Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I Was a UFO Hoaxter

I got started when I took up kite-flying as a calming activity. My life had been frenetic, stressful, and I had given up a bad habit recently, so I bought a sturdy delta-winged kite.
Since '86 I've been looking for the pre-packaged box kites I was most impressed with as a kid; surely imported from Taiwan those days, with tremendous lift and stability and unique in that they have no obvious"wings" but the paper panels forming part of the sides of the rectangular box. I haven't seen them in years, and I keep putting off making my own. But a good tested delta kite will be all right.

I experimented with nylon monofilament for fishing, 5- and 10-pound-test line, but settled for the reliable 15 or 20. I bought about 15 rolls of 400-yard line as my hobby progressed.
I remember one sunny, breezy afternoon tying a few successive spools together as I played out my kite to a height of about 1,200 yards or about 2/3 of a mile out. A pair of brown eagles came from over the horizon once I got up to about 600 feet; I guess they were checking out to see if they had some local competition. Cautious that they might actually attack, or at least tumble my kite, I quickly played out about 400 more feet of line and outclimbed them. A small Piper from the local airstrip came by to check things out.

I toyed around with it in those days. I would try to see how high I needed to fly it to make it disappear completely. I got self-conscious, once, because I knew I looked odd, out in a field holding an invisible string attached to nothing that could be seen. And flying an invisible kite loses it's fun, even if I was breaking my own altitude records in the process.

I didn't have any fancy reels, just a homemade large can I wrapped and let out simply. It took forever to reel that kite back down from 2000 feet. I remember the first time getting impatient, and then I realized I was having such a cool time, I didn't care if it took a while to reel in and go home. I learned patience.

One night I drove through some backstreets to a field that abutted a main road, though you couldn't get into the field there. It was dusk; I parked my car behind some weeds, and by the time I got my kite up in the air it was dark out. I don't think the moon was visible.
I played out about 1,000 feet of line, got out a little tiny cheap flashlight I'd bought in the grocery checkout lane, and taped it onto the string with some duct tape. It made the line sag somewhat, but as it rose up the kite caught a higher lift far above, and pulled that little light straight up another 600 feet.

It looked very cool. The kite was completely out of sight in the dark heights, but the light quickly became a point, a pixie of light unlike any usual thing seen in the night sky. It was no bird, plane, swampgas, helicopter, star, or balloon. Just a slightly jittery, shimmering little light in the sky.

I didn't know the building far across the field and across the road was a church until the service ended, and people started coming out of the front door of the church, chatting with each other, heading for their cars in the parking lot beside the building. One person saw it, then a few more started pointing up at it in the sky, and talking. I was too far away, about 250 yards to make out any words, behind some weeds, leaning on my car in the total darkness, and I was being quiet. Their voices sounded really alive, kind of loud, but that wasn't it, it was a tone of curiosity, a murmur of unafraid excitement and interest... mystery.

It's interesting to me how about half the people there took one look at it and didn't linger at all; they walked straight to their cars and drove away, almost nervously it seemed to me. The other half of the people stood out there, pointing up at the little light, talking to each other for over 20 minutes, slowly drifting to their cars before the last two couples stayed a few more minutes, watching and talking quietly. The other couple started to their car, the man calling over his shoulder to his friend, "Well, I hope you figure it out!" and the last holdout looked back up into the sky, but his wife grabbed his arm and I barely heard her say to her husband, "Come on, honey, let's GO."


Careful shoppers often note that spaghetti and elbow macaroni are the least expensive pasta choices at the grocery store. I'm looking for the novel mouth-feel of the oddballs, though: rotini, or shells, or even wagonwheels. Remember them? I want a sauce-grabbing and interesting little pasta morsel in my mouth, and I see I have to pay about twice as much to get it. That's right, almost double the price. Even angel-hair spaghetti is about twice as much as regular spaghetti. If they made little fish-shaped pasta morsels, which I want, I bet they'd charge three times as much.
So let's look at the cost to manufacture this. Commercial (industrial) pasta dies, the pieces made to force the dough through, have evolved. They used to be made of copper, by hand; then bronze. Higher speeds, greater forces. Hundreds of pounds of pressure, forcing that stuff out at greater and greater speeds. The factories got more efficient. Hardened steel dies, finally. There's a whole science of manufacturing the dies for pasta-making plants. So I assumed the weirder pasta pieces had more complex and expensive parts to make them. That might be reasonable.
Except for the weird anomaly of elbow macaroni. This stuff is twice as complicated as spaghetti, at least. It's hollow, for one thing, making the extrusion significantly more complicated. And they have to make sure it has that 90 degree bend in it, the "elbow." Not so simple, really. Surely a simple rotini is less expensive to make.
But note this: elbow macaroni has a lousy "mouth feel" to it. It's not that great. No sauce or cheese really goes far into those thin tubes, it's no better or worse than spaghetti, and like regular spaghetti, inferior even to"thin spaghetti" and noticeably less rewarding to eat than "angel hair,"which although requires smaller dies, is really pretty damned simple even in a cost-conscious factory.
The reason regular spaghetti and elbow macaroni are least expensive is not because they are cheaper to produce, it's because they aren't that great.And I'm pretty sure they COULD sell me rotini at the SAME LOW PRICE, they just WON'T. Those bastards.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Year Without Cheese

In August of 2007, I decided to go a year without cheese. I had just gotten my cholesterol report back from the doctor; and I'm overweight by some 20 lbs.

In the early '80s or '90s I read about an actress who lost weight by a simple "no cheese" diet. Uncomplicated, and not excessively sacrificial or forbidding. Simple. Merely not eating cheese.

After one year of that, and making no other lifestyle changes, I had dropped 10 pounds. Now I'm doing it again. This time I'm experiencing even greater social pressure to eat cheese. People overreact; waitstaff raise their eyebrows.

Then, I was not a fanatic. I recall two or three pizzas I allowed myself during that year. Maybe one or two other violations such as a broccoli casserole serving at Thanksgiving. But I quit buying the stuff and pretty much quit it for the year.

I drink skim milk, eat yogurt, cook with butter. I don't eat a lot of sour cream, but it's allowed. Just cheese.

I ate less fast food in those days, cheese experiment or not. Nowadays, I eat out a bit more. It has become a challenge to go cheeseless, but I have. It's interesting how much easier it is to judge the quality of the burger, without the cheese. I am becoming a fan of the slaw-and chili burger.

Just like last time, I allow myself a couple of exceptions occasionally. I had tacos with cheese for my birthday, and have had one frozen pizza since August. Next pizza will be pepperoni and mushroom and olive, no cheese. I eat a lot of tacos and other Mexican food, and order them all without cheese. A lunch wagon pulled up where I work recently and I asked the lady what she had without cheese. With a worried look, she rifled through her stash of lunch and said, "They all have cheese!" She talked me into getting a taco and simply removing the cheese, which I did. She gave me a price break!

I've been all over the internet reading various others' tales of no cheese. Almost every one of them expresses big regrets: we love the stuff. Vegans, vegetarians, dieters and cholesterol-lowerers, lactose intolerent, candida and yeast sufferers, and low-thyroid people. They are mostly expressing a melancholy sadness relating to this sacrifice. It seems to be difficult, a "last thing on the list" that they were able to quit; the thing they love the most.

A humorous take on the "Cheesocracy."
I've lost some weight already, but have not been on scales yet. More on this when I find some and weigh myself.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stupid is as Stupid Does

I would like to take this opportunity to comment on a common tactic employed by many, such as TV's Columbo, but more often used by a certain sort of unregenerate Son of the South. I'm talking about the tactic of deliberately appearing to be stupider than one is. This is often a reflexive habit, honed into such persistent usage it becomes almost unconscous in its employ. I assume the prime role model in this behavior is Andy Griffith. In this fictional display, Andy appears to be a hick, and beguiles the bad guys into letting slip some critical piece of intelligence, thinking he won't pick up on it. But he does! This is because Andy is sly.
I believe the practitioners of this habit, even though they believe they are emulating a smart fellow, have practiced this routine so much that they are in danger of actually becoming the thing they think they are pretending to be. Like your Mama said, if you keep making that face it'll get stuck that way.
Besides, I asked myself a while back, how smart do you have to be, and how smart is it, to constantly make people think you are an idiot, anyway?