Miso Gravy, or Dramatic Short Sentences

You know what the worst food in the world is? Food trying desperately to be other food. Servility isn't a good taste.

The basket case of slavering self-erasure I have in mind is, of course, vegetarian food trying to be carnivorous. Specifically, vegetarian gravy. No, not gravy in the sense of hearty sauce, but actually the juices extracted from parts of dead animals. The brown stuff you pour over mashed potatoes. A certain excitement pervades those vegetarians who feel they have conjured meatiness. The pride with which this recipe was related to me, the ecstasy its consumption reportedly gave. It's recipe that can only be described as brute-force cookery. (Brute-force in the sense of hacking, wherein a massive number of passwords are sent to the target, until one of them, hopefully, turns out to be the right one. The problem in this case is that the sheer volume of data constitutes a denial-of-service attack in the mouth.) Here are the ingredients: garlic, onions, nutritional yeast, mushrooms, miso, vegetable bouillon, and white wine. Basically every possible non-dairy source of umami mixed together in a pot.

I might love the stuff on popcorn, but nutritional yeast is particularly offensive. I shiver (for several reasons) at the memory of the dinner pap I cooked up on the week-long solo segment of my bicycle trip back from the coast some years ago. I brought with me tons of tiny macaroni elbows, a kind of hippie instant pasta (I brought it in the bulk section of the local co-op). This I would boil in a tiny pot over a tiny stove just outside of or sometimes inside my tent, damning what I'd heard was a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, because it was raining. Once cooked, I poured out most of the water, dropped a pat of butter on top of it, some salt, a pinch of an all-purpose spice mixture I had concocted for the trip, and a mountain of nutritional yeast. This was supposed to be protein. For the same reason I would sometimes chop cheese into it, too. It was wonderful, but then everything is when you've pedaled yourself to exhaustion the whole day.

The best part is, at the time, it wasn't just calories to assuage my gullet and cramping legs, it was decadence. I had hoarded these ingredients. The first half of the bicycle trip was with company from whom I hid such naughty items as pasta. "Company" isn't quite right--I wouldn't want to give the impression I was going on this trip anyway and these two guys wanted to tag along. I was one of the tag-alongs, and tag-alongs are never really in the company of others. It's just out of reach. I spent the month before we left agonizing over whether to go or not. It was crazy, I wasn't ready for the physical exertion or the socializing, my bike was in a state of disrepair. In the end, though, there was no use fighting it. He was irresistible. He knew everything, like which dumpsters were good, where the best abandoned fruit trees were, and that women's legs were just as hairy as men's. In the house where in the yard he currently had an arrangement to live, there was a photo of someone with his or her back to the camera, and I made some remark about "him". He laughed that laugh of his, the one I still steal, with the multiple joyous gasps for air at the end of it, and said "yeah, because a woman could never have legs that hairy." He was in good humor, but still I stammered, making some attempt at a defense, though perhaps that memory was only esprit de l'escalier. I can't remember if my face did, but I certainly burned with shame. That after all is the best glue, and I felt it just being in his presence. He knew how to live; I was just a pathetic bourgeois impostor. I had to go with him.

So it was he who determined what could be said and could not, what should be done and should not. For the trip he was the horizon, above which was reality, and below, the underworld. Without him just a jumble, no crust of potential happiness, and no heat and pressure below. Not that he wanted to determine anything. He was one of those people who tries draw others out, like pupils. And surely it was lonely, looking into our eyes and finding only a wall of subservience. If there was any resistance it was ultimately rescinded, tucked away. What to do instead?

He had a passion for water. Thus the coast, I suppose. The easiest way to the coast is to follow a river. The highway along the river is dangerous, more so for bicycles. Winding steeply down, on one side cliff, one side sheer drop to the water, precariously held by an intermittent guardrail. There's no shoulder, only a white line where we tried to place our wheels, the cars squeezing past us at fifty miles an hour. Caution was not possible; safety meant not hesitating.

Sometimes his passion for the water would take him (and us) where there was a convenient ramp to the river. His passion was infectious and the immune system could not quite identify it. He was impulsive, open, exuberant. We his companions were both pensive, quiet, found it difficult to jump. (Though it was less of a jump, I think, for the other one of us.) He jumped. He whooped. I stood with my shirt off, crumpled inward, staring at the ice-blue water rushing. While I thought the water roared. I could enter but I wouldn't. The water would chill me, and it did. I was in the water but I wasn't. I smiled. It was an action. I looked at him smiling, drying off, and I was envious. To me water was just water, to him, something more.

So with food. I always wanted more quantity. I wanted to gorge myself. One of my happiest moments on the trip was when he suggested we all get ice cream from a gas station. I say suggested; to us it meant we were allowed. Ice cream was an indulgence. I devoured mine looking at my bike saddle, exhaustion at the prospect of again mounting.

If the fact that he willingly was going to bicycle from Oregon to Alaska doesn't tell you, I'll tell you that he had a passion for punishment. We reached the mouth of the river. The land flattened. The road eased and quieted. He stopped. There was a patch of stinging nettles on the roadside. On his birthday he had run through a gauntlet of friends spanking him with brushes of stinging nettles. Standing in the nettle patch, gathering them for a meal, I discovered there is something undeniably tantalizing about them. In my shorts I daintily avoided their leaves, but I was drawn deeper and deeper into where they couldn't be avoided. I wanted to trick myself into being stung. Their threat a ticklish promise. He barreled into the thick of them, grabbing handfuls. I was disgusted.

That night we boiled the nettles in seawater. It's the only time I've ever eaten them, and I remember them as delicious. I wanted more, but that was the whole of dinner. The nettles were supposed to sustain us. He wanted to live his dream of gathering the food he ate. He did. I tried. My hunger bubbled up against the diaphragm.

It was with a mixture of fright and pleasurable anticipation that the third of us left. It was just him and I for the next few days, until we too parted. I had him all to myself, but then I lacked a buffer to hide behind. My anger and longing became more apparent. Glaring at him pedaling ahead of me with ease. Intimate talk was suddenly, frighteningly, possible. As we rode I would tell him things, and sometimes it seemed like he was lifting things out of me like a pickpocket, but they were things I wanted to let go. When I had released them, though, they were wrong. What could I do about the false things I had given him? Correction or silence? The latter only held so much.

At night we shared a tent. I had my own, but I didn't like what using it said. Then I wondered if he wondered why I didn't use mine. Enclosed on both sides. I remember his smile in the mornings, ever jovial. Such warmth there. I hate sleeping with others. Every sound I make redoubles in my imagination of their ears.

Sleeping alone is just as bad, in another way. When I began my trip home, I was elated. I was free and I could do whatever I liked. But nobody knew what I was doing. Miles and miles of the prison of the freedom of my mind. Talking to myself. When night fell there was nothing for my thoughts to bump up against, no other mind to speculate. I could eat all the macaroni-and-yeast I liked, filling my belly to sickness. I did have a book. One can only read oneself out of oneself so far.

In the shadow of a carnivorous cuisine, vegetarian has the same options: futile mimicry with an undercurrent of frustration, or empty, desperate freedom. The only way out is to find different company. The straining hurts and hurts to witness. Vegetarian gravy is this strain liquefied. It has the flavor of aspirational pain.

26 May 2012

More Efficient than Essays

Barbecue Sauce That obnoxious loudmouth without whom the party is not a party.

Coffee The giddiness of infatuation, the sickness of rejection.

Bacon Thermonuclear war.

Chocolate Monks pretend not to sneer at those who indulge, who just can't handle 100%.

Alcohol And we look down on glue-sniffing.

Butter What was enough yesterday is stingy today.

Salt Piety, ignorance, and health are no excuses for bad taste.

Sugar Some think pleasure will land them in hell, and some think they can feel hell burning up into them, into their teeth--what flattery is that.

Sunscreen I knew a man who grew obesce from eating spoons and spoons of canned frosting.

Wheat We all need someone to hallow and to rage against.

Rose Water What about the taste of smell?

Swiss Cheese You might not want to shake hands with me because I pick the stuff between my toes.

Turnip You know those grimacing people to whom others only speak out of a sense of duty, guilt, or pity?

Canned Bread When I asked him if we as a country would ever get over the second world war, he said "I hope not!"

Cucumber No outward signs of bitterness; you have to slice it and taste.

15 May 2012

Berries in the Dark

Those croissants. Lily went to great lengths to transport them from the upper east side to Brooklyn, and there they are, piled on a platter, perfectly browned. I have never seen anyone bite into one. Every episode morning breaks with a Protestant chirp, bracing helicopter shots of the sun rising over Manhattan, and a table set to the brim with inert Continental breakfast foods. Orange juice, coffee, pastries, fruit, yogurt. As you would expect from someone like me, I find the pastries maddening. They look so good, and they're not eaten.

I'm not sure about the others, but Chuck and Serena have signiture gastronomic props. One might even call them familiars. Chuck can reliably be seen draining tumblers of brown liquor in his hotel room. It seems he runs on the stuff. Perhaps his peculiar way of moving can be ascribed to the lubrication of his hydraulic limbs. Without whiskey he might--who knows?--become Nate.

Berries, it appears, are Serena's substance. They are somehow both a diet and a comfort food. While others consume theoretical croissants, Serena breakfasts on mixed berries. When she pulls off a scheme (don't worry, it will fail by the end of the episode) by posting as Gossip Girl, she is luxuriating in bed, feasting on berries, smirking. Finally, when her life has run dry, her fantasies evaporated, and her imagination halted (which by the way never happens to people in this show--there is always a new angle), Dorota asks her "why you eat berries in dark?"

10 May 2012

The Avengers

There are two scenes I remember from "The Avengers", and that's because I was trying to for the purpose of this blog.

Aliens are in the process of blowing up Manhattan. Captain America, in his regalia, jumps on top of a car and begins giving rapid-fire orders to two policemen. They look at him, a little perplexed (and why not, there's a man literally covered in stars and stripes--perhaps he is some sort of street performer). "Why should we take orders from you?" one asks. A few invading aliens are then upon Mr. America, and he dispatches them quickly with a flourish. The fight ends with him holding one of their severed cocks. I mean guns. Without another word, the policemen immediately get on the radio to relay his orders. Might makes right. The audience laughs.

Some of those in the way of salvation are a bit more prickly. Namely, the villain, a sickly-pale Tom Hiddleston. When the Hulk threatens him with smash, Loki has a hissy fit. The Hulk may be the "monster," but it's Loki who is feminized, who will lose because he "lacks conviction." Joss Whedon milks the moment for slapstick comedy. Loki stands there ranting that he's a god, and won't be pushed around by puny green creatures. But he gets what's coming to him. Watch the Hulk swatting him repeatedly into the ground like a cat breaking a mouse's neck. Force is so hilarious. The audience is in stitches.

They howl, they cheer, they clap at the end. It's like being at a party--loud, offensive, and full of the grotesque squeals of public pleasure. It's my worst nightmare, except, thankfully, I am not expected to participate. And the movie, well, what is it but dancing? Bloody, brutal, noisy dancing. Bumping and grinding escalated to coreographed hate sex. Which by the way is apparently all Whedon can imagine when faced with a female super hero. Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson in skin-tight black) has "too much red on her record." When asked "what did he [Loki] do to you?" (there's a leading question if I ever heard one), she says that she has been "compromised" and must make up for it. Her whole strategy as a spy hinges on manipulating people with her vulnerability. Original.

I found myself wondering at the perversity of me paying to watch this, something I didn't even want to enjoy. (Though I had hoped that it would be more of a distraction than it was.) There must be something sick about paying eleven dollars to stew in my own loathing and alienation--precisely what I wanted to do. What I didn't bargain for was a headache. I had never seen a movie in 3D before, and now I want never to do so again. The image has a niggling, pixelated, out-of-focus quality even with the glasses on. And for what? So that the film can look like a diorama? It's not a breathtaking addition of another dimension, but a transformation into cardboard cutouts. It's also a distancing irritant. Rather than immersed, I kept having to ask myself "what am I looking at?" Then again, this is not a film from which I should expect immersion.

9 May 2012

The Hotel

I used to take the elevator up to the top floor, but the last time I did one of the hotel staff finally did something about it. He was very apologetic. His first sentence began with a conciliatory "I know". I don't remember what else he said. That he can't have non-guests up here, probably. Which led us into the elevator together, trying to make small talk. He kept apologizing, and I kept saying I didn't hold it against him, or mind much. Every time I go up I know I'm not supposed to be there. That's why I go. The view is wonderfully removed from the street. It is relaxing, or I think so until I'm up there, fidgeting. If it weren't illicit, I doubt I would go.

I haven't been since that run-in with him happened. Maybe there's a camera, or one of the guests was particularly uppity and told him. Or maybe he just noticed me, clearly out of place, entering the elevator. Anyway, I no longer want to take the risk.

The southern side of the building is very warm, when the sun is out. That side is perpendicular to the main drag, and my route to the grocery store goes along there. It's a half-block of quiet heat. The whole building is painted a very bright beige, which looks yellow at some times of the day. The rest of the time it looks awful. Brutal. Without discrimination--as if every detail has been ignored. The sunlight reflects off of this nearly white surface, creating a kind of solar oven near where it intersects with the sidewalk. If the wind is coming from the north, the massive edifice blocks it. In spring I can here receive an early summer. Then I get to the corner of both the building and the street, and everything floods back: wind, traffic, tourists, cold.

7 May 2012

The Deep Blue Sea

The walls are thin in the The Varsity and invariably I'm not in the loudest film there. If I were, the booms, crashes, and thuds of Shit Happening in my own theater would drown out the negligable voices and music of the adjacent. But I was watching a matinee of "The Deep Blue Sea", so instead subwoofers bled through the walls in a kind of sinister growl. The resulting soundscape wasn't unfitting. For at least the first quarter of the film I had no idea the foreboding rumblings were from another theater. I marvelled at the use of horror conventions in a period melodrama. Actually even without the extra sound effects, there's still a bit of that. It's put together in a way both thoroughly manipulative and modernist.

It's a noisy film, too, in its way: It begins with an orchestral piece so embarrassingly loud that the images on the screen are overpowered. There's something ugly, tactless about such dramatic music continuing to play. It's like someone yelling to himself in the corner of a room--everyone fidgets awkwardly, pretending not to notice. I think "oh god, what have I gone in for?" Face burning, I wonder if the whole film will play out in this tiresome "The Tree Of Life" mode: epic music trying to inject deep signifigance into short scenes of banality. Then something surprised me. I don't remember what, but the brutality of the sequence was replaced by intrigue. The music fades with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston interlocked, nude bodies spinning.

Someone I know avoided seeing it because it looked scary, and she's not wrong. The trailer, however, makes the film look like a belaboured, anachronistic shriek about adultery, which turns out not at all to be the fulcrum of its thrills. On IMDb the plot is summarized thus: "The wife of a British Judge is caught in a self-destructive love affair with a Royal Air Force pilot." "Caught" is misleading. She isn't trying to hide her affair in the first place. After bitching out her husband's mother at tea, she nonchalantly goes up to the bedroom and phones her lover. What really grabs me is the rash unpredictability of Rachel Weisz in this role.

To use the title as a metaphor, Weisz as Hester is a slippery fish. It's some time before she ever speaks. In the memories that float up to us--their balast released by her suicide attempt--it's never she who speaks, it's whichever man she's looking at. Either her husband or her lover. I scrutinize her face, looking for a sure sign written there. Which I think is, in a way, to become her. When someone in her building wakes her up from her gas-induced suicidal slumber, she remains abstracted, self-posessed, looking intently for her cigarettes while a woman acquaintance solicits her emotional state.

"Are you sure you're alright?"

"Yes I'm fine, just feeling a bit dopey," her expression full of everything else. She lights her cigarette, and smoking it becomes the present to which we return from her reminisces. She leans back onto the couch, takes a drag, and the camera follows the smoke swirling away from her into the dark room. This is exactly like the memories feel--drifting slowly into form.

While she broods around her apartment, the orchestral score comes up again. Like her initial voicelessness, omission is used to great effect. Her lover, Freddie, comes in, and the shock is triple: The affair she was remembering is still going on, she's living with him, and he turns the radio from the melancholy score to "something livelier." How to revitalize a script from 1955? Make it a psychological thriller. Who and where is Hester? Even as voices explode, the film keeps a tense distance.

Hester holds very little back from her husband's mother. Over dinner and tea the next day the two have a barely veiled argument about attachment. The mother favors "a guarded enthusiasm" and advises Hester to "beware of passion, it always leads to something ugly." Hester could not be more disgusted by this worldview. A life of strict control and practicality to her is unbearable to imagine. So she boldly dives head-first into Eros, but then what?

There is something to the historical connotations of this love plot. For the boastful soldier home from the war won she has passion, but absolutely no connection. (At the suggestion that "there is more to love than physicality" she instantly rebuts "for me there isn't.") Her old judge of a husband, her connection to the prewar past, to wealth and culture, she rejects. Nothing but the brutally erotic relationship she has with Freddie will do. The kind of cold consistency of heart her husband's mother classically prescribes is too late, no longer responsive to the world that has spring up since she married.

But then under this film's cold gaze her oaths of passion for Freddie don't ring true either. The contradictions of her passion are thrown into a harsh light. Utterances echo in a queer glass chamber. To her husband she declares that Freddie is "my whole world." He rules her emotions (which he "didn't ask for," to him becoming her will to power over him), but the specificity of him is nothing to her. His ignorance about art is an annoyance, especially as his insolance about the pointlessness of art doesn't allow her to believe she's getting through to him. When he comes in after her experiment with using the gas for something other than fire, she's looking out the window, smoking. He enthusiastically tells her about his golf game.

"Are you aware you haven't looked at me this whole time?" he asks jovially.

"I know what you look like, Freddie."

The cause of her suicide is always presumed and never confirmed. Before he finds out she tried to kill herself, Freddie assumes she's angry at him because he forgot her birthday. It's unclear whether she cares at all or if she's just using this as a plausible reason for her mood. When he does find her suicide note, he assumes it's all because of him, for which he rages at her. On this subject she pleadingly yells back "I wasn't blaming you!"

Her husband, too, assumes that her relationship with Freddie drove her to suicide, and advises her, as you would expect, to get out of it (and to come back to him, of course). She tells him it wasn't that, which he ignores.

Hester and her suicide are, in other words, empty signifiers. Well, not are--I'm just too willing to see her in that tired way. I've fallen in love with her mystique, distrusted every word and every gesture. Even if she said why she wanted to die, it would be to someone. There would be an audience and therefore an agenda. I wouldn't believe it. Ugh.

2 May 2012