Thursday, September 30, 2010

Archives 2000. Confessions of a Beauty Pageant Loser

Have you ever looked at a picture of yourself when you were a kid?... There’s one of me in a cowboy hat, pointing a gun at the camera, trying to look like a cowboy but failing, and I can hardly bring myself to look at it now. I’ve put it back in a drawer. I keep wanting to apologize to the little guy: ‘I’m sorry, I’ve let you down. I was the person who was supposed to look after you, but I made wrong decisions at bad times and turned you into me.’
—Nick Hornby

To even make the qualifying rounds for the title of Miss Navajo a girl has to be able to perform all of the traditional Navajo women’s tasks — including slaughtering, butchering, and cooking a sheep.

Of course, I didn’t grow up in the Navajo nation, and vying for the title of Miss Nibroc back in the early 80s in my hometown wasn’t nearly so arduous. Lucky for me.

on the left
The only experience I brought to the event was a brief and glorious stint as some sort of Little Miss Homecoming something-or-other when I was five years old. I wore a fluffy pink dress, itchy white lace tights, and white patent leather shoes. My then-best friend (and later, arch-nemesis) Karen Sasser and I carried the train of the queen, Marie Cima. Or it might have been her tiara.

A dozen years later, I was ready for the real deal.

All I needed was a swimsuit, a few nice dresses, a convertible I could ride in for the parade, and a driver who’d be willing to wear something other than a t-shirt.

I didn’t have a “talent,” and fortunately, one wasn’t required.

In fact, I don’t recall doing anything especially strenuous to prepare — beyond lying in the sun, basted in baby oil, with my hair coated in lemon juice. But, I was probably going to do that anyway.

I’d like to pretend to be blasé and sanguine about the whole thing now — as if the pageant and the festival were things I just happened to do a few decades ago. Ancient history. A sign of the times that I just went along with. The same way I might now be vaguely embarrassed by pictures of me with feathered hair and leg warmers.

But that’s not true.

I had that initial taste of glory at 5 on that basketball court, and I’d been dreaming about my moment ever since. Every August I would stand in front of JCPenney’s with my family and we’d watch the candidates in their shiny Corvettes, waving benevolently at the crowd and smiling.

I thought they had it made. A handsome boyfriend in the front. A spiffy car. The adulation of thousands (maybe it was just dozens) of cheering admirers lined up to see them and talk about how pretty they were. They were the closest thing we had to rock stars.

And I fantasized about how one day I’d be the one in the convertible. (Only I — plotting with the cunning that any five-year-old might exhibit— planned to throw candy, so the crowd would really love me and applaud loudly.)

I grew up and developed real goals, of course, but I never forgot that one.

Oh sure, I got good grades. I held a few class offices, including president a couple times. I made the National Honor Society and was a National Merit Semifinalist (St. C had enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight as the school with the highest percentage of National Merit Semifinalists in the country — though it’s worth pointing out that I think my graduating class was only about 17 kids. The high school has since closed). I was even headed off to my first-choice college (thereby successfully spiting Sister Agnes Marian who’d refused to even give me an application, insisting “trust me dear, your parents can’t afford it.”)

Frankly, at 17, that was all just gravy.

I wanted a parade.

I was sure it would change my whole life.


BIOGRAPHY OF A PLACE

The theme of this year’s Festival is “linking the past with the future.”

It seems appropriate as I drive through town and am struck both by how little and how much it’s changed.

The directions that I’m given for this trip are exactly in keeping with the nature of any small southern town, “turn right where the Stuckey’s used to be.”

I remember when the first McDonald’s came to town. I remember when Burger Queen became Druther’s. And I well recall the excitement of the first Pizza Hut, and how we longed in vain for something more exotic, like a Godfather’s.

Now there’s fast food from one end of town to the other. Wendy’s. McDonald’s. Burger King. Arby’s. Domino’s. Papa John’s.

A giant Wal-Mart has nearly invaded and supplanted Black’s Barn.

Bonza and Wyrick’s IGA burned down a few years ago (Mr. Bonza unwittingly foiled my incipient life of crime when I stole a blowpop in first grade and my mother made me take it back to him and confess). By then it was E.C. Porter’s.

The Southern States I used to frequent with my Uncle Don is now Farm and Garden. The former proprietor, Arlis Fuson — who gave me my first set of little yellow chicks to raise — is retired. Don tells me Arlis is now “growin’ dogs and sellin’ ‘em.” When I ask what kind, he says, “Whatever kind you want. Big or little.” But, he adds, “I believe he’s got out of the bird business.”

The Somerset Oil up the road from the Fusons’ house is now closed down.

The downtown has now been overhauled and realigned on a grid. Kentucky is now one-way south and Main Street is now one-way north. Depot is still two-way, and will lead to the old underpass, which used to flood in every hard rain.

Hall Watson still anchors Center and Depot, but Sterchi’s is now a parking lot.

Distad’s jewelry store is gone (where I got my ears pierced the first... and second time).

Daniel’s dress store just closed this year.

A Chinese restaurant sits where the old Holiday used to be.

A True Value hardware is in place of the old Piggly Wiggly (more commonly known as The Pig), and across the street the Tastee Freez has been replaced by a pizza chain. The downtown Sonic is now a car lot, and there’s a new Sonic out on “new” 25E.

The old Hippodrome Theatre on Main was torn down long before I left.

The JCPenney I worked in all through high school also relocated to new 25E. Belk Simpson moved from Main Street to the shopping center decades ago.

The nation’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken is still on old London Highway on the way into town, and doubles as a museum (also on the National Register of Historic Places)— a museum that serves fried food. Colonel Sanders knew one of my grandfathers, and I met him on several occasions as a child — but no one I grew up with cares about chicken.

All the natives from my generation know the town cuisine is all about the chili.

The Dixie, home of “the world-famous Dixie Dog”—where I used to eat on my lunch break—is still on Main Street, but under new management.

A few doors down, the Krystal Kitchen is still standing, but appears to be hollowed out.

Next to that is the Fad Pool Hall, equally famous for their chili, but also for the fact that, as long as I was growing up, women were prohibited. The ban might have been lifted at some point, but at any rate, I’ve never been inside.

Chili loyalty was and is fierce in the tri-county area, and my family came down on the side of the root beer stand on Falls Highway (on the way to Cumberland Falls, home of the Moonbow — one of only two sites in the world with a moonbow; the other is in Africa).

The stand was torn down a few summers back, and reconstructed in a site about 50 yards west.

I’d be surprised if they changed the oil.

As an adult, I’ve had to continuously explain the concept of “chili buns” to the uninitiated — it’s a chili dog without the dog. “Oh... that’s just a sloppy joe,” is the usual response. Well, no, it isn’t. And in fact, it’s blasphemy to even mention them in the same breath. (This is usually followed by a discourse about the relative merits of bun-chili versus bowl-chili — but at some point, spaghetti enters the discussion, and I’ve found that there’s no point in even attempting to talk to anyone who’d put pasta in a bowl of chili.)

I’m not sure how world-famous any of this was. Bob Green did write an essay about the chili there years ago, but I don’t remember whose side he was on.

When I worked at Penney’s, we sold a t-shirt that named my hometown and said, "It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”

THEN AND NOW
When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, ‘what will I be? will I be pretty? will I be rich?’ Here’s what she said to me, ‘Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.’
—Jay Livingston and Ray Evans

One thing I know, when I was 17, I traveled light — a tube of strawberry Kissing Potion lip gloss, a comb, and a dime to call my mother, and I was set.

For this trip, I am weighed down with a digital camera with spare battery and charger; a cellphone with spare battery and charger; tape recorder, tapes, and notebooks; and a laptop.

I look like a sherpa...  a sherpa from The Matrix.

The first thing I notice about this year’s crop of candidates is that they have a healthy appetite. I had invited myself along to their brunch hosted by the Woman’s Club and held at a local hotel. (We ate at the mayor’s house when I was a candidate, but I decide it might seem... smug to point that out.)

The girls are encouraged to “go on and get your pictures made now, in case you spill something on yourself like Miss June over here.”

I was happy to see them come away from the buffet with their plates groaning under the weight of bacon and eggs and sausage and biscuits and gravy.

The president of the woman’s club, Lib Fore (former proprietor of Jack’s Market) is glad too, confiding conspiratorially, “one year they didn’t even eat enough to pay for it.”

I resist the maternal urge to tell them to wash their faces because they’re too pretty to need all that makeup. Because the other thing that strikes me —as I scan their applications and do the math — is that they were not even born the year I was in the pageant. And if I’d been a little more ... precocious... any one of them could be my daughter.

I feel very middle-aged.

I wonder if they’ve even heard of any of the characters who populated the national consciousness when I was 17 — names like... Madonna... Michael Jackson... Tom Cruise.... George Bush.

Sigh. It’s a different world.

They’ve filled out questionnaires — the same way we did — answering questions like, “what do you feel is the most pressing issue facing southern  women today?” To a girl almost, they’ve answered with some variation on this succinct response, “Southern women don’t have enough confidence or ambition to stay in school, to go on to college and get a life, rather than get married and start having children in their teens.”

Almost all of them mention the dearth of jobs awaiting the girls who do go on to school and then try to come home — only to find that most of the opportunities for women are vo-tech or service sector (nurses and bank tellers and fast food servers can usually get a gig, for example), but high-paying professional options are still limited. (Though most of them assure me they will be back.)

So the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The night of this year’s coronation, the emcee promises an evening that includes everything from “pop to country to ... interpretive dance.” I sense that I’m not the only adult shifting uncomfortably at that last item. The upcoming carnival is announced (Tuesday you can ride all night for 10 dollars). Wednesday is a gospel sing. Mitch Ryder will do a concert the following weekend, along with the guy who wrote “Flowers on the Wall” (a song “made popular by the Statler Brothers,” as the emcee reminds us — but I’m thinking my friends would only remember it because it’s on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

The 1999 queen takes the stage, and this year’s candidates are introduced, as “American Woman” plays on the sound system. The theme of the pageant is “American Beauties” (hopefully a reference to the roses, and not the movie — which would really be tragically ironic as pageant themes go). 

The “big production number” has changed considerably. The girls are in capri pants and pastel tops, and they do a spirited little set of kicks and aerobicizing to Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” which (even though it’s over a decade old) was terribly contemporary compared to the number we did.

Although almost no photographic evidence from my pageant survived the fire when our house burned down my sophomore year in college, at one point, there was a Super 8 recording of my own blush-inducing role in “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.”

First: we wore black leotards, black tights, and black bowler hats — accessorized by a neon green garter, waistband, hatband, and a tambourine.

“Way down on the levee in old Alabamy/There’s daddy and mammy, there’s Ephraim and Sammy/ While they are waitin’ the banjos are syncopatin’/ What’s that they’re sayin’?/...While they keep playin’ they’re hummin’ and swayin’./ It’s the good ship Robert E. Lee that’s come to carry the cotton away.”

Second, as we wound up to the big finale — shuffle, shuffle, step step, step-ball-change, Charleston, and HALLELUJAH HAND — they turned off all the lights and illuminated the stage with a black light, so we looked like a bunch of invisible, yet disembodied, dancers in a minstrel show.

“See them shufflin’ along./Go take your best gal, real pal, go down to the levee, I said to the levee/ And join that shufflin’ throng, hear that music and song./ It’s simply great, mate, waitin’ on the levee, waitin’ for the Robert E. Leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”

This year’s program also includes an actual on-stage “swimsuit competition.”

I have to confess I feel vaguely uncomfortable watching a group of teenage girls parade around in their tankinis (they are allowed to wear two-pieces this year, a rather scandalous new development that the organizers seem a little unsure of) — as the emcee says things like, “Miss So and So plans to major in molecular biology as part of her pre-med curriculum.”

When I competed, we actually attended a “pool party”with the judges — thereby affording us a nominal pretense as to why we would be standing around on any summer afternoon in swimsuits and stiletto pumps.

Now, it should be pointed out that none of us had any intention of going in the water. And there wasn’t one girl among us who’d have dreamed of getting her carefully coiffed, Aqua-netted hair wet. But the illusion — the excuse — for the swimwear somehow provided the chimera of seemliness that the stage does not.

I am told this year’s parade route will be just like mine was — proceeding down Main and back up Kentucky. Only this year, the organizers have scheduled all the pageant events and the coronation the week prior to the festival, so the Queen’s car will be labeled, and she’ll get to —in effect — reign over the festival week, as well as the parade.

It’s a good theory, but I’m not sure I would’ve shown up for the parade if I’d already known I had zero shot at the title.

It was traumatic enough as it was.

I had managed to secure the loan of a restored El Dorado Cadillac convertible that belonged to my friend Casey’s father. The rumor was that it had been owned, at one time, by FDR. But I can’t confirm that. I do know it was the dreamiest — candy-apple red with a white leather interior and it perfectly matched my giant white ballgown with red piping.

Mr. Taylor agreed to drive it, with the proviso that his two little boys be allowed to ride in the backseat, more or less underneath my copious skirts where no one would see them. I was extremely unhappy about that last proposition, but wasn’t about to look a gift Caddy in the mouth — and their presence ended up being fortuitous anyway.

As it turned out, the car’s mint-condition appearance was pretty much confined to cosmetics, and not the engine, which stalled repeatedly while we waited for our place in the queue on Falls Highway.

By the time we had turned onto Main, and the parade route proper, Mr. Taylor had figured out a way to simultaneously pop the clutch and gun the engine so that the car would lurch forward, a few feet at a time. At which point, gravity and the car’s forward motion would propel me backwards, plastering me, face up, onto the trunk. The only thing that kept me from sliding off the back was the hearty instructions Mr. Taylor boomed to his sons, “HANG ON TO HER BOYS! WE’RE MOVIN’!” and they’d each grab a leg as we jerked and sputtered our way down Main.

I never had a legitimate shot at Miss Congeniality anyway, but I’m pretty sure the stream of obscenities this chain of events provoked on my part probably didn’t help my chances any.

My face still gets kind of warm from the memory as the girls are winding up for the final high kicks of their dance.

The production number is followed by an intermission. Then the candidates have to get through an evening gown competition, and the crowd has to get through some more “entertainment,” before the coronation can commence, and the 1999 winner can hand over her crown and title to this year’s winner.

As I’m packing up my gear, it dawns on me how tiny the high school auditorium really is. I doubt it seats more than a few hundred people, and it’s not even full.

From the stage though, I know from experience it looks as big as Madison Square Garden.

And for those of you who said I’d never amount to anything? Good call.
—Jon Stewart

Driving north on I-75 at the end of the evening, I turn off the air conditioning and roll down my windows, letting the muggy August air pour into the truck cab.

I reach into the white sack I’ve stowed in the console and pull out a neatly-wrapped, warm package. There are traces of orange around the edges of the waxed paper where the grease has soaked through.

I unwrap it carefully, and stow the paper back in the bag, relieved that the seats are leather and I won’t be able to make too much of a mess. I have rules against eating in my car, but I make this one-time exception.

I demolish about half of the (first) bun in one bite— the perfect bite of chili, sharp mustard, soft white Rainbo bun, and pungent minced white onion, followed by a long cold swallow of root beer.

I find exactly the right Alejandro Escovedo CD to keep me awake and keep me company.

In a few hours, I’ll be back in my little kitchen dicing six pounds of tomatoes for the gallon of homemade gazpacho that I’ve promised to contribute to a dinner party the next evening.

By the time I get to that party, I’ll be back among my friends — friends who probably can’t imagine me wearing four-inch stilettos with a swimsuit. I doubt they’d believe I ever danced to the ‘Robert E. Lee.’ And I probably don’t strike them as the type of girl who would’ve spent her entire childhood dreaming about riding in a parade in the back of a shiny red convertible.

But I did.

I had forgotten it all myself. Forgotten that there was another muggy August evening about 17 years ago when all this mattered, and mattered desperately.

And I miss the excitement and passion and sense of relentless, breathless anticipation I felt that summer — as if something important might happen at any minute.

Maybe something great.



--sidebar from the column--
MISS AMERICA 1995

"Accidentally leaving the pricetag on your breasts." That's one of Letterman's top ten ways to get disqualified from the Miss America pageant. Another is "when asked about hobbies, reply 'rich, elderly men.'"

As usual, Dave has the right idea here-which is not to take any of this too seriously-unlike the rest of the free world, which seems to have gotten its collective panties into quite a bunch over this whole swimsuit hoo-ha. Why, it's as if physical attractiveness actually had something to do with the pageant's outcome! Say it ain't so!

They can call it a scholarship contest all they want, that don't make it rocket science. The pageant is, after all, an evaluation of physical, feminine beauty-which is, as we know, only skin deep, so why not evaluate as much surface area as possible? I'm not saying it's right, I'm saying there's a market for it. The participants involved volunteer, they aren't drafted. And unlike more obvious forms of prostitution, it's all perfectly legal.

So I ask you, just how coy is this nation going to get? What's next? An outcry from the prize 4-H heifers at the county fair about weight requirements?

Now I can hardly hear myself think over all the meowing and hissing in the background, so let me go ahead and make a confession right now (before someone from my hometown beats me to it): I was actually in a high school beauty pageant. That's another column entirely, but let's just say I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone that I didn't get many votes for Miss Congeniality.

Nor did I win the talent competition. The things I was good at weren't necessarily anything I could show off for the judges. Although my then-boyfriend helpfully suggested that I ought to have tried sword swallowing.

If they'd had a category for irony, I might have had a shot at some points, but they didn't, so I went home with some lovely parting gifts instead. I've since managed to piece together the crumbled shards of my ego and get on with my life-but feel free to judge my ranting as mere sour grapes.

I didn't realize just how badly the pageantry circuit had deteriorated until we tuned into this year's spectacle in anticipation of the big swimsuit vote (cast, appropriately enough, by phoning a 900 number).

Apparently, the only acceptable "talent" (and I use the term loosely) is singing and/or playing piano. We longed for the days of baton twirlers, trampoline tumblers, or even a really cheesy "dramatic monologue." If they'd had a phone-in for that, Hoss was going to cast his vote for the "interrogation scene from Basic Instinct."

Mostly we entertained ourselves (while waiting for the swimsuit votes to be calculated) by proposing alternative talents for the candidates-ones we'd actually like to see. Perhaps a thematic approach where Miss Louisiana could come out and shuck oysters, Miss Kentucky could strip tobacco, or Miss Arkansas could blow the governor.

What we really wanted to see eliminated though, much more than the swimsuits, was that big production number. Not wanting to send the audience home unsatisfied, we propose replacing it with something else. Like, oh I don't know...maybe strapping Miss Congeniality to a big rotating wheel and allowing blindfolded semifinalists to throw knives at her. Now THAT'S what I call talent.

I think for me, the most excruciating portion of the evening was Regis's interviews with the contestants in which they announce their "platforms." That's where, in anticipation of a year of important speaking engagements (at state dinners, mall openings, and the like) the show ponies get to expound on issues of importance to them-such as split ends, exfoliation, and silicone. No, just kidding...that would've been great though, wouldn't it? In reality, this year's issues du jour included snoozers like sexual abstinence (for) and juvenile crime (against).

As much as I kid the show, it really was good cheap entertainment (which probably isn't the first time that's been said about some of those contestants). And there's just nothing more romantic than a man who turns to you at the end of an evening of Miss America watching and says, "Honey, I know your platform would have been much better than those girls'." Romance that is in no way diminished by the fact that he's just trying to get you to dust off your old sword swallowing act.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Facebook Movie: the Me Generation v. the iGeneration

"I really think this whole performing thing is a way for me basically to just be myself...and have a microphone. To be myself, and be louder than anybody else in the room."
-- Lyle Lovett, 1992
"Facebook profiles are always something of a performance: you choose the details you want to share and you choose whom you want to share with."



Security was irritating at last night's screening of The Facebook Movie (the Social Network), precipitating an exodus out to the cars to stow the banned cellphones. Kids could've been emptying bags of syringes and spoons as long as the iPhones didn't make it in. "Here's your lighter, miss. And your pipe."

It wasn't a sell-out, but it was a good crowd -- filled with exactly the 20-somethings director David Fincher aimed for -- all batting their eyes a little at the late afternoon September light, still recovering from the afternoon when facebook crashed.

Sadly, the news had to break on Twitter that facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had just given the New Jersey public school system $100 million bucks. (PC Magazine -- and the ultimate Twitter Transparency Mayor Cory Booker -- suggests that Zuckerberg nearly made the donation anonymously. But it's hard to imagine Oprah standing for that.  "YOU get an education! YOU get an education!" A commenter notes that it's like the "episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Ted Danson gets lots of praise for donating an art gallery wing 'anonymously' while Larry David is scorned because his donated wing had his name on it.")

It seemed cruel to deprive the audience of such a self-referential, self-aware movie an opportunity to discuss it while it played out in front of them. (If a tree fell...)

This is a movie made entirely, and expertly, by grownups Fincher  (Seven, Fight Club) and Sorkin (A Few Good Men, West Wing) and to a great degree: for grownups. The hippest thing about it is Trent Reznor's score and Trent Reznor is what...46 now? The dialogue is smart, sharp, and sparkly -- and bears no resemblance to how Zuckerberg speaks in interviews -- you can't handle the truth? On paper (if such a thing still existed), it might be hard to imagine how a movie with long sequences devoted to coding -- and explaining coding -- could be riveting, but it is.

This movie is big and expensive and almost 80s-like. It's the Me Generation vs. the iGeneration.

It is all Wall Street (the original), not the handheld verite of the new indie facebook-preoccupied Catfish.

(The movie previewed the same night that Twit My Dad Says premiered on TV -- painfully illustrating that not all social-media stories or phenoms are transferable to the screen. The TV suits took a slight, modestly amusing twitter feed and tried to shoehorn it into the nearly-dead sitcom format, brought to you by KoMut "Will and Grace" Entertainment.)

The grownups seem a little angry. Much like the 80s. Even cocaine  makes a comeback (at least for the Justin Timberlake Napster character, Sean Parker) ...just like the 80s.

Fincher, Sorkin, and Jesse Eisenberg (the Squid and the Whale), who plays Zuckerberg, go out of their way to "disclose" that they don't personally use facebook, and that it's immaterial to The Story (which is played out as half Shakespearean, and half courtroom drama, which has now been replaced by the new procedural: the deposition drama, where nothing ever actually gets to court).

Newsweek ("Friends Without Benefits") is pissed off because Facebook -- unlike the old HP/Intel/Apple days of Silicon Valley -- doesn't actually make anything. (In related news: GET OFF MY LAWN.) Plastics. Plastics. Their argument is, facebook isn't science and it doesn't solve problems. Elsewhere though, they turn in an elegiac rave review, quoting Thornton Wilder and the "typical American battle of trying to convert a loneliness into an enriched and fruitful solitude."

But facebook has made something -- and it isn't inherently good or bad -- it's a platform, a tool, a means for connecting, or not. The typewriter wasn't evil when it replaced the pen. The phone wasn't evil when it replaced door-to-door communication. In the early days, nobody wanted to be the douche who stood around Starbucks talking on his cellphone, but these are universal social network applications as well. (Just like everybody shuns the guy on Twitter or Facebook who always tries to sell you a house.)

As the New York Times review puts it, puts it, "Mark builds a database, turning his life — and ours — into zeroes and ones, which is what makes it also a story about the human soul."

###
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Monday, September 20, 2010

Archives. May 31. 2001. Whatcha Gonna Do, Moulin Rouge.

COLUMN MAY 31, 2001

WHATCHA GONNA DO? 


We were on our way to see Moulin Rouge (which I would characterize as visually dazzling rococo filmmaking surprisingly and yet effectively juxtaposed against conventional burlesque, play-within-a-play Noises Off-esque narrative) when I saw the flashing lights in the rearview and pulled onto a side street (overcome by a wave of panic-induced nausea).

"Do you know why I stopped you ma'am?"

I pondered several potential answers in the 5 seconds or so it took me to respond, the most obvious of which was, "because I drive a vehicle commonly and stereotypically favored by rappers and drug dealers and you don't think it belongs in this neighborhood, which explains why you let the Chevy Suburbans doing 65 in the right-hand lane cruise right by without so much as a second look, because THEY are the preferred vehicles of soccer moms, Martha Stewart, and the CIA."

That's not what I said though.

And my college-pal Bazz (who's a lawyer) confirmed for me later that the correct answer to ANY question posed by a police officer is NEVER, "because you're a racial profiler?"

So what I said, instead, was "No."

At which point I was informed I was going 40-something in a 30-something.

Whatever.

I gave him my license and registration and he headed back to his car (for an eternity).

At which point - trying to lighten the mood, I guess - my fellow cineaste joked, "Huh. Guess HE's not a big fan of your column?"

Which I countered with something vicious about the fact that if we'd taken his idiotic six-cylinder imitation toy car, we'd never have been stopped in the first place because it won't even GO 35.

I'm not usually so mean to him, but... well, that's not true. Sometimes I'm even meaner than that.

Then he wanted to know why I had LIED about why I was stopped.

I did NOT lie.

I did not know I was speeding, and for all I know, he could've been stopping us to see if we were wearing our seatbelts (we were).

Besides: I have 13 lawyers on my cellphone speed dial - all of whom would've crucified me if I'd answered ANY questions on any subject without a lawyer present... Duh.

Hop Sing suggested I should've responded with humor, along the lines of:
"because of the illegal drugs in the console?
the unregistered gun in the Kate Spade bag?
the pedestrian we ran over back on Main Street?
the expired tags?
...and finally,
because we stole this vehicle (from a drug-dealing rapper)?"

NONE of those things are TRUE of course - Hop Sing just has a vivid imagination (and poor impulse control).

The officer gave me all the paperwork to take to city hall and bid us a sarcastic good evening.

So we get to the movie; retrieve our tickets from my coworkers whom we'd sent ahead as scouts; and I promptly curl into a fetal position where I remained for the next two hours.

My date then went off to the concession stand and returned with approximately a bushel of popcorn and a what appeared to be a multi-litre keg of bottled water (approximately the same size as the kind you'd normally find attached to a water cooler) - positively elated that he'd scored this bounty for only a dollar more.

As I relayed this to Ouisie, she says this size obsession is common tribal behavior among the hunter-gatherers we know - as her betrothed has begun clipping coupons which lure him in with the promise of "buy ONE gallon of Picante sauce; get the SECOND gallon free!!" It seems to escape his notice that even if our entire social circle moved into a commune together and pooled our culinary resources - it would still take us the better part of a YEAR to consume ONE gallon of picante sauce, let alone two.

Anyway, the movie wound down more or less predictably (the narrator had already telegraphed the ending in the opening sequence - much like in American Beauty, except not). I hated it, and (as usual) my date loved it.

But as the denouement approached, he - worn to a frazzle by the middle-aged magpies sitting behind us who'd chatted throughout the course of the film - actually turned and SHUSHED them.

I was shocked (he is so passive he barely has a pulse). And aghast.

I was as annoyed as he was, but I'd had enough drama for one night, and I had no interest in him starting a fight I knew I'd have to finish. At the very least, I expected one or both of us to end up suffering a jaunty blow to the head.

In the event we had been hauled off to jail for assault, I was pretty sure I could take care of myself. At a minimum, I planned to swallow a razor blade wrapped in tape and then throw it up later to deal with the bulls and my fellow inmates. ('Cause that's just the kinda thing they teach you in the liberal arts.)

He, on the other hand, was sure to be somebody's bitch by morning. 'Cause I hear they like 'em pretttttty in Cellblock C. This is just one (of many) flaws I find in dating someone excessively prettier than I am.

Archives. May 24, 2001. Boys. Meat. Grill.

ARCHIVES. COLUMN MAY 24, 2001

BOYS. MEAT. GRILL.

It's been a long time since I've been to a dinner party where the lack of ketchup was the biggest problem to be solved.

I hate to be sexist, but sometimes this is what happens when you leave the menu to men in their late 20s.

But I was just so relieved not to be THROWING last weekend's cookout, that if they'd put an elk knuckle in front of me, I'd have eaten it, and been glad to get it.

In fact, I pretty much weep with gratitude when someone says, "HERE's what we're doing this weekend," as opposed to "WHAT are we doing this weekend?" (Of course, that means you have to live with the consequences, and not bitch about it.)

I offered to help (and included an array of items I could provide), but quickly got an email back saying, "Whoa there little filly!! Cookouts are for the menfolk!"

Hmmmm.


I was dubious.

I've relaxed my standards a lot. But I still think a good party should LOOK easy. A good hostess should be able to breeze in with a tray or two of crab puffs, drape herself across the closest male companion, sip a martini, and be prepared to gracefully greet the guests within five minutes of the party's designated commencement.

A good social gathering should be what Bird is to jazz, what Pollock is to painting. Everyone should THINK "Hey, I could do that." And they should be wrong.

It's why I haven't personally enjoyed most of the big parties we've hosted this year - because I think once you've engaged the teamsters, the ATF, the ABC, and security - and you have ordered a sorority girl intern onto her hands and knees to scrub a urinal in a Banana Republic sundress, your guests have a pretty good idea that some EFFORT has been expended on their behalf, and their expectations are UP.

It definitely comes to no surprise to anyone who's ever been to one of my parties that I am NOT the gracious hostess I aspire to be. As the guests arrive, I'm usually the one with an amp under one arm, a case of bourbon under the other, while I bark obscenities into two cellphones.

So I was justifiably excited by the idea of going to someone ELSE's house and eating food THEY had prepared.

I wasn't stupid though.

I brought my own provisions (some nice boursin herb spread and Bremner wafers), and I knew Ouisie had picked up some Parrano cheese and French bread. At least we wouldn't starve.

And there our pathetic little offerings sat....in the middle of the coffee table, surrounded by what looked to be the slaughtered carcasses of a corral full of livestock.

The first course? Big hunks of charred andouille sausage with barbecue sauce.

Pretty soon the second course was ready to come off the grill: barbecued chicken.

"How're we going to serve this honey?" was the hostess's question to the host.

His answer "uhhhhh, on buns?"

The only green in sight was the grass under the grill (which didn't stay that color for long), and the closest thing to vegetation at all was.... coleslaw. (Which reminds me of a suburban seafood restaurant I recently went to with my friends Greg and Lesli - where apparently the trend is to EMBED a bucket in the middle of the table? I was mystified. Is it for the convenience of bulimic diners? Or is it there for a demographic survey - just toss in whatever you find objectionable and they'll adjust the menu accordingly?)

Anyway.

This being a gathering run by straight men, by the time we GOT to said second course, we WOMENfolk realized that it had somehow escaped everyone's notice that we might be, at some point, in need of.... utensils.... plates even.

I offered to 1. run to the grocery for picnic products, or 2. go back to my house and pick up my service-for-16 fiestaware, but eventually we scrambled together enough to get by. I, for example, dined on the special "collectors' edition" of Hercules plates. I think the sportwriters took all the Little Mermaid series before I could get to the table. (I asked the hostess if we could register for these at McDonald's prior to her upcoming nuptials.... which she did not seem to think was funny.)

The fourth course - dessert - was brought by a late arrival, who showed up carrying two six-packs of bratwursts under his arm.

(Later on, we had cupcakes, but I can't be sure they weren't stuffed with veal.)

We're having another cookout this Sunday, and I've learned my culinary lesson here. (For one thing, eat a late lunch.)

If it ain't on a stick, they probably ain't gonna eat it.

I'm making gazpach-sicles.


Archives. May 17, 2001. The BIRDS.

COLUMN FROM MAY 17, 2001.

THE BIRDS


Last night, I was working late, standing by the copier when I look up and see a Chow-Chow  running loose (but wearing a collar, making my odds at a rescue at least 50-50).

I (naturally) go running out into traffic to try to keep him from meeting a messy fate.

I should also mention that I'm wearing a little tobacco-colored AnnTaylor shift, pearls, and three-inch heels.
(The story's OK if you DON'T know what I was wearing, but it's better if you've got an image you can work with.)

At some point, it occurs to me that this is not safe or responsible behavior.

And this is around the time I start getting a LOT of heavy commentary from 1. guys in lowriders; 2. guys listening to rap music with blacked out windows (I couldn't catch all the lyrics, but I think they went something like this: "@#$% #@$% %$!! #$%&"): 3. drunks shuffling past (because it WAS cocktail hour), and 4. rednecks with Confederate flags in their trucks.


At almost all times, I am within sight of our building - but I somehow dimly realize it would take all of 4.3 seconds for any one of these guys to drag me into a car and flee the jurisdiction. (Plus I can see my coworkers already have their hands full with the schizophrenic who's screaming into the imaginary cellphone. They're probably going to be of limited assistance. Plus, unlike me, they are pacifists.)

I wonder briefly if I really have what it takes to slip off my sandal, plunge the heel into a guy's eye socket, withdraw it, slip it back on, and continue on my canine rescue mission of mercy without breaking stride. (I decide I do.)

Then I wonder where the hooker is who usually cruises the nearby bustop? I wonder if she'll think maybe I'm crowding her corner?

Ultimately, I gave up the chase, recognizing 1. its futility, and 2. an incipient cramp in my left thigh.

I'm tired. I'm hot. I'm sweaty. I'm despondent - because I haven't even achieved my goal which was to get the dog back to his owner (who is PROBABLY a drug dealer, not that I'm stereotyping).

I dejectedly head to the back of the building to burn a little more midnight oil. As I climb the stairs, I hear a commotion from the west wing.

Of course the place is deserted. The security system is off. And the building has been unlocked the entire time I've been chasing the dog.

Naturally, I do what they do in EVERY horror movie - which is to stride forth and recklessly OPEN the door to my office.

The source of the ruckus? (Ominous music would be good here.)

A roomful of BIRDS.

STRAIGHT out of Hitchcock.

I was, as you might guess, taken aback (i.e., I slammed the door, screamed, and went running up and down the halls EXACTLY like a cartoon character).

Of course my cellphone was trapped in my office (with the birds) and I no longer know any phone numbers by heart.


So I just (very sanely) decide to go door to door, up and down our street until I could find someone who'd help me.

That didn't go too well. Probably, (and here I'm guessing), because I'm imagining people heard me screaming and banging on their doors with both fists, and quickly and logically decided they wanted NO part of whatever was on the other side of THAT. ("Sell crazy somewhere else Sister," is most likely what they were thinking.)

Luckily, our neighbor (and good Samaritan), the appropriately named Carleton Wing was A. home, and B. willing to answer the door. Not only that, he was COMPLETELY nonplussed. Almost as if Tippi Hedrin pounds his door down everyday.

He told Ginger (his dog) he'd be right back. He walked into my office (whereupon I dramatically slammed the door and braced myself against it - as if he was going to TRY to escape, like in Young Frankenstein), and within minutes, had it calmly and peacefully cleared of all wildlife. I was imagining a scene right out of Snow White.

The staff has been busy speculating all day how I COULD have otherwise resolved this scenario (if Carleton hadn't been home), the most popular being the one where I SHOT the birds.

After dispatching them, I would've paged Gary (we call him the Wolf, but he's really our cleaning guy) whose first question would've been, "what time's your staff gettin' there? 30 minutes? Be there in 7," as we cut to a shot of him squealing up out front on two tires.

The next thing I could picture is him and his crew patiently cleaning all the gore off my walls, rolling their eyes, and musing aloud, with their usual long-suffering sighs of goodnatured resignation, "I'm not EVEN gonna ask how THIS happened."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Running Out of Food at a Party: Shame on My Family, the Sequel

This picture, snapped by my BFF on Friday night, completely captures my response to every social gathering I've ever hosted, i.e., "WHERE'S MY FAINTING COUCH?"

 I woke up to this facebook message from my husband-in-law this morning, "The only other things I need to accomplish this fall is our kitchen redo. Are you up for our annual Holiday Party. I've already been asked about it."

Of course I knew he'd been asked about it, because people were quizzing me about the date at a little gathering we had this past Friday, and I told them all, "go ask Joe.

Holiday parties are a LOT of pressure, and this one moreso, because last year, it was the first party -- in all my years of hostessing -- where I ran out of food. It might sound funny now (actually, it doesn't... too soon), but it was scarring at the time. To this day, I don't know if I underestimated the guest list or overestimated the food, or what -- but I do know that by 11 pm, my husband and husband-in-law were ordering pizza for all of us. It was mortifying (tasty, but mortifying). It is the party where I learned the expression it's like havin' a dove field,  so I don't mean to imply the evening was a total loss.

Chef Baby Brother suggested at the time that I might as well move to New Jersey and start shopping for shrimp rings and Entenmann's coffee cake. I can't even repeat what my Mom said, but I think tears were involved.

It turns out, Joe shares his own burden of shame in that party because one of our best college buddies kept helpfully loading the dishwasher (and he kept going behind her unloading it, because the dishwasher doesn't work -- as far as I know, it's never worked -- it's more... sculptural).

It doesn't bother me, because, Social Hermit that I am, if I can get away with it, I will spend 100 percent of my time at every party in the kitchen washing dishes as opposed to socializing out front with the guests where I should be. I used to get in a lot of trouble at the McSwankertons in the 80s and 90s because their caterers did not like having me back there, so if they banished me to the front rooms, I would  compromise by sitting on the floor in a corner and feeding the hosts' dogs straight from my plate. (That got me kicked off quite a few guest lists, and that was ok by  me.)

This was my last message from Joe, "On my way to buy a dishwasher, new stove and a new fridge. All part of the kitchen redo which begins tomorrow. I wouldn't dare embarrass myself again with a fab party and a drab kitchen."

I told him to pick up a disposal while he's out. I have some cooking to do if I'm going to get this menu completed by Thanksgiving.

###

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Me and My Laptop

I have not yet adjusted to having tech roommates at work. The other day I was complaining about the slow speed of the browser I'm forced to use, and why I don't like it, when they asked why I didn't just switch? 

Welllllll, I explained (patiently... surely they knew this one?), because the other one is just too virus-friendly -- it's dominant, so all the viruses are written with it in mind.

"Whaddayou care?" they asked. "If you break it, we'll fix it. Big deal."

I had to let that sink in for a second. I have lived in fear of tech breakdowns for so long, I don't know how to live any other way. Til now, I've mostly considered my life with computers to be one long hostage crisis.

if you search "gerbil" by p10 you will hit Richard Gere
I don't know how they work and I really don't want to know.  If they told me I needed to stop at the store and pick us up some more gerbils to run the little wheels that power the hard drives, that would not seem unreasonable to me. Sad for the gerbils probably, but not unreasonable for me.

I look around my desk at the giant shiny monitors, the glossy new modem and router, and mostly I just pet them, reassured by their glossy high-tech gleam.

My spirit has been bruised and battered and a long time healing, but after that comment, I think there will come a time one day soon where this is a fair representation of me and my laptop.

I am Oofie the Chimp. 




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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Things I Ate On Deadline

"By the way, your food obsession is not as endearing as you think it is."
--30 Rock 

When the BFF stopped by earlier this week, she mentioned something about rich-girl-fridge as she fetched a Diet Coke from the top shelf. I had to examine it more closely to see what she meant, and finally narrowed it down to these little blinis I found at the snooty-falooty store last weekend. I haven't eaten one yet, but will report back when I do. The rest of the contents were a bit of an admitted contrast -- like some very fauncy cheese a local chef had sent home with me from a wine tasting, right next to two jumbo bags of peanut M and Ms. There was a bag of "baby" (i.e., sawmilled/planed carrots) with a container of hummus; some boiled eggs (which were somehow going to pair with the blinis); and several containers of gorgonzola crumbles (because I'm apparently afraid of running out and just keep buying more; I'm not sure if I know when gorgonzola is spoiled?)

I was attempting to gear up for a long deadline week, more or less unsuccessfully. This was also a week with the parents in town, and I had warned them ahead of time there would be no cooking -- which meant I ended up eating a lot of whatever they left in the fridge.

With a few exceptions (fried green tomato sandwich with goat cheese from ChefTom), this week will not mark a culinary highpoint for me, and I feel the need to confess, because I certainly show no reticence when we're snobbing it up.

So, things I ate on deadline include, but are not limited to:
Sbarro's pizza (beloved by straight men everywhere -- it always reminds me of Kathy Griffin's ex-husband);
carry-out California Roll;
Tumbleweed Tacos from "Taco Tuesdays";
one bag of peanut M&Ms (one's left, but not for long) -- I rationalize that the peanuts are "protein," not "candy";
one "condiment cup" of Tumbleweed guacamole (they don't have "side orders" of guacamole, and you can't get them, at any price) with Xo-Chitl tortilla chips (THE best);
one container of Oatmeal Express, but not the Quaker brand (Mom was experimenting);
sour patch kids and beef jerky;
and a pint or so of tomatoes (as the season winds down) -- possibly the only non-processed thing I ate all week; and
peanut brittle (which I don't even like, but again, it's not like it's candy). 

###
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Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Best Book I Read This Summer: Life Would Be Perfect

I read so many books this summer, so quickly, that it's hard to even keep them straight, but my favorite is Meghan Daum's, Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House.

It's probably because I moved this year that I just wanted to read things about moving. I started with her L.A. Times piece about selling her house and then I moved on to her book. It seemed everyone I knew was buying and/or selling this summer, and I sent the LA Times link out so many times, I lost track. I figured they could use the moral support from her common experience in real estate, "It meant the agents supplied an eye-pleasing duvet and matching pillow set that had to go on the bed every time they showed the house to potential buyers. It meant our own (apparently vile) pillows had to be stuffed into our cars because there was no way to cram them into the closet without breaking the illusion that our lives fit neatly into 890 square feet."

I still have her first novel, The Quality of Life Report (the main character names her dog Sam Shepard), and her collection, My Misspent Youth: Essays, should be handed out with the diplomas at any liberal arts college (she includes the essay on her site).

She's a little younger than I am, but I've watched her career for about a decade, impressed that she found a way to make a living as a writer, and sustain a primary relationship with the concept of "home," all without getting married or having children. (She has since gotten married, but looking at her moving day blog, it appears they're sticking with Rex, the sheepdog. No sign of any kids. At this point, maybe I ought to clarify that I'm not actually stalking her.)

In the book, she housesits at a cottage for a single girl in Venice, prompting this observation of single woman living behavior, "often this woman's furniture is made of wicker (not including the ubiquitous halogen torchiere lamp); other times it's composed of lightly stained pine of the sort that's frequently used for futon frames and collapsible bookshelves...The bad furniture is almost always provisional. As soon as true love -- and a corresponding mortgage -- are reeled in, the wicker and pine will be traded in for items from proper furniture retailers. In the meantime, however, the only things for which the single woman will willingly overpay are scented candles.She will have loads of them: fat and thin, pear scented and vanilla scented and 'rain' scented, in every imaginable color and shape." I have never had a futon. (I have had a candle.)

Her sense of details stick. Of one house hunting episode, she says, "If we had any questions, we could talk to the owners, who, contrary to custom, were actually on the premises. She then gestured to a stained orange couch on which three elderly people of questionable hygiene were staring into space smoking cigarettes, their ashes cascading around a glazed ceramic ashtray on the floor, sometimes landing in it. Sometimes not...The asking price on this house was $425,000."

Because I liked this book so much, I found myself constantly trying to repeat it. Next, I read All Over the Map by Laura Fraser. But I didn't get interested in it until, on page 231, she makes an offer on a house in Mexico that's "three and a half meters wide by fourteen long -- it has potential." By the time she hires an architect on page 249, I'm riveted. But by page 267, the book is over. All the reviews say it's a memoir from a 40-something travel writer and her experiences all over the world -- but to me, it's a book about how she re-built that house in Mexico. Smith Mag did an interview with her which actually talks about what the book is actually about. It turns out, Laura Fraser also has a blog, which is where I'm trying to see if she ever names that architect.

Then I read Sloane Crosley's How Did You Get This Number, which, again, I fell in love with on page 225, for the chapter "Off the Back of a Truck," which is nominally about a one-year relationship with a boyfriend who turned out to have never really left his girlfriend. It's a pretty spectacular story. But it's nothing compared to how she furnishes her apartment with ill-gotten gains off the back of a truck, from a store she refers to as "Out of Your League." In this chapter, she writes, " It's extremely rare to be alone in Midtown Manhattan outside of a post-apocalyptic film. Instead of the silence-inducing panic and an acute curiosity about the edibility of dog meat, it lends itself to everyone's favorite game: What If This Was My House? Often played at art galleries and upstairs bars, it also works for more unexpected spaces. Like botanical gardens. I know this fern terrarium is humid, but will you look at that light? Will you? Look at it. The third floor got a whole lot of light."  What I wrote at the time was it's the best chapter you'll ever read about heartbreak and home decor. It's not a spoiler to reveal the last line of the book, "it was all just a bunch of somebody else's stuff."

Which brings me to, the last book I read on this topic, Brooke Berman's No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments -- which has a lot to do with moving, as the title would suggest, but which is also a memoir of coming to terms with her ailing mother; recovering from a rape; how she found her career as a New York playwright; and a conflicted relationship with a longtime on-off macrobiotic chef boyfriend in search of "enlightenment," to whom she tries to explain, "Where I come from, people don't live in vans." I was downright relieved to find her blog, where I learned she eloped last month, (and not with the guy who wanted to live in a van). I wanted a chapter that talked more about the late great Waldorf Hysteria ("tiny white retro kitchen table - a find!") and more about the time she spent temping at House and Garden/HG. It seems she would have been there during the Dominique Browning years -- and Browning wrote the last book about housing that I planned to read this summer but have not yet gotten around to, though I have checked in at her  Slow, Love, Life blog.  I'll get to it, probably on Kindle, but right now I have to fret about Brooke Berman, because on page 169, she says, "I buy myself a vanilla-grapefruit scented candle, which I set on the kitchen table..." and which makes me worry Meghan Daum is NOT going to be happy with her when she finds out about THAT.
------------------------
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I feel like I've been waiting on this particular tomato all summer [pictured left]. It's an heirloom breed I haven't grown before, and this particular plant only yielded a few blooms and this one tomato -- which I picked, with great enthusiasm, this morning. I love its beautiful heart shape, and when I saw the tiny seam running down the middle where it was just beginning to split, I was so relieved I had gotten to it in time.  But, here's what I found on the other side [pictured right]. Something obviously got there first.

Now, here I am preparing to guard the crops until first frost. 

------
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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Archives. June 17 2003. Car Trouble. Walkin' Tall

I ran across this old column just as I was reading about Tim Gunn's spat with Anna Wintour,  who reportedly isn't happy that his new book tells everyone about her having five men carry her down the stairs after a fashion show.
 This column about an episode of car trouble reminded me that there is a print record making it clear that at least I never asked the Interns to do that.




ARCHIVES. June 17. 2003

Walkin’ Tall

…‘Cause all my cars they broke down, they layin’ in my front yard. I oughtta get one together Lord, but the work just seems so hard.
-Steve Young, in “The White Trash Song”

There are a few things worse things than car trouble—death, taxes, cancer...chiggers —but not that many. And as for alternate transport, the options are damn minimal.

While I applaud walking and cycling (in theory, and for other people), these are really not things that have ever caught on in my life.

Partly because I’m usually transporting heavy, bulky items that’d never fit on a set of handlebars and which are guaranteed to bust open if you drag them any distance… 40 pounds of dog food, dozens of bags of mulch, 48-pack “cubes” of Mountain Dew… those kinds of things.

Also, partly because I’m horribly out of shape—in fact, I got winded just typing that paragraph — but that’s really not the issue.

My neighbors, in their usual gracious spirit of kindness and generosity, recently offered to loan me one of their vehicles. But I couldn’t feel right about tossing giant bags of compost into the trunk of one of their exquisite cars. Also, I try not to drive anything that cost more than my house.

They’ve already gone far beyond ordinary neighborliness (I’m pretty sure they’re about one meal shy of declaring me as a dependant on their income taxes)—regularly mowing my yard and bringing me dinner after I work late, while my dog shamelessly imposes on their hospitality every chance he gets—darting through the fence uninvited so he can visit his “harem” (a smallish pack of all female Labs and an English sheepdog, which I think he sees as his very own Laker Girls). I strongly suspect that while I’m at work, he’s lolling about on their sofa in a smoking jacket while Josephine (the sheepdog) mixes dry martinis (she is English).

I’ve damaged their property values enough as it is, and I’m pretty sure it’s my house that’s responsible for their ant problem, since the little bastards showed up in my kitchen first. (It probably says something about our respective households that their ants march purposefully up and down the walls in well organized columns. You can practically hear them chanting “OOOO EEEEE Ohhhhhh” as they intently go about their work. Whereas the ants at my house mill about like a bunch of lazy anarchists, pausing only to cough and sputter on the rare occasions I can be bothered to launch a sporadic cloud of pesticide dust in their general direction—probably mutating the genes of everyone in a two-mile radius, but scarcely disturbing this breed of hippie ants in the slightest.)

Anyway. In the interest of harmony, I ultimately concluded it’d be very bad for my neighbors to come home to find one of their exquisite pieces of European automotive engineering wrapped around a telephone pole in their driveway.

Unwilling to avail myself of several incredibly generous offers of a loaner, my first thought was, obviously, a rickshaw… but as soon as the interns got wind of that, they threatened to go on strike if they had to tow me around town in one. After that spontaneous revolt, I pretty much knew there was no point in even bringing up the idea of a litter that they could carry me around on.

The first hint of all the vehicular travails to come was the weekend the Engine Light came on in my truck (oh how its mocking wink now haunts my every waking and sleeping moment).

I happened to be on my way to a movie with my gay husband that Saturday (he has all the escort and host duties of a real husband, but his conjugal preferences lie elsewhere) and we pulled into a full service station (where the gas is roughly $382 a gallon) so I could at least have the oil checked. (Yes, I know how to do that myself; I’m just too short to reach the hood without a stepladder. Also, I was wearing kitten heels.)

What annoyed me was the way the service station guy directed all questions to my male companion. Who I’m pretty sure doesn’t even know where the oil is, or what it does. (I bookmarked a website called “Lubrication: In theory and practice,” to send him, from Do It Yourself network — but I suspect it’s not what he thinks it is.)

I’m not disparaging his brilliance, mind you. He’s a doctor—and he’s definitely your guy in any sort of crisis involving say, a severed limb, a late night need for prescription pharmaceuticals, or perhaps common sense questions about which wine might best complement a mood elevator; to say nothing of what an absolute ROCK he was when I insisted I had a 24-hour case of “the SARS” — but practical things involving home or vehicle are not his forte.

So you can imagine the effort it took to restrain the guffaws when the Chevron man asked him “what weight?”

I suspect he was on the verge of telling him “about 160, but these Gucci jeans add ten pounds…” when I leaned over to order a couple quarts of 10W-30, and we were on our way.

The engine light stayed on all the way home, and with no time to hunt up a new mechanic (who’ll deign to work on American-made cars), I just parked the 3-ton piece of now-useless yard art out front and switched over to my emergency backup vehicle, which is my 15-year-old Toyota from grad school. I’ve never had the heart to part with it, since I define it as the ultimate in luxury vehicles, in that, it’s paid for.

I tooled around for days and sanctimoniously touted my new environmental consciousness (at about 38 miles per gallon) to anyone who’d listen—until the clutch went out later that week, at the precise moment I happened to be driving up the Broadway hill at Rupp Arena (causing me to slide precipitously backward and nearly into the lap of some soccer mom in a Lexus SUV, whose expression clearly indicated that she had neither the time nor inclination to swat a nuisance like me off her windshield should I land there, marring her view).

That left me with no wheels, relying on the kindness of strangers, caught up in what could only be described as a mobius strip of despair for someone as cheap as I am (why would anybody sink $350 of repairs into a car that’s barely worth twice that? On the other hand, where’s the mechanic who’s willing to lift the hood on three tons of Detroit steel for a penny less than $437,000—and that’s just diagnostics. I hear it’s more if they actually fix it.)

My Ex suggested I just swipe a shopping cart from the grocery near my house, and use it to cart around my cargo, but I pointed out, A. I’m pretty sure that’s illegal, and B. the sight of me pushing a shopping cart filled with dog food up and down my street might be the straw that finally breaks the back of my Neighborhood Association.

So if you see me on the side of the road with my thumb extended, I’m actually (probably) not making an obscene gesture.

I just need a lift.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Archives. August 2002. Batteries Not Included

After a long week in the office with my new high-tech roommates, I am finally getting the hang of just how much they're changing my life for the better. This is one of the archives they rescued from the Wreckage. It's the first real light I've seen at the end of the long, tech tunnel since the day the hard drive crashed because this particular column was really, truly, buried. The file wasn't named correctly and it's about ten years old. If they found it, there are probably others.

You are NOT supposed to take pictures in this store.
I was just thinking of this column as I re-visited this particular store this past weekend with a girlfriend. Because of this first visit, documented here, I was proudly able to steer her in the correct directions, though I'd obviously become more jaded and practical with age, cautioning against the body stocking (it will just get tangled), and barely flinching when I heard the word "antibiotic" exchanged between two other customers shopping one row over from us. I was able to recommend the appropriate anti-bacterial cleaner she would need for her "appliances" (before the clerk could upsell her), and I was also able to warn her in advance that the salesgirl would be opening up her purchases and testing the batteries. (They look just like waiters with the peppermills and the universal motion for "say when," as they push every button. Waiters in surgical gloves.)


Batteries Not Included

“I miss nothing by not dating a lot. If I was dating, I’d still be single. I’d have just spent a lot of bad nights at Tony Roma’s.”
—Gilmore Girls

I thought I was pretty much embarrassment-proof, or at the very least, not-easily-shocked… until I went toy shopping at an “adult” toy store last week.

It wasn’t my idea. It was my insignificant other’s (whom, it should be pointed out, is a little lazy, and was in search of something to lighten his “workload”).

I’m sure most couples probably do the shopping together for this sort of thing — to get into the spirit — but we both have jobs. We’d be lucky to get enough time to find a use for the toys; if we had to coordinate a shopping trip, it’d never happen.

I’d been to this store before, of course — for staff Gift Cards at Christmas (I’m a coworker who can be counted on for gifts that keep on giving) — that’s when I found out that they don’t take checks, and I got stuck using my Mom’s Visa which was in my purse because of some shopping excursion she’d sent me on for scrapbooking supplies at some MarthaStewart sale — and then I had to explain it to her, before the bill arrived. (It’s a testament to her easygoing Episcopalian nature that she thought the whole thing was funny.)

But I hadn’t been toy shopping at this place, just a quick in and out (as it were).

My friend Pothead Paul had endorsed this store as “the Disneyland of Porn” and had assured me it was clean, well-lighted, with wholesome and helpful staff. I think maybe he even said there was an old fashioned soda fountain in the back (or maybe I imagined it, thinking it lent whole new meaning to egg cremes and soda jerks).

So, after his assurances, I hadn’t even felt compelled to invent much of a cover story (I figured I was “shopping for a shower gift” if I had to ask for assistance and the topic came up), but the toy aisle was helpfully marked, and conspicuous in its domination of inventory.

The array was dazzling.

Dizzying if you ask me.

Because of the sheer volume, it was difficult to distinguish between the vibrating appliances (which we wanted) and the more “life like” prosthetics (which we did not).

My eyes were glazing over in confusion when I finally spotted “The Rabbit” — at last a name I recognized. It should’ve actually been labeled with “as seen on Sex & the City.” (It only dates us to reminisce aloud that we all remembered the episode where Charlotte got addicted to her Rabbit and refused to leave the apartment, but we do.)

Admittedly it was tough to make out the fine print without my reading glasses (vanity and self-respect had to kick in at some point), but honestly, the bunny just looked too complicated — multiple features, buttons, switches, lights, and (I think) even a remote control (how lazy do you have to be?). Plus, the Calvinist in me just refused to pay $99.99 for the lucky little lapine (though the REAL Calvinist in me would’ve never even been caught dead in the neighborhood, except to eat at the conveniently adjacent Cracker Barrel — which probably gives the senior tourists something amusing to do while they wait for their hash brown casserole).

There were other impressive specimens too — one with a kickstand and shoulder mount comes to mind — but really, as my partner in crime pointed out, we needed to walk before we could run, and something with training wheels seemed more appropriate (I also think he just didn’t want the competition — I said he was lazy, not stupid).

I finally settled on a plain vanilla model (no bigger than a slim, discreet flashlight), and a pair of faux fox fur mittens (an impulse buy which helped conceal the rest of the merchandise), and headed to the checkout.

Where a line began to form behind me.

And then the interrogation began.

For the number of questions involved, you’d have thought I was trying to get on a plane with the thing or something.

First up, did I need the accompanying anti-bacterial cleaner for my “appliance?”

Hmmm.

Hadn’t thought of that.

Anything that needs thoroughly sterilized at my house (like my garden tools, for example) just goes in the top rack of the dishwasher. That didn’t seem right though (and if it had, I suddenly foresee a lot of rejected dinner invitations to my house).

So, Yes, I allowed — as much as I hate upselling — I guess I did need the anti-bacterial.

Now. Would I be “needing batteries?”

Well, again, the Calvinist part of my soul was sure they’d be cheaper at Rite Aid, but somehow the 480 percent mark up of 15 bucks for a pair of double As seemed suddenly justifiable in the name of one-stop shopping.

As the line behind me got a little more impatient, I began to breathe a sigh of relief, sure I was almost out the door.

Then the cheery co-ed salesgirl grabbed the hard plastic clam shell of the toy packaging and, before I could realize what she was doing, much less stop her, ripped it open, proclaiming without a trace of self-consciousness, “we have to test your toys before they leave the store because of our No Returns policy,” and in one skilled practiced move she had slipped on a pair of latex gloves, installed the batteries, and was looking for the on-switch.

Now.

I see what they mean about the No Returns policy. It strikes me as highly reasonable, advisable even. (I can get why they don’t take checks either.)

But that did nothing to ameliorate my horror as she clicked it on and it came skittering and skipping across the counter toward me (sorta like those dancing wind-up teeth with feet?) — while everyone in line behind me shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. Even the guy with the 70s porn ‘stache looked embarrassed on my behalf.

After everything was determined to be in working order, she unassembled it all just as quickly, like a marine efficiently breaking down his rifle, and slid it back in the bag. (I half expected a sing-song “I don’t know but I been told…” sound-off refrain.) Then she reached under the counter, grabbed another appliance that looked almost identical to the one I’d just bought and tossed it in, adding “here, these are free.”

I thought several things.

Like, why did I just pay good money for one if they’re free?

Or, did I seem like a two-toy twin-fisted kinda gal to her? (I would’ve thought the Elizabeth-Arden red of my face would’ve given me away as a novice.)

And, finally, I thought, if the gals at the Clinique counter came up with THIS kinda “gift with purchase” I would spend a lot more time at the Mall, and buy a LOT more of their “all about eyes” serum.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Perfect Potato. A Perfect Egg.

When I talk about the joy of cooking, I'm often surprised by how many people who say they don't know how. And I shouldn't be, because it isn't a skill I was somehow genetically infused with -- I learned -- like anyone else. I had many good teachers, and I had a lot of trial and error.

The simplest things often came the hardest for me. For example, the humble baked potato. By the time I got to college, the hideous trend of microwaving them was catching on, so I just stopped eating potatoes. (I wasn't an Animal, for chrissake....which reminds me....)

Since today is Rosh Hashanah, I am thinking of one of my first culinary mentors, my former colleague and friend Joanie Abramson -- who taught me the perfect hollandaise, mouth-watering brisket, and that it was both acceptable and preferable to eat asparagus with one's fingers (as long as it's not sauced).

I often asked if I could just "apprentice" in her kitchen, and over the course of many holidays and cookouts and river trips, she graciously did take me under her culinary wing. 

She also taught me how to make the best baked potato ever. I watched her do it repeatedly, but insisted she let me write it down. "Oh Buffffffffffffff, she'd say, it's a Potatooooooooooooooo." But finally she got out a post-it note and scribbled this down:

Wash. Butter. No fork.
425 degrees.
For 30 minutes.
THEN fork it.
Then 15 to 30 minutes more.

That post it has held a place of honor on the inside cupboard of every house I've lived in since then: first Hanover, then Clay, then Marquis, then back to Clay.

The second thing she taught me was the perfect hard-boiled egg. (Go with farm-fresh and you'll alleviate the guilt + fear that the poultry system can outrun your immune system: it can). Mine were always runny, or developed a green ring around the yolk.

put the water on to simmer,
and put your eggs in a big bamboo spider under hot running tap water,
to temper them (so they won't crack).
Ease them into the water which should, by now, be a simmer-to-boil.
As they boil, turn off the water.
Cover.
Let sit for twelve minutes in their hot water bath.
Then peel.
The yellows will be bright gold, but not runny, with no green tinges.

You might also enjoy:

The Last Supper

A Taste of Romance, with Potatoes Anna

The Sombre Frittata

Smuggles at the Movies

In Rejection

Everybody deserves their own Personal Joanie.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It's Like they KNOW Me

No one has more healthy respect and fear than I do for the web's ability to scan and know our every preference before it has even reached the conscious level.

But even I was taken aback by this email I just received at the Office, in the work inbox -- where I never order anything pink, of any kind -- from a party outlet store I have never heard of, much less shopped at, in person or online.

Vosges Bacon Chocolate

No one was sadder than I was when bacon jumped the shark. For me, it happened on December 9, 2009.

It's been a few years now since it went from an acceptable religion to passe. It was just ten short years ago when my office crew chipped in and got me Bacon of the Month Club for my birthday, but it feels like yesterday. Hop Sing was ordering me bacon-tinis more like twelve years ago.

Fashionable or not, the taste hasn't changed, so when my BFF asked which Vosges chocolate I wanted her to bring back from Chicago, bacon was still the obvious choice.

I'm eating it now (was there any doubt?) and it's a salty-savory-sweet combo that's a lot like fleur de sel ice cream (which I love, and I don't even care about ice cream) -- applewood smoked bacon + Alder wood smoked salt + chocolate.

My only criticism -- if you could call it that -- is that when you open it up, it smells just like beef jerky.

I haven't tasted much of the bacon bandwagon as it's been applied to the candy market, but dialing back on the "smoked" component might take care of that.

I have now segued into the Naga Bar (haute chocolat): sweet Indian curry powder, coconut flakes, deep milk chocolate. I consider coconut a major food group, so this works well for me. Just enough heat without being overbearing -- almost  like a slightly Asian/Indian influenced mole.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Last Day of Summer

My Favorite Photo from This Summer
"I'm beginning to think that the secret to happiness is to befriend those who can cook and [who] enjoy entertaining."
--author Kyra Davis on Twitter


"Packing up. Summer officially over for us. All the things I said I'd do are left undone."
--Judy Blume on Twitter

As a kid, I would write at least ten times as much as the other kids when we were assigned "what I did on my summer vacation" essays. They would turn in a page each, maybe, whereas I would turn in a crudely-crafted book, subdivided into smudged makeshift chapters: Here is where I went; this is what I read;  these are the movies I saw; here's a list of my new records; and This is What I Ate. 

This summer, I did not finish the book  that was scheduled to come out October 1. It is highly unlike me to miss a deadline, but this is the year the hard drive crashed.  I'm trying to let that go.

I went to my first baseball game this summer. The pink bat is definitely the best part.

maybe a third of the books I read this summer
I read a lot of books this summer, I just didn't write any. Some I've mentioned, some still merit their own posts. About half of these would've been fine on Kindle. My two favorites, so far are, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House and the "Off the Back of a Truck" chapter of How Did You Get This Number.

It was a terrible summer for movies. (See also: The American, or better yet: Don't.) I liked two: Please Give [Blu-ray] and The Kids Are All Right.

I moved.

I had a lot of company, which inspired me to be a little more socially organized. One houseguest insisted "just do what you would do if I wasn't here" -- but I had to admit that, left to my own social devices, that would consist entirely of a Closer marathon. 

I had a brief and minor summer Romance with a sweet guy where we both just sort of ...drifted off. He doesn't live in my neighborhood. He isn't on facebook or twitter, which I love -- but if it wasn't for a couple pictures in the blackberry, it means I would almost swear I hallucinated him. He said and did only nice things to and for me -- all things that made my life easier and not harder, without one second of drama (unless you count the time Lowe's was sold out of the particular garden hose we went shopping for) -- so I am counting him in the Success column. He was almost crazy-big and strong, and beyond good-natured -- repeatedly lifting very heavy things for me and putting them down right where I asked him to, so I will always remember him fondly ("Up, Guenther. Up!")

More significantly, I finally found a sofa, or more accurately, a sofa found me. That means, over the course of an entire summer, one room is finished at the new place. One. Still, if my cousin is to be believed, it is the sort of room straight men everywhere dream about.

I grew a decent tomato and basil crop, despite the drought. The tomatoes turned all of us into farmers this year. Harriette turned to me at a birthday dinner a few weekends ago and sighed, "I still have to pick tonight, do you?" Yes, I do too, I said. It's like we all agreed to take a second job this summer, and that job was tomatoes. Not that we take them for granted. It's a safe bet we'll all be reminiscing fondly about them at the next New Year's Potluck.

I killed off everything else, including the late great lemon thyme. R.I.P.

Despite ambitious plans, I did not accomplish one sprig of non-edible landscaping -- not one hosta, not one lily.

That makes it the summer of slack.