Stawberry Shortcake

During that time that I reference all too often, the winter break in Bar Harbor I spent alone, I was obsessed with strawberry shortcake. It's one among many foods that I have fetishized, fussed with, and found lacking. I always had to add something to strawberry shortcake. Nutmeg wove its way sucessively through each piece of it: the biscuits, the whipped cream, even, oddly, the sugared strawberries. I put rose water in there, one time. Vanilla in the cream, another. I may even have tried cinnamon somewhere. I did not try any sort of booze, which probably would have been the only thing worth trying.

I don’t remember exactly how many times I made strawberry shortcake, but sometimes it seems that all I did during those three weeks was eat strawberry shortcake with cheap Chardonnay and watch “Absolutely Fabulous”. I kept hoping it would be more decadent and less sickeningly rich. The strawberries deceive me into thinking that I’m eating something light and fruity, not a pile of butter and cream. Of course, that is the point of the dish–that the wet, fresh, mildly sweet berries compliment the heavy, dry biscuits and the rich cream. I kept thinking well, it’s almost perfect. Part of the trouble was that by the time I actually took a bite of the stuff, I had already eaten a few biscuits. And having had just eaten dinner, my digestion was already weighed down. The shortcake was putting me to sleep.

Decadence is by definition excessive, but one wants it to be, somehow, a needful excess. A lush does not wish to drown in pointlessness, to have everything and anything. He wants to get that particular thing, to stretch out fulfillment like taffy. To be decadent is to delay endings, which, really, is to delay time’s passage entirely. Unfortunately, strawberry shortcake leaves you sedated, gurgling, and not freed in the slightest. The worst part is, after one deadening plate, I still want more of it. And I’ll make it again. Decadence may be impossible, but I can try again and again, creating the appearance of decadence. I can try to create a tiny opening of the present, but each attempt takes me further away. Strawberry shortcake, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, is not transcendance.

That doesn’t stop me from wishing. The only excuse I need is a new angle. This time it was an impetus thinly veiled behind the scent and flavor of strawberries. Someone told me she was eating strawberries, that the flavor was unparalleled, that nohing beats the taste of a good, fresh strawberry. I could never have what I imagined her experience to be, but I could sidle up as close as possible to that red, sylvan jouissance. I immediately bounded to the store, of course, and found that strawberries were on sale. Thrilled, I told her that I got them, that the package of strawberries was in my hand. “Smell them,” she told me. I did. “Oh yes,” I said, the air through the vents of the plastic box perfumed with promise.

Strawberries, through, unless they’re ridiculously good, are improved by sugar and stewing. These strawberries were not quite ripe enough to be best alone. This time strawberry shortcake would be foremost a vehicle for strawberries. I wanted to distill them to purer version of themselves. There would be no distractions: no nutmeg, no rosewater, no vanilla. Just sugar, biscuits, and cream. In the end, same story: nausea, second helpings, remainders of desire.

Slice some strawberries, remove their green tops, and put them in a bowl. Cover them with about a tablespoon of sugar for every two strawberries. Stir them about. Set the oven to 425 F. In another bowl mix together two cups flour, three teaspoons baking powder, and two pinches of salt. Put in a stick of cold butter. Coat it with flour and slice it into chunks, then cut it finely into the flour using a pastry cutter. Add one egg and nearly 2/3 a cup of milk. Mix with a fork until a dough is formed. Roll out the dough, dusting it with flour so it doesn't stick. Fold it once onto itself. Roll it out again to roughly 1/3 inch. Cut out small discs with a cup and put them onto a baking pan. Bake until risen and lightly browned on bottom. In yet another bowl whip some heavy cream to very soft peaks. Warm the strawberries in a small pot until all the sugar dissolves. Cut one of the biscuits in half, putting the insides up on a plate. Cover the halves with strawberries and whipped cream.

27 April 2012

Abe's Haunting

At the front of Lithia Park, at the foot of the stairs leading up to the Shakespeare Festival, atop a granite boulder, there once was an undersize statue of Abraham Lincoln. If years were seconds, it would've been studied by particle physicists. It was there and it was not. Even now, it isn't quite not there.

Its trouble may have been that it was too easy a target, symbolically. Lincoln is old enough that for many high school students he falls into the category of "old white guys in history textbooks". The statue was nothing but a banal symbol of the authority of adults. Thus for certain teenagers it was the perfect material with which to articulate their aspirational difference from The Man. The statue's destruction was, in other words, a prank. Lighten up, man.

First came off its head. Or should I say his? There was something of an uncanny valley about this thing. It was a replica of the Lincoln Memorial, but rather than towering, superhuman, above us, it was slightly smaller than life-size. Like an inverse chicken, it went on being motionless with its head chopped off. I thought it was funny at the time. Precisely the attitude that, fortified with alcohol and testosterone, probably lead to dear Stumpy.

More amusing still (for the same juvenile reasons) was the impotence of authorities' response. He lost his head, so a new one was put on. It was undignified, really--you could tell he wasn't all there because his head was of a different color than the rest of him. He was all white marble, but his head was whiter. This act was repeated, and then repeated again, like a grotesque game of musical heads. This may have gone on for a whole year. I have no idea where all the heads came from, or, indeed, where they all ended up. Sitting in someone's basement, perhaps, is a pile of polished Lincoln heads.

At some point whoever was in charge of poor Abraham gave up. That, or the pranksters escalated their theft. The whole statue disappeared. Nothing has changed since then. The boulder has not been removed; the statue has not been replaced. At the top of the rock a decayed square of white statue remains is still bolted in place. Now a decade since, it was never smoothed off. Stubbornly, the wound was left. I can't help but think there's something petulant about this: the city wearing the statue's absence on their sleeve.

17 April 2012


Around here old houses were built sometime in the 20th century. It’s a big deal. Whole ‘historic districts’ have been demarcated with little signs on top of the street signs like the ‘scenic road’ signs on the highway. The landlord of a house I looked at recently pointed out all the little things she had done to keep the house’s appearance ‘period,’ which in this case was the 1930s. She had torn up the linoleum floors and scraped off the white paint to reveal the wood planks underneath. The house had to be excavated from underneath what these days is midcentury detritus. As far as houses are concerned, the 1930s are more hip than the 1960s.

Our house, in this older-is-better logic, suffers under more recent fashion atrocities. It was built in 1908, and when my parents moved in, in the 1970s, there was a wraparound porch, and a large central wood stove. The more recent additions, back then, were the thick brown carpets, the hallway that connected the main house to a smaller cottage, and several electric heaters mounted around the house.

In the winter I remember living from heater to heater. Whatever we were doing it was always next to the stove or a heater. The stove gave me two childhood fascinations: the stove was all cast iron, so it was possible to place a cylindrical magnet on the side and watch it roll all the way down without leaving the stove’s surface. When the stove was hot, spit became mesmerizing. One droplet from my lips would sizzle violently and move itself at random across the stove’s flat surface, disappearing after a few seconds.

These things are tinged with nostalgia because at some point in my childhood my parents decided to remodel. They had fallen into a sizable chunk of cash, and apparently had been building up fantasies of what the house could be. The porch--where once my brother and I had run around in Superman costumes getting splinters in our feet--moved inside. The living room, as a result, became enormous, and was lined with huge windows. The brown carpets and smallish windows had made the house dark, and now it was seething with sunlight. The carpets were taken away, and pale wood floors were installed. The basement was turned into living space, the awkwardest that ever was: a bedroom without a door, attached to an office. If we’re stuck with positive adjectives, our house had gone from cozy to spacious. If on the other hand we’ve only negative, then from cramped and dark to empty and blinding. We still like to say that it was built in 1908.

This house has gone the opposite route, for far more expense. Instead of remodeled it has been restored. It received the most elaborate paint job in town a few years ago. It’s eye-popping and ostentatious in easter-egg shades of purple, aqua, and gold. Behind a black iron fence it looks to be an untouchable, pristine relic. I have never seen anyone enter or exit it. This could be because the entrance is an alley away from prying eyes. Public and private has been defined rigidly here: Two sides of the house are to be seen, two are not.

This year that paradigm has been finalized. The most solidly build privacy fence I’ve ever seen has been constructed on the private side. It’s made of thick, well-stained wood and iron slats. The alley along which it is built is one I walk several times a week (it’s my route to the library). When it was being built I saw the trench in which it is now anchored. It was three feet deep. This fence is more like a wall, and it isn’t going anywhere.

17 April 2012

Springs Eternal

The first thing I reach for is the tea kettle, and at least half the time, no matter how I brew it or what I do with it, tea is insipid. It’s not enough. Not only does it leave me falling back asleep an hour after waking, but it fails to deliver its promise. The truth of it plunges me from the thin plane of possibility back into reality: It’s noon, and all I have is a mug of lukewarm brown liquid. I ask a lot of it. Not only is it supposed to wrest me from unconsciousness, but it also has to somehow allow me outside my life.

Therefore sometimes I escalate to coffee, and suddenly there is an arms race of morning aspirational imbibations. Coffee, though, has its problems: burning at the back of the throat, diarrhea, heartburn, sickly taste that cannot truly be scrubbed out of anything. And as much as I need coffee, it can leave me so agitated that everything becomes nearly impossible, even behaving civilly. Every time I switch to coffee I switch right back to tea the next day. (This is the kind of thing that passes for excitement for me.) It’s not really an escalation or an arms race, and coffee is not superior to or more than tea (except technically in caffeine content, which in the end is irrelevant). What I’m actually doing by switching back and forth is searching for novelty.

To this end I also mix up tea preparations. I boil it in milk with ginger, brew nicer leaves, add sugar or do not. I can fiddle all I want, in the end its futile. Novelty comes only out of the blue, and rarely because I decided to drink something different that morning. It grabs me unexpectedly on mornings when I’ve resigned myself to the same damned thing, and suddenly the same tastes different. It’s hotter, fresher, more precise.

On such lucky mornings I sometimes convince myself that the perfection of the tea (or coffee) can be chocked up to some subtlety in the way I prepared it. I try to replicate it the next day, and it comes out the same old garbage. Too this, too that, a drink to be waded through, not greedily consumed.

Faced with the pointlessness of tea and coffee, some would give it up entirely, become like monks. These people are just as afraid of intractability as I am. To opt out of the idea of stimulating beverages would take so much maintenance. Maintaining control over the desire surely means being ruled by it. Who manages it completely, anyway? Sounds just as much a longing as what I have for the supposed powers of caffeine. Besides, I could not possibly give up my crutch. This is not something that should ever be uttered at an AA meeting.

13 April 2012

Total Recall

I have a friend, D., who has aspired all his life to be a stand-up comedian, though he has never said so, and indeed he may not think so. He's at his best impersonating. His impersonations are nothing groundbreaking, but they're infectious, and they do what they should: improve upon the source martial. So much so that the source material becomes completely lost, and the far more entertaining impersonation is all we remember. No one has become more lost and more improved by impersonation than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Thus watching any movie he's in is an excavation of the real Arnie, quickly thereafter forgotten. It's a disorienting thing--him and the activity of unearthing him. Imagine my shock at the first scene of "Total Recall", in which he is thrown into the Martian desert without a space suit, and he begins to scream. In a special effect that is unsettling as much for its gruesomeness as its cheesyness, his eyes bulge out of their sockets, and he emits the proto-Arnie-noise. You know, the one everyone does, from Dana Carvey to Dylan Moran to my D.: alwalwalwalwalw--a guttural vowel through jaws moving rhythmically up and down as if on an exercise machine. Undoubtedly that's how it began--as a jaw exercise. The amazing part about this is that even though I watched this only 24 hours ago, I have just described D.'s impression to you, not what I heard. Because I don't remember what I heard.

This is exactly the kind of tiresome mind-game that can sustain Phillip K. Dick's wonder. (He wrote the short story on which Total Recall was based, of course, as he did quite a few other fanboy-enshrined Sci-Fi films.) He subjects everything to the same kind of philosophical doubt, and so his work is a gold mine for film-makers aiming for the "let's smoke a bowl and watch something" crowd. The basic "whoa" in this film: Is the protagonist's experience a self-indulgent fantasy being synthetically pumped into him by--you guessed it--a sleazy corporation or is it real? It turns out that both his identity and his idealism are constructs intended to secure the corporation's monopoly. But oh no! It back-fires: He, the construct, fights to not be erased by his "true" identity, and triumphantly saves the world from the corporation's greed.

Among all this, there are innumerable funny Schwarzenegger noises, or action scenes as some call them. The unpathologized nonchalance with which he spins innocent bystanders into his heroic imperatives gave me pause. People who have barely met him sacrifice their lives for him, and then he uses their corpses as body shields. His role is comparable to one of the most gruesome weapons he wields in the film: an enormous hand-held drill. He uses it to drill all the way through the armor plating of a vehicle threatening to kill him and his sidekick/lover, and finally into the flesh of its operator. Ugh.

Let's talk about something else. How about that this heavily accented actor is supposed to pass for a white American everyman? At the film's start he and Sharon Stone flounce about their apartment like the married couple you want to murder every time they come over for dinner. When he wakes up, she hounds him for information about this other girl in his recurring dream. He sulks, and watches the news on their enormous flat screen. She bitchily turns it off with the most awful smile (this perhaps is Stone's talent). He sulks some more, and then goes to work. Apparently, he's a construction worker. Like his more recent job as governor, one is always thinking that surely he's actually a body builder, and surely he's just visiting from Austria. Maybe he's actually perfect for both this role and in politics because his accent and mannerisms form a kind of cognitive bomb. One sees and then, in a flash of bent diphthongs and flexing muscle, one does not.

The only part of all this worth watching as far as I'm concerned is Schwarzenegger being apathetic and sarcastic. It's a very brief scene, but unparalleled. He's watching a video of himself telling him what to do, because the one watching has contracted amnesia under duress. What he's watching, then, is the way back to himself. The route involves a lot of difficult, adventurous tasks, and he's depressed by this. "Yes, yes," he says, slouching, as if his wife just scolded him, and then, hearing the worst of it, "great," dripping with ennui. Captured on screen is the most honest reaction he's ever had to his life's work.

3 April 2012

I would totally recall the movie for this.