Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lessons Learned: Week of March 15

1. Lifting weights and rolling around on the floor with balls and whatnot at the gymnahsium has practical benefits beyond Vanity, namely, one can engage in two four hour sessions of brutal housecleaning in a single day without serious injury. Rearranging furniture, vacuuming everything, scrubbing floors on hands and knees—it can all be done with an ease heretofore unknown.

2. Genetics are a powerful force. My little sister, 14 years my junior, visited for a few days. We live in different cities and have done so since she was eight years old. I lived outside the house for the majority of her earlier years. We resemble each other a little around the eyes, we have the same small faces with little pointy chins and are built roughly the same. The strangest thing is how she has developed what I thought were Ruby® Mannerisms and what I now realize must be floating around the Apolline genome commons somewhere. She cocks her head at the same angle I do, makes my hand gestures and shrugs. She raises her eyebrow the same way I do and in response to similar comments; we both bite our fingernails; she is restless in the same way I am; pouts just like I do, etc. Bizarre.

My mother has identified one of our looks as coming directly from my father, namely, the Apolline Scowl. When my father, brother, sister and I are reading or observing something that is confusing, irritating or otherwise uncool, we scowl at it and crinkle our mouths. Bad thing! You should make more sense!

3. Thanks to Little Sister, my love of Italian women continues unabated. Sophia Loren, Monica Bellucci and now 1960’s Italian pop/café jazz singer Mina Brava. Try “Tintarella di Luna,” or “Brava.” On YouTube. Of course.

4. I like a Beyoncé song. There. I said it. Actually, it’s more the video, but I also like the song. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” You can find it on YouTube. One of the dancers is a man. Apparently, great dancing, a guy in drag and a fun pop beat are all it takes to overcome my post-modern radical feminist objections to media that strengthen capitalist cultural discourse about the ideal state of compulsory heterosexual monogamy leading to marriage via the barter of sex (woman) for ring (man).

5. On a related point, at first I thought it was odd to play music videos at the gym with the sound turned down so people could watch while harnessed to various torture devices. Then I saw Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” video. It’s quite awesome, although nothing I’ve seen can compare with The KLF’s “Justified and Ancient (Stand By the Jams) (featuring Tammy Wynette)” video. However, I have questions. Are the red-robed, single-horned guitar players ambassadors from MuMu Land or are they adventurers to MuMu Land? Do the Justified and Ancient live in MuMu Land or are they leaving our land to travel to MuMu Land? Anyway, they drive an ice cream van, so that’s nice.

6. Lady Gaga interests me. I watched another couple videos, including “LoveGame.” Both the latter and the “Poker Face” videos feature Lady Gaga in a series of metallic ensembles evoking a Playboy Bunny/Borg crossbreed, surrounded by a retinue of very attractive male dancers in various states of undress. As they say, what’s not to like?

In addition, Lady Gaga has invented the most creative term for “penis” I have encountered. It is in the chorus of “LoveGame:”

Let’s have some fun
This beat is sick
I wanna take a ride
on your disco stick.
(emphasis added)

7. A gentleman with whom I work has a granddaughter named Mignon. This is beyond annoying.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chanel Brand Jellies, Plastic Merfolk and Elephants

When I was a girl, we wore jellies in the summer. Back then, they were pastel plastic shoes that could be purchased at the drugstore for three dollars (or maybe seven, if you got glittery ones). They were uncomfortable—your little toe always popped through the sandal-like part on the side—in the heat, your feet sweat and they stuck to you—but they were cute, plastic, cheap and glittery and therefore all the rage.

Chanel now makes jellies, only they are $150 instead of three. Still plastic, but the glitter has been replaced with the Chanel intertwined C logos and the pastel colors with bright fuchsia, teal and purple. For the bargain shopper, a lesser-known fashion label makes similar jellies for around $95.

It was at this same store that I once saw the apotheosis of Shoe and was properly awed, frightened, delighted and bemused. Gucci this time, $800 for the pair. They looked like those extravagant bedroom slippers stars wore in the 1940’s and 50’s, except that the heel resembled (or actually was) a four or five-inch roofing nail made of some dull silvery metal. The foot bed was light tan leather covered in satin. The rest of the shoe was a piece of clear plastic that covered most of the toes, with a fuchsia poof of marabou feather s that covered most of the plastic. As shoe, pointless. As sculpture, priceless.


At my local shop-with-fancy-Italian-name, I often wander in to observe the hanging merfolk figurines. Six-inches high, made of some polymer, the shop owners have cleverly arranged them in a sort of tropical beach display, with martini shakers, glassware and related tchotchkes. The figurines are made to hang—each has a loop of gold thread—and someone at the shop has a good eye, because the display is almost something you’d see in a modern art installation, only you’d probably be expected to squirt blood on it. All have sparkly, scaly tails. The mermaids' tail colors extend, smooth and glittering, to cover most of their breasts—no stupid shells.

All have perfect physiques, and most are holding cocktails. They are oddly erotic, all together like that, a merfolk 70’s swinger party shifting in the breeze. What pleases me the most is the inclusiveness of the designer: there are blonds, brunettes and redheads; there is a full(er)-figured mermaid with the same sly smile as the rest, holding a martini. The other mermaids are C cups; she is at least a DD and heavier through the hips and fins. There was a gay leather merman, but he has been purchased. As I recall, he wore a black motorcycle cap, black choker and had a thin mustache. He was slimmer than the other mermen. The motorcycle mama, in black leather cap and jacket, with red tail, is still available. There is a handsome shirtless fire man, ditto police officer, as well as a much larger figurine (about 18 inches resting on his coiled red sparkly tail) designed to hold a platter of drinks. The owners have positioned him underneath the hanging merfolk. He is dressed as a Chippendale stripper, with a red bow-tie and groovy shades.

These merfolk please me. I would be more inclined to buy a few and arrange a little Silly Art Installation in my apartment than spend the same probably $150 or so on a pair of Chanel jellies. I’ve had my eye on a carousel horse at a local antique store for years; it’s around $700 and I would be more likely to buy that than the Dolce & Gabana “hobo” bag I saw at the fancy department store.

Elephant Polo:

I read somewhere that anyone with a heart must find the world a tragedy and anyone with a mind must find it the highest of comedy. The human condition is absurd; there’s no getting around it.

I’ll leave you with another of my favorite human absurdity stories. I feel very tenderly about it, so don’t be mean.

Once upon a time, an Englishman on his way back from Singapore got drunk on several large gins in an airport in Switzerland. He asked his companion if it would not be wonderful to play polo on elephants. 25 years on, elephant polo teams primarily from Scotland, England, Ireland, New Zealand, India, Singapore, the U.S. and Thailand compete each year in Nepal. There is even a World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA).

Speaking of Thailand, which has recently become a more significant player in the elephant polo world, imagine, if you will, brusque Scottish ex-military men, former New Zealand rugby players, and assorted American studs playing the same sport as a very special group from Thailand. From the controversial naughty-bits Patpong district of Bangkok, I give you the Screwless Tuskers, comprised entirely of Thai ladyboys and apparently quite popular.

Marvels, all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Oh dear. Schoenberg.

A timely double-bill at my local opera house last week: Béla Bartók’s A kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation). Timely, as I am still picking my way through Alex Ross’s book about 20th century music. Both of these men were significant figures in the music of the last century, one Hungarian (Bartók, born while there was still an Austrian-Hungarian empire) and one straight up Viennese.

Schoenberg is the more influential of the two, for better or for worse. He is the end result of hundreds of years of Austrian and German composition, from Bach to Mozart to Wagner and R. Strauss. His music is a rejection of German Romanticism, particularly Wagner and his ego and excesses and he is classified as a member of the German expressionist school, which attempted to represent the workings of the mind through music. His is an almost purely intellectual art form. He is best known for his rejection of the bourgeois notion of melody, creating what he called “atonal” or “pantonal” music, not restrained by classical notions of key signatures, forms or motifs. Basically, it’s discordant, bizarre and impossible to hum. There is usually a lot of percussion, which is good for the timpani player, but not always so good for the audience.

Erwartung is 30 minutes of a crazy woman named Woman singing in brief, jarring snatches (two to three notes of quasi-melody and then unexpected jumps in strange intervals, with some whacking of triangles and weird string effects in the orchestra pit) about being lost in the woods and not being able to find her lover, called Lover. Within five minutes, you know she’s killed him and been institutionalized. Woman is the only singing role; Lover, Psychiatrist and Mistress hang out in various strange formations and occasionally poke their heads or arms through the only permanent set piece, a wall of grey stone. There is a denouement of sorts. Lover and Mistress are writhing around in a steel hospital bed underneath a sheet. Psychiatrist pokes his head through the wall, looks around, retracts his head turtle-like, sticks his hand out and removes the sheet. Voila! Woman kills Lover with a scythe or something at which point the audience realizes Lover is stark naked.

And dancing, poor man. He arches his back, extends his legs in crooked arabesques, rolls in slow motion off the bed and proceeds to roll down the slightly angled stage. All the way down. Very slowly. By this time, the Mistress has also rolled off the bed, rolled under the bed and then rolled offstage with the bed. Woman is singing her strange song, Lover is strategically placing an arm or a hand, Ruby is trying to get a good look at what Lover is trying to hide. Finally, Lover ends up face down in a body of standing water at the foot of the stage. An older woman sitting next to Ruby says, “Yep. There he goes.” Ruby experiences potential giggles at the opera for the first time. Lover sinks into the water. The piece ends as it began; Woman in a straitjacket, Psychiatrist silently taking notes from a chair positioned above her and behind her.

My working theory about the decline of Western civilization today is that around the turn of the century and certainly after World War I, artists began to take themselves way too seriously. Art—painting, music, poetry, prose, sculpture—has become a solipsistic exercise in which the artist is speaking only to herself about herself or, at best, her art. Artisans are lesser beings; we all want to be fine artists, not craftsmen. The excuse artists use for their idiocy is that the 20th century was unlike any other century in its wounds and terror; ergo, in order to be an honest artist, one must create ugly, fragmented art. With toilet paper and baling wire.

First, I am skeptical. If Ovid can write his Metamorphoses almost 2000 years ago, recounting Greek myths probably another one to two-hundred years older and still start it with an ode to a long gone Golden Age where everything was perfect, as opposed to the current time, where everything sucks, then I do not see how we can assert without blushing that the 20th century was, like, the totally worst century ever.

Yes, World War I was a shock and yes it eliminated entire generations of young men. Yes, the fall of the Austrian empire was a big deal. But if these events’ effect was to drive artists further into themselves, I wonder if said artists were not still suffering from a bit o’ the Romantic notion of the sensitive, tuberculotic, of-this-world-but-not-in-it, capital-A-Artist. How reactionary!

I much prefer the artistic behavior of Bartók, Debussy, Stravinsky and Albéniz around this time and later. These three men didn’t just throw up their hands and give in; they dug into their local folk cultures or, in Debussy’s case, the folk cultures of others. If the German school is played out, and I think it is, new music will come from the folk. Another Joplin would be nice. Chinese opera, kabuki, Islamic chants and tone structures, American Indian scales—these are the future of Western music, not the solitary genius enamored of his own pain.

Hey, it’s basic biology. Every once in a while, you need to breed out the bloodline or risk everyone walking around with receding chins and hemophilia.

Monday, March 9, 2009

True Confessions of a First-Time Gym Member Who Used to Make Fun of People Who Joined Gyms

...and Held Forth at Great Length About the Irony of Wealthy Human Beings Paying Money to Harness Themselves to Machines Previously Used for Punishment or Operated By Slaves and Despite Cultural Movement Away From Tedious, Difficult and Repetitive Muscular Motion

How the mighty have fallen. But, as Stephen King once wrote in The Tommyknockers, even the intelligent are not immune to propaganda. Vanity. All is vanity.

If modern gyms were like old-school gymnasia and I were a lithe, handsome young man or a lusty older man who was also a brilliant philosopher, poet, dramatist or sculptor, I might feel differently. Today, eroticism at the gym is creepy and considered behavior to be corrected. As a brand new and somewhat clumsy gym participant, I can’t say I regret this. But it’s weird to be sweaty and breathing heavy and rolling around on the floor (and very nosy), while having to remember that you must not look at the person rolling around on the floor or on a bouncy ball six feet away and if your glance happens to fall on him, you must look away. Preferably at yourself in one of the ten thousand mirrors that blanket the walls.

At first I was paranoid that everyone would stare at me and laugh. Then I realized the only way you can tell if someone is staring at you is if you are staring at her. And if you are staring at her in an I-hate-you-blond-skinny-pretty-girl-with-long-thighs-and-if-I-could-reach-I-would-smack-your-face-with-my-short-round-forearms kind of way, she’ll stare back with a why-the-fuck-is-this-girl-staring-at-me-is-my-nose-really-that-big kind of way, and no one wants that.

Fortunately, I have a friend who is also a jock (boxer) and she is assisting me with the Gym Situation. She knows I am neurotic about certain things and so generally avoids the machinery for the more entertaining bouncy balls, half-bouncy-balls, jump ropes and free weights. Some machinery is inevitable, including the thing with the bar that you pull down to your chest that I, of course, have to stand on my tippy-toes to put back in its neutral position to avoid clanging the weights. She is making me lean backwards on this thing, which is entertaining. I almost fell off the bench this morning, as I was not entirely awake.

Which reminds me. My current boss has run two marathons and one half-marathon. He has, I think, the natural body of a runner—high surface area to weight ratio (tall and lanky)—and apparently goes to the gym to practice his running on that most hilarious of apparatuses, the treadmill. I know this because last week, he was limping and I asked him why and his secretary piped up and informed me he’d fallen off the treadmill that morning at the gym.

From my observations, confirmed by my Friendtrainer, you have to be moving quickly to lose your balance on the treadmill. I guess it happens sometimes that a person puts one foot on the part that does not move and the other foot on the part that does move. It’s less falling off the treadmill than flying backwards off the treadmill and crashing into whatever is behind you. “I lost a lot of skin,” he told me. I can picture it and, being a veteran tripper and faller myself, the shameful dragging of oneself into a corner, waving away offers of assistance and hoping everyone will instantly forget that you wiped out in such a dramatic fashion right in front of them. As a result of my new commitment to the Gym, I and my sturdy Thomas Hardy milkmaid body are now prepared to buffer the backwards flight of any handsome treadmillers, should the need arise.

(The treadmill is hilarious because I read somewhere that it used to be for prisoners sentenced to “hard labor” back in the day. There are the galley-slave rowing machines, but for some reason it’s the treadmill that symbolizes all that is bizarre about the modern gym).

Despite everything, I like going to the gym. It is pleasurable to move my body and feel how lifting things up and down gets easier every time I do it. I’ve found that those childhood and adolescent years of jumping rope and learning dance routines for plays have given me good balance, flexibility and coordination. I get the giggles every time I go, from almost smacking my face into the floor trying to balance myself with my arms on the half-bouncy ball and my feet on the floor, or getting arrogant about how fast I can jump rope and then tripping forward or getting tangled in the laminated stretching instructions on the wall behind me. Today it was the last sit-up and choking back the “motherf@**%#r” that wanted to emerge from my throat, so as not to shock the 75 year-old gentleman near me, who was bending himself into a pretzel.

It’s not nude wrestling covered in oil, and there are no vibrant discussions of art and philosophy, but I’ll give it some time and keep smiling and saying hello to people, even though that’s the one thing absolutely guaranteed to make them stare. That and my psychedelic Hello Kitty canvas bag and bright orange coat, I think.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lessons Learned: Dietary Improvement

I do not have a car, so I walk to and fro the grocery store. You might notice a slight preoccupation with the weight of foods.

1. Fuji apples are the best apples ever in the entire universe. Unfortunately, they are often placed next to Pink Lady apples, which they resemble on the outside. It is disappointing to bite into an apple expecting that Fresh Fuji Taste and getting an overly sweet kind of mushy Pink Lady. Don’t forget to squeeze the apples!

2. Fuji apples are very, very heavy. Much heavier than Chex Mix® or bon-bons, for example.

3. Mangoes are gross. I do not understand why people eat them.

4. Spaghetti squash is fun food. It looks just like spaghetti! In addition, you must work very, very hard to cut (hack) the squash in half to roast it, which provides additional satisfaction upon eating. A sharp carving knife is useful; a machete might be better.

5. Spaghetti squash just out of the oven is very, very hot. Forks are made of metal. Metal is a good conductor of heat.

6. It is a life-changing experience for a post-modern intellectual child of the Late Technocracy to purchase a root vegetable with mud on it. Mud! Beets really do come out of the ground!

7. Greek yogurt is like non-Greek yogurt, only thicker and tastier. A person cannot have too much pomegranate Greek yogurt. Straining non-Greek yogurt through cheesecloth to make Greek yogurt is a difficult and messy task; however, the yogurt has a pleasing, squishy texture, like fragrant Play-Doh®.

8. Beets are heavy. Bananas are heavy. Milk is heavy. Frozen anything is heavy, but particularly bison burgers.

9. Tofu and tofu-based products are ridiculously expensive. It’s just soybeans!

10. Fennel, which I have had around occasionally as a good-luck household herb, comes in a giant bulb that looks like garlic but with little green stalks growing out of the top. Who knew?

11. Selecting foodstuffs based on one’s reading habits can lead down dangerous paths. Chemoya (tropical fruit) is weird and difficult to maneuver, plantains taste funny and I have no idea how to select a good crop of broad (fava) beans. Madeleines are delicious, though.

12. Carrying food on one’s back in one’s backpack, plus two to three bags in one’s hands, encourages self-sufficiency. Sauerkraut usually comes in big glass jars. Extremely heavy. It’s just pickled, shredded cabbage? How hard can that be to make?

13. Directions on packages and in recipe books are not purely decorative. “Gently slide the scallops into the pan,” means that when the seasoned-with-salt scallops hit hot oil, a considerable excitement of molecules occurs.

14. People are impressed when you say, “I had pan-seared scallops last night, and a winter squash mousse garnished with cinnamon and I made it all!” Translation: tossed some scallops into a little oil in a pan, roasted a winter squash, burned fingers getting the meat out to put it in the blender, shook a little cinnamon on the top and had that for dinner.

15. Cilantro, one of the gods’ greatest inventions, comes in bunches of a size suitable for said gods. Or lumberjacks, if they were into it. Not so good for the rest of us.