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Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Wig & Pen Halloween Quickie: The American Dental Association Weighs in on Halloween Tooth Filing

From the ADA's web site:

The popularity of television shows, movies and books featuring vampires has led some people to actually file their teeth to points, making them look like vampire fangs.
 "We strongly caution people against altering their teeth because of a fad. Filing teeth weakens tooth structure and, if the person later changes his mind, restoring teeth to their natural shape can be costly," explains Dr. Matthew Messina, a Cleveland-area dentist and ADA consumer advisor.
 Wig & Pen responds: The ADA has a point.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Behold the Trick!

In the inspired Curb Your Enthusiasm episode “Trick or Treat” (Season 2, Episode 3), Larry David, through self-inflicted obstinacy—falls prey to every child’s Halloween equalizer—The Trick. On Halloween night, Larry has been an exceedingly generous candyman until two overage teenage girls, sans costumes, show up at his door, demanding candy.  Larry’s Response: No candy for you!

It doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to go around to peoples’ homes and bilk them of candy, he proclaims.
The next morning he and his wife, Cheryl, discover the girls’ rejoinder: a backyard with trees and hedges festooned with toilet paper. And a special message for Larry spray-painted on his French doors:
                                                   BALD ASSHOLE

That’s a hate crime. We’re a sect. We’re a group, Larry tells two unsympathetic police officers.

You’ve got a long day of cleaning ahead of you! Cheryl responds with still less sympathy.

Fear of The Trick is one buxom reason why Americans typically overspend on Halloween candy. Most of us dread being caught short, so we hedge by overbuying. Consider my friend Herr Doktor Roberto, an economist-statistician who, as a frequent media commentator on the Massachusetts economy, has seen more than his share of extreme economic events during the past decade.

I always buy one or two bags, even though we haven’t had a trick-or-treater in four years, he confesses. I don’t want to disappoint any children and I do dread an extreme event—The Trick. Spending a few dollars on candy is a hedge that I can live with.*

A Mindless, Bottomless Dish. But the deal is not without moral hazard. The next day Herr Doktor Roberto brings all of his candy to work, where he entrusts it with the office manager of his academic department. It eventually finds its way into a bottomless candy dish fueled with similar contributions from twenty or so colleagues and staff members. Not unlike a street hooker, the dish is positioned with fetching accessibility to the public in his department’s reception area, poised for what food behaviorist Brian Wansink calls Mindless Eating. Multiply that enticement by my college’s seven administrative offices and for that matter by all the workplaces in The Realm—and you’ll agree that more than a soupcon of junk candy intended for children has a hefty afterlife in a secondary market that dis-graces the alimentary realms of adults. (A suggestion: slam-dunk your remaining bag(s) of candy in the nearest trash hoop.)

A Personal Note. For the author of Wig & Pen, November 1st (a.k.a. All Souls Day, a.k.a. the Day of the Dead) bears special poignancy. On November 1, 1983, W&P’s father, a dentist’s dentist, entered the great cosmic root canal in the sky. Every year on the day after Halloween, it’s hard not to think of Dad with the sight of every Mars Bar, every Jaw Breaker. To W&P’s good fortune, his friend Bob Marx recently offered a different take on the matter: “Cheer up, Lou. Candy did pay for your college years, didn't it?”
*Here’s an opposite risk-laden strategy:  Another friend reminisced that when her children were still living in the house, she would buy short and, if she ran out, give away some of their candy when they returned from their own trick-or-treating. “What did you do when you ran out before they returned,” I asked. Her reply: “We’d turn off the lights.”

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Monday, October 25, 2010

In Japan, the Macrohouse Is in the Microhouse

 Capsule hotel accommodations in Osaka
When it comes to things Japanese, the notion of small is beautiful is an understatement. The macrocosm is in the microcosm better describes the situation, especially in Japan’s limperific deflationary times. A recent New York Times feature,  Japan Goes from Dynamic to Disheartened: The Great Deflation, chronicles a phenomenon in Japanese urban real estate, the microhouse. It’s an inspired first cousin once removed from Japan’s capsule hotels. (room service depicted above)

In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, it’s land that’s through the roof, so many aspiring younger Japanese buy breadbox- or perhaps bento box- size parcels and build heavenward. The Times elucidates:

These matchbox-size homes stand on plots of land barely large enough to park a sport utility vehicle, yet have three stories of closet-size bedrooms, suitcase-size closets and a tiny kitchen that properly belongs on a submarine.

The Times continues:

This is how to own a house even when you are uneasy about the future, observes a general manager at Zaus, a builder of microhouses in Tokyo. [Felicitously, the general manager’s surname is Kondo.—W&P]

Take the Tour. Next on the agenda is a video tour of a Japanese microhouse. Note the customary exaggerated, inflated tone of the TV narrator. Perhaps a personal whiff of market deflation will land her in such lodgings. Stay tuned for more deflation, more Japanese-style insularity.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Redemption at the Lhasa Café

Before my first meal at Northampton’s Lhasa Café in 2004, I had never tasted Tibetan food. In all fairness, the café—Western Massachusetts’ only Tibetan restaurant—was but two months old—still working things out. Following flavor-challenged portions of stir-fried vegetables, rice, and two types of Tibetan breads, one of them a wraith-like doughy dumpling called a momo, I finally encountered something with personality. It was butter tea and, for a neophyte, it was nasty--an infusion dominated by ghee (clarified butter) and goosed up with salt, not sugar (statins not compulsory but recommended).

This then was eating-out to live, not living to eat out. And one final touch: Piped-in dinner music was a cathartic lower-register drone-athon by a full complement of Tibetan monks.

Homage to Tibet. Let me underscore my admiration for Tibet and its special planetary role and legacy. Tibetan Buddhism really does offer a cultural and pragmatic hot line to at least the prospect of the Great Beyond-o (and more). Granted, the Tibetan Book of the Dead –a sort of between-incarnations Fodor’s—offers more than its share of challenging prose. But, in truth, it’s no more inscrutable than other instruction guides of Asian provenance. It has nothing, for instance, over the operating manuals that came with my Taiwanese TV and my Korean DVD player.

Given my bullishness for Tibetan Buddhism and the small sample size (ONE) of my exposure to Tibetan cuisine, I resolved to give the Lhasa Café (and myself) a second chance—nearly six years after my visit. This time I did some research. My respondents fell into two categories. The first—drawing on experiences at Tibetan restaurants in Brookline, New York, and Northampton--echoed my previous impression of Tibetan cuisine. But the second offered kudos with the following advisory: Be sure to order meat dishes. Tibetans are a pastoral, meat-eating people. Think of them as Texans of the Tibetan Plateau. (Tara, forgive me.)

Hail to the Yak
 Showdown at the Lhasa Café.  So earlier this week I rounded up two foodie friends and my son and mosied on down to the Lhasa Café. We went straight for the yak, Tibet’s beloved all-purpose quadruped. (According to the owner, the café’s yak supply chain begins on a farm in Nebraska.) We ordered three different yak cum-vegetable stir fries, including one with jalepenos. All brimmed with flavor and were perfectly seasoned with ginger, emma (Tibetan black peppercorns) and other spices. A bit of the yak was stringy, but all of it had a disarming, delicate sweetness and lightness. (Yak, the menu noted, has far fewer calories, and less fat and cholesterol than beef, pork, and even chicken.) The four of us agreed that the meat in my son’s beef dish was less flavorful than the yak, but that the potatoes in his mélange were cooked and seasoned to perfection.

Yaksha Juma Khasta

With these revelations, my doughy momo dumpling acquired new meaning. Its invisible flavor and limp plasticity were now virtues in mopping up and absorbing terrific entries. And the Lhasa Café got the dinner music right. It was an unobtrusive Tibetan-New Age hybrid of lilting vocals and flute.

A final disclaimer and more.  I know that the Tibetan diaspora offers its share of Buddhist vegetarian cuisines, some of which dovetail with Tibetan health/medicine. And I would bet this incarnation that any number of Tibetan cooks bring subtlety and panache to their vegetarian creations. Still, there’s no denying Tibet’s meat-eating ways. In the early 1980s a friend served on a security team that traveled with the Dalai Lama throughout the northeast United States. One of my friend’s reminiscences was of a visit by the Dali Lama and his red- and saffron-robed retinue to a McDonalds. This post ends with two recollections from that story: the Tibetans were received with great hospitality and many in the group ventured higher on the food chain than the Filet-O-Fish.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Beatrix Potter Crime Scene

A Wig & Pen Parental Advisory: Use discretion when reading Beatrix Potter to your children. In almost every Potter tale, her main characters—everyone from Peter Rabbit to Jemima Puddle Duck—flirt with mortal danger. Big whoop, you protest; classic Fairy Tales derive much of their energy and their charm from ill-intentioned miscreants like ogres and witches; giants and goblins.

Still, the marketing of Peter Rabbit and other Potter quadripeds with bipedal aspirations revs the engine of deception: The branding of Peter, Jemima, Ginger, Pickles, and the rest of the gang exudes preciousness that can blind you to Potter’s substantial dark side. You’ll find Potter’s cutesy characters on bibs and bedding, tea sets and toys, even on a line of organic fruit snacks. The cuteness drip will disarm you—you’ll scurry to read her tales to your future grade schooler.

 Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but every distribution of tailed-animal tales has, statistically speaking, tails of its own. Therein lies the danger zone. And in Potter’s body of work, no story lives more dangerously than The Tale of Mr. Tod.

The Tale of Mr. Tod. Potter kicks off the story with the following warning label:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and  Mr. Tod.

Both are nifty role models for your children: Mr. Todd (a fox) and Tommy Brock (a badger) combine tooth, claw, and guile to abduct and eat smaller animals in Potter’s magic kingdom. Mr. Todd has half a dozen houses. When he’s in one house, Tommy Brock uses one of the vacant ones as a combination abattoir-diner’s club.

The story begins when Tommy pays a social visit to Mr. Benjamin Bouncer, who is minding the infant brood of his son, Benjamin Bunny. After much conviviality and exposure to cabbage leaf cigar smoke (we all know that cabbage leaves are soporific), Benjamin Bouncer nods off and the badger absconds with the babies in a sack. When Benjamin Bunny and his better half, Flopsy, return to discover the appalling news, Benjamin sets out in a panic to save his infants. On the trail, he teams up with his brother, Peter Rabbit. Eventually, they track down the badger, who is holed up in one of Mr. Todd’s vacant houses, on a hilltop.

The Silence of the Lambs has nothing on Potter’s description of the house and yard:

The house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pigsty. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked. [In the yard] there were many unpleasant things lying about that had much better have been buried: rabbit bones and skulls, and chickens’ legs and other horrors. It was a shocking place and very dark.
 Peeking through a window, Benjamin and Peter discovered that Tommy Brock had retired for the night after stashing the brood—still alive and kicking--in an oven for safekeeping and for his next meal. Potter’s description of the kitchen is mouthwatering:

But there were preparations upon the kitchen table which made him [Benjamin] shudder. There was an immense empty pie dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper.

To the reader’s great good fortune, the story ends happily, comically. Mr. Tod discovers Tommy Brock in his house and his bed; the two combatants roll down the hill in a whirl of flying fur; and Benjamin and Peter get away with the next generation in tow.

After reading The Tale of Mr. Tod, Graham Greene speculated that Potter was suffering from some sort of emotional disturbance when writing the tale. Not so, she retorted, it was mererly the after-effects of the flu.

In the Confessional and Beyond. As long as the Man don’t catch you, confession is good for the soul. When my son was five or six, I marched through Beatrix Potter: The Complete Book of Tales from beginning to end. When I got to Mr. Tod, I knew that I was immersing my son in the ruckus, but I was too enthralled to skip to the next tale or even to bowdlerize. Since then (13 years ago), I’ve kept sharp objects and duct tape out of reach. And I’m happy to note that the father-son bonding that began with Beatrix Potter and her serial killers is alive and well. We don’t read Beatrix or, for that matter, Harry, these days, but more than a few years ago our transition to the CSI family of TV shows was seamless.

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