April 29, 2009

Raisin-Walnut Rye Bread

"Don't you know that love / Is stronger than Jesus," Nina Persson croons on A Camp's new album, Colonia. Well, I know something else that is stronger than Jesus: bread.

This recipe, adapted from one on the King Arthur Flour website, is a keeper. It's delightfully soft, and it features both the slightly tangy taste of classic rye bread and the sticky sweetness of raisins, with a bit of crunch in there just to screw things up.

The best part about it is that it is easy to make, and, if you regularly bake bread, you likely have the ingredients already. If not, you can easily go out and get them.

Mix the following ingredients in a bowl (or in your bread machine on the dough setting, if you prefer):
½ cup pumpernickel flour
½ cup rye flour
2 cups bread flour
1¼ cups water (room temperature)
2 tbsp. melted butter
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. instant yeast (room temperature)
Mix to form a shaggy dough. Knead 10 minutes, let sit 10 minutes, then knead some more. Near the end of the kneading process (if you're using a bread machine, when it beeps), add 1 cup raisins and ½ cup chopped walnuts. You can substitute any dried fruit and chopped nuts here.

If you made the dough by hand, let it set in a bowl with a damp cloth over it for about an hour. It should double in size. If you made it in the bread machine, just wait until the dough cycle is complete.

At this point, transfer the dough to a lightly oiled loaf pan and cover it with lightly oiled plastic wrap.

Let sit for another 45 minutes or so until the dough crests over the top of the pan. Preheat the oven to 350°F. The dough should look something like this before it goes into the oven.

Bake for about 25 minutes (or longer if you prefer a thicker crust). Remove it from the oven and tent it with foil to keep the crust from burning. Return to the oven and bake another 15 minutes. It's always difficult to tell when bread is ready. I've found two good ways: you can either use an instant-read thermometer (the inside of a medium-sized loaf should hover around 190°F) or you can thump the outside of the loaf with your fingernail. If it's done, it should resonate slightly and hurt just a bit when you thump it.

When the loaf is done, slide it out of the pan and onto a cutting board. I like to cut my bread soon after it's out of the oven (my wife would disown me if I didn't give her a warm piece of bread).

Since water-based loaves can be rather soft and moist, I usually cut them and let them sit on a wire cooling rack for about an hour. Doing so allows them to cool and draws out some of the excess moisture so they will be easier to package.

While it's not a true rye bread, this recipe yields a loaf that is dark and rich like a traditional rye. And the texture of the bread is so perfect that I couldn't ask for more. It's going to be tough not to eat it all now while the wife is sleeping.

April 28, 2009

Seven Simple Steps to Chicken Curry

1.) Cut up a couple of boneless skinless chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces.

2.) Shake a good deal of curry powder and black powder onto the pieces and roll them through your hands to coat. They will turn dark orange.

3.) Toss the chicken pieces in a wok (or deep skillet) with a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Heat on medium heat until white all the way through.

4.) In the meantime, mix whatever yogurt you have in your fridge (plain yogurt works best, but vanilla and other flavors will do in a pinch) and add a couple tablespoons of curry powder and a tablespoon of ground ginger. Stir until combined.

5.) Once the chicken breasts are done, push them to the sides of the skillet (or up the sides of the wok) and pour the yogurt in a pool in the center. Let simmer briefly, then slide the chicken in and mix together, coating all the pieces.

6.) If you want to spice it up, add some steamed veggies or stir-fry the veggies before you cook the chicken. I chose broccoli, carrots, and snow peas.

7.) Once the sauce thickens (it won't take long, since yogurt is already thick), serve hot and enjoy. This recipe is perfect with saffron and chicken rice: I'll post that recipe another day.

April 27, 2009

From the Daring Kitchen: Cheesecake

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

I've been craving cheesecake for a while now, so it was fortuitous that my first Daring Bakers challenge was to make an entire cheesecake. The recipe provided was very basic, but it encouraged us bakers "to take this basic recipe and play with it. Make it unique."

My friend Amanda took those instructions to heart and made a Maine Deer Tracks cheesecake in honor of the Gifford's ice cream flavor. Head on over to her blog and check it out.

I'm nowhere near as creative, so I made a lemon cheesecake with a raspberry swirl. It was just the right amount of Springy goodness for a drizzly 50°F day in Maine.

The graham cracker crust was, honestly, the most fun I've had in a while. I'm a cheap date.

I love my food processor, and I used it to make crumbs of these crackers in about 15 seconds.

After about a half a box of graham crackers, a stick of melted butter, a bit of sugar (which I accidentally forgot), and a splash of vanilla,

I mixed it all together and pressed it into the disposable casserole dish I bought for the occasion.

(Springform pans are wonderful and all, but the recipe called for a boiling water bath, and watertight they are not.)

Meanwhile, I got out the cream cheese and started letting it warm up to room temperature.

While that was warming, I made a simple raspberry puree by putting a container and a half of raspberries (saving the remainder for garnishing) into the food processor. It was a pain in the ass to strain out all the seeds, so I only got most of them (no one noticed, anyway).

Kind of creepy, no?

After that, it was time for the cheesecake batter, which included three bricks of cream cheese and a cup of sugar creamed together,

three eggs,

a cup of heavy cream, and a splash of vanilla.

I really wanted the cheesecake to be lemony, so I grated two lemon peels into the batter and added the juice from both lemons, as well.

Poor naked lemons.

Then came the hard part. To make the characteristic swirl, I poured the raspberry over the cheesecake batter and awkwardly ran a knife through it to swirl it. I stuck it all in the boiling water bath and baked it in the oven for about 45 minutes.

You're next, sweet, innocent blackberries, you're next.

It wasn't beautiful, but once decorated,

it didn't look half bad. Besides, I've never been good at making things look good. I learned to cook from my grandmother, whose biscuits roughly resembled potatoes left in the sun too long, and my mother, who is known for trying things like the freakish-looking Toad-in-the-Hole (her only spectacular failure, according to my dad).

I took the finished product to a wine reception at the University Club on campus and donated it to the cause. There was much hyperbole to be had, and the person in charge of the event made me wave to a table of middle-aged women devouring my cheesecake.

While it was not as good as people made it out to be, I was quite pleased with the results. The recipe yielded a cheesecake that was perfectly light and fluffy (none of that dense cheesecake that will fill you up with a couple of bites). The extra lemon zest and juice gave it some zing, and the raspberries softened that bite a little.

I am happy to declare my first Daring Bakers challenge a success!

April 26, 2009

Roasted Carrots

I like eating cute things, so it's nice to personify my vegetables before I kill them.

Amanda, whose culinary prowess and razor-sharp wit have netted her a Friendship Blog Award from foodie How to Eat a Cupcake, recently turned me onto delicious roasted vegetables. I've tried a number of my favorite veggies roasted now, including brussel sprouts, mushrooms, potatoes, and broccoli. Next on the list: carrots.

I was really worried about roasting carrots. Everytime I sautee carrots (my preferred method), I have to watch them like a hawk to make sure they are cooked without being mushy. I want crunchy-soft carrots, rather than pot-roast-style carrots. Of course, roasting vegetables is the perfect way to get them crunchy and soft.

It turns out that roasted carrots are, I kid you not, perfect. They taste almost exactly like sweet potatoes.

So, cut up some carrots and pop them in the oven on a roasting pan (or any other metal pan) at 375°F for about half an hour. If you want, you can toss them in a tiny bit of olive oil and ground sea salt. Or not. They're fine just on their own.

While you're at it, let me know what vegetable to roast next. I have some asparagus waiting in my crisper, so I might just try that.

April 25, 2009


All I have to say is this: after an 11-inning marathon last night and a 5-hour slugfest tonight, it's only fitting that Sports Illustrated couldn't manage to fit the entire score of the Yanks-Sox game in one headline. (I would direct you over there, but it seems they fixed the problem immediately after I took my screen cap.)

My Worldview

I don't know if you've heard, but my Canadian Literature class is a disaster. Our instructor basically gave us free reign to teach ourselves for the entire semester. That might work if he were to just listen in, but he frequently interrupts and chips in with comments that are either off-track or just plain strange. Even that might work if it weren't for the fact that we argue so damn much. I completely and totally disagree with most everything that the instructor (and one other student) says in class. As I'm sure you know, I'm prone to air my disagreements, too (rather than let them "fester"; more on that later).

My friend occupies herself in that class by taking her notes backwards, Leonardo da Vinci style. Another friend doodles. My new pastime for getting through every Wednesday night is to use the discussion in class to contemplate my worldview and just how different it is from the other people in the class.

Sometimes, it's refreshing being around people that are like-minded. I occasionally get a little tingle of joy when I realize, hey, I'm in a room full of atheists. Then, other times, I'm reminded that these people really are not like-minded. Here are some observations about my own worldview that I gleaned from this week's class.

People do not fundamentally change.

I'm not saying that people don't change. Of course they do. I'm also not trying to appeal to some kind of greater human nature; like any good postmodern scholar, I recognize the contingency of life and the socially constructed nature of identity. Rather, I am of the opinion that change is extremely hard for most people. We get into certain ruts and like to stay in those ruts. Even as adolescents, when we are changing most quickly, we fight change as much as possible. Maybe I'm straying too much into the "human nature" camp, but I believe that there are only a few exceptions to this rule.

This issue came up in reference to Sarah Sheard's Almost Japanese, a novel about a young girl from Toronto's obsession with an older Japanese orchestra conductor. Most everyone in the class thought that the narrator of the novel moved on from her stalker phase at the end of the novel. I can see the value in that reading, especially since I think the text wants its readers to read it that way. I couldn't, though, because I fully believe that her obsession, which lasts somewhere around five years, would be extremely hard to shake. I am an optimistic person, but I'm not optimistic that she would make the radical change others seemed so willing to believe.

We are all fucked up in some way or another.

I promise, I really am an optimistic person. This week's class just reaffirmed my view that everyone is fucked up somehow. This, because I discovered that 13-year-old girls are psychopaths who harbor secret obsessions for various famous people. Who knew that it's apparently perfectly normal to keep a lock of hair and a used drinking glass as keepsakes?

We are all deeply sexual creatures, whether or not we want to admit it.

Excluding the few million asexuals in the world, I firmly believe that sexuality is a major part of all our lives and that it informs our movements and actions socially. Apparently others do not entirely buy this. Some of the people in my class talked about their teenage years as if they weren't raging balls of hormones at fourteen. Some of the people in my class talked about the older Japanese orchestra conductor as if his actions in Almost Japanese (or anyone's actions in the book) were somehow divorced from any kind of sexual nature. Yes, sex can be on the periphery at times. Yes, it's rarely purely about sex; power almost always comes along for the ride. But, at least on some level, I believe it's usually about sex. There's some kind of saying out there that all literature is really about love. One could say the same thing for sex, for even when there isn't love, there's always sex.

We are steadily marching towards progress in some kind of Hegelian manner.

I struggle with this notion constantly, but, as I said, I'm an optimist, so I like to believe that humanity's history is fundamentally the history of progress. There are absolutely steps backward. There are times when progress is stalled. Just looking at the history of America, the Jim Crow period post-emancipation completely stalled all progress. But, we slowly have resolved a number of issues over our history as a nation.

Here's where the "festering" comes in. One student made a comment that fascism and bigotry is "more dangerous" when it "goes underground" and "festers." Her argument was that "festering" fascism leads to crazy totalitarian states like the one in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. On some level, this argument makes sense. On another level, it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense (at least to me).

You see, the opposite of festering fascism is outright fascism. It's state-supported bigotry like Jim Crow laws. On this level, I would much, much rather racism be "festering" and "underground" than out in the open and acceptable. Hatred is never more dangerous than when it is an acceptable part of society.

That is the fundamental reason why I see our history as a country as a history of progress. We have had and will continue to have problems—hell, we still treat Native Americans like third-world citizens—but we have mostly made racism, sexism, etc. go underground. I happen to think that's a good thing.

Ignore the inherent racism of this image, please.

I'm sure you've had enough of my poorly-argued-for worldview. I leave you with this thought: next time you're in a situation where it appears that you disagree with almost everyone in the room, whether it be a class or a meeting or something else entirely, don't get angry or defensive. Instead, take the opportunity to ponder your worldview and revel in the fact that, as Whitman would say, you "contain multitudes."

April 24, 2009

Bodies of Water

Ever fall in love with a band that has only released a couple of albums? Ever wish that band had released dozens of albums so you could listen to them all in a row, never tiring of the different iterations of the same basic musical formula?

Yeah, I'm there.

Chivalry = Chauvinism

I'm going to pull an ENG 101 student here in order to show that two words that are technically opposites are really the same.

According to WordWeb, my new dictionary friend, "chivalry" is defined as "courtesy towards women." "Chauvinism," then, is "activity indicative of belief in the superiority of men over women."

Really, though, aren't they the same thing?

Let's unpack this box: modern notions of chivalry—holding the door open for women (more on this later), opening car doors, etc.—are informed by medieval chivalry. We all know medieval chivalry: women on pedestals, women as inspiration figures. These women were entirely without agency, though. They were allowed to keep up their knight's weapons and hand their knight his sword before he rode into battle, but they certainly were not allowed to follow their knight into battle. In other words, wars were fought over women, but never were they fought for women. This is the history of woman (see The Iliad).

If we shift the example from medieval to modern chivalry, it becomes clear how chivalry = chauvinism. One of the most infuriating things in my world is when an adult male refuses to go through a door opened by a woman—"Hell, no! My mama raised me better than that!"—somehow relying on the crutch of chivalry as the final bastion of civility. That form of unthinking chivalry, though, rests on the assumption that women are somehow more delicate, more in need of having a door opened for them.

I also love what happens when one guy opens the door for another guy who happens to be into the whole chivalry thing. I love destabilizing people's world view, so I will frequently force chivalrous people to go through a door I'm holding open for them. Just the other day at the gas station, I had one guy refuse to go through the door four or five times, until I looked him square in the eyes and said, "Please go through the door, sir. I promise you that my holding it open for you is not some kind of homoerotic gesture."

He quickly hung his head and beat a hasty retreat for the nearby bar, likely puzzling over just what "homoerotic" meant and wondering whether or not I was hitting on him.

April 22, 2009

Big Papi

I absolutely lurv the phenomenon, nay, the force, that is David Ortiz, or "Big Papi." Everything about the guy—his fractured English, his knack for big hits, his playful demeanor—makes him an absolutely joy to watch both on and off the field.

The subject of today's post, though, is Big Papi running (if you could call it that). As any Red Sox fan knows, there's a bit of cringing and some laughing whenever Big Papi motors around the bases.

Can't you just feel the earth shaking beneath your feet?

I thought pretty much all the jokes about Big Papi running had been made by now. But I was listening to the WEEI broadcast of tonight's game against the Twins, and the announcer said that Big Papi "rumbled over to third base on the play." Okay, I thought, rumbled is a nice word to describe that. Not exactly original, but nice all the same.

The announcer followed that call with the rather innocuous statement that Ortiz "moved from second to third." The prefect juxtaposition of "rumbled" and "moved" sent my mind into overdrive. The image I got in my head is this: Big Papi packing up his moving boxes and reluctantly renting a U-Haul to drive all the way over from second base to third. This is a delightful image for a number of reasons, most notably because Big Papi really does take up residence on one base.

This line of thought inevitably led me to wonder: What other metaphors could we use to describe Big Papi running? What are some good verbs to use, other than "rumble"? I would like to expand my vocabulary for making fun of Big Papi, and the more elaborate and complex, the better.

April 20, 2009

A Feed Conversation

The following is a creative piece I wrote for my Young Adult Literature class last semester. It's an imagined conversation in the vein of M.T. Anderson's sci-fi novel Feed. I feel guilty posting things I didn't write specifically for the blog, but I rather like this piece and think it stands on its own very well, even for those of you who haven't read the book.

     Titus? Are you awake? She was chatting me. At one o'clock in the morning. I rolled over and tried to go to sleep.
     I just had this awful dream. The feed somehow knew I was dying. I don't know how. Maybe FeedTech realized how bad my state is, even though the bastards denied my maintenance. Maybe it ran a self-diagnostic or something or other. But it knew.
     And so it kept telling my dad about grief counseling and sending him ads for funeral homes. "Duckett-Robinson wants you to know that cremation can be affordable! This week only, cremate one body, get another half price!" and that kind of shit. And you know what it sent me?

     Wow! Here I thought I was talking to myself.
     I didn't wake up until you were already chatting, I lied.
     Anyway, you know what the Feed sent me? An ad for the latest spa on the moon. It thought I should beautify myself. Look nice for the end, you know. Feel a little better being dead, because it would ease the burden on the living if I looked good dead. My dad told me that we, humans that is, like to think of death as clean, peaceful. Apparently, back in the day, they used to do funerals with the casket open. But they would only do that if the deceased—my dad says that's the word for a dead body—had died in a way that left the body looking perfect. They wouldn't do that for someone with AIDS—that was their version of the lesions everyone has—because that would make death seem violent, you know?
     I didn't know. I could hardly follow her when I was awake lately, so I had no idea what she was chatting about now. She kept going, though. She was like,
     My dad said that most death is not peaceful. He's not very good at comforting people. Who the hell am I kidding? He's not very good at people. Do you think he's right? Will it be painful? Maybe I won't feel anything at all. Like when my legs go completely numb. Titus?
     I don't know. I don't know what death is like, since I haven't died yet.
     There's no need to be an asshole. That reminds me. I came up with a theory.
     A theory?
I said. You sound like your dad. And she went,
     Yeah, well, that isn't such a bad thing. Anyway, I think maybe the Feed is at its best/worst—it thrives—when we are at our best/worst. So when I fall down the stairs because something in my head is broken, it tries to sell me deodorant. And when I'm dying, it tries to sell my dad grief counseling.
     That was just a dream,
I interrupted.
     I know. Let me keep going. But it's not just when we're down. It takes the best moments of our lives and makes them its own, too. Like when you give birth. Well, not you, but, you know, people. Women. It has to show you something, so it probably sends you the latest sales on baby clothes. Maybe a place to sell your maternity ones. Maybe more counseling, you know, for postpartum depression.
     She kept chatting. We're a nation—minus the people without the Feed—of people not used to silence. We never hear silence. I bet silence would be blissful. Or music. And dancing.
     I'm scared, Titus. What happens next? I know, you don't know what happens next. I think I might welcome whatever it is, though. Maybe somewhere else, it's silent. And maybe, like me becoming my dad, that's not such a bad thing after all.

April 18, 2009

South Park: Making Stones Funny

The best satirists possess an almost superhuman ability to take a simple conceit and spin a long and elaborate narrative from something most people would take for granted. Witness the original satirists, writers like Swift, whose "A Modest Proposal" is based around a single joke that seems like it would get old quickly, but never does, and Pope, whose "Rape of the Lock" takes the most banal of social scandals and turns it into something epic (and epically funny).

This, I believe, is the greatest skill of the writers of South Park.

It may be difficult to imagine South Park in the same vein as Swift and Pope, but I wholly believe the show is a top-notch social satire, perhaps unlike anything else on television. Let’s look at some examples.

In last week's episode, "Fishsticks," the writers took a shot at Kanye West. I like Kanye, but I don't find him all that funny. Likewise, I know Kanye has a massive ego, but I also don't find that to be all that funny. The writers of the show, though, were able to take a simple idea—Kanye West has a big ego—and inflate it to the level of hilarity. In the episode (go ahead, click the link and leave me for South Park), Cartman and Jimmy create a joke that goes something like this: "Do you like fishsticks? Do you like to put fishsticks in your mouth? What are you, a gay fish?" The joke sweeps the country and Kanye just cannot figure out why he is being called a gay fish for liking fishsticks. The Kanye-bashing is kind of funny at first, but as it multiplies like cloistered rabbits, it gets funnier and funnier, culminating in the final scene of the episode, in which Kanye embraces his identity as a gay fish and dives into the ocean, "singing" (in auto-tune) a song about being a gay fish while Frenching a flounder.

This effort is slightly different than the literary ideal of defamiliarization (one poet once said that the goal of poetry was to "make stones stoney"). Instead of reimagining the familiar as the new, the great satirists repeat the familiar in a slightly altered way. This repetition is what creates the comedy of shows like South Park, which make stones funny in their stoniness.

Another example would be beneficial here. As any Seinfeld fan could attest, it's extremely difficult to choose a favorite episode in a long-running comedy. If pushed, though, I think my favorite episode of South Park would be "Grey Dawn," an episode from their seventh season. This episode again takes a familiar idea (old people driving are scary) and weaves an elaborate tale around that idea. The episode is essentially a horror movie spoof, in which the monsters are old people in cars. After the town tries to take away senior citizens' licenses, AARP airlifts in reinforcements, who hold the adults in the town hostage. Eventually, the boys stop the senior citizens by locking the doors of Country Kitchen, the South Park version of Cracker Barrel. The funniest moments of the episode (watch and you'll see what I mean) are the horror movie-esque parts, the parts that take the simple idea (old people driving are scary) and inflate it to ridiculous proportions.

I could list countless episodes that do the same thing. Just last season, "Elementary School Musical" reexamined the familiar idea that High School Musical is completely and utterly ridiculous. The episode I show in my writing class, "Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow" again takes a common assumption (people talk about global warming as if it were the end of the world) and inflates/repeats it to satirize it.

I'm not sure where I was going with this, other than to make an impassioned plea for you to start watching South Park, if you aren't already. Yes, there are far too many poop jokes and slapstick moments. Yes, the show can be uncomfortably bad or offensive at points. When the writers are on, though, when they take something familiar and blow it way out of proportion, then it's a satiric goldmine.

April 17, 2009

The Parker Theory of Net Carbon Displacement

I have a theory that will likely not change the way anyone sees the world. That's what most of my theories are like, though.

The theory is this: an individual person's effect on the effort to curb carbon emmissions is greater than the sum of that person's measures to cut carbon. Say, for instance, that you cut out three metric tons of carbon from your carbon footprint by biking to work and unplugging your cell phone charger when not in use. My theory holds that your net carbon displacement will be greater than three tons.

How much greater it is depends on how visible your activism is. That's the crux of the theory, which is named after a friend of mine who lived on campus and walked literally everywhere. My friend graduated after a year, and I noticed in the year after he graduated my friends began to drive around campus more, instead of just walking from one end of campus to the other. I could attribute this change in emissions patterns to any number of things, but I think that the visibility of someone else doing these things suddenly makes it accptable, good, even right for others.

Of course, this is also the downfall of my theory. I have no skills in math, so I have no way of calculating how much one's visibility affects other people.

This theory isn't completely out of touch with reality, though. It is the same basic theory behind the grassroots movement, which holds that real change happens from the bottom up. It is the theory behind local carbon-free movements like that of Samsø, Denmark. It is even the basic sentiment of the old saying, "Monkey see, monkey do." That efforts to better the world are as important for their visibility as for their actual effort is not a new idea. My theory is likely not a new idea either, but it extends that same principle to the individual arena in hopes of saying, perhaps too optimistically, "Every person can make a difference."

So, the next time you walk to campus or to work, make sure you take the road more traveled. Instead of cutting through the woods or taking a bike path, walk along the main road. You'll thank me later.

April 15, 2009

The 2004 Boston Red Sox: Major League IV

My friend Amanda wrote a wonderful paper prompt for her first-year writing students. The book her students read was published in 1998, and it makes the argument that entertainment has overrided all other forces in American society. Her prompt asks her students to apply the author's argument to any event since 1998. It sounded like such a fun prompt that I decided to write a response to it myself. I hope it's good enough for her to give to her students (or at least give me a decent grade):

Ask any Red Sox fan about the 2004 team, the first group of Sox to win a World Series in 86 years, and you will likely hear about Dave Roberts' stolen base or the shocking trade of franchise player Nomar Garciaparra. You will almost certainly be treated to the story of Curt Schilling's heroic "bloody sock" game in the ALCS or Bill Mueller's base hit off Mariano Rivera. For sports fans, these individual moments are what crystallize into memory; Red Sox fans, for instance, are less likely to recall Bill Buckner's fruitful career than they are to associate Buckner with his crucial error in the 1986 World Series. What connects these isolated stories, these "spots of time" as Wordsworth would call them, are storylines: the story of the 1986 Red Sox, who came so close to winning a World Series before the "Curse of the Bambino" struck them down, or the story of the 2004 Red Sox, a ragtag band of self-professed "idiots" who finally overcame adversity to win it all. Like background radiation from the Big Bang, lingering throughout the known universe, these storylines are everywhere: they are part of the fabric of American sports. To be a sports fan or a Red Sox fan is to follow these storylines, whether you want to or not.

When Neal Gabler wrote Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality in 1998, he both could and could not anticipate the 2004 Red Sox. Gabbler's argument, that entertainment is "the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time," is confined predominantly to fifty years prior to the book's publication (9). Life the Movie trades in specific instances of the ways entertainment has come to rule over every facet of American life, from politics to sports to religion. While Gabler's concrete examples stop in 1998, the force of entertainment rolls on until today: as Gabler admits in the introduction, "Every day the life medium generates new episodes. Every day someone finds more inventive applications for its use" (10). The 2004 Boston Red Sox were one of these "new episodes," as much TV show as baseball team. From their identity as a band of "idiots" to the drama of their ALCS win against the Yankees, the 2004 Red Sox were a team based on entertainment, a team that sold itself so well to American sports fans that they created an entire nation of followers.

Prior to the 2004 season, the Red Sox, along with the Chicago Cubs, were perennial "underdogs," always expected to finish second to the mighty Steinbrenner-led Yankees and never expected to win a World Series. The entertainment value of the 2004 Red Sox lay primarily in this underdog identity. The story of the underdog is one of the most enduring stories in American sports, likely because it reaffirms the "American dream" of self-betterment and provides the illusion that sporting events are spontaneous and unpredictable (in other words, the illusion of "reality"). Hollywood has capitalized on this borderline-mythological trope for decades: Gabler, for instance, extols the brilliant cross-marketing of Disney films and sports franchises in The Mighty Ducks and Angels in the Outfield (118). The '04 Sox, though, were one of the first "real" teams to embrace this identity and appropriate it for entertainment purposes. If we follow Gabler's argument, then this appropriation of a Hollywood trope by an actual team is only natural. Gabler argues that the traditions of nineteenth-century baseball would be sacrificed on the altar of television and twentieth-century entertainment: "lowering pitching mounds, shrinking strike zones, quickening playing surfaces … all designed … on the assumption … that for most fans high-scoring games were far more entertaining than low-scoring ones" (118). In this light, the 2004 Red Sox were merely a more sophisticated continuation (a "new episode" if you will) of the trend in baseball toward mascots and other sensory delights.

The underdog identity of the team manifested itself in a number of ways, but the most prominent of those was the team's own label of the "idiots." The "idiots" epithet emerged from Kevin Millar's 2003 coining of "Cowboy Up!", a phrase that was meant to encourage teammates to give their all. The '04 team embraced the "idiots" label and constructed themselves, consciously or unconsciously, as a group of characters in an ongoing baseball comedy. There was Millar, the fun-loving first baseman who kept things light and enjoyable in the clubhouse. There was Millar's partner in crime, Johnny Damon, the hirsute center fielder, affectionately dubbed "Caveman Johnny" by fans, who entertained fans by hustling around Fenway Park's cavernous center field and showing off what everyone knew was quite possibly the worst arm in the history of the game. There was David Ortiz, "Big Papi," the team's lovable teddy bear of a designated hitter, a reclamation project from the Minnesota Twins, who would rumble around the bases with a grin of his face. And, of course, there was the paragon of entertainment, Manny Ramirez, who fans would later remember for making phone calls from Fenway Park's famed Green Monster in between innings and diving to cut off an outfielder's throw from fifteen feet away. On the one hand, they were simply a good baseball team led by a new manager and the youngest general manger in baseball; on the other, they were the living embodiment of the Charlie Sheen movie Major League, in which a team of misfits put together for the sole purpose of losing band together to win a division title.

Of course, sports provide fans with the illusion of "reality"; sports marketing focuses on the sport itself, the actual games of baseball being played. Gabler calls this phenomenon the "macguffin," or the thing that is ostensibly the purpose of any given discursive realm (for baseball, the game itself, for religion, salvation, and so on). According to Gabler, the macguffin is an elaborate ruse, a bait-and-switch, but it is, to reappropriate his phrase, "the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable" ruse of all. The "macguffin," the ruse, of the 2004 Red Sox was that these individuals, these characters, were baseball players first and foremost. The media coverage of their American League Championship Series (ALCS) victory over the vaunted Yankees, though, reveals just how much of a ruse that is.

The 2004 ALCS was full of singular moments like Roberts' steal and Mueller's hit up the middle, but, more than anything else, it was a theatrical dramatization of the underdog story. The best-of-seven series started inauspiciously for the Sox, who dropped the first two games by a combined five runs, 10-7 and 3-1. The series moved from New York to Boston, and the Sox were promptly humiliated, 19-8, by a Yankees team that won the AL East that year (MLB). The story should be familiar by now. ESPN's SportsCenter constantly flashed various statistics that basically told the same story: no team in the history of baseball had ever come back from three games down to win a best-of-seven series. Of course, the Red Sox would eventually come back to win the series, dramatically defeating the previously invulnerable Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in Game 4 and mostly cruising through the rest of the series. Media coverage of the ALCS focused on the dramatic reversal of fortunes, the underdog finally conquering the pit bull. And why not? This was entertainment at its finest. Talk of the "Curse of the Bambino," an 86-year-old curse that started with the trade of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, sold the team to its fans. Ironically, the media would later divest itself of the "Curse" and all its trappings. The retrospective official website of the 2004 Red Sox says of the ALCS, "It wasn't miraculous, it wasn't mystical, it wasn't mysterious. It was the Boston Red Sox being the better ballclub. Forget the Curse. Forget the ghosts of Yankee Stadium" (MLB). This effort to reassert the "macguffin" of the ALCS—it was about baseball, not the Curse—is entirely unconvincing to anyone who watched the events unfold. Of course, on some level, it was about "the Boston Red Sox being the better ballclub." Mostly, though, it was about them becoming the better ballclub, rising up from the depths of their division to overcome their greatest adversary and exorcise the "ghosts" of the Curse.

If the ALCS was the theatrical dénouement of the 2004 Red Sox soap comedy, then the World Series was its anticlimax. The Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games, absolutely dominating them by any measure. This less-than-dramatic ending to a supremely entertaining season did nothing to dispel the mythos of the Curse-breaking team, as news stories just after the Red Sox won the World Series affirmed what everyone already knew about the team: they were a baseball phenomenon unlike anything the game or its fans had ever seen. As Dan Shaughnessy of the venerable Boston Globe simply attested, "They did something that had not been done in 86 years." (Shaughnessy would later publish Reversing the Curse: Inside the 2004 Boston Red Sox, a book that epitomizes media coverage of the Curse.) Other sports teams, even other baseball teams, had entertained fans; this was nothing new. The 2004 Boston Red Sox, though, perfected the art of sports as entertainment: they thrilled fans with their "idiot" antics and reaffirmed the traditional American ideal that the underdog can win (rather, deserves to win). The force behind the 2004 Red Sox was the same force that Gabler would argue is behind all sports teams, the force of entertainment. This team, though, harnessed that force to shape its own identity better than perhaps any other team in the history of the game.

April 14, 2009

These Hard, Hard Times

Fifteen-second commercial spots are always awkward. It's like a graduate student writing a five-page paper: there simply isn't enough time to do anything complex. That's why I'm always amazed by short commercials, like this one from Trojan:

The sex and alcohol industries are usually two of the last industries hit by a recession. Pornography sales are dropping, though. How does Trojan appeal to buyers in "these hard [hehe, hard] times"? Through the idea that buying condoms makes you patriotic! Wait, what? So, am I doing my patriotic duty by not bringing children into the world in its current state? If so, what does that say about where we're at as a country?

April 13, 2009

Seven Simple Steps to Chicken Marsala

1.) Go out to the store and buy a bottle of marsala, unless you are a freak like me and keep it on hand. The cheaper the better.

2.) Pound some boneless-skinless chicken breasts (BSCB) with the flat end of a meat tenderizer until no more than an inch in thickness.

3.) Coat the BSCB in a mixture of flour, coarse ground black pepper, garlic powder, basil, and oregano.

4.) Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a hot skillet. Add the coated chicken breasts.

5.) Cook on medium heat approximately ten minutes each side or until browned.

6.) While the chicken is cooking, mix together equal parts heavy cream and marsala wine. Whisk in a pinch of cornstarch.

7.) Add the marsala mixture to the cooked chicken and bring to a boil. Simmer briefly and serve over pasta.

April 12, 2009

Fondue for You

A thing of beauty, isn't it?

K. and I bought a Cuisinart electric fondue pot from a Linens 'n Things that was going out of business. We didn't want it to go to waste, so we invited five friends over to enjoy a three-course fondue dinner.

I only have photographic documentation of the chocolate course, but I'll walk you through the other courses, as well.

Our first course was, of course, cheese fondue. I've never done cheese fondue, but it was relatively easy. I deduced from recipes that cheese fondue has an alcoholic liquid base. For ours, I used some leftover Woodchuck hard apple cider (with a few squirts of lemon juice). Once you bring that to a boil (in the fondue pot or over the stove), all that remains is to grate some cheese into a bowl, toss it with cornstarch (to keep the grated cheese from sticking together), and add it to the boiling liquid. I used about 2 cups of Woodchuck and 1.5 lbs. of smoked cheddar cheese. We dipped all sorts of roasted vegetables: potatoes, mushrooms, brussel sprouts, and brocolli (the latter two kindly provided by A. Fiercehair). We also dipped a number of bread products, including croutons (yum!), croissants, and french bread. Everyone deemed it a succcess.

The face of contentment.

Our next course was a meat fondue. Meat fondues can be either broth- or oil-based. All my friends concluded that oil was too oily, so I went with chicken broth. I boiled about four cups of broth in the fondue pot, tossed in an ounce of star anise, and set the pot to boil lightly. We dipped raw shrimp (peeled and deveined), chicken breasts, chicken sausage, filet mignon, and mushroom caps. Everyone (except me) was scared of having to cook raw meat in the pot, but they quickly got over themselves and had a lot of fun. The shrimp cook quite quickly and dip well in butter. The filet also cooks quickly; the rest of it takes about two minutes to cook through.

I'm sure you're all waiting for the chocolate fondue, so I will not make you wait any longer. I've done chocolate fondue several times before, so I will provide my own recipe:
2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup skim milk
30 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon crème de cacao
1 tablespoon rum (optional)

Bring the heavy cream and skim milk to a rolling boil. Add chocolate chips slowly, stirring to melt the chips.

Ceremonially add the crème de cacao.

At this point, let your creativity take over. You can add anything you want to the fondue. Flavored liquers go particularly well. We took a vote and decided to do a relatively plain fondue. I'm a pyromaniac, though, so I added some rum to the top of the fondue and light it on fire. Fun.

We dipped some crazy shit in the chocolate fondue, including Easter Peeps and Twinkies. Yes, Twinkies are delicious dipped in warm chocolate. As various people said throughout the night, "It's _________ + chocolate. No surprises here."

We followed the fondue up with an embarassing round of Trivial Pursuit.

My team lost by one wedge. My teammate's roommate, though, won on "dental floss." We were all kind of pissed.

At least she seems happy.

There were a lot of dishes, but, all in all, it was a wonderful night of gluttony.

April 7, 2009

Thoughts on the Graduate Admissions Process

As anyone who has applied to post-secondary institutions can attest, the graduate admissions process is a trying one, and the best way to get through such a labyrinth can be open and honest lines of communication. Unfortunately, not all schools can manage that.

I have received four funded offers to PhD programs in rhetoric and composition (or some variation therein). Virginia Tech and NC State are at the top of my list, in large part because of their thorough, prompt, curteous, professional, and downright friendly communication. I get the sense from these schools that these are people I would enjoy working with and would enjoy working with me.

I cannot say the same about some of the other schools I have applied to. I have applied to 28 schools in a span of two years and have received only 6 funded offers. That leaves 22 schools that either offered me admission without an assistantship or fellowship or refused me admission at all. The vast majority of those schools have been kind and thoughtful, even if the only communication we've ever had is through form letters. A select few schools, however, have bungled what I would think would be a fairly simple process. I will share my stories from my most recent round of applications today, not because I mean to complain, but because I mean to open a conversation about how to improve a back- and often heart-breaking process.

My admittedly cursory research indicates that there is not a single definitive statement of student rights. What I can glean from various documents is that there are several basic rights: the right to information/statistics; the right to make a decision without being pressured (the linked document is intended for undergraduate students, but it talks of "high-pressure sales tactics"); the right to considerate and fair treatment.

Let me give an example of the latter two rights in action. I applied to Northeastern's graduate journalism program. They offered me admission with a full tuition scholarship. Now, that may seem nice, but for a graduate program, it is not enough. I'm extremely unlikely to accept an offer of admission without an assistantship or fellowship. So, you can imagine my surprise when I received a phone call two weeks ago from Northeastern, asking, politely I might add, whether or not I had made a decision. This may seem like an overreaction, but I was offended by the call. Virginia Tech has offered me a fellowship they've never offered anyone else. They have a very limited number of spaces in their program. And still, they have not once pressured me into making a decision. I respect that. What I do not, respect, however, is being pressured by a school that is only offering me a scholarship. So, if I make my decision sooner, they can give that scholarship to someone else?

I am, of course, making something out of nothing here. My second story is equally dramatized, but I feel that I have more of a gripe here. The University of Florida is one of the top three schools, in my estimation, of the thirteen I applied to. I really would like to go there. My close friend, M., applied there, as well. M. applied to a different part of the English department, and he received word that he was admitted almost a month ago. Of course, that worried me. Why haven't they contact me yet? I wondered obsessively.

As it turns out, they hadn't contacted me because they fail epically at basic communication. When April rolled around and I still hadn't heard the slightest word from UF, I e-mailed their graduate secretary about the status of my application. I politely waited another week and e-mailed again yesterday. So, today, I received the following message:
"We have had you on the waiting list but have now found that we will not be able to offer you admission to our program. Good luck to you in your academic future."
Now, this is couched in polite language, but the context is horribly offensive. Remember: they had not told me a single thing until now. Then, I discover that I was waitlisted and subsequently rejected without ever knowing about it. I was holding out on making a decision until I heard from UF. I e-mailed back expressing my discontent, and someone else sent me a note with a common excuse:
"We are seriously understaffed, which means we have one secretary handling about 700 applications."
Apprently they do not have any system in place to notify waitlisted candidates. Does no one see the problem here?

So, I sent them a letter expressing my problems with that system. The letter is overly dramatic, and anyone who knows me knows that this is not me. But I sent it anyway.

Thank you for the kind note. I would agree; you obviously do need to implement some kind of formal process. I am less upset by the fact that it is April 7 (you're right, I still have plenty of time to make a decision) than I am by the treatment I received. I would not be upset were my inquiries fielded in a prompt and curteous manner. I realize this in large part because you are significantly understaffed, but I had to e-mail Kathy twice in the past two weeks before receiving even the brief response I did receive.

You can imagine that it would be such a shock to me, since all the other schools I applied to have kept in contact thoroughly, promptly, and professionally. I can say for sure that a program's lines of communications speak volumes about the program itself and have played a major role in my decision-making process. I would hate for any qualified candidate to not choose Florida because of poor communication. I know that your communication with accepted candidates is likely much more streamlined; I also know, though, that how an institution treats even those who fall through the cracks, the marginalized in any bureaucratic system, in part defines that instiution.

I recognize that the process of graduate admissions is hard on everyone. I'm sure you all have had to endure mistreatment. From my vantage point, I have encountered a number of issues, including being pressured to make a decision by the end of March to attend a program that did not even offer an assistantship. I can unreservedly say, though, that being given the qualified honor of being on a waitlist to a prestigious program, then simultaneously having that honor stripped in a brief (two-sentence) e-mail, one that required what I would consider undue prodding on my part, is the bitterest pill I have had to swallow in the whole process.

Such is the plight of the waitlisted candidate, I suppose, but I do hope you will see this as a chance for improvement. That is what I intend my comments as: not as complaint, but as opportunity.


The response I received was, as I expected, tepid at best. Kenneth says,
"Thank you for your input and concerns. Difficulties aside, we are
pleased with our incoming class, and we hope you will be pleased wherever you land."
I may be expecting too much from schools. I consider myself blessed to have four funded offers. I consider myself blessed that two of those schools really, really want me, and I really, really want them. I feel like this decision will be the hardest of my life; I feel like the child befeore King Solomon, ordered to be torn in two.

Nevertheless, I know several people who have been mistreated in the admission process by even the best schools. This is never a case of bad or malicious people; rather, it is, almost always, institutional. I feel like Joel Bakan of The Corporation fame, arguing: The people are well-intentioned, but the organization itself is designed to do bad things!

Of course, all this might just be jealousy that M. got into Florida and I didn't. Would I be above such a thing? Not today, my friends, not today.

April 4, 2009

Boothier and Bonesier

I am fully convinced that Bones is the coolest show on broadcast television. It's a crime drama, which is good for ratings. It is part-CSI: ("the squints") and part-Law and Order, and those parts work in equal harmony. It embraces the constant sexual tension between the male lade, David Boreanaz, and the titular character, played by the beautiful and talented Emily Deschanel*.

Why do some families get all the talent?

*It's like a modern day X-Files in that regard. Even the promos for the show recognize that the as-yet-unfulfilled sexual tension between them is at the heart of the show. One spot claimed that new episodes would be even more "Boothier and Bonesier." Could they possibly have found a more akwardly goofy word in the English language than "Bonesier"?

All these things, alongside snappy writing and good acting, make the show successful. They don't make it cool, though. What makes the show cool is the fact that the writers seem hyper-aware (at least for the writers of a Fox crime drama) of the diversity of the world around them.

I have always thought this about Bones, since one of the motifs in the show deals with Bones, the hyper-rational anthropologist, becoming more and more like her partner, Booth, the irrational, hunch-following type. The writers of the show recognize both the value of scientific rationality and the need for emotional connections, as well as the paradox that those two worldviews often inhabit the same individual.

Recently, though, Bones has cemented its status as the coolest show on broadcast television with one of the only lesbian relationships on broadcast television. Grey's Anatomy and a few other shows have flirted with lesbianism, but few have what it takes to keep a lesbian relationship going. I'm not saying that Bones is one of those few, but it has the potential to be.

Even more recently, the writers of the show gave a nod to hipsters everywhere. All sorts of shows are borrowing music from indie bands, but rarely do those shows actually reference said bands. In an episode from a couple of weeks ago*, Bones's Muslim assistant** makes a "break-up" CD for the bisexual lab worker, Angela. The first song on the CD? "Hope There's Someone," by Mr. Antony and the Johnsons (the lab assistant actually says "Mr." in his cute accent, later explaining that "Mazzy Star" is a band, not a person). Of course, the one song from the CD we actually hear is José González's cover of the Knife's "Heartbeats." Small steps, people, small steps.

*I'm behind on my DVR watching. So sue me.
**The writers are doing an experiment in which they change Bones's assistant every episode. Some people come back, but each assistant has his/her own quirk. This is after her first assistant was brainwashed into being an apprentice for a ritualistic cannibal serial killer. The experiment, at least in my opinion, is not working.

I have some larger and more complex theories about the show, but I'll save those for another day and "Another World."

April 3, 2009

Double Lemon Poppy Seed Cheesecake Muffins

Let me begin by saying that I fail epically at using mixes to make something more complex. I can make things from scratch. I can follow box instructions. But when I try to combine the two and make alterations to a box mix, my world falls apart quicker than a nymphomaniac at a prison rodeo.

Thank goodness I have the Cake Mix Doctor to help me out. My friend A. has made numerous recipes from the Cake Mix Doctor's cupcake cookbook. She lauded them to me, saying that they were delicious (I tasted the results, so I could not object) and, with only a few ingredients including box cake mix, oh so easy to prepare. I borrowed her copy of the cookbook and made Double Lemon Poppy Seed Cheesecake Muffins for my hungry first-year students.

The recipe, for those of you baking along at home:
Cheesecake Filling
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
1 large egg
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh lemon zest
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 package (15.8 ounces) lemon poppy seed muffin mix
1 cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
The Cake Mix Doctor is a little too verbose for my taste, so I won't copy her instructions verbatim. Basically, all you do is combine the cheesecake filling ingredients

And blend them together using a hand mixer.

If you're me, you try to grate the lemon zest using a cheap, battery-powered food processor you bought at Goodwill for $2.

You realize that it runs at approximately 7 rpm, which means that nothing gets grated. So you pick up the grater in the food processor and use it to grate the lemon zest, since it's the only thing you have in the house.

Then, since you don't want to throw out a perfectly good lemon, you squeeze half a lemon's worth of juice into the cheesecake filling and muffin batter. Then you eat the other half for breakfast. Did I mention that I was baking this at 7:00 in the morning?

Once you're done mixing the cheesecake filling, do the same for the muffin mix.

I'm sure you know this already, but muffin mix need only be thoroughly combined, so there's no need for a hand mixer.

Again, if you're me, you remember to "preheat" the oven to 400°F just prior to putting the muffins in the oven. Drop the muffin mix into each muffin cup and top it off with a heaping tablespoon of the cheesecake mixture.

This recipe is supposed to yield 12 muffins, but it made more like 11 gargantuan ones. Also, my oven is hotter in the back than in the front (don't ask my why), so some of them were burned while a few were undercooked.

All the same, they were a hit with my students. Granted, that doesn't say much, since first-year college students are part-Gremlin and part-tribble. In other words, they multiply like crazy and consume everything in their path. Still, they enjoyed the muffins, and so did I. So there. Thank you Cake Mix Doctor for keeping my world together.