Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Woeful Inadequacy of English Pronouns

How you going to keep them down on the farm, or in the southwestern corner of Dutchess County (The County That Can’t Spell Duchess) after they’ve seen Portsmouth and Concord, New Hampshire? That was the question we had no choice but to confront last wek, as the reality of being back in Beacon sank in ever more deeply. There’d been talk of our taking the train down to Manhattan, but I needed to amend some work I did last week for a client in the business of trying to make it easier for Indian students to adjust to American college life, and then had an opportunity to advise my old friend Karl on his ongoing exchange of poison-pen emails with his housemate.
It’s my perception that Karl enjoys a fierce argument more than he’d probably hasten to admit — that he derives considerable pleasure from composing eloquent demolitions of his opponents' arguments. I always believed that, had country music not called him, he’d have made a very successful trial lawyer. In this case, though — bickering with his housemate about his housemate’s intention to make his girlfriend a de facto member of the household — it seemed to me that Karl was effectively shooting himself in the foot; however pleasurable it was to mock Housemate, to point out his multiple small hypocrisies and misrepresentations, he still had at the end of the day to keep living with the bastard.

(Re-reading the foregoing paragraph, noting the ambiguity that he, him, and his engender, I’m struck once more by the woeful insufficiency of English pronouns. But have I ever done more about it other than bitch ‘n’ moan? Well, by gum, today I tolerate no more! Let’s see if my referring to the first-mentioned of the two males in the account, Karl, with the traditional pronouns, but using te, tim, and tis for his housemate doesn’t make things more lucid.

…bickering with his housemate about tis intention to make tis girlfriend a de facto member of the household...However pleasurable it was to mock Housemate, to point out tis multiple small hypocrisies and misrepresentaitons, he still had at the end of the day to keep living with tim.

My country, ‘tis of thee.

In any event, the gratifying part was that Karl didn’t get defensive in the face of my mild scolding. It felt grand to have my counsel valued, and to think I might have done a friend some good.

Lunchtime brought more small pleasure. My house has a sort of mezzanine, from which one may view the living room. I hope one day to be able to play Pope, to invite enough friends and friends of friends over to fill the ground floor, and then to step into view on the mezzanine to rapturous applause. (The facts of my being reclusive and misanthropic might preclude this, but one can dream.) In any event, I have always enjoyed peeking down at Claire while she enjoys her lunch in front of the living room television. Her realizing with a start that she’s being watched never fails to amuse me; my inner two-year-old may be considerably nearer the surface than others'.

Then it was over to the gym. Before we got on the bridge, I turned on Accidental Billionaires, but the scene in which the Winklevosses, for whom Mark Zuckerberg had ostensibly been working, took their grievances to the president of Harvard was even more unlistenable than a lot of earlier ones. While Claire entrusted the blow-drying of her hair to strangers, I went over to Planet Fitness and continued reading Scott Spencer’s Man in the Woods while pedaling my way to fitness. Back home, we had our traditional late afternoon Long March, and then enjoyed leftovers from Sunday night’s roasted vegetable dinner. Twenty-four hours in the fridge had only made everything more delicious. We caught up on Boardwalk Empire, whose production design I like more than anything else about it, and Mad Men, whose season finale I found wanting, except for the wonderful moment in which that asshole Roger told Megan to go fetch ice so everyone could celebrate her engagement to Don. I didn’t think he was joking either!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Doctors Are "In"

We started our first day back from our foliage tour with a delicious full English breakfast, but lacking some of the things an American such as I finds weird, like baked beans and a cooked tomato. Claire puts a lot more butter on things that I, fearing a myocardial infarction, would even consider, but I’m hoping that in view of how seldom I over-indulge in this way, my arteries and veins and what-not will cut me a few inches of slack.

Vistaprint is forever sending me news of irresistible printing bargains, and often I am unable to resist them. In one such moment in 2009, I designed a lawn sign, of the sort fans of certain political candidates will stick in front of their houses. I thought, as I designed it, that Claire I would sit in front of our house, rather in the manner of Lucy Van Pelt, administering psychotherapy to visitors to Beacon who’d just visited the Dia:Beacon modern art museum, and who had to walk past our house to get to Maine Street, with its endless art galleries and chic eateries. To sweeten the deal, we offered cold lemonade along with the psychotherapy, at an irresistibly low price — $1/per cup, or $1.25 with the little metal badge the Dia gives people in lieu of ticket stubs. I’ve been receiving psychotherapy off and on since I was 18, and Claire’s seen both seasons of HBO’s sublime In Treatment, and we’re both kind, empathic, and perceptive people, so I figured we couldn’t be any worse than several of the licensed good-for-nothings who’ve taken my money over the years. Claire tired of the USA and returned to her native United Kingdom, though, before we could help with even one patient’s emotional crisis, and the sign languished unglimpsed in the garage.

Yesterday, though, was the day of the Beacon Sloop Club’s gala annual Pumpkin Festival, at which, for the most part, ancient hippies shuffle around in ugly sandals buying local delicacies and signing petitions and picking up informative brochures and what-have-you from tables manned by community activists. St. Pete Seeger is commonly seen, and earnest folk music sung and played with great earnestness by his acolytes. In early afternoon, we went down with a couple of collapsible chairs, our sign, and a couple of cartons of Minute Maid lemonade from Idolatry, put out our proverbial shingle, and waited. Eventually a man with two young sons came over. When he explained that his spouse was herself a shrink, and that he therefore had no need of anything beyond lemonade, I pointed out that it was unethical for her to be treating members of her own family, but he only smirked at me as though to say, “What a dickhead.”

Claire found us a better, more visible location, and several passers-by grinned with delight at our sign, but the only person who spoke to us at length was another shrink, a 75-ish guy in dark glasses and a baseball cap who just stared expressionlessly at our sign for so long that I was sure we’d attracted a real head case until he finally revealed that he was a retired shrink. By and by, we decided to stop trying to fight city hall.

Later, our friends Nathan and Janet (not their real names, but someone’s) came over for a dinner of vegetables that Claire had roasted in the English manner, and disclosed details of their recent visit to the United Kingdom, one of the many countries from which “Nathan” holds a passport, and that in which they'd visited Claire mere days before. Because he was still feeling jet-lagged, or for reasons unknown to us, "Nathan's" fatigue was such that he fell asleep halfway through his ice cream and berries, whereupon we woke him, guided him to his and “Janet’s” car, and wished them a safe journey home.

They live about 90 seconds away.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Foliage Tour - Part 3

Say this for Concord’s Fairfield Inn: they offer a reasonably nice continental (if by that you mean non-cooked) breakfast. There was juice and fruit and bagels (albeit really generic-looking ones, lacking anything resembling even a sesame seed) and individually packaged portions of cereal into which one needed only to pour milk, and cheese, and a waffle machine. I fancied some cereal, but only until I read the ingredients listed on the convenient packages. It’s breathtaking to me how Cheerios and Start Smart, or whatever that new (at least to me) Kellogg’s product is called, can market themselves as health-promoting when they’re so full of chemicals. I decided instead to brave the waffle machine, in spite of the fact that one usually need only utter the word machine to make me cower piteously. But then I remembered the previous evening at Nonni’s on Main Street, and how I’d ultra-manfully presented the bartender with the glass of merlot Claire had found wanting, especially for $7, and suggested, in a virile growl that invited no dispute, that he replace it with pinot noir.

I guess I should have sprayed the iron with no-stick before pouring the batter in; getting it out was harrowing for one who believes deep down that the real world is intent on humiliating him at every turn. But I did it in the end, and ate it, and we headed, willy-nilly yet again, for Brattleboro, Vermont, in which I once enjoyed watching a World Series game on a motel TV set when Nancy and I had a foliage tour of our own late in the last century.

The GPS started toying with us. I have had my doubts about her ever since realizing that she may be a Brit trying to pass as an actual American; she will tell me to stay “on,” rather than “in” a particular lane, and is forever referring to The Motorway. She misguided us in Brattleboro, and then somehow managed to miss the center of Northampton, famous for its lesbians, by miles; we found it only when we gave up on finding it and were trying instead to get back on Interstate 91.

Northampton’s lesbians don’t stomp to and fro wearing glowers that demand, “You got a problem?” as in Provincetown, but occasionally you’ll see a pair of them holding hands, right in front of impressionable children, and it’s disgusting! I’d filled up on pizza leftover from our nite of sin at Nonni’s, but Claire, who adores the stuff, craved soup, and to pee, as I did too, so we traipsed around in the bitterly chilly breeze until finding a suitable place. Then it was back in the Forester, heading toward Springfield, where basketball was invented, and in whose environs the excellent novel Morning I recently bought at Idolatry for $1 was partially set. The more we listened to Accidental Billionaires, the more the writing made me cringe, but we managed to make it home in plenty of time for the long walk for which I’d yearned, having gotten so little exercise the preceding 48 hours.

We had a pleasant dinner, once more rued my having recorded a Spanish-language version of the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, and wound up watching Taking Woodstock, which wasn’t as bad as a lot of people had said, and not very good either. I am old enough — and then some (and then some more!) — to know that you can’t have it all.

I have been working on a mordant new epigram to join such earlier triumphs as To each his onus and I do indeed see the glass as half full — of poison. As it stands, the new one reads God never closes a door without also shutting a window, but I’m not sure I’m delighted with it yet. Any suggestions will be carefully considered, and, if sufficiently wry and pithy, summarily appropriated without attribution.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Foliage Tour - Part 2

We explored Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It had a lot more chic boutiques and eateries than I’d have expected, and a big performance venue to which the inescapable Chryssie Hynde was going to be appearing with the new man in her life. Claire, who has toyed with the idea of going on Stars in Their Eyes, a UK pop star impersonation show, as La Hynde, was much impressed. We located the restaurants the pale young woman behind the desk at the Holiday Inn had suggested, and studied dozens of menus. Claire bought herself a couple of bottles of locally brewed beer from Smuttynose Brewing Company. We agreed to dine later at the nearby Gaslight Grill, even though it seemed to have neither white linen nor candles, without which Claire finds it difficult to enjoy her dinner. We returned to the Holiday Inn and watched the highlights of the Delaware senatorial debate, Chris Coons against that witch who looks like at least one cheerleader at every high school in America.

Back at the Holiday Inn, I loved my salad, which contained dry cherries and candied, but not cloyingly, pecans. I hadn’t ever heard of fried lobster tails, and ordered them. They were pretty delicious, but Claire’s pasta dish was like something you’d get at a high school cafeteria. I manfully summoned our server and expressed our disgruntlement, and he, apparently sensing that I'm not someone with whom to mess, said without hesitation that he wouldn’t charge us for it.

On getting up the following morning, we headed once more into the city center, and there had breakfast at an apparently beloved local institution called The Rubbery Toast, though I may have swapped adjectives for my own amusement, as happens here so often. The walls were covered in kitsch, some of it (the authentic old signs) sublime, some of it (mosaics by local artists, presumably) ghastly. When we finished, the rain wasn’t vengeful, so we decided to try to get up to Portland, which turned out not to be nearly as charming, at least in the dour drizzle. We found a gift shop at which Claire could stalk a fridge magnet for her remarkable collection. Fervent vegetarian that she is, she wasn’t entirely comfortable with a likeness of a lobster, but eventually found a viable alternative, whereupon we headed willy-nilly for White Mountain National Forest, where I’d hoped to glimpse breathtaking foliage.

It appeared, remarkably, as though a lot of the trees hadn’t burst into color yet as we drove west on the Kancamagus Scenic Byway, and those that had were probably considerably less breathtaking than they probably would have been if not shrouded in mist and glimpsed through drizzle.

I could see that Barbara Ehrenreich’s analysis of the founding of Christian Science was making Claire’s eyelids heavy, and suggested she eject the fourth of the six Bright-Sided CDs in favor of the first of Accidental Billionaires, on which The Social Network is based. It was dreadfully written, but diverting, and by and by, in spite of the vengeful deluge, we arrived in charmless Concord, where Priceline had found us accommodation at the local Fairfield Inn, a far cry from the Holiday Inn!

Viewing on my increasingly beloved iPad, we were able to review our meager local dining choices, and wound up at a place called Nonni’s. Never trust an Italian restaurant whose servers mispronounce bruschetta (broo-SKET-uh is correct). By the time Claire had finished her complimentary dessert (which our server offered so we wouldn't hate her for having delivered our pizza lukewarm) and we’d gotten back in the Forester, Concord’s Main Street was pretty nearly deserted, reinforcing our impression that the city was unlikely to be designated The Northeast’s Hottest Hotspot anytime soon.

We rued the fact that the Fairfield Inn offers Showtime, rather than HBO, as Bill Maher, of whom Claire is so fond, is on the latter. I watched a few minutes of the Yankess/Rangers playoff game, turned it off before the Yankees’ astonishing come-from-behind victory, and was in Dreamland almost before my old gray head could touch the pillow.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Foliage Tour - Part 1

We headed for an even more northeastern part of the Northeast with half a thankful of regular unleaded and a lot of crazy dreams, passing Trader Joe’s as we sped east through Danbury, Connecticut. We had Crystal Geyser to sip, and bananas with which to maintain our blood sugar and potassium levels. Because it has become our tradition to listen to read-aloud versions of Barbara Ehrenreich books during our little excursions, we had her provocative, illuminating, typically disheartening Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America on CD. though I’d already read it at the gym.

Once we’d inserted a disk into the player, we were able to put the case out of sight, whereas when I was reading the actual book while on the stationery bike, I knew at all times that the cover was just on the other side of the book I held in my hands. Such a relief! I have long believed that aside from TV graphics, the worst commercial design you’ll see anywhere is on book covers. I wouldn’t have put the cover that Omnibus Press put on my novel Waiting for Kate Bush on the wall of a men’s room in a Honduran leper colony, or in Karl Rove’s study. I pleaded with Omnibus not to do it. I said I’d show their cover and my proposed cover to 50 passers-by in Oxford Street in London, and that if fewer than 80 percent expressed a strong preference for mine, I would give back half my advance, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

The cover of Bright-Sided makes that of Waiting for Kate Bush look in comparison like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But there. I’ve gone into one of my blood-pressure-raising harangues, and I mustn’t.
I will tell you that Ehrenreich’s long chapter on how American women diagnosed with breast cancer aren’t allowed to be angry about it because anger doesn’t go well with the infantilizing pink that has come somehow to represent the disease (the NFL continues, as I write this, to wear pink chinstraps and other accessories!) made me proud that I am commonly denounced as cynical. The chapter about how relentless good vibe-mongering might be seen as a centuries-in-the-making response to the harsh Calvinism that was so popular through the first century and a half of American history also fascinated me.

Be that as it may, we made it well into Massachusetts before having to, uh, refuel because the Forester enjoys being driven for long distances on interstate highways as much as it seems to detest being driven to the gym, in Newburgh, parked, and then driven home to its garage in Beacon six times a week. Claire craved a Subway sandwich, but wouldn’t you know that there was none in sight as her craving grew ever more implacable? We got off the highway again in Littleton, Massachusetts, and at Dunkin’ Donuts bought a couple of flatbread sandwiches that contained enough melted cheese to clog the arteries of all 33 rescued Chilean miners and their famllies, but I gobbled mine without complaint because I still remember quite clearly how much I wanted to strangle Nancy when we would go to restaurants in the 90s and she would express her disapproval of what I was eating.

The GPS, which had done an unprecedentedly good job of adhering to the inside of the windshield, wanted us to take what seemed quite a circuitous route back to the interstate, but all that was forgotten when we went by a old train depot that had been turned into a repository for a lot of ancient appliances and picturesque junk that called out to be photographed.

By and by, we arrived at the Holiday Inn in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, just in time to hear that there were flood warnings in effect for the region. We realized widespread flooding might significantly impede our foliage-admiring, but consoled ourselves with a visit to the nearby liquor store, where very cheap vodka of the sort I prefer, or at least don’t mind, was on sale for a lot less than in New York.

What’s the point, I’ve always wondered, of paying for a posh Scandinavian or Russian vodka distilled from potatoes when the cheap, plastic-bottle, distilled-from-asphalt kind you can get for a fraction of the price will get you just as hammered?

I can be such a lowbrow.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What Happens in the Mine Stays in the Mine

On deciding that organized crime wasn’t really for me, I was extremely lucky to be vacationing in the northern Chilean desert right around the time the miners were rescued, and to be able to strike representation deals with a pair of them. Most of their comrades had signed with International Creative Management (hereinafter ICM) or Wm. Morris, but I was able to convince Refugio and Guillermo, as I will call my clients — I will refer to all the miners by names not their own — that I would be giving them my personal attention, and making a 110 percent effort on their behalf, whereas with either of the aforementioned powerhouses, which I referred to scornfully as "your dads' talent agencies," they would be foolish to expect anything more than a 100 percent effort, and a lot of calls would both be made and fielded by callow underlings who were only just learning to enjoy wearing loafers without socks.

Much of what they told me about their and the others’ ordeal took me very much by surprise. One of their most surprising — and upsetting — revelations was that it was actually 36 miners, rather than the reported 33, who descended into the San Jose mine that fateful day this past August. In the 17 days before they were discovered to have survived the cave-in, with no way of knowing that they would ever be rescued, the 33 we saw emerging sunglassed and exultant last week slaughtered and barbecued the two non-Chileans, and immediately regretted having done so, as only the corpulent Bolivian we will call Adolfo was delicious.

The remaining 34 thereafter tried a variety of techniques to keep themselves amused and in good spirits. On Day 22, one of them had the idea of a spelling bee, but it proved impractical for two reasons — several of the men were illiterate, and the miners obviously had no dictionary down there with them. Dancing With the Subterranean Stars, the brainchild of “Luis” and “Mario,” turned out to be very much more successful, though with nearly tragic consequences. The partners in at least three of the half-dozen competing teams — who danced to a capella versions of the Chilean national anthem and Lady Gaga’s "Poker Face" — came to feel themselves in love, and their doing so engendered considerable jealousy among the non-contestants. When the second-place-finishing team of “Gregorio” and “Rudolfo” declared their intention to wed, in fact, it created a rift between those thrilled by the idea of having a wedding to dress up for, and those who believed they'd been quite tolerant enough condoning the idea of a civil union between the two. The opposing sides didn’t speak for nearly three days, after which the point became moot when Gregorio decided to go back to "Estefan" anyway, inspiring the spiteful Rudolfo to start a lot of unpleasant rumors about Gregorio’s erotic shortcomings.

On Day 46, "Alfredo," who before the disaster had been a regular at the Copiapo Gold’s Gym, declared himself fatally fed up with the lovesick Rudolfo’s “gimiendo como una perrita” (“whining like a little bitch”), crushed his skull between his hands, and claimed Gregorio as his own. He then proceeded to pimp Gregorio out to others in exchange for cigarettes, crack, and such favors as fanning him with the football and pornographic magazines their prospective rescuers were sending down to them; it is widely known that the temperature in their cave rarely dropped below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, though Chile is on the metric system.

Nothing is certain until all the t’s have been crossed and all the i’s and j’s dotted, of course, but I will confide that I have thus far arranged for my clients to appear on both Leno and The View, and to endorse Stars On Ice’s forthcoming production called Chilean Miners on Ice. I have contacted the campaigns of various beleaguered Democratic candidates to determine if they are interested in licensing my clients’ endorsements, but to this point only Harry Reid of Nevada, where there are lots of Spanish-speaking miners, has written a cheque.

[Today's title is by Claire.]