Samantha Hunt – “The Yellow” from The New Yorker 11/29/2010

This story is available online here.

For the most part I enjoyed this story. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I also am not sure why some choices were made.

What stood out most to me, from a writing point of view, was the progression – each step leads to the next, with elements of both inevitability and surprise. The whole path is a little crazy, but broken down into pieces, it makes sense. And we end up at the beginning, sort of.

Roy starts out quite a loser. At 42, he’s back at Mom and Dad’s, helpless; they’re away for the weekend, he’s sinking into bad TV and raw-onion-and-cheddar sandwiches. So he makes a small change – he paints his room. Yellow. Bright yellow. (Samantha Hunt wrote in her blog that she wrote this story after moving into a new office, which was painted bright yellow) He feels better. Until Mom and Dad return, and Dad heaps scorn on the yellow room, putting Roy and the plot into motion. Roy takes a drive, hits a dog, does the responsible thing (a major surprise), and then surprising things start to happen all over the place. Maybe meets his alter-ego, or maybe it’s just a housewife also “turning”. But he ends up, outside, looking in. Still, he gets to decide who has to forget.

If that sounds cryptic, it’s because I don’t want to give away too much of the story. It’s the sort of thing that you really need to experience – and from what I’ve seen, not everyone enjoyed it. But I was riveted.

A few issues, though.

First, the opening two paragraphs. I’d assumed Roy was a teenager until I got to paragraph 3. I imagine this was deliberate on the part of the author, to emphasize the immaturity of the character, but I’m not sure I appreciate it. I’d just read “I.D.” involving a 13 year old left on her own, and when I started this, I thought, what is this, since when in this age of everyone freaking out about all kinds of danger are so many parents just leaving their kids alone for the weekend? Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the two stories that annoyed me. Then the questions about grocery shopping and takeout, the “No, he wasn’t.” – to whom are these addressed? They seem wrong for the narrator’s voice, they seem to be things Roy is asking himself, but then again, they don’t, because if he wasn’t incapable of getting decent food, why didn’t he, or why didn’t he at least explain it was too much trouble or he didn’t feel like it or he likes cheddar-and-onion? I would get his inability to act on his own initiative without those questions. In any case, I’m not crazy about the way those questions and the answer fit into the narrative POV. But maybe I just don’t get it, I’m assuming there’s an explanation that’s beyond me at this point. I’d love to hear it.

The introduction of Susanne – yeah, I’m not so sure that works for me, either, it’s a little “who the hell is Susanne?” just thrown in there. I do love the concept of “turning”. Food turns bad, spring turns to summer, people turn around, turn back, turn their lives around, the worm turns, it’s full of possibilities. In Susanne’s case I think she’s turning bad, but it’s part of her explosion rather than a permanent thing. For Roy, it’s more major, an ability to act instead of sitting around eating cheddar-and-onion sandwiches because he can’t be bothered to lift the phone and order Chinese.

The ending – I’m not sure it’s the one I wanted, and I’m not sure of the shovel. I can see him, on the outside with everyone else in when he started out on the inside with everyone out. He isn’t going to just do something because he’s been told to. But why is he still holding the shovel? Put the damn thing down! Then again, Susanne picked up the vacuum cleaner, maybe it’s parallels in implements, turning back, except he doesn’t turn back… does he? Maybe he does, maybe that’s why he has the shovel, because he’s going to acquiesce after all. There’s this mirror image thing, the dog is dead, he gives the check, they screw, and everything starts reversing from that point. This is what struck me as I read, and why, in spite of my objections here, I truly enjoyed the story.

George Saunders – “Victory Lap” from The New Yorker 10/05/2009

Oh, my, what a story. I chose to read this because it was Perpetual Folly’s “Best New Yorker Story of 2009″ (actually, one of two, and I’ll be reading “A Tiny Feast” shortly – they both ended up as Other Distinguished Stories in BASS 2010). I can see why. This is a story I wish I’d written, not just one I was glad I’d read. I’ve read Saunders before, he writes wonderful anti-consumerism stories – magical realism, alternate reality, that sort of thing – and I love them. But this is different. The basic plot is one any writer might have chosen, but the style is pure joy to read. It’s extremely internal, as close to first person as 3rd person can be. I wonder if he kept it 3rd because the transitions between characters was easier that way, or to keep from getting too deeply into the characters’ heads.

He starts with Allison Pope, almost 15 years old, imagining herself the belle of some grand ball at which she is examining and rejecting potential suitors for the smallest flaws. She segues into ballet mode, prepping for her recital that evening, a Bambi fantasy mixed with ballet lingo, and we experience the inner consciousness of a young teen who is in love with the world and herself: “Sometimes, feeling happy like this, she imagined a baby deer trembling in the woods.” It’s very internal, very disorganized, very narcissistic, and perfect. Enough playfulness to remind us she is still a child, enough interest in the world and romance and ballet to remind us she is a teen. And totally confident.

She sees her neighbor, Kyle, “the poor goof.” They grew up together but he is now not really in competition for her perfect someone. There’s a wonderful riff on “each of us deserves respect” and then the not-meter reader shows up.

Switch to Kyle. We learn of his world through his eyes: the Family Status Indicator (which is missing one status, interestingly enough), Work Notices, Shoe Sheets, Work Points, Chore Points, Major Treats – discovering this system was an amazing experience – and his wonderful game of swearing in long nonsensical bursts, in his head. Words he can never say out loud. All of them, the seven famous ones and a bunch of others Carlin never imagined at the time. One of his chores is completing a Log of cars in the church lot nearby, to aid his father in requesting a soundproof retaining wall. So he sees the van pull up. He breaks some rules, worries about that obsessively, then sees the meter reader abduct Allison. He debates what to do. The debate is totally believable, because his parents, though never in the story, are clearly depicted from the environment they’ve created.

Then we get into the head, also in third person, of the not-meter reader, who has his own problems. I love to consider how Allison now feels about everyone deserving respect, having met up with this particular guy. His craziness and his own bizarre environment are shown in the same way, through his eyes.

Then we go back to Kyle, trying to decide what to do. How can he do the right thing when the rules prohibit so many elements of that Right Thing? And what does that say about the Rules? And, finally, when he does break the rules, does that mean he can’t stop?

It’s not always easy to follow what’s actually happening – I got lost on one character transition, and there are lots of people in the not-meter reader’s life that clutter up the scene. But it’s all readable. And it’s all wonderful. The end is frightening and beautiful, and the title, the title just knocks me out. Because they all have a victory lap of sorts.

There are phrases, paragraphs, images throughout that give me goosebumps. Many of them appear in Allison’s mind: “Why was it, she sometimes wondered, that in dreams we can’t do the simplest things? Like a crying puppy is standing on some broken glass and you want to pick it up and brush the shards off its pads but you can’t because you’re balancing a ball on your head.” I never thought of it like that, how do you come up with that image? It’s amazing. “There was so much she didn’t know! Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what was a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-fed, did you have to like push the milk out?” These are questions similar to those I had when I was a kid – she’s overprotected, naïve, and curious. That wonderful sense of being almost-15, glimpsing the world but not understanding it. Kyle hears his parents referring to him as “Beloved Only” which really puts the pressure on and smacks, to me, of scripture as well.

And again I want to know what happens next. Do they become friends again? Avoid each other? Does Kyle get in a lot of trouble for all the rules he broke, or do his parents recognize he was a hero (until he went overboard, at which point Allison became a hero, and her parents are shown acknowledging this). I suspect not, since he and Allison, while both overprotected, are quite different. But I’m glad it’s not spelled out. I’m beginning to think this is a place where I go wrong, I spell it out, when I should leave the last scene, the aftermath, for the reader. Or maybe it’s just this story.

What’s wonderful at heart is that these two teens confront reality poorly armed – Allison with a naive “all’s right with the world, I’ll give the disadvantaged with open sores some vaseline and we’ll all be fine” attitude, Kyle with the Rules that have been imposed on him. They have to fend for themselves when reality comes crashing through the protective layers their families have devised for them. And, bless their hearts, they do pretty well, considering. The not-meter reader doesn’t fare so well (he too has his way of dealing with reality) but then again, he’s the bad guy, so he’s supposed to lose.

Joyce Carol Oates – “I.D.”

I’m going to be reading the stories Cliff Garstang’s Perpetual Folly blog has listed as The New Yorker’s best stories of 2010, and this one happens to be online so is the easiest for me to access.

I found an article about a lecture Oates gave at Stanford last September during which she called “I.D.” a story of denial. It started from a prompt she used in a class she taught at Princeton: write a story about someone saying “Come with me” to a student in class.

Let me state for the record that I am not a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates. In particular, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” I’m sorry, I know, it’s the most anthogized story in the history of the universe and it’s perfect and leaves parents and teens alike nervous and teary, but it just left me a big so what. But Cliff states he is not a fan of JCO either, and he loved this story.

I had mixed feelings about “I.D.” It breaks so many rules I’ve been dinged for, I guess I hold some resentment for that. For example, opening with a quote, a loosely attributed quote at that, and then a lapse into flashback and background for half the story before getting back to the point were “they” say “Eiii-dee”. And while I’m at it, I wish the title was different, because of course “eiii-dee” is obviously “I.D.” and I think it would’ve been interesting to not know that, because the main character didn’t know that. Isn’t that the thing, the reader needs to know what the main character knows? These are not rules I particularly treasure, they’re just things people have told me I should not do. I think they should start explaining how to do them well, instead.

Despite – or because of? – the broken rules, it was a pretty cool story with lots of heartbreaking moments and a lot of wonderful images. Sad-wonderful. My favorite kind.

Lisette is your typical 13-year-old-at-risk. Here is a list of things we find out about her life:
- she drank some beer that morning at the urging of some older guys.
- she’s not doing well in math or in school, though she was a B student last year.
- she’s curious about sex but doesn’t really know much about it.
- she’s hanging out with girls who are more mature than her.
- she’s sending lipstick-blots to an older boy, the meaning of which is uncertain but may include “I will hav sex with you.”
- her parents are divorced after a couple of separations.
- her mother has worked at a lot of different casinos.
- she has had eye surgery recently and her eyes are not doing well.
- one of her mother’s man friends told her she looks older than 13 (there’s nothing better to a 13 year old)
- her mother is borrowing money for Lisette’s eye surgery.
- she has been living alone for five days as her mother is off somewhere.

And here are some great manifestations about Lisette’s powers of perception:
- she thinks – but isn’t sure – the older boys are laughing at her because they like her, not because they’re being mean.
- she can’t see the blackboard in math class because of her eye problems.
- the blackboard is green. (This always bothered me, too).
- her mother says they’ll go to a casino and count cards, then denies that’s what she meant.
- she feels like there are red ants crawling in her armpits and her crotch.
- her nose is numb from injury and surgery.
- her eye tears but she isn’t crying.
- MTV videos include moans of something she knows is sex-pain though she doesn’t know what that is.
- when her mother sex-pain moans in the shower Lisette can’t tell if she’s happy or angry.
- sitting in the front by the windows in math class makes her feel like she’s in a bright room looking in.
- she isn’t sure if her mother is a blackjack dealer or a cocktail waitress.

And that’s just the first page. This girl has some problems perceiving reality, made concrete by her eye surgery and post-surgical tearing. When you don’t want to see something, it’s a lot easier if you’ve had recent eye surgery and are wearing dark purple glasses.

There’s a very touching scene when she won’t answer the phone because she sees on Caller ID it’s her mom, and she’s angry her mom went away and left her alone – a real, honest moment. But then she regrets this when she starts hearing noises and tries to call her mom, but gets no answer, and converts that back to anger again. Heartbreaking.

When the police show up in the classroom, she uses the distraction, not realizing they are there for her, to flip her lipstick-covered note to JC, the slightly older, left-back (i.e., bad news) boy she has a crush on. And he doesn’t pay much attention to it, crumples it and stuffs it in his pocket, because after all, he’s cute and popular and she’s got snarled hair and weird purple glasses for her healing eyes. More heartbreak. And more when we find out what caused the eye problem in the first place: think dad. Dad who is in the Army in Iraq except he isn’t.

The playing with perception continues, as she hears “eiii-dee” and has no idea what that means, and she thinks the cops are looking at her with disgust which later she decides is sympathy. And things progress to the ultimate perception disturbance, so disturbed even the reader isn’t totally sure which way it goes. At least this reader. And Lisette goes on, keeping up her front because reality isn’t so bad if you completely ignore it.

My main complaint about the story is that I want to know what happens now. It’s rather odd the police mention Family Services then just take her back to school, “for now.” Then what? At what point does someone figure out if this 13-year-old has adult supervision or not? Or is that the way things are now, in which case maybe I don’t want to know what happens next. I guess the reader has to forget about reality as well.

Addendum: This story was chosen for BASS 2011.

T Cooper – “The Husband” from One Story

Ok, so I’m a little behind with One Story. You know how it is, they come in the mail and you throw them on the bookshelf with every intent of reading them immediately, but you put something else on top and then you start reading this story which reminds you of that story and a book by the same author and you checked those biographies of Martha Gellhorn out of the library and before you know it, another envelope has arrived and you give up and put them in a little pile to read together some day… well, some day happens eventually, and I’ve finally begun digging into my backlog of One Story. “The Husband” by T Cooper is from issue 138, mid-July 2010.

And it’s a treasure. I love it. There are some moments of confusion in the early exposition, and as one reviewer (who hated the story) said, it’s full of parentheses. I love parentheses. As a writer, I love all punctuation. I get pissy when I’m told I can’t use all these incredible things on my computer keyboard – {} and [] and : and ; (only in scholarly work, they say – bosh, I say) and – and / and …, everything but ! which was beaten out of me at an early age (once per 10,000 words and only in dialogue). The semicolon is a particulary favorite of mine. Come on, how else do you get that pause that is what the traffic cops call a rolling stop, unlike the period which is the motionless full stop, or the comma which is a mere slowing? Scholarly work? Bah!

I digress. I always do. I love digressing as much as I love punctuation.

The title character of “The Husband” is a dentist, now widowed, and ardently pursued by his neighbor-lady. His daughter – um, no, make that, son – is an international rock star with the Coney Island White Fish. And a terrific character, especially when seen through the eyes of this father who is confused by how his daughter is now his son, and also through the eyes of other characters who tell Dad about his wonderful, charming son. There are moments that are wonderfully drawn – about zippers, about penises and habits of gender, about concerts, about protective undergarments, about mothers, about the hazards of dentistry. And about fathers, The Amazing Race, daughters, sons, wives, and neighbor-ladies. I love the style, I love the characters, I love how things echo, I love everything about it, even if I was a little confused in a couple of places early on, trying to figure out who Gladys was and what Friends had to do with it.

In this story I see specificity at work, and I understand it a little better. It’s not the endless listing of details in scene that I find so tiresome; it’s evocative, mood-creating, softer than I’ve been led to believe. The section beginning “Will you unzip me?” is a miracle. And it sets a certain timeframe, an age, on the character, I think. Movies and TV shows set in the 50′s and early 60′s frequently included a wife asking her husband to zip her dress. Not so much, now, partly because dresses are not as frequently worn (and pants can be zipped by the wearer) and partly because many dresses have side zippers or no zippers at all. And perhaps women have forgotten those scenes that now seem so banal but were just a little exciting. Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, gives a description of straightening the seams of one’s stockings that is almost pornographic, but it does require seamed stockings which, well, yeah, what are those, and do they come in little eggs?

I thought other scenes worked really well, in the same evocative way: the description of the daughter/son’s concert, the anesthetic injection that goes awry, the double date with daughter/son, and the very last scene with the neighbor-lady, these are wonderfully drawn to me. I’m a little confused about that anesthetic scene, as well-written as it is, and what part it plays in the story as a whole, but I’ll chalk that up to my reading. I’ll re-read this at a later time and see if it makes more sense to me.

Themes of gender are carried forward by the intimacy of zippers and chairs; and a father’s love, not to mention a neighbor-lady’s persistance, can overcome all obstacles.

One Story has a great interview with T Cooper (whose gender is unspecified; I love that).

I read three other One Story volumes over the past couple of weeks, but this was the only one in that bunch that stood out. I have to start working my way through the pile. But I have those biographies of Martha Gellhorn to read…

Ha Jin – “Choice” and “Children As Enemies” from A Good Fall

I’ve been avoiding A Good Fall, the short story collection by Ha Jin, because it makes me feel stupid. I don’t get it. I feel like I’m missing something, but try as I might, I can’t figure out what. Earlier I discussed “The Bane of the Internet,” “A Composer And His Parakeet” (which I enjoyed), and “The Beauty.” I’m not one to give up lightly, so onward.

“Choice” concerns a grad student, Dave Hong, who applies for a job tutoring high schooler Sami Min to get her SAT scores into college application shape. Dave’s father, a plastic surgeon, withdrew financial support for his Masters studies and does not see history, or a professorship, as worthy of his own son. Here I am intrigued by my own memory. My father was an immigrant, at a very young age, from Sweden. He made every effort to Americanize and by the time I happened on the scene, he’d sanitized our home of anything Scandinavian. Had it not been for a couple of my aunts, I would not have the four words of Swedish I know, nor would I know how to make Vetebrod. And my father once said of his sister’s oldest son: “He teaches classes at Harvard, and he wrote a book about cults, but I don’t really know what he does for a living.” (The cousin is, in fact, a Harvard sociology professor specializing in group behaviors, including cults). Had he sold shoes, or owned a coffee shop, my father would have understood what he did for a living. So I can understand how there is generational confusion about what constitutes a profession and what does not.

Back to the story. Dave works with Sami, and begins to join the family for meals. He becomes, in fact, part of the family, and finds himself drawn to Eileen Min, his tutee’s very recently widowed mother. All the while, it’s obvious Sami has a crush on him.

The story proceeds about how you’d expect from there. The situation is rich with the essence of humanity and short stories. Everyone has lost something: Sami, her father; Eileen, her husband and possibly her husband’s dream that Sami will go to college; Dave, his family’s support and respect. They all want something, sometimes several things. Dave starts out wanting to pay his bills and ends up wanting to be part of a family, then wanting to be part of Eileen’s life. And Sami, so recently defathered and in love with Dave herself, does not like that idea. Yet it all feels flat, cartoonish. In fact, I wondered if this was a spoof of some kind. If I read the opening paragraph in a workshop, my heart would sink and I’d think, “Oh, dear, how can I react to this honestly and painlessly?”

I don’t get it. Fortunately, the NYT book review also didn’t get it. Colm Toibin reviewed the collection on 12/31/09: at the same time he praises Jin’s “lack of color” and “quiet, careful, restrained prose” he admits “some of the early stories seem to have been weakened by this approach… runs the danger of being too obvious and predictable, and so the stories read more like sketches or fables. No one behaves out of character; each confrontation is inevitable and schematically rendered.” Whew. Maybe I’m not completely stupid. He also indicates that the stories proceed and become more complex, more unpredictable. Tick, tock.

In “Children as Enemies” the themes are heartbreaking, and true, and universal. Kids scorn what their parents treasure; kids innovate while grandparents conserve. My father hated “papercover” books, not realizing that the dime novels – Westerns, early pulp fiction – are not the paperbacks of today even when I waved copies of John Updike and Herman Wouk in his face. He was distraught that I moved into a “brownstone” when I moved away from home, a type of housing he considered synonymous with poverty and dissolution. He was never able to see that some things in the world had changed, and as a result, now that I’m an old fart I make every effort to keep an open mind – about Twitter, rap music, polygamy… well, you get the idea.

Again, back to the story. One thing in this saved it from spoofery: the parents came to the US from China, selling their candy store and apartment, to be with their children and grandchildren, and end up having to move out because they can’t accept that the grandchildren wish to change their names. This breaks my heart. In an effort to reunite the family, they destroy it. Their rigidity about names is not based on something abstract, but on a quasi-religious belief in Fate: a child with a name that means “amazing courage” can’t just change his name on a whim without losing something. And again, they are seeking to preserve their heritage, while the grandchildren view heritage as a burden (other kids make fun of their names). And the parents are caught in the middle. But the almost comical sparseness of the prose makes it unsatisfying to me.

I suppose it’s a matter of style and preference. I’ve read sparse stories that were moving, and there are elements of that here, especially in “Children as Enemies.” But the sparsity here detracts. I wish I were sophisticated enough to recognize the greatness of these stories. After all, Ha Jin has won many prestigious awards. And I don’t get it, which makes me feels stupid. If this was a memoir, nonfiction, I would find it more interesting, but it is fiction, and I don’t see the pull. Yet. I will read on, and see if I find the magic in later stories.

Top Chef All Stars Season 8, Episode 4 – Advantage Chef

Tonight’s episode had a hint of Christmas, tennis (which of course is very popular at Christmastime) and some maybe-sneaky people. But it all turned out all right in the end.

Aww, they go out for drinks after last week’s double elimination. Casey misses Dale. TiffanyF says she’s been in the bottom twice, and she doesn’t think the judges got it right (oh, really? What about those frozen melons?) but she can’t let it happen again. Isabella thinks Angelo is his biggest competition. I think just about everyone is big competition for Isabella.

QuickFire: Tony Mantuano from TCM is the guest judge. The task is to make stuffing without any utensils or tools. It’s better than making them cook Christmas dinner. Fabio is very upset about the tools, but he’s always upset about everything; he makes a big deal about everything which gets him lots of camera time and a lot of fans who think he’s charming. Let there be no mistake, I am not one of them. Tre is impressed by the $20,000 prize because he has two daughters and girls, you know, are expensive. As opposed to boys who pay their own way.

Tre wins $20,000 and immunity with Southwest-inspired bread pudding stuffing including apple smoked bacon, cheddar, jalapeno, and cilantro. Spicy, but balanced.

Marcel is also in the top two for his squab stuffed with raisin brioche, cherries, and currants, spiced with ras al hanout. Tony says the bird tasted good, and the stuffing tasted good. Sounds good. I’m obsessed with ras el hanout, I just got some grains of paradise last week, along with the cardamom for my vetebrod.

Blais invents Nitro-fried fennel. Remember those stories in high school about if you put your finger in liquid nitrogen and hit it on a table it’d crack off? He put that cautionary tale into practice: when you don’t have a knife to cut fennel, freeze it, and smash it to bits, then fry it. I was so tickled by this I didn’t even pay attention to what else was in his stuffing. On re-viewing, something about an onion, except… Tre is the one explaining nitro-fried fennel, though it ended up in Richard’s dish, so I’m not sure who invented it. I would hate to give credit for such a grand leap forward (of great use to anyone who is caught unprepared, having both fennel and liquid nitrogen but no knife) to the wrong person.

Jamie makes a stuffing crepenette, whatever that is (it’s something, usually meat, wrapped in caul fat and fried or roasted), and broth.

Fabio uses polenta (because even he would agree pasta stuffing is ridiculous), and grates his Parmesan on the pan racks in the kitchen. He thinks that’s genius. I think it’s disgusting – when was that rack last cleaned? And what cleaning product is still clinging to it?

DaleT shows a Spanish influence including lemon aioli, crab, and oysters.

Spike – Stuffed quail. I wasn’t paying attention here.

Casey is in the bottom three for her nontraditional Asian stuffing with wood-ear mushrooms and crispy chicken liver. She’s never done it before, but she advises that TC isn’t the place to just cook what you’ve cooked before. Tony says it’s not a stuffing, it’s a plated app. He doesn’t say if it tastes good.

Carla ends up in the bottom three in spite of (or because of) her very Zen approach. While everyone else is racing to the pantry to snatch up choice ingredients, she strolls in and ends up with what’s left: black quinoa, which, turns out, takes longer to cook than regular quinoa. That’s probably why it was still on the shelf. She calls it “undone-te” (not “al dente”), at least I think that’s what she says. “Want some floss?” Padma declines with thanks. Tony says it would’ve been a great breakfast cereal with milk on it.

TiffanyF is also in the bottom three when she tries to make her mom’s soy maple stuffing with grilled mushroom. She uses a peppermill to prep her quail. Tony tells her to be sure the peppermill is retired from service permanently. Her stuffing is overly sweet. She’s worried about her mom’s reaction.

Elimination Challenge: Two teams will cook for the judges and guest Taylor Dent at the home of the US Open. I think that means a tennis court. The call is for healthy, high energy food. The dishes will be served one at a time head to head, and the scoring will be as in tennis with all the loves and advantages and nonsensical things. In spite of the setting, it’s a catering challenge except instead of preparing a hundred servings, they only have to prepare five. I don’t quite understand the appeal of this, but I guess tennis fans are thrilled.

Padma comes into the stadium with very shiny legs under her shorts.

There’s a discussion of strategy – should they put their strongest dishes first, or save them if needed to come back, since if one team scores enough points, some contestants won’t serve their dishes. Both teams decide they will serve their weakest dishes first because the other team is going to serve its strongest dish first so they’ll lose the point but it’s ok, they’ll lose it with a dish that won’t win against anything, and will waste the other team’s best dish. There’s a big flaw in that logic, namely, how do you know what the other team is going to do? A lot is made of this strategy. It’s kind of key in how things unfold, but it’s total nonsense. Isn’t it?

Orange team – Fabio, DaleT, Marcel, Antonia, Blais, Carla, Isabella

They get confused about who should go first, so they just say, “Who wants to go first?” and Fabio jumps up.

1 Fabio makes gnocchi. Again? He’s very proud of himself because the mixer didn’t have a paddle attachment so he made it by hand. Anyone got a medal to give him? Whole wheat gnocchi, pork ragout, fennel, zucchini. The judges proclaim the gnocchi is good, light, flavorful even though made with whole wheat (I thought gnocchi was made from potato?). He wins his point against Casey. 15-love orange.

2 DaleT – edamame dumpling, carrot froth, spicy soy nuts – Marcel was supposed to be second, Dale insisted on going because his dish was, I don’t know, dying? He loses his point against TiffanyF. 15-15.

3 Marcel – Cauliflower couscous, yellowfin tuna, pomegranate seeds, yellow raisins. He’s annoyed because of the change in order; he was already half plated. Maybe that’s why the judges felt the cream got in way of the tuna. He loses his point against Angelo. 15-30 yellow

4 Antonia says she was a pothead in high school, by way of explaining why she doesn’t know much about sports. She’s going to be sorry when her daughter sees this and asks, “Mommy, what’s pot?” She makes scallops, lentils, mint, cilantro, chives. The judges like the interesting layers of flavors, and feel the raisins were a good touch. She wins her point over TiffanyD. 30-30.

5 Blais – Thai boule – “tabouleh”, bbq lamb. Heh, he likes to title his dishes, I still remember Which Came First, the chicken and egg thing. I’m not sure what’s Thai about this, or what it has to do with a boule. The tabouleh is good, but the lamb is gamey; still, he wins his point against Spike. 40-30 orange

6 Carla – African groundnut vegetarian soup, sweet potatoes. Dale T and Isabella are concerned about this soup; they don’t think it’s sophisticated enough. She ignores them. Good girl, Carla! She cuts her finger, tapes it, tells the medic to move aside, slaps on a glove and continues. Her soup is spicy but good. It could have been homey but she elevated it. She wins her point against Tre, and the Orange team wins the match.

Isabella doesn’t have to serve his dish, whatever it was.

Yellow – Spike, Jamie, Angelo, TiffanyF, TiffanyD, Tre, Casey.

Spike is concerned he doesn’t have allies on his team. They consider Jamie’s dish the weakest because the chickpeas aren’t cooked, but she refuses to go first, so Casey steps up.

1 Casey – grilled pork tenderloin over a salad of cherries and farro. The judges think it’s ok, but it’s heavier than the other dish, and she loses her point against Fabio.15-love orange

2 TiffanyF – black bass, vinaigrette. She wins her point against DaleT. 15-15

3 Angelo – He got mackerel in the store, but it looks really awful in the kitchen. It has mucus. And slime. Ewww. Take that, Whole Foods. Tre has immunity so Angelo asks if he can use some of his salmon. Tre says no, ask TiffanyD. Which is, um, not nice. What is it with black men dissing black women on this show? TiffanyD obliges, so Angelo ends up with smoked tuna. He wins his point against Marcel. 15-30 yellow.

4 TiffanyD – gives Angelo some of her tuna. Tuna, lentil salad with peppercorns. Good dish but not good enough. She loses point to Antonia. 30-30

5 Spike – Tomato tamarind soup, olive oil poached shrimp. Because he overpoaches the shrimp, he has to start over and doesn’t have time to season carefully. Angelo (with TiffanyF’s encouragement) starts modifying Spike’s dish just before serving, adds yuzu gelee. Judges love soup, hate the shrimp, it’s very bland. I’m not clear which part had the added yuzu. He loses his point to Blais. 40-30 orange.

6 Tre – has immunity. Salmon, parsnip puree. Angelo asks if he can help, so Tre has him cook the salmon, but it ends up seriously overcooked. He loses his point against Carla, Yellow loses match.

Jamie doesn’t have to submit her uncooked dried chickpeas to judging. I’m undecided. I don’t like Jamie so I think she’s a little sneak who was supposed to serve first but just flat-out refused, screwing her team. But, if her dish was the weakest, isn’t it a good thing she didn’t serve? Was she obligated to serve when Spike told her to? She kind of passively agreed to the whole worst-dish-first thing but she didn’t necessarily agree her dish was the weakest. In any event, it’s the second elimination challenge where she hasn’t cooked anything for the judges, which is a little screwy. Blais does some strange passive aggressive sniping in Stew, something about her “story”:

Blais: You’ve got a story going on now
J: I’m trying not to be offended, what is my story?
B: I’m just saying it’s an odd story
J: You mean because I didn’t cook?
B: yeah.
J: shrug. TiffanyF shrugs too, as if it’s fine with her. But TiffanyF won her point, so it doesn’t affect her, and Tiffany has this girl-power thing going on, at least until someone gets in her way. I’m undecided, but I’m leaning towards despising Jamie. I’ll read around and see if anything changes my mind.

The judges ask to see the winners on the Orange team: Fabio, Carla, Blais, Antonia. The prize is a trip to Italy.

Carla wins – YAY! I figured with the Italian guest judge and the Italian trip and Fabio’s very good gnocchi, he was a lock. I like it better this way. YAY CARLA ! Take that, Dale and Isabella you little punks! And Jamie, see what someone can do with a cut finger? And Carla, see what you can do when you listen to yourself? I’m so proud of you. I’m sure that means a lot to her.

The losing points from Yellow go in – Spike, TiffanyD, Tre, Casey.

Spike tries to explain the Jamie thing but the judges basically tell him, too bad. He’s still upset that Angelo plopped yuzu on his plate, and that’s too bad, too. It ended up out of balance towards sweet because the shrimp was so bland. The soup was good, just too many hands. They ask TiffanyD if Angelo sabotaged anyone on her season because it was an issue, she says, not really, everyone’s responsible for his /her own plate. Sorry, Spike.
TiffanyD overdressed her salad, and the spice rub on tuna wasn’t right. Tom says, “Like drinking wine that has no finish, it just drops off,” it needed more.
Tre‘s salmon was overcooked and oily, and was the least favorite dish. They reiterate it’s a good thing he had immunity (hmm, good for him, maybe). He gave the main part of dish to someone else to cook, which was foolish. But there’s nothing they can do about it since he has immunity.
Casey – Not a bad dish, but a little heavy. Hearty grain with pork loin, too much. She didn’t understand or didn’t agree that it was protein-heavy. It was a good dish, up against someone better. It doesn’t sound that good to me, would it’ve been lighter if she’d been up against someone else?

Spike goes home. I’m surprised, since they said his soup was good. Casey says the lesson of the day is, “You have to be in charge of your own dish,” which is pretty interesting coming from her, given the problems she had in Carla’s final. But I agree with her, and the next time she tells Carla to sous vide something, she better not pout when Carla tells her “Thank you, honey, but no.’ And Carla, girl, you better say that. I think you will since you’re going to Italy because you didn’t let the little boys bring you down.

The Sing Off, Finale, 12/20/10

Live final show. There’s no more competition so it’s mostly a concert until the last 3 minutes when the winner is announced.

The show opens with a group sing of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

Committed sings “Motownphilly” with Boyz II Men. I don’t know the song, which may be why it seemed meh to me, or maybe the acoustic techs weren’t quite on top of things yet.

The previously eliminated Whiffenpoofs sing a brief phrase of “Nevertheless” as a segue to commercial. It’s nice the cut groups are back but it was not in tune at all.

The Backbeats sing “Think of Anything” with Sara Bareilles. I don’t know who she is. I just wish she wasn’t there. Something’s very wrong with this, though it could be my neighbors playing something that’s coming through the walls. No, a volume increase doesn’t really help. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to sound? Um, I don’t think so.

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town sings “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with Nicole Sherzinger (aka Pussycat). She can sing, I’ll give her that. Jerry is carrying a cane, decorated to look like a candy cane. I hope he’s all right. He’s the only lead so far to actually sing lead with the guest star.

The previously eliminated Eleventh Hour sings Justin Beiber’s “Baby”, good god (no, I didn’t recognize it, I had to look it up), as the segue to commercial – very short segment on air but they were in tune, sounded much better than the Whiffenpoofs.

Street Corner Symphony sings “Gone” with Ben Folds. I wonder how they decided who gets to sing with whom. Sounds like they had a lot of fun – Ben says, “Watch me, eyes here!” and “we laughed, we cried, all in 2 ½ minutes”. Ben isn’t known for his extraordinary voice, and it sounds off. The SCS lead sounds a little off too. This was a lot of fun, nicely done. Nick gives him some musicbabble (arpeggiated harmonies) which is fun, too. But I think I’m biased. For Ben Folds, that is. And for SCS, for that matter.

The previously eliminated Groove for Thought does “Cooler than me”. They sound good though it’s very short.

The Backbeats, Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town, and Sheryl Crow do “Long Road Home” with her playing acoustic guitar (and another guitarist) which is CHEATING! I like Sheryl Crow. I like the song. But this is wrong. I’m thinking they couldn’t get it together in the time they had. Sure, she has a new album coming out but can’t she hawk it some other way? I’m really angry. This is an a cappella competition, if she can’t do a cappella or doesn’t want to or they can’t get up to speed, or she doesn’t like the way it sounds, too bad, cut the song. Not right.

Everyone sings a phrase from his, her, and their favorite Neil Diamond song. Cherry Cherry, I Am I Said. Sweet Caroline (oh, that was so much fun last year, they don’t do it justice this year at all). All kinds of things.

Street Corner Symphony, Committed, and Neil Diamond (who has a new album coming out, surprise surprise), sing “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”. I adore Neil Diamond, I have many of his early albums, but he just isn’t soul. Oh my god, he sounds like William Shatner. But the groups are terrific on backup. And they do it a cappella, thank you very much. Of course, they have an advantage in that they all know the song.

A special holiday treat. Everyone shares what’s special to them – love family, blah blah, Ben mixes it up with “six days to New Year’s Eve party” and a paean to gifts of underwear. Boxers, Tighty whities, it’s all ok. Everyone does some sappy pop Christmas song. The nice thing is Courtney gets to sing. And the big dreadlocks guy from Committed (I love dreadlocks, I think every reality contestant with dreadlocks this year has been someone I loved). Oh, and Nick sings a couple of phrases with them.

The Backbeats go to Hope Gardens, a transitional housing center for homeless moms, to bring a Christmas tree. Then they sing “Firework”. Kenton gets to sing second lead – he’s really quite good at singing and he moves well too. And he put the group together just for this show. I hope he gets something cool out of this, he’s quite talented. The judges talk about their depth, they can do all kinds of things with so many talented people, and they give Kenton props. Yay Kenton, I think he’s the icon of the season. Ben wants a Courtney action figure. Maybe Courtney is the icon of the season. Pussycat talks about sundaes, Kenton is the bananas, Courtney is the cherry on top. Pussycat is definitely NOT the icon of the season. She wasn’t this bad last year. I think they asked her to dumb it down, though why she would agree to that is beyond me.

The previously eliminated Men of Note do “For the Longest Time” to segue to commercial. Hmm, that was their weakest song, why would they do that? It was too short to figure out if they’ve improved it since August. It sounded better than the Whiffenpoofs. I think my cat and I would’ve sounded better than the Whiffenpoofs’ segue tonight. And I have tremendous respect for the Whiffenpoofs as an organization. I went to a concert of theirs once, a long long time ago.

Well, they’ve gone through all the special guest stars, I wonder what’s next – more heartwarming visits to wretched unfortunates? Yes, I’m cynical, but I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

Committed visits Suva Intermediate School’s afterschool program for underprivileged children and sings with them, play rugby with them, dance with them. Then they sing “Hold My Hand”, and they do a nice job of it, but don’t really bat it out of the park. It’s nice to see Dreadlocks sing again.

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town visits Ability First, a program for adults with physical/mental handicaps. Then they sing “Love Train” which is ok. I think the whole “foundation of a capella” thing has been pushed a little hard.

The previously eliminated Pitchslapped does “I Got the Music In Me” and they sound pretty good. I wonder if maybe the auditory gremlins that messed up the first couple of groups got exorcised. Or maybe they just put the better groups last, because they aren’t singing in order of elimination. Or maybe the Whiffenpoofs just didn’t give a damn and didn’t bother to work it up.

Street Corner Symphony goes to Little Kids Rock (music education group), and give out Fender guitars, which is cool. Then they sing “Fix You” by Coldplay, which is amazing. The other groups join them little by little which is also amazing. Ok, it’s sappy, but it’s really really nice. But I think I’m biased. When the judges take turns saying nice things about SCS, Ben says they bring Rock and A Capella together and they’re the most likely in the competition to draw dirty pictures on walls. Did I mention I love Ben Folds? I only have two of his songs, Mr. Jones Part II and Brick, and damn, I have to get more.

It’s time for the top two groups to be announced and the two losing groups to do their swan songs. Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town go out. I’m glad they were here. Nick kind of grabs the microphone away from Jerry in the middle of a sentence, I think the live show thing has a tight timetable. They sing “Hit the Road, Jack” which is perfect. Jerry needs help getting down the stairs but he never misses a beat and improvs beautifully. The Backbeats go out next, sing “Goodbye to You”.

Which leaves Street Corner Symphony and Committed, and 20 minutes…which means 10 minutes for retrospective, a few minutes for commercials, three minutes for suspense and two minutes for congratulations and thank yous.

My Retrospective:
Street Corner Symphony
Round 1 – Everybody Wants to Rule The World
Round 2 – Hey Soul Sista
Round 3 – Creep; Come On Eileen.
Round 4 – Beatles medley; Down on the Corner

Committed
Round 1 – This Love
Round 2 – Apologize
Round 3 – Every Breath You Take; I Want it That Way
Round 4 – Usher medley; Let’s Stay Together

The previously eliminated On The Rocks sings “Final Countdown” as a segue to commercial.

Committed wins. They get a Sony recording contract, $100,000, and a trophy. I suspect the trophy isn’t foremost in their minds right now.

Street Corner Symphony sings “Drift Away” as their swan song, which is also perfect.

Committed sings “We Are the Champions” – they get a little lost in the lead-in, but I’m amazed they can sing anything at all, seeing as they’re all adrenaline-flooded and teary and they’ve been bouncing around hugging for ten minutes. And suddenly some sitcom is on. A bit abrupt.

I’m going to miss this show. Still, I don’t want it expanded. I think what makes it special is that it’s only a few shows (five this year) over a few weeks, at Christmas. If it were a full-season thing it’d be less fun. I also wish they’d put the kibosh on the “guest stars” thing as a way to pimp new albums – use guest stars who are relevant, last year they had Bobby McFerrin which was terrific. But of course anything on TV is selling advertising and they have to make money off the show… I just like the small-time dorky feel of it and wish they’d keep that instead of turning it into some ratings extravaganza.

BASS 2010: Lauren Groff – “Delicate Edible Birds”

I found this story in BASS 2010; the story was published in Glimmer Train in Spring 2009, and it is also the title story of her January 2009 collection.

 This story was a strange journey for me, but the ones that aren’t never make it to these pages, they’re read and forgotten. I had several points of complaint, then read the afternotes (I completely forgot, which is odd since the afternotes are my favorite part of the BASS volumes) and discovered my complaints were the product of my own ignorance. This is quite embarrassing. Perhaps the story should come with a warning: know a little about Martha Gellhorn, Mitterand’s last meal, and the Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif” before reading.

 Before I even got to the story, the title reminded me of the introductory passage from Anthony Bourdain’s book Medium Raw, which I read and posted about here about three weeks ago. He recounts some secret underground dinner, attended by chefs who are not named but who, the reader is assured, are widely recognized, and features a ritual eating of ortolan (small finches), now illegal to hunt, traditionally (but not in this case) blinded, overfed, and drowned in a distinctive brandy, pan roasted and fried in oil and butter, eaten whole – yes, bones, beak, guts, and all, just dropped into the mouth feet first – while a napkin covers the face of each diner. At the time I wasn’t sure if his account was a dark fantasy (it smacked of The Freshman, which featured a dinner of endangered species) or something real.

 Groff’s story includes, in flashback, an account of female war correspondent Bern’s affair at age 16 with the mayor of Philadelphia and their attendance at such a feast in Montreal. Having just read of this ritual made me fond of the story, because I felt like an insider – my hand waving wildly over my head, “Hey, call on me, yes, I know about this, I’ve heard of it!”  But it also struck me as odd, that I should hear about something so strange twice within three weeks, having never heard of it before. Then again, the list of things I’ve never heard of is quite long, by its very nature far longer than I realize. Groff mentions in her afternotes that this ritual dinner was reputed to be Mitterand’s last meal in 1995, and apparently it’s been a quite popular topic lately, at least to those in certain circles. Oops, my bad.

I wondered about the timeline of the story. The character Bern was 22 when covering the Spanish Civil War, awfully young for a war correspondent, and making her 16 some time between 1930 and 1933 – during the Great Depression, which is not mentioned even in passing during her recollection of the limo drive to Montreal where they are served this exotic meal under silver. And then she a prize-winning story published, which has people calling her L’Ortolan, as her last name is Orton. This seems a bit coincidental and forced. Groff’s afternotes again to the rescue – she based the character on Martha Gellhorn, who was indeed a novelist and war correspondent (and Hemingway’s third wife) at a very young age, though not quite as young as the character Bern. My bad again.

 Overall the story carries some interesting and hard-hitting images of WWII, and the “delicate, edible birds” image works throughout, applying to French countrymen strafed by a German plane, to pretty much everyone in the path of the Nazis as they occupied France, to these journalists, to women in general, and to Bern herself. They are racing to get to Bordeaux, believing it to be safe there. I’m a little hazy on the Occupation and Vichy France and all, but my understanding is that journalists were interned at Lourdes and Baden Baden, safely and relatively comfortably, so I had trouble understanding the urgency to escape – but I am willing to accept that history may show things very differently from how they would’ve been perceived at the time, and had I been a journalist I would’ve been quite eager to get the hell out of there before any swastikas showed up. And again, Groff’s afternotes point out that the Maupassant short story “Boule de Suif”, as well as the collected letters of Ms. Gellhorn, were the basis for the journalists’ escapades. And by now I’m downright embarrassed by my stupidity. And as a result, of course, I hate this story. Wouldn’t you? But I realize that isn’t fair.

 The crux of the story of this carload of journalists – from Italy, Russia, the US and England – is whether or not Bern should sleep with a civilian captor to obtain his help to flee the approaching German army. There is little surprise here; it’s a story not of plot but of people, interactions, backstories, and personality, though the people don’t surprise me either. Their French civilian captor (with his family of aged mother and two sons) at times seems like something out of a cross between the playwright in The Producers and the banjo people in Deliverance, but then he becomes quite eloquent and articulate, which seems odd, as if the character changes. But I may be supplying the oafish quality on my own.

 There’s something about the story that I enjoyed, and I’m not sure it was limited to the “Me, too” phenomenon. It seemed a little too precious at times (one of the male correspondents sees Bern as “the future” and I’ve already mentioned her last name being coincidentally similar to ortolan).  And maybe, if truth is stranger than fiction, I’d rather read about the real Martha Gellhorn than the fictional Bern, because, frankly, Bern seems a bit too staged to me. But there’s great potential as a discussion piece. How would it go down today? What are the motives of the men as they urge her to act in one way or another? How does the time in the barn change things? When she says, “It isn’t about courage” what is it about? Does she go because the men pressure her, or because she, too, is scared? There are many powerful moments, particularly regarding the car of journalists passing a crowd of straffed French civilians, and the backstories the journalists reveal. It’s a story worth reading and contains a lot of food for thought (other than birds). Especially for those smarter than I.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came To The End

I decided to read this because of comments I came across while checking out reviews of Ferris’s BASS 2010 story, “The Valetudinarian.” Several people praised this first novel (published 2007) though they weren’t sure about the story. When I found out it was a workplace novel, I had to give it a shot.

I started out loving it. But by page 70 I was wondering if this was all it was going to be; the read started to feel like work. At page 160 I almost gave up. But at page 196, I loved it again, though by page 250 I found myself disappointed, until, at page 300, it suddenly became the book I couldn’t stop reading, until page 385 when we, um, came to the end.

The novel is set mostly in early 2001, when the dot-com boom was going bust but before we could conceive of terrorism as something real and personal. The narrative takes a hiatus after the summer of 2001 and picks up again five years later, a wise choice, I think.

The narrative structure is a little weird. I’ve already pointed out the first person plural had me a little off-balance until I put a little stickie on it and was more able to deal with it. The timeline wobbles like the spiral razor wire on top of a security fence – it goes back, then forward, then over to another segment, and back again, looping and curling to bring several storylines together – which is pretty impressive, now that I’m not struggling with it. Several times I had the same experience as the pianist in The Unconsoled – I’d start to get into something and the train would jump track to something else, which was annoying until the something else became just as interesting but then we’d go back to the original thing but I’d forgotten the names. It took me quite a while to get the names straight, which I think is why I got a little frustrated in the middle.

We have the story of a group of advertising people. If you’ve ever spent any time in a large corporate office, it’s hilarious to recognize the behaviors and situations. For me, it was Computer Services, which became MIS, and even later called itself IT – the whole Dilbert experience, without the tech talk and geek culture. But any corporate setting will do, I think. There’s a story line about chairs. About cancer. About a crush. An illicit affair resulting in pregnancy. A totem pole. And through it all, people are being laid off, or worrying about being laid off, or remembering people who’ve been laid off.

There are gems throughout, but it wasn’t until fairly late that I started marking passages (I’m reading a library copy so I had to settle for flags instead of underlining). Benny has a mad crush on Marcia, and wants to compliment her on her new haircut. He calls it a nice “update” and she takes offense, and he is woebegone – he practiced, the words, the tone of voice, everything, and he still blew it – “He probably should have run it by a copywriter.” That was my first true laugh-out-loud point.

At a later point, a crisis evolves, leading to this insight:

Maybe there was an alternative to wealth and success as the fulfillment of the American dream. Or maybe that was the dream of a different nation, in some future world order, and we were stuck in the dark ages of luxury and comfort. How could we be expected to break out of it, we who were overpaid, well insured, and bonanza’ed with credit, we who were untrained in the enlightened practice of putting ourselves second? As [he] was taking aim at our lives, we felt for a split second the ambiguous, foreign, confounding certainty that maybe we were getting what we deserved.

And there’s a reference to a character who spends a day speaking only in lines from The Godfather, to prove how no one even tries to understand what someone is saying, they just nod and smile and let it go because it doesn’t matter that they don’t understand. This feels very familiar to me, and I wonder if someone told me of this before, or I read a review some time ago (not one of the ones I read recently). I’ve been very frustrated lately with people who either can’t hear me or have no idea what I’m talking about, or don’t remember things I’ve told them before so they miss the point, and it’s true, they just nod and smile. It’s identical to being ignored – what I’m saying isn’t worth the trouble to listen to.

The end of the book is wonderful, whether you define “end” as the last 85 pages or the last 5. For me, the last sentence is perfection – it ties a little bow on the narrator issue, and the title, in a way I’m not even sure I understand, which is what makes it perfect: it’s something I can think about. That’s the advantage of not being super-smart: whereas a genius would absorb it all instantly, it takes me a while, and that’s pleasant time spent.

The book works. It works even when I was sure it wasn’t working. I’m so glad I stuck with it.

Rebecca Lee – “Bobcat”

This is another in the Madras Press initial series of teeny-tiny books (see Aimee Bender’s The Third Elevator) and is very different but just as gripping to me – a story of a dinner party that exposes the state of several marriages and ends with an intrusion that destroys one.

The key image of the bobcat refers to an adventure of one of the dinner guests. She’d been out travelling the world when she was attacked by a bobcat and her injuries resulted in the loss of her arm. Other guests start to murmur among themselves that it couldn’t have happened that way, and eventually one states this disbelief openly. She doesn’t argue, she approaches it metaphorically – does it matter if it was a real bobcat or not? That sticks with me, because of course someone who’s had that kind of experience would be devastated to encounter people who don’t believe her.

The climactic event is just as shadowy. I’m not clear exactly what happened. I don’t think I’m supposed to know from the text. But we can all supply our own bobcat, because does it matter what kind of bobcat it is, what kind of disaster, the fact is, there is an intrusion and a dismemberment.

The language throughout is wonderful, down-to-earth, but quite beautiful as well. The opening sentences:

It was the terrine that got to me. I felt queasy enough that I had to sit in the living room and narrate to my husband what was the brutal list of tasks that would result in a terrine: devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables. It was like describing to somebody how to paint a Monet, how to turn the beatuy of the earth into a blurry, intoxicating swril, like something seen through the eyes of the dying.

This opening discussion of the making of a terrine, leading into an introduction of the guests, hooked me. There’s an incredible line about Salman Rushdie that still makes me stop and think, and an exchange about themed nurseries that still makes me giggle. As I’ve said the final event had me re-reading the text to see if I’d missed something, some crucial detail in an earlier passage, but I didn’t, it’s merely one of those stories that thrives on ambiguity, that provides a big idea and lets the reader supply the details. I like that. I usually get dinged when I try it, but I appreciate how it’s handled here, because marriage is like that, nothing is ever certain and it’s all very vague, it’s like a terrine where there’s seafood and vegetables and they’re all chopped up but you get the general idea, and several months after first reading the story, I’m still struck by the imagery of the bobcat, and the woman who showed up and stayed and stayed, and the terrine, which “really does need to be great to be not awful – it is meant to evince a perfect melding of disparate entities – the lion lying with the lamb, the sea greeting the land, and so forth.” That’s a lot of mileage out of a terrine.

Top Chef All Stars Season 8, Episode 3 – New York’s Finest (Restaurants)

What this episode lacked in personality explosions, it more than made up for in culinary fireworks. Aerated fois gras? Sea urchin zabayon? A lot better than rants.

David Chang shows up for the QF. Wow, that’s quite a coup, he’s very hot in the foodie world these days. Four teams of four, based on how they walked in. First, do mise en place, thought it’s not a relay, do it simultaneously. Mise en place plus one dish. First team that finishes all prep gets 15 minutes, the others have less. No immunity, but each member of the winning team gets $5000. Fabio thinks Angelo wears his pants too tight but that’s ok, he’s a good chef. I don’t understand. I’ve never noticed the tightness of Angelo’s pants. Why is Fabio noticing?

I like the design of this challenge, because speed is translated into time to cook but doesn’t necessarily mean a win. And prep speed should lead to better food, not just bragging rights.

The mise en place tasks: french a rack of lamb, turn artichokes, dice some huge amount of garlic (4 cups?). Why isn’t Spike doing the butchering on his team? Tre and Blais are cutting, didn’t Spike win the butchering challenge hands down for frenching tomahawk steaks beautifully?

Blue – Steven, Blais, Tre, Spike – crispy lamb, trio of artichokes, chili aioli. WINNER. Richard is happy because he took the lead on the dish so he feels he’s earned the trust of his team. I suspect everyone on the team feels the same way.
White – Marcel, DaleT, Carla, TiffayF – Carpaccio – second place.
Red – DaleL, Antonia, Casey, Jamie – carpaccio, capers, herb salad. Parmesan and parsley overwhelmed it, bottom 2.
Green – Angelo, TiffanyD, Isabella, Fabio – they finished the mise en place first, had the most time, but were in the bottom 2. Tandoori cooked lamb, slivers of artichoke, spiced yogurt. Thyme and yogurt overwhelmed dish. Angelo is embarrassed. He should be.

Elimination challenge – The contestants will dine at a NY restaurant, then prepare a dish the chef would be proud to put on his/her menu. Teammates are competing with each other. They draw knives to choose the restaurant. They eat. They cook. The judges (including Anthony Bourdain, yay!) go from restaurant to restaurant to taste. Padma is wearing a flowy beige-pink off-the-shoulder dress. It gets in and out of cabs a lot. The fact that I’ve noticed it means something, probably means someone paid a lot of money to get that dress front and center. They’ll be pleased to know they succeeded, since clothes are the last thing I usually notice.

Ma Peche, David Chang: Green team, Angelo, Fabio, TiffanyD, Isabella. French Vietnamese food.
Angelo is having all kinds of fun. Makes fish, dill, salmon roe, white chocolate. Judges call it creative, exciting. He’s in the top.
TiffanyD – gets annoyed with Angelo’s explanations of the food. Makes something with a purple radish. The judges think it’s missing something. She’s in the middle.
Isabella – dismisses TiffanyD because her dish is raw fish. He’s in the middle.
Fabio – miffed he can’t do pasta. “I do Italian, I don’t do asian french.” No, really? He makes barbecued lamb, pistachio, his own ricotta. The judges call him a talented cook lost in the forest. Lamb was too fatty, cassoulet overreduced. No confidence on dish. Like he didn’t taste anything. Unrelated stuff. Bottom.

Townhouse, David Burke. Red team – Dale, Jamie, Casey, Antonia –Modern American cuisine. Sea urchin zabayon. Rack of lamb with roasted octopus.
Antonia – overwhelmed and concerned, basic things that grow into big things, wants to turn peas and carrots into 2 Michelin star dish. Pea puree, Mint, scallops, pickled carrot. Judges like the assertive seasoning. Top.
Casey – “There’s a fish in my cocktail glass.” Complains that Dale wants her to taste everything he’s making, he has too much going on. Halibut, tapioca, ginger carrot soup – brilliant idea, fish is well cooked. Middle.
Jamie – smoked tomato bacon soup, charred onion vinaigrette. Could’ve been better, not enough wow factor. Smoke doesn’t add much. Middle.
Dale – veal loin, French toast, sweet dish with veal, popcorn and peanuts, circus, humor
and kitsch. Judges don’t understand inspiration, breakfast? Too sweet. Didn’t taste good. Too sweet. Bottom.

Marea, Michael White. Blue team – Spike, Tre, Stephen, Blais -– coastal Italian. Sea urchin on crostini.
Tre gets annoyed with Stephen’s lecture, says some people call him the Black Italian. He doesn’t like sea urchin. Makes swordfish, artichokes, panna cotta. Delicious panna cotta. Top.
Blais knows he needs to edit himself, restraint. He thinks Stephen feels out of place. Mackerel crudo. Flavor forward. He makes Middle.
Spike makes branzino, caponata. The caponetta, isn’t. Middle.
Stephen eats there a lot, starts lecturing. He’s very happy, it’s a high-end restaurant, people with nice suits, just his kind of place. Given Tre’s comment about him being a great dresser last week, this amused me. Stephen is swearing at a blender. It looks like he hasn’t used a blender lately. Salmon over eggplant, uses too much fennel pollen, Bourdain thinks it tastes like a head shop, sandalwood. Bottom.

WD50, Wiley Dufresne. White team – Marcel, DaleT, Carla, TiffanyF–– avant garde. They eat aerated fois gras and a scrambled egg bloc.
DaleT read that Wiley loves eggs. He makes egg dumpling with pork belly and ramen, stays true to himself, inspired by Wylie. Judges love it, cool, breakfast inspired, like buttered toast. They praise him for restraining himself from playing with techniques, focusing on food. Top.
Carla looks forward to marrying classic and modern, but nervous, style is so different. She makes shrimp & grits. Nice job but safe. Smart given her background. Middle.
Marcel is overwhelmed with awe; he was once accused of culinary plagiarism by a WD sous chef. He makes vadouvan lamb, tzatziki, flatbread. Bourdain thinks he’s more restrained than expected. Wylie says he embraced the equipment, but hasn’t used techniques to improve the dish. Ouch. This is the second time Wylie has judged Marcel’s food. Middle. That must hurt.
TiffanyF – Marcel says she isn’t thinking about the diner in using techniques – interesting given the critique of his dish. Frozen melon with powdered ham & cheese, which sounds like it comes in a blue box. She wins Best Quote of the Night: “I probably should not have frozen my melons.” Bourdain says she lost control of the dish. It’s murky. Watery, mushy, a parody of WD50. Bottom.

Best dishes, one from each team: DaleT, Angelo, Antonia, Tre. Winner gets a 6 night trip to New Zealand. Angelo is praised for brilliant use of white chocolate, Antonia for elevating peas & carrots, Tre for his fish, DaleT for his egg. DaleT wins. I’m a little surprised, they say, “For representing the kitchen he was cooking in,” interesting, since he didn’t use any of the techniques Wylie Dufresne is famous for. But he was a fish out of water and he made a great dish with beloved eggs and it was creative even if it was creative in ways that did not use molecular gastronomy techniques, whereas Angelo was in his element in the Asian restaurant.

Worst dishes – Stephen, TiffanyF, Fabio, DaleL, and they are encouraged by the other contestants to fight hard but not too hard. They don’t fight at all really except for Fabio who’s always fighting for pasta and making excuses for anything that isn’t pasta. Stephen admits he blew it; lots of stuff shouldn’t have made it to the plate. TiffanyF is disappointed that she overused stuff.

Stephen and Dale are out. I was surprised – they specifically said Stephen did some things well, the salmon and pesto, yet they didn’t mention good things Fabio or Tiffany did. But I read Bourdain’s TC blog, and he said Fabio’s dish wasn’t that bad, he’d eat it again. So it sounds like their critique was overstated. Stephen admits he wasn’t up to par, which is growth for him, I’m impressed. Dale is sad, maybe he’ll come back for TC16, the Seniors round. I have a feeling TC might be coming to an end sooner than that.

The Sing-Off Round 4 – Superstar Medleys and Judges’ Picks

Group Number: “Little Help From My Friends”. A really good rendition – and I say that as a devotee of Joe Cocker. Jerry Lawson absolutely slays it halfway through with a scream to nice leaning choreography, he and all the other leads are terrific, the bass guitar line is wonderful. Very nice.

Two groups will go home today, one after the Superstar Medley round, one after the Judge’s Pick round. The live finale on Monday will show the remaining three groups. Viewers can vote until Sunday morning, details at end.

First round, Superstar Medleys.

On the Rocks – Elton John. The Bitch is Back; Benny & the Jets (lead has perfect voice on opening, weakens halfway through segment, does good falsetto. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, the lead pushed or sounded nervous or something. They do very good “ahh” harmony to open and close the set. Still, I love Elton John and while it was very good, it was still a choral interpretation of Elton John – I think that’s an arrangement problem, they executed it very well except for those two lead issues). Pussycat loved it, first time she’s heard them so clean. I don’t know about the first time, but they were very clean and precise and blended well. Ben says good blend and good energy, Bitch was too complicated, Benny could’ve been slower, Sun was great. Shawn liked changing up the leads. I think he meant they were distinct in vocal style.

Committed – sings “Joy To The World” as an interstitial-intro. I really like that they give them the opportunity to do these little things in between. I love their styling, turquoise shirts, grey suit pieces, pink ties. Usher medley: DJ Got Us Falling in Love; You Got it Bad; Making Love (Into the Night) (I think these are the songs, I’m guessing); nice jazzy ending, kind of reminded me of Groove for Thought. I didn’t know the songs, I found it rather bland and even throughout, though well done. Best line of the night is from Ben: “You’ve taken this journey from, I don’t know, birth control music to that”; seamless switch in percussion, very nice; Shawn, great transitions, kept the bounce that Usher songs should have, saw some movement from the church boys; Pussycat saw the holy spirit moving through them; not many groups can move from the church to the club (which is nonsense, many many black singers from Aretha to Fantasia to Marian Anderson started singing in church, and quite a few white country singers as well).

Street Corner Symphony: Beatles. Eleanor Rigby (good choice, lots of instrumental, good lead); Help – nice instrumentals, bass is great, lead works; Hey Jude (fantastic choice for a cappella singing) great lead, sounds like Paul – wonderful crescendo to nananana part, got some rock in there. I loved this, but that’s probably because I know and love the songs and they had a good arrangement. Shawn – began with some rhythm problems, liked that they kept it simple, second lead looks like John Lennon (they all do, like the early Beatles and sort of have the little British edge), Ben says they weren’t tuned at first but they tuned themselves, nice left handed bass, great beat box, but why wasn’t it in all along like in Hey Jude? Pussycat liked it.

Backbeats – Do “white Christmas as an interstitial-intro. Lady Gaga. Uh oh. Everything I know about Lady Gaga comes from Glee, and from her visit to Maine to rally for the repeal of DADT, bless her heart, I’ll always appreciate her for that, whatever she sings. Poker face; Paparazzi; where are my keys I lost my phone; I don’t know, I guess they were good, I didn’t hear anything off, but I don’t know enough to see the fine points. Pussycat thinks we don’t know how hard this is. Yes, we do, you don’t have to tell us every 15 minutes, it’s very hard, and these groups are all very good. Shawn thinks they were really good; Ben loved the percussion in Paparazzi, glad they share the limelight.

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town – Otis Redding. Sitting on the Dock of the Bay; Try a Little Tenderness Nice second lead, with rhythm change; Respect (I think they could’ve done a little more with this, got me out of my chair, but it was good). Ben liked the transitions and second lead, a couple of pitch issues in Tenderness, but lots of energy. Shawn says epitome of class style and experience; Pussycat got goosebumps, of course she would.

Now they kick someone off. Hmmm. Me, I think Jerry Lawson has had a good run and they should stop while they’re ahead. They just aren’t doing things at the same level of difficulty the others are, and now things have come to the point where that matters.

On the Rocks is off, which, well, I’m ok with that, they have 15 guys and they haven’t shown a lot more than the six guy groups, so this works for me. I’m very glad they introduced me to that Kyrie they did the other night. They do a very cute little speech incorporating something from each judge, and “Final Countdown” is their swan song which is cool. Interesting, the judges sounded like they had more complaints about Street Corner Symphony but I’m thinking they gave them credit for really getting into their set, looking and acting and sounding like the Beatles, and for being six guys against 15. That’s just my guess but it makes sense. Not to mention SCS really hit it out of the park the other night. I do think Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town got a pass for rep but when six old men can keep up with college kids and 20/30-somethings, doing a lot of music that isn’t really part of their lives, they can have a pass.

The next round is Judges’ Request

Committed – “Let’s Stay Together” – rev. Al Green – rolling leads, nice use of falsetto, nice thick chords and good percussion that is almost subconscious. Nice, very nice. Shawn loves Al Green, likes how they didn’t reinvent the song, smooth, great leads. Pussycat, liked the minimal choreography, something about candy, oh shut up lady. Ben appreciates choreography with stools, me too, likes the complex harmonics of the backup. What would it mean to you to go to the finals: well, duh, God has brought them a long way, what did you expect them to say, thank God we don’t have to waste all this talent in church any more?

Street Corner Symphony – “Auld Lang Syne” as the interstitial-intro. The judges pick “Down on the Corner” – woo-woo! Wonderful percussion – Love Love Love the riff they do, and the last chorus echoes the way it’s supposed to – not crazy about the very end, but that’s my opinion. Ben – judges picked the right song, they nailed it, made a classic sound modern, excitement built naturally, nice work. Shawn, glad they kept it original, playful, soulful, white boys got funky, arena a cappella, arenapella. See if that catches on. Pussycat, alive and kicking, she hears everyone individually and together.

Backbeats – “Landslide” – one of my favorites. Starts with pings. Love Love LOVE the cello! Oh no, the lead blew “ocean”, that’s interesting, she’s been so perfect, she has a very nice soft low voice. Full chorus nice. Very thoughtful, I liked it, that one bobble. Pussycat whines about competition. Ben thinks they’ve grown up, nailing hard things, innovative arrangement, delivered emotionally, very nice. Shawn saw the sound, it was that beautiful, lead has sincere eyes. If group went to finale: blown away. Yeah, like they’re gonna say “oh, really, that’s nice I guess.”

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town – They do “Silent Night” as their interstitial-intro. “House of the Rising Sun” – ok, now there’s a song for ya. Now that was nice. Different, the very beginning threw me but I think that’s because it was not what I was expecting. Now I’m glad they didn’t go home. Great backup, nice switchups. I’ve heard similar versions, really nice. Shawn – turned it into a gospel, see sound. Ben wants the Coen brothers to make a movie out of that soundtrack. How would they feel about getting to the finale: no words, second chance, preserving the art of a cappella.

I have no idea who’s going home. They all nailed it with the exception of a tiny bobble on one note of “landslide” but nothing close to axe territory. I don’t know, I want to hear more from all of them. I can’t say I’d send Jerry Lawson home now, not after that performance, I retract what I said earlier, they’ve earned their place. But I can’t say I’d send anyone else home either. Maybe Committed, just because they blew me away a little less than the others, but that’s probably the song, they did a great job with it. It’s like Season 6 of Top Chef as the Fab Four was cut to three – someone very talented is getting cut tonight. I don’t know.

Ha! The judges couldn’t decide either, they’re all going to the finale. I think that was phony – come on, they don’t make snap decisions that involve live TV time and crew, then again, this was filmed last August so I guess they had plenty of time to plan ahead. I have to say, I’m relieved, because I don’t see how they could’ve justified sending anyone home.

Now it’s the viewer’s turn. Vote until Sunday, December 19 at 9:00am eastern. 10 votes per method. Or go to nbc.com (I haven’t double-checked this, you might want to verify phone numbers).
Committed: 1-877-6-SING-01 (1-877-674-6401) or text 1 to 97979
Street Corner Symphony: 1-877-SING-02 (1-877-674-6402) or text 2 to 97979
The Backbeats: 1-877-SING-03 (1-877-674-6403) or text 3 to 97979
Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town: 1-877-SING-04 (1-877-674-6404) or text 4 to 97979.

This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

I love teeny tiny books. I love oddball books. I love books about writing that mean something to me (not many of them do). And I love Steve Almond. Put them together, and you’ve got This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey which I first heard of in Randall Brown’s blog, FlashFiction.Net.

 It’s a teeny tiny book, I carry it in my rucksack along with Amie Bender’s “The Third Elevator” and whatever collection I’m reading at the moment, because I never know when I’ll want to look at it.  4½ by 6½ , 37 plus 41 pages. Why not just 78 pages? Because it’s two (snap) Two (snap) TWO books in one (if you weren’t a TV addict in the 70′s, that reference will go right by you). When you’re Steve Almond, you can get away with that.

 When viewed from one side, there’s nurse on the cover (the legs of a nurse, at least) dressed in a white uniform, holding a hypodermic syringe. It’s kinda scary, but, after all, this won’t take but a minute, honey. What follows is a series of essays about writing (prescription, see?). Wonderful essays. One of the last discusses titles for stories, and mentions a brilliant student named Ellen Litman who wrote a wonderful story about Russian immigrants titled something bland like “How to Succeed in America” but contained a scene about the narrator’s father clutching a supermarket chicken like it was “The Last Chicken In America” which because the title of the story and the novel-in-stories that resulted. A review of this book on Jon Morgan Davies’s delightful blog “Short Story Reader” reminded me that I hadn’t yet put Steve Almond’s gem of work and play on this blog as a Favorite Read, prompting me to do so immediately.

The essay that meant the most to me, though, was the one about the character alienated from everything living at the bottom of a large hole. It’s his #1 Plot Fail. I was stunned: I thought I was the only one who did this, and now I find everyone does it. “Character in a Hole” is a hilarious essay, about such alienated characters still wanting something, like a really big symbolic fish. His take on the development of the bullshit detector is also special. But every essay is special.

And then we come to the stories. A story about Nixon – yes, President Nixon – that made me cry. Stories about socks, cashiers, various phases of Germany. Amazing stories, so short you can read one while holding your breath, but so long they stay in your head. To read these stories, you must flip over the book, to reveal the cover – the nurse in white with the hypo is now in a black catsuit and heels with a whip in her hand – the Fun side. Or maybe, once you’ve had your Fun, you need your Shot, I don’t know, it’s very entertaining to keep flipping the book (half is always upside down) just looking at the covers, and if you read in public as I do, someone will always stop to stare at you (which, frankly, I could do without, at least when I’m at the supermarket – maybe I need to find a new venue for public reading).

 I read somewhere that this magnificent book is available only at Steve Almond’s readings, or through the Harvard Book Store. I don’t remember where I heard that, but I tend to believe it because it isn’t on Amazon. And because Steve Almond self-published it. When you’re Steve Almond, you can get away with that.

The Sing-Off Round 3 – Rock Hits and Guilty Pleasures

Only one group will be cut tonight. Each group will do two songs – one, a Rock Hit, and one, a Guilty Pleasure. I think I enjoyed the Guilty Pleasures the most last season – “Come Sail Away” comes to mind.

The group number is Green Day’s “Twenty-One Guns”. Another song I’ve never heard before, not bad at all.

Backbeats – Bon Jovi “A Bad Name”. Lots of bass and percussion, great harmony, good choreography, a little muddled, too busy for my taste but that’s rock. Pussycat wanted them to step up a little more, slow the tempo down, make a meal of it. Ben thought the arrangement was much better right after the bridge. Shawn also thought it got better towards the end.

Street Corner Symphony – they do Burning Ring of Fire as an interstitial-intro, which is amazingly cool. I’m such a dork. For their rock song, they do Radio Heads, “Creep” – another song I never heard of, it’s hilarious, I don’t think it’s supposed to be but it’s wonderful. Wow, that was amazing. They worked up the dynamics and tension, really great, started off a little scary, I was wondering what they were doing, but wow it really worked. Ben liked it, great lead and the chorus really came together. Shawn was glad they didn’t have any choreography (yes!). The lead showed his range. Pussycat thought the instrumentation was better than the original. I’ve never heard the original but I’m going to agree with her anyway. I may download this. For my “wallow” playlist. ;)

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town – Stones “Satisfaction” – I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words before – are those really the words? They stomp on the stage! They’re great – the first line or two was really slow, and, well, a little creepy, with this old guy doing subtle hip rolls, hmm, I don’t know, but it got great real quick. Shawn calls them true professionals, says that’s what rock was, fun and flirtatious (before it got all depressed). Pussycat got satisfaction, I’m so glad. Ben thought of listening to Otis Redding when he was a kid, something about the speakers and shaking his butt, I’m not exactly sure what he was saying and I think I’d rather not know.

On the Rocks – “Pour Some Sugar On Me” – now this was a stupid song. They did a good job, but standard as far as I can tell. Good energy, lots of volume, but it was a big shrug. Very good percussion, though. Last week Ben told them he wanted them to be more artists than entertainers, and I don’t think this is it. Pussycat loved the choreography; of course she did; she wished the lead had “owned” it more. Oh, I think he owned it completely. Ben congratulated Jonah on his “posterior hump maneuver”, but isn’t sure there was a transition from entertainer to artist (told you so), and he couldn’t tell where the pitch center was. Still, it was fun for him. Shawn thought it was a heavy song and wished there was more bottom, that the lead had more of a rock edge.

Groove for Thought – David Bowie’s “Changes” – the opening didn’t work for me at all, the lead was vague. Oh, that song, now I get it. They aren’t exactly rocking it out. The lead isn’t really pleasant to listen to, uncertain on pitch, breathy, sounds nervous, and I think she forgot the words or just tripped over her tongue in one place near the end. Shawn thinks they could sing a menu and make it sound good and the lead has a lovely voice (?) but it’s not rock. Pussycat agrees, they need more diversity, more than jazz, and she noticed the lead lost her place towards the end. Ben said it wasn’t rocking out but he was moved, and yeah, there was a mistake at the end, but they were good. I don’t know, I think they just put themselves on the chopping block.

Committed – they do “Down by the Riverside” as an interstitial-intro. Police “Every Breath you Take”. Great bass guitar. There’s kind of an annoying whine in the first verse. Love the bridge. Double leads, cool. Great variation. Ended with a sax riff, not so much, no. But very good overall. Ben wants to write ten pages on what they do right, and how they think well, and they don’t make convincing thugs; but it isn’t rock: “I’m a big fan but I can’t say that rocked.” Shawn says he would’ve liked to have heard it more melancholy, not his favorite arrangement. Pussycat agrees. I’m surprised. It was more choral or even jazz than rock, but the song isn’t exactly a screaming-smashing-guitars thing.

Guilty Pleasures:

Backbeats – “Love Shack” by the B52′s. Leader says they’ve been doing serious songs, so it’s a good time to get silly. Yep, silly but fun and very good, great choreography, good bass, nice to hear the leader singing lead, and the girl from last time (Courtney?) singing, well, screaming, if only one note. Ben’s happy. Nicole’s happy. Shawn, hot & fun, fell into character.

Street Corner Symphony – time to unpractice. “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. That was a bunch of songs. I think they did the job. I didn’t particularly like the song or the performance but they did what they were supposed to do and they had to do all those styles. Shawn liked the toura loura louras, Pussycat says they should unpractice more often, Ben was impressed with how they did five different rhythms.

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town – This one is for the ladies. Commodore’s “Easy” – amazing falsetto. Jerry Lawson kind of reminds me of the guy that spoofs the former governor of New York on SNL, maybe that’s why he creeps me out a little, he kind of stares. Pussycat thinks it was easy. Ben liked the bass line, loved the falsetto, and that everyone has a different personality. Shawn, loved the bass and falsetto.

Groove for Thought – I missed them, will pick up later. Judges loved second song.

On the Rocks – “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister – wow, a pop kyrie? Cool! Wow. That was great – I missed the intro, but loved it. I loved the song. Ben thought it was strange they waited until the guilty pleasure to show their artistry, and I agree. Great lead vocal, sweet harmonies, fun, amazing. Shawn – felt like he sprouted wings, flew over the Grand Canyon, saw deer and birds and… hi! I think he’s making fun of the song. Pussycat loved it. Uh oh. But I’m going to download this and it’s the first song I’ve wanted to actually own. They did “Pour Some Sugar On Me” as their rock song and this as their guilty pleasure – I think they got their songs mixed up.

Committed – Back Street Boys, “I Want it That Way” – nice, I was in and out so I didn’t see it all, but it sounded great. Pussycat says “It was so warm and then you just busted it out” which, yeah, I have to agree with that. Shawn liked it, Ben loved the lead vocal, A-Plus.

It’s hard to tell who’ll leave, because several groups did a good number and a mediocre one – Backbeats did “A Bad Name” kind of meh, but “Love Shack” was great. Street Corner Symphony did “Creep” and “Come On Eileen”, I think they won the night with two great performances. Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town did “Satisfaction” and “Easy”, I’d give them a B on both but the judges seemed very happy with both. On the Rocks did their songs in the wrong order but did well on both, I just didn’t like the first song. Groove for Thought did “Changes” and whatever their second song was, I’d cut them because “Changes was so awful, but the judges seem to love the lead’s voice. Committed did two Bs by me but the judges seemed happy. We get down to “On the Rocks” and Groove for Thought and I’ll be very unhappy if it’s “On the Rocks”…

Whew, Groove for Thought is out. Not that I didn’t like them, I just liked the others more, and I thought their first song had real problems. “That’s Life” is their swan song – perfect choice. I think it’s a matter of style really.

It’s Paula Poundstone’s fault I’m not writing

If I’m writing about not writing, does it mean I’m not not writing?

I tried to do an exercise from the What If? book today, but my mind just wouldn’t cooperate. It’s a good exercise, I think, but it calls for an early draft of a story, and I just don’t have one. I have some pre-drafts. I can’t seem to get to the draft stage. So I’m taking a vacation. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

My mind is full of other things and I think I just need to let myself focus on what I’m focused on. Like Paula Poundstone. Last July, Sally had a birthday, and at the time I looked for a concert she might like, since I’d just give her books or music and she’s always giving me the books and music that are overflowing on her shelves. I gave her a choice of several things, and she picked Paula Poundstone. Last night was the concert, and it was hysterical. At times I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. At other times I just laughed so hard tears were pouring out and yes, I peed a little a couple of times, but I’d prepared for that so it wasn’t a catastrophe. I can’t even explain what was so funny, except that she has a way of making anything sound funny. One of her shticks is asking audience members what they do for a living. It seems it was a medical audience – three therapists, a former nurse, and a physical therapist before we finally got to a guy who sells furniture – who’s married to a therapist. Since Paula is pretty famous for being maladjusted, she got a lot out of all the shrinks. And the Pop-Tart routine. And fiddlers, which is something Sally loves. So it was really good stuff, stuff we loved, and Sally had a great time even though she had some significant pain.

We had dinner first at Local Sprouts, a Unitarian restaurant. Of course there is no such thing as a Unitarian restaurant, but the chef and one of the partners are Unitarians and they’re all about local and organic and all those Unitarian buzzwords. The meal was good, I had a rice casserole baked in filo dough, and Sally had pollock on top of a slice of squash. We shared so we ended up having half each, and it was a lot of fun. Then the concert. And we even got a good parking space!

So now that I can free that from my mind (I really didn’t think it was going to happen, I figured Sally would cancel for some reason or I’d die or the concert would be cancelled) and all I can think about is cookies. And vetebrod.

So I’m giving in to it, I got my cardamom to make my real vetebrod instead of the stollen thing, and I have to get some booze to make fruitcake cookies and pfefferneuse. I’ve already got the oatmeal chocolate chip cranberry cookies packed up. I overbaked a batch, but they aren’t bad. And tuiles, they look nice and light.

I’ll give myself a pass on writing until I get bored with cooking. Then I’ll go back to it.

Top Chef All Stars Season 8, Episode 2 – A Night at the Museum

I’m not someone who likes meanness in my reality shows. To me, meanness is like that pickle Down Home Cookin’ insists on sticking in the paper wrapper of my sandwich, it gets smelly pickle juice all over my hands, my clothes, my desk or kitchen table, and it doesn’t spice up the sandwich, it just ruins everything.

But this season of TC is pretty mean, and I’m loving it. I wonder if that means I’ve become meaner. Or if I’m just becoming a better reality TV consumer. Or maybe, because I know everyone involved pretty well (as a tv viewer seeing them on an edited show, which is to say not at all), it just tickles me when someone either lives up to their past (hi, Marcel) or breaks into a new routine (looking at you, Jen).Whichever, the meanness ran high tonight and I was giggling throughout. It seemed like funny meanness. Like one of the Three Stooges hitting the other on the head with a seltzer bottle.

But I first want to address something Tom said in his BravoTV Blog entry: “”We cannot say so overtly while eating the food, lest the episode be over before it’s over, but it was abundantly clear to us all that ‘Team Herbivore’ was the runaway winner.” First, it was clear to me as a viewer. Second, why is it such a problem? I just posted about The Sing-Off, how I knew who would be eliminated, and it didn’t mar the enjoyment of the show at all. On the contrary, it felt like I was in sync with the judges and they were evaluating and deciding fairly. What is this obsession with false suspense? Sometimes it is suspenseful – two great dishes (or two terrible ones) and the decision is made on something like “Which is better, simplicity that reveals flavor, or complexity that creates wonder?” (or, “which is worse, a bad concept or bad execution?”). Tonight was not one of those times. It was clear. There’s no harm in saying so. Muddling things only makes the show infuriating.

The theme tonight was the Museum of Natural History in New York, and a sleepover for school kids. How come we never did anything like that when I was in school? I’ve heard people talk about this, like it’s something everyone does these days. Of course, when I was in school, in South Florida back in the 60′s, things were different. I don’t think there was a museum within two hundred miles, for one thing.

Quickfire: Prepare a midnight snack for the kids at the museum. No utensils or plates, it’ll be in a paper bag. One of the Jonas brothers is the guest judge. Don’t ask me which one, I think I’m doing well knowing there are Jonas brothers at all. DaleT thought he might be a pastry chef.

The interesting thing here is that a lot of these guys had bad experiences with children in their initial season. TiffanyF, for example, and we revisit her snobbery about making real applesauce without sugar or food coloring and what a shame it is that kids have such horrible palates and it’s all beneath her to cook for kids. Then there was Angelo making celery with peanut butter as a dish, and Jonas specifically says it can’t just be celery with peanut butter. They don’t show a reaction shot, I wish they had.

DaleL – decides to get the kids as jacked up on sugar as possible. Something with graham crackers and chocolate.

DaleT – takes the whole container of sugar, pissing everyone off. “Healthy food sucks. Unhealthy tastes good.” The kids are gonna be crazy from sugar. He wants to put some Nyquil in his corn cakes to knock them out. I love this guy.

Marcel –He is very happy to be cooking for kids. His mom took over the food program in his elementary school. Oh. That explains a lot, I think. He makes something with marshmallows.

Spike – comes from a restaurant family, decides chips and dip are the answer. Carrot and potato chips, mascarpone.

TiffanyF –”Just give the kids what they want” – If a snowball, a moonpie, and Rice Krispies treats had a threesome and had a baby, that’s her snack. Yep. That’s a change.

Blais – didn’t know much about what to eat. Microwaved bread. SHENANIGANS! That’s a modification of that microwave cake from Iron Chef, damn, he’s calling it bread now? I want a big buzzer over his head at all times that goes off every time he rolls that out. Or banana scallops, since he used them three times in his first season.

Stephen – healthy food was important in his life as a child. Snickerdoodle cookies, fairly low in sugar. With apricot type stuff in between.

Antonia – white chocolate and cherry muffin. Sounds delicious.

Tre – cracker with jam and bacon.

Casey – chocolate and bacon lasagna. Isabella wants to throw up. Now he knows how I feel whenever he’s on my tv screen.

Jamie – something with cinnamon apple sauce.

TiffanyD – coconut cookie.

Fabio – apple dipped in chocolate and stuff.

Angelo – Cheese crisps, 2010 The Evolution. Really, that’s what he called it. Then he explains it’s fried dough with stuff on it.

Jen –If the kids don’t like it they can throw it at each other. What is wrong with Jen?

Isabella – makes a cookie. Not sweet enough.

Bottom
Stephen – cookie good, in between stuff not good.
TiffanyD – coconut cookie fell apart.
Isabella (who has never been in the bottom of a QF before).

Favorites –
Spike and Tiffany, it’s a tie, so they’re going to the museum to let the kids decide.

DaleL isn’t happy. “They’re called brats for a reason.” I love kid haters, being one myself. People who are willing to say they hate kids are very brave.

They pick teams.

Spike: Blais, Marcel, Isabella, DaleT, Stephen, Angelo, Carla. Leftover Fabio chooses Spike.

TiffanyF: Jen, Antonia, Jamie, Casey, TiffanyD, DaleL, Tre.

Jamie is upset at helping someone else win a QF and get an advantage in the EC, and I don’t blame her. Jamie has no interest in having children. Ever. As little as I think of her this season, I love her for this, because I have to.

DaleL: “It’s the Spice Girls plus their bodyguard vs the cool kids plus babysitter Carla.” Hey – don’t you go slammin’ my Carla! You lose the points you gained by being a kid hater.

When they pass out the bags with snacks, TiffanyF does the Monkfish Interpretive Dance (except this time it’s the Chocolate Moonpie Interpretive Dance). Say what you want about her, she learns from experience.

The kids start cheering wildly for Padma in her flouncy napkin blouse. No, they’re cheering for the Jonas brother. Padma must feel quite inadequate. Not only is she wearing a flouncy napkin on her breasts, she’s second fiddle to a goofy kid.

TiffanyF wins! Sugar trumps salt, or it’s that Monkfish Interpretive Dance. She gets an advantage.

Elimination challenge: starts immediately. They will make breakfast for the kids, their parents, and the judges, so they will stay overnight in the museum. On cots. Stephen isn’t happy with the cot setup. He lives in a loft in downtown Manhattan and a cot in the museum with 16 of his competitors is not his style.

TiffanyF can choose T-Rex or Brontosaurus – carnivore, or herbivore. Tiffany chooses carnivore. Makes sense, eggs, steak, bacon. But no herbs, bread, flour, lemon, onions, which she doesn’t realize until later.

Both teams do a planning session which is hard because they really don’t know what’s in the kitchen. Jen is saying “I’m against you, you’re against me…” I’m not sure what she means. She says they’re pairing up to work on dishes. TiffanyD interviews that Jen should take a chill pill.

The brontosaurus team takes a flashlight tour of the museum. The T rex team naps. They both get up at 4am to cook. Spike looks at a display of the brain and starts talking about the brain of the other team: a brain that picks meat over vegetables, a brain that’s going to be sleepy, a brain that will lose. This doesn’t sound like much but it was hilarious. It’s like they have a comedy coach this season.

Carla and Spike work on gazpacho.

Fabio and Stephen work on gnocchi. And as always, Stephen has a lot of work to do while everyone else is sitting around eating bonbons. Fabio gets upset that Spike is stirring his gnocchi wrong.

Jamie cuts her hand and goes to the hospital. Fabio tells about the time he broke his finger and kept cooking. He’s got a point. I think she was just sick of doing this. Jen doesn’t care. Jen has some idea for bacon as pork belly with eggs on top, Casey says it tasted like wet bacon to her. I think maybe she was aiming for the same thing one of the Volts made in the Thunderbirds challenge – bacon treated as pork belly, but they made a taco out of it.

Uh oh, Casey is getting along really well with Tre. Casey was famous for buddying up to people just before they got sent home. If I were Tre, I’d run in the other direction. They’re making salmon with some kind of sauce.

TiffanyD and Antonia are making frittatas in muffin tins but they aren’t cooking evenly.

Mike and DaleT make polenta.

And it’s service time. Marcel finds Carla cutting up his plums. It’s way funnier than it sounds. Angelo told her to. Marcel is upset. “You don’t mess with someone else’s mis en place.” I want that on a tshirt.

Jamie comes back from the hospital with two stitches. No one is impressed.

Katie Lee is back, sans the Joel. She looks like she’s a little older and wiser. Rock stars will do that to you, I hear. Go ask Christie Brinkley.

Comments during service make it pretty clear that T Rex is in big trouble. Bronts are doing pretty good. DaleL just wants to take a shower. I don’t blame him.

There’s interstitial commenting on Fabio charming the guests: he’s the Mayor, he’s kissing people, he’s everyone’s best friend… Spike says, “He’s a car salesman” which improves Spike’s standing in my eyes.

Team Brontosaurus wins. Fabio complains anyway about how Spike cooked his gnocchi, even though they liked it. “Here comes the bus” says someone, I don’t know who. The Parfait wins, giving Marcel, Richard, and Angelo the win. And we have the first “to be honest witchoo” from Angelo. Marcel thinks he would’ve been the solo winner if they’d done solo winners.

Bronts go back to Stew and there’s tepid applause from TRex. TiffanyF looks sick. TRex go out to face the judges. TiffanyF explains how her decision wasn’t wrong at all, it was the challenge that was wrong. Antonia and TiffanyD admit the frittatas didn’t cook evenly. Dale L and TiffanyF’s Steak and eggs were good, but considering it was a grilled steak and scrambled eggs, it should have been good, it was too simple to screw up. Casey’s salmon was good but Tre’s sauce overreduced and was way too salty. Jen morphs into a neckbitch. Some kind of dinosaur with a throat like a bullfrog that sticks out. Or like that thing that Troi devolved into on StarTrek:TNG. She tells Tom off, he should be smart enough to ask for another plate if he doesn’t like it all on one plate. She didn’t care that Jamie was there. Their team made the better spread and she tasted every one of the other dishes. Her eggs were not bland no matter what Tom says. I want to shoot her with a tranquilizer dart. Really, it was embarrassing. I wonder if Eric Ripert wanted to shoot her, too, and not with no dart. They go back to Stew so the judges can talk behind their backs. Someone in stew asks if Jen was like that on he season and she says,” Absolutely not, welcome to All Star Jen.”

The judges deliberate, and Tom assures everyone that the person who goes home will go for a bad dish, not for talking back. They liked the salmon, but the sauce was awful and Tre knew it overreduced but did nothing about it. I would love it if Tre went home after Casey snuggled up to him – that’s why they showed that, isn’t it? The judges don’t know what to do with Jamie since she didn’t do anything and it didn’t matter that she didn’t do anything. And Antonia and TiffanyD should’ve been able to figure out how to rotate the frittata pans in the oven.

In the end, Jen goes home. Jen? She laughs. That kind of bat-shit crazy laugh, like Very funny, now tell us who really goes home. Antonia and TiffanyD are shocked. Everyone is shocked. Wow. When she stops laughing, she is shocked, and after she says her goodbyes and leaves Stew she can be heard screaming something at someone, most of which is bleeped out. I’ve got to go find an interview. It’s sad to see someone so talented turn into something unrecognizable, especially when her mentor and boss, Eric Ripert, has said several times that he turned away from the Chef as Monster model to require courtesy and civility in his kitchens.

I don’t have any problem with her being cut. Yes, I think she must be very talented; I’m sure slouches and idiots don’t work for Eric Ripert for long. I feel bad for her. But I don’t think she’s ever lived up to her potential on TC. I don’t know why she’s so arrogant this time around, but it’s not attractive, and it doesn’t seem to have been effective, either. Which is one reason this felt so satisfying – the bully didn’t get her way. Finally. And I’m impressed with Anthony Bourdain, champion of the rude and intimidating, who dissed her attitude (and Elia’s from her post-show interviews slamming Tom) in his BravoTV blog. But I also love Eric Ripert, her boss and mentor who titled his blog, “Jenny is my Friend” (it’s a video blog so I don’t know what it says, I hope someone will post a transcript).

Saddest moment: Jen says something like, “My father always says, second place is still losing. I wonder what he’s going to say about second to last.” I wonder, too, and I wonder how much that has to do with the change in attitude.

Addendum: Jen’s post-viewing interviews have been published at TV Guide and the Chicago Tribune’s The Stew. She’s a mensch. I have to admire her – she blames no one, she admits she was over the line, she regrets it, and she would’ve done things differently, including her dish. This is class. Of course, it would’ve been classier to have nothing to admit to, but it’s so much better than Elia’s throwing everyone from Tom down under the bus.

My favorite part of the interview: from The Stew: “I had a hell of a lot of fun doing that food fight promo. That was probably some of the most fun I’ve had in my entire life. That was an all-out crazy-ass food fight that I would not give up doing. Did I win any money this time around? Did I make it to the finals? No, but I had a really good food fight. It was fun.” Good girl, Jen.

The Sing-Off – Round 2, Weds 12/8/10

Opening number by all groups – “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon. I just thought of this – last year someone on TWoP said Kara Saun, from the first season of Project Runway, did the styling. It was all scarves and sweaters, there’s a brief snippet in the opening credits that looks like it. I wonder if she’s doing it this year.

On the Rocks, University of Oregon – “Live Your Life” by T.I. and Rhianna. Did Lady Gaga last night. 15 men. They had a YouTube video. They wanted to try rap. Wow, they are such white boys, this could be interesting. Not bad, but the lead sounded a little out of breath sometimes. Maybe it was just he looked like he was out of breath, he was really bouncing around. Ben is looking for them to transition from entertainers to artists. Ouch. But I think he meant it as a compliment, that they’re ready to move on. Considering they have 15 guys singing, they should be pretty good, though, especially against groups with 6 or 8 people.

Street Corner Symphony from Nashville – “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train. They’re worried that the range is very high. Doesn’t really sound like they’re struggling. Wow, they did a slide that was great, also a rhythm switch in the bridge to a second lead, very nice. Shawn loves lead’s voice and the bridge; Ben says great blend and percolation, leads, wants to hear him sing a little lower and do something sad in a lower register.

Eleventh Hour – high schoolers – “Just the Way you Are” by Bruno Mars – Opening harmony seemed slightly off. Opening lead is too low for her voice. A little draggy in tempo towards the end. The lead had some slight problems. Pussycat likes the lead (last time she said she’s a star, I don’t quite see it, maybe she’s encouraging her because she’s young?), could’ve blended better. Shawn thinks it’s sincere; intricate arrangement, a little struggle to stay in key. Ben, sometimes came apart because of the clever arrangement, lead is covering a large range; good percussion; not totally in tune at end. He doesn’t tell them what he wants to see on Monday, I wonder if that means something.

Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town – “Mercy” by Duffy. Dang, I love them. I love the falsetto. I love the less frenetic choreography. I love the flower in the lapel. Ben: “Jerry… Mr. Lawson… You’re cool! Though from me that might be a dubious compliment.” Not singing like backup, singing full out, which works great. Pussycat: “Yummy.” Shawn – bouncy, bass got down. I’m not that familiar with this song – it reminds me of “Rehab”, the Amy Winehouse song the Sweet Adeline group did last year. Funny the old folks should do similar numbers. Probably because they’re all 12-bar blues riffs, classics. Apparently this Duffy is Welsh. I’m obsessed with Welsh folk music. Interesting she does American R&B too. That’s what’s so cool about music.

Now they kick someone off – I’d say the high school kids, Eleventh Hour, and from the judges’ comments, they had the most criticism. In fact, I don’t think there was really any criticism about anyone else. I wonder if that’s how it really happened, or if that’s just how they edited it? I’ve seen too many manipulated reality shows. How did they pick which four went together? Because that could determine who goes home. It’s slightly different than the first show.

Yes, Eleventh Hour, the high schoolers, are off. Interesting, the announcer (I forget his name, from another boy-band) said On the Rocks was criticized by Shawn for harmonies, I guess I missed that.

A break featuring Nota, last year’s winners. They sing “I Got A Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas. They just released an album. Their second lead isn’t all that good IMHO, actually. But it’s a fun thing. They’re really good, I loved the clips they showed.

The Backbeats – “Breakeven” by The Script. Really nice job. Lots of dynamics. Great breathy effects towards the end. Second female lead was meh, male second lead was very good. But the lead was spectacular. Shawn – lock on melancholy harmonies, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths; when lead sings, he believes it. Ben – worried about the higher dynamic, but it held together, the arrangement was really good, split the lead, great percussion (she was on last year’s show), gives props to Ken?Kevin? who put together just for the show, did a good job. Pussycat – their percussionist is the only female percussionist in the competition; the male lead was great (she didn’t comment on the second female lead).

Committed – “Apologize” by One Republic. The first verse almost lost me, the lead was a little wobbly, but then they got into it and it started to cook. Lots of percussion, lots of harmony. Ben – bell tones again, I need to figure out what he means by that, I know what I’d mean by it but I’m not sure it’s the same thing. Shawn loves the riffs, the blends, the movement, he really loves them. Pussycat is talking about orgasms again. I think I missed the boat on this – I thought they were good, but not that kind of good (I’m talking about Shawn and Ben here, not Pussycat). Last time, they were that good, but not tonight. Maybe if I knew the song I’d feel the same way.

Groove for Thought – “Cooler Than Me” by Mike Posner. I love the string bass! The jazz chords aren’t really my thing, again with Manhattan Transfer, nice in small doses, but they do it very very well. I thought they were great. Shawn – cool, lead is cool, hat is cool, backup is cool, they’re just what cool is. Ben – lead is star; bass is great; harmonies were sick (good sick), soprano clicked, difficult on judges.

Whiffenpoofs – “Haven’t Met You Yet” by Michael Buble. They’re proud they don’t use beatbox, they come from a choral tradition. Oh no. The second lead did the opera thing. Uh oh. This is why I hate choral arrangements of pop music, and it’s the first time I’ve heard it on this show. Very Kings Singers – and I adore the Kings Singers, I have so many of their classical and folk CDs but I don’t like their pop songs. Pussycat loves it because she performed to this song on DWTS. Shawn loves enthusiasm, but leads weren’t that strong, very entertaining, have an element no one else has. Ben heard Broadway, leads good, bass good, harmonies good, didn’t notice choreography, except for some conducting.

The judges convene – with great sadness, I must say the Whiffenpoofs are the ones to go. That breaks my heart, but I don’t think this is their kind of thing. For me, I wouldn’t want to see anyone else cut, and the judges gave them the most criticism.

So the Whiffenpoofs are cut, and they sing some “I’m on my way, home sweet home” song, I wish they’d sung the Poor Little Lambs thing. But I’m probably the only one who thought of that. I’m such an old fart.

For the record, I made my picks for elimination before the announcements, I didn’t go back and edit (except for spelling, typing while watching is not that easy). I wish Top Chef and Project Runway producers (and American Idol for that matter) would pay attention – this show is very satisfying to me, because my impressions match with the judges and aren’t thrown by editing it to create false suspense. It’s been pretty clear to me at least who’s getting eliminated every time, and that’s how it should be, the criteria are laid out, the evaluations are clear and honest, there’s no showing only the negative comments so they can claim later we didn’t see it all. And the judges are on point, specific, and I never think, what the hell, what were they listening to? when they’re done. Ok, Pussycat (I should call her by her name but she annoys me) is there to talk about orgasms, but once in a while she comes up with something good. Ben and Shawn, they’re as good as it gets. They do this show right – I sure hope it doesn’t become a big hit so they have to ruin it to make it bigger.

What If? 88 – Exploring the Creative Writing process

The intro is a parable: writing is like cleaning a linoleum floor. I remember linoleum floors! I had one in Quincy. anyway, she gives this little thing about first you sweep a square of 16 tiles, then you scrub that square, then you dry then wax then buff, then you move on to the next sixteen-tile square. And of course everyone says, “That’s not how you do it!” and she says, of course not, that’s how NOT to write. I feel cheated.

Exercise: look at Writers at Work from the Paris Review Interviews. Note how different writers talk about their process. Which is most like yours, which is most different?
Objective: There is no correct way to write but there is a series of stages: a spark, discovering the first draft, exploring further possibilities of character and action in middle drafts, editing and polishing the work. Attempting to do too much too soon often ends up feeling frustrating. There is a time to discover and take risks and explore, and another time to polish syntax and diction.

I don’t have the Interviews she’s talking about so I’ll just use the Glimmer Train “Writers Ask” series as well as some other things I’ve heard of. I’m gripped, however, by the idea that it can be frustrating to do too much for the stage you’re in. I think maybe that’s something I need to look at – that I’m trying to finish a story in my head before writing the first word, since I have this aversion to throwing out what doesn’t work. Now, I used to teach expository writing as a tutor in college, and I kept telling people not to feel bad about cutting something that they like but either isn’t working with other parts of the paper or there is a word restriction and it’s too long – “you can always use it in another paper.’ And I’m ignoring my own advice. I’m approaching each story like it’s the last one I’ll ever write. I need to knock that off.

However, I’m not crazy about the Ron Carlson method of writing a really jam-packed first sentence and seeing where it goes. I’m probably taking that too literally – he probably goes back and adds things to that first sentence, or changes things that turn out to be red herrings.

I’m also not crazy about the “you must write # words every day” model. But that may be because I’m thinking of “writing” as new material, a new part of a story, not rewrites, editing, research, or ideas. I do some of those things every day, I’m pretty sure, though not lately.

The model that appeals to me most is “get a draft down on the page and then worry about what works and what doesn’t” because you can’t rewrite, edit, restructure, etc unless you have something to begin with.

So the point is I need to write, not just think about stories and have them torturing me in my head. I need to get back to work. I’ve got mornings pretty set up as work time, so I can do that now.

Rejection

I got a “Tale of Two Cities” rejection today – the best of times, the worst of times. Overall, I feel pretty good, and that’s the first time I’ve ever said that about a rejection.

First on the good side, I crossed it off my list about a week ago, sure I’d already received a rejection slip (it was a postal sub) and forgot to mark it before I tossed the note. So finding the envelope in my mailbox wasn’t a big disappointment – I’d been immunized by pre-disappointment.

First on the bad side, it was a magazine I very much wanted to get into – the J Journal from CUNY’s College of Criminal Justice, they like stories that use themes of justice, not courtroom dramas or police procedurals, and I thought “Drowning” would work.

Second on the good side, I got a very nice note on the rejection form, that it came very close but the writing “just doesn’t quite reach the inner workings of this scared kid.” And I agree with that assessment! It was the third-person, scaled-down version that was my final unreviewed submission to my online writing class – I never got feedback on it from the Teacher to the Stars, so for all I know s/he might’ve said it was crap, but I felt kind of vindicated that it was stripped of all personality and life in order to focus on tiny little “specificity” details and to remove all internal workings. They also said to try them again.

Second on the bad side, I regretted sending out that version, and I wish I’d sent them the version that followed. But I can’t, I’ve been told that sending rewrites, unless specifically requested, is baaa-aaa-aaad.

Overall, I feel good because I learned something, that sometimes I need to listen to myself and give myself some input, too. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked anyway, but I’m glad I feel like it would’ve been a real possibility. And they said it was “very close.” In the past, “very close” has depressed me. That, and the “well written but the story didn’t work.” Yep, that’s me, the one who writes terrible stories, beautifully. But today’s “very close” felt good for some reason, maybe because I understand, even agree with, why it fell short. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Vetebrod

There should be a little thingie over the “o” but I’d be pushing my luck trying to find it. Maybe later.

I made Vetebrod today! First time in, oh, seven, eight years? Maybe I’m not as depressed as I thought. I found some recipes on the Internet, and then I have Aunt Elsie’s recipe, which I pretty much followed except for some stuff about the yeast.

Vetebrod, for the non-Swedish, is a Swedish coffee cake or bread. It’s pretty much an ordinary rich yeast bread. To be authentic, cardamom should be added, and I ordered some cardamom but today’s batch was practice so didn’t include it. It’s braided – three “ropes” of dough are flattened, fruits and nuts and spices added and the ropes sealed, then braided together, and maybe curled around in a ring then cut on top to look like a wreath. I made two kinds of braided loaves today, one without the ropes but I liked the original better. The “ropes” can also be tied in knots to make individual buns, or “bulla”.

I put a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and brown sugar in as the spices, then some dried currants (because they’re smaller than raisins) and some of the candied lemon peel I made over the weekend (I need to make more). And almonds, the expensive sliced kind. I put almonds and lemon peel on top, but the lemon peel got very hard and burned because of the high sugar content so I’ll leave that off next time. It came out pretty good, though I think I used too much flour, which is something I always do – but it sticks to the counter when kneading! I don’t know how to get around that. Maybe knead less powerfully? I also read something about not adding salt until after the yeast has bloomed, which I didn’t do – neither of my recipes said anything about that, the yeast was added to heated milk, egg, butter, sugar and salt. I think I’ll try adding the salt later next time, too. Other than that, I was pretty pleased with how it turned out. It wasn’t Aunt Elsie’s, but it was good enough.

eta: I never realized vetebrod was so popular! Here’s the exact recipe I’ve been using, an amalgam of Aunt Elsie’s, various internet sources, and my own preferences:

Vetebrod recipe I’ve been using, part from Aunt Elsie, part from internet sources. I seem to use much less flour. Some recipes don’t use an egg; my aunt’s recipe actually used 2 eggs. I’ve read that salt should not be added to yeast mixture until the flour is added, as it will kill the yeast, so I put the salt in later than most recipes. I haven’t really noticed a difference.

Dough:

1 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter
1 egg
½ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoon salt
2 packages active dry yeast
1 teaspoon cardamom, ground
4 ½ to 5 cups flour

Filling:

3 – 4 tablespoons butter, very soft
spice mixture (invent your own or use this)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cardamom
pinch cloves
pinch allspice
dried zante currants or raisins, candied lemon peel, and/or almonds
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Finishing:

1 egg
2 tablespoons water
sliced almonds
½ teaspoon sugar

Bring dough ingredients to room temp.

Scald milk, add butter until it melts. Add sugar and cardamom. Pour into large mixing bowl. Let cool until 110-115 degrees F. Add yeast and stir, let sit 10 minutes.

Add beaten egg.

Add 1 cup flour and salt. Keep adding flour until dough pulls away from side of bowl, then turn out and knead, adding flour, until elastic.

Oil the surface of the dough and place in bowl, cover with damp towel, put in warm humid place to rise 1 hour (I use my gas oven, heated only by the pilot, with a pan of boiling water on bottom shelf).

Punch down and turn out onto floured board. Knead a few times. Divide in half. Cover half not being worked on. Divide half into three parts, roll gently into ropes. Flatten the ropes. Add filling to center of each flat rope, then pinch closed. Braid the three ropes, place on cookie sheet, cover with damp paper towel. Repeat with second half of dough. Place in warm, humid place to rise about 45 – 60 minutes (I use the oven again).

Brush with egg wash, sprinkle with sliced almonds and sugar.

Heat oven to 350 F. Bake on center rack about 20 – 25 minutes; do not overbake.

Enjoy!

I’ve been on a cooking spree. It started with Thanksgiving, making the root veggies for Sally’s Syrian chicken with lamb stuffing. I forgot to buy parsnips, so I bought them this week, along with bunch of other veggies – brussels sprouts (roasted, delicious), beets (also roasted, with clementine juice, excellent), and butternut squash (not made yet). Then some guy was telling me about ground beef, 90% ground beef on sale for $1.99, and it looked like regular Hannaford’s ground beef, the same label, a different container and it was already in patties, and I got two packages, then saw “Cargill” on the package – damn. I was tricked! So I put it in the freezer and now I don’t know what to do. I guess I could use it for meatballs. I wouldn’t want to give it to anyone. Cargill – yuck. I just read that Anthony Bourdain book where he excoriated them for making ground beef by using ammonia to make sure it doesn’t kill someone. And that movie, I forget the name of it, a couple of years ago about how they slaughter cows in horribly unsanitary conditions. The result is their beef is more like paste than ground beef. Hannaford at least buys sides and then grinds it there. I should’ve looked more carefully. But it bugs me to throw away two pounds of beef. Still, it’s not the sort of thing I’d give anyone, I wouldn’t give someone something I wouldn’t eat myself. So I’ll have to eat it. Meatballs it is.