Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Snow Queen

I have a confession to make.

(stares at floor and mumbles) I kind of, sort of...um...might not hate everything Hans Christian Andersen wrote.

Wow, that was hard to say.

I distinctly remember liking this particular story as a kid.  I'm not entirely sure I even realized that it shared an author with The Little Match Girl until I was years older.  It was just so different, in plot and characters and, to a lesser extent, in theme.  I mean, stuff actually happens in it.  The girl-hero goes out and, you know, does stuff to move the plot along instead of just sitting there and suffering on and on until God fixes things.

Of course, I was also pretty young when I read it.  Let's take another look and see how it's held up:

First Story: Which Treats of a Mirror and of the Splinters

"Once upon a time there was a wicked, mischievous Hobgoblin.  One day he was in a very good humor because he had made a mirror with the power of causing all that was good and beautiful, when it was reflected therein, to look poor and mean; while that which was good for nothing and ugly, stood out and looked worse than ever."

Huh.  I didn't know that those annoying distorted mirrors you see in carnival funhouses were manufactured by Hobgoblins.  But it makes sense, now that I think about it. 

Interestingly enough, I remembered this part a little differently; in my fuzzy memory the mirror did indeed make good and beautiful things look evil and ugly, but I thought it also made actual evil ugly things look pretty and shiny.  But apparently it just makes everything look icky and nasty and depressing, which...isn't quite the effect I'd be going for if I was an evil villain making a magic mirror to turn people away from the path of goodness.  Then again, the Hobgoblins don't seem to have much of a plan for this thing beyond running around with it and reinforcing each others' perceptions of what a crappy place the world is:

"In this mirror the most beautiful landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the best persons were turned into frights...They ran about with the mirror; and at last there was not a land or a person who was not represented there twisted all out of shape."

The text does not specify how long this goes on, but considering the rather large amount of ground the Hobgoblins seem to have covered, I think we can reasonably conclude that it was happening for a fairly big chunk of time, and Andersen makes it quite clear that the little guys are having the most rip-roaring fun they've ever had in their lives for the whole duration of it.  It would seem that Hobgoblins have way too much time on their hands.  

But disaster strikes when they try to carry the mirror up into the sky:

"The higher they flew with the mirror, the more terribly it grinned; they could hardly hold it fast.  Suddenly the mirror shook so terribly with grinning, that it flew out of their hands and fell to the earth, where it was dashed in a hundred million pieces.  And now it worked much more evil than before; for some of these pieces were hardly larger than a grain of sand, and they flew about in the wide world, and when they got into people's eyes there they stayed; and then people saw everything perverted, or only had an eye for that which was evil.  Some persons even got a splinter in their heart, and then their heart became a lump of ice."

I'm having trouble picturing exactly how a mirror would grin, or why grinning would make it shake to the extent that it would be difficult to keep hold of it.

However it happens, the wicked Hobgoblin laughs like a loon.  The story claims that this was because the evil done by the shattered mirror "tickled his fancy," but I like to think it was from relief once he realized that the unexpected side effects saved him from staring awkwardly at his shoes and muttering, "Uh...yeah...I...um...meant to do that..." while the other Hobgoblins glared at him for ruining their good time.

Second Story: A Little Boy and a Little Girl

We now shift our attention from the Hobgoblin, who never comes into the story again (Seriously, HCA? The toxic-mirror-making Hobgoblin doesn't get any comeuppance? Just like the creepy devil-soldier from The Red Shoes? Y U NO MAKE ANY EFFORT TO CONTAIN OR ELIMINATE EVIL MAGICAL CREATURES THAT ARE OBVIOUS THREATS TO PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY?  (puff puff) Sorry about that.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...) and meet our two young protagonists.

Kay and Gerda are two young children who are very good friends.  They live in a town "where there are so many houses and so many people that there is no room left for everybody to have a garden," but they are able to get around the no-garden restriction in a novel way:

"Their parents lived opposite each other in two attic rooms.  The roof of one house just touched the roof of the other with only a rain water gutter between them.  They each had a little dormer window so one had only to step over the gutter to get from one window to the other.  Out on the leads the parents had placed two wooden boxes, in which grew pea vines, vegetables, and some little rose trees. In summer the children were allowed to take their little stools and sit out on the roof among the roses, where they could play delightfully."

Wait a minute.  These kids are allowed to play on the roof? I was never allowed to play on the roof as a kid.*  That is so not fair.  (super sulk)

Anyway, Kay and Gerda spend a page or two having a rockin' good time just being kids.  Besides caring for their little rooftop garden, they listen to the stories Kay's grandmother tells of the mysterious queen of the white bees (i.e. snowflakes) who flies through their town during the winter and "peeps in at the windows," leaving "wonderful patterns that look like flowers" on the glass.

That little fairy tale takes on an extra shade of creepy when this happens one night while Kay is undressing for bed:

"A few snowflakes were falling, and one, the largest of all, remained lying on the edge of the flower-pot.  The flake of snow grew larger and larger and at last it was like a beautiful maiden, dressed in the finest white gauze, made of a million little flakes, like stars.  She was so lovely and delicate, but she was of ice; of dazzling, sparkling ice; her eyes glittered like two stars; but there was neither rest nor peace in them.  She nodded toward the window, and beckoned with her hand."

It's times like these when I shake my head in bemusement at those folks who wring their hands and moan about how trashy all the stuff written for kids and young adults is nowadays, and how the old classic tales are so much better because they're all so innocent and sanitized and free of even the faintest hints of innuendo or adult themes.  Because it's good clean fun when a sexually mature woman with a restless gleam in her eyes who wears a flimsy and possibly transparent dress appears outside a half-naked prepubescent boy's window at night and seductively beckons him to come join her outside.  Nope, nothing skeevy about that at all.

Fortunately for Kay, he has the good sense to be terrified out of his mind by this, and the snow-lady takes her questionable intentions elsewhere.

But we're not quite out of the woods yet.  Spring comes, and one day the two children are unsuspectingly sitting on the roof together with a book...          

"...when Kay cried 'O! Something struck me sharply in the heart; and now something has got into my eye!'"

This is very bad indeed, because the mysterious foreign objects are in fact invisible fragments of the Hobgoblin's mirror.  And they make Kay act like an utter doucheclown:

"When she next brought out her picture-book, he said it was only fit for babies, and if his grandmother told him stories, he always interrupted her; besides, if he could manage it, he would get behind her, put on her spectacles, and imitate her way of speaking.  He was soon able to imitate the gait and manner of everyone in the street.  Everything that was peculiar and displeasing in them,--that Kay made fun of."

He also loses interest in the flowers he and Gerda grow in their rooftop garden, preferring the snowflakes because they are perfectly formed while flowers come in different shapes and sizes.  It seems that exposure to the mirror-shards not only turns one into a surly teenager, but causes mild OCD symptoms.

Further disaster strikes one winter day when Kay leaves Gerda behind to play in the square:

"There, in the market-place, the boldest boys used to hitch their sledges to the carts as they passed, and so they got a good ride."

So nineteenth-century kids got to play on the roof and enjoy the low-tech equivalent of getting towed behind a car on a skateboard? I know I was just scoffing at people who wax nostalgic about the bygone days of yore, but...damn.  Maybe Victorian kids really did have more fun than us.

Kay's problems begin when an unfamiliar white sleigh drives through the square, and Kay hitches up to it for a spin.

"On they went quicker and quicker into the next street; the person who drove turned round to Kay, and nodded to him in a friendly manner, just as if they knew each other.  Each time he was going to untie his sledge the driver nodded to him, and then Kay sat still once more."

Uh oh.

"Suddenly he let go of the string he held in his hand in order to get loose from the big sledge, but it was of no use; his little sledge hung fast and on he went like the wind.  He cried out, but no one heard him."

Double uh oh.

"The snowflakes grew larger and larger, till they looked like great white birds.  Suddenly the large sledge stopped, and the person who drove rose up.  It was a lady, tall, slim and glittering, her cloak and cap of snow.  It was the Snow-Queen."

By the way, the text makes it explicitly clear that the Snow-Queen and the randy ice-hussy outside Kay's window are the same person.  Which makes it even worse that this happens:

"'Are you still cold?' she asked, and kissed his forehead.  Ah! The kiss was cold as ice; it went to his very heart, which was already almost a frozen lump; but a moment more and he grew to like it.  He no longer felt the cold that was around him."

She then drives off into the night with him, intending to keep him in her dark and creepy ice-palace forever.  Thus we know that Stranger Danger was an issue worth worrying about as early as the 1800's. 

I'd forgotten how long this story is, so tune in next time for part II.

*I did it anyway a few times, but that's beside the point.
 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

...And A Colorful Interlocking Plastic New Year!

Once upon a time my younger brother was somewhat fond of Legos.  By "somewhat fond of" I mean "obsessed beyond the point of health and sanity with."  He amassed a small museum's worth of the things.

He also had a bad habit of leaving them scattered on every single flat surface in the house.  We were constantly finding Lego bricks under the refrigerator and behind the washing machine and piled up at the bottoms of random cupboards or stuffed down between the couch cushions.  Legos drifted into my and my sisters' rooms and burrowed into the carpet like little plastic scorpions, lying in wait for our unsuspecting bare feet. 

They were damn good hunters, too.  I once buried a fully inflated dried pufferfish carcass under some junk in my room.*  It was there for two weeks, and I didn't step on it once.  But those stupid stealth Legos popped up and shanked me again and again, no matter how many of them I dug out of their hiding places and tossed back into my brother's room.  There was always one more.  Always.

To add insult to injury, I wasn't even allowed to derive any fun from the dratted things.  If I got bored and started trying to build something myself, my brother would freak out and start throwing more Legos at me, shrieking about the big awesome project** he was building, and how he needed that piece, that one specific green brick I had just used, which was identical in every way to the half a million other green bricks lying around the family room but didn't I know that particular brick was super special and he needed it and I was the meanest big sister in the world?

Oh, and don't get me started on the shitstorm that would ensue if you dared to take two or more blocks apart.  No matter how long they had been sitting in that configuration untouched, no matter how cast aside and forgotten they appeared to be, the resulting meltdown would fell mighty old redwood groves and kill strong men.

I was very glad when my brother grew out of his Lego obsession.  Of course he still yelled at me and gave me a hard time on occasion; he's my brother.  He's required to do so.  But at least it was no longer over little chunks of brand-new-Cutco-paring-knife-sharp plastic that could be hurled like shurikens when the argument turned ugly.

Anyway, fast forward a decade or so and here I am, all grown up and visiting my in-laws for the holidays.  I came downstairs this morning, feeling rested and content, and froze on the stairs as this sight met my eyes:





It seems that Technomancer and his sister lugged all their old Legos up from the basement while I was asleep.  As I type this, they're hard at work building a robot army:




And now Technomancer is casually asking me if I might want to make a day-trip to a town about forty minutes away from where we live sometime.  You know, that one town that just so happens to have a Lego store.

Sigh.

Oh well.  At least Technomancer has the good sense to know that I'll stop buying chocolate for him if he throws Legos at me.

*I suppose it helps that I put it there on purpose.  I was hoping that a disliked babysitter who kept going into my room and messing with my stuff would step on it.  She did. 

**I don't know if he ever managed to actually complete a big awesome project.  I certainly don't remember any finished ones.

        

Friday, December 28, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Little Match Girl

UNNNGGGG.

I just had to revisit this one.

It made sense at the time.  This is, after all, the story that set me off in the first place.  There was a sense of symmetry, of coming full circle, to reading it again.

I was a fool for thinking so.  Now here I sit, broken and drained.  This story sucks all happiness and joy out of the universe and leaves slimy grey slicks of condensed misery in its place.  I'm pretty sure that if you read this story aloud at midnight on Christmas Eve, a gaping fiery inter-dimensional portal will open and a thousand Lovecraftian elder gods will issue forth to devour humanity.*

So why exactly do I feel this way?

Let's start with the first two-and-a-half paragraphs or so, which kick off the Mandatory Long Suffering right away with an excruciating description of just how miserable and unloved and how abjectly bare-bones dirt-poor this girl is:

"...well, yes, it's true she had slippers on when she left home; but what was the good of that?  They were great big slippers which her mother used to wear, so you can imagine the size of them; and they both came off when the little girl scurried across the road just as two carts went whizzing by at a fearful rate."

"She hadn't sold anything all day, and no one had given her a single penny.  Poor mite, she looked so downcast as she trudged along hungry and shivering.

"She didn't dare to go home, for she hadn't sold a match nor earned a single penny.  Her father would beat her, and besides it was so cold at home.  They had only the bare roof over their heads and the wind whistled through that although the worst cracks had been stopped up with rags and straw."

Then, of course, there's my favorite bit of unadulterated WTFery:

"The snowflakes settled on her long flaxen hair, which hung in pretty curls over her shoulder..."

Really? The girl is too poor to possess shoes or a coat, but she's not so poor that she can't have perfect flowing supermodel locks? Considering the state she's in, I would have described her hair as tangled, ragged and filthy, and possibly also lank and brittle from years of inadequate nutrition.  Also, what gives, HCA? I thought pretty girls made you all huffy and judgey and eager to sic mean angels on them...

"...but you may be sure she wasn't thinking about her looks."

Oh, I see.  The match girl's prettiness is special.  She's not a tramp like Karen or a bitch like Inger, oh no; she's pretty like an innocent little angel, because if she was ugly or plain we wouldn't feel for her suffering as much, see? But she can't be too pretty, or aware that she's pretty, or desire to be pretty, because then she'd be a dirty proud scarlet woman and would have to be punished for it.

I know that this was probably a pretty common 19th-century attitude and Andersen might not even have been aware that he was expressing it, but...damn.  I hate this.  I hate this so much.

Anyway, the little girl gets so desperately cold that she risks using up one of the matches that are her livelihood to get warm, and has a strange hallucination in its light:

"Such a clear warm flame, like a little candle, as she put her hand around it--yes, and what a curious light it was! The little girl fancied she was sitting in front of a big iron stove with shiny brass knobs and brass facings, with such a warm friendly fire burning...why, whatever was that? She was just stretching out her toes, so as to warm them too, when--out went the flame, and the stove vanished."

Still desperately cold, she lights another match and kindles another vision:

"It burned up so brightly, and where the glow fell on the wall this became transparent like gauze.  She could see right into the room, where the table was laid with a glittering white cloth and with delicate china; and there, steaming deliciously, was the roast goose stuffed with prunes and apples.  Then, what was even finer, the goose jumped off the dish and waddled along the floor with the carving knife and fork in its back.  Right up to the poor little girl it came..."

Of course the girl is too weak and hungry to flee screaming in terror from the heavily armed zombie-goose that's obviously intent on revenge against the humans who hacked its head off and shoved preserved fruit into its gutted body cavity.  Fortunately for her, the match goes out before it can reach her.

The next match she lights brings a vision of a gigantic Christmas tree "bigger and prettier than the one she had seen through the glass-door of a rich merchant's house at Christmas."  This also disappears when the match sputters out, and in the darkness that follows the little girl notices a shooting star:

"'That's somebody dying,' said the little girl, for her dead Grannie, who was the only one who had been kind to her, had told her that a falling star shows that a soul is going up to God."

Thanks for that extra little cheer-bomb, HCA.

As luck would have it, the next match summons Grannie in the flesh.  The girl quickly lights all her matches at once, quite rightly fearing that Grannie will fade away like the other visions once the light goes out...except...this time it doesn't happen! Grannie, looking stronger and healthier and happier than ever she did in life, takes her granddaughter into her arms:

"...and together they flew in joy and splendour, up, up, to where there was no cold, no hunger, no fear."

When I first heard this story as a child, this was the part where I assumed, for a brief happy moment of blissful ignorance, that the matches actually were magical keys to another dimension where the little girl would live happily ever after with her loving Grannie.**  I'm admittedly not sure about Andersen's claim that an alternate reality in which your dinner won't stay dead is legitimately fear-free, but hey, I'll take the no-cold and no-hunger bits.  It's considerably better than anything the little girl has gotten out of life so far.

But alas, I was wrong.  Remember that shooting star deal?

"But in the cold early morning huddled between the two houses, sat the little girl with rosy cheeks and a smile on her lips, frozen to death on the last night of the old year.  The New Year dawned on the little dead body leaning there with the matches, one lot of them nearly all used up.  'She was trying to get warm,'  people said.  Nobody knew what lovely things she had seen and in what glory she had gone with her old Grannie to the happiness of the new year."

Translation: And a small child died a horrible and entirely preventable death on a night that symbolizes hope for the future.  In the morning the very people who did absolutely nothing to help her find her body, tritely state the obvious, and get on with their day.  But it's all totes cool, 'cause she's in heaven with Jesus now! After all, God is the magical janitor-in-the-sky who sweeps away all the dingy poor people so they won't make us feel all sad and guilty on Christmas.  It's not like we have to take any action or responsibility for our glaring social problems or anything.

Conclusion:  Reading this little tale is kind of like reaching out to pet an adorable kitten, only to discover that its fur is made of steel wool and jagged shards of broken glass.  It puts forth some of the ugliest and most disturbing parts of human nature, wrapped up in a sickly-saccharine and cozy package of Christmas trees, warm fires and Grannies coming back from the dead.

In contrast, check out this passage from Oscar Wilde's tale "The Happy Prince," which seems to be a deliberate homage to this particular story:

"'In the square below,' said the Happy Prince, 'there stands a little match-girl.  She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled.  Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying.  She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare.  Pluck out my other [sapphire] eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her.'
'I will stay with you one night longer,' said the Swallow, 'but I cannot pluck out your other eye.  You would be quite blind then.'
'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'do as I command you.'"

The Happy Prince has more compassion and concern for a destitute child's suffering than the people in Andersen's universe.  More importantly, unlike any single one of the people in Andersen's universe, he actually gets off his ass and does something about it.

Which is pretty damn sad, considering that the people in Andersen's universe are flesh-and-blood living human beings and the Happy Prince is a statue whose only real friend in the whole world is some random little bird. 

*And whatever you do, don't play that wretched "Christmas Shoes" song at the same time.  That song and this story may well be the two most excessively glurgey things in existence, and I'm pretty sure the sugar-shock from being exposed to both at once will kill you on the spot.  I'm surprised they're not required by law to come with health warnings for diabetics.   

**I'm not sure how my brain somersaulted around the inconvenient fact that the Grannie was dead.  I guess I must have assumed she was like the dad in Tron, sucked into a super-awesome world of her own making one day when she carelessly fired up a magic match at the wrong time.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Amazon Roulette, Christmas Edition: Candied Chestnuts!

Last year Technomancer and I decided to make a big batch of candied chestnuts as part of our annual Christmas cookie bake.  It was a fairly simple process:

1.  Measure out two pounds of chestnuts at the grocery store.  Decide it won't be enough for everyone on your people-to-send-Christmas-goodies-to list and purchase four pounds instead of two.

2.  Go home and mix up sugar, water and vanilla to make the syrup.  Soak the chestnuts in water and bake them to soften the shells.

3.  Start to peel the chestnuts.  Discover that chestnuts get very difficult to peel if they've been sitting out for too long.  Note that "too long" equals about four minutes.  Get progressively more frustrated as the shells get drier and clingier and the meat starts coming out in limp, pathetic-looking pulverized chunks instead of nice whole nuts.

4.  Toss the peeled chestnuts into the pot with the syrup.  Spend the next two or three days awkwardly moving the giant syrup-pot around the kitchen in a futile attempt to keep it out of the way.

5.  Get all sticky and slimy turning the chestnuts out onto parchment paper to dry.  Throw most of the giant vat of syrup away after realizing that you don't want to drink five cups of vanilla-flavored coffee every day for the next fifteen years.

6.  Get sticky again stuffing a million little paper dessert cups with chestnuts and trying to mold the pulverized bits into a halfway-acceptable chestnut shape.  Get them tinned and mailed out, and breathe a big sigh of relief.

7.  Go shopping the next day and discover a king-sized jar of pristine-looking pre-shelled chestnuts in the baking aisle.  Have a minor nervous breakdown in the middle of the grocery store.

This year we opted for the much easier option of ordering some from Zingerman's.  They're kind of expensive and they only come in packages of eight, but peeling them is so much easier:






These are amazing.  The syrup forms a crunchy, crumbly crust on the surface of each one, and the chestnut itself has a smooth and meltingly soft texture, a little like the delicious squishy part in the middle of a cinnamon roll.  The vanilla does not overwhelm the more subtle sweetness of the chestnut, and they're not overly sticky.  Unlike some homemade candied chestnuts I know.       

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Amazon Roulette, Round IV: Baumkuchen

Today's Amazon Roulette offering hails from Germany (culturally at least.  The writing on the package it came in is German, but I don't know if it was actually made in Germany or not) and is loaded with calorific Christmasy goodness.

While I love to browse the Dean & Deluca website, I rarely order things from them because most of their stuff costs more than my grad school tuition.  Since the chaotic bacchanalia of rampant consumerism known as the Christmas season only comes once a year, however, I decided to get in the spirit and indulge myself a little.

The first thing that drew my eye to this peculiar seasonal cake was its unusual shape:


It looks like someone took one of those plastic-rings-on-a-spindle toddler toys and replicated it in cake form.

The list of ingredients sealed the deal.  Vanilla glaze, cinnamon, apricot jam, lemon peel and, best of all, marzipan.  Marzipan seems to be a pretty seriously underused ingredient in the pastry-maker's arsenal here in the USA, and I'd personally like to see more cakes made with it and have a more steady and reliable supply of such cakes.

My baumkuchen came in a tin.  That wasn't particularly surprising, but I was a bit unnerved to find that the tin featured this little dealie-o:


Somehow it doesn't seem befitting to the dignity of the "king of cakes and the cake of kings" to package it with a jumbo-jar-of-Planter's-peanuts-style freshness seal.  Oh well. Whatever it takes to keep it nice and moist, right?

This cake actually came with quite a bit of protective packaging.  Under the foil seal was a round of that corrugated paper stuff that they put on top of boxes of chocolates, and under that was a round of baumkuchen encased in thick plastic wrappings and another rolled-up swatch of paper.  Once I'd peeled them all away, the cake underneath looked like this:


Not as tall or Christmas-tree-shaped as the picture on the tin, but still pretty fascinating.  It looks like a mechanical doohickey from a car belonging to the witch who lives in the gingerbread house.



It wasn't quite that glisteny in real life, but the glaze did have a nice sheen to it.

When I went to cut this thing I discovered yet more packaging.  The walls of the hole in the middle were coated with some sort of parchment paper, along with this length of weird...semi-rigid...waxy...twine...thing.


It doesn't look (quite) so disturbing in the photo, but I was very much not expecting to find anything like this in a lovely slice of cake of all places, so I was a bit freaked out by it.

Fortunately a consultation of Wikipedia calmed my fears.  It seems baumkuchen gets its unique shape from being baked on a spit, with the dough being brushed on in thin layers and each layer being allowed to "set" before the next is added.  The resulting layers resemble the rings of a tree, hence the name "baumkuchen," or tree-cake.  With that new info in mind, I would guess that they wrap the spit in parchment paper before baking so the cake won't stick to it, and the waxed twine is there to hold the paper in place.

That was a relief, but I realized it also meant I cut the thing wrong.

Instead of doing it like this:


I was supposed to do it like this so the "rings" would show:


So...here's a slice of baumkuchen that looks like I pompously had it custom-made to resemble my first initial.  Or like it was baked by Stephen Colbert.  Anyway, you can still see the rings.  

Carving mishap aside, this was quite tasty.  The glaze gave it a strong vanilla flavor, and under that I could taste a hint of cinnamon and the citrus tang from the apricot and lemon.  The marzipan was not as easily detectable, but I suspect that it was what gave the cake its dense, moist texture.  Overall, it reminded me of something, but I couldn't quite identify what.

Technomancer happened to be in the kitchen while I was eating it, so I offered him some.  He ate it and gave me a funny look.  I asked him if he liked it.

"Yeah, it's good," he said.  "But it reminds me of something.  Like...maybe a honey bun..."

I blinked.  That was it.  That was exactly what I was thinking of.

The king of cakes reminded me of a classed-up version of the humble Hostess honey bun.

That's not to say it wasn't awesome.  The baumkuchen had a much more pronounced and complex bouquet of flavors, the packaging was nicer, and I didn't have to go to a gas station to buy it from a surly clerk.

Also, at eighty bucks a pop, it isn't exactly a cost-effective solution for a recurring honey bun craving.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Red Shoes

Well, the good news is that the protagonist of this story is not a horrible, awful brat.

The bad news is that unspeakable tortures are still visited on her, ostensibly as a way-out-of-proportion punishment for her "vanity."  Also, HCA is showing disturbing signs of a creepy sadistic little-girl foot fetish.

Don't believe me? Well, let's dig right in:

"There was once a little girl, very delicate and pretty, and yet so poor that in summer she always had to go barefooted and in winter she had to wear big wooden clogs which chafed her insteps  most horribly, until they were quite red."

Aaaand we come firing out of the gates already talking in great detail about a pretty little girl's feet.  I think I'll cut Andersen some slack for this one, though; I imagine it's hard to avoid putting foot-related details in a story about shoes.

Anyway, this little girl, Karen, is temporarily saved from her state of nonexistent/crappy footwear possession by a kindly neighbor woman who makes a pair of shoes for her out of some old scraps of red cloth.  Unfortunately for Karen, the first occasion she has to wear her new shoes is her mother's funeral.  But as she's following the coffin to the graveyard, she has an unexpected stroke of luck:

"Just then a large old-looking carriage drove up with a large old-looking lady inside it.  She caught sight of the little girl and felt sorry for her.  So she said to the parson, 'Look here, if you let me have the little girl, I'll take care of her.'"

Yeah, that seems legit.

But HCA had to keep this story family-friendly, so Karen is mercifully not shanghaied to an underground creepy-old-carriage-lady-run brothel of kidnapped tween girls.  Instead she is taught genteel Victorian pursuits such as reading and sewing.  People are constantly telling her how pretty she is, so naturally she starts developing a bit of an ego.  We are also told that she believes her red shoes were the reason for her newfound fortune--which is probably supposed to be a bit of foreshadowing, but seems like a pretty standard bit of kid logic to me.

Soon Karen is old enough to be confirmed, and she and the old lady go shopping for a suitable outfit for the ceremony.  Unbeknownst to the old lady, Karen has been quietly obsessing over the red shoes she saw the Queen's daughter wearing on her visit to town.  She is overjoyed to see that the shoemaker has a pair in stock:

"Among the shoes was a red pair just like the ones the Princess had been wearing--oh, they were pretty!...as they were a good fit, the shoes were bought.  But the old lady didn't realize that they were red, for she would never have allowed Karen to go to Confirmation in red shoes."

So what exactly is wrong with going to Confirmation in red shoes? Well, according to the next paragraph, it makes all the stodgy old churchgoers ogle her feet and clutch their pearls and gasp, and it's distracting to Karen herself:

"Everybody stared at her feet and, as she walked up the aisle to the chancel, she felt that even the old pictures over the tombs...were fastening their eyes on the red shoes.  It was these that filled her thoughts, when the priest laid his hand on her head and spoke of holy baptism, of the covenant with God, and of her duty to become a fully-fledged Christian."

The old lady finds out from gossip after the service that the shoes are red and forbids Karen to wear them to church again.  But that does not keep Karen from taking advantage of the old lady's fading eyesight once more:

"Next Sunday there was Communion, and Karen looked at the black shoes, and she looked at the red ones...And then she looked at the red ones again--and put the red ones on."

I should pause here to note that Karen hasn't done anything that sticks out at me as being egregiously wrong at this point.  Spending an entire church service daydreaming about one's appearance and disobeying the dress code set down by one's guardian are slightly obnoxious behaviors, yes, but I defy you to find a teenager who hasn't done either of these things.

So Karen goes to church in her prized red shoes once more, and on the way she has the bad fortune of encountering the creepiest character in this story:

"Karen and the old lady took the path through the cornfield, where it was a bit dusty.  At the churchdoor stood an old soldier with a crutch and a funny long beard which was more red than white--in fact, it really was red.  He made a deep bow to the old lady and asked if he might dust her shoes.  And when Karen also put out her foot, 'My, what lovely dancing shoes!" said the soldier.  'Stay on tight when you dance!' and he gave the soles a tap with his hand...Presently everyone came out of church, and the old lady stepped into her carriage.  As Karen raised her foot to get in after her, the old soldier, who was standing close by, said, 'My! What lovely dancing shoes!' Karen couldn't resist--she had to dance a few steps and, once she had started, her feet went on dancing just as though the shoes had some power over them."

Karen dances so hard that she has to be carried back to the carriage and stuffed in--and even after that she accidentally gives the old lady "some dreadful kicks" as her feet try to keep on dancing.  Finally the shoes are pried off her feet and the spell is broken, and even though it's not mentioned in the text I'm pretty sure the townspeople should be clamoring for that creepy soldier to be burnt as a witch right about now.  Dude's bad news.

The shoes are locked away in a cupboard when Karen and the old lady get home--I question the wisdom of not just pitching the damn things after all the trouble they caused--and remain there until Karen breaks them out for the one (in my opinion) truly punishment-worthy act she commits in this story: she leaves the death bed of the old lady who raised her to go to a ball, where she has a great time until this happens:

"Up among the trees she saw something shining.  It looked like a face, and so she thought it was the moon; but it was the old soldier with the red beard, sitting and nodding and saying, 'My! What lovely dancing-shoes!'"

GAAAH! That guy again? I'm...pretty sure he's supposed to be Satan in disguise.  Or just a skeevy pervert with a fetish for dancing girls in red shoes.  Either way, his attentions are bad news for Karen:

"This made her frightened, and she tried to kick off the red shoes, but they still stuck on tight.  She tore off her stockings, but the shoes had grown fast to her feet..."

After being forced to dance nonstop for an unspecified period of time--the text implies that it was at least several days--she finally encounters a real, live, honest-to-God angel in the church courtyard.  Good! Surely the kind and merciful angel will help her break free of her bondage to the Evil One, right?

Uh...nope.  This guy is actually more of the judgy asshole type of angel.

"'Dance you shall,' said the angel, 'dance in your red shoes until you are cold and pale, until your skin shrivels up like a skeleton's!'"

With that lovely little gem of good Christian mercy ringing in her ears, Karen continues to dance until she makes her way in desperation to the executioner's house and asks him to help her solve her problem in the most disturbing way possible:

"'Please don't cut off my head!' said Karen, 'for then I can't show how sorry I am for my sins.  Cut off my feet with the red shoes.'"

See what I mean about the whole sadistic foot fetish thing? It's not quite as bad as The Little Mermaid (which I will not review as I can never read it all the way through without wanting to kick a hole through the wall, and I'm renting my place) but it's still freaky as shit.  Also, this happens:

"...and she kissed the hand that had wielded the axe and went her way across the heath."

I...cannot begin to tell you how creepily kinky that sounds to me.  Whenever I read that line, I feel like it was added into the story by a sketchy guy who has a fully stocked S&M dungeon in his basement, but can't get sex partners to save his life anymore because he has a well-known reputation for repeatedly "forgetting" safe words.

Anyway, now that that little spot of unpleasantness is over, Karen hobbles back to town on the wooden feet the executioner kindly fashioned for her, repentant of her vanity and much wiser than she was before and...completely unable to live a normal life because her own severed feet keep following her around, still dancing in the red shoes.

Seriously.

Unable to go to church and show her repentance because the shoes keep chasing her off, Karen goes the Mandatory Long Suffering route of working as a servant in the parsonage.  Then, years of hard labor later, Douchiel the judgy angel finally decides she's suffered enough and helps her get to church:

"But instead of a sharp sword he was holding a beautiful green bough that was covered in roses, and he touched the ceiling with it so that it arched itself higher...And he touched the walls so that they grew wider...You see, the church itself had come to the poor girl in her narrow little room...they nodded to her and said: 'It was right you should come, Karen.' 'It was God's mercy!' she answered."

And then Karen promptly dies and ascends to heaven, "where there was no one to ask about the red shoes."

That's mercy in Andersen's world.

In Conclusion:  I can't get over how harshly this story punishes Karen for offenses that were--for the most part--rather minor and ultimately harmed no one but herself.  Yes, I will concede that ditching the dying old lady to go to the ball wasn't nice; but a teenage girl obsessing over her pretty new clothes isn't a deadly sin, it's an annoying-but-harmless normal behavior trait.  And if divine wrath was visited upon every child who daydreamed at church, then I--along with my siblings, childhood friends and pretty much all of my ninety or so classmates at Catholic high school--would be more screwed than an actual screw in a screwdriver factory.

Oh, and the soldier never gets his comeuppance either.  He's still out there somewhere, staring lecherously at young women's feet and awaiting his next opportunity to dust off an unsuspecting victim's shoes.  Yeah, I think I'll go throw away all my crimson footware now.  Can't sleep; Corporal Lucifer will make me dance.  

  






Friday, December 14, 2012

The Anatomy of Someone Else's Problem

I am close and intimate friends with one of the world's greatest unsung heroes.

Very close and intimate friends.

In fact, I just so happen to be married to him.  You probably wouldn't recognize his real name, but most people know him as Someone Else.

You know, the one you're talking about when you leave your greasy wadded-up napkins and ketchup-smeared tray on the table in a fast-food joint and blithely assume that "someone else" will take care of it? Or when you notice a minor mistake in that big project that's due on Monday, but it would be too much effort to fix it right now, so you just leave it that way and assume that "someone else" in your team or office or the mysterious nether realm of fix-it fairies will suss out the error and take care of it for you while you go out clubbing all weekend? Yeah, that Someone Else.

As I write this, Technomancer is in his fifth straight day of looking over his company's accounting reports.  Both of them.  In their entirety.

Technomancer is not an accountant, nor does he play one on TV.  The problem here is levels of literacy.  You see, Technomancer is the guy who knows all about computers and programming.  The company's accountants know enough about computers to get by--they do work for a tech company, after all--but the bulk of their knowledge is in keeping track of money, not in programming.

Unfortunately for them, the system for keeping track of money is all computerized.  Which means that every time someone tries to do something unusual that the system does not have dedicated procedures for, like giving a client a new or one-time discount or refunding money back to a credit card, it knocks the whole system askew.  The accounting department does not have the programming savvy to build such procedures into the system, so they go the whole do it anyway, make the reports all wonky and then have Technomancer fix them route instead.

And Technomancer does it, every time.  Every. Time. Because he is the only one who has both the mathematical abilities and the programming skills to patch up the system and then make sure the numbers add up correctly afterwards.

That is the curse of the Someone Elses of this world.  They have the competence to clean up the messes other people leave for them, and an unshakable sense of dedication and responsibility drives them to do so again and again, even when they (frequently) get no recognition or thanks for doing so.  Without their constant and tireless vigilance, society would have collapsed into a smoldering ruin of massive untouched trash mounds and glassy-eyed zombies long ago; yet the same people who constantly push their responsibilities off on the nearest hapless Someone Else are too often the ones who get credit for holding it all together.  Fully forgetting that the Someone Elses are brilliant and driven enough to rise up and imprison their chronically buck-passing overlords.

Mind you, I say this as a frequent buck-passer myself.  I've left dishes in the sink until Technomancer caves and puts them in the dishwasher himself.  I "forget" to offer to drive us places when I don't feel like driving.

But after I do something like that, I always thank him profusely.  And possibly buy him chocolate or a video game.  It's very important to make the Someone Else in your life feel appreciated and rewarded.

Otherwise you might wake up one day shackled to the wall of a gigantic dungeon full of corporate executives and politicians, while Someone Else smirks through the bars at you and pointedly says, "I wonder how we're going to feed all these lazy, incompetent, workload-increasing prisoners.  Hmm, I guess that's someone else's problem now..."  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Amazon Roulette, Round III: Panettone

Christmas is coming.  What better way to celebrate than by ordering food I know I'll like from the internet for once? 

Let's start out with a fancy panettone from Zingerman's Bakehouse.  No rancid vinegary egg yolks in these puppies!


Plus, they come fully gift-wrapped! The irregular shape of the panettone inside made the package a bit lopsided and weird, but that was fine by me.  It brought back warm fuzzy memories of getting stuffed animals for Christmas; I defy anyone to wrap a ginormous floppy stuffed tiger without ending up with a lopsided, weird-looking package.


In addition to the ribbon and colorful paper, my panettone was swathed in a thick decorative wrapper, which I think is hilarious.  It looks like a giant novelty bread cupcake.

Time to dig in:



Perfect, fluffy, yeasty-sweet, fruit-filled goodness.

This thing inhabits some dreamy hinterland between bread and cake, and I love it.  The raisins and candied citrons give it a nice tang, too.  Some people might think it has too much candied fruit; but fortunately I was never forced to eat bad fruitcake or those creepy translucent green cherries as a kid, so I don't have traumatic memories crowding out my ability to judge whether a panettone is super-saturated with sultanas or not.  I thought it seemed like the right amount.  If you do have a candied fruit phobia, I'd recommend getting one of those grocery store panettones that has chocolate instead of fruit.  

Now, if you'll excuse me, my mind has turned to the half-a-panettone now sitting defenseless in the breadbox.  The Zingerman's website recommends making French toast with the leftovers when they start getting dry.  I don't think mine will last that long.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf

(Rolls up sleeves) Time for some deconstruction.

Before we begin, I'd like to note that when I wrote my last post, I was tired and cranky and mad at myself for setting off the fire alarm with my cooking...twice.  So it's possible that I was a wee bit uncharitable, that maybe these tales have their redeeming qualities after all, and I may even end up liking one or two.  We'll see.

So...The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf.

Our protagonist is a little girl named Inger.  Here's the first bit of description we get of her, right in the second paragraph:

"She was a poor child, proud and vain; there was a bad streak in her, as the saying is.  When quite a little child she enjoyed catching flies and pulling off their wings, so making creeping things of them.  She would take a cockchafer* and a beetle, stick each of them on a pin, and then place a green leaf or a little bit of paper up against their feet.  The poor creature would hold on tight to it, turning and twisting it to try and get off the pin."

Okay, so Inger's a right little shit.  But hey, she's a kid; she hasn't developed the capacity for empathy yet.  Good thing she has a mother to keep her in line and mold her into a good human being with a firm but loving hand...

"'It'll need a desperate remedy to cure your disease,' said her own mother.  'Often, when you were little, you trod on my apron; now you're older, I'm afraid you'll end by treading on my heart.'"

Or...not.

Because making passive-aggressive, woe-is-me, don't-you-love-your-poor-mother emotional appeals to bratty children works so well.  I know that bullshit like this pissed me off and made me want to misbehave more when I was a kid, and I was anything but bratty.  Quit your moaning and get out the spankin' plank, lady.

How do I know that this little speech wasn't delivered after dear old mom tried her best to discipline Inger, and Inger just shrugged it off like the bad seed she is?  Why, she's pretty, of course! And you can't spank pretty children! It's right there in the paragraph immediately before it, where Andersen notes that Inger would have gotten "slapped a good deal oftener than she was" if she wasn't so darn cute.  I'm inferring that this is one of the missed slapping opportunities on mom's part.

So eventually Inger "goes out to service" with a wealthy family.  Since this is the nineteenth century, I'm assuming this means that she works for them as a domestic servant.  Since, again, this is the nineteenth century, I'm also assuming that they will work her very hard and probably also mistreat her in a rather Dickensian manner, and she will be miserable but will also start gradually learning patience, humility and compassion...

"They treated her as if she was their own child and dressed her in the same way; she was very good-looking, and she grew vainer than ever."

Or...they'll just spoil her even worse.  Whatever.

After Inger has endured a year's worth of the harsh punishment of living in the lap of luxury, her mistress sends her home to visit her mother.  But as she nears the outskirts of her town Inger sees her mother in a dirty threadbare old dress, gathering firewood for the winter.  She is annoyed and "ashamed that she who was so finely dressed should have a mother who went about in rags collecting sticks" and turns back in a huff without talking to anyone.  Then her mistress sees that her entitlement complex has raged out of control and sits her down for a long-overdue lecture about the importance of respecting one's elders and not being ashamed of where one comes from.

Ha ha, just kidding.  Six months pass.  That's literally all that the story has to say about it, so it seems Inger suffered no consequences for her bad behavior yet again.

To her credit, the lady of the wealthy household tries again.  She sends Inger home with a "big white loaf" as a present for her mother and father.  Inger takes it, presumably with a sulky air, and schleps right on back to the Town of Apparently Embarrassing Poverty where her parents live.  But there's trouble brewing when she comes across a wet and muddy section of the path:

"...she flung the loaf down into the mud, so as to tread on this and get across without wetting her shoes."

That is about the stupidest plan to avoid stepping in a puddle I have ever heard.  That loaf is going to sponge up all the moisture and get soggy, and it'll almost certainly collapse under the weight of anyone who tries to freakin' step on it.  So you'd end up not only with mud on your shoes, but squooshy bits of waterlogged bread gunk as well.  Nice plan, Inger, you insufferable little dipshit.

Fortunately(?) for Inger, though, we're in the Hans Christian Andersenverse instead of reality, so the loaf doesn't squish when she tries to use it as a stepping stone.  It just starts to sink into the swamp, and pulls her down with it until she reaches the marsh-woman's brewery.  Once there she finds that the loaf has become stuck to her foot and rendered her immobile, which is some tough luck for her since a cesspit is apparently "a gay palatial apartment compared to the marsh-woman's brewery," which "stinks enough to make a man faint."  It seems no one has the heart to tell the marsh-woman that she sucks at brewing.

But Inger's in luck! The Devil and his great-grandmother** happen to be inspecting the marsh-woman's brewery that day, and if anyone can scare a bad kid straight it's the Devil.  Sure enough, Satan's great-grandma is very taken with Inger's monumental awfulness and decides that she would make a perfect statue for Hell's entrance hall.  The Devil obliges her, no doubt wishing that his crazy old nana would stop giving him weird knickknacks, and sets Inger up as the grisly infernal equivalent of one of those concrete porch-geese that little old ladies like to dress in funny clothes.

Then we have the Mandatory Long Suffering.  HCA seems to be ridiculously fond of these.  Since it's pretty much nothing but a whole two pages of Inger being passively tormented in Hell, I'll gloss over it a bit.  Basically, she can't move anything except her eyes, she's miserable because her nice clothes are all muddy now (horrors!) and she's so incredibly hungry that she longs to take just one bite of the nasty mud-caked loaf stuck to her foot.  The author waxes rhapsodic about these things for two pages.  Two. Full. Pages.

I would like to address these two passages:

"Then the flies came and crawled over her eyes, to and fro.  She blinked her eyes, but the flies didn't fly away; they couldn't, because their wings had been pulled off and they had become creeping things."

Okay.  I admit I sort of like this part.  People who torture animals push my 'exterminate with extreme prejudice' button.  Flies crawling in your eyes for eternity 'cause you pulled their wings off? Too bad.  You reaps what you sows, beeyotch.

"Then a burning tear fell on her head.  It trickled down her face and breast...Another tear fell--and many more beside...Sorrowing tears a mother sheds for her child will always reach it, but they don't set it free; they burn, they only make the torment greater."

This...not so much.

What is Andersen saying here? That mothers who have lost their children should go through life as emotionless robots, because if they let one careless tear fall dear departed little Suzie will instantly be afflicted with first-degree sadness-burns in heaven?  That is some seriously horrible and depressing shit right there.  If I were a teacher, and one of my students wrote that little detail into a story, I'd worry that he was biting the heads off chickens in his spare time.***

Anyway, apparently Inger was such a miserable excuse for a human being that people on earth start telling stories about how awful she was.  And because this is, after all, Hell she's in, she can hear every word of it.  Her mother pisses and moans some more about what a disappointment she was, someone writes a whole song about her nasty ways, and even her pathetic pushover old master and mistress get in on the action:

"'She was a wicked child,' they said.  'She had no respect for God's gifts, but trod them underfoot; the door of mercy will be hard for her to open.'
'They should have corrected me more often,' thought Inger, 'cured me of my bad ways if I had any.'"

Damn straight.

Understandably, Inger becomes a bit bitter about the whole thing...until she sees one little girl have an unusual reaction to hearing the Tale of Inger the Terrible Horrible No-Good Very-Bad Monsterbitch:

"...she noticed that the little girl burst into tears at the story of the proud Inger and her love of finery.  
'But won't she ever come up again?' asked the small girl.  And she was told, 'No, she'll never come up again...'
'Oh, I do wish she would,' said the little girl, and refused to be comforted.  'I'll give up my doll's house, if they let her come up.  It's so horrible for poor Inger."

Finally, someone realizes how deeply fucked up this whole situation is!

This is an important moment, because it plants the seed of hope in Inger's heart that is necessary for this to happen, decades later when the compassionate little girl dies and her soul ascends to heaven:

"She stood like a child in the kingdom of heaven and wept for poor Inger; her tears and prayers rang like an echo down into the hollow empty shell that hemmed in the imprisoned tormented soul, and it was overcome by all this undreamed affection from above."

Notice that these tears cause Inger no pain, presumably because they're a stranger's tears.  Only mothers' tears burn suffering children with toxic acid-fire in this universe, because Hans Christian Andersen was a very sick man.

Inger's stone shell crumbles away and she is reborn as a little bird, with the promise that if she does a good deed, she'll find her way to heaven.  So what good deed does she do?

She collects breadcrumbs that kind-hearted souls have scattered for the birds and gives them to other birds, having kept only a single crumb of each haul for herself.  I see nothing wrong with that.  It's pretty nice as good deeds go.  There is, however, one thing that bothers me:

"In the course of the winter the bird had collected and given away so many crumbs that the weight of them all would have equaled that of the whole loaf that Inger had trodden on so as not to dirty her shoes..."

And only then is she allowed to go to heaven.  Because redemption and grace and forgiveness are nothing but a petty game of debt repayment and the treasuring up of old grudges.

In Conclusion: The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf is, in my opinion, the tragic tale of a girl who was essentially left to raise herself while everyone who should have taken responsibility for reining her in--from her mom on down to the Devil himself--kept on passing the buck until it took another child being traumatized for life to redeem her.  Not the worst thing I've read, but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.  Good thing I have an emergency supply of chocolate I can raid.

*A kind of European beetle, according to Wikipedia.  It even appears in a German nursery Rhyme:

Cockchafer fly...
Your father is at war.
Your mother is in Pomerania.
Pomerania is burned to the ground.
Cockchafer fly!

I'm sure it's just as cheerful and upbeat in the original German.

**I am intrigued by the idea of the Devil having a great-grandmother.  If God created the Devil, and is therefore the Devil's "parent," does that mean that the Devil's great-grandmother is also God's grandmother? I must know.  Curse you, Hans Christian Andersen, for leaving the most intriguing details of your stories unexplored!

***And then I'd have no choice but to exterminate him with extreme prejudice.
  
   

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

December is Hans Christian Andersen-Bashing Month!

When I was in first grade, a well-meaning teacher read The Little Match Girl to my class the week before Christmas.

Apparently someone decided that, since it had a Christmas tree in it, it must be a Christmas story.  I'm sure this person immediately regretted their decision.

I don't remember being terribly affected by it myself.  In fact, my thoughts on the story at the time ran more like this:  "Geez, Mr. Andersen, you're really laying it on thick, aren't you? I mean, the girl's dead grandma was there to carry her up to heaven, where everything was warm and bright and cheery and she got a roast goose and a pudding and a giant Christmas tree with pretty candles on it?  You want a nice frothy schmaltz beer float to go with your glurge sundae?"

Mind you, this was coming from a kid who had ridiculously easy-to-manipulate emotions.  I cried at the end of that stupid live-action Casper the Friendly Ghost movie, for cripes sake.  It was not at all difficult to tug at my little heartstrings, but Andersen's match girl failed.  Spectacularly.

I pretty much put the story out of my mind until college, when I was forced to confront it--along with several others by the same author--during a course on reading and interpreting fairy tales.  Yes, my college had such a class.  I love my college.  Anyway, once I actually went back and read them with an adult eye, I was amazed to discover I had missed something that seemed glaringly obvious in retrospect.

Namely, the fact that Hans Christian Andersen often comes across like a vicious, cold-blooded sadist with a raging hate-on for children, especially when those children happen to be girls.

Think I'm exaggerating?

Then join me as I read through a few of Andersen's classic tales and detail what bothers me about them.  I'll do one a week, for the entire month of December.  Think of it as my early, twisted Christmas present to you, dear readers.  I'll even try to go easy and not pound your warm childhood memories too far into the ground, because I'm just that friggin' full of the holiday spirit.

First on the chopping block:  The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf.




Friday, November 30, 2012

Holiday Travel Inferno: Driving

That much-dreaded-and-anticipated chunk of the year is upon us; the stretch of days starting in late November and ending in early January, nebulously known as the "holidays."

We all know what that means.

People will be visiting their families.  To accomplish this, many of them must travel.

Therefore, as a public service, I present for your reading pleasure a run-down of all the annoyances and dangers holiday travelers are likely to encounter while desperately schlubbing their mountains of luggage from point A to point B.

First up: a healthy dose of road rage.

1.  The Cell Phone Zombie

I am fully prepared to acknowledge the fact that some people are fully capable of talking on their cell phones while driving.  The problem here is the sizable chunk of the population who fervently believe that they belong to this group when the truth is...they really don't.  In fact, most sensible people wonder what rare reality-warping drug they must have pumped into their sickly little brains to come anywhere near this conclusion.  I see dozens of these cotton-pated cretins zig-zagging all over the road every time I go for a drive, and that's just in town.  Imagine how many hundreds of these jerks will be clogging up our highways in the days before Christmas, blissfully failing to notice that they just wandered into the other lane in front of a speeding eighteen-wheeler that can't slow down in time, or that you're trying to pass them and failing because, despite knowing their way around the thousand-dollar smartphone glued to their ear, they somehow lack the intelligence to figure out cruise control.

How to defeat it:

Get a military strength cell phone jammer.  Or, if you're the law-abiding type, engage your passengers in a rousing game of Dub The Shitty Driver.  Use your imagination to re-create the conversation the Cell Phone Zombie is having.  Make it as inane as possible.  Use funny voices.  Whoever injects the highest quantity of stupid textspeak wins.

2.  The Shrieking Rage-Banshee

Everything pisses the Rage-Banshee off.  Absolutely everything.  Traffic moving too slow? Rage-fit.  Traffic moving too fast? Rage-fit.  An accident or construction zone forcing everyone to take a short detour? The light just turned red and he has to--gasp--stop his car for a minute or two? Animal ran across the road and the car in front of him slowed down to let it pass? Steering-wheel-pounding, cuss-word-spewing, face-reddening rage-fit.  Hell, if his trip went exactly to his liking and he encountered no annoyances whatsoever, he'd still inflict a horrifying rage-fit on every car within a ten-mile radius of his, out of pure frustration at not having anything worth throwing a rage-fit over.

How to defeat it:

Don't try.  Rage-Banshees are a volatile and unpredictable bunch; they vary from the obnoxious-but-only-momentarily-unsettling* to the obnoxious-and-potentially-lethal.  Playing hardball with one likely won't get you anything worse than a one-finger salute and some muffled swear words, but there's always that less-than-zero chance that this particular Rage-Banshee is one of the few so thoroughly disengaged from his own humanity by his vicious animal rage that he wouldn't hesitate to shoot/ram you, or follow you home and set your house on fire.  Quietly let him roar by you, and pray that you won't be the one he takes out when, inevitably, he someday perishes in a fiery crash of his own making.

3.  The Lumbering Behemoth

At some point in your driving career you'll get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle many times larger and heavier than yours.  Maybe it's a convoy of eighteen-wheelers taking turns passing each other and you can't get around until they're done.  Maybe it's one truck carrying an over-sized load.  Maybe the left lane is closed for construction, and nobody's passing anyone until the construction zone ends.  Whatever it is, you're going to have to go slow for a while, and try not to let your nervous side fret about the possibility of random logs or crates getting knocked loose from that flatbed in front of you and sliding through your windshield.

How to defeat it:

This one's pretty easy, actually.  Get off at the next exit and kill time for a while.  Once you get back on the highway, the Lumbering Behemoth will be long gone.  This isn't always worth doing--sometimes getting stuck behind a wide load for a while loses you less time than stopping to let it pass--but for some situations, it's a big sanity-saver.  If I had to choose between stopping to get lunch and being an hour late, and having one of those road-salting trucks flinging rock-hard salt pellets at me all the way across Pennsylvania, tardiness doesn't look so bad.

4.  The Construction Phantoms

This is the most baffling of annoyances.  Every now and then you'll come across a construction zone that is set up like an ordinary construction zone in every respect (temporary signs warning you that the left lane is closed in half a mile, orange barrels and those flashing arrow signs to mark said closed lane, etc.) except for one minor detail: there are no workers.  That makes sense, you think to yourself, somewhat nervously.  It is Sunday, after all.  They must have the day off...  Yet you can't help but notice other eerie signs.  There's not a single piece of heavy equipment in sight on this lonely stretch of road, except for a single rusty backhoe that looks like it hasn't been driven in years.  Its dirt-caked bucket stretches toward the sky as if in a last desperate gesture of supplication.  There are no signs of construction on the road itself, either; the pavement is smooth and unbroken.  Too smooth and unbroken.  Cold fear builds within you, and you long to flee this haunted road.  But you can't, because you are stuck in a single open lane behind a hundred other cars creeping along at five miles an hour.      

How to defeat it:

I have no idea.  I guess if you live in the area, you could call your local transit authority and complain about the construction not getting done, or ask them to send out a professional highway exorcist.  Really, your best bet is to just creep patiently along until you've passed it.  No point in angering the thousands of tormented ghosts that roam our nation's abandoned construction sites.

5.  The Curse of the Inveterate Bumbler

Let's face it: some people are just bad drivers, and they'll always be bad drivers.  No matter how many comprehensive driving courses they take and how many private teachers they hire and how many hours they practice each day, they will remain hopelessly, abysmally incapable of operating an automobile with any semblance of competence.  I'm sure that there are many theories for why this is; maybe it's related to some organic disability, like an inner ear problem or a chemical imbalance in the brain that messes with their sense of distance and speed.  Maybe they hate driving so much that they subconsciously sabotage their own performance on the road, hoping someone will notice and take their license away.  Or maybe a malevolent wizard cursed them to a lifetime of never doing anything right behind the wheel because he's still bitter about the time he took their mom out for a date in college and she made fun of the clunker of a used car he had to buy to save money for all those expensive Thaumaturgy 101 textbooks.

How to defeat it:

This is a particularly tough one to pin down because, like the Rage-Banshee, it comes in so many different variations and levels of severity.  For instance, one of Technomancer's friends is a perfectly fine and safe driver...except for the fact that being in a car causes him to instantly lose all sense of direction and end up someplace literally miles away from wherever he wanted to go.  I've also known several people who had jovial and kindly personalities in real life, but turned into minor Rage-Banshees behind the wheel, which strikes me as more dangerous.  Then you have the most severe and unmanageable form, as seen in the dumbass who knocked down our telephone pole.**  Really, unless you have some form of direct familial authority over one of these cursed souls and can force or persuade them to let you drive them everywhere, there's not much you can do about them except give them a wide berth and pray that someone with the power to confiscate their license catches up to them before any lives are lost.

In conclusion:

If you should run into any of these monsters of the roadway, stay calm, don't attract its attention, and quietly make fun of it on your blog later.  Remember that the holidays are to creatures such as this what the full moon is to a werewolf: busy holiday traffic turns them into much more terrifying and fearsome versions of themselves.  Drive safely, don't get into too many fights with relatives once you've finished driving, and have a happy and low-stress holiday season.

*This douchebag decided he didn't want to wait for the passing lane to clear up so he could get around me and the slow-moving (read: going two or three MPH under the speed limit) car in front of me, so he roared around both of us at about eighty, on the shoulder.  As I told some friends while describing the incident to them, I used my New York words that day.

**This one was pretty spectacular.  I woke up at about two in the morning one day and realized the power was out.  As I dutifully searched for my cell phone to report the outage, I noticed about five police cars and an ambulance parked on the street outside, lights flashing...and in the bright blue light illuminating the street I also noticed a rather crumpled-looking car with the utility pole that feeds our house and the house next door resting squarely on top of it.  This was a regular-sized compact car too, not a huge SUV or Hummer; Technomancer calculated that the driver would have to be going well over sixty in our residential forty zone to completely knock the pole out of the ground like that.  It took the power company about ten hours to fix the damage, and the whole incident made me a little leery about walking down to our street-side mailbox for a few days.        

Sunday, November 25, 2012

I Married Into The Right Family

I spent my first Thanksgiving with Technomancer's family in Texas this year.  Since his grandparents and aunt live in a pleasant little housing development with an extensive and well-maintained system of walking trails, and since the weather in the Dallas area does not (always) get ungodly hot this time of year, we have been trying to go on as many walks as possible to burn off the approximately ten billion calories we consumed over the last few days.

Today I went out walking with Technomancer and Technomancer's dad.  As usually happens when those two are together, their conversation turned to science and advanced economics.  It was very interesting to listen to, but some of it was over my head.  I contented myself with enjoying the scenery.

The trails wind through a big swath of land where all the trees have been cleared to make room for power lines, and lots of tall grass has grown up between the towering steel poles.  I saw dozens of little yellow butterflies fluttering among the grass, as well as a few squirrels, rabbits and blackbirds--pretty standard nature walk fare.

Then, on the way back, we spotted a roadrunner picking its way through the undergrowth.

This is how the conversation went at that point of the trip:

Technomancer: Greenhouse gases carbon nanotubes sustainable solar power recession austerity measures?

Technomancer's dad: Yes, but fuel cells anthropogenic climate change fiscal cliff insolvency...

(We see the roadrunner and stop.)

Technomancer and Technomancer's dad, simultaneously: Meep meep.

Me: We'd better get out of here before the Acme anvils start falling on us.

Everyone: Laugh, resume highly intellectual conversation.

Awesome.

Also, they served cherry-apple cobbler, peanut butter cookies, and three types of pie for dessert.

I like my in-laws.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Notes on Fleeing a Hurricane

I've been out of commission for a while, mostly because Hurricane Sandy decided to rip through the entire east coast like a million hordes of Vikings on crystal meth.  On the positive side, I did learn a few useful life lessons while driving from Connecticut to my parents' house in Michigan in a desperate attempt to escape the worst of the storm:

1.  If you have to make emergency hotel plans, the Marriott is usually a pretty good bet.  They're clean, the rooms are nice, they have a complimentary breakfast, and they're very understanding when you have to change your reservation dozens of times to beat the weather.

2.  Tossing blankets and a flashlight and a first aid kit and a snow shovel and a month's supply of food and water in the car is pretty much a scaled-up version of grabbing an umbrella every time you leave the house while rain is on the forecast.  Absolutely nothing bad happened to us.  We didn't even run into any of that snow the Weather Channel was so direly predicting.

3.  Pennsylvania gets an unfair rap as a boring state.  True, it's pretty sparsely populated in places and it takes ten eternities to drive through, but the scenery is anything but boring.  We passed lots of high green hills, clear mountain streams, and picturesque old white farm houses in grassy valleys.  My favorite part of the trip was the stretch of I-80 that winds through the dynamite-scarred walls of a towering mountain ridge, with a big river churning in a deep gorge on one side.  Try piloting a two-and-a-half-ton car through there at 70 miles an hour while blasting one of the metal stations on Sirius XM at full volume sometime.  You'll feel like you're in a freaking Iron Maiden video.

4.  Speaking of Sirius XM, satellite radio is pretty awesome.  Getting a new car that offers a free six-month satellite radio trial is even more awesome.

5.  Seriously, Denny's?  A grilled cheese sandwich with fried mozzarella sticks in it?  No, I didn't actually order it; I don't want to die of a massive coronary at age 30.  I also concede that it's not quite as awful as that burger at Friendly's that's served between two grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a bun, but still.  You fail, Denny's.  You make morbidly obese American Baby Jesus cry tears of pure melted butter.
    Also, your coffee is pretty bad.  And when I can tell your coffee is bad, you've got some nasty, stank-ass coffee.

6.  Note to self: no matter how desperate for money you are, never, ever get a job as a Weather Channel reporter.   

7.  Your new car with all-wheel drive is ever-so-slightly wider than your old car, which was the same model but only had front-wheel drive.  It won't make much of a difference for ordinary suburban driving, but it will somehow make city driving and parallel parking ten times more horrid.

8.  There is a secret branch of the federal government known as the Department of Highway Inconvenience.  They are the ones responsible for arranging such obstacles as closed lanes in a "construction zone" with no workers or actual construction equipment in sight; truckers who drive for a living, yet somehow don't know how to use cruise control; and those dratted oversized-load trucks that crawl along at forty miles an hour while you sit stuck behind them in your zippy little sportscar and fume. 
    They secretly analyze your driving patterns and carefully select just the right annoyances to throw at you the second you leave your house.  They get me every time I venture onto the interstate, usually with dumbasses who jabber away on their cell phones while bearing right down on my bumper or the brutally effective tag team of slow-ass-old-guy and jerk-who-won't-let-me-into-the-passing-lane.  You will never convince me that this department doesn't exist.

9.  Finally, if you live in Connecticut and won't get a backup generator for your house after a hurricane passes through, you're a bit unreasonable.
     If you still won't get a generator after a huge destructive snow storm and another hurricane pass through, I seriously question your judgement.  Especially if you're on well water.
     If all of the above are true, and you're also my landlord, it doesn't exactly encourage me to think happy fluffy marshmallow thoughts about you.  Please, Connecticut landlords, do the right thing and get generators.  Your tenants will love you for it.  Hell, I'd be willing to pay extra for it.  Think of the happy marshmallow thoughts, Connecticut landlords.  Think of the happy marshmallow thoughts.

That is all.    

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Schoolyard Rhymes, Part III: Say Whatever You Want (But Learn To Duck)

Once, when my brother was about twelve, he started singing 'Row, row, row your boat' at the dinner table.  One of my sisters joined in, and they performed a nice little round.

No big deal, right?

Wrong.  My brother chose to use an alternative set of lyrics he'd picked up from kids at summer camp.  They went something like this:

Roll, roll, roll the joint
and twist it at the end.
Puff, puff, that's enough.
Pass it to a friend.

Despite being right next to them and hearing every word, my mom said nothing.  She waited patiently for them to finish.  Once they did, she drew her arm back and dealt my sister, who was closer to her, an almighty smack to the back of the head.

My sister was quite indignant, having somehow failed to grasp the correlation between her belting out an unsolicited hymn of praise to illegal drugs at the dinner table and this spike in parental disapproval.

"Ow!" she shouted.  "Why did you do that?"

"Because I couldn't reach your brother," said my mom calmly.

My sister sulked the rest of the meal.  I believe my brother may have gotten a surreptitious under-the-table kick or two from her.  

Here's how writing works, in a nutshell: if you have something that you think is worth saying, write it down.  If you think it's worth sharing with other people, share it.  If some people find what you wrote offensive and criticize it, share it anyway.  Take their criticisms into account if they happen to be valid and well-reasoned, but keep on sharing whatever you do.  Nothing you write is going to be universally liked by everyone.  You have a right to your voice, those you offend have a right to express their opinions, and no one has the right to never be offended ever.

Write anything you want, but don't expect to be adored by the whole world.  Also, keep some quick reflexes.

Disclaimer:  This post is not intended to defend internet trolls, trashy political 'pundits,' people who non-ironically refer to themselves as 'provocateurs' or 'contrarians,' or anyone else who habitually spews forth vile, hateful crap expressly for the purpose of angering as many people as possible.  Getting death threats and suffering legal consequences for being, say, a horrid cyberbully doesn't make you some kind of brilliant, misunderstood second coming of Salman Rushdie.  It makes you a wretched fissure in the anus of humanity.






Sunday, October 21, 2012

Amazon Roulette Sunday, Round II: Quinn Popcorn

Okay, full disclosure time.

I hate microwave popcorn.

Yes, I know it's horribly un-American of me.  Yes, I know it makes me an awful person who probably, like, kicks puppies and throws little old ladies in front of speeding buses and stuff.  After all, who could hate something as fun and innocent as microwave popcorn?

But before you rush off to Walmart to buy some pitchforks, torches and witch-burning wood, hear me out.  The first time I ate popcorn was at my grandmother's house.  She popped it in one of those old-fashioned air poppers and seasoned it with exactly the right amount of oil: enough to make the salt stick, but not enough to make the popcorn soggy.  It was like eating a bowl of warm, puffy, crunchy, salty little clouds.

Then, a few years later, I dug into my first bag of microwave popcorn and immediately thought, "what is this slimy crap?"

Every time I've had microwave popcorn, it just tasted nasty to me--stale and slightly burnt-smelling even when it isn't burnt at all.  And that nauseating, overly salty melange of mystery chemicals that the kernels have been marinating in for who knows how long overwhelms everything and gives the popcorn a weird waterlogged mouth-feel.  Also, I suspect the manufacturers only call it 'oil' because the FDA would start asking uncomfortable questions if they told the truth and called it 'condensed smog monster urine.'

So I was intrigued when I saw Quinn popcorn for sale on the rather upscale Dean and Deluca website.  It was advertised as a spruced-up version of microwave popcorn with natural oils and organic corn, no chemical coating in the bag, and no preservatives.  It also came in three yummy-sounding flavors:  Parmesan and rosemary, lemon and sea salt, and Vermont maple and sea salt.

    
I couldn't decide which flavor I wanted to try first.  Fortunately Amazon.com offers a sampler package of all three for about fifteen bucks, so I ordered one and let Technomancer choose, since he so kindly offered to help with this one.

He chose the maple.  I opened the box with the blue stylized corn leaves on it and found this:

  
The plastic-wrapped bag is the popcorn itself; the packet immediately to the right is the oil, and the smaller packet is the powdered flavoring.  The popcorn bag has a pretty simple list of written and pictorial instructions once you remove the plastic and unfurl it:


Basically it says you're supposed to microwave the popcorn first, and then open the bag to add the oil and seasoning.  I guess that's a pretty good way of getting around the whole popcorn-kernels-stewing-forever-in-bag-of-rancid-oil problem.

It honestly didn't look like there was much popcorn in there, but the bag inflated nicely during the microwaving process.  Here it is about halfway through, looking kind of like grainy footage of a UFO:

 
I was also a little worried about the oil-and-seasoning-adding process; the instructions said to dump them in and then shake the bag to coat, and the bag felt flimsy enough that I could see it tearing and splattering hot popcorn and oil all over my floor and bare feet, but it held up really well.  I also discovered that the contents of one bag fit nicely in my inexplicably huge cereal bowl:


I'm happy to report that it tasted as nice as it looked.  The maple sugar gave it a nice buttery-smoky-sweet flavor underlying the saltiness, like a good sea-salt caramel, but not so strong that you couldn't tell there was popcorn in there.  Technomancer and I agreed that it was our favorite.

The Parmesan and rosemary was a close second.  The powdered seasoning didn't seem to distribute quite as evenly as the maple, but it was still delicious, cheesy, savory comfort food.

The lemon sits comfortably in third place.  It wasn't bad--it's still a few trillion times better than normal microwave popcorn--but we simply preferred the other flavors.  Also, it has a very intense lemony flavor, which also isn't bad but can be a bit of a shock when you pick up a piece with a little too much seasoning on it.

There were a few minor drawbacks.  The oil and seasoning packets make for more stuff to throw away.  Each box contains only two popcorn bags, and the bags are relatively small--which is fine for the two of us, but might be a problem if you're trying to provide, say, six people with popcorn.  All in all, though, it's definitely something I'll buy again, especially the maple and Parmesan flavors.  Heck, it's a nice, easy and quick microwaveable popcorn that not only doesn't taste like chemicals and sadness, but is actually so darn awesome that Dean and Deluca thought it was high-class enough to sell!  If that isn't enough to bring me back to the beloved American snack food fold, nothing is.    

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Poemiest Place In Vermont

So I'm still pretty tired from finishing up a long weekend/micro-honeymoon in Vermont, but I do have something very important to say.

The Pitcher Inn in Warren, Vermont is a veritable hotbed of pure, uncut awesome.

Is it because of their beautifully and individually decorated rooms?  The clear mountain stream that runs through the property?  Their excellent food, huge wine selection, and the fact that their dining room overlooks said picturesque mountain stream?  Perhaps the fact that they leave fresh chocolate truffles on your bedside table every night?

Well, yeah.

But what is it that makes them really, super, way-above-average awesome?

They leave little cards with famous poems printed on them right next to the chocolates.  Really.  On Saturday we got a copy of 'Willow Poem' by William Carlos Williams along with our lovely cappuccino truffles.  'Up-Hill' by Christina Rossetti appeared next to two dainty little black forest-flavored morsels the next night.

How brilliant is it to make people associate reading stuff with free chocolate?  I'm seeing a possible book-selling strategy here.

Speaking of books, check out the cool vintage ones we found hidden in a desk in our room:


They had a whole library of these in a cozy little den near the reception area, too.  New Englanders sure do like their old books.