Sunday, January 31, 2010

"An Inexplicable Cultural Phenomenon"

Okay, I finally succumbed. I read Twilight. I admit it. I was weak. Earlier this month I was tired from somehow not having gotten any rest despite sleeping all night, so after I got my husband his Sunday lunch, I went to bed and curled up in a ball, thinking I just wanted to read something mindless. A friend had suggested I download the sample chapter of Twilight "just to laugh at how bad it is" and I finally had, but hadn't read it. So I did. The problem is when you finish a sample chapter the Kindle asks if you want to buy the book, and in a fit of boredom, impulse purchasing, or possibly insanity, I did.

Other than remarking that in all the time I spent reading in bed as a child, I never dreamed I'd one day be able to buy books in bed, what else is there to say?

I'm not sure I'd ever heard of Twilight before Gina R. Dalfonzo's NRO review of the series a few months before the first movie came out. I wouldn't have been interested anyway, and neither Dalfonzo's piece nor anything I heard after changed my mind. Thomas Hibbs' review of the second movie made me laugh, and so did YouTube clips of the Rifftrax for the first movie. (From memory--"You can read it, there just isn't anything there".) I think the young man playing Jacob Black is kind of hot, but beyond that I don't see the appeal.

Twilight is badly written, and I don't just mean stylistically: I never for a minute buy Edward's and Bella's sudden romance. (That's despite the fact I believe in the possibility of sudden romance.) The whole book is just blatant wish fulfillment. Bella may seem clumsy and average, but that just hides her secret specialness. She makes friends immediately. Boy after boy falls for her. The most handsome boy in school falls passionately, irrevocably in love with her the moment he lays eyes on her. He's a good boy who is also a bad boy. He smells good and sparkles in the sunlight, always dresses well, drives a luxury car, plays music for her, wants nothing more than to protect her, and will never, ever pressure her over anything unless it's for her own good. He makes her faint when he kisses her. Of course he's filthy, stinking rich too. And he just keeps on insisting on giving her presents and telling her how special she is, darn it. There may have been some wish fulfillment going on in Harry Potter books, but this...whoah.

And dear, blank Bella, who was apparently just waiting for Edward to write on her slate and give her meaning, remains pretty blank. Another case of there being no there there. Even before she knows how perfect Edward is, with the self-denial and the money and whatnot, she learns he is probably a soulless monster and she decides that it doesn't matter. Let me repeat that: her response to finding out that the boy she sits beside in science class has no soul and craves human blood is to decide that it doesn't matter. What?! Bobby McFerrin, upon learning that the soulless undead walk among us and go to our schools, would have decided to worry, but not this girl. Does she think souls are unimportant, or does she just think that having the hots for a boy overrides all other considerations, including survival? Or is she just thick?

Parents wondering if this series is wholesome reading for their daughters might want to read those two reviews I've linked above and some of Regina Doman's comments here. Personally, I wouldn't recommend giving this series to anyone, but considering all the trash out there, if your adolescent daughter really wants to read it, this may not be a hill you want to die on.

Beyond that, I don't have anything to say. I can't claim to understand why grown women have been devouring this. It remains for me what Rifftrax called it (and I quoted in the title of this post.)

Two Movies You May Not Have Heard Of

Ushpizin, available from Netflix for either DVD rental or instant viewing, is an interesting movie about a married couple trying to be religious and not always succeeding. It is the festival of Sukkot, and Moshe and his wife are so broke they barely have any food in the house, let alone supplies for celebrating the holiday. They begin to pray very hard and two things happen, they receive an unexpected sum of money and two guests from Moshe's not-so-religious past show up. They attempt to provide hospitality to the men, but things do not go smoothly.

I saw this small independent movie back in November, but I still remember it and would like to see it again; that's better than some big budget movies I've seen. I liked it not only because it gives a glimpse inside a world I will never be a part of, but because it shows religious people sincerely trying to follow God, failing to live up to their ideals, yet continuing to try. Religion is not shown as a contemptible thing, fit only for mockery. This makes Ushpizin an unusual movie by contemporary standards. It's also a good story.

Arranged (also available from Netflix) is another low-budget, seemingly small movie. It concerns Rochel and Nasira, two young schoolteachers in a NYC elementary school, who do not fit in with the other teachers. Both dress modestly and have expectations of an arranged marriage. Did I mention they don't fit in? They become friends through the shared bonds of looking for love in a now non-standard way and of enduring their principal's attempts to save them from oppression.

Ushpizin is the better film, but I like this movie too. How often do we get to see a young woman stand up in a movie and say that "traditional" isn't necessarily bad? Aren't all modern films supposed to be about young women defying authority and tradition? This is a different movie--refreshingly so.

As to family viewing, I don't think little kids would like these movies, but older girls might like Arranged and there's no acres of naked flesh, sex scenes, violence, or noticeable swearing in either movie. There's also no car chases and special effects, for family members who require them, and Ushpizin has subtitles, which I've learned is an issue for some people. (I'm sympathetic to illiteracy; I'm not sympathetic to whines of "I don't want to read" coming from literate people.)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Cheap "Luxury"

Saturday before last I did something I hadn't done in a long time: I made bread--"proper" bread, with hand kneading and everything. Back in the years when I was a relatively young married I made yeast bread fairly often, from different recipes, but a couple of things happened that stopped it. First Uncle Pookie found a clearance bread machine for only $20 or $24, which left my "bread machines are too expensive" reason not to have one in the dust, and brought it to me for a gift. I quickly discovered that, while it was true that the bread bread machines make is not as good as the best hand-kneaded bread, it was easily the equal of my hand-kneaded bread and I didn't have to do any work for it. So I made a fair bit of bread machine bread, until the second thing happened, which was my realizing how sugar and flour products were negatively affecting me (unstable blood sugar, excessive appetite, mood swings), and I ate very little bread for a couple of years, let alone made it. Then when I started up again on the bread, I was long out of any kind of habit of making even quick breads (biscuits, cornbread), let alone yeast bread.

But having tried out a beer bread recipe the week before Christmas as a possible dish to carry to a family gathering, I kind of had bread on the mind and getting out one old recipe ended too poorly to get it wholly out of my mind, so faced with a dull, cold evening I pulled out the bread recipe I used more than any other back then: the "Cuban Bread" recipe that ran in the old Tightwad Gazette newsletter. (Now available in the big Tightwad Gazette book.)

If you've never tried it, you really should. It's easy and, as far as I can tell, failsafe. There's only one rising period before you put it in the oven, so it's pretty fast, and my poor kneading skills have never spoiled the quality of the bread yet. Moreover, the other week when I made this, I was working with seriously old yeast; I'd proofed some beforehand, so I knew it was still alive, just really sluggish, so I had to let the dough rise longer than usual, but rise it did. I cut my crosses and sprinkled some oatmeal on top, because I didn't have any of the sesame seeds I used to keep on hand for breadmaking, and put it in the oven. Result: two of the most beautiful boules I've ever seen. Tasty, too. I don't think anybody could mess this recipe up without trying.

We can think of home baked bread as a sort of a cheap luxury. To get storebought bread that's equivalent in taste to homemade, you have to spring for the artisan breads, which cost several times more than the ubiquitous sandwich breads. Even then, they aren't always as good as homemade, you can't have a slice hot from the oven, and they never fill your home with the smell of baking bread. Which is a bonus you can't buy in the store.

A word about the name, Cuban Bread. I always suspected back when I used to make this that it might not necessarily be truly Cuban, because, after all, no self-respecting French person would eat what we call French dressing, right? I wouldn't venture to say it definitely is not, but a quick Google search while I was making it suggested it isn't. It does, however, sound like Puerto Rican bread, in that it's put into a cold oven with a pan of boiling water on the rack underneath it.

That quickie Google search had a side benefit, in that it informed me of the existence of the Cuban sandwich. Two kinds of pig flesh in one sandwich? Add some bacon and UP would be in heaven. Makes me sorry I never visited Miami.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Away from Your Desk and Out of School

For some reason I was a little more impressed this morning with a line in Mark Steyn's weekend column than I should be. It was his advice to aspiring writers: "Don't just write there, do something."

It put me in mind of somewhere in Sylvia Plath's journals, I think, where she observed that she had spent all her time on literature, whereas her husband, although he knew English language poetry very well, had also studied anthropology, read lots of myths, and, most important of all, spent a lot of time outdoors, fishing, hunting, and observing the natural world. It gave him more to draw on when he wrote.

I've always had a great regard for writing and for writers (as a group, not necessarily for every individual), and I don't think the world is best served when writers spend all their time in literature classes, in school generally, or, heaven help us, in creative writing programs. I noticed a decade ago that whenever I picked up an interesting looking fiction book and read the inside flaps, if the author's bio said he was from a graduate of a creative writing program, I almost invariably put the book back on the shelf; the book had to be exceptionally intriguing for me to break that pattern. I had gained a new bias without intending to or noticing myself acquring it. But when I noticed I had it, it wasn't hard to know why I had it: I had come to expect from books by people whose bio consisted mainly of getting a creative writing degree that their writing would be technically smooth, yes, but that all too often I would be left wondering why they bothered to write it. Like Gertrude Stein's hometown, there was no there there. There might be a story, but when there was, there often didn't seem to be a point. I may be a plebeian and a philistine, but I know worthwhile writing doesn't leave you wondering why the author bothered.

Steyn wasn't necessarily talking about fiction writers, of course, or those with "literary" ambitions, but I think his advice to do something is good for any stripe of writer who wants to avoid becoming someone "for whom words are props and codes and metaphors but no longer expressive of anything real." As someone else put it, the writer who never leaves his desk ends up writing odes to his desk lamp. Go out and raise dogs, as one of Steyn's suggestions had it, or grow vegetables, spend your summer break working construction or waiting tables in a truck stop, or even just spend a lot of time talking to people who don't have much in common with the people in your creative writing program. (Key point on that last bit would be to listen more than you talk.) Those of us humble readers who are in love with stories or who love to read nonfiction with some there there and who may be your future readers will thank you for it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Another Grooming Post: OR Why I've Not Bothered to Go No 'Poo

Over the past several years, I've come across a number of people online who have stopped using shampoo. What used to be the province of a tiny number of usually SCA people with very long hair seems to going more mainstream. More power to them. But they mostly seem to be using a tedious system of baking soda rinses alternated with vinegar rinses which makes me tired to think about, so I don't know why they didn't first try an easier way: just use a small amount of shampoo, applied only on the scalp. And unless your hair is very short, don't wash it every day.

Unless you've fallen in a mud puddle or have applied something like oil or a henna pack to your hair, you don't need to put shampoo on your hair. The point of "washing your hair" isn't to wash your hair, so much as to wash your scalp. Your scalp is what produces the oil. That oil, which both moisturizes the hair and can make it look dirty, has to travel down the hair; the hair isn't making new oil all down its length. This is why the longer your hair gets the more likely it is to get split ends and why people with long hair will notice their hair starts to look a little dirty or oily near the roots when most of their hair looks perfectly fine.

Applying shampoo only to the scalp is apparently a bizarre and "not true" idea to some people, even hair stylists; I once had one gush at me when she was cutting my bra-length hair off to shoulder-length, "You are going to save so much money on shampoo!" But this isn't some crazy idea I came up with on my own. In my early to mid teens I read an article in a women's magazine about two or three models who had kept their long hair, against the pressure to cut it shorter. One of these models had very lush hair. She said she washed it every three days and applied shampoo only to the scalp, then applied a conditioner to the ends only. I've used shampoo only on my scalp ever since, except for the exceptions mentioned earlier.

What's more, I use cheap shampoo, I use more of it on my scalp than the minimum needed, I wear my hair long, and beyond a handful of homemade hot oil treatments over the years (mostly cuz I was bored), I used no conditioners until recently. I don't even have one of those chlorine filtering shower heads that I used to see in Real Goods catalogue. But my hair is healthy and when I wear it loose in public I often have women stop me and say how pretty it is, although that may be largely the color (long red hair has novelty value).

Washing my hair this way about twice a week and never using conditioner let me have bra-length hair (i.e. hair that covered the bottom of my bra strap) for years without any split ends. In my mid-thirties, after a while with hair so short I didn't have to comb it, just run my fingers through it, I decided to see just how long my hair could get. Somewhere around waist-length I transitioned to washing my hair about once a week (more in summer than winter) and eventually it reached to the top of my hips. I'm forty now and it seems everything on me is falling apart or drying up, but I've discovered that if I apply conditioner to the ends occasionally, I can have waist-length or longer hair with only minimal split ends. (That's split ends I can see looking close up, not something you can see across the room, like the straw piles my sister used to get so vocal about that appear on some women's heads after a permanent.) Maybe if I spent more time on it, I would have no split ends even at hip length. But what I'm doing works well enough for me and requires only the smallest outlay of time and money.

I don't doubt the "no 'poo" folks get good results, but for me it would take more effort than what I do now. It wouldn't save me much money (an inexpensive bottle of shampoo lasts me a year or more, despite the fact I use a bit more than I strictly need), and my hair is healthy enough with this treatment to get compliments.

Everyone's hair is different, of course, but I think some of the women who are contemplating going the no 'poo route would be well-served if they just started using less shampoo less often and applying it only to the scalp, rather than to the whole length of the hair.

Women's Deodorant

Does anyone know why there don't seem to be many--or any?-- deodorants for women? I live in a hot, humid climate and I've never been one of those rare people who look fresh and cool as a morning flower even when working outside, so in the summer I use the strongest antiperspirant I can find: Mitchum. Mitchum's old slogan saying it was so strong you could skip a day was no joke and a couple of years back they strengthened the formula even more. It would be overkill in winter, so when the weather cools down in fall, I switch over to something cheaper and less powerful. (Suave is the cheapest brand here, so it's usually that.)

But I'm the sort of person who won't take anything to bring down a fever (unless it's dangerously high) because I figure that fever is there for a reason and I should let it do its job. I hate getting all sweaty, I don't want to stain my clothes with perspiration, and I have enough social strikes against me without adding the great American taboo of stinking, so I'm okay with stopping my armpit perspiration in summer. But there's not much of it in winter. So a couple of months ago I was thinking maybe I should just use a deodorant, rather than an antiperspirant, in winter.

But women's deodorant is missing in action. Men's deodorant is everywhere. Male-marketed deodorants are more common, or so it seems, than male-targeted anti-perspirants and anti-perspirant/deodorant combos. This is despite the fact male deodorants must be harder to make than female deodorants. Males are the stinkier of the species--of this species and every other species I have any familiarity with. Male deodorants must cover up the powerful male armpit sweat smell without stopping the sweat--and they do, and very well at that! So I know it's possible to make deodorants that cover up the lighter female sweat smell without stopping the perspiration, but going by the shelves in local stores, no one does any more. (For the record, I didn't check any health food stores in this little local search.)

Most women aren't going to use male deodorants because they smell like male cologne and the smell is strong (it has to be). There are some unisex anti-perspirants (like Mitchum), but I could only find one deodorant that seemed to be unisex: Tom's of Maine sat at the intersection of the men's and women's underarm products and was not noticeably targeted to either. It also claimed to be unscented, which means it only has the scent of the essential oils used in it. Pleasant enough, no doubt, but it was also nearly five times the cost of the Suave anti-perspirant. I bought the Suave. I also experimented a little with a homemade concoction, but my solution so far is just to use less of the Suave.

But the question here is why no (or so few) women's deodorant? Why do the manufactureres think there's less of a market for it? Uncle Pookie and I discussed this and our best guess is that women just don't like to sweat. Uncle Pookie also had a theory about these sort of products coming on the market back when many men still labored outside in the sun all day, so they needed to sweat, but I'm skeptical of that explaining it, because at that time few people had air conditioning yet and most people didn't eat out mucy, so most women spent hours over a hot stove every day. I don't remember what other ideas we came up with, only that our best guess was that women just don't like to get sweaty, so with women choosing anti-perspirants, the market for women's deodorants dried up. (Hardy har har.)

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year

Here's wishing everyone reading this a happy and blessed 2010.

Here at Chez Pookie et Suzanne, our New Year's celebrations began and ended with the eating of the traditional Southern New Year's food: black-eyed peas and cabbage. For anyone not from here, it's an old custom to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for luck in the coming year. Grocery stores put out displays of black-eyed peas right after Christmas. Some restaurants put them on the menu for the day. When I was a child, even my baby sister, who could usually get away with her picky eating, would be required to choke down a spoonful. (Okay, some years she negotiated that down to only one or two peas.)

I was grown before I heard of eating cabbage on New Year's Day. Uncle Pookie's family ate both, saying the peas were so you'd have plenty of change (coins) in the coming year and the cabbage so you'd have plenty of paper money. I've since encountered others who eat both and say the peas are for general luck and the cabbage for money.

I don't actually believe in good luck tokens and such, but I do believe in customs. Harmless traditional practices like this ought to be kept up. They add flavor to life. A sense of texture to the year and continuity to a string of years. And when they're regional or local, they help prevent every part of America looking exactly like every other part.