Sunday, August 31, 2008

There's Quinine in it!

Earth-shattering discovery of the morning: I like tonic water.

I mean, I REALLY like tonic water. If I could carry a pack of tonic water everywhere with me, sipping between syllables from a plastic tube taped to the inside of my left arm, I would. There are the bubbles, the evanescent sweetness, the anti-malarial properties...let me count the ways! (That would be three.)

Why have I been heretofore unaware of my abiding adoration of tonic water? Because I had only ever drunk the stuff with gin. See, I like gin and tonics (premise). Gin and tonics are made up of gin and tonic (premise). Therefore, I must like gin and I must like tonic (conclusion) because if you like something, you like its constituent parts in equal measure (implied premise sneaking around in the argument- ALARMING!!!)

Even more alarming is the fact that it's barely afternoon and I am already blogging about cocktails and syllogisms (in combination, no less). Ah well: we do what we must in pursuit of Truth. And I am happy to report that, thanks to a lucky accident involving my own absent-mindedness and the resemblance of the bottle of tonic water, when viewed using peripheral vision, to a piece of bottle-shaped cheese, I have finally become wise to this great logical fallacy lurking my life. I don't much like gin, as it happens: it tastes of rancid pine needles. I do like gin and tonics, yes, but I like them because tonic water is the nectar of the Gods.

Sitting here nursing my fourth tonic water of the day, I can't help but wonder how many other false assumptions we make about why we like what we like (there's a hidden assumption here, too, that my tonic water incident is an allegory for larger life issues, but never mind). You might think you love music when you really crave the praise and attention of the audience. You might think you want children when what you really want is the approbation and support of your community. You may think you love John Q. Smith, when really you love that he laughs at your jokes.

Life is damn sneaky. I need another tonic water.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dumberator over Dumbnominator

Intellect is all well and good, but stupidity is way more fun! Accordingly, here's an online game that limns, exquisitely, an area in which I am not just mediocre, but magnificently subpar.

If you can beat level three (entitled, with discomfiting irony, Mind the Gap), you've got me on the mat. Readers, I invite you to take the Thrash Anne Challenge! See how many levels you get through, or just see if you can mind that rascally gap. Then report back to me on the blog. Because sometimes girls just wanna have dumb.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Overheard on Audubon...

...and cross street, the following conversation:

"He was there before she got involved."
"You know, I've been chasing him all day."
"He needs to be hung up by his balls."

The players were a chain-smoking Indiana good ol' girl leaning on a car with an In God We Trust license plate, and a teacherly old woman with funky earrings and a massive handbag. The old woman spoke the closing line.

It strikes me that this is the kind of story about which you crave both to hear more and to hear absoluately nothing further. It's perfectly balanced: a dancer en pointe, a beautiful girl on a trapeze.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Down the Hatch

When I was growing up, no one in my family cooked. Although we weren't particularly well off, my mother and father went so far as to hire a series of women who came in once a week to load our freezer up with casseroles. Later we made a lot of family trips to Subway.

Suffice to say that my brother and I grew to adulthood with only the sketchiest idea of what you were supposed to do in the kitchen. Sure, we experimented. There was my brother's Cheerio scone, formed by crushing Cheerios into a fine powder, adding water, and slapping the resultant lumps onto a baking sheet. The results tasted so revolting we threw the scones out for the birds to eat. The birds knew better.

Or that time in fifth grade, when each kid did a project on one of the fifty States. I assembled an exhaustively researched, exhaustingly long-winded report on the great state of Vermont (confessions of an Elementary School swot) but was paralyzed by the assignment to prepare a representative dish from my state. Finally I put some apples in a saucepan, added some Coolwhip (symbolizing Vermont's dairy industry, as I recall), drizzled some Log Cabin syrup on top, and shoved the whole thing into Dixie cups.

I finally learned to cook in college, from a roommate descended from a long line of Iowa farmwives. (My brother was not so lucky: he has grown into a tall, gaunt young man who never turns down free food.) I can cook my share of workday meals, make biscuits, even make pie from scratch. Still, I've never quite lost my, er, spirit of adventure, and so, from time to time, I'll eat something like this:

This was tonight's dinner. I started with the basic pancake recipe in the 1997 Joy of Cooking, which I find produces thin, lumpy pancakes with a crave-worthy salty tang. (A little more mixing smooths out the lumps, but what's the point if you like lumpy pancakes? Also, Anne's #1 cooking tip: if a recipe calls for salt, you should always add more.) To the basic batter, I added powdered cardamom, which made for strange little (lumpy) aromatic pancakes. Hmm.

Next I spread the pancakes with something called fromage blanc, which is a soft, tangy white farmer's cheese. Over each pancake I then poured a spoonful of locally-made maple syrup, the runny kind that tastes like nothing but itself.

It was actually kind of yummy. I'm going to round out the meal with some frozen peas and maybe a little beer. My mother would be proud.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Something under the Bed is Drooling

I'm coming down off a serious book high (the adjective attaches to the books, not to the high). I've gone back and forth since I was old enough to remember, periodically falling off the wagon of normal-person-hood into the muck of great (or at least pretentious) literature, then laboriously climbing back aboard. My serious book benders last a year or two, and usually coincide with periods in my life when I think things are possible: change, accomplishment, serendipity. I stop reading serious books when I feel beaten down.

Just because I've given up literature, though, doesn't mean I can give up books. Reading is, for better or for worse, my cross to bear, and when I can't bear much of anything else, I read detective novels. Currently I'm about four novels into a series by Chicago writer Sara Parketsky in which female P.I. V.I. Warshawski routinely gets clubbed, kicked, slapped, crushed, and otherwise battered prior to being left for dead.

I don't read the series for the violence, though, or even particularly for the mystery. I read it for the in-between parts, when V.I. eats tortilla soup or goes for a run or takes a shower or gets some coffee. I find the recounting of V.I.'s daily routines indescribably soothing. You can't get this kind of thing in literature. In literature, every word counts. The boring, the everyday, the drab: all these are excised to make way for artistry. In Paretsky's novels, in contrast, the boring and the everyday and drab act like swaddling, blunting the edges of the clubbings and kickings and crushings and fear and pain.

It's a trick the cleverest non-literary writers and cultural brokers know how to use, and do. I'm thinking of the gay sidekick in every romantic comedy, of the friendly black kid in every teen drama. I'm thinking of the humor used to leaven the otherwise indigestible street violence of The Wire, of the Sopranos organizing hits from the comfort of their suburban kitchens. I'm thinking about how every American politician arranges to have himself photographed eating lunch, playing golf, or talking to his kids before and after he expounds on what we have to fear.

We like to see our fears demystified. Queerness, blackness, political power, violence, urban blight: we like to get a handle on these things, to drag the monsters out from under the bed and examine them with the lights on until we feel comfortable enough to go back to sleep.

Today I got up. I went for a run and checked out some bookshelves at a garage sale and went down the street for a cup of coffee. I took a shower. I ate an avocado and finished Hard Time, in which V.I. investigates for-profit-prisons and eats a number of lunches on the run. There's Joyce on my bookshelf, and more Woolf, but I may need a couple more months with the lights on, first.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

At the Fair

After the swine barn there's nothing for it: I have to get a funnel cake. I pick the shack with the sign that says "Funnel Cake" with the greatest preponderance of capital letters and the most forceful color of paint, because everyone knows the better your signage, the better your food. My funnel cake is $2 more expensive than any other funnel cake at the fair, and is served by a beady-eyed man sporting what may or may not be a fake moustache. These are all good signs.

I have to wait for the cake. This is because a little blond boy made it to the shack before me. I glower at him until he hides his head against his mother's side. She gets the funnel cake for him when it comes out, damn her long reach; I could have taken the kid. Finally my funnel cake arrives, dripping from its bath of grease like a virgin in a B movie dripping from her gratuitous shower. I'm on it like a pervert on an inflatable cheerleader.

They take a lot of showers in B movies. Similarly, I take a lot of time to eat my funnel cake, mostly because it is ungodly hot and burns my fingers the first thirteen times I try to rip into it. I subdue the cake with patience: patience is one of those underrated weapons, like numchucks. Once I've gotten the thing down to a reasonable temperature, it's no match for me; by the time I make it to the tractor barn, I'm down to those last few sick-making bites.

This is the moment that separates the real men and women from the sensible. Are you going to manage to ingest those last sugary blobs of deep-fried goodness, or will you knuckle under and feed the rest to some kid whose mom isn't looking? I have not come this far for nothing; I force the rest of the cake down my gullet and stagger forward toward the distant white light that is the sun glinting off the tractors. They are green. I am green. They are covered with swarms of small boys. I am not, but if I fall over, I know small boys will trample my bloated carcass underfoot.

I tell myself it's just a cake. I tell myself I've handled a lot worse, like heartbreak and bad news and the really big spider that crawled up out of the garbage disposal. I lie down and pray for death.

It takes me 24 hours to recover from the funnel cake but I make it in the end, clawing my way back inch by inch toward digestive health. I do not eat anything else because I have forgotten what it is to feel hunger. In fact, I have forgotten everything but the cake; the cake has acted like liquid plumber, scrubbing out the inside of my skull until it gleams. I am wan and sickly and satisfied. I have sacrificed for my own sins; I don't need anyone else to do it for me.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Back to School

There's a big article in the NYT Magazine today about education reform in New Orleans. I'm a sucker for press on education; I used to pounce on the biannual Education Life section even before I found myself inexplicably working in the public schools. So after a quick perusal of the Olympics coverage (I'm addicted; hell, we're all addicted), the first thing I did was curl up with the Magazine and a cup of tea.

Education reform: ugh. Education is one of those behemoth issues, like health insurance or criminal justice, where everybody knows the goal but no one can decide how to get there. Education reform reminds me quite forcefully of that Monty Python sketch in which philosophers play soccer. Everyone takes the field, but once there, each person pursues his own agenda: Aristotle staggers around the goal area, Nietzsche argues with the ref, Archimedes kicks the ball, Hegel disputes the results. When the ball goes in, it's almost an accident.

The interesting thing about New Orleans is that, rather than try to unify their philosophers under the auspices of team leadership, Paul Pastorek, the state Education Superintendent, has decided it's every man for himself. Pastorek wants to transform the host of competing methods and agendas from a liability into an asset: under his model, most of the public schools will in fact be charter schools. The "command and control" top-down model will be transformed into a "portfolio" model in which the role of the central authority will be to manage the portfolio by supporting successful schools and weeding out failing ones.

A nice idea. But the signal strength of charter schools is one that cannot possibly be replicated on a district level: charter schools can control their composition by admitting only students -and parents- who agree to their terms (covenants, contracts, uniforms) and by dismissing students who fail to live up to their agreements. Public schools, by their very definition, must take everyone.

As it happens, I work in a scool district similar in demographic composition to the New Orleans schools. That is to say, made up almost entirely of poor minority children facing a host of non-school-related challenges. I know I am supposed to maintain faith in the power of education to effect positive change (trickier when the Superintendent insists via powerpoint that we will "affect positive change") but it's hard to keep the flame alive. I meet for 30 minutes a week with kids who face nearly insurmountable obstacles to learning (family issues, neighborhood issues, health issues, disabilities). I am overworked and underpaid; I often feel that I am little more than legal protection, a way for the district to cover its ass. Furthermore, I am unwilling to do as so many educators do and devote countless hours of unpaid work to the job. Though I feel guilty about it, I limit my idealism to the hours specified by my contract. Given all this, what hope is there?

Pastorek says: "So,now, can I solve all those problems tomorrow afternoon? Can I even get the attention of the people who have control over those thing? Right now, in New Orleans, after Katrina, the answer is no, I can't. But I can't take the position that I can't succeed unless I have those things. I have to take the position that we're going to do it in spite of that. Now, will it be hard? Will I be less successful? Probably, yes. But I have to take that approach, because I don't have really any other cards to play."

Time to put mine on the table.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Out to Lunch

I never in a million years thought I would be able to utter these words, but here they are: I have lunch duty. Five days a week, one-hundred and eighty days a year, ostensibly thirty -but in reality 45- minutes a day, I oversee the lunchtime logistics of a cafeteria full of ravening children.

Lunch duty was not my idea. I did not dream of lunch duty as a child. I did not grow up thinking "ooo! I can't wait til I have lunch duty." No, lunch duty was a raspberry blown to me by the universe, a brutal wedgie perpetrated by fate. Lunch duty, to put it bluntly, sucks.

It goes down like this: at 11:30, I make a mad dash for the cafeteria, praying to get there before the various lunchees, bobbing like diseased whales down the battered hallway, make it to the door. Once there, I direct traffic, making sure kids are seated three to a bench in the correct order. That accomplished, I force them to keep their mouths shut and their heads down on the table until I call them, one class at a time, to go get their Cheezy Snacks and fruit cups (because 85% of the school lives below the poverty line, everyone gets free lunch). My lunch charges are K-2. Some of the kids cry. Some of them kick. The kindergartners do not understand the concept of standing up and maintaining linear formation, and must be herded, like sheep, toward the food serving maw.

I do not recognize myself during lunch duty. I stalk between the tables, rounding on errant children. I tell them no. I order them to tell me their names and their grades, and force them to restate the lunchroom rules until they toe the line. I tell them I'm watching them. I speak sternly and do not smile.

This is all it takes, it turns out, to become a stranger to yourself. Too many children, the stink of sour milk, a little unwanted responsibility.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

On Persuasion

My not-so-secret get-rich-quick plan is to write marginally successful romance novels and use the proceeds to finance an ashram or a change of identity; I haven't decided which. Really, it's a perfect plan- except for the fact that writing romance novels is a lot harder than it looks, and requires you to read a whole lot of romance novels, besides.

In the last two years (I was not, prior to the inception of the plan, a romance novel reader) I've learned that the ostensibly uniform badness of the genre is actually a spectrum, encompassing every qualitative gradation from good-bad, bad-bad, and eye-crossingly horrendous. I've learned what constitutes good-bad (you stay up past your bedtime reading it even though you feel guilty about doing so and will deny it in public) and what constitutes bad-bad (boredom). I've also learned quite a bit about, for lack of a a better term, the romantic Zeitgeist. By which I mean the stories we tell ourselves, the narrative molds into which, often unconsciously, we try to pour our lives.

Here's the interesting thing: the molds have changed. I watched Persuasion yesterday. It's my favorite Jane Austen screen adaptation, mostly because it contains a lot of gratuitous shots of livestock. I've seen it eight or nine times, but this was my first time subsequent to adopting the get-rich-quick scheme outlined above, and I was startled to see how naked the Romance (capital R) was under the skin of the story. Persuasion has a classic Cinderella plot: unappreciated middle daughter, overweeningly virtuous but gently abused by her family, attracts man with status who cannot forget her and finally comes to her home to stake his claim.

This is the old mold: attraction and understanding comes first, then social union, last sex. The meek shall inherit the earth, and quiet acceptance eventually brings its reward. There's an element of rescue to the story I don't like, but then again, I'm still watching the movie.

Besides, the new mold's no better. I've got a crackpot theory which states that, in romance, whatever is forbidden comes last. When Persuasion was written, sex was what was forbidden; romance functioned as a prelude to marriage and its consequences. Sex isn't really forbidden anymore; what comes last in modern romances (and the mushrooming crossover genre of Chick-lit) is, interestingly enough, love.

Here's the paradigm. Boy meets girl. They are mutually attracted, and start getting it on. This mutual attraction, coupled with gradually increasing liking and attachment, meets and surmounts various internal and external obstacles (other partners, class differences, common sense). Boy and girl make no commitments. In fact, they actively seek to avoid commitment, declaring, for example, that they are free to see other people. This never works. Rather, their unquenchable ardor forces them together until their resistance collapses and they commit in an orgiastic flurry of I love yous.

I make it sound laughable, and it is. But just as romance novels are harder to write than you'd think, their narrative frameworks are more powerful -and more profoundly embedded in our culture- than most people understand. I could name any number of people off the top of my head who are consciously or unconsciously conducting themselves according to one of the preceding scripts. Never mind that waiting for rescue usually gets you squat. Never mind that folks who try to "see other people" often get back together not because of their unsquelchable compatibility, but because they are lonely and it's easier.

I am persuaded we are all hostage, to one degree or another, to the romance novel. The question is whether or not we should try to wiggle free.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On Yeats

I keep forgetting how good this is, then stumbling over it ass-first.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Instead of discussing this sucker, I'll just lick it. Licking literature is what we should have done in English class. That and make lists. Other things I repeatedly forget the unholy goodness of:

step aerobics
egg nog
showering after getting really, really dirty
Alice Munro
the recession of pain

Sometimes things are so unbearably great they need to be surrounded by inanity for your own protection. Kind of like using packing peanuts to ship your family heirlooms. Did I mention I like tomatoes? Packing peanuts are pretty cool, too.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Saturday, August 2, 2008

On Waking

I've decommissioned my alarm clock for the summer, and without it I've been waking up around 7:15. I'm not sure why this is, if the light trips some wire or the church bells ring or I simply tire of sleep. At 7:15 I open my eyes. I gather up my worries. I don't dawdle getting out of bed, because waking up is like learning anew each day the darkest secret of the friend of your heart: once you know, things are never easy again.

The particular pleasure of Saturday mornings is retrieving the paper. I hunt for flip flops or rain boots or other inappropriate footwear. I open the front door, the door that only gets opened on newspaper days. I clump out into the morning, which is always new and wet like a calf. I stoop. I grab ahold of that blue plastic sleeve. I get two more mosquito bites on the back of my thigh.

I am a mosquito celebrity. It's the only conclusion to be drawn in the face of the evidence. Maybe not Paris Hilton but Nicole Richie at least: wherever I go, no matter how much I strive for anonymity, I'm trailed by a black, whining cloud of admirers. Friends are ignored. Dark sunglasses don't fool anyone. I itch.

This is because I am, in addition to being famous, highly allergic. Subsequent to being accosted by mosquitoes, I develop welts the size of the larger denominations of currency. These slowly ripen from pink and white to a deep, empurpled red. And did I mention the itching?

(I tried to take a picture of the carnage using my computer's Photobooth application, but thanks to the contortions required to lay the appropriate pound of flesh before the computer camera whilst maintaining my ability to depress the enter key, the results were unfit for the consumption of minors.) (If you wonder why in the hell I didn't just use a digital camera, see this post.)

It's simple math, really. Two minutes outside equals two mosquito bites. A brief hitch in the swing of the day equals several hours of trying to figure out a way to gracefully scratch the back of my thighs. None of which stops me from stumping out to get the paper.

It makes me wonder how many of our pleasures come with that little backhanded slap of pain. It makes me wonder if there's any gift not admixed with something raw and red and itchy.

Friday, August 1, 2008

De Profundis

Too depressing for words.