Saturday, December 17, 2011

Better than real

Have you noticed how striking the taste of restaurant food has become? Or how rich and bold scenes looks in our movies? It all seems to me, well, better than real.

I try to make good-tasting food for dinner. But the impact of my flavors cannot compare to the vibrant sensations of the palate created by most food I eat in restaurants these days. Granted, everything tastes better when someone else makes it, but still my homemade entrees seem inexplicably dull by comparison. I talked to a friend recently about this phenomenon and she agreed--and she is a much better cook than I am.

What's the deal, we wondered. Maybe, just maybe, I proposed, the restaurant guys are putting in a secret ingredient. It's the same one in the processed or frozen dinners in the grocery freezer cases. I have certainly read those ingredient lists, but which chemical produces this effect, of all those listed, I can't even guess at. But I think it's in there. The street name for it could be the "you-can't-make-it-taste-this-good-at-home" enzyme.

I'll go further. I suspect this tantalizing enzyme is addictive. Sure, prepared foods contain plenty of fat and salt, and those alone are alluring enough. But our national craving for toaster pastries, waffle fries, and strangely flavorful Waldorf salads cannot be so easily explained. And in this tough economy, it's hard to account for why Americans seem to eat fewer and fewer meals at home.

Now, we have the same sort of hijinks going on in movies and television. Look at those green fields! Look at that perfect serpentine road descending toward the deep blue waters of the bay! Even on vacation to stunning locations, the scenery just doesn't look this good. But when I take those vacation photos into Photoshop and up the contrast and color saturation, voila--they are so much better! And do I dare bring up the elaborate improvements made to people on screen and in print (Look at that young woman's red lips and perfect skin and stunning figure!)?

So I'm afraid that we are all being taught to expect things--food, scenery, women, men--that are far better than reality can ever make them. Looking around, how dull things look, how flawed. As we become subtly dissatisfied with the real world, won't we spend more and more time in the enhanced world of delicious additives and super-saturated beauty? I worry about this and am reminded of a quote by author and critic Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977):

"We are always talking about being together, and yet whatever we invent destroys the family, and makes us wild, touchless beasts feeding on technicolor prairies and rivers."

A man ahead of his time, and a warning for those who will listen.

Photo by Michael Doyle.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Princess in a kingdom of confusion

Just the other day, Dr. Phil featured a mother who was "supporting" her five-year-old son's preference for dresses and all things sparkly. Mom called this child her princess boy, and even wrote a children's book about him by the same title, all designed to foster, of course, acceptance. Mom said that from the time the boy was two he had expressed a fascination for female things and girl colors, and now had a wardrobe of favorite dresses, costumes, and other little-girl adornments.

What did Dr. Phil say about this? Did he lean confidentially toward the woman and say, "Hey, call me an old southern boy, but what you're doing is just crazy. You are setting this child up for major hurt in the years ahead, and you're allowing him to be a source of confusion for his young friends and classmates. Don't do this. We'll get you all some help. It will be low-key, and we can work through it to get this little boy on track and keep him happy."

That's what I wish the doctor had said. Instead he told the mother that he fully supported her approach, which was, as she had put it, "going on this journey with him and seeing where it leads."

Isn't it something that the family is putting the person who's the least capable of sorting out his feelings and his sexuality--their five-year-old--at the head of the wagon train? I wanted to call up this mother and tell her (since Dr. Phil would not) that sexuality is often not clear-cut in young children. It requires some molding and direction. In some young people it is quite plastic, in the old sense of the word, and influence can be everything.

Truth to tell, many little boys are captivated by the bright color and glitter of girl things. My own sons, who are now in their twenties and thirties, would, at three and four, watch me keenly as I painted my nails and want colored nails too. Please. So, to their delight, I would carefully paint two or three of their little fingernails. Sometimes they would want a spray of hair on top of their heads, so with the help of a rubber band they got one. But before we walked down to the grocery store, the "sprout" was undone, their hair combed, and they ran outside with no more thought to it. They loved the bright colors and soft tails of the popular little pony toys, and they acquired a small collection--in addition to their pile of over-muscled He-Man action figures.

They went off to school, and their masculinity grew into the spaces where yellow ponies had been. They are now all manly men. I still have the ponies and the He-Men figures in boxes on a basement shelf. I wish I could show them to the confused mother and tell her to not throw down the reins, but let her little boy mosey into the clover here and there as she guides him down the right path. Because there is a right path and children often need our help in finding it.

Let's not give up so easily on our God-given design as male and female. To say these identities don't matter cuts to the core of who we are as individuals and who we are meant to be. As a philosopher (whose name escapes me) once said, after all, "There is no such thing as people--only men and women."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Force of Nature

On a walk through her once-glorious garden, as it shows the effects of two gardeners being let go for want of money to pay them, Agnes Somerset (in a novel by the same name) observes to her aunt, "Do you know what gardening is, Vera? It is man’s attempt to keep Nature from doing what she is determined to do. How could we hope to win in the long run?”

back yard in the house we bought almost four years ago is all garden--no grass. How lovely, we enthused when we first walked down its mulched paths. How imaginative. How un-suburban. By the second year, I could be found on the back stoop, glowering at the tangled piles of uninvited growth, the dead iris and lily stalks, and the vast swathes of some lemon-scented plant that had by then revealed its plans to conquer the entire yard. The fat, spiny yuccas are too terrible to talk about here, except to say that a quick Internet search will teach anyone why they have no business in a civilized garden (dig one out and six vigorous cadets spring up to replace their fallen comrade).

My husband has tried to comfort me as I predict nothing but aggravation from the rear third of our property. "I'll work on it," he assures me. But he has too many other duties. The garden as planted could employ a gardener full-time. In fact, I later found out that is exactly what the former lady of the house was. She devoted herself to these oddly planted beds, keeping meticulous notes and photos in a journal I inherited. ("Didn't get pictures of my new asiatic lilies, but they were beautiful! Poppies bloomed while we were in Italy.") Her husband was assigned all indoor housework and maintenance.

In my defense, I do keep up the front garden and the porch's potted flowers. The bird bath is refreshed each day and the finch feeder regularly refilled. I sweep the stoop and the front walk and wipe away the larger spiderwebs from the mailbox. I am, after all, a front-yard person at heart and enjoy attending to these areas that I pass by with every coming and going.

But the back yard . . . I took a good deal of comfort in a book on bird-feeding that I read the other day. It encouraged bird lovers to leave a natural habitat in part of the yard, if possible, so various birds could feed and find nesting places among the dried flower heads and matted vines. I can do that!

At this moment, a large brown-and-yellow butterfly is sailing about the back yard in search of a bloom, ignoring the only flowering things I have at present, some lavender phlox and a stand of brown-eyed Susans. OK, so my quasi-meadow isn't to everyone's taste. Maybe I'll throw down a packet of goldenrod seeds next spring--but that's if I can clear some space from that lemon-smelling plant and the grass that's taken over the middle bed.

Agnes bent to unwind a thin vine from the creamy bells of a late-blooming foxglove. “They don’t know what’s coming,” she mused. “The foxgloves and the roses and the hibiscus. Choke-weed and violets will overrun them in no time."

I salute all the gardeners, who dig and pluck and plant and water, engaging in this tension between man's designs and Nature's tireless engine.
Quotes are from Agnes Somerset by yours truly, A. M. Doyle.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

All good things

We all know the rest of that saying: ". . . come to an end." At least in this world. My husband and I are trying to understand that the country music show we drove to every couple of months is gone.

That might not seem like such a tragedy. The Kansas City area has other opries on Saturday night, here and there. They probably all strive for a down-home feel and play good music. But there will never be another Annie's, not for us. Each time we went, it was as much to settle our spirits as to hear great country.

The theater was doing well, and some nights, depending on the guest performer, were sell-outs. Sometimes a surprise guest delighted the crowd--the owner herself dressed up in an outrageous costume that included a huge red wig and 18-inch cigarette holder, parading provocatively as the siren Ruby. (One night she came into the audience and zeroed in on my husband, even trying to sit in his lap. I lost no time defending what was mine.)

With a brisk business and big ideas, Annie and her husband decided to expand. They got the loan, and the hammers and saws went to work, adding a whole new lounge area for snacking and visiting, redoing the stage and back rooms, making the restrooms bigger.

Then the crash came. The audience thinned out. Many nights the band played to half a house. But the same spirit animated them every Saturday, and Michael and I settled into the old red seats and felt at home, as Annie sang the usual opener, "So come on in and sit right down and make yourself at ho-ome!"

It wasn't just the outstanding singing and musicianship, the moving renditions of "Shenandoah" and prize-winning picking that drew us back over and over. Annie's made you feel like, no matter what troubles you brought in with you, everything was going to be all right. An American flag hung above the stage, and no show ended without a Gospel song or two. People shook your hand and asked how you were. They were not in a hurry.

As the crowds got smaller, Annie's marketed themselves more, but it just didn't bring in the sales. Maybe the drive became too far with gas prices too high, or the older crowd could no longer squeeze tickets out of their monthly checks. Finally the lights were shut off for the last time, and the bank took the theater.

We probably won't see again the folks we knew there: Nellie, whom we sat with during intermission eating ice cream drumsticks, who never tired of asking if I knew how old she was (88), and reminding me that she recently painted the entire fence around her yard by herself. Or Reuben, her former husband, who came with her every Saturday night and swept up the snack area as the second half of the show got started. Or the lead singer's mother, who always tore our tickets as we entered and treated us like celebrities, kindly calling us "kids," I guess because we're under 70.

We won't hear Jim the emcee cry, somewhere during the show, "Right here in beautiful, tropical, downtown--" and the crowd respond in a roar, "--Tonganoxie, Kansas!" We will miss Annie's sorely, and all the people who made it a special refuge. All of us need a place like that, where the world goes away for just a little while and no one asks you any hard questions. I don't know that we'll find another one. But we will hold close the memory of that very special place.
Photo by Michael Doyle.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Now this from Egypt . . .

Do you ever ask yourself how much we can really be expected to care about? I don't mean care in a general way, like "That's a shame, I feel for those people." I mean taking an active interest in, enough to read a 500-page book or keep up with daily changes in a situation, such as the recent change of power in Egypt.

I avoided the whole Egypt story. I was pretty sure that there was nothing I could do to change the outcome, and I also believed that I would have to read and watch several different sources to get a reliable picture of why the protesters were angry, who was who, and how it all could affect the surrounding world. That would have taken a lot of my time and attention, which I seem to need every iota of just for my family and immediate community.

Then on my way home this morning I passed my neighbor who shared with me highlights of the excellent book he was reading about how the Native Americans were decimated by the Europeans and their livestock--by the diseases they brought along--in numbers far beyond what we thought. Inwardly I groaned under this weight.

My sister sometimes reminds me, "Ann, my nerves are shot." I echo her refrain. Every week I receive a basketful of requests for help from a long list of organizations who are saving orphans, teaching Christianity, building clean-water wells in dirt villages, or shaking up Congress. Each cause is important. Most of them deserve my support.

But the cumulative effect is one of near paralysis. Do they realize this? Between the international news and the cacophony of cries for aid, one could easily wind up following no story and committing to nothing. Once upon a time, people only knew what was going on in their own feudal village, and that might be all we can properly handle.

If you are feeling as overwhelmed as I do, know that you have company. Just because we can know what's going on all over the world does not mean a human can handle what's happening all over the world or benefit from new details on scandals throughout history.

Ah, and it's almost time for Dr. Phil. Now there's some information I might be able to use . . .
Painting above: Chief Outina by Theodore Morris.