Monday, August 31, 2009

My sidekick...

My little sidekick is gone. Absent. Vamoose. I shouldn’t be so dramatic. Allow me to restate: for at least seven hours every Monday through Friday my son has skedaddled from my life. No need to issue an Amber Alert. My son is finally in all-day school.

It was inevitable. Kindergarten last year was a loosey-goosey half-day of song and revelry, as were all the years of pre-school proceeding it, and those little three hour spans were all either of us was accustomed to with school up until now. A week after diving into the grueling rigors of first grade, he seems to be rolling with the whole sitting-at-a-desk and eating-lunch-with-hundreds-others just fine. My one and only has flown the coop without much of a glance behind, no feathers terribly ruffled.

The decision to have a single child is one that has always felt right to me. My reasoning is that I get to have the motherhood experience while still enjoying a full life outside of being someone's mother. My friends who have more than one child lead active and interesting lives, rich with the interesting stuff of life outside of motherhood, but I know for myself it would be the death knell for any hope I have of living a creative life. I have never been someone for whom it is natural to juggle and multitask: I can do it and I have to all the time, but I am just not particularly adept at it. When I try to juggle for prolonged periods, it means that stuff gets dropped, broken, inadvertently trod upon. For me, being able to really dig in and concentrate on the task in front of me is essential to that being both a gratifying experience and me being reasonably successful at accomplishing it. When I have a bunch of different responsibilities vying for my attention, I just sort of become dysfunctional and, well, unpleasant to be around. When I have two or three Big, Important Responsibilities - say, for example, raising a child, writing a novel, organizing an event – along with a reasonable cushion of time to be able to devote to them, I'm in my element. Too many dependencies that demand my attention and my limited time resources, though leave me anxious and unfulfilled. I need to really dig my fingers into the rich loamy soil of all-consuming projects to function at my optimal best.

This awareness of my shortcomings has resulted in my unshakable conviction that if I had more than one child, I would soon be joining Sylvia Plath’s ghost and countless other defeated mothers with my head in the oven or jumping off the cliff or speeding away in the car without a license plate. It’s not because I don’t love children but more because I’m a fundamentally selfish person and I know that what I’m already giving – to my family, my friends, my cat, myself, my creative life, my interests – is not a boundless resource. I have to manage that tap pretty closely. There are women I see all the time, friends of mine even, with four or five children who are able to be present, to not be snippy, to not mind being called away every other minute to attend to a diaper, a snack, a spill. I have admiration for that Buddha-like quality of selflessness so many possess, the limitless font of unconditional nurturing, but, boy oh boy, that is not me. If there were only the option of raising five children or raising none, I’m pretty confident I know what I’d choose. I say this while loving my son with my whole flawed heart.

One of the real luxuries of being the mother of one is being able to truly concentrate on my child, or what my friend Rae refers to as my “little project,” fully. My son and I have always had a close, symbiotic bond, perhaps most perfectly represented by the freakishly short umbilical cord we shared between us. He was never the sort of toddler who wandered, who I had to worry about roaming into the street: he was always firmly planted, happiest in the arms of his parents or at our side. My mother has given voice to many worries over the years – that’s what she sees as her birthright, being a Jewish mother and now grandmother – and she has said in the past that she is concerned that our son is too close to us. The thing is, though, that he has always enjoyed going to school, never complained about us leaving him much past that first month or two of pre-school, and of course he likes playing with his friends with no grownups around. As he has matured, he has moved beyond his comfort zone socially and he is quite fine when we are out of his field of vision these days. For the most part, though, our son likes being with us, which I actually think is kind of cool. Of the things there are to worry about in life, should a close bond between parent and child even register, I mean as long as it’s not emulating something out of the Norman Bates family dynamic? I know there will come a day when he will lock himself in his room and barely manage eye contact with his me and my hyper-annoying motherly ways so I am enjoying our closeness while I can.

But now he’s gone for most of the day. The days of hopping on the train to go downtown – a museum? Millennium Park? - on an afternoon lark are behind us. The latitude one feels in pre-kindergarten and even kindergarten starts to dissolve as the expectations pile on, and with that our days of calling in with a stuffy nose so we can go to the free day at the Field Museum are, for the most part, behind us. I was given an amazing opportunity, a tremendous luxury of time that I am well-aware is quite a privilege – during which I could devote myself to raising my son and indulging our whims (among many other things). Now, though, the time of that freedom together is behind us as we move to another stage in life.

The past week has been difficult to get accustomed to, I have to admit. I keep expecting to see my little sidekick, the ketchup to my mustard, the Cisco to my Pancho, nearby as he has been for most of the past seven years. He’s not at arm’s length these days, spouting off theories of alien abduction (I have a delightfully strange child) and drawing elaborate space machines. We’re not taking off to the woods to look for signs of craft landings or investigating tree stumps for fascinating bugs. He’s at school, filling his classmates’ ears with the product of his very active inner world. I miss him, having his sweet face being nearby, his soft cheeks always available for a quick nuzzle. In some ways, motherhood is a process of continually saying goodbye.

Despite this, I have to say that I am also very excited about the easing up of my responsibilities as entertainment coordinator. Now I have the time I have been so longing for since my son was born to unabashedly follow my muse and wherever that leads me without interruption from approximately 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. This is going to be a time of growth for me, I can feel it, of moving beyond my own comfort zone. For the past seven years, I had a convenient excuse for not fully pursuing my creative goals: not enough time! Too many interruptions! (Not that I have been totally shiftless, just not as productive as I like to be.) Now I am ready to dive back into that world out there and commit myself to the new path I know is there, clearer dreams and ambitions.

My sidekick has moved on and now so will I. While there is a loss here, I am eager to see what this will mean for both of us.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Vegans In The Dells...

Sometimes we all just need a break.

This world is cold, hard and mean like a little metal ball sometimes, ready to ping you wherever it hurts most. In fact, sometimes you feel like that especially vulnerable bumper in the pinball machine, hit repeatedly by the ball (ding-ding-ding-ding-ding...!) as the toll rises against you until you are ready to topple over with just one more hit. This early summer, I kind of felt like every time I left the house I had to look over my shoulder for that mean metal ball, ready to roll me over at any moment.

Still some of us are so hardwired to believe we can affect positive change that the prospect of the absence of this ability would make it very challenging to get out of bed in the morning. So we put on our happy faces, frown a little at our newspapers, pull ourselves out of it somehow (Coffee? A hug? Whatever it takes...) and go on about the business of trying to make the best of this very flawed place. Some of us are activists, busying ourselves with meetings and petitions and protests. Others are artists, using the creative process to give voice to our discontent. And then there are the community builders, helping this world we are trying to will into existence take form in the shape of relationships and personal connections. Whatever it is that we do, we do it because we have to to respect ourselves and to feel some measure of effectiveness. This all works, often magnificently well, but sometimes we just need to chuck it all for a day or two or three and let ourselves get silly. We need to grin, laugh, giggle, chuckle, let go, and relax. We need to eat calorically dense, nutritionally modest food, entertain ourselves in ways that amuse but do not challenge, find peace with allowing our inner-simpleton to take over the driving for a bit.

At times like these, there is the Wisconsin Dells or the equivalent near you.

My husband and I started going to the Dells every year on our annual voyage to Minnesota, otherwise known as when the Jewess observes the happy Viking family in the dead of winter. The Dells is approximately the mid-point between Chicago and his tiny hometown in Minnesota, a three-and-a-half hour drive, a reasonable distance in which to have earned a lunch or dinner break.

I had heard of the Dells all my life but only went there for the first time as an adult. The first time I went, it was a revelation, though I scarcely remember the specifics. I was simply too overtaken by sensory overload, even in the snowy quiet of December. I have come to learn that driving into town in the winter, the Dells takes on a radically different quality than in the summer: the nearly deserted downtown, spookily empty roller coasters, the billboards that must look so enticing under the punishing July sun - water-drenched thrill-seekers; big, icy drinks in sweat-beaded glasses - chill to the bone in late December. It is a distinctly sad time of year, the death cycle for pretty much everything but polar creatures, but for those of us who cherish the bittersweet, the Dells in winter is also exquisitely plaintive. It seems as if you can hear last summer's voices shouting, thrilled at the whatever adventure awaits in front of them, in the distance. In the very far distance.

In the summer, this is a very different town, every chock-a-block inch of it alive and fully awake. We had been to the Dells several times in the winter before we went in the summer, when the beast is really alert. Every time that we've returned, my initial assessment has barely diminished: this is a staggering town, deeply impressive in its audacious embrace of the tacky.

It can be described as Las Vegas for kids. Or the sort of town a consortium of seven-year-olds would create if they ran the town council. Everything is loud, obnoxious and created for maximum fun, at least what your typical seven-to-ten year-old tends to find fun. Much of it is also under gallons and gallons of chlorinated water. Subtlety is not a prized quality in the Dells, in fact, I would say that it is scorned; the Lutheran reserve and stoicism that pervades through much of the Dairyland politely inspects its nails and whistles to itself when it comes to city planning here. As long as it's family-friendly, there is seemingly nothing that is beyond the pale, pushing the envelope of frivolity too far. Even the pictures of those dressed up as bordello barmaids in the "old time" black-and-white portraits at the novelty photo studios in the downtown area are stripped of any prurience.

There are two distinct parts of the Dells that interact together chaotically but still agreeably. There is the more contemporary side, the one with the big water park hotels and
expensive theme parks with "Extreme Rides" (anything where a human form and bungee cords interact reboundingly) and then there is the Old Wisconsin Dells. This the part that was created from the 1950s through the 1970s, seemingly influenced by the blocky aesthetics of The Flintstones meets the groovy, faux-natural style of The Brady Bunch with a nice blast of futurism (Robots! Space exploration! Mind-blowing science!) inserted throughout. It is all done seemingly without tongue-in-cheek (tongues are too busy lapping up syrup-and-crushed-ice-based beverages here) or an ironic sensibility. This is the Dells I love. It is the anti-slick, the anti-Disney. Throughout the town, there is no single unifying corporate iconography or overarching theme other than the pursuit of fun for its own sake, and whether that takes shape in the form of a Wisconsin Duck (a vehicle that drives on land or water) or an afternoon visit to a haunted house teeming with animatronics, it is up to you.

One memorable visit to the Dells pre-parenthood was with Lisa, my best friend from college and onetime partner in crime, who was visiting from California and is constitutionally unable to refuse the promise of a silly good time. We went there with a little bag of, um, dried mushrooms that we had to consume so they didn't go to waste and then hit the water slides for a madcap twenty-four hour adventure that included the largest water park in the US (key memory: riding down the lazy river in an inner-tube and the girl who slowly drifted past, inquiring, "Is that an earring in your nose?," [I had a nose ring at the time] me answering in the affirmative and then her saying, "Cool..." as she languidly floated away), a visit to Biblical Gardens (now closed, sadly), which Lisa, a former Catholic schoolgirl, giddily defiled at every little statue station depicting Jesus' life by placing her breast in his outstretched hand. We also tried to figure out what was exactly behind the sunny smiles and overwhelmingly energetic mien of the largely European workforce at The Cheese Factory, a vegetarian restaurant in nearby Lake Delton, by climbing the fire escape on the side of the building, like that would reveal something. (We learned later that The Cheese Factory is somehow affiliated with A Course In Miracles, which leads me to a funny aside: when I told a friend that a new vegetarian restaurant that was opening in Chicago had a meditation studio operating from it, he said, "Can't a vegetarian restaurant ever open here that's not affiliated with a cult?" which cracked me up, both because of the preponderance of the sort of thing he referred to and because of the notion that meditation practitioners are cultists.) We drove home the evening after we arrived, sunburned and sleep-deprived and happy to have been there.

Last weekend, we took my son to the Dells for the first time in the summer. We also took my mother along. This would be a very different trip, double-entendre fully intentional. When you first drive toward the downtown area, officially called the Wisconsin Dells Parkway but we like to maintain the Vegas parallels by referring to it as the Strip, you are immediately greeted by big wooden roller coasters up against the road, just feet away, sending screaming riders slowly up and then plummeting down. My son gasped. His eyes, already enormous, rapidly drank in everything as he whipped his head from side to side, not wanting to miss a thing. He is right square in the middle of the demographic target: a seven-year-old boy. He was visibly shaken at reaching his mecca, pointing, gasping, finally insisting that we stop the car. Now! We happily obliged.

So there is a miniature golf course that is truly immense on the left as you enter the Strip. And there is a haunted house with an animatronic creature that throws up water and a Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, something called The Torture Museum and lots of candy shops selling grotesquely pumped up caramel apples and dozens of varieties of fudge. The sickly-sweet smell of melted sugar is everywhere. Needless to say, it is not a vegan paradise in the Dells, aside from The Cheese Factory and its sister bed-and-breakfast restaurant, and at one point, my family had three varieties of fried potatoes for two meals. I prayed for our arteries, vowed to eat as much green stuff as possible as soon as I could and moved on. That's what the late Tommy Bartlett, the entertainment mogul with the eponymous water ski show in the Dells, would have wanted me to do.

In the Dells, concrete volcanoes emerge from miniature golf lands, timed to erupt every fifteen minutes. Adults clutch three-foot-long strawberry-flavored Puffy Rope Marshmallow Candy as though that's a perfectly acceptable choice. Novelty t-shirts announce to the world that the wearer feels cuckolded by his wife. Most apparently never got the memo that fanny packs are not stylish. Either that or they just don't care.

So we had fun. My son proclaimed that the Dells is "the weirdest place he's ever been" and that he would like to move there, two seemingly incongruous thoughts that make perfect sense to young people. No doubt this desire to be a permanent Wisconsin Dells resident is fueled by his fanciful and still naive grasp of "the real world" and how it functions. I'm sure that he thinks that residing in the Dells would be nonstop revelry as we would go from water park to Duck ride to Ripley's Museum to dinner out and back again in the morning. And, really, why would I want to try to puncture this impression? The real world of rushing out the door and deadlines and appointments and passive-aggressive coworkers awaits.

The strongest visual memory that remains the one that sums up our trip to me is this: John and I were in this positively insane pool at Mt. Olympus that shoots - seriously! - nine-foot-tall waves over the assembled every ninety seconds. At the first wave, I instinctively grabbed onto my husband, apparently the wrong thing to do, as it pulled both of us to the bottom of the pool. By the time we emerged back into daylight, a person in a bungee swing thing was catapulting way above our heads from a nearby ride. Seeing that person swinging up against the bright blue, cloudless sky as I wiped my eyes and gasped for air will probably stick with me for a very long time. That was the Dells experience in a nutshell.

What won't stick around for a long time? This vegan fudge, perfect to bring along to the Wisconsin Dells or the equivalent near you. This is not health food by any means but it is cholesterol-free and delicious, and sometimes, you just have to enjoy yourself.

Vegan Fudge

12 oz. dairy-free chocolate chips
6 Tablespoons melted Earth Balance or coconut oil
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup baking cocoa powder, sifted
2 tsps. vanilla
1/4 cup rice, soy or coconut milk
Optional: 1 cup vegan mini-marshmallows (like Dandie's by Chicago Soy Dairy's) and/or toasted, chopped nuts, especially nice are pecans.

Lightly grease an eight-inch square baking pan.

Place everything but the optional ingredients in a double-boiler and stir until all is combined and the chips are melted. Add any optional items and stir together. Pour into the prepared pan and chill completely. Also, swirling creamy peanut butter or vegan cream cheese through might be a nice addition if that's how you roll.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Meet me at the intersection of Whale Bait and Misogyny...

In PETA's most recent ill-conceived but predictably mean-spirited billboard campaign against women, Jacksonville residents are asked to "Save The Whales": this time, overweight females in red polka dotted bikinis. (I will not boost their numbers even slightly with a link: you can find their campaign with a simple search.) Maintaining their now-standard practice of disingenuously and steadfastly avoiding the core problem in their message, when questioned about the sexism of their campaign, a senior PETA campaigner clutched her oyster-free pearls and claimed a benevolent motivation: they are simply trying to help those poor fatties! Okay, she didn't exactly say this, but she did in so many words: she said that they "...weren't trying to insult anyone..." but that they are trying to " overweight residents [a.k.a., the female population] of Jacksonville...lose weight."

First of all, if they don't want to insult anyone, well, then it might behoove them to brush up on some basic etiquette. PETA has now become That Person. Do you know whom I'm referring to here? The one everyone has learned to avoid because of her habit of offhandedly tossing dagger-like insults this way and that in her quest to "help" others? We all have known someone like this at some point in our lives and we all avoid her now. This person has so little self-awareness that she has no idea why she is no longer invited to parties, why no one returns her phone calls, why former friends seem to disappear into the ether. Basically, she sucks and even if it's sometimes impossible to tell if she's passive-aggressive or just plain insensitive, it is abundantly clear that either way, we know she is not someone anyone wants to be near.

Regarding the other aspect of PETA's campaign - the latest in their string of attacks against women somehow tied up in a poorly articulated, incongruous attempt to shame people toward vegetarianism - my patience with social justice movements that refuse to acknowledge the obvious intersectionality of one form of oppression with another grows more frayed by the day. Ping! Another strand just snapped. And it's not "just" the approximately 3,301,112,087 women of the world who are considered fair game by the creative brain trust at PETA: they have willfully cultivated a blindspot the size of the Atlantic ocean when it comes to acknowledging all commonalities of discrimination and oppression except for when it benefits their cause. If it was decided that they could use imagery from the deplorable "sport" of "midget" tossing to encourage people to do more salad tossing, PETA would have no compunction about doing this. Well, damn. I hope that I didn't just give them an idea.

In that spirit, let's just let it all hang loose and commence to grabbing from one injustice or exploitation to stupidly try to decrease another. We will ignore that it makes absolutely no sense strategically - and, in fact, you've strategically painted yourself in the corner - and that it's ineffective to boot. Let's see what other organizations can do to boost their notoriety - I mean, spread their message - PETA-style. The points where exploitation intersect must be obliterated!

Sierra Club
Inspirational Idea: Overweight women create too much shade for plant diversity to flourish.
Slogan: Fat Chicks Kill Biodiversity!

The Alliance for Climate Protection
Inspirational Idea: Skinny chicks shouldn't get overheated by wearing too many clothes.
Slogan: Stamp Out Global Warming - Skinny Chicks Must Go Naked!

Great Ape Project
Inspirational idea: Sponsor a bunch of big, hairy feminists to get waxed to increase awareness of the plight of non-human primates.
Slogan: Fewer Hairy Apes, More Great Apes!

Inspirational idea: Sponsor a "Sexiest Environmentalist Alive" contest to encourage more young people to live more sustainable lifestyles.
Title: Green(est) Piece o' Ass!

Inspirational idea: A commercial campaign and libertarian's wet dream!
Execution: Strippers shed clothes while reciting your First Amendment rights and - quick cut! - Rebel Chef-Provocateur Anthony Bourdain picks it up where they left it off, while eating foie gras off an endangered rhinoceros' rump and smoking a Cuban cigar.

United Students Against Sweatshops
Inspirational idea: Tie up young scantily-clad female college students on campuses across the country to dramatize the cruelties of sweatshop production.
Slogan: We're All Hot And Bothered About Sweatshops.

Amnesty International
Inspirational idea: End human rights abuses worldwide, like the right of international skinny chicks to not be hated on by jealous fatties everywhere.
Action: A letter writing campaign to European hotties oppressed by their husky step-sisters. Photo exchange encouraged!

Global Exchange
Inspirational idea: Bring awareness to the exploitation of cocoa plantation workers internationally.
Campaign: Fair-trade chocolate wrestling contests on college campuses across the country until there is one winner. She gets to have her naked body cast in fair-trade, organic chocolate and displayed in a traveling exhibit across the country.

So, you see, we shouldn't restrain our creative expression by pesky political correctness. Who cares about political correctness when you've got whales to save - oh, wait, that wasn't even the point - when you've got fat people to shame into vegetarianism, or at least into staying off the beach in Jacksonville?

Oh, PETA...Why do I even bother?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Vegans Are Scary to Top Chef Masters

This woman strikes fear into the pure, pure hearts of Top Chef Masters everywhere...

Last week, I watched a program I'd never seen before. I'm not much of a TV person, though I admit that I did get a little tipsy from gorging on it after our six-week technology freeze at home from late May through June, also known as The Great Blackout around these parts. I also know that people who don't partake in the televised arts can be insufferable in their puffed up, snorty abstinence of it ("I haven't owned a television in twenty years!") so I take what I think is more of a balanced approach, which is that most of it is time-wasting, stupid trash that causes brain rot (see? I'm nothing if not balanced) but that there are nuggets of gold here and there if you are willing to sort through it. Generally I'm not willing as I have other things I'd far rather be doing. My mother still doesn't understand how a daughter of hers could be so indifferent to television, especially when this child grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and Happy Days just like all the other kids. I think it happened over my college years when I didn't have a television and was perfectly happy living life without one.

In addition to being sort of annoyed by TV in general, I don't have whatever gene or inclination within to be interested in any shows within the competitive reality oeuvre (and not just because I'm a snob - although I am, proudly) but I happened to tune in last week to Top Chef Masters on Bravo. I had heard that the actress Zooey Deschanel would be on the program, and that these highly regarded chef-y dudes would be challenged to create a meal for her. My interest was piqued because somewhere or other, I gleaned that she is a vegan.

The intersection of the starched white jackets and egotistical mien usually associated with serious chefs and a vegan client throwing a wrench into the bacchanalia promised to be interesting and it was. I live in a "food town" and the foodie culture here alive and well: people will travel all over the city to discover an out-of-the-way, obscure little restaurant or rare ingredient and the successful chefs are lauded to almost mythic proportions. I love food and cooking myself but I think that the adulation of this upper echelon chefs to be, frankly, very silly. Why should those who strive to create delicious dishes (seriously withdrawing my vegan orientation here, of course) be revered more than any other creative professional at his or her peak? The celebrity chefs here seem to exist in some sort of shiny bubble of protection and exclusivity formerly reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime geniuses. I think that with the rise of the Food Network and foodie culture in general, the chef as precious god-figure has really taken root.

On Top Chef Masters, highly regarded chefs from around the country compete in a series of cooking challenges week after week until the most masterful of all top chef-ery is crowned. There is a panel of mostly dour judges who give points for these competitions and one chef is told the dreaded catch phrase, "Please return to the kitchen and pack your knives," at the end of each episode (I'm extrapolating wildly here, based on my viewing of Top Chef Masters once). Anyway, there was some sort of stupid cheeseburger competition before the interesting part of the show, which I will totally ignore other than to note that when you make an avant-garde-y cheeseburger soup with ketchup croutons, it's apparently not so much of a crowd pleaser with the panel of barely-able-to-avoid-crotch-scratching dudes who judged the first competition. Sorry, artsy lady chef! Oh, and Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me, apparently on another PR goodwill mission to prove that he likes meat, damn it (and so do industrial agriculture critics Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, don'cha forget it!), was part of this first panel of judges. Morgan's still working that wholly unattractive handlebar-mustache-turns-into-a-mini-beard thing.

After the first challenge, a bright-eyed Zooey is introduced in a video greeting and with her, a list of impossibly draconian restrictions on the meal these top chefs are to prepare for their big competition of the episode. As horror slowly washes over their tired, top chef faces, Zooey cheerily - almost apologetically at times - informs the gathered competitors that she is a vegetarian who does not consume dairy or eggs. One such chef, Art Smith, mutters contemptuously and with the gasping tone of a dime store detective who just discovered the perpetrator of a heinous crime, "A vegan!..." Art, you shouldn't behave so foreshadowing-ly snippy if you expect to win this competition. He even slams his fist on the counter upon uttering the dreaded "V-word," which I'm pretty sure is the sound heard 'round the country when we vegans disperse and determine whose home we will invading for Thanksgiving dinner at each year. Oh, wait, back to Zooey and the chefs: did she mention that she is gluten- and soy-free as well? Well, she is. Ha ha! Horrorstruck, their eyes glaze over as they mentally flip through recipes and fling them over their shoulders, one after the next. Except for one. While four out of five top chefs look as if they were suddenly stricken with the Swine Flu, Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill is the exception. He is not daunted by the unique challenges of this competition as he seems to be a preternaturally peppy sort, one who might be similarly galvanized by a hangnail, a toe stubbing. (Oh, and speaking of Bayless, I have a personal story about him at the end. Hang in there!)

Art Smith, however, is having none of Rick's annoying cheerfulness as he's in what can best be described as a snit. He is Southern, he reminds us throughout, and he specializes in comfort food. He doesn't know of these high-falutin' Hollywood actress-y ways! After all, food is love, his mama taught him, causing me to imagine him at his mother's side in the kitchen, his grown up head on a little child's body, which is always how I visualize adults as children. "I cook a lot of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese," he says in an interview painted thick with the foreshadowing brush of failure. "I'm thinking to myself, what am I going to do?"

So this is where I get annoyed. (Okay, admittedly I was already annoyed by Morgan Spurlock's facial hair landscaping.) If you are an artist, especially enough of one to be competing to be named a Master by a tribunal of dour-faced judges, shouldn't one be invigorated by such challenges? Art Smith was a personal chef to Oprah Winfrey for years and is now a successful restauranteur in Chicago but apparently he is not one for straying beyond his comfort zone. While Rick Bayless happily trilled on about the starring role of vegetables and grains in traditional Mexican cooking, which is what he is known for, Art looked more and more vexed by the challenge. Apparently to Art, for whom food is love, if it can't be battered and deep-fried or at least enveloped in melted cheese, it ain't love. Again, putting aside my vegan sensibility - which I pretty much have to shove in the closet kicking and screaming at this point - and just analyzing this attitude from the perspective of a creative artist, I find it hard to be sympathetic to poor Art's plight.

One of his fellow competitors, a smirking Italian-American chef, likened this particular competition to cooking with one hand tied behind his back. This is reminiscent of the uproar some of Chicago's most haughty chefs during the ill-fated foie gras ban of a couple of years ago, when the withdrawal of fatty duck liver påté - a single ingredient - left them feeling artistically constricted. I do understand that for someone to whom cooking means familiar animal products (meat, cheese, milk, eggs), it might seem daunting, especially when coupled with the gluten and soy restrictions, but then, after that initial freak out, you know what a creative master does, right? She takes a deep breath and starts imagining options. Slowly, she starts to build on each one until she has imagined something that could be interesting, and then she takes parts from one idea, fuses it with another, removes parts, modifies it again, realizes with a flash that she can add this element that will pull it all together, and another will make it even better, and, finally, she might have some nervousness, but she is captivated by the idea, even excited by it. This is known as flow, the creative process researched and described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and the mark of a true master, I think. One might be considered very accomplished at what he does well, but unless one can challenge himself beyond this limited sphere, I don't believe that artistic genius is at play. And protest all you want about your family or ethnic traditions and your creative expression needing to remain unrestricted but this is the truth and those who work in creative fields know it to be so: sometimes the more you narrow in your focus, say by removing ingredients from a chef's common repertoire, the more expansive it becomes. Like Ms. Deschanel, I am a vegan with soy and gluten restrictions for health reasons, and while I do understand that it is occasionally a pain, I also know that it is eminently do-able. As with supposed limitations, mine have caused me to look beyond my familiar zone and, well, be more expansive and creative. Because of this, I can see that there are so many more possibilities than the ones I was once familiar with. Want to get out of a creative block? A surefire way, to me at least, is to impose some restrictions on myself. This is paradoxical, I'm certain, but once I do that, the possibilities really open up in front of me.

Art folded. I don't know how to factor in the inhibiting aspects of being filmed during the competitive process, but let it be noted that grace under pressure was not Art's strong suit. He went the safe route, which to him was preparing the dessert (couldn't he hear me screaming at the TV to do anything but dessert?), and he decided that it was appropriate to purchase pre-packaged rice ice cream (again, more screaming at the TV as that stuff is foul beyond belief), dress it up with some puréed strawberries to make it all nice and sloppy and soupy - I mean, to ribbon through the ice cream - and accompany it with a vegan version of his family's peanut brittle recipe. There was a general consensus that the brittle was delicious but the ice cream soup was a failure, not only because the main ingredient tasted gross but also because it was store bought. In the end, he was on the chopping block with Anita Lo, the only female chef left in the competition and one who specializes in pan-Asian cooking but could only put together a lackluster dish of oily eggplant and that vegetarian pantry cliché from the 1970s, brown lentils. In the end, the grim-faced tribunal of critics gave Anita one-half more of a point, probably because she at least prepared everything on her dish, and Art was let go. He told the judge-critics that, yes, he knew how to make sorbet, but "I want(ed) to make it right." How exactly does this inspire confidence in your skills as a chef?

Last, a couple of remarks by the judges that simply cannot go without a counter remark. First, Gael Greene, a famous New York critic who apparently slept with Elvis and wears hats indoors (boy, would my Great Aunt Rose not approve) drolly said that the vegans at the lunch table were thrilled by the meal because "...God knows what they get to eat." Oh Gael, Gael, Gael. Yes, because a diet that includes all the vegetables, grains, fruits, legumes, herbs, nuts and seeds produced on this green earth and all their various, infinite permutations is simply too limiting. Second, Jay Rayner, the pompous food critic of The Observer. said that he was impressed by the food overall because, "...In my experience of vegan food, it is usually a symphony of beige." This take down is so easy I shouldn't even bother, but I have to get the last word, even if it is on this blog seen by perhaps three people. Really, Jay? You mean that fish, chicken, eggs and dairy impart so much dazzling, vibrant color to a dish? If someone mentions beige, this is what I think of, you know, like as opposed to pomegranates, bell peppers, chile peppers, adzuki beans, rainbow chard, radishes, melons, broccoli, red and golden beets, dozens of varieties of tomatoes, carrots, corn, oranges, mangoes, kidney beans, apples and on and on. And you know the color that is on a dish made with animal products? Well, Jay, that comes from plant foods. For someone so confident in offering his views, you wouldn't think he'd walk into such an obvious trap.

And now for a little closing story: my son and I were at Chicago's wonderful organic Green City Market six weeks or so ago and saw Mr. Rick Bayless as, unbeknownst to us, we happened to be seated in the area where he was going to be doing a cooking demo. We were just sitting there in the shade, my son eating a baguette and strawberry jam, when this crowd started gathering around, gobbling up all the seats and then forming in an arc around the stage. I was watching all this, wondering who on earth could cause such a stir among our normally mild-mannered, too cool for school populace when I saw that Rick Bayless was up on the stage, working with his assistant, unpacking and prepping for his demo. Camera phones came out, people started doing that annoying photographing with a cell phone thing. Anyway, he begins to talk, this and that about regional Mexican cooking, and a volunteer from the market starts handing out copies of the recipe he would be preparing. More cameras clicking, more glazed expressions of adulation. Anyway, blah blah blah, regional cooking, Mexico Mexico Mexico, traditional, regional, blah blah blah, I'm a really nice guy, if a shade or two dweeby, when all of the sudden, he pulls out this, well, for lack of a better word, absolutely vile, severed goat's leg. It's all there, undisguised because this is Serious Regional Mexican Cooking. The Green City Market shoppers are nonplussed because they mostly worship at the altar of Foodie-ism and many would suck the marrow right out of that goat's leg on the spot if Rick told them this was a traditional Mayan delicacy. Not so much my son. He gazed upon that proudly brandished goat's leg and he responded how any sane, non-sadistic newly-minted seven-year-old would: he loudly and unapologetically said, "Eeeewwwwww!" Star-gazers near us whipped their heads around all Regan-from-The-Exorcist-style to behold who had uttered such rude disapproval and it was a weird moment, because as I was internally calibrating about 3% embarrassment and 97% pride, the crowd decided they couldn't quite direct their ire at the little boy with the big saucer eyes, so they directed it at his mother instead. I smiled and shrugged. And that is my personal Rick Bayless story.

So television, Top Chefs, Morgan Spurlock's facial hair, foreshadowing, the creative process, failure, my son's first review of Rick Bayless. Life is like this sometimes...