Sunday, December 27, 2009

Faux Sherlock Holmes: Movie Review

I admit it: while most dorky kids my age were fantasizing about Star Trek, I was entranced with the world of Sherlock Holmes. I was already a confirmed Anglophile, and his coldness, intellectualism, and frankly sexy standoffishness set me up for years of complicated and unfulfilling relationships with men.

That said, I still adore the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, not just out of nostalgia but because I think Holmes is just a wonderful, eccentric, tormented character. Doyle pioneered the detective fiction genre, where the ostensible focus is on the plot but the strangeness of the detective and the little nuggets of character study thrown the reader's way is what keeps the pages turning.

Although, like most Holmes enthusiasts, I like the Jeremy Brett PBS series the best, my first cinematic Holmes was Basil Rathbone (I was an eleven-year-old insomniac and often watched old movies). The Rathbone series is set during the era when it was made, World War II, so I'm hardly a purist and I looked forward to seeing Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009).

The kiss of death in the film comes early on, when Holmes meets Watson's fiancee, Mary Morstan (the name, and little else about her character, adopted from the Doyle novel The Sign of Four). Holmes insults Mary by insinuating that she has been engaged before, and Watson is a second choice in such a debasing manner she throws a drink in his face. Although Holmes was uninterested in marriage and said "the fair sex is your department" to Dr. Watson, he was never OFFENSIVE to a woman, for no reason. Most of the critical praise for the film revolved around how 'brave' it was for director Ritchie and Holmes impersonator Robert Downey, Jr. to create such a kinesthetic, irritable Holmes, but within the stories, all of these elements are there (in "The Solitary Cyclist" Holmes shows off his boxing talents in a local pub and he is also a cocaine addict). However, Holmes does also have a strong sense of honor, in a very 'pure' almost Vulcan-like way (although I am not a Star Trek fan). The film shows Holmes glorying in violence, and he thinks about how he will disable the bruisers he fights (the film has numerous fight scenes) while the Holmes of the book was only violent in self-defense and preferred to use his wits, when able, rather than his fists.

All of this would be acceptable if the film was actually, you know--good. Most of it is a lot of satanic mumbo-jumbo revolving around an aristocrat using a cult to create an appearance of supernatural powers so he can smoke-bomb Parliament and take over the world. The end scene when Holmes reveals how the 'unnatural' magic was created by smoke, mirrors, and science is Scooby Doo, not Sherlock Holmes, and those of you who do see it--I defy you not to hear, in your heads, "why, you meddling kids..."

The lack of dialogue (another feature of the Doyle stories) is also another problem: other than a few quotes that reviewers thought were Ritchie's invention like, "data, data, Watson, I can't make bricks without clay," most of the film is SMACK BANG POP, rather than the verbal artistry that have made the stories so beloved for generations.

I also didn't understand the addition of character traits NOT in the story, such as the fact that Holmes, who often goes without food for an entire case, is shown to be an enthusiast for chip shops and bakeries while 'on the job' and making Dr. Watson fanatically tidy in a Felix Unger-style fashion (to Holmes' bachelor Oscar Madison).

And yeah, homoerotic subtext to Holmes' jealousy of Mary, blah, blah, blah (while carefully refashioning Irene Adler, who featured in one story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" as a love interest to not make teenage male viewers, the obvious audience for the film too UNCOMFORTABLE is another alteration).

The film broke box office records for a flick opening on Christmas, though, so all of this rage is for naught--it seems like Ritchie has created at least the beginnings of a franchise. Poor Holmes.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Static on the brain and sugar-free anxiety

Recently, the New York Times had an article on anxiety. So apparently some people are innately sensitive--both to fears and external stimuli--at birth. Although they may grow out of it and simply evolve into more conscientious adults--as observed, if you're worried about being late, you're more likely to be on time, or early.

However, this sunny outlook on anxiety doesn't square with my experiences. Truthfully, I grew up in an environment so anxious, I didn't even know it wasn't a normal emotional baseline. My mother obsessively rehearsed stories about abducted children with me at bedtime--sometimes we even read the First Aid book together about what to do in an emergency. My grandmother chain-smoked and feared letting me ride my bike in my very safe suburban 1970s neighborhood.

I unsurprisingly developed a whole host of fears, from the dark, to vampires, to escalators and heights. And like my mother, grandmother, and father (whose anxiety tended to manifest itself in anger more than worrying, true to gender) I developed very unhealthy habits to cope with the anxiety--not smoking or drinking (wouldn't that be interesting--not!) but overeating, over-indulging in sugar free crap, and pointless TV watching.

I really don't watch TV anymore (unless I'm on the treadmill in winter) and the overeating is coming. I've given up Splenda, but right now I'm stressed, so I find myself eating sugar-free things, giving myself license to indulge to the point that it is uncomfortable, as I can afford the calories.

This must end. I'm no longer the woman who would order a cup of coffee and a zillion packets of blue, later yellow envelopes and call it a meal. And when I look back at my life, do I want it to look like a succession of the same sugar-free muffins.

That's why you haven't seen much in the way of food being posted here. When stressed, it's comforting to just eat way too much of food that is made up of way too little that is real.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Best-Laid Pancakes of Mice and Men...

So, the Serious Eats challenge this weekend was pancakes, and I fully intended to so it because, hey, how hard can that be? I've never made pancakes from scratch, which seems hard to believe, unless you hear my full pancake history. My mother, as I have mentioned, was no cook, but for some reason she felt every now and then, because I asked, that pancakes were my right as a wee tyke. So she would make the entire serving of pancake batter (designed to make oh, 6-12) and pour the entire thing in a pan. Her motto was: "if it is not good, at least it is done!" The result was a large yellow-and-black speckled disc about an inch thick and rather spongy. So if you ever wondered what and ENTIRE serving of Aunt Jemima mix--yep, she used the politically incorrect stuff--looks like when poured in a skillet, now you know. Some parts of it were good--I didn't eat all of it thank heaven, and I remember liking the softness of the center, where the pat of butter rested, and the crunchy outside of the skillet.

Then came the Awakening--I went to McDonald's with my grandmother and beheld three small fluffy disks, pancakes I only thought possible to achieve on TV commercials. The maple-scented sausage and grandma's plying me with toys afterward (plus McDonald's cartoon characters on my high chair) only added to my disillusionment with my mother's pan-cooked cake. "That is what pancakes are!" I cried. My mother, undeterred switched to Aunt Jemima waffles, which required even less preparation and looked in my estimation at least like real waffles.

I had a love affair with Perkins as an older child--silver dollar pancakes, chocolate chip pancakes, real bacon on pancakes, I mean it's dessert for dinner, what's not to like? You could have pancakes followed with dessert from the rotating racks in the Perkins bakery.

But it's been a long time since I have craved pancakes. The one time I had them homemade properly (as in not an entire pan full of batter) it was at a 'college house' from very old pantry staples, and the flavor was what you would expect from Bisquick from the 60s. This Sunday was sultry, and the last thing I felt like after yoga class was a stogy stomach full of an attempt of pancakes.

I have concluded that perhaps I like the idea of pancakes better than pancakes themselves. Platonic pancakes, anyone?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter

I really hope the title of this book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, doesn't deter people from buying it. But then again, given how many people, including myself, kept gerbils as pets when they were small children, perhaps it was a good idea for Random House to give Holly Robinson's memoir of her eccentric childhood this name. Robinson grew up when childhood fads were still common--hula hoops, paint-by-number kits, BB guns, and yes, keeping small animals you ordered from the back of comic books. Robinson's father, a navy man, sought to capitalize upon this trend. First, he kept the gerbils mainly to be sold as pets and even produced one of the first books on gerbil-keeping, using young Holly and her siblings as models. In fact, there is a good chance I may have read his book--I was an careful reader about my various obsessions as a child, and when I was interested in a subject, had a habit of reading my library's shelf left to right, cover to cover. However, I can't remember his name, of course, given that most of those pet books were quite anonymous then, unlike today, when pet experts have their own TV and radio shows.

Robinson's father and mother hated hippies--but also hated the Vietnam War. Robinson's father wanted out, so, planning for his retirement he began to breed gerbils for laboratory use. The family finally settled in a dilapidated old farmhouse in rural Massachusetts, where the 9,000 gerbils Holly's father eventually kept remained, if not unnoticeable (although gerbils have less of an odor than most small animals, 9.000 members of any species apparently gets a bit whiffy after a bit) than less noticeable. The stable of riding horses, pygmy goats, peacocks, cats, dogs, and other animals the family collected over the years provided camouflage--different kinds of weirdness covering up the weirdness of the gerbils, on which Holly's father hoped to make the family's fortune.

The gerbil farming of specially inbred species for medical research made money, although not the sums hoped for originally. As well as the chronicle of a truly, wonderfully weird family (I particularly enjoyed the stories of Holly's mother, an unflappable woman who gave riding lessons, during which the horses were dive-bombed by cats with bared claws, and learned to dance on pointe in her late 30s) the book also illustrates the strange emotion of people who are carefully raising animals to die--a curious mix of identification, protectiveness, love, respect, cruelty, and distance.

What is so spectacularly endearing about Robinson's parents is their failure to understand how profoundly eccentric their lives were--they follow Robinson's every boyfriend, every brief foray into normal teenage sexuality with hawk-like vigilance, even while collecting animals like knickknacks. Robinson's mother can ride the wildest horse and take down walls with a crowbar, but her husband still insists on the greater competence of males, too--while raising tiny, fragile creatures in the basement.

This book is a must-read for anyone with romantic longings about starting their own farm, and I would recommend it to anyone who ever thought their parents were weird and embarrassing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Two kinds of dogs....

In Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, the narrator recalls her mother saying that there are two kinds of daughters--obedient and disobedient. Well, in terms of dogs I'll be more flexible about that typology--there are dogs that do as they please, dogs that can herd sheep on command, and dogs like my dogs who obey when it's necessary and she knows I really mean it, but have flexible approaches to rules about 'not jumping on the furniture when the person I share my home with isn't looking.'

When I first got my dog, I was determined not to make the mistakes my parents made with me about food--I wouldn't make her feel anxious about not having access to her favorite foods, so she would never feel a need to overeat.

Also, my first dog, Lucky, a stray I got from the ASPCA (named Lucky, like so many dogs, because she was lucky to be saved)pretty much had no interest in food. Other than roast chicken (which I have found is crack for just about every dog), Lucky found most foods too stinky, too hard to eat, or suspiciously novel. Probably how she survived so long in the wild--not eating garbage. Getting Lucky to eat enough was the challenge. It could be she was half-chihuahua, half-corgi. Corgis are Queen Elizabeth II's favorite dog, and deep down inside, Lucky knew that she should be having beef drippings on Yorkshire pudding at the feet of the queen, rather than Mighty Dog in a suburban Jersey kitchen.

My current dog, Asta, on the other hand, never read my personal version of Dr. Spock's eating guide for the New Age pooch, and promptly hoovered up everything in her bowl, no matter how much I poured in. I thought this behavior would level off, until the half-blind 85-year-old woman on one of our (long, especially for a chihuahua) walks said "gosh, your dog is getting fat."

So I came to the conclusion that there are two kinds of dogs: those who will eat anything and those who will eat nothing, and to heck with the AKC class divisions.

The sound of me opening the refrigerator for my dog is like the sound of wrapping paper to a child on Christmas morning. Cooking can be downright dangerous, as she plants herself at my legs, in case I drop a crumb. Her intense gratefulness at finding a crumb makes me feel like the workhouse owner in Oliver Twist. "Oh, thank you kind mistress! A crumb! A crumb on the floor! For me?"

Poor little Asta, who must maintain a weight of 10lbs max to even be a chunky rather than an obese chihuahua. I carefully measure out her food, and feel guilty.

Here is my first dog:

Oh, the eating issues that are played out in our animals, who just want to obey their appetites and be done with it!

I'm sure my dog would be thin, if she could run as much as she wanted, and chase squirrels. But in the unnatural environment of suburbia, she is instead on lean adult dog food.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My mom: 9/19/04--I can't believe it has been five years

When I was in high school, my mother gave me a calling card number (yes this was quite a few years ago) so that if I ever needed her, she would always be a phone call away. I resisted, but of course I found myself needing that number for many years, in many different cities, countries, continent—to talk, to laugh, to cry, to complain. My mom always there for me. I memorized that number so that my fingers dialed it automatically—only if I thought about it too much would I forget the sequence.
Of course, I’ve completely forgotten that number now—but even if people still used pay phones, it’s been five years since I’ve had that kind of certainty that someone is always there to listen, no matter what.
Mom, you didn’t always (often?) agree with me, or understand my need to find things out for myself. We fought a lot when I was younger, but the last few years we had together were good years—I was less angry and you were less controlling. But I understand your need for control now. Life was a struggle for you. You felt you had to always put other people before you. You got your GED at sixteen to work to help support your family. Some of my earliest memories of you involve you cleaning the whole house, the yard, then going over and doing the same thing at my grandmother’s, then taking care of me, then my father. After the divorce, you worked full time and took care of me, my grandmother, and various pets that I had over the years.
Mom, I wish you had taken more time to appreciate yourself and your other gifts.
Sometimes it’s the little things when someone is gone that seem strange. Like I can’t believe that they still show Fred Astaire films on television, without my mom to see them. Or release a new Harry Potter or Sex in the City film (we both loved these particular franchises), or make perms for hard-to-wave hair.
Today is a beautiful day, and I’m going to go out and enjoy it—just like my mom, I have to mow the lawn. However, because of her efforts, I have so many things—an education, some security, a stronger sense of self—that I wish she had enjoyed when she was my age.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review: Born Round

Frank Bruni's memoir Born Round was presented in excerpted form on The New York Times website in July, and was deservedly praised in the press and 'round (ha!) the blog-o-sphere. I already knew, upon cracking the spine, that the author had struggled with what are politely called 'eating issues' (bulimia, laxative abuse, fad diets oh my!). But I admit when I read "I was a baby bulimic" on the Times website beforehand, I was shocked. I had read and adored Bruni's writing throughout his tenure as food critic, but had tended to assume, particularly after his review of the best fast food to be found on the road across the nation, that Bruni was one of those sorts of effortlessly athletic individuals who burned off calories as easily as a spoiled teen burns through a trust fund.

Far from it--Bruni was athletic (he was a competitive swimmer until college) but even the four hours in the water he spent during swim practices didn't give him the body he desired or balance off the calories he ate (or wanted to eat). One of the most beautiful and hilarious sections of the book details his mother's Thanksgiving (T-Day) preparations, an epic Battle of the Bulge or storming the beaches of Normandy with extra white turkey meat and ham. Bruni conveys perfectly the sheer excess of hysteria and calories of the event, but also how the need to fill every moment of the meal with food, even the between-course bits (like fruit and nuts between the second helpings and dessert courses) is a stand-in for his mother's need to fill every moment with her love for the family. I also have to note, to counter some comments about the book, as a half-Greek person, that I wasn't shocked at all about the volume of food prepared, even the sandwiches with leftovers to 'tide people over' on the long ride home from the feast. After all, I've been to Christmas parties where every woman bought a pastitio.

The narrative of Thanksgiving also shows his mother's talents in the kitchen and as an entertainer: Bruni's mother was a woman who had mastered the staples of traditional American, French and Italian cuisine, as well as homemade Egg McMuffins and women's magazines staples like Chicken Divan. She was also fluent in that other staple of women's magazines--the fad diet. When Frank Jr. showed a tendency to put on weight, given what Bruni depicts as a somewhat genetically 'hard-wired' big appetite, Frank was prompted to try the Atkins diet under his mother's supervision. Bruni became perhaps one of the first but sadly not the last school-age child to learn the word 'ketosis' as part of his vocabulary words for the week.

Thus the consequences of this American abundance were not all happy, contrary to some sunny food memoirs: Bruni is unsparing in his depiction of the depression and despair and alienation from one's physical self caused by over-eating and being over-weight. Ironically, hyper-consciousness about his body drove him even deeper into the cycle of starving and exercising, binging and vowing to never eat again. Bruni also talks with wonderful, open honesty about the havoc bad body image played with his sex life--far more than concern about his sexuality, weight was the 'weight' upon his conscience: his attempt to hide his body in an, um, sexy windbreaker in the middle of sweltering North Carolina shows the type of 'hot' date you don't want to duffer.

Finding a love for exercise again in the form of running, and later strength-training and pilates, saved Bruni--as did becoming the Times bureau chief in Italy. There, he reconnected to good food after years of numbing his appetite with take-out and convenience food, food eaten for the sake of speed and volume not quality.

Bruni hits on what I think is a central truth, better than any other author I've ever read--it's a common complaint that 'food is an IMPOSSIBLE addiction to kick' because unlike alcohol, drugs, or gambling you 'have to eat.' However, as I well know, the eating of a compulsive food addict is nothing like the eating habits of a healthy person. Standing with a spoon in one hand and a jar of peanut butter in the other, and telling yourself "just one more spoonful" (lies, lies, lies) is very different than having a peanut butter sandwich and then stopping. Eating disorders are just that--disorders of the METHOD of eating food, food itself is not the problem.

Becoming a restaurant critic took away that favorite defense of the dieter--that after this long weekend of a binge, "I'm NEVER going to eat again--okay, I'm going to live on lemon juice and boiled greens, this is my LAST piece of chocolate--well, better eat the whole thing because I AM NEVER BUYING THIS AGAIN." Bruni knew he was going to be eating out every night, as part of his job and that curtailed the binging and the starving. He even began going to bars and dating again, in another irony, given that so many people call having to eat out for a living a 'killer' for their social life--Bruni incorporated his family, friends, and love life into his criticism, as sharing his meals and portion control were so important to his new attitude towards food.

I loved this book, although I do admit the restaurant criticism section of the book seemed to deviate from Bruni's general theme of dealing with a complicated eating disorder that seems to defy an easy definition or diagnosis. The content detours into too many funny wigs and fights with Jeffrey Chodorow, not enough self-analysis. I suppose Bruni 'had' to to satisfy the section of his readership most interested in his life as a part of the New York dining scene, rather than his personal struggles, but the division between that part of the book and the rest of the work can be a bit jarring.

Still, Born Round was an eye-opener regarding my own mentality in the binge/starve cycle, and also about men and their struggles with food. Although you'd have to be blind not to notice the body-fixation in the male gay community (I used to go to gay bars in college with my gay male friends), there was always a part of me that thought, simply because men can eat more, that a man with an eating disorder couldn't be as tormented as a woman. After reading Bruni's book, I see that I was wrong.