Friday, February 26, 2010

I walked home, composing

ice berries; kids sled
brownstone steps; bronzed Washington,
white-laureled: still bright.

Keep the customer satisfied

I realized after formulating the idea of this post that in some ways it's a rehash of the ideas in the last one (clearly it is Underdog Week in my head). But I think it'll be fun to write, so here goes.

This morning, after wading through drifts up to my knees (not saying much, but bear with me here) and sitting on the train for twice as long as usual as it slouched towards Prospect Park to be borne away from a signal malfunction, I decided that what I really needed was some warm, comforting caffeine. Since I left home extremely early in anticipation of delays, I had time to mosey over to one of my two favorite coffee spots in the neighborhood, which I'll call, for the purposes of thinly-veiled pseudoanonymity, Purple Spork and RBI.

I wound up choosing RBI, I think for pragmatic reasons--the train that would take me there arrived first; it is a bit closer to my office. But I feel a little bad for letting these reasons win out, as the following exposition will perhaps make clear.

I had never heard of Purple Spork prior to working here--it is a tiny little storefront, couple of tables and a line out the door, on a busy commercial drag: easy to miss if you're not paying attention. A friend of a friend recommended I check it out, and I was glad I took the ten-or-so minute walk over. The staff is extremely nice. They act like you're an old friend when you come in, more than any other coffee place I have been. They have the most ingenious tip-collection method ever, in which they write out a question on a business card every day and stick it in front of two bowls labeled "Yes" and "No" so you can put your tip in the appropriate container. The next day they announce the results. My favorite question? "Does you always corrects people's' Grammar?" You can guess where I deposited my quarter.

And let's not forget the drinks, which are excellent. This place makes the best mocha around, and believe you me, I have conducted, and continue to conduct, a most exhaustive search. The iced lattes are likewise amazing; the regular coffee's also quite good. They cost about what you'd expect from a fancy-coffee shop; they also have buy-ten-get-one-free cards, one of which I just this week completed. The service is efficient (at least insofar as it can be when the line's out the door) and my thermos always comes back to me with a smile.

RBI, the competition, is a hotshot upstart that just opened a few weeks ago. They're coffee-world-famous for having, like, the most expensive coffeemaker ever, complete with peculiar Buffy-esque name. They are located somewhat nearer to the office than Purple Spork and are a tad more expensive. But damn they make the best hot latte in existence, as well as a mean Americano. ("More water or less?" they queried my coworker, whose gleeful "More!" resulted in his bouncing off the walls that afternoon.)

I have two quibbles with RBI, which are the service and the service. The baristas are those ironicer-than-thou sorts that tend to proliferate in most place where coffee is truly excellent. There are usually about four of them loitering behind the counter yet it frequently takes a puzzlingly long time for one of them to deign to present you with your drink (a problem when you have to punch in at work precisely on time or risk losing precious vacation minutes). All the while, it feels vaguely like they are judging you, with your messy hair and headphones and snow streaming from your coat. Especially if you sit down in one of the two comfy chairs in the space, which seem specifically designed to make you feel guilty as you gaze out at the wood-backed chairs surrounding the larger central table. My other service complaint (which I concede is very specific but is very specifically vexing to me) is that they can be quite dumb, or, if you're feeling charitable, uncoordinated amongst themselves. Twice in a row when I gave the cashier my thermos to put my drink in, the maker wound up putting it in a paper cup, complete with delicately coiffed foamed-milk swirl pattern, and had to dump it unceremoniously into my container. Guys, I have brought you a thermos so we don't have to waste the cup, all right?

So it is with some trepidation that I hit up RBI today, and with some trepidation that I admit that my coworker and I wind up going there slightly more often than to the friendly, lived-in Spork. Then again, the first sip of that latte is godly. And last time there was a snowstorm, messy uncoordinated me managed to catch my coat in the door on my way out, spilling a little bit of jealously-guarded latte on myself while providing a slight offering to the snow-soaked street below. I went back inside for napkins and the counterhipster immediately offered to make me another drink. I declined, because I had hardly lost any, and why waste what was left, but I really did appreciate the offer. Maybe hipsteristas are not so bad after all. I do still plan to head Spork-ward next time I need a fix, though.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Nationally awarded books

Coincidentally, I started a 2009 National Book Award finalist, American Salvage, on my plane out to San Francisco and began that year's winner, Let the Great World Spin, on my return trip. This juxtaposition inspired the following musings about what pepole like to read, the preferences of award committees (insofar as my mere mortal mind can wrap round them), and my own reading habits--all wrapped up in what I term a sort of "books review." What can I say, dreaming big here.

First up, I was totally enthralled by American Salvage. I learned of its author, Bonnie Jo Campbell, when she read from her competition-winning Love Letters to Sons of Bitches at my book arts volunteer job. As far as I can tell, she's a cross between a mechanic, a circus performer, and a rockstar; I've rarely seen anyone read so charismatically. Shortly thereafter, I discovered a book of her short stories was a finalist for the National Book Award. I acquired a copy from the Elliott Bay Book Company (whose bad financial straits I read about and was moved to alleviate, however slightly, on the always up-to-the-minute Moby Lives). Along with the excellent book, the Book Co also sent me a newsletter and bookmark in a lovely brown paper-wrapped package (Support your (not-always-so) local indie bookstore, folks!).

American Salvage is a (short) short story collection, a form that is not my natural element (for reasons perhaps I'll explore here one day). Even though it had that working against it, the stories completely gripped me. Seriously, they're unlike any other short stories I've ever encountered. Some of them were so short as to be almost snapshots, yet all of them conveyed a sense of character, as well as of place, mostly the rural Michigan landsape in which its author makes her home. Confusion and rancor abound, relationships take twists and turns, natural disasters are never far away, and Campbell's often-hapless characters find themselves caught up in storms of their own and the world's making. The lives portrayed in the stories are very different from my city slicker upbringing, but Campbell made them real to me. With few words she conveys unexpected situations: an immobilized injured man in the eye of a storm which he comes to conflate longingly with his girlfriend; a woman guiltily munching her way through a fancy chocolate bar on the way to pick up a hog in a last-ditch attempt to save the farm; an accident victim and the fleeting, almost loving connection that passes between her and her unwitting assailant. The stories often ended suddenly, but never abruptly. They do what my poetry teacher always urged me to do: end on a note that is never neat and pat, always unexpected yet somehow right.

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, is, in contrast, a (long) novel. Weighing in at 350 densely-worded (though never difficult-to-parse) pages, it tells the stories of a sequence of New Yorkers affected by Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. (It also, of course, offers implicit, and very occasionally explicit, commentary about September 11th) Of course, since this is a big, sprawling, many-points-of-view novel about a day in a city, "Joycean" gets bandied about by reviewers like nobody's business. Coming from Modernist-land as I do, I found that this adjective shaped my expectations of the book, I think in large part doing it a disservice. Sure, I felt, digging into one of the novel's early sections (which are short-story- or novella-esque, really), it's describing an Irishman's experience and it occasionally goes sort of stream-of-consciousnessy, but Joycean? McCann is a good prose stylist, certainly, but World's got nothing on the wordplay and inventiveness of Ulysses, not even close.

It's a shame that this is the baggage I brought to my reading, because World is really a good novel. Particularly in its later sections, McCann draws pictures of characters that make you cry for the agonies they've endured and laugh with them at the ways they still manage to stay one step ahead of their world. His section from the perspective of unconsolable-yet-strong Tillie, a prostitute in jail taking the rap for a robbery she committed with her daughter, is particularly noteworthy in this respect. And McCann gradually links together the stories of his disparate figures--a lonely Irish immigrant, a judge's wife, a teenager with photographer dreams, a lonely divorcee from the projects...--which ultimately add up to a moving meditation on the ways in which we are all connected. The book's final section, set in 2006, offers a look at what's happened to some of his characters in the intervening years, but never attempts to offer too neatly bow-tied an ending.

On the whole, I found World enjoyable and satisfying. I'd also like to add that, importantly for me, McCann does a pretty good job of evoking the city as character: defiant, snarky, browbeaten, ephemeral, transcendent. And there is a moment, just before the book moves to 2006, where I found the Ulysses comparison to be beautifully, gracefully deserved.

But! Affecting though I ultimately did find World, I still prefer American Salvage, which I think breaks more new ground, in terms of both the stories Campbell tells and how she tells them, than McCann's big novel-of-ideas. Call it a case of my tendency to perpetually side with the underdog, but McCann's novel seems like such an easy critic-and-fancy-reader-pleaser, with its epic-tending length, its highfalutin Modernistesque ways, and its New York panorama. I think it's a shame that large, sprawling epics tend to win these prizes most of the times I can recollect (even though I love many of them--I am a big fan of Oscar Wao, Middlesex, The Corrections). Why not let the truly-unexpected win for once?

Any thoughts? Has any of you read either of the books? As is probably obvious, I recommend both, and I've got copies for lendin'!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Busy busy busy

Only a half post, really, this time, because life has been quite busy. Most notably, work this week has contained much actual work. (I guess this is what happens when you go on vacation.) This has been (for the most part) exciting and invigorating, if occasionally alarming (such as when I was assigned to work on complicated things I don't know how to do because my supervisor is out—but hey, it all seems to be proceeding apace at this point). I have to say, I can gripe with the best of them about how much work I have to do, but I'd rather that than none. A day with a sense of purpose is much better than one without; if I don't have any, I will probably invent it. Although my definition of "purpose" is fairly loose: the purpose of this afternoon shall be to go on a long walk, stopping to consume food at a couple of points along the way.

Perhaps my day should look more like this...but I'm not holding my breath.

Also part of the busyness, and in the works for today, is a mad rush of concerts. What with one thing and another, it turns out I will've seen one every day from Thursday–Sunday. Plus I attended a play with M— Wednesday. Stay tuned for thoughts on all of these ventures, as well as perhaps on a couple of books I have been reading lately.

How about you, dear readers? Would you rather lounge around all day or get to work? (I respect the former; I'm just not good at doing it!) Got any weekend plans full of goodness and light?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

SF in summary

Sunday was high tourist time. Elevenish, S— and I headed into SF to meet St—; we reached ground in the Mission, where I continued my food tour. Got a maple-glazed donut with bacon bits from Dynamo Donuts to start, and a mocha from the gorgeous slicked-back clean-wood Haus Coffee. We walked down Mission, which S— said reminded her of her experience of Brooklyn. In fact, there were scads of New York-y things afoot: Strand bags and I Heart New York t-shirts proliferated; Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” blared from a car stereo—“Wrong city!” I called out.

We arrived at our destination, a taqueria S— knew. I ordered what I thought proved to be an enormous torta (twice the size of what I expected) but then St—’s burrito appeared, a masterpiece of engineering. I have heard of two-hand burritos but this one looked to be a three-hander; slathered in guacamole, sour cream, and salsa in a sort of Mexican-flag motif, it got a plate to itself because it wouldn’t have fit in one of the dinky buckets that festooned most of the tables. The whole restaurant was bright, colorful, expansive, as was the Mission as a whole; left to my own devices, I could’ve wandered all day.

Allowing for a moment of digestion, we stopped in at 826 Valencia, the equivalent of my friendly neighborhood superhero supply company. I was quite jealous; I would rather a pirate than a superhero store just about any day of the week. There were drawers you could pull out of the wall with labels ranging from the mundane to the inscrutable—“Bundles,” “Hope,” “Tud”—and a mop that would thwap down from the ceiling on the unsuspected. (A poster advises what to do if you have been mopped: you may ask, “Why me?” but remember that it is a rite of passage like a bar mitzvah.) I told the shop-minder that I volunteered at their sister-center; she gave me a discount on my plunder.

Lunches more-or-less absorbed (except for the 2/3 of burrito St— toted about in a plastic bag all day), we headed over to Bi-Rite, recommended by the always-spot-on-foodwise R—, where I got pink lady apple sorbet and brown sugar ice cream with a ginger caramel ribbon. The line was extensive; we sat in relief to watch it unspool with our hard-won cups and cones while dogs nosed our feet enthusiastically, drawn by the burrito. Bi-Rite looks out at the foot of Dolores Park, full of the young and the beautiful out for a day in the sun. I think that park is what Fort Greene Park wishes it could be, if only it could be granted perfect year-round weather and palm trees. Can’t get over those palm trees—for me, they are the ultimate signal of unreality, vacationland: a (very, in this case) nice place to visit, but I could never live there.

Appetites sated, probably forever, we wended our way back downtown to hit up the cable cars. This was an endlessly satisfying experience. Even waiting in line produced its own odd joys. We watched the conductors step down from the cable cars onto a sort of wooden turntable and roll them around to start the route. A saxophonist played mellow songs to the adoring eyes of a baby in a stroller. We soldiered on to the front of the line and found ourselves riding up and down hills, rollercoastered. Transferring to a different route, we got to hang off the edge of the car: at first I clutched deathly with both hands, feet firmly on the step, but soon I released the chokehold and tucked one foot behind the other, feeling like I was out for a Sunday rollerskate in days gone by.

We disembarked from the second trolley to make our way to the front of the ferry terminal, there to encounter one giant pillowfight. Hundreds of people in every conceivable combination dragged their pillows into the square. One fellow lofted an extra-large Babar on his shoulders, poised as a sort of battering ram; another displayed a giant stuffed monkey. The plaza darkened as the six o’ clock start time neared. Pillows waved up and down in a gathering susurrus, the strangest flock of birds you’ve ever seen prepare for mass migration. The clock chimed the hour and all feathers broke loose, dazzling up into the streetlight beams, coating girls’ hair, creating beds for small children to make feather angels when the chaos died down. S— took pictures enthusiastically; us other two stood on a table and watched, grinning and shaking our heads, taking in the battle at a sweep and then at smaller levels—a couple shaking feathers on each other’s hair; a small child whapping a smaller child with a pillow larger than both. A more curious snow I have never witnessed.

Featherfall over, we hopped on a trolley—manufactured for good ol’ Philadelphia, as it happens—to Fisherman’s Wharf. Which was gaudier than I had anticipated but certainly enjoyable. Seals and sea lions occasionally popped up along the docks, letting loose ridiculous steamroller noises. S— said they come out more during the day; I wondered aloud if they could sleep at night with all the noise their fellows created. Next we found an In-N-Out. I do not eat beef so would not partake in that west-coastiest of burgers, but did have what I thought was the least-potatoey, most-fried order of fries I’ve ever encountered. Then I waited in line for Ghirardelli’s ice cream store; I ordered a salted caramel hot chocolate but wasn’t able to drink much of it for reasons that will be clear by now. Supersaturated by food, we got on the third and final trolley line back to the BART station, facing the most dramatic hills yet!


Monday: the inevitable hurry-up-and-wait transitional day that embodies everything I hate about traveling. I'm sorry to leave the Bay Area, which is probably my favorite place I have ever visited, but I’m glad to be homeward bound. The plane makes its way across the sky; a baby in the back keeps chanting, “Ba ba!” Have you any wool? You may need some: the snow is falling back east, big fat flakes that still coat the Tuesday out my window. I’ll borrow the closing line of one of my favorite children’s books, and say: These snowflakes are real.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Today I traipsed about San Francisco. I disembarked from the BART at Embarcadero and made my way down to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. En route, I picked up some great new accoutrements—to wit, two necklace charms, a Scrabble tile with a bird on the flipside and a typewriter key, both N’s. The market itself is a glorious thing, if extremely overmobbed by tourists such as your dear ol' narrator. It’s what I imagine you’d get if you crossed Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal (with more outdoors) with New York’s occasional New Amsterdam Market (with less fish smell). And there’s a bookstore (the aptly-named Book Passage) and views of boats and hills through fog. Sweet!

The whole place is redolent of musicians: a stately string quartet, a sort of jam band, a meditative accordionist. A clarinet suddenly wails—“I recognized it right away!” a woman says to her companion’s “I thought it was a siren.” Farther on, there’s a delightful regiment of mostly boys drumming up a storm on—you got it—Drumm Street. I encounter them as I walk by a ceremonial-seeming cable car; in the space that would normally list the route, it says “Special: Nowhere in Particular.”

And of course the foods are glorious if you can wait in the lines (to my dismay, most of them were insurmountable for one on my limited time budget; I really wanted to check out Bluebottle Coffee, but it was not to be). I did manage to round up a jar of apple cider; an orange truffle brownie; two macarons, rose and pistachio; and a turkey potpie. So don’t feel sorry for me! Don’t worry; I didn’t eat all of them then and there. Tempting, though.

From here, I continued to my main purpose of the day. A bus ride, a puzzling long walk from Presidio to Park Presidio, and another bus ride later, I found myself at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. I watched as a bird landed on a statue of the architect. And then—surprise, surprise—I proceeded to walk across and back. Which was basically one of the best things I have done ever, I think, so the less said about it the better. The bridge itself is beautiful, rustically yet elegantly looming up red out of the clouds. On one side you’ve got shaggy green hills crowned with a thin tinsel highway strip; on the other, you can see SF in all its city glory, sailboats dotting the water at its foot. I had never been so far west before.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chez Chez Panisse

After much handwringing weather anxiety, I have found myself in California! This marks my first visit to our country's west coast; I can't shake the sense that there's something exciting and deeply improbable in my being here. There are many things Californian that I could expound upon (the weather, the palm trees, the way that I now understand why people have called my neighborhood a mini–San Francisco) but I think I will start with the most important: the food!

A—, resident food expert and appreciator extraordinaire, has always told me about the virtues of Chez Panisse. Seeing as I was coming west for my big vacation, I thought I'd have to try it. I dutifully booked my reservation (a month in advance!) and further dutifully (and worriedly) inquired how late I could cancel if it turned out my flight got cancelled. Luckily for me, we flew off yesterday morning and even arrived a bit earlier than I'd been expecting, and I had plenty of time to prepare myself for dinner.


Chez Panisse does not provide you with a meal so much as an experience. Its proprietor, Alice Waters, is famous for her focus on local food; to that end, she serves a constantly-changing menu full of local and seasonal ingredients. This means that you won't know what you'll be eating until the week of your reservation; when that Saturday rolls around, you are thus filled with excitement to mosey onto Chez Panisse's website and discover that your menu is to be:

Grilled Monterey Bay squid salad with Meyer lemon and chervil
Hand-cut pasta with wild mushrooms and green garlic
Poached Soul Food Farm chicken with horseradish cream and Chino Ranch
vegetables and greens
Pink Lady apple tart Tatin with crème fraîche

Even before describing the food, though, let's have a few words about the restaurant itself. Stepping inside, you're instantly welcomed by the Frank Lloyd Wright–esque decor. Glowing wooden panels with open windowlike spaces, inviting soft lighting fixtures, and friendly-looking pyramids of bread and tomatoes greet you upon your entrance. From your secluded corner table, you can gaze out at the open kitchen—food preparations, piles of rounded crusty bread, gleaming counter space, everything basking in a sort of glow of care and efficiency. The service is impeccable: unobtrusive, helpful, matter-of-fact, not letting on that you're the fancy-restaurant impostor you know you are.

And fancy-restaurant impostor you do not mind being, because you get to eat all the excellent food! The bread arrives still warm, and then the squid salad emerges. You learned to eat calamari from an early age; your dad used to refer to "fish rings" to entice you to try some. In more recent years you've developed a willingness to eat the more tentacled pieces (and concede they are the best part). Here, they do not disappoint, light and welcoming, a good start to what proves to be an epic meal. Next up is the pasta with mushrooms; crusted and creamy, it comes in a beautiful little bowl. The Chez Panisse staff leave a decent interval for you to digest; then they come out with the main course, a light and delicate chicken. You were skeptical about the sauce, not really being a fan of horseradish generally, but there's something bracing and unexpected about its appearance in the otherwise bland dish. The vegetables are astonishingly fresh and delicious, plus you've never seen peapods sliced at such a jaunty, artistic, framing-of-perfect-semicircular-pea-morsels manner before. The most transcendent-tasting bite is, surprisingly, what you're pretty sure is a radish covered in horseradish cream; it is truly a taste you have never experienced and likely never will again.

Despite deep uncertainty about what will transpire when you combine your jet lag with even more caffeine*, you opt to get a capuccino with your dessert, being a huge caffeine fiend and suspecting (rightly so, as it turns out) that this will be a worthwhile venture. The capuccino arrives with its little bowl of brown sugar, and you inhale the warmth and deliciousness. Your dinner companion has ordered a mint tisane, which arrives in a stunning welter of greenery and translucent teapot. You try to capture the play of light on the pot and the water carafe with a cell phone camera, but you know it will never do the moment justice. And then the apple tart comes out, all carmelized brilliance. You roll up the apple and caramel and crème fraîche into a ball and savor the combination.

Leaving, you and your stomach and your companion step out happily into the California night air. You suspect this was not the most-delicious meal you've ever tasted (although it was quite good!) but the overall experience was certainly one of the best. Now, alas, back to those cheap ol' standby cheese sandwiches.

*Berkeley is apparently home to the delightfully-doppelgangery Guerilla Cafe; my Gorilla thermos and I had to pay a visit just before dinner.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)...

So, and this will probably surprise no one, I opted to use my last free day of housesitting to take a walk. This time, I meandered through Red Hook, which, although very different from Bedford Avenue, does evoke a similar Brooklyn-in-a-microcosm feel.

First up, I had to cross the highway separating my cozy Carroll Gardens base of operations from its more hardscrabble cousin. The evolution and separation of these two neighborhoods is interesting to me; I’ve requested a book from the library about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs that hasn’t arrived yet—perhaps once I read it I will be able to tell you something more informative about shipping, the BQE, gentrification, and the like. For now, all I can tell you is that there’s a labyrinth of highway interchanges, tunnel entryway, and puzzlingly angled streets at the intersection of CG and RH, as well as one of Marty Markowitz’s omnipresent always-charming signs (the “Name it” one).

Once safely on the Red Hook side of the tracks, I found myself participant in a treasure hunt of sorts. To give some brief background: last year, I also took a walk through Red Hook (on my birthday, in fact), and found a perfect oval rock that I still carry in my coat pocket. This time out, I soon came across a small plastic bag of stones, one of which had spilled out onto the pavement, as small as a world and as large as alone. I picked it up for my pocket, and headed past the ragtag array of ex-factories and houses toward a park. One foot in, I found a midnight blue mancala stone; following a diagonal across the park, I encountered a stone spray-painted bright pink and, a bit farther on, a similarly-neon green one. I posed the two of them on a pillar at the far edge of the park. I kept the small stone and the mancala piece for me.

Continuing through the neighborhood, I saw all sorts of quiet Sunday things. Two cats in an overgrown junkyard lot, crouching underneath some sort of corrugated shelter. Snow untrod by the foot of man, marked only by pawprints (and now these excellent boots’ prints, courtesy of my sister). A bright yellow factory door; a man in red climbing artfully across a high roof. Coming up on the commercial thoroughfare of Van Brunt Street, a sudden welter of pedestrians waiting for the bus, the Red Hook doughboy memorial statue, a newly-opened hair salon with flags streaming in the cold wind, the gentrificationally tasty Baked (where I later picked up an excellent three-layer bar composed, as per the counterboy’s proud laundry list, of chocolate, apricot, amaretto, lemon zest, and more chocolate), my favorite amusingly-positioned streets Coffey and Creamer.

I met my parents for brunch at ye olde historical Fort Defiance, where one and all were charmed by the friendly flowery tablecloths, the blackboard summary of Red Hook’s Revolutionary War role, and the extremely delicious food (I had a pear pancake that was basically a regular pancake filled with egg custard and delicate pieces of fruit—wow). We left content, stuffed with food and the excitements of wandering.

In what I think formed a nice postscript to this day of walking, I left tutoring around 5:30, just in time to witness the sunset. I can’t remember the last time I was outside for a really good one—too often, I get out of work late or it’s overcast or I have some sort of indoor-requiring plan. Junior spring, I’d religiously make sure to be outside sometime between the hours of six and seven or so; I’ve tried to continue this thread but it’s hard, what with all the things that go into a non-college existence. But yesterday I hit sunset right on the nose, found myself walking back downhill towards the Gowanus, paused a moment to take in the stark perfect view: pale dusky red and yellow, orange and blue, in striking contrast to the elevated F tracks, their trestles suddenly performance art, spikysharp intersecting patterns. I watched a train make its slow silhouettey way down the curve toward Carroll Street, my ultimate destination.

There is something transcendent about this kind of quiet walk, I think. I returned to the site of my home-for-the-moment and took off my headphones to listen to night descending on the street, only to find my peaceful solitude punctuated by the barbaric yawps of schoolchildren out in their Sunday best. I found myself grinning, wishing I too could have grown up in the shadows of such things.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Young at heart

In case you have not noticed, I am quite a youthful-looking character. Shortly after I started this job, a policewoman was riding the elevator with me. “You work here?” she asked, incredulous. “You look like you’re sixteen!” Or take my cousin’s wedding shortly after my college graduation, at which a relative I can’t determine the nature of (I am really bad at cousins removed and relocated and third and fifteenth, etc., etc.) said to me, “Oh, you just graduated from high school? That’s so exciting!” I explained that, while this might be an exciting event for someone, it was not the case here. “But you look so young!” she shrieked. “It happens,” I said, an octave lower. And (just one more) there was the time a few years back when someone thought I was my sister’s younger sister. Don’t know if you're familiar with Homestar Runner's Teen Girl Squad (and you should be!) but I definitely identified with this episode (unable to link to the actual animation at the moment; sorry, guys) wherein the teen girls have met some college boys and are trying to convince them they’re also in college, with hilarious results. So and So messes up the plan by admitting they’re in eighth grade; Cheerleader wails, “I’m five years older and in COLLEGGGGGGE.” This is the only time in my life I have ever identified—intensely, no less—with a cheerleader.

There are, however, a couple of perks to looking young. For instance, I basically never get carded. I feel like the novelty of this should wear off; three years and counting, it hasn't yet. I think bouncers and the like assume I must be old enough to drink—there’s no way I could think I’d be able to scam my way past them with this face. Puzzlingly, the only times I do get asked for ID are when I’m out with my parents. Good side benefit of this one: I once was able to make a bet with a friend that I wouldn’t get carded, and won. Sweet.

My other favorite upside, and the one that inspired me to write this, is playground swings. There really aren’t enough parks with swings anymore in this day and age (aside from the ones that are made to enclose really tiny children) but every so often I am happy to find one. There’s a nice playground a 10-or-so minute walk from my job that I like to frequent from time to time. And though I am obviously too old to be the target audience for swings, I content myself with the fact that at least this youthful face does not look creepy on a playground full of children. In fact, it evidently looks so non-threatening that it drags strangers along into the fray. Yesterday two women who looked a few years older than I am (though who I am to judge these things) came into the park while I was happily swinging away. A few minutes later, one cautiously made her way over to the swing next to mine. When I eventually got up, she sat in my swing instead. Clearly, I had made it look so great that she wanted to experience it herself. Happy to share the joy.

P.S. While I was in the process of writing this, a friend called this Onion article to my attention. Guess in addition to being young-lookin’ it’s also good to be a lady.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

“Would you rather play a board game with a child all day or go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?”: A brief review?

This past week I have been enjoying Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? The book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a novel told entirely in questions. The NYT already posted a nice review in kind, so I’m afraid I’ve been beaten to that particular trope. Instead, I’ll just say that I think this book might be the perfect gift item for all sorts of people.

Want to get to know someone better? Get them to answer question streams such as, “If your house was to be painted either ‘arsenical green’ or ‘cupric yarng,’ which would you pick? Do you synchronize all your clocks? If so, are they set correctly, fast, or slow? Have you ever taken a beating? Would you like one?” You will certainly learn things you did not know before.

Facing a long car ride with a small complaining child? Suggest: “Would a small red balloon cheer you up? A dog?”

Want to start a conversation with David Ives? Ask him: “Do you know anything at all about the circumstances by which Leon Trotsky, in exile in Mexico City, happened to be assassinated with an ice ax?”* Surely he will be glad to tell you the answer.

Encounter a time-traveler and find yourself curious about what the world’s like in the future?: “Are you peculiar about your socks these days, or at this point are socks socks?”

Attempting to come up with an essay for a theory class?: “If we were told that Einstein secretly carries a very small pet in his pocket, would we seek to discover what it is? Do you feel all right? Would you be embarrassed or rather thrilled by yourself if you were caught by Einstein with your hand in his coat pocket? Would you prefer to explain yourself in such a moment to Einstein, to Freud, or to Picasso?”

(Personally: Yes. Yes, thanks. Yes. Picasso.)

The novel is not just a list of questions (though of course it is also that). It’s the ramblings of a crazy mind, which keeps returning to certain (and sometimes worrying) themes: the ice-cream man, the rape of a candy striper, the presence of a pearl-handled gun. The book is told by an unreliable narrator—except he’s not withholding information from you so much as asking you to provide it yourself. It’s a bit like engaging in a game of questions with the master. It's a bit dizzying. “Is you stupid, do you think?” he queries. Maybe so.

*Look up this play if you get a chance. It is hilarious.