Freaking Out Squares

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

While we're waiting for our intrepid blogger to figure out how the hell to load her Baltimore HonFest pictures up on here (Man! Traci Lords's biography was on A&E last night. Perfect timing! Except, well, not), let's all hold hands and noses and plunge into the swampland of Karla's BioDome known as That Olde Tyme Religion. Yes, you've read this story before, but remember what Tolstoy said about happy vs. unhappy families? Same logic applies here.

As I've mentioned in passing, I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the sole offspring of two atheist parents. Actually, I think my mother might have been more of an agnostic--she read Tarot cards and charted horoscopes--but for the purposes of this story, that's really just a technicality. The point is, neither of my parents had any use for organized religion. My dad was raised a Catholic out in Western PA coal country, and my mother was sort of hauled around to various Dunkard churches until my grandpa got fired from teaching Sunday school when he told his class that--gasp!!--you can't take the Bible literally! Cue Gargamel's theme! It's to my grandpa's credit that his aim in teaching this was not to give the schoolmarms running this outfit the finger, as would be my childish motivation. No, he simply wanted to give the kids a different and more humane method of interpretation. Or that's what he says. Anyway, it was the '60s, lines were being blurred and redrawn, and venerable institutions were being thrown out the window, et cetera and so forth, and my folks renounced the Lord and took up with each other and moved to Vermont to teach music and smoke grass and stare at the Northern Lights and say, "Wow...far out, man!" Through a series of incidents and accidents, hints and allegations (tm Paul Simon), my parents ended up back in Harrisburg, my mother's hometown, with a new baby and a landlord who would later gain notoriety for being the plumbing contractor at Three Mile Island.

A little bit about Harrisburg: Besides being the site of an almost-nuclear holocaust, Harrisburg is also the capital of Pennsylvania. Founded in sixteen hundred and something by a fellow named John Harris, who was famous for founding Harrisburg (anyone out there wanna weigh in on this? It's been 20 years since I took PA History--does anyone out there know if he did anything else?), Harrisburg is situated about forty minutes northwest of Lancaster, ground zero for the Amish, an hour and twenty minutes due north of Baltimore, nigh on two hours west of Philadelphia, and about three and a half hours southwest of the city I currently call home. And it's the capital. Oh, and crime buffs out there may be familiar with the Susan Reinert murders, which took place in 1979. The murderers and their victims were all from Philly's Main Line, but Susan Reinert's body was found in the parking lot of the Host Inn in Swatara Township, about ten minutes outside of the Harrisburg city limits, in a little patch of nothing right before you get on the Turnpike to go to Philly. I swear, that spot claims vast realms of my psyche as one of the spookiest areas on earth. Even before I'd heard of the Reinert murders, that whole area had the sensation, for me, of falling down a rabbit hole into a nightmarish wasteland of nothing and nowhere, with an eerie undertone of deja vu, almost as if I'd been reincarnated. I'm still convinced there was an area just like that in London, where I was killed in the Blitz. Ahem! Did I mention that Harrisburg is the capital of PA? Okay, that pretty much does it, then.

Oh, yes. Except for the religion. I don't guess I need to go into a big lecture on the Amish and who they are and what they do. Even if you haven't seen Witness, you know about them. You also probably know about the Mennonites, whom the Amish consider heathens because of their use of electricity and automobiles. (Yeah, well, the Amish cheat! They bum rides and use cell phones when necessary. I've seen this happen--I'm not making this up.) As my former memoir teacher explained to me, all religious sects that derive from the Anabaptist tradition, from which the Amish and the Mennonites got their respective starts, are considered Mennonite, even if the practitioners of said sects don't go riding around in buggies and wearing skullcaps. That Dunkard thing I mentioned a bit up the page? That's an actual sect, so-called because of...well, shit, I should do some research, now, shouldn't I? I will hazard a guess and say it's because they practice some kind of full-immersion baptism. The difference between the Baptists and the, um, Anabaptists is, the latter does not baptize its young. ("Young"--I make them sound like apes. Apes! How heathen. Run!) They may raise their children in the church, but the children are not considered members until they turn 18, at which time they may decide whether or not they want to keep the faith. Sounds nice? Yeah, I guess, except for the shunning part. That's not so fun.

The emphasis in the Mennonite faiths, as near as I can tell, appears to rest heavily on the group as a whole. It sounds kind of cool and Commie, but it requires a systematic erosion of the individual self. This may have served (and still serve, if you're Amish) its practical purpose back in the days of claim-jumping and barn-raising, but in this modern world, it's completely counterproductive. Then, too, without some kind of glue to hold it all together (in this case, God), it's not just counterproductive, it's utterly destructive. (Sorry.) And if you don't need to raise a barn...well, you get the idea.

So the thing about Harrisburg is, you have this strong Dunkard undercurrent without any real practical need for it, and whether or not you attend a Dunkard or Evangelical United Brethren church, as my mother did with my great-grandma when she was a wee one, that moral rectitude, that same belief that we-have-to-do-it-this-way-because-this-is-the-way-it's-always-been-done-and-what-do-you-mean-you-don't-believe-in-God-you-evil-strumpet just seeps into your bones, no matter if you're chanting in a Buddhist temple or casting Wiccan spells. I rather liken the migration and corruption of this faith to playing Telephone, wherein you'll start off with a phrase like "I just called to say I love you" and you'll end up with one like "Musty halls never contain blue gloves." And forever beating like a strobe light is the phrase JESUS IS THE ANSWER, over and over again until you have no choice but to agree. Game over. I surrender.

I shall leave you with this for now. Storm's a-comin', and I literally have not eaten a single bite of anything today. (And it's not for religious reasons, either.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Night at the Opera

So, it's a hundred and eighty degrees here today in the big city on this, my day off from my new job (my new new job, not my old new job, about which I'll still remain mum, except to say that I had to quit it because it was commission only, and ain't no way in hell I can buy bread and cigs on a wing and a prayer) selling subscriptions for the New York City Opera. Since my recent foray into telemarketing was a complete bust, I was convinced I was gonna be back on the soup lines faster than you can say "Un bel di, vedremo," which, depending on who you are, may take you a while, so maybe that's not the best example, but whatever. But wouldn't you know--I've sold three subscriptions so far, and I've only been hitting the phones for like a week! Hot damn! Granted, one subscription was for the IT department of this humble page (who also serves as the loan officer, part-time shrink, and music encyclopedia), but two were from folks who have no vested interest in seeing me make commission! Four hours a day, five nights a week on the phone selling opera subscriptions is a certainly bearable way of pulling a steady, if small income whilst I putter around with this blog and look for freelance jobs and try to decide whether or not I want to shed the tonnage I gained over the past two years so I can do the acting thing (or at least not lumber around like a waterlogged pregnant rhino). I mean, we listen to opera the whole time, for god's sake, and if that sounds like torture to you, remember you're dealing with someone whose musical snobbery was cultivated at a very early age, thanks to her even snobbier musician mother (it was her idea to give me the middle name "Dorian," after the Dorian Mode). It's so Stepford, but at the age of four or something, that woman had me trained so well I could sing that one phrase from "Carmina Burana"--"O, o, o, totos arde o, ya ma more, virginales, totos arde o"--flawlessly. Is that amazing or what? No, seriously, I need to know if that's "amazing" or if it's "what," because my sneaking suspicion is that it's more akin to a thousand monkeys in a room typing Shakespeare than it is any kind of genius on my part. I also don't know, after twenty-five years, if that's how the hell you spell that phrase from the aforementioned. Perhaps the Music Library could weigh in here...? Anyway, point being, I love opera, and you probably do, too, even if you think you don't or you're too cool or some such shit. By the way, there's no shame in admitting your first exposure to opera was through Bugs Bunny! I think that might be true in my case, although it's hard to tell, because Bugs and giving your child the Robert Eroica Dupea* treatment ran neck-and-neck in terms of importance in my childhood abode.

By the way, I thoughtfully provided the link to the website so you could watch the trailers and decide which operas you might want to see, not so you can buy tickets through it! The box office doesn't open till August, anyway, so if you wanna get the best seats (or the cheapest--hey, I's is po' myself), order 'em through me. Did I mention I need the money? Why, yes, I did, in the previous parenthetical aside. So don't wait--let me know! And please don't send me your credit card information in an email--just tell me you'll buy a damn subscription, and we'll take care of the numbers over the phone when I'm on shift. Capisce?

"But what operas should I see, O Wise One?" Well, my feathered friend(s), that's up to you. Here's what I'm going to see thus far: Carmen, by Bizet (remember that orange on "Sesame Street" that sang "L'amour et un oiseau rebelle"? That's from this opera); Die Tote Stadt by Erich Korngold (a disturbing, rather Freudian piece about a young man whose wife dies and who immediately falls in love with a woman who's the spitting image of her. Sounds godawful? It did to me, at first, and then I heard the music, which is some of the loveliest I have ever heard in my life. I can be no more specific than that--my music literacy Stepfordizing hit a serious roadblock when I started first grade and discovered the pop stylings of one Michael Jackson); Madame Butterfly by Puccini ("Un bel di, vedremo" is the aria playing in the background on that "Simpsons" episode when pre-AA Barney Gumble makes his award-winning film about being an alcoholic. "Don't cry for me--I'm already dead"? Remember?); and La Traviata by Verdi (the one they go to see in Pretty Woman that's so good it almost made Julia Roberts pee her pants). I'll probably end up seeing all of them at some point, but that's what's on the docket for now. For the rest of the season, see the website. I'm off-shift for now, and I'm oh, so tired of running through the whole season until my gums bleed, usually to hear a "Well, thank you so much for telling me about the season, but we're really not opera people..." Well, then, why waste my time? I highly doubt you were entranced by my thick, nasal alto with the Pennsylvania twang. Hardly a choir of seraphim whene'er I speak, you know? (Oops--hope I didn't alienate any potential buyers there. It just GITS to me sometimes.)

Oh, yes, a subscription means "more than one," which I'm sure you already know, although I have had a couple o'people who wanted to buy a single ticket. Can't do it--sorry. You gotta buy a minimum of four. Any fewer than that, you gotta go to the box office in August and take yer chances then.

So what else? Velllll...I have a freelance writing assignment for a little publication that shall also remain classified until I write the article. (All I'll say is it's genuinely a small publication--it's not like I have an assignment for The New Yorker and I'm being all coy about it.) But hey, who cares? I'm writing an article and getting paid! Who cares if I'm three months and one day shy of thirty and I should have started my writing career years ago and now I should focus on getting a Real Job and flagellating myself for being such an irresponsible, self-centered loser with emotional problems all these years. Well, that's the rule in Karla's BioDome anyway, where mothers raise their kids by scream and cuff and That Olde Tyme Religion permeates everything, like toxic mildew! (The BioDome is going to have to be a post in itself. I've brought it up in therapy two weeks in a row and this week, I qualified it with, "By the way, that's a Pauly Shore movie," to the amusement of my therapist and a hipster goofball friend of mine, who later told me he was all, "Oh, no, she di'in't!" when I said that. Hee.) Anyhoo, I'll let y'all know when it's published, but that won't be until at least October, so just relax.

And finally, I believe I mentioned my cats on here, n'est-ce pas? Well, if I haven't, it's probably no surprise that a misanthropic spinster like me is the proud mother of two adorable felines, Hissy and Fitz, who will be six years old next month. That's what the lovely women at the rescue place from whence I procured the little freaks told me, anyway. Hissy and Fitz are semi-feral cats who were rescued from a vacant lot in Brooklyn, where their mother was killed by a moving car and rotten neighborhood kids threw rocks at them. I've had them for five years, and finally, finally Hissy has made overtures of affection bolder than just staring at me pointedly for hours on end and/or curling up on my bed far, far from my feet. In the past month, Hissy has decided that I'm a tree trunk, and whenever my feet are planted firmly on the floor, she head-butts my ankles and winds in and out of the gap between them. It's adorable. She's at the point where she meows when she sees me coming and positively yowls if I dare to move a millimeter if she's not finished having her way with my legs! Mon dieu, mon petit bete! She's even grabbed the cuffs of my pants a few times, which would send her straight to the principal's office if she were a "normal" cat, but since she's such a schizo I take it as progress. I think her sister is getting a little jealous, but Fitz has kind of a 'tude problem. She's the one who meows when the kibble in the dish is down to inedible bits, but damned if she's gonna let on for one second that all she really wants is love. I can't pick her up, either--she runs too fast. Little tease.

That's all for now. Happy Bastille Day, everyone!

*Robert Eroica Dupea was Jack Nicholson's character inFive Easy Pieces. His father was a classical pianist who was determined to turn his son into a musical prodigy. Bobby Dupea responded by getting a job in the oil fields of Puget Sound and knocking up Karen Black and having sex with Sally Struthers while running around the house with her. Oh, yeah, and he also tells a waitress to shove the chicken salad up her ass. Just change "oil fields" to "accounting department of a mid-size PR firm" and strike the parts about the waitress and the having sex with my legs looped around someone's moving figure and you've got my life!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Pour Some Sugar On Me

Oh, man, it's been a dog's age. Where to begin?

Well, let's start with employment. About three weeks ago, I began a real job--the exact nature of which I will not divulge, but it's not prostitution or drug dealing. Sorry to disappoint. In the middle of all this, I've been trying to finish copy editing a waaaay overdue manuscript, which I finally completed this week, and I didn't check email for three weeks. My publisher called to find out where the hell I was and was far, far nicer to me about my dropping off the face of the earth than I would be in her shoes. Hell, I'd string me up by my feet and baste me in fire ants and honey. Oh, wait, that's the torture I'd reserve for 95% of the Bush administration. I should, perhaps, be kinder to myself. Anyway, while things have worked out thus far, I wouldn't advise trying this at home. Kids: If you tell your boss you're going to return a manuscript to her by a certain date, then do it. If you can't make the deadline, let her know. Don't be a dick like me!

I'm also trying to finish a stuffed animal for a friend's birthday. Since BUST ran a recipe for stuffed animals made from socks in their December 2004 issue, I've gained a reputation as the stuffed animal lady, and I promised said friend a good, long while ago that I would make her a Jewish panda. And how does one make a Jewish panda? A few snips and a bar mitzvah, and voila! Hee. Seriously, it's a panda wearing a yarmulke and a tallis. I guess he's a Conservative Jewish panda. My friend nixed the Hassid idea, although that would be kinda fun. If you'd like a Hassidic panda, let me know!

Oh, yes, and I've taken up drawing again, after years of swallowing the line that I couldn't draw. Props to me when I proved my sixth grade art teacher wrong two nights ago when I cranked out a pretty damn fine picture of a howler monkey! (You know those evil little Nazi beasts in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Those are howler monkeys.) I'm trying to upload it onto my creaky, six-year-old computer, and as soon as that happens, I'll post it. Just don't go printing it out and claiming you did it, like Susan with the boing-boing curls did with the paper bag owl in Ramona the Brave. I won't scrunch it up, like Ramona did, but still, that's just not nice. Or ethical.

But of course the biggest event, and lapse on my part, to occur within the past month or so is the publication of Ayun Halliday's new book, Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste. As soon as I had a few cents to my name, I was on Powell's snagging my own copy. Read the thing in an afternoon and was immediately online, furiously emailing words o'love to the author, who responded not ninety minutes later with words of love for my words of love! Sigh. So where did I go wrong? Well, I kinda sorta said I'd post a glowing review on this here site, and I kinda sorta failed miserably at that. Had a summer cold, plus the aforementioned obstacles, and the fact that I still don't have DSL, so posting is a precarious enterprise. Kitschen Table's IT department has been stricken with a strange condition engendered by the consumption of clyndamicin, an antibiotic given to him following a tooth extraction. Word of warning: Unless you're suffering from a raging infection that will lead to gangrene if you don't irrigate it with antibiotics, posthaste, do not take clyndamicin. Clyndamicin is so potent, it will kill all the "good" bacteria in your intestines, which regulate the presence of the bad, which I guess it's not potent enough to kill, and the result will leave you stranded in Pennsylvania, unable to sit more than five feet from a bathroom. So if your dentist offers you clyndamicin after yanking a tooth out, tell Marathon Man to piss up a rope and give you Cipro. (Or penicillin, if you're not allergic to it, as both the IT department and I are.)

Anyway, without further ado, I give you my review of Ayun Halliday's Dirty Sugar Cookies. (By the way, if you're wondering why I haven't given more detail about the who, what, and wherefore of Ms. Halliday, check out the post entitled "Periods! Prisons! Periodicals! Posts!" down the page a bit. Oh, yes, and click here for Ayun's food blog.)

So thank god for Ayun Halliday, whose "self-mocking autobiographies" and 'zine, The East Village Inky, have finally offered yours truly the female role model she's been so desperately seeking since she was, like, six. Those of you familiar with Ms. Halliday know about her artsy-fartsy, hippie-dippie, scrounging-for-change-under-the-couch days with the Chicago theater company The Neofuturists, her shoestring travel adventures throughout Southeast Asia with a succession of boyfriends, including her husband, Greg Kotis (the fellow who wrote Urinetown: The Musical), and cosleeping and breastfeeding her kids, India "Inky" and Milo Kotis. With her down-to-earth, smart-ass humor and her unabashed willingness to depict herself, when necessary, as a bit of an arse (in a good way), Ms. Halliday's writing manages to achieve the neat trick of being simultaneously self-assured and just as clueless as the next person, with the added fiat that she's not afraid to recount, in detail, the matter of her "ravaged bowels." (See her second book, No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late for this, uh, in-depth account of suffering malaria in Africa, not to mention the picture of the howler monkey on the cover, which afforded me my magnum opus.)

Fortunately, save a chapter on Ms. Halliday's experience with listeria while pregnant with Milo, Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste, is free of scatalogical remembrances. A self-described "picky eater" for most of her childhood, Ms. Halliday's fourth book is a--dare I say it? Yes, I'm afraid so--mouthwatering journey through the mushroom soup and canned spinach of her 1970s Indiana youth, to her Enchanted Broccoli Forest college years, to her attempts to spoon-feed ginger-steamed tilapia and roasted cauliflower to eight-year-old Inky, who proves that old saw about the apple and the tree, in spades. (I have to confess a great deal of empathy for Inky and the five-year-old version of Ms. Halliday. At that age, I wouldn't touch fish unless it was deep-fried in beer batter and smothered in ketchup. As I speed toward thirty, I'm forever imploring my dad to give up "fish squares," those wretched, bottom-feeder numbers that McDonald's likes to slap on a bun and call lunch. "I like them!" my dad insists. "I grew up in the '50's! This is what we ate!" True, that--I've got a copy of Look magazine from 1954, which features a recipe for barbecued franks and noodles casserole. There's enough sugar in that thing to keep Cuba's economy sputtering away till the next millenium.)

Ms. Halliday is an amazingly sensual writer, able to immerse the reader in the pain and euphoria of childbirth, the claustrophobia of an East Village tenement, and the agony of a dislocated knee in the mountains of Indonesia. In Dirty Sugar Cookies, she expertly plunges the reader into the tacky, decidedly non-nutritious culinary doings of the "Let's Make A Deal" era. In "Fruit Basket Upset," a hilarious retelling of her experiences with Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cookbook, Ms. Halliday captures the taste of that book's Enchanted Castle Cake and its store-bought brethren as "like Crisco by way of cough syrup." The trauma of the communal lunches at her expensive prep school is summed up in her terrified description of a lunch monitor, Mrs. Hogarth: "Like a mongoose hypnotized by a cobra's terrible majesty, I couldn't help noting that her cardigan was exactly the same shade as the limas." The moment when Ms. Halliday transforms from picky eater to omnivore at her first bite of spanikopita is a triumph for all of us--"In that moment, some synaptic circuit I would never have suspected myself capable of possessing was completed, the same circuit that would eventually lead me to embrace a panoply of strange, low-budget dishes in kerosene-lit back alleys (and, closer at hand, pierce my ears more times than was standard, adorning the holes with dangly, no-carat baubles that made more racket than the coins encircling a belly dancer's ankles)."

In keeping with her matter-of-fact, low-budget lifestyle, which she continues to maintain with aplomb in Brooklyn, Ms. Halliday includes a recipe at the end of each chapter, with dishes ranging from her mother's spinach mornay to her own stir-fried tofu with broccoli and brown rice (which, without Ms. Halliday's recipe for guidance, is not that easy to render palatable, I have to say) to her grandmother's rice custard. If you aren't a city dweller, not to worry--most of the ingredients are readily available from your regular old grocer's.

It's not that easy to construct a linear, consistent narrative based on food--well, at least, I never thought of it till I read this book--but Ayun Halliday does it, and does it well. The result is not just soft-core food porn, it's also a highly enjoyable afternoon spent with a woman you can imagine befriending and inviting over to your place for a case of beer and homemade veggie burgers, of which, Ms. Halliday informs us, "You know you're on the right track when there's roasted, salted peanuts and not a lentil in sight."

So. Go to Powells, or Amazon, and pick up your own copy, and don't forget to write a glowing customer testimonial. (Unless it's something like The Rules or some such similar dreck, I don't think it's KIND to browbeat the author. Oh, unless he happens to be a pompous ass. Then all bets are off.) And stay tuned for my account of the Baltimore HonFest, and wish our IT department a speedy recovery.