In praise of American cheese

Ever since I read this Bloomberg article back in 2018, my mind has occasionally drifted back to thinking about American cheese. That may be evidence that I need a CAT scan, and I’m actually grateful to millennials for rejecting so many crap processed food products. American cheese and its derivatives — Cheez Whiz, ballpark nachos, Velveeta et al — are all on the decline.

So guess what has become a semi-staple in my pandemic pantry? You know already.

This breakfast sandwich is what brought it back for me. It’s Harley Quinn’s breakfast sandwich from Birds of Prey:

I don’t like the inevitable disaster triggered by runny egg sandwiches and I don’t need that much food for breakfast, so I modified this some, whipping a single egg and then cooking it fritatta-style in a small pan. Next, immediately before pulling the egg, you drop a single piece of American cheese in the center and then — and this is very, very important — fold the egg up over the cheese like a square-ish package. Place it onto the bread product of your choice — I have become partial to a hunk of lightly toasted Italian bread — hit it with a splash of hot sauce, add the meat of your choosing or none at all, slap the second piece of bread on top and you get egg deliciousness with a molten cheese center. I find it hopelessly addictive.

American cheese is the cheese of my childhood, and I ate it voraciously. Of course, I also ate bologna and white bread at about the same rate (so did every other kid of the 1960s), which means it’s a minor miracle I’m still here at 60. But nothing — nothing — melts like American cheese. It makes an amazing grilled cheese (especially with thinly sliced tomatoes added, or even bacon) and it’s at the center of the easiest queso (a pound of cubed Velveeta, the entire undrained contents of a can of Rotel and a carefully watched microwave is all you need). It also makes a very specific form of macaroni and cheese that has largely been replaced by creamier, fancier alternatives; I’d describe it as more of a macaroni and cheese loaf that can even be cut into squares in some versions. You still see it on soul food menus and in places where the word “bechamel” causes instant revulsion.

It’s obvious this is a pandemic comfort food thing for me, but there are worse alternatives. I haven’t strapped on the Pandemic 15 during this isolation — I’ve actually lost a little weight — and I’m a sucker for cheese in general, so this isn’t the most horrific way I could have gone during this time. And dammit, this cheese-like product is delicious when you melt it. It’s back to stay with me and that’s just the way it is.

The choice

Four years ago, during the GOP convention, I quit thinking that a Donald Trump victory was unlikely. I also did something that tore at my gut — I put up a Facebook post saying that he was a menace to democracy and had to be defeated.

I was still a journalist at the time, and posting something like that ate at every journalistic belief that I’d ever had. But Trump was behaving in a way I’d seen before — among dictators and tyrants. I genuinely feared for what would happen to our institutions if he was elected — something I’d never felt about any other presidential nominee — and then of course he won.

But I still held out a little hope. I accepted that this presidency would be an experiment in crazy, assumed that decent people in other branches of government would help curb his worst impulses and keep the wheels of government turning, and waited for Inauguration Day. And then he gave a deeply mean-spirited and bleak inaugural address at precisely the time the nation needed words of reconciliation and optimism. After that, his new press secretary came out and told obvious, comical lies about the perfectly decent crowd on the National Mall for his inauguration. And then I knew.

We all know where things went from there. I doubt the fresh New York Times autopsy of Trump’s tax records will make much difference…by now, if you’re still OK with the guy, you’re OK with the mass death and criminality and overt racism and sexual abuse and shocking incompetence and bottomless cruelty he has brought with him. Tax avoidance, even overt fraud, drags behind that list a ways.

Once again, we are faced with a choice. Trump is already moving to corrupt or delegitimize the election. If he loses and then goes on the attack to poison the results, we all will have to choose.

Donald Trump has moved beyond being just a menace to democracy. If he is re-elected or successfully steals the election, he is the end of democracy. He must be defeated.

Six months on

I pulled out my beloved Fender Champ and my harps the other day and engaged in a round of “tube rolling,” which was a regular activity for me in The Before. Tube rolling involves swapping various tubes in and out of a guitar amp in hopes of getting the tone you really want. It’s an inherently subjective process, and without a band to test it against, it can be a bit of a wasteful one (that tone you love by yourself might get lost in the mush in a band situation). Still, it’s fun and it can make a big difference; in this case, I was looking for a tone with a touch more compression, and I think I found it.

And this also made me think a little of what I’ve lost in the pandemic. It is nothing compared to what many have faced, but it still eats at me. Music has been a huge part of my life for decades, but I’m not doing gigs now and haven’t since we all went inside. I don’t anticipate that changing any time soon, especially since I’m 60 now and may have reached the end of the road anyway.

I’ve also almost entirely stopped listening to and buying music; my commute was my music-listening time, I live in a small house and my wife is not a music-head. And I haven’t seen a live band in person during the pandemic; given my risk factors, it’s generally a bad idea.

Still, I’m going to a friend’s house today for a small-group get-together outside that will be at least music-adjacent. Her neighbor, a musician, is hosting a little socially distanced music event in his yard. I am not entirely comfortable with being near that many people, even though we’ll probably hang in a back yard away from the action, but you have to keep up some kind of human engagement.

But I’m actually not looking forward to the music right now. It’s just a reminder of what I’ve lost. It’s not anywhere near the kind of loss that many have experienced, with the COVID-19 death toll now reaching 1 million worldwide and 200,000 in the U.S., but it’s a loss just the same.

Update: The get-together turned out to be soul-fulfilling, which I did not expect. It was just really healthy to be around a few dozen people and a good band. I needed it more than I knew.

A brief history of my computers

You have to understand what computers were like in 1982. You either had to spend as much money as you would buying a crappy used car, or you got something that was a glorified calculator.

I was making about $12,000 a year at the time, so I chose the calculator. My first computer was a Timex-Sinclair 1000, with an expansion module that brought the memory up to 16K and a Panasonic tape recorder connected to it. Graphics, such as they were, were blocks in black and white. I typed in most of the programs I used. I fed the output to my black-and-white TV set. It was amazing and wonderful.

One of the first games I actually bought was an adventure game by the clever name of ‘Adventure.’ The first time I loaded it into my computer, typed a command and had the computer respond was as though the heavens had opened. The computer was talking to me! It wasn’t, of course; it was a simple database that was feeding back data based on what I typed, but I didn’t know the difference at the time.

I moved on from there to a Commodore 64, and then I got a disc drive that held a whopping 256K of data. I began playing Infocom adventure games and again felt like a monkey discovering fire.

From there, it was a Sanyo PC (which ran MS-DOS but was not IBM compatible), then a PC clone I built from parts, and ever since then, my main computer has been an ever-evolving Frankenputer. My current machine is a dual-booting Windows and Linux Mint rig, with an AMD Ryzen 5 3600 processor and two SSDs (one of which holds a terabyte and looks like a small stick of gum). It’s got 16 gigabytes of memory (my first hard drive held 10 megabytes; now my memory holds roughly 1,600 times that! ) and about a terabyte and a half of storage overall. A computer like this would have taken up an entire heavily air-conditioned floor when I was younger, and I haven’t even gotten to the video card yet.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’ve been playing with these things for nearly 40 years. It seems like I picked them up for the first time a couple of years ago. And the more powerful they get, the more transparent they become — they’re tools that do things now, not ‘PCs’ that need constant hand-holding. And it’s still fun to geek out on them as electronic toys.

Toy upgrades

(Warning: Geek content follows.)

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a part-by-part upgrade of my home Frankenputer. I’ve built my own machines since the mid-1980s and it’s frankly become easier, although this go-round of upgrades was characterized by an early motherboard death and a CPU cooler that cemented itself to the processor, almost ruining both. Still, that’s way fewer problems than I had Back in the Day, when I might plug a half-dozen cards and dozens of individual memory chips into a motherboard during an upgrade. I always started then with the assumption that my computer might be down for a week.

The upgrades included my first new CPU and motherboard in at least three (and possibly more) years…and a problem immediately became apparent. My beloved NZXT quiet case, which I had been using for more years than I can remember, had become a heat trap for the new generation of gear and was looking really old. In particular, my AMD Ryzen 5 3600 processor was radiating heat to nearly the danger zone when it was under even mild stress, and the cooler that came with it wasn’t taking care of the problem. And the old-school case had very limited ways of routing cables, so I had a spaghetti junction of wiring floating over the motherboard.

So I went looking for a modern case. You can spend obscene amounts of money for one now, or you can buy an El Cheapo with seemingly paper-thin steel, but I wanted one that would serve me in several ways. First, as always, it had to be quiet. Second, it couldn’t be too big: I doubt I’ll ever use a motherboard bigger than a Micro ATX again. Third, I decided I wanted a windowed case with a little bit of RGB lighting (not too much) just for grins, even though the computer sits on a shelf under my desk and I can barely see it. Fourth, it had to be good-looking. Finally, it had to be under $100.

After a ridiculous amount of navel-gazing, I settled on a be quiet! Pure Base 500 tower case with a tempered glass windowed side. It came in at $80. I also added a Cooler Master RGB tower cooler to help solve the CPU heat issue.

Computer case

The case was lined with insulation on every side except the window and was crazy-configurable. A lot of thought obviously went into the configuration of this case and I very much like its looks. In terms of bolting things in, everything was straightforward and easy to figure out, although a beginner might find any case a challenge at first. I particularly appreciated the many options for routing wires; the days of spaghetti construction are over for me.

Mounting the tower cooler was a mild challenge. The instructions are all exploding-diagram illustrations, and I have some kind of weird visual dyslexia involving this method, and I kept screwing on the cooler mounts the wrong way (it’s designed to fit a lot of different processors). But I played with it a bit until I got it right, and it wasn’t really frustrating. Normal healthy humans probably will find it even easier.

I did run into one other issue: I can only put the double-width video card into the first motherboard slot because it otherwise covers up the (single) expansion port where the wireless network card is mounted. However, that made it impossible to plug in the cable that activated the USB 3.0 ports on top of the case — the card leaves a tiny opening that’s inaccessible with a vertical cable. I’ll either pick up a right-angle adapter to address that problem or get a USB dongle for the wireless and move the video card to the other available port. I also have a USB 3.0 mini-hub, so I shouldn’t run into any port shortages.

Stripping the old case and mounting all the stuff in the new one took about three hours, but I very much took my time so I wouldn’t have to retrace too many steps (a strategy that worked out). Everything booted up with no problems, and my CPU temperature sensor immediately dropped by 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).

I haven’t fine-tuned everything yet, but there is a little noise coming from the case that is bothering me. I chased it and discovered it was caused by the power supply exhaust — and there’s absolutely nothing the case can do about that. The fans in the case are whisper-quiet — I’d actually remove the case hard top and go with the alternative grid screen top to improve airflow even more, but I’m always stacking things on top of my PC anyway.

I’m still playing with the RGB but I suspect I’m going to get bored of that pretty quickly. Having a windowed case still lets me admire my work if I disconnect the RGB (grin).

Overall, I’m very happy. The case is quiet, keeps my computer much cooler than its predecessor and looks good. The wiring is much, much neater. The overall look is very modern. This should serve me for quite a while.