Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Naughty Aughts

Here we are once again at the end of a decade, or at least everyone thinks it's the end of another decade. I'm of a mind that when you count out 10 of anything the tenth thing is part of the whole, which means that the decade would be 2001 through 2010, but I lost that battle at the turn of the millennium. So, the end of another decade. Naturally everyone's wondering what to call the decade about to be past. We had the swinging 60s, the go-go 80s, and so on. What were the past 10 years?

Some people are calling them the Aughts, but I find that awkward and not at all catchy. It's also not descriptive, and when naming a decade one wants at least to be descriptive. In that sense, there's really only one word that encapsulates our collective experience, only one word that will do to remind everyone what we have to show for the early years of this century. What we have to show for these years is nothing, and it's therefore only appropriate that this decade be known as the Naughts.

Let's look at our economy. We began the Naughts at the end of the tech bubble, then saw growth, then a small recession, then a huge bubble based on bad paper, then a crash. We end the decade with the stock market right about where it was in 2000, with nothing in terms of wealth accumulation to show for it all. Naught. Real estate values soared, then crashed, leaving property values either maybe where they were in 2003. Naught to show for everything, except perhaps for way too much debt. Unemployment? The job market is worse than it's been all century, so nothing doing there.

We were attacked and launched a war on terror, and for that we have gained absolutely nothing while losing thousands of lives. Billions spent in Iraq, nothing to show for it, treading water in Afghanistan, nothing to show for it. Our status abroad is no better than it was a decade ago, so we also have nothing to show for what has passed for diplomacy until recently. We've got the exact opposite of peace in the Middle East, no resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict that Clinton tried so hard to resolve before leaving office ten years ago.

Every year fewer and fewer things are manufactured in this country, but the glorious information age where everyone works at home creating ideas and even more information has morphed into everyone sitting at home looking for work while they take quizzes on Facebook. Technology has given more of us broadband and large screens on which to watch HDTV, but not much else. The delivery of information has morphed from the page to the screen, but the quality of that information hasn't increased. We've got naught to show for all our technological advances.

All in all, we have one thing and one thing only to show for the past decade of our lives, and that is the fact that we're all 10 years older. Sure, we've got silicon and Botox and collagen in abundance, for those of us with the inclination and financial resources to attempt to erase the recent past, but again that would just be making physical what is intellectually and emotionally true. At the end, we're left with nothing.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Telling, and Telling, and Telling

When Augustine of Hippo was beatified he was not yet known as the father of the memoir. His contributions to the modern Church led to his sainthood, while his decision to title his book about his early life Confessions has led to our present-day glut of tell-all non-fiction. Because of St. Augustine, the generic requirements of the memoir are a descent into chaos or dissolution followed by an epiphany that leads to life being turned around and righted. Sometimes the protagonist triumphs over adversity, sometimes over his or her own self-created demons. Either way, the progression is time and again toward a happy ending.

What to do, though, if one is a serial memoirist? How many conversions can one have in one's life, after all? Augusten Burroughs solves this problem by going over the same material over and over again, hacking away at it from slightly different angles. So does Mary Knarr. Elizabeth Wurtzel solves the dilemma by developing various addictions and psychological problems. Another option is to come up with a gimmick and then write about the ways that gimmick changed one's life: have zero environmental impact for a year and write about it, live strictly according to the Bible for a year and write about it, etc.

Once upon a time, a woman droned in a cubicle in lower Manhattan feeling bored and adrift. She like to cook, though, and had heard of this new thing called blogging, so she decided to spend a year cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and writing about it, and about her life. The end result was first a popular blog, then an entertaining book, then a movie starring Merryl Streep, and finally a book contract for more memoirs. Cleaving, Julia Powell's new work, is the result of the new career engendered by the success of her blogging experiment.

It's a book about butchering, both literally and metaphorically. Having completely butchered her marriage by entering into an obsessive affair, Powell decides to hide from the complications of her life, and perhaps work out some aggression, by apprenticing as a butcher in a Catskills meat shop. The book describes her years of butchery with intense honesty, not only about the feel and smell of meat and the techniques involved in preparing it for the grill or oven or pan, but also about her sexual proclivities and indiscretions. Confessions, indeed.

Julie and Julia was an entertaining read because of its breezy insouciance, because of Powell's ability to at once take her task seriously and with a grain (or pinch) of salt. Cleaving, on the other hand, is full of high seriousness. Meat cleaves to bone as we sometimes cleave to one another, and the only solution is to become expert at wielding a cleaver, breaking down carcasses and breaking our own and each others hearts. Relationships, marriages, are hard, no matter how much we love and are committed to each other. This is old news. Infidelity makes things harder, and can be something we learn from that brings us closer or can be something that tears us apart.

Powell is great at describing her obsession with her lover, her need for him, and at the same time her love for her husband. She is great at describing the pain this causes everyone involved. She is great at chroniciling the fevered time of chaos and loss. She's not so great at resolution, perhaps because her career as a serial memoirist requires a sequel, maybe a year spent at a processing plant to help her, you know, process. We end this installment with her still with her husband, but with her still pining for her lover, and with her husband still seeing the woman he began seeing while she was cheating on him. She claims a certain amount of happiness, but maybe it's just resignation.

In other words, Cleaving feels incomplete. It captures the descent, but not the phoenix-like rise from the ashes. It reads like a confession told not because the events led to a new understanding, but simply from a desire to confess. Although the experience of writing the book was undoubtedly cathartic for Powell, there isn't much in it for anyone else. Except, of course, some recipes, and a new understanding of why tenderloin is overpriced.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How to Feel Good About Yourself in One Easy Step

There are many reasons to watch TV: to be numbed, to be entertained, to simply avoid boredom. Occasionally, television can even make us feel good about ourselves, particularly reality TV. The main benefit of watching addicts in need of an intervention, or bartender/models in need of a good slap, is to be able to lie on the couch thinking, "At least I'm not that person." For those of you in need of a good dose of superiority, I highly recommend A&E's houses of horrors, Hoarders. It's on Mondays; the second season just began this week.

If you even spend even a minute thinking that you really shouldn't be such a slob, or a moment wondering why you can't bring yourself to get rid of those jeans that don't really fit anymore, this is the show for you. At the end of the hour, you'll first maniacally clean your kitchen and bathroom, and will then lie in bed feeling good about the fact that you live in a house where you can at least find the bed. You will know that, no matter how much of a pig you think you are, you can feel good about the fact that your city codes office isn't about to condemn your property.

Monday night's show centered on Augustine, a 68 year-old living in Gretna, LA. When I think of hoarders I think of people accumulating piles of possessions, or scores of cats or dogs, but Augustine had clearly spent decades accumulating tons of trash. Her house was so full of trash the cleaning crew needed to shovel it out. She had electricity but no heat or hot water; her bathroom looked like it hadn't functioned in at least a decade. Augustine collected not only garbage and sewage but also mold, mildew, and general filth, three or four feet of it in every disgusting room of the house. By the end of the episode, 4,000 pounds had been hauled away.

Augustine had lost her dentures in the filth, so she spent the episode gumming fast food, uncooked hot dogs, and I don't know what else. She clearly suffers from at least depression and probably also some sort of antisocial disorder, and sat in a chair eating while her children and a crew cleaned things out. The upper set of her dentures were found amid the debris. Also found were the carcasses of two cats, which had apparently either been flattened by the garbage or which had expired and then been crushed. Either way, two cats died and decomposed in her "living room" and Augustine didn't notice.

Are you disgusted yet? But wait, there's more. The bathroom was a Haz Mat zone, filled with dried excrement, mold, crud. I could smell it through the TV. Since her toilet didn't work, Augustine had one of those portable toilets for the elderly in her, what, dining room? I guess the notion of "rooms" doesn't really apply, but at any rate there the toilet sat, with what appeared to be bags of feces piled up around it and tied to the arms.

Yes, this woman is clearly in need of physical and psychiatric help and yes, this is an incredibly sad story. Yes, it is perhaps wrong to film this family's plight, to televise it, and then to lie on the couch, rapt, watching it. But in the end, I will never again worry about the fact that I could definitely clean my cat's litter box a little more often. In the end, at least I'm not that person.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Whatever you made for Thanksgiving, you probably spent the rest of the weekend finishing. Even though the last thing anyone wants to think of today is holiday food, the Times published an article last Wednesday that deserves another look. After interviewing the keepers of various recipe sites, the author provided a snapshot of the most searched-for holiday recipes by region, and the results are interesting.

Growing up, our Thanksgiving menu never varied, and because it never varied I assumed that the entire country ate what we ate: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, green been casserole, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. My mother always started things off with fruit salad, which I figured was her idiosyncrasy, since she believed fruit salad to be a "fancy" start to a meal. I therefore had no idea that, had I grown up in the Midwest, Thanksgiving would have been incomplete without a cheese ball.

Most of the recipe searches in the article are for items one would expect, although it's interesting to note that most of the searches for green bean casserole came from the West coast, as if San Francisco liberals have never heard of such a thing, and that most of the candied sweet potato searches came from the South, as if sweet potatoes and marshmallows are somehow ingredients foreign to the Southern diet. I had no idea, however, that deviled eggs were part of anyone's holiday menu, but they are in the top 25 most searched-for list, and would appear to be a staple of the mid-Western holiday diet.

What do Tennessee and Idaho have in common? Residents of both states apparently enjoy cheesecake as their holiday dessert. If you live in the South, you are apt to serve macaroni and cheese alongside the sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving day. If you happen to live smack dab in the middle of the country, your turkey was accompanied by corn casserole, based on this data. Those who live in the northern plains and the Northwest appear much more likely to brine their turkeys. In the South, green bean casserole was not searched for, while this was the only region of the country where cooks clamored for recipes for broccoli casserole, whatever that may be.

Looking for stuffed mushrooms on your holiday plate? Get invited to dinner in New England or Alaska. It turns out fruit salad is a Thanksgiving staple, just not on either coast, and that in this one instance my mother was a red-stater. Butternut squash is something I can imagine as a holiday regular, but either only New Englanders needed a recipe for this dish, or it's only served in New England.

I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this data, but I did learn that we are a large and diverse country. I mean, deviled eggs? Cheese balls?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Impersonators

The tickets were free. Why else would I go to see a Bruce Springsteen tribute band? But let's start with the more important question: why does a Springsteen tribute band exist? The man is not only alive, he's still touring. He just played a bunch of shows in Jersey a couple of months ago. If you're a huge fan, wouldn't you just go see the man himself? Or just stay home listening to his records? Why on earth would you pay good money to see an impersonator when the real thing is available to you?

The tickets were free because the show was only half full. As it turns out, the answer to the above questions is that people who are eligible for Medicare are the ones who would pay good money to see a Bruce impersonator. The last time I the youngest person at a concert was when I saw the Rolling Stones when I was 15. I know that I'm getting older, and that this is music that people 15 or 20 years older than me grew up with, but there was something completely disconcerting about sitting in the middle of a sea of baldness, paunch, and bifocals at what was, at heart, a rock concert. Then again, the Stones themselves must be closing in on 70, if they aren't there already.

We only stayed for about half of the show, not because it wasn't a good approximation of Springsteen, complete with a fake Clarence Clemmons and a fake Stevie, because it was a good approximation, but because the whole experience was just too weird. It was like being in an alternate universe where the entire E Street canon existed, but all of the songs were written and performed by a guy named Lloyd Springstein.

I couldn't help, though, feeling somewhat sorry for "Bruce" and the rest of the band. I imagined them all growing up, dreaming of becoming professional musicians, dreaming of rock stardom. They all practiced and practiced, spent years sacrificing, just to spend every night of their lives pretending to be someone else. I don't know if it's a step up or down from being a professional Elvis impersonator, but either way it made me both sad and thankful that the show took place in a theater equipped with a bar.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Seeds of Dissention

You might assume that, when it comes to local government, the most burning, most pressing, most divisive issue would be taxation and the municipal budget. You might assume that residents have the strongest feelings about their pocketbooks. You would be wrong. If you want to start a local civil war you only have to say one little word, and that word is "parking."

I have been listening to arguments about parking for five years. Local merchants complain that the meter fees in the central business district are too high. Everyone complains when the meters are enforced and tickets are written. When the meters aren't enforced, everyone complains that compliance is spotty. When tickets are written because people are parking too close to intersections everyone complains, and when enforcement of intersection sightlines are ignored everyone complains about that.

Those who live in higher density residential neighborhoods who don't have off-street parking complain when they can't park directly in front of their own homes. People who have driveways and garages complain when neighbors or visitors park in front of their homes just because they don't like the view of parked cars from their front windows. People who live near schools or local businesses located within residential neighborhoods complain when customers or staff park near their homes. People who live on streets with plenty of parking for all complain if anyone parks on their street, even for a minute.

Propose a new business or redevelopment project in my city and everyone will immediately start complaining about parking. Propose a new parking deck and everyone will complain about the wisdom of parking decks. Propose a parking lot and everyone will complain about impervious surfaces. If you want neighbor to turn against neighbor, friend against friend, simply lean into a group of peaceful-seeming people and whisper, "Parking." Within 30 seconds fisticuffs will commence.

If there's a solution I don't know it. When you live in a place with medium or high density, in old neighborhoods built before every home contained a two-car garage, you're going to have a lot of cars competing for on-street parking. Distraction is probably the best method to combat the divisiveness of the parking issue. Lean into that same group and whisper the second-most controversial topic and parking will become a distant memory. That topic? Street trees.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tax Dollars at Work

I discovered the most magical place several months ago. It's a large building filled with books. Once you find the book you want to read you can borrow it for free, and when you're done you return it so that the next person can read it. You can also borrow DVDs, audio books, music CDs. It's so sustainable it's almost a collective, more socialistic than health care reform. It's the public library.

Back in college and grad school I went to various libraries all the time, but I'd somehow forgotten that they existed. I got into the habit of buying the books I wanted to read and then giving them away, because my house is full of books and I just don't have room to keep too many more of them. For some reason I just assumed that I'd have a long wait for any newly-published book, and that it wasn't worth it. The new penuriousness led me to the library last month, and I have to say that I've been pretty stupid all these years.

My taste in literature is clearly not shared by the other residents of my small city, because I've never yet had to reserve a new book and wait for it. And I'd completely forgotten how libraries subscribe to each and every periodical, and how they provide comfortable chairs for you to slouch into while reading all the magazines and newspapers you can handle in one sitting. There's even pencils and paper lying around in case you want to write something down. There's free WiFi, but there's also every reference book imaginable, so you don't need to rely on the vagaries of Wikipedia for information.

The bast thing about the library, though, is that it's free because my school taxes pay for it. I don't have children and have previously gotten incredibly annoyed each fall when my ridiculously high school tax bill arrived. At least now I can feel as if I'm getting a benefit for all that money. In fact, this is perhaps the only instance where I can hold in my hands a physical manifestation of my tax dollars at work.

Also, don't buy into the myths. If you see someone you know at the library and want to have a short conversation, go for it. I've never once been shushed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turkey Sucks

Yeah, it's been a while. After 20 months I just needed a break, but now I'm back, refreshed, renewed, reborn, rejuvenated, re...you get the picture. I got my hair cut again yesterday, which I do every six weeks, and realized that my last post was after my last haircut, which meant that six weeks had gone by. So, my break is over, and it's time to get back to it.

So much happens and yet nothing happens. The seasons change, daylight disappears in the evening, when you want light, and appears way too early in the morning, when you want dark. Leaves are raked and blown and are migrated from tree to sidewalk. A season of Mad Men comes to a satisfying end, while yet another season of Real Housewives comes to a satisfying start. Books are read, trips are taken. I will get to all of it, eventually, but on this morning, as I begin preparations for another Thanksgiving, I want to talk about turkey.

I'll start by admitting that I hate turkey. Yes, it smells good while it's roasting, but at the end of all that effort you're left with exactly two pieces of OK-tasting poultry - the meat from the inner thigh - and about 10 pounds of dessicated tastelessness. Stuff it or don't, brine it or don't, the end result is still a lot of meat that you then spend a week disguising in mayonnaise-laden sandwiches or cheese-ridden casseroles. In the end, there's absolutely no reason that we make turkey for Thanksgiving other than the fact that we think it's traditional.

Did the Indians and Pilgrims eat turkey at that originary meal? Perhaps, we don't really know. Oysters were plentiful in the Bay, and the natives would have brought corn, root vegetables, that kind of thing. Venison was just as likely as turkey on that 17th-century groaning board. No, we eat turkey at the holidays because our parents served it, and our parents served it because they like to think they grew up in a Normal Rockwell painting but really probably were served turkey by our grandparents simply because it was a cheap way to feed a lot of people.

No matter the origins, turkey is a bad idea. If turkey was actually so delicious, wouldn't it be served in fine restaurants everywhere? Have you ever once said, "I want to go out for a really good piece of turkey?" When planning a nice dinner party for your friends or loved ones other than Thanksgiving or Christmas, do you buy a huge frozen bird? If turkey were so good, wouldn't there be a McTurkey sandwich? Wouldn't Julie and Julia have featured Julia Child in her French kitchen mastering the art of brining?

Thanksgiving is, at heart, a dinner party. It took me years to realize this, but it is the truth. I've let go of all the holiday cliches, and treat it as what it is. If I want to serve roast beef or rack of lamb, that's what I serve. If I want creamed corn instead of sweet potatoes that's what I make. This year I'm considering fondue. You don't need turkey. You probably don't even want it, if you think about it.

Free yourselves this holiday season. Make whatever you want!

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Weather Outside is Frightful

First we didn't really have a spring. After two hot weeks back in April we had two dreary, cool months. It rained nearly every day in June. July and August were spring-like but not summery. I think I turned on my air conditioning exactly once, which was great on the pocketbook but felt unseasonable. Then a few weeks ago the leaves began dying on the trees without turning, and last night was so cold I considered putting on my heat. In other words, we didn't have a spring or a summer, and now it looks like we might not have much of a fall.

Weather is the most ridiculous thing to talk about yet we can't stop talking about it, probably because it's the only thing besides taxes and death that effects all of us and yet is completely beyond our control. I hate talking about weather but after four straight days of not wanting to get out of bed because it's the warmest place in the house, four straight days of cloud cover, four straight days of wearing a sweater when I don't want to be wearing a sweater, it feels like the only conversational game in town.

I got my hair cut yesterday. My stylist is one of those people who always sees apocalypse around the corner. For a year now I've spent 45 minutes every six weeks hearing about bread lines and how utility companies and banks are the undoing of civilization as we know it, and about how before too long we're all going to be bartering for scraps of meat. I once offered him some meat rather than a check as payment for my haircut but he somehow was not amused. At any rate, the conversation yesterday did not once touch on banks or economic calamity. It was all about the weather. He claims we're going to have the worst winter ever in the history of humankind, featuring such historic cold that it won't even be able to snow. We're going to spend five months huddled under Snuggies, breaking apart furniture in order to feed the fire because the utility companies will be in possession of all our money by December at the latest. Apocalypse will be the fault not of capitalism but of Willard Scott.

I understand the feeling. It's a cruel enough world out there, but at least we can ordinarily count on some warmth and sunlight and the maple trees turning orange and crimson. There is one distinct advantage to all this gloomy weather, though: going back to bed feels like an offensive rather than a defensive measure.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I just spent a weekend at my alma mater. This has been happening once a year lately, when a bunch of alums from my, let's say, vintage converge on the campus and behave as badly as possible. I manage to go through most of life as a responsible and mature woman, meeting my obligations, safe to invite to events. Why is it that I drive five and a half hours, go through the campus gates, get out of my car, and am suddenly an 18 year-old again?

This phenomenon is not unique to my campus or age group. I watch this same thing every June in my hometown, when middle-aged graduates of the local college take over my neighborhood for their alumni weekend. They tailgate, take over the neighborhood bars, march hungover down the street in a parade; they leave the campus as much of a mess as we must have left our campus on Sunday. Homecoming weekend here is even more of a boozefest each fall, when the Lafayette/Lehigh football game leads hundreds of people who should know better to get day drunk.

In my real life I spend my weekends participating in activities that don't feature quantities of alcohol. In my real life, I don't go to a dining hall for a "breakfast" that consists of half a pound of bacon, steam table eggs, grits, and, in order to pretend I'm healthy, one piece of fruit. In my real life I don't follow that up with a lunch that consists of grilled cheese, corn pudding, and dessert, then begin happy hour at 3 PM. In my real life, when I go listen to a band, I don't join the people rushing the stage to dance behind the band, only to repeatedly be chased off said stage by campus security.

I did learn an important lesson this weekend, though: no matter how stupid I may act, there's always someone else about whom I can say, "At least I'm not that girl." At least I'm not that girl who tore apart her banquet centerpiece and threw the boxwoods at the band, soaking the guitarist. At least I'm not that girl who put pieces of her centerpiece in her hair, leaving her looking much like Pocahontas. At least I wasn't having sex with my date and calling it dancing. Yes, true, I didn't have a date, but still, I wasn't that girl. I was not the girl wearing a gown more fit for a beauty pageant and spilling out of it. I was not the girl who attempted to run a lap around the indoor track suspended above the dance floor and who was chased down by security, although that girl was from my group.

I was plenty of things. I was a grown-up behaving like a child. I was having fun. The only thing I wasn't, was that girl.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Away from the Fray

I'm back, after a little over a week spent nearly entirely off-line. I just felt like a break from my computer, and I have to say that staying away wasn't really all that hard. I did answer email because ignoring that would have felt like not picking up the phone, and also because I have to email for work, but for 10 days I didn't blog or read blogs, didn't check on Facebook or Twitter, didn't go to any websites for news or reviews or for anything. I was completely status update free.

I've spent most of my life without the internet; I'm old enough that I didn't even own a computer until well after college. This habit of getting up in the morning and immediately sitting down in front of the keyboard to find out what happened overnight is relatively recent, even if it feels as if I've been reading Slate and Salon forever. I have to say, though, that old media also does the trick. It's still possible to read the newspaper and be caught up. Being informed does not have to equal immediacy. Roman Polanski was just as arrested 12 hours after the fact as he was the second the story broke.

The truly freeing part of the past 10 days, though, has been my freedom from posting anything, anywhere. I write this blog mainly for myself, because I like to write and because writing this helps force me to engage with various topics and helps me to think about things. However, after 20 months, I do go through periods where thinking about new things and then writing about them is a chore. It can be hard to have something to say several days a week, and to remove that pressure for a week felt great. This is precisely why I don't Twitter: I'd drive myself crazy with the pressure to be interesting a day long, and no one is interesting all day long. I'm barely interesting two or three times a week. Taking some time to recharge offline helped me to see that, yes, I do like the time I spend here or on Facebook or wherever, but that I have to see it as leisure and not as work. I have to treat it as leisure and not as work.

The ability to keep up with everything and everyone is an opportunity, but going away once in a while is also an opportunity. Away from the computer I got more book-reading done, spent more time outside my house, spent more time with the living and breathing. I'm back now, recharged, but an offline respite is definitely something I highly recommend.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What to Watch

I'm a huge fan of The Wire, still mourning the fact that the series ended. If, like me, you need a fix of gritty reality, tune in to the Sundance Channel next week for the documentary mini-series Brick City (it airs M-F at 10 PM). It's probably unfair to compare the two, as The Wire was realistic fiction while Brick City is reality without fiction, but the focus on lives large and small and on the ways various people struggle to find meaning in the middle of crushing poverty, racism, and crime, and the ways these same people must function within and against institutions while they carry on this struggle, is the thematic center of both series. If you loved one, you'll love the other.

Brick City presents approximately six months in the life of Newark, NJ. We watch first-term mayor Cory Booker cheerlead, exhort, and politically manipulate. We watch Booker's new Director of Police attempt to reform the department, focus on Comstat in attempting to reduce the murder rate, and battle against the old school Chief of Police for control of the men. We watch Jayda, an ex-Blood, and her boyfriend Creep, an ex-Crip, attempt to make a life together and raise a family despite the odds. We watch the residents of Newark's Central Ward fight to get a new high school opened, and we watch the principal and vice-principal of that school fight to keep their students in the classroom and off the streets.

Because this is reality rather than fiction, small plot arcs structure the individual episodes, while the series begins and ends in medias res. Solutions to the failure of the American city are in short supply, and wouldn't be found in six months at any rate. If the series has a failing, however, it's the fact that it feels truncated; five hours is just enough to make you want to see more. All in all, it's worth watching, and undoubtedly better than whatever else is on weeknights at 10 PM. I recommend it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Goodbye, Taste Buds

I understand that I'm getting older every day, but so far aging hasn't really been anything I've noticed. Sure, I've got some more gray in my hair and my metabolism has definitely changed, but my health has been good and I don't generally feel differently than I did, say, 20 years ago. With one small exception.

It started with sour mix. One day I was enjoying margaritas with impunity and the next two sips gave me heartburn. There's plenty of other alcoholic beverages in the world, though, so I simply stopped ordering margaritas. Then one day the heartburn after two sips started to apply to those "malt beverages" as well. Goodbye, Smirnoff Ice, farewell, Mike's Hard Lemonade. Not the biggest loss, but a loss nonetheless.

And now, suddenly, I can't eat garlic without being kept up all night chugging water, tasting it on my lips, feeling generally uncomfortable. Garlic powder is still fine, but I just can no longer do fresh garlic. This is a loss, but more important this is an event that makes me fear that I've taken the first step in a descent down the slippery slope that leads to an entirely bland diet. I'm now afraid that I'll wake up one day and will have turned into my grandmother, subsisting on a diet of boiled chicken and dessicated hard candy. Or that I'll wake up one day and after eating boiled chicken and dessicated hard candy will look through my pockets and discover them filled with emery boards, rain bonnets, and travel packs of tissues.

I don't like having to admit that I'm slowly aging, but who does? Yes, I'm still a long way from being restricted to soft food, but still. Garlic-free pesto? Tragic.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11

I'm not sure there's anything more to say about it. It shocked us, it saddened us, it happened. For months after we were all freaked out and scared and so we plastered flags all over the country. Where did all the flags go, I often wonder? I guess the basements of America are now filled with flags. In my basement, I have the commemorative 9/11 box of tissues I purchased at a mini-mart a couple of weeks later. Part of me couldn't believe that the event was being milked to sell tissues, and part of me knew that only in this country could an act of terrorism be turned into a marketing strategy.

How could we know, in the middle of shock and grief, the ways that event would change our world? At the time we couldn't see the wars to follow, one necessary and one useless. We couldn't see the ways a Presidency would be transformed, our government hardened. We couldn't see thousands of our servicepeople killed, thousands more returning home with PTSD, couldn't see that our relationship with a distant part of the world was damaged in ways armed might can't combat and probably still can't see that, even eight years later when war feels perpetual.

We said we'd never forget - the tissue box proclaims that in large type - but then except for this one day a year we did forget. Our President told us to go shopping, so we all took out subprime mortgages and bought houses in exurbs. We all went on with our lives, as survivors do. The world has changed not only because years have passed but because the events of that day helped to change it. It's important to take a minute to remember what happened and those who perished not only to honor them but to see clearly, even if just for a moment, where we are and how we got here.

The 21st century began eight years ago today.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

As Always, It's All About Protein

When I look at my dog sleeping happily at my feet I don't wonder why he chooses to live with me rather than in the wild. He wouldn't survive a day in the wild, to be honest. He has absolutely no prey instinct, he refuses to be rained on, he hates cold, and he won't lie even on the floor without a pillow. He was born thoroughly domesticated, as dogs are these days.

The question of how wolves came be dogs has been pondered by researchers over and over again. Where were they domesticated, how, why? I've always figured that a couple of brave and friendly wolves were attracted by a fire and started spending nights sleeping by some of our ancestors, who started feeding them scraps. Then they started hunting together and hanging out 24/7, and before you know it the wolves were sleeping next to rather than near the humans, protecting the humans, helping out by pulling and carrying things for the humans, and a relationship that has lasted thousands of years was born. This is a happy story of codependency, but according to a story in yesterday's NY Times, it's bunk.

Using genetics, dogs have been traced back to one place of origin, a remote province of China. The disturbing thing is that this is one of those Chinese provinces where historically dogs are food, not pets. Thousands of years ago, once man had the ability to build cages and trap, wolves were caught and kept in pens, fattening up for the slaughter. Wolves came to live in proximity to humans not because wolves saw anything fortuitous in the relationship - what's good about being meat, after all - but because humans looked at wolves and saw lunch. Thus wolves began to be raised in captivity.

Travelers passing through this province then saw the wolves in cages, and instead of seeing lunch saw an animal that could be of some use for warmth, protection, hunting, hauling. They traded for these domesticated wolves and carried them off, dispersing them eventually throughout the known world. 10,000 or so years later you have Brody, shedding all over my pillow while he watches me type.

It's somewhat disturbing to rethink the whole human/canine relationship this way, but it also explains why, if wolves wanted to be domesticated, you never hear stories of humans camping and meeting some friendly wolves out in the wild. It also explains why dogs are so willing to be housebroken. It's not because they love us and want to please us, but because they don't want to be fileted.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Working on My Resume

I really should get a job. For a year I've been living on air, freelance work, and savings, and I'm tired of the schedule of no schedule. Of course, in order to get a job one has to look for a job, and in order to look for a job one has to update one's resume. I don't think there's any task more boring, more horrid, than writing a resume. In my last job I had to read plenty of resumes, so I can say with some authority that reading them is no more fun than writing them. Resumes suck.

I've always changed things on the resume around depending on the job to which I am applying, so that whatever aspects of my experience seems most relevant are brought to the foreground. What this means, practically, is hours spent reliving all the ridiculous and often boring tasks I've mastered at one point or another. Budgeting, for example. I was good with my budget in that I spent all of it every year. If you don't spend it all, it gets cut the next year. So every September I ordered office supplies, computer bags, crap I didn't need just to protect that particular budget line. Budget management means I'm good at spending money I don't have to.

"Managing support staff." That one means that I spent a year trying to get my assistant to show up for work one hour late rather than her preferred two hours late. This would work for about a week at a time. She'd arrive promptly at 10, then it would become 10:25, then 10:47, then we'd be back to two hours late, have a talk that would leave her mad at me, and begin the cycle all over again. I wonder if her resume features her experience "Managing Managers."

I was in charge of our company's crisis communications plan and in making sure that all of our offices had crisis communications plans of their own. This was mainly about PR crises, and was mainly about ensuring that only certain staff would talk to the press and controlling what would be said to the press, but the plan also had to include our potential response to various disasters. What would nuclear annihilation mean to our company? What statement do we make in the event of invasion by space aliens? If California drops into the Pacific, who is our spokesperson? I left the company before Katrina and was saddened to see that we somehow didn't make it into any of the press coverage since my planning had included responses to government indifference and incompetence (although I called that situation "acts of God").

Depending on the position my resume could also include planning and leading conference calls. Some days all I did was go from one conference call to another. Usually this was small groups, but sometimes I had to lead calls with 30 or so participants. Being on the phone with 30 people is a skill, believe me, particularly when you consider that 80% of those people were eating their lunch. At least it sounded that way. How do you compete with lunch? You can't, although on your resume you list your experience in "staff motivation."

Of course all work is cyclical. Some days and weeks I'd be incredibly busy, and then there would be days when I really didn't have that much to do. No one can know about any of this down time, however, or else you'll be given more work that you then have to delegate and oversee to completion. "Time management" becomes an essential skill. How do you make surfing the Web look like a work-related task? How many hours of solitaire can you play while pretending to write press releases? Without effective time management, you might end up actually busy all day, every day, and that's just not the desired measurable outcome.

The process of writing this post and thinking about my resume makes me see why I'd rather continue working for myself. If it weren't for paychecks and health insurance, would any of us go to an office five days a week? But the time has come, and I need to manage it. My resume awaits.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Holiday, Celebrate

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Labor Day was originally intended to celebrate the social and economic contributions of the labor movement to American society. So thank you, labor movement, for getting everyone a day off of work. Thank you, labor movement, for a long weekend of back-to-school sales at which underpaid workers with no benefits must labor while the rest of us grill hot dogs. Thanks, labor movement, for either lengthening or shortening summer, depending when the first Monday in September falls. I'm celebrating American labor the best way I know how this weekend: by doing absolutely nothing at all. I'm watching some tennis, I'm reading a book, and I'm bidding summer adieu with the sloth I didn't have time, this summer, to enjoy.

Have a great holiday weekend, and I'll be back Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Let's Hear It for 1987

The time has arrived to break out the shoulder pads and high-waisted jeans, pour some Chardonnay, give your dog a pretentious literary name, and settle in to an evening of thirtysomething. perhaps i should compose this post entirely in the lower-case? I won't do that, but I will express my happiness that at long last the series is being released on DVD. In the late 80s I religiously sat before the TV every Tuesday night at 10 to witness the trials and tribulations of this group of Philly yuppies.

I'm really not sure why this show spoke to me. At the time I was a decade younger than the protagonists, and an important decade at that. I had no youthful 60s idealism to lose, unless that idealism can take the form of a love of the Jackson 5. I was a poor graduate student who couldn't afford even an old Volvo and was years away from even the thought of undertaking a nightmare renovation of an Arts and Crafts home. I wasn't married, trying to be married, or fretting over the choice between raising children and having a career. In short, I had nothing in common with these characters, yet still I loved them. Perhaps there just really wasn't anything else good on TV, or perhaps it's something about Marshall Herskovitz, who 10 years earlier worked on Family, and who would go on, with Ed Zwick, to produce two of my favorite shows of the 90s, My So-Called Life and Once and Again.

What became clear after watching an assortment of the Season One episodes is that the thirtysomething I loved was later season thirtysomething. I loved it when Nancy had cancer, and Michael and Elliot worked for and battled Miles Drentell, and everyone hated Susannah. I loved it when Melissa became a character in her own right and not comic relief. I loved it when the show became more of a high-concept soap and less of a meditation on the horror of turning into one's mother or father. All of the things I loved happened later, so I will patiently await the release of the next three seasons and in the meantime contemplate Michael's obsession with suspenders and the fact that Ellyn is continually attracted to men much less good-looking than herself. Seriously, Woodman? The fug married guy she met at the pool? The comic book guy who was about one day from being fat? Oh, Ellyn.

Last week's release of this set led to all kinds of rumination on the importance of the show, how it ushered in a new era of naval-gazing and a new kind of serialized drama. But did it, really? When it went off the air in 1991, did anything of quality replace it? Those were the years of 90210 and Melrose Place. I'd venture that its greatest impact was on situation comedy rather than drama. By focusing on a group of friends who don't share a home or a workplace, by focusing in many ways on the commonplace and everyday as the stuff of plot, it paved the way for Friends and Seinfeld. The situations were played for laughs rather than bathos, but the concept of a group of urban professionals creating their own family as a shield against the alienation of urban striving, well, that was pure thirtysomething.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Tyson on Tyson

Mike Tyson is one of those people I never think about. I'm aware that he's still alive but really don't wonder what he's up to. When I think about him, I remember the time back in the mid-80s when he was knocking out opponents one after the other, each more quickly than the other, and when he was everywhere in our culture. I remember the whole Robin Givens thing, and watching their interview with Barbara Walters. I remember marveling at the disconnect between his physique and ferocity and his little baby voice, and how the Givens mess was the beginning of a steep decline, the instance where he began the journey from kind of sexy in his own way to monstrous in every way. The rape conviction was big news so of course I remember that, and the biting of Holyfield's ear, but in general he's just not someone I've thought about for at least 15 years.

I wouldn't be thinking of him today were it not for James Toback's Tyson, a documentary shot entirely from Tyson's point of view. There he is, looking somewhat ruined, telling his side of the sordid tale: his early life on the mean streets, being rescued by Cus D'Amato and turned into a boxer, how he never recovered from D'Amato's death, how he's never trusted anyone else, how he's been the victim time and time again.

There's no doubt that our culture is quick to vilify black men, particularly physically powerful black men. Could it really be that he never touched Robin Givens, never raped anyone, only bit Holyfield's ear as a reaction to a rash of illegal head butts? I guess, although common sense implies that someone repeatedly accused of brutality must be guilty of something. What's more interesting is to put aside questions of innocence and guilt and instead to take the film for what it is: a glimpse into the mind of someone very different than you or me.

In a matter of a few years he went from being a punk sent upstate to juvie to being a contender for the heavyweight title, from being no one to being famous. He became the youngest heavyweight champion, and just a few years after that lost the title and went to prison. Everything that happened to him happened in a 10-year period, and when it was all over and he found himself sitting in a prison cell in Indiana he was 25 years old. It's a bizarre enough life that any of us would have problems making sense of it all, let alone a kid raised on the streets with no education whose only adult role model had died and left him alone to navigate the world of fame and fortune.

The film is fascinating not because he is able to rehabilitate himself in anyone's eyes but because he narrates the events of his life from inside those events. It's a private record that stands beside the pubic record. If it makes us re-evaluate anything it makes us think about the ways our culture provided only one path for Tyson, violence, and the ways the same impulses and behaviors are rewarded in the ring that are condemned outside it. It's the fates, Greek tragedy writ large on the streets of Brooklyn, the mats of Las Vegas, and the sheets of the tabloids.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another Reason to Change Careers

If my cat ever decided to post an online profile, his "hobbies and interests" would be, in order of importance, eating, sleeping, and grooming. I'm glad cleanliness is important to him, although I wish he'd understand that it's a rare human who cares to have his anus thrust into the face, no matter how clean that anus might be. At any rate, his propensity for grooming leads to hairballs. No amount of brushing and no "hairball control" treats can stem the nighttime tide of hairballs thrown up onto my carpet.

I suppose I should be thankful that he throws up on the carpet rather than on the bed or the couch. His process is to jump down and wander around retching until he finds a perfect, unspoiled section of the carpet to spoil. He never vomits in the same place twice, and no matter what I've tried nothing will get up the stain that's left. Things sometimes creep up on you, so that I woke up last week and noticed stains all around me, in the bedroom, in the office, down the entire length of the hallway. It was time to call in the professionals.

Carpets obviously get gross and it's better not to ever think about it. Better not to think about the dander, sweat, dead skin, germs, crumbs, and god knows what else that lodges there. Better, in other words, not to look at what comes up the steam cleaner. Let me put it this way: I thought the base color of my carpeting was much more tan than it turns out to be.

The point of this post isn't to be disgusting, however, but instead to marvel at what a racket carpet cleaning can be. Before I called the guys in the truck, I tried both Resolve and a consumer steamer, neither of which did anything but leave their own bleach stains all over the place. I rented one of those larger steamers from the grocery store, which succeeded only in leaving the carpets soggy and smelling like a wet dog. Unless you want to own some unwieldy and ridiculously expensive machine you have no choice but to pay someone with the proper equipment.

Once the carpet cleaners realized pet stains were involved, I was instructed that simple steam cleaning wouldn't be enough, because moisture would only release germs and odor. My experience with the grocery store machine bore that out. The result was that I had to spend an extra $60 for an antibacterial/antimicrobial pretreatment, on top of the hundred bucks for the cleaning of the two rooms and hallway. So, OK, it's not as if I had any other options, save ripping out the carpets or tearing down the house. I had to pay whatever it was I had to pay.

But here's the thing: the whole process, pretreatment and steam cleaning, took exactly 10 minutes. I paid $160 for 10 minutes of work. Yes, they had to drive here in the truck, but my appointment was scheduled for a day when they were already in my neighborhood, and yes, the two guys were in the house more like 20 minutes and their labor was part of the cost. But come on, $960 an hour? To clean carpets? I am so in the wrong line of work.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Would You Like Some Meth with Your Canned Ham?

You live in a small town in rural Iowa, or Missouri, or Kansas, somewhere in the Midwest where the sun rises and sets over the corn and your father and grandfather somehow made a living from the land, either farming it or working at a processing or meatpacking place. Year after year nothing changes, until you wake up one day and realize that half of your town is addicted to meth. All around you friends and neighbors are either using or making it, or both. How did this happen?

For an intimate look at meth in one small rural town, read Nick Reding's Methland. Reding spent three years living among the residents of Olwein, Iowa, and his ground-floor account of the ways meth spread through and ravaged one community, and the ways that community is trying to rebuild itself, is both engrossing and eye-opening. I won't give away the entire plot, because the book really is worth a read, but I will say that the culprit is both expected and unexpected. The culprit is agribusiness.

The consolidation of smaller family farms into conglomerates displaced people from their traditional livelihoods. This isn't news. Those who didn't farm went to work in plants; while the unionized meatpacking plant operated in Olwein, people could make a living. The shifts were long and the work was repetitive, and many meatpackers relied on speed to get through the day or the week, but the wages could support a lower middle-class life. Union plants were closed, though, and what processing work remained was non-unionized, the wages less than half what they used to be. Using meth became an antidote to despair; dealing meth became an antidote to economic hopelessness.

Food still needed to be processed by cheap labor. For various reasons, Mexican cartels cornered the meth market. Illegal immigrant labor became their distribution network. Illegals can move about undetected, transporting the drug with them. In this way the labor practices of agribusiness both created and sustain the rural meth market. As Reding shows, 20 years ago meth could be a homegrown operation, with a local dealer in control of both manufacturing and distribution. These days the local dealer is just a middleman. Meth manufacture is as consolidated as the production of ground beef, utilizing the same labor force.

Do solutions exist? Read the book to see what Olwein's civic leadership has done to stem the tide. Obviously, the real solutions are economic; only the creation of decent legal jobs can effectively combat an underground economy. Can that happen in Missouri, in Iowa, when more and more of our labor needs are exported each year? I guess that remains to be seen. In the meantime, Olwein awaits.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Winner Takes It All

Because jobs in my field are hard to find these days, I've decided my financial plan is simply to win PowerBall. It's a nice jackpot this week: $122 million if you take the cash rather than the annuity. Even after taxes, that's, well, it's enough money for the rest of my life. I bought 10 tickets, so clearly I'm going to win this thing. In spare moments, I've been trying to figure out what I'm going to do with some of that money. If a check for $122 million won't burn a hole in your pocket, then nothing will.

Of course I'll buy a new car, and book a trip first-class on Emirates Air so I can experience the private sleeping compartment. That's maybe $200K, though, leaving me with an awful lot of change. I really like my current house even though it lacks a pool, so I'll re-landscape and have one put in. That still leaves me with way too much money. One advantage of spectacular wealth would be my ability to avoid winter altogether should I so choose, so I decided that I'd buy a winter house someplace warm.

Because I love mid-century modern architecture, Palm Springs seems like the most logical winter destination. Plus, I could attend the Indian Wells tennis tournament every year. So, yesterday I went onto the Palm Springs MLS to see about dropping a couple of million and helping to revive the California economy.

Can you imagine my joy when I discovered that for $3.25 million I can purchase Twin Palms, Frank Sinatra's actual house? This feels like an incredible bargain; it even comes furnished. I can't wait to have sex in Frank Sinatra's bed, or for my cat to shed in Frank Sinatra's ugly chair. My dog has a weird propensity to crap on concrete rather than grass, and Frank Sinatra's house has an amazing patio for him to defile. Twin Palm means family fun for everyone.

The drawing is tonight, so I can go pick up my check tomorrow and buy the place over the weekend. If you don't have any Labor Day plans, come fly away to Palm Springs.

Monday, August 17, 2009

How Can I Not Write about Mad Men?

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
- W.B Yeats, "The Second Coming"

By 1967 Joan Didion would use Yeats' evocation of the apocalypse to anchor her reporting on the Haight during the Summer of Love, but these lines strongly came to mind when thinking about the Season 3 premier of Mad Men. Yes, the episode is literally about births, and the anxiety surrounding births: we begin with a flashback to Dick Whitman's birth, Betty and Don are awaiting the birth of their third child, the episode takes place on Dick's birthday, and the episode ends with Don and Betty telling Sally the story of her birth. Beyond the literal, though, the themes of the season hinted at in the episode are all about changes that are being born, the anxieties attendant to those changes, and how one reacts to change when one is in the middle of it.

From the first scene of the pilot episode the audience has known what the characters can't know: that the complacency and seeming hegemony of the immediate postwar years is about to explode into chaos. Everything that happens to these characters takes place on the cusp of a great cultural shift that they can't predict because they are living through it. In 2007, would any of us have predicted the events of 2008, the extent of the financial meltdown, the depth of our national anxiety, the result of the Presidential election? Although those living through a period of cultural shift might have glimmers that a change is gonna come, the nature of that change and its repercussions are fully understood only in hindsight, which is precisely what Mad Men's characters lack. They are simply adults living their lives.

It's sometime around April, 1963; the Beatles recorded their first album in March, but the British have already invaded Sterling Cooper, thanks to Duck's ambition and Roger's libido. The anxiety of the characters has a very literal cause, as we know that about a third of the staff has been let go. Beyond British control, advertising itself is changing. Harry's position as head of the TV department has clearly given him more power within the agency, since he himself points out that TV brings in 42% of their revenue. Pete and Ken are pitted against one another for a promotion; the arrival of a male British secretary who sees his role as something much more grandiose than Joan has ever imagined challenges her supremacy over the support staff; Roger and Bert seem to have a symbolic "advisory" role at the agency with no real authority.

Much of the episode focuses on Don and Sal's jaunt to Baltimore to placate London Fog. "Out of Town," as the episode title suggests, is the episode's theme. To be out of town is to have the ability to rebirth yourself, to pretend to be anything and anyone you want to be because no one knows you. Don Draper is an expert at rebirthing, at changing identities, and is quick to make up a backstory for himself and Sal for their night carousing with the stewardesses. The real birthing that takes place though is of Sal's true identity; being out of town allows him to let the bellboy kiss him and to acknowledge his true desires. It's Dick's birthday, but in this sense it's also the day Sal is birthed into a new way of conceiving of his life.

The new doesn't fully replace the old because the new is born from it. Dick Whitman lies just under the surface of Don Draper just as the Beatles lie just under the surface of Perry Como. Change isn't coming so much as it's slowly and inexorably happening all around, every minute. In the next few months of 1963 the Draper's baby will be born, TaB and ZIP codes will be introduced, JFK will call for passage of a Civil Rights Act, the SCLC's Birmingham campaign will grip the nation, MLK will be jailed and pen his famous Letter and a few months later deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech while James Meredith enrolls at Ole Miss, Kenya and Uganda will free themselves from British domination, and in a little country called Vietnam Diem will be assassinated by US-backed military coup. Joan will deal with the repercussions of her marriage, Don will try to remain committed to his family, Pete or Ken will be promoted, Peggy will try to force her secretary to respect her, all the adults living in this world will continue to live in it even as the ground underneath them keeps shifting.

How we deal with the change we live inside of is the theme of all our lives.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cooking Project Update

A brief update on my "eat only what you cook" project:

If you're going to attempt this kind of thing, this is the time of year to do it. It's easy to stop at a farm stand, make a bunch of corn or buy some cucumbers, turn it into a salad and eat it for a few days. Plus, I prefer most vegetables raw, which means there's no work involved preparing part of my meals, so it's just been a matter of, say, grilling some chicken, eating some of it that night, and then using the rest in salads or sandwiches. I've learned there are a few things I won't be able to eat as long as I do this, though.

Pizza, for example. I can make something that resembles a pizza. I can make a flatbread dough, put toppings on it and grill it, and it tastes fine. It's not real pizza, though, not like the pizza from my favorite place. You clearly need a pizza oven to make real pizza, so I'm just going to stop experimenting and put that in the column of things I can only eat if I'm eating out.

I think I'm going to have to say that beverages are not part of this experiment. I love Diet Pepsi too much. I've been making mint tea, but really there's no replacing the chemical fizziness of Diet Pepsi. So I bought some yesterday, and I also bought some pretzels. I was having some friends over for drinks, and pretzels are time-consuming to make, and I didn't want to offer them green beans with their beer (which I also didn't make).

In fact, the healthiest thing about this is going to be the absence of snack food. I didn't think I ate a lot of such food, but I was fooling myself. The hardest thing has been wanting just a few bites of something and finding only fruit and vegetables in my kitchen - no Sun Chips, no wasabi peas, no Twizzlers. And no, I am not going to attempt to make Sun Chips. I'm certain that I lack the requisite chemicals.

In short, it hasn't been a particularly hard week and a half, but it's only been a week and a half. I'll keep going, and update as things progress.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Fern in Every Pot

Remember the Lawrences, our old friends from Pasadena? Kate is a housewife; Doug is a bushy-eyebrowed lawyer and Matthew Broderick's real-life father. They live in a nice suburban house with lots of ferns and outdoor seating and their three children. Nancy is a divorcee who is trying to finish law school while every man in California tries to sleep with her; Willie is so sensitive and artistic he dropped out of high school and is both a photographer and a writer, and even though (or perhaps because) he really should be gay he has one tragic girlfriend after another - one who is pregnant, one who dies, etc. Then there's Letticia, the baby. She's a tomboy who insists on being called "Buddy" and who, despite her penchant for wearing overalls and mesh football jerseys, manages to attract the affections of every 70s tween idol who happens by Pasadena. Willie Ames is her boyfriend until he moves down the street to his own TV show, then Leif Garrett tries to pressure her to have sex with him. She wears the football jersey through it all.

Yes, I'm talking about family, my favorite hour of television circa 1976. How I wished my family could be like this! I wished my parents would let me drop out of school and live in an apartment in our backyard decorated with faux antiques and macrame. I wished my parents would be completely understanding if I brought Willie Ames up to my room. I wished I had an older brother who would let me drive even though I was 12 years old. I wished we had a hammock in our yard and that my father drove a Maverick rather than a Buick Skylark.

family is out on DVD and, laid low with yet more poison ivy, I spent last night watching highlights from the first two seasons. I can't believe I once loved this dreck, and I also can't believe how slowly the show is paced. We had a lot more patience back in the days when we only got a handful of channels; the title credits alone last about a minute and a half. What makes this show unique is that each and every episode is a very special episode. Not a week goes by where one social problem or another is not the focus. It's a good thing Buddy didn't have sex with Leif Garrett or she undoubtedly would have gotten herpes in the next episode and pregnant in the one after that. This poor family was absolutely besieged, I tell you.

Which makes sense, because despite its liberal trappings, this is one of the most reactionary shows of the period. Yes, the elder Lawrences take a liberal approach to their single-mother eldest, their drop-out aimless artist son, and their independent tomboy daughter. But it's important to note that all three of these children live at home, even those in their early 20s. The real lesson of the show is that beyond the confines of the family lurks danger. If an old flame comes to visit, he's a speed freak. If an old neighbor visits, she's an alcoholic. If you serve on a jury and the criminal is acquitted he will seek out and attack your child. The family is surrounded by perversion, drug addicts, thieves, dissolution of every stripe. Family is the only defense.

So really, I should be glad that I lived in a home without ferns and macrame, a home where one graduated high school and got the hell out of there for good. America in the mid-70s probably did seem scary. The economy was a mess, Watergate had eroded all faith in government and authority, cities were dying, suburban kids were all smoking pot, polyester was ubiquitous. To say that the nuclear family is an anecdote to social ills in 1976 is to say pretty much the same thing Reagan had been saying all along, and in that sense was an early pop culture manifestation of the conservative revolution that had been coming for years and would be completed in 1980. In many ways family is about precisely that moment when the liberal dreams of the 1960s are transformed, when the garden of Woodstock becomes the manicured lawn of suburbia, and when the focus becomes the family.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


We have the story of two women, both adrift. One arrives in postwar Paris the wife of a mid-level embassy official, unable to bear children, with nothing to do. One works as a mid-level bureaucrat in post-9/11 Manhattan and has awakened to find her life somehow less than she had imagined, back in college, it would be. Both women aspire to control events, but both feel instead that events are controlling them. How does such a woman save her soul, save herself?

On the surface, the answer Julie and Julia serves up would appear to be cooking. Julia Child studies at Le Cordon Bleu and reinvents herself by learning to cook; Julie Powell decides to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and invents a life for herself far away from the cubicle she inhabits eight hours each day. Ephron's film is in many ways a celebration of the preparation and consumption of food, of excess. Julie and Julia are both perpetually hungry, and both set about sating that hunger. Be sure to eat before you see the movie, because it's filled with food porn. Julie and Julia's hunger is also carnal, and both enjoy sex as much as lobster thermidor. It's easy to leave the theater believing that satisfaction of one's primal, physical needs leads to spiritual fulfillment.

It wasn't cooking or eating or even sex that gave definition and direction to either life, though. Julia Child became Julia Child not because she learned how to cook but because she learned how to write about it, and Julie Powell became the subject of a movie not because she spent a year cooking her way through Child but because she wrote about it. Neither of these women became chefs; both became writers.

The act of writing is a very literal way to control events. To author something is to be its god, its originator. Think of the etymology of "author" and this becomes evident: authority, authoritarian, authoritative. Child didn't write just any text but a book of recipes, of instructions. A cookbook is, very simply, a way of controlling and shaping experience; a recipe is a set of specific instructions that tames the chaos of the kitchen, that turns alchemy into procedure. A cookbook is a structure. Deciding to cook every recipe in a book in 365 days is also a structure, and by taking on that project and writing about it Powell was, powerfully, authoring her own life. This was Child's penultimate recipe: words will set you free, wield words and you can invent yourself.

Writing is a large part of the movie, but of course it's much less visual than food, and because it's not a communal activity but is instead solitary it's not the stuff of either comedy or drama. But if you see the film look carefully and you'll see the way writing is central. Child is continually at her typewriter, composing letters and then her book; Powell is continually either at her computer or reading from Child's letters. In the end, words are more powerful than even aspic, and in the end this is not a story about some people who like to eat but instead a story of two women who hunger for so much more than a properly prepared meal.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Political Nostrodamus

I've never given much thought to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I know that he was a US Senator from New York, and that before that he served in some capacity in four Presidential administrations. I know that Richard Nixon loved him even though he was a Democrat, and that he had some controversial things to say about race and welfare. That's where my knowledge ends.

Because I'm a presidential campaign geek, I've been reading The Making of the President 1964, not because 1964 is a compelling race, although it is a compelling race despite the landslide outcome, but because nearly all of White's books are out of print, and this is one I found in a used bookstore. So far the most interesting reading is this statement by Moynihan, made in the summer of 1964:

"What are the issues in this campaign? 'Issues' are talk about what's already happened or happening...But these aren't issues, really. Only a handful of people can see the advance issues. Can you explain that the greatest issue twenty years from now may be what's beginning in our knowledge of the human cell, and biology, and reproduction? Can you explain that we're beginning to be able to control our environment, maybe even change the weather - and discuss what we should do about it? Or can you talk about what we have to do to keep old people from growing lonely? Or can you ask them whether they think the purpose of industry should be changed from making things to making jobs?

Maybe we're entering a new phase of government. Maybe the old legislative phase is coming to an end, the time when you passed a new law which set up a new bureau with a new appropriation to run new machinery. What lies ahead may not be problems answerable by law, or by government at all. But that's nothing you can discuss now in 1964 - that's years and years ahead."

Has anybody ever gotten the future so right? Too bad Lyndon Johnson couldn't abide by him (Moynihan was a big Bobby Kennedy supporter); too bad we can't all see the future, standing there right in front of us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Eat What You Make

Well, it's not Friday, but I'm back. I can't really be blamed for pretending my vacation lasted a bit longer than three days, can I? The most thought-provoking event of the past week was reading Michael Pollen's article in Sunday's Times Magazine on the way that, as we cook less and less, we watch cooking shows more and more. What interested me the most was not this phenomenon per se, but instead the history of how cooking turned into "cooking," to the point where microwaving something or pouring dressing on top of lettuce counts as having "made" a meal.

During WWII food scientists invented MREs and all sorts of ways to preserve food for soldiers overseas. The trick was finding ways to sell prepared and packaged food to consumers during peacetime. It took a while: a sexual revolution, the need for a two-person income, and women staying in the workforce rather than staying home with children needed to be factored into the mix, but food scientists ultimately prevailed. Pollen notes that as early as the 1940s manufacturers had the ability to produce just-add-water cake mixes, but women wouldn't buy them. They would, however, buy mixes where one needed to break and mix in an egg, the addition of that egg being some kind of line in the sand that defined what could be classified as "home-made." Today, the baking aisle is filled with just-add-water mixes; "home-made" now means anything one moves from package to bowl to pan. Actually, anything that gets heated up passes for home-made these days.

Naturally, a discussion of the lack of cooking leads to a discussion of obesity. The less we cook the fatter we get, and not just because we're sitting on the sofa watching cooking shows but because we're eating more calories, larger portions, less healthy food. Which leads to the "ah ha" moment of the piece, when Pollen gets a food scientist to admit what we all suspect: want to lose weight and be healthy? Just eat only what you cook yourself.

It makes sense. Honestly, if you could only eat potato chips if you sliced potatoes and deep fried them, how many would you eat? If you had to make mayonnaise before slathering it onto a sandwich, wouldn't you just as often skip it? So I've spent the past few days thinking about trying this as an experiment. Is it possible to eat only what one can cook? Can I do it? And what would the rules be? What would I do about, say, teryiaki, or vodka, or beer? Could I eat in a restaruant, ever?

I decided the following. For as long as I can take it, I will not purchase manufactured food, with the exception of condiments and alcohol. I know I can make my own ketchup and beer, but that feels insane. The point here is to try to be healthy, not insane. I don't tend to eat out a lot anyway, so if I find myself wanting or needing to eat in a restaurant I will, but only socially, not as an alternative to grilling my own burger or frying my own eggs. How hard can this be? I have no idea. I'll post an update once enough time has gone by for me to have an idea, and in the meantime I'll be thankful that it's August, when so much is in season it will be easy to fill up on fruit and vegetables and throw things on the grill. If anyone else wants to give it a try, let me know and we can commiserate. And if anyone knows how to make their own Doritos, let me know that as well. I do love Doritos.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Down the Shore

I'm at the beach and happily off-line. I'll be back Friday with a new post. See you then!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Our New Target

The resurgent Dow, the Gosselin divorce, corruption in New Jersey (yes, I know "corruption in New Jersey" is redundant), health care reform, none of the news of the day is as big, as meaningful, as life-altering, as the news that our new Target opened over the weekend. People young and old, big and small, poor and not-so-poor crammed the parking lot, jammed the aisles, and packed the check-outs. A new Target! Manna from heaven!

Oh, it's not just a run of the mill Target that I'm talking about. You see, our new Target is a Super Target, where you can purchase groceries along with your Michael Graves corkscrews and Ed Hardy knock-off T-shirts. It occupies what was recently a cornfield, just across the now traffic-congested street from the Super Wal-Mart, next door to the Super Wegman's. As you can see, we needed this Target. Seriously, it's the American way to be able to purchase prepackaged salad in a bag without ever having to make a left turn.

I'm a sucker for Grand Opening loss leaders so of course I went to check out our new mecca. And so I braved the parking lot and the crowds and strolled through the automatic doors to find myself standing inside...a Target. A Target just like all the other Targets within easy driving distance except that, if one is feeling exceptionally brave and doesn't care about the provinance of the food that one puts into one's body, one can purchase some cheap steak. All that hope, all that desire, all that anticipation, and all that results is a Target.

Life goes on, unchanged. The sun still rises and sets, my cat still vomits hairballs on a nightly basis, it still rains or doesn't rain, I still wish I could bring myself to lower my cable bill. The Super Target has accomplished nothing, save the destruction of a perfectly useful field. Six months ago a Sonic opened just up the street from this new Target, and for days cars clogged the street as hungry hoardes descended. The hoardes were rewarded at the end of their hour-long wait with a fast food burger.

Well, this is, after all, the oldest trick in marketing. Same old tired product? Change the packaging.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Meet Me at the Fair

I had never gone to a farmers' fair until my mid-20s, and even then I only attended the first time out of sheer boredom. I was writing my dissertation and would do nearly anything to avoid all those blank pages that I needed to fill with Gertrude Stein's reception history. I'd polish my shoes, rearrange my records in alphabetical order, reorder my bookshelves by subject, clean the house, wash my car, anything to avoid sitting in front of my word processor and do the work at hand. That ultimately involved deciding to go to the Albermarle County Farmers' Fair one night, and I've never looked back.

I'm just glad that we still have enough farms to fill a farmers' fair, that 4-H Clubs still exist. This wasn't surprising in Central Virginia in the late '80s, but in suburban Pennsylvania in 2009 it feels like the simple existence of cucumber-growing must be celebrated. What makes a farmers' fair is not the carnival rides, nor the funnel cake, nor the rigged games of chance. What makes such a fair is the agricultural tents, the rows and rows of testimony to our agricultural heritage and the proof that we may yet have an agricultural future.

What can top the sight of a blue-ribbon zucchini, looking just like any other zucchini but for some reason crowned for some sort of waxy excellence? That can only be topped by a tent full of baby goats, goats of every variety running up to be petted, or a tent full of piglets squealing. Is anything more interesting than a display of winning ears of corn, each looking just like an ear of corn, its excellence a secret knowledge, or at least secret to someone who has always just grabbed corn, paid for it, and eaten it? Farmers' fairs are full of such secrets: what makes a great carrot, why one chicken is better than another. And they celebrate kids who grow these carrots well, kids who know how to raise a chicken. Our schools don't do that. Our culture doesn't do that. Our economy doesn't do that. Thank god for 4-H.

It's also not every day that you can watch a tractor pull. Or a 16 year-old from the middle of nowhere crowned Corn Queen. It's not every day that you can wander into a place where people still enter tractor pulls or fair queen contests. It's not every day that you can find a place where pie baking is a death match. Or where men in suspenders recline against picnic tables, listening to a weird but pleasant hybrid of country and polka. It's not every day that you are offered a glimpse of our vanishing rural culture, so for that one week a year when that glimpse is offered it's best to take it before it's too late.

The arrival of the cicadas signifies the slowing down of summer, the beginnings of the harvest, and the opening of county fairs everywhere. Locally, the Plainfield Farmer's Fair runs this week; the Warren County Fair begins next week. Even if you don't live in eastern PA, there's surely some sort of farmers' fair near you; support them while you can.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Regularly Scheduled Programming

I must have been as excited about it as everyone else. After all, a cardboard model of the lunar module, some give-away from the gas station, hung from the light over my bed so that I could fall asleep gazing up at it. I remember helping my father put it together, by which I mean watching my father put it together while I jumped up and down. My favorite toys were space toys: Matt Mason figures, the Colorforms outer space men, one from each planet. I must have been excited the week of the moon shot, but 40 years later that's not what I remember.

What I remember is being sick of it before it happened. This was the first event of my life that featured nonstop television coverage, and the first event of my life that I experienced entirely through television, and although I wanted to watch the landing and walk on the moon, I was completely confused by the pre-emption of all my cherished programs for four straight days. They left Earth on Thursday, July 16. I didn't realize beforehand that going to the moon would mean missing two days of Dark Shadows and almost an entire Saturday of cartoons. By Sunday I just wanted them to get there already and get it over with so that my 5 year-old life could get back to normal.

I must have been alseep by the time the Eagle landed Sunday night. My father got me up to watch Neil Armstrong descend from the module. I know I saw the whole thing live, but what I remember is not Armstrong's famous words but Walter Cronkite, so excited I thought he was maybe about to cry. Walter Cronkite, taking off his glasses and saying, "Oh boy!" Forty years later the lesson I remember is not about technology and aspiration and innovation and greatness but instead that the way we know what is important is because not only our fathers but the TV tells us so. Even half-asleep I knew that if Walter Cronkite was moved, I should be moved.

Events with far-reaching implications swirled around that moon weekend. I have no memory of any of them. No memory of Vietnam, probably because my extended family contained no draft-age men. Woodstock several weeks later meant nothing. My mother was 39, my father 46. They listened to show tunes. There was no counterculture in my household. While the astronauts frolicked and planted a flag my mother was realizing that she was pregnant with my sister, another thing I knew nothing about at the time. All I knew, as my father lifted me in his arms to carry me back to bed, was that this particular event had finally transpired, and that the next day Dark Shadows would resume its regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Bit of a Break

Obviously, I'm taking a bit of a break here. It's not that I have nothing to say, but more that the weather has been gorgeous and I've been in more of a mood to sit on my porch and read than to sit at my desk and write. I'll be back, probably next week, so don't abandon me. It's just summer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Add Another Casualty to the List

Farewell, birch tree. You are older than me, and your time has come. When you were planted, Eisenhower was President, my house was brand new, and you were just a pretty thing, standing amid a sea of oak and hemlock. Now you're 50 feet tall, barely clinging to life. I'm sorry to euthanize you, but although you shade my porch you also threaten it. You look like you want to fall. I don't want you to fall. I'm felling you.

It's all good, birch tree, I promise. The tree people will chip you up and haul you off someplace, where you will be chemically treated and turned into mulch. By next spring, you'll be spread all over the shrubs of some suburbia, helping to keep the weeds at bay. And look on the bright side: no one will pee on you once you're mulch, or at least Brody won't pee on you anymore.

None of this is your fault. You didn't ask to be planted too close to the house, and you didn't ask for that twister to come through last summer, damaging you beyond repair. All you ever did was grow and shed leaves, year after year, and get taller and taller, as trees are wont to do. You were a good tree, maybe even a great tree, and I'll miss you and your white bark.

I know you've overheard me talking about the Japanese maple I'll be planting in September. It's no offense to you or to white birches in general; I just need to have a shorter tree so close to the house. You're not being replaced, exactly. Think of the maple as a reminder of the post-war feeling of optimism and expansion from whence you sprang, and a reminder of how our ambitions are now just a little bit smaller.

It's been a tough month for all of us, birch tree. First Farrah, then Michael, then Karl, then McNamara, and now you. There will be no memorial service at a civic center, no special issue of Time or People, no tributes from Quincy Jones, but still you will be missed, perhaps more than all of those others. RIP, overgrown birch.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Home Electronics Blues

Why is everything made of crap these days? It used to be that you could purchase, say, a cassette player, and that cassette player would last you a good 20 years. The player would hold up so long it would become technologically obsolete. True, electronics and appliances once cost about 500% more than they now do, but if you have to constantly replace your cheap electronics, it probably comes out even at the end. And isn't it easier to spend more in the first place and not have to constantly shop for and hook up DVD players?

Yes, my two-year old DVD player died the other night. Yes, it was a cheap piece of crap; I bought the entire 2.1 home theater system at Sam's Club for something like $150. I didn't think it would hold up forever, but two years? When exactly did home theater systems become disposable?

When I replaced my 30 year-old garage door opener several months ago I didn't feel badly about it. Thirty years seems like a good run. The refrigerator that died two months ago was at least 25 years old, and again I figured that was a good long life for a kitchen appliance. What's annoying is that I doubt the new opener will last ten, let alone 30, years, and the new refrigerator is about 1/4 as well made as was its predecessor. It's a lot prettier, goldenrod having been retired from the kitchen appliance palette, but it's very plastic-y. I will certainly have to replace it during my lifetime.

Browse an old Sears catelogue and you'll learn more synonyms for "polyester" than you ever knew existed and you'll also be amazed at how much certain things once cost. In 1974, a 25" color TV ran around $750 (yes, they were still selling black and whites in 1974); a clock radio $50; $1,700 for a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer. In 2008 dollars, that TV would set you back $3,239.47. Or look at it this way: in 2008 I bought a 40" LCD HDTV for less than $750, and that new fridge cost me $1,200 back in May. Things cost a whole lot less these days.

Too bad what we're buying is crap.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Real Independence Day

Independence Day is July 4 because that's when the Declaration of Independence was signed and the colonies broke off from Great Britain, right? Wrong. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence that had been introduced in June. "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival," John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail. "It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more." As usual, Adams was mostly correct, but a little off.

The Declaration had been written as a way of explaining the vote for independence to colonists and British alike. Congress spent the next two days debating and revising the Declaration, finally approving it on July 4. But they didn't sign it then. Most delegates didn't sign the document until August 2. More importantly, the Declaration is an explanation and an explanation only. The radical thing was the approval of the initial resolution.

In short, today is the real Independence Day. Go ahead, be pedantic about it: start eating and drinking two days early. It's the patriotic thing to do.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Goodbye, Farewell

They bookended my childhood. One came near the beginning, at the crucial point where I was first making choices on my own about what I would wear and listen to, about what I liked and who I was, and the other came at the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence, at the crucial point where I was discovering how I fit into the world of sexual desire. When they both died on Thursday I thought about them for the first time in years, their passing signifying my march into middle age, their loss the loss of that childhood.

In 1971, in my elementary school, the lines were drawn, and you were one type of person or another. You were Jacksons or Osmonds. Sure, the odd girl had a weird preference for David Cassidy, but the Partridge Family was fake and even the eight year-olds knew it. Jackson or Osmond was the way you defined yourself. I was firmly Jackson, not because of Michael, because neither Michael nor Donny appealed to me, but because I somehow knew that Jackson was danger while Osmond was safe. Everything about the Jackson 5 was just cool. The Osmonds were a band populated by guys with names like Alan and Wayne; the Jacksons had Jermaine and Tito. Osmonds made you want to tap your foot, Jacksons made you want to twirl and shriek. The magazines of the day included pinups that I was supposed to kiss and invited me to compete to win a date with the flavor of the week, and I dutifully kissed my picture of Tito, having decided that he was my favorite because I liked his name. But at that age none of this was sexual, or pre-sexual. It was about deciding who my friends were, what we had in common, who we were and who we were not. It was Coke versus Pepsi, writ large. By 1973 none of my friends would be caught dead listening to an Osmonds 45, but we all owned all of the Jackson 5 albums.

Three years later we were listening to David Bowie and discovering pot when a show about three female detectives premiered on ABC. It was a show I rarely watched, and then suddenly all the guys were wearing t-shirts onto which that pin-up had been screened. The boys' interest in Farrah precisely coincided with my interest in boys, and if Farrah taught me anything it was what boys liked. From 1976 to 1978 they liked girls with small breasts and a lot of feathered hair. She was blonde, lithe, toothy, corn-fed, exactly everything I was not and would never be. She was the head cheerleader; I was the newspaper editor. My teeth would never gleam from a million posters. My sex appeal would not be broadcastable from t-shirts. Whatever kind of woman I would eventually be was still uncertain, but what was certain is what kind of woman I would not be. In the sexual economy, Farrah and I were using very different currencies, and even at that young age I knew it.

Although I really didn't care too much for MJ in his solo career, and paid no attention to Farrah once all the t-shirts and posters were thrown away or shipped off to Goodwill, I still listen to "I Want You Back" and think, "Damn if that isn't perhaps the best bass line ever." I still look at whoever is the sex symbol of the day and think, "This woman and I share a gender and absolutely nothing else." I still am that eight year-old, and that 13 year-old. And now, without them, I will continue to grow old, their place in time solidified and retreating further and further into my past.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

8 Minus Jon Stuck with Kate

Of course I watched it. There was nothing else on last night anyway and, if someone insists on parading the train wreck that is their marriage in front of the nation, I take that as an invitation to bear witness. Watching people who hate each other hate each other will quickly get old, but for now here are the lessons I learned:

1. If you're going to recline casually on a couch with your shoes off in order to announce your separation and impending divorce, do everyone a favor: wash your feet first. I'm talking to you, Kate.

2. Marketing folks need to understand that product placement in "reality" shows can sometimes be a little too serendipitous. Here we had an episode entitled "Crooked Houses" in which the house of Gosselin finally teetered over, and an episode that was at once about the building of separate play houses for the kids and the movement into separate houses by the parents. There's also the creepy specter of a product-sponsored separation announcement. Crooked, indeed.

3. If you have eight children and ask, "Who wants a granola bar?" expect that all eight will want a granola bar. Do not ask this if you in fact only have five granola bars. And, once you have posed this question only to find that you only have five granola bars, try breaking them in half so that everyone gets some, rather than saying, "Oh well I only have five so no one gets a granola bar." In other words, learn how to count, biyatch.

4. The main fault for the demise of a marriage lies with those in the marriage. The paparazzi didn't do it.

5. "Agreeance" is in fact a word but its usage is considered obsolete, having been replaced by "agreement." If you want to appear erudite, spend some time perusing a usage dictionary.

6. Times of great stress, for example taping your reality show while simultaneously ending your marriage, call for one thing: a picnic with the kids in the middle of the yard, which your soon-to-be-ex husband must watch because he hasn't been invited.

Lessons learned. Time to move on.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Brief History of Summer Jobs

The best thing about being an "adult" is the fact that you no longer have to look for and hold a summer job. Real jobs are bad enough; summer jobs can be awful, if you can even find one. My parents didn't care about me working during high school, probably because they didn't want to give me a car and wanted to ensure that I couldn't afford a car, but beginning the summer before college they were insistent that I at least try to work. I spent the summer after high school graduation at Dunn and Bradstreet looking up companies on microfiche, transcribing some assigned number next to each company's name, for eight hours a day, five days a week. Look up number, write it down, look up number, write it down. Soul-killing stuff, indeed.

The following summer I managed to find a six-week job helping out at a camp for kids with ADD. A friends' mother was on the board of the group that sponsored the camp, which explains why they hired someone with no experience working with such children, no interest in going into health or social services, and no real interest in children in general. I don't remember much from this experience except that it rained a lot, my main duty was handing out Ritalin, and I was miserable.

I spent the next summer in Kenya, much to my parents' chagrin, not because I was going off to Africa at a young age, but because it meant that I couldn't have a summer job. This was, of course, the best summer of my college years. Finally, the summer before my senior year, I got a job with the PA/NJ Bridge Commission. Every summer the Commission hired a certain number of college students to "help out." Really the whole thing was some sort of political kickback; I got the job because my mother spent months pestering our State Senator, who was some sort of family acquaintance.

I suppose EZ Pass has been the demise of this program; my job was to fill in for the regular toll-takers who were out on vacation. Whenever possible I worked the graveyard shift because traffic was light overnight and I could sit in the booth smoking and reading and listening to the radio for hours on end. It was the summer of 1984; if I never hear the song "Sunglasses at Night" again I'll die a happy woman. That summer the bridge was being painted, so traffic was down to one lane in each direction. During the morning rush, there could be quite a wait to get through the booth and across the bridge. Annoying thing number one: if I was the only female toll-taker, the truck drivers would line up at my booth, damn the long wait, just because they felt like seeing a woman. Annoying thing number two: every other car driver would ask, "When are you going to finish painting the bridge already?" During my next break, I'd respond, but traffic jams don't engender much of a sense of humor.

If there were no open toll-taking shifts, I'd be assigned to "help" with the office janitorial staff. Said staff was one woman named Toots. The office was a break room, conference room, storage room, bathrooms, and one large office occupied by the Commissioner. Cleaning the entire building only took Toots a couple of hours, and she didn't want any smart aleck college kid getting in her way, but she also didn't want the Commissioner to know how little work there was to be done. So, days when I was assigned to Toots, she would insist that I hide in the women's room. For the entire shift. 7 AM to 3 PM. Toots somehow managed to spend her entire shift hanging around the hall outside the women's room, and any and all attempts at escape were immediately foiled. She also insisted that I take my breaks with her, since she was "supervising" me (yes, I had scheduled breaks from my toil in the lavatory). I don't remember much about Toots, except that she did not like Gerladine Ferraro, did not like her at all.

Since college I've held jobs that I've loved and jobs that I've hated, but no jobs as random, no jobs as stupid, no jobs as memorable, as summer jobs.