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.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Really, Really, Swear to God, Original Famous Ray's

Perhaps the most important thing I learned while living in NYC was that, if you wanted good, authentic New York pizza, you pretty much had to go to Brooklyn. With the exception of a couple of places in Little Italy, Manhattan pizza was more serviceable than memorable. I also learned that if you wanted to open a pizza place on the island of Manhattan you appeared to be contractually bound to name it "Ray's."

The city was full of Ray's variants: Original Ray's; Famous Ray's; Original Famous Ray's; Famous Original Ray's; Ray's Original Famous; Ray's Famous Original; The Only Original Famous Ray's; and, my favorite, near Chinatown, No. 1 Original Ray's Best Pizza on the Bloock (sic). Rumor has it that there once was a guy named Ray who made good pizza. A family squabble led to one branch of the family running one Ray's while another branch of the family tried to capitalize on the name. Soon everyone wanted a piece of the Ray's action, so that now the name means nothing. When I moved back to PA I breathed a sigh of relief that pizza joints all had singular and authentically Italian names like Pino's, Morrici's, Rocco's. Not a Ray's in sight.

I was slightly concerned last summer when a place named Ray's Pizza opened in one of our surrounding suburbs, but I was told that it was in fact owned by someone named Ray, so I figured this had nothing to do with NY Ray's and the whole Ray's mess. But when I went through today's mail, there it was, a flyer for Ray's Famous II. The floodgates have officially opened. Reader, beware: blink, and you'll find a Ray's on every bloock.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life Eternal

I was glad for the return of True Blood last night, not because I think it's necessarily a television show of the highest quality, but because I'm there for pretty much anything that's about vampires. From the days of Barnabas Collins right up to the present, if it's got vampires in it, I'm reading it or watching it. There are two types of people in this world: those of us who, if given the opportunity, would become vampires, and those of us who would not. I am firmly in the former camp.

I know this would mean that I would be undead and would have to give up my human life for a different kind of lifestyle, but in exchange I'd get to live forever. I'd never grow old, and I wouldn't fear death. Although the absence of the aging process is definitely a benefit, the main plus is that I'd get to find out what happens, and watch it all happen, and I'm nosy. Living forever would be fascinating, particularly because I'd have vampire friends to discuss it all with.

Spending eternity with others probably does get problematic, and I'd probably have some vampire enemies as well as friends, but I figure that the fact that vampires are a self-selecting bunch would guarantee me some sort of peer group. Because vampires are self-selecting, it makes sense that the only humans made vampire are the best looking, most engaging, most intelligent among us. An ugly boring person just wouldn't be chosen to be around for eternity. I have no doubt my vampire friends and I would need to take the occasional break from one another, say every hundred years or so, but in general I'd be in good company.

Blood drinking doesn't need to be a barrier to vampirehood. Right now we humans are dealing with deer overpopulation, so if I was made vampire tonight I'd start right in on the herd that lives next door to me, eating my plants and freaking my dog. There are plenty of deer where those came from, as well as rats, pigeons, and other pests. Human blood probably tastes the best and is the most nutritious, but for that I could target rapists, murderers. I know this would make me a vigilante and deny the rapists and murderers due process, but look at all the taxpayer dollars I'd be saving. I'd actually be a benefit to humanity.

Money would never again be a worry if I were a vampire. I wouldn't need money per se, just clothes and a place to sleep. The internet is probably the vampire's best friend. Before anyone knew I was undead I could convert everything I've got into a cash account, feed on and rob drug dealers to keep the balance up, and order everything I need from Amazon. I'd buy a house someplace where no one knows me, some bedroom community where no one will miss me during the day. See, vampirism is easy, once you think about it.

The only difficult decision would be what to do with my dog. On the one hand, he'd be a great companion for eternity, but on the other hand it's hard enough to find dogsitters as things are. How would I keep a vampire dog fed for eternity? What would I do with him while I'm off looking for rapists to kill? There must be a reason none of Ann Rice's vampires have pets. All in all, the dog is a complication I can work my way through. Listen up, vampires: I'll be home tonight, ready and willing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Proliferation

I vividly remember the day I bought my first VCR. I remember how expensive it was, or at least how expensive it felt at the time, how ridiculously hard it was to program, how incredibly excited I was at the thought that I could rent movies and record shows. I also vividly remember when I purchased my first computer. Email! At home! Chatting! Again, my first cell phone engendered the joy of the new. I walked down the street and called everyone I could think of, just because I could.

These days new gadgets mean very little. I take technology for granted, adding more and more of it to my life not because I'm excited by it so much as because it's come to be expected. A home isn't complete without a computer, which isn't complete without WiFi and remote printing. It's not enough to have a cell phone, one must have an iPhone or other PDA so that one can answer email and post crap on Facebook while standing in the checkout line to purchase an HDMI cable for the home theater system.

I drive a car that has a Bluetooth connection, so I can talk on my phone through the car stereo. While I'm on the subject, my car also has a refrigerated glove compartment, so I can keep I don't know what cold. My service manual is always a perfect 62 degrees; I suppose I could stick water or food in there, but I've never bothered. It's just another technological innovation that I didn't ask for.

Upgrades and gadgets creep up on you, until one day you're paying your monthly bills and you realize that you are paying $125 a month for television, which was once free, and was recently 500% cheaper. The PDA adds $45 a month to the cell phone bill. The additional home internet connection adds another charge. Once you watch things in HD there's no going back, but you pay more for HD than for other channels. Blu-Ray is superior to regular DVD, but you have to replace your entire movie collection. I've already replaced all my albums with CDs, and although so far I've refused to replace the CDs with MP3s I'm sure the day will come when I have no choice and am forced to purchase my favorite music for the third time in my life.

You can't go back. The social pressure to have a cell phone, to answer email immediately, to have the ability to chill chardonnay in your glove compartment, is immense. On occasion I leave my house without my cellphone simply because I don't feel like carrying it and no one can believe it, they called all my numbers and no one answered, how is this possible?

Nothing makes me feel older than the fact that I fondly recall the world of fewer than 50 cable channels, and of being perfectly contented with that.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Lost World of Beaten Biscuits

Our recent cultural obsession with fresh, local foods might naturally lead to an interest in the ways Americans used to cook and eat, before the supremacy of frozen and fast foods, before the reign of agribusiness was complete. Mark Kurlansky's recently published Food of a Younger Land, a collection of food writings produced by the WPA Writer's Project, provides some insight into the simpler days, when neighbors would gather to let maple sap run into the snow and then eat it, when clam bakes involved digging a fire pit on the beach, when squirrel was a viable ingredient in the dinner menu.

Because I have a tendency to buy old cookbooks at thrift stores and flea markets I found this collection more interesting for what it said about American culture during the 1930s than for what it said about our foodways. I already knew, for example, that any recipes to be found aren't standardized in terms of measurements, or even ingredients; before WWII, recipes were comprised more of guides and suggestions than instructions. I also knew that most recipes would begin with something along the lines of "Kill a chicken and bleed it good, then cut it up." Like vintage cookbooks, Kurlansky's tome is more useful as a glimpse into a mindset and way of life than as a tool for the modern kitchen.

Here's one example. Most pre-war cookbooks contain a section on "invalid cooking," to help produce not inedible meals or food that is not valid but to produce meals for the sick or elderly. This was needed for a culture before vaccines and antibiotics and over-the-counter medicines, where children were often sick, and for a culture before geriatric medicine and assisted living and nursing homes, where the generations lived together. I've also found several cookbooks that contain sections on "trailer cooking," with hints about how to prepare meals in the field, on the road, in the outdoors. This wasn't aimed at jolly seniors crossing the Sun Belt in RVs, but instead at those who lived itinerantly. A mass produced cookbook indicates a good number of Americans living this way.

The WPA food project was written by hundreds of writers in every state. Some participants were published professional authors, some were just people who needed a job, and the resulting prose is uneven. Kurlansky reproduces selections exactly as written, giving the text an authentic feel, and giving us a glimpse regional idiom and vernacular. The most notable thing about this book, though, the thing that ties together all the selections and resonates most in the contemporary world, is the nostalgia, the mourning for a world already lost. Again and again the anonymous WPA authors describe the way gatherings "used to be," the food mothers "once made," lament the customs that are "all but lost."

In the late 30s the interstate highway system had not been built. Packaged food was available, but not ubiquitous. Most people lived without a refrigerator, although a good number had an ice box. Frozen food was virtually unheard of. But already, the golden past was but a dream. Already lost were the meals of childhood. Begun in 1939, abandoned the week after Pearl Harbor, the WPA food project unltimately depicts a culture on the cusp of rapid change, and a culture that felt the tremblings of that change. Kurlansky's book is in a sense the last document of a world about to disappear. Read it: it's fascinating.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

While I Slept

I'm usually a relatively light sleeper, prone to bouts of insomnia. For several reasons, including a couple of cocktails before bed and two hours spent clearing away unwanted prickly bushes from my yard, I slept soundly last night. So soundly, in fact, that I've spent most of the morning dealing with the ramifications of all that I slept through. To wit:

1. A thunderstorm severe enough to knock out my electricity and throw branches all over my property.

2. My cat throwing up hairballs the entire length of my (carpeted) hallway.

3. The ice maker in my new refrigerator deciding of its own volition to spew ice cubes all over my kitchen floor. Said refrigerator is either defective or possessed. I'm looking forward to watching the repairman either replace it or perform an exorcism.

4. Both of my neighbor's cars being broken into in the middle of the thunderstorm, violent weather being the perfect cover for non-violent crime. Rumor has it that every dog on the block was barking like crazy first at the miscreant and then at the cops who rushed to the scene; I missed this because while I slept I also missed

5. My dog sleeping through a robber prowling the streets while my refrigerator spewed ice cubes and a thunderstorm raged.

No more bedtime cocktails for me.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Cookbooks Without Cooks

In these tough times the nation turns its lonely eyes to cooking shows. Anyone who has ever wielded a chef's knife publishes a cookbook and gets at least a half hour on the Food Network, and suburbanites drive miles to wander through farmers' markets in order to purchase some artisan bread and call themselves locavores. The interest in local food and local growers is wonderful, as is the interest in cooking and eating well. The problem is, even as interest in these things proliferates, the number of people who actually cook continues to shrink.

While showing off the White House garden, Michelle Obama admits that she's happy to have someone cook for her, that she doesn't like to cook. The press reflects on the refreshing honesty of this statement, but what about the mixed message being sent? Access to fresh, healthy, local ingredients means nothing if you're incapable or unwilling to, you know, prepare those ingredients. You can buy all the produce in the world at farm stands, but if you don't then cook, or at least wash and dress the produce, all you've done is waste money and resources.

My local chain grocery stores have added "grown local" sections for those wanting to purchase the bounty of local farms rather than the bounty of South America. In every case, that section of the store is a mere speck compared to the prepared food aisles. In some ways, the grocery stores are really take-out joints. Sure, one can still purchase cheese and eggs and vegetables, but more popular is the salad bar, the pizza counter, the sandwich counter, the seafood counter where the fish has already been seasoned and comes with heating directions. Why buy a pound of pasta when there's a pasta bar two feet away? When did it become too difficult to make our own salad, to cut cheese into cubes ourselves? Why are we buying premade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? When did a sandwich become too difficult for us to make ourselves?

Cooking food yourself saves money and is always better for you. Food you prepare yourself isn't full of preservatives, fat, sodium. But we are lazy. We watch cooking shows but don't know how to turn on our stoves. We go to the farmers' market and buy cookies. It's time to get off the couch and prepare our own food.