Sunday, August 26, 2007

irony

Since my general disposition politically is liberal and not inclined toward favoring Bush, I thought everyone would appreciate the unusual situation I was in a few days ago.

I had gone to pick up the girls from a play date at a friend's house, and as they were using up their warning time, I was sitting and talking to their friends' mother, and to their grandmother, who was visiting. The discussion morphed, as these discussions will, into a discussion of the charter school all four children attend, and then into politics and a discussion of the Bush presidency in general.

As the grandmother began describing Bush in superlative terms -- most stupid, most malicious, most evil, and so on -- I found myself in the unexpected position of defending him.

Who woulda thought?

Friday, August 24, 2007

perchance to nightmare

I hate it when dreams scare the bejesus out of me. When they're really bad, sometimes I wake up, unsure if what just happened was real or just a nightmare. I find myself in bed, and roll over next to my wife and take assurance from her presence that everything is all right. Last night that wasn't enough.

I woke up just past 3:30 a.m. In my dream, I'd been out in the woods in a carriage of some sort, when it overturned and we were spilled out onto the hillside. I remember scrambling over and helping a few people to their feet and get back to the road, satisfied that they were all right.

That was when I saw a sled overturned in the icy water. I know it makes no sense to have a sled there when everyone's been riding in a carriage, but that's part of the shifting reality of dreams. I scrambled over to the sled, crawling as quickly as I could across a log, and turned the sled upright.

Rachel was lying under the sled, in her purple winter jacket. Her hair was wet, her eyes were closed, and she wasn't breathing.

"She's not breathing," I remember saying as I carried her up to the road, trying to recall my CPR training from 20 years ago and recalling in true geekboy manner, the death of Gwen Stacy and the What If? story where Peter actually did save her life. "She's not breathing!"

That was when I woke up, jumped out of bed, and went to Rachel's bedroom, fully aware that I was now awake and was overreacting to a bad dream. I didn't care, though. I knelt next to her bed, and didn't move until I heard her soft breathing in the night, saw her stretch an arm and sleepily kick a leg. Then, and only then, was I willing to believe that everything was all right.

my kid is famous

She's been written about one of the most popular blogs ever.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

the aclu and foot baths

In 2005 the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued a Christian football coach who prayed before games, calling it "inherently coercive."

The same chapter now supports Michigan schools installing Muslim footbaths in the restrooms. They insist it's not coercive and doesn't endorse Islam because anyone could use the footbaths. Despite the protests of the Wall Street Journal, I have to say it seems reasonable to me. This is an accommodation of people's religion, rather than publicly drawing other people into religious observances.

If it were more overtly religious, like a Muslim judge posting the Decalogue in his courtroom, I expect the reaction would be the same as if a Christian judge had done it. The ACLU would claim it was a violation of the separation of church and state.

What, you don't think the ACLU has it in for Christians and Christianity, do you?

Despite the popular Chicken Little thinking I've seen in evangelical circles, the sky is not falling. The prevailing influences on our society remain Judeo-Christian, from our literature to our lexicon. I've yet to see any evidence that it is inimcal to the national good to extend a little courtesy to minority religions such as Islam.

I know of one case off the top of my head in New Jersey a few years ago where the ACLU came to the defense of a church organization when it was barred from renting a municipally owned building that had been rented to other nonreligious organizations. The Princeton Borough goverment had rejected the application to rent the space on an errorneous leading of the Establishment Clause; the ACLU pointed out that renting space to some groups and denying it to others based on their religious nature is discriminatory in nature. That's not exactly anti-Christian, is it?

Paranoid thinking is inexcusable when it comes from healthy adults who should know better but choose not to. Culture war mentality is counterproductive, creating as it does tremendous chips on our shoulders and the accompanying hosility toward those we have prejudged to be against us. Do that enough and people who have no problem with us will find one.

spiritual quest ... mission ... thing

I don't think it's exactly been a secret that I've been wandering through something of a spiritual vacuum lately.

To be frank, I haven't stepped inside church for about three months now. I drive the family there, drop the kids off in the Kids Church rooms, and then go for a walk outside, read a book in the hall, or even work on my laptop. For whatever reason, I've been finding the service itself like spinning my wheels. The sermon offers nothing I haven't heard before a thousand times, the worship looks like an artificially sculpted artifice intended to evoke a specific emotional response, and there's been few moments afterward for connecting with other people there.

In a sense, I've been looking for an encounter with God that I can say is real and that matters, and knowing that I can't return to church until I've found it.

I realize this isn't entirely fair to the church where I've been going, nor to the people there. It is, in many ways, a reaction to the sum of my experiences with Christianity, from the frustrating legalism of the Christian fellowship in college, to the inflexibility and prosperity bent of the Assemblies of God church I attended for several years, down to my deep disappointment with what happened to the last church I actually joined, and the three-year sojourn in the wilderness that followed. No one ever reacts to events in isolation.

When we discipline our children, we are reacting to behaviors we see in ourselves that we hope to stop in them, we are reacting to behaviors we see in our spouses but are unable to correct there, and we are reacting to siblings, friends and other people from our own childhoods. So it is with church. A person's action or chance comment triggers a response that is disproportionate to the immediate catalyst, but not disproportionate to all that has gone before. In a very real sense, I'm shaking off the legalism I've seen equated with godliness, I'm pushing to find the soul of a relationship with God rather than what other people say I should believe about him, and I'm searching for a reasonable level of expectation for my relationship with other Christians. (That last is perhaps more painful, because by and large we're very high on the amount of BS we spew about how much other people matter to us, but much lower on how much we actually care and want to be involved with one another -- myself included.)

It's not a question of belief in God, nor even of belief in the essential qualities acribed to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For me, at least, those issues are settled; I might as well take Descartes to take for assuming the existence of the thinker when he wrote Cogito ergo sum. I've come to accept that it's simply beyond the boundaries of proof, and whether by indoctrination, experience or revelation, I've come to the conclusion that God does exist -- or at least that I can't stop believing in him, even when I do -- and that for me the question is more one of, "How can I genuinely encounter and know God?"

I don't know about other people, but when I'm puzzling over a big question for a long time, my mind keeps walking down the same familiar paths until it's started to wear grooves in the walk and I feel like I know every careless weed beside the road, every weather-beaten fence post, and every fallen tree. And then, when I'm despairing that I've been down this way so many times that there's nothing new to discover, I find that the road continues when I thought it dead-ended.

So Sunday morning while everyone else was listening to the story of Jonah and its message of grace, I was thinking that I often encounter God in the act of creating art. As I write -- and to a lesser extent, as I draw -- I find a spiritual intimacy with God, a wonder, a level of knowing, a je ne sais quoi, that I don't find in church. That's because God is an artist himself, and part of being made in his image means being creators ourselves, expressing the little demiurge that lies within each of us.

My daughter Evangeline expresses that part of herself through actual artwork, through oils and watercolors, through graphite, pencils and blenders and other things I don't understand. I express it through words, by finding new perspectives on old stories, by using the word within me to bring order and form to the chaos we all live in. Even people who seem to have no poetry within their souls create order and form when they instill organization and create structure in the systems they work in, and those who are actually good at it (and not merely petty) can make something that is truly beautiful in how it runs.

And so it hit me that part of what's missing in my church is art. Which is really sad, if you think about it, because my church has tried to purposely include the arts in its services. We've had a couple dramas, I rewrote the Parable of the Good Samaritan for a modern audience, we've done interpretive dance, and sometimes we've actually had artists painting throughout the service ... but the last of these things was ages ago. It's not been a top priority, nor even a very high one from what I can see. It's been more or less something we do when we have the energy and the time to think of something, but not something we've been committed to on a regular basis in practice.

That's about when it hit me why evangelicals so often find art troubling or problematic -- it's precisely because it is a contact point with the Divine image. In my experience at least, evangelicals support art and storytelling within certain limited contexts. It has to be acceptable; it has to reaffirm their beliefs; and it not only has to have a message, the message has to be one evangelicals can get behind. Thus it's all right to make a painting of Jesus holding a slain firefighter with the U.S. flag fluttering in the background, but it's not acceptable to show Jesus holding an Iraqi soldier with the flag of Iraq showing. And it's better to retell "A Christmas Carol" so that Ebeneezer Scrooge learns about the birth of Christ, than it is to tell the story Dickens wrote, where he learns what it means to love his neighbor. Art for art's sake is verboten in evangelical circles.

And yet these conflicts are the very ones that Christ lives in: caring for those we consider our enemies, using our wealth to help those in need, and so on. We've worked hard as a church here in America to tame the lion in our midst, to twist art to serve our ends and give it "take-home value," and to make God meekly fit into our agenda.

I talked to the pastor after the end of the service, and shared what I had been thinking with him. I don't know what to expect, honestly. Tom's a good guy, and I believe he wants to make the arts a bigger priority, for the reasons I've enumerated above. But I'm frustrated, and I wonder how long this vacuum's going to last.

Friday, August 17, 2007

regret

Regret is the bereaved cousin of hope,
With feathers both gray and dreary.
It is never what you hold,
But always what you lack.
 
It is
... the job you left
... the choice you didn't take
... the woman you didn't kiss
... the risk you would not face
... the opportunity you missed
 
It is the once-in-a-lifetime that will never come again.
 

Thursday, August 16, 2007

waiting at the gates redux

The thing Peter liked most about his job was all the people he got to meet.
 
It felt like he had been doing the job for something like two thousand years, but the wide variety of people he got to meet made it all worthwhile. He had met other Jews like himself (and many not like himself), he had met Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians. There were people who thought they had seen UFOs, others who thought they had been abducted by aliens and medically probed, and some who actually thought they were aliens and were supposed to go around abducting people from their bedrooms and medically probing them. There had even been one fellow a few years ago who actually thought that trickle-down economics was a good idea.
 
The pay was negligible, and the hours were exhausting, but Peter had always loved people, and the personalities he got to meet in his line of work more than made up for it.
 
At times Peter wondered why the queue in front of his gate was so long. He had assumed at first that the other eleven gates also had a hefty backlog to work through, but when he managed to get away from his post -- by telling the boss that he needed a bathroom break -- he found the other gates locked and unattended. His co-workers, all eleven of them, had started out busily enough at first, but as time went on, the crowds had started to flock to Peter's gate, and when the flow slowed to a trickle and the trickle dried up, they decided to call it quits and play racquetball instead.
 
As he half-heartedly listened to a man rabbit on aimlessly about how he always had meant to go to church more often but had really needed his rest, Peter's eyes drifted mindlessly down the line. Growing up, he had never imagined such variety in the way people looked. Everyone he knew had been relatively thin, on account of being hungry so much, their skin had been as dark as bronze, and their hair and eyes had always been dark brown. But these days he saw people with hair the color of gold, or of flame, and increasingly in colors like purple or green. (The DNA must have been taking some really strange directions.)
 
Up ahead he saw a group of three women with strikingly pale hair, in a cluster. One of the benefits of being on the job for as long as he had been, was that Peter could make out what was being said, even by people quite a distance away, and he could always tell from his planner what names went with which person. He glanced down, and saw them in his book: Jenny, Jamie, and Jessica.
 
"I just realized," Jenny said to no one in particular, and Peter nodded absently as he saw the understanding come to her. "I'm dead, aren't I? We're in line for judgment." The words came calmly. It usually almost surprised the arrivals that they could be so nonchalant about their deaths, but then, as they all had to agree, since they were dead, it wasn't as though there much they could do about it.
 
"Mm," said Jamie, who was standing in front of her. Peter waved goodbye to a woman who had once made a pitcher of lemonade for her elderly neighbors, and she disappeared with a blood-curdling shriek and a flash of heat.
 
Crap, he thought. That's the third one I got wrong this week. Wonder if anyone will notice, or if I can avoid doing the paperwork to straighten it out?
 
"How did you die?" Jamie asked Jenny.

"I froze to death," Jenny said, matter-of-factly, and the line advanced closer to Peter.

"That sounds awful," said Jamie. "How does it feel to freeze to death?"

"It was very uncomfortable at first," said Jenny. "I started shaking ferociously, and then I got sharp pains in my fingers and toes that I just couldn't stop. But in the end, I suppose it was a very peaceful way to go. I went numb and just kind of drifted off, as though I were sleeping."

The next man in line had talked on his cell phone at the theater, but Peter let him in anyway. With any luck, it would balance out his error with Mrs. Johnson. Jenny and Jamie were still talking, while Jessica looked off into the distance, deep in thought.
 
"How about you, how did you die?" Jenny asked.

"I had a heart attack," said Jamie. "You see, I knew my husband was cheating on me, so one day I showed up at home unexpectedly. I ran up to the bedroom, and even though he was watching TV by himself, I wasn't fooled. I ran to the basement, but couldn't find anyone there either. So I ran to the second floor, and there was still no one hiding there either. I ran as fast as I could to the attic, and just as I got there, I had a massive heart attack and died."

"Ah," said Jenny sadly. Not really paying attention to what he was doing, Peter accidentally reincarnated the next seventeen people as various invertebrates before he caught himself and desparately tried to set things right by letting people in or sending them away based on whether they could beat him at Rock, Paper, Scissors. An entire flock of nuns disappeared in a burst of hellish fire, and Peter smacked himself on the forehead in remonstration.
 
"What a pity," Jenny said at last, as they reached the front of the line. "If you had only looked in the freezer, we'd both still be alive."

Peter stared at them blankly, his mouth opening and shutting silently while he tried to figure out what had happened. He had just sent Mother Teresa to hell, released the unbaptized dead from Limbo, and had let a squadron of bikers into heaven after failing to notice that the word "Angels" on their leather jackets had been preceded by "Hell's." It was shaping up to be his worst performance on the job since the day he discovered that some nitwit had changed his name from Cephas to Petros without even bothering to consult him, and that a bunch of Gentiles had declared him the first pope when he hadn't even realized he had converted from Judaism. The three northern women looked at him expectantly, and for a moment he felt the first stirrings of real panic.
 
He gripped the sides of his lectern and steadied himself. He was Saint Peter. He was the Rock on whom Christ had built his church. He'd been doing this for millennia, all by himself. He could handle this. He just needed to get it back under control.
 
"I'll let you into heaven if you can answer me one question," he said. He was fishing admittedly, but Peter had always been a good fisherman, even before he became an apostle.

"It isn't a math question, is it?" asked Jamie. "I've never been very good at math, unless it involves sales."
 
"No, no math," Peter said, somewhat surprised by the question. He could feel his control of the situation starting to slip. "You just have to tell me--"
 
"Oh, I hope it's not an essay question," Jenny said. "I never do the assigned reading for tests, and I'm horrible at writing. I got a C-minus on my eighth-grade book report on 'The Cat in the Hat' because I thought it was all about the family dog."
 
"No, it's not an essay question either," said Peter, starting to panic for real now. "You just have to explain--"
 
"Could it be true or false?"
 
"What about multiple choice?"
 
The old saint screamed and nearly pulled out his hair, but at the last moment he mastered himself, gripped the sides of his podium and said, through clenched teeth, "Just. Tell. Me. What. Easter. Is."
 
"Easter comes in December," Jenny said perkily. "It's when we put up a holiday tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Jesus."
 
"No," said Peter, relieved to be on familiar ground again, but still somewhat surprised by the answer. "I'm afraid that's not it." He turned to Jamie. "Can you tell me what Easter is?"
 
"That's an easy one," said Jamie, smiling at Jenny like the cat that swallowed the canary. "Easter's the fourth Thursday in November. Everyone gets together to celebrate the start of the Christmas shopping season on Friday, we eat turkey, and we're thankful for everything we get to buy."

Peter sighed, shook his head, and peered over his half-moon spectacles at Jessica, who had been waiting patiently in line behind the other two. "I don't suppose you can tell me what Easter is?"
Jessica smiled and looked St. Peter in the eyes, "Of course I know what Easter is," she said confidently.

"Oh?" said Peter, and the slightest measure of hope entered his voice. "Please explain."
 
"Easter is the Christian holiday that coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover," Jessica said with the easy manner of someone repeating oft-reheared bits of knowledge. "Jesus and his disciples were eating at the Last Supper, and later that evening one of his disciples turned Jesus over to the Romans. The Romans took him to be crucified and he was stabbed in the side, made to wear a crown of thorns, and was hung on a cross with nails through his hands. He was buried in a nearby cave that was sealed off by a large boulder."
 
St. Peter smiled broadly with delight and relief. At last, he thought, here's someone who knows what she's talking about.
Then Jessica continued: "Every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out... and, if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter."

why the pakistani transgendered community hates america

Among the more ... interesting articles I've read detailing the views of the rest of the world toward the United States is this piece from the Washington Post, culled from an interview with Ali Saleem, host of the talk show Begum Nawazish Ali:
"I'm a drag queen, darling…not an extremist…and I still say if Pakistanis had more self-respect, we'd be even more anti-American," says Ali Saleem. "I'm not speaking religion; it's common sense."

I have to say it's a little bewildering to search for the newsworthiness of the reflections of a Pakastani crossdresser whose chief claim to fame is that he once did a drag impersonation of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. There's the stated point of the Post's series, which is to report on the popular view of America from around the world, but that's all I can see.

Well, fair enough. With this in mind, Saleem still makes several commendable points:
  1. American involvement in other countries has brought a lot of grief to them. I'm sure he overstates this when he says it has brought "nothing but sadness to Pakistan," but our country has a long history of promoting its interests at the expense of other nations and their people.

    In terms of supporting corrupt governments, we're guilty as charged. We oppose Castro in Cuba, and rightly so, but we were the key supporter of Batista, whose inhumane cruelty to political prisoners was legendary. In Haiti we supported Francois Duvalier and then his son Jean Claude for years, and in Iraq we supported Saddam Hussein when it suited us to do so.

    Today we also support a number of dictatorships throughout the world, including some brutally repressive ones in the Middle East that have a stranglehold on information and that will cut your head off if you have a Bible or convert to Christianity. Some, like Musharaff, we support because they have aided us in the war on terror; others we support because they have oil or other resources we value; and still others we support because they oppose a common foe of ours. The reasons for this support vary, but when we shore up a tyrant, we become to an extent culpable for their actions.

    And yet we still lay claim to the moral high ground when we decide to remove dictators who don't suit our national interests, even when that removal throws their country into turmoil and ruin, like Iraq has suffered. (And this says nothing about trade policies that exploit workers in other nations to maintain or build wealth here.)
  2. Ultimately the deliverance of Pakistan and other countries that are dissatisfied with Western influence lies within their own societies. This, I thought, was absolutely brilliant of him: It's not enough to complain about bad Western influences, you also need to find what is good within your own society and feed it. Maintaining and building a sense of pride in a nation's art, culture, literature and philosophy can lead to a tremendous renaissance that will raise the country's profile and boost the fortunes of everyone in it.
  3. Homosexuality and the gay culture are not a Western phenomenon. I know it's a popular thing, particularly in hard-line religious circles of all stripes and hues, to point to the growing openness of the gay subculture in America as a sign of Western decadance, but homosexuals and the gay culture are found throughout the world and throughout history. There's been no shortage of valuable contributions to society both Western and not, by men and women who were openly gay or bisexual.
One area where I must disagree with Saleem, talk show phenomenon or not: It behooves no people to hate America, nor for Americans to hate another country. We would all do better to take pride in our own peoples, in what we can accomplish and already have. Rather than railing against the evils of America, perceived and real, we'd all be better off finding ways to use its prominence to spread our philosophies, artwork and literature throughout the entire world whenever they have value. The Greeks, after all, were conquered by the Romans, but the Romans spread Greek philosophy, mythology and language throughout the ancient world and guaranteed its survival for the next two thousand years, and running.

It shouldn't be that hard for the advocates of Pakistan's culture to find ways to spread it through American media.

waiting at the gates

A soothing, gentle mist curled itself around Jenny's feet, and as she walked forward, she was bathed in a strangely invigorating light. Ahead of her was a great city with gates made of finest pearl. A queue miles long stood before her, filled with men, women and children of every tribe, nation and language, all made timeless by the light that came from every direction at once. At the very front of the line stood a venerable man, talking leisurely with each person in turn; the process surely was taking forever, and yet it seemed also to take no time at all.
 
"I just realized," she said to no one in particular. "I'm dead, aren't I? We're in line for judgment." The words came amazingly calmly from her lips. It almost surprised her that she could be so nonchalant about her death, but then, she thought, as she was dead, it wasn't as though there much she could do about it.
 
"Mm," said Jamie, who was standing in front of her. "How did you die?"
Jenny paused for a moment, thinking. She remembered her passing in vivid detail; how strange that it meant nothing to her now!
 
"I froze to death," she said, matter-of-factly, and moved forward as the line advanced.

"That sounds awful," said Jamie. "How does it feel to freeze to death?"

"It was very uncomfortable at first," said Jenny. "I started shaking ferociously, and then I got sharp pains in my fingers and toes that I just couldn't stop. But in the end, I suppose it was a very peaceful way to go. I went numb and just kind of drifted off, as though I were sleeping."

She looked at the other woman, and the line moved again. "How about you, how did you die?" Jenny asked.

"I had a heart attack," said Jamie. "You see, I knew my husband was cheating on me, so one day I showed up at home unexpectedly. I ran up to the bedroom, and even though he was watching TV by himself, I wasn't fooled. I ran to the basement, but couldn't find anyone there either. So I ran to the second floor, and there was still no one hiding there either. I ran as fast as I could to the attic, and just as I got there, I had a massive heart attack and died."

"Ah," said Jenny sadly, as her companion reached the front of the line and stood before Saint Peter. "What a pity ... if you had only looked in the freezer, we'd both still be alive."

If Saint Peter was listening to their conversation, he gave no indication. He simply took their names, checked in the heavy book before him, and explained that anyone could enter heaven who could answer one simple question.

"It isn't a math question, is it?" asked Jamie. "I've never been very good at math, unless it involves sales."
 
"No, no math," Peter said, somewhat surprised by the question. "You just have to tell me--"
 
"Oh, I hope it's not an essay question," Jenny said. "I never do the assigned reading for tests, and I'm horrible at writing. I got a C-minus on my eighth-grade book report on 'The Cat in the Hat' because I thought it was all about the family dog."
 
"No, it's not an essay question either," said Peter. "You just have to explain--"
 
"Could it be true or false?"
 
"What about multiple choice?"
 
The old saint screamed and nearly pulled out his hair, but at the last moment he mastered himself, gripped the sides of his podium and said, through clenched teeth, "Just. Tell. Me. What. Easter. Is."
 
"Easter comes in December," Jenny said primly, "It's when we put up a holiday tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Jesus."
 
"No," said St. Peter, "I'm afraid that's not it." He turned to Jamie. "Can you tell me what Easter is?"
 
"That's an easy one," said Jamie, smiling at Jenny like the cat that swallowed the canary. "Easter's the fourth Thursday in November. Everyone gets together to celebrate the start of the Christmas shopping season on Friday, we eat turkey, and we're thankful for everything we get to buy."
St. Peter sighed, shook his head, and peered over his half-moon spectacles at Jessica, the woman in line behind the other two. "I don't suppose you can tell me what Easter is?" he asked. It was clear he expected to be disappointed once again.
Jessica smiled and looked St. Peter in the eyes, "Of course I know what Easter is," she said confidently.
"Oh?" says St. Peter, as the slightest measure of hope entered his voice. "Please explain."
 
"Easter is the Christian holiday that coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover," Jessica said with the easy manner of someone repeating oft-reheared bits of knowledge. "Jesus and his disciples were eating at the Last Supper, and later that evening one of his disciples turned Jesus over to the Romans. The Romans took him to be crucified and he was stabbed in the side, made to wear a crown of thorns, and was hung on a cross with nails through his hands. He was buried in a nearby cave that was sealed off by a large boulder."
St. Peter smiled broadly with delight and relief. At last, he thought, here's someone who knows what she's talking about.
Then Jessica continued: "Every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out... and, if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

genie in the lamp redux

Eftiar felt rather than heard the pop as the stopper was removed from his prison. With a mighty rush, he surged up and outward from the tiny confines of the lamp that had held him for most of his eternal life. In the moment it took him to gather his wits, he already had grown to nearly eight miles high. It would be an easy thing to let himself continue to go, to grow ever larger and ever more diffuse, to lose himself in the endless sky until that he was had been lost beyond the point of recovery. But it was not to be; already the curse that afflicted his kind was taking hold, and he found himself drawn back downward by an unseen tether, regathering his substance into a shape that his newest discoverer would find bearable.

His eyes widened in surprise -- like all his other outward displays of emotion, this was a response learned over the ages to make his interaction with mortals more bearable for them both, since any body or form he assumed was a mere construct meant for the benefit of those who freed him, however temporarily from the lamp that held him. His rescuer was not a man, but a woman, and there were three of them. Together they held the lamp, and all three gaped at him in wonder and amazement. He skimmed the surface of their minds as he sought for the familiar concepts, common to all humanity, and taught himself their language.
 
"You have freed me from the lamp!" he called once he had found the words. "I shall grant you three wishes." It was a popular game among the djinn. Played badly, it could leave the new master either fabulously wealthy and happy, or dead; but when a true master played the game, the human would the last of his wishes in a vain attempt to finish no worse than he had started. "There are three of you, so each shall have one wish."

Magical fingers followed the loop and whorl of the women's DNA, while Eftiar's mind viewed the panoramic display all around him. The women bore no relationship to the Spanish captain who last had opened Eftiar's lamp. (The captain had wished to arrive in the New World swiftly and safely; Eftiar had provided a wind that blew the ship across the ocean hard and fast until it wrecked on a coral reef. The captain alone of all his crew reached land alive and unharmed.) They were blonde, with unfamiliar names, and they walked around the beach in clothes that Eftiar found absolutely shocking by any human standard he had ever encountered. A steel bird flew overhead, sculptures raced down a nearby road at speeds no animal could match, and even here by the edge of the ocean he could smell traces of burning oil far greater than he ever had encountered in his old country. Could the world have changed so much?
 
He was torn from his reverie by the first of his mistresses. Jolie was tall, with blue eyes, hair the color of straw, and skin that had been burnt a light brown by the sun overhead. Yet he saw in her mind a puzzle that had troubled her for months, a complex polymer she hoped to synthesize that would have the proportional strength and flexibility of a spider's web.
 
"Well," said Jolie. "I'd like to be really smart."

The words were no sooner out of her mouth than the wish was granted. With an imperceptible nod of his head, Eftiar changed Jolie from blonde to brunette. The light in her eyes twinkled and went out, and as her blue eyes turned brown, they went darker still in mood, the careless cheer replaced by a somber, thoughtful look. Neurons fired in new ways, and in those fires new connections were forged. Jolie thought with annoyance of her supervisor, who routinely ignored her advice and based decisions on the lesser information at his disposal, even though it invariably turned out that her advice would have been better. Then, suddenly, the elusive nature of the polymer became clear to her, and Jolie saw not only how to make the polymer, but how it could be used in bulletproof vests, to save the lives of police officers and troops the world over. The sudden understanding that flashed across her face was dazzling, and her companion Jackie noticed it.

"And what is your wish, then?" Eftiar asked Jackie.

The woman's continued frustration leapt out at Eftiar like a lit torch in a dark night. He saw a man she had loved, years earlier, who failed to appreciate the relationship he had with her, and who had carelessly walked away from her, leaving her pregnant and unable to finish college. The djinn saw how she had supported herself and her daughter as the manager of a small electronics boutique, and he saw her concern for the environment: the destruction of the earth's forests and the web of life that they supported, the levels of pollution that were trapping the earth's heat and melting the permafrost, the toxins humanity carelessly spewed into the air and poured into the water. Jackie would never admit it, but Eftiar could see the envy she felt toward her friends and the power they had to make the world a better place.
 
"I'd like to be even smarter than she is," she said, and Eftiar saw the jealousy that pointed her finger at Jolie.

He consented to her wish, and as Jackie's friends watched, her eyes the color of sky turned as dark as night, and her hair grew even darker than that. It turned upward and rolled itself around a pencil that appeared from nowhere, and glasses materialized on her face, which flowed forward until she looked every bit the mousy librarian. The transformation was shocking to seem but Jackie didn't mind; with her new understanding, she already was finding the way toward meaningful change in energy policy on an international scale, and taking the first mental steps through the twisted path that could bring lasting peace to the Middle East.

And now Eftiar turned toward his third mistress. She was tall and thin, and like her friends had been, she was graced with long blonde hair that had made it an easy matter for her to catch the eye of any man she wanted. Her mind was filled with images of the men she had interviewed and written about for her job at the newspaper: politicians bickering over position and prestige; small men jockeying for influence, power and fame; fools who would sell the future for the fleeting popularity and happiness that today could bring. She considered the change in her friends with dismay, and her mind raced to find a wish that would make her happier without taking away anything she would miss. Intelligence she had in abundance, but her looks were fading like an aging flower's.
 
"I want to be dumber than I am now," she said triumphantly, certain she had worked it out.

And so Eftiar changed her into a man.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

month of two moons

Tell the kids, it will be interesting for them to see!

Be sure to watch the sky at 12:30 a.m. Aug. 27. It will look like the Earth has two moons, as the planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky it has ever been in human history. It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye, as Mars comes within 34.65 million miles of Earth. The whole world is waiting to see this happen.

Around this time, with the Red Planet so close, scientists expect its gravitational pull will began wreaking havoc with the Earth, leading to abnormally high tides and unusual levels of stress on the Earth's tectonic plates. As earthquakes ravage the surface of the planet, leveling one great city after another, the ensuing stress on global infrastructure will lead to widespread panic as industry collapses, economies falter and famine sets in.

While many scientists are unsure what has triggered Mars' decision to abandon its accustomed orbit in such a reckless manner, a spokesman for the International Astronomers' Union believes it may be a retaliatory strike on behalf of Pluto.

"We understand that Pluto is very upset by efforts to have it reinstated as a planet," said Heironymus Bosch of the IAU. "Pluto fully supported the recent 'dwarf planet' designation, which relieved it of planetary responsibilities it didn't feel particularly ready for, such as hosting as the Solar System Charity Gala. But when it heard that some irresponsible people want to weigh it down with that mantle again, it got so upset it nearly attacked Neptune."

The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287.

Share this with your friends as NO ONE ALIVE TODAY will ever see it again.

genie in the lamp

A vacation on the beach at Sandy Heel was a guaranteed winner. The site of a 1632 maritime accident, the beach was a regular host to all manner of historical relics and even valuables lost in the distant past. The first time Jane visited the beach was for her job, reporting on the disaster and the discovery of Spanish galleons local divers had salvaged after a big storm. She had fallen in love with the place at once, safely removed as it was from the resorts, and visited every year if she could.
 
This summer she was taking a break from the newsroom pressures with her friends Jolie and Jackie. As they were headed down to the beach one morning, arms filled with their beachgoing equipment, Jackie tripped over a brass object just poking out of the sand.
 
"Hey gals, come look at this," she said, and they gathered around to see an ancient brass oil lamp. Sand clung to its every surface, but although it was marked with streaks of white salt, the lamp remarkably was not corroded by the salt water.
 
"It looks like Alladin's lamp," Jackie said with a laugh. Then, taken with the joke, she added, "Let's rub it and see if a genie comes out and gives us wishes."

The trio burst into laughter, but once Jackie started rubbing the lamp and smoke began to rise from the mouth of the lamp, Jolie and Jane scrambled to get their hands on the lamp and rub it as vigorously as they could. As they watched, astonished, the smoked took shape and solidified, and became a young man in clothing that looked like it came from an aged copy of "Arabian Nights." Large gold rings dangled from his ears, a loose silk shirt was draped over his shoulders and arms, and he looked at them in amusement from atop a hooked nose and a neatly trimmed vandyke.

"Since three of you together rubbed my lamp," the genie said, "I will give you each one wish."

"Well," said Jolie, thinking of the complex polymer she had been working on for 3M, one that would have the proportional strength and flexibility of a spider's web. "I'd like to be really smart."

The genie nodded, and before the others' eyes, Jolie's hair darkened and she became a brunette. The light twinkled faded from her eyes, and was replaced at once by a somber, thoughtful look that soon birthed a gasp of realization as the elusive nature of the polymer became suddenly clear.

"And what is your wish, then?" the genie asked Jackie.

Jackie wasn't an investigative reporter like Jane, and she wasn't a research scientist like Jolie. A single mother, she had been unable to finish college, and had been supporting herself and her two children as the manager at a small electronics boutique. She would never admit it, but she had always been envious of the careers her friends had.
 
"I'd like to be even smarter than she is," she said, pointing a jealous finger at Jolie.

As her friends watched, Jackie's blue eyes went dark, and her hair turned dark brown. The ball rolled itself together around a pencil that appeared from nowhere, and glasses materialized on her face, which flowed forward until she looked every bit the mousy librarian. The transformation was shocking to seem but Jackie didn't mind; she was contemplating the Middle East crisis and applying her new smarts to discovering a meaningful diplomatic situation to bring peace to the region.

Jane looked at her friends. Until then, they had been devastatingly attractive women like her, able to get any man they wanted. They were still her friends, that hadn't changed, but she realized that she wasn't prepared to give up her youthful beauty to advance her career. For that matter, Jane already considered herself fairly intelligent, and to the genie, becoming more intelligent meant being less blonde. Would it work in reverse? What could it hurt to find out?
 
"I want to be even dumber than I am now," she said.

And so the genie changed her into a man.

silent treatment

As was usually the case, Frank and Gloria were unsure what had started this particular argument. Gloria's contention was that it had begun when Frank had refused to go to the family reunion with her. For his part, Frank was fairly certain it had begun nineteen years earlier, when he said, "I do." Whatever the cause, however, the fiery exchange of words on Saturday by Sunday evening had chilled to an icy silence.
 
Frank had been enjoying the change of pace considerably. Usually he needed to pick up the newspaper when he wanted a moment's peace, but for the last twenty-four hours he had experienced unprecedented bliss.

It was, unfortunately, not to last. Gloria had a business trip to Chicago that week, and she would have to wake by 6 a.m. to make it to the airport in time. As the only working alarm in the house was by his bed, he found a note waiting for him when he went to turn in for the night. "Frank, please wake me at six for my trip." He burned with anger when he read the note -- but only for a moment, until he realized the burning was the burrito he had made himself for dinner. Not one to back down from a fight, she had left it to him -- him -- to break the silence and speak first. As if he should have gone to the reunion just because it was his family!

He stewed for a moment, wondering if he should wake her with a pitcher of cold water in the morning, or if he should rouse her from bed with a sack of boiled potatoes instead. But at last he resolved to settle the matter maturely, and went to sleep.
                                                           
Early the next morning as he slipped out the door for work, he placed a small piece of note paper by her bed. The paper said, "It is 5 a.m. Wake up."

Monday, August 13, 2007

english

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
— James D. Nicoll

Sunday, August 12, 2007

neil gaiman

Interesting thought about the writing of Neil Gaiman: He writes about what happens on the other side of barriers.

Gaiman is a postmodern writer, who delights in showing the other side of belief, of reality, and holding it up as a mirror to the reality we all know and experience. I suppose that for him the best trigger for a story is to see a border or a barrier, and to wonder what lies beyond it.

In “Neverwhere,” the barrier that was crossed was a social one, where Richard Mayhew notices a badly injured and he assumes lowerclass woman and crosses the line of socially accepted behavior. He takes her back to his apartment, sees that she gets the care she needs, and he ends up becoming trapped in London Below, an entire society of the dispossessed with its own rules and its own reality. In London Below, the names of London Above, from Blackfriars to the Angel Islington, take on an entirely new level of meaning and significance; i.e., there really are black friars and there really is an angel named Islington.

In the book “Coraline,” the girl of the title lives in a home where a locked door once led to an adjoining apartment. She wonders what lies beyond the locked door, and one night discovers that it is open and walks through it, into a dark parody of her own home, where an evil Other Mother waits like a spider to ensnare Coraline in her web, and where her only ally is a cat.

And now the movie “Stardust” has just come out. In this case, though full disclosure requires that I admit I have neither seen the movie nor read the book, the action begins in a town called Wall, where a young man sees a star fall beyond the wall from which the town takes its name and promises to bring it back to the woman he is courting. Once he crosses that wall, the standard rules of reality that he has lived under no longer apply.

kennywood

When I was a child, Kennywood seemed like a magical sort of place. It was a place I could never get tired, and it seemed as if I could stay awake all night. In fact, as the day went on, the excitement would build as the lines grew shorter and shorter.

I went back to Kennywood Saturday for the first time in ten years, and in some ways it was like coming home again after a long journey. I felt like I was living an episode of the Twilight Zone, and had walked all the way back to my childhood, as an adult. The magic of Kennywood is stronger even than Disney World, however much it may have changed in the last decade.

The most significant of those changes, perhaps, is Kennywood’s designation as a national historical site. It doesn’t have much impact on the average park-goer, aside from relocating a few rides, retrofitting them to their classic designs, and posting signs here and there about the historical significance of one ride or another. (The Kangaroo and the Autoracer rides, for example, are the last of their kind in the nation.)

There were other, more obvious changes. The first (and worst) thing I noticed is what they did to the Haunted Hideaway, Kennywood’s longtime Tunnel of Love. The last time I went there, it was back to being called the Old Mill, the name it debuted whenever it was they first installed the ride. Apparently that was only temporary, as it’s been rechristened “Garfield’s Nightmare.” The ride’s essentially the same as before, but instead of the corny haunted house displays, it was filled with oversize Garfield sequences. The ride featured large Garfield comic strips featuring typical blaise Jim Davis humor, followed by 3-D tableaus that featured the comic gone wrong; i.e., if the strip showed Garfield lying in wait for the mail carrier, then the tableau showed the mailman getting the drop on Garfield. Thus we saw Garfield eaten by mice, turned into pizza, attacked by a reanimated hot dog Frankenstein-style, and so on.

The Turnpike also had changed, but with electric cars that were affixed to the track, instead of the old-style cars with lawnmower engines that my brother discovered one year could be driven off the track if you tried hard enough on a corner. Given the current climate of gas prices, I was amused to find that the gas station at the start of the ride no longer listed a per-gallon price for the different grades of gas like it used to. I’m guessing Kennywood management decided it just isn’t as funny as it used to be.

I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to go on the Thunderbolt this year ― the girls were too short, and none of the other adults would go on it with me ― but luckily we did get to take a ride on Noah’s Ark. It had changed drastically from what I remember years ago. While it once had a Noah’s Ark theme, with one fiberglass wild animal or another on display in each cage, this time there was nothing even remotely biblical or zoological about it all. The ride had been turned into an old-fashioned funhouse, with crazy mirrors, an elevator at the start of the ride that reminded me of the elevator at Disney’s Haunted Mansion. The rest of the attraction involved walking around in dimly lit corridors over mines with skeletons, down a tilting and sliding staircase, and over vibrating floors that were about the only feature I remember from my childhood.

The girls (of course) loved the park. They had fun speculating about which part of the Logjammer ride would get them wettest, and they had a blast riding the Jackrabbit. Evangeline loved it so much that she went on it three times with me. She would have gone on it a fourth time, but it was about 10:45 p.m. by that point, and her mother said we had to leave. She also enjoyed the bumper cars on the Grand Prix, which her sister to my amazement was too young to ride at all. (She opted to go on Garfield’s Nightmare again with her mother.)

The magic of Kennywood was as strong as ever, and on Saturday, I got to watch the magic spread and set alight the eyes and spirits of my children.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

'open season'

"Open Season," a movie about a docile grizzly bear's return to the wild at the start of hunting season, is a richly rewarding experience, bursting with christophanies and flowing with deep spiritual currents that will stir the soul and leave the contemplative soul with many new and interesting thoughts for days and weeks to come.
 
Set in and around the fictitious town Timberline, "Open Season" sets its sights upon a grizzly bear named Boog (Martin Lawrence), raised since he was a cub by a forest ranger. He has grown up, practically a pet, staying in the ranger's garage and performing tricks for her audiences as she presents lectures and shows on nature. Compelling metaphoric for modern humanity, Boog is bamboozled by the treats and easy life he has, unable to recognize his enslavement for what it is.
 
Rescue comes in the form of Elliott (Ashton Kuchner), a buck expelled from his herd for the crime of being different, whom a hunter (voiced by Gary Sinise) hit with and mounted upon his pickup truck. Elliott uses his apparent vulnerability to appeal to Boog, who severs the ropes that hold him.
 
This spiritual awakening, marked by Boog's first awareness of the needs of others, continues as Elliott leads Boog into town, and convinces him to revel in all that the world that he is so accustomed to, offers. Again, the very things that mark success and comfort in America are the things that make Boog sick, and the next day Boog, still ill from an orgy of self-indulgence, loses control at the show and must be tranquilized and transported back to the wild.
 
The metaphor continues as Boog, not realizing that he is where he belongs, continues to search for a way back to captivity, much as Scripture tells us the ancient Israelites longed for the chains of Egypt once they had tasted freedom. But Elliott, fulfilling his role as Christ figure, rejected by his herd for the sake of his righteousness, leads Boog ever deeper into the wild, hoping to awaken the true and lost self to the glories of his proper identity.
 
Tension in the movie comes as the hunter, cast in the role of Satan the Destroyer, continues to seek those he considers his lawful prey. Lesser hunters, mere demons, enter the wild as well, reveling in the destruction and slaughter of innocents that they can bring.
 
A near encounter with Satan the hunter awakens Boog to his need for a relationship with Elliott, and formerly having spurned his savior, he now returns and works to restore their friendship, reciprocating for the first time the selfless agape love Elliott has shown him.
 
The spiritual awakening, now continued, bursts into full flower during the deadly confrontation with the hunters. Although the lower demonic hunters easily are repelled, the captain of the fallen host is too elusive and mighty, and fires a deadly shot at Boog -- a bullet that Elliott takes. One is reminded again of the example of Christ, who "being in very nature God did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but became a servant; and being found in the form of servant, humbled himself and was obedient, even to death on a cross."
 
With Elliott's substitutionary death for Boog, the awakening is now complete. Boog remembers that he is a grizzly bear, and with the power and might of a grizzly bear, in Elliott's name he overpowers and defeats the mightiest of the hunters, disarming him and utterly destroying his weapon.
 
And now we find at this point that Elliott is alive, returned from the dead, and as the movie ends, clearly come to instate a new and heavenly period for the animals of the forest, one where they never will need fear the hunter, and one where the lion will lie down with the lamb, or even the doe with the bear.
 
No, not really. The movie sucked.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

sourdough resurrection

The sourdough is alive once more.
 
I don't know what exactly happened before -- I suspect I wasn't mixing the starter up enough when I measured it out for baking -- but I had a problem for a few weeks with my sourdough starter where it just wasn't working right. It would take over a day sometimes for a batch of dough to rise, and it didn't taste right any more. The bread was too dense, the crust was too flat, the bagels too hard and floury.
 
I finally gave up two weeks ago and bought some conventional yeast packets at the store. I mixed one of them in with my inert starter, and watched it froth back to life in no time. The frothing has continued through a pizza crust, two loaves of bread, some hamburger buns, and now a batch of bagels. The sourdough is alive and, what's more, it tastes like sourdough again.
 
Whew! Finally.

'the others' (spoilers)

Take one part "Beetlejuice," stir in three parts "The Sixth Sense," and add a soundtrack that plays on the nerves like "The Shining," and what do you get? No, you won't get a great horror movie, you'll have wasted $20 on videotapes or DVDs that you've just ruined beyond repair.
 
"The Others," which I finally overcame my general dislike of Nicole Kidman enough to watch, thanks is an excellent ghost story. I'd heard before that it had a surprise ending, so it's probably no fault of the movie that I figured out within the first ten minutes of the movie that the main characters were all dead, and realized as soon as the haunting started that they were being disturbed by live people who had moved into their house. Still, even knowing all this, there was enough mystery and suspense surrounding the supporting characters and the nature of the main characters' deaths to keep me watching. In that sense, it was a combination of "Beetlejuice" and "The Sixth Sense," but it was a good and clever combination.
 
"The Others" tells the story of a woman living in Jersey at the end of World War II. Her husband has gone off to war, and she has had to bear the burden of caring for their children by herself, a burden heightened substantially by their extreme photosensitivity. An actual condition used in the movie, people so afflicted suffer severe burns from any measurable sunlight. Grace (Kidman) has been caring for her children by herself, cut off from the outside world and modern conviences because of the war, and has been pushed to the edge.
 
The story begins as Grace hires three strangers as new servants, the previous servants having disappeared from the house a week earlier. As the new servants settle in, strange things begin to happen and the children report seeing other people in the house, including a mother; a father; their son, Victor; and a strange old woman who has appeared more than any of the others. The servants plainly know something about what is happening, but they say little to nothing about it.
 
The movie dangles a number of clues in front of the viewer about what has happened -- Anne keeps saying that their mother went mad; Grace actually attacks her daughter at one point when she thinks the girl is possessed, and Anne screams, "She's mad! She's not going to stop until she kills us!"; and there are several oblique references to "that day," although what exactly happened never becomes clear until the last several minutes of the movie.
 
The child actors did excellent job with their parts, particularly the girl who played Anne. The way they interacted -- not just in words, but in body language and tone -- telegraphed the family history, although the exact nature of that history didn't become clear until Grace walked in on the seance. "A pillow? Is that how your mother killed you, children?"
 
The medical condition, and the need to keep the curtains closed at all times, was a brilliant metaphor for the family's efforts to keep themselves in the dark about what had happened, the way the boy kept denying anything had happened, the way Anna admitted it openly but still kept its exact nature from herself, and of course the way Grace tried to convince herself it had never happened. Their reactions at the seance were incredible, too. Anne's shock, her brother's insistent screams, "We're not dead! We're not dead!" and the way Grace staggered and dropped her Rosary as she realized that it hadn't been a bad dream, that God hadn't given her quite the second chance she had thought, and the way she tore into the seance, as if she hoped that by shaking the table and tearing up the papers she might make it not true.
 
The moment before the seance was one of those great moments, incidentally, where Anna joined her brother in hugging their mother, the first sign of affection she had shown the entire movie. You could see that she had forgiven her mother for hurting her earlier, and that forgiveness led to the first real act of tenderness on Grace's part, as she cuddled with her children in the hallway and soothingly explained everything that had happened and how horrified she had been at what she had done.
 
And of course, the other three ghosts -- Mrs. Mills, Lydia, and Mr. Tuttle -- were downright spooky toward the end, when they walked silently toward the children and the house, side by side, unmoved by anything. Mills was brilliant the entire movie, evidently knowing more than she was letting on and yet not wanting to push things until Grace was ready for it all to come out.
 
We ended up renting the movie because we had a coupon for a free rental from Blockbuster, and my best friend had recommended the movie very highly back when it first came out on DVD. I love a good ghost story, and in a way, I'm sorry I waited so long to experience this one.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

recalling old writings

It occurred to me a while ago that I've made some posts from time to time on CHRefugee that actually had some decent points or original thoughts; as a result, when I have the time to kill, I'm painstakingly seaching for them in the dust.
 
Alas, some of the ones that really stand in my memory aren't there, I made them on a now-defunct About.com forum, and so my reflections on why I left Pentecostalism are gone, along with the ten dares I had come up with for returning missionaries. (Items like "Visit a Pentecostal  church. During worship, use your new language to order a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. Sit back and await the interpretation.")

I'm afraid I can't recall that entire list. I made it years ago, and that one stands out not only because it's my favorite, but because I actually did something similar to that in children's church at the Assemblies of God church I attended. (One of the puppets was supposed to start speaking in tongues, and rather than mess around with that "untie my bowtie" nonsense, I said, "Mwen vle un pitsa laj avek pepewoni e ple fwomaj." The associate pastor, who was backstage with me, started to laugh and promptly smacked me.)

The few I can recall:

  • Tell the board of elders what you really think about the proposed bowling alley addition to the church, the new Ford Lincoln Mercury for the pastor, or the latest frivolous additions to the sanctuary.
  • While on the missions field, send your tithe back to your home church. DEsignate the money for your own support.
  • Also while on the missions field: Borrow a baby and convince a friend to stand next to you for a photograph. Turn the picture into Christmas cards "from my family" and send them to all your supporters. Please note: This works even better if you were already married when you left for the missions field. (Yes, I did this one too. People still crack up over it, and other people still brood silently if it comes up.)

Friday, August 03, 2007

sleep

I'm so tired, I feel like I could sleep for the next 20 years.
 
I haven't been able to get a decent night's sleep all week. I had a bad night at the start of the week where I got about three or four hours of sleep. Insomnia actually can be helpful for the first night, because it's possible to get things done once you get your second wind; unfortunately, time and children wait for no man, and every day since Monday it's been as though my biorhythms got smacked with a metaphorical aluminum baseball bat.

Wednesday night, Rachel asked me to climb into bed with her for a few minutes, so I did, and fell asleep even faster than she did.

Natasha woke me up around 11 p.m. as she was leaning in to give Rachel a kiss, but alas! when I wake up part way through a night's sleep, it often leaves me unable to fall back asleep the rest of the night. I was unable to get back to sleep until 4 a.m.

Last night, when I littered the place with silly polls, I had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion for about an hour after dinner ... and I was wide awake until late at night again.

Anyway, it's now Friday. I'm hoping I can fall asleep at the proper time tonight and get back on schedule.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

sourdough death

About a month ago my sourdough starter started taking went from rising almost as quickly as baker's yeast to taking a dozen hours or even a couple days to rise enough.

Because I'd come to depend upon Fancy Cashews and Coma for pizza crusts, bagels and homemade bread, to say nothing of the occasional batch of sourdough pancakes or strombolis, this was, to put it mildly, frustrating. I was feeding the starter, keeping it in my fridge, and using it in the same amounts I had been doing all along. The sudden loss of yeast activity was devastating. Twice we had pizza with crust that didn't seem to have risen at all, and several times Evangeline refused to eat breakfast because she she wouldn't eat anything besides a bagel.

I had no idea how it had happened, but it looked as though our sourdough pets had died. I think the truth is probably a little more tragic: We ate them.

Over the course of the last few months, familiarity and custom have made me a little too casual with the starter. When you're plannig to make something new with sourdough, one of the things you're supposed to do is to mix in as much flour and water as the recipe calls for starter, and let it set overnight. The time gives the yeast to work its way through the batter, making a fresh dough, so that you can measure out the starter you need and put the rest back into your jar, to keep for later. Instead, I'd been pouring the starter straight from the jar into the mixing bowl, and adding fresh flour and water into the jar. I'd still wash the jar once a week or so, but that essentially is what I was doing.

As a result of this lazier approach, there probably came a time when I poured out the active part of the starter into the mixing bowl, and what was left behind had no living sourdough culture to keep the process going. Instead of getting a layer of alcohol atop the flour, all I was getting was floury water as the flour settled to the bottom of the jar.

This is all hindsight, naturally. Last week, sick of the problems I was having, I bought a yeast packet at the supermarket and mixed it in with the bread dough. It lacked the sourdough flavor that I've come to cherish, but the bread rose in record time and served our purposes admirably. I deduced what had gone wrong, and I've been careful this past week to prepare fresh starter the night before whenever I need to make a bread product, stirring everything thoroughly before I measure the starter for the recipe du jour. So far, it's been working well.

Except for one thing: We're still not getting that sourdough taste. I used my sourdough recipe for pizza crust for dinner last night, and it tasted all right and everything, but the crust was just light and fluffy. It lacked the tang that sold me on the recipe the first time I tried it.

We have a loaf of bread right now, and I don't expect to need to make anything else from it for a while, so theoretically the yeast culture will have a few days to ferment and start producing the ethanol that gives sourdough its distinctive taste. The time also should give any wild yeasts in the flour or the air to start growing too; from what I've read, all yeast cultures in the same house become indistinguishable from one another for this reason after about eight days, so I'm hopeful.

I just have to remember not to get lazy again.


Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

the quintessential geek

A few weeks ago I had a dream about the Justice League of America. Now that's bad enough in itself, but as the dream progressed, my subconscious mind began to correct the dream for continuity errors. For instance, at one point Superman used powers that he had had prior to the mid-1980s revamp of the DC Universe. My subconscious mind actually interjected, "No, that was Superman from Earth-2, which was dropped from continuity during 'Crisis on Infinite Earths.'"

I have never been so ashamed of my dreams.