A Taste for Wine

Wednesday afternoons at 4:30 were special at my college. We’d gather in an auditorium and spit in buckets.

Well, that’s not all there is to the story.

It starts back when I graduated high school and was old enough to drink. I discovered wine. Really bad wine. Not quite as bad as Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Not quite as bad as my mother’s Mogen David, but pretty bad. Pink champagne on New Year’s Eve bad.

Candy wine. (This was before distillers started putting marshmallow fluff in vodka, you understand.)

My tastes developed over the years. I graduated (as it were) to Yago Sangria. The only cheap wine that was too disgusting for me, besides the Mogen David, was Carlo Rossi Grenâche Rosé. So I added orange juice and seltzer water and called it a spritzer.

Then, in my junior year of college, I had an epiphany. It was called Wine Tasting 101 for Non-Majors. The class met on Wednesday afternoons in the aforementioned auditorium and sampled various wines. Good wines. Bad wines. Wines from France and Italy and California and New York. We passed bottles of wine and small plastic cups down the row like we were in church, only without the collection baskets. There was a spit bucket at the end of each row of the auditorium seating for those who didn’t drink (very few) or those who hated a particular wine.

There was lots to hate, as well as lots to love. We sampled the candy wines (I was actually fond of Pear Ripple, which I don’t think you can get nowadays). We sampled wines that had gone bad in various ways so that we knew what to say to snooty wine stewards: “This wine is foxy,” for example. (Or “musty” or “oxidized.” Those were ones for the spit bucket.

Every week we tackled wines from a different part of the world. We learned to tell a Bordeaux from a Beaujolais, a Sauvignon from a Sauterne, and which ones we liked better. We learned why you swirl the wine in the glass before you drink it and what information you can get from that.

But this, as I mentioned, was the course for non-majors. Cornell had, in addition to the usual schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture, and the like, a Hotel School, which ran an actual hotel on campus, much beloved of alumni and visiting parents. Hotel majors had a very different wine class, the sort in which you took a sip and had to identify the country, the variety, the grape, and the name of the woman who stomped it. It was not pass/fail, the way the course for non-majors was. It was not a jolly passing of bottles. It did not enliven Wednesday afternoons.

I never took the class for majors, though I once thought about transferring to the Hotel School. But over the years, my taste in wine has changed. I now like dry red wines, and I no longer drink them chilled. I ask for Brut or Extra Brut champagne at New Year’s Eve. I can tell when a wine is oaky or has undertones of cherry. Oh, I still drink Three-Buck Chuck when I’m down on my luck. And I will indulge in the sweeter, fruitier wines like Pinot Grigio that my husband prefers, when I’d rather have a Pinot Noir.

The only gap in my education is German wines. I still can’t tell a Riesling from a Liebfraumilch. I was absent that Wednesday.

Every other Wednesday I would roll home to my sorority house, bathed in a grape-y glow, satisfied with the knowledge that I had just furthered my education – and with something that would be useful in years to come.

 

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

How My Husband Got Me Hooked on Buffy

Twenty years ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a TV show with a target audience of teen girls. My husband, despite not being a teen girl,  turned me (also not a teen girl) on to the show and got me hooked.

I had seen the movie and wasn’t that impressed. It was silly fun, with a classic over-the-top death scene acted by Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). There was also an appearance by a very young Hilary Swank, and Donald Sutherland played the Slayer’s mentor. But not anything I’d ever want to see again.

So when a television series appeared, I ignored it.

But my husband didn’t. He became a fan.

He wasn’t one of those fans who sits people down in front of a TV and says, “Here! You have to watch 15 episodes of this amazing show!” (This would be appropriate for Firefly, another show that, like Buffy, was the brainchild of Joss Whedon, except that it never made it to 15 episodes.)

No, he was more subtle than that. He’d be watching the show and invite me to join him. “I don’t think so,” I would reply. Still, I would see a few minutes of the show as I passed through the living room.

And then one day I caught a scene from an episode in which Buffy was working at a fast-food establishment where employees had been disappearing and the food had a “secret ingredient.”

“Hah!” I thought. “This is so predictable!”

Then the top of a little old lady’s head came off, a monster emerged, and tried to eat Buffy. The secret ingredient in the meat turned out to be meat flavoring, which was being added to non-meat patties.

That sharp left turn caught me. Maybe this show did have some wit and style.

I still didn’t pay a lot of attention until the show went off the air. When it went into reruns, I could watch one episode a day and follow the story arcs (yes, it had them) and found out that Buffy was more than just teen-girl-kills-monster-of-the-week pop fluff.

It had bite. (Sorry.)

Joss Whedon has said that the show was about female empowerment. Instead of being a stereotypical victim-of-a-vampire, Buffy is the strong, capable hero who defeats evil, aided by her “Scooby Gang” of mostly female sidekicks.

Except those sidekicks have story arcs of their own. For example, Willow is a witch who dabbles in black magic in addition to the good kind. But magic, it seems, can become an addiction. Multiple episodes follow Willow as she goes from magic tweaking, to heavy involvement, to jonesing, to a destructive habit that wrecks her relationships with those around her (and almost destroys the earth).

Buffy used the basic vampire/monster plot to comment on common events in a young person’s life – high school, dating, freshman roommates, binge drinking (which turned students into cave people) – as well as topics like the aforementioned addiction, teen suicide, performance-enhancing drugs, and various shades of morality.

And the dialogue! I’m a language junkie. I don’t deny it. And in addition to the then-current teen slang, the show had its own idiom, known as “Buffy Speak.”

TV Tropes describes it thus:

[It] can give the sense of a teenaged group’s special jargon or argot without necessarily imitating anything actually found in the real world. Slang language, especially for the younger set, tends to change at warp speed. Buffy Speak allows a level of timelessness…. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuffySpeak

And here’s a scholarly article about it: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/08/buffy-the-vampire-slayer/

(Speaking of dialogue, Buffy also featured some break-the-mold episodes, including one in which no one can speak and one in which everyone sings their lines, musical-style, with dancing.)

Was it the feminist subtext? The busting of stereotypes and tired plots? The playful language? The hunky vampires? Perhaps the secret to my eventually becoming a fan of Buffy is the fact that, despite my chronological age, I’ve got a 14-year-old living inside my head (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-g1). And maybe my husband knew that.

Although I don’t want to speculate who’s living inside his head.

Romancing the Body

Romance novels have changed since I used to read them. (Yes, I am here publically admitting that I did once read what I called “tempestuous” novels because the cover blurbs always started, “The tempestuous saga of an innocent young woman and the pirate she couldn’t live without.” Hey, I was 16. But I digress.)

The covers of the novels, which were also called “bodice-rippers” back then, usually featured a picture of a man and a woman, with him ripping open her bodice (duh). The man always looked like Fabio (or a fair imitation), with lovely flowing locks, a square chin, an intent gaze, and an irresistible (apparently) sneer. The woman was slim, beautiful, and wearing a dress with a bodice (again, duh). She could be soft and yielding or, more often, fiery and tempestuous. If you knew about such things, you could sometimes guess the era in which the tempest played out by the details of the clothing, but usually not. An open, puffy-sleeved shirt and a ripped bodice don’t really convey that much information.

The point is, the cover art generally featured two figures, a man and a woman, with some indication of conflict and/or passion between them.

Not anymore.

I’ve noticed that these days, romance novels tend to have cover art that features a man only.

And not just any sort of man. He will have the physique of a bodybuilder, a hairless chest (I wrote about that once: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-9P), no shirt (or one that exposes the entire torso), tight jeans, and not much else. He could be a bodybuilder or a cowboy or a firefighter or a musician or (I suppose) a beach bum, or even – remotely possibly – a business tycoon on his day off.

But he has no face.

Where a face should be, there is a shadow, or a hat. Or the picture is simply cropped so that the cover doesn’t involve even a hint of a face.

What does this say about women and the men they are attracted to?

In sexual politics, there is a thing called “the male gaze.” It refers to how television and movies and advertising and just about everything else present females that will be pleasing to a man who is looking at them. How women react to the images doesn’t matter. (This can also be called “heteronormative,” but you didn’t come here for a sociology lesson.) The “male gaze” reinforces the idea that stereotypical males value women only for what’s between their neck and their navel, as the saying goes. (Or their neck and their knees, to be more accurate.)

Now, on the covers of romance novels, we have images that are meant to appeal to the female gaze. And what do they show? Besides torsos, I mean?

They show that publishers – or at least their marketing departments – are trying to appeal to the “female gaze.” And they think that gaze rests on the same areas as men’s gazes. To appeal to the romance reader, they think, men should be manscaped and body-sculpted, physical as all get-out. And anonymous.

It may be true that some women do long for anonymous sex these days and that romance novels increasingly sell sex. And it may be that the female gaze is as superficial and body-conscious as the male gaze. Maybe that’s the way it is for women who read romance novels. Maybe the publishers know their audience.

As for me, the things I look for in a man are all above the neck – bright, witty, creative men with facial hair. (In fact, three of those qualities are not just above the neck, but above the eyebrows. And I’ll disregard a guy’s lack of facial hair if the other three qualities are strong.)

That’s what’s romantic as far as I’m concerned. And sexy. But I suppose it doesn’t sell books.

 

 

BOLO: The Word Crimes Just Keep Coming!

“Word Crimes” was a big hit for Weird Al Yankovic, ttto “Blurred Lines,” a song that needed the Weird Al treatment if one ever did. But there are lots more word crimes that never made it into the song, likely because to get radio play, a song has to be under four minutes long. In my life as an editor, I see word crimes that are 182 pages long.

Now back to that “ttto.” It may be fairly easy to decode that as “to the tune of,” just from context. IMHO, AFAIK, BTW, and IIRC are becoming common enough online acronyms, but what are we to do with TH:TBotFA? Or THGttG (sometimes written as THHGttG). I know we all could sit here for hours and make up things that they could stand for, but there are better things to do, like petting the cat or helping the needy.

If you are at all familiar with geek culture, you may know that these acronyms are movie and book titles – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, respectively. It’s bad enough that you sound like a noob (newbie) (neophyte) if you ask what ST:TOS means (Star Trek: The Original Series – you know, the one with Captain Kirk). But we fancy literary types don’t inflict acronyms on others. We don’t say FftMC when we mean Far from the Madding Crowd or TCoL49 for The Crying of Lot 49.

Perhaps the most annoying acronym of all is STFUATMM (or more politely, SUATMM. STFU is familiar to all but the most genteel, who abbreviate it as SU, but ATMM is more problematic, since this time no one bothers with lowercase letters to help you guess articles, conjunctions, and the like. No, this phrase is “Shut (the fuck) Up And Take My Money,” which means, “You don’t have to say another word; you had me at ‘buy.'”

Full disclosure: I must admit that in my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com), I do use the acronym YMMV, or “Your Mileage May Vary,” to indicate that my experiences should not be generalized to everyone.

Another language trend which has gotten out of hand is “portmanteau words” –two words squashed together to make a new word with a meaning that combines them both.  (A portmanteau is a cross between a trunk and a suitcase.) Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, was, if not the inventor, surely a most prolific coiner of portmanteaus. The appear everywhere in his classic poem “Jabberwocky” – “slithy,” meaning “lithe” and “slimy,” for instance, or one that the English language has retained: “chortle,” from “chuckle” and “snort.” It’s just so damn useful.

“Brunch” and “motel” are useful portmanteaus too, but advertising has taken such words too far. I suppose it’s too late to kill off “sale-a-bration,” but can we call a moratorium on “transfarency” (airline usage) and “unjection” (prescription medicine)? Bon appe-cheese? Trucksicle?  And anything that ends in “-licious” or “-tastic”?

And while we’re on the subject of advertising, can we please stop having Washington and Lincoln dancing around for Presidents Day sales? It’s undignified, first of all, and there is no known connection between the leaders of our country and linens, unless you credit the rumors that Washington slept virtually everywhere.

You could, I suppose, make a connection between Washington and nurseries that sell cherry trees, but even that would be bogus and nurseries’ advertising budgets are not huge. (They spend it all on catalogues.)

Not to worry, though. Even if we manage to eliminate these heinous crimes, there are plenty of others in existence and soon to be created. Among the ones that make me shudder are weather-related portmanteaus like “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon”; “gifted” to mean “gave someone a present”; and most words that end in “ize.” And don’t even get me started on the way my husband pronounces “foliage” when he reads those nursery catalogues. Or how “catalogue,” “dialogue,” and “doughnut” are spelled these days. Or…or…or…

 

Survival Tips for Deadly Boring Meetings

Deadly boring meetings are one of the hazards of office life. They don’t actually take your life (most of the time), but they can make you wish they would. (There have been stories about office workers who died in their cubicles and went undiscovered for days, but these are largely untrue. No matter how rancid the office refrigerator smells, a decomposing body surely out-ranks it. Though too-energetic air conditioning can delay the process. But I digress.)

One meeting that I was in was so memorably boring that I became fascinated with the ear hair of the man sitting next to me. I couldn’t imagine how the individual fibers got so long while escaping his notice as well as his ears. They weren’t just protruding from inside his ears; they had migrated to his earlobes and whatever the technical term is for those folds and channels of the ear. I thought that he might be turning into a werewolf and that, being within chomping range, I would be his first victim. Needless to say, I didn’t pay much attention to the agenda.

Aside from werewolf-watching, though, there are plenty of activities to keep you alert – or, more importantly – looking alert during those agenda-setting meetings, pre-meeting meetings, meetings, and post-mortem meetings (especially appropriate if someone actually has died of boredom), not to mention stand-up meetings, which will be mercifully short if there is a quorum of women wearing high heels. (I mistakenly typed “high hells” there, which is a slip you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out.)

So what can I recommend to keep you breathing in and out while that guy from IT rattles on about bandwidth and the CEO decides bandwidth actually means how much work she can get out of each of you? Take up a new career. Here are some suggestions.

Take up poetry. This has the added advantage that you look like you are actually taking notes. Of course, you can always draw boxes and weapons on your legal pad or play Candy Crush with the sound off on your tablet, but your arm and hand motions will give you away. No, you should be writing down actual words. Pay attention to the office smarty-pants and write down words he uses like “deleterious” (and other words of three or more syllables). By the end of the meeting, you’ll have some serious free verse. Maybe you can even get it published!

Take up sculpture. There are usually paper clips and coffee stirrers available at every meeting. If not, BYO. Then twist and sculpt away. This has the advantage of keeping your hands busy so you don’t strangle anyone. After a bit of practice, one man I know was able to make a recognizable figure of Don Quixote and a windmill. (OK, we were in a bar and they were margarita stirrers, but the idea is the important thing.) As the meeting ends, subtly slide your sculpture in front of someone else’s chair. If you’re caught, claim that you have a more appalling nervous habit (I recommend rhinotillexomania) and your therapist suggested you try this instead.

Take up musical theater. This is one of my favorites, and can also be made to look like you’re taking notes. Take any musical you’re particularly fond of (I like The Mikado), and recast it using only the people sitting at the table. Would the CFO make a good Pooh-Bah? Would the comptroller do well as Katisha? Then imagine them playing the roles. Afterward, you can recast it with the worst possible employee playing each role. (A variant of this is to recast an old musical with current actors – Kevin Kline and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Man of La Mancha, for example.)

Take up psy ops. This is just plain fun, although it doesn’t result in any notes on your pad or tablet, so perhaps you might combine it with one of the other techniques. Stare attentively at whoever’s speaking, but focus your gaze not on her eyes, but slightly above her left ear (aim for the tip). Or at the knot on the marketing manager’s tie. This can cause distraction – even actual twitching – and no one can tell that you are doing anything. (I understand this is an actual interrogation technique meant to throw the subject off balance.)

You could, I guess, go back to Office Bingo and mark off squares when anyone says “synergistic” or “incentivized” or “skate to where the puck will be,” but when you all yell “Bingo!,” at the same time, the game is over.

Coloring: Inside or Outside the Lines?

The other day, my husband gave me a little gift with which to amuse myself while he was out of town – a paint-n-bake coffee mug with an intricate mandala sort of design on both sides and a set of four special markers. The idea is that when you finish coloring it, you bake it for 45 minutes and the color becomes permanent. (More or less. You are advised to hand-wash the mug.)cup3

A while back, Dan had given me several coloring books and assorted colored pencils, the latest fad in relaxation techniques. Presumably, focusing on the coloring keeps your mind off your troubles. One of the coloring books I later obtained let you color a bunch of swear words, which are very satisfying to contemplate. (I think the book is English, because it contains epithets like “wank stain,” which I guess is equivalent to American “jerkwad.”)

Anyway, I wrote about the coloring craze some time ago in a blog post (“Color My World” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-jP), in which I said,

I don’t know anyone who admits to coloring within the lines when they were kids. Coloring outside the lines … was a badge of freedom and creativity and, for some, poor fine motor skills. It was how the more inhibited of us let our freak flags fly.

The coffee mug, however, was clearly intended to be colored within the lines, unless done as an art project by a five-year-old for Father’s Day.

This presented a little problem for me. I have “essential tremor,” which is doctor-speak for “We don’t know why your hands shake; they just do.” With coloring books, this wasn’t much of an issue, because the pages never even made it as far as the refrigerator door. A coffee mug, however, is meant to be used, though, so conceivably other people might see it. (Not that I’m a great one for having koffee klatches, except by phone with my mother-in-law.)

As I started coloring the first side of the mug, I discovered something useful – until baked, the colors were far from permanent. They could be rubbed away easily with a fingertip or a Kleenex. Or the heel of your hand as you rested it on the mug, trying to get the top half colored. Finally, I decided that the teensy white spaces within the itty-bitty black lines were just suggestions, and colored the larger shapes, staying vaguely between the lines and leaving those little accents of white, just for contrast.

By the time I had accomplished that, my hands were well and truly shaking. I could have stopped there and finished the mug later, on a day when my tremor was less troublesome. (It comes and goes, aggravated by fatigue or stress.) But I wanted to get the damned thing over and done with.cup1

I decided that I would purposely let my freak flag fly on the other side. I would not even try to stay within the lines. Instead I took the markers and colored in bright diagonal streaks of different lengths and widths, with reckless disregard for any and all black lines. It was, in its own way, very satisfying, even if it did resemble the aforementioned Father’s Day gift. It was bright and cheery, and it looked absolutely nothing like the mandala pattern or the other side’s more constrained coloring.

I had warned Dan that I didn’t intend both sides of the mug to look the same, but I think he just supposed I would use different colors for the different parts of the identical design. We’ll see what he says when he gets home. As a child of the sixties, he should appreciate my rebelliousness, and as a fan of the Impressionists, he ought to admire my emotionally free style.

And if he doesn’t, I’ll just use the mug myself. It’s quite a large one, big enough to contain both my outer adult and my inner child. And lots of coffee.

 

P.S. Thanks to Ellen Kollie, friend and former coworker, for suggesting I turn this Facebook post into a blog post. If it doesn’t work, it’s all your fault.

Why Does Everything Have to Be Fun?

My husband used to accuse me of not knowing how to have fun. And he was right, sort of, in the sense that his ways of having fun and mine were (and are) very different. Now, as I stumble toward the age when the only fun consists of waving my cane at children and telling them to stay off my lawn, I have begun to rethink the whole concept of fun.

And I think fun is overrated. Or at least what is passed off as fun in popular culture.

Brushing your teeth is brushing your teeth. There’s nothing inherently fun about it. It’s just necessary, boring, and repetitive. But apparently we think that if we put Star Wars characters on the toothbrush handles, toothbrushing becomes FUN (how, I don’t know) and kids “may be brushing longer,” a claim that is never backed up by statistics.

Fun flavors like bubble gum also seem to be preferable to good old mint. I enjoy the flavor of mint, but I don’t think it’s fun. And I suspect that associating the act of brushing one’s teeth with the flavor of bubble gum is counterproductive. Just sayin’.

Likewise, there is nothing intrinsically fun about eating a salad, especially if you’re a female and alone. Yet there is a whole meme dedicated to “woman laughing alone with salad,” and now even a play based on the concept. Eating a salad by oneself can be tasty, pleasant, unpleasant, boring, or any number of other feelings. Why then are there so many photos of women laughing (or at least grinning idiotically) while eating salad?

And why are there so few photos of men doing the same thing? Do men not eat salads? Only in the company of others? Only stoically? It seems eating a salad alone is FUN only for solitary females. Poor, poor men, who must find their fun elsewhere.

Men having FUN get to drive cars, not eat salad. Cars provide particular enjoyment when the driver is breaking traffic laws or driving on a closed course where he can’t hit anything no matter how he speeds. This one I get a little bit. Fun is equated with breaking the rules, and without consequences. Fun is being sexy and dangerous. It’s hard to make toothbrushing or salads sexy and dangerous, so we’re left with men risking life and limb, while women and children guffaw and grin, browse and brush.

I know, I know. These are tricks of the advertising trade. FUN equals more sales, If ordinary activities are lifted above the ordinary, they will have more appeal to consumers. This is especially true of children who influence purchase decision-making – which is basically all of them. And fun is apparently the only value that kids value. What other satisfactions are there? Except companionship, warmth, friendship, accomplishment, health, adventure, and satisfaction itself, I mean. But all of those have more than three letters.

But FUN rules not just in advertising. Education is another field rife with fun. Multiplication tables aren’t much fun by themselves, so let’s add clowns and elephants. Then students can put their final reports into their Ninja Turtle backpacks and take them home.

I’m not advocating going back to the days of skill, drill, and kill, but I am of the opinion that genuinely engaging activities such as project-based learning will teach students skills in a manner that is genuinely satisfying, memorable, and indeed fun, without the need for stickers, banners, and class parties.

Preparing students, young adults, and even older adults for constant FUN is unrealistic. Taking out the trash isn’t fun. Polishing the floors isn’t fun (unless you’ve got a roomba and a cat). Creating spreadsheets isn’t fun. Taking out appendices isn’t fun (I assume).

Much of adult life and work will turn out to be not-fun. Especially for those women, eating salads alone. And for those of us who don’t care to wear bright yellow, and sing and dance while taking our vitamins. For us, it’s just a gulp, a swallow, and gone.

 

The Great Thanksgiving Ratatouille

One Thanksgiving, the thing I was most grateful for was my husband’s only friend. John became Dan’s only friend when Dan was on his way to ultimate burn-out at work. John was there to listen, which he did exceedingly well. He was my friend as well because we shared similar tastes in books and music.

John was a welcome addition to our small family holiday gatherings. Often the guest list was me, my mother, Dan, and John. All of us lacked other family in the area, so we’d gather at my mother’s and order in Mr. Kroger’s holiday fixin’s.

Occasionally, one of us would cook. That year I felt ambitious. Not Martha-Stewart-huge-turkey ambitious, but I thought I could manage a one-pot meal – ratatouille. I was in the habit of preparing non-traditional holiday meals because they annoyed my sister, who was old-school in her thinking: Thanksgiving and Christmas must feature turkey, Easter is for ham, Fourth of July is for hamburgers and hot dogs, and Earth Day is for, I don’t know, mud pies? She wasn’t present that year, but it’s the principle of the thing.

So I chopped eggplant and onions and zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms and tomatoes and put them in a large pot, along with stock and garlic and assorted herbs and spices, and left it to simmer until all the ingredients got acquainted and agreed to play nicely together. Because John was a committed carnivore, I added some kielbasa as well. I like to think the kielbasa would have added a level of outrage had my sister been there, but really, the ratatouille would have been enough to set her off.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so my Mom and John and I gathered in the living room for chat and shrimp cocktail. So far, so good.

Eventually we moved into the kitchen and I dished up heaping bowls of fragrant, chunky ratatouille. I watched in anticipation as John dipped his spoon in and lifted it to his lips.

He swallowed. Then he raised his hands to his throat and started making hacking noises.

Now, most cooks would be alarmed by this sort of thing. And I was.

I rushed around the table and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver, but discovered my arms were too short to Maneuver properly. “Do you want us to call an ambulance?” I asked.

“Yes,” John croaked. (This actually calmed me an infinitesimal fraction. A person who can talk under those circumstances is not going to die right then.)

Shortly a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police cars pulled up in front of the house. It must have been a slow Thanksgiving. Emergency personnel trooped in as each vehicle arrived, decided that John was unlikely to die in the next few minutes, and turned their attention to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

“Wow! That smells good! What is it?” each asked.

“Ratatouille,” I would reply.

“What’s that?”

“A Mediterranean vegetable stew made with eggplant.”

“Maybe he’s choking on a bone.”

“An eggplant doesn’t have bones,” I would explain. This entire conversation was repeated, verbatim, each time another would-be rescuer walked in.

John was hauled off to the emergency room and I followed. Medical-type events ensued. John was asked to cough, substances were sprayed into his throat, and an x-ray was taken. It took a while.

It took so long that our friends, the ambulance people, brought in another patient, saw us in our little cubicle, and said in amazement, “You’re still here?”

At this point I gave up and went to the hospital cafeteria for a festive Thanksgiving cheeseburger, and thought about my sister while I ate it. When I returned, John was still waiting patiently (no pun intended).

Finally, a truly clever doctor arrived and looked down John’s throat with a scope. “There’s something lying on top of his vocal cords,” he reported. “It looks like … some kind of leaf.”

Instantly I knew what had happened. “It’s the fucking bay leaf,” I said. John had swallowed it with his first spoonful of ratatouille, and it had lodged in his windpipe. The doctor asked John to cough really hard, and the bay leaf came flying out. It was the first time the doctor had ever encountered a bay-leaf-related emergency, he told us. It was our first, too.

We went back to my mother’s house, fed John some ice cream for his poor, abused throat, and he left to go home and lie down. As the door closed behind him, my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to sue us.”

Forever after, the dish was known as my killer ratatouille recipe. Not many people ask for it, for some reason.

This year, I’ll use a bouquet garni! Then I can be thankful that everyone will live through Thanksgiving dinner.

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This is a revision of a post from a couple of years ago, but I thought it was worth resurrecting.

 

 

Sushi Tales From the Midwest

It’s not as hard as it used to be finding sushi here in the midwest anymore. It can be hard finding good sushi. Fortunately I live in a community that contains an Air Force base and a university with programs such as bioengineering that draw a diverse and sophisticated population. It is no longer impossible to find good sushi. The variety may be less than what’s available on either coast or in bigger cities, but someone (like me) with a taste for the Japanese delicacy can find satisfaction, along with sashimi, sunomono, and low-sodium soy sauce.

But it hasn’t always been easy. Here are some fish tales from my journey from doubter to aficionado.

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The first time I tried sushi was in one of those social situations where it is simply impossible to refuse. (Not unlike the time I ate egg salad, which I loathe, at my sister’s mother-in-law’s.)

I belonged to a martial arts club, and one weekend we were invited to the sensei’s house to help answer mail and do some other dojo-related paperwork chores. His wife, a lovely Japanese lady, served up a plate of sushi. That she had made by hand. Using seaweed from her family’s farm in Japan. Short of a deathly fish allergy, there is no conceivable way to refuse such an offer. So we all gulped a little and then gulped a little.

I don’t know what everyone else thought, but I found it odd yet somewhat pleasant. I believe I acquitted myself well. And I decided that if the opportunity ever came up again, I would certainly indulge.

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That opportunity came on my husband’s and my fifth anniversary. We got dressed up and went to a tony Japanese restaurant about 45 minutes away. (Sushi had not yet penetrated the local market. Now it’s available in the local supermarket.)

We ordered a sushi appetizer and tempura entrees. I informed my husband that under no circumstances was he allowed to ask for a knife and fork. The sushi portion of the meal went swimmingly until Dan noticed the little pile of green paste on his plate and scooped up a healthy mouthful. Of course it was wasabi, and of course the top of his head blew off. A fan of horseradish in all its forms, he still likes the stuff, but now in more judicious quantities. The pickled ginger is much more forgiving.

(Later in the dinner I complimented him on how well he was doing with the chopsticks, despite his lack of practice. He replied, “Honey, I’m a compulsive overeater. I’d eat with my elbows if I had to.”)

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Not everyone is enthusiastic about their first encounter with sushi, or compelled by circumstance to try it. But sometimes another person can be convincing and compelling.

I once dined with a husband and wife at a Japanese restaurant, The wife passed on the sushi.

The husband turned to her and said:

“Do you really want me to tell the children that you wouldn’t even try it?”

Bam! Emotional judo for the win. (He would have done it, too.) She had no response possible, aside from the most profound of dirty looks.

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I have no problem with people who actually don’t care for sushi – once they’ve tried it. My friend Tom was a case in point. We were dining at an excellent sushi bar and he expressed a desire to give it a try.

It was beautiful sushi. Gloriously dark red tuna reposed on a pillow of sticky rice. Of course when Tom asked to try a piece, I had to say yes. If he was ever going to like sushi, this was the piece he would like (aside from oshinko or other non-raw-fish varieties, of course).

And he didn’t like it. But I was so proud of him for trying. Without even the threat of disappointed kids.

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My husband’s coworkers were not so brave. They had a tradition on birthdays of letting the celebrant choose the restaurant. Dan chose a local sushi bar, and had to put up with the disgusted faces and the gagging noises they made as he ate his way through a platter of assorted delights.

Of course, when sushi became trendy a few years later, all the fellows were bragging about how much they loved it. Dan refrained from reminding them that they were raving over what they had once considered – and derided – as bait.

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And what of fugu fish, the potentially deadly blowfish that, unless properly prepared, can kill with an insidious neurotoxin? Am I brave enough to try that?

Fortunately, I don’t have to answer. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no properly qualified fugu masters in our area and so no fugu on the menu anywhere around.

But if I ever get into a social situation where eating fugu is the only possible option, I like to think that I would smile, say, “Domo arigatou gozaimasu” and dig in. It might be the last thing I ever did, but I would die politely.