29 9 / 2014

I am tired, and all I want to do is watch TV. Do you feel that way too? I’m not suggesting you watch The Simpsons right now, but if, like me, you’ve ever loved it, you might be amused by this recent couch gag (via Mr. Z, via metafilter).

28 9 / 2014

In Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, the protagonist, Switters, bemoans the time and tedium of personal hygiene: “‘There’s birth,’ he grumbled, ‘there’s death, and in between, there’s maintenance.’” Preening, sweeping, scrubbing, clipping, etc.—it all takes up a great deal of time, even if we pay others to do it for us. 

My fingers are tipped with an iridescent, peacocky color, my toes with a sparkling ruby red, because the other day my husband, my in-laws, and I went out for eggs and then for mani/pedicures, a first for both Messrs. Z.

Husbands and fathers-in-law notwithstanding, I know this sort of thing happens all the time; but still I find the handling of hands and feet by strangers to be almost troublingly intimate. This time, I tried to let myself enjoy it, not worry about my weird feet or the expression on my face, and I basically succeeded.

I made small talk with my mani/pedicurist and listened to her converse in Vietnamese with her colleagues. I thought a lot about this episode of Fugitive Waves, about how immigrant and particularly Vietnamese women (and some men) come to work in nail salons, what it’s like, and how they feel about it. The woman holding and filing my husband’s feet laughed at his (truthful, too truthful) joke about the stabbing power of his toenails, and spoke in a reassuring tone, “I think pedicure is basic hygiene for a man.”  

27 9 / 2014

At dinner the other night, out on the patio of Backfin Blue, piano music and open mic-ing drifted over from neighboring establishments, and by degrees it began to rain. 

In from the drizzle that became a downpour came a fluffy little dog, cream-colored and poodleish, with a blue bandana around his neck. He came, it seemed, from nowhere, and had a tag that read “VIP” (viprescue.org).

Small patches of chocolate brown fringed Vip’s floppy ear and chin fuzz, and he waited placidly and sweetly while I held him by the bandana and our waitress called the number on his tag. She was a sweetly waitress, and seemed quite committed to taking the pup home if his owners couldn’t be reached within the night; and this made me want to bring Vip home with me, bandana and all.

I have never had a dog of my own, though I’ve loved well many dogs of others. I have visited animal shelters and cooed over pups before, too, but never have I felt quite the degree of yearning and connection as I did with Vip, for just a few moments. Maybe it was the frosty beers I drank, but I don’t think so.  

Godspeed you, Vip! I hardly knew ye. 

26 9 / 2014

Keillor on storytelling, writing funny, and speaking Danish:

You see I talk very slowly, especially when I do those Lake Wobegon stories, because as I talk I am thinking about what comes next, if anything. I talk so slowly that I couldn’t possibly put in details or I would never get to the end. I talk in subjects and verbs, and sort of wind around in concentric circles until I get far enough away from the beginning so that I can call it the end, and it ends. 

….

When some people sit down to write humor, they adopt a giddy tone of voice, a whooping or comic warble, so that the reader will know it’s funny. It’s the writing equivalent of a clown suit. This does not wear well. Humor needs to come in under cover of darkness, in disguise, and surprise people. You don’t want to get that gdoing, gdoing, gdoing sound in your writing. It makes the reader feel sorry for you.

….

I discovered, speaking Danish, that it was warping me, because the only Danish I knew was about food and love and beauty, and it was cheerful, bright, the language of complimenting people on the food and, Thank you for last time, and, Thank you for the herring, it was delicious. It was like living in a YMCA of the mind. I never found a way in Danish to express my meanness or make cutting remarks. 

26 9 / 2014

I am reading Charlotte’s Web in anticipation of my dear cousin’s baby, who will be named Charlotte, and who is due to enter the world in about a month. The book is a joy. Last night, sleepy from traveling and walking in the dazzling sun along Pass-A-Grille Beach, I transcribed the following paragraphs.

Rain upset Wilbur’s plans. Wilbur had planned to go out, this day, and dig a new hole in his yard. He had other plans, too. His plans for the day went something like this:

Breakfast at six-thirty. Skim milk, crusts, middlings, bits of doughnuts, wheat cakes with drops of maple syrup sticking to them, potato skins, leftover custard pudding with raisins, and bits of Shredded Wheat.

Breakfast would be finished at seven.

From seven to eight, Wilbur planned to have a talk with Templeton, the rat that lived under his trough. Talking with Templeton was not the most interesting occupation in the world but it was better than nothing.

From eight to nine, Wilbur planned to take a nap outdoors in the sun.
From nine to eleven he planned to dig a hole, or trench, and possibly find something good to eat buried in the dirt.

From eleven to twelve he planned to stand still and watch flies on the boards, watch bees in the clover, and watch swallows in the air.

Twelve o’clock—lunchtime. Middlings, warm water, apple parings, meat gravy, carrot scrapings, meat scraps, stale hominy, and the wrapper off a package of cheese. Lunch would be over at one.

From one to two, Wilbur planned to sleep.

From two to three, he planned to scratch itchy places by rubbing against the fence.

From three to four, he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it was like to be alive, and to wait for Fern.

24 9 / 2014

I urge you to enjoy this short film, which illustrates with paper cutouts a little of the life of Alfred Russell Wallace. 

If that’s not enough on Wallace, listen to this installment of In Our Time from last spring, or review this list of flora and fauna with names appended “wallacei" or "wallacii" in tribute to him.

For something utterly else that science has wrought, watch “Walkman,” a silly stop-motion short and “Moving On" (a sad one), both made by the studio who brings us our other favorite Wallace, and his friend Gromit.

24 9 / 2014

Here is a nice series of photographs from a recent-ish book of literary meals, beginning with Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar avocado salad. That she referred to them as “avocado pears” has always stuck with me. 

In writing or other media (like cartoons), food can take on a tantalizing quality unmatched by lived experience. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I tend to require a mighty tasty dip to enjoy a raw carrot, and this is with years of practice and presumable taste-bud deadening; but in Bugs Bunny’s paw, a carrot can be positively mouth-watering.  

Last week was the Feast of San Gennaro, an annual street fair in little Italy, which I’ve never attended as such (though I’ve waltzed through a number of smaller fried and sundry affairs in that neck of the non-woods). Calvin Trillin’s essay “Confessions of a Stand-up Sausage Eater” puts me vividly and deliciously there, biting into the quintessential sausage sandwich which in real life I have never even tried to find.

Still, there I am at San Gennaro every year—admitting to myself that I rather enjoy pushing my way down Mulberry at a time when Neapolitan music is coming over the loudspeakers and operators of games of chance are making their pitches and food smells from a dozen different booths are competing in the middle of the street. My presence is easily explained: I can’t stay away from the sausage sandwiches. 

As it happens, we live right around the corner from the South Village, an Italian neighborhood where the sort of sausage sandwiches served at Italian feasts—hot or sweet sausage jammed into a roll with a combination of fried pepper and onions as dressing—can be bought any day of the year in comfortable surroundings, which may even include a stool at the counter. I never buy one. Gradually, it has become clear to me that uncontrolled, year-round eating of sausage sandwiches is not an acceptable option for me. 

There was nothing to do but inspect each stand—Abigail and Sarah tagging along behind me, already full of pasta. I looked for a stand that was frying the sausages on a griddle rather than grilling them over charcoal—and displaying peppers and onions that had been sliced and cooked precisely to my requirements. It was amazing how many sausage stands qualified. My daughters began to remind me that it was a school night. I told them that I would write them notes if they overslept the next morning (“Abigail had to be up late to take advantage of an unusual opportunity to observe the process of pure research”). Under some pressure, I stopped in front of Staten Island Frank’s—or maybe it was the Original Jack’s; even now the names run together—and said, “This is it.” When I started to eat, I was convinced that I had chosen brilliantly—until we passed a stand that I hadn’t noticed before. It was serving sausages, with correctly fried peppers and onions, on marvelous-looking rolls that had sesame seeds on top of them. 

"Sesame-seed rolls!" I said. "Nobody told me about sesame-seed rolls!"

"Take it easy," Abigail said, giving me a reassuring pat on the arm. "You can have one on a sesame-seed roll next year."

"Not next year," I reminded her as we headed home. "At St. Anthony’s in June."

Happy Autumn! May your harvests be bountiful, your festivals joyous, your sandwiches sesame-bunned. 

22 9 / 2014

This week’s episode of onthemedia ended with a great segment on nihilism (related to and perhaps better than a recent Radiolab, still perfectly good, and titled, “In The Dust of This Planet”). Both seek to explore if (no) and how a nihilistic attitude is a special reflection of our time. Brooke Gladstone schools Jad Abumrad about the varied forms and cloaks of nihilism throughout history, and it’s good listening. 

Relatedly, many of my spry, youthful acquaintances went a tromping yesterday in Manhattan, on behalf of the planet. I stayed in, with some ambivalence, folding up my cardboard but otherwise consuming resources with casual abandon.

Today, on one of the many glowing knowledge-portals I own and use in rapid, meaningless succession for nonstop diversion from my own thoughts, I read this post from “The Last Word On Nothing,” about an old movie called Energy and Mortality, made by a man named Swain Wolfe. 

Does life in a high-energy world encourage us to be less honest, Wolfe wonders? More aggressive? Does our expanding energy diet, and the centralized production systems it has long required, make us progressively less free?

To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we desperately need to understand how our brains, which evolved with the consumption of a few thousand calories a day, make choices in a world that offers them exponentially more. As Energy and Morality suggests, our energy choices aren’t always in our own best interest, even in the short term.

21 9 / 2014

I wish you could come over and taste some of the challah that’s cooling on my counter. It’s made of eggs and air and magic.

Somehow recently I learned/was reminded of singer/songwriter Judee Sill, whose extraordinary story has recently been retold in a short BBC Radio 4 documentary. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’ve got her album Heart Food in my ears right now. 

Judee had a very difficult young life, and (if the internet is to be believed) at one point in her late teens she fell in with a robber, whose criminal hijinks she joined and famously flubbed by saying, “This is a fuck-up, mothersticker!”

She also cited Pythagoras, Bach, and Ray Charles as her primary influences. Listen to “The Donor" and be persuaded of this. 

20 9 / 2014

Yesterday’s anatomy lesson; bonus banana peel.
I googled “skeleton banana peel” hoping to find a good gif of a clumsy skeleton falling down. Instead, (even better) I found this passage from the climax of a story about a boy named “Boob,” in a 1928 issue of Boy’s Life.
"Just as he finished lighting the fire one of the skeletons came close to him. Boob pushed the bony frame into the fire. Dry bones burn easily; if you don’t believe it, then try burning a skeleton sometime. One gone, but how to get rid of the other one? 
'Let's see you do the Charleston,' requested Boob.
The skeleton didn’t reply but started to dance as fast as it possibly could. 
'Gee, if only I had a banana peel I could, maybe, get him to slip on it.' So Boob crept out of the room, and went to the fruit room; he grasped a banana, and rushed back to the bedroom. The banana pell was dropped on the fireplace, but for some reason the skeleton missed the peel. He kept on dancing. Thump, thump, thump, thump—BANG!! The skeleton hit the banana peel and landed in one heap of bones on the fireplace. The balance of the night passed peacefully.”

Yesterday’s anatomy lesson; bonus banana peel.

I googled “skeleton banana peel” hoping to find a good gif of a clumsy skeleton falling down. Instead, (even better) I found this passage from the climax of a story about a boy named “Boob,” in a 1928 issue of Boy’s Life.

"Just as he finished lighting the fire one of the skeletons came close to him. Boob pushed the bony frame into the fire. Dry bones burn easily; if you don’t believe it, then try burning a skeleton sometime. One gone, but how to get rid of the other one? 

'Let's see you do the Charleston,' requested Boob.

The skeleton didn’t reply but started to dance as fast as it possibly could. 

'Gee, if only I had a banana peel I could, maybe, get him to slip on it.' So Boob crept out of the room, and went to the fruit room; he grasped a banana, and rushed back to the bedroom. The banana pell was dropped on the fireplace, but for some reason the skeleton missed the peel. He kept on dancing. Thump, thump, thump, thump—BANG!! The skeleton hit the banana peel and landed in one heap of bones on the fireplace. The balance of the night passed peacefully.”