If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake

2 04 2018

Why didn’t anyone tell me about The Great British Baking Show?

Okay, yes, there all kinds of social media stories and tweets and whatnot about the show, but still.

I was scrolling through Netflix last weekend, once again failing to get into Jessica Jones, and thought, huh, this Brit bake bit, why not.

Why not, indeed. I slurped down that first season Fri-Sat, then on Sunday watched the entirety of season two. This past weekend, did the same with seasons three and four. (I was going to save that last available season until next weekend, but then thought, Who am I kidding, and binged away.)

I don’t know why I liked it so much. I have watched my share of cooking shows (tho’ I’m not much for cooking) and enjoy baking (tho’ rarely do), and even a few competitive cooking shows, but nothing about all of the media around the show made me particularly want to watch it.

The set-up (for the eight of you who haven’t watch it) is simple: 12 (in one season, 13) amateur bakers start in episode one; after 3 different bakes judged by two judges (and watched over by the mildly-comic-relief hosts), one person is declared star baker and one sent home. Episode 2, same as the first, on down to the last episode, in which the final three bakers compete for the title.

That’s it. Regular folk from across the UK watching their custards curdle and caramels crystallize and peering into their ovens for their goods to rise and bake in the too-little time left.

All the while trying to meet judge Mary Berry’s standard of “sheer perfection”.

It’s charming.

The bakers are both competitive and cooperative, aware of their own positions but also helping each other and teasing each other and sharing a kind of esprit de corps in the face of the judges oft bewildering instructions.

And withering criticism: Berry and fellow judge Paul Hollywood are unsparing, clear in what they like and don’t like.

That first season, I admit, I cringed at the criticism. I found it hard to watch the bakers as they presented wilted towers and underbaked breads to the judges, watched the color flow into or out of their faces as Berry and Hollywood noted precisely what was wrong with the bake.

Of course, there was plenty of praise for “good bakes”, too, but it was the criticism that got to me.

I’m terrible with criticism, more so now than I was when younger (when I was also not great with it). I have difficulty separating a critique of a performance or an essay from an evaluation of my very existence as a human being, which has meant, unsurprisingly, that I have difficulty putting forth anything which matters to me out in front of other people.

I have of course: am doing so now, with this blog. But it took awhile to get comfortable with this—early on I went to some effort to separate my give name from my chosen blog-name—and even now I oft say, Well, it’s not like any of this matters.

(Which is, of course, a dismissal of those of you who do read this. The joy of neuroses lies in the double move of magnifying the number of those who see one’s faults and diminishing those who see the good.)

Anyway, these firefighters and gardeners and stay-at-home moms and students are afraid—literally shaking afraid—and putting themselves out there in front of gods and country and having a go.

So there it is: not just charming, but inspiring.


Your Captain says: Put your head in your hands.

20 01 2010

There are days—many days, actually—when it sucks to be a student of politics.

This is one of them.

Not because Martha Coakley lost in Massachusetts to a nice head of hair (although that’s not really helping my mood), but because the crappiness of political analysis in this country has gone critical.

That’s called  a shitstorm, my friends, and we’ve been livin’ in it for too many years.

Given the constant effluvia, you’d think I’d be used to it by now, hunkered down in a cave of indifference and/or utterly uncaring of the stench of politics.

But no, if you care about politics, ain’t no way to plug oneself up against the raining—or shall I say reigning?—of nonsense.

Please note that this is not strictly or even mainly about partisan politics. I’m a pinko, so I know I’m always going to lose. Sometimes I get to vote for people who are within shouting (really loud!) distance of my agenda, and that’s nice, but, really, socialists don’t have much goin’ on in this country.

Nor is this (directly) about nasty language, gossip, hypocrisy, and the hypercompetitiveness of candidates.

Nooo, this is more about the structure of politics in the US, how we—left, right, and otherwise—do politics.

First: the nastiness. Well, duh. I may hold and Arendtian/Aristotelian understanding of politics as the sphere of the good life, but neither of them had much of a theory of actual governance. And actual governance is hard, performed by people with strong and conflicting opinions, people who had to scratch and spit and shed blood to get into the position to govern.

I don’t know that this is in every way the best way to find politicians, but if you want responsive government, then there’s election by lot, election through competition, and . . . what else?

Thus, given that competition is built into our system, you’d think that journalists and pundits and the politicians themselves would not be surprised when candidates compete! And that they would be similarly phlegmatic when those in the throes of competition get angry, trash talk, and otherwise behave as if they want and expect to win.

No. Instead of sobriety or stoicism, we get titillation, as seen most recently in Game Change, by the alleged journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Oo! Hillary said a bad word! Or famously temperamental Senator McCain yelled bad words at his wife! Or the other candidates really didn’t like Mitt Romney!

Over three hundred interviews with over two hundred witnesses/participants/soreheads on ‘deep background’ and we get Gossip Pols?

But the omnipresent irritation of the presence of pundits is not, however, the main target of this rant.

Nope, I’m just going to go ahead and smack all of us as lousy citizens.

Not because each of us individually is a lousy citizen, but because we have created a system in which it is very difficult to be a good citizen.

Politicians who know better say we can cut the deficit without raising taxes or reducing or eliminating popular programs or entitlements.

Pundits who know better ponder the re-election chances of a president three years ahead of the election.

Citizens who know better say we want lower taxes and less government and clean streets and good schools and safe cities.

We want one-hundred-percent protection against terrorism and cheap flights with easy check-in procedures.

We want excellent teachers and low property taxes.

We want cheap water and few regulations.

You see how this could continue; you could probably add your own 2 or 3 or twenty.

It’s not that Americans are more stupid than anyone else, or even more covetous. It’s that we’ve gotten so used to thinking of our wants as rights that we’ve neglected to do the hard work of accounting for our wants; instead, we demand, and castigate any negotiations over those demands.

(Oh, and when there’s any kind of inequality, we err in the other direction by confusing want and need, and punish those who are attempt to translate those needs into rights.)

Politicians respond to this, we respond to the politicians, and the pundits keep smug score.

The problem is systemic. Individual citizens may understand that if you wanna get, you gotta give, and adjust their expectations accordingly. I don’t like taxes, but am willing to pay them in order to create a more generous social-welfare net; libertarians might like some government services, but are willing to forgo them in order to lower their tax burden; social conservatives might be willing to trade liberty for authority. At that individual or local level, some of us, perhaps many or most of us, get it.

But since we are treated as a mass or series of masses by politicians and pundits, and are sometimes too eager to associate ourselves with some mass or another, we get a politics based on the ebbs and flows of the mass, and the reaction cycle between mass, politician, and pundit.

And that’s exactly what our system has become: reactionary. No thinking, no leading, no acting—only re-acting to the latest outrage du jour.

Irresponsibility, all around.

What does this mean? Not much, really. We can probably chug along in our politically-irresponsibly ways for years, if not decades, which means that it’s possible that something could happen in the meantime to break us out of this cycle.

But even a slo-mo degradation is still degradation.

Which helps to explain the occasional rants by those of us who do care about our politics.

Don’t get your back up over this

1 06 2009

I don’t lose arguments.

Arrogant? Maybe. But also true.

I have lost arguments, many, many, arguments. But not anymore.

Why not? I’m not a genius, and I don’t know everything, so it’s not as if I couldn’t lose an argument. And I still get pissed off and lose my mind—which is not so good from the never-lose-argument perspective.

And I still drink.

Nonetheless, there are a number of very good reasons why I no longer lose arguments:

One—and this is the most important reason—I don’t engage in arguments I know I’ll lose.

It is so, so easy to avoid losing arguments if you keep yer yap shut when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I don’t argue about baseball statistics, the appropriate strike formation for an attack on North Korea, or the best way to skin a rabbit. I don’t argue about the advantages of a V- versus inline-cylinder engine, the success rates of arthroscopic surgery, or what makes a souffle rise or fall.

In other words, I don’t argue about most things, because I don’t know most things.

Two, I always admit when I don’t know something. This is not only the honorable thing to do, but it’s also useful: I don’t hang an entire argument on a questionable piece of information.

So, for example, I might suggest that the reasons that women get abortions early in their pregancies are distinct from the reasons of women who procure later-term abortions. I don’t know this for sure, i.e., I haven’t conducted a survey or read through all the data on abortions, but I’ve done enough reading to render this a plausible argument.

But that’s as far as I’ll go. I won’t say This is a fact or Everybody knows when I don’t know if it’s a fact and it’s not something that everybody would know.

(And I never say Everybody knows. Good lord, talk about an easy way to lose an argument: All one’s interlocutor has to say is I don’t know that and game over.)

Three, I’m ruthless. I’ll nail the other person for trying surreptitiously to change the terms of the argument, using a phrase carelessly, or trying to back away from a statement which has since become problematic.

Four, I don’t cheat. This is the flip side to number three: I don’t put myself in a position where the other person can call me out.

Five, I don’t argue when I’m drunk. Anymore.

Six, I don’t argue when I’m really angry. Anymore.

You’ll note, then, that my overall posture is defensive. I don’t overextend myself and always seek the firm ground, and a large part of my strategy is simply waiting for or baiting the other person (in)to making a mistake.

This strategy, of course, does not necessarilly lead to winning. I do sometimes win arguments, especially when I have a command of the facts that the other person does not or I simply frustrate the other person into a blunder, but more often I simply don’t lose. Draw.

I learned the beauty of the draw in grad school, after losing many many arguments to my friend D. D. was smarter than me, more worldly, already had a master’s upon entering the Ph.D. program, and one of the most competitive people I’d ever met. We’d start a conversation, which would turn into an argument, which would turn into a wipeout.

Then, at some point, I got smarter. I paid attention to how D. argued, how he’d slice away the portions of an argument which were inconvenient to his point of view, change the terms of the debate, or assert matters of fact which were, in fact, contestable.

I say this in admiration. He was smart and competitive and knew that the rules only mattered if you got caught. And I started to catch him, and once I did, I stopped losing to him. I don’t think I ever won an argument, but I could draw him out until we would admit to a mutual, exhausted, halt.

THAT was victory.

This history helps to explain why I love to argue with people who are smarter than me: It makes me sharper and forces me to call on every last scrap of knowledge in order to keep up.

Similarly, the desire to stay sharp goes a long way toward explaining why I keep up with the arguments of whatever ‘other’ side there is to an issue I care about. If they have a good argument I want to know it, so I can learn how to counter it.

(No, it’s not all tactical. I also keep up with ‘other’ sides because ‘my’ side has its own blind spots, and if I truly want to know something, I have to be able to see what I can’t see.)

To state that I don’t lose arguments isn’t to say that I’m never wrong. I’m often wrong—I don’t know most things, after all—and, given that I don’t know most things, am far too free with my words. But these are fragments, shootin’-the-shit briefs with coworkers or friends meant to be toss-offs. Assertions, after all, are not arguments.

Finally, I should reiterate that I don’t, in fact, engage in many arguments. I argue with Jtt. because she’s always ready for a throw-down, and always willing to put her authoritarian views on the line. (Also, every conversation with Jtt. can seem like an argument, even when it’s not. It’s how she is.)

But it’s rare that an opportunity for a truly interesting argument presents itself, one in which all present are sober (enough) and engaged (enough) and informed (enough) to really go tits-out  into battle.

And that’s cool. Once I no longer worried about losing arguments, it was no longer so important to turn every discussion into an argument. Now I can have good, heated, involved, conversations with friends, conversations in which our passions lead us to question and into uncertainty and, perhaps, into discovery.

I like to compete, and to know that I can compete. I also like that there’s more to conversation than competition.