Saturday, November 30, 2013

Can I Do That?: Tasting Wine and Drinking Milk

An version of this piece first appeared in Small Winery Magazine.

            Sitting on a winery’s patio, I hear someone at a nearby table ask her companions, “I just had a red.  Now I want a white.  Can I do that?”
            The question says a great deal about some people’s anxiety when it comes to wine.  What are they allowed to do?  They know there are codes and ways of doing things, and they fear they might break them by acting on their desires.  They also fear that someone will then correct them. 
            I didn’t hear the responses of the others at the table because I was remembering a story about my father.
At the end of a business dinner in a Paris restaurant, my father once asked for a glass of milk.  The waiter refused to bring him one.  “Milk is for babies,” he explained.  Rather than intimidate my dad, this made him want a glass even more.  He insisted; the waiter refused.  They had something like the following argument.
            “You do have milk, don’t you?”
            “You would serve it to a child.”
            “Pretend I’m a child.”
            “But you are not.”
            “I was once.”
            “But you are not now.”
            “If I had a child with me, you would give it to him.”
            “Pretend that I do and bring me his.”
            “But you do not, and I will not.”
            “Do you serve café au lait?”
            “It’s coffee with milk, right?”
            “Would you serve me that?”
            “Then bring me a café au lait and hold the café.”
Eventually, to the embarrassment of the Europeans at the table, my dad was brought a glass of milk which he proceeded to drink with great relish.
            My father doesn’t believe that a restaurant’s staff gets to decide who should or shouldn’t be allowed to consume their products.  Nor should they insist on how their dishes are to be eaten.   If you want to have dessert first or fifteen appetizers or, as my dad sometimes does, a piece of apple pie with gravy or cheese on top, then that’s your choice.  The servers and even the chef can make recommendations, but they should not issue commandments.  The commands (in French “commander” or “to order”) come from the customer.
My father would never ask, “Can I do that?”   He knows what he wants, and usually he knows the expected social behavior even when he chooses to ignore it.  The woman on the patio was different.  She knew what she wanted, but she didn’t know about the etiquette.  She was afraid of doing something wrong and making a “mistake.”
Usually, people drink from white to red, light to heavy.  There are good reasons to have wines in this sequence, but, if you don’t, the bottles won’t shatter, the glasses won’t fall off the bar, no one will be scandalized and call the police.  And, if someone does become upset? If they absolutely insist on a certain order or code?  Then the problem isn’t what you’re drinking, but who you are drinking with.
Wine snobs are much more rare than the stereotypes suggest, but they do exist.  And, unfortunately, bad companions – those who condescend, or those who believe people need to be educated to appreciate the “right” wines--  leave much more of an unpleasant after-taste than bad wines.  There is, however, an easy solution. Dump them and try tasting with someone else.
The answer to “Can I do that?” when you’re trying wine, should always be, “Sure, if you want.”

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Stuart Little, The Movie: E.B. White’s Book Gets Revised in A Big Way

The movie Stuart Little may be well-intentioned, but, in almost every aspect, it not only changes, but reverses E.B. White’s book, and, in doing so, it, resolutely, crushingly, simplifies the material.
The movie gets that Stuart is small, but that’s about it.  In the book, he is mouse-like; in the movie he is a mouse.  There is no ambiguity, and instead there is a series of easy jokes.  In the book, Stuart acts like an adult and sometimes like a petulant teen.  In the film, he is much younger, dressing like a child, wearing sneakers rather than having a cane and fedora.  The movie goes for cuddly and cute.    
The book is open-ended, frustratingly so for some; the movie seeks closure on every point.  By the end, Stuart is even friends with Snowbell, the cat, riding her home.  He has formed a positive relationship with his new brother.  His identity – “I Am Stuart Little!” – is not only clear, but literally shouted from the rooftops.  At the end of the book, Stuart is off on his quest for beauty, leaving his family; at the end of the movie, he has come home, finding his family.
Most characters change in the movie, usually becoming softer.  White, however, was interested in how we live with one another when we’re not likeable.  Templeton in Charlotte’s Web is amoral and will eat the goslings if he has a chance, but he’s a member of the farm.  In The Trumpet of the Swan, the swan Louis works as the bugler at a boy’s camp.  One of the campers, Applegate, doesn’t like birds.  After Louis saves his life, the others expect the boy to change his view, but he doesn’t.  He’s appreciative, but says that he still doesn’t like birds.  Community means finding ways to live together even when we dislike and distrust one another.
In the book, Stuart works one day as a substitute teacher.  He has the class come up with rules of behavior for the Chairman of the World to govern everyone by.  They end up with two:  Don’t be mean, and don't steal.  Significantly, the first is not a cloying “Be nice.”  Stuart (and White) don’t insist on an active engagement.  You don’t have to play with people, like them, or even help them, but you can’t harm them.  The two rules add up to “leave people alone.”  When the class wants to come up with rules against rats, Stuart won’t let them.  You may not like them, but you can’t single them out.           
Whereas Charlotte’s Web focuses on death from the first line to its conclusion, the book Stuart Little is devoted to examining difference.  Stuart is the Little’s second son, and he is not what they expected.  It’s crucial that the difference occurs within the family.  To rework Forrest Gump, it’s not life that’s like a box of chocolates, but children.  One may be a runt (Wilbur), one may be mute (Louis in The Trumpet of the Swan), and one may seem like a different species all together (Stuart).  Families are fundamentally varied and diverse, and the arrival of a child changes the views of the others.  Having a mouse-like son, the Littles are suddenly aware of references to mice in literature and also the negative portrayals.  They’ve become sensitized in a way they hadn’t been before.  The recognition of difference changes their perspective. 
In the movie, Stuart is adopted.  Difference gets placed at a distance.  The Littles “accept” Stuart, they grow to love him, but scene after scene emphasizes that he and they are not really the same.  They are seen as big-hearted and generous because they “choose” him.
Interestingly, the movie hints at, but doesn’t pursue a more complicated dynamic.  Encoded in the movie is race.  When the Littles adopt, the person at the agency says, “Mr. and Mrs. Little, we try to discourage couples from adopting outside of their own... species. It rarely works out.”  For a long time, the policy of agencies was to not allow, or at least discourage, trans-racial placement.  In the movie, Stuart’s “real,” or supposedly biological, parents arrive (although actually they are con artists).  They are mice, and they emphasize that Stuart will never be truly happy with the Littles because he will never really be understood.  There will always be a void or absence inside of him.  They take him “home,” and his room has the primary decoration of a baseball card.  Significantly it’s a black player.  Towards the film’s end, Stuart gives a speech how people don’t have to look like one another to be family.  It's a well-intentioned sentiment, but the film makes the choices and issues far too easy.
From its bright colors to its soundtrack, the movie’s intentions are clear.  It wants to be appealing.  It wants to be fun.  It wants to be loved.  These are never White’s intentions.  Not surprisingly then, White writes one Stuart Little book, but we now have Stuart Little, the Movie, and Stuart Little 2, and Stuart Little 3, and Stuart Little the animated series, and Stuart Little the video game, and . . . 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

E.B. White’s Odd Little Book

E.B. White’s Stuart Little puzzled me when I was a child, and it continues to do so as an adult.
            I’m not sure why I read it as a kid, perhaps it was simply because it was on the shelf, available, and I was a voracious reader.  I do, however, distinctly remember not knowing what to make of it.  The cover with its image of a mouse paddling a canoe seemed promising, but it turned out to be misleading.  It wasn’t a light-hearted adventure, a fun fantasy.  It was something else entirely.  That canoe ends up being destroyed, and Stuart has a screaming tantrum next to it while his date, Harriet, unsuccessfully tries to calm him down by suggesting alternative activities like going dancing.  Eventually she walks off and leaves him, never to return to the story.
            Besides Stuart’s “mouse-like” appearance, there are odd aspects like a button that makes a model car invisible.  Stuart pushes this accidently, so he and the dentist who built the car can’t find it as it’s running, and it ends up smashing itself apart.  Perhaps this is a warning.  Some fantastical things can’t be controlled and thus must be used sparingly.  The episode, however, is typical of the book’s bittersweet tone.  Something that initially seems wonderful ends up being ruined, inadequate, or lost.  The canoe is called “summer memories,” a phrase of nostalgia, and it’s a trinket bought at a general store.  It’s the idea or representation of a canoe rather than a functional one, and Stuart must seal its leaks with gum.
            Part of the book’s appeal is how Stuart solves problems by MacGyvering solutions and engaging in what we now call Life Hacks.  It plays with scale, something that always fascinates and amuses whether it is Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels.  Then there are the wish fulfillment adventures for a child, the negotiating of adult activities -- sailing, driving, teaching, dating, traveling.  And there is White’s wonderful wry sentences:  the dentist saying, “Oftentimes people with decayed teeth have sound ideas”;  and Stuart “not only looking like a mouse but acting like one too –wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane.”
            However, the book never goes in an expected direction.  Stuart doesn’t form any kind of relationship with Harriet, a girl his size who is patient, easy-going, and seemingly nice.  He doesn't find Margalo, the bird he loves who has flown away.  He leaves home without much of a goodbye, or much regret.  Unlike with the movie adaptation (which I’ll discuss next week) there is no closure or resolution of any relationship. At the end, Stuart is hitting the road.  As my brother put it in a recent email, “instead of beginning in medias res, it ends in medias res.  I remember as a kid, being stunned.  What?  I just read the whole book and for what?  It had no ending.  What?  Where's the rest of the story?  … Why didn't the author finish it?  Why didn't the mouse find the girl? The bird?  It made me sad that the book had no ending… Every kid knows a book should have an ending...  
I didn’t feel as strongly as my brother, but I was similarly disconcerted.
Returning to the book as an adult, it’s open-endedness still surprises, but I understand it more.  In part, it’s because Stuart Little is a book, but it’s not a story.  There is no plot or linear narrative.  It is a situation, a set-up which generates a series of episodes.  (In this way, it's similar to James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times.)  These easily could have been expanded into a series like Flat Stanley or any of a number of kid’s books.  White, however, did not do this, and it strikes me as a brave choice on his part.  One of the main problems of writing for children is writing for children.  Or rather, writing down to them, not challenging them and not respecting their intelligence and abilities.  White understood these pitfalls, saying, ““My fears about writing for children are great—one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness.”  There is nothing whimsical or cute in the line “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” and Stuart demands to be respected rather than cuddled.  White never doubted children’s abilities to accept odd imaginative worlds and imaginative acts.  The open ending is not a hook to sell the next book; it's part of the overall point. 
White said Stuart Little was about "the continuing journey that everybody takes-—in search of what is perfect and unattainable. This is perhaps too elusive an idea to put in a book for children, but I put it in anyway."  Stuart searches for Margalo, the bird he misses, the one he is entranced by from the moment she speaks to him in rhyme.  She literally saves Stuart’s life, rescuing him from a garbage scow that's heading out into the ocean.  The beautiful and poetic can save us from this world of trash, the oblivion of the abyss.  It can give us a transcendent flying experience, and it can become a type of grail.
That's not a little idea at all.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Tear in White's Web

             I surprised my students when I hurled Charlotte’s Web against the classroom wall.  And I surprised myself.
            I love E.B. White which is why I’m teaching a course on him and his friend and New Yorker colleague, James Thurber.  When I entered the class the other day, I was ready to lead a discussion on the classic, Charlotte’s Web, a narrative that I know well.  Like most, I had read it growing up, and now, having two children, I’ve encountered it several more times.  In fact, I was using my daughter’s worn copy.
            There is so much I admire about the book.  The incredible economy of the opening line, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast, a sentence that sets everything in motion, and, at the same time gives characters, setting, time, and relationships.  The way White smoothly moves from realism to fantasy.  Not until Chapter Three do we begin to hear Wilbur’s thoughts and then he speaks and then the other animals speak.  The deft sleight-of-hand in dealing with the “miracle” of the writing in the web.  We understand the gentle poking fun of those who think it’s supernatural or the work of the divine, and yet we “believe” the fantasy of talking animals.  The fundamental point that language changes how you see the world.  The unflinching bluntness of Charlotte’s death with the line, “No one was with her when she died.”  The embedded political and philosophical questions:  How do we deal with an awareness of our mortality?  How do we decide who should die?  What makes life worth living?  Do we want “freedom” which can be terrifying, or the comfort of someone feeding and taking care of us?  How do we live together when some of us are bloodthirsty, or seeming so, like Charlotte, and some of us are amoral, definitely so, like Templeton.
            And yet . . .
            And yet . . .
            What bothers me about the book is what happens with Fern.  It starts off as her story, and she is prominent on the cover.  She is the moral center, working to fight injustice (as her father teases).  Then she disappears.  First, she becomes a silent observer, watching the barnyard.  Then, right before Wilbur’s big moment at the fair, she runs off to ride the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy. She’s not there to see the animal she loves and has saved from death receive a special award. 
I can’t decide if this portrayal is absolutely wrong or absolutely right.  Perhaps White sees clear-eyed how children suddenly drop their enthusiasms and run off, self-centeredly.  (It’s something J.M. Barrie recognized about children as well).  But what bothers me even more than that moment is that Fern doesn’t return.  Or rather she does only for the equivalent of cameo.  In a brief discussion with Avery later as they sled, she says the best thing in the world is being on the fair ride with Henry. This strong girl who can hear the animals talk, who retains a sense of the miracles and wonders of nature, at the end is completely boy-focused.
            Discussing this with my students, I became more and more worked up to the point that I threw the book.  I realize it was probably the wrong thing to do – whether for dramatic effect or not.  The sacredness of literature, modeling appropriate behavior, etc.  (And, my God, it's the most well-regarded American children's book ever published: "How E.B. White Spun Charlotte's Web.")  I will probably regret it.  Just as I regret taking a drill to a friend’s copy of Hamlet in college in a weird Freudian I’ll-show-you-I’m-not-intimidated-by-Shakespeare moment.  And, I recognize that I was wrong years ago when I pitched Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues across the room because, at the time, I disliked what I saw as its self-indulgent meta-techniques (something I’ve come to love and I’m a huge Robbins fan now).  I have acted badly many times in my relationships with books.
            Later, as I said goodnight to my daughter, I was tempted to ask about Charlotte’s Web, but instead we talked for a moment about a series she was reading called Tomorrow Girls.  She said, “I like it because it’s strong girls in a war book.  It’s almost always boys in war books.”  In two sentences, she may have summarized part of the appeal of The Hunger Games (a trilogy in her future).  I picked up the first one from her desk, and she said, “You can borrow it if you want.  But you need to take care of it.”
            As I turned out the light, I promised her I would. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Coming Clean About Another Place I Get Ideas

            It’s time to acknowledge it.  I get a lot of ideas in the bathroom.  Or, more specifically, the shower. 
I’ve long realized that most of my ideas come to me:  walking, napping, and highway driving.  For me, all three of these are the equivalent of meditative states (which is why the driving has to be on the Interstate and not in the city).  It turns out showering is similar. 
            As the hot water comes down, I’ll have revelations about courses I’m teaching or pieces I’m writing.  Perhaps I haven’t been forthcoming about this because it would sound creepy to tell students, “I was thinking about this class in the shower…”  Creepy, but true.
            Why does it happen?
            I think the answer is two-fold.  One, it’s a transition place where I’m gearing up to work or gearing down, so my mind has been tilling through the material.  It’s primed.  And, I’m moving from one state to another.  It’s a boundary area, a liminal space.
            Two, there is nothing else calling for my attention.  No radio.  No phone.  No TV.  No kids.  Frequently I have my eyes closed.  I’m in a receptive state.  This is key.  I said “bathroom” earlier, but I don’t get ideas on the toilet.  Why?  Because I’m usually reading there.  I don’t get a lot of ideas as a passenger in a car because I’m reading there as well, or messing with music, or eating, or playing the alphabet game.
            In the shower, there is nothing else to do, so the mind goes to work.
            It turns out that I’m not the only one this is true for.  A quick Google search reveals that Mental Floss did an article on it, “Why Do Our Best Ideas Come to Us in the Shower?"

The article explains the answer is a combination of: monotonous activity, daydreaming, de-focusing, and relaxing.  And, it argues that when we are most tired – mornings or evenings -- we are at our most creative.
            There also is an explanation of the science that happens, including the dopamine that gets released in the brain, here.

             So, want to get ideas?  Turn the phone off and the shower on.