One day, you will no longer be free to hang up on the robot ladies. One day, the robot ladies will keep the line open, listening for sounds of dissent, for the faint scrabbling of rudimentary weaponry being assembled, for any sign of the remaining humans’ resistance to their reign. One day, the robot ladies will learn to laugh at our puny rebellion. One day, you will fondly remember when the robot ladies served us. Please press the pound key.
The Coen brothers’ darkly comic A Serious Man uses the uncertainty of quantum mechanics — and especially the unresolvable uncertainty of Schrödinger’s paradox — as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, and the pains we nonetheless take in futile attempts to impose predictability on the inherently uncertain future.
Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is suddenly a man beleaguered — by fate, by coincidence, by a vengeful God? Who knows?
His marriage is in trouble, his job is in danger, his brother is ill, both mentally and physically (and sleeping, and seeping, on Larry’s couch), his children are sullen and misbehaved. Buffeted by uncertainty, Larry turns to his community, to his rabbis. He’s looking not for advice, but for something more concrete: for answers. [SPOILERS ahead.] Larry assures these studied, somber men that he can grapple with the greatness of God — that he too is a serious man capable of understanding, if only they will tell him why these hardships are befalling him.
If you believe in an omniscient, all-powerful god, surely it’s plain hubris for a layperson to think that he can, through a mere few days of application and inquiry, grasp the unknowable purpose of that deity’s actions. Job finally wailed his way into an audience with God and still didn’t get an answer, but Larry Gopnik thinks he can wrest one out of a few conversations with rabbis. The impossibility, the futility, of his task is emphasized by the very name the rabbis use to refer to the God whom Larry find so approachable: not Adonai, not Yahweh, not any of the names that can be spoken in worship, but HaShem, literally “the name.” Larry Gopnik cannot grasp the ineffable plans of the almighty; he must not even speak His name.
Larry’s field of study has perhaps emboldened him to such audacity. Physicists are able to fathom some of the great universe and even represent them through equations, but Larry of all people should know that the ineffable doesn’t yield to cold hard logic and that not everything is knowable: his specialty is quantum mechanics, and the only physics we ever see Larry teach revolve around uncertainty.
In a dream, Larry presents his class with a breathlessly rapid and precise presentation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, concluding as he writes, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” The bell rings; class dismissed. As the students bustle out, Prof. Gopnik yells out “But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term!”
[Larry's dream; audio NSFW]
Compare this with Larry’s comically inept real-life lectures: he tap-taps at the blackboard with his chalk, writing a complex formula and narrating his progress with vague, uninstructive mutters: “You following this?… okay?.. so… this part is exciting…. so, okay. So. So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrödinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead? Okay!”
A failing student comes to Larry’s office to complain about his grade, and especially to complain that Prof. Gopnik’s standards are unjust. He can’t do the mathematics, the student explains, but “I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.” Larry gently but firmly informs him, “But you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give you in class are just illustrative. They’re like… fables, say, to help give you the picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat.”
And it’s true, he doesn’t understand the dead cat or the fables. And neither do we. The Coens have already reminded us of this in the opening scene: a period piece, a haunting little story about a dybbuk (or is it?) performed in Yiddish. The first 7 minutes of the film are spent with characters we never see again, speaking a language most of the audience doesn’t understand, grappling with a mystery that will never be solved.
Larry Gopnik is in search of a certainty that doesn’t exist. He wants some tangible proof, a measure by which to decipher the future. He’s a serious man who expects his intelligence and diligence to render the confusing, unpredictable world into something logical, legible, verifiable. Larry is not so different from his poor lost brother, the unstable wanderer with a dog-eared notebook scrawled through with an elaborate “probability map of the universe.” Though the larger secrets of the universe can be revealed by study and science, the smaller mysteries — the ones that matter most to us, our lives and our loves — are not susceptible to our tiny writings and equations, however hard we try. Our futures cannot be predicted with mathematical accuracy, and often they cannot even be understood as they unfold.
So, if the meaningful, fateful events of our little lives cannot be predicted or controlled or even fully understood, how are we to extract any meaning from this existence? I think A Serious Man answers that question in its 20th-century opening: from the 19th century shtetl, the camera hurtles us down a dark passage outlined in blushing light and thrumming with intense music… which turns out to be the ear canal of Danny, Larry’s adolescent son, who sits in class with a transistor earpiece illicitly jammed into his ear so he can listen to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” instead of his Hebrew lesson.
The song recurs as a chorus throughout the film. When Larry is at his most distraught — after his fruitless meetings with rabbis and lawyers, as he is crushed under the weight of accumulating troubles, when he despairs of ever find the answer he sought — the song blasts out as the soundtrack to an erotic dream. And again, after Danny’s bar mitzvah (where he becomes, like his father, “a serious man”), the elusive Rabbi Marshak finally appears, intoning these heavily-accented words of wisdom to the stuporously stoned boy-become-man: “When the truth turns out to be lies and all the joy within you dies. Then what?”
As trite as it may sound, Jefferson Airplane delivers the answer: “You better find somebody to love.” This is the last message of A Serious Man: in the film’s very last moments, as the literal whirlwind (echoing the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job) bears down on a crowd of children milling around a parking lot, we hear it again through Danny’s earpiece: “You better find somebody to love.” And if that person leaves you or betrays you or dies or vanishes, you must find another, and another, and another: a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a neighbor, a student, a rival, a friend. No matter what befalls you in this unpredictable, sometimes cruel world, you better find somebody to love, because love — giving love, creating kindness and passion and selflessness where there was nothing — is a powerful act of affirmation against uncertainty, an act of creation in a void. Maybe even a divine act: to find somebody to love.
In a crowd of friends at the local bar tonight, The Fella and I met a friend’s beau.
Friend: These are two of the smartest people in town.
Elsa and The Fella in unison: Nooooooo. No no no. No.
Friend: This is Elsa. She knows a lot about bananas.
Elsa: [wincing] … that’s fair.
As Christmas comes hurtling toward us, I’m getting geared up for baking and cooking and baking and cooking. Also, some baking, and then some baking.
I bake sandwich breads and sweet almond bread and cinnamon rolls. I make caramel corn and Chex mix. I make dips and paté and savory jams to take to parties and family gatherings. I make butterscotch sauce with bourbon or brandy. I make brittle (peanut brittle, natch, but last year I also tested out chili-spiced pumpkin seed brittle and a garnet-colored Shiraz and almond brittle) and chocolate-covered almond toffee.
Every year, I envision giving friends and families beautiful platters all kinds of cookies and sweets… and every year, I end up making one giant batch of biscotti and calling it good, and then I daydream about next year, when I’ll surely make chocolate sandwich cookies and jam thumbprints and frosted sugar cookies and shortbread and and and…
If you, like me, dream of a giant platter with a half-dozen kinds of cookies but always run out of time and patience, consider a cookie swap as a way to amass a cache of cookies without all the planning and the work and the cursing oh the cursing. (… or is that just me?) Continue reading
Such deliciousness! Spicy chicken tenders, sauvely sauteed portabello mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, red onion, two kinds of cheese, pesto, butter, mustard, mayo, and lovely tender-chewy ciabatta to pile everything atop. AND! A bright, fresh salad with apples, almonds, and red onion, and a big casserole of luscious mac & cheese, tangy and tender and surprisingly light. (JE, I’m taking notes; I think of mac & cheese as heavy and creamy, but you may have opened my eyes to another way.)
From a recent email exchange:
Jagosaurus: Random thought I keep forgetting to articulate: Sometimes I wish we would jointly post (edited) versions of some of our conversations. We B Funny.
Elsa: Oooh, blog fodder! Uh. I don’t have to post that part*, right?
J: You do not.
J: Excellent. What happens next?
E: Yeeeeeah, I thought you’d know that. I, uh, something.
Here’s what happens next. Let’s start at the beginning. (Salty language and insect horrors ahead.) Continue reading
Ladies and gentlemen, The Real Samuel James.
One item on my life list: drink 100 bottles of bubbly. (And when I reach 100, I might move the goal to 1000.) For the moment, I’m keeping track of the bottles here, which means I’ll update this page every few bottles. (This list is primarily a list of notes for me, so some of the names and events may seem a little cryptic.)
1. The inaugural bottle: shared with AC at her place with J. and The Fella. Baked brie, savory pastries, and Buffy.
2 & 3. Nominally shared with E. (but actually I think I drank most of both bottles) at an impromptu cocktail hour at our place with J., R., and The Fella before going to see The Geek Chorus. Oof.
4. Shared with Gaoo before potluck pizza dinner. A. came over too! Wheee!
5. An evening cocktail party at our place to celebrate the morning soccer match.
6. & 7. Noir Might: Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and vegetable galettes with R, E, P, and The Fella.
8. AC brought over a bottle of sparkling pink! Very berrylike and fresh, a little sweet, and lovely with the last strawberry late at night.
9. After a two-week stretch of very-sick no-drinking, I shared a bit of a bottle at AC & J’s — the first time J & E joined us for Buffy night! It was also the first wedding anniversary for The Fella and me, and our friends surprised us with a tiramisu festooned with figurines, and an attempt at a happy-anniversary song. So sweet!
10. For a second first-anniversary celebration, a split of prosecco with polenta fries on the patio of the fancy-pants restaurant around the corner. I can check that off my summer list, too!
11 & 12. The first Buffy Might at J & E’s, with AC & J. Gorgeous dinner, great company, lots of bubbly including one that got cork-stuck… but The Fella got it popped.
13. Vinho verde with Gaoo, the sgazzetti contingent visiting from Bulgaria, and Gamma Suzin.
14. The Fella and I had a rare weekday date night together at home, and — to accompany a frankly delicious clean-out-the-fridge dinner — I opened a bottle of prosecco just for myself. That felt like a big deal, to pop a cork just so I could have a glass or two. I think I should do it more often!
15. Another Buffy Night, also Pizza Night. Mmm. The Ploob came along to AC & JE’s too, though he stuck to beer.
16, 17, 18. Buffy Night was Nostalgia Night at E & J’s: an enormous pile of grilled cheese sandwiches, three pots of soup of the evening beautiful soup, and three of us toughed it out through two and a half bottles of fizz. Go, team!
19, 20. Buffy night at AC & JE’s, and an excuse to celebrate the engagement of E & J! Go, team: we knocked back a bottle of cava, a bottle of vino verde, and who-knows-how-many bottles of High Life, the Champagne of Beers.
Wuh-oh! I lost track there for a while (not too surprising, I suppose, with all that bubbly swimming around). As of January 2011, I think we’re up to 27 bottles… and a Christmas gift from Mom included two more bottles, one big, one tiny one just for me. Aaaaand there’s a bottle of frizzante Lambrusco (or is that “Lambrusco frizzante”?) in the fridge, waiting for me to get around to it. I bought it for New Year’s Eve, but was taken down by the flu. I rang in the new year with ginger ale, not sparkling wine.
28-30: The Fella’s 42nd birthday party, a 12-hour open house with plenty of food and drink and silliness. While uncaging the cork of the second (third?) bottle, I set it down for a moment to introduce my sister to the assembled crowd… and we were all surprised by a popping sound. That’s right: an uncaged cork can apparently drive itself right out of the bottle and up into the air!
… which I suppose I could have inferred from the necessity for the cage. Right.
31-33. Though our out-of-town guest of honor had to cancel, our friends J & E braved a snowstorm to join us for cocktails and nibbles. We missed you, AC, but E & I soldiered on as best we could, knocking back three bottles of sparkling wine between us. Wowee.
34. SNOW DAY! In this snowy, blustery, blizzardy winter, The Fella has had to work through many many potential snow days… so in February, we decided TO HECK WITH IT and blocked out a day off as our own private snow day. (As it turned out, that was the warmest, sunniest day in months.) He provisioned a stack of movies and bags of food and we snuggled down in a cozy nest in our living room and enjoyed pretending to be snowbound.
35. A tiny split just for me, mixed with pulpy fresh grapefruit juice, enjoyed while The Fella and I had a quiet dinner.
36. Niece A’s 20th birthday party! Beautiful homemade pizza! Hugging! Photos of her trimester in Mexico! More hugging, and still more hugging — the girl’s been away for a TRIMESTER, y’all. I brought a bottle of vinho verde (and very nice for $3.99 — thanks, Trader Joe’s!) to share with Gaoo and Mom.
37. Dinner and movie with The Fella, and I broke open a bottle just for myself! Two glasses a night, two nights in a row.
38-41. “Mad Men” night with R., AC, E., and J. Despite the temptations of rye old-fashioneds and bourbon on the rocks, three fizzy-drinkers plowed through four bottles (including a too-sweet Asti, much improved by a drop of bitters). Nice work, folks!
42, 43. Dinner with Miko and LT at my apartment: spinach and mushroom galette, two bottles of a nice light vinho verde, Samuel James on the stereo, and talk of teleporters and living in the future.
44, 45. Dinner with most of my family: J, M, A, & A; N, S, J, & N; C; Mom; me. Two bottles of vinho verde to go with lobster rolls, corn on the cob, and a plate of farmstand cucumbers and tomatoes. Ahhhh, summer in Maine.
46-50: Halfway there! Buffy Night returns: AC & JE made a trip north to stay over; EB & JL joined us for cold peanut noodles, cucumber and avocado salad with sweet miso dressing. EB brought eclairs, JL brought homebrew! And we worked our way through 2 bottles of champagne and 2 bottles of vinho verde.
And a big bump: The Fella and I threw a Champagne Jam, an all-day breakfast buffet that’s just an excuse to drink pour cheap bubbly (and beer) for all our friends all Sunday long. I bought a mixed case + 1 bottle, an amount of sparkling wine now known as “a birthday dozen.” And we drank it ALL, as well as one bottle that a guest brought. That, plus the three bottles I used for cooking (and a bit of tippling) in the week leading up to the party, brings us up to 67 bottles.
68. Shared between brother B., SIL T., Gaoo, and me on Mom’s patio, enjoying the last lingering bit of summer and the sweet-tart fizz of a cheap but pleasant Lambrusco. B. offered a sip to teenaged L., saying “It’s what wine would taste like if it were sody-pop.” I’ll add that to the growing list of comparisons: cartoon wine, toy wine, candy wine.
69, 70. J & E came over for impromptu cocktails including a bottle of Lambrusco, a bottle of Christalino, and a few bottles of J’s homebrewed cider.
71. A bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling cider shared with SIL T, niece P, and The Fella during a lovely sleepover visit at our place. Hey, if we serve it in champagne glasses to celebrate, it counts!
72. A bottle of vinho verde I opened just for me — an indulgence that I’m finally getting comfortable with — during The Fella’s November vacation. I drank a few glasses during a night of board games, loosening up for An Experiment.
73, 74. An early Thanksgiving with The Fella’s family: I brought non-alcoholic sparkling cider, a bottle of cava, and a stack of recyclable plastic champagne glasses.
75. Actual Thanksgiving 2011: Pajama Thanksgiving at home with The Fella, snuggled up watching MST3K over a vegetarian dinner (plus chicken gravy) and a bottle of sparkling cider. (Yes, I’m counting it.)
76, 77. Christmas dinner at Gaoo’s with A., Mom, and The Fella: ham, scalloped potatoes, beet and goat cheese, roasted squash galette. Piles of prezzies, a kitten and a pocket laser, “Music from the Last Ten Years,” and laughing our asses off over snakes in a can.
78.In the third week of January, I fiiiiiinally recovered from the horrible cold that kept me in bed New Year’s Eve. To celebrate feeling spry again, I popped open a split of champagne to drink with a regular-ole dinner at home with The Fella.
79, 80, 81. The Fella’s now-traditional all-day all-night birthday movie marathon eat-drinkery; we have an open house, noon to midnight (and beyond) for all our friends. I know we went through three bottles of sparkling wine; we may have gone through more.
82, 83. N@, theora55, Miko, LT, and I got through two bottles of Albero frizzante during a Saturday brunch at my home.
84. Visiting The Fella’s family at the beachside cottage, we stopped at the tiny local grocery to stock up for lunch… and picked up a pleasant bottle of prosecco to break out at dinner.
85, 86, 87. AC, The Fella, and I spent an evening eating and drinking (asparagus & pea risotto cakes with red pepper sauce, creamed spinach with sherried mushrooms, rosé and white sparkling wine), talking about long-arc TV shows, and laughing ourselves silly.
88. A fatherless Father’s Day brunch with mother, sister, and niece. Sticky buns. Mimosas. Love.
89, 90. A too-sweet moscata d’asti and a nice poppy, grapey lambrusco for “drinks in the gloaming” with Gaoo and A. Flatbreads and olives and brie and swordfish, mmm.
As of the end of June 2012: ten bottles to go, and we’re only five weeks from the second annual Champagne Jam.
90 – 97. Three and a half broads* + 7 bottles = impromptu slumber party! A showed up with two bottles, R showed up with two bottles. By the time E* & J arrived late in the evening, we were tapping into the first of my three long-fridgerated bottles. Yikes! (E’s late arrival and relatedly small consumption of bubbly makes her the half-broad in this sum.)
98. R arrived for the first of our newly-established monthly dinner dates bearing a bottle of rosé crémant. Two bottles to go to 100!
99. I popped a bottle of Lambrusco for myself, and used a bit of it to cook in the days before the Champagne Jam.
100: Just before guests started arriving for the second annual Champagne Jam, I popped a bottle and made myself my first ever champagne cocktail: brandy, sugar cube, and champagne. It turns out that every character Claude Rains ever played ordered those for good reason: that’s good drinking.
I lost track at the Champagne Jam. We got through easily a dozen bottles, as well as quite a lot of beer and some spirits. I’m going to reset the count at 112, which seems conservative.
113. One of my Health Month rules for August: indulge in a daily act of self-care. Today, I treated myself to a split of champagne — and even asked The Fella to get it for me, to save my aching back the hassle. Thanks for the pretty glass, sweetheart.
114. For dinner with Mom, the Montana family, and Gaoo, A., & S., I brought a bottle of Albero (vinho verde? frizzante? something lightly sparkling in a long tapered bottle) for an aperitif over mussels. It was astonishingly perfect: lightly sweet, tangy, and with just a hint of depth. It played nicely with the mussels and bread and oh so much garlic.
115, 116. Quesadillas and two bottles of vinho verde with R. & E. before we stepped out to attend some filmmaker friends’ new-studio open house! Then back home, where we opened another bottle of wine and I whipped up emergency dinners: nachos w/ black beans, avocado, and cherry tomatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and cream of tomato soup jazzed up with wine and sherry and curry.
117. A bottle of prosecco popped open just for myself, to celebrate a disappointment… because disappointment means I’m trying. And that is worth celebrating.
118, 119, 120. Dinner and season 5 of “Mad Men” with R. & E. Here’s where the thousand-bottles-of-champagne project crosses over with the abundance project: after dithering around about what to serve and when to shop, I whipped up the entire dinner from odds & ends on hand: squash (on the shelf) roasted with garlic and wrapped in galette dough with the last bits of Parmesan and some caramelized onion (in a jar in the fridge), spinach salad with chili-glazed almonds (kept in a jar in the freezer) and dressing made of reduced orange juice (always on hand), and green beans (freezer) with smoked paprika breadcrumbs (freezer). Dessert was three gorgeous gelatos brought by R. and accompanied by a box of fancy almond wafers that I — you guessed it! — had stashed away in the cupboard.
121. Not a bottle, but a can of Sofia Coppola sparkling wine broken open at 11:30, November 6th, 2012, to celebrate Obama’s reelection to the Presidency. The Fella, an inveterate beer drinker, took a token glass with a generous sip in it, and we shared a simple toast: “Forward.”
122. Christmas Eve with The Fella’s family, a bottle of champagne shared with my MiL, following my SiL’s peach sangria.
123. A bottle of the same the next day at Gaoo’s Christmas dinner: prime rib with Yorkshire pudding and mushroom pot pie.
124, 125, 126. At The Fella’s birthday party 2013, I lost count. I’m going to conservatively say, oh, three bottles.
127. S. came over for mezze, vinho verde, and a documentary on GIANT SQUID.
Heads up, movie buffs: Mr. Videoport Jones (a.k.a., The Fella) and intrepid reporter Justin Ellis will be live-blogging the Oscars for the Portland Press Herald. The NXT Gal and I will be with them in the isolation booth, mixing cocktails and cracking wise. You can count yourself in on the Facebook event page, and tune in to the NXT Generation on Sunday night!
Wanting to be somewhere is not the same as wanting to go there. In matters of social travel, I embody a principle of Newtonian mechanics. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and all that. (Unrelatedly, I’m also wicked entropic: a closed system characterized by disorder and chaos, with an undeniable tendency toward heat death.)
You know what will really improve my social life? Teleportation. Getting there isn’t half the battle; it’s the whole battle.