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." (

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Tiger Beat Dream Date (With Lech Walesa)

I almost sent the last disc of The Decalogue back to Netflix without watching Commandment 10, just because I'd had been having a WWF smackdown with the series for lo these many months and frankly, friends, I was growing weary. It's not that I wasn't appreciating them -- it's just that my attention span is borne aloft by helium balloons. So for me, a ten-part series in which the residents of one apartment block in Poland, in the waning days of Communism, break the Ten Commandments one by one is best doled out over a good long while. Not to mention that the four discs eat up one's Netflix allotment, thus making it difficult to cleanse the palate with a little Margaret Cho or some Season 1 Gilmore Girls.

I'm so glad I slogged through the last installment, though, because it turned out to be my favorite. Two brothers are reunited over their dead father's stamp collection, and one of them is Zbigniew Zamachowski, who just sends me, and not only because his character was the front man for a Polish metal band called City Death. Zamachowski also plays the hapless husband in White, which is by far my favorite of the Trois Couleurs movies*. I think he's so human and real and great to watch, and if I could I'd carry him around in my pocket and nibble on him like a potato pierog.

What is it with me and the Slavs? I hope the Comrade knows I love him for him** -- and not because I owned, and wore, a Solidarity T-shirt in 1987. ***

*I'm pretty sure I'm the only one on earth who feels this way.

** Frankly, if I met some Ukrainian who subscribed to The Oxford American and thrilled to Southern womanhood, I'd be suspicious.

***Have you visited the Engrish site and seen the Japanese guy in the T-shirt that says "BEWARE I'M ARMED AND I HAVE PREMENSTRUAL TENSION"? I'd say we were both about equally aware of what we were doing.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Accidental Tourist

Dearest readers, if you and I have ever had a conversation about my father, you know that traveling isn't his hobby so much as flying. To travel you have to leave the hotel, and Daddy has hunkered down everywhere from Seattle to Sao Paulo to watch CNN and eat the same room-service hamburger.

It's like business travel, but he isn't doing any business, and it isn't so much that he's some kind of nervous nelly who ventures out only on package tours; it's more that he'll go to someplace like Hamburg, spend the night in an airport Marriott, and fly home.

Once he flew to London, took a lap around Heathrow, and then got back on the same plane. The flight crew for the journey back was the same too, and were bemused if not suspicious to find him right back in coach an hour later, waiting for another bag of peanuts. He has been to Delhi* three times in the last year and, to my knowledge, left the hotel on only one of those trips -- and then only for half an hour, after which he hotfooted it back to gratefully towel off and fill his suitcase with individually wrapped soaps. (Traveler's advisory: India's hot, and it smells. You can thank him later.)

I have a hall closet filled with American Airlines toiletries kits, each of which contains a sleeping mask, cooling leg balm (?), and tiny little tubes of some kind of gel called Dry Shower, which smells like my Uncle Max -- heady and aftershavey, but not at all unpleasant. When I get back from a trip, Daddy listens to my packaged anecdotes and then asks what he really wants to know: What did you eat on the plane?

I guess flying can be meditative, if you'll let it; nothing and nobody requires you, and so you're suspended but still moving forward.

So, for Father's Day, what did I give the man who once spent one (1) night in Tokyo, just long enough to eschew raw fish and take some sweet pictures of a family who literally lived next to the airport? An engraved compass. Maybe this is funny only to me. He said it was beautiful but he didn't know how to use a compass, and I said he could always barter it for food. Say, those extra-nice mixed nuts they give you in first class.

(Happy Father's Day.)

*He has worked out some kind of complicated algebra in which he earns so many frequent-flyer miles during these trips, he gets a substantial return on his investment, which he can funnel back into more plane tickets to cities he'll never see.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Animal Husbandry

I ran into an old neighbor of mine yesterday ...

{Hold on. Doesn't it sound like this is the talky intro for the country song I'm about to sing? "I ran into an old neighbor of mine yesterday, and he said things just ain't the same on the street where we used to live. There's no kids to run after the ice-cream truck, and folks don't sit out on the porch like they once did. And I had to tell him, well, the neighborhood died for me on the day you left. OH, SWEET, SWEET, DARLIN', WHY DID YOU GO AND MAKE A HOUSE OUT OF OUR HOME?"}

So I ran into an old neighbor of mine ...

{I just Googled, and do you realize that everybody from Molly Hatchet to Fantasia Barrino has a song with the lyrics "I ran into an old friend"?}

So I ran into an old neighbor of mine, who lived downstairs from me and The Man Who Was My Husband at our first apartment in Brooklyn. I was so happy to see him (I feel so divorced from that old life, it was like getting a message from the dead) that I ran across the street and hugged the stuffing out of him.

His oldest boy is 13 now -- when I moved into that place in 1996 he was just a little snuggly blob in a stroller. Childless hag that I am, I've had a soft spot for him since the time he announced to his parents after I'd gone, "That girl has on a dress. I like it when girls wear dresses and look pretty." Clearly, even then he had the makings of an ubergenius. Now he's a chess whiz, but not a chess champion because, my neighbor says, the pressure of competing freaks him out, and the pressure of losing really freaks him out. I'd never thought about the fact that being good at the game and being good at playing it are two different things.

We were talking about the old neighborhood (and he doesn't know whether the kids still run for the ice cream trucks there or not, since he decamped en famille to Fort Greene a long time ago), and he said to me, "I always think about how you predicted the fall of Carroll Gardens."

"The paint-your-own-pot place!" I said. "When they put in the paint-your-own-pot place, I knew I couldn't afford to live there anymore."

"No, that's not what you said!" he said.

I've trotted out that paint-your-own-pot line a million times, so I couldn't imagine what was coming next: "What did I say?"

"You said that when the girls got too pretty in Carroll Gardens, you knew you'd have to move. And they did! Suddenly there were all these alterna-vixens walking around."

Now, friends, I guess it's possible that I've been having one long petit mal seizure since the late '90s (and frankly that would explain so much), but I'm almost positive I never said this. It doesn't even sound like something I'd ever have said. It was always all about paint-your-own-pot as Tipping Point for me, and then, later, the ratio of moules frites to city blocks.

I said I didn't ever remember saying that, and then that I was just going to have to get it over with: The Man Who Used to Be My Husband and I had split up. To my surprise, he said he knew it because he'd run him into a couple of years ago. The news would have still been pretty fresh then, and to think about TMWUTBMH having to break the news to people on the street, well, it killed (kills) me.

"It's just a case of two nice people who didn't make a good couple," my neighbor said kindly. I trotted out all the stuff you say, that it's better for both of us, that he's in grad school now, Morocco, house, and that we're cordial with each other, and that I'd just seen him a couple of weeks ago, but that I couldn't say we were at the point of friendship yet, because there was still just too much overarching weirdness.

"Which is not all that different from marriage!" he said.

Then I thought about the badgers the Comrade and I saw on TV the other night during a break from the World Cup. There were a couple of males battling it out for the right to woo a female (and they're adorable -- gray, fat, hairy like Emma), and apparently the less appealing of the two (I have no idea how a girl badger would gauge that sort of thing) won out and the couple grimly set to it. Then the voiceover said (I'm paraphrasing, but not by much), "The cranky pair make the best of it, and settle down to the business of furthering the species."

I'd been waiting to work this into conversation with somebody, but I never got the chance because the person who was accompanying my neighbor was ready to go, and so we had to leave it there. It was genuinely good to see him, but sad at the same time.

I was wondering why badgers were so waddly and how that could make evolutionary sense, but as it turns out all that thick, loose skin is what lets them wriggle away from predators. I guess the imperative to hitch your wagon to somebody else, though -- it gets us all in the end.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Joga Bonito

I was going to write a self-congratulatory post about how cool I am as an American who likes soccer, but Dave Eggers got there first. (You shall know his velocity!) And anyway, I like it a lot less now that it's interfering with my nightly TV habits. It isn't that the Comrade watched the television continuously from 8:00 to 11:30 last night; it is simply that the television had to be on at all times and tuned to Fox Sports World, sometimes with the sound off, so he could stop his work on the computer and run into the living room to be continuously updated without the time-wasting drudgery of applying thumb to remote.

He didn't understand why this would so irritate someone who, for the love of God, hadn't even seen the season premiere of Entourage yet, and kept insisting (in that tone that means not "I'm sorry" but "I'm sorry you're being such a pill), "It's only once every four years."

Suffice it to say that we're only four days into this thing, a new episode of Kathy Griffin's My Life on the D-List is on tonight, and it doesn't look good. I was wondering what the non-soccer-watching women of Europe do during the World Cup, when it occurred to me that in Europe the men get out of the house and watch in a bar, where they can drink beer on tap and kiss with tongues when anyone scores a goal -- the way God(dess) intended. So much is wrong with this country.

Before I was personally inconvenienced by the beautiful game, I have to say that I was really getting into it, and nobody could be more suprised by that than I am. I've always thought the sound of TV sports in the house on a Sunday afternoon is one of the loneliest sounds on earth, and one of the best things about having my own household was that I didn't have to hear it anymore.

When I was growing up my mother had a hall closet full of books, most of them religious but a few devoted to feminine self-improvement. One of these, which I of course found irresistible, was Helen Gurley Brown's Having It All: Love, Sex, Success, Money -- Even If You're Starting With Nothing. It was published in 1982, so I must have been 12 or 13 when I read it. I could devote a whole post to the things I remember from that book*, but one of them was her advice about supporting and encouraging a man's interests, even (and maybe especially) when you couldn't care less. She cited an anecdote in which a female friend of hers was able to suffer through an entire season of courtside basketball tickets because she distracted herself by contracting*** her vaginal muscles.

Now, friends, even at my impressionable age, this struck me as (pardon me) bullshit of the highest order. But when, 14 years later, I found myself watching the Goals of the Week with the Comrade on Fox Sports World, asking prompting questions and patiently watching live living-room-rug replays of Maradona, Mexico, 1986 -- well, I couldn't help but wonder: What was happening to me?

I finally came to the conclusion that soccer just made me feel smug and cosmopolitan, and that, it must be said, the players are uniformly foxy. Really, do they just not let you play unless you're rumpled and thigh-intensive and louche and muffintastic****?

When I had zeal for the World Cup (that is, before it started), the Comrade and I were watching the surprisingly entertaining videos on the Nike football site, one of which is billed as "The World's Longest Soccer Video." It's 12 minutes and 26 seconds of videos spliced together to give the effect of a guy in Lima head-butting the ball to a couple of little kids in Dusseldorf, who kick it to a bunch of guys in South Africa, and so on. (There are three clips from the U.S., and one of them is just the ball bouncing into and subsequently scattering a flock of pigeons, a perhaps-not-unintentional homage to perceptions of Americans everywhere.)

I got kind of fascinated with it and wanted to film a link for the chain, with me in it. (As it stands, there are only three girls in more than 12 minutes, and they just watch the ball as it rolls past.) I'd put on an evening gown and do it in front of the big Public Library, maybe off the top of one of the lions.

The only thing is, I could never even play kickball, really, and I doubt my ability to "catch" the ball and propel it out of the frame. Maybe I'll just sit there and contract my vaginal muscles.

* How glad Brown was to get out of Arkansas (a place, she recalls, where people would say, "She give five dollars for that hat!"); the reason she was fired from her first job, in radio (because she was too lazy to get out of bed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor); the Christmastime she ate a whole box of Greek pastries when David was out of town (but she exercised the day after her D&C and the day her mother died)!; the reason you should just buy as many accessories as possible (because you just never know what's going to go with what).**

**Come to think of it, all the lessons here, both explicit and implicit, may have formed the blueprint for what's become my adult life. Remind me to think more about this sometime when it won't seem so devastating.

***And, one presumes, releasing

****There are a couple of notable exceptions that here I won't note.

Monday, June 12, 2006

In which I score another victory for international relations.

I feel sure the Germans must have a word for the impulse that forces you to do, in mortifying fashion, the very opposite of what you meant to do, a propensity proportional to the amount of time you spent reminding yourself not to do it. I can't be the only one?

Last week at my totally hypothetical job, one of my purely theoretical co-workers alerted me to an intern I hadn't noticed before, and told me that she'd had a surprising and alarming conversation with him about his support of the Islamist government of his native country. It's not a country our interns usually come from, and I was intrigued, and so next time I went to the ladies' room I thought I'd get a load of him as he sat in his cube. And of course he picked that second to look up and meet me eye to eye as I gawped openly, and there was nothing for me to do but smile insincerely and feel ashamed by what he must have thought: the old lady was cruising him.

I felt like the female version of an alter kocker, whatever that might be -- think Kathleen Turner, the pillowy version, as the Wife of Bath. And not in a good way.

So today he was standing at the sink, and I went to put my frittata in the microwave but then, as soon as I punched in my coordinates, realized he had something on a paper plate that he had likely been getting ready to heat up before I jumped in line, and I was trying to process this information when he went to reach just inches in front of me, going for a paper napkin, and I blurted, "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"

Him: "I just want a napkin."

Me: "Oh! I thought you were getting ready to put something in the microwave! And I just jumped in front of you! That's so rude of me! But now I see all you have on that plate is a kitchen sponge! HA HA! And I thought it was your breakfast."

Him: "..."

Me: "But it so obviously not. HA! 'Cause it's a kitchen sponge."


Him: "Enjoy your meal."

Yeah. Enjoy my meal. I might as well have said, "The very smell of you makes me giddy!"

But it doesn't! Really! Blame it on the Offnungfreiheit.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Greetings from Choctaw Ridge

The sad thing is, you get to feeling tired and overwhelmed and sorry for yourself, and one day you realize it has literally been years since you even thought about "Ode to Billie Joe," much less sang what parts of it you can remember.*

Today the Comrade and I drove up through the Hudson River Valley. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is, and how much I want a football jersey from Sleepy Hollow High School. Those valley towns are like quaint, sweet theater scrims that rich ex-Manhattanites have hung on the scaffolding so they can stage their own version of small-town America, one with day spas and tinned biscuits from Italy.**

We walked the Main Street of Tarrytown, over the commuter-train tracks and down to the park at the waterfront. At the edge of the river we could see a lighthouse way down the bank on our right, and on our left, the Comrade pointed out, far away on the other side of the Tappan Zee, there was Manhattan. From where we were it looked like the Emerald City.

We sat on a park bench to take big whiffs of the stinking charm, when the band under the picnic shelter began to play "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Werewolves of London" -- at the same time.

If I'm lying, I'm dying. I don't know how many of you spent your formative years stretched out on the hood of somebody's Trans Am talking to Mary J, but let me lay a bet that it wasn't enough time for you to come to the conclusion that the two songs have essentially the same beat (not to mention the same party-hearty appeal), and when the chorus of one is combined with the werewolf howl of the other, the result, anyone would be forced to admit, is kind of genius.

There we all were, some of us with our red plastic cups full of warm beer -- only blocks from an Aveda Concept salon, and yet so far away.

* My new favorite version is by Scarlett, which I found on iTunes. Who is this? Should I be ashamed?

** Which is a small-town America I would, make no mistake, embrace wholeheartedly if I made enough money. As opposed to the small town in America where I actually come from, which spent the '90s embroiled in a holy war between Strip Malls and Liquor By the Drink. Guess who won, and I'll take you to the Cheesecake Factory off Mt. Juliet Road. Daiquiris on me.