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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving is Awesome

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Today my family hosted the "Smith" side of the Smith-Curran marriage which has spawned me and my kin. We had a large group of sixteen, and I eagerly helped prepare the meal.

First off, the turkey:

From Thanksgiving

Oh yes. Brined for about an hour per pound, in this case, sixteen hours the night before. The brine was 3/4 cup of salt and 1/2 cup of sugar for every gallon of water. After the brine I rinsed the turkey thoroughly and applied the rub: 1/3 cup fresh-ground peppercorns, 1/3 cup salt/seasoned salt, and about 1/6 cup garlic salt/powder. I rubbed the mix all over (hence the name), and brought it over here ...

From Thanksgiving

... to the steaming vat of waiting peanut oil. You can see the thermometer telling us the oil was far too hot to cook with, almost 500 degrees (Fahrenheit, my international friends; about 260C). We cooled it off to about 400F, and when we put the turkey in it dropped within the range of 300-350F (165C).

From Thanksgiving

Let's go to work.

From Thanksgiving

This ridiculously elaborate way of getting the turkey into the boiling-hot oil was all in the name of safety. I think next time I can just slowly drop it in there on my own.

The trick is to drop it in slowly, because the 350F oil does not take kindly to a 42F turkey intruder. It was a slow dip in, out, in, out, in-out-in-out-in, like some kind of deadly hot fondue.

Almost there ...

Ooh, that oil is angry.

OK, it's in. About three minutes of cooktime per pound, we've got about sixteen pounds, so I'll check back in fifty minutes, give or take. In the meantime, let's check out the spread ...

Very nice.

My brother is weird.

Joy! Is the turkey ready?

How's it look, dad? Almost there.

Ah, siblings. It's good to be home for Thanksgiving. Good to be not-in-China.

Obligatory artsy cranberries and coke shot.

Looks like it's ready.

Wow. That is one delicious-looking turkey. Just seeing that makes me want to fry another one.


And Duke gives his cautious approval.

In addition to the turkey, I made some damn good cornbread, and a giant bowl of wild-mushroom stuffing made with an olive oil and rosemary loaf. It was a great spread, and everyone loved the turkey: the skin was so crispy and delicious, and the meat stayed so moist and flavorful, the way I had always dreamed a turkey would taste. In case of a frying mishap, we prepared another turkey in the oven (well, hey, sixteen people, one turkey wasn't gonna cut it anyway ...), and it couldn't hold a candle to the fryer: it was dry, less flavorful, just kind of a dumbed-down turkey. I don't know if it was the brine, the fry, or a combination of the two, but I will never roast a turkey again.

Despite all I've bitched about being back in Delaware, it was good to be home for Thanksgiving, and not do it over Skype. Peering into that vat of oil today, checking the temperature and adjusting the turkey as it fried, I got (yet another) flashback of China, of my first dim sum in Hong Kong and Macau's meat markets, of rooftop hangouts in Zhanjiang and dumplings in Jilin. And as awesome as those moments were, as impossible as they seem now sitting here, a lifetime away, and as much as I may miss them or even be happy they're behind me, it's good to be here at home, having lived a bit, now cooling my heels, and waiting to live some more.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Building the World

I saw Charlie Kaufman's new film Synecdoche, New York the other day, at the Ritz East in Philly. I had some company, too.

The film was a hilariously funny, wildly comedic soiree, all wrapped around a story tinged with a profound melancholy. These feelings, I felt, alternated between the genuine and the overblown. You may have seen this neurotic, gloomy, hypochondrial protagonist before; he's in Kaufman's other films, he's a favorite of Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, and assorted others working in New Wave Quirk: a decidedly unlikeable, alienated (and alienating) lead character writ large for the sake of comedy. What "Synecdoche" does well is mix this impossibly self-absorbed and sad man with a surreal universe that seems to confirm every dreary thought and anxiety he's ever had, and delights in kicking him when he's already way, way down. If you're not laughing well before our main character is so sick he has to lube up his eyes to cry, this movie probably isn't for you.

I find the comedy--the dark, bizarre, surreal, uncomfortable, wry, ironic, and various-other-adjectives comedy--to be the real reason to see the film. But that overdone melancholy I was speaking of before is, well, overdone, and while taking something real and blowing it up to huge proportions to convey it in a film you can actually sit through is probably a necessary conceit for cinema (but I digress ...), every moment of poignancy the film conjures is overshadowed by the inevitable joke that follows. Hilarious jokes, mind you, but jokes that completely undercut the drama. It's hard to take any dramatic turn the films makes too seriously when it undermines itself with more comedy; how can the death of these characters you've never vested in register if you're laughing at the absurdity of their death on screen? Kaufman has juggled these ideas well enough in the past: his films have always been funny, but they also told a story with humanity and genuine connection that elevated the movie beyond simple comedy, that worked in concert with the laughs to create true poignancy for characters we cared for. But despite Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance, despite a great cast that effortlessly tackles some truly odd acting duties, and despite a story that is only half-told (and then only mostly-well), the film ultimately just can't figure out how to say whatever it is it wants to say. The story rapidly unravels in a messy and noticeably serious final twenty minutes that simply can't prop up the weight of the world that the film has made.

But that world that the film has constructed was a hell of a lot of fun to visit. Despite its flaws, and despite a story that doesn't make it to the finish line, it's definitely worth seeing. I saw it with an audience that had everyone laughing at different moments, which is a pretty interesting thing to experience; there were a few times when I was laughing entirely on my own.

Building the world is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. What kind of world we build for ourselves. Jim and Cecilia are getting married next month, for god's sake, and Matt and T are not too long after that: the whole world of jobs, careers, eventual families, back to school, progress from all directions. The future is bearing down, my friends, and it has appallingly bad breath. I saw Synecdoche with some friends, but also someone new. I had a good time, I enjoyed talking with her, it seemed to be all laughs and smiles making our way around the block for a drink and a snack before going into the theater. She had wonderful eyes, I remember that, a clear marble blue that never seemed to blink, never looked away, ravenous beautiful eyes that took everything in. The film ended, and in the lobby we decided what to do next ... and she had things to do. Generic, exculpable things. And it was in that moment, when those words hit my ears, I felt the weight of exhaustion that coffee and excitement and optimism had only barely held at bay. Because I knew exactly what those things were, those things that have been there these long 24 years, and my voice quivered for just a second (no one noticed, I think), my eyes closing too long in a protracted blink, a slight sorrowful nod as I instantly knew, yet again: this is how my world is made. Slow polite banter as we walked down the street, my car right, her place left, brief and noncommittal goodbyes, and I walked to my car alone.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Zhanjiang Propaganda

It's very bizarre to see a place where I lived and worked for a year propagandized, but I'd be lying if I said these videos didn't make me a little nostalgic for good 'ol Zhanjiang.

Here's one video for Zhanjiang. And here's another for the college where I worked.

Both those videos are brought to you by YouKu, the Chinese answer to YouTube. (And that's YouKu, pronounced, "yo coo," yo as in yo-yo and coo as in the sound a pigeon makes. Or, in the parlance of our times, "You were in China? Yo, that's coo'!) YouKu's great because the Chinese, in their effortless disregard for intellectual property rights, allow all sorts of things on there: full movies, entire seasons of popular TV shows, and all sorts of other copyrighted goodies that will get you punted off the YouTubes. So visit YouKu and have a look around ... don't worry if you can't understand a damn thing, just type English into the search box, assume roughly the same methods that are at work on YouTube, and go to town.

Well, as I was confident would happen, we now have a President Obama, and I am pleased. All I can say now, is: Mr. Obama, do not fuck this up. Too many people have put too much faith in you and your promises to be let down by politics as usual. Now get to work, and let me know when the first subpoenas are filed against Cheney and company.

I realize I've missed a lot of things that have gone on in my life since I've returned home, and I hope in November I can blog a little more regularly, or find a nice pasture to take this blog out to before I shoot it in the head and put it down for good. I don't have any pictures of lobster with James and Sarah and Mike "Maryland" Khan, and I don't have much else to say that I'd want to write in a little snippet here. So for now here are a few pictures of us at Lawler's place a few weeks back, the first time in a long time I'd seen some of these jokers.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Free Coffee for Voters

Bring in proof that you voted (I assume this proof varies from state to state) to Starbucks tomorrow and get a free cup of coffee! Spread the word, avid readers! And for those of you that check this thing once a month or so: Ha! Missed out. For Aaron: sorry buddy, doubt they have a 星巴克 in Zhanjiang yet.

I am excited for this election to end, and not only because it has dominated the news here and around the world. And since I know the media has been waiting for it: I'm excited for Obama to win. I'm excited for someone genuine, intelligent, and truly compassionate to lead this country, someone who is not only smart enough to write a book but intelligent enough to make bring his message to such a broad spectrum of people. I'm excited for leadership that doesn't rely on a coterie of sycophants, liars, and self-interested agenda-driven assholes to prop up a hypocritical born-again buffoon. I'm grimly pleased to see the career politician, the man who sacrificed his good name and all he stood for in his desperate grab of the highest office, be rebuked by a war-weary and unhappy populace that sees right through him; somewhere, someone is parsing a variation of that "absolute power corrupts ..." quote. I'm excited for Biden, despite his war hawk leanings and tendency to speak faster than he can think, to bring experience and restraint to a wildly overblown vice presidency. And I'm excited for that epically stupid, fatuous woman, that embarrassment to her party and her gender, to get kicked back to judging beauty pageants in her frozen sunless corner of the country.

So, in case you couldn't tell: Obama '08! He's got a tall order to fill, and if wins and doesn't make some drastic changes, we'll be down to our last best hope: revolution.

Don't forget about the free coffee!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

It's Getting Darker

I'm amazed that autumn, this beautiful autumn I've seen from Delaware to Massachusetts, has consistently evaded the lens of my camera. September to November, up and down the coast, I haven't taken a single photo of the gorgeous scenery that has literally taken my breath away a few times this fall. One of the downsides to being back home: everything is so normal, so familiar, and so I don't take my camera with me everywhere I go anymore, and thus I find myself in November without a single shot of the autumn leaves I so longed for in Zhanjiang and Jilin.

I feel kind of paralyzed lately. If not paralyzed, then orbiting, in stasis, without the momentum to break free of the gravity well, like a character in Dubliners. I don't like living here in DE, at home (despite its obvious financial and automotive upsides), and yet I am finding it incredibly hard to motivate myself to change my circumstances. I don't especially enjoy my job at Starbucks, and while I do enjoy my job at Del Tech, neither are fulfilling in the way I want a jot to be. So the impetus should be on me to get my ass in gear, find a compelling job, move out and get going. But where? Doing what? How? These questions are oppressively unanswerable, and so I push them to the back of my mental desk, and come around to them every now and then, only to feel overwhelmed by them again, and so I push them away, again.

And so I feel like I'm becoming agoraphobic or something: I'm staying at home and reading on nights when a normal virile twenty-four-year-old lad is out and about meeting attractive young women. I'm bored, and yet I just don't want to do anything, meet anyone, or anything. And so I visit, and I get ignored there about as consistently as I do in real life. My Chinese has gone right down the shitter. I need a change, I need a new environment, probably something urban and north. I have a few ideas, some of them longshots and/or crazy, and if they don't work, I don't know what the hell I am gonna do.