Movies: “Ponyo”

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

I saw Miyazaki’s latest the night before last—and the trailer above about sums up the film (even though the current theatrical release has an English dub, with the usual big-name stars, including Liam Neeson). If you’ve seen any other Miyazaki film, you’ll know what to expect—a world in which nature and humanity exist in a balance that humanity threatens to upset; a cast of characters of which none are “bad,” not if you stop to understand them; children making romantic decisions, saving lives, and taking on responsibilities as adults would; and surreal, oozey, disturbing-bordering-on-cute or cute-bordering-on-disturbing creatures. This is Miyazaki top to bottom, and cute as a button—the lightest of his films that I’ve seen (I have yet to see Totoro). All in all, it was a little too light for me—I was waiting for some real threat and darkness to appear on the horizon, as they did in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, for instance (Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service remain my favorite Miyazaki films). But no. Even tsunamis and catastrophic flooding can’t dampen the mood of the characters or the film as a whole, and the final choice struck me as anticlimactic and far too easy for the characters to make.

Oh, and the final theme song, as rendered in English, hurts. GOD, the remixed peppiness, coming after a perfectly good Joe Hisaishi score and a pleasant-if-in-no-way-surprising Miyazaki film. Why, soundtrack? Why?

Stiil, if you’ve not seen Miyazaki’s films before, go try this one. It won’t hurt you, and it had all of Miyazaki’s trademarks. If you want to see him at what I think is his best, try Spirited Away.

When I was very small, five or six, living in a dusty blue suburban home in Centreville, Virginia, with my parents and my brother and sister (I’ve been to Colorado and Florida, and here I’ve been, back in Virginia, for about eight years now), one of the neighbors came across the street to introduce themselves to my mom. I don’t really remember who she was, though I know my mom would know—a couple who lived on Cristo Court right across from us for a while. She was brunette, and she brought a paper plate of cookies. Cookie bars.

They were delicious.

They still are delicious.

This recipe is still on the back of every package of Nestle semi-sweet chocolate morsels, and I think it’s the first cookie I remember. I reconciled myself entirely with eating gluten-free (celiac disease runs in my family) when I discovered they taste almost the same made with rice flour. If you want them non-gluten-free, just nix the xanthan gum and use white flour instead of rice.

2 1/4 cups brown rice flour (or white flour, for non-gluten-free)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup butter (two sticks, make sure they’ve been let set out or microwaved until they’re soft enough to scootch around and stir)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar (squash out all the lumps)
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 (12 oz.) package of chocolate chips (I’ve tried Ghiradelli’s semi-sweet, which work fine; Ghiradelli bittersweet, which is not bad but too tangy and complicated for me to prefer it; and Nestle semi-sweet, which is cheaper and ye olde standby)
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans are my favorite, but walnuts are cheaper. You can put them on top instead of mixing them in, too)
1 1/2 tsp xanthan gum (nix this if you’re using white flour)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the dry ingredients (rice, sugars, xanthan, baking soda, salt—but not the chips and nuts) together.

Mix butter and sugar in a separate bowl, until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla, mix, and then add the dry ingredients. Mix those all together (watch the brown sugar, I spend time chasing around any lumps and crushing them out), and then mix in the chips and nuts.

Spread out in a 9×13 glass pan sprayed with Pam or otherwise oiled. It’ll seem a bit thin in the pan, but that’s okay; just make sure you don’t leave any “holes” where the pan bottom shows through.

Bake for 20-25 mins., depending on how you like your consistency or your oven runs. I go for the low end (about 21 mins.), because I like them still slightly soft in the center. The high end makes them drier, and a bit crunchy around the edges.

EAT THEM. EAT THEM ALL. These last me . . . way too short a period of time. Oh, and my mother just made some with sour cream and ground hazelnuts instead of whole nuts, and they’re not bad, either. More of the tang of sour cream, and a smoother consistency. My mother also said that she used to make cookie bars all the time for us when we were little because we were at that we-have-no-teeth phase (losing all our baby teeth, and the adult ones not grown in), and they were soft enough to eat

John Buescher, a co-worker and the fellow who wrote this book has a collection of public-domain images he uses to illustrate articles he writes for the website project we work for. I copyedit some of these articles, and one of today’s included the following:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

He says it was from a newspaper serial story. I really wish I could find more like this. I kind of want this framed. On my wall. FEAR THE FROG AND ITS GAPING MAW.

A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot, by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett, 1996, 308 p.

For years, I’ve been curious about tarot cards; from the perspective of a child of vaguely Protestant upbringing, they had an air of taboo about them—of being bad and wrong—but they also had detailed, complicated, fantastical imagery. I love symbols, and I love fantastical art and I read in fantasy/science-fiction fields, so I inevitably came up against references to tarot or images from tarot again and again. Writers love to throw tarot around; the symbolism’s right there on the surface, easy to use and easy to assign to characters, freighted with the weight of mysticism in a rational-scientific world and paganism in a predominately Christian English-speaking world.

I bought my first deck a few months ago (the Tarot of the Cat People—the art had cats and a retro style heavy in blue that appealed to me), on a roleplaying excuse. I was developing a character who would be a tarot reader, and I had to know something about the cards to write a reader, didn’t I?

Yes, I did; but also, yes, I just wanted to finally get my hands on some tarot cards.

After reading a dime-a-dozen guide on basic tarot symbolism and the symbolism book that came with the deck (many decks can, if you choose to buy a set, come with a symbolism book), I wrote up my character, and then went on to buy four more decks, because I love pictures and comparing interpretations of common symbols.

I also started looking for books on the factual history of tarot—not the mystical histories invented by some practitioners of tarot, but a documented academic history.

I found one in this book.

Unfortunately, it’s rendered nigh on unreadable because that’s exactly what it is: a documented academic history, with no regard for crafting a readable or intuitive narrative through which the reader may follow the development of tarot from an Italian deck of playing cards through to a French cartomantic pastime and fad to a widespread tool of occultism, purported to preserve the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians.

The text follows a generally chronological course, describing major figures in tarot and occult history as they made their contributions (Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, Eliphas Levi, Papus, and others—the timeline ends at the beginning of the 20th century). However, it fails to hold together in its chronology, skipping back and forth between minor figures and major figures in any time period, jumping from using a figure’s occult pseudonyms to his given name and back again, and sidelining into long digression. The entire chapter on Mlle Le Normand could have been summed up in one line: Le Normand made little if any contributions to tarot history. Instead, like the chapters on figures who made substantive contributions, her chapter wanders through a long list of scattered biographical details, bibliographical listings of her works, and dates in her life, to prove, it seems, very thoroughly, that she contributed nothing at all to tarot. While that may be academically sound writing, it left me finishing the chapter with the distinct impression that I had wasted a great deal of time for very little information.

The book as a whole runs in the same fashion. Between flipping back and forth between pages and sections, trying to remember which name went with which practitioner and why an occult publisher mentioned much earlier was being brought up again now and if certain events happened before, after, or at the same time as other events and who succeeded who in the legacy of hermetic knowledge and which press put out which deck with which ordering of the trumps when, I gave up. Not that I gave up on reading the book—I held on to the end—but I gave up on making sense of it. I sifted what I could from the data being thrown at me and surfed through the last few pages with relief.

Good. Done. Back to the library.

I learned that the tarot originated in Italy as playing cards and were adopted in France as divination tools in the 1700s (when the French were very into diversions, it seems), that Court de Gebelin introduced the idea that the tarot preserved the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians as “the book of Thoth,” that Etteilla developed a full-blown cartomantic reading system based on this assumption, that Eliphas Levi overturned Etteilla’s system and associated the cards with the Cabala and astronomy, and that Papus brought cartomancy with tarot into the latter half of the 19th century—after it had developed a new fallacious ancient origin with the Gypsies.

I like having all of that information, but it could have been summed up in four or five short chapters, not a 300+ page opus of minutiae without flow or embedded context.

My mom discovered this recipe a few years ago, and it’s one of my favorites (according to the recipe card, she got it from the book Cooking for Mr. Latte). I asked her for it shortly after I left home, and discovered that not only does it taste good, it’s easy to make, and it lasts me for about a week!

My mother serves it over rice (good rice, like basmati or jasmine), and so do I. I throw in extra raisins, though—the fat little sweet brown raisins in the tangy-creamy yellow sauce are my favorite part. I could eat just sauce and rice and be happy.

4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 T Major Grey mango chutney (I find this in the European section of Wegman’s)
1 tsp. curry powder
Juice of one lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of raisins (this is my addition. The chutney comes with raisins in, but not enough. MOAR RAISINS. They get all plump in the sauce, just like the ones in the chutney).

Preheat over to 450 degrees.

Lay chicken flat in a pan sprayed with Pam (or rubbed with oil—I just take a rag and rub the pan with canola oil) and squash it to an even width with your hand. Well, I use my hand, because I am amused by squishing things.

Whisk together mayo, sour cream, chutney, and curry powder. Add lemon juice and whisk thoroughly.

Spoon the sauce over the chicken and roast in the oven for 15 mins. Turn heat down to 325 and roast for another 15-20 mins.

Remove from oven, sprinkle or grind some pepper over the top, and there you go! Make some rice, too, to eat it over. It catches the sauce.

Watch the episode on YouTube.

Having watched “The Omega Glory,” I decided I had to do right by my pop cultural education and familiarize myself with the origins of tribbles. Doing so has confirmed that I will be watching the rest of The Original Series. Also, that I wish I had been whoever was standing above the grain storage hatch in the space station set, pinging small balls of faux fur at William Shatner and making sure that the largest ones hit him squarely in the back of the head while he was trying to deliver his lines.

So far, I like Shatner. Any man who can stand chest-deep in a pile of what look like cheap fur muffs and maintain a balance between not-taking-this-too-seriously-excuse-me-while-I-try-not-to-laugh and acting-like-this-situation-while-ludicrous-and-trying-is-still-a-semi-plausible-reality makes a good first impression with me.

One of the better moments by far was Spock concluding that the tribble he was holding was dead. How could you tell, Spock? And, of course, the fact that Klingons seem to be terrified by tribbles trilling at them—and there’s something vaguely obscene about Kirk thrusting two . . . fuzzy balls at people for the entirety of the final “interrogation by tribble” scene.

Oh, and Scotty and Chekov were both damned adorable.

The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, John Buescher, 2006, 368 p.

A month or so ago, at my workplace (the Center for History and New Media, at George Mason University, where I work on the National History Education Clearinghouse project), I said something to my officemate, John Buescher, about science fiction. John’s an older gentleman, whom I’d never talked to much until our department’s offices got rearranged (also about a month ago) and I ended up office-paired with him; and I was expecting to puzzle him, with my plush facehugger and my Doctor Who pictures and my general geekiness. Instead, he seems to like me—I make him laugh, frequently, and in this case, the mention of science fiction led to him lending me a copy of one of his books, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear.

Turns out, John’s written several books on spiritualism in the 19th century (and on Buddhism, as well); this one follows the life of a man who started out as a preacher and abolition and prison reformer and became an ardent, radical spiritualist, often claiming to speak, in trance, with the voices of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams. John Spear spent his entire life flying further and further off into the fringes of society, attempting to remake human nature through the creation of artificial life, the societal adoption of free love, and the rebirth of dead geniuses through the control of human reproduction and female sexuality. Meanwhile, friends spent their fortunes on grand plans that came to nothing—the creation of a perpetual motion device, the mining of treasures from lost civilizations, the establishment of utopian communities—and the general public and even fellow spiritualists lambasted him from every side.

The book gives a different view of a period of time anyone mucking about in U.S. history hears a lot about—the whole foment of political and cultural tensions leading up to the Civil War. People like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison show up in the story, but they’re not the focus—the Civil War’s barely more than a blip on Spear’s radar, concrete evidence that society as it stands is broken and needs spiritual revolution. Feminists and abolitionists flit about in the background, puzzling at John’s work or ignoring it; it’s a perspective on this time period that makes it clear that not everyone was following the steps set out in U.S. history textbooks.

It’s also a sad book, as it shows a life lived in a desperate search for meaning and for change. John and his fellow spiritualists saw significance where none existed, just as, I think, everyone does, to some degree—signs and symbols and correspondences that we create and then deem inevitable and factual because we see them. While it sounds ridiculous to have sex and ejaculate on a machine to try to imbue it with a motive force—the principal of sympathetic magic is as old as human beings. These people were trying to bring together science and religion/spiritualism into some great magic bullet, a miraculous cure-all that would raise every individual human being up into something that would be a simultaneous magnification and nullification of the self.

They were trying to gain power and meaning by giving themselves up to forces beyond the self—possession let them speak as people with authority, who inarguably had something to say, instead of as human beings, whose ideas could be criticized and tested and rejected.

They looked beyond themselves for meaning, and found nothing there and made something up to fill the void. The way we all do. But for John and his group of spiritualists the result was even more bizarre and irrational and self-contradicting than most such constructs—and, through exaggeration, points back to the absurdity of our lesser, “normal” faiths and the networks of meaning and purpose we construct for ourselves.

I’ve been reading this in conjunction with a book on the history of tarot (its evolution from a pack of playing cards to an occultist tool), the memoirs of Casanova, and a collection of essays on game design; and all of the texts reflect on each other, showing the ways in which humans struggle to make significance and meaning out of life.

Also, John (Buescher, not Spear) is apparently a lapsed-Catholic-lapsed-Buddhist-turned-Catholic-again. People have interesting lives, and you would never know about those lives by just glancing contact with them. We’re all secrets.