I’m giving you a haircut, walking to the sushi bar

Good news, everyone: I’ve discovered I like sushi.

My first hint that I might enjoy a food I’d written off as pretentious, weird or just inaccessible for so many years came at Hawver’s wedding. He served raw tuna steak, which tasted delicious. This planted a seed in the back of my mind: the idea that raw fish could taste good (what the hell is this, Thomas Friedman’s op-ed column? fish growing from seeds? fix this before you publish).

Visiting Baltimore for Thanksgiving, my old pal Liz B. took me to XS on the outskirts of Baltimore. I ordered the chef’s Sushi Sampler, as it looked standard and unintimidating. It wasn’t until the platter arrived, stuffed with tuna rolls and sashimi, that I made my confession.

“I’ve never had sushi before,” I explained.

“Really?”

“I never got around to it. It’s one of those things I felt you had to try at a certain age or else it was too late to cultivate a taste for it. Like reading Catcher in the Rye.”

Liz was a perfect tutor, giving me just the right combination of coaching and tips to let me discover on my own. And it was all good! Tuna rolls: fantastic! California rolls: still good! Whitefish sashimi: loved it! Shrimp sashimi: incredible!

“Take a little bit of ginger,” she suggested. “Just a tiny sliver. Hold it in your mouth but don’t chew it yet. It’s very potent.”

Since then, I’ve hunted for more opportunities to find and eat sushi. When Misch and I grabbed lunch on Monday, I passed up my usual heaping mound of chicken teriyaki for a sushi platter. It came in a densely-packed plastic bento with a pair of chopsticks that splintered as I pulled them apart. And the soy sauce was a little too tangy for my liking. But I ate everything on the plate and loved it.

I would even have grabbed a sushi takeout dinner from a deli on Mass Ave on Tuesday night, but they didn’t look very tightly sealed.

Why do I like sushi so much? Yes, yes, it’s healthy, fish tastes good, new and exotic taste expanding my consciousness, etc. But what I really love about sushi is the texture. A well-formed tuna roll blends al dente, firm and chewy textures into a single morsel. It yields to the teeth and then dissolves into sticky bits of rice with a meaty center. My mouth has no idea what’s going on.

The guys at The Second Glass said that a good glass of wine should appeal to all the senses: taste, sure, but smell, vision and even the fluidity of its feel. I think sushi appeals to me in the same way. There’s the perfect tessellation of tiny rolls in a bento box, with everything arranged just so. There’s the wide variety of tastes. There’s the mixture of sensations. The meal does more than fill me; it engages me.

So: I like sushi. If only I lived in a country where it were readily available.

there’s someone in my head, but it’s not me

While visiting Chicago, waiting for a bus at Addison with my man Hawver, two street hawkers approached us. “Would you like to try some Laughing Cow light swiss?”

“Sure,” I said, being hungry. One handed me a sample pack of swiss cheese, about the size of my thumb; the other, a pack of crackers the size of a matchbox. I also got a coupon for $1.00 off a pack of said cheese.

It was tasty enough that I bought a pack the next time I went grocery shopping, to see how well it would complement my lunch. And that went so well that I’ve bought Laughing Cow several times since, even without a coupon.

I had next to zero consciousness of Laughing Cow cheese before this, my primary exposure being the yellow Vache Qui Rit bowl Fraley kept in our cupboard when we lived together. A free sample and a coupon converted me from agnostic to believer in about a week. Four months ago I had no desire for this product; now I have a modest desire. A corporation paid some marketers to sit around a conference table and instill in me a desire where none existed.

As a marketer myself, I find the process curious. As an amateur student of autoepistemology, I find it absolutely fascinating.

This desire for Laughing Cow cheese was created in me by someone else. I can track the steps that it took to happen. Which other desires of mine originated in someone else’s mind? What about my preference for Coke Zero over Diet Coke? My taste in beer? My willingness to drive a rusting import rather than trade up for a newer car? My desire to live in Cambridge? My impulse to live alone? My need to write? My preferred self-image? My religious beliefs, or lack thereof? Who put these thoughts in my head?

Really radical progressives blame modern capitalism for about half of the above. “The consumerist market,” one might say, “encourages people to buy things they don’t need. It touts conspicuous consumption as a way to distinguish yourself from your neighbors, or to alleviate the stress of your job. Consumerism obscures your true desires.”

The funny thing is: I’d agree with them. Up until the last sentence.

Most of us believe in some notion of an ego, or a soul, or some inviolate core that makes decisions. It sits inside our body, either in the center of our brain or in our (metaphorical) heart, and “watches” what happens to us, as if on a screen. When we make a decision, the ego or soul sends instructions to the limbs to move. Descartes didn’t invent this theory of consciousness, but, with the whole cogito ergo sum thing, he made it most popular.

The problem is: (1) the idea of an ego/soul that’s separate from the body it inhabits has no empirical grounding, and (2) it’s not even a satisfactory explanation.

I’m paraphrasing Daniel Dennett here: suppose there is an ego/soul, sitting inside our body, responsible for making our decisions. The answer to the question, “What’s going on in my head?” is “a mini-self is pulling the levers.” That doesn’t answer the mystery of consciousness, though. It merely raises another question: “okay, how does the mini-self make decisions? what’s going on in its head?”

Dennett offers an alternative: there is no one “seat of consciousness” within the brain:

The book puts forward a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, suggesting that there is no single central place (a “Cartesian Theater”) where conscious experience occurs; instead there are “various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain”. The brain consists of a “bundle of semi-independent agencies”; when “content-fixation” takes place in one of these, its effects may propagate so that it leads to the utterance of one of the sentences that make up the story in which the central character is one’s “self”. Dennett’s view of consciousness is that it is the apparently serial account for the brain’s underlying parallelism.

“Interesting stuff, Professor,” you’re saying, “but what does this have to do with cheese?”

If what we call “consciousness” is really the body carrying out the instructions of different agencies of the brain at different times, then there is no central ego/soul. If that’s the case, then there’s no distinction between the “true desires” of the self and the “false desires” implanted in us by corporations, politicians, churches, peer groups, etc. They’re all equally legitimate inputs. My desire for Laughing Cow cheese, which I was barely conscious of six months ago, is no more artificial than my desire to hang out with a new friend, whom I hadn’t met six months ago.

I’m still not settled on what this means for my decision-making process, except that it makes my job as a marketer easier to swallow.

it all depends upon your appetite

HOPE
Twice in the span of eight hours on Sunday I saw “Yes You Can!” used as a marketing slogan. Once for a dry cleaning special, once for an online dating site. Aside from the sheer silliness of appropriating a Presidential campaign slogan for, well, dry cleaning or online dating, I have two follow-up questions:


  1. Why now? The election was a year ago. Obama’s lost a lot of credibility recently, what with failure to institute the Ruling Party’s health care plan, waffling on the Defense of Marriage Act, upholding the Opposition Party’s stance on indefinite detention of enemy combatants, trillion dollar national debt, et cetera. Is now the time to invoke his image? Or is the lead time on creating the display copy for sandwich boards and banner ads one year? I can assure you that, for banner ads, it ain’t.

  2. Why “Yes You Can!”? Why would a dry cleaner or an online dating service want to invoke that sense of civic optimism, sweeping social change or racial harmony? At long last – affordable same day dry cleaning! America has entered the Twenty-First century, now that you can browse webcam pics of 22-year-olds in the privacy of your home.

    “My Fellow Americans, Let’s Roll … To The Olive Garden” would be equally weird.

fubar

Fed by the Invisible Hand
Pemberton Farms had their annual customer appreciation day on Saturday. I can never turn down free food, and the deli couldn’t be any closer unless I lived above it, so off I went into the rain. I intended to merely scarf as much free food as I could – two burgers, one hot dog, lots of bread and brie and hummus – and then scamper. But then a kind gentleman offered me a Dixie cup of Trapiche malbec which went down so smooth, so sweet. And when he told me it was only $8.99, what was I going to do? Not buy it?

The gents at The Second Glass have trained me to never pay more than $15 for a bottle of wine. This has the unintended side effect of compelling me to buy every bottle of wine (that tastes good) that’s below $12. I have collected three unopened bottles of red in this way. You bring the cheese and crackers, I’ll bring the kung fu movies.

come on, baby don’t you wanna go

He Ain’t Here, But He Sure Went By
Yelp recommended Fontano’s Subs near DePaul University, so I suggested to Liz C. and Stephanie J. that we meet there for lunch on Sunday. But Yelp did not tell us that Fontano’s, like a lot of downtown eateries, is closed on Sundays. I waited for the ladies to arrive so we could make new plans.

“We have our choice of Chicago chain eateries,” I offered. “Potbellies around the corner there, or Jimmy John’s the opposite way.”

“I’ve been wanting to try Jimmy John’s,” Steph insisted. “I’ve never heard of this place,” Liz said.

“They advertise it all over!” I replied. “I’ve been in town two days and I know about it.”

“I dunno …”

“You’re right, it’s a ruse. I called Steph this morning and said, ‘Now play along – this is going to be hysterical …’ ”

Jimmy John’s was open and vacant on Sunday. They prepare sandwiches with lightning speed; I had just finished paying for my roast beef when it was waiting for me at the other end of the counter. The ladies got Italian cold cuts.

I Have Always Depended On The Kindness of Transients
Steph wanted a futon or an air mattress to put up some visiting family. I had taken an unintended tour of the South Side of Chicago on Saturday, by simply walking west from Grant Park*. I vaguely remembered passing a Target … or was it a Best Buy? Giant CVS, maybe?

The three of us stood in front of a You Are Here map on the side of a bus depot, puzzling it out. I texted Google for directions. While I had my phone up, a portly man in a stained sweatshirt, ill-fitting corduroy and a Discman lumbered up next to us. “Who you callin’?” he asked.

Even if I’d really been calling a human, was this guy likely to know him? The sheer oddness of the question stymied me until Liz interjected. “We’re trying to find a Target,” she explained.

“Oh, there one on South Clark,” he said. “You just take the Red Line to Roosevelt, walk two blocks.” He trundled off.

Which was right where I’d suspected it was. “Thanks!”

We combed every inch of the Target, but could only find a sectional sofa whose arms and back folded down. It looked neat, but it was a bit more than Steph wanted to pay. The trip paid for itself, though, when we got to see the cart escalator. It’s a conveyor belt that runs parallel to the escalator that snugly grips the wheels of your shopping cart and guides it down gently. We stared like the slack-jawed tourists that only one of us were.

We found an air mattress at the Bed, Bath and What-not a block away.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Since MT was getting in on a late flight from Florida, I had a half-time dinner before meeting her later. Mother Hubbard’s seemed far enough off the beaten path that I wouldn’t have to deal with too many tourists. Plus they advertised genuine Chicago-style hot dogs, which I had been exhorted to try.

“Where you from?” the bartender asked after taking my order. Apparently I looked like that much of a tourist, though I’m sure asking what time the liquor stores close didn’t help. Talking about Boston sparked a conversation with the guy sitting two stools down – a New Jersey expatriate who’d lived in Colorado for a decade, then moved to Chicago to continue working for Hyatt Hotels. I chatted with him until the food arrived.

Against every instinct in my body, I let the ketchup lie, instead loading the dog with onions, sweet relish and mustard. And it was so good.

Not So Fast, Shredder
After several scheduling complications, MT, her boy Adam and I settled on Heaven on Seven on North Michigan. Having already eaten, I tucked into a turtle soup, though MT insisted I try the pulled pork she ordered. All very good. I walked in with low expectations of what Chicago could manage for Cajun cuisine, but the freshness of the meat definitely helped.

MT doesn’t use Facebook, so I got her up to speed on gossip among our old friends. She was delighted at weddings, astounded at pregnancies and happy that folks had jobs and apartments.

President Gas is President Gas Again
I took the Red Line to the Blue Line, then to the temporary Blue Line shuttle, to get to the Green Eye Lounge. The bartender never charged me for my Bell’s Amber. When I waved a five at him, he blinked. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “but thanks for being honest.”

So Hawver and I retreated to a corner, took turns ordering rounds of domestic beer, and did what we always do in bars: debate the future of energy policy.

“Everything in this country depends on petroleum,” he said. “And when the existing reserves get too expensive for Venezuela or Mexico to export, what is the U.S. going to do?”

“Pay more,” I replied. “Or invade.”

“No, but these countries need oil too! Do you think that these South and Central American governments are going to keep selling to the U.S. while their own citizens starve?”

“Oh, God! I’d hate to live in a world where that happened!”

We ended the discussion at the same stalemate we always have: Hawver insisting that the collapse of oil would lead to a new Dark Age, whereas I insisted it would be a mere global depression that ended U.S. hegemony.

Hot Dog, Part II: The Wrath of Foie
Hawver and I planned better for our trip to Hot Doug’s on Monday morning, getting there at 10:30 on the dot. We had to wait through the line of people similarly desperate for hot dogs, but this took no more than 20 minutes. Afterward the line vanished. Hawver’s suggestion is probably best: show up at ten minutes before 11:00, so you miss the desperate people but beat the lunch rush.

Hot Doug’s only serves duck-fat fries on Fridays and Saturdays, so I missed out. But I got the sauternes duck sausage topped with foie gras and aioli – the legendary foie gras dog. It was sweet and hearty and tender, everything you’d expect. But some fries would have complemented it very well.

* Okay, the nicest possible part of the South Side.

90 east toward chicago, on my way to cincinnati

The Hunt Is On
While wandering downtown Chicago early on a Saturday morning, taking amateur pictures of the architecture, I passed the occasional pair of fit twenty-somethings in identical T-shirts, consulting a map or a clipboard. The collisions grew more frequent until I found a horde of them in Chicago’s government center, participating in something called City Chase. I wanted to explore on my own, and lacked a scavenger hunt partner besides, but it looked like fun.

Between doing some voice-over work for Urban Interactive and the lead-up to an Internet Inc. outdoor chase at our new office, I’ve been thinking a lot about scavenger hunts of late. The one time I had an opportunity to plan one – for my acting troupe in college – led to a lot of frustrating puzzle entries, excessive distances and yelling. But the variables involved fascinate me. You want entries a good distance from each other, but not so far that they exhaust the players. Clues that hinge on insider knowledge without being too obscure. Lots of different factors at play; that’s why they call scavenger hunts the “sweet science” on ESPN.

… Ladies
A man on a street corner in the Jewelry District asked if I was in the market for jewelry. If I’d said “yes” (it takes a lot of effort for me to lie), that’d have to be one hell of a pitch. Jewelry stores, with telephones and burglar alarms and everything, surrounded me at all points of the compass. That’s a lot of credibility to overcome.

“I invented diamonds.”

“The jewelry?”

“No, the stone itself.”

“… go on.”

In any case, still being a bachelor, my answer was a resigned “No.”

And We Are Here As On A Coordinate Plane
“Where are you?” Hawver asked via cell phone. “I’m at … 800 South, 300 West,” I told him. “Oh, wow,” he replied. “I’m at 800 North, 100 East.”

I love that about Chicago. I could navigate myself, or someone else, to any point in the city, and I’ve only visited there four times. All I need are coordinates. I couldn’t do that in Boston, and I’ve lived here longer than any one city. I only just realized, two years ago, that the streets crossing Commonwealth Avenue (Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield) ascend in alphabetical order. Until they don’t. And that’s only if you stay west of the Common. Past that, it’s a swirling toilet drain into Cthulhu’s eye (i.e., Government Center)

We arranged to meet near to 0,0, via some combination of walking and subways. Once there, we took the Red Line north to Addison. The Red Line sits on mostly a straight north shot outside the city, so the N values increased but the E/W values stayed relatively constant. I did some quick math and consulted my encyclopedic knowledge of Blues Brothers dialogue in my head. “Are we getting off near Wrigley?” I asked.

Hawver, verifying that I had indeed taken the pebble from his hand, nodded.

Hot Dog … The Failed Movie
We’d come all the way to Wrigleyville to visit Hot Doug’s, the world-renowned hot dog shop. “Sometimes there’s a bit of a line,” Hawver cautioned. “But usually no more than …”

We slowed our walk as we approached the cafe, opposite the Williams and Midway pinball factories. Over one hundred and fifty people stretched in a line out the door, past the end of the building, and into the residential neighborhoods surrounding it. We got to the end of the line and waited for twenty minutes. It never moved.

Admitting a temporary defeat, we retreated to a taquerista near Logan Park. I had some chorizo and chicken tacos. “That’s probably the one thing I’d miss about moving out here,” I said between bites. “Fish.”

It Takes A Lot Of Money To Look This Cheap
Hawver’s band, The Lovers, played at Quenchers‘ 30th anniversary bash. They’re a five-man set: guitar (Hawver), keyboards, bass, drums and the lead singer (who also doubles on guitar or keys for some songs). They blend some electro New-Wave sensibilities with garage rock attitude – just fun, foot-tapping rock. They also managed to pack out the back room – somewhere between 30 and 40 people.

Hawver introduced me to their keyboardist Kevin and their manager Ashleigh that evening. “You manage these fools?” I asked her.

We The Living
I suffered a few minutes of confusion when I saw T-shirts for “The Livers” in the merch pile before the show started. Had I been mishearing Hawver’s band’s name all these months? Not so, as it turns out; The Livers followed The Lovers on the playlist. My second guess, equally incorrect: they weren’t a punk band. Because a band named “The Livers,” if they mean the organ, has to be punk.

No, The Livers are two guys who record themselves playing bass and drums. They then project this on a screen behind them while playing guitar live. The (recorded) drummer counts them in and they use a DVD remote to skip between songs. It’s furiously awesome.

fish don’t fry in the kitchen, beans don’t burn on the grill

Snippets:


  • I thought I did the smart thing by eating a light lunch on Friday, saving room for Redbones barbecue that evening when Kristen A. came to town. But maybe my ab workout at the gym that afternoon hurt matters. Regardless, after a pulled pork sandwich, half a plate of fries and a too-sweet Dogfish Head 75 Minute IPA1, I felt like I had a wet bag of sand sitting in my gut. People stared at me with concern. I walked around with my hand on my stomach, as if I would give birth to a squalling pork baby any minute.

  • Lisa F. had a going-away party, prior to her move to New York City, which I devoted an hour and a half to. I expected a quiet gathering of a few close friends, but man! Her five-bedroom apartment got packed out in all directions. People from all walks of life – ImprovBoston, her music program, coworkers – turned out to snack, drink and carry on.

    “So many people,” I said.

    “I have lived here for nine years,” she explained.

    “I’ve lived here for ten years!” I countered. “I couldn’t get this many people if I threw a going-away party!”2

  • Deirdre’s the volunteer coordinator at the Dorchester Beach Festival3, so I dropped by to visit her and her husband Auston on Saturday morning before gaming. Gourmet caterers Au Soleil served some remarkably good burgers (considering it was a town’s summer festival) and Utz Potato Chips. Auston marveled at these, since you almost never see Utz north of Philadelphia. But apparently Utz has serviced Costco and WalMart since at least 1997, and they’ve got a distribution center in Shrewsbury. “These are surprisingly good chips,” he said with astonishment.

______________________________
1 I recommend their 60 Minute for all IPA fans, and the 90 Minute if you want to get drunk really fast, but the 75 Minute didn’t work for me. Maybe if I had it with dinner instead of after.

2Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.

3 Dorchester has a beach! With real sand! I’m as surprised as you.