Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rifles For Watie

I was trying to come up with a good Christmas gift idea for Khalil, so I started thinking of what I liked when I was his age. Then it hit me: Rifles for Watie!. I was just about Khalil's age when a teacher got a copy from the school library and challenged me to read it. Khalil is so sharp and inquisitive that I felt he could handle the same challenge, so I went to Borders and bought a copy.

I'd accidentally double-booked, so after hopping a train west to see Khalil I had to zip back to Penn Station and uptown for a caroling party. But at least I had time to share another Italian Burger with Khalil and give him his gift. I told him how my teacher had challenged me with the book, and how I didn't appreciate it at the time. In fact I thought she was a little bit nuts thinking I could read this adult book! But I rose to the challenge and finished the book, and to this day I feel proud of that. I told Khalil all this, and how I thought he could do it too. I also mentioned that I realize he might not relate to it as I did; after all, I was a country boy reading a story of a country boy who runs off to join the Union Army. I told him "It's OK for you not to read it if you don't find it interesting, but don't think you can't read it. Because I think you can."

Back on the eastbound New Jersy Transit platform there was a cold wind blowing, but I had a nice warm spot in my heart.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Khalil's First Scones!

Khalil's mom brought him and his sister over to my apartment around noon, and once again I had a welcome opportunity to share my baking with Khalil. This time it was the ginger scones to which my friends and I have become so addicted.

We measured the ingredients and I showed Khalil how to cut in the butter with the pastry cutter. I emphasized that, just like with pie crust, the point is to agitate the shortening as little as possible. Likewise, that's why we used a fork to mix the cream into the dry ingredients for the scones! We separated the dough into two mounds, laid down some flour, flattened them out a bit with our hands and then a bit more with the rolling pin, patted them down with a layer of cream, sprinkled them with a little sugar, cut them into wedges, and put them onto buttered cookie sheets. Once the oven was preheated I put the sheets in and set the timer. Twenty minutes later we ate them with tea. As usual, the scones were a big hit.

Once again Khalil was proud to have been one of the chefs, and he was happy when I gave him a copy of the recipe to take home. If I remember correctly, he also discovered that he liked tea!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Museum of Natural History

See my Picasaweb album for more pictures from this trip.

I got on the train in Millburn bound for Penn Station. Khalil's mother had brought him to the East Orange train platform, so when the train stopped he jumped on and joined me. We spent the rest of the trip talking and playing a game on his phone. He told me how good the pumpkin pie was, how much his sister liked it, and how he remembered everything I showed him. That made me very happy. It's thrilling enough to me when I can share my passions with peers, but having a child reciprocate my enthusiasm is singularly gratifying.

Either the A/C wasn't running normally or I made one of my spectacularly bad logistical decisions, because I remember walking several blocks across town to get to the museum; we must have taken the 1 train. Anyhow, we made it to the museum and picked up the tickets that Larry, a museum employee I know, was kind enough to leave for us. There were a number of special events includes with admission, and Larry had recommended choosing three. Khalil chose the IMAX movie "Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure", the animal exhibit "Lizards and Snakes Alive", and the Hayden Planetarium feature "Cosmic Collisions". We had some time before the first feature so I took Khalil up to the fourth floor to see the dinosaur skeletons that have always fascinated me.

We oooohed and aaaaahed, imagining the apatosaurus, tyrannosaurus and stegosaurus lumbering around, and the pteranodon in flight. Khalil was particularly impressed with the prehistoric bear skeleton that's reared up as if to give its rival or its prey a deadly hug. I told him my favorite stories about the exhibit, such as how the armadillo-like dinosaur with pieces of bone lacing its skin gave it a sort of natural armor, and how the dimetrodon is thought to have used its fan not only for protection, but as a heat sink. The American Museum of Natural History website shows some of the skeletons we saw.

We continued on to "Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure". I was quite impressed, although I don't know enough about paleontology to know how many liberties were taken in order to tell a good story. It begins with a child who, on a camping trip, notes a bone sticking out of a recently eroded riverbank. Paleontologists come to excavate the bones. Throughout the story, the point of view jumps back and forth between these present-day investigations and the computer-generated life story of the creature to whom some of those bones belonged: Dolly, a female Dolichorhynchops. I thought it was quite an engaging story, and Khalil seemed to agree.

We grabbed some overpriced lunch and moved on to "Lizards and Snakes Alive". This was a well-arranged series of glass cases displaying a history of the Flemish wool trade. Or not. No, actually, the name of the exhibit turned out to be a clever play on words: it was live lizards and snakes. I was particularly fascinated by the geckos that could cling to sheer glass with no perceptible difficulty. Khalil loved playing with the cameras and matching monitors that were set up around some of the cases; he panned and zoomed to get a closeup look at the contents of the cases. He didn't love the big snakes so well; I held his hand as we zipped by that bit.

Our last show was quite an impressive one: "Cosmic Collisions". Up until that day I hadn't known that there was an amphitheater inside the Hayden Planetarium. We got seats near the front - or the center, as it's a circular theater with the picture projected on the entire hemispheric ceiling. The show, narrated by Robert Redford, was all about the collisions that eventually result in the formations of new planets, asteroid belts, solar systems, and galaxies. Breathtaking in scope and visually stunning, it leaves one feeling quite appropriately in awe.

Before leaving, we visited the gift shop outside the planetarium. Not thrilled with the idea of paying for a vastly overpriced hunk of plastic, but wanting to get Khalil some souvenir of our visit, I gravitated toward the display racks of educational flashcards. Thanks to my handy iPhone I found that they were no more expensive in the gift shop than on Amazon, so I asked Khalil if there was a set that he liked. He picked the rainforest animals set, just as I thought he would. As we rode the subway back to Penn Station, and the New Jersey Transit back west, Khalil organized the cards and read some of the descriptions. I helped him with some of the words. This was a good day.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Khalil's First Homemade Pumpkin Pie!

Instead of my usual briefcase, I brought to work a backpack filled with canned pumpkin, sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, evaporated milk, flour, shortening, sugar, vanilla and a whisk. After work I took the train to Brick Church, grabbed some eggs and heavy cream at ShopRite, and headed over to Khalil's place.

Khalil was very excited about making pies. He and his mother like cooking and cooking shows, so being in the position of chef was thrilling for him. He was, as always, very open to everything I had to teach. I told him how pumpkin pies are the only ones I don't make from scratch because, although the best pies I've ever made have been from scratch, so have the worst ones; I get consistently very good results from Libby's, so that's what I use.

Khalil cracked the eggs and helped mix the ingredients, and then we started making the crust. And of course I gave him my whole spiel about cutting the shortening into the dough so that it gets kneaded as little as possible, and being very careful not to add too much water, and rolling it out and putting it into the pie tin and piecing it together, and about how all those things make a cust that's light and flaky instead of dense. We poured the filling into the shells, put the pies in the oven, and put the mixing bowl and whisk into the freezer. As I explained to Khalil, the most thing about making good whipped cream is to keep everything cold!

While the pies baked, we watched the Clone Wars animated series. I was quite impressed with the animation. A few minutes before the pies finished I took the bowl and whisk out of the freezer and started whipping the cream. I let Khalil do some of the whisking and he quickly came to appreciate what I said about having spent years building up those particular arm muscles. I took over again and soon the cream was firming up. We added the sugar and the vanilla and, as I finished, I showed Khalil how he should whip it to the point where it stands up in fluffy peaks, but not to the point where it starts to become butter!

I took the pie out of the oven and, after letting it cool for a while, we cut some pieces, loaded them with whipped cream, and dug in. Check out the look on Khalil's face. I don't think he found it entirely displeasing, do you?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Khalil's First Jack o' Lantern!

After a recent trip to Oneida I brought some pumpkins back to Millburn. I lugged two of them to work with me, along with some paring knives. During the day I went next door to Duane Reade and bought some Christmas lights, for many years now my illumination of choice for jack o' lanterns. After work I lugged everything onto the trains and across East Orange to Khalil's place. My arms were about ready to fall off by the time I got there. Oh man, was it worth it.

I hauled the pumpkins out, cleaned them off, and threw myself into the task of introducing Khalil to the fine art of jack o' lantern carving. I started by telling him what Michelangelo had supposedly said: that there was a statue already there in the rock, and the sculptor's job was to remove everything else. In the same way, I feel that there's a spirit inside every pumpkin and it's our job to cut away all the rest in order to bring out that spirit. He picked his pumpkin and I helped him cut off the top and scrape out the inside. I asked him what sort of a spirit he thought his pumpkin had, and he said he thought it should be scary. So I began mine, intending it as a companion piece to his: a startled, scared pumpkin looking askance at its menacing neighbor. I kept an eye on Khalil, and was impressed with what I saw.

I've been carving pumpkins since I can remember. It's one of my favorite activities, and easily my most important holiday ritual. Those spirits I've brought out of countless pumpkins have always had a unique potency to me, so I vividly remember how it felt to learn the art as a child. Making very jagged mouths is hard because you're cutting along diagonals and because you have to cut the mouth into small chunks before you can push it through; it's easy to slice off an opposing tooth and botch your own work. So I was impressed that Khalil, on his very first try at carving a jagged mouth, needed no help from me: he figured out how to subdivide the mouth and he did it all without any lost teeth.

Once we finished I put my jack o' lantern in the proper position next to his, plugged in the Christmas lights, and fed them into the tops of the pumpkins. By that time Khalil was visibly, and quite audibly, excited. When his mother turned off the kitchen lights so that we could see our creations in all their glory, he started jumping up and down and pumping his fists in triumph. He's a sharp, enthusiastic, creative kid, and I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have shared this tradition with him.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Second Walk and a Second Italian Cheeseburger

Tonight was another night of walking and talking. As we made our way west along Main Street I talked about my recent canoe trip in Minnesota, and Khalil talked about difficulties between the girls and boys at school, and of course about one of his favorite subjects: video games. Suddenly I recognized the neighborhood: we were in Orange, just around the corner from my mechanic. Khalil was impressed that we'd walked that far. We reversed course and went to Roberto's, again splitting an Italian Cheeseburger. It was already becoming a habit.

For dessert we got ice cream at Rita's. I walked Khalil home, again listening as he talked about some challenges he'd faced at school. I grew up in farming country, so I never faced the challenges he has to face. I'm glad that Khalil feels that he can confide in me, and I hope that the advice I gave him will be useful.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Meeting of Feet and Minds

I took the train to East Orange after work and met Khalil at his apartment. I asked him if he felt like walking around the neighborhood, and he was happy with that idea - especially since he was looking forward to getting a Belgian waffle at his favorite diner. It was fairly cold outside, but we did a lot of fast walking that kept us warm. We talked about the Transformers movie, the toys, and the various incarnations of the cartoon, and I told him about the animated movie that I loved so much in high school. He told me about Deadpool, his favorite comic book character, who apparently has healing powers similar to Wolverine's and came from the same Weapon X program. I made a mental note to read up on the character.

We walked west, back east nearly to his apartment, and then south toward the diner. It turned out to be closed, so we walked west while Khalil told me about a few alternate restaurants. He mentioned that Roberto's had good burgers, and I was sold. Roberto's turned out to be a little pizza place in Brick Church Plaza. Khalil suggested an Italian Burger, which turned out to be a two-patty burger on a long bun with french fries right on the burger. We split it, along with a bottle of soda, and it hit the spot.

As we walked back we started talking about the Spider Man movies. When Khalil got on the subject of Venom, Spider Man's black costume that turned out to be a sentient alien creature, I got really enthusiastic. He'd never heard the original version of Venom's origin story that thrilled me back in the eighties, so I told him all about how Spider Man had picked up the alien symbiote during the Secret Wars when he thought he was just getting a costume from an alien clothing fabricator. By this time I was absolutely beaming inside because I knew that my knowledge of comic books and Transformers had never had such currency.

My kung fu is strong.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Meeting Khalil and family

I met Khalil, along with his mother and sister, in Newark. We talked with great enthusiasm about our favorite foods to eat and cook, comic books, movies, sports, and outdoor activities. I told him that if he wanted me to play sports with him I'd be happy to do so, but that he'd have to teach me! I explained that I was a fat kid and so gym class was not a fun experience for me, bringing home the point by telling him about my most embarrassing gym experience. One day in junior high we playined that game whose name I can't remember that involved using a football on a basketball court. That day was unusual for two reasons: the boys and girls were to play together, and the coach was unmerciful enough to put flabby me on the skins team. I was so embarrassed that I forgot what I was doing and scored a point for the other team! It was the only point I ever scored while playing that game. I think the story made a big impression on Khalil, because a few days later his mother mentioned that he'd told her the story!

Khalil was excited to hear about camping in the Adirondacks, and about outdoor activities like hiking and snowshoeing. By the time the meeting was over both I and Khalil's mother were sure enough about the match to say that we didn't need any more introductory meetings. I walked out smiling at how well we'd hit it off, and looking forward to getting to know him and sharing my enthusiasms with him.