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.

Team Eating

I’ve never been any good at team eating. And I’m not referring to those idiotic competitions to see who can eat the most hot dogs in under a minute (which I believe are individual events anyway). Not that I think I would be any good at those, either. I belch too often to get any kind of rhythm going.

A group of friends eating at a restaurantNo, where I fail is at business dining. Oh, I can make it through an isolated lunch or even an occasional dinner. It’s the day-to-day eating events that leave me stymied.

The company lunchroom is as terrifying to me as a high school cafeteria. I never get to sit at the table with the cool kids or even the audiovisual club. And since a tuna sandwich takes approximately three minutes to eat – maybe five, if you have carrot sticks or yogurt, there’s no good way to stretch it out.

You’d think that my usual strategy – bringing along a book – would allow for some first-class work-related eavesdropping. But no. People get suspicious if you don’t turn the pages, and any book worth its tiny paper package of salt will prove distracting right before the team eaters get to the really juicy stuff – and I don’t mean ripe peaches.

If the lunch culture at the office (and here I’m not referring to yogurt) involves dining at local establishments, the problem is even worse. Even if you want to be a team eater, only the truly pathetic will attempt the “Can I come too?” ploy. It works, in the sense that hardly anyone has the meatballs to say no, but it only leads to groups of employees hustling out a fire door that’s not near your desk the next time.

If you’re a brave soul and decide to eat out alone, trusty book in hand, you may encounter the horror of sauntering into a restaurant where a tableful of your co-workers have already gathered. At that point the only thing to do is nod politely while the other diners pretend their mouths are full and wave a cordial fork in your direction. If you’re a grump, you can hope they flick salad dressing in someone’s eye.

But by far the worst team eating events are picnics, cookouts, pizza parties, and other mandatory frivolities put on by the company. These may be billed as voluntary events, but believe me, they aren’t. If you do decide to forego the games of water balloon volleyball or bingo (with prizes “donated” by your suppliers) in favor of retreating to a cool, dim nearby watering hole, you leave yourself open to being the object of whispered, eye-darting conversations in the lunchroom for at least the next month. Plus, you’ll have to avoid making eye contact with everyone else who slunk off to the same watering hole.

What’s the solution? Is there a solution? A number of people I know just read their books and ignore coworkers back. Some eat at their desks, though honestly, you’ve got to get out of that hell-cube sometime or you’ll grow corners.

Maybe the best solution is to take a large batch of brownies – they don’t even have to be home-made – and offer them around. Brownies are a kind of currency that buys you a place at the lunch table. Especially if they’re “special” brownies (depending on where you work, of course). Oh, and mix it up. Cupcakes, cookies, doughnuts – anything suitably sweet says, “Invite me!”

Then feel free to dish about someone else who isn’t there. You’ll be a team eater in no time.

Who’s Stupid Now?

For television commercials to work, someone has to be stupid. (Besides the ad agencies and the viewers, that is.)Sales man

The basic “storyline” of most commercials is this: Someone has a problem. The advertiser solves the problem. And the peasants rejoice.

The person with the problem must be portrayed as a real idiot who can’t solve the problem alone.

But who the idiot is has evolved.

In the 50s and 60s, women were stupid. The poor little housewife was unable to conquer soap scum, ring-around-the-collar, or (my favorite) “house-itosis.” In steps Mr. Clean or that little guy in a boat (never mind the unconscious symbolism of that) floating in the toilet or a giant lumberjack to pat her on the head and say, “There, there, little lady. I can show you how to perform simple household tasks.”

Even if there was no male special effect to provide enlightenment, there was always a male voice-over announcer to dispense wisdom and cleaning products.

That was the paradigm: Men saving women from old or newly invented problems, mostly cleaning-related.

Then came the 70s and 80s, with the liberation of women, who were now allowed to smoke pretty flower-decorated cigarettes and wear slacks while they cleaned.

Men were the stupid ones, who needed to be saved by a female (or female announcer) because they were too clueless and incompetent to wipe up a spill, treat their own diarrhea, or wash a glass without leaving the social horror of spots and streaks. Women to the rescue! All those lessons they learned from men in the 50s and 60s were now boomeranging on the men who, suddenly faced with the reality of household chores that they were learning to “help with” needed the tender guidance of a woman, the house and family expert. She would shake her head in pity at the helpless male and swoop in to demonstrate the mysteries of scouring powder, which is, after all, fairly easy to operate.

Child care in particular left men befuddled, holding a baby at arm’s length and wailing louder than the infant, “What do I do?” A woman shakes her head and informs him. “You wipe the mud off his hands, you lovable dope. And while you’re at it, stuff some green or brown mush in his face so he can spit it on the walls that you have no idea how to clean either.”

My husband despised those years and those commercials. “Why do they always make the men look like boobs?” he would cry. (Women were having their own problems with ads and boobs, but never mind that for now.) He had a point, of course, but I couldn’t muster much sympathy. There were still giant lumberjacks showing up in my kitchen from time to time. Those guys were worse than roaches, which needed a friendly male exterminator to do the lethal deed.

Then came the 80s and 90s. Who got to be stupid then? Both men and women. Who got to save the day? Their children, of course!

Particularly when technology was involved, but also in cases of breakfast cereal crisis, tots and tykes were taking over and bailing out their floundering parents. The kids knew everything and the parents knew nothing. And while there was a grain of truth in the idea that tweens and teens were generally more tech-savvy than your average parent, grown-ups did after all increasingly use technology at work outside the home and were required to know how to plug it in by themselves. But, hey, role reversal was amusing, and the sight of kids shaking their heads at clueless parents would surely motivate people of all ages to buy, buy, buy. (The ad people had by this time discovered that children were a consumer force in their own right and spent their money on more than just bubble gum.)

So, where are we now? We’ve run through stupid women, stupid men, and stupid adults. What could possibly be left?

That’s right. Stupid humans. Apparently all homo sapiens are now so dim that we have to have origami rabbits to teach us how to save money and bears to teach us to wipe our own asses.

Next it’ll be aliens teaching us how to not destroy our own planet.

Wait. We really need that.