What I Have Learned from Cupcakes

Birthday Cupcake

“Mini me” cupcake

Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes

Pumpkin pie cupcakes

If someone who knows me were to play word association with my name, he or she might come up with editor, blonde, or short, but not before cupcakes. My obsession with cupcakes started five or six years ago. I blame artist Wayne Thiebaud, whose thickly painted pastries really captured my imagination. (I even wrote a short story about his piece Pies, Pies, Pies.) Though not a cook or even a baker, I follow recipes, hope for the best, and post photos of the results.

Unicorn Poop Cupcake

Unicorn poop cupcake

Today is my birthday, so it seems an appropriate occasion to reflect on my relationship with these classically celebratory confections. Here are some lessons that cupcakes have taught me about life and dessert:

  1. Sometimes, the icing on the cake is literally the icing on the cake.
  2. Making a mess is much more fun than cleaning it up.
  3. Our creations inevitably fall short of our imaginations.
  4. Even if you visualize something over and over, it will never happen exactly that way.
  5. Having an obsession makes it easy for people to buy you gifts you’ll love (“Oh my God! Cupcake dish towels!”).
  6. Measure twice, bake once.
  7. Always keep chocolate in the house.
  8. Think on your feet (and wear comfortable shoes).
  9. Push yourself beyond what you know you can do.
  10. There’s no shame in having an entire drawer of sprinkles (or an entire cupboard, room, or wing of the house of whatever you treasure or collect).
Graduation Cupcake

Graduation cupcake

Ultimately, for me, cupcakes are about spreading joy. As I say on my neglected Twitter page, I love baking cupcakes for family, friends, friends of friends, friends of family, and anyone who will make yummy sounds while eating them.

And I always bake a few extras for myself.

“Aardvark Bowling” and Other Poems

aardvark bowling

While on a plane this week, I perused a year-old issue of Writer’s Digest. (I’m a little behind on my reading.) An article about a type of poem called the glosa, which originated in Spain in the 15th century, caught my attention. The author had made his own attempt at the form, which reminded me of how much I used to like writing poetry—imaginatively articulating thoughts and emotions through rhythm and heightened language, seeking and (hopefully) finding the words that most perfectly expressed my subject’s essence.

Aardvark Bowling

“Aardvark Bowling”

Scrabble

“Scrabble”

When I arrived home, I pulled out a black three-ring binder containing materials from a class I took over a dozen years ago, called “Writing from the Collective Unconscious.” I vaguely remembered composing most of the pieces (for example, “Scrabble”) per a number of inspiring assignments. For instance, in an exercise on surrealism, we were instructed to write the letters A to Z on a piece of paper and then record the first word that came to mind for each. We were then asked to choose two consecutive words from the list to serve as the title of a poem. (See “Aardvark Bowling.”)

At my instructor’s invitation, I read the following poem, “Luxor,” at a community arts event. I began writing it in the food court of the Las Vegas hotel of the same name.

Luxor

As an English major, I “explicated” (interpreted and explained) countless poems. It occurred to me years later that analyzing a poem was like dissecting a frog—examining the parts in order to understand the whole. In a high school classroom, a frog is dead when it is taken apart; I wondered if the life left a poem when it was analyzed. To be on the safe side, I decided not to cut up any more poems.

Now I just enjoy their music and experience their meaning.

Authors Should Need a License to Write Metaphors

And I mean that literally, not figuratively. The author of a manuscript I edited recently loved metaphors, but she used them poorly. Her implied resemblances between unrelated things tended to be convoluted and to confuse more than clarify. Moreover, they were trite (life is a tapestry) and often mixed (life is a race and a puzzle, at the same time). I rewrote the metaphors that could be salvaged and deleted the ones that had no hope of making a positive contribution to the text.

I got to thinking that maybe only writers as masterful as Shakespeare should be allowed to use figurative language.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

See? Nice.

But maybe I was being too restrictive. Metaphors, similes, and analogies can elicit a deeper understanding of a concept when they are original, apt, and clear. They can also convey meaning quickly, vividly, and memorably, whether in writing or in speech. For example, my husband uses a number of effective analogies—relating to Mrs. Fields cookies, ordering in a restaurant, and getting highlights at the salon—in business negotiations.

So if you really want to compare your beloved to a summer’s day, I won’t stop you. You might consider the following steps for creating your very own fancy talk:

  1. Select the concept you want to illustrate through a metaphor, simile, or analogy. Example: life.
  2. Identify the point you’d like to make about the concept. Example: Life is full of surprises, and you never know what will happen next.
  3. Think of an unrelated idea that has the same qualities as your concept and the point Box of Chocolatesyou are trying to make. Example: In a box of assorted chocolates, the candies look similar on the outside, but inside there might be nougat, ganache, caramel, lemon, cherry, raspberry, key lime, coconut, mocha, mint, pineapple, marshmallow, marzipan, fudge, almond crunch…sorry, where was I? Until you bite into one of the chocolates, you won’t know what’s inside.
  4. Formulate and refine your simple and stunning figure of speech. Example: Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

A bad metaphor can obscure even the most obvious idea. But a good metaphor, according to poet Pablo Neruda, can reveal the mysteries of the world.

Christmix Tape

This year, thanks to Spotify, my fondness for Christmas music has escalated to something of an addiction. I was born Jewish but raised less observant than probably any other Jewish person I have ever met, with the possible exception of my sister. Still, why Christmas music, Mix tapewhen I could be listening to alternative hits of the 80s? I think I enjoy the ultimate content of the songs—peace, joy, love, celebration, and togetherness. Besides, many of the classic Christmas songs were written by Jews, so maybe my affection isn’t that odd.

I have listened to so much Christmas music since the day after Thanksgiving that I can now tell the difference between the voices of Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. Some artists, like Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Michael Bublé, are naturals at belting out Christmas tunes. Others, unfortunately, have made less than positive contributions to the collective catalog of holiday standards (I’m talking to you, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John).

Often, as I listened, I would find myself thinking, “You know, I have heard 20 or 30 versions of this song, but this one is really special.” The marriage of performer and material was just right. Such recordings were no longer Christmas songs but good songs, even great songs. For example, the only natural response to Josh Groban’s live performance of “O Holy Night” is “Oh, holy s#!t!” It’s that phenomenal. I began to formulate a fantasy “mix tape” (sorry, young’uns, if you don’t get the reference) of standout renditions:

Side A

  • Michael Bublé, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
  • Sammy Davis Jr., “Jingle Bells”
  • Dean Martin and Martina McBride, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
  • She & Him, “The Christmas Waltz”
  • Brenda Lee, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
  • Amy Grant, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Side B

  • Kelly Clarkson, “Blue Christmas”
  • Lady Antebellum, “A Holly Jolly Christmas”
  • Mary J. Blige, “My Favorite Things”
  • The Drifters, “White Christmas”
  • Harry Connick Jr., “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”
  • Josh Groban, “O Holy Night”

These festive songs, thoroughly vetted by a discerning Jew, are worth seeking out. Happy Holidays!

A Thanksgiving Roast

Have you ever seen a roast on Comedy Central? The “roasted” individual typically sits in a throne-like chair on a raised platform, as comedians take turns making fun of him (and of Turkey on a throneeach other) in front of a live audience. The guest of honor then has the opportunity to rebut the merciless put-downs that have been hurled at him throughout the event.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought it might be fun to put the holiday itself on the dais. Over the years, comedians have certainly viewed Turkey Day as fair game, and the Internet is a veritable cornucopia of their insults. So, if you will, please imagine a plump turkey (possibly wearing a Pilgrim hat and holding an “Eat Chicken” sign) on a stage, gobbling graciously as it is lambasted.

  • Johnny Carson: “Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”
  • David Letterman: “Thanksgiving is the day when you turn to another family member and say, ‘How long has Mom been drinking like this?’ My mom, after six Bloody Marys, looks at the turkey and goes, ‘Here, kitty, kitty.’”
  • Jay Leno: “Thanksgiving: when the Indians said, ‘Well, this has been fun, but we know you have a long voyage back to England.’”
  • Jon Stewart: “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
  • Dylan Brody: “You know that just before that first Thanksgiving dinner there was one wise, old Native American woman saying, ‘Don’t feed them. If you feed them, they’ll never leave.’”
  • Roseanne Barr: “Here I am 5 o’clock in the morning stuffing breadcrumbs up a dead bird’s butt.”
  • Kevin James: “Thanksgiving, man. Not a good day to be my pants.”

Unlike the ordinary “roastee,” a holiday cannot defend itself. Yet many eloquent individuals have, in effect, told the aforementioned comics to shut their pie holes:

  • H. U. Westermayer: “The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts.  No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.”
  • Robert C. Linter: “Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.”
  • Edward Sandford Martin: “Thanksgiving Day comes, by statute, once a year; to the honest man it comes as frequently as the heart of gratitude will allow.”
  • Wilbur D. Nesbit: “Forever on Thanksgiving Day / The heart will find the pathway home.”

Stick a fork in me, I’m done.

Why Do We Watch Scary Movies?

The Exorcist

I am not a big fan of horror movies. The Exorcist, which turned 40 this year, scared the Andersen’s pea soup (the actual brand used in that iconic projectile-vomiting scene) out of me when I was a little girl. Each time I approached my room, I was sure I would find Linda Blair on my bed, head spinning around. Ironically, when I do watch a scary movie, I tend to go for one about exorcism. Of all the horror ghouls, zombies frighten me the most; even the comedy Shaun of the Dead was too much for me. (Okay, even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video gave me chills.) And I will not watch a home-invasion movie, especially if the bad guys are in masks. One relatively recent film I found deliciously chilling was The Fourth Kind, about alien abduction. I wish I had the courage to see it again (although most viewers would prefer to have their 98 minutes back).

Many filmgoers regularly put themselves in the position to be shocked by the gore, violence, and supernatural activity characteristic of the horror genre. (Of course, some don’t, and they are less likely to sleep with a night light.) Here are some of the more popular theories as to why horror movies appeal to us:

  1. They demystify the unknown.
  2. They distract us from our everyday concerns.
  3. They give us the opportunity to prove that we can master something threatening.
  4. They have fantastic visual effects.
  5. They induce catharsis.
  6. They allow us to face our greatest fear, the knowledge that we are all doomed.
  7. They provide an adrenaline rush in a safe environment.
  8. They satisfy our desire to feel intense emotions.
  9. They show us things we don’t see in our daily lives.
  10. They take us on a psychological ride.

I am intrigued by two additional theories, which are based on diametrically opposed views of our normal mental state (sane or crazy):

  • Horror movies reaffirm that we are healthy and well-adjusted.
  • We are all mentally ill, and horror movies appease our insanity, keeping it in check.

I tend to favor the second explanation, especially considering its source: horror master Stephen King. I figure he should know.

Hashtags: An Index to the Human Experience #LoftyTitle

Twitter HashtagI recently completed a 10-day liver detox (trumpets and fanfare). It consisted of swallowing Chinese herbs three times a day and excluding all the best foods from my diet: coffee, wine, chocolate, heavy cream, steak, etc. I challenged myself to tweet each day about the cleanse’s deprivations—which were apparently so severe that one night I dreamt about cheesecake. It was Marisa Tomei’s cheesecake, but we don’t have time to analyze that now.

Here is a sampling of my detox-related tweets:

  • I want cookie dough. #DetoxDay2
  • Subsisting on rice cakes and peppermint tea. #DetoxDay6
  • Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop eating most of the major food groups. #DetoxDay7

As you can see, I appended a hashtag consisting of “DetoxDay” and a number representing the day to each post. I was surprised to find that numerous other people had tweeted using the same tag:

Detox Day 5

Detox Day 7

Detox Day 8

Reading these posts made the world seem just a little bit smaller. (Impressively, the entries continue through day 28; that’s a long time to go without cheesecake.) I started doing Twitter hashtag searches on all sorts of things pertinent to my life: #ButtercreamFrosting, #WritersBlock, #CrazyDogs. It was fun getting different perspectives on inane subjects relevant to my existence.

I will leave you with a few takes on a daily occurrence in my house, #SpiderInTheBathroom:

Spider 1

Spider 2

Spider 3

So what are you waiting for? Try it! Warning: You will probably want to make spelling corrections to the search results.