Pressure Systems

Seasons are a ploy. A New season can fall instantly (in this week's case, like a grey blanket), yet it sneaks. The beginning of every season is an opportunity to toy with forever: what will life look like from now on? There's an "until," but ignore it. Three months is a lifetime. Except when you hear a date six months in the future, and realize it's almost here.

It's 60 degrees and drizzly, and I'm already calling it Winter. Fall and Spring are intermediaries; Winter and Summer allow me to cultivate delusions of time depressurized. The difference is the setting: inside with endless cups of tea, or outside under a tree. There seems to be a presence there, in the seasonal rescue from the current. Holing up or getting lost.

Hence, Christmas cookies. Making them is a tedious ritual lasting several days. The point isn't the cookies themselves, but the needless work. If I'm lucky, I can get lost in the tactile kingdom of dough. Is this more, or less difficult alone? It can be a social event, cookie-making, but company is only a means to an end. If the weather is just right, it's easier to forget in company. It can despine conciousness, which can get like a cactus, cooking alone.

Winter is supposed to be the season of gluttony, but when it's me who has to cook, it ends up being the season of neglect. Tea for breakfast, because it's as a ritual it calms rather than disorganizes. It's not that food is so distasteful in the morning, but the thought of thinking about food is too much to bear. I get desperate sometime in the evening, but if nothing is at hand, hunger transmutes into simple exhaustion, and I can go to sleep.

Also, hunger and restlessness and intimately related. Being sick of something feels like hunger. Hunger can coexist with involvement, but it's almost soothingly far off, like thunder.

So you can imagine the appeal of this to me. I don't particularly want marzipan fruit, but I imagine the required attention to detail will save me. My habit is to call this kind of focus a rest from language. But restlessness also falls away when I'm working on a piece of code, which is as symbolic an activity as I can imagine. On the other hand, writing prose is a performance, so self-consciousness cannot entirely leave the picture. The difference isn't quite the addictive properties of playing god. Restlessness might recede in the imaginitive part of writing fiction, but one doesn't come away in quite the same clockwork daze. Someone I know drifts from conversation into engineering drawings. The need to tinker persists as an insulating itch. Rather than starting far away, writing tends to overknead its relation to the world. It's much like conversation: everything that could've been put differently comes back like sports commentator video loops. (Maybe that's the redemptive dream of watching football, a sport that spends a lot of time considering very short plays: that anyalsis and second-guessing have value?) Post-programming, my head fills with everything I will do next--the red shoes of the mind.

Phenomenologically, programming is thoroughly technical. It has more in common with home improvement than prose or cookie-making. Cookies seem like they might save me from both. Where writing involves an fraught distance/intimacy with oneself, and programming liquidates experience for products, a craft takes the air out of the self and is only productive as an excuse.

But that's just how I imagine it. I'm not that patient. Every little tectonic shift in experience, like the seasons, are there to negate. A few hours meticulously painting marzipan, and I can feel like never doing it again. That's the product: being over it.

29 September 2013

Cake is never for later.

I boil the apples in the sugar and butter. The peaches I throw on top of the caramel once it's done. They crackle and hiss like my fingers those times I accidentally grab hold of the skillet's handle without an oven mitt. My fear is if I cook the peaches like the apples, the peaches would release so much water that by the time they caramelized, they would become a sticky, undifferenciated goo. I suppose there's nothing wrong with jam.

Two days later, the peach cake tastes like mildew. Normally, the whole thing gets eaten within twenty-four hours. This last 1/3 of the cake two mornings later is like stumbling on hidden treasure. I congratulate myself for my restraint, before I take a bite. It wasn't really restraint, anyway--I just didn't eat much cake. My apetite for it dimmed after I pulled it out of the oven.

My friend is trying to stay away from gluten--"I've become one of those people"--but still has a mania for baking gluteny things. If anything, she bakes more when she doesn't eat the products. Dozens and dozens of cupcakes. "I like baking."

My father made turkey soup. "What should go in there? Potatoes, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, sour cream, cabbage?"

"Mostly I just like the broth."

Now there's a massive pot of soup in the fridge, shiny and cold. I just stare at it.

My brother has developed a tamarind habit, which is another way of saying he bought some blocks of tamarind mass. "Mass" and not "paste" because you have to soak it in hot water, mash it with your fingers, and then strain out the husks and seeds. Maybe if it were at home I would never bother to make tamarind water (tamarind, water, sugar), but over at his house I love squishing the debris-filled muck. It's like playing in mud--something adults have generally decided they're above. Scatological comparisons are obvious, but, obviously, unwelcome if spoken.

I make it concentrated, so that it can be diluted to taste, like Russian tea. My brother's girlfriend likes it very dilute--"refreshing." He likes it fairly concentrated. I can't decide. Dilute, I drink glass after glass, because every swallow is unsatisfactory. Concentrated, I drink half a glass and leave it on the table. Its cloudy solids settle to the bottom. You'd think there would be a happy medium, but I haven't found it.

There are those things that I repeatedly vow never to eat again, like eggs on toast. Then I look in the fridge in the morning, and think what else am I going to make? There they are, greasy as ever. It would be reasonable to conclude that eggs on toast are, like anything else, something to have sometimes. But I only seem able to think in always and never.

12 September 2013

Watery Cookies

The day before yesterday, it rained. Not an everyday occurance in summer, so the everyday shifted. In the middle of the day, my hair still shower-damp, dark clouds became something to plan for.

Some were very excited. They opened their windows to its smell and sound. At the same time, they hoped they wouldn't have to walk anywhere.

I ran from the car to the coffee shop, and inside I gulped a few glasses of water. My shirt was well hydrated.

I went to dinner with a friend. I decided it was a day for hot soup, but I also ordered iced green tea. I gulped at the tea, even though it didn't taste right.

"What's that?"

"It's odd."

She tried a sip. Neither of us could identify the flavor.

In May We Be Forgiven the secret to good (read: indestructible) cookies is a tablespoon of warm water. The narrator suspects his soul is made of brackish water. Having read him for the past three hundred pages, his suspicions seem well-founded.

In summer it's a pleasure to have hot coffee in the sun. Though I know someone who drinks gallons of juice at all times of year, instead. One can imagine his body as a water feature. Nothing could remain insoluble. And yet he suffered for weeks with kidney stones.

7 September 2013

Kurt Wallander Exists to be Fucked With

Because "is it on Netflix?" is the first question one asks about a show, I began watching the second series of the Swedish Wallander first. A man detective--where's the fun in that? It is at least an unabashedly political political murder mystery: In the first episode, it turns out the terrorist/murderer is a military man trying to convince the government that terrorism is a threat only the military can deal with. The show also isn't entirely on Wallander's side. It's a familiar hard-boiled bargain: he can have his moments of knowingness only if he's thrown off-balance.

To this end, enter two women to confuse him: a new boss who he falls in love with, and a new officer who accuses him of running a boys club of an investigation.

"You just don't want any women on your team, right?"


That's what he is: a walking maybe. How else does one solve a murder? She ends up putting together much of the case, but both women tend to get lost in the background. They come, they give Kurt presumable inner turmoil, they leave. (His boss even lives tantalizingly next door, so that he can have a crisis every time he walks his dog.) Thus problematized, he goes forth to dominate the screen. The most satisfying moment for me was cutting back and forth between a pedophile staring at a group of children playing, and Kurt at his neighbor/boss/crush. Both are uncomfortably close to their desire; the pedophile's route home from his therapist passes by a playground.

Nothing populates such cramped psychological quarters as family, which is one reason the first series is better. It begins with his daughter, Linda, graduating the police academy. His very first scene undermines his fatherly authority. He's on the phone with Linda's mother, who is very amused with herself (how could you not be, when he's so serious?), poking fun at him as he packs to go to Linda's graduation the next day.

"Isn't it today?"

"You're drunk."

"No more drunk than you are. I can see you with a glass of whiskey in your hand..."

So can we. As the episode goes on, he seems drunker and drunker, though he isn't necessarily drinking. The graduation was the day Linda's mother thought it was, as he finds out the next day, when Linda shows up at the station in uniform. She is, of course, pissed that he didn't show up.

"But it was a misunderstanding..!"

Unlike series two, in which it's Kurt supported by a host of characters, here the story is told in tandem: Kurt and Linda follow related but different trails. She has a life outside of police work. They fight, and their fights are thematically tangled up with the rest of the show.

Eventually, she seems to tentatively forgive him for missing her graduation, kissing him on the cheek. Over the course of an episode thick with daughter-father drama, I find that hers is just the right perspective on him. He's pompus, and abstracted, and dense, yet can be endearing. It's a critical gaze that has a consequence of humanizing him. His limits are clear.

It's so satisfying when she gets at an aspect of his demeanor that in the second series passes for stoical respect: "Look at you! You just stand there, blank-faced like a cold fish!"

Compare this anger toward the father's flaws to the downright scary relationship between daughter and father in Alias. There, Sydney vacillates between near-religious love of him and the realization that he is her mortal enemy. Perhaps this has the ring of psychoanalytic truth, and it's convenient for a spy show whose basic move is the 180-degree reorientation of reality. (Wallander is more concerned with revealing ugly prejudices through false moves.) The trouble is, Sydney's father always reserves the possibility of turning again. He's unknowable, irreducibly above.

Why is there no Linda in series two? Because the actress, Johanna Sällström, comitted suicide. Cue a million blog posts reading her depression into every facial tic of her performance. I can't deny that I'm fascinated, but all I can really say is, one side effect of her death is we're left with a father run amok.

1 September 2013

Bipolar According to Silver Linings Playbook

I wanted to see Silver Linings Playbook because I thought it might be about manic depression in some way. The trailer wasn't encouraging, but everyone said it was good. In other words, improving--to use Jeeves' only adjective for a book he's reading. It's fine, but it has nothing to do with mental illness. "Bipolar" is code for "quirky and inappropriate."

It's not impossible for manic depression to have some thematic resonance. Homeland at least framed mania as a crisis of judgement. Carrie always seemed a bit nuts to her coworkers, but note that she was able to hide that she took medication for most of her career.

If we pretend Silver Linings is about a bipolar man, his mania is never in the least bit sneaky. He seems to be always manic, yet the script seems to actually believe him when he says he's getting better. And this constant hyperoptimism ("silver lining_s_") and need to be doing shit is punctuated by "episodes" during which he wakes up his parents, yells about Hemmingway for the dumbest reason, and breaks things. I don't deny that this could happen, but watching the scene, you'd think mania is just a quirk, like not wearing underwear--not to everyone's taste, but with few serious repercussions. I guess this is an attempt to make it as much of cinematic spectacle as possible. I longed for Kay Redfield Jamison's narration of her manic explosions of thought. She convinces herself of her own genius in that state, of course, but she also might well be a genius.

Everything for Pat is on the surface. The only character that seems to have any interiority at all is the depressive, Tiffany, and the romance plot becomes his quest for it. Which is not exactly a revelation. Likewise that the proof of true love is sexuality supressed for friendship until the right moment (the end, when the whole room is shocked by the sexuality of their dance moves, inexplicably).

So if I want to believe the screenwriter isn't clueless, the only option as far as I can see is that it's a romance of two pathological liars who really like to be "weird," and so self-diagnose themselves bipolar and nymphomaniac. Because it makes them seem interesting.

1 September 2013