I Will Smack That Pumpkin-Flavoured Nonsense Right Out Of Your Hands: Alternative Autumnal Fare

Listen, I like pumpkin, I really do. After Halloween my dad hacks apart the jack-o’-lanterns, bakes them, purées the innards, and sticks the resulting goop in the freezer so that we can make pumpkin bread and pumpkin soup well into the winter. However, the truly superfluous amount of pumpkin-flavoured things I see every fall fills me with despair. I used to be rather indifferent to it, until the year I saw pumpkin-flavoured whiskey at the LCBO. I had to put my foot down then. I am opposed to these flavoured liquors which often rely heavily on colouring (if you need to add colouring to make your whiskey look like whiskey, you fucked up) and other additives. If you handed me a bottle of cake-flavoured vodka I would break the bottle against the wall and then come at you with the glistening shards for daring to bring such nonsense into my presence. Worst of all, these flavoured liquors have a lower alcohol content than a spirit should have. 35% ABV for a whiskey? Unbelievable. Whiskey should be at least 40%, and most good whiskeys have a higher alcohol content than that, hovering between 43-47%.

“But, Rowan,” you may be wondering, “if I am to resist the urge to drink pumpkin-flavoured whiskey, and eat pumpkin-flavoured baked goods, and shove an entire pumpkin up my ass — what should I be consuming instead?”

THE DRINK: CALVADOS

calvadosI feel like I’ve been trying to make Calvados ‘happen’ for years now, yet no one is joining the apple brandy bandwagon. But if you were looking for the perfect fall drink, this is it. It is the liquefied ghost of a harvest, a musty memory of bounty. It gets you goodly drunk. Sometimes I have it straight, sometimes I have it on the rocks. If you adulterate the taste by mixing it with anything, you are an unforgivable heathen.

THE SAVOURY: CURRIED SWEET POTATO SOUP

This recipe is adapted from a recipe in Collins Beekeeper’s Bible. I fiddled with the spices and also added wine, because of course I’m gonna add wine.

  • 1kg sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small red onion
  • 1 shallot
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 canola oil
  • 1 rounded tsp curry powder
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 3 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oven to 350F. In a bowl, mix the potatoes, onion, shallot, honey, oil, curry, ginger, and cayenne pepper, making sure to fully coat the vegetables. Pour the sticky mixture onto a baking pan and bake for roughly 20 minutes, with a stir and a shake somewhere in the middle. The sweet potatoes should be quite soft. After the mixture has cooled, dump it into a food processor and purée it while gradually adding in the stock, coconut milk, and white wine. I used my dad’s homemade pear wine, which was a great choice. Once everything’s good and creamy, put it in a stockpot and reheat it slowly. Since the wine is uncooked and the onions need to mellow a bit more, you should let it simmer on low for a couple hours, giving it a stir every now and then. Serve with a dollop of plain yogurt.

soup1

THE SWEET: APPLE-CARAMEL COOKIES

This is adapted from a recipe for apple cider caramel cookies, a recipe that calls for powdered apple cider mix. I said “hell no” to that, and decided to use actual apples.

  • 1 cup softened butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup peeled and chopped apple (a good baking apple, like McIntosh or Granny Smith)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp allspice
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 24 caramels (roughly)

Heat oven to 350F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Mix all ingredients except apples and caramels. Fold the apple bits into the dough. Take a good pinch of dough, enough to completely envelop a caramel. Smooth the dough into a ball shape with the caramel at the centre. The dough should be sticky, but not impossible to work with. You might have caramels left over, or you might need to unwrap a few more. Depends how big you make the cookies.

Bake until set; the cookies should slide off the parchment paper easily (unless some caramel leaked out). I’d give exact baking times, but I have never in my life followed a recipe’s baking time exactly. Ovens are temperamental things, each one a uniquely assholeish creature. For this recipe, I find that ‘5 minutes, rotate pan, another 5 minutes’ usually works out. So, do something similar to that, I guess.

As you can see, I favour the apple quite a lot. That is the true taste of fall, not some dumb orange gourd.

One Whose Name Was Writ in Water: John Keats and the Page of Cups

keats cups

I like to assign tarot cards to fictional characters and historical individuals. It’s an enjoyable exercise, and useful in that it helps me get better acquainted with the cards. Three months of tarot-ing with the Rider-Waite deck and I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing. More often than not the cards are just making fun of me, but I’m always making fun of myself, so that’s not a big surprise. For example, the 10 of Swords was sort of my primary card for this past week. I tend to favour Beth Maiden’s interpretation of this card, because the 10 of Swords really is so melodramatic, so over-the-top.

He's not just dead, he's super dead

He’s not just dead, he’s super dead

I take it as a reminder to not take myself so seriously — but also to be affected in my misery. I mean, what is the point in experiencing misery if you don’t do so theatrically? Take a shot of whiskey with an air of despair; broodily stare into the night sky at 2am, smoking cigarettes and listening to Sad Music. The more affected your behaviour, the more amusing it is, and that eases a lot of misery.

John Keats probably could have learned something from the 10 of Swords, because he was far too serious in his sadness. Not to say he couldn’t also be very playful and light-hearted: he once pretended to be a trumpet all evening instead of hanging out with Wordsworth, and he liked to get in sword fights using stalks of celery. But, you know, he lived in the 19th century, not in the 21st century with our glorious sense of post-modern irony. He was therefore pretty earnest in his misery.

Keats felt everything really strongly, which is part of why I associate him with the Page of Cups. Keats in general is very much a cups/water person. Extremely emotional and spiritual, often to his own detriment. I know little about psychology, but sometimes I wonder if Keats had BPD: he had such intense relationships, especially with women. When he was kid he held his mother at sword-point to stop her from leaving the house — talk about fear of abandonment. He wasn’t a very grounded individual. He could have used some pentacles in his life, seeing as he was really bad with money and all such humdrum things. But nope, our dear Keats was too divine for that mundane stuff. Born in the fall (the season whose element is water), specifically on October 31st, traditionally the day when the borders between this world and the next are thinnest, Keats comes across as a very ethereal being. I wrote my whole undergraduate thesis around the fact that Keats enthusiastically did not want to ‘exist.’ He figured that poets didn’t really have coherent selves, and Keats wanted to be a Poet first and foremost.

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity — he is continually infor[ming] and filling some other Body — The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute — the poet has none; no identity — he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.

 -John Keats, in a letter to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818)

“Filling some other Body” — as if the Poet is a liquid that takes the shape of whatever vessel it’s poured into. Keats had wanted his gravestone to declare him “one whose name was writ in water.” Keats never wanted to be tangible, graspable; he wanted to be ethereal and ephemeral. And though at times he could be egotistical and ambitious, he was at his best when his work was without teleology. Jane Campion’s Bright Star really captures this of-the-moment Keats in the following lines — which I honestly keep misremembering as being from Keats’s letters, but it’s just Jane Campion really getting our sweet consumptive nightingale:

A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.

The Page of Cups is that divine moment of luxuriation — though luxuriation is perhaps not the best word: it implies a kind of calmness, and divinity is not always calm. Like the fragmented end of Hyperion where Apollo is shriekingly stretched into something godly, the divine can be wonderfully painful.

Soon wild commotions shook him, and made flush
All the immortal fairness of his limbs;
Most like the struggle at the gate of death;
Or liker still to one who should take leave
Of pale immortal death, and with a pang
As hot as death’s is chill, with fierce convulse
Die into life: so young Apollo anguish’d;
His very hair, his golden tresses famed
Kept undulation round his eager neck.
During the pain Mnemosyne upheld
Her arms as one who prophesied.—At length
Apollo shriek’d;—and lo! from all his limbs
Celestial…

The Page of Cups is Christ-like in the Rider-Waite deck. I look at the fish poking its head out of the cup and I wonder, is the Page going to transform it into multiple fishes? What about the water behind him? Is he going to walk out onto it? But that water is not flat and calm, it’s wind-blown and rolling. Even Jesus might be knocked over and knocked out by a wave if he tried to walk on that.

Maybe self-destruction is the point, though. I mean, we’re all hurtling towards death. It would make sense if cups were, in the end, all about drowning. I figure Keats understood that better than most as he gurgled his last breath, drowning in the puréed remains of his own lungs. Tuberculosis makes for an ugly death, but the Romantics and Victorians elevated it to a divine illness. Spes phthisica is the euphoric burst of creativity supposedly felt by those dying of pulmonary tuberculosis, as if being on the edge of death/nothingness is when you’re closest to the divine. Walking on water right before the wave envelops you.

Ode to a wet nightingale

Godspeed, Little Taters: Andy Weir’s The Martian

the_martian.93d47143244.originalI’m a sucker for what I like to call the Expedition Gone Terribly Awry narrative, which is similar to the Robinsonade but I actually hate Robinson Crusoe so I’m calling it something different. Also, the EGTA can involve multiple characters, instead of the Lone Hero, has decidedly less imperialism, and is not designed as a commentary on society. The EGTA is just about bad shit happening to explorers in remote places and their ensuing struggle to stay alive. Pretty much any account of Europeans engaging in polar expeditions fits the bill. And why am I so enthralled with this type of story? Probably I’m some kind of sadistic voyeur.

The Martian is actually my ideal Expedition Gone Terribly Awry narrative because it has all of the struggling to stay alive with none of the upsetting imperialism/colonialism. There are no native cultures for the explorer to destroy because it’s fucking Mars. Everyone wins.

When you get right down to it, The Martian is just a novel about a man farming and fixing farm equipment — except on Mars. It’s really about the minutiae of staving off death every day. The protagonist, Mark Watney, gets stuck alone on Mars and spends his time growing potatoes and tricking out rovers, and this is what you get to read about for hundreds of pages. Luckily for me, I find something immensely soothing about a catalogue of mundanity. It’s the literary equivalent of anti-anxiety meds. I probably have this serotoninful response to this particular style of writing because I grew up with Little House on the Prairie. (Watney at one point actually refers to his living quarters on Mars as his “Little Hab on the Prairie” which is adorable and very accurate.) It’s funny, because I am annoyed by lengthy descriptive writing of people and environments the only purpose of which is to “paint a picture.” I really don’t care about your picture; my visual imagination is shit anyway. But I can read several pages describing how Pa Ingalls cleans his gun and makes bullets and I’ll be riveted through the whole thing. Obviously this appeals to other people, otherwise the show How It’s Made wouldn’t exist.

Anyway, The Martian is chock full of this sort of How It’s Made writing, and it gets the Good Juices flowing in my brain. My eyes may skim over the exact figures, because they don’t matter to my non-mathematical mind, but I still enjoy following Watney’s thought process as he problem solves, makes calculations, describes the things he’s built and how they function. And Weir keeps it readable with well-timed injections of humour. When was the last time I read a book this funny? Maybe it was P. G. Wodehouse’s Cocktail Time. I don’t usually laugh, actually laugh, while reading (possibly because I’m often reading things like Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women and that’s not exactly big on the humour). Anyway, Mark Watney is hilarious, exactly the sort of guy you want to go out drinking with, so naturally you care about his survival. The universe cannot lose such a precious potato:

By my reckoning, I’m about 100 kilometers from Pathfinder. Technically it’s ‘Carl Sagan Memorial Station.’ But with all due respect to Carl, I can call it whatever the hell I want. I’m the King of Mars.

As with most of life’s problems, this one can be solved by a box of pure radiation.

Chemistry, being the sloppy bitch it is, ensures there’ll be some ammonia that doesn’t react with the hydrazine, so it’ll just stay ammonia. You like the smell of ammonia? Well, it’ll be prevalent in my increasingly hellish existence.

‘I admit it’s fatally dangerous,’ Watney said. ‘But consider this: I’d get to fly around like Iron Man.’

The Martian‘s not the most sophisticated novel I’ve ever read, but it is genuinely good story-telling. And even though the focus of the novel is the process of getting Watney back to earth, Weir still manages to create a diverse cast of characters. There are female characters with, gasp, a range of personalities, from the steely Commander Lewis, captain of the Hermes, to the long-suffering Mindy Park who complains about being “space paparazzi” when her sole responsibilities at NASA become examining satellite imagery of Mark Watney. Then there are characters of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. I am unsurprisingly fond of Martinez, the Hermes’s pilot and resident devout Catholic; he sneaks a wooden cross among his personal effects (the astronauts are really not supposed to have flammable material) which comes in handy when Watney needs to light something on fire. Jesus saves. One character, Rich Purnell, is even coded as autistic, which is nice. It’s nice to see such a plot-heavy novel still have such good characters, and Weir actually manages to make them all important to the story. They each have their own integral role to play in Saving Mark Watney’s Ass. What an optimistic view of humanity. Even being an Expedition Gone Terribly Awry narrative, The Martian manages to be one of the most cheerful books I’ve read in a long while.

THIS IS YOUR MIND OFF MEDS: MR. ROBOT AND SUBJECTIVE STORY-TELLING

There’s something at turns frustrating and fascinating about an unreliable narrator. Elliot Alderson is much more the latter than the former, though; he doesn’t want to purposefully mislead us. Rather, his brain misleads him and we’re carried along for the disconcerting ride. I’ve seen Mr. Robot praised for its topicality, its technological accuracy, but I am more drawn to it as a vivid character study. “We’re all living in each other’s paranoia,” Elliot says in episode 8. As viewers we’re definitely forced to live in Elliot’s paranoia. Poor Elliot. Poor us.

mrrobot cover

Living in Elliot’s paranoia makes it difficult to be objective and analytical, to pick apart the show for tropes and tricks, to guess what’s going to happen next. I can only really do this in hindsight. During episode 2 I was thinking “this is gonna be some Fight Club nonsense, isn’t it.” Then I simply stopped caring. By episode 4 I didn’t care if the Big Reveal was a predictable reworking of Fight Club; I was so in love with Rami Malek’s performance, so anxious for (and with) Elliot, that nothing else mattered. I was in deep. Episode 4 features an extended dream sequence that is only matched in excellence by the season 4 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m serious. Both Mr. Robot and Buffy nail dream logic, particularly the defamiliarizing of familiar places. Both shows inject nightmares with the jarring humour of an absurdist play (in Buffy it is The Cheese Man, in Mr. Robot we have Elliot’s betta fish yelling at him). I was enjoying Mr. Robot before episode 4, but it was episode 4 that made me obsessed.

mrrobot12

So, though I wasn’t enthralled by the premise (awkward genius hacker instigates revolution, probably has a Tyler Durden thing going on), I was thrilled by the presentation of that narrative, which seemed exciting and unusual. But I was after all blindsided by the Big Reveal in episode 8, which is thankfully more than just “some Fight Club nonsense.” “Were you in on this the whole time?” Eliot yells at us. “Were you?” No, Elliot, I wasn’t. But I will be when I rewatch the season (and I will), noticing all those odd little moments that make sense now that I have a piece of the puzzle I lacked before. At that thought I feel weirdly guilty, as if I am betraying or abandoning Elliot. Silly, right? But it’s hard to be merely a spectator when watching Mr. Robot; Elliot speaks to us and calls us “friend” and though at first I wanted to find this cloying or ridiculous, the truth is that it is so well done that I became participatory in Elliot’s experiences. In a sense, I will lose that when I rewatch the show; I will become an analytic observer, rather than an immersed participant.

Of course, if I’m not immersed I won’t be emotionally fatigued by Elliot’s mental illness, his confusion and fear. And boy, let me tell you, it is an uncomfortably good portrayal of mental illness. Mr. Robot shows neuroses as I know them. “#me,” said I, the chronically depressed and anxious, when I watched Elliot ugly-crying in a corner. In public, Elliot is very quiet, but you can see him practically vibrating with anxiety, feel him screaming internally while trying to carry on normal conversations. Everything in the show from the soundtrack to the cinematography produces a steady uneasiness. Whether it was intended or not, the cinematography at the end of episode 1 is particularly evocative of anxiety-induced derealization. The crowd of besuited 1-percenters are an indistinct menace, painfully dragged into focus as if we are seeing through Elliot’s eyes as he struggles to connect to what’s going on around him. “Please tell me you’re seeing this too,” he begs, unable to trust his own perception. Of course, we can’t trust our own perception either.

mrrobot11

Despite being generally impressed with the portrayal of Elliot’s anxiety and depression, I found the split personality stuff in the season finale somewhat awkward and hackneyed (the show doesn’t completely escape that “Fight Club nonsense”). Though I would without hesitation recommend Mr. Robot to literally everyone, I know that it’s not without its flaws. Most prominent among these is the unfortunate fridging of a female character mid-season (dear writers, was that really necessary?). But, I mean, how could I stay mad for long with Rami Malek on screen? My criticisms die on my lips when I am confronted with those soulful eyes.

Mentally ill, looking to playing cards for guidance

The new age book store smelled heavily of incense, of course, and so did my purchases when I brought them home. The DBT workbook still has scent lingering on it. I hadn’t gone to the store planning to buy the DBT workbook, but it caught my eye and, seeing as my Broken Brain Syndrome is being particularly vile at the moment, I figured it was worth a shot. So I bought it, along with a Rider-Waite tarot deck, which is what I had actually set out to acquire. With the plastic wrap off, the cards smell like nothing, so I figure I’ll wave them around in a cloud of my own English Leather incense (the incense that smells of Christopher Tietjens, the patron saint of repressing the hell out of your emotions — which according to both my therapist and the DBT workbook I should really stop doing, but come on, it’s so much fun).

I’ve been impulsively diving into new hobbies (like embroidery), so once I got home I just shuffled the cards and immediately did a five card spread that I had watched a friend of mine do before. The card that represented my present was the Six of Swords, which I found delightfully grim.

Row row row your punt gently down the stream. Scarily scarily scarily scarily life will make you scream.

A post shared by R. E. Morris (@blithewine) on

Due to aforementioned Broken Brain Syndrome, I’ve recently buggered up my life something fierce; I have had to drop out of grad school, and am in the process of moving into my parents’ basement. It feels like a spectacular failure on one hand, but a great relief on the other. I’ve stopped trying to do things I can’t do (like force myself to stay in academia) and am instead punting along with the current, ready to explore new places. Maybe I will actually become a beekeeper. The Six of Swords thus seems appropriate. It also reminds me of Caspar David Friedrich’s On the Sailing Boat. Caspar David Friedrich was adept at painting people’s backs as they moodily stared into the distance, probably choking down a consumptive cough (how Romantic).

Either I’m Very Good at tarot, or Really Bad at it, because before even learning the common interpretations of the various cards, I just started lazily assigning my own. I do check meanings on the ATA website, which aforementioned Five Card Spread Friend recommended, but I take them as a very general guideline and mostly just do whatever I want.

This card represents my drinking problem.

As with pretty much everything I’m engaged in at the moment, tarot is just another way to gain some control over my Broken Brain Syndrome. Mental illness is one wild ride. I frequently wake up at 5am, after only a few hours of sleep, and entertain fantasies of punching the sun as I watch light creep into the world. I can’t sleep, but I’m too tired to do much of anything. 70% of the time all food tastes and feels like instant oatmeal. Sometimes my memory completely malfunctions and I get confused about where I should be and what I should be doing. Sometimes I get very drunk and nearly throw myself off a tall building. “What dumb self-destructive thing will I do next,” I wonder excitedly, waking up hungover and unfortunately still alive. But on a positive note, I guess, I am still alive. I’m alive enough to wake up at 5am, as I did this morning, shuffle my tarot deck and draw, as my card of the day, Death. Death is a good card in the Rider-Waite deck. A glowing bishop welcomes the sweet release of Death, and various figures swoon before Death, overcome by how handsome and perfect he is. I’m glad I woke up and drew Death today.