Tuesday, December 29, 2009

RIP, 2009

My uncle died less than 24 hours after I returned from the North Carolina hospice. The final episode of his life, which began with the diagnosis and ended with his last breath, unfolded over seven weeks.

In seven weeks, his body unraveled. That's unthinkable. And so I am unthinking. I am in hiding, more or less. My poor family. All the men are gone. First my grandfather, then my father, and now my uncle. We are a collection of widows and children and me, a married child.

Please hurry up, 2010, and bring your friends 2011-2019. Tell them all to be kinder to us than the last year was.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Good Yontif, Santa!

Baby's First Business Trip (TM) took me across the country to sunny LA. Jewy academics from all over had braved East Coast storms and hauled babies to make it, and some -- including one of my bosses -- were thwarted over and over. I had to walk a couple of fierce, snowy blocks in Brooklyn to the A train to get to the airport; that was the worst of my trouble.

The first morning of the conference, I went to a panel where a fellow argued for the rehabilitation of an author who is minor, unlikeable, and dead. Academia in a nutshell, and it was not a nutshell I wanted to be in. It was over 70 degrees outside among the swaying palm trees, and if anything boring was happening out there I could always walk away from it.

The second speaker was more engaging, but still, I listened to my gut and spent the next several hours either by the pool or on the hotel patio. And I was productive! I had an energetic poolside conversation with the second speaker, whose book-in-progress about irony and the Holocaust could, I felt, benefit from a final chapter about film.

I also ran into and caught up with an old friend from summer camp, now a PhD candidate and an impressive scholar in her own right. She was the first of my run-ins with the past, the roster of which included an old professor from Swarthmore and an old neighbor from Brooklyn.

Everyone seemed familiar, even the folks I didn't know directly. When I was introduced to a young woman named Miriam, it took us only five minutes to determine that we have a good friend in common: her brother's housemate. The world is even smaller when you travel within the confines of a six-pointed star.

I saw my little brother, my cousin, and my May-As-Well-Be Sister-in-Law, a CA native who whisked me away in her silver BMW for an al fresco lunch in Santa Monica. At night, I slept in a pristine king-sized bed big enough to fit me and the population of Trinidad, with room for the seven dwarfs. Though I contemplated finding an actor or two to fill the emptiness, I refrained, because I am a modest East Coast girl at heart.

The flight back was easy but what followed was not. My uncle, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer just after my father died, has been moved to a hospice. He's declining rapidly. So, after what will be a rushed Russian Christmas tomorrow morning in Westchester, I'm getting on another plane, this time with Mr. Ben, and going down to North Carolina for the weekend. My family will circle another deathbed. Then we will greet 2010, for which I am scared to have any hopes, except that enough will finally be enough.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Why waste time with piddling lists like "Best of the Year"? Go big or go home! With film, after all, boldness is key, which goes a distance toward explaining why Charlie Kaufman is all over my lists and why, even if it doesn't quite make it here, I couldn't stop talking about Inglourious Basterds. What I love in a movie is some combination of chemistry, intelligence, creativity, audacity, and truth (in the sense that the film is true to itself and its own internal rules, not to any objective standard).

Some of these I never need to see again because they were searingly intense the first time. Others are here because I have watched them over and over again as the decade progressed and they never lost their sheen. Although my picks don't divide neatly on those lines, I do find it helpful to use the Golden Globe division: Drama Vs. Comedy/Musical. Still, most of my Drama picks are funny, since I enjoy talky-talky stuff more than the fighty-fighty-kablammo!


Best Movies of the 00's - DRAMA

Kill Bill 1&2
Brokeback Mountain
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
In the Mood for Love
Children of Men
Pan's Labyrinth
Y Tu Mama Tambien
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Movies of the Decade - MUSICAL OR COMEDY

Moulin Rouge
Gosford Park
Little Miss Sunshine
The Incredibles
Being John Malkovich
High Fidelity
40 Year Old Virgin

RUNNERS UP: Memento, Once, Talk to Her

I haven't actually done the hard work of ranking, because when movies are this good, does it really matter which one I think is ever-so-slightly better than the next? That said, my favorite movie of the decade, and one of my favorites of all time, is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Here are some other people's lists: Pajiba honors the hilarious Shawn of the Dead and the creeptacular American Psycho; the Onion AV Club hoists up the 25th Hour, and I can't fault anything that pats David Benioff on the back, even if I preferred Inside Man; and Entertainment Weekly gives its love to the LOTR trilogy, because I guess all those Oscars it got weren't enough. And Slate has a handy-dandy guide to everything.

Did I forget something? Did I make you puke? Duke it out with me in the comments.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why I Won't Leave the House for a While

(except to go back to the library)

There are so many books out there! So many wonderful, wonderful books, and I can't keep up. I've enjoyed tasty tidbits (The Magicians, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane) and solemn, Midwestern meditations (A Gate at the Stairs). Meanwhile I've also been playing literary catch-up (House of Mirth, Daniel Deronda).

Even if I were to surface from this literary hot tub, there are also so many movies to see! I enjoyed the hell out of Up in the Air -- it almost restored the magic to air-travel and certainly restored the spark and chemistry to on-screen romance; and best of all it made me laugh. Also, it upended some romantic comedy conventions that look way better on their heads. But that's only one down! I still need to see Mr. Fox and Orson Welles and Precious and A Single Man and A Serious Man. Stop me before I hyperventilate.

Thank god I don't care about rugby. That's a couple hours of my life I can spend, you know, eating, or talking to people, probably about whatever else I've just read or seen.

Maybe this all matters in an outsized way because this is the fun I get out of the Xmas Season. Everyone else is decorating fir trees with strands of joy and peace, or whatever it is the goyim do in December while waiting for the fat man to come down the chimney. Jews go to the movies. So it has been and so it will be.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Homicide On Par With Broadway to Tourist

From an article about a fatal shooting in Times Square today:
Emer Rooney, 33, a visitor from Ireland on the last day of a trip to New York, walked with a friend from a nearby hotel to take pictures of the scene. She said she had never felt unsafe in New York. "I actually feel it's very safe," she said. "Look at all the police officers."

She cited the shooting, in fact, as one of the more exciting moments of her trip, including recovering lost luggage at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and getting tickets to the musical "Wicked."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Choice Quotes for a Choice Season

Let's get some happiness going! Right? It is, after all, the season of joy and giving and stuffing and family and light and gifts and puns -- the holly-jolly-days! And if I am not full on in the spirit of things, I may as well pretend!

To get us started, here are some amazing quotes from today's internets:
"At one point, Mr. Hatch unbuttons his white dress shirt to expose the golden mezuzah necklace he wears every day. Mezuzahs also adorn the doorways of his homes in Washington and Utah. Mr. Hatch keeps a Torah in his Senate office.

“Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah,” he said. {NYT}
Is a mock Torah anything like a mock turtle, or a mock turtleneck? As we ponder, let us read on:
"It makes me sad sometimes, but I don’t care because I try not to think about it. Sometimes your dreams get crushed but you just keep going." {NYT}
This one is beyond mocking. (Although, ha ha! See what I did there?)

If you can see with those tears in your eyes, check out this Jewish version of Lady Gaga, singing "Bad Shiksa":

Key takeaway, in case you can't watch videos at work:
I’m your Bad Shiksa

I want your horah
I kvell for your kiss
I want that scrap of skin you lost at your bris
I want your love
(Love-love-love I want your love)

I’ll dress up jappy, I’ll dress up all frum
I’ll call you Shabbos and pretend I’m your mom
I want your love
I want your love
(Love-love-love I want your love)

You know that I want Jews
(’Cause I’m a trayf bitch baby! )
I’m just a bad, I’m a Bad Shiksa

Beat that, Orrin Hatch.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

As a Box of Hammers

When experts come off as idiots in the pages of the Washington Post, I wonder whether the problem is with bad ideas or bad expression. Or both? For example:
"No man is an island," said Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School


"Loneliness is more than just feeling bad," said Chris Segrin, a professor of communication and health at the University of Arizona


The researchers said the effect could not be the result of lonely people being more likely to associate with other lonely people because they showed the effect over time. "It's not a birds-of-a-feather-flock-together effect," Christakis said.
I'm going to put together a study showing that even really bright people speak almost entirely in cliches. Although how bright are these guys? First they tell us our fat friends make us fat, but don't abandon them! ("'We are not suggesting that people should sever their ties with overweight friends,' Christakis adds. 'But we are suggesting that people are influenced by the behaviors of those around them, and if they're interested in losing weight, forming ties with people who are the proper weight is likely to be beneficial.'")

Uh huh. Now, they tell us that having lonely friends will make us lonely. In its lukewarm conclusion, the article does not advise against pushing these folks off on ice floes. At least, not per se. The implication, though, is clear.

These studies are heartbreakingly, essentially American. They present us with "experts" who affirm conventional wisdom, and they "prove" that losers have a social contagion. The fat, the lonely, everyone you instinctively avoided in high school (or else WERE in high school) -- all those weirdos -- they are not just repellent. They are bad for you.

As awful as these men should feel for wasting our society's time and resources, the editors of articles such as "Loneliness is transmittable from person to person" should feel worse.

Over in the New York Times, whatever editor was responsible for article juxtaposition shouldn't be feeling too great either. Roger Cohen's elegiac opinion piece (currently #3 on the Most Emailed List) ends extolling color-blindness in America, the Land of Opportunity:
Westminster, like Britain, has changed. Openness has grown. Bigotry’s faint refrain has grown fainter still. But I think my old school should throw more light on this episode. And I still believe the greatest strength of America, its core advantage over the old world, is its lack of interest in where you’re from and consuming interest in what you can do.
Directly below it on the Most Emailed List, however, is the article "In Job Hunt, College Degree Can't Close Racial Gap." In other words, Cohen's words will totally apply to you -- unless you're black. Ouch, NYT.

Monday, November 23, 2009


With varying degrees of success, I've been making myself go out lately. At best, I see a sweet, moving play, like the one my friend Lucas is in, I cry a little, and I am actually inspired to start writing (!) when I get home. Or I go with a crowd I don't know to a mind-blowing show by and starring Anna Deavere Smith, which turns out to be about DEATH and CANCER and PEOPLE DYING FROM CANCER, and sob. And then, exiting the theater while still shaken and teary, deal with the following:

GIRL 1: I didn't cry once! Did you?
GIRL 2: No! I almost did, during the orphanage one.
GIRL 3: Yeah, that was really sad. ... But I didn't cry either.
GIRL 2: Huh. [turning to me] Well, it was nice to meet you! Bye!

It's not their faults, of course. They didn't know what was going on with me. But I still felt like an idiot.

Friday night, I went to a birthday party with a bunch of people I know and love, and it was still hard. Trying to be boisterous and upbeat, I ended up overcompensating and saying at least one truly ridiculous, hurtful thing. Luckily everyone else was drinking and I counted, by the end of night, enough ridiculous things to knock my most offensive comment out of the evening's Top Three.

At the party, one of my friends mentioned my blog, my dear, old neglected blog, where, she said, I "write about my feelings." The pained look on my face must have given me away, and she hurried to assure me that she didn't mean it in a bad way. But Jebus Crispy! My feelings? Is that what I have come to? Is that what I've been wasting my time with for eight years?

It took me a moment to regain my equilibrium. Once I did, I realized I was battling my own -- wait for it -- internalized misogyny. That's right! Why do we look down on feelings, and, especially, harping on, writing about, discussing them? Because they are as feminine as cats and babies. As girly as pretty, pretty princesses and snowflakes and romance and pom poms, and just as pointless, because feelings don't make money or amass power, and that's what the patriarchy values.

I rebel against my own internalized misogyny! Or, I am trying to!

Sing it with me: Who cares if a well-done theater production made me cry, or if I keep a personal blog? There is nothing wrong with feelings. There is nothing wrong with memoir, with rom coms, with Titanic or Twi--

I'm sorry, did you cough? What did I say? Oh yes. Twilight. I suppose you heard that it obliterated records this past weekend, propelled to success by a starkly young, female audience. To be clear, I'm no fan of the series. I haven't read the books, and you may recall that I could not have rolled my eyes harder at the first film. (As a viewer I felt like echoing Jeneane Garofolo in Reality Bites after she has suffered through the thousandth Winona Ryder-Ethan Hawke bantering session: "Just do it and get it over with already!")

But who cares? Anything that makes Hollywood pay attention to women and value female viewership is a net positive. New Moon is probably as melodramatic and sappy as its predecessor was, but most movies these days are loud and dumb. There's no reason to be especially disdainful of a phenomenon just because it's oriented towards girls instead of boys. Let us have a share of the stupidity!

Personally, I'd take Jack Dawson over Edward Cullen any day. Good, old-fashioned costume melodrama is more my style than sparkling vampires, and at least Jack and Rose got to get it on before he died helping to save her. But, as the true snobs say, chacun a son gout.

ETA: Pajiba agrees with me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Status Update (or, What the WHAT?)

Around here, it's all "Death, death, death, death, death, death, death -- lunch -- death, death, death -- afternoon tea -- death, death, death -- quick shower ...."

The latest, and I am not making this up, is that my uncle has cancer. And it's bad. When is cancer not bad? Sometimes! When it strikes other families, or Lance Armstrong, apparently. When it strikes my family, it is like, Pow! Kablammo! And other noises as well.

It is esophageal cancer, and it has spread.

As one sympathetic co-worker put it when I told them the latest news, "When it rains, it pours." That was better than the *other* co-worker who said, "Bad stuff always comes in threes, doesn't it?" Because JEBUS CRISP, you mean I need to expect more?

I am totally going to write a story about a character named Jebus Crisp, just as soon as I get my groove back.

With that goal in mind, on Thursday, I got a dramatic haircut, and on Friday, I dragged my friends out to a burlesque show emceed by Murray Hill. He even Twittered the show! Sort of. Not the part where he called my friends and me polyamorous lesbians -- in his neologism, "Pollies" -- and assumed that we passed Mr. Ben around for sport. Or, for that matter, the part where one of the dancers cavorted in Mr. Ben's lap while I spontaneously combusted under the table.

So, as you can tell, considering everything, I am functioning. Occasionally, I waste time hating myself, or I cry on the treadmill because I find Terms of Endearment on TV and I can't change the channel; and I haven't yet managed to write anything since my dad died (see, "getting my groove back," above). Still: burlesque; haircut; socializing ... I'd give myself a B+.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

More Than My Father

The Washington Post put up a delayed but touching tribute to my dad today, including an obit and a "post mortem," which is a kind of blog entry. Both appear in full at the official website/scrapbook, PaulLBloom.com, but this snippet really got to me, so I wanted to re-post it here:
No one seems to remember this incident now, but it was a big deal at the time -- especially Mr. Bloom's grand farewell gesture. It's one of the pleasures of obituary writing to discover someone like Paul Bloom and to unearth such fascinating, if forgotten, episodes of history.
Thank you, Mr. Schudel.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

On Writing

Jezebel takes on the prickly subject of women & memoirs in their post about Mary Karr, who says of her latest book: "I didn't [write] it to help anybody. I did it for the money. I did it because I'm greedy and I like living in New York."

Jezebel wavers before deciding to applaud Karr's "narcissism" and "burst of arrogance," but like some of the commenters, I wouldn't leap to either of those judgements. First of all, it seems to me like Karr is laughing at herself, as she is -- I hope? -- when she attributes her success to the fact that God loves her. But secondly, if the market values her stories, as it has her previous two books, why *not* sell them? Why is it considered low-class to be straightforward about the fact that writing can be not merely a craft but a trade?

I wish I could make money writing. I am doing my damnedest. Or, well, I haven't been for the last few months: what with absorbing the blow of my book not getting picked up, and then the much more destabilizing blow of my father's illness & death, I haven't had any creative energy at all.

My body is getting up every day and going to work. It is managing to eat and see people and even go to the gym. But my mind, to some degree, has stalled. It can't comprehend a world in which I can't call my father, or walk into his room to see him rereading Pickwick Papers yet again, or hear him groan, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth ...."

At least I can still hear his voice. Last week, while cooking, I put on a movie in the background which I immediately heard him condemn as "Dreck!" It is very small solace but occasionally that will do.

Overall, though, my emotional immune system is out of whack, so stupid shit affects me much more than it should. Like the most recent Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin, which last time I managed to greet with the eye-rolling it deserved, and which this time led to a melodramatic crisis of confidence. My mother had to remind me that failure can build character, that there is something to be learned from the fact that you can fall and get up again.

A friend of mine recently voiced her fear that if she lost her current amazing job, she wouldn't be able to look people in the face. Well, I've done it, and then I've done it again. As Mary Karr says, quoting Beckett, aspire to "Fail better."

She also has excellent advice for young writers in general:
[O]ften what we’re most talented at we resist, because we think it’s silly, or small, or not good enough. I teach with George Saunders, a brilliant fiction writer, and he’s so funny. He went to Syracuse when Ray Carver and Toby Wolff were there, and he kept trying to write these gritty, minimalist, realistic stories, and then he’d have some bizarre thing in the middle of it, and Ray and Toby would kill themselves, and tell him, “Just do more of this! Just do this all the time!” And he’d be like, “I want to be a man!”
I will try to keep this in mind. I will also try to blog more, if only because it is a start.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Day to Day

Considering that all I want to do is eat cereal out of the box and read novels, I'm doing pretty well. After some searching, I found two shuls with daily minyans so that I can say Kaddish. Neither's perfect: One is inconvenient and the other is Orthodox. Whatever.

I've been going to work and getting things done. I've continued showering; I even made it to the gym last night where I ran two and a half miles. I've only had one dream where my father was still alive and disappointed in me.

I miss my father. But, anyway.

The whole death thing really knocked me for a loop. Wow, it was fast. As recently as September, my dad was being treated. There was medicine, and where there is medicine there is hope, even if one is poisonous and the other is flimsy. Then, suddenly, he had six months; then merely weeks; then I was in the backyard of the Casey House in Montgomery County, sleep-deprived and tear-glazed, casting a protective shadow over the bed in which my father had managed to open his eyes for the last time. It was a blue-and-yellow afternoon, with hawks circling several layers up from butterflies, and we had decided to roll his bed outside.

Everyone who could come came over his last couple days. We pressed his hand, played his iPod, read to him from Isaiah. The rabbi shook a lulav and an etrog at him, because it was Succot, and then kissed him on the forehead. And that afternoon, twelve hours before his labored breathing faded away, he saw us there. He knew we had gathered, for him, for whatever good it would do. For an hour or so, he managed to stay conscious, my brilliant, generous, lazy, sentimental, anxious-depressive-insomniac, loving, witty father, and then he dipped under again and never woke up.

Then, suddenly, there were things to do. We had to sleep, and write obits, and talk to the funeral home, and plan speeches. We had to break down and get up again. My mother cried; I've never seen her look so lost. We had to deal with that. We had to eat, and dress warmly for the funeral, because the day we interred him was a day borrowed from early March. It had everything but crows in it. I think I cried hardest when my father-in-law lifted the shovel to help bury my father.

But my friends, my friends, my friends did everything that is good in this world, everything good people do. At one point at the cemetery three of them had staked out places around me, bolstering me. Later, they came to the house and sat with me on the floor. They came every night and sometimes during the day, too. The experience was, as I said, a plane crash, but it was also a water landing on par with Sully's, because of my friends and my family's friends and my family. I can't thank you enough.

RIP, Tateh.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Crawling Back Toward the Light

Step One: Return to New York

Step Two: Return to work

Step Three: Return to normal

Friday, October 09, 2009

RIP Paul L. Bloom (1939-2009)

After about forty hours in hospice watching my father die, I am thoroughly and otherwise exhausted. Later I will have more to say about the experience, which was basically a plane crash; but one whose impact was softened by the tangible love of family and friends.

For now, I leave you with a letter to the editor from the NYT in 1981, written by a complete stranger, entitled "God Bless Mr. Bloom!":
To the Editor:

Paul Bloom's grand exit from his job as special counsel to the Energy Department in the Carter Administration prods our uncomfortable acceptance of 10-figure oil profits. The mind has almost gotten used to corporate gains in the billions, oil sheiks fresh out of ideas about what to do with their money, petroleum executives living on such a grand scale that it makes the palaces of Pharoah look like the South Bronx.

But not Mr. Bloom's mind. No weak resignation for him. In one glorious parting act, he distributed $4 million (a mere frivolity by measure of fossil-fuel accounts) to four charities with the promise that all would be spent helping the poor warm their bones at oil burners too expensive for them to run.

Mr. Bloom's imagination hasn't failed him or his heart. Yet even more, his wild act of charity reminds us of that line from ''Man of La Mancha,'' which Mr. Bloom seems to have taken to heart: ''Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.''

God bless Mr. Bloom! ROBERT H. POPE, Pastor, Pascack Reformed Church, Park Ridge, N.J., Feb. 14, 1981
Mr. Pope, wherever you are, if you're still there please feel free to come to my father's funeral, Monday, October 12th, at 10:00 AM in DC. We will save you a seat in the front row.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Off (Again)

My father's condition has deteriorated more quickly than anyone expected. I am furious and anxious and despondent but mostly I'm numb because how could this have all happened so fast? Almost a year ago he was in Botswana dashing out of the way of stampeding elephants, and in South Africa reuniting with long-lost members of the family. Then he fell down some stairs, came back to the States to get x-rayed, and voila.

I told my Dr. Russian this story, and after pushing a box of tissues over to me, he said, "Well, pancreatic cancer is a fatal disease."

True, O king!

Last weekend, he could barely move around the apartment by himself. This weekend, I have no idea what I will find.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My DVD player / VCR conked out while I was cooking. It gagged on and then tried to spit out a video of the Apartment. One thread of film got stuck in its teeth while the rest lolled out like a great black tongue. I guess I should snip the thread and try to extricate the carcass, but what's the point? For now the movie continues to hang there, suspended from the broken mouth of the VCR, and serve as a fabulous metaphor for life these days.

Over and over again, I pick up a book only to discover it's about death and have to put it down. Finally, in frustration, I decided to reread the first Harry Potter. HEY, GUESS WHAT THAT'S ABOUT?

I can't win. Authors, weren't either of your parents ever seriously ill? Didn't you ever need solace, comfort, humor, diversion? There are only so many Jane Austen books to reread.

Can anyone recommend something cheerful but still intelligent, please? I was hitting myself in my sleep last night; I woke up sore and sad. And this is just the beginning of what looks like a very difficult fall. My friends have been wonderful, as has Mr. Ben. Now I just need some support from art.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Early Christmas card from the Balynker-Glooms

Perfect form!
Originally uploaded by shorterstory.

Hi Everyone! Happy It's-Virtually-Christmas!

Day by day, sunlight recedes, flowers droop, tans fade, and hurricanes gear up to wallop our fair cities. Last year at this time the RNC introduced Sarah Palin and the NYT introduced Unigo! (Now that we all have some perspective, the question to ask is, Which flopped harder?)

I always get down in the dumps in September, but the fact that this summer was disappointingly unsweaty makes me even more morose.

To mark and improve these waning days, some of us decamped to Splish Splash, the water park of kings. The journey was not for the faint of heart: we had to travel into the depths of Long Island via a subway, two trains, and a shuttle bus. Ultimately, though, we arrived at a haven as splish-splashy as promised, and as removed from our daily lives as we could hope.

Even that, as it turned out, was a mere teaser for Mr. Ben's and my more extended vacation in glorious Costa Rica.

We took a puddle-jumper from San Jose to the remote Oso Pennisula, where we stayed in a hacienda owned by a family friend. He visits his mountain-top paradise four or five times a year, usually with as many guests as he can entice to join him.

Together, we explored jungles, beaches, and tropical fruits that required Inglorious Basterds-type methods to get to the insides. He took us out to eat, to hike, to meet his ex-pat friends, to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, and to fish.



Once, while relaxing on his shaded porch, with fans whirring overhead and fresh-fruit smoothies in hand, birds quarreling faintly in the trees and the sun dipping into the Pacific on the horizon, I said, "I feel like a colonialist." Turns out that's a Think, Don't Say in the developing world.

Awkward realizations aside, it really was a fantastic experience from beginning to end. Except for the back of my leg.


More pictures TK. Hope you're all well!

Ben & Ester

Friday, September 11, 2009

Boy Girl Boy Girl

The results of Gold-medal-winning runner Caster Semenya's "gender test" are in. Reportedly, she is intersex. She was born without a uterus or a womb and with unusually high levels of testosterone to go with internal testes that never descended.

Gawker set the tone with its piece yesterday:
We thought it was super crazy that South African sprinter Caster Semenya had to go through complicated tests to prove she's actually a woman, just because she....whoa, she's not actually a woman!

Breaking, whoa, I did not even know this stuff happened for real, but yes it does!
Blithe ignorance -- how charming. Five seconds of Googling answers the question of how common a condition Semenya's is. 1 out of every 100 people born has some variation in their sex organs. Besides which, I have a friend who was born without a womb or ovaries, and she is one of the most typically feminine (and beautiful) people I know. No one would have any difficulty reading the signs and declaring her a woman.

That, of course, is the problem. We have a strong societal idea of what a Woman is -- i.e., not a Man, the opposite of a Man. Soft, not hard; gentle, not rough; shorter, slighter, weaker, and so on. As more and more female athletes use their bodies the same way men do, and their bodies adapt through use to become more streamlined and muscular, the gender differences become less pronounced. So the Williams sisters wear tiny skirts and pose in bikinis, Dana Torres's baby is mentioned as often as her age, and the press was obsessed with the story of the Olympic volleyball player who lost her wedding ring in the sand.

It is these external markers that Semenya is lacking, as is evident in this Mediaite piece, titled "Pressing Matters: Media Plays ‘Boy or Girl’ with She-male Runner":
But if you have seen pictures of Semenya, let alone seen her torch her competition in a footrace (video below), you can’t help but wonder about her sex; forget how politically incorrect the thought might be, she does look like a man. So it really came as no surprise yesterday when Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported that testing by the International Association of Athletic Federation revealed that Semenya has internal testes, no womb or ovaries and produces three times the normal amount of testosterone as a normal female.
Just when you think we can't do worse than the word "hermaphrodite," which, with its monstrous connotations, is officially out-dated, Mediaite reaches in the grab bag and pulls out "She-male." And then goes on to assure the reader that "you can't help but wonder about her sex." Oh yeah, can't I? Why? Does Semenya really have a more manly face than Dana Torres?

Or than the Williams sisters?

Gender isn't something that can be tested, and sex is more complicated than gonads. Semenya was raised as a woman, trained as a woman, competed as a woman, and succeeded as a woman. Only when she came out on top was she subjected to worldwide humiliation and scorn. Even if she keeps her gold at this point, it will be tarnished, and that is a shame.

To my mind, the situation is very simple. Either the folks in charge come up with some standard for what they find acceptable and test everyone before they let them run, or they test no one. (After all, without testing, how do we know that other runners who didn't win don't have similar conditions?) Ideally the folks in charge, and the media, and the bloggers, would wrap their minds around the fact that human beings are biologically complex. However happy it makes us feel to assume that there are men and women and everyone fits neatly into one category or the other, the truth is deeper than that -- and more interesting.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

On the Edge of Things

Paradise, I've discovered, dwells in the borderlands. It makes sense: being in the center can be pleasant and safe, but it is rarely glorious. The house where Mr. Ben and I are now staying in Costa Rica sits at the top of a mountain, next to the rain forest, and at the edge of a cliff, and it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. A string of bushes beaded with coral-orange flowers separates us from everything below. In the distance and far beneath us, the Pacific Ocean foams at the mouth. Howler monkeys scream at the sun for coming up in the morning and frogs make mellow sounds at twilight.

Otherwise, insects make virtually the only noise. I knew, when I arrived, that I would have to be less jumpy about critters than I usually am. I try and I fail and I continue to try. Our first morning, in a bed-and-breakfast in Alajuela, Mr. Ben and I opened the door to the shower and something large and black flew at us from the darkness. Of course it was only a moth, but *you* try not to scream when something with wings comes at you first thing in the morning.

Our flight over Friday night had been exhausting. Half of Holland had been emptied out onto our plane for some reason. The looming, affable Dutch stood for the most of the ride, leaning over each others' seats, laughing, talking, and even breaking out into song. They ignored us completely and we in turn felt like we were flying 2,000 miles in a bar in the Hague. Of course, the flight was late, and of course there were no movies, and of course by the time the stewardess made it to the very back row with the food cart, where we sat trapped between the Nords and the bathroom, she had given away everything except little hamburgers that get microwaved in plastic bags. The vegetarian meals we had ordered had long since been handed over to someone else.

But who cares? The hunger and the inconvenience were a small price to pay to get here. Our little adventures -- finding the door of the B&B shower broken and ourselves locked in; arriving for our 9:00 AM local flight to Palmar Del Sur on time but at the wrong airport -- seemed funny as soon as they were over.

We have shopped and swum and cooked and marveled at the landscaping here at the top of Mel's mountain. Mel is the family friend whose hospitality we're enjoying. He bought his house five years ago and has transformed it into a private tropical getaway. Last night we played poker until almost midnight on the porch with a crowd of his ex-pat friends. Today we're going to go fishing for our lunch. I am supremely blissful, even while I am on the watch for scorpions. And tomorrow we head into the rain forest! With any luck, we will make it out again.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

What's Wrong?

Conversation with a co-worker:

Me: I have to go to the post office to buy a couple stamps.
Her: Why not use the stamp machine here?
Me: Because that would be stealing.
Her: Nah, everyone does it.
Me: You know, at my last office, we had a long conversation about whether it was okay to ask for a cup of water at Chipotle and then fill the cup with soda. For some reason, everyone thought that was fine!
Her: Sure!
Me: Do you do that?
Her: Of course. Well, I don't go to Chipotle. But I used to shoplift sweaters from H&M all the time. I was kind of a klepto when I was a kid. It was fun! The sweaters were too small for me, even.
Me: I was the kind of kid who never smoked, never cheated, never stole ...
Her: Ugh -- moral.
Me: Except I'm not a "good person."
Her: I know!
Me: Hey!
Her: Well, I knew what you meant.
Me: Yeah. I don't know, I just had an inborn sense, from the time that I was little, that some things were wrong and so I never wanted to do them. You know what I mean?
Her: I really liked stealing penny candy, too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Most Serious Comedy I've Ever Seen

When I saw the Pianist lo these many years ago, I had a peculiar emotional reaction that faded gradually over several days. I felt like if someone had given me a button capable of destroying modern Poland, I would have pressed that button.

That's a crazy impulse, especially for someone who doesn't even support the death penalty. But I wanted to press that button, I really did. I had never felt so bloodthirsty in my life.

The trouble with bloodthirst is you can never be sure what will slake it. One collaborator lynched? One village destroyed? One genocide? In the long run, of course not; I'm a progressive peacenik, for god's sake. I have white-guilt and Jew-guilt and privilege-guilt disturbing my sleep just from living my life day to day. The nice thing about a button is that I could press it from a distance and avoid the immediate implications of what I'd done. Still, eventually I would have to face the repercussions, like America with Hiroshima.

What I could have used was some celluloid catharsis in the form of a darkly-comic historical fantasy as imagined by Quentin Tarantino. (WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) God, I wish this movie had come out in 2002 when I also had to digest Shoah and Night of the Shooting Stars in film classes. Not only does Tarantino deliver the active response I was craving back then, he does it in a way that is funny (to relieve the tension), clearly fake (to relieve any revulsion you may feel), and over-the-top (so that you realize you don't actually want what you think you do).

No one does vengeance better than Tarantino. In his hands, vengeance is not a mindless act of good against evil: in Kill Bill, viewers are encouraged to sympathize with the human targets, even Bill himself. Elle Driver is, I think, the exception, the only cartoonishly villainous character, and even she is so great that you don't want to see her die.

This is why Tarantino gently raises the question of whether even Nazis deserved to be gunned down, roasted alive, scalped, mutilated, and otherwise inconvenienced. Of course the Third Reich needed to be brought down (and what a job he does of it, too). But no one, no matter how despicable, should have their head bashed in by Eli Roth. Watching Inglourious Basterds, you simultaneously get to enjoy the fantasy and let the fantasy go.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Provisional hero worship: looking up to folks the responsible way

Folksinger Jill Sobule once asked, "Why are all our heroes so imperfect? / Why do they always let me down?" Of course, this was before she went nuttier than squirrel poop and let herself be quoted as saying, "Fuck you, Katy Perry," proving once again that even the people who should know better usually don't.

The sentiment behind her song remains true, even as its singer is tarnished. Heroes, man! What gives? Why, on closer inspection, are they so often fuck ups and losers?

In the spirit of good will & optimism, I am celebrating my temporary heroes, the people who haven't lost my trust yet, screwed prostitutes with socks on, or turned out to be health-care-opposing libertarians.

But, to hedge my bets for the long term, I will try to keep my worship in check.

PROVISIONAL HERO #1: DAVID REES ("Get Your War On"). In addition to humorous diversions during the Bush years, he's given us this new Anne-Frank-via-David-Mamet quote:
"Stupid anti-semitic seig-heiling cunt. You know what it takes to live in an attic for two years? It takes BRASS BALLS. ... Send me to whatever camp you want. I'll die of typhus and still wind up on top."
Gotta admire his verve, right? At least until we find out Rees poisoned his funnier twin sister when they were five.

PROVISIONAL HERO #2: MERYL STREEP (most recently, Julie and Julia). So classy, so talented, that she makes me consider getting Mamma Mia! from Netflix. Her rendition of Julia Child had me giggling and beaming at the screen for a full two hours. Sadly, rumor has it that she will be outed as a major internet troll who spends her nights starting flame wars.

PROVISIONAL HERO #3: DAN SAVAGE ("Savage Love"). He's smart and funny and may be getting his own show on HBO:
I'm hoping to bring a new kind of conversation to TV about sex--an honest conversation, one that's informed without being (too) wonky, funny without being (too) cruel, sexy without being (too) cheesy. Basically, my sex-advice column--but on the teevee!
No, he's not always sensitive; he has rightly pissed off numerous folks with flip answers about serious problems. Will he turn out to be a cannibal? Only time will tell!

PROVISIONAL HERO #4: ANNE LAMOTT (Operating Instructions). Would there be mommy blogs, or any kind of blogs for that matter, without brave, frank, wry writers like Lamott who've been letting it all hang out for almost twenty years? Too bad she delights in eating animals while they're still alive, just to watch them squirm, right? Or so we'll discover eventually.

PROVISIONAL HERO #5: MY BROTHER JUDAH. The boy watched the entirety of the Wire, from Season 1, ep 1, through the end of Season 5 in less than a week. I call that dedication of monastic proportions. Of course, it helps that his school year hasn't started yet and he doesn't really, you know, date.

More, more! Nominate your own Provisional Heros to round out the list.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lovin the Leos

Apparently I love Leos. I just can't get enough! Roughly sixteen of my closest friends were ejected into this world between late July and late August, along with my mother, my little brother, and of course the one to whom I pledged my troth (in August, natch).

Having been hatched on July 19th, I narrowly missed being a Leo myself, for which I can only thank the vagaries of fate, cuz have you noticed what strong and often clashing personalities you Leos tend to have? I'll take my Cancer oversensitivity any day.

On behalf of Leos and their special days, I have gone bowling, at which I played two games without breaking 50 either time. I did manage to drop the ball twice though while trying to aim! I have gone eating, I have gone drinking (without drinking), I have tried to go to Jon Stewart. Though I reserved the tickets eight months ago, that plan worked about as well as the bowling, thanks to circumstances beyond my control; I missed a banner episode, too. Oh well. I have traveled and I have stayed put. I have exhausted myself trying to think of semi-original things to write on Facebook walls.

But birthdays go round every year. Why does this August seem so intense? Usually there isn't news, at least not beyond Hey Look, Cute Kitten! stories, or anything worth seeing in the theater. This year, we've had to contend with heroics from mayors, idiocy from former mayors (Death Panels!!), Democrats actually having to respond to "Death Panels", the Middle East cracking down on women, pirates, clunkers, and lots of revelations of the obvious: Bernie Madoff was short where it counted; the Bush administration politicized national security.

Julie and Julia, District 9, and Ponyo are all out now, competing for my attention. Coming soon, to make matters worse: Inglourious Basterds! WTF, August? Will you let me breathe and process the fact that my dad is not getting better and my book is not getting published and --

Actually, you know what, maybe I'm okay with not having time to think. More birthday cake for everyone!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

So long, America!

After four long months of trying to sell my first book, my supportive and encouraging literary agent has conceded defeat. Well, partial defeat, I should say: there's still the rest of the English speaking world to be tried. Perhaps I'll be a Canadian cross-over smash, like Alanis Morisette or Wayne Gretzky! How's the economy in Australia these days? How do Kiwis feel about ambitious religious and political satire?

As dandy as it would be to do publicity tours through Stonehenge and Bath, I'm not counting on that happening. Failure is not falling down but staying down, right? Just gotta keep writing -- and try not to tackle something huge this time. I'll put out that pseudo-autobiographical novel everyone expects of twenty-somethings, and if it sells, then maybe it'll be possible to get the real book out there.

For the most part I'm doing well, though I lost it a bit last night when Mr. Ben came home with flowers. It has helped to remember that: a) I'm only 27; b) I loved the challenge of doing something difficult and creative; c) the book got me an agent; d) the agent got my book read by numerous editors I admire, and those editors now know my name.

Going home this weekend to see my dad will help keep my minor life setbacks in perspective. This is not to say that the taboo on asking about my dad is lifted, by the way -- he's still in bad shape, and he's fighting. But I come bearing gifts from Russ and Daughters, which will work their magic on everyone's spirits, if not my ego.

Okay, a new rule: you can ask about my book; you can ask about my dad. But please don't do both at once.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

You Killed 'the Time Traveler's Wife'!

You bastards! The movie version of the story presents a HAPPY ENDING because a focus group's reaction to the actual ending was less than positive. The perpetrators of this horror are castigated by Pajiba, in one of the most on-point rants I've ever read:
Oh blind fury, how I’ve missed you. It’s been a week or two since you last curled my hands into claws to rip furrows from my own flesh.

“Properly”? Really? You’re going to go there? You’ve directed Flightplan and a single episode of “Lie to Me” and you’re going to swap out the gut-wrenching final scene of a beautiful story because 30 people you found at a mall on a Tuesday afternoon didn’t like being sad? It’s a tragic love story you ignorant twat
Hear hear! I've read the Time Traveler's Wife three times and bawled myself into catatonia three times; that is the mark of a truly special piece of art.

Hollywood seems to have forgotten that a certain level of pain can be exquisite. Heather Armstrong makes this point beautifully in her final post about giving birth to Daughter #2. Juliet makes this point beautifully by dying over and over again all over the world. Terms of Endearment -- one of the few movies that can reliably reduce me to tears -- won an Oscar for Best Picture, for god's sake!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Actual Updates from the Alumni Bulletin

The Swarthmore Alumni Magazine came today, which is always a tasty treat. Here are real, honest-to-god updates for my fellow Swatties:
Jason's third album, The Epic Album, has been released. If you are interested in listening to his experimental rock and medieval epic fantasy, please contact him at [email]."

Julie is still living at an orphanage in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. She runs the English Institute in town and leads an environmental education project in the local public schools.

Qian is composing, working at the Asian and Pacific Island Wellness Center, and volunteering at The Walden School. ... He recently served on the 30th Anniversary Coordinating Committee for Community United Against Violence, an LGBTQQ anti-violence organization [I would never have guessed -- ed.]. On a recent Northeast tour, he enjoyed [Swattie's] opera and celebrated enlightenment with [other Swatties]. Qian also recently attended the Queer Contra Dance Camp in Aptos, CA, with [Swatties].

There's not quite enough room here to report everything Hollis has been up to, but selected activities include ice climbing, running the outings for the local Adirondack Mountain Club, running the crisis hotline in upstate New York, traveling as national secretary for the national crisis hotline board, teaching suicide intervention professionally, sitting on New York's state trainer board, and, oh, getting his pilot's license, of course.
It goes on and on. The sad thing is, when I went to school with these people, they were all three-dimensional. Though I try to remember them like that, more and more in my mind they become caricature. Except for all my friends, of course, who don't write in to the damn alumni magazine. That might be because they're not "still in Hawaii working on a doctorate in the neuroendocrinology of reef fish" or "exploring the rat research world," or even "still living in DC and looking forward to the summer after traveling to El Salvador as an electoral observer early in the year and preparing for early summer travel to Italy (for work, not play)."

I shouldn't be disgruntled. I like my life. There is no need to mock / envy other people's achievements, even if my most striking recent accomplishment has been bringing friends and one of their mothers to Drag King Bingo.

In fact, I just heard from a young woman to whom I made a difference five years ago. Via Facebook, she wrote:
This is a strange question, but I was wondering if you're the Ester who was an RA at [summer camp] in 2004. Completely out of the blue, flipping through some things, I found the literary magazine from that summer, remembered poems that Ester (you?) had written and smiled.
Cutest message ever, right? I wrote back in kind, and then she replied:
There was at least one in the lit mag that summer, yeah. It might be embarrassing now - I mean, it was 5 years ago and I already see a younger version of myself in the writing, but I remember it meaning a lot to me then and just generally enjoying chatting with you during the session.

Thanks! I really loved my first year at Smith and am counting down the days till I get back.

Funny how those things are. I'm struggling to remember my own RA's name from that summer, but I guess, probably because of the poetry, that you still stick out among it all.
I still stick out, and not because of the boobs. (Or so she tactfully claims.) Isn't that adorable enough to rival Puppywar? It made my Friday, anyway.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

27 again

Two grand things came out of turning twenty-seven, aside from getting to celebrate for a full weekend. I now own the full set of DVDs of the Wire, and part of my identity moved cross-country to West LA.

Owning the Wire means I can not only open my eyes wide and earnestly preach its virtues to folks, but I can also push boxes of proof into their hands. This brings me great joy. Left up to themselves maybe people would follow my advice to shining towers of pop cultural brilliance, or maybe they would wander unguided into thickets of bad taste, from which they eventually emerge whining about how there's nothing good on television.

And I can re-watch it, either with the folks to whom I'm preaching or by myself just because. Though an exciting prospect, this marathon will have to wait. I've been dosing myself with intense art lately: reading literature about war and its aftermath (City of God, City of Thieves, Away, A Canticle for Leibowitz), watching shows about violence and what happens when you cleave to a morality system of your own making (Sopranos, Weeds). Too often, my dreams have been disturbing, even horrifying. Last night it was all rape and pillage, rape and pillage, with random murder on the side.

It seemed wise to put myself on a diet of family friendly fare, like the Gilmore Girls, until my subconscious adjusts.

Meanwhile, to help with the distraction, I have an iPhone with a super new West LA phone number! If you didn't enjoy Pt 1, below, you definitely won't enjoy the second installment, so I'll skip it. In short, after much haggling and some help from my brother, I have the most exciting new toy I've ever had. I hope 27 makes me worthy of it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

iphone saga: the beginning


Adam: Ester, I would like to buy you an iphone for your birthday. ... Hello? Are you there? What's that sound?
Ester: Me jumping for joy while simultaneously descending into neurosis.


Ester: Am I cool enough? Am I important enough? Will people laugh at me?
Rebecca #1: I though self-deprecation went out in the 90s.
Ester: Not for me.


Adam: You're getting an iphone -- just accept it. It's a phone, not an existential crisis. Ok? Good.


Ester: Hi, I'm here to get an iphone.
Genius: Okily dokily! ... Hm. This says you need to give us $500, which we would hold for a year.
Ester: This is like some sort of ransom?
Genius: Yes.
Ester: And at whose chest can I point this Gun of Desperation, which contains a magazine full of Trustworthy Looks and Sensible Explanations?
Genius: That would be AT&T's. Store's right around the corner.


Ester: Hi, I'm here to understand why I can't get an iphone.
AT&T Lady: Hm. This says that there are stray cats that have better credit than you do. And felons. And street urchins.
Ester: That's impossible.
AT&T Lady: Sea urchins, even.
Ester: Three months ago, I qualified for a mortgage!
AT&T Lady: Thank you, have a nice day.
Rebecca #2: Come on, honey. Let's go resuscitate you and then get you some food.


: Hi, I'm calling to understand why sea urchins have better credit than I do.
Bombay: Thank you. May I have your date of birth?
Ester: July 19th.
Bombay: Oh! And how was your birthday?
Ester: Like sex without coming. The iphone was supposed to be the big present, you see, but I couldn't get one because there's some problem with my credit.
Bombay: I see. To help you, I will need $15 every month for the rest of your life.
Ester: Here you go.
Bombay: Thank you. Here is your actual credit score.

Ester: Oh! But that isn't bad at all. It's lower than it was 3 months ago.
Bombay: That's because AT&T checked it twice: each time knocked it down a bit.
Ester: How thoughtful of them.
Bombay: Be of good cheer! Your score is lower than that of my very efficient and capable twelve year old daughter, but it is higher than that of Bernie Madoff.
Ester: Good enough for me. Thank you.
Bombay: Thank you. And may the lord in his goodness and mercy grant you your orgasm/iphone.
Ester: Amen.

To be continued ...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What is ester?

On the happiest day of the year, according to Google, "ester is" ...
  • mainly used in food and cosmetics
  • $162910
  • just too sweet!
  • a beautiful name.
  • derived from the German Essig-√Ąther (literally: vinegar)
  • widely used in leather and daily chemicals
  • stable
  • a thirty-three-year-old married woman with four children
  • tasty!
  • in your extended network
  • used in making soap
  • generally immediately available in most volumes.
  • much more business like, organized, and efficient. While Tati would amble in around 8:30, 9:00 or 10:00 am, Ester is here at 7:00 sharp.
  • filled with various moving companies. Before choosing a moving company in Ester, you need to take several precautions.
  • a giant of a human being, head and shoulders above most others (7'0", 325 lbs.). She usually has a friendly grin on her face.
  • giving a helping hand to her husband
  • a fan of: Music. Susan Boyle
  • true commic Genius.
  • Ester is a Hedonist: She does as she chooses when she chooses. She is unfettered by notions of sin and shame and is unconcerned with what others may think
  • neither an anarchist nor a polygamist and that she is in good mental and physical health.
  • pure joy!
  • a very nice looking girl that combines femmininity with evenly fairly developed muscles.
This is all true. Also, please note the following:

"The odor of the ester is more easily detected when the ester is mixed in some water. Never try to. directly smell the ester while it is still hot."

Monday, July 13, 2009

How will it all end?

my bathroom
Originally uploaded by shorterstory.

Our localized version of Katrina hit around 2:30 AM. I woke up to the sound of rushing water, which was pretty peaceful until I realized what it meant. Mr. Ben, being quicker on the uptake, was already dressed and scurrying around, doing things, while I fumbled for clothes. After a brief debate about whether we should dial 311 or 911, Mr. Ben was on the phone with a dispatcher; soon, three of New York's Bravest were at our door with iron implements and befuddled looks on their faces.

Was this some kind of karmic punishment for our not going in the water at the end of Saturday's "Going Places, Doing Stuff" ride through NYC? I wondered. The tour was led by a brilliant but crazy friend of ours. It smashed together 40 strangers on a vegetable-oil-powered bus built for 30 on a trip from Long Island City, to Woodlawn Cemetary at the end of one subway line in the Bronx, and finally to the beach at the opposite end of another.

Along the way, we broke bread with a Ghanaian king and members of the Federation of Black Cowboys. We tried to avoid poison ivy on a post-apocalyptic elevated train track in Queens. We crawled through holes in fences, did a loop in a Halal slaughterhouse, and deciphered graffiti in an abandoned munitions factory.

All with good cheer! It was a fun day, and it was lovely to end up facing the waves. But by then the temperature had dropped to about 65 degrees, and what with the clouds and the wind and everything it seemed like you'd have to be crazy to strip off your clothes and dive in the water -- especially since you had at least another hour on vinyl seats, cheek-to-jowl with your fellow man, before you'd get to a subway that would take you home.

A sane decision, and yet one for which we were punished: Sunday night, the water came to us.

The firefighters went off the way they came and we spent an hour turning our bayou back into a bathroom as best we could. The effort required two mops, two huge buckets, lots of towels, and a rubber dustpan that functioned as a ladle. It was gross and exhausting, and we were already exhausted; by the time we were done, we could barely stand. We put our filthy selves back in bed (naturally, we had just washed our sheets) and turned off the alarm clock.

Who needs an alarm clock when you have your own personal waterfall starting at 8:00 AM? "We just cleaned that floor!" I moaned as Mr. Ben jumped out of bed to gauge the new damage. At first it didn't seem so bad. Then, as were trying to figure out what to do next, the ceiling collapsed. If I had been using the toilet, I'd have been deader than Elvis. I will never take my safety while on the can for granted again.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

the paradox of choice

OMG, you guys, I could have an iPhone.

Do you know how cool I think iPhones are? They're like puppies. When I see someone else with one, my eyes get wide with excitement and misty with sentiment and I ask if I can play with it.

The trouble is, I do not believe I am cool enough to have an iPhone. I cannot tell whether this is a logical impulse, being that the following things are true: I do not have the money to support an iPhone in the manner to which it is accustomed; my own lifestyle does not call for one; I might worry about it too much to enjoy it.

Or is the impulse plainly silly? Is it reasonable to be intimidated by appliances?

The back-up potential gift is an iPod because, believe it or not, I don't even have one of those. But they've been out long enough that I think I could swing having one, though I'd still know, in the back of my head, that it is more attractive than I am. Any over-thinkers out in Internet-land have an opinion?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

the happiest time of the year

It's been Michael Jackson Week for about nine days now, with short interruptions in which we were instructed to laugh at the ramblings of Sarah Palin. ("If I die, I die," she says now, nonsensically. I wonder if she even knows who she's quoting.)

The AP begins a story on the funeral by describing the somber atmosphere:
Michael Jackson's public memorial started out more spiritual than spectacular Tuesday, opening with a church choir singing as his golden casket was laid in front of the stage and a shaft of light evoking a cross as Lionel Richie gave a gospel-infused performance.
I'm not sure "spiritual" is the word I would use for any of that. Then again, Harry Potter trailers are as close to spiritual as I get.

The Harry Potter movie is only one Michael-Jackson-Week away! It is one of the many reasons I am crazy about summer. Also Twelfth Night in the park and Harold and Maude in the other park and the idea of my birthday on Governor's Island.

Over July 4th, Mr. Ben and I basked in the good weather in Asheville, NC ("the San Francisco of the South!") with his mom and ten thousand other tourists, pasty from the past month or so of rain. To justify its reputation, the town had one gay bar and the local movie theater was playing "Every Little Step," the documentary about the making of A Chorus Line. But it was still the South. For every rainbow, there was a Jesus fish, and in the midst of the tourists in the town square waiting for the fireworks, there was a man dragging a large wooden cross. We don't get a lot of those in Brooklyn.

It was a nice change of pace, as well as a nice transition into my favorite month of the year. July will turn me into a 27 year old, even if it doesn't turn me into a published novelist (the prospect of which dims with every passing minute). Ah well, who's counting? And who's lining up to join the fun and help take my mind off the failure?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Mark Sanford, stop it now. You hear me? Stop it:
"This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story," Sanford said. "A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day."

During an emotional interview at his Statehouse office with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Sanford said Chapur is his soul mate but he's trying to fall back in love with his wife.

He said that during the encounters with other women he "let his guard down" with some physical contact but "didn't cross the sex line." He wouldn't go into detail.
Right, of course, he wouldn't go into detail. What do you call what he's been doing for the past week? Is John Ensign paying Sanford to stay in the spotlight, performing his weepy one-man reality show day after day ("Sanford and Sons"), to distract from Ensign's more tawdry sex offenses?

Regardless, much as I feel for anyone who stands in front of a camera and cries, Sanford lost me at "I love your tan lines." Not that anyone expects the Song of Solomon, especially not in email form. But isn't a little poetry in order if you're writing to your "soul mate"?

Not to mention the fact that he skipped off to do the dirty over Father's Day weekend. Maybe I'm just bitter because I was stuck in New York, seeing a mediocre movie, eating mediocre food, and dealing with mediocre melodrama. (We did go see the Avedon exhibit at the ICP, though, which was worth the $12.) But when you have four kids, I think an international tryst that weekend is in especially bad taste.

Ooh, neologism time! When one has been caught "hiking the Appalachian Trail," one suffers from "Trystesse" -- affair-induced melancholy. Eh? Eh?

ETA: Wonkette is similarly horrified, though it chooses to malign Anne of Green Gables for some reason. Leave Anne out of this, Wonkette. She had "bosom friends," but she never "sparked" with any of them, let alone "crossed the ultimate line." That we know of, anyway.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

In the style of Whitman

Monday night I attended the birthday bash of an elderly, illustrious folk singer and lion of the left. While there, I met both an author I respect (I gave her my best wishes) and a younger folk singer who I've seen perform at least twice. I felt I should give her my best wishes too, since I was being all sociable.

"Folkie!" she cried, when I introduced myself and explained where I had seen her play. She threw her arm around me and steered me towards her crew of intimidating Brooklyn hipsters and queers. "Look, everyone! She's one of us!"

The crew eyed me. "Where do you live?" someone asked.

"Brooklyn," I answered.

The interrogator smiled as though to say that that much one could assume. "Where in Brooklyn?" she asked.

Barely Brooklyn. Brownstone Brooklyn. The Heights. There was nothing to it but to admit the truth, and I put it as baldly as possible: "Montague Street."

Their "Oh" was eloquent. Having proven myself utterly uncool, I managed to escape.

Later in the evening, however, as I returned from the bathroom, I ran straight into them. There they all were, piled carelessly upon each other in the hallway like the cool girls at a bat mitzvah. The folk singer appeared, still happy with wine, and clasped me to her again.

"Ester!" she said. "Where did go to college?"

"Swarthmore," said I.

"Swarthmore! That's wonderful! See, I told you she was one of us." She smiled broadly at her crew. "And what do you do, Swarthmore? You're not afflicted with music, I hope?"

"No, but I do write some," said I.

"Marvelous! What do you write?"

"Stories, poems ..."

"Write a poem for us now!" cried the folk singer. "About that wall, there."

I stared at the wall which was papered a bright, coppery orange. God help me, I thought. My head was empty. The crew was watching.

"Do it in the style of Whitman," someone suggested, giving me more rope.

"Ego, splashed against a wall," I said promptly.

They hooted with appreciation. "Mary Oliver!" called someone else.

"Birds against a burning sunset."


"The heart beating lonely by reflecting waters."

"Anne Sexton!"

"The birth and the afterbirth together."

This time they screamed, and I had passed their test. With all due apologies to Whitman, Oliver, Thoreau, and Sexton, of course.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Free movies!

At Brooklyn Bridge Park:

July 9
Raising Arizona

July 16
The Maltese Falcon

July 23
Paper Moon

July 30
To Catch A Thief

August 6
The Return Of The Pink Panther

August 13
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid

August 20
Catch Me If You Can

August 27
Edward Scissorhands

Hudson River Park

July 8 - Iron Man (PG13)

July 15 - Vicky Cristina Barcelona (PG13)

July 22 - The Dark Knight (PG13)

July 29 - Hancock (PG13)

August 5 - Tropic Thunder (R)

August 12 - Sex and the City: The Movie (R)

August 19 - Pineapple Express (R)

Bryant Park

June 15
The Sting (1973)
Robert Redford, Paul Newman and director George Roy Hill generate high-voltage chemistry in this light-hearted yet complex, overtly nostalgic look at 1930’s Chicago con men. Winner of seven Oscars and featuring the famous Scott Joplin piano rags.

June 22
Breaking Away (1979)
A teenage cyclist, Dennis Christopher, is besotted with all things Italian in a small Indiana college town. Things seem to be going nowhere for him and his townie buddies (Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, and Daniel Stern), and he convinces them to take on the students at the Little 500 bicycle race. Flawlessly written by Steve Tesich and directed by Peter Yates.

June 29
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Nobody created pure Hollywood escapism productions better than Busby Berkeley, and this musical set the standard. Designed to transport Depression-enduring audiences, the plot involves attempts to put on a show, featuring Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell as the indefatigable Broadway show girls, and Dick Powell crooning the tunes.

July 6
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Al Pacino plays Sonny who needs money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation and decides to rob a bank to get it. Things go wrong and he’s soon bogged down in a long, drawn-out hostage situation. Sidney Lumet directed this gritty, darkly humorous drama set in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year.

July 13
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Winner of the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars (over “Citizen Kane”), this beautiful film is about a close-knit family in a Welsh mining village. John Ford directed the story, told through the eyes of a young Roddy McDowell, striking an incredible balance between moral seriousness and elegy.

July 20
Harold and Maude (1971)
Teenager Bud Cort and sexagenarian Ruth Gordon both like to go to funerals of people they don’t know, and meet to embark on one of cinema’s great relationships. Audacious and heartbreaking, Hal Ashby’s superb black comedy also features a perfect soundtrack by Cat Stevens.

July 27
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are opposites unhappily shackled together after escaping from a chain-gang in the South. As they flee from the police, director Stanley Kramer showcases the humorous and moving situations featuring memorable characters the fugitives come across as they fight for their lives.

August 3
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his role as a father who will go to any length (even making French toast) to keep custody of his son. Meryl Streep is unmatched as his icy wife who walks out on him and returns to claim the boy, who is played by Oscar nominee Justin Henry. Robert Benton directs one of best acted films of the decade.

August 10
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
One of the most beloved Westerns of all time with one of the greatest scores of all time (by Elmer Bernstein). Seven mercenaries, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and Charles Bronson are hired to protect a Mexican village under siege by large group of bandits led by Eli Wallach.

August 17
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Steven Spielberg’s scifi blockbuster stars Richard Dreyfuss as a regular guy whose strange obsessions and journey turn fantastically clear at Devil’s Tower. Co-stars Teri Garr as his frustrated wife, and Francois Truffaut, the legendary French director, as a scientist seeking communication with extraterrestrials.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

This one's for Ross

where have all the mix tapes gone
Originally uploaded by charrow.
and also Mr. Ben, who makes the best mix tapes, even if he doesn't have to make them for me anymore, since i am wooed and won.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Matchmaker, matchmaker ...

One of my coworkers mentioned today that when she took 19th century lit in college, her professor assigned every member of the class a fictional spouse from that era. She couldn't remember who she was given but she wanted Pierre from War and Peace. I thought Levin from Anna Karenina would be a good pick, if you don't mind Russians, and she countered with Pip, at which I could only scoff, "You can't pick anyone from Dickens. He had no sense of the romantic at all. Did anyone get Darcy?"

"Funny enough, no," she said. "Maybe he thought it might cause too much jealousy."

Another coworker came into the room and I asked him who he would choose. "Aw," he said, in the voice of Eeyore. "It doesn't matter. I'd probably end up with Emma Bovary."

I tried to buck him up, offering him clever heroines and feisty social climbers and crazy pyromaniacs locked up in attics, but he would have none of it. "I really didn't do too much reading, actually," he said. "All those girl books."

We expanded the category to include all literature, at which point he perked up. "Oh, Harriet the Spy's mom. Or Harriet -- when she's grown up. Is that okay?" We conferred and decided to allow it, because it was okay for Lewis Carroll, and anyway, who are we to judge?

Maybe a more interesting question is the age-old one: Fuck one, marry one, throw one off a cliff: Any three characters in 19th century literature. For me, that'd be: 1) Huck Finn; 2) Nikolai Levin; 3) Raskolnikov. Unless I could have Darcy, of course. If Darcy's in the picture, all bets are off.

"I like the hot woman in Brothers Karamazov," contributes Mr. Ben. "The town harlot. ... Are you writing that down? Dammit!"

Monday, June 08, 2009

I <3 NYC

At 3:15, I was told, my new office would adjourn to a nearby bowling alley, where we would commemorate the imminent departure of a coworker. At 3:45, the first wave of us actually made it out and walked fifteen blocks in the sunshine to the posh lanes hidden on the second floor of Port Authority.

By 6:15, we had played five games, drunk a tower of beer, chomped through several suprisingly-good pizzas, completed the Times crossword puzzle, dropped two balls, broken several nails, and had a rollicking good bonding experience. I was particularly satisfied, having improved: I went from losing the first game, to coming in second, to, finally, the third time around, coming in first.

THAT'S RIGHT BABY. I went from zero to hero, from Sarah Palin to Stephen Colbert, in the course of one short afternoon. And for my perserverance I now have "bowler's wrist." This is an affliction that may be specific to Jews. It's unclear.

This weekend, after some agonizing, I decided to ditch my five year reunion. Instead I did Only In New York things: lounged on Governor's Island with the Jazz Age partiers; followed brunch at Dizzy's with a long stroll through Park Slope; poked about in a little, overpriced boutique staffed by an extravagantly fey man in a Dolce and Gabana bandanna, etc.

Unfortunately skipping out on Swat did mean that I went the entire weekend without asking any of the questions I had prepared, like:

  • "So, what's your thesis about?"
  • "How many blind Zambian orphan girls would you say your organization has saved?"
  • "What's it like to study with Judith Butler?"
  • "Will you please tell me more about making tofu by hand?"
  • "Your halo is so great -- where did you get it?"

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

"Hold on tight, Spidermonkey!": a meditation on 'Twilight'

Gone are the days of Anne Rice. She has found her lord and savior, and she has turned her back on the vampires she once tended to so lovingly.

Now, I never begrudge anyone a good rebirth (or two, in the case of Robert Zimmerman). But Anne Rice left behind her a void that lesser folks have struggled -- and failed -- to fill. True Blood is said to be campy and silly; everyone shudders at the idea of a new Buffy movie; and then, of course, there's Twilight, the international sensation.

The four books of the saga have twee names and covers that could have been designed by the staff at Hot Topic. That's more or less all I know about them, having never opened one; and if the writing is as over-ripe as the movie, that's all I ever need to know.

Lord, this movie. Have uncorseted bosoms ever heaved so dramatically? Have two sets of eyes ever stared so beseechingly into each other? Have vampires ever seemed so ridiculous? And I do mean ridiculous. The "good" vampires -- a set of clean-cut, wealthy, thoroughly creepy Aryans in pancake makeup -- have to stay hidden from view on sunny days. Why? Because they turn into David Bowie. Whereas poor Kirsten Dunst and her nurse were reduced to ash in seconds in Interview with the Vampire, and their equivalent bursts into flames in Let the Right One In, in Twilight the undead merely sparkle.

Other rules broken by these "good" vampires: they have reflections; they seem unfazed by garlic; and they can enter new spaces without being invited. What is the point, I ask you, of well-understood genre conventions if they are overthrown without so much as an explanation?

There are of course "bad" vampires, a crew of multi-culti, gender-nonspecific hippies who escaped from the recent Shakespeare in the Park production of Hair. These vampires seem quite sexual, whereas the others aren't; they also attack humans, while the superior creatures restrict themselves to animals (and then have the gall to call themselves vegetarian). It's the culture wars of the 60s all over again.

Here is the crux of the books' and the movie's appeal, as I understand it: though Bella and Edward are so into each other and so horny that their sexual tension made me need to pause and get some air, they cannot consummate their passion. It's all titillation and no release, presumably because if Edward were to physically love Bella, he would have to kill her. (Why? Who knows? He may be a vampire but he's also a teenage boy and they are NOT TO BE TRUSTED.) Still, as a viewer I felt like echoing Jeneane Garofolo in Reality Bites after she has suffered through the thousandth Winona Ryder-Ethan Hawke bantering session: "Just do it and get it over with already!"

The alternatives offered by the movie -- lying down in a meadow, holding hands, tearing another vampire to pieces and burning his body in a ballet studio -- are unintentionally hilarious, as is most of the dialogue ("About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him, and I didn't know how dominant that part might be, that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.").

For all that, it was the Indians-as-werewolves that were the tipping point.