Friday, August 7, 2009

The Pampers of Jesus: My Summer with HDTV

(Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni; pewter miniature designed by Alan Dickinson.)

I watch television with captioning turned on. Partly this is simply professional interest: As a transcriber, I want to see how fast and accurate others are. Mostly, I've not been impressed. More about that in a paragraph. Also, I have friends who are deaf/hearing impaired and I want to see what limits are in place on their access to TV. Third, I often watch in the middle of the night and if I have on captioning, I can reduce volume so much that I'm sure I'm not disturbing my apartment neighbors. Lastly, some information comes through in captioning (background song titles and artists, specialized terms, foreign language vocabulary) that isn't available in audio.

On regular channels using the captioning commercial TV provides, the performance has been absolutely shitty. Those hired to do the simultaneous translation -- because that's what on-the-spot transcription is -- clearly have only one time through to hear and type the information, and if they get behind (which they do), drop-outs occur. Big drop-outs in information, and sometimes actual reversal of meaning. Or, more likely, long strings of ASCII-like gobbledegook.

This changed recently, however, when HDTV came along and one of the options you can select during set-up is alternative captioning services. I tried a few of these, and settled on the first in the line-up. The transcription is exponentially better, and the additional information I mentioned above started appearing. There are occasional small errors, and even more rare, a howler of a mistake.

Yesterday I was watching one of the two alternative PBS channels I now get with HDTV, what I think of my crack cocaine TV because it's all cooking, travel, woodworking, gardening, and history. I mean, if they didn't repeat them, I'd be unable to turn off my set. Oh, and there are craft shows which I do NOT watch -- more about that later. Anyhow, I was watching Rudy Maxa's travel show, not thrilling (like, say Battlefield Britain or How Art Made The World) but way better than most stuff on regular TV. The theme of the show was spiritual travel quests, and they were nattering on about Aachen, how the cathedral there has four items in its shrine to draw christian worshippers of dead people parts. They listed the four, something that was allegedly once worn by John the Baptist, two items supposedly connect to Mary, and -- this is where I gaped at the captioning -- "the pampers of Jesus". I had the sound off, so I don't know what Rudy actually said, but the transcriber heard it as "the pampers of Jesus." I screamed with laughter, frightening Dinah, and I've laughed every time I've thought of it since.

But here's the puzzle: I can't figure out what the actual term might have been. What sounds like pampers and is a garment that Jesus might have worn? If you have any idea, put it in the comments.

Now, as for those craft shows: I am developing an unreasonable aversion to them. Like Vicky Payne and Sloan Rutter, for instance, a mother and daughter crafting/designing duo who account for more than their share of air time. Vicky does sewing and stained glass in addition to general craftiness. They're not bad at what they do, but not especially good, either, and their aesthetics are not mine.

My mother and her sister (Aunt Sarah) were both avid and talented needleworkers, and skilled in almost all aspects of that art -- knitting, crocheting, sewing, embroidery, needlepoint, even tatting. On the top shelf of the massive bookcase in my living room is a 20 volume set called Manos De Oro, an encyclopedia of needlework that Mama bought in Brazil. It's in Portugese and I haven't found anyone who wants it, but I can't bear to get rid of it because she used it so passionately. I also own Mama's Singer, bought the year I was born, which I suppose makes it a genuine antique. I began trying out various needle skills at an early age, and during high school, I had four years of home ec (mandatory in smaller Texas schools for girls at that time), which was almost entirely focused on sewing. Despite all this exposure and expertise, I simply don't care for it very much. Making a garment from scratch doesn't give me a thrill of accomplishment. So I avoid the sewing shows.

The one that drives me most nuts is the The Katie Browne Workshop. She uses her little girl voice and cutesy dimples nonstop as she shows how to assemble shoddy material into crap nobody will want, or ham-hands her way through recipes that can be found on the back of Campbell's soup labels. She's like the anti-Martha Stewart.

Not that I don't get irritated with Martha, too, where it's all about product endorsement, looking upper class with a glue gun, and skating over the fact you need several large houses to hold all the "marvelous tools" and collections she has. Martha's cooking show, Everyday Food, is a prime example of food porn. The implements and design of the kitchen goes beyond perfectionism into red-alarm OCD, the kind of set Monk would be happy in. The glistening ingredients and shiny pans are nothing you'd find in any real kitchen. The lighting and close-ups are porny, and the instrumental soundtrack used to accompany "technique" -- well, you get the idea. Most of her cooks are obviously chosen for looks as much for cooking ability. Indeed, my knife skills are better than most of theirs, and I'm no professional.

I have two further gripes. I will give her props for the fact that the "everyday" meals presented are closer to what Michael Pollan recommends that we be eating than most cooking shows: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. But the obsessive avoidance of carbohydrates is entirely in line with the current multi-billion dollar diet industry, and is a nutritional disaster. The problem isn't carbs, it's PROCESSED carbs. If you're eating brown rice, real whole-grain bread (no white flour or supplements in at all), organic potatoes, doing bean and grain combos, you will be well-nourished, get full, not have an insulin-spike and start craving fats and sugars, and the other "plants" you're eating will find the essential minerals they need to pair up with to do you good. So for g*d's sake, Martha, let your recipes add in a seven-grain roll, a stone-ground-corn tortilla, or some whole-wheat spinach fettucini.

My other ongoing aggravation is not limited to Martha, it's all the how-to shows where the person doing a demonstration must explain their actions as they go along. I feel boxed in by the anemic and mindless vocabulary of most of these folks. On Martha's shows, the main descriptor of EVERYTHING is "nice". A nice onion, a nice heat in the pan, a nice glaze. Are there not other specific terms for what you mean?!!! Hubert Keller, for whom English is a second language, I'll grant you, simply cannot form a sentence that does not contain "actually" or "of course". Sara Moulton, whom I adore, is way too scattered to be trying to talk and cook at the same time. And all of them, everywhere, should have a buzzer go off every time they say "sort of". Or "kind of". As in "you sort of zest the lemon" -- well, no, you either zest or do not zest. Makes me want to go all Yoda on their asses.

Heaven help you with some of these cooks if you don't drink wine. It is possible to have a palate and not be slugging back the alcohol, you know. And, on a side note, don't tell Joanne Weir if you'd rather not use a certain ingredient in her cooking class, because she will then drown you in it. On a recent episode, a young guy admitted he wasn't that fond of fennel (nor am I, anise and cilantro are STRONG flavors that folks either love or hate, respect that). Joanne got that "I can't hear you" stubborn look on her face, and wound up adding not just slices of fennel bulb, but seeds and chopped frond to every single dish they made that day. I'd have vomited on her butcher block in response. I mean, she's usually a good teacher, but that was just plain rude.

On the plus side, these new channels couldn't have arrived at a better time. I've got new health problems on top of the old ones, and my ability to get up from bed has been hammered this summer. Regular TV is nothing but judge shows, very very bad reality scenarios, CSI/Law & Order reruns, and Tyra Banks. PBS, on the other hand, not only runs History Detectives every summer season -- which has a decidedly "let's tell the REAL truth about American history" subversive agenda -- but this year they're doing Time Team America, and I'm utterly enthralled. If you don't know about this science and archeology series, seriously, go to the website here and watch the four episodes already aired, then jump in this week with the next dig.

I'd discovered MI-5 on our regular PBS station, but the back episodes are appearing on one of the new channels and I've caught up. I could never stand to watch 24, but this BBC-produced show makes 24 look like the joke it is. If the actions and inner turmoil (or lack thereof) of Tom, Zoe, Harry and Danny don't scare you shitless, you're not paying attention. Unfortunately, there seems to be a high turnover in cast from season to season. Possibly this series has been a star-maker in the UK, because I've seen all of them in big roles on other features -- like the actor playing Tom, who got the main male lead recently for Masterpiece Theater's Little Dorrit. It was tough enough losing Ellie and Maisie; I kept hoping they'd come back and Tom could have a real life again. The guy who's now replaced Tom, Adam, is not nearly as interesting, and his psycho double-agent wife is one-dimensional. Still, I'll keep watching for the writing and plots, not to mention the look of disgust on Harry's face every time the Bush government is mentioned.

So, if you ever want to get me a gift and are stumped, here's a wish list:

(1) A microplane for zesting. (sort of)
(2) A copy of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney: A phenomenal expansion/reclamation of vocabulary pertaining to place and history.
(3) That magic map Peter Snow uses in Battlefield Britain. If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch the excerpt below from the episode about how Queen Boudicca almost led the Britons to defeating Rome and casting them out of England. As a bowdyka myself, I keep wishing I lived in a world where she had succeeded. What a difference that would have made, eh?

Battlefield Britain - More amazing video clips are a click away