but even then I don't know. I try picturing Dale ducking enemy fire and grabbing a snail out of the water at his feet. SSSSLLLLIP!!
The snails remain on the platter. I focus my attention on the bread.
An accurate snapshot of the meal. Of course, the theory goes that you don’t actually remember things, but rather you remember the last time you remembered it. I workshopped this piece so long, at this point its text has over-written reality in my memory. And yet I quibble with no details. It was an unforgettable meal.
The next day, I decided it was my fault: I was so provincial and uncultured that I’d never encountered the common delicacy of live snails. Food experts around the office were quick to dispute that interpretation, although they did agree I was uncultured. They also informed me that the clams and oysters I’d eaten had been alive. That didn't thrill me, but at least they hadn’t been wiggling.
The snails’ movement remained a mystery, with each potential explanation more disconcerting than the last. Had the chef forgotten to cook them? Were they an ill-conceived decoration? A nose-thumbing at the ASPCA? Animatronic snails à la Disney? Or had we really been meant to eat them alive?
Outstanding journalist that I was, I never called the restaurant to find out. Seems a pretty obvious first step. I probably was afraid of facts getting in the way of a good story, to paraphrase my father-in-law.
I’ve killed plenty of bugs, and I used to help my dad smear peanut butter on mousetraps when I was a kid. But I’ve never eaten the corpses of my victims. Even at summer camp, we threw back the only fish I ever caught. These snails made me wonder whether there was actually something to the morality I once feigned in order to get ladies. Could I really kill an animal just to eat it? Most carnivores don't think about where meat comes from — it’s hard to associate a McNugget with anything in nature, let alone an actual chicken. And meat looks like food, not flesh.
After this article was published, someone in the office said to me, If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made out of meat?
The point of no return is a lobster, since it’s impossible to separate the animal from the meal. Cooking it yourself means killing it yourself, and in a pretty grisly way. It weirds me out, but I’ll eat it. A live snail is a whole other matter, though, because it’s alive. While I’m chewing, it’s still thinking, and probably panicking. Even vultures wait for their prey to die. Shouldn’t I?
I love to eat lobster, but the Awesome Wife has to put them in the pot. I get too queasy. Once on a kayak trip, the leader handed me a sea cucumber and I freaked and dropped it in the water. Dan Tobin does not touch fish.
At the restaurant, the next course arrives. As far as I can tell, my onion soup contains no living onions. The main course is loaded with shrimp, all fully killed. I’m a bit on edge that my wine may conspire with the water to walk away, but my anxiety is reduced with a few more glasses of chardonnay. And a few more after that.
I see the waiter bring a seafood platter to another table and I wonder if it contains the same snails we met. I hope so. Why torture a fresh batch of sea creatures? Or maybe they're new recruits, and ours were released into the water, having completed their cameo role in my life. But what if they're withering in the garbage? Or what if the chef is eating the leftovers himself? “Marcel! Bring me more live creatures! SSSSLLLLIP!!”
I’m still queasy pondering it, but I find out I’ve actually gotten off easy. Chip mentions a local restaurant that serves live lobster. According to him, the lobster tries to crawl around the table while people pick at its innards. It almost makes the snails sound good.
All I know is I’m staying veggie for a while longer. Carrots don't freak out when you eat them.
Apparently, it’s more humane to stick a knife into a lobster than to boil or steam them as is custom. But I suspect this Chip character was just having fun with a couple kids in way over their heads. I hope he saw the article and had a good laugh.
And I love being her plus one because I love my wife! Happy happy birthday, baby. Hope it is wonderful tonight.
I am so happy to read your writings again, and so happy for you and Megan. Many congratulatory remarks regarding her birth, and earnest wishes for her continued existence.