View From Nowhere: Addictions

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

The original intent of this column is to explore how humanity might appear to extraterrestrials, the ultimate outsiders. Honestly, there are times when I wonder if such beings would even perceive us as sentient. After all, it is a matter of debate as to just how much conscious control over their own actions humans hold. We are a species marked by a proneness to addictions.

When we speak of addictions, most people think of addictions to substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or any one of a number of legal and illegal drugs. Obsessive, out-of-control consumption of any of these can lead to great financial, social and health problems, a situation that clearly marks serious addictions. Such addictions are common to not just people everywhere but a surprising variety of animals. In parts of southeast Asia drunken elephant rampages can be a lifethreatening side effect of making rice wine should an elephant stumble across the buckets used to ferment the beverages. For a good introduction to the subject of intoxication in the wild, there are many good books, but one I enjoyed was Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication.

But addictions are not just to substances. Humans are also known for behavioral addictions.

To understand behavioral addictions, it’s important to understand the mechanisms behind them. Many of us humans are often in a great deal of pain and discomfort. For some this is physical discomfort but for others, their pain has a psychological cause. There can be many sources of this pain. Poor self image, low self esteem, unrealistic expectations that make one feel like you’ve never done what one should, there can be as many different causes for pain as there are suffering people. In some cases, a solution is simple, once people recognize which patterns of thought are causing them trouble. David D. Burns, a psychiatrist, wrote a book called Feeling Good that does a good job of teaching people to monitor their own thoughts and reduce such pain. Still in many cases, the problem is much more serious and difficult to correct.

People in pain, regardless of whether that pain is psychic or physical in origin, generally take actions to avoid feeling that pain. For instance, responses to pain could include pulling a hand away from a fire or hot stove or taking an aspirin. These are healthy responses.

Unhealthy reactions to pain, particularly psychic pain, include seeking out situations that are so intense that the person will not feel their own internally generated discomfort. Once a person has found such a state, a pain-free state caused by a situation where they cannot feel their own discomfort, they often wish to return to it and seek out similar situations. For this reason, intensely emotional situations can be literally addictive.

Recently, with high profile cases like Tiger Woods and David Duchovny, sex addiction has been in the news. Can a person be addicted to sex? To some extent the issue hinges on the definition used. (Definition of addiction, not the definition of sex.) If we start with a definition of addiction that hinges on a person’s willingness to seek out something while knowing full well that they shouldn’t and that they may cause themselves and others great social, financial and physical damage, then the answer is obviously yes. In fact, who among us has not risked some sort of social problem in an attempt to, if not exactly get sex, at least get a date?

And why, pray tell, is it that when the subject of dating comes up my mind immediately goes to such subjects as anger, crisis-seeking and large quantities of unnecessary drama? Setting aside what this says about my own tendencies towards seeking out unnecessary drama to spice up my life and distract me from my own personal problems, anger, crises and intense drama all can produce states where a person does not feel their own inner pain. Therefore, for some people, they can be more attractive than mundane, uninterrupted, everyday existence. And, thus, for some people, including a surprising number of my dates over the years, all these things can be addictive. (They may also have something to do with why I not only sought out such people, but why I also have been attracted to activities like ambulance work and for a couple seasons enjoyed the sledding sport of skeleton.)

And sometimes even after a person learns that a particular activity is not healthy, and they stop doing it, they find another, possibly equally unhealthy way to avoid pain. This is why the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating. A person shifts from one release to another. They quit smoking and then start taking solace in the pleasures of food, only to soon begin to overeat. Or they go from a life lived in pursuit of drugs to a life lived in pursuit of such things as the intense thrill of staking something they can’t afford to lose a bet. In Chuck Pahlaniuk’s novel Choke there’s a very funny scene where a character overcomes sex addiction and instead tries to keep busy through rock collecting only to eventually find his cabinets, his microwave and every other nook and cranny of his house stuffed with rocks. Ultimately he and a good friend get together and soon take all the rocks outside and build a wall with them.

It’s because of this shifting from one source of pain-relief to another that so much of the discussion in the addiction and recovery field often focuses on such things as “healing the inner child,” “getting in touch with your pain,” and other terminology that sounds quite strange or even silly to an outsider.

Still, the issue is real. Behaviors can be addictive. Need proof? Visit a friend whose collecting has grown out of bounds and who clearly has too much stuff. Yes, that warm fuzzy feeling of purchasing a desired item can often become an end in itself, quite separated from any need or desire to possess. And, it can reach unhealthy levels, and thereby qualify as an addiction. Credit card debt and excessive loans can be one more aspect of the problem.

The intent of this column is to give some thought as to how humanity might appear to space aliens. In this context it has always struck me as fascinating to see what a sentient species might make of our own species’ tendency towards unhealthy, undesirable, and self-destructive behaviors. Would they dismiss us out of hand as a race prone to slipping in and out of control and therefore dangerously erratic, unpredictable and impossible to deal with? Or are occasional lapses in rationality inevitable for a sentient species? Might they have their own irrational and self-destructive behaviors? And if so what form might these take? We can only imagine, but don’t think about it too hard. You might have trouble stopping.

It’s for this very reason that the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating.

 

The Gallery: S.C. Watson

 

I’ve been working with S.C. Watson for six years now. And I hadn’t realized until now how little I know about him until I sat down to write this blurb. I can tell you that his name is Shane and he’s amazingly talented, but that’s about it. Oh, and he’s frequently very very busy. He did his first piece of art for Nth Degree in April 2004, a black and white illustration for Johnny Eponymous’ story “Nutria.” Since then, S.C. has done three incredible cover illustrations for us, usually on pretty short notice.

I’ll just let his art speak for him.

 

Dear Cthulhu: Issue #19

DearCthulhuLogo

 

Dear Cthulhu,

I am constantly being criticized by friends and even strangers for breastfeeding my son in public. They all try to tell me he’s too old. I think it is up to the mother when she stops breastfeeding her kids. Besides, he just won’t take the formula. I’ve tried and he doesn’t like it. If it helps, my little one turned thirty-six last month.

–Momma Manning the Milk Pumps

 

Dear Milk,

Traditionally when the child can open up the mother’s shirt and help himself to a snack, it is time to cut them off. And it is quite possible that your behavior is keeping him from meeting women his own age to play and procreate with. If you are interested in grandchildren, I suggest stopping the feeding immediately. But look at it this way. You have kept your mammaries going for almost four decades. Maintain that with a breast pump for a while longer and you may be able to feed your grandchildren as well. I would suggest not mentioning it to your future daughter-inlaw or your son’s baby’s momma because she would probably not understand and would likely ban you from babysitting.

 

 

Dear Cthulhu,

I’m an avid gardener and I had been having trouble with vermin. I set traps, sprayed and put up those little sonic things to drive them off, and it didn’t do a bit of good. Something kept stealing my carrots so I waited patiently in my garden with a shovel in my right hand and a bottle of bourbon in my left. Finally after three hours, a rabbit showed up and I caught him nibbling on my cucumbers, so I clocked him over the head. The memory of that horrible clang has stayed with me ever since. That and the sloshing sound my bourbon made as it poured out onto the ground. I’m not sure which haunts me more.

The poor critter’s head was caved in and blood turned his white coat red. The worst part was his tiny little eyes stayed open and seemed to be staring at me, accusing me of murder. That or the voices in my head were messing with me again.

I’ve never killed anything before, not even a spider. Unless you count with my car and I don’t. I mean it can’t really count since they took my license away, right? Besides I’d been having a stressful week, finding out my girlfriend was cheating on me with her Clydesdale. If I had to be honest, I probably took out my jealousy on the rabbit, not that that excuses the bunnicide. Or the Clydesdale back-kicking me when I tried to make it a eunuch. My fault on both counts. I should have brought something sharper and bigger than the file on my nail clippers for the operation, but my probation doesn’t allow me to get caught carrying sharp weapons.

I buried the dead fuzzy thing near the tomatoes. Can’t waste good fertilizer, right? Since it was technically a memorial service, I tried to say a few words, but I got too choked up. Plus I didn’t really know Fuzzy, so I switched themes and poured some booze on the rabbit and lit him up. Technically Fuzzy died in battle so I figured he deserved a Viking funeral. I even jammed a couple of twigs in the side of his head to made it look like he was wearing one of those helmets. I’m a little fuzzy on what happened to Fuzzy, but he may have gotten up and ran around while he was still on fire. I told him to stop, drop and roll, but he didn’t listen. I guess he couldn’t hear me over all the noise. I never knew a rabbit could scream. Of course that’s assuming it wasn’t alcohol-induced hallucinations, but I usually enjoy those.

Now Fuzzy is haunting me. First in nightmares, then I saw a rabbit running through my garden and I knew it had to be Fuzzy back from the dead. One time I saw three of him. Double I’m used to, but triple? And one of him was even different colors. All of them were still eating my veggies, but I figured I owed him so I only chased him around with the shovel for an hour or so before I passed out and decided to let him go.

I figured I’d best move his body somewhere else so both of us could rest in peace. The problem is I didn’t exactly mark off where I buried Fuzzy and I was rather drunk at the time. And it’s also possible his flaming ghost may have risen from the grave to burn down my neighbor’s house. Witnesses said they saw a flaming rabbit running around the building right before it went up in smoke. Truth be told, it could have been the same night as the Viking funeral. Time sort of runs together when I drink. And I’m not really sure if I hooked up with a hot Playmate Bunny around that time or if something else happened that I’d rather not talk about. Of course it would explain some rather embarrassing burn marks.

How do I exorcise the spirit of this crazed rabbit and get my life and garden back?

–Killed The Rabbit In Kalamazoo

 

Dear Kalamazoo,

Haunted by the dead and angry spirit of a murdered bunny rabbit. Certainly not something for the faint of heart. There is indeed a way to rid yourself of this horrible specter, but it will not be easy. In fact I suggest you make sure you are halfway to inebriation before even trying it. It does not sound like it will be a long trip.

First you must strip off all your clothes and tie a single carrot around the front of your waist, as well as one to each wrist and another pair to your head that are pointed upward over each ear. Next, you must start doing the bunny hop in your garden and make your way down the street to your neighbor’s burnt home, all the while chanting “Bunny, bunny go away, don’t come back to haunt me another day.” The more people who see you the better. Cthulhu will be sending a film crew as well. I need an entry for a home video show.

Have A Dark Day.

 

 

Dear Cthulhu welcomes letters and questions at DearCthulhu@dearcthulhu.com. All letters become the property of Dear Cthulhu and may be used in future columns. Dear Cthulhu is a work of fiction and satire and is © and ™ Patrick Thomas. All rights reserved. Anyone foolish enough to follow the advice does so at their own peril.

 

The Editor’s Rant: Issue #18

by Michael D. Pederson

 

Wow. It’s only February and I’m already exhausted. Who would have thought that running an annual convention (RavenCon), a NASFiC (ReConStruction, the North American Science Fiction Convention) and publishing a semiprozine would be so much work? Apparently everyone but me because I’ve had innumerable people telling me that I was crazy to take so much on in one year. I may need to see if Chris Garcia has some kind of secret drug that helps him multi-task.

I’ve learned a lot though. The differences between running a mid-sized local convention and a large national convention are enormous. Although we’re predicting ReConStruction to only be between two to three times the size of an average RavenCon, the logistics and man-hours are proving to be about ten times more. I know that part of this is because we’re using a convention center and two hotels. However, I have to wonder if some of the extra baggage is the result of years and years of Worldcon “wisdom” being handed down as the “correct/only” way to do things. Does any convention really need a staff of nearly one hundred people? We’re pushing seventy now but I know that we’re still trying to fill several slots and will probably end up with nearly a hundred staffers when all is said and done.

That said though, everything is progressing nicely. We have a fantastic group of Division Heads that (for the most part) play nicely together and have a coherent vision of what the convention should look like. And, luckily for me, RavenCon is reaching the point where it practically runs itself. The only snag this year is being in a new hotel again.

As for the zine… Well, I’m glad that I have it up and running again but I really wish I had waited until NASFiC was behind me. I think I’m going to go take a nap now.

 

View From Nowhere: Languages and Science Fiction

languageAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

Remember that mandatory scene in almost every science fiction movie, the one where everyone is surprised the aliens speak English? Or makes reference to languages like “Romulan,” “Klingon,” “Minbari,” or even “Barsoomian,” each indicating that an entire sentient species speaks a single tongue? Of course, realism aside, these advance the plot without characters stumbling over memorization of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. And there are exceptions. Tolkein and the less well-known games and novels of M.A.R. Barker’s science-fantasy world of Tekumel revel in linguistic complexity. Still, if there’s one area where much science fiction loses me, it’s when language differences are explained away with a wave of one’s hand

Language diversity is, after all, a universal human trait linked to our adaptability. As people form groups they begin to speak differently. The more isolation, the more time, the more societal change, the more these groups’ languages tend to diverge. This results in such interesting facts as Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) being home to more than 100 languages. In China and India, although numbers are in dispute, linguistic complexity is everywhere. In Africa and India, the colonial languages of French, Portuguese and English retain surprising importance largely because of the underlying linguistic diversity of the regions.

Few Americans really appreciate the natural linguistic diversity of mankind. This is probably because the many indigenous languages of the Americas have been largely supplanted by English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Commonly, our awareness of European linguistics is low as well. In the United Kingdom, not just English is spoken but also Welsh and Scotch and Irish Gaelic. In the nation of Spain commonly spoken languages include not just Spanish but also Catalan, Galician and the entirely unrelated language of Basque.

A quick look at Beowulf or the writings of Shakespeare demonstrates that the English spoken in the past is not the English spoken today. Language diversity is temporal as well as geographic and cultural, although most time travel stories ignore this.

Some science fiction bypasses the problem by using telepathy for universal communication. Unfortunately, not only is hard evidence for psychic phenomena sorely lacking but humans think largely in language. Even if you could read a person’s thoughts what good would it do if you could not understand the language they were thinking in?

Could an automatic language translator even exist? Something like the universal translator of Star Trek or the Babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It would be difficult.

Languages consist of words and words are symbols for underlying concepts. These concepts do not line up exactly from one language to another. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese there are eight different words for “first cousin.” These words, which do not sound similar, specify if a cousin is older or younger, maternal or paternal, male or female, three factors that directly influence how one should treat them in Chinese culture. Although the Spanish word “siesta” entered English, it did so because there was no English word for “nap during the hottest time of day when work is impossible.” In his writings, Jim Cummins, a leading authority on bilingualism and bilingual education, refers to these differences as a language’s “conceptual base.”

Languages also vary widely in terms of syntactic variation (word order), tonality (whether or not the pitch of a word affects meaning), and the embedded information and concepts. For instance, although some languages incorporate concepts of gender for nouns into their grammar, they do not do so in a universally consistent manner. In Spanish the sun is a masculine object, while in German it is feminine. Navajo incorporates some incredibly complex grammatical changes to verbs allowing a native speaker to modify a verb depending on things such as the shape of the object that is performing the action. And as for the old myth about multiple Eskimo (Inuit) words for snow, it just isn’t so. In fact, there is just one Inuit word for snow which Inuit grammar allows to be modified multiple ways.

Controversies abound in linguistics and the quasi-mystical field of language acquisition. We are literally assisting people to reprogram the deep coding within their very brains. The implications are unsettling. What would Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary and (the hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda think? Images of John Dee and his announcement that he had learned the Enochian language come to mind as one’s thoughts travel deeper into realms where language, mysticism and psychology intersect. The tower of Babel. The language of the birds. Adam and God strolling through the garden of Eden giving names to everything they see. The study of human language is an intellectual quest of mythic proportions, but science is a tool that can guide us through this quest. Although we are a small and stupid species, condemned to stride through the dirt unnecessarily proud of our upright posture, as we do our brains, our opposable thumbs and our facility for language are the only means by which we (barely) differentiate ourselves from animals.

Although we can and should research and study how people use and learn language, ultimately it will be centuries before the details are really known or understood. Our brains seem to be using language to learn language but it’s probably actually largely using processes that we are nowhere near understanding. The world is much bigger than we are and we are beginning to understand that perhaps both neurophysiology and physics lie completely outside man’s capacity to understand. Therefore we may never completely understand how people learn language. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that linguistic complexity is a universal feature of mankind.

 

The Gallery: Alan F. Beck

 

Alan F. Beck has been an artist, designer and illustrator for over thirty years doing work for many major corporations including book covers and magazine illustrations. His work has been exhibited in art shows and conventions all across the country. He has won numerous awards and honors including two Chesley award nominations and a Hugo award nomination, and received a “Body of Work” Award at the LA Con IV Worldcon Art Show.

Alan first came to my attention when he contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in using his art for Nth Degree. His first illustration appeared in Issue #12, December 2004. Since then, he’s contributed artwork to every issue and has been featured on the cover three times (including this issue).

I’ve also been fortunate to meet Alan on several occasions, and have had him as a Guest of Honor at RavenCon. Take a look at his work here, and you’ll see why he’s always at the top of my list for a Best Artist Hugo Award. Enjoy.

 

Dear Cthulhu: Issue #18

DearCthulhuLogo

 

Dear Cthulhu,

My wife is a huge racing fan. She was that way when I married her but lately things have changed for the worse. She’s given herself the nickname “Speedy” and insists the kids and I call her that. She pretends like she can’t hear us if we don’t. Whenever we go somewhere, Speedy insists on driving. It’s not that I mind being chauffeured, it’s that she drives like she’s on a track. She’ll do upward of 80 MPH in a 30 zone. Speedy’s been pulled over a dozen times, but gets out of a ticket every time because her dad is the chief of police and her mom is a local judge.

I’ve tried to get her to go for counseling, but that only made it worse because the therapist made her get in touch with her inner driver. Now she will only turn left, which makes getting off a highway dangerous. Forget about local driving—we live in a part of New Jersey where they make you go right to go left. The bottom line is that we have three kids and I worry about their safety, especially when I go to work and leave them with their mother.

Worse still, she’s out in our garage souping up our minivan with nitrous oxide boosters. She bought a racing jumpsuit and a helmet, which she wears when she drives. Speedy painted a number on the sides of our minivan. That would be the least of it if I didn’t have to put up with the snickers and rude comments from the neighborhood guys, which wouldn’t even have been an issue if she had chosen any other number but 69.

The very worst part of it is she splits up all her errands. Instead of going to the grocery store, hair salon and auto parts store in one trip, she stops at the house in between each and expects me and the kids to act as her pit crew. The cost in tires in the past week was more than my last paycheck. When I talked to her about it, Speedy told me not to worry, that we’ll only have to pay for the tires until she lands a sponsor like Greatday or Hotrock Tires. Then she hit me with a tire iron when I suggested that since she wasn’t a real racer that might not happen and that it wasn’t safe to have the kids work on the car. Our three-year-old cut his hand and needed stitches after using the power impact wrench to take off the lug nuts and the eight-year-old went up like a Roman candle after the racing gas can backed up and dosed him and a spark set him on fire. Luckily I instantly doused him with the racing fire extinguisher Speedy keeps near the car, but he still lost all the hair on his arms and both eyebrows.

I’m at my wit’s end. If I leave her, her dad will make my life miserable and if I try to get custody of the kids, her mom will make sure whatever judge I get gives them to her. I’ve thought about cutting her brake lines, but I’m too worried I’ll get caught and I couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have the kids in the car with her when the brakes fail. What can I do?

–Married To A Racest

 

Dear Married,

Once again, Cthulhu must state that humans should not kill humans. That pleasure is reserved for Cthulhu alone. I suggest first trying medication. If you can’t get a local physician to prescribe for your wife, maybe for you. Many humans seem to care less while on narcotics. There are several internet sites that will help you out, whether you decide to medicate yourself or your spouse. Of course, you will have to research which medication you feel will work the best and not have bad side effects. Without any medical background this will be a challenge, dangerous, and also fun.

I also recommend feeding into her psychosis. Find a local stock car race league and have her join. It is possible that racing for real may decrease her desire to pretend to race. And work hard to convince her that driving on the side decreases her potency on race day. Make up quotes to that effect from racers she admires and post them on the web under another name as if they are news, then show them to her as if you found them.

As for protecting your offspring, mention to her that most sponsors follow child labor laws, at least in their factories in the Untied States, so using child labor will hurt her chances of landing a sponsorship deal. Of course, that will leave you a one-man pit crew. If she stays in the car, use the power tool to make noises and move around like you are really changing the tires after spraying something foamy on her rear view mirrors so she can’t see. Wipe it off only after you are done. This should save your back and your tire bill.

Have A Dark Day.

 

Dear Cthulhu welcomes letters and questions at DearCthulhu@dearcthulhu.com. All letters become the property of Dear Cthulhu and may be used in future columns. Dear Cthulhu is a work of fiction and satire and is © and ™ Patrick Thomas. All rights reserved. Anyone foolish enough to follow the advice does so at their own peril.

 

The Editor’s Rant: Issue #17

by Michael D. Pederson

 

The end of summer has been pretty good for me this year. Getting the first new issue of Nth Zine out felt amazing. And I’ve been hearing some very positive feedback on the new format. It all made me realize just how much I had been missing zining. Ah, it’s good to be back.

I’d like to start off by pointing out a new feature in this issue. Last month, Alan Welch offered up his art portfolio to me and told me I could use whatever I liked. Well, it’s tough to match pre-existing art to new stories so I decided to add an Art Gallery to the online version of the zine. You’ll get to see some of Alan’s incredible blend of digital and traditional art in an upcoming issue. This issue, we’ve decided to finally give our long-suffering staff artist, J. Andrew World, his day in the sun.

One thing I neglected to mention in last issue’s Rant… Back in August a little group I’m involved with won the bid to host next year’s North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) in Raleigh, North Carolina. I will be co-chairing with Warren Buff.

The convention will be held August 5–8, 2010 in Raleigh’s brand new convention center. We’ll also be making use of the new downtown Marriott and the newly remodeled Sheraton, both right across the street from the convention center.

We’ve chosen the name ReConStruction to reflect our desires to build stronger connections between Southern fandom and, well, everyone else. Our Guests of Honor will be: Eric Flint–Writer, Brad Foster–Artist, Juanita Coulson–Fan, and Toni Weisskopf–Toastmaster. With Eric as one of our GoHs, we will (of course) be hosting a 1632 track of programming that is already generating a lot of interest.

This is my first time on staff for any kind of national-level convention, and it’s been a wild ride so far. Yes, I’ll be chairing RavenCon in April and then ReConStruction in August, just four months apart. But you know what they say… Whatever doesn’t kill us leaves us in a quivering pile of goo for someone else to clean up.

(The contents of this Rant may seem confusing now that I’ve done away with Nth Zine and converted all the old issues to the Nth Degree format. My apologies. MDP, Sept. 2014.)

 

View From Nowhere: Food

worldonplateAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

A classic thought experiment is: If extraterrestrials observed Earthlings what would they think? For openers, an outside observer would note intense variety, but there are universals. The universal we’ll be observing this month? Food.

With thousands of cultures comes an amazing diversity based on varying food sources, economic necessities, geographical demands and differing aesthetics.

Food is health. Food is economics. Food is art and to some extent, be it a businessman’s steak dinner, an exotic spread of complex sushi, or the classic Chinese banquet, food even indicates our social status among fellow humans.

Food has multiple meanings. In some cultures, notably parts of China, a standard greeting is not “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?” Out of politeness, we offer guests food, whether they need it or not. As the classic big band, scat singer Cab Calloway sang in the 1940s, “Everyone eats when they come to my house.”

Yet despite the use of food as hospitality, not all cultures appreciate the same cuisine. Some cultures enjoy heads, intestines, brains and organ meats while other cultures don’t even eat meat. Sometimes there’s an underlying logic to these choices. For instance, while most humans find insects unpalatable, in most places insects would not make a good food source. The calories required to catch an insect usually outweigh the calories gained from eating one. However, in situations where insects can be harvested in a manner that results in a net-gain of calories rather than a loss, they often become a desired food source. Accordingly, ants and locusts that can be caught easily in large numbers are eaten much more commonly than other insects.

What one culture finds delightful, another finds bizarre. The other day I visited a museum with a friend, a Karen hill tribesman who came from Burma after fleeing conflict and spending his teenage years as a refugee in Thailand. The displays of traditional Iroquois life reminded him of home. “Hey Pete, have you ever eaten curried bear meat?” he asked as he described cooking curries over an open fire. “It makes you warm.”

Although a widespread and varied cooking technique, I was surprised to learn that currying a food not only flavors but also preserves it, thus making currying invaluable in the tropics of Asia and the Caribbean.

Not only are we aware of differing approaches to food among cultures, at times we as a species seem to revel in them. From cable TV shows that present eating exotic foods as a perverse form of entertainment, to countless ethnic slurs from multiple cultures involving the cuisine and diet of their “weird” neighbors, the food preferences of others often strike us as bizarre.

Browsing through authentic Chinese cookbooks from Asia can be an odd experience for a Westerner. With the flip of a page one turns from an image of a dream meal only to stumble on a photo of stewed chicken feet. There’s rarely much logic to our internalized food preferences and even when there is it is often knowingly flawed. I’m reminded of my father’s visit to Taiwan. “I could never eat chicken feet,” he announced one day. When asked for a reason he said, “I used to raise chickens. I’ve seen where they walk.”

I remember years ago telling a Taiwanese friend that Americans did not normally eat squid or jellyfish. “Why not?” she said with a straight face. “Don’t they like seafood?” To the Taiwanese squid is not just a normal part of their diet, but a common beach food is squid on a stick, barbecued and smeared with sesame seeds and eaten like a lollipop with tentacles spread upwards like a bouquet of miniature flowers.

Commonly we combine our food with our ideas of entertainment. Recently I attended a presentation where Chinese college students described their home provinces, including cuisine. My favorite was “dao xiao mian,” a dish from Shanxi whose English name varies but is often referred to as handshaved noodles. The chef quickly shreds strips from a large ball of dough into boiling water. The varying textures of the irregularly shaped noodles adds to the flavor. Elaborate presentation have become part of the hand-shaved noodle dining experience. Presented was a photo of a chef who shredded the noodles from a platform fastened on top of his head while riding a unicycle in front of the diners.

Amidst the decadence and artistic experimentation of mid-war Weimar Germany, even starvation became art. One restaurant featured “performances” by a “hunger artist” who sat in a sealed glass booth chain-smoking in his underwear while a midget periodically announced the length of time since the “artist” had last eaten. Patrons would tap their glasses in appreciation while consuming a traditional dish of raw pork and onion drizzled with boiling lard.

From Disney-themed birthday cakes to the latest McDonald’s third-pounder to traditional hot dogs and apple pie to biker-themed barbecue restaurants, the commodification and consumption of food is also an expression of an idealized cultural image. It’s no coincidence that if you want to be accepted in Vietnamese society you should learn to eat fertilized duck eggs or by Koreans to appreciate kimchi. These dishes mark them in their own eyes as distinctly different from people who don’t eat them.

What conclusions might an alien make on human food culture? We’re astonishingly flexible yet rigid upon forming conclusions. As a species we’ll eat almost anything consumable yet as splintered cultural groups we’re quite finicky and judgmental of those groups that do not share our preferences. We attach great social importance to the forms that simple biological necessities take. Surely, they could not avoid seeing us as an amazingly complex banquet.

 

The Gallery: J. Andrew World

 

Welcome to the opening night for our brand new art gallery. Waiters with appetizer trays and cocktails will be passing amongst you shortly. Please help yourselves… For the first installment of a new feature that we’re adding to show off the works of our contributing artists we had no choice but to start with Nth Degree’s very own staff artist, J. Andrew World. Andy’s remarkable illustrations have been gracing our pages since the second issue (June 2002). In addition to working on Nth Degree, Andy has done quite a bit of illustrating in and around the world of fandom. He’s done graphic design work and illustrations for RavenCon, Capclave, and Genericon; illustrated album covers for Eyeballman Records and The Funny Music Project; developed The Seen, a soon-to-be-released webcomic; and has illustrated two children’s books. Here’s a small sampling of his work…