lifestyle

Our dish washer finally died. I saw it coming. Do they even make Magic Chef appliances any more?!? I think that ours was the original dishwasher from the time our building was constructed in 1978. So really a pretty good run but it had sure lost its magic long ago.

our elderly Magic Chef with Temp Boost


the upper rack was useless for cleaning anything though made a wonderful safety hazard

There were always a bunch of problems, but it was sort of working okay so we kept postponing getting a new one. Dishwashers aren’t that cheap, you know, and I have expensive tastes. We’ve been living with the ancient machine for about six years. Over that time it gradually entered senility. The MG slowly forgot how to clean dishes on the upper rack. Thus for the past few months I’d only use the lower one, which is obviously not a green practice. Even worse, sometimes the detergent dispenser would not open, so none of the dishes would get washed. But the most annoying thing was that the Magic Chef was loud…very loud. While the machine was running, you’d have to talk with extra volume even if sitting across the table from one another. If we were trying to watch TV, listen to music or have an after dinner conversation in the living room, it was almost impossible to make out what was said over the noisy swooshing jets of water and moving mechanical parts of the pathetic thing. When it drained it sounded like there was a flood in the house. Thank god that it never actually flooded (but don’t get me started on our ancient water heater disaster last summer!)

our Magic Chef soap dispenser was less than active in its old age

Despite all the inconvenience, the Magic Chef was a very helpful machine for a long time. We all get old and less effective at things that once seemed so easy when we’re young and fresh, don’t we? I am glad we had it. Magic Chef, thanks for being with us for this past six years. I hope that you’re at peace in kitchen appliance heaven now, perhaps sitting under a shade tree somewhere boasting to your mechanical friends about all of those filthy pots and pans that you cleaned lickety-split after your humans threw a massive dinner party in the Eighties.

look at our sleek new LG dishwasher! Are you jealous?

Dishwashers, like everything else it seems, have changed. Our new LG is just incredible! Though it fills the same space the Magic Chef did, the interior is much roomier. It washes really well without having to do any extra scrubbing. You can even use both racks! And the top one is adjustable for tall things like stemware. It has a special device to hold stemware and reduce breaking. Gosh! The thing that I like the most is that it’s ultra silent. At only 47 decibels, the sound is almost imperceptible. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that it was actually working the first few times I ran it because I didn’t hear anything from the dining room after I turned it on in the kitchen. What an improvement!

the very first load of dishes in our LG

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“…some people take drugs to chemically induce a happiness they cannot otherwise achieve; others drink to excess for the same reason. Still others throw themselves into religious frenzies in a bout of self-intoxication. All are seeking happiness. But happiness, even Heaven, is the absence of further progress. When one is happy, one wants no more than that, and will spend his life in a search to keep the brain’s pleasure center permanently on. It is the essence of humanity. We learn, we progress, by our unending quest for eternal happiness—yet should we achieve it, it all stops.”

from Soul Rider book 3: Masters of Flux and Anchor

Jack Chalker published the Soul Rider series in the mid-Eighties, a bit after the first five novels in the Well World Series but before he returned to that earlier series in the Nineties. The first three novels in Soul Rider are really one extended story in three volumes. It starts by describing the adventures of a young girl, Cassie, who grows up in a rural farming community in a place called Anchor Logh. Her planet, World, consists of twenty-eight “Anchors” all surrounded by this mysterious energy called Flux. Anchors are really like very large islands. They have conventional Earth-like properties and seem quite ordinary: filled with farms or factories; people live, work, have children and die all under the watchful gaze of the matriarchal Church in conjunction with the patriarchal local government.

these three look pretty happy to me

Flux is something quite different and generally frightening to most of these “Anchor-folk.” It’s a kind of energy field surrounding the Anchors that some people can manipulate with their minds. The strongest, called “wizards,” can create anything they wish out of Flux, including changing human bodies and even minds to completely control all those around them less adept at handling Flux.

The Soul Rider is something unknown even to itself but at the start of the first novel it is inexplicably drawn to Cassie and enters her mind as a kind of symbiot. Through various complex political machinations, Cassie along with a number of other young people are sold into slavery to Flux. The story is very intricate, with lots of schemes and counter-schemes, and like all good sci-fi, finishes with a nail-biting confrontation with the “end of the world” where all the mysteries are more or less explained. There’s even a “scientific explanation” given for magic. Meanwhile it’s quite a ride.

Cassie gets tortured, brainwashed, becomes a saint, a powerful wizard, a mother, a wife and a mindless sex slave at various times throughout the book. Her children and loved ones fare little better. Much of the author’s philosophizing is about the relationship between men and women and the human tendency to exploit one another. These people are not nice and they use their powers, magical and technological, ruthlessly. Church leaders, wizards, warlords, husbands and wives, lovers, parents and children, scientists and dreamers all backstab, manipulate or otherwise mess with each other for personal ambition or revenge. By the end, everything all sort of “works out,” but at a dreadful cost.

It’s in this context that the wizard Mervyn, one of “the Nine” whose mission is to protect World from the opening of the “Hellgates,” makes those pessimistic comments about happiness quoted above. Is it really true that happiness is merely a chemical reaction that the brain is striving to maintain at all costs? Are we all seeking that kind of happiness, and would everything really stop if we achieved it?

I’m constantly hearing people tell me that they’d be happy if they could just find that perfect girl/boyfriend, get a better job, have more money or less debt, have better health, weigh less (or, rarely, more), were younger or older, were the other sex, looked more attractive, lived somewhere else, you name it. Yet so often after achieving one of these dreams; an example for me was moving to California, which I’d been sure would make me ecstatically happy; the effect gradually wears off. I still love it here but I’m not intoxicated with delight every day. That’s always the problem with these wishes, isn’t it?

I’m not sure that I can agree with old Mervyn that drugs or drink are a way to achieve this exalted level of happiness. There is no doubt that these things affect the mood and sometimes that’s in the happiness direction. So often, though, drugs and alcohol in serious users tend to cause more problems than anything else. These sad folk end up taking more and more not to feel good but to avoid thinking and feeling bad about all their problems, including the problem of their drug dependency itself. Drugs are a dead end if you ask me.

So where does that leave us? Is happiness a mirage? Chalker’s characters in the Soul Rider series realize many of their dreams at various times but are mostly left angry and miserable as time goes by. At their best, they are at peace with compromises that they’ve made with the powerful forces around them. That’s it, though. Not “happy,” just “O.K.”

Perhaps it’s the model of “happiness” that’s the real issue. Peak happiness happens, thank goodness! It simply never lasts. Feeling good all the time sounds great on paper, but maybe it’s kinda unrealistic. Why not adjust our expectations to fit better with reality? That’s what Cassie et al. finally did on World. How marvelous to have these joyful bursts from time to time. Working toward a sense of general wellbeing, not the vanishing ecstatic extreme, is my goal. I get the idea that Chalker thought so too. If that’s true, than at least we can safely put Mervyn’s fear of the end of progress to rest. It will never stop because permanent ecstatic happiness is always out of reach. That’s not as gloomy as it sounds. Personally I enjoy things more when they’re mixed with things that are less exciting. It’s the variety that makes stuff interesting.

Reading this three volume novel made me very happy, at least for a while. The story’s disturbing but also thrilling and thought provoking. That good feeling is already fading and I only finished the third novel last night. I suppose that I’ll have to start on something else soon to get that literary “rush” once again. But I’m still feeling fine right now.

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could these two stunning women be French?

I just finished Mireille Guiliano’s French Women for All Seasons, the sequel to her bestselling French Women Don’t Get Fat. Like the first, this book is a guide to thinness and the good life. The name for this blog entry comes from one of her section headings on wine; and just like champagne, this work is effervescent, sometimes silly or dry, but always a pleasure and always in style. Guiliano, somewhat mischievously, makes a big point of writing “I don’t do or recommend diets.” Surely that is a bit tongue-in-cheek as much of the text is about finding that slim you and learning to feel bien dans sa peau, or good in your skin, about it. Her fairly well-worn idea is that faddish, American-style diets don’t work. Well, duh. She offers, then, a plan for reshaping your outlook on food, drink and life in order to reshape your body; instead of starving yourself over a few weeks and then ballooning up again and again.

The book is divided into four main sections, representing the traditional four seasons. In them she develops her fashion ideas for each season with accompanying recipes using seasonal ingredients. These chapters are followed by a last few which offer specific guidance on other, related subjects; like developing a taste for wine, planning parties and entertaining, a special commentary on unusual (to Americans) French foods, and an amusing section in which she describes the meanings of some of the various French expressions that she sprinkles so liberally throughout the book. That last bit is rather infectious, non?

The book glows with Guiliano’s personal anecdotes about her childhood in France as well as her adulthood living and working in New York. She’s full of opinions about women’s fashion and deportment, exercise and the culture of food. Sometimes these bons mots seem harsh. This example struck me particularly, both because of its obvious validity and the writer’s brutal humor in exposing this common foible: “Others take the arrival of summer sun as the occasion to roast like poulets on a spit, heedless of common sense, let alone medical fact. Raising the bar for what constitutes a healthy glow, they compel their more vampirish sisters to slather on the tanner-in-a-tube, which leaves virtually all complexions some shade of cantaloupe.” She’s not that tough all of the time. Usually, Guiliano’s advice is more businesslike yet compassionate. To the nervous potential hostess, she writes:

I know a lot of people panic or obsess over looking and doing their best. We can all become insecure about hosting and sometimes have the feeling that people are coming to judge us. But that’s nonsense. Most of them will have made up their minds about you well before they ever show up; if they’ve accepted your invitation, that already says a lot. Besides, even reluctant acceptors still want to have a good time. Nobody shows up determined not to. Really, you’ve got them from hello.

No truer words were ever written!

Despite the book’s title, her helpful suggestions about weight and portion control can apply equally to both sexes. I’m curious about several of her recipes, especially the fiddle head fern pasta for springtime. I hope to make that one when fiddle heads return. A lot of the recipes call for dairy. This is French cooking after all. Guiliano’s not shy about using butter, eggs, milk and cream, seemingly with abandon. She’s no stranger to meat dishes, either. I passed over those recipes without incident. She confesses her chocolate addiction openly. This is one of her personal “offenders” that leads her down the path to overweight. This problem doesn’t prevent her from offering loads of decadent chocolate dessert recipes for the reader to drool over. Fortunately, I’m not that into chocolate, so I can handle it.

Many of the dishes that she describes are standard French stuff. She has her version of vichyssoise, also known as cold leek and potato soup, a few kinds of mousse, and oysters prepared several ways. I was enchanted with that last but still remain too intimidated by shucking them to really test-drive those recipes. Perhaps someday… She does have some more adventurous fare, like farfalle with edamame, and frogs’ legs, though these are few and far between. I liked her emphasis on eating good foods in season and frequenting farmers’ markets as a way to improve taste.

No doubt Guiliano’s central idea is correct: portion control and regular exercise accompanied by the occasional indulgence probably is the best way to reduce and maintain your desired weight. What makes her program innovative compared to the run-of-the-mill diet plan is that last, indulge-yourself-occasionally part. Have fun, but in moderation, s’il vous plait!

I enjoyed this book quite a lot but sort of wonder about what makes it so pleasant. The recipes are fairly traditional, her fashion suggestions are positively old-school (no jeans, now really!?!) and the plan for weight control is the same thing that my primary care physician tells me whenever I go in for a visit. I think that it must be all of the Frenchie stuff.

Guiliano’s life seems terribly glamorous. She lives in Paris and New York, where she owns apartments in both places; she has a summer home in Provence; she and her husband frequently travel to Italy where they go wine tasting with ancient barons and baronesses in Tuscany; she is a high level executive for the famous champagne house, Veuve Cliquot. She seems to have done everything, and with such style! Amazing!

What is it about French people criticizing America that makes a book such a delight?

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Has anyone out there in the greater blog-i-verse ever heard of Jack Chalker? He saved my sanity in the 1980’s.

I was a dorky, shy, hypersensitive high school kid then; confused about a lot of things: adulthood, sexuality, my relationship to the world beyond the cookie cutter NoVA suburb that I grew up in, you name it. Talk about stressful! I relied heavily on escaping into science fiction and fantasy writing to help me cope with it all.

take me to the Well World!

Like everything else, sci-fi was a struggle for me. My friends were super into it, which is what got me started reading. But I had problems with a lot of the “typical” sci-fi characters, particularly the over-sexed, ultra macho, straight guys and their pursuit of over-sexed, super-hot women. Ho-hum, if you ask me. Like you needed to read a book to learn more about that. Plus the guy characters often seemed so emotionally flat. Fantasy novels appealed to me more than “hard sci-fi.” I liked the predictable plots. There was less to worry about that way. And the characters seemed more alive somehow, which worked better for me. Plus the fantasy people were a lot more polite to one another. Hard sci-fi seemed so rude.

What is “hard science fiction” supposed to mean, anyway? Clearly it was a concept kids in my ‘hood used to differentiate that style of writing from all the “soft” stuff that I was reading. My friends seemed to believe that it had something to do with advanced technology and epic adventure, and, of course, the hero coming out on top in the end. I secretly believed that “hard” meant ‘hard to read’ because the writing was so emotionally empty.

And then there was Jack Chalker.

Lately I’ve been re-discovering him. I adored his novels while a teen. And it turns out that I still like him a lot.

I don’t know how one might classify his writing. Most of the stuff that I’ve read by him deals with highly advanced technologies and epic adventures: sort of “hard” sounding. Yet his characters can often be emotional, make mistakes, get hurt, etc.; just like “real people.” These guys aren’t macho freaks of nature. And what’s really cool about Chalker’s characters is that they are all so changeable.

The dude must have loved Ovid’s Metamorphoses as all of the characters in the novels that I’ve read go through numerous transformations from human to non-human, man to woman and back again, part-human part-animal, completely animal, and so on. These changes aren’t always seamless or easy for these characters. Often they cause dreadful problems. Yet what a liberating idea: appearance matters but is secondary to the ‘real you’ inside. That was not a message that I heard anywhere else; especially in my Regan-era, culturally uptight suburb, immersed as I was in all of that high school peer pressure.

The writer died a couple of years ago. He was only sixty. So young! It’s funny how the Internet lets you learn so much about stuff so easily now-a-days. I’d not known that Chalker lived in Maryland, for example. That’s really close to my hometown. We were almost neighbors! Wow! I didn’t know that Chalker was a history and geography teacher before becoming a sci-fi writer, either, though that makes sense if you’re at all familiar with his writing. I’d never seen his picture, or knew about his wife and children, or his fascination with ferryboats… Was there even life before the Internet? How quaint, how barbaric!

Various web sites that I’ve read suggest that Chalker’s book, Midnight at the Well of Souls, was his most successful. Turns out this is the first in a series of ten somewhat connected novels. I knew of the first five in the ‘80’s but what a surprise to discover the second. Recently I read them all, much to my delight.

The first book starts out in the distant future. The Earth has been abandoned for many other planets. These have developed various cultures of humans. Since technology is so advanced, travel through “hyperspace” is possible to allow commerce. There’s also a mysterious set of old abandoned planets that seem to have been colonized by an ancient civilization, now thought extinct. Initially, we’re with a team of archeologists on one of these empty worlds. Various weird things happen that lead one of the team to kill all but one of the others. The two then fight and somehow step onto an unusual artifact and disappear from known space.

Next we’re on an interplanetary ship when suddenly a distress call is received. The jaded captain, Nathan Brazil, answers. The ship is led to that same empty Markovian world where the captain and passengers start to investigate the murders but then, oops, they fall into the same “trap.” Oooh!

I know: it sounds super hokey, but wait!

Next these un/lucky, depending on how you look at things, people travel through some strange passageway through space and find themselves in a huge chamber where they’re greeted by a monster who claims to be an ambassador to South Zone, the place that they’ve all just arrived in. They are on southernmost part of the Well World, an artificial planet designed by the ancient Markovians, apparently set up as laboratory to create thousands of sentient life forms to populate the known universe. The whole world and even the universe are maintained by an enormous computer that makes up the bulk of the planet. There’s no way back home. And they now all must pass through another gate where their bodies will be transformed into one of the hundreds of creatures populating the Southern Hemisphere, each having their own territory, generally shaped like a hexagram. The change is permanent. And they’re very unlikely to remain human.

They all pass through and become some other creature; that is except for the wily Captain Brazil. He exits the gate unchanged. Then the adventure really starts.

The series is very ambitious. It’s full of adventure; romance; quests and wars; metaphysical speculations; explorations of culture; meditations on class, race, sex and sexuality; and its damn fun, too. It’s true that some of the writing in the earlier books is uneven. I think that Chalker’s style improved as he aged and got more experience. The Well World series was published between 1977 and 2000, so a long time in which to hone your craft. If you’ve never read it, you should. Urge your bookstore to stock these novels again! Perhaps they can be re-issued like the Roger Zelazny The Great Book of Amber was recently: in a single ten-in-one volume.

Thank you, Jack Chalker! You made my tortured adolescence more bearable. It’s wonderful to rediscover you, too, in the new decade of the new millennium. Peace.

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Well, I’ve finally been able to finish this challenging book. To be honest, I skimmed the last quarter of it. Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair was a real struggle for me. Ostensibly the book is about exactly what the title says: the slow food movement and the philosophy behind the goals of “good,” “clean” and “fair.” Really Petrini’s work is a bizarre mixture of self-promoting autobiography, name dropping, a travelogue, a political manifesto against the agro industry, a vague sort of self help guide and an almost spiritual exhortation to embrace the lifestyle and thinking of a gastronome. It’s no wonder with all of that going on in a mere 255 pages that reading this was tough going. I simply cannot agree with Alice Waters, who wrote in the introduction that Petrini’s writing puts “big ideas together in sparkling, strong language.” ‘Sparkling’ and ‘strong’ suggests a kind of crisp clarity that I could not find anywhere in this book. Instead it was written in a repetitive, contradictory and condescending style that left me very irritated.

has urbanization really led to the decline of quality tasty environmentally freindly food choices

has urbanization really led to the decline of quality tasty environmentally friendly food choices?

The Slow Food movement has its origins in Italy as a reaction against what, to some, was the gradual disappearance of traditional food lifestyles and the rise of fast food chains in Rome. Petrini consistently targets the agro industry as a leader in the disconnect between the farm and table throughout the West. As a result he complains somewhat histrionically that the world “seems to be drifting aimlessly.” Quality, taste and biodiversity have all suffered as a direct consequence of people leaving farms for the cities and becoming disconnected with their traditional culinary cultural histories.

He’s ambivalent about industrialization. On the one hand, he clearly recognizes that it has improved life for many. He cites the example of the virtual end of malnutrition and scarcity of food in western societies as evidence of that. Yet he raises the concern that these same changes are ultimately “unsustainable” as nature becomes more and more “an object of domination.” Throughout the convoluted text, Petrini returns again and again to agro industry as the real problem. By focusing on quantity versus quality; exploitation of farmers and agricultural workers; the use of pesticides; and relying on a few agricultural products which can be easily transported vast distances, thereby reducing diversity and damaging the environment further, industry is literally wrecking the planet. It’s true that monoculture and pesticide use cause environmental problems. But is it obvious that the older methods of agricultural production, used on a large scale, are environmentally superior to the current ones used by big industry? He does not really offer a lot of facts to support this grand thesis. But he is persuasive and whether or not you really believe the world is at risk, he does have some good ideas for improving your appreciation of food and wine.

As a self-styled gastronome, Petrini is all about quality and taste. He’s really into relationship building with your local farmers as “co-producers” or maybe even getting back to nature and growing your own food. He seems positively convinced that this will improve quality and taste. That may be. Yet I couldn’t help noticing that nowhere in this book does Petrini ever recommend in any serious kind of way that aspiring gastronomes should actually learn to cook. How, I wonder, would someone know what to make from produce at the farmers’ market or their kitchen garden if, as he claims, we’ve all been raised on pre-made foods that you merely reheat?

I do appreciate the idea that we need to learn to taste though I still firmly believe that taste is subjective. The Slow Food tasting workshops that are offered around the world do sound intriguing. I’d love to go to a tropical fruit tasting fair in Rio de Janeiro sometime, for example. Perhaps we can see the 2016 Olympics while we’re there? Seriously though, must one attend a special workshop or will home tastings do? That’s what the WC crew does with wines and it seems to work out pretty well. I definitely notice vinous nuances much better now that I’ve been consciously paying attention and writing about them for this blog. An added benefit of home tastings might also be less damage to the environment. Instead of taking a huge jet to another continent to learn to appreciate mango better, I can do it from home. Sure, the mango needs to be shipped to me, but I understand that those large ships use less fuel per load than planes. The net effect will be less environmental damage, though with this more environmental friendly plan, I’d miss out on the fun sounding trip.

Travel is another problem issue in this complex work. Petrini strongly champions growing locally and learning about the local culinary history of food wherever you happen to live. I get that. At the same time he emphasizes quality and variety as key for any gastronome. Doesn’t variety by necessity imply foods from beyond any particular locality? Petrini identifies travel as a “right” for all gastronomes. And it certainly sounds like he travels a fair bit. He flies from northern Italy to San Francisco quite regularly. But he also gives anecdotes throughout the book about visits to Mexico, India and Scandinavia, to note only a few. Frankly I’m jealous. It gets a bit absurd at times. One of his fondest memories comes from a Barbaresco tasting held at the Marriot hotel in Times Square. These wines come from Petrini’s home province in Italy. What does that mean?!? He travels thousands of miles on a jet plane to sample wines from vineyards that he could have bicycled to from his home. Isn’t that the kind of thing that leads to the destruction of the environment? I wonder. Perhaps since we’re talking about people traveling rather than food, you can conveniently ignore the environmental cost because it’s out of the realm of concern for the gastronome?

He’s most passionate while decrying the “cultural annihilation that has affected the countryside of every part of the world, on a scale that is unprecedented in human history.” I’m hard pressed to fully grasp what that means. I do get it that there have been mass migrations from the countryside into cities; a trend towards eating out more and cooking less, at least in more developed industrialized places; and that advertizing and marketing has taken hold of the food industry more and more. Does that equal ‘cultural annihilation?’ I don’t think so. It’s merely cultural change, which is an ongoing process for all time. Yes, certain food traditions get lost over time, but there are new things to enjoy too. I couldn’t have developed a taste for sushi living here in the United States had it not been for the industrial changes of the 20th Century which permitted fresh fish to be flown overnight from anywhere in the world. Without improved shipping methods, I’d never had the chance to develop my love for French wine either. Even Petrini recognizes that “traditional” foods are the product of change. He notes that tomatoes are native to the New World and pasta is a version of something developed by China carried through the Middle East. But Italy alone claims paternity for spaghetti with tomato sauce.

I couldn’t help but see this seeking for a fantasized past of high quality, tasty regional food as an attack against the US. As I’ve already mentioned, Slow Food itself is a reaction against the expansion of fast food chains in Italy. I suppose it was in America that fast food chains were born. Beyond that, Petrini completely dismisses the idea that American culture offers any culinary tradition that meets his criteria for taste and quality. Alice Water’s Chez Panisse is the one possible exception that defines this general rule. That’s obviously absurd. As I’ve noted elsewhere, we Americans have rich traditions of regional cuisine. I won’t bother to enumerate them because I don’t think that we need be defensive on this point. Instead it suggests a kind of cultural snobbery and superiority underlying the writer’s world view that is quite troubling.

In the end, this book touches on a lot of exciting and controversial issues: the growth of the agro industry, changes in patterns of eating and living, environmental issues, and the recognition that taste matters. I have to admire his emphasis that learning about food is a lifetime occupation. I just feel that it’s not quite enough. Agro industry exists for a reason; so do fast food chains. Why? I think that the latter survive because a fair number of people like fast food. But what about about big agro? That’s something for which the book has no answer. At his best, Petrini simply demonizes it as the source of the problem. That makes no sense. It’s not here by accident. What would happen if everyone did as Petrini suggests, and go back to nature and begin to cultivate food in small plots ourselves? With the necessary duplication and inefficiency involved, I suspect that we couldn’t grow enough to sustain us all. There are a lot more of us now then there was two hundred years ago. Whether you like it or not, the agro industry exists to sustain the massive world population. We should look at that first before dismantling it wholesale.

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stop social and environmental destruction!

stop social and environmental destruction!

Of all the characters in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, the one that I came most to admire is Grover the satyr. He’s sort of a clown in The Lightning Thief, barely able to keep his Rastafarian hat and shoes on, let alone watch over Percy effectively. Yet by book five, he’s proud of his identity and seems to find the strength of will to go on, despite Pan’s death in The Battle of the Labyrinth, and his banishment by the Council of Cloven Elders; all the while maintaining a sense of humor. Who else could wake up from a dangerous magical sleep in Central Park, covered in muck, and complain so earnestly “They don’t serve very good enchiladas in the wilderness?” What a touching statement that takes us right to the point: Grover is a curious and successful blend of “the Wild” and civilization.

In these days of suburban sprawl, massive urban migration and the wholesale abandonment of rural spaces and lifestyles to huge agro businesses, we’re all kind of in the same boat. I felt a longing for more untamed lands while reading about Grover’s transformation. It’s like the impulse that seems to have driven Brad Kessler to leave New York for his tiny goat ranch in Vermont. I’m not ready to chuck it all in San Francisco just yet, but I get it.

Recently Hegui started reading The Sea of Monsters and was appalled to come across this line way at the beginning:

The monster’s shadow passed in front of the shop. I could smell the thing—a sickening combination of wet sheep wool and rotten meat and that weird sour body order only monsters have, like a skunk that’s been living off Mexican food.

It turns out to only have been a dream; but how odd to compare monster stench to a skunk dining on Mexican food. What does that mean?! Aren’t enchiladas Mexican? Is that racial profiling?

Just like Grover, we Americans want the comforts brought to us by multiculturalism, world trade and the exchange of ideas: each to his or her own enchilada. But, just as Grover was at the beginning of the series, we’re afraid of the consequences and long for the fading wild places. Aside from the obvious, pro-environmental, pro-green idea, the search for the disappearing Wild is simply an expression of nostalgia for a perfect past that never really existed and simultaneously the guilty admission of our anxiety about all things “different” from ourselves. We can’t escape the dilemma. We bring our civilization everywhere, and, after all, what is the Wild except anyplace where we humans cannot be found?

As one example, simply look at the history of our suburbs since the end of World War 2. Initially marketed as these ideal places of perfect uniformity and harmony with mankind, really safe havens from “the big city” and “the other,” on closer inspection, the reality is very different. Nowadays, all we hear about are the terrible “urban problems” like drugs, gangs and racially-motivated violence, etc., plaguing them. I never saw that on ‘Leave it to Beaver’ or ‘The Brady Bunch.’ And that’s my point: we bring these things with us because, whether you like it or not, they are part of us.

Instead of running scared from our problems into our gated communities and fantasy worlds; or worse, demonizing others with racial epithets, discrimination or war; why not act more like Grover the satyr? Embrace your little bit of paradise while at the same time actively engaging with the real world around you. Perhaps then we can have our wild enchiladas in comfort and peace, all together. I’ll have the vegetarian one, by the way…


more Percy Jackson

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The Empire State Building in the gateway to Olympus and to great views

The Empire State Building is the gateway to Olympus and to great views

I’m in the middle of The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 5) and I’m having a problem: I’m completely addicted to this series!

I came across the books after seeing the amazing movie trailer for The Lightening Thief, which I understand is being released sometime in 2010. I was really struck by the part of the preview where the kid leaves the taxicab in front of the Empire State Building, enters one of the elevators and presses the very unusual “Omega” button at the top of the elevator control panel. The camera then pans up the side of the building, showing lights all the way into the more decorative art deco tip of the structure. Suddenly the elevator doors open and the audience is thrown into a state of awe, wonderingly gazing at Olympus. Wow! This movie looks so cool!!!

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to 2010 so I started reading the series last week. Yeah, that’s right; I started with book one seven days ago and today I’m in the middle of book five. Like I said, I’m addicted. It’s almost as bad as my Twilight obsession, though thankfully, that’s settling down a little.

It’s thrilling the way the series takes all of the old Greek stories and mixes them up in the modern United States. How awesome that the main entrance to the Underworld is in West Hollywood, for instance. That seems completely plausible to me. I used to live about six blocks from the Empire State Building. Who knew that I was so close to the throne room of the gods? And I totally get it that a cruise ship can be a force of evil!

I loved Greek mythology when I was in elementary school. I read Bullfinch’s and Edith Hamilton’s mythology compendiums in the sixth grade. I also played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons at that time of my life, so this Greek stuff came in handy. One Christmas, or maybe on my birthday, my folks bought me this drawing set. It was a bunch of magic markers and these large paper drawings of mythological scenes. The idea was to color them in yourself. I still vividly recall the picture with a huge glaring Medusa head right in the middle. Just like Percy, that freaked me out.

I’m an adult now though I won’t tell any of you my age. But I don’t think that that’s made me less interested in mythology adventure stories. That’s why it came as a shock to read on the Rick Riordan web site that the PJ series is listed under his writings for “children.”

Am I being insulted because I love this series?

I kind of get it in that the heroes are all kids: mostly pre-teens really, with Luke, the troubled bad guy, described as a teen-aged college model type. All of us “adults” were once pre-teens and teenagers so I don’t really see how the characters’ ages could be an issue per se. The series is written in a very accessible style, hence my ability to breeze through the whole thing in about a week. Perhaps that makes it a “children’s series?” Though, newspapers and magazines, which are clearly written for adults, have a similar kind of easy reading style, so I’m not convinced. Maybe because the books are co-published by Hyperion and the Disney Corporation they’re “supposed” to be for kids? That just seems silly to me.

And really, what’s so kid-style about a series of books that prominently features violence and death; sadistic, irresponsible adults; war; sexual infidelity; politics; the destruction of the environment and metaphysical speculations? If these aren’t “adult themes,” then what is?

There’s not much sex, if that’s what you’re thinking: so maybe the series is o.k. for little Bobby and Julie. It’s obvious that we Americans believe that a steady diet of violence is perfectly fine for our juvenile citizens. I’ll have a super-sized order of French fries to go with the killing and mayhem, please.

Snap out of it people! If Percy Jackson and the Olympians is for anyone, then it’s for everyone!


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I haven’t yet been to Forks, WA, though that’s a trip that I want to take soon. Just so that I don’t offend anyone from that real town, please remember that all of the following comments are related to Forks as described by Stephenie Meyer in the “Twilight” series.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s rant!

could this be Bella before she was a vampire?

could this be Bella before she was a vampire?

I get it that the Cullens and Hales are “vegetarian” and that the blood of animals isn’t quite as satisfying. (Though I’ve personally struggled with that particular Twilight analogy for some time. What is the problem with vegetarian food, anyway? When it’s good, it can be very good. If you‘re not enjoying it, perhaps you should scan the non-Twilight pages of weirdcombinations to get some creative ideas. Even the most diehard meat eaters have to admit that desserts, cheeses and alcoholic beverages, which are all vegi, are pretty darn good!)

The werewolves seem to do pretty well for themselves at Emily’s place. Actually her muffins sound marvelous. Though she is clearly a home cook outside of Forks so for all intents and purposes, irrelevant here. Esme eventually starts cooking for the Jacob-led wolves, though with less success. Leah can’t take the vampire stench of the stuff and insists on hunting Cullen-style in the woods. Overall, I would say that it’s not a triumph in the kitchen.

Bella seems to enjoy omelets and human blood during her pregnancy with Renesme, though I don’t think that that means much. Pregnant women eat crazy stuff. Everyone knows that!

But really, do you think that Bella would have rushed to become a vampire quite so quickly if she’d ever eaten well?

I don’t.

What do we learn about her dietary practices? She makes lasagna a lot; also she seems to enjoy baking potatoes and broiling steak for Charlie. Once she made enchiladas when she wanted to spend extra time cooking to distract herself from her pathetic love life. Her dad seemed worried about eating this particular creation until he took a bite and didn’t actually keel over dead. I do wonder about the mushroom ravioli that she enjoyed that time in Port Angeles, but hey, that’s not Forks so not part of this. They seemed to eat spaghetti at the Swan’s a fair amount, though it sounds like mostly with pre-prepared tomato sauce, so sort of dull. There’s the famous book cover shot that was re-created in the first movie with Edward catching an apple at the school cafeteria. Fruit is always a healthy choice, but personally I find apples very boring and much prefer Brazilian bananas, mangosteens or maybe even heirloom tomatoes (yes, they’re fruit).

In that same lunchroom, Bella challenges Edward to take a bite of the school pizza. He does it, but then makes some unflattering remark about “eating dirt” and goes on to suggest that he’ll have to puke it up later. Not the best ad for Forks High cuisine. Bella herself sheepishly admits that she has eaten dirt once on a bet. But do you see my point? This is a girl who will eat dirt! What does she know about food?!? Actually I think that Edward may be onto something. I bet that the Forks H.S. food does taste like dirt, or maybe cardboard, like the stuff that was served to me in my high school.

Perhaps it’s too harsh to criticize the girl for her lack of culinary sophistication? After all, she does mention that her mother, Renee, was into food experimentation. We all know that that can be a disaster for all involved sometimes.

I think that if Bella had dined on sushi at Sanraku or maybe tried the cheese course at Jardiniere, she might have waited a bit more before “changing.” Do you think that she ever had a home cooked Indian feast or tried pesto American-style?

And what about wine? I do get it that she’s too young to drink in America, but Edward is a rich bon vivant. Couldn’t he have considerately taken her to France and let her sample some wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone or even Burgundy? There her age wouldn’t have been a problem and I feel sure that she would have enjoyed herself. He had the perfect opportunity that time in Italy to try some rustic Tuscan fava dish with a bottle of 2006 chianti classico! What happened? Perhaps if all that international travel is a drag, why not just a simple pinot noir home tasting or something? Really what is the man-boy afraid of, anyway?

Don’t be a Bella, ignoring the wonders to be found in food and drink! Get out there and try things! Cook something amazing at home occasionally! We all only live once.

more “Twilight” rants

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“French Women Don’t Get Fat” by Mireille Guiliano

April 26, 2009

The secret of eating for Pleasure is what this book is all about. Mireille Guiliano has an envious position as CEO of Veuve Clicquot champagne which allows her to drink the bubbly every day, but also gives her a bird’s eye view on the culture of French dining and weight control. Just like the title, […]

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