Tuesday, July 29, 2008

French Chocolate

Like probably everyone who does one of these them there blogs, in the back of my mind there is a tiny little dream that if I designed this thing a little differently, I might somehow hit on a magic formula that would draw hundreds, thousands, even millions of eyeballs to the site. You know, something like ‘Stuff White People Like.’ I’ve thought of doing ‘Things That People Know Are Great But Which Are Actually Underrated Anyway’ (Shakespeare, Spielberg, the Beatles, Woody Allen, Philip Roth), for instance, but I know I’d run out pretty soon and then I’d just be padding the thing and being totally dishonest, and who wants to make a killing being dishonest? (Okay, maybe that's a different entry…)

Which brings me to chocolate. I like chocolate. I do. I’d rather eat a piece of chocolate than I would a piece of fish, or rock candy, or probably most dessert-type options. But I am not in any sense of the word a chocoholic. (Actually there’s really only one sense of that word, I’m guessing…) But see, I know people who LOVE chocolate, people who mush up their chocolate cake with a fork to make the whole thing a delicious pudding that will last longer, people who steal their granddaughters' chocolate when it’s stored in the refrigerator and then have to replenish it later because they simply couldn’t help themselves, people who try to carry it with them everywhere at all times, people who go weak at the site of the stuff. I am not one of those people. (One example of how much I am not one of these people is that I really like white chocolate, in fact maybe even prefer it, which to a true chocolate lover is probably like someone who'd rather watch a baseball game on artificial turf.)

So whenever people used to ask me if I wanted a piece of chocolate, or if there was a piece of chocolate cake being passed around and we were all being given spoons, I would tend to feel slightly guilty – “sure, I’ll have some,” I would think, “but someone else would enjoy this chocolate a lot more than I’m going to.” For the longest time, therefore, chocolate was Item #1 on the list of ‘Stuff I Like that I Know Other People Like More and That I Therefore Feel a Little Guilty about Enjoying, or Even Wonder if there isn’t Something Wrong with me for not Liking more than I do.”

I’m not saying that’s a blog designed to get me a huge advance ($300,000 for 'Stuff White People Like'?!?!), but anyway there it is.

Which brings me to France. Fine country. Beautiful. The light. The food. Wine, if you like that kind of thing. The somehow sophisticated relationship between nature and civilization. And yes, a beautiful-sounding language. It’s all quite wonderful. Paintings. Manet. Monet. The whole bit.

Only guess what? I don’t really like France. I think France is too fancy. French food is too creamy and complicated, and I just basically think the whole place is a little precious. I didn’t buy it. And not that everything has to come down to comparisons, but you know, I liked England better. Always rooted for England in those mid-millennium wars anyway, and just in general preferred the English thing to the French thing. Better Sherlock Holmes than Hercule Poirot. (I know, he was Belgian, but you know what I mean…) Give me London and Churchill and the Beatles, and you can have your Louis Quattorze and De Gaulle and Edith Piaf …. (And I am not even getting into the whole issue of national character, or rudeness, or smell... I'm basically leaving the people of France entirely out of this discussion - just the country alone, it's not for me.)

So when I told friends I was going to France for work for a week, they‘d say things like “Ooooh, I’m so jealous,” and I’d be torn between the cruel sincerity of “Don’t be, I don’t even like the place,” and the purely assholic “Yes, I know.”

Well now I'm back, and you know what my greatest memory of the trip was? Sitting by a road in the middle of basically nowhere – I was told by Nigel the brilliant British filmmaker who was our cameraman that it was the equivalent of a small town in South Carolina – and having a dinner by the side of a country road while the sun was still fairly high in the sky at about 8:30 at night. I had a simple little egg white omelette with onions. (Go ahead, laugh – the lovely French woman who ran the place with her husband and took the order did, as my English was translated into French by David, our crack PA on the trip.) And as the three of us sat and had our meal with the light simply gorgeous, with a little church up the road 100 yards (or metres, sorry), the occasional car driving by, the clouds a glorious glowing yellowish pink overhead... the meal was the greatest egg dish of my life, and I washed it down with a Panache (half lemonade, half beer, all refreshing), and life was about as it good as it can get.

But it got better. Because at the end of the meal, this lovely round French woman brought me a CafĂ© au Lait, and, even though I hadn’t ordered it, she brought me something else: a small, perfect piece of chocolate.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Genius that was Dave Berg

He wasn't really very funny, Dave Berg. His people looked pretty much all the same, and he couldn't really handle anything resembling psychological complexity. When you think of the Giants of Mad Magazine, you don't really even think of him in the top five, probably. (Don Martin, Aragones and his unfunny but undeniably outstanding Spy vs Spy, Jaffee of course, Mort Drucker and whoever else did the satires.... okay, so maybe Berg's fifth, but really he's not in the top three, maybe just the Best of the Usual Gang of Assorted Idiots...)

But for my money, there is simply no comparison in terms of how often in this life, this real, Kaputnikkian life of adulthood and responsibilities, and being a husband and a father and Man in the 21st Century, a cartoon from Dave Berg springs to mind. It happens probably once a week, if not more. Whereas a Don Martin, or an Aragones... well, I'm never walking down the street and have the thought: "Geez, that's just like the time the black spy trapped the white spy by wearing a fake cone on his nose and trapping him under a cement mixer."

But Berg....

The killer, for me, was The Lighter Side of... oh, I don't know, Public Transportation or something. Roger Kaputnik, the Berg hero/alter ego, was sitting on a bus, alone with his thoughts, just pleased he had a two-seat row all to himself. Then he started worrying a bum would sit next to him - 'some bum with B.O.' -- the first I'd heard of B.O., I knew it was bad and pretty much thought it was the DT's, not that I knew what that was either.... Then, sure enough, a bum comes onto the bus and starts weaving down the aisle towards our man. Kaputnik is startled, dismayed - oh, no, he thinks, the bum is gonna sit next to me, and the bum will surely have B.O. But the bum doesn't. Wouldn't you know it, the bum passes him by, and Kaputnik, humiliated, thinks, "Why didn't he sit next to me? What, does he think I have B.O. or something?"

But as brilliant and frankly archetypal as that strip was, as often as I think of it in my daily life (and it's a lot, trust me), that's not the one that has me thinking of Berg this week. No sir, this week is one that drove me crazy as a child, because I didn't really get it, but something about it made me angry. In this, the male hero (not Kaputnik, interestingly - for you graduate students out there anyway) is with a rather knowing and smug black-haired woman, who we take to be his wife. The two are arguing - a rather sharp and unpleasant argument... and maybe he's making all kinds of threats, or all kinds of complaints anyway, about how he gave up his old life for her, he's got his old life he could go back to, all the parties and girlfriends. She tells him he's chicken, that he'll never do it. And the guy calls her bluff, storms out of the house and heads to a local bar. He goes to a payphone and calls up an old girlfriend, he'll show that woman who's boss! We see the guy's face as the girl walks into the bar. "Well," she asks, "what do you have to say for yourself?"

And then the final (of four frames?! Good God, the man was a genius of economy!) shot, the punchline reverse angle: we see the woman -- it's his wife, smirking beautifully -- and the guy, thoroughly emasculated, clucks like a chicken.

I am in the city alone this week. The family is in Maine, having a grand time, my wife and two adorable girls, and as I saw this date looming, this long separation from them (for me, anyway, 16 days but who's counting), I started to fantastize about all the fun I would have alone in New York, the movies I would see, the hamburgers I would eat, the books I would read, the old friends I would reconnect with...

Cluck, cluck, my friend.