Hate Book Club: Real Marriage

Hate Book Club

Recently my friend Patricia and I hatched a crazy idea: a Hate Book Club, where we read books we think we’ll hate, to better understand our enemies and also to enjoy a little righteous anger. Then we’ll each write a blog post about the experience. Looking around for a first book to read, Patricia found disgraced Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, who once called women “penis homes.” He has an entire book where he tells you how to have a happy, successful marriage to a penis home. It’s called Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together. Yeah, there’s an Oxford comma missing in the title, but the insides of the book are worse.

Consider this my book report. At the end I’ll even do a little report card. Here’s Patricia’s version! Compare our hate levels!

Real Marriage

The cover, in case you want to avoid buying it by mistake.

First of all, the book is technically co-written by Mark Driscoll and his wife, Grace. How much this is truth and how much it’s a convenient fiction, I don’t know. I suspect Mark wrote more than he admits. Much of the time they write as one authorial voice. But sometimes the first-person narrator switches from “we” to “I”, with the “I” explained parenthetically. For example, “Were you hoping I (Grace) wouldn’t address this issue…” Confusingly, a third strategy is dropped right in without any explanation, set off screenplay-style with “Mark: [text].” It’s a clunky means of writing a book.

The issue of Grace’s involvement is notable because of the most horrible, hateable chapter of the book, which is not advice at all, but rather the couple’s life story. Grace explains that she had low self-esteem and self-worth as a child and teenager, prone to doubt and mental crises. (Later, we learn that she lost her virginity in an abusive relationship.) Mark sensed this weakness, made his move in high school, and started having sex with her. When he went to college their relationship turned long-distance. He was “born again” for Jesus, convinced her to move to his town, and then delivered the bad news that they couldn’t have sex until getting married. So they got married.

Surprise turn of events: suddenly the sex wasn’t fun anymore. Angry that Grace wouldn’t put out on demand, Mark turned cold and uncaring, killing the mood for years. Eventually, he had a dream that she cheated on him once in high school, and she confirmed it was true. What followed was, I am not joking, an entire decade where he seethed with resentment and anger over her teenage betrayal, while she raised their first child. Naturally, she spent that decade depressed and full of self-destructive thoughts.

And now they’re writing a book about successful marriages. Reading between the lines, you can see that they still don’t have one. In one of their “conversations,” Mark writes that he loves Grace. Grace replies that she “respects” him. Multiple times, Grace admits that the couple are “exact opposites.” When Grace talks about coping with the memories of her abusive high school boyfriend, she describes the fear and shame she felt at the time. But she also describes still having it, explicitly using the words “shame,” “confession,” “redemption,” and “repentance” to describe how she copes today. Redemption for being a victim. Mark shows compassion, but never tells her that a victim has nothing to confess or repent.

Mark and Grace Driscoll inflicting their book on “The View”.

Then there’s the chapter on sex, where it becomes clear that Grace never got over this trauma, but Mark is a total horndog. Her main goal in recovery has been learning to put out more. Check out the list of “Ways We Are Selfish Lovers”: “Rarely have sex,” “Take too little time and too little effort,” “Only have sex when we both feel like it at the same time” (which raises serious consent issues! Mark says “as [women] serve their spouses, God often awakens their desires,” which is a weird way of describing rape), “Rarely initiate,” “Have separate beds,” and “Intentional ploy[s] to avoid sex.” Never once does Mark acknowledge that he could be a selfish lover by demanding too much or being too pushy. Elsewhere in the book, Grace implies that she constantly struggles to will herself to service him. “I read somewhere,” she says, “that if you have sex more, it actually decreases the necessity for frequent sex over time for most men. I tried that but it didn’t seem to change anything for Mark.”

Mark has figured out another clever wheeze: he interprets the story of Sodom as banning homosexual activity, and making gay sex a sin, while letting a heterosexual husband and wife do as much butt stuff as they want. Gee, that doesn’t sound self-serving! In order to protect himself, Mark’s use of words like “reportedly” sharply increases in the section on anal play.

Mark Driscoll, presumably imagining butts.

Some of the advice is good, some of it amusing, and some of it dangerous. A lot of the good advice is basic stuff you could get from any reasonable person (as well as some unreasonable ones, like Mark Driscoll). You know: don’t beat your wife, don’t commit rape, don’t get addicted to porn, cultivate friendship with your spouse, make time for each other, plan smartly for the future you want, sex is not shameful. Good stuff. I should point out that (1) don’t commit rape is really in there, and (2) the reason for avoiding porn is that it will literally kill you. “You will get dragged to death.” “The pulling of death is unstoppable.” Craigslist “casual encounters” are “an on ramp to death.”

And there’s the elephant in the room: evangelical Christianity. The solution to everything is prayer. Even women trapped in abusive relationships are advised to simply pray and trust God. The Driscolls do not believe in divorce. If you’re in an abusive marriage, or you found yourself married to an alcoholic, or some other horrible situation, the Driscolls’ advice is so vague as to be useless: the couple should seek “professional help”. That’s it.

Of course, Jesus was anti-divorce. And the authors proudly quote the Apostle Paul saying this (NIV translation):

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you” (1 Corinthians 7 4-6)

Paraphrased in the form of an explanatory flow chart:

Choose Your Own Adventure! Wait, can you play if you don’t have authority over your body?

Back to the Driscolls. Their prose is actually not terrible, and usually is clear and to the point. There are infelicities, of course, like the above-mentioned narrator problem, Mark’s off-putting sense of humor, or Grace’s tendency toward word vomit. At one point she uses the phrase “popular situational comedies on television”.

But that’s not as bad as some of the “regular people” that Mark and Grace talk to. Here’s the testimony of one woman: “In my own sin, I chose to falsely flatter that which wasn’t honorable in my husband, selfishly hoping I’d get a better experience. My sins of giving way to fear led me to submit dutifully while becoming more enslaved in my husband’s self-focused desires.” What does this even mean? What are they talking about? What were the husband’s desires and how did she plan to profit from them? This “story” is not even a story. It would make more sense if the government in 1984 had written it.

How does Real Marriage stack up as a Hate Book? Well, the parts that offer good advice are boring, mostly because it’s advice that literally anyone in the world could offer to you. In fact, you may grow depressed if you stop to consider why they needed a chapter on sexual assault being bad. Also boring are the frequent and lengthy discussions of prayer techniques and the usual confession, repentance, forgiveness formula.

On the other hand, much of the book veers from frustrating to outrageous. I’ll remember Mark’s enthusiasm for sex acts his wife sounds annoyed by; I’ll remember the one-two punch of an exhortation for husbands not to beat their wives followed by advice for women on how to obey their men. But most of all I’ll remember poor, sad Grace Driscoll, who is so blinkered by her naivete, so damaged by her experiences, and so limited by her chosen faith, that she can preach against abusive spouses without ever realizing that she has one.

The Worst Thing
Grace Driscoll’s life story, which gets more and more depressing as it advances to her present-day tragedy, a fate all the sadder because she thinks it’s okay.

The Best Thing
At one point Mark Driscoll compares a wife’s breasts to a “petting zoo”. After reading that chapter, I went with friends to the Texas State Fair, where they have an actual petting zoo. We went. I could not stop laughing. For the rest of my life, anytime anybody mentions a petting zoo, I will think of pastors getting handsy with their wives.

The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction

This includes both of Colin’s expressions. But mostly Ryan’s.

Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)

Hateability of message: 9
Hateability of writing style: 4
Pleasure derived from hating book: 6


Filed under Hate Book Club

Texas State Fair Report

I’ve lived in Dallas for three Texas State Fairs, and this Saturday finally went. I should have gone sooner. The Texas State Fair is everything you could hope for: fun, silly, huge, full of unhealthy food and drink, and crowded but not scarily so. It was great.

It’s not cheap, however. I spent a total of $43.50, and could have easily dropped much more. That included a discounted entry ticket and 60 “coupons,” which you purchase with actual money and then use across the fair as currency. The purpose of coupons is, I assume, to dissociate you from questions of what’s a fair price. “The fries over there are 14 tickets and these are 12 tickets,” you might say, instead of the more reasonable “Seven bucks for fries?!?”

When friends Lindsay, Ethan, and I arrived, we began a casual counter-clockwise walk around Fair Park. Lindsay hadn’t eaten all day, so we bought her happiness in the form of a giant turkey leg, and then sidled up to the beer tent, which was offering a confusing-sounding experience: funnel cake beer.

Funnel cake beer

Here it is! Note the sugar around the rim.

Specifically, Community Beer Company’s Funnel Cake Ale, a special offering meant to taste like dessert, and served with powdered sugar around the rim. Now, at first the thought of this revolted me, but I realized: hey, you only live once.

Community Funnel Cake Ale, shockingly, does not suck. In fact, it’s not even desserty. “It tastes like beer,” Ethan complained. “I feel cheated.” I think there was a genuine attempt to add sweet flavors. (Community denies using actual funnel cake; their goal was just to get something light and refreshing.) However, the self-respecting brewmasters also added a ton of hops to make sure the sweetness did not run rampant. The combination of bitter hops and sweet sugar turned into an intriguing semblance of citrus, with an acid kick. As a result, when you’re out in the sun at the fair, Funnel Cake Ale is actually one of your more refreshing choices.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Cotton Bowl, all sorts of livestock were on display: horses, steers, mules, multiple aisles of llamas, and piglets.



Stealing the show, probably, was Boris, the 1,270-pound boar. Boris didn’t do much. When we visited, he was lying down, fast asleep. Life is hard when you weigh 1,270 pounds, I guess. A posted sign announced that Boris is on a special diet.

There are more animal-based attractions. You can see the Ostrich Races, which are earnestly corny and feature an emu-herding sideshow and a hilarious race where small children attempt to “herd” ducks. The ostriches have actual adult jockeys who seem sincere when they congratulate each other on a race well-run. Next door is the petting zoo, which has zebras, a “teenage” giraffe, yaks, and several animals I have never even heard of.

The food court doesn’t have animals you’ve never heard of, but it does have animals you rarely eat. The New Orleans booth featured some totally delicious fried alligator, in a gloriously salty and peppery batter. I was unable to track down the critics’ choice for “best taste” (Gulf shrimp and all the traditional shrimp side dishes, smashed into a big ball and fried), but I was able to sample fried Sriracha balls, which are just stupendous. Speaking as a Sriracha skeptic, when you mash it up with corn, shredded chicken, and tomatoes, and then coat it in a crispy tortilla-chip batter, the result is delightful. It’s only medium-spicy, but the lady will hand you a bottle of hot sauce if you need extra heat.

Deep-fried sriracha balls. I will say that $1.50 per ball is not a bargain.

Deep-fried sriracha balls. $1.50 per ball is not a bargain, as shockingly tasty as they are.

Really, only one fried food I tried had a similar expectations/reality ratio. Mom, please sit down before proceeding.

Deep-fried pumpkin pie.

Deep-fried pumpkin pie

Somewhere under that golden crust is a small slice of pumpkin pie.

Oh my god. This is glorious. The pumpkin pie innards are gooey, intensely pumpkiny, the texture of a truffle. And the fried coating is sinful, excessive, ridiculous, and oh so good. Lindsay got the deep-fried s’mores, and I can confirm that this is also stupendous.

Disappointments? There were a few. The “auto show” was not vintage cars, but a shameless showroom of General Motors’ new models. We walked through a weird number of mattress store product-placement areas. The Texas wine booth confirmed my distrust of Texas wines, except for Messina Hof’s red zinfandel. And Austin’s own Eastciders Gold Top, the best hard cider I have tasted outside the United Kingdom, was represented–but $7.50 bought you a tiny little plastic cup, barely half a bottle.

If you get frustrated in your attempt to drink great cider, or your attempt to stand in line for a half-hour to try the deep-fried loaded baked potato and deep-fried bacon-wrapped cinnamon roll (those were served by the same stand), you can always fall back on the State Fair’s greatest pursuit of all: people-watching. It ought to be considered for some kind of People-Watching Olympics. From the dozens of llama owners to the guy who got on a ride twice to flirt with my friend; from the earnest folks with serious faces doling out fried Oreos to this guy who is super excited to meet a zebra…


And he was a complete stranger. He just really likes zebras.

…the people at the fair are incredible.

In conclusion: the Texas State Fair is awesome. Next year I’m going back. And next year I’m going to try to do more.

Spinny carousel doohickey

But not this. I’m happy to just take pictures of this.


Filed under Storytime

Adventures in Wedding Catering

On September 27, I got to attend the wedding of my friend-for-life, Michelle. In fact, she invited me to be “man of honor” – and her groom, Todd, had a best woman. It looked to be a wonderful wedding. Besides the loving, in-tune couple, there was the lakeside ceremony, the tiny guest list, the casual atmosphere, the well-written original vows, and (let’s be honest here) the organizers’ impeccable taste in booze. Everything was kept in the metaphorical family: Todd’s best woman would bake the cake, I would bring the rings to the ceremony, Michelle’s father got assigned decorating duty, Todd’s family knew somebody who knew the officiant, and both bride and groom were good friends with the professional caterer who agreed to supply nibbles.

Until the caterer canceled a week before the wedding.

People have told me it was nice to step in and bring food. That’s flattering, but I don’t know. I never realized that other options existed. I simply thought, “Huh, now I’m catering,” and texted our mutual friend-for-life, Rory, to ask him if he would help. Yes, of course: off we went.

To be sure, our attempt would not be that heroic. For one thing, I recklessly decided not to tell anybody other than Rory, and make the whole thing a surprise. For another thing, there was going to be some food already. Scardello, Dallas’s foremost cheese shop, was providing two big cheese platters with prosciutto, salami, nuts, and figs, and of course there would be wedding cake.

Based on my questions to Michelle (it really helps you plan a surprise if you have a reputation for asking a lot of questions), she had hoped for bruschetta and a few other simple dip-type appetizers. Nothing complicated and no full fancy meals. With a little help from Michelle’s own online directory of recipes idea (thanks, Pinterest!), Rory and I settled on four items:

  • traditional bruschetta topping (tomato, basil, and balsamic)
  • another topping featuring artichoke and parmesan (recipe considerably modified from an original in Southern Living)
  • a dip of white beans, Hatch green chiles, cumin, and garlic
  • oil-brushed, salted, and toasted baguette slices for the three dips

This is probably the most I have ever cooked without using onions. (Well, okay. I used green onions for garnish.)

The bean dip could not have been simpler. Step one: put your beans, chiles, and spices in a bowl. Step two: put them in the blender. Step three: garnish and eat.

Bean dip recipe

Pictured: Step 1 (left); Step 3 (right)

The traditional bruschetta was simple, too, but not easy. For one thing, Rory had to slice about 20 Campari tomatoes (aka “the flavorful kind of tomatoes”). For another, the tomatoes released moisture over time, so that the texture in the bowl started as “bruschetta,” by reception time was “stew,” and today is “lake.” Not that it is really a problem. I mean, lake water was never this delicious.


Mildly terrifying sight for anybody who doesn’t love prep work. Who loves prep work? By the way, paid celebrity endorsement for Global chef knives, although you should use a serrated edge for tomatoes.

Consensus scene-stealer, though: the artichoke dip. No, you don’t need spinach and a hot broiler to make artichoke appetizer magic. Here was the recipe I used (notice that this produces approx. 1 wedding reception’s worth of dip):

What You Need
– 2 jars marinated artichoke hearts
– a standard bottle of grated Parmesan
– two or three Hatch green chiles (or another pepper, like chipotle or poblano)
– a jar of mayonnaise

What You Do
1. Finely chop up the artichoke hearts and chiles. Throw them in a 9×13″ baking pan.
2. Add the whole bottle of Parmesan to the pan (it’s okay to do less, depending on your preferred flavor balance)
3. Mix in 1.5 to 2 cups mayo
4. Bake at 400 (F) for about 5-6 minutes. You’re not looking for it to change color, just to get it hot for a bit. It can be served cold just fine. Give it another good stir.
5. Eat.

This could be eaten with bread, crackers, or by itself on a spoon. To quote my own first reaction to the taste-test: “This is the savory version of chocolate frosting.” Rory adds that it might be great served hot on chicken breasts or pork.

artichoke dip

I like green onions, okay?!?!

The No-Longer-Super-Secret Trick to Killer Artichoke Dip!
Lemonaise. The Ojai Cook’s Lemonaise is a miracle ingredient, the kind of thing you should put alongside shallots, fish sauce, lime juice, capers, and cumin on your Secret Ingredient Shelf. Instead of high fructose corn syrup and the approx. 15 weird chemicals listed in Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Lemonaise is spiked with an acid kick of lemon, a drop of garlic, and a healthy swirl of mustard. You can see the mustard seeds. Sometimes I eat Lemonaise with a spoon. It is the best mayo outside of Belgium, a total delight, and available at Whole Foods, Sprouts, and other fine stores. Seriously, for this endorsement these people should pay me. In jars of mayonnaise.

Uh, did I mention I don’t like mayonnaise? This stuff is the bomb.

Look for this. You know you want to.

Anyway, Back to the Wedding

The day couldn’t have been more perfect. The weather was perfect: a sunny Texas day, without the excess heat. The food prep went without a hitch, which is weirdly fortunate. At lunchtime Rory and I saw Michelle, who was utterly calm. “I feel great,” she said. “I’m not worried about anything anymore and I haven’t felt cold feet once.” She asked what we were planning to do before the ceremony. We said, “Drinking!” She believed us without question, which is a little insulting. But we do keep our promises, so we took care of an excellent South African shiraz during the three-hour cooking process.

The shores of White Rock Lake were a beautiful venue site. Casual, too: runners and bikers kept stopping with congratulations, and some of them zipped through the photos. I believe the photos were great anyway, since there were such wonderful people in them. The ceremony was short and achingly sweet, and in case you’re wondering, the ring looks like this:

Michelle's ring

Not too shabby

The reception was a rousing success. Having only 25 people means that everyone actually meets everyone else–and that the happy couple get to sit down and eat something. They didn’t need to spend two hours working the crowd or shaking hands. The cheeses disappeared instantly, I never saw a trace of the prosciutto, and then people started devouring the bruschetta. And there was cake: Jean Marie, Todd’s best woman, had baked the cake the night before, put it on the cake stand, and then watched in horror as it fell to the floor. So she stayed up until 3:30 a.m. baking a second one.

Somehow I got stuck with the chore, “take home leftovers.” The top layer of cake was whisked off by the groom’s family for safekeeping, but the rest of the cake was charmlessly mashed onto a platter and handed to me, along with about half the bean dip and just under half of the two bruschetta styles. So at this point I’ve enjoyed three slices of Jean Marie’s early A.M. handiwork. Please, if you live in Dallas, come eat some of this cake. You seriously have no idea how much cake I have.

A great time was had by all. Plates quickly filled and emptied. The bride sat down with Rory and me and said, “Everything’s going well. I don’t know where all this food came from.” Rory said, “We do.” Delicious cake with preposterously great frosting was served. Todd gave every guest a bottle of his home-brewed lager. (It’s good.) The reception was over in a rushed 75 minutes, too short, but older family members had to get home and the glowing couple had to go off honeymooning. A hardcore group of celebrants moved to a bar to celebrate our mutual joy with beers.

“Is anyone going to order food?” the waitress asked.

Guiltily, Jean Marie confessed: “I’m starving.”

So the father of the bride bought everybody hamburgers.


Filed under Edibles

Sex Crime in the 21st Century

We didn’t have enough national nightmares already this year, so some anonymous, pitiful men on the internet decided to create another one. This weekend, someone hacked into dozens of celebrities’ phones and stole their private photos. Some are nude selfies, but others are just normal pictures. Now they’re all on the internet. Alarmingly (even in the context of this entire theft being alarming), some of them are labeled “unknown,” because they hacked somebody’s phone and stole nude photos without even knowing who it was.

Now we have graphic, viral proof of America’s woman-hating underbelly. There’s a whole subculture of men out there applauding this and shaming the photo-takers:

“Johnny M. Pozzi” (real name John M. Pozzini) also wrote this on Twitter recently: “Muslims have no sense of humor. They’re too busy worshiping false gods and wearing stupid shit on their head.” [sic] [sick]

Ladies, "Do you have a Reddit account?" is probably something you should ask on the first date.

Ladies, “Do you have a Reddit account?” is probably something you should ask on the first date. Apparently this applies to lesbians too.

Johnny Pozzini’s comment, “It’s not fair that only the guys of your choosing get to see the photos,” made me wonder if this theft is a hate crime. (No: hate crime statutes require the threat or use of physical force.) But the sub-human Pozzini is saying that women do not have civil rights. He’s contending that it is perfectly legal and “fair” for women to have their property stolen, if their property is something that he wants. By this logic, it’s not fair that only Bill Gates’s family gets to enjoy his wealth, so I should take his money.

Of course, few people put that into practice with money. We don’t help ourselves to the rich. But men do this to women, every single day, every single minute, because so many men still consider their fellow human beings to be property. Have you noticed that men are calling this a “leak” while women call it “theft”? This creepy culture of pick-up artists, “Red Pills”, men’s rights activists, and anonymous hackers legitimately doesn’t believe that women have the right to control their property, their sexual choices, or their bodies.

"Wait," you ask. "What is this Red Pill thing you mentioned?" "Ugh," I reply, "did you really want to know?"

“Wait,” you ask. “What is this Red Pill thing you mentioned?” “Ugh,” I reply, “did you really want to know?”

There’s more evidence that these men deny women basic rights. The evidence is that thousands of women, professional sex and pornography workers, willingly offer up their sexualities to this audience. Why would these men rather see pictures of famous people? Because they’re famous, and because they’re unwilling. Stealing the private sex lives of famous people is pretty damn close to rape.

And it’s not like pornographers are falling short of demand. You can find that stuff for free in about a billion places, often professionally shot, well-lit, in focus, and in high definition. These celebrity nude selfies are definitely not professional. I’m about to describe some, and I apologize if this offends you, but you can’t understand just how stupid, offensive, and aggressive this theft is without seeing at least a description of the stolen articles.

To the pond slime of the internet, “you’re famous” is more important than “you have rights,” “you’re a human being,” or even “you take hot photos.” Why else would they be clamoring to see Kate Upton naked, but seated right in front of a lamp so she’s a grainy dark blur? Or a photo of Upton, fully clothed, eating yogurt? I’m pretty sure none of them thought they would be downloading a photo of her boyfriend, pitcher Justin Verlander, passed out on top of his bed, pants around his ankles, his shirt failing to cover his smooth, shaved testicles. (That photo raises another question about consent. Did Verlander know the picture even existed?)

In other words, the photos are boring. They’re worthless except as shaming devices and weapons. If they belonged to non-famous people, nobody would care. If they came from a porn company, nobody would buy them. The reason they have been leaked is that men in our society believe that if a woman becomes famous, she deserves sexual assault.

So to summarize, we have a lot of famous people taking uninteresting photos of themselves, some of them sexual and all of them private. Then we have anonymous hackers who believe they are entitled to see these photos, because the famous people won’t publish them, and that’s unfair. The hackers steal this property for men everywhere who feel no guilt enjoying it. They blame the victims (why did you leave it somewhere hackable?), shame the victims (why did you take these photos?), and loathe themselves (we needed to see them because we’re undateable).

It’s fashionable to say that sexual assault perpetrators “objectify” women. But “objectify” is not the word for what has happened with these women (and Justin Verlander’s shiny balls). They’re the victims of a theft and an assault. Ironically, the men who downloaded these photos out of lust also downloaded them out of hate. They hate that women are no longer subjugated. They hate that women are sexually active. They hate that women have rights. They hate that women are human beings at all. There is no graver threat to the citizens of this country.


Filed under Ill-Informed Opinion

How to Taste Not Enough Alsatian Wine in a Thunderstorm

1. Plan to visit the Alsace in mid-July, and, as part of your kamikaze attempt to enjoy as much of France as possible in 13 days, schedule a single weekend for it. Spend the first night in Strasbourg and budget just one Saturday for traveling the Route des Vins south to Colmar.

2. Enjoy Strasbourg. It’s a great city, cozy and cosmopolitan. Also, it’s pretty.

Please take a moment to consider that for some people, this is the morning commute.

Please take a moment to consider that for some people, this is the morning commute.

3. Get a primer on Alsatian cooking. Jambonneau, a.k.a. ham, is likely to be served as what appears to be an entire leg, slow-cooked to tender perfection. Flammekueche is an extremely-thin-crusted pizza with lots of salty ham, giant onion chunks, forest mushrooms, and Emmenthal cheese. It’s kind of addicting. Mostly the side dishes are potatoes.

4. Take the train south of Strasbourg on Saturday morning. Exit at Gertwiller, known throughout Europe as France’s gingerbread capital. Discover that the gingerbread kind of stinks. It is chewy and the sugar frosting cancels out the ginger tang, making the fabled Alsatian gingerbread taste like glorified donut holes.

5. Walk in disappointment along the Route des Vins towards the next villages, Barr and Mittelbergheim, which compensate for the disappointing gingerbread by being pretty, friendly, and in the middle of the Saturday morning food market. Grab some snacks, then wander through the Grand Cru vineyards surrounding the villages.

A Grand Cru vineyard between Barr and Mittelbergheim. Thunderstorm approaching!

A Grand Cru vineyard between Barr and Mittelbergheim. Thunderstorm approaching!

6. This is the part where the first thunderstorm should pop up.

7. Run back to the train station and duck under the small awning while you wait for the train. Stand next to a bunch of French ladies carrying their shopping from the morning market.

8. Take the train to Dambach-la-Ville, where the rain is continuing. Duck into literally the first wine tasting room you see.

9. Drink lots of wine samples. You will be offered a spittoon to be a pro wine taster who doesn’t swallow the wine. Never use it. Who do they think you are?!

10. Learn the classification system. Most Alsatian bottles specify the Grand Cru vineyard from which the grapes originate. These vineyards, like Frankstein and Zotzenberg (which I walked through), are often shared by different wineries, or the grapes are bought up by merchants who create blends or do the wine-making elsewhere, after trucking off the harvest. The best, most exclusive bottles are often only US $20. Good ones start for under $10, although in my experience, the wines were both hugely diverse and rather uneven.

11. Grab lunch and wander around town.

Lavender and grapes outside Dambach-la-Ville.

Lavender and grapes outside Dambach-la-Ville.

12. This is the part where the second thunderstorm should pop up.

13. Hide and take shelter in somebody’s garage until the rain is letting up (approx. 30 minutes).

14. Time is running out on the afternoon, and you have a concert and World Cup game to catch in the evening. Catch the train to Colmar.

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Filed under Storytime

Mad Scientist Mr. Sax

Adolphe Sax is the most important musician in Belgian history, because he invented this:

Cannonball Adderley. He invented Cannonball Adderley.

The saxophone became a bonus instrument in classical orchestras, serving as garnish. But it took off in America and the rest of the world as the iconic jazz instrument.

But you know all that stuff. What you maybe don’t know is that Adolphe Sax also invented these:

Mr. Sax's Magical Emporium

Mr. Sax’s Magical Emporium

Sax was a sort of mad scientist, inventing all sorts of crazy new stuff to see if it worked. And here’s the thing: they mostly sounded pretty darn good!

I was lucky enough to arrive in Brussels during the Musical Instrument Museum’s Sax exhibition, containing hundreds of original instruments. The MIM paired select instruments with recordings, and your audio guide (a little tablet thing) could play all of them into your headphones. The results were fascinating, and often bizarre. An early “slide saxophone,” for instance, built the same way as a trombone, sounds grotesque. On the other hand, a non-sliding trombone sounded pretty terrific.

I'm kind of amazed this is not a more popular trombone today.

I’m surprised this is not a more popular trombone today. Aside from that it looks silly.

Sax is, in some ways, a creative artist the likes of which we no longer have. In response to requests from performers and opera houses, he would frequently invent new musical instruments. Composers would work with Sax to create new sounds that only existed, up until then, in their imaginations.

Sax wasn’t always a success. He was sued twice by rival instrument-makers hoping to kill his patents, and he went bankrupt twice. And then there’s the fact that a man who invented dozens, maybe hundreds of new designs, prototypes, and sounds is remembered nowadays for only one. A great one, though, which received an early celebrity endorsement from the composer Hector Berlioz.

Brussels is not a city loaded with tourist attractions, unless you’re a big fan of the European Union. But the Musical Instrument Museum, with its audio guide taking you through the sounds of history, is a huge plus, especially housed as it is in a gorgeous century-old art deco department store. And the Adolphe Sax special exhibition, on now through October 2015, is a marvel. The man may have struck gold only once, but that doesn’t mean he only created one instrument the world needed. It’s more like he only created one instrument the world was ready for. We could use more people like Adolphe Sax.

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Robin Williams, the Lost Clown

Robin Williams was one of our most gifted character actors. His best roles revealed a nervous sadness that was too close, maybe, to the truth.

The best of Williams’ characters were broken people, trying to find ways to heal themselves. In Awakenings, Dr. Sayer is a loner and a timid man who seems to have no life outside his work. The next year he played another doctor, in Dead Again, who lost his license and went adrift: “OK, I slept with a patient or two. It’s not like I didn’t care about them. I loved being a doctor.” Late in his career, Williams specialized in overt melancholics, like the mourning professor in Good Will Hunting, the stalking, creepy Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo, or a father wracked with grief in World’s Greatest Dad. Even when he was funny, Williams suggested something darker underneath. His performance in The Birdcage is notable for the way it’s so out-of-place. Everyone else in the film is outrageous, over-the-top, absurd, cheeky: Williams, known as the most over-the-top comedian of his era, barely cracks a smile.

From “The Birdcage”

Of course, Williams was known for being funny. He was manic, a comedian, a clown, who started in the world of stand-up and made a cocaine-fueled transition to showbiz with the nutty sitcom Mork and Mindy. When I look around the internet, most of the obituaries I see refer to the hits, movies like Patch Adams, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I loved those as a kid, but not as an adult. His worst comedies always revealed a desperate need to entertain, to be liked, to draw laughs. When you watch the parade of impersonations in Doubtfire, Williams seems like the class clown in school, who just craves popularity.

That’s close to true. Williams craved something deeper. His best comic roles acknowledge this: they show the loneliness, the need to connect. Can there be any doubt that Good Morning Vietnam stars Robin Williams playing a depressive? Adrian Cronauer, radio personality: a manic improviser, spinning joke after joke without even pausing to breathe, entertaining everybody he comes across. I’ve known people who hate the movie because they think that’s all there is to it; they think it’s a crass Vietnam comedy. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are also people who believe that, because Louis Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World” over a montage of destruction, Good Morning Vietnam is a straightforward anti-war movie. That’s closer to the truth.

From “Good Morning Vietnam”

Adrian Cronauer (in Williams’ portrayal) is another lonely man, trying to escape a shell he built around himself. He desperately, even creepily, pursues a love affair. He befriends a local boy and is betrayed when the boy turns out to be Viet Cong: but the betrayal he feels is not patriotic. It’s personal. You can see it at the end of the film, when he seems to have lost something dear.

The movie reveals its hero’s manic comedy as a cover, a facade, for deeper needs. It’s a deconstruction of Robin Williams’ entire career.

Initial word is that Williams committed suicide, at the end of a life troubled by depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. It’s deeply sad–and it’s even sadder because we can see so much of his struggle on-screen. Williams’ career was defined by the weird split between performances that buried his pain in silliness and spastic joking, and performances which were as emotionally naked as anything by De Niro. They shared a screen in Awakenings, when De Niro played a medical patient revived from a vegetative state by Williams. It’s an underrated movie: both actors are at their most intimate and truthful.

At the end of World’s Greatest Dad, Williams strips literally naked. That’s something we don’t really need to see. But so many of his performances are things we need to see: they speak to human insecurities about belonging, about loneliness, about connecting with other people. The performances speak for that kind of person who finds seemingly simple things like love and trust more difficult than the rest of us do. They remind us of the way we too often let our public persona drift away from our true selves.

Robin Williams was an essential artist. He was a study in defense mechanisms–and in removing them to face the truth.

From “World’s Greatest Dad”

P.S. In 2013, Robin Williams did an “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit. One user asked: “i’m going through a bad time at the moment. Any advice for people out there like me who may be going through bad times themselves, for whatever reason?”

Williams answered: “Reach out to friends. They’re out there. And know that you are loved.”

Please remember that.

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