Thursday, April 30, 2009

Click

So last week I turned off the TV. This is not really an unusual thing: I turn off the TV all the time, usually forty minutes or so after I turn it on. Last week, though, the sucker stayed off. I even unplugged it, in case of overweening temptation.

(I've discovered that one of the best weapons to deploy in the service of thwarting a vice is another vice: a little laziness will go a long way toward preventing me from inhaling seventeen bags of chocolate chips. Or in this case, the Five O' Clock Weather Update.)

Yes, it was TV Turn-Off Week, and the Aphaeresis household signed on with a soupcon of trepidation and a sh**load of self-righteousness. I was going to love life without TV! (Or, more accurately, without the DVDs of TV I order through Netflix because commercials make me crumudgeonly.) I was going to sing and dance and frolic through my freed up time! Loosed from the demonic tractor beam of the television, I would discover new hobbies, finish my novel, cure cancer, etc.! And still be in bed by 10!

In actuality, I was in bed by 9:30, which was kind of nice. Also nice was the quiet of the evenings, the slower pace at which they unfolded. The light lasts a long time at this time of year in Indiana, and without the TV, I saw each gradation, every stair of the flight down to dark. I read a little more. I listened to the radio and played a board game or two.

But productive? I was as productive as a furloughed auto worker on dope. And I think I've figured out why. After a long, hard slog at work, TV offers you a mental respite, a secluded lot in which you can park your conscious self while the rest of you makes out in the back seat. Freed from TV, I promptly sought out alternative places to park the noggin: trashy novels, crossword puzzles, cookbooks...

We need some time to sit and not think. TV turnoff week merely reminded me that I can choose how to get it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Neighbors are Making Out!

I spotted them from the bathroom window when I went to take take a shower. I caught the motion of human bodies, one leaning forward, one leaning back, so I lifted the curtain. I'm nosy: I always bite. Were they talking? Fighting? One rolled over the other and I thought: nope.

They are one story down and one house over, in the bare-windowed sunroom where I see the mom and dad of the house talking with their friends some Sundays afternoons. It's the teenage girl and her boyfriend, though his hair is as long as hers. They are chaste but enthusiastic, nuns at a roller-skating rink. They keep coming up for air.

Discuss:
  • I never made out with my high school boyfriend in my parents' house on a Tuesday night. I never had a high school boyfriend. And now it's too late.
  • How many of our private moments are public? How many people are trying manfully (womanfully) not to laugh at us from their upstairs windows? How many people observe our passion -our pure, unguarded moments- and let the curtain fall?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

It Fell into My Mouth, Officer.

My name is Anne and I am have a problem.

It's a salty problem. A full-flavored, crunchy, calorie-dense problem. The problem comes in foil bags in multiple varieties, including a thick, ridged, hoity-toity variety flavored with garlic that, to my dismay, I am able to purchase at my local natural foods store with no licensure check, no drug test -in fact with no restrictions of any kind.

And Lo, at 4:00 PM today, it came to pass that I ate an entire bag of potato chips. It was not a small bag. Afterward I felt logy, dull, bloated with self-loathing. I cursed myself and my parentage. I scrapped the exciting plans I'd made for dinner: I was too full, and anyway I'd eaten two big-macs' worth of calories.

Why, oh WHY do I do this?! I told myself I'd only eat a couple of chips. I wasn't that hungry when I opened the bag, and dinner was just around the corner. After the first couple of chips, I told myself I'd only eat 17, the amount of 1 serving as articulated in the nutritional information. Then I granted myself a few more. And a few more. The next thing I knew there were only 17 chips left in the bag, plus a pile of crumbs, and I thought: What the hey?

The thing is, I am probably a more-than-typically conscientious person. I always consider the consequences of my actions; I always plan ahead; I exercise every day and make lists. So why did I eat the entire bag? Because I cower before the awesome power of the potato chip, for starters. But more importantly: Because I am human.

See, I've come to believe that a disproportionate number of our societal failures spring from the wrong-headed notion, hatched somewhere back in the Enlightenment, that humans behave rationally. Sometimes we do. Often we don't. Yet, for centuries, economic, social, and political policymakers have assumed we are rational units. This misapprehension has contributed to social dysfunction, the looming public-health and environmental crises, and even the recent economic downturn.

(People don't use 403bs because the plans are opt-in, not opt-out. People drive 10 miles for gas that is 10 cents cheaper. In their SUVs. And people will -oh yes they will- take out mortgages they cannot afford.)

Which is one of the reasons I'm so excited about the burgeoning field of behavioral economics. I haven't yet read Duke professor Dan Ariely's new book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, but I plan to. Publicized snippets of Ariely's research have already disabused us of the notion that bigger bonuses equal better performance, or that longer cash-in windows mean more people redeem gift cards. Future research will demonstrate, I'm sure, that I'd better leave the damn potato chips at the store. Behind glass. In the care of armed guards.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I HEART YOU! Shhhhhh.

If you are in your twenties, verbose, and afflicted with subclinical OCD, chances are you've played Word Twist. You know Word Twist: the stubborn, brilliant little Facebook anagram game that guzzles your time and refuses to apologize for repeated use of the word "rhea." And if you've played Word Twist, chances are you've seen that banner ad, the one that says:

1 (ONE) OF YOUR FRIENDS HAS A SECRET CRUSH ON YOU. CLICK TO FIND OUT WHO.

O sneaky banner ad! O sly, sordid bit of internet business! To what sorry electronic rabbit hole does a click really take you, and how many people have fallen down it? I picture the banner ad as a will-o-the-wisp, luring fascinated followers into the fens.

The idea that someone you know has a crush on you! And furthermore, that it's secret! It's a warm, trembling, luminescent thought, just the kind of thing to traipse after into the swamp. We all crave notice, acceptance, and love, and what's more tempting than being informed you don't have to look for it anymore? Someone thinks you're the best thing since sliced bread and that person is IS UNDER YOUR VERY NOSE.

So it's a cynical enterprise. Yet, the more I goggle at the bobbing blue letters, the more I'm convinced that it's also an innocent enterprise, a fumbling forward from a place of profound naivete, where "crush" means hearts and flowers and fade to black.

What does "crush" really mean? Like "love," it's one of those words which looks unitary but fractures, upon closer inspection, into a million shiny pieces. Our emotions are fickle, feckless things: liking may flare into obsession, obsession may die back down to indifference, indifference may kindle into lust in the course of a year or a month or a day. Sustained, frustrated desire is rare, and is very seldom undiluted by anger. A person may want nothing from his crush, or only a little, or everything, or too much. Or maybe the crush will turn out to be vampiric, too pallid to bear exposure to the light of day.

And what if you did click through? What if the banner ad were magically genuine, revealing the name and face of a person who had whatever a "crush" is on you? What would you do with that information? Are you single, married, divorced, dating? Is your friend single, married, divorced, dating? Whoever the person was, your relationship would undergo reshuffling. You'd have to make a decision, to weigh the options, to speak up or shut up, kiss or duck or walk a fine line. The result could be good, bad, or indifferent -but in all cases it would be effortful.

Knowledge is power. Power is responsibility. Responsibility is a pain in the butt.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bliss


Whenever you make a purchase, you've let want spill over the lip of whatever contained it: penury, tight-fistedness, common sense. In those cases in which the container was rational thought, you end up with crap you don't need and don't use: orange go-go boots, for instance, or a bright pink trench coat.

Not that I know anyone who purchased the above-mentioned items.

Very rarely, the thing you purchased so dramatically improves your life that it becomes indispensable. How did you live without it? Your life was a wasteland, a tundra, a pit of despair. Then along comes a little white box called the Marsona Travel Sound Conditioner, for which you forked over an egregious $70 online, and all is sweetness and light!

What does this miracle device do, you ask? It fits in a carry-on suitcase and makes noise. White noise. A lot of white noise, obscuring the grinding of the elevator cables, the barking of dogs, the shrieking of 300 pre-pubescent cheerleaders. Sleep on the road is without price.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Box Lunch

At 11:30 AM I walk into lunch duty, where my job is to make kids be quiet. This is the obverse of my real job, which is to get kids to talk. The cafeteria is dark and too warm and smells of old chicken. I say the children need to put their heads down on the tables; they need to be quiet.

A knot of Kindergarten boys are disputing amongst themselves. I walk over to sort things out and they tug at my arm and the bottom of my shirt. They want me to know that Darius's daddy died. Darius tells me he went to the funeral yesterday; he wants Mark to stop laughing. Mark says he isn't laughing. Mark's father is also dead. Tyrone says Darius's father was shot, just like Tyrone's father. And David's father was shot, too, in front of him in the car when he was two! The boys are excited. They are finding common ground.

I say I'm so sorry. I say the children need to put their heads down on the tables. They need to be quiet.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Falling Flat

Did you write poetry when you were a teenager? I did. It ranged from mildly indigestible to patentable as a natural emetic. Later, I buried the entire oeuvre seventeen feet down in the middle of a pathless American desert. You won't find it. It suffices that you know there was light and blood and sweat; there were whirlwinds; there were gratuitous uses of the word "abyss."

Teenage poetry, to put it bluntly, sucks. So why in God's name would anyone read whole anthologies of the stuff? This was the question that leaped -vaulted, hurtled- to mind when I saw that Katie Roiphe has reviewed two books of poems by teenagers in Sunday's NYT Book Review. "Falling Hard: 100 Love Poems by Teenagers" is pretty self-explanatory. "Tell the World" is a collection of poems generated in workshops run by Writercorps, a program that encourages students to write about their lives in verse.

Setting aside the question of whether any of us should be encouraged to versify our lives (do we really need more wannabe poets? Do we really need to spend more time writing and thinking about ourselves? And why is there no Readercorps?), why were these books published? Roiphe includes excerpts from both books: the writing is not enjoyable as writing. I can only assume we are meant to gain something from reading teenage poetry beyond the pure pleasure of poetry: some glimpse of a life other than our own, some distillation of the adolescent experience.

Roiphe says: "Especially in the work written by teenagers themselves, one gets the sense of reading someone’s journal, glimpsing a private universe. There is an honesty and life to the poems, in all of their poses and self-consciousness, that raises them above more polished adult attempts to recollect those years in tranquility."

Except I don't read poetry to get a glimpse of someone's private universe. If I want to get a glimpse of someone's private universe, I snoop in his medicine cabinets. If I want to read someone's journal, I read someone's journal. To peddle poetry as an expression of the self does poetry a profound disservice. It perpetuates a popular perception of the art that is both off-base and enervating. Weak poets plumb their own depths. Strong poets, the poets I like to read, turn not inward but outward, using their words like numb, blind fingers to grasp at something cold or pure or wild.

I'm sparing you my teenage verse. I don't want to read yours, either.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Curds and Why

Our parents' generation didn't trust anyone over 30. I don't trust anyone over 30 who doesn't cook.

If you're under 30, I'll cut you some slack: you may have come from a home without a stove, or possibly you were raised by lions in the Kalahari. But if, by 30, you haven't figured out how to put a meal on the table that doesn't come in its own plastic TV tray, there's a good chance you don't like food. And if you don't like food, there's a good chance your organ of appreciation is congenitally malformed and you are a sour, slim-hipped serial killer.

Seriously, folks, I don't think it's a stretch to assert that preparing and serving food is an essential part of being human. I'd even argue that the way we cook offers more insight into our individual psyches than almost any other non-prescription-strength personality test. So instead of taking the time to ascertain the muppet for which you possess the greatest affinity or the color that limns your soul, ask yourself a simple question: What kind of cook are you?

I'm a lazy cook. Exhibit A: at 6:00 PM or so I wander into the kitchen and open the refrigerator. I stare for a couple of minutes at the contents; I might nudge aside a jar or two or open and close the crisper. My thought process goes like this: How few ingredients can I perform the smallest possible number of operations upon in the shortest possible time while maximizing yummyness? It's an equation, albeit a shady, implicit one. 8Y + (-2)I + -4(O) + (-3T) = THE GOLDEN BALANCE, where THE GOLDEN BALANCE= my willingness to cook; where Y=yumminess, I=ingredients, O=operations, and T=time; and where the weights are something I haven't really figured out because I am not actually good at math and probably should have farmed the equation out to my subsidiary in Timbuktu. (Plus it's not that simple: 4 ingredients is better than 8 ingredients, but probably not better than 1 ingredient...)

If I'm cleaning up after myself, I throw in a term about dirtied pots. My go-to bread recipe is the one that requires the shortest rise. And I am a horrendous baker, due largely to the fact that I am unable to stop myself from attempting audacious shortcuts. There are no shortcuts in baking.

Exhibit B is my husband, who approaches cooking with the grim determination of an expeditionary Sherpa. He selects a recipe of unspeakable complexity, makes a special trip to the grocery store to procure goat brain and fenugreek and whatever else, then painstakingly follows directions until the finished product is impeccably plated and the kitchen could be declared a federal disaster area. Hours rolling homemade pasta. Centuries rolling and re-rolling dough for croissants.

Needless to say, I do most of the cooking. It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to figure it out: I'm lazy. He's anal-retentive. Yet, there we all are in the kitchen, cooking. Why? I'd posit that recipe-followers want to make something right, whereas I just want to make something. Other reasons people cook: for love, for money, for duty, for glory, to make the pain fade...

Go ahead and preheat the oven. Leave why for desert.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Spy on Me

This is my neighborhood.

I'll never feel the same gut-wrenching, overmastering love I feel for the place I grew up, but you are where you are.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Flower of my Heart

This is my fleur de sel. I bought it for $8 at a health food store in Broad Ripple, and for the past few weeks, I have been dousing everything I can think of in the stuff. Roasted potatoes w. roasted brussels sprouts and roasted garlic. Roasted asparagus. Roasted broccoli. Did I mention I have been roasting things? Though it hasn't stopped there: I've slathered pasta, eggs, caramel, quesadillas, and cheese toast.

In fact, I got really hung up on the cheese toast for a while. You take a piece of good thick bread -maybe Scholar's Inn sourdough- then add a few shavings of good local cheese (I'm partial to Hoosier Habanero from the Swiss Connection). You stick the whole thing in the toaster oven until the cheese melts and the edges of the bread are brown and bubbly with cheese. Then you sprinkle the thing with fleur de sel and fall on it like a ravening hyena.

I ate seven hundred thousand cheese toasts before I started paring down. One day it occurred to me: Why bother with toasting? Toasting took time, precious seconds during which I could be stuffing heavily-salted tastiness down my gullet. So I dispensed with heat. Then I dispensed with bread. If I wasn't going to toast it, what was the point? It was really more convenient to salt individual pieces of cheese.

Finally, this weekend, the ultimate question: Why the cheese? Was it ever anything more than a fatty intermediary between me and seductive salty sumptuousness? Why would I take the time to create thinly-sliced barriers to the consummation my love?

I've taken to eating the fleur de sel straight from little white bowls. I feel liberated, flayed, the way our parents must have felt in the '60s when they decoupled sex from marriage. It's a new, strange, perilous world. And it's salty!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Waste Basket

Time is precious! And to make up for frittering away yours these past couple of years on pointless anecdotes, half-assed homilies, and pictures of my dinner, I'm sharing my patented, field-tested list of things that were a complete and total waste of my minutes. Or hours. Or years. Learn from my experience! I'm like that neanderthal ancestor who ate the shiny red berries and keeled over. Bet you the rest of them ate grass after that.

1) Pondering the meaning of life.

You're never going to figure this one out. Well, maybe if you had a million years, but you don't. What you do have is a refrigerator full of cheese, and it is mouldering AS WE SPEAK.

2) Wondering why person X, Y, or Z wasn't madly in love with me.

These people had congenital brain damage. Moving on.

3) Enticing cats who did not want to be enticed.

There you are, squatting on the sidewalk like a constipated poodle, holding out your hand and making cooing noises at some feral, half-mad feline recently escaped from a rest home for troubled cats. Its fur is matted; its eyes are slits. At any moment, a mugger or other ne'er-do-well will come along and cosh you over the head and steal your wallet. Is this really the way you want to go?

4) Corsets.

No.

5) Prising presents from their wrapping paper with the care of a neurosurgeon pulling apart the meninges to expose the delicate cortical matter beneath; thereafter folding the paper and inserting it, with pomp, into a lower drawer of the basement storage cabinet.

You will never reuse this stuff. You will discover it decades later, wreathed in mouse droppings. You will consider hiring a ringer from the rest home for troubled cats.

6) Worrying that the airplane will crash and you will die.

A: Drugs.

7) Blogging.


Phooey.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Silent Spring

I've been shutting up a lot, lately. There's more to hear, if you close your mouth, and you never have to worry about what to say. Instead you sit with the silences. They are golden and contented and fluffy; they overrun your ears. The more I shut up, the more I like it, and I've decided to take a big step. Next year, instead of continuing with my job, I'm going to spend a couple of months on silent retreat at a monastery in the southern part of Indiana. I'm not sure what will come of it, but whatever it is, it'll be quiet.

So there's the plan. After sitting on it a while, I decided I needed to share it with you today. Today, April 1, 2009.

OK, OK, that was a cheap stunt. It was cheap because April Fools is a cheap holiday, a cheating holiday, a boyfriend who picks a half-dead bouquet of flowers out of the trash and tells you he picked them himself. I detest April Fools. It joins a lengthy list of holidays that disagree with me: I'm a picky celebrator. Why celebrate Halloween when life is scary enough? Why celebrate Valentine's Day when love should be a year-round proposition? And why celebrate having the wool pulled over your eyes when deception is everywhere?

It's scary, being deceived. You feel as if a trap door has opened in the floor of the universe and you've fallen through into the dark. You thought the lane was empty. You thought he was your friend. You thought if you did everything right, if you tried your best and were kind-hearted and industrious and careful and said I love you, it would all be OK. A friend of mine recently ended a relationship in part because her partner had been withholding information. She said afterwards she felt literally shaken, as if the whole of her past, her present, and her future had been seized and jostled until it broke.

So why, in God's name, do we dedicate a day to the wholesale bamboozling of others? I'd guess it's for the same reason we buy false fangs and bite each others' necks come October. If you name your fear, if you engage it head on, it loses power.

See you in the refectory. Wave; don't speak.