Category Archives: humor

Proust with Chainsaws

photo_paris_chainsaw_1000

This was a quick improvisation that I wrote in a Facebook post. A friend of mine asked people to name that last book they read, appending “with a Chainsaw” to the title. This led to some amusing combinations: “History: A Very Short Introduction with a Chainsaw,” “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing With a Chainsaw,” and “It Can’t Happen Here with a Chainsaw.” I posted “The Guermantes Way with a Chainsaw,” and no sooner had I imagined Proust’s Duchess de Guermantes have a way with a chainsaw than the following scene occurred to me, transposing the social drama of a Parisian salon to a lumber camp in rural Maine.

In a dim corner of the camp’s dining hall, Mme de Villeparisis was seated at a low table, her hair tied back in a rustic bandana and a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles resting low on her sunburnt nose. Her neat gingham dressed was nearly entirely obscured by a small leather smock, now pale from a gentle snowfall of sawdust, and she “daubing away,” as she expressed it, with considerable skill as with a single, modestly bejeweled hand she wielded a 14″ Poulan chainsaw to carve in neat slices and angular cuts a block of burlwood, revealing through her industry a seagull, wing spread, flying low over a curled breaking wave.

The door by the stuffed bear creaked opened and a figure began creeping through the room, shuffling in the direction of our little group. It was Legrandin. He was wearing a pair of pressed Carhartt trousers and a Black Watch plaid shirt which revealed itself in the firelit gloom of the hall to be made not of traditional flannel but rather crushed velvet. I had heard from Swann that he still retained some mannerisms he had acquired working the high Sierras the previous summer, so it that it was not uncommon of him to quote John Muir and other ecstatic writers of that region, and to wear a forked beard and to extemporize at length of the marvelous yield potential of redwoods and black oak, which he compared favorably to our “paltry” and “womanish” white pine.

He scurried now to a position as close as possible to Mme de Villeparisis without placing himself within the arc of her dancing saw. He pulled off his knit cap and clutched it with both hands. “Yoiks, ma’am, I came scurrying once I smelled the flapjacks from across the valley.”

Mme de Villeparisis made no sign of acknowledging this remark. She merely frowned and glanced about her work table for her canister of bar and chain oil.

“Oh, are we in a valley?” said Bloch, loudly, waving his tin coffee cup as he spoke. “I had not interpreted that slight declension in the land to be a true valley.”

Across the room, M de Norpois’ brow furrowed and emitting the faintest sigh at what he took to be Bloch’s inanities, the type of speech one comes to expect of a city-dweller who spends six hours riding railway cars and perhaps a mule train and upon setting his shiny, uncreased, and unscuffed leather boots on pine-needle-laden floor of a gully declares himself a man of the country. And in order to draw attention away from Bloch’s uncouth, city-slicker ways, and with the gravity of a land manager who has negotiated with all manner of landholders and roughs over many decades working the forests from Rochester up to Calais, the elderly lumberman lifted a large, impeccable bowie knife close to his beard and set about picking his teeth.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Pool Reporter in Iowa

The Iowa caucuses took place on Monday, James Joyce’s birthday was Tuesday, and late Tuesday night I found myself wondering how Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus would have covered the Iowa caucuses. The next day I quickly revised Joyce’s Portrait—from its baby-talk beginning to its diary ending—accordingly.

 

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road blocking traffic and making the buses shudder and honk because it was an election year and this was Iowa.

His father told him that story: his father had a hairy face. Not Hipster hairy. Vermont woodsy. Yuge.

He was baby tuckoo, cub reporter. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt. A lady from NPR said it was yum.

Caucus was a funny word. First it made you feel cold. Then it made you scratch your head.

*

Rody Kickham was a decent fellow assigned to O’Malley but Nasty Roche from the Daily Caller was a stink. Nasty Roche had big hands and a little bow-tie. And one day he had asked:

—What is your name?

Stephen had answered: Stephen Dedalus.

Then Nasty Roche had said:

—What kind of a name is that? Are you an immigrant?

Then there was a tussle, and the big man with orange hair shouted: Go! Get him out of here!

*

Uncle Charles smoked such black twist that at last his nephew suggested to him to enjoy his morning smoke in a little outhouse back where the TV vans were running their generators.

—Damn me, said Mr Dedalus frankly, if I know how you can smoke such villainous awful tobacco. If you’re going to ride in the bus with us, you ought to consider vaping.

*

Stephen sat in the front bench of the barn. Father Arnall stood glumly at the podium flanked by Mr. Perkins and Senator Cruz. He wore about his shoulders a heavy cloak; his pale face was drawn and his voice broken with rheum. A PR flack rushed forward with tea and a lozenge and was brusquely waved away.

—Help me, my dear little brothers in Christ. Help me by your pious attention, by your own devotion. Banish from your minds all worldly thoughts and think only of the last things, death, judgment, hell, and heaven. Think only of defeating the liberals. Think only of curtailing wayward healthcare for slatternly women, and think mightily of bombing ISIS. Let the bombs rain down, yes, impinging the earth with terrible, ceaseless explosions, creating a lake of fire on earth, destroying every home in those accursed lands, incinerating every sinner, whether man, woman, or child, and consuming all things in a vast smoldering pit of suffering. This we ask through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

—Amen! shouted the crowd.

Jeb Bush stood blinking at the door.

—Has anyone seen my bus? Sorry, wrong barn.

*

It would be a gloomy secret night. After early nightfall the yellow glow of the laptops would illuminate, here and there, in the lounge of the Residence Inn. He would follow a devious course up and down the aisles, circling always nearer and nearer in a tremor of fear and joy, until his feet led him suddenly round a dark corner to a table by an open electrical socket.

Facebook Messenger was already busy:

—Hello, Bertie, any good in your mind?

—Is that you, pigeon?

—OMG. Did you see Rasmussen?

A cold lucid indifference reigned in his soul. At his first sin he had felt a wave of vitality pass out of him and had feared to find his soul and reputation maimed by the excess. Instead the vital wave of contempt had receded: he had written a listicle and seen his Twitter followers spike.

Oh, corruptible soul!

*

A girl stood before him in midstream in the creek, alone and still, gazing outward. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.

—Vegan PETA member protesting offshore drilling, whispered the fellow from Fox.

—Heavenly God! Cried Stephen. That’s weird!

*

Twitter updates from early February:

Away! Away!

The spell of white arms, red necks, and apple pie. Voices of kinsmen and natural-born citizens.

Visitors making ready to go, shaking their heads and talking of New Hampshire.

Hapless, bespectacled fellow searching for conveyance. —Has anyone seen it? It’s one of the larger vehicles here. With Jeb exclamation point on the side? Jay. Ee. Bee. No?

Clothes back from the Laundromat. Spare-changed again by HuffPo bloggers.

Welcome, O gig economy, wherein I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of expedience and to forge in the smithy of my soul 800 words by noon on Millennials.

O Chromebook battery pack, stand me now and ever in good stead!

In the Kitchen

I had just stepped away from a simmering saucepan when our oldest popped into the kitchen and asked, “How far away is dinner?”

I squinted. “I’m guessing about eight feet.”

Both our girls are expert at rolling their eyes.

Declassified: Julia Child’s OSS Cook Book

Originally posted on Open Salon on August 15, 2008.

Julia Child restore.jpg

Fast on the heels of this week’s news that Julia Child, the grande dame of French cooking in America, was a spy for the OSS, comes the announcement of a new cookbook due out this fall: Mastering the Art of OSS Cooking by X45 or as she’s known to us now, Julia Child. Every agent devoted to both country and good cooking will find this book indispensable, as it brings the elan and breadth of French cuisine to everyday situations, such as poisoning a prime minister or smuggling aircraft parts out of the country in a sausage truck.

The catalog of the publisher, the Defense Culinary Institute of Bethseda, MD, lists only a few titles, at least as far as publications with ISBN numbers go. But its little book, Lugovoi on Cocktails, has developed a small but devoted following, and its reviews have been nothing less than glowing.

Life-long fans and students of Julie Child who were confused or troubled by the news that their mentor and favorite chef was a spy will take heart when they see these recipes. The master’s wit and attention to detail never deserted her, even when she was brining picoline olives in truth serum or whipping up a five-course, arsenic-laced dinner for twelve at a German officers’ club.

With the permission of the publisher, here are a few of Julia’s recipes from those dark years in the middle of the century, when armies criss-crossed Europe and any chef’s toque might conceal a rolled up set of battle plans or a circular hoop of piano wire.

Microfilm en Croute

It has become a common practice in all parts of France to swallow microfilm whenever the occasion merits. A heavy rap on the door or the unexpected sound of boots running through a courtyard triggers the old Gallic gusto, and the film, often concealed in a small metal capsule, goes down toute nue, perhaps washed down by a simple Aligoté.

But if time allows you can prepare the microfilm en croute or even in a light flakey crust. French housewives often keep a roll of such pastry ready in the ice box for just such occasions: the unexpected discovery of a fresh basket of berries or the sudden presentation of a very official-looking search warrant.

The en croute preparation is simple enough. Simply slice a piece of bread about half an inch thick, then divide the bread again into square two inches on a side. Press the bread firmly in the center, creating a little depression, then insert the canister. If the microfilm is not in a canister, make sure it is rolled tightly. In Brittany, some locals prefer to bind the film with a strand of seaweed, which keeps the film from unfurling and catching in one’s throat, and adds a pleasantly sharp sea flavor to the ensemble. Grate cheese and broil or bake for five minutes.

The size and shape of the bread can be altered to accommodate other objects, such as house keys, foreign coins, and tiny aircraft parts.

Oie Braisée aux Marrons et Short-wave Radio

Braised goose is more tender and flavorful than roast goose, and covered braising ensures that the bird retains its moist, tender flavor, even when the rib cage is concealing a short-wave radio. French kitchen lore says that radios and goose are a difficult combination, and the practice, once popular near Rouen, of threading an aerial through the goose’s neck, has now largely been abandoned. In certain intellectual circles, it has become popular to rinse the bird in heavy water before braising it. Ask your host for heavy water. If none is available, it acceptable to substitute something lighter such as rose water or even American beer.

Composed Salad with Strychnine Gêlée

Dinner with double-agents can unnerve even the most capable French cooks. One wants to extract as much pleasure and information from the meal as possible without ever turning one’s back on guests or, heaven forbid, leaving the room to tend a boiling pot.

A composed salad is ideal for situations like this. The greens can be prepared ahead of time and a generous helping of the aspic-like dressing plopped onto the guest’s plate during a lively discussion about a painting on the far side of the room. It’s best to for the cook to have eaten heartily first, in order to beg off on the salad course. All leftovers, including guests, should be promptly buried in compost.

Photo: Julia Child restore” by Original is polaroid photo taken by Elsa Dorfman in 1988
derivative work: Scewing
Julia_child1.jpg: Elsa DorfmanJulia_child1.jpg. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tips for Surviving a Blizzard

BlizzardA blizzard of historic proportions is upon us as I write. We feel prepared. We’ve been through some bad winter storms and power outages here over the years.

Of course, I really had no idea how to get through a storm like this when we first moved to New Hampshire. In my previous life, the coldest thing I ever experienced was the side-eye the Berkeley City Council would give any landlord who talked about raising the rent. Now I’m acclimated to 10 degree days and subzero wind chills. (Turns out it’s different, but not that different.)

In case you’re new to blizzards, here are some tips for surviving and even thriving in blustery Klondike weather, plunging temperatures, darkness, the roar of snowplows in the night, the thud and crack of the mailbox getting swept aside, etc.

Q. What’s the most important thing to do?

A. Prioritize. For example, when the power’s been out for five days, and you’re running low on wood for the stove, which furniture are you going to burn first? And if the answer is that old rocking chair up in the spare room, hadn’t you better move it by the stove before the power goes out?

Q. Should I stock up on the Coleman camping lanterns?

A. Don’t bother. They don’t work. Oh, they work in theory, but remember how when you got them out the youngest children were jumping up and down with excitement about camping, and then disappeared while you and your spouse were discussing where to stow the gas for the generator? By the time you call everyone down for dinner and eat dinner and do the dishes and a strong gust of wind comes and knocks out the power and you ask if anyone’s seen the lamps, you’ll learn that the kids were using them under their bed sheets to play camping. And that’s where the lanterns are: under the bed sheets, turned on full. So now all the batteries are dead. Just stick to candles. They’re quieter. They save a lot of yelling.

Q. What about Duraflame logs?

A. Yes, they’re edible. We usually serve ours with a snow/peanut butter glaze, but after three days without power and with the roads to the store still impassable, almost any flavored liquid from your dark, quiet refrigerator will do. Salsa? Sure. Yesterday’s chicken soup? Absolutely. The liquified lettuce at the back of the vegetable bin? Er, probably not.

Q. I was feeling my way through our darkened kitchen and suddenly ended up flat on my back. What happened?

A. You just interrupted a road race. Actually, you ruined it. Your youngest thought it would be cool to have her Hot Wheels race at night, and you just stepped on the lead car. Better pull yourself up and go hunting for it before someone carrying jugs of water to flush the toilet steps on it and makes a big puddle in the middle of the room.

Q. The storm is over, and the power’s back on. Can I kick up my heels?

A. You could, but you should probably save that energy for shoveling the walks, shoveling out the dog’s kennel so she stops using the driveway, raking the roof, shoveling away the snow you just raked off the roof, and plodding through the snow to find all the pieces of your mailbox.

Q. Do these storms happen often?

A. Do you really miss the Berkeley City Council that much?

Let’s Quiz GOP Presidential Candidates about the Reagans’ Astrologer

"What Does Joan Say?"Tired of hearing about Obamacare, immigration, taxes, and Ebola? Dreading hearing about these things endlessly in the 2016 presidential debates? Don’t you wish we had something new to discuss with the candidates?

Well, jump for joy, because we do—thanks to a recent New York Times obituary reminds us that Ronald Reagan, the man revered by today’s GOP as the exemplar of American presidents, consulted an astrologer on matters ranging from Air Force One’s flight plans to the timing of international summits. Joan Quigley was the administration’s “most closely guarded secret,” according to former Treasury secretary Donald Regan. Nancy consulted the San Francisco-based astrologer three times a day and paid Quigley a handsome $3,000 monthly retainer for most of the Ronnie’s two terms.

Here’s the colorful American history we’ve been looking for to enliven what might otherwise might just be another tiresome political campaign. Gwen Ifill and Bob Schieffer are probably busy, so I’ve gone ahead and drafted some initial debate questions. Let’s ask the candidates . . .

1. When were you born? I mean, exactly: what month, day, year, and time?

2. Nancy selected the astrologer for the Reagan White House. Do you believe that the duties of selecting the White House astrologer should be left to the First Lady? What role should the President play? Should this position require a Senate confirmation hearing?

3. The Reagans regularly consulted their astrologer about a broad range of topics, including highly important meetings with President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union. Are there any areas of domestic or foreign policy where you feel that an astrologer would be especially critical? Are there any areas where, breaking from the precedent of the Reagan White House, you would not consult an astrologer?

4. Throughout your campaign, you have been a strident supporter of calls to return this nation to its Judeo-Christian heritage. How much of your fervor about this issue derives from sincere religious conviction and how much from your just being a Taurus?

5. Would your White House complement astrology with any other forms of divination, such as casting lots or reading sheep and poultry entrails?

6. Will you be paying for your astrologer out of your own funds, or will his or her expenses be covered by taxpayers?

7. Do you feel that having an astrologer might have helped the GOP field more successful candidates in 2012? Could anything at all, terrestrial or extraterrestrial, have helped the GOP field more successful candidates in 2012?

8. Every administration makes it mark on life in the capital through its own strict or lenient interpretation of protocol. At State Dinners and on other official White House occasions, would the American public have the opportunity to see your administration’s astrologer dressed in flowing velvet robes and a pointy hat?

Silicon Valley Start-ups Seize Opportunities Created by Vatican’s Indulgence-for-Tweet Deal

VaticanWhen the Vatican announced that contrite Catholics could earn indulgences and shorten their time in purgatory by following the Pope on Twitter, I thought, “Indulgences? Now there’s one Twitter stat you can’t track in Hootsuite.”

Then I realized that, Silicon Valley being Silicon Valley, it wouldn’t take long for new start-ups to appear, seizing the opportunity created by this latest social media currency, the papal indulgence.

I made a few phone calls to my VC friends and compiled this list of start-ups jumping into the tweet-for-indulgence market before the incense has drifted away.

Indulgio

Founded by a couple of Stanford grads, this start-up is addressing an obvious problem with indulgences: metrics.

“We want to be your mobile dashboard for measuring indulgences,” says Rafe Lucatelli, founder and CEO. “People are following the Pope, but they’re always on the go. They’ve got their smartphones with them, so a mobile solution makes sense.”

Version 1.0, now in Beta, tracks indulgences and lets you post your purgatory status to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. “In line at Starbucks, followed 3 tweets and got 3 months closer to heaven! #Indulgences FTW!”

Version 2, scheduled for later this year, will measure sentiment in your social media feeds and estimate how many years you’re adding to purgatory through hateful, lustful, or slothful behavior.

“Let’s face it, you’re not just always drawing the balance of time in purgatory down,” says Lucatelli. “You’re also adding to it every day. We’re working with people who really understand sin—we’ve got an advisory board of local theologians along with a team of former Oracle engineers—to build a sin assessment engine that will give you a sense of just how long your wait in purgatory will be. My guess is, when you see the total, you’ll keep following the Pope’s tweets.”

Sin Qua Non

“Sin is the ultimate Big Data problem,” says Brent Hammacher, CEO of Sin Qua Non. “You’ve got billions of lives, a whole hierarchy of offenses—mortal sins, venial sins, white lies, press releases. There’s no way you’re going to track all that in a traditional SQL database. It makes what the NSA is trying to do look small. Which isn’t to say,” he adds, “that our friends in Virginia aren’t very interested in seeing what we’ve come up with.”

While start-ups like Indulgio focus on the individual consumer’s standing in the afterlife, Hammacher and his team are interested in moral corruption and redemption in aggregate. “Can you correlate expected time in purgatory with demographic data like zip codes and professions? We think you can,” says Hammacher. “There are some obvious spikes with cohorts like BMW drivers and members of Congress, but some of our other early projections have surprised us.”

An Indulgence Transformation algorithm might be able to wipe a lot of these slates clean. Again, Big Data and virtualization turn out to be key.

“If one user following one tweet on one device earns one indulgence, what could an entire server farm of virtual Twitter instances associated with a single Twitter account do for a sinful but proactive person in the twilight years of his life? Would certain high-net-worth individuals be interested in paying for this type of premier service? We know they would.”

Sinify

Details on this start-up are murky. Funding has come from some of the marquee names in the Valley, and development is taking place off shore.

One unnamed investor told me this: “Look, what the Pope has done here is push the reset button on the Reformation. It’s 1300 again, but now we’ve got Facebook. How might things go differently this time?”

For example?

“3D printing. In the Middle Ages, people collected relics, but there could only be one femur of John the Baptist. With 3D printing, there’s no limit to how many penitents can have the same femur. It’s like the multiplication of loaves but with much, much bigger upside. If Leo X were still around, I’d hire him as my VP of Sales.”

Critics

Not everyone in the Valley is thrilled by the Vatican’s new foray into social media. Hunkered down in a little apartment in Milpitas, a former Breitbart intern and blogger who goes only by MLuther has been posting pointed diatribes against the Tweet offer and other Vatican practices in a Tumblr he calls “95 Problems and a Tweet Ain’t One.” On bulletin boards, he’s been flamed.

“We should have this wrapped up in thirty years,” he says.

(Photo Credit: Creative Commons License, Some Rights Reserved by dlsrtravel)

Downton Abbey Seasons 7, 8, and 9 (Excerpts)

Downton Abbey

If, like me, you were stung by the disappearance of major characters in the course of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, perhaps will find some grim enjoyment in the following.

Season 7, Episode 1.

After the dramatic cast attrition that began in Season 3, picked up speed in Seasons 4 and 5 with a swallowed champagne cork (Mosley) and bad oysters (three Crawleys, Mrs. Patmore, and a couple of unnamed kitchen staff), and reached a horrific crescendo in the final episode of season 6—the unforgettable crashing chandelier (“the body count of Granthams and Crawleys in the drawing room at that moment brought to mind the corpse-strewn stage in the final moments of ‘Hamlet'”—The Guardian), this new season begins on a quieter note. Carsons continues to be exasperated by the whirring gears (all right, the turning gears) of a new can opener. Lady Mary and Branson have now moved to separate wings of Downton, meeting only in the evening to claim their children from the nursery, where of late young Lady Sybil is playing soldier with her cousin, young Matthew “Ponsy” Crawley. While the children use building blocks and a toy pop-gun to re-enact the Easter Uprising, a different, far more sinister mischief is playing out in town: someone is clipping off all the rose blooms in local gardens. Believing that these matters should be dealt with a firm hand, Lady Grantham proposes flogging the commoners.

Season 7, Episode 4.

If you are among the viewers who have found the empty rooms and Beckett-like silences of this season a tad dispiriting, you will rejoice or at least take heart at the arrival of previously unmentioned Crawley cousins from across the pond, even if they are played by Britney Spears and Adam Sandler.

Season 7, Episode 7.

On a misty morning, the town constable catches the elusive rose thief in action. A magnificent 12-point buck makes a quick breakfast of three magnificent blooms of Variegata di Bologna before bolting over a hedge-row. Still adamant about obtaining a confession, Lady Grantham suggests flogging the local fauna as well as any itinerant Catholics.

Season 8, Episode 2.

Branson survives his drinking binge, and good news for the coffers of Downton arrives in the form of a job offer for the flush-faced heir as a local sales representative for Jameson’s. Lady Mary’s absence from the cast is hardly noticeable as her letters continue to arrive from India. Meanwhile, Carsons summons the courage to watch one of the new talking pictures that have created such a stir in town, though he ends up exasperating other audience members when he berates the onscreen kitchen staff for their slovenly service.

Daisy gets her tattoo.

Season 8, Episode 5.

The rumors bruited in Entertainment Weekly are, alas, true. The actor hired to wear front half of the deer costume in the role of the rose thief seems to have optioned out of his contract at the end of Season 7, and now we’re getting only glimpses of the back half of the animal—which explains the sometimes puzzling placements of garden walls, delivery trucks, and that restless tinker with the sandwich board. Since no gentleman would ever shoot a prize stag from behind, this four-legged marauder seems destined to live on at least until the next round of negotiations with the actors’ union.

Season 9, Episode 4.

Granted that of all the Granthams and Crawleys, we’ve seen only Branson for the past two episodes, and the actors playing servants seem to change abruptly every few scenes. But the intrigue of the show continues as Branson struggles to meet his sales quota with Jameson’s while unraveling the mysteries posed both by Mary’s letters and some cryptic postcards from New York, which as one astute viewer has noted appeared prominently two seasons ago on Antiques Roadshow.

Season 9, Episode 7.

Despite its longeurs, the season reaches a highly satisfying conclusion when Carsons beats the Adam Sandler character to death with a poker.

A rousing finish to this epic tale.

Photo: Creative Commons, some rights reserved by JBUK_Planet