Take off your daisy dukes and stay awhile

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Bruschetta Debate: Pitfalls of Pretentious Pronunciation

"What do you think, Geoffrey? Should we get an appetizer? What about the bru-shedda?"
"Great idea Cheryl! They do a really good job with that here. [to waiter] I think we'll start with the bru-SKedda, thanks." Poor Cheryl.

In high school I worked at an Italian restaurant as a seater (a singing seater, no less; embarrassing times, those) and a conversation similar to the one above was to be overheard at least once per shift. On especially exciting (and mystifying) occasions, servers themselves would take a moment to kindly dispossess diners of their unfortunate ignorance and softly inform them that, in fact, they meant to order "bru-skedda" with a very explosive "k." As you'd expect, such lingual evangelism was usually met by customers with a look that said, "If you want, I'll help you shove that bru-skedda right up your ass-holé."

And who could blame them? You hear it all the time nowadays, even outside of restaurants. "Ugh," someone will exasperate, "I hate it when people say bru-shedda. I mean, that's why everyone thinks Americans are so stupid." For several years now the aggravating habit of correcting the mispronunciation of foreign words has been seeping into the realm of acceptable behavior like pus seeping into an infected wound. The intent seems obvious: to impress a date with an infinitely varied potpourri of knowledge with regards to far-flung cultures and languages. Sadly no one ever tells these people the regrettable truth: their potpourri smells like shit. And as anyone who's been there knows, it's never pleasant to be downwind of such phonetic ostentation. Instead of being impressed by the display of cosmopolitan savoir-faire, we're repulsed by it on nearly every occasion. With such a miserable success rate, one wonders at the persistence of such pretension.

I use the word "pretension" deliberately, for more often than not those who engage in this behavior are simply pretending. Pretending at knowledge of a language they studied for a semester or two and then put to diligent use during some time abroad (cloistered in an American institution, speaking mainly English all day, but that's neither here nor there now, is it? I mean, they always ordered their gelato in Italian!). What happened in this country with regards to our worldview? Somehow we created two extremes: the rabidly xenophobic on one end and those with an annoying penchant for overblown displays of sophistication on the other. Thankfully most people fall somewhere in between. But there seems to be this burning desire in many to prove that the iron fetters of middle-class upbringing and education have been flung aside in order to taste the sweet freedom of constant mental stimulation and intellectual challenge. Never mind they haven't read a book since Island of the Blue Dolphins. Well, and The Audacity of Hope on CD.

Although it occurs not just with food and not just in Italian, I'll use bruschetta as the most mind-numbing and perhaps most prevalent example of this pretentiousness. Maybe they heard Emeril talking on TV and loved the musical sounds tripping upon his Italo-Bostonian tongue. Could be they know that the David wasn't sculpted by Michelle-angelo, so they extend the rule to all "ch" combinations they see in Italian (in which case, praise for being observant is in order). And yes, it is true: in Italian, in the word bruschetta, the "sch" is pronounced as in English "SCHool," "SColiosis," "SCurvy," "Antonin SCalia SCanned the SCreen at the porn theater as Tom SKerritt SKipped aSKance." However, as it turns out, the Italian language has more than one pronunciation rule. Go figure.

I say if you're going to feign erudition, might as well go balls out. There's more to a correct pronunciation of bruschetta than just the "k" sound. You'll want to be sure, as of course you're aware, that your r is pronounced as an alveolar tap, retracting the tongue tip behind the alveolar ridge before striking the ridge in passing. Obviously, though you'll pardon me explaining it to the Unwashed, the u will be the pure close back rounded vowel, pronounced endolabially, with no wretched diphthong leakage (unlike the waiters at the restaurant in California, whose "bru" in bruschetta sounds like "brew" in "tasty brewskis"). It seems silly to mention this, but certainly you'll double the t 's as in Italian doubled consonants require gemination and you'd be completely mortified to have your double t 's sound as a singled. Lastly, only a simpleton, we're talking a real fucking jackass, pronounces the a as a schwa, or neutral vowel, as in "thE," "dUH," or "jUst shUt thE hell Up." You employ a gorgeous open front unrounded vowel, as pure as the driven snow in Turin. Oh, I apologize. Torino. How foolishly and chauvinistically American of me.

Perhaps those of you who know me well are surprised to find me on this side of this debate. As an aspiring opera singer and alumnus of a semester abroad, my words may even seem hypocritical. But the intellectual dishonesty of what I'll call the "bru-skedda position" is too profound for me to accept it as valid. Frankly I think it's cowardly not to follow the logic to its conclusion: if it's not too much trouble to learn the basic pronunciation rules for Italian, surely it wouldn't be asking too much to extend such diligence to every one of the world's roughly 2,197 (known) languages. Anyone who subscribes to the "bru-skedda position" I would expect to have no trouble with native-sounding pronunciations of:

- Chow mein. [chau (tone 1) and meing (tone 4). duh.]
- Smörgåsbord
- Foie gras (with the "French R," the voiced uvular fricative. Want to display 100% authenticity, right?)
- Taco (with a dental "t" and mind your diphthongs!)
- Barcelona (with a beautiful, ringing "th")
- São Paulo (nasal vowels, please)
- Rio de Janeiro (with dialectical accuracy, no doubt. You were in the airport that one time.)
- Kiełbasa
- Scheiße (nice strong sibilant, natürlich!)

You go to Frederick's of Hollywood and buy your wife some sexy "lin[nasal]-zhuh-ree" and gaze at the magnificent artistry of Starry Night, painted by a very gutteral "van Gokhkhkhkhkhkhkh," not bothered by the fact you're still saying "van" as in the car your Mom drove you to soccer practice in. You shake your head at the political excesses of Iran's "Makhkhkh-mood Akhkhkh-ma-deen-a-zhad" and sink into the bliss of Clair de lune by "Duh-büüüüü-see" while you recline on your "shez" in your comfortable home on that cute little "cüüül-duh-sac." The tones of your flawless Mandarin ring like bells as you discuss Mao or Tienanmen Square or the plight of earthquake victims in Szechuan over kung pao at General Tso's.

"But those are all silly," you say. "And besides, who could possibly know how to pronounce everything in every language?" I certainly couldn't.

But I'd argue that what matters is the accepted pronunciation. If I ask for "bru-shedda," you know I mean the damn delicious toast-and-tomato appetizer. If someone wants to talk about "Angela" and not "An-gay-la" Merkel, I know they're referring to Germany's rather homely chancellor. The primary purpose of language is to convey meaning. "Conveying intellectual superiority" and "boasting facility with foreign tongues" are far down on the list of The Functions of Language.

So the next time someone orders "bru-shedda," try letting it go and enjoying the meal. Cringe, if you must, when they accompany you to a performance of "Don Geo-vanni," because chances are you'll run into some confusion with your first Götterdämmerung, and you'd feel hurt if someone corrected you. As long as the meaning is clear, accept it. If you have to, remember that you know how to say gnocchi and let that calm you down. Bottom line, if you're going to have a conversation in English, then damnit - have it in English.

Of course, "bru-shedda" won't get you very far when you're actually in Italy, but that's another blog.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Cold Borscht and Hard Lessons

I'm handwriting this entry (to be transcribed whenever I damn well feel like it) to the cold openness of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. One among a handful of well-known Finnish composers, Sibelius writes music that evokes vast tundras of snowy firs in a perpetual twilight. Occasionally the listener will perceive a small Lapp child at play in the frozen landscape, her lips and thick coat displaying the tell-tale blood stains of recent reindeer consumption. I suppose it isn't quite fair to link Sibelius so closely with his homeland for no better reason than he's basically the only famous composer to have emerged from there; no one says, "Oooh, Mozart, what wonderfully Austrian music he wrote!" for example. I'm not sure where this is going, and will blame any rambling of thought on the fact that I'm working on my third beer in the space of thirty minutes.

After completing my last final exam of college on Monday, a strange nostalgic mood has all but consumed me. I think it was the odd fact that my last pre-graduate written thought was:

"Моя бабушка живет в Москве, и она часто идет на театре - она любит Чехова."

This means, in Russian, "My grandmother lives in Moscow, and she often goes to the theater - she loves Chekhov." As I wrote that, three things occurred to me:
1) My grandmother in fact does not live in Moscow.
2) If she did, she'd only bother to go to the Russian-language production of Cats (Кошки)
3) A short time ago, I hadn't envisioned myself doing 1/8 of the things I've done in college, including learning Russian.

I suppose the reason for going to college (which many don't realize until it's too late) is experimentation. Berkeley students see what it's like to not shave for a full leap-year cycle, and young women at Sarah Lawrence have been exploring their Sapphic urges for generations (translation: they try a little "lesbian" on for size). In my case, college was the scene of a number of firsts, of getting my feet wet, of blindly pursuing desire (or often, pursuing blind desire); and I think I'm all the better for it. Mom and Dad, your years' worth of wages didn't go to waste - behold the list of precious and treasured times (color-coded for your convenience!):

Year 2 - I discover that the Screwdriver cocktail is in fact a sentient being, whose sole aim is to climb out of your esophagus.

Year 4 - Beer can be delicious, and enjoyed beyond its capacity to have you passed out or make wretchedly ugly people rather do-able. In fact, with a good beer, the enjoyment is in the
flavor, and the intoxication is merely a bonus. Wow!

Year 3 - I learn that if I need to find a bathroom, shelter, or food, I can be compelled to speak a foreign language pretty fucking well.

Year 3 - I learn the German words for "top" and "bottom" after being picked up at a bar by a man who looks like Miss Piggy but smells like Gonzo - "Aktiv oder passiv?"

Year 2 - After 7 months dating the self-same individual, CONTINUOUSLY, I prove to myself that monogamy is possible even for non-Mormons.

Years 1 & 2 - The "not-judging-a-book" rule hits home. After thinking him an asshole for knowing all the answers I don't know in theory class, Daniel Spaw becomes the closest friend I've yet had.

Year 1 - Just because you go to US News and World Report's #1 music school doesn't mean that everyone you meet really wants to devote his entire life to dead Europeans' music the way you do.

Year 1 - I'm as handy in a physics course as I am on a basketball court.

Years 2 & 4 - Not doing the reading for a class that's conducted in a language other than your mother tongue is a marvelous way to look like an idiot.

Year 4 - Despite my attempts to prove everyone I know over 45 wrong, I find that hard work and tenacity really do work.

Perhaps the best and most concise ('cuz we know I'm all about concise) way to sum all of this up is to say that I've come to see that one's life is not to be predicted - we're just not blessed with enough foresight to know what will happen to us, and the idea of positive correlation (that one event leads inevitably to a predictable other) isn't worth planning one's life around. Remember when I said I was going to be concise?

Anyhow, I'm most proud of one thing: I came here excited about change, and I think I'll graduate feeling the same way. I've come to believe that a fear of change is the most crippling and detrimental barrier to one's development, and so I'm glad that after 22 years, I'm still welcoming to the unforeseen and the unexpected. Bring it on, bitches - I took Russian, sang a role in a modern opera, made excellent friends and kept them, and came to better understand how I function in a romantic relationship. I'll weather the storms of life with my lean-to of confidence. Oh, and it seems I've learned how to write vomit-worthy one-liners as well. Отлично!

Finishing up with Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in a minor. It sounds like Schindler's List, only more infused with genius. That Tchaikovsky, man, what a hero he is for me. Took the gayest music imaginable and made it timeless.

О Чайковский, как мы ты любим!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Terminal Discourtesy

I've got on: Hello, Mary Lou, by Creedence Clearwater Revival. That's right, sports fans... I've made inroads into expanding my musical horizons. Paul Simon and Ella Fitzgerald are lounging on my playlist as well. Music in English, with a drum set, can be just what's needed when walking through the hot-as-balls humidity of a midwestern summer--it pumps the blood, so to speak. Quickens the step, etc. Sometimes well-crafted and beautifully performed songs satisfy as much as the unfathomable profundity of Wagner. Moreso, even, especially when it's hotter than a Teamster's armpit in July. Seriously, we're talking Ghosts of Mississippi hot.

So tonight is the final night before classes begin for fall '06. I arrived on Wednesday, after what turned out to be some rather eventful travelling. This is part one of an untitled two-part mini series. It starts, as many of my stories might, with a sickening man...

Having arrived early to the airport, and finding the security line to be rather sparse, I progressed quickly to the terminal and found a comfortable, squishy-like chair to wait out the hour or so until boarding. I was alone for a small while, reading up on Barack Obama and the new Burberry line, until he sat down across from me.

He was caucasian, short and very thin but for the spherical belly that placed itself nicely between his ribs and groin when he sat. I guessed from his monastic coif that he was around 45. This estimate was supported by the obvious traits of the mid-life crisis:
  • Razr - this rang twice, once to "Dirrty," once to "Born to be Wild."
  • PDF - never came out of his hand
  • Wall Street-esque suit which included:
    • french cuffs with embossed and initial-engraved cufflinks
    • navy vest
    • suspenders
    • Presidential-candidate tie
He arrived on the phone, and talked to more excess than an 8th-grader who's just discovered that if she chit-chats enough, she may just be able to avoid seeing her family ever again. At no time did his conversation cease to be crass or uncouth... obviously, he was more important than anyone who'd walked through LAX in a very long time.

"Sarah, doll," yes, he said doll, "next time, see if you can't arrange the limo so that it picks me up ontime. And maybe my memory's getting bad, but I could've sworn I asked for Perrier-Jouët. They gave me Cooks, Sarah. Cooks, for fuck's sake. Whatever. Do I have any messages?"

"Brad, hey man. Yeah, I'm stuck at the fucking terminal... Tell me about it, this goddamned security isn't going to mean anything. They made me take off my shoes... yeah, right? Like that's going to stop these fuckers. If they're going to blow the plane they'll blow the goddamn plane... No, they didn't search me. I don't fucking look like Osama."

"...yeah, tell me about it. Like these Jews can change anything. That fucking place is fucked up. You're never going to change these idiots' minds. We should just go in there and tell the whole fucking Middle-East what's up... seriously, drop the goddamn bomb, then we won't have any more issues from these bastards."

Now, as more and more people showed up at the terminal, obviously they avoided this man like The Poseidon Adventure. However, as it became more crowded, people had to choose between sitting on the floor or listening to the best definition of "windbag" since Antonin Scalia.

There was still about a half-hour before boarding, and I had to get away from Hatred's mouthpiece. I got up to get some coffee, and, taking my bags with me, I marked my seat with a couple of magazines.

I went and bought my coffee, and a scrumptious cran-orange muffin. Having completely forgotten that my mp3 player was in my bag, I decided that once I sat back down, I'd put my music on and watch his jaw flap wordlessly while I soaked in Strauss. I nearly skipped back to my seat.

He was still on the phone when I arrived, and between the noise of the crowd and the crinkling of my muffin bag, I only picked up bits and pieces. His vocabulary had worsened: "... God, what a cunt..." "... you'd think the idiot would promote my ass after I've basically been sucking his cock for 6 years." Class upon class.

I rolled my eyes and looked forward to sitting down to my music. But, lo! There upon my chair (still marked with Details and Men's Vogue) was an alligator briefcase. I looked about to see whose it might be, but no one seemed to have only just set it down. So I bent to pick it up and put it under my chair, thinking I'd hand it to whomever claimed it later on.

"... yeah, hold on. Hey, man, can I help you?" Oh, Christ. He was talking to me. It was his bag.
"Oh, sorry. These [magazines] are mine, I was saving my seat."
"Ok, well, that's my briefcase. Don't touch it."
"... but... my seat?" I've never dealt with such assholery. I wasn't quite sure what to say.

He held up his finger to me, then put it in his ear, and continued his conversation. "Yeah, sorry. Fuck, I hate the airport... all these people." I understood at that point why people get in fights with strangers in public. I would gladly have accepted community service or even jail time to place the heel of my loafer squarely into his No-No Zone.

Just then, an angel in the form of a sweet grandfatherly-type gentleman stood up in his seat, which was next to him. This guy couldn't have been less than 75, but he was still tall and had a commanding voice.

"Listen, I was sitting here when he [me] left, and I think you ought to move your briefcase and let him sit down. Hope I didn't interrupt your phone call." He said phone call with such an oil-slick sarcasm that, when coupled with his semi-raised meaty fists, the ridiculous pomposo had no choice but to obey.

As I sat down, the older man gave me a friendly wink, and I returned a small smile as I put my headphones in. He continued his phone calls, but I didn't hear another word.

Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years. One of those songs that says what it wants to simply and in a straightforward manner, yet it can only be understood by someone who's "talked about some old times and drank himself some beers" and enjoyed the exquisite bittersweetness that comes therewith.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"... a failure to c'municate."

Listening to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The most well-known movement to this piece is the stirring “O Fortuna,” which anyone who’s ever watched TV would recognize instantly. This music has been the soundtrack to countless curve-hugging sport utilities; repugnant, hateful children watching their spaghetti fall to the floor like so much Italian intestine, only to have mother and her Bounty© scrub away at the mess; and the insides of showers that were apparently the site of numerous gruesome murders, the blood and plaque splattered hither and yon, unable to seep down a drain impossibly clogged by hair (or teenage/middle-aged male sloth), thus facilitating a miraculously powerful new 409 or Lime Away. “I’ll write the most epic music of the 20th century,” Orff must have said to himself, “so that it may be mutilated and parodied by relentless capitalism.” Ok, maybe he wasn’t that dramatic. But he was German, and born of a German philosophical background: in other words, we’re shocked that the world hasn’t completely gone to pot, but it probably will within 10-15 years. More beer, please.

Today’s entry could have been titled More Fun with Jews, or Pepperoni Pandemonium, or even Kosher Komedy of Errors.

You see, the Symphony recently completed it’s 2005-2006 concert series with a grand production at Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheatre, an atmospheric 2000-seat venue with a lush and dramatic backdrop of cypress, oak, and many other species of Californian botanical treasure. It’s a nice fucking place.

To prepare for this event, my boss decided to stage her rehearsals at the temple. A sort of mall of Judaism, there was more than enough room in the social hall for a large ensemble. Besides, where better to rehearse the Jewish Symphony than a temple? But I digress: this entry is much more about the food brought to the rehearsal, not the event itself. But I thought I’d set the scene.

For this concert, which featured Israeli composers and performers, the Symphony flew a number of Israeli musicians to Los Angeles. These performers were housed in hotels throughout the city, and had arrived an hour early to the rehearsal so that they could get to know one another. I was charged with feeding them. The trouble starts:

“Go ahead and call for pizza,” my boss said. “But you can’t have it delivered—nothing unkosher can be brought into the temple, so you’ll have to go pick it up, and the temple administration will be none the wiser.”

I understood that message in this way: when buying pizza for many people, and these people are unavailable for an in-depth questioning as to their pizzatic preferences, it is customary to order standard, unexciting ingredients. You might go wrong with pineapple or anchovies, so you play it safe and get pepperoni. Now, of course I knew that if we were playing by the kosher rules (which we obviously were not, as evidenced by her “none the wiser” thought line), pepperoni (which is made from the meat of a very slaughtered and very cloven-hoofed pig) would be off-limits. However, I took her message to mean that her feeling was that few Jews are strictly kosher. Ergo, a pepperoni pizza (the gold standard of every childhood pool party), while unkosher, would bother only the temple big-wigs—hide it from them, and everyone’s happy as clams. So I’ll quickly recap, if that was at all tough to follow:

  • She says, “Order pizza, but go pick it up so as to hide it from the Kosher Police.”
  • I think, “Well yes, of course, as the standard random-group-of-people pizza is Pepperoni, which is made of pork. Most people aren’t strict kosher adherents, though, and won’t care if there’s some cooked swine on their food, so this clever ruse to sneak the pizza in will work just dandy-like.”

Now comes the real meat (no pun intended) of the story. As it turns out, any and all run of the mill pizza joint fare (ie cheese) is ALSO UNKOSHER. So somehow, I, as a goy, was supposed to understand the minutiae of her rule-breaking… another set of bullets, I think, this time fancier (because I like to pretend I’m an aesthete):

v Rule to break: ALL pizza has been tagged by the kosher laws as being unsuitable for Jewish consumption, therefore it may not be permitted to enter temple grounds.

o Supervisor conveniently leaves out the word “ALL,” so that the Catholic-reared intern interprets this to mean “steamy pig flesh is ok so long as no one finds out about it.”

v How supervisor envisioned the rule being broken: Intern will order cheese pizza, because although unkosher, it is somehow less unkosher than pepperoni. Everyone knows this.

And so an incredible chain of misunderstanding leads to this unfortunate and frightening scene:

Although possessed of a circumcised penis, I unwittingly and very un-Jewishly drive to Ameci’s Pizza and pick up my order of 2 large pepperoni pies.

I arrive at the temple with my bounty (or my kill, rather, as the food was covered in FRESHLY MURDERED MEAT PRODUCT!)

I ready the feast in the rehearsal room and then leave to finish some office work in the few minutes before everyone arrives. While walking through the hallway, I encounter my boss.

“Oh,” say I, “I wasn’t sure what everyone would like… I hope pepperoni is ok.”

I’ll pause here to try and decide how best to illustrate the ensuing chaos. You can help me (and yourselves) by envisioning those precious moments when you are sent into shock by unexplained rage.

One would have thought I had said, “I wasn’t sure what everyone would like… I hope human feces and toxic waste product from Lake Michigan is ok.”

She turned on her heels fast enough to make the Temple Donor Tree come off the wall (it didn’t really, but it could have, is all I’m saying. God, have some imagination), and threw her hands into the air. She waved her hair about in anguish, her fingers clutching some unknown horror as she yelled, “NO! Oh my god, no! It’s pork! It’s pork! Take it back take it back! Don’t argue Carl just do it! They’ll KILL me! Quick, before they open the box oh GOD they haven’t opened the box have they?! I don’t care what you do with it GET IT OUT GET IT OUT!!!!!

By this time she had grabbed both my shoulders and was pushing me back into the tainted room that was now filled with the putrid stench of cured pig muscle. And I was seething. I was so frustrated with what has become indicative of her lack of communication that I grabbed the pizzas and stomped past her without saying a word. (I didn’t march-stomp, just walked deliberately. I’m not 4).

I took the pizzas back into the office and set them down (deliberately) on my desk. My coworker looked shocked. “What’s going on?” she queried.

In response, I dove my hand into the top box and scraped more than a handful of pepperonis into my grasp. Casting a bitter glance towards the door, I glared at the mezuzah (the elongated boxes that adorn Jewish doorjambs… I won’t assume that as goy, you’ll necessarily know this!), so that the temple gods would have to watch my blasphemy, and without blinking or wasting any time, I shoved that entire handful of motherfucking swine into my mouth. Oh, I savored it. Oh! by my troth and my word as a man of honor I tasted every sweet spice and note of smoky flavor. The grease and cheese remains ran down my chin as I greedily broke the law of a whole faith—this being the only way I could think of, in my incredible churning frenzy of anger, to stick it to my boss.

I’m usually ambivalent to pizza. This… this! was the most delicious goddamned pizza I’d ever had the pleasure of wrapping my lips around. And I didn’t even eat the bread or sauce. Only the meat. Only the filthy meat which is somehow more filthy than cheese by itself and I’m supposed to know this by some kind of magical osmosis of living in the city with the largest Jewish population in the western hemisphere!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And with that, my story concludes. I have resolved to be more culturally aware from now on.

I’m not listening to anything because in order to relive my outrageous ire, I had to have total silence. But I think I’ll put something soothing on now. Like Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. Hear Jessye Norman sing them and you’ll never look back. I was going to play Wagner, simply because HIS MUSIC ISN’T ALLOWED IN ISRAEL JUST LIKE THE SEARED AND DELICIOUS FLESH OF THE HOG, but that would only fan the fire, and I wanted calm. Ahh.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

L'dor v'dor

My supervisor Maia (pronounced like the ancient South American empire) has put on STAR 98.7, and so currently I'm listening to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day. I'm feeling literal today, so here's a list of what I've decided are some possible candidates for the Boulevard mentioned in the song:

Valencia Boulevard, Santa Clarita, CA: Probably not. The only thing broken on this thoroughly suburban thoroughfare is the occasional 40-something's french tipped nail or heel of a Steve Madden, a casualty whose killer is the loose hem of track suit pants or a Talbot's skirt. From the 5 freeway to City Hall and on through the auto mall, dreams are busy coming true on this V-town artery. True to the "dream" motif, the new Valencia street sign looks like it was jacked from downtown Sesame Street. Somewhere there's a furry muppet who's totally fucking lost.

Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV: Perhaps.... Sin City dreams must be made of the same impenetrable material as the bubble which shields His Holiness the Pope. This is the only place in the world where you can lose thousands of dollars to ephemeral Luck but then walk outside and hire the services of a wanton Lady. Nothing broken here but those persnickety monogomy vows you made when you got married. They need to change that slogan: What happens in Vegas, gets you divorced. What happens in Vegas, means a visit to the free clinic. What happens in Vegas, is really itchy.

Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA: Ding! Dreams aren't broken here, they're absolutely shattered. For the Angeleno, this is the epicenter of Schadenfreude. Some well-known demolished dreams on this road include: the dream of the wide-eyed Starlet; the dream of the moviegoer walking out of the Chinese Theater saying, "That was $15?"; the voyeur’s dream of seeing a celebrity and meeting only wookies and Charlie Chaplin. The best has to be the dream of the tourist: he hops gaily out of his van, pocket-sized digital camera in hand, unable to retain his flood of excitement—“this is Hollywood!” he says, “land of the glamorous première.” When he sees there’s far more glamour in a Tim Burton Gotham than in his idea of Hollywood&Vine, his crestfallen look satisfies the bitterly hypocritical Angeleno like nothing else.

Ok, so people in LA really aren’t that bitter. Well, there are 2 exceptions: those who’ve just had a really bad day (and can you blame them for a little schadenfreude?), and people who didn’t make it as an actor, and found nothing else. Those people are like unsweeted chocolate or bay leaves or something (shit, I don’t know. Think of something bitter. Insert it. Laugh).

So for those of you who’ve read my blog before, I would imagine that you’re quite tired of my little resurrections after too-long hiatuses. I know, I should impose a statute of limitations on myself—if after nearly 8 months of absence, don’t try and be a damn Christ figure thinking he can walk right into Jerusalem and enjoy triumph. PS, I’m not comparing myself to Christ—I am neither a psycho nor a Beatle. Anyways, I’m sorry. I don’t know if I’ll vanish again, but I apologize for the times I did.

Speaking of Jerusalem! I have been working for nearly two months now down at a temple (rather, the temple) in the San Fernando Valley (for non-natives, think “oh my god, becky, look at her butt!” and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s that valley). I’m interning this summer with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, and they are in fact headquartered at this temple (which shall remain nameless, lest someone googles it, finds my page, and I am hated forever) which I’m told is the largest temple west of the Mississippi. Translation: I hang out with tons of the Chosen People all day long.

Now, before I start in on them, a disclaimer: In a diverse setting like, say, a UN Conference, I’m not about to start assigning stereotypes. I won’t think that the colorfully dressed Zimbabwe representative propagates African stereotypes or that the Korean delegate eats rice like it’s going out of style. No, in a setting with many walks of life, like in the day to day happenings of a large city, I’ll not observe behavior and think of it as typical of that race or class. I’ll choose the moral high ground before milking comic possibilities.

But cmon! I work at a TEMPLE, and a damn huge one besides. These people are a gold mine, the same as if I’d walked into the Lesbian Equality Foundation or the Republican Barbecuer’s Convention—any time you put all of the same kind of person in a single place, they can’t help but come together in the spirit of complete predictability! It’s the reason that when you get a bunch of music kids together, they go on and on about Bach, to the frustration of the business major. It’s why when you go to gay clubs, it’s like a veritable parade of the Flavors of Queer: twink, bear, priss, weirdo, idiot, genius, hottie, “oh-dude-is-that-your-real-face?”, etc. So the disclaimer is this: I do not assign the following traits to all Jews, but merely enjoy that when grouped together, you discover that no one has ever been more gifted with comic truth than Fran Drescher.

I’ll start with what is hands down the most fascinating thing about Jews who are always at the temple: no matter where you were born, grew up, or even lived for a period of time, as a Jew you will have a thick New York accent. It’s not just the bagel-shmearers from the Upper West Side—I know three women from Santa Monica who call me Cwawrl and drink cwaffee. And those are just the basics. Here’s a crash course in speaking like a Jew (again, no matter where you’re from):

· When it’s hot, you ask the custodian to turn on the “eh condishionink.”

· Rachel is pronounced with a long “ah” and a gutteral –ch.

· Darfur, or rather the cessation of that nation’s genocide, is a big topic. “Dwaw FUH” is the pronunciation.

Doting parents name their children Micah and Rebecca, Aaron and Abraham.

“Herschel and Joshua! You two need to stop fighting and get your backpacks or you’ll be late for shul.”

The Jews are a people blessed with wonderful music (I’m being serious. To walk down the halls of a religious organization and not hear “How Great Thou Art” or “Unless a Grain of Wheat” is marvelous. Mwaw. Mwawvelussss. Almost). However, the absence of tired old hymns such as those makes for interesting non-religious ceremonies, such as Hebrew School graduation, which includes a performance by the oh-so-darling graduates. The program includes:

“Heal the World,” Michael Jackson

“Hero,” Mariah Carey

and a barrage of your favorite Motown hits!

Now, this next one may be the most sensitive, so I’ll approach it carefully. To begin, I know many Jews who would not be considered “rich.” In fact, most of the Jewish people I know do not enjoy the exorbitant incomes that many a crusty anti-Semite would accuse them of having. That said, the temple is in Encino, sometimes called the “Beverly Hills of the Valley.” At this temple, the Donor is held in the highest regard, and there are quite a few people with the income to make large donations. So what all this wealth (and willingness to donate) means is that you end up with a number of people who need to be thanked and appreciated. This is done in the form of the almighty and omnipresent Plaque. Come, a tour:

When you turn off of Ventura Boulevard onto the temple’s street, you pull into the Beth and Simon Levin Parking Center. You then walk past the Cindy and Howard Liebeskind Security Bungalow and into the Cookie and Mark Leibsohn Synagogue. If you’re tired after a long walk through the hallway, you can rest on the Alisha Reskowitz Bench in the Bob and Sarah Shulman Rest Area. However, the Sandy Makowski Bench is across the hall. The toilet you pee in is given in memory of Daniel Green, and the David Hoffman Paper Towel Dispenser is a battery-operated automatic. Don’t worry if you make a mess, because the custodian (who is not donated, apparently) will clean it using his Rachel and Moses Wichtberg Mop, which he pulled from the Bunny and Merv Eichman Broom Closet.

However, with all of this said, the Jews are not without a sense of humor, even (or perhaps especially) when it comes to themselves. After attending a Shabbat service (my boss asked me to join her choir), the Rabbi encouraged the faithful to go to the back, take “10 Jewish minutes” and enjoy some coffee and cake. Because Jews, he said, should never do anything without coffee and cake. More than any other group I’ve encountered, this is a people who recognizes exactly that—they are a People. Their sense of unity and solidarity with their own is rock solid and incredibly admirable. Family life is the absolute center of existence, and the love shown to one’s neighbor is immense. Perhaps it is the Jews’ devotion to one another which has kept them alive throughout their difficult history.

Sure, “difficult history” is tough to take seriously when 14 year-old Samantha Lichtman walks in with a Prada bag and Jimmy Choos. Ahem, but that’s neither here nor there.

I’m finishing my writing tonight while enjoying the soundtrack from Amélie. It would seem on the surface that Minimalism and Frenchness are two ideas that have nothing to do with one another, but it comes together beautifully.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Christmas, or the Childhood Fight for Survival

My mp3 player is currently in the guise of an orchestra of over 150, and the incendiary device that is Wagner's Tannhäuser detonates in my ears. I've decided that it is now time for me to tackle this musical alligator, and I shall wrestle him with all the power of an Australian naturalist. The music is, of course, indescribably beautiful (fame's gotta be justified somehow), but he can be a mite lofty. This opera, for example, begins with Tannhäuser hanging out in the palace of Venus. The GODDESS OF BEAUTY, we're talking, the SUPREME EXEMPLIFICATRIX OF ALL THINGS VAGUELY AND OVERTLY SEXUAL. This is a sex-crazed babe, and she runs a palace full of other like-minded babes. But Tannhäuser leaves Mt. Olympus (and a better sex life than Ron Jeremy's) because he has a rotund German woman waiting for him back in the Vaterland who probably makes a to-die-for Apfelstrudel. I think this is where Wagner loses his modern audiences. Look, Rich (or Dick, which in this case may be more appropriate), no man, especially not this paragon of heterosexual copulatory majesty, is going to leave the palace of Venus, which can boast over 300 channels and an infinity pool, for medieval Bavaria simply because of the prospect of good home cooking. Get with the times, man. Sex sells.

That said, this entry is about Christmas.

After much to-do and anticipation, the famed Viennese Christkindlmärkte opened tonight in the Rathausplatz (City Hall Plaza). This incredible open-air market is what many consider the center of yuletide merrymaking in all of Europe. The product of Mary's hours of labor in a steamy, poop-filled manger full of filthy farm animals (including, depending on one's childhood home nativity scene: sheep, camels, oxen, buffalo, pigs, geese, bengal tigers, panthers, black bears, sperm whales, and a host of other creatures who don't belong together) is celebrated here with such an array of sweets, drinks, and trinkets as to make known to all the true meaning of this joyous holiday: sugar.

One is surprised that the ground isn't littered with hundreds of seizing children, their contorted bodies unable to cope with the kilos of pure Hawaiian cane which is slowly replacing the blood in their veins with sweet, sweet crystal... their tiny hands still clutching the remnants of Giant Frosted Cookie #724. No, these children amble around the market, ogling the wares with their parents, an 8-foot cotton candy obelisk in one hand and a stein of Kinderpunsch in the other. I don't know what it is: adolescent african elephants would be felled by consumption of such vast amounts of sugar, but Austrian children process it easier than Gerber© applesauce. Austria does consume more sugar per capita than any other nation, so perhaps there's an enzyme in the water or something.

The market really is heart-warmingly festive, though, and it is a welcome respite from the bombardment of forced Victorianism that in America endures from the day after Halloween until the last box of L'eggs© (Shimmer Toast variety) has been plucked from the shelves at the after-christmas sales.

The list of items up for sale at these markets is extensive, but there's a lot of repetition. A short survey:

Punsch, Glühwein, or any variation thereof: This is the first purchase upon reaching the markets. For €5, choose your mug and any of the hot, spicy drinks. Return your mug at the end of the night and receive €2 back. "What?" you ask, "they intentionally miss out on €2 from everyone?" Ah, but here's the game: these drinks are meant to keep you warm, and therefore have a higher alcohol content than the bottle of isopropyl you have in your medicine cabinet. You're passed out on the ground with the sugary children before you have a chance to return your mug. You awaken in the morning with a brand new souvenir. Congratulations.

Heissen Riesenkartoffeln: The pinnacle of the baked potato. These giant spuds come in about 80 different presentations, depending on the toppings one orders. Packs of Irishmen hang about and salivate. I had one with swiss cheese, garlic, and bolognese sauce. Delicious.

Christmas ornanments: much like in the United States and elsewhere, but extremely affordable and unpredictable. Some have little traps that spring open to blind the family cat. Some are more kitschy than your grandmother's living room, and some are stunning works of art whose low price would make any aesthete feel downright guilty. Most are your typical ball shape, but variations include: stars, trees, babies, baby bottles, and reindeer (much like the Native Americans, all parts of the reindeer are here used--head, whole body, antlers only, prancing legs, leering reindeer faces, both the distraught, "Why, why did you hunt me?" and the enraged, "You bastard hunter. Buy me! YEAH, BITCH, BUY ME! Put me on your damn tree, and I'll give your children heart attacks with my vicious gaze." Chilling.)

Sweets: Think you can't make a meal on empty calories? The vendors here dare you to try. Anything edible is covered in copious amounts of chocolate and decorated with little fruits (sugared, obviously). They've done things with chocolate here about which as I child I dared not even dream. If chocolate isn't your thing, they've also thought of ways to turn the most innocent foods into decadent treasures. Pretzels, cookies, cakes, sweet breads, sugared fruit, chocolate covered everything (sometimes with Bailey's), pies, strudels, candy/caramel apples, unfilled donuts, filled donuts (with chocolate, apricot jam, vanilla sauce, or just frosting), but no chocolate figurines. We don't deal with that lame shit here.

There are also of course hundreds of toys and other gift-y type places, but that would take far too long to describe. Just use your imaginations, and assign yourself no limits: if you want it to have karate chop action or the ability to translate the works of the Russian masters into Urdu, it will.

Since my arrival in Vienna, I've marveled at how well-behaved the children here are. It's more than that, actually--children and young people here exhibit an incredible maturity, and it shows in not only their behavior towards others, but how they carry themselves. These kids are universally wise. It's obvious they understand at 12 much more about the human condition than I ever will. Up till now, I figured that incredible parenting skills were the cause. Well, they are and they aren't--parents here have a fantastically strong tool with which to control/teach/horrify their progeny. I found this out tonight at the markets:

Each year on December 23rd, not 24th, St. Nicholas visits the homes of Austrian children dispersing gifts much the same way he does in the US. Also like the US, Santa has in his possession the List of those who have been "gut" and those who, unfortunately, have been "schlecht." [An interesting aside here. The List is drawn up every year on December 12... so children know exactly when their fates will be pronounced. Once December 13th arrives, the statute of limitations on allowable goodness has passed, and no more submissions can be made to the vastly complex bureaucracy of the North Pole. I imagine that on December 11th, crappy children are busy racking up goodness. The death rate of geriatrics crossing the street probably plummets on that day, and all those 10 and over hurry to sign up for the Peace Corps.] However, knowing what awaits the "schlechte" children, I can hardly blame them: if you have the incredible bad luck of being on the bad side of the List, you're not getting any coal. Shit, if they could get out with just a lump of coal, children here would walk on their knees through the vast desert to offer penance. No, the reward for naughty Austrian children is immediate and uncontestable consignment to Hell. Satan, dressed in black and with flaming red hair and arms arrives in the night with a sack of his own, filled with the morbidly frightened, squirming bodies and souls of the doomed Kinder, and each new acquisition is shoved violently in with the others. While the excited good children rush to their toys in the morning, the bad ones will just have been beginning their eternities of perpetual and unrelenting torment and woe, already long forgotten by their kin and left to weep bitter tears in the inferno.

The thought of Satan putting me in a sack and taking me away in the middle of the night would have been enough to keep me well-behaved, I think. I would have betrayed every member of my family to escape such a fate. Most American parents would love to have such a powerful tool as the above story.

Happy holidays to you all. If you feel at all that you might need to repent, do so before December 12th.

Still listening to Tannhäuser. It's Wagner, ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to be here for a while. Although, with my chocolate coated pretzel and some candied fingernail that once belonged to Gerhard Fürnstern, 9, of Baden, Austria, I think I can pass the time quite nicely.

Mark Twain once said, "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." I'm starting to agree.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rocket Man

Ears absorbing: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. There’s a sizable contingent of musicologists who would say that this is the greatest piece of music yet written. Like, we’re talking the entire Western musical tradition. Not wanting to incur the anger of any rabid musicologist by agreeing or disagreeing, I’ll simply say that the music’s beauty is making it difficult for me to concentrate on the writing. Not unlike when I drink Viennese coffee—sometimes I forget as I savor bitter perfection in my cup that I’m required to breathe in order to stay alive (and enjoy more coffee).

Today was spent in Café Prückel (perhaps my favorite café so far) and strolling through the Prater with my friend Jimmy. The Prater is a boardwalk-style amusement area, complete with Ferris wheel, pouty children, vomit-paved pathways stemming from the more heinous attractions, and shooting games that are about as honest as a Stalinist state-run newspaper. I laughed out loud when I saw the game named “Gangster Alley” and the American flag flying underneath its flashing letters. These were bootleggers, though, not Crips, and a poorly disguised Austrian-as-New-Yorker voice invited us to “pick up a [tommy] gun and get the varmints.” Not wanting to split hairs, I let go the fact that varmints aren’t native to 1920s Chicago.

At nearly 100 years old, the Ferris wheel (known as the “Riesenrad”) is the main attraction. Passengers are transported around the wheel by ancient boxes that are reminiscent of the San Francisco trolley cars, in that they’re outrageously expensive and don’t really take you anywhere.

Jimmy and I however, were not to be deterred. We wanted to treat ourselves to what we’ve been told is a magnificent view of Vienna and the entire Danube Valley: the best way to glimpse this jewel of Central Europe, so we’ve heard. It was one of those truly beautiful Autumnal afternoons, where the sunlight is magnified in brilliant colors as it passes through the frail leaves and is shot all over the city as beautifully nostalgic echoes of morning radiance. The breeze danced playfully with women’s scarves and tickled the cheeks of the children they carried. There seemed never to have been such a day for Ferris wheeling as this particularly breathtaking day. We wouldn’t have dreamed of abandoning this celestial beauty to the annals of Yesterday without a ride in the Riesenrad.

“Fuck this shit,” we said when we saw the price of €7.50, and we left.

After a lengthy courtship, my brother Ted finally married the lovely Amy Means (now Amy Sparks) in a touching ceremony in Malibu. [Amy has chosen not to hyphenate her name, because as Ted explains, she doesn’t want to become a sentence {Amy Means-Sparks}]. Yes, I came home for the wedding, but I consider it more than a fringe benefit that I was able to spend time on a Virgin Atlantic flight.

My flights on Virgin Atlantic are perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling as though all the world is perfect and that strife is merely a word that applies to people who aren’t as deserving of the VIP treatment as my marvelous self. I mean, it just cannot be that everyone is entitled to being fed 5 times and watching 6 movies (started and stopped at one’s own discretion) in a single transatlantic flight. Nevermind that the upper class passengers have beds, massages, and free-flowing champagne served with foie gras and limitless caviar on diamond-encrusted plates of white gold to the live violinistic stylings of Jascha Heifetz. I got a bag with a sleeping mask and a portable toothbrush. The bag had tassels. Tassels!

The flight was not uneventful, however. As a British firm, Virgin Atlantic makes it a point of hiring British flight attendants. These gorgeous ladies (all of whom were under 35) cater to you as the pharaohs were once catered to, but they do so through the varied and immeasurably complex accents of the English Isles. I had a couple embarrassing episodes while trying to understand my comfort crew.

After meal #4, roast beef au jus with Caesar salad, an adorable biscuit (read: cookie) and two éclairs, I had a decent amount of trash. Never missing a step, the marvelous flight attendants knew exactly what I needed. As if on cue, down walked a petite British Pakistani, casually carrying her stunning beauty through the aircraft.

“Have you got any rubbish?” she asked. I was sitting over one of the engines, so I figured I just couldn’t hear her. “Excuse me?” I tried.

“Rubbish?” this time I distinctly heard English sounds. Almost there. “So sorry. One more time?” I begged.

She rolled her eyes and held up a handful of garbage. “Rubbish,” she said firmly. I had caused her to break the seal of nicety, and she was not happy about it.

Feeling sheepish at this point, I gathered all my rubbish together as quickly as I could onto my tray, and then—perhaps too quickly—thrust the tray at the poor Brit. She almost got away clean, but the éclair chocolate had other plans. She smiled broadly as she wiped the chocolate from her blouse, the kind of smile that’s reserved usually for vagrant relatives and people at the DMV, and continued on her way. She probably didn’t even hear my 15 apologies over the engine’s roar.

At this point I resolved to not so much as make eye contact with another flight attendant for the remainder of the journey, sure that I had been blacklisted and knowing they would probably spit in my food and give me Darjeeling when I asked for Earl Grey (I don’t know. I’d imagine that’s a serious offense in British culture).

I feel it is important to mention, though, that my fears of inviting the hatred of the flight attendants were not unfounded. I sat in the back of the first section of the plane, and during takeoff, landing, and high turbulence, the flight attendants sat right behind me. They can be brutal, unforgiving creatures.

“Did you see that horrid cow in 53J?” I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify as a cow, but to double check I looked at my row and seat. 72C. All clear.

“I certainly did! But she wasn’t much compared to that trotter in Premium Class.” I don’t know what a “trotter” is, but judging by the sound of her voice, I hope to God I’m not one.

There was also some confusion during afternoon tea. For one thing, there was some difficulty with my taking coffee instead of tea. I got a look that said, “There’s a reason it’s called afternoon tea.” The other hang-up was another problem with regional dialects.

While watching The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I was interrupted by a small notice in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. “Afternoon tea in 10 minutes,” it explained, “choice of salad sandwich or cheese rocket.”

There’s something particularly electrifying about the prospect of new words in one’s own language: the possibility that a “rocket” was another name for something I’d already eaten in my life led to dramatically funny possibilities. “Oh, those English,” I would say, “calling a food item a ‘rocket.’ What will they think of next? [insert American condescension here]”

So when the flight attendant (not the éclair one… I had lost the privilege of her service) came by to ask which I preferred, salad sandwich or rocket, the answer was clear.

“Rocket, please,” I requested in a boisterously singsong voice, proud of my intercontinental savoir-faire and suavité.

She stared at me blankly. “… yes?” she asked, looking puzzled. It turns out that to just ask for a rocket is like just asking for a drink. One needs a bit more information to continue.

After the éclair incident, I was on edge with the flight attendants, and I panicked. She didn’t understand me, what’s wrong with me, oh God they’re all going to hate me and call me a trotter and there’ll be a much more horrid goddamn cow in 72C then there ever was in 53J! So I did what, in my frantic mind, made the most sense.

“Sorreh,” I tried with a devastatingly inauthentic English accent, “Ay’d layk a rock-it, if yoo’ve got wun.” Unfortunately the plane did not crash at this point.

Of course she was just lost. I’m sure she had no idea what this obvious American (I had spoken to her previously with my regular accent) was saying or if he was trying to be funny or if he was just odd. “Look,” she offered finally, “we’ve got cheese rockets and veggie rockets. Which would you like?” I held out my hand and quietly asked for cheese, politely clearing my throat as an excuse to look away--much as one does when being examined for a hernia. A rocket, to dispel the mystery, is something like a hot pocket. At this point she could have given me a refrigerated one, and the heat from my face would have nuked it in no time. The pain continued, “And coffee?” she asked. I nodded and gave her my mug. “No, on the tray,” she said firmly, and I at once understood the origin of the stern English nanny stereotype. She took my tray, filled my mug with coffee, and handed it back to me. I looked in my complimentary travel bag, and, not finding a razor with which to kill myself, munched shamefacedly on my rocket.

The wedding, however, was well worth the embarrassment. The ceremony was beautiful and very touching: Amy and Ted found out that for $50, the great State of California will award to anyone the title of Deputy Justice of the Peace for a period of 24 hours. So they asked their very good friend Brian to go get Deputied and officiate. The three friends stood before their friends and family and bonded in a way that was expressive and yet entirely intimate. Tears were cried, laughs were had, sand was poured, and all of a sudden Ted had a wife. It was short and sweet; a model of modern efficiency. We had a reception to get to, damnit.

I walked into the reception hall after the ceremony to warm up for my Josh Groban performance (on a white baby grand! I felt like Elton), and found the cake decorator poring over the many-tiered beauty, looking a little flustered. “Fastest ceremony in the West,” she muttered. She clearly was counting on a long drawn-out schmaltz fest. Not for T&A.
I’ll not linger my own Josh Groban stylings, except to say that Ted’s rewriting of the “When You Say You Love Me” lyrics were on my mind during the whole performance. Towards the end, I nearly slipped, but missed saying “When You Say You Cream Me” just in time.

As we were walking through the adjoining park, Jimmy and I were talking about our families, and he said something interesting: “… your sister-in-law.” Saying “Ted’s wife” hadn’t seemed at all strange, but when applied to me I found things became different entirely, and I realized for the first time that I have indeed had an in-law for nearly a month. I didn’t say anything, but felt a little bit of a warm fuzzy inside. Amy is a fantastic candidate for the sister I never had, but have always wanted. Along with the title of "Most Feminine One in the House" comes a heavy tiara indeed. One which I'll no longer have to bear.

Congratulations, guys. I couldn’t be happier for you.

The music right now is decidedly not warm fuzzy, so to preserve the feeling I’ll say only that Bizet’s musical treatment of Carmen’s murder by a jealous lover with a long dagger is masterful.