Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Friday, March 31, 2006

An open letter to dear Fritz

Please, beloved readers -- all four of you -- don't desert me! I had the epizoodie* AGAIN, and I've been slogging through one of the most discouraging weeks of my professional life, and in four hours will be on a plane bound for San Francisco. The Comrade and I are going to spend a couple of days there and then drive north to see some redwoods and get drunk. (The Comrade, designated driver, worries that he'll be too lit to navigate the winding roads.)

We'll be back next Saturday, and I promise things will get back to normal around here.

Lately we've been watching Seventeen Moments of Spring, a Soviet-era miniseries set in the waning days of WWII and chronicling the adventures of Stirlitz, a Russian spy who poses as a Nazi officer. On the DVD case Stirlitz is billed as "the James Bond of Russia," but this couldn't be further from the truth -- the action, beautifully shot in film-noir black and white, moves at glacial speed (two characters will sit at the table for 60 seconds and just chew), and our hero can outbrood any Bond, even Timothy Dalton at his pissiest. In one scene he sits next to the fire with a cognac, puts some potatoes in to roast, and tearfully sings of how he longs for Mother Volga. I'd never make this up.

This doesn't mean that Seventeen Moments of Spring doesn't fascinate me; it's just that I wish the Comrade would stop quizzing me about it (on Saturday I just wanted to be left alone so I could figure out if the avocadoes were ripe enough for guacamole, and snapped: "You're making this feel like homework!")

Another way in which Stirlitz is the anti-Bond -- he has a wife he loves in Moscow whom he can't see lest it blow his cover. In the series' most erotically charged scene, Stirlitz is having a flashback in which he is about to be dispatched to Spain and the KGB arranges to have Mrs. Stirlitz brought to the German bistro where he goes to smoke and ruminate. Alas, the two cannot exchange embraces: They simply sit at opposite tables and look moony-eyed while the officer who was Mrs. Stirlitz's escort discreetly retires to the bar. My favorite part is that Mrs. Stirlitz is no Ursula Andress (who looks good enough in Dr. No but frankly always strikes me as mentally challenged when I see it) -- she's chubby-cheeked and lush of hip, and has bobbed hair and a sensible little suit. "She looks like you," the Comrade said affectionately. And she does.

*bird flu?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Planet of the (Shaved) Apes

I love that smarty-pants Caleb Crain and will have to tell him so, should I see him again at a House Jam. He's recently written about both monkeys (Arctic Monkeys, that is) and journalist Celia Farber's piece for Harper's about scientists who discredit the theory that HIV causes AIDS.

Both of which remind me of a temp I once hired, a blowsy lady of un certain age who was bravely lipsticked and lousy with free-floating crazy and faded glamour (and did she shake a little? I swear that's how I remember it). One day in the office we were talking about the heart-wrenching case of endangered diana monkey Cookie Flikshtein, adopted as surrogate daughter by Roman and Inna Flikshtein of Manhattan Beach and now facing court removal and repatriation to the wild, where there would be no ice cream or nightly news.

And Frau Blowsy said tonelessly, "Monkeys are dirty and they cause AIDS," then went back to work.

Sometimes to keep the peace you keep your own counsel, and there is nothing to be done but run to the co-workers with whom you have been making nasty jokes about her imaginary Vicodin habit to share the delicious news.

And so (on the other side of the barrier): "... and then SHE said, 'Monkeys are dirty and they cause AIDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!'"

And my Esteemed Colleague said, "But that doesn't mean she wouldn't let one buy her a drink."

Sisyphus, not Sissy-Fuss

Say one is burdened with an onerous task (say, painting Willem Dafoe on the side of a blimp), pelted with the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism, and then told not to take any of it "personally." How else is there to take things but personally if one is, in fact, a person?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Les Jeux Sont Fait

Apparently I've been divorced since March 16, but wasn't aware of it until I opened yesterday's mail.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Prince of Peas

Dear friends who know me told me I should see Junebug, and they were so right I've seen it three times now: the first time alone, the second time alone with commentary, and the third time with the Comrade, whose notions of the South up to this point have been informed by Doc Hollywood. (For those who don't have TNT, Doc Hollywood is the Michael J. Fox vehicle that falls in the first category of movies about the South; namely, those that feature quirky characters and art-directed county fairs. The other category involves racial tension, murder, and ceiling fans, and everybody sweats a lot.)

Before Junebug I don't think I'd ever seen such an honest picture of the South (don't watch these people quibbling over an empty carton that should have held Vantages and think you know the whole story -- I give you fair warning before you attempt them further), and I don't know that any other movie has ever gnawed at me for days afterward. I think it spoke to me because it's a movie about home, but also because I could see myself in both George, who comes back to the place where he grew up (with equal, or unequal, parts longing and suffocation), and Madeleine, who comes in as an outsider (with equal, or unequal, parts fascination and exasperation, cut with a little shame and a dash of never knowing how to "do"). Of course it didn't mean as much to the Comrade, who has never been trapped in a baby shower feeling like a female impersonator, but I think it functioned as a kind of travelogue nonetheless.

Since the movie I've been singing hymns around the house. ("Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling ...") On Sunday the Comrade was elbow deep in the $40 worth of cheese* he'd bought at Garden of Eden market** and chimed in with "Earnestly, tenderly, cheeses is calling, calling for you and for me: cut me ... cut me ..."

I guess he isn't the first person to come up with this, but I thought it was pretty good for somebody who's not operating in his native tongue. And it's a joke with a lot of mileage: "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses." "Cheeses Is Just All Right With Me."

The Comrade wondered why Southern Christians are so hung up on hymns, since in the Eastern Orthodox church hymns are sung only by priests, as a form of prayer. I told him to compare it not with the Russian church, but with Communism: all those songs for Dyedushka*** Lenin weren't prayer but they were certainly praise, as well as something rousing to do at assemblies. But I felt a pang of guilt (see also: longing, suffocation) at comparing "I Come to the Garden Alone" with Soviet propaganda. So I told him he shouldn't assume Southern Christians don't have real, gut-level faith, no matter how glad I am that I never have to go to another dinner in a church basement (see also: fascination, exasperation).

Incidentally, I got that butterscotch Tastycake, and I wish I could be more articulate about this, but: holy crap. I didn't get much butterscotch per se, but it's so sugary and light, like a grocery-store birthday cake. I'm glad they're kosher -- I'll have something to eat when the Christians throw me out for the blasphemy I've just committed and I have to seek refuge in kabbalah.

* Friends, this is nothing -- I've watched him leave that place $70 lighter. I think we can all agree that this is a lot of money for anybody to spend on cheese (cheese that doesn't conceal weapons-grade plutonium, that is), but for someone who ate potatoes for a couple of years while the ruble was hurtling through the core of the earth, it's downright sinful. The man loves cheese.

** Why, oh why, didn't they call it Garden of Eatin'? A low-down, dirty shame.

***"Grandfather" Lenin. Really.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Papa, Can You Hear Me?

I was commenting on Butterscotch Krimpets below and went on for so long I thought I'd just put it in a post.

I think I've seen these for sale at the CVS right next to my subway stop. I have to pop in on the way home for some toothpaste, and who knows what will leap into my basket? Maybe I'll just brush my teeth with Tastykakes and eliminate the middleman. Speaking of Tastykakes, do we have these in Nashville? I thought they were a suspicious Yankee brand like Drake's Cakes.

Does anybody else think the Tastykakes Web site seems rather fraught with innuendo, what with all the Kreamies and Chocolate-Covered Pretzel Rods? Like Candyland* meets The Red Shoe Diaries. How funny, and profoundly American, is it that Tastykakes are available in Sensable lo-carb form and a Doublicious version with twice, twice, twice the icing? For those who don't mind being buried in a piano case!

Also, you'll be relieved to learn that Tastykakes have been kosher-certified by the Orthodox Union, because God forbid you should defile your corporeal temple with a traif snack cake.

Once when the Comrade was still living in an apartment block on Avenue U, I was leaving his place one Saturday morning when two giggling college girls in kerchiefs and long denim skirts** stopped me in the hallway. "Are you Jewish?" they said. They seemed faintly hysterical, which made me a little hysterical myself because it seemed there was only one right answer to this question but Yahweh knew what it was. (Also, there's something disarming and weird about talking to strangers who live in your building, because you know you're not going to be able to make a clean getaway if they turn out to be needy or crazy.) I told them I wasn't Jewish***, and they started giggling even more maniacally and asked if I could come in and turn their oven on because they weren't allowed to do it themselves on the Sabbath.

I had been tapped for Shabbos Goy! My New York fantasy was complete.

I followed them into an airless one-bedroom apartment where everything smelled warm and coddled, like stewed food. Two or three other modestly attired twentysomethings of both sexes sat around a table expectantly looking at a toaster oven with a lone piece of chicken inside. There was an air of barely suppressed mirth, as if I were about to be the target of a practical joke, so I tried to look pleasant and noncommittal while surreptitiously sweeping the place for rubber vomit and onion gum.

My new clients showed me the button to press, and I did, and they were grateful, and I left. But I left with a Talmudic burden of unanswered questions: If they're supposed to rest on the Sabbath, why was it okay to put the chicken in the oven, but not okay to turn the oven on? Were they all going to share that one chicken breast? What if they hadn't been able to find a wandering Gentile? Did they have some backup Tastykakes?

After all, as the Yiddish proverb says, Mann tracht und Gott lacht.****

*The alert reader will note that there's a Queen Frostine in Candyland, but that's not how I got my Internet name. My mother used to talk about her friend "Frostine," which I always thought the biggest hoot -- imagine how devastated I was as an adult when I found out it wasn't Frostine but Fostine. Which is funny in its own way but lacks the deluded grandeur afforded by the extra consonant.

**Live in New York long enough and you come to recognize this look as Hip Orthodox.

***There are four Jews in Tennessee.

****"Man plans, and God laughs."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Philadelphia Story

I'm sorry for having fallen halfway off the face of the earth again. Remember the sinus malady that got replaced by the epizoodie? Well, the epizoodie has given way to some mysterious ailment characterized by exhaustion, headaches, and periodic bouts of nausea. A hasty Googling revealed that I must have carbon-monoxide poisoning. Yesterday I napped on the office couch with a shawl over my head.

I could just be allergic to 36, which is what I turned on Friday. If 33 was significant because it was Christ's age at crucifixion, 36 is significant because it's the first age I can remember my mother being; that is, when I first became aware that she had an age just like I did, and got older every year just like I did, and had been 9 once, as I was. Once the Comrade went to the zoo with co-worker Vronsky and his 4-year-old son, Little Vronsky, who on the subway became enraptured by a baby in a stroller. He turned to the Comrade and said wistfully, "Dva goda nazad, ya bila babechka." ("Two years ago, I was a baby.") I know the feeling!

The Comrade and I celebrated by spending the weekend in Philadelphia, which has the twin virtues of being (1) there, and close, and (2) accessible via the $12 Chinatown bus. I'd hoped the bus would be full of old Chinese people on holiday, but alas, everyone was just cheap like us. There was Chinese-restaurant music piped in, only barely audible when we slowed for a toll booth.

  • The Liberty Bell is smaller than you think it is.
  • The entire time I was there I could not stop thinking about thirtysomething, heretofore my main cultural reference point for the city of Philadelphia.
  • We ate three Philly cheese steaks apiece in three days*.
While we were planning the trip I was giving the Comrade the run-down on the Philly cheese steak and what I had theretofore considered the gold standard of non-Philly Philly cheese steaks; id est, the one from In the Park Grill at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Most of the UT cafeteria food would drive you straight to the soft-serve machine, but this cheese steak was sublime, a real diamond in the rough. The grill guys (who in my mind I have conflated with those garage attendants who steal the car in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) used to keep a kitchen sponge on a handle in a big vat of melted butter that they would use to first thwack and then sop your hoagie bun before filling it with fried meat, peppers, and onions and then (Readers, I want no secrets from you) squirting mayonnaise on top. By the time I moved off campus I was so fat I needed to be airlifted to my hilltop classes.

We first went to Jim's on South Street, supposedly the nexus of the cheese-steak universe, and after waiting in line for half an hour, sat upstairs underneath Sinbad's autograph and bit in. And friends, it was good. Jim's cheese steaks are more deliciously steaky and less satisfyingly squishy than the ones at the "New York Deli," and both were edged out by the ones at Rick's in Reading Terminal Market, which gets even more bonus points because you can take it to the beer garden in the back.

But you know what? In a cheese-steak death match, I would put any one of them up against In the Park Grill, and I'd bet my money on the latter. This was an epiphany worthy of Dorothy Gale. Full of Yeungling-induced goodwill, I was in the ladies' room trying to wash the onion smell off my hands and thinking of that buttered sponge. Gosh, what kind of sponge was that? I wondered dreamily. What kind of sponge has a handle as long as a man's forearm?

With age, wisdom: As I scrub-scrub-scrubbed I realized the butter sponge must have been originally intended for toilets. This didn't leaven my nostalgia nearly as much as you might imagine.

The Comrade, who's never eaten butter from a toilet sponge, didn't understand why I wanted to go to the Mutter Museum to see the world's largest colon and thought we should go to the Philadelphia Flower Show instead. Guess who won. It'll be even more fun next year when we can get the AARP discount.

*Could this be the source of my "carbon monoxide poisoning"?