Puppy Breath

And a few other sights, sounds and scents that really light my yule log

In our last episode, our Christmas tree had developed a drinking problem – known colloquially as a “treeinking problem” and pronounced with an Eastern European trill of the tongue. Treeeeeeinking. As in, “Would you like another treeink, little tree?”

I’d also gotten all hysterical about Heaven. Deep thoughts rarely present themselves cleanly to me, and they certainly don’t last long, that’s a promise.

You’ll probably be relieved to know I’m back to worrying about mundane things, such as getting t-boned by an Amazon truck, a legitimate fear. You worry about the virus, I worry about speeding Amazon and FedEx drivers taking corners on two wheels.

Right now, our nation has 330 million people and 430 million delivery trucks.

For centuries, Santa parked on people’s roofs without a problem, yet these idiots can’t manage to park within 3 feet of a curb? The new icon for an American Christmas is a heaving panel truck parked in the middle of a street as the delivery man darts to the doorstep. Someone should make a commemorative ornament.

Listen, despite the fact they might kill us, let’s give props to the men and women frantically mowing down mailboxes and lawn chairs in hopes of delivering Christmas on time. Can’t be a ball of fun exactly. And no one’s perfect.

As Voltaire said, “Il meglio è l’inimico del bene” (the best is the enemy of the good).

Indeed, we are a land of broken traditions right now. The churches are chained shut, and the kids won’t be bursting in the door from college – they’re already home, damn it (and trying to figure out how best to hide weed).

School plays have been scratched, and don’t go expecting to hear the sound of sopranos in song; carolers won’t be out, and the choirs have been canceled.

Quick, someone put on the Pentatonix. I need an emergency smile.

Such a compromised Christmas. Blame whomever you like, but I’ll blame China, which couldn’t contain Covid, then lied about it…don’t get me started.  Leave it said that most people are better than their leaders, and the Chinese more than most.

Meanwhile, I’m stocking up on a California gin – juniper from Big Sur, almonds from the Central Valley – that my buddy Jay gave me. With gin in hand, I toast December sunsets that glow like stained glass.

You gotta get your church somewhere. I’ll tell you how bad things are: About two months ago, our pastor quit and fled back to Colorado.

To all those fleeing California right now: I just want to say thank you. Don’t let the Amazon trucks hit you on the way out. 

Been a chilly fall, and now winter is about to burst through the door. I’m hoping the rains come soon, and Smartacus and I can set out for the mountains, where we’ll look for deer tracks in the snow — one of my all-time favorite pastimes.

We’ll stomp across the icy trails and look for owls in the trees and marvel over the raw clarity that cold and snow bring to the world.

Maybe we’ll take White Fang, a snow dog emblematic of all we love about the outdoors, with her steamy exuberance and insistence on playfulness no matter what.

The lovely and patient older daughter and her husband Finn just got a dog too, a lovely and patient pup named Penny Laine.

What a world you’ve entered, Penny Laine. No wonder the Christmas trees are treeinking.

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum….”

Penny Laine brings to us that most undervalued of all scents: puppy breath, regarded by me (and maybe only me) as sublime. I want a bag of jellybeans that taste like puppy breath.

Is there anything happier or more life-affirming than a new puppy at Christmas?

I think not, especially when she adopts the tree skirt as her blanket, and nibbles your toes while you watch college football, the best tickle I know.

It’ll come as no surprise that I am a sommelier of tickles. Good tickles, like puppy breath, are highly underrated.

Coincidentally, my pal Slavin assembled a list of all the things she misses right now, and among them are “the smell of a library” and “disrobing for the masseuse,” thereby touching on two sensual experiences all at once.

Slavin says she also misses “bellying up to the bar,” so now you understand why we’re almost the same person.

I might send cookies to Slavin, who says she’s been spinning in the sheets in the middle of the  night, like many of us, squirming, agonizing and thinking: “Why aren’t I this awake at noon?”

Smartacus certainly makes a fine cookie. In fact, the only life skills Smartacus has mastered are smacking line drives and baking cookies, which isn’t bad for 18. Many men reach 60 without any discernible life skills whatsoever.

Me, for example.

By the way, Smartacus has finally settled on 13 minutes as the perfect baking time for his Tollhouse cookies….13 minutes, though he’ll go to 13:30 if they’re really heaping, which they often are.

There is satisfaction in a warm chocolate chip cookie that we seldom find in other people, or other objects, or life in general. You can count on a chocolate chip cookie – provided it’s cooked exactly 13 minutes – to activate all the joy joints of the mind (and, no, I don’t know where you can buy joy joints. Jeeesh, you kids).

They’re a little addictive, these cookies, the size of a salad plate. I’d choose them over sex, assuming sex were still available. Probably not.

Someone suggested I’m writing too much about food lately. Some even suggested compiling a cookbook, with is laughable. The other day, the Instant Pot – an overly complicated industrial boiler, a type of mini-bomb with way too many buttons – gave me a BURN message about three minutes in.

I just shrugged, because to me, burning is the same as cooking. I took it as encouragement.


When the overly complicated industrial boiler gave me the BURN! BURN! BURN! message, I splashed in some wine, stirred the baby back ribs a bit, and everything seemed fine again.

That’s all I’m ever after, that everything seems fine again. Friends ask: “Why settle?” But I’m fine with fine.

Indeed, the BURN light went off, and the ribs cooked up mushy, as Instant Pot ribs usually do — even the bones had softened. My meal was a metaphor for me.

“Ribs are done,” I told Smartacus. “Bring a straw.”

I like my Instant Pot not one bit. I find it confusing, and the food comes out sludgy, like spent motor oil. For stews it might be fine, but so was my crockpot with three simple settings; on, off, simmer.

We have far better luck with the Yedi air fryer, another of those kitchen contraptions that takes up too much space. But the air fryer is easier to use and produces crisp chicken tenders and the very best hash browns, which are more than food, they are motivation, glee, validation and a reason to get out of bed each day.

God gives us hashed browns. Just as God gives us those amazing sunsets of late…almost other worldly, big splashes of cherry milkshake in the western sky.

“I’m still here,” he’s saying. “I’m just chilling a little.”

And on Monday night, the first day of winter, Jupiter will align with Saturn and create – for the first time in some 800 years – the Christmas Star, aka the Star of Bethlehem…a calling, a sign, a dazzling December beacon during the neediest Christmas in a very long time.

“Yep, they’ve closed the churches and quashed the choirs,” he’s saying. “But I’m still up here. Sing!”

Update from the gift store: shirts and caps are either on your doorstep or are about to be. The gin glasses were late from the factory, due to shipping delays. But they are being Fed-Ex’d Monday and should easily arrive by Christmas. Apologies for any inconvenience, and gratitude to all who ordered. A New Year’s Gin Bash ahead. Details coming soon. Gift info: chriserskinela.com/shop/

17 thoughts on “Puppy Breath

  1. Wide ranging as usual. Smile inducing and poignant concurrently, also as usual. I heartily second the idea of a cookbook for the single family man. Please reconsider. It could be a masterpiece in your hands. PS I also love the smell of puppy feet. They smell like buttered popcorn. I am not kidding. Try it.

  2. Maybe your son already knows this, but according to the chocolate chip cookie experts, you’re supposed to chill the dough overnight, then bake the cookies the next morning to let the flavors mingle. Has Smartacus tried that? Also, there is an amazing brown butter chocolate chip cookie that is better than any of the others I’ve tried. I’m putting a link to the recipe here, just in case you and Smartacus need another cookie challenge. https://atfranstable.com/2019/05/15/addendum-to-the-chocolate-chip-off/

    1. Perhaps Fran can post her oatmeal cookie with butterscotch ganache recipe. Went into her page but couldn’t find it. Many thanks

  3. Food. Judging from previous columns, I’m guessing your older daughter is a serious cook. Your attempts, aided by gadgets and questionable fad appliances, must amuse or dismay her. I think you have a good apprentice cook/baker right there at home.
    Encourage Smartacus to take over kitchen duty. You are always distracted by thoughts that will translate to column/blog material. Cooking requires focus. Burning, not so much.

  4. Excellent, well written and a joy to read! Thank you for sharing your life with all of us “house bound” folks! Bless you and yours, Chris.

  5. Your comment about panel trucks running over lawn chairs really made me laugh. That’s highly probable at this time of the year in Chicago. As soon as it snows hard enough, the lawn chairs come out on the street for “dibs” . I know you grew up in this area. It means saving the parking spot after you shovel it out.

  6. My son grew up with the 3 main food groups: canned, frozen or take-out ! and as for the Burn method of cooking ~ I always preferred the “put it in the oven on high and go take a nap” approach ! !
    Rock on Chris and Happy Holidays to you and the fam.

  7. It seems that’s all I ‘ve been saying this year, ‘Don’t get ME started!’ But your musings have been a source of laughter, tears and introspection. You should have been a psychiatrist! Puppies,YES! Instapots, No!( So overrated .) Teaching boys to cook,YES!Here for The Great Conjunction, YES! Chocolate chip cookies, YES,YES,YES! You make us all feel better this very surreal Christmas, we all just have to remember what is the real reason for Christmas and go from there. Tiny Tim said it all , “God bless us , everyone! “

  8. I’m SURE my kid’s very first thought was where to hide his weed.
    Your writing is the best gift of all. Thank you.

  9. White Fang is today’s Togo and Balto, ready for anything in the snow and possessing a heart large enough to rescue anyone. Puppy tummies and feet are also the BEST.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  10. As usual lots to mull over. Penny Laine is precious! Who doesn’t love puppy breath? It should be bottled- eau de puppy breath. My old pooch, Mr. Baxter’s breath is more like mustard gas-lethal. Yet we still treasure the old guy. I’m looking for the Christmas Star on Sunday as it’s supposed to be cloudy (of course) in Chicago on Monday. And yes God gives us sunsets. We call them “God’s Sky” when we see one. So reassuring.

  11. Recently sampled this Chris. One of the best Gins I’ve ever tasted, or smelled.
    Goodland Gin from Goleta, Ca
    42% Alc. by Vol.

    Goodland Gin was created to honor Goleta’s agricultural roots. It is a balances blend of citrus, floral, and piney juniper. 14 botanicals dance together to create Goodland Gin’s enticing aroma and flavor. It makes a great dry martini, a beautiful negroni and a powerful gin and tonic. This spirit is our “Overachiever” and has won many awards, a Silver at the 2019 American Distilling Institute’s International Tasting of Craft Spirits, a silver at the San Diego International Spirits Competition, a gold in the famous Barleycorn awards 2019, and a Best in Show at the Great American International Spirits Tasting 2019.


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