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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Birthday Cake Shuffle II

I had coordinated the bed and the Man with a Van, both found on Craigslist, to come get the bed. We put the box spring, the mattress, and the frame in his minivan and drove the two and a half blocks to my apartment.

We tried to fit the box spring up the stairs.

It did not fit up the stairs.

It did not even fit up the first flight of stairs. The stairs are steep, they make a right turn, and the ceiling is low. Apparently my building is notorious for this - I don't mind much (I hate all new buildings and believe very strongly that my apartment has character) but I learned that my college friends have been telling each other "Melina lives in an apartment with scary stairs." They don't think that stairs should tilt to one side, and they apparently think that stairs should be more than six inches deep. Whatever. They'll understand once they're impoverished grownups.

So there I was standing in the rain with a guy with a truck, a mattress, a box spring, and a frame.

This guy was very nice, by the way. His name was Eddie, he was from Guatemala, and he was making a living driving people around in his truck and he only had to work 20 hours a week to do it. He was thinking about trying to finish his college degree. He said that people who are moving are usually in vulnerable emotional states, and he often has to act as their therapist. Mostly they're in good moods, he said, but some are breaking up with their significant others and Eddie has to kind of hold their hand while they go through it. Because usually when they see their stuff move is when it starts to sink in.

We shlepped the mattress and the frame up to my room and I left the box spring by the garbage cans, and ran away before anyone could see me abandoning it, and I told them they could go and I started looking on Craig's List again, $100 poorer and with only a mattress to show for it.

...Well, in fact, my first idea was that some handy person might be able to get my box spring up the stairs by cutting it down one side, folding it in half, and then re-assembling it at the top of the stairs, as is apparently possible.

All of which is what led to my posting the following ad on Craigslist:

Reply to:
Date: 2006-08-29, 12:00AM


help this damsel in distress please! tomorrow morning before 8:30 is ideal or after 5:30 PM.

I bought a full-size box spring and it does not fit up my apartment stairs (5th floor walkup). I have heard that you can saw it and fold it and then unfold it again at the top.

The box spring is sitting at the bottom of my stairs. I assume that it will be thrown out by someone soon if I don't get it up SOON.

Thus, this must happen tomorrow (tuesday) early AM or evening.

I will pay $50 to anyone who can get this thing up the stairs and make it work again once it is at the top. Will only pay if it is a workable boxspring at the end of the process. Thanks!!!!


I had no idea how many people actually possessed the ability to do this. I was flooded with replies. Most were from people who were, to put it nicely, optimists (or to put it not so nicely, desperate for the money):

I can definitely help you for $40 dollars and get your box spring up with sawing it or damaging it please feel free to call me at 347-XXX-XXXX

Some were perhaps inspired by the "damsel in distress" reference:
Hi, I can sure lend a pair of strong and enthusiastic hands to do the
job! Feel free to call me at 718 XXX XXXX
Thanks, Antonio

Others were skeptical:


And one guy just couldn't even believe I would ask such a thing.

This guy was so upset that he wrote me again five minutes later (profanity edited for general audience):
the more i see your post the crazier I think you are for starters we need tools that I have then you need material to put your s*** back together 10 bucks wood and screws 6 dollar toll 8 bucks for gas then the bull s*** of your f***ing hassle 2 hours min for being a moron.... price 13.00 an hour think about it would you do it for that ? I cant believe people on here

Finally, someone responded who sounded like he actually knew what he was talking about, and as I might have anticipated, the cost was far higher than I would have imagined:
The service you require would take two men, a saw, a drill, some screws, wooden splints to secure the boxspring after it has been moved and a little effort. I can provide the service you need for $100 flat. Call me at 1 XXX XXX XXXX if interested. I can do it this evening.

(My economist friends were warning me at this point to ignore my sunk costs; i.e. not to throw good money after bad.)

So I went back on ol' CraigsList and found a frame that didn't require a box spring, being sold two blocks from my office by a very nice young French investment banker who was being recalled to France and who was desperate to unload all his Ikea furniture in the next 24 hours. One of my undergraduate-aged friends was about to come visit so I told her to hail a van taxi and come find me. We loaded the frame in the van cab and drove it to my apartment and hauled it piece by piece up four flights of "scary" stairs (bear in mind that this girl goes skiing in the Alps every winter, and she's afraid of my stairs). The bed was assembled without further ado. But now I have:

1 fully assembled full size bed
1 twin bed frame
1 twin mattress
1 iron frame for a box spring

All in a very small apartment (the roommies are getting antsy).

I'm thinking about quitting my job and just opening a Sleepy's in the apartment since I have so much product on hand already. I have informed my roommate that if he gets on my nerves, I'll just bludgeon him to death with pieces of bed. He responded, snidely, that if I came after him, he would just retreat to a corner of the apartment where a mattress would not fit, and I would not be able to get to him. To which I replied that in that case I would simply barricade him in his room with mattress pieces, a la Cask of Amontillado, until he begged for mercy.

So in the end I don't think I did so badly. I ended up spending $50 (first bed set) + $50 (man with van) + $50 (second bed frame) + $20 (cab fare), and I only spent a few hours on this project overall. I might even recoup some money selling the twin bed. However, it wasn't quite the amazing bargain that I thought I would get when I started this project... Nor does my back, uh, not hurt.



Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Birthday Cake Shuffle

When I was a wee lass, and computers were very new, I spent a lot of time playing a certain primitive computer game that was supposed to teach youngsters logic. On your screen appeared three platforms, and on each platform was stacked a number of layers of a birthday cake. The three "cakes" were all jumbled up - the third to largest layer would be on top, and underneath it would be the smallest layer, and underneat that the fourth largest layer, and so on.

The goal of this game was to arrange the cakes on the platforms so that all three cakes had the smallest layer at the top, with the second smallest layer just underneath it, and so on. If you succeeded in a certain number of moves, you would win the game. If you put too many layers in the wrong order on one of the cakes, it would collapse, and you would lose the game.

Obviously, what made this game difficult was that there were no empty platforms. To move any layer, you had to move the layer on top of it onto the top of the adjacent cake, which would mess up the order of all that cake's layers.

The reason I am writing about this game today is that I have been playing this game today as I attempted to upgrade from a twin to a full-size bed. My entire apartment - or perhaps all of Manhattan - reminds me of this game. Because everywhere is already full around here. The platters overflow. There is nowhere for any new stuff to go.

Craig's List New York, particularly at the end of the month, overflows with ads posted by people who are moving to new apartments and trying desperately to unload their old furniture. Perfectly good couches and beds go for one tenth of their original place. Some are even posted as being available for free, with the ominous note, "Must provide own transportation."

So I thought it would be easy to find a new bed for super-cheap. So when I saw an ad for a full-size mattress, box-spring, and bedframe, all for $50, and when I found out that the seller lived two blocks away from me, I thought it was bound to be a breeze...

To be continued.

A product of Zed's Zone of Manly Agriculture

"They're too smart to jump through hoops the way those dumb dolphins do"

Two concepts here that charm me:
  • What kind of person thinks up ways to train manatees to do tricks?

  • "Rather than the manatee's brain being unusually small for its body, the situation may be the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain." There's got to be a way to use this kind of spin in our daily lives. Leave suggestions.

Extracts from
Sleek? Well, No. Complex? Yes, Indeed.
By Erica Goode for the New York Times, August 29, 2006

The manatee, sluggish, squinty-eyed and bewhiskered, is likely to have its rotund bulk compared to "a sweet potato," its homely, almost fetal looks deemed "prehistoric" — terms applied by startled New Yorkers this month to a Florida manatee that made an unexpected appearance in the Hudson River.

Cleverness is unhesitatingly ascribed to the dolphin. But the manatee is not seen leaping through hoops or performing somersaults on command ... Writing in 1902, a British anatomist groused that manatee brains — tiny in proportion to the animals' bodies and smooth as a baby's cheek — resembled "the brains of idiots."

Far from being slow learners, manatees, it turns out, are as adept at experimental tasks as dolphins, though they are slower-moving and, having no taste for fish, more difficult to motivate.

Brain size has been linked by some biologists with the elaborateness of the survival strategies an animal must develop to find food and avoid predators. Manatees have the lowest brain-to-body ratio of any mammal.

But, as Dr. Reep noted, they are aquatic herbivores, subsisting on sea grass and other vegetation, with no need to catch prey. And with the exception of powerboats piloted by speed-happy Floridians, which kill about 80 manatees a year and maim dozens more, they have no predators.

Rather than the manatee's brain being unusually small for its body, the situation may be the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain.

The manatee must consume 10 percent of its 800-pound to 1,200-pound body weight daily. Hugh, 22, and Buffett, 19, captive manatees at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., are fed 72 heads of lettuce and 12 bunches of kale a day.

The manatee is good at what it needs to be good at.

Manatees distinguish colors. The orange of carrots in a trainer's hand can inspire a captive manatee to an uncharacteristic speed.

In 2003 ... manatees were trained to discriminate between two underwater panels of evenly spaced vertical lines, swimming toward the correct panel for a reward of apples, beets, carrots and monkey biscuits.

Yet far more valuable than sight in murky water is an acute sense of touch, and it is here that manatees excel.

In testing, Buffett, Hugh and other captive animals have proved just how acute a manatee's tactile sense can be ... manatees can detect minute differences in the width of grooves and ridges on an underwater panel. A manatee tested by a team of researchers in Germany could distinguish differences as small as 0.05 millimeters.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My Entire Day

can be summed up in the following CraigsList post. I wish I could say that it was not posted by me, but in fact, it was.

URGENT: SAW MY BOX SPRING MATTRESS IN HALF and get it upstairs $50 (Midtown West)
Reply to:
Date: 2006-08-29, 12:00AM EDT


Help this damsel in distress please! tomorrow morning before 8:30 is ideal or after 5:30 PM.

I bought a full-size box spring and it does not fit up my apartment stairs (5th floor walkup). I have heard that you can saw it and fold it and then unfold it again at the top.

The box spring is sitting at the bottom of my stairs. I assume that it will be thrown out by someone soon if I don't get it up SOON.

Thus, this must happen tomorrow (tuesday) early AM or evening.

I will pay $50 to anyone who can get this thing up the stairs and make it work again once it is at the top. Will only pay if it is a workable boxspring at the end of the process. Thanks!!!!


* no -- it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
* Compensation: $50 cash

"How many things are here which I do not want!"

Thanks to Project Gutenberg...
Extracts from
Samuel Johnson, Tuesday, December 25, 1753

When Socrates was asked, "which of mortal men was to be accounted nearest to the gods in happiness?" he answered, "that man who is in want of the fewest things."

In this answer, Socrates left it to be guessed by his auditors, whether, by the exemption from want which was to constitute happiness, he meant amplitude of possessions or contraction of desire.

These two states, however, though they resemble each other in their consequence, differ widely with respect to the facility with which they may be attained. To make great acquisitions can happen to very few; and in the uncertainty of human affairs, to many it will be incident to labour without reward, and to lose what they already possess by endeavours to make it more ...

It is therefore happy, that nature has allowed us a more certain and easy road to plenty; every man may grow rich by contracting his wishes, and by quiet acquiescence in what has been given him, supply the absence of more.

... it seems to be the great business of life to create wants as fast as they are satisfied.

... there is no man, who does not, by the superaddition of unnatural cares, render himself still more dependent; who does not create an artificial poverty, and suffer himself to feel pain for the want of that, of which, when it is gained, he can have no enjoyment.

Much of our time is sacrificed to custom; we trifle, because we see others trifle; in the same manner we catch from example the contagion of desire; we see all about us busied in pursuit of imaginary good, and begin to bustle in the same chase, lest greater activity should triumph over us.

... if we look round upon mankind, whom shall we find among those that fortune permits to form their own manners, that is not tormenting himself with a wish for something, of which all the pleasure and all the benefit will cease at the moment of attainment?

One man is beggaring his posterity to build a house, which when finished he never will inhabit; another is levelling mountains to open a prospect, which, when he has once enjoyed it, he can enjoy it no more; another is painting ceilings, carving wainscot, and filling his apartments with costly furniture, only that some neighbouring house may not be richer or finer than his own.

An ardent wish, whatever be its object, will always be able to interrupt tranquillity. What we believe ourselves to want, torments us not in proportion to its real value, but according to the estimation by which we have rated it in our own minds

There are few things which can much conduce to happiness, and, therefore, few things to be ardently desired. He that looks upon the business and bustle of the world, with the philosophy with which Socrates surveyed the fair at Athens, will turn away at last with his exclamation, "How many things are here which I do not want!"

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

For instance, I wrote another song...

My friend Scott, who is crazy for Yiddish literature in general and the work of Jacob Dinezon in particular (he and his sister have paid to have several of Dinezon's works translated), turned me on to a song lyric I never really listened to before.

A tailor has a worn out coat...

It doesn't have a single whole stitch in it
So I thought about what to do
And I turned it into a jacket

Then I had a worn out jacket, not a whole stitch in it
I thought about what to do and I turned it into a vest

I turned the vest into a hat

I turned the hat into a button."

Scott went on, "Then I lost the button, then I had nothing.
But what can you make from nothing?

Well, from it I made this song."

Isn't that GREAT? But it turns out Scott, an excellent storyteller, has made somewhat more of a story out of this song than was actually there... it also turns out the traditional tune is very lame, and it's full of "tra-la-la," and I don't know if it's the irony and ennui of the modern age or what, but nobody is willing to sing tra-la-la anymore, have you noticed that? ...

So I wrote a verse that was in line with the excellent story he had told, and I wrote my own tune and arranged it (and I left out the tra-la-la part), and now there's a new version of the old song, "Hob Ikh Mir a Mantl," and I feel pretty cheery about that.

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It's not exactly writer's block...

It's not that I've stopped blogging, it's just that blogging hasn't made it to the top of the list in a long time.

I did not expect the explosion of interests which followed Zed's departure for college - when I wake up in the morning there are so many things I either want to do or have to do, it's hard to choose which to begin with. I'm so busy I don't feel lonely, and blogging is my companion in lonely hours.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Deceptive online check printing services RANT!


I just wasted an entire hour online trying to get new checks. I know, most people say: "You don't need checks any more, just pay your bills online." However, I do business with a lot of service people who don't offer online billpaying. Actual humans...
  • Like Mr. Johnson who picks up my trash and doesn't even give me a bill, just once in a while (like every year and a half) he puts notes on his customers' doors saying "Please look at your last payment to me and pay what you owe since then."

  • Like my cleaners Dayzi and Veronika

  • Like the musicians who do gigs with me

  • Like the people who sell stuff at street fairs

So, OK, I still need checks.,, - every single site is doing something sleazy. On some of these sites, you can't even see the price of anything until you have completed your order. On others, "FREE SHIPPING FOR FIRST TIME CUSTOMERS" is emblazoned on every page, but when you go to make your order, AFTER you have entered all your information (with the routing numbers etc.) there is a hefty $4.50 "handling charge" ...

And what's with penalizing return customers? In most businesses, repeat business is rewarded. With check printing companies, the returning customer pays twice as much as the new customer. I have seen this advice given, therefore: "Just alternate between all the different companies - eventually your name will be purged from the system and you'll be new again."

I want my hour back.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

The "Round House" in Colrain, Massachusetts

Some folks said they couldn't really imagine this 14-sided house I was talking about. It actually had about 4-1/2 floors. You hadda be there.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Update on "Vot ken yu makh, es iz Amerike."

I found this post referencing the Aaron Lebedeff song I just recommended to you - the title means, remember, "What Can You Do? It's America!"

Eliezer Kaplan wrote:
Jerry Falwell (who seems to be self destructing) says Tinky Winky (the tele-tubby) is gay. The British reaction? Voz ken you makh, s'iz Amerikeh, s'iz Amerikeh, voz ken you makh.


The best thing to come home with me from Colrain...

When our Village Harmony campers were saying goodbye, one said: "Watching Peter and Mary Alice (the other two teachers) together, I was seeing a really good marriage. I'd like to treat my own spouse that way and I'm going to go home and try." It's not that Peter and Mary Alice don't have disagreements, but they interact always with kindness and grace. They've been married and making music together for over 30 years. It was an inspiration to me too. It's important to see, at least occasionally, what a good relationship looks like.

The Amidons unexpectedly inspired me in another way. Camp works like this: each of the three teachers comes with a fistful of songs; we teach in rotation through the week; the campers and teachers then perform all the songs together. I brought my fistful of songs and the Amidons brought theirs. We'd each arranged our own songs. (Arranging: you start out with the simple tune, the way you'd hum it in your room by yourself, and then write four-part harmony so a chorus can sing it.)

I'd never really thought much about my arranging: it was a skill picked up along the way because it's usually faster to make something from scratch than to find it elsewhere. I've sometimes written tunes for the same reason: when the Solstice Assembly was hired to do an all-Shakespeare performance, there weren't enough suitable "Elizabethan" songs to be found so I wrote a few. When we used to play at Scottish country dances, it sometimes was easier to write a tune to match a certain dance than it would have been to find one in my books.

But I noticed that Peter and Mary Alice are proud of what they've done, and tickled when singers sing their arrangements!

And they were, graciously, surprisingly, impressed with my work and treated it like it mattered.

It wasn't until the long drive home that their praise started to percolate into my mind. That's when I mused that, although I don't think of myself as a creative person, I've made a lot of things - clothes and papier-maché theatrical props and paintings and my house - and also quite a few songs and tunes - and that if I gave myself some credit, maybe I'd do it more often.

So, seeing as how the fall season of the Triangle Jewish Chorale is coming up quickly and I don't yet have any new music for them, I sat down yesterday and wrote a song from scratch and arranged it. From nothing to something in one afternoon!

And then, as a chaser, I wrote a verse, in Yiddish, for the wonderful Aaron Lebedeff song "Vot Ken Yu Makh, Es Iz Amerike!" (which is a wonderful title, a mishmash of English and Yiddish, meaning: "What can you do, it's America!"). You can hear the song here - search the page for Lebedeff. OK, go listen! Now, wasn't that great?

Since I understand more Yiddish now, I see the second verse is about how in Europe girls get married and afterwards start pumping out the kids, but in America they do it the other way around and have the kids first. "People like to save expenses, that's why they have the wedding and the bris at the same time. When the couple comes home from the wedding, there's the cradle, and in it, a baby already prepared!"

Since I didn't think we could sing that, in a half-hour of unmitigated chutzpah I sat down with my dictionary and wrote a different verse. It even rhymes. Wow! Do you think this means I can take my trip to Paris, to the Yiddish Zumerkurs, off my taxes?

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Multitasking Hurts Learning

I wrote once about my dislike of multitasking so this article gave me satisfaction.

Extracts from
Multitasking Hurts Learning
Distractions Alter the Brain's Learning Processes
by Jennifer Warner for WebMD Medical News - July 26, 2006

Multitasking may make you more productive, but it also makes it harder for your brain to learn, according to a new study.

Researchers found people had a harder time learning new things when their brains were distracted by something else, like talking or listening to music.

"When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don't learn as well as if you had paid full attention," says researcher Russell Poldrack, PhD, and UCLA associate professor of psychology, in a news release. "Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized so you cannot retrieve the information as easily."

Poldrack says distractions appear to affect the brain's learning processes, and tasks that require more attention -- like learning calculus or reading Shakespeare -- are particularly hampered.

[The study's] results showed that multitasking didn't reduce the accuracy of the predictions immediately, but it did hurt participants' ability to remember knowledge about the task later.

The fMRIs showed that when the participants learned without distraction, an area of the brain known as the hippocampus was involved. This part of the brain is critical to the processing and storing of information.

But when they learned the task while multitasking, the hippocampus was not engaged. Instead, an area called the striatum was activated. The striatum is involved in learning new skills like riding a bicycle.

Multitasking when performing certain tasks -- like listening to music while exercising -- may be helpful. But Poldrack says tasks that distract you while you try to learn something new are likely to negatively affect your learning.

"The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember," says Poldrack.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Back from New England.

When the Village Harmony concert was over Sunday afternoon I hugged everybody and said goodbye and then hopped in the car. I was as anxious to get home as those Manhattan horses. In a way I, too, was galloping back to the stable after hard days of clopping around pulling tourists behind me!

The campers are wonderful, and they sounded great in concert, but the quizzical raised eyebrows, smiles and shrugs my bandmates in Mappamundi use to communicate while putting together arrangements and preparing for concerts are completely insufficient while working with 30+ singers of various ability - many were shy and inexperienced, though there were a few who understood my suggestions the very first time I made them...

Anyway, our concert (3 pm on Sunday) was in Ashfield - in Massachusetts near the Maine border - so it was a long haul home and my main concern was that every East Coast Monday morning rush hour was standing between me and my stable.

I drove west on beautiful, peaceful roads. Next, on the advice of my helpful friend who lives in Atlanta, but used to live in Vermont, I took a wrong road, and ended up squandering 40 minutes waiting behind red lights in precious little skiing villages. Finally I got right again.

There was a big fat late traffic jam heading south to New York City - this must have been its denizens returning from their weekend of fun in the country - so I decided to hole up for a couple hours. I pulled into the Ramapo NJ rest stop, which was, interestingly, full of orthodox Jews.

By the way, when I just now Googled Ramapo to be sure I'd spelled it right, the following article was high up in the search results:

Extracts from
New Jersey Nazis. I Hate New Jersey Nazis
By Ed Driscoll, March 29, 2006

What is it with colleges in the state I grew up in and The Reich Stuff, anyhow? Last year, Fairleigh Dickinson had on its staff an admitted Neo-Nazi. Now Mahwah's Ramapo College is running an art exhibition featuring paintings that look like they're straight out of Joseph Goebbels' private collection.

The guest curator is Isolde Brielmaier, a Ugandan art professor from Vassar College who seems to have a particular affection for anti-social "art" including explicit anti-Jewish themes. One work featured in the exhibit, created by artist Deborah Grant (who has no relationship to Ramapo College), depicts a Jewish rabbi dressed in phylacteries with a Star of David on his yarmulke, holding up Torah scrolls with the Nazi swastika instead of text. The inscription below the image reads: "The Old and the New Testament."

The implication could not be clearer: the Jews' holy text is fascism and they are the new Nazis.

For obvious reasons, the college has not been eager to publicize its controversial exhibition. Indeed, I learned of the art only after a Jewish student, upset with the college’s insistence on keeping it in the exhibit during its entire six weeks run, provided a photograph she had secretly taken of it.

Bonnie Franklin, the Vice-President of Communications at Ramapo ... was eager to defend the artist’s right of self-expression. Although admitting that she personally found the work "offensive," she stressed that it "has been extremely stimulating on our campus as an educational instrument."

Anyway, everybody was having a roaring time at the Ramapo rest area, which seemed absolutely full except for the one parking space I managed to find. I crawled into the back of my van and put in my earplugs and slept for two hours.

By then things had thinned out and I continued south. Just north of Baltimore, I was exhausted, but unwilling to brave Baltimore and Washington with the Monday morning commuters. So I pulled into a mall parking lot and took a nap from 3 am to 5 am and got back in the car and drove home. I never did that before.

It's good to be back, though I saw sadly that a couple of my blueberry bushes had purely dried up to brown sticks while I was gone. Must have been hot here, y'all.

Reappearing after a year's absence: my music stand, which was left in Paris Maine when the camper in charge of such things spaced out for a while. I was absurdly glad to see it again when Kennie Shimizu put it in my hand.

Left behind: my pitchpipe (which Peter Amidon suggests he may frame and put on the wall) and my cds (which I told him he should treat like fruit that falls off the back of the truck).

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Monday, August 21, 2006

A Grouchy Guy

Last night I went to see Ezra of the Azuri Cafe again. I even brought two friends, so I was very good for his business! But he was very grouchy and wouldn't talk to me at all. Ma, I think he misses you....

Sunday, August 20, 2006

El Hablador

So this week I saw that El Viejo, of prior blog/date fame, was having a concert on Friday night. I wanted to see it because I do think he is quite a good musician, but I didn't want to go by myself - that would just be weird - and if I went with some amigas El Viejo might still think I was gunning for him again. And, okay, I would feel better if I was there with a guy, is the plain truth. So I posted on Craigslist that I was going to El Viejo's show, and I was looking for someone under 30-ish, chatty, and punctual to take with me. That was it.

And guess what? I got about six responses. Most were one- or two-liners, but one of them wrote an actual charming letter back, so I picked him. And then he showed up - under 30, punctual, and (extremely) chatty. Just as promised.

And here I sit. And aside from the companionship, my life is richer by:

1 El Viejo concert
1 movie (post concert)
5 peaches (from the Brooklyn farmer's market) and 1 oatmeal raisin cookie (ditto)
1 t-shirt (bearing an illustration that El Hablador thought was too scandalous to wear in public but that cracked me up, so he gave it to me)
1 hand-written dinner menu by El Hablador (from our date the following night) and one home-cooked dinner by El Hablador
1 beautiful suede coat (bought for 5 dollars from a lady on the side of the street)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

In a sappy mood?

Okay, so I work "in the Jewish community." Believe me, it was a big step even to get comfortable using that phrase. Jewish professionals have decided we don't have time to try to define this phrase, though we sure use it a lot.

Anyway, my work often inspires me to go on long digressions to the farthest reaches of "the Jewish community," particularly the intense, close-knit, surprisingly tech-savvy world of the ultra-Orthodox.

Today I stumbled across, an Orthodox Jewish dating website ("frum" means "observant"). Needless to say, these people are all dating for marriage and it is very serious etc etc.

What i got stuck on was the hundreds of testimonials from successful Frumster customers - i.e. newlyweds. I think I read every single one today. The blend of modern technology and traditional values really blew my mind.

It was this one success story, in particular, that melted my heart. Though they use a lot of words I don't understand, and though I sure don't have any friends that wear outfits like this gentleman's, the love shines through. AWWWW!!!!



... and being peaceful in Colrain

While Melina leads her jet-setting Gen X life in Manhattan, clubbing and what-not, here at the "Round House" in the beautiful hills of Massachusetts a bunch of vacationing adults are eating quinoa tabbouleh and singing.

Last night was "Campers' Cabaret" - the campers presented songs and skits of their choosing. Because I figured they were sick of hearing my voice after all our rehearsals, I didn't sign up, but now I'm sorry I didn't. A lesson I have to learn over and over - participate, don't lurk!

The last number of the night was the "Radicals' Fight Song," a parody one of them had written of the "Vegan Fight Song," written by Lisa Pickel - which itself was a parody of the "Lyke Wake Dirge," a song of more-or-less medieval pedigree sung brilliantly by the Young Tradition back in the 60s. Sadly, 66.6% of the Young Tradition trio is deceased, and the vocal ensemble called the Solstice Assembly, which I directed in the 80s and 90s and which recorded the "Vegan Fight Song," exists no longer. But we at the Round House, we are still above ground!

As I watched my new silver-haired friends sing inspirational songs after a screening of the documentary about Martin Luther King and the Children's March, I had the thought that we, who of our own free will choose to spend ten days together in a hippy house eating tofu curry, with our songs of protest and memories of "Flower Power" and civil rights marches, with our silly bumper stickers, are becoming marginalized as elder generations always are - after decades of demographic importance, we are being supplanted. We and our quaint ways are passing into the East (or was it the West?), out of Middle Earth.

Many will no doubt say "Good Riddance!" and I can certainly understand that. But I wonder - will ours have been last generation to know the fun of cooking dinner together, big pots of thick soup and home-made bread, and eating together around a big beat-up old table? Will the kids now growing up hunched over their computers in their bedrooms ever gather around a room to sing? Will anybody remember the Children's March? Does anybody care?

I guess these sunrises over the mountains and valleys and late-night harmonies are getting to me. I'm not usually this sentimental.

That's today's report from Rivendell.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Being Peaceful

Usually the way I make life changes is energy-intensive and involves at least one disaster. When my college thesis hit a serious dead end, I laid all 50 pages out on the kitchen floor, cut them up with scissors into about a hundred different pieces, and taped them back together in a different configuration. Back when I had a love life, each new relationship seemed to arise directly out of the smoldering wreckage of the previous relationship.

Lately, I've been trying to make life changes happen in a less stressful way. For example, I'm not happy with how much time I've been spending on the computer. Solution: I moved my computer out of my bedroom so I won't spend any more long weeknights in bed snuggled up with it. I mean, nice as a warm laptop can be on a lovely summer evening, you've gotta draw the line somewhere.



One small victory before the workday's coming defeats

Extracts from
Crazy Morning Rites Help Some Get Primed For a Day in the Office
from "Cubicle Culture"
By Jared Sandberg for the Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2006

Ever since Ken Wall moved from one state to another 12 days ago, his morning routine just hasn't been the same. Nor has it been much different.

The technical-newsletter editor spends his mornings in a multiphased ritual, beginning with grooming in a precise top-down order. Then he enters into what he considers his "most refined phase" by putting on his right sock, then left, his shirt, then pants, right shoe, then left.

He knows it sounds screwy and superstitious. "If I don't put on my socks, right sock, left sock," he exaggerates, "I'm going to walk out of my house and get hit by a bus."

Never get between a mother bear and her cub or an office worker and his morning routine. Some adhere to rigid prework choreographies such as walking on a specific side of the street or reciting precisely a farewell to the pups. ... they're simply trying to earn one small victory before the workday's coming defeats.

"It's the one part of the day that I really feel like I can control," Scott McIntyre, a director at a hospital association, says of his morning routine. "After 8 o'clock, it's almost completely out of my hands."

Mr. McIntyre's morning druthers involve getting out of bed at 5:58 a.m. on the nose. Any later, "and it makes me feel like I've lost," he says. He chalks up another triumph by being one of the first to arrive at work, although he's had to get over the fact that someone else parks his "very Chevy-ish Monte Carlo," he says contemptuously, in the space he prefers.

"I never know what will happen at work but at home everything is super perfect," adds engineering coordinator Marika Ujvari. That includes getting her seat-belt fastened in the car with the motor running before the garage door fully opens. When the attempt fails, "I almost get physically ill," she says.

"Coaches often encourage players to create a pregame ritual to create a mantra-like sense of focus and keep out competing thoughts," says Stuart Vyse, author of "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition." The higher the stakes, the more likely we are to engage in superstitious rituals. "If you felt like everything was smooth, chances are there'd be much less motivation to do it."

Naomi Kolstein, who runs an eponymous talent agency, guesses when the alarm will go off after three snooze intervals and sings camp songs in the shower. Once on the bus, she always sits on the nondriver side because the driver, and those behind him, are in working mode.

"The other side is the pleasure travelers' side," she says of her trip from New Jersey. "I don't really believe any of this, but if I can empower myself in any way, I'll play the game."

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Are YOU Giorg???

While Ma travels, let me check in for a minute.

Today I was running in Central Park and I accidentally ran into the Dominican Day Parade. Now, at risk of starting some kind of trouble, let me say the Dominican Day Parade is no Puerto Rican parade or gay pride parade. Whereas most New York city parades tend to feature all kinds of talent - dancers, singers - people of all ages and ethnically relevant non-profits, the Dominican Day Parade seemed to consist entirely of Dominicans who were 18 years old. In posses or couples, dressed in Dominican shirts and waving Dominican flags, on floats or on foot, the 18 year old Dominicans ambled up Central Park South and then up Eighth Avenue. Spectators became paraders, while other paraders lost interest, dropped out, and started yakking with the other 18 year olds on the sidelines. Maybe I missed the good part of the parade while I was running? Oh well, whatever. No reason they should have to entertain me, I guess... At least they were all having a good time.

This weekend, as usual, featured restaurants and dancing. Friday night the Branford 05 New York Burger Tour Group convened at the New York Water Taxi Beach. THis is a pretty weird place - a vacant lot in a bombed out part of Queens right on the EAst River was converted into a beach (i.e. they trucked in sand), they put up a volleyball net and a burger stand (and of course a bar) and named it Water Taxi Beach. You can get there by subway but it's better to come in by water taxi - a sort of ferry that zigzags up the East River from Brooklyn. If you can suspend your disbelief and ignore the eight-foot chain link fences (sandbox for grownups? or jail?), it's actually quite nice. We ate burgers (not very good ones, but certainly adequate) and watched the sun set over Manhattan. Very scenic!

The evening continued at some sort of awful club that was just too cool for us. It was very white and the DJ played techno music at registers that make the bones in your jaw vibrate. Nobody looked very happy, nobody was chatty (this is always upsetting to Melina) and nobody really knew how to dance to this super-cool techno. I felt very uncomfortable until a friend and I started secretly imitating other people on the dance floor and copying their styles. We started out doing it to make fun of them, but then we actually got kind of into it. "Guy with Vest!" we'd yell to each other, and then we'd copy his man-climbing-a-ladder dance move. "Guy with mohawk!" and we'd have to start flailing and rotating our hips like the guy with the mohawk.

The next night we met some friends-of-friends-of-friends. I was told it was one of their birthdays - a German fellow named Giorg - so I gave myself the assignment of finding Giorg, who was somewhere in the club, and wishing him a happy birthday. What I was not prepared for was that pretty much every guy I talked to avowed that he was, in fact, Giorg. By the time I found the real Giorg I could hardly believe it, and spent 10 minutes trying to demand that he show me his ID. Since it was his birthday, and I was being unreasonable, and since he didn't know me either, he refused. But I'm pretty sure it was him, and I know have a new pickup line that I can use in pretty much any situation: "Are you Giorg?" Odds are, you will soon find someone who's willing to be Giorg.

Then we went to a reggaeton dance club, and I was again stymied by the question of how to dance. I'm familiar with a couple kinds of meringue/salsa/traditional dirty dancing, but these fellows were up to something entirely different. They hunch forward towards you in a rather tense and stiff position, and begin a gentle body roll with some side-to-side that doesn't really come anywhere near you. You don't hold on to each other. In fact, you are rarely in contact at all. Since most of these guys were for real Puerto Rican, like from La Perla down underneath Old San Juan, I must conclude that they were the authorities on how one ought to dance to reggaeton. Still, I felt like I was missing something. And kinda threw out my neck from dancing so stiffly... anybody out there have any insights? Is this really how we have to do it now?

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Off to the Round House...

... Built by Bekka from a plan that came to her in her dream.

The Round House.

I don't think there's internet access there, so I hope Melina will keep you entertained while I'm gone...

We visit the Azuri Cafe.

I picked Melina up at work last night and we went home and rested. (I'm trying to teach her about resting.) She lay down on the futon and I put a sheet over her head - the way people cover birdcages - to prevent her usual witless after-work multi-tasking.

When we were refreshed, we went out to the Azuri Cafe, a few blocks from her apartment -- it was a New York magazine "Cheap Eats" pick.

One review said: "In the hierarchy of most-feared food figures, Ezra Cohen falls somewhere between the Soup Nazi and Alessandro, the retired sandwich maestro of Melampo Imported Foods."

We entered the tiny place worried that this feared food figure would bark at us, but actually he was very friendly. We talked about Israel and eventually I suggested he keep an eye out for a good match for my Melina. (I figure a guy who runs an excellent falafel shop probably has some cute single guys among his customers.)

We told him we were finished, but he pointed accusingly at a little bit of cauliflower left on the plate and suggested pointedly that we finish it! We, however, pointedly pointed out there would be no room for baklava if he insisted on the cauliflower.

We left reluctantly, not just because we were having so much fun with Ezra but because it was pouring rain outside. He gave us a plastic bag to cover Melina's big black leather pocketbook full of important things, and we were drenched in about 20 seconds. We hopped the rest of the way home laughing like maniacs.

These are the first pictures I ever took with my cellphone. If this one looks odd, it's because Mr. Cohen had his arm around Melina and she didn't want that in the blog...

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

What you see when you are standing on Melina's rooftop.

Note that somebody is perhaps living up there - there is an air-conditioner, a satellite dish AND an antennae on that little building.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A grus fun Niu-Iork ...*

I am squeezed into a defensible position in Melina's living room, writing to you thanks to the hijacked wi-fi of the neighbors. Melina and her roommates actually have a properly paid-for legitimate network of their own, only it doesn't work, and the cable guy will only come during business hours, when all three of them work. She doesn't want to talk about it.

We had a parking lot picked out for me to use, but it has corners too sharp for vans. He sent me a few blocks away to a lot with gentler corners, but it was full. He sent me to a third lot, which was also full. So I went to a scuzzy gravel lot where "Larry" was sitting in a lawn chair and asked if I could park there. Larry said it's a daily lot only, but he'd let me leave my car there, only nobody is watching the place at night. I was tired so I'm taking my chances. I walked down to Melina's business and she instantly said, "Well, are you sure that was really Larry's lot? Maybe he was just a guy sitting out there in a lawn chair accepting people's money." We'll see.

We had a nice Brazilian dinner and then we took the subway down to Battery Park and watched scores of sailboats, big and small, taking advantage of the balmy, breezy evening, and we sat and did nothing for a long time, just smelled the salt air and watched lovers hold hands and boys fly by on their skateboards, and eventually we watched the sun go down, not quite behind the Statue of Liberty, but almost.

Then we took the subway back and we went into her corner store where a half-gallon of milk and a box of Total cereal cost $9.00.

* That means, "a greeting from New York"

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Two Images for the Ages

Signs seen along the way.

1. Resurrection Cemetery

2. Good Shepherd Septic Service

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Off to Adult Singing Camp in Colrain, Massachusetts...

Last year I was thrilled to get the chance to work for Village Harmony summer camp for the first time. I've known the founder, Larry Gordon, since the 70s when he directed the "Word of Mouth" Chorus and worked with the anarchic and revolutionary Bread and Puppet Theater.

As you will see if you look in my archives for July 2005, we met at a buddhist retreat center in upper Vermont, bought hundreds of dollars worth of groceries, and waited for the arrival of two dozen high energy, fascinating kids, mostly of the hippy variety but not all, carrying instruments and wearing no shoes. Every day for a week we fiddled, danced, and practiced our brand-new concert repertoire of songs which ranged from a 16th century Victoria Mass to tunes written on the spot (right there at Sky Meadow) by Brendan Taaffe, the third teacher. I was teaching mostly Yiddish and mariachi songs and leading the band.

After a week we all piled into the hippy vans and started a road trip which zigzagged across Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, with one stop in Massachusetts. Every afternoon we pulled up at a tiny church (in Massachusetts it was a synagogue) in a new town. People fed us dinner and we sang a concert and then stood around like refugees at Ellis Island with our suitcases as the "Housing Committee" assigned us places with the kindly families who had agreed to take us in. We'd shuffle off with our hosts, spend the night - sometimes in a kids' bunk bed, sometimes in royal splendor - be given breakfast, and then get shuttled back together again in the church parking lot. The vans (which over time became indescribably grotty) would pick us up, drive us somewhere new, and we'd do it all over again, with occasional stops for picnics and skinny-dipping.

This year should be a lot easier - for one thing, it's ten days of music instead of three weeks, and for another, we ain't going nowhere. We are staying put, at the The Center for Cultural Evolution (The Roundhouse). Go ahead and look at that website and get jealous!:
There are goats, chickens and other assorted four leggeds on the land to keep you smiling. We have organic gardens, from which we feed our guests, fruit and nut trees, and bountiful medicinal plants growing in Nature.

The house is truly magical. It is a rounded building, though of 14 sides, sparkled by stained glass windows and Zen views. The Round House has a domed center and is 4 stories high with a cupola on top.

The food served is largely organic and bountiful. ... My latest pride on the property is a lovely outdoor wood heated bread/pizza oven ... There is a great outdoor cedar lined wood heated sauna that was dubbed, "Excellent" by Finnish visitors who used it every night.
We'll get to know each other, try out a lot of music, and give a couple of concerts.

On the way up I'm taking my own beatup van into Manhattan to visit with my daughter Melina, see the YIVO library, and swing by the National Yiddish Book Center on the Hampshire College campus.

I'll be back by August 23. I don't know if there will be internet access along the way but I'll try to check in with y'all, and if Melina gets inspired, perhaps she'll feed the blog from time to time.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sweet evenings with Menticia

I've worried about being away from my mentee, who starts sixth grade in a couple weeks, so even though I was tired and cranky last week after my long trip, I saw her the day after I got back from Paris.

We went to dinner and she wanted to talk about "The Da Vinci Code," which her older brother is reading. She was convinced, of course, that everything in the book is true, because that's what her older brother told her. I'd neither read the book nor seen the movie, but we had an excellent discussion anyway about these two words:
  1. Gullible
  2. Skeptical

When we got back to my house we sought websites on this theme: "Dan Brown's assertions: Truth or Fiction?", and we talked about how believable the websites themselves were. And I pointed out there are some things which she, Menticia, adamantly believed in a year ago (like trolls, for instance) which have now fallen off her map of the real world.

Last night was my last chance to see her before I leave for Massachusetts on Wednesday, so we had another date.

I'd somewhat underestimated how much time the afternoon's wedding gig would take ("Twist and Shout" was, by the way, our last and most popular number - to our delighted astonishment, many elderly people of all sizes and shapes got up and danced with enthusiasm) so I had to go straight to Menticia still dressed in my work clothes.

When she told me her mother had remarked this was the first time I'd been late to pick her up (seven whole minutes) in our almost two years together, I felt absurdly proud.

I wanted to walk - after sitting and sawing away at the fiddle all afternoon - but Menticia said it was still too hot. So we went down to Chapel Hill, to the Kurama Sushi & Noodle Express, a Japanese dinette that has a conveyor belt (well, the review calls it a "mechanized sushi-go-round") trundling around the room carrying little plates of delicacies past waiting customers seated at the counter.

Since this is the sort of thing for which I have great enthusiasm, we talked about "real" conveyor belts, which are straight, and what an assembly line is, and then we talked about this sushi-go-round, which was made of little circles of metal so it could go around corners, and we speculated on how it was driven. It was like watching suitcases go by on a baggage carousel.

Menticia methodically scrutinized the foods as they circled past us, several times around, before making her first selection. I absolutely loved this setup and was reminded of how I admired the Horn and Hardart Automat when I was a kid.

Do you remember automats? A suburban kid on a rare outing to the Big City, I'd come through the revolving door (a mystery in itself) and be immediately dazzled. Every wall covered with rows and columns of gleaming little aluminum doors with little glass windows, and there was food behind those windows. You put in your nickels and opened the doors and took the food out and, after a while, the food would be magically replaced.

I wasn't so good at looking behind things when I was little, so, since it never occurred to me that there were actual people walking around behind those walls of little doors, the place seemed miraculously futuristic. The food wasn't very good, but the fun more than made up for it.

It wasn't hard to amaze me back then.

I found a 20-Euro-cent coin in my purse and gave it to Menticia. I wrote down the exchange rate on a napkin and challenged her to figure out how much the coin was worth in "real" money. As usual, though she's "studied" decimal points in school, she had absolutely no idea how to tackle the puzzle. That was a bit discouraging.

Then I took her to the home-made ice-cream place near her house (it used to have a smallish arty cow outside made out of buckets and other found objects, but somebody has stolen it). It was my plan to get her hooked on Harry Potter #5 while her mouth was full of fudge sauce.

This place, generally staffed by teenagers who are either high or permanently befuddled, had a scrawled sign on the door which said "back at 3:30." Since it was already 7:30, the sign's credibility was tarnished (see "skeptical," above), and we decided to go elsewhere.

I drove her out to Mapleview Farms and she read to me on the way. We sat on the porch and watched the sun set beyond the meadow, silhouetting the hormone-free cows (silhouette was one of the new words in Order of the Phoenix, Chapter One).

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

It's no Club Med.

Club Gulag: tourists are offered prison camp experience
by Andrew Osborn in Moscow

The Mayor of what used to be one of the most infamous outposts of Josef Stalin's Gulag wants to charge masochistic foreign tourists £80 a day to "holiday" in an elaborate mock-up of a Soviet prison camp.

Igor Shpektor, the Mayor of Vorkuta, 100 miles above the Arctic Circle and 1,200 miles north-east of Moscow, says he is looking for an investor to turn an abandoned prison complex into a "reality" holiday camp for novelty-seeking tourists keen to understand what life was like for Soviet political prisoners at first hand.

His idea, which has upset survivors of the prison camp, envisages recreating a tiny part of the Gulag complete with watchtowers, guards armed with paintball guns, snarling dogs, rolls of barbed wire, spartan living conditions - and forced labour.

It may sound a far cry from a week at the beach but Mr Shpektor is convinced that there will be no shortage of takers. He wants to charge tourists between $150 and $200 (£80 to £106) each day, and for them to commit to a minimum three-day "holiday".

"The town needs money and we have the possibility of turning Vorkuta into a tourist region," he told the daily Novye Izvestia. "The chance of living in the Gulag as a prisoner is attractive to many wealthy foreigners, something they have told us themselves.

"A whole trainload of people turned up in autumn last year wanting to go to such a concentration camp, for money. People from America, Australia and Poland." It wouldn't all be stylised suffering, he added, as tourists would have the chance to fish and hunt for game.

The Mayor's idea is part of a growing trend in Russia for extreme tourism. Tour companies already offer the chance to work as a Volga boatman in their holiday - literally by pulling a barge along the famous river - or to undergo basic military training overseen by veterans of the Chechen wars.

In that same spirit the governor of Vladimir Lenin's native region recently floated plans to open aLeninland theme park that would also allow visitors to experience elements of the Gulag. Mr Shpektor contends that his "Club Gulag" holiday camp would remind people of the horrors of Stalin's repression in a way that dry history books cannot.

Camp survivors, some of whom still live in Vorkuta, have condemned his idea. They call it a "sacrilege" and a tasteless insult to the memory of those prisoners who died in the area. Historians say 200,000 prisoners, known as zeks, died in the camps surrounding Vorkuta, out of more than two million deported there between 1932 and 1954.

In winter, the temperature plunges to minus 50C, while in summer the population of mosquitoes explodes. At the Gulag's peak 132 camps existed in and around Vorkuta. Now the city desperately needs new funds to pour into its dying economy. Eight of its 13 coal mines have shut in the past 15 years and the city's population has almost halved, from 217,000 to 120,000.

Life in Vorkuta is so bleak and subsidy-dependent that the government and the World Bank are offering residents money to move so the authorities can, literally, turn out the lights. Whether Mr Shpektor can save the city by finding a financial backer remains to be seen. If he does Valery Draganov, a Russian MP, thinks Russians will be steering well clear. "The memories [of the Gulag] are too fresh."

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Friday, August 04, 2006

About nothing much on a hot evening.

It was hot and dirty in Paris, but eating dinner on a sidewalk outside a cafe (to escape the stifling air inside) or sitting by the window in my flat, near the fan, listening to the neighbors who were all doing the same thing, that had quite a bit of charm.

On the other hand, back home here in Chapel Hill there is no charm. It's August, it's hot and steamy-humid, and we're all sealed up away from each other. We don't go outside unless we have to - then we shift resentfully from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned mall and back again. The only time I left the house today was to go down to the elliptical trainer in the studio; on the same expedition there was the excitement of shooting waspkilling-spray into the thriving nest over my front door ... and you wonder why I haven't been writing?

Jim and Ken were here to rehearse for a wedding we're doing tomorrow. The bride asked for variety, so she's getting (for instance) Greek songs and tunes, Twist and Shout, Siete Modos De Guisar Las Berejenas [that's a Sephardic song, "Seven Ways to Cook Eggplant," my current favorite], Papir Iz Dokh Vays [that's Yiddish, Paper Is White, and I learned in Yiddish class at the Medem that Dokh is the equivalent of "well, duh"], Long Tall Sally, and Parisian musettes.

I came back from Paris with yet another silent hobby - I have a letter, about 25 pages of Yiddish, which I'm translating for a friend. I use three dictionaries and a magnifying glass. It's endless.

Zed asked me to water his Manly Zone of Agriculture while he's in Canada, but I don't want to go out there under the sun for any reason at all.

Besides, I'm afraid of the Zone; while he wasn't paying attention it got wild and scraggly. He planted everything close together - that looked nice at the time, but weeks later the peppers are growing up straight through the tomatoes, and the chair he put near the Zone - so he could sit in front of his produce and contemplate it every day - well, that chair has been swallowed up by cucumber vines. Zed vacated for a few days and look what happened. And there are too many vegetables. I might have a nightmare about those giant cucumbers.

Mainly I'm recuperating from jet lag and collecting the music I'll take up to Village Harmony Camp next week (see yellow box in sidebar). Last year I spent one week in a retreat center rehearsing and then two weeks on the road with two adults and two dozen teenagers - driving in a huge hippy bus every day, having a potluck supper and singing/directing a performance in a different (tiny, un-air-conditioned) church every evening and staying with a different family every night. This year will be easier - all adults, all staying in one place, with somebody cooking for us. Luxury!

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

My trip to the Eiffel Tower, the Ferris Wheel, and back to Rue Petion

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In honor of Mel Gibson

From quite a long time ago, but still good...

The line in front of the cheese-shop in Warsaw is long and people are tired of waiting. Eventually the store-keeper comes out and announces "We are very low on cheese; all Jews must leave the line." So the Jews in line quit the queue and head for home, empty-handed.

Quite a lot later the same official reappears and announces, "We are even lower on cheese than we thought. All non-party members must leave the line." So all the non-card-carrying members standing in line begin heading for home, equally empty-handed.

More time passees, and the official reappears. He declares: "All Serbs and Croats must leave the line; we haven't enough cheese for you." Disappointed, they, too, leave the line and wander off.

Well, naturally, quite a lot later the same official appears and informs the remaining people: "Unfortunately we have run out of cheese entirely - you may as well all go home." He disappears back into the store, locking the door and closing the shutters behind him.

"Isn't that just the way it always is," mutters one old man as he departs. "Those damn Jews get all the breaks!"

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Conflict resolution on a Parisian Street

One evening we heard a terrific fight start outside on the street, and some honking. This is what we saw out the window.

A woman had attempted to park in front of the fruit stand. It's a perfectly legal parking space, but the guy didn't want her to use it, I'm not sure why. Maybe because he had a truck coming and wanted to save the spot. They were yelling at each other, not in French and not in English, Spanish, or Yiddish, which are the other languages I might be able to eavesdrop in, so that's all I can tell you.

Except that while the fight continued, her car was blocking the street, so all other traffic was stopped. After ten minutes or so, of course, people in cars started to get out and contribute their own commentary.

One of the things I loved most about living in Paris was the communal feeling on our street. Just as I could tell when France got a goal (or didn't) during the World Cup, by listening to my neighbors cheering and hooting, all these same neighbors got interested in the very scene I was observing!

I could only get pictures of the people directly across the street, but heads were poking out the window all the way up and down the street.

Well this went on for at least half an hour! At that point, there was quite a bit of honking as well as loud discussion.

Suddenly, it was all resolved (the woman went away), and the street cleared and everything was back to normal.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The New Etiquette

How do you know what you're supposed to do?

One of my friends who lives in DC recently came up to visit New York. Saddled with a number of friends with loose relationships to time, she gave up on trying to gather them at any specific place and time. Instead, she picked a restaurant convenient to her, and emailed out to her friends what amounted to her visiting hours. Between 11:30 and 3:00, she said, any of us were welcome to call on her while she was holding court at this restaurant. As a further tactic to eliminate time pressure, she picked a French restaurant notorious for its poor service. That way, when all her callers showed up late, the restaurant would have no cause for annoyance because it itself was always behind schedule.

Instant Messenger also serves as a way to a lady to announce her hours "at home" these days. Several years ago, it was more common for people to log onto Instant Messenger when they wanted to talk with their friends. Nowadays, people log on and instantly put up "Away Messages" that announce where they are and what they are doing. It is also possible to lurk invisibly while watching the virtual comings and goings of others.

The whole point of this, I think, is to announce when you are available to be called on, and when you are not. It actually allows people to be polite - when they try to write to you, you probably will not be around - but if you are, they know they are not interrupting anything.

I've been inspired to write about this by what I think will be one of the greatest anthropological documents of the early 21st century: New York Metro's Urban Etiquette Handbook.

As any reasonable person will tell you, it's not that etiquette has disappeared these days, it's just that etiquette has evolved. There are as many thousands of unspoken rules as there ever were. THey allow society to function. You ignore them at your social peril.

Here are a few excellent examples from New York Metro magazine.

The Four Levels of iPod Interaction
Whom you do and don’t have to unplug for.

Continue at full blast. Consider increasing the vigor of your head-nodding and/or humming.
• Guys passing out bargain-electronics-store flyers.
• Idealistic-looking whippersnappers holding clipboards.
• Scientologists.

Subtly turn down volume.
• People in the elevator you don’t know.
• Someone attractive who sits down next to you on the train while you are listening to the Goo Goo Dolls.

Make a big show of pressing PAUSE.
• Anyone who approaches you while you’re working out.
• Non-panhandlers on the subway (may be helpfully pointing out that your bag is open, may be distracting you in a Gangs of New York–style pickpocket ruse).
• Co-workers you hate.
• Friends.
• Your parents, if you’re a teenager.

Remove headphones, toss them jauntily over shoulder.
• People in the elevator you know.
• Anyone taking your money or instructions about how to prepare your food.
• Co-workers you don’t hate.
• Your parents, if you’re an adult.
• Police officers.

Completely remove and enclose in nearest pocket/bag/ purse.
• Co-workers who could have you fired in less than an hour.
• Anyone who’s crying.
• Police officers standing next to someone who’s pointing at you and saying, “That’s him!”

Like that one? Here are some problematic social situations that I have frequently faced when I moved here, complete with enlightening answers. Some of these answers are okay, I think, and others are awful, but whether each individual rule is right or wrong is less important than whether everyone agrees to follow it. Because then we'll all understand each other. Okay guys?

What do “I’ll call you” or “Let’s have lunch” mean?
In a non-dating situation, these hollow parting comments often translate roughly to “In all likelihood, I won’t call you” and “Let’s not have lunch, though I have generally positive feelings about you.” (Though the recipient has no choice but to be agreeable in the moment and assume the phone won’t ring.) If you’re prone to such phrases, consider deploying “It was good to see you,” which, while perfectly pleasant, won’t confuse anyone.

Is it okay to use wireless if your neighbors don’t password-protect it?
Yes—free wireless is a karmic gift bestowed by the rental gods to make up for all the times you’ve experienced your neighbors’ sexual encounters, arguments, and guitar practice in startling sonic clarity, gotten roaches because you live in the same building as a restaurant, and sampled the tapestry of malodorousness that is the ethnic-food/cigarette-smoke/pet-by-product–scented apartment hallway. Your only obligation as a wireless sharer is to avoid massive bandwidth-hogging downloads.

What’s the best way to get someone off the treadmill/bike/elliptical when they’ve gone over the 30-minute limit?
Unless it’s a known repeat offender who feels like he owns the gym, face-to-face is the first course of action. Cardio-trainers can enter a trancelike state of intense Just Do It–ness that leaves them unaware of the time, and will be perfectly obliging when snapped out of their cardio-delirium. But if you ask and are rebuffed, it’s perfectly acceptable to notify the front desk, which is usually staffed by someone with intimidatingly large pectoral muscles for this very reason.

And of course, my most serious pet peeve...

When is it acceptable to Blackberry during a conversation?
When it’s a “conversation” in the sense of “The New School Presents a Conversation With Harold Bloom” and you’re there. Otherwise, never. This remains one of society’s most frequent breaches of basic human decency. Seriously, what is wrong with those people?!?