Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Death, heat, ghosts

We first came across Naga peppers years ago. A colleague of J's had traveled to Northeast India and brought back a few. So she gave us some, and J whipped up a mango chutney at home and added about a third of one very small pepper.

It was delicious, alright. And hot too, to be sure. As I am fond of saying, rather very extremely hot. But we were just starting to wonder what all the fuss was about- wasn't this one of the hottest chili peppers in the world?- when reality hit. It began as a sort of slow, purposeful heat that intensified first in the mouth. Then, equally leisurely, it made its way s-l-o-w-l-y down the throat. And there it stayed.

We gnawed on ice. We downed bottles of cold water. We chewed strong mint gum. Then we looked at each other, the unspoken questions being, "Are we going to die? Have we killed ourselves? Whom should we leave our books to? What about the ukuleles?" Because none of our desperate remedies were coming remotely close to working. It seemed like hours, our suffering. And we began to see why they're also called ghost peppers, because this heat just hung around: amorphous, persistent, inexplicable, and very very scary.

Clearly, we did not die by Naga pepper. So what did we do, a few years later and none the wiser? Bought a jar of the pickled stuff! He he he. Part of the thrill was finding it in a local Bangladeshi store that gave us the giddy feeling of being in India proper. The clerk even made a comment about the pickle's hotness, backing it up with a feeble laugh. We didn't heed him.

And now it sits on the kitchen counter months later, the level barely even dipping. That's because we've taken to adding it in fingernail-sized quantities to any big batch of food we make. And that old, slow heat is there again, but this time its terror-inducing qualities have been tamed a bit. It does give off the most complex aroma, also, making the house smell delicious for hours. Whoever has cooked, the other has taken to timidly asking, "how much?" And the other answers, "Don't worry, not much," meaning, the usual minuscule amount.

But the other day there was something rather special about the stew we had. J gave this astounding answer to the usual question: "Half a teaspoon!"

Does this mean we are slowly building up our tolerance to the thing? We'll have to wait and watch. If one day I find myself floating above my laptop, strangely hot and no longer able to post anything here, I'll know I've died and gone to ghost chili hell.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Watched: The Jungle Book

I watched another version of this movie when I was very young. I don't remember much, but I can still see that this new one has such breathtaking animation that it fairly eclipses the other. The characters and basic story-line are the same: Mowgli the boy who was raised by wolves and the antagonist, a Royal Bengal tiger, Shere Khan, who posits (quite logically one might add) that mankind will ultimately only bring destruction to the jungle.

Bent on exterminating the man-cub, the posh Brit-accented tiger leaves no stone unturned in his mission, even casually killing the alpha male of Mowgli's wolf pack. He is a realist in one sense of the word with a laser focus on his own power, who sees Mowgli as the threat to the jungle and ultimately to his own supremacy. He is a strategist, subtly threatening the existing peace in the watering hole and using his own backstory to give himself credibility. Mowgli, on the other hand, is just a kid. A human kid, so he makes the difficult decision to leave the jungle for the betterment of all. 

But this wouldn't be a Disney movie without a few adorable other characters; Bagheera the gorgeous black panther, wise and experienced; Baloo the big sloth bear who is endearingly goofy and honey-crazed; and then, in a cameo appearance that had me wanting more, the python Kaa with her hypnotic gaze and seductive voice. And when I say seductive, I mean it's the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Seriously, what a casting coup! Why did they reduce her role to a mere two minutes? 

Somewhere along the journey of ''whether to leave the jungle or not" Mowgli rescues an elephant calf from a pit, helps Baloo garner tons of honey, sings songs with him floating down the river, and then runs into a colony of monkeys living in a strange ruined temple with er- get this- a giant Orangutan as their leader. Now this ape (Christopher Walken, no less) has grand designs also- he wants to be more like Mowgli, ergo human and one can infer, 'civilized' in a manner of speaking. This all leads to a very pitched and frankly disturbing battle between the hundreds of monkeys and Mowgli and his friends. The animation was rather too good here, almost...something about the swarms of shrieking monkeys, teeth bared, left me a bit unsettled.

And the final battle? In this version, Mowgli obtains the Red Flower- the beautiful jungle term for that most human of elements- fire, and the torch plays a vital role in the outcome, as do the aforementioned elephants. There is another pitched battle, this time quite impressively staged in the burning jungle, and Shere Khan falls. This dramatic denouement, however, was rather marred by the little girl in the next row who yelled, "YAY!" at the exact moment the tiger meets his death, causing the entire row to erupt in giggles. Oh well.

Neel Sethi is perfectly shaggy-haired, big-eyed and jungle-scarred as Mowgli. Ingenious and impetuous, he's also mature beyond his years but never precocious.  Bagheera was appropriately serious and very much the adult (Ben Kingsley) and then Mowgli's wolf-mother was Lupita Nyong'o who has a really rich and memorable voice. My favorite though, after the regrettably short-lived appearance of the enigmatic Kaa, would have to be Baloo: Bill Murray seemed to be having a grand time as the wheedling, hedonistic, lovable bear. Kaa does make another appearance of sorts in the end credits, where she sings in her she-could-be-a-jazz-legend voice. 

Now I want Disney to make yet another version, this time with Kaa as the main star. There is the little matter of my extreme snake-phobia to consider, but I will eat caramel popcorn and all will be jolly.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stop all the bakeries, turn off the sweets

Rafael Nadal, with his left wrist in a cast, announces during a press conference that he is withdrawing from the French Open.
Oh Rafa. Just when things were going so well. 

In other words, the French Open just ceased to be interesting. If a minor wrist injury can cause R.Nadal to bow out of ROLAND GARROS, then I rest my case.

"Is not the end," he insisted valiantly at his press conference. Oh no? It's not? What about the rest of us who were counting on you to brighten up our lives at least for the next two weeks? Eh Rafa? Eh?

Apparently he played Round 2 with little injections to the wrist to dull the pain. Indeed, as he informed us, "if I keep playing gonna be broked next couple of days." Fine then. Be that way.

Sniff. Is that why I hurt my left hand so badly earlier today? I don't particularly care. Even stuffing face with s'mores in the middle of a pine forest at night did little to alleviate the shock. I hereby order all sweet things to stop being made. It's all of no use.

Next year then?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

California, here we come

General Sherman tree looking up.jpg
When I was a teenager, there was this beautiful magnolia tree in our backyard. It was tall and healthy, with extremely glossy leaves and plump, creamy blossoms. I spent many evenings sitting on the back step and crying my eyes out over some  bit of adolescent angst or the other, but looking at that beautiful tree made me at least a little happy. 

And as I grew up I came to realize I love all trees, but especially big ones. Of course it would make sense then, that J would take me to the biggest tree in our entire world. We spent a few hours just staring at it, and the day was misty so the top of it seemed to disappear entirely, the effect being to make it appear still larger. I was even reminded of a story from my childhood called The Faraway Tree, in which there was a certain magical tree that had at its top, in the clouds, a different magical land each week. 

We also found a very jolly river running just outside our room, with boulders and rapids and little perfect places to sit on. There too we spent a few hours just gawking. Thankfully J is as averse to social media as I am (trust me to find the one other iconoclast in this world), and there was simply no need for anything else. 

But the need to see, and see, and see, is so intense that but naturally tomorrow we are off to a lake named after a Big Bear. Wonders never cease in California, it seems. Just drive out of town, and there you are. I wonder how long I lived here before I lived here. It feels like I was born here, then. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A guide to the birds of L.A.

Carpodacus mexicanus -Madison, Wisconsin, USA-8.jpg

Continuing on the theme of Springtime, one of its great delights in these parts has been the twice-daily visit of a certain very happy bird. Or at least he sounds happy. He sits somewhere just out of sight and delivers the most marvelous series of chirps and warbles I've ever heard. It's as though the news is simply astounding and he's so bursting with it that he lets it all out and then heaves a sigh of relief. Very rarely have I spotted the actual bird; it's a fat, small thing with an appealing orange breast. 

And then one day quite by accident, I found out the name: the House Finch! I was delighted at this discovery because with my sorry knowledge of birds and their names, I was sure to spend the rest of my dotage just calling it "the Broadcaster" as I've been doing in my ignorance.On looking it up, I find the true scientific name is not quite so delightful: Haemorhous mexicanus. Hmm. Poor Broadcaster. I'm sure he doesn't approve, but never mind. Even if he is envious of the rather pretty-sounding one for our local hummingbirds (Calypte anna) it doesn't appear to have dimmed his zeal. 

Speaking of hummingbirds, where are they? This time last year our balcony was swarming with them. Owing to poor J's fear of attracting bees, we don't have a bird feeder. Maybe the hummingbirds got tired of waiting for one? There's another possibility. We also have a large and ill-tempered giant crow who's been terrorizing the other local fauna around here. Perhaps he, Oldie, as I have imaginatively named him because he's unmistakably old and curmudgeonly, is the real culprit. Now if only I weren't so afraid of him, I could have spoken to the hummingbirds and persuaded them back. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Springtime, France, birthdays

Alors! It is Roland Garros time again. But to my horror, I have just found that today is DAY THREE. What on earth has gone wrong with my brain? Did it go into some sort of Springtime idiocy mode? Anyhow, disaster has been averted because I am now fully clued in.

And what a marvelous piece of news I have just received- my dearest friend in the whole wide world has made it into the second round! How the mighty have fallen, though. Even though R.Nadal is still the nine-time champion here, this year I am ecstatic at his very first victory. Still, it was done in style. His opponent, one Sam Groth ranked 100, really got it in the neck. The score? 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. Ouch! Quelle horror for the poor Groth. At one point, after a particularly superb shot from Rafa, Groth burst out in his thick Aussie accent, "Oh get out of town, mate!"

That wasn't all. Rafa also executed a perfectly unbelievable return from between his knees, with his back to his opponent. As a headline somewhere on the Internet trilled, "Quel coup de genie de Rafa". I agree, whatever that means.

And so we progress. Of course I'm not much interested in tomorrow's play, since Rafa plays only on Thursday. But, inexplicably, these local sports channels don't seem to be covering the early rounds. Gah! Still, there's live streaming these days, I'm told. I'll have to resort to that, especially if the Rafster makes it to the third round. Allez, Rafa!

On a side note, how painful is it, you want to know, to be in love with someone you cannot have? To that I answer, "Extremely." Still, maybe I will get to see if they bake him a birthday cake this time too- his birthday falls smack in the middle of the tournament. Ha. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Readings: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan…

Necromancy:  the practice of talking to the spirits of dead people; the use of magic powers especially for evil purposes. 

Dead people, magic powers, evil purposes. With that as the background for his trade, you know this Johannes Cabal is going to be a rather grim type. And he is that, but in a sort of endearing, sarcastic, scientific-minded, socially inept and imperious way. He begins by making a deal with Satan himself: Johannes, having signed his soul over to Satan years before, now needs it back in order to carry on with his experiments. Satan proposes a wager- Cabal needs to get Satan a hundred souls at the end of a year, and all will be well. Helpfully, he even provides Cabal with the bones (he he he!) of a traveling carnival (of the undead, of course) who will be his staff, as it were, to help in the mission.

The opening chapter is worth its weight in gold. Hell, as described here, is quite literally familiar to anyone who's stood in line trying to get the paperwork done in any government office in India. Arthur Trubshaw, the head clerk, is shatteringly familiar also. And Satan is bored and marvelous.

Cabal enlists his own brother to help inject the charisma needed to attract the public to his carnival. But said brother has been imprisoned in a family crypt- he's a sort of vampire, you see- and Cabal is responsible. We don't know the back story, and are never told. The brother, Horst, still agrees to help and the carnival gets underway. But it's Satan at the other end of the deal. We know all is not going to go well.

Suffice to say, the plot meanders a bit along the way, but the writing was engaging enough. Cabal's impatience and dry wit somehow endear him to you, at least they did to me. The plot doesn't follow the imagined route; in fact about 2/3rds of the way the tone of the story changes and there are real questions about moral choices and the simple distinction between good and bad.

I loved the characters: Bones the undead carnival helper, that smug crow who only says "Kronk", Satan himself, Mimble the evil imp who makes a brief appearance, and Horst who is sauve and has a great head on his shoulders. Literally and morally. Johannes Cabal himself is a classic example of a Rational type, if anyone is familiar with the MBTI. Sigh. I have entirely too much free time if I'm able to see that, eh?

Now to the uncomfortable part. I did not understand the ending. At all. Sigh. It's really inconvenient to be daft right at the climax of a jolly good book. Maybe I should write to the author and he'll explain?

And more importantly, what happens to us after we die? The book I'm on right now is about a hospice nurse and her patient. So there...the Big Sleep is rather fascinating and has always been, to me. I understand Cabal's single-minded quest to study the only Unknown in human existence. Heck, I would've probably been a necromancer myself if I'd thought about it earlier. Maybe it's not too late... I shan't be as funny as Cabal, but maybe someone will give me Bones and the carnival train. And Horst. And Satan won't enter the picture at all and I can do my necromancy in peace and quiet. 
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