Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In Brief

Apparently, I'm currently tied for the lead in my office's NCAA men's basketball tournament. Sweet! When someone told me, I thought he was just trying to butter me up to get me to do some work for him, but I went and checked the standings, and it was true. My knowledge of basketball is limited. I was a Celtics fan when I lived in Boston, mostly because I had a roommate whose father was a VP at CBS sports, so we occasionally got tickets, and seeing a game at Boston Garden was always a memorable experience. College basketball? Well, let's just say that MIT was never much of a threat, even in Division III. It's still likely that the standings will change between now and next Monday, so I probably won't win anything, but I'm enjoying my moment in the sun.

I had entirely forgotten my choices, but it looks like I picked North Carolina to win. Go Tarheels! Beat whoever it is that you're playing!

I don't know any more about fashion than I know about college basketball, but I'm still following Fug Madness, which is infinitely more entertaining than college basketball, at least until the NCAA requires smaller, tighter uniforms. I'm supporting the number one seed in the Charo bracket. I think she's something of an underdog, but she gets my vote, and she's inches away from an appearance in the final four. Go SWINTON!

Most forms of divination are not practical for contemporary office drones. (Just try killing a bird and reading its entrails on your desk and see how quickly you get a visit from HR. Also a bad idea in the office: peyote.) I have, however, discovered that it is possible to see the future in a handful of m&m's. My firm's reception area (which, cruelly, is only a few steps away from my office) has a large vase filled with dark chocolate m&m's. If you take a small handful (a small bag will work if you're forced to buy your own) of them and drop them -- from a height of about two inches -- on your desk, the universe will guide the seemingly random fall of the delectable morsels into a pattern whose meaning will be revealed when you observe them in a trance -- remarkably easy to do after a series of nights when you've worked until eleven. The number of each color in your handful has some meaning, but it's really the arrangement that controls.

This morning, for example, I had twenty-six m&m's, and only two of them were yellow. But those two were right together and right above the preponderance of the five blues. This is a clear indication that we will have splendid weather on our post-busy season Caribbean vacation. Unfortunately, a large number of oranges emphasized that the period leading up to the vacation will be full of toil (gee, thanks, universe: I couldn't have figured that out for myself). I also learned that my intermediate-term future holds an excellent crop of tomatoes, but only after a period of heavy mulching.

For obvious reasons, candy reading should only be attempted with dark m&m's. In a pinch, you can use almond m&m's, but peanut m&m's (even the dark chocolate variety) should be avoided: when you drop them on the desk, they're likely to roll off, and, really, how can that possibly mean anything good?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Patron of the Arts

Friday night, I was scurrying around the house, throwing some things away, tidying others up, and hoping I was matching the right action to the right stuff, all because b&c was due home from the airport around 9. B&c is a person who appreciates tidiness, and I, well, I am a person who figures that if something gets lost, there will be that much more cause for rejoicing when it is found.1 Anyway, I took a break to sit down for a bit, and Bravo was showing The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, which I had not seen. And I didn't see most of it Friday, but I watched intermittently while I cleaned and again after b&c had gotten home and gone to bed. Long flight, I reckon.

I was waiting for the Tylenol PM to kick in when I got to the end of the movie. It made me sad because the ending sequence of "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine in" reminded me that my copy of the splendid film version of Hair is still stuck inside a small DVD player that died while I was watching Hair while falling asleep one night. My favorite part of the movie is the ending. It's one of those things touches me in a way that defies both logic and words:

But maybe that's partly because the music, or the sound, is better than the words. Regardless, I think it's a great piece, and I'd love to do it as part of a choir at dawn during a solstice celebration, maybe with the "Manchester England England" sequence excised. Or, since I don't know any group (religious or musical) that has sunrise solstice celebrations, just on a Sunday morning in spring sometime. I'm not sure I can get the choir director to go for that, but maybe I can bring it up sometime when she owes me a favor.

A long-ago roommate of mine once noted that the problem with Hair is its unevenness. You have something great like "Easy To Be Hard" followed by something regrettable like "Good Morning Starshine." I don't know the history of the musical, but it's not much of a leap to suppose that a lot of drugs were ingested during its composition. It's too bad that the person who came up with "Wearing smells from laboratories/Facing a dying nation/Of moving paper fantasy" didn't take the time to come up with something a little stronger than "With supreme visions of lonely tunes." But it takes only a few moments of transcendence to make up for a great deal of tedium. I'm pretty sure that's why people get married. Also: shotguns.

I had to attend one of YFU's ballet performances yesterday (Saturday) evening, and just before I left the office, I was reading the lyrics of "The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine in," but the flow of my mind is difficult to control, and it's especially difficult to understand, let alone control, the musical tangents that make up so much of my thought, so I have not even the smallest clue why, as I was walking from the parking lot to the theater, I started chanting, under my breath, "Love, the kind you clean up with a mop and bucket, like the lost catacombs of Egypt only God knows where we stuck it. Hieroglyphics, let me be specific, I wanna get lost in your south seas, but I got this notion that the motion in your ocean means small craft advisory...." I did finish the verse, but just barely. I was getting close to the entrance, and even though I was being very quiet, I couldn't help but think that watching an unshaven man in a long black overcoat singing "The Bad Touch" at twilight is probably not on anybody's bucket list. Or at least not anybody attending a suburban ballet performance.

When you have a child who's involved in any sort of artistic endeavor, you have to be supportive, and you have to be cheerful about it. I'm afraid that I find this somewhat more difficult than other parents. I don't know how one goes about convincing oneself that one's child is a brilliant performer, but hundreds of other parents seem to manage it quite easily, with little apparent basis in logic. Kind of like religion, I reckon. I remember a performance that I went to perhaps eleven or twelve years ago when EFU was in elementary school. She was in the chorus. Elementary school choruses are usually bearable, but they're invariably preceded or followed by an elementary school orchestra or band that is, well, a good demonstration of why almost everyone sings yet so few people play instruments. At this particular performance, the orchestra was playing, and YFU, who was one or two at the time, was getting -- understandably -- cranky. And she really wasn't being all that disruptive, but one of the parents sitting in the same row stopped staring at her little Mozart just long enough to turn to me and say, "You should really take that baby somewhere else. You're spoiling the performance for the rest of us." And, truly, it took every ounce of available restraint not to explain to this unfortunate woman that her son had already taken care of that. Many times over.

Ballet performances aren't nearly as bad, largely because the company dances to pre-recorded music, and you can always just listen to that or perhaps catch a nap if you've been working long hours. And I will admit that the very first time I saw YFU on stage in costume and make-up, I thought that she looked like a very young Audrey Hepburn. But then she started dancing.

She's much better these days, of course, but ballet is an extremely demanding discipline, and it takes many years to develop even a base level of competence in the techniques that make it worth watching. It's difficult for me to understand why anyone bothers. I suppose that if you're a young suburban girl, the idea of being a ballerina is seductive enough to get you through the first few years so that by the time you're ready to go on pointe, you don't want to toss out all the work you've already put in. Or maybe they just love to dance, but it seems to me that if you love to dance you'd have more fun doing hip hop.

I love the idea of dancing even though I'm utterly hopeless at it. I have an excellent sense of rhythm, but it doesn't seem to extend below my knees. But I like to watch it. In fact, I will watch otherwise execrable movies about dancing just to see good dance sequences. It doesn't really matter if the film's about ballet, hip hop, drumlines, ballroom, or something else entirely.2 I will sit through any number of ridiculous romances or unbelievable plot developments for good dancing. Or music: I even watched the otherwise horrid My Best Friends Wedding twice (on video) solely on the strength of the best opening credit sequence ever (embedding disabled: boo!) and this scene featuring the always dreamy Rupert Everett3:

Yet another instance where a few moments of delightful make up for two hours of dull.

I'm afraid there wasn't any transcendence to be found at tonight's ballet performance, but YFU was only in the first two acts, so we weren't there for too long. I hope she enjoys it while she can. I have, gently I hope, explained to her that ballet is not an endeavor where one can succeed by hard work alone, and that the balletic prospects of a young woman who is likely to end up no taller than 5'5 and no less stacked than a D-cup are somewhat limited. But she seems to understand the limitations and not to be especially troubled by them.

I was sad again this morning because EFU was headed back to Vermont for the remainder of the spring semester. She had planned to leave around 9, and I had to be at church by 9, so at 8:30, YFU and I were standing outside her bedroom door saying goodbye. She said she was too tired to get up and hug me goodbye, which made me sadder still, but then I remembered that she lacks most outward signs of sentimentality largely because of that thing where the apple falls not far from the tree. And I knew that if I'd told her that my feelings were bruised because she wouldn't get out of bed to give me a hug, she'd have laughed at me, and that made me feel better.

I had to be at church at 9 because the choir was performing two especially fine pieces that are somewhat demanding and that we weren't quite fully prepared for. Choral participation often frustrates me. I love to sing, of course, but there's so much time where we're not singing. About thirty percent of the choir members aren't listening at any given moment, so instructions always have to be repeated. And then our choral director, who is otherwise a lovely person and a talented musician, used to work as a consultant and trainer, so she is very fond of lecturing us, at some length, about how we should be thinking, and usually how I'm thinking is, "Can we just sing, already?" This morning we were singing Brahms' "How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place" and the Byrd Ave Verum Corpus:

You will note, if you bother to watch, that the choir in that video is standing still, as choirs are wont to do when they sing, especially when they sing old church music. But our director, Cthulhu devour bless her, had decided that we needed to be scattered around the sanctuary, to begin the song seated, and then to rise -- but not in unison, please -- and to begin walking about the sanctuary, with no set plan, eventually arriving at the front and getting into our usual formation. It worked out all right in the end, but we didn't sound any better than we'd have sounded if we'd started in our usual formation, and it took nearly half an hour of rehearsal for her to figure out exactly what she wanted. And while I always find the idea of walking while singing very attractive in theory, in practice, it just makes me feel clunky. Rhythm not going below the knees, you know. Fortunately, I'd had two consecutive nights of good sleep, so I was in reasonable temper, and I didn't let it bother me. The actual singing brought much joy, a few moments of which make up for many hours of inefficient rehearsals. There is a much higher ratio of joy to woe in solo singing, but that, too, is something that is purchased by hours of inefficient choral rehearsals.

The sermon topic was "How the Arts Sustain Us," and after some discussion of right brain and left brain and a reading or two, the minister invited us to take the blank tan card stock out of our order of service and to draw on it while listening to our accompanist play an extended, and lovely, piece by Beethoven. We were meant to have been given pencils as we entered the sanctuary, but the choir had entered the sanctuary long before the ushers. As instructed, I raised my hand to indicate that I had no pencil, but none was forthcoming, and I didn't pursue a pencil because the last thing I want to do when I'm listening to beautiful music is draw. I'm really cool with the notion that one half of my brain (I can never remember which) is so much more developed than the other that it's a wonder I can walk without falling over. (Or at least I can most of the time.) If I'd had a pencil, I would only have ended up scrawling down words, anyway. Being told what to do when I'm listening to music -- in addition to saving the minister from having to write five minutes' worth of sermon -- seems a bit coercive, anyway. Even a religion as theologically undemanding as Unitarian Universalism has its fair share of communitarian coercion. I can count, for example, on having to grasp hands with my neighbors while singing "We Shall Overcome" on the Sunday nearest to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The horror. Still, a liberal church is one of the more likely places for someone like me to find moments of ineffability and transcendence, and, well, you know.

Few of the other congregants seem to share my reluctance to join in activities of forced communion, but then, almost every one of the other ballet parents seems convinced that his or her daughter or son can be the next Makarova or Baryshnikov. But they're all such kind and decent people, and many of them (especially at church) are highly accomplished and educated as well. Then again, they all seem to enjoy, or at least abide, committee work, and while I recognize that much of the world ceases to operate without the sort of people who join committees, I'm afraid that I shall never be one of them.

Anyway, I have wasted too much time on this entry, without even getting to the point I had in mind, and it's now Sunday afternoon, and I'm back in the office for another six or seven hours. The weather was dreary Friday and yesterday, and it was dreary this morning, then about two hours ago, the clouds vanished, and with them the small consolation of knowing that even if I'd had time to go into DC and walk among the cherry blossoms, there wouldn't have been any point in this weather. Burying myself in tax returns won't bring any transcendence, but it does bring a period of escape from the mocking exuberance of cherry blossoms and forsythia. And that'll do for now. It's only another couple of weeks.

1(I thought that reminded me of a Bible passage, but when I Googled, what I found was a passage from Ezekiel -- I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment -- which is really not what I was after, but which seems like a good set of guidelines for tax policy.)

2When I was a Freshman in college, on four separate occasions I took the T all the way to Brookline to see Flashdance. I defy anyone to come up with a more embarrassing admission from his misspent youth.

3Apparently, Rupert Everett is another way to keep my attention. The absolute highlight of the mostly forgettable 1999 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream was Mr. Everett's half-naked Oberon rolling around on the forest floor. I think I need to open a window now.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Allegro Ma Non Troppo

One of the things that I hate most about tax season is that the crushing fatigue dulls my mind. There's nothing worse than a dull mind, and it's not like the world needs any more of them. I try to compensate by keeping better notes. It's a nuisance, but it's necessary; otherwise, all of my daytime thoughts will be like my near-sleep thoughts. When I'm about to fall asleep, my mind is still very active but it doesn't quite work right. Or at least I can't remember whether it works right. I start at point A, and by the time I've gotten to point E, I can't remember what point C was. I can try to get back there via D, but I might not even remember D anymore if I'm close enough to falling asleep. This would be more troubling if I didn't fall asleep and forget about it. (When it happens during the day, I don't have that advantage.) Also, the thoughts you have when you're not constrained by things like wakefulness and logic can be very entertaining, like a journal you kept when you were stoned. Not that I would know anything about that, of course.

Writing things down is good (of course: how could a blogger feel otherwise?) but it's not without its pitfalls. Perhaps you've never been unfortunate enough to have this experience, but I sometimes have ideas that I'm convinced are sound, but when I try to write them down, I can't explain them, which has to mean either that the idea wasn't sound or that I'm not skilled enough to explain it. I'm not sure whether an unsound idea or the inability to explain a sound idea is worse. The latter is more troubling to me, somehow, but it's also more amenable to time and effort.

Sometimes it's not even a matter of writing something down so much as it is taking an idea that's felt in some manner other than words and mentally putting it into words. I mostly think in words, but I don't always, and the inability to encapsulate an elusive notion, that I feel sure must be valuable, in words is horrifically frustrating. At least until I forget it. Forgetting it is also troubling, but I believe that if an idea is sound, it doesn't really disappear: it just recedes into a different part of your consciousness until the time is ripe for it to reappear.

I don't think there's any evidence to support my belief in the permanency and eventual reappearance of ideas, but there are times when it's okay to accept things on faith, just as there are times when it's okay for ideas to be wordless. I used to quip that "ineffable" was my favorite word, but then I realized that it wasn't a joke. When your life and your mind are filled so much and so much of the time with words, the idea that there are things that transcend words is very powerful. But also intimidating: if you can't put the idea into words, you can't explain it to anyone else, and things that you can't explain to someone else don't seem real. But perhaps that they are real is just another article of faith.

Anyway, this (worded) line of thought brought to mind, without conscious summoning and through a pathway that is either immediately obvious or entirely inconsequential, Tom Swifties. If you don't know what a Tom Swifty is, the Wikipedia explanation is more than adequate, but since sending you somewhere else for an explanation is a bit rude, I'll say that it's a form of pun that usually involves an adverb. Here's a typical example, from Wikipedia:

"Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.

This sort of wordplay has, I believe, fallen out of favor, which may or may not be a bad thing. Back in the day, though, I had a group of friends who engaged in them at some length. I'm not a particularly skilled Swiftian, but I occasionally came up with something I liked. Here's one of my favorites:

"Every time I press my tongue against the battery terminals, I get a little frisson of pleasure," said Tom revoltingly.

What? You were expecting something profound? Profundity may become me, but not so much lately. Anyway, here are my last words for today:

"Do not order from that bartender; he's an ex-boyfriend of mine, and God only knows what he put in the wine," said Tom vindictively.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Brief

It sucks to be me. But only for another few weeks.

I have no time to elaborate, but, in no particular order:

I was reminded today for the eighty-nine- or ninety-thousandth time that intellectual discourse is nearly impossible on the Internet. I have no time to elaborate. I say "nearly impossible" because I used to hang out at a place where intellectual discourse flourished, but being there was incompatible with working for a living, at least for me. I miss it, but, like Shangri-La, as time goes on, I think of it more and more as a pleasant dream. Someday I shall forget that it ever even happened. Or not. I imagine that some people feel the same way about graduate school, but my graduate school experience involved no intellectual content.

There are few things in this world that are unequivocally evil, but two of them are white chocolate and chocolate fountains. A white chocolate fountain, therefore, represents all that is wrong with the universe. I have no time to elaborate.

My boss remarked today, in passing, that I can get away with a lot because my mind works in a way that the mind of no one else in my firm (and, by extension, few other people in my profession) works, and that I am, accordingly, indispensable. This sort of information provokes wildly mixed feelings, but I have no time to elaborate.

I am not kidding about the white chocolate: E-vil.

I made the last payment on my automobile loan last week. I don't owe a penny to anybody. In spite of the fiscal crisis, I sometimes feel bad about not owning a home and carrying a mortgage, but I have no time to elaborate.

Because I am a) crazy, b) descended from Mennonites, and c) crazy, I recently procured a 30-yard roll of 96" wide quilt batting. I currently have plans for about half a yard of it, but it's doubtful that I'll get around to implementing those plans in the foreseeable future. Right now, my main goal is to get the HUGE (but very light) box the batting came in down to the basement before b&c returns home on Friday. I got a pretty good quantity discount, but, still, it is amazing what a person will buy when he doesn't have any debt.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Waiting for the End Times

I had just snapped, downloaded, and cropped the picture above, and I was reminded of the following passage, which opens chapter XXVII of Middlemarch:
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent -- of Miss Vincy, for example.

I have not much else to say about the above passage except to note that I think about it -- or at least the substance of it: the passage itself is too long for the words to stick in my memory -- almost as much as I do any literary passage. In other words, not all that often. I do think it epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of George Eliot, but I think about it somewhat frequently mostly because I have a large number of well-scratched, shiny baking pans.

I wasn't, originally, going to bake this weekend. I worked on Saturday, of course, and I had to be up early this morning for choir. EFU is halfway through spring break, so I'd planned to spend Saturday evening and most of Sunday hanging out with her and YFU. Beyond taking the two of them to dim sum after church, I hadn't made definite plans because things always come up. What came up this weekend was the arrival of EFU's new computer and a not altogether surprising spell of glorious early spring weather. We all took a trip to the park yesterday when I was finally home from work, and this afternoon, EFU and I went miniature golfing. I was only one over par after the first half, but I had some troubles with my short short game on the back nine. Or perhaps I was distracted by the young men on the adjacent driving range. There was a foursome of what appeared to be frat boys (or perhaps proto-frat boys: I am not good at judging the age of young men whom I find unattractive), and one of them was actually wearing pink shorts and a white, reversed ball cap. A few years ago, he would clearly have been bound for law or business school and lucrative career as an attorney or investment banker, but I couldn't help thinking that his prospects might soon not be what he could once have expected. There was also a tall, slender, red-haired (not usually my type) man in his mid-twenties who was quite fetching until he swung his club. His swing was inelegant. More to the point, it became impossible to ignore the fact that I mistrust anyone who takes golf any more seriously than I take miniature golf.

YFU had chosen not to join us, though she usually can't resist mini-golf. She very recently turned thirteen and wasted no time in reminding me that I had promised her she could begin watching her sister's collection of Buffy DVDs. She is addicted, but it's the sort of addiction that doesn't seem like it can endure beyond the end of season seven, as long as we keep the Angel DVDs hidden from her. I would have preferred for us all to be together, but at least when YFU isn't along, I don't have to spend quite as much time telling EFU to stop swearing all the time. (A pointless exercise, but one that I feel compelled to do.) And we can discuss certain topics that aren't yet appropriate for a thirteen-year-old child. We had, for example, the following conversation when we were getting back into the car at a supermarket parking lot, and a young man pulled up next to us in a dirty, yellow Mini Cooper. He parked in a space reserved for parents accompanied by young children, even though he was alone and not likely a parent.
EFU: What a douche.
TED: Yeah, he is clearly not a parent with a small child. We may have parked in the twenty-minute shopping spot, but we were in and out in well under twenty minutes.
EFU: He just looks like a douche.
TED: I would have said a hipster wannabe. Or, hey, he's driving a Mini Cooper, so maybe he's an actual hipster, but he's in the middle of Howard County, and he's shopping at Bloom, so what are the odds?
EFU: His car's dirty.
TED: You need to have a little more sympathy for him. I mean, did you see him?
EFU: What are you talking about?
TED: The poor guy had no butt. He walks down the street, and small children say, "Mommy, that man has no ass!"
EFU: I really don't think they say that.
TED: Only because they're too polite. They're thinking it. What they actually say is, "Mommy, how does that man keep his pants up."
EFU: He doesn't. He was pulling them up all the way into Bloom.
TED: Breeders.
EFU: Hey!
TED: I don't mean you, sweetie. I mean male breeders: if you don't have an ass, don't wear jeans, people!
EFU: This is what you call having sympathy for him?
TED: It's tough love.

I had meant to spend an hour or so tonight writing a lengthy post on the economy, but the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to. I think that my observations about the problem have merit, but I am unable to formulate anything approaching a solution. I'll likely write about the topic when I'm less overwhelmed by work, but I doubt my conclusions will change any. I figure that we're at or near the point where our current political and economic models cease to scale. By "cease to scale" I mean that the system doesn't work well for the number of people involved. Just as a form of organization that evolved to deal with a group of ten people often won't work for a group of a hundred, what we have now probably stopped being functional a billion or two people ago. There are likely things governments can do to keep the old models creaking along for a time, but I don't know for how long. It reminds me of something I heard on an NPR program some years back. Apparently, there's some gigantic subterranean lake of magma/lava/whatever somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and at some point it's going to erupt and take a quarter or so of the country with it. But it probably won't happen for another hundred thousand years or so, and there's nothing anyone can do about it, so why worry? I reckon the economy will collapse a lot sooner than that, perhaps even in my lifetime, but I don't reckon there's anything I can do about it. I suppose I could buy some land and go, as they say, off the grid, but that solution only works for a small number of people, and maybe not even for them. It's easiest to just hope that I'm wrong. All of these considerations are more painful, and thus have to be more urgently ignored, because I have children.

It's better, or at least it's the only viable option, to worry about things that are near at hand and within my control. There is, for example, a fundraiser coming up for the music program at church, and the Music Committee is after me to be in charge of the food preparation and service. Feeding a hundred or so people is something that I find immensely rewarding, but in the middle of tax season, it seems almost as overwhelming as economic collapse or the destruction of Oregon in a giant lake of fire. But only almost. The actual event won't take place until the end of May, and that leaves me plenty of time to finish tax season, have a vacation, work out a plan, and execute.

What I can do right now is think about individual recipes. I am pretty sure, for example, that I want to make a caramelized apple- and rosemary-flavored chicken liver mousse and that I want to serve it with some sort of walnut conserve. This is the sort of thing that can hang out in the recesses of my mind and refine itself for a while so that when I'm ready, I can assemble the ingredients and get it right on the first or second try. Once I was in a culinary frame of mind -- and once I'd given up mulling over the imminent collapse of civilization -- I felt the need to cook something, so I thought that I'd get to work on developing a signature biscotti.

I have made many different varieties of biscotti -- the most recent being a candied lemon peel recipe of my own invention -- in the last twenty or more years (you can find my basic recipe here, under yet another of my noms de Net), but I thought I should come up with something both special and unusual for the fundraiser. I had a five-pound bag of black walnuts in the freezer. I thought they'd go very well with some toasted anise seed, but I didn't have any anise seed, or even anise extract, so I combined them with craisins. I also only had extra large eggs, so I went down to two eggs and added two tablespoons of dark rum. The result is very tasty, but doesn't take full advantage of the unique and special qualities of black walnuts. No matter. I learned enough from the initial partial success to ensure that round two will yield complete success. Now I just need another ten or twelve superlative recipes, and I've got myself food for a fundraiser.

Concentrating on small things that one does very well is one rational response to impending catastrophe (and if the catastrophe doesn't arrive, it's a pleasant way to live one's life). Another rational response is to party like it's 1999. Since I read a number of New York City-based blogs, I can't help but be aware that the Black Party is taking place this weekend. On the whole, I'd have to say that I think about circuit parties somewhat less than I think about the passage from Middlemarch that I excerpted above, but I find reading about them interesting in an academic sort of way. The actual experience of such events is completely foreign to me. I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't be my cup of tea, but I mean no judgment about either the parties or their attendees by that statement. I often wish I were more the sort of person who enjoyed events of this nature, but I'm not, and I've come to accept that fact without any real regret.

Not everyone feels the same way, though, and it's with some amusement that I read arguments about the supposed merits and evils of the Black Party. I try not to judge, but when I say that I try not to judge, what I usually mean is that I'm equally judgmental about both sides of the argument. I can't help but roll my eyes a little at the people who make a circuit party sound like it's an indicator of the end of days. It's just a party: there are plenty of indicators of the end of days, but they have nothing to do with scantily clad men dancing until all hours. I equally can't help but roll my eyes at people who want to endow it with all manner of spiritual significance. It's just a party: you don't need to make something seem religious to justify spending a fair chunk of change to have a good time.

But then again, who am I to say? As far as I'm concerned, religion is just another of those things that doesn't scale well. And at 4 am this morning, I was involved in the seriously unglamorous task of explaining to my thirteen-year-old daughter that sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to watch yet another episode of Buffy was going to have some consequences. Surely any rational person would rather be dancing.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Live Long and Prosper

I was working on a long post about the economy, but I got distracted by what has to be the most important unanswered question of the fiscal crisis:

How is it possible that people haven't started referring to Secretary Geithner as Spock?

I leave it to you to decide whether Bones is an appropriate moniker for Senator Dodd.

What about the economy? It's dead, Jim.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Annals of Cultural Atrocity: Peeps

Some years ago, I had a vague ambition to be the curator of my own museum. I was going to call it the Museum of Cultural Atrocities, and it would be a repository of memorable failures of taste. There would, for example, have been a wing devoted to Jell-O. Not that I don't sometimes like Jell-O, but it's aesthetically indefensible. In other words, tasteless even as it's tasty.

I am, in fact, fond of any number of things that exhibit a lack of taste. That's what would make me a good choice for curator of the MCA. On the other hand, I have no curatorial skills and a very similar amount of ambition, and those absences would have to be considered minuses. Fortunately, the Museum of Cultural Atrocities is one of those things that's much better in mind than in actuality. It's easy, and fun, to say that something belongs in the MCA, but actually compiling the exhibits for the Donald Trump room could not help but end up being both daunting and dreary. (Donald Trump, as it happens, is one of those tasteless phenomena for which I have no affection. He takes all the fun out of combover and toupee jokes, a feat I would have found unimaginable a few years ago.)

Anyway, the list of things that are simultaneously entertaining and awful is nearly endless. I leave it to others to fill in all the gaps between fuzzy dice and The Real Housewives of Anywhere. I note, however, that there's a special place in my heart (and in hell) for things that display both literal and figurative bad taste, i.e., things that make you cringe both before and after you put them in your mouth. (And you can pull your filthy minds right out of the gutter.) The ne plus ultra of this category, of course, is Peeps.

Decrying the depravity of Peeps is like shooting fish in a barrel. And not fish swimming around in a barrel of water, either: fish lying inert and crammed together in a barrel like those pickled fish that Oskar's mother eats in an especially horrific sequence in The Tin Drum. (I couldn't find that sequence online, but it follows immediately after this only slightly less disturbing scene, which I would not show you, but if you can handle Peeps, you can certainly handle this:

The history of Peeps is an especially ugly one. Peeps came into being in 1947, when a transport ship that had been feared lost during the war showed up in Trenton, New Jersey. Its holds turned out to be filled with large quantities of sugar and smaller amounts of gelatin and, inexplicably, saffron. Wolfgang von Peep, a recent immigrant and confectioner with a shady past that is rumored to have included German heavy water experiments, purchased the ship's cargo (which was considered unsuitable for human consumption by more reputable food merchants) for a token price from the municipal authorities when he promised to employ a large proportion of the local citizenry in the production of marshmallows. His initial results, aside from being wholly inedible, produced a compound that could not easily be molded and ended up as small, rounded blobs of soft, sticky yellowness. Fortunately (for Herr von Peep, though not for anyone else), local toddlers were very taken with the colors of the new candy, and after one of the women from the production line added two black dots to a few of the blobs, children could be convinced that the eponymous Peeps resembled chicks.

Herr von Peep experimented with other forms and colors, and the world was thus introduced to bunnies and other colors that looked appropriate in the context of garish Easter baskets. Huge quantities of the Peeps were produced between 1948 and 1951. Approximately half of the original production remains stockpiled in a warehouse in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (where the von Peeps moved after the Trenton authorities and residents grew, shall we say, disenchanted with them), and no new Peeps have been produced since that time, an annual release of approximately twelve cases being sufficient to restock any Peeps that someone was unfortunate enough to have eaten.

It's likely that Peeps would long since have disappeared in the sands of time were it not for their versatility as objects of decoration and entertainment. In this aspect, they have been assisted (as have so many other objects of evil, by the Washington Post, which sponsors an annual contest in which ordinary people -- not even wearing HazMat suits -- are encouraged to play with Peeps and use them to make dioramas of events of historical or cultural significance. You can see last year's entries here. I have neither the artistic skill nor the ability to handle sticky objects (mind, gutter, out) necessary to enter such a contest, but my daughter's junior high religious education class at church submitted two entries to this year's contest, the entry deadline for which was this past Sunday. The entry that YFU worked on was called "Sarah Palin Peeps at Russia," and it shows a red Peep with a bushy ponytail, spectacles, and a rifle staring across an expanse of water at two Peeps (one in a babushka, the other in a fur hat) standing next to a cutout of St. Basil's. Above the Palin Peep is suspended another Peep which has been colored brown and white, to resemble a bald eagle. Fucking genius. I wish I had a picture of it.

I would never have had the patience. I played with Peeps for about 4.5 minutes this evening to take some pictures for this post, and I was already sick of them. Also, I didn't really have any useful Peep-related ideas. Originally, I thought of a story in which the bunny Peeps had subjugated the chick Peeps, whom they used as beasts of burden until such time as they were ready to consume them. The chick Peeps finally rallied together to overcome the hated bunny Peep overlords, and the results were, well, not pretty. But I abandoned the idea because the results were, well, not pretty. And my hands were sticky just from separating the Peeps into single entities. They come packaged as sets of conjoined quadruplets (bunnies) or quints (chicks).

Now I've got all these Peeps all over my dining room table. I could offer them to my daughters, but they were raised better than to fall for that. I suspect that I'll end up tossing them all in the garbage, but there's no hurry. It's not like they're going to go bad. I suppose in the case of Peeps, it would really be going worse, anyway. If I were the sort of person who hated waste more than I dislike Peeps, I'm sure I could use them in any of a number of ways. Attic insulation, for example. And I have seen people who use them to make a form of s'mores. The directions -- in case you're very, very brave, and not so bright -- are to put a Peep on top of half of a graham cracker, microwave them for about twenty seconds (until the Peep begins to dissolve but doesn't combust, I suppose), then add a square of chocolate and top with the other half of the graham cracker. I have, for obvious reasons, not tested this recipe.

Another untested recipe is to use a Peep in place of the coffee beans in a flaming Sambuca. You take a glass, you pour in a couple ounces of Sambuca (or anything else: just use cheap vodka), float a Peep -- any color! -- on top, and light the alcohol. I actually think this recipe has some potential entertainment value, so maybe I should go make one and photograph it.

Well, that was something less than spectacular, but I suppose one should report even disappointing results.

I wasn't too keen on using any decent glasses, but I figured one of my ramekins should be safe:

I took other precautions as well, including two metal pans, a lid, and the removal to a safe distance of flammable objects.

I thought a blue Peep would work well. Alas, I forgot that one needs to warm one's alcohol before one ignites it, so that while I was able to get the Peep itself to flame, briefly, the cheap vodka just sat there.

Eventually, the Peep got slightly burnt and the vodka got slightly blue, but it was clear I needed to start again.

I washed the ramekin, left it slightly wet, and put it in the microwave until it was hot. Then I added vodka and a purple Peep. This time, it lit magnificently, but, of course, light blue flames don't show up so well on camera. Still, you can tell that it's burning:

The flames show up just fine if you turn the lights off, of course, but I'm not even sure where my tripod is right now, and with no flash, the results are verrrrry blurry:

I also shot a short video, entirely lacking in production values:

Making the video available involved the use of a popular video sharing site, and while I was there, I decided to search for other Peeps burnings, and, lo! they were many. It seems that burning (or otherwise mutilating) Peeps is a fairly common form of ritualized violence. One might go so far as to say that Peeps are the new burnt offerings.

Far be it from me to belittle any activity that allows people to act out their aggressive impulses on marshmallow creatures instead of their fellow human beings, but I can't really get behind Peeps as a valid form of sacrifice. They're not exactly lambs or kid goats, are they? Sacrifices are meant to be objects of great innocence, not objects of great tackiness. (There's no evidence, for example, that Christ ever wore socks with his sandals.) And, really, it's hard to think of Peeps as cute and innocent after you've burned one and seen the bitter darkness of the soul that remains:

On the other hand, so long as you look upon immolating Peeps as a little harmless fun -- rather than a valid spiritual exercise -- I suppose it's a lot better than eating them. And God knows, they deserve death by fire.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beware the Envy of March

I have a long, bad history with March 15. For those of you who don't know, (And why would you know? I feel bad for mentioning it: ignorance is bliss.) March 15 is the original due date for tax returns for corporations with calendar (as opposed to fiscal) year ends. In fact, in the original version of Julius Caesar, Brutus was JC's tax accountant and only agreed to join in the assassination because it seemed easier than telling Caesar how much tax was due with his return. Shakespeare eventually dropped the Inland Revenue subplot -- and the brilliant fourth- and fifth-act scenes depicting the audit of Caesar's estate tax return -- after a brutal crackdown from the crown, which feared a rise in noncompliance. CPAs have been considered box office poison ever since. Et tu, Elizabeth?

Anyway, I was a young(ish) intern for my first tax season, and on March 15, the very large firm I worked for took the tax department out for an evening at a local Chinese restaurant, where I proceeded to take a major part in the consumption of three scorpion bowls, a very large and aptly named rum-based cocktail. Later that evening, I attempted to persuade my co-workers that I would be fine if they left me to sleep off the booze in my car. The office was in the suburbs of Boston, and the evening was very cold, however, and they rightly feared that I might perish of hypothermia, leaving them with an even larger workload, so they persuaded me to accept a ride home and another to the office the next morning. The next morning began a very long day, but I did learn never to drink hard liquor at office events and to switch to Diet Coke after the second beer.

Perhaps seven or eight years later, I was living in Maryland and in the third or fourth year of my stint with a different, smaller firm, and I was in the parking lot of a Burger King, where I'd stopped to get some breakfast. I'd rolled the window down to enjoy the sort of early Spring day that is common in the DC area, and as I looked through the clear air at the flowering trees, the radio began to play George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," which is one of my very favorite songs, and I thought, "I still have another month of tax season," and I began to cry in a way that made the phrase "burst into tears" seem somewhat less metaphorical.

It is perhaps unfortunate (but I'm not sure: it might be a good thing) that music so easily makes me cry. Sometimes I think that one of the reasons I so much like being in the choir and doing other singing is that when I'm performing, I'm too busy to weep. Not all music makes me cry. Almost all Bach makes me cry, but there are very particular personal reasons for that, and, truly, if the cost of listening to Bach is a few tears, then, well, I have a lot of handkerchiefs, and I'm very good at passing watery eyes off as an allergy problem, which I in fact have.

This particular March 15 (i.e., yesterday), I was in church, and I wasn't crying. The music Sunday was Celtic music, played by fiddler and a guitar player who sometimes also played a guitar. It made me happy. The sermon was about envy, which, apparently, is pain brought about by the good fortune of others. I'm sure the sermon was fine, but I stopped listening after not too long. It's rare for me to make it through a sermon without drifting off into my own thoughts. Or if I'm in a less pensive mood, I'll open the hymnal to see whether I can easily read the bass part to whatever we're singing next. But yesterday I mostly reflected on the Old Testament. As is typical in a Unitarian Universalist church, the minister was not relying heavily on scripture. Since the sermon was on envy, however, she could hardly help mentioning some of the OT stories, and since I know them all pretty well from my protestant upbringing, a mention was enough.

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.
And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering:
But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;
When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

I am truly sorry if saying so offends anyone, but the lesson that I draw from a lot of OT stories is that Yahweh was a jerk. I was originally going to say he was a douchenozzle, but why take chances? By all accounts, smiting is no fun at all. At least for the smitee, that is: Yahweh seems to have smitten with great glee. Anyway, I'm not trying to excuse Cain here, but I know from personal experience that brothers don't always get along under the best of circumstances. Agriculture is, on the whole, more difficult and tedious work than animal husbandry, and the LORD was being arbitrary, at best, and probably cruel.

I will (possibly) return to envy in a bit, but my favorite example of Jehovan douchenozzlery capriciousness has always been the Exodus. Here again, I have no problem with the whole let-my-people-go thing (though, c'mon, maybe keep them out of slavery in the first place, Mr. High and Almighty?), but I don't really care for the continual hardening of Pharoah's heart.
And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.
Thou shalt speak all that I command thee: and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh, that he send the children of Israel out of his land.
And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.
But Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you, that I may lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring forth mine armies, and my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.
And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
And Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded them, so did they.

I learned early in my career as a Southern Baptist that you really didn't want to ask too many questions in Sunday school. If I were to ask my Sunday School teacher, "Why did God have to harden Pharaoh's heart? If he would have let them go after a couple of plagues, why not just accept that?" then I would have gotten a speech about humans' inability to understand the plan of the LORD and then my teacher (aka Dad) wouldn't have let me have any dessert after Sunday dinner.

But reading the passage now, I see that it answers my question. God kept on hardening Pharaoh's heart (it happened a lot of times: Pharoah would certainly have died of an MI if he hadn't been swept away in the Red Sea Massacre) so that God would seem more powerful when he delivered his people from the Egyptians. And, perhaps, just because smiting the Egyptians was so much fun. It appears from the passage above that both factors motivated Yahweh, though the powerful reputation thing appears to have been the biggest deal to him. I think Jehovah must have been acting out because he was envious of the other gods. Let's face it: Anubis and Ra were way sexier. It's hard to read that passage and the chapters around it without coming to the conclusion that God let his people fall into slavery, smote the Egyptians with multiple unnecessary plagues, and killed great numbers of innocent children all so that he could prove that he was the most powerful.

Given all this, it's pretty easy to see why Jesus was such a stand-up guy. If your father's known for destroying the world in a flood or turning somebody into a pillar of salt for the ginormous sin of curiosity or not letting people eat perfectly good foods like pork and shellfish, then what better way to rebel against the family franchise than to die to redeem everybody? The Universalists (also the Primitive Baptists) believe in universal salvation: that the sacrifice of Christ saved everyone. And if they're right, then Jesus' "Father forgive them" was really the best possible way of flipping the bird at the old man, who, it seems likely, was up on his throne saying, "Aw fuck, there goes the neighborhood."

I myself have been exhibiting near-Jehovan levels of crabbiness in recent days, though since the closest I can come to smiting anyone is leaving a nasty review comment for a member of the staff, I don't think the world needs to worry about floods just yet. I'm not ready to confuse pique with envy, but I reckon that if busy season went on until the end of May, I'd start to hate the high school students who walk by my office building several times a day because they're young and beautiful and don't have to answer questions that their co-workers are too lazy to look up for themselves.

Or I'd just find another job. I'm not really cut out for envy, and I often find the young and beautiful to be callow and uninteresting. I told the guitar player after yesterday's service how much I enjoyed his music because it stopped me from thinking, and he laughed and asked whether it stopped me from thinking about envy. I remarked that I was sometimes jealous of people who can play instruments, but I didn't think that I envied them because their possession of an ability I don't have gives me no pain. I would like to think that's because of an exceptionally generous spirit, but I'm pretty sure it's just that I have abilities of my own that I'm confident in.

Anyway, it makes more sense to concentrate on what you have and what you're good at than to worry about what others have and are good at. It's not necessarily human nature, but human nature gets us into a lot of troubles, and I've never thought of it as a very good excuse. If human nature sucks, we should try to make it suck less. Besides, it's not like the world is getting any fairer. And if Jesus was a lot nicer than his father, he didn't seem all that much more concerned with fairness:
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

I mean, he sort of sounds like Secretary Geithner talking about the AIG bonuses, doesn't he? But Christ had a point: if you got what you were promised, then the fact that someone else got more may be galling, but it's not necessarily wrong (unlike, I hasten to add, the AIG bonuses, which are necessarily wrong). So it makes more sense to enjoy what you've got and to focus on the similarities rather than the differences. After all, everyone gets to enjoy spring. Well, everyone except me, but my delight in the second half of April is probably all the greater.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thinking Inside the Box

I'm certainly not averse to knocking back a beer or two (but not three, thanks), I make a spectacular Martini, and I'm very fond of moderately priced Proseccos, (my admittedly cursory research indicates that, sadly, the plural is probably not Prosecci) but for the most part, I think that alcoholic beverages begin and end with red, red wine. I have nothing against a crisp white on a hot day, but, truly, on a hot day, I'd rather take some cheap red wine and turn it into Sangria.

In fact, until just over a year ago, making Sangria was the only thing that motivated me to buy boxed wine. It is a truth, whether or not universally acknowledged, that the best Sangria begins with wine that is not worth serving on its own. My favorite wine for Sangria is Franzia's Chillable Red. Sangria involves the addition of citrus juices, various fruits, other spirits, and sugar, so starting off with something undrinkably sweet (i.e., Chillable Red) is a good way to go. Or at least my friends quaff large quantities of my Sangria with apparent enjoyment.

Anyway, a few years back, I tasted the Chillable Red once out of a combination of culinary curiosity and a fear of speaking without first-hand knowledge, and that was enough to put me off boxed wine, even though one of my precepts for living is that it is wrong to extrapolate the universe from a single data point. But sometime early last year, I was shopping for some inexpensive wine to use in cooking, and I was in one of the county liquor/wine stores (in my county, you can only buy liquor at a county store), and I saw some Black Box Merlot, and I read the description that was taped to the shelf beneath the wine, and I thought, "I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot Well, why not?" and I brought it home.

It almost goes without saying that if you want to find the most pompous people in the world, a collection of wine enthusiasts is a pretty good place to begin (and end) your search. And if you mention boxed wines to such people, you are likely to run into the sort of snobbery that's evident in this discussion thread on Chowhound (worth reading for a laugh). But I'm not a wine enthusiast: drinking wine just makes me happy. I should say that I'm probably not more of an enthusiast/snob because of a lack of aptitude. When I was in my early twenties, I shared an apartment for three years with a serious oenophile (who was not at all snobbish about wine, or anything else), but none of his immense knowledge rubbed off on me. Though he did introduce me to Port, for which I shall be eternally grateful.

Anyway, I was very happy with my box of Merlot. It was quaffable, it was a nice addition to a lot of the things I like to cook, and five weeks after I opened it, it tasted the same as the day I first had it. Boxed wines, as you probably know, are stored in plastic bags, and as the bag empties, it collapses, so that the wine is not exposed to air. One of the annoying things about expensive wine is that if you don't drink it all in one evening, it's never as good later. You can, of course, solve this problem by drinking it all in one evening, but that doesn't work so well for me.

With a boxed wine, though, I can have one glass a night for as many nights as I like without worrying about a diminution in quality.

And then there's the price factor. A box of most of the Black Box wines retails for about $20-24, but they're almost always on sale in the $18-20 range. A box of wine holds three liters (typically: some of the ultra-cheap wines -- like Franzia -- come in five-liter boxes), or the equivalent of four bottles. That's decent wine (I am not really down with the whole 100-point wine rating system. There have been times in my life where I've been served very expensive wines, and they were special, but for the most part, when I taste a wine my reaction is either, "Hey, that's tasty" or "Oh, please, no.") for about $5 a bottle.

And many boxed wines really are pretty good wines. For a time, I stuck to the various brands of Black Box, but then one day, I thought, "Well, why not try the Hardy's Shiraz?" It was on sale for $13.99, and, hey, it was tasty. During the three years that I shared an apartment with my friend Rob, I enjoyed many wines and tried my best to taste the black cherry or currants or whatever that my friends claimed to be tasting, but the only thing I ever really agreed with was that "flinty" was a term that made sense with respect to Chablis. But when I sat down with my first glass of Hardy's Shiraz, I absolutely tasted vanilla. It was something of a revelation.

The Hardy's Shiraz is still one of my favorite boxed wines, but a few weeks ago, I decided to give Fish Eye (cheaper still) a try, and I was, again, pleasantly surprised by its easy drinkability. It is not a complex wine, but it's consistently enjoyable, something you don't always get when you play glass bottle roulette at the wine store. Last week, I needed to make some Boeuf Bourgignon for the all-church dinner, so I went in search of a Burgundy. I didn't find any in a brand that I was willing to take a chance on (I have not yet been willing to wade in the ten-dollar waters), so I decided to try the Fish Eye Cabernet Sauvignon, and I have been very happy with it, both in the stew and in my glass.

I'm not claiming that any of these wines is amazing, but they're all good and dependable, and that's really what I want out of my vin de table. And I'll serve vin de table with just about anything. I have no doubt that the fifty-dollar bottle of Chateau/Veuve Whatever is a superior wine to those who know, but for me this is one of those situations where ignorance is bliss. Besides, these days spending that kind of money on wine seems somewhere between ridiculous and obscene.

After tax season, I'm going to have a boxed wine tasting party. I'm thinking three each of four varieties, and I'll use a double-blind system and make my friends give numerical ratings. It should be a lot of fun, and, if nothing else, I'll enjoy doing the shopping for it. Twelve boxes of wine is a bit of an investment, but since everyone will be drinking only small quantities of each wine, I'll have leftovers for months. And they'll still be good.

By the way, it took a while to take this series of pictures, so even though I had the wine tap barely flowing, by the time I was done, I had quite a bit of wine in my glass, and I had to drink it all by myself. I hope you people appreciate the sort of sacrifices I make to keep you informed and entertained.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A la Recherche du Pique-nique Parfait

Il y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n’était pas le théâtre et la drame de mon coucher n’existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d’hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j’avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d’abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques.

One of my very fondest culinary memories is of an early episode of The French Chef in which Julia Child made madeleines. I was inspired to go out and get my own madeleine molds, and, really, there was nothing all that special about the cookies that I got by following her recipe, though they were certainly tasty. But at the end of the episode, Ms. Child sits down, puts on her reading glasses, pulls out a copy of In Search of Lost Times (which, in those days, was still translated as A Remembrance of Things Past for reasons that were not clear to me and that I suspect were never very good) and begins reading the above passage. She was reading in English, of course, (Which was how I read Swann's Way, the only volume of Proust that I ever made it through. I liked it just fine, but I was twenty at the time, and I didn't feel like I had the time to read six more volumes of the same.) but she stopped after saying "short and plump" to smile and say, "courts et dodus," and the whole experience just seemed to make her so happy that I was not especially disposed to doubt that a cookie could really occasion so many musings. I myself have been known to muse over even less for fairly extended passages, but I think it's fair to say that I've never gone to Proustian lengths. Yet.

Here (i.e., in this sentence) is where I attempt to make a virtue of necessity by acknowledging that I have no transition into the substance of this post. It is true that there are few things that make me happier than a well-executed picnic or watching Julia Child, but there is otherwise not much connection between the two. Nearly ten years ago now, when I was newly out as a gay man, I happened to be dating a man who happened to mention, in a moment of repose, that no one had ever taken him on a picnic. So I took him on a picnic the next weekend, and we had a great time, and he dumped me about a week later. I've had a fascination with picnics ever since, but I'm pretty sure it was because of how much fun I had putting one together, rather than any sort of unfulfilled desire arising out of being dumped.

Anyway. Cooking for other people and travel are among my greatest joys, and a picnic combines them neatly. Add in the fact that they usually take place when the weather's fine and at a pleasant location, and what's not to love? So this is going to be the first of a series of posts (don't worry, they will be occasional rather than consecutive) about picnics, because, well, because I have a lot to say on the subject. And we may as well start with the picnic basket (I was going to insert a Yogi the Bear reference here, but I reckon most of you are too young to get it. Bitches.)

Anyway, I was shopping with YFU at Ikea a couple of weekends ago, and when we got near the checkout counters, I shrieked with delight (for the record, when I shriek with delight, it involves nodding my head slightly, and saying, "Cool" in a low voice) when I saw boxes full of plastic dishes. The Ikea name for this particular tableware is Kalas, which may mean something in Swedish or may be a deliberate distortion of the name of a famous soprano who is rumored once to have eaten a tapeworm in order to lose weight in order to hang on to her man, who nonetheless married Jacqueline Kennedy. I suspect the latter only because Ms. Callas was, in the day, (i.e., before even my time) something of a gay icon, and one of the reasons why I jumped on the Kalas plates, bowls, cups, and flatware is that the "assorted colors" are rainbow colors, and that makes them a near-perfect choice for a picnic when your guests are either gay men (i.e., most of my picnic-going friends) or fag hags (i.e., my daughters).

I say "near-perfect" because the plates are just a bit on the small side. On the other hand, a set of six Kalas anything goes for just $1.99, so the entire picnic set you see in the picture at the top of this post cost me $9.06 (4 x$1.99 for the plates, bowls, cups, and flatware, $0.59 for the big blue Ikea bag, and $0.51 tax). If you were giving this set as a gift (and picnic sets make terrific gifts), you might want to add some napkins and a throw, but you could get those at Ikea, too, and your total would still be under $15, so for about what you might spend for a bottle of wine, you'd have a gift that would actually indicate some thought and originality.

Baskets are more traditional picnic carrying devices, and they do have the advantage of rigidity, which is important if your dishes are breakable. But they're hard to carry, and they generally don't have enough room for all of the food and supplies necessary for a picnic. The blue Ikea bag, on the other hand, is humongous. It will hold at least twice as much as you need for a picnic for six, with room left over for all seven volumes of Proust and a Frisbee.

Of course, you can have a perfect picnic without ever going near either Ikea or its website. Large tote bags are not hard to come by, and you can save money and other resources by finding your dishes, etc. at garage sales and flea markets. I might be doing just that in order to replace the small Kalas plates with something larger. Many years ago, at an estate sale, I found a set of square plastic plates with faux wood grain printed on them. They were delightfully tacky and perfect for a picnic, but I shed them in one of the moves. I weep the bitter tears of loss every time I remember them.

Consignment shops are also good sources for picnicware, but -- around here anyway -- I find their prices somewhat exuberant. But I haven't been to any of the local consignment shops in a while, so it's possible that they've lowered prices in recognition of the recession. As, indeed, has Ikea. Then again, that might simply be due to the recent strengthening of the dollar.

My picnic preparation typically also involves a trip to Home Depot. One of their cheap (about $3) plastic dropcloths is a good thing to toss in your picnic bag in case you get to your picnic spot and find that the dew has not quite disappeared from the grass in your shady spot. Also, it helps minimize grass stains on your blanket. Any grass stains from a picnic should be on your pants, and you should get them in a way that is both fun and scandalous. For that particular activity, you may forget, for the moment, Proust, and instead take your inspiration from A Room with a View.