Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Primal Dumplings

Would you like to taste my crocodile-wattle-seed dumplings?” This was not an inventive sexual proposition but an invitation to taste a line of fusion gyoza. I was asked to sample the gentleman’s dumplings yesterday at the Fancy Food Show, having finagled a press pass along with my friend Laura. Line after line of booths filled the Moscone Center, and eager sales reps vied to get you to taste their samples. I declined the gyoza, but I gorged on chocolate-covered champagne grapes and lemon-chiffon goat-cheese ice cream.

When I could eat no more, I concentrated on filling the large bag I had brought with me. I did everything I could to get free samples. I dropped the name of the food magazine I sometimes write for, and accepted armfuls of promotional material that I then discreetly ditched. Sometimes I resorted to shameless flirting. It wasn’t enough for me to get a miniature gift box. I wanted the salespeople to dig out the bigger gifts they kept hidden under the cloth-draped tables, the entire cakes and the bottles of olive oil, the industrial-size bags of chocolate buttons. I grew greedier and greedier, and soon I found myself accepting things I did not want, such as a box of Gourmet Seasoning Sheets. I didn’t want to eat any more, I just wanted to take. Grabbing stuff gave me a primal thrill and it is obvious why. Sitting at my computer all day is unnatural. We evolved to spend our days hunting and gathering. As I roamed the convention hall gathering gourmet goods, I was satisfying ancient instincts.

Then my eye caught a pile of beribboned bags of fennel-seed crackers stacked up on a table. I ignored the tray of samples and reached for one of the bags, asking “Can I have this?” as I did so. The handsome Italian running the booth hesitated. Instantly I realized I had violated some unwritten code. You had to be offered a bag. You couldn’t ask for a bag. Asking for a bag was like knocking on someone’s door and asking to join the dinner party you had seen through their front window. The look the salesman gave me was more shaming than a slap on the wrist. When he handed me the bag, I gave it to Laura. I knew that his disdain would make the crackers taste like ash.

On the way home, I felt disgusted with myself. I was a glutton who snatched things she didn’t deserve. And on top of that, I had wasted half an afternoon of writing. I decided that the best way to redeem myself would be to share my bounty with someone hungrier than I was. I rooted through my bag of overwrought tidbits but I couldn’t decide if offering lemon-scented miniature madeleines to a homeless person would be worse than offering nothing at all. When I got home, like a kid after Halloween, I emptied my haul onto the kitchen table and felt slightly nauseous.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Quiet Flirting

A handful of people sat in a cordoned-off section of the Canvas Café, at tables bearing fresh white index cards and ballpoint pens. They were guests at a Quiet Party, where speaking aloud is forbidden. Instead, you must write everything down. I thought this was a brilliant idea. Here communication would be stripped down to the essentials. People wouldn’t bother with idle chitchat—they’d soon give themselves carpal tunnel. Instead, we would quickly discover how much of what we say about parties is really worth writing down. Maybe we wouldn’t use words at all. Instead we would truly get to know each other as human beings, gazing deep into each other’s eyes, the windows of the soul. Or maybe we’d just play endless games of Hangman.

My friend Chris and I sat down at a table with a pale man in black, and a pretty, curly-haired young woman. Everyone stared furiously at the blank paper in front of them, as if they’d just begun an exam. Then the curly-haired woman wrote: “Have you come to one of these before?” The man sitting to my right passed me a card saying “Hi! My name is Ed.” And a fellow with thinning hair tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a card saying in crabby handwriting: “You have incredible eyes. What do you do for fun?” My heart sank. Instead of distilling what they had to say to its purest essence, people were just saying exactly what they normally would at parties—only it looked twice as boring written down.

The dark-haired man opposite me wasn’t writing anything. Then he slid a message across the table: “Soon someone will crack and speak,” it said. I seized this opportunity to deviate from boring small talk. “Then they will be severely punished,” I wrote. “Sounds like fun,” was his response. I scribbled: “Their tongue will be torn out and fed to pigeons, and then they will be locked in a dungeon, and not the S&M kind.” He flinched. Unable to use my tone of voice to signal that I was kidding, my playfulness had fallen flat. After that, obviously believing me to have a violent, sadistic nature, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. I sat staring glumly into my lap, suddenly afflicted with writer's block.

My therapist once asked me why I wasn’t comfortable with silence. Perhaps she was bored with listening to me talk, but I think what she meant was that in silence I might find the real me. Instead of trying to entertain people with jokes and stories, in silence I might learn to just be myself, or better yet, just be. But persiflage was so much part of my personality that without words I felt as if I was fading away.

Next to me, Chris was flirting with the curly-haired woman, who was giggling like a schoolgirl passing notes. Although the Quiet Party wasn’t a good place to have a conversation, it was a great place to pick someone up. After all, when you’re flirting with someone, your body language matters as much or more than what you say. And usually when talking to someone, you take meeting their eyes for granted. But at the Quiet Party, where people spent most of their time looking down as they wrote, meeting someone’s eyes was a much more powerful experience.

I didn’t want to make bedroom eyes at some stranger. But if I couldn’t flirt, at least I could help other people do so. I started writing “You’re so hot!!!” on note cards and throwing them surreptitiously over my shoulder. When Jason threw a rock among the skeleton warriors, each suspected his neighbor and soon they were fighting each other. I thought my notes would be like his rock, only instead of fighting, people would be exchanging phone numbers. Sure enough, when I left soon after, people were scribbling furiously, index cards snowing to the floor.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bus Stops and the Blitz

Due to its versatility, the British word "bollocks" has been called “the Swiss Army Knife of andrological profanities.” Maybe I’m out of touch with the nuances of my native tongue, but I find “bollocks” rather limited. The term "bullshit" is both more pungent and more polysemous. Like “bollocks,” “bullshit” can mean “nonsense, lies,” as in “He’s talking bullshit.” But it can also refer to something that is unacceptable, as in “I’ve had enough of your bullshit” or “The war in Iraq is bullshit.”

The difference between the two terms reflects a difference in national character. The Brits don’t have a word for that which is unacceptable, because their nature is to accept. This trait can be noble (the Blitz) or foolish (the inefficient plumbing). But, for better or worse, Americans tend to expect things to go their way, and to be outraged if they do not.

Take the way people ask for things. On my visit to England over the holidays, a woman approached me as I was taking a shopping basket in the supermarket and said: “Excuse me, would you mind doing me a favor, please? Would you pass me one of those shopping baskets too?” She spoke as if she hardly dared expect her request to be granted, as if she was asking me for a kidney or my firstborn. An American would have used less than half as many words: “Would you grab me a basket, please?”

But perhaps because the terrible weather has forced them to be this way, the Brits are adepts at acceptance. A few years ago I was waiting for a bus in London. As it approached, the people waiting dug out change for their tickets and formed a line. Then we watched as, at the last moment, the rogue bus turned down a different street, trundling out of sight. Americans might have started fuming and saying “This is bullshit!” Without looking at each other or saying anything, the English, with resignation in their eyes, stiffened their upper lips and started walking.