Reader Request Week 2021 #4: Living on a Boat

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Matt C asks:

I recall in a different post you mentioned you spent a summer on a houseboat when you were young? Can you elaborate on the story of how it came about and some or all the shenanigans that ensued?

“Houseboat” is a little grand. It was a sailboat, probably 26 feet long or so, and it belonged to my mother and her (now-deceased) husband Roger. For a time they lived on it in San Diego with a couple of dogs and a parrot, which strikes me as very cramped, given that the interior was basically the size of a small RV (I mean, I guess it was a recreational vehicle, just not one you could take on roads).

Now, as it happens, right around the time that I got an internship at the San Diego Tribune (now the Union-Tribune), mom and Roger were going to pull up stakes in order to run an orphanage in Mexico (don’t ask). However, they weren’t able to bring the boat with them, and it would be several months before their dock rental (or whatever you call it) would be up. So rather than have me find a room somewhere in town, I lived on the sailboat. It benefitted mom and Roger, since someone would be there to look after the boat, and it benefitted me, because I didn’t have to pay rent. They also left me one of their vehicles, a ridiculously huge Ford F-450 that got, like, maybe eight miles to the gallon. That solved my issue of how to get about in San Diego for a summer.

I don’t know how my mother and Roger managed to live on the boat with three animals and all the accoutrement of an actual life, but for a 20-year-old kid who showed up with a small suitcase and no dependents? It was pretty great. Living in a marina is very much like living in an RV park, except on the water — I showered and did my laundry at the Marina and ate out most nights. I had enough space for me, my clothes and my guitar. I’d have friends come over occasionally, mostly long enough to go “well, this is cozy,” and then we would head out somewhere else. I was not actively dating or playing the field, so there was no rocking the boat, so to speak.

And, no, I didn’t actually take it out on the sea. I would have probably crashed it leaving the marina. I didn’t want to drown, y’all.

Otherwise I was living a storybook life for a 20-year-old dude. I was in San Diego, I was young, I had friends, and my internship was with the entertainment section of the paper, so my days were spent writing reviews of concerts that I had seen the night before. I got to interview some memorable people and learned a lot about working at a newspaper, which came in handy when I started an actual newspaper job a year later. It was, basically, a perfect summer, and I’m glad I got to have it. On a boat!

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

Athena Scalzi

Product Review: Craize Corn Crackers

Last week, I was advertised a snack food on Facebook while hungry, and inevitably bought it. The tempting snack I am referring to is called “Craize“, a company that sells flavored toasted corn crackers. The company boasts that they are better and healthier alternatives to tortilla chips. They have seven flavors as of right now: coconut, plantain, sweet corn, seeded, everything, guava, and roasted corn. I couldn’t decide which to try so I bought the variety pack, and my parents and I tried them all.

Before we get into the review of how each flavor tastes and everything, let’s go over some of the facts. Craize crackers are vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and non-GMO. Also, their factory is allergen friendly, so they’re dairy-free, eggs-free, crustaceans/shellfish/fish-free, wheat-free, soy-free, and tree-nut-free (minus coconuts). On top of all this, they claim they taste good, so that’s a lot of hype! Does it live up to said hype, though?

Here’s what the actual crackers themselves look like, I arranged them in the same order as the bags in the top photo.

(From left to right: plantain, seeded, everything, coconut, sweet corn, guava, roasted corn)

Side note, the crackers look a bit darker in the photo than in real life. It’s not too drastic, but it is a tad different than their colors in person.

To start off, we tried the coconut ones. They smelled just like toasted coconut, and were very thin and light, which made for a great crispy bite. They actually tasted super good! I thought they’d be like, just fine, but they were better than I expected them to be. They’re so crispy and perfectly flavored, not too strong and overwhelming and definitely not too subtle. A great start to our tasting voyage.

Next up was roasted corn. This one immediately felt different to me when I held it in my hand. It felt almost like, too smooth? Kind of papery? Like something fake. These ones were thicker than the coconut ones, so they didn’t have that same crispy bite, and they were a little more dry than their predecessors. To me, it just tasted like unsalted/unbuttered popcorn. Very plain, but not bad or anything. It would be a perfect base to dip into things or put things on top of it for an hors d’oeuvres.

After that we tried the plantain flavor. I’ve only had plantains a few times in my life, and every time they taste pretty banana-y to me (which makes sense since they’re pretty closely related), but these crackers tasted especially banana-esque to me. But not in an artificial banana Laffy-Taffy way, these tasted very close to a slightly overripe banana, like the kind you’re about to turn into banana bread. Actually, they taste a lot like dried banana chips. Overall, they were pretty good. I’m not sure what would be a good topper/dipper for this flavor though.

Following the plantain flavor, we tried the everything flavor. I assume it means everything like an everything bagel, and I’m pretty sure I was right in my assumption because they tasted very oniony and very much like poppy seeds. My dad said he doesn’t understand why someone wouldn’t just eat an everything bagel since they pretty much taste the same, but I said it would be a great option for someone who is watching calories or doesn’t eat gluten. Plus, whatever toppings you would normally put on the bagel, you could just put on the cracker! This flavor was pretty okay, but fair warning it is rather strongly onion flavored.

Next, we tried the sweet corn. We all agreed it tasted exactly like creamed corn. So if that’s a flavor you like, you’d probably really like these crackers! I thought it was spot on to a sweeter version of corn, and it was definitely way tastier than the roasted corn. Not much to say about these ones other than that they were pretty good!

Guava was next in the queue. These ones had the same thinness and perfect crispiness as the coconut ones, which is fantastic, because none of the others so far had quite held up to that same bar that the coconut flavor set. The guava flavor was exactly that, perfectly guava-y! Again, not too powerful, not too subtle. I honestly really like guava, but my mom wasn’t such a big fan. If you like dried guava, like in those tropical mixes at the store with the dried pineapple and mango and whatnot, then I bet you’d like these! Again, kind of a hard flavor to think of what to put on top of it or dip it in.

Finally, we tried the seeded flavor. This cracker tasted just like sesame, probably because it’s packed with sesame seeds. They definitely did not skimp on the seeds, it’s chock-full of them! I’m pretty indifferent to this one. I like sesame perfectly fine. In fact, I love sesame balls with red bean filling and sesame chicken, so I think it’s a pretty great flavor, but this cracker was a little meh for me. Not that it was bad, I just think there were better ones in this line up.

So, after tasting them all, we each came up with a list of our favorite to least favorite flavor.

My dad’s: coconut, sweet corn, everything, guava, roasted corn, seeded, plantain

My mom’s: coconut, sweet corn, seeded, roasted corn, guava, everything, plantain

Mine: coconut, guava, sweet corn, plantain, everything, seeded, roasted corn

Obviously, coconut is the superior flavor. Sweet corn is also very highly ranked. I’m a little sad I seem to be the only one that really liked the plantain and guava, but that’s okay. Someone’s gotta eat the rest of the roasted corn flavor and it sure ain’t gonna be me.

The roasted corn was my least favorite not just because of taste but because it had the worst texture. Though coconut and guava had a vastly superior texture, none of the others were even close to as funky feeling as the roasted corn one. Again, I think that’s just a me thing, since my parents didn’t have the same complaint.

Interesting thing about the thinness of the coconut and guava, though, is that they’re more prone to breakage, whereas the thicker roasted corn, everything, and seeded flavors were much more durable. If you noticed in the picture of all the chips in a line, the guava one is broken. That’s because there wasn’t a single whole one in the entire bag.

Here is the guava.

Here is the roasted corn.

Considering the packaging shows each cracker as a full circle with toppings on it, it’s kind of a problem that all the guava ones and most of the coconut ones were broken. So if you wanted to serve them as a snack like shown on the packaging, it wouldn’t exactly work out.

So, that’s something to consider.

Overall, I think these crackers were pretty great! Or at least, I’m glad I bought them and tried them. The variety pack was only twenty dollars, and every order gets free shipping (though they only ship in the US). I would definitely recommend this cracker company, or at least giving them a try for yourself.

If you’ve tried any of these flavors before, let me know your thoughts on them! If you have any other cool snack recommendations I should check out, leave a comment! And have a great day.



Reader Request Week 2021 #3: Teaching “The Classics”

For this one, two questions, coming at the same topic at different angles. First, this from Dominic Morton:

Should we teach “the classics” in high school? In the past I felt like the novels and plays I teach my students are a part of our cultural vocabulary, so they have common ground with other adults, later in life, but after once again slogging through Huckleberry Finn and (ugh) The Scarlet Letter I’m starting to think that what is important is practicing reading a longer work while holding details in your mind as you analyze a novel. How important do you think it is for all sophomore or junior teachers to teach the same titles from English canon?

And this from Kevin Fortier:

What do you think about classics being banned and censored in public schools (Such as 1984, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc.)?

For the record I’ve read all those books in question, and most of them as a teenager. I liked Huck until Tom Sawyer showed up as a special guest star and pulled focus; Scarlet seemed overwrought; Catcher made me want to roll my eyes at Holden; Mockingbird was okay and 1984 was the one that engaged me on a level other than “dutifully read.” There, full disclosure.

Books being censored or banned in schools is as American as apple pie, enough so that the ALA has an annual list of the top ten most banned and challenged books in the country, from schools and libraries. Strangely, the most challenged and banned books in recent years are not “the classics” but modern books with LGBTQIA+ content, and/or sexual themes or profanity. The classics occasionally sneak on there — Mockingbird showed up a couple of years back, as did the Bible (“Reason: Religious viewpoint,” which, I mean, yes, it definitely has that). But the focus does seem to be, shall we say, elsewhere.

I grew up with a parent whose philosophy with books was “if you can reach it, you can read it,” and that was the same philosophy that I had with my own kid, so as a matter of personal temperament, I don’t think it’s either necessary or desirable to try to ban books of any sort from schools or libraries. Also, as a general rule, within the constraints of the US Constitution’s establishment clause, I don’t think any book should be automatically excluded from public school classes or reading lists. Now, this is a very Olympian sort of attitude that falls apart where the pedagogical rubber meets the educational road, and where teachers actually have to make reading choices and then defend them to politically polarized parents of all sorts. Educators, feel free to unload on me in the comments for this (and all the other blathering that follows in this essay). But it is my overarching philosophy and I’m sticking to it.

This does mean when someone wants to have a handwring about a certain book (or a certain set of books) being banned or challenged, my first instinct is to wonder whether their outrage is situational — “It’s fine to ban those books, but these books are different” — and if it is, I admit to being less than entirely sympathetic to their pleas. A book banner is a book banner, and if your attitude is ban those but not this, then you kind of lose me. Having both been a teen and having had a child who was a teen, banning books is pointless anyway. A certain type of kid won’t give a shit one way or another; they were never going to read that book (or, possibly, any book) other than under duress. A different certain type of kid will be encouraged to seek out that book because it was banned, either from curiosity or to piss off whomever was attempting to censor it. Neither sort will be protected or comforted by a ban. It will literally not do any good.

With all of that said, I do not have any special great love for “the classics” in an educational setting, not because I’m worried about their outdated word use and attitudes, but because they’re often boring as shit, and often neither spark a love of the literature itself, nor a deep examination of the issues they are meant to help the students engage with. And that’s no good! So when we ask about whether we should teach “the classics” in school, I think the question is why are we teaching “the classics” in school?

So, for example: Are you doing a class in the History of American Literature? Yes? Fine, throw The Scarlet Letter in there. The kids who are taking the class pretty much know what they are getting into when they sign up for the course; they’re aware they’re going to spend at least some of their time reading work whose style, language and manner of storytelling is of a particular sort, and indeed, that’s part of the reason to take the class.

Are you teaching a general English class and assigning reading to help engage the students in the written word and to see how it’s relevant to their life? For fuck’s sake I beg of you do not assign The Scarlet Letter, you will smother their interest in the written word right there in that classroom. Give the kids something newer and something that they can more immediately see themselves in. Meet them on their own turf before you try to drag their ass back to Puritan New England and Nathaniel gotdang Hawthorne. It’s not too much to ask.

Well, like what? you may ask. What should we give today’s kids to read? Folks, I am not the one to ask. You know who you might ask? A young adult librarian, whose job (in part) it is to keep up with what’s going on in the world of YA, what’s being published and has been published in the last several years that could help today’s teachers achieve specific goals to engage their students. Or maybe check with an actual teacher! They often know! Ask them! Of course, be aware that what they might suggest might freak out a parent because it has a gay kid in it — please see above about what work actually gets challenged and banned in schools on a regular basis .

Which in itself might be a reason that educators often stick with “the classics” — it’s easier to haul out The Great Gatsby (An adulterous con man seeks the approval of high society — surprisingly relevant), which has passed the sniff test for high school for 50 years now, then to undergo the draining process of suggesting, defending and then dealing with the parental freakouts that come with, offering something new and relevant to the way kids live their lives today.

One other point to consider when we consider “the classics,” and not to be overlooked, is that “the classics” did not arise out of nowhere; choices were made over decades, and most of those choices were made by white folks. If there is one thing we know about white folks and their survey of American (and indeed, world) culture, it is a pronounced tendency to, how to put this, leave certain things out, and to make themselves look good. If you suggest to many of them there are other things outside the established canon of “the classics” they tend to get snippy about it. I mean, I get it, I went to the University of Chicago with its “core curriculum,” and when The Core was widened enough to consider the idea that Thought Itself did not spring only from an olive grove in Greece, there was much harrumphing. And this was from people who, from training and knowledge, fucking knew better. Your average white parent with a child in America’s various public school systems is not necessarily going to do better than a University of Chicago classics professor.

If we must teach “the classics,” especially the American ones, then we should be sure that “the classics” reflect more of the American experience than, say, The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby do. Those books do not need to go away! But they sure as hell need more company.

Ultimately, and again: Why are we teaching “the classics”? If we’re doing it because it’s what we’ve always done and we like doing things the way they’ve always been done, well, that’s a shit reason, and we need a better one. There are a lot of “classics” whose putative job in the educational milieu could be done equally well if not better by different, more engaging and more diverse work. Don’t ban or abandon “the classics”; teach them in milieus where they are relevant. Teach other work elsewhere. Students, at the very least, will benefit from that.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Yaroslav Barsukov

In this Big Idea for Tower of Mud and Straw, author Yaroslav Barsukov looks at potentially-fraught relationships, and how he approached them for his Nebula award-nominated novella.


Game of Thrones may have faded from the public consciousness, but the scar tissue remains. Incest on the small screen no longer makes us drop our sodas and pizza slices—worse still, a brother kissing his sister on the cheek now creates a certain expectation in the audience.

Against a backdrop of assassinations and ancient legends and mammoth anti-airship towers, two relationships intertwine in my novella—one between the protagonist and his lover, another, in the past, between him and his sister. Both women share the same name—Lena—but the similarities don’t end there: the posture, the outlook on life, the will and the spirit are reflections of each other. In the post-GoT world, that’s tantamount to innuendo, and sure enough, it led some readers to suspect my hero of having a fetish.

To be fair, George Martin did not start this conversation: I live in Vienna, where a life-size statue of a certain neurologist graces the courtyard of the city’s Medical University. If you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother, it must be Oedipus whispering in your ear… Yet in this tangled mesh of neurons we call the brain, nothing exists in complete isolation. And if one thing influences another, are they always one and the same?

My take on this is that we’re rag dolls woven of nostalgia and regret. The past holds a spell over us, we’re drawn to places where we were happy, to the warmth and the lights. Bikes in the sunset, rain’s white noise in the garden, the way apples smelled in summer. And if we sometimes feel the need to visit the town we grew up in, relationships should be no different. The erstwhile ones will define the future ones; in people, we’ll always look for something we’ve lost.

Tower of Mud and Straw isn’t about folks building a tower using devices brought by refugees from another world. It’s about love as a virus. Platonic, sexual, doesn’t matter: love rewires us, changes our tastes, molds us into creatures of anticipation. So no, my protagonist isn’t a weirdo, nor does he have issues. He is a man who has been happy once, unequivocally, who loved someone without the desire to be physically close. Now he’s holding a mirror shard to the right side of his face, hoping to catch a glimpse of the left.

It would’ve been easier to create two love stories, or add a dash of the Lannister dynamic (hell, the latter could’ve driven up sales for all I know). But as a writer, I was more interested in seeing a platonic relationship reflected in a sexual one. The story is built to support this simile: our hero first encounters the “tulips,” the aforementioned otherworldly technology, in a workshop he runs with his sister. After a tragedy hits, he buries what remains of his past and thinks he’s moved on—until he happens upon a giant tower “tulips” have grown into and meets the woman who bears his sister’s name.

It’s karmic, if you will, and I hope it says something true about us as human beings. All fires the fire, all moths in the dark are drawn to the same lights, and, beautiful and misguided creatures, we keep looking for the things we lost.

Tower of Mud and Straw: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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