Times New Keeferton Keef shows no signs of lethality or psychosis

25Jul/160

REUBENS BAKED IN PUMPERNICKEL BRIOCHE

So, I keep up with a lot of folks on the ol' social media. One of my old friends, Sandra, has been an amazing pastry chef for more than a decade, and has recently been having a lot of success lately with her new bakery in Minneapolis. It's called the Savory Bake House, and although I have not eaten there, because I do not live in Minnesota, I follow both Sandra and the bakery itself on social media.

Last week, this cropped up on my feed:

Now.

I'll be goddamned if that doesn't look like the most amazing and delicious thing ever.

(Also, #cleanmeat needs to start trending, across all topics and platforms, because that is a hilarious hashtag.)

We were gonna have a few folks over this weekend for a swimmin' pool trip-- kind of a rarity, in my post-parenthood lifestyle. I love to bake and I like making things that are delicious, so I figured what the hell, why not give these a shot? I gave Sandra a shout (bear in mind, I've known her more than half my life), and after swearing me to secrecy, she gave me the recipe for the strange brioche fold-over for sandwiching.

I consider myself a fairly skilled amateur baker. I can make some pretty good breads, including some pretty tasty brioche loaves. But I've never tried to do this thing, where you bake an array of things inside another thing. I make this hella-tasty prosciutto bread, but that's a bit different: the point of that recipe is to make the prosciutto melt into the bread, imbuing flavor-ham; here, the tasty innards are intended to stay cohesive. It's recursive baking. I was pretty nervous, so I thought I'd document that anxiety, and then I'd have an interesting document whether the experiment was a success or a failure.

I think you can tell how nervous I am.

I was so nervous, I didn't document the creation of the dough! But, y'know, that's probably for the best. I also went off-book and took some extra steps-- substituted some molasses for another sweetener, added unsweetened dutch-process cocoa powder for color, and threw in a bunch of toasted caraway seeds. It's never enough to try a brand-new recipe for a brand-new type of dish, because I am a smartass. I wanted to make this into a pumpernickel brioche Reuben sandwich (with a vegetarian alternative for some folks).

So, there's a bunch of corned beef in there. This is the non-vegetarian option, obviously.

#cleanmeat.

Then the sauerkraut and cheese. I don't know if the cheeses were organic or not, so I can't cut #cleancheese for this. I did use organic sauerkraut, though, which I drained and sizzled up in a pan pretty nice, both for color and to get rid of excess moisture.

#cleansauerkraut.

I used a ratio of like 3 to 1 tasty baby swiss to spicy pepperjack. I love swiss on a reuben sandwich, but I wanted a little bit of tang, especially because I was going to be omitting the Thousand Island dressing (because Thousand Island is gross, and also because I had another super-experimental idea I wanted to try. More on that later).

I did a layer of corned beef, a layer of sauerkraut, and then the cheese-- to seal the sauerkraut in as much as possible, and prevent moisture from messing up the sweet, sweet experimental pumpernickel brioche.

Then, the folding over.

The dough was so thin. I was terrified the whole thing was just going to turn out to be the world's worst taco. A gross-ass caraway-infested crispity shell around a giant wad of corned beef and cheese and sauerkraut.

My concerns almost ruined a perfectly-good trip to the swimming pool!

Okay, that is not true at all. I had a delightful time with some wonderful pals, all swillin' back tasty beers (holy crap, y'all, that Boulevard Ginger-Lemon Radler is the perfect poolside beer; they ain't even payin' me to say so, I'm just proclaiming on it because it is so damn tangy and tasty on a hot summer's day). Also, my kid is starting to warm up to splashing around in the water, so that's always a good time. Here is a picture of that, which is totally unrelated to this recipe or the processes involved in this recipe:

After a day spent splashing and drinking and doing lazy laps, we returned to the house, where the dough still had not risen, like, at all. When I texted Sandra to ask about it, she said:

"It never does [rise]... I feel like part of the success is that it works best if it makes you nervous."

I did a last-minute egg-wash on the bread (one of my coworkers keeps chickens, and he gives me these incredible free-range pasture-fed eggs, which taste better than any eggs ever), and then bunged them into the oven for a while.

And man, I was so incredibly relieved when these turned out well.

The bread really puffed up beautifully just in the oven, going from a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch of just fluffy, eggy, buttery brioche, all piping hot and approaching almost flakiness.

Here's a picture of the vegetarian version, which used tempeh, sauerkraut, and cheese:

And now one more picture of the array of sandwiches, because I'm so proud of them. Like a new papa. Well, like a new papa who then turns into a cannibal and scarfs down his creation.

Okay, so here's a long-winded addendum. I mentioned earlier that I skipped the Thousand Island, because it is gross. Another reason I skipped it is because I wanted to do something else.

There's a small neighborhood bar in the Little Russia part of Topeka, Kansas, called Porubsky's. It's kind of hard to find, in an area mostly filled with little houses, and it's only open for lunch. At Porubsky's, they make these things that they charmingly, understatedly call "Hot Pickles."

Calling these things "Hot Pickles" is like calling dry ice "Chilly Carbon Dioxide." They make these things with some sort of hellacious wasabi extract-- maybe it's horseradish oil, maybe it's hot mustard oil, maybe it's some bizarro combination of everything that punches you in the snoot and disappears completely after a few seconds, but whatever it is, it is delicious, and it is not playing around.

I wanted to turn this into a relish. What's more, I wanted to turn this into a relish that normal people-- which is to say, people who wouldn't want to just put a spoonful of asian hot mustard into their mouths-- would eat.

So I blended a bunch of Porubsky's pickles with sweet gherkins, and dill pickles, and sriracha pickles, and roasted red peppers, and a couple different kinds of vinegar (for funsies). I did this in a food processor. I ended up with what looks basically like a cherry pepper relish, and which gives you a small love-tap on the snout and then backs off really quickly. It was the perfect compliment to the sandwiches, if I do say so myself.

Man, these sandwiches.

Sandra says she uses the same recipe, or very similar, to create sweet things as well-- cinnamon rolls, sweet mini-brioches, and something she called "mixed berry cream cheese rolls," which oh my goodness I may just have to try.

I'll leave the relish off those, though.

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15Apr/160

THAT TIME THE ROBOT LITTERBOX DIDN’T WORK

As a cat owner, I handle feces regularly. Handling feces is gross. Many cat owners are also not super-crazy about handling a whole bunch of feces, so we sometimes talk to each other about ways that we can minimize the feces-handling.

Today someone linked me to a brand-new "best litterbox ever," this one a Kickstarter sensation that has gone on to be well-liked by a number of people with small furry purring poop machines in their house. It looks problematic to me, but it also reminded me that I have never encountered a decent "better litterbox" than a big tub filled with some sort of medium, into which the kitties crap.

I only had one truly horrendous experience, with the CatGenie. This happened five years ago, and I have no idea if the fine folks at CatGenie have upped their game, so take this with a grain of salt and don't use it (entirely) against them.

The first, say, five months I had the CatGenie, it worked as it was supposed to. It consists of a rotating bowl, a bunch of plastic granules which serve as the litter, a raising and lowering scoop-like spatula, a hopper, and a flusher. It's hooked to a hose and a drain. When a cat craps in the box, the intention is this: The spatula lowers, the bowl rotates; the turds are captured in the spatula, letting the granules through. The spatula raises, dumping the turds into the hopper, where they're washed down the drain and whisked out to sea. The hose flushes water into the bowl, where the plastic litter is rinsed. Then an air-dryer dries the granules, and it's ready for the next cat-crapstravaganza.

SCIENCE!

After five months, the whole thing went awry. I contacted CatGenie, and they were fairly helpful, sending me a replacement "engine" for the thing; and then another, and then a third smaller replacement part. Then, things started to get really bad, and that's when I emailed them this:

Hey, Rich--

I'm not sure if this is something I'd be better off calling in about than emailing you directly, but here goes.

I'm at my wit's end with the CatGenie. Thanks to your help last month, and the shipment of two different main unit replacements, I've gotten the CatGenie to a point where the bowl rotates the whole time without stopping (instead of pausing for long periods of time where nothing happens), the air blower does in fact dry the granules (instead of leaving a pile of soggy plastic bits), and the arm does raise and lower effectively when the main processing unit tells it to (instead of staying up or down the whole time and accomplishing nothing).

The problem I'm having now is, frankly, awful. Instead of scooping up the cat turds, dropping them into the hopper, and flushing them, the CatGenie seems to be basically straining the turds through the scoop by breaking them into chunks small enough that the scoop is unable to effectively pick them up. Then, after breaking the turds up, failing to scoop them, and leaving them mixed in with the granules, the CatGenie blows hot air over the tiny turd chunklets, filling my house with the rancid, disgusting smell of hot feces. So when I get home from work, or when I come downstairs in the morning, that is what greets me.

I am including a photo of the CatGenie immediately after having run a cleaning cycle. The dark bits are the turd chunklets. You will notice also a massive wad of poo on the arm itself, where it has mashed a turd into the bottom of the bowl and then tenaciously clung to it, which is also not an uncommon phenomenon. Usually when this happens I use a paper towel to remove the turd-wad from the arm. I use the same paper towel to pluck out the turd chunklets and manually dump them into the hopper. All of which seems to go explicitly against the reason I got a CatGenie in the first place, which was so that I would rarely have to handle cat poo.

Honestly, I can't think of anything that would make me not want to go back to a nice, civilized, covered catbox with scent-dampening clay litter, throw this thing into the dumpster, and warn everybody I know about the failure of the CatGenie to function. However, I now present you, Rich, with an opportunity to change my mind, present a solution to this seemingly insoluble never-ending series of problems, or otherwise alleviate my utter disappointment with your product.

Thank you,

x

The mashed-up turd is only barely visible, on the lefternmost part of the spatula.

I never heard back. In all honesty, I was at my wit's end with the thing and could not foresee any possible solution. In my furious insanity, I deliberately wrote this letter in as provocative and florid a manner as I could muster. I imagined that the people at CatGenie would read it, laugh, and offer a full replacement as a solution, instead of what happened, which was nothing.

I am not angry at the CatGenie people, at this point, because their product was fundamentally flawed, and they must have been inundated with complaints from people like me. Many of the complaints must have been much more vocal about their hatred of the scent of fresh-baked turdlets waking them up in the mornings (I have always maintained a policy of being even-tempered with Phone Helper People, because I have been on the other end of that phone). They did what they could with what they had.

I'll stick with a big tub full of a granulated medium that can accept whatever my cats dish out.

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8Apr/160

THE CELLMATE AND THE RABBIT

This fable is a continuation, of sorts, of this one.

Many years ago, O children, there was a man who was arrested with less than a quarter-ounce of substandard marijuana. Although he was a nonviolent drug offender, it was his third conviction, and so he was sentenced to prison for a very long time. He calmly and good-naturedly tried to serve his term in a low-security level prison. While he was unhappy to be incarcerated, and very much looked forward to his eventual release, he tried to make the best of his time; he used the library, and the weight room, and did little meditations, and wrote little songs.

One evening more than halfway through his sentence, the jailors came to his cell door and unlocked it. "Got a new cellie for you, pal," said a guard, and ushered in an old man.

The old man was unlike any cellmate the prisoner ever had. He was very old, with skin like papyrus. His skin was all white, whiter even than the skin of prisoners coming out of solitary confinement. His eyes were pink and very bright. He wasn't wearing a standard orange jumpsuit, but instead a finely bespoke suit and hat made of pure white unmarred fabric. He carried a large white rabbit in his hands, and he walked into the cell and sat down on the bottom bunk, making eye contact with the prisoner the entire time, and stroking the wide-eyed rabbit in his lap with one gnarled hand.

"Hey," said the prisoner.

The cellmate did not respond, except by staring at the prisoner and petting the rabbit.

"What's your story, man? What you in for? How come you get to wear a suit?"

The cellmate did not respond, except to scratch the rabbit behind the ears with his long white fingernails.

The prisoner went to the bars of his cell and called out to the guard. "Hey, who the hell is this guy? Why's he get to wear his own clothes? Why's he get to bring a pet?"

The guard calmly walked over to the cell. "Temporary arrangement. For his safety. He ain't like you, he'll be gone after tomorrow. You were just the only one who had a vacancy. Don't do anything stupid."

"Okay," said the prisoner. "This is fucked up, though."

"You're tellin' me, pal," said the guard.

The prisoner leaned against the bars for a minute, then turned around. The old man was still staring at him.

"Well, that's my bunk," said the prisoner. When the old man didn't respond, he said, "But hey, that's cool. One night, you take that bunk. I'll sleep up top."

Eventually, the prisoner lowered himself and sat cross-legged on the floor across from his new cellmate. He stared back, and counted his breaths, and kept quiet. He fought down his deep sense of unease, and rubbed down the hairs on his arms, which had all risen of their own accord.

The sun eventually went down, and the cell darkened. Neither man spoke, and after a time, the lights in the cell went out, leaving only moonlight streaming through the bars of the cell's only window.

The old man raised his free hand and held up three fingers (pinky, ring, and middle). "Have you ever been on a deserted island, with no way back and no place to sleep, and watched the sun set over the mainland?"

The man paused and remembered an incident from his past, when he was young, and made many mistakes. "Once, yeah."

The old man dropped his middle finger and nodded. "Have you ever been alone in a house at night and seen a herd of cows gathered at the windows to look at you?"

"How the fuck you know this shit, man? I never told anybody about that."

The old man nodded again, and dropped his ring finger, leaving only his pinky raised. "Have you ever seen a pack of wolves bring down a stag?"

"What? No. What the fuck are you even talking about, man?"

The old man smiled, not unkindly, and lowered the remaining finger, making a fist. "It's quite a thing to behold. A single wolf could never do it alone, not a big stag, full-antlered, but a pack could, if they work together. If they're hungry enough. They start by tearing at the legs." He scratched the top of the rabbit's head. The rabbit chewed something unseen. "Go to sleep," said the old man.

Hesitantly, and not unafraid, the prisoner climbed up into the top bunk and rested his head on his pillow. He had every intention of staying awake all night in order to protect himself, but found himself almost immediately asleep.

His dream was dark, and full of shadows and swirling black mist. The prisoner tried to move through his murky blindness, but found that he could only move slowly. He heard a rhythmic thrum, the persistent desperate knocking of an unwanted and dreadful but ultimately ecstatic revelation. The prisoner turned around to run from it, but he could not tell one direction from another, and the pounding got louder and closer no matter which way he moved.

The prisoner awoke as the sun was rising and the first rays of the day peeked through the bars of the window. Although he'd slept all night, he felt more exhausted than ever. He groaned, and lowered himself slowly to the floor, and made his way to the steel privy in the corner, where he relieved himself.

The old man still sat on the lower bunk, one hand folded over the other. "Good morning," he said, and smiled wide, revealing a set of small red-stained teeth.

"Morning," said the prisoner softly. The lights in the cell slowly flickered to life. The guards unlocked the door and led the old man away, leaving the prisoner alone once again.

Art by the incredible Dragan Bibin. Used with permission.

29Feb/160

183 in 2016, Parts One and Two

There's a thing that some (insane) people do, where they try to watch a movie every day for an entire year. Doug Benson did it last year, and I've done it to a much smaller degree by watching a horror movie every day for the month of October for the last two years running.

I realize that watching a movie every day is unreasonable. If I try, I'll either 1) go insane and never want to watch another movie again; or 2) Just straight-up fail miserably.

So this year, I decided that I'd try to watch a movie every other day. Since there are 366 days in 2016, I'm going to make it my goal to watch 183 movies. It's the end of February, and I'm already behind, but whatever. Here is a list of the movies I've watched so far, along with itty-bitty little encapsulation reviews.

JANUARY:
001. Sicario (2015) - Yeah, this was pretty good.
002. The Martian (2015) - Man, I really liked this movie. I enjoyed the book immensely when it caught fire last year, and I was worried about this one. The book was so good, and so thorough. The author clearly did the math on EVERYTHING, and then followed it to its logical conclusion. The movie is not without its problems, but by and large it was a really good adaptation of a really good book.
003. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) - Well, this played out nearly exactly as I expected it to. The costumes and actual production were great, the writing was rote and completely bland, and the two stars were cardboard cutouts lacking all charisma. Alicia Vikander was pretty great, as she is in most things. I watched this with my friend Irving, and he went to bed halfway through, but not before shot-calling the major plot points that he predicted would play out. He was correct.
004. Mr. Holmes (2015) - I'd watch Ian McKellen play anything. I'd watch him play every part in a reproduction of all of the Republican debates that have happened this year, and I suspect I would enjoy it greatly. It helps that this is a pretty tightly written little thing about the old Holmes dealing with the one mystery he couldn't resolve, and the other two principals (Laura Linney and a young Milo Parker) were very good as well. I'd recommend it, if you like Ian McKellen.
005. Running Time (1997) - This is a Bruce Campbell joint, cut together in such a way to look like it's all one take. It's got a few great moments, but it suffers from "Crime Noir Syndrome" a bit too much for my taste, where it really wants to evoke 50s crime noir but can't escape its more modern trappings for whatever reason (in this case, it's crappy post-production and generally modern jittery camerawork, which was probably inescapable given the budget and equipment). All in all, enjoyable (and I'm glad I watched), but nothing to really write home about.
006. Crimson Peak (2015) - Well, Guillermo Del Toro makes anything beautiful. The production on this flick is hella lush, and in general, I really like Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, but this thing never really rose above the sum of its parts. Luckily, the parts were entirely palatable.
007. Bone Tomahawk (2015) - This was a rewatch. I really, really, really fucking love this movie, but none of the people (so far) that I've tried to get to watch it have gotten through the first twenty minutes. "It's too slow," they say. Bunch of philistines! This movie marries the slow beautiful western with some hellacious gory horror, and it's a fucking masterpiece. In my top five for 2015, easily. I thought about doing a big old blog-post movie review of this thing, and maybe I still will. I really, really, really loved this movie.
008. The Visit (2015) - This was fucking hot garbage. I'm upset at people claiming that this was some return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. I was deeply disappointed.
009. Haxan (1922) - I saw this at the Alamo Drafthouse, with a live score performed by Wrekmeister Harmonies. It was fucking amazing and I made in my pants eight times. I highly recommend it, if you've got a time machine.

FEBRUARY:

010. Freaks of Nature (2015) - This was interesting. Set in a world where humans, vampires, and zombies coexist, an alien invasion throws everything into disarray. I really like Mackenzie Davis (and have since Halt and Catch Fire, but it was the cameos by Patton Oswalt, Ian Roberts, Keegan-Michael Key, and Bob Odenkirk that signed me up for this. It's fairly well-worn comedic territory, but watching those dudes work is always a pleasure. Fair-to-middling. The Werner Herzog voice work sealed the deal for me, but your mileage may vary.
011. Beasts of No Nation (2015) - Welp, I don't know what I expected. This was an incredible movie, directed by True Detective Season 1's Cary Fukunaga, and starring the always-outstanding Idris Elba as an African warlord who recruits a young boy for his child army. It's fucked up and beautiful and heart-crushing. Hard to recommend, but I liked it.
012. Constantine (2005) - I'm a little bit torn about this movie, since I love the comic book Hellblazer, on which this is based, and it gets so much wrong. That said, I have a soft spot for this movie, I really do. I just try to pretend this movie is totally unrelated to the comic book and enjoy the performances. Tilda Swinton is so good in this. So is Peter Stormare.
013. Labyrinth (1986) - I hadn't seen this since I was a kid. I didn't remember Jennifer Connelly's character being such a stupid drama queen. She causes all of her own problems, her parents are rich as balls, and she still flounces around being miserable. Then David Bowie comes along to teach her a lesson with his enormous FUPA.
014. The Last Witch Hunter (2015) - I went in expecting this to be a giant pile of shit (because I'll watch Vin Diesel punching stuff in anything), and I was pleasantly surprised when it was on the high side of mediocre. I love that Vin Diesel is not afraid to be silly. I also had no idea Michael Caine was in this-- Caine, plus Vin Diesel embracing the silly, plus Elijah Wood as a milquetoasty kind of fellow, PLUS GoT's Ygritte, made this an enjoyable watch all the way through. Just don't go in expecting Shakespeare... or even Robert E. Howard.
015. Besser Breaks the Record (2016) - Standup comedy set in movie form. Matt Besser is one of the founding members of the UCB, and he's still got it, where "it" is the one-step-shy-of-David-Cross misanthropy and hilarious absurdism.
016. O.C. and Stiggs (1985) - Okay, this is an interesting one. It's directed by Robert Altman, and is an artifact of its time, the mid-80s. It was shot in '84, and released in '88... because people straight-up did not like it. The source material is easily among the most hilarious material I've ever read-- the October 1982 issue of National Lampoon, entitled "The Utterly Monstrous, Mind-Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs." The magazine is about a couple of horrible malevolent demons causing havoc. The movie adaptation is sort of a weak, watered-down milk version, where the kids aren't actually evil, and the havoc isn't actually that chaotic. Still, it's got 80s Dennis Hopper, Martin Mull, Cynthia Nixon, and Bob Uecker in it, so that's something. I enjoyed this, but I wish it had been a hard X and about four hours long, with all the debauchery and evil of the magazine.
017. La Haine (1995) - This is an absolutely gorgeous and incredible French film about police brutality, ghettoization, and violence. I can't recommend it enough (if you like bullshit black and white art films). Very early Vincent Cassel star turn. On a side note, I watched this because an screenprinted poster for it was just released by We Buy Your Kids, an incredible arty duo from Australia who I am very much a fan of. That poster (and its variant) are gorgeous.
018. Creed (2015) - Much better than I expected. I watched it because it got these insane rave reviews, and it ended up being extremely satisfying. Michael B. Jordan is incredible, and Sylvester Stallone really makes you believe he's a sick, washed-up hack with a little bit of the old magic left. Ryan Coogler impressed the shit out of me here, and I'm excited to see what he does next.
019. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) - A lesser entry in the Coen brothers oeuvre, to be sure, but still really enjoyable. Made me laugh out loud multiple times, which is all I can ever hope for. The acting was stellar throughout, and I even enjoyed some of the cornball folk music. Also, I fucking love Oscar Isaac, and have since Drive, and that ain't stopping no matter how many toy commercials he makes.
020. Belle et la Bete (1946) - This was a rewatch. Jean Cocteau is a goddamn genius. That's all.
021. The Cremator (1969) - So uh I might not be the smartest dude in town, but I like to think that I know what time it is. That said, this movie just sort of baffled me. It apparently decided to Jackson Pollock together German Expressionism, black comedy, absurdism, and 60s European New Wave, against a backdrop of 1930s Czechoslovakia. It had some moments that had me laughing, some moments that had me wincing from distaste, and some truly beautiful cinematography, but the whole thing didn't really gel in any meaningful way, and there were long stretches where I was just bored-- either the analogy fell down in some way I didn't understand, or the geotemporal zeitgeist left me flat. It is a mystery. Your mileage may vary.
022. Night of the Seagulls (1970) - This is the last of Amando de Ossorio's "Blind Dead" movies. The first one, "Tombs of the Blind Dead," is a straight-up masterpiece in the vein of Mario Bava (but with zombies). If you haven't seen it, there is a gap in your horror-movie education that needs filling. The second one is pretty bad, and recycles all its best footage from the first. I've never seen the third, and this is the fourth, which I read recently was pretty good. It was... okay. The best part is the first five minutes, with some glorious period horse-carriage business, murder, and human sacrifice (with added nudity), followed by some cannibalism, performed by both people and crabs.
023. Hardware (1990) - Completely beautiful garbage "cyberpunk" postapocalyptic flick. Bill told me that this flick falls "Somewhere in between Tank Girl and Dredd" on the dystopian future scale, with visuals that were reminiscent of Cyborg 2. So, of course, I was delighted and excited, even though Dylan McDermott's face gives me the screaming fantods. This was pretty glorious. The murderbot was fantastic, the "smart kitchen" was deeply entertaining, and Porkins from Star Wars shows up to be the creepiest dude on the planet. It's no Cyborg 2, but that's a pretty high standard.
024. L'umanoide aka Humanoid (1979) - This cropped up in some thread on a board I frequent, and it sounded great, so I rolled the dice. Humanoid is a blatant Star Wars rip-off, filmed on the cheap in... Italy? Turkey? Who knows. I was in stitches throughout the entire thing. The visual effects are right on the borderline between capable and hilariously shitty. The "acting" is mind-blowingly bad, but often in that scenery-chewing way that makes it okay. The writing was disastrous. The "music" by Ennio Morricone sounds like he literally phoned it in-- like, he dialed up the studio and then just hit keys on the phone. The architecture and set design was actually pretty impressive. The entire thing congealed into a giant ball of wonderful hot garbage.
025. His Girl Friday (1940) - Well, this was pretty good, all told. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are incredible. The direction by Howard Hawks was outstanding. The dialogue was snappy and fresh and hilarious. I was absolutely loving this until the last two minutes, when the whole thing went off the rails. The plot is basically this: Rosalind Russell used to be married to Cary Grant, and they both worked at a newspaper. They got divorced. Rosalind Russell gets engaged to Ralph Bellamy and plans to quit. Cary Grant works to entangle her in a hot news item, knowing she loves the work too much to quit. So far, so good... but then he goes out of his way to have her boyfriend arrested multiple times, including once being accused of public sexual harassment, and also having his mother knocked out and kidnapped, the whole time doing all these super-creepy stalker things. I was like, "Hey, that's cool, she knows what she's doing, and at the end she'll still marry the guy who isn't a complete asshole." Nope. At the end, she's like "hey, all that shit is cool, thanks for stalking me to let me know you love me," and then she decides that being with Cary Grant is A-OK. Fucking weird, man.

19Feb/160

THE HERBALIST AND THE MANDRAKE ROOT

There once was a traditional herbalist, O children, with a shop in the tiny back room of a strip-mall spa and nail salon in a small Arkansas town. She had painted a small sign that hung in the window of the nail salon, offering her services: traditional herbal health treatments, aromatherapy, prayer candles, country incense, homeopathy. She had a steady trickle of customers, to whom she sold a lot of prayer candles and incense, and in this way she was able to keep the lights on in her small house, and keep her refrigerator stocked. She was disappointed that she wasn't often asked to perform her traditional herbalist medicine. She had been taught in the ways of country remedies by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, and so on up the family tree as far as her heirloom Bible went.

In her backyard, she maintained the family garden: sumac, whole cloves, cubeb, prickly ash, a patch of ginger; an orange tree; angelica, peppermint, caraway; coneflower, foxglove, black-eyed susan. She used these infrequently in her shop, but often for personal use, and it was important to her to continue the family tradition.

One night during a full moon, when the plants were at their most potent, she harvested ribwort and hazel and lavender, and other things. As she did so, she heard a muffled high-pitched whine, like a small child screaming into a pillow. She stopped picking and listened, and followed the sound to its origin beneath a bough of her rowan tree. Carefully and slowly, she reached into the soil with her fingertips, and pulled out a screaming mandrake root. "How curious," she thought, as the mandrake shrieked into her face. "I have never planted mandrake." She placed her thumb over its wee little mouth, so as not to bother the neighbors, and took her harvest indoors, where she began preparing the plants.

Some went into an infusion, some were ground in a mortar and pestle, and some were laid out to dry. As she worked, the mandrake root sometimes coughed. As she broke up rowan bark, it started to loudly clear its throat, and as she zested oranges into a small jar, the mandrake spoke to her. "Tomorrow, a woman will come in to the shop. She will have rheumatoid arthritis." Then it rattled off a list of instructions and ingredients. The woman quickly gathered the materials, and put the mixture into a jar to soak overnight.

The next day, a woman came in for arthritis. "I knew you were coming," said the herbalist, and handed her the jar with a small label stating what it was for. "Tonight, heat up a cast-iron skillet on your stove. Put a towel over your head, and pour this into the cast-iron skillet. Put your head over the skillet, and breathe the smoke and vapor for thirty, forty-five seconds, or until it starts to really burn. Then stop. That'll be forty dollars."

That night, the mandrake root said, "Tomorrow, a man will come in with a broken heart. Here is what he will need." The mandrake listed ingredients and instructions, and asked the woman to cut off a chunk of its own mandrake root body, to include in the mixture. The woman did as she was told, and the next day she sold it to the man and gave him instructions for inhalation with his cast-iron skillet. The man thanked her the next day, telling her that he'd never felt better.

This went on for weeks. The mandrake told the herbalist about customers who would coming in with specific needs, and told her what to give for them, always mixtures to be burned, steamed, and inhaled. For certain customers, the mandrake demanded that she cut off parts of it to be included and breathed in by her customers. The woman became much more successful, and had to order many more prayer candles and much more incense. Also, the herbalist started getting repeat customers.

The broken-hearted man came back in, for an inflamed liver. "I can feel it pulsating inside me," he said, "like a great black prune, a hungry prune." She gave him more mandrake infusion.

An insomniac woman came back because she now had terrible dreams. "A combine chases me through a field of wheat under bright moonlight," she said, "and I can feel that my feet are broken, but I must keep running, as the machine chases me and chases me." She gave the woman more mandrake infusion.

A man haunted by his father came back because he missed the presence of the ghost. "It was bad, hearing him moan and drip blood onto the floor while I lay in the dark, but it is much worse to not hear him moan and drip blood onto the floor, while I lay alone, in the dark, in the middle of this galaxy." She gave him more mandrake infusion.

The business kept coming. The woman's savings account grew plump. The body of the mandrake root dwindled until all that was left was its head.

One night, the mandrake root said, "This is the end. Two days from now, an old man will come into the shop. He will not speak, but his breath will smell of honey, and shit, and saffron. You must muddle an herbal concoction to exact specifications." The mandrake root gave her a very specific list of ingredients, with multiple steps for muddling, infusing, powdering. "Now, you must place my head in your mortar, and use your pestle to grind me into mush. I will go into the jar last. Bury the jar beneath your rowan tree and leave it there overnight."

The herbalist did as she was told.

She thought she was prepared, but when the man arrived, she was shocked. His skin was all white, and his beard and hair too. He wore a suit made from the brightest white cloth she had ever seen, including a white leather tie and hat. His eyes were bright pink and rapidly moved back and forth as he looked at her. When he opened his mouth, all she could see was a deep ruby red, and the shop filled with the deep sweet permeating stench of honey and saffron and shit. Silently, with shaking hands, she handed him the soil-caked jar. The man reached into his inside vest pocket and brought out six small grains of gold, the size and shape of rice, and dropped them, tinkling, onto her counter.

Then he left.

The woman closed early, and went home, and looked at the grains of gold in her hand. That night, under the waning moon, she buried them beneath the rowan tree.