Category Archives: Digressions

The Good Old Days… and Cupcakes

We are living in interesting times. When I woke up on Friday morning, I really didn’t expect to flip on Morning Edition and hear that the Leave side had won the Brexit referendum. (Apparently, a lot of people who voted on the Leave side didn’t expect it, either.) I confess I was never totally clear on what that was all about. Politics generally leaves me feeling a bit stupid, and as an American I can’t pretend to fully understand the British mindset, but the assassination of MP Jo Cox by a Leave supporter made it clear even to us ignorant non-Brits that the whole thing was a mess of huge proportions. Maybe that’s why I expected that Remain would win, and things would go back to normal, or normal-ish.

Come on, UK – aren’t we Yanks creating enough turmoil in the world right now?

Just kidding – I have enormous sympathy for the folks in the UK as they go through this upheaval. At the same time, I can’t help but think of it from my U.S. perspective. To me, as a member of the liberal elite (ha ha), the parallels between the Leave campaign there and the Trump campaign here are eerie. On both sides of the pond, it partly seems to boil down to a longing for “the good old days”, though what exactly that means is never spelled out. There are theories, not very nice ones.

As the writer of a blog that deals, at least in part, in nostalgia, I have to say that the past is at best a mixed bag. It’s only human to have a selective memory, keeping what pleases us and tossing the things we’d rather forget. That’s sort of what nostalgia is. The thing is, even if time travel were possible, we couldn’t go back to a time where the things we remember fondly are there, but the not-so-good things are absent, because that time does not exist. (I’m assuming here that we’re moving back and forth through time in the same quantum universe. If we can move between alternate universes as well, then all bets are off, of course.) Back in “the good old days” people took the bad with the good, just as they do now.

Anyway, since we haven’t figured out how to manage time travel (hell, we haven’t even sorted out the pesky paradoxes), we can only move forward in time and try for the best results from what’s happening now.

Which is not to say we can’t enjoy a little nostalgia from time to time. Or nostalgia and cupcakes. I’ve been thinking of trying to make poke cake for a while, and since this week on the editorial calendar is a “free week”, it seemed like a good time to do something fun. If cupcakes aren’t fun, I don’t know what is.

decorated cupcakes on a Fiestaware plate

Glam Cupcakes á la Freak Mountain

I started out with a box of white cake mix – probably the first time in decades that I’ve used a boxed mix, but I’m not sure what a white cake is, really. I have to admit I was seduced by the dead easiness of whipping up the batter. Even better was using an ice cream scoop to dole out the batter like they do on Cupcake Wars, which is genius, and I wish I’d known to do that as a kid when I was making cupcakes more regularly.

cupcake cut in half to show streaks of Jell-O

Poke cupcake, dissected

When the cupcakes were cooled, I “poked” them with fruit punch flavored Jell-O. For frosting, I didn’t want to use Cool Whip because I wasn’t sure how well it would keep (or travel, depending on what we decided to do with the cupcakes). Instead, I went with the White Mountain Frosting recipe from my trusty Betty Crocker cookbook. It’s boiled-sugar-and-egg-white based, essentially a marshmallow icing, but fluffy and not too perishable. White Mountain Frosting was a reprise of the “napalm” experience of Fruit Flavor Marshmallows, except that this time I was working with a mixer with a spatter guard, so the hazard was greatly reduced.

The glam theme was inspired by the foil cupcake cups, and by Vince Noir’s glam ski suit in the “Tundra” episode of The Mighty Boosh, which we’ve been re-watching in the summer TV lull. Those silver dragées are getting s little hard to find, but luckily they’re available at a local spice shop.

So finally I was pleased with the look, but as far as eating them? Man, these cupcakes are sweet. But we can’t stop eating them – just like in the good old days…

Juggling for Office Drones

Only one day late for World Juggling Day, the New Joy of Jell-O Project presents – Juggling for Office Drones!

This is my foray into instructional video. I’m not entirely confident that anyone will find it helpful, but it’s been interesting to do a longer and more involved video project….

Paying Respect: Muhammad Ali

While I’m putting the finishing touching on the regular weekly post, I just wanted to put up a brief one to pay my respects to Muhammad Ali.

I’m not a boxing fan, but he loomed large in my 1970s childhood, as he loomed large everywhere. My best friend and I would make cassette recordings of ourselves pretending to be Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell (though, steeped in satirical comedy as we were, we would be “Coward Hosell”) doing interviews, reciting Ali’s famous lines: “I’m the black Superman…. I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee…” When a black boxing champion has white suburban girls doing their best impressions of him – well, that’s some reach.

I’ve been hearing and reading tributes to him today, and there was a lot that I missed back in the Coward Hosell days. Ali wasn’t a perfect man, but his life was an ongoing effort to do good and be his best. Further, he was an outsized personality who wasn’t afraid to be as big as he was in a world that, frankly, does its level best to deflate people who don’t happen to be white men. The world was a better place because he was in it.

My sympathies go out to his family, his many friends, and his long-time fans. To Ali himself, respect and peace.

Tips and Tricks for Using the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar Line

JazzyPass-SMALL

Before I finish with the topic of New Orleans, here are a few helpful hints that I wish I’d found somewhere, anywhere, before I started making use of the very useful St. Charles line.

  • Get yourself a Jazzy Pass ASAP. Unless you’re just making one or two trips, it’s totally worth it. The fare boxes on the streetcars are painfully slow, and you need exact change. Paying cash holds up the line and makes you look like a tourist.
  • You can buy a one-day Jazzy Pass from the streetcar conductor (cash only), but not the 3-day pass, which is available from various vending machines and retail outlets, or any Walgreens store in New Orleans. (There are Walgreens all over the place in NOLA.) The link I’ve provided gives basic purchase information.
  • When you get a new Jazzy Pass, the countdown to expiry starts the first time you run it through a fare box. Note that most likely the only time you’ll need to run it through the fare box is the first time you use it. The ticket readers are slow, so most conductors seem to prefer that riders just show their time-stamped passes when they get on. In fact, late one night when I started to run my pass through the machine, the conductor grabbed my wrist with one hand while taking the ticket away from me with his other hand. He spoke not a word, and really pissed me off. (And I know he wasn’t mute because he was chatting up a storm with an off-duty conductor who got on a couple of stops later.)
  • All the streetcars have “exit rear door” signs, but most people don’t do that because the doors are difficult to open manually. If you find yourself stuck in the rear of a crowded streetcar when you reach your stop, give that door a good, hard outward shove to open it – otherwise you’ll have the conductor and half the passengers shouting instructions at you until you disembark, and cheering sarcastically when you do.
  • I have an app called Transit on my phone that I use at home, and it turns out that it works in New Orleans as well. It wasn’t super accurate about arrival times but close enough for a vacation, and it was somehow smart enough to figure out what direction I was heading in, so it turned out to be fairly useful. If you have that app, or a similar one, give it a try!

On Holiday: Eating My Way Through New Orleans

ShutUpAndEat-SMALL

Folk art by Dr. Bob

Now that I’m back, I can share the reason that I selected a repost for last week’s blog entry – I was on holiday in New Orleans! While I’m working on a new savory Jell-O and accompanying video for next weekend, I thought I’d share a few highlights.

It had been a long time since either Bryan or I had been to the Big Easy. I spent a couple of days there on my way from San Francisco to NYC in 2000, and Bryan was there for the World Science Fiction Convention in 1988. This time, we went partly because our friend J– had seized upon his daughter’s graduation from Loyola as a happy occasion for a gathering, to make a change from all the funerals.

Our impression of today’s NOLA was mixed. There is a lot about NOLA that’s exceedingly cool (art, music, food, history…) but the drinking culture is kind of overwhelming. We got to experience it even before leaving Boston when a bro’s bachelor party, already underway, boarded the plane and settled into the row behind us.

InTransit-SMALL

At 35,000 ft – trying to ignore the noisy bachelor party behind me…

We saw many such groups in the French Quarter. The bachelorette parties were particularly easy to identify by their matching tee-shirts, festive headgear, and feather boas. There are few cities in the U.S. where public drinking is legal (of which NOLA and Las Vegas are the best known), and NOLA bars are allowed to stay open 24/7, so it’s a major drinking destination, and people do some major drinking there.

We arrived on a Wednesday evening, hungry for some good Southern cooking. The desk clerk at our B&B, Creole Gardens, pointed us in the direction of Lafayette Square, where a weekly live music show would be winding down, and we’d be able to buy food from street vendors. Bryan didn’t care for the music, so we continued on to Canal Street and, as Bourbon Street was right in front of us, we decided to plunge on into the French Quarter.

ForSale-SMALL

You don’t see this every day!

I’m not going to apologize for saying this: Bourbon Street is awful. It’s noisy, smelly, and vulgar, and within a few blocks Bryan found himself in the clutches of a Shoeshine Man. There’s a scam where a Shoeshine Man bets you that he can tell you where you got your shoes, making it sound like he can psychically discern the state, city, and store where you bought them, but when he finishes winding up his pitch, it turns out that “you got yo’ shoes on the bottoms of yo’ feet”. Ha! And while he’s doing that, if the shoes are leather, he squirts polish on them so that you have no choice but to let him shine them. We had already learned about this scam because a friend of ours fell for it when he was in NOLA a couple of years ago, but Bryan forgot, and got soaked for a cool $20.

We spent far too long wandering pointlessly in the French Quarter before we headed back to the Garden District, to wind up having supper at Seed, a vegan restaurant across the street from Creole Gardens. We agree that this was the best meal we had in NOLA. Creole care for cooking does wonders for vegan cuisine. The food was just beautifully done, excellent flavors, and the restaurant was maybe a little hipstery, but friendly and welcoming and comfortable – a good start to the trip.

BellesDiner-SMALL

Belle’s Diner, where the ambiance can’t be beat. The food, however…

We had most of our breakfasts at Creole Gardens, and they were excellent. Barbara’s grits and biscuits are top-notch. On Friday and Saturday morning we weren’t able to get up in time for the B&B breakfast, so we ventured out to the neighborhood, hitting the Trolley Stop Café (notable for its dark-colored coffee cups that made pouring difficult for our waitress) and the St. Charles Tavern (notable for being nearly empty late Saturday morning, although the food was good).

Over the course of the six days we were there, the quality of the food was surprisingly inconsistent. An early lunch on Thursday at the Café Fleur de Lis (I had gumbo, Bryan had a shrimp p’ boy) was very good, but that evening we found ourselves part of a group of 13 with no dinner reservations, and we ended up at the Café Pontalba, which deserves props for accommodating us quickly, but alas not for the food. The Spicy Green Beans were a serious fail. We fared much better on Friday with a late lunch with friends at the Gumbo Shop (which I remembered fondly from my last visit to NOLA – lovely pecan pie) and a very, very late supper with them at the 24-hour Daisy Duke’s on Chartres Street. Eating a big bowl of gumbo and having a long, punchy conversation about vampires, zombies and ghosts with our friends’ 12-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son was one of the highlights of the trip.

MadameJohns-SMALL

No ghosts appeared at Madame John’s Legacy

Friday turned into such a late night because J– had organized a “ghost and mystery tour” for the party guests with Jonathan Weiss, the New Orleans Ghost Tour Guide to the Stars, as described by Key and Peele on Jimmy Kimmel’s show while promoting their film Keanu. Jonathan is a charismatic and skilled storyteller (though he could’ve skipped Brangelina’s house). Locations on the tour included the house of Madame Lalaurie (inspiration for “American Horror Story: Coven”), Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Madame John’s Legacy, and the Old Ursuline Convent. The history lesson were interesting, but the upshot seemed to be that anyplace where someone has died might be haunted. Actually, it’s not hard to believe that New Orleans is haunted, and I expect that the complete absence of ghosts on the tour might have been down to the masses of tourists drinking up a storm everywhere we went. If I was a ghost, I would have stayed holed up in an attic, too.

While we got sucked into the French Quarter far too often, we did manage to spend some time in the Garden District. The graduation party was at a house J– had rented, and that turned out to be a nice, relaxing time hanging out with old friends and meeting cool new people.

Lafayette1-SMALL

Lafayette #1, May 2016

PereLachaise-SMALL

Père Lachaise, January 2012

One day we visited Lafayette Cemetery #1, where some of Interview with a Vampire was filmed. Bryan was disappointed at the lack of spookiness, though expecting a cemetery to be spooky at noon might be asking a lot. He’d learned that part of the reason the tombs are above ground (aside from the well-known high water table) is because the older cemeteries in NOLA are modeled on Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where many of the graves have small chapels built above them. The graves in Lafayette #1 are more modest than most at Père Lachaise, and more uniform. Lafayette #1 is also small area-wise, because those tombs are often shared by many family members.

We followed up Lafayette #1 with lunch at  the St. James Cheese Company, and dessert at Creole Creamery, which has exotic flavors to rival anything we might find at Toscanini’s here at home.

IceCreamHappy-SMALL

Treating ourselves at the Creole Creamery in the Garden District

One of the things I love about the American South is the folk art, and we managed to see a good bit of that while we were there. We visited the Ogden Museum, just down the street from Creole Gardens, and browsed the galleries on Royal Street looking for the work of Dr. Bob (which I’ve loved since I picked up one of his pieces in Memphis almost 20 years ago). We went to the old U.S. Mint over on Esplanade Street, where the ground floor houses an exhibit on the history of the mint (including why it’s not a working mint anymore), and the second floor has art exhibits – at the time we visited, one gallery had an exhibit of Southern outsider art, and another had a really good exhibit on native son Louis Armstrong. We even made a visit to Madame John’s Legacy in the daytime, while it was open to the public (and free!) It seemed even less haunted in the middle of the day, but we like antique houses (we used to own one) and there was a nice exhibit on Newcomb Pottery (I have a weakness for the Arts and Crafts movement).

CafeDuMonde-SMALL

Well, you have to, don’t you?

And yes, we did finally manage to round out our trip to New Orleans with the obligatory visit to the Café du Monde for beignets and café au lait.

Laissez les bon temps roulez!

 

 

Never Mind the Jell-O, Here’s Irish Continental Breakfast!

I owe another tip of the hat to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The other night he had some fun with a statement by RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who declared that the U.S. presidential primaries have been fun, not hard at all, and it’s not like he’s pouring Baileys on his cereal or anything like that. When I heard that on the news clip, I thought, “Hm, that sounds like it might work, wish I’d thought of it….”, and it turned out that Colbert and/or his writers had the same thought. He pulled out a bowl, a spoon, a box of Lucky Charms, and a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream, and proceeded to chow down:

A short time later, he and guest Tom Hanks partook of Stephen’s “Irish continental breakfast” during their interview.

Adolescent-at-heart that I am, I was deeply intrigued – although, much as I respect Stephen Colbert, I thought  that there must be a better choice of cereal than Lucky Charms. While I get the whole “Irish” theme, I thought this would be better with a chocolate cereal, of which there is no shortage these days. I was thinking maybe Count Chocula cereal would do, though I could also go with classics like Cocoa Puffs or Cocoa Pebbles, or with chocolate Cheerioes, Oreo cookie cereal, chocolate Batman cereal…

OK, I think I just found the cause of our obesity epidemic. You’re welcome.

BaileysLuckyCharms-OPT

Magically delicious!

So our Saturday errands took us to a nearby Shaw’s supermarket, where they didn’t have Count Chocula (apparently it’s seasonal now,) but they did have chocolate Lucky Charms. There are chocolate Lucky Charms? Perfect! says I. We grabbed a box, a little later picked up a bottle of Baileys from a new liquor store in the neighborhood, and we were all set.

I’m here to tell you that Baileys on chocolate cereal totally works. Not only does the liqueur taste fine with the cereal, but the cereal makes the Baileys left in the bowl all chocolatey, so when you’ve finished off the cereal you can add a little vodka and some crushed ice, and you’ve got a chocolate mudslide. It was the perfect thing to eat while watching Time Traveling Bong.

I just need to ask a favor, readers. Please don’t tell my trainer about this. Any of it.

How to Be a Twat(?)

Twat is the word people use to refer to someone who uses Twitter a lot, yes? No?

Whatever. In the spirit of being a perpetual newbie and not being afraid to suck, I’ve been trying to figure out Twitter. Like an idiot, I dismissed it when it was first starting to be a thing several years ago. I’d be having lunch with the other Olds in the Lab, and it would come up as a topic, and we’d just snort derisively about how it was mainly used by the Youngs to share with the world what they were having for breakfast.

Well, maybe Twitter started out that way, but it just turned ten years old, and it seems like about three quarters of all people are twats. Also, more job listings at MIT are asking for familiarity with social media, so I decided I couldn’t just ignore it any longer.

The thing is, I seem to have a Twitter block. I’m having trouble finding the way in, which is weird, because I started getting social online with the Confer chat program at UMass back in 1987, and since then have been on usenet, various online fora, and of course Facebook. Yet Twitter eludes me somehow.

A major challenge is time management. I’m working on keeping up with a Twitter feed, which is often very much an of-the-moment thing, without becoming one of those people who walk around staring at their phones. Terlit time is already spoken for by Facebook. I decided to throw money at the problem and bought the Twitter client Tweetbot, mobile and desktop. One nice feature is that Tweetbot syncs feeds across devices, so I don’t have to waste time scrolling past tweets I’ve already seen. I can always scan my feed when I have a couple of free minutes, wherever I am. That helps, but I still often feel late to the party, and I can’t shake the sense that ideally I would have a feed piped directly into my brain.

Of course, following a feed is just the first step. As far as participating goes, I understand that I’m supposed to be liking stuff, retweeting, replying, mentioning and so forth. I’m even pretty sure I know what those things mean. However, few people I know use Twitter, so I’m following a few celebrities (lots of famous twats out there!), strangers who seem to be aspiring comedians, a few tech sites, and @Nerdist – and I haven’t quite been able to figure out where I fit into all of this. So far it seems less social and more like being in a crowd of twats all vying for attention. My instinct in that sort of situation is to sit quietly in a corner – not really the point of Twitter.

When I do try to come out of my shell, Twitter makes me feel a little like a stalker. (Mr. Google says I’m not the only one.) I’ve replied to a few tweets by relatively approachable British comedians Noel Fielding and Robert Llewellyn – sane, respectful, hopefully witty things – and just thinking about it leaves me verging on an anxiety attack. (How many tweets until you’re a creep?) Actually, I’m like that with non-famous people, too, having been raised to believe that I’m best taken in small doses, but I can only imagine that being told to fuck off by someone whose work I admire would be pretty rough. I have to imagine it, because it’s never happened, but I still worry about it.

I had a little epiphany earlier this evening when I realized that I may have been conditioned by the privacy concerns of techie friends and acquaintances to be overly cautious with Twitter interactions. I need to bear in mind that if I can see a tweet, the twat probably doesn’t mind, or even expects, that complete strangers may respond to it. I’ve had a few strangers like or reply to my cautious tweets, and all I can think is how sweet it was of them to notice.

I follow Steve Martin (a hero of mine since I was 11 or 12, and a celebrity known to do his own tweeting) and I haven’t dared to tweet at him. I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!

Still, Wayne and Garth did get to hang out with Alice Cooper, and I am finding things to like in Twitter. 50 Nerds of Gray punctuates my feed with silliness, and it’s always fun when writer Roxane Gay live-tweets “Tiny House Hunters” (like she’s doing now while I try to finish this draft). I get news about my city, and what’s playing at a local art house cinema. I’ve learned that, for some reason, nerds dig “Gilmore Girls”, and that the show is returning to television. Okaaaaay then…

Maybe I’ll make it as a twat yet.