Sunday, July 31, 2005

dry soup

Sundays I cook. I did not grow up cooking -- no indeed. When I saw ovens, I thought of Sylvia Plath. (I was a precocious child.) Okay, that's a lie. The word "oven" though does have seriously creepy implications for me, even now. Too much Jewish schooling.

Last August, when Mr. Ben suggested this as our game plan to save money and efficiently use time, cooking every Sunday in bulk, for the week, was an intimidating chore. I mostly followed along what Mr. Ben did, chopped vegetables faithfully and mixed sauces, under a cloud of fear that I would somehow fuck everything up. It didn't help, perhaps, that this process began when Mr. Ben and I co-habitated in Apartment #1 with the Supremely Untalented, Touchy, Passive-Agressive 30-Year-Old Graduate Student in Art Therapy Who Hated Us for Unknown Reasons. Her omnipresent bad art made her presence inescapable, even when she herself was taking one of her endless, expensive, frequent and apparently ineffective hot baths. (She hated us just as much when she emerged, wrapped in one of her purple towels.)

Our adventures in cooking proceded apace while we lived under her gloomy, disatisfied eye, to be sure. We made two risotos and one my favorite dishes to date, a pasta with a carmelized onion sauce. But I could never really enjoy the process.

But Mr. Ben and I have moved on to Apartment #2, our very own small but noble studio, and gradually, now that I'm in a happier environment, Mollie Katzen and I have come to an understanding. She doesn't tell me to do anything too difficult -- she tells me everything slowly and calmly and as many times as I like -- and I don't disappoint her.

Over the past few weeks, Mr. Ben and I have succeeded in making Italian gratins, Sicilian stir-fries, sweet-and-sour tofu with cashews, tofu with black bean sauce (from fermented black beans, if you please: no ready-made sauces for us!), brocolli with spicy peanut sauce, and this week, eggless egg salad and sopa seca, a Mexican casserole-type dish whose name literally translates to "dry soup." It has put me over the moon. Maybe it's simply because I don't do much that I can be proud of anymore, but it feels thrilling to put something together that works. And I'm going to work myself into a self-approving lather over it, if that's okay with you.

It has taken me almost exactly a year to feel more or less confident and comfortable with the kitchen. That's a steep learning curve. Next time I challenge a deeply-seated notion about myself like I Can't Cook I'll try to halve the time it takes.

Meanwhile, I've been appointed Vice Mistress of the semi-weekly card game I attend with the aging bohemians; my brother's returned safely home from China leaving only three people I know currently there; and it's going to be August, which means soon I'll get to celebrate One Year as a Budding New Yorker.

Monday, July 25, 2005

"For where?" "For BEAR"

Three cheers for Pooh!
For who?
For Pooh!
Well, what did he do?
I thought you knew ...
He made law review!

Yayyyyyyy! Not an easy feat, that.

What have I done, you ask? Well ... I got my hair cut, a bit like Miranda July's, only she's cuter than I am. Also my hair, though redder than hers, has gotten less curly over the past few years.

I dragged a couple folks out to Coney Island because I'd never been during the season. (I just went once, alone, one deserted winter afternon, to walk poetically along the water.) Let me tell you: it's pretty different. And by different I mean "loud, dirty, and not at all like the mental picture I had from social history classes of prim, well-dressed young couples courting nervously and enjoying their newfound public freedom." Although of course even that vision was romantic: Coney Island was from the beginning pretty much as seedy as it is now.

But we shelled out the absurd amounts of cash required of us and had fun. We rode the famous cyclone and the wonder wheel and sat on the beach for a bit and watched paddle boats paddle by. We also ate perhaps the best pizza to be found in all five burroughs, hidden though it is along a stretch of dilapidated houses, dotted with young Russian hussies in platforms, miniskirts, and tops that read "REAL BOOBS." I need me one of those: that way, the many men who like to begin conversations with me based on my t-shirts will be able to cut right to the chase.

I can't say I've accomplished much, which makes me a little gloomy. Sienna Miller is my age and look what she's done already! I have no children, no nanny, no fiancee, no scandal to try to ignore in favor of my career ... no career even, and the NYPost couldn't be paid to care even if I had. At this rate, I seriously fear I'll never catch up.

Friday, July 22, 2005

ester and the birthday of minor importance

I'm glad the left seems to be treating John Roberts Jr. as the pinata that he is and reserving their energy for the real elephant in the room. Not that, of course, we can't all tap our heads while simultaneously rubbing our bellies. But we do seem to have our priorities straight. Heads over bellies, guys, right? Right.

And not that I don't understand the blistering anger Roberts is generating in certain circles (bellies). When the anger is funny, I appreciate it even more. But guys, a Republican wormed his way into office. I know: ewwww! I don't want to believe it either. Sadly, we have no choice; and that means a Republican gets to pick a Republican judge. Considering that Bush could have taken this opportunity to throw serious raw meat to his more rabid and demanding followers, I figure, with Roberts, we almost got off easy.

On the other hand, I wish people would stop giving Bush points for courage for selecting a straight white male. As though any old pansy-ass wuss could do the "PC" thing and place someone in position of power to immediately face accusations of tokenism, but it takes balls of true Pennsylvania steel to do things as they've always been done.

By the way, I'm 23 now, and I've officially worked at my new job for a month, which means my health insurance is seconds from kicking in. I'm going to Coney Island tomorrow to celebrate and if I get thrown from the Cyclone, don't worry, guys -- I'll be covered.

Monday, July 18, 2005

ester and the little scandal that could

Considering that I've been waiting for two years, with my outrage on simmer, for Plamegate to break wide open, it is bizarre that I haven't blogged about it. I read everything I can get my virtual hands on: media commentary from Howie Kurtz in the WashPost and the pundits at Slate and Salon. The more I read, the happier I become: the updates drop hard and fast, like hail on Bush loyalists that appear to the rest of us as raindrops. And we're gleefully dancing through the raindrops, whoooooooeee are we dancing. The Democratic party has become frikkin Gene Kelly with these raindrops, though of course we're keeping our Stern, Shocked faces on and occasionally feeling a stab of guilt when we remember poor Judy Miller and mattress of foam.

Today I was pleased to discover that Matthew Baldwin has woven my two fixations together. Thus he has given me an opening.

This case sickens me. It has from the first day I heard of it. You lie; a man, who happens to be an expert on what you lied about, calls you on it; and in response you viciously, wantonly take down that man's wife? Shouldn't this be obvious, even if our deranged day and age: a person's family is off-limits. Christ, even in the Sopranos they understand that.

Karl Rove wanted to hit Joe Wilson in the balls and he did; he acted without the slightest concern for collateral damage even though the shrapnel would fall in his own backyard. The woman worked for the CIA! How can the people who are risking their lives to protect this country do their jobs when there's a man in the White House willing to blow their cover for the smallest, most pointless bit of political retribution? Retribution for something they themselves didn't do? Now Republicans are pissing and moaning that Rove may not have have known she was covert, as though that's a defense, as though a reasonable person, faced with even the possibility that she was covert, wouldn't consider finding out -- because whether or not it's a technical felony, it's a national security matter and on those it's important to have one's facts straight.

This may be the obvious point of all, yet I haven't sufficiently heard it raised. Karl Rove's actions paint him not only as a ethically-void, cold-blooded, cheerfully malignant plop of birdshit on the windshield of this country, but also as a sexist of the first degree. That's why, to my mind, he didn't think twice about outing Valerie. She was a woman: how vital could she possibly be to the CIA? How important could her career be? Whether consciously or not, Rove was sending her back to the kitchen, and/or the cover of Vanity Fair, where she belonged.

The press and the Republicans, whether consciously or not, have gone along with it to an alarming extent. If Joe Wilson had been Josephina and it had been her husband working as a spy, my god, can you imagine the outcry? The part of the story where Valerie suggested Joe for the trip to Niger only has teeth because of the gender dynamics. That revelation is supposed to be another kick to the balls not because of possible nepotism but because -- hee hee! -- his wife had power! Ergo pansy est. It's sick.

It's the same kind of subtle but prevalent attitudes about men and women that guarantee female superheroes have the "powers" they have. Bear with me here, I just finally saw Batman Begins and I have comics on the brain. Still, it's an interesting comment on our nation as a collective that female superheroes tend to have defensive, not offensive, capabilities. They disappear, they create force-fields, they read minds, they become -- half-cat? (Which, by the way -- what??) It seems to be because superheroes have been to believable. Sure, they're bigger and stronger than we are, but in ways that are consistent the individuals as we understand them. A man's anger could swell him up into the Hulk; a boy's tragedy and fear forms him into a dedicated crime fighter; blah blah blah. We don't like to believe women can or want to hurt people. Not really. And so their powers are correspondingly dinky and unaggressive.

That's why this story is really only gaining traction now that we have a (male) figure to focus on, and a supervillian at that. Two supervillians, in fact, and Fitzgerald's not done yet.

Valerie Plame is being portrayed as a suburban housewife who got caught up in this mess, at best a desk jockey in the CIA and ultimately just a victim with a shrill husband. But consider: what if she were Batman and Karl Rove leaked her secret identity for no better reason than because he could and it would hurt someone she loved. I hope she finds a way to strike back and, in the meantime, that everyone starts giving her a little more credit.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

ester and the well-cooked chinese food

This morning, I finally finished Harry Potter VI. That scream of woe you heard around 10 am? Yeah, that was me.

Mr. Ben and I took turns with the tome once we acquired it at an adorable lower east side bookstore that stayed open Friday night with a party for adults. Of course, kids were there also drinking punch, getting their palms read, and blocking the aisles talking in hushed voices about what the remembered from Book V. I looked at them from the height of my almost-23 years and at once envied and pitied their innocence. Except not really. I looked at them and was jealous that they had parents shelling out the $25 for them.

From that point on, Mr. Ben and I took turns staying up late / getting up early to read. We found it hard to separate ourselves from the book, going so far as to drag it showing of Me, You, and Everyone We Know at BAM. I rarely pay the full $10 for movies in New York; I can't really bring myself to. But Me and You managed to be heartfelt and enchanting, as Sundance winners are supposed to be, without also being self-indulgent, overly quirky and unresolved, as they so often are (viz, The Station Agent.) From the depths of Mr. Ben's messenger bag, I can't imagine, however, that HPVI had a very clear view. I imagine it was too busy stewing its dark, antsy juices to enjoy the film anyway.

Once we finished, Mr. Ben and I were so shocked that instead of leaping into our chores like bunnies of efficiency, as we usually do, we moped around in our underwear, rereading key passages, speculating about what would happen in the final volume, and -- I'm not proud of this -- even turning to the internets for support. We were indeed comforted by how collectively stunned all Harry Potter fans everywhere seemed to be, but it still took us several hours to recover. Even then, showered, dressed, shopping for food to do the week's cooking, we kept hashing and rehashing the novel. Yes, we are dorks. But come on! That book frikkin ends with a bang. I can't wait to read it again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

little ester and the big scary men that populate this city

Chapter 1:

Ester leaves the apartment, walks down the street to the A,C,E. The stairway down to the train creates a wind-tunnel and she holds her skirt futilely against her legs to try to avoid a Marilyn Monroe moment. (It's only sexy if it happens to Marilyn Monroe.)

Chapter 2:

Walking down a street at the other end of a subway trip. Her hands continue to flit toward her skirt to protect it against a sneaky wind-tunnel, the kind that would burst onto the scene and yell "boo!" and pull the fabric up. Especially as she passes the lumberyard that she must pass every morning before she arrives at the office. What sort of crazy block in Manhattan boasts of fashion studios / casting offices AND a lumberyard? She curses the schizophrenia of Chelsea and tries to ignore the various men wishing her a good morning. Although they are never obscene, their attention feels unpleasant and she wishes they would pay it to someone else.

Chapter 3:

At her desk, trapped. A barrel-chested 45 year old man with a gleaming smile is flirting to pass the time. He gestures toward the white lilies on her desk: "Men send those to you every week, don't they?" Playing along (what else can she do?) she jokes, "Yup. There's a sign-up list and everything." He leans in: "I'll bet I'd be number 250 on that list."

The number 250 is hi-larious enough. But the man does not leave. He ruminates on the gym. How he used to go, how he stopped, how sad that is. He glances at Ester. "You must work out, right? You're in great shape." When Ester laughs, "No," he says, "Oh, you're a natural!"

Chapter 4:

Swishing home in her army green platform boots, salmon pleather skirt, and fancy black tank top, feeling pretty good about having managed another day in the big city. A voice from the sidewalk calls out, "Ester!" She turns, stares. There sits a boy she barely recognizes, someone from the depths of the margins of the past: a high school classmate's younger brother she hadn't seen in at least 5 years. "Hey!" he says. "You look exactly the same!"

Monday, July 11, 2005

Wait for it ...

My semi-regular pinochle games are memorable not simply for the hostess's vintage card table or glassware, or for the fun of doing something to engage my brain (that happens pretty rarely now that I'm out of the academic world and into the working one). They're also memorable for the low-key famous folks in the aged bohemian crowd.

The thing about low-key famous folks is that they put you on a first-name basis with them and don't act like they're anything special. So if you never think to inquire about a last name, you might go the rest of your life not knowing you just drank beer with and teased Jerry Orbach's son. Last names become important.

At pinochle, in the hostess's kitchen last week, I fell to talking with a pleasant middle-aged woman. Her necklace spoke to me: it reminded me of the jewelry my mother wears and not too many other people do. It could be characterized as "difficult jewelry" -- it's often made of heavy, unrecognizable stones -- or, merely, "the jewelry of the well-travelled."

My surprise, then, was not great to discover that she writes travel guides. Currently, she's composing one about New York. I could hardly think of something more exciting. We talked about it for a while then, and also later, once we started playing the game. Another person at our table asked how she got into the business. It must be kind of tricky, kind of competitive.

It helps that it's a family business, she said.

And to the background noise of bells ringing in my head, I asked what her last name is.

And she replied, Frommer.

I have another pinochle game tomorrow. I can't wait to see who I'll meet.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

the macchias dacha

In brief, I am back from Maine. The trip was not brief. Well, the time I spent in Maine was brief; the travel to and from was not. Eleven HOURS, my friends, it takes to get from Westchester to Maine, and it's an hour from the city to Chappaqua, where the car waits, and since before that I had to work a half day, Mr. Ben and I didn't get to start our expotition til early afternoon. And we didn't get back (to Chappaqua!) til midnight, to return the car, we had to commute with the commuters this morning, revoltingly early, in order to get to work on time.


But Maine was beautiful. Mr. Ben's father, an emigre from Moscow, found a house on property to his liking on roughly the same latitude as the place where he grew up. He recognizes obscure wildflowers that grow on lilypads along the river and remembers from summer camp how to make necklaces out of them. To share in the nostalgia, Mr. Ben's father -- who we could call Dr. Mr. Ben -- invited his extended Russian emigre family, settled lo these many years in Brighton Beach. Everyone grumbled a bit about the driving length, at least until they got an unobstructed view of unpolluted air rolling out over unpolluted waters almost to Nova Scotia. And, at night, layers over layers of stars.

The weather obliged us. In fact, I think it was showing off. The fog retreated slowly our first morning, revealing the scenery in teasing bits, and then it stayed away entirely so we could get sunburned more easily. We went canoeing. We watched waterfalls. We wandered around town (which, though lacking in a single traffic light, does have an organic food store). We ate.

And now we're home. It's my second week at the new job. Things are going well, I think, mostly. It's always stressful to change jobs but I feel a little more confident and that's always good. Even if I'm not actually confident I have to fake it, because in this city I've learned people don't have much tolerance for the alternative.