I was raised proper, by which I mean a proper appreciation of language in all its splendor. Our family did not exclusively fawn over the most flashy words, nor the most humble. We took delight in using descriptors of all stripes, including those reserved for the bawdy house. Within the panoply of adjectives and expletives, I learned at my mama’s knee how best to decry, offend, verbally defenestrate.

We practice our art with caution but devotion. It’s too easy to rely upon the ugly but poignant “Fuckwad,” so we reach for more interesting ways to express distaste. “Blithering, emo, wuss-tastic fuckwad” is, to my ears far more interesting, and importantly, more precise. “What is the fuckwad doing?” Blithering. It’s all right there, sewn up in a tidy package. “What kind of fuckwad is he?” An emo fuckwad, who aspires to such far reaches of wussiness that he’s wuss-tastic.

I guess it’s always been this way. I got damned to hell by my best friend in second grade because I said “damn,” a bit of irony that was lost on me since I neither knew what “damn” meant, nor what this place called “hell” was all about. Was it near Mount Olympus? Did Zeus live there? If so, I really wanted a date with Cupid, the Roman hunk of “Cupid and Psyche” fame and Eros’ doppelganger. I was only eight, but I knew hotties when I read about them. Plus, he had wings. That’s pretty awesome.

Once my son Milo was born, I valiantly razed my language to the realm of modestly offensive, and then further into the dull confines of Vanilla Soft Serve Ice Cream once we belatedly realized that Milo had a real knack for language too. Instead of wusstastic-ness, I have become enamored of completely antiquated charmers like “Sweet Fancy Brown!” and “Good grief!” I don’t say “Gosh” or “Gee whiz,” but the words “Criminy,” “Dangit”  and “Oh, crumb,” feature often in my mild expletives.

And let’s face it, expletives help. You drop your groceries: what do you do? Thank the heavens for giving you one more challenge in your already ridiculous day? No. You curse, blurt, spit, and then you pick the frozen strawberries up and move on. If I couldn’t do that, those groceries on the ground might just send me around the twist, and I would lie down next to them tearfully, wondering how I used to manage to get through my day at all.

But I’m not stupid. Not very, anyway.

I know that there’s a time and a place for everything, and first grade is probably not the place for a seven-year-old to be yelling “Fuck off, ______!” at his friend who had just told him to go to hell. I realize this is probably a little raw for the playground out of the mouths of babes. I really do.

So after telling Milo that it was inappropriate and he wasn’t allowed to say words like that, I created a mutual disciplinary response to the elegant but perhaps misplaced use of “Fuck.” (I mean, syntactically, Milo nailed it: “Fuck off!” was the perfect response to someone who just told him to go to hell, and if he was fifteen it wouldn’t have raised any alarms.)

So I created the “Potty-Mouth Pot,” the bank into which we must pay our debt to the gods of expletives and curses. It’s a blown glass jar displaying our shame for all to see: Milo owes twenty-five cents for every use of the span of “grown-up words” (which linguists might argue are a badge of the truly immature); I owe a dollar.

Why the disparity to the potty-mouth pot? Because to teach the lesson well, I figured that we needed to identify who was winning the contest and who was losing. Each dollar bill was so much easier to separate from the quarters my son reluctantly placed in the jar that we could, by taking a quick glance, estimate the winner.

This is also known as “hubris.”

The first day went predictably. Chastened by my admonishment but also soothed by the admission that I too suffered the curse of cursing, Milo and I paid our first debts to the pot together. He was testing the boundaries of our agreement. Did “Damn” fit the requirements? Yes, but “Dam-age” did not. He paid a quarter for “Damn” but not “Dam,” and he was terribly proud of finding the workaround.

I symbolically paid my first dollar into the kitty. (“What’s the kitty?” he asked. Same thing as the “pot” in poker. Now we’ve introduced gambling terms.) Even though I hadn’t said a single blue word, I felt I should make the point that I would be fair and honorable in the contest, that he could count on me for holding up my side of the bargain. If he had to pay, so did I.

The next dollar I shelled out was when I was on the phone: I said “Damn” to someone and Milo shrieked “YOU OWE A DOLLAR! YOU OWE A DOLLAR!” I gamely paid up, neatly folding my dollar and placing it in the jar.

Then he said “Hell,” and I had to wrestle him for the quarter he was loathe to part with. He cried as he let it tinkle to the bottom of the jar, separated from its mate by only two single bills, and Milo begged me to change the rules of engagement. His bereft display confirmed my impromptu but cleverly crafted lesson from which he was suffering the consequences in a real and tangible way.

Depressed over the loss of a third quarter, Milo bemoaned our arrangement to his father as he was going to bed one night.

“Don’t worry,” Lars said. “Mom will lose. I guarantee it.”*

Aside from the fact that I married the male version of Mata Hari, this information was enough to give Milo a renewed sense of purpose and hope.

He mastered his reliance upon potty words with the zeal of a convert. After his third quarter went in the pot, he was done. Not a single verboten word has passed his lips, though he has danced playfully around acceptable substitutes.

I have not been so fortunate. It turns out it’s mitochondrial. While I have, in general, turned an about-face on the real dirt-bombs, I seem incapable of eradicating the basic building blocks of interesting language: damn, hell, crap are so intrinsically bonded with my molecular material that they are woven into the fiber of my tongue. I cannot, apparently, get rid of them. Like herpes, or gout: there for the duration, like it or not.

My son has learned valuable lessons, too. He has learned the skill of secondary hearing, which eluded him until now. I used to beg, scream, shout, dance in front of him, block the television, pull his socks off–whatever it would take to get his attention. Now I don’t need to worry. If he’s engrossed so deeply in a book that I could throw a hockey puck at his head without him flinching, all I have to do is drop my guard and talk like my DNA tells me to and I have Milo’s undivided attention. “Potty-mouth!” he shouts with delight as if being revived from a coma. “You just said a bad word! Pay up, MOM!”

He has three quarters in the bottom of the Potty-Mouth Pot. I have at least thirty bucks in there. But who’s counting?

Don’t answer that.


*Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not even the star player on the potty-mouth stage. Grandma, from who I learned everything I know, talks like a trucker with a fatal case of gutter-tongue. Even now, with her adorable Grandma walk and her devotion to baking holiday cookies, she blasts the room with language dripping with so much ooze it’s amazing people let her into nice places. Colorful, descriptive, eloquent and utterly demented, she shames all pretenders to the potty-mouth crown with their pedestrian lack of creativity.

So I found it both charming and ridiculous that after Grandma heard about my struggle to reign in my gutter mouth, she paid up one lowly quarter to Milo in the interest of making a good impression…even though she had outshone my every utterance in front of the boy in two short hours over dinner.

A quarter.



Note: This story is from six years ago, but it is a holiday tale which speaks to any era. As a personal aside, “The Bun” is our toddler, who got that name from being a “Bun in the Oven.” That kid has years of therapy ahead of him.


Every Christmas is a misadventure in gift-making in the hopes of saving money, but this year I thought I would go out of my way to come up with something really special. And when my husband and I went to an amazing dessert place, I noticed they sold a box of four brandied cherries for nine bucks. FOUR CHERRIES. Nine bucks. I don’t question the quality of their cherries, but nine bucks seemed like a lot of hay for four little chocolate-dipped confections.

“I’ll make chocolate cherries for Christmas. If this place can sell ’em for nine bucks a box, surely I can give mine away for free!”

I began doing my research. I didn’t have a recipe and all I could find were separate pieces of the puzzle: a recipe for brandied cherries, without chocolate. Maraschino cherries instead of fresh. Finally I found a recipe that sounded right but there was honest-to-god canning involved and I was intimidated; I’ve never canned anything, and little gift boxes of botulism probably don’t go over very well. So I found a recipe for the cherries which involved only hooch, sugar, and the cherries themselves, dumped in a jar and allowed to pickle themselves in wanton boozy splendor.

Cherries are hard to come by in the middle of December. I’ll bet you haven’t looked lately, but if you had you would discover that cherries are either mangy, ludicrously expensive, or altogether absent. I ran against all three problems in my quest, but finally found a pathetic little bunch for ten dollars a pound at a specialty store. I doused them liberally in brandy.

It was about this time that I realized that the brandied-cherry process takes three months. THREE MONTHS! I didn’t have three weeks! I began to foresee a little time crunch, and unless I could build a time machine in the next few days, my cherries were going to be ready in time for a little Easter giving.

I needed to can them after all.

Back to the stores trawling for fresh cherries, which included me learning when produce deliveries were made. Each potential triumph was met with disappointment: the cherries were supposed to arrive Wednesday, then Thursday. I called the produce guy: no cherries until Saturday, and maybe not until next week. Time was of the essence, and I was losing hope. My cherries were a dream unfulfilled.

I gave up. I was just going to have to bake some stupid cookies or something.

Ready to move on with my life I walked into a store to pick up some victuals, and there, like manna from heaven in a glistening pile of blood-red fructose, was the answer to all my drunken holiday dreams: Chilean Bing cherries for $7.99 a pound. I should have bought them all, but in my travels I envisioned another tortured nut-job racing from store to store looking for cherries and I had pity on them. I left some behind for the next sorry sap.

I was ready to can. I had the cherries. I designed the labels. I bought boxes and little candy underpants for the finished confections. All systems were go.

To evaluate my process, I looked at the website of the dessert place where this seed of discontent had germinated and read the description of their cherries:

The house specialty! These bad boys have been bathing in Kirsch since June! They then take a dip in fondant and finish with bittersweet chocolate.

I read it again: fondant.

What the hell is fondant?

There was some mystery component called “fondant” which was the answer to my drunken cherry nightmare. Back to the internet I went, searching high and low for a definition of fondant and how I could get some, fast.

Each answer provided more questions. Fondant was the icing on those crazy Martha Stewart wedding cakes which look like they’ve been shellacked. But what was icing doing in my drunken cherries? It was a solid that turned into a liquid and made cordials gooey inside. Okay, great, gooey cherries, but how the hell do I get some?

After reading thirty websites and parsing out half-literate directions, I realized that fondant is confusing because fondant is all things to all bakers. It is the icing on the cake and the buttercream filling in Mrs. See’s candy. It is the sugary goo in the cordial cherry and the totality of the after-dinner mints in the restaurant. It is everything, and nothing at all.

It was too zen for me. But I had come too far, invested too much sanity, and spent too much money on cherries to let a little sugar come between me and my drunken confection.

Now we were treading in true candy-making waters, a dark, perilous path which, unlike cooking, has little margin for error and lots of scientific voodoo surrounding it. I was never very good at science. I read up all I could, and bought myself a candy thermometer and a scraper. I dug out a marble slab from a table which had gone into deep storage since The Bun arrived.

I put him down for a nap, and I began to boil sugar.

The only thing I really know about boiling anything is that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. But this sugar needed to boil to a “soft ball” stage, which was supposed to be between 235 and 240  degrees exactly. I had no idea how long that took.

It takes a long time.

The Bun was awake before it was done, that’s how long it took. And I needed to let the sugar cool for a while on my marble slab, which, after waiting an eternity for it to boil was too much for me to resist. As a cook, you’re always stirring and tasting and spicing and stirring again, but this candy thing was achtung about stirring the boiling sugar (“Verboten!”), and now I had to let it cool without meddling with it? It was intolerable. Plus, The Bun was rummaging through a cupboard he had emptied of its couscous the day before, and I needed to get this show on the road before the pilaf met a similar end.

I began to knead my fondant. It was very, very sticky. It did not come up easily from the marble slab. It did not ball up like Silly Putty or Play Dough. It stuck to the scraper. It stuck to itself. It was a complete mess. I powdered my hands with corn starch and began twisting it in my hands, hoping it would begin to harden just enough for me to throw it away, when it began to turn white, just like it was supposed to. It was crazy, it was amazing! I set it down and rescued the oyster crackers from the clutches of the bun. I felt moderately triumphant, and then went about trying to make dinner.

Lars came home to a marble slab covered in sugary tar, me covered in corn starch, and a hungry Bun. I explained the circuitous route by which I came to this point, and showed him my round white ball of sugar which I tapped proudly.

It thudded. It had a weight similar to the heft of cement shoes. It was as white as a cue ball, but markedly larger with a gravity that puts Jupiter to shame. My fondant wasn’t a light confection that was flexible enough to roll–it was hard enough that if I hurled it at someone’s head, it would give them a concussion, if not kill them outright.

Despite this setback (how many setbacks have I had now? Four? Five?), I proceeded along with my plan and canned the second batch of cherries. I’m considering getting more just so I can make sure I’ve got enough on hand to make a fabulously ridiculously enormous batch of chocolate-bloody-covered cherries.

At this point I’m committed. I’ve become a woman possessed.

Now it’s not about the Christmas cheer, or the joy of giving, or the good feeling one gets by sharing a handmade gift of delicious food. Now it’s the principle of the thing. Now it’s about revenge. Now it’s about me conquering a bunch of out-of-season cherries and making them cower beneath my fondant and chocolate glaze.

Happy Holidays.



Epitaph

I have seen my Drunken Cherries through to their conclusion, and there’s no step which hasn’t been met with chaos. As of this writing, the casualty list is: four jars of cherries, three batches of failed fondant, two bags of sugar, a quart plus a pint of brandy, several pounds of chocolate, many afternoons, and most of my dignity.

I never did succeed in making fondant. One batch was stone, one was tar, and after I realized my thermometer wasn’t recording proper temperatures, my last batch crystallized like rock candy. So I gave in and bought some. Of course, it was out of stock when I walked in, so I had to wait yet another day. This is typical of the Cherry Path, and in the end the cherries proved stronger than me: after finally seeing several cherries through to their chocolate-drenched conclusion, most of them had holes which leached goo like the blood from battlefield wounds. Some died on the table. The ones I patched up in triage were misshapen and monstrous looking, more Frankenstein than delightful dessert.

When I was weighing whether or not to package them up anyway, I noticed to my chagrin that they had developed a case of “bloom,” a separation of the chocolate solids, making them even less attractive (if that were possible) and serving as a ringing note of failure in my epic cherry-making disaster. Finally, when I checked on them this afternoon, I found that the remaining chocolate shells had imploded in a tide of cherry effluvia, apparently preferring to take their own lives rather than continue on in ignominy. They expired on December 17th, 2004 around 2:33 p.m. They are entombed forever in two little Tupperware sepulchers.

After I had become obsessed, I penned my version of Heart of Darkness:

My journey into the jungle of confection continues. The walls of candy are closing in on me, threatening to tip me into the abyss of madness. The world runs in rivers of blood-red syrup and stark white fondant, blending in a failure of bad science and too little time.

The natives are getting restless, and I can feel the thrum-thrum-thrumming of drunk cherries, lolling like corpses in their watery tomb of sugar and spirits, condemning me, accusing me. The cold marble slab upon which I sacrificed two balls of fondant lies awaiting me like my own bier.

Each step takes time, and I have none to spare. I fear that I may not survive this trip. I fear the jungle is stronger than I am.

The horror… the horror…

That just about sums it up.

The world shall one day wreak vengeance in retaliation for the current capitalistic blitzkrieg, just as Germany once paid dearly when its own blitzkrieg tactics proved that those tactics could conquer but not hold great quantities of territory.

The nature of power is such that, once unleashed, it automatically rushes towards suicide, unable to satisfy its bottomless desires. In just that way, capitalism will slit its wrists as its conquered territories release themselves from control.

The leader of the post-industrial anti-revolution, the United States, shall cast its gaze upon the earth that once belonged to it and wonder how it all fell apart. But “its” world could only fall apart, and it will fall apart. Until then, we must persist, survive and operate as partisan soldiers.

It would seem impossible to argue that capitalism would, as it has indeed done, produce gross inequities, which could easily have been extrapolated from capitalism’s own mechanistic definition. Yet even Wikipedia’s entry for “capitalism” cannot be agreed upon.

Often, the arguments made for capitalism are supplied by the very citizens most abused and exploited by capitalism. Why such citizens support their enemy can only be attributed to the Stockholm Syndrome. Nevertheless, when illusion and self-deception provide the basis for the post-industrial anti-revolution, everything seems disputable.

Dispute this:

That’s courtesy of a study by Dr. Emmanuel Saez. The hand of the market is anything but invisible, Mr. Adam Smith; it’s right there for all to see, a market skewed towards those who, like yourself, begin their journey to prosperity at the crossroads of prosperity and prosperity: “With the life pension he had earned in the service of the duke, Smith retired to his birthplace of Kirkcaldy to write The Wealth of Nations.

I shall not be unfair and delete that which apparently fails to support my argument. The same source just noted further quotes Smith: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” This is known as condescension and, in a more modern sense, PR and tax deductions. Thus, capitalism, whether or not Smith foresaw the all-too-predictable widget that would roll off the factory line of his theory, capitalizes upon charity itself. Consider the corporations that support the occasional PBS program that indites the very corporation that paid for the program’s production: all PR is good PR, as they say. Perhaps PBS should be re-monikered as PRS.

Of course, wealth inequity was purposefully encouraged, accomplished and secured by President -X and Vice President -X². As Dr. Saez notes, “…while the bottom 99 percent of incomes grew at a solid pace of 2.7 percent per year from 1993-2000, these incomes grew only 1.3 percent per year from 2002-2007. As a result, in the economic expansion of 2002-2007, the top 1 percent captured two thirds of income growth.”

Well, Mr. Smith?

Communism, as understood (or, more accurately, misunderstood)  by those who temporarily had the means to accomplish what Marx intended, failed. The idea that an economic system could operate by some sort of natural law is an absurdity made all the more absurd by the utterly-unnatural industrial revolution. This “orthodox” Marxism was refuted by Marx’s own statements. For instance, consider this from The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed., p. 539): “In one letter, he [Marx] specifically warns against regarding his historical account of Western capitalism as a transcendental analysis of the supposedly necessary historical development of any and all societies at a certain time” [my italics].

While Marx’s writings abound with contradictions, it’s clear that the kind of systematic totalitarianism enforced by those who pursued “orthodox” Marxism had little to nothing in common with what Marx proposed. The Soviet Union’s economic system was nothing more than a less-subtle means of exploitation than capitalism would increasingly “accomplish.” In those italicized words, one can finally not glimpse Adam Smith’s “invisible hand of the market,” now at last guiding us by manipulations so subtle that noticing a few deserves a Tothotropolis’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fortunately, the entropy of capitalism can be proven an unavoidable consequence of capitalism’s self-definition via  thermodynamic and information theory. In the former, ice melts…entropy as inevitable as death. According to information entropy theory, “Intuitively you can think of entropy being generalization of the number of different possibilities there are for a random variable: if there are two possibilities, there is 1 bit of entropy; if there are four possibilities, there are 2 bits of entropy, etc. Adding one more bit of entropy doubles the number of possibilities.” Thus, the information so necessary to the post-industrial age can only increase the range of possibilities until they reach the point of utter chaos. We have reached that point. We must only await the melting of the ice.

For these reasons, I state without levity that Groucho Marxism*, as defined in the glossary on my blog, Violent Contradiction, provides the basis for the most unorthodox Marxism possible. Reformed communism would, under the guidance of this definition, recognize that any system degenerates into entropy. Trusting in systems is like trusting in one’s immortality: failure is certain and tragedy the natural consequence of hubris.

*Groucho Marxism: To succeed, reinvented communism requires an injection of humor as a preventative measure; dictatorships are humorless.