Valjean, at last, we see each other plain!

So there is a recent abundance of movies coming out based on books. Good books. Really good books.

The Hobbit is coming out on December 14, I believe. Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings is responsible for my love of movie adaptations of books, because it introduced me to Lord of the Rings and gave me a deep respect for fantasy. It’s not that I hadn’t previously loved fantasy, but when the first movie came out, I was 12 or 13, nearing an age and an attitude where fantasy seemed more and more childish to me (I don’t like tweens, they’re ridiculous). After taking a journey through the sweeping landscape of New Zealand, my love for fantasy was renewed with fervor, and I am happy to say I will never consider myself too old for magic. The hero’s quest is and always will be one of my favorite products of humanity.

Then, on Christmas, Les Miserables is finally hitting theaters. My high school did a performance of Les Miserables when my sister was at the peak of her drama club experience. She played the woman who buys Fantine’s hair. I grew up listening to Castle on a Cloud, wishing for a lady all in white to hold me and sing a lullaby, never knowing until that year where the song came from. I attempted to read the book a few years later, but the bombardment of French names and French history and French politics threw me, and after about 100 pages I gave up, declaring that the book was simply too hard for me.

It’s the only book I ever gave up reading because it was too hard for me.

Jon picked it up for me two days ago at a book store where we have a lot of store credit (a store called ABC, which amuses me because of the connection to the group called ABC in the story itself). I’ve been reading it since, hoping to finish it by Christmas, as unlikely as that is. I’m fortunately finding it much easier to read. xD Perhaps those two years I spent as a Creative Writing major are paying off. Perhaps I just have more patience than my fifteen-year-old self.

So far, this book is filling me with a sense of peace, and a sense of sadness. The characters are lovingly, insightfully drawn – the bishop, who has all of thirteen lines in the musical, has an entire fifty page section dedication to a self-portrait. Yet when I listen to his section of the musical, I find that he has been characterized with loving respect for Hugo’s writing.

The idea of a large, Hollywood type production for this musical is both thrilling and a little worrisome. I’ve read a bit about people’s thoughts on Life of Pi, which I have not read or seen, and about how people are worried that the philosophical depth of the book will be lost. In Les Miserables, there’s a lot less to fear than that – I know what the musical adaptation looks like. I already love it with all of my heart and soul. I haven’t read the book and probably won’t have finished it by the time I see the movie. Still, I’ve heard that Jean Valjean has a new song. I don’t think he needs a new song. I worry they’ve taken out Gavroche or downplayed the Thenardiers or subjected Eponine to far less screen time than she deserves. Or, worse, given Cosette and Marius more focus than they deserve.

But it’s hard to be concerned. A movie can’t ruin a story for me. I hated the third Harry Potter movie, but the third book is still my favorite. What I hope for, though, is something akin to what Lord of the Rings gave me. Those movies are so good, I don’t compare them to the books. The books are their own world, full of intense, meandering descriptions and beautiful language. The movies are a pleasure for their visual appeal and the musical score. I enjoy the later Harry Potter movies, despite the fact that they do not tell quite the same story or inhabit quite the same universe as the books.

There’s something about the relation of books and their movies that I relate to the various stories told in comic books. I can read and appreciate six different Batmans and never get bored. I enjoy each story separately, and while the knowledge of one increases the pleasure found in the next, these stories are regularly not about the same Batman, or the same Gotham. They are tweaked interpretations, and they are made the better for their differences and the skill that is used in relating their similarities.

That’s something like what I expect from movie adaptations. I expect to be told a story about a somewhat different Frodo, a somewhat different Jean Valjean. These stories enhance each other because the two different interpretations give rise to a conversation between artists, which in turn gives rise to conversations between all members of the audience.

Those are my thoughts for today. Now, I’m off in search of a conversation between Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman, because it happened on Halloween and I have to believe there’s a video of it somewhere on this here wide-world interweb.

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Cookie Catastrophe

About a week ago, my better (or worse, I haven’t decided yet) half had to scramble to sign up for a CPR class last minute. Something about how he’s a little scatterbrained and the college we go to is a little bit unable to effectively communicate with its students, ever. He and the lady who helped him out had what I presume was a joking conversation that went something about like this:

“So, you’re a culinary major?”

“Indeed. If you help me sign up for this class, I can bring you some baked goods!”

(My dialogue skills are the most amazing thing, I just had to show them off.) So Jon told me I should make her something, or maybe he just told me about the conversation and I got really excited about the idea of making her something. Either way, the next time we went grocery shopping, I picked up some sugar cookie essentials and got to work.

The first problem occurred to me about halfway through creaming the butter. I realized I didn’t have cookie cutters, a rolling pin, or a large enough flat surface area in our teeny tiny itty bitty kitchen to actually roll the dough out. No big deal – I could wing it. I’d used a glass cup on the cookies I made a few weeks ago at my parents’ house. Granted, I’d had a rolling pin and my parents’ gigantic kitchen island, but I always put faith in my improvisational abilities when it comes to baking.

The next problem came when I realized that we didn’t have nearly as much butter in the fridge as I’d originally thought we had. I’d picked up shortening and enough butter for the cookies, thinking there was plenty in the fridge for icing if I made it 50/50 butter/shortening. Not the best way to make icing, but not the worst.

The worst way to make icing being the 25/75 butter/shortening ratio I ended up actually using. Shortening, especially in large quantities, gives icing a filmy texture that lingers on your lips and tongue. I like it in a very small amount, probably because I ate a lot of Wal-Mart cakes growing up, but when the essential flavor of butter is cut down so extremely, it ends up feeling like you’re eating sugared up melted plastic.

My third and final problem came right after dumping 6 of the 7 necessary cups of flour into the cookie dough, because those 6 cups were the absolute last of my flour (and it wasn’t even my flour, it was my roommate’s). So the batter ended up way too sticky. Frustrated, I put the dough in the fridge to chill, hoping that would firm it up a bit, and got sucked into Minecraft until 4 in the morning. (That is totally unrelated to the story at hand. Oh well.)

Next day, the dough was still too sticky, but I had a few ideas I thought might work. A) I remembered that my knife kit that came with school actually DOES have cookie cutters in it (HUZZAH!). … There is no B.

The dough seemed about as sticky as a rich bread dough, which I actually really like working with. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I laid down some confectioner’s sugar as flour and cut down on the icing (this is before I realized my icing would be trash). My roommate came up with a different idea – he crushed up several cups of graham crackers as fine as he possibly could and we used that as flour instead. It gave the cookies a not entirely unattractive bumpiness, making them look like snickerdoodles. It did the trick, and when the cookies came out of the oven, the added flavor of the graham crackers made them quite delicious.

We decorated them with thin layers of my more-shortening-than-icing-icing (it’s not so bad in a thin layer, as it just adds a bit of sweetness). The twelve I planned on giving to the lady who helped Jon we decorated with crosses and various symbols I found online related to CPR/first aid. They turned out super cute, and Metcalf (the roommate, if I have not introduced him), came up with the sweet idea of writing ‘Thank you’ on one of the cookies. We put those away and still had about fifty more to just play around with.

I was pleased.

Thursday morning, however, I was pissed. I decided to try one of the cookies with my morning coffee. Gone was the soft, graham crackery delicious confection of yesterday. In its place, my teeth met cruel stone. I had to dunk the damn thing in coffee for about fifteen seconds before I could bite into it, and even then, it’s flavor was gone.

I couldn’t give these cookies to anyone, not even my very worst enemy, let alone a woman who had helped Jon get into a class he needed. I was furious. I had wanted, so many times, to throw the whole thing out and start again – but I couldn’t. We didn’t have the resources and I didn’t have the time. But at each step along the way, I’d thought, no, these won’t be what I wanted them to be, but they’ll be cute, and they’ll be decent, and if they’re presented right, the lady I’m giving them to might not even suspect that they didn’t come out exactly how I wanted them to.

And now there are about three dozen stones in my fridge dressed up as cookies, coated with filmy plastic that even the most devoted sweet-tooth would not want to consume. They’re not terrible when dipped in coffee, but all-in-all, they’re a colossal failure.

We made cinnamon rolls in class yesterday, so I had hoped to deliver this lovely lady I had never met warm, fresh gooey sweet rolls – she would never know about the cookies, but damn it, she would have some baked goods delivered to her. But she was gone by the time I got out of class, and Jon, convinced that it didn’t really matter since the whole conversation was kind of a joke anyway, didn’t seem to get why I was so disappointed.

Even though I will likely never meet this lady, and even though she would not have known that I made them, there is something quintessentially satisfying about giving somebody baked goods you made yourself. They’re a treat. A fresh cinnamon roll or a well-made, adorable sugar cookie will put a smile on most anyone’s face. It will make them feel good, and the thought of that makes me feel good. It’s one of the reasons I love this major. I have always enjoyed bringing treats to family get togethers. I have always enjoyed baking, but until recently, it’s just been one of those delightful things that comes with the holidays. Now, amazingly, I get to do it all the time. I cannot say how many times in class I stop, look at what I’m doing, and get almost giddy about it. It’s like I’m getting away with something, somehow. I’m doing something special, something I have always loved doing, and I’m getting credit for it.

So not being able to deliver that lady her baked goods has me disappointed. Failing at those cookies so terribly (cookies I could have easily made years ago, before the concept of culinary school had ever entered into my consciousness), has me somewhat disappointed. But I wanted to share this story because it illustrates how much I love this major. I feel so blessed to be here, and one of these days, I’ll get to work at a bakeshop (or even own one!) and feel the joy of sharing baked goods every day.

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In defense of a gross habit.

I am a smoker.

If nothing else, it’s a conversation starter. Sometimes people fling abuse at you – smoking is the perfect habit if you want strangers telling you you’re disgusting, because somewhere inside of you, you know they’re kind of right but it’s downright irritating nonetheless – and sometimes people ask you why you smoke, or when you plan on quitting, or how many times you’ve tried, or they try to give you advice. They’ll tell you stories about people they know who quit cold turkey and how they really respect those people, and they’ll throw passive aggressive comments about will-power and absolutely anything you think to say gets thrown back at you as ‘just an excuse.’

My favorite response is, “You know that’s bad for you, right?” Because I totally didn’t go to grade school in the U.S. in the ’90s and have D.A.R.E shoved down my throat like everybody else. If you want to know what’s bad about smoking, you don’t have to look very far to find out. And, for the most part, a lot of the horror stories are accurate.

My teeth are a little yellow. I lose my breath quickly and easily. I smell like a smoker and you do not want to be around me before I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning. I do have a voice in the back of my head that tells me to quit and I come up with about four different plans a month for doing so. I’ve seriously attempted it once and I couldn’t do it.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the good I’ve gotten out of smoking, because yes, there is some good. It can be hard to hear, and hard to listen to, and I’m not advocating that anybody start smoking. I would advise against it, but that would make me a hypocrite. What I want to say is this: smoker’s smoke for a reason. It doesn’t make them lazy. It doesn’t mean they lack will-power, and it doesn’t mean they didn’t pay attention to the warning on the label.

I started smoking around the middle of my freshman year in college. I was going through a rough patch. My grades were horrendous, I couldn’t stomach food, I couldn’t seem to find it in myself to make friends and I was incredibly depressed. It’s a period of my life I don’t like talking about, or even thinking about, but it happened, and I started smoking during the worst of it.

And I started to claw my way out of the mess.

Some of the benefits of cigarette smoking include a reduction in stress levels and an increase in short-term memory. Before becoming addicted, these two benefits markedly improved my life. Because I couldn’t smoke inside, I got out more. Not having friends, I spent a lot of my time at the local coffee shop simply doing homework. Smoking helped me concentrate on school work, and smoking helped me learn to socialize.

You see, that’s another benefit of smoking – other smokers. You can always bum a cigarette from a stranger, and you’re always happy as a smoker (at least I am) to have someone sit down and ask for a smoke. Maybe you talk for a few minutes, maybe they simply smile and thank you and move on. But either way, it increased the smiling in my life. It increased pleasant social interactions and took away the anxiety in talking to strangers. I felt more relaxed than ever before.

By now, three years later, smoking has become an addiction. As an addiction, the calm I get from cigarettes is no longer totally relaxing, but merely a way to stave off an artificial irritation with the world that I would not experience so frequently if I hadn’t started smoking. A lot of the time, I don’t notice a cigarette.

Sometimes I do, and sometimes it’s lovely, and sometimes I still get the nicotine buzz. It still helps to relax me around strangers and it’s a good way to get to know co-workers a little better. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s not something I’m ashamed of, either. Cigarettes were the cornerstone is my struggle out of depression, and for that, I can never judge another smoker, and I work to ease the judgment that they face in the eyes of non-smokers.

But the main thing I love about cigarettes, the main thing I have always loved about them – as far back as I can remember, even when I was a little kid, watching my grandma smoke in her apartment – is the smoke itself. In fact, that’s why I started writing this post.

I have a dark curtain over my window in my bedroom, because waking up to bright light gives me a migraine that will last all day. A little sliver of light does come in, though, right over my computer. Right now, I am smoking a cigarette and watching the way the smoke catches in this light, swirling and dissipating as if on a flat screen. The tendrils of smoke are graceful and fascinating. They catch my eye and hold my gaze and remind me that there is beauty in the world, wherever you look. It’s hidden behind the ugliness and frailty that is so easy to focus on as a human being. It’s everywhere, if you open your eyes.

I can’t make any sweeping declarations about quitting. I used to do that a lot, and if there’s anything that smoking has taught me, it’s humility. There are certain weaknesses as a person that are not so easy to overcome, and those weaknesses are no reason to be harsh. Harshness does not help them to go away. Smoking has taught me to look closely at what I am capable of, and has taught me the true meaning of will-power.

So that is my defense of smoking. It’s doesn’t take away the reality of how unhealthy the habit is, both for me and for those around me. It doesn’t take away my fear that I will never be able to quit, or the voice in the back of my head that is constantly telling me I should. But it’s a plea for everyone to acknowledge that gross habits don’t make gross people, and sometimes the only way to deal with a fault is to be gentle with it and try to understand that, no matter how unappealing it may seem, that fault is a building block of how a person has learned to survive a harsh and beautiful world.

So, yes, I am back to blogging.