Monday, March 23, 2009

Oh, I Say, What?

One of our favorite diversions in our household is the all-but-lost art of reading aloud. Typically, this takes the form of my reading aloud to the Troll while he does some work around the cave. Since I'm better at reading than I am at fixing things and he's the other way round, this seems to work out pretty well for all parties.

Anyway, recently I was reading to him from the chronicles of Jeeves and Wooster, by P.G. Wodehouse. If you're not familiar with these stories, they're a series of lighthearted confections dating from the 1920s about a bumbling British gentleman, Bertie Wooster, and his supremely competent manservant, Jeeves, who not only keeps Bertie impeccably dressed but also exerts his considerable brainpower to extricate his young master, and his young master's equally bumbling friends, from a variety of scrapes. What makes the series so particularly charming is the way the characters talk. Bertie is always saying things like "Hallo, hallo, hallo, what?" while Jeeves's lines are more along the lines of "I endeavor to give satisfaction, sir," and the distinctive speaking styles of these two characters are sort of a hallmark of the stories.

Anyway, after reading a few of these, it occurred to me to wonder if anyone had ever written any Jeeves/Wooster slash fiction. After all, both characters do seem to be more or less confirmed bachelors, and in fact, one of Jeeves's most common challenges is helping Bertie escape from unwanted marriage engagements. However, I was inclined to dismiss the thought almost as soon as it popped up, because the idea of writing anything remotely smutty in the voice of either of these characters seemed inconceivable.

Not, it would appear, to all. A quick Google search turned up several hits, including one particular site that listed and provided summary reviews of several J/W stories. So I read a few, and I must say, the mind boggles. One problem with writing this sort of thing, as the author of the site pointed out, is maintaining the proper voice. As she put it, "How can you put these two into an awkward, sweaty, and not ironic position without losing the style? You don’t just say “his hard length” unless you can make it sound good in Bertie’s or Jeeves’s voice." And I must admit, it's not the sort of thing either of them really seems likely to say.

Even more than the style, though, the problem seems to lie in the characters themselves. It's all but inconceivable to imagine these characters having sex, not just with each other, but really, with anyone at all. Bertie isn't too absurd, I suppose; though clueless, he's thoroughly good-hearted, and it isn't impossible to imagine him showing a fair degree of enthusiasm once someone managed to explain the whole concept to him in terms he could understand. But it's nearly impossible to imagine Jeeves being swept away by passion under any circumstances. One of his most salient character traits, in fact, seems to be his imperturbability--that and his utter competence at dealing with any situation. So of course, there's every reason to think he would be extremely competent between the sheets as well--but that alone just doesn't make for terribly interesting reading, don't you know, what?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Living La Vida Local

Lately I've become fascinated with stories about people who, for whatever reason, challenge themselves to spend some period of time--typically a year--doing something that most Americans would never think of doing. The most recent work I've read in this genre was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (the primary author's husband and older daughter, respectively). The "Hoppsolver" family resolved to spend one full year eating locally. With a few exceptions (such as grains, olive oil, coffee, and spices), everything they ate came from their own county in rural Virginia. Much of it was grown on their own small "farm," which, though zoned for agricultural use, offered less than 4,000 square feet of tillable space thanks to the steepness of the surrounding hills. Over the course of a year, the family grew everything from early spring chard to enormous blue pumpkins, not to mention more zucchini than any four people could eat or give away. They also raised their own free-range turkeys for meat, and Lily, the younger daughter of the family, raised a flock of chickens and started her own business selling multicolored, free-range eggs at $2.50 a dozen. Everything they couldn't grow themselves came from their local farmers' market or from other area growers they knew personally.

I can relate to the reasons that inspired the Hoppsolvers to move across the country from Tuscon to Virginia just so that they could live off their own land (or at least the land of their immediate area). I've been known to shake my head bitterly in supermarket produce sections over bins of nectarines on sale for $1.99 a pound in the middle of February. Nectarines are a summer fruit, and to me, it seems just plain wrong that it's possible to buy them so cheaply in the middle of winter--shipped all the way up from the southern hemisphere, burning up petroleum and belching out greenhouse gases every mile of the journey. It's probably akin to the frustration I feel when stores start putting out their Christmas decorations before Halloween has even come. It feels disrespectful to the season to push it out of the way to make room for something else that's supposed to be more important. I like to honor the cycle of the seasons, enjoying each thing in its proper time--like strawberries, which around here come in around May. I appreciate strawberries more when I have to wait for May to enjoy them--and conversely, I appreciate May that much more because it brings the strawberries.

So I can see the benefits of eating the way Barbara Kingsolver and her family did (and, to a large extent, still do). Yet at the same time, I can't really imagine myself ever undertaking this challenge. I'm too fond of too many foods that the Garden State just can't provide. Sure, I could do as the Hoppsolvers did and make exceptions for bread flour, pasta, olive oil, chocolate, raisins...but how long could this list get before I'd have to draw the line, or else admit that I wasn't truly eating locally?

The thing is, before I read this book, I thought I was actually doing pretty well in the areas of buy-local and do-it-yourself. Maybe I don't routinely make my own cheese like Barbara Kingsolver (we tried it once, but it's a messy process, and it ends up costing more per pound than the supermarket stuff), but we do bake our own bread, grow our own tomatoes, hang out our wash on the line. We're certainly doing better than the majority of Americans at treading lightly on the earth, and also at living with appreciation for what the earth gives us. We don't buy the $1.99 nectarines in February; we wait until they show up at the farmers' market in July. So do I really need to feel guilty about the fact that, while waiting for the fruits of summer, I enjoy winter oranges shipped up from Florida?

Truthfully, naah. I don't really need my life to be 99 and 44/100 percent pure. If I can even get the percentage above 50, I'll be fairly pleased with myself. After all, if the perfect really is the enemy of the good, then I need to allow myself some imperfections if I hope to succeed in approaching my ideals. I can accept that I'll never truly reach them, but at the same time, I can admit that it's getting better, a little better all the time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

How Do I Love Thee, Trader Joe?

Let me count the ways:

1. Organic raisins at $2.79 a pound.
2. Crumpets in both plain and cinnamon.
3. Humanely farmed bacon.
3. Pesto-filled tortellini.
4. Free samples of excellent coffee and whatever unusual treat has been cooked up for the day (yesterday's was macaroni and cheese with fresh edamame).
5. Bunches of daffodils for a buck fifty.
6. Honey-oatmeal soap.
7. A toothpaste with natural peppermint, baking soda, and fluoride, and without sodium lauryl sulfate, which gives the Troll canker sores.
8. Chocolate sold by the half kilo.
9. The Fearless Flier, which, with its purple prose and vintage artwork, presents the month's specials with style.
10. Lots of perfectly unremarkable staples--like toilet paper and frozen peas--at far better prices than the big supermarkets can offer.

The only part I hate is the crowds. We've given up on trying to park in the store parking lot--you can spend fifteen minutes trying to get to a spot ten feet away. So now we go only on Sundays, when parking is free in town, and park in the lot next door. But there's no way to avoid the crowds in the store itself--people and carts clogging the aisles like the arteries of a middle-aged couch potato who lives on McDonald's fries. If anything, the crowds seem to have grown worse since the recession came down on us in earnest--which seems odd, since most of the stuff you buy at Trader Joe's strikes me as the sort of luxury items that consumers are reported to be cutting back on. Could it be that all the folks we keep bumping into (literally) in the aisles at Trader Joe's used to shop at Whole Foods and have changed their allegiance in search of better bargains? Or are these folks still piling their carts with Joe's merchandise because it's the one luxury they still can afford?

The Perfect Storm

The snowdrops and crocuses have been out this past week, poking their little white and yellow heads out into the brownish desolation of late February as if to assure us that spring is indeed on its way. On my daily walks, I gathered fallen twigs with their little red leaf-buds showing, swelling with the tiny green leaves inside ready to uncurl. And then suddenly, last night, winter came back down on us with a vengeance, dumping seven inches of snow on us before daybreak.

The ironic part is, this is the sort of perfect snowfall that we haven't had all winter long. It's mostly been a dull sort of winter, with plenty of raw cold and biting wind, but very little snow to brighten up the bleak grey landscape. The few significant snowfalls we've had were of the nasty, wet variety that clings grimly to the shovel and leaves behind a slick film on the sidewalk that congeals almost immediately into ice, making you wonder whether you haven't made matters worse by attempting to shovel it at all. And now, just as spring seemed to be just around the corner, we get more than half a foot of clean, fluffy white snow, completely covering up the dead grass and leaves and turning the whole neighborhood into a winter wonderland. We never seem to get this sort of beautiful snow at Christmas time, or in the grimness of late January and early February when it seems like there's nothing good to be said for winter. A month ago, I'd much have preferred a blanket of beautiful white snow to the mucky brown of bare ground with nothing growing out of it, but now, when things were just starting to bloom, it all feels somehow wrong.

Of course, this is most likely just winter's last hurrah--although the weather here in New Jersey is unpredictable enough that you can't be truly sure of anything. Back in kindergarten, I learned the old saw about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb, and I expect this March will do just that. By this weekend, according to the weather report, the temperatures will climb back up into the 40s and 50s; a more seasonable rain will come in and wash away the snow. The remaining crocuses will come up, followed by daffodils, violets, forsythias. The little buds on the trees will uncurl their leaves, and by the time April arrives, we'll have springtime for real, instead of just the teasing glimpse of it we got last week before winter reasserted itself. So perhaps it's just as well to have this one (probably) last snowfall to give us a chance to appreciate winter at its best--winter as it should be--before it melts away into nothing for another year.