Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I Hope You Have Not Been Wandering for 40 Years Waiting for My Passover Post

It is hard to get excited about a holiday in which the dietary staple is Bread of Affliction.

Who was the marketing genius that came up with that one?

Square bread, round hole.

Believe me, after eight days, a person can feel pretty afflicted, no matter how many prunes you put in the tsimmes.

Still, I love Passover, and especially seder. And, I don't mind saying, especially MY seder, which rocks.

Literally, since we play every Metallica song there is about a plague visited upon the Egyptians.

Which it turns out is only one. Apparently boils, though a source of discomfort hellacious enough even for the Holiest of Holies, is not quite hellacious enough for the Heavy of Metals.

This year, we managed to add more multimedia to our seder. Why not celebrate the oppression of our people in ancient times with that most oppressive of modern scourges?

Who among us has not suffered the plague of
having a coworker who is a zealous PowerPoint presenter?

But the real highlight came from my favorite Irish Catholic (well, former Catholic), aka my college roommate, who was fortuitously visiting her family in Boston during Nisan 5768 (that is not some sort of Japanese race car; it's just a Jew way to say April 2008). Where she discovered that her sister, a perpetual graduate student in religion, was reading a tome entitled Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt.

You must find something in there I can read at seder, I said.

But she did even better. She found something I could show.

Yes, dear reader, that is an illustration of a hyena being force-fed some sort of trussed meat (duck? rabbit? all I know is it ain't square enough to be matzah). By an Egyptian.

Which caused the venerable archaeologist Salima Ikram, author of Choice Cuts, to hypothesize that the Egyptians was fattening up the hyena before killing and eating it. Aside from rendering this some sort of pharaonic forerunner of the turducken, it would also make the Egyptians "the only people to eat hyenas in the ancient world."

So I put the illustration in my Pascal Powerpoint and informed all the attendees at my seder that whenever we read the words Egypt or Egyptian, we should all call out, HYENAPHAGE!

And we did.

About three dozen times - if you've ever been to a seder, you know that's about how often Egypt and Egyptians are mentioned about.

The irony, of course, is that Egyptians have actually been pretty decent allies to Israelis in recent decades. And to tell the truth, I did feel badly about encouraging this new level of vilification.

But really, when you're a Jew at Passover - a holiday in which horseradish, apples, and walnuts piled on bread of affliction is euphemistically called a sandwich - if you can make fun of anyone else's dietary practices, you really should.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Red With Envy

When I say MacaroniManiac was flipping through the red book what comes to mind?

1. A magazine for women, known for hard-hitting articles like "Hot Husbands" and "Is Your Hair Healthy?"

2. A handbook of Chairman Mao's political theorizing, known for such vaguely smutty chapters as "Relations Between Officers and Men" and "Self-Reliance and Arduous Struggle"

3. A slang term for menstruation as coined by me and Jackie LePore when we were in fifth grade, right after they showed that education film that was really a softcore ad for Kotex in the school cafeteria

Heavens no! There is a red book even more prone to confusing domestic inanity for news, more likely to incite class warfare, and more apt to induce mood swings than any of those red books.

It's the Harvard Red Book!

Ever wonder what makes this Ivy League luminary so prestigious?

That would be the 35 billion-with-a-b dollar endowment. That's bigger-with-a-b than the GDP of any number of third world nations.

Why does Harvard have so much money? Because it knows how to translate the petty insecurities and not so petty egos of its alumni into major donations.

And just like Mao, they rely on both a red book, and a five year plan (this seems a better cycle than the monthly options of the magazine and menstrual red book options).

So five years after you graduate from Harvard, you are invited to send in a report on what you've been up to. As long as you want. About whatever you want. The reports are compiled into a book, bound with a nice red cover, and sent to everyone in the class. Giving you ample opportunity to compare yourself to everyone else and decide that either 1) you are way more successful than the rest of the classmates and better make a big gift to Harvard to prove it or 2) you are not as successful as the rest of the classmates and better make a big gift to Harvard to compensate for it.

The process is repeated every five years. The volumes get thicker and thicker, until sufficient numbers of the class start dying out. I guess by the end it's just a red pamphlet. Or maybe a red post card.

But until then, the result is the best bathroom reading in the whole world. So if I've been lax in updating the blog, perhaps it because my squeeze the cheese just got his Twenty Year Reunion Red Book, and I have been reading up on his classmates.

Of course the challenge for any red bookie is to write the best entry in the class. Bear in mind, nobody fact-checks these puppies. Your bulldyke best buddy can now purportedly be married to some guy who's career military. Someone who is a graduate student by day can allegedly be lead singer in a punk thrash band by night.

I wrote an excellent entry on behalf of Little Orphan Annie for our 15th Reunion Red Book. All it said was I came out of retirement to fight the champ.

Sometimes it's hard to tell whether the entries are jokes or not. That guy my friend Judy had a crush on but could never get to commit - is he really now a she? Was there really someone who was studying for the priesthood while we were undergraduates - and is he really now not only out of the clergy but out of the closet as well? And did my friend Aaron give up on Orthodox Judaism to, as he put it, join the Godless Conservative movement? (And if so, does that mean I won't have to eat that tasteless rennet-free cheese next time I score some M&C at his place?)

But by far the best entries are the ones read in retrospect. Because whatever else you recycle, NEVER part with your red books. You never know who in your class will end up famous. Or infamous.

I have a friend whose dad was in the same graduating class as Theodore Kaczynski.
Imagine the entries:
Fifth Year Reunion: Brilliant mathematics graduate student
Ten Year Reunion: Promising assistant professors
Fifteenth Year Reunion: Starting to sound like a whacko
Twentieth Year Reunion, Twenty-Fifth Reunion, Thirtieth Reunion: Address unknown
Thirty-Fifth Reunion: Home Address: Florence Federal Corrections Complex 5880 Highway 67, Florence, Colorado

One can assume the Harvard development office is very, very cautious when they open the envelope he sends in with his "donation" for the endowment.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Stereotypes - Hateful, Hurtful, Hilarious

In the late 1980s, I was watching Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), reading l'écriture féminine, and sharing dresses with Thomas Lauderdale.
Flash forward to 2008, and now I'm listening to l'écriture dangereuse, and Thomas and I are both wearing pants. Well, I'm actually wearing leopard overalls, but more on that in a moment.

Back in the late 1980s, Tom Spanbauer published his first book, Faraway Places. Spanbauer is known for "Dangerous Writing," which, given that it is something he does not define it on his website, in a show of solidarity and/or sloth, I will not define here.

What matters is, it's dangerous + writing + Thomas Lauderdale, who this very evening hosted a reception in honor of the reissuing of Faraway Places (the lambda literary equivalent of the DVD release of a certain Glenn Close/John Malkovich/Swoosie Kurtz/Uma Thurman/Keanu Reaves/Michelle Pfeiffer blockbuster).

The closest I got to dangerous writing back in the late 1980s was writing my senior thesis on ethnic jokes. Which actually turns out to be quite relevant, because the Tom Spanbauer reading turned out to be a long series of ethnic jokes.

Interaction 1:
I remind Adam Levey that I invited him to my seder. He apologizes for not coming and asks how it was. I point out that it has not happened yet - first seder is Saturday night. Really? he says. I was on the phone with my mother this morning and she was talking about her seder for like two hours, and I totally thought it had happened already.

Look, I say, I know you aren't coming to my seder because your shiksa girlfriend isn't in town to drag you to it.

He admits this is true, he's a total guy about social stuff, let's her do all the arrangements. I point out that Jewish men are especially bad in this department. Because of our overbearing mothers? he asks.

Overbearing? Just because she talked about seder for two hours? Yeah, I say, we have a number of friends that the Cheez has mistakenly thought were gay, and I've had to point out repeatedly that he was just mistaking Jewish male emasculation for latent homosexuality.

This is the first year in my life when people I meet assume I'm straight rather than gay
Adam admits. I think it's because my neck is starting to get thick.

Or it could be because you walk around with your unbelievably sexy shiksa girlfriend
I say.

A lot of gay men walk around with unbelievably sexy women
Adam points out.

It's true, I say. No one has ever mistaken Thomas Lauderdale for a heterosexual.

Interaction 2:
After reading from Faraway Places, Tom Spanbauer is taking questions, most of which are about his experiences as a gay man who was raised Catholic in small town Idaho.

As he is answering some deeply personal question, a not-exactly-falsetto-but-still-it-probably-violates-the-bounds-of-don't-ask-don't-tell voice booms out Will all you people who want to talk please move to the other room so the rest of us can hear Tom?

A hush falls on the room, a welcome hush for those of us who have been straining to hear the dangerously softspoken writer.

Thank god for the fags,
I say, they take some pressure off the Jewish women, in the telling people what to do department.

It's because I was an Episcopalian choirmaster in the South
Bill-the-Shusher says. I know how to shush the boys when they're talking out of turn.

Every Jewish woman and Catholic queer needs a southern Episcopalian choirmaster, I say.

Interaction 3:
I am talking to the only black person at the Spanbauer reading, who happens to also be the only black person in a seminar I am teaching on William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. I hope you aren't suffering from too much sliding eyeball syndrome in the seminar I say.

What do you mean? she asks.

It's when there's one black person in the room, I say, and the topic of race comes up, and so everybody slides their eyeballs over to see how that person is reacting.

Actually I have noticed she starts to say, but she is interrupted by some white person from an insanely small and homogenous Oregon town, who comes over to ask what it was like for her when, while reading from his book, Tom Spanbauer said the word nigger.

Interaction 4:
The room is clearing out for the evening. I'm saying good-night to my outgoing friend Floyd, when a woman comes over, gesturing madly at my leopard overalls, which I have tastefully accessorized with a leopard cape. And a leopard trim purse. Oh, and there are leopard cat ears on my bike helmet, though I hadn't donned that yet.

I'm a costume designer the woman tells me, and you know what they used to call that back in the 50s? Puss Print.

All I can do is wonder why they ever stopped calling it Puss Print. Perhaps my fellow Jew Hélène Cixous (whose been known to sport the spots herself) can write a nice essay advocating a feminist reclamation of Puss Print.

She's beautiful, she's laughing, and nu, she's wearing leopard.

Friday, April 11, 2008

I Laughed, I Cried, It Was Better than Katz

There is no picture of Donka Minkova on the internet.

I just looked, because I wanted to start my blog entry by mentioning Donka Minkova. Who, FYI, is the world's leading expert on the schwa.

Though devoid of images of Donka Minkova, the internet is loaded with pictures of schwas. This is, arguably, the oddest:

I am Cornholio! Give me phonetic symbols for my bunghole!

Back in the days when Beavis and Butthead ruled the MTV airways, I was a Ph.D. student at UCLA. The only required course in my entire program was Philology, taught by Donka Minkova.

Not about stamp collecting, that's philately. Philology is the history of the English language.

I loved that course. It was dripping with the sort of oddball facts you can milk for years of cocktail party chit chat. Not to mention the occasional blog entry.

And Donka Minkova loved me. I got an A+ in the course. Not quite as impressive as getting a ə+, but still pretty groovy.

Donka Minkova knew the subject was esoteric and that we all took the class because we had to, not because we wanted to. But she loved philology and wanted to make the course relevant. On the final exam, we had to give examples of how we would apply what we'd learned in real life.

Fortuitously, my friend Orit had come to visit me not long before the exam. Orit is Israeli, so Hebrew is her first language. Dutch is her second language (who the hell knows why, maybe she wanted to keep up on the latest news about Tori van Spelling). English is a somewhat distant third.

At the end of her stay, she hugged me good-bye and thanked me for my hostility. Very Israeli.

Luckily, as a pupil of philology, I knew that just about every word in English except sushi and tomahawk come from an ancient Indo-European root language. For no good reason, I happened to have learned from Donka Minkova that the words guest, host, hostility, and hospitality all derive from the Indo-European root word for stranger.

And what is stranger than a grad student hostess with the mostess quoting philological learnings to an Israeli guest?

I'll tell you what: an Egyptian police band (as in, dudes with trumpets and violins) who wander into a small Israeli town.

Which is the premise of The Band's Visit, the movie I saw tonight.
(See how crazy things get the moment we don't have Charlton Heston to set the Semites on our proper paths?)

One review suggested that The Band's Visit "may be too subtle and too reserved." I beg to differ. There is nothing subtle or reserved about Jews. And especially not about Israelis.

Suffice it to say, this is a film of pushy women, clueless men, and the greatest roller disco scene since Monster.

Take the stranger in a strange land plot, throw in a little linguistic confusion, add some hospitality mistaken for hostility. The result is both hilarious and poignant.

If Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat went out with Siskel and Eibert, this would be their perfect double date movie. Particularly if you could get nu a little tahini on the popcorn. One can only hope it wins a schwacademy award.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What Makes This Celebrity Death Different From All Others?

Like any good bleeding heart liberal, I subscribe to the usual leftist media. NPR. The Nation. Mother Jones. Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer.

And thus, like all good bleeding heart liberals, I was bombarded this week by remembrances of Martin Luther King.

I don't mind admitting I get a bissel fahklempt (that's Yiddish for "experiencing deep sadness and regret, like what you feel when you're at the grocery store on the day before Passover and you realize you left your coupon for the 5 lb. pack of Manischewitz matzah at home") whenever I hear the speech.

But you do have to wonder, what about conservatives? What opportunities do they have for a teary-eyed remembrance of a political icon who dreamed their dream?

It turns out, even the right-wing gun nuts can make it to the mountaintop.

R.I.P. to the great pretend Jew and one-time Civil Rights supporter (and star of the most homoerotic film ever) . . . if only you hadn't drifted oh so far to the other side . . .

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Couch Potato

Where in the world is Macaronimaniac? Outside the Hotel New York, in Rotterdam.
My squeeze the Cheez took this picture while we were in Rotterdam because I am from New York.

We did not stay in the Hotel New York. Instead we stayed in the least New York place imaginable.
We stayed in the home of a complete stranger.

I was raised New York style. Which is to say, suspicious. My father honestly believes that if you take a cab, you will for sure end up brutally murdered. Because all strangers are just biding their time, waiting to get you.

So maybe it was an act of latent but well-justified rebellion when I logged onto to find a place to stay in Rotterdam. Couch surfing sounds kind of 23 year-old dude, I'll admit, but it was recommended to me by my college roommate, who is so not a 23 year-old dude that she is an IT manager for an international bank. (If you think Couch Surfing sounds bad, consider the similar organization called Hospitality Club, which sounds like something Eliot Spitzer might have on speed dial).

I surfed for Rotterdam couches, with the sole criteria of finding a non-smoker over the age of 35.

But I found so much more than that.

I found Rossi in Rotterdam.

Self-employed, works from home, into art. According to her profile, Rossi was just like me! Except for the part about being Dutch and living in Rotterdam. I sent an email, and she agreed to host us.

"You off for your sofa thingy?" Helen, my Brit friend in Amsterdam, asked Saturday morning.

"Couch thingy," I corrected her. Then I told her where she could find Rossi's phone number and address, just in case Cheez and I ended up brutally murdered after all.

We got on the tram to the train station. The tram came to a dead stop 30 seconds later, with a long announcement in Dutch that somehow included the phrase "cable gebroken."

Just as I was worrying about how long we'd be stuck, the tram started up again, taking a diversion from its usual route. Another announcement came, this time in English. It didn't provide any information about the broken cable or the altered route, but it did offer the reassurance, "Don't worry about the potato. The soup is alright."

No mention of brutal murder per se, but still, I took it as a good sign.

In Rotterdam, Rossi picked us up in her car. Aside from driving like a maniac, she showed no intention of harming us. She gave us a tour of the city, then took us to the Witte de With, a contemporary art museum.

I was so nervous. What if we had nothing to talk about? What if I didn't like her? What if I liked her but she didn't like me?

It was kind of like being on a blind date.

Except with a blind date, you don't know whether you'll end up going home together. With a couch surf, you know.

Our first couch was actually right in the museum, in an exhibit called Shared Space in which two artists had decorated a workroom with a pimped out rug and an insanely comfy couch. The perfect place to subject Rossi to my fave photographic phenom, Found Object Tripod.

Step 1. Set camera to self-timer mode.
Step 2. Perch camera precariously on any available object.
Step 3. Hit the shutter trigger.
Step 4. Run into the picture
Step 5. Laugh like hyena (optional).
Repeat as necessary.

According to her couch surfing profile, Rossi shared my addiction to the digital camera. "I left mine in my friend's bag last week when I was in Paris," she told us forlornly, "and she hasn't sent it back yet." If Rossi had told me she had misplaced a kidney, I couldn't have been more sympathetic. "I'll send you copies of all my pictures," I promised.

As we sat on the couch, Rossi translated the museum's description of the room. Visitors and members of staff are invited to relax for a while, chat with one another, or use the equipment together. With this project, we do not merely respond, but also contribute to the thriving design environment in Rotterdam. Shared Space is not an exhibition; the objects in the space are intended for use.

Unfortunately, the objects in the space consisted of a week-old newspaper and an industrial-sized paper shredder.

Nonetheless, we set to work.

Rossi made a paper hat.
Cheez made a giant fortune teller.
I made a flower and stuck it in the planter.

But the piece de resistance was a collaborative effort, involving a carefully synchronized use of both forward and reverse functions on the shredder.

"It's so beautiful, it should hang on the wall," said Rossi.

I agreed, and set up trying to pull some tape off the pimped rug. When that failed, I pulled a piece of gum from my purse, chewed madly, and used it to affix the piece to the wall. Rossi whipped out a pencil and added a curatorial tag.
Eat Your Heart Out, Jeff Koons

We were so pleased with our artistic display, we went out for celebratory drinks, then headed back to Rossi's place, where her boyfriend Peter had prepared a four-course, gourmet dinner for us.
Surf's up, dude. Kowabunga!

As we reviewed the day's events, I told our hosts about the morning tram ride. "Is there some Dutch expression the woman on the tram was trying to translate?" I asked.

Peter thought for a minute, then said, "The soup is never eaten as hot as it is served."

Huh? He explained it meant that although the soup may be too hot right now, if you wait, the soup will cool enough to eat. Or, as an anxious New Yorker can need to learn, just have patience, and everything will be all right.

Still, something seemed off about the translation. "What happened to the potato?" I asked.

"It's in there," Peter answered, pointing to the roasted pumpkin soup with toasted pine nuts and creme fraiche he'd just served us.

Of course it was. Why had I worried?