The Flutaphone Dialectic: a remedy


Ever have one of those moments when, brain train derailed by an unexpected obstacle, you stumble on a mnemonic connection that illuminates something about the way you are put together, that leads to the discovery of a key to your psychic cellar door?

I’m not referring to anything mystical here, nor am I hinting at something as profound as a Joycean epiphany, where the effect of years of parochial stress is suddenly brought into focus.

Well, OK, I am referring to epiphanies — but nothing monumental. My epiphanies are inevitably mundane.

One of these epiphanies occurs the other night as I sit down to dinner: chicken piccata, the lemon-based sauce sharpened to a razor edge by a monster load of capers; linguine with freshly shaved Parmesan, sautéed broccoli with garlic.

I like to hear music when I eat, something that provides a soothing background, that masks the less-than-desirable sounds of chewing, swallowing, burping and conversation.

So, I flip on the satellite radio receiver. What I hear is anything but what I need: Native American flute music.

Bango: I have an epiphany. Somewhat Hegelian in nature, if you will allow it.

Thesis: Native American flute music, the flautist backed by a cheesy string section formed, no doubt, of members of a regional, amateur orchestra from somewhere in Oklahoma.

Antithesis: Smetana’s “The Moldau.”

Synthesis: A lightning-quick association and a comprehension of why I detest certain kinds of music and why I am such a jerk about it.

“Detest” is a strong word, I know.

I use it with that in mind.

The “music” fills the room. I stop in mid-bite, the meal soured by more than lemon and capers. Mozart, this ain’t. What have I done?

This is marginal stuff. Shed your inclination to political correctness for a moment and you will, if you’ve been exposed, agree. Some claim the “music” issuing from this instrument — regardless of the ethnicity of the instrumentalist — is “haunting.” I believe “stultifying” is a more accurate term.

Lest you think I am narrow minded, (and you have all sorts of better evidence to support the assertion) understand this is not alone on my list of musiclike sounds, and the alleged instruments that produce them, to be avoided at all costs.

I am reminded as I am pummeled by the dreck issuing from the speakers that most bluegrass music and the majority of pseudo-Celtic drivel mistakenly recorded these days also fall into the same category. As does most hip hop and the large measure of metal, thrash, pop, whatever.

These types of music are brain cell killers; liking them proves the point.

Ready to scream as the flautist hits a naked note that trembles goose-pimply and simple against the ghastly work of the saccharine string section, I experience the epiphany, the unplanned and uncharted trip through the mental muck. I am a jerk about this kind of thing because I was once musically traumatized — so brutally, in fact, that the memory of the experience stays deeply buried until something (say, Native American flute music played during dinner) forces it to burble to the surface.

My epiphany comes surging forth, wrapped in a sequence of images.

Little Karl is in the third grade at Lincoln Elementary School, Room 210 — a plain, three-story brick building located on South Pearl Street in Denver. As a member of the Baby Boom generation, first wave, I occupy space and consume more than my share of oxygen in a classroom crammed with twice the number of kids permitted by the fire code. There’s lots of us; fathers of first-wavers who leapt from the troop train when WW II ended nine years before with yet another important mission in mind. Boy, were they busy. And, again, triumphant.

There are forty urchins stuffed into a space made for 20. It is hot and we are all more than somewhat tense. After all, we’ve just undergone the third air raid drill of the week, the siren set atop the school wailing, sending us to duck and cover beneath flimsy desks, there to wonder at what precise moment the commies will incinerate us with a nuclear device. We know from the weekly black and white 16mm commie threat movie that, while the flash will blind us, we can rest assured we will be converted to disconnected molecules long before we have a chance to hear the terrifying roar of the explosion. Certainly before we feel any pain.

Scant consolation. No amount of graham crackers and milk served mid-morning can alleviate the anxiety.

Mrs. Walsh stands at the front of the room, frazzled from a day spent tussling with the tykes, her hair in disarray, her hands shaking. She needs a cigarette, and a boyfriend. Her eyes bulge slightly and, in a warbling voice, she says: “Remove your flutophones from their sleeves, class. Take your book of songs out and turn to page three — ‘Birdies Sing in the Glen.’”

Dear lord.

She raises her hands, flutophones are pressed to teeny lips, (their sinister sisters, the soprano tonettes, are readied by less hearty members of the class). We inhale. As Mrs. Walsh’s arms descend, the most horrible sound known to man fills that cramped, hot, smelly space.

A sound scarier than the shriek of bagpipes preceding a charge of blue-tinted, one-fanged, smelly highlanders across the heather.

Worse than the awful cries of a cat caught beneath a car tire.

Worse than the wail of the air raid siren on the school roof.

Worse, yes, than the sound of a banjo.

In the grip of the memory of that experience, fixated on the images in mind’s eye, I realize I am musically biased because of … the flutophone.

Anything that sounds remotely like it, or whose distasteful impact is similar, finds a place on my list, and my negative reaction is instant and arbitrary.

I can’t stop the flow of repressed memories.

There it is, my flutophone: a six-inch-long tube of black plastic, bulging in its center, with four holes drilled in the top of the tube. At the business end is a primitive mouthpiece, with a vent just past the opening. I provide the gook caked on the shiny black plastic mouthpiece (that’s graham crackers and milk for you).

It’s kind of like a flute. A mutant flute. A flute for morons.

Like me.

I am totally inept and, to make matters worse, I sit next to the premier flutophone player at Lincoln Elementary School — a flutophone prodigy, if there ever was one: the gorgeous, but insidious, Judy Brandsmaa. The girl of my third-grade dreams, the object of my prepubescent fantasies. As I fumble with my flutophone, she sneers at me. She writes notes to her friends. I know what they say.

The flutophone is the source of my social undoing.

Satan created the flutophone — this frightening relative of the recorder, this embarrassing cousin of the ocarina, (and I don’t have time here to detail the horrors of the tonette).

We have been told we must practice each night. I don’t practice. I can’t stand to be near the flutophone. It is hidden away, like a strange cousin kept in the basement to belet out only for family holiday dinners.

I dread flutophone day at school . Granted, it’s a bit better than being picked for the “skins” team in a “skins and shirts” basketball game — but not a whole lot better.

The sound given off by forty badly-played flutophones is pure torture. In fact, all this current blather about what our intelligence services can and can’t do to prisoners (waterboarding, electric shock, sleep deprivation, etc.) would be seen as trivial, if we subjected suspected terrorists to a third-grade flutophone concert. They’d be telling us anything we wanted, and more, just to stop the assault. Toss Judy Brandsmaa in for good measure, and you can imagine how the strongest will would crumble.

I experience my epiphany, finish a second helping of chicken piccata, and head straight to the computer. I put my ear buds in and crank on the iPod. I listen to things acceptable, medicinal: a smattering of The Go Team, Randy Weston, Arthur Lee and Love, a touch of Diana Krall, Vivaldi, and a couple songs by Patty Griffin.

I Google “flutophone sales.”

Does this monster still exist? Can I find this vehicle of aural agony on the market?

The answer comes quickly: The flutophone is not only available from several manufacturers and retail sources, but American kids are still subjected to the blunt force trauma of the flutophone experience. The sirens are long gone, the 16mm black and whites no longer flicker. But, the flutophone lurks beneath the flashy media skin of the culture, barely seen, like a potent virus secreted in a rain forest monkey, waiting for a chance to be loosed upon unwitting victims who toast and devour its host.

And, to breed once it escapes, to father Native American flute music, banjos, privileged upper-middle class white kids posing as yodeling hicks, inane ego-fueled kindergarten rhymes created by barely literate high school dropouts.

It all ties together and, at last, painful as it is, I understand.

It’s the damned flutophone.

The only antidote? Food.

The next night, I decide to concoct something for dinner with the power to heal and protect. It will be so darned good, it will counteract any horrid musical moments and erase the distressing memories they evoke.

A pal told me about some crepes he made for breakfast recently and this reminds me I have not cooked crepes in quite some time. I decide to whip up a pork tenderloin paprikash filling (via Northern New Mexico), blending ingredients that, wrapped in a crepe, will eradicate bad influences and intrusions on the dining experience.

The crepes are easy: a cup of flour, two eggs, a cup of whole milk, a bit of salt, two tablespoons of melted butter. This is good for eight or so of the eggy beauties. The only other necessity: a small, nonstick sauté pan. No way around it; gotta have it. And it can’t be one of those ancient, oh-my-god-I’m-dying-of Teflon-poisoning pans. It has to be top of the line, unscratched.

I beat the eggs and mix them with the flour. I slowly add the milk to the flour and mix thoroughly. In goes the melted butter and a pinch of salt. I let the batter rest. Easy business. I have the pod on; I’m listening to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. A little too much screechy soprano, but I enjoy them.

I rinse a small pork tenderloin and remove the silver skin and connective tissue. I cut the pork into small cubes, then season the meat. I dice half a white onion and finely mince five cloves of garlic.

I brown the pork in a couple batches, making sure I don’t overcook the meat (it dries out quickly), removing each batch to a warm plate when done. I toss a bunch of diced pancetta into the hot pan along with the onion and saute until the pancetta begins to brown a bit. I take care not to burn the onions. I flip in the minced garlic and four or five tablespoons of crushed, fire-roasted tomato. I cook until the tomato begins to turn a mahogany color. I throw in a bunch of caraway seeds, cook the mix a while, add the pork, several teaspoons of hot, Hungarian paprika, a teaspoon of Espanola ground red chile, and a cup or so of chicken broth. I season with salt and pepper (not much salt, since this is going to reduce) and I mix well. A lid goes on the pan, the heat goes to medium-low, and the mix simmers.

I steam some sliced carrot. What the heck — you need something vaguely vegetable to buffer the flesh and eggs. I make a simple salad of spring mix, tomato, kalamata olives and dress it with a lemon/mustard vinaigrette.

The crepes are simple: take the small nonstick sauté pan, put it on medium-high heat, toss a small glob of butter in the pan. When the butter starts to sizzle and brown, ladle in some batter — not too much. Tilt the pan back and forth to cover the entire  surface with a thin layer of batter. Thin is the key here. After a couple minutes, carefully flip the crepe and brown the second side, When done, remove to a heated plate and cover. Repeat.

I drain the carrots, hit them with a bit of butter and freshly ground black pepper, and blend about a half-cup of sour cream into the meat mixture. If the sauce is too thick, a bit of chicken stock will take care of business. Meat and sauce go on a crepe; crepe is rolled and sauce is put on top. Carrots and salad on the side. Glass of wine (a Cotes du Ventoux pairs well) and I saunter across the room and turn on the satellite radio receiver. I turn it to the New Age station. Bring it on.

Armed with a dinner Kathy deems, “a violation of every single dietary law we know,” I am afraid of no sound.

Unless, of course. I hear an air raid siren.

Or a flutophone.