Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm Sorry I Sweated in Your Shorts

Dear Anonymous Large Guy Whose Shorts I Wore at the Gym Tonight,

I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart (or the heart of my bottom, as it were) for your unwitting generosity.

Had you not left your ginormous black shorts in the locker room yesterday, I would not have been able to run/sweat my way to Nirvana while listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Talking Heads and Leonard Cohen atop the elliptical machine at 6.8 miles an hour.

You see, after a whirlwind day that began with the tombstone unveiling for the inimitable Leo Chester at a New Jersey cemetery and included a 3-hour jam session in the basement of Congregation Ramath Orah with Little Babe, his extraterrestrially-gorgeous cousin Hannah and his BF Joe for my November 13th musical performance at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, I truly needed to work my ya-yas out. ("Ya-Yas" is code for my growing terror that my idea is idiotic, that I cannot sing, that we will get kicked out because of the new security alert due to those packages from Yemen and that all the time I'm spending on rehearsing and planning should be channeled into my grad school program instead.)

Anyway, around 6 pm, grabbing my workout gear and combination lock, I flew out of the house while HOBB was on his way home from his orchestra rehearsal, leaving him a VM asking him if I had heard correctly; had he indeed offered to serve as chef for the evening? If so, I'd see him in one hour, sweaty yet satisfied.

Problem was, when I got to the locker room, there was no evidence of my itty bitty lil black shorts which I could have SWORN I put in the leopard-print bag before I bolted out of my apartment in a paranoid frenzy that my gym ambitions would have been waylaid by HOBB's arrival. (I was probably right, therefore not paranoid. Just experienced in the ways of my husband.) I dug deeper inside my bag. There was a sports bra, tank top and sneakers. Nothing else.

Sprinting to the front desk in my underwear (winter coat draped over my shoulders and pulled tight around my midsection), I poignantly pleaded for a pair of shorts or pants...perhaps something placed in the Lost and Found?

Nothing doing.

"Men's also??" I asked, noting that the staffer had checked only the pile of women's clothes.

Laughing, she withdrew a truly impressive pair. Yours.

"If you can keep 'em on, they're yours!" she said, handing them over.

Normally skeevy about borrowing clothes and all that (I get grossed out just thinking about it), I threw the shorts on, pulled the waistline drawstring tight, folded over the waist twice and, voila, I was ready to hit the fitness floor.

Passing the mirror, I tried not to look too closely. I looked cool/weird. Actually, much more weird than cool. And somewhat deformed by the bunched-up fabric. You must be an impressively, uh, statuesque person. Your shorts were so baggy that even folded twice they almost hit my knees. Coupled with my V-neck sleeveless black shirt, I did look artistic and edgy yet possessed by the sudden desire to be modestly-attired...on only one part of my body. Sculpted arms and shoulders and even some cleavage peeped out of my tank-top but the billowing fabric encasing my haunches reminded me of the gym attire of super-tzinius* yeshiva girls I sometimes see at the gym near my bungalow.

I was self-conscious, yes, but mainly overjoyed. Salvation was mine. And all because you left your shorts to me.

Because of you, my workout was not hijacked by my negligence. Indeed, I sweated like a freak in your supersize shorts. The guy to my left kept casting me concerned looks. He probably thought I was on drugs because I ran with my eyes closed, mouthing along to the songs.

So, thank you again for helping me get my three-miles of Zen tonight. Heaven knows I needed every inch of that journey for I will surely be up for hours to come writing my midterm paper for tomorrow's class.

Now, every time I pass a large man at the JCC, I shall wonder if he is you.


Bungalow Babe in the Big Shorts


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ooohh!! Oooohh!!! Pick me!!!!!!

Brad's Cafe is dangerous to my productivity. I sit here with my laptop, sipping their lethally strong iced coffee with soymilk, answering emails, making phone calls, meeting tons of people I know and doing everything but what I ought to be doing, namely schoolwork.

Today, instead of starting my History of Journalism paper (on the German press during the Third Reich) or any of the three papers due for my outside course in Sociology (can someone please explain why academic writing is so dense???) or even helping my friend promote her new book (I promised to send out a flurry of e-blasts. I will, I swear, just haven't done it yet) I found myself perusing literary social networking sites and stumbled onto one I actually liked.

It is called Fictionaut.

The thing is, this band of elitist snobs issue you invitations only if they deem you appropriate.

So I signed right up, filling out the form where you make the case as to why you ought to be invited, with the words, "Google me, bitch."

I was paying homage to the scene in The Social Network, of course, where Mark Zuckerberg gets his customized business cards.

But maybe that's not a highbrow enough reference for the Fictionaut fascists. Maybe I ought to have included an allusion to a Bergman or Fellini film. Or Godard. I bet the readers of Fictionaut love Godard.

Anyway, while breathlessly (get the allusion??) awaiting news of my membership application, it occurred to me that I was having a flashback to that universal memory from childhood. The one where you stand pathetically on the sidelines while the jocks select worthy players for their team.

(The following paragraph is a gratuitous and self-indulgent digression. Skip if you like.)

A scruffy tomboy until I turned overnight into Lolita at the age of 12 I was in a state of constant rebellion against any kind of group enterprise and completely negative about team sports. The thing was, I really didn't care about the game but once I was chosen, took great pride in the fact that I could kick a kickball out of the field, shoot baskets fairly well and was an ace dodgeball and gaga player.

So, I am not sure whose childhood memory I am appropriating or maybe I am tapping into a paradigmatic memory that is readily available to all adults.

The point is, I am sitting at Brad's quietly praying, "pick me!"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bad Student for a Day

No one cares that I was racing to class this morning with my BlackBerry pressed sweatily to my ear because of an urgent phone call from a family member about a crisis-in-progress. With my pocketbook cutting grooves into my left forearm and my computer bag bouncing against my right thigh I flew across Amsterdam Avenue, barely minding the traffic turning from W116th Street, concentrating only on the conversation and the fact that I was surely going to be late for my 9:30 a.m. Art and Culture seminar.

Our professor, an exceptionally nice guy, has made it clear that the one thing he really hates is lack of punctuality.

So, when I arrived, panting, four minutes late, he was not pleased.

Sinking into my seat, sunglasses fogging up from my rising body heat (thank you, menopause) I wished to blurt out the reason for my tardiness, the amazing fact that I had arrived at all, the revelation that I actually felt like a heartless bitch for hustling off the phone call to attend to something as relatively unimportant as an art and culture class, that sometimes it was freaking difficult to be an adult student, that is, deal with everything that goes along with having serious connections and responsibilities -- aging parents, kids, a husband and friends who were getting sick suddenly and whose own parents, siblings and spouses were dying at an alarming rate.

But graduate school means never having to say you're sorry I just swallowed my discomfort and blocked out the crisis.

The seminar was good, great in fact, with Mark Harris, the film critic and author (Pictures at a Revolution) and lots of entertaining movie clips and a generally relaxed atmosphere. There was lunch with HOBB at Cafe Nana, a visit to Dodge to scout for a student to profile for a forthcoming class assignment, speed-of-lightening responses to pressing emails, retrieval of phone calls, conversations with family members about the crisis, plans to get to NYU Medical Center later that night and then, Evidence and Inference at 2:30.

I made it a priority to arrive on time. Today's session featured a lecture by a Sudhir Venkatesh, an ethnographer, that riffed on the excellent book Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc and the various techniques of getting people to talk about their lives. I thought of my penchant for having perfect strangers reveal deeply intimate matters and was moved to ask whether one ought to being wary when one evidently possessed a particular knack for getting people to talk.

While our professor reframed the question to illustrate the difference between the ability to elicit a response and the ability to extract valuable information from a subject, Venkatesh's response was cutting. He noted that many first-time ethnographers had a narcissistic belief in their own abilities. There was some laughter in response. Was it directed at me? Did my question reveal me as to be a narcissist? I was surprised and not a little bit hurt.

Hours later, exhausted by the emotional trajectory of the day, returned from the meeting at NYU Med, thinking over the numerous calls and emails, trying to figure out when I could fit in a phone conference with Little Babe's History teacher and how to get Middle Babe the Trader Joe's gift card by tomorrow so she could buy food for her college dorm in Towson, Maryland and whether I could slip out early from my History of Journalism class tomorrow night to catch a friend's book talk, I realize that my four-minute tardiness and my possibly boastful question makes not a whit of difference in the grand scheme of life. What matters is the material under discussion in the classroom, the takeaway from the lesson, the experience of meeting important scholars, the kernels of valuable guidance, the revelations that come, unbidden, in the middle of class as concepts bloom around you and you skip happily through the fragrant field of thought, selecting your signature bouquet.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Swing Kid

For over four hours today, I was happily sequestered inside Dance Manhattan on West 19th Street taking the Swing Dance Crash Course.

O. Mi. God. Best fun in a long time and I have lots of fun.

Fabulous teachers, partners and music.

Only during the last 30 minutes did I begin zoning out, the result of sudden and extreme hunger and two hours sleep last night. I had been up doing my travel grant application in the middle of the night...despite a party where I had 2 shots of tequila, a huge glass of wine and coffee with amaretto. I never used to have any tolerance to booze. Now I can drink like a guy. Soon, like a sailor.

I wore a swingy black dress to class today. A sash in my hair. Fishnets. Black Mary Janes.

The effort was appreciated.

It was so good to resume dancing, given up over the last several months of travel and supreme busyness.

I'm still supremely busy but also supremely determined to have certain elements in my life.

Swing dance is one of them.

And there is an academic angle to my enthusiasm. While researching resistance efforts in Germany in the period leading up to WWII, I discovered that there was an anti-Hitler movement of young people called the Swing Kids. A movie was made in the nineties, by this very name, and is considered a cult classic. It awaits me at the Barnard library.

Enjoy the following clip. It'll make you wanna jump up and dance!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Deconstructing Uncle Miltie

Yesterday afternoon, between my Art and Culture writing seminar and the final of six sessions on statistics (part of my Evidence and Inference class), I spent a delightful 75 minutes in contemplation of the breakthrough antic comedy of Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle.

The venue was a class for seniors held at the JCC in Manhattan and I gained admission by virtue of the presence of my mom -- a sweet-tempered septuagenarian from Great Neck. Sitting around a table much like the one I had occupied early that day at Columbia was the fast-forward version of my morning seminar group -- men in loose-fitting jeans wearing hearing aids, women in black leggings with their walkers folded against the wall; faces rapt and respectful, turned towards the instructor and the video monitor.

Having spent the morning debating postmodernism, it was a sheer relief to lose myself in the vaudevillian shtick of Berle. Worried that I had offended my professor and our visiting lecturer -- a world-renowned professor of architecture -- by my observation that postmodernist theory often veers into complete BS, I was soothed by the sight of the Berle in drag, Berle tussling with Frank Sinatra, Berle tap-dancing, Berle doing his opening monologue on the weekly Texaco Star Theatre television show, Berle ad-libbing and improvising in that era before taped TV shows, Berle tossing the yiddishisms around like they were weightless matzoh balls.

Berle created an entire genre, argued our instructor, without using the word genre.

Berle's show offered a pastiche of performances, which was itself an innovation, said our teacher, without using the words pastiche or innovation.

From the portal of his laptop, our instructor (seventy-something and bespectacled) presented dozens of video clips of Berle footage, noting that the symbolic value of Berle supersedes the depth of his humor.

By the way, added the instructor, he didn't find Berle all that hilarious. For true comic genius, he said, come back next week when the comedian under discussion will be Jack Benny.

There was no discussion of Berle as product of late capitalism or espousing phallo-centric comic tropes or embodying a populist aesthetic. For 75 minutes, no one mentioned Derrida.

Instead, there was my mom's delighted laughter and her whispered commentary that she remembered the time he had Bob Hope on the show and the little television set she had in her house in Warren, Ohio and how her parents loved him, Mr. Television, Uncle Miltie, and that it was all so long ago but oh, it was so good to remember.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Assignment Dybbuk Has Been Vanquished!

Dear Reader,

At approximately 2:14 am, I logged onto Courseworks and posted my revised article on the first Bang on a Can marathon -- May 10, 1987 -- the first Fringe Art assignment for my Art and Culture seminar.

Unlike my first draft, the revision did not suck.

In fact, I really, really like it.

Yes, it took several hours and the excruciating surgical work of editing down to fit the 600-word allowance (from an embarrassing 1100...oh, just about 500 over the limit) and a bunch of research and the digging up of little known facts and some checking up on what else was going on in the world at the time but HALLELUYAH and Praise the Lord for the Assignment Dybbuk that plagued me for the past six weeks has evidently been slain.

NOW I can go to sleep.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Possessed by the Assignment Dybbuk

Something has happened to my writing over the past month or perhaps to me.

Let me clarify: the writing for my graduate program.

The process is torturous. I have anxiety about getting started. I'm not sure what my point of view is. To delay the starting process I over-research the subject then feel buried beneath mounds of information. My fingers freeze or perhaps it is my brain. I don't hear my voice in the finished product.

I've pondered the matter and concluded that I have a condition called Assignmentitis.

In my case, it is caused by possession by an entity I think of as the Assignment Dybbuk.

The Assignment Dybbuk is like a mean girl who sits across from me as I work, cracking up at my pathetic efforts to write something that is worthy of the graduate program of an Ivy League university. Like a mean girl, the Assignment Dybbuk makes fun of my clothes, my hair, my penchant for biting my cuticles when nervous (did I mention that my fingers look like they've been attacked by zombies?) and my ideas.

Because of the presence of the Assignment Dybbuk, I don't have my typical writing mojo, that freewheeling up-yours attitude that frankly fuels my work.

I feel constrained, even constipated.

And if I reread my writing, I find it competent but like a Golem: all body and brawn but devoid of soul.

Or sounding curiously like a press release, the result of 16 years working in public relations.

So maybe it is not an Assignment Dybbuk at all but a PR Poltergeist that has inhabited me?

In any case, I am possessed. So I need to choose a method of exorcism that is tailor-made for the particular sort of spirit that feasts on graduate students.

Such an exorcism requires not holy water but steaming hot coffee.

Such an exorcism requires not prayer but innumerable source citations.

Such an exorcism requires not rage but a kindly, generous, empathetic attitude.

After all, my personal dybbuk might be the spirit of a Journalism School student applicant who was rejected from the program and is compelled to spend eternity tormenting those who got in.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Particular Sadness of Stepping Outside Jewish Time

I am fond of talking about life in New York City as the antithesis of the classic Diaspora experience. In this most Jewish of metropolises, being an MOT* imparts insider status by which I mean cultural, social and intellectual street cred as well as the sense of being a member of the majority despite the demographics.

Compared with other places I have visited or lived in, New York City induces a nominal degree of compromise between one's Jewishness and one's secular self.

If you don't know what I am talking about, consider the fact that alternate side of the street parking is suspended for every single day of yom tov...that is, those days of Jewish holiday observance where one is commanded (among other things) not to travel, hence, move a car.

Or, minus at the university level, local public schools are closed for major Jewish holidays.

Or, that you can find kosher food just about everywhere -- even in bodegas -- with kosher restaurants morphing from shleppy to gourmet, drawing a distinctly diverse consumer crowd.

Or that men with yarmulkes are a ubiquitous sight...and not just on Shabbat and holidays.

Anyway (yawn), New York is a uniquely comfortable place to spread out and just be Jewish, ya know, parade with Torahs down West End Avenue, parade up Fifth Avenue in salute to the State of Israel, wear Purim costumes on the subway, gather in Riverside Park to throw challah crumbs into the Hudson River, build Sukkot all over town, etc...

So, it was with a certain degree of sadness that I experienced a clash between my yiddishkeit** and other life this year for probably the first time in my life because of the holidays of Tishri landing like an alien spaceship on my grad school schedule.

For three solid weeks, I faced down the dilemma of missing class or missing the holiday, including evening meals with family and friends, synagogue services and other aspects of the tradition.

I must confess that with the exception of Rosh Hashana, I chose to attend class throughout this month, with much compromise to my holiday observance. What this meant was dashing in and out of class, arriving late or not at all to meals and services, adjusting my soul's frequency as I bolted between the various destinations.

Beyond the matter of picking up a pen to take notes or the myriad other ways in which I broke the halakhot*** of holiday observance, there was the fundamental issue that entering the classroom expelled me from the cocoon of Jewish Time.

The minute I entered the Journalism School building, it simply ceased to be a Jewish holiday for me.

And by the end of the third Triple Whammy of the month of Tishri (see previous column on the matter of Triple Whammys), I feel a distinct sense of loss, a particular sadness that comes from having to choose between being a diligent student and being an observant Jew, a struggle that is hardly uniquely mine but still, something that I have experienced first on the cusp of turning fifty. Which is possible only in New York.

* Member of the Tribe
***commandments/Jewish law