Monday, March 27, 2006

First sign of the apocalypse

There is a terrifying development in advertising lately. You might call it honesty. Or perhaps not. Either way it has the mark of Evil Genius. This afternoon I had the pleasure of watching a pitch for the pictured product, which is an omega-oil supplement for children. The commercial has a soundtrack of childish conversational babble, such as you might hear in a school hallway. The visuals are some pretty footage of a school of sardine (school! Fish oil! Kid's brains! Geddit?), looking all tornado-ish and zippy and generally photogenic.

The voiceover says:
There are hundreds of omega-oil supplements for children. But only one is called Eye Q.
Huh? Seriously?

A prize for the most pointless advertisement ever! But the Evil Genius of this is that it is true. Pointless -- vacuous, even -- but true.

Now, for anyone born after 1960, commercials, and their particular brand of jingly colour and movement, invoke your default skepticism. Your jaded subconscious is primed to reject anything that smacks of Big Fat Lie. You don't even have to be paying attention.

Everyone understands in principle why a lie is bad, and by extension that you oughtn't to purchase a product about which you just heard one. By contrast, it's not nearly so clear cut how truth ought to influence your buying decisions. What's relevant in that case is how what is said or represented relates to your buying decision -- and that's not at all straightforward. If a tomato is hand-picked, does that mean you ought to buy it? Maybe. Who the hell knows? The point is, that takes some thought. If I give it a minute, I conclude that actually, I'd rather buy a machine-picked tomato, all other things being equal, because the person picking a hand-picked tomato is probably paid one dinar a day. But of course, I'm not giving it a minute. Instead, I insidiously come to believe that I ought to prefer hand-picked tomatoes. And why? Because the advertisement mentioned it. And why would they mention it unless it was relevant to my purchasing decision? And as long as it's not a lie ...

Hundreds of people are going to buy this stuff because it's the only one called Eye Q. God help us all.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Be prepared

Naturally, I don't have to say anything about the genius of North by Northwest. It's a truism of modern culture-vulturehood that it is a work of genius, so it would be interesting for me to get all controversial on yo' asses and contest this assessment. Only that would be insane. Of course it's a work of genius.

This here is just a wee fragment of worship for Cary Grant and his everyman alter-ego, Roger O-stands-for-nothing Thornhill.

Late in the movie, Thornhill has learned that The Icy Heroine (the gorgeously attired Eva Marie Saint) is going to be leaving the country with The Villain (James Mason, usurped as the world's greatest and most paradigmatic bad dude only by Basil Rathbone). Right now, Mr Thornhill is in a hospital room with the CIA man who's been masterminding the whole thing that got him ensnared in the first place.

He's playing along with the government man, innocence smoothing the lines in his immaculate tan. He casually and efficiently gets into the new set of clothes he's been brought. Even more causally still, he gets rid of his chaperone on a pretext (he asks for a quart of scotch. Only in 1959!).

Quick! Now's his chance! He grabs the first new shoe from the box, pulls it on without bothering with the laces, hopping up and down on one leg. On with the second shoe, smacking the heels against the hospital linoleum.

And is he out the window the second his shoes are on? Is he hell.

He picks up a white handkerchief, folds it, and puts it in his trouser pocket. Now out the window.

Oh, yeah. That's what I call a man.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Why ...

... in the name of all that is holy, is every single pair of women's trainers at my local sports superstore resplendent in shades of pastel pink, blue, and silver? Is there a giant market of off-duty Barbie princesses who long to give their itty bitty princess tootsies with the silver-glitter pedicure a rest from the glass slippers, but still need something to match their eye-watering pink wonderland outfit?

The men's department is wall-to-wall Big Bad Coolness. Everything is designed to look like the kind of thing you'd wear if you were an urban superhero who needed to serve Justice, fast, down wet alleys, in the dark. I want these shoes.


The current Nike Women advertisement, which makes my eyes slitty with resigned aggravation, involves women being very athletic in one way or another with a voiceover that explains how little kudos they get, and closes up with a defensive challenge to "try to tell them that they're not athletes".

The point of the advertisement is evidently supposed to be that the women involved clearly are very athletic, QED. Fie on this supposed end. The assumption is that that real athletes have stadiums of people cheering for them and earn bucketloads of cash, and notably are men, thus, most egregiously of all, women need to defend their status as athletes in the first place.

I'm not an athlete. But I'd swallow Nike's shrill equality message without choking so much if the damn shoes weren't telling me that I'm supposed to be a Barbie princess.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


My first grey hair was detected today! Possible scope error. Perhaps the first detection of a grey hair, because with the Crazy Mane of Insanity which lives on my head, god knows how long the little bastards have been living in there, deviously subverting the youthful plans of my other follicles.

Egad! I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the world of enforced maturity! Someone pour me a scotch.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nest egg

In our garden, there's an ancient and buckled nest box attached to the wall outside the scullery window. It's behind a hydrangea bush and is currently overgrown with goosegogs (Sidebar: H says this stuff is actually called "cleavers", but that word is doomed in my vocabulary because when I came to Britain and first had it wrap around me like a sticky and overly friendly green lizard, she called it "goosegogs", which is apparently kid-ese for it. Whatever. Goosegogs is, like, way more cool a word. End of sidebar).

A couple of weeks back, a blue tit and a house sparrow duked it out for occupation of the box. The hydrangea bush shook with tiny ornithological rage as they dashed around making displays of birdly manhood. Eventually, the tit managed to make it in through the hole and poked its head out, blue crested war helmet perched so far forward on his itty-bitty skull you'd think he was trying to impale something. And indeed, as the sparrow came in for the final thrust, the tit parried him at the very doorstep of the disputed zone. Little black beak, nothing! That day it was a miniature bayonet of sparrow-terrifying proportions.

The blue tit won.

So today, we went out and H bought a sparrow nest box. In fact, it's an entire sparrow condominium, with three studio apartments. Tomorrow we'll put it up on the fence opposite the kitchen wall. And with any luck, the tiny bayonets will henceforth be sheathed in Le Jardin Xtin & Pluvialis.

The last time that H and I looked at nest boxes we were at our favourite garden centre just outside of town. It has a brilliant collection of resident parrots, including an African Grey that likes it when I whistle showtunes (especially Oklahoma!) and a truly mind-blowing collection of ornamental carp arranged in order of price, which means size, and at the end of the room there are carp which should only be found in the ponds of Zen monks who've tended them for six hundred years, chanting longevity songs and feeding them fragments of lotus dumpling. Yours for only 159.99. I love this garden centre. Anyway, we were wandering around and I was getting nostalgic for Australia from sniffing the leaves of greenhouse-grown citrus trees, and we came upon the display of nestboxes. Nestboxes for every possible need! But mostly, nestboxes for the little songbirds beloved of British gardeners. They were attached to cardboard sleeves letting you know what species would be best suited to each one.

One of them had a little sign stapled to the sleeve saying DISPLAY ONLY. NOT FOR SALE. I thought, good heavens! Why on earth would you need a display nestbox? It's not like they're shrinkwrapped or anything -- you can pick each one up and look inside it, and open its little hinged doors and check the craftsmanship or whatever you do before you buy a nestbox. It's not as if they suffer a great deal from shopsoiling, either, I mean, for heaven's sake, this display is outside!

cheep cheep cheep cheep

What was that?

cheep cheep cheep cheep

I looked at the display again. And I noticed that three of the boxes had the little signs stapled to them. It was because the blue tits had already found them. Right on this shelf, with the price tags still attached. And inside, the chicks were mistaking me for something that could fit through the golf-ball-sized opening with a beak full of tasty arthropods.

cheep cheep cheep cheep

I love garden centres!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Has he a beard, Mr Godot?

First, trivia. When the Queen offers you a knighthood, you can't refuse. I take it this is because by the time the Queen has anything to do with it, you're already kneeling on the little red cushion with the gold tassels. Anyway, so the story goes, this means that knighthoods come your way couched in the fantastically handy subjunctive conditionals so beloved of philosophers, to wit:
If HM The Queen were to offer you a knighthood, would you be so good as to accept?
If so, bring on the red cushion. If not, everyone backs away with dignity and good grace. Or something. Philosophers, on the other hand, do not love subjunctive conditionals because they allow everyone to save face. Heaven forfend. It is because they are devious little bastards. The philosophers, I mean. Well, the conditionals too, for that matter. You'll notice, dear reader, that nothing about our little knighthood sentence says that anyone is going to offer you a knighthood. It's as airily hypothetical as your post-prandial port-soaked musings about what you'd do with a billion pounds.

'Course, you might argue, there's some happy-looking implication in there. I mean, why ask? But on the other hand, you can just see the other kid in the playground yelling "I never said I'd give you a lemon sherbert! I just asked whether you wanted one!" Philosophers are highly sensitive to playground bully mentality.

So much for the preliminaries, and on with my story. A couple of weeks back, on Thursday, March 2, I was blearily fumbling the pod into the coffeemaker when the clink! of the mailslot in the front door sounded. MMmmmm, I love the smell of rejection letters in the morning. This morning's effort was particularly crunchy granola, exhorting me to "not be discouraged by this news" and also (god bless their charred, blackened hearts) that I should not interpret it "as a reflection on my work".


I used it as a coaster for my coffee.

With a totally pathetic effort to straighten the slump in my beaten shoulders, I wandered off to the office and pulled up my email. The usual dreck fashioned from a combination of spam and useless calls-for-papers for confererences on topics like The Eucharist and Eating Disorders. And ... one whose subject line contained the name of another job I was up for. And not just any one, the one I really wanted.

Well, shit. They'd have called if I got it. Shit.

Right at that moment, I wasn't in the mood to be two-for-two. The odor of napalm was pungent enough, thankyewverymuch. So I graded some student papers, and I polished my fingernails, and I stuck sticky notes into books at relevant-looking pages as a surrogate for actually reading them. I whistled nonchalantly to myself. I considered whether my bank statements needed filing.

To hell with it. Click.

Inside, dear readers, was the subjunctive conditional of the century.

At a recent meeting of the [selection committee] it was agreed to recommend to the [board] that you be [given a very cool job]. If the [board] agrees to this proposal would you be willing to accept?

I stared at it like a spaniel mesmerised by a piece of kibble balanced on its nose. I started from the beginning and read it over again. And then again, more carefully. My god! Did someone just give me a job?

I sat very still. That is important if you don't want the piece of kibble to fall off your snout. I replied to the secretary who'd fashioned World's Greatest Conditional, appropriately conditional-flavouredly. Actuality peeped around the corner tantalisingly. The slightest of slight conditions waited. A mere formality, everyone assured me.

Uh huh. Don't talk to me about modality. I've just spent the last eight weeks establishing the sense in which water might not have been H2O, and you think I'll find possibilities about committees compelling? Talk to the hand.

So godstrewth, I have done nothing but balance the kibble for nearly three weeks. I have not done the happy dance. I have walked carefully, slept carefully, I have stared at it with my big baleful brown eyes. I have known its madly delicious aroma.

And yesterday, wonder of wonders, I got to flip it high into the air and snap! Actual kibble. A real job. It's still dawning on me. And apparently, my metaphors will need a long time to untangle themselves.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Tuesday haiku

Sunrise over slates
Faultlined dreams go tectonic
Good morning, quake wake

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Hide the sausage

Our friends Dr T and Dr E have just returned from la belle France with a saucisson lyonnais, which is stuffed with pistachios and truffles. They've invited me and Pluvialis over to eat it. Good god almighty, and if the sausage itself weren't enough to make my day, Drs T & E are what is technically called Good Peoples and are all sorts of fun to hang about with eating delicacies francaises or whatever is the comestible of the day. Dr E is the one with extensive scholarship in things French, but her fabulously civilising influence has moulded Dr T into a man who looks very much as if he just stepped in from a leisurely stroll by the Seine.

For a nauseating, vertiginous moment, a scheduling problem threatened to scuttle the saucisson consumption plans. Thus did the following grace the university server:

Dr E: Well... I'd only been planning to mark translations, so I'm sure there must be some way around that... My place at 8?

Dr T: Super! Division of labour is surely the answer. Two of us can eat the sausage while the other two mark translations. Then we can swap.

Pluvialis: But academia, philosophy, aesthetics and sausages are all the same thing. There's a great quote, I think from Escoffier, which I've never been able to forget:

"The appearance of a hot sausage with its salad of potatoes in oil can leave nobody indifferent ... it is pure, it precludes all sentimentality, it is the Truth."

Dr T: Did you make that quotation up? It's wonderful! (Btw, I had always idiotically assumed the word "scoff", used to mean grub, food etc, came from a corruption of "Escoffier". It doesn't, alas.)

Pluvialis: No, it's absolutely hand on heart true. Elizabeth David quotes it in one of her books.

[some minutes pass]

Dr T: Zounds! It's written about THE VERY SAUSAGE we propose to consume! (It
turns out to be Francis Amunategui, writing of "Saucisson Chaud a la Lyonnaise" quoted on p. 228 of French Provincial Cooking)

Anal academic? Me?

Dr E: Seigneur! I'm going to bring all of this into my supervision on Rabelais.

Dr T: Elizabeth David herself says this of La Cuisine Lyonnaise:

"...when one actually reaches this fountain-head of French provincial cookery one is conscious of the sense of anticlimax."

Oh no! Is the sausage rubbish??? But wait...

"Of the renowned charcuterie, only one product, the cervelas truffé comes up to expectations. This is a large, lightly cured pork sausage, liberally truffled, which may be eaten sliced as an hors-d'oeuvre, or poached and served with potatoes, or even used whole as a stuffing for a piece of boned and rolled meat."

Only one product! And that product will, with any luck, be safely nestled in our tummies by about 9pm.

[A pause of ten minutes]

Dr T: Ignore everything I have written. On closer inspection there are NO TRUFFLES in our sausage. Merde!

Pluvialis: Oh well, we'll have to look forward to a slightly sentimental, impure, and approximately True evening, instead.

Dr T: It's not all bad news. We will indeed be eating the simpler sausage Amunatégui refers to, but it's not the cervelas truffé that ED gets especially excited about. ED isn't too snooty about our one, but I can't help thinking this isn't entirely fulsome praise:

"Given a good sausage and well-seasoned potatoes, it is a most delicious dish, which will not be despised by the most fastidious."

Pluvialis: Is not ED saying "will not be despised by the most fastidious" rather like Ernest Shackleton saying "it's a little less than warm, don't you think?" while on the Endeavour?

I am looking forward to the sausage. From ED's description, it also sounds like the kind of thing Poirot would stuff his face with (not in front of Hastings or Miss Lemon, of course).

I have just returned from hieing myself to the brilliant wine shop around the corner (150 single malts! But that is another post) and my digestive system is right this moment moulding itself into saucisson shapes in glorious preparation.

So, in short, dear readers, what I have to say is this. When I whine about my life, (which, with 60 all-too-motherfreaking-short days until The Submission, I am going to do more than usual, which is already copiously), pay no attention.

I love my life. I love these people. I am the luckiest woman in the world, because my inbox contains emails with the subject line C H E A P!!! V!AgrA!!

But also ones about saucisson lyonnais and Shackleton. Which just goes to show, you never can tell what will be sharing whose bed between the sheets of intellectual history.