Monday, May 31, 2010

Prosciutto e Melone

Cantaloupe wrapped in Prosciutto-- I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: BETTER THAN BACON CHOCOLATE.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


I have a theory that the places you found mysterious in your childhood will always be more mysterious to you than new any place you are first acquainted with as an adult, however interesting that new place is.

And by "mysterious," what I really mean, in most cases, is "terrifying."

When I was little, family vacations mainly consisted of visiting relatives, and they all lived in houses older than the one I grew up in. The advantage to living in a house that only dates back to a few years before you were born is this: you can be pretty sure no one is buried in the basement. I didn't even know such a thing was possible until I read that book about Bernie Magruder and the Bessledorf Hotel in which Bernie discovers a body under the dirt floor of the basement. Thanks a lot, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor! Our basement was concrete, so even if there were bodies under it, they were not going to come up through it, which was of considerable concern to me. Other people's basements were another story entirely -- their basements, their houses, and in some cases the entire property the house was on.

In the case of my great-aunt's house, I remember finding quite a lot of things distinctly creepy. Again, this is partly due to reading. In seventh grade we had to do a poetry project, and I accidentally read a poem called "Ghost House," which starts with this:

I dwell in a lonely house I know,
That vanished many summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

I immediately thought of my great-aunt's house and the crumbling old barn foundation behind it. The poem goes on to describe the situation of house with alarming accuracy, and then casually throws in some "mute folk" whose names are written on gravestones and who wander around "slow and sad." To this day I still cannot separate my idea of the house from the feeling in that poem. Although I absolutely do not believe in ghosts, I do believe in poetry, and the poem was very effective in creeping me out. Thanks a lot, Robert Frost!

But the ghost house was only one of many, many things that scared me. Let's talk about the pump house. I do not have any reliable memories of the pump house, I could not draw you a picture of the pump house, I am not totally clear on what the pump house is all about or if it's still in use. But just the words pump house make me think of a dark, spider-filled shack on the edge of a dim pine forest, with a deep black hole inside that might -- yes, of course -- have someone in it. The only good poem I ever wrote involved the pump house and its aura of doom, and because of that I now find it more foreboding than ever. Thanks a lot, Simon!

Was the inside of the house safe, at least? Goodness, no! First of all, someone at some point decided that a nice decoration for the study (where my sister and I often slept) would be a flying squirrel. Stuffed. I mean taxidermied, to be clear. It hung from a hook in the middle of the ceiling, body a bit bigger than a bat's, webby wings all stiff, nefarious thoughts going around in its head. I could not sleep in the same room with it. People kept telling me that it was dead and therefore couldn't hurt me. But there ain't no "therefore" about it. In the world of my childhood, bunnies could suck the juice out of vegetables and there were such things as tesseracts. It didn't seem out of the realm of possibility that the squirrel was not permanently dead and frankly I found it a bit naive of everyone to think it was.

That was the main threat on the first floor. On the second floor, I fell victim to the misapprehension that the rat closet was for rats, not to keep rats out. Oh, how I wish someone had made that clear a bit earlier on. But that was a comparatively small problem next to the fact that the north bedroom (where my sister and I also sometimes slept) contained the creepiest portrait on the face of the earth. It was this . . . girl. I do not know how to describe her so as to adequately communicate the fear she inspired. Her hair is ratty, first of all, and her whole demeanor is plain shifty. She's posing for a portrait, but she's not looking at the painter like a normal person. Her eyes are aimed at someone outside of the painting whom she is clearly plotting to murder, and her mouth is craftily turned up in delight at the thought of it.

Now, Freud tells a story about a time he caught a glimpse of himself as a reflection in the window of a train compartment, and his first instinctual feeling, before he realized he was looking at himself, was vehement dislike and distrust. This is supposed to demonstrate the state of being of "uncanny" -- when something familiar becomes unfamiliar and threatening. I think Freud would say my problem with this painting is that the model, if she ever existed, was once my age and is now dead, as I will be at some point, and it's the fact that I identify with her yet can't conceive of sharing her fate that makes her absolutely repugnant.

But that's Freud. My opinion is that she's a psycho-killer. Run run run run run run run away.

Recently-ish, this house changed hands. Last weekend, my sister paid a visit. On Monday, she called me mysteriously and said, "I have something for you," but she wouldn't tell me what it was, because she "wanted to see my face." Advice: if anyone ever says this to you, run run run run run run run away. It means the Girl Murderer has tracked you down.

Apparently my cousin found her face-down on the dresser below where she's supposed to hang. Here is the conversation I imagine happening:

Cousin: Someone must have been scared of this or something.
Sister: Yes! Yes! It was my sister!
Cousin: You want it?
Sister: Yes! It will bring her great horror!

And so it did. Thanks a lot, guys! I made the mistake of leaving it face up on my desk and every time I go by it gives me the shivers. It would be significantly less scary if I could figure out what it was -- who painted it, and when, and, for God's sake, why. But it's some sort of reproduction, there's no signature, and nothing on the back of the frame. It's like she came into being on her own just to scare the crap out of me.

I have to admit I became slightly reconciled to her while studying her for clues, but squirrels will fly before I hang her up in my house. She'll be face down in a drawer where she belongs.

Further developments here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fancy Footwear

I have a friend from California stopping through Rome in a few weeks and she asked me what sort of footwear the Italians were wearing. I made it very clear that as an American, and especially as a Californian wearing flip flops EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR, blending in here simply wasn't an option. Roman women somehow manage to navigate tourists and cobblestones and insane motorinos all while wearing the highest high heels.

And when they're not wearing stilettos, they seem partial to these eyesores:

I think your euro is better spent on gelato and birkenstocks.


Gelato with pine nuts. Pizza al taglio with zucchini flowers.

I can only hope lunch will always be this lovely.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This draft . . .

. . . has some problems.

Monday, May 24, 2010


For some reason local dishes come up every time I'm chatting with my roommates, and they've been very good about letting me know what I should sample while out and about-- the cappuccino down the street, the brioche and gelato across the way, the cacio e pepe near work, and the one dish everyone seems to fear: tripe. I know we've discussed tripe on three separate occasions, but I promptly forget the ingredients, as one is much better off thinking of espresso and pizza than things like tripe.

Saturday evening we ended up at a party with a buffet, and someone suggested I try the local dish in the brown bowl. I was all "when in rome" and got in line. As I was putting some on my plate an Italian woman looked at me and said "brava! mangia!"... I have two interpretations of this event: either she was excited I was trying something as disgusting as tripe, or she was mad that I took the spoon-- sarcasm in other languages is difficult.

I handed off the serving utensil, consumed my tripe and then asked the roommate what exactly I had put in my mouth. And with his response I can safely say I won't be eating it again. Tripe has the charm and texture of raw chicken skins in a nice tomato sauce. All I could think of was an episode of Taste of America about chitlins . The tag line was "Martha Lou's Chitlins, 100% poo free!".

Here's hoping the same sort of quality control for the Roma version.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Disease Week: Beriberi

Here at Simon & Ivan we take our blog very seriously and approach all posts with dignified scientific detachment and profound gravity. As evidence please take this conversation in which we finally hit upon a suitable Disease of the Year:

SIMON: oh man
pellagra: the disease of the three D's
dermatitis, diarrhea, and dementia
holy crap, no pun intended
and it gives you amnesia!
IVAN: how about jumping frenchman disorder
ooo pellagra
sounds exotic
SIMON: jumping frenchman disorder?
what is that?!
oh my god: beriberi: it makes people walk in "a sheep-like fashion"
yes-- that one
the sheep one

Yep, we picked "the sheep one." It is not the most gruesome thing ever, but it has a great name and it involves walking like a sheep, and that's all we require of our favorite things, including diseases.

Beriberi has been around for at least 4,000 years. It comes in two varieties, wet and dry, like cat food. The dry kind affects the central nervous system and causes paralysis, and the wet kind affects your heart and makes you swell and gives you a fever.  So, there's no good kind, and even if you get better you might end up with Korsakoff's psychosis. Symptoms of Korsakoff's psychosis include apathy, amnesia, ataxia, lack of insight (I do not understand how this is a symptom), and confabulation. According to our friend Wikipedia, confabulation "is the spontaneous narrative report of events that never happened." In short: the sheep disease can make you crazy.

The sheep disease has nothing to do with sheep, actually. Plague, Pox, and Pestilence speculates that "beriberi" may come from the Malay word for "sheep" because the paralysis makes people walk strangely. I'm not honestly sure how a human being could walk in a sheep-like fashion even if he or she wanted to, but I will leave the experimentations up to our loyal readers. Please report back, preferably with video.

Beriberi is caused by thiamine deficiency, which is why it tends to afflict populations who subsist mainly on rice. Thiamine is found in the hulls of rice grains, but if the hulls are too efficiently removed, all the thiamine goes with it. It is particularly bad when the process is mechanized and the grains are rinsed or "polished." This in combination of a diet that includes a lot of raw fish, which counteracts thiamine, is not good. As you may expect, Asia was a marvelous place to develop a thiamine deficiency right up to the 1970s. Others at risk are those who are extremely active and alcoholics, the first because they use so much energy, and the second because they can't absorb thiamine very well. The book also observes that "an alcoholic may fail to consume a wide variety of foods," but even cereal is fortified these days so I don't think that's a good excuse. If you live on a ship, in an asylum, or are in the military you should also watch out (only applicable to readers living in the nineteenth century).

In the 1930s, an American chemist named Robert R. Williams figured out how to synthesize thiamine, and after that we were well on our way toward vitamin-fortified food. In the United States, flour is now enriched with thiamine so that we don't all die. Alternatively this may be a communist plot, like water flouridation. If given the choice between communism and walking like a toothless sheep, I will take communism.

What have we learned from this? Eat lots of different stuff. The number of diseases in this book that come from dietary deficiencies is really alarming. Then again, quite a few also come from crop fungi, so you could also take away the message that you're damned if you eat and damned if you don't. An early runner-up in the contest for Disease of the Year was ergotism (that's ergotism, not egotism, a condition also manifesting in lack of insight), which comes from a fungus on cereal crops. It makes your skin blister and your blood vessels constrict -- so that's one vote against eating. Meanwhile, the jumping Frenchmen disorder mentioned by Ivan above, seems only to occur in lumber camps -- one vote against lumber camps, which I didn't even know were a threat.

As for pellagra, I think we know all we want to know about that.

Go ye forth, fair readers, and diagnose! Or just accuse! As long as you get to say "beriberi" at least once a day, it's all the same to us.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Disease Week: Frigyes Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull

Preliminary notes: This is really quite gross in some parts. Also, I have taken dreadful liberties with the quotes and strung distant sentences together in a most unprofessional manner—otherwise this would have been longer, and it's already very long.

I’m not sure why this gruesome book instantly appealed to me when I read a review of it two years ago in Book Forum, but it stuck in my head, and when it unexpectedly turned up at a used book sale last month, I latched onto it and guarded it possessively all the way to the counter. The coincidence of finding it so unexpectedly made me suspicious of further unlikelihoods, namely that there could well be another person in this obscure little town yearning for a 1939 Hungarian brain tumor memoir, and I might have to fight for it. I can say now it would have been worth it. It is marvelous.

I don’t know much about Karinthy, since he was Hungarian and I read a regrettable lack of foreign books, but the internet tells me this much: he was the first person to propose the theory that any two people on earth can be connected in six steps. In other words, without him we would not have The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. However, I believe he had other, more notable achievements, such as being a well-known writer and humorist (or, as someone joked to him, tumorist). At the time of his illness, he was so beloved in Budapest that the newspapers published updates of his ongoing brain surgery in Stockholm. Also, he translated Winnie-the-Pooh into Hungarian.

I would really just like to type the entire book into this box so that you can simply read it for yourself. In addition to having a splendid sense of humor, Karinthy does not gloss over the more vain and silly and superstitious aspects of his nature, without which anyone’s narration of such a trial would be unbearably saintlike. Moreover, his imaginative temperament seems miraculously well-suited to this subject. His account goes beyond the surrealism of simply having a brain tumor to begin with, into hallucinations and dreams that seem like they should be inexpressible—yet he manages to express them. And he manages to elevate episodes of fainting and retching to that bizarre other world in which impossible things, like brain tumors, happen and are nearly fun to hear about. This metaphor is overused, but it’s really like having Dante as a guide through hell.

The process starts out when Karinthy hallucinates the sound of a passing train. This progresses to peculiar sensations of unreality, headaches, fainting spells, and being unable to walk straight. At some point he goes to visit his wife who is studying at a clinic—the sort of clinics they have in Fitzgerald novels—and is shown a few of the unfortunates confined there. After meeting a man with a brain tumor, he diagnoses himself: “The pale, vacant face of the dying man reminded me of my own expression as I had seen it lately in my mirror while shaving. With a foolish grimace, like a man who pretends to belittle some achievement he is boasting about, I said to my wife: ‘Aranka, I’ve got a tumor on the brain.’”

Aranka mocks him for being a hypochondriac, telling him if he had a brain tumor he’d be retching and fainting. He does not mention to her that he has been doing exactly these things, because he doesn’t really want to have a brain tumor. But inevitably, bits and pieces of the diagnosis come together. He ends up back at his wife’s clinic as a patient, a depressing irony: “On that very staircase I had stood three weeks ago. I could not rid myself of the notion that the trouble began only when I spoke about it. Not only was it born at that moment, but as a direct result of my having given it a name. The anxious, eerie sensation that weighed on me as I passed down those echoing corridors was exactly like that experienced by a criminal revisiting the scene of his crime.” Throughout the book he uses a rather clever metaphor of the patient as a suspected criminal. After his first foreboding examination, the doctor wears the “expression a judge might have when called upon in his official capacity to try a friend on some serious criminal charge. For the life of me, I could not defend myself, though I felt certain I was innocent.”

Skipping on, he ends up going to Stockholm to be operated on by a famous neurosurgeon named Olivecrona. I imagine travelling by train from Budapest to Stockholm with a nauseating and disorienting brain tumor must have been pretty awful, but he seems to have slept most of the time and had extremely symbolic dreams. One is a series of vignettes in which he’s looking for something, and although it’s quite obvious he’s looking for his tumor, and he knows it, there’s always something in the way of his expressing it. For example, he has a long discussion about it with Al Capone, who has stolen it and kept it in a strong-box—but “all the time, the rascal would pretend we were talking about the Lindbergh baby.” It’s worth noting that Karinthy read a lot of Freud.

Onward to the grossness! Finally he gets to Stockholm and meets the famous surgeon, Olivecrona. After several days of delusions and increasing blindness, Karinthy gets his operation. He is less than eager to have it because they can’t use anesthesia and he is supposed to try not to pass out. They wheel him into the operating room, whispering together in an aggravating manner. Then they start trepanning his skull to drain the fluid from his brain cavity. This is the part where you truly begin to admire his fortitude: “There was an infernal scream as the steel plunged into my skull. It sank more and more rapidly through the bone, and the pitch of its scream became louder and more piercing every second. I had just time to say to myself that it must be the electric trephine. They needn’t have bothered to be so discreet about their whispering . . . !” I honestly, sincerely, completely unsarcastically cannot imagine not throwing up or going unconscious at this point. And that was just the drilling of a little hole.

Next, Olivecrona removes parts of the skull: “A straining sensation, a feeling of pressure, a cracking sound, a terrific wrench. This process was repeated many times. Each cracking sound reminded me of taking the lid off a jam jar.” At this point Karinthy starts thinking specifically of ways to remain conscious, and begins to be annoyed that no one seems to be paying much attention to him. “How much longer were these gentlemen going to fumble about in my skull? Couldn’t they do me the honor now and again of telling me what they were doing with my head? After all, I had been invited to this party, too . . .” Operating on the brain without anesthesia doesn’t hurt because there are no nerves in the brain, but as Karinthy observes, it doesn’t seem right: “It was impossible for a man to be lying here with his skull open and his brain exposed to the outer world—impossible for him to lie here and live. It was impossible, incredible, indecent, for him to remain alive—and not merely alive, but conscious and in his right mind. It wasn’t decent or natural.” Then he starts thinking about ducks.

He does eventually go unconscious, but the operation is successful, the tumor is benign, and he wakes up later that day. However, it somehow seems to him that twelve days have passed, and he becomes extremely irate that everyone is lying to him about how long he has been recovering. “I felt a bitter grievance against the world. Did they think I was going to swallow anything now, just because my brain had been operated on . . . ?” He is peevishly indignant through much of the book, which is both understandable and amusing.

The tale of woe winds down rather quickly after the surgery. He recovers his sense of taste, and although Olivecrona suspects he will not regain his sight, he regains it while still in the hospital. He becomes teary-eyed at everything, and tries to communicate to a Swede with gestures how beautiful life is. She thinks he wants to know where the bathroom is. He is also reunited with his sister, whom he hadn’t seen since she moved to Norway some twenty-five years earlier. It’s all very nice, which is why you shouldn’t read the introduction, because Oliver Sacks spoils everything by telling you he died of a stroke a year later.

I wouldn’t like to say something as insipid as, “It was all worth it because this is such a remarkable book,” but I do feel that way a little, and I think Karinthy would be tempted toward that interpretation as well, seeing as he spends entire sections talking about how “every life-history is at the same time a novel of a life” and his sustaining “self-dramatizing instinct.” My favorite part of the book is when he tries to impress Olivecrona, and demand his respect for the arts, by putting an unusual spin on the whole tumor business: “Perhaps this mysterious tumor, despite its apparent work of destruction, wanted to become something which would turn out eventually to man’s advantage, but for the present wished its purpose to remain unknown. . . . These tumors might be the first rudimentary attempt, whether conscious or unconscious, at supplying man with some new organ which would direct his evolution on lines as yet unsuspected. . . . Perhaps, acting on secret orders from the pituitary region, it had devised a plan for a new human sense. Perhaps it was preparing an organic electroscope, an organic antenna, or I know not what device . . .”

Olivecrona nods politely and gets away from him as quickly as possible. I, on the other hand, wish there were more.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Disease Week: Like Shark Week, but Horribler

Friends, it has been too long since we talked about really horrible diseases.

Sure, the plague comes up every once in a while, but as a dread disease it's kind of lost its novelty. We do talk about schistosomiasis statistically more often than probably any non-medical blog on the internet, but it's been two years since that was really a theme here. And there was that botfly scare Ivan had last April, but it turned out to be poison oak, which doesn't count.

I propose the following. First, I shall post a book review of Frigyes Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull, which is a memoir of the famous Hungarian writer's experience of having a brain tumor in 1936. (I say "famous" because I am told he is.) Believe it or not, it is pretty funny. I particularly like the part where Karinthy sticks it to a friend who doesn't believe he has a brain tumor by producing the exact evidence the friend demands. And the friend, seeing the evidence, is like, "OH." And Karinthy is like, "Somehow winning this argument does not lift my spirits." Don't worry, he lives. Otherwise it would be less funny. Anyway, I shall post this on Wednesday or Friday, depending on how quickly I finish it.

Second (or first as the case may be) I shall announce Simon & Ivan's Disease of the Year, chosen from that delightful tome: Plague, Pox, and Pestilence: Diseases in History. (Side note: I recently had occasion to use a wonderful etymology site to look up words with a Greek root of temnein, "to cut." These words tend to have -tom- in them, like anatomy, lobotomy, tracheotomy, phlebotomy, tonsillectomy. I learned three things. (1) "atom" basically means "unsplittable." Oops! (2) "tome" is the least alarming word coming from this root, and (3) you should not just Google any old word that has a Greek root meaning "to slice and dice the human body" because while curiosity may not kill the cat, it may make the cat want to hurl. I have since diagnosed myself with tomophobia, a fear of surgical operations.) So after a consideration of the candidates and consultation with Ivan, you can look forward to learning something new and disgusting that, if all goes well, will make you regret reading this blog. Hopefully this does not include Ivan, to whom I have not yet divulged my plans. Surprise, Ivan! She is always diagnosing people with brain lesions, so I think she'll be up for it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Note to self.

By "fill two-thirds full" what they really meant was "fill half full; two-thirds for monster cupcakes."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Simon vs. Seasonal Fluctuations in Temperature and Humidity

I have two bottles of allergy-relief eyedrops, 60 Mucinex, and 500 Ibuprofen. Bring it, Spring.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


One of these things is not like the others . . . anymore.

Last night I was innocently watching McLeod's Daughters and saying things to myself like "I must have a dairy cow," and "Wait, that's disgusting, I must never have a dairy cow," and "I want to live on a farm," and "Wait, that's disgusting, I don't ever want to live on a farm," when I was suddenly startled out of my indecisive internal monologue by an unpleasant BOOM. And then another unpleasant BOOM.

Away to the window I flew like a flash, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a large vehicle across the street, on the sidewalk, having just taken out a parked car and a column of the Masonic Temple. The large vehicle then veered around in the road, which fortunately had no traffic in it (we shut down at nine o'clock in this town) and went out of sight.

It turned out he only made it about three yards before pulling over on the wrong side of the road. I strongly suspect drunkenness, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say he's epileptic. Since the firehouse is next door, the street was soon full of firefighters, and then all kinds of other people came, and there were lots of flashing lights. Then some guys stood around for a while looking at the column. I can only imagine they were repeatedly saying, "Dude!" to each other because what else is there to do in such a situation? Then it started snowing. Weird night.

At some point between then and now, someone thought the best way of dealing with the column was to remove the middle part (which was lying pathetically on the ground like part of a Greek ruin), put the base back in place, and pretend that the Masonic Temple now possesses the mysterious ability to be partly invisible. If only it also had a forcefield like the USS Enterprise, this whole thing could have been avoided.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


Had reason to Google beard growth today. Came upon this gem: "Growing a beard has been traditionally viewed as a masculine activity."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Quest for Loquat: Update!

My year-long quest has finally been realized. The Italian supermarket carries Loquats.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Pasta from scratch . . .

. . . is much easier to make than it seems like it should be. But it is exactly as time-consuming as it seems like it should be.

Helpful hint: when you do it, you should always invite six other people over, or you will not have enough hands. I think there was one point where we needed everybody. Of course, if you were practical you could just cut the dough into shorter strips and it would be easier. But then it wouldn't  be the exercise in team-building that it has so much potential for.

Another helpful hint: own a lot of large bowls for hanging the pasta while it dries. Also apparently useful: clothes racks and the backs of chairs. Another option would be to not quadruple the recipe. But then you wouldn't be able to feed your workers, and they might revolt, and there goes all the progress you made on team-building.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Someone once told me that the number of keys on your key ring was directly proportionate to the amount of bs in your life. Since one of these is a bottle opener, one of them looks exactly like the bottle opener (bonus points for opening an actual door), one of them is a key straight out of Batman, and the 8GB titanium thumb drive doesn't count as bs ever, I'm counting actual keys here as one... and life as pretty much awesome.