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.

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