Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weighty Issues

A recent Homegoods ad is a perfect illustration of the average American’s ignorance of the metric system. The hard-shopping character is showing off her finds. Pulling out a 12-inch-high ceramic vase, she coos “Twenty-five grams of awesome!” Sorry, honey, but that’s less than an ounce. The average ball of yarn weighs twice that at 50 grams. A vase that size has got to weigh at least 20 times that, 500 grams, or about 1 pound. It might weigh as much as a kilogram, 2.2 pounds.

While I don’t really expect copy writers to know metric equivalents off the cuff, I think they should make some attempt to get it right. Being off by a factor of 20 to 40 is inexcusable.


This is article 31 in a continuing series. © 2012 Christine C. Janson

Magical Thinking in Cats

The psychologists have given us the concept of magical thinking, the idea (neurosis) that one can change things by performing completely unrelated acts. For instance, sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder may attempt to control their environment and emotions through pointless enumeration, counting every step or every crack, or useless repetition, washing their hands 20 times or checking that the lights are off 15 times. Every religious act also involves magical thinking. As an example, one may pray for rain or dance for rain. Neither prayer nor dance has any real, measurable effect on the meteorological variables that determine precipitation, and yet humans have long done both as a means of swaying the universe to their purpose.

It has been generally supposed that only humans exhibit magical thinking, as it has been generally assumed that only humans think. But my cat has shown beyond doubt that the phenomenon is not restricted to H. sapiens.

Several years ago, I installed a cat door in the bottom corner of the sliding screen door that leads to the deck. A push with the head is all it takes for the cat to let herself in or out. For the first 6 weeks or so, she loved it as much as I did; she could go in and out dozens of times a day without bothering me. Then the weather changed, and I started closing the glass door at sundown. My poor cat, who was about 13 at the time, got very confused. Sometimes her door was there and sometimes it wasn’t. The mere sight of the rectangle in the corner wasn’t enough to convince her the door was available, and I would remind her how it worked, lifting it to allow her to walk through.

As the weeks passed, I noticed my cat doing something that puzzled me. She would approach the door and stand in front of the rectangle in the corner. Then she would turn and walk completely around the easy chair nearest the door before approaching the door again. She then either “recalled” how to open it and went out or took another turn or two around the chair first. As fall came on and the screen door was available less and less, her peregrinations got more elaborate and moved farther afield. Now the journey involved two easy chairs and an ottoman and three or four repetitions before she would approach the door and attempt to exit. When I had watched her do this on numerous occasions, I realized that somehow she had decided that walking around the furniture made the door open. How she came to this completely erroneous conclusion is a mystery.

Even after the cat door had been in place for several years, the odd behavior not only continued, it became even more elaborate. Every year the cat greeted the appearance of her special door with joy and used it readily, even though it was only available on warm, sunny days at first. After a few weeks, something happened in her head, and she began demanding that I open the screen door for her, which I refused to do (I can be stubborn, too). It’s possible she simply realized the human wait staff had gotten lazy and was trying to make me do my job, which is to serve her every need. I don’t think that’s the case, or not entirely, because soon after she stopped using her door freely, she started walking around the furniture again. First one chair, then two, and the journey continued to lengthen as the weeks went by, eventually encompassing every piece of furniture in the living room area and two to five repetitions, all to propitiate the door gods and let her get outside.

What’s really interesting here is that she exhibited no such behavior on the other side of the door. On the deck side, she would occasionally sit and wait for me to open it, but if I ignored her long enough, she would go through without any propitiatory circumambulations. Was she, at 17, senile? Confused? Just bloody stubborn? Or praying on her paws?

If anyone has an animal that exhibits similar behavior, I’d love to hear about it.


This is article 30 in a continuing series. © 2012 Christine C. Janson

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Recipe for Disaster

Have you ever come across a recipe that is so obviously bad you wonder why anyone would create it, never mind publish it somewhere? I found one in a home décor catalog recently that had me alternately laughing and gagging.

The recipe is titled Oriental Salad, although the only “Oriental” ingredients are soy sauce and bok choy. The directions invite us to toss together 1 head of this Chinese cabbage, chopped “fine,” and 2 bunches of scallions, chopped, as well as 4 ounces of slivered almonds. So far, boring but not awful, although there will be nearly equal amounts of cabbage and onion. To this, we are supposed to add 2 packages of ramen noodles (about 6 ounces total), without the flavor packet, after mashing them and then sautéing them in ½ cup of butter, i.e., one whole stick, one-quarter pound. Good lord! That’s enough butter to lavishly lubricate a pound of cooked pasta. And what exactly is the point of sautéing the ramen in butter?? (That much butter would be more like poaching them.) That’s not how you cook dried noodles, even those that have been parboiled, as ramen have (that’s why they cook so fast), and butter in no way qualifies as an Oriental ingredient.

Now we move on to the dressing, and it gets much worse. The recipe would have us mix 2 tablespoons of soy sauce with ½ cup olive oil, ½ cup cider vinegar, and 1 cup of sugar. Where do I begin to catalog what’s wrong with this? First, the proportion of oil to acid is wrong; the usual ratio is 2 or 3 to 1, not 1 to 1. Then, there is nothing Oriental about olive oil or cider vinegar, and there will be nothing Oriental about the flavor. Two tablespoons of soy sauce is too much salt. There’s way too much dressing for the amount of solids. Finally, a full cup of sugar is such overkill it will render the entire mess inedibly sweet to anyone over the age of 5.  The directions tell us to pour the dressing over the solids and let it “set—the longer it sets the better it tastes (overnight is a good time frame).” After 24 hours, the chopped cabbage will be thoroughly wilted and so enveloped in fat and sugar as to be irrelevant, and the sharpness of the scallions will be lost. The crunch of the bland butter-coated ramen will compete with the crunch of the bland almonds, and the only discernible flavors will be sugar, fat, and salt.

Let’s transform this recipe into something both edible and Oriental. We can start with 1 head of chopped bok choy or napa cabbage and 1 bunch of chopped scallions. We’ll add 1 cucumber, split in half, seeds scraped out, and sliced into ½-inch half-moon pieces, to add juiciness and freshness. To make it an entrée salad, we can add about ½ pound of diced cooked chicken seasoned with ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. For the dressing, we’ll use ¼ cup of rice vinegar, ½ cup of peanut or other flavorless oil, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of sugar, I tablespoon of sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon of ground ginger. We’ll omit the almonds but retain 1 package of ramen noodles, sans flavor packet, and break them into small pieces. Instead of sautéing the ramen, we will let them soak in the dressing for 1 to 3 hours to soften before tossing them with the other ingredients in a large bowl and serving immediately. And there you have it, a delicious salad with about 80% less fat, 94% less sugar, and a great deal more flavor, suitably adult and recognizably Oriental.

I am dying to know if the perpetrator of the original recipe ever actually prepared this salad and ate it—and really thought it was not only okay but worth sharing. Years ago, the New York Times outed Emeril Legasse as a fraud whose recipes seldom worked and who relied on showmanship to build his following of, we can only suppose, noncooks. Did it have any effect on his popularity? No. I find that sad.

This is article 25 in a continuing series. © 2012 Christine C. Janson

Heck of a Barbeque

Abbreviations can cause confusion when it comes time to turn them back into standard words. For instance, barbecue is commonly “abbreviated” BBQ, a great boon to those paying for neon signs. Unfortunately, people grow accustomed to seeing a Q, and when it comes time to spell it out, the result is barbeque. This word, however, is not pronounced bar-buh-kew; it is pronounced bar-beck. If you disagree, I want you to start saying an-tih-kew for antique, ob-lih-kew for oblique, teck-nih-kew for technique, and sta-chew-es-kew for statuesque.

There is no Q in barbecue. The Q word pronounced kew is spelled queue. (I swear. If you want to add -ing, it’s queueing. Really. If anyone ever asks you to name an English word with five vowels in a row, you’ve got the answer.) Alert readers have realized by now that the first and last words in the title of this piece rhyme. Let that rhyme be a reminder of how not to spell barbecue.


This is article 22 in a continuing series. © 2010 Christine C. Janson

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Snakes and Mice and Bones, Oh My!

Today I startled a 4- to 5-foot-long rat snake on its way into my garage. I stood still once I noticed it; it had already noticed me and gone still, assessing my threat potential. After about 30 seconds it decided all was well and continued on its way. I have had rat snakes living in my garage before and welcome this one, as I have trapped 13 mice in my kitchen in the last 4 weeks. I'd much rather have the snake feed on them than toss their dead bodies into the small-animal graveyard at the edge of the woods off my deck.

I'm uncertain of the size because coiling makes estimation of length very difficult. My field guide to reptiles says rat snakes range from 42 to 102 inches, so this would be a small one. They are harmless, nonvenomous, who kill like constrictors. My cat had a run-in with one about 5 years ago. I noticed her being very still and focused out on the deck. When I went to look I found her facing down a 6- to 8-foot-long black snake that had raised the front half of its body straight up, head drawn back in an S curve, mouth open. The snake was about 6 feet away and neither creature was moving. I told my cat she was probably safe from this snake, but there are nasty ones up here (timber rattlesnakes) so I preferred that she be very respectful of the species in general, and I carried her into the house to watch from behind the slider. The snake maintained its defensive posture for nearly a minute before standing down and slithering away beneath the deck. I have since found rat snakes curled up on the cinderblocks inside the garage and climbing the rock wall just outside it on several occasions. We cohabit quite nicely.

Mice are a different matter. I don't like to kill, but even one mouse will trash your entire kitchen very quickly. They are filthy creatures, and I have learned not to tolerate them. I use old-fashioned spring-type mouse traps because they are reusable and because they kill quickly and cleanly. I bought a sticky trap once, but it had two major drawbacks. The gluey substance on it gave me a sinus headache, and once the mouse had got stuck on it you were supposed to just throw it away. Poor mouse might take weeks to starve to death or suffocate, futilely attempting to escape every moment. When I had trapped the mouse on this thing, I could not just throw it in the garbage. I actually took it outside and one by one unstuck the little pink feet, then threw the wee gray thing with all its toes intact into the yard. Call me a softy. Then I threw the foul-smelling trap into the garbage bag in the garage to get rid of my sinus headache.

Not sure why I suddenly have so many mice invading my kitchen in the summer when I had none all winter. Mouse invasions are sporadic: none for months, and then a slew. One winter I trapped 8 and the cat caught 12 over 3 months. I knew the cat was getting old when I realized it had been 2 years since she caught anything. She was the major reason for the small-animal graveyard. It seemed disrespectful to throw her catches into the garbage and absurd to actually bury them, so I chose a shady area full of low-growing shrubs about 8 feet from the deck and simply tossed them in that general direction with a short prayer to the Mother Goddess to take her beautiful creature back to her loving bosom. Over the years this space has received many birds, many bats, a number of voles, several flying squirrels, and a praying mantis.

About a year ago, while clearing the path around the house that passes this part of the yard, I decided to investigate the area for the presence of small bones. I found none. Not one. Dozens of creatures went to their maker in this space, and there is no evidence of it whatsoever. Even small bones would take more than a few years to disintegrate entirely. Where are all the bones?? All I can think is that one or another of the carnivores inhabiting my property smelled fresh kill and carried it off to feast. Or perhaps the turkey vultures came when I wasn't looking. There are plenty of them hereabouts; the area just to the north of me is called Buzzard Flats (great country name, ain't it?). Would I really not notice a turkey vulture (wing span 6 ft) descending within 8 feet of my house? Mysteries are everywhere in this world.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Aerodynamic Haiku

Hawk hangs unmoving

Buoyed and tethered by wind

Then loosed, soars once more

"Real" Housewives?

In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe refers several times to rich women as being "starved to perfection." In light of the explosive growth in cosmetic surgery since that book was published in the 1970s, I have updated this phrase to "starved and carved to perfection." The Real Housewives franchise prompted the thoughts that led to this updating.

I have never actually watched an episode of Housewives of any locale, just caught snatches in passing by and read a few things in TV Guide, so these remarks are not based on deep research, just on superficialties. But if anyone deserves to be judged on superficialties, it's the women who appear on these unreal reality programs.

These women are not real housewives in any sense of the word. They are, most of them, very rich and very bored. They are also the products and the victims of the modern beauty industry. They are practically interchangeable in their overdone, overpolished "perfection." No part of their bodies is spared. They have been waxed and peeled and lasered. They have been dyed blonde, streaked, curled, hair-extensioned, blown out, and hairsprayed into unnatural immobility. Their faces show evidence of surgery and Botox, carved and injected into a similar unnatural immobility. Many of them have ruined their mouths in search of beestung lips. They are bronzed and blushed and mascara'd and linered until nothing real is left to see. The bodies of a few look normal or even pleasingly plump, but the majority are stick thin. Not one of them is, to my eye, attractive despite or even because of all the effort and pampering.

When I speak of starved and carved, I am referring specifically to the predominant look of anorexia so sought after in this country and perhaps in others, abetted by surgery to make sure the bones revealed are aesthetic, noses and jawlines in particular. Breast augmentation is a godsend to these anorexics because with a boob job, you can be 30 pounds underweight and still wear a C cup. (Anyone who gets herself made bigger than a C cup is not interested in looking good and will never look elegant, as any well-dressed woman will tell you.)

I don't know the ages of the "real" housewives, but most of them have the sad look of women trying desperately to be younger than they are. Despite the "tasteful" makeup, the engineered faces, and the carefully unelaborate coiffures, I find many of these women plain at best. Nothing wrong with being plain, but the endless pursuit of "beauty" saddens me.

I would like to live in a world where women didn't feel the need to wear makeup, to enlarge their breasts, to wear 5-inch stiletto heels. I wouldn't dare tell anyone not to; I'm not a dictator. But I hate the image of these starved and carved Barbies all over the media, broadcast and printed, where young girls see them and think they represent beauty. Appearance is only one kind of beauty, and a minor kind at that. The facade constructed by these women is the opposite of beauty; it is sham. Which is an antonym of real.