Partner and I attended an event the other night at which a very nice (and rather attractive) young psychiatrist did a presentation on Alzheimer’s disease: diagnosis, treatment, medications.   He then invited questions. 



There was a noisy giggly group of older women there, who’d been cackling through most of his presentation.  One of them raised her hand.  “I got the fear of the elevator,” she said in Italian-accented English.  “Other people get on, I get on too, sometimes.  But alone – no!”



This quite evidently had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s disease, but there are always people who solicit free medical advice from doctors, and Doctor Cutiepie was obviously used to this.  He nodded sympathetically.  “It’s a phobia,” he said.  “Anxiety is the number-one psychiatric disorder in the United States, and phobias are one of the commonest forms of anxiety.  I had a patient who didn’t leave her house for seventeen years: agoraphobia, very common.  And I prescribed Prozac, and –“



That was enough for Elevator Lady.  “A drug!” she spat.



Doctor C. nodded.  “A drug.  But effective, in this case.”



Much muttering from Elevator Lady’s table.  You could tell that Doctor Cutiepie had gone down a few pegs in their book.  He was advocating drugs!



Later that same evening, Partner and I had a conversation with a nice couple across the table from us.  The husband suffered from sleeplessness.  “But!” he said triumphantly.  “My doctor said: Do you take anything for it?  And I said: No.  And he said: Good for you!”



He and his wife grinned across at us.  “Well,” I said, “we both have insomnia issues, and we both take Ambien.  It does the trick for both of us.”



“Really?” the husband said, a little tremulously.  “What’s that called again?”



(I ask you, kids: has anyone really never heard of Ambien?)  “Ambien,” I repeated.



“It’s pretty safe,” Partner added.  “They usually give you a prescription for twenty pills once a month, so that you can’t take one every night.”



“Oh!” the wife said.  “You need a prescription for it.”  She looked at us both sympathetically.  “Haven’t you tried something like Tylenol PM?”



I am not known for my tact.  “Feh!” I said.  (Literally, I said “Feh.”  I surprised myself a little bit.)  “Tylenol PM is kid stuff.  Why bother with that, when you know there’s something that can really help you?”



You have to wonder what people have in their heads these days.  I have heard otherwise intelligent people say things like: “Well, I get the flu shot every year.  But sometimes it gives me the flu.”  No, honey, it doesn’t.  Or: “I hear a lot of stuff on TV about how the flu shot’s not really good for you.”  Would you please tell me on what Satanic TV channel you hear such nonsense?



I know lots of people who believe it is a sign of weakness to take medication.  Aspirin (or, in life-threatening situations, Tylenol or Advil) is permissible once in a while.  But nothing more



I carry a few Claritin in my briefcase for emergencies.  I don’t find it very useful, frankly, but on a bad allergy day it can be a life-saver.  I proffer it to people sometimes when they’re coughing and wheezing, and they react as if I’m giving them heroin. 



Seriously, kids: human beings are highly irrational.



I really should have asked Doctor Cutiepie about this while I had the chance.



The United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change, Durban, South Africa, 2011


The Durban climate conference began yesterday.  According to the Financial Times, the conference is given “low expectations of success.”



No surprise here.



(Cherry trees are blooming again, down by Fox Point here in Providence (latitude forty-one degrees).   They were blooming downtown two months ago, if you recall.)



(So climate change has at least driven the trees crazy.)



(That’s something, at least.)



The President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, wrote an editorial in the FT last weekend to say that his country (a small group of very low-lying islands, none of them more than a few meters above sea level) was striving to become carbon-neutral and environmentally responsible, and asking other countries to do the same.



Then again: George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the United Kingdom, was recently quoted as saying that he would not “kill Britain to save the planet,” or words to that effect.





Does he realize that, if the planet dies, Britain goes with it?



Last, and most somber of all: another FT article seriously discussed the possibility that the human race is endangered.  One scientist, quoted in the article, thinks that we will hang on – but marginally, the way that Native American languages have survived in Mexico and South America.



Doesn’t that make you feel hopeful?



Me neither.


The Muppets


Partner and I saw the new Muppet movie on Cape Cod at Thanksgiving.  I laughed myself sick several times, and teared up a couple of times.



I know, I am a doddery old coot.  But listen:



This is an excellently well-made movie.  The doubters said that modern kids would not like this movie, since they are not familiar with the Muppets.  These doubts were completely put to rest when I heard the children in the theater audience laughing themselves into delirium.   Chris Cooper rolls out a contract on a scroll, and it’s five feet long, and I heard a little boy in the back shriek: “It’s so long!”  Best of all, there’s a musical number performed completely wordlessly by clucking chickens, and Partner and I were laughing, but the little girls behind us were laughing so hard they were in tears.



There are lots of references that five-year-olds will not get.  The sequence beginning with Kermit’s robot butler serving Tab and New Coke, and ending with Gary Numan’s song “Cars,” is wonderful, and I was bellylaughing through the whole thing.  I got it: the Muppets were very early-1980s.



But then there’s the new material.



I credit Jason Segel with this wonderful mash-up of nostalgia and cleverness.  He looks like a big human Muppet (as one of the songs in the movie affirms), and – according to sources, including Amy Adams (who plays his girlfriend) in New York Magazine – he is the biggest Muppet fan in existence, and is both the co-executive producer of this masterpiece, and its co-writer.



I don’t know if he wrote the songs, or collaborated on them, but they too are wonderful.  Kermit sings a sad little song early on in which he invokes the memory of his old Muppet comrades, and it’s lovely.  Jason and his Muppet brother Walter sing a wonderful duet early in the movie that’s reprised later, and it is also wonderful.  The big number – “Am I A Man Or Am I A Muppet?” – is (impossibly) both moving and hysterically funny.



And when, late in the movie, Kermit sings “Rainbow Connection” from the first movie back in 1979, I dare you not to get a lump in your throat.



It is a sweet movie.  I can’t tell you more than that.  Both Partner and I left the theater giggling, and nostalgic, and having had a wonderful time.



I don’t know much about viral advertising, or about social media, but I see a lot of my Internet friends and acquaintances getting excited about this movie.



See this movie, kids.  It is absolutely worth your time.  It will make you laugh, and make you sentimental, and hopefully you will hear (as we did) some kids shrieking with laughter.



It will give you hope for the future.




Sunday offering: “Raise Your Glass,” by Pink


I heard this song on the radio several times – downtown, and on the Brown shuttle – and didn’t pay much attention.  And then I found myself muttering/singing some of the lyrics under my breath: “And if you’re too school for cool . . .”



The song’s great.  And the video is hysterical.  Give it a watch.






Cast members


There is a huge building in Orlando with the word CASTING on the roof.  It is the nerve center of Disney staffing: the place where all of the Donalds and Goofys and Cruellas and princesses and cowboys and restaurant staff and happy greeters get hired and trained.



Because they are not staff, you see.  They are “cast members.”



They are always in character, or almost always.  Now and then you see a tiny flicker of weariness: the waitress in the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Café seemed tired and overworked, and some of the people working on the rides were almost (but not quite) testy.  But most are amiable and perky to the point of being unnatural.



(Universal has tried to copy this idea.  Their “cast members,” or whatever their equivalent term is, are just the tiniest bit less perky than the Disney cadre, but they do their best.  The Universal people are not, I think, given quite as much Manchurian Candidate Juice as their Disney counterparts, and are forced to improvise.  At Doctor Doom’s Fearfall in Universal, for example, the cast members are all dressed in odd Space Age / Ruritanian outfits, and one kid leapt and did a dramatic pirouette and said “Velcome to de Latverian Embassy!”)



The Disney people are (I’m sure) briefed on their roles.  In places like the Haunted Mansion and the Tower of Terror, for example, they are very grim and morose, reinforcing the idea that horrible things are about to happen to you.



But I will most remember the kid who greeted us at Spaceship Earth in Epcot, our last night there.  He made conversation with us while the little cars were being emptied and lined up; I didn’t notice it right away, but he was walking backwards on a big rotating disk, at a very methodical pace.  Partner asked him how long his shift was, and he said it was eight hours.  “Walking backward the whole time?” I said.



His expression changed very slightly.  “I even dream about it,” he said.



I believe him.



May the ghost of Walt Disney bless him and grant him a pay increase.



Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy”



 I was in Symposium Books downtown last week, and somehow I got into conversation with a bright-eyed older lady.  We were negotiating our way through the minor fiction of Virginia Woolf – “Flush” and “Orlando” and “Melymbrosia” – when my eye fell on a stack of cement-block-sized volumes lying near me: nicely-bound new NYRB editions of Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” priced attractively at $10.99.  They were hefty little tomes; even if I never get around to reading it, I reasoned, I could always toss it at a pursuing enemy and at least slow him down.



(I just weighed it on the postal scale.  It’s two pounds twelve ounces. It’d leave quite a dent in your forehead if I chucked it at you.)



The new proprietor of Symposium, a funny hipster of whom I approve (the former guy was a drippy-looking Robert Crumb caricature who, according to a writer friend of mine, looked like he was either dealing or using, or both, in the back room.)  He regarded my purchase thoughtfully and approvingly.  “My wife is doing comparative lit,” he said, “and she’s reading all of these things.”



“Thomas Brown,” I said.  “Chaucer.  ‘The Faerie Queene.’”



He nodded.  “I had to read that one too,” he said. 



“And Traherne,” I said.  “And Hakluyt.  And Sir Thomas Mandeville.  And –“



Yes, yes.  Of books, and the making of books, there is no end.



I don’t know if you’ve ever read Burton.  I never had, until last week.  If you are, like me, a booklover with a sense of humor, you will adore this book.  It purports to be a list of all – all! – the causes of human melancholy, and every single cure ever put forward for each one of them. It is plentifully annotated.  Burton read everything available to him, and he remembered everything he ever read. 



If it sounds like a dismal topic – well, it’s not.  It is light and charming.  That’s the idea, after all; you’re melancholy, you pick up the book, and it cures you.  It is the original over-the-counter remedy for depression.  Samuel Johnson (per Boswell) said it was the only book that ever got him out of bed early.



Here’s a taste, from the section on eating too much:



“A true saying it is, Plures crapula quam gladius. This gluttony kills more than the sword, this omnivorantia et homicida gula, this all-devouring and murdering gut. And that of Pliny is truer, “Simple diet is the best; heaping up of several meats is pernicious, and sauces worse; many dishes bring many diseases.” Avicen cries out, “That nothing is worse than to feed on many dishes, or to protract the time of meats longer than ordinary; from thence proceed our infirmities, and ’tis the fountain of all diseases, which arise out of the repugnancy of gross humours.” Thence, saith Fernelius, come crudities, wind, oppilations, cacochymia, plethora, cachexia, bradiopepsia,  Hinc subitae, mortes, atque intestate senectus, sudden death, &c., and what not.”




I know just enough Latin to struggle through the quotes even without Burton’s helpful glosses (although they are often a relief – and when he omits a translation, I know it had a Bad Word in it).  Every phrase has its little pleasure.  Oppilations?  Cacochymia?  Plethora?  O god, bradiopepsia, I think I have that right now.  And sudden death!



And what not.




This book is my new best friend.



Although I still might hurl it at someone, to dispel my melancholy.



(Note: you can download it free at Gutenberg.org, though they’d be glad of a couple of bucks, if you’d care to throw a few bucks their way.)





Thanksgiving offering: Sweet potato pie a la Haggers


 I didn’t know what to post for Thanksgiving until I suddenly remembered this recipe.  It was featured on a 1970s Norman Lear show called “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which was Norman’s salute to the soap-opera format.  It was on five nights a week, and it hit every theme: sex, violence, deviant behavior, death, illness, marriage, love . . . And it was very funny.



So anyway: Mary Kay Place played a character named Loretta Haggers, a sweet little ol’ thing married to a much older man.  Loretta wanted very much to be a country singer, and kept almost breaking through, but something always got in the way.  This recipe comes from an episode in which Loretta actually gets on the Dinah Shore show, sings a song, and does a cooking segment; sadly, however, she makes some unfortunate comments, and she’s booted from the show.





  • About a pound of potatoes
  • Half or a cup of sugar
  • A tap of nutmeg
  • Two taps of cinnamon
  • A half tap of cloves
  • Three big eggs or four littler ones
  • A wee bitty glug of vanilla
  • Half a big stick of butter (or margarine)
  • A cup of sweet milk

  1. Mash the heck out of your potatoes.
  2. Throw in your sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, eggs, and vanilla extraction.
  3. Pour the melted butter and sweet milk right into that.
  4. Beat this with a beater.  Whip the daylights out of it.
  5. Pour it all into a ready-made pie shell.
  6. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. 
  7. Bake for 1 hour and 25 minutes. It will be done to a nice turn.  Once the smoke clears, it’ll be some dandy eatin’.






Halloween candy


 I don’t know about you, but my memories of childhood are not wonderful.



Take Halloween, for example.  As I recall, I loved the idea of it: pumpkins, dressing up, getting free candy.  When it came down to it, however, dressing up was a little embarrassing, not to mention uncomfortable (those 1960s-era plastic Fred Flintstone masks really didn’t allow you to breath very well).  Also, going to strangers’ houses to ask for candy – in the dark, yet! – was sort of scary.



So I was pleased to hear this story from a coworker:



Her little boy, three years old, went out with his father to go trick-or-treating. They were gone for a suspiciously brief time; it turned out later that they’d gone to a total of five houses.  But the little boy was deliriously happy.  “I got so much candy!” he crowed. 



And he dumped out his plastic bucket –



And he’d gotten maybe ten or twelve small pieces of candy.



But, to him, it was a windfall.



My friend is apparently very strict about her son’s candy consumption, so he was very circumspect about eating anything from his bucket.  “Can I have one piece now?” he asked.



“Sure,” she said.  “But just one.”



He pulled out a fun-sized Kit Kat, unwrapped it, ate it, and went into a kind of satori.  “Mamma,” he said, “what was that thing I just ate?”



“It’s called a Kit Kat,” she said.



“It is,” he said dreamily, “the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.  Can I have another one?”



“One’s enough for now,” she said.  “Maybe if you’re good tomorrow, you can have another.”



“Okay,” he said.  He took another Kit Kat out of his Halloween bucket and laid it on the table.  “I’m going to put this right here,” he said.  “And it’ll be right here waiting for me tomorrow.”



That’s the nicest story I’ve heard in a long time.



And now I am going to have a Kit Kat.



But just one.



The Vegetarian Times


Last weekend I cooked a pork roast.  I also read the latest issue of the Vegetarian Times.



Yes, I know. 



But here’s the thing: I am not the carnivore I used to be.  I go meatless two or three days a week at least.  I like very much Mark Bittman’s compromise: be as meatless as you can be without driving yourself crazy.



There are some good recipes in the most recent issue of the Vegetarian Times. I intend to try the black-bean-and-sweet-potato enchiladas, and maybe the stuffed mushrooms, and the nice Hungarian crepe-and-jelly dessert. 



But there is also a whole mindset to this vegetarian thing, a fiery self-righteousness.  One reader wrote to complain that a recent article might actually encourage people to eat sweet corn, which – gasp! – might be genetically modified.  The editors duly apologized.  References to obscure food items – tempeh, kombucha, chaga, spelt – are everywhere.  It’s like any other club: the members really don’t want you to understand what they’re talking about. 



It’d be helpful if they relaxed a bit.  It’s not a religion, after all; it’s just a way of eating.



I was especially bemused by references to something called Quorn.  Evidently it was a meat substitute, but I had no idea what it was; I assumed it might be something like soy. 



But, oh my, it’s ever so much better than that!



It’s a mycoprotein: a substance produced by a fungus called Fusarium venenatum.  The fungus produces strands called hyphae, which resemble the fibers in meat.  If you grow this fungus in a vat and harvest it, you can moosh it up and turn it into a meat substitute.



I have no problem with this; I’m Polish on my mother’s side, we love to eat fungi.  But the nice people at Quorn were concerned that people might not like their product, so they started telling little white lies.  They said, for example, that Quorn was “mushroom protein.”  (Our friend Fusarium is a fungus, but not all fungi are mushrooms.  Fusarium, to be frank, is a mold.  It is probably not good for sales to say so out loud.)  If you haven’t seen Quorn much in the USA, that’s because a couple of other companies screamed loudly that Quorn causes dangerous allergic reactions in a significant percentage of consumers.  (It appears that the claim is vastly overblown, and that Quorn is no more dangerous than, say, mushrooms.  Or peanuts, for that matter.)



And who funded the anti-Quorn campaign?  Why, a company called Gardenburger.  You may known them.  They make meatless products. 



See?  Vegetarians aren’t necessarily nice people.



This makes me feel better, because I know I will never be a nice person, vegetarian or not.




Solitaire: the gift that keeps on giving


When I was maybe six, my family stayed for a few days in Ocean Park, Washington, in a little cottage belonging to the parents of my sister-in-law Janet.  I don’t remember the beach, but I remember being huddled in the too-small cabin with what must have been six or seven other people.  They were probably miserable; I was in heaven.

And, to top it off, Janet taught me War.  And Slapjack.  And, best of all, Solitaire.

You may call it Klondike, or Patience.  You may play with slightly different rules than I do.  But I will always return to the simple deal-three-at-a-time version that Janet taught me in Ocean Park.

I spent many rainy summer afternoons at home playing it on my parents’ decorative coffee table at home, with two decks of bridge cards my parents never used because they didn’t play bridge.   I seldom won.

I took to it again in college.  I played compulsively, demonically, on my bed, my legs crossed in a Lotus pose that few can duplicate.  (I’m double-jointed.)  I actually got to the point, believe it or not, that I was winning two out of every three games.

I left the game for a while.  I came back to it in the Peace Corps, where it was useful for killing long warm dull North African afternoons.  My British friend Austin, watching me methodically lay out the cards one day, said in his picturesque way that it was “the most extraordinary waste of time and mental energy he’d ever seen.”  I thumbed my nose at him and continued to play.

Then computers came along, which revolutionized one-player card games, and one-player everything for that matter, if you know what I mean.

I got an iPad recently.  And it was not two days before it occurred to me to check the App Store for a nice free Solitaire app.

The game still takes me back to cloudy Northwest days, when I sat laying out game after game on my parents’ smooth cool Lucite table inlaid with petrified wood. There’s the quiet slap of cards as they’re put down, and the whirring sound of the shuffle, and that’s enough.  The rest is between me and Fate, also known as Dame Fortune, also known as Those Damned Cards.

I’ll have to drop a note to Janet and thank her for all these years of quiet absorbtion.

Now let’s just see if I can win three in a row.

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