Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Food Needs to be Hotter

Why isn't Thanksgiving dinner ever hot enough? Is it because everything sits out too long prior to the meal? Why must we always sit down to lukewarm turkey, tepid yams, room temperature stuffing, and unpleasantly temperate mashed potatoes smothered in a rapidly cooling gravy?

I hate having to eat this dinner like there's a clock ticking, and I can't risk insulting the hostess by bringing the whole shebang over to the microwave. In the spirit of the holiday I basically just have to be thankful the food has any warmth at all, while I dig in and think of England.

Is it too much to ask for a hot Thanksgiving dinner? To maybe see steam rising from just one dish? To need to blow on a bite of turkey before tentatively tasting it? To see others at the table clatter their fork to the plate as they fan their hand in front of their O-pursed lips? This would be unprecedented in the history of the holiday. "Piping", really, is the adjective I'd like to use, just one time, when describing the holiday meal.

This cold turkey phenomenon can't be specific only to my experience. I've had too many Thanksgiving dinners at too many homes to believe that it's a rare event. Admit it - this is a national problem. Your Thanksgiving food is just not hot enough. The bird, the fixins, the toppings, the sides, they're all served at that milky warm temperature - you know it from the shower - where it's just warm enough to remind you how much warmer it needs to be.

Yes, yes, there's the microwave. But it may as well be on another planet. There's just no way to push back from the table with your full plate and announce to the group that you're going to give it a quick zap in the ol' nuker. If there's a way to do this without offending the host, I'd love to know it. I'm sure this reluctance dates back to the original Thanksgiving feast, where pilgrims faced with cooling game bird and chilly cornmeal could find no polite way to ask the chieftan to give it a little more fire.

Or is it that this most traditional of American meals is coincidentally composed entirely of heat resistant foods? I mean, let's face it, mashed potatoes get cold quickly - and exposed turkey breast won't be far behind. You don't have any rich, heavy sauces on the menu that retain heat like a thermos. Brown gravy doesn't count - it strangely conducts no heat. Maybe what Thanksgiving needs is a liberal coating of marinara over everything? A fra diavolo sauce? Some kind of tikka masala, or panang curry out of which we can spoon little turkey pieces onto plates of steaming basmati rice?

I don't know, I'm just blue-skying it here. Just getting the gears turning. Just starting a conversation. Because the problem here is real, and the solution is elusive. From the green beans to the cherry pie, we need hotter food. I recommend we all take the time to visit a diner and order an open faced turkey sandwich, just to remind ourselves how enjoyable turkey and mash can actually be when we give it a few calories of heat.

When it's the day after Thanksgiving, and I'm not only full but dealing with a sore roof-of-mouth from all the piping hot stuffing the day before, I'll know our work is done.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

No One Wants the Peanut Donut

So why does the peanut donut always get included in the dozen? Why is it mandatory? Why do the donut stores even make the peanut donut?

My point here today isn't strictly limited to the loathsome peanut donut, it's more about the importance we place on "variety". A misplaced importance. This need we feel to bring some mysterious aesthetic quality to the content of the donut box. The motivation we feel, as donut selectors, to impress others with a dazzling variety of donuts. I'm here today to shake you by the shoulders and remind you that variety doesn't count for that much, that donut diversity is overrated, that functionality matters far more than form, and that the peanut donut can suck my dick.

If you've ever found yourself sneaking back to the donut box in the late morning, after your officemates have picked through it thoroughly, maybe because you're second guessing your original choice of the glazed old fashioned and now you're craving chocolate, you're likely to open the box and see two donuts left in there. They will invariably be the coconut donut and the peanut donut.

I've had a dozen office jobs, I've seen my share of donuts, and I am telling you that no matter where you are, or what the circumstances may be, the last two donuts in that box will always be the coconut and the peanut. No one wants shredded coconut at 9 in the morning, and they particularly don't want our nutty friend. And when I see these two rejects, I always had the same thought: "Why didn't they just get 12 chocolate frosteds? Would that have been so terrible?"

And then I started to notice this phenomenon elsewhere in life. A dozen bagels? The last one left is the raisin. A bucket of chicken? Good luck finding a late drumstick. A plate of cookies? Say hello to the oatmeal cranberry. Those chocolate chip cookies are looooong gone.

A raisin bagel

I suspect that sometimes the problem occurs because we let the guy behind the counter make our bagel / cookie / donut selections for us. We don't take charge. We instruct him to fill up a box of 12 while we take a look at the blended iced coffee options, and the guy adjusts his paper hat and heads right for the peanut donuts. I think the donut store is long on peanut and coconut donut inventory, which they can never move, so of course they jump at the opportunity to slip a few into the box if we let them act as our proxy. So my first piece of advice would be not to let the donut guy make the choices. He doesn't have your best interests in mind.

What you really need to do though is set the example. Arrive at work holding the long, flat box. Let everyone see you carrying it to the breakroom. The vultures will circle. Let them get close. Then open the box. What will they see? How about 8 chocolate frosteds and 4 jellies? They'll blink at it for a minute, uncomprehending. Then, gradually, the genius of it will dawn on them. They'll look at you with amazement and fresh respect, like you just invented wheels on luggage.

"I get it." They'll whisper. "A box of donuts..."

"Go on." you'll say.

"A box of donuts... with no shitty donuts."

"That's it," you say as you put a comforting hand on the shoulder. "I think you understand."

And then the next day you come with bagels. 4 plain, 4 sesame, 4 everything. Again, your cubiclemates can't believe that there are no bad choices in the bag. The next afternoon, you come with a box of cookies - and every single one is chocolate chip. They'll bumrush the plate of course - no one wants to get stuck with the cranberry - but.... there are no cranberries!
An oatmeal cranberry cookie

Every cookie is a winner! Every cookie is the one you want! Xanadu!

I say it's time we close the door on the peanut donut. Time to admit that we don't need to pepper the box with unappealing variety, just for the sake of appearances. Time to admit that all donuts are not created equal: some are good and some suck. I have a noble goal here. And that goal is to walk my bloated frame from the cubcicle to the mini-kitchen at 4:15 PM, open that donut box, and see one donut staring back at me. A chocolate donut. Now that would be a sight to see.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Please Spare Me Your Cat Fancy

Is there anything more unpleasant than watching an adult human being coo and fuss and babble in front of a house cat? You know, that syrupy, pouty-lipped infantilism that seems to wash over some people as soon as you put a cat in the room? I can't stand this display. It's sickening. Look, however you want to play-act with your cat behind a closed door, go to it. No one will disturb your privacy. I personally vow to stay far away. But when I happen to be present, can you hold off on the moronic, simpering baby-talk? Is it so important that I see how you are in thrall, somehow, to your cat, that you think it's okay in mixed company to gurgle gibberish and fawn over it like it's your own child?

It's not a kid, it's not your baby, and you're acting like an idiot. Have some more respect for yourself, and for me, and even for the cat who by the way understands nothing.

I get it. I get that some people have this cat fancy. That they are mesmerized and entranced by the common cat. Some people just feel this way, and I accept that, and overall I consider it harmless. My point here is not to tell you that your devotion to this animal is wrong. I could care less. My point is to tell you not to behave like a saccharine, drooling moron in front of other people, or at the very least me. Okay? Do we have a deal?

The cat fanciers have this other habit too, beyond the infantilism. They like to push pictures of their cats in your face. And they expect a response. You're not going to get the camera phone removed from your full field of vision until you compromise and give them, at minimum, an Awwwww. If only there was some polite way to communicate your utter indifference to this cat's life or death. If only there was an opt out. A blind person could say "Sorry miss, but I'm blind". Why can't the non cat-fanciers have a "Sorry miss, but I don't give a shit."

And don't tell me I don't have compassion. I like cats. They're nice, more or less. They catch vermin - that's a plus. Oh and here's a pop quiz: guess which one of us would remove a cat's claws, and have it's testicles lopped off - and which one of us wouldn't? I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't mutilate a cat. But you would, and you did. And why? So he wouldn't scratch up your settee? So he wouldn't be aggressive? Do you think these are valid reasons to carve out parts of a cat? If the settee is so important, maybe pet ownership isn't for you.

Any animal is entitled to his full body. Cats, from my limited understanding, need their claws and their scratching to exercise and work out their natural aggression. I have no respect for those who would use surgery to deny this basic natural pleasure to an innocent animal, in order to make it more cuddly, those who feel no compunction about putting on a babyish display of slobbering affection to that same cat without regard to the nausea it induces in the stomachs of spectators, and those who seek constant validation for their cat-love by making little puss the constant center of attention and conversation. Grow up. Have real children. Calm down. Be demure. Learn restraint. And don't mutilate anything. These are not hard rules to follow. Most of all spare us your cat fancy. You'd be surprised how many people will be silently thankful.

Monday, July 18, 2011

There's Nothing Wrong with Talking on a Cell Phone While Driving

How is talking on a cell phone any different, or any more distracting than talking to someone in the backseat? Really, how is it different? In one case I'm talking to a flesh and blood person in the backseat; in the other case I'm talking to a machine that is relaying their voice from a distant location. What is the difference? How is (A) the most normal thing to do in a car since cars were invented, and (B) is illegal in a dozen states? Why person good machine bad? What if I put the phone in the backseat, put a wig and a sweater on it, and buckled it in, and then talked to it. Would that be okay? Or how about talking to someone who's in the car - but who communicates through one of those larynx voice machine amplifiers? Would that be bad? It's talking via machine, right?

Yes, I'm pissy. And it's because my state, Nevada has jumped on this moronic bandwagon and passed a no cell phone law. Now, instead of laughing at my friends in other states who have to deal with this, I'm going to be the one dealing with it. Now, starting January, instead of calmly and freely using the phone in my car, I'm going to have to be furtive and constantly on my guard using the phone in my car.

To me, it's always been simple. Talking while driving is normal. People seemed to realize this in the seventies when car phones were a fancy luxury and no one was making the point that they posed some kind of hazard. If they had, they would have been laughed out of the room. How could talking on a phone be dangerous if talking to the person next to you was fine?

And don't say it's because I need both hands on the wheel. Cause here's the secret: the no-cell-phone people don't care about this - the hands issue. For them it's entirely about distracted drivers. They're not satisfied with hands-free headsets as a compromise. They want all calls banned. Here's (former) New York Times' house ethicist Randy Cohen on the subject:

"Do not make that call. Or blindfold a driver or bang a pair of cymbals near his head or do anything else that significantly ups his odds of getting into an accident. To talk on a cell phone while driving does just that. One study calibrates the increased risk as akin to driving drunk. While there are other driver-distracting activities -- listening to the radio, whittling -- this one is particularly hazardous. For a driver to deliberately increase his own peril is unwise; to endanger other people is unethical. You should not abet either.

Incidentally, the increased risk has little to do with your hands and much to do with your head: It is a cognitive problem, a shifting of your concentration from the road to the call. That many states, including New York, bar drivers only from using hand-held phones is an act of breathtaking cynicism or dazzling ignorance. They might as well ban only gray cell phones but allow black ones."

Ah, Randy Cohen. Despite his urge to nanny and his wrongheadedness on this subject, he accidentally does me a favor. He concedes the hands point entirely, where he probably has the stronger case, and instead stakes everything on distraction. I'm guessing he had some personal reasons for this. Maybe Randy enjoys a little Starbucks coffee while he drives, and therefore the Einhander argument could potentially have implications in the Cohen-mobile.

(Now, incidentally, I don't need both hands to drive. I've always driven with one on the wheel. To me one hand at 12 o'clock is the most natural driving posture in the world. When the day comes when I have to execute some kind of Jason Bourne style super turn, jamming the handbrake while simultaneously doing a 180 and then speeding down some narrow European side street while tiny police cars zip by blaring that weird Euro-siren, then yes - on that day I'll need two hands. Until then, give me a fucking break.)

So really, it's all about distraction. While I wait on an answer for my "how is it different than talking to someone in the backseat" question - and I know I'll be waiting a while - let's talk a little more about distraction. Of course there are distractions in a car. Fiddling with the radio knob is a small distraction. Answering a question that someone in the passenger seat just asked you is a distraction. Adjusting the AC to get it just right is a distraction. Sipping coffee is a distraction. But do all of these things add up to danger? Well.... no. Driving simply doesn't demand total concentration and rapt attention. It demands a significant percentage of those things, but not some kind of absolute focus.

There are levels and there are degrees. Handling a curvy portion of the autobahn on a crowded day in a driving rain demands one level of concentration from the driver, and your predictable commute on a straight line road in light traffic at 30mph demands a second kind. A seasoned driver knows how much of his mental focus is required to drive safely, and how much can be diverted to secondary activities, like adjusting a volume knob or chatting with the person sitting next to you.

That I should have to point out something so obvious and that this reasonable position flies in the face of the New York Times' ethicist's own, and now Nevada law is unsettling. It's been apparent since Henry Ford that conversations in a car are not dangerous, and that other similarly ordinary and everyday distractions are not big issues for drivers. I can only conclude that there's some kind of technophobia at work on the part of the banners, or, in Randy's case, just the basic totalitarian pleasure of instructing others on what they may and may not do. Just that warm feeling in the sternum that you get from imposing your own preferences on other people, hectoring them, chiding, and then finally forcing obedience.

January's not that far off. When it arrives - come and get me po po. Didn't Randy Cohen once say that we're not obligated to obey unjust laws? It was probably in the context of excusing someone for forging social security numbers for illegal Guatemalans, but I'll take him up on it just the same.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Do Not Boast About Not Owning a Television

Here's another one of those Mensa-type errors in judgment that to me seems perfectly avoidable. The Mensa problem is that people who are drawn to Mensa membership think this will improve the regard others have for their intelligence. Tragically though, a boast of Mensa membership will generally produce the exact opposite effect. No smart person would join a club for smart people. Insufferable shits, on the other hand, would most certainly join an insufferable shits club, and most people grasp this intuitively.

The statement: "Well, actually, I don't own a TV." is similar. When spoken, the clear intention is for the listener to think "Wow. No TV. This guy must be pretty bright. Not to mention he's apparently got no appetite for all that crass, lowbrow entertainment. This is pretty forward thinking and liberated! I think I could learn a thing or two from him!"

But of course this is what the guy from the Princess Bride would call one of the "classic blunders". In reality, the statement "Well, actually, I don't own a TV" invariably results in the listener thinking: "Oh God. One of these assholes." And it's very simple to break down the logic of this conclusion. The listener isn't annoyed because the speaker reads too many books, goes on too many nature hikes, spends too much time in the museum of miniatures or just generally doesn't place any importance on watching television - that's not it. Many people who own televisions place no importance on watching television. What the listener actually thinks is this:

"Televisions are cheap. Most people own several. The programming on TV is so diverse that virtually any person on earth could probably find many things to enjoy. Even leaving enjoyment aside, there's tons of useful information on TV. There's breaking news, speeches from the president, there's tomorrow's weather, there's shows that will distract your kid for a few precious hours. There's the olympics and shark week, and Spanish language soaps. There's classic cinema and PBS and Saturday Night Live and war footage and iconic stuff like the Berlin Wall falling. This is stuff that isn't quite the same when you read it in the newspaper or dial it up on the internet."

"Owning a television doesn't mean I watch it all the time. TV falls somewhere between an occasional entertaining diversion and a when-I-need-it-it's-there resource. Having one in the den doesn't speak poorly of your character, and it's unclear why it would be virtuous to not have one. If you're poor, sure. If you're 90, okay. If you're so internet savvy that your computer screen is sort of like a default television, then I get it. Short of these excuses, why not make the buy? TV promotes sociability. You can gather the family in for your favorite show. You can snuggle on the couch with your spouse. You can have friends over to watch the game. These aren't bad activities, and it's weird that anyone would think they were."

"The deliberate choice to forgo ownership of a television must not really be about television. It must be some sort of gambit to assert a kind of personality or lifestyle, at the expense of one's own comfort. But that's sort of the point, isn't it? I forgo this easy pleasure, because I search for deeper, richer, more meaningful pleasures. But isn't that a crock of fairly pungent bs? People who have achieved greatness - the ones who have cured diseases, written great novels, built cities, etc. Do you think they owned televisions? I'm guessing they did. Why wouldn't they have? If they had been sufficiently asinine to think not owning a TV was a plus, they wouldn't have been geniuses."

"The only real reason not to own a TV is to be able to make the smug comment I just heard, made by a person who clearly thinks he's just earned a gold star, staked his claim to a little superiority on the cheap, and is obviously unaware how insufferable they sound and to what degree they've just advertised that their acquaintance will pay no dividend."

Fortunately your brain, being pretty quick, summarizes all that up as "Oh God. One of these assholes."