Things have seemed very loud lately.
Last week on my commute into the city, a woman eight rows behind me yammered for a full hour into her Blackberry about her boyfriend’s mysterious affliction.
“Chuck’s skin is getting really weird –” she whined, as we pulled out of Stamford.
For the love of god, I sighed.
There’s nothing you can do, Susan whispered, so just try and ignore her. She closed her eyes and slept while I sat there, wanting to stand up and shout at the top of my lungs:
What the hell is wrong with you?
Were you raised in a hole?
Do you think that any one of us on this train gives a fat rat’s behind about Chuck’s rash?
All I wanted — all I longed for — was sweet quiet before the onslaught of the day. Instead, I was stuck — a prisoner in a hermetically-sealed metal tube hurtling through the wealthy northern suburbs of Manhattan — listening to a middle-aged woman with the vocal projection capacity of Ethel Merman wax rhapsodic about her Chuck, who was apparently bringing home vast quantities of Calamine lotion and leaving no room in the bathroom for her hair stuff.
I need room, she bellowed into her phone, for my hair stuff!
I pulled my iPad out of my bag, turned it on, and went directly to Pinterest to look at some puppies. A minute or so later, I tapped over to Grist to read about Bloomberg’s ban on big soda, and followed the article to the Times, where some red state person was caterwalling about choice. It was his choice, he said, to drink something big if that’s what he wanted. It was his choice, he went on, to inform himself about it, or not.
Funny how these guys all scream CHOICE but they don’t believe in labeling genetically-modified products, so people don’t know what they’re CHOOSING, huh-– I said to Susan, nudging her in the ribs.
I’m trying to sleep, she groaned, her eyes closed.
Sorry, I muttered, and went back to Pinterest. There was Heidi Swanson’s page, and some fabulous shoes that I really love but could never wear because of my bunion. And a gorgeous pearl gray kimono-style frock that I fell in love with, but that would make me look like my Grandma Bertha’s 1954 Frigidaire. There were some kittens on someone else’s animal page. There was a bunch of gorgeous, smiling Bhutanese children on my travel page. I clicked over to a vintage furniture page and considered replacing my 1935 French dining room chairs with fiberglass Eames shell chairs — they bounce and I have playful cats — and by the time I opened my iBook folder to read a chapter of Jon Kabat-Zinn on stillness, I had pretty much managed to block out Chuck’s rash. By then, my brain already felt tired and doughy and completely hung over—like a mash-up of melting cotton candy, Silly Putty, and styrofoam packing peanuts—and it was virtually impossible to focus on anything at work until I’d had two liters of water followed by a triple espresso, which meant that I spent the rest of the day running down the hall to the ladies’ room. TMI, I know. Forgive me.
We were back on the train that night with no plans for dinner. We picked up a frozen pizza on the way home, ate it in front of the television with too much wine, and were in bed by ten thirty. While Susan slept soundly next to me, my heart raced and pounded — I was a swirl of cortisol-drenched crazy — and I was asleep by three, which gave me exactly two hours of rest until the alarm clock went off. By six, I was back on the train, iPad in hand, back on Pinterest, and trying to figure out what font Prospector Co. used on the labeling of their Burrough’s Beard Oil, and why anyone would sell those old-fashioned, striped paper straws that get slimy and gross the minute you drink anything out of them.
It was not yet 6:30 am.
It’s an amazingly loud world that we live in; it sneaks up and draws us into its clutches like a lothario, and before we know it we’re whirling dervishes, spinning down and down, even if we’re standing perfectly still and not moving a muscle. The problem is, unless you’re on vacation — and there was a whole article recently published in the New York Times about why it takes us as long as it does to unplug when we remove ourselves from our day-to-day — it’s virtually impossible to not run headlong into loudness pretty much everywhere. Fast food is loud; it screams in your face, BIG, SPEEDY, DELICIOUS, CHEAP. The digital world, of which I am (obviously) an active, card-carrying member, is loud: it feeds us snippets of information in tiny, quick bites, whether we’re reading The Atlantic or our Twitter feeds or a beautifully curated Pinterest page. Mean, cruel people, even in their deafening quiet, are loud. Tall food that you have to figure out how to eat is loud; so is frozen food shoved down your craw while watching television. Commuting long distances is loud. A thousand silent people sitting on a train and punching notes into their Blackberries with apoplectic fury is loud.
What is it about us? What is it that makes us so afraid of quiet—of quiet reading, and living, and working, and cooking? Why do we feel the need to jump from one thing to the next to the next, with nothing but a thin, fraying thread of connection — the ubiquitous version of Amazon’s “If you like this, you’ll like this” — tying our lives together? Why do we think it’s okay to sit on a train traveling from point A to point B and shout at the top of our lungs about our most personal situations? Do we rattle through life terrified of being so disappointed by everything and everyone around us — including the mundanity of quiet food and quiet living — that the only way to psychically protect ourselves is to hide behind the noise of digital puppies and foie gras lollipops?
What, exactly, are we so frightened of?
Last week, I left my iPad at home and took the actual New Yorker —the print version, remember it…with the print that rubs off on your sweaty fingertips? — on my commute, which is something I haven’t done in ages. I read it cover-to-cover; I felt calmer, my brain felt clearer and fresher when I got to work, and I slept like a baby that night. At noon, I removed myself from my office, walked ten blocks south, and ate a small lunch at a quiet sandwich shop: I read the Times, and got newsprint all over my fingers. Over the weekend, I bought a small, boneless leg of lamb and rubbed it with kalamata olive tapenade and dried lemon; instead of grilling it on our pushbutton-ignition, propane-fueled Weber, I roasted it slowly on Susan’s late father’s, patent-pending, avocado green Weber kettle grill. Don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t trying to shoehorn myself into some sort of prepackaged preciousness; I was just trying to catch my breath.
I didn’t miss the familiar pop of the gas jets catching, or the tick of the ignition. The lamb cooked lazily; I basted it every so often with olive oil and rosemary, moving it from one side of the grill to the other if it got too hot, or cooked too fast. We let it rest a good long time, and it was rich and delicious; that lovely red smoke ring that comes only with fire and time was there too, barely perceptible.
I sliced it, plated it, and took a Hipstamatic picture of it. And as if the universe was conspiring against my returning to my loud life, I promptly lost my cell phone.
Grill-Roasted Lamb with Tapenade and Lemon
When Susan and I moved to our house in Connecticut, I immediately went out and bought a gas grill, and had it hooked up to our stove’s propane line. I wanted it for its expedience: you turn it on and seconds later, it’s hot. And cooking on a gas grill also allows you to multitask while preparing dishes that, on a charcoal grill, would need your (mostly) undivided attention: a rack of ribs can hold at 225 degrees on a gas grill for hours while you do laundry or clean the kitchen. A chicken can roast at 400 while you’re on a conference call in another part of the house. Traditional, live-fire, charcoal grills need you to focus, to not stray, to get quiet and pay attention to what you’re doing, especially if you’re cooking a high-fat meat, like lamb. Here, the pungent combination of olive paste and my new favorite ingredient — dried lemon, purchased in a Lebanese grocery store — cut through the meat’s richness. Leftovers are delicious the next day, drizzled with a garlicky yogurt sauce.
Serves 4 with leftovers
1 4 pound leg of lamb, boned out and butterflied
2 tablespoons tapenade
1 teaspoon dried lemon
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
The day before serving, lay the butterflied lamb on your kitchen work surface skin-side down and massage the tapenade and dried lemon into the meat evenly. Roll the meat up and tie it with kitchen string at inch intervals.
In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, olive oil, and red wine vinegar, and pour into a large freezer bag big enough to hold the meat. Place the meat in the bag, zip it closed, and place the bag in a bowl, turning the bag over repeatedly to make sure the meat is fully coated in the marinade. Refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. Remove 2 hours before cooking (reserving the marinade), and let the meat come to room temperature.
Remove the grate from a clean charcoal grill, and using a coal chimney, prepare a medium hot fire; when the coals are ready, use a long-handled spoon (and a heat-proof mitt) to pile them up on one side of the grill. Replace the grate, and set the lamb down on the side opposite the coals. Cover and roast for 40 minutes, turning the meat every 15 minutes, and basting it regularly with the reserved marinade. When the temperature of the meat registers 120 on an instant-read thermometer, remove it to a platter, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 15 minutes. Snip the twine and slice the meat thinly; serve immediately.