Culinary Misadventures 3

First of all, sorry about the lack of interesting updates lately. It just so happens that my current interests don’t lend themselves well to conversion into blog posts. Hopefully that’ll change in the near future.

Anyway…

This particular culinary misadventure was, like the chocolate-covered banana, not really a wacky, daring experiment in gastronomic daring so much as “something I thought was going to be good and turned out to be crappy and kinda nasty.”

I bought a blender recently, and as with any such appliance (waffle irons, juicers, and veg-o-matics also fall into this category), I frequently have the urge to blend things in order to convince myself that I actually had a good reason for buying the thing. So, for my lunch today, I thought I’d puree some bananas with yogurt (I steadfastly refuse to use the word “smoothie”; admittedly “pureed bananas” sounds less appetizing, but I have my principles). The problem was, I only had one banana. At first, I thought I’d add some apple to it to bulk it up, but then I discovered that I was out of apples. So I searched my pantry for things that might go well with banana. Genius that I am, I settled on Raisin Bran, thinking “What could be healthier than bananas, yogurt, and high fiber cereal all blended together?” Perhaps I should also have asked myself “What could taste better than bananas, yogurt, and high fiber ceral all blended together?”, because the obvious answer (“Anything”) would probably have knocked some sense into me. I should have known better than to actually eat the stuff when I saw how it looked:

I immediatley found myself referring to this as “not-diarrhea,” to make it more palatable. And honestly, the first few sips weren’t all that bad. Chunkier perhaps than any lunchtime beverage should be, but not all that bad. I added cinnamon and vanilla to the mixture, which complemented the bananas and the raisins nicely. Then, the horrors began.

Little did our oblivious protagonist know, but even as the malevolent concoction sat on his table, it was undergoing a horrible transformation. At first, I thought the impression that it had gotten thicker somehow was just my imagination. But, like someone in a horror movie, this assumption consigned me to a horrible fate.

Within minutes, the stuff had thickened from a pleasant pureé to a palatable slop, and then to a tolerable goop, and finally, to a roundly unpleasant porridge. When I turned the blender pitcher upside-down, the stuff flatly refused to drip out. At this point, it had ceased being a liquid.

Now, to be fair, I can’t say the flavor got any worse. Actually, the stuff wasn’t bad throughout. It tasted pretty much exactly like Raisin Bran. The texture, however, went from that of diarrhea to that of vomit as the stuff sat in the cup, and ultimately, I couldn’t finish it. This picture will show you why:

To get an idea of the texture, take a gander at this video. The color and the consistency of their “Fast Food Smoothie” is pretty much the same as that of my gloop.

Consider this a sort of public service announcement:

Before you buy a blender, consider the potential consequences. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your stomach. Do it for your tongue. Do it for the children.

I knew I should have bought a waffle iron instead.

(That funny-looking object at the bottom of the picture, slightly to the right of center, is my foot. Just in case you were wondering.)

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Culinary Misadventures 2

People who know me will tell you that, while I don’t come close to the Fat Albert extreme, I’m not exactly petite. The main reason behind that is that I love my sweets. Anyway, my health took a serious hit this week when I bought a couple of bags of chocolate chips and realized that I could make my own chocolates.

Thus, this week’s culinary misadventure isn’t a misadventure in the same way as making an octopus-and-pickle sandwich; it’s really more of a “gee-I-don’t-know-if-this-is-a-good-idea” sort of thing. I promise to resume eating weird and potentially gross things next time.

Anyway, this week’s misadventure: a chocolate-covered banana. It’s a misadventure mainly because I seriously underestimated just how much chocolate it would take to cover a whole banana. I only thank my lucky stars that I didn’t have, say, a Twinkie, or a container of peanuts, or any amount of nougat or caramel in the house… After discovering that I could indeed melt chocolate in the microwave (and after discovering that, last night, there is indeed a limit to how long you can leave it in there before it starts gushing smoke and emitting a horrible smell), I peeled a nice ripe banana, slathered it with melted chocolate (I’m sure Freud would have a field day with that one), and stuck it in the freezer. This was the result:

The little broken bits laying there are because some of the chocolate pooled under the banana while it was hardening (shut up, Sigmund), and I broke it off because I thought that the minor decrease in the amount of chocolate might somehow push my meal from “terrible idea” to “questionable idea.”

Result: Delicious, although I can feel the chocolate hitting my stomach like a ton of chocolate-covered bricks. Delicious, and also incredibly bad for you. (How cruel that those two always seem to go together) Easy to make, too.

Judgment: 9/10.

Feeling Aged at Twenty

For a while now, I’ve been noticing a disturbing innner trend: I feel old. Very old. On some occasions, I’ve unironically mumbled “damn kids.” No doubt, this is a product of the rapidly-accelerating advance of technology (Singularity, anyone?), but to me, it doesn’t bode well.

You see, I was an early member of the Internet generation, and when the much-touted “Web 2.0”, user-created internet arrived sometime this decade, it only made sense to me. I’ve always been one to try to keep up or at least keep informed of the latest technical innovations. Now, though, I’m finding that I don’t have the energy to run in the twenty or thirty different directions that my brain is pulling me. There’s too much to read, too much to write, too much to digest, too many Wikipedia queries to make. It’s all just too much, too fast.

To me, this is foreshadowing what is to come. Before long, it will be impossible for the standard human being (I like to call them MOSHes (Mostly Original Substrate Humans), after Kurzweil) to keep up, even if they’ve been — as future children will no doubt be — steeped in the n√∂osphere since birth. Not only is this trend going to push us towards mind augmentation and transhumanism sooner rather than later, but it hints at things to come. Maybe all this Singularity stuff is crap, a “rapture for nerds” as some of the characters in Charles Stross’s Accelerando sometimes call it, but we’re certainly steaming towards some kind of technosocial discontinuity, if a fairly hip (and wipe that grin off your face!) technophile like myself is already feeling dated and obsolete at twenty!

Absurd

Being the sort of person who doesn’t get out much, I don’t often get the chance to make firsthand observations of the more absurd parts of our world. That’s okay, because, sometimes, the absurdity comes and finds me.

Today, while I was out grocery shopping, I noticed a stand set up near the entrance to the grocery store. I took only enough notice of it to build up a little half-hearted hatred of all advertising promotions, but as I parked and walked towards the store, I came to a bizarre realization. The stand, plastered with the logo of a large beverage company (which shall remain nameless), was selling lemonade.

Some cultural context is in order: I am a member of one of the last generations to have the lemonade stand as a symbol of entreperneuership. The lemonade stand was the big capitalist metaphor when I was growing up, the very embodiment of our ideal of the American small-business spirit.

And there, right there in the parking lot of the big chain grocery store that long ago supplanted the independent local movie house, right there, was yet another gigantic corporation, moving in on the territory of the little guy, the sidewalk lemonade vendor. I desperately wish I’d had my camera with me then, because the symbolism of all that was deliciously painful (or painfully delicious).

So, just remember: if you start to get worried that the world seems to be sorting itself out, don’t worry. Proof will arrive momentarily to remind you that it’s still an absolutely absurd place.

Cartoon Me

Greg Williams, a cartoonist for the newspaper The Tampa Bay Observer, is certainly moving with the times. He draws a comic called Blogjam for the Observer based on blog posts from various sources. He took an interest in my long-ago post about the helium shortage, and turned it into a comic. The result? A delightfully-illustrated comic of the post, including a cartoon version of me!

Helium Shortage

You can see the comic here. And be sure to check out some of Williams’s other comics here. And I’m not just suggesting that because he drew me as flatteringly less scruffy than I actually look in real life, but because it’s actually an interesting and well-executed series he’s got going there.

How to Write Well

If you saw the title of this post and immediately started reading it, you’ve got a lot to learn. If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years as a novice writer of fiction, it’s that it’s pretty much impossible to be taught how to write well. Fortunately, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. Instead, I present a list of helpful suggestions that will not teach you how to write well, but, hopefully, teach you how to teach yourself how to write well (how’s that for a new-agey, wishy-washy sentence?). Here goes:

  1. Read Every Day: This one is vital. You won’t be able to write well unless you are A) some sort of prodigy, or B) you read enough good writing to know what good writing looks like. After a while, you may (as I have) learn to “mimic” other writers’ styles, and after a while, you begin to take bits of style from different writers, until your own personal style of writing emerges. A warning, however: if you intend to write in one particular genre, do not read books exclusively of that genre. The worst thing a writer can do is to become wed to a single genre. This goes especially for science fiction writers.
  2. Write Every Day: This is especially helpful when writing a novel. This has gotten me through two novels and numerous short stories. You don’t have to write much. If you’re not feeling inspired, just write a few paragraphs. If you’re in a better mood, write more. This step is especially helpful, since not only does it keep you from getting out of practice (which happens faster than you think), but it also keeps your plot from stalling or getting bogged down. As hard as it may be, you should emphasize this step even more when your story seems to be going nowhere. The only way you’ll get yourself out of any corner you might have written yourself into is to keep working at it, millimeter by millimeter if necessary, until inspiration strikes.
  3. Don’t Give Up on a Good Idea: If you’ve got a good story idea, one that really speaks to you, focus on it. Even if you have other story ideas, try to focus on the one that you think has the most potential. Don’t neglect your other writings by any means, but remember: they can be continued later on. Here, I like to employ a method I call “seeding”: write a few paragraphs of your new story that capture the feel and the mood of it, and then shelve it until your main story is done. That way, you won’t lose the essence of that story, and you also won’t get distracted from your primary one.
  4. Stockpile Ideas: Whenever an interesting story idea strikes you, write it down. You don’t even have to start writing it, but at least make a note so that you don’t forget it. Personally, I like to do this in a spiral notebook that I use exclusively for the purpose of recording story ideas, but you can do it however you see fit. This is important for those dryspells when you’re feeling uninspired, or when you’re assailed by writer’s block.
  5. Let the Stories Write Themselves: As you accumulate writing experience, you may begin to notice that your stories seem to flow rather naturally, once they’ve got some momentum going. Plot events seem almost to appear out of thin air, and turns of phrase suggest themselves to you. Don’t fight this, it can be extremely helpful and productive. Don’t “take your hands off the wheel” by all means. After all, this is your story. But don’t force it; instead, try to give the plot a gentle nudge in your intended direction.
  6. Expand Your Mind: This one is probably one of the most important steps. It’ll keep your style fresh and help you be more creative, which will help you tremendously when you’re suffering from writer’s block or feeling uninspired, or when you’ve written yourself into a corner:
    • Step Outside Yourself: Don’t write exclusively within a narrow genre (this goes hand-in-hand with Step 1). One of my most fascinating writing experiences was when I decided to take a chance and try to write a romance-based science fiction novella.
    • Experiment With your Style: There’s a school of literary thought called Oulipo that originally developed in France, based on the idea of enhancing creativity through self-constraint. There was one novel (the title of which escapes me at the moment) which was written entirely without the use of the letter “E”. Some authors write in anagrams or palindromes. Get creative. I can especially recommend the letter-omission method, which very powerfully forces you to alter your language and crack open your thesaurus.
  7. Don’t Distract Yourself: Unless you are a supremely focused person, music or external noise will likely distract you from your writing. Even if you think you’re concentrating very intensely, you may find that your writing simply isn’t as good when there’s noise or distractions in the background. I find that radio and most music usually turn my writing to rubbish (I’m listening to NPR as I write this article, which probably explains a lot). An exception I’ve found is the music of Brian Eno, and pretty much any orchestral music. Even better, you can sometimes use music to manipulate the mood of your writing. For example, if you have to write a sad scene, but you’re just in too good a mood to do so, try writing with Moonlight Sonata in the background.
  8. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously: Many serious-minded people have no doubt said things to the effect of “Writing is not a hobby!” The thing is, writing can be a hobby if you want it to be. Contrary to popular belief, you can write without being published, or without ever intending to be published. Actually, some of the best writing (such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if I’m not mistaken), has been written for the sake of nobody but the author. The problem with taking yourself too seriously is twofold: 1) You may stop enjoying writing, which is one of the quickest ways to start writing badly; 2) You may develop what I like to call an “inflamed ego,” which is the second quickest way to ruin your writing.
  9. Know Your Words: They call writers “wordsmiths” for a reason. If you want to write well, and avoid becoming repetitive or stale, learn all the words you can. Adjectives are very helpful (as long as you don’t overdo it). A good thesaurus is invaluable (the one that comes with your word processor included). Also, remember what they taught you in elementary school (at least, I hope they’re still teaching this): look up any word you don’t recognize, especially if you like the sound of it. I find dictionary.com especially useful for this, since I write primarily on the computer (my handwriting is far too slow to be productive).
  10. Be Original: Whether you think so or not, every writer has at least one unique story in them. Don’t be afraid to tell it. Good writers tend to be the ones that either write something that has never been written before, or find a way to write something old in a remarkable new way. And don’t be daunted by all my superlatives and adjectives, because you can, with practice, write something that’s never been written before, something remarkable.

That is my advice.

Writings Page — Up and Running!

As promised, I’m slowly beginning to merge this site with my two other blogs. Pursuant to that, I’m now posting some of my short stories on the newly-minted Writings page. I plan to update it semi-regularly — that is, on those rare occasions when I can actually get around to writing semi-regularly — so check it periodically. When I’ve finished my revisions on For Ardella (the novella I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2007), I’ll probably post that, too.

A warning: if there isn’t now, there will probably at some point in the future be stuff posted to the Writings page that is not suitable for very young readers (especially if I actually get around to posting For Ardella). There won’t be anything terribly pornographic or overwhelmingly vile and horrible, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend all of my stories for people younger than fifteen or so. But, if you think that you’re mature enough to handle mature themes like sex and death and all that good stuff, then go for it. You have been warned.